Gran Torino: Eastwood is a monument

I read a bit about Gran Torino before I watched it, and I read a lot about it after I watched it with two colleagues who seemed to find it as moving as I did. The actress who plays the Hmong big sister just about lit up the screen with her sassy vitality. That is, until something dies in her, and causes something to die too in her neighbour Walt.

I agree with one reviewer, who wrote that only Clint Eastwood could have played Walt. When I saw his heart wrench – well, technically what he did was subtly change his monumental countenance – sadness made my breath catch in my throat. I don’t remember being moved by an actor’s art quite as much as I was in this movie.

The movie’s music – especially its suspenseful, expectant drum-rolls and its theme song (see previous post), a few bars of which Eastwood rasps at the end of the movie – is also one of its many joys.

[This is my first blog posting from a new computer I’ve had to buy because my old one was getting cranky, by which I mean there were times when it would boot up without any problems at all and there were times when switching it on would elicit a screeching whine dangerous to one’s ears. Good thing I’d set up a foolproof backup system that synchronised my files every night and every week.]

Ponyo on the Red Cliff

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? :)

M*A*S*H fan

I’ve been a huge fan of the TV series M*A*S*H since I was in secondary school, when it was shown late on Sundays.  (I understand the series ran from Sep 1972 to Feb 1983 in the US.)  I thought the setting was interesting – life at a mobile army surgical hospital, situated near the front-line so that casualties could receive care as soon as possible, during the Korean War – and I loved the irreverently humorous tone and inherent gravitas of the show, and the human camaraderie that united the doctors and nurses there, and its memorable characters.

Recently I bought DVDs of seasons four and six.  The last episode of season four, titled “The Interview”, involves a TV crew conducting interviews at this M*A*S*H.  The reporter asks the soldiers several questions, and they answer them, like they’re on a TV documentary.  To me, it’s a classic episode: evocative writing, nuanced acting.

At one point, the reporter asks: “Has this whole experience changed you in any way?”  I especially enjoyed two characters’ answers to the question – they show how de-humanising war is.

Here’s what Captain BJ Hunnicutt said:

When I first came here, I couldn’t walk down a corridor full of wounded people without being sickened by it, and now I can walk down without even noticing them.

And this is a gem delivered by Father Mulcahy:

When the doctors cut into a patient, and it’s cold, you know, the way it is now, today, steam rises from the body, and the doctor will… will warm himself over the open wound.  How can anyone look on that and not feel changed?

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is a superhero movie the way a graphic novel such as The Sandman is a comic.  There is the tight storytelling, relentlessly paced; the flawed hero, who must deal with the consequences of his all-too-human choices; the not-quite-Hollywood ending.  All the principals turned in better-than-good performances: Christian Bale as Batman was laconic, brooding, troubled; Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent was quite flawless; Heath Ledger probably was the Joker in another, slightly more warped dimension.  His rendition of one of the greatest creations in comicdom – unpredictable, callous, full-bore psychotic and loving it – introduced tension into scenes the way Javier Bardem’s badly coiffed killer did in No Country for Old Men (one Joker scene got me tense as a coiled spring, like many of those in No Country for Old Men, as I recounted in my review), and he did this without overt violence of any kind: all the slicing of the edges of mouths and decapitation occurred off-screen, imagined.

In the end, I think The Dark Knight is best watched after having savoured some of the Batman comics and graphic novels.  The history between Batman and his nemesis is a rich one – one created the other, and the Joker’s continued existence, occasionally abetted by Batman because he is just too principled to kill the clown, is a big part of why he continues dressing up like a winged rodent – and the movie captures many of the ambiguities and hope reflected in the best Batman stories.  I also think that the script – featuring (i) the Joker’s threat to keep killing unless Batman reveals himself and the latter’s unwillingness to take off his mask and (ii) the Joker’s “social experiment”, in which he rigged up two ferries, one of normal citizens and one of prisoners, with bombs and forced them to kill or be killed – represented a measured step forward for superhero movies.  Yes, you don’t need CGI galore to make blockbuster supervillians.  Yes, the audience doesn’t mind being asked to contemplate difficult questions with no straightforward answers.  And yes, the movie is well worth watching.  Go go go watch it if it’s still on.

Red Cliff

I caught Red Cliff (赤壁) over a weekend midnight, and, while I did not regret watching it, I think it’s an extremely uneven, overrated movie.

Depicting a key battle in the acclaimed Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a commentator in one annotated edition said that it could be considered the most widely read, deeply influential Chinese classic), the movie – actually Part One of two, the other doubtless to be released as a year-end blockbuster – features many figures who would be familiar to most Chinese: Liu Bei, the benevolent ruler; Guan Yu, his sworn brother, a warrior supreme, who’s become a revered diety in Chinese culture, famed for his loyalty and integrity; Zhang Fei, his other sworn brother, Guan Yu’s equal in battle but reckless; Cao Cao, Liu Bei’s enemy, tyrannic, intelligent and unscrupulous; Zhuge Liang, a strategist synonymous with intelligence among the Chinese; Zhou Yu, Zhuge Liang’s equal, his nemesis, whose death was famously caused by the failure of his plans to kill Zhuge Liang and whose last words were “即生瑜,何生亮” (“Yu was born, why Liang too?”), a lament streaked with various measures of jealousy, appreciation of a comparable talent and frustration with the fates; Zhao Yun, so deadly and fierce a warrior that he struck fear in the hearts of those he faced on the battlefield well into his 70s.

Movies that are adaptations of well-known books/stories – say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series – have an unenviable task: they need to make the movie environs and the movie characters gel with the audience’s expectations, something that I think ranks as the highest achievements of the aforementioned two sets of movies. 

Red Cliff does not hit these heights in the case of character design.

The most successful character to me was Zhao Yun: steadfast, unwavering, efficiently destructive with his spear, he is the star of one of the most impactful scenes of the movie – guarding, then losing, his master’s wife and only son, deep in enemy territory, he scythes through faceless baddies in his desperate quest for them; he finds his master’s wife injured, and she begs him to return to her husband with his son, and to leave her, as she would only slow him down; upon his refusal, she jumps into a well; he seals the well, so no one may pillage her body, and buckles his master’s son inside his armour, and unleashes a furious assault on his way back to his master.

Cao Cao has so far – this is after all still the first part of two – been a caricature: driven to fatuity by his obsession for Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao, who herself is lustreless and over-acted.

Liu Bei is colourless and unmemorable.  His sworn brothers are lifted from old, musty tomes: beards and brows in the right places and shapes but two-dimensional.

Zhuge Liang is almost effeminate, and his often comical banter with his nemesis Zhou Yu is out of tune with the rest of the fairly serious movie.

With its painstakingly and brutally realistic protrayal of Chinese tactics in battle, and majestic stretches of scenery, Red Cliff does not fail as entertainment.  John Woo‘s feel for the kinetic is amazing: he imbues a silent swish of Zhou Yu’s feather fan with immediacy and power.  However, in tone, it veers into the territory of games and comics, and it is not one of the best movies of the year.  With its budget and star power, that’s a failure in my books.

No country for old men

…has tight, expressive, precise dialogue, especially if one understands twang and expressions straight out of the Southwest USA, circa 1980.

…features one of the scariest stalkers I have ever had seen in film, complemented by bewitching, suspenseful camera-work – I learned to be scared of this killer, and my fear of him and my dread of his actions and their consequences were used against me, so that in one sequence when he unexpectedly appeared behind an ex-partner who knew full well what the killer was capable of, I found myself tense in my GV cinema seat, heart thudding in my chest, knowing that the killer’s terrible weapon was going to be used but not sure when, forced to watch a back-and-forth between killer and to-be-killed play out until the killer tired of his game and nonchalantly squeezed the trigger and released the pressure on my chest.

…does not allow for easy interpretation – by me, anyway – but I thought it was somehow about the forces that are stronger than one’s will, the sort of forces that thwart best-laid plans and plot lives, and then I thought it was somehow also about the choices one makes, does not make and is forced to make.

    I just realised that, if Llewelyn had chosen not to take the money, things would have been all right.

    I still don’t get the title. I just don’t.

    Over Time

    Sometimes I just want to feel sad, and I listen to sad songs.

    Then yesterday, while listening to the sad guitar strings of the instrumental theme from the Japanese dorama “Over Time” (by The Brilliant Green – if you like heart-tugging plucks of guitar string and have good audio equipment, you might wanna root around the ‘Net for that), I looked up “Over Time” online, and came across a list of songs on its original soundtrack, and remembered one of my favourite songs from that time: “I Believe” by Yamaguchi Yuko. And then I searched for that song on YouTube, thinking I might find a music video from long ago, but I found this:

    I think those of you who followed “Over Time” would remember the scene in this YouTube clip.  Let me clumsily attempt to sketch a brief background: The scene in the YouTube clip is the farewell between Natsuki (the girl) and Soichiro (the guy), who are best buddies/soul-mates. Soichiro loves her, but Natsuki is not as sure – she thinks their relationship is one in which he walks alongside her, while she wants to spend her life with someone who would hold her hand. So Natsuki makes her final decision (after many convolutions): she would spend the rest of her life with Kuga, an all-round nice chap (though of course I couldn’t help disliking him for coming between Natsuki and Soichiro). They are leaving Japan for the US – therefore the farewell.

    Watching the show many years ago, I kept hoping for a convenient Hollywood ending – maybe Kuga would die, and Natsuki she’d mourn for a while, and return to Soichiro. But watching the clip again, I realised that she is radiantly happy – just watch the clip: she is seriously joyous! – and I decided one should be happy for her too, as Soichiro is.

    True to the excellent, observant writing throughout “Over Time”, the ending was special too. Soichiro is a photographer, and at the ending of “Over Time”, he publishes a photo book called “De Derriere”, dedicated to Natsuki, with a photo of her retreating back, waving the bridal tiara. (“De Derriere” is French for “Hind” or “Back”, but I like to think that it means something like “Back Silhouette” or “背影”.)

    Oh, and I also found a synopsis of the whole dorama online. Here’s one of the last episode.