Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

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

30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner, replicants have been successfully integrated into society. Or, at least, the newest breed has. Older models–those seen in the first Blade Runner–are regarded as obsolete, and therefore still subject to “retirement.” And now, the government deploys other replicants to hunt their kin down. K (Ryan Gosling) is one such synthetic Blade Runner. One day, while out performing a “retirement,” he discovers the body of Rachel, Harrison Ford’s love interest from the first movie. At first glance, it seems that this is nothing more than a call-back to the original film. But, as is always the way with such things, it’s not that simple. Her remains reveal that she was pregnant at the time of her death, and that the child may have even survived. Which is a big deal, seeing as Rachel was a replicant, and replicants aren’t supposed to be able to have children. K’s superiors are horrified to hear this, and instantly order him to find the replicant baby and kill it. K agrees, but, as he goes about his investigation, he uncovers some details that lead him to question his purpose, as well as his own identity. No surprises there.

When I first heard they were making a sequel to Blade Runner, I really didn’t know what to think. Anytime a sequel comes out more than 10 years after the release of a particular film, the chances that it will be terrible increase 20 fold. On top of that, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Blade Runner. Oh sure, it looks amazing, it’s themes and ideas are intriguing, and the influence that it’s had on the sci-fi genre cannot be overstated. At the same time, though, it’s extremely long, kind of boring, and there’s a scene in it where the protagonist more or less rapes his love interest. Anyone who’s actually seen the first Blade Runner will tell you that it has these flaws. So, going into Blade Runner: 2049, I had mixed feelings. And now, having seen it, I still have mixed feelings.

On the positive side, Blade Runner: 2049 is a superbly crafted audio-visual experience. If you want to see what film, as an art form, is capable of, you have to watch this movie. Everything about it, from the set design, to the cinematography, to the music, to the lighting and the CGI, is euphoric. Very few films can make a fictional world feel lived-in and real, and this one does that in spades. So, for that reason–for creating a world, and showing off the full potential of cinema–I say go out and see this movie. It is the kind of film that demands to be watched on a huge screen, with loud speakers.

On the other hand, Blade Runner: 2049 suffers from many of the same problems that plagued its predecessor, particularly with regards to pacing. There are an absurd number of long, silent sequences in this movie, where characters are just walking down hallways, staring at things, and reaching out and touching stuff. It really gets quite dull after a while. I’m not joking when I say that this movie could have been about 20 minutes shorter, and the story wouldn’t be effected in any way. On top of this, there are quite a few scenes that serve no purpose to the story other than as callbacks to the original film; like when Ryan Gosling talks to Edward James Olmos, or when Harrison Ford meets a clone of Sarah Young. Nothing important, plot-wise, happens in these scenes, and they are quickly forgotten, so they all come off as needless padding. Something else that kind of bugged me with this movie was something that also kind of bugged me with the original film. And that is the female characters. They all seem to exist for the pleasure of men. They’re either sex slaves, like the replicant prostitutes who seem to be on every corner, or scantily-clad enforcers, like Love, the main villain’s henchwoman. There are a ton of scenes where we see replicants–who, of course, are all beautiful young women–being born, or where the camera pans over to holographic billboards of naked ladies. Even Gosling’s boss, Robin Wright, who, for the most part, is a gruff, non-stereotypical figure, is put in a scene where the camera pans up her legs, and where she asks him if he’d like to sleep with her. It’s kind of disappointing, that, both in the future, and in 2017, we haven’t been able to get rid of the male gaze. For my part, I intend to go against this in my work. But I’m getting side-tracked.

Concerning Blade Runner: 2049, it is a superbly crafted audio-visual experience. If you want to see the best that film can offer in terms of sight and sound, go see this movie. It will not disappoint. But if you want a compelling story that moves quickly, and that doesn’t have stereotypical female characters, this might not be for you. Make of this what you will.

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Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

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

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King is the reigning champ of women’s tennis. But she’s not just interested in titles. No, sir. She also wants to change the way the tennis federation treats women. So when she learns that the female winners of a particular tournament will be paid 8 times less than their male counterparts, she decides, “Screw it! I’m making my own all-women’s tennis league.” And that’s exactly what she does. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a washed up former tennis champ, upset at how uppity King has gotten, challenges her to an exclusive, one-on-one match; a “battle of the sexes,” if you will. He even offers her a lot of money if she wins. King is reluctant at first, but, realizing that the league can only survive if it has the funds to do so, she agrees, and begins training for the big, end-all, be-all match. Will she win? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie, or read a history book, to find out.

Battle Of The Sexes is a well-acted, decently directed comedy, with a good message, and that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which, in a way, is kind of a problem. We’ve seen these kind of social issue movies before. Hell, they crop up every year around Oscar season. Some, like Blood Diamond, Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years A Slave, are great, and able to transcend their well-meaning, if predictable, formulas. Others, like Stonewall, Golden Gate, and J Edgar, are bad, precisely because of their refusal to take risks with their storytelling. Battle Of The Sexes isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but, for a movie that’s seeking to tackle the gross sexism that Billie Jean King had to come up against, and that sadly is still present to this day, it all seems kind of safe. Say what you like about GLOW’s dark humor, at least it went places it needed to go to. It wasn’t afraid to offend people when it came to making us understand that women did, and do, face a lot of terrible shit. Yes, sometimes it went over-the-top, but it at least made its point. In Battle Of The Sexes, the misogyny is oddly tame. Yes, it’s still terrible seeing men objectify women, pay them less, and talk down to them. But the language they use isn’t that provocative. And the film even goes out of its way to make the sexist guys, particularly Riggs, kind of likable. We see him playing with his kid, cracking jokes,and generally enjoying life. Yes, it’s better to employ an even-handed approach when it comes to portraying heroes and villains, but, in this case, I believe it would have been better if Riggs had been slightly less lovable. See, very often in fiction, sexism in male characters is shown as an annoying, but forgivable, quirk. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Big Bang Theory, Revenge Of The Nerds, and even Their Finest, a film I really admired. In each of these works, other people scoff and roll their eyes when the male characters say or do sexist things, but they never try to change their minds, or punish them for their behavior. In fact, we’re meant to sympathize with these men. Deep down, they’re not bad guys. They’re just misunderstood. And whatever misogynistic behavior they might display, it’s more than made up for by their positive qualities. This trend in media has seriously normalized misogyny in many people’s minds. And I’m quite convinced that it at least played a part in the election of Donald Trump. Even after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, people voted for him, and they did so because, to them, his sexism is just a harmless part of who he is. If Battle Of The Sexes really wanted to comment on sexism, it should have made Riggs as ugly and disgusting a character as possible. He shouldn’t have had any redeeming qualities, and the reason he shouldn’t have is to show audiences that men who act like this lose, and are pathetic, worthless human beings.

But if, somehow, you don’t care about making a strong enough statement against sexism–though, really, why would you go to see this movie if you didn’t–the film isn’t all that good. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s just not memorably great. THe dialogue is fine. The cinematography is fine, though they do tend to use way too many close ups. And the acting, as I said, is fine. No one really stands out as superb. Everyone is just serviceably good. So when you combine all this together–the serviceable production values, and rather safe tone–what you’re left with is a well-meaning, but honestly kind of forgettable biopic. Should you go see it? Well, that’s up to you. As for me, I have no desire to watch it again.

GLOW (Season 1, 2017)

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

It’s 1985, and Ruth Wilder is a struggling actress in Los Angeles. Desperate for money, she answers an ad for “unconventional women,” and finds herself at a gym with several other, equally-confused ladies. Two guys, B-movie director Sam Sylvia and pampered rich boy Sebastian Howard, then come out, and explain that they are looking to put together an all-female wrestling show, GLOW, or the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Ruth, like everyone else, is shocked to hear this, but decides she’s willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t “like your ass. Or your face, and dismisses her straight off the bat. Ruth, however, isn’t taking no for an answer, and after putting on an elaborate show, including an unscripted fight with a friend who’s husband she’s been sleeping with, lands the job. And, from that point on, the story just gets bigger and more ridiculous.

GLOW has a lot of things going for it. It’s got good acting, a premise with a lot of comedic potential, and some nice period decor. I also really like the fact that it features an almost entirely female cast, and that it passes the Bechdel Test. And yet, despite all this, I can’t really say if I like GLOW or not.

A lot of it comes down to personal taste. First off, I’m not a big fan of the 80s. The poofy hair styles, the huge shoulder pads, the annoying synthesizer music; it all gets on my nerves. I also don’t like how casually racist and homophobic movies and TV shows from that era are, and how, nowadays, when we fetishize the Reagan years, we neglect to mention the negative aspects of the time. If you read my review of Stranger Things, a show that I really loved, you saw that I didn’t like how it failed to touch on the darker facets of 80s culture. This show does a slightly better job at highlighting the racism and sexism of the time, but, still. The period in which this show is set kind of annoys me, so maybe I went in somewhat biased. On top of this, I didn’t grow up with wrestling, so the series doesn’t hold any nostalgic charm. Literally the only two things I know about professional wrestling are the scene from the original Spider-Man film, where Toby Maguire has to fight Macho Man Randy Savage,  and the VH1 reality show, Hogan Knows Best, which was on when I was a kid. So, yeah.

But by far the biggest thing I had a problem with was the writing; specifically, the humor. It’s very, very dark. If you are easily offended, then don’t watch this show. Because they go places I wasn’t expecting them to. Every taboo topic you can think of–racism, incest,dead babies–gets touched upon. There’s a whole episode devoted to making miscarriages funny, and the season finale includes a substantial father-daughter incest subplot. It’s really kind of creepy. Now, look, I don’t want to sound like I think gallows humor can never work. I think In Bruges is one of the most underrated films of all time, and it features tons of offensive jokes. But there, the tone was a whole lot darker. Here, the show is pretty light-hearted and upbeat. But then, out of nowhere, it’ll throw in these very macabre bits of humor that, one, aren’t funny, and, two, don’t feel as earned. Another aspect of the writing I didn’t think worked were the characters. Oh sure, the four main people–Ruth, her friend, the director, the trainer–are all pretty fleshed out and interesting. But everyone else kind of just fades into the background. Yes, that’s to be expected in an ensemble piece, but here, it’s very noticeable. Two characters in particular, an Indian-American wrestler played by Sunita Mani, and a Cambodian-American wrestler played by Scott Pilgrim vs The World‘s own Ellen Wong, get the shaft when it comes to background and personality. We know next to nothing about them–Sunita’s grandma likes wrestling, Ellen likes birthday parties–and they are treated the worst when it comes to stereotypes. The wrestling personas they are given are, and I swear I’m not making this up, Beirut the MadBomber, and Fortune Cookie. Yes, Fortune Cookie. And the racist jokes don’t stop there. At every single opportunity, the writers throw in a “Asians can’t speak English” jab, or an “Asians know Kung Fu” barb. And, yes, they have characters comment on how offensive these  stereotypes are, but most of the time, someone else in the scene will say “shut up” or “get over it.” This is actually a very old writing technique, referred to as “ironic lamp shading,” where a character in a work of fiction will point out how stupid, illogical, or offensive something is, but then go right ahead and do it anyway. It’s meant to keep us, the audience, from questioning the tropes we’re seeing, but I’m not taking the bait here. Just because you know something is offensive doesn’t excuse you from doing it. If anything, that makes it worse. It shows us that you lack moral fiber, since you know something is wrong, but chose to go ahead and do it anyway. If you want to comment on racism or sexism, have there be negative repercussions for all the bigotry. Or, and here’s a novel idea, don’t write racist jokes, or characters who are racial cliches. Just a thought.

Guys, I really don’t know what to say. There’s enough good in GLOW to keep you invested, I finished all 10 episodes, but the dark humor, offensive characterization, and inconsistent tone are also quite off-putting. I don’t know if I can recommend this to you all. But if anything in the review spoke to you, maybe go and give it a look. You might find something in it that I didn’t.

The Beguiled (2017)

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

While out picking mushrooms, Amy, a student at an all girl’s school in Virginia, comes across a wounded Union soldier. Deciding she can’t just let him die, she brings him home, where the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, and all the other students, take an instant shine to him. They bring him inside, clean his wounds, cook him food, and, as soon as they think no one else is looking, begin flirting with him. The Northerner, for his part, laps up their affection, flirting with each of them, and even requesting a permanent place in their midst. Things take a turn for the dark, however, when one of the women he’s been courting breaks his already damaged leg. This leads to Miss Farnsworth amputating the injured appendage, and to the Northerner, a previously kind and gentle man, becoming a violent drunk. Needless to say, tensions only rise from there.

The Beguiled is handsomely photographed, decently acted, and it boasts some absolutely stunning sets. And I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. It’s not that I can’t recognize how well-made it is. It’s just not my kind of movie. It’s extremely slow, the characters aren’t particularly well-defined, and I’m not quite sure what it’s underlying message is. A remake of a 1971 film, starring Clint Eastwood, the movie never comes out as overtly pro, or anti, feminist. On the one hand, it could be read as an indictment of men, and how their lust, violence and selfishness ruin everything. And on the other hand, the film is also about a group of jealous, deceitful, and even murderous, women, who do nothing but talk about men, and fight over a man. So, yeah.

Granted, all this ambiguity was likely a deliberate choice. In the original film, the women are clearly the villains, and Clint Eastwood is clearly the one we’re meant to sympathize with. My guess is that Sofia Coppola, the director of this remake, wanted to tone down some of the older movie’s more misogynistic content. At the same time, however, there were certain aspects of the original–specifically, a disturbing bit of backstory concerning Miss Farnsworth’s love life–that were cut, and that I think would have added a little more depth, had they been included. As I mentioned earlier, none of the characters in this film really stand out. I couldn’t tell you what their personalities were if you asked. Had Coppola included some backstory from the original, I would have gotten a better sense for these women’s characters, and their motivations would have been a little more clear. As it stands, however, The Beguiled is a pretty, competently-crafted, but ultimately hollow and forgettable remake. I don’t see myself re-visiting it anytime soon. But if you’re a fan of Sofia Coppola, or the original, maybe you’ll get a kick out of it.

Atypical (Season 1, 2017)

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

Sam is 18, and he’s never had a girlfriend. This is due, in part, to the fact that he’s on the Autism spectrum, and has trouble reading social cues. Now, though, with only one year of High School left, and a newfound attraction to his therapist, Julia, he’s determined to get a “practice girlfriend,” so he can learn how to please a woman. This quest brings him into conflict with his mother, Elsa, whose whole life has been consumed by taking care of him, and whose confusion over not being able to micromanage his existence leads her to make some bold new choices of her own.

Atypical is funny, well-acted, and very well-written. Seriously. The dialogue alone should be enough to get you to watch this series. It’s sharp, witty, believable and specific to each individual character. And the characters themselves feel like real people. They have quirks, interests, show a wide range of emotions, and at times are lovable, and at other times, loathsome. From a pure story and dialogue perspective, I have no complaints about Atypical. It’s a well-written, well-acted sitcom, with only eight, half-hour episodes, so there’s no need to worry about it dragging. And if you’re like me, and want to see greater representation of Asian people in media, you’ll be happy to learn that several key supporting characters, such as Sam’s therapist, and unrequited love interest, Julia, and his best friend, Zahid, are Asian, and not at all stereotypical. They’re well-rounded, have personalities, arcs, and even some flaws. They’re some of the best aspects of the show, and its’ refreshing to see Asian characters like this in a mainstream series.

All that said, I do have some thoughts on Atypical. They’re not complaints, per se, just thoughts. First of all, I’m not sure how accurate the series is in it’s representation of Autism. As I’ve mentioned before, many films and TV shows exaggerate certain disabilities so as to make disabled characters more pitiful or sympathetic. As such, I’m always somewhat wary whenever a film or TV series comes out where the whole concept is that a character is mentally or physically challenged. And I’m sure that, to some people, Sam will come off as a stereotypical representation of Autism. Yes, he’s a likable, compelling character. And when you watch the show, you can tell that the writers did do research on the symptoms of Autism. But his condition is still somewhat exaggerated, and should not be seen as a be-all-end-all portrayal of the spectrum. In the show, Sam is extremely sensitive to bright light, and loud noises, and is virtually incapable of speaking about any topic other than Antarctica; his obsession. I’ll tell you right now, not all Autistic people are like that. My best friend has Aspergers, a high-functioning form of Autism, and he isn’t sensitive to light, or loud noises,  and he can talk for hours about virtually everything. Autism, as I’ve mentioned before, is a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity specific to each individual person. There probably are people like Sam out there. And they might be very happy to see themselves represented on the small screen. But for people who don’t have as severe a condition as he does, or who want to know what Autism is really like, this might not be the perfect portrayal to watch.

The second thought I have on Atypical is really more of a nitpick, but one that I think is worth bringing up. And that is the character of Paige. She joins the show about two episodes in, and ends up becoming Sam’s “practice girlfriend.” She’s sweet, understanding, sympathetic, and I don’t buy her character for a second. I don’t buy that, A, she would ever be attracted to Sam, and, B, that she would be able to put up with him when they start going out. For starters, she’s way too attractive. She’s the classic Hollywood beauty; tall, blonde, and thin. She legitimately looks like a model, and yet she’s chasing after a guy who looks like the love child of Michael Cera and Dobby the House Elf. And if that’s not ridiculous enough, her character is supposedly the smartest girl in school. Between her brains and her looks, she could have literally anyone she wanted. So why is she so determine to get with this kid who, initially, doesn’t even recognize that she likes him, and then, later on, acts like a total dick to her? And not in a “he doesn’t know any better” way, but in a legitimately mean-spirited, jerky kind of way. I would have believed her character more if she were also disabled, less attractive, or just less perfect in general. As it stands, though, she’s too nice and too pretty, and she just doesn’t feel like a real person. Maybe I’m being unfair here, and I do want to mention that the actress playing Paige does a great job, but I would like it if, for once, Hollywood cast, and forgive the pun here, atypical leading ladies. Older Women. Large Women. Disabled Women. Women Of Color. They’re all just as interesting, and capable of love, as blonde super models, and they exist in higher numbers than the latter group. I would like it if, in the future, female characters would be allowed to exist in all the shapes, sizes and colors that their real-life counterparts do.

But, in the end, those are both small nitpicks, and not any real harm to the show. Atypical is funny, well-acted, well-written, and the perfect length for a sitcom. If you’re looking for something fun and charming to watch, give this Netflix original a look. You will not regret it.

Their Finest (2017)

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

It’s 1940, and Britain is in serious need of a morale boost. Food is scarce, cities are being blitzed, and the British Army has just been driven off the continent at Dunkirk. Life, to put it bluntly, is shit. So, to give their country the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, the government begins churning out propaganda films, and because all the young men are off fighting, they hire women to write the scripts. Enter Catrin Cole, a novice screenwriter whose been given the task of adapting a “true” story to the big screen. She’s new to the business, and as she goes about bringing this story to life, she encounters all the typical roadblocks a screenwriter does; truth not lending itself to a traditional dramatic structure; producers demanding last minute changes to the script; cast members being difficult on set, etc. And yet, as hard as her job is, as difficult as her colleagues can be, Catrin finds herself falling in love with the business, and discovers a freedom in her work that she never experienced beforehand. Will it last? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Their Finest is a sweet, utterly charming movie. It’s funny, moving, beautifully-shot, and exceptionally well-acted. It is the total inverse of Dunkirk in every way. Dunkirk is a spectacle. Their Finest is a story. Dunkirk is about the war. Their Finest is about the home front. Dunkirk has no characters. Their Finest has several, very well-realized ones. But beyond simply providing a pleasant, alternate perspective on this period in British history, Their Finest is also just an all-around engaging film. You like these characters. You enjoy watching this picture get made. And because this is a movie about movie-making, the screenwriters are able to throw in some clever commentary on the tropes of the romance genre. Also, unlike many other films set during this era, Their Finest holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the devastating sexism that these women faced everyday. Yes, It’s difficult to watch, but it also makes you appreciate these ladies’ strength even more. And that’s always a good thing in my book.

That said, as charming as Their Finest is, it is still, ultimately, a romantic comedy, and comes with all the tropes and baggage that that entails. True, most of the cliches are addressed in the film within a film, and the screenwriters do come up with a clever way of not giving you the ending you expect. Still, there are several plot points in this movie that feel very familiar, like the main character starting off in an unhappy relationship, her meeting a new man, her significant other cheating on her, which makes it okay for her to be with the new guy, etc. But, like I said before, the film is well-written enough to recognize those cliches as cliches, and it does come up with interesting ways of subverting them. So it doesn’t bother me too much.

Guys, all I can say is this; Their Finest is a charming, well-written, well-acted little romance film, which does feature some cliches, but is also entertaining, and clever enough, to overcome them. I love it, and I think you’d love it too if you watched it. Please give it a look.

Empire Of Passion: Deconstructed

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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.