Thursday, March 22, 2007

Across Asia: Sha Po Lang, I Live in Fear, and The Namesake

Not much time before I head for the Boston Underground Film Festival, so here's some movie reviews, including one for Puzzlehead, which I saw waaaay back during the SF marathon.

Sha Po Lang (aka Kill Zone)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

Sha Po Lang (even if I don't understand the astrological reference, it still makes more sense to me than the generic title The Weinstein Company have used to sell the movie) is an impressive movie, no question. It's a fine example of the slick neo-noir style exemplified by Infernal Affairs, but that's not quite what I was expecting. I was drawn in by the promise of action, so imagine my surprise when the stuff in between the punching and kicking wasn't just filling time, but the basis for what would be a pretty decent crime movie without the martial arts.

Remember: When Jackie Chan first started alternating between Hollywood and Hong Kong, he commented in an interview how much more focus American movies placed on story compared to his usual work... and this was in response to working on Rush Hour, of all things. So finding a story that twists and turns a bit and uses a little subtlety in the middle of an expected beat 'em up is a pleasant surprise.

The story's not that complicated: Detective Chan-Kwok Chung (Simon Yam) wants to put gangster Wong Po (Sammo Hung) away in the worst way: Three years ago, Po was let off after a witness Chung was guarding was murdered by Po's men. Chung adopted the witness's daughter, but the attack left him with a tumor that could kill him at any time. He formed a team of young detectives who weren't afraid to break the rules if it meant taking down organized crime. Days before retiring and handing his team over to Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), he's delivered evidence that is enough to put Po away for life... if they tamper with it a bit, intimidate a witness, and dispose of the man who actually delivered the killshot. Which, as one might imagine, is the sort of thing that earns them visits from Jack (Wu Jing), Po's best assassin.

Full review at HBS.

I Live in Fear (Ikimono no Kiroku)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2007 at the Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films)

My most recent viewing of I Live in Fear was as part of a double feature with Godzilla during a series on films of the Cold War. It's an apt pairing, as both tackle, in their own way, the fear of the atomic bomb - an anxiety which Japan would of course feel especially strongly. Where the other film makes nuclear destruction into a tangible monster to fight, I Live in Fear spends its time on how we deal with the real one.

Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) must ponder the question of how much time people should spend worrying about the atomic bomb. A dentist by trade, he is also respected enough for family courts to use him as a mediator, and his latest case is an unusual one - the family of Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is suing to have him declared incompetent. Over the past year, he has become so obsessed with the idea of nuclear war that he first spent millions of yen to build an underground bunker to his family to move into, then, deciding that was not safe enough, hatched a plan to move the lot (including the children fathered with a series of mistresses) to Brazil. Since he is willing to trade the family business that supports them all, they feel they have no other recourse.

In retrospect, the idea seems crazy, but what makes the film compelling is that Harada is able to see the sanity in the elder Nakajima's actions. Everyone he talks to admits to being frightened of the atomic bomb, but, they say, there's nothing that they can do about it, so worrying does little good. But if Nakajima can do something about it, isn't he obligated to? Harada spends most of the film as an observer, sometimes thrashing the case around with his son, and Takashi Shimura does a fine job of showing Harada's growing sympathy for Nakajima without going over the edge into madness himself.

Full review at HBS.

Godzilla (Gojira)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2007 at the Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films)

Kid of a weird screening - the HFA didn't get the first reel of the film, so they showed twenty minutes from a DVD before switching over to 35mm.

Still the greatest monster movie ever made, though. No matter how many times I see it, I'm still impressed by what a somber film it is - it's hard to believe that it could spawn the franchise it did. Don't get me wrong, I love movies like Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack! (heck, I just like names like Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack!), but this is a movie with real heft to it.

The Namesake

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2007 at the Brattle Theater (preview)

In an era of previews that give every event in the film away, the promos for The Namesake have been pleasantly deceptive. To see the advertising, one would think that the film centers around Kal Penn's character, and how his and his parents don't see eye to eye about his unusual name or white girlfriend. That's there, but it's only part of the movie, and the preview cuts pieces from opposite ends of the film together to give the story a very different shape.

Indeed, Penn's Gogol Ganguli isn't even born until about a half-hour into the movie, and isn't grown until nearly halfway through. The first scene introduces us to his father, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), who is wiling away a long train ride by reading a book by Nikolai Gogol as the guy in the next seat tells him he should see the world in person, rather than through books. There's a loud noise, a glimpse of a recuperating Ashoke, and then we meet Ashima (Tabu), whose parents are arranging a marriage between the two. They come to New York, and though it's a difficult adjustment for Ashima, they do well for themselves, moving to the suburbs where they raise two children, Gogol and Sonia (Sahira Nair). The kids are thoroughly assimilated Americans, and Gogol especially chafes at his odd name and family traditions. After finishing college, he tends to spend more time with the family of his girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) than his own. They, of course, have found a nice Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) for him.

The first half of the movie belongs to Khan and Tabu, both popular actors in India but nearly unknown in the United States. It's intriguing to watch them get used to each other and their new country in the first half-hour, as the color and beauty of their wedding ceremony serves as a sharp contrast to wintry New York. The way they grow closer out of familiarity and raising children together is understated yet beautiful, from the way Ashima appears stiff the first time Ashoke touches her to how they can't conceive of being separated the first time he leaves her for any great length of time, over twenty-five years later. Both actors play the characters from start to end, with aging accompanied by very good make-up jobs. Tabu's performance is especially strong at the center of the film; Ashima does many of the things such a character is expected to do without becoming a cliché, and there's a very real balance between her curiosity about America and her nervousness at confronting it. I like how she never quite seems to embrace her new life, seeming much more at ease on her back to India. Khan is very good, too, aging more visibly over the course of the film, showing Ashoke as sometimes frustrated that he doesn't quite seem to bond with his son as he'd like to, but almost always flawless in his scenes with Tabu.

Full review at HBS.

1 comment:

FearScene said...

With all the different Godzilla movies I've seen, I'm surprised I've never seen this one -- apparently the first. Your description of it as a somber movie makes me think that I will actually like it. Not that I don't like some of the Godzilla movies I've seen, but somber sounds like something a lot of them could use.