Scary future and Clive Owen are better than Gong Li and stylish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower: Garish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower is the final part of Zhang Yimou’s (or is it Yimou Zhang’s?[1]) trilogy. It is also the darkest of the three movies. That the terms betrayal, incest, adultery, fratricide, filicide, and bigamy do not exhaustively describe the story should tell you something about the movie. Chow Yun Fat, who plays an Emperor, returns to his kingdom after many years to find that almost no one has remained loyal to him. Gong Li, playing his beautiful and treacherous second wife, has been carrying on behind her husband’s back (or not, as we later find out) and isn’t too pleased to hear of the Emperor’s return. The court scene is made murkier thanks to a few disgruntled crown and wannabe-crown Princes, their lovers, an ex-wife, a conniving court doctor and hundreds of Asian women in push-up bras[2]. How and whether all of this gets sorted out is what the movie’s about.

A friendly warning to action fans – unlike the other two movies in this trilogy (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers), there are almost no action sequences involving flying kicks or daggers or swords or what have you. This movie is about courtroom intrigue, save a few scenes of large scale slaughter towards the end. There is also little romance – there isn’t a single heroic figure in the movie (well, save one somewhat minor character, and even that is a maybe) and the only difference between the several relationships that’re explored in this movie is the extent of duplicity involved in each one. Another feature I expected, from watching the earlier movies, was a grand visual spectacle. You’re offered one, sure, but this one isn’t anywhere close to those offered by the other two. While Hero and Flying Daggers were shot in bold primary colors, this one keeps switching between an excess of gold (I have a nagging fear that Shankar’s going to get “inspired” by this movie) and a mixture of too many colors of which a bright magenta is the only one that stands out.

In keeping with the other movies though, we do get a star-studded cast. Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat must be the only stars from that part of the world who somehow didn’t make into Hero or Flying Daggers. So we have them in this one. None of the three movies is exactly strong on plot, but at least the other two made up in imagery whatever they lacked in terms of story. And, they both did have nice little twists at the end. This movie ends up relying on plot a lot more than the others do, and therefore ends up being considerably more disappointing. For all the double and triple crossing, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down and perplexed by the end – there are few ‘why’s’ behind much of the wickedness in this movie – apparently, evil just is.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge this movie while lugging baggage from the other two movies. But I’m afraid that the baggage would be present even had this movie not been part of a trilogy. I’m just glad am still not hung over from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I wish these Chinese film-makers would get over that movie, too.

Children of Men: Ominously close to real

There is a lot of joy in watching a movie on its opening week end, before you acquire expectations and the disappointments that go with them. I am glad that Children of Men was one such movie. There is also a lot of joy in watching Clive Owen in a movie that works for him. Again, Children of Men is very much one such movie.

‘Children of Men’ is set in England in the not-so-distant future of 2027. I understand that the movie is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by P.D James. Had I not known this, I’d have thought the story eerily close to another novel – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both present a bleak future for the human race – something has caused mass infertility and women capable of bearing children have become a commodity traded by the powerful and the power-hungry. Government as we know it no longer exists. Instead there is only a form of totalitarian authority which feels free to kill anyone it feels like. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (I haven’t read James’s version) departs from Atwood is that Cuarón’s story is a bit more optimistic, and a lot more open to all sorts of religious interpretation.

While the story is set in the future, it is an entirely plausible, perhaps even probable future. Cars don’t fly or go on the sides of buildings (that might have made it easier to dismiss it as sci-fi). No, everything is almost the same as it is right now, only more corrupt, more polluted, and therefore a lot scarier. I don’t know when the novel was published, but the major themes are as eerily relevant today as they probably were then. There’s a teeny-weeny chance that xenophobia, terrorist attacks, scary prisons for foreigners, and much else on our minds today will somehow magically get solved in the next 20 years. ‘Children of Men’ is bleak, because it reminds you just how small that likelihood is.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned pen-pusher in a non-descript office, is pushed into adrenaline-pumping action and heroism, when he starts out doing what he thinks is a minor favor for his ex-wife (played by Julianne Moore). His task is to take to safety a young girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is (surprise-surprise) pregnant. Of course, a lot of other folks, all bad, are after this girl. Most of the movie is a thrilling chase, with Owen and Ashitey dodging bullets and bombs, and surviving not just betrayals but also advanced pregnancy.

For a movie that lasts only a little over a 100 minutes, this movie is packed. Not every pause for breath is treated as an opportunity to launch into explanation. I realize that this is one of the things I complained about with Curse of the Golden Flower – but in this movie, I was utterly delighted with the paucity of “and here’s why this is happening” moments. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of small things because I wasn’t paying enough attention. But that’s what makes it makes this movie feel so grown-up – the underlying assumption that the movie-makers’ responsibility ends with helping you with the outlines of the story, and that it is up to the audience to get the minor stuff or not. I felt the same sort of delight when Peter Jackson did not provide inane recaps at the beginning of the Twin Towers and Return of the King.

Clive Owen is immense fun to watch. The closest example I can think of (and it pains me to say this because it has since become such a cliché) is Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie. Perhaps since Willis humanized the action hero, all we seem to get nowadays are these types who are gray on the inside and gray on the outside… I am tired of the hero who knows better than anyone else does that that he is no “hero”, and takes care to show that while he is capable of destroying an army or two, he is also vulnerable, and has a heart which frequently gets broken and what not. What makes Owen so good is his ability to convince us that he is himself convinced of the ridiculousness of his position. At every turn, I expected his character to get killed or to simply give up and leave, because fighting both the government and the rebels just isn’t something a disillusioned pen-pusher does.

It is also fun to watch Michael Caine, who plays one of the many characters who help Owen in his run. Last week, I had a scary conversation with my 13 year old cousin, who had trouble placing Caine. Her, “Oh is he the old Butler dude in Batman Begins?” caused me great pain. In this movie, he has a small, but charming role. And while I doubt that this movie or his character will make a big impression on 13 year olds, it feels good to see him again, and to remind myself, if not these past-less teens that Caine is a lot more than old-Butler dude!

The only jarring note in the movie is the question of religious significance – even if the story tries to be flippant about it, there’s no denying that in a world gone mad, the only ray of hope is provided by a new born child, whose very existence, given the circumstances, is miraculous. I’m usually exceedingly dim-witted about inferences of any sort, but by the time Owen and a very pregnant Ashitey reach a refugee camp, even I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of all sorts of Biblical associations. This is where making the movie more like the Atwood novel might have helped. Atwood remains dark through out and offers no sappy signs of optimism. But all of this is neither here nor there – if this is what James wrote, one can’t very well expect an adaptation to break all ties with the original.

Warning to movie-goers who expect a sense of closure at the end of a movie – the most commonly expressed sentiment at the end of this movie was “F*&$% that! I hate movies like this!” I can only reiterate that this came from the same audience who’d had a demonstrably grand time before the last one minute of the movie. I understand that the book has an even more ambiguous ending than the movie, but that’s small consolation when you’ve spent a good one hour and a half building up to a finale that never quite materializes.

Before I changed my mind about Daniel Craig, I was rooting for Clive Owen for Bond. After watching Casino Royal and Children of Men, I’m relieved that Hollywood has wiser heads than mine – that sharp decision has given us a great new Bond, and left Owen free to do movies like this one. And it’s a complete pity that Cuarón isn’t directing the next Harry Potter movie. I like what he does with books.

[1] IMDB and Wikipedia disagree. If you know better, tell me.
[2] The last has nothing to do with the story. I can only imagine that it was intended as part of the “visual spectacle”. Chinese women dressed up in almost European gowns with very low necks do little for me. I wish they’d had better looking men in this movie, but that’s just me.


2 comments so far

  1. Chris on

    Great review… keep up reviewing.

  2. DoZ on

    Thank you, Chris!

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