Millennial Traversals – Foreign Film Reviews II (Exertions)

FORM AND FUNCTION

Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck)
Directed by Mike Newell
Written by David Field

Full Metal Jacket
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford

The beauty of a work inevitably raises the issue of the purpose of the effort expended in attaining it: the more powerful the result, the greater the call for a purpose. If Einstein had handed over his theory of relativity to artists, the nuclear clouds they would have created would still give rise to the military-industrial complexes responsible for the arms race that threatens the very existence of life at present. The sheer beauty of nuclear explosions would have quickly become irrelevant. Such basic insights into the irony of modern existence aren’t the concerns of the latest no-nukes film, Silent Voice. The movie follows the liberal bent of politicized Hollywood filmmaking that once gave us daring but ultimately unbearable moralist pieces like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and the Stanley Kramer titles of the 1950s. The late ’70s saw a resurgence of committed films like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Being There (1978 and ’79 resp.) and Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), with another but more shrill no-nukes effort, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome (1979).

The trouble with too politically committed approaches to filmmaking is that the medium itself lies in danger of being regarded as not only divorced from, but even secondary to, the statement being made. Film therewith becomes a medium for essentially social-scientific discourses, where the audience is expected to respond according to the requirements of mass education – hence the reduction of narratives to “scientific” principles that would yield results according to the greatest common factors. Silent Voice observes this tradition of sincere exploitation for political purposes. The sincerity is exuded right from frame one, but the exploitation becomes apparent only to those who’ve learned to love film experience for its own sake. There’s no doubt in the minds of the filmmakers as to who the good types and the bad types are. To make sure that the arguments against nuclear disarmanent get minimal airing, initially neutral elements like the lead character’s father and the President of the United States, you better believe it, get converted to the cause.

I object to the treatment not because I disagree with the movement against nuclear weapons. It’s just that film here is presented as an orchestration of disparate technical elements, and is thereby served with utmost competence. These days it’s still surprising to realize that even in the most technologically advanced circles the actual dramatic potential of film cannot be treated with deference, much less appreciated for what it can achieve. The people you find in Silent Voice aren’t made to act as individuals; they’re all subject to forces beyond them, and so the bravery of the heroes and the villainy of the baddies get unintentionally exonerated in the end.

Aside from the obvious convenience this provides of doing away with intelligient characterization, the necessity of raising the obvious philosophical question is dimissed in favor of a happy ending: once all those warheads are dismantled, what’s to keep people of the same persuasion that gave rise to the military-industrial complex from going it on their own, under wraps if necessary? The pre-nuclear age of innocence has been lost forever, but in Silent Voice we are asked to believe that we could go back to it by simply feeling for it. The intention may be laudable, but the impracticality of it all may ultimately prove dangerous for dreamers, whichever side of the camera they may find themselves straddling.

The most effective no-nukes movie is still the one that ends with the world getting blown up, with a strong dose of black humor for the faint of heart and stylistic experimentation for the non-believers in the capabilities of film, to make the journey to the end easier to bear. The same brilliance that informed the said work, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), can still be gleaned from the same director’s latest output, Full Metal Jacket. Unfortunately Stanley Kubrick manages to sustain this milieu-documentation approach for the extended expository portion of his film, then gives out to universalized points about the horrors of war that pale beside the older film’s comparatively easy achievements in story and character construction. I suspect that adaptational problems (the present movie’s based on one of the scriptwriters’ novel) had much to do with the turnout of what could have been the most innovative war movie yet.

Come to think of it, discourses on the failed American involvement in the Viet Nam conflict were made possible through the same wave of committed filmmaking mentioned earlier. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) may be considered the Godfather of them all, with Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) as something of a fairy godmother. (Full Metal Jacket could then be the love child that suffered disorder and early sorrow.) I guess filmmakers intending to make the definitive movie statement on war will have to contend with the propensity of cinema to work on surfaces – faces, bodies, objects, landscapes, etc. – and that war gives the impression of these surfaces opening up, but only literally and not necessarily in essence.

Meaning: in war someone or something may get blown up, but this doesn’t always provide an enduring truth except in the manner that everyone has become familiar with already. While watching Full Metal Jacket I acquired what I thought was a fanciful notion – why limit ourselves to treating war as a real event? The raw material will suffice to fulfill the requisites of realism, but what’s to stop an inspired film creator from breaking up the space-time continuum that’s getting to be a scourge in imaginative presentations? Then I suddenly recalled having seen Les belles de nuit, a fairly old (1952) film by Rene Clair, in which some characters are endowed with the supernatural ability to move continually through time and space. The suspension of disbelief was made possible through the use of charming humor and song, but along the way some points about love and power were made.

The moral of it all? Nothing is ever truly new. It’s what we make of things that provide them with the capability for transformation. Would that we manage to realize this principle even in such a mundane activity as film appreciation.

[First published April 6, 1988, in National Midweek]

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LIFE AFTER LIFE

Mississippi Burning
Directed by Alan Parker
Written by Chris Gerolmo

They Live
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Frank Armitage

Mississippi Burning may seem to be a throwback to the heyday of post-World War II Hollywood social realism, which a number of observers tend to hold in a fondness that’s easily dispelled by a casual acquaintance with any of the period’s alleged masterpieces. A second attempt at social realism in the wake of the Viet Nam War was more successful, but by then more advanced formulations had overtaken such well-worm simplifications. The shift was brought about primarily in academic circles, the same community of scholars that attained a measure of prestige and influence with the success of the so-called Hollywood brats (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, et al.) during the ’70s. Briefly put, post-social realist film thinkers figured out, correctly it seems, that the medium possesses a vitality all its own, capable of enhancing or subverting any message according to how it (the medium) is handled.

The implications were quickly put to good use on the other side of the Atlantic, and applied, with much success, by American cinema about a decade after. What the new formulation meant was that politically acute or even radicalized content may be laudable but not enough. Mississippi Burning can be taken as one form of reaction to this challenge. The treatment – period, chronological, tragic in the classical manner – can hardly be called new, although it may have seemed that way when the Greeks first tried it. What’s different in Mississippi Burning is the material, which is actually a re-working of earlier practice.

Racism is one issue that can hardly be contained with the same emotional and intellectual fervor that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela once commanded; in fact the recent internal criticism of Mandela’s wife indicates that the issue of apartheid in modern-day South Africa won’t resolve as neatly as did American civil rights in the ’60s. Mississippi Burning takes stock of a more cynical but still-sincere perspective and transposes it to the earlier era. In the process it takes some liberties with the real-life set-up on which the story is based – one of which, the heroic depiction of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, has been castigated by well-meaning sectors. But viewed within the terms of the film itself, the use of J. Edgar Hoover’s henchmen as god’s gift to African Americans turns out to be consistent with the filmmakers’ heightened sense of paradox.

In fact I was surprised to discover that a more damaging detail – the attribution of black people’s misery to sheer cowardice and ignorance on their part – was let by, apparently because of the casualness of the presentation. All of which builds up to the ultimate contradiction: in the face of the Ku Klux Klan’s decided advantage in its use of strong-arm tactics, the good guys finally agree to wage war on similar terms, and win. Along the way a number of notions cherished by American (and, we can presume, Philippine academic) intelligentsia get demolished like so many scarecrows before the storm: effete city types (FBI agents) hang tough when provoked, simple country folk (Klansmen) display a flair for evil, and for good measure, down-home Christianity (crosses and biblical verses) proves flexible enough to serve in justifying the oppressiveness of an irrational system.

Mississippi Burning acquires its power from making us believe that such a system is being questioned for the first time – and it is, although the movie’s presentation of “the system” is actually closer to the here and now than what its physical and temporal setting might suggest. They Live, on the other hand, deals with what seems to be a future, or at least a situation neither past nor present, in a most engaging science-fictional way. What makes the effort work is precisely its effortlessness, unlike the same director’s other futuristic hit, Escape from New York (1981). Mississippi Burning of course dispenses the very seriousness absent in They Live, but the rationale for the difference lies in what each is trying to convey. Where the former was updating ancient (or at least generation-old, which could sometimes mean the same thing) concepts of justice using ancient (or at least generation-old, etc.) material, They Live does the exact opposite.

This time around a sci-fi scenario (written by the director himself, using a pseudonym) is employed to sound out an anti-totalitarian warning – something social realists could have done given the same fund of insights and technology. Ideological manipulation is ascribed to the machinations of alien life forms, which is all right by mainstream radicals I suppose, given the leeway by which the bogey of imperialism could be conjured, and the irony this presupposes in a country which has come to epitomize such prerogatives of power. What redeems They Live from the crunch of run-of-the-mill futuristic fables is its tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the whole enterprise. “Tongue-in-cheek” would be rather too close for comfort, considering the depiction of the invaders as physically human save for the skin-deep aspect that we tend to take for granted, disparage even.

The irreverence goes beyond epidermal layers though. The hero shacks up in a community whose montage of faces establishes it as international, with delegates from each major race and culture, all sharing the same poverty-stricken status and helping out one another in a spirit that would make the United Nations a billion-dollar superfluity; after the residents are brutally evicted by government personnel, the hero catches on to the obsession of the anti-alien underground movement seeking refuge therein, and our Third-World UN is forthwith forgotten, the remnants transformed into a guerilla army. The villains for their part engage in Big-Brother propaganda, made subliminal so as not to arouse the suspicions of religious fanatics and working-class brutes – as if those types would be perceptive enough and the better-off citizens reluctant to collaborate. As it turns out, the hero, who, er, unearths the deception through the mediation of a magic pair of shades, proves too combative for his own good, while a number of yuppieish earthlings sell out themselves and the world, ostensibly for the thrill of interplanetary travel.

The ultimate cop-out consists of the elimination of all the major characters, protagonists as well as antagonists, in a climax cathartic in many ways, leaving the viewer receptive to anything that should follow – and what does follow is a coda that confirms the put-on behind the foregoing businesses. In a series of parallel developments, the heretofore disguised aliens lose their cover and succeed in scaring most of humanity, which may be the first step in a retaliation of poetic dimensions. The final exposé in the plot comprises a female earthling making the discovery while sexually servicing an alien lover. The notion is at once funny though gross, with more substantial insights brought about by the very fact of its grossness. The masters of our fates may be so loaded that it becomes next-to-impossible to see them for what they are, but certain vital-though-unpleasant truths can still manage to lurk in the detritus of trash sci-fi.

[First published June 21, 1989, in National Midweek]

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…AND THE FIRST SHALL BE THE LAST

The Last Temptation of Christ
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader

If Christ could have seen what his ministry would have led to, he night have become the world’s first existentialist. Much of the worst (aside from the best) aspects of modern civilization are premised on the observance of what is supposedly the definitive compilation of his teachings – the biblical testaments. The irony began as early as Jesus Christ’s own era: before and after the gospels which narrate what is undoubtedly one of the most moving accounts of any historical entity, we find fire-and-brimstone pronouncements alternating with manic-paranoid (and sometimes psychedelic) formulae for “true” salvation. Anne Frank being coopted in the midst of Nazi occupation could serve as a terribly apposite analogy.

Modern times have served to heighten the extent to which people would appropriate nobility of the spirit for purposes of the flesh. The US’s Republican Party ethos thrives on the assertions of the ultra-Christian on the basis of a hierarchy – US citizen first, then male, then white, then wealthy, then heterosexual, and so on down the line, arriving last and least at poor black homosexual Third-World Communist woman, where such wondrous combinations could exist. The Last Temptation of Christ attempts to overturn conservative conventions by presenting Christ as poor, Third-World, possibly Communist, and unconventional in his sexuality, or at least definitely unhomophobic. Historical, including biblical, evidence tends to support these traits, plus one crucial thing left out by central casting – that Christ was in all likelihood dark-skinned.

The expectations that Last Temptation raises place it closer to a skeptic’s speculation on what the historical personage may have actually been, necessarily rejecting the traditional sources. This is where its problems, aesthetic and circumstantial, begin, departing from the usual celebrated censorship controversies regarding works with literary merits. Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Ulysses all rested their cases on the skill by which their respective authors justified the use of then-disallowed language and subject matter. Last Temptation takes the cue from the subject himself by constructing itself as an intense if cryptic reflector – one that throws back on any objector her or his own inability to perceive its affirmation of faith in the Abrahamic deity.

The method is, of course, admirably postmodern: from Christ’s dictum that “no one comes to the father but by me,” the filmmakers create a “me” that’s exclusively an imaginative one – a literary character, in short, who determines his own course of resolving the challenge of giving himself up for the sake of humankind. Nowhere is the fastness of their faith more evident than in the movie’s most controversial (extended) sequence of the hero enjoying a conventional lifestyle, complete with an active-though-legitimate sex life, before dismissing the entire excursion as a fantasy, his last temptation, and returning to the reality of death by crucifixion.

Gifted individuals (real artists especially, I imagine) would agree wholeheartedly with the decision of the Christ character in Last Temptation – that is, better the uncertainty of unconventional choices than the predictability of the normative. But the majority of nominal Christians have not been and can never be as daring, as Christ-like even, as Last Temptation exhorts his followers to be, and it is in this demonstration of the difference between conformity and individuality as an essentially Christian issue that gets the goat of the chosen flock: how can we expect converts to, well, strengthen the church when such an interpretation of Christ posits that they must seek god’s will not in terms of institutional prescriptions but as they believe they are called? This is the very reason why traditional Christianity is based on the life of Christ plus a surfeit of supposedly similarly holy writings that actually serve to temper, and in several instances reverse, the challenge of his example. Witness how as recently as a few years after Christ’s purported ascension, the former Saul of Tarsus, claiming to have been converted, qualifies (though sets aside would be more accurate) his master’s dictum of unconditional love by disparaging in no uncertain terms intellectuals, dark-complexioned folk, women, homosexuals, and a wide spectrum of nonconformists and nonbelievers alike.

Censorships are based on the same perversion of Christ’s offer of salvation through faith: he never wavered in his, but he nevertheless answered all questions and went to the extent of accommodating Thomas. Today’s so-called Christians would have banished such a doubter from the fold if it didn’t seem like such an un-Christianly thing to do, so they perform the next best thing by keeping all possible sources of critical questionings at bay. Unlike its predecessors in literary-censorship cases, the film version of Last Temptation cannot flourish on artistic merits alone. Most of its individual scenes are impressively executed in state-of-the-art-house manner, with attendant emotional content. The entire presentation, though, meanders too much, especially in detailing the hero’s angst and the aforementioned accumulation of a last temptation that doesn’t really turn out that tempting at all in the end. All cards were stacked, too safely it seems, in favor of a Christian, or more appropriately (seeing how Christian could refer as much to a televangelist as to a liberation-theology follower) a Christ-based, faith.

The next step in this Thomasic exercise of creative doubting would be a work – the medium may assume secondary importance, but the more active the more provocative and therefore effective – that dispenses with faith altogether, at least for the duration of its presentation, something like Last Temptation minus the main character’s triumph in the end. This would elevate the test of faith to the individual viewer’s personal capability in the face of a convincing testament to the contrary, and incidentally serve to correctly classify Last Temptation as an independent thinker’s confirmation of belief – in a Christ who, like only the best of us and in another sense like no one else, conquers what no one thought would ever be possible before.

[First published March 14, 1990, in National Midweek]

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SOLDIER BLUES

Casualties of War
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Rabe

American discourses on the Viet Nam War are getting to be as inviting as visits to the dentist: the experience, for all the pain involved, is likely to do you good, but meantime any excuse not to go yet will do. Casualties of War leaves little room for hem-hawing though. The last Brian De Palma release seen locally, The Untouchables (1987), suggested that the master of hysteria was going straight in an impressive manner, and wasn’t David Rabe the playwright who dealt winningly with the issue of Viet Nam when it was still unfashionable to do so? As additional incentive, Sean Penn, considered one of the more promising new American actors, comes in directly from the trauma of celebrity divorce (from Madonna, like golly), so the prospect of watching fireworks going off external and internal fields of battle makes Casualties of War the theaters-of-war project of the decade, pace the disappointment of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the small-scale proportions of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).

A three-way triumph among director, writer, and actor would undoubtedly make Casualties of War the war movie of the 1980s, but even an accomplishment in any single area would place the movie within the same league as the other aforementioned titles, and a few steps behind Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). Worthy company indeed, if imperfect in many respects; as it turns out, Casualties of War comes closer to a particularly (and, I suspect, unnecessarily) painful dental session – and all of a sudden Dressed to Kill (1980) seemed like a genuinely radical alternative: if you have to suffer, better to laugh through it than cry afterward.

The first warning signal about Casualties of War is sounded out by its choice of subject matter: on the way to a field operation some young Yankees abduct a native villager for the purpose of getting their rocks off, then dispatch her when she gets to be too distracting for military convenience, failing to reckon with a do-right comrade who brings them to trial and subsequent justice. The morality angle in this outing proves to be too irresistible, eventually developing into an all-embracing curve that reaches lofty heights at the end, courtesy of a heavenly choir accompanying a breathtaking view of a paradisiac American cityscape.

The expertise behind the project cannot be slighted, an although this doesn’t make it any different from all the other serious Viet Nam movies, the urge to tear out of all the whiny masochism gets tempered by the too-obvious subtext; careful now, this here’s a Serious Social Documentation of an Abiding Universal Concern. When the scoundrels are apportioned their share of comeuppances by a disembodied god-the-fatherly stern voice, I was ready to do penance for not giving in totally to the delicious delirium of Dressed to Kill ten years earlier, although I did manage to enjoy De Palma’s previous treaties on telekinetic nonsense, Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978).

The real problem behind Casualties of War happens to demonstrate how a national malaise has affected cultural expression; no one can stake a claim on any war experience better than the losers themselves, but no American could take such a unique and prominent defeat lightly either. We’re doomed for the moment, of course, to the likes of Casualties of War, unless the Vietnamese begin to regard themselves as losers too, and take to confronting their past with typical Oriental inscrutability that comes across as humor – dark, maybe, but funny nonetheless.

Somewhere in the future lies the prospect of a truly daring treatment of the Viet Nam Cold War fiasco, and I suppose a lot of intelligent American couch potatoes are hoping that their native talent for musicals could be harnessed for such an undertaking. What would be more seriously anti-serious than Broadway song-and-dance – not in the manner of Miss Saigon, goddess forbid, but closer to the spirit of, say, Sweeney Todd? The transposition to film would be a bit tricky, as was the case with Francis Coppola’s attempt at film-opera in Apocalypse Now. A dose of satire might do the trick: not just her characters(s) but the filmmaker will have to believe that the war was fine – and, more perversely still, fun. The requisite climactic light-show should be celebratory rather than sober, and a sequel should be promised even if it never gets fulfilled.

With such a development perceptions on and approaches to the issue might begin to change, and the old Viet Nam war movies will begin to be seen as the expected instances of conventional cinema that they really are. And coming as we do from seconding the initiatives of our erstwhile colonizers, what a difference that might make on our real-life biomovies.

[First published May 9, 1990, in National Midweek]

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GLORIA IN EXCESSUS

Glory
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Kevin Jarre

Considered one of the most important accomplishments of First-World Marxists is the influence they have managed to wield on education, specifically on the tertiary level upward (one American bestseller alleges that the educational system has been divided up between the Left and the Right, with the latter controlling the primary and secondary levels). The impact this has had on cultural discourse is reflected in the permutations of recent communication theory, which appears to keep changing on the principle of increasingly radicalized applications. The irony lies beyond methodological considerations though – right in the core of film practice. For when Leftist, or even liberal, imperatives were persecuted in the spirit of the Cold War, artists were compelled to resort to formalist innovations in order to package statements of social dissent according to the terms of “bourgeios” appreciation. Some time afterward, controversy and social consciousness became essential to all sensible evaluators, so much so that what was once dangerous became safe, and vice versa.

American movies during the preceding decade exhibited these disturbing reversals. Draw up a list of the most appreciated films of the period, and you’d be hard-put to locate them anywhere along the spectrum from Left to Center, outside of their successful experimentations in the medium; on the other hand, the big topical cinematic disappointments – Viet Nam, feminism, low-life stories (including exploitative prison biographies) – could hardly be faulted for their political sentiment, their creativity quotients aside. The latest in this series of well-meaning exercises in film convention is Glory, which attempts to strengthen its horrors-of-war slant (a standard Viet Nam-movie thrust) with a dramatic framework of racial nobility, apparently trying to improve on two earlier opera which were denounced for not being radical (and were therefore reactionary?) enough: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), which dealt with the effects of the Viet Nam War, and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), which attempted a revisionist view of a minor civil-rights development.

The trouble with such a righteous orientation is that the moralizing amounts to an overkill, which is facilitated in Glory through one of the oldest forms of cheating in dramatic assignments: don’t bother with the baddies, just give the good guys the development they “deserve.” Since all the major characters have been earmarked for slaughter, the rule prescribes that they be portrayed as pure as lamb; some try to be ram-tough, but what the heck, underneath the military imposed wolf’s clothing, they’d still bleat when bled, so get out them hankies and prepare to be moved. The manipulation can be admired in several respects, specifically in terms of period authenticity and the performances of the African American members of the cast: in one instance the all-black troopers conduct an impromptu spiritual session, and it’s at this point where the movie goes beyond the usual liberal bent, toward a reclamation by their race of the passionate fervor that had since been appropriated by white televangelists and pop singers.

The insight may be the movie’s only truly original contribution; the context, however, aggravates rather than complements this segment. Only the white sainthood candidates have any real sympathy for the blacks (since Abe Lincoln, who never appears but interacts through official correspondence, would subsequently be assassinated, then he’d be part of the heavenly team as well); other blacks who still have to undergo the purification process remain in a state of savagery, compounded by the heartlessness of their white officers; most glaring of all, no enemy soldier is given a chance to even look decent, for chrissake. The perfectly in-step, nattily dressed blacks are never once confronted with the very reason why they required an about-face in character in the first place; you’d think, after seeing waves of white-trash secessionist troops, that the exodus of colored refugees from South to North was due to the poor fashion sense of the plantation masters and their flunkies.

As if to ensure that we get the point, a heavenly choir descends once in a while to envelop us with the musical strains of what must surely await our, well, unsung heroes. Only once, in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), did I appreciate how a chorale assumed filmic significance, contrasting as it did its ascetic clarity with the sordid confusion induced by the main character’s dementia. In Glory the choral music is assured a visual counterpart through the lyrical orchestration of the explosions of cannons and guns, as if to say worry not, see how their death is itself their own reward. This is certainly idealism of a brave kind. If only the movie itself were just as brave in confronting its central dramatic issues, instead of being content with holding aloft the banner of Left-of-Center right-mindedness.

[First published July 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

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FRONTLINE

Born on the Fourth of July
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic

The quest for the prototypical American movie on the Viet Nam experience has finally found fulfillment, about two decades since it started, with the release of Born on the Fourth of July. The quest itself has been a source of wonder for film observers all over the world: how could such a country, the center of filmic expertise and enterprise, take so long to present a work that could exhibit even just the barest minimum of credibility on a topic which has constituted the core of its recent modern history? Whatever the possible answers are, they may have to be set aside in the meanwhile that the new Viet Nam war movie has to be appreciated first. Fourth of July is undoubtedly that long-overdue specimen, the successful mainstream filmic discourse on our neighboring conflict, and just to prove how easy an achievement it could have been, the word “successful” has to be qualified in this instance by its minimum requisites.

Fourth of July works primarily on the level of avoiding the omissions and excesses of its predecessors. In short, correctness is the key to understanding its contribution to movie lore: the Viet Nam natives are presented as victims, not rendered faceless or brutal as were the previous tendencies, or overtly pathetic as in Casualties of War; more important, the Central American figure undergoes a maturation within the proper perspective of his country’s awakening to his (and presumably countless others’) plight. For some reason, such a simple stance of objectivity could not be mustered by American movie-makers in the past. Viet Nam heroes were always presented larger-than-life, with Rambo as the logical extreme of otherwise admired presentations such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Implicit in these works is the stagnancy of the core of American society in response to the realities of the war: the most anyone had previously suggested was that a handful of others had seen the light, as in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), but in general the attitude was that Viet Nam vets were bringing home something no other American ever had.

The better previous Viet Nam war movies modified this approach by reversing the value of the experience – depression and decadence, rather than Rambo’s moral and physical vitality, were the homecoming gifts – but this only served to reinforce the singularity of American consciousness vis-à-vis the unarticulated possibility that something was also being done to those on the other side. Fourth of July doesn’t go far in depicting the war’s Other, just as it stops in acknowledging that upheavals were also taking place on the home front. At a certain point in the narrative, the lead character, based on real-life Viet vet Ron Kovic’s bestselling self-portrayal, is disabled by an injury sustained during his last battle, and his temporary passivity allows him the realization that his sector of society has outstripped him (and its political leadership) in its repudiation of interventionist policies in Viet Nam.

By this means we are granted the spectacle of witnessing a social turmoil that surpasses its participant’s limitations. In this context does the Kovic character’s flight to proletarian pleasure resorts in Mexico acquire significance. Fourth of July director Oliver Stone makes sure that we get Kovic’s point of not returning from Viet Nam by appropriating the handheld style used during the battle sequence during the other crucial turning points in the person’s life. This is a rather literal attempt at demonstrating a message already assured by the narrative itself, but an impression of sincerity is conveyed nonetheless by the utter subjectivity of camera usage (which effectively violates the traditional technical discipline exercised in the “omniscient” portions), plus the stops-out delivery of an ensemble led by an admirably deglamorized Tom Cruise. The parallelism suggested by the movie – of the masses of Americans opposed to militarism just like their counterparts across the Pacific – will suffice at this point in assuring Fourth of July’s primacy in the Hollywood Viet Nam war genre.

A ticklish sub-issue is raised in the process, however, and no matter how one mulls over the dialectics of the work, it seems like so much unnecessary provocation left unresolved. This occurs when the story’s element of reaction is embodied by the lead character’s mother, whose conflict with liberal values is brought to a head when she throws her son out of the family residence. The point is underlined by the lead’s moving reunion with his father and male buddy, and the subsequent marginalization of women in his life (due mainly to the sexual debilitation brought about by his paralysis). The fact that Kovic’s story eventually ties in with the major political issues of his day – via his exploitation of media coverage during presidential conventions – still doesn’t answer why this other, more sensitive form of exploitation had to be necessary. Perhaps in the final reckoning, no one can argue with the retort that that was what actually happened to him, and this whole enterprise was based on his life, remember? Yet I suppose this instance of misogyny detracts from the appreciation of a work whose value rests primarily on its political correctness.

It’s of course a minor objection to a minor achievement that assumes major proportion in the context of its origin. We can tentatively pose the issue, but only for the benefit of some future creative work: for all the common struggles against dominant political and ideological structures, are the Viet Nam and feminist issues essentially incompatible with each other? The blacks, the poor, the non-Americans, all male, all go down famously with Kovic in Fourth of July. So to reformulate the question: what were the (internal, external, and cross-cultural) sexual tensions attendant to the Viet Nam controversy, and why do such issues lead to such cataclysmic changes?

[First published August 22, 1990, in National Midweek]

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WET NOODLES

I Come with the Rain
Directed and written by Trần Anh Hùng

As a scholar of global culture, I was intrigued by a recent release, probably still screening in some theaters. The movie sports at least four titles as of the moment, three of which are translations of its English title, I Come with the Rain (나는 비와 함께 간다 in Korean). The cast list also reads like an actors’ assembly convened by the United Nations, complete with that august body’s usual marginalization of women: an American (Josh Hartnett), Japanese (Kimura Takuya), Korean (Lee Byung-hun), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Chinese (Shawn Yue), Spaniard (Eusebio Poncela), token-female Vietnamese (Trần Nu Yên-Khê, the director’s wife), plus a handful of gun-toting Filipinos and a roomful of naked Filipinas presumably standing in for all the other nationalities left unrepresented.

Trần Anh Hùng, who wrote as well as directed, had done a few films earlier, mostly set in Viet Nam (including The Scent of Green Papaya [1993], actually shot in France), and generally well-received by art-film connoisseurs. I Come with the Rain appears to be his bid to acquire hit-maker status, drawing on his ability to interweave a wide array of characters in fascinating Oriental locales. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires so resoundingly that only a marvel greater than what Kimura’s miracle-working character can conjure up will enable the film to achieve wider release elsewhere before it shows up on video and the internet.

I Come with the Rain isn’t wanting in good intentions, so I found myself rooting for it to take off even after its hopelessly anachronistic climax. The challenge of maintaining exclusivist high-art aesthetics must have clashed with the thriller genre’s requisite of catering to as wide a viewership as possible, and while this may have resulted in an occasional masterpiece – witness Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – in this instance what emerged is an indeterminate hybrid comprising several arresting concepts that fail to coalesce in the end.

The movie’s narrative signals its problems from the get-go. After a cleverly misdirected opening, where Kline, a detective, is overpowered and vampirically bitten by an angst-ridden serial killer, we flash-forward to a couple of years later, where Kline, now permanently traumatized, is summoned by someone who claims to own the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. This man is never seen by Kline or the audience, preferring to convey Kline’s assignment via a menacing lens and speaker set.

We learn that the CEO’s son, Shitao, has fled to Asia, and Kline has to track him down in his last known whereabouts, an orphanage in Mindanao. Upon reaching the place, Kline is informed by another detective that Shitao had been killed by the henchmen of a powerful mine operator, but Kline replies that he has evidence that Shitao has turned up in Hong Kong, where he intends to go next. Why Kline does not fly directly from Los Angeles to the former crown colony is anyone’s guess – I thought at first that the director was preparing to link the US with its neocolonial stronghold, the Philippines, as well as with its war-on-terror campaign on the country’s Muslim minority.

As it turns out, Mindanao’s main function is to provide scenic contrast with the First-World settings of the US and Hong Kong: jungle foliage and fauna, muddy roads, congested slums, sleazy expats, sapphic go-go girls, youthful killing machines, oh my. Far be it for me to espouse political correctness and positive images for any group, but one wonders what a fellow Asian might have in mind when he insists on depicting misery in the Third World: just in case the people living there had no idea how underdeveloped their condition is, perhaps?

I Come with the Rain sustains this impressive display of cluelessness upon reaching Hong Kong. The major Asian characters, presumably long-term residents if not natives, speak mostly English even to one another (Lee Byung-hun valiantly compensates with well-timed outbursts of rage, from all those TOEIC review sessions maybe). And if Trần Anh Hùng had any symbolic purpose in casting a Korean to play a sadistic Chinese gangster who literally crucifies a supposedly genuine faith healer played by a Japanese – well, these bouts of against-the-grain inspiration are just beyond me.

Trần may have also missed out on the lament of most Hong Kong film scholars – that recent movies made by their own enfants terribles tend to portray a universalized space that is no longer recognizably Hong Kong in character. This is a trend increasingly being manifested in national cinemas that have succeeded in appealing to a global audience, starting with the festival distribution circuit: filmmakers no longer need to connect with their own mass audiences so long as their output can be supported by a large enough number of fans in the West. The fact that I Come with the Rain isn’t home-grown in Hong Kong points up this problem even more egregiously.

What makes thrillers and horror films ultimately worthy of attention is their willingness to face abjection, an all-too-human condition that more wholesome genres shy away from. I Come with the Rain provides its share of hair-raising situations, but winds up advocating a redemptive ending modeled on the passion of Christ. How Trần ever came to believe that such a resolution (an Asian Messiah, how radical-chic) would complement his too-precious notion of infusing a “low” genre hybrid with high-art values is a lesson on the dangers of intellectual inattention. Apparently the early-Church memo stipulating that salvation was meant for everyone (the secular definition of “Catholic”) missed him by a millennium or two. I Come with the Rain, sure, but I got trapped in the puddle of my own pretension.

[First published November 9, 2009, as “Clueless Global Hybrid, Now Showing” in JungAng Daily]

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TWO GUYS, WHILE WATCHING AVATAR

Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron

At a screening in downtown Seoul.

“I can’t believe you convinced me to watch this movie again. It wasn’t so great the first time we saw it.”

“You said you had nothing better to do, so I thought why not get another pair of tickets since we’re already here anyway.”

“Yeah but don’t you feel uncomfortable? I mean we’re in a dark hall surrounded by all these foreigners.”

“You know you better stop calling these people foreigners. We’re in their country, so here we’re the foreigners.”

“I remember in my hometown the cheapest grocery was run by a bunch of these people, and we always called them foreigners. I only figured they were Koreans after I came here.”

“Quiet, the movie’s started. Aren’t you going to put on your glasses?”

“Thanks, but I got 20/20 vision.”

“They’re for the 3-D effect. Just put them on.”

“Oh, so that’s how they function. I thought they were meant to dim the brightness on screen. What’s the guy saying? These glasses are cool.”

“You mean the hero? He traveled almost six years in deep sleep and when he wakes up it’s 2154.”

“That’s just like the time I went to high school. What kind of planet would you call Pandora anyway? Sounds like it was named by some Wiccan tree-hugger.”

“I knew an ex-Marine like the main character, all stoic just like that, strong but quiet.”

“I envy that kind of manly, totally macho culture. What’s he doing now?”

“You mean my friend? It’s a she. Married, with four kids.”

“What a shame. I mean, why would they let women join that kind of outfit? It compromises American masculinity. Just like all these foreigners with their feminine culture, where even the guys wear pink.”

“I don’t think cultures have genders. And you better be quiet, or they might get offended.”

“Are you kidding? They hired us to teach them English, so as long as we talk fast I’m sure they won’t have a clue as to what we’re saying. Get a load of this character, the colonel. Last time we watched I thought he was going to be the hero.”

“Well he wanted to destroy the planet to get their resources, so the ex-Marine had to fight him in the end.”

“Wait a minute, now I’m getting the drift. The corporation calls in the military so they can acquire this unobtainium thingy, but the movie makes a hero of the guy who stops them, right? And he does it by joining up with these Na’vi people of color?”

“Actually everything’s just fictional, so the Na’vi aren’t real people of color because no one on earth right now has blue skin.”

“Whatever. Hasn’t anyone figured this out yet? It’s a pro-Taliban movie! No wonder the Na’vi language sounds like Arabic. I can imagine Kim Jong-il smiling while watching this.”

“North Korea isn’t Muslim, it’s Communist. They don’t believe in religion.”

“You mean there’s a difference? If you’re American, all your enemies are the same. They all want to destroy us, and they’re all foreigners like these people here.”

“One more time, they’re not the foreigners, we are, okay? And a lot of destruction in the U.S. was done by locals. Some of them were even in government and the private sector.”

“Oh, I know what you mean – the liberals. Hollywood’s their propaganda machine.”

“Well this is a Hollywood movie we’re watching. Oh good, here comes my favorite character, the Latina hottie.”

“Yah, she really rocks. Too bad the colonel has to shoot her down. But it’s her fault, trying to save these Na’vi sympathizers. Hey, did you notice the resemblance? Na’vi, naughty, Nazi –”

“I think you’re over-reading. There’s some interesting psychology in the movie though. See how the colonel keeps calling the ex-Marine ‘son’? Makes it more ironic when they wind up trying to kill each other.”

“Just like that mythology guy, Narcissus. I did learn something in high school, after all.”

“I guess it’s worth becoming a Na’vi just like the ex-Marine does with his avatar, just to be able to ride one of those flying dinosaurs.”

“They’re dragons, man. And hey, they’re purple. James Cameron and his gang must have been ingesting some serious substances when they proposed this project. I mean, whoever heard of jellyfish and mountains that float on air? And trees that operate like the World Wide Web?”

“Now that you mention it, I kind of like the way the Na’vi communicate with nature by plugging in with special strands in their hair.”

“I do that all the time, with my USB flash drive. So that’s really how we’re supposed to feel? That the Na’vi are better than the Americans?”

“The invaders are called ‘sky people’ by the Na’vi, but in the future we can’t really be sure if Americans will be in outer space, or if the U.S. will be around at all.”

“Don’t tell me you’re taking the side of these hostiles! The U.S. of A. has been here for over 200 years, so why shouldn’t it be around forever? It’s still the king of the world, that’s for sure.”

“That reminds me, do you think the movie will win the Oscar? Cameron’s up against his ex-wife, you know.”

“Yeah, but she made that anti-war movie, plus he should win because he’s got the bigger hit, and he’s the guy.”

“Movie’s over, let’s step outside and get more popcorn.”

“Omigosh, my celfone’s gone! It must have dropped out of my pocket on my way here! Great, now I can’t find out where I’m supposed to meet my students this evening, on top of having watched this lousy movie with a bunch of, of…foreigners! What do you suggest we do this time?”

“How about we stay on and watch Avatar again?”

“Okay.”

[Submitted February 2010 to JungAng Daily, originally intended for Oscar awards week; unpublished]

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HIT IN THE (MULTI)PLEXUS

Wan-deuk-i [Punch]
Directed by Lee Han
Written by Kim Dong-Woo

The latest Korean blockbuster film is a departure from the disaster releases that had been dominating the local box-office since Bong Joon-ho’s Gwoemul [The Host] set an all-time record in 2006. What is even more surprising about the current hit, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i (hereafter Punch), is that it is nothing like its title at all – closer to an air kiss from a distant lover on a dreamy autumn afternoon.

Yet Punch also partakes of the same elements that marked the disaster-film cycle set off by Gwoemul: it is insistently and daringly populist, and it looks at Korea during an age of global interaction (on which more later). More important for practitioners of film everywhere, it demonstrates the admirable willingness of Korean talents to grapple with the exigencies of genre production, constantly searching for ways to infuse difficult and complex material with accessible treatments. The manner in which Punch reconfigures melodramatic requisites, for example, exhibits its makers’ expert grasp of the strategies of excess and containment – i.e., one should provide an unusual amount of the genre’s primary element (chills in horror, laughs in comedy, tears in melodrama, sex in pornography, etc.), yet also ensure that the narrative eventually returns to a condition of normality in order for the viewer to achieve catharsis and closure.

Surprisingly, the element that Punch elects to overindulge in is the exact opposite of what its genre stipulates. Lee (drawing from a recent best-selling novel) provides a series of comic set-ups that serve to subtly foreground the pathos endured by the characters, so that toward the end, when the central tearjerker scene is staged, one could hear even male viewers unable to hold back their sniffles – a smiling-through-tears tactic more devastating than what manipulative Hollywood dreck like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for all their outsize budgets, are able to achieve. The ending, happy but not (yet) triumphant, confirms that although the movie might have masqueraded for the most part as a comedy, it has remained true to its melodramatic ideals.

The plot concerns a street-smart young man, Wan-deuk (the Korean title is a jokey variation on his name). Generally well-behaved although unable to control his bouts of rage, Wan-deuk remains devoted to his diminutive hunchback father and struggles to maintain a decent performance in high school. Unfortunately for him, his teacher, Dong-joo, insists on singling him out in and outside the classroom, and harasses him even at home, since he lives across from the rooftop quarters Wan-deuk shares with his father and “uncle,” a mentally challenged man his father befriended and trained for his dance performances. As a child Wan-deuk used to wander the provincial cabaret where his father tap-danced, but since the father believed that his son will have a better future by studying in Seoul, he decided to move there (near Dong-joo’s place, as it turned out) and earn a meager living by selling trifles at markets outside the city.

The turning point arrives when Dong-joo, also a minister at a church that assists illegal immigrants, discovers that Wan-deuk’s mother is a Filipina who abandoned her family right after weaning her son from breast milk. The news traumatizes Wan-deuk, who already resents Dong-joo seriously enough to pray in church for his teacher’s demise. The process by which the narrative illustrates how these estranged characters manage to accept one another and discover reserves of strength in themselves is enabled by an impressive traversal of the delicate line separating humor from tragedy, without tumbling over into either extreme.

Key to the success of this type of undertaking is the performances. The title character is played by (from the perspective of world cinema) a newcomer, Yoo Ah-in, whose credibility as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager derives from parallel real-life experience as a high-school dropout. The actual lead, however – the character responsible for driving the plot forward – is Dong-joo, played with flourish and acute comic timing by Kim Yun-seok, previously identified with violent, even literally bloody film noirs. The supporting cast – Park Su-young and Kim Yeong-jae as father and “uncle” respectively, and Park Hyo-ju and Kang Byeol as Dong-joo and Wan-deuk’s respective love interests – partake of the same bounteous reserve of colorful representation steeped in what hip-hop artists would describe as dope realness.

Even a seeming anomaly like the casting of Yoo Ah-in, whose character looks like neither of his parents (and better than both, actually – star-is-born alert, everyone), makes complete sense for people who marry inter-racially as a matter of course – not among Koreans, but among Filipinos. The fact that he is endowed in several other respects adheres to the biological principle, recognized in Philippine culture (and recently being acknowledged in the US), that positive traits tend to emerge more prominently in hybrid offspring.

Yet as mentioned earlier, a successful genre project also requires the curse of containment. In Punch this is brought about in the portrayal of Wan-deuk’s mother, who functions more as cipher than as character, remorseful over her initial abandonment, resolved to make amends to her husband and son, relieved that through them she might finally find some ease over her hardscrabble existence. The rupture in this formulation derives from the fact that the role is essayed by Jasmine Lee, who in real life started as an immigrant wife in Korea but succeeded in becoming a national celebrity after the untimely death of her husband.

The source novel’s character was actually Vietnamese, although the temptation to change her nationality to Filipino was understandable: the Philippines has virtually become an extension of the southern island of Jeju-do, the primary warm-weather destination for vacationing Koreans, many of whom choose to stay longer (for English training and business investment), sometimes for good. Yet where most other Asian wives would have remained helpless, hampered by differences in both culture and language, the typically Westernized and English-speaking Filipina would have been able to clamber her way up the social ladder one way or another, especially if she’d had the “good education” that Wan-deuk’s father quietly boasted to his son.

A kinder way of responding to this potential shortcoming is by answering that first, gender politics cannot be a national priority in a country that is technically still at war and whose economy lacks a Third World that it can exploit, thus situating its population in a perpetual crisis position even amid its First-World prosperity; and second, a culture whose pre-modern Confucian ideology is even more resolutely patriarchal than its current conservative-Western aspirations has no model for feminist enlightenment anywhere within itself. (Indeed, a previous all-time Korean blockbuster, Lee Jun-ik’s Wang-ui namja [The King and the Clown, 2005], is an example of how internalized misogyny can inadvertently ruin any well-intentioned queer text.) Like Gwoemul, Punch compensates in the next best possible way, by presenting its male characters as society’s Other, feminized in relation to the relatively powerful and wealthy majority. It remains then for Korea’s Asian Others – Filipinos and other immigrant populations – to continue demonstrating how and why gender progressivity is not merely ethical, but in fact beneficial and indispensable in strengthening the strands of the social fabric.

[First published November 28, 2011, as “Punch Tackles Fil-Korean’s Search for Mother” in ABS-CBSNews.com]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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