Watched a couple of movies a few weeks ago, and I thought both were remarkable but flawed.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is Hayao Mizayaki‘s re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaid. I enjoyed the movie’s energetic and witty animation; there was one bravura stretch during which little Ponyo, transformed by powerful magic, creates a storm by the sea, and runs and somersaults and leaps from wave to wave, her sheer exuberance breathtaking and almost tiring to watch. I also enjoyed the movie’s evocative and precise sound design; the crashing waves and stormy seas, the plop of a watery barrier’s surface being breached, the chugchugchug of a magic steamer boat all sounded hyper-realistic.
I thought the movie was let down by its plot though. There was no point when I worried about the welfare of Ponyo or the boy she loved, and the test they had to pass scarcely qualified as a test. I enjoyed Mizayaki’s Spirited Away much much more.
Red Cliff II is the much-hyped sequel to the first Red Cliff movie, which really functioned to set the scene for this action-packed follow-up. One of director John Woo’s fortes is action, and Red Cliff II is a showcase of his talent in this regard, with siege scenes alternately reminiscent of the signature Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and the titanic battles scenes in The Lord of the Rings. Another of John Woo’s forte – less cinematically obvious I suppose – is his depiction of the deep camaraderie among men who battle alongside one another. This was evident in A Better Tomorrow, for example.
In Red Cliff II, one of these shows of brotherhood comes on the day of battle, when a guilty Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) worries about his pregnant wife, who had gone behind enemy lines to plead for peace with opposing warlord Cao Cao. Zhou Yu, who is military strategist and commander of the Wu troops, is feeling especially guilty and worried because he only learned of his wife’s pregnancy from the notes she left behind, despite her earlier hints. As they wait for battle to be joined, the Wu troops are treated to bowls of tang yuan (sweet dumplings typically filled with red bean paste), which symbolise reunion and togetherness in Chinese tradition. One by one, his fellow strategists, his king, his king’s sister, even a fearsomely taciturn captain plop one of their tang yuan into Zhou Yu’s bowl. Zhou Yu forces a crooked smile in appreciation, and downs the heap of tang yuan, stuffing his mouth. And the troops roar!
In that one scene is also two of the film’s flaws. The decision of Zhou Yu’s wife to go behind enemy lines is staged and unnecessary, one of the many holes in Red Cliff II‘s mediocre and predictable plot. Tony Leung, who is a winner of the Golden Horse Award (the Chinese movies’ equivalent of the Oscar), plays Zhou Yu with one beleaguered expression, with the forced crooked smile more an irritating tic than a sign of his inner turmoil. His acting, like the other actors’, was generally flat and uninspired.
Still, two very entertaining movies. What’s not to like? :)