Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Spy Who Lived Twice: James Bond Weekend (Part 1)

Bless the Castro Theatre -- for old codgers like me (read: people born before 1980), the theater is a treaure trove of golden oldies, forgotten classics, and themed programming. Sure you can probably see many of the films that play there on TV or in pristine DVD prints, but there's something about seeing something on that old-fashioned screen, the ornate palatial walls reminding us that the movie-going experience was like attending mass. It also helps when you're attending a James Bond film festival.

I make no secret about my love of all things Bond, and a mini-festival afforded me the opportunity to catch four films, classics all. In viewing them (in some cases, seeing them on the big screen for the first time), I'm reminded of how elastic Bond is as a cinematic and cultural phenomenon, and I'm also intrigued by how established notions about each of the actors who have played 007 and their movies don't necessarily relate to the actual films themselves. As I took a trip down memory lane, I also found that old critical faculty kicking in, and discovered new things to savor and ruminate over.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Dir. Lewis Gilbert)

When you're going downhill on skis at forty miles an hour and someone's trying to put a bullet in your back, you don't always have time to remember a face ... In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him.
-- James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me

Anticipation for this movie was high, as the special guest of the festival was Richard Kiel, who played the infamous henchman "Jaws" in this film. Now sadly confined to a wheelchair, he could nevertheless make a crack about his condition: "Sorry to be here like this, but I fell out of an airplane without a parachute." In the brief Q&A preceding the film, he noted that he attempted to inject a bit of personality into his heavy (impatience and frustration at Bond always escaping his clutches, little grace notes like brushing off his suit after getting ejected from a moving train). He also mentioned that two different endings were filmed for the character -- one in which he was eaten by a shark, another where he eats the shark and swims away to safety, ready to battle another day (another day coming in the inferior follow-up to this film, Moonraker (1979) -- talk about jumping the shark). When a preview audience went berserk at seeing Jaws survive, his immediate future (and enduring legacy) was secured.

Primed after that introduction, watching The Spy Who Loved Me was a joyous experience. The movie holds a special place in my heart since it was the first Bond film I saw in the cinema, and time has been kind to it. Still as slick, gargantuan, and visionary (yes, visionary) as when it came out, it still stands as a high-water mark in the series, and an apotheosis: no Bond film since has matched its scale and easy jet-setter elegance (although some have tried).

The Spy Who Loved Me marked a pivotal moment in the Bond saga -- with co-producer Harry Saltzman leaving the fold after nine movies, godfather producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli had to go it alone, and he spared no expense, even though the previous entry, The Man with the Golden Gun, had underperformed at the box office. Broccoli responded to the challenge of making Bond relevant again by fashioning the first self-aware Bond epic -- while previous films acknowledged Bond's place in the popular culture with a knowing wink, this was the first Bond movie to borrow wholesale from previous entries, a "greatest hits" cornucopia if you will (the basic plot is lifted pretty much intact from You Only Live Twice). That the film succeeds as well as it does is a testament to the energy and craft of the production team (and lest you think a "greatest hits" package should be an easy thing to enjoy, I refer you to Die Another Day).

Oh, it's indulgent all right, in the way most Bond movies are indulgent. We globe-hop from Austria to Egypt to Sardinia because we can and not because of any rigorous plot logic, and the dastardly plan by villain Karl Stromberg (a phlegmatic Kurt Jurgens) to set off World War III in order to jump-start a new kingdom beneath the sea is the sort of rule-the-world daffiness the series can't get away with now in the wake of Austin Powers. And that's not even mentioning the various Bond mots that induce simultaneous laughs and winces: "When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures"; "Let me try and enlarge your vocabulary"; "Such a handsome craft -- such lovely lines." Watching the movie is a warm reminder of a more innocent time, in which such shenanigans could be looked upon as high style.

The reason the film still works is because it actually attains the high style it aspires to. The crackerjack opening sequence, replete with the famous "ski off a cliff and open a Union Jack parachute" showstopper continues to thrill, especially now that we know such a feat would be produced today with CGI and not agonized over with a real stuntman. The travelogue views of Egypt and the Italian coast are captured with aplomb by the great Jean Renoir (descendant of Claude Renoir), and production designer Ken Adam was never more expressive with his stainless steel sets, juxtaposing mammoth lairs (the interior of the tanker that swallows up hapless Allied submarines ranks as one of the best villain bases of the series) with sexy curvilinear hideouts (dig the escape sub that looks like the olive in a martini glass). And then there's the theme song, "Nobody Does It Better," by Carly Simon; sweetly soaring and romantic, it has the assurance of a hit Broadway tune, and it pins the mood of the movie exactly -- you're going to get a little bit of danger, a little bit of romance,a little bit of comedy, and everyone's going to have fun.

Roger Moore gets a bum rap from many a 007 aficionado, but not from me -- sure he's a far cry from the Ian Fleming character, but in his own distinctive way, he has left his stamp on the series, for no one can go into a Bond movie anymore without expecting smirking wit and debonair savoir faire (just see how people reacted when the anything-but-suave Daniel Craig was announced for the role). Conventional wisdom says that Roger was a fatuous jokester who reduced the role to a parody, but in The Spy Who Loved Me he pulls off a difficult balancing act. For every raised eyebrow and self-satisfied pun he tosses off, there is a counterbalancing moment that actually suggests three dimensions. Take the unfussy, perfectly judged scene in which his counterpart, Russian agent Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach is no actress, but her va-va-voom factor is up there with the best of the Bond girls) starts reciting the facts of his background. The moment she mentions his late wife, Bond's face clouds over and he cuts her off brusquely -- certainly not the "we're only in it for the fun" Roger Moore stereotype. Or take a later confrontation with Anya in which Bond admits that he was probably the man who killed her lover in the pre-credits ski chase: no tricks, no camera cuts to hide any actorly weaknesses here, only Moore playing the scene completely straight, and achieving a dramatic effect that someone like Pierce Brosnan could only dream of. Or savor his execution of Stromberg at the film's climax, as he coldly fires two superfluous bullets into the fallen man -- James Bond the assassin, through and through. His unruffled likeability his secret weapon, Moore is never more interesting than when he slips into seriousness, the transition as smooth as a shift of gears in his Lotus Esprit sports car.

It's a good thing he's in top form here, because the film does get a bit noisy and overproduced by the climax (an affliction common to the Bond films). Still, a sense of grand fun permeates the proceedings, and the gadgets this time out have a kid-in-the-toy-store glee to them, especially that Lotus Esprit, which turns into a sub bristling with rockets, smokescreens, and mines. Crucially, The Spy Who Loved Me never forgets that the best Bond movies have a core seriousness even at their most outlandish. Death is always waiting around the corner in the form of Kiel's Jaws, who features in some grisly executions (he likes sinking his steel teeth into his victims' necks Dracula-style). While Moore's face-offs with Kiel don't have the rough-and-tumble choreography we associate with today's buffed-up action heroes, they do have more wit to them (be careful around lamps or you might get short-circuited), and Moore's looks of alarm humanize his Bond -- sure he's smooth as silk, but he gets just as worried as the rest of us would be when confronted by a seven-foot-tall assassin with steel dentures. Likewise, the film's climax aboard the enemy tanker is a riot of choreogaphed mayhem, but it's stage-managed with brisk clarity by Lewis Gilbert, who has been better than any other Bond director at capturing the spectacle of armies duking it out within a confined space.

It all ends -- as Bond films usually do -- with the comforting sight of Bond bedded down with his latest conquest, surprised by his higher-ups, getting off a final zinger ("Just keeping the British end up, sir"), the theme song ushering us out on a high. "Nobody does it better," Carly Simon croons, and the film lives up to that boast. Formulaic as it most certainly is, The Spy Who Loved Me luxuriates in the Bond-ness of it all, content to wallow in the standard tropes and present it all with a cheeky smile and pop-art polish. We will probably never see its like again.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ground Zero: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 7)

The Other Half (2006, Dir. Ling Yiang)

"Half of life is fucking up, the other half is dealing with it."
-- Henry Rollins

On the face of it, this is an oddity of a film -- a modest indie feature set in Sichuan province, using a cast of unknowns (mostly friends and relatives of the director-producer team of Ling Yiang and Peng Shan), shot on consumer-grade DV, graced with some of the most primitive foley effects you can imagine, a film that puts the "low" in "low budget". But the history and fact of its existence might be the even greater story here, and a sign of what the future might hold for indie filmmaking in China.

The story is reminiscent of the "cinema verite" projects of Zhang Jiake (Platform, Unknown Pleasures) -- it's a long, almost clinical look at small lives in a small town. Zeng Xiaofei (played by, er, Zeng Xiaofei) is a young, average woman (although everyone she meets notes her facial similarity to Zhang Ziyi) who ends up taking a job as a stenographer for a law office that appears to be run in what remains of a barnhouse. There we're exposed to a multitude of stories from clients who come in, seeking legal counsel. As you would expect, their stories are nutty and whimsical, and are lifted from real-life cases: husbands who bite off the ears of their wives; wives who steal their husbands' clothes; a PR flak who wants to sue her company because her liver's been destroyed by all the late-night drinking binges she's been forced to take her clients on; a woman who isn't allowed to divorce an army officer.

Outside the office, life unspools slowly in Xiaofei's little town, although there are alarming signs that things are going to pot. The pretty woman who runs the wedding shop down the street from Xiaofei is murdered (we don't see the act, we only see the boarded-up shop in the aftermath, followed by its transition into a seedy mahjong parlor). state-sanctioned news broadcasts assuring the citizenry that the local chemical plant is "completely safe" ring hollow. Xiaofei's mother parades prospective grooms before her, including a local boss who insists on whipping out his laptop and explaining his business on their first date. In the meantime, Xiaofei's heart belongs only to Deng Gang (Deng Gang), a ne'er-do-well with gambling issues and a fear of long-term commitment -- or might he be involved with the recent spate of murders in town? Things get complicated when Xiaofei's long-missing father shows up and the chemical plant experiences an explosion that throws everything into disarray.

Most of the film is composed of long and medium shots of the characters and their surroundings, and in the process we see a bombed-out town: rainy flyovers and intersections, cracked streets, tawdry little dance halls and restaurants. Despite the limited budget, Ying wrings out some striking compositions, including a final shot down the length of a bridge that haunts in its matter-of-factness. Primitivist in the telling (the acting and overall look won't win any awards), the movie is a bit overlong with repeated episodes, and we're kept at a remove from our heroine's troubles and fears. In that sense, the film is kin to Zhang Jiake -- we observe these people like bugs under a glass, but we also sense a certain understanding and sympathy for their plights, as distant as they may seem. And the glancing criticisms of urban decay and the government's role in said decay are surprisingly strong, too.

And that's where the true import of the film lies; in the Q&A with the film's producer and director, it came out that since the film was never intended for standard theatrical distribution, it never had to pass through the usual censors that screen films in China, and went straight to the DVD (and bootleg DVD) circuit, where it apparently has made the rounds all over the country. That type of artistic freedom might have seemed impossible only a few years ago, but with the explosion of multimedia in China, the fact that The Other Half, with its unsparing look at disintegrating town life, is making festival rounds (just before it arrived in SF, it was at a Korean film festival) in an uncensored format bodes well for filmmakers who want to take on more experimental, hard-hitting stories without fear of reprisal. In a developing industry that's already experiencing the prestige picture/indie movie bifurcation that's happened in America (compare Curse of the Golden Flower to this film), something like The Other Half, flaws and all, is a depth charge, a small but essential step forward.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Time and Tide: San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 6)

The Old Garden (2006, Dir. Im Sang-Soo)

"Life is long, history is longer."
-- Oh Hyung-Woo, The Old Garden

One of the reasons modern Korean cinema is so popular, in my humble opinion, is that it rides a fine line between drama and melodrama. If nothing else, there's passion in there, even when things go over the top. At their best they remind me of classic Hollywood films, using popular formulas for unusual ends (like the monster-horror film The Host, where the true horror isn't the monster but the American military-industrial complex). In introducing The Old Garden, presenter Roger Garcia put forth the notion that the film hearkens back to the "integrity of mid-90s Korean cinema." Armed with that supposition, and knowing that this film concerned the infamous Gwangju massacre and its aftermath, I was expecting a full-on tear-fest, an emotional wringer.

There's certainly some of that going on in The Old Garden, but it's a much different movie than that, and is ultimately more interesting because of it. The bare-bones story is pretty conventional -- former activist Oh Hyung-Woo (Ji Jin-Hee), finally released from prison after 16 years and 8 months, returns to a modern Korean society more fascinated with designer suits and organic food than the democratic ideals that he and his comrades risked their lives for two decades earlier. In passages that wouldn't be out of place in a Hemingway novel, he takes a long solitary trek out to the countryside, where he once sought refuge from the police years before, and idled away his forced "vacation" in the cabin of teacher and painter Han Yoon-Hee (Yum Jung-Ah). Yoon-Hee is now dead, and as Hyung-Woo reminisces about the brief tryst he had with her, he discovers that Yoon-Hee had a daughter who might be his...

Charged stuff, and we're not shielded from the violence of olden days (the Kwangju massacre is represented with a simple, affecting scene of bloody body bags filling a gymnasium), or the disillusion of a political movement fading from public consciousness (in the present day, Hyung-Woo's former comrades are either dead, mentally and emotionally scarred, or nouveau yuppies happy to cash in on the new Korea). But mostly the movie is a duet between Yoon-Hee and Hyung-Woo, even though the two of them are separated for over half the film. In marked contrast to your typical Korean drama, the relationship between the two of them is quiet, unforced, even jokey at times. He may be an activist but he's still a mischievous kid at heart; she's a cynic who doesn't necessarily agree with these intellectual socialist workers but she's still susceptible to love and loneliness. There's little hand-wringing going on, in fact they both seem almost pragmatic about their relationship, but it still leads to a farewell during a rainy night that is as moving as any farewell I've seen in the cinema recently.

Director Im (who also helmed A Good Lawyer's Wife) was in attendance, and in the Q&A afterwards he mentioned that he wanted to give the film a certain lightness that you wouldn't expect in a film with this subject matter, and he wanted to draw out unusual, career-best performances from its popular leads. Mission accomplished. Yum in particular brings a lot of shades to her character -- she can be tetchy and inflexible, and she isn't the perfect parent to her daughter, but we're with her every step of the way in her story, which actually is the true story of this movie -- a lone woman negotiating the political currents, withstanding the loss of friends and lovers through the years as she waits for her man even as she's dying of cancer. Compare that to other Korean films about Gwangju like Peppermint Candy, in which the event is a traumatic trigger that rips lives to shreds -- this one is more about receding waves of time, in which waiting for a man (and all he represents) becomes like a wait for a ghost, or for a figment of a past that might have only been there for a second.

It all comes together with a reunion of father and daughter in the winter streets of Seoul, and even then we don't get sentimentality, just a bemused meeting of two strangers. The past may be fabrication, as Yoon-Hee demonstrates with a final painting in which a handsome portrait of Hyung-Woo as a youth sits side-by-side with a realistic portrait of a chemotherapy-ravaged Yoon-Hee, but the acts of imagination and longing conquer all. Not so much about resignation as it is about acceptance, The Old Garden is a delicate reverie with a slight smirk; "We've all become asswipes!" one of the characters snarls at one point, and this may be true, and yet this fact is acknowledged and forgiven.

We Are Family: 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival (Part 5)

Singapore Dreaming (2006, Dir. Yen Yen Woo, Colin Goh)

"We wanted to present Singapore family life today -- which is quite screwed-up and dysfunctional."
-- Yen Yen Woo

I must give kudos to my friends at the Yahoo IN Film Group -- if I didn't score an extra ticket from them, I would have missed what turned out to be my favorite film from this year's festival. The synopsis for this film in the festival program gave me the impression that this was one of those cutesy, cross-generational family dramas in which all complications are wrapped up neatly and resolved by the end. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The directors Yen Yenn Woo and Colin Goh were at my screening, and in their introduction to this film, they mentioned that they believe it mirrors the current state of family life in Singapore. Uncle Loh is a loan collector with dreams of hitting it big and moving into the latest modern housing, even as he tramps around his home in tanktop and briefs, cutting out potential winning lottery numbers from the newspaper. His ever-tolerant wife puts on her best smile and makes herbal tea for everyone, while his two children, daughter Mei and son Seng, vie for his approval. Mei is obsessed with money and must put up with a demeaning job working for a real estate magnate even as a baby is on the way, while her hapless husband CK, fresh from the army and with no idea of how to live a working man's life, makes a go of it trying to sell insurance to his old high school classmates. Seng is back from the States, having graduated from a technical college in Idaho no one has heard of, and trying to hide the fact from the family and his steadfast girlfriend Irene that he's really a slacker who has no chance of living up to the family's belief that he's the prodigal son.

For the first half-hour or so we settle in with this family and all its internecine jealousies and resentments, and enjoy the lightly sardonic proceedings. Then the ticking bomb explodes: Loh wins the lottery, and receives two million dollars, setting off a mad grab by his brood for whatever money they can get their hands on. Things only get uglier from there when one of the main characters dies and the funeral sets off all the brewing tensions within the family.

In form and plot, the film resembles one of Ang Lee's early projects, and the finale is very Ang-ish, as an elder member of the family effectively has the last word (think of the ends of Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman), but in tone and presentation, this has more in common with the work of Taiwanese director Edward Yang, who takes a hatchet to middle-class society and exposes the festering hurts underneath in his social comedies (A Confucian Confusion, Mahjong). Rowdy and sometimes vulgar, Singapore Dreaming touches on many of the foibles of modern Singapore (and modern Asia in general) -- the endearing crassness of the nouveau riche as they seek out the latest status-symbol credit cards, SUVs, and domiciles, the sterility of modern office life, the snobbery that goes on between the middle class and their Southeast Asian maids, social lies compounded upon exaggerations all in the name of saving face.

In the process we get a dizzying glimpse of Singapore culture with its mongrel mix of Chinese and English dialects, and the tensions between ethnicities and classes (CK endures an incongruously funny conversation with a mainland China party girl), not to mention the tackiness of certain funeral rituals -- you'll never look at house models the same way ever again. No punches are pulled, and you'll probably squirm in your seat as you see some of these family arguments and confrontations unfold; it's like having front-row tickets to your least favorite family dust-ups. Directors Woo and Goh said that they constructed the plot based on an amalgamation of stories they received from local Singaporeans on the topic of "materialism," but it's amazing how seamless it all is. All the characters are despicable and/or pathetic in some way, but it's to the film's credit that you end up feeling for all of them -- well, all except maybe one who shall remain nameless, but rest assured that everyone receives a just desert at the end, after a fashion.

In character dramas such as this, much depends on the acting, and there's no weak links in the cast. Richard Low, who's apparently known as a stage actor, is great as patriarch Loh, and I was also taken with Yeo Yann Yann (Mei), who resembles a young Sylvia Chang -- her breakdown from bossy wife to distraught moneygrubber might be the most affecting storyline in the movie.

As far as I know, this one hasn't been picked up for distribution in the U.S. yet, but I can't imagine it'll be too long before it happens -- if there's any country out there that can get into the whole "dysfunctional family" thing, it's us. And you have to like any film that has a director like Goh, who had some very useful advice for anyone who finds him or herself in the middle of an ugly spat: "If you're about to argue, go out and eat. After a good meal, the argument just doesn't seem important any more."