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The Mafu Cage (1978)
It was great in the theatre
It seems to me all reviewers refer to the DVD when reviewing the film. That's a pity. In the theatre release, which I was fortunate enough to see, the colours are warm and rich, the lighting is subdued but atmospheric, and the acting, of course, is excellent. Especially Mz Kane, who could be whining and annoying in other films but does a great job here. It would be an error to simply see this movie as a horror flick. If you do so, you will be disappointed. This is a psychological thriller that draws on our archetypical fears. It thus presents us with a highly interesting content, but also the form is interesting. The unity of space, the closedness of the oppressive interior, contribute to the feeling of unease.
Crude, vulgar... a typical Italian comedy of the early seventies
There was a time when Italian comedies by the likes of Risi, Lattuada, Monicelli etc. were quite popular. I don't know if they would stand a second viewing 35 years later. Most were highly unsubtle, extremely sexist and of course, crude and vulgar. Virilita is typical of its kind. Turi Ferro, the father in Malizia, is a widower in a small village on an island, who has remarried young and pretty Agostina Belli. For this hypermacho, sex-obsessed conservative, the summum of mirth is to be able to call someone a cornuto, a man who has been cheated by his woman. When his son returns from university, with his girlfriend, the father thinks his son has become gay, because he wrongly assumes that the girlfriend, who is flat chested, has very short hair and wears pants, is a boy. To make this insult to his virility go away, and to avoid becoming the laughing stock of the village, the father drives his young wife and his son into each other's arms, and when they finally give in and make love on the beach, he makes sure the whole village is watching, because it's better being a cornuto than the father of a gay son. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? It actually is. Still, I do remember this film, 35 years after I saw it, once. So, somehow this kind of stupidity must have struck a nerve somewhere. Must have been Ms Belli's smile...
La puta y la ballena (2004)
nice to watch but lacking originality
I never knew Patagonia was that beautiful. What a coast. I think I should include Punta Panorama on my priority list of must-visit places. This being said, I was rather disappointed by the lack of originality of the story. Intercutting a present day writer researching a novel playing in the past with the story of the novel is hardly an innovating idea. And the way the characters are slightly off and also their tangled relationships made me think of John Irving "light", with tango dancing instead of wrestling and a whale instead of a bear. The breast cancer story added an unnecessary additional plot line, probably to create a (false) impression of seriousness and depth. I wonder what Almodovar might have done with this, though. In spite of all the criticisms, the movie was entertaining and I considered my time in the theatre and my money for the ticket well spent.
Mang shan (2007)
uncompromising depiction of suppression of women
The story is set in the nineties, but the situation has probably not changed much. The male/female ratio in China, especially in the countryside, is getting more and more unbalanced. Female foetuses are aborted, female babies are killed. Result: all those men, without a women to take for a wife and to have sons with. This paradox was clearly illustrated in the film, where a remote mountain village abducts women to marry its single men, while at the same time it is shown that a female newborn has been drowned. The women behind me in the theatre started commenting very indignantly about this: if they lack so many women, why kill female babies? The film makes a very strong statement: the woman is raped by the would-be husband with the assistance of his parents; the whole village, including the government officials, is collaborating to prevent the abducted women from escaping. I can imagine that the Chinese authorities are not very happy with the way its cadres are depicted, nor with the inability of the authorities to deal with the problem.
While the film tells a harsh and cruel story in a very realistic way, it is also beautifully shot in a beautiful mountain area in Shanxi and it is well acted. I don't know if this film will be widely seen in China, but I hope it will be seen at least by the authorities who have the power to change these things. The very strong preference for male offspring is based on deep-rooted traditions: sons are responsible for funeral rites and ancestor worship, and sons have to take care of the parents in the absence of a social security system. The latter is now slowly being put in place in the cities, but is still not in place in the countryside. Also in the cities, more and more women are having well paid jobs and are thus able of taking care of their parents. Still, China is huge, and the catching up that the countryside will need to do will require a lot of time.
Wu ji (2005)
If the brothers Grimm would have been Chinese...
I don't understand why so many commentators seem annoyed or even offended by The Promise? Is it because it doesn't correspond to their pre-conceived idea of Chen Kaige? So what? Let's take the movie at its own value. This is a fairytale, not a martial arts film. Comparisons with Hero or CTHD are not appropriate. Rather compare it to the many serials on Chinese television with flying goddesses and white haired sorcerers in fiery caves. The Promise is a de-luxe version of these folk legends, visually stunning, beautifully coloured and with all the lack of logic you also find in European fairy tales and folk stories. The closest equivalent are the stories of the brothers Grimm with all their magic and their violence and not necessarily a happy ending. The Promise created its own cinematic universe and I had no problem entering into it. When the film cane to its end I was sorry I could not stay longer in Chen Kaige's magical kingdom.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
a perfectly superfluous nullity
The novel starts from a preposterous premise, that certain people in this day and age would be willing to kill or be killed for a "secret" that would turn the world upside down. And what's this secret? That Jesus wasn't so chaste after all. So what? That's a story that's been around for ages, nothing secret about it. Still, the book sold millions. No idea why. It was poorly written, poorly researched and boring. That doesn't necessarily mean it cannot result in a good film. Good books have been made into lousy films and vice versa. But here we have a case of lousy book made into even lousier movie. Poorly scripted, poorly acted, poorly directed, poorly photographed and utterly dull. So, no redeeming factors? Well, maybe you'll find it hilarious, although it certainly wasn't the intention of the deadly serious movie makers, when you see Forrest Gump asking Amélie Poulain: So, how does it feel that Jesus is your grand grand grand daddy?
Les filles du botaniste (2006)
Chinoiserie customized for Western tastes
With "Balzac and the little seamstress" Dai Sijie delivered a nice period piece with some interesting reflections on the importance of literature, moving images and theatre. Although a large part of the crew were French, it had a real Chinese feel to it. That feeling is totally absent from Les filles du botaniste. One gets the impression it has been made to order, to cater to the European market. There's hardly any Chinese name on the credit roll, if they're not French they're Vietnamese. The story could have been powerful but has been diluted by its cliché approach and its David Hamilton-esquire photography. In addition, I got completely disoriented by the Vietnamese setting. The worst mismatch was the temple. It was so blatantly a Vietnamese, not a Chinese temple. And using Ho Guom Lake right in the middle of Old Hanoi was not a wise decision. There were plenty of other lakes to choose from, while the urban setting of Ho Guom made it hard to forget we were not supposed to be in 2006. The mountain landscape in the movie is similar to the karst rocks in southern China, so no problem with that. I even wonder if the Kunlin in the film is not meant to be a combination of Kunming and Guilin. Still, I felt cheated by this movie. It is as if the makers are not taking the public serious. It was the same with Memoirs of a Geisha, another Eastern tale made consumable to Western tastes, with 3 very Chinese actresses trying to be Japanese and failing. But hey, who cares? If it has slanted eyes it's all the same, no? One of the commentators to Memoirs of a Geisha was calling it neo-colonialism. I think the same could be said of these Filles.
Strategia del ragno (1970)
Flat is the plane, flat is my story
Somehow I always thought this was Bertolucci's first film. It isn't. But it looks like it. Here's a director with a huge potential, a cinematographer who'll soon be one of the greatest, but they still have a long way to go. We were young and Bertolucci was very left-wing so it was de rigueur to find this great, but in fact it was boring. The plot meanders on, the acting is wooden, and in the end you don't know if there was a story there at all. Bertolucci has become an icon, maybe more because of the scandals adhering to his films than of the intrinsic worth of his cinematographic output (in contrast to for instance Ettore Scola). No scandalous scenes in this one though, just plain pretension and showing off.
Another waste land
When you drive through the suburbs of Beijing, or through most of eastern China for that matter, you are struck by its bleakness: grey and brown, flat, ugly, industrialised, big square building blocks covered in bathroom tiles, and fog or smog practically the whole year round. In this perfect illustration of the post-modern wasteland, young people are shown to have no hopes, no illusions. Love is unattainable, communication is impossible. Superficial talk over cell phones is the most intimate they can get. When meeting face to face, they have nothing to say.
The World theme park is a metaphor for the lack of cultural identity that's rampant in China these days. Against the background of this ersatz world, a number of protagonists are followed through a variety of sub-plots, very much like Altman in some of his best (Nashville, Short cuts) and worst (The wedding, A perfect couple) work. As a visual evocation of modern Chinese urban life it's striking. But the characters evolving against this canvas remain underdeveloped. They meet and say nothing, they do not meet but talk by cell phone, still saying nothing. Silence can be very telling, if used properly. But one should not confuse silence with depth.
It is said that traditional values have all but disappeared in China, and all that's come in their place are blatant money-grabbing capitalism where a human life is of little value (look at all those mine disasters) and superficial imitation of an idea of Western "culture" copied from TV. But in my personal experience, Chinese people like to talk, they are not afraid to show their feelings. I often find them much more open than many European people I meet.
To me, Shijie shows a realistic picture of the way modern urban China comes across visually, but I cannot recognise the Chinese people in it.
The Aviator (2004)
HH did amazing things, but why?
I was not very familiar with Howard Hughes. I knew he had made a few movies (never saw any of them, though) and built planes that never flew, but mainly I thought of him as the eccentric recluse of his later years. Now this film shows a totally different character, a man with a vision. And what a vision! HH could so easily have become another spoiled rich kid, bedding starlets, getting drunk and doped up and dying never having done anything besides spending millions seeking vain private pleasures. Instead, the film shows us a frantic movie maker, giving it all for his art, and an even more frantic aviator and airplane builder, to whom a few million dollars are insignificant when they are needed to make his dreams come true. Of course, it's easy to be a big spender when you are swimming in money, and I couldn't see any sign of HH having any social conscience in an era where so many of his countrymen were starving, but at least he used his fortune to create things he believed in. Grandiose things, crazy, fascinating things. But why did he do it? The film never tells us what made HH do all those things he did. First we see him as a kid being washed by his mother, which is probably supposed to explain his future phobia, but then we see him in the middle of shooting Hell's angels and next as a daredevil aviator. How did he get there? Why did he become such an obsessed movie maker (it made me think of Orson Welles, equally obsessed but without the money to follow through on his grand schemes)? And why did he want so much to build the perfect plane? The film could easily have addressed these questions. It certainly was long enough. Unnecessarily so in a number of scenes, I find (although I wouldn't have minded if some other, brilliantly shot scenes would have been longer). By cutting more rigorously, much more could have been covered in those 3 hours.
Enough has already been said about the very good acting. Still, I like to complement Leonardo DiCaprio on his transformation from the young jeune premier to the mature businessman appearing before the committee. He is much more convincing than James Dean attempting the same transformation (and also sporting a mustache when older) in Giant. Unfortunately, I was less thrilled by his naked lunatic scenes, which were mainly embarrassing to watch.