Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho

 

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Over time a class system evolves on the train, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and poor inhabiting the back of the train. Tired of their poor living conditions, the riders in the back revolt, attempting to seize control of the engine.

First off, I love the international cast. This is the type of  international co-production that I like to see more of.  Considering the somber heavy tone of the story, it’s surprising that this movie was even made. Every actor fits their part and they all happen to be character actors in an ensemble piece.

Chris Evans makes an engaging lead, never letting his stardom get in the way of his character. Watching him play such a righteous character never once reminded me of Captain America, and that’s probably the best thing I can say. Tilda Swinton is wonderfully ridiculous. When she first appeared, it threw me off because it was so over-the-top. Her character seemed to belong in another film. I wondered if it was possible for someone like that to exist in that environment but as the story unfolded, Swinton’s commitment to her cartoonish portrayal changed my opinion.

Song Kang-Ho is always an entertaining presence. He is held back by a language barrier but that is not enough to contain his natural funniness. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer both make a dramatic impact with their supporting roles. Alison Pill also has a memorable cameo that teeters between creepy and satirically hilarious.

Bong Joon-Ho tells a good proper social science fiction story. The metaphor of the train representing the hierarchy of social class was handled with subtlety. This could vary for other viewers, but the film’s ideas and themes never felt heavy for me. As the lower class move up each train car in a series of action set pieces, I found myself slowly detaching from what was going on and comfortably sinking into the film’s ideas (a problem I had with Edgar Wright’s The World’s End earlier this year). The story’s themes brought me back to the time when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. I thought about human nature, social class and the rich versus the poor, but never for too long because the characters were about to discover what’s in the next train car. The middle portion of the film does sag a bit, but Bong Joon-Ho delivers some nice twists and turns along the way.

I read the news about the Weinstein Company is trying to cut a shorter version of Snowpiercer for its upcoming American release. Even thinking in Harvey Weinstein’s terms (and believe me, witnessing the amount of Asian cinema has neutered by Weinstein for the last decade, I consider myself an expert),  I don’t see what he thinks Americans won’t understand about the social politics and story in Snowpiercer.

The only commercial concern that I can think of is the Korean language portions of the film because American audiences apparently dislike reading subtitles. Korean only takes up a small portion of the film. And actually, an universal translating device is aptly written into film for audiences that prefer to listen. That or Weinstein just wants to put down his authorial stamp for unearthing Asian cinema to the West. So don’t be patronized, if it’s available, please go see the original director’s version. It’s solid science fiction made with proper intentions by a cast and crew that are passionate about the material.

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Bully by Lee Hirsch

Bully by Lee Hirsch

Bully follows the lives of five American students who face bullying on a daily basis.

This documentary deeply upset me. With all the problems we have in the world, it’s enraging that this problem exists to this degree.

I feel sorry for the child who took his own life over being bullied. It’s sad his voice was not heard when he was alive and that he had to take himself away to get everybody’s attention.

I am perversely happy and relieved for the child who decided to take action and scare her bullies by bringing a handgun onto a school bus and eventually had the criminal charges amended.

It broke my heart seeing one of the kids claiming he does not feel anything anymore about being strangled, punched, stabbed with pencils and verbally abused daily. Something failed in humanity here.

I was surprised there were no bus monitors on these school buses. When I was a kid, the schools never left it up to the bus driver as the sole adult on the bus, they assigned a teacher or a teacher’s assistant to be a bus monitor to watch the kids.

What can a teacher realistically do in that situation? It is battling an invisible social force. It is never just the bully that terrorizes you; it’s also the empty space around the victim that’s reinforced by other people doing nothing. The bullying behavior is a contagious hive-minded social act. Once you bear witness to somebody being humiliated, they feel like they can humiliate them too. That’s how it spreads.

It was unjust watching a teacher totally ignoring one of the kids and forcing him to shake hands with the bully who was just going to bully him again later. I agree that teachers can generally do more than the ones presented here. Those teachers clearly did not care about those students and were defending themselves on a political level. As the film shows, catching the bullying act when it happens doesn’t completely solve the problem; the schools just need to have open discussions with the students. There is a bit of that in the end, but it made me wonder if there are any schools in America that are more active on this issue.

The documentary is not complete. They could have interviewed the teachers’ side or other students or even the school bullies themselves. The director’s agenda was to enrage the audience as much as possible. It’s a one-sided argument, but it worked on me. I am enraged. I have a weak stomach for kids in pain. That said, I want to see a follow-up on these kids and the current situation in America. Did this documentary create any action? Maybe a follow-up film might be a good idea.

The MPAA rating dispute truly does not matter at all; Bully should be screened in schools and discussed in a classroom. It’s a relevant topic that exists parallel to the middle school and high school kids right now. What is the point of waiting for them to be age-appropriate to see it later in their first year in college? Hold the mirror up and disturb them now! Why wouldn’t you?

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.

The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.

Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…

There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.

The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Set in the antebellum era of the Deep South and Old West, a freed slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

I’m just going to right into it…

The best performance by a mile is Christoph Waltz – he is the heart of the movie. Waltz’s Doctor King Schultz single-handedly balances the entire film, evening out the tone between moments of intense horror and humor and mediating the film’s internal battle between historical fact and its post-modern aesthetic. He is the Yang to the film’s Yin, filling out the missing part of the scenes and even providing a human perspective into what’s happening when the audience does not what to feel in certain situations. Whenever Christoph Waltz is not in the movie, it is heavily felt.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is a great villain and brings a scary presence. Scary is something we haven’t ever seen Dicaprio accomplish so it was quite fresh to see. He sings Tarantino’s dialogue, projecting a charming demeanor on the surface while carrying a constant petty evil underneath. It’s not Oscar worthy (if anything, he should have won for The Aviator) but a powerful performance nonetheless.

Jamie Foxx’s lead performance as Django seemed off to me. Particularly his voice threw me off because his inflections sound too modern. Everybody else seems to have an accent from the era, but he does not use a southern accent, or any accent. He just sounds like a black man from 2012. Django’s progression of intelligence was unconvincing to me as well. There were times where he seemed dim-witted and other times where he seemed sharp, and it felt unnatural. It is not a screenwriting issue, but in how the performance was delivered. It was as if Foxx focused on playing the “Man with No Name” western genre hero and did not know how to balance it with the historical context of black slaves in America. He just did not carry enough pain in his eyes.

I don’t have words for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, it’s quite the spectacle to behold. Watching it transported me into a weird nether place. Maybe I need to go leaf through a history book on slavery or something. I don’t know what to make of it. And on that awkward note…

However one may feel about Tarantino’s frequent use of the N word, he definitely has a strange obsession with it. As horrible as this sounds, I was surprised how other racial slurs from that era were not spoken in the film. (I am not going to name them here. I will defer you to watch that scene in Clerks 2.) There is a quality in Tarantino’s crass, in-your-face direction that suggests that he gets off rebelling against social taboos. That telling him that something is politically incorrect will push him to do it in order to disprove you. That’s my speculation anyways.

The film is way too long. Simply put, it’s ill-disciplined in the sense that Tarantino wants his cake and eat it too. He wants to tell his story and communicate a statement but also wants to amuse himself by inserting things that he enjoys and cannot reign himself in. There is a gag where a major comedy star shows up in a cameo which I found problematic. In fact, it was problematic in the exact same way I found Mike Meyer’s cameo was in Inglourious Basterds. In a film where it’s trying to balance historical fact and a post-modern aesthetic by mediating film genres, seeing a modern comedic actor show up for a cheap laugh is just one extra layer too many and it took me out. Did the gag make me laugh? No. Did it progress the story? No. Then why is the gag there? Tarantino wants it to be, that’s why.

A reason that I prefer Django Unchained over Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino doesn’t try to make every scene into a dialogue set piece. The opening set piece in Inglourious Basterds is the best thing Tarantino has written (he says so too), but every proceeding scene seemed like he was trying to recreate that for the rest of the movie and it got tiring. There is a point in the Django Unchained‘s final act where the story could have concluded but it proceeds for another half hour. I could have cut 20 minutes out of the film and it is that exact 20 minutes that holds the film from being something masterful. Yes, that includes Tarantino’s cameo. Tarantino shouldn’t act in his own films. Maybe he shouldn’t act at all in anything but he was the worst part of his own film.

All that said, I enjoyed it much more than Inglourious Basterds ( I am so relieved it didn’t end with a character uttering “Hm, maybe THIS is my masterpiece.”) Tarantino fans may love the extra fat, but I would have preferred a leaner steak with more discipline. It’s just that little difference, if only Tarantino reigned himself in.

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai


NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film. And by that, I mean the original cut of the film. Not the Weinstein version.

The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by northern stylist Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang), is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will live to pass on their lineage?

Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him to explore every little detail in his stories. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a room full of lush oil paintings. Everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through what’s happening. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.

Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. The Golden Brothel and the train station sets are works of art.

Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well too.

Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictional character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…

The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial art. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bode better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a Game of Death-like sequence where the film presents these different styles. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the fourth and there is a fifth coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity in presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.

It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, when people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and watching how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple meanings underneath as martial artists spoke in that time period. There were some instances when I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.

A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be focused on Ip Man or all three masters. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and this unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.

If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:

  •     Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life until later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
  •    He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
  •    He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.

There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which ended up being quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This eventually lead Bruce Lee creating Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.

To be frank, all of the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema bore me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of its hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.

Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?

That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It was made with a lot of heart with its microscopic attention to detail and delivers a sincere message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

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The Iron Lady by Phyllida Lloyd

Honestly, Meryl Streep can play a cockroach and win a Best Actress

Like I’ve said before in my entry for My Week with Marilyn, it is not possible to make a biopic about Marilyn Monroe without talking how beautiful she is and what a problem that was for her. Nor is it possible to make a Bruce Lee biopic without having any fighting in it. In that mentality, it is not possible to make a Margaret Thatcher biopic without it being about politics. This film attempts to defy that logic.

The story is structured from the mental state of the old Margaret Thatcher, who’s dealing with dementia over the lost of her late husband Denis. As things happen in the present, we flashback to the younger Margaret Thatcher, chronicling her journey from a young girl to being Prime Minister.

I do not understand what this framing device accomplishes. Is this about how Margaret Thatcher remembers her own life? No, she’s dealing with dementia. Is it her being senile the deal she had to do with the devil? No. She’s the first female British Prime Minister. Why is that not interesting enough in itself?

The parts with how she battled the work unions and the Falkland Island wars were really engaging me but there were only shown as excerpts in the film. Now I will have to revert to Wikipedia to learn more about that part of history.

Is there anything to say about Meryl Streep’s performance that has not been said? It’s a total physical transformation and she deserved the Best Actress award. That’s really all I have to say about it. Is the film worth watching solely for her performance alone? Only if you want to be part of the social discussion.

At it’s heart, The Iron Lady is a film about grief, loneliness and the loss of a loved one. I was moved by the relationship between Margaret and Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent). She found someone that truly loved her for who she was (he tells her this as he proposes, one of my favorite scenes in the movie) and it was heartbreaking to see her senile and alone without him. I felt sad for her when the film ended.

On that level, the film accomplished its goal. But why did that story about grief have to be Margaret Thatcher’s story? I still find there are many other more interesting goals to do with her life story. Personally, I would have liked to see the chronicle of her political career as the central story instead.

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.

How I Would Have Written the Ending to Peter Chan’s Wu Xia

Wu Xia (film)

Peter Chan's Wu Xia

MASSIVE SPOILERS – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN PETER CHAN’S WU XIA

I am a diehard loyal Donnie Yen fan. I was a fan before most people, since the Fist of Fury TV series days. It’s unfortunate because he peaked late to the love of mass audiences but the definite Donnie Yen works are all the films before he struck gold with Ip Man. Films such as Legend of the WolfSPL and Flashpoint will remain among my all-time personal favorite martial arts films. Flashpoint is the ultimate achievement in fight choreography. Yen always maintained his own style of choreography, stressing that it should be realistic and grounded in martial arts techniques. The speed and force of hits in Yen choreography are always the highlight of his fight scenes.

Speaking of which, I’m also a Takeshi Kaneshiro fan. He is a very smart actor that nobody ever gives him credit for because presumably he’s too good looking. He’s versatile (he can play drama, sing, and do comedy) and always brings up interesting characterizations to the table. In the beginning stages of shooting Wu Xia, he opted to perform his character in a Sichuan accent, which totally constructed a new layer to his detective character. With the snotty reaction of non-Mandarin actors speaking mandarin in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which inadvertently lead to Cantonese actors being dubbed in the Mandarin releases)  has no Chinese actor since attempted an accent. The stresses, tones and built-in emotionality of a Sichuan accent made his character more comical and quirky and in my opinion helped us see the intense quirks of his character. This film must be watched in its mandarin version to fully enjoy Kaneshiro’s performance.

So you can understand the excitement I had for Wu Xia when it was said that these two actors were casted together in the same movie.

I rather enjoyed the film. It brought some new colors to the wuxia genre. It contains the best Donnie Yen acting performance. Jimmy Wang is genuinely scary as the villain. I think Takeshi Kaneshiro is snubbed at the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. As much as I enjoyed the film, the filmmaker in me, thinks the third act could have been much better polished to be something great.

So let’s begin with a PLOT SYNOPSIS (feel free to skip if you remember the story):

The film is set in 1917 in a post-Qing Dynasty era, at Liu Village on the border of Yunnan, China. Liu Jin Xi (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his wife Yu (played by Tang Wei) and two children, works as a paper maker in Liu Village. One day, two bandits rob a general store. Liu Jin Xi, who happens to be in the store, gets into a brawl in an attempt to protect the storeowner. He kills the bandits and is branded a hero in his village.

Detective Xu Baijiu (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to investigate the case and discovers that one of the dead bandits was Yan Dongsheng, who is among the government’s ten most wanted fugitives. How can a simple commoner manage to take down the two most wanted fugitives? Through an accessment of the crime scene and an autopsy, all of the clues conclude that Liu Jin Xi is an expert martial artist. He’s able to induce brain hemorrhaging by hitting their Vague nerve and alter his weight with his Qi (a scientific explanation for ‘flying skills’ in the wu xia genre). Through many trials of investigation, Xu Baijiu finds out that Liu Jin Xi is really Tang Long – the second-in-command of the 72 Demons, a group of vicious and bloodthirsty warriors of Tangut minority descent trying to avenge the destruction of their people, who brutally murdered a butcher’s family (of Han descent) in Jingzhou ten years ago. Liu Jin Xi walks Xu out to the forest and instead of killing him, Liu spares him. Liu hopes Xu will let him go. Xu immediately returns to the county office to obtain an arrest warrant for Tang Long.

The magistrate delays issuing the warrant, citing lack of evidence while actually demanding a bribe from Xu. Xu eventually obtains the bribe money from his estranged wife (played by Li Xiaoran), who blames him for causing her father’s suicide. After issuing the warrant, the magistrate informs the Master of the 72 Demons (played by Jimmy Wang, the original One-Armed Swordsman) on Tang Long’s whereabouts, hoping to receive a reward. The Master is offended and reveals that Tang is actually his son, and he kills the magistrate by severing his Vagus nerve.

The Master sends his Demon henchmen to Liu Village to capture Tang and burn down the place. While Xu and the constables are on their way there, the two Demon henchmen reach the village first and kill a villager to force Tang to acknowledge his identity. Tang can no longer control himself and he fights and kills the two assailants, one of whom is the Master’s wife (played by Kara Hui), also Tang Long’s mother.

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, he induces a fake death with Tang Long’s body so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Xu knows that Tang cannot remain in his “death” state for any longer so he revives Tang. Tang severs his left arm in front of the Demons, announcing that he has formally broken ties with them by giving them his murderous hand. The Demons tell him to approach The Master, who is waiting for him at his home.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and  weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master is angered and incapacitates Xu. Tang continues fighting but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang, Xu notices the needle still stuck in his heel and takes him by surprise, planting another needle in the Master’s neck. The Master is unfazed and mortally wounds Xu by slamming him hard to the ground. The top needle acts as a lightning rod, and in combination with the bottom needle acting as an earthing wire, the Master is charred by a lightning strike, killing him. Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed.

The ending scene of the film shows a now one-armed Tang Long heading off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work.

Okay, onto MY SCREENWRITING IDEAS ABOUT WU XIA

Last chance not to spoil it for yourself! 

MY CRITIQUE OF THE ORIGINAL ENDING

My problem with the movie starts in the third act. It all begins with Liu Jin Xi chopping his own arm in front of the Demon lackeys.

Many will argue the Liu Jin Xi’s arm chopping to be a convention of the wu xia genre (though I don’t know where that has occured), it seems to come out-of-left field and out-of-character. The fact that it’s convention doesn’t bother me. Frankly, you can cut both his arms off (Donnie Yen is a kicker anyways), but it’s not justified by the character. The Tang Long character wakes up from his faked death amongst the 72 Demons, his father The Master, isn’t there. He is among lackeys! Why would he chop off his arm in front of them to trade for his freedom? They ultimately do not have the power to decide whether Tang Long can be let go or not. He chops his arm off and then the lackeys tell him he should see The Master as he is the decider. Wouldn’t you feel stupid in that moment if that happened to you?

The film’s major problem in the third act is that it ends with a deux ex machina. Yes, a lighting bolt is what kills the villain. The villain is set up to be so powerful that he is simply unbeatable by either protagonists, neither brains or brawn. An act of god comes in and kills off the Jimmy Wang character. And that’s where they got it wrong! It should be brains and brawn working together that beats The Master at the end.

And even if they beat The Master of the 72 Demons, the story hasn’t ended yet. Tang hasn’t even taken out the lackeys (the ones that cried over his fake death). They’re still alive and presumably around!

MY VERSION OF THE ENDING

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, they fake Tang Long’s death so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Time runs out and Xu revives Tang before he dies from being in his “death” state too long. Tang fights the Demon lackeys with both hands, finally finishing off the leader, who tells him The Master (Jimmy Wang) is at his house waiting for him. Tang takes the lackey’s broadsword and heads home with Xu.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. The Master breaks off Tang Long’s left arm and gives him a speech about being a traitor to his clan, that he should haven’t joined the Han people and that he should have avenged the death of his people.

While this is going on, Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master pulls Xu from underneath the boards and incapacitates him.

Tang takes the blade, continues fighting with one-arm but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang with one final blow, Xu plants several needles in the Master’s neck. The Master’s qigong defenses are totally taken down. Tang chops off his head with his blade.

Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed. We see Xu die as Yu and the kids come to Tang’s aid. We fade to black.

Some time later, a now one-armed Tang Long heads off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work. We see the Liu Village being rebuilt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So those are my thoughts! That just makes more sense to me. Tell me what you think!

And not that this would matter, but Harvey Weinstein, please don’t call this movie Dragon for the U.S. distribution. That’s a horrid title.

My Week with Marilyn by Simon Curtis

The two Michelle Williams performances that I have in my mind are from Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine. Therefore, my general visual impression of her in my head is the stressed-out mother holding a baby, due to the fact that she gave strong performances in those 2 films. In My Week with Marilyn, I do not see one hint of that. If there are any Michelle Williams-isms, I don’t see them. You don’t doubt that she is Marilyn Monroe in both the onscreen and offscreen versions. She just is Marilyn Monroe.

Last year, a biopic of Bruce Lee named Bruce Lee, My Brother came out, which covered Bruce Lee’s early life in Hong Kong before he moved to the United States. In that particular period of his life, he hadn’t yet become the fully formed martial artist that we know him for. Even with that, it was impossible for the filmmakers from crowbaring a couple of fight scenes into the film. And here’s my point: You can’t make a biopic of Bruce Lee without fighting. And likewise, it’s impossible to make a biopic of Marilyn Monroe without gazing at her or referring to her how seductively beautiful she was.

A lot of people are going to praise Michelle Williams. It is a wonderful performance by it’s own right and I’m not taking anything away from her. But that alone doesn’t warrant a good film. What general audience will overlook is the entire cast of this film that does the gazing. It’s not enough that they made Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe is attractive. It’s the people that run up to her, the men that want her to blow kisses at them, younger women wanting to be her and older women being jealous or afraid she’ll snatch their husbands. The entire cast essentially sells how beautiful Marilyn Monroe is equally and altogether I think that should be praised as well.

Kenneth Branagh gets down Laurence Olivier’s diction and I rather enjoyed Judi Dench and Emma Watson in their small roles. It’s nice to know that Paula Strasberg (Marilyn’s Method Acting coach, played by Zoë Wanamaker) looked like Edna Mode from The Incredibles.

The film’s structure is interesting, it’s a musical comedy masquerading as a biopic drama, but it’s really in the end a musical comedy. People are taking this seriously because it’s about famous people and the fact that it really happened. It doesn’t matter if this really happened or not. The story hops along fast montages and song numbers, rather than developing a pathos. It behaves much more like a musical comedy than a drama, and it should judged as such. It’s essentially a coming-out-age story about a boy’s first love. It’s all good fun, but very competent good fun.

I have a female friend who once told me that I should never date girls that quote Marilyn Monroe on their Facebook profile. (“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” ) She said it frees them up to act however they want to in any given moment. I didn’t really think about it before till I watched this film. I totally get it now.

Excuse me, while I go delete some people.