Is it possible that Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman have died on the same day? It’s going to be a long week of sleepless nights for film critics expected to generate posthumous appreciation essays.
I can’t begin to express my admiration for either of these two titans. When I was in college and beginning to discover movies as an art form, I wrote earnest, rapturous, and no doubt ridiculous term papers on them both. These years later I still need to watch L’Avventura or The Seventh Seal from time to time, particularly when my head gets too full of all the wonderful kandy-kolored klaptrap that passes for culture these days and I need the big black and white broom of an austere auteur to sweep me clean. And if you say that makes me pretentious, I say that makes you a sucker.
As always, it’s mainly fun because you can tell how much fun the actors are having, getting a chance to play movie stars instead of having to be movie stars. The story of this one is duller than the first two, but who cares. No Julia Roberts or Catherine Zeta-Jones, but Ellen Barkin is twice as good as both of them put together. Great to see her back in action now that she’s out from under ogre Ron Perelman.
My favorite movies satisfy both my dumb antediluvian need for a dramatic plot and my higher instincts’ desire for something to think about that exceeds mere plot, and this does the trick. It’s a spy thriller, based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, and performs its entertainment function very well. But Chris Cooper’s excellent performance as the twisted Hanssen takes the project to another level, giving us cause to think about all sorts of thorny conflicts: desire vs. self-control, patriotism vs. nationalism, loyalty vs. fealty, and so forth. Hanssen was (probably is) insane or evil or both, of course, and a documentary-type film would have led inevitably to that one-dimensional conclusion. Cooper, though, makes a morality tale Hanssen’s internal conflicts, putting me in mind of Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory: another devoted but deluded Catholic trying to do the right thing but convinced he can’t and not sure what the right thing is anyway.
A mock-memoir written in first person, narrated by a Chinese veteran of the Korean War. Yu Yuan was a mild-mannered, slightly intellectual officer in the Red Army. Captured shortly after his deployment, he spends the war in various American prison camps, and here tells the story of the depredations he witnessed and experienced while incarcerated, sometimes at the hands of his captors but just as often as a result of the paranoia and misapplied zealousness of his own comrades.
That’s all well and good, but unfortunately the novel is a textbook example of the imitative fallacy. Ha Jin is too successful in his effort to create a authentically timid, awkward, stilted, fussy, frightened character to serve as his narrator. As a result, the writing here is crushingly dull. I fully believe that Yu Yuan would express himself this dully — “Often tired of news articles, I craved a good book, a long novel or biography. This mental deprivation was more painful to me than hunger.” — but the fact of the voice’s believability doesn’t make it any less boring.
There are other issues. Of particular interest to me, since it’s a problem I have struggled with myself, are Ha Jin’s attempts to integrate documentary information into the fabric of his fiction. By and large, War Trash is very successful in this regard, thanks to the vehicle of the first-person narrator who personally witnessed all the events recounted. Sometimes, though, Yu Yuan’s descriptions and accounts smell suspiciously of the library. A small example. Describing a prisoner who makes musical instruments, Yu Yuan mentions “an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin,” and immediately the narrative spell is broken, because Yu Yuan would no more say that than I would say “baseball, an American team sport.”
Fascinating subject, dramatic events, compelling characters, boring book.
Wow. By contemporary action-movie standards, this is practically a Disney flick. I’d always assumed this was a revenge-fantasy bloodbath, and so was surprised to find that it actually takes an hour and a half to piss Mel Gibson off, and then he gets only fifteen minutes to hunt down the bad guys. And do you know what he does when he finds them? He runs four of them off the road into a river, shoots one in self-defense as the guy’s about to run him over, and watches as another is run over by a truck. It’s all so quaint and delicate, as if the filmmakers finally couldn’t stomach the idea of a law enforcement officer committing murder, even if it’s to revenge the horrible deaths of his best friend, wife, and child. Only in the execution of the very last thug is there a hint of madness, and that happens off-screen. We’ve come a long way, baby. Here in the 21st century, this flick would make even a toddler yawn.
Along with its charming scruples, the movie also provides pleasure on the technical level as a masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking. You can just tell that all the interiors were done at someone’s mom’s house, and the exteriors off in such remote locations that there was no need to worry about a car, plane, dog, or donkey showing up to mosey through and wreck the shot.
The plot is Shakespearean, involving dynastic succession, palace intrigues, secret poisons, mistaken identities, half-brothers pitted against each other and a domineering yet sympathetic father, etc. The dialog, however, at least in translation, is as far from Shakespeare as you can get. No one speaks more than two or three sentences at a time, and they’re usually along the lines of “Honored mother, I bow before you” or “I demand that you embrace the principle of filial piety.” Pretty stiff stuff.
But who cares about the dialogue! It’s an action picture like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, right? Well, no, it isn’t. There are a couple of fight scenes, but most of the visual pleasure here has to do with watching Li Gong get dressed, or watching eleven billion servants making lunch in a kitchen the size of the Astrodome. (It seems like a rule in this movie that there are either fewer than five or more than 100 people in the frame at any one time.)
Pretty picture. Ridiculous on the small screen at home. Should have gone out when it came out. Or not really.