Saturday, March 05, 2022

Sunday double feature: Sundown and The Battle at Lake Changjin II

I miss writing on the bus to and from work - it was an hour a day with pretty much no distractions, and it made it much harder to fall behind like this, where I'm posting this three weeks after the fact because even though I want to keep this blog up because there's movie stuff I want to do that doesn't fit anywhere else - I don't think Letterboxd and eFilmCritic will disappear any time soon, and it's not out of the question that Google will decide to axe Blogger before that, but this seems like the safest haven - it's kind of easy not to it's just so easy to not do so, or wind up running so late that one movie from this afternoon has already hit streaming (not that it takes much longer than a couple weeks in some cases) and Lake Changjin II has gone off into whatever limbo where Chinese movies with no obvious streaming home in the USA go.

It's worth noting that both shows were very sparse. Not surprising for Sundown - it's sort of an art-house-y movie from a small label, so it didn't get much of a publicity push, and I saw it in its second week - but when I saw the first Lake Changjin, it was legitimately crowded with me probably the only non-Chinese person there, making the "us vs them" stuff in the closing credits awkward. I'm not sure what the reason is for the drop-off - did word that this was kind of cheap and rushed make its way across the Pacific, or did the Chinese-American audience find themselves more interested in Only Fools Rush In, which got a second week?

Anyway, I recommend Sundown, and my only defense of Lake Changjin II is, what, do you expect me to not go when a new Tsui Hark movie is in theaters, even if it's obvious propaganda he maybe doesn't feel he can refuse?

Sundown (2022)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2022 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

If you're going to make your whole movie out of "hm, I wonder where they're going with this*, it helps immensely if said movie is 83 minutes long, you've got Tim Roth to focus on, and just enough happens to pique a viewer's interest. It's still not going to be for everyone.

Start with a family vacation at a fancy resort in Acapulco, where Neil Bennett (Roth) is the cool laid-back uncle to Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Knotting McMillan) while sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is always checking her phone. One message, it turns out, is not about the family business - their mother back in the UK has had a stroke. Upon arriving at the airport, Neil can't produce his passport, and sends the rest of his family ahead - but instead of going back to the resort, he checks into a cheap beach-side place, and then grabs a chair, starts ordering beers, and starts flirting with Berenice (Iazua Larios), the girl at the convenience store. Calls from Alice are met with excuses about the consulate he hasn't visited, until finally she and family lawyer Richard come to find out just what is going on.

There's something more than a bit horrifying about how quietly Neil just decides to ignore his family responsibilities, but fascinating given the way that Roth and writer/director Michel Franco choose not to push some sort of petulance at the audience. Most in the audience will probably admit that there's a great temptation here - who hasn't idly imagined getting out of something that looks like this level of hassle with one easily-told lie? That levelness quickly becomes unnerving, but Roth and Franco do well to not tip their hands - as Franco presents complications and explanations (if not justifications), Roth tweaks his performance just enough to play into or against them, but always has a clear idea of what's driving it and why this guy might react in a certain way.

As great as Roth's central performance is, this one may work as well as it does in large part because of the moments when the other characters acknowledge that something isn't quite right with Roth's Neil; Franco isn't overly cute in how he avoids giving too many details too early, arranging things so that one believes in how characters talk around the subject and shuffling from characters who know to those who need to learn details alongside the viewer. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Henry Goodman, and Iazua Larios do well working off him someone out of the expected sequence sequence - Gainsbourg showing how Alice is not sure what she should be feeling in these circumstances; Goodman's Richard detached but friendly; Larios initially making Berenice not quite mercenary but clearly knowing what you can expect out of a fling with a moneyed gringo before being pulled in to the point where more may be going on.

With the story ultimately being relatively simple, Franco and his crew have some time (and need) to noodle around, to sometimes interesting ends. He's got an eye on how the upper class often get a pass but doesn't let it take things over - he'll emphasize the clean lines of the resort compared to working/middle-class Acapulco, for instance, in a way that shows he's at least given some thought to how those barriers are often so strongly reinforced because they are so thin, but doesn't let it become the movie. When violence is necessary to move things forward, it's impressively shocking and non-fetishized. Somewhere in between the two is a thread about the Bennetts' business being slaughterhouses and provides some unnerving visuals but doesn't quite have the punch it could have if class and exploitation were more focal to the movie rather than just something that enabled Neil's actions.

Eventually, everything falls into place in a way that makes sense even if it's perhaps inelegant, but that itself is ultimately oddly respectful, as the filmmakers seem to value ultimately understanding a decision rather than justifying it. A big-time revelation is the opposite of what they're going for, even if the film is built like a thriller, but it nevertheless gets to a point where all the noodling about winds up being justified.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Chang jin hu zhi shui men qiao (The Battle at Lake Changjin II, aka Water Gate Bridge)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2022 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

So, how much sequel does four months, some unused footage, Tsui Hark, Wu Jing, and rush service at every special effects house in China get you? About 150 minutes, but not exactly the best two and a half hours of anybody's career. This movie is bloated and chaotic, as if the time to shoot the action left no room for second takes of anything connecting it. It looks cheap, more so as it tries to be more elaborate, and tries to force a story that is naturally about the sheer pointless waste of war into a narrative of honor and duty.

This film picks up right where The Battle of Lake Changjin left off, with the Americans routed and fleeing and the Chinese Army intending to deal them such a crushing blow that even a madman like Douglas MacArthur (Jame Filbird) will know to stay out of their sphere of influence. So rather than returning home, the 7th Company of the 9th Corps of the People's Volunteer Army led by Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) and including his now more experienced younger brother Wanli (Jackson Lee) is being dispatched to get ahead of the retreating Americans and destroy the bridge that will let them escape via Hunguon Port.

First, though, they've got to literally turn around and seemingly refight the first movie's climactic battle, ostensibly to capture more weapons and ammunition but in reality more because that's the unused footage they have from the previous film that can be repurposed. It is, as one might imagine, a weird mess of a sequence; even though this footage wasn't cut from the first film because it was bad material but because it was superfluous, and the result is akin to master tailors trying to construct a bespoke suit from the scraps left over from the last one they made, and the result can't help but look patched-together. It's an early warning that things are going to get stretched awful thin.

It gets better in some ways and worse in others when it comes to the main battle - Tsui and his action crew are able to build what they need rather than around what they have, although the short production time means that they really only have the resources for that one set-up and it's not quite as flexible as one might think. There are points when a viewer might feel like they've seen an action beat before and quite recently, and though most everybody involved is a seasoned pro, time is a factor - there are some obvious miniatures, some CGI that could maybe have used another pass for a little more detail and other uses where one suspects it simply takes less time to build something virtually than it would on a soundstage. There's enough slow motion to make one wonder if the idea was purely to pad the running time because a two hour sequel to a three-hour epic would be too much of a step down. Not unexpectedly, the film comes most to life when Qianli is on his own and running through American defenses like a madman - Wu Jing may have been taking more dramatic roles compared to straight-up martial-arts recently, but he's still good at getting through a scene and selling a fight.

The material around it is iffier; especially if you're watching it as an American. The writers grasp at the thread of how MacArthur considered using nuclear weapons in Korea and President Truman (Ben Z. Orenstein) nixed this, but it feels like badly integrated propaganda, warning the Chinese people of what Americans are capable of in war but not really making it part of the story (and also making how this film once again presents General Oliver P. Smith in an oddly sympathetic light compared to the other American warmongers something which seemingly deserves some exploration). Few of the bearded, shaven-headed American officers actually look like Americans of the 1950s - I'd guess that they're mostly Russian MMA types - and you'd never know that there were Korean people involved in the Korean War to watch these two movies. The repetition of the big battle gets dull, and by the nature of this movie Hark and company can't really pause to consider how each noble sacrifice to destroy the bridge being momentarily triumphant is ultimately hollow as the US Army throws some new bit of technology at the problem.

I'm not sure why, exactly, the filmmakers felt the need to roll a follow-up out so quickly - it wound up stepping on the toes of other big Korean War movies slated for Lunar New Year release - because working against such a tight deadline doesn't do this movie any favors. Hopefully, doing this helped Tsui Hark solidify a good enough reputation with the Chinese film community that it will be easier for him to finance that Detective Dee time travel crossover he's supposedly wanted to do, or whatever other more ambitious project he might need support for.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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