Here are three films that I saw recently. One was excellent, one was good and one was a total bore.
KIMI NO NAWA (YOUR NAME)
Released a couple of weeks ago and currently still showing at the cinemas, this latest animated feature from Shinkai Makoto lives up to all the praise that’s been heaped upon it and certainly deserves all the box-office success it’s had in Japan and China.
The first film by Shinkai that I ever saw was 5 Centimetres per Second, and I recall not being entirely impressed. It’s been years and I seriously cannot remember what my gripe was with the film. I do, however, remember that I was annoyed with all the slow panning and lost interest pretty fast.
But Your Name is a whole different vehicle and a completely alternate experience to what I’d drawn from that earlier film of his. The story gets going pretty quick and the pace is even. If you don’t already know, it’s about a girl in the countryside and a boy in Tokyo city who somehow switch bodies, a phenomenon that has something to do with the comet that’s passing close to Earth. The least you know about the story, the better. It’s that kind of a film. There’s a lot of surprises along the way, and somewhere in the middle is the biggest surprise of them all, as the film itself switches from a whimsical body-switch comedy to something whose weight has been suggested all along the way. And when that happens, the full beauty and profundity of the film take shape, leading to a dream-like poignancy that’s rarely felt in an animated film. Shinkai manages to capture that “special something” that I have trouble describing, something that encompasses broad strokes of pathos and romance, and strangely, nostalgia.
There is a sense of longing – as much the longing felt by the characters as it is the longing for the past (which actually makes sense when you know what happens to the characters). After all, the film touches on time, memory and identity, on an individual level as well as in a much broader sense. There is an important moment when the girl’s grandmother tells her that even though everyone in town has forgotten the reason why they have the sake-making ritual every year, they still maintain the tradition. It’s a perpetuation of life, a deeply human instinct, the same instinct that drives the two characters to go on searching for each other even as time erases their memories of one another.
And the beauty of Shinkai’s animation that is so obsessed with magic-hour sceneries lends great aesthetic weight to the tale, capturing in such great detail the awe and wonder of existence.
Singapore’s official submission to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category (it didn’t get nominated though) is a very engaging piece of well-controlled filmmaking. Boo Junfeng had already proven himself to have the chops for eliciting top-notch performances from his actors and telling an absorbing story, with his first feature Sandcastle (2010). With Apprentice, his sophomore effort, he does it again while tackling the heavy and controversial subject of the death penalty.
The acting here is powerful stuff, even if the story, as a whole, doesn’t quite display as much power as its subject demands. The often subdued Wan Hanafi Su totally surprises here with a performance of steely, yet understated dominance, and he really is the star of the film. Firdaus Rahman is equally impactful with quiet, suppressed anger and a head full of conflicted thoughts. It’s performances that are great to watch, and so captivating that you anticipate every meeting and interaction between the two leads.
However, the promise of a full exploration of capital punishment isn’t quite fulfilled. Aiman, a young correctional officer, hatches a plan to meet the hangman who executed his father many years ago. His motive is never made explicit, and whatever suggestions and implications there may have been certainly didn’t quite reach me.
As Boo tries to get us to sympathise and empathise, with the slow revelation of who Aiman really is, and a couple of poignant scenes of men on death row, he doesn’t quite pull off the emotional engagement as effectively as he does the dramatic pull. By the end of the film, the strange irony dealt into the story that comes off more as a clever plot device, largely negates the promise of the beginning.
And by the end, the director’s intention of leaving it open to the audience to draw their own conclusions also leaves too much unresolved.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Rogue One, despite all the hype, is a major Star Bore. I have no idea how Gareth Edwards managed to make a boring Star Wars movie when he has Darth Vader and Donnie Yen in it. I mean, Master Yip himself! Of course, it’s no surprise that Donnie was the highlight of the movie.
The makers of the new Star Wars movies seem to have forgotten or overlooked two very important things about the early Star Wars movies (and to some extent, the prequels, too).
1. The original trilogy was meant for kids, and was a barrel of fun, even when it got a bit serious and dark in The Empire Strikes Back. But now, everything has to be serious and dark (cue emotional piano tinkling). I’ve written about this before. And it begs repeating. Why does everything have to be so dark and serious? Why take away all the fun? In the original trilogy, the Rebels were the good guys who could do no wrong. The Empire was evil to the core. That’s it. Black and white (literally). That’s all the politics you need! But now, they have to make the Rebels morally ambiguous, like the CIA. Well, no thanks.
2. And this is the most important. George Lucas always had surprises for us. A New Hope was something we had never seen before at the time of its release. Then Empire had an ice planet (ICE PLANET!!!), snow walkers, asteroids, Degobah, Yoda, Bespin Cloud City. Return of the Jedi had ewoks, Jabba the Hutt, and um, Princess Leia in a skimpy slave outfit. It was always about giving us something we’d never seen. But the new movies are mostly rehashes and “homages”. How many times do we need to see Vader choking someone with the Force? How many times do we need to hear “It’s a trap” and “I have a bad feeling about this”? How many dads need to die? Does having another amphibian admiral excite us? Would more AT-ATs make our pants feel tight? Yet another Death Star? Another desert planet (and this time with some racist undertones to boot, a place with a Middle Eastern-sounding name that’s a stronghold for religious extremists led by a dark-skinned head honcho)?
I’d suggest a trip back to the drawing board.