A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971)

The first Blu-Ray I’ve bought (not counting the one included for free with the DVD of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In) is Criterion’s release of a new restoration of King Hu’s classic wuxia pian, which is one of my all-time favorite films. My film database says that I’ve now watched this movie four times. The other three times were videotapes or DVDs of marginal quality. The highest visual quality DVD I watched was a Chinese disk that had no English subtitles.

There were a couple of things I noticed on my fourth viewing that I hadn’t noticed before. One was the moment of Miss Yang’s decision to bear Scholar Ku’s child. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect. She’s tending to Ku’s mother, who has a cold, and the mother is complaining, as she does constantly, that Ku will never get married and thus the family will die out. Heavy sigh. Cut to Miss Yang’s face as she makes a decision. I’m not sure whether the seduction scene is the very next scene or not. This film is very much about traditional Chinese values, and I think we’re supposed to admire Yang for her willingness to help the Ku family continue for another generation. She even bears him a boy! But one of the odd things about the movie is that she shows no maternal feelings whatsoever. Are we supposed to understand this as part of her attempt to break her attachments to the world, which is fundamentally a matter of religion, specifically Buddhism? Even when she leaves the monastery to protect Ku from the bad guys pursuing him, it’s cast more as a decision to protect him than to protect their child. Well, it’s possible that this is a continuity point that got lost in the mad rush to finish the film once the investors started getting impatient with how long it was taking.

The other thing I finally noticed is that when the evil Eastern Depot Chief Commander Xu duels with the Buddhist Abbott Hui, Hui eventually smacks him right on the third eye with his palm. There is a bloody mark left over the third eye. This is when Xu starts having the psychedelic visions of the Buddha that finish off the film. Does Hui’s blow open Xu’s third eye? This line of thought led me to think more about the “touch of Zen” in the story. Hu says that he himself was not a Buddhist, but he had a scholarly interest in Zen and wanted to incorporate some of those ideas in a wuxia film to try to deepen the meaning. In a short essay that’s included in the Criterion package, he talks about how he discovered that “translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties.” He doesn’t delve too deeply into what these difficulties were, but only notes that “Zen is something that can’t be explained but only experienced.” This would explain why the ending is so elliptical and ambiguous, but I began to wonder what connection between wuxia and Zen he had seen to begin with. The idea that Hui could release a transcendental vision through a violent blow seemed to my mind like a contradiction of the tenets of Buddhism.

Screencap from A Touch of Zen

What struck me is that the classic wuxia story is of the great swordsman who has grown tired of being embroiled in the conflicts of the jiang hu — the criminal underworld outside the normal rule of law where those who oppose corrupt Imperial politics are forced to reside. In the classic wuxia story, the weary warrior seeks to remove themselves from this world of conflict, but they always discover that there’s no escape. As in film noir (or Westerns like Shane or Unforgiven where the gunman tries to retire to a quiet life without killing), the past has its hooks in them, and it will come hunting. This basic fatalistic plot is very similar to the Buddhist attempt to escape the cycle of samsara that keeps us imprisoned in the world of illusion and impermanence. A Touch of Zen combines the two concepts/plots, in fact, when Miss Yang, who is a great swordswoman embroiled in conflict with the Eastern Depot (or imperial secret police — essentially the Gestapo) tries to remove herself from the cycle of vengeance and power struggles by retreating to a Buddhist monastery.

One of the things the movie doesn’t resolve is whether she is ultimately successful. The last we see is that she’s been pulled out of the monastery by the need to protect Ku (who also has their baby with him). But what about Abbott Hui? He warns Miss Yang that if he achieves nirvana, it will be up to her to protect Ku. This seems to imply that he feels he’s on the verge of achieving nirvana. The ending, which show him striking Buddha poses, seems to confirm that he has now done so. But again, isn’t it a contradiction that he has done so while embroiled in a violent conflict with an evil villain? Maybe that’s what King Hu was trying to acknowledge when he protested that he wasn’t really a Buddhist and that it’s impossible to convey Zen cinematically. Or maybe what he was trying to show was Hui escaping the cycle of struggle for power by achieving nirvana, so achieving what all great wuxia heroes want, but through leaving the entire world behind rather than through final victory with the sword. Nirvana is the ultimate retirement from the jiang hu. But is Miss Yang now stuck in the role of Ku’s (and their child’s) protector? The Chinese title of the movie, Xia nü, is translated as “The Chivalrous Maid.” She’s been that throughout, but now it comes to define her existence.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Apparently it’s not doing well at the box office, but I thought Hell or HIgh Water was a kick-ass little move — emphasis on the little. On the surface it’s about two brothers — one responsible, one wild — who go on a bank-robbing spree in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, but what it’s really about is the cracker social class the two brothers are from. As a portrait of hard scrabble, impoverished rural life in America, it’s quite good.

I was nagged by the thought that in some ways it was about Trump supporters. The Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges (always a favorite of mine) is a racist who thinks his racist insults are jokes, but he truly loves his Commanche-Mexican deputy, so the movie forgives him. To the film’s credit, it gives the deputy one of the most powerful speeches, as he talks about how the descendants of the people who took the land away from his people are now having the land taken away from them in turn — but by banks instead of an army. It’s a powerful statement about the corporatized death of the American Dream that also acknowledges that the American Dream was a form of robbery to begin with, transferring land from the natives to the immigrants.

Chris PIne as the “good” brother hides his sensuous beauty behind a haggard, downcast look for most of the film, and he’s great in a shifty, morally-ambiguous role. Bridges is great too, of course. I thought this one was much better than similar films such as Cold in July or Out of the Furnace.

The Get Down (2016)

I loved The Get Down — the new Netflix series produced by Baz Luhrmann — set in the Bronx in 1977, when disco was at its peak and rap was still underground. It’s a kind of musical, with several of the characters trying to make their mark in disco or rap. It’s also a powerful exploration of the racism behind the blight in the Bronx at the time and the political compromises (and, indeed, corruption) required to dig out of the rubble. Great music, great performances, great characters, poignant history, powerful drama. The Rolling Stone article I’m linking to talks about how various Bronx musicians, including Grandmaster Flash, who is a (highly-mythologized) character in the series, were brought on board to help with the period detail, stories, and music. It’s a labor of love, and as I say, I loved it.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

I finally got to see Max Ophüls’ second film noir, The Reckless Moment. It hasn’t been available on home video in recent years, as far as I can tell, so I had to wait until Noir City showed it. Like Ophüls’ first noir, Caught, it’s a female-centered story, but it’s more of a traditional noir in examining a middle class suburban family sucked into a nightmarish underworld of crime via underage sex and murder. The Czar of Noir City, Eddie Muller, calls both films “domestic noir,” and he thinks The Reckless Moment in particular is neglected both because the protagonist, played by noir superstar Joan Bennett, is a woman and not a tough guy detective, and because the story is based on a Ladies Home Journal story by Elizabeth Saxnay Holding, not a hard-boiled crime story by Hammett, Chandler, Cain, or Woolrich.

The Reckless Moment is unusual because it makes a sympathetic character out of the blackmailer played by James Mason, and in fact hints at an adulterous love affair between Mason and Bennett, whose husband is away on business throughout the movie. Caught is also unusual for a Hollywood movie in the way it presents an adulterous affair as the happy solution to an abusive marriage. A sophisticated approach to adultery became Ophüls’ signature after he returned to Europe in the ’50s.

Microbe & Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil, 2015)

Microbe and Gasoline was very sweet. It’s the best thing by Michel Gondry I’ve seen since The Science of Sleep (2006). (There are three in that time period that I haven’t seen yet.) It’s a coming-of-age story about two dreamy, sensitive, inventive, misfit adolescent boys growing up in the Parisian suburb of Versailles, where Gondry himself grew up. The first part is about their conflicts with bullies and family, and in the second part they build their own goofy, Gondryesque motor home and try to escape their problems with a road trip into the French countryside.

The two boys have distinct characters, with Daniel (called Microbe because he’s small for his age) a self-doubting, romantic artist (c’est moi!) and Theo (called Gasoline — Gasoil in French — because he’s always fixing engines and smells like it) the self-assured, pragmatic mechanic. Gondry embraces the unresolvable contradictions in life, as when Daniel and his brother listen through the wall to their mother moaning and can’t tell whether she’s crying or having sex. The mother is played by an anorexic Audrey Tautou, who nails the role of the anxious, neurotic, overly-doting mom. It’s episodic and wandering, like a good road trip, but it gets home eventually, with a nice slingshot ending that suddenly switches to the beloved girl’s perspective.

League of Gods (Feng Shen Bang, 2016)

Chinese wuxia-fantasy films have become a strange cinematic hybrid of post-LOTR computer-graphic epics and superhero films, with everything happening in a completely animated environment and lots of characters with funny names and outlandish powers — a standard of the genre from the beginning, admittedly. Add in the old-fashioned lightening-fast, blink-and-you-miss-it exposition of the Hong Kong fantasies of the ’80s, and you get League of Gods. This is said to be based on a 16th-century novel of great repute called Fengshen Bang or Investiture of Gods, about the transition from the Shang dynasty to the Zhou dynasty.

As so often with Chinese fantasies, I wonder if it would make more sense to me if I knew the underlying literature. As it was, this felt like the plot had been created by a random wuxia cliche generator. There was almost enough weirdness (such as the baby with the super farts) to keep me distracted, but in the end I felt beaten down by the loud, over-emphatic crassness of it all, which is frankly the way I feel at the end of most superhero movies and post-LOTR computer-graphic epics too. Interesting to see Jet Li playing the white-haired old master, Jiang, in this one. I guess he is now of a Certain Age.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014)

Still from A Midsummer Night's Dream

This is a film of a live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Julie Taymor directed in Brooklyn in 2014. I love Taymor’s movies, and although this is a live production, it’s filmed beautifully. There are shots that are clearly composed for the camera, although the positioning of the actors must have made sense to the live audience too. Anyway, this is Taymor’s third Shakespeare film, but while I found it incredibly gorgeous and fun, it’s probably my least favorite of the three on a first viewing.

As you would expect from a Taymor film, the production design is amazing. The costumes are great particularly for Titania and Oberon, who are coded silver and gold respectively. (Oberon is played by the one actor I recognized: David Harewood, who plays the Martian Manhunter on the TV series Supergirl.) The practical stage effects are actually quite elaborate, with a very effective use of light projected on backdrops, props, and characters to give a magical feeling of transformation to every object on stage. The donkey mask that Bottom wears has a prosthetic mouth at the end of the muzzle that appears to mimic the actor’s mouth movements as he speaks. Very uncanny looking.

I also loved some of the conceptual effects, such as having it all start out as Puck’s dream, although I wasn’t sure why that frame was dropped, without Puck waking up in the end before giving his apology for the offenses against reason the play/dream present. It’s possible this was intentional and that Taymor wants us to leave the theater thinking that we are still in the middle of a dream that has no end. Certainly some of the characters wonder whether they are awake or still dreaming as they exit the stage.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve read and/or seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I’m surprised how much stuff I noticed for the first time in this version. It probably doesn’t speak well of my competence to comment on the play, but this was the first time I realized that Demetrius is the only mortal still under a fairy love spell at the end of the play. Leaves you wondering which of the three mortal couples in the end will endure: the two who love each other of their own free will or the one in which one of the pair is magically compelled to love the other? I also had never caught that part of the conflict between Oberon and Titania that drives the action of the play is that she is infatuated with Theseus and Oberon with Hippolyte. Does the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyte in the end mean that they are now safe from the jealousies of their fairy paramours?

So why did I find this the least interesting of Taymor’s three Shakespeare films? Frankly it’s probably because like a lot of moderns, I find his comedies harder to appreciate than his tragedies, because the jokes often don’t make sense to me. Taymor opts for a fairly slapstick approach to the comedy, which is a common strategy for coping with the fact that Shakespeare’s jokes are often incomprehensible to modern audiences without a lot of explanatory footnotes. But I honestly prefer the approach in the 1999 film version, with Kevin Kline playing a world-weary Bottom and the silly play of the mechanicals actually capturing a real sense of tragedy that surprises everyone, including the players themselves. However, I should say I was out of synch with the rest of the sold out house I saw this with at the SIFF Film Center, who frequently laughed and hooted at the capering, pratfalls, and pillow fights on screen.

So I guess it was kind of a mixed bag for me. It’s 148 minutes long, so my butt was tired by the end. But the beautiful visuals kept me going through sore butt syndrome. I’m sure I’ll never forget the sequence of swelling flowers that precedes the consummation of the affair between Titania and Bottom. It was a surprisingly lush, overt burst of eroticism in the midst of a raucous comedy. Weed wide enough to wrap an ass in.

No Time for Love (1943)

I’d heard many years ago that CC Beck based Captain Marvel (of Shazam fame) on actor Fred MacMurray, and the facial resemblance seemed obvious enough. However, I was surprised while watching the 1943 romantic comedy No Time for Love to actually see MacMurray portrayed as a superhero in a dream sequence. His friends in the movie also call him Superman. 1943 was after Captain Marvel was first published, so the film couldn’t have had any effect on the original concept, but I was actually surprised at how superheroic MacMurray looked in costume. He was a pretty muscular guy, as several shirtless scenes in the movie show. It’s not how I picture him in my own mind’s eye.

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‘The film is disarmingly frank about the gay fascination with “rough trade.” As Colbert enters a tunnel full of workmen, her camera and Leisen’s linger lovingly on their nude, muscular torsos. One photo shoot has a body-builder in a leopard-skin thong. In the dream sequence, MacMurray appears in a clinging Superman outfit. (A cut scene shows Colbert swimming naked, with a man’s nude buttocks mounted behind her on a plinth!) Suspecting her passion is purely physical, Claudette muses: ‘Maybe one person really is better than another, and there couldn’t be any real happiness “just momentary infatuation.” ‘ (David Melville, “Mitchell Leisen” for Sense of Cinema)

Once upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung, 1991)

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For a long time my impression of this Tsui Hark film is that it was good, but too sober and nationalistic for my tastes. Now (actually last year now, but I got distracted from the Tsui Hark project for months) having watched it a third time, I have to admit that it really is one of his strongest films. It’s very well constructed and tightly focused on the theme of what it means to be Chinese in a world in which foreigners are trying to take over the country and many Chinese are trying to immigrate to the US. China is Westernizing in response to the power of the West, symbolized by the gun, and the transformation of the country is hugely disruptive. Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), trying to make a living in the British colony of Hong Kong, represents traditional Chinese values and skills (both medical and martial arts), but even he is wearing a Western suit by the end of the film. Various other characters wrestle with what it means for them to be Chinese, perhaps most effectively in the form of Buck Teeth So (Jacky Cheung), who tries to reclaim his Chinese identity after a time in America, but who stutters when he speaks Chinese while he’s fluent in English. In the end, nationalism provides a common identity to everyone, and it’s a happy ending. But there’s plenty of tension in the resolution, as everything traditional is upended along the way.

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Now that Tsui has introduced the hero who will protect China from foreign intervention, he next brings on the character who will cause Wong to question and finally alter his position: Aunt Yee, who has been travelling for some time and has acquired certain Western ways. She dresses like a proper Victorian woman, carries a box camera and has American friends; her Westernization is so effective, in fact, that she’s at first mistaken by one lead characters for a gweilo. Yee tries to tell Wong that China must change, that it must open itself to some Western advances — or be crushed. And although Wong initially dismisses her arguments, he will finally succumb to her logic. (Lisa Morton, The Cinema of Tsui Hark)

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Once Upon a Time in China can be seen as an inversion of a work such as Kipling’s Gunga Din. The bad guys are Britons and Americans while Jesuit missionaries barely pass muster in the Gunga Din role as intermediaries between Asians and Westerners. Tsui’s work seems to play back, mischievously, the negative Asian stereotypes of Hollywood movies, answering with negative Western stereotypes of his own. However, Tsui’s sensibility for movement and action over-rides all feelings of malice. The film has many well-choreographed action scenes. The one most people will remember is Wong Fei-hung’s duel with a hot-headed rival kung fu master: in a warehouse, the two men scuttle to the top of long bamboo ladders, dodging each other’s blows as they jump and leap from one ladder to the next. The rival is finally shot down by the Westerner’s guns, and from being his deadly enemy, Wong immediately becomes his comforter in death. In his dying gasp, the rival master utters the films most meaningful line, affirming that kung fu cannot withstand the guns and bullets of the West, underlining Tsui’s theme of China as a country of lost opportunities. (Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema – The Extra Dimensions)

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As always in Tsui’s films there are multiple factions, and while the Westerners are definitely the heavies, there are plenty of Chinese also fighting on the wrong side, from the provincial bureaucrats doing the bidding of the British colonizers, to local gangs who either try to kidnap their fellow citizens and sell them as slaves to Americans, or who otherwise exploit the local populace and cause trouble with law-abiding good guys like Wong Fei Hung, to local kung fu masters who use their traditional Chinese kung fu skills for profit rather than honor or defense of China. Corruption is rife, and while it may all stem from the foreigners, it taints even the Chinese. Not all the gweilos are evil either. One Jesuit missionary is even allowed to die a heroic death.

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The relationship between Wong and Aunt Yee (whose name is sometimes translated as Aunt 13) is one of the reasons I had a hard time with the film initially, because it’s very coy and precious in a way that I found off-putting, but which I guess shows that the two characters are traditionally virtuous. Lisa Morton, quoted above, is also right that Aunt Yee is a key character in getting Wong to understand that China has to modernize if it wants to gain power to defend itself against the West, and perhaps that message had particular resonance for the Chinese in 1991, especially for those in Hong Kong who were facing absorption by the mainland in the near future. The dangers of assimilation are fraught, but traditional virtues are no protection. The story is played for thrills and laughs, but the message is sober and conflicted.

Screencap from Once Upon a Time in China

The Witch (2015)

Poster for The Witch

As I’ve no doubt said multiple times before, I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, but the trailer for this film whispered that maybe it was the kind of atmospheric horror story that I could handle. For one thing, it looked absolutely gorgeous, but it also didn’t present itself as the kind of horror film where things are leaping into the frame to give you a jolt of adrenaline. It had a very hushed aura to it, with a delicious feeling of dread rather than of fear. As emotions go, I appear to be more comfortable with dread than with fear.

And indeed, the trailer represented the film well. It is a very beautiful, painterly movie, with dark, almost colorless photography capturing the drab lives of the Puritan settlers whose story this is. The feeling of dread that permeates the film is largely religious in origin: these people are scared to death that their inescapably sinful natures are going to send them straight to hell. Because they’ve been exiled outside the larger settler community for unspecified spiritual pride, they are completely isolated in trying to survive their sins, let alone their hunger. It becomes clear that the natural world itself, represented by the forest, animals, and sexuality, is an evil place tempting them to fall from a grace that their stern Savior may have not granted them to begin with.

Since this is New England in 1630 — a few decades before the Salem witch trials — it’s only natural that when the infant in the family mysteriously disappears, the suspicion grows that a witch must have abducted him, and indeed the film shows us that this is so. However, as the family members turn against each other and begin to accuse each other of being the witch, or confessing to their own sins as the cause of their calamity, it becomes less clear that what the movie has shown us is objective reality rather than some kind of nightmarish hallucination brought on by fanatical religious belief and sheer nervous trauma.

The recent film this reminded me of was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), which shares a Kubrickian visual formalism, an emotionally detached perspective, dissonant classical soundtrack, and a focus on the power and dangers of female sexuality. It shares some of those things with Ex Machina (2015) as well, but it’s a less sleek beast than either Under the Skin or Ex Machina. It’s much darker and more opaque, for one thing, and looks like a Rembrandt painting. Linguistically, it’s a little bit like Shakespeare, with period-appropriate dialogue and accents (both hard for me to understand at times). There are weirdnesses that I didn’t understand or fully perceive, such as why the two young fraternal twins look so strange — like Munchkins or very small adults. Was that intentional?

The ending is controversial, but Eggers has said he intended to depict a Puritan nightmare. If you approach it on that level, I think the ending makes sense. It’s a nightmare of the release of women’s sinful, sexual nature, which can also be looked at as a celebration of the same, depending on your point of view. Is it real, or is it fantasy? Depends on what you believe. The movie is ambiguous and let’s you come to your own conclusions, giving the audience plenty to chew on when the curtains close.