Category: China


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It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

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I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

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The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

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(Quick side note. Sorry for the long hiatuses between reviews. I had three exams last week and I worked every day of the week but Monday and Wednesday. I’m pretty sure my last review went up Tuesday. You get the picture. I have a lot more free time this week. So expect me to do some catching up. I also have a review to put up for Uncharted 3 so that should be fun. Also, lo and behold, my hot streak of really good films finally came to an end on the film I actually thought I’d enjoy the most out of the movies I was sent.)

How do we cover historical travesties committed by a group of people in the modern day without making a film that comes off as racist? Or is the simple truth that presenting historical facts about something that really happened can be construed as racist a sign of our over-sensitive times? You can’t make a movie about the Holocaust where Germany isn’t going to come off in a bad light, but Schindler’s List was never accused of being anti-the German people. Hotel Rwanda was a brutal look at the Rwandan genocide, but it too hasn’t been accused of being racist against the African people. The “Rape of Nanking” is one of history’s most infamous war crimes, but its presentation in The Flowers of War is so gung-ho in its presentation that one would expect this from a 1950s propaganda film right after the war, not a modern examination of one of the most horrific city sieges of all time.

First things first though, some historical context for those unfamiliar with their Sino-Japanese relations circa World War II. Although the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Europe get most of the attention, Stalinist Russia and Imperial Japan committed their own fair share of horrors. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10 million of his own people, and when the Japanese invaded China, they employed a scorched Earth strategy that would have disgusted William Tecumseh Sherman. Their actions in the Nanking Massacre were especially atrocious as the Japanese army murdered over 300,000 civilians after the Chinese army had already fled and engaged in barbaric acts of rape and pillaging. To this day, the actions of the Japanese military in Nanking (and the rest of China) are a point of extreme tension between the two most powerful Asiatic nations.

The Flowers of War doesn’t falter because it portrays what actually happened in Nanking during that dark page in world history. It falters because of its almost messianic portrayal of the Chinese people struggling to survive against the Japanese who are worse than demonic in this film with absolutely nothing in the way of redeeming qualities. If you can imagine every single war film cliche in terms of cinematography (not necessarily plot which is where the film finds its successes), you have an idea of how The Flowers of War is shot. Gratuitous use of slo-motion? Check. Admittedly gorgeous but often inappropriate lighting? Check. An omnipresent swelling score that would make John Williams proud? Check. Infantrymen capable of remarkable/impossible feats of markmanship? Check. When the film is focused on the battle for the city, it’s hard to find an original storytelling bone in the movie’s body, and the movie is guilty of the most unforgivable war film faux pas of all. It attempts to beautify the horrific.

Thankfully though, that’s not the main story of the film. John Miller (Christian Bale) is an American mortician living in China in 1937 as the Japanese invade the city of Nanking. A drunkard and a selfish louse, Miller takes a job during the invasion itself to bury the Father of a local Catholic cathedral. However, by the time he arrives, the Father has been destroyed by a mortar shell, and Miller is left to look after a group of 12 year old girls that are students at the convent. When a group of local prostitutes show up looking for refuge, John’s initial response is to just look out for himself, but after seeing the Japanese army’s barbarism (which includes attempted rapes of the 12 year old girls), Miller pretends to be the priest of the parish and takes actions to get the little girls and prostitutes to safety away from Nanking.

Usually Christian Bale is one of the better actors of his generation (one need only go back as early as Empire of the Sun to see his talents as a child and then move up to The Fighter or American Psycho for his adult talents), but I wasn’t impressed with his performance in this role. At times you saw hints of the manic charm and explosive energy that is always resting right below the surface of Bale’s otherwise calm demeanor, but a lot of the time I felt as if he was just dialing his performance in. It didn’t help that the dialogue he was reading often felt stiff and unnatural. Chinese actress Ni Ni was more charming as the madam of the group of prostitutes, but even her performance required her to ratchet up the melodrama in a film that was already overflowing with cliche emotion.

Credit must be given for the film’s ability to generate a visceral emotional reaction when it called for it though. Like any film about genocide or mass murder, The Flowers of War is incredibly difficult to watch. I’m not sure how much credit can be given to the film or the filmmakers there though. The subject matter itself is is innately horrifying to anyone who has anything remotely resembling a conscience. There were many moments in the film where I was awestruck with the horror these young girls were facing and reminded yet again of the terrible atrocities that have been committed just in the last 100 years alone. The film does not shy away from graphic depictions of the deaths and murder of soldiers or civilians, and for the faint of heart, it may be too much to take in.

Usually, I’m all about films that embrace cinematographic beauty. A quick scan of the rare films to receive an “A+” on here will show that most of them are visual wonders as much as storytelling wonders. However, there’s a time and place for that kind of poetic flourish, and a war film isn’t it. Although the film takes great pains to set up a dichotomy between the quiet beauty of the small moments with the brutal horror of the wartime realities, it has an unfortunate tendency to blur those lines in ways that I would find highly offensive if I were Chinese and from Nanking. Although maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about since this was one of the biggest films to come out of China last year.

My dad really enjoyed this film, and his recommendation was the reason that I watched it (although I just discovered it was actually on my list [in the 1000’s range order wise] because it was nominated for a Golden Globe). So, perhaps I’m just yet again too cynical and jaded to enjoy this melodramatic of a film. We had similarly differing opinions about the quality of War Horse (which I found to be an overbearing bore but he loved. We both sobbed when watched it though). So, perhaps here’s the best summation of the film. If you’re a jaded, cynical type like myelf, go ahead and give The Flowers of War a pass. But if you’re still capable of genuine and raw emotion, you may find more here to love than I.

Final Score: C+

One of my great joys in life is reading a good book. Ever since I was a child and my dad read a couple of pages of The Hobbit to me every night, there has been something just magical about being able to escape into a new world created by someone else, to get lost in their words and descriptions and imaginations. It’s so hard for me to imagine a world where all of the great books have been burned and the only ones that I can read have been selected for me by the government. The joy of literature and a discovering a great writer’s words in a world where it is forbidden is one of the major themes in the beautiful and under-stated 2002 drama, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The movie is about two best friends in 1971, Luo and Ma, who have been sent to a remote village in the mountains of China to be “re-educated”, that is to say to be purged of any aspects of their life that go against Maoist doctrine. They have been sent there because their family are bourgeois. Luo and Ma know how to read, play foreign musical instruments, and know of far-away lands. In the village, they are forced to do constant and demeaning physical labor so that they learn what it means to be a “revolutionary peasant”. While in the town, they meet a local girl who is only ever called the “Little Seamstress” in the film that both boys fall in love with. They compete with each other for the girl’s affection. The biggest way that they get themselves into her life is by showing her a secret stash of forbidden books that they stole from another boy in the town. Through the forbidden works of foreigners, the boys and the girl learn of a world far removed from their little village in the mountains.

The film was beautifully shot on location and like the last film I reviewed, Black Robe, the scenery is breath-taking. The exotic mountain-side of China is a beautiful and haunting place and much of the beauty and power of the film comes from an interplay between the grand majesty of their surroundings compared against the tragic circumstances of their politics. The performances of the three leads are spot on as well. Their chemistry as a group was fantastic and even while competing for the love of the Little Seamstress, the bonds of their friendship seemed unbreakable thanks to the acting chops of the stars. Not to mention that there were countless little beautiful little scenes that kept you locked in the story of the film such as Luo and Ma narrating a film they saw in town to the villagers to telling the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to a local tailor.

The movie wasn’t perfect. There were pacing problems every now and then. And the camera work was spotty. The picture often looked blurry and out of focus. But, at the end of the day, this was a beautiful love story and look at the history of China’s Cultural Revolution through the eyes of three smart, young people. If you can handle subtitles and under-stated drama, you should give this one a go.

Final Score: B+