Cymbeline (2014)

Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline didn’t get a theatrical release in Seattle that I noticed, or at least it has hit DVD before it has gotten a theatrical showing in Seattle. I don’t think it got much of a theatrical distribution at all, for that matter. From what I’ve read, this might be partly because the initial critical reaction was negative, or at least mixed. I’ve seen some enthusiastic reviews on the internet, so I’m not sure how much critical reception really was a factor in the lack of distribution. Perhaps just as important is that it’s a relatively obscure Shakespeare play that most people probably haven’t heard of, let alone read or seen. You would think the name Shakespeare might be enough to get it a showing, but apparently not. Then again, the play has frequently been derided even by lovers of Shakespeare as a tawdry and implausible mishmash of melodramatic elements, and maybe the reaction to film is a reaction to the story itself.

Still from Cymbeline

I’ve read the play, but only once. I’ve also watched the BBC adaptation from 1982 with Helen Mirren playing Imogen, but I confess I remember very little about it other than a snowy landscape. So my familiarity with the play is fairly minimal, although it’s hard to forget the scene where Imogen, who has herself been mistaken for dead, wakes up next to the headless corpse of what she believes is her beloved Posthumus. Cymbeline is full of over-the-top, wildly dramatic scenes like that. Harold Bloom has suggested that it’s a form of self-parody, with Shakespeare mocking his own earlier plays (cf. Juliet waking next to the corpse of Romeo). But it’s also one of the four Shakespeare plays that were retroactively labeled late romances, in the old sense of adventure stories with a heavy dose of fantasy and the supernatural. The god Jupiter makes an appearance in the play, for example, just as the gods make an appearance in the more famous of Shakespeare late romances, The Tempest.

But Jupiter doesn’t appear in Almereyda’s version. As he did with his wonderful adaptation of Hamlet (2000), Almereyda has set Cymbeline in a contemporary, if non-specific, setting of biker gangs (the ancient British tribe of King Cymbeline) and corrupt cops (ancient Rome, seeking tribute from the barbarians). He has stripped the play down to a very spare form, which has led some to complain that there’s very little of Shakespeare’s language left in it. Gone is the appearance of Jupiter, stinking of sulfur, but there’s still a brief scene with the ghost of Posthumus’ father, who quotes a poem by Emily Dickinson, which is something I didn’t discern the first time I watched the film.

One of the things that I don’t think works particularly well is the introduction, which shows us the key characters while telling us with title cards that Cymbeline’s daughter , Imogen, has married the lowly Posthumus rather than her betrothed, Cloten, who is the son of Cymbeline’s evil second wife. The opening exposition feels like an admission that the story is too unwieldy to get started without explanatory footnotes, but maybe it’s the same in the play, where two nameless gentleman give us much of this same exposition at greater length. Once the story proper kicks in, however, Almereyda’s approach works very well for me. Shakespeare’s language may be pared down to a minimum, but Almereyda has found ways to communicate the action visually that seems very appropriate to the medium and true to Shakespeare’s treatment of the frailty of human trust.

In some ways the visual approach here reminds me of what Baz Luhrmann did in Romeo + Juliet, and not just because both films feature John Leguizamo and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Luhrmann found phrases from Shakespeare — and not just from Romeo and Juliet — that he used almost like graffiti in the visual design. Almereyda does something similar, for example, by using the phrase “Keep your head” as an epigraph, which is not a quote from Shakespeare but a wry comment on the story. We also see Posthumus create a woodcut print of Imogen posing with Death, with the caption “Fear no more,” which is a quote from a song in the play sung over Imogen when she is mistakenly thought to be dead. This further rhymes with a shot of two children in Halloween costumes, one dressed as a skeleton, who is looked over by another figure in a skeleton suit, which plays like an eruption of pagan fatalism in the modern dress world of the adaptation.

Even after two viewings I’m not completely sure what song is sung during the burial of Imogen in the film. Almereyda’s use of music is also a bit Luhrmannesque, with bits of Erik Satie (I think from Gymnopédies), a Bob Dylan song sung in a night club by the sultry Queen (played by Mila Jovovich), and the Maytals’ reggae song “Pressure Drop” played on a vinyl album by a character wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. There’s other music that I didn’t recognize, including the burial song, and for all I know it might be one of the musical arrangements composed for the lyrics from Shakespeare’s play.

Still from Cymbeline

One of the notable things about this adaptation is how low key it is. The actors ( a stellar cast that includes Ed Harris and Ethan Hawke along with those already mentioned) uniformly speak in subdued tones, and there is very little in the way of emotional outburst. It’s almost as if Almereyda wanted to defuse the outrageousness of the play with underplayed acting. There’s also a very dry sense of humor typified by the “Keep your head” motto and in the clever updating when Imogen, in disguise as a boy, is asked what her name is, looks at the Che t-shirt, and says Fidel. It’s Fidelis in the play, which is perhaps too obvious a comment on Imogen’s fidelity to Posthumus, despite his suspicions. Fidel suggests something more radical or subversive, but Almereyda doesn’t make anything of it that I’ve noticed so far, unless he’s implying that her fidelity is a radical stance in a corrupt and treacherous world.

Then there’s the interpolation of Dickinson’s poem, which is a fairly radical move in its own right. Cymbeline has been praised for the general tone of forgiveness and redemption, and the last words of the movie are, “Pardon’s the word to all,” as even the vile Iachimo is forgiven. In the play, the ghost of Posthumus’ father berates Jupiter for the outrageous suffering of his son, whom he argues is worthy of better fortune than the god has granted him. Jupiter replies,

Be not with mortal accidents opprest;
No care of yours it is; you know ’tis ours.
Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,
The more delay’d, delighted.

Jupiter is basically saying that human suffering is random, or at least not under human control, and only serves to make the gift of good fortune, which is no doubt equally an accident, more pleasurable in contrast. Compare this to Dickinson’s poem, which is quoted by the ghost of the father (played by Bill Pullman) over the sleeping Posthumus.

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven—
For what, he is presumed to know—
The Crime, from us, is hidden—
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.

This really does strike chords with the Shakespeare, both in the sense that the crimes to be forgiven by God are known only to Him, not to the human seeking forgiveness, but also this strange sense in the final lines that too much happiness is a kind of hubris.

So my sense after two viewings is that this is a pretty smart adaptation of Cymbeline. I’m not sure the ending completely captures the wave of forgiveness that sweeps through the last act of the play, and in the eyes of some bestows one of Shakespeare’s dying benedictions on this suffering world. Perhaps it’s a casualty of the spare, low-key approach, or perhaps it avoids a happiness that too competes with heaven. Over all, however, Almereyda and his cast and crew have done a great job of grappling with the play’s themes, and visually it is very strikingly composed. It looks like a keeper to me.

Still from Cymbeline

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Still from Dance, Girl, Dance

According to her IMDb credits, Dorothy Arzner’s Hollywood career lasted from 1920 to 1943. She was the only woman to direct a sound picture in Hollywood until Ida Lupino started her directorial career in 1949. Because of her singularity, Arzner has become a figure of great fascination to feminist and queer theorists (Arzner was a lesbian), although as far as I can tell she’s still not particularly highly regarded by auteurists or general film historians or for that matter film buffs. When the DVD of Dance, Girl, Dance was released in 2007, Dave Kehr said of it in his NYTimes review, “It’s not very good.”

I’d say it actually is pretty good, although having only seen this one of Arzner’s films, I have no idea how much she brought to the production. Certainly it had some other interesting people working on it. Producer Erich Pommer had roots in the Weimar film industry, where he produced many films by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, not to mention Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Art director Van Nest Polglase worked on many of RKO most famous films, and director of photography Russell Metty was one of the greats of the studio system. The story the script was based on was by Vicki Baum, who was most famous for writing the play, Grand Hotel. The editing was by Robert Wise, who went on to become an Oscar-winning director after editing such classics as Citizen Kane.

Still from Dance, Girl, Dance

With all this talent involved Dance, Girl, Dance looks great. It has that high studio gloss that you could find in other RKO musicals, like the Astaires/Rogers films. But it’s also an interesting story, even though it it’s also a typical Hollywood story. Two dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball), embody two different types: the serious artist and the entertainer. Bubbles, renamed Tiger Lily White, gets a high-paying job in a burlesque show, and when Judy decides she doesn’t have what it takes to make it as a ballet dancer, she accepts a job playing “stooge” to Bubbles: the serious dancer the crowd boos because it wants to see Bubbles take it all off. Meanwhile both women are in love with a rich, dissolute married man (Louis Hayward), while off in the distance nice guy dance producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) doesn’t know that when he was flirting with Judy in the rain, he was flirting with a dancer of promise.

None of these story elements is original or particularly interesting in themselves, but I liked the way the film worked. It has a couple of big musical numbers that are handled a little bit like a backstage musical, and the big ballet sequence that convinces Judy she isn’t a good enough dancer for ballet is very striking in the way that it’s put together and executed for the camera. It reminded me of the ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, although it’s not as extended as that one. The dancing by Vivien Fay puts all the other dancing in the film to shame. On that score, both Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball are fine at selling their parts as dancers, but in the scene where both dance the hula and I’m supposed to conclude that Ball has more sex appeal, I had to take it as a given. Ball’s big burlesque number is funny and risque, but she sure didn’t have anything on Rita Hayworth in the sizzle department.

Screencap from Dance Girl Dance

But it doesn’t really matter, because the film isn’t strictly a musical and is more about the relationships between the characters. Apparently the feminists have loved the fact that the relationship between Judy and Bubbles is at the center of the script, and the two male love interests are secondary. In fact, the romantic relationship that gets the most attention in the movie is that between Louis Hayward and his estranged wife, played by Virginia Field. They are clearly drawn to each other like moths to a flame, but they’re constantly and unhappily sparring when they’re together. Hayward flirts with Judy and Bubbles, and while Judy innocently thinks he might be the real thing, Bubbles is only interested in him for his money. Maybe it’s that unromantic view of romance that appealed to me the most, along with the oddball structure that basically keeps the supposedly true lovebirds apart until the final two minutes of the film. The one thing that seemed a little underdeveloped to me was the way that Judy suddenly discovered a more pugnacious attitude in the end, climaxing in a hair-pulling, eye-punching fight between her and Bubbles. It seems out of character for the demure mouse she’s played up until then, although it’s prefigured by her surprising tirade (much beloved of feminists) against the men in the audience at the burlesque theater, who “go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute.”

The film is full of surprising touches like that. Another one is Maria Ouspenskaya playing a pretty damned butch dance instructor or agent — I was a little unsure what her actual role was. Another RKO film I was reminded of was Gregory La Cava’s great Stage Door (1937), which is also about the struggles of women trying to break into show business, features two sparring female friends (played by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn), and coincidentally also has a great part for Lucille Ball. Dance, Girl, Dance lacks the witty dialogue of that one, but on the other hand it has even more Lucille Ball, which is no bad thing. I loved the way her gold-digger character gets exactly what she wants, and it ain’t the man. From what I’m reading about Arzner, all of her movies were about strong women, and based on this one I’m curious to see more.

Screencap from Dance, Girl, Dance

Michael Glover Smith has an excellent piece about Dance, Girl, Dance at White City Cinema, as does Louise Cole at Senses of Cinema.

A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Ying hung boon sik III: Zik yeung ji gor, 1989)

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII

This is another of Tsui Hark’s directorial efforts that I hadn’t seen before. I saw the first two A Better Tomorrow films many years ago at the Seattle Art Museum, of all places, with director John Woo in attendance. I don’t remember much about the films, and while I find Woo interesting enough to have seen many of his movies, I’ve never re-watched any of them. It’s possible that I’d like his bullet ballets better now, because I think one difficulty I’ve had with Woo is that he mostly makes male melodramas, especially in his Hong Kong heroic bloodshed phase. I’ve had problems with the melodrama genre in the past, but I’ve learned to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older, at least when it comes to the classic women’s weepies. That all said, Tsui’s A Better Tomorrow III is very much an action melodrama, and I had some problems with the melodramatic aspect of it too.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_006

ABT3 is largely set in Vietnam starting in 1974 as the Vietcong are about to take over. Tsui was raised in Saigon until age 14, circa 1965, so he has a personal connection to this aspect of the film, and it shows. For an American audience, it’s fascinating to see the Vietnamese war from the perspective of outsiders observing the conflict, without the wounded sense that American film-makers tend to bring. Tsui’s Chinese nationalism pervades the film, and in fact a lot of commentators interpret it as his comment both on the Tienanmen Massacre (lots of scenes of street protests, and a confrontation with a tank at the climax) and on the impending handover of Hong Kong, which is both explicitly discussed by the Chinese characters in the film and hovers over the images of a country taken over by communists. John Woo had apparently intended to set his own version of ABT3 in Vietnam, but after he had a falling out with Tsui, he turned that script into Bullet in the Head, which is possibly his best film and similarly comments on current events in Hong Kong.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_012 PDVD_013

Tsui’s Chinese nationalism also comes out in the way the film examines the Chinese involvement in Vietnam. Mark Gor (Chow Yun Fat) heads to Vietnam to bail his cousin Cheung Chih Mun (Tony Leung Ka Fai) out of prison and help him convince his uncle that it’s time to pull out of the increasingly dangerous Saigon, where he has run a medicine shop for over twenty years, and return to Hong Kong. It’s not easy to convince the uncle to leave, and Mark comments on how Chinese businessmen are so personally invested in their business that they don’t want to give it up even when their lives are at stake. Mark and Mun need to raise cash for the move, and their ability to pull off a black market arms deal depends on the connections of the mysterious Chow Ying Kit (Anita Mui), who has already helped Mark escape the extortionate airport Customs agents for reasons that aren’t clear. When they learn that Kit has connections to the Chinese underworld in Vietnam, they appeal to their shared ethnic identity to convince her to help them out.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_016 PDVD_017

But while Tsui is focused on the Chinese identity, he populates the film with a complex set of conflicting and collaborating factions that’s reminiscent of the chaotic welter of contending forces in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or, really, any of his other films. First, we have Mark and his family, but then we also have the other Chinese in Vietnam, who have shared business interests but also don’t want anybody else horning in on their business, even other Chinese.  There are at least two rogue factions of the South Vietnamese military, most predominantly the officer, Bond, with whom the black market deal is first attempted, but also the unnamed officer who comes to rescue Kit when the deal falls apart. There’s also Pat, who is a young Vietnamese man who was separated from his parents and taken in by Mark’s uncle. When his Chinese protector returns to Hong Kong, Pat joins the South Vietnamese army, but when Mark and Mun return to Saigon, Pat helps them against Bond and other members of his corrupt military faction. Then there are the Vietcong, who are mostly only seen in the background, although at various moments in the film their agents intervene in the action, and in the end they swarm the city in an iconic portrayal of the fall of Saigon. Finally there’s Kit’s old gangster boyfriend, Ho Cheung-Ching, who is has been gone for three years when we learn about him, but who returns to Hong Kong in the second half of the film. Ho is more or less a villain, but a typically ambiguous one. In one very powerful scene as he and Kit return to a Saigon as residents are trying to flee the victorious Vietcong, he says it reminds him of 1945 when the Japanese were retreating from Indochina and his Japanese businessman father was killed by Cambodian partisans in Phnom Penh. Almost as an afterthought he says he’s been pretending so long to be Chinese that he’d forgotten he was born Japanese. That little story creates a fascinating resonance with many different aspects of A Better Tomorrow III.

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The complexity of this political and social backdrop to the story is unfortunately undermined to some extent by the romantic/melodramatic thread of the story, unless the real problem is the cheesy synth soundtrack. Mark falls for Kit on first sight, which is in the very first scene of the film. It’s implied, but only covertly, that the feeling is mutual and that that’s why Kit rescues Mark from being fleeced and beaten by airport Customs. When Mark’s cousin, Mun, meets Kit, he too falls for her. After the first extended gun battle of the film, in which the three save each others’ lives, we get what felt to me like an egregiously inappropriate romantic shopping montage. The shift in tones, suffice it to say, did not work for me. Quickly the romantic triangle becomes the usual series of misunderstanding, self-sacrifice, pretend-indifference, and betrayal. It feels rote to me, but it could be I just don’t have any interest in these formulas, while the rote action formulas are A-okay. My other thought about why it doesn’t work is that Kit is such a mysterious character that her stakes in the triangle are unclear and thus unconvincing. If she’s being initially aloof because of her history with Ho, that isn’t communicated very well. Things actually get more interesting when Ho shows up and creates antagonism with all three points of the triangle.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_055 PDVD_064

ABT3’s main claim to fame is probably the way Tsui uses Kit’s character to subvert Woo’s code of honorable machismo. It has been a constant theme in the Tsui Hark films I’ve already written about that he is interested in powerful female characters, and Kit is a great addition to the pantheon. Here it’s revealed that the super-macho Mark of the first two films learned everything he knew about being a bad-ass from a woman. Kit shows him how to wear mirror shades, gives him his iconic black trenchcoat, and teaches him how to shoot a gun. She also inspires him to tragic love, which is a feeling that’s reserved for fellow men in Woo’s films. The big problem with Kit’s character, as I mentioned before, is that we really don’t know much about her motives, although  maybe that’s just part of the character type of the enigmatic killer. What seriously weakens any claims this film has to a feminist perspective, however, is that Kit is the only female character of any substance, with only Mark’s other cousin, Ling, and two Vietcong bomb-throwers (whom Mark and Mun innocently flirt with) getting any screen time to speak of. This film is more like Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind than, say, Peking Opera Blues, that way.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_024 PDVD_025

It took me two viewings to really get a grasp on the main thing that appeals to me about the film, which is the complicated political and social background and the Chinese perspective on the tribulations of Asia. The thing that appealed to me immediately was Tsui’s usual visual stylishness and inventiveness, as he keeps giving us new angles on even the most standard business. He had shown an ability to give the romantic triangle a fresh treatment in Shanghai Blues, so I’m not sure how he flubbed it this time. My initial suspicion was that maybe he tossed this film out to make a quick buck and didn’t spend enough time on it. However, the careful layering of the political situation may indicate that that’s where his true interest was on this project, along with the jab at Woo’s male-oriented perspective.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII


Self/less (2015)

Poster for Self/Less

The two reviews I read of Self/less called it mediocre, but so far I’m a Tarsem Singh completest, so I wasn’t going to let that stop me. All four of his previous films have wonderful visual style, and The Fall (2006) is one of my favorite films of recent years. I love the altogether campier Mirror Mirror (2012) too, while The Cell (2000) and Immortals (2011) are too grim for me, despite their undeniable visual splendors.

Self/less looks a lot different than those previous films. Other than the opulence of the Manhattan tower condo where we initially find the protagonist (at that point played by Ben Kingsley) living, the rest of the production design is fairly spare and sleek and lacking in the fanciful. The story, too, is less fanciful, although it’s still a work of fantasy, in the science fiction mode. Kingsley plays a billionaire named Damian who is dying from cancer. He has learned of a new technology, called shedding, that allows a person’s identity to be transferred to a new body and thereby prolongs life. The secretive company that owns the technology claims the new body is a clone, but it soon becomes apparent that Damian’s new body (played by Ryan Reynolds) may have a history of its own.

So Tarsem has abandoned his stylized look for this film, and the film itself is a fairly conventional science fiction thriller. Maybe he was trying to prove that he could do something more mundane than what he’s become known for. It seems to me that he’s done a good enough job of it. While I would agree that this is a pretty average movie, it’s well made as such. It moves along effortlessly, creates characters you can identify with, builds dramatic tension, and handles its action scenes well. (Tarsem proved he could handle action scenes in Immortals, but this film, while occasionally brutal, is thankfully less gory.) Instead of using set and costume design to communicate the story, Tarsem uses old-fashioned montage. There’s a lovely sequence of Damian throwing a series of women into bed that expresses the joys of his new body, and later there’s a sequence in which he teaches a young girl how to swim that conveys the establishment of a connection between the two characters in a brief flow of images and dialogue.

Again, on a plot and character level this isn’t anything more demanding than, say, one of EuropaCorp’s thrillers. I’d certainly agree that it’s the least interesting of Tarsem’s movies so far, but I found it perfectly agreeable for what it was. The biggest weakness, to my mind, was that the conversion of Damian’s character was unconvincing — both in terms of the feeling that Ryan Reynolds is playing the same character that Ben Kingsley was, and in terms of the changes in the character’s motivation. It reminded me at times of the film Limitless, but it doesn’t have the satirical edge or narrative ebullience that made that one so effective. Still, it works through its premise with some able twists and turns, never tarrying too long or trying to be more than a straightforward action melodrama with a happy ending.


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?

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.

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]

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.


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 on 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.]


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.