Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review - The Only Son

April 19, 2018

The Only Son – Japan, 1936

Taisho period writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa is perhaps best known as the author of the short story “In a Grove,” which would eventually be adapted by Akira Kurosawa and given the title of Akutagawa’s 1915 short story, Rashomon. Sadly, Akutagawa lived just 35 years, and during his final few, he is said to have worried incessantly that he had inherited his mother’s mental disorder. At the same time, he was also experiencing hallucinations and severe bouts of nervousness. Japanese audiences in 1936 would likely have recognized the name and remembered his struggles, so when they saw the quote that introduces Yasujiro Ozu’s 1936 film, The Only Son, they would likely have been prepared for the kind of story that followed it, and the quote is important. It foreshadows the mood and events depicted onscreen, and, perhaps most importantly, it allows viewers to assess the characters properly. Here’s the quote: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Let that sink in for a moment.

Ozu’s film is primarily the story of Tsune Nonmiya (Choko Iida), a poor widow in Shinshu, Japan, and her son, Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himori). In the film’s opening scenes, we see and feel what it is like to live in Shinshu – the scorching heat, the dry, desert land, and the mundane, repetitive feel that can accompany a textile job. When a character says that there is no economic future there, we have already witnessed the truth behind the sentiment. It’s no surprise then to hear Tsune declare her intention to do whatever it takes to put him through school. For Ryosuke, this means hope; for his mother, extreme sadness, long working days, and great loneliness, as Ryosuke’s school is in Tokyo.

From there, the film flashes forward twelve years, and we witness a short conversation between Tsune and one of her co-workers. It is noteworthy because in her comments, she praises her son and glows with pride when relating the fact that he has a job in Tokyo. She is even planning to visit. A year later, she makes good on her words, and we see mother and son sitting in a cab together, both of their faces beaming with joy and pride. Look closely, though. Hers is real, his forced.

In this contrast, we see one of the film’s recurring themes – that painful truths are often masked through positive facial expressions, sweet-sounding words, and cultural niceties. In The Only Son, the same wide, strained smile appears on the faces of Ryosuke, Tsune, one of Ryosuke’s former teachers, and a few others we meet. What these characters all have in common is that they are reflecting the burdens put on them by both society and themselves. Society expects to hear great things about those that have an education and live in the city; people want to be able to tell stories that give both them and their siblings honor; and they also want to believe that their efforts have not been in vain. So, they put on a show; looks of contentment adorn their faces, and words of confidence and aspiration spill out of their mouths. Ozu intends for us to identify these scenes as false. It made me wonder, though, whether people interpret them as such in real life.

Interestingly, Ozu does not include any scenes in the more touristy parts of Tokyo. For example, we hear, but do not see, that Ryosuke took his mother to popular areas like Ueno, and this is a wise move. Ozu likely knew that showing those places would alter the audience’s impression of Tokyo, shifting it from slightly negative to rather upbeat, and what Ozu wants Tokyo to represent is an enigma, a towering economic powerhouse that crushes just as many dreams as it makes comes true. It is a city that inspires confidence in oneself – perhaps even overconfidence – only to dash it for those who expect life to be easy instantly. And it is these shattered hopes that can lead to withdrawal. Ozu shows us this in the images that adorn the walls of Ryosuke’s small home and in the movie that he takes his mother to. Instead of being famous icons from Japan, it is Western ones, and the film they watch together is German. It’s telling that Ryosuke watches it wide-eyed, while Tsune has to keep herself from nodding off.

Ozu is sometimes accused of repeating himself, and there are things in The Only Son that re-appear in later films. For instance, Ozu returned to the notion of parents being separated from the children in 1942’s There Was a Father, and in Tokyo Story, a parental visit yields far more disappointment than joy. In The Only Son, Ozu also uses familiar camera angles, again placing the camera further away, giving the audience the feeling that they are on the outside looking in. However, it is the details of each of his films that truly separates them. Here, we are shown what happens when reality doesn’t match our expectations and when survival entails brushing off one defeat and rushing head on toward the next potential one. Survival can sometimes demand this of us, but it is unclear at the end of the film whether anyone has it in them to do it.

The Only Son is a moving film, filled with heart-breaking characters and impressive performances. It tells a fascinating story that made me think about my own family and the times when I have either balked at sharing something or received support that didn’t ring entirely true. In other words, The Only Son touches on universal themes, and therefore, in spite of its subtitles, it is accessible to people from all backgrounds. If I have one quibble with the film, it is its repeated long shots of Ryosuke’s apartment and his home’s surroundings. Some of these are important symbolically, for they establish the area’s status as economically disadvantaged; others, however, can come across as time killers, and many go on a bit too long. A minor complaint about a film that is thought-provoking and poignant. It is not one I’m likely ever to forget. (On DVD from the Criterion Collection)

3 and a half stars

*The Only Son is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review - Dr. Jack

April 15, 2018

Dr. Jack – US, 1922

I’d like to have a doctor like Dr. Jack. In this crazy age of overprescribed patients, the relentless ads extolling the latest creations of drug pharmaceuticals, and the tragic emphasizing of short-term solutions over long-term care, it’s nice to think that at one time things were different. And Dr. Jack is certainly that. Not only does he make house calls – a rarity in this day and age – but he spends time getting to know his patients, and if he does not see the need for medical treatment, he doesn’t prescribe it. In fact, he’s much more likely to prescribe visits from family members and sparring sessions than he is the latest cocktail of pills. In short, he’s the Patch Adams or Doc Hollywood of the 1920s, a man fighting the system, treating that patient instead of the disease, and finding love in the process.

Dr. Jack is the lead character in Fred Newmeyer’s film of the same moniker, starring that loveable everyman Harold Lloyd. Everyman is perhaps the wrong word because while the qualities that reside in him are the ones we wish society to have in droves, it is that very sentiment that makes him the exception rather than the rule. In other words, he is an extraordinarily descent man in a sea of men who are, in most cases, merely average. We get that impression in his first scene, which sees him sparing no expense to reach a patient in need. Even more remarkable is what he does upon reaching his destination and realizing that it was all a false alarm – it will truly warm your heart.

Interestingly, the film’s opening scene is the kind more associated with films starring Mary Pickford, and it is clear instantly that there is a bit of parody going on. In the scene, a young woman referred to as The Sick-Little-Well Girl sits in a dimly lit room and watches some kids play outside. From her expression we know two things: that she longs to be out there and that she is forbidden to do so. Soon we learn that other things are off-limits, like flowers and laughter. Soon, she lets out one of those pleas we often see in melodramatic silent films – a cry for more out of life and a sense of normalcy. Her words do not fall of deaf ears, fortunately, and soon we see a family friend determined to find a new doctor for the girl. His declaration also does not occur in a vacuum, for they are overheard by the girl’s regular doctor, the imposingly-named Ludwig von Saulsbourg (, who immediately senses a threat to his livelihood and orders the girl moved to a new location, a move that actually makes it easier for her to meet Dr. Jack.

The first half of the film accomplishes two things: It establishes the Sick-Little-Well Girl’s plight and it illustrates the differences between Dr, Jack’s approach to medicine and that of von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne). This is important because the actions Jack takes in the second half of the film would seem both inappropriate and ethically-questionable without this contrast. We might also find ourselves worried about the mental well-being of the people that Jack unwittingly involves in her treatment – in particular the poor (and stereotypically African-American) housekeeping staff - but because the girl is better in the end, all can easily be forgiven.

There is little here that qualifies as slapstick comedy other than Jack’s first scene and the girl’s later elongated “therapy,” but these moments are enough. The rest of the film is devoted to establishing the doctor’s character and convincing audiences that two characters have fallen instantly head over heels in love. Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, excelled at conveying this. With Lloyd, it is the way he tilts his head to the side, the goofy smile that starts to form on his face, and the sudden difference in way the eyes look. We just know. Matching Lloyd in skill is his long-time co-star, Mildred Davis, who married Lloyd just one year after the film was released and, like many newly married Hollywood starlets at the time, left acting soon after. Davis has an infectious energy and a control over her facial expressions that makes her a delight to behold onscreen, and her chemistry with Lloyd is so good that we believe that these two characters are simply meant for each other.

I’m truly a softie for films of this sort. Light on plot, but rich on sentiment, they depict a simpler, more optimistic world, one where the bad guys are not truly bad, just misdirected; where the young ladies have a heart of gold and can bring out the best in the ones they love; and where the rich are people of virtue, not vultures profiting off the labor of an overburdened working class. Films set in a world like this are timeless; untethered to a particular age by technology or cynicism, they could be happening anywhere and any time. They depict society not as it once was – for who can say it was ever this good - but as we all wish it were. That they could also be labeled “off-fashioned” only reflects just how far some people think we have strayed from the values presented in them. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review - Don't Laugh at My Romance

April 5, 2018

Don’t Laugh at My Romance – Japan, 2007

In one of his books on relationships, John Gray writes that for one between two people with a large age gap to work, one of them must display the normal characteristics of someone the other’s age. In other words, either the older one acts more childlike, or the younger one acts more mature. I would suggest however that the older one has an advantage – having been in the others’ shoes, they know how younger people think and what appeals to them. This – as well as their greater financial resources - gives them a great degree of power in the relationship. That clout is clearly on display in Nami Iguchi’s oddly titled Don’t Laugh at My Romance,  

The film follows the relationship that developments between Yuri (Hiromi Nagasaku), a thirty-nine year old art lecturer whose can perhaps best be described as open and independent, and Minume (Kenichi Matsuyama), a nineteen-year-old university student who seems rather na├»ve. He is also tall, somewhat handsome, and rather playful. The two meet under unusual circumstances. She has missed the last bus home, and he is in a truck with friends who just happen to pass her on the road. They offer her a ride, and Minume elects to sits in the back with her to keep her company. One can imagine that the two engaged in conversation and that it is during this time that their initial spark forms. I say imagine because like Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Don’t Laugh at My Romance pans back and then flashes forward.

What follows is an interesting courtship, one initiated by someone who clearly knows what will appeal to the other. It is a kind of dance – there’s an initial short series of steps that get his attention followed by a few unfinished combinations, the effect of which stimulate his interest and make him feel that he has more control over the situation than he actually does. Her most successful tactic is to make him feel attractive, and she accomplishes this by asking him if he’ll model for her. It works like a charm. She makes other requests of course, ones that would seem grossly inappropriate were they a) made by a man and b) not delivered in such a cute and humorous way. The result: She gets both a painting and a lover.

I liked these early scenes a great deal. They believably brought together the two characters and highlighted what made their relationship work. Yuri displays the kinds of behavior one would expect from a love-struck teenager, and the two of them seem to genuinely enjoy being together. A scene in which they attempt to blow up a camping mattress is particularly entertaining.

There are two other characters that warrant mentioning: Minume’s friends Domoto (Shugo Oshinari) and En-Chan (Yu Aoi). Domoto doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he provides a steady presence whenever there’s advice to be distributed or a helping hand to be offered. En is slightly more problematic. She is positioned as Yuri’s opposite; she’s young, inexperienced, and hesitant to act on her emotions. In fact, she’s more likely to run away than face challenges head on, and this includes dealing with her obvious affection for Minume.

Given such a set-up, Don’t Laugh at My Romance could have easily become one of those films that elevates one woman over the other and declares only one of them to truly love Minume. However, for this to occur, En would have to develop an inner strength that the character doesn’t have and suddenly become emotionally expressive, which would mark a departure for her character. Fortunately, the film avoids this, instead electing to have Yuri initiate several interesting conversations with En, during which she gives her the kind of advice one normally doesn’t hear from someone in her situation.

So, the film has a number of things going for it. It is a disappointment then that it doesn’t really know what to do with its characters. Too often in the second half of the film, the focus shifts to Minume, and he is actually the least interesting character in the film. Sure, his early scenes bustle with energy, yet much of this is due to Yuri. In fact, the second half of the film reduces Minume to being an indecisive, obsessive boyfriend. He spends much of his time either pinning for Yuri from afar or going place to place trying to find her. It’s not a lot of fun to watch. It also denies the character an arc. Whatever lesson he should learn from his experiences with Yuri is lost on him. This would be acceptable if the film adequately explained his obsession, yet there is no hint that Yuri and Minume have the kind of passionate intimacy that could create such feelings or that they have the kind of emotional connection that it would cause such trauma to lose.

The film also never moves Yuri far enough beyond her eccentricities. Sure, there’s the introduction of a character that goes a long way to explain why she would be seeking love in another person’s arms, but the film never gives Yuri a scene that helps us truly understand her. She seems not to have a care in the world, and while that is refreshing in the beginning, it tries your patience later on.

I wonder just how much of this reaction is the result of Yuri being a woman. Were she a man and it were a woman suffering heartbreak, there’s no doubt that the audience would have a very negative reaction to him. He would be yet another man who wooed a younger woman, only to leave her heartbroken. Yet because Yuri is a woman – and a Japanese woman at that – I felt I was supposed to like her and admire the way she embraced both her sexuality and her personal freedoms. The film seems to be blaming Minume for being so ignorant of the world, when it is Yuri that takes advantage of that ignorance. Perhaps what Don’t Laugh at My Romance needed was an Annie Hall-type ending, the kind in which two characters meet up years later and we see that they both turned out all right. To say we don’t get it is to put it mildly, and the film’s resolution of En’s story line is convenient and wholly unsatisfactory.

In the end, Don’t Laugh at My Romance is a bit of a disappointment. After a promising start, it simply sputters out. It does not know where to go or how to end. It also suffers as a result of Iguchi’s over-reliance on long shots of inconsequential moments or long scenes with little payoff. In one such scene, we see En eating small treats at an art show. She eats and eats and eats, and then the scene ends without much being conveyed other than that she was hungry. During such moments, my eyes began to close, and by the end of the film, I had reached a level of exhaustion rare to me after completing a film. I couldn’t even find the energy to jot down more than a few general impressions of the film, yet the ones I did write were telling: good premise, no resolution, seems unclear what it wants to be or say, and ending too convenient. Perhaps that says it all. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Don’t Laugh at My Romance is in Japanese with English subtitles.            

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review - Number 17

March 30, 2018

Number 17 – UK, 1932

The less you think about Number 17 after watching it, the more you’ll enjoy it. I say this from experience, for in the first thirty minutes post-viewing, the film began to fall apart. Inconsistencies in the plot became crystal clear, character motivations became opaque, and what had seemed like plausible revelations began to look like anything but. In fact, had I not thought about the film so much afterwards, I might have given it three stars. Now I’m not so sure.

For example, consider the film’s opening scene. A ferocious wind is revealed to have blown a man’s hat off. We witness the hat make its way down the street and then take an abrupt turn into the walkway of a supposedly empty house. The owner of the hat enters the picture, quickly retrieves said hat, and then notices some unusual shadowy movements in the house. Now if this character is just one of your average Joes, it would make sense for him to alert the police right away. However, many of Hitchcock’s protagonists have a peculiar quirk: They insist on doing investigations themselves, and this one is no exception.

Soon he’s asking questions of a “humorous” tramp who calls himself Ben (Leon M. Lion) while trying to figure out what happened to a supposedly dead man lying at the top of a circular flight of stairs. I say supposedly because none of the characters sees fit to check him for a pulse and a few minutes later – cue the dah dah dah – he’s gone, without having made so much as a squeak as he exited. Soon other characters start arriving. One falls through the roof, while some appear at the door with a card that reads Number 17 and ask to be given a tour of the house, despite it being rather late in the evening. The question our hero must solve is this: Just what is so special about Room Number 17?

I have other questions, though. In no particular order, here they are: Just why did the supposedly dead man enter the apartment, and why doesn’t he warn our heroes about the assailant that must have hit him over the head? Exactly where did he disappear to, and why is his daughter sneaking across the tops of apartments looking for him if he is someone who would get a note like the one he got earlier in the evening? If the third criminal isn’t who he says he is and our hero is, just why does the first one hang around long enough to get arrested and the other take a city bus hostage?  If the criminals know each other beforehand, why don’t they know the identity of the mastermind, and if they don’t know each other, how did they pull off the crime? Since when does a hand stop a bullet, and while I’m on the subject of unconvincing events, how exactly does a bus catch up to an out-of-control speeding train? Believe it or not, I could go on.

And that’s precisely the problem with Number 17. It crumbles under even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, and this renders the film a narrative mess in my mind. I’m still not sure who knew what when or why particular characters made the choices they did. Add to this the annoying distraction caused by Hitchcoch’s insistence on using Ben as comic relief when the character is more annoying than funny, and you’ve got a film that tries hard to be everything – a mystery, a comedy, a romance, an action film replete with the requisite chase scenes. You name it, it’s probably got a little of it in it. Sadly, what it’s lacking is logic.

Having said that, I must admit that I didn’t completely dislike the film. It has some pretty good performances – chief among them, that of Donald Calthrop – and the film’s climactic chase is both amusing and suspenseful, even though it requires a bit a suspended belief. I also liked the character arc of one of the henchmen’s girlfriend. If there is one character whose motivations stand up to later scrutiny, it is hers. However, the film errs when it tries to do more with the character in the final scene. Just letting walk away freely would have sufficed.

And now I’m at the part of the review where I have to sum all of my feelings in a tidy expression that best expresses my experience and relates to casual readers my overall impression of the film. I started this review off by saying that I would probably have given it three stars if I had simply turned it off and  not given it a second thought, but having reread what I have written thus far, it appears that doing so would be disingenuous. This is a film with major flaws, and not even the efforts of a great director like Hitchcock were enough to cover them up. In a way, I want to like it. I want to give it the benefit of the doubt, as I did films like Flight Plan and American Hustle, yet for some reason, I find myself unable – or unwilling – to do so. Maybe I’m harsher on films that have directors of Hitchcock’s caliber at their helm - perhaps I just expect too much of them. Either way, the film has not aged well in my head, and no amount of admiration or respect for Hitchcock’s other works can make up for that. Here, Hitchcock disappoints, but only slightly and, more importantly, only if you can’t just finish the film and never give it a second thought. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*I watched the LaserLight release of the film, and there were many instances in which I had a hard time making out what the characters were saying. Buyer beware.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Review - The Covered Wagon

March 23, 2018

The Covered Wagon – US, 1923

Sometimes a film is more important historically than it is qualitatively. Perhaps it is the first film of a director later regarded as a cinematic genius or the screen debut of someone later considered to be one of cinema’s greatest leading ladies. In the case of The Covered Wagon, it is its status as Hollywood’s “first big budget Western epic,” and for that, it has rightfully earned a place in the rather long list of influential films. However, I highly doubt it will appear on anyone’s list of the greatest films of all time or even for the year in which it was released. I base this notion entirely on one thing: the film’s particularly weak and banal narrative.

Seen through the eyes of audiences in 1923, the film must have been somewhat of a revelation. There, on screen before them, was a trek across hostile and unforgiving terrain, a duel with Mother Nature, and a race to stave off both starvation and the madness that generally accompanies a journey of this sort. Director James Cruze includes moments that I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of – the realization that the journey will take the settlers across a long, deep, fast-moving river, through punishing winter months, and in the crosshairs of those hell-bent on preventing them from tearing apart their land with the plow, a device that is spoken of as being pure evil. That Cruze films some of these scenes from a distance and without the right amount of drama or emotion speaks of both the infancy of the genre and, I can only surmise, the continuing development of Cruze as a director. (He had made at least 18 films prior to The Covered Wagon, none of which I’ve seen, and had been appearing onscreen since 1911. A scene in which he appeared as an American Indian in The Covered Wagon ended up on the cutting room floor.)

The Covered Wagon attempts to tell two tales concurrently. The first – and by far more interesting one – is the story of the West’s early settlers, ordinary people who took on a truly extraordinary task. From this storyline, we learn of the size of the caravans that made the journey and that many of them did not make it to the promised land. Some turned back after getting a true sense of the monstrous task in front of them; others perished from hunger or sickness, and it was up to those chosen to lead the expedition to inspire confidence in his followers that the journey would be worth it in the end. In one scene, we learn that the caravan only travels twelve miles a day, making their journey from modern-day Kansas City to Oregon one that will take them at least 137 days to complete. Think about that for a moment.

The first’s second narrative will be nothing new to contemporary moviegoers, for they are likely accustomed to seeing historical events through the eyes of young lovers. Wings did this for World War I, as did J’Accuse; Pearl Harbor did it for World War II, just as For Whom the Bell Tolls did for the Spanish Civil War. To this category, we could also add Titanic. For the plot device to work, the relationship must be given ample screen time to grow and mature. We should see them meet, hear their awkward first encounters, and recognize the first signs of love. Then we should be able to ascertain just how much they are meant to be together and how lost they will be if they are ever separated. The Covered Wagon denies us many of these. Sure, we get a few furtive glances and some scenes of dialogue between the two, but nothing that makes you declare their relationship to be a love that cannot be denied or that would justify the abandoning of one engagement for the chance of another.

The two characters in question are Will Banian (J. Warren Kerrigan) and Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson). When the film begins, Molly is engaged to Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), though for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Will, with his dashing good looks, superb fighting skills, and genuine concern for humankind, easily catches Molly’s attention, and Sam vows to put an end to Will’s life because of it. And that, in a nutshell, is that. This storyline has so little going for it that it introduces two side characters who seem to be there just for levity, Will’s right-hand man William Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and a trader named Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall). I found William the more interesting of the characters, simply because he has moments in which you wonder just how much ruthlessness he is capable of while also proving himself to be as loyal a friend to Will as anyone could ever imagine. I had more reservations about Joe. The character is neither necessary nor appropriate. In a film about people in constant peril, it just seems wrong to be asked to laugh at drunken hijinks.

I wanted to like The Covered Wagon, to praise it to high heaven and declare it to be not simply an original, but also a genuinely brilliant standard-bearer for the genre. Sadly, I cannot proclaim the later. The film has its fair share of powerful moments, but too many of those concern the fate of the caravan and not that of Will, Molly, or Sam. It reminded me of Gangs of New York in that regard, for in that movie too the back story resonated far more than its main narrative. When The Covered Wagon focused on the group and their collective struggles, I was riveted. When it pointed its lens at the love triangle, I found myself distracted, and my mind eventually began to wander. And just where did it wander to? To the story I wished I was seeing – to the confusion, the desperation, the true toll of the journey on the psyche of the travelers, and to those lives lost and those entering the world under the harshest of conditions. That’s the story I wanted to see. What I got was something that is now considered routine and unoriginal. Sometimes a love story just gets in the way. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber)

2 and a half stars 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - This Love of Mine

March 16, 2018

This Love of Mine – Taiwan, 1986

Yi Chang’s 1986 tragedy, This Love of Mine, may be one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen, on par with such films as Albert Nobbs, A Simple Plan, and Requiem for a Dream, none of which will ever be described as fun or uplifting. It is the story of a woman, already suffering from the onset of debilitating phobias, who receives a piece of information that sends her on the kind of downward spiral that few truly ever recover from. It is also the story of the pitfalls of marriage and how what is supposed to provide security and comfort can instead be the cause of insecurity, isolation, and intense pain. In other words, it is not an easy film to sit through. This is not a criticism of the film; it is a reflection of many people’s understandable tendency to look away from depressing images that remind them too much of people they know or situations they’ve been in – and I understand this sentiment. Given a choice between this film and one about superheroes, I’d choose the latter every time.

The film’s central character is Wei-Liang, a happily married woman who, when the film begins, is starting to be severely affected by her rapidly developing fears. In the film’s opening scene, set much later in time, we hear a friend of Liang’s explain that Liang’s fears are centered around one key notion: that of losing everything. In this scene, we observe Liang at what we can only guess is a psychiatric ward staring happily into a mirror and combing her long dark hair. She seems completely oblivious to her friend’s presence. In flashbacks, Chang then shows us what completed her mental collapse.

I say completed because, in a curious narrative decision, Liang’s fears are already in full swing when the flashbacks begin. She’s heard that a child died during a routine dentist’s appointment, so she refuses to allow her daughter to get a bad tooth extracted; she’s heard that some farmers use pesticides on fruit, so she recoils at the notion of her children eating grapes that haven’t been peeled; and she’s constantly reminding her children not to get their hands dirty, a seemingly normal request that she makes to the point of exhaustion. The final straw comes during a visit of an old friend. What starts out cordially quickly turns solemn. Liang’s husband has been seeing her friend’s sister on the side.

From here, it helps to understand Taiwan’s legal system and its traditional customs. In the 1980s, infidelity was – and still is - a criminal offense, so the knowledge that one had been cheated on could be empowering. A wronged woman could put her husband in jail or use that threat to extort money and other concessions from him. In the film, Liang’s first reaction is to get out, yet in this pursuit, she is hampered at every turn – from relatives and friends who essentially blame her for what has transpired and from sexist practices such as requiring a woman to have a husband’s approval to rent an apartment. At one point, she laments that she has no friends and no place to go. It is telling that the woman she is talking to remains silent. Eventually, Liang returns home, where unfortunately things have only gotten worse.

In the role of Liang, Hui-Shan Yang delivers a powerful performance. During one particularly dramatic scene, Chang focuses on Yang’s face just after she confronts her unfaithful spouse, and in her eyes we can see an alarming amount of fear. This gives way to a series of uncontrolled sobs that are extremely unnerving. We are watching a character trying desperately to retain what’s left of her wits and failing. Yang plays these scenes like a pro, and in later ones, she is just as moving and disturbing. The other role worth noting is that of Liang’s mother. While Liang is not a character that most people will truly be able to sympathize with, her mother is. She is warm at times, confused at others, and deeply concerned throughout the film, yet she is also hampered by her divided loyalties. She has remarried, something for which her daughter criticizes her, and at key moments, she feels compelled to assist her husband rather than Liang and the children. In these scenes, we see her inner conflict, and we understand that she is a good woman in an impossible situation. It is a small, but critical role, and the actress who plays her (I can’t seem to find her name anywhere) is thoroughly convincing.

In my mind, This Love of Mine would have made a great 80-minute movie. Alas, the film clocks in at just under two hours, which means that the film drags in parts. And while there is some impressive camerawork, none of it adds much to out understanding of the story or its characters. In fact, many of the characters are poorly fleshed out, and some of their motivations remain opaque. There are also several night scenes that are simply too dark. This may have been done to avoid nudity, but it could also be that Chang wanted to create the impression that the characters themselves are in the dark. However, that was already clear. In fact, at one point, Liang clearly states it, so the effect, if that is indeed what was intended, seems rather superfluous.

There is also the troubling way that Liang and her husband treat their children. As I watched it, I was reminded of what several people said to me when I came to Taiwan - that Taiwanese children were different than American children and could therefore be treated differently. I rejected that sentiment then, and I reject it now (fortunately, many people I’ve met here have rebuffed it as well). Therefore, it was hard to watch the scene in the dentist’s office without alarm bells going off inside my head. In the scene, Liang’s husband tries to force his daughter to get a cavity removed and resorts to forcefully holding her arms behind her back to make sure it gets done. The dentist and his assistant join in, one trying to hold her head in place, while the other tries to pry her mouth open – all the while the child is screaming uncontrollably, obviously out of tremendous fear. Nothing is made of this, and in the very next scene, father and daughter are smiling merrily. Later, Liang slaps her daughter for no apparent reason and that too is presented as nothing to get worked up about. Such scenes are distracting, for they bring concerns about child abuse into a movie in which the audience is supposed to empathize with at least one of the parents, and part of me wished that child protective services would just swoop in and get the kids to safety.

It’s hard to say that I liked This Love of Mine. I certainly understood it, but the film seemed pulled in too many directions. I found the phobias to be a bit of a distraction at times, especially given that they are dropped when it’s convenient. Also, it’s hard to say for sure whether the film is depicting how unjust society was toward women in Liang’s position or just how much mental illness was neglected. By combining these two elements, Chang makes the film unnecessarily convoluted. Perhaps the movie’s message can be found in a simply line referred to earlier: Liang’s admission that she never truly understood her husband. It is telling that he does not respond with a similar remark, one that would put the onus on the two of them for having created a marriage that had always been shaky. Yet he only responds with a remark that confirms her feelings. The message is crystal clear. She truly has no one. It’s a powerful moment in a challenging, yet problematic film. (on DVD and Blu-Ray in Asia)

2 and a half stars

*This Love of Mine is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Alas, there are frequent misspellings and incorrect verb tenses.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review - Black Coal, Thin Ice

March 9, 2018

Black Coal, Thin Ice – China, 2014

For the longest time, I have been in the habit of buying films I have never seen. More often than not, this yields pleasant surprises. I fondly remember Damien O’Donnell’s East is East and Roberto Benigni’s The Monster, both of which I had purchased after reading brief descriptions of them during my research into upcoming DVD releases. To me, their excellence confirmed the wisdom of my rather expensive habit. Alas, purchases like Yinan Diao’s 2014 film, Black Coal, Thin Ice, do exactly the opposite.

The film’s central focus is a detective named Zili Zhang, played by Fan Liao. The beginning of the film finds him spending time with a young woman in a hotel. They silently play cards and then make love on top of the cards. Diao interrupts these moments by showing viewers the grisly discovery of human remains at a coal plant. We then see Zhang and the woman at a train station, where she hands him a certificate of divorce and tells him good-bye. And in just a few minutes, Diao has shown viewers the kind of break up that mostly exists in the mind of male songwriters. The difference here is that Zhang doesn’t feel as at peace with it as the pop stars do. What follows is a cautionary tale, one that could easily be entitled “The Problem with Investigating a Murder on a Broken Heart.”

Zhang is called in to investigate the murder. We know he has a stellar reputation for solving cases such as these because one of his fellow officers tells him a variation of the standard plea, “You are the only one who can crack the case.” The officer’s faith is misplaced, though, for Zhang’s work is sloppy, and his interpersonal skills are – to put it mildly – lacking. In a telling scene, both he and his partner tell the deceased’s widow (Lunmei Kwei) that she is wasting valuable time by crying so much. Nice. Of course, things go from bad to worse. The casualties: two possible criminals, two veteran police officers, and two previously outstanding careers. The film then jumps ahead five years, to a time when it appears the real killer has resumed his homicidal ways.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about such a set-up. In fact, anyone who has seen Basic Instinct or Al Pacino’s Sea of Love will recognize many of the film’s twists and turns coming a mile away. However, those films had something that kept them afloat, that made them more involving than Black Coal, Thin Ice: well-established characters. If asked to describe Zhang, I would be at a loss for words. “Silent” and “moody” come to mind, but these words are inadequate because they say nothing about what drives him or what he ultimately wants out of life or his chosen career. The same can be said of Lunmei Kwei’s character in the film. Kwei plays the mysterious widow, Zhizhen Wu, yet like Zhang, this character says little, and Diao seems to think that audiences will just instinctively know the sentiments and motivations behind each character’s laconic state.  

The only character that breathes real life into the film is Zhang’s former partner. Played by Xuebing Wang, he is a decent man trying to do his best to make the world a better place. He is fair and gives Zhang respect at a time when others don’t, and if you suspect that this bodes ill for him, you’re correct. In this film, the good die early, the bad should be empathized with but aren’t, and the hero is a jerk. Cue the caustic voice inside me: “What’s not to like about that?”  Turns out, plenty.

For a movie like Black Coal, Thin Ice to work, something important must be at stake. Lives should be in danger, and time ought to be of the essence. Here, time seems to be on everyone’s side. Five years goes by without a murder, and even when they rear their ugly head again, the possible explanation for them allows characters to take their sweet time. There’s time to trail someone, time to wait for your clothes to be dry cleaned, and time for two characters to… come to think of it, I’m not sure what they do. It certainly isn’t love. It’s more like a form of entrapment. He is setting a trap for the killer; she’s setting a trap for him. And what it all culminates in is at best passive physicality and at worst sexual assault – on the supposed hero’s side. It’s enough to make you long for someone to swoop in and save her from the oppression of men until you realize that someone did attempt to do just that, and he too was both guardian and tormentor.

As I’m writing this, I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment. This is a film that should have been better. It had a lot going for it in the beginning, including a rather thrilling and shocking gun fight, yet once it jumps ahead in time, it becomes a challenge to remain invested in it. In the end, I didn’t care that the detective had redeemed himself or that the mystery had been solved. I was simply glad it was over. Now, a film can be dark, characters can be morally repugnant, and not every movie has to end with two people walking hand in hand into a brighter future, yet all that Black Coal, Thin Ice offers viewers is bleakness. Well, that and long stretches of silence. Yet it doesn’t offer viewers what they may need most in a film of this sort: a reason to stay committed, a character to latch onto and pull for. Black Coal, Thin Ice lacks this, and to me, this is a major problem, one that the film simply never recovers from. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars