Review: Lust, Caution (2007/timeless)

LC_2When Ang Lee directs a movie based on the writing of Eileen Chang, you know you're going to get something incredible. Watching this presented one of those rare times where my expectations were through the roof and the actual experience took me further, to outer space, to feelings I wasn't quite ready to visit. Basically, I sobbed through all the credits--and, while I am a cry baby at movies, it has been years since I cried this hard over a film. I mean, I don't think I would want to watch it with anyone but my sister or mother or a close  friend. It hits a very tender spot.

People who know Lee's work know that's how it can be with him. But few may know Chang. She was an incredibly popular writer in China, depicting, among other things, life in the 40s under the Japanese occupation. She had a way with the pen of cutting right into the bone of behavior and circumstance--I am always energized and refreshed when I sit with her writing ... sometimes disturbed, almost always haunted.

Give Lee her writings and Tony Leung a lead roll and you're not just going to a movie. You're signing up to have a penetrating, lingering, unspeakable and cathartic experience. The plot, basically, revolves around a shy yet precise protagonist, Wong Chai Chi (played by Wei Tang, a relatively new actress who is well cast), and her involvement in an acting troupe turned nationalistic espionage ring hell bent on killing a key political figure, Mr. Yee (played by Tony Leung, who has been rightly described as one of the most talented actors in international cinema today).

Chai Chi's acting (inspired by naive dedication to nationalistic propaganda) prompts standing ovations, and thus she is chosen as a key pawn in a plot to seduce and track Mr. Yee, who is well aware that he is wanted by many rings. He is also a mafia-grade interrogator/assassin--and is thus notoriously difficult to pin down and is never, ever prone to divulge anything factual, even with his wife. Chai Chi makes it into a circle of women, including Mrs. Yee, and works her way steadily into the closer graces of Mr. Yee, who is poised like a snow leopard--elusive yet precise when he comes to light ... and coaxed only mystically toward what he senses and desires in Chai Chi.

This film builds slowly. Yet when its points begin to flesh out--when Mr. Yee makes moves with Chai Chi and the two finally get involved--you realize it was well worth the wait. Structurally, the film opens with a point in time just before the climax and works us back a few years to watch everything catch back up. Nothing super innovative there, yet the effect would not be the same without this loop--like a thread doubling back round a needle's eye and running through to meet the end (this is as close to a spoiler as I get). We meet the circumstances we saw initially with a different feeling in our guts--a feeling that things are going to get very tragic, soon.

In the end, the film's title says all a person needs to know about the unique gist of the film. While it is not unique in real life, few, if any, film teams have pulled off with such visceral precision the portrayal of the danger in getting so close to another person when matter-of-fact circumstances absolutely forbid it. Furthermore, few films display with such simple elegance what is important to a man--even one who appears in all ways impossible--to soften and the way a woman can be completely possessed by the effects of intimacy, to the point of flowing into an entirely different stream of her existence, a stream that jeopardizes it, in fact.

This is a bit of Shakespeare meets Shanghai--Romeo and Juliet in the era of Japanese-occupied China. But with a twist. In the end, it is not fate so much as regrettable betrayal and human limitation that breaks this party up, yet neither suffer less for it ... perhaps it was fate after all.

I want to be more than vague, but really I would just spoil it if I went any further. To echo a sentiment of a reviewer on IMDB, who said that if he had been younger when he watched this, he wouldn't have understood it: if you have ever loved, deeply, you will get a lot out of this film.

PS: I had wanted to watch Lust, Caution for years, but many outlets only offered a cut version and, being very comfortable with R+ sex scenes and curious as to what Lee wanted to portray, I held out to find a copy I could rent from a library that was uncut. I suggest the uncut. I can't imagine missing a moment of this one.



Review: Senna

  Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 9.04.34 AMThis one is hard for me because it's in my top five. I mean, so much of it can't be touched with words. But I'll try ... at least I'll try to get you to watch it if you haven't.

Just as a note, whenever this film beckons me, I watch it again because I know it's for a deep reason and I'll be balanced somehow by it--it has a power I can't explain, to ground me into myself and feel understood. I think this man made a lot of people feel this way just by existing.

You go into this one thinking you're going to watch 1.5 hours or so of cars along ribbons of tarmac, announcers, some hot Brazilian race car driver spouting off about fame. At least I did, kind of. And I love race cars, and fast cars, and just ... cars, so I wasn't so turned off but wasn't so eager, either.

But then, people were saying it's a "spiritual" experience. So I was like "huh, let's do this then."

I rented it through Apple, sat down, watched, cried my eyes out, hit menu and play, and watched it again. I watched it as a single double feature the first time folks. And every time I watch it, it's like the first time.

First of all, logistically, the soundtrack, by Antonio Pinto--who also infused the movie City of God--is impeccable for the purpose. And the footage they dug up is unbelievable. The way it's all directed and edited (I like to say choreographed because this implies elegance) just baffles. The director, Asif Kapadia, and writer, Manish Pandey, deserve so much credit. Pandey is an orthopedic surgeon for crying out loud!

This film starts out as a sketch around the politics of racing yet, through some swift yet subtle turns, plunges you into the heart and soul of a man who is old beyond his years. A man who was born to appear a hot-shot yet is really anything but.

As I watched, as the music calmed me deeper and deeper into the message, I couldn't move. I just froze and observed a person so in touch with their soul that it squeezed my throat.

We see him misunderstood, praised, winning, sharing, being his hot self. But underneath there is something so profound going on. And above it all there is a sense of mysticism around his very being that, in the end, draws the largest funeral to that date in human history around his passage out of his body.

A few things that strike me the most about this man's life (and the way it's framed by this film) follow:

•We all have moments where we see something nobody else does, where we must suck it up and continue. His life is a reflection on this part of our experience that we all need once in a while.

•He never took credit--he always surrendered it up, to God, to spirit.

•He lived in spirit and it was HIS business. It wasn't a show. It was his mode of operation that, if noticed, was insanely difficult to keep up through the illusions that fame throws at a human being.

•He sublimated his anger and ego--while you could see the struggle, which is part of the magic because you can relate to it--he was an incredible alchemist given the circumstances.

•He always knew he would die young. Even though he didn't want to know. The struggle of him not wanting to know is what this film lifts out with genius. You observe him throughout the film, wrestling with an ego that was growing despite his constant efforts to check it. An ego that wanted to win, that couldn't stop even though his soul knew better, that wanted to live longer without changing--that wanted to have what it eventually ate.

•Ego fought but lost the match right before he died--in those last nerve-wracked hours. Over the film you witnessed it growing, yet something in him, something of spirit, didn't want that ego--knew it was headed for its own destruction. And as a viewer, I gasp and clutch my chest each time to witness destiny rise up on such a situation and plunge a sword straight through a human's struggle with duality.

I watched this again last night and, although I should have expected it, was shocked at how much I cried all over again, like I hadn't seen it before. There is an arc to this film that just sucks you in. It's a total experience--an attempt to capture what watching his life must have been like for his fans, in real time.

If you like racing, you will love this movie. If you are on a spiritual path, you will love this movie. If you like hot Brazilian men who drive fast cars, you will love this movie.

It's a value-add folks, and I bow humbly and gratefully to those who put it together.


Review: Saving Mr. Banks

SAVING MR. BANKSThis is definitely one in the 'wait for it' category. It's got some stuff working against it--big budget, Disney, stars who usually ride the integrity line but have been know to trip over it--but word on the street prompted me to give it more consideration and even a rent click last night. In short: Tom Hanks (The Man with One Red Shoe) and Emma Thomas (Dead Again) star in this big budget tale of the making of Mary Poppins. Yeah, I know, you don't know those movies ... or maybe you do and are seriously tickled by nostalgia now. Anyway, allow me to digress away from digression to continue this review:

I'm writing about this one because:

a) It manages to take a true-life story and surgically carve out a plot that keeps the audience suspended in the beautiful, colorful, cheerful elements of a time period--indeed, we are warmly invited behind the scenes to witness a process around creating a children's movie inspired by an incredibly dark childhood

b) Like the protagonist, I (and many others) experienced the disabling reality-check of losing a parent when young as well as the side effects of an alcoholic parent

Basically, this film was so resonant, so earnestly crafted and yet so light-hearted that I can hardly believe it exists! It was like eating a bag of marshmallows without the sugar low ... like someone invented very nutritious marshmallows.

Saving Mr. Banks draws its strength from colorfully masking the drama of an emotionally-paralyzed genius author (P.L. Travers) being forced to reconcile her past baggage with the help of a sing-song Los Angeles creative team and interactions with Disney himself. We witness the contagion of her deep despair as the Disney artists fight against her controlling, heavy, relentless adaptations to life itself.

We see that the film in essence documents the power of human love, vision and dedication to turn one woman's incredible misery into a movie that would bring joy and laughter to millions of children (Poppins, incidentally, was the first film I ever saw in a movie theatre!).

Through its very basic interspersion of past (20s/30s Australia) and not-so-past (1960s LA and London), the film helps us easily into the shoes of all of the characters, with particular focus on Disney and P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins). Moreover, filmmakers today have discovered a way to ride a line between fantasy and reality given camera angles/lenses, makeup and high definition technology so that you experience something just beyond real, in a way where you can detach, enjoy and let the deeper elements of what is being expressed slink around your defenses.

The next morning you might wake up, like I did, into a dream, of highlights you remember from a film like this. Deep thoughts about your own life that suddenly other people understand, all-to-well ... what few would be able to say directly, and many would join together to convey in a film like this: that the hardships we face, in early life or anytime in life, are opportunities to find grace, and in more intense cases opportunities to make something so deeply touching to countless other people. Everything we see as a weakness has the potential to be our greatest strength. If we'd only have the courage to step forward, firm-footed, letting go of our fearful grip on the past.

But is it really that simple? Never.

We see how difficult if not impossible it is to let go of the past for Travers as it was absolutely essential that she didn't in order to write her masterpiece! Her father preached to her young ears that  life is an illusion, supporting her deepest motivations as a successful author of a fantastic, pseudo-fictional tale of Poppins. But it could never be totally fiction, and life could never be completely fantasy to a girl who lost the love of her life at such a young age--watching her father's slow-motion, horrific, and eventually lost battle with alcoholism. The rest of her life, clearly, is spent creating--through incredibly consistent displays of extreme control of herself and every conversation and interaction she took part in--scenarios that prevent any possibility of such loss, ever again, even if it meant extreme isolation even in crowds (the bar scene in the movie might cause people to wonder why it's even there, but it's perfectly essential to the outline of her character).

Disney and Travers, Disney and Travers ... but to me, the most important character in the film is her driver, Ralph, by (Paul Giamatti). He provides a striking contrast to how one handles extreme disappointment.

Over the course of the film--through her ice-cold, demanding, correcting ways--you see that he doesn't expect anything from Travers and moves with a lot of grace around her rigidity. It's as if he understands her but has not taken such an approach on life himself and doesn't at all realize that his approach is far, far more functional. Indeed, through the film we realize he more than understands her, because--due to his daughter's disability--he is on an almost identical path.

Just like Travers, Ralph has had to reconcile extreme disappointment related to the disease* of a loved one. His path, however, doesn't allow him to control anything because his daughter is alive and needs him to continuously let go of himself and his idea of the way things 'should be' so that he can love her. He has been on an underrated path of grace since the moment his daughter was born. By that comparison, the death of a loved one would be a cake walk, only marred by a person's sense that they can control everything thereafter in a perfectly futile attempt to ensure that nothing like that could ever happen, again.


*Alcoholism, beyond addiction, is a disease folks--alcohol is widely known among toxicologists as the only drug so powerful that, when you are deeply addicted, you need a bridge drug (barbiturates) to get off it without dying.