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.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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

Li Mu Bai has long led a warrior’s life. But now, after years of bloodshed, he’s determined to turn over a new leaf. So, to prove to everyone that he’s done killing, he gives his sword, the legendary Green Destiny, to Yu Shu Lien, a fellow warrior, and unrequited love interest. But when the Green Destiny is stolen, and Yu and Li’s investigation brings them to the home of a government official, they realize that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie I have loved literally my entire life. Not only was it the first film I ever saw, but it was also the movie that made me want to make movies. Seriously. As soon as I watched this back in 2000, I got a camera, and made my own kung fu movie, Crouching Lion, Hidden Eagle. Any picture that can get a six year old who doesn’t even know what a camera is to want to make movies is doing something right. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. To date, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest grossing foreign-language film in American history, as well as the most critically-acclaimed martial arts movie of all time; with a record four Academy Awards to its name, and ten nominations, including Best Picture. But why was it so beloved? Why do people still remember it after so many years? What, to put it bluntly, makes this movie so good?

Well, several things, actually. The first is it’s script. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very well-written movie, with it actually getting nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for good reason. Every single character is given depth, personality, and pain. The film is almost three hours long, and it contains many quiet scenes where characters just sit and talk to each other about their dreams and desires. As such, the protagonists of this film are considerably more well-rounded than those in other martial arts movies. The second thing that makes this movie awesome is the camerawork. Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon is beautifully shot, with every single frame dripping with life and color. Peter Pau, the cinematographer, won an Oscar for lensing this film, and I can totally see why. Every time I watch it, I feel like I’ve been transported to another world, and it’s all thanks to the images onscreen. The third thing that makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon incredible is the acting. Everyone gives a subtle, restrained performance, not at all what you’d expect from a film like this, and, indeed, many members of the cast were nominated for BAFTA and Hong Kong Film Awards for their work. The standout, easily, is Zhang Ziyi, who steals the Green Destiny, and the whole damn show. She is magnetic on screen. She’s bold and fiery, and yet, vulnerable and sweet. By this point in her career, She’d already made somewhat of a name for herself back in China, but it was her work in Crouching Tiger that catapulted her into the stratosphere of stardom, not just in the East, but in the West as well. For the next five years, she was everywhere, appearing in big films like Hero, Rush Hour 2, Memoirs Of A Geisha, and House Of Flying Daggers. It is extremely rare for an Asian actress to become big in Hollywood, but Zhang Ziyi did, and it’s all thanks to her incredible performance in this movie. The fourth, and biggest, reason why Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is awesome is the action.  It is SUPERB. It’s exciting, well-shot, beautifully-choreographed, and inventive. The fight sequences in this movie hold up after 17 years, and for good reason. They’re real. Every single moment was done in camera, by real stuntmen. And you can tell. In the film’s most famous fight scene, where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi duke it out in a courtyard, you hear the actresses panting, and see the sweat dripping down their faces. You really believe that this is a hard, brutal fight, and that it’s taking a serious toll on both their bodies. And whenever a film can convince you that a staged action sequence is real, it’s done something right.

Now, as much as I adore Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, trust me, I could gush about it for ages, there are some aspects of it that I don’t enjoy as much, all these years later. The biggest, by far, is the flashback sequence, wherein we see Zhang Ziyi’s backstory. Yes, it’s necessary, and it helps you understand her character. But it’s also very long, and very, very slow. It goes on for about 40 minutes, and when you watch it, you just feel like you’re in a different movie. The whole thing really hurts the pace, and I honestly tend to fast-forward through it whenever I re-watch the film. Which brings me to another point, the fact that the movie’s plot is kind of scatter-brained. It starts out as a drama about a warrior trying to abandon his bloody past. Then it becomes a mystery, where they have to find the Green Destiny. Then it turns into a romantic drama, wherein Zhang Ziyi wants to escape her arranged marriage and go live in the desert. And then, in the last 30 minutes, it becomes a kind of road movie, where Zhang Ziyi is just roaming the land, taking what she wants and fighting whomever she pleases. Yes, everyone has an arc, and all the subplots do pay off. But, upon re-watch, it does feel like some of those subplots could have been omitted, and the movie, as a whole, would have become more focused.

But those are really the only negative things I have to say about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a well-shot, well-acted, emotionally-devastating character piece, with some amazing fight sequences and action. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie after all this time, go out and rent it RIGHT NOW!  You will love it.

Empire Of Passion: Deconstructed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.