Movie Reviews - 2017 postsThursday July 26, 2018
Movie Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)
The first fight fooled me into thinking this movie might be more than it is.
Early on, our four heroes—OK, one hero, Ho (Donnie Yen of “Ip Man”), and his three nondescript pals—newly and illegally arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1960, are talking about making money by fighting, so I assumed they meant a competition: rings, rules, etc. Ho would shine (he’s Ip Man, after all), and from there, who knows? But that’s all wrong. They’ve lent their services to a local gang, fighting another local gang, under the watchful eyes of corrupt police. In this free-for-all, Ho does shine, but not in the usual martial-arts movie manner. The movements aren’t crisp and super-choreographed; they’re messy and sloppy. It looks like a real fight.
That fact, plus the period nature of the piece—Hong Kong from roughly 1960 to 1974—made me think they (director Wong Jing, some mucky-muck in the Chinese film industry) wanted something more like a Scorsese picture rather than the typical Hong Kong actioner.
They didn't get it.
“Chasing the Dragon” (追龍) is the story of how a half-corrupt cop, Lui Lok or Lee Rock, (Andy Lau, reprising the role he played in the 1990s), and a halfway-decent crook (Ho), band together to “save” Hong Kong from more nefarious forces. It’s basically the rise and fall of a drug dealer.
Problems? Some of the film’s shorthand. We first see Ho being decent to a little girl, Alva, bringing her a bowl of congee; and though they owe their landlords money, he surreptitiously hands a nerdy kid a few bills for his tuition. See? He’s decent. The nerdlinger turns out to be his kid brother who gets hooked on the drugs Ho peddles, while the girl turns into a beauty whom Ho uses to infiltrate the police dept. She winds up dead, he winds up a vegetable.
The filmmakers also screw up the period nature. More oddly, they actually get it right except for our main characters. We see them arriving in Hong Kong—where, we’re told, everything was super-corrupt before 1974—so I assumed, based on their period hairstyles and the fact that Ho is smoking pot, that it was 1974. It’s not; it’s 1960.
Here’s how they look in 1960:
And here’s everyone else:
I hate this kind of thing. I wrote about it recently. Details matter. The hairstyles of 1974 are not interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1960. That change is in fact the story, and to ignore it, or get it wrong, is to fuck up the story.
In that opening brawl, Ho also knocks out a corrupt British cop, Hunt (Bryan Larkin), and nearly gets beaten to death in prison for it. Lee Rock saves him so the two have this bond. Later, Ho returns the favor and gets his kneecap bashed in; he winds up with a lifelong limp. We suspected this might happen because in the intro he calls himself “Crippled Ho,” which is the name he goes by for the second half of the film. The Chinese are nothing if not politically incorrect in this manner. See “Piggy” (Kent Cheng) and “Chubby” (Ben Ng). See screen legend Sammo Hung, who is still called “Fatty.”
As our heroes rise through the various layers of gangsters and corrupt cops, Rock becomes more cautious, Ho less so. He wants revenge: against the gangster who crippled him; against Hunt, who is generally awful and racist. The film wants revenge. It lays the blame for the corrupt situation at the feet of the British imperialists, even though the organization that helped clean up Hong Kong, the ICAC, or Independent Commission Against Corruption, was formed in February 1974 by the British governor. You almost want the movie to be about them. But such a movie might be less xenophobic, and xenophobia is the watchword of Chinese cinema now.
This movie meanders. We never really know who Ho is. He's just a series of gestures that don't add up to a complete character. We get moments of melodrama (the kid brother becoming a vegetable), moments of suspense (will Rock’s family make it out?), and a Han Soloish surprise return by Rock (to save Ho yet again). There’s a final rooftop confrontation between Ho and Hunt, but Rock intervenes. You think he’s talked him back from the ledge. But after the two heroes look into each other’s eyes, and Ho says “You’ve been a good brother,” he fires two shots back, without looking, and kills Hunt. That’s a good scene. Also handled well is Rock’s reaction. He sighs, takes his own gun, shoots himself in the shoulder, then wipes it clean and puts it in Hunt’s dead hand. The camera pulls back. The music wells. Then the movie reminds us one more time that all of this was all the result of British imperialism.
“Chasing the Dragon,” with its double meaning, is, I found out, a remake of the 1991 film “To Be Number One,” which was highly acclaimed: It won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, beating out both “Once Upon a Time in China” and—interestingly— Andy Lau’s “Lee Rock,” about the character he plays here. Its Chinese name, by the way, isn’t “To Be Number One.” It’s 跛毫 or Bo hao: “Crippled Ho.”
This one was kind of acclaimed, too. It was nominated for six Hong Kong awards (including picture), and won two (cinematography, editing). But I’m surprised it got that far. It’s not that good.
Movie Review: Wajib (2017)
A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds.
That’s about it. “Wajib” is faces and conversation and history. There’s humor, disgust, and love for one’s city and family and self. There’s politics. (There’s always politics.) It’s episodic. We watch two men doing the same thing over and over, and writer-director Annemarie Jacir (“When I Saw You”) has to advance the story through each of these episodes. It’s the kind of non-plot that should weary us as much as the repetition of the day wearies our protagonists.
I was rapt.
Talking of a different film, Jeffrey Wells recently wrote, “Plus the father-and-son roadtrip formula has been done to death.” Consider “Wajib” its resurrection.
My son, the doctor
How cool, by the way, that I could identify with part of it? After college graduation in the late 1980s, I lived for a year in Taiwan, and when I returned everyone kept asking me how I liked Thailand. I must’ve had this conversation a dozen times:
A: “How was Thailand?”
Me: “I was in Taiwan.”
A: “Oh? I thought you were in Thailand.”
Me: “No, I’m pretty sure it was Taiwan.”
That’s the experience of Shadi (Saleh Bakri), a tall, handsome 30ish architect who returns to Nazareth from living abroad to help with the wedding of his younger sister. As they make the rounds of extended family and friends, he’s constantly greeted with questions about how he likes America. “How’s America?” He corrects with a small smile: “Italy.” They also ask how his medical practice is going and when he’s returning to Nazareth—since they hear he’s thinking of coming back. “There’s some good hospitals here,” one man tells him helpfully. “I’m an architect,” Shadi explains helplessly.
Blame Dad for this latter confusion.
We first see Dad, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri), waiting in the passenger’s side of a car and sneaking a cigarette as the day begins. He seems a go-along-to-get-along type. A scamp (with lion’s head) in winter.
The son is more militant. He eyes Israeli soldiers at a falafel shop and is living with the daughter of a PLO bigwig of the ’70s. At the same time, he views his homeland with an expatriate’s (and architect’s) eye. Doesn’t anyone pick up garbage? Why do people ruin their beautiful buildings with cheap blue tarps? His father calls him a snob—and he is—but he’s not wrong. There’s a ying-yang to it. He misses the warmth and the humus, but he doesn’t really fit in anymore. Europe has ruined him—and not just because of the man-bun and pastel pants.
Through the early part of the day, his father is trying to get his son interested in the myriad women they meet. How about this one? Or that one? His son tells him he has a girlfriend, Nada, whom the father calls Salma. We’re not sure if he dislikes her, her militant father, or simply want his son closer to home.
The son thinks he can win arguments the way he can in Europe. For one delivery, they park in a spot for paying customers at a stand of useless gimcracks. The son says just five minutes; the dude doesn’t budge. The son grows frustrated. Then the father walks over, picks up a teddy bear, buys it. Now they’re paying customers. Later, the father tries to give the bear to a kid—a former West Bank kid—who’s selling cheap shit along a busy street. The kid walks away; he knows cheap shit when he sees it. You get the feeling Jacir could’ve made a movie just about this stuffed animal.
Beyond the norm, father and son have two main points of contention:
- The son’s suggestion to postpone the wedding if the mother, living in America, and caring for her dying husband, can’t make it.
- The father’s insistence on inviting a Jewish colleague who—the son says—fingered him back in the day, forcing him into exile.
Initially I was with the son on both. Then the conversation deepens, and other voices—chiefly the bride-to-be’s—are added, and my feelings shifted about the former. But never on the latter. The father seems to be doing it to curry favor with the powerful, and the son is beyond adamant that the man is secret service. We never find out who’s right but we get a sense of who’s wrong.
Both men are handsome, with beautiful eyes, and their interaction is impeccable. Watching, I kept thinking, “It’s like they’ve done it together for a lifetime.” Turns out they have. The actor Saleh Bakri is the actor Mohammed Bakri’s son.
“Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human—often painfully so. There's not a false note. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is really resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough but maybe covers what we can while we can.
Movie Review: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful (2017)
In modern Taipei, a high-powered female official with a prosthetic leg leaves a high-powered meeting while the news cameras record her phone conversation outside. What is she saying? No one is sure. They obsess over it. Then we cut to two blind, traditional storytellers, who, in sing-songy Taiwanese, begin to chant the tale we’re about to see.
“The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful,” which was nominated for seven Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscar), and won three, including best picture, is basically an art-house version of a female-driven soap opera. Imagine “Dynasty” remade by Jonathan Glazer.
The Tang sisters—the eldest Ning-Ning (Wu Ke-Xi), and the youngest Chen-Chen (Vicki Chen)—along with their mother, Madame Tang (longtime Hong Kong action star Kara Wai), constitute, it seems, the three titular possibilities. Which one is bold, which corrupt, which beautiful.
Since we first see Ning having sex and smoking opium with two men in the little cottage in the back of their estate, and within the watchful eyes of her innocent, younger sister, we assume she’s the corrupt. Or maybe she’s the bold? Maybe it’s the mother who’s corrupt, since the mother counsels the youngest to treat the cattiness of her cousin, Pien-pien (Wen Chen-ling), with a calm and an impenetrable smile—as we see Madame Tang do with the powerful ladies at a dinner later that evening.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all, idiot, since “The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful” is simply the U.S. title.
Right. What was I thinking? The Chinese title is “血觀音,” or “Xue guan yin.” Guan yin is the Bodhisattva associated with compassion and known in the West as “The Goddess of Mercy.” Xue is blood. So ... “Blood Goddess of Mercy” or “Blood Bodhisattva” maybe. Yeah, the three English adjectives don’t have much to do with it other than adding a soap opera patina.
对不起。Forgive all the throat clearing.
Anyway, these are our main characters:
- The icy geniality of Madame Tang
- The licentious rebellion of her eldest daughter, Ning
- The wide-eyed innocence and voyeurism of her youngest daughter, Chen
Every powerful family in their circle seems to have a similar set-up of icily polite women. The men in the movie are mostly nonexistent. If they’re there, they’re there to be manipulated.
The land speculation scheme involving the Tangs threatens to burst open after a local legislator and his Japanese wife are murdered, and Pien lies in a coma. A stable boy, who was involved with Pien, is the main suspect.
The whole thing is needlessly confusing—at least for me. Chen waits by Pien’s side at the hospital. Because the Tangs care? Because they want her quiet—or dead? Meanwhile, Madame sends Ning to turn the head of the by-the-numbers cop investigating matters. She brings him a Bodhisattva; she charms him. Or does he charm her?
Best served cold
The biggest threat to the Tangs, though, is themselves. Everything the mother wants hidden, the eldest daughter wants revealed—including the biggest cover-up of all: the fact that Chen isn’t Ning’s sister but her daughter. Shades of “Chinatown.” It’s a long-ago scandal that was swept under the rug by a subterfuge that couldn’t last.
In the end, Ning tries to escape; but her mother’s reach is long. And brutal.
The movie itself is a bit long and brutal. The stable boy’s 11th-hour rape of Chen, and her attempt at suicide by throwing herself off the train, seem unnecessary to me. The latter at least explains the prosethetic leg at the beginning. The modern, high-powered official, we learn, is Chen, and she’s leaving the high-powered meeting to go the bedside of her mother. Madame Tang, now aged, in pain, and near death, has a DNR but her daughter tears it up. Out of love? No. The opposite. She wants her mother to live with the pain. She wants to watch her twist in the wind. It’s a brutal, satisfying end to an otherwise too complex tale.
Movie Review: The Taste of Betel Nut (2017)
Have I ever seen a revenge tale in which the revenge comes first? In “The Accused” we see the crime at the end, rather than the beginning, but that one’s hardly a revenge tale in the traditional sense. Jodie doesn’t take the law into her own hands; she gets a lawyer.
Here we see the revenge first. Li Qi (Yu Shen Shi) is a gentle man who works with dolphins and seals at a small Sea World-type show in Hainan, China. We watch him wordlessly go through his paces. Now he feeds the critters; now he puts on clown makeup; now he takes it off like Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons.” It’s nighttime and he gazes at the ocean. What is he thinking? There’s viritually no dialogue. Then it’s daytime and we watch him follow a fat man with dyed blonde hair from a crowded marketplace to a broken-down area where Blondie hangs with peers and chickens. Qi hangs back with ... is that a steel pipe in his hand? Or a long knife? When Blondie goes to investigate a squawking rooster, Qi makes a move.
At this point, director Hu Jia cuts the action and the screen goes dark for a second. When it returns, Qi’s face is covered with Blondie’s blood. No more clown makeup.
That’s the act of revenge. The rest of the movie is why it was necessary.
I didn’t much like “The Taste of Betel Nut,” by the way. The lack of dialogue at the beginning? That’s throughout. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him? Is he the reason for the revenge? Only later do we realize these are like chapter breaks—but why underwater shots, and why of a man’s legs, I have no clue.
The story comes by and by. Qi lives with Ren Yu (Zhao Bingrui), a brash, handsome, generally half-naked kid who runs a karaoke biz on the beach at night. He’s told he looks like Leslie Cheung, the movie star, and he kind of does: full lips, lidded eyes. He’s also generally irresponsible. Qi quietly plays the wife role in their relationship.
Into their little community comes Bai Ling (Yue Yue), the daughter of the woman who serves meals on the beach at night. Qi kind of lights up around her, she kind of lights up around Ren Yu. Classic love triangle. Does she know about Qi and Ren Yu? That they’re a kind of couple? One night, after a wedding, the three get drunk, chew betel nut, whose properties, they’re told, make your body tingle and make it tough to breathe. “Like love,” Bai Ling says. Afterwards the three have their threeway.
In the aftermath, for a day or so, it’s awkward. Then Bai Ling suggests an adventure, and they take a boat to get lunch. At the bar, while the boys are outside, a group of jerks, including Blondie, come on to her with crude comments, and she tosses a cup of tea into Blondie’s face. He’s about to slug her when Ren Yu breaks a bottle over his head, and off they all run, chased by eight or nine jerks. They get away. But because of the opening, we know they’ll return. We know something bad will happen.
While we’re waiting for it, we get the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It's suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi's wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven.
Again, I can’t really recommend “Betel Nut.” I wanted less mood, more character. Or more interesting characters. I wanted some fucking dialogue.
But placing the act of revenge at the beginning of the movie was well done. It’s almost as if we don’t get the revenge. The images that linger are the crimes, so horrific and needless.
Movie Review: The Third Murder (2017)
I say “spoilers” but, really, how can I spoil what I can’t fathom? There’s nothing to spoil here because there are so few answers. It’s legal procedural as M.C. Escher painting. Every step seems to lead us somewhere, but, scratching our heads, perplexed, we simply wind up right back where we started.
The movie opens with a murder. In the grassy fields near a river, Misumi (Koji Yakusho) takes a wrench and beats in the head of his former factory boss. The blood splatters Misumi’s cheek; then he splatters the corpse with gasoline and sets it aflame. Later, he confesses to the crime. Open and shut? Seemingly. But we’re two minutes in. As the movie progresses, we wonder if what we’ve watched is a thing that even happened.
Do the right thing
Our protagonist, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), is brought in by Misumi’s first attorney to help with the case. He’s the son of a judge—the same judge who 30 years earlier was lenient with Misumi during his first murder trial—and he’s, you know, doing lawyerly things. He’s looking for ways to get his client off or his sentence reduced. He wants to avoid the death penalty.
Apparently this was the impetus for the film. Here’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, and ... I asked him “What was it that he did?” and he said, “We’re there to make adjustments to the conflict interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it.
You could argue it’s the difference between the movie version of the world and the reality, which is why Kore-eda decided to make a movie that dealt with that reality. Or, really, that began with that reality—using the best facts in your client’s best interests—and then ... not. Here’s what he asked himself:
“Okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”
It takes us a while to get there. The movie is masterfully atmospheric. You know how a film clings to you afterwards? Walking home, every sentence my wife said seemed to float in the air, pulsating with potential meaning, until disappating and leaving nothing behind; just a residue of meaninglessness. That’s what much of the dialogue, much of the movie, felt like to me.
Is Misumi crazy or wise? Is he malicious or protective? Did he kill the factory boss because he had debt, because he was fired, because the boss’ wife asked him to, because the boss’ daughter, Sakie (Suzie Hirose), wanted him to?
At one point, Misumi seems to commune with, and read the mind of, his attorney after the two hold up hands against the plastic partition separating them. So is he an empath? Later, Sakie implies something similar. She says Misumi sensed she wanted her father dead—since he was molesting her—and that’s why he killed him. And yet we hear nothing more of his empathic abilities. They‘re raised to be forgotten.
Or how about the thing with the birds? If he didn’t kill the factory boss, then why mercy-kill his own birds beforehand while setting one free? Why bury them in the backyard beneath a cross of stones? And what does it mean that the burned body at the crime scene also formed a neat, perfect cross? Or that the movie ends with Shigemori standing at a literal crossroads?
My wife thought Misumi hadn’t committed the murder. She felt he was simply covering for Sakie. That’s why he kept changing his story and motives: to protect her. Sure, I said. Except 30 years earlier, he’d committed another murder in another city, and the prosecutor there said he kept changing his story, too. Changing the story to protect Sakie can’t be the answer because it’s what he’s always done. We’ve just gone in circles. We’re back on M.C. Escher’s steps.
The truth will not out
To be honest, I can't even pinpoint what the title refers to. The earlier murder was a two-fer, so is the factory boss the third? Or is Misumi himself the third murder? He’s an innocent man doomed to be executed by the state, which isn’t interested in a search for truth.
I admit I liked “The Third Murder." From the beginning, I felt in the hands of a master. What’s fascinating, too, is that Kore-eda seems to have upended his original purpose. Disappointed by the reality of the Japanese legal system, he wanted to make a movie about a lawyer who did search for the truth, who was what we envisioned a lawyer to be. And what happened? His client got screwed and the truth wasn’t outed. Indeed, the more he searched for the truth, the further it got from him. And from us.