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Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971)
The Cry before the March....
Comparisons between The Cry of the Penguins and March of the Penguins (English version) are probably inevitable. The US release of March of the Penguins is converted documentary, while Cry of the Penguins can be viewed as a documentary with an added human dimension/love story that some viewers may consider to be superfluous. Naturally, COTP is stylistically dated, and this is not helped with the very poor transfer quality of the DVD. But the movie is very watchable even today, and the scientific/documentary aspects hold up particularly well.
Richard Forbush, played by John Hurt, is first shown as a very talented and capable biology student who also happens to be an immature high society philanderer, cad, and a snazzy dresser. He reluctantly accepts a post graduate field assignment to observe the population of Adelie penguins in the Antarctic partly to fulfill his 'debt to science' but more so to impress a beautiful aspiring biology student, Tara, played by Hayley Mills.
After a half hour preamble set in London, we are transported, Lawrence of Arabia style, to the Great White Silence where Forbush sets himself up in a dilapidated scientific outpost built by famed arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton decades earlier. As he waits several days for the penguins to arrive, Forbush yearns for the high life of home, and expresses disdain for the penguins and his miserable plight in the frozen wasteland on their behalf. His attitude changes almost immediately upon sighting the very first lone penguin ambling down the side of a snowy slope. Hundreds of penguins quickly join them, and as the rookery grows Forbush gets down to business and performs all his assigned scientific tasks in a somewhat professional if eccentric manner. The scenes of the penguins and their occasional interaction with Forbush lead to some very endearing and humorous moments.
As time transpires, Forbush finds himself increasingly involved emotionally with the penguins, marveling at their will to survive, watching them care for the eggs and the eventual birth of the chicks. He seems to forget his own self, undergoing a Londonesque transition into an unkempt and disheveled figure among his tuxedoed subjects. His haggard appearance is a marked contrast to the fresh faced chopper pilots who stop by and his college buddy Starshot who visits during Christmas, all of whom fear Forbush is taking the penguins much too seriously for his own good.
Eventually, Forbush's obsession with the penguins' welfare, coupled with the madness brought on by months of isolation, lead him astray. After weeks of watching helplessly as the skuas attack the rookery, destroying hundreds of eggs and killing many chicks, he discards the scientific creed of strict neutral observation and takes action against the predatory birds. His plan, while carefully conceived and exhaustingly executed, is almost laughable and fails miserably. He soon regains his senses, he realizes he was foolish to try and interfere with the pattern of nature that has been going on for thousands of years. His last taped messages to Tara raise questions about his very soul and about humanity's relationship with nature which are relevant even today. By listening to these tapes during Forbush's six month tenure in the wild, Tara keenly senses his maturity as a scientist and as a man.
The documentary aspects of COTP are interspersed throughout the film in the form of lectures at the university and narrations of Forbush's audio tapes and written letters to Tara. These are accompanied nicely by veteran wildlife videographer Arne Sucksdorff's film footage illustrating the concepts being described, somewhat in the style of National Geographic. While not as deeply probing into the penguins' lives as MOTP, viewers of COTP will definitely carry away something educational if they have never seen either movie before (differences in species notwithstanding). The DVD could definitely use a cleanup and better transfer of the source material. With the recent popularity of penguin themed movies in the last 3 years, Cry of the Penguins has sadly been overlooked and forgotten. Penguin lovers owe it to themselves to watch this one.
Qiu Ju da guan si (1992)
How did they do that??
The story is of a poor, uneducated yet stubborn farmwoman seeking justice from a highly bureaucratic government (for a seemingly minor injustice), and the nightmarish journey she must endure to achieve it. Her numerous trips to the city and meetings with various officials result in a surprise ending. The operative lesson from this movie: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Having visited the Chinese country outside Tianjin and Beijing in 1999, this movie is the most realistic I have ever seen. This film serves as a geniune window into what everyday life is like in rural and urban China. The humorous scene of the shy young couple applying for the marraige license seems almost too real, as if they had a Candid Camera on them. I am most curious how the makers of this film were able to plop one of the most famous (and most beautiful) stars of mainland China in the middle of the many on-location scenes and not have anyone recognize her?? (Although in a couple of scenes it looks like people might have). Doubtless her unflattering costume emphasizing her pregnancy helped disguise her for most of the movie. Also note the distant camera shots, which enables the camera to be hidden and inconspicuous and also not draw attention to Gong Li. Either that or the makers must have used the most extras ever hired for a movie. I would like to find out more about the methods used to make this film. In any case, the results are another delightful and glorious piece from Zhang Yimou.
Ba wang bie ji (1993)
A great movie made even greater with the DVD.
This is one of my favorite all time films, and I associate it with another of my faves, Remains of the Day. Both films deal with unrealized love over a backdrop of important historical events that directly or indirectly affect the main characters. Both films are extremely well made with lavish color and attention to details. Both offer a sort of built in history lesson for the viewer, and both are adaptations of novels that are in themselves worth reading.
Farewell My Concubine has more of an epic sense about it, and has been made even more so with the 170 minute DVD version. Being of Asian descent, I thoroughly enjoyed the additional opera scenes. But, as others have indicated, the singing will probably have an adverse effect to western audiences as the movie progresses. As with any novel adaptation, there are many differences between Lillian Lee's book and the film. I personally would have liked some things in the film to have stayed closer to the book, but overall, the film definitely is able to stand on its own and, I feel, does the book justice. Banned twice in China, once due to the veiled homosexual themes and later for Dieyi's suicide at the end (authorities insisted suicides never happened in China), this film nevertheless is the result of an unusual amount of artistic freedom given to director Chen Kaige, and he exploits it to the full. This is especially true during the Cultural Revolution scenes, which casts a negative light on the Communist government. Kaige's experience as a former Red Guard provides a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the terror during this period.
I initially viewed this movie because I am constantly mesmerized by the skill and beauty of Gong Li (who isn't?). But I quickly became fascinated with the outstanding performances of Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi, not to mention the children of the opera school in the first part of the movie. I will agree with the reviewer who stated that the constant beatings of the children is a little harrowing. But it does make one realize that sometimes other cultures in other times put different values on human life than we do.
One of the main points of the film is how the stage role of Concubine Yu Ji paralleled the life of Dieyi in his offstage life. I found this to be eerie as I discovered that Leslie Cheung's real life in many ways mirrored Dieyi's character. Cheung was a huge pop superstar in Asia during the 80's, and widely known for his gender bending styles of dress onstage. Cheung himself said that the role of Dieyi was, in fact, him, and I would not debate this. Speculation that depression and a failed relationship with his male lover led to Cheung's suicide a couple of weeks ago, somewhat similar to the plot in the movie. Perhaps life imitating art??
A great film made even greater with the additional footage on the DVD. Not recommended for small children, homophobes, anyone expecting martial arts action, or those unable to sit through more than 2 hours of movie watching.