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Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Most Violent Movie I Have Seen (to date)

I don't watch horror movies at all, but even I can pick up the flavor of horror in "The Night Comes for Us" (2018). It is the sense of dread between the action scenes --- and there are many action scenes --- as well as the obviously low-budget but gloriously creative makeup and camera work around all the slashing and eviscerations, that hints at Timo Tjahjanto's horror movie credentials. 

I did watch The Raid 2 but not The Raid 1, so I was not entirely unprepared for the viciousness in fight scenes involving pencak silat. But still. Gareth Evans is not a horror director. 

According to Wikipedia, Tjahjanto wrote The Night Comes for Us as an homage to 1980s Hong Kong gangster movies. It's probably true, given the various references to the Triad, frequent use of axes, and the Chinese (albeit in Mandarin rather than Cantonese) dialogs randomly peppered throughout the movie. However, in 2018, even Chang Cheh's or John Woo's amounts of bloodletting are no longer sufficient --- blame it on inflation. 

This is the only movie that I am aware of, in which Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais not only share the screen but even fight each other. And what a fight it is. The latter half of the movie is stacked with three progressively more brutal fight scenes: Taslim's brawl in the warehouse, Julie Estelle versus two female assassins, and Taslim versus Uwais. Any of these three fight scenes is enough to be the climax for an average action movie, perhaps already excessive for an American action movie. The climax here is as eye-popping as any fight scene I have ever watched. There are many silat moves that even an ignoramus like me can appreciate. Both actors, with real chops, executed the choreography with impressive long takes and dangerous complexity. And there are numerous surprises, culminating on the stab in the ... oh I won't spoil it. Tjahjanto showed me something I have never seen before in other movies. Isn't that enough?

Saturday, August 21, 2021

A Remarkable Person

In January 2000, I was briefly unemployed after the completion of my post-graduate internship. In fact, I was waiting for a job offer from the place where I did the internship, but that's beside the point. During the idle weeks, I sometimes walked to the library nearby for internet access. (Ah, the era of no smart phones.) 

On a cold day with melting snow on the ground, while using the library computer, an Asian American young man, of the same age as I was, standing next to me asked me whether I would meet him for coffee. I was not interested in a romantic relationship at the time, but I was too bored to turn down an opportunity to meet my curiosity half way. So we met for coffee once and talked. I remember much of what he told me. He was of Korean heritage but born in the US. He enlisted in the military out of high school, where he was diagnosed with depression and soon left it. He alluded to pressure from his parents for him to be "tough," which might have led to the disastrous experience. He continued to feel conflicted and confused. I listened with interest and sympathy, and suggested that he "should talk to someone," ie, to pursue psychotherapy. To be sure, I had not gone through any psychotherapy myself by that time, but I had an interest in psychology and some education in that area to sense that it could be beneficial to the young man. 

Before we parted --- never to see each other again --- he said, "You are a remarkable person."

Years later, I had my own encounter with psychotherapy, which led to some important, even transformative, growth in me. I continue to think of this young man from time to time. I hope he did pursue his own psychotherapy and achieve his version of emotional growth. There is a connection between me and the vulnerable and confused person on that day that seems to become stronger over time. 

And I continue to have complicated feelings about being a "remarkable" person, one of the central issues I explored long and hard, often with pain, during therapy. Like all of the issues we worked on, it never completely resolves and will always require exploration and reflection. Am I a remarkable person? Is he? Why and how? And, of course, the most important question, how does it make me feel? 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Sword Fight Problems in Star Wars


Let's be frank, OK? The sword fights in Star Wars are lame. There is no excuse for such poorly choreographed, poorly shot, poorly edited action scenes in one of the most expensive and highly grossed movie franchises. This is all the more lamentable, as George Lucas began making the series after watching loads of Japanese samurai movies, including but not limited to Akira Kurosawa's work. (There are perhaps as many elements "borrowed" from Kinji Fukasaku as Kurosawa, but that's another topic altogether.)  After studying the thrilling sword-fight sequences in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, all he came up with was the slow and clumsy lightsaber duels. Huh. 

I have been a SW fan since I was 10, but I also grew up with Jackie Chan movies --- imagine my disappointment when I saw the original trilogy for the first time. 

The subsequent SW movies had even less excuse. As so expertly dissected by Accented Cinema on YouTube, the sword fights in these movies became faster and more acrobatic (not saying much there) than the original trilogy, but they contained even less emotional impact and visual prowess. As SW movies got progressively worse in action choreography, other non-Asian movies (see Luc Besson, Wachowski brothers, the Bourne series) have absorbed Asian action cinema's many lessons, leading to what I consider the peak of the genre --- Atomic Blonde and the John Wick series made by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski and co, in which one can no longer distinguish the influences from Hong Kong Kung Fu movies to modern Korean and Thai movies. 

Back to Star Wars. Accented Cinema pointed out a number of deficiencies in the sword fight scenes, such as the lack of character and emotion, the lack of impact, the lack of stillness and tension, the lack of form, the lack of narrative clarity (who the hell is winning and how?), etc., etc. 

This leads to a long-term question I have been interested in -- How to make untrained actors look like real martial artists or action heroes. It's a filmmaking specialty that seems to be lost even in modern Hong Kong and Japanese movies. I don't want to write a Ph.D. dissertation on this topic (although I suspect I could), but two indispensable but vastly overlooked ingredients are:

  • Footwork
  • Stunt people
Why does everyone in SW, except Ray Park (playing Darth Maul, also a trained martial artist), look so clumsy and unconvincing as a Jedi warrior (aka alien samurai)? Because they don't move their feet and they don't know how. One quick way of telling apart the trained and untrained actors is to watch their feet. Well-trained actors have stability, balance, quickness, agility, and lightness in their feet. In comparison, untrained actors look heavy, slow, and clumsy, constantly tripping over themselves. This is why dancers can do fight choreography second to only Peking Opera actors. (Zhang Ziyi, for example, was trained as a dancer.)

Of course, sometimes a director can't turn an actor into Jackie Chan or Gene Kelly in a short time. But most of the time it is apparent that nobody is aware of the importance of lower body movement, which is the issue in every single SW movie. Without footwork, they look like lumbering, fumbling idiots flailing their arms and swords. 

The lack of good stunt cast is perhaps the most invisible but critical element in filming action scenes. From the Zatoichi to John Wick, no action hero can look good on screen without an army of skilled and selfless stunt cast to be beaten up and die with impeccable reaction and timing. This is why, in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves looked the best when he is fighting a herd of villains and the worst when he is fighting Laurence Fishburne one on one --- because neither has the training and experience to take a hit and fall realistically. This is why the experts like Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-Ping, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen (and, I suspect, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski) have their own teams of stunt actors. The decline and demise of Hong Kong and Japanese action cinema can be directly traced to the dwindling supply of well-trained stunt actors. 

Stars come and go, but stunt actors are forever. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Trickster God


I cannot think of another mythological figure more complex and fascinating than Krishna. He is beloved, but why is he beloved? There are tricksters in various mythologies, one of the most famous being Loki. However, being deceptive and "tricky" is usually not an elevated trait for gods and runs the risk of being dismissed as a minor clown. 

I remain convinced that Krishna was not among the original characters in earlier versions of the Mahabharata. His role in the epic is that of a peripheral presence. His story is documented primarily in the appended Harivamsa. 

The complexity in this character is reflected in his color, the black, which contains all colors and all shades of humanity, including the idea of deception and illusion. 

Deception is a human trait that causes some degree of revulsion and disgust, and relatively modern and prescriptive religions are understandably reluctant to condone, much less exemplify, such an element. Yet it is elemental to humanity and induces a thrill and a recognition when we witness Krishna's tricks (for some, the thrill might lead to a moral outrage rather than admiration). 

How they made him both extremely human and thoroughly above humanity, both contradictory and harmonious, continues to puzzle the mind. It is a feat I have not seen in any other myth or religion. It might not be a cure but certainly a therapy for the dichotomized worldview brought on by monotheistic religions that lately came to dominate human societies. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Good Jazz in Movies

I have complained about bad jazz in movies. I have also seen some movies in which the jazz is pretty good, but they tend to be biopics of famous musicians, such as Miles Davis ("Miles Ahead" 2015, an extremely forgettable movie) and Charlie Parker ("Bird" 1998). Almost 20 years ago, I went through a phase as a Spike Lee fan, and his "Mo' Better Blues" is very good. 

The recent movie "Sylvie's Love" is a rare example of having good jazz without being a jazz musician biopic. 

The male lead character Robert is a talented saxophone player, and the playing was pretty convincing in the movie --- I was shocked to discover that the actor, Nnamdi Asomugha, is not only not a musician but rather an ex-footballer. The depiction of jazz musician's life is, even if not necessarily very realistic, at least reasonable. There are scenes of band rehearsals and conflicts with the manager, of traveling and touring. We are even treated to the real decline of the popularity of jazz in the 1960s. 

The movie itself is not my cup of tea. I am perhaps constitutionally unsuited for swoony melodrama. Todd Haynes' similar tribute to Douglas Sirk, Far from Heaven, did nothing for me, either. I only care about the jazz-related elements. 

The most thrilling scene is where the female lead and title character, Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), talks to Robert about jazz giants like Monk and recommends new albums to him, even though she does not play jazz herself --- her own passion is television. It is the exchanges of two jazz-loving minds. 

The movie's writer and director, Eugene Ashe, is himself a musician. So it is not surprising that many of the details are authentic. Nevertheless, I wish there were more details in Robert's professional life in the movie. The final part of the movie (spoilers!) is a big letdown, unfortunately. There is no reason for Robert to make the stupid choice of leaving both Sylvie and music, two of his life's passion, just because he is no longer a star. OK, there are reasons for this: 1) the convention of melodrama that requires a stupid excuse to separate the lead characters in order to produce a tear-jerking finale, 2) the male chauvinistic notion that he has to make more money and be more successful than she is, and 3) the need for an ending in which the woman makes a sacrifice for him.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

La Guerra E Finita

It was serendipitous that MHz Choice (a streaming service) started an Italian TV series called La Guerra E Finita last Tuesday, January 19, 2021. The series is based on a nonfiction book, The Selvino Children, about the experience of hundreds of Jewish underaged refugees, who had survived the Holocaust, on a Northern Italian estate, where they were cared for and educated, in the post-WWII years. They eventually emigrated to Israel. 

The title "The War is Over" and the mood of the characters, both adults and children, after their gruesome ordeals and traumas, are eerily resonant. 

I wonder about those average Italians. They lived with their Jewish neighbors for decades without strong resentment, suddenly got swept in Fascist power and propaganda, and became willing participants of the persecutions and violence against their old neighbors and friends. Then one day, suddenly, they were told, The war is over. You lost. 

I have seen many books and movies and TV series depicting the period before the rise of the Nazis, before the war, and during the war, all the way up to the end of the war. But this is the first time I think about what happened after the war in the minds of most average Italians or Germans. Most stories about the postwar period keep their eyes on the resistance fighters or those who simply disliked Fascism or Nazism, but the fact is that a very large proportion, perhaps a majority, of average Italian and German people, as well as Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and French people agreed with the Nazis. One might suppose they were convinced by the forceful propaganda or they wanted to side with the power, or they were brainwashed. While pogroms occurred periodically throughout history, most areas did not have deep-seated or widespread racial hatred. Nevertheless, when Nazis came into power, many people joined them, and many more accepted the new ideology with little reflection or resistance. The new leaders say this is right (and they look so tough and strong!), so it must be right.

That's not an isolated phenomenon in human history. 

So, what happened to the believers and supporters when the war is over? Even if they had to claim that they were merely following orders, did they really change their mind? 

Recently I decided to re-read Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories". They were semi-fiction about the social conditions and people in Berlin in 1930 to 1933, until Hitler came to power. He wrote them before the war and, at the time, did not know that Nazis would eventually lose. The depictions of Nazi thugs and the police who sided with them were chilling, but not as chilling as how average Berliners, weighed down by economic distress and frustrations, gradually accepted Hitler as their rightful leader and somehow realized that they, too, hated Jews and communists. Nazism was going to make Germany great again. Hurry and get on the bandwagon. When the alternative is terror and death, conformance suddenly becomes voluntary and even heartfelt.

What happened to their moral compass when they lost the war and it was all over? How many abandoned or renounced their previous beliefs without difficulty? Surely it could not have been easy to deal with the cognitive whiplash in the post-war era. Did some think Nazism and racial hatred were not wrong, except it lost? Or did some believe that only the right side can win the war, and therefore "we" must have been wrong?

Perhaps the same questions can be asked of the American Civil War, in which the anti-slavery Union side won. But, it was less of a mystery what the people on the losing side had thought about all this, after the war was over. Their actions spoke louder than any words. History has recorded what both sides did in the next 150 years. People went on pretty much along the same ideology as they had before. Losing a war did not significantly changed their minds. The same ideas and feelings, including hatred, went on and on, perhaps even grew more intense, after the war was over. 

This realization is very different from the common view of turbulent events in history, such as wars and war-like periods (see also Stalin's Purge and the Cultural Revolution). We tend to assume that the end of such an event or period inevitably brings a fundamental change to people and society, including what they believe and how they behave. We are under the impression that people have changed when the war is over, because, look, the Holocaust has not occurred again, slavery has not returned, the same things are not repeated in history. But that's stupid. People remain largely unchanged, but the circumstances have. So their beliefs and ideology manifest in superficially different ways. History does repeat itself, but we just refuse to see it. 

Because the war is never completely over. "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Alone and Together in Jazz

From time to time jazz music is depicted in movies. The last time I complained about it was regarding "La La Land." Someone's comment that the new Pixar movie "Soul" is a "mutated La La Land" kind of gave me a zap and explains why I also dislike how jazz is depicted in this animation. 

The music in the movie is very nice, of course, except the climatic piano solo when the main character, Joe Gardner, achieved enlightenment. When that tinkly, empty, vanilla, forgettable, sugary pop tune came up, the unpleasant association with the theme music from "La La Land" came to mind. Riiiiiight. This is a character that lives, breathes, and oozes traditional jazz, and at the moment of his emotional epitome, you give me this ... thing? You've got to be kidding me. 

There are a few other jazz-related scenes that bother me. For example, the audition scene. Joe got into his own "zone" of playing piano and forgot about everyone around him including other members of the quartet. When he "woke up," the saxophonist and leader of the band, was so impressed with his playing that she gave him the job on the spot. 

I am not a musician of any kind, but I find this scene not only unrealistic but distasteful. I cannot imagine any musician, unless he is playing solo, would forget to listen. 

Yes, to listen. It is a skill almost as important as to play, or perhaps more important. 

The movie's standard of a good musician seems to be entirely individualistic, with no room left for collaboration. I don't need to be a musician to realize that it's absurd. I don't know anything about classical music, but it is obvious that a member of an orchestra has to watch the conductor and listen to his or her colleagues all the time. Has any musician ever played solo all his career?

Unlike classical music, jazz requires extensive improvisation. If band members do not listen to and respond to each other using their utmost attention, a jazz band would end up like the school band being ridiculed at the beginning of the movie --- a screeching mess. However, we see no collaboration whatsoever in the movie. Joe and the other band members hardly exchanged a look, much less a word, during the audition, before he was hired on the spot by the band leader and told to come back to perform that night. No rehearsals. No jam sessions. No preparation. What's worse, all it took for the band to deliver a fabulous performance on that night was for Joe to wear a good-looking blue suit. 

Well, OK, I guess it's not really a movie about jazz music or musicians, despite the soundtrack and the photographs of Nina Simone and Duke Ellington on the wall. 

Thinking about this some more, I realize that it is the underlying value system represented by the movie that bothers me the most. First, the filmmakers seem to imply that excellence does not require hard work. All you need is "flow" or being "in the zone" or, put it more plainly, having talent. Much has been written in educational psychology that American children are put in a disadvantage relative to Asian children, because they are taught almost all the time that talent and intelligence determine their success, while hard work is considered a shameful mark of being dumb. Only stupid children have to work hard, right?

Second, and perhaps more pertinent in today's world of global connectedness, is the extreme individualism. Or shall we call it the mythology of individualism? Michael Lewis observed in his book "The Undoing Project," which chronicles the history-making friendship and collaboration of Kahneman and Tversky in behavioral economics, that the American culture worships individual "heroes" and has zero recognition of or interest in collaboration of multiple persons or a group. What is curious is that the culture not only does not value collaboration, it no longer sees it. The only visible figures are individuals and their individual talent and achievement. 

Back to jazz. The freedom it affords individual band members to play and riff exists simultaneously with the requirement for the band to play together. Members of the best jazz ensembles embrace each other's performance with organic and telepathic togetherness. They stimulate and inspire each other to create something much larger than the sum of their individual contributions. That's why jazz is irresistible. 

I am by no means a jazz aficionado, but it is sad to see it being portrayed by people who care about jazz even less than I do. 

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...