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.
29 November 2011
I’ve fallen so deeply in love with this trailer that I’m afraid I can’t possibly love the real film as much — whenever I manage to see it. The Artist: it’s a silent film about the silent film era! Could there be anything more delightful?
(Don’t you just love his Thin Man-style wire-haired fox terrier?)
It stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the excellent actors from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (the French James Bond spoof, also directed by Michel Hazanavicius), in which Dujardin was so fabulous that he was nominated in the Best Actor category for the César Awards — a rare commendation for a goofy comedy. Both stars and the director have already earned a pile of prizes and nominations for The Artist, including a Best Actor win for Dujardin at Cannes last summer.
I was delighted with OSS 117 back when I watched it one Saturday afternoon with popcorn, and was especially impressed by Dujardin’s innovative, expansive talents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve now watched this trailer, marveling over his tap dancing chops and light physical comic gifts that never seem too corny. Excuse me for gushing — and believe me when I insist that my effusive love is strongly mitigated by anxiety that the full-length feature can’t possibly live up. Note to self: this is why many professional reviewers don’t watch trailers first.
24 October 2010
Let’s just say that one of my long, humorless foreign films from Netflix got nixed last night, so we opted instead for this French spoof of James Bond. Actually, it’s more like a combination of Bond, Austin Powers, those Cary Grant/Hitchcock films from the 50s, and Inspector Clouseau. Every single line is delivered with the perfect combination of suave confidence, mock seriousness, and utter cluelessness. In short: it’s great.
How does Jean Dujardin, as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117, do it? He’s gorgeous — a cross between Sean Connery and “Mad Men”‘s Jon Hamm — but he’s got the goofiest knack for physical comedy and delivery; he comes off as both fatuous and oblivious just as in your favorite moments of Peter Sellers as Clouseau. You find yourself admiring him as a specimen of 1950s manliness (oh, how he carries one of those suits with the slim trousers!), but his mouth is way too wide, so when he gives us a big grin or laughs, he looks absurd. I can’t imagine another comedian doing this so perfectly — it’s no wonder that no American or English actor has been able to pull off a proper spoof of the 007 franchise. And when I say that, I most certainly assert that 1967’s “Casino Royale” with David Niven and the “In Like Flint” films (1966, 1967) with James Coburn as super-spy Derek Flint don’t measure up to this.
Dujardin can carry off a scene in which he spontaneously learns to dance the mambo or play the oud — each time, the crowd around him cheers wildly — and he turns every woman’s head when he walks by in his swimming trunks. But he’s got virtually nothing going on upstairs; he blandly asks about the pharoahs as if they’re still leading Egypt’s government, and is so annoyed by Cairo’s meuzzin calling via microphone for prayers at dawn that he clubs him unconscious so he can go back to sleep. In fact, some of film’s best moments involve OSS 117’s utter obliviousness to world affairs beyond Paris city limits — all of which gave me particular delight in the context of our xenophobic 2010. Even if you don’t understand a word of French, you’ll get virtually all of the comedy of Dujardin’s delivery, because he’s just that good a comedian. Best of all, at a tidy 99 minutes, this film is just long enough to get your mind off everything before you go to bed. Plus, there’s an equally well-reviewed sequel, “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” (2009) that pushes our hero ahead in time to 1967 and promises another night’s worth of mindless popcorn enjoyment — as OSS 117 tells us at the end of the trailer, “If you like dancing and Chinese, you’ll love it.” Why, I DO love dancing and Chinese!
At your service, as OSS 117 would say.