Search This Blog

Monday, May 30, 2022

Acceptance: The Distance Between Stars and Hearts


By the end of the Southern Reach trilogy, I was sobbing as hard as I have ever done from reading any book. The series began with the extreme isolation and desolation of the biologist (which, as we learn later, was not entirely a spontaneous and voluntary mental state), and ends with the heart-breaking letter from the director of SR to Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper, who were friends when the director was a ten-year-old girl. Even in the strange new world of Area X, under the probing alien eyes on every organism and every cell, when all hope is lost, there is still love. 

I was going to sort out the "secrets" of Area X in the text, such as the long-dead alien race and their planet in ruins, or time-space portal(s) opened by a splinter that pricked Saul's finger, or the long-fought battle between Central and Area X. But not now. 

A much-quoted review in LA Review of Books by David Thompson argued that Area X is a hyperobject (a concept put forth by Timothy Morton), which is supposed to mean events or systems that are too vast and complex to be understood by humans, something like that, I'm paraphrasing. Like black holes or global warming or the Internet. An alien machinery that transforms a patch of land on earth, for example. To which I would add: the human unconscious. 

Even from the start of Annihilation, I thought that the journey into the tower is an allegory for plunging into the darkness of the human mind. The breathing walls and the living, glowing words on them just felt inevitably inward rather than alien. The flashbacks of the biologist's life before entering Area X, however sparse and reserved, are highly specific and permeate a melancholy. In Authority, Control's mental world is similarly detached from his parents, especially his unreachable mother. The probing and manipulation by Lowry, representing Central (a mirror image of Area X), might have been Control's journey into the tower. The tower does not provide us with any psychological insights per se, but the reader nevertheless gets to feel their longings and regrets and emptiness. 

In Acceptance, we are treated with several human connections that somewhat reverse the first two books, including the relationships between the director and Grace, between the girl Gloria and Saul, and Saul's love affair with Charlie, even though everyone still carries their own scars and pain. Even inside Area X, there is still hopeless warmth among the characters on their journeys. 

I thought about the source of the melancholy throughout the trilogy and recognized it between the subject and object of observation. One of the motifs in the novels is the sense that the creator of Area X, which supposedly is not the alien species but their machine or portal, is constantly monitoring and observing every organism on earth within and perhaps even outside Area X. The same practice occurs in the biologist who watches organisms in nature, such as a tidal pool or just a puddle in a parking lot. Or perhaps the same can be said about Lowry, who ruthlessly manipulates and controls and experiments on SR employees' minds. And yet we get the feeling that no two organisms truly understand each other. We can watch a starfish do its thing, but we will never feel what a starfish feels, and vice versa. We cannot even see the entirety of the internal world of another human, and this includes parents and their children. The distance between two hearts or minds is as vast as that of two stars. 

And what about the distance between the conscious thoughts, armed with abstract thinking and language, and the dark tides of the unconscious? They are a few centimeters or even millimeters apart, but they might as well be two species living under one roof. Between the cortex and amygdala or hypothalamus --- take any part of the limbic system --- there is so little understanding and sharing, that the cortex makes up stories, constantly, to pretend that it knows what is happening underneath. It doesn't, not really.

While I will never know whether the human unconscious was intended to be one of the many allegories of Area X, Jeff VanderMeer did say that he let his unconscious guide his writing of this series. So it's by definition true that the novels are indeed about the unconscious. In the adventure into Area X, VanderMeer's unconscious has given us alienation, vulnerability, regrets, longing, despair, and mysteries, endless mysteries. In the end, however, it also gives us unforgotten love. 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Hamlet Goes Business (1987)


I have never liked Hamlet. There must be some fundamental difference between men and women that makes men all shaken to the core by the thought of his father being murdered by his mother (yes I said that), who did so in collaboration with and then marrying a younger man, thereby destroying the fantasy of his own private omnipotent, infallible god. In order to exorcize this fear about his mother, he has to render his lover weak and powerless and, finally, dead.

It came as a shock and a delight that I was not alone in this sentiment. In Aki Kaurismaki's distinctive adaptation, Hamlet is portrayed as a psychopathic little shit. I won't spoil the ending, which is a real kicker.

Besides the beautiful and repressive black-and-white cinematography, the Aki-brand absurdities did not disappoint. The rubber duck joke is sure to stick in my mind forever. The duel between Hamlet and Lauri (Laertes) is incredible. The Finnish Polonius would never be as chatty as the English one, but his cigar more than makes up for the lack of words. His "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech is revised to a more poignant truth --- Don't rush to repay your debt, because the lender may keel over first. And then there's the chicken. Also the first line "Ham! Let me." (What is it in Finnish though?)

True to the film noir tradition, Kaurismaki infused the movie with a sense of existential melancholy, in which the ending shots of a factory devoid of people goes perfectly with his critique of capitalism and Hamlet's last line in the play ("The rest is silence").

A few years ago I had a dream, in which I was watching a stage adaptation of Hamlet and realized that the most famous soliloquy was deleted. I joked with a friend of mine that such a production would have been the most appalling and impressive one. Guess what? Kaurismaki did just that. 

It might not be the best Hamlet adaptation, but it's certainly my favorite. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

Fist of Fury (1972)

 


I'm making my way backwards on Bruce Lee's movies. "Fist of Fury" is the penultimate, before I can find and watch "The Big Boss". (Yes, I've re-watched "Way of the Dragon", but there's not much to write about.)

In some ways this movie reminds me of "Vengeance!" (1970), written by Ni Kuang and Chang Cheh, directed by Chang Cheh, and starred David Chiang. In that movie, the actual event that triggers the title is shown briefly in the beginning of the movie, with the rest of the runtime devoted to a lengthy journey of David Chiang taking out his targets one by one, ending in a final massive brawl. 


Although "Vengeance" was produced by Shaw Brothers while "Fist of Fury" by Golden Harvest, the latter initially contracted with Ni Kuang again to write the script. Apparently that version was abandoned, and the current script was written by Lo Wei, who also directed the movie and played Inspector Lo, a not-insubstantial role. I have no idea whether Lo was influenced by Chang's movie or not, but it does seem to take the concept one step further, in that we do not see the occurrence of the death, for which revenge must be taken, in any of the scenes. The opening scene was Lee's Chen Jen, Sifu Hok's student, coming home after being abroad for an unknown period and finding Sifu dead. In a sense this is a typical mystery: first there is a corpse, then the main character detects and uncovers the truth, and finally he punishes the murderer(s). 

When he is not involved in one-on-one or one-on-many fight scenes, Lee's character vacillates between two seemingly incongruent personalities: In some scenes, he acts like a beast, filled with primal rage, mumbling a few words (more like grunts), and beating someone to death with his bare hands. In other scenes, he meticulously plans and carries out his revenge with elaborate disguises and tricks, including cutting the enemy organization's telephone wire and infiltrating it by pretending to be a repairman. He was more cunning and resourceful than James Bond.

There were also a couple of awkward love scenes with the adorable Nora Miao, showing a definite lack of chemistry between Lee and Miao. Nevertheless, Lee walks around throughout the movie with, well, fury, on a spectrum from barely suppressed to full blown madness. 

I have to admit that in his four complete movies, Bruce Lee played an interesting range of characters. The rage in Fist of Fury is perhaps most suited to his style of fighting, in other words, the instant lethality. Again I felt a tingle of terror in these fight scenes, and I worry about the safety of the stuntmen and costars*. His eyes bulge, his face contorts, his muscles flex, and his throat releases the hallmark screams that sound barely human. Then bodies start flying in the air all around him. Here he seems to embody a raw, animalistic aggression unmatched in the other movies. There is intensity, and then there is the Bruce Lee level of intensity.

The sketchiness of the script and the awkwardness of the non-fight scenes feel all the more bizarre when mixed with a nihilistic undertone. Death seems inevitable, not unlike "Vengeance". According to movie lore, Lo Wei wanted to have a happy ending, sort of, in which Chen lives, but Lee insisted that he must die. The ending is an obvious homage (or plagiarism, depending on your point of view) to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", which had come out only 3 years before.

----

*One of his opponents in the movie, Robert Baker, was a student at Lee's martial arts school in California. Among the stuntmen that got beaten up were Jackie Chan, Yuen Wah, Yuen Kwai (Corey Yuen), and Lam Ching-Ying, when they were not doubling for Lee's more acrobatic moves.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Area X: The Office Edition

 

Re-reading the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy demonstrated to me that I did not get it at all the first time. Jeff VanderMeer's writing is subtle and ... I had no excuse except I did not pay attention. 

<Spoilers!> 

On the first reading, I totally missed the nature of the conflict between John Rodriguez ("Control") and Grace, the assistant director of the Southern Reach agency. 

John was hypnotized by Lowry ("The Voice") over the phone. Duh! He was unconsciously carrying out Lowry's orders throughout the book, including putting bugs in Grace's office and searching it at Lowry's orders. Not only was he an idiot for discovering it too late, but so was I for missing such a crucial detail.

Even so, I quite enjoyed "Authority" both times, perhaps because I share two things in common with John: I too had a somewhat distant mother (not as distant as Jackie Severance) and I too worked in a giant bureaucracy and failed. VanderMeer admitted that the office environment at Southern Reach and the shadowy overhanging agency "Central," which evokes the CIA but could well be FBI or NSA or the military, was based on his own soul-crushing experience of working in an office. I know that feeling very well --- the daily confusion of "what the hell am I doing here?" and "what is going on?" 

Some readers prefer the fantastical and perilous environs inside Area X in the first and third book, but I realized that John's journey within the Southern Reach in the second book parallels the biologist's journey in the first book. The labyrinth of the facility and its employees may look familiar to us but, on close inspection, are no less absurd and bizarre than within Area X. Here it is made clear that outside and above the hopeless Southern Reach hovered the Central --- an invisible and more powerful force that monitored and interfered with SR's operations and personnel. This is also a hint for Area X and the force behind or above it. 

The biologist and John form another parallel between the two books. Both characters are what the world would consider "losers" by the usual standard, constantly on the verge of being fired (or having been fired) from their jobs and unable to form stable emotional bonds with other people. At the end of both novels, the biologist and John came to some tenuous relationship with someone else (not with each other) before they are swallowed and transformed by Area X. 

Compared with Annihilation, Authority is able to sketch out several distinctive characters through slow-burn details that are somewhere between normal and crazy, culminating in the famous scene with Whitby, which is straight horror. 

In his Reddit AMA, VanderMeer admits that he writes from his unconscious a lot, which is consistent with my impression of the trilogy. He grew up in Fiji and spends a lot of time outdoors in his current home in Florida. He claims that he never uses psychoactive substances while writing, despite the trippiness of his imagination, but then admits that many elements in the SR trilogy came from a dazed state from painkillers after he had a dental surgery. That sounds about right. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Enter the Dragon (1973)

 


Before today, the only Bruce Lee movie I had watched was The Way of the Dragon (1972), which I did not enjoy as much as the later kung fu movies from the 1980s and never went back to check out the rest of his filmography. However, one can outrun one's responsibilities as a kung fu movie fan for only 20 years. So here we are. 

Although the first 45 minutes had very little action, excluding a short one with Angela Mao (who could really fight), and felt slow and cheap, the hour after that became increasingly tense and even riveting. Well, OK, I have forgotten the opening fight between Lee and a very young Sammo Hung with nothing on but bikini shorts and gloves, which is supposed to be the original inspiration for MMA.

While one could argue that Shih Kien's knife claw was derivative of the 1960s 007 franchise, the final battle in the mirror room was thoroughly iconic, even if not necessarily the best vehicle to show off Lee's fight choreography.

My original impression holds true. Lee's choreography is unlike anything else before and since, despite his enormous popularity, which seems inexplicable. Surely people have tried to imitate his style but ... something prevents them from succeeding. 

I never worry about the stuntmen or costars' health and safety as much as I do watching Lee's movies, even though in reality Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were probably more dangerous to work with. Somehow Lee's fight scenes just seem more brutal and vicious, largely because of the speed of his movement. At some point, Hong Kong movies began to shoot in 22 frames, giving the fight scenes a faster look, but that was later and did not have the same effect as truly fast hits. One can tell Lee's fight scenes were shot at regular speed, and all his movements are natural ... except the kick or the punch. They are not only unnaturally fast but at least appear to be incredibly heavy and powerful, which never fail to startle me. I still cannot think of any actor who could do it with the same visceral impact, no matter how good (or better) they are in other ways.

Lee's fight choreography is not my favorite type, purely from an entertainment point of view. When he worked on the first movie after returning to Hong Kong in 1970, the director and cinematographer found his moves unshootable. He wouldn't do the conventional long takes and rehearsals and just did one or two flashing kicks to end each fight. The scenes were too short and unwatchable. The director begged him to slow down and put on some more moves. Over time he modified his style for the benefit of the camera. And yet still there are too many kicks and punches that 1, do not have enough visual variety and 2, too fast to see clearly. I also prefer the sense of safety and assurance infused in Chan's movies. Chan hardly ever kills anyone, not even the baddest baddies. 

Nevertheless, the fight scenes in Enter the Dragon that involved Lee, which were choreographed by Lee himself, contained some rather intricate (but still minimalist) moves that I had to rewind a couple of times to see clearly. He could have made them more audience friendly if he had wanted to, but he seemed more interested in conveying the speed and the deadliness with as much realism as possible. Now I have to admit his style is thrilling, but it still makes me somewhat uneasy. Even the more violent and bloodier modern action movies (see Evans, Garrett) cannot quite achieve the same sense of lethality as he did with bare hands (and feet).

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A Journey up the Abyss: The Southern Reach Trilogy


I have started re-reading the Southern Reach trilogy. Since I read the novels (or rather one long novel) a few years ago, certain scenes and images continually surface into my mind from time to time. The lighthouse. The tower. The dive into another dimension. The breathing wall with glowing text. The girl on the beach.

The novel is a journal both outward and inward. The characters hike into Area X, an alien but familiar place. From the start I had a strong feeling that Area X is also that incomprehensible, impenetrable world also known as the mystery of the heart. The further they journey out into this world, the deeper they plunge into their own mind, where words float meaninglessly on the wall. 

Of all the characters in the trilogy, I often think of the relationship between Control and his mother in the second book, Authority. All of the characters defy conventions and categories, but they are all imbued with a loneliness and longing, which eventually resolve, sort of, in Area X. 

The Southern Reach trilogy has stayed with me, not only because I have never seen anything like it, but also because the mood and the feels ring true. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

More Paz

 I opened "Selected Poems" to a random page. It is "Is there no way out?" ---

The time is past already for hoping for time's
arrival, the time of yesterday, today and tomorrow,
yesterday is today, tomorrow is today, today all
is today, suddenly it came forth from itself
and is watching me, 
it doesn't come from the past, it is not going anywhere, today is here, it is not death ---
no one dies of death, everyone dies of life ...

The words slammed into my face and blindsided me. I tasted them in my mouth and let them slowly slide down my throat. They dissolve into a pink haze and spread into my limbs and evaporate in a shiver.

I am reminded of this ---

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day, 
to the last recorded syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death ...


The Ending of Le Samourai (1967), Explained

A quick online search after watching Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai confirmed my suspicion: The plot is very rarely understood b...