Burning (2018)

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On the most basic, literal level, Burning is the story of a layabout, wannabe writer reconnecting with a girl from his childhood. They catch up, sleep together, and then after she goes on a trip to Africa, she returns home with a new boyfriend. This frustrates our restless protagonist, who doesn’t think highly of his would-be girlfriend’s new fling. And when the girl goes missing, leaving no trace of where she went or why he begins to suspect that the new guy is a serial killer. He’s so convinced of this that he actually murders the man in cold blood, and burns all evidence of the crime. Now that may seem like a spoiler, but, trust me, you don’t watch a film like this for the plot. Continue reading

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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.

Love, Hate, And Vengeance: An Analysis Of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives

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

I won’t lie, the first time I saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, it really pissed me off. It wasn’t just the frequent use of racial slurs, and protracted, highly gory torture scenes that bothered me. It was, well, everything. The one-dimensional characters, bizarre dream sequences, unsatisfying ending, and heavily implied incestuous relationship between the main character and his mother all added up to an utterly unpleasant viewing experience. The first time I saw it, I sympathized 100% with the half of the audience at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival who either walked out or booed when this movie was shown. To put it bluntly, I hated it, and told myself that I would never watch, or even speak of, it again.

And yet, as much as I despised the picture, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was like a tiny piece of gum stuck to my trousers–try as I might, it just wouldn’t go away. And the longer I thought about the movie, the more I came to appreciate it. I was drawn to it, particularly to its vibrant colors, haunting visuals, narrative subtlety and strong mythological undertones. With every mental revisitation, I uncovered something new to appreciate until, without realizing, I found myself liking–yes, liking–it. It’s not that I’d forgotten about all my old complaints, if anything, my newfound appreciation for the picture made me pick at those aspects I didn’t like more, but at least now I had some good with which to balance the bad. I could finally understand why, when it was screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, half the audience, the half that wasn’t booing it, gave it a standing ovation. I had stumbled upon one of those rare pieces of cinema which left it’s spectators with absolutely no middle ground. Either you loved it, or you hated it with a passion so great, so burning, as to melt the ice caps.

But what is Only God Forgives? What, in the end, does this divisive piece of cinema really boil down to?

Thematically, it boils down to a story of a broken man wanting to take vengeance on God for making him suffer so greatly, but, in doing so, finding redemption. Literally, though, it’s the story of Julian, an American ex-pat living in Bangkok. He owns a Muy THai club, but it’s quickly revealed that that’s just a front for a drug-smuggling operation. Julian doesn’t talk much, and his interactions with other people are pretty much limited to his sessions with Mai, a prostitute who he seems to have some feelings for, and his conversations with Billy, his brother, who’s a sadistic pervert. How sadistic and perverse is he? Well, at the start of the movie, he rapes and kills a thirteen-year-old girl. Yeah. Charming. Don’t worry, though. We don’t have to deal with him for long, because he is quickly apprehended by the Thai police, and the mysterious Inspector Chang is brought in to investigate the matter. Upon seeing what Billy has done, Chang allows the girl’s father to beat him, but he ends up getting killed in the process. Chang, however, doesn’t care about Billy’s death. What he does care about is the fact that the girl’s father knew that she was a sex worker, and did nothing to stop it. For this, he cuts off the man’s forearm and leaves.

Upon hearing of Billy’s death, Julian tracks down the father and confronts him about why he killed his brother. When he learns that the man was simply avenging his daughter, however, he decides to let him go. Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal, arrives in Bangkok to identify the body. She demands that Julian find and kill the men who killed Billy, but he refuses—believing that the man had some justification for seeking retribution for the killing of his daughter—infuriating her. Julian has several visions of meeting Chang in a dark room, where Chang cuts Julian’s hands off.

Julian brings Mai to meet Crystal, posing as his girlfriend. Crystal sees through the ruse, hurls insults at Mai, and demeans Julian, pronouncing him sexually inferior to his dead brother. Julian humbly accepts all of Crystal’s abuse, but afterward turns on Mai, viciously humiliating her, then regretting it. At Crystal’s request, one of the fighters at Julian’s boxing club assassinates the man who killed Billy. Later, the police arrive at Julian’s club, but Chang concludes that Julian is not the father’s killer. Julian recognizes Chang from his visions and follows him from the boxing club, but Chang seems to disappear into thin air.

After learning that Chang was involved in Billy’s death, Crystal meets with an associate, Byron, to arrange Chang’s assassination. Three gunmen on motorbike are sent to kill Chang at a restaurant with machine guns, and two of Chang’s men are killed in the shoot-out. Chang kills two of the gunmen, follows the third on foot, and beats him with a frying pan. The gunman leads Chang to his boss, Li Po, who is feeding his young crippled son. Chang then kills the third gunman, but spares Li Po after seeing him show affection for his son. Li Po points Chang to Byron, who ordered the hit. Chang finds Byron in a club and tortures him to get answers. Byron reveals the reasoning behind the hit, but refuses to give a name. Chang continues to torture Byron.

Julian confronts Chang and, after challenging him, they fight on the bare concrete floor of Julian’s boxing venue. Chang, an experienced boxer, easily beats Julian, who does not land any blows. Afterwards, Crystal tells Julian that Chang has figured out she ordered the hit on him. Fearfully, she pleads with Julian to kill Chang to protect her, the same way she asked Julian to kill his own father for her. She promises that after Julian kills Chang, they will go back home and she will be a true mother to him.

Julian shoots the guard outside Chang’s home, and he and his associate Charlie Ling enter Chang’s house, intent on ambushing him when he returns. Charlie informs Julian that he was instructed to execute Chang’s entire family. Charlie murders the nanny of Chang’s daughter as she enters the home, but Julian shoots Charlie before he can kill Chang’s young daughter.

Chang and a police officer visit Crystal. She blames everything on Julian, and Chang cuts her throat. Julian returns to the hotel and finds his mother’s corpse. In silence, he approaches her body and cuts open her abdomen. Julian slowly places his hand inside of the wound. After leaving and having several surreal visions, Julian stands in a field with Chang, who appears to cut off both of Julian’s hands with his sword. The final scene returns to Chang singing at a karaoke bar with an audience of attentive police officers.

Now, if you’re anything like me, at this point, you’re probably thinking, “What the hell? What did all that mean? Did that mean anything? Why did I just sit through that movie? Why do I feel so confused?” Well, if you are feeling that way, don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal to. I certainly did when I first saw this movie. But, unlike me, you all have someone who can explain this bizarre picture to you–who can help you get through all the confusion. And, if you’ll do me the great pleasure of reading onward, I shall strive to do both.

Now, as I stated earlier, I believe that this movie is about faith, about a man’s struggle’s with God given all that has happened to him. There are several reasons why I view the film this way. Firstly, the character of Inspector Chang. He is truly divine. Seriously! Never once in this film does anyone hit him, shoot him, or hurt him in anyway, which suggests that he’s invulnerable. In addition, there are several scenes in this movie where he just seems to teleport around. One minute he’s in one place, and then, in another, he’s somewhere totally different. On top of this, he appears to be the utmost authority in the land, passing judgment and dealing out punishment with total impunity, in much the same way that God does. But perhaps the greatest reasin why I see him as God is that, in an interview with the press, Vithaya Pansringram, the actor who played him, stated that Winding Refn directed his sequences with the following sentence, “You are God in this world.” So, yeah, it’s clear that we have a divine figure in this film, and that Chang is it.

The second reason why I view this movie as a damaged man’s struggle with the divine is the character of Julian. When you watch him, it is clear that he is just a broken shell. His quietness, his violent outbursts, the fact that he can’t actually have sex–yeah, whenever he goes to see Mai, he just sits there and watches her touch herself–all indicate that he’s not completely sane, and that he’s suffering greatly. And yet, there is still some hope fort him. He feels guilt after exploding at Mai. He refuses to kill Chang’s young daughter, and the man who murdered Billly. This all indicates that he does still possess some semblance of a moral compass, and the fact that he keeps following Chang, and has visions about him, suggests that maybe, like the prodigal son, he is looking for some forgiveness, some divine guidance. This, I think, is why the title of the movie is Only God Forgives–because it is about someone looking to be forgiven for his crimes.

“But how,” you might ask, “does Chang forgive Julian? I mean, doesn’t he cut off his hands?” Well, if you really analyze the film, you come to realize that that is actually a form of forgiveness.

See, hands are a recurring motif in the movie. Chang cuts off several people’s hands, Julian has a vision in which he sees himself washing blood off them, he has his hands tied whenever he visits Mai, Crystal says he killed his father with his bare hands, etc. Hands represent people’s guilt in this world. For most characters, having their hands cut off is a form of punishment, but for Julian, it is a kind of relief. See, it is highly implied that he was forced into having an incestuous relationship with his Mother, and that she then used this relationship to gain power over him and get him to do things for her, like kill his own father. This is all suggested by the fact that Crystal talks about the size of his penis, gropes his behind, and says to him, “if you do this for me, we can go back home, and I’ll be a true mother to you.” Julian’s stoicism, impotence, violent temper, and the fact that he keeps hallucinating that there is blood on his hands all indicates that he is traumatized by his past deeds, and that he wants to rid himself of them. So, when Julian lets Chang cut off his hands at the end of the movie, it is an act of catharsis. It is Julian finally being able to rid himself of the past. This is all indicated by the fact that Julian and Chang smile when they meet for the last time, as though this is a good thing, a form of therapy.

So, there you have it. Only God Forgives, a surreal, violent, racist, and utterly nonsensical crime thriller is actually a touching character study about a broken man looking for divine forgiveness. It’s excessive bloodshed and strange dialogue might not appeal to everyone, but the saturated neon color scheme, the gorgeous cinematography, and most of all, the themes, are what make it truly unique, and, in my opinion, worthy of an 8 out of 10. I honestly believe that this will be a picture that, down the line, film students and cinephiles will analyze and talk about. It’s beautiful, brutal, and brimming with life and subtext. And who wouldn’t want to see a film like that?

Wild Side

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

And it’s official–Joan Chen loves weird, sexually perverse stuff. Why else would she star in this god-awful erotic thriller?

Wait–that doesn’t make sense to you all? Well, all right then. I guess I’ll just have to start from the beginning.

So, for those of you who don’t know, Joan Chen is a Chinese-born American actress, screenwriter and director. She came to international prominence in the late 80s after she starred in the multi Oscar-winning movie, The Last Emperor. Even though parts for Asian women were–and to be perfectly honest, still are–extremely limited, her beauty and acting talent were enough to allow her to star in multiple acclaimed films and TV series–including David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, and most recently, the Netflix Original Series, Marco Polo. I’m a big fan of hers–I’m a fan of any Asian actor who manages to make it in racist Hollywood–but as I watched more and more of her films, I started to notice a certain…motif in her work. That being that all her projects feature graphic and/or bizarre sexual content. The Last Emperor has several orgies, and some weird lesbian foot scenes between her and this woman who’s supposed to be her cousin. Lust, Caution was banned in several countries because of all its sex scenes, including one where Tony Leung practically rapes Tang Wei. And Twin Peaks: well, Twin Peaks is directed by David Lynch. Enough said. I didn’t see the thematic connection between all these films until a friend of mine heard I was a fan of Miss Chen’s and recommended that I watch the 1998 erotic thriller, Wild Side, which she starred in. And then, oh lord, then I saw the light.

This movie is trashy in every sense of the word. It’s not just that its story is ludicrous, offensive and smutty–there’s heterosexual rape, homosexual rape, sex in airplanes, sex in bathrooms–when you learn about where it came from, you also can’t help but feel a little disgusted. It was written and directed by the late Donald Cammell and his wife China Kong–yes, before you ask, that is actually her name–who met and had an affair when the former was in his 40s and the latter was 14. Yes, I did just say 14. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I did some research, and found that, when Donald Cammell saw the finished cut of Wild Side, he thought it was so bad that he ended up committing suicide. That’s right. This movie was so horrible that it sickened the pedophile who wrote it to the point of killing himself. Now, before any of you get scared, I didn’t think it was THAT awful. Yes, it’s bad, but it’s not so bad that I feel like slitting my wrists. But what, you might be wondering, is this bad, but not THAT bad, movie about? Well, I’ll tell you.

Wild Side follows the trials and tribulations of Alex, a banker and part-time hooker from Long Beach. They never really give a reason for why she solicits sex when she has such a good-paying job, but, to be honest, you learn to stop questioning this film after a while. Anyway, the movie begins with her doing the deed with a client named Bruno, played by Christopher Walken. Bruno, it turns out, is a big-time money launderer hoping to upload a virus to her bank, and his driver, Tony, is an undercover cop looking to bring Bruno down. Tony blackmails Alex into sleeping with him, and helping him set up a sting. Alex tries to get help from the non-corrupt police, but finds that she can’t acquire protection unless she reveals how she and Tony met, and, thus, lose her job at the bank. It’s at this point, when Alex is at her absolute lowest, that Joan Chen, playing Bruno’s wife, Virginia, enters the picture. And, as much as I love Miss Chen, and believe that there should be more Asian characters in movies, I really didn’t think she was necessary to the plot of this film at all. She doesn’t actually do anything that’s vitally important–yes, her and Alex start having an affair in some of the most graphic lesbian scenes ever put to celluloid–but that affair could just as easily not have been in the movie. You could still have had a story about a woman being trapped in a bad situation without needing to throw in a gay romance. It just seemed like the director wanted to masturbate to two beautiful woman making out and touching each other, because there are several–rather long–scenes in this movie that don’t go anywhere, and that are just the two of them having sex. Now before anyone accuses me of being homophobic, I’d like to remind you all that one of my favorite shows right now is Sense8, a series that has several gay and transgender characters in it, as well as A LOT of gay sex. But there, the filmmakers establish, early on, what these characters’ sexual orientations and genders are–prior to Joan Chen’s appearance, Wild Side never gives any indication that Alex likes women–and the writers of Sense8 actually bothered to go into all the politics and nuances of identity and sexuality. They talk about homophobia. They talk about AIDS. They talk about PRIDE and the gay rights movement. They don’t just have two women kiss and hope that it’s shocking or stimulating enough to get audiences to want to buy their product. They actually treat gender and sexuality with the respect that they deserve.

And that, loved ones, is why Wild Side is so horrible. It doesn’t give it’s characters personalities. It just treats them as fleshy tokens to be exploited and drooled over. It tries to shock you into watching it by including controversial things, like rape, without actually addressing why these things are controversial and horrifying. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, and am sad that Miss Chen decided to be a part of it. I’m just glad that she went on to do better things, and is still working to this day. As for this entry in her filmography, though, it’s a 5 out of 10. Don’t watch it.

Sense8

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

Sex, philosophy, and high octane thrills–these are the first things that come to mind when I think of Sense8, the latest Netflix original series to hit the small screen. Written and directed by the Wachowskis–most famous for their work on The Matrix Trilogy, V For Vendetta, and more recently, Cloud AtlasSense8 follows a group of eight strangers from various parts of the world who, one day, become psychically linked, and find themselves able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste what the others do. The eight in question are Will, a Chicago police officer, Riley, an Icelandic DJ, Nomi, a transgender hacker from LA, Lito, a closeted gay Mexican actor, Kala, a Mumbai pharmacist, Capheus, a Kenyan bus-driver, Wolfgang, a German locksmith, and finally, Sun, a South Korean businesswoman. Each of them quickly becomes aware of the others’ existence, acquiring skills and habits that they originally did not possess, and even learning how to communicate with one another, despite all speaking different languages. Things only get worse when a mysterious man named Jonas appears and tells them that they are all being hunted by an unknown organization that wants to kill them. And, well, the story just gets crazier from there on in.

Now, before I go any further, I just want to make a few things clear. First, I actually really like this show–it’s one of the few series that I couldn’t stop watching. And second, I would seriously recommend that most people give it a look–if forced to assign a fractional score, I’d probably give Sense8 a 7.5 out of 10. That said, I do have problems with the series, and would like to bring them up in this review, but only with the hopes that, if the filmmakers do get the chance to produce a second season, they can learn from their mistakes and make an even more awesome show. But, I digress. Back to the review!

I did some research, and found that Sense8 actually started off as a desire the Wachowski’s had to use sci-fi to comment on current events. With hindsight, this seems kind of obvious, seeing as the show touches upon a number of prominent social issues, such as gender, sexuality, identity, and even AIDS. And while I admire the series for that, and for its international setting and cast, I do still have some problems with it.

First of all, when you watch the show, it becomes very clear that certain story lines–specifically, the ones that address the issues I just listed–were given a lot more thought and care than others. You spend a whole lot more time with Nomi and Lito than anyone else. Hell, there are whole episodes where you don’t even see Capheus, Kala, or Sun. Now, on the one hand, I can understand why the Wachowskis would choose to do this. One of them, Lana, is a transgender woman, and I can totally see why she would want to talk about her own experiences and hardships through art. That’s all well and good, but if your primary goal was to discuss gender and sexuality, why include all these other characters? Why not have the show just be about Nomi and Lito? It would give you more time to develop them, and wouldn’t distract the audience from the series’ main objective.

The second issue I have with the show is the fact that, just as certain story lines are given more thought and care than others, so too are some narratives given little to no thought at all. Riley, for instance, is featured in every episode, and yet she does absolutely nothing. I’m serious! 90% of the time she’s on screen, she just sits there, listens to music, and looks sad. She barely talks, and she never initiates anything. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that interesting at all. So why are we spending so much time with her? This just goes to show you how poorly thought-out certain narratives in this series are.

The third problem I have with Sense8 is a problem I have with a lot of American films and TV shows set in other countries–that being that the depiction of those countries and their people is pretty stereotypical. Nairobi, for instance, is shown as a never-ending slum, overflowing with drugs, hookers, and warlords. Similarly, Berlin is portrayed as a grey, dreary, over-cast puddle where no one smiles. And as if the environments in which you see these characters interacting isn’t cliche enough, the characters themselves are more or less archetypes. Kala, for instance, is a “modern Indian woman” who doesn’t want to marry a man she doesn’t love. Sun, likewise, is an amalgamation of every stereotype Westerners have about East Asian Females–she stoic, knows martial arts, and is regularly abused by men. All I’m saying is, if you want to have your story be set in all different parts of the world, do your best to represent those parts accurately.

But, if you ask me, the biggest error that the creators of Sense8 made was having their characters be kind of stupid. What I mean by that is there are numerous points in the series where the characters wind up in unpleasant circumstances, and these circumstances are ones that the protagonists could easily have avoided. Kala, for instance, doesn’t want to marry a man named Rajan, but goes along with the wedding anyway. Why? It’s not like this is an arranged marriage. The series goes out of its way to explain how this is a consensual union, and how both her and Rajan’s families are super modern and progressive-minded. So, if Kala really didn’t want to marry him, she could just have easily said no, and then there’d be no problem. Similarly, Sun’s predicament is one that she could easily have gotten out of. See, she and her brother are executives in their father’s company, and after a while, you find out that her brother’s been embezzling money. So, Sun, being the gracious and loving older sister, takes the blame for all his crimes, and goes to prison. Just one small problem with this–in absolutely no way does she have to! The series shows numerous instances of her father and brother treating her like shit, and of her hating their guts in equal measure, so why would she go to prison for them? It just doesn’t seem logical. All I can think is that the creators were trying to ride the coat-tails of Orange Is The New Black’s success, which, as most of you probably know, is all about women in the prison system. But, either way, the choices that the characters in this series make are ridiculous, and when they get into trouble for making them, I don’t really feel much sympathy. Let’s just hope the writers come up with some better ideas next season.

But, all these criticisms aside, I do still think there’s a lot to admire with this show. It’s well acted, the premise is interesting, and there are a lot of touching and profound moments in it. All I can say is that, if the creators learn from their mistakes next season, they just might have themselves a perfect show. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.