Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Legend of the Black Scorpion (2008)

Director: Xiaogang Feng

I love Dragon Dynasty movies. I don't care if they're historical or fantasy or modern or futuristic. I'm not even sure why. I resisted watching this for a long time because so many reviews I read said it was rather pointless. If you call Hamlet pointless, then I guess maybe they're right.

Chinese films have this knack for engaging the senses that few other countries' films are able to pull off. This movie is one of the best. The whisper of flesh on flesh, one droplet of blood amid a spattering of water, the scent of incense and votives around a bath tossed with rose petals. All the senses, and all the emotions, are tantalized throughout the movie, while never seeming to push too far or overwhelm the viewer.

Action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, anything that's anything in this genre) creates a stunning showcase around the breathtaking backdrop of the palace during the dying Tang dynasty in 907 AD. Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu, Gen X Cops, Blood Brothers) is devastated when his father, the Emperor, marries Wu Luan's love, the maiden Little Wan (Ziyi Zhang, Hero, Memoirs of a Geisha). His heart breaking, he turns his back on the match his father has set for him with another maiden, Qing (Xun Zhou, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Perhaps Love) , and retreats to the mountains to live a life of dance and music and beauty in a serene theatre.

He lives without news of the palace for several years, while Little Wan, now crowned Empress, and Qing,a courtier, spend an uneasy time in each others' company. One day, however, a message arrives, telling Wu Luan that his father has been killed and his uncle (You Ge, Farewell, my Concubine, Suffocation) has usurped the throne, and the Empress. Enraged, Wu Luan and his fellow actors set up an ambush for the assassins they know will be on their way from his uncle. Making his way through the empire, Wu Luan returns home to find the Empress, his once-beloved Little Wan, a changed woman, seemingly cold and indifferent and surrendering to the charms of the new Emperor.

But things are not all they seem, as Little Wan explains to Wu Luan in a cryptic message. Unable to express her love for Wu Luan, the Empress concocts a plot that will allow the Crown Prince to remain in the palace and take the throne. But she is not the only one with a plot in mind, which is par for the course when a throne is at stake. Qing's father and brother, powerful courtiers, all begin to prepare for their own coups, all to culminate on the eve of the new Emperor's 100th day on the throne. During it all, Wu Luan and Qing spend time together over music and poetry and daydreams, and begin to fall in love, under the watchful, and envious, eye of the Empress.

A mandatory banquet for all courtiers is planned in celebration of the 100 days, and with Qing's life in the hands of the jealous Empress, the stage is set for a final face-off.

It is remarkable how the Empress begins the movie looking like a scared young girl and as the story progresses, thoughout the 100 days she is with the usurper, she begins to look wise, mature, and brave, even stoic. She struggles with the tenderness and passion she finds in her brother-in-law while trying to remain true to the ghost of her husband, and resurrect the love that she once had in Wu Luan. Wu Luan himself must put aside his love peace and beauty and his hatred of violence, and risk the new love he finds in Qing to avenge his father's death. In that struggle there is hidden one of the saddest rape scenes I've seen in a movie, sad because the one whose pain you feel is the rapist.

One thing that I always enjoy about these historical Chinese movies, and honestly, Asian movies in general, in any time period, is that the female villains are so well-rounded that they are downright scary. Female villains in American cinema are usually single-minded and one-dimensional. Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Orphan (2009). The characters are either so insane that their motives do not match the means to which they go to seek their end, or they seem to be nothing but a means to an end. They are the fairy tale Wicked Queen after Snow White for being beautiful. Or the Wicked Witch of the West, with all her dastardly plans yet foiled by a little girl with a mop bucket. They never win. Goodness and beauty prevail.

Asian film villainesses have so much more going on in their lives. Little Wan was forced to marry the father of the man she loved and become his step-mother. Then she was forced to marry her husband's brother while having her beloved step-son's betrothed as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Then she was forced to speak out against people who had stood by her first husband. Then she had to watch the love affair between Wu Luan and Qing and see Wu Luan turn away from her to the younger girl. And on and on and still her plan was so well thought-out, with several backups brewing that at least one of them is bound to succeed. Asian villainesses are whole people with loves and losses that they bear quietly, with personalities and loyalties that may hold steadfast or blow like the wind. They are willing to sacrifice one love for one cause, and willing to destroy that same cause for another love. They often make the wrong decision but recover and find another way. I suppose this is the reason that I loathe American films with female villains. The female American villain rarely realizes she is a villain, while the Asian villainess often times struggles with the decision that she knows will make her into a hated woman, while realizing that being hated, even possibly losing her freedom or her life, is necessary for her cause. She steps regally and willingly into the role, knowing that she is to be the guilty party. That isn't to say that she won't struggle to come out ahead. Even when she dies, a part of her has been triumphant, and even when she lives, a part of us is glad.

It's very hard to dislike Asian villainesses because, speaking as a woman, I can see all parts of myself and other women I know in the characters.

So, watch this movie. It's a beautiful story, a sophisticated plot, and a breathtaking visual journey. Not to say that there aren't those scenes that are too wuxia for their own good, tossed in to showcase the balletic elegance of the genre, but it's easy to overlook those 2 or 3 instances for the grandeur that is the rest of the film.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lunacy (2005)

Director: Jan Svankmajer

The movie is credited as being written by Edgar Allen Poe, The Marquis de Sade, and Jan Svankmajer. It seems a little bit grandiose to me, because the movie lacks what I feel is a certain sophistocation that Poe and de Sade have. Saying that it was based on the works of Poe and de Sade would have been enough.

That was my only real complaint about the film and now that it's out of the way, I will try to get through the rest of it without dwelling overly much on the cut-scenes of stop-motion animated meat.

Jean Berlot is traveling through 19th century France which is belied by the sudden appearance of modern costuming, an old bus, and cars driving down the interstate alongside an early 1800s carriage. He has just buried his mother, whom we soon find out was living her final days in Charenton, the same prison where the beloved Marquis de Sade spent his final, raucous days. Jean is plagued by fairly recurrent nightmares that asylum orderlies are coming at him with straight jackets, a result of fear that he will end up like his mother.

After destroying his room at the inn during one such nightmare, fortune befalls him in the form of a rather flamboyant Marquis with a certain...lust for life. The Marquis pays for the damages incurred during the night and feeds the young Jean and offers him a ride. Jean reluctantly accepts. After a rather unsettling trip, they arrive at the Marquis' castle where Jean procedes to witness a blasphemous, de Sadean, exhibit by standing on a bucket and peering into a window. Women are debauched, Jesus is defamed, bare backs are painted with red inverted crosses, and a three-layer chocolate cake is sloppily consumed in a manner rivaling a lucious feast at the Salo house (only this is presumably actually chocolate cake), after which the women dressed as nuns climb under the table to pleasure the men as they finish their cake.

Bent on leaving the next morning, Jean confronts the Marquis, at which point the Marquis has a fit, literally, and Jean is dragged into a mysterious ritual, a la Poe's Premature Burial, alongside the Marquis' tongue-less valet. When this ordeal is over, yet begins another level to the journey poor Jean Berlot is fated to take.

In the tradition of Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, Jean decides to accompany the Marquis to the insane asylum run by a dear, sweet man who is a friend of the benevolent Marquis (is the sarcasm coming across okay?). Methods of treatment include chickens chickens everywhere, throwing paint at a naked woman strapped to a table, locking nurses in rooms with naked crazy men, and various forms of dismemberment.

This turn of events provokes situations where Jean finds himself at the mercy of a nymphomaniac, a poetry spouting midget dressed like Napoleon, a basement cell full of tarred and feathered angry men, and must then decide who is sane and who is seeing reality as it truly is, while dealing with his own recurring demons.

It seems a very straight-forward tale, full of tidbits from the great de Sade's very own life and times during his stay at Charenton. Love, lies, madness, death, fear, and freedom are some of the themes that Jean must chose between as he navigates the levels of the madhouse.

Most disturbing are the not-so-subtle Freudean ideals and the abuse of meat by meat. In this case I mean one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen in a movie where a severed cow tongue brutally rapes another severed cow tongue on a tray of medical instruments. The cut-scenes in this movie are more distracting than the cut-scenes in Svankmajer's Alice, simply because, while the meat seems to sometimes enact what just happened in the film, or what is yet to come, for the most part they are just distracting along with a very annoying soundtrack in those parts of the film. Sometimes the meat breathes and makes overtly sexual noises, which is interesting, to say the least.

What is even more disconcerting is the fact that the same people keep turning up, first as people in modern clothing getting on a bus, then in Revolution clothing at the blasphemous party, and again as patients at the asylum.

The atmosphere reminds me of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). I can't put my finger on the reason exactly. I think that it is because I've always felt that asylum movies have a certain dark circus feel to them, and this one most especially. Svankmajer says the movie is a philosophical discussion about the best way to run an asylum, among other things: give the prisoners freedom within the walls of the asylum or give them punishment. One seems equally horrid as the other in this movie. There is also a lot of symbolism in the movie. The chapter titles are very clever, by the way. And the thing I found the most joy in was that one of the chapters on the DVD is titled "120 Days of Blasphemy" and if you don't know where that stems from, shame on you! :D

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Although I am a fan of the original Last House on the Left and thought the remake was excellent, people tend to forget that Ingmar Bergman did it first, and did it best.

The Virgin Spring is set in Sweden in the 1300s. It tells the story of Tore and Mareta, Christians in a time when there was still conflict between Christians and pagans. Tore is master of a large farm. The couple have only one child left living, a young daughter not quite yet of marrying age, named Karin. Karin is beautiful, blond, innocent and sweet, although quite spoiled by her parents' doting after their other children have died. There is another young girl on the farm, Ingeri. Ingeri was taken in as a child when her parents died and she had nowhere else to go. No one could be more the opposite of young Karin. Ingeri is wild, rough, promiscuous, and pagan. She also happens to be within days of delivering an illegitimate child.

It's Friday, and Karin has the duty, since she is the only virgin on the farm, to carry the candles to church for matins, the early morning mass. She slept late, however, and has missed matins, but her father insists that she take the candles to church anyway, even though she at first pretends to be ill. The nearest church is almost a half day's horse ride from the farm. Thanks to Karin pleading on Ingeri's behalf, the foster sister is allowed to ride with her to church, but not before Ingeri calls out to Odin and prays that something will befall Karin, of whom she is sorely jealous.

The two girls set out on their journey together, not expected to return until near dark. Halfway there, however, Ingeri gets spooked by what is hinted are premonitions, or bad feelings, about traveling through the woods, and even asks Karin to stay back with her. Karin refuses and continues on alone. She travels well for a while until she meets up with three brothers who seem to be tending sheep, but behave more like highwaymen.

As if that doesn't sound familiar enough, one of the brothers is very young, about 12 years old, and hesitant to the point of growing ill along the way from what he knows will happen, and what he is witness to in the forest.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But what makes this version the best? Aside from being the first, there is the fact that it has the Bergman touch. Ingmar Bergman has been a love of mine in film since I was probably 13 years old and discovered The Seventh Seal. Just what is the Bergman touch? Well, as was best described in the interview with the two actresses in the Criterion edition of the film, it's his timelessness. Someone can make a film in the 1960s and no matter what period it is meant to be set in, you can look at the hairstyle or the cut of the clothing and say "That's from the '60s". Not so with Bergman. While we do not know what the hair looked like exactly from the 1300s in Sweden, or the clothing, we do not need to know when watching Bergman. No one has ever treated the Middle Ages with such a loving hand and come out so completely realistic. If he puts a dress on a girl, then you know without a doubt that that garment was a relic from Medieval times. If he shows a woman baking bread then you know that is the exact method of baking bread in the Middle Ages. He is honest, even in allegory.

One of the reasons this is, is due to the fact that Ingmar Bergman was the son of a very successful and influential preacher. Growing up, his punishment for wrong-doing was to be locked in a dark closet in the church, at which time he would study the medieval images and sculptures for hours on end, listening to the singing of the congregation and the sound of his father's voice. He has said that this was fertile ground for the imagination of an artist, the images of battles, angels, devils, dragons, humans, and saints. The struggles on the walls of his punishment gave birth to the films of torture and pain that were prevalent in the more than 60 films that he directed.

There is no gore in The Virgin Spring. There is sadness, remorse, loss, and guilt. Once Tore has done his penance and done the deed that each father in each version of the movie has had to do, the rapists are all but forgotten. The guilt is borne by the mother, by the father, by the foster sister, Ingeri, and even hinted at by the farm hands. Each feels guilt in his or her own way for what befell such an innocent child. The only blame that is laid out after the rapists are dead is from the father to God, and then he feels guilt even for that, shown in a scene which Ang Lee (who presents an introduction on the Criterion release) says he strives to emulate in his own films.

There is more than revenge in this film, which is another thing that sets it apart from the two remakes. There is religious conflict, jealousy (between Ingeri and Karin, the mother and the father), angst, and so many things in context with the time period in which it is set that each time I think about it, I can think of a new one.

The rape scene is not as quiet and surreal as Wes Craven's nor as painful and long as the Dennis Iliadis one. But it is there, and it is disturbing in its own way, and the murder of the girl is somehow more shocking. When it's done, there is a scene that was entirely disheartening, turning the rapists into something even less humane than the act of rape and murder did. Likewise, there is another scene that is just as disturbing in the revenge sequence, which sets it above the other two.

There are some interesting differences in style as well. In Wes Craven's version, the actors knew little about each other which led to some nervousness between them. If I remember correctly, Craven said this was done on purpose to give the actors some hesitation and nervousness that made his version seem so real that people thought it was a snuff film. In Bergman's, Karin's actress and one of the rapists worked together in the same theatre where Bergman was their teacher and director for several years. They made their movies in the summer and in the fall they all returned to the theatre together to begin their season and their classes. I also thought that one of the rapists in The Virgin Spring looked a lot like Aaron Paul from the 2009 remake, which was rather amusing and disturbing at the same time.

One of my favorite symbolic scenes in the film is when Max von Sydow, after finding out what happened to his daughter, is planning to do away with her murderers. He goes into the field near the farm to chop down a tree but instead wrestles it down with the strength of his anger. It's a beautiful, very heartwrenching sight.

A note on the story and where it came from. The Virgin Spring was written by Ulla Isaksson after a medieval Swedish ballad that tells of a young girl who slept too late for matins and how trouble would befall her on her way to church. So even here, it is taken from something else. This, indeed, is the best version of the three. Max von Sydow as the father is brilliant and handsome. The cast was perfect. On the Criterion edition there are interviews, parts of a speech given by Bergman on making his films that is simply amazing, and a commentary track by a Bergman scholar. This movie blows the Last House remakes both out of the water as an overall picture. I can see parts that are better in each film, but as a whole, The Virgin Spring is the best. Here is a wonderful review of the 2009 Last House on the Left, if you're interested, written by Heavenztrash.

I am partial to Ingmar Bergman and plan to review many of his other films, but I do believe that even if you find his stuff too weighty or too bleak, that this film should be seen at least by fans of the two remakes.

I've had it pointed out to me that Wes Craven said that his movie was loosely based on The Virgin Spring. I'll throw that out there but Last House on the Left is almost a scene for scene remake. The only thing "loose" in the similarities between both movies is the time period and the religious aspect. There is a scene of the foster sister in The Virgin Spring running through the forest that mirror's Mari's friend trying to reach the highway in Crave's Last House. There is the solomn realization of what they have done after the rape. Hardly a beat is missed right down to the mother having concern over the guilt-induced illness of the youngest of the trio. The virgin in both movies passes a few moments with the killers before everything goes to hell. The rape scene may not be as explicit but many theatres banned the movie, so I'm assuming that for 1960 it was quite disturbing. I found it disturbing today. It goes on and on. So watch it and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dogville (2003)

Director: Lars von Trier
Narrator: John Hurt

I am torn between revealing too much and not enough. I had heard very little about Dogville before I watched it, which is how I try to be with most movies. I don't like things being spoiled for me. I like to keep that childlike excitement that I get when the lights go down in the theatre. Dogville is surprising, and I think that with my theatre background I found it aesthetically pleasing as well.

Dogville is much like a play, told in "Nine chapters and a prologue", about the deepest places of the human soul. The stage has no real backdrop, there are no walls or doors and there are very few props adorning the set. At first the minimalist stage (a little like Vanya on 42nd Street) was a bit startling, but as the movie progresses there are many reasons and many scenes that would have little impact had it been done in a traditional way. Dogville is a little nowhere American town in the mountains with only one way in and out, made a dead end by a mountain range. There are 15 adult inhabitants of the town and you meet each one of them in turn. They are average people in a time of poverty (1930s) and little opportunity in a destitute place where even a preacher for the local church is hard to come by.

The one voice of morality and culture (by his own estimations) is Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany,Iron Man, Knight's Tale) who fancies himself a writer and philosopher. In the beginning we also believe that he is such a man. Tom lives with his hypochondriac father in the nicest house in Dogville, where there is only one store, owned and operated by Gloria and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall, who looks stunning). Liz (Chloe Sevigny) and her parents and Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) and their six children are among the other members of the town all existing, not asking much from each other, and not giving much either.

When a rare bit of excitement in the form of gun shots and a frightened young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) enter their lives, they are presented with a rare opportunity: do they reach out a hand so seldom offered to help someone in need who may be in trouble? For Grace, the nondescript village offers a haven, a place she might be able to finally relax, find a meaning for her life, and put the past behind her. But the people in the town are not accustomed to strangers and are naturally wary so Tom suggests that Grace work for them a little bit, helping each person in town so they see the goodness in her that he sees, and in exchange she will get a small wage gathered from the people she helps.

Grace throws herself into her work and is beloved by nearly all the town, showing them things about themselves they never saw before, giving of herself, and asking for nothing in return. But as the days wear on in the impoverished little burg, what Grace gives is suddenly not enough.

Dogville is not so much a story of the town and the events as it is a story of the nature of humanity. All of the personalities and problems in each person in Dogville inhabit each individual person in real life at one time or another: generosity, kindness, fear, doubt, hesitation, desire, hope, faith, joy, love, sadness, fear, resistance, disgust, loneliness, and greed. In this, Dogville can be representative of one person, rather than any town in any city, in any country.

By Chapter 6, the starkness of the stage begins to represent reality, and to show how things continue on in their natural course, while we continue to see what is going on behind the closed doors on houses on a quiet street, in a friendly village, where people come together against outside forces. We are shown, by the lack of doors and walls and roofs, the ugliness that represents all our lives, all our darkest desires, and what lengths we might be capable of to get what we want, the lies we might tell ourselves to justify our wicked actions. We are also asked what we would do, being able to see into the walls of houses, if we were to witness atrocities; would we turn our backs, would we help, or would we participate? If we know someone is hurting, what do we do?

If you've hung in past Chapter 6, hold on for the ride downhill. Dogville, and Grace, take a turn of spirit, several times, that mirror reality to a shaming degree.

I would have to say that storywise, Dogville is one of the best. It is the most complete, most realistic testimonial of human nature that I've seen on a screen in a very long time. It is full of symbolism but at the same time it can be taken for what it seems to be, and can speak to each heart individually according to its own weaknesses.

Dogville won 13 festival awards.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Vatel (2000)

Director: Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, Fat Man and Little Boy)
Writer (English Adaptation): Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Brazil, and where the name of my blog comes from)

As the movie begins, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth), is sending a letter on behalf of King Louis XIV (Julian Sands) to the Prince de Conde. The Prince de Conde is played by Julian Glover who's been in a bizillion things, but one thing that I thought was interesting (mostly that I didn't know it already of which I'm ashamed) was that he was the voice of Aragog the spider in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The King is inviting himself and about a hundred courtiers to spend three days at the home of the Prince and Princess de Conde. The preparations to entertain so many people put the already bankrupt Prince in a terrible bind. But there is nothing to do but find a way. Thanks to the prince's master steward, Vatel (Gerard Depardieu), the King is impressed with the spectacle, and oblivious to the poverty stricken commoners who are footing the bill for the party, already destitute and starving.

Throw into the mix Uma Thurman's character, who seems to be an afterthought. She is some insignificant courtier noticed by the King, and by Vatel, and by the Marquis. Enter the ill-fated love interest that has no bearing on the plot and no interest to the viewer. Richard Griffiths plays the Prince's physician. And the most notable character in the entire movie: the brother of the King, "Monsieur" Phillipe d'Orleans played by a very interesting person, Murray Lachlan Young. Young has only appeared in bit parts in about 3 movies. He was a successful performance poet in the 1990's and even produced an album of his material. He plays his part to perfection and is the only one in the movie who does. His part is small, but he is wickedly good. Monsieur has a well documented love of little boys that in this script is attempted to be transfered to middle-aged French men. He has some of the best lines and looks absolutely insane in some of his scenes. I don't know how this guy hasn't done more. He was captivating. He looked like a maniac. I think he was my favorite thing in the whole movie.

There is a little bit of uninteresting
court intrigue, lots of money problems, and a bunch of nothing. The food and food preparation scenes are fun, as are the scenes of how they set up the 3 day party. The scenery and costumes are breathtaking and have a very real feel to them. The story is based on a reality, loosely, but is not even an interesting enough story for me to look up the facts on it. Julian Sands playing the King was a fairly small role but I didn't even recognize him until halfway through the movie and still had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact it was him. He was better in this than in nearly anything else I've seen him in, which is to say, he didn't seem like an overgrown toddler or a corpse.

Tim Roth made me grin. He was hilarious in a few of his very few scenes. When you first see him interact with Uma Thurman when the courtiers get to the Prince's home, he is fabulous. I had expected to see him in the movie a bit more than he was, since he was featured foremost on the cover of the DVD, but was sadly mistaken. He was only a bit better than a cameo. Adding to the picture is the fact that while all the other wigs are just gorgeous, his looks like a rooster, which doesn't help the fact that his face sort of looks birdish anyway!

There was a special feature called "The costumes of Vatel" on the DVD and I settled in for a good, in-depth feature, but it was about a five minute thing with a couple interview clips of a couple of the actors talking about costumes. It was disappointing.

The movie was considered a great failure. French audiences hated it, with reporters at Cannes when it opened trashing it and Gerard Depardieu. I agree with them in that sometimes it does seem as if he is lost in either the plot, the scene, or what the words mean that he's supposed to be saying. I had to turn on the subtitles a few times to understand what he mumbled. Despite the trash talk of Depardieu, I found Uma Thurman much harder to take. Not only did I feel her part was just tossed in to create a love interest, but she was wooden as usual. She has the look for period pieces, that's for sure, and while I don't think she's particularly pretty, she has something interesting about her face that I sort of cut her inability to make me believe her some slack. I don't understand, though, why movie makers cannot make a movie without turning it into something sappy, at least in parts. It's alright if it fits, but usually it just messes up a strong plot line. It does that here. Although calling this a strong plot line might be a stretch. There are a few places that the movie could have taken a better turn and a handful of plot threads that went nowhere would have been more interesting than what finally came out.

Concentrating either on the court intrigue, the love triangle, well it would actually have been a...quadrangle... is that a word?...or concentrating on the exploits of the courtiers while on the short holiday with more humor in it would have been better ideas than trying to throw all of those things into a movie that ended up feeling jumbled and lackluster when you got below the wigs and powder and costumes. Gosford Park did a better job of what it felt like these people were trying to accomplish.

The movie is great if you're watching it for the costumes and the setting, or for the actors that are in the smaller roles. Expecting something entertaining out of it is going into it with the wrong attitude. In fact, unless you want to check out Murray Lachlan Young, or you are into costumes, this blog is probably all you need to know about the movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Untold Scandal (Korea, 2003)

There have been quite a few big screen versions of the novel Le Liaisons Dangereuses written in 1782 by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Untold Scandal, directed by Je-yong Lee, takes the story that was set in 1780's France and places it in the end of the Chosun Dynasty in Korea, which would set it roughly in the same period, if not just a bit later. The most popular version of Le Liaisons Dangereuses was the 1988 version with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, and is in my opinion the best, with Untold Scandal almost neck and neck.

Korean superstar Yong-jun Bae, who has a very faithful following in Japan as well, plays Jo-won, the Valmont character portrayed by John Malkovich in the English movie. Jo-won is a bored nobleman hopping from bed to bed in a society more repressive than the one portrayed in the original novel. He is handsome, wealthy, and desirable. He, however, only has eyes for his beautiful cousin, Madam Jo, also a wealthy noble (the Marquise character played by Glenn Close in the 1988 version). Madam Jo, however, is feeling the bloom is coming off her rose, so to speak, and this is helped along by the word that her husband has taken a young virginal girl, daughter of a friend of Madam Jo's, to be his concubine. Furious, but with little to be done about it, she makes a bargain with Jo-won that if he can bed and disgrace the young So-Oak Lee (the Cecile character played by Uma Thurman in the 1988 version) before the ceremony takes place that will allow her husband to sleep with the girl, he will be allowed, at long last, to sleep with Madam Jo.

Jo-won has been in love with Madam Jo all of their lives, and agrees, although he confesses that he has an amusing plot of his own he must see to first: the seduction of a young woman known as the paragon of chastity. Lady Jeong (the Michelle Pfeifer character, Madame de Tourvel in the 1988 version) is perhaps the most different of all the characters in this version from any other version of the novel. Lady Jeong was married by contract to a young man. While she was enroute to him, to become his bride physically as well as legally, he died. Thus, Lady Jeong lives her life in pious chastity devoted to a man she never even met face to face. No man in 15 years has been able to turn her eye and even the gentle persuasion of her mother-in-law cannot make her remarry and have children and happiness.

Both plots are set into motion, controlled by the vengeful hand of Madam Jo. The ending, slightly more tragic than the Close-Malkovich version, comes after many hearts have been broken and many lives lost.

The costuming, which the 1988 version was best known for and won awards for, is just as breathtaking in this one. In the beginning of the movie, the dressing scene is stunning. The set design and score and costume design rival the other one in quality. I enjoy the dialog in the 1988 English version much better, but this one is far from mediocre. It lacks so much of what I felt was in-your-face about the viciousness of characters in the English one, but this has to do with the society in which it is set as much as anything. It is a more reserved time period. Even so, Untold Scandal is infinity more erotic and steamy than Dangerous Liaisons.

Untold Scandal was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film in 2 different festivals, and won 5 awards including Best Director and Best Music.

Untold scandal is actually the 2nd Korean version of the movie that was made. The first was in 1970 and I've not been able to find a copy.

For anyone who is a die-hard fan of Dangerous Liaisons, like I am, there are also other forms of the novel, including a ballet produced in 2008; a sequel telling what happened to the Marquise after her scandal came out (A Factory of Cunning); 2 radio broadcasts, one starring Ciaran Hinds (who is fabulous and starred in the Mayor of Castorbridge, which I plan to review one day); 2 French television productions; and 8 or so movies.

The book is well worth the read, although the movies make it much easier to understand because the book was written as a series of letters, the letters written between the characters and sent to each other, rather than an actual novel (called epistolary, for those who like to know that sort of thing).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Onmyoji (2001)

Strange things are happening in the new capital city. On the eve of the new Prince's birth, a demon suddenly appears and inhabits the baby's body. The emperor sends for young Hiromasa, a gentle court noble. Hiromasa is a young man, full of daydreams. He plays the flute with an almost magical talent, and is doing so outside his home at that moment, drawing to him a mysterious woman in a rickshaw. She comes to hear his playing now and again and lingers, sadness in her voice over a lost love. Hiromasa calls her Lady of the Full Moon. But he is broken from his attempts at luring her from her vehicle by the summons from the court, where he and the emperor discuss the skills of young onmyoji, Abe no Seimei. Of course, Seimei's got mad magical skills, as you will find out from a conversation in the beginning that I think I found funnier than it was meant to be, and is well known in the court, not only for his talent and intelligence, but his laziness and lack of interest in court activities.

Seimei prefers to lounge around his home with his servent-gods, several beautiful girls whom he summons with magical paper dolls, and one uber-cute butterfly girl played by Eriko Imai, a Japanese pop singer. Despite his general lack of interest, Seimei is persuaded to return with Hiromasa (to whom he has an almost unnatural attraction) to the court to see what can be done to help the new Prince.

The movie is set in the Heian Era of Japan, a time known for its courtly pursuits, astronomy, learning, and the rise of the samurai. Onmyoji were court nobles who were skilled in divination, astrology, supernatural protective arts, and the wearing of very strange-looking hats. Abe no Seimei was an actual character from Japanese legend, whose mother was said to be a kitsune (a fox god known for seducing human men). The actor, Manasai Nomura (Ran), has the look of a kitsune, and his facial expressions are at once serene and comical. He seems to float when he moves and due to his classical theatre training, is beautiful watch in his movements.

The English voice actors, if you must watch it on dubbed, do one of the best jobs of any dubbed version I've seen. However, the dialogue, while running very close in the dubbed version, is funnier in the subtitles. Especially the almost childlike questions from Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito, Princess Blade) as he is opened up to a whole new world in his exploits with Abe no Seimei.

The movie had a fairly small budget, but has a wonderful, artistically colorful appearance and the use of a little bit of not so impressive CGI. The first time I watched the movie, about six or seven years ago, I found it very funny. The second time I got something entirely different from it. There is humor, a little bit of fighting, and enough supernatural to be called a ghost story. The romantic entanglements of the characters are nicely downplayed. Treason, lost love, resurrection, hauntings, and court intrigue abound as the characters grow and change and mature through their ordeal, and there is never a dull moment.

Onmyoji was inspired by a set of books by Baku Yumemakura, which inspired the anime Shonen Onmyoji. With the popularity of the movie, a TV series was created as well as a sequel movie. The acting and fight choreography are both excellent. Weaving folklore, history, and brilliant storytelling, Onmyoji is a very fun movie that has every essential ingredient for a good fairy tale.