October 20, 2003

Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Starring Chen Shiang-chyi and Kiyonobu Mitamura

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Goodbye, Dragon Inn can be best described as Cinema Paradiso re-imagined by Tsai Ming-liang. Not that Goodbye is a heart-warming, coming-of-age epic that spans decades. As a matter of fact, the film is very much a Tsai movie about urban alienation. But despite their vast differences, Goodbye and Paradiso both celebrate love and nostalgia for the old cinema. Because this is one of Tsai’s less elaborate films, it will put knowing smiles on some while leaving others scratching their heads.

The film opens as a young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura) stumbles into a run-down repertoire theatre in rain-soaked Taipei. A screening of King Hu’s 1966 film Dragon Inn is about to start, and the box-office attendant (Chen Shiang-chyi) is dragging her braced leg around the theatre’s dark corridors to deliver a steamed bun to the projectionist. Inside the auditorium, a few audience members are scattered here and there. The Japanese man finds himself distracted by the annoying antics of fellow audience members, and switches his seat a few times. Finally, he begins exploring outside the auditorium, where a stranger warns him that the theatre is haunted.

Once the set-up is established, Tsai begins to toy with the expectations of his fans. What follows is almost a by-the-numbers showcase of Tsai’s favourite motifs. A series of long takes containing rainy exterior, leaky interior, and cruising gay men follow one another with deadpan precision. Like a wink and a nod to his fans, Tsai saves the appearance of his long-time alter ego Lee Kang-sheng until near the very end of the film.

The film then switches gear from a comedy of manners to a sombre tribute, as we find two elderly men in the audience intently watching the film. “They don’t make movies like this anymore,” one of them sighed outside the theatre. It should be noted that the actors who portray these two men, Shih Chun and Tsai regular Miao Tian, both made their silver-screen debuts in Dragon Inn.

After the screening of Goodbye at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Tsai explained to the audience that he drew his inspiration for the film from the theatre where it’s set. The Fu-Ho Grand Theatre was closed and about to be demolished, and the writer-director rented it to document its faded glory. The film certainly evokes powerful nostalgia for the movie going experience of yesteryear. But what’s so brilliant about it is, unlike Giuseppe Tornatore in the estimable Cinema Paradiso, Tsai manages to stir up such emotions without showing a teary demolition derby and with an economical running time of only 82 minutes.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.


Starring Hideki Sone and Sho Aikawa

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

International acclaim brought by the film Audition hasn’t slowed down the unnaturally prolific Japanese gore-meister Takashi Miike. He has made 57 films since 1991, and Gozu is one of the four films he is putting out this year. Because of Miike’s incredible productivity, the quality of his films has been wildly inconsistent. Fortunately, his latest is among his better works – minimalist, but to greater impact.

Premiered at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival, Gozu blazes the trail for the new “yakuza horror” genre. The story begins as a yakuza boss orders a hit on the increasingly paranoid gangster Ozaki (Sho Aikawa of the Dead or Alive trilogy). Minami (Hideki Sone), who regards Ozaki as a brother figure, must carry out the order and drive him to the “yakuza dump” in Nagoya. There, things take a dark turn after a freak accident and Ozaki mysteriously vanishes. Minami must embark on a strange journey to locate him.

This film re-teams Miike with Sakichi Satô, the screenwriter for Ichi the Killer. Surprisingly, the film bares more atmospheric resemblance to the quietly frightening Audition than to the relentless sensory assault that is Ichi. Gozu is rather muted and restrained stylistically, and it progresses slowly to create unnerving dread. For the most part, Miike has spared us much of the gory details that his fans have come to expect until the film’s hair-raising climax. For instance, we see racks of suits made of dead yakuzas’ skin, but we don’t see the process of them being skinned.

Yet unlike Audition, the film is packed with body fluid-filled, crude juvenile humour that sporadically provides comic relief. Highlights include a café run by scary transvestites; a Dumb & Dumber-like tag team in silver and gold get-ups who talk about the weather ad nauseam; a hyper-lactating innkeeper who bottles her own breast milk for sale; and a yakuza boss who uses ladles as sex toys. If you are a die-hard fan, you probably have already recognized many of these stunts from Miike’s past films.

Miike’s fans will probably consider Gozu a God-send, especially for those disappointed by the slew of his older, blander films that recently came out on DVD. But for the uninitiated, Miike’s bag of tricks may seem pointless. Audition, while brutal, did offer commentary on gender roles and expectations in Japanese society. With that serious theme replaced here by crude humour, some viewers may find it harder to justify Miike’s schtick.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 19, 2003


Starring John Robinson and Alex Frost

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado have inspired two very different films. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is an impassioned, in-your-face documentary that clearly states its position on American gun culture from the get-go. By contrast, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a detached and matter-of-factly told dramatization loosely based on actual events. Although both were award winners at the Cannes International Film Festival, they were probably recognized for their political stance rather than actual artistic merit.

Elephant, which won Palme d’Or and Best Director at Cannes, certainly provokes thought and discussion because of its controversial and disturbing subject matter. But while the film starts off as something truly fascinating, it eventually falters as it desperately tries to assign blame for the brutal shooting rampage.

Van Sant first presents an ordinary day at an Oregon high school with several long takes, each tracking a different student around the campus. During each long take, we see certain earlier scenes play out again from another character’s perspective. Through these segments, the director establishes the vastly different lives led by the various characters. The troubled kids deal with their family problems. The popular kids struggle with peer pressure and petty concerns. The nerdy kids get tormented.

All the kids aim their trash at the back of the classroom where Alex (Alex Frost) sits alone. Shortly thereafter, we find Alex in the cafeteria making a list. Although never directly explained in the film, those who are familiar with the facts of the Columbine shootings know exactly what Alex is up to. The film starts to unravel when it shows the would-be assailants Alex and Eric (Eric Deulen) playing violent video games, watching a documentary on Nazi Germany, ordering guns on the Internet, and making out with each other in the shower. Although these sorts of factors were cited by the news media to explain the real Columbine killers, such explanations seem cheap and desperate when Van Sant offers them here. Perhaps it’s because the film merely stages these in passing rather than exploring any significance they may have.

In the end, Elephant leaves its audience completely cold. The film never really allows the viewers to identify with any of the characters or to invest any feelings toward them before the geeks and the popular kids are killed alike in cold blood. While all of this is disturbing to watch, the film curiously omits the aftermath of the shooting rampage. By the time the credits roll, Van Sant has rehashed all of the speculations without shedding any new light on this tragedy.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Barbarian Invasions

Starring Rémy Girard and Stéphane Rousseau

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A multiple winner at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, The Barbarian Invasions is unquestionably the highest profile Canadian film this year. The film is unmistakably Canadien at its core, dealing with the idealism and politics of a generation that is near its end and already being replaced by a new generation whose values and priorities it cannot fathom. Relentlessly immersed in sentimentality and its witty worldview, this film will certainly strike a chord with the generation it depicts.

The dying generation in question here is the same one that writer-director Denys Arcand previously explored in his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, which shares many of the same characters with this film. And Decline’s free-wheeling libertine academic Rémy (Rémy Girard) is now facing an estranged son, a grave illness and impending death – challenges which force him to examine his life choices and philosophies.

Lying on his deathbed, Rémy is still robust as ever and flirting with the nurses. At the request of his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), his humourless and materialistic banker son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) flies in from London to visit. Despite the fact that Rémy looks upon his son’s success with condescension and disgust, Sébastien still dutifully helps in moving his father into a private hospital room, arranging medical examinations in the United States, and gathering old friends and old flings around his deathbed.

The film is replete with political overtones, and its title serves as a reference to the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The hospital is a platform for bureaucratic chaos, where bribery of union officials is the only way to get things done. The those-were-the-days laments by Rémy and his social circle of scholars and mistresses stretch from Quebecois separatism and American imperialism to Marxism and cretinism. Lots of sociological ideas are bounced around, but only a few are truly examined or analyzed. Some jokes are amusing, while others are borderline offensive.

The Barbarian Invasions is ultimately a eulogy for a generation, but one that neither celebrates that generation’s glory nor justifies its existence. Rémy finally manages to leave a slight impression on his estranged son during his last days, as the uptight Sébastien ultimately learns to lighten up a little. Still, Sébastien will probably never truly understand what made Rémy tick or discover the joie de vive that Rémy had always enjoyed. At best, he has finally reconciled with a father that he once chastised for being irresponsible.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi

Starring “Beat” Takeshi and Tadanobu Asano Reviewedy Martin Tsai

Zatôichi the blind swordsman was a popular folk character in Japanese cinema during the 1960s and 1970s. In the fashion of James Bond and Star Trek, the franchise has spawned some 26 films. But before their recent DVD releases in North America, most of these remained little seen in this part of the world. Takeshi Kitano’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi, which garnered audience awards at both the Toronto and Venice film festivals this year, will surely fuel interest in this nearly forgotten franchise.

The new film is certainly entertaining in a cartoonish way. Although likely to disappoint loyal Kitano fans, it will delight those who enjoy the chopsocky parts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. The film has some expertly choreographed sword fight scenes to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. In fact, these scenes are so captivating that they make you forget the film’s plot is paper-thin.

Kitano, who previously parodied Zatôichi in Getting Any?, has bleached his hair to portray the title character seriously. The swordsman is under the disguise of a masseur, with his weapon hidden in his cane. He finds himself in a town besieged by rival gangs, and goes about righting the wrongs and cleaning up the mess.

However, what really needs cleaning up here is this somewhat scattershot film. Some of the movie’s stylistic choices make Zatôichi seem like more of a mess than Kitano’s awkward cultural exchange film Brother. There are many explicit, rapid-fire fight scenes, while the comedic and dramatic bits in between are quite uneventful. There is also a Stomp-like, percussion-driven score by Keiichi Suzuki, complete with tap-dancing musical interludes. Although somewhat amusing, these elements come off as rather misguided attempts at ingenuity.

Kitano is best known for contemporary-set, retreat-themed tales involving yakuzas or Japanese youths. He often stages scenes with economy and efficiency – showing the beginning, then jump cutting to the payoff for maximum effect. His previous films also featured his own paintings and haunting scores by Joe Hisaishi (who also scored Spirited Away). But Zatôichi is devoid of any of these signature touches that established Kitano as an auteur.

Although this film may finally establish Kitano as a viable director internationally, it’s totally slight when measured against the director’s best works. For long time Kitano fans, it can be exciting to see the director venturing into new themes and new styles. But watching this mediocre-at-best film will probably only serve as a reminder of how fantastic his earlier works such as Sonatine and Fireworks were.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Event

Starring Parker Posey, Olympia Dukakis, Don McKellar and Sarah Polley

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Thom Fitzgerald is responsible for some of the most original films in recent memory, such as the surreal The Hanging Garden and the kitsch Beefcake. So it’s somewhat of a surprise that Fitzgerald’s latest, The Event, turns out to be riddled with clichés and one-dimensional stock characters. A drama that revolves around the assisted suicide of a gay man dying of AIDS, the film does have its moments. But for the most part, it is almost indistinguishable from the recent parade of films that deal with terminal illnesses.

Parker Posey plays a dour New York district attorney investigating the death of a musician named Matt Shapiro (Don McKellar). She suspects that Shapiro’s death, like several similar ones in Chelsea, is a case of assisted suicide. Each of Matt’s loved ones is called into an interrogation room. In The Sweet Hereafter fashion, they recall the events leading up to Matt’s death in flashbacks during their depositions. Apparently some had struggled, and some continue to struggle, with the decision to allow Matt to commit suicide.

Many gay-themed films have already explored the AIDS crisis, from independent features like Longtime Companion and It’s My Party to mainstream fare such as Philadelphia and The Hours. Most of these don’t really provide any new insight into the tragic illness. Instead, they all focus on the unendurable physical and emotional agony suffered by those with AIDS. The Event is no exception. Although the film does give the tired theme an assisted-suicide spin, assisted suicide itself is emerging as a new cliché thanks to this film and The Barbarian Invasions.

Aside from Posey’s heartless attorney, the film is jam-packed with other convenient stereotypes that exist solely to help the film make its point. A conflicted mother, two disagreeing sisters, an ignorant uncle, plus a hysterical drag queen seem to be mere plot devices rather than actual people. The capable cast, which includes Olympia Dukakis as Matt’s mother and Sarah Polley as Matt’s sister, are memorable in certain scenes. But overall, none of performances is fully realized.

Fitzgerald curiously set the film against the backdrop of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, even going as far as showing the World Trade Centre’s twin towers disappearing from the New York City skyline. But like everything else in this film, this element is a half-baked idea that fails to have any real impact. Single-minded and preachy in its pro-assisted suicide agenda, The Event ultimately comes off as a ham-handed made-for-cable movie that won’t really spark any conversation or debate on its subject.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Housekeeper

Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Émilie Dequenne

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Are people necessarily wiser as they grow older? Good question, especially when it concerns matters of the heart. The Housekeeper, faithfully based on a novel by Christian Oster, explores that question through the unlikely romance between a lonely middle-aged divorcee and his twenty-something maid. Though seemingly slight and harmless, the film ultimately conveys a buoyant sense of sadness that will stay with its viewers long after they have left the theatre.

Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has been in a rut since his wife left him for another man. His work routine hasn’t been affected, but his living quarters are becoming increasingly disarrayed. He comes across a flyer for a maid seeking employment, and arranges to meet her. Laura (Émilie Dequenne) shows up with a terrible dye job and dirt on her face, but he hires her anyway. She soon asks to move in with him after breaking up with her boyfriend. Reluctantly, he takes her in. The two of them couldn’t be more different. He prefers listening to jazz and reading, while she enjoys full-blasting pop music and watching trashy TV shows. They begin fooling around, and he tells her it’s not love. Regardless, he soon falls for her.

The film seems to be an odd addition to the filmography of Claude Berri, who is best known for sweeping historical epics such as Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. But Berri proves very capable of handling a small and bittersweet contemporary piece such as this film. There are a number of scenes that take place in crowded settings, such as subways and cafes. And Berri always manages to capture the central characters’ studied alienation experienced against those bustling urban backdrops.

With a stoic exterior yet also capable of exhibiting nuanced emotions, Barci is perfect in the film’s lead. During the film’s early scenes, he is able to convey a sense of loss and loneliness through the most mundane routines. As his character gradually lets down his guard, Barci also subtly allows a little tenderness to beam through his world-weariness. Dequenne, best known for her gritty performance in Rosetta, is nearly unrecognizable here as the cute and lively housekeeper.

The film eventually closes on a haunting image, as Jacques finds himself sitting between Laura and the mother of her new boyfriend. Jacques seems somewhat hapless and pathetic in the situation, since the older woman mistakes him for Laura’s father. The May-December romance ultimately does not last, and Jacques is disappointed again after giving love another chance. The Housekeeper concludes that you may love again, but you don’t always learn.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

My Life Without Me

Starring Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo and Scott Speedman

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Depending on whether schmaltzy tearjerkers are your cup of tea, My Life Without Me may profoundly move you or endlessly irritate you. The Vancouver-set film boasts a plot that bares all the characteristics of the movie of the week on a women’s network: A terminal illness, a pseudo-feminist extra-marital affair, and an eating disorder … etc. Which is not always a bad thing, if the film happens to be well made like this beautifully fatalistic treasure. But for those who discriminate against “chick flicks,” this one can be particularly hard to bear.

Sarah Polley portrays Ann, a young mother who has just learned that she is terminally ill and has only a few weeks to live. She copes with the news by making a to-do list: “Tell my daughters I love them several times a day.” “Don’t tell anyone, ever.” “Find Don (Scott Speedman) a new wife.” “Record birthday messages for each girl through 18 years old.” “Smoke and drink as much as I want.” “Sleep with another man just to see what it’s like.” “Make someone fall in love with me.” You get the idea.

While the film narcissistically frets over Ann’s impending death, it also manages to find quite a few tear-inducing tender moments. Writer-director Isabel Coixet has stamped the film with many loving touches. She frequently juxtaposes Ann’s cinematic and poetic voice-over narration with exquisitely ordinary small talk exchanged among characters. Fragmented editing and an eclectic soundtrack gently punctuate some of the film’s most poignant moments, such as one fantasy sequence where customers at a grocery store dance to “Senza Fine” by the great Gino Paoli.

Polley, who has given many memorable performances in supporting roles, finally has an opportunity to shine in the lead. Her unsentimental yet effective portrayal prevents the film from lapsing into melodrama. As Ann’s lover, Lee, Mark Ruffalo gives another sensitive and soulful performance similar to his turns in You Can Count on Me and XX/XY. The supporting cast, which features Deborah Harry and Amanda Plummer, is uniformly strong. The only exception is Speedman, who doesn’t do much here but smile on cue.

When Ann ultimately dies at the end, she has left her mark on all of the characters and transformed their lives forever. At this juncture, the film certainly has satisfied those who enjoy a good cry. Meanwhile, more cynical viewers may choose to completely misinterpret Ann’s legacy and be disturbed by how Ann manages to meddle with everyone’s life even after her untimely death.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Saddest Music in the World

Starring Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney and Maria de Medeiros Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With a cast that boasts Isabella Rossellini, one would guess that director Guy Maddin’s latest effort would show him finally ready for the mainstream. Well, guess again. The Saddest Music in the World is every bit as bizarre, uncompromising and wicked as Maddin’s previous films. Which is good news for Maddin’s hard-core fans, and promises a bumpy ride for those uninitiated moviegoers who are curious enough to check it out.

Set in Depression-era Winnipeg, the film is a melodramatic musical that revolves around a contest aiming to determine which country in the world produces the saddest music. Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini), a bitter double-amputee and beer mogul who profited during the prohibition era, is offering $25,000 to the winner. “If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady,” she assures. The contest brings together the estranged Kent family that includes Chester (Mark McKinney), a pseudo-American who failed to succeed on Broadway; brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), a pseudo-Serbian whose son died and wife disappeared; and their father Fyodor (David Fox), an alcoholic Canadian former surgeon. Chester and Fyodor were responsible for Lady Port-Huntley’s amputations. And Chester’s amnesiac travelling companion Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) also may turn out to be Roderick’s missing wife.

The film enthusiastically ventures into full-fledged absurdity as competitors from around the world gather in Winnipeg. An assortment of ethnographic musical performances is documented with newsreel-like footage complete with vintage-styled title cards. Winners of each round receive Lady Port-Huntley’s dramatic thumbs-up approval and then slide into a pool filled with beer. Another memorable oddity in the film is the set of beer-filled glass legs given to Lady Port-Huntley by the guilt-ridden Fyodor.

As usual, it’s nearly impossible to decode all of Maddin’s filmmaking influences. Perhaps that’s why his films generally fare better with critics than with the general movie-going public. Stylistically, there are traces of German expressionism, early talkies, newsreels, musicals and even early David Lynch. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay by Maddin and George Toles, this film is wholly ingenious and offbeat throughout. But those who are accustomed to conventional filmmaking may quickly overlook the film’s ingenuity and become weary of its style. Who can really blame them? No one enjoys a joke that they are not in on.

No one in the ensemble cast is particularly memorable here. Which is ironic, since it’s the first time Maddin has a cast with marquee value. Even though the film seems to promise a comeback of sorts for Rossellini, she is terribly underutilized in the lead. McKinney’s performance is basically a one-note riff, while de Medeiros is only effective in her resemblance to Brigitte Helm. One wonders why these recognizable stars were cast in the first place, since they will only help attract viewers who don’t generally appreciate this type of film. Even if Music manages to convert a few uninitiated viewers into fans, the film will leave the vast majority of moviegoers disappointed and frustrated since it isn’t meant for them in the first place.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Twentynine Palms

Starring Yekaterina Golubeva and David Wissak

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Some have described Twentynine Palms as an existential horror film.


The real horror of the film is how outrageously pretentious and pointless it is behind its fancy art-film facade. If necessary, viewers who have seen this film can probably struggle to conjure up some deeper meanings that the film may or may not attempt to convey. Still, these efforts are not likely to reveal any message that is remotely profound or even interesting.

Twentynine Palms is essentially the same movie as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Two people venture into the wild. Some petty and inane arguments, lots of wandering, and a random but climactic murder ensue. Both films are filled with beautiful yet meaningless imagery. The only major difference between the two is that Palms unintentionally comes off as a pornographic parody of Gerry.

The story involves an American photographer named David (David Wissak) and a French-speaking woman named Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva), who are en route to Joshua Tree National Park from Los Angeles. The two barely communicate because of the language barrier, and they spend most of their time driving, fighting, having sex and running around in the nude. They stop at a gas station here and a motel there, until a fast and suspicious car that appears out of nowhere begins stalking them.

Nature – environmental and human – seems to be the film’s dominant theme. With the California desert as the backdrop, David and Katia passionlessly act out their raw animalistic instincts. Violence – sexual or otherwise – is an irrepressible force that increasingly threatens the couple. But Palms does not really explore this phenomenon, nor does it develop its central theme in a serious way. Much like Gerry, the film is a vacuous expose that ultimately tries to justify its own existence with a random finale that is high on shock value.

As the film progresses and the tumbleweeds roll, the viewers will find themselves bored, frustrated, agitated and finally angry. Maybe testing the audience is the sole purpose here. Director Bruno Dumont certainly has provoked the audience before with L’Humanité, but that film’s ponderous subject matter and heavy-handed ambience truly worked to compel its audience. In contrast, the detached storytelling and the deliberate pace make Palms seem slight and unworthy of further analysis. When its harrowing finale is suddenly bestowed upon the viewers to reveal what the ludicrous foreshadowing has been leading up to, the film confirms what the audience has been suspecting all along – that it is a total waste of time.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.