Audition (1999)

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What Is A Western?

The Western: once it was king of American cinema. Now it has receded to the back of the popular conscience, only to be brought to the forefront by the occasional remake or parody. But as much as we might ridicule the Western, most of us have very little knowledge of what it actually is. Images of stets an hats, railroads, and the American southwest in the second half of the 19th century might come to mind when you hear the name, but, the truth is, none of those are pre-requisites for a Western. Many films that are widely accepted as Westerns, such as No Country For Old Men, Hell Or high Water, and Logan, take place in modern times. Many famous Western films, such as A Fistful Of Dollars and The Proposition, were shot in other countries, by non-American directors. Hell, some of the most famous Westerns of all time, like The Magnificent Seven, are either influenced by, or directly adapted from, samurai movies. So as much as we might think of the Western as an outdated, easy-to-define, all-American genre, it really isn’t. 

Which begs the question; what makes a Western a Western? If the setting and time period have nothing to do with it, what about a story makes it recognizable as a Western? To understand this, I looked at several Western films, from different time periods and countries, including Tombstone, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Valley, and The Proposition. And what I realized after watching them is that true Westerns are violent tales of people trying to make order out of harsh, lawless landscapes. The harshness and lawlessness of the settings are key. They help provide a visual reference for what the characters are fighting against, and demonstrate the story’s central themes. You couldn’t have a western take place in a suburb, or a big city. Those areas are too docile, too tame. Yes, cities might have crime and violence, but there it is organized. It is part of a larger entity. You could, however, have a Western take place in the 19th century Australian Outback (The Proposition), the modern-day border with Mexico (Sicario, No Country For Old Men), or even the Austrian Alps (The Dark Valley), since those environments are harsh and wild.

See, with Westerns, the land itself is a character. It is a thing that can’t be tamed, and that drives the conflict. The characters are almost always outsiders; be they homesteaders, or lone gunman entering new areas. As such, nearly all Westerns involve characters trying to tame their surroundings, or the people in them. Butch Casidy and The Wild Bunch are about changing societies trying to tame groups of free-spirited outlaws. The Magnificent Seven, Tombstone and Shane are about heroes fighting against powerful men who, in their quest to tame the landscape, have become tyrants. No Country For Old Men and The Proposition follow grizzled, disillusioned lawmen who are determined to bring order to their surroundings, but slowly realizing that they can’t. Even films which don’t directly address changing times, like The Dark Valley, True Grit, and The Searchers, involve characters whose lives have been thrown out of order, trying to return things to the way they were. A man’s niece, kidnapped by Natives. A girl’s father, shot in the back. These are people who have seen their lives thrown into chaos, and they mean to re-establish the order that was lost.

Notice how I keep saying order and chaos, and not good and evil. That’s because Westerns don’t often focus on fights between good and evil. Very often, the conflict is between people who are bad, and people who are worse. The protagonists in Westerns are always deeply flawed. They’re murderers, rapists, bigots; sometimes all of those at once. And even when they’re not those things, like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, William Munny in Unforgiven, or Wolverine in Logan, they’re still deeply unpleasant people. They drink. They swear. They lash out at others. They’re broken people, just trying to get by in their harsh, unfair environments.

The conflict between order and chaos is also a key part of the mythology of the Western. See, the Western was born out of the United State’s expansion across the North American continent, particularly the concept of Manifest Destiny,, or the idea that the US was not only destined to encompass the entire continent, but that doing so was righteous and justified. Whites had to settle the West, the philosophy asserted, because the land was wild, and lawless, and only good, God-fearing people could make it stable. Westerns grew out of this false notion, and that is very evident in early films, particularly those of Johns Ford and Wayne, where the “wild” and “savage” Natives are shown as the villains, and the day is only saved when hunky White men come in and kill them all. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s when we started getting “revisionist” Westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, which questioned the righteousness of big money and the military. And it wasn’t until even later, with films like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, that we started to make films that showed how horribly treated Native Americans and Women were in that context.

And yet, even after all that alteration, even after a thousand artists tried to put a more revisionist, progressive spin on the genre, Westerns continued to tell violent stories of people trying to make order out of chaos. Dances With Wolves is all about a young man going to see the Frontier, “before it’s gone,” because he knows American society is relentless in its desire to “civilize” the West. Unforgiven is, essentially, about two men’s vastly different approaches to justice; one, Little Bill, thinks that justice can only be maintained through order and the prohibiting of fire arms, the other, William Munny, thinks that justice can only be brought about through bloody revenge. One is order, and one is chaos. Both are trying to make sense of a lawless land, just in drastically different ways. What does this prove? That Westerns can be defined, and that they are defined by their devotion to bloody tales of making order out of disorderly places.

Is The Rose Storyline In The Last Jedi Really Pointless?

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

So I’ve been surfing the web recently, and I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for Star Wars: The Last Jedi which criticize my new favorite character, Rose, and her storyline. They all pretty much have the same thing to say, “her storyline is pointless. It adds up to nothing.”

Now, my instant, gut reaction is, “well fuck you. I liked her, and you all should be more supportive of an Asian American actress finally making it big in hollywood.” But then I took a step back, and started thinking. Was her storyline really pointless? After all, her plan to find a hacker fails, the hacker she does find betrays her, and she stops Finn from sacrificing himself to save the Resistance. In a sense, neither she nor Finn did anything that was relevant, plot wise. So, yes, the Rose storyline was, in that respect, pointless.

But the question I want to ask the world is, is that a bad thing? Is it bad for movies to have scenes and characters that don’t effect the overall plot? I would argue “no.”

The best films have characters and worlds that feel lived-in, and real, and one of the best ways to do that is to show characters just interacting with each other and their environments. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have made careers off of writing scenes that don’t really have an impact on the plot, and yet, are interesting, and flesh out the characters. Basically every conversation Jules and Vincent have in Pulp Fiction is like this. Their opening talk about hash bars never gets brought up again. Neither does their conversation in the diner about pork. The taxi driver Bruce Willis talks to doesn’t come back to play at all. And the discussion of pot bellies and blueberry pancakes serves no purpose whatsoever. If the film was to cut all of these “pointless” scenes, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, and the characters wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

Another great example of a “pointless” scene that actually makes the movie better is the gas station stand off in No Country For Old Men. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Javier Bardem plays a psychotic killer who decides whether or not to murder people by flipping a coin and giving them the chance to call it. If they get it right, he lets them go. If they don’t, he kills them. In one scene, he goes into a gas station, and the gas station owner tries to make small talk. Javier Bardem doesn’t like that, and so flips the coin. The gas station attendant gets it right, and Bardem leaves. Now, this is the one scene that everyone who’s watched the movie talks about and remembers. They say it has the best dialogue, and the best acting. But here’s the thing; it’s pointless. The gas station attendant never comes back into the picture. And, in the end, the scene was just a whole lot of build up to nothing. Bardem doesn’t kill him. He just leaves. In terms of plot progression, this whole stand off is dead weight. And yet, if you were to take away this “pointless” scene, you’d have lost one of the best moments in cinema.

So, yes, maybe Rose’s storyline in The Last Jedi is “pointless” in that it doesn’t effect the overall plot, but that doesn’t make it bad. It introduces us to a fun new character, who provides a different perspective on the conflict. It’s got some good humor with her and Finn. There’s a fun sequence where the two of them ride horse/kangaroo monsters through a Casino, tearing it to pieces. And, as I said before, it provides us with a non-stereotypical Asian character in a major blockbuster franchise. That’s huge. See, Cliff Chang, the artist on the comic series Paper Girls, told me something heartbreaking once. He said, “growing up, I never saw myself in the artwork that I loved. And, over time, I just grew to accept that.” But that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Rose is proof that you can have Asian characters in big budget, blockbuster franchises, who don’t speak broken English, or know martial arts, and the world won’t fall apart. Millions of young Asian-Americans will see her and think, “that could be me one day” and not “I could never be in those movies,” which, sadly, is what many people of my parent’s generation, including my father, were taught. And the fact that they won’t think it can’t happen for them, the fact that they will be inspired, is wonderful. So, yeah, Rose’s storyline is pointless. But the movie, and the world, wouldn’t be better without it.

Empire Of Passion: Deconstructed

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

Returning to his hometown from a brief stint in the army, young Toyoji begins courting the much older, and married, Seki. Their romance is fairly innocent at first,  with  Toyoji doing nice things for her, like bringing over flowers and sweets. However, things quickly take a turn for the dark when Toyoji forces himself on Seki while she is caring for her infant son. Then, after extorting several, increasingly degrading sexual acts from her, Toyoji, who is extremely jealous, says that they must kill Seki’s husband. “I can’t stand the thought of you being with any other man,” he says. Seki reluctantly agrees, and, one night, after getting her husband good and drunk, she and Toyoji strangle him to death. They then dump his body down a well, and tell everyone in their village that her husband went off to Tokyo. But when the man’s ghost begins haunting the streets of their community, rumors begin circulating, and the authorities are brought in to investigate.

Empire Of Passion is a film I reviewed a while back. When I first saw it, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I admired the film’s look, with the use of light and smoke really creating a tense, otherworldly atmosphere. But just about everything else, from the over-the-top acting, to the idiotic character choices, to the repetitive scenes and questionable sexual politics, didn’t work for me. For that reason, I gave the movie a bad review, and put it out of my mind. Or I tried to, anyway. For even now, after all this time, I’ve been unable to forget it. Something about this picture has stuck with me. It’s clung to my consciousness like a stain to a shirt. For this reason, and the fact that I’ve now seen some more of the director, Nagisa Oshima’s, other works, I have decided to do an in-depth analysis of the film. Hopefully, in so doing, I will be able to make a better, more informed decision about whether or not the picture is any good. But to do that, I must answer a few questions; What kind of movie is this? What is its underlying message? And, most importantly, can it be read as pro or anti-feminist?

Starting with the obvious, what kind of film is this? What I mean when I say that is, what genre does this film fall into? Is it a horror film? Is it a drama? Is it an erotic romance? For as long as there has been fiction, writers, publishers and audiences have put different stories into different categories. Partly as a marketing tool, and partly as a way to help people understand the story and its themes better. Determining Empire Of Passion’s genre can, and will, clarify its messages and ideas. So, what genre is it? Well, on the surface, it would appear to be a horror movie. There’s a ghost. There’s eerie lighting. There’s creepy-sounding music. All this would seem to suggest that Empire of Passion is a horror movie. But that ignores one of, nay, the key, truths about horror films; that they are designed to frighten and panic. Empire Of Passion clearly is not made for that purpose. Nothing remotely scary, or supernatural, happens for the first hour or so. And when the ghost does show up, he doesn’t do anything remotely frightening. He sits by the fire, looking sad. He offers to give his wife a ride home. Never once does he try to attack her, or get her to confess her crime. He’s more annoying than terrifying. And just because a story has something supernatural in it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically horror. Hamlet, Macbeth, and 2017’s A Ghost Story, which I reviewed here recently, all have specters, but no one would even think of calling them horror. So, when you really think about it, Empire of Passion doesn’t actually qualify as a scary movie. But if it’s not horror, then what is it? Well, the genre that it actually shares the most similarities with is tragedy. Like a tragedy, the film tracks the downfall of two people, and, also like a tragedy, their destruction is brought on by a hamartia, or fatal flaw. For Macbeth, the flaw is greed. For Hamlet, it is indecisiveness. For Seki and Toyoji, it is their inability to leave one another. Both are given numerous chances to flee, and yet, every time, they choose to stay. Their lust for one another is simply too great. Their lives are destroyed by sexual desire. For this reason, it might be best to classify Empire of Passion as an Erotic Tragedy, with elements of Horror thrown in.

So, now that we know the film’s genre, we must ask ourselves two questions; one, what does this tell us about the film’s message? And two, what is the film’s message? All works of art, even those without overtly political agendas, have messages. That’s because just about every work made by man attempts to teach us things. Even if the lessons are as basic as “don’t lie,” or “be grateful for what you have,” they are still, in a way, political. They are upholding a particular world view, and politics, at its core, is the discourse between differing world views. The genre of tragedy is especially effective at conveying messages, since the characters’ flaws–their greed, their dishonesty, their bigotry, etc–oftentimes articulate the author’s political opinions. Don’t kill kings. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Otherwise bad stuff will happen. That’s usually how it works. Occasionally, though, it’s not the characters flaws that illustrate the storyteller’s views. It’s what happens to them. In some tragedies, like The Crucible, the protagonists are, ultimately, moral people, and their flaw is the fact that they remain moral in an immoral world. Knowing the director, Nagisa Oshima, it’s safe to assume he meant for Empire Of Passion to be the latter kind of tragedy. A staunch leftist, and former student radical, Oshima always used his work to critique Japanese culture. From the government’s discrimination against the Korean minority (Death By Hanging), to its wartime atrocities (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), to its strict censorship of sex and sexuality (In The Realm Of The Senses), Oshima always had something to say about Japan in his work. His stories tended to revolve around characters who were disillusioned with their surroundings, and so rebelled against them, only to be brought down, and to have the status quo restored. That’s the case in Empire Of Passion, where he seems to be suggesting that life is cyclical, and that, in the end, nothing we do really matters, since, in just a few short years, everything we did will be forgotten. Seki and Toyoji “rebel” against their small, isolated community by having an affair, and killing the former’s husband. But, by the end of the film, they are caught, and hanged, and life moves on. The movie doesn’t even end with their execution, which would have given their deaths some degree of weight and pathos. Instead, the story concludes with a shot of Toyoji’s mentally-challenged brother running through the town, as he was shown doing earlier in the film, and a voice over saying, in a rather blasé tone, that Seki and Toyoji were hanged, and that the community quickly forgot about them. The theme of life being cyclical is reinforced by a recurring visual motif; a spinning wheel. The film opens with a shot of a spinning wheel, and there are several points in the movie where we see other circular objects rotating. One of the few genuinely frightening moments in this picture occurs when Seki is sitting at home, and, out of nowhere, the wheels of her dead husband’s rickshaw start spinning. Even the story itself is cyclical, since we see the four seasons pass several times, and many of the same scenes–Seki and Toyoji having sex, Seki telling Toyoji to run–occur over and over again. All this reinforces the idea that the wheel of life keeps on spinning, regardless of what we do and who we are, which is the film’s central thesis.

So it’s a tragedy, whose main message is that life is cyclical. But is it pro or anti Feminist? That is the last, and trickiest, question, and is the most important in determining whether or not this film is worth remembering.

Determining whether or not Empire Of Passion is Feminist is a very difficult task, mostly because there is evidence to support either side of the equation. On the one hand, the film could be read as an argument against the liberation of women, and in favor of traditional, patriarchal values. In the movie, a lustful, deceitful woman cheats on her husband, kills him, and even neglects to take care of her infant child, all because she wants to have sex with a younger man. In this interpretation, Seki is a warning for other women to not leave the house, and to obey their husbands and fathers. Otherwise, bad stuff will happen to them, as it does to Seki. Not only does she wind up getting executed for her husband’s murder, she is also blinded, and repeatedly beaten and harassed by the police. Evidence for the anti-Feminist reading is most prevalent in the scene where Toyoji forces himself on Seki. It begins with her napping while cradling her infant son. Toyoji enters, gropes her while she’s unconscious, and then, when she wakes up, covers her mouth and drags her into the bedroom. We hear her say “no,” “don’t,” and “stop,” several times, and yet, when we cut to the inside of the bedroom, we see her on her back, enjoying the sensation of Toyoji going down on her. And we know that she enjoys it, because she hears the baby crying in the other room, and covers her ears to drown it out. This one scene encapsulates every backward, reactionary view that men have about women; that they enjoy being raped; that if they are given too much freedom, they’ll neglect their true responsibilities, like motherhood, etc. And yet, as disgustingly misogynistic as Empire Of Passion can be, there’s also more than enough evidence to read it as a feminist tragedy about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, finding the man of her dreams, and ultimately being punished by society for being happy. As mentioned earlier, Empire’s director, Nagisa Oshima, was a well-known leftist, renowned for despising both patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The sexual desires of women was something he was deeply interested in, actually going so far as to make a documentary on the subject for Japanese television. Knowing this, certain scenes that would otherwise feel like throwaways–Seki’s husband talking to their grown up daughter, Shin, some women from the village gossiping about Seki–take on greater significance. The former scene, especially, lends itself well to a feminist reading of the film. In it, Seki’s husband tells Shin that she shouldn’t bother with school, or with dreams. “Your mother had dreams once,” he says, “Eventually, she learned to leave them behind. And she’s much better now.” This brief exchange casts a whole new light on Seki and Toyoji’s relationship. Now, instead of being an innocent victim, her husband comes off as a smug patriarch, forcing his wife to adhere to his beliefs about what she should be. His death is infinitely less tragic, and Seki and Toyoji’s relationship is considerably less monstrous. And yet, even with this scene, even with the knowledge that the director was a liberal who despised patriarchal societies, I don’t think I can say this film is feminist in its portrayal of sex and relationships. The biggest reason is that rape scene I mentioned. If Oshima wanted to tell a story about a repressed woman’s sexual awakening, why did he have to show her getting assaulted? That fundamentally undercuts any feminist reading the story could have had, since rape is one-sided. It does not consider the needs of the victim, in this case, Seki. If the point of the story is to show Seki giving in to her urges, and finally being able to explore her sexuality, why not have her be the one to initiate things? As it is, Seki is an extremely passive player in this story. She gets assaulted by Toyoji. She gets blackmailed into killing her husband. Nowhere in the film do we see her exhibiting any kind of agency. On top of that, the picture never really shows her enjoying herself. Every time she and Toyoji have sex, it’s because Toyoji wants it, no matter how dangerous, or inconvenient, it might be for Seki. And there are several scenes where he asks her to do things in bed, like shave off her pubic hair, that she doesn’t want to. And we know she doesn’t want to because we see her crying and looking miserable. So when you really look at the film, at the shots and lines of dialogue, any potential Feminist angle it might have crumbles into dust. And that’s not even getting into the director’s views on sex. See, even though Oshima was a leftist, he had some startlingly questionable views on consent. Some of his most famous films–Cruel Story Of Youth, In The Realm Of The Senses, this–feature female characters falling in love with the men who rape them. And one of his most acclaimed movies, Death By Hanging, is based on a real life case wherein a Korean man, Ri Chin’U, admitted to raping and murdering two little girls. Oshima held Ri Chin’U in high regard, despite his crimes, describing him as the most “intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan.” Not only that, he believed that Ri’s writings, wherein he detailed exactly how and why he raped and killed these girls, should be taught in schools. Yes, schools. This, in my opinion, seriously weakens his credibility when it comes to telling stories about women’s sex lives. Because, clearly, he didn’t understand some very basic things. So, in the end, I don’t believe Empire of Passion is a Feminist Feature. Though it could have been, in someone else’s hands.

Having gone back and re-evaluated Empire Of Passion, I find myself in much the same position as before. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I can appreciate some of its messages, and craftsmanship, more. But, at the same time, it’s narrative flaws, and highly unpleasant treatment of female characters, have become all the more striking to me. For this reason, I don’t believe I can recommend this to you, even as an example of strong visual craftsmanship. Perhaps others will disagree. As for me, though, I’m quite happy to put this out of my mind, and never think of it again.

Tomorrow, When The War Began (2010)

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

After spending a weekend out in the bush, eight Australian teenagers return to their hometown, only to find it completely deserted. Their parents are gone. Their friends are gone. All their animals are either dead or missing. And no one can come up with a plausible explanation for why. Then, when they head further into town, they learn the horrifying truth; Australia has been invaded by some hostile foreign army, which has kidnapped their families, and is now holding them in concentration camps. Realizing that they must fight to free their nation, the teens take up arms, and begin waging a guerrilla campaign against the invaders. And that’s really all there is to it.

Tomorrow, When The War Began is perfectly watchable, popcorn entertainment. There’s some great action scenes, like when the kids sneak into town, and get spotted by the invaders, and the performances of the eight leads are all very good. They, by far, are the best part of this movie. Their chemistry is great, and they really commit to their roles, even though they’re given some absolutely atrocious dialogue. The whole opening sequence where we see them camping, as sappy and cliched as it is, does have a certain charm to it. We like these characters, and we want them to succeed. So, in that respect, the movie does work.

It’s just that, when it comes to everything else–dialogue, character development, consistency of tone–it really, really doesn’t. Tomorrow, When The War Began is actually based off a series of young adult novels from the 90s, and that is very apparent when you watch this movie. Even though the central conflict is between these kids and the invaders, much, much more screen time is devoted to relationship drama. And that would be fine, in another movie, but when people are literally trying to kill you, I think you should tone down the “how do I relate to my boyfriend?” talk. There’s actually a scene in this film where two of the main characters almost get shot, precisely because they’re spending too much time jabbering about their love interests. And as if that weren’t annoying enough, there’s a lot of pop music in this film. And I don’t just mean in the beginning, when the kids are hanging out. That I would understand. I mean, throughout the entire movie, even in dramatic scenes where characters are talking about death and betrayal, scenes that would normally be silent or have orchestral music in the background, the film blasts top 20 songs. It’s completely jarring, and really takes you out of the movie. But by far the worst aspect of the entire film is the characterization. The protagonists of this movie are one note archetypes; spoiled rich girl, religious fanatic, goof ball, stoner, token Asian guy with no personality, etc. And they never advance beyond that. Which is a real shame, considering that you have a very talented cast, and a very big budget to work with here. The film also relies heavily on racial stereotypes, with all the villains being nameless soldiers from an ambiguous Asian country, and the movie’s only Asian lead, Lee, being introduced in a scene where we see him playing piano in the background while his mother struggles to communicate with the main girl, Ellie. The latter scene is meant to be funny, but I honestly find it kind of cruel whenever someone mocks the fact that another person has an accent, or is misinterpreting certain words. To me, it’s like making fun of someone for having a disability. You have no control over whether or not you have an accent, or whether or not you struggle with a language. And neither of those things reflects your intelligence, o your ability to love or be a good friend. But, like I said, no one in this film is really given any depth, so there is some comfort in that.

Now, based on the description I’ve just given you, you’re probably wondering why I watched this movie. After all, it doesn’t really reflect my social or political views, and since it came out so long ago, and wasn’t that huge a success, there’s no reason for me to watch it. Well, the answer is kind of complicated. Tomorrow, When The War Began is a film I saw as part of a larger effort, from my end, to understand the appeal of nationalism and far-right thinking. Being a Liberal who spent most of his life outside the United States, I’ve never really felt any patriotic fervor, and I’ve never been able to understand how people can embrace the idea of a Border Wall, or banning certain religious groups from entering the country. But, seeing as my government is insistent upon adopting these principles, I decided to find out what, exactly, the appeal of this kind of thinking is. And what better way to do that than analyze art which espouses those ideals?

Well, having just seen Tomorrow, When The War Began, along with Red Dawn, Olympus Has Fallen, and other, similarly nationalistic films, I can kind of understand what the appeal of this type of thinking is. It strips away all the complexity of real life, all the nasty, mirky details that come from thousands of years worth of history, oppression, warfare, and economic necessity, and gives you a very simple “us versus them” story. And I’m not even joking when I say that. We never actually learn what country the kids are fighting, or why Australia has been invaded. That doesn’t matter. They’re just “the bad guys.” They’re “the other.” That’s all you need to know. And that simplicity caused a light to go off in my head. The appeal of fascism, or rightism, if you want to be “politically correct,” is its simplicity. You can draw a clear line through all of its chief tenants; government bad, military good, ethnic group above all else. And that simplicity is appealing. It’s easy to grasp. It’s easy to remember. People can get behind a simple idea. People can chant a simple idea. People can fight for a simple idea. Because, when you actually stop, and think about all the things that make up this world we live in, all the complicated facets of a government or a business, you realize that you can’t really do anything. Because before you can take one step forward, you have to take five other things into consideration. That’s the problem with Liberalism. It’s tenants are too complicated for large groups to chant. If someone were to ask me, right now, what Liberalism was, I wouldn’t know how to answer. Because there are so many different ideologies and subgroups that fall under that umbrella term–environmentalists, socialists, feminists, racial equality activists, disability rights activists, immigrant rights activists, criminal justice reformers–many of which are also divided, and even competing with one another, that it doesn’t have the means to unify into a solid front. Rightism also lends itself very well to dramatic art, which necessitates the existence of a clear protagonist and antagonist, an “us” and “them,” so, naturally, much more media with a right wing stance gets made. And because more media with a right wing stance gets made, precisely because its easier to make, more people get exposed to those viewpoints, and internalize them. Some of the most famous action movies of all time–Die Hard, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, True Lies–have extremely xenophobic and nationalistic narratives. And because so many people have watched them and like them, they start to accept the philosophies they espouse.

Now I realize that this has strayed very far from a discussion of Tomorrow, When The War Began, but, the truth is, this movie is symptomatic of a larger issue. It’s philosophy, it’s easy to grasp, us versus them thinking, is appealing to lots of people. My parents were shocked that Donald Trump could ever win the American Presidency, but they never stopped to ask what about him, and what he stood for, appealed to people. He made politics simple. He made it digestible and easy to get behind, much like how this film does. And while I can’t say I’d recommend this film to anyone, much as how I can’t say I’ll ever agree with right wing ideals, I do recommend that you learn from it. It gives you a crash course in what people like about the right, and, in this day and age, where the right is what’s in charge, that’s going to be an absolute must.

Original Versus Remake: OldBoy

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

Remakes–they’re everywhere nowadays. Sometimes they’re interesting improvements over the original films, like the Coen Brothers’ interpretation of True Grit. And sometimes they’re incredibly pointless and stupid, like Jan De Bont’s take on The Haunting. Either way, remakes have been around for as long as there’s been cinema, and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

But what causes a remake to succeed or fail? Why did Martin Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs win Best Picture, and William Friedkin’s re-imagining of 12 Angry Men go completely unnoticed? Why do most people regard John Carpenter’s The Thing as superior to the original, black-and-white movie, and Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes as inferior to the film that came before it? To find the answers to these, and several more questions, I’ve decided to introduce a new segment on my blog called Original Versus Remake, or OVR. In it, I’ll compare an older film to it’s remake, and try to unpack why one is regarded as superior to the other. And what better film to start this new segment off with than OldBoy, a movie that has not only been remade, but I’ve also already reviewed here on this blog? (Well, okay, there are probably several others that would be just as good, but this is my blog, and I want to begin with OldBoy.)

Anyway, in case you haven’t heard of it, OldBoy is a 2003 South Korean revenge film. The basic plot goes like this; a drunken businessman is kidnapped on his daughter’s fifth birthday, and imprisoned in a cell that resembles a hotel room for fifteen years. During this time, he learns that, out in the real world, his wife has been murdered, and the police believe he’s the one who killed her. Then, after more than a decade behind bars, he is released, and sets out on a quest to prove his innocence, and find the one who locked him up. His searching leads him to a former classmate, who explains that he locked the businessman away because, when they were in high school, the businessman saw him having incestuous sex with his sister, and told everyone about it. The sister killed herself because she couldn’t endure all the slut-shaming she was being put through, and this, in turn, caused her brother/lover to go crazy with revenge. The businessman apologizes for what he did, but says that the classmate should kill himself, as he’s had his revenge. The classmate then reveals what his true revenge was, getting the businessman to unwittingly commit incest with his daughter. See, while searching for the man who locked him up, the businessman met, and slept with, a young woman, who was actually his daughter. This revelation shocks and horrifies the businessman, who cuts out his own tongue as a sign of penance. The film ends ambiguously, with the businessman getting a hypnotist to alter his memories so he doesn’t know the truth, but the audience not being able to tell if the procedure actually worked.

OldBoy was a critical and commercial success when it came out back in 2003, grossing $15 million against a $3 million budget, and many American newspapers and critics hailing it as the greatest Korean movie ever made. So, naturally, with Hollywood being the soulless money machine that it is, an American remake was inevitable. And, wouldn’t you know it, in 2013, one such remake came out. Directed by Spike lee, and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, the American version was a failure in every respect, making a mere $4.9 million against a $30 million budget, and critics slamming it as a pale, shallow imitation of the original. But was it? Well, let’s compare the two films, and find out.

First off: the acting. Both the Korean and American casts do superb jobs. They convey the rage, sorrow, confusion and anguish that these characters are enduring beautifully. I honestly don’t think there’s a bad actor in either film. But, in the end, the acting in the Korean original does stand slightly above that in the American remake, and for one major reason; the portrayal of the main antagonist. In the Korean version, the villain is played by Yoo Ji-tae, who’s performance can best be described as suave, yet deadly. He always seems calm and in control, constantly talking with a smug little smile on his face. He really seems like he’s ten steps ahead of you, because, guess what? He is ten steps ahead of you. He never loses his cool, or flies into a stereotypical villainous rage, except for one time in an internet cafe, but, even then, it’s brief, and he quickly regains his composure. All in all, Yoo’s smugness and icy exterior make him a more formidable opponent, because he does seem like a guy who’s got his shit together, and won’t slip up and let you win. That’s the kind of guy who’s got enough control and foresight to plan something this elaborate and devious. That’s a worthy opponent. The villain in the American version, by contrast, is emotionally unstable, whiney, and kind of cartoonish. He’s portrayed by South African actor Sharlto Copley, who screams, cries, and twitches a lot. Also, he does a really bad British accent, which just gets annoying after a while. His version of the character does seem like the type of guy who’d lose his shit and give you the chance to win, because he kind of does that in the movie. He doesn’t seem like he’d have the foresight to plan something as elaborate and devious as what’s portrayed in the film. He doesn’t seem like a worthy opponent. And that’s the main reason why the acting in the original OldBoy is superior to the acting in the remake, the villain is played in a more subtle and nuanced manner.

But acting is just one part of a film? What about the directing? Well, both versions of OldBoy were helmed by established directors with distinct visions and artistic styles. 2003’s OldBoy was directed by Park Chan-Wook, a man famous for making ultra-violent, morbid revenge films, usually on small budgets. His movies have immaculately framed shots, dark color pallets, and elements of black comedy mixed in with all the bloodshed. 2013’s OldBoy, by contrast, was directed by Spike Lee, a man most famous for making movies about race relations, and issues within the Black community. His movies tend to have exaggerated color pallets, over-the-top acting and dialogue, lots of slanted shots, and perfectly centered extreme close ups. I was honestly quite shocked when I heard that he was going to be directing the new OldBoy, because, none of his movies, before or since, have been as dark or violent as Park’s film. The closest he’s come to anything like it is his movie Inside Man, which is a crime thriller. But, even then, the whole conceit of Inside Man is that everything is a ruse. No one actually gets hurt or killed. So how was he supposed to remake a movie with some of the most gruesome fight and torture scenes ever? But, hey, just because someone hasn’t done something before doesn’t mean they can’t be good at it. Martin Scorsese hadn’t made a kid’s film before Hugo, and it turned out to be great. So, who was I to say that Spike Lee wasn’t up to the task of making an ultra-violent revenge film with themes of incest and child abuse? Someone who was absolutely right in that assumption, because the way he directed his film doesn’t hold a candle to the way Park directed his movie. 2013’s OldBoy feels very much like a Hollywood movie, with complicated, moving shots, elaborate sets, and highly choreographed fight sequences. It also tones down, or flat out removes, lots of the original’s odder moments. If you’ve ever seen 2003’s OldBoy, you know that there’s some weird shit in it, like people eating live octopus, people fantasizing about riding the train with man-sized insects, and people getting down on all fours and acting like dogs. You don’t see any of that in Spike Lee’s film. And while I can understand the desire to get rid of the weirder elements that wouldn’t play well to an American audience, shooting the movie the way he did, and removing much of the darker, more bizarre content, kind of undermines the story. OldBoy is supposed to be really dark, really gritty, and really weird. Park was able to achieve a greater feeling of realism by having whole scenes be shot in one take, and using lots of hand-held camera, and his inclusion of those odd scenes really helped set OldBoy apart from other, generic revenge flicks. And while I don’t usually like hand-held camera, because I think it makes the movie hard to watch, it served a purpose here, and I believe that, by removing it, and using more elaborate, hollywood type shots, Spike Lee removed much of what made OldBoy unique to begin with. So, all in all, the directing in the original is also superior.

But what truly makes or breaks a movie is the story; how its told, how it ends, etc. You can have a great idea, but execute it in a horrible manner, just as you can have a horrible idea, but convey it with enough style and wit to make it great. Both versions of OldBoy have the same basic plot; asshole gets locked up, seeks revenge, unwittingly commits incest with daughter, etc. But these films tell that story in two drastically different manners. And the manner in which 2003’s OldBoy tells that story is unquestionably superior. For starters, it presents the protagonist in a more positive, and, by extension, relatable, light. He’s still an asshole, but not as much of an asshole as in the 2013 version. The only real scene in which he behaves like a jerk is at the beginning, where he drunkenly acts out in a police station. But, even then, the dialogue in this scene makes it perfectly clear that the reason he’s acting out is that he’s trying to get home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. So, already, we have a reason to care about him. Yes, he’s a drunken buffoon, but he’s a drunken buffoon who loves his daughter. This makes it easier for us to care about him when things go wrong, and give us a reason to want to see him prevail. In 2013’s OldBoy, by contrast, we aren’t given any reason to like, or care about the protagonist. The first fifteen minutes are just a series of scenes in which he acts like a dick to everyone. He insults his boss, hits on his client’s wife, refuses to go to his daughter’s birthday, and calls the mother of his child a “bitch.” By the time he gets locked up, we really hate him, and it’s kind of cathartic to watch him get his comeuppance. We don’t want to see him prevail, and are therefore uninterested in watching the rest of the plot unfold. Another poor storytelling choice that the American version made was to change the villain’s motivation. As I said before, the reason why the villain in the Korean version locked the protagonist up was the fact that, when they were younger, the protagonist saw him having incestuous sex with his sister, and told everyone about it. The sister then committed suicide, and the villain vowed revenge. This explanation makes sense, because the villain was in love with his sister, and was therefore heartbroken to lose her. We can understand this. We can understand someone being angry over losing a person they love. What we can’t understand is the explanation the villain gives us in the American version. There, rather than have the protagonist see the villain having sex with his sister, he sees her having sex with some random dude. The dude, as the villain explains, was their father, who was having sex with both of them, and who eventually decided to kill everyone in his family to avoid potential embarrassment. But this explanation doesn’t make sense. The protagonist didn’t know who the man was. Why, then, would anyone care if he told people about seeing some random girl having sex with some random guy? There’s nothing scandalous, or worth committing suicide over in that statement. It’s a lot less interesting to say “hey, I saw so and so having sex with a random dude,” than to say, “hey, so and so is banging his sister.” Plus, this explanation barely includes the villain, and fails to give him a valid reason for acting. He’s not the one the protagonist saw. He’s not the one in love with the girl who died. Why, then, does he hate the protagonist so much? This new explanation is so complicated, and so flimsy, that if you stop to think about it at all, it collapses in on itself. But by far the worst storytelling choice that the American remake made was to change the ending. In the Korean version, the protagonist gets a hypnotist to alter his memories. He embraces his daughter, who says that she loves him, though we’re not sure whether she means that as a father, or as a lover, and the protagonist smiles, only to have his expression change to one of sorrow, leading us to question whether or not the procedure worked. It’s powerful. It’s ambiguous. It’s the perfect way to end a twisted and warped story, where we’re constantly questioning what’s going on. What isn’t perfect is the ending in the American version. There, instead of consulting a hypnotist (because, lord knows, that’s way too silly for an American movie), the protagonist pays the same people who locked him up to do so again, so that he never has to tell his daughter the truth. The final shot is of him smiling contentedly. He’s not traumatized. He’s not insane. He’s genuinely happy. This ending has none of the ambiguity, or tragedy, of the Korean original, and is the final, and conclusive, piece of evidence proving that the story is told better in that film.

Thank you all for reading my first installment of OVR, or Original Versus Remake. I’ll have my reviews of recent releases, like Finding Dory, and The Neon Demon, up very soon.

I hope you all are having wonderful summers. If you like what you’ve read, please like this post, and follow my blog.

The Remake That I Will Not Call “Point Break”

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

Before I begin the review today, I’d like to take a minute and tell you all about my Dad. He’s a fun guy, in every sense of the word. Not only is he kind, easy-going, and funny, he’s also adventurous, and the sort of person who likes to try everything once. He kayaks, hikes, and surfs, and even though he might not be “great” at any of those things, he always has fun doing them, and is always looking to try more challenging, athletic stuff.

Keeping this in mind, it seems quite natural that his favorite movie of all time should be the 1991 cult action film, Point Break. The story of a group of surfers who rob banks in order to fund their extreme lifestyle, the film is as fun, goofy, and free-spirited as my father, and has as much love for extreme sports as he does. It was one of the first movies I ever saw with him, and to this day, it holds a special place in both our hearts. That’s why, when we heard that they were re-making the beloved classic, we went to go see it together. When we emerged from the theater, however, we were anything but happy.

This movie is AWFUL! All the fun, the humor, and the color of the original film is lost. Imagine if someone went to Disneyland, looked around and said, “You know what would make this place a whole lot better? If someone made all the rides ten times bigger, turn them grey, and had them be identical to one another.” That’s essentially what this remake did, and I’m not just saying that. In a promotional video for the new film, the director said that “this movie has all the stuff you loved about the old Point Break, only bigger.” Well, the stunts in the movie are certainly bigger, but that doesn’t make the story interesting. They just feel like salt to cover up bland food. And, to be honest, they are all so big, and so similar to one another, that they kind of get boring. There are at least 5 times in this film where characters launch themselves off a cliff, and even though you know you should be frightened for them, you just aren’t. They’ve done it 10 times before, and on 10 times bigger scales, so why should you get invested?

But, as I said before, the biggest thing that this remake did wrong was lose the sense of fun. The original Point Break was set in California, and had a warm color palette, featuring tons of red, orange, and yellow. The characters joked with one another. The humor was light-hearted. The filmmakers recognized that the premise they were working with was pretty darn silly, and so didn’t take it seriously. There’s a point in the original film where the main character, undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, is talking to the main antagonist, Bodi, about surfing. Bodi is spewing some quasi-philosophical crap about surfing bringing you into harmony with nature, and Utah jokes “You’re not going to start chanting, are you?” and Bodi winks and smiles and says, “Not yet.” Little moments like that let you know what kind of film you’re watching, a fun, dumb thrill ride that you shouldn’t take too seriously.

The new Point Break is the total antithesis of everything the original film stood for. First off, it’s set in Europe, instead of California. Secondly, it has a cool palette, as opposed to a warm one, with grey being the most prominent color in most scenes. And thirdly, and this is the worst part, it takes itself completely seriously. There isn’t a hint of irony anywhere when, at at least ten different points in this movie, the new Bodi sits down, and drones on in a monotone voice about how mankind is destroying nature, and how skydiving off of buildings somehow heals the Earth. The filmmakers don’t realize just how stupid they sound when they try to sell us on the idea that this surfer heist film somehow has something meaningful to say about life or religion. The original movie includes scenes where characters say things like, “Listen, you snot-nosed little shit, I was taking shrapnel in Khe Sanh, while you were crapping in your hands and wiping it on your face,” and “You’re a real blue-flame special, aren’t you, son? Young, dumb, and full of cum.” No film with that kind of dialogue can be taken seriously. How, filmmakers, do you not get that?

All I can say is that you shouldn’t go see this film. If you loved the original, you’re bound to be disappointed. If you’re just a fan of good filmmaking, don’t expect anything either, because this movie is poorly acted, poorly written, and contains many scenes that don’t make any sense. This abomination is an absolute 5 out of 10. If you want to see Point Break, watch the original. Do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT give the remake ANY money!