Friday, December 31, 2010

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 and directed by Ang Lee, tells the story of two women, Shu Lien and Ziyi Zhang (Jen), both capable fighters, whose fates intertwine, when Hu Lien finds herself in Beijing, transporting 'Green Destiny' (an ancient sword) to Sir Te's estate, at the behest of her dear friend, Mu Bai. Both women yearn freedom in different ways: Shu Lien strives for freedom to express her emotions, and to fulfill her love for Mu Bai, but as we learn at the beginning, matters of the heart are difficult for her; Ziyi Zhang, on the other hand, is an aristocrat with a tumultuous past, who seeks to escape the constraints of her noble lifestyle and her upcoming arranged marriage.
A thief appears on the estate trying to steal the sword 'Green Destiny', and is later revealed to be Jen, who is working in cahoots with Jade Fox, an ignoble murderess, who is nonetheless a great fighter. Jade Fox is undercover as Jen's governess, but is really her mentor and teacher. Mu Bai discovers Jen's secret, but sees that she has great potential as a warrior and offers to become her teacher in the Wudang style of fighting. Jen, when she learns about Jade Fox's tainted past, banishes her, and returns the sword.
Lo, a long-haired, passionate bandit from the desert ('I may not be a cloud but I'm pretty dark') comes to Jen in the night, begging her to flee with him. We are given an insight into their history in a flashback, whereby Lo, heading a group of bandits, raided Jen's carriage, kidnapping Jen, and stealing her precious comb, which becomes a symbol of their love and trust of one another. Jen refuses to flee, so he puts a stop to the arranged marriage, but is intercepted by Mu Bai and Shu Lien, sending him to hide in wait for Jen at a safe location. After the wedding, Jen again steals 'Green Destiny' and runs away, and visits Shu Lien, who tells her that Lo awaits her. However, at this stage, it is clear that Jen is a danger to those around her, unsure of her destiny and winning duels in dishonorable fashion, and Mu Bai realises she is not worthy to be his student.
The film ends tragically, whereby Shu Lien too late discovers Mu Bai's love for her, and he dies in her arms, and Jen leaps into the clouds, apparently rejecting the Lo's love.
The film is remarkable in its dream-like scenes of the characters running through the air, over rootops, flying from branch to branch (apparently wire-work was employed and edited out), and the fencing scenes too were beautifully agile, like a dance. It didn't at all seem like a violent film. Also, the messages central to the film were strong and powerful, beautifully conveyed by characters who lived their truth. 'Real sharpness comes without effort. No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again'. This spoken by Mu Bai reveals the truth and integrity of his character. And Shu Lien, advising Jen on her path through life tells her to be a part of Lo's life but 'always be true to yourself'.'

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Seasons of life

shards of ice drape the rail like a flimsy medieval robe
the sea shivers in icy flux, too cold to boldly roar.
an icy film coats the pier. it's now a beached blue whale.
it's the blue-white-green-grey of winter's lonely heart-
the stark, sharp nothingness that calls for rest.

but yonder-in that horizon space-lie vast riches, untold
heat and fire and sun and gold. tribal dancing, clapping, stamping.
the burnt sienna, chestnut, pink, merge beautifully into
warmth. The colour of the heart. Its dancing flames,
sparks of sunrays. The gentle All that calls for life.

'Room' Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, based loosely on the horrifying story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in captivity for years and had children with her, is imaginably a harrowing and profoundly affecting book.
Told from the viewpoint of five-year old Jack, we come to know Jack and his Ma, and their horribly confined existence in ‘Room’, a garden shed, which is the only life Jack ever knew. Ma, abducted when she was eighteen, has had to put up with endless abuse at the hands of ‘Old Nick’, her captor, at whose mercy she and her son live. He visits them nearly nightly, ostensibly to bring supplies, but really demanding sexual favours of Ma, while Jack lies in Wardrobe, counting how many times ‘Old Nick creaks the bed’. Ma tries to create a safe fictional world for Jack, and succeeds in so far as he feels safe, he knows of no outside world, and only accesses ‘otherness’ from the world of TV, of which she does not allow him to watch much and which she says are ‘made up’. Each week is programmed into a series of activites and rituals by which to pass the time, and which strikes one as Beckettian. However, as Jack turns five, and becomes more curious and physically bigger, Ma finds Room becoming smaller and smaller, and after an unimaginably cruel punishment by Old Nick, where they had to do without heat or food for a whole week, Ma takes matters into her own hands and begins to plot their escape.
The childish perspective of the book is really beautifully conveyed through the use of language and images, and this allows us to really feel the pathos of the situation. Jack talks of ‘waterfalling’ the milk, refers to Ma’s painkillers as ‘Killers’, refers to the moonlight glimpsed through Skylight as ‘God’s silver face’ and as we see already personifies all the objects with which they share their space, speaking of them as friends to which they are firmly attached.
Their adjustment into the real world is understandably difficult, and Jack longs often to be back in ‘Room’ where everything was safe and familiar, and where he had Ma all to himself. He is overwhelmed with other people in the world as well as the vast range of sensory experience that was hitherto amiss. Ma, likewise, succumbs to dependence once she is out in the real world. For so long, she had to remain strong, not only for her own survival, but more importantly for Jack’s, who means the world to her. In fact she still nursed Jack, and the lack of understanding that greeted her in the outside world in this regard showed people’s absolute lack of understanding as to her situation. The line of questioning that followed their escape often held an accusatory tone, suggesting that her care for Jack was less than adequate, and this ignorance drove her, quite literally, mad. Life on the outside, as she was quickly remembering, was difficult in itself
Overall this is a really excellent, creative work which takes one out of their comfort zone, and offers an alternative view on reality, which, we are very aware as readers, was a reality for very many people. People in captivity of all kinds experience something of the trauma and dependence that Donoghue so incitefully describes. Her playful use of language and depiction of humorous scenes adds greatly to the book, giving the overall story an uplifting character.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The American

Anton Corbijn’s film, ‘The American’, is certainly not your run-of-the-mill gangster film, the formulaic, Hollywood-style ‘shoot-em-up’ that have become so common as to be humdrum. While it is a gangster film, it is a European-style gangster film, and therein lies the difference…the focus is more on art, cinematography and attractive scenery, and the plot, small though it is, unfolds itself in a painstakingly slow way, allowing us to be drawn in by the atmosphere of composed tension.

The film opens with Jack, the protagonist, played in a wonderfully restrained manner by George Clooney, enjoying a romantic vacation with a beautiful woman in an isolated log cabin in snowy Sweden. We see the naked couple sitting in silence by the fire inside, and then accompany them as they take a walk in the snow. When shots are fired at them from above, Jack does not hesitate to use his own gun, and kills both the man, and the unfortunate, woman. We wonder whether she is a traitor, or just an unsuspecting witness, something that is never disclosed in the film.

The film is mainly set in a beautiful Italian village, set in the mountains, and here Corbijn really takes advantage of the beauty of the location, making unbridled use of the stunning scenes. Not only is the location itself stunning, but so too are all the main characters, giving the film a glamour that is reminiscent of the Bond movies. Yet, one senses the aim of ‘The American’ is to draw one into the psychological mindset of the assassin, and therefore place itself on higher ground than a typical Bond movie. While it does achieve this to a certain degree, we never get too close to the main characters. While we know that Jack has a boss, with whom he communicates through short fragmented phonecalls, we don’t get any more information about who he is. We don’t even understand what exactly Jack is doing in this beautiful Italian village…this lack of context must in some part be a directorial devise, though at times, we yearn for a little bit more explanation, piecing together… Perhaps it is a means to highlight the folly senselessness to such a lifestyle. Jack, capable though he is, is slowly realising that he is lonely, and that his empty life lacks meaning.

He encounters a local priest in the village, who befriends him and tries to encourage him to take God into his heart. This relationship is very subtle and while Jack discovers the priest’s own past sins fairly quickly, we get no further insight into his own spiritual development. Through his liaison with a beautiful prostitute, Clara, we learn a little more. Clara represents for him freedom and life, and awakens Jack’s desire for these. However, it turns out that it’s a bit too late to make amends…Jack is now the ’hunted’, and will never enjoy the life of freedom that he has just discovered he wants.

Overall, I enjoyed ‘The American’, and the atmospheric, slow-moving scenes, and engaged with the characters in the film. However, I found the lack of context difficult to accept at times, and was left with many unanswered questions. The plot isn’t cut-and-dried like many other gangster movies, and only reveals itself in part, and very slowly.