September 27, 2007

Lust, Caution

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Ang Lee made history in becoming the first Asian director to receive an Oscar – Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Edward Yang are still rolling over in their graves at that one – but he has retreated from Hollywood to make Lust, Caution, a WWII espionage tale set in China. Considering that Lust, Caution is rated NC-17, it’s obvious that Lee is attempting to lower expectations after the enormous success of Brokeback Mountain rather than simply returning to his roots. Based on Eileen Chang’s short story, the new film is actually similar to Brokeback in that it manifests Lee’s ability to stretch a novella to a meandering two-hour-plus epic.

In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a group of college students led by the idealistic Kuang Yu-min (Taiwanese American pop star Wang Leehom) tries to do its part in the resistance by putting on patriotic plays. Fueled by early success, the group grows more ambitious and hatches a plot to assassinate Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The troupe’s leading lady Wang Jiazhi (newcomer Tang Wei) transforms herself into Mrs. Mak, infiltrates the social circle of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and begins a dangerous liaison with Mr. Yee.

In other words, Wang Jiazhi is Suzie Wong in the guise of the Dragon Lady. It’s no surprise that Lee would again exploit Chinese culture for Western consumption as he did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his Father Knows Best trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman). But at least in his previous “Chinese” films, he never resorted to such worn-out caricatures as the demure Asian woman and the chauvinist Asian man (as embodied by Mr. Yee).

Lust, Caution is like the Chinese remake of Black Book, in which a Jewish heroine goes undercover in Nazi headquarters and carries on an affair with an SS officer. Unfortunately Lee isn’t a shamelessly shrewd filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven, and Lust, Caution comes off as ponderously dull in spite of all the graphic sex scenes that earned the film an NC-17. It’s no small irony that Verhoeven managed to get away with all the sexual innuendo and frontal nudity with merely an R rating and still ended up with a far superior movie. Since the Chinese WWII espionage film doesn’t measure up to its Dutch counterpart, let’s just hope Survivor: China won’t similarly turn out to be more lethargic than its other editions.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 21, 2007

Eastern Promises interview

By Martin Tsai

“I like to steal from my colleagues, because we all do it anyway,” David Cronenberg said. He was joking of course – he coveted that cup of coffee just served to screenwriter Steve Knight, who was sitting next to him.

No one has ever accussed the iconic helmer of such films as Naked Lunch and Spider of stealing. But in a period of time in which remakes seem to be proliferating, Cronenberg has mixed emotions.

“I didn’t even know they were remaking The Fly. I knew they were remaking Scanners. You know, I could live without it. That’s pretty much the totality of my comment,” he said. “My version of The Fly was indeed a remake, so I’d be hypocritical to say it’d never work. It worked for me because I thought I did a good film that didn’t do anything to diminish the original film. You know, it’s still what it is. But in general, they’re getting quite ridiculous now, because sometimes they want you to remake a film that has barely been released. I have had Norwegian films proposed, French films, Thai films, Japanese films, Korean films – all of which have been released within two years.”

Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s latest, revolves around the criminal underworld (specifically, the Russian mob in London). Viggo Mortensen plays a henchman with an identity crisis. The film has relatively few violent outbursts, but they are unsettling to say the least. Discerning fans probably would think that sounds exactly like the auteur’s previous effort, A History of Violence. Cronenberg pointed at Knight and joked, “It’s his fault. He wanted to do the reverse flip of A History of Violence, so he stole everything from that movie and incorporated it into his script.”

Cronenberg explained that he was contemplating several scripts to direct, and Eastern Promises just happened to be the one that came together. Any similarities between the films aren’t intentional on his part.

“I wish I had the power to say ‘Now I will do a movie that is like the other but only not in America’,” he said. “Don’t forget, creatively it’s totally different for us from the inside. You can say, ‘Well, Viggo is also playing a character who has a split identity and he is a gangster and blah, blah, blah.' But creatively for him, it’s totally different. The guy speaks English with a Russian accent. There are no American characters in this movie at all. It’s not about America. It’s not set in America. It’s a real film noir, which is to say it’s at night in the city as opposed to in the daytime in a small town – totally different creatively, even though I can see the connections. It’s completely accidental.”

Indeed, the cast and crew burned the midnight oil researching in preparation for Eastern Promises. Cronenberg read Vadim Volkov’s book Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. Aside from visiting Russia (just as costar Vincent Cassel did), Mortensen learned slang from Russian ex-cons, viewed a documentary called The Mark of Cain that was filmed at a Russian maximum-security prison, and bought a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo – which is fitting given the director’s long obsession with “body horror.”

“When we started, the Russian mob in London was a pretty obscure subject. By the end of the shoot, it was front-page news everywhere in the world because of the poisoning of [former KGB agent Alexander] Litvinenko, which happened within half a block of where we were living – Viggo and I, and Vincent as well,” Cronenberg said. “Litvinenko had been there after he’d been poisoned. There were traces of polonium there. We walked by it everyday. One day we walked by, there were police in hazard suits and a forensic van. Steve really had his pulse on something that was waiting to happen.”

Eastern European criminals have fascinated Knight, and the screenwriter also wrote about them in his Oscar-nominated script for Dirty Pretty Things. Although Eastern Promises specifically deals with Vory v zakone and the prostitution industry rather than with the Kremlin or spy assassinations, the film is still relevant to the current events. Knight noted, “The Kremlin is almost a religious organization. Criminals actually preceded the Soviet Union. It’s a secret response to a secret society. A code of secrecy was very important in that organization because people needed to stay where a lot of people were spying on them. I think also in the Soviet era, being an entrepreneur itself was considered to be illegal. So when the Soviet Union disappeared, the line between being an entrepreneur and being a gangster didn’t exist – in people’s minds it doesn’t exist. What happens then would unleash naked capitalism in its rawest form.”

Eastern Promises boasts one of the most buzz-worthy scenes in recent memory: Mortensen, bare-fisted and buck-naked, battling two henchmen in a steam bath brawl that ends with a particularly stomach-churning eye injury. The actor shrugged off potential concerns about images from the scene eventually finding their way to the Internet.

“I am just trying to do my job well, and so is David,” Mortensen said. “I think as far as the brutality of the scene – the way he did that, the way he did the other scenes, the way he did A History of Violence in that regard, makes him just about the most responsible filmmaker there is. Some people will say it’s so gratuitous; it’s so over the top. It’s actually not. There’s very little screen time overall devoted to violence in either of those movies and very little body count in either of those movies if you compare them to any number of movies – also very good movies – like The Departed or the Bourne movies or what have you. Lots more people get hit many more times and a lot more people get hurt or die. And you kind of just watch it because you have this buffer, because these movies are so stylized in some way. But he doesn’t give you that buffer. He doesn’t want you to get out of it. You see what it is – it’s terrible. You see what the consequences are, physically and emotionally – they are terrible too. It’s not a good thing.”

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2007

Eastern Promises

Directed by David Cronenberg Starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The biggest surprise in Eastern Promises isn’t grotesque graphic violence, a peek at Viggo Mortensen’s naughty bits, or a cleaver plot twist. For David Cronenberg fans, it would be the fact that the auteur’s latest is so reminiscent of his last outing, A History of Violence. After all, Cronenberg has been anything but predictable over the years. Not only do both films revolve around the criminal underworld, on a more cerebral level they both deal with duality, role-play and vengeful vigilantism. Without spoiling too much, Eastern Promises plays out exactly like A History of Violence in reverse. Nothing wrong with that, since A History of Violence is such a triumphant meta-thriller.

When a pregnant teenager dies after a C-section, North London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to locate her family so the newborn won’t become part of the foster care system. Anna stumbles upon a diary written entirely in Russian, and tracks down the owner of a posh trans-Sibirian restaurant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who overeagerly volunteers to translate it for her. Coincidentally, Anna has a Russian-born uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) who will faithfully reveal the teenager’s ordeal with the sinister Organizatsiya, Vory v zakone.

The casting of Mortensen as a Russian thug is a no-brainer, especially considering the parallels between his roles here and in A History of Violence. Eastern Promises does allow him a showier presence, with the tattoos, the Russian accent and the killer charisma.

Cronenberg again makes an understated film with disturbing outbursts of brutality splattered throughout. The auteur has staged the gory scenes in such a deadpan way, viewers will find the over-the-top bloodshed both revolting and funny at the same time. But while A History of Violence’s happy ending came off as ironic, the one in Eastern Promises seems somewhat absurd. Screenwriter Steve Knight is most likely the one to blame, considering his Oscar-nominated script for Dirty Pretty Things has some of the same problems. Both films have intriguing and gritty premises, but Knight is never sure what to do with them. Still, Cronenberg does his best and puts his auteurist stamp on Eastern Promises, turning it into an admirable companion piece to A History of Violence.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.