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 Spiesjust 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.

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All I needed to hear about this movie was that it was Michelle Yeoh’s second film and that she stars as a kick-ass Hong Kong police detective who teams up with American B-movie action star Cynthia Rothrock to take down the bad guys. Yes, Madam!

Things to love about this movie:

  1. Squeal-worthy slicked-back 1980s haircuts and brightly colored jumpsuits. Said jumpsuits should put the kibosh on 1980s fashion nostalgia once and for all.
  2. This film also goes by the titles Police Assassin, Police Assassin 2 (yes, you read that correctly!), In the Line of Duty 2, and Super Cops.
  3. Awesome martial arts sequences that also involve guns, knives, and parasols (yes, you read that correctly!).
  4. Excellent bad guy/corrupt businessman (?) with, yes, an evil laugh — he’s not afraid to laugh evilly in every single scene.
  5. Incomprehensible and needlessly convoluted storyline about a bit of microfilm.

Things to regret:

  1. Not nearly enough Yeoh/Rothrock face time.
  2. Long boring sequences of incompetent men being comic relief.
  3. Not nearly enough Yeoh/Rothrock face time.
  4. Weirdly abrupt ending.
  5. Not nearly enough Yeoh/Rothrock face time.

So yeah, this isn’t going to be one of those films you finish up and say to yourself, “If only there had been a Yes, Madam! sequel!” But if you’re wandering around on Netflix thinking to yourself, “If only I could find a kick-ass duo of women doing great martial arts stunts!” you may want to put it on your queue. After all, one can’t really get enough Michelle Yeoh.

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.

Place: a small village, where a small circus is performing its feats for the village beach festival with fire-breathers, stilt-walkers, and acrobats. Story opening: a foolish scholar named Wong Hok Chow and his servant arrive to get a glimpse of the famous martial arts master Yim Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh), whose skills protect her greedy aunt’s tofu making business. The scholar wants to hire Wing Chun to protect his fortune against bandits, but when he gets a glimpse of her — “She dresses like a man, but she is still impressive!” — he has a better idea: if he marries her, she’ll protect him for free. He rubs his chin comically. Oh, he has so much to learn.

Because this is Saturday Popcorn Theater, and because Yuen Woo-ping’s Wing Chun is a comedic martial arts film so classic that the frames almost seem sped-up like old silent film, the bandits arrive immediately. Within five minutes Wing Chun has beaten them off by using Wong’s body like a puppet in what you first might think is the best martial arts sequence ever. But there’s more!

“Master, women who fight are no good even if they are beautiful,” Wong’s servant warns him. Ultimately this film asks no more serious questions than, will Wing Chun take this absurd scholar seriously as a suitor? Can a kick-ass martial arts woman find a man worthy of her? Will that worthy man be attracted to a woman who can kick his ass, or will he fall for the beautiful girly-girl? And, of course: will the bandits get it in the end? But the real question is, is Wing Chun so good that she can protect her cake of tofu while kicking a man’s ass?

To be serious for only a moment, Wing Chun is also the name of a Chinese style of martial arts that springs from a 19th-century legend about a young woman who refuses to marry a local warlord. He insists that the only way she can escape marriage is to beat him in a martial arts faceoff. Distressed, Wing Chun begs a local nun to teach her to fight. Curiously, the nun had observed a confrontation between a snake and a crane that led her to theorize about a new method of hand-to-hand combat. She teaches Wing Chun, who triumphs over the warlord using this new style.

And to stop being serious, I beg you: waste no time on history or the important questions posed by this film. Instead, sit down and watch this 95-minute feminist masterpiece and find out how it ends for yourself. Sadly, it’s been removed from YouTube but you might trawl the internet for new versions appearing regularly. Here’s the great tofu scene:

Fragments

31 August 2011

I’ve been focusing on all manner of academic things this week, so my mind is fragmented. These thoughts don’t add up to anything, but it’s the extent of my ideas about movies and words and women and men.

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the amazing 2000 film from Ang Lee that only gets better on re-viewing except I had to watch it on a TV screen rather than on the very large screen where I saw it, twice, when it came out. Oh, Michelle Yeoh, I worship at your feet. (Stay tuned for more about this film.)

2. A lovely line from the new Tony Kushner play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, coming from the old union laborer’s mouth that expresses something beautiful about what it means to be proud of your labor and your union:

We did something utterly remarkable then, which no one now appreciates, but it was, it was working-class guys, working-class with no, no training, no politics, facing down their fear of being called bums and featherbedders and crooks and insisting not merely on the worker’s right to a wage but the worker’s right to a share in the wealth, a right to be alive, a right to control time itself! When we won the Guaranteed Income, we took hold of the logic of time and money that enriches men like then and devours men like us, and we broke its fucking back.

3. Another lovely fragment from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (overall: it was good). When Joey, the young son leaves his country college and goes to New York for the first time and sees the circus of street life taking place in the city:

every moment was like a poem that he immediately memorized.

4. Kitchen Stories (2003), a funny and sweet Norwegian film by Bent Hamer that should be imported directly into anthropology classes, since it’s a perfect expression of what happens during participant observation. To wit: to understand old Norwegian bachelors’ uses of their kitchens, the observer sets up an umpire’s chair in the corner. What could go wrong?

5. Another fragment, this from Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The teenaged Oscar is in love with a girl, and the two of them begin to talk — long, rambling phone calls that start from nowhere, building on the everyday, yet:

and off they’d gone, building another one of their word-scrapers.

(Díaz: I might’ve gone for word castles, given Oscar’s romantic nature, but I re-read that paragraph four times for the pleasure of it.)

6. Felicity Huffman. We’re watching the ’90s series Sports Night for the first time (overall: it is good) but Huffman is the kind of actress who seems so compelling, far beyond the way her character’s written. As with all of Aaron Sorkin’s women, her character is manic and neurotic. Yet there’s a way Huffman can peer through those eyes, cock an eyebrow (and nobody cocks eyebrows the way she does), and make you want to make out with her. Which reminds me, of course, of her multiple prizewinning turn in Transamerica as the transsexual Bree, during which I could not imagine that she had not once been a man. It makes me so sad that she’s been relegated to Desperate Housewives all this time.

Movies to cry to

27 June 2011

from Yôjirô Takita's Departures

Here’s my rule: I don’t want to put any movies on this list that feel like cheap manipulators. Did I cry during The Notebook? Well, of course, and the whole time I felt as if I’d been used. In fact, I have a list of films I refuse to see because I anticipate that those tearjerkers will merely make me feel jerked around (Titanic, etc. — and despite the promises of my Dear Friend I can’t bring myself to watch Love Actually).

That said, readers of Feminéma know that I emote at the movies all the time — why, only recently I’ve mentioned having unexpected outbursts during Summer Hours, Killer of Sheep, and The Beaches of Agnès. (What can I say, but that I feel movies truly, madly, deeply?) Let me explain that this list emerges not from an eagerness to weep, but rather the firm belief that some of the best films draw tears without making you feel cheap — in fact, I’d watch these movies again this minute if I had the chance — and without making you determined never to watch them again (ahem: Breaking the Waves. Never, ever again). The tears they provoke seem to spring from something honest and human. Inspired by a comment from Tam (and borrowing shamelessly from the list she offered) this is a preliminary attempt to think about when, and how, outpourings of sentiment at the movies seem authentic as well as pleasurable.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply

Weeping ritually with Departures (Okuribito, Yôjirô Takita, 2008). A beautiful film about a young man who finally gives up on his plans to be a musician and returns to his hometown to start working — mostly by accident — as someone who ritually prepares dead bodies for burial. It’s funny and surprising for many reasons, and you start to wish someone will display that much care with your body when you die.

Weeping for lost chances with 84, Charing Cross Road (David Hugh Jones, 1987). I’ve already discussed this film, which is oriented around the long, beautiful, eccentric correspondence between a New Yorker and the London bookstore clerk who supplies her with good reading material. Books, letters, and a quasi-romance between Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins — weeper heaven.

Soulful, stiff-upper-lipped: Anthony Hopkins in 84, Charing Cross Road

Weeping out of pride for your fellow humans with Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976). I have a whole post a-brewin’ about labor, but suffice it to say that this might be the most amazing documentary you’ll ever see — about a strike by coal miners in Kentucky who express eloquently their rights as workers in America. It brings tears to your eyes for what we’ve lost: a sense of pride in labor and the strikers’ certainty that employers are not always right. Oh, how far we’ve fallen as a nation since 1976.

Harlan County, U.S.A. and their proud signs

Weeping for reality with The Return of Navajo Boy (Jeff Spitz & Bennie Klain, 2000). Another documentary. Sometimes my students make statements that reveal that they don’t think Indians exist anymore. This documentary about the most-photographed Navajo family in history — people typically photographed in “traditional” clothing, making blankets or some other goddamn “traditional” Indian thing — is about their real lives and the difficulties they face when most Americans refuse to believe they are anything but cardboard cutouts, much less a people whose history is always changing.

The Begays talk back to John Wayne in Return of Navajo Boy

Weeping for love with Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990). Back to narrative film with this amazing tale of a woman missing, terribly and deeply, her dead boyfriend — when suddenly his ghost returns to her. She’s so happy to see him, except having a ghost for a boyfriend turns out to be more of a problem than it might appear at first.

Weeping for nostalgia and happiness with Up (Pixar, 2009). Criminey. Who would’ve thought, walking into a big 3-D Pixar summer release, that within 5 minutes you’d have lost weight from the weeping? Loved everything about this movie, and I’d see it again this minute, but next time I’ll have a stockpile of kleenex close by.

Why does Up kill off the fabulous Ellie so early in the film? Dang.

…and Tam also recommends The Winter Guest (Alan Rickman, 1997), which I haven’t seen yet.

Honorable mentions, for their massive tear-jerking capability primarily in the very last scenes:

  • Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004).
  • Three films by Ang Lee: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). What can I say but that that guy is crazy good at drawing big tears out of me.
  • Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003).
  • Toy Story 3 (Pixar, 2010).

Note that I’ve left off all the overdetermined tearjerkers: An Affair to Remember (1957) because of that cringe-making scene from Sleepless in Seattle (1993); all those dude weepers that I don’t quite get, like Good Will Hunting (1997), Field of Dreams (1989), and Brian’s Song (1971); and a couple of films like Dancer in the Dark that are just too goddamn much.

I know we’ve got a whole set of cheap stereotypes about women weeping at the movies. But the best films make us cry because we can’t help but feel with those characters. Admit it: you love it.