Movie Review – M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly (1993)
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by David Cronenberg

In 1986, France was caught up in a scandal involving one of their diplomats in China. Bernard Boursicot has been engaged in an affair with Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu. Shi was a male singer who performed primarily in female roles, and Boursicot insisted that he believed Shi was a woman the whole time. This seems incredulous as both men admitted to having sex together numerous times. Furthermore, Boursicot claimed that Shi could retract his testicles and shape his genitals to resemble female anatomy. However, the French diplomat engaged in same-sex intercourse while in boarding school as a teenager. Only after graduation did Boursicot choose to be with women, as he claimed he thought homosexuality was a rite of passage among the youths at his school.

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Patron Pick – Eternal Summer

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

Eternal Summer (2006)
Written by Leste Chen
Directed by Hsu Cheng-ping

I know this is likely several people’s favorite movie, if not that, at least something they watched as a teenager in the mid/late-2000s, and it shaped them in some way. However, this soap operatic melodrama is so corny. It’s harmless but not close to how real life and relationships play out. Oozing with broody teen angst and wallowing in the drama, Eternal Summer was certainly not a movie made for someone like me. That’s fine, but if this is a picture you enjoy, you probably won’t enjoy my review because I did not like this movie.

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Movie Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019)
Written & Directed by Bi Gan

There are two starkly separated halves to this film. The first half is nothing too remarkable, some beautiful cinematography and a noir story that will feel very familiar, no real surprises. The second half is a shock; the visuals are the focus, yet somehow they still keep the narrative going. Bi Gan takes some significant risks in this latter section, banking his entire film on what could easily have just been a gimmick. Instead, he turns this into a remarkable feat, something rarely attempted in filmmaking, but Bi Gan sticks the landing.

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Movie Review – An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still (2019)
Written & Directed by Hu Bo

For four hours, we follow a quartet of people through the bleak, washed-out industrial landscape of northern China. Their stories are not exclusively experienced by the Chinese people but are suffering humanity feels across the globe, particularly those living in the husk of communities hollowed out of unfeeling powers that exist in an abstraction that leads to ennui. How can you do anything about inter-generational pain that comes from a source so distant and seems so endless? This is what our four protagonists struggle with as their lives intersect and converge.

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Movie Review – Ash is Purest White

Ash is Purest White (2018)
Written & Directed by Zhangke Jia

To have a love that is so devoted, you would give up your freedom for your partner to be free is rare. Qiao has that love for Bin, her boyfriend, and the organized crime boss of rural Datong, a small industrial town in northern China. Qiao takes full advantage of her place of power, thoroughly enjoying the nightlife of Datong and making sure people know who her man is. It becomes clear there is another faction making a move, and Qiao tries to persuade Bin to leave this place and start over somewhere with more opportunity. They don’t get a chance as one night their car is surrounded by motorcyclists out to kill Bin.

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Movie Review – The Farewell

The Farewell (2019)
Written & Directed by Lulu Wang

In 2013, Lulu Wang found out her grandmother was dying of cancer. Lulu knew this, but her grandmother did not. Wang’s parents, following a Chinese tradition, decided to refrain from telling the matriarch this until she was on her deathbed in order not to drive her into depression and ruin her otherwise upbeat demeanor. Finding this decision to be downright bizarre, Lulu conferred with her American friends and they assured her this was not the norm in the West. The experience caused Wang to contemplate her status as both a Chinese and American person, reflecting on her transition as an immigrant and return to mainland China. Out of this came a story for This American Life and now a feature film.

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Asian Cinema Month – Yi Yi

Yi Yi (2000, dir. Edward Yang)
Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen

The one thing all families have in common is that they are complex beyond belief and filled with emotional nuance. This millennial picture focused around a typical middle class family in Taipei is able to explore the fragmented lives of the individuals without resorting to clichéd dysfunction. The drama is kept moderate yet the film is never too slow to disengage the audience. If you are of the mind to enjoy explosive Michael Bay-esque movies than this may not be the best bet for you at the moment. If instead you want to patiently follow the rise and fall of a quiet family then you are in for something very fascinating.

The film opens on the wedding of NJ’s brother-in-law. NJ is the patriarch of the central family in the film and he is a very patient and loving father. His son, Yang wants McDonald’s rather than the food being served at the reception and NJ submits to the child. On their way back to the party, NJ runs into his college sweetheart at the same hotel for a business meeting. Something appears to be rekindled between the two. NJ’s mother-in-law ends up in a coma shortly after the wedding and his wife becomes emotionally broken. The burden of tending the household falls on their teenage daughter, Ting. Ting has become friends with the new neighbor’s daughter and is caught in a high school love triangle with the girl’s boyfriend. Yang is constantly picked on by an older girl at his school and become very reclusive and obsessed with taking photos of mundane things.

The hits the three hour mark and is as epic as it is subtle and contemplative. There’s no sweeping score or dramatic crescendos. It’s simply life being played out and framed as if the mundane is just as epic as mythical heroes’ journies. The structure of the film is that of an entire human existence. We open on a wedding, end on a funeral, and in between there is love, heartbreak, tragedy, murder, people sharing good times over a warm meal, people feeling alienated, attempted suicide. But the picture never feels over the top or campy. The tone is kept tempered so this feels like dipping your hand in vat of pure distilled humanity.

I was made to think of Hollywood attempts at family dramas and how I can never fully engage with those characters because the script is forced to follow a 90 minute template. Yes, three hours is a long time for a film of this nature, but it is absolutely essential. And even three hours isn’t long enough to know these characters. No one is overly dramatic despite the situations they are put in. NJ is tempted with getting back together with his lost love and the outcome is left ambiguous. NJ does business with a Japanese video game developer during the film, Ota, who is one of the most intriguing characters in the film. He feels very real, a businessman who didn’t get to where he was because he was ruthless, but because he recognized the need of every person to be inspired by something.

This has to be one of the most positive, yet real films about people I have ever seen. It will leave you asking a lot of questions about our families, about the distance we have from them, and how large the scope of our lives truly is.

Asian Cinema Month – Eat Drink Man Woman

All this month, in honor of Asian Heritage Month, I will be looking at some major films from the contemporary Asian cinema canon. While the term “Asia” can refer to areas as diverse as the Middle East, India/Pakistan, and the South Pacific, I will be focusing mainly on films out of China, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. In the future I definitely plan on having a month devoted to Middle Eastern cinema….maybe not so much India, just not a fan of their pictures, too many crazy musicals.

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, dir. Ang Lee)
Starring Sihung Lung, Kuei-Yei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang

Mealtime is a proven way of bonding with others. Whether its over a campfire, at a booth in a diner, or around the family dinner table, the act of breaking bread with others unites people in a very beautiful way. Even many animals hunt and dine together in packs, with somewhat of an understanding of the bonding that occurs when they do. Ang Lee presents the story of how food and the act of eating cobbles together a group of disparate people into a family.

The film is set in Taipei, Taiwan and focuses on Chu, the partiarch of a family made up of three daughters. Chu’s wife died years earlier and now his three daughters live at home with him, each feeling the burden of watching after their obstinate and independent father. Every Sunday, Chu prepares a lavish feast of traditional Chinese cuisine, much more than enough for this small group. Chu has also unofficially adopted his middle daughter’s old schoolmate and her daughter. As the story progresses, his three daughters begin to find men with whom they contemplate leaving home for. In many ways, this story is a variation of Fiddler on the Roof, very much about family and tradition.

I really liked this film, much more than I anticipated. I’ve been sort of back and forth with Ang Lee (didn’t care for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but love Brokeback Mountain) so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this picture. I think Lee is best when he is dealing with small, character driven stories. The family surrounding Chu are very complex and real. There are no easy solutions and no acts of serendipity. The high drama you would expect from a Hollywood version of this tale is non-existent, yet there are emotional stakes. Chu has lost his sense of taste and so the act of preparing this meal has a deeper meaning to it. The eldest daughter is also a wonderful chef, but no thanks to Chu. He makes sure the kitchen is off limits to his children, so she learned from Chu’s best friend and fellow chef when she was a child.

The way Lee films the cooking sequences is an example of a director at their peak. Everything about the methodical ways Chu prepares his dishes and the care he puts into them is absolutely apparent. The flavor of the dishes comes through the screen somehow and you can feel the steam coming off the dumplings and rich flavor of the stews and steamed fish. If you were putting together a list of films about food, this one definitely make it high on the list.

There honestly wasn’t much about this film I didn’t enjoy. It’s a little over two hours, yet I was so engaged by it I never felt like checking the timecode to see how much was left. I was completely absorbed in the world and especially the characters Lee was presenting. While he has gone on to make bigger budget films, my hope is that Lee can always remain close to his early roots, making films that found their wonder in people, rather than effects.