August 27, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Set against the desolate Gobi Desert in Mongolia, The Story of the Weeping Camel is a simple fable that blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. Shot on location with a cast of non-professional actors and untrained animals, it's devoid of the ubiquitous trappings of most narrative films. Despite its National Geographic/PBS facade, the film is no less magical than an effects-laden Hollywood flick.

The story concerns a newborn camel rejected by his mother after a particularly arduous labour, and the lengths that a nomadic family goes through to reunite them. While its plot seems pedestrian, the film delivers some of the most heart-wrenching and life-affirming moments on celluloid in recent memory.

Imagine an abandoned baby camel helplessly crying and whimpering alone, while another calf nearby is nuzzling up with her mother. It would take a heart of stone to resist the effect of such powerful images.

Members of a nomadic family portray themselves here, and the film follows their routines and rituals with wide-eyed wonder. Weeping Camel is reminiscent of early ethnographic films such as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, as it documents real people performing or re-enacting their activities during the course of narrative storytelling. In contrast to those films, Weeping Camel depicts its cultural milieu with an affectionate clarity rather than a distorting mysticism. Unlike Flaherty or Eisenstein however, the film's co-writer/co-director Byambasuren Davaa is part of the culture she is presenting, as her grandparents are also Mongolian nomads.

The illusion of ethnographic mysticism vanishes as the family's two sons venture into Aimak-a settlement some 50 kilometres away from their yurts-to invite a musician whose performance is vital to the traditional ceremony that will reconcile the estranged mother and child. Viewers get a dose of reality shock here, as sights of power lines, motorcycles, televisions and satellite dishes disrupt what initially appears to be a timeless rustic fable.

With the vast Gobi Desert as its sweeping backdrop, the film has a scope that begs to be seen on the big screen. Viewing it on television would somehow trivialize it because of its visual resemblance to educational documentaries. As the camel of the title finally begins to weep, viewers get to witness a miracle so incredible that it's closer to a religious experience than anything Mel Gibson conjured up in The Passion of the Christ.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 13, 2004

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie

Directed by Hatsuki Tsuji

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

If watching something as devoid of action as World Championship Poker is your idea of a good time, you may find Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie tolerable provided that you fully comprehend the rules. Yu-Gi-Oh! - literally meaning king of games - is a popular Japanese franchise that has spawned an animated series, video games, comic books and a trading-card game which plays like Magic: The Gathering.

Yu-Gi-Oh! has clearly capitalized on the fact that many kids have outgrown the Pokemon craze that stormed North America four years ago. The two franchises share a similar premise that allows players to duel using their arsenal of monsters. With more grotesque monsters and more graphic battles, Yu-Gi-Oh! naturally appeals to former Pokemon fans who now find the cutesy pocket monsters embarrassing and unacceptable amongst peers.

While the Pokemon animation always makes an attempt at a coherent plotline, the Yu-Gi-Oh! animation comes off solely as a commercial for the merchandising. Poorly disguised behind the veneer of some bogus 5,000-year-old Egyptian myth, the series often devotes several episodes to a single duel just to showcase the various monsters and their special powers.

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie is very much like an extended episode of the TV series. There isn't much of a storyline, as it takes only 45 minutes before the hour-long climactic card game begins. The film sporadically interrupts its pageantry of monsters to deliver its awkward, ham-handed message. For example, the characters pause to reflect on the value of their friendship while the scary mummies chasing them have already caught up. Fearing that viewers may somehow miss that important message, the film continues to bludgeon with dialogue like "Victory means nothing unless you share it with people you love!"

You may seriously consider submitting to your children's constant begging and taking them to see Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie against your better judgment. But why take them to see something they already watch on television everyday? Is it because all of their friends are seeing it? Could it be the can't-live-without collector's trading cards the theatres are handing out with each ticket purchase? Do you really see yourself struggling to make sense of a silly card game while kids all around you yap away about the monsters in their decks? Let's face it, you've probably just read this review because you want to be talked out of it.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 06, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate

Directed by Jonathan Demme Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Updating John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cultural monument, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a timely and effective political thriller in its own right. Frankenheimer’s Cold War conspiracy debuted amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, and foreshadowed the shootings of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and George Wallace that would later change the outcomes of American presidential elections in 1968 and 1972. Demme’s conglomerate conspiracy has an equally well-timed release concurrent with last week’s Democratic National Convention, but it’s unlikely to have the same impact since Fahrenheit 9/11 has already changed the present cultural climate.

This soldier-programmed-into-political-assassin remake is rather faithful to Frankenheimer’s original while also drawing from The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 corporate variation on the Manchurian theme. Changes are inevitable, as Communism no longer poses an immediate threat. Manchurian Global, an amalgam of Halliburton and The Carlyle Group, substitutes for the Communists as the villain. Exploiting fears of terrorist threats takes the place of Communist witch-hunts.

Faux war hero Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) himself is now the vice-presidential candidate, replacing his McCarthy-esque stepfather who is notably absent here. Shaw’s venomous mother (Meryl Streep) is a senator herself, beyond being just a shadowy string-puller. Shaw and his commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) have been abducted during Operation Desert Storm instead of the Korean War, and brainwashed with high-tech implants rather than hypnosis.

Candidate is the first true thriller and perhaps the most successful film that Demme has made since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. It still alarmingly signals a creative dry spell, as this is his second remake in a row (following his misguided Charade-remake The Truth About Charlie – his documentary The Agronomist notwithstanding). While very engaging and entertaining, Demme’s version doesn’t quite measure up to Frankenheimer’s original. Several key scenes fall short here, including the pivotal nightmare sequence and the precisely paced climactic assassination. The new screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris often lifts entire scenes from the source material, but with sporadic shorthand that seems to presume the viewers’ familiarity with the original.

The remake appropriately incorporates governmental branches such as the FBI and the U.S. Army as part of the conspiracy. Its visual vocabulary – complete with surveillance cameras, colour-coded terrorism alerts and some graphic details recalling Lambs and even Ridley Scott’s Hannibal – does help intensify the paranoid atmosphere. Supporting performances by Kimberly Elise and Jeffrey Wright add significant depth to their respective characters. Another decided improvement is the omission of the original’s offensive racial stereotypes and its ridiculous kung-fu fight scene.

Demme’s Candidate would almost be complete if instead of entirely omitting the character of Shaw’s demagogue stepfather, it modernized him to a Rush Limbaugh-type political pundit. Something to try if yet another remake is unavoidable.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.