Closure: M. Night Shyamalan

No director has quite put me through the ups and downs that M. Night Shyamalan has.  This guy emerged on the film scene at the absolute perfect time for me, pretty much hitting right when I first became conscious of the cinema and started forming real opinions about it.  I saw The Sixth Sense in its opening weekend at the age of eleven and like most people thought it was amazing, certainly for its twist ending but also just for how well constructed and acted it was.  Shyamalan gave that movie a sort of relaxed, but not too slow, pace that felt like a breath of fresh air in a mainstream film in a cinema environment that was increasingly being defined by people like Michael Bay.  I was also a big fan and ardent defender through Unbreakable and Signs… but then he made The Village, not a terrible movie but not a great one either and that put a bit of a dent in his armor.  I thought he’d just bounce, but instead he made a pair of indefensibly terrible movies in Lady in the Water and The Happening and from there I pretty much gave up on him. I still stand by my opinion on his first three movies but I wasn’t going to show up to crap like The Last Airbender out of director loyalty anymore and nothing I was hearing made me regret that.  But, the guy hasn’t gone away and he’s actually making something of a comeback.  I saw his last three movies (Split, Glass, and Old) and they certainly haven’t won me back with them (I think they’re middling to poor at best) but there were some traces of the old Shyamalan there and they made enough money that it seems clear he’s going to continue working in Hollywood for a long time.  With that in mind I thought it might be time to go back and check out those movies he made between 2008 and 2016, and also to go further back and watch those two pre-The Sixth Sense movies that no one ever talks about so that I can fully understand this sometimes rather strange voice in mainstream cinema.

Praying With Anger (1992)
We start with the most “for completists only” entry in Shyamalan’s filmography, a film that was made in 1992 when Shyamalan was only about 21 years old and still an NYU film student.  It played at a couple of film festivals back in the 90s but did not to my knowledge receive commercial release of any kind in theaters and is not to my knowledge available in any official capacity on physical media or streaming today, so this can safely be called a Shyamalan deep cut.  That said, I don’t think this can technically be called a “student film” however as it’s a fully feature length film that I believe he financed it separately from his education and it did seem to have at least some grander ambitions than to simply be a learning experience.  Rather this seems to be informed by the independent film movement of the era when gen x filmmakers were encouraged to make personal films often starring themselves and see if they could make the next She’s Gotta Have It.  So with this I’m in the odd position of debating to treat this either as a somewhat impressive student work or as a very not impressive real movie.

The film is extremely autobiographical, chronicling the experience of a young Indian-American teenager as he spends a year abroad in Southern India in order to reconnect with his roots.  Shyamalan of course plays this young student and his acting is… not great, and it doesn’t help that he hasn’t exactly given himself the best dialogue in the world, and I wouldn’t say the rest of his cast does a whole lot better.  The film’s title suggested to me that the film might offer some clues into some of the odd spiritual themes that Shyamalan’s movies often get mired in, but I’m not really sure it does.  Hinduism is certainly a theme of the movie and he has some discussions with some holy men but it’s kind of a background theme, the actual story much more heavily concerns this student’s high school drama while studying in this foreign country as he has to fight off bullies and as he figures out what he’s going to do about a crush he has on a local girl.  Oh and at the end he saves a Muslim guy from a lynch mob, in a moment that does not feel particularly well earned.

I should note from the offset that I watched this via a very dodgy Youtube upload that appeared to be sourced from a VHS or something and was in non-anamorphic widescreen and generally kind of looked like shit.  Despite that terrible presentation I could still tell that the most impressive thing about the film was its visual style.  For a movie made on a shoestring by a college student the film’s basic blocking and cinematography mostly look reasonably professional with Shyamalan giving the film a sort of orange hue and capturing its Indian locations pretty well.  Whatever the film’s other merits I can see how this could have served well enough as a resume to help him get more work because the film does show that he does possess the technical skills to be a professional filmmaker pretty clearly.  Shyamalan is not, however, yet in much of a position to take on many of the film’s other challenges like directing non-actors and he also just generally seems too young to really have much in the way of perspective on his own adolescence or to make sense of all the spiritual and cultural ideas he is trying to bring to the table.  So, yeah, I’m not surprised that this never made it past the festival stage of release and were it not for Shyamalan’s future fame this would have fallen into deserved obscurity but I don’t want to be too negative about it.  It almost certainly did take a lot of moxy to makes something this ambitious at this age and I’ve seen much worse “obscure first films” from directors who went on to be highly respected so in that context (and that context only) this could be viewed as a success.
** out of Five

Wide Awake (1998)
Praying With Anger wasn’t good, but on some level it was impressive that M. Night Shyamalan was able to make any feature length film at that age and with those resources, such excuses do not necessarily exist for his second film Wide Awake, which was produced by Miramax in 1995 but then sat on a shelf for three years before being unceremoniously dumped into theaters where it proceeded to make all of $282,175, so not a very ceremonious start to a filmmaker who would one year later make a film that would become the highest grossing non-Star Wars film of 1999.  It does not surprise me that this coming of age film didn’t get wide commercial distribution, in fact I’m kind of surprised it got made at all.  It’s sort of a family movie in tone and content, but it would almost certainly bore any kids brought to it, and it barters in religious searching that’s alienating enough to seem strange to secular audiences but unspecific enough to really be affirming to any existing religious audience.  In many ways it’s a film for nobody but there is at least one person who almost certainly relates to its Shyamalan himself as this is plainly a film that’s just as personal to him as the more overtly autobiographical Praying With Anger.  So, while it is a movie I’d recommend people looking for quality cinema skip, it is revealing in ways that may make it valuable to people (like myself) who are trying to figure out what makes this guy tick.

Though Shyamalan was raised as a Hindu (a part of his identity he explored in the last film), he was educated at a Catholic school for some reason and also considered that Catholicism part of his outlook and this is a movie where he explores that part of his personal and spiritual journey.  The film is about a kid of roughly ten years old who’s plainly something of a Shyamalan surrogate, though one stripped of his Indian heritage.  This kid has recently lost his grandfather and this has led the slightly precocious kid to start exploring a bunch of religious notions of the afterlife in order to cope with this.  Meanwhile he goes through some typical coming of age stuff like school memories and first crushes.  We’ve seen lots of movies like this and they tend to gain power through relatability and nostalgia, but you don’t really have that with this movie because, well… M. Night Shyamalan is a weird guy who had a weird childhood based around an unusual hodgepodge of spiritual beliefs and absolutely nothing about his entirely sincere memories of this childhood really scan to outside observers.  In many ways his observations of the school itself and its staff (including his teacher, played by Rosie O’Donnell) do seem a bit more recognizably observed, but the kid at the center of it all just seems like a total weirdo even though the film seems to view him as more of a quirky underdog.

Shyamalan has always been a bit evasive of his own personal religious beliefs despite religion being a pretty constant feature of his work.  I’ve long suspected he was some sort of closeted evangelical Christian, and at certain points people suspected he was a closeted scientologist, but seeing this movie and Praying With Anger I think he’s actually pretty sincerely one of those “spiritual rather than religious” people who likes to keep things ecumenical.  As something of a militant atheist I’ve always found this outlook kind of baffling: it seems crazy enough to subscribe to one religion but to subscribe to all religions, most of which contradict each other, seems positively daft.  As such this movie kind of comes from a weird outlook, which is a problem because the movie really doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond its outlook and sense of nostalgia.  The anecdotes are only mildly amusing and its cast (including a completely wasted Denis Leary as the boy’s father) doesn’t really do much to elevate it.  Beyond that the film does have one other thing that makes it interesting at least in retrospect as an early Shyamalan work… a [Spoiler] twist ending where it’s revealed that a character who’d been there the whole time wasn’t real but was in fact a supernatural being that only the protagonist can see.  I’m not kidding; one of the kids in the school turns out to be the kid’s guardian angel.  It’s a reveal that’s not that impactful, but it is kind of wild that it’s in there given the filmmaker’s future.

Clearly the people at Miramax realized that this movie wasn’t going to find an audience as soon as it was made and they more or less set it up to go direct to video disguised as more of a family comedy than it really is.  I’m sure some people casually rented it because Rosie O’Donnell (who’s a supporting player at most) was on the cover or casually watched it on cable here or there, but now it’s almost exclusively watched by people like me trying to look up Shyamalan’s roots.  I do think Shyamalan clearly learned something from his experience making this, namely that he’s probably the wrong person to be making straightforwardly autobiographical movies.  With The Sixth Sense he learned that he’d find much more success couching his personal concerns into a genre film.  In fact that very movie also features a private school kid of about the same age living in Philadelphia, but one that’s rendered much more richly and who’s odd quirks are better acknowledged and fit better in the story.  Later on he’d similarly try to use genre stories to express his various spiritual concerns with dramatically varying degrees of success, but I suspect we’ll get into that in more detail soon enough.
*1/2 out of Five

The Last Airbender (2010)
Night Shyamalan’s “legacy” as a director who went off the rails largely revolves around the toxic reception to two films: Lady in the Water and The Happening, films that were terrible in kind of opposite ways. Lady in the Water is mostly consistent with Shyamalan’s usual stylisitic strengths and has some decent performances, but it also feels like the work of a madman who has a bizarre and is deluded as to how far people are going to go along with his strange vison of “Narfs” and “Scrunts.” The Happening, by contrast had a perfectly serviceable genre concept to work with (an unseen force driving people to kill themselves) but it was executed in a way that was fundamentally inept, with some truly laughable dialogue and downright strange performances.  Both of those movies made slightly more money than you might think given their reputations but they were unquestionably artistic failures and after that one-two punch Shyamalan clearly realized that it was time to change things up and enter a new phase of his career… one where he would find whole new ways to disappoint people.  In this phase he would stop trying to make his usual Twilight Zone-esque stories with twist endings and would instead do some director-for-hire work on some of the larger budget franchise stuff Hollywood was working on.  And he started this phase out with a real doozy, his 2010 live action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

To call this movie “reviled” would be a bit of an understatement.  Fans of the original animated series thought it was a failure on pretty much every level and critics who weren’t familiar with the source material also found it just baffling and both camps found its general visual effects and production values unimpressive at best and downright shoddy at worst, especially coming the year after James Cameron’s Avatar, the film that would force this to be known simply as The Last Airbender.  At the time, I didn’t give too much of a shit either way.  I was still very much in my “I’m too good for family movies” phase when this came out, I had zero knowledge of the show, and when this got panned my only reaction was “cool, don’t need to waste my time on that.”  In the ten years since though I actually have caught up on the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series when it came to Netflix and I actually dug it a lot.  It’s way better made than a kids show like that needed to be and I totally get why it became the beloved show it did.  It’s like Gen Z’s “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Dragon Ball Z” all rolled into one accessible series.  Watching it in my thirties it was never going to have the place in my heart that it had for its original target audience, but it definitely felt like a bad idea for Hollywood to try to fuck with it.  And frankly Hollywood has kind of a bad track record of doing live action anime adaptations in general, so this was probably going to be a bad idea no matter who did it.

And that’s where I will say that this thing is at least slightly less terrible than I was expecting it to be.  I’d long been under the impression that this was a unique failure in which M. Night Shyamalan shat all over this beloved property with his unique brand of Shyamalan craziness, but that’s not really the case.  This actually seems like a much more routine kind of Hollywood failure; just a hubristic attempt to translate something that was probably never going to translate.  In fact, if anything, the movie’s mistake was that it was trying to be too faithful to the source material.  Rather than trying to adapt this into its own story set in the same universe, this basically takes the entire storyline of the show’s twenty-episode first season and crams the whole thing into one single 103 minute movie, cutting away all kinds of character development, world building, humor, or general flavoring along the way.  The movie just has to rush through all sorts of events at a break neck pace, failing entirely to really make you care about who these people are or what the stakes are in all of this.  As someone who watched the show I could sort of fill in the blanks for myself, but I can imagine someone unfamiliar with the source material watching the movie and thinking “what sort of non-sense is all this?”

And the people who are familiar with the source material?  Most of them were downright offended.  For one, there was a major online controversy about the fact that white actors were cast to portray the anime inspired characters from the show, who (though living in a fictional world) were clearly modeled after Asian culture.  I don’t want to re-litigate that whole debate, but I will say that whatever their races are Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone do not replicate the magic the show was able to conjure in bringing Aang, Katara, and Sokka to life, though I can’t exactly blame them because they have rather minimal screen time in this over-stuffed film.  Dev Patel fares better as the villain/anti-hero Zuko, but he’s still not going to replace the original animated version in anyone’s mind.  The film also struggles mightily to make the elemental “bending” that defined the series work on screen.  The film’s visual effects aren’t quite as bad as I’d been led to believe, I’ve certainly seen worse, but the film never really makes a case that a live action version of this was needed or preferable to the animated equivalent and some of the animated elements like the flying bison Appa just look kind of silly in this context.

I will say, I think a lot of this all seems a little less offensive in 2022 than it did in 2010 just because we know in hindsight that (despite the film actually having made a better-than-its-legacy-suggests $319 million at the worldwide box office) this live action franchise never went anywhere and that there’s no danger anymore of this interpretation supplanting the original in the minds and imaginations of anyone.  Really in retrospect this kind of just blends in pretty well in the extensive graveyard of orphaned YA franchise launch attempts of the era like The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, or Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  If this stands out a little more than any of those mediocrities it’s because it’s trying to adapt something that was already in a visual medium and just that the fanbase for the source material was a bit larger and more vocal, that and because it fits well into the narrative of M. Night Shyamalan’s strange up and down career.  But I can say that with how low my expectations were I was expecting to much more aggressively hate the movie than I actually did; scene to scene it’s not really that objectionable and in terms of dialogue, acting, and general decision making Shyamalan has actually done much worse elsewhere.  His basic work as a director here is merely functional and mediocre rather than incompetent.  It’s really more his failure to adapt someone else’s vision that got the better of him here more than anything and it kind of exposed why being a director-for-hire was probably never going to be his forte.
** out of Five

Devil (2010)
I think when M. Night Shyamalan took the job directing The Last Airbender he probably assumed that making that film into a trilogy would consume his time for a better part of a decade and that a career as a Hollywood blockbuster helmer would follow… as we all know now that didn’t exactly pan out.  However he did seem to have a backup plan in place to keep his usual brand of high concept twist ending movies alive in the form of a series of films that he’d produce that would be based on his stories and would have his name all over the poster but which would be written and directed by others.  He even had a brand name ready to go on this: “The Night Chronicles” of which the 2010 film Devil would be the first installment, its follow-up would be kind of a Twelve Angry Men riff about a supernatural case, and the planned third installment ended up becoming Split.  I guess give the guy an “A” for smart career planning but the execution faltered on both fronts; The Last Airbender really dragged his name through the mud and “M. Night Shyamalan movie not actually made by M. Night Shyamalan” wasn’t the marketing gold that they had hoped, although Devil did actually become the better reviewed of the two 2010 movies with the guy’s name on it, but only by having a “mixed” rather than openly hostile reception.

Devil was actually directed by a guy named John Erick Dowdle, who is otherwise known for directing the [Rec] remake Quarantine and the forgotten studio horror flick As Above, So Below and the screenplay was written by a guy named Brian Nelson, who wrote Hard Candy and co-wrote 30 Days of Night.  The story Shyamalan gave these guys is basically a high concept: “what if five people are stuck in a stopped elevator, and one of them is secretly the devil himself, and people keep dying one by one on the elevator as the lights go out?”  So, we’ve got overt religious elements here, which I suspected might be another peak into Shyamalan’s strange ecumenical religious thoughts, but it really isn’t.  This movie takes theology about as seriously most of these recent The Exorcist ripoff horror movies like Along Came the Devil or Prey for the Devil, so the real draw here is probably just seeing how they execute on the concept of a claustrophobic murder mystery of sorts and I would say their execution is… middling.  The characters they assemble on the elevator are not that interesting either as characters or as types and the deaths that start happening aren’t terribly creative.  But the bigger problem is that this just feels like an idea that didn’t have much material in the first place and which needed to be padded out to even get to its short 80 minute runtime.

That’s not to say it’s completely without merit.  It’s decently enough staged and for better or worse the fact that this is being filtered through other people does kind of sand off some of the sharper edges that would be here if Shyamalan were making this himself, but it ultimately just kind of doesn’t feel like there’s enough meat on the bones.  The movie made about $60 million worldwide, which probably was a decent profit given that the movie only cost $10 million to make, but it’s also a movie that most people probably don’t remember or care about and no one was compelled by the idea of seeing more “Night Chronicles” and Shyamalan also probably decided that with The Last Airbender 2 not happening it was probably no longer a good idea to give away all his ideas to others.  But even if Shyamalan’s “director for hire” career had kept going it may well have been a mistake to turn “The Night Chronicles” into a series of movies when it would have made a lot more sense as an anthology TV series like what Guillermo del Toro did last year with his “Cabinet of Curiosities.” In fact if this had all happened in 2022 that’s almost certainly what he would have done, and as a one hour TV episode I think Devil would have made a lot more sense.  As a movie though, it’s just kind of forgettable.
** out of Five

After Earth (2013)
After Earth marks the second and last time that M. Night Shyamalan tried to be a director for hire on a more conventional action movie and in some ways it was even less successful than the first.  As widely mocked as it was The Last Airbender did make more money than you’d think and sort of looked like a half success on that level but After Earth was both a critical and financial failure which its star Will Smith looks back on as the biggest mistake he made since Wild Wild West.  And Will Smith is definitely the person you should look to first when understanding this film because he was the driving force behind it long before Shyamalan got on board.  The project was birthed when Smith watched an episode of the Discovery Channel show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” in which a father and son’s car breaks down on a mountain road and they need to survive the conditions.  At some point Smith got the idea to turn this into a science fiction story (earning him a “story by” credit on the final film) and he went to screenwriter and former video game journalist Gary Whitta to write a screenplay and then went to Shyamalan after having aparantly been the only person in the world impressed by The Last Airbender and Shyamalan made some additions to the script as well and the film went into production very quickly.

Of course the big elephant in the room is that this was one of a handful of projects that Will Smith developed with the intention of providing work for his son Jaden Smith, in fact it wasn’t clear until relatively late in the project that the elder Smith would even be in this, it was all for his son.  This… was kind of a PR blunder as the public kind of found the Smith’s molding of their children’s career to be a little creepy and off putting.  Of course nepotism is pretty widespread in Hollywood and in the grand scheme of things Jaden wasn’t too much more advantaged than a lot of celebrities in good standing, but usually Hollywood nepotism is at least a little bit more subtle than this that the Smiths were.  Usually they wait until the kids are older and can feign self-made status slightly better and they try to get other people to cast them instead of producing projects themselves.  It did not help that Jaden Smith just seemed like a really weird person in interviews and frankly wasn’t terribly compelling on screen and he was at his absolute worst here.

But maybe I should back up, what even is this movie?  Well, it’s set in some distant future where the human colonists are fighting these aliens called Ursas who find people by sensing fear and Will Smith has become a legendary soldier by using a technique called “ghosting” to suppress all fear and make him invisible to these enemies.  He and his teenage son find themselves stranded on a hostile planet after a ship crash and Smith’s character has been injured during the crash so the son needs to go out through the planet’s wilderness to set off a distress beacon while only getting advice from his father over a radio.  The basic story does have some potential but there are some pretty big gaps in execution.  For one, both of the Smiths here are completely miscast.  Will Smith in particular is not the right person to be playing this person defined by icy calm, which really washes away all the charisma and comic timing that made Smith a star to begin with.  And Jaden, well, I’m not sure what Jaden is capable of but it’s not this.  Both stars are hampered by the film’s writing and directing which seems to have both of them adopting this just completely odd vocal cadence that’s not quite an accent but certainly feels intentional and unnatural.

Beyond all of that the film is just kind of a limp action movie.  The film is trying real hard to make this alien world feel like its full of interesting flaura and fauna but it’s no Avatar and most of the CGI animals they come up with are mildly interesting at best and the visual effects haven’t aged particularly well.  Beyond that the whole science fiction universe here just isn’t very interesting and this whole “ghosting” concept is kind of a loser.  I’ve actually heard theories that suggest that this whole thing is some kind of metaphor for scientology, a “church” which Smith has long been rumored to have been secretly a member of.  Personally I don’t think the parallels are that strong but this whole “ghosting” thing does feel kind of odd and like it might have been adopted from one New Age-y philosophy or another and Will Smith in many ways does have the same kind of ecumenical “all religions are valid” outlook that Shyamalan has.  Beyond that and the weird dialogue choices I don’t really see a lot of Shyamalan here at all, it’s just kind of a failed “forgotbuster” and not really even that interesting as a train wreck.
** out of Five

The Visit (2015)
After making two straight movies that were pretty big disasters both artistically and commercially, M. Night Shyamalan clearly decided that he was done being a director-for-hire and that going forward he was going to be getting back to basics by making low budget thrillers based around high concepts that will likely have twist endings.  Not only that, but he also decided to self-fund his movies and then work out major studio distribution deals after the fact.  This meant that his first effort out the gate needed to be particularly low budget and to do that he went to what was at the time an incredibly trendy technique in the creation of low budget horror movies: found footage.  Even by 2015 found footage movies were already becoming an almost groan inducingly over-done trend following the success of 2009’s Paranormal Activity.  But as a business proposition this gambit worked out, the movie made almost a hundred million dollars worldwide on a five million dollar budget, and as the film’s sole investor Shyamalan himself reaped most of the rewards and would use that money to bankroll his recent career revival.

But what to make of The Visit artistically?  The idea behind it is that a brother and sister are going to stay with their grandparents, who they’ve been estranged from because of family drama, and because the sister is a film buff she decides to “document” the whole trip with a camera she brings along in what is a pretty typical found footage contrivance.  Honestly the film doesn’t really feel entirely committed to the format; it certainly has the camera angles you would associate with found footage but the video quality and lighting doesn’t particularly look like it was done with consumer-grade cameras and the actors here don’t necessarily feel like they’re behaving entirely naturalistically, but that might be for the best on both accounts.  As a true work of horror, the movie is a bit lacking, I don’t think it would really “scare” too many people but I did like both of the kids in the movie (working with child actors has long been a specialty of Shyamalan’s) and I think the twist in this one actually worked pretty well and led to some pretty decent bits of suspense.  Of course that twist plays on some thematic tropes that would come to be something of a running complaint about this era of Shyamalan’s filmmaking, namely that he tends to kind of demonize mental illness, which is probably a bigger problem with the horror genre than Shyamalan, but it is a tendency worth bringing up.  Aside from that I do think The Visti mostly works and I can see why it sparked some new optimism for his career going forward though I perhaps worry that I’m letting my usual low expectations from modern Shyamalan get the best of me here, but at least when grading on a curve I think I ended on at least a little bit of a high here.
*** out of Five

In Conclusion
The Shyamalan experience has, I think been something of a study in what expectations tend to do to perceptions.  Some of Shyamalan’s initial misses like The Village were perhaps not as bad in retrospect but were movies I was very hard on at the time because I was expecting great things from Shyamalan, meanwhile I think I was if anything kind of easy on some of the movies I looked at for this series just because I kept expecting Shyamalan to fall flat on his face more than he did.  And that’s probably reflective of a larger change in outlook I’ve had about Shyamalan, where once I felt a sort of sense of betrayal at what he’s become as a filmmaker I’m now just kind of fascinated about the various twists and turns his career has taken.  It’s almost like watching a long time film franchise where I’ve long given up on the movies getting good again and am instead just interested in seeing what they’re going to do to keep this thing going and keep it relevant.


Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the movies in Arrow Video’s Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set.  Part 1 can be found here.

Executioners from Shaolin (1977)
At the beginning of Executioners From Shaolin we’re greeted to text talking about the burning of the Shaolin Temple and survivors fleeing from it with the intention of keeping the Shaolin style alive.  Seeing this my first thought was “oh, this story yet again.”  Indeed, the movie kind of feels like it’s on autopilot for much of the first half as the former disciples of the temple scatter.  However, things pick up quite a bit in the second half when the movie definitively focuses in on one guy and years pass while he’s in hiding and we start focusing on his wife and son.  Frankly the very presence of a woman in the movie in a fairly large role was a bit refreshing as a lot of these other Kung Fu movies were starting to seem like some real sausage fests.  Women were a much bigger part of martial arts cinema in the 1960s and earlier but the whole genre got highly masculinized after the rise of Bruce Lee as a cultural icon.  This film is far from feminist in its portrayal but having a somewhat healthy marriage at the center of this is distinct from some of these other movies.  In fact if you’re looking for a 1970s Shaw Brothers movie to write a gender studies paper on this is probably the one to pick.  As scholar Tony Rayns explains in one of Arrow’s supplemental features, the man uses Tiger style kung fu while the wife uses crane style and the son (who is somewhat androgynous in his depiction) uses a combination of both while the villain is in some ways a genderless eunuch. Speaking of that villain, Pai Mei, he’s probably the most iconic element of the movie.  Mei is a legendary figure associated with the Shaolin Temple who may or may not have been historical and may or may not have been the Judas who betrayed the Temple.  Here he’s definitely depicted as the traitor and is depicted as this elderly man who still kicks ass and has this long white beard and bushy eyebrows.  This look was borrowed pretty much wholesale by Quentin Tarantino for his character (also named Pai Mei) in Kill Bill Vol. 2 who was played by Gordon Liu and trained The Bride in flashbacks.  Again, a lot of these interesting elements don’t really come into play until the second half of the film, making the movie as a whole a bit uneven, this is definitely an important Shaw Brothers movie.
***1/2 out of Five

Chinatown Kid (1977)
We return to the world of Chang Cheh as he transitioned from making movies choreographed by Lau Kar-leung to making films with the “Venom Mob,” a group of performers I’ll be discussing in more detail in our next Shaw Brothers movie but who you can see starting to form here.  Chinatown Kid differs from a lot of The Shaw Brothers most famous movies as it is set in the present and for much of its runtime isn’t even set in Asia.  The film concerns a young man living in Hong Kong who flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown to escape some triad activity only to become enmeshed in a whole other gang war on the other side of the Pacific.  Now, this is set in California but aside from some early B-roll establishing shots early on it’s filmed almost entirely on Hong Kong backlots, as evidenced by the fact that this San Francisco has basically no white people and the cars are all driving on the left side of the road there.  The film stars Alexander Fu Sheng in what is probably his most famous role.  Fu Sheng was a contemporary of Jackie Chan and at times seemed poised to have a similar career trajectory but that was all cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1983 while filming The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.

This would be the one movie in Shawscope Vol. 1 that has a “weird alternate cut” problem.  The original version of the film was about 115 minutes long and played out in a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin (because in the story one character spoke one language and another spoke the other) but a different 90 minute cut was made for markets like Malaysia which is entirely dubbed into Mandarin and removes some key scenes.  For whatever reason Celestial Pictures (the company that absorbed The Shaw Brothers’ back catalog at some point) has focused on that shorter cut when it comes to restorations and home video releases so this Arrow release actually marks the first time the uncut “international” version (also known as the “Southgate Cut”) has been given a real home release in the digital age.  The film itself is maybe a bit more interesting for the story behind it than for the movie itself.  It’s interesting as a transitional movie for Cheh and for the platform it gives Alexander Fu Sheng and for it’s oddball mixed up take on San Francisco and some of the moments of violence, but the story itself isn’t exactly riveting and there’s some definite cheesiness to the whole thing.
*** out of Five

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
The Five Deadly Venoms (sometimes just called The Five Venoms) is the only one of the films from the Shawscope boxed set which I had already seen prior to buying the box, and I hadn’t even watched it all that long ago, so this is the only rewatch I’m writing about but this is definitely an essential Shaw Brothers so that’s probably fitting.  You can probably intuit from the film’s title that this movie was an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the basic concept of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” from the Kill Bill movies was almost certainly a lift from this movie.  The film opens with a young student being told by his master that he can no longer train him because several of the master’s former students (who the young one never met) have proven to be evil and need to be taken down at all costs.  Each of these students has a martial arts style based on one of five different venomous animals: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Gekko, or The Toad.  It is not clear which of these five is behind a scheme to kill people and steal a treasure, and the young student is no match for any of them, so his mission is to suss out who these students are and try to build an alliance with the ones who are on the side of good.

The real importance of this movie is that it kicked off a whole era of Shaw Brothers production by being a sort of debutant ball for Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, and Chiang Sheng, a collective who (give or take a Wei Pai) would come to be known as the Venom Mob.  The Venom Mob was something of a kung fu boy band of sorts that Chang Cheh put together who would come to define the next five years or so of Cheh’s career as performers and choreographers.  But you don’t need to know that to appreciate this movie.  The film just generally has a really cool high concept and it provides a great showcase for unique martial arts styles to be out front and center.  The film is Chang Cheh to its core for better or worse; I don’t think there’s a single woman to be found anywhere in the movie and some of the film’s “heroic bloodshed” kind of borders on the sadistic (things do not go well for the Toad in this) and some of the sets and costumes are a little crude, however it is probably the first movie I’d point to in order to really get an idea of what that guy was all about.  Between the Gekko’s wall walking wire work and some of the other more eccentric martial arts styles the film is just a blast and its five-way final fight sequence is a real clinic in how to make these kinds of movies.
**** out of Five

Crippled Avengers (1978)
After the release of The Five Deadly Venoms in the August of 1978, Chang Cheh and the Venom mob managed to release two more movies together before year’s end: Invincible Shaolin and the film we’ll be looking at today, Crippled AvengersCrippled Avengers opens with three martial artists breaking into a home and murdering a mother and cutting off the hands of her son before the father rushes in and takes out the three of them with superior technique.  We then flash forward and the son is an adult and is fitted with iron prosthetic hands and the father has clearly gotten consumed with revenge despite having already killed the perpetrators.  The father has essentially become a local gangster/feudal lord and has begun having his son cripple anyone who defies him, and that’s where our heroes come in.  One has had his legs cut off, one has been blinded, one has been made a deaf mute, and one has had his head squeezed until he’s been rendered mentally handicapped.  The disability of that latter character especially can charitably be described as “not particularly sensitive.”  I don’t think it’s the most offensive representation you’re likely to find but it does speak to the film’s age, but the film’s overall message about disability is a positive one in which the characters are able to overcome their disadvantage and become formidable kung fu avengers.  There’s not really a whole lot to say about this one beyond that it’s got a very cool gimmick that gets employed in some pretty creative ways and is just generally a rip roaring good time.  It’s the last Chang Cheh film in the Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set and it finds him in good form.  Oh, and side note, when this was released in the west it had an alternate title: Mortal Combat.  Someone was a fan.
**** out of Five

Heroes of the East (1978)
For the last two movies in the Shawscope Vol. 1 box set we once again look at the cinema of Lau Kar Leung and his key collaborator Gordon Liu. The last movies we looked at were the two movies before their international breakthrough The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and these two were movies they made after that triumph.  We start with Heroes of the East, which is an odd and interesting fusion of the martial arts film with a sort of romantic comedy.  The film is about the son of a wealthy merchant who enters into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a Japanese merchant and comes to learn that she is a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts.  Misunderstandings occur and long story short he ends up offending the members of a Japanese martial arts dojo and he ends up having to fight a series of duels with the masters of various Japanese martial arts disciplines.  The Japanese were frequently villains in Hong Kong movies, which could sometimes border on the xenophobic in their treatment of such characters, but this movie feels a bit more interested in reconciliation with the land of the rising sun even if it ultimately finds the Chinese fighter to be the victor in the battles against them.  Those fight scenes in the second half are a whole lot of fun and mix up the various stylistic matches nicely, culminating in a large scale duel with a straight-up ninja.  My one complaint is that the newlywed conflict that was so fun in the first half kind of gets lost once the Japanese fighters show up and the wife really becomes a pretty secondary character.  I feel like just a couple more scenes with her late in the movie could have really brought this to the next level, but even with that problem the movie is still a whole lot of fun.
**** out of Five

Dirty Ho (1979)
Okay, first thing’s first: that title is not what it sounds like.  The film’s original title (爛頭何) translates to something like “what a bad head” which is something of a pun on the name of one of the film’s characters whose name is “Ho” (which is pronounced more like “huh”), so “Damaged Head Ho” or “Damaged Ho” might have been closer to the effect they were going for, but that doesn’t really scan either so the Shaw Brothers went with “Dirty Ho,” likely in an attempt to jokingly invoke Dirty Harry.  This was a misguided translation pretty much from the beginning and the evolution of slang since then has been even less kind to this choice over the years, which is unfortunate because it’s a really solid Shaw Brothers movie.  This is another collaboration between Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu, but the title character is played by another actor named Wong Yue and the film is a pretty even two hander between the two, possibly to a fault.  In the film Liu plays a luxuries merchant who’s living a double life in that he’s secretly a kung fu master and also secretly something else I won’t spoil.  Wong by contrast plays a bit of a comical doofus, but someone who can fight and becomes an even stronger fighter once Liu takes him on as a disciple.

That’s where things start to get a little odd because Liu and Wong are basically the same age, so making one the master and the other the apprentice feels a bit odd.  The plot also gets a tad convoluted in the second half as it starts getting mired in courtly politics and related assassination attempts that are a bit hard to follow.  But at the end of the day the plot isn’t the main thing people are looking for in a movie like this and where it matters (the fight scenes) the film has a lot going for it.  The film has a lot of really creative choreography and finds unique ideas for action scenes like an early sequence where the Liu character is trying to conceal his abilities so he manipulates a woman acting as his “bodyguard” rather than fighting directly or another scene later on where he and Wong fight off a bunch of attackers while he’s confined to a wheelchair and the fact that he’s a luxuries merchant means there are some cool sequences where they need to fight around some expensive looking props.  It’s not all about gimmicks though, there’s a pretty straight weapon fight between Liu, Wong, and three armed guards towards the end that’s just a solid freakin’ martial arts fight from top to bottom.  The whole movie is comedic in tone, but not an out and out parody and generally kind of has a different vibe and tone from your average Shaw Brothers movie and just generally feels like it was made by Lau Kar-leung at a point where he felt the genre needed a few fresh ideas and he delivered on it.
***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, I stuck to my “one Shaw Brothers a month” plan and saw it through and I will say it feels like the right pace to have gone in.  I’d seen a healthy handful of Shaw Brothers movies before this but I feel like watching this boxed set gave me a better understanding of some of the patterns and workings of the studio and particularly the differences between Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh as well as a deeper understanding of some of the studio’s stars beyond Gordon Liu, who I also feel like I saw different dimensions of.  That having been said, I do think I could use a bit of a break from this marathon so I can explore some other aspects of Chinese and martial arts cinema next year, so while I’ve already pre-ordered Shawscope Vol. 2 and fully intend to watch that as well I think I may wait until 2024 to do it.

Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 1

Two things I really love: kung fu movies and buying things.  Fortunately for me Arrow Video recently provided me with the means to scratch both of those itches with the release of a big fancy blu-ray boxed set called “Shawscope Vol. 1” featuring twelve movies straight from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, the premiere Hong Kong studio for the creation of top of the line Kung Fu movies from the late 60s through to the early 80s.  Naturally I’ve had the thing pre-ordered for months and relished the moment when Amazon finally delivered it to me.  So, this dropped into my position in January, there are twelve movies, and there are twelve months in the year… it seemed like my destiny to turn this into a year-long watchathon where I take in one of these movies a month over the course of 2022.

King Boxer (1972)
Before we get too into this it is perhaps important to know that us westerners have a somewhat limited notion of what the “Shaw Brothers Studio” is.  To us the studio name is synonymous with 70s kung fu movies when the studio has existed in some form since 1925 and made all sorts of movies over the course of their existence.  With that in mind it’s probably notable that this blu-ray boxed set opens not with one of the studio’s most impactful movies in Hong Kong but rather with the film that is primarily a landmark in the export of their movies to the international market.  The people making King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) almost certainly didn’t expect such great things from it, but it happened to be the movie that seen by a Warner Brothers buyer who cannily knew there would be an appetite for martial arts cinema in 1973 off the heels of the success of the “Kung Fu” television series and a dubbed version of the film would go on to great B-movie success around the world just in time for an even greater explosion in interest when Enter the Dragon hit.  Of course that success may have been less coincidental than legend would suggest as King Boxer was plainly a movie meant to be something of a response to Bruce Lee’s recent Hong Kong success with rival studio Golden Harvest.  Unlike many of the Shaw Brothers’ earlier films this was set in the early 20th Century rather than ancient times and a lot of the fighting is done with bare fists rather than swords.

The film was helmed by Jeong Chang-hwa, a Korean emigre who worked under the Chinese pseudonym Chang Ho Cheng, and would be the last movie he made for the Shaw Brothers due to behind the scenes quarrels with Run-Run Shaw.  If I were to take issue with anything in the movie it might be his direction as he makes some rather odd choices in terms of lens choice and depth of field here and there and I would also say that while star Lo Lieh is pretty good you can certainly see why he never quite had the star power of a Bruce Lee or a Gordon Liu.  Aside from that and some expected cheesy moments this is a pretty damn solid bit of kung fu cinema.  It has a number of colorful villains for the lead character to defeat (one could almost argue too many) and it gets kind of gory here and there, particularly in a scene where a dude gets his eyeballs plucked out.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as a favorite of his and you can definitely see the influence, most directly in its musical motif in which it uses an excerpt from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme song to heighten certain moments, and Tarantino uses the same music in a similar way in the Kill Bill movies.  That said, this should generally be thought of more as the beginning of something for the Shaw Brothers and not the high water mark, they definitely had bigger and better things in their future.
***1/2 out of Five

The Boxer From Shantung (1972)
While King Boxer was likely selected for this boxed set because of its importance in bringing Shaw Brothers films to the world, The Boxer From Shantung was the more important movie with “boxer” in the title in Hong Kong.  Of course aside from the titles these movies don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that both were sort of meant to be responses to the success of Bruce Lee as both focused in on unarmed fisticuffs rather than swordplay.  What’s probably more important is that this film was the creation of Chang Cheh, who is probably the most important director to work at the Shaw Brothers studio and is the man behind six of the twelve films in this Shawscope boxed set.  Cheh was something of a mentor for John Woo (who worked as an assistant director on this film) and was instrumental for the development of what is called “heroic bloodshed” within the genre and this movie would certainly be an example of that.  Things in the film start out fairly straightforward with star Chen Kuan-tai arriving in a town and getting enmeshed in the criminal goings on there, a bit like Yojimbo or The Man with No Name but this guy isn’t really an antihero.  A highlight of this early section is a scene where he challenges a western strongman (Italian wrestler Mario Milano) who’s the center of a circus attraction challenging people to try to knock him down and no one else seems to be able to phase.

Later the movie starts to engage in bloodier “heroic bloodshed,” particularly in its extended finale.  I’m not sure if this is the movie that introduced the trope but all the bad guy gangsters in this run around wielding this small hatchets that they threaten people with Kung-Fu Hustle style and in the final scene one of these hand axes ends up planted in the hero’s gut and he then spends the next ten minutes or so fighting people off while trying to keep his guts in place.  That probably sounds more graphic in print than it feels in the actual movie, this is candy colored Hong Kong blood we’re talking about here.  In America this movie was retitled The Killer from Shantung and was released in a heavily cut down version with nearly 30 minutes missing.  I doubt that version of the film was any good but I do kind of feel like that distributor was correct that this could have used some trims.  At about 135 minutes this is the longest movie in this boxed set by quite a bit and the pacing suffers as a result and I also found the story to be kind of basic and not terribly interesting.  Some of the bigger set pieces here are more than worth seeing but there are limits to how much I can really endorse the overall film.
**1/2 out of Five

Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
The first two Shaw Brothers movies I looked at from Arrow’s set were both “bare-fisted” martial arts movies made in reaction to the emergence of Bruce Lee.  Like the last film this one is directed by Chang Cheh (though some suggest choreographer Lau Kar Leung had more control) but shows the studio and filmmaker kind of moving forward into what is called their “Shaolin Cycle.”  This informal grouping consisting of six or seven movies made between 1973 and 1976 are not really a series in the sense of having a real continuity between them but they are all about the legendary Shaolin group and many of them share some of the same “historical figures” between them and I think they expect audiences to have some familiarity with the legendary events even as they take all sorts of creative liberties with them.  This film, Five Shaolin Masters, is set after the Shaolin temple has been burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers in a sneak attack and follows five survivors as they try to regroup and find a way to fight back.  In a lot of ways this feels like a movie that started with its climax (five separate fight scenes that the film cuts between) and then they wrote the screenplay backwards from there finding a way to lead up to that.  On the bright side, that climax kind of slaps.  Each Shaolin monk has a different fighting style and strategy and that delivers five pretty solid fights that remain compelling even as the film cuts between them.  On the not so bright side, the film never quite gives any one of the Monks a unique enough personality and aesthetic to stand out as characters through much of the rest of the film given how many characters are being stuffed into this thing’s relatively short runtime and much of the material leading up to the climax feels a bit messy.  Not the best movie the Shaw Brothers ever made by any means, but hardly a dud.
*** out of Five

Shaolin Temple (1976)
In their boxed set Arrow pairs the film Five Shaolin Masters with the film Shaolin Temple, both of them films about the Shaolin style of kung fu from director Chang Cheh.  One could view Shaolin Temple as something of a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters as the earlier film begins with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty troops and then deals with the aftermath while Shaolin Temple is set at the titular temple and depicts the treacherous events that led up to the temple’s destruction, but the films aren’t really in continuity with one another and the characters from the earlier film aren’t all represented here.  The other big distinction between the two is that Five Shaolin Masters was made while Lau Kar Leung was still working as the fight choreographer (and some would suggest ghost director) for Chang Cheh while Shaolin Temple was made after Leung had split from the master to become an accomplished Shaw Brothers director in his own right (almost certainly the second most important filmmaker at that studio).  This is interesting because Shaolin Temple in many was feels like a precursor to one of Lau Kar Leung’s most famous directorial efforts The 36th Chamber of Shaolin… to the point where you wonder if Leung made that film in order to one-up his former mentor.  Both films are set at the Shaolin Temple and focus on them allowing outsiders to train there and focus in many ways on training moreso than combat.  It interestingly uses that “trick people into learning martial arts by having them do chores” trick that would be made famous by The Karate Kid.  It has a few too many characters for its own good and is a little rough around the edges (the film’s score is really poor and out of place) but once it gets to that finale where the pupils are fighting off waves of Qing soldiers it does find its mojo and kind of redeems it.  Definitely a Shaw Brothers deep cut, but worth a look.
*** out of Five

Mighty Peking Man (1977)
In the west “Shaw Brothers” is synonymous with Kung Fu in much the way “Hammer Films” is synonymous with horror, but the actual truth is that “Shaw Brothers” was an all purpose film studio that made all sorts of film in a wide variety of genres, and while Arrow’s boxed set mostly conforms to the studio’s reputation as the maker of martial arts epics they did choose to include one film that hints at the broader width of their work and that’s the 1977 film Mighty Peking Man, which sought to capitalize on the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong with its own (bordering on plagiarism) version of the same story.  The reason this particular non-Kung Fu movie was selected for the boxed set was almost certainly a function of it having been championed by Quentin Tarantino back in the late 90s, in fact he distributed it on VHS back in the day as part of his short lived “Rolling Thunder” boutique label.  Tarantino is a man of eclectic tastes and I feel like his endorsements generally come from a place of sincere enthusiasm but I can’t help but feel that his interest in this movie is at least a little ironic because whatever enjoyment is going to come from this thing is going to be its camp value.  The story is a shameless ripoff and its effects work is largely sub-Godzilla.  It’s got some laughable rear projection and some elaborate if rather unconvincing miniature work throughout and the Gorilla costume is not very good, but in something of a charming way.  What’s much more convincing are some of the animal effects in the first half as the crew go through the Indian jungle looking for the monster.  There a scene where a dude ends up fighting what sure looks like a real tiger and another scene where the film’s female Tarzan puts a full grown leopard over her shoulders like a fur shawl… not sure how they pulled that off.  Anyway, speaking of that female Tarzan, she was played by a Swiss actress named Evelyne Kraft and spends the whole movie (including sections where she’s brought to Hong Kong) in a fur loincloth and tiny bikini top which occasionally results in noticeable nip-slips.  What makes it all the weirder is that while this doesn’t have the kind of budget that something like De Laurentiis’ King Kong it wasn’t made for dirt cheap either and some of the fundamental filmmaking is not terrible.  It’s an odd movie and one that would make a solid choice if you’re going to have a “bad movie night” with friends, but don’t make it into something more than that.
** out of Five

Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Within the context of the Shawscope boxed set I’ve been looking into Challenge of the Masters marks the first appearance of two very important figures: it’s the first official directorial effort we’ve gotten from Lau Kar-leung and the film is also the starring debut of the actor Gordon Liu.  I say “official directorial effort” because Lau was a fight choreographer on several earlier films we’ve looked at like Five Shaolin Masters and rumor has it he more or less ghost-directed a lot of movies in that capacity for his mentor Chang Cheh.  He finally broke from Cheh in the late 70s and really hit the ground running as the director of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies right away and would become one of their leading directors throughout the late 70s and 80s.  As such he has a more manageable filmography than his mentor (who toiled for decades making dozens of movies in several different genres).  Challenge of the Masters was his third film after making a pair of less remembered minor efforts and this and the next movie we’ll be looking at really paved the way for his fifth film and major breakout: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.  That film would also propel star Gordon Liu to fame and he gets his debut starring role in this movie.  Liu was practically family with Lau Kar-leung; he trained in the martial arts with Lau’s father Lau Cham, who took Liu in as his godson.

The Gordon Liu you see here is a little different from the one who would become famous two films later, in part just because he hasn’t shaved his head yet here, which certainly makes a difference given that that would basically become his trademark.  Here he’s playing a character named Wong Fei-hung, who was a historical figure who lived in southern China from 1847 to 1925 and whose life has been heavily mythologized and featured in dozens of Kung Fu movies where he’s been played by everyone from Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, which was a parody of other movies about the guy).  I believe there were several movies about the guy before this as well but this one was notable for being something of an origin story for Wong, and looked at him when he was first being trained.  In this sense you can see how this could be a precursor to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in its focus on training, albeit without the Shaolin elements.  What this doesn’t have is a particularly cool fight sequence for all this training to be leading up to and instead ends with this weird ceremony/competition involving firecrackers that I never really got my head around and felt a bit tangential to the fight training.  Kind of a transitional film, but a deep cut worth knowing about if you’re getting deeper into these movies.
**1/2 out of Five

To Be Continued in Part 2

Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 2

[This is part two of a two-part series looking at modern box office blockbusters in China, Part 1 can be found here]

Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s been about two months since I saw the first Wolf Warrior, which was in many ways a movie I rather stubbornly watched just so that I could then watch this sequel, which is the one that really matters from a cultural and perhaps more importantly from a business perspective.  The first movie was a modest hit, but this sequel was a phenomenon, one that made almost ten times as much money as its predecessor.  Having raked in $870 million dollars at the international box office this was at the time the highest grossing Chinese movie and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie ever made.  It’s since been surpassed by at least one movie (we’ll be getting to that one) but as of today it still sits at number 78 on the ranking of highest grossing films worldwide right between Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith.  More importantly than how much it made was when it made it.  Prior to 2017 there were some signs of how big Chinese productions could get, like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid which broke the $500 million mark, but this one really blew the doors down and after that it was really off to the races with China producing a string of movies that would approach similarly lofty numbers.  That’s all pretty impressive but it is also quite odd.  This was certainly a movie of larger ambitions and a larger budget than its predecessor, but it was at its heart still basically an unpretentious action movie made for just $30 million, which is not exactly a shoestring budget but by Hollywood standards it’s not much.

The film clearly exists within the same continuity as Wolf Warrior but references to that earlier film are mostly kept to a minimum.  Here Leng Feng is no longer a member of the military but is working as a mercenary and his adventures bring him to an unnamed African nation where he happens to be right when rebels start staging a coup that he finds himself in the middle of.  The exact politics and motivations of the rebel army is pretty hazy, as are their various evil plans, which seem to involve kidnapping a Chinese scientist who has developed a vaccine for a plague that’s going around in the country.  The film also once again has much of the trouble coming from a team of villainous international mercenaries led by an American, this time played by Frank Grillo (who was reportedly recommended to Wu Jing by the Russo Brothers, who he consulted with).  Where the first Wolf Warrior had some silliness to it, it did still basically try to keep one foot in the world of realism and the trappings of its military milieu and wanted to make the Chinese army specifically look cool and badass and it generally took itself a little more seriously in that regard.  This one is a lot bigger and more outlandish.  It’s not quite to the level of something like The Fast and the Furious franchise, but it’s getting there.  

The focus this time is less on the army, which our hero is no longer technically part of though they definitely assist at key points, than on Leng Feng specifically as something of an avatar for Chinese heroism writ large.  Additionally the film’s African setting was likely responding to something of a call for films that would promote China’s Belt and Road initiative, a wide ranging soft power play that the CCP was and is undertaking in which they invest in infrastructure in the developing world.  Not everyone in China is thrilled about seeing their tax money going to such an effort so there’s an effort being made by the government to sell it to the populous.  The film’s depiction of Africa and its people is certainly not very authentic and borders on the condescending in a lot of ways, but there is a reason it’s going out of its way to make the plight of the Africans one and the same with the plight of the Chinese.  The Frank Grillo character, by contrast is an avatar for Western racism, power hunger, and arrogance.  The film ends with him telling Feng that he (and by extension the Chinese) will always be inferior, only to have the tables turn on him and have Feng respond to this attitude with “that’s fucking history” right before delivering the killing blow in traditional action hero form.  Then the movie ends with title cards literally reading “To the citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, never give up hope.  China’s strength will always support you.” Subtle.

This brand of pandering patriotism is almost certainly a big part of why the film proved so successful.  As an action movie unto itself Wolf Warrior 2 is at best merely okay but it managed to find a way to deliver party approved patriotism but do it in a very Hollywood style of flag waving action heroism rather than the stayed historical re-enactments the industry usually used for this kind of content.  In fact that may have been something of a double edged sword for Wu Jing as it would seem that the powers that be in China had somewhat mixed feelings about the film’s success.  Despite the film having a post-credits stinger there has not yet been a Wolf Warrior 3 and I’ve heard it is because the cultural ministry has in fact rejected a screenplay for the sequel that was submitted.  I think this is because for all his patriotism, the character of Leng Feng still has some of that “rogue action hero who plays by his own rules” to him and this movie rather notably seems more interested in boosting him as an individual hero than making him part of a team.  By contrast Operation Red Sea, which came out the next year and is probably a superior action movie generally, is more about a team effort in a conflict and I suspect that’s closer to the message the party wants to send.
**1/2 out of Five

Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)
Like with Wolf Warrior 2, Detective Chinatown 2 was a sequel that leveraged the rapidly increased power of the Chinese box office in order to make the follow-up to a moderate hit into an unprecedented blockbuster.  This movie made $544 million worldwide.  To put that in perspective that’s more than twice as much as Borat made worldwide and it did it more or less in just one market.  The film hues pretty close to the first Detective Chinatown to the point of almost following a formula and in a lot of ways I probably could have stuck with that first movie and gotten the gist of what the whole series had to offer but there were two key differences here.  Firstly, the film has a noticeably much larger budget which allows them to film in various landmarks that I would have thought difficult to book and lets them play a Taylor Swift song over several scenes.  More importantly, and what made me particularly interested in seeing this one; unlike the Thailand set first film this one was set in New York City, giving me insight into what a major American city looks like when viewed through a (heightened) foreign lens.  The film picks up a few months after the first leaves off.  Qin Feng has been going to college but during some time off has come to New York, where a bunch of similar amateur detectives have been assembled by an eccentric Chinatown millionaire who has put up a reward for the person who finds the person who killed his grandson, who may have been murdered by a serial killer who is harvesting people’s organs.  But his crazy “uncle” is waiting for him when he gets to the airport and sort of tags along with him the whole time for unclear reasons.

Now, before we get too judgmental, I will say that Hollywood has a long history of making movies in foreign countries that look at said countries with an inauthentic tourist’s eye the emphasize dumb stereotypes in ways non-local audience are perhaps a bit blind to.  This can go both ways however and the New York here is pretty bizarre.  Some of this is likely intentional; the people making this would likely be the first people to say this was not supposed to be a realistic travelogue and instead bartered in comedic exaggeration but, man… In this movie New York is filled with homosexual biker gangs (homophobia seems to be a problem in this whole series), there’s an absurd number of guns, and the police chief is played by a Donald Trump impersonator. I can laugh off a lot of this (which is a privilege that many of the countries Hollywood shoots in don’t necessarily have), but the one thing that was pretty consistently jarring was how little the film knew how to deal with African American characters and a strange scene where a character is teaching what appears to be a gun toting inner city gang was… not cool.  I’d call all of this a flaw but the truth is that it probably made the movie more interesting for me, albeit unintentionally, than it would have otherwise.  Beyond all that, eh, the comedy doesn’t really translate.  I think I chuckled twice and the story can’t really stand on its own otherwise.
** out of Five

The Eight Hundred (2020)
With their film The Eight Hundred China seemingly did the impossible.  For the first time ever the number one film at the worldwide box office was not an English language film made with Hollywood money and was instead a film from The People’s Republic of China.  Of course that achievement comes with the mother of all asterisks: it happened in 2020, the year most of the world’s theaters were closed for business.  In fact the second highest grossing film of that year was also an Asian production, the Japanese anime blockbuster Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train (though different sources seem to favor that later film, not sure what’s going on there), and even with all the advantages both of these movies had their $461 million and $447 million takes was still wasn’t that much more than the $426 million that Hollywood’s one pre-pandemic hit Bad Boys for Life managed to bring in.  Still, a number one is a number one and this accomplishment will still be in the history books forever as one point for Team China over Team Hollywood in the epic battle for the future of worldwide movie-going.  Interestingly the movie that did this was arguably a bit of a step back in terms of the content that was gaining popularity in that country.  Previously the big narrative about the Chinese box office was that they had been taking notes from Hollywood and were starting to move away from the tired patriotic historical war movies and toward fresh patriotic contemporary and fantasy movies.  The Eight Hundred, though made with very modern production values, is very much a World War II movie interested in highlighting a patriotic war achievement and sounds a lot like the kind of thing people were sick of being fed by the CCP for years.  So I was prepared for a pretty dumb propaganda movie, and while that element is there I was actually surprised to find this thing to actually be pretty good.

The film is a dramatization of the defense of the Sihang Warehouse, an event that occurred late during Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai during the second Sino-Japanese War.  By the time the film starts the Japanese had already basically won the battle and overwhelmed the city outside of a few foreign concession-zones occupied by foreign powers that the Japanese could not attack lest they provoke those countries into the war.  Late in the battle remaining Chinese forces held up in a warehouse that was right across the river from one of these concession-zones, meaning that the Japanese could not simply carpet bomb the location, and proceeded to engage in a last stand in the vein of The Alamo or Thermopylae.  The idea being that such a defense would boost the morale of the rest of the Chinese forces and also because this whole spectacle was playing out in full view of the foreigners across the river it would boost international sympathy for China’s plight.  There were actually only a little over four hundred soldiers in that warehouse, but the numbers got inflated to eight hundred as misinformation to the enemy and the name and legend stuck. 

So, it’s not too hard to see how this could be a story that would be turned into a pretty chest beating bit of flag waving, but perhaps deservedly.  I’ve done some cursory research into this battle and it does appear to be a legitimately impressive bit of military history that doesn’t require too much embellishment to work as a story about the “glories of the Chinese spirit” and while there are a couple of scenes here that seem to been added to impress the CCP the film is mostly just guilty of some standard issue Hollywood style creative license.  In fact it may well have been a little too patriotic for the Chinese censors.  As it turns out, China actually has somewhat mixed feelings about this historical event in large part because the soldiers doing this glorious defense are not necessarily “good communists” but are instead members of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army.  The CCP line on this military is that it was basically crushed by the Japanese, not because of any failings of the Chinese people but because of “class oppression within the ranks… the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people,” so glorifying one of the few “glorious” achievements of this army has not necessarily been in the party’s interest, which is probably why the only two previous films about this incident were 1938’s 800 Heroes (made as wartime propaganda just a year after the events) and 1977’s Eight Hundred Heroes, which was actually made in Taiwan, a country which for obvious reasons is much more proud of Chiang Kai-shek’s army.

These ideological concerns actually did get this, a movie that to outside observers looks like pure propaganda, into trouble.  An organization called the “Chinese Red Culture Research Association” heavily criticized the film for its depiction of the Chiang Kai-shek’s army and the Republic of China’s flag (which is heavily featured in a scene where the soldiers try to keep it flying while under fire from a Japanese airplane).  The film was actually withdrawn from the Shanghai Film Festival right before it was supposed to premiere in 2019 and thirteen minutes were cut from it (no clue what was taken out) and would only finally come out a year later (which turned out to be a year with clear box office disadvantages).  Despite all that the movie appears to have rebounded and become a major blockbuster and that’s because it’s a pretty solid war movie.  Director Guan Hu lays out the dynamics of the situation at hand well and stages the various skirmishes of this battle with conviction and the cinematography by Cao Yu is really impressive.  Now, I saw that as someone who’s a reasonably big fan of movies that recreate World War II battles, so preferences around these things may vary but I think it’s mostly a worthy entrant in the genre and some of the more nationalistic edges that Chinese blockbusters often barter in do fit better here than they might elsewhere.
***1/2 out of Five

Hi, Mom (2021)
Though they are basically commercial non-entities outside of their home country, almost all the Chinese blockbusters I’ve looked at up to this point have at least gotten nominal U.S. releases.  They make very little money and I assume they just played in a few theaters in areas with large ex-pat populations, but they did at least play and can also be found on American streaming services or on physical media.  The exception to this is Hi, Mom, a 2021 movie in which a woman seemingly travels back in time to the early eighties and meets her mother.  As far as I can tell this movie has never had any kind of release in the entire Western Hemisphere outside of a single festival appearance in Italy, meaning that in order to watch it for this I needed to track down a not-so-legal copy of it on the third rate streaming side Dailymotion. So, full disclosure, this may have affected my viewing.  This domestic-only release may have been because the film was not originally expected to have seen anything near the success it eventually did.  The film was a sleeper hit that grew to be a massive success because of word-of-mouth, out-grossing Detective Chinatown 3 when it opened last year to become the third highest grossing movie at the worldwide box office in 2021, the third highest grossing Chinese movie ever, and to this date it holds the record for being the highest grossing movie ever to be directed by a solo female filmmaker.  That filmmaker was the comedian Jia Ling, who also wrote and starred in the film after becoming something of a celebrity through various TV sketch comedy appearances. This was actually her directorial debut and it appears to have been rooted in some very personal experiences so you can tell this was the moment where she really wanted to cash in her public clout and it seems to have paid off spectacularly for her.

Though the film is a comedy of sorts, it’s rooted in a rather painful aspect of Jia Ling’s life.  She lost her mother at the age of eighteen in 2001 in an accident and felt like she hadn’t “made her proud” and in this movie she envisions a woman who also experiences a loss like this in 2001, but then she imagines this woman through some vague unexplained magic being able to travel back in time to 1981 (the year before she was born) and interacting with her mother when she was the same age.  To the western viewer that basic concept instantly reminds you of Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic Back to the Future, which also had its teenage protagonist going back to a sentimentalized time in its country’s history to interact with a younger version of their parents and gaining some new understanding of them as a result.  However, there are some pretty profound differences between the two movies.  For one, Back to the Future is much more interested in the mechanics of time travel and becomes something of a thriller in which Marty McFly is rushing all over the place to prevent dangerous time paradoxes.  China’s censors actually have something of a history of frowning on the very concept of time travel for… reasons (something about believing that if people can change the past they’ll start thinking too hard about changing the present), so this movie simply presents time travel as a magical realist conceit, a means to an ends that isn’t taken too seriously and (spoiler) is ultimately proven to just be a dream. 

But the more profound difference between the two movies are the character motivations.  Where Marty McFly spends much of the second half of Back to the Future desperately trying to make sure that his mother still ends up with his father in order to preserve his own status quo, the protagonist of Hi, Mom does the opposite.  She is so consumed with guilt and self-loathing that she tries to actively break up her father and mother in the past so that her mother would marry a richer man, making her more happy and (presumably) eventually giving birth to a child (and only one child, of course) who will make her more proud than the protagonist did.  That’s kind of a dark concept that the film dilutes a bit by not making the cause and effect of the protagonist’s actions as palpable as they were in Back to the Future (she does not, for instance, start to disappear as the timeline becomes corrupted).  Whole papers could probably be written about the differences in the Chinese and American outlook on life by comparing this aspect of these two movies, though Hi Mom does not ultimately endorse its protagonist’s outlook on herself and the movie does ultimately have a cathartic and self-esteem affirming ending that even Hallmark would probably approve of.

So why did this become such a smash success?  Well, a lot of reasons.  For one, the film is engaging in 80s nostalgia in a way that is very timely to a Chinese audience.  The Youtuber Accented Cinema argues that this era and milieu of Chinese history used to feel very quaint and old fashioned to Chinese millennials raised on foreign influences from the United States and Japan have recently begun to re-evaluate this older era of their parents for its Chinese purity.  But perhaps the even bigger reason for its success was the pandemic, which kept a lot of Chinese migrants separated from their families in rural regions for extended periods of time and there was a sort of overwhelming catharsis in seeing a movie like this which has a gooey and affirming message about the yearning for family reunification and it really had people weeping in the theaters.  Looking at the movie as an outsider I’m a little more on the outside when it comes to the movie’s nostalgia and humor, and there are other decisions here like Jia Ling’s decision to cast herself (a 38-year-old old woman) as an eighteen-year-old teenager that seems a bit strange.  It’s not a movie for me, either culturally or just in terms of what my taste tends toward, but I see the appeal.  In fact of all the movies I’ve looked at for my series on Chinese blockbusters this is the only one I can imagine Hollywood trying to do a remake of.
*** out of Five

The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
In my review of The Eight Hundred I noted that that movie marked the first and only time that the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office was made outside of Hollywood, but we came within an inch of that happening in 2021 too.  Up until December of that year China’s historical epic The Battle at Lake Changjin stood at the top of that year’s box office having raked in $902 million dollars almost entirely from the domestic box office of its home country.  That makes it the highest grossing Chinese movie ever and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie of all time.  On top of that Hi, Mom was sitting in second place on that same list and Detective Chinatown 3 was also in the top five so China was really in a dominant position… then at the eleventh hour Spider-Man: No Way Home swung in and saved the day for Hollywood, ultimately earning more than a billion dollars more than China’s patriotic war film did.  That is a good reminder of the limits of China’s box office numbers: unless they’re able to make movies that people outside their own borders care about they probably won’t be topping charts like that again, at least not without another x-factor like pandemic theater shutdowns giving them a leg up (they don’t appear to have even gotten close this year).  But $902 million is nothing to scoff at, what is this movie that managed to score that much cash?

Well, as it turns out The Battle at Lake Changjin is a much different beast than a lot of the other movies I’ve looked at for this series.  Where movies like Wolf Warrior, while nationalistic as hell, did represent a different and more Hollywood influenced brand of mainstream Chinese cinema.  This one though, this is exactly the kind of government sponsored historical movie commemorating an anniversary that this national cinema was infamous for and which those other films were seen as something of an antidote to.  These kinds of movies (among others) are known as “main melody” movies as they express the prevailing themes of the party… in other words they’re straightforward and unashamed propaganda.  The exact definition of this “genre” is a bit nebulous so it could probably be used to describe several of the movies I’ve looked at, but it 100% describes this one.  The movie was one of several made as a the result of a mandate from the top to make movies about the Korean War, or “The War to Resist US Aggression” as they apparently call it in China as part of a wider interest under Xi Jinping to hold that conflict up as an example of how China is able to defeat those damn imperialist Americans and The Battle at Lake Changjin (known in the west as The Battle of Chosin Reservoir) was seen as their defining success.  Of course who won that battle is somewhat in the eye of the beholder: it did force the U.N. forces to retreat and was something of a turning point in the war, but the Chinese did suffer significantly more casualties despite outnumbering their opponents four to one.  One nation’s “victory” is another nation’s Thermopylae-esque stand or at least Dunkirk-esque escape, but the truth is that there wasn’t a lot of glory to be found on this battlefield at all, it was an extremely brutal battle fought in the freezing cold and was absolute hell for all involved. 

The film was helmed by not one, not two, but three different filmmakers each with a fairly impressive resume.  First there’s Dante Lam, whose work we looked at when discussing Operation Red Sea and seems like a more natural suspect to make a modern war film.  His two collaborators are perhaps more surprising to see on a project like this; there’s Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong filmmaker whose probably best known for the Once Upon a Time in China films and other innovative martial arts films, and then (somewhat disappointingly) there’s Chen Kaige.  Kaige was a contemporary of Zhang Yimou who is best known for his excellent Palme d’Or winning drama Farewell My Concubine.  Despite its international acclaim the Chinese government absolutely hated that movie, which I suspect has something to do why it’s never gotten a Blu-ray release.  It seems however that Kaige has gotten back into the good graces of his government, probably by lending his talents to movies like… this. 

Make no mistake, this is a very strange and distorted view of history.  The movie certainly tries to suggest a degree of authenticity by quoting all sorts of tedious details about what numbered regiments were involved in various aspects of the battle, but the movie distorts the numbers involved in each side and also willfully ignores a lot of obvious context like the fact that the North Koreans were the aggressors in this whole thing or that the U.N. troops eventually recovered and continued the war long after this battle.  While the film was largely ignored in the United States these and other distortions did lead to quite a bit of controversy in South Korea, and I would imagine this would be a very strange movie to watch as a Korean because it’s a movie about the Korean War that is basically devoid of onscreen Koreans.  The film does not bother to depict any North Korean troops fighting alongside the Chinese or South Korean troops fighting alongside the American troops and it’s also decidedly uninterested in muddying the waters with the fact that America was fighting as part of a U.N. coalition that also included troops from the U.K. and several other countries.  Instead the whole conflict is sold entirely as a fight between China and the United States; bringing up the actual Koreans whose country they’re fighting over runs the risk of reminding people that the ultimate legacy of this battle was the protection of the North Korean state, which is… not something to be that proud of.  Better to just make it all about “US Aggression” and ignore those pesky little details.

I could try to litigate the historical accuracy of this all day, but there is an actual movie here I’m supposed to be reviewing, what’s the actual appeal of this that sold so many tickets?  Well a lot of that is just the sheer size of the production.  The film’s final battle scene is legitimately huge, with a whole lot of extras running at each other and there is a scale to it that’s impressive, but hardly unprecedented.  There are a couple decent action details here and there, but I would not recommend this to most people just as a spectacle (granted, I had to watch it on a laptop monitor given that it isn’t streaming anywhere in this country).  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a character piece as this is another one of those ensemble war movies, which is a genre I can get behind occasionally but the characters here seem particularly weak in part because they seem to have been given very little space to really express any kind of doubts about what they’re doing or even just any serious regrets about the horrors of war. As Chinese war movies go I think The Eight Hundred is superior to this on almost every level, and not just because it’s telling a story where the Chinese are in a more authentically heroic position, on most cinematic levels it’s just a better movie.  So there are ways for China to make flag waving war movies that work but this didn’t hit that mark and the fact that audiences still flocked to it I think suggests a little bit of a regression in large scale Chinese cinema. 
** out of Five

In Conclusion
And with that I’m going to end my journey through contemporary Chinese blockbusters.  I think the movies I watch tell something of a story about the rise of this industry but also a somewhat unsettling story about how this industry seemed like it would ease up through western influence only to quickly revert back into even harsher nationalism.  In some ways that kind of mirrors misplaced optimism the western world had about China as a whole, who does not seem to have allowed western influence lead them in more democratic directions as many had hoped, rather all the money and success seems to have basically vindicated and increased the popularity of the country’s often regressive regime.  And with their increased home grown success they’ve also come to see less and less need for Hollywood.  When I first came up with this series I was doing it to get an idea about a market that Hollywood was increasingly pandering to and wanted an idea of what the local tastes they were trying to emulate, but increasingly both Hollywood and America writ large have been going through a slow divorce with the middle kingdom.  China is letting fewer and fewer Hollywood movies into their country and are finding increasingly cryptic reason to disallow movies, which has certainly come at the expense of Marvel, who haven’t been allowed into the country since the pandemic.  A couple movies still get played over there; this year’s biggest winners seem to be Jurassic World Dominion and The Bad Guys, though only the former broke one hundred million in that market.  The thing is China’s homegrown movies have had a rough 2022 as well.  Across the board China’s box office is down 35% over last year as the pandemic problems the western world faced in 2020 and 2021 started to hit China harder.  So the future of this market is not very clear; maybe the boom is over or maybe it will bounce right back and become more and more dominant. 

Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 1

“We must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them, even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes. But taking over legacies and using them as examples must never replace our own creative work; nothing can do that. Uncritical transplantation or copying from the ancients and the foreigners is the most sterile and harmful dogmatism in literature and art.” — Mao Zedong, talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 2nd 1942

For much of the 2010s it was no secret that The People’s Republic of China was becoming an intensely important market for cinema.  If you look in the trades you’ll see article after article about movies making hundreds of millions of dollars there and of studio executives bending over to pander to that market.  I’ve been reading about it in Erich Schwartzel’s book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” and meeting the demands of the CCP has been pretty all encompassing for that whole industry for a decade.  We have not, however, heard many stories of the trade routes going in the other direction.  Depending on your view of Taiwanese sovereignty the highest grossing movie from mainland China in America is 2003’s Hero, which kind of predates the current boom, and even that (and many of the other wuxia films from that wave) were Hong Kong co-productions.  As far as I can tell the highest grossing purely Mainland Chinese film in the United States is 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which made all of $6,566,773, slightly less than such “commercial” products as Amour and Fanny and Alexander.  But that doesn’t mean Chinese movies aren’t hugely profitable, in fact they’ve managed to set worldwide records largely using only their own domestic market.  These are some of the biggest global blockbusters in the world and yet I’m largely unfamiliar with them.  I’ve seen plenty of Hong Kong movies and some of China’s artier offerings like some of the “Fifth Generation” films or the works of people like Jia Zhangke, but like most westerners I’ve ignored the movies they’ve made for the masses and I feel like having some familiarity with what’s popular in this increasingly important market would be useful at some point.  Honestly I’m not sure how much I’ll like these or even if I’ll like them at all.  These are not movies made for outsiders and a lot of them look extremely nationalistic to the point of essentially being propaganda, but I’m going to try to watch with an open mind and see what I can learn.

Wolf Warrior (2015)

Wolf Warrior is the lowest grossing movie I’ll be looking at in this series; the film’s sequel is a record setting phenomenon that I’ll be covering at a later date but this original was actually a much more modest success at the Chinese box office.  It and its sequel are infamous for their patriotic chest beating, to the point where term “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” has come to be widely used to describe Chinese diplomats publicly using confrontational tactics to appeal to home audiences who want to see their country talking tough on the world stage.  It would, however, not quite be correct to call this a government commissioned work of propaganda of the over “Battleship Potemkin” variety.  China does make those kinds of films, they tend to be dry re-enactments of historical events that the party wants to commemorate often on key anniversaries and primarily enjoyed by old people, and this wasn’t one of them.  It’s certainly a film that is interested in working in harmony with the CCP’s propaganda goals to gain their favor, and it’s also trying to exploit the nationalistic impulses of its audience the way that something like the Rambo series has been known to, but it was by all accounts not a film that the government had a lot of interest or faith in while it was being made and its origins are actually downright capitalistic.

The film is very much the passion project of its writer, director, and star Wu Jing.  Wu was a martial arts actor who had been toiling in Hong Kong and Mainland China since the mid-90s with middling-at-best success, sometimes using the westernized name “Jacky Wu.”  Wolf Warrior was the project Wu believed in and thought could be a breakout and invested a lot of his own money into.  The official story was that Wu watched the Chinese military doing a rescue operation after an earthquake and was so moved by their heroism that he wanted to make a movie to honor them… which is certainly a story with a ring of Public Relations to it.  I have a hunch that his real motives for making a movie of chest beating patriotism was a bit more cynical, but maybe he’s more of a true believer than that.  The film looks at a guy named Leng Feng, a military man who’s a bit of a rebel within the ranks (a somewhat unexpected character trait given the conformism you would expect to be prized in communist propaganda) who gets in trouble during an operation for going against orders to shoot a criminal who’s holding a hostage.  That slain criminal’s brother, a drug lord, then orders a hit on Leng Feng that is going to be carried out by a group of western mercenaries in a surprise attack on a training operation he’s taking part in.

So, the film’s story is pretty loopy.  We don’t really get to know Leng Feng very well beyond the fact that his patriotic zeal occasionally leads him to be insubordinate, and I must say I can see why Wu never really broke out as an actor prior to this, I wouldn’t say he has a ton of screen presence and often kind of blends in with the rest of the soldiers around him.  The film also isn’t great at keeping things simple and occasionally goes down strange roads like introducing a pack of actual (poorly CGIed) wolves for a scene or oddly offhandedly throwing in a sub-plot suggesting that the bad guys (who are supposedly employed by a common gangster) are trying to steal DNA to make bioweapons that would target China.  Interestingly, the lead bad guy mercenary is played by Scott Adkins, a British martial artist who is something of a king in the world of direct-to-video action movies.  I’m not too familiar with his work but this kind of highlights to me why he’s never really been able to break into the big times himself; he seems more like a stuntman who tries to act than an actor who does his own stunts, though I should perhaps reserve my judgement as I doubt he brought his verbal A-game to a movie intended for audiences who don’t speak English.

Adkins’ presence does kind of signal something about the movie, however, as the production values and ambitions here are not dissimilar from what I might expect from one of his direct-to-video movies, which is to say that it’s not a completely shoestring operation by any means and has some action chops under the hood but it’s also inelegant and not particularly tasteful or rigorous.  There are some action scene here that show some glimmers of potential to be sure, they’re competent but not very creative or artful and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen executed better elsewhere.  The cinematography is also drab and the sets are simultaneously way too high tech to be believable while also being cheap looking in a way that gives away the film’s relatively small budget. This is very much a film that clearly put all its effort into making its action scenes look decent and show off a bunch of military gear for certain kinds of audiences to gush over.  So, yeah, very much in line with the standards of those direct-to-video actioneers.  Lower your standards like that and this is a passable movie, but not one that has anything to really offer anyone not interested in the Chinese film industry or the film’s blockbuster sequel, which is what I’m guessing is what you have to see to really judge what this franchise is about.  I’m not going to jump into that one right away, but it’s on the to-do list.
** out of Five

Detective Chinatown (2015)

Comedy, straightforward unpretentious comedy, is probably the genre that’s the hardest to export.  Even if they tell stories that are relatively universal they rely a little too closely on linguistic idioms cultural norms that don’t quite translate and they have a timing to them that subtitles can be a bit too clumsy to match.  Some comedies are so intrinsically smart and well-made that they transcend all language barriers, but when it comes to the low brow populist stuff there really doesn’t tend to be too much of a need to explore the world’s offerings.  As such “low” comedy tends to be something of a boon for local filmmaking markets.  If you look at the box office receipts of any country normally associated with “art” cinema and you might be surprised to see that the movies you know from that country are actually vastly outgrossed by dumbass comedies you haven’t heard of.  For instance the year’s highest grossing non-Hollywood film in France is something called Serial (Bad) Weddings 3, the third installment of what appears to be some kind of Meet the Parents type thing.  Similarly in Spain the highest grossing local film isn’t one of the festival favorites like Alcarràs or Lullaby, it’s something called Father There Is Only One 3, the third installment of some kind of Cheaper by the Dozen type thing.  And of course it stands to reason that China would want its own Hollywood style mainstream comedy series, and the one that swooped in to take that slot was a little franchise called “Detective Chinatown.”

Like with Wolf Warrior the Detective Chinatown is a franchise started in 2015 which made money with the first film but didn’t start setting box office records until the sequel.  The series largely rests on the shoulders of a guy named Wang Baoqiang, a comedy star who feels kind of like a cross between the affable seediness of a Vince Vaughn with the wiry temperamentalness and commercial instincts of an Adam Sandler.  Wang scored a pretty sizable hit with the 2012 film Lost in Thailand, a sort of road movie comedy set in Bangkok.  This movie brings Wang back to Thailand, this time as an immigrant living and working as a police detective in that city’s famous Chinatown.  He is not, however, the film’s protagonist.  Rather he’s a drunken scoundrel more interested in vice than in real policing, a sort of much less depressing and more redeemable version of the character from Bad Lieutenant.  The film’s actual protagonist is played by Liu Haoran and is that character’s nephew, a young man of about eighteen who was passed over for entrance in the police academy and is planning to travel to Bangkok to shadow his police officer relative, unware that his uncle is actually going to turn out to be a very lousy role model.

The two actors have a pretty recognizable dynamic: Liu Haoran is the straight man while Wang Baoqiang is the boorish fool and the two dislike each other but must work together to solve a mystery while on the run after their falsely accused.  I could easily see a Hollywood comedy using the same basic concept, in fact I’m pretty sure a Hollywood comedy has used this concept even though I can’t quite come up with an example off the top of my head; it clearly follows existing formulas.  The most obvious counterpart is The Hangover, though it has a smaller ensemble and it’s generally a tamer and less raunchy movie.  Make no mistake the comedy here is pretty juvenile.  The movie has several jokes about people getting kicked in the balls, which probably gives you a good idea of how high the brow is here.  I didn’t find it very funny to be sure, but again, this is a movie made for a fairly localized audience.  I’m not familiar enough with the Mainland Chinese comedies that came before this to really say but I’m guessing that aspects of this were at least a little less familiar to the audience it was intended for, at least in terms of movies made by and for China.  Or maybe not and the people with taste there have about as much resentment for this as we do for crappy cookie-cutter Sandler movies.
** out of Five

Operation Red Sea (2018)

I’m jumping forward a bit in my examination of China’s modern blockbusters to a year after the 2017 release of Wolf Warrier 2 (a film I’ll come back to in part 2), which was something of a game changer at the Chinese box office.  In the following years there would be an acceleration in ambition in mainland Chinese cinema both in terms of the size of the films and how they were marketed.  China wanted its own films to be as big of a deal, at least with their own audiences, as Hollywood’s megaproductions and if they could make inroads at the box office outside their borders then all the better.  One of the first beneficiaries of that newfound ambition was the 2018 film Operation Red Sea, which was also building off the relative success of the director’s previous film Operation Mekong, to which this is something of a spiritual sequel.  Both “Operation” films were directed by a guy named Dante Lam, who we’ll encounter again with at least one movie film in this retrospective and who can probably be fairly described as one of contemporary China’s top commercial filmmakers.  Lam was born in Hong Kong and began his career in that system, though notably his first film came out in 1997, the year of that city-state’s handover from the British to the Chinese.  He continued to make Cantonese language films in Hong Kong for many years, most of them not exported very widely into the west, and over time these films came to be made for mainland audiences and with Operation Mekong (a film about Chinese authorities tangling with cartels on the border with Southeast Asia) he seems to have fully crossed over to Beijing’s system.

Operation Red Sea claims to be based on a true story, but that’s highly dubious.  The event it’s based on was the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015 as that country’s war escalated.  In reality this wasn’t terribly dramatic; a Chinese navy ship pulled up to the harbor, the Chinese citizens got on board, then the boat left.  But the film envisions this as this highly explosive Black Hawk Down like situation filled with shooting and explosions in which the Chinese military covered itself in glory while protecting its citizens.  Of course the film doesn’t claim to be a direct depiction of history, in fact it’s set in the fictional country of Yewaire and in general the film is not supposed to be taken as a work of serious geopolitics, it’s an action movie.  So what we’ve basically been given is an unashamed Bruckheimer style action flick in which the Chinese military shoots the living shit out of terrorists in the Middle East.  This is something that Hollywood has mostly shied away from during the last twenty years what with the United States actively being in a war in this region.  The politics of movies like American Sniper and Lone Survivor are dubious to say the least but they’re nothing if not revenant and maudlin takes on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.  It would kind of take an outside country pretending to be more militarily engaged with the world than it really is in order to make something like this… even if the morality of doing so is still probably dubious.

Islamophobia is as much of a real issue in China as it is anywhere and one need not look much further than the repression of the Uyghurs to see the serious consequences of it.  So I would say it’s more than a little uneasy watching a fairly irreverent movie where the Chinese military goes toe-to-toe with fanatical terrorists wearing keffiyeh, largely removed from any real world scenario.  Having said that, if you can put all of that aside, the action in Operation Red Sea kind of slaps.  The film revels in pretty much every kind of military action you can imagine: firefights, tank battles, sniper duels, hostage rescues, etc. and while there’s some wonky CGI here and there it mostly remains grounded and practical in its methods.  The film sets off some very impressive seemingly practical explosions and it’s also not afraid to get pretty bloody at times.  That legacy of Hong Kong action is still there beneath the surface and Lam has been given a pretty large budget to work with.  What really holds the movie back is that it kind of lacks interesting characters to get behind, at least from where I sit.  The film is very much an ensemble without a central protagonist, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, but if you’re going to do this you need to give your characters some pretty strong distinguishing features so that the audience pegs who these people are really quickly and remember them when they recur.  One way to do this is to get an all star cast so that the audience reacts to each person instantaneously through association.  Maybe the people here have a high profile in China and thus accomplish that, but I certainly didn’t recognize them, so a lot of the characters here didn’t really stand out to me outside of perhaps their role in combat, otherwise they were kind of boring.  I don’t know that I can entirely get behind this thing, but as a production it has impressive elements.
*** out of Five

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Almost none of the movies I’m talking about in this series of looks at Chinese Blockbusters made even the slightest bit of money at the box office outside of China.  Most of the movie do get nominal releases in the United States which I think are mostly targeted towards Chinese immigrant and expat communities, but the tactic doesn’t seem to be even close to being as successful as the releases targeting the Indian diaspora here have been.  Generally speaking even the biggest of them have plateaued in the three million range for U.S. box office, even for movies that get decent buzz like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (a film that would be in this series if I hadn’t already seen it).  I don’t think distributors are putting their full effort into a lot of these releases by any means, but I doubt they would increase their results by all that much if they did so I can’t say I blame them.  The only movie in the series that did even slightly better at the U.S. box office was the 2019 science fiction epic The Wandering Earth, a movie that made $690 million in China and an additional $10 million internationally, of which almost $6 million came from the U.S. box office.  That’s still chump change, but it’s more than double what Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea, or Detective Chinatown 2 were able to do.  And there’s an even bigger asterisk on that because the movie was actually picked up by Netflix, who had nothing to do with the film’s production but do license it for streaming to this day and one can imagine that its theatrical release (which was done by a separate company) might have been a touch higher.

None of this is to say The Wandering Earth is actually good, because it very much isn’t.  To its credit the stupid propaganda content is at a minimum beyond the fact that it depicts Chinese heroes saving the world in the way the United States usually saves the world in Hollywood disaster movies, and that seems fair enough.  However the reasons the world was in peril in the first place are bonkers.  The film is set in the “distant future” of… 2061.  Apparently in that forty years it’s discovered that the sun is expanding to the point where it’s going to consume Earth fairly soon, so the world’s solution to this was to build a series of high powered rockets across the planet’s surface which are to be used to propel the earth out of its orbit and actively move it across the solar system until it connects with the nearest other star (Alpha Centari) and join its orbit… yeah, I’m not expert but I’m pretty sure that whole idea breaks every law of physics on the books.  It picks up about seventeen years into this multi-generational mission where humans are now living underground (because the “wandering” does a number on the conditions on the surface) and there’s also a space ship following the mobile planet to help navigate.  Something then goes wrong and the Earth stands the risk of being pulled into Jupiter’s gravitational field and killing everyone, but this may be averted through some effort.

So this is sort of a disaster movie of the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin school but one of the Geostrom and Moonfall variety that takes on a premise so ridiculous that it’s kind of a non-starter.  There’s also some Armageddon thrown in there in the way a whole family is swallowed up in this whole disaster scenario (including a family patriarch/astronaut played by the Wolf Warrior himself Wu Jing) and from a technological level it’s also drawing from Gravity in that there are some action scenes set in the vacuum of space and an interest in long and sort of show-offy shots.  The film was made for $50 million, but does look more expensive than that (I’m guessing money goes further in China than in Hollywood) and I would say its production values are indeed impressive though certainly not top of the line.  Director Frant Gwo does display a few solid flourishes and there are some action scenes here that are certainly serviceable, but they aren’t worth seeing the movie in and of themselves and they’re in service of this moronic concept.  Add on a lame comic relief character and you’ve got something pretty lackluster.  That said there are a couple interesting ideas to be found here (I might have wanted to know more about the social order on the Earth surface for one) and it looks like there will be further explorations of this world: The Wandering Earth 2 is due out in January 2023.
** out of Five

Ne Zha (2019)

The history of animation in China is almost certainly a deep subject that I have no real qualifications to talk about with any authority.  As best as I can tell Chinese animation was historically more TV focused, but books could probably be written on the subject and there’s probably a lot I’m overlooking.  However I don’t think I’m talking too far out of turn when I say that for whatever the country’s animated output is it doesn’t have much of a long legacy of exporting their animation to the west, certainly not when compared to the cornucopia of animation coming from their Eastern neighbor Japan.  But as China becomes a bigger film market and tries to expand their domestic film production into more genres that was typically covered by Hollywood that’s becoming less and less true.  There was a “Journey to the West” spinoff called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, there was a movie called White Snake that they tried to sell to western audiences a couple years ago, and there have also been some odd co-production attempts like Over the Moon.  But the most commercially successful animated movie to come out of the Chinese film industry, by far, is a 2019 film called Ne Zha. This movie grossed $726 million dollars worldwide, which puts it right between Pixar’s Up and F9: The Fast Saga on the all-time charts.

Ne Zha is an irreverent adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese classic “Investiture of the Gods,” a work that isn’t as famous as “Journey to the West” but is nonetheless considered an extremely major work in Chinese literature.  The story here concerns a pair of orbs created by “primordial being,” one of them a demon orb and the other a spirit orb.  And these two orbs fall to earth followed by some other celestial beings that are supposed to keep them in check.  The spirt orb falls into the hands of an (I think evil?) dragon, who fuses it with his son (who appears to be half human?), while the demon orb accidentally fused with the newborn son of two nobles.  This demon child, Ne Zha, then proceeds to get into all sorts of mischief with his powers.  I don’t know anything about this centuries old 650 page work beyond what’s in its brief Wikipedia summery, but it sure doesn’t sound that much like the movie I just watched, so I’m guessing this is either an adaptation of a small sub-plot in the book or it’s even looser an adaptation than it looks like.  I’m guessing that my unfamiliarity with this mythology did affect my watching of this as I’m guessing a lot of the film’s charms come from the way it re-invents familiar myths for its intended audience.  It would be the equivalent of someone watching Disney’s Hercules without any sort of background in Greek mythology.  This is, however, a movie made for children and families so it’s not completely inaccessible.

The film itself is a work of CGI animation that is clearly trying to go head-to-head with the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Etc style.  On a technical level the animation is certainly a few years behind but not dramatically so.  Certain shots are impressive and do some inventive things with action and physical comedy, but other shots look kind of rough.  What translates the worst about it is almost certainly its comedy, which leans towards the scatological at times.  The Ne Zha character can also be a bit abrasive both just in what he is (which is a bit ghastly) and his mannerisms.  I would be lying if I said I was entirely able to keep up with all the mythological shenanigans and related plot developments that happened, some of the rules of this world remained a bit unclear to me.  And some of that piss and fart humor is just a total nonstarter for me.  There are some good bits periodically though so you take the good with the bad.  Ultimately its tonal dissonance wasn’t for me but I can see why through another cultural lens this would be pretty impressive and why it made bank in its home country.
**1/2 out of Five

This will continue in a second part which should come out sometime next month

Crash Course: François Ozon

It’s kind of crazy that I, despite generally trying to keep up with world cinema, have never seen a film from the French Auteur François Ozon.  For pretty much the entirety of the 21st Century this guy has been a fixture of the European festivals and usually also gets American distribution for his many, many, well received films.  The guy has almost two dozen movies, most of them well liked, under his belt and yet I’ve never gotten on board.  Why is that?  Well, as omnipresent as Ozon has been over the last twenty five years he’s perhaps better known for his body of work than he is for any individual film.  There’s a bit of an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” quality to how his movies tend to be received: he’s constantly a fixture at festivals and usually gets good marks but at least stateside he never seems to be the center of attention either among critics or at the arthouse box office.  So, I’ve never felt a ton of pressure to finally show up to one of his films and without that pressure skipping his movies has always kind of been the path of least resistance because with how long he’s been making movies it’s always felt odd to show up to whatever his latest has been without catching up ahead of time and knowing the context of what I’m getting into.  Well, I’m finally doing that catch up.  Now, this is going to be a slightly awkward survey because I do think I need to make sure to see what is probably the closest to being his signature film, 2003’s Swimming Pool, but then I’m going to jump forward about ten years and spend the rest of the Crash Course focusing on the more recent work he’s done in the 2010s, which is easier for me to obtain and would also be more relevant to preparing me to tackle any new work from him as it comes along.

Swimming Pool (2003)

Swimming Pool came out in 2003, when I would have been about 15: film literate but not yet regularly attending new foreign cinema.  So it’s a movie that’s timed about right to be known by people of my generation and sure enough it’s the Ozon movie I’ve heard about the most over the years.  That it would be more famous amongst people I know is probably because of three aspects of it: 1. it’s something of a bilingual movie that’s about 50% in English, 2. it features a great deal of female nudity, and 3. it has a twist ending in an era where movies with twist endings were very popular, especially among so-called “film bros.”  I’m not really sure why it took nearly twenty years for me to catch up with it, I guess there were always just other priorities.  The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer who’s in a bit of a rut, so her publisher (played by Charles Dance) invites her to stay at his French vacation home while it’s empty.  She takes him up on the offer but shortly after arriving there the publisher’s college aged daughter shows up, not knowing the place is already occupied and the two need to share the place.  This becomes kind of tense because the daughter turns out to be a straight up nympho that seems to compulsively get topless and brings home a new man every night.

So what we’ve got here is a small movie with a pretty small cast that’s primarily set at one location.  It’s sort of a thriller, but not really.  It’s not really built on suspense sequences and aside from one scene of violence danger doesn’t really pervade the film.  Instead it’s kind of an unusual battle of wills between these two women that takes a pretty radical turn at a certain point and becomes something else… or does it.  The film is also partly about the artistic process as the protagonist tries to overcome her writer’s block and starts to view this new house guest as a possible subject for her writing and the knotty ethics involved in that.  In fact the film’s final twist rather firmly seems to place that as the film’s central theme but that isn’t entirely apparent on a first viewing.  Overall this was a movie that I found… interesting.  In a lot of ways it feels kind of like a throwback to domestic semi-thrillers of a previous era, especially the almost identically titled La Piscine, which this comes close to being a remake of in some ways.  I’m don’t necessarily think this movie would have blown me away when it first came out, but it’s a strong movie worth knowing about.
***1/2 out of Five

In the House (2012)

François Ozon’s 2012 film In the House was considered a bit of a comeback for the director which won quite a few festival awards despite not quite becoming a breakout at the domestic art houses.  That’s unfortunate because it was produced slickly enough that I think it could have become a bigger deal than it was if it was promoted correctly.  The film is set in contemporary France and focuses on a high school teacher literature teacher at what appears to be some sort of private school where a star pupil named Claude has caught his eye.  This student, has turned in a writing assignment in which he describes his time tutoring at the house of a wealthier classmate.  The story describes this house with a great deal of disrespect towards the classmate but a certain obsession with his house and the life of his family, and especially his mother.  The writing ends with a literal “to be continued” at the end, which leaves the teacher in something of a dilemma.  He likes the prose in the story and wants to encourage the student to continue both for the students development as a writer but also because the teacher is interested to hear more, but encouraging the student to continue to embed himself in the family life of his classmate for voyeuristic reasons is not exactly healthy.  As further installments are turned in it seems that this game is becoming more and more dangerous (or is it?) but also the teacher has become more obsessed in seeing it through.

Though it doesn’t always feel that way, the film is steadfastly told from the perspective of the teacher character.  We see many of Claude’s shenanigans at the house on screen, but these are all framed as dramatizations of the writing he turns in to the teacher.  The teacher believes these writings to be fictionalized to a great degree, so we’re never sure whether that’s the case or if they’re total fabrications or if they’re in fact disturbingly factual and this kid really is kind of a stalking creep to this other family.  So that’s a suspense element throughout the film, and it doesn’t take a great follower of cinema to view this combination of suspense and voyeurism as something of an unexpected riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a film that is openly referenced with the movie’s final shot).  Indeed these re-enactments of the kid’s writing are on one level the kid’s own voyeurism on the family, but also the teacher’s voyeuristic interest in the story the kid is weaving, and also the audience’s voyeuristic interest in the whole story as cinemagoers.  So that’s all very clever and exhistential, but the movie never does really turn into a conventional thriller despite threatening to a couple of times, and it’s focus on the writing process in the context of an anti-thriller invokes Ozon’s own Swimming Pool.  All in all it’s a really cleverly crafted and interesting drama that I enjoyed quite a bit.
**** out of Five

Young & Beautiful (2013)

For a self-identified gay man (who as far as I can tell has never claimed to be bisexual), François Ozon sure seems interested in the sex lives of promiscuous young women.  Between this and Swimming Pool two of the three movies of his I’ve looked at are kind of fixated on the sex drive of an unusually active young woman and how the world around her responds to this.  The central character here is a seventeen year old in a bourgeois home who loses her virginity on a summer vacation fling and then, upon returning to Paris, finds herself becoming a call girl to various usually middle-aged to elderly clients.  If Swimming Pool (a film this establishes a clear kinship to in its closing moments) is like a response to La Piscine, and In the House is like a response to Rear Window, this would seem like a sort of Ozonian take on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) in that it’s trying to take a somewhat non-judgmental and procedural look at someone’s choice to engage in prostitution, but the protagonist’s age and financial situation adds a layer of mystery to the proceedings.  The film is trying to explore what drives this character to enter this line of work.  She doesn’t need, or seem to even spend, the money she earns while doing this.  She acts alone and doesn’t seem to be pressured by anyone.  She also doesn’t seem to express much in the way of physical satisfaction from these sexual encounters, and simple teen rebellion doesn’t seem to really explain it either.  Eventually her “side-job” is discovered and the film looks at the way the people respond to this and the, usually not great, ways they try to “cope” with the fact that this family member was acting as a “whore.”

It reminded me of other movies from around that time like An Education and The Diary of a Teenage Girl about teenage girls finding themselves essentially groomed by older men but also finding their way out these abusive situations and finding some degree of normalcy later on.  Those were, however, films made by female directors adapting other women’s autobiographical works and were also based around situations where the central protagonists have a bit less agency over their situations than this one does.  I do wonder if this is another place where Ozon’s homosexuality comes into play because in a lot of ways this story might seem a bit more plausible if, instead of a straight teenage girl at its center there was a gay male teenage hustler exploring his sexuality by turning tricks because he’s stuck in a situation where there’s no other healthier way to do it.  That would certainly add a bit of a different dimension to the film’s third act as it would give the family a much different thing to need to respond to after learning about the protagonist’s behavior.  I’m not sure if that would be a better movie though as it would in many ways make this more of an “issue film” than a character study and the film might get more out of the unusualness of the situation at its center.  It’s a tough film to talk about and a tricky one to recommend, but it’s certainly well-made and I ultimately quite liked the way it handled its subject.
***1/2 out of Five

The New Girlfriend (2014)

Though François Ozon is a gay man, this is not always central to his filmmaking.  He’s made plenty of films where “queer” themes are front and center but he has also avoided being defined entirely by his sexuality.  The three movies of his I’ve watched recently had some elements of queerness on their peripheries but they were by and large movies about decidedly straight people.  His 2014 film The New Girlfriend, is however much more clearly a work of LGBT cinema, though it’s about the T and to some extent L and B parts of the acronym rather than the G which Ozon has personal experience with.  The film is about a seemingly straight and seemingly male person who was in a heterosexual marriage to a woman but shortly after she gave birth to his daughter this wife dies of some unnamed disease leaving him alone with this daughter.  All of this is told from the perspective of this wife’s lifelong best friend Claire, a seemingly straight woman in a heterosexual marriage, who visits this widower unannounced and is surprised to find him in the house wearing a dress and behaving like a woman.  Now I’ve been dancing around pronouns with this character, who alternately goes by David and Virginia, never declares himself a true transwoman over the course of the film, does not seem to be dedicated to living as a woman 24/7, and may instead be some sort of crossdresser or genderqueer person, the film is not big on labels.

As this scenario might suggest this is not really an “issue” movie that’s trying to give a particularly sensitive or representative depiction of trans issues.  Instead it gives us a very Gen X version of gender fluidity that is broadly tolerant of this person’s choices but is also perhaps trying to shock and challenge its bourgeois audience with the outrageousness of the situation.  The whole scenario wouldn’t be totally out of place in a Pedro Almodóvar film, perhaps because of their shared affection for melodrama (both filmmakers are big fans of Fassbinder).  I don’t know that this movie will be winning any GLAAD awards for its depiction but maybe not every movie about trans issues should be watched in stifling “representation matters” terms.  In fact I think if this movie suffers from anything it’s that it’s not wild and reckless enough.  There’s a sort of weird emotional affair at the center of the film between Claire and “Virginia” though rather specifically not “David” which certainly operates on very melodramatic terms and never quite gets as sordid as I think Ozon wanted it to be.  This is perhaps a movie that came out a bit too late, it sort of feels more like it should be a product of a slightly earlier time (maybe even just four or five years earlier) when trans issues were a bit more taboo and there was more of a reason to use outlandish projects like this to explore them.
*** out of Five

Frantz (2016)

François Ozon has continued to seem kind of hard to pin down for me as every time I think he’s going to zig he instead kind of zags.  When I start seeing him as something of an impish provocateur he’ll make a movie like Frantz which is a pretty sincere bit of classical filmmaking.  This film is ostensibly a remake of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby which I haven’t seen and which was itself based on a mostly forgotten 1920s French play by Maurice Rostand.  Its set right after World War I and concerns a French veteran of that war traveling into Germany to lay flowers at the grave of a dead German soldier named Frantz for mysterious reasons.  He encounters the Frantz’ fiancé and when asked says that he knew him before the war when Frantz was living Paris.  This seems genuine, so the fiancé comes to know this French soldier and while her family resents this man and every other Frenchman for what happened during the war, they eventually come to accept him as well, but it turns out he’s harboring a bit of a secret that could change things.

[Spoilers] I will say that I was a little surprised by the nature of that “dark secret,” but because it was shocking but more because it wasn’t particularly.  Given some of the sexual provocations that Ozon has been inclined towards in the past I was pretty sure that it would be revealed that Franz and this Frenchman had been homosexual lovers, but no, the secret was closer to what you might have expected from a version of this story from a previous era: the Frenchman had killed Frantz on the battlefield, felt immense guilt about it, and was aware of the fiancé his time in Paris from a letter he retrieved on the man’s body.  So the film isn’t really trying to subvert the melodrama of this situation with modern sensibilities, rather it’s kind of trying to make a straightforward old fashioned melodrama using modern tools.  The film is partly in black and white and partly in color, with the color sequences which seem to come into the film during moments where the characters are able to put their grief aside during moments of love or moments when they’re experiencing beautiful things like music.  The film is also interestingly bilingual with both principal characters being fluent in both French and German and speak both when appropriate and the whole film is very much about the two country’s perceptions of each other during this tense moment in history.  I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film where this German woman finds herself in a Parisian bar when the patrons burst into a rather martial rendition of “”La Marseillaise” which feels like something of a retort to the famous scene in Casablanca where this same song is sung heroically.  All in all this is an interesting little period piece but I’m not sure it ever quite finds that “x factor” to make it truly memorable.
***1/2 out of Five

By the Grace of God (2019)

On January 6th 2002, The Boston Globe published the article “Spotlight: Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” as a result of the investigation that would later be chronicled in the movie Spotlight.  So it’s been over twenty years and we’re still witnessing the fallout of what ended up being a worldwide pattern of conduct by this institution.  By The Grace of God is a film that dramatizes one of these stories, one that’s not dramatically different than the others (unfortunately) but which is perhaps representative of the situation at large.  The film looks at the investigation into a priest named Bernard Preynat who appears to have molested dozens if not hundreds of children on church sponsored camping trips over the course of decades and the church responded to this through their usual sleazy tactics of moving him around to different parishes and by the 2010s they somehow still had him working with children despite numerous complaints and the guy did not even seem to be denying his guilt.  That last part is what’s truly baffling about this case, this wasn’t something that emerged early in the church’s abuse scandal: they had been dealing with it for over a decade and yet they were still standing by this guy beyond any and all reason and saying shockingly tone deaf things about the case like one moment where (for reasons that defy explanation) a church official said at a press conference that “by the grace of god” the statute of limitations on this priest had already expired.  In fact by the time this was released in France the priest still hadn’t been defrocked (though he would months later).

This is not, however, a situation where the Church’s issues were uncovered through investigations by journalists or the police, both of whom seemed to have involved themselves in the situation rather belatedly.  Instead this mostly seems to have been uncovered through organizing by the victims themselves.  In particular the film focuses on three of the men involved in this organizing including the man who filed the initial police report and the person who did much of the grassroots organizing.  The three represent varying degrees of “brokenness” by what happened to them and different relations to the church in the wake of what they experienced.  The film essentially shifts perspectives between the three of them as it goes, starting with the successful family man and continued church goer who first reported it to the eccentric but stable atheist who did the organizing to the third victim who has been left traumatized and dysfunctional by what happened to him.  Along the way we get a pretty detailed account of everything they went through, each time thinking they’d caught this guy red handed only to see nothing happen as a result.  François Ozon remains pretty restrained and matter-of-factual in his accounting of all this.  He’s sort of an odd choice to direct this as this isn’t really material that’s suited to his usual playfully provocative style, but he clearly saw this as material worth adjusting himself to.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion
And that’s a wrap for my François Ozon crash course.  I was by and large impressed by what I saw but don’t think any of these movies were new classics and I do sort of get why there’s been a bit of a plateau on how enthusiastically Ozon tends to be received.  On the other hand, given how prolific this guy is I don’t think I’ve really gotten the full picture by watching these six movies and kind of suspect that I didn’t really curate an entirely representative sample for myself.  I definitely plan to check out more eventually, for now I’ll just say he’s pretty good.