Farewell My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)

Farewell My Concubine

That’s just an opera. It’s not real life.

The length of the film aside, Farewell My Concubine was quite an amazing watch, and a pretty easy one to boot. Chen Kaige’s pseudo-epic is regarded as one of the films at the forefront of the Fifth Generation cinematic movement of Chinese filmmakers; some of the other Chinese films around the same year as this one are also a part of this movement, and thus they share many things in common. For one, this was also initially withheld from release in China, due to its depiction of the rise of Communism in China and the Cultural Revolution. Apparently, this changed, and the film is now regarded by Chinese filmgoers as their favorite Chinese film of the 20th century. Watching it, it’s easy to see why.

The film follows two Peking opera singers as they grow up together in an acting troupe, set against the backdrop of 50 years of Chinese history (and why not; it seems every epic has to cover a massive range of cultural history). As kids, Douzi and Shitou meet and stick up for one another during the brutal training regiment their troupe employs (seriously, the masters of the training house are only a pebble’s throw away from outright torturing the young boys nonstop). As they grow older, they become huge Chinese opera stars, a position that allows Shitou the chance to take a woman he’s admired for some time. This, however, drives a wedge between him and Douzi, as Douzi has fallen in love with him, and the tumultuous love triangle continues to spin out of control until everyone involved ends up meeting their just fates. The first third of the film aside (as in, the part that deals with the oppressive training of the young lads), this was very enjoyable for a number of reasons. For one, the production value was absolutely stellar, and it was also thanks to the equally excellent cinematography that it ended up being well utilized instead of just garish. Another aspect that really made the film was the acting by the central players, in particular a quiet but riveting portrayal by Leslie Cheung as the adult Douzi, whose face and eyes reveal more emotion than any words ever could. What I wasn’t too much a fan of was the shoehorning in of Chinese history seemingly only for the reason that it was necessary to justify the film’s length. It basically comes off as a requirement for any film trying to be an epic, and it really shouldn’t be; this would’ve worked just as well if it had kept the focus on the central conflict and used the omission of the historical elements to shave off a small chunk of the running time.

In contrast to the film’s billing as an epic, it’s the small moments that really make this film worth it; the furtive glances between characters after something has happened, and the tiny looks in the actors’ eyes in reaction to everything thrown their way. That, plus the absolute feast for the senses that the film’s visual and audible aspects are, is what won this the Palme d’Or, becoming the first and so far only Chinese film to ever take home the award. If you can stand the length, and admittedly the somewhat unnecessary historical aspects added in for filler, this is definitely one to see at some point in your life. The films of the Fifth Generation are a bit samey, I will say that, but this would appear to be the best of all of them.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom

Shall we dance?

Oh, Baz Luhrmann, you nutty, nutty devil, you. I’ve now seen three of your films, and every one has been an absolute extravaganza for the senses. But what really surprised me about your debut work, Strictly Ballroom, was how big of a heart it has. Here was my thought process going into Strictly Ballroom: I bet it’s going to be a visual splendor, filled with music and production value, which threatens to overly swamp the rest of the particulars about the film like the plot or the characters; you know, typical Buhrmann. Here’s my thought process coming out of Strictly Ballroom: How in the bloody hell did I just enjoy that as much as I did?

The plot reminded me amusingly enough of Footloose; Scott Hastings is a star amateur ballroom dancer, but blows his shot at winning a competition because he ends up doing his own thing and dancing his own steps on the ballroom floor. You know, refusing to commit to conformity, a passion for dancing, etc etc; Scott is really Ren McCormack in shiny sequins and baubles. But anyway; after the scandal, his dance partner leaves him, and he is forced to find another. Enter Fran, a frumpy beginner dancer who comes up to Scott and very bluntly asks him to dance with her. Several days later, the two aren’t just a dancing pair, but in love as well, and they (once again for Scott) threaten to blow traditional dancing out of the water, much to the chagrin of damn near everyone else in Scott’s dancing life. There were a few quibbles I had with the plot, and they were ones I’ve had with other films; namely, how things seem to happen in the film merely because they are the obligatory thing to happen at that moment in a film. Chiefly, this flaw is personified in the villain of the piece, who basically tries to stop Scott from dancing his own steps because… well, because he wants everything to stay the same. But it didn’t call for half of the things we find out he ended up doing in the film, which altogether made him a villain for villainy’s sake. This, and there were a few moments near the end that, though sure to arouse a cheer from the audience, didn’t really make sense as they had no setup or inclination to happen prior to them happening; they just happened because Luhrmann insisted they do so. That said, though, this was still undeniably enjoyable. The production value wasn’t on the level of Moulin Rouge, but it was exactly what it needed to be; at times, excessive as a nod to the culture of ballroom dancing that the film pays tribute to, and merely the minimum needed to be utilized to tell the story at other times.

I don’t know why, but for Luhrmann’s debut film, I was expecting it to be a bit more normal than his other films I’ve seen. It ended up meeting that expectation, as I explained above, but the typical Luhrmann touches are definitely here to be found. But, more than anything, I ended the film with a big smile on my face, and that’s what makes Strictly Ballroom work as well as it does; the pure entertainment value of it. I really was not expecting to like this nearly as much as I did, and what’s more, I like it even though I was able to see through the film and find numerous flaws in the storytelling. That’s how well this film sells itself. Maybe some of it is my history in the theater, including musicals, so I know what it means to be a performance artist and to be a showman, which is really what Strictly Ballroom is about; it’s a love letter to the whole concept of dancing. And in that regard, this is a definite success.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Blue Kite (Lan feng zheng)

The Blue Kite

You are the Youth of New China.

Banned in China upon its completion, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite was a bit of an enigma for me, largely because I didn’t grow up in the timeframe that the film is set in, and thus many of the messages and metaphors used in the film were lost on me. Evidently, they were not lost on the Chinese government, who not only refused to allow it to be seen in China, but imposed a ten-year ban on Zhuangzhuang’s filmmaking, preventing him from making any films for the next decade. This would seem to be a steep sentence handed down on Zhuangzhuang, but considering the film he made, it’s really no surprise that the totalitarian Chinese government would get upset at a film that basically decries Chinese governments over the years and their influence on regular family life in China.

That is basically the gist of the plot; we follow a family living in China, mostly through the eyes of Tietou, a young boy born at the start of the film, as they try and live in the rapidly changing environment of 1950s China, despite the government’s consistent interference in their regular lives. I have to admit, it was a little difficult to fully pay attention to the film’s plot, pretty much because it seemed so superficial; the plot developments that were happening were only happening as a pretext to get to the interference of the government in the family’s otherwise happy lives. Still, despite the somewhat opaque narrative, there were a few things I was able to appreciate with this one;well, one really. The cinematography was very good; I noticed a lot of times that the camera used dolly shots, well executed ones, to enhance the scenes they were used in, and there was a lot of intentional use of color, as well as light and shadow, to depict the mood of each section of the film. This, however, was not enough to hold my interest through the film’s two-plus hour running time, and I was a bit flustered at the lack of anything else in the film that served to keep me engaged. Just an additional heads up as well; the film has a hell of a downer ending, so if that’s not your thing, this probably won’t be worth your time.

This is one of those films where a lot happens, but at the same time, nothing really happens. It’s an effective film, and an important one given the country’s reaction to it when it was finished, but it is not a particularly entertaining one. I pretty much got the point of the story about a half hour into the film, and the rest from there was just tedium. I should’ve been a little more concerned than I was, when I went to a few congregating review sites to see the general opinion on this one, and found it spread out all over the spectrum. Boiling it down, this was just another example of a film that I understood the end goal of it too early into it, and then was forced to sit through the rest of it only to find that it perfectly met my conclusions. There’s some merit to be found here, but not very much.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in China (Wong fei-hung)

Once Upon a Time in China

Our Land, Our People.

There are a surprisingly small number of martial arts films on the list, although basically all the big ones are covered. Even still, it’s films like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China that make me wonder if there still may be too many. I wouldn’t argue against the inclusion of this one, but with other films like Peking Opera Blues, Project A 2, Five Deadly Venoms, Enter the Dragon, and Shaolin Master Killer all on the list, I’d find it hard to make an argument for it. Now, for what it was designed to do (be a vehicle for star Jet Li and his kung fu prowess), it succeeds. It’s just all the other elements that make up a film that are rather slipshod here.

Jet Li is Wong Fei-hung, a Chinese folk hero who doubles as the titular character in the film’s original Chinese. Wong is a martial arts master in a small Chinese town currently at odds with the foreign Americans and British men who are there to colonize for their own ends. That’s about as far as a regular plot summary as I’m going to get, because the center of the plot of this one was all over the place, jumping from one narrative core to another so fast that one wonders if this is the stitched-together remains of a number of scripts, all combobulated together into some sort of Franken-screenplay. There’s a young wannabe disciple who ends up falling in with the wrong master, there’s the wrong master himself who wants to open up his own martial arts school and must defeat Wong Fei-hung first to do so, there’s the conflict between Wong and the Shaho Gang, there’s a plot thread with the foreigners kidnapping and shipping Chinese women to other countries as slaves; all of these and more are the central focus of the film for at least a small portion of the running time. Not to mention that there was an awful lot of the plot that seemed cut and thrown together to satisfy the needs of the narrative, and not because it was a logical progression of events. The local police force, for instance, had an unhealthy and irrational hatred for Wong Fei-hung, and most of the conflict in the middle portion of the film was thanks to them and their odd need to arrest and/or kill Wong. Plus, there was a romantic subplot involving one of Wong’s peers, whom he calls Aunt 13 (one of the weirdest nicknames for a character I’ve ever heard), that was needless save for an obligatory damsel-in-distress trope put into play in the third act. And it’s not just the story that leaves a lot to be desired; the technicals aren’t all that great either, or at least they look nice but aren’t properly constructed or put together. I wasn’t particularly a fan of the visual style of this one, mostly because it felt too dated to be appropriate for a film made in 1991; apparently Hark as a director is still somewhat stuck in the 80s. Hark is also a big fan of camera movement, even unnecessary camera movement. There were so many shots at a low canted angle where the camera would suddenly swoop in one direction, stopping on some person or character of interest, that it almost became a drinking game whenever one would appear.

Thankfully, the film’s main selling point, the kung fu action sequences, are by far the highlight of the film, particularly one near the end involving a metric shit-ton of ladders that Wong and his rival sensei use to fight on top of and around with each other. But, as I’ve said in the past, one particularly exemplary sequence does not a wholly satisfactory film make. Many regard this as one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. To those people, I would ask just how many martial arts films they have seen (that aren’t sequels in a long series or remakes of originals). This was decent as an action flick, but in every other regard this film pretty much fails at being a film. It’s all just an excuse to throw up some amazingly choreographed fight sequences. But, then again, I can’t really blame it for doing so, considering what people will accept as entertainment in the face of absolutely horrible storytelling ability.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Archangel

Archangel

Goodbye, Iris.

Two decades before The Artist, Guy Maddin made Archangel, a weird little tribute of a film that happily pays homage to the era of the early talking pictures; those, like The Jazz Singer, that are on the cusp of sound, but still are structured and made like a silent film. It’s worth mentioning once again; this was released in 1990, so Maddin has plenty of technology and advancement of cinematic technique to use in order to make damn near any film he might want to. So then, why make a film that looks and feels like it was made in the 1920s? For Maddin, I believe it boils down to two main reasons: to give a modern audience a taste of what greatness some early talking pictures had to offer, and also just to see if he could.

The plot was rather hard to follow, but I’ll try to piece together what I can. Boles is a one-legged military man who pines for his perished love, Iris, in the remote northern region of Russia known as Archangel at the end of World War I. Arriving in a town, he first sees Veronkha, a woman who looks remarkably like Iris, so much so that Boles becomes convinced that it actually is Iris, somehow alive after all. Despite Veronkha’s marriage to the amnesiac Philbin, Boles still intends to pursue her, even despite the encroaching front of the war, which continues to be waged in the region despite ending everywhere else. So, here we have a film, circa 1990, that’s black-and-white, looks like it was shot on 16mm film circa the 1920s, and even with equipment from the same day and age. Part of it begs the question of, why would anyone want to watch this one, or why should they? Really, I can’t give a good answer to that question. Besides a very specific group of people, who’d be interested in the early talkie era but have yet to actually see any films from said era, there doesn’t seem to be a solid market for this film. The story is somewhat haphazardly told, and the technicals, while intentionally so, leave a little to be desired. What was a little befuddling was that Maddin and his crew seemed to know what they were doing with the technicals, even through the veneer of making the film seem low-quality enough that it felt like it was really from the early sound era. The only thing that belies the film’s anachronistic style is the quality of some of the shots, as well as the audio; otherwise, this may very well have been made in the late 1920s. Really, the audio was actually too well recorded; it came off as disconnected from the mouths of the people speaking, and not in an “early sound-era overdubbing” way.

Here’s the main thought that went through my head during and after I was watching this film: the style of film it was, combined with the era the film was actually made in, might have served a purpose on the initial list, but that purpose has been supplanted by the much better offering of 2011’s The Artist, which essentially offers the same thing this does, but in a much better and more entertaining way. However, this managed to survive the 10th edition restructuring, which begs the question: what does this really have to offer to the list as a whole? My answer would be: not all that much, not anymore. It’s a nice little experiment of a film, and a good love letter to a bygone era of filmmaking, but the film has basically been rendered obsolete, so aside from completion’s sake, there isn’t a real reason to watch it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Short Cuts

Short Cuts

I hate L.A.

I’ve warmed considerably to Robert Altman since I started the list. That said, however, the concept of a three-hour film of his was not all that high on my wish list of films to see. Nevertheless, Short Cuts stood with its imposing figure over my night’s watch tonight, and I seem to have developed a “jump in the deep end” mentality to get through these longer films that would serve me well here. In the end, Short Cuts ends up treading way too familiar ground, what with Altman’s earlier film Nashville being essentially the exact same film set in a different city, but this was still enjoyable in its own way, I guess.

In case you didn’t see Nashville, don’t worry; there’s no real plot to that one, and there’s no real plot to this one either. What it is is a menagerie of characters, all inter-connected in interesting ways, living in a specific area and thus providing a pastiche on the area as a whole. Here, this time, the area is Los Angeles, and not just the Hollywood industry aspect that was lampooned in The Player; this is as wide-encompassing a portrait as a film can get, and seeing it needed three hours to do it is not surprising in the slightest, especially in hindsight. Befitting the massive cast of characters and the inter-weaving of storylines, this is a hard one to follow, to put it lightly. I think I can say that if it weren’t for frequent double-checking with the Wikipedia article for the film, I would not have known half the connections between the cast or been able to keep the ones I did know straight, but I kinda get the feeling from the film that that’s almost the point of it all. Still, for a formula such as that, I don’t think anyone does said formula better than Altman; this was a shade below Nashville for me, but it was still good. What Nashville had that this one seemed to lack, however, was an ultimate goal or purpose to the proceedings. With Nashville, there was the presidential rally that everything was leading towards; here, there’s merely an inconsequential event at the end that serves as a blunt bookend to all of the stories, and that’s about it. It takes up three hours of our lives, and then… just ends. It was a nice way to spend three hours, but I don’t think there’ll be any reason to spend another three on it.

I’m actually surprised that the only Oscar nom this got was for Altman as director, and not for the screenplay; to combine nine short stories (and a poem) into a single film is a heck of an achievement, and to have it come off as rapid-fire and multi-layered as it was in the film was pretty impressive, if indeed the whole thing was scripted. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d watched the whole three hours of it for nothing. I honestly don’t know what I could say to someone to get them to watch this film; it really doesn’t have any reasons going for it that aren’t already present in Altman’s Nashville, and that film’s a whole half hour shorter than this one, which just give it another extra point. The cast was great, the script was solid, but there’s basically no actual reason to seek this one out and watch it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Rapture

The Rapture

There has to be something more…

It’s intrinsic to a concept like the 1001 list that people will wonder why a particular film is on there. Even after reading the Book’s passage about the film, these wonderings may not fully go away, and it will seem, even through all you can find about the film, that there is no conspicuous reason that the film should be on there. Such is the case, with me at least, with The Rapture, a film starring Mimi Rogers about the titular Biblical event. I started the film with this wonderment in mind, and aimed to discover why this was deemed important, significant, or even good enough to make the list. I ended it probably more angry at a film I’ve been since Vinyl, and thats saying something. There was something to this film, especially for the faith-driven market, but the film itself just goes about it in all the wrong ways. Let me explain.

Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a hedonistic woman living a life of nothing as a phone operator. She ends up becoming a born-again Christian, and either sees or dreams that the Rapture prophesied in the Bible is soon to occur, so she takes her daughter out to the desert with promises that they’ll meet her murdered father in Heaven when God comes for them. I won’t go any further than that, but the film ends up taking an angle that will likely divide the audience into love-it-or-hate-it camps, and I wouldn’t begrudge them for it, mostly because of how the film goes about making things happen, in particular how Sharon goes about her character arc. So, here’s how the character change of Sharon works in The Rapture: she overhears some of her coworkers talking about dreams they have been having. Later, a couple of Christian converters come knocking on her door, which she shrugs off even after inviting them in. Then, using some info she gains from another of her liaisons, she tries to fake her way into her coworkers’ circle of discussion, but fails. Then, the very next scene, she wakes up in the middle of the night, and declares to her lover, whom she just had sex with, that she is a convert and wants to be saved, and immediately (literally on the spot) starts practicing Christian beliefs like not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Let me give a very short lesson on how to develop characters in a believable manner; watch The Rapture. Okay? Okay; this is not how to do it. Let’s put all the religious stuff on the back-burner, and just look at how the filmmakers of The Rapture take the character of Sharon and shape her characterization and the events that happen to her so that her change is an acceptable one to us, the viewers; they don’t. The change in Sharon is literally the filmmakers flipping a switch in Sharon’s mind from “sin-loving sleaze” to “born-again purity” with absolutely zero incentive for the character to make this switch; she just does because the script commands that she do it at that point in the film. I cannot express to you how infuriating this was for me, so much so that when the film continued and had an actual, genuine point of change for Sharon to renounce her ways and join the faith, albeit a somewhat “Hollywood” one, after it had already tried and failed, I couldn’t buy into it; it just seemed like the film had spilled its puzzle pieces all over the floor and was hastily trying to reassemble them in the right order. From there, the film just made bad decision after bad decision, and what was worse was that the film didn’t have any clout to its name or any foundation behind the decisions it made; it just made them because it was expected to, or because the script called for it. I’m sorry, but I can’t get behind a script, and a film, that does that; it’s almost as bad as a film that just doesn’t even try, which this is but a stone’s throw away from. Not quite, but almost.

I don’t know what I was expecting, if indeed I was expecting anything, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to end up disliking this so intensely. This was a mess, plain and simple, and it probably angered me even more that it appeared, at least for early 90s’ standards, to be a pretty well made mess. In response to my initial statements in the opener, I can’t even begin to wonder why this made the 1001 list, and frankly, I’m not going to spend another second wondering; this shouldn’t be on there at all. There’s plenty of other religious-themed films that are far better with what they do than this. I’ll give it a point or two for effort, but that’s all that this is getting from me.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10