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The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

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Tatsumi

Tatsimi is the autobiography of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a famous manga artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese comic books, a literary genre differs significantly from American comic books. Tatsumi is interspersed with short stories by Tatsumi which gave me a sense of how this graphic genre handles mature themes and experiences with insight, irony and

Tatusmi grew up during the war and took to drawing professionally to help his mother make ends meet. His father was good-for-nothing and once Tatsumi started selling his work, his father destroyed his drawings.

The film follows Satsuma’s career from his teenage to middle age years. We see is popularity grow, his career stall when he outgrows the genre of teen manga and finally goes on to develop a new genre, called gekiga, which targets middle aged readers. It’s the story of the career of an artist and doesn’t go into much detail into Satsuma’s personal life once he’s grown. I found it a terrific introduction to an art form. In addition, since Tatusmi’s life spanned WWII and the ensuing years so full of change for Japan, it was an excellent way to learn about modern Japanese history.

Pygmalion

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I was skeptical about Pygmalion (1938) starring Leslie Howard, whom I only knew as Ashley in Gone with the Wind. Boy, was I wrong. This film is every bit as good as My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Faithful to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion shows us how the arrogant Professor Higgins takes on the bet to transform Eliza Doolittle, played by Helen Hill, a poor flower girl with bad English into a socialite. The film moves briskly and the performances were top notch. It should be seen and discussed by every do-gooder as it’s easy to take on a person’s problems without giving thought to what’s to become of the person after they’re transformed.

The only flaw in the story, which is well acted with witty dialog, is the ending for poor Eliza, the flower girl. In the end she does wind up with Higgins, but he hasn’t been transformed. Isn’t there someone more kind and thoughtful for the sincere, kind Eliza? Mr. Shaw, what were you thinking?

How to Steal a Million

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Starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, How to Steal a Million is another fun, witty movie. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art forger. When her home is broken into by O’Toole, her father and she fear that his forgeries will be revealed. Later they fear that a sculpture lent to a museum will be proven to be a fraud when it’s examined for insurance. Throughout the caper delights.

It’s a lighthearted romp with a clever final heist and a surprisingly moral end. It’s lots of fun and Hepburn and O’Toole are quite entertaining.

Bridge over the River Kwai

How did I miss this one? I just finished watching the classic The Bridge over the River Kwai starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I’m blown away. Every scene was perfect in this story of Holden’s Shale, a jaded American officer who’s at odds with Guinness’ a British commander’s absolute, unstinting adoration of following codes and rules.

I remember the whistling and the powerful ending from my childhood. I was no more than 6 and annoyed at a family party where all the adults were enthralled by this film. Now I appreciate why as Holden and Guinness deliver perfect performances in these two characters, who couldn’t be more different. They’re conflicts aren’t direct as they’re rarely in the same scenes, but they’re central to the film’s theme.

Both characters are prisoners of war in a Japanese camp run by the brutal Satoo who must get a bridge built in a few weeks. The work is far behind schedule. Satoo operates on the Japanese ancient military code of Bushidoo. which runs contrary to the Geneva Convention, which Guinness insists upon. Guinness shows his dedication to duty when he refuses to let his officers work on the bridge. He’s willing to spend days in a metal box, called the “Oven” to stand up for this belief. You have to admire his courage.

Holden’s Shale looks for short cuts and sees the futility of the war. He has his points, but neither character is clearly right or wrong, which is the key to why the film is so absorbing.

(I wonder how my students would view this film which shows the Japanese as cruel not just to the Chinese, but to the Allied soldiers. I wouldn’t show it because I don’t want to spread anti-Japanese sentiment, which made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but is outmoded now.)

Anchor’s Away

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If you want some light entertainment, Anchor’s Away with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra is a good choice. Anchors Away is the story of two navy officers who’ve earned a weekend pass for their bravery. Kelly, suave and urbane, boasts of his girl Lola, while Sinatra’s more inexperienced and wants some coaching from Kelly, whose plans for meeting up with Lola are soon sidelined when the two officers are roped in by the local police who need help getting a little boy back home. Since the boy who’s around 6 is in awe of the navy, these two sailors who pass by are just the role models to help.

Once they take the boy home, they find his guardian, a young aunt is out. They stick around to reprimand her. Of course, she turns out to be a beautiful young woman who aspires to be a famous singers. Before you know it, Kelly has assured her that his friend’s pal, a famous conductor will give her an audition. Of course, this is a lie. As usual in the genre misunderstandings and outrageous attempts to prevent the truth from coming out ensue. All along the way are catchy tunes and fantastic dancing including a number where Kelly dances with Jerry from Tom & Jerry fame.

While the film was from a gone by era and had no lasting message, the music and dancing stayed with me, unlike that of La La Land. A musical needs to win me over with its music. It’s fundamental.

La La Land

What was all the fuss about La La Land? Since it got so many awards and nominations, I was quite excited to see it. After doing so, while I grant you it was fresh to see an update of a golden age musical, I wasn’t wowed.

La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who’re okay, but not favorites of mine. They seem to lack that star quality that Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers and the like all had. It’s the story of two young starry-eyed dreamers who go to L.A. to fulfill their dreams. He wants to open a jazz club and save jazz as a genre and she wants to be an actress.

I’ve lived in L.A. and went to pursue my writing dreams. It was an interesting period, more so than the movie and less clichéd. Here we see a sanitized version of two one dimensional characters struggling to “get in.” He’s an arrogant loner and she’s a single girl looking for love and acceptance. I wasn’t particularly interested in whether they stayed together or not. I was surprised that Gosling’s character was such a churl. He’s rude to her. She’s rude back and after awhile they’re in bed, when they both should have kept looking for a better partner (or in his case done some self-examination and improved his attitude and personality and then found someone).

The commercials made me expect Gosling’s character to be a kinder person. I was surprised by how self-absorbed he was. He certainly wasn’t someone it would be fun to spend time with.

The dancing and singing were fine, but neither performer is as skilled at the old greats or as those on Glee. I’d have casted people from Broadway, included a few catchier songs and created characters that were more engaging and unique. Giving both of them good friends would have allowed the story to show why we should care about these characters.

The lyrics of the one song that I remember elude me, but the melody does pop into my head now and again. MGM would have given me songs I want to hear again and again. Song’s that were memorable like “Oklahoma!,”  “I Could have Danced All Night,” “In America,” or “Gotta Dance.”

The ending wasn’t as sad as I think the creators intended.

I really hope there aren’t any young people who see La La Land as their first musical and give up on the genre.

The Last Princess

The Last Princess (2016) captivated me with its dramatic history. It’s a film about a Korean Princess named Deok Hye, who lived from 1912 to 1989. Her father was Emperor when Japan was invading most of Asia. The Japanese wanted to control him, but couldn’t so they poisoned him. A few years later when Deok Hye was 13 she was sent to Japan to be educated. Though she didn’t want to go, she did to protect her mother.

As she grew, she realized she would never be allowed to return to Korea. The Japanese feared that this young, determined woman would stir up rebellion. When she was young, her father had hoped she’d marry Jang-Han Kim comes to Japan hoping to find a way to save her. He’s an officer in the Japanese army, but works with a group of underground rebels, who’re plotting to get the princess and her uncle back to Korea and to attack the core leaders of the Japanese army.

Throughout the film, the main villain isn’t a Japanese officer, but rather a Korean turncoat, Han Taek-soo, who was behind the emperor’s poisoning and will stop at nothing to please the Japanese by manipulating and spying on the Korean royals.

It’s decades before Deok Hye has a real chance to return to her home country. Along the way she bravely faces hardship, sorrow and betrayal.

You’re Ugly Too

Like Paper Moon and Zazie dan le Métro, You’re Ugly Too pairs a young girl, who isn’t so innocent, with a criminal who’s not used to children, forcing them both to connect. An Irish film, You’re Ugly Too follows Stacy who’s 11 and whose mother has recently died. Her Uncle Will gets released from prison to care for Stacy, his niece. Stacey’s wary and cynical. Uncle Will tries to cure her of her cursing and spitting. He takes her to live in a caravan her mother owned where they meet Emilie, a neighbor who comes pounding on their door seeking protection from her husband’s abusive friends.

Will soon discovers that due to her trauma and grief, Stacey has narcolepsy. A doctor prescribes stimulants, which Will is soon downing on the sly. A bureaucratic issue prevents Stacey from going to the local school. Since she was a teacher in Belgium, Emilie offers to tutor Stacey. The girl sees this just as a ploy to get near her uncle and tries some matchmaking. Oddly enough Emilie’s husband doesn’t care whom his wife sleeps with as that gives him permission to do as he pleases. Yet in the end Emilie turns out to be less reliable than any of the characters.

Stacey, played by Lauren Kinsella, and Aiden Gillen’s Will are both emotional porcupines, but I was drawn to them because they were so real, so scarred. By the end of the film they aren’t hugging and healed, but you could see they did love each other and did belong with each other.

The cinematography is terrific as it takes a bland, stark landscape and makes it dramatic. The film’s haunting and different, definitely worth your time.

 

 

 

L’Avventura

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Anna (L) and Claudia (R)

I admit I didn’t much like L’Avventura, the story of a rich Italian woman who goes missing while on a weekend away with her rich, jaded friends. I concede that the actors were gorgeous and skillful; the sets and cinematography excellent, but the story was lacking and the personalities were exasperating.

The story’s simple. Anna is unhappy in a general alienated 1960s way. She bickers with her boyfriend and pouts a lot because life’s missing something. When she’s off on a boat with her friends she dives in the water and is never seen of again. I do mean that. We don’t ever see her and though I can appreciate innovation in plots, this was too much. While her friends and father search for her, her boyfriend (he’s no boy – these characters seem to be in their late 20s or 30s) and her best friend Claudia go to look for her. Looking for Anna becomes insignificant compared to Claudia and Sando, Anna’s boyfriend, who embark on romance spiced up with occasional pangs of guilt on Claudia’s part.

The film is striking and beautiful. I did buy into Claudia’s dramatic emotions as she pushed and pulled at Sando. Much of the film is a critique of the shallow lives of the rich. I didn’t quite buy it, true as it might be. The characters were simply playboys and playgirls and I found it hard to actually believe they couldn’t find something to dedicate their lives to. I suppose there are people like this.

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