25 August 2012
Hello: perhaps you don’t remember me, as it’s been so long since I last posted. I am the previously-prolific Feminéma who used to blog at length on movies and feminism while also quietly conducting research on leave from teaching. Now I am the cranky Feminéma who’s starting a new semester and dealing with university bureaucracy, and can barely watch a film without falling asleep.
Hence, my return to revenge films. Can you believe I’d never seen Oldboy before?
That’s right! so much for subtlety, literary dialogue, or nuanced character development. Teachers and professors, let me recommend that you soothe your weary tempers by falling into Park Chan-wook’s amazing, twisted, compelling, and occasionally gross-out tale of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). Dae-su was kidnapped, brainwashed, and tortured for 15 years only to find himself suddenly and mysteriously released. Filled with fury — not to mention questions about who did this to him and why — he sets off on a crazy, brain-addled quest to avenge his lost years. A female sushi chef joins him in his quest (somewhat inexplicably).
It has the kinetic weirdness of a great Spaghetti Western. If you can stand a few really unwatchable horror scenes (isn’t this why we have hands? to put them in front of our faces?), Oldboy is how to survive the nonsense of the institutions we work for.
What is it about revenge tales, and why is Park so good at telling them? This is the second installment of his Vengeance Trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which I quite liked back when I was grading an awful lot of papers a couple of years ago). Is there something to be said here about South Korean culture and politics and the way these brilliant vengeance tales strike a particular chord?
They certainly strike a chord with me. The revenge narrative seems so cathartic because it so often features a protagonist who’s helpless to prevent something bad from happening — so, in response, he/she undertakes a strict regimen of physical and mental training to be ready to exact revenge. That single-minded pursuit, and the clarity of the vengeance motive … oh, I can’t tell you how gratifying it is for those of us who spent an hour on hold waiting for some university administrator.
But it’s not just the actual vengeance; it’s also the ragged edges. The fact that Dae-su is going crazy in his cell as his hair grows longer and frizzier. The fact that exacting revenge is fraught with ambivalence and new revelations about himself and his enemy, revelations that affect his mental clarity.
You see? The vengeance movie shows you that revenge is madness, and perhaps even unsatisfying or soul-destroying. Which is just what I need at the end of a long week, when I looked quite similar to that image of Dae-su, all crazy hair and teeth.
Ordinarily I would have cared more that the female role of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong, above) is so lackluster, but hey, that would take some feminist ire that I’ve suppressed to get my full intake of vengeance vitamins. Maybe I’ll muster more bile for the Spike Lee remake of the film, reportedly starring Samuel L. Jackson. I promise you, friends, I have not lost the bile; it’s just a question of administering it to the truly deserving.
In the meantime it’s back to lecture-writing and making the longest to-do lists known to humankind. As much as I do love those regular wages, I tell ya: professoring really tests one’s capacity for institutional bullshit.
You know how it is. It’s one of those days when the temperature goes so far up that by mid-afternoon you’re sagging. Clearly what you need is the sofa, a cool glass of iced tea with your popcorn, and a brilliant Chinese melodrama about tragic love.
By the way, if you see posters for the film you might be fooled into thinking beautiful Chinese film star Gong Li is the star of this film. She’s not. This is a film about love between two men.
Normally when I settle in for one of those sinful Saturday afternoon popcorn flicks, it’s something cheesy and action-packed — Michelle Yeoh’s magnificently silly Wing Chun or Jean Dujardin perfecting that cross between James Bond and Austin Powers in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, just to name a couple of them.
In contrast, the tragic beauty and long durée of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine might be termed the filmic equivalent of reading a 19th-century novel, except you can get through it in an afternoon.
The story is beautiful and horrible — the tale of two boys, effectively orphaned and installed at a school that prepares them to perform in the Beijing Opera, where they’re tormented by the school’s sadistic masters. As they mature into true opera stars, they face the changing tides of Chinese politics and history. Yet somehow the filmmaker’s gentle, persistent humanitarianism never makes you turn away, never indulges in the pornography of pain.
It’s not merely a film about their friendship. It’s a film about these men’s love for one another, a bond between them that is so overwhelming it must be experienced to be understood.
And oh, Leslie Cheung as Dieyi. As a small boy he trained to perform the Opera’s Dan (female) roles — a fateful casting that alters his life and self-identification forever. It’s not just that Cheung is in reality so beautiful, nor that he mastered the exquisite feminine movements of his roles so completely. The truly magnificent aspect of his acting comes from his ability to wear his life history on his face; all those years of loneliness and suffering and learning how to be a woman onstage have left him permanently changed. It is unfathomable (but true) that he did not receive a single acting prize nomination for this role, even as the film won Cannes’ Palme D’Or and some 11 other best film prizes.
Farewell My Concubine was released nearly 20 years ago, yet its subtle views of sexuality, transgressive gender roles, and male love all feel fresh today. It’s so much like the Beijing Opera (and other forms of opera) — histrionic, overwrought, colorful, and yet delicate.
Really. On a hot day you indulge in watching it and wonder how you could have stomached a cheesy popcorn vehicle like Devil Girl From Mars.
23 February 2012
So I have this 5-yr-old niece who would love The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti). She’s got a twin brother and an older sister who take after their father — blonde, loud, socially charming, hyperactive. In contrast, this one is her mother’s child: dark-haired, quiet and imaginative, and prone to artistic focus for hours at a time. She would be entranced by the slow-moving beauty this film displays, because she’s very little, although not quite as small as Arrietty.I can’t help but watch Arrietty with a sense of regret. Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct this film, but his hand is all over it as screenwriter, production planner, and having the whole thing done via his Ghibli Studios. Miyazaki refuses to make those computer-animated, jacked-up, and over-caffeinated films that fill theaters. In fact, our theater prefaced this film with at least ten previews for kids’ movies — Brave, Mirror Mirror, The Lorax, and The Pirates (a new claymation film by the Wallace and Gromit people) most notable among them — all supercharged and moving so quickly you feel like you’re missing half the action. In contrast, Arrietty takes its time, lets you pay savor every beautiful, hand-drawn and colored shot. The down side: it can get a little dull. Also: the dialogue can get pretty creaky for people over the age of 5. But mostly: it’s not weird, like Miyazaki’s best films, such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001).
Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), a book I remember only loosely — but what a great idea for little kids. Arrietty and her parents are tiny people who live under the floorboards of a country house. They are borrowers — that is, they take little bits of things that the family will never notice, like a sugar cube, pins, tissues, a bit of string, and only things that allow them to survive. It’s a kind of big fish/ little fish symbiosis scenario premised on a couple of things: they must borrow without being seen, and if they cease to be secret, they must move away to a new house. What child wouldn’t want to think of a tiny family cobbling together a mirror house underneath your own, and stealing a postage stamp or a fish hook here & there to make life a little easier?
It’s a strange film to see as an adult, as it’s really more appropriate for small children. Arrietty’s parents are voiced recognizably by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, two of the funniest people in show business, but they’re weirdly low-energy and unfunny. It’s as if they’ve received mild lobotomies, which distracted me from the story — even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to think so much about the voices behind the characters. There’s also a prevailing sense of sadness in the tale that works together with the film’s slowness and visual wonder. Sadness because the boy Shawn arrives at the house to prepare for his upcoming heart surgery while feeling neglected by his busy professional mother; and sadness because Shawn spots Arrietty, offers her the gift of a sugar cube, and gradually becomes friends with her, making it necessary that the borrowers leave their lovely house for parts unknown.
Sadness is a strange mood to prevail over such a lovely film. I love what the Ghibli filmmakers decided to do in creating this world: although the characters big and small are all obvious cartoons, the backdrops are beautifully realistic, if idealized. When Arrietty climbs the ivy up the side of the house, the ivy is portrayed in all its colorful, light-filled, twisted majesty. The camera occasionally scans a meadow full of flowers and bugs. Or it scans upward to watch light coming through the leaves of a tall tree. For tiny children, such scenes must be even more entrancing than for adults — a reminder to observe the world around you with even more attention in case you might catch a glimpse of a tiny girl in a red dress, slipping amongst the leaves.
But for the rest of us Miyazaki fans, it’s beautiful yet disappointing and oddly tame. What I love about his sometimes ponderous films is the way they take strange turns, display strange and dark motivations, and feature female characters who must address scary situations they’re not really prepared for, either emotionally or physically. At times, as in Spirited Away, the girl is not even very likeable for a while. Considering that Arrietty clocks in at a tidy 94 minutes (speedy by Ghibli standards), it’s kind of boring.
As much as I found myself disappointed by the film, I’ve got it on my list for the next time I see my little niece, who has all manner of weird things going on in her little mind. She’ll love it. It might even be one of those films that hits her quiet 5-yr-old mind in that way that means something beyond the shape of the actual film. Because really, how do we know how film works the way it does? How do we know what will stick in our minds as meaningful long after the fact?
3 January 2012
You’ll understand why I put Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution onto my very short list of Rainy Days Films — those films one saves up, like that chocolate bar your friend brought back from Belgium, for a day when you have a need for something exceptionally luscious. This film is a period drama lover’s delight: sensuous with 1940s textures and fabrics and chinas, rippled with sunlight and neons and 1940s incandescents. It is also almost pornographically sexy (it was even cut for many audiences, and released in the US with a NC-17 rating).
What I didn’t expect was that Tang Wei to blow my frontal lobe in the role of Wong Chia Chi, a Hong Kong university student and accidental actress who, with her fellow actors, forms a renegade unit to resist the wartime Japanese occupation of China. She’s fabulous.
In the earliest part of the film (set in 1938), we see most clearly how young and naïve she is — and I mean, like, teenager young. She’s shy and a bit wowed by her older friend’s cohort of student actors, especially the one really good-looking boy. Even when she gets recruited into their patriotic play, we’re not sure whether such a young thing will make it onstage. But something happens in that concluding moment in their play, as Chia Chi’s real emotions intersect with those of her character, and a real tear slips down her cheek. Even her co-star in the scene seems thrown by her talent. It’s as if we see an entirely new person — acting has released in Chia Chi a talent for doubled selfhood and performance that seems preternatural.
Thus, when they cook up a plan to act as a resistance group to combat Japanese presence in China, Chia Chi is their star. She masquerades as a wealthy importer’s wife in order to infiltrate the social circle and mahjong club of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), the wife of collaborationist Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Chia Chi spends her days advising the ladies on finding tailors and decent restaurants, appearing far more cosmopolitan and far older than her true age, and — trickiest of all — chit-chatting expertly with wealthy wives whose radar is acute. She waits for an opportunity to flirt prettily with the elusive Yee, who appears only occasionally in his wife’s parlor.
In every way — her expressions, her physical gestures, her face, it’s like Chia Chi is a different woman. She shows no hesitation in her acting skills — even a certain impetuousness.
Yee, meanwhile, is a cypher. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is always so good — that tragic face, that slightly beaten-down appearance, those eyes that bespeak yearning and self-defeat (see especially his Happy Together  and the luminescent In the Mood for Love ); here his character is particularly hard and inscrutable. Chia Chi often feels like she’s wasting time; she’s certainly wasting all her friends’ money while she loses at mahjong to Yee’s wife. But eventually he notices her, finds small ways to get closer to her.
Her radical friends congratulate her for her accomplishment. Then they remind her that she doesn’t know the first thing about sex; in fact, only one of them does, and that’s because he has a weakness for prostitutes. Thus begins the least sexy deflowering and “sex education” in the history of film, all done in the name of a free China. But the Yees leave Hong Kong before she gets her chance to seduce him. Their assassination plans foiled, Chia Chi and her friends have a particularly bad night before they break apart and don’t see each other again.
Three years later, Chia Chi is staying with an aunt in Shanghai, poor and going through the motions of her studies. Like other Chinese, she’s learning Japanese to adjust to the Occupation. She looks like a shadow of her former self, and we’re not sure why — is it a lingering sense of degradation after losing her virginity for no reason? the long effects of poverty and Japanese occupation? simple loneliness and isolation? We’ve never seen her before with such an expression of defeat, and it’s dark.
Then her old friends rediscover her and recruit her back to the same mission, except this time they’re working with the real Resistance, and they’re organized. They want her to pick up where she left off, and she does — seating herself back at Mrs. Yee’s mahjong table, catching Yee’s eye. But there’s something different this time, something we feel so acutely but can’t put our fingers on. There’s something darker. 1942 is a very different world than 1938, for both of them. They are different people.
How does she do it, with that round face and precious lips? How does she capture the stresses of living this double life so beautifully and seamlessly? Tang Wei is always on point, always watchable, yet is asked to encompass so many conflicting emotions at once that her performance is a small miracle. It’s as if her character is most real when she must pretend to be someone she’s not.
Then add sex and stir. Her emotions become all the more convoluted when Yee finds ways to sleep with her — at first in the most brutal, sadistic manner, akin to how he tortures members of the Resistance; and gradually in ways that express a shared passion that captures all they are still hiding from one another, all they despise about themselves.
This is not romance, although sometimes they pretend it is. This is smut, dirty and fiery and beyond all reason. It’s fantastic, and it destroys their souls. I’m sure someone out there will argue that Chia Chi “falls in love” with Yee, but I will argue most fervently that this is not any kind of recognizable love. This is urgent and awful and demoralizing, and it erases traces of the self you thought you were. It’s fantastic to watch — again, this is really goddamn close to pornography — but grueling to identify with. Chia Chi and Yee can only experience this kind of sex because of the horrible things they’ve done in their other lives, the kinds of people they’ve sunk to being. The sex is so intense because they recognize the dark in each other.
And still they pretend. Yee invites her to a Japanese tea house where the veneer of Japanese politeness is thin but insistent. As a small protest against its Japaneseness, Chia Chi sings a romantic Chinese song and dances alluringly for Yee in the weird privacy of a room with paper walls. The sense of defeat is everywhere. But they pretend it’s not, and they pretend they feel love for one another. It breaks your heart — not because of a tragic love, but because each of these people is splitting apart in their souls.
Tang Wei. Keep your eyes open for her — I can only hope she gets more roles of such range and depth. I bow down before her skill.
29 October 2011
It was Spanish Professor who sparked my yearning to see this film again. It begins with that lamp — one of those old motion lamps from the 1950s that use a rotating screen inside to simulate waterfalls flowing. It’s like the sirens’ song of myth, this lamp: it shows a view of Argentina’s famous Iguazú Falls, and I can assure you that you’ll be called by it as well:
Like the sirens, the lamp calls Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) fatefully from Hong Kong in search of the falls, and further onto the rocks of relationship misery. Don’t see this film because you want to see romance: Po and Fai are most certainly not happy together, at least not most of the time — but you’ll recognize on a gut level the dynamics of their passions for one another. Po is the flakiest of all boyfriends, with a disastrous penchant for picking up men in public restrooms; their home life in that sad little apartment can be miserable. But oh! Director Wong has the most beautiful eye, and the most vivid use of color — which you’ll remember, perhaps, from his In the Mood for Love (2000, which you should see if you want romance). Just look at how Wong puts vivid color and Fai’s emotion at the front of a scene, with all manner of light and wallpaper and tilework illuminating the backdrop:
24 October 2011
Mija lives with contradiction. So do I, and so do you, of course, but in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, it seems so stark. This 66-yr-old grandmother (played by beloved Korean actor Yoon Jeong-hee) has an almost whimsical lightness, as when she announces she’s going to take a poetry class at the cultural center. “I do have a poet’s vein,” she says. “I do like flowers and say odd things.” Yet her life also looks pretty bleak from our perspective, from the grim apartment she shares with her sullen teenaged grandson (Lee Da-wit) to her part-time job working as a maid and caregiver for an old man who seems to have suffered a stroke. This movie is a small masterpiece that reminds me of exactly why I watch film: to find unexpectedly searching, overwhelming films that haunt me for days afterward.
Poetry is such a perfect central conceit for the film, for the class sends Mija into an eager new determination to see the world with fresh eyes. When her teacher explains, “Up till now, you haven’t seen an apple for real,” she gazes up at him with naïve awe. “To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it,” he explains, “that is really seeing it.” This is exactly Mija’s view of poetry: lovely words about lovely things. But as she struggles to complete her sole assignment for the class — to write a single poem — her world begins to change, and she finds herself forced to see the ugliest things.
Mija may seem a bit foggy-headed in her innocent cheeriness, but we realize soon enough that everyone around her works is even more expert at overlooking their own pain as well as the tragedies of others. When she learns that she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she won’t tell her daughter, who lives in another city and seems to have very little to do with her son Wook. Instead, Mija cheerfully explains on the phone that the doctor told her to write more poetry, and then proceeds to boast a little about how close she is to her daughter, what good friends they are. But when she does broach something more serious — the fact that Wook is driving up her electricity bills to unmanageable levels — her daughter seems to brush over and ignore Mija’s precarious financial situation. Mija’s almost comical attempts to sing away her worries at a karaoke bar or gaze into the soul of a tree or a piece of fallen fruit in search of poetic inspiration appears, after all, to be perfectly in keeping with the head-in-the-sand approach to life taken by all around her.
There is one thing that cracks her surface dottiness: learning that not only is her grandson Wook a typically self-centered teenage douchebag, but he’s also a member of a group of boys responsible for a shocking series of crimes. It’s so shocking, in fact, that Mija’s first response is to repress the information — and you realize by the end of the film that we viewers, too, are weirdly eager to repress it. It’s the most eerie bit of finger-pointing I’ve ever seen a film achieve. The other boys’ fathers invite Mija to a cafe to discuss the problem — and by problem they mean how to bribe the victim’s family so they will not bring in the police to prosecute the boys. These men insist they feel bad about the crimes, but “now’s the time for us to worry about our own boys” — the boys’ futures must be secured. Mija wanders outside in a daze, crouches near a lovely flower, and takes out her notebook to jot down some poetical notes. Yet despite her instincts to repress the information, now when she sees red flowers, she can’t help but take notes about blood and pain.
It’s extraordinary, this film. It’s sending me on a quest to locate all of Lee’s previous films — not an easy task, as it turns out — and confirms my uneducated view that South Korea is one of the very few most creative cinemas in the world right now. It’s also one of the few that regularly features retirement-age women in phenomenally complex and rich parts — witness last year’s Mother, which should have earned its star a best-actress Oscar. There’s also a feminist vision at the center of this film that I can’t delve into without spoiling crucial parts of the plot; and I can’t help but see a potent political fable in Poetry, one that worries about society’s future in a way that is both transfixing and, ultimately, transcendent. Please see this film, and then tell me how much its elements come to you in dreams and visions. For it has most certainly haunted me in a way no thriller or horror film can.
I’m no fool: I know you’ve already seen Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so I’m not going to insult your intelligence by recounting the plot. This is a post for fellow fans who’ve also watched this film with that odd mixture of wonder and delight. Watching this film again reminded me how much I actually laughed out loud at some of the action sequences in which these amazing martial arts experts’ legs move, cartoon-like, as they fly up the sides of buildings, across rooftops, or from the tip-top of a bamboo shoot to another. I wasn’t laughing exactly because it was ridiculous, or because it was funny, although it came up right next to those. I laughed because I could not blink lest I miss something. How, I ask, is it possible for this film to mix in what you might otherwise say are ridiculous action elements — elements that actually provoke an unusual kind of awe-struck laughter — yet never, ever lose its audience?
I have two answers for you — and the first is, because of the contrasting love stories, of course. Let’s start with the heartbreaking quietness between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), each expert in the fighting arts. Now having reached middle age, they’ve longed for each other for years, but have been kept apart by their mutual dedication to custom. In the quietest, most restrained way, Mu Bai is now willing to set the sword aside — as well as his vows to his warrior order — to be with Shu Lien at last. In every interaction, we see these two hesitantly move toward each other, acknowledge their love; yet each scene is marked by their continued hesitation. It’s like a great 19th-c. novel, in which the character feel deep passion but must never touch one another.
And holy crap, Michelle Yeoh! and Chow Yun-Fat! Was there ever a more beautiful and self-possessed pair in filmic history? I remember way back when I saw it in the theater, the local reviewer called Yeoh “the thinking man’s hubba-hubba,” which captures as perfectly as I can imagine how watchable she is, how intelligent she appears, and how convincingly she appears in all those fight sequences. (See here for a nice piece on Yeoh by our friend JustMeMike.) You’d never guess she’d never taken a martial arts class in her life, but choreographs her fight sequences using her years of dance training.
If Shu Lien and Mu Bai are the pinnacles of reserved, cool-headed longing for one another, the love between Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and Lo (Chang Chen) is all passion and fire and impulsiveness. Even though she’s now set to marry another, Jen cannot forget Lo, the mountain bandit with whom she lived all those months. Theirs is a classic hate-at-first-sight romance, just like in classic bodice-ripping Harlequin romances; theirs are the most unrestrained, vicious wrestling matches ever filmed between a man and woman (I believe this the proper use of “wrastling”), which transmogrify satisfactorily into passionate, genuinely turn-you-on lovemaking.So that’s the first thing: the contrast of the yearning, reserved restraint of Yeoh/Chow, and the woo-hoo! of Zheng/Chang. The second thing is the feminism, which is so overwhelming and explicit I can’t believe no one made much of it at the time. And it’s not just that the fight sequences always feature women — who win — nor that the best sequence faces off Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in the very best, funniest, most exciting matchup ever. The heart of the story relies on the fact that its three main female characters (Jen, Shu Lien, and Jen’s governess, Jade Fox) have each been foiled in their attempts to live as they desire because they are women. Each takes a different approach in response, and they inevitably find themselves in opposition with one another as well as with men.
Let me be clear: the feminism is explicit and exciting throughout this film, and gives it a conceptual drumbeat that makes the film unexpectedly exhilarating. (With sentences like that, can you tell I’ve been reading James Agee’s film reviews?) The terrific fight sequence between Shu Lien and Jen is partly so thrilling because you don’t know who to root for — or, more precisely, you don’t know whether you can root for the impetuous, talented Jen over Shu Lien. As you watch Jen with the “Green Destiny” sword she stole from Mu Bai, you feel a genuine anxiety: you cannot quite believe she’d be winning that fight without it, yet her mastery is delicious. Likewise delicious is Jen’s shootout in the wayside inn, where she dresses as a boy and then flies through the building, defeating every man in her path. Best fight sequence ever.
I’ll admit that the first time I saw this film (and perhaps the second time, too), I was just mesmerized by its humor, action sequences, beauty, creativity. The significance of the contrasting love stories and the on-the-surface feminism weren’t as clear as they are to me now. But when you watch this film again — and I say when because you need to see it again — notice how unabashedly it relies on those two plot elements. And you may still find your jaw dropping open with awe and pleasure.