Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Japan: Nagoya, Part 2

Photographic souvenirs from the Aichi Art Center in Nagoya...

For those who are unaware of the supreme awesomeness of Domo-kun, the mascot of NHK TV, check out his greatest hits.

No explanation necessary -- as far as we can make out, the master's signature adorns this one...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Japan: Nagoya

Contrary to the name, it's not a haunted house, and it isn't a cutesy anime in the style of Casper the Friendly Ghost -- and although Manboo is probably the most popular Internet café chain in Japan, it's not just an Internet cafe, either. Sure, you can rent out a cubby equipped with TV, computer, and beanbag, and surf to your heart's content, but the true value of the place is as a crash pad if you've missed that last train home, or if you're one of those hardy backpackers who need an ultra-cheap room for the night. Well, maybe not that cheap -- it's about 1800 yen ($17) for an eight-hour stay -- but it's certainly dark and subterranean enough for a good night's sleep, as long as you don't mind the slight lack of privacy (open-air cubicles), cigarette-scented cushions, and the lack of a decent shower. And if you find yourself unable to doze off, at least you can spend the whole night playing World of Warcraft online. Now that's full service.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Love in a Fallen City: "Lust, Caution"

Lust, Caution (2007, Dir. Ang Lee)

Though it was still daylight, the hot lamp was shining full-beam over the mahjong table. Diamond rings flashed under its glare as their wearers clacked and reshuffled their tiles. The tablecloth, tied down over the table legs, stretched out into a sleek plain of blinding white. The harsh artificial light silhouetted to full advantage the generous curve of Chia-chih's bosom, and laid bare the elegant lines of her hexagonal face, its beauty somehow accentuated by the imperfectly narrow forehead, by the careless, framing wisps of hair. Her makeup was understated, except for the glossily rouged arcs of her lips. Her hair she had pinned nonchalantly back from her face, then allowed to hang down to her shoulders. Her sleeveless cheongsam of electric blue moire satin reached to the knees, its shallow, rounded collar standing only half an inch tall, in the Western style. A brooch fixed to the collar matched her diamond-studded sapphire button earrings.
-- Eileen Chang, "Lust, Caution"

Ang Lee has comfortably staked out a niche for himself as a "prestige" filmmaker, and within that niche he's involved himself with an impressive variety of genres. From his early indie days (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet) to his period pieces (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) to his noble quest to make pulp safe for the arthouse masses (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk), all his films are united by his personal style: measured, almost watery in its transparency, fluid, elegant, and very remote. It's a canny strategy -- when diving into topics that your heartland audience might find uncomfortable (gay cowboy love, spouse swapping, a pro-South Civil War drama, a subtitled action picture), it pays to hold your viewers by the hand and envelop them in the warm embrace of good taste. I find his work easy to admire and difficult to love.

After the unexpected success of Brokeback Mountain (that "gay cowboy movie"), what controversial subject could Lee utilize for a follow-up? An NC-17 film, as it turns out. Doubling back to his Chinese heritage, Lee has adapted the short story "Lust, Caution" by one of China's foremost 20th-century writers, Eileen Chang. It's easy to see the attraction to the source material -- spies and lovers in 1940s Shanghai, frank sex scenes, the sultry scent of doomed love, the epic sweep of a period piece. Covering a period of four years, the story follows Wang Chia-chih (newcomer Wei Tang), a callow young actress who gets caught up in a plot to kill Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Japanese sympathizer who will one day become a minister in Shanghai's puppet government during World War II. Encouraged by her revolutionary theater troupe buddies to play the part of a wealthy socialite named Ma Tai Tai to get close to Mr. Yee, it's all a big game to Wang, but when true Chinese revolutionaries recruit her to infiltrate the Yee household, playacting blooms into a full-blown affair, and infatuation and divided loyalties take hold.

Talk about this film has started and ended with the sex scenes, and although they stop short of actual hardcore, there are ample displays of genitalia. Certainly Eileen Chang didn't emphasize any purple-prosed sex in her original story, but give Lee credit -- he films the sex like combat, the two participants striving for power and domination over the other, their tug-of-war pushing the narrative on. On the other end of the spectrum, Yee perfectly dramatizes the effete warfare of a mah-jongg game, as Ma Tai Tai gains access to Mr. Lee's life by playing with Mrs. Yee (a subtly devious Joan Chen) and her friends. Shooting their gaming contests with a flurry of cuts and overlapping rapid-fire dialogue, Lee exposes the raw animus underneath the small talk, where a single averted look spells guilt, complicity, secrecy. When in the midst of a game Mr. Yee reaches over for a snack in order to glimpse at a hastily scribbled telephone number, accepting an invitation to infidelity, it's a moment thrilling in its simplicity and swiftness.

Chang's original story, for all its perceptive details and psychology, is essentially a romantic plea for forgiveness. Having discovered that she was married to a Japanese collaborator in real life, she concocted "Lust, Caution" as a sort of absolution: the woman, fully recognizing the immorality of the man, nevertheless sacrifices herself for love, while the man honors the woman by being devastated by the loss. The film follows this thread faithfully, right down to a breathless climax in the most innocuous of places, a jewelry shop. When the truth is revealed, the suddenness and finality of what happens next is like a kick to the stomach.

However, Lee is less successful at wringing something truly unique out of this set-up. For all of the film's stately pacing and class-A production values (40s Shanghai never seemed quite so tangible), it takes more than half its running time to boil it down to its true essence, the contest between Lee and Chia-chih. Chang's short story was a potboiler, but it also had a swinging, casual zing to its narrative and character byplay. Lee prefers to keep things tamped down, and although he offers up a few Hitchcockian shocks (a scene in which a man takes forever to die after being stabbed numerous times echoes Torn Curtain), and throws in a few laughs as the theater troupe, clearly in over their heads, get caught up with youthful enthusiasm as they embark on their terrible project, the mood soon sinks into one of glum inevitability. When one of the sex scenes is intercut with the barking of a guard dog outside the window, the symbolism of the moment veers dangerously close to cheese. Subtract the graphic sex scenes, and you are essentially left with a lushly photographed (by the ever-trusty Rodrigo Prieto) and scored (by Alexandre Desplat) melodrama, in which Lee stacks the chips in favor of the lovers -- when given a choice between the magnetic Tony Leung and a revolutionary cadre of solemn, sexually inexperienced pretty boys (Lee-Hom Wang) and unfeeling bosses (Chung Hua Tou), is there really any choice at all? The details are there, the plot turns are there, and certainly the surface textures are there (the quotation that opens this essay is brilliantly transferred to film), but the ghost is missing from this shell.

As always, Lee elicits sensitive performances from his principals. Mr. Yee, burdened by encroaching middle age, fueled by bottomless rage, his emotions buried beneath waxen formality, could have easily descended into parody -- just imagine the part played by Jeremy Irons, who would clench his jaw and furrow his eyebrows and work hard to make you feel the very harrowing of his being. Tony Leung, the smoothest and most understated of Hong Kong actors, takes the opposite approach, letting small smiles escape like flashes of lightning, his eyes going limpid or angry for miliseconds at a time. When he finally does explode, the effect is that of a window being thrown wide open, and Leung is unflinching in presenting Lee's ugliness as well as sadness. Wei Tang does well with what is ultimately a cipher of a character -- vering crazily from dowdy would-be actress to gussied-up seductress, she is believable as a seasoned player getting caught up in the play, but less so as an ordinary plebian who seems far too straightlaced and plodding to get caught up in fanciful spy games. Still, she deserves points for her fearlessness, and saves her best for last, when she must decide between duty and love in a matter of seconds.

You might think that Lust, Caution can be dismissed based on some of the criticisms above, scoffed at as just another Oscar-baiting film with the added draw of hot sex. Yet the film sticks with you; predictable and inevitable it may be, but Lee's hothouse romanticism, and the final haunting image of an empty bed, are hard to shake. Perhaps it's due to the pull of stories like these, the thrill of illicit activity and the tragedy of lovers that are fated to part. Lee knows that films are a dream machine, and he uses his dream machines as hypnotics, easing us into an absorbed mood as gently as slipping into a steambath. It adds up to movies like this one -- easy to admire, difficult to love.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Long Way Home: "The Darjeeling Limited"

The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Dir. Wes Anderson)

Rita: What's wrong with you?
Jack: I honestly don't know. I'll tell you the next time I see you.

Does Wes Anderson have a soul? That seems to be a major preoccupation with critics when it comes to his films. You can spot the technical eccentricities from a mile away: meticulously composed frames, eclectic soundtracks of 60s mod rock and undiscovered modern gems, precision-crafted production design that manages to be fussy and zany all at once. But even though his films are put down for being mannered larks that are too whimsical for their own good, what tends to stick to the memory are faces -- perplexed faces mostly. Taking his cue from silent cinema, Anderson likes to get up close and personal with his characters, lingering over their mute distress, their indecision, their bewilderment. It helps that he also has a stock company of actors (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelika Huston, Jason Schwartzman) who know exactly how to achieve major effects with the tiniest of expressions. Many derided Anderson's last film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as too pleased with its own frippery, but the wackiness had a point to it: juxtaposed against this funhouse universe, Bill Murray's mournful Steve Zissou gained weight, a soul.

Those who aren't convinced that there's something honest and true going on behind the curtain will most likely not be convinced by The Darjeeling Limited, which nevertheless is both a recapitulation of, and a departure from, the Anderson method. Three brothers -- Francis (Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman) meet up on the titular train, ostensibly to make a spiritual pilgrimage across India on the anniversary of their father's death. Each of them is nursing his own unspoken hurts and neuroses: Francis, his head swathed in bandages from a vague motorcycle accident, is the den mother, planning each activity out to the minute and insisting that everyone "say yes" to every experience; Peter, hogging all of the dead father's personal belongings, is about to become a father and isn't very happy about it, to the point that he hasn't told his wife he's coming out to India; Jack, still smarting from a recent breakup, is writing bitter autobiographical short stories ("The characters are all fictional," he insists) and wandering around in bare feet like Paul McCartney on Abbey Road.

All the brothers are closed off to us as well as each other -- in stark contrast to his previous films, Anderson lets them hoard their torments, and refuses to expose them as easy caricatures or cliches. As a result they come across as more whole, less stick-like. Communicating in implied threats and forced niceties, it seems highly unlikely they will reach any kind of rapprochement, and each gets pulled into their own private obsessions: Francis develops a fixation with locating a power adaptor, Peter gets addicted to Indian cough syrup and buys a poisonous snake, and when he's not playing mournful songs on his iPod, Jack is launching into an ill-advised affair with lovely steward Rita (Amara Karan), who may or may not be based on a certain Beatles song about a meter maid, but certainly fits the description.

Sounds like a typical Anderson film, right? Wealthy estranged families, deadpan absurdities, culture clash galore. Not exactly -- as if tamed by the very real landscape that the train lumbers through, The Darjeeling Express settles into a lazy rhythm, not so desperate to get to the next visual punch line or bit of whimsy. This sometimes works to the movie's detriment: the first half hour or so is composed of draggy conversations and awkward silences, with nary a hint of comedy or witty character interaction. But even here, Anderson is making a point -- the harder the brothers attempt to buy into the privileged upper-middle-class American vision of spiritual uplift, the harder they fall on their faces. The title itself is indicative; there will be no bullet-train express to fulfillment for these folks, but instead a long, strung-out ride with destination unknown.

When the brothers are thrown off the train, left wandering the countryside with their father's Louis Vitton suitcases in hand, the film slowly opens up, like a flower. Anderson doesn't supply a necessarily deep or meaningful glimpse into rural India, but like all good travelers, Francis, Peter and Jack surrender their hope, and in the process stumble towards something resembling grace. A tragedy involving a village boy materializes out of the blue, and while other filmmakers might have milked it for obvious emotion, Anderson hangs back, letting the incident and its aftermath wash over the three men, drawing them closer in a nearly wordless passage as they are accepted as guests in a local community and invited to a funeral. As we sense that the film is drawing to a close, the story pulls one more card from its sleeve -- a visit to a Christian monastery in the Himalayas, where the brothers' mother Patricia (Anjelika Huston) has retreated to live as a nun. Patricia is a benevolent monster, but a monster nonetheless, and Huston gives the most devastating performance in the film, her maternal pooh-poohing failing to conceal her utter inability to relate to her children. And yet her suggestion to "meditate a bit" leads to a tour-de-force sequence in which the old Wes Anderson makes a brief appearance: jumping to different locales and characters in one continuous movement, like passing through numerous train compartments, we see all the people in the brothers' lives, those left behind, living and wanting and wishing. Jarring and somehow right in its artificiality, the shot heralds an arrival at understanding and normalcy, and is capped off with a final mad dash to a train in which the brothers are forced to dump their metaphysical and literal baggage.

The actors are asked to navigate tricky emotional territory, with no lovable quirks to fall back on, and for the most part they do admirable jobs. It's difficult to objectively judge Wilson's performance given the recent tragedies in his life and their eerie similarities to the dire straits he's in here, but there's no doubt that he's gained gravitas over the years. His famous broken nose hidden beneath a band aid, his bandaged face reduced to lips and eyes, he rises above his standard stoned hipster poses. Brody has the more internalized role, but he gets his turn to shine in a flashback to his father's funeral in which his grief and dementia all but overwhelm the mechanic (Barbet Schroeder) entrusted with fixing his father's car. Schwartzman struggles the most within the confines of his character (ironic given that he co-wrote the script with Anderson and Roman Coppola), and perhaps it's fitting, as Jack is closer than the others to the typical conception of an Anderson hero -- self-conscious, willful, almost petulant.

Clocking in at a modest 91 minutes, The Darjeeling Limited tells its story with a minimum of fuss, and gets out while the getting's good. It might not be the best thing Anderson has done -- that honor still goes to Rushmore -- but none of his previous endings have the wry charm this one has, as the three brothers settle in on yet another train. Earlier, on the original Darjeeling Limited, the three have been the typical ugly Americans, bemused at an offer of lime juice, smoking in a non-smoking compartment, antagonizing the steward who came to collect their tickets, immediately heading to the lunch car for cigarettes and a beer. Now they accept the lime juice with deference, respond politely to the steward -- and immediately head to the lunch car for cigarettes and a beer. As we watch the lush Indian landscape outside the train unfold and the credits roll, we're left with the winsome thought that as much as things change us, we are irreducible at heart, and somehow we are okay with it.