Movie Reviews - 2000s postsSaturday February 09, 2019
Movie Review: Hero (2002)
I don’t have much to say about Zhang Yimou's “Hero” but wanted to jot down a few notes so I’ll know in five or 10 years that I’ve already seen it. Because I might forget.
It’s kind of forgettable.
It’s beautiful, don't get me wrong. The direction and art direction and cinematography are all stunning. Plus, as in early Hollywood, there’s a cast of literally thousands. Chinese soldiers apparently make for cheap labor. And have we had five bigger stars of Chinese cinema in the same film?
But as a story, it goes nowhere.
It’s ancient times in China, before China was China. At this point it’s six constantly warring states, and the King of the Qin state (Chen Daoming), a murderous, tyrannical SOB, has recently survived an assassination attempt. Into his heavily guarded capital city arrives a man called Nameless (Jet Li), who has apparently killed the three attempted assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen) and the lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Snow (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung). He tells him how he did it. And with each story, he is allowed to move closer to the King.
Quickly we realize he’s probably an assassin himself. Which he is.
Most of the movie is Nameless’ stories about how he killed the others, and most of these stories are lies. They’re all in league with each other. Kinda sorta. The lovers are at odds, and Broken Sword has a disciple, appropriately named Moon (Zhang Ziyi), who is in love with him, and ... Etc. Etc.
We actually get very little of Sky/Donnie Yen. He’s in and out quickly.
The bigger point: We watch a lot of stuff that never happened, all of which leads to the moment when our titular hero doesn’t act. If you boiled it down, the movie is this:
- A guy sits before a king
- He tells a bunch of lies
- He doesn’t do what he came to do
- He’s killed
- The End
If there was a good reason to not kill the king I might’ve liked “Hero” more, but his reasoning is both ridiculously far-sighted and chest-thumpingly patriotic. The murderous king is the man who wants to unite the six warring states into one. Nameless must let him live so China can become China. He becomes the titular hero not by doing great deeds but by sacrificing himself so China may live.
Again, there may not be a more beautiful movie to look at: the colors, the leaves, the water, the soldiers, the actors. But it signifies not much.
Movie Review: The Tao of Steve (2000)
“The Tao of Steve,” a romantic comedy about relationships, sounds great anyway.
Dex (Donal Logue), a part-time kindergarten teacher, has distilled the wisdom of the great philosophers into a sure-fire way to get laid, the essence of which (I‘ll relay for all guys who’ve suddenly pricked up their ears) revolves around the Heideggerian proverb, “We pursue that which retreats from us.”
Fine, right? But how does a guy who doesn't exactly look like Robert Redford get women to pursue him?
Three precepts, according to Dex.
- Be desireless. This is especially effective for guys like Dex who are not Mel Gibson. As a result, women think, “Why isn't he interested in me? I'm such a step up for him.” They become intrigued.
- Be excellent (in her presence). Otherwise you‘re just some desireless schmoe in danger of becoming that modern eunuch, “the friend.”
- Be gone. And let the pursuit begin.
The titular Steve, by the way, is not a character in the film but an ideal. He is the prototypical American male, who, as one of Dex’s poker-playing buddies says, “Never tries to impress women but always gets the girl.” He is embodied in two TV characters, Steve Austin (the bionic one, not the Stone Cold one), and Steve McGarett of “Hawaii Five-0” fame. The ultimate ideal, though, is a movie star: Steve McQueen. Dex and his poker-playing buddies all want to be Steve McQueen.
All of which, as I said, sounds great. What's the problem then?
As unique as this discussion of relationships is, it still takes place within a conventional romantic comedy where, five minutes in, we pretty much know who the Love Interest will be (Syd, played by co-writer Greer Goodman, sister to first-time director Jenniphr Goodman), and how she and Dex will battle one another into a relationship. The bigger problem, though, is Donal Logue's Dex. While the unlikelihood of his success with women is a key component of the film, I never believed in it because he never seemed to let go of his desire. His desire is always there, masked imperfectly into a kind of bad jokiness.
He's like a stand-up comic who's taken Philosophy 101 and preys on weaker minds. His character is actually based on a real person, Duncan North, with whom director Jenniphr Goodman and her husband roomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Goodman, an NYU Film grad, was amazed by North's success with women and became intrigued by his “highly individual ideas about life and dating,” according to the press kit. A possible documentary on North eventually turned into this film, which North helped write, and which was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
There are hip conversations about relationships (Male Insanity Syndrome: the desire to “trade up” or do better than the woman you‘re with) but these come off like luke-warm “Seinfeld” episodes. At one point Syd even gives Dex an Elaine Benes-style “get out of here” push before the two engage in a very Seinfeldian conversation about not being “naked people”: those who enjoy getting naked in front of others.
The movie has its light, sweet moments, and occasional laugh-out-loud moments; and it’s not a bad film to see with a good mixed-gender crowd and then wrangle over the whole man/woman thing at a coffee shop afterwards. Just don't expect anything like enlightenment.
originally published in The Seattle Times, August 11, 2000
Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually teach Bruce Lee, embodies the stillness of the master. He is quiet and modest, his movements minimal. At one point, I was reminded of the beginning of the final battle in “Drunken Master 2,” when an angry musclebound man wielding a chain battles Jackie Chan ... who is carrying only a Chinese hand fan. Here, in Ip Man’s second battle, he takes on a bullying northern master who is wielding an axe. Ip Man’s weapon? A feather duster.
The movie is in two parts: before and during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s/40s. We get four main Ip Man battles:
- vs. Master Liu (Chen Zhi-hui), who wants to test his prowess
- vs. Jin (Fan Sui-wong), the bristling northerner intent on embarassing the town of Foshan and all southern kung fu
- vs. 10 Japanese martial artists for 10 bags of rice, which Ip Man refuses
- vs. Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the movie’s main villain, an honorable autocrat intent on proving Japanese karate better than Chinese kung fu
Production values are high. Characters are stock but not outré. The movie is similar to its main character in that it has little wasted space.
Much of the movie is seeing who will become what under Japanese occupation. The cocky police inspector (Lam Ka Tung) becomes a translator ... and a traitor? No. He has honor. He does what he can to protect Chinese citizens. Ditto the Chinese businessman (Simon Yam). The main disappointment is the northerner, who winds up a thief in the woods robbing the Chinese, who have nothing. Fan Sui-wong has presence, but his character is an idiot; he’s Dennis Moore. Apparently he shows up in the sequels.
Ip Man, meanwhile, loses his estate to the Japanese and winds up shoveling coal. When the northerner begins to bully the factory workers, he relents and teaches them Wing Chun. Why has he resisted educating for so long? Not sure. Because he was wealthy? Because his wife (Lynn Hung) didn’t want him to?
That could’ve improved upon. The wife thing. There’s no more thankless task than to play the wife who tries to keep her husband from the plot. We’re here to see him do X (fight Apollo Creed, investigate the JFK assassination), she doesn’t want him to do X, so we wait. That's the wife here—particularly in the first half. She doesn’t want him to fight anyone, even for the honor of the town. In the second half, with Japanese everywhere, she’s more like Adrian waking from her coma: Win.
There’s not much more to it than that. “Ip Man,” directed by Wilson Yip, with fight choreography from Sammo Hong, reminds me a bit of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It doesn’t try to add to the classic kung fu movie; it reduces it to its essence. It tries to perfect what’s there.
Movie Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
It would be tough to imagine a more light-hearted, lyrical movie about the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Normally I’d cry bullshit, but writer-director Dai Sijie based the movie on his own novella, which was based on his own experiences being re-educated in rural Sichuan province near the Tibet border from 1971 to 1974. Plus the movie is just lovely. Plus he gives us the lovelier Zhou Xun in the title role. Not Balzac; the other one.
At times I was reminded of the Danish coming-of-age film “Twist and Shout.” In both, two boys, between capers, respond to world events (Cultural Revolution; Beatlemania) and feel the deep ache of first love. In both, there’s an illegal abortion. In both, you can’t help but fall in love with the girl, too.
I was also reminded of “Pygmalion”: men attempting to educate a provincial woman. There are layers upon layers of irony in this. The two boys, Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun), are sent to Sichuan province to unlearn western values and learn the deep, simple truths of peasants as dictated by Chairman Mao. Instead, they steal western literature, Balzac chiefly, and inculcate the little Chinese seamstress (Zhou) on the very thing they’re supposed to be unlearning: western values. Near the end, they toast each other for doing this well.
How well do they do this? She leaves them.
What Paris is
When they first arrive in the rural, mountainous village, one anticipates the worst. They’re out-of-their-element city boys whose very strength—their smarts—has been deemed a moral weakness, a plague upon the country and culture. A book they bring with them, a book of recipes for God’s sake, is torn up and thrown into the fire by the village leader (Wang Shuangbao) as being too bourgeois. He nearly does the same with Ma’s violin, too, which he thinks is a child’s toy, but Luo saves it. He says that it plays music. He gets Ma to play a Mozart sonata and lies about its provenance. He says it’s a mountain song entitled “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” The violin is saved.
I kept expecting a comeuppance that never came. Yes, their job is to lug vats of liquid shit up the mountains, spilling it over themselves as they go, but soon the capers begin. They sneak to a nearby village to watch its girls bathing beneath a waterfall. One of them is the little Chinese seamstress, who becomes fascinated with the city boys. Soon they’re inseparable, and the boys take it upon themselves to educate her into the world beyond her own. They hear rumors that Four Eyes (Wang Hongwei), the son of an intellectual, apparently taking to reeducation well, has a secret cache of western literature. It’s true, they steal it, and in nearby caves they read her Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert and Balzac. How much doesn’t she know? What Paris is; what France is; where Europe is.
More, because they have a talent for storytelling, they are tasked with going into town, watching North Korean propaganda films at outdoor cinema, then reenacting the story for the villagers. One time, Luo retells them a Balzac story instead. He gets them to shout out the title. It’s amusing. Rather than being re-educated from western influences, he’s educating them in western literature. And it has its effects. The seamstress’ grandfather, the old tailor (Cong Zhijun), creates embroidered garments. We see the seamstress trying on the first bra in the village. The world is opening up.
Both boys fall in love with the little Chinese seamstress, of course, but she begins a relationship with the more handsome of the two, Luo, who, at one point, leaves for two months to attend to his sick father. (There is much more mobility during the Cultural Revolution than I realized.) It’s then that she reveals to Ma that she’s pregnant. We’re walked through a series of Mao-era Catch 22s: Abortions are legal but only with a marriage certificate; but you can only marry after age 25 and our protagonists are just 18. So Ma, the son of a doctor, convinces one of his father’s colleagues to perform the service. For his help, he gives him Balzac.
What changes her
I love the way the movie moves. It ambles like a lazy summer afternoon but the story coheres; in the end, the pathway is distinct. It leads Ma, our narrator, to Paris, where he makes his living as part of a string quartet, and where, one day in the late 1990s, he hears news of the Three Gorges Dam project, which will flood the Sichuan village where he once lived. So he returns, with camera, to film what’s there, and to look for the little Chinese seamstress, with whom he’s still in love. Some of the villagers recall her, or the old tailor, but that’s it. There’s no sign of her. Then Ma flies to Shanghai for a reunion with Luo, who’s a doctor, married, and with a child. Years earlier, in 1982, he too went looking for the Chinese seamstress to no avail. They drink, watch Ma’s video, reminisce.
Then we get a flashback to the day she left. She leaves early and the grandfather wakes the boys, who run in pursuit. They catch her on the stone path between the verdant, vertiginous Chinese mountains, his hair cut short, wearing tennis shoes. Ma hangs back while Luo talks. We get this exchange:
She: I decided I’m leaving.
He: What changed you?
In a way it’s more poignant than “Pygmalion.” Henry Higgins shows Eliza the world and she returns to him; the boys show the seamstress the world and she leaves them for it.
In the last part of the movie, this joint French-Chinese production, we see the video Ma took of the Sichuan village being flooded. The camera—Dai’s, not Ma’s—pans in, and we see the tailor’s old sewing machine, and the bottle of French perfume Ma brought for the little seamstress, being submerged. Underwater, the bottle twirls; it dances. Then, still underwater, we see a door open, and there are our protagonists as they were in the early ’70s: Ma playing violin while Luo reads Balzac to the little Chinese seamstress. The past isn’t buried, it’s submerged. It’s a final image so poignant as to be piercing.
Movie Review: Hollywood Chinese (2007)
It’s a polite documentary. That’s what you take away. It’s a surprisingly polite compendium of a century of racist casting and storytelling in Hollywood.
Only 10 years have passed since “Hollywood Chinese” first aired on PBS’s “American Experience,” but here’s how long ago that was: The talking heads in the doc use the term Yellow Face, rather than the hashtag-ready #whitewashing, to describe white actors playing Asian characters. And here’s how long ago that wasn’t. That shit’s still happening. Hollywood is still casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles. I’m not talking Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”—that character is supposed to be European—but more like Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone in whatever hell movie that was. How depressing that this still goes on. I get it: studios want a bankable name. I get it: actors want a challenge. But c’mon. Would Tilda Swinton do blackface? History won’t look kind.
In this regard “Hollywood Chinese,” as polite as it is, is a corrective. It’s a history lesson.
The sad earth
Writer-director Arthur Dong takes us all the way back to the beginning of the movies, the early Nickelodeon silents. Historian Stephen Fong mentions that the Chinese were subjects in two kinds of movies: 1) China as the oldest civilization in the world—and least-known to westerners; and 2) the exoticism of Chinatown. For the latter, we get no end of opium movies, including “Broken Blossoms” (based on the short story “The Chink and the Child”), but I don’t recall much for the former. Instead, we see fictionalized newsreel footage of the anarchy during the Boxer Rebellion. Two shorts, both from 1900: “Beheading a Chinese Prisoner,” in which, with stop action, a Chinese man appears to have his head cut off; and “Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese,” in which the Chinese do the same to Christian missionaries, then celebrate holding their heads aloft. It’s a “holy shit” moment. It’s like something ISIS would’ve produced.
The first Chinese-American filmmaker, according to the doc, was Marion Wong, born in California, who wrote and directed “The Curse of Quon Gown (1917), starring her sister-in-law Violet. She went bankrupt. We get the early films of James B. Leong and Esther Eng, and then Fong says this:
What we didn’t see happen is the development of an alternative cinema such as you have with a race film—black film—or with Yiddish film. You had some aspiration for that, but it was not to be.
That’s left hanging. Why didn’t it happen with Chinese filmmakers? Is there a reason? A supposition? A half-assed guess?
When a big Hollywood movie was finally made about China, “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s novel, the Chinese leads, of course, went to Caucasians: Luise Rainier and Paul Muni. From there we explore Charlie Chan (played by whites), Fu Manchu (played by whites), Chinese playing Japanese and vice versa; the submissive sexualization of Chinese women (Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen) and the de-sexualization of Chinese men. Each subject could be its own doc. It’s a shame this isn’t a series.
The most poignant, thought-provoking moments for me are near the end. B.D. Wong rides his Tony award for “M. Butterfly” into a supporting role in the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride,” playing the outlandish gay assistant to the more outlandish gay wedding planner played by Martin Short. And he says this about that:
I’m at once feeling like I’ve somehow been invited to a party that I’ve never been invited to—world-class comic film actors, all Caucasian, a character that was not written for an Asian-American character. And I won the role by merit. I was thrilled to have done so. And then I found myself in a kind of bed that I made, which was: You’re cashing in the Asian-American desexualized chip.
I was always aware of this chip being cashed in. And I’m not at all regretful of it. What I’m regretful of is that I even have to have this discussion.
That last part is perfect. Because what’s the difference between what Wong does and Martin Short? Why is one OK and the other not? Because there’s not enough macho Asian roles to counterbalance it? Is Bruce Lee not enough by himself?
I’ve never been a big fan of Justin Lin, but he says two things here that impressed me. The first is about how Chinese-Americans are trapped between two cultures, and they’re “other” in both:
As an Asian-American, I go to Asia and I don’t belong there. They have different rules. They want to see exotic white people in their world. Like, it’s the reverse, you know? So you’re kinda stuck as an Asian-American. You’re like, “Hey, we’re three-dimensional [in my movie]!” And they’re like, “Oh, fuck you, I don’t care. We wanna see white people.”
He also takes down a very white, very privileged notion of “selling out,” and it’s about fucking time:
When you’re in film school everyone talks about, “Oh, I wouldn't make a studio film, that's selling out.” And you’re like, “You know how hard it is to ‘sell out’? To, like, work with a studio? They only hire 12 people a year—in the whole world!”
Walking the earth
Oddly, no “Kung Fu.” I suppose because the focus is on movies rather than TV. But it would’ve been worth it. There’s Yellow Face issues (David Carradine), as well as the second coming of Key Luke and Philip Ahn. Or maybe I wanted this—expected this—because “Kung Fu” is where I first became aware of Chinese culture. And while it was “other” it was positive. It was strong, quiet and peaceful, and posited against dirty American racists. It was cool, too, and later referenced in one of the coolest movies in Hollywood history:
Jules: Basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
Vincent: What do you mean, “walk the earth”?
Jules: You know, like Caine in “Kung Fu.” Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
We get the example of Wayne Wang, who rode “Chan is Missing” into indie success and middling mainstream success—including Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” We get the blistering embarrassment of Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles.” We get Ang Lee as talking head—more for the prestige value, one imagines, since he’s Taiwanese, not Asian-American.
I didn’t need Luise Rainier justifying her use of Yellow Face in grandiose terms; I didn’t need Christopher Lee talking about “Orientals.” I would’ve liked follow-up on the Chinese/Japanese thing, since, in “The Joy Luck Club,” which is viewed positively here, a Japanese-American actress, Tamlyn Tomita, was cast as one of the Chinese-American daughters, while another daughter, Rosalind Chao, gained fame playing a Japanese character on “Star Trek—The Next Generation.”
An update already feels necessary. I imagine the next one won’t be so polite.