Monday, March 23, 2009

Asian Salad, Sharks, and Buttons

A friend of mine bought a new television last week. This thing is huge. Imagine the monolith from 2001 turned on its side and you have an idea of how big this damned thing is. It's really too much television for just one person. She also has a huge collection of Asian genre films, including an extensive selection of the Shaw Brothers re-issues from Celestial in Hong Kong. We've been trying to arrange a movie night for months now, and the stars were finally right for a night of kung-fu. We picked a couple of random films from her collection, figured out how to work the subtitles on her new tv, and plunged right in.

First up was The Deadly Breaking Sword (1979, directed by Chung Sun), in which Ti Lung plays a wu xia swordsman who breaks off a piece of his sword in the killing stroke when he dispatches his opponents. The movie takes it's time informing us that he's the good guy. The plot is never really clear on who is the protagonist. The character who would be the good guy in most films is lovable doofus Sheng Fu, who has gambled away his freedom early in the film, and is now indentured to the gambling house as a bouncer. I say he would be the good guy, but for something he does later in the film that seems fairly unforgivable. The main kung-fu baddie is Wai-Man Chan, who survives his opening duel with Ti Lung and falls in with a sinister doctor played by the always villainous Ku Feng. Fei Ai is the driver of the plot as a courtesan who manipulates everyone to her own ends. The martial arts action in this one is fairly dance-like, which is a surprise given the late date of its production. Still, it's a handsome film that makes good use of Shaw's familiar sets, and Ti Lung is always watchable, especially given that his character here is unusually unlikeable in spite of his heroism.

Next was Chia-Liang Liu's Dirty Ho (also 1979), in which Gordon Liu is the affable Eleventh Prince of the ruling dynasty who has slipped out of the palace to pursue his hobbies: wine, antiques, and art. He runs afoul of amiable rogue Yue Wong, who he contrives to take under his wing. The conflict is provided by the assassins sent out by the Fourth Prince to take out our hero before the royal succession can be announced. The attempts by the assassins provide the film with a couple of very clever sequences in which the Prince must defend himself without showing any outward kung fu skill. The best of these sequences finds him using a courtesan (played by the wonderful Kara Hui) as a kind of kung fu marionette, though the other scenes are almost as much fun. This being a Chia-Liang Liu film, there's a training sequence in which the Prince teaches his new disciple with various sadistic techniques, here mostly involving oil lamps and candles. The filmmakers manage to make Shaw's familiar backlot seem like new by dressing it up with blowing wind and sand in the penultimate battle sequence, before providing a duel with the Fourth Prince's wicked general, played by the ubiquitous Lo Lieh. This one is great fun.


There's a profound sense of loss in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (1995), a film that is driven by mood rather than plot. The movie follows the life of a young Osaka woman (Makiko Esumi), whose husband inexplicably steps in front of a train. Five years later, she remarries and relocates to a small town on the northern coast of Japan, where she attempts to find meaning in her new life even as she's haunted by the old. This is a film filled with quiet moments and careful shot compositions. There's a touch of Ozu in this film, though this is more monochromatic than any of Ozu's color films. The final shot of the film is an empty room with an open window, looking out over the sea. It's worthy of Edward Hopper.

Henry Sellick's Coraline (2009) features a battery of cannons that fire cones of spun candy. This film, a delightfully sinister stop-motion film, is NOT spun candy. This seems to be the point of the cannons. Coraline is being ignored by her parents, so when she finds an alternate world where her parents are accommodating to her every wish, she's delighted at first, in spite of being creeped out by the buttons sewn over their eyes. When she discovers the cost of staying in this fantasy world, the film becomes very dark indeed. I think Roald Dahl would have liked this film. There's the same touch of the fairy tale in the structure of the second half of this movie that one finds in Pan's Labyrinth, and it reminds me once again that most horror stories are fairy tales of a sort. Plus, I'm bound to love any film in which Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders "appear" together.

As an aside, this is the second 3-D film I've seen this year, and, once again, 3-D was a distraction rather than an asset.


About half way through the film, and not for the first time, I started wondering why Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is so different from any given New World Pictures eco horror film from the same era. I mean, it's the same damned thing, when you get down to brass tacks. Murray Hamilton's mayor is a character type familiar to just about any revenge of nature film ever made: the venal politician who values the tourist trade more than human life, to cite one familiar archetype. Why this film? It's tempting to chalk it up to simple craftsmanship, but I don't think that's it. The obvious answer is that it matches image and archetype brilliantly. Spielberg matches a prosaic reality against a destroying force to devastating effect, in part because his scenes of domesticity are so carefully observed. The scene where Chief Brody's son mimics his actions is one good example. Obviously, Spielberg is a filmmaker of immense gifts, who, like many of the other so-called movie brats, has synthesized everything he's learned from watching movies into a formidable cinematic vocabulary. You have a mastery of overlapping dialogue that's the equal of Hawks (and very similar to Altman), you have striking mise en scene compositions that use receding planes of action that recall Welles and Truffaut. You have a Hitchcockian attention to objects. Plus, there's a mean streak that Spielberg subsequently lost somewhere along the line. I mean, he was willing to kill of a dog and a little kid in the space of a minute and a half in this movie. All well and good, but it explains nothing, except, perhaps, that this is one of the movie-est movies ever made. And maybe that's the key to its initial popularity, but it's not the key to why it remains fresh while other big hits from the same era have fallen by the wayside over time.

Ultimately, I think there's a level of mythmaking in the second half of the movie that pushes it out of the realm of the stock eco horror film. It abandons the tropes of the horror movie once Quint, Brody, and Hooper set sail to hunt the shark, and suddenly we're in the neighborhood of Melville and Jack London. The shark hunt is a crucible, and we have three characters to test to destruction here. The heart of the movie is Quint's monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis. Here, we find a character stripped bare and examined in a way that no film ever produced by Roger Corman ever managed. Each of the three is examined in turn--Brody's cowardice, Hooper's intellect, Quint's obsession, all measured against a shark that isn't even a natural creature. It's a variant, instead, of the White Whale, and the Orca is the Pequod writ small. It's a striking transformation for a film that stands as the original summer blockbuster. It's a legitimately great film.

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