Set It Up (2018)

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

Charlie and Harper are too over-worked assistants. Harper works for a former Sports Reporter named Kirsten, and Charlie works for a guy named Rick, who does… something. Whatever the case, they meet one night while desperately trying to procure food for their bosses, and commiserate over the fact that neither of them has time for a social life. Deciding that the only way to improve their existences is to get their superiors laid, and, in so doing, off their backs, Charlie and Harper devise a scheme wherein they’ll manipulate Rick and Kirsten into falling for each other. Things don’t go  quite according to plan, however, as  the two realize that it takes more then serendipity to keep a couple together.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the Western has become something of a lost genre. With hindsight, I’d say the romantic-comedy has as well. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, rom-coms were everywhere, with films like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and Pretty Woman absolutely killing it at the box office. Directors like Richard Curtis, and actors like Hugh Grant, were able to build tremendous careers off the strength of this one genre alone. And rom-coms didn’t just make money. They were critically respected as well. In 1977, Annie Hall, a film that has since become a quintessential rom-com, won Best Picture at the Oscars. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that rom-coms were a big deal. But as time wore on, they started to lose their charm. People became acutely aware of the tropes, and more and more feminist critics started to question the genre’s portrayal, and treatment, of women. As such, rom-coms stopped becoming a reliable box-office draw. Oh, studios never stopped making them. There were plenty of rom-coms made in the new millennium, The Notebook, 500 Days Of Summer, that did well financially, but they were either critically-derided, as with the former, or were intended to be deconstructions of the genre, as with the latter. My point is, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a traditional, true-blue rom-com do well on the big screen. Perhaps that’s why Set It Up, which absolutely falls into that category, was released straight to Netflix, a place now regarded as a dumping ground for films no one wants. And that’s a damn shame, because this movie is really, really charming.

I watched Set It Up on a whim. I saw that Lucy Liu was in it, and I always want to support Asian-American actors, so I decided to give it a chance. And when I finished watching this movie, I had a huge smile on my face. This is a movie that doesn’t just work as a rom-com, it works as a genuinely-entertaining film. It’s well-acted, well-paced, well-shot, and, above all, funny. Really, really funny. There’s so many great moments of awkward humor in here, like when Harper hears that Rick only dates women who get waxed, and she awkwardly tries to convince Kirsten to “lose the bush,” that had me in stitches. The actors who play Charlie and Harper, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch, are so likable, and have absolutely amazing chemistry. And the film is actually a lot better written than I expected. One of my favorite films of last year was Their Finest, a period romance that acted as a meta-commentary on rom-coms. Now, as much as I enjoyed the flick, I was annoyed by how closely it adhered to certain romantic comedy tropes, such as the lead starting out in a relationship, meeting someone new, and then their initial love-interest cheating on them so its okay for them to be with the new person. Set It Up starts out in a similar manner, with the character of Charlie being in a relationship before he meets Harper, but the film isn’t so lazy as to have his first girlfriend cheat on him, or have Charlie sleep with Harper behind her back. He just realizes that him and the girl don’t have anything in common, and they split up, like actual people do. There’s also a minor character, Becca, who you think is going to be a bitchy best friend that Harper can feel envious of because she’s getting married, but the film doesn’t go that route. Becca actually winds up being super awesome and supportive, like real friends are. But by far my favorite thing about this movie is the scene where Charlie, in true rom-com fashion, rushes to the airport. Except a few things are different here. One, he’s not rushing to talk to his love interest, Harper. He’s there to see her boss, Kirsten. And two, the filmmakers manage to poke fun at the cliche by having him get there four hours before the plane is supposed to take off, and be really bored by all the waiting. My point is, Set It Up is an utterly charming film that I’m kind of sad didn’t get a wide release. Critics really like this movie, it currently has a 90% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and I genuinely think it could’ve done well, had the studio given it a chance. As things are, though, all I can say is that, if you have Netflix, and are in the mood for something sweet and charming, give this a look. It’s definitely worth your time.

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Audition (1999)

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

Aoyama is a middle-aged widower who has spent the past 7 years in mourning. One day, his son, Shigehiko, tells him that he looks old, and should start dating again. Distraught, Aoyama goes to his friend, Yoshikawa, for advice, and Yoshikawa, believing that the current dating scene is too complex for Aoyama to navigate, devises a scheme to get his pal laid. This involves Yoshikawa, who is a film producer, setting up a phony audition wherein young women will come in and try out for the “part” of Aoyama’s wife. They won’t know what’s going on, and Aoyama can pick whichever one meets all of his criteria. In so doing, Aoyama comes across Asami, a shy, but well-spoken former ballerina whose apparent emotional depth is fascinating to him. As he grows closer to her, however, he starts to uncover some disturbing facts about her past, and realizes that maybe she’s not who she says she is.

Audition is a very important movie to me. Not only is it my favorite horror film of all time, but it’s also the first screenplay I ever wrote. Seriously. When I was fifteen, I spent a summer penning an English language adaptation of the story, in the hopes of learning how to write screenplays. With hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best film to use as a learning tool, seeing as how it has an extremely unusual structure, but still. It was instrumental in my development as a filmmaker. And I’m not the only one. Despite being made for a minuscule budget, and not even having a wide theatrical release when it came out back in 1999, Audition has acquired a huge following over the years, and has influenced several mainstream horror directors, including James Wan, Eli Roth, and the Soskia Sisters. Quentin Tarantino even listed it as one of the 20 best films that came out since he started making movies. And when you watch it, you can understand why. This is a hauntingly beautiful film. The camerawork, the use of color and music, and the acting are superb. And like the best horror films, it’s not just focused on getting the audience to jump. As a matter of fact, part of what makes Audition so unique is how, for the first half; it’s not a horror movie at all. There are no jump scares. There’s no creepy music. Nothing about it leaves you feeling spooked or uneasy. The whole thing comes off as a quiet, slow, even somewhat cheesy romance. Which is why many people have pushed the theory that the latter half of the film, where things get considerably darker and more horrific, is actually an elaborate dream sequence; a manifestation of Aoyama’s guilt over having deceived Asami. This theory is supported by the fact that the midpoint of the film, the moment where it moves from romance to horror, involves Aoyama and Asami falling asleep in each other’s arms. Now it’s worth mentioning that the film’s director, Takashi Miike, has denied this theory, stating that everything that happens in the second half is real, but that doesn’t matter. Art, by virtue of being art, can be interpreted in multiple ways, besides the author’s original intention, and, even if what Miike says is true, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a truly haunting horror film. It sticks with you, long after you’ve finished watching it. It gets you to think, and question your own views, not just of gender, but reality itself. And for that, I’ve got to give it props.

Now, as important as Audition is to me, I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with it. A large part of this has to do with the fact that no one can agree on whether or not it can be described as feminist. On the one hand, people have argued that it shows a sexist man, Aoyama, getting punished for his sins by a woman. On the other hand, people have pointed out how the woman dishing out the punishment, Asami, is a creepy, psychotic murderer, and not at all someone for girls to look up to. It’s also worth mentioning that the novel this was based off of, which I have read, is unambiguously misogynistic, and is much more interested in exploring the gaps between generations than addressing systemic sexism. And, as I’ve said before on this blog, many of Takashi Miike’s other films have been criticized for their inclusion of rape, and other forms of violence against women. So when you take all that into consideration, it’s hard to see this as any kind of women power manifesto. And yet, I can’t unequivocally call it sexist, because there are a ton of good messages about gender, and the way we view relationships, in this film. As a matter of fact, I actually think this movie has gotten better, and considerably more relevant, over the years. Not only do it’s explorations of men in positions of power using that power to sexually exploit women feel extremely poignant in the era of #MeToo, but the whole conceit of this film, the audition, speaks to our modern culture of online dating. Aoyama uses the fake casting call to pick someone who meets all his criteria for what a perfect spouse is. But, the truth is, we do that whenever we go onto OkCUpid, or Tinder, or any other dating app, and insert our preferred age range, body type, or ethnicity into the search bar. All of us try to find the perfect partner, and use whatever means are available, to shrink the dating pool. And, very often, we are shallow, and are cruel, when we do that. And the worst part is, we aren’t necessarily trying to be. Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that sexism is bad. But that doesn’t change the fact that many men, and even some women, exhibit sexist behavior when viewing potential partners. The film captures this quite well. Aoyama, at his heart, is not a bad man. He’s a good father, and was always faithful to his wife. He’s just lonely, and has a very specific idea of what his ideal partner is. Is that idea unrealistic, and degrading to most women? Sure. And if you buy into the dream theory, which I, personally, do, then he knows this. All the horrific, and bizarre visions he has are manifestations of his guilt over having lied to a woman that wants nothing but to please him. And as creepy as Asami is in the latter half, none of what she does is her fault. She is a byproduct of a sexist, misogynistic society that has constantly belittled, abused, and told her that she needs to be better; she needs to be a man’s idea of perfection. Of course she snapped. Any sane person would. And yet, society continues to tell women to strive for perfection, and tells men that they are entitled to it, and, the truth is, it’s poisonous. And the film knows that. Everything about the first half, the slow pace, the cheesy romantic music, the fact that their whole relationship is built on lies, is there to show us how artificial, and unrealistic such expectations are. So when that second half hits, we fully understand how toxic, how truly harmful these expectations men have for women, are.

Guys, what can I say? Audition isn’t just a great horror film. It’s a great film. Not only is it well acted and superbly shot, but it really gets under your skin, and forces you to confront the worst aspects of yourself, like the best movies do.

Love, Simon (2018)

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

Simon is an average, upper-middle-class White High School kid. He’s got friends, a family who loves him, and, you know, a nice house, good clothing, his own car, and all the other things that come with being an upper-middle-class White kid. Anyway, his life seems perfect, except for one thing. Simon’s actually gay, and he doesn’t know how to tell anybody. One night, he learns from an anonymous social media post that there’s another closeted kid at his school, “Blue,” and he decides to reach out to him using the alias “Jacques.” The two exchange messages, with Simon doing his best to find out Blue’s true identity, but things get complicated when Martin, an annoying classmate who likes one of Simon’s friends, discovers their communications, and blackmails Simon into getting him into his friend’s good graces.

Love, SImon is a movie I was really looking forward to seeing. It’s the directorial debut of Greg Berlanti, the creator of such shows as Arrow and The Flash, both of which I’m a fan of, and it’s really cool to see a big budget studio comedy be about a gay teen. It really shows how far we’ve come as a society that films like this not only get made, but are widely distributed, and even critically-acclaimed. And, having seen the movie, I can tell you, it’s pretty darn good. This is a sweet, well-written, well-acted coming-of-age story with some good dialogue, and a good message. If you’re a fan of Berlanti, or mysteries, or teen films, or, really, just sweet stories in general, you should like this movie. It may be about one person’s very specific struggle, but it’s actually very universal in terms of its themes of not feeling comfortable with who you are, or not being able to get what you want. And in a time where whole sub-sections of the American population are being told, “you’re not welcome in our country, or in certain bathrooms, or in certain businesses because of who you are,” to have a film like this, which ends happily, and features a gay teen whose parents are actually supportive, is pretty refreshing. So, for that reason, I say, go give it a look.

That said, this flick isn’t perfect. As you could probably tell from my first paragraph, Simon’s constant claim throughout the film that he’s just like everyone else is somewhat undercut by the fact that he comes from a place of extreme privilege. That’s not a problem, per se, I grew up in a privileged household, but if the whole point of this movie is to make a gay teen’s struggle more universal, maybe don’t constantly remind us that you don’t speak for everyone. But that’s just personal preference. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual filmmaking, which does actually have flaws in it. One of the biggest being two, surprisingly annoying side characters, a vice principal, and Martin, the guy who blackmails SImon. The Vice Principal is one of those middle-aged men who tries to act cool by using modern slang and acting like he’s friends with the students, and there were points where I was dreading seeing him again. And martin is just obnoxious. I understand that he’s supposed to be, since he’s the film’s primary antagonist, but it does get to a point where he goes from being just annoying to downright cruel. Seriously, he does something towards the end that goes beyond just bothering Simon, and enters the territory of “you could ruin someone’s life if you did that in reality.” But, in the end, neither of those things is enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the picture. Yes, there are some annoying characters, but they don’t take away this film’s funny dialogue, good performances, and sweet tone. So, keeping that n mind, I still recommend you go see it.

In The Mood For Love (2000)

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

And Happy Valentine’s Day! Hope you all are with people you love. So to celebrate  the most romantic day of the year, I’ve decided to review one of my all-time favorite romance films, Wong Kar-Wai’s magnum opus, In The Mood For Love.

In 1962, Mr. Chow moves into an apartment right next door to Mrs. Chan, and, straight away, the two of them hit it off. And for good reason. They’re young, attractive, intelligent, and most importantly, often without their spouses. Both Mr. Chow’s wife and Mrs. Chan’s husband are frequently away on business, and it doesn’t take long for our heroes to realize that their spouses are cheating with each other. Devastated, the two become close, spending time re-enacting how their spouses might have met, and debating whether or not they should leave. As they do so, however, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan find themselves falling for each other, but must resist the urge, not simply to prove that they are better than their spouses, but because of the social norms of the time.

In The Mood For Love is pure, unadulterated emotion. There is little to no plot, and 90% of the run-time is just two people sharing a conversation. And yet, it is riveting. You feel so deeply for these characters. You like them. You care about them. You feel their pain. And by the end of the movie, you find yourself longing for them to be together, almost as much as the characters themselves. It is beautiful, on so many different levels. Not only is Christopher Doyle’s cinematography gorgeous, with the use of light and color evoking every ounce of emotion imaginable, but the costumes, particularly the qipaos that Maggie Cheung wears, are exquisite, and the music by Shigeru Umebayashi still gives me chills. And, as if this needs saying, the acting is superb. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung have amazing chemistry, and you really do believe that they care for each other. And for a movie like this, that is vital. I’d actually like to talk about Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung for a minute. They deserve all the credit in the world for this movie, and I’ll tell you why. When they started shooting, the director, Wong Kar-Wai, didn’t have a finished script, and, very often, he’d come up with new scenes on the spot, or just have Maggie and Tony improvise with each other. If they hadn’t been the actors that they are, this film would have made no sense, the characters wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, and you wouldn’t have cared half as much. In my opinion, they deserve a writing credit on this picture, seeing as how so much of the film is just the two of them playing off each other.

Now, as much as I love this movie, I can understand why some people might not like it. As I said before, there’s almost no plot, and 90% of it is just the two leads talking, and being sad. That could rub people the wrong way. Similarly, there are certain characters, like Mr. Chow’s co-worker who owes money to a prostitute, that get introduced, but never really come back into play. And, finally, for a romance film, there’s basically no romance in this movie at all. What I mean by that is, in most Western romance films, you’ll have characters kiss, and have sex.  Not here. There’s no sex, no kissing, and the most intimate act that gets performed on screen is Mr. Chow giving Mrs. Chan a hug. I personally love this, because, to me, it illustrates a fundamental difference between how “romance” is perceived in China and the West, but I can also understand why Western viewers might feel cheated by this film. Then again, that’s kind of the point. You are supposed to feel cheated, because the characters have been cheated. they’ve been cheated out of their marriages, and cheated out of true love by society’s expectations and taboos. You’re supposed to want more, and not get it. Because the characters didn’t get it either.

Guys, what can I say? In The Mood For Love is one of my favorite romance movies, and an all-around masterpiece. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

A Flower Of War

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

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

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

“No. Spare her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish. Archers, stand down!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

I shook my head. Hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t respond.

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

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

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

“I…”

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

I laughed, and shook my head.

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

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

I pursed my lips.

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

She stared at me, mouth agape.

“What?”

Again, my cheeks flushed with color.

“I– Well, what I mean is–”

“You want me?”

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

“Of course, it all makes sense.”

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

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

I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” I barked.

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

I opened my mouth, but he was already gone.

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

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

“What are you–?”

“Giving you a real lesson in combat.”

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

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

I scowled, and turned my back on her.

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

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

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

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

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

I groaned, and fell to my knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

“No, I’m glad you did.”

She frowned.

“You are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I finally found out what you are.”

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

I nodded.

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

“Oh. So which am I?”

I smiled, and cupped her face with both hands.

“A flower.”

“A flower?”

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

She smiled, and gently kissed my lips.

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

A week later, she broached the topic of leaving.

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

“What are you talking about?”

“Your men are planning on killing you.”

“I… That’s…”

“The truth, and you know it.”

I looked down, and nodded.

“Yes.”

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

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

“Is dead.”

I rounded on her.

“What did you say?”

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

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

“How do you know they weren’t lying?”

She looked away.

“I don’t want to tell you.”

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

“They had his head on a pike.”

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

“Let’s do it.”

Her face broke into a massive grin.

“You mean it?”

I nodded.

“Yes. Let’s do it tonight.”

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018. Nathan Liu

House Of Flying Daggers (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

Hero (2002)

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

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

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

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

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