Chinese Fantasy, Tamil Thriller and Korean Exorcists

Kicking off the blog in the new year, here are the first three films I saw in 2017.

THE GREAT WALL

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I’ve been a big fan of the Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers since the beginning of their careers. And the one that I especially admired was Zhang Yimou whose masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (1991) is at once one of the most engaging human dramas and political allegories, and a true horror story. Thus, it’s rather disturbing to see him do an almost about-turn in terms of the kind of films he now makes in his prime. His first foray into big-budget visual feasts, Hero (2002), was criticised for being a love letter to authoritarianism, but I disagree. If it were indeed a film that glorifies the state, it wouldn’t have had such an emotive and sorrowful ending that empathises with the defeated. No, it’s more a meditation on the necessary evils of the world and the double-edged sword that is dictatorship, which has been proven time and again by history and human folly.

By the time he made House of Flying Daggers (2004), I felt he was starting on a slippery slope towards muddled storytelling, and indeed, it all came to a head with the gaudily gorgeous but ultimately forgettable Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

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Over the last few years, he has been busy with the Beijing Olympics ceremonies and the ballet version of Raise The Red Lantern. From the radical rebel filmmaker whose films often invited the ire of the Chinese government, Zhang seems to both embrace and be embraced by the official mainstream to become their political ideologue.

And now comes The Great Wall, what can only be described as China’s feeble attempt at its own Lord of the Rings, and Zhang’s take on modern China as told through an ancient tale. It’s a totally by-the-numbers action-fantasy and a piece of fanciful historical revisionism. It envisions the Great Wall of China as a construct to keep out fantastical monsters, and alters the rigid characteristics of Chinese history a few centuries forward to embrace contemporary mores in the post-Mao era. That is, foreigners are not all bad and some of them may be able to teach us a thing or two.

It’s not altogether too far-out to say The Great Wall is weird in the way it reflects its own genesis, a Chinese movie that apes the west that could only get made with the opening up of China to foreign involvement, yet is a cautionary tale where the monsters serve to remind imperial China of its past sins of greed and opulence.

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Aside from that, The Great Wall is also full of the usual political correctness of China, where all the Chinese characters are noble and loyal and righteous but the foreigners are greedy, scheming and out to steal the country’s valuables. But Matt Damon’s character is interesting in the way that he is paired with Jing Tian’s battle-hardened yet beguiling warrior.

It’s a reversal of the old Impotent Asian Male in Hollywood movies. Whenever a male Asian hero is paired with a western female counterpart, there are always only hints of romance between them, while the Asian male never gets to have sex with the woman, and he’s lucky to even get a peck on the cheek. There was once a great article about this in Pop Matters.

In The Great Wall, Damon’s character only gets to exchange yearning glances with Jing Tian, and there’s not even a goodbye kiss. You could slice the sexual tension with a battle sword. That is perhaps the only interesting thing in this movie. The rest is just stupid, forgettable fun.

DHURUVANGAL PATHINAARU

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Debutant director Karthick Naren is only in his early 20s, and he’s already made a lot of important people take notice of him with this first feature. He’s also got Rahman to star in it. And he also wrote the plot-heavy screenplay.

The film, a police-procedural thriller, is indeed impressive, with Karthick directing with a sure hand that belies his age. It’s one of those parallel cinema Indian films (I just learned of this term recently!) that eschew songs and dances for a serious tone.

Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, or D16, or 16 Extremes, is told entirely in flashbacks, as we gradually learn of the circumstances that led to Inspector Deepak’s retirement and the amputation of one of his legs. When one of his subordinates’ son comes to visit, looking for advice about joining the police force, Deepak relates to him a case from years ago that involved a missing girl, a suicide and a road accident. The plotting is engaging, with a few unexpected twists, although this is one of those things where if you pore over it with a fine toothcomb, you’ll likely come up with a few nagging questions, as I did. But plotholes aside, I like Karthick’s style, which involves a few long takes and a lot of asides and small touches that add to the realism. And the fact that you don’t notice the long takes until you really stop to think about it, shows that the director knows exactly how to stage a single-take scene.

But all this can be a bit show-offy, yet it’s naturally among the traits of a new director who’s going for broke to impress. And though the film is certainly rough around the edges, with uneven performances, it’s entertaining and intriguing as a thriller. And I’m excited to see more from this director.

THE PRIESTS

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Horror had never been a strong genre for South Korean cinema, with filmmakers mostly trying to copy J-horror and sometimes going to silly extremes to find the horrific in the mundane (The Wig, The Shoes, The Phone, etc). There was even a film about the horrors of … um, yoga.

It was not until The Wailing last year that Korean horror finally came into its own. Na Hong-jin’s puzzle film about possessions, shamans and zombies was among the finest films of 2016, regardless of genre.

And then I found out about this film, directed by first-timer Jang Jae-hyun and based on his award-winning short film 12th Assistant Deacon. Like all South Korean films, it’s technically very impressive. However, it’s too similar to The Exorcist for my liking.

There is an old priest (though not as old as Father Merrin), tired and jaded, who wants to help a possessed girl, and there’s a young priest having an emotional and spiritual crisis assisting him in the difficult task. The difference is, The Priests also involves Rosicrucianism, a mysterious cultural movement involving esoteric knowledge, and a piglet. Yup, a piglet.

The film, which was a hit in South Korea, starts off trying very hard to be ominous and religious, with an annoying and overbearing organ score. This initial irritation led me to expect a painful time with a lot of jump scares. But fortunately, the film is rather subtle, and is more thriller than horror. The exorcism scene, too, is surprisingly suspenseful and well crafted.

But this is a film where priests don’t behave like priests, and say things like “You moron!” and “You son of a bitch!” (I’m not sure if it’s a translation glitch), just so you know what to expect. Unfortunately it’s also ultimately forgettable.

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