If you’re reading this, you know the drill.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The dreadful quality of the DVD transfer aside - you know that it’s a poor effort when it contains visible notes made on the source film print in places - revisiting this film was a delight after last seeing it perhaps five years ago. I don’t think that I’ve seen an Ang Lee film that I didn’t like, or at least find interesting; and yes, that includes his much-maligned Hulk.
The thing that is most immediately striking about this film is, of course, the magnificent action, whether the fight sequences (of course) or the chases: it’s not just the remarkable choreography, but the use of settings: towns, bamboo forests, steppes, mountains. But the story itself is one that Lee has used in many films: despite the radical difference in setting and how the story itself is expressed, it has key elements of its emotional landscape in common with Remains of the Day, covering many of the same elements of duty, of the burdens of expectations and notions of propriety, and of course of the way in which repression wastes life.
That last point is addressed in two directions with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: there is the way in which the repression of feelings leads to Li Mu Bai to decide that he has wasted much of his life, but it is also central to the feminist themes that surround Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu: their competing views on how to be in a society that denigrates what they want. One lashes out and is destroyed; the other waits for something that will come only as Li My Bai dies.
The Book of Life
Book of Life sometimes flirts with old-school love triangle, damsel-in-distress tropes, but only for as long as it takes to grab hold of them and eject them forcefully through the nearest window, something I heartily approve of. The animation style is striking and works well.
This was definitely the product of a group of people who adore Bergman; the beautifully shot black and white and dealing with the stuff of everyday life as well as broader questions of faith certainly seem like a film by someone who loves Bergman’s work (although I’ll caveat that by noting my own exposure to him is pretty limited, so perhaps I’m not on target here).
Before discussing the themes too much I want to talk to the costuming, the sets, and the attention to detail; this isn’t a film that is spun out by a team who are just doing “Medieval = gritty mud”, the folks working on this seem to have taken a great deal of care around how they stage this. That covers all manner of details: whether girls and women have covered or uncovered hair, tied into their age and behaviours; who wears wool or other fabrics; the use of the practical clogs for peasants working in a field versus the long, pointy shoes of the local reeve; who has horses, who has carriages, and who walks alongside a beast of burden. When the village becomes a destination for pilgrams, thanks to the local church having someone seeing visions, there are feast days and celebrations, and more varieties of dress as we start to see differnet social classes come to town.
The film itself concerns a young woman who vexes her mother with her unwillingness to marry well and erratic behaviour; when quizzed first by the village priest and then the nearest bishop, she is accepted as someone who is having visions, and becomes an Anchoress - walled into a cell in the church to lead a holy life; it explores the effects on her family, the priest, and the village.
Much like the care for the costuming, the film presents a great deal of medieval life more accurately than the norm: the women of the village are more randy than the men, for example, with the anchoress’ mother outright obscene. In one scene, when a group of women are making bread together, the priest and the father bother them with unwelcome questions; they retaliate with bawdy jokes and the men quickly retreat in acute discomfort. The priest works to balance the monetary value of a visionary to his parish as it becomes a destination for pilgrims with the requirement to provide her with spiritual guidance and strictures in accordance with Church teachings. The anchoress herself struggles with her visions and the hardship of being isolated at an age when she’d normally be setting up her household; overall it is an exploration of faith, sexuality, and their intersection with everyday life. There are no knights or nobles, just ordinary people.
I really enjoyed this.
Taking “the weird kid at school” to new heights, Norman has an active life with the ghosts of the departed, happily chatting to his dead grandma as they watch TV together, deceased neighbours as he walks to school, and petting the animals that haunt his town; unsurprisingly, this does not lead to an easy time with most of his classmates or, for that matter, his father.
Small town Irish gangsters, boys touching, cancer, drug smuggling priests. Colm Meany and Alec Baldwin add a little gravitas. Having enjoyed Olivia Cooke’s turn in Slow Horses, I thought I’d give this a go; it follows what I think of as the Guy Ritchie template, except rather than being based in London it’s a spin around small-town Ireland, with Cooke as the daughter of a local gangster who happens upon a couple of local idiots who have found themselves in possession of a small fortune in drugs that they have no idea how to dispose of.
(You can see why I characterise it as pulled from the Guy Ritchie playbook, yeah?)
Pixie herself is well outside the comfort zone of both young men, her step-siblings, and frankly the rest of the village. She encourages two of the local boys to go well beyond their comfort zone both as small-time crooks, cross dressers, and shagging. It’s a good solid example of the kind of film that it wants to be, but it’s not going to surprise you.