Sunday, 25 July 2010

Quick review movie - The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-Woon, 2008)

Quick reviews are reserved for movies that I feel do not deserve 1000+ words but are still worth a mention

Occupied Mandchuria, 1930s. In an office, The Bad (Park Chang-yi, played by Lee Byung-Hun), a ruthless criminal for hire, is asked to steal back a mysterious map handed over to a Japanese official. He attacks the train in which the official travels but, unbeknownst to him, another man, the Weird (Yoon Tae-goo, played by Song Kang-ho), has taken the map with him after an attempted robbery which takes a bloody turn. All that under the watchful eye of the Good (Park Do-won, played by Jung Woo-sung) who happened to be on the train and who has a keen interest in the bounty placed on the Bad's head. The Weird manages to escape the mayhem in and around the train and makes a run for it with the help of his friend Man-gil (Ryoo Seung-soo) with the Good, the Bad and a group of Mandchurian bandits hot on his heels. Having reached the Ghost Market (effectively a black market), Tae-goo and Man-gil try to figure out what the document is all about. While they come to the realization that this must be a treasure map, their pursuers, soon to be joined by the Imperial Japanese Army are closing on on them....

Of course, The Good, the Bad, the Weird owes its name to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but shouldn't be mistaken for a remake of the latter, which it definitely isn't: what it is in fact is an attempt to use the western genre's principles and codes, drop them in a Korean cultural and (more or less) historical context and sprinkle it with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek. The result? A movie that looks absolutely stunning at all levels (big thumbs up to the cinematographer, the costumes and set designers) and really deserves to be seen in the best possible definition. However, it's also a movie that, despite an amount of backstabbing that would have made Catherine de Medici proud, actually relies on one of the thinnest plots I've seen in a long time and the fact that it was deliberate (something the director is quick to admit in one of the many bonus features found on the Blu-ray European release) does not make it ok. There's actually a whole twenty minutes near the end which are completely devoid of plot - but it is also one hell of a pursuit in the desert and in the end the breakneck pace, the visual quality and the performance of Song Kang-ho, who plays the Weird (and whom you may have seen previously in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or more recently in The Host) are enough to make this movie highly enjoyable, if not memorable

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Review movie - Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

In the not so distant future, Jerome Morrow (Ethan Hawke), top celestial navigator at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, is about to embark for a mission to one of Saturn's moons, Titan. Except, he isn't really Jerome Morrow. Born Vincent Freeman, he is what is euphemistically called a "God Child", a child conceived naturally which, in these times when liberal eugenics have become the norm, never fails to attract a bit of awe and a great deal of pity. Pity because your life is dictated by your genes, in every aspect: genes are what determine how old you can hope to become, but also what will be your place in society. Indeed, what employer in their right mind would bet on someone whose DNA test reveals a high probability of developing schizophreny, a life expectency that shouldn't exceed 30 and who might drop dead at any moment from heart failure? But Vincent, from a very young age, develops a fascination - if not an obsession - with space. Fighting the prejudices against him that had plagued him from his childhood (his younger brother, Anton (Loren Dean) was engineered and seemed better and more performant than Vincent in most respects), he decides that he will get into Gattaca and earn himself a chance to fly into space, at any costs. Even if that means buying and assuming the identity of another man (down to replacing his own DNA material - tissues and fluids - for the purpose of the daily routine tests performed at Gattaca), Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), whose genetic make-up is "second to none" but whose programmed success was foiled by an accident that has since left him paralyzed from the waist down. But as Vincent is finally about to reach his goal, the death of the mission's director triggers a manhunt for his murderer than not only threatens to expose his identity but also his burgeoning relationship with his co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman). And it doesn't help that while Jerome Morrow is progressively eliminated from the list of suspects, Vincent's real DNA was found on the scene and that his own, estranged brother is leading the investigations....

I was lucky to be just old enough at the time of the release of "Gattaca" to have seen it in theatre, and to this day, that experience still haunts me. At the time, we had literally never seen anything like this, a remark valid both for its amazing and unique visual style and atmosphere but also for its main theme and its treatment throughout the movie. To be honest, I am amazed that the project got greenlighted at all because it was at the time too new in all respects to have a real chance at the box office - and as a matter of fact, despite widespread critical acclaim, it only made a third of what it supposedly cost at the American box office during its theatrical run. But what it did do was shape the public debate about genetics/(liberal) eugenism and while that in itself will not bring money to the studio's coffers, it should be one more proof that sometimes at least, artistic considerations should override economical ones, at least to a certain extent

But let's go back to the film. As already mentionned, it is a stunner visually. However, for a movie usually referred to as science fiction, it is one which action happens entirely on Earth and which only concerns itself with human matters and therefore uses none of the special effects you might expect from that genre. What you will get though is a superb film noir aesthetic that is consistant in all aspects: from architecture to clothes (the simple, impeccable lines of the formal apparel of Gattaca employees and "valid", genetically engineered people as a whole, the classic detectives' costumes, complete with hats), from cars (mostly 50s and 60s models but fitted with futuristic details) to cinematography, everything points to the fact that the murder and the police investigation, while not the beating heart of the story, nonetheless drives it; and even more importantly, while we are told that the action takes place in the not too distant future, it also serves to anchor the movie in a very tangible reality, one that we recognize, and therefore helps make the questions raised by it all the more relevant, more directly connected to our day and age

Those visual cues also serve to tell part of the story itself. Clothes' lines are very '50s and very clean, but they also lack considerably of variety in color and shape: it is particularly stricking whenever Jerome finds himself among his colleagues in the Gattaca centre: here are people who all stand in neatly formed queues or progress in the large halls in perfect order, and who all look remarkably similar: although the movie never really addresses directly one of the issues surrounding (liberal) eugenism - a tendancy to promote specific genetic characteristics to the detriment of others, thus reducing the human gene pool and diversity - it does propose an image of what the result might look like, and while it is not downright unpleasant, there is something ever so slightly disturbing about these scenes

Architecture too plays a significant role in the way we perceive things. Again, the lines are very strict, very simple but the most outstanding aspect is the visual relationship between buildings and characters. When it comes to outside environments, characters are more often than not dwarfed by architecture, an impression reinforced by the cinematography with a choice of hues during outside scenes that makes everything in the background look like it belongs with the building, forming an almost uniform block against people's silhouettes. This is replaced by a sense of almost claustrophobia, of oppression inside the Gatta buildings, itself compounded by intelligent camera work. All in all, it gives off a sense that this new order, this society based on one's genetical makeup and the race for perfection that humanity has established for itself is too solid to fight against. And what chance can you hope to have when society knows everything about you and about what you will become?

Another real tour de force of the movie is its casting: because to keep in line with the feel of it, they had to choose actors who would look right, in particular for the main characters, which of course leads to the issue of whether or not they are able to act right, an issue all the more important that this movie is heavily character-centred. That Uma Thurman turned up another strong performance isn't really a surprise (that she looks absolutely amazing isn't exactly one either). But the stand-out performances really belong to Ethan Hawke and Jude Law. Ethan Hawke is what I would consider a good actor but not a great one; Jude Law has been inconsistant, delivering some good performances followed by real let-downs; yet both managed to step up to it, infusing grace into complex, layered characters and their scenes together, particularly towards the end, are what surprised me the most by their intensity

Of course, at the heart of this movie really is its theme, the questions that it asks regarding liberal eugenism. For once though, I do not intend to develop it here, because I feel that it's just too large a debate and I wouldn't be able to do it justice, both because I wouldn't give it the space it deserves and because my own knowledge in the matter is pretty limited. I'd much rather encourage you to watch this movie and look up for your own answers. But there are a couple of additional points I'd like to make. At the time I saw this film, that is in 1997, cloning had just started to make the headlines. While we knew it was possible, and we could begin to perceive its application to humans, it was only sometime still pretty far away in the future. Fastforward a dozen years or so, and all of a sudden the distance between now and the day the reality described by Gattaca could become ours seems to have shrunken dramatically, making the movie even more pertinent now than it was then. Another thing I thought was pretty brilliant is how Niccol restrained from making it too much of a "me vs. the rest of the world" affair: we slowly come to realize that Vincent is not the only one we ought to pity in this. If anything, Jerome is just as much a victim of his outstanding DNA as Vincent is of his "poor" genetical makeup, at least by society's standards. And while Vincent found motivation in adversity, the pressure to perform up to his genetic potential has literally crushed Jerome. In a way, there is something slightly reassuring about this: even with eugenism the norm, there are just some things - things that make us humans - that cannot be engineered

And finally, while it is a (very) intelligent film, it doesn't try to be too clever: it never looks down at its audience, and while it is obvious that the filmmaker has an opinion, it doesn't try to tell you how to think but prefers instead to give you elements, an example from which to start a real, valid debate about one of the most important questions mankind may face about itself, not just in the future, but which has already started to affect us now. A great, poignant story, beautifully told which gives you food for thought and which respects the viewer: the receipe for a good movie sounds pretty straightforward and yet, it is so rarely completely successful. All the more reason to regard "Gattaca" as the miraculous, cult object it is

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Review movie - Goemon (Kiriya Kazuaki, 2009)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

Japan, 1582. One night, as the people celebrate a fragile return to peace in the streets, thief extraordinaire (à la Robin Hood) Goemon (Eguchi Yosuke) is breaking into the treasure room of nobleman Kinokuniya Bunzaemon. At the same time, the dangerous Mitsunari (Kaname Jun), a provost under Japan's current regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Okuda Eiji), arrives at Kinokuniya's mansion, looking for an item which would have been entrusted to him by warlord and reputed traitor Mitsuhide (Kiriya Kazuaki). As they reach the treasure room, they spot the door's broken seal: all of Kinokuniya's men run after Goemon, who escapes in style from the rooftop, but not before throwing the gold, jewels and an apparently empty box covered in foreign-looking designs into the crowd which ultimately lands in the hands of a young street rat. The following day, Mitsunari visits Toyotomi: their discussion turns sour but is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Chacha (Hirosue Riyoko), niece of the late Oda Nobunaga (Nakamura Hashinosuke) whom Toyotomi had succeeded upon his death. The latter makes abundantly clear that he wants her as his concubine. Meanwhile, Sasuke (Gori) joins Goemon and tells him more about Mitsunari's visit's purpose. Goemon is intrigued and goes out looking for the boy and the box, despite Sasuke's warning that Mitsunari is assisted in his quest by the formidable ninja Saizo (Osawa Takao)....

The least that can be said about director Kiriya Kazuaki is that he knows how to divide an audience. Casshern (2004), his first movie, was generally panned by the critics and by a good half (at least) of the spectators, but had also generated a small following, to which I must admit I was (and still am) part. It was a good four years though before we heard about his sophomore effort, titled Goemon, based on the popular 16th century folk hero Ishikawa Goemon, whose real life is shrouded in mystery. There was a sigh of relief by fans at the news, followed by exclamations of awe before the breathtakingly gorgeous trailers, which were everybit as stunning as those made for Casshern, at which point the anticipation began to build up both with the fans and the press. But that's when the honeymoon ended. After the inital projections in Japan, the word of mouth was, at best, lukewarm. Worse, it appeared that the very thing that had made Casshern so interesting to some, its scenaristic and thematic intricacies, had been sacrificed to be replaced by a straightforward, swashbuckling epic, something that the director admited in an interview to have done deliberately, to prove that "he could do linear". That turned away a lot of Casshern fans, and I was left wondering if I had been wrong to hope that Kiriya would bring something different to cinema, both on the local and international scene

That was in May last year. Because it hasn't been released so far on the big screen outside Asia, we had to wait until last autumn for the Japanese dvd and early this year for a dvd/blu-ray release elsewhere (this review - and the accompanying screencaps - is based on the French Blu-ray) and I've managed to see it twice since. Straightforward? Well, the story is, in that it doesn't require multiple viewings to be understood, unlike Casshern's, so I guess in that regard, Kiriya has achieved what he had set out to do. But apart from that, it was interesting to see how despite following a different structure, Goemon mostly shed further light both on the strengths and weaknesses that had been already revealed in Casshern, be it in terms of visuals, story and characters or themes developed throughout the movie

If there's one thing that immediately stands out, whether you watch the trailers or jump straight into the movie, it must be the visuals. The actors shoot all their scenes surrounded by green screens and everything around them has been created digitally, with the exception of a few elements and props. That's not unique in itself (Sky Captain anyone?) but what's rather unique is the director's relation with digital effects. He doesn't try to replicate reality to a "T" and loves to insert different types of colors and textures in a single movie - in Goemon's case, sobering scenes in black&white succeed the most outrageous, saturated colors and grainy monochrone is followed by the slick red of flames. This lack of visual unity might be jarring to some, but it almost always has a purpose in terms of storytelling: more often than not, it will tell you something about the scene that hasn't been expressed in words, or announces what kind of event will take place, immediately setting the mood

Creating backgrounds digitally also allows Kiriya to fully express his vision. While the movie is clearly set in 1581 and the historical background, that of the Momoyama period, as well as the characters anchor the movie in Japanese history, he certainly has no intention to show Japan the way it was supposed to look, but instead wanted to express through architecture, clothing style and other artworks what the times were about, and in particular the urbanisation and openness to the outside world, in contrast with the subsequent Tokugawa period. To that effect, the decors are a mix of Japanese and Asian, with some very impressive touches of European; Chacha's costumes, in particular, even when they are European, include details so uniquely Japanese. All in all, it creates a world that is unique but also can only belong to that particular point in time: in this regard, I think the production design is one of the most undeniably successful and interesting aspects of the movie, made all the more effective by being tied into the storyline (the inclusion of the Pandora's box tale that runs like a motif through the story)

That is not to say that the all-digital comes without its problems. Casshern had already hinted at the fact that keeping things "natural-looking" in action scenes was an issue, but that was fairly well hidden behind stylistic flourishes. Not so in Goemon where action, in particular in the first half of the movie, inevitably detracts one's attention from the story. From the way Goemon jumps from beam to beam in the initial scene to his battle with Saizo, movements just don't look human in any way, form or shape, and not in a "superhuman" way either. Also, the way these scenes are shot makes the action barely intelligible (in particular during the pursuit between Goemon and Saizo in the forest) but unfortunately not enough to hide the movement issues. Some parts also evidence a problem when putting characters that are supposed to run (or ride) at high speed against digitally-created background: I don't know if it's a failure of the digital team or if we just don't have the technology yet but here again, things just don't look right

Whether any of this matters though depends on the content, on whether the story was worth telling or not. As already underlined above, one of the director's challenges was to create a linear story, and Goemon is just that. There are surprises (and history here doesn't help because while the movie alludes to historical events, it tends to turn them on their heads) but the resolution is satisfying and we can comprehend the characters' journey and where they are at at the end of the movie in a single viewing. That linearity comes both as a curse and as a blessing. A curse because as a result it is a slightly less rewarding experience: fewer themes are woven into the story's canvas which is why, for many fans of Casshern, Goemon came as a disappointment. The blessing though is that it allows the characters to breathe, it gives them space to develop: it places them on the centre stage this time

Not all characters can make the best of the situation though. The biggest casualty must be Chacha - it is evident that she's a strong-willed woman despite her diminutive figure and her child-like voice, but she's never really given a moment to shine, and her (chaste) relationship with Goemon, which is pivotal to the story, isn't completely convincing. But Casshern had already demonstrated that Kiriya was better at abstract and intellectual concepts than at emotional ones, so I was half-expecting that. More surprising is that Goemon himself is also slightly underwhelming, and totally upstaged by Saizo and, to a lesser extent, by the commanding presence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Ibu Masato) and Hanzo Hattori (Terajima Susumu - always him!) as well as the frightening Toyotomi. Yosuke Eguchi is a decent enough actor but maybe, in hindsight, not the best choice for the role. According to interviews, it took him a good three weeks to adjust working in a "green screen" environment, which definitely shows, and he doesn't seem too comfortable in the physicality of his role, nor in the progression of his character from frivolous people's darling to a man finally accepting to face the consequences of his acts and to embrace his destiny (which isn't so much a progression than taking the character full circle, actually)

On the other hand, no character in either movie has ever come with as big a heart as Saizo, both in the way he was written and the way he was played, once again evidencing the talent of Osawa Takao. In lesser hands, such a character could have been crushed by the symbolism Kiriya loves to load onto his characters (don't get me started on his last scene....), but Osawa manages to keep everything very "human" and therefore easier for the audience to identify with, opening a door for emotional attachment to the story, whereas Casshern remained almost hermetically close in that regard. Ibu Masato and Okuda Eiji too are given enough space to lend some real weight to their respective characters all while supporting the director's unique take on these pillars of Japanese history

While I've insisted on the fact that Goemon wasn't as thematically rich as its forebearer, it doesn't mean that you can switch off the brain. In particular, one of Casshern's (many) subjects was destiny, man's fate being ultimately out of his hands; the movie that interests us here hints at this too, particularly in the last act, but first and foremost places us before the question of individual freedom, which may be gaining pertinence in contemporary Japan, but still talks to us in the Western world even more. On one hand, the hero, Goemon, has chosen for himself freedom: to walk away from the path that was set for him and serve no master. On the other hand, his alter ego, Saizo, chose to place his competences at the service of another, to serve a greater cause with the hope to obtain the title of samurai at the end of the road. The first takes his freedom as a due (just like we tend to take it for granted), the latter sees freedom as the ultimate reward, something that he must work towards. Neither is proven to be right: Saizo's aspiration is also his weakness, the very leach he allows his master to use against his own will. Of the two, Goemon, who has given priority to that value we have come to cherish more than any other in modern society, seems to have the better life and so he does, at least on the surface; he has the life we aspire to while we pity Saizo, who seems at first thoroughly misguided. However, the more the story progresses, the more we come to question that assessment. From that perspective, the final resolution is pretty thought-provoking, and I might detail it elsewhere in a separate essay (as doing so here would require that I spoil too much of the story)

Neither an action movie nor a classical drama, deceptively light-hearted at the beginning but slowly growing more somber as the tale progresses, Goemon clearly isn't successful at everything it sets up to do. But then again, it attempts to do so much, and differently, that I can't help but forgive its short-comings. It is always a bit tricky to recommend it though, because you might not find yourself ready to do the same, and you could hardly be blamed for that. But I believe this Goemon deserves at least to be given a fighting chance

Monday, 26 April 2010

Review movie - Wo Hu Cang Long - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

Sometime during the Qing dynasty, Li Mu-Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a reknowned Wudang warrior, meets up with his long-time friend, Yu Shu-Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and announces that he has decided to renounce his lifestyle. He therefore asks her to bring his sword, the legendary Green Destiny, to Beijing and entrust it to his friend Sir Tse. Having accomplished this task, Yu Shu-Lien meets with another guest of Sir Tse, a young Manchu aristocrat, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of the Governor of Yu, who is about to enter into an arranged marriage but seems uncharacteristically fascinated by Yu Shu-Lien and her world and life as a warrior. That night a thief breaks in, takes Green Destiny and flies away - almost literally - from stupefied guards although Yu Shu-Lien, alerted by the resulting commotion, takes chase and eventually fights it out with the thief, at which point she remarks that they are learned in the same Wudang style as Li Mu-Bai. As she's about to take the advantage over her opponent, a dart flies towards her from the roofs and the mysterious thief seizes the opportunity to escape. She and Li Mu-Bai, who has just arrived, start investigating and quickly realize that evidence leads them to the Governor of Yu's house. To complicate things further, Jade Fox, the woman who killed Li Mu-Bai's master, is rumored to be in town....

I'll always remember when I first saw that movie, about 10 years ago now. I was at university and had just discovered a brand new field: Asian history. At the time, at least where I live, we were only just on the eve of the Eastern Asian cultural wave reaching our shores, or rather, on the eve of it breaking the limited diffusion circle of geeks and other otaku. "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" certainly was the first Asian live movie to grace screens other that those of the local art-house theatres or the university movie club outside of festivals. The movie had drawn quite a bit of press and so we decided with a few of my friends to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. That evening didn't start too well. Most of those around me started to groan when they realized the movie was, at that specific hour, not presented with French dubs but was instead in its original Mandarin version with French and German subtitles. Twenty minutes in and the groans were replaced by incredulous expressions and laughter as characters started to defy gravity in the chase at the top of Beijing's Forbidden City's roofs. But then laughter died too and as the story progressed, the audience fell silent with the exception of cheers after the now famous indoor duel and a few sniffles as the end credits rolled

That people got accustomed to the surreal prowesses of the main characters fairly quickly had no doubt to do with a movie that was released only a year prior, "The Matrix", with which CTHD shared the same action choreaographer, Yuen Wo-Ping. After getting over the initial surprise and the "weirdness" of seeing people climb three- or four-storey houses' external walls in two or three steps, it was difficult not to be seduced, or even awed, by this - at the time - still very much exotic but nonetheless somewhat familiar display. Moreover, Ang Lee was very clever in that two fights never look the same: the characters, their weapons and environments, but also the feelings of the opponents gives each a different flavor and, maybe even most importantly, allows them to become part of the narration rather than being interludes between characters' development and plot progression scenes (I shall come back to that in a little while)

Now I know some self-professed martial arts movies fanatics will want to chime in at this point that all that has been done before. And that for an martial arts film, it's actually quite mediocre - if it at all qualifies as a martial arts movie. But I think they miss the mark on both scores: for one, CTHD was a way for Ang Lee to do the movie of his dreams, that is a martial arts fantasy, and to pay homage to the films of his youth. It is particularly evident in the case of both the rooftop scene and the one in the bamboo forest (interestingly, the former can be linked to a similar scene in "Wing Chun", starring none other than Michelle Yeoh in the title role) and as an homage they work very well as, while they are not "new", they are extremely well put together. It is however true that, for a martial arts movie of this scope, you'd probably expect a lot more fighting. Actually, I would argue that the only full-fledged martial arts scene in the whole movie is the famous duel between between Yu Shu-Lien and Jen, but then we are talking about pure mouth-watering, jaw-dropping stuff

But then I would also argue that this is a martial arts movie only by style. Because Ang Lee being Ang Lee, it was inevitable that first and foremost, it would never be about fighting technics, about Wudan vs. Kung- fu, but rather about the characters, their emotions and their struggles with themselves and, in particular in the case of the women, with the rigidities of society ("Sense and Sensibility", anyone?). It is however to be noted that in this case, Li Mu-Bai too is victim to social expectations when it comes to his feelings for Yu Shu-Lien. In what I would consider a "real" martial arts film, the plot is there as a vehicle to the fighting skills, and also often to the virtues and philosophies behind those; in the case of CTHD, the fight scenes actually serve the plot in that they are often a way to express visually emotions the characters would not, or could not, express with words. And there is probably no better example of that than the bamboo forest scene, where the two protagonists' respective ease with which they move on the light bamboo branches reveals one's complete mastery of his emotions and serenity and the other's agitation and internal conflict

It is also a thing of beauty. Which can be said for just about every single frame for the almost two-hours duration: from the bird-eye view of the Forbidden City to the mist surrounding Mount Wudang, from the delicacy of some of the dresses (two months worth of sewing and embroidering each, according to Ang Lee!) to the amazing colors of the desert surrounding the cave of infamous thief Lo (Chang Chen), it is a visual feast (as well as an auditive one, being blessed by an outstanding score by Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma), yet it is never so much that you feel overwhelmed, that your senses can't process what is going on it anymore. Just like the fighting itself, it is all but a (beautiful) foil for the characters' story and emotions

And in this department, it must be one of the most touching stories I've witnessed in the last 10 years or so. In a sense, it is deceptively simple, a story of two star-crossed couples, of vengeance and of social constraints. Also, the narration itself is pretty straightforward yet the characters' development is everything but. Jen, in particular, could have been a character easy to hate, to despise as a "poor little rich girl", htoughtless and rash in her actions. But she is the character who goes through the most arduous emotional journey of all, expected to conform to the rigid rules that come with aristocracy, a life she obviously is not suited for and that would keep her away from the man she loves and the freedom she craves, as well as being ill-advised by her malevolent "nurse". She provides however a fantastic contrast to Li Mu-Bai and Yu Shu-Lien's very "grounded" characters, as does her relationship with Lo: in a way, they went where Li and Yu didn't dare to, and their displayed passion offers the perfect counterpoint to Li and Yu's imposed restraint.

It is not all gloom and doom though, and the movie rarely wallows in angst for very long: the fights of course, keeps the viewer's adrenaline pumping, and there are very funny moments almost all the way through: Master Bo who is yanked back by his own chain as he launch in an all out attack against Jade Fox and pretty much the whole scene at the restaurant are chief examples of that. Lo also provides much to smile about during a good part of the flashback happening in the desert and Li Mu-Bai's expression when Yu Shu-Lien intervenes as he's menacing Lo is priceless

As you may have guessed by now, I can only recommend that you see this movie (or watch it again if you had done so already). Of course, one can always lament that this is quite clearly a Chinese movie aimed at least in part at western audiences, and therefore not feeling completely authentically "Chinese". But while I can be pretty uptight about these things myself, I just can't bring myself to hold it against it, or even to care as, no matter how many times I watch it, I always find myself carried away, laughing, crying, and feeling just about every emotion in between

That to me, is the universal magic of cinema, regardless of its genre or where it comes from

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Review movie - 酔いどれ天使 (Yoidore tenshi) - Drunken Angel (Kurosawa Akira, 1948)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

In an early post-war, devastated Japan, a young yakuza Matsunaga (Mifune Toshiro), who rules over the South Market district, seeks one night the help of doctor - and drunkard - Sanada (Shimura Takashi) when he is injured and needs to get a bullet removed from his hand. Sanada quickly spots signs that the hot-tempered thug is infected with tuberculosis, but their encounter is soon brought to an end when their personalities clash and they come to blows until Sanada's assistant, Miyo (Nakakita Chieko), comes in. This marks the beginning of an uneasy friendship between the two men, with the doctor trying to convince Matsunaga to get treatment before it is too late. However, the fragile truce is threatened when Okada, Matsunaga's "big brother" (aniki) in the yakuza's clan, comes back after a stint in prison....

Much has been said about this movie being a cornerstone in Kurosawa's body of work, not least by the great man himself, and it is impossible to write a review of this movie without stating the reasons behind it again. It is pretty evident that "Drunken Angel" was the first movie in which he was able to bring together many of the reccurent elements that would become trademarks: in contrast with earlier movies such as his judo saga ("Sugata Sanjiro") where he seemed to still be trying to figure out his own identity as a director. That doesn't mean that his early output should be in any way dismissed, as they are certainly not without merit and count their fair share of moments of brilliance, nor that "Drunken Angel" is another, earlier "Ran". He does struggle by moments in striking the right balance between Italian realism and expressionist influences for instance, and that is never more obvious than in Matsunaga's dream sequence that seems at odds, clashing even, with everything else; it is however short enough not to detract much from the movie

It was also the first movie where Kurosawa felt he was being himself, and having watched a few of his earlier movies, one is hard-pressed do disagree with him. For one, those he directed before where subject to and influenced by the Japanese military propaganda. On the other hand, while movie output in Japan in 1948 was victim of the american's censorship, Kurosawa nonetheless managed to slip countless references to Japan's foreign occupation that went unnoticed (although how much of that was due to a lack of personel in the censorship's offices is hard to tell). Americans themselves are never portrayed in the movie, but american culture is, extensively: more precisely, it is always associated with the yakuza environment and those who gravitate around them, culminating in the "Jungle Boogie" scene and the mad, frenetic dancing of Matsunaga, a last act of careless defience in the face of illness and his own mortality. Since the yakuzas themselves, or at least the majority of them as represented by Okada, are also closely associated with illness (in particular tuberculosis) and the putrid, stagnant waters around which most of the action of the movie seems to gravitate, the analogy is unmistakable. It doesn't mean, however, that Kurosawa pins all of Japan's woes on the foreign presence, far from it. The real illness that threatens the country's recovery are those yakuzas who profit while the rest of the population struggles (and who no doubt stand in for figures of authority in a larger sense, as they are otherwise totally absent from the movie, save in word. No doubt is it because they live above the squalor of the slumps, as the two are physically seperated and never mix in this movie save for one scene when Sanada meets with a wealthy colleague of his). It is also the antiquated values vehemently denounced by Sanada throughout the movie which keep menacing any progress the characters try to make with their life: Miyo, who considers going back to Okada even though she is clearly terrified of him as he had abused her in the past, and Matsunaga, who clinches almost desperately to the code of honor of the yakuzas, which Sanada derides on many occasions, not without reasons....

It is also famously "Drunken Angel" that marked the beginning of one of the longest and most fruitful director-actor collaborations, that of Kurosawa and Mifune, which would come to include all of Kurosawa's black and white period features, but also quite a few contemporary pieces. Mifune actually made such an impression on Kurosawa when he first saw him at an audition that the role of Matsunaga, that was initially supposed to be secondary to that of doctor Sanada, was rewritten and expended once Mifune was cast to the point that it becomes hard to distinguish the most important of the pair

Because this improbable couple of an alcoholic doctor and a hot-headed, gravely ill yakuza form a pair and it now seems odd that they had not always been meant to be anything but equals, since the counterpoint (here it is, one of the great principles of many of Kurosawa's movies!) their characters offer to each other is really the driving force of the narration. Forget about the social commentary or the stylistic brilliance. At the end of the day, it's first of all the story of two men, both strong-minded and quick to anger, both trying to survive in a hostile environment they were not meant for: Sanada laments how some of his fellow medicine students had gone on to succeed in the world and become wealthy; Gin (played by Sengoku Noriko) states later in the movie that she's always sensed Matsunaga was not really made for the life of a Yakuza - something one can't help but wholeheartedly agree with as the story progresses and it becomes evident he is out of touch with the morales, or lack thereof, of the milieu then

Of course, the "Angel" of the title appears to be the doctor, Sanada. It is never truer than in this scene when Matsunaga, having been tempted back into his old ways by Okada, arrives in the middle of the night at Sanada's, so drunk that he collapses right after arriving. Sanada steps out to stand at his head, all clad in white. The composition of this frame is stunning for capturing perfectly the essence of the title, but also because of its hidden depth. Indeed it usually takes a couple viewings before one really notices that in the background, Miyo is also standing, quietly watching the scene. Because if Matsunaga needs an angel, then so does Sanada: while he has chosen the better path in life, he is nonetheless a flawed character with a tendency to drink his rations of medicine to feed his addiction to alcohol. He is nonetheless the "hero" (or as close as anyone can come in the world depicted) because he is the one who understands the best the way things have become; he also gets a chance to demonstrate his courage when he flats out refuses to hand over Miyo to Okada. If Matsunaga is much more naive, he and Sanada have a lot in common, to the point that Sanada recognizes as much himself. This similatiry explains both why the latter invests so much energy in trying to save Matsunaga, and why things almost invariably escaladate quickly between them, at least until Matsunaga becomes crippled by the illness: if Matsunaga can find redemption and rise to a better life, then there is hope for him and for the people stuck in the town market district

In an earlier review of "Rashomon", I had written that, despite it being an undisputable masterpiece and an important film in terms of cinema history, I found it hard to give it full marks because while it was an amazing intellectual experience, I found it difficult to engage my heart as well, to sympathize with any of the characters or the story as a whole. "Drunken Angel" is a bit of an antithesis to that - and it's one more proof of Kurosawa's genius that he could make such vastly different movies that are both brilliant and still ring like his. It has its stylistic issues, as examplified above, and is neither as tightly constructed nor as innovative as "Rashomon". But what it might be lacking, by comparaison, in style, it more than makes up in heart and emotion. It is difficult not to be drawn to Mifune's screen presence under any circumstances, but I defy anyone, man or woman, not to feel their heart clench during the shadow puppets scene, both because of the rare tenderness of Sadana's care and Matsunaga's revealed fragility, or by Matsunaga's stubborn adherence to a code that he clearly is among the last ones to uphold

However, "Drunken Angel" and "Rashomon" are both stories offering a grim view of humanity. Yet for all their bleakness, they unvariably end up, as if Kurosawa didn't really want to but couldn't help himself either, by offering glimmers of hope. Here, it is the young schoolgirl who did what Matsunaga could not, being forever dragged down by his honor as a yakuza: defeat the illness. And it is therefore fitting that she should be the one to bring a smile back on the face of a saddened and angry Sanada and who drags him away from the putrid waters of the slump

Maybe Japan had a future after all

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Review movie - 女囚さそり 第41雑居房 ("Josshu Sasori: Dai 41 Zakkobyo") - Female Convict Scorpion - Jailhouse 41 (Ito Shunya, 1972)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

A weakened old woman falls to the floor. On her last breath, she holds her knife before her, cursing Matsu (Kaji Meiko) who is sitting by her side. Matsu delicately prises the hands open and takes the blade in her own and the old woman dies. She stands up as the already autumnal landscape turns on its brightest colors, and a sudden outburst of wind causes the leafs to fall over the body under her reverent yet determined gaze until they cover it up completely. Fall becomes winter as another gust carries away the leafs and any trace of the old woman. Time seems to come to a halt before Matsu makes a sweep of her hand holding the knive before her face, the whirlwind this time making her hair stand up, her bangs dancing like as many flames....

This is, without a shadow of doubt, the scene that you are most likely to play in your head over and over, long after you finish watching the movie. Even if the landscape is undoubtly fake (a result of the shoestring budget this genre was shot on - not that it seems to be a problem for Ito Shunya, the director), there is a quality to it that's sheer poetry, even set against the harsh words of the old woman and the piercing gaze of Matsu. And in so many ways, it encapsulates in one moment how this movie still very much ties in with the first one ("Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion") while developping, at the same time, its own identity

But let's backpedal a little bit. If you have seen the first movie, you won't be surprised to find a shackled Matsu - whose real name, before she fell prey to the sordid plans of her boyfriend and was sent unjustly to prison, was Nami, often nicknamed "Sasori" (Scorpion) by her fellow inmates - in a cachot down in the deepest recesses of the prison. When Goda (Watanabe Fumio), the warden, turns up, we learn that she has been placed there in isolation for a year but will be exceptionally allowed with the other prisoners as a dignitary comes for a visit. If initially the visit is uneventful, all that quickly changes when Matsu is brought in: she had hidden a blade (made out of a spoon we see her hold in her teeth and sharpen on the dirty floor meticulously throughout the whole title sequence) which she uses to attack her tormentor. The other prisoners, who had appeared docile until then, start a riot that only ends when the prison guards start to shoot

Humiliated once again, Goda condemns all the inmates to hard work and arranges for Matsu to be raped by four men in front of the other women's eyes, with the hope that the public humiliation will turn them against her. He's proven right not long afterwards when, in the truck that takes them back to the prison, several inmates start beating an apparently diminished Scorpion until they believe her dead. Alarmed by one of them, the prison guards stop the truck but are attacked by a still very much alive Matsu. Seizing this opportunity, the other women team up with her, kill the men and make a run for it

This event marks the start of their journey in their desperate attempt to flee the law and confinement. It also marks a clean break in terms of storyline and concept. Taken as a continuity, both Female Prisoner #701 and the first part of this movie are very much of the Women in Prison genre, but with Ito, the director, working hard at turning every single concept on its head, twisting them as far as he could without completely breaking them. But when the women escape, it's also Ito escaping from the prison of a genre: very little remains of the parade of naked bodies in the title sequence of Female Prisoner #701, and even the (fleeting) lesbian scene is relegated to the background, quite literally, of the action. Most of Jailhouse 41 is really a road movie, one that owes much to the westerns, and in particular the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (how fitting, when one thinks of how much the latter owes in turn to the Japanese cinema of the 50s and 60s!), although the tone and pessimism - the sense that this can only go badly for the escapees - probably recalls more strongly Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. This filiation, Ito asserts it from the very first images of the inmates running away in a wide shot in which they run clad in long ponchos, mere points against a desolated, dry landscape

Another, even more striking difference with both the movie that has preceeded it, and even more so with the one that will follow, Female Prisoner Scorpion #701: Beast Stable, is the lyricism and surrealism that permeates all, even when the acts depicted are at their vilest. Already the very first scene, the one which preceeds the title sequence, sets the bar incredibly high. All we see during a single shot that lasts what seems like an eternity, is a metalic door, a door that marks the limit between the life above ground, and the world underground. As the camera goes backward, ever deeper down dark stairs, the door grows further and further away, all while a spectral voice - which is not without also recalling traditional Japanese theatre, tying neatly the kabuki-inspired sequence from the first movie to the theatrical episodes present in this one - calls for Matsu, and the angle is such that you're feeling like you're half-drowning, half-walking down to hell, which is exactly where we find Matsu when we first see her. Immediately, the tone is set with efficiency and a surprising economy of means

No less efficient are the scenes involving the manifestation of nature: the passing of seasons at the old woman's demise, the waterfalls turning a bright bloodred to signal one of the inmates' rape and subsequent murder by passer-bys. In the former's case, as mentioned higher, it is clear that it's a studio shot, yet what could have felt cheap and cheesy due to stringent budget limitations turns to be a blessing, as once again it is completely coherent with the traditional theatre inspiration on which Ito heavily draws throughout the story

Of course, at the heart of it all is Matsu. If Meiko Kaji had made her her own in the previous installment, she is, this time around, carving her place among the pantheon of the most unforgetable characters in cinematic history - probably not too far from the "Man without a name". If she was hardly talkative in "Prisoner #701", her voice is heard here only on one occasion, so quietly that you could almost miss it if the words she said weren't so chilling. Two simple sentences, in every sense of the word: because in her mouth, those simple utterences are a condemnation of those who have betrayed her, repeatedly, just as she was trying to save them and she unflinchingly puts them to death. It is almost as if such words are the only one that she would ever use from now on, carrying the torch for the vengeful spirit they had encountered in the abandoned villages and who had passed on to her, along with the dagger, this unquenchable thirst for justice, this duty to avenge those who had wronged her, a ritual transmission that nature itself had willed

But while she does not - cannot - feel regret, the demise of those women, and in particular that of Oba (brillantly played by Shiraishi Kayoko, whose grimacing face, offering a perfect contrast to Matsu's quiet intensity, reminds us of a noh mask - yet another reference to theatre), who was the leader of the gang that had escaped with her and a woman who, driven insane by a cheating husband, killed her unborn child in her own stomach and drowned her little boy, saddens her. And it is at this very moment that the early image of Matsu being tied to a tree in a way that cannot not echo Jesus on his cross, begins to make real sense. To be honest, when I first watched it, this image seemed initially a rather cheap shot, especially since Scorpion is much more avenging angel than pacifier. But seeing Matsu closing her dying comrade's eyes was very much witnessing her giving a woman who had continued to sin to the very end (Oba continues to plot her return to her island, only to burn everything to the ground), the last sacrements coming from a figure whose tears of sadness and forgiveness give her a new, almost divine dimension, a dimension further reinforced by her journey over the course of the film, having risen from the dead (her confinement underground) to attain the blinding lights of the late afternoon sun reflected by the tall buildings of Tokyo city

She's given a new dimension, but at heart we recognize the Matsu we learned to love in the first installment. This same duality between break and continuity is also present at the social commentary level. It is undeniable that here, beauty, lyricism and visual experimentation - that is form, although form is never, in Ito's case, just an empty shell - are the most memorable aspects of this movie. But as you reminisce, on the heels of an explosion of colors and shapes comes the realization that it is, again, a brutal denunciation of the place of women in Japanese society, and a stark denunciation of the violence of the society itself, which is every bit as much of a cage for women as prison itself. In a way, it goes even a step further, offering an even bleaker point of view than "Prisoner #701" because then, Matsu had to fight against figures of power and authority, from warden to yakuza leaders, from corrupted policemen to prison trustees. This time however, the greatest danger comes from some of the tourists they encounter on their way, as well as from within (the inmates betraying Matsu). But we also understand that in the latters' case, it is society that has driven them to these extremes (and not the confined and specific environment of prison), which violence is illustrated in the last theatrical sequence when the fugitives are in turn condemned and beaten by villagers until Matsu stands up for them, literally, having broken free of the net that had hindered the others

Stunning, otherwordly, outrageous in its violence, religious references and social message, Female Convict Scorpion - Jailhouse 41 is an unclassifiable cinematic object which quality allows it to rise from the depths of a genre (often justly) not taken seriously to proudly take its place at the firmament of worldwide cinema and probably the ideal introduction to the whole Sasori series

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Review movie - 赤壁 (Chìbì) - Red Cliff part 1 (John Woo, 2008)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

Note: This review is based on the cut released throughout Asia (280 minutes in total) and not on the "International Cut" (one movie, 148 minutes - I still need to be explained that one o_0)

In 208 AD, the cunning and power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) convinces his young Emperor Xian of the Eastern Han Dynasty that they should attack Liu Bei (You Yong), a warlord in the South, to prevent him from, supposedly, rebelling against the Emperor's central power. Liu Bei, in a bid to protect his people, leads them into exodus before the rapid progress of the much stronger armies of Cao Cao. A battle takes place in order to hold the latter off long enough for the population to reach safety

Liu Bei's strategist and advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) convinces his Lord to seek alliance with their neighbor Sun Quan (Chang Chen), himself torn between surrendering and fighting against Cao Cao. Zhuge Liang, conscious of Sun Quan's dilemna, looks for support in Sun Quan's Viceroy and military strategist, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who, alongside Sun Quan's younger sister Sun Shangsiang (Zhao Wei, often referred to as Vicki Zhao) advocates resistance to Sun Quan. Having reached an epiphany after a tiger hunt, Sun Quan joins forces with Liu Bei: their 50,000 troops are about to clash with the formidable 800,000 men army of Cao Cao at Red Cliff, near to the Yangtze River, in a battle that will decide the fate of many....

First, don't worry: it's a lot of names, all characters with almost equal importance, and it is true that the Chinese (and many people throughout East Asia) are already familiar with them. Nonetheless, despite being not too familiar with late Han history and having never read "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (one of the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature which covers the events of Red Cliff) myself, I still didn't find it too hard to remember who was who. Also I want to underline - because reading reviews around the net made it clear it wasn't obvious to all, and the release of different cuts in different countries has made it all the more confusing - that this story, in its original incarnation on which this review is based, is divided into two movies (think Lord of the Rings) and that Red Cliff part 1 is, aptly, only the first 140 minutes covering the story up to the first skirmish at Red Cliff (part two ecompasses most of the actually battle). As a result reviewing these movies is necessarily a difficult job because one needs to keep in mind that each is only part of a whole but must nonetheless do a good enough job of standing on its own. Reviewing Part 1 though is met with more apprehension than Part 2; after all, it is the movie during which the events' background and characters' motivations are laid out, while Part 2 is much more centered on the battle itself, and John Woo, while reknowned for his action sequences, sometimes falters when it comes to actual story-telling more subtle characterization. In many ways, his work on Red Cliff (which marks the director's return to Asia after a long stint in the US) simultaneously confirms our fears while also marking a strong return to form after his rather disappointing output of late and, overall, the latter has a much bigger impact on the quality of the movie than the former

Still, it's fair to say that John Woo definitely has trouble dealing with the mundane, with scenes that don't include weapons/fighting/explosions/all of the above. As a result, his camera rarely stays still. Surely, the many trademark slow-motion sequences (when the screen doesn't freeze) and sudden zooms on the characters' faces might pass for a show of dexterity or even art, but honestly they are mostly distracting and are doing the slow-paced scenes a disservice by getting in the way of the narration instead of serving it. Only once does all that visual agitation actually give greater weight to a dialogue scene: when Zhuge Liang stands before Sun Quan and exposes his plan to him for the first time. There, the ballet between Takeshi Kaneshiro and Chang Chen, and the rapid changes of camera angles aptly reveal the characters' emotions, and particularly Sun Quan's turmoil and hestiations

On the other hand, the beginning of that same scene with the arrival of Sun Quan in slow-motion into the room seen from Zhuge Liang's eyes is the first in a long list of cringe-worthy moments, mostly due to John Woo himself, who's always had this fetish for manly men bonding in the face of (armed) adversity and who is occasionaly guilty of letting it run away from him. Seriously, there are many occasions for man-bonding between the two movies, and that's often very well pulled off. On the other hand, it is very heavy-handed when scenes become mostly about the characters themselves. Of all, it is definitely Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang who is the biggest casualty and that's a shame because he's actually one of the two main characters in this narration of the Red Cliff battle (the other being Tony Leung's Zhou Yu) and, traditionally, one of the most beloved characters and certainly the one with the greatest intelligence and quick wit. Unfortunately, under John Woo's direction, all these qualities take a backseat to Liang's attraction to just about anything human that passes by, although he seems most enamoured with Zhou Yu and Sun Quan both, an attraction culminating in that pseudo-orgasmic expression in the middle of a scene which involves him and Zhou Yu playing music together which completely made me lose focus on the drama and instead made me wish that Woo would get the two of them in a room and get done with it already. I really don't mind a bit of ambiguity and homoerotism thrown in the mix, but either use it with moderation or be ready to go all the way. Someone please lend him a copy of "Aragami" - I never thought I would ever accuse Ryuhei Kitamura of doing "subtle", but that's exactly what he did when handling the undercurrent of attraction in his own man-to-man face-off

I know it's hard to believe based on what I've written so far, but actually I enjoyed Red Cliff Part 1 thoroughly and think it has a lot going for it. Firstly it is undeniably gorgeous, and unlike movies like "The Promise", the quality keeps up throughout. Also, while I can lament some artistic decisions during dialogue scenes, these only occupy the central segment of the movie, which is situated in between two battle scenes that are so beautifully shot that you would almost forget the military genius they illustrate. Because in many way, that's what the movie is all about. It is, first and foremost, a riveting battle of wits and agility between brilliant men. On one level, there are the strategists: Cao Cao against the minds of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, who are in a sort of friendly competition among themselves as well (although the distant menace of a possible future conflict between their respective lords permeates the air and obviously weighs on their minds). To witness these minds at work, and to see how these ideas would translate on the field is riveting (and none more so than the set up to the "skirmish" that serves as a prelude to the actual battle of Red Cliff and which takes up most of the last hour of the movie)

And then there are the actual battles, where the four generals (Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, all three sworn to Liu Bei, and Gan Xing, serving Sun Quan) are given time to shine. They have little impact on most of the events during the explanatory phase, which in a way isn't such a bad thing given the fact that it is the weakest part anyway, but they steal the show as soon as weapons are allowed to do the talking, not only because they are involved in some mouth-watering, breath-taking choreography and are, collectivelly, the more than welcome comic relief of the movie, but also because they plainly come across as fearless warriors on the battlefiled who are simply warm-hearted men when not fighting. I've certainly found myself cheering for them loudly in front of my tv screen on more than one occasion

I don't know how people who usually have little interest with warfare as represented in movies will react to Red Cliff Part 1. I suspect though that having John Woo, who it seems has recovered his full mastery over just about anything cinema that involves movement is enough to keep even the most skeptical viewer riveted to their screen. At the very least, it does its job perfectly as an appetizer - a luxury, meaty one, mind you - for the "plat de résistance" that is Red Cliff Part 2. It definitely makes you want to see more, and preferably as soon as possible