REVIEW — The Grandmaster (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, an art house kung fu film based on the life of Bruce Lee’s trainer Ip Man.

I think I like the idea of kung fu films a lot more than I like actual kung fu films… In my early teens, I worked my way through much of Jackie Chan’s back catalogue but I have always struggled with films that did not recreate that particular style. Well… I say ‘style’ when what I actually mean is ‘competence level’ as being able to direct extended scenes of hand-to-hand combat requires a constellation of skills that surprisingly few directors manage to acquire. Every Frame A Painting has a truly excellent video about Chan’s directorial style but what has always drawn me to Chan’s direction are his clarity and his spatial awareness. Chan is first and foremost a performer and he directs in a way that emphasises the grace and skill of the performer rather than trying to compensate for it in post production as has become the norm in Hollywood where it is always much easier to add a bit of CGI or do a bit of extra editing than it is to keep re-shooting the scene in the hope of getting it just right. While action films are generally considered a lot less ‘worthy’ than the films I tend to write about on this blog, a good action director will have just as much skill, vision and sensitivity as the most celebrated Cannes winners. Hollywood may have created a generation of action directors whose logistical expertise outweighs their technical competence but that is a failing of the contemporary Hollywood machine… not the action genre.

I was intrigued to see The Grandmaster as Wong Kar-wai is undoubtedly one of the most highly skilled visual directors in world cinema. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film dismisses Wong’s films as cold but this is the result of focusing on the actors rather than everything that Wong chooses to put on the screen. When I think of Wong Kar-wai’s films I think of characters whose muted emotional tones are radically and deliberately at odds with the colourful complexity of the worlds they inhabit. Wong’s foregrounds are always cold, still and immaculately controlled but his backgrounds are rich and almost overwhelmingly evocative. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this means that Wong is an absolute natural when it comes to shooting kung fu as his characters are the cold, controlled centre to a world that is filled with beauty and movement:

Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, The Grandmaster sets up a tension between the stillness of the characters and the churning chaos of the world that surrounds them. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own feelings, Wong’s characters feel deliberately out of place as every set and every shot hints at the passions they keep chained up inside them. While the tension between Ip’s physical mastery and emotional backwardness is beautifully realised thanks to a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their respective games, you cannot help but feel a bit frustrated by the shallowness of Wong’s character study. Ip was a fascinating man who lived at a fascinating time and while action directors like Winston Yip and Herman Yau have been content to present the man as little more than a generic action hero, Wong breaks with this tradition only to strip his subject back to the equally simplistic lines of a generic romantic lead who struggles with feelings that would not overly bother a teenager.

In hindsight, this is almost certainly unfair to the romance genre as I suspect most characters in romance novels have a good deal more emotional complexity than Wong’s Ip and Gong. As I point out in the review, this cut of the film is significantly shorter than the version that was released in China and I suspect that much of the film’s connective tissue was left on the cutting room floor by Western distributors with one eye on the action market. This perhaps is the problematic legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as you can also see it in the Western release of John Woo’s Red Cliff: The Chinese action genre is desperate to grow up and to use bigger budgets and action sequences to draw big audiences to weighty themes but the West has little time or interest in 3 hour action epics that contain 2 hours of mood-setting and characterisation. Not for the first time, our debased palette seems to have prevented us from sampling the dishes served by cultures that have not followed the same reductive cinematic path.

Here, Then (2012) – So Much Less To Me Than Meets the Eye

here_thenIt is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.

Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.

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REVIEW: 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011)

THE ZONE has my review of Christopher Sun’s erotic fantasy film 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.

Incorrectly marketed as the world’s first work of erotic 3D cinema, Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a film that never quite manages to achieve the levels of inspired oddness that make for a decent cult following. Instead, the film has a few nice moments (including an intersexual vampire lifting cartwheels with her 8 foot-long prehensile penis) that ultimately wind up getting lost amidst a lot of puerile sniggering and some deeply unpleasant misogynistic sadism.

Right from the off, Sex And Zen 3D suffers from translation problems as British culture tends not to cope too well with attempts to combine sex with comedy. While most British people will happily acknowledge the fact that sex – as an activity – can sometimes be very funny, attempts to capture that comedy on screen generally do not fare too well, as ridicule was traditionally one of the means through which matters pertaining to sexuality was repressed. For example, while a case can be made for seeing the Carry On films as agents of social change, one could just as easily say that they helped to reinforce taboos about the human body by presenting sex as a laughing matter. 3D Sex And Zen‘s tendency to move between (rather un-stimulating) eroticism and childish humour is not only unsettling, it is also fiercely reminiscent of the jarring tonal shifts common to the kind of campy Bavarian softcore porn films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s and screened on British cable TV in the early-to-mid 1990s. Sex And Zen 3D ultimately fails as a film because its jokes are unfunny and its erotic content is nothing more than boobies and thrusting bottoms, but the constant shifting between these two registers makes for an experience which, I suspect; would translate better for people from cultures where laughter was not used to drain sex of its power.

I hate to say this but, watching 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy actually made me want to read some Laurel K. Hamilton as while Hamilton writes with all the style and insight of a someone with a pick-axe embedded in their skull, she at least knows how to mine the sweet spot between titillation, repulsion and transgression.

REVIEW – Aftershock (2009)

According to the latest industry figures, 3D has started to lose its allure for American cinema-goers.  This will come as a big disappointment to Hollywood as 3D not only allowed cinemas to hike their ticket prices, it also seemed to offer an experience that could not yet be replicated at home.  An experience that rivaled the interactivity of video games and social media.

Of course, it does not help that most of the films to benefit from a 3D release have been relentlessly awful.  Xiagang Feng’s Aftershock presents itself as a different type of ‘cinema spectacular’, the first IMAX-native film to be made outside of the US, it is a film that begins with raw spectacle before settling down into a carefully plotted family melodrama.  The results of this different take on cinematic spectacle are… encouraging as my Videovista review explains.

Black Snow (1990) – Points of the Existential Compass

One of the themes I keep returning to in my writings about film and literature is the tension that exists within us between the individual and the collective : On one hand, we all want to be true to ourselves and to express ourselves to the fullest without giving in to external pressures or allowing other people to take advantage of us.  On the other, we are also deeply sociable creatures who yearn for human contact and the joys of sharing our successes and failures with friends and loved ones.  While these two sets of desires are not mutually exclusive, they can interfere with each other.  Resolving this interference pattern is not only central to our day-to-day existences, but also our political system.

Or is it?

It is extremely easy to fall into the pattern of seeing everything as a tension between two diametrically opposed extremes : Good and evil, capitalism and socialism, law and chaos, religion and atheism, nature and nurture, mysticism and rationalism, us and them.  However, the simple fact that this kind of pattern can be applied to pretty much anything does not necessarily entail that it is picking up on some profound fact about the world.  In fact, I would argue that it is a shallow and empty hermeneutic whose very shallowness explains its seemingly universal application.  This kind of shallow analytical framework does pose significant dangers.

Indeed, assuming that our original balancing act is not just an empty truism then how certain are we that it is a universal fact about human life?  While the desire to balance the needs of individual expression with those of social integration is one of the most common ways of thinking about life in the West in the 21st Century, it is by no means clear that this motif enjoys the same popularity elsewhere in the world.  Do members of isolated Amazonian tribes worry about hypocritically trying to ‘fit in’?  In his book Black Mass : Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), John Gray suggests that a tendency to assume that all political cultures are the same as ours is one of the regrettable short-comings of Western liberalism.  It is, he argues, the kind of unwarranted assumption about other people that leads to blood-shed as when we encounter people who are not like us, it is all too easy to move from incomprehension to hostility.

Fei Xie’s Black Snow (Ben Ming Nian) is an interesting test case for the applicability of our dichotomy : Made in China in the late 1980s, the film initially presents itself as a rather generic art house film in which an alienated and isolated individual battles to re-engage with a society he long-ago turned his back on.  However, Fei Xie’s approach to this challenge reveals a political culture with a very different set of attitudes to ours.

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REVIEW : The Warlords (2007)

This month’s issue of Videovista has recently gone up and it contains my review of Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007).  It is not a bad film at all and it draws attention to two interesting characteristics about contemporary Chinese cinema.

Firstly, that while Chinese films are lagging behind the West in matters of digital jiggery-pokery, they have acess to material resources such as sets and extras that render a lot of these techniques largely moot.  For example, I suspect that had The Warlords‘ battle scenes been shot for an American film, the armies would have been mostly digital and, as a result, much much larger.  After all, why have a few dozen ships when you can have thousands?  I call this the Troy Effect.

You can also see the impressive material infrastructure of Chinese cinema on display in Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers (2007) ,which I also reviewed for Videovista.  The film’s opening scenes are set in the Chinese country-side and instead of a few internal shots and maybe some location work, the film benefits from having been shot on what apears to be the kind of vast back-lot that Hollywood has long since transformed into theme parks.

Secondly, both films are set at times in Chinese history when there was a good deal of foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs.  Indeed, Blood Brothers is set in 1930s Shanghai, which hosted a large British ex-pat community including J. G. Ballard.  Similarly, The Warlords is set in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the wars between China in Britain that not only netted Britain Hong Kong but which opened China up to foreign trade and cultural influence.  However, despite this both films are completely free of British characters and Western faces.

Since the apologetics of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), it has become tempting to see all Chinese cultural exports as exercises in nationalist propaganda and the degree of cultural re-appropriation going on in both films invite us to consider them in this very light.  However, this strikes me as a rather egocentric vision of Chinese cinema.  Not every film (or song) is about the West or even for Western consumption.  As a result, it seems more reasonable to see this kind of historical airbrushing as being an expression not of ideological projection but of yielding to popular tastes.  So just as American audiences prefer to think that their country won the Second World War single-handed, I suspect that most the Chinese audience would react badly to films that remind them of their country’s quasi-colonial status.