Posted by Alistair.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that there are only two types of books: those in which someone goes on a journey and those in which a man comes to town. The same line could undoubtedly be applied to narratives of all kinds, particularly the films I saw Monday at the Seattle International Film Festival. All of them involved a man coming to town, which is—as Dostoevsky so cleverly implies—the same thing as a man ending the journey he began from another town.
The first of these was Boy A, a beautiful, sad, poignant, and artfully made film. The film was directed by John Crowley from a script penned by Mark O'Rowe and was the second film both have worked on (their previous effirt was 2003's Intermission, which stars Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, and other Irish favorites). Although I have not seen Intermission, Boy A makes it abundantly clear that both men are quite naturally talented, as is the entire cast of actors, which makes the familiar argument that when looking for acting talent you should begin in Britain.
The film follows a recently paroled youth in his early twenties and his effort to fit into normal society. As we begin to know him in his everyday routine and his interactions with those around him, we are slowly shown, via flashback, the events leading up to his stint in jail. He was an unpopular and awkward boy, whose parents were indifferent and abusive. He was beaten up at school. He went friendless until he met Philip Craig (who purposefully causes a traffic accident in their first encounter). As the friendship between the two boys grows, it becomes increasingly clear that Philip (played with sadistic aplomb in a good bit of child acting by Taylor Doherty) is most likely the root cause of (the protagonist) Jack Burridge's troubles. As Jack (the brilliant Andrew Garfield) adjusts and begins to fit in with his new life he is haunted by his old life where he was ill-adjusted. And he faces the moral dilemna of honestly adjusting his old life to his new acquaintances and the very real harm that such an address could put him in.
This film was not perfect. Though the writing, directing, and acting were all stellar—particularly Garfield's Burridge, who wins you over with his good-heartedness before breaking your own heart—the film lacked in a grand philosophic message. Although Jack is a soul who deserves forgiveness, the film does not argue that all sinners are (although it flirts with the idea) exempt from simply being evil (as the chilling sociopathic child Philip Craig demonstrates). It takes on the subject of redemption—one of the greatest literary themes, as Dostoevsky himself proved—and whether it is possible; and although it argues that it should be possible it doesn't do enough to settle the matter one way or another. The film makes the mistake—one of its few—of having Jack commit an event that is, or at least it is meant to be, the exact negation of the horrible act that led him into prison in the first place. This is a mistake not only because it is a bit hackneyed, but also because it weakens the very essence of Jack's redemption. Redemption is not an act, but an existential transformation, from someone who is weak to someone who is strong. Jack proves that he has fulfilled this transformation in his goodly treatment of the people in his life and his standing, at every minute, for compassion. This is, if anything, the philosophical message of the film. It is a fairy tale for all of us who were lonely, unhappy, and misunderstood as children (junior high?), capable of ignominious acts in our weakness (even if it was just lashing out at our parents), who somehow became happy, functioning members of adult society. But where did that childhood go? And how did we get from boy a to man b? These are questions whose answers are unknown to both the filmmakers and me.
The second film I saw, The Children of Huang Shi, was much less memorable or enjoyable, though it ambitiously set out to be both. Here is a film that attempts epic status as well as the kind of emotional resonance of a man who is won over into humanitarianism despite himself (cf. the great Schindler's List and the also great Red Beard). Its failure at pulling off the first follows from its failure to pull off the second. It has a lot of things going for it that good epics have. It has a great, relatively unexplored back-drop, Japanese occupied China in the 1930s, which allows almost limitless potential for any number of country-spanning adventures, occasionally punctuated by Japanese soldiers and communist on nationalist squabbling. And director Roger Spottiswoode gives a valiant attempt at producing such an epic, with great photography of beautifully huge landscapes, excellent set-pieces and costumes, and an all-star-ish cast (at least by SIFF standards) which includes Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh. The problems come when the film asks us to invest emotionally in its characters when it clearly has no interest in doing so itself. They exclusively exist to advance the plot.
So let us turn to the plot. A British journalist (Rhys Meyers) comes to China to investigate what's going on, after witnessing the horrors inflicted by the Japanese military in Nanking he is shuttled away to safety in a boy's orphanage. At first he plans to leave immediately, viewing the boys as animalistic brats, but eventually he is convinced of their humanity and of his duty to them. After the war with Japan makes it unsafe to remain where they are, he leads the boys on a perilous journey to the western edge of China, where no one will interfere with their lives.
As mentioned, all the characters exist solely to forward this plot and offer up no convincing portraits of real human beings. This is particularly true of the orphans, who often exist solely to make a single point (that one shows how the Chinese have a strong tradition of farming, this one shows how the children are interested in English and the West, that one shows how the children are hurt by the war, etc.). What's worse, the story and its talking points are told and not shown (so that one character will say something like "that's Ching, he's been really hurt by this war. His family were government officials and they were killed right in front of him.") Then Ching (which, as you might have guessed, is probably not the name of the actual character I am thinking of) will fade into the background until his anger at the Japanese becomes useful. All of the characters are easily and early cast as either good guys or bad guys, and therefore the revelations about their natures ("I'm an opium addict!" "My parents are pacifists, but I want to fight!") seem as forced as twists in a soap opera and make absolutely no difference one way or another in the outcome of how the characters are viewed. They therefore exist merely as a way to kill time and stretch the plot out to "epic" proportions.
Which is precisely why the movie failed as an epic, because I didn't care about or believe in the characters, I wasn't at all impressed by how momentous their journey across China was. Rhys Meyers was likable enough, but I didn't buy his devotion to the kids, partially due to the fact that the kids were shown for their cuteness and not for their humanity (contrast this with Schindler's Jews), and partially due to Rhys Meyers's inability to sell it as an actor. Couple this with Radha Mitchell's portrayal of Rhys Meyers's requisite love interest, which was cold, unconvincing, and annoying, and the completely needless characters of Yun-Fat and Yeoh and you have a movie filled with incomplete, simplistic, and unbelievable people. This is mostly the screenwriter's onus, but good acting and directing should be able to make the limitations of a weak character non-existent (cf. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man). As it stands, Spottiswoode was too busy directing the landscape to be bothered with the actors, who were in too far over there heads to pull the thing off. That isn't to say that this was a film completely without merits. As I said, the setting (both in time and place) was quite interesting, and it contained awesome locations, beautifully photographed. But its flaws are too great to recommend it.
The third and final film I saw on Monday was Still Life (Sanxia haoren), a film from China shot on and around the Yangtze river before the area was flooded by the completion of the Three Gorge dam in 2006, which has been in festival circulation as long as it has existed. It is a beautiful and quiet film, whose subject—the clash between traditional and modern China—and plot—two plots actually, one about a man searching for his wife the other about a woman searching for her husband—take a backseat to its misty images. I am still in awe of a shot that captures a man and woman standing together in a brick building with a gaping hole through which the remnants of an abandoned and half destroyed downtown are visible. As the two stand there, one of the buildings is demolished and gently crumbles from its place amidst the gray-brown rain-soaked sky and lush green hills.
The movie's characters inhabit a beautiful, haunted world made all the more amazing for the fact that it will soon cease to exist. This is part of the film's plot as well as its reality and it lends everything an air of tragic poetry. The film begins with a man arriving in Fengjie from the upriver region of Shanxi in search of his wife. He has an address she left him sixteen years ago when she ran away. He gives this address to a cabbie on a motorcycle who, after some bargaining, agrees to take him to the address. He finds when he arrives that the motorcycle cabbie has tricked him, that the street where his wife lived has been flooded by the river in the damming of one of the first two gorges. He travels back to a town filled with the rubble of destroyed buildings spray-painted with what will be the water level after the final gorge is dammed. He asks around and finds that his wife's brother still lives in town.
He visits his brother-in-law at his place of work, on a ferry, and asks him where his sister is. He is told that he seems like a nice man but that he should return home. This thinly veiled threat is underscored by the men who (hilariously) pour out of the ship's bellows and into its cabin, one after another, to hungrily slurp down noodles and menacingly eye the protagonist. This scene reveals a few things about Fengjie's inhabitants. They are scrappy; they work hard and eat, when they can, with great vigor; they accept situations as they are, trusting the instincts of their fellows, even if it comes to fighting for those instincts, and distrusting strangers; and there are lots of them, all around.
The man slowly settles into this life, deciding to live in Fengjie and wait on the off chance that his wife will show up with his sixteen-year-old daughter. He gets work doing what needs doing, which in this soon-to-be-submerged city means tearing down buildings. And as he gazes out on the Yangtze the movie looks away, turning instead to a woman searching for her husband. She belongs to a different class than the first man and her husband has some lofty position in some favored industry. She inhabits a different Fengjie as she is shepherded around to fancy dining and dancing by a kindly, but twitchy man who knows her husband. But despite their differences, it is clear that the two characters share a hurt spirit that cannot easily be mended. Their worlds bump into each other in funny ways, as when a friend of the husband (the first husband) is hired to commit a crime by another man (the second husband). But their worlds are not so far off as one might think and strange juxtapositions give Fengjie its haunted and beautiful nature. In one scene a couple dances the waltz in evening attire on the exposed beams of a ruined skyscraper, perched over a beach strewn with debris.
At the end of climactic moments, the camera will move away from the actors to focus on the objects that are cluttered everywhere. The name of the objects will appear on the screen to reveal one meaning of the title's double entender (the other meaning presumably refers to the stillness with which the protagonists have suffered). I liked this movie a lot, for the glimpse of a live ghost town, for its depiction of rural China, and for the poetry with which it is accomplished. I did not, however, love it. After awhile one gets the feeling that the still objects (cigarette, mints, tea) are just as alive for the camera as the film's characters, which is to say, not very alive. I loved Fengjie as a mythical pre-Atlantis, but I loved its citizens even more, and I wanted to see them less as backdrop for the story of a lost world and China in transition, and more as the subjects in whom a doomed home and changing homeland created dramatic effect to which I could relate. Sadly this is not what we get.
The movie's final shot is once again the space the characters have just inhabited, but this time the scale of the picture is large. The camera shows two buildings, between them is stretched a rope, across which a man walks, carefully balancing so as not to fall. I took it as a metaphor for the path China's people must now walk, remembering their past, honoring their traditional rural roots, while moving into the future. Careful not to let nostalgia or overenthusiasm at what will be pull them down (symbolic for the fates of the spouses if not the heroes). I wish I could say that Still Life passes this test, but it is a movie stuck in time.