Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review - Love in the Afternoon (1957)

February 15, 2018

Love in the Afternoon – US, 1957

In a perfect world, Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon would be about two people that meet, have a brief affair that they both know will not lead anywhere, and then separate to pursue the next chapter in their lives. In my version of this film, neither of them would have any qualms about such a relationship, and the man’s philandering ways would be a joke they share rather than a potential source of pain. The two would part gracefully, and on a split screen, we would then see them meeting other people and know that a new chapter in their lives was beginning. In other words, they would each be okay, and the audience would have seen that not every relationship needs to lead to love, marriage, a house, and two kids. Such a message, however, was likely blaspheme in 1957, and so we get the Hayes Code, watered-down version, one in which two people who hook up must fall in love, regardless of how little chemistry there is between them or, frankly, how utterly wrong they are for each other.

Love in the Afternoon is about a young French woman named Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn) who meets an American playboy named Frank Flannigan (Gary Cooper) and begins an on-again/off again relationship with him. The two are brought together by some rather interesting circumstances. Ariane’s father (Maurice Chevalier) is a private detective hired to determine if a French man’s wife is cheating on him with Flannigan, and he just happens to leave his files somewhere perfectly accessible to a curious inexperienced young lady like Ariane. When the client learns that his wife has indeed been unfaithful, he announces his intention to shoot Flannigan, an action that Ariane’s father oddly does not discourage. Thus, it’s Ariane to the rescue.

I admit being mildly amused by this part of the film. It establishes Flannigan’s and Ariane’s characters and provides them with a likeable set-up with which to develop a relationship. Flannigan is the rich world traveler with a lady waiting for him at every airport, someone who seems to enjoy his bachelorhood and has no intention of ever ending it. In one scene, the woman he is with goes to use the powder room and in no time at all his eyes begin wandering. It’s practically Pavlovian. These early scenes also establish Ariane’s quick wit and ability to improvise, qualities that she repeatedly relies on throughout the film.

As much as I like these characters individually, they are never believable as a couple. For one, they are years apart in age - Hepburn was 28 when she made the film; Cooper was almost 60 – and they have virtually nothing in common. If not for the fact that Ariane has read all about his exploits, they would have nothing to talk about. Indeed, if the film is to be believed, Ariane has no interest in him until he kisses her unexpectedly. Almost immediately, her heart’s all aflutter, and her resolve weakens. She stays, and very likely sleeps with him. It must have been some kiss.

Flannigan eventually leaves. His name continues to appear in headlines detailing his romantic escapades and party lifestyle. Ariane reads these with keen interest, yet there’s no evidence that she is pining for his return. And then he returns, and…well, the film gets predictable from there. I can’t say I completely disliked where it went. However, whatever enjoyment the second half brings is the result of the stellar efforts of the actors involved and not because their relationship starts to make sense. Flannigan remains wrong for her, and she remains a bit too intelligent to believe he would ever give up his womanizing ways. Sure, there are moments of fun, such as their cute playfulness during a scene in which Ariane is looking for one of her shoes, but these do not establish a bond that you’d expect would lead either one of them to act the way they do in the film’s final scene.

That said, I liked the way the film was structured and directed. The film takes place during two meeting a year apart, and I thought there was potential there. Billy Wilder was a master behind the camera, and here he proves himself quite adept at capturing dimensions, space, and light. He is less successful at giving his supporting characters much in the way of character. An older woman’s conversations with her dog are painfully drab, and Frannigan’s chief competitor for Ariane’s affections is such a bore that it’s impossible to take him seriously. After all, what sensible person would rather sit in a balcony and pretend to conduct the orchestra than give his full attention to Audrey Hepburn?

So, there it is. Love in the Afternoon is an odd film. It is perfectly serviceable, yet it never soars. It wants to be a grand love story, but doesn’t know how to convincingly bring its lead characters together. It has splendid ideas, such as casting The Gypsies as themselves and having them run to Flannigan’s room whenever he needs them to serenade his latest escapades, and Cooper and Hepburn are always worth watching, even in films whose quality doesn’t quite deserve the efforts they’re putting in to their roles. Unfortunately, Love in the Afternoon is one of those films. It’s well directed, has good performances, and is a narrative mess. I suppose two out of three isn’t bad. (on DVD)

3 stars

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Miscellaneous Musings

February 10, 2018

On the Right Time to Begin

My daughter turned three last year, and while I had intended not to expose her to television or smart phones, that isn’t exactly how things turned out. As many parents will attest, there is sometimes no greater tool for getting thirty minutes of peace than a children’s television program, and believe me, there is a need for that short respite. Sometimes it’s the difference between becoming completely out of sorts and on the verge of tears, and handling screams, diaper changes, and messy feedings in a calm and sensible manner.

So my daughter has watched Teletubbies, Peppa Pig, and Dora the Explorer. She’s also a fan of the Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear, a show that can be enjoyed by both parents and children. Her favorite episode is called “Picture Perfect,” and it involves little Masha developing a fondness for art and changing nature to match her drawings. It’s cute and has a catchy tune to boot, one that she frequently sings along with. Recently I began showing her late Donald Duck cartoons, and she’s developed a peculiar fondness for “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land.”

And here’s the kicker. Television has actually helped her.

In the first year of my daughter’s life, she had difficulty showing or responding to affection. In fact, sometimes she would completely reject it. It made for some difficult moments, ones in which we questioned if we were doing right by her. And then Teletubbies came alone with their constant hugging, and pretty soon she wanted in on the act. Soon she began initiating hugs herself. She also picked up La La’s dance moves and even today breaks into ballet every time the character does. Then there was the vocabulary. At a certain point, she started picking up words that frequently appear on the show, words like scooter, bag, ball, and hat, the Teletubbies favorite things. The show taught her about the seasons, rainbows, animals, fruit picking, washing her toys, and so many other things as well

So I don’t regret failing to keep her away from television completely, yet I find myself in a quandary over when and how to take the next step. Years ago, I was in charge of an afterschool program, and Friday was designated movie day. Each week it was my job to find an appropriate film, and for the most part, I stuck with films I was already familiar with. The one time I didn’t was a disaster. I selected Sinbad’s First Kid, which the previews had made out to be a safe comedy for kids, so I didn’t give much consideration to the film’s PG rating. Those who have seen the movie can attest to it being relatively kid-friendly - up until the final fifteen minutes that is, when the villain tries to kidnap the president’s son and actually shoots Sinbad in the shoulder. The older kids didn’t bat an eye (which is telling in and of itself) yet one of the youngest ones came up to me and said he was scared. He sat me with for the duration of the film, but, hindsight being what it is, I should have fast forwarded to the much calmer finale or just stopped the film outright.

Suffice to say, I have not introduced full-length films to my daughter yet, even as I slowly upgrade some of my collection of kids films to Blu-ray. Those films just seem worlds apart from cartoons, where the violence is often slapstick and never yields much in the way of bruises or permanent scars. My daughter is able at laugh at the antics of Tom and Jerry; she hasn’t had to wonder why Penny from The Rescuers has been kidnapped, if her mother will die like Bambi’s, or why someone didn’t help the crazy guy in Up avoid falling to his death. In fact, looking at recent cartoons, it seems that the death of the antagonist has become a staple. And don’t get me started on the frequency of death in today’s superhero movies.

Then there’s the not-so-subtle message of women needing a male savior in a number of early Disney cartoons. It never bothered me growing up, but looking back, I wonder how many of my notions of chivalry and manhood were shaped by movies in which the male protagonist is the sole redeemer of a cursed or victimized heroine. How many of my ideas about appropriate behavior were influenced by the notion that it is acceptable for a prince to kiss a comatose woman, so long as the audience has been told that only a kiss from her true love will break the spell? Is this really the right message to give children at such an impressionable age?

Admittedly, I grew up on Disney. In fact, the first movie I recall seeing is Pinocchio. Back then, Disney was pretty much the only game in town. We live in a different world now, one filled with Madagascars, Shreks, and Ice Ages, as well as odd YouTube videos of children unwrapping toys and then playing with them, but the questions remain the same – When is the right time, when is too young, and what is the right content to show them? I don’t pretend to have an answer to these queries, yet they’re important ones to ask. After all, I only get one chance to get them right.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review - Monsieur Vincent

February 2, 2018

Monsieur Vincent – France, 1947

There are films that I feel somewhat wrong for disliking, ones which are about important periods of time or fascinating characters, or ones which contain the kinds of performances that are normally praised by critics and honored at end-of-the-year award ceremonies. Often these films are given marginally good reviews, ones frequently littered with comments that extol the performances and lament the weaknesses of the script. I get this. Sometimes we like the parts more than the whole and recommend a film for doing just enough right. I imagine that many of these critics – and I have been one of them at times - would therefore give a film like Maurice Cloche’s 1947 drama Monsieur Vincent a pass, awarding it a rating of 3 stars and highlighting the power of a few scenes and the consistently powerful work of its lead, Pierre Fresnay. To do so in this case, however, would be disingenuous.

Monsieur Vincent is about Vincent de Paul, a priest who arrives in Chatillon, a small suburb of Paris, France, in 1617, just six years after a recurrence of the Black Plague and just eleven years before one of its particularly devastating outbreaks killed just under a million people in France. This is significant in the film, as de Paul finds empty streets, shuttered windows, and a church is utter disrepair upon his arrival. Eventually, he learns from the local aristocracy – who are partying behind barricaded doors – that a woman has fallen ill and been forcibly quarantined. Father de Paul immediately pays the woman a visit, evading rocks that are hurled at him and tearing down boards intended to keep the woman inside. He is too late – but not for the deceased’s daughter. In a moving scene, we see him shame the town’s residents for their callousness and paranoia, and plead for assistance from the ruling class. Two people answer his call, one of them Louise de Marillac, (Yvonne Gaudeau) a widow and wealthy relative of the town leader.

It’s a masterful beginning. I especially admired the way Cloche alternates the perspective of the camera. In an early scene, we see de Paul arrive from afar, and we immediately note just how alone he is. He is a man marching toward uncertainly, while everyone else seems to have run from it. Then Cloche uses the camera to show us de Paul’s perspective. This is particularly revealing during a scene in which he is astonished by the condition of the town church. As de Paul walks, we see the cluttered floor and the unwashed walls of the church and understand his shock. The film further reinforces the moral authority of this outsider through the portrayal of his most ardent supporter, a visiting priest whose chance encounter with de Paul is a life-altering event. De Paul’s advice to him: Go to your poor.

With a set-up as impressive as this, I felt I was in the presence of a masterpiece, yet almost immediately the film began to lose me. Instead of exploring what happens immediately after the events described above, the film starts jumping ahead in time. In mere minutes, the priest has quit his post, begun moving about so erratically that no one seems to know his exact whereabouts, and de Marillac is acting as if her interest in the priest is not entirely innocent. It’s an unwise jump, for it strips the film of any continuity and adds elements that are ultimately unexplored. Yet approximately ten minutes later, the film astonishes again with a dramatic scene in which poor men are whipped to make them row faster in a boat race between members of the upper class. De Paul is horrified, and it makes him re-evaluate the way he is conducting himself and the company he is keeping.

The film continues jumping in time and quality, and for every moving scene, there’s one that disappoints. Characters meet for the first time, and in the next scene appear to be life-long companions. In one scene, money is hindering the priest’s efforts to administer to the poor, and in the next, they’ve moved into bigger and better digs. Apparently, the financial difficulties are long gone. Toward the end of the film, it jumps ahead fifteen years with a montage of utter brutality – war, sexual assault, anarchy – and when it stops, all is well. The church is strong, the priest is respected, the poor are being administered to. It’s a monumental change, yet the film doesn’t care to explain how it came about.

And then there’s the most troubling aspect of the film – its treatment of the poor. This is a film that seems to be of two minds about them. In some scenes, they are presented as sympathetic characters, decent people trying to deal with daily hunger and economic uncertainty; in others, the film appears to be horrified by their uncouth manners, selfishness, and lack of empathy for fellow sufferers of poverty. At one point, the priest comments to himself that before he can save their soul, he must help them acquire consciences. It’s a loathsome comment said in a supposed spirit of kindness. Now, it is true that the film is also critical of the upper class for its indifference to the poor, especially of the Ladies of Charity, a group of wealthy women who see helping the poor as more of a fun hobby than a moral necessity. However, the affluent were presented as morally bankrupt, not classless and immoral, and there’s a difference. The former can make you angry; the other can make you uncomfortable, and that’s rarely a good feeling to give an audience.

Throughout all of this, Fresnay’s performance never wavers. He plays de Paul as a man of unwavering conviction and steadfast belief in his cause, yet he also displays uncertainty and frustration at both his own failings and society’s inability to look past class and wealth. There are speeches of such stunning power that jaws will find themselves on the floor. The rest of the cast is less memorable, mostly because the script doesn’t allow their characters to be fully fleshed out.

As I said at the start of this review, I wanted Monsieur Vincent to succeed. I generally like movies based on the lives of historic figures, and de Paul’s story is certainly a fascinating one, one that grew increasingly interesting the more I read about it. However, the movie left me frustrated more than moved, and I admired what it could have been much more than what it actually is. I suppose I could recommend it for Fresnay’s performance, and for its frank depiction of a morally troubling time in French history, but that would be incredibly disingenuous. After all, when I think of the film, the first thing I remember is not his performance or the disturbing views of a class-based society. Rather, what I recall are my own frustrations and the fact that I grew increasingly distant from the film as it went on, as well as somewhat hostile whenever it hit a strong note. I wanted more of them, and I knew I wasn’t going to get them. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*Monsieur Vincent is in French with English subtitles.
*The film won an Honorary Award for Best Foreign Film in 1948.   

Monday, January 29, 2018

Miscellaneous Musings

January 29, 2018

On the Tales of Two Movies

You’d think they would know better by now. Last week, Russian police descended upon Moscow’s Pioneer Cinema, a theater whose only crime appears to have been their decision to screen the UK comedy The Death of Stalin, a film which has been condemned by Russian officials as insulting. Soon after, the theater announced that “for reasons beyond [their] control” all future showings had been cancelled. To its credit, Pioneer Cinema had been the only theater willing to play the film, and there is already talk of it being prosecuted for doing so without a license.

Meanwhile, in India the film Padmaavat has finally opened in cinema, although in not nearly as many as was originally hoped for. The film has been awash with controversy for more than a year. In January of 2017, acts of vandalism delayed production. Two months later, rumors began to circulate of a “romantic dream sequence” involving the film’s lead characters, a Hindu queen named Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji, a 14th-century Muslim leader, and no amount of denials could persuade protesters that no such scene actually existed. In the eyes of protesters, such a scene would be scandalous, as legend has it, Padmavati set herself on fire to protect herself from Khilji. The protests didn’t stop there. Posters for the movie have been burned, its director slapped in public, and its lead actress threatened with disfigurement and – even worse - beheading.

Fortunately, common sense won out. On January 18, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Dipak Misra declared “Cinemas are an inseparable part of [the] right to free speech and expression. States… cannot issue notifications prohibiting the screening of a film.” In Russia, there is less optimism regarding the fate of The Death of Stalin. It is entirely likely that the film will disappear completely from theaters.

Here’s the thing, though. This kind of censorship is never successful. India experienced this years ago with Fire, another film that angered a number of people. The more you protest something, the more you try to block people’s ability to assess it for themselves or to decide whether to watch it in the first place, the more attention you draw to it. This was the case with the early films of Yimou Zhang, Seth Rogen’s film The Interview, or even something like Salt of the Earth, a 1954 film banned during the chaotic years of McCarthyism.

Even today, the phrase “banned in” remains an effective selling point for both distributors and audience members. Movies we would never have heard of and may never have cared to see become cause-celebres because of the overzealous reactions of some governments to anything that could be interpreted as critical or threatening to their long-term stability. Standing up for such films becomes a vital test of people’s values, and the films are sought out and watched in small art-house cinemas, large local theaters, and people’s living rooms through DVD, Blu-ray, or services like MUBI. In other words, they acquire an importance that they might not have otherwise. As proof of this, look at the most recent box office numbers in the United States. Padmaavat made more than $4.5 million in its opening weekend.

As for me, I would probably have seen The Death of Stalin even if it had not been banned in Russia. The subject seems interesting, and I generally like political satire. However, I’m not sure I would have had much interest in Padmaavat. After all, a historical, song-and-dance-filled film about a character whom many historians doubt existed does not necessarily interest me, but now my curiosity has been piqued. As I said, they should have known better.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review - The Tong Man

January 20, 2018

The Tong Man – US, 1919

Luk Chan is probably the kind of role that Sessue Hayakawa had no qualms about playing. Just four years after his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 The Cheat, in which he played a character that many feel embodies some of the worst stereotypes of Asian men, Hayakawa must have relished the chance to play a much more complex character, one who must appear cold and distant in one environment, yet is warm and loving in another. Sure, Chan is also a gangster, yet he is the kind that would fit right into films from the 1970s and beyond, films which sought not to glorify gangsters, but rather to present them as intriguing multi-faceted characters, ones that the audience could be forgiven for liking at least a tiny bit.

The plot of The Tong Man is a simple one. (How can it not be with a running time of just over 43 minutes?) A local merchant – and opium dealer – named Louie Toy (Toyo Fujita) has refused to pay protection money to the local Tong triad, and their leader, Ming Tai (Mark Roberts), offers him an ultimatum: he either pays or prepares to meet his maker. Chan, of course, is tasked with carrying out the dirty deed.

In his early scenes, director William Worthington (The Dragon Painter) gives viewers every reason to dislike Chan. For instance, when he first appears, he’s so disgusted by the sight of a man who has passed out standing up that he hurls a knife in his direction and scoffs at the fear the man exhibits upon awakening. The film also hints that Chan is not the film’s ethical anti-hero, for he too is running opium and – perhaps more importantly – is the Tong’s number one assassin. However, he is also a man deeply in love, and in a seemingly simply scene, we see him make eye contact with a young later named San Chee (Helen Jerone Eddy). As he does, he displays a touch of euphoria; she simply smiles and announces that she has just seen her prince.

One of the things I found most intriguing about The Tong Man is the way that no one – with the exception of Ming Tai – is a one-dimensional character. Take, for example, San Chee, Mr. Toy’s daughter. When we first see her, she’s blowing kisses to the birds that have greeted the start of her day with a song, yet a moment later, she’s imploring her father not to turn in a young man who murdered someone over gambling losses. Her reason: The police are their enemy. Or take Lucero (Yutaka Abe), the young man himself. First introduced as a murderer who shoots people in a most cowardly way, he soon proves himself to be quite skilled at helping the film’s sympathetic protagonists elude capture. In fact, this is one of the first films I can recall that dared to show the complex nature of criminals, that they could be ruthless one minute and whispering sweet nothings into their sweetheart’s ears the next.

To say more about the plot would risk giving away too much. Let it suffice then to say that this is one of the first one last job films and one of the only ones from Hollywood I can recall with an Asian or Asian-American in the lead role – a truly depressing reflection if you think about it. As good as it is, though, the film can easily be misread. I say this because modern day audiences may not be accustomed to seeing poorly constructed broken English in intertitles, and their sudden appearance has the potential to create unease. Yet if you look closely, you will notice that they only appear when characters of Chinese descent are speaking to non-Asian characters. When they speak to other Chinese characters, the intertitles are perfect, meaning that the characters are speaking Chinese to each other and a foreign language – in this case, English – to other people.

Also questionable is the inclusion of what can perhaps best be considered cultural voodoo. In a key scene, Ming Tai turns not to advisors or the elder Tongs for advice, but to the face of a dragon that appears to act as an altar. After posing it the question of Toy’s fate, its eyes open and shut, indicating that someone, though not necessarily Toy, must die. It’s a ludicrous scene, and it adds mysticism to a plot that up until then has been clearly set in the real world. However, scenes like this were not uncommon. In fact, having seen some of Anna May Wong’s movies, as well as other ones starring Hayakawa, I would say that this notion that Chinese characters had odd pagan beliefs or mystical abilities was fairly common in early Hollywood films, and its inclusion here is just another sign of the times in which the film was made.

And then there Ming Tai. Those without an understanding of silent film acting may mistakenly view him as just another caricature of the evil Asian character that dominated so many films from early Hollywood. Here, too, I believe they would be mistaken, for Tai’s mannerisms – the hunched back, lustful grin, wringing hands - resemble those given to other evil characters during the period. It was a common way to portray impure sentiments or the hatching of heinous plans. Also, he is the only character to display these characteristics. Even his fellow gangsters act normally.  

All in all, The Tong Man is fun, action-filled film that never truly lets up. It is replete with intriguing characters, even if many of them are now commonplace in films with similar plots, and creative turns. As for Hayakawa, he does not disappoint. Here he is asked to portray a character’s dual nature, and he excels at showing both sides of an imperfect human being. It is easy to see just what made him the popular figure he was back in the day. And it is refreshing to see a movie like this end without a message of nationalistic hope. I don’t mean to suggest that I oppose them, but The Tong Man was made in 1919, a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still being enforced. America, therefore, is not necessarily the land of opportunity for these characters. It is a violent place that has made it clear that it doesn’t want them, and it’s not surprising that some of them choose to return to China at the end of the film. However, as I watched the ending, I could help wondering who the end appealed to most, those who felt unwanted or those who didn’t want them? Such were the times in which the film was made, and it gives the film a bit more importance than it might ordinary have. The Tong Man is a window into the past and a good gauge of the progress that came afterwards. I hope more people see it. (on DVD from Alpha Home Entertainment)

3 stars

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review - Lady From Chungking

January 12, 2018

Lady From Chungking – 1942, US

William Nigh’s Lady From Chungking is better than it has any right to be. It is first a product of its time – an awkwardly cast, convoluted piece of blatant propaganda made to encourage Americans to support China’s efforts in the Second World War. It is also a film in which the majority of its lead characters act in completely unrealistic ways – joking when they would be serious, sweet when they would aggressive, passive when they would be anything but, kissing when they should be running – and deliver speeches that are intended to be dramatic, but come across as slightly clumsy. And yet the film works. It has several extremely moving moments and a lead performance that never allows viewers to lose focus on the film’s more serious undertones and the real threat of the times in which it takes place.

In the film, Anna May Wong plays Lady Kwan Mei, a Chinese aristocrat whose life has been greatly altered by Japan’s invasion, so much so that when we first see her, she is working in the rice patties and referred to as a slave. However, even with her face dirtied and her back sore from the long work hours, she still maintains both her dignity and the respect of the villagers. She is also the leader of a clandestine group of rebels plotting the defeat of the Japanese soldiers occupying the land she grew up in and still considers home. She gets her chance when a high-ranking, somewhat alcoholic Japanese general arrives ahead of his massive infantry of soldiers.

The film is a combination of the effective and the silly. It works best when it focuses on Kwan Mei, and it reaches new heights of silliness when it zooms in on two shot down members of the Flying Tigers. The two of them act as if they were anywhere but in enemy territory and in danger. One is captured, yet can’t resist making the kinds of comments that only a prisoner in a movie makes – ones that are much more sarcastic and humorous than one would expect from someone in his situation. The other one gives a brief narration of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game, and I had the same reaction to it as I had to a similar one featured in The French Connection 2: I was embarrassed for the character having to listen to it.

Other characters fare much better. A Nazi-sympathizing hotel owner (Ludwig Donath) referred to as Herr Gruber is properly opportunistic and groveling, and a beautiful singer at the hotel named Lavara (Mae Clarke) has just the right combination of self-preservation and empathy. While she says her primary concern in taking care of number one, we know she’ll eventually do the right thing.

As for the casting, the film must be seen through the lens of the times in which it was made. The Japanese characters are not played by Japanese or Japanese-American actors. For example, Harold Huber, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, plays General Kaimura, and New York-born Ted Hecht has the role of Kaimura’s unfortunate subordinate, Lieutenant Shimoto. The casting of Caucasian actors in Asian roles was not uncommon in the early days of Hollywood, yet it was more pronounced during World War II, when the Japanese-Interment Camps were in operation, and xenophobia was rife. I don’t blame the actors for taking the roles, yet their presence gives the film an unfortunate sense of inauthenticity.

The film’s length is also a problem. At 63 minutes, there just isn’t enough time to develop all of its characters or present them in realistic storylines. As a result, romances are rushed, characters see the light far too quickly, and wounds heal in no time at all. Interestingly, the character we expect to rush his interactions moves rather slowly, General Kaimura. Sure, he’ll kiss a woman’s hand and tell her how beautiful she is, yet he also seems content to let the relationship progress somewhat naturally. Even stranger, his actions imply a heart quickly won and long-term commitment rapidly given. It is an interesting choice, even if it is not entirely realistic.

I have often entertained the notion that Ms. Wong was a better actress in silent films, yet I may have to re-evaluate that. Here, she simply commands the screen. Her eyes reflect her character’s deep commitment to her cause, and in a key scene in which Kwan Mei’s loyalty is questioned, Wong displays such a pained expression that I truly felt for her character. I also enjoyed watching the many layers of her performance – she is an aristocrat who has donned the role of a revolutionary pretending to be a poor worker pretending to be an aristocrat, and she makes all of these roles believable to the people encountering them. She also holds her own next to Clarke, who could steal scenes like the best of them. I found myself rather involved in Kwan Mei’s plight; I even bought the sappy nationalistic speech she delivers at the end of the film. Like I said, the film just works - somehow. (on DVD)

3 stars

*The film deserves a better DVD release. The version from Alpha Video is cropped on the sides. This is especially apparent in the opening credits.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review - Kuei-Mei, A Woman

January 4, 2018

Kuei-Mei, A Woman – Taiwan, 1985

Recently, an editorial appeared on Fox News detailing the curious reaction that a woman got when she posted a request for sandwich varieties. According to the woman, she made a sandwich for her husband every day as a way of saving money. I suspect it was also a way of expressing her continued affection for the person she married. In any other generation, this would have been a fairly innocuous request, and we would not have heard about it or the replies her inquiry received. That we have heard about it tells you everything you need to know about the messages left below her original request. They were, shall we say, unaccommodating, yet they clearly reflected their posters’ interpretation of a modern woman.

Yi Chang’s 1985 film Kuei-Mei, A Woman is many things, yet one of its most interesting elements is its depiction of “a woman.” It is one of the rare films in which that role is not static. In many movies, women are a step ahead of society, ready to do more, be more, and break down barriers. It is often male society – or that society’s slow acceptance of change – that hinders their wishes, yet eventually, because of their deeply-held convictions, they are able to bring about or hasten change in their immediate surroundings. In other words, it is the world around them that needs to grow up, not them themselves. I like many of these movies, and it is to this genre that Kuei-Mei, A Woman belongs, yet it does something that I especially admired. It shows a female character changing as a result of both the times and necessity.

In an early scene, we see Kuei-Mei (Hui San Yang) sit in long traditional clothing with a potential suitor, a widower named Hou (Lichun Lee), and admit to him that she has been with someone before. Nowadays this would not be an earth-shattering announcement, yet she does it in what appears to be the early 1960s. And the way she says it – in a soft voice, looking downward – shows that she knows the implications of making such an admission. Hou’s acceptance of that fact only strengthens her resolve to make their eventual marriage work. By the end of the film, the woman who believes that love, hard work, and a good marriage are all that are needed for one to be happy has been replaced by someone wiser and stronger, someone who still believes in love, but who also knows the trials and sacrifices that often come with it.

The film also offers a bit of a history lesson. In its early scenes, characters speak of arriving in Taiwan fairly recently and one gets the sense that they are still coming to grips with the notion that they aren’t going to be able to go back. In some of their conversations, there’s a bit of an unrealistic nostalgia for their former lives, as if all of them would have been successful and wealthy if not for the results of China’s civil war. Kuei-Mei seems at first like a woman trying to hold onto a notion of culture and decency that later generations will not necessarily adhere to, and as she changes, we see it in her hair style and choice of clothing, as well as in her words, some of which are given voice to in loud gestures and some uttered in near whispers to the children that will carry on her and her generation’s legacy.
The film follows Kuei-Mei and Hou through some rather tumultuous years. Hou has a gambling problem that has horrendous consequences for the family. At one point, he even suggests that they withdraw their pre-teen daughter (from his previous marriage) from school and send her to work as a servant. Eventually, Kuei-Mei and Hou find work as servants to a Chinese family in Japan, yet they can only take two of their children with them – and they have five. These are sacrifices no parent should have to make, and they never come without severe repercussions.

As we watch Kuei-Mei and Hou, we also get a glimpse of what Taiwan was going through on a global scale. We see evidence of Taiwan’s complicated relationship with Japan and the United States, its growing diplomatic isolation, the coming of its “economic miracle,” and the budding disillusionment of its youth. These are indeed heavy issues, and an entire film could be made about each of them. However, Chang wisely uses these issues to help viewers understand what is behind the characters’ decisions, and because of that, viewers will get a good sense of just how much Taiwanese society has been shaped by issues that were not entirely under its control.

As Kuei-Mei, Yang gives a truly stunning performance. We watch her go from a fragile, yet hopeful young woman to a wise one who is also a bit emotionally scarred, and the expression on her face when she receives a letter towards the end of the film is one of the most poignant and unforgettable images I’ve ever seen. Lee is equally memorable, however, for entirely different reasons. As Hou, he is often subdued, reacting to the things around him as one who feels both entitled and emotionally wronged would. He’s a pawn who thinks he should be a king, and every so often wounded feelings are expressed in violent outbursts. Lee allows us to see these building, and their eruptions are truly frightening.

Chang’s directing style is a bit like Ozu’s. From the opening scenes, we feel as if we are flies on a wall. When we first see Kuei-Mei, it is through the kitchen window, and instead of a close-up of her conflicted face, we see the entire kitchen. As I watched it, I got the sense that it was her sanctuary, the place where she could create and be alone, away from the constant efforts of her cousin to find her a match. Yi maintains this distant focus for much of the film, and I found it deeply moving. He also has the good sense to allow scenes to develop naturally, and nothing comes across as forced or out of character.

Unfortunately, like many releases of its kind, Kuei-Mei, A Woman has frequent translation problems, and some of them, in particular those related to tenses, have the potential to cause momentary confusion. There are also frequent misspellings, and the same word can be misspelled in the same way throughout the film. Also, as it nears its conclusion, the subtitles become even worse, as if someone was in a rush to finish and no longer cared about complete accuracy. This is an annoyance, and in truth I expected better of Central Motion Pictures. Still, I was greatly moved by the film. I cared for its characters and hoped they would attain happiness. In Kuei-Mei, we have a realistic person, someone who grows, matures, has setbacks, and must make difficult choices. It is a role I think everyone - not just women - will see a little of themselves in. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Taiwan)

3 and a half stars

*The version of the film I saw had a running time of 119 minutes. Wikipedia lists it as being 152 minutes.

*Kuei-Mei, A Woman won the Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film in 1985.