Sunday, March 20, 2011

Asian exodus: The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman and I Saw the Devil

I hadn't meant to do back-to-back Asian films Saturday afternoon, but you know how I said yesterday that work would have to screw me over but good for me to miss I Saw the Devil on opening night? Maybe work didn't quite screw me over, but the afternoon was spent looking at the bus app on my phone, seeing yet another one pass, and growing more fearful that I would not catch the one I needed.

One thing I couldn't help but notice yesterday afternoon was the large number of walk-outs. The couple that left I Saw the Devil was perhaps to be expected; it establishes itself right off the bat as not being for the squeamish and considering how crowded the room was, someone was going to object to it. Announcing that they were in the wrong movie loud enough for the rest of the auditorium to hear seemed to be poor form, though.

The walk-outs for The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman were a bit more of a head-scratcher, though. Maybe not on their own - it's a weird, screwy movie that doesn't always succeed in what it sets out to do, and the folks in the audience who looked like they might have come from nearby Chinatown looked like a bit of an older crowd. I know I'm painting with several broad brushes here, but that audience can be fairly conservative, and Wuershan's style is anything but. What's interesting to me, though, is that this isn't the first time I've seen this happen at a Chinese movie - What Women Want and (to a lesser extent) If You Are the One 2 both had a fair number of people leaving as the film went on. At least, I think they did - my memory isn't perfect. Still, I sort of wonder if this may be a cultural thing; are Chinese and Chinese-American audiences less likely to stick through a movie they don't like all the way to the end than others? It's something to watch out for next time.

One interesting thing to note is that China Lion does seem to have given this movie a bit more of a promotional push than some of their previous releases. I noted back in December that If You Are the One 2 seemed to have snuck into American theaters, while this one had previews, English-friendly posters, and partnerships with comic shops. Part of this is selling an action-adventure versus a romantic comedy, I suppose (though the L.A. Times writer who lumped Boston in with the "potential fanboy audience" could perhaps have done a little more research), but the harder push is noted and I hope it eventually pays off - they may not have yet released a movie that I've loved, but when they do, it's going to be great seeing it on the big screen rather than waiting and hoping for a festival showing or English-friendly DVD release.

Dao Jian Xiao (The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2011 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run)

The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman certainly doesn't lack for style; it's got more styles than you can shake a stick at. At times, overwhelmingly so - though the movie is often quite funny and exciting, director Wuershan might have been served by a little more clarity and a little less flourish.

The title characters each have their own story, united by a cleaver made of black iron. The Butcher (Liu Xiaoye) is smitten with a lovely courtesan, Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), but even if such a lowly person were to be allowed near her, he would have to fight his way past the brutish "Big Beard". A grotesque eunuch with a reputation for killing those whose cooking displeases him is coming to sample a chef's signature eight-course meal, so the chef (Mi Dan) chooses a mute but talented kitchen servant (Masanobu Ando) to be his apprentice. And Fat Tang (You Benchang), a village blacksmith who was once the kingdom's greatest swordmaker, is approached by a swordsman (Ashton Xu) who wishes him to forge him a blade out of a lump of iron melted down from the weapons of five great warriors.

The nested telling of these stories is actually very well-done, which is not the case for many movies that tell multiple stories and jump around the timeline. Wuershan and his co-writers (working from a short story by An Changhe) make this feel like the natural way to tell the tale, and the relationship of characters and events is always fairly clear, even when we're four levels deep in flashbacks and unreliable narrators. The frantic cross-cutting, switching of film stocks, and stylization is a good match to the film's broad, zany sense of humor. It's a movie filled with broadly defined and played characters, occasional fourth-wall breaking, and the sort of mugging for the audience that can seem unsophisticated but which are a direct descendant of the Chinese opera which occasionally shows up in the movie.

Full review at EFC.

Akmareul Boatda (I Saw the Devil)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

A colleague of mine described Kim Ji-woon's last film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, as an attempt to make an action movie with nothing but the Good Parts. Kim brings that same attitude to I Saw the Devil - it's like a serial killer movie that starts at the moment when others kick into high gear, and then keeps going for nearly two and a half hours. It's dark, bloody, and intense, not for the weak of heart (or stomach), but electric nearly all the way through.

We open with Jang Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha) in a car with a flat tire, on the phone to her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), an officer in the Korean equivalent of the Secret Service. A tow truck is on the way, but a seemingly helpful man offers his assistance. He is Jang Kyeong-chul (Choi Min-sik), and he is a serial killer. In the aftermath, Soo-hyeon tells his boss that he only needs a couple weeks off from work, but instead of grieving, he intends to hunt Ju-yeon's killer down, but not just to kill him - Soo-yeon means to terrorize Kyeong-chul the way he terrorized his victims.

This is a bad idea, and to director Kim's and writer Park Hoon-jung's credit, it's obvious as a bad idea from the start, but it's also seductive and the sort of thing that fits Soo-hyeon's character more as we see more of him (and seeing him demonstrate his skills as the movie goes on reinforces our hopes that he can pull this off even as the situation threatens to spin out of control). Without waxing overly philosophical, the story ponders a bit about the psychology of serial killers, and even throws in a side plot that could work as its own movie to push that along. The movie is in post-plot-twist, anything-can-happen mode practically from minute one, without much time for untested righteousness, and the tale is told through action rather than hand-wringing. We don't see Soo-hyeon agonizing over his questionable actions, we just see situations where his thirst for revenge may get innocent people killed.

Full review at EFC.

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