The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China, 2013)

Style and substance

I’ll try to ignore the mauling this film has probably been given by Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ (aka Weinstein), in order to make the film commercial, as I’ve only seen the cut version which is 25 minutes shorter than the original. The grandmaster is Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee; I imagine the three Ip Man films (Hong Kong-China, 2008, 2010, 2015) are more straightforward biopics than this Wong Kar Wei production. Wong, as is his wont, focuses on the philosophical, interior lives of his characters which is communicated through an often elliptical voice over. It matters little to Wong whether the protagonist is a cop (Chungking Express, 1994) or a gangster (Fallen Angels, 1995), the almost stream of consciousness commentary we hear is what drives his films. Plus, philosophy and kung fu are ready bedfellows, so although The Grandmaster eschews Confucius (at least I think it does), there’s plenty to think about.

Another link to Wong’s oeuvre is the casting of the great Tony Chui-Wai Leung who, I imagine, is Wong’s alter ego. This is not to say that Wong wanted to be Ip Man.

The great Tony Chui-Wai Leung

Wong’s early indie movies with which he made an impact on the west (to whom he was introduced as ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ – a form of patronising colonialism) make it somewhat surprising that he should delve into action cinema. He had done so with the wuxia Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk, Hong Kong-Taiwan, 1994), given the ‘redux’ (whatever that means) treatment in 2008 but there (I’m talking about the original as I haven’t seen the update) the action was rarefied to sort of appear to happen off screen. What I mean to say is I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

I’m wasn’t sure what was going on all time in The Grandmaster however the action is straightforwardly staged by Yuen Woo-ping (who also coordinated the stunts and fights on Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (US, 1994) with stunning production design by  Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. ‘Straightforward’ doesn’t cover it for the mise en scene and balletic movements are absolutely spectacular; the sequences are on a par with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-Hong Kong, 2002). Hero has Leung in common, as well as the Weinstein’s marketing muscle that helped make that film a worldwide hit. Leung apparently broke his arms three times during shooting of Grandmaster; the man is (nearly) my age! Zhang Ziyi graces both films and her fight scenes are the film’s highlights; once with Leung, which is more of a tango, and in the climactic battle on a station platform with a train barrelling through.

It was an expensive film to make and did reasonable worldwide box office but, unsurprisingly, it’s not simply a commercial film; hence Weinstein’s cutting. This version is presented as ‘Martin Scorsese’ presents and it’s disappointing that the doyen of American indie-art cinema should lend his name to cultural vandalism. At least Tarantino was genuinely trying to find a wider audience for a cinema neglected by many in the west at that time.

I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2008), Wong’s English-language US set melodrama but found 2046 (Hong Kong-China, 2004) too dense; that was the sequel to what’s widely regarded his greatest film, In the Mood for Love (Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong-China, 2004), another beautiful looking film that I found frustrating (I’m sure that’s my fault and not the film’s).

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Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. As Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

Swiri (South Korea, 1999)

More heroic bloodshed

More heroic bloodshed

Directed, like Brotherhood, by Kang Je-kye, Swiri was the first South Korean blockbuster and, as such, a statement of confidence in an industry that was emerging from being a political football for the whole of its history. The plot concerns an attempt by North Korean agents to blow up the Presidents of both North and South in order to force reunification; I’m not sure of the details but the main heavy is played Choi Min-sik so whatever he says is good for me. Choi is probably best known in the west for his role as the titular Oldboy (Oldeuboi, 2003); he also appeared in Brotherhood. The ‘undercover’ spy narrative may be more intense in a divided country like Korea as the different are, essentially, the same. And this is well used in Swiri as the protagonist, convincingly played by Han Suk-kyu, finds his loyalty divided.

Less convincing for me were the action sequences which often lacked credibility. For example, the bad guy’s trapped in a theatre, starts shooting; cut: he’s being chased outside. Hollywood action cinema does the same but maybe not usually quite so blatantly. I was tiring of hearing the rattle of empty bullet cases so I was watching the wrong movie.

District 13: Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum, France, 2009)

Macho elegance

Macho elegance

Sampling a few reviews I find a degree of unanimity about how bad this film is… but it isn’t. I had enjoyed District 13 (France, 2004) only for its stunning stunts – parkour and martial arts. My memory isn’t good enough to state whether they are even better in the sequel but some of them are literally jaw-dropping. I enjoyed the humour too and – possibly most of all – the unbelievable plot that unites (class consciousness) the ethnicity-based ‘tribes’ in the banlieu against the corrupt establishment.

OK this is a Marxist fantasy but how often is Marxism dramatised in cinema? At a time where Marxist analysis of Capitalism is demonstrating its accuracy it’s good to see the underclass winning. Of course, the film isn’t a ‘call to arms’, a Brechtian shout to get involved, but it can be read that way.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, 2004)

Lover’s whisper

One of the most sumptuously shot films in cinema, House of Flying Daggers wears its heart on the screen mixing outrageous action sequences with high octane romance. I saw the film when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography and action sequences though failed to appreciate the romance. I certainly noticed the romantic narrative however they are rather de rigeur in action cinema. On this third viewing it moved into the foreground and I could appreciate more the terrific performances from Kaneshiro Takeshi and Zhang Ziyi. The love triangle is convincingly portrayed and the pain of the ‘cuckolded’ Leo (Andy Lau) is touchingly portrayed.

As is Jin’s (Kaneshiro) transition from ‘playboy’ to being genuinely smitten. At first Mei (Zhang) resists his advances but later, when she is keen, it’s his turn to demure; probably for the first time in his life. He’s experiencing conflicting emotions as he matures into someone who genuinely cares for a woman.

Similarly, Mei’s rejection of Leo is shown to be physical: she still loves him but Jin has taken priority in her affections. She tries to make love to Leo but her body refuses. Thus in love it is hard to know our own feelings as we can never be sure what the body might do (which is probably expressing our subconscious).

Daggers is a thrilling film, stunning action and offers a subtle presentation of the vicissitudes of love.

Watchmen (US, 2009)

Objectification with a difference?

Objectification with a difference?

I’ll ignore the question as to whether the film’s as good as the graphic novel and deal with it in isolation. It’s not a typical Hollywood action movie, though the shadow of The Matrix (1999) is still looming for the fight sequences, as it is infused with melancholy and the emotional punch is garnered through a woman coming to terms with her mother against the usual Oedpal narrative. While Malin Akerman is an unfeasibly scrawny action hero, whose dress is about revealing her body shape, Watchmen is unusual in showing the male protagonist’s cock. And it’s not just Hollywood that averts its gaze from the male member. True Dr Manhattan isn’t human but he does sport a six-pack and, I guess, an attractive arse so men are objectified too.

Dr Manhattan is also the locus of the melancholy, though the noir atmosphere that infuses the film (again The Matrix sprang to mind) is also grim. It’s unusual to have such a bunch of dysfunctional heroes. Night Owl’s sexual potency is questioned; Rorsach is borderline psychopath; Comedian a rapist; Ozymandias a megalomaniac. Silk Spectre is only ‘normal’ one. Of course all this difference is a result of the source material, Moore and Gibbons’ anti- super hero comic book.

Director Zack Snyder has does a good job in visualising Moore-Gibbons alternative world where the US won the Vietnam war and Tricky Dicky is elected for a third term. I don’t what audiences unfamiliar with the source material made of the film but, for the record, I enjoyed it more than the novel (which is not to say it’s better).

The Last Samurai (US, 2003)

This is superb in both narrative and style. It’s critique of American foreign policy, using guns to back business favourable to itself, and both the scenery and action sequences look great. The action, in particularly, is superbly done as continuity is not sacrificed in a frenetic maelstrom of events. It’s relatively easy to follow what’s happening despite the rapid cutting which shows up the laziness of many filmmakers. Cruise and Watanabe excel in the leads. Of course, whilst we are on the side of the samurai their society based on discipline, militarism and narrow gender roles does not have much to recommend it. (DVD, 2) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0325710/