Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Does this really suck that much?

I was eating in a Chinese / Japanese restaurant (Asian Bistro in downtown Silver Spring) one day for lunch when I overheard a man trying to order food at a nearby table.  It wasn’t that he was speaking loudly, but the restaurant was not very busy.  He was asking about fish and chicken dishes, and he wanted to know if he could have some roasted chicken or fish in lemon / butter and some potatoes.  The waitress, who wasn’t a native English speaker, was having difficulty addressing the man’s questions.  She would try to point him to dishes that were somewhat similar, and he would ask her how the dishes were prepared.  “Don’t you have any normal chicken?” he asked.  This wasn’t a young man, so even if he had just stepped into downtown Silver Spring from some backwater, it was unlikely he had never come across an Asian restaurant before.  I drew the conclusion, perhaps because I couldn’t come up with any other probable answer, that something had to be mentally wrong with this fellow.  Why else would someone go to an Asian restaurant, especially when there are so many other restaurants in the area, and try to order non-Asian food?  And on top of that, then get upset when they couldn’t provide him with what he wanted?

Because we have expectations.  We operate on assumptions.  We rely on past experiences to help us make decisions and negotiate the world around us.  This is commonplace knowledge.  But this weekend, I got to see an exercise where there were expectations and assumptions in play, but it was the audience that seemed to get it wrong, at least, in my humble yet brilliant opinion.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha lately from the critical community about just how bad this summer’s (2013’s) movies suck.  You’d think the sky was falling.  But I was holding out hope for two movies that are not big budget:  The Canyons (and this is for purely personal reasons, namely Bret Easton Ellis collaborating with Paul “Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters” Schrader) and Only God Forgives.  So two Fridays ago, sitting in front of my summer 171 class, I pulled up rottentomatoes.com and instantly felt deflated.  OGF scored a humiliating 13% fresh, which went down to 11% after clicking on Top Critics (what I always tell my classes to do to avoid the riff-raff).  As of right now (7/29/13, 6:14 pm, EST), it has only inched up 5 percentage points.

Oh, no… Say it isn’t so!  Really, that bad?  I started to look at some reviews, which included comments like “unwatchable,” “fatally dull,” “one-dimensional video game of death,” and “pretentious.”  Aw, man.  Shit.

Why did I care?  Because I really liked Drive (2011).  I thought it was a fresh pastiche of 1980s Miami Vice-style crime stories with sudden, brutal violence.  I liked Bronson (2008), also directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, which was incredibly manic but stylistic and intriguing.  I was taken in by the fact that Ryan Gosling, who has enough star power to choose anything he’d want to be in, would return to working with Refn (who also wrote the screenplay, as he does with most of his projects) on what is, when you look at its competition right now, beyond a budget film (It didn’t even top out at 5 million!  And some critics called Now You See Me “cheap” for the low price tag of 75 million!).  In Thailand.  As a character more vacuous than Driver.  I’m most honored when a student takes a second class with me, especially if it is something they don’t need.  Gosling can make all the money he wants to, yet he went with this.  Throw in Kristen Scott Thomas, and you had me at hello.

Only God Forgives, like a lot of low budget, indie films, is releasing as video on demand as well as theaters.  It is playing at AFI, but given all the flack it was receiving, I was reticent to buy a ticket.  When I saw it was VOD as well, I decided I’d stream it.  I’ll be doing the same thing with The Canyons this Friday (8/2), even though the reviews for that are already abysmal.

Guess what?  I really liked OGF.  In fact, when I reached the end (which resolved, in my estimation, perfectly, and was not long and drawn out like some films that seem like they do not know when or how to end), I was scratching my head at why this film got so slammed with negativity.  If you are conversant with the genre, or this director’s work, then you were provided with an artistic (is that what they meant by “pretentious”?) and vicious film.  This is not a plot-driven film, but then again, most films that are action-based aren’t.  The plot is an excuse to move from one set piece to the next.  An excellent example of this is The Raid:  Redemption (2011).  There is a semblance of a plot where a SWAT team has to clear a high rise apartment complex of drug dealers and a paper-thin subplot of the protagonist having a brother who is a drug dealer, but really, it’s about the amazing fight choreography and deft cinematography of those fights.  The sequel is coming out in Indonesia this September.  Can’t wait to see that when it gets here.  Effective, knew what it was, and didn’t try to be something it was not.  I admire that sort of integrity.  I will be the first to underscore that TR:R, Drive and OGF are not for everyone (in fact, they aren’t for a lot of people), but for the audience that likes this genre, all three movies are outstanding.

So, where’s the disconnect with the critical community?  Drive scored high (87% of Top Critics) on Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics fawned over it.  Was it because it was set domestically (none of those pesky subtitles to read)?  It had Albert Brooks (who, incidentally, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for this role), Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks?  Ryan Gosling’s character was more of a “good” guy than this role?  I don’t know.  If anything, I think Refn improved his directing techniques in OGF.  His color palette (which includes a lot of deep gem tones) combined with the kinesis of the camera is hypnotic at times.  One critic I read compared his use of color to that of David Lynch, but whereas Lynch likes static camera shots more (I think to up the creep factor – leaving a shot go uncomfortably long, forcing you to watch something past when other directors would cut away), Refn’s camera is constantly in motion.  That is not to say there are no static shots, but when Refn does employ them, especially in sequences where Julian is in those odd transmigrations where he appears in one place, then another, then back to let us know he never left but his mind put him elsewhere, create more impact to when static shots are used. 

Another point of brilliance in this film is the use of sound.  I am almost tempted to go see this in the theater to see if the sound replication is the same, but on my (admittedly not high-end) sound bar, all music is very loud, and dialogue ranges from sounding like you are standing next to the character that is speaking, to muted character dialogue (where you can barely hear) to cutting out the sound on the dialogue, yet we know the characters are speaking, as their lips are moving and other characters are clearly listening to them.  Why this is brilliant:  remember, this movie is not about plot or character development.  When a character is heard clearly, this is information that will help the audience with what is going on.  When the character is muted, when we can barely hear and I am turning the sound way up, it is incidental information.  The sort of pat back and forth you would hear in that kind of scene in this kind of movie, so do you really need to pay close attention?  The true effectiveness is when character voices are completely removed.  I’ll give two examples.  Julian goes to confront his brother’s killer, who has had his arm cut off by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, who, for my money, was the best actor in this film), the police detective, who is furious that a father would whore out his underage daughter (Chang has a young daughter).  When Julian arrives at the father’s house, there is no sound when the father, tearful, clutching his stump that used to be his arm, explains what happened and why he killed Julian’s brother.  We don’t need to hear it.  We’ve already sat through the murdesr of the daughter and Julian’s brother, then Chang’s wrath.  Why would we need it explained?  What this additionally allows is to just view the emotion behind the scene.  It gets distilled down to its essence:   two people who have recently lost a family member, who may not have that undying love that we are supposed to have for said family member.  When Julian does not exact revenge, as he was instructed to do by his hellbeast-of-a-mother, Crystal, it makes perfect sense.

The second example is at the very end of the film.  We’ve seen Chang performing at his favorite karaoke bar, and some of his men always seem to accompany him and look on, in admiration (or fear, or both, but their gaze seems too tender to be fearful).  The whole place watches in quiet approval.  This is a man who doles out justice.  Granted, the justice is uncannily harsh, but it is justice in a place that seems mostly devoid of it.  There’s respect there.  The last performance, we do not hear him sing.  We know he is singing, but we focus on his face, on his posture, on his eyes.  This is what vengeance looks like, and it likes to sing karaoke after a hard day’s work.  And then the film ends.  Flawless.

I reject comments that this film lacks morality.  Chang has a well-developed sense of what is right and wrong.  And one thing that is refreshing about this sense is that it does not discriminate.  We often see women spared from real retribution in films on the grounds that women and children cannot be subjected to the same sort of retaliation that men must endure (I guess because they are men?  What other criteria is there?  Can women and children not also commit unspeakable acts?).  Chang deals with Crystal the same way he deals with others in the film.  She’s done so much wrong that she is fully deserving of his punishment.  She is a victimizer, not a victim, like the girl that Billy rapes and kills, which is the initial conflict of this film.  When Crystal earlier sends Julian and others to kill Chang at his house, Julian is informed that everyone in the house needs to die.  Julian, a disturbed simpleton, has enough of a moral compass to kill one of the goons before the goon can kill Chang’s daughter.  For Julian, it’s not that the daughter is out of bounds because of age but that she simply isn’t part of the revenge “owed” his brother.  It just doesn’t factor in.  If he had known everyone was to be killed, I would wager he would not have allowed the housekeeper to be killed either.  But the cop out front, that’s ok, as he’s an obstacle.  There are simply certain things that are out of bounds.  For someone who runs a fighting ring, Julian does understand that there are rules to follow.

There is no hero in this film.  The closest we come is Chang, and he is so extreme that while I did root for him, I couldn’t call him a “hero.”  Maybe that’s a sore spot for critics – Julian (Gosling, our star) is not our hero.  He can’t even beat Chang in an honest fistfight.  There’s certainly plenty of villains and bad behavior, but that’s been around for a while now.  I genuinely don’t understand the misguided reviews the film has received.  Or, if I have identified aspects in this post that critics would take umbrage with, then I do understand, but find them overall petty.  The film’s not for everyone, and in a summer full of films trying to be for everyone, it is refreshing to see something not trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.  This film pleased me.   But then again, I knew what restaurant I was sitting in and knew what to expect when I ordered.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Two Films by Kôji Wakamatsu

No, the two films by Kôji Wakamatsu that I recently watched are not Criterion films, but if I had a bet to make on an auteur whose work may eventually make it into Criterion, this would be a safe one to make.  He started directing in what is considered the Japanese New Wave, he’s Japanese (Criterion seems to like Japanese directors), he’s not commercial, but his work tackles significant issues regarding post-WWII Japan and is critically acclaimed.  To chalk him up as merely a pinku director is giving him way too short of shrift, at least given the two films I’ve watched.  There’s another good reason why Criterion might turn an eye to him sometime – most of his works are not available in the US.

To say I checked him out because he made a movie called 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate (2012) (a biopic about Yukio Mishima’s last years) is not quite accurate, as United Red Army (2007) and Caterpillar (2010) were already in my Netflix cue before I even knew about the Mishima movie meant something I had read previously compelled me to look Wakamatsu up.  Both films focus on historical time periods, both films are incredibly brutal, both films are not fun to watch, and both films are unflinching in their negative portrayal of the Japanese.  I can’t imagine that these two films grossed very much at the Japanese box office.  Unfortunately, the next project he was going to work on, which centered on the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese nuclear lobby, will never come to light, as Wakamatsu was hit by a taxi and died last year.

United Red Army is three hours and ten minutes long.  When flipping through my cue, I would see that, cringe, and move on (I do the same thing with Intolerance).  Finally, given the extra incentive of learning more about a director who made a movie on Mishima, I bit.  It’s a film about the Japanese communist movement of the late-1960s / early-1970s, mostly populated by idealistic students sick of the capitalist, pro-American government and their policies.  Mishima was on the other side of this battle, with the ultra-militarists (reinstate the Emperor) who were against the capitalist, pro-American government and their policies.  He once went to a university to talk to the students.  Nothing really came of the talk, but it is very interesting to learn more about the background of this ideological antithesis who ultimately wanted the same thing Mishima did.

I’ve seen The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008 [interesting that these two films were made around the same time]), so I knew a little bit about what was going on in Germany.  Also interesting that these two radical movements were coming out of Axis power countries, youth born during and directly after WWII coming to terms (or not) with their countries’ recent pasts and reacting.  Wakamatsu was actually part of the movement for a time but left, so he has a unique perspective into what happened.  Some reviews I’ve read say that he tries to go out of his way to create an unbiased account of what happened, and his jutsuroku (combining actual footage with acted footage to create a docu-drama sort of feel) approach strives to be a kind of historical recounting, but I disagree that this is impartial.  He chose the subject matter.  He even funded the film himself when no one would give him money to “set history straight,” as it were.  He used his own house and wrecked part of it for the finale of the film.  And if you wish to maintain that describing the internal purge within the group, which takes up much of the second part of the film (the first part concentrating on how the groups and factions formed and the third [last] part on the siege of an inn in Asama), as being unbiased, then you’re wrong.  This was a personal film for Wakamatsu.

The film is meticulous in its detail, providing names and ages of all the people that come across the screen, and since there are many, it is difficult to track who is who (especially since they often wear masks) until characters become more solidified in the second part.  Actually, to call them “characters” is inaccurate on two counts.  One, these were real people.  Two, none of them are fleshed out very much, so other than “pretty girl” or “brutal guy with buzz cut,” they didn’t really register.  Until they start getting killed by each other.  This is where the film got bizarrely interesting.  Is it really all that hard to become a communist?  Certainly not.  China and the Soviet Union were full of them.  There was no daily “self-criticism” like the type seen in the film.  This ideal communist the leaders of the group strive to make their cohorts is irrational and illogical.  When self-criticizing, a man admits he had thoughts of taking over leadership and using the group for his own means.  Mori seethes “You’re a Stalinist!” and has him executed.  That the group is complicit in this is totally unthinkable.  The next character, presumably thinking the same thing as I, that Mori’s bloodlust had been sated, says that he also was guilty of such thoughts.  Mori is beside himself.  He has that man executed as well.  A jealous woman, Toyama, who is part of the leadership, hates a beautiful young lady who was part of the founding members of the organization.  Toyama berates her for wearing makeup and fixing her hair.  Why did she come to the forest to train, Toyama constantly grills her, if she was going to cling to such mannerisms, which are truly out of step with being a true communist?  Toyama and the group eventually force this woman to bury her executed friends and beat herself up.  She dies a few days later.

Wakamatsu stares the lunacy of this group straight on.  How can a group fight global democracy and capitalism when they can’t even seem to be a cogent group themselves?  They are their own worst enemy.  As numbers dwindle and the police close in, one by one, members get arrested.  The final showdown at Asama, valiant as it is misdirected (taking a stand against police who will obviously, with the establishment, spin the incident even more extremely than it already was), was a complete waste.  Shooting cops to make a political point won’t garner much public support, especially when you won’t let a member of the public go free (and no, she wasn’t a hostage to them, but that’s their own ideology spiraling out of control).

No one in this film ends up looking noble or redeeming.   The ending scroll gives the timeline of the group, post-Asama.  I was surprised to find that they were still active into the 2000s, with all the trials, punishments, executions, other terrorist activities, and splintering.  There is a lot of pain, way too much pain that comes from this.  And for what?  Where is communism thriving?  Are you going to call China communist, because that’s naïve.  So much lost; so little gained.  It seems like a true waste and dreary in its finale.

And if you think URA was bleak, it was nowhere near as defeatist as Caterpillar.  Tadashi Kurokawa, a man from a small farming village, is conscripted to join the Japanese Imperial Army for the Sino-Japanese War in 1940.  He is sent to China.   During a battle, as he and his fellow soldiers are raping, maiming and killing Chinese women, he is trapped in a burning house.  He loses both arms, both legs, is badly burned on half of his head and rendered deaf and mute.  Yet, he is still alive.  He is returned to his wife, Shigeko, who is understandably mortified.  Just as he sacrificed for the Emperor, she must now take care of her husband.

Fun, right?  It gets worse.  Tadashi is a brute of a man.  Before being deployed, he would often abuse Shigeko.  She had not given him a child, so he calls her barren and beats her.  Another layer of horror to this story is that the returned Tadashi is hailed as not just a war hero but a war god.  Someone who survived “battle” to still be alive is elevated to almost kami status.  People bow to Tadashi whenever his wife wheels him around town in a wheelbarrow.  In a time where food is scarce, village women will give Shigeko precious eggs for the war god.  No one knows (nor can Tadashi say) just how he became so horribly disfigured, but that the root is monstrous behavior like raping and killing makes celebrations of Tadashi all the more stomach-churning.  What is also disgusting is that Tadashi often asks to see his medals (he is awarded three for his “bravery” and the newspaper article about him) as a means of a pacifier of sorts.  They seem to underscore his heroism, which isn’t even true, but he takes comfort in the recognition.

Furthermore, Tadashi is an immense strain, as you can imagine, on Shigeko, who still has to go out and farm rice and knit fabric at night.  She now has to bathe, feed, and tend to Tadashi’s other … er … digestive functions, very much like taking care of an infant.  But that’s still not enough.  He pulls at her clothes with his teeth and writes with a pencil in his mouth whenever he wants sex.  And he wants sex often.  Shigeko is bound to oblige, not only out of marital duty but duty to the Emperor.  She has to be ultra-care-giver to this man who used to beat and debase her.  She eventually starts to unravel.

I may be biased in my reading of this film, but one thing I found totally grotesque is that Tadashi does not seem to have a conscious.  There are times when we see him flashing back to the women he was raping before the fire consumed the building while his own wife is having sex with him.  He reacts with grunting noises, but it isn’t clear if this is guilt he is feeling.  It’s as if he is in the role of the women (in a move of power, Shigeko initiates sex instead of it being the other way around) and is horrified, not of what he did to others, but that he is feeling what he made others feel.  His constant insatiable needs, which immensely tax his wife, run parallel with how he got himself into his current state of being.  When he commits suicide at the end of the film (sorry, no spoiler alert, but I’m pretty sure even the teeny audience this post may have will not see this film after reading) by rolling out of the house into the small pond outside the front door, it seems more like he is ending his own suffering of having to rely on someone for any and all his needs than overbearing guilt for all the horrors he has visited on others.  He is truly reprehensible, which is what makes this acting performance (as well as the one given by Shigeko’s actress) all the more powerful.  She is so beaten down by expectations and her “duty,” and he is so evil and wretched.

Both films are not all that technical in nature.  URA is not particularly acted well (and is so piecemeal with its large cast that no one really has time to shine).  Its scope and link to a specific piece of history is what make it so captivating.  Caterpillar is well-acted, but the plot brings home the cruelty of humans and the fragility of life.  Wakamatsu is the type of director that has repeat performances by actors, so they are loyal to his vision.  That’s very telling.  It’s a shame we will have no more of that vision in the future.