Dope (2015)

Poster for Dope

It says something that throughout this movie I tried to figure out where I’d seen the actor playing Jib before, but I had to look it up on IMDb later. It was Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel! Duh! I mean, sure, it’s a very different character, but is that enough to explain why I didn’t recognize him? Oh, wait, you say Zoë Kravitz was one of the Wives in Mad Max: Fury Road, and I didn’t even realize that I’d seen her before? Maybe we’ve got a problem here.

Let’s call the problem old age and failing memory. Dope seems very much a young person’s movie, although writer-director Rick Famuyiwa is in his 40s. It’s about three misfit high school friends in the troubled Los Angeles County neighborhood of Inglewood. They’re nerds in a school dominated by jocks and gang members. Malcolm dreams of getting into Harvard, but life gets complicated when a local drug dealer named Dom picks him out to deliver messages to Dom’s beautiful girlfriend, Nakia (which would be Kravitz). Malcolm and Jib and their lesbian pal, Diggy, are soon in over their heads in the underworld drug trade. As a title card tells us early on, dope is a word that means drugs, a dumb person, and the condition of being excellent. All apply here.

This is like those tragic LA ghetto crime movies of the ’90s (a decade worshiped by the young protagonists of Dope), except played as a comedy. The comedy is very funny, too, and it embodies the film’s theme in also being smart and nerdy. The kids’ approach to their dilemma is also appropriately nerdy, as they use anonymous websites and Bitcoin to market the drugs. Dope is about the difficult choices the American socioeconomic and racial realities force upon these characters, but it’s also an attempt to subvert the usual message of these kinds of stories. It wants to have its pound cake and eat it too.

It’s funny, it’s stylish and energetic, it creates sympathetic characters, and it has something to say, with what appears to be an iconic evocation of Trayvon Martin in the end. My one complaint would be that for all that it treats Diggy and Nakia with respect, Lily and some of the women in bit roles are given too much of the T&A treatment. There were times when I wondered what the film would look like if the lesbian pal Diggy were the protagonist rather than Malcolm. But in the end I liked this one for what it is, which is a funny-earnest story about making lemonade out of life’s lemons.

So how do you make lemonade out of failing memory?

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When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mânî, 2014)

Poster for When Marnie Was There

The latest film from Studio Ghibli was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed The Secret World of Arrietty (2010). This one is slightly more reminiscent of the studio’s more offbeat realistic teen dramas such as Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, or Whisper of the Heart, but there is, in fact, a supernatural or fantastic element to it, although it’s of the kind that can be read as purely psychological as well. It concerns a young girl, Anna, who feels lonely and alienated because she’s a foster child. Her distressed feelings cause asthma attacks, and she is sent to relatives in a coastal city where it’s hoped the fresh air will improve her health.

Anna becomes fascinated by an abandoned waterside mansion called the Marsh House, and eventually she meets a blonde girl named Marnie who lives there. Whether Marnie is real or a projection of Anna’s needy imagination is an open question, but the two become instant best friends forever. There’s an air of the summer holiday teen movie to this one, with powerful emotions released in the formation of new relationships. This is definitely not a children’s movie, but more of a young adult story. Anna and Marnie both struggle with dark feelings and difficult life situations. At the same time, Anna in particular is surrounded by loving family, even if she doesn’t recognize it. The audience does.

It’s a gentle movie, with only a storm at the climax providing much sense of danger. It offers family-friendly age-appropriate life lessons without feeling at all condescending. Not my usual kind of thing, but I actually liked this one perhaps somewhat better than Arrietty. As always with Studio Ghibli, the animation is full of great beauty, and the use of water to reflect and diffract light is continually captivating. Actually, the use of the ocean for all kinds of purposes, with the tide playing an important part both narratively and metaphorically, is one of the best things about When Marnie Was There. There’s a great sense of tidal returning in the final revelations that bring closure to the mysteries of Anna’s past.

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Punking the Diva

[This piece was originally published in issue eight of Christina Lake and Doug Bell’s fanzine, Head!, in March 2009. The PDF of the entire issue is available at efanzines.com.]

Screencap from Diva

I recently had the opportunity to see the movie Diva again for the first time in probably twenty years or more. Luke McGuff and I braved a rainy January night and, appropriately enough, an opera crowd convening at McCaw Hall next door as we made our way to Seattle’s SIFF Theater to see the film. Diva was a movie I liked a lot when it came out in 1981. I saw it several times back then, all in the theater — back before videotapes and DVDs killed off the repertory theaters.

Luke told me that his old friend Karen Trego, from the days when he lived in Minneapolis, always argued that Diva was proto-cyberpunk. The maguffin that drives the plot is, as in much cyberpunk, information — in this case, a tape that exposes a drug cartel, which is furthermore confused with a bootlegged tape of a performance by the eponymous diva. All this information — both the incriminating evidence and the bootlegged music — wants to be free. I had never thought of it that way before, but I could certainly see it once the idea was broached. There’s a certain studied coolness and globalized hodgepodge and punk-zen attitude, on top of the thriller info-plot, that seems similar to what Bill Gibson in particular got up to starting around the same time as the movie came out. (I’m pretty sure he has acknowledged the impact of Escape from New York and Blade Runner, so it’s easy enough to imagine further cinematic influence.)

Screencap from Diva

What I also hadn’t really noticed before was what a mash-up of genres it is. An erotic-art-thriller-romance? I guess another similarity to Gibson is the way that the caper-thriller plot seems like an excuse or skeleton for just showing us a bunch of cool shit. On the artsy side, there’s an almost dadaist sensibility at work, throwing off snappy non-sequiturs for the sheer hell of it. The characters and plot elements are a mélange: Taiwanese music pirates in mirrorshades; an African-American opera diva (speaking heavily accented French) who refuses to record because music is of the moment and not a commodity; a cute teenage French-Vietnamese shoplifter who uses nude photos of herself to distract attention from her crimes; a free-spirited mail courier who makes the bootleg tape and steals the diva’s gown and then pays a prostitute to wear it while they have sex to the music; a shaved-head thug called the Priest who wears leather and doesn’t like anything (in a terse running gag); and a rich French guy who is into Zen — “he wants to stop the wave” — and who gives a great riff on how to properly butter your bread and then totally tools the bad guys like some kind of upper class ninja using the cutting edge technology of the day: a Sony Walkman.

“Les caprices,” says a character at one point. “What?” asks the American diva en anglais. “Whims,” she’s told. Indeed.

Screencap from Diva

The movie is based on a novel by the Swiss writer Daniel Odier, writing under the pseudonym Delacorta. Odier is himself an interesting figure whose first book was a collection of interviews with William S. Burroughs and who has become a convert to Shivaic Tantrism and written books on tantric sex and Buddhist and Taoist meditation techniques, as well as opening a Tantra/Zen center in Paris. The novel Diva was part of a series he wrote about Gorodish and Alba, who are the upper class ninja and the teenaged shoplifter in the movie. In the book, Gorodish is an ex-gangster who has struck out on his own, and Alba is not of Vietnamese descent but a blonde, budding Lolita, just thirteen years old, whose platonic relationship with Gorodish is not completely innocent of carnal thoughts and feelings, at least on her side. (This aspect of the book is actually captured in a different movie, Luc Besson’s Léon, where Natalie Portman’s 12-year-old Mathilda harbors inappropriate feelings for the hitman played by Jean Reno, who like Gorodish in the book, is not interested in exploiting the vulnerable girl.) The novel is very stripped down in its language (at least judging from the translation) and almost seems ready-made for movie adaptation in its simplicity and compactness. Still, it has its punchy lines, as when the courier’s anticipation at meeting the diva is described, “His heart was pounding like Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion.”

Screencap from Diva

The movie not only modifies Gorodish and Alba and moves them slightly behind the courier in the character hierarchy, but it also restructures the nature of the crime kingpin (effectively combining two characters from the book) and changes the Japanese record label representatives into the enigmatic Taiwanese. Much of the romantic and philosophical matter surrounding the American diva remains, however, including the wabi-sabi spirit of her resistance to recording, which she expresses this way in the book: “No recording can ever measure up to my standards of how a voice should sound. But even if that were possible, I’d still be appalled at the idea that a moment of magic could be reproduced tens of thousands of times. That’s not art. And there are always little imperfections that are acceptable only because they’re unique; I wouldn’t want them to be recorded and played over and over.”

Screencap from Diva

Another thing the movie takes from the book is its fascination with surfaces and commodities, which is another similarity with Gibson. Diva was one of the first movies in a mini-movement in France that came to be called the cinéma du look — all sleek and shiny and reflective, grungy at times, but with en eye for the designer label — Rolex (and Swatch) watches, Rolls Royce, Swiss tape decks, seductive mountains of Gitanes cigarette packs. It’s a very sexy look, also seen in Besson’s Subway (1985) and Carax’s Mauvais sang (1986) and, much later, as a kind of homage, Assayas’ demonlover (2002). Visually, it’s all about the play of light: distorted reflections, refractions, and diffractions in chrome, multiple mirrors, waxed floors, rain-slicked streets, the glass of pinball machines. It’s a perfect style for depicting a world of shattered grand illusions.

Screencap from Diva

As the lights came up in the theater at our January viewing and the credits rolled over a beautiful aria, the theater manager came in and warned us that a fire alarm was about to go off. Sure enough, a siren was soon shrieking a duet with the diva. It seemed appropriate somehow — a melding of noise and music. We stumbled outside into an inexplicable mass of excited teenagers pouring out of the opera house next door and piling into school buses parked on the rain-slicked streets out front. We looked around for thugs in leather jackets and inappropriate mirrorshades, but we didn’t have the equipment to play that old tape anymore, so we moved on.

Diva-2700

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I Love Maria (Tie jia wu di Ma Li Ya, 1988)

As a science fiction fan I’ve long been curious about I Love Maria (a.k.a Roboforce). Amongst other things, Chinese-language science fiction movies are relatively rare in my experience. But the other reason the film has hovered up and down in my To Be Watched list is because of the involvement of Tsui Hark.

Screencap from I Love Maria

The full nature of Tsui’s work on this film is still a little unclear to me. He’s credited as co-producer, and he plays one of the main characters, Whisky. Most sources say he also co-wrote and co-directed the film, but I haven’t seen any indication of how much of that work he did. The credited writer is Yuen Gai Chi, and the credited director is Chung Chi Man, who mostly worked as a cinematographer in a career that seems to have ended in 1995. I Love Maria was produced by Tsui’s new production company, Film Workshop, and it’s probably safe to say that Tsui had his fingers in everything coming out of the company to some extent or another.

Screencap from I Love Maria

I Love Maria is a comedy, and as such it isn’t very serious as science fiction. It feels a bit similar to the gadget-oriented comedy of the Mad Mission/Aces Go Places series. Like a lot of Hong Kong films of that era, it comes barreling helter-skelter out of the gate, and with the usual garbled subtitles I had a hard time getting a grasp on who all the factions were. What I’ve pieced together in the aftermath is that a gang called Hero is trying to take over the city using robots as weapons. They are opposed by the buffoonish police, and a police scientist named Curly, who has developed a superweapon to fight the robots, becomes disillusioned when his boss suppresses the invention out of pride. Curly teams up with Whisky, who is a drunken former gang member. The gang and the police both suspect these two of perfidy, and they’re caught in the crossfire as the gang creates a female robot who looks like gang member Maria (Sally Yeh) to kill them while the police try to arrest everyone. Meanwhile, a hapless reporter (an almost unrecognizable Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in an early role) bumbles on their trail.

Screencap from I Love Maria

A lot of the comedy was not very funny to me, and the first half of the movie really dragged as a result. It feels like one of those Hong Kong films that’s just making it up as they go along, so it rambles more than a bit. Things pick up, however, when the robot Maria is abducted and reprogrammed by Curly and Whisky. Sally Yeh is terrific as the robot, who is clearly modeled on the Maria/robot duality from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis*, although in I Love Maria it’s the robot who is a saint and the human woman who is a villain. Also, as the action becomes more concentrated, the story becomes less rambling. Despite the utter goofiness of the movie, it somehow manages to create a feeling of growing connection between a band of outcasts that almost feels genuine. The special effects vary in quality, but there’s an interesting escalation in robot design and scale as the story progresses.

Screencap from I Love Maria

The other thing that works in the film’s favor is the cast. Despite having sub-standard shtick to work with, Tsui is quite good at hamming it up as Whisky, as is his co-producer John Shum as Curly. Yeh is terrific in two parts, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is fun in a completely uncharacteristic role. Then there’s Lam Ching Ying, who is more familiar to me playing fierce Taoist priests in films like Mr. Vampire. Here he’s the sifu of the Hero gang, wearing his uncertain motivations like a dapper bad-ass in a bespoke suit. The credits also list directors Kirk Wong and John Woo in bit parts, which only adds to the feeling that the whole thing was made on a lark with friends.

Screencap from I Love Maria

All in all, this is a pretty uneven effort. The slapstick comedy is Three Stooges level, so your enjoyment may depend on how much you like such buffoonery. Nonetheless, I did get some genuine laughs out of it, and some of the action sequences were quite good. A mixed bag, tending toward the not-so-good in my book, but not without its moments of fun.

*The Maria robot also wears a plastic raincoat at one point, which could be a reference to Lang’s Scarlet Street, is more likely to be a reference to Blade Runner, and is even more likely just to be a cheap bit of costuming and not a reference to anything. Although clear plastic raincoats do seem to be a cinematic Thing.

[Screencaps are from House of Self-Indulgence.]

 

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Saturday Matinee: Mad Mission 3: Our Man from Bond Street (Zui jia pai dang 3: Nv huang mi ling, 1984)

Zigging backward in time a bit in my nearly-chronological survey of the Tsui Hark filmography, here’s another one I hadn’t ever seen before and didn’t even know was available on a Region 1 DVD from Anchor Bay. Mad Mission 3 is, as the title indicates, the third in a series, and it was one of Tsui’s attempts to prove that he could make popular, profitable films after a number of box office flops early in his career. It was the highest earning film in Hong Kong in 1984, but my impression of it before I saw it was that it was lowbrow trash tossed off for cash and industry cred.

Screencap from Mad Mission 3

Somehow it seemed fitting that the Anchor Bay DVD only offers an English dub, and also fitting that it’s a good dub! This is indeed a lowbrow popcorn action comedy, but I thought it was a lot of fun. I haven’t seen the first two films in the series, so I have no idea how this compares and thus how much Tsui brought to this particular endeavor and how much is just built into the franchise. It stars Sam Hui, who would later play the lead in Tsui’s Swordsman (1990), as a thief who gets boondoggled into stealing for Queen and country. His law enforcement partners in crime are played by Karl Maka and Sylvia Chang. (Chang would also star in Tsui’s superior Shanghai Blues made the same year, 1984.) The scope of the action is international, and Peter Graves, Jean Mersant, and Richard Kiel show up to give the cast a global feel as well.

Graves is more or less playing his character from Mission: Impossible, and Mersant plays an evil James Bond clone, which I guess explains the title. It’s very much a spoof on the Bond films, with lots of high tech gadgets and hugger-mugger espionage. The action never lets up, which means the dumb jokes never really have time to stink for long. This looks pretty low budget, although apparently it was higher budget than the first two films, and in any event Tsui does a pretty good job of making his cheap props work. Even for a Hong Kong film of the ’80s, however, they didn’t try very hard to hide the wires that enable flight in a couple of scenes.

Screencap from Mad Mission 3

Tsui’s sense of visual composition is as good as ever, and, yeah, the action never stops. It has just enough of that delirious Hong Kong imagery we all know and love (e.g. the fighting, gravity-defying Santas) to make it all a bit weird. Maybe looking at this one as a Tsui film is misleading, and I can see why most commentaries on Tsui barely pause to notice it. However, given the low reputation it has, I found it a good goofy mindless adventure.

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A Chinese Ghost Story (Sien nui yau wan, 1987)

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

This was one of the first Hong Kong movies I saw, and that was in a theater, although it would’ve been in the ’90s sometime. I’ve seen it on home video at least a couple of times since then, but it’s interesting to come back to it specifically as part of an exploration of Tsui Hark’s filmography. Most people, I think, including myself, see the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy as Tsui Hark films, even though they were directed by Ching Siu Tung and only produced (and in only one case written) by Tsui. What drives this impression? Does Ching contribute anything of his own?

Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films discerns Ching’s sensibility in “a delicate, but fervent romantic streak,” which he finds in later Ching directorial efforts such as The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Certainly the romantic element in A Chinese Ghost Story is much more pronounced and much more earnest than any of Tsui’s earlier action films, but no more so than that of Tsui’s romantic comedy Shanghai Blues (1984). I also feel Heath undermines his case by attributing all kinds of things in A Chinese Ghost Story to Ching that aren’t evident in any of the other directorial efforts of his I’ve seen. What’s left is the way that Ching choreographs action sequences, which fits right into Tsui’s preferences for exaggerated, superhuman defiance of gravity and nonstop whirligig motion. In the end it seems as though Ching and Tsui were greatly in synch as collaborators, but the exact nature of their working relationship is still a subject for more research.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

Of course there’s also the question of how much of the film’s sensibility is a reflection of general trends in the Hong Kong film industry at the time. The combination of horror, comedy, and martial arts had already been well-established by films such as Sammo Hung’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980), Yuen Woo Ping’s The Miracle Fighters (1982), and especially Ricky Lau’s big hit, Mr. Vampire (1985). (Wu Man, who plays the Taoist priest-warrior pictured above, is said to have directed one of the best of these martial arts horror comedy films, The Dead and the Deadly, but I haven’t seen it yet.) From a genre standpoint the thing that A Chinese Ghost Story adds to this familiar mix is romance, music (especially Wu Ma’s goofy, exuberant paean to the Tao), and more deeply realized fantasy elements that at times make the film play like a sword-and-sorcery epic. The imaginative special-effects-driven fantasy aspect builds on Tsui’s work on Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and since the romantic ghost story is a throwback to earlier Hong Kong films such as The Enchanting Shadow (1960), which is a based on the same story by Pu Songling as A Chinese Ghost Story, it’s the fantastic, secondary-world quality of the film that is perhaps its most original and influential contribution to the local film industry.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

If I found the slapstick humor in Zu less tiresome on my most recent viewing, I found the slapstick humor in A Chinese Ghost Story more tiresome than before. Or maybe it’s not the slapstick, because the way the stumbling and bumbling of the scholar keeps him out of danger is still pretty damned funny and clever. Rather it’s the scenes in the nearby village with the two cops chasing everybody who moves and the corrupt judge (played by the shlock producer-director Wong Jing, which I hadn’t noticed before) that failed to amuse. The courtroom scene at least pays off with the revelation that the corrupt officials have actually somehow arrested the right guy for once, but as satires of bureaucracy go this seems like pretty thin stuff.

One criticism I’ve seen of the film is its depiction of gender and sexuality. The tree demon is presented as both male and female, at least vocally, and a number of commentators have pointed out that in Chinese films characters without a sexuality (as in the eunuchs of many a wuxia movie) or with dual gender (cf also The Bride with White Hair) are depicted as both powerful and evil. As Peter Nepstad says in his review at The Illuminated Lantern, “Being on the border of Yin and Yang also is said to infuse a person with great power, having the abilities of both man and woman yet being enslaved by the passions of neither.” The dual gender of the tree demon had always struck me as an interesting piece of gender-bending, as seen in other Tsui Hark films, but now it seems like more of a traditional Chinese stereotype. It’s your bog standard hermaphroditic spawn of hell.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

Perhaps more tendentiously Daisy Ng Sheung-Yuen at This Century’s Review seeks to “problematize the naturalized, unreflective representation of desire and sexuality” that she finds in A Chinese Ghost Story. “The popularity of the costume ghost genre may be seen as a reflection of our dream of possessing ageless beauty and never-ending love, and yet projected on the phantasmagoric screen are also fears of gender ambiguity and transgression as well as confused and contradictory feelings towards body and sexuality.” I confess that I’m a sucker for the tragic romance in this film, but I take her point about how carnal sex is associated with grotesque death at the hands — or rather the writhing, slobbering tongue — of the demon. The scholar and the ghost do have sex in the film, but they’re punished for it. True love apparently can only be an ethereal yearning from a distance. Well, what can I say, it’s the story of my life.

If this seems like a Tsui Hark film, it’s because of the frenetic action, the effects-driven fantasy, the visually arresting (or at least eccentric) compositions, and the way it can move from goofy comedy to poignant melodrama without missing a beat. When I first saw it (and A Chinese Ghost Story II, which I actually saw first), it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before in the way it blended and bended genre. Now it seems more conventional, especially compared to some of Tsui’s other films, such as Peking Opera Blues. Even so, it succeeds hugely at its crowd-pleasing, tradition-updating task. The hardcore Tsui fan can always blame the conventionality on Ching Siu Tung.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Poster for Mad Max: Fury Road

It really does feel like George Miller spent the last 30 years elaborating the world of the Mad Max series in his head, deepening, broadening, and at the same time condensing his vision of the post-apocalyptic desert society of the second two movies. (The first movie takes place before the apocalypse.) The sheer wealth of detail and design is stunning, at least on a visual level. In fact, much of the world-building is only presented visually and left to us to interpret. As for condensing, I have in mind the sort of reductionist or mythological approach of creating separate enclaves that control water, gas, and bullets, which isn’t really the way the world works but does a wonderful job of communicating what’s important in this story. And for broadening, we only have to look at the increased role of women in this film, which builds on the precedent set by Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in the third film of the series.

It’s been a long time since I watched Beyond Thunderdome (1985), so I don’t actually remember much about it, but I did watch most of Road Warrior (1981) again last week and was reminded that one of the things Miller does that makes these films feel unique in the post-apocalyptic genre is show sympathy for the bad guys. This is another way in which Fury Road feels like the earlier films on steroids, because not only does it take us deep into the society of the warlord society that presents a grievous problem to the protagonists, allowing us to see the logic of the horrible things they’re doing, it goes one step further by giving us a character, Nux, who believes in the heroic warrior ethic of the clan but gradually grows to understand the perspective of the rebels too. While some of Nux’s path through the story seems a little too literally touchy-feely at times, he provides a vivid human face for the monstrous behavior of the followers of the warlord Immortan Joe. Whereas Road Warrior gives us bad guys with feelings, Fury Road gives us bad guys with beliefs. It lends depth to the conflict that’s so viscerally depicted in physical terms as well.

The most controversial aspect of the film seems to be the relegation of Tom Hardy’s titular Max to a slightly secondary role, and the elevation thereby of Charlize Theron’s (also titular?) character, Imperator Furiosa. I have to say that Max did strike me as a slightly unfocused character in this story. His opening monologue distills his motivation down to a pure survival reflex, but of course the story complicates the picture. This is not completely unlike Max’s character arc in Road Warrior, but in that one his reasons for collaborating with others were masked behind more utilitarian motives. Max’s motives in Fury Road are perhaps a bit obscure.

Imperator Furiosa is a great character, and on first blush seems like an improvement over Aunty Entity. (I really do need to revisit Beyond Thunderdome at some point.) She’s bad ass, but she’s not one-dimensional. Again, as with Nux, some of her path through the story veers into pathetic territory, but over all she’s the glue that binds survival and compassion together. It’s true that Max’s agenda is subservient to hers, but I’d say that within the logic of the story it makes sense for him to serve her interests. It’ll take another viewing to see if Miller’s intent was actually to use audience expectations as a weight to leverage in an effort to build her character up and thus to challenge some of our ingrained biases about who and what matters in this kind of post-apocalyptic narrative.

Does this narrative judo actually upend the dominant paradigm? I’m skeptical, and I’m treating the claims that this is a feminist story with skepticism as well. What’s true, however, is that Miller gives us a variety of female characters, and Furiosa isn’t the only one that’s played against cinematic expectations. The slave-breeder girls are all played by skinny models and presented as standard cinematic hotties, so Miller seems once again to be teasing us into leaping the wrong way. Likewise a scene with a naked beauty that adroitly denies us any view of the body. More questionable, to my mind, is the traditional association of women with nurturing and agriculture. Then again, one of the ways that Max’s character is portrayed differently from earlier versions involves an act of healing. I’m left with many intriguing questions, and that’s a good thing for a movie to leave you with.

Oh yeah, and Fury Road is fabulous as a brutal, gearhead chase movie. The vehicle, weapon, and flamboyant costume designs are amongst the things that 30 years have given Miller and his team time to elaborate in the most fantastic ways. The action sequences, which probably make up two-thirds of the story, leave everybody else in the dust, just like Road Warrior did in 1981. Miller has topped his already high standard on that front, and as in the earlier Mad Max films the amazing action works in the service of some thoughtful, if largely mythological, world-building and some complicated genre characters.

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Snow on the Blades (Zakurozaka no adauchi, 2014)

Poster for Snow on the Blades

Well, it’s time once again for the Seattle International Film Festival, and so I journeyed to the Egyptian on Saturday to see this samurai film. The director, Setsurô Wakamatsu, was in attendance, and in his introductory remarks he said that the samurai film has diminished in popularity in Japan and that he was trying to do something different with the form. His 2009 samurai film, The Unbroken, won the Japanese equivalent of an Oscar for Best Film.

I’m not a huge expert on the samurai genre, but Snow on the Blades did strike me as different from the other ones I’ve seen. Visually, it reminded me at times of Ôshima’s snowy Taboo (1999), but the story didn’t. The time frame jumps backward and forward between 1860 and 1873. In 1860 the shogun has agreed, under threat of American bombardment, to open Japan to international trade. His top adviser, who pushed for the deal, is assassinated by a clan that opposes the treaty. The samurai who was in charge of security during the assassination is not allowed to commit honorable suicide and is charged instead with finding and killing all the assassins. In 1873 all but one of the assassins has been killed.

What’s unusual about the film is that it doesn’t focus on the killing. There are two action set pieces, but other than that the film is, as Wakamatsu said, a quiet one. Instead we get a portrayal of the roiling changes Japan underwent after 1860, from Edo becoming Tokyo, everybody adopting Western clothing, and the code of the samurai being supplanted by new laws. So while we do get a fairly typical treatment of samurai loyalty in the form of the protagonist, Shimura Kingo, who sticks with his orders through thirteen difficult years, his loyalty is mostly communicated via the changing mores around him.

Another unusual aspect of the film, to my eyes, is the amount of attention it gives to women and families, particularly to Shimura’s wife, Setsu, who supports him by working through this entire period. There are two other female characters who also have fairly major roles, and one of them belongs to a group of neighborhood women whom we regularly see exchanging gossip and food at the water well. Miike’s Hara-Kiri gave us a dose of the suffering wife of the samuri, but Snow on the Blades gives a broader view of women’s life and the social role they play.

I had mixed feelings about how all this played on the screen. “I hope it’s not so quiet that you fall asleep,” Wakamatsu quipped through an interpreter, and the quietness didn’t bother me. But it did feel a bit genteel and worthy over all. A bit nice. Which is funny, because I often find samurai films too grim and gloomy. So you give me a feel-good samurai movie, and still I complain? Some people are never satisfied, I guess. Still, despite feeling slightly underwhelmed, I did enjoy the lesson in Japanese history and the unusual take on the meaning of loyalty.

Coming out of the theater it struck me that what was different about Snow on the Blades was that it was a male melodrama, where melodrama is seen as stories about people (usually women) who are trapped by their social roles. However, on further thought I wondered if that isn’t almost always what samurai films are: Stories about men trapped in the social roles created by the samurai code. What’s unusual about Snow on the Blades is how it resolves the contradiction between social expectation and individual desire.

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Sternberg and Sade

‘But [Sade’s] great women, Juliette, Clairwell, the Princess Borghese, Catherine the Great of Russia, Charlotte of Naples, are even more cruel still since, once they have tasted power, once they know how to use their sexuality as an instrument of aggression, they use it to extract vengeance for the humiliations they were forced to endure as the passive objects of the sexual energy of others.’ (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman)

Screencap from The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

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Peking Opera Blues (Do ma daan, 1986)

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Getting back into the filmography of Tsui Hark reminds me how little I know about China and Chinese cinema. Peking Opera Blues is a film I’ve long considered my favorite by Tsui, as many others do, but watching it again for the first time in years I was struck by how little I understood what was going on in it. It’s aimed at an audience that’s assumed to understand the historical background, it’s frenetically fast-paced, so you have to grasp exposition quickly, and the English subtitles on the Hong Kong DVD I have are so horribly mangled that it’s often difficult to tell what the hell they are trying to say. The wonder of the film is that it works as a kind of pure cinema even when you aren’t really following the story.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues POB-still 18 Tsao Wan Shoots

So I’ve been reading about the movie. Most commentators point out the connections between Peking Opera Blues and Shanghai Blues, which is another musical comedy starring the actress Sally Yeh. Tsui apparently at one point intended to make a third “Blues” movie to make a loose trilogy, but one of the interesting aspects of this idea is that the blues are only referred to in the English titles of the movies. The Cantonese titles have no shared elements, so on that level the trilogy idea is more conceptual, or perhaps more generic in the sense that both films are musicals. The Cantonese title of Shanghai Blues is translated as Shanghai Nights, which is the name of the song written by the male protagonist in a popular style associated with the Shanghai music industry. But aside from the musical-comedy genre, another thing the two films share is an ironic ending in which the triumphant protagonists depart their respective cities not realizing that history is about to turn China upside down once again.

Even having read up on the political elements of Peking Opera Blues, there are still a few things that are unclear to me. The action is set in Beijing in 1913, two years after the Xinhai Revolution that replaced the Qing Dynasty with the Republic of China. The leader of the republic is Yuan Shikai, who would eventually abandon democracy and declare himself the new emperor of China. In the film, the new Republic of China is already torn between various warlords, represented in the story by General Tun, who is in control of Beijing in the first scene, and General Tsao, who replaces Tun when he’s forced to flee the city. General Tsao’s daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), is a secret revolutionary in the cause of democracy, looking to hook up with other revolutionaries in the city.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

What’s still unclear to me is that the revolutionaries are said to represent a democratic government in the south of China, and I’m not sure what that political entity was or what its fate was. General Tsao is colluding with Western powers to undermine democracy in China, and many commentators see in this aspect of the story Tsui’s sly commentary on the politics around the Hong Kong handover agreement between the United Kingdom and the PRC. How the history of the 1911 revolution fed into the future struggle between the Communists and the Kuomintang is another thing I’m unclear about. Is the Republic of China in this film the same one that ended up taking over Taiwan when the Communists took over mainland China?

If anything, the Peking opera references are even harder to sort out than the political background. It’s pretty easy to figure out that, like the Elizabethan theater, women were not allowed to perform in Peking opera and men played the female roles in the operas. We get that from the fact that Sally Yeh’s character, Bai Niu (Pat Nell in the DVD subtitles), yearns to perform on stage but is prevented from doing so by her father, who tells us his troupe would be banned if he allowed it. But what of the specific operas that the troupe perform in the course of the film? Do they comment on the action? Some critics find significance in the fact that the opera performed in the finale is The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, in which eight Taoist immortals get drunk and try to cross the sea, but are stopped when they make fun of the Goldfish Fairy, who beats them until they apologize. Tsao Wan plays the Goldfish Fairy in the brief excerpt we see in the movie, so apparently the allegory is that the Immortals are the warlords who insult the Democracy Fairy? I’m still not clear on all that.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

And what of the Cantonese title of the film, Do ma daan, which refers to a role in the operas commonly translated as Knife Horse Actresses? What I haven’t been able to figure out is whether that’s a category of female warrior characters or whether it’s a specific female warrior character in a specific opera. The plural “actresses” would seem to imply the former. Bai Niu plays a spear-wielding warrior on horseback in her first opera appearance — a character that’s then duplicated to everyone’s consternation and amusement when Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung) cluelessly appears on stage in the same costume — but is that the character Do ma daan or just an example of such a character? Whatever the case, the resonance of the title is that all three female leads are playing a kind of female warrior in the film we are watching.

Peking Opera Blues is rife with gender play, developing even further the interest in strong female characters that Tsui exhibited in his earlier movies. It’s not just that the three women are the protagonists and drive the plot, but it’s also the way that several of the men are cast in either feminized or homosexual roles. So we have men playing women on stage, and many of those men are stereotypically effeminate off stage. That aspect of the gender play feels at least slightly retrograde to me, but Tsui complicates even this by having Liu, the commander of the police (called Ticketing Agents for some bizarre reason in the DVD subtitles), fall in love with the Fa, who is the lead actor playing a female character for the opera troupe. Liu is a sadistic bastard, but his love for Fa seems genuine, or at least earnest. No doubt Tsui is having way too much fun when he has his female protagonists playing women playing men playing women on the stage.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

It’s curious to me, however, that in his own comments Tsui says he feels his approach to female characters was intended to correct the traditional Chinese approach. It most likely reflects my own cultural ignorance, but from what I’ve seen Tsui was, at least in his wuxia films, returning women to the central roles they’d had in ’60s films such as The Jade Bow and Come Drink with Me, after a period in which directors like Chang Cheh had pushed female characters to the side. It could be that I’m misunderstanding Tsui’s comments and that what he’s really talking about is the traditional approach as seen in Peking operas. He talks about how there was some resistance to treating these classical female characters in a comical way.

One of the fun things Tsui does update is the wuxia conceit of the woman who disguises herself as a man, as in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. Here Tsao Wan is always dressed in contemporary male clothing, with Brigitte Lin cutting a very dashing figure in a dinner jacket or military uniform and overcoat. The difference is that Tsao Wan is not trying to disguise herself as a man, but rather, as she explains, just finds that she is treated more respectfully by both genders if she dresses that way. It’s a feminist point that’s treated as completely natural, but it’s an odd enough detail that I was never completely sure, until digging further into the commentary, whether some of the other characters perceived her as male. The gender pronouns in the subtitles are malleable enough that they were confusing on that point as well.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Tsui describes the three women as representing “the Chinese mentality … . One is an adventurer, one is an artist, and one is a businesswoman.” Describing Sheung Hung as a businesswoman is a little strange, because she’s basically a thief, but I suppose the general point is that she’s materialistic and acquisitive. (Stephen Teo, in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions says she’s a sing-song girl, which is a kind of courtesan or concubine, but while that fits with the opening scene and maybe also the later fake-seduction of the general, Teo is the only critic I’ve seen characterize her that way.) What’s more interesting is the point Kozo makes at Love HK Film that Bai Nui — the artist — is the truly selfless one of the three. She risks her life and her father’s opera business to help the revolutionaries, and she does it for friendship rather than political idealism. The political idealist, Tsao Wan, is in fact initially indifferent to the fates of her new friends, which is perhaps why Tsui refers to her as an adventurer. It’s no surprise that the materialistic Sheung Hung doesn’t exhibit loyalty initially either, but on the other hand Bai Nui’s selflessness is perhaps a bit self-congratulatory on Tsui’s part, since the opera players are pretty obvious stand-ins for the film-makers.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

The nuances of these characters is what gives the story much of its complexity, and their coming back together after turning away from each other is what provides the emotional climax of the film. It’s much the same theme as Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, with Tsui exhorting his Chinese audience to find ways to unify despite their different agendas and different mentalities. But this film is more cynical than Zu, because the unified action that leads to the satisfying resolution of the plot is quickly undercut when we learn that the actions of the democratic revolutionaries had no effect at all on Chinese history. Tsao Wan’s victory in this film is an empty one.

Or so I’ve learned from reading about it. The DVD, for whatever reason, leaves off the end cards explaining the fates of the characters, just as it leaves off the opening cards explaining the historical setting. (I’ve seen Peking Opera Blues once in the theater, so I probably did see the explanatory cards in that version.) As an emotional experience, the movie works fine without the ironic historical note, and it’s actually possible to see Tsui’s cynicism here as a mask for a pointed reminder that the forces of democracy in China still need to find a way to pull together. Certainly it’s hard to ignore the enthusiastic charge the film delivers via its hyperkinetic action and goofy humor. Whether you believe in political change or not, it’s hard to see this as a tragic story. Tragic-comic perhaps, but mostly comic despite the acknowledgement of mortality and the nightmare of history. What fools these mortals be, but fools are, after all, figures of comedy.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

On that optimistic note, what better way to end this than to refer you to Peking Opera Blues: Pure Delirium, which is not only the source of most of the screencaps I’ve used here, and not just a celebration of the film’s joyous delirium and great artistry, but is also an amazing personal testimony about how Peking Opera Blues changed one person’s life. For reals. It’s an extremely moving piece of writing about moving pictures, featuring personal appearances by Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh. Film writing doesn’t get much better than this.

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