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Monthly Archives: August 2013

“The Place beyond the Pines” tries to be hilariously epic, almost “Grapes of Wrath” or “Once Upon a Time in America” epic. Funny thing is that the story itself does not have much going for it, and it takes a while to get used to the fact that we are asked to just follow the battle with life, usually regularly boring or exciting, sometimes peaking with drama, of a couple of not too remarkable characters.

The way the script structures this is quite brave: without entering spoiler territory, it manages to bring together the films’s main characters (played by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper) in a “and then their lives collide” moment: a hopeless crook meets a regular police officer during his escape from a bank robbery. How these lives collide plays out somehow casually, and I am not sure whether I was the only person sitting there at that moment and gasping “really? No shit! Cool!” It’s one of those moments I love in movies, when traditional rules about story and character development are thrown overboard and the author shows you that you have been spoonfed too much Hollywood merchandise for too long, and in consequence you have been expecting the wrong thing for the wrong reasons all along.

It is tricky to execute on that, however. After that pivotal moment, I kept wondering for a rather long time whether they will manage to finish what they started, to make sense of the narrative mess they created, to give meaning to the story. I am still not sure whether they did, but they tried. As the story develops over almost a generation, the elements scattered across the script start to converge, and yes: then there is the moment when I was gasping again (for me, that moment took place in a college cafeteria, but maybe others have done the thinking more quickly…). Is the story tied up too neatly and cleanly? Are there too many arbitrary vectors of life that still happen to convergence in a single spot? I can’t answer that, which means while I am not perfectly convinced that the way the story played out was the best possible way of doing it, I am still quite happy with the result. I did not feel cheated into some make-believe “meeting your fate” moment. Instead, the key “message” (or maybe better: motif) of the movie appears to be that life has a long memory, and will not easily forget the bodies in your closet. There’s no resolution to that realisation – it merely means to be prepared for some surprises along the way, because the past may come back to kick you. And you may not be the only person suffering from past misdeeds (or even only mishaps, as could be said here). Life accumulates memories good and bad, and pays out with interest to you and your family. It’s more dramatic  for them maybe, because they never even knew what’s coming for them.

And Eva Mendes looks stunning. She does not get much to do in terms of acting, but boy…

Funny thing… I was just about to write that while I like Refn’s movies in general, but have not been the greatest fan of “Drive”. To make sure that this is true, I was about to refer to my old post about “Drive” and realised there is none. I remember that Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling left me a bit confused about what I had just seen, I remember thinking that while I liked the stylized approach to making Gosling look cool and mysterious, and while I appreciated how some minimalist set pieces  pieces played out (elevator!), I was stuck with appreciating “Drive” rather than liking or loving it. My admiration for Refn comes in particular from “Bronson”  and also to some extent from “Valhalla Rising”. I think it comes down to preferring him as a media artist rather than an action director. If I can put up the movie on the home screen with the lights out, admiring the images like a succession of Brueghel paintings, taking in the often fabulous soundtracks of his movies, allowing myself to ignore any sense of plot and drama, then it works.

This intro was to summarise why I liked “Only God Forgives” a lot, even though it’s not a movie. It is an excess of atmospheric images, sometimes still, sometimes dynamic, with the director and DP clearly having fallen in love with the very different visual setting that a location like Bangkok provides. Actually to the point of working the cliché rather than the reality of the place, which would be a problem would the whole film not have this dreamy nature. Shadows breaking through red corridors. Beautiful women with alabaster skin listening with closed eyes to most gory atrocities as if it they were some bunch of middle-class ladies attending a particularly moving piano recital. A fistfight between the two antagonists choreographed like the antithesis of a fist fight between antagonists, but staged and lit so beautifully! An eerie soundtrack blanketing the banalities of human dialogue or pleading. A “hero” who was paid for looking sad and lost, and who was certainly not paid for learning lines (I think Gosling has about 5 sentences to speak in total). A wicked witch of a mother who seems to be built on what “Wild at Heart” left over for evil mother figures to work with. Singing blades and singing blade-slingers. Characters with honour and characters without. Evil deeds and necessary retribution.

I can understand that many people do not like this compilation of allegories. Had Refn made this film right after “Bronson”, nobody would have had a right to complain. With “Drive”, he created a misunderstanding about what kind of artist he is, and seeing “Only God Forgives” appears to be some form of corrective measure in that respect. Not the kind who would enjoy car chases and sword fights for the wrong reasons. Rather the kind who uses those elements, over-stylizes them and sets them up as tools to illuminate the human condition. And if the style is perceived to be excessive, so be it. David Lynch is excessive, and mostly for very good reasons. Those two have a lot in common, it seems to me. And in a good way!

A BBC 2 documentary that seeks to document what has been happening on the North Sea rig “Piper Alpha” which went up in flames and explosions during a quiet night on July 6, 1988. The film decides to stay with the people who survived, allows them to tell their experiences, their way out of the mayhem. This is illustrated with original footage from the platform, and some carefully used animations based on the platforms construction diagrams, providing a very good sense of space before and when chaos erupts. For some scenes during the catastrophe, scenes were reenacted, something which I did not care for too much. I thought the footage shot from the neighbouring rescue platform were quite enough to provide an accurate idea of the despair those workers still trapped in that inferno must have felt – especially as there were some survivors who could quite clearly explain how chaotic the situation was and when they had reached the point of knowing for sure that they would die in the flames.

This was one decision of the film-makers that can be argued about. Another is the almost complete absence of causes and consequences. We learn that ill-managed maintenance may have been responsible for the explosion. We also learn that there has never been a trial illuminating the charges. While I don’t say that every documentary about a disaster needs to figure about who was responsible (as in some cases, no one is and shit just happens to happen), in this case it seemed like a tangible gap in the narrative. An enterprise of this nature and size, dealing with enormous amounts of oil and gas, can blow up just like this? A fire can erupt in a way that it cuts off the crew from the lifeboats? I was reminded of the Challenger explosion, where an elaborate process led from the assertion that “things can go wrong” to “there are fundamental flaws in the system that made a catastrophe very likely”. We learn that there was an analysis, and that there were recommendations for safety improvements. Linking those to what happened that night on Piper Alpha, a night in which 167 crew members were killed and only 61 survived, would have made a very interesting documentary, raising the film beyond its mere disaster narrative. As for what it is, it serves as an emotional reminder of a catastrophe, without daring to judge or to weigh. A possible approach, even though I feel something is missing that I would have been interested in.

For liking this film, it helps to like terrible 80s songs and it helps even more liking a capella performances. Ideally, one would also like US university campus life with all its rituals and distractions. This probably means that the film’s makers did not have me in mind when writing the script and rehearsing the choreography.

Anyway, sometimes that kind of thing works for me too, and there were some elements that I found enjoyable: To begin with, I do like Anna Kendrick, who still manages to maintain her juvenile natural looks, and who is credible in finding all this college pseudo-religion utterly appalling. Most other aspects I liked are oddly underdeveloped: she is creating her own music, but what becomes of it? That story-line culminates in one of her tracks being played on college radio, great stuff… her bulky co-singer “Fat Amy” (you wouldn’t believe what her real name is… ) is very likable in that she is rude and vulgar and everything you need to be to outweigh the obnoxious presence of people who like to run the show in these college clubs, such as the girls’ “band leader”. The romance between Kendrick and the boy band’s pretty boy? Meh… The choreography and the music choice? Meh to the point of “really?” – while the guys had some stunning songs early on in the film (I suppose to make the movie audience believe that a capella bands are really worth watching, please don’t leave the theatre even if the story is half-assed!), towards the end the song choice and choreography by everybody involved is getting lame. We are made to believe that the final performance at the final competition is an outstanding new definition of what a capella bands can do, even if they only consist of girls (not my emphasis, theirs…). Nope… quite anti-climatic.

Nothing that would elevate this above average, but “average” is quite ok for a campus music comedy, I suppose…

That is quite an insightful comment here on China Daily, linking nicely to my “Chinese Box Office Wonders” project:

“it is the typical Hollywood way of story-telling that is absorbed by these Chinese films. And that secret is called genre films. These films are commercial in nature; they conform to strict formulae in narrative, which Chinese filmmakers had always ignored or disdained.”

Full text by Raymond Zhou at  Fast forward with film |X – Ray |

Dear Mr Wheatley,

I have been very patient with you. I appreciated the roller coaster ride you decided to send us on with your script of “Kill List”, meandering between social drama, pro killer portrait and secret witchcraft society crazy stuff. I actually even more enjoyed the “Sightseers”, a calmer, maybe more mature approach to highlighting the urges and motivations of the certainly no less deranged characters populating this variation on the popular road movie format. I was and still am really astonished to see what kind of film making is possible outside of commercial pressure, with whatever is stowed away in your brain’s creative filters being the only authority on what a film should look like and where it should take us, the devoted audience.

Now “A Field in England”…  Firstly, may I commend you for having mastered the skill of time bending. These 87 or so minutes have been among the longest in my life! I actually had to take a break halfway through, requiring a full month to recover from what I had just seen, quite sure I wanted to continue, not so sure when I would want to do this. This may have to do with nothing happening in the film, and not just twice. There is a field, there is (I suppose) England, and there are some dirty people walking over and digging into that field. I would not have been surprised had you chosen the title “Several Dirty People on and in a field in England”, it would have been more accurate and also reminiscent of that great Pink Floyd “song” about animals in a cage, grooving with a pict. The dirty people are at war, some on this side, some on the other, but they meet on the field and stay there because one of them carries the notion of a treasure lying buried beneath the field (he also carries a gun), and compels them to start looking for it (hence the digging. Not the “dirty” though, they were quite dirty to begin with. War’s a dirty business, they certainly communicate).

And then … poems recited, ghosts conjured, God cursed, limbs shot, friends murdered, venereal diseases discovered (“I will not turn into a green frog then?” – “This, Sir, may be the only calamity you are not suffering. That, and the plague”), stroboscopic visions flashed, beautiful music superimposed, necks roped. And some other stuff. It’s quite beautiful, actually, even though I do not have the slightest bit of explanation for anything that’s going on. Are you trying to tell me anything, Mr Wheatley? If so, please send me the explanation, I enclose a stamped return envelope. No need to explain sentences like this one: “I shall pray for more legs and arms to greater appreciate the many natural intrigues and wonders that play out below us”. I loved it for what it was in its medieval beauty. And give my regards to Mr Jim Williams, who is credited with the sometimes hypnotic, mostly eerie and and always enchanting score.

Admittedly, “A Field in England” was exhausting to watch, almost an effort in endurance. I think after I accepted to experience it with the guts rather than with the brain, I started thoroughly enjoying it. Love may follow.

Thanks a lot Mr Wheatley, I look forward to your next feature. Don’t sell out!

Best regards

It seems my desperate quest for the next interesting and original horror film leads me into still deeper depths of stupidity. I will have to face the fact at some point that the market for intelligent or at least solid horror is limited. Current estimates stand at 2 out of 300 films are watchable or good, the rest is boring, pointless or outrageously stupid.

The makers of “Outrageously Stupid” bring you “Citadel”, their latest achievement in really not knowing how to do horror. The premise is not too bad, a bunch of hooded kids kill, apparently without motive, a pregnant woman, leaving her husband or boyfriend (can’t remember which) to helplessly watch. After her death he takes care of the baby, which survived, but falls into a phase of utter paranoia, almost unable to leave the house, in constant fear of himself or his kid falling victim to more violence.

So far, this could have been a tremendous film. I was thinking of Friedkin’s “Bug” or Cronenberg’s “Spider”, challenging explorations  of fear, maybe also of Michael Shannon’s tour-de-force against all these people who do not believe him when he tells them the world will end and they seriously need a shelter.

This is not where “Citadel” is going, however. While the characters’ psychology  may be the interesting aspect about this script, the film makers decide to establish it, and then render it completely irrelevant. All the characterization of fear being your own worst enemy (“we have nothing to fear but fear…” etc.) would require the plot to play out in exactly the way it does not. I hesitate to give away what the crucial realisation is we are helped to make with the support of a crazy-ass doctor, but suffice it to say that up until the very last moment, I was very very much hoping that this is all not the way they make us believe it is. Can they really decide to play it out in such a primitive way? Do they really find this resolution more interesting or thrilling or worrying than any other? You can argue of course that giving us this least plausible  scenario is exactly the surprise they have in mind for the unsuspecting audience, and that they played with my expectations in the way they did to show me how cleverly they have read my mind, and now feed me something that I did not see coming. Thing is: I did see it coming, I just could not believe that anybody in his right mind would write the ending in this way. Why? Because it’s stupid!

I was seriously astonished to read the positive Tomatometer rating of this film, 79 per cent? A considerable majority of critics (acknowledged: no real critics reviewed the film in the first place…) thought this was a tense piece of horror, an atmospheric creation of terror by supposedly innocent children, a frightening variation on the motive of “Out in the cottage, and something’s coming for us”. What I was thinking after 20 minutes was “Goodness, this will be boring”. After 45 minutes I was about to turn it off, and I had if not for a case of Summer flu that left me too weak to reach for the kill switch. So I kept waiting for anything interesting to happen, and in vain. If you imagine a setting where some children turn violent against their parents for completely no reason other than that these parents are so boring and obnoxious that they apparently make the children’s DNA melt in revenge… then you can write the script for “The Children” in half an hour. It lives off the assumption that it’s more horrible when children use hatchets and knives against grown-ups than when this happens among teenagers. This is a misconception that already made “Children of the Corn” one of the most terrible and boring films ever. There is no build-up of tension, there is no “bomb under the table” (if the Master of Thrill will forgive me for abusing his concept in such a dumb setting), children come, stab, go. Come again, scratch, go. The grown-ups decide to stay and decide rather than just walk away and live, that’s their choice, really, I am not in a position to be judgmental about this. If a child with a pointy thing approaches me, however, with the stated intention to stab me in the eye, I would chose to hit that kid in the face and go somewhere else. No film to be made about that, of course, but all for the better…

No seriously, what a stupid film!

The perfect companion piece to “Hatufim” maybe? In “The Gatekeepers”, the former and current heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security service, talk about their job, their country, their missions, their killings, their victories and defeats. Dear goodness, this is astonishing. It is one of the most impressive documentaries I have seen in a long time, maybe ever, both in terms of content and form. The coup, of course is, to manage getting all these people in front of cameras and talk about their work. Having two or three of them would have exposed the film to maybe insurmountable criticism. Having those six means that the film can make a case. This case is that, from the perspective of the people tasked with keeping Israel safe against its enemies, Israel’s strategy has been dead wrong and counterproductive for decades.

It is clear that these protagonists’ appearance on camera has political aims: some are currently in political office, others have open bills to settle (with unsupportive or ignorant politicians, and with each other). That they still agree on some fundamentals in their own country’s security policy is all the more perplexing. By maintaining an eye-for-an-eye approach, by overkilling and refusing to talk to the opposing sides, their country establishes a never-ending balance of mutual terror. Terror by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel, terror by Israel’s domestic right wing groups against Israel, and terror by Israel against anybody who appears not to be on their side. The notion that one side’s terrorist is the other side’s freedom fighter is formulated as if it had never occurred to anybody, while it seems that in the political climate of the region, it has just been more convenient to ignore.

None of the six is confused about the impossibility to create peace based on such an approach, and all of them are thoroughly disappointed by the succession of governments in their country to engage in a fundamental shift. This goes as far as virtually naming Netanyahu for creating the atmosphere that almost necessarily led to the murder of Rabin, of exposing Shamir as a stubborn politician completely unwilling to engage in a conversation about paths to peace.

These men are in no position to make moral judgments. This is what makes their positions so strong. They were killers by profession, some of them directly attributable to illegal executions. There livelihood was assassination and elimination. These men have spent their work life in secrecy, have taken responsibility for executing or not executing suspected terrorists, have been made responsible for collateral killings, for ruthless executions, for war mongering and for being too soft.

They do not bring vague political notions to the table. Rather, they bring observations: In their line of job, they could directly observe causes and effects. And without pathos, they agree on assessing the effect of Israeli’s policy towards the Palestinians and the settlement areas to be devastating for Palestinians, for the peace process, and in consequence for Israel. You do not hear very often the analogy drawn between the Israeli occupation policy and Nazi Germany’s occupation policy voiced by a former high-level Israeli civil servant. In “The Gatekeepers” you do hear it, and in the sober way a political historian would formulate it: the effect of occupation and perennial violence, the threat of soldiers storming your house in the middle of the night and taking away your father and husband… that effect is not guessed at but assessed by these heads of intelligence, and their assessment is that it has to stop if peace is to be established.

The talking heads are complemented in a very impressive way by news footage and by archive material that has been very cleverly animated. Based on still photos, 3-dimensional layouts are developed where this either useful to get a better understanding for the situation described (as in the hijacking of the “300 Bus” and the killing of the hijackers) or to create atmospheric intermissions. I never felt these animations to be director’s vanity, they serve the purpose of the story telling and (mostly) remain as humble as necessary. Satellite footage adds to this, pulling the tell-tale of assassination and execution from story to stark and sober reality.

I would love to learn what impact this film had in Israel, how it was discussed politically and in civil society. It is hard to imagine that these powerful voices remain unheard. On the other hand, many powerful voices have remained unheard over the years in this conflict…

This is the original Israeli show on which “Homeland” is based. Matter of fact, both shows were developed in parallel based on the concept by Gideon Raff, and this allows for very interesting insights into audience expectations, production conditions and some more. While I mostly like Homeland (despite being occasionally frustrated by the script’s random yoyo play with the motivations and goals of its lead character, played by Damien Lewis), it is nothing compared to this intense drama around two Israeli prisoners of war who return back home in the course of a prisoners exchange 16 years after being captured.

Hatufim seems to have a clearer focus and structure, it seems to know where it’s going, something many US shows with their annual fight for renewal lack. The first of the currently two seasons (a third one is in development) focuses on the spectacular fact that prisoners held and abused for such a long time finally make it home, and on the emotions this stirs in the country, in the families and in the secret service. Uri’s and Nimrode’s return is not easy, they are not used to being with their families anymore, and these families have changed, of course. People have died, have found new spouses, have hardened in the fight for the return of their loved ones. Children that had hardly been born at the time of the abduction are now grown up and expected to accept and even love family members they never met. Any hope that you can just return and continue your live 16 years after all bonds have been suddenly severed are shattered within a few moments and days. With this focus on a whole society and the affected individuals struggling with their new situation, the show creates a dense drama about trust and love, family and fear, and about fighting your own demons.

But Hatufim is not mere social drama, there is also suspicion lurking about what has been going on during the captivity, what happened to the third captive, whose remains return only in a body bag. There are several secret service departments that seem to have their own motivations, there is more knowledge around that is revealed, and something seems to build up towards an escalation.

The second seasons shifts the focus dramatically by introducing a new set of characters that had been highly relevant to the first season without us knowing, it adds the other side of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and by doing so steps onto slightly more conventional polit-thriller track. But it does so on its own terms, refusing the temptation to confuse spectacle and explosions with drama, but instead insisting on the characters’ own struggles to cope with the emerging truths to be the real object of interest. While the thriller plays out, it does so in a calm and human way, there are no superheroes to be found, but people who develop, who face worries, doubts and weakness. Maybe this is most visible in the lack of a lead investigator (the excessively intelligent, dedicated and ill Claire Danes Character in “Homeland”). There are many people contributing to pushing the story ahead, and while Mossad psychologist Haim may be the calm centre of our attention, he is nowhere near in control of anything happening on either side of the fence.

To me, populating this show with credibly flawed characters is what makes Hatufim stand out against other shows that are going for the more straightforward show effects. It is not without deficits, especially when it gives in to the temptation of providing some spectacle and thrill it becomes evident that this is not the strength of the production team. But despite this, there is so much of great drama that it outweighs these moments of slightly clumsy action.

Looking forward to Season 3, and I very much hope that they do not stretch it indefinitely. (Spoilers)

A group of terrorists, a ransom demand, a hidden agenda, a scrupulous leader, a man alone in the building, fighting back and shooting firearms while rolling over in his bloody shirt. I am not sure whether there are other examples where a sacred cow of cinema has been so bluntly replicated not once, but twice, and within a few months. The plot descriptions for Die Hard, Olympus has Fallen and White House Down are exactly identical, and the often-read nickname “Die Hard in the White House” reflects this very accurately (for both of the latter).

And you know what: I don’t care! I found both Olympus and White House Down to be thoroughly entertaining. Never mind I cannot remember whoever played the hero in White House Down (or in “Olympus”, for that matter), it really does not matter. What matters is a spectacular opening with plenty of infrastructure going up in flames, a calm middle sequence with silent conversations between the hero and his ally (who in this case happens to be the US President, aka Jamie Foxx), and a showdown that does away with the rest of the building and the terrorists. Of course it is ballsy to not inject a single bit of original idea into the basic plot, but if you enter the screening in the right mindset (i.e. with logic and aesthetic taste temporarily shut off) there is no way of not enjoying the carnage that befalls the supposedly impenetrable White House. And there’s love interests, ill-hidden relatives, patriotic flag-waving, and a considerable amount of military hardware, computer geniuses and leadership struggles on both ends of the stand-off. Just the way it’s supposed to be in a Roland Emmerich Summer movie.

Now… I am not the target group of this, clearly I am something like the opposite of the target group: I am too old, of the wrong gender, and I do not like vampires or werewolves too much. Unless it’s Vlad Drakul, the Impaler. But he’s not here. Instead, we have a cute vampire family setting with people who are a bit too pale, and we have a rather more cool werewolf family that looks like a team of football players in bootcamp. You may argue that one of these sides is in general more attractive than the other, and I heard there’s some argument about that, but which ever way you  are leaning, the Twilight saga is about chastity and self-control more than about anything else, so it does not really matter, because the rather dull heroine of the story will not decide for a long time which way her preferences go. All the while, there are some outside perils keeping her from deciding, requiring help from both camps, as she herself is a bit useless in battling monsters in general and evil vampires in particular. This allows for a lot of damsel in distress moments, making the audience wonder whether the main character of such a successful trilogy should really be a girl who would die as soon as one of her potential boyfriends comes too late to her rescue. Maybe it’s just the eternal teenager girl dream of the White Knight on his White Horse rampaging with his shining sword among the naughty opponents who would like nothing more than to steal her virtue…

The good thing about the DVD is that you can easily skip the boring parts, which come along every 7 minutes, in the form of dialogues along the lines of “I love You” – “do you?” – “yes, I do, forever” – “really, forever” – “really forever!” – “really?” – “yes” – “yes?” – “shut up now and help me lose your virginity” … the last one is made up, only stemming from my urge to slap everybody in the face, make them engage in teenage sex and get their perennial doubts over and done with. I would have preferred that to happen between Bella and a wolf from the beginning, because I cannot stand Edward’s standard expression that seems to communicate a severe headache and a lack of outdoor activities. The other guy has a funny nose and a more funny way to lose his shirt at completely inappropriate moments, but at least he does not look like a castrate during his period (I know, that image is not really coherent, but neither is anything that happens in the films). Some of the wolf brothers are actually quite cute, I did not understand why she never considered a maternalistic society with herself as leader of a multi-faceted wolf pack.

The peril comes from the outside in the form of ill-tempered rogue vampires, ill-tempered establishment vampires and good-humoured vampire leaders. The latter was underdeveloped, I would have loved to see more of Michael Sheen, he clearly was ready to tear up the screen, but seems the directors had a guilty  conscience about exposing the teenage actors’ weaknesses by confronting them too frequently with the smirking evilness that houses in the Tuscany’s vampire headquarters.

There is one moment in all five movies where I was thinking “oh, that was quite well done”, and that moment comes about five minutes before the end of the final film. It may not have been as effective had I not endured the other 800 hours of boredom and spectacularly poor-designed cgi moments, but in retrospect maybe I would have happily lived without ever having set an eye on either of these hours.

Now why did I watch all the films even though it is clear from the outset what kind of entertainment this would be? For the same reasons why sometimes I need a “Downton Abbey” moment maybe, the pleasure of knowing that around the corner, something more exciting is waiting. Not with the Twilight saga, but the longer it took, the more satisfying it was to come back to watching a proper movie or tv show…

Part 1 (Dir: Catherine Hardwicke 2008):

Part 2 “New Moon” (Dir: Chris Weitz 2009):

Part 3 “Eclipse” (Dir: David Slade 2010):

Part 4 “Breaking Dawn Part 1” (Bill Condon 2011):

Part 5 “Breaking Dawn Part 2” (Bill Condon 2012):

Christina Ricci as a promiscuous twen junkie who lost her path after feeling abandoned, Samuel L. Jackson as a solid rock of a blues singer with strong Christian beliefs, feeling abandoned himself. Paths cross, Jackson sees a God-sent mission to help the girl, and in consequence makes her wear underwear and a heavy iron chain half of the film. I am not sure whether this turns out to be actually a “good” film, but it definitely is a film that asks a lot of its actors (actress, in particular) and does not shy away from exposing human ability to be cruel and endure cruelty. At times, you really need to suspend disbelief in order to accept how people how just a minute ago treated each other in unspeakable ways suddenly reconcile and team up to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune together. As the acting is impeccable, this works through the sheer presence of these tortured characters. It is a bit too frequent, however, that I had to hold my breath and decide whether I should take it as a piece of cruel realism or as an allegory. In the end, the film is powerful despite its flaws.

CZ12 (or “Chinese Zodiac”, as it is also called, because some Chinese zodiac sculptures looted from the Beijing Summer Palace serve as McGuffin) is not a good film. By no category or definition. Now I have never been a fan of Jackie Chan’s “oeuvre” in any way, and do not find the least bit of pleasure in the effort of Chinese and Hongkong movie industry to find new ways of making people of all ages, genders and physical skills bounce about in their martial arts varieties and get roped around “like a feather” (which in all cases that I actually did see looked as light as meat chunks on the butcher’s hook. And I know what I’m talking about, butchers in the family and all…). When you combine this with what I dare to call a “Chinese sense of humour” (i.e. excessive use of slip-on-banana kind of slapstick, pulling faces in front of an automatic camera while being kicked in the balls by a camera tripod, blatant use of homosexuality references, etc. etc.), then … it’s really not my piece of cake. This means “CZ12” never stood a chance of being liked by me. No problem, but for what it is, is it well done?

Nope! The film adds to its own misery by doing what it’s doing in a surprisingly amateurish way: Its action power is basically exhausted after the opening sequence involving some full-body-rollerskating escape, which is so poorly directed that it was painful to watch. After that: a bit of change of scenery, some girls screaming so as to be rescued by the brave heroes, some girls talking about their underwear, some girls pulling each others’ hair. Some old men pretending they are still very good at fighting very young men. Some international actors who clearly do not know what they signed up for (Oliver Platt, please, have a word with your agent, or is business really so dire? If you need a job, call me!).

I watched the film even though I knew this is not my genre, expecting at least some production values and some of China’s and Hongkong’s most experienced directors and actors at work. I would need to check whether “CZ12” and the recent “Journey West” are among the most expensive Chinese movies ever made. If this is the case – and I believe it is – then this tells a very sad story about the technical and narrative skills of the Chinese film industry. The involvement of the international setting (travelling from Paris to China to Vanuatu (I am told by Wikipedia) and some more) and a bunch of international actors is certainly aimed at opening the international markets. Really? With this??? (not much info there)

When writing about Jackie Chan’s recent “CZ12”, I almost started with writing “Where to begin?… sigh…”. Then I realised that this is exactly what I had thought (and written) when I started writing about the recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”. I see a pattern emerging … popular Chinese films often leave me flabbergasted, making me wonder about this and that. In particular, they make my wonder why there are so few good ones. And why the not-so-good-ones still attract such large audiences. There are plenty of things to be considered (censorship eradicating any challenging material; professional training institutions not up to snuff; differences in general pop culture, of course  … ) and maybe there will be time some day to write them down.

Not now. Now I engage in a different adventure. A perilous one. I have recently written (for a German film industry magazine) about the perceivable trend of Chinese movie audiences to turn their backs on average Hollywood superhero franchise output, and hand their rising middle-class income over to the cashier to see domestic films instead. Some odd and unexpected candidates stormed the box office charts over the last year, the astonishing success of the low budget screwball comedy “Lost in Thailand” marking the turn of tides (now most successful Chinese film ever, and most definitely most profitable one).

When looking at the list of the 10 most successful Chinese films at the Chinese box office over the last year that I compiled for that article, I realised that almost nobody outside China has ever heard of these films, more certainly nobody has seen them. So what about going through this list one by one and writing short comments about them, to share the pleasure, if there is any to be found. And forcing myself into exposure to cutting edge Chinese pop culture while I am at it.

The experiment will not have dimensions as described in A.J. Jacob’s heroic task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, or his equally astonishing project to live one year in full compliance with the Old Testament. Still, I am already quite scared of having to make sense of the success of the likes of “Tiny Times” (which sounds like a dumbed-down and sexed-down version of “Sex in the City” – if thinking about that concept does not blow your mind already…). And I am truly terrified of exposing myself to the subtle humour and elaborate character development I am used to from previous Jackie Chan movies –  there’s one on the list, whether I like it or not. Others are more interesting, with a drama about 1942 Hebei during the Chinese-Japanese war, or… well, that’s the one I am looking forward to. Maybe Andy Lau’s Oriental James Bond effort “Switch” will feature some eye candy (even though I read he already apologised to his fans for starring in it, but hey –  what does he know? He’s just a pretty boy!). And one of them I have already written about, said umpteenth screen version of “Journey to the West”, so only nine to go! And the good news is: not a single historic costume drama about the adventures of some rotten or heroic Qing, Ming or Tang emperor on the list (with the exception of “Journey…”, but let’s do the right thing and ignore that, especially I’ve gone through that experience already and kind of survived). May it be that the Chinese audience has finally had it with the funny hats and Gong Li’s swelling cleavage? Let’s not celebrate too early…

Here we go: starting today, in loose sequence, the most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. Buckle up… The list based on the total domestic (i.e. mainland China) box office revenue goes like this:

  1. Lost in Thailand
  2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
  3. CZ12 – Chinese Zodiac
  4. Painted Skin: The Resurrection
  5. So Young
  6. American Dreams in China
  7. Finding Mr. Right
  8. Tiny Times
  9. Back to 1942
  10. Switch
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