Saturday, 20 December 2014

Merantau (4 Stars)

This is my first post for 10 days. It's rare that I don't watch a film for so long. I've been catching up on watching my favourite television series, in particular "Batman" and "Arrow". I don't have television reception at home, so I rely on catchup services like BBC's Iplayer and the equivalent services of the other main television channels. Or, of course, I watch TV series on Blu-ray or DVD.

"Merantau" has been on my list of films to watch for more than six months. I was highly impressed by "The Raid" and its sequel, both directed by Gareth Evans and starring Iko Uwais, so I wanted to see their first collaboration. In it Iko plays an 18-year-old boy called Yuda from the Indonesian countryside. There is an Indonesian tradition that on reaching manhood the young man leaves his family for an unspecified period of time to gain experience on fending for himself in the world, before returning to his family to settle down in his own village. This tradition is called Merantau. Unlike the Australian aborigine walkabout tradition, it's not necessary to live alone. Yuda goes to live in the Indonesian capital Jakarta with vague plans to become a teacher of Silat, the fighting style that he studied as a teenager.

When he arrives Yuda is homeless and has to live on a building site. He spends his days wandering the streets. He befriends a beggar boy called Adit, and when he sees Adit's older sister Astri being abused by her boss, the owner of a strip club, he steps in and defends her. Yuda feels responsible for the pair and watches over them. Astri's boss decides to sell her to be sent to the West with other girls to work as a prostitute. This leads to spectacular martial arts action, as Yuda takes down the people trafficking gang.

Unlike "The Raid", this is a more realistic film. The action is more realistic, less over-the-top. There is a subdued level of spirituality that's missing from his later films. Iko plays a naive young man, not the hardened cop that we know from the other films.

In England "Merantau" has only been released on DVD, but I prefer Blu-ray if available. Unfortunately the American Blu-ray release is locked to region A, which my Blu-ray player can't handle, so I bought the German Blu-ray release. The film has the original Indonesian dialog with subtitles, but I made the conscious decision to watch it dubbed into German. I defend this choice, even though many serious film fans are opposed to dubbing. German dubbing can't be compared with the dubbing of foreign films carried out in England and America. In Germany the majority of films shown in the cinemas come from other countries are in foreign (i.e. non-German) languages, so a large dubbing industry has developed. The dubbing is done very professionally and has a much higher quality than the Anglo-American dubbing. The dubbers are often successful stage actors with excellent voices and the ability to express emotions. It's usual for each famous actor to be assigned an official dubber, so it's guaranteed that throughout his career he will have the same voice in German films. In some cases the same person speaks the voices of different actors, as in the case of Arne Elsholtz, who has been the voice of both Bill Murray and Tom Hanks for the last 30 years.

The whole point of dubbing isn't to present a film for scientific study, but to make a foreign film entertaining. I'm sure that in German film schools only the original dialogue is studied. But when it comes to popular recent films like "Gravity" and "The Avengers", it's all about entertaining the cinema audiences, reducing any distractions caused by making them look down at the text during the film action.

To sum up, I greatly enjoyed watching "Merantau" in German. My enjoyment would have been lessened by using the original dialogue with subtitles.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Grandmaster (4 Stars)

I went to see this film in the cinema today with mixed expectations. It's yet another film about the life of the Chinese hero Ip Man. Haven't we had enough of them in recent years, especially the films made starring Donnie Yen? Is there anything left to say? And Tony Leung is definitely not of the same calibre as Donnie Yen when it comes to fighting skills. On the other hand, this film stars Zhang Ziyi, one of my favourite actresses, and any film she appears in has to be good.

From the very first minutes the cinematography was overwhelming. The film opened with a typical Chinese one-against-ten (or hundred, or thousand) fight, in which Ip Man had no difficulty disposing of his multiple opponents. Unusually for Chinese martial films, the camera showed mostly close-up shots, making it difficult to recognise the fighting moves. While intended to give the fight a unique style, it also covered up any deficiencies Tony Leung has as a fighter.

First a brief summary of the plot. The film begins in 1936 and continues to 1952, with frequent flashbacks. Gong Yutian is a kung fu master from north China who first became famous for unifying different northern fighting styles, then moved to open a school in Foshan, in south China. After 25 years he intends to retire and move back to north China with his family, handing over his school and teaching legacy to his disciple Ma San, even though he says that his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) is more skilled. But as everyone knows, it would be scandalous for a woman to be a master. That's not right!

Before retiring, Gong Yutian wants to have a final fight with a southern master. The other masters insist on Ip Man representing them, even though he technically isn't a master because he doesn't teach kung fu. He defeats Gong Yutian in a heavily stylised fight which is more of a dance and exchange of philosophical ideas than actual combat. That ought to be the end of the matter, but Gong Er challenges  Ip Man to avenge her father's honour. She defeats Ip, the first battle he has ever lost, but while fighting they fall in love. They agree to have a rematch, but due to the Japanese invasion it never takes place, and they don't meet again until 1951 in Hong Kong.

Many other things happen in the film, but I won't write about them here. Now my thoughts about the film. I greatly enjoyed it, because of its style and atmosphere rather than the fights themselves, but it does have problems. It seems that the director, Wong Kar-wai, who also wrote the screenplay, didn't know what he wanted to do with the film. Was it a biopic about the life of Ip Man? Was it a martial arts epic? Or was it a love story? It ended up as a mixture of all three, although the love story remained in the foreground. Long portions of the film were only about Gong Er and what she did during her separation from Ip Man. The biographical elements of Ip's life were relegated to texts that appeared on screen during the film. Maybe this is due to the long production time? Wong Kar-wai needed almost ten years to make the film. He actually began to make it before the other Ip Man films. He failed to receive financial backing from Chinese studios, so he had to turn to American investors. They probably demanded changes to make it a film more suitable to American audiences. The end result is a film full of beautiful set pieces, but with jerky pacing like it's three films glued together.

Here's a photo of Zhang Ziyi looking more modern. Isn't she beautiful? I've been told by my Chinese friends that this is the correct way to write her name, even though she's usually called Ziyi Zhang, even in the film credits of "Grandmaster".

Sigh..... she's so beautiful and so talented.

You can click on the pictures for other (larger) photos.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Ip Man (4½ Stars)

I decided to rewatch "Ip Man" today because I intend to see "Grandmaster" in the cinema tomorrow, also a film about Ip Man's life. The last time I reviewed it three years ago I was lazy, merely quoting what another reviewer had said. Let's give my own thoughts this time.

The film begins in 1935 in the city of Foshan (called Fo Shan in the film's English subtitles), a place well known for having many martial arts schools teaching different styles. Donnie Yen portrays Ip Man as a polite man of wealth who is revered for his fighting skills, even though he modestly attempts to keep them hidden. When the masters of other kung fu schools come to spar with him he does it in the privacy of his home, without spectators, in order to avoid embarrassing them. Nevertheless, his wife still thinks he spends too much time fighting and talking about fighting. Ip doesn't work, he doesn't need to.

Ip is drawn out of seclusion when Jin Shanzhao, a rude man from the north, comes to prove that southern Chinese martial arts are inferior by beating up all the city's masters. Ip restores the southern honour by decisively defeating Jin and making him leave the city. Young people flock to Ip, asking him to be their master, but he refuses.

The second half of the film takes place in 1937 after the Japanese army has invaded Foshan. (I believe this is an error, since I have read that Japan didn't conquer Foshan until November 1938). Ip Man's villa has been confiscated to be used by the Japanese high command, and he now lives with his family in poverty. Ip gets a job as a coal miner. The city's commander, General Miura, is a fan of fighting, as well as being a karate black belt himself. Every day he invites Chinese workers to fight in his dojo, promising a bag of rice to anyone who can defeat a Japanese fighter. The general himself is fair and sends victorious Chinese fighters home with their rewards, but his deputy Commander Sato is cruel and sometimes shoots the Chinese. Ip takes revenge by challenging the general himself.

While this film has strong elements of Chinese anti-Japanese nationalism, General Miura isn't shown to be completely bad. In black and white terms, think of him as dark grey. He considers it wrong for victorious Chinese fighters to be shot in his dojo, but he doesn't punish the man who does it, he just shouts at him and says, "Don't do it again". Obviously his opinion is that a bad Japanese man is worth more than a good Chinese man.

This is a spectacular film, establishing Donnie Yen as a master of martial arts. Let's wait till tomorrow and see if "Grandmaster" has more to offer.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Flowers of War (5 Stars)

This was the second film that I watched in my Chinese film evening last night. It takes place in 1937, 12 years after "Legend of the Fist", and the situation in China has greatly deteriorated. It's a sadly underrated classic. It was only shown in a small number of cinemas in the UK and America, despite starring Christian Bale, who was one of Hollywood's biggest stars at the time after appearing in "The Dark Knight". I'm not sure what the problem was. Maybe the Anglo-American film studios didn't know what to make of it. It doesn't fit the pattern of the usual Chinese films shown in the West, i.e. martial arts epics. It's a dirty, gritty war film, which doesn't pull any punches in showing the horrors of war.

Maybe another problem is the Japanese lobby in the West. In the film the Japanese are portrayed as absolute monsters with no redeeming qualities. This was the reality of the 1937 "Rape of Nanking", as it is known today, but it's not something people like to talk about. After all, Japan is now a democratic ally of the West, whereas China is a single-party socialist state with a history of human rights violations. (The Chinese government doesn't like to be called Communist, but that's what it really is).

The film has also been criticised for focusing on the plight of the schoolgirls in the convent, rather than the war itself. This is deliberate, and for me it's what gives the film its character. It's a story of redemption and salvation. It's often said that war brings out the worst in people, but this film shows that it can also bring out the best. A godless undertaker can rise to selfless deeds of heroism. Vain prostitutes can give their lives to save others. The film is deeply moving, and several of us had moist eyes when the final credits rolled.

Legend of the Fist (5 Stars)

Yesterday evening I hosted a film meeting in my home, to watch two Chinese films back to back. The film group has had home film meetings like this before, but this was the first one that took place in my house. The first of many, I hope. It's good to watch films in the cinema, but it's also good to watch them with friends at home. I already have some ideas for other theme nights, always two films at a time.

The theme for last night was two Chinese films set in modern times, i.e. they both take place in the 20th Century. They're both films that I watched last month. That's no coincidence. I was already planning the film night, and I wanted to watch the films again to see if they were suitable.

"Legend of the Fist" is a masterpiece. It gets better every time I watch it. Chen Zhen, already known as the character played by Bruce Lee in "Fist of Fury", is now a superhero with s secret identity, living in Shanghai in 1925. Actually he has two secret identities. During the daytime he poses as Qi Tianyuan, his friend who died in 1917 in France. At night he goes onto the streets as the Masked Avenger, opposing the Japanese tyrants who are in control of Shanghai.

It would have been good to see the Masked Avenger have spectacular successes, but that wasn't possible. The only director who rewrites history is Quentin Tarantino. Even though Chen Zhen is a fictional character, the events surrounding the story are true. Japan had been occupying parts of China since 1895, and the 1920's were the time when they were slowly increasing their control of China. The Masked Avenger wasn't able to drive the Japanese army out of Shanghai, however much we would like to have seen him do it.

The martial arts sequences are stunning. Donnie Yen is a true action hero, probably more spectacular than Jet Li. In a comic book forum I posted a suggestion for Donnie Yen to be cast as Wong in the upcoming Doctor Strange film. In the comics Wong is a background character, but a major action star like Donnie Yen could upgrade him for the 21st Century.

Film fans Zoe, Annie and Kit... with Buster.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Paddington (3 Stars)

This is a live action film based on the stories of Paddington Bear, who first appeared in a children's novel by Michael Bond in 1958. There have been three television series featuring Paddington, in 1975, 1989 and 2008, but this is his first appearance on the big screen. It's fortunate that we've waited so long, because the state of computer animation is finally good enough for a miniature bear to look realistic.

The film begins with Montgomery Clyde, an English explorer, visiting the "darkest jungles of Peru". He discovers intelligent bears, that he teaches how to speak English. He also teaches them English culture, including the love of marmalade.

50 years later a young bear decides to travel to England to see the wonderful country that his aunt and uncle have talked about. He arrives at Paddington Train Station and meets the Brown family. The Browns can't pronounce his name, so they call him Paddington. Things aren't as perfect in England as expected. Paddington is hunted by Millicent, an evil taxidermist who wants to stuff him. That's such a strange concept for an arch-enemy that I'd be tempted to ridicule it, except that Millicent is played by Nicole Kidman, who looks bizarrely sexy in her blond wig.

I was rather surprised to see Peter Capaldi. I hadn't heard he was in the film, and I almost jumped out of my chair when he first appeared on screen in a phone box. That was a nice touch.

As a children's film, I couldn't really relate to it. But take your kids to the cinema with you, I'm sure they'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Ninth Gate (5 Stars)

This film, directed by Roman Polanski, is one of my favourite films. When I saw it in the cinema in 2000 it wasn't the first film that I had seen starring Johnny Depp, but it was the film that made me appreciate him. It immediately made Johnny Depp my favourite actor. Unfortunately, I no longer have this opinion. He's done too many long-haired comedy roles for me to take him seriously as an actor any more, sometimes as pirates, sometimes as native Americans. Even his recent serious roles, such as in "Transcendence", aren't as good as in his older films.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an unscrupulous New York book trader who is hired to check the authenticity of a rare book, "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows", written by Aristide Torchia in 1666. It is supposedly a book that contains information on how to summon the Devil in person. Only three copies are still in existence. The wealthy collector Boris Balkan gives Dean one of the copies and hires him to travel to France and Portugal to compare it with the other two copies. As Dean investigates he finds out that each of the three copies has variations in the engravings. There are genuine versions, signed LCF, and altered versions signed AT.

Even though I've watched the film many times already, there were certain things that I've never understood until now. Today I didn't just watch the film. I listened to Roman Polanski's commentary for the the first time, and after that I read several interpretations of the film that I found online. Overall, Polanski's commentary wasn't very helpful in understanding the film. Mostly he gave anecdotes about the way he made the film. For instance, he said that whenever there's a close-up of Dean Corso's hands he didn't use Johnny Depp's hands, he used a stand-in. Unfortunately he failed to say why. Are Johnny's hands so ugly?

One of the things that I never understood about the film is the identity of the unnamed mystery woman who follows Dean wherever he goes. We first see her when Boris Balkan is holding a lecture, in which he says, "A witch is a person who, though cognisant of the laws of God, endeavours to act through the medium of a pact with the Devil". The camera focuses on her while these words are spoken, suggesting that she is a witch, but as the film progresses it becomes obvious that this isn't the case. Later in the film she teases Dean when he tries to find out who she is. When he asks if she's a student she first says Yes, but then later says that she's only a "sort of" student. Later still, after she saves his life he calls her his guardian angel, which amuses her, but she agrees.

Obviously Roman Polanski knew that this might not be obvious to the viewers, so this provokes him to make his most direct statements about the film's meaning:
"For those who don't get it, I would like to say a few words about the character of the girl in the film, who clearly represents the Devil. Even if it's not the Devil himself, she's at least his messenger, but she can be interpreted as the Devil, who takes an appearance more suitable for the work he has to do".
This ended my thoughts on the subject, until I read an online review of the film. (I read several reviews, but this one is the best). "The Ninth Gate" is based on a novel called "The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Polanski says of the book that it's too complicated, with interlocking plots, so the screenplay greatly simplifies it. That's acceptable. However, the reviewer has also read the book, and he tells us that in the novel the girl is very clear about who she is. She tells Dean that she was one of the angels who took Lucifer's side when he rebelled against God, but she now stands alone. This actually makes more sense, even in the film itself. She's a free agent who is sympathetic towards the Devil, but is prepared to make her own choices.

The other thing that I didn't understand was the film's ending. I thought it was leaving things open, not telling us how Dean's quest would end. The very opposite is the case. The final scene is Dean's enlightenment. I mean "enlightenment" in a literal way. Lucifer is presented as the light carrier, and in the final scene the ninth gate opens so that Dean can walk into the light.

I don't want to discuss the whole plot of the film, and I certainly don't want to repeat everything I read in Michael Howard's review, which I mentioned above. Let me just say a few things.

Summoning the Devil sounds like a person wants to follow a path of evil. That isn't the way the Devil is presented in the film. The Devil is Lucifer, the light carrier, who wants to give people the knowledge that God is denying them. In the film the reason for Boris Balkan's downfall is that he searches for power, not knowledge.

In Genesis 2:16 God tells Adam and Eve, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die".

The Devil, in the form of a serpent, contradicts this in Genesis 3:4, "You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil".

This was the first time that newly created man had to make a choice. God said one thing, the serpent said another. Who should he believe? He chose to believe the serpent. But who was telling the truth, God or the serpent? First of all, we have only one side of the story in front of us. The Bible is God's Book, i.e. it tells us what God wants us to know. If the Devil had written a book we could put the stories side by side and make a more objective judgement. But since I only have one book in front of me I'll base my judgement on that.

Let's analyse the serpent's words. He said that Adam and Eve would not die after eating the fruit. This was incorrect. Adam died 930 years later. Was the serpent lying? Maybe, maybe not. It could just be that the serpent didn't know that eating the fruit would lead to death. After all, it was God who created man, not the serpent.

Going on to what he said next, the serpent was correct. Adam and Eve's eyes were really opened after eating the fruit. They knew the difference between good and evil, like God, and the first thing that their newborn conscience told them was that nudity was wrong. They quickly covered themselves with fig leaves, but even that wasn't enough. When they saw God walking in the garden they still felt naked and hid from him. It's rather puzzling to me why nudity should be described as evil, but let's take the story at face value. The serpent said that eating the fruit would open man's eyes, and he was right.

There's still something wrong with the story though. If you ask a typical semi-religious person today what God wants from us he would say something like, "God tells us what's right and wrong and wants us to do what's good". But that's not the lesson of Genesis 2 and 3. The serpent wanted man to know what is good and evil. God wanted man to be innocent and do whatever he wanted, not asking questions of morality. God wanted man to be naked, the serpent wanted man to see that nudity is wrong. But God accepts man's new knowledge. God gave Adam and Eve clothing made of skin, which probably meant killing an animal to provide for them. He also barred access to the tree of life. "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22). This tree had been previously allowed. Man's biggest mistake in the Garden of Eden wasn't eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was that he didn't eat the fruit of the tree of life first.

The story told in Genesis 2 and 3 shows that the Devil wanted to enlighten man, whereas God wanted man to remain ignorant. If that is still the case today it's understandable that enlightened man doesn't want to follow God.

Of course, the Devil is accused of lying throughout the rest of the Bible. For instance, in John 8:44 Jesus says of the Devil, "There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies". Nevertheless, some might choose to follow the Devil, despite being cognisant of the laws of God. That's something that we can decide with our own free will. But one thing is for certain: if you choose to follow the Devil it can result in negative consequences, because God is the stronger of the two.

Here are the engravings of the nine gates placed in their correct order (1-4-3-6-7-5-8-2-9). For these pictures I had to rely on images I found published on the Internet. Not all of the images below are the genuine LCF versions; some are the altered AT versions. If you look at the pictures carefully you can find the signatures to tell them apart.

In picture 3 there should be an arrow pointing upwards in the quiver.
In picture 6 the man should be hanging from the other leg.
In picture 8 the man with the club should have a halo.
The genuine version of picture 9 is shown in the screenshot at the beginning of this post.

1. To travel in silence
4. by a long and circuitous route,
3. to brave the arrows of misfortune,
6. to fear neither noose nor fire,
7. to play the greatest of all games
5. and win, forgoing no expense
8. is to walk the vicissitudes of fate
2. and gain at last the key
9. that will unlock the ninth gate.

This is what I didn't properly understand while watching the film in the past. The nine gates are steps that have to be followed to reach the goal, full enlightenment. Boris Balkan tried and failed, due to the ninth engraving being a forgery. Dean Corso succeeded, with the help of the green-eyed girl.