Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

In 1920s Japan, 9-year-old Chiyo and her sister, Satsu, are sold to pay off their impoverished families debts. Chiyo is purchased by a Geisha house, while Satsu is sent off to a brothel. At the Geisha house, Chiyo encounters the ruthless Hatsumomo, who, fearing that the young girl will grow up to replace her, makes her life a living hell. All this cruelty nearly breaks Chiyo, until, one day, she is shown a small act of  kindness by The Chairman, played by Ken Watanabe. This motivates Chiyo to become a Geisha, and she spends the next several years training in the art of music, dance, and conversation. Finally, after her instruction is complete, Chiyo becomes Sayuri, a Geisha of incredible beauty and influence. She even finds The Chairman again, who claims not to recognize her after all these years. Things are looking up, until World War 2 breaks out, sending Chiyo’s life, once more, into turmoil.

Memoirs Of A Geisha is a beautifully-shot, superbly-scored, finely acted melodrama. And I kind of hate it. Not because I think it’s poorly-made, mind you. The costumes, sets, cinematography and lead actresses are all gorgeous to look at. But the dialogue is cheesy, the story is highly reminiscent of a soap-opera, and it relies heavily on Western misconceptions of East-Asian culture. And I’m not just saying that. The film was shot in California, directed by a White Man, Rob Marshall, and the book on which it is based was also written by a White Man, Arthur Golden. And before you hit me with a “but they could have done a lot of research” defense, it’s worth noting that many Japanese people, such as the writer, Kimiko Akita, have criticized Memoirs for perpetuating racist stereotypes of East-Asian women as demure, mysterious, and exotic, and one of the actual Geisha Golden interviewed for his book, Mineko Iwasaki, sued him for defamation and libel. The film was also criticized when it first came out for casting Chinese actresses, like Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, in prominent roles meant for Japanese women. For my part, I have mixed feelings on the issue. On the one hand, a film this deeply rooted in Japanese culture should probably have had Japanese leads. On the other hand, the film is clearly the product of a White man’s imagination, and I’m frankly glad that they bothered casting Asian actresses at all, as opposed to Natalie Portman or Angelina Jolie in Yellow Face. Which, trust me, could very well have happened.

But, as I said before, the film is well-made. It was a box office smash when it first came out, and it won three academy awards, including Best Cinematography and Costume Design. And even though the story itself is silly, the actors all do fine jobs. Zhang Ziyi was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Chiyo, and I can understand why. She’s sweet, vulnerable, determined and convincing in the role. Granted, there are moments where the international cast’s plethora of accents–some sound Japanese, some sound Chinese, some sound British–get kind of distracting. But, for the most part, everyone does a great job, and between that and the lavish production values, Memoirs is a fine enough watch. Just don’t expect depth, or cultural accuracy, if you choose to go see it.


A Flower Of War

She fought like a tiger the day we first met. Or perhaps like a crane. She certainly displayed the ferocity of a tiger, slicing through my soldiers like a hand through water, and yet, the way she moved, the way she dipped, and dodged and leapt through my men’s ranks, was so graceful that I couldn’t help but be reminded of a crane taking flight.

Perhaps that was why, when Colonel Yi and I arrived on the scene, finding her panting over the corpses of no less than 40 soldiers, and the Colonel told our archers to fire, I yelled out “No!”

“No?” he asked, turning in his saddle to face me. I felt my cheeks flush with color, and cleared my throat.

“No. Spare her.”

Colonel Yi exchanged an incredulous look with Captain Zhang before turning back to me.

“Princess–” he began, adopting the condescending tone of a parent addressing a child.

“That’s General, Colonel Yi!” I snapped. “My father left me in command of this Army, so unless you wish to hear from the King of Xia, you will do as I say.”

Colonel Yi wrinkled his nose, as though my words carried some foul odor, but said nothing. He wouldn’t dare say it outright, but, deep down; I knew he resented being led by a woman. And, even deeper down, I knew that if I pushed him too hard, it wouldn’t matter who my father was.  He’d kill me and take command. That’s why, as soon as I saw his expression go dark, I instantly changed my tact.

“I understand your confusion, Colonel.” I said, doing my best to appear calm and level headed. “And I understand your desire to seek vengeance for our brothers. But let’s be pragmatic. We’re outnumbered. The Tang are closing in. And this woman single-handedly managed to kill 40 of our soldiers. We need every warrior we can find, and this woman just might be the secret weapon we’ve been looking for.”

“You’re saying you want to recruit her?”

“Give me three days, and I swear I’ll have her waving the flag of Xia.”

He looked at my face long and hard, as though it were a piece of armor and he were searching it for cracks. I looked right back at him, giving, and saying, nothing. Finally, he nodded, and looked away.

“As you wish. Archers, stand down!”

“Stand down!” Captain Zhang repeated, waving his arm at our men.

Down the line, our archers lowered their bows, and, even from a distance, I could see the shock in her eyes. This brought a smile to my face, and I tapped my heels into my horse’s side, sending it trotting forward. The sight of me approaching caused her to scowl, and raise her sword as though she meant to skewer my steed.

“You want some too?” She snarled, daring me to come closer.

I tilted my head to one side. Being this close to her allowed me to see how young, and beautiful, she was. Even under all the blood, even with her hair inn tangles, she was radiant.

She must have thought my staring odd, because she tilted her head to one side and asked,


I shook my head. Hard.

“Give up, sister,” I called out, “You’re outnumbered, and surrounded.”

“That’s what this lot said.” She grinned, gesturing to all the dead soldiers. Something about her smugness, about the sheer confidence of her delivery, stung my pride, and I found my cheeks again flushing with color.

“But did ‘this lot’ have arrows?” I asked, folding my arms in defiance.

This shut her up good and quick. She looked around at the archers, at how really and truly cornered she was, and then glanced back at me. For a brief moment, I saw fear in her eyes. It truly did last a heartbeat, but that small display of doubt touched something inside, and, before I knew it, I was dismounting and walking over to her. I could hear my men’s murmurs of disapproval, but I didn’t care. She was all that mattered.

“It’s all right, sister,” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “No one will hurt you. I promise.”

She looked into my eyes, searching them for hints as to whether or not I was deceiving her. I looked right back, silently preying that my sincerity would be felt through my gaze. For a long while, we stood there, saying nothing. Then, at last, she looked down, and offered me her sword. I took it, and led her by the hand back to my horse. Together, we mounted, and began the long ride back to camp. As we passed Colonel Yi, I gave him a quick, sideways glance. His eyes were as cold as a river at midnight.

Back at my tent, I poured out two glasses of plum wine. I offered her one, but she shook her head, “no.” I shrugged, and took a sip.

“What’s your name, sister?” I asked after I’d set the cup down.

She didn’t respond.

“Why are you dressed like a man?” I probed, taking a step forward. Her eyes flashed with fear, and she quickly backed away.

“What do you want from me?” she snapped, balling her hands into fists.

This caught me off guard. It was a simple enough query, and certainly logical for the situation. And yet, in all the time it took to get from the place where I captured her back to my tent, I’d never once thought of an answer.


“I’m no one important,” she chattered, her words coming out quick and jumbled. “So there’s no point trying to get ransom.”

I laughed, and shook my head.

“Sister, there was never any question of ransom.”

“Then why spare me?” she pressed, taking a step forward. “Why take me to your tent?”

I pursed my lips.

“I… I couldn’t let someone as fair as you just die.”

She stared at me, mouth agape.


Again, my cheeks flushed with color.

“I– Well, what I mean is–”

“You want me?”

I stopped; looked her right in the eye. She nodded, the gears of her brain turning fast.

“Of course, it all makes sense.”

“No! No, nothing makes sense!” I snapped. “I don’t– The fact that you would even imply that I would want–”

“Then what do you want?” she asked, folding her arms.

I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I want my father to win this war. And the only way we can is if we have warriors like you in our ranks.”

“Is that right?” she chuckled, running a finger up my arm.

“Yes it is!” I snapped, turning my back on her. “And, starting tomorrow, you’ll begin training my soldiers. Understood?”

Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid her. This proved to be far more difficult than I thought. First, I had to restrain the men, who wanted nothing more than to kill her. Next, I had to find her a place to sleep, since I certainly couldn’t just leave her in the barracks. And, wouldn’t you know it, the only place that was safe for her was my tent. And, finally, I had to keep reminding her that it was not at all appropriate to indoctrinate the men with Tang propaganda. I can’t even begin to count how many times I came upon her, lecturing my soldiers about how the armies of Tang were invincible, and how they were better off surrendering now, instead of wasting their time training. It happened so often that I spent more time chaperoning her than strategizing with Colonel Yi and the others. I don’t think he minded, since it gave him the chance to take command. As a matter of fact, I know he didn’t mind. That was the problem.

As the weeks wore on, I started noticing a change in his demeanor. When I gave him orders, he would either ignore them, or be slow to respond. When I reminded him that, as the daughter of the King of Xia, I was in charge, he would simply smile, and say, “for now.” And on one occasion, I caught him standing outside my tent, surveying it with something close to a buyer’s eye.

“What are you doing?” I barked.

“Just checking on your majesty’s residence,” he responded smoothly. “It would be quite a shame if something were to happen to it.”

I opened my mouth, but he was already gone.

And yet, despite all that, and despite all my efforts to avoid her, I couldn’t help but learn details from her past. I learned that a blind man named Liu taught her how to handle a sword. (This detail slipped out during a training exercise). I learned that she had two sisters. (This tidbit was divulged while insulting one of my men; “My sisters could swing that axe better than you”). And I learned that her favorite fruit was persimmons. (This was made evident by the fact that she devoured at least three of them everyday). But perhaps the most important thing I learned about her was her incredible talent with a needle.

I learned this on a hot day about a month into our relationship. I was training with my bodyguard, Shen, and, as always, he was letting me win. He never said he was, but I could tell. I was lousy with a blade, and Shen had been a professional soldier for over a decade. There was no way in hell that I could beat him in sparring every single time. She knew that, and when she saw us training together, she came over and pushed Shen out of the way.

“What are you–?”

“Giving you a real lesson in combat.”

I scoffed, and looked at my men for support, but none of them made a sound. This caused her to snicker, and my cheeks to burn red.

“Don’t look at them. They want you to learn as much as I do.”

I scowled, and turned my back on her.

“There’s nothing you can teach me that I don’t already know.”

I took a step forward and instantly felt a sharp sting against the back of my head. I whirled around, clutching my throbbing skull, only to find her smirking, and tossing a pebble up and down.

“You sure about that?” she said with a wink.

That sent me over the edge. I drew my sword, and lunged for her. She easily sidestepped, and slashed her blade upward, cutting my arm. I cried out in pain, and clutched at my wound, which, by that point, was bleeding profusely.

“Never let anger rule you in battle.” she said, sheathing her sword.

I groaned, and fell to my knees.

“Oh, come now.” she huffed, turning around. “It’s not that bad–”

She fell silent when she saw how much blood was coming out of my wound. Her whole demeanor instantly changed, and she fell to her knees beside me.

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to cut you that deep.”

I didn’t respond. I was too light-headed to speak. She looked to the men for help, none of whom did, or said, a thing. She sighed, and ripped off a piece of cloth from her uniform.

“Someone get me a needle and some thread!” she shouted, wrapping the makeshift bandage around my wound. None of them moved.

“Now!” she barked, and they finally went off in search of medical supplies. At that point, my head was spinning, and my fingers had become numb. The last thing I remembered before passing out was the sight of Shen returning with a needle and thread.

I woke several hours later in my tent. She was sitting over me, stroking my forehead. A few weeks ago, I would have balked at such a blatant sign of intimacy, but, at that moment, it was like a ray of sunshine on the glacier of my heart.

“You’re awake!” she smiled, cupping my face with both hands.

“Yes.” I sighed. “Thanks to you. Where’d you learn to stitch a wound like that?”

“You grow up on a farm, you get injured. And when you grow up poor, the only doctor you can afford is yourself.”

I nodded.

A silence followed, in which both of us pondered how best to say what was on our minds. She broke it first.

“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have challenged you–”

“No, I’m glad you did.”

She frowned.

“You are?”

I nodded, and stared up at the roof of my tent.

“I’m a proud fool. I needed to be humbled.”

She looked down. I turned to face her, and place my thumb and forefinger beneath her chin.

“Pride’s kept me from doing a great many things. And it’s held me back from admitting a great many more.”

“Oh really?” she asked slyly, leaning forward. “Like what?”

“You know.” I said, bringing her lips to mine.

She didn’t leave my side that night, or any night after that.

“I’ve got it!” I said, after an evening of particularly passionate lovemaking.

“Got what?” she asked, draping an arm across my chest, and burying her face in the crook of my neck.

“I finally found out what you are.”

“What I am?” she laughed, arching her eyebrows.

I nodded.

“The first day we met, I couldn’t decide what you were more like; a tiger or a crane. You were ferocious like a tiger, but graceful like a crane.”

“Oh. So which am I?”

I smiled, and cupped her face with both hands.

“A flower.”

“A flower?”

“Yes. But not just any flower; a flower that only grows in earth that has been soaked with blood and tears; a flower that never wilts, even in the dead of winter. A flower of war.”

She smiled, and gently kissed my lips.

“I like that,” she said. “I think you’re right.”

A week later, she broached the topic of leaving.

“We can’t stay here.” she said. “At least, you can’t stay here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your men are planning on killing you.”

“I… That’s…”

“The truth, and you know it.”

I looked down, and nodded.


A long silence followed, in which the weight of truth bore down on us like a blanket. I was the first to break it.

“I want to leave,” I groaned. “But, my father–”

“Is dead.”

I rounded on her.

“What did you say?”

“It’s true,” she nodded. “As I was making my way to the battlefield, I learned from some passing Tang troops that the King of Xia had already been killed. All they were doing now was routing out rogue regiments that hadn’t yet been captured.”

I stared at her, uncertain as to whether or not I should believe her words. It seemed plausible. We hadn’t heard anything from father in weeks. It was possible he’d been overthrown. But was it true?

“How do you know they weren’t lying?”

She looked away.

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“Mulan!” I shouted, tears rolling down my cheeks. She sighed, and looked me in the eye.

“They had his head on a pike.”

Her words pierced me like a dagger. I looked away, and covered my face with both hands. She reached out to comfort me, but I shrugged her off. I stayed like that, weeping, for what felt like an eternity. I wept and I wept, until it honestly felt as though all the liquid in my body would pour out. Finally, I could weep no more, and so I stopped, and looked her right in the eye.

“Let’s do it.”

Her face broke into a massive grin.

“You mean it?”

I nodded.

“Yes. Let’s do it tonight.”

We packed as quickly, and quietly, as possible, taking only what was necessary to survive. Finally, we had what we needed, and we snuck out the tent under cover of darkness.

She at first moved towards the stables to steal some of the men’s horses, but I held her back.

“No,” I whispered. “I’ve got a better idea.”

That, “better idea” was the pair of stallions Colonel Yi kept by his tent. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing as we untied them and led them to the outskirts of camp. By the time we mounted them, and began our long ride off towards the horizon, I felt great warmth seeping through my veins. I had lost my father. I had lost my home. And yet, in that moment, I felt strangely optimistic. I was free; free to do whatever I wanted, and go wherever I pleased. And more important than that, I had the woman I loved–my flower of war–by my side. Our lives would not be easy. Our lives would not be safe. But together, through our trials and our turmoil, we would make the brightest blossoms bloom.

Copyright 2018. Nathan Liu

House Of Flying Daggers (2004)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

The Tang Dynasty is in shambles. The government is both corrupt and weak, and, every day, it loses more ground to the House of Flying Daggers, a popular rebel group. So, in a desperate ploy to bring the insurgents down, the Tang give two detectives, Leo and Jin, ten days to find and kill the head of the cell. Believing that Mei, a blind dancer at a local brothel, might have connections to the rebels, they arrest and interrogate her. But when Leo decides that they might be able to use Mei to lead them to the group, Jin springs her out of jail, pretending to be sympathetic to the insurgent’s cause. As they travel north, towards the Daggers encampment, however, Jin finds himself growing closer to Mei. So much so that, when they finally find the Daggers, he might not want to bring them down after all.

House Of Flying Daggers is beautifully-shot, and superbly acted. And it’s the sort of film that only makes sense to the eye. What I mean by that is, many things happen in it that work as pure eye candy, or visual representations of character’s psyches–like a scene suddenly shifting from summer to winter. But when you actually stop and think about it, none of the movie makes sense. And I mean none of it. If you consider this movie’s plot or characters even slightly, the whole thing comes flying apart. This all stems from a veritable marathon of twists that get revealed within the last 20 minutes of this 2 hour movie. First, you find out that Mei isn’t actually blind. Next, you find out that the Madam of the brothel where she worked is actually the head of the Flying Daggers. Except, as you learn just a few minutes later, she’s not really. Then you learn that Leo, who’d been using Jin and Mei to track the Daggers, was actually a member of the Daggers the whole time, and in love with Mei. None of these twists are built up to in any manner, and when you stop and think about them, none of them make sense. First, why would Mei pretend to be blind? How does that help her? There are several points in this movie where characters trick her, or sneak up on her, because they know she can only hear them. Except, as it turns out, that’s not true. She can see them. So how would they be able to sneak up on her? Why would she let them sneak up on her? Next, why were she and the leader of the Flying Daggers in a brothel?  What was their goal in doing so? To seduce people? To gather intel? Was it even a brothel to begin with? How did they infiltrate it? Third, if Leo was a member of the Flying Daggers the whole time, why would he arrest Mei? Why would he use her to find the Daggers? Doesn’t he, as a member, already know where they are? These are just a few of the many, many, many questions you find yourself asking when you start to think about this movie and it’s twists. And that’s not good.  A film’s narrative logic should be air tight.

But, you know what? I can forgive logical errors. Those mistakes happen in filmmaking, and, oftentimes, you don’t spot them until you’re done shooting. What I can’t forgive is rape, and this film has no less than three attempted rape scenes in it. Mei’s character is molested by both her male love interests, on multiple occasions. No, they never fully rape her. But they do grope her without consent, and tear off her clothes. Thankfully, each time they do so, someone intervenes. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that this movie has the balls to show her getting molested, on multiple occasions, and then have her fall in love with the assholes who groped her. I find this crude, misogynistic sentiment to be utterly revolting, and I think it’s long past time we stopped using it in our art. No one asks to be raped. No one enjoys being raped. No victim of rape ever falls in love with their rapist. Why, filmmakers, can’t you accept that?

Guys, if it seems like I’m angry, it’s only because I expected so much more from this movie. You’ve got one of the most talented directors in the world, Zhang Yimou, behind the camera, and one of the most talented actresses of all time, Zhang Ziyi, in front of it. And to be fair, they both do their part. The cinematography, costumes and color palate are all exquisite, as you expect from a Zhang Yimou picture. And Zhang Ziyi gives a believable, heartbreaking performance as Mei, also as you’d expect. But the script just isn’t up to the same level that they are. It relies too much on twists that are never built up to, and it’s sexual politics are beyond disgusting. For that reason, I can’t recommend you all see this. Maybe watch some of the fight scenes on YouTube, but definitely don’t buy or rent the whole movie.

Underrated Directors Who Should Totally Helm A Blockbuster

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Directors; to many casual film goers, they are the driving force behind all aspects of a movie. And while those of us who actually work in film, writing scripts, editing footage, mixing sound and so on, know that this isn’t true, it is true that directors can have a huge influence on a picture’s look, tone, and style. And that look and style can attract audiences, and make the pictures better as a whole. Now there are certain directors whose look and style have become well known to the public–the Spielbergs, the Burtons, the Tarantinos–but there are others whose talent is clear when you watch their films but, for whatever reason, they and their work have remained out of the spotlight. I’d like to remedy that today. Here is my list of awesome, underrated directors who should totally helm a blockbuster. Why a blockbuster? Because that’s what most people see, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s the only way most of us will ever hear about these artists.

1. Bong Joon-Ho.

  • What They’ve Done: The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Star Wars Movie.

Perhaps the best-known filmmaker on this list, Bong Joon-Ho is one of my all-time favorite directors, and a household name back in his native Korea. And yet, despite all his critical and commercial success in Asia, he remains relatively unknown in the West. Film nerds have probably watched a few of his flicks, but the vast majority of audiences aren’t familiar with his sumptuous visuals, dark humor, sudden shifts in tone, and biting social commentary, all of which make him ideal to helm a Star Wars movie. Just watch The Host, see how he shoots action, writes villainous characters, and uses creature effects, and tell me you couldn’t see him directing an episode in a galaxy far, far away.

2. Jaume Collet-Serra.

  • What They’ve Done: Non-Stop, The Shallows, Orphan.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A MIssion Impossible Movie.

Best known for his many collaborations with Liam Neeson, Spanish director Jaume Collet Serra has a habit of taking silly genre scripts, and turning them into much better films than they have any right to be. Seriously. If you take a hard look at the plots of any of his features–Unknown, Non-Stop, Orphan–they don’t really hold up. But the films themselves are so well-acted, so beautifully shot, and so viscerally entertaining that you don’t really care. Which makes him an ideal match for the Mission Impossible franchise, which, let’s be honest, isn’t  really famous for having the most believable story lines, but whose insane action set pieces more than make up for that. And let’s not forget, several of Collet-Serra’s flicks, like Unknown, have espionage elements to them. So it’s not altogether out of his wheelhouse.

3. Wes Ball.

  • What They’ve Done: The Maze Runner Trilogy.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Fast & Furious Movie.

Say what you like about the Maze Runner films–I, personally, am not a huge fan–they have amazing action sequences. Even these movies’ harshest critics agree that the chases, the fight scenes, and the stunt work are incredible, and that the director, Wes Ball, has a good eye for action. So what better franchise to put him in than the Fast & Furious, which we all can agree is extremely light on story, but very heavy on amazing set pieces? I have no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Ball could concoct some truly bonkers action scenes, and give this series’ fans the high octane thrills they crave.

4. Mike Flanagan.

  • What They’ve Done: Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Batman Movie.

One of this generations true horror masters, Mike Flanagan’s films work, not just because they’re beautifully shot, and possess ghosts and serial killers, but because of their fascinating explorations of their characters’ pasts and psyches. Gerald’s Game and Oculus are all about people revisiting childhood trauma, and trying to work through it. And if there’s one blockbuster franchise that relishes horror, and childhood trauma, it’s Batman. He’s a tormented character, who just can’t let his past go, and several of his rogues, the Joker, Scarecrow, Two Face, are horrifying manifestations of various mental illnesses. So who better to helm a Batman film than a horror master with an interest in dissecting the minds of damaged people? Well, okay, I’m sure there are loads of filmmakers who’d be totally great for Batman, but Mike Flanagan is at the top of my list.

5. Takashi Miike.

  • What They’ve Done: 13 Assassins, Audition, Ichi The Killer.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Predator Movie.

A prolific and controversial director, whose work I’ve written about before, Takashi Miike is perfectly suited for the Predator franchise. Why? Because just like John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, which began as action, and ended as horror, many of Miike’s films blend genres and tones. Several of his features, like Yakuza Apocalypse and Ichi The Killer, synthesize elements of thrillers and horror. Many more, like Fudoh: The New Generation, Blade Of The Immortal, and Terra Formers, include insane, stylized characters with insane, stylized weapons i.e. the exact kind of fighters that the Predators would want to hunt. And, as if this needs mentioning, Miike is superb at crafting creative, bloody fight sequences, which are precisely what this franchise thrives off of.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

While waiting for the holidays to end, young Mary follows a Black Cat into the woods, where she discovers some mysterious blue flowers. And being a child in a fantasy film, she, of course, touches them. As soon as she does so, she finds herself transported to a fantastic new world, full of magic, amazing technology, and bizarre creatures. And, much to her chagrin, she can now fly, turn invisible, and do all sorts of amazing things. But not all is as it seems to be, as Mary quickly discovers that she can only do magic while in possession of the flower, and, more importantly, that some in this new world may want it for nefarious reasons.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is pure visual joy. It’s beautifully-animated, superbly scored, and the sheer imagination with which its world is drawn cannot be compared. On the basis of its creativity and originality alone, I say, go out and see it. At the same time, however, I would be remiss if I told you that I liked this film. Did I hate it? No. But I certainly didn’t love it either. And a lot of it comes down to poor storytelling.

There are a great many things that get introduced in this flick that either never get brought up again, or just don’t get the attention they deserve. Things like Mary’s parents being away, or her friend, Peter’s, troubled home life, are some of the details that get introduced, only to never be brought up again, while a fantastical school for witches, and Mary’s family’s mysterious past, are just a few interesting aspects that are touched upon, but never fully explored. Which is a real shame. When you see the school that Mary visits, how truly imaginative it is, and realize that it’s not going to be a big part of the film, you find yourself going, “Aw. But I liked where that was headed.” There are also some technical details that bugged me in this picture, like how the English dub was kind of wooden, and how it never really matched with the characters’ mouths’ movements. But by far the biggest complaint I have about this film is the hero, and the villains. In a good film, you’ll have a character who is flawed, but likable, and, by the end of the story, after undergoing many hardships, he or she will emerge a better person. Mary doesn’t really undergo any kind of change. They set it up like she’s going to have this big arc, with her being very clumsy, and not being able to help anyone, despite her best efforts. But, by the end of the film, she’s pretty much exactly the same person as before. I’m not even joking when I tell you that her hair has a bigger arc in this movie than she does. And that’s not even getting into the villains. Good villains have clear goals, and, if written properly, understandable intentions. Mary and the Witch’s Flower has half of that, since you understand what the villains are trying to do, but you don’t really understand why. Which is super frustrating. If you have bad guys who are doing bad things, seemingly just for the heck of it, you can’t get invested in their conflict with the heroes, and just wind up zoning out. Which is never good, since the goal of all film is to entertain.

So, in the end, I don’t really know how to rate Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In terms of visuals, music, and pure originality, it can’t be compared. So, on that level, I say, watch it. At the same time, however, the underdeveloped villains, uninteresting hero, and plethora of abandoned plot threads make it hard to get into it on anything deeper than a visual level. Make of this what you will.

Hero (2002)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

In a period of Civil War, a ruthless king is poised to take over all of China. All that stands in his way are three assassins–Long Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. For 10 years, they have thwarted his efforts, and personally tormented him, to the point where he can neither sleep, nor remove his armor. Now, though, after more than a decade, a Nameless Warrior claims to have slain them all. To see if this is true, the King summons the swordsman to his palace, and ask to hear how he achieved such an impossible feat. As the Nameless Warrior talks, however, the King starts to suspect that he may not be who he says he is, and that he might have ulterior motives for being there.

Hero is colorful, melodramatic, beautifully-choreographed, and surprisingly philosophical. It is a film that I loved when it first came out, and that I can appreciate even more, now that I know about all the effort that goes into movie-making. From a purely technical perspective, it’s perfect. The shot composition, use of color in costumes and sets, editing, music and fight choreography are all flawless. It holds up after 15 years, and for good reason. Every single earthshaking,gravity defying moment was done by actual stuntmen, with practical effects. Yes, it’s all very heightened, but it all looks real. Because it is real. And that makes it so much better. The movie is also surprisingly thought-provoking. Most people go into martial arts films expecting pretty visuals, but not much else. Hero, however, takes a more grounded approach to its storytelling and characterization, and actually has some pretty interesting things to say. At its core is the question of what is more important, the greater good, or personal loyalty, and I, for one, think it handles that topic with both care and insight. All of this can be found in the relationship between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, played by my all-time favorite screen couple, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. They are lovers torn apart by that central question; what’s more important to me, loyalty or good? By the movie’s end, both are left (literally) heartbroken, because of their inability to compromise. Their downfall is both a joy and a torment to watch. And, as always, they’re chemistry is effortless.

Now, with all that said, I’m not above admitting that this film has problems. Some are simple matters of personal taste. Others are larger, and story-related. The biggest, for me, is the fact that you don’t know the characters too well. This is due, in large part, to the fact that we see the same story unfold multiple times, from different perspectives, like in Rashoman. In each version of events, the character’s personalities and goals are changed to fit the views of the teller. In one version, for instance, Broken Sword and Flying Snow are petty, jealous and violent. That’s because the narrator wants us to think they are. In another version, however, they are shown as loving, loyal, and willing to do anything to keep the other safe. That’s because the new narrator views them that way. As such, you don’t get to know the characters very well. Or, at least, not until the end. The dialogue is also very on the nose and melodramatic, with no one sounding like an actual human. Yes, that’s to be expected for a martial arts period piece, but still. The third flaw, and the one that matters most to me, personally,  is the way the film treats Zhang Ziyi’s character. She plays Broken Sword’s assistant, Moon. In one version of events, she is his lover.  Or, rather, in that version, Broken Sword is angry at Flying Snow, and so he more or less rapes Moon to make Snow jealous. Yes, the film implies that Moon has feelings for him, and I suppose that’s meant to make his assault of her slightly less awful. But he does still grab her without warning, throw her to the ground, rip her clothes off, have his way with her, and then kick her out. And the movie does show Moon crying after this, so I’m not sure how to feel. When I first saw this film back in 2004, I was only about 9 years old. I didn’t know what sex, let alone rape, was. And yet, even then, when I watched this scene, I got upset. Something about it felt wrong to me, and it still does, all these years later. It’s my least favorite aspect of an otherwise awesome movie, and if you do watch the film, maybe fast forward through that part.

But, all in all, Hero’s visual brilliance, strong performances, epic score and gripping narrative more than make up for its flaws. And they certainly make the picture, as a whole, worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

The Commuter (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Michael McCauley is a former cop, struggling to get by. He’s got a wife, a son about to start college, two mortgages, and a less than well-paying job as an insurance salesman. Everyday, he commutes to the city, getting to know the passengers and conductors who ride with him. One day, however, after being unceremoniously fired from his job, a mysterious woman called Joanna sits down across from him, and starts up a conversation. She claims to be a psychoanalyst, studying how different people react to different circumstances. She gives Michael the chance to prove what kind of a man he is by posing him a question. If he were told that there was $25,000 hidden on the train, and that, if he found a passenger who didn’t belong, a passenger who’d stolen something, he’d get that money, what would he do? Michael is skeptical, until he finds the aforementioned money in the bathroom, and realizes that he’s just gotten pulled into something much bigger, and more dangerous, than previously thought.

The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between Liam Neeson and Spanish director Juame Collet-Serra, who previously teamed up on Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night. Now, if you’ve seen any of those movies, or perhaps the directors other flicks, like The Shallows, you know what to expect here. You can expect good acting, good camerawork, and enough visceral thrills to keep you invested, despite a preposterous, and, in many cases, predictable, storyline. In other words, you can expect a good, but somewhat forgettable, time at the movies. And that’s what I had with The Commuter; a good time.

It’s thoroughly predictable, with me being able to guess who the mystery passenger and the main bad guy were about halfway through, and the dialogue is very on the nose. There’s a conversation between Liam Neeson and his former partner, played by Patrick Wilson, in a bar, where they literally just spell out each other’s backstories to the audience. And yet, the cast, which includes so many amazing character actors, like Jonathan Banks, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Neil,  is so good, the camerawork is so slick, and the pace is so quick that you wind up not caring. This is genre filmmaking at it’s best. The plot is by-the-numbers, and the characters are stock, but the actors playing them are all so talented, the action sequences are so gripping, and the overall production values are so good, that you can just sit back, and enjoy the ride. I certainly did. Will I remember this flick in a few weeks? Probably not. But, for a movie that’s just trying to tell a fun, fast-paced story, with good actors, it more than delivers. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.