There’s Nothing Like It: Ursula Liang’s 9-MAN

9-Man (Ursula Liang, 2014)

To a native Californian and Angeleno like myself, volleyball has always meant white guys and the beach. While I know that it is played professionally, and there are women’s teams, the concept of anything volleyball-esque brings up a Pavlovian response in me. Visions of blonde men with their tanned caucasian bodies appear in my imagination and I see these perfectly formed specimens, glistening with sunscreen, throwing themselves around in the sun and sand, as their bikini-clad-companions watch. While that may seem romantic and sexy, it’s always been an extreme turn-off to me.

These are precisely the kind of guys and just the kind of culture that I want nothing to do with. In fact, it is the kind of world that I spend an alarming amount of time railing against. They represent the worst of the worst to me. They are the frat-boy types who eat, sleep and breathe white privilege and couldn’t see the world any other way than monied and upper and of the higher-classes. They are blind to what is really going on and that pisses me off. I feel a little bad for the sport of volleyball, since it has suffered my associations, but I will recognize here and now that is my prejudice.  Too many summers near Santa Monica watching people play, I guess.

With this in mind, I can only describe myself as insanely curious and awkwardly starving for Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-MAN (Ursula Liang, 2014), which played at the Director’s Guild of America as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday night, May 2nd. Co-presented by the Asian Youth Center in the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese American Museum in Downtown LA (they’re currently running a whole exhibit on hot sauces called “LA HEAT”- it’s totally great! Check them out!), and introduced by the popular and highly entertaining Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man, this documentary blew my mind. Completely unseen, Yu told the audience that he was putting 9-MAN on a list of films he would consider to be in his “Angry Asian Film Club.” “Unless it sucks.” he joked,  “But I know it won’t suck!” And boy was he right. This belongs on that Film Club List with honors!

For what it’s worth, 9-MAN is a sports documentary. Technically, 9-man is a volley-ball-style sport that began in Chinatown communities in the 1930s but it is quite definitely not volleyball.  In fact, that may be why I liked it. The terms “jungle ball” and “streetball” were thrown around quite a bit. Yeah, my ears perked up for sure. As a huge fan of brutal and hyper-masculine sports activities, the minute one of the athletes described 9-man as a game that commits itself fully to a “warrior mentality” I was IN. But it’s not simply a game. 9-man developed historically and has played a significant part in the way that Chinese men have been able to keep their culture alive and dynamic, especially between fathers and sons. As Liang documents so eloquently, this was one of the only outlets that many Chinese men had to express their masculinity during the 1930s/40s and onwards. The Chinese Immigration Acts that started in the late 1880s had seriously diminished roles for Chinese men to play in American culture, and the places that they were allowed to inhabit were exhaustively feminized at that time: laundry work, food service, etc. In order to regain a sense of masculinity and as a way to bond as a community, this game was created. It gave them a sense of dignity, fun and released the stress from these daily horrors.

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

But, as Liang stated in the Q&A after the film, she wanted to give a sense of this historical background while still keeping the modern storyline. And that is what she most certainly did. The core of the film and the “meat” focused on today’s teams and the journey towards the 2010 Boston Labor Day finals for several regional teams, and, like a truly great sports film, she makes you truly love and care for all the characters. If I thought that I cried in fictional films like Warrior or He Got Game, this film gutted me. I was at the edge of my seat, really WITH every character. Loving them, routing for them, on their journey. But what made it more interesting was each person’s discussion of the cultural ties and the fact that this was not just a game to them. This was part of their life. While Liang did pointedly say afterwards that her goal was to reimagine Asian men in the sports world and do some stereotype-busting through diverse portrayals (which was quite well-done, I might add) the sports/culture/ethnic connection was what really stood out. The media does not often investigate these issues for Asian men. The discussion of these 9-men player’s masculinity stories, whether done through tales of family connections, cultural struggles or sports dedication was really singular and revealing.

Credit: A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh), published in LatitudeNews.com

The film does an excellent job in explaining the rules of the game with animated visuals- there is a difference between 6-man and 9-man games, for instance, and no women are allowed to play. There were wonderful illustrations to explain these things and the placement of the players as well. The intertitles were also quite helpful, as far as technical info was concerned. As of 1991, there was an “ethnic rule” that became part of the rule book- at least 6 men on the court had to be Chinese. The other 3 could be mixed. When asked about this in the Q&A afterwards, the responses were fascinating and reflected a very different 9-man than what had started so many years ago. Ursula was joined on-stage by two 9-man players, and each answered this question differently but with the same basic result. Both agreed (as did Ursula) that at this point it is really up to how good the player is. Many times, it comes down to that and not ethnicity. They will have the “how Chinese is he” arguments, but it will really boil down to “how good of a player is he.” They added that there are many mixed players now, and that will probably increase with time.

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

I wondered if this was losing the spirit that been expressed by so many of the older interviewees in the film, especially certain men who had discussed playing 9-man in the 1970s, who had learned to have Chinese community and brotherhood through this activity, and had passed the tradition on to their children. It also made me think about something more serious. As someone who has studied sports that are familial and passed on in that manner (ie wrestling), this “more sports than culture” view being expressed might end up deteriorating the 9-man community and a cultural history and important activity that goes beyond “sports.” But as the final interviewee in the film said about the game, sports or cultural expression, “There’s nothing like it and I’d never give it up.”

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Ursula Liang has created a documentary that has inspired tears of triumph and heartbreak, nail-biting suspense and loud cheers of joy. This primarily female-produced film (as Liang discussed during the Q&A, most of the crew were women as well, something “you don’t see very often these days!”) combines historical fact with tough sportsmanship and really intelligent discussion about a highly marginalized and underrepresented community.

One of the most beautiful things about the screening was when Phil Yu asked the athletes during the Q&A what it was like to watch the film, and Lawrence, one of the athletes, replied, “I got to see people I know for once.” While it was clear that this referred to 9-man players he was pals with, it had a double-meaning: he got on-screen representation for once. Which is really what the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is about, and I am glad for it.

 

CS_9Man

FILM ARCHIVIST’S PLEA:  One final note that I would have to make and this is more of a plea. I spoke to Ursula after the screening because, as a moving image archivist I was SINGULARLY IMPRESSED by the footage in the film. Not only is the subject INCREDIBLY unique and rare (she told me very few people she encountered had even heard of 9-man) but the stills and visual elements that are used have come almost entirely from personal collections. Museums and archives that specialized in Asian or Chinese historical works didn’t have anything on this, regional archives were empty, barely anything. I know that Prelinger Archives was on there, but they are amazing like that. Here’s the thing-  THIS WAS ALOT OF HOME MOVIE STUFF, GUYS.  This is not a surprise to mePLEASE see this movie. I will tell you why:

1) It is THAT good. I’ll say it again. IT IS THAT DAMN GOOD.

2) The archival footage will show you that you need to go looking in your Nana’s house for all the cultural 16mm/8mm/etc stuff. It can be really important. LIKE NOW. GO.

3) If you are a POC, your works are EXTRA important and MUST BE SEEN. This film is a FABULOUS WATERSHED EXAMPLE of what can be done if you have a good subject and are a great researcher & can get some help. Liang went the extra mile on this because she taught herself how to be a filmmaker as she was making this film.

4) If you know of anyone who might have any other footage like this, let’s make sure it’s all out there. Seeing this was so great. As an archivist & as someone in preservation, this is *exactly* what we strive to do- restore history to its rightful viewers: us and everyone in the future. Make goodness happen with film. It can be magic. I BELIEVE THIS.

5) Female filmmaker. Need another reason?????

 

DID YOU MISS 9-MAN LAST NIGHT? NO WORRIES. IT’S PLAYING AGAIN! HERE’S THE INFO!

9-MAN – LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL

MONDAY, MAY 05, 2014 – 4:30

Tateuchi Democracy Forum, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012

BUY TICKETS HERE!

New work! Check it out!!

Hey all! Been crazy busy!! I’ll be getting something together soon, I promise.

For now…check out the latest thing I have up on the fantastic site, Crave Online!

I sat in on a pretty fantastic virtual roundtable with some great guests and it was a great opportunity for the film archivist in me and the cinephile as well.

Check it out:

http://www.craveonline.com/film/interviews/193251-presenting-the-way-it-was-warner-bros-and-blu-ray-restoration

My Superbowl: The Academy Awards & Me, 2012

I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t see everything this year. I didn’t even come close. In fact, I saw more things that were made in years before this year than in this current one. I went to the Film Noir Festival and the TCM Film Festival (which you can read all about here and here). I did the Reel Grit Six Shooter up at AFI, various stuff at the Cinefamily and a grip of stuff at the New Beverly, not to mention the Egyptian.

IT’S BEEN A GREAT YEAR FOR CINEMA. Just not necessarily new stuff.

Truthfully, if you wanna read that list, hop on over to the illustrious and welcoming Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where he has been gracious enough to provide a space for me to babble on about my favorite films that I watched this year that did not come out this year.

However, since I stayed up WAY TOO LATE last night to be utterly disappointed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their idiotic and exasperatingly schizophrenic choices of what are apparently the “best films made in 2012” and their acting milieu, I think I need to post my list too.

My friend Ricky says that his choices are always right and the best. My friend Ricky is an egotist.

I will only go so far as to say that these are the films, actors and theatrical engineers that I enjoyed full-throttle. The individuals that gave me ear-gasms, eye-gasms and brain-gasms. ME, not anyone else. While I would argue vehemently for the inherent quality of any (and indeed all of these films) I believe quite deeply that everyone is entitled to have a differing opinion when it comes to the cinema. If we did not, damn, life would be boring. While I heavily believe that the Academy made gigantic errors in their picks this year for “bests,” I am always more than happy to have healthy debates and discussions on any films as long as they stay respectful of other people’s opinions.

It may seem hypocritical for me to state that I think that the Academy is just flat-out WRONG in one sentence and then happily move forward to chat about being able to agree to disagree on filmic opinion in another, but I believe them to be different arenas. Being that I am in training to become a film archivist, the Academy bears a certain responsibility and it has dropped the ball in the last few years…big time.  While we sit here, fully aware of the changes taking place in our cinematic landscape (35mm to digital, 3D and VFX technologies, etc) there is a large responsibility to history that the Academy bears and I don’t think that they know quite  how to handle it at this juncture in time.

See, this historic responsibility is bisected, with one arm towards the Industry Professionals and the other towards the outside public. What I see here and now is an inability to balance the two, and it’s difficult for them and for us. It is difficult for them because the Business  is their “meat and potatoes” but the PUBLIC is their “bread and butter.” So how do we set this table properly? Everyone needs to stay pleased, everyone needs their money. So how do we maintain a decent set of nominations? It’s not like there weren’t good movies this year. Lord knows, there were great ones. But I really feel like a good chunk of the things that were stuck up on the screen for the year were there to pacify people, to make people happy, and not for representative means.

The Academy Awards are actually important. No one seems to think so. They laugh them off, get screeners, free films, whatever. Sure. At least they do around here. I know how that is. I live in Hollywood. For heaven’s sake, I spent an entire summer archiving all the screener VHS tapes we had gotten from the Academy as a “summer project.” My mom needed to give me something to do. I ended up watching Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) that way. I might’ve been a bit too young to watch it at that point, but y’know…

In any case, I think it’s odd that people don’t think voting on cultural history is important. Yes, Virginia, that Footloose LP that I got as a kid from the Academy IS cultural history, dammit. So what do we have this year? We have some good stuff and some not so good stuff. Some things that people like and some stuff that I think people think they should like. Some things that I find remarkably offensive and in poor taste and some things that are probably pretty decent but speak to how starved most people are for the kinds of films that used to fulfill people’s entertainment “hole” on a regular basis and make them happy in an unspeakably pure and lovely way.

The Academy was created to house things as the best films of the year. The ultimate examples of filmmaking. Even the nominations should be that way. And these nominations are not that. It is disappointing to say the least. I like my moving image history satisfying. So, on that note, I’m going to give you my favorite films and performances of the year.

Here they are:

Favorite Animation:

OK, so on this one, I totally agree with the Academy’s nomination and I hope this baby wins. I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed this more if I’d tried. Unless I’d gone to see it…5 or 6 more times. I wish I had. I really really loved this movie and I really really want to own it. If you love Sergio Leone and you have even a smidgen of a sense of humor, I believe you will love this. If not, you might have no soul. I would check.

Favorite Supporting Male Performances:

Patton Oswalt in YOUNG ADULT. While the film had a few problems, I liked it over-all, and HIS performance put me over the moon. It's not just because I like him either. He's a DAMN fine actor and this is the BEST he has EVER EVER been and I simply adored BIG FAN (2009)

Since I saw the announcements this morning, a record has been on repeat in my head: ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED.ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED. *This* snub makes me more unhappy than any of the others. His performance here created the term "Oscar-worthy."

"Nick Nolte. Warrior. Um, I love this film to bits If you wanna know how I really feel, check out the piece I wrote all about it, which was right before this. I REALLY loved this film. Even more than that, Nolte's performance was the best he has given in years. Multi-faceted and just gutting, it was an amazing feat of acting. I bawled and would do so again.

Favorite Lead Male Performances:

John Boyega, ATTACK THE BLOCK

Tom Hardy, WARRIOR

Gary Oldman, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Favorite Female Performances:  It’s been a rough year for the ladies. All the female performances I liked were…second fiddle and not there for very long. Not that this is a new trend (it’s not) but where are the juicy roles for women? I know there were films out there that people argued were very good for women, but those same films, while they were “good for women” also set them back quite a bit. My mom said that Meryl Streep was good in The Iron Lady. I didn’t see it. At this point, I’m going to give my favorite performances to one film I have seen (and adored), one film I haven’t seen but love the actress and trust other people’s judgement, and one that I am seeing next week and will probably absolutely LOVE TO BITS. I wouldn’t usually think it was ethical to pre-favorite a film performance, but with the paucity of chunky, decent female performances this year, I’m going to do it anyway.

I loved this film and I loved Ellen Page in it. SUPER was an uncomfortable and realistic film with gritty, gutsy goodness that I just ate up hungrily. She gave a fantastic show and I REALLY loved her.

I love Tilda. I need Tilda. My life would not be the SAME without Tilda. I have not seen this film but somehow I KNOW she was exquisite. I have neverevernever seen her do wrong. I believe in her. We Need to Talk About Kevin is is a film I desperately Need To See.

I finally get to see MARGARET this upcoming weekend. I bite my thumb at the powers that be who refused to let this film be released and sat on it for so long. It totlally looks like my kind of film. And Anna Paquin looks like she gives a hellova performance. If she doesn't, well, I'm wrong. But I've seen the trailer, chatted with people about it, and I know my taste. I think her placement here will be justified.

Favorite Music/Score: 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy— Alberto Iglesias

Attack The Block–Basement Jaxx

Drive–Cliff Martinez

FAVORITE FILMS:

I saw this 5 times theatrically and then more times than I can count via a screener. I also spend most of my time listening to the soundtrack obsessively. This film has most assuredly taken over a good chunk of my existence, as most Winding-Refn films do. No shocker there!

Saw this in the theater 4 times, I think. Would love to have seen it 4 more times. More movies like ATTACK THE BLOCK, I say!

I love you Takashi Miike. This movie blew my brain so far outta my head I had to pick the bits of my skull off of the wall of the theater. I simply love this movie more than words can describe. It is intellectual, visceral, VISUAL. So great! What a cinematic triumph. MORE!!

It seems like I'm really obsessed with this film, but I actually just really liked it. It is one of the better films, but I'm not as obsessed with it as I am, say, with DRIVE or ATTACK THE BLOCK. However, it fascinates me as it delves into intellectual areas that I *am* obsessed with AND it's an incredibly well-shot and well-acted film.

The minute I read the book, I loved it. The instant I heard it was being turned into a film by Scorsese, I went insane because I knew it was going to be FABULOUS and it was. Simply FABULOUS. I cried the ENTIRE way through it because I loved it so very very much and it was such a gift to my eyes

Saw this twice. First time in ages a film has made me excited to read the book it came from because the story was *that* great and I knew that the book would contain just as much depth! Saw it twice in the theater, thought it would lose something the second time but I was desperately mistaken. The sign of a great film is that it retains its greatness as well as gaining more with each separate viewing. This has those qualities.

We Are Nobodies: 13 Assassins and the Elegance of Miike

Elegance of Miike?

The hell you say.

The man who gave us Ichi The Killer? The man who shocked people’s delicate sensibilities with Visitor Q? No, surely no. You must have the wrong guy. You mean to say that he made a film that gestured with grace and style towards the works of Kurosawa? Are you…saying that a Takashi Miike film was…restrained?

Yes. That is precisely what I am saying.

While other posters exist for this film, I actually prefer this one. It seems to express the duality of Miike perfectly.

Is that what I liked about it. YES. Is that what I loved about it YES. Did I miss all the usual “Miike-isms”? No, because they were absolutely there, you just had to look a little harder for some of them. They were studied, intentional, and entirely present. Yet, during the course of the film, I came to believe that  it was entirely possible that some of the things that we have come to take for granted as being part-and-parcel of a Miike film have been subsumed into this film under the guise of narrative and character development.

13 Assassins is not just a good film, it is a wise film that pays homage to Japanese cinema on the whole and yet also makes raging commentary on it and it is not in a soft voice. Miike can be accused

of many things but having a soft directorial presence on-screen is not one of them. People know who the man is and not only that…they know what he is capable of. In a sense, Miike is like one of the characters within his own film- but not the reserved, trained, samurai variety. No. Miike is the loose cannon-character.

The character of Makino almost seems to serve as Miike's surrogate within the film, commenting on various situation in a beautifully challenging manner.

He is the one who, when you see him on-screen, your first thought (if you’ve seen a couple of samurai epics from the “good old days” of Japanese cinema) is: Ah hah! This would be the Toshiro Mifune role!

Now, due to my stubborn refusal to give away spoilers, I don’t want to go into too much heavy detail on the actual narrative. Details-wise, this film involves samurais, the shogunate of feudal Japan(in particular the Edo period), and a future leader of the shogunate who is relentless in his sadism.

Lord Naritsugu- historically based upon Matsudaira Narakoto, the 25th son of the 11th shogunate, Tokogawa Ienari. While I'm only assuming the same about Matsudaira, I can tell you this much for certain: Lord Naritsugu is *not* the guy you wanna bring home to dinner.

Here is the story’s bottom-line: Dear awesome samurai guys, please get rid of the raging prick who will be taking over the country in a few years. Regardless of the fact that we’re in a “time of peace” and your samurai-status has been rendered practically irrelevant, we know you can do a good job…or at least die trying? OKTHXBYE.

So you have your standard underdog samurai picture. However, this film is far from standard. While it may rely on the well-worn path of honor and the Samurai Way, it deals in issues that are much further reaching. Upon viewing 13 Assassins, I was honestly blown away due to the shattering number of things that it tackles without being preachy or hitting you over the head.

While Miike can place politics in his films, they are, many times, too balls-out crazy to grab them on the first (or fifth) go around. And, unlike many of my good friends, I’m not always in the mood to watch and/or study Miike. Thus I will openly admit: no, I have not looked for political insignias in Dead or Alive and I have not done a full psychoanalytic and historical perspective run-through of Visitor Q. I honestly have no doubt that the stuff is there. But it is much more…well…subtle. Due to the high-shock and/or hyperbolically violent nature of his films, any substantial messages seem to be the subtle aspects in a non-subtle text. But that’s Miike. He’s not a stupid man.

Not only does is this film displayed in a manner that is breath-takingly gorgeous and intensely well-constructed, it is a high-adrenaline ballet that will leave you gasping for air, and prying your hands from the seats. Tension, drama, EPIC (and I’m not using that word lightly) action, all condensed into a historically-based Japanese samurai film.

While ideas of war and peace are investigated, there are other concepts that are even more fascinating. Miike uses the rhetoric of the samurai film to investigate the state of Japanese cinema today. Wildgrounds.com quotes Miike as saying that “Maybe older japanese films have much more energy and are just much more interesting than films that are currently being made now (…) When it comes to making movies, we [Japanese people] sort of lost a lot of things over the years and we had a feeling that if we try to get back to, try to make movies the way they used to make them, we might learn, gain something.” In a sense, what Miike does through various character compositions and structures is rip apart modern Japanese cinema and let us know exactly what he thinks. In order to do this in the most effective manner, he chose to use the samurai film to do so.

Miike is not a fan of standard/traditional cinematic tropes, so one might find it curious for him to do a picture like 13 Assassins. But looked upon more closely, this seemingly traditional film plays more like Yojimbo with a machine gun. Not literally, of course, but in the content. Every choice that Miike makes in this film is careful and considered, meticulous and studied. However, he seems to be attacking more than just the fictional enemy in the narrative.

What I found the most attractive in this film is that while he celebrated the Old Guard, he ripped it apart. 13 Assassins felt to me like a type of Trojan Horse of Japanese cinema. While Miike certainly wanted to bring a reverential treatment to those that went before him, he also wished to inspire critical thought. But this is being done by working from inside the system.

The juxtaposition of older and younger samurai within the picture and their individual experiences underscores this intention quite nicely. In what I see as one of the most seminal sequences, some of the elders look on as the younger men deal with their first kills. The pregnant pause that follows this action is telling. Not only does it speak of the older men’s high level of experience and familiarity with the act of killing (they are clearly more seasoned professionals at the task) but it also illuminates the position and mentality of the younger men. While these young men may be good at what they do and brave as hell, they have not yet had to, as they say, “withstand the slings and arrows” of Real Action. Facing the reality of what they were about to engage in was a very important feature of this film. It is almost as though Miike was making a kind of commentary about older/younger filmmakers. Both are strong assets to the film community as a whole and bring essential components to the “film battle.” But if we follow Miike logic, the younger filmmakers take some influence and what they need from the elders but will still do it their own way and manage to kick the living crap out of the enemy, no matter how scared they are to do so.

For Miike, film is not a light, airy subject. It is not simple entertainment to be tossed off in the manner of an overblown comedy or a fluffy melodrama. His take on cinema is not unlike that of the Russians in the late 1920’s. What I’m about to say may seem far-fetched, but work with me a little. If you know your history, Russia in this period was a slightly crazy place to be. They were moving and shifting a whole lotta stuff around, and one of the things that they had to make some decisions on was the film industry,  a very popular part of Russian culture. The politicians were no dummies. They knew what they

Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic, journalist, all-around pretty neat guy!

had. But how to figure this out? What was crucial for them was the technological aspect that was coming into play alongside their incessant politics. They realized that with sound pictures, they could get the message across with more fervor and, to be frank, easier. In addition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, as the People’s Commissar for Enlightment from 1917 until his forced resignment (yes, due to the very same lovely politics) in 1929, recognized one of the other major Catch-22 issues about film that we still deal with today. He stated, “Cinema is an industry, and, what is more, a popular industry.” (1)

Additionally, at this same time, in March of 1928, part of the Soviet desire to get things “together” with the cinematic world was to construct some kind of set of rules and regulations (they were into that kinda thing- then again, seeing the Hayes Code in the USA a few years later, seems like we were too…). So a bunch of folks, including industry professionals such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, went to the Party Conference on Cinema and tried to participate. They were able to do so…but only to an extent. Due to the Soviet way of thinking about the film industry, it became a full-on policed machine, commercialized and propagandized mercilessly.

One of the key sentiments put forth within the statements that evolved from this Conference was what cinema was really for and what it really did. While the Soviet mentality geared it towards political intent, the facts, as stated, were not entirely incorrect. As Richard Taylor writes, quoting some of the Soviet documentation, “Party leadership had been determined to develop a Soviet cinema that was ‘the most powerful weapon for the deepening of the class-consciousness of the workers, for the political re-education of all the non-proletarian strata of the population and above all the peasantry.'” Cinema for the Soviet Union was a weapon. But it wasn’t just the Soviets who then realized this. They were just some of the first to put two and two together. Say what you like about communism and the rest of it, but they were no fools when it came to media practice.

So I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what any of this has to do with Takashi Miike and/or 13 Assassins. I argue that it all does, in some funny way. Perhaps not down to political detail, but on a larger scale. See, Miike is down with Lunacharsky’s struggle. He gets it. To date, Miike has directed 83 films in 20 years. That’s off the charts. He knows he can make a bit of change making movies, so he does. But he also has the mentality that was sculpted from all of the different filmic and political practitioners of Soviet Russia: film is a weapon. And he can wield it any way he wants. And he does exactly that.

When asked about making the audience happy, Miike was quoted as saying that he doesn’t even think about it. He said, “there’s no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn’t exist…” (2) He also added that even as hard as he works, it is that hard work that motivates him. It doesn’t necessarily wear him out. He sees it differently. He states,

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget, that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren’t interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them. (3)

Miike’s philosophies on the audience and the Japanese film industry are the essence of 13 Assassins and why it is so beautiful and why it works. He went into the film to do a remake, an undergoing he had taken on before with Happiness of the Katakuris (and possibly more- I will openly admit I have not seen all 83 things the man has directed!), but did it his way. What was his way? Traditionally bound, with a heavy Miike visual lens and narrative cradle.

I refuse to use the word “mature” here (it’s condescending- that phrase “his most mature work to date” makes me want to throw things). But I’ve seen it used in other reviews and I wish that people could see what his actual point in creating this masterpiece was. There is no maturity here. He didn’t all of a sudden go from a kid to a grown-up due to a FILM. And frankly, Audition is a quite lovely film, Katakuris is incredibly skilled and Ichi‘s chaos requires a very defined sensibility. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a mess of costume dramas out of Miike anytime soon. THANK GOD.

See, 13 Assassins requires that you look a little closer. This film has teeth- and they’re sharp. Like the Soviet Party in the late 1920’s, Miike has a cinematic gun and he knows how to use it.  This film’s careful deliberation was like a slow-acting poison that was more of a commentary on the pretentiousness of modern “art” cinema or any overdone/overpriced cinematic exploits than anything else. I have a feeling he’s not a fan. While there was clearly money spent on this film, none of it was wasted. Which makes me even more glad that there’s a guy like Miike around to show us how to do things right and properly, while everyone else is failing so miserably.

If you can see this film on the big screen PLEASE DO. It is way more affective. Laugh, hoot, holler, JUMP UP AND DOWN IN YOUR SEAT!! I know I did. In fact, I will probably go see it again just to get that same adrenaline rush. 13 Assassins– the samurai movie that provides your body with the same endorphin-like energy as heavy exercise and sexual attraction. Yeah, I liked this movie.

(1) Anatoly Lunacharsky as quoted in Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Social Realism and Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 3.  Historians and Movies: The State of the Art: Part 1 (Jul. 1983). p439-461.

(2) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

(3) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

March Madness at the New Beverly Cinema: The Whole Bloody Affair

Standing in line tonight I had an infuriating conversation.

“Yeah, I only went to Grindhouse and Kill Bill. But I came to Kill Bill yesterday and today, and I’ll be coming some other days too. I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan,” the young man said, nodding at me wildly, trying to assure me of his fandom.

My eyes widened. They must’ve gone fiery. “No. You. Are. Not,” I calmly informed him, “if you were a ‘huge’ fan, you would’ve been to at least a few of the other shows that he programmed this month. You would not have just attended the films that he directed.”

The young man fumbled a bit and came up with a few reasons that he couldn’t be at the other shows during the month. Work, life, and so forth. Now, I will readily admit- not everyone is as big of a cinephile as I am. Very few people are. I know most of the ones in Los Angeles, and I treasure them like they are my Holy Grail. However, this specific argument upset me.

I’m not going to blame this particular gentleman. For all I know, he could have been insanely busy, and these occasions very well could have been the only times he was able to come to the New Beverly. However, what he is bringing up is an issue that I take issue with. This month we had a very special calendar. One that was very carefully and lovingly put together by Quentin Tarantino himself, as it was his birthday month.

Now, whether or not you are a fan of Tarantino, there is one thing that you cannot deny no matter how hard you try: the man LOVES film. When someone loves film as much as he does, there is a better than average chance that in a month of programming movies, there are going to be at least a couple of great choices. In addition to this possibility, even if you dislike every film on the roster, the chances of you getting to see some of them again, in actual print format, on a big screen…? Well, I don’t think I have to tell you the likelihood of that. So, if you’re into rarities, you got that going for you too. And, for those out there who are fans (and this is what really gets my goat), this month of movies is essentially serving as a microscope onto HIS films. Each film shown this month had something in it that was directly related to his own work (aside from the pieces of his own work that he showed). For me, that was the true gift. All the kids out there complaining about the fact that Quentin hasn’t done any commentaries or doesn’t take pictures with fans or assorted other excruciatingly shallow comments missed the point of the festival: this was his commentary track, guys.

I saw a plethora of great films this month. I saw a double feature of Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, with a Q&A with Quentin and Paul Mazursky himself. Not only did these films floor me, but they were perfectly programmed.

Paul Mazursky, 1969

While Bob and Carol will fill your heart with joy and hope for relationships and teach you that marriage CAN work and that human beings CAN properly communicate with one another if they wish to, Blume in Love will disturb the hell out of you, and teach you how one person’s ego can completely ruin a relationship to the point of disaster. Blume is fascinating in its dark horrific complexity where Bob and Carol is equally fascinating in its comedic intricacies.

Paul Mazursky, 1973

I got to put another notch on my Clint Eastwood belt and see Escape From Alcatraz (I have a goal which is to see every film either starring or directed by Clint Eastwood on a big screen- silly, I know, but whatever. It’s my dream, lemme have it!!) alongside this INSANE film called I Escaped From Devil’s Island. What can I really say about Devil’s Island except that any movie that has alternative male sexuality, native nymphomaniac women wielding coconuts as weapons (and no tops), a prison camp narrative, and random bits of stock footage shark sequences pretty much automatically has my heart. That movie don’t fool around, no way, no how.  And will I ever get to see such a beautiful print of that again? Nope, I seriously doubt it.

William Witney, 1973

And then, of course, there was Rod Taylor night…the night that so many of my friends were looking forward to and I was so very interested in. To be frank, I had only a peripheral knowledge of Taylor. I knew him slightly, but so many people whose opinions I valued so very highly were so very very excited about this event that I knew I had to attend. Once again, my lovely cineaste-cohorts were not mistaken. While I felt a bit embarrassed about not knowing more about the actor and yet being excited about the night, I was more excited about learning what I had been missing. See, I’m not one of those people who will fake it if I don’t know something or haven’t seen something. I will come right out and tell you, here and now, I have never seen Jaws. Go ahead, make fun if you like, but my first time seeing it will be on a big screen dammit, and I. Will. Have. A. Blast. In any case, I figured that this could only be another case of me getting to know a new person in my life! So, I strapped on my Rod Taylor MAN-boots, and went to the double of Dark of the Sun and Hell River. While I greatly preferred Dark of the Sun, Quentin’s intro to the films and his enthusiasm for Taylor was catching. I was an instantaneous fan, and a few days later at stupid o’clock in the morning, I found a Rod Taylor film playing on TCM, and I totally watched it.

Jack Cardiff, 1968

I saw so very many things this month from Tarantino’s programmed calender. I watched Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) along with Sydney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971). I finally got to see Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974) and enjoyed the living HELL out of the moonshine double-feature of White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) and Last American Hero (Lamont Johnson, 1973).

While I didn’t see everything, I saw quite a bit of what was offered. While I didn’t like everything I saw, what I liked, I loved. I think my favorite part of the whole deal was that for a month straight not only did I see my film-friends at the movies (who also seemed giddy at the chance to see rare films on the big screen) but we were all having fun. The main theme in all of these films was a kind of energy that is endemic to the Tarantino product. Each film projected held some kind of spice that Quentin has used to build his own works, and not in some “rip-off” way as I used to believe. I also do not believe it to be simply homage either, but that is due to tonight’s viewing of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

I will readily admit that I was never a huge Tarantino fan. I always adored him for Rolling Thunder Pictures and was forever grateful for his help in making Wong Kar-Wai a “film household” name. I always respected his film knowledge and I always admired his passion for cinema as it seemed as gargantuan and as intense as my own. While I have often gotten made fun of over the years for my obsessive devotion and outspokenness in regards to the Seventh Art, so, too, have I heard people knock him for the very same thing. But in my world there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting seriously excited about something that you love dearly and that gives you so much joy .

In any case, suffice to say that I certainly liked his films a lot but didn’t love them. Except maybe Jackie Brown. For some reason, I really loved that one. But that’s a whole other blog entry for another time. My fandom was basically predicated primarily on his self-achieved academic success and only partially on cinematic product. Things have since changed a bit. And this is where his March programming at the New Beverly fits in.

As I moved through the month with my friends and we cheered and clapped and laughed our way through the films, I noticed other things besides the fact that there were certain running themes of moonshine, racing cars/motorcycles, Dyan Cannon, and prison escape. There was cinematic tension to be sure, but I also started recognizing elements that Tarantino had taken from these particular types of films (and sometimes exact films) and used for his own- the “spice” I mentioned earlier. Many people have seen this as a kind of “lifting” or “borrowing,” which would ultimately mean that a Quentin Tarantino film is nothing but a collage. People accuse him of being nothing but a rip-off artist. Years previous to now, I might have agreed. But after having seen many of the films being paid homage to and worked with, I see that that is not at all what Tarantino ends up creating in his own pieces. Even by placing actual set-pieces that are almost identical mirror-replicas from the original source (ie the fight scene in Kill Bill between Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in the snow is shockingly similar to one in a film called Lady Snowblood) it does not mean that the film itself is a “rip-off.” In fact, to me, it is the exact opposite. While that scene may end up becoming part of the history of that piece, certainly, it does not cause the initial piece of cinema any harm nor does it mean that the new cinematic creation is carrying all the little bits and pieces of meaning from the “first draft.” After all, no one got angry at George Lucas for “ripping off” Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with Star Wars, did they?

What Tarantino manages to do is something that I have written on many times- he creates a kind of cinematic palimpsest; something that only someone who truly loves the originating work can do with any modicum of success. Now whether you like/love/hate/feel indifferent towards his own films, his meticulous ability to create new and exciting media while reworking older visuals and themes is to be respected. There is indeed much within Tarantino’s film content that may indeed seem familiar. OK, fair enough. But to oversimplify the work and say that his films are mere pastiche is to underestimate the original content and downplay the effect of the newly created feature. I have many compatriots who are not fans. To each their own. My take is that, regardless of personal feelings on the content, one should be able to respect the construction. And as far as that is concerned, Tarantino just keeps getting better every film he makes.

What happened this month for his birthday celebration that was so very fabulous was that he revealed that construction- he told his New Beverly audience what goes into making a Tarantino film. This was quite a bit different to the last festival he did at the New Beverly, which was the Grindhouse Film Festival, back in 2007. That was another one that knocked my socks off. In fact, I went to so many shows, I couldn’t remember the exact number! My ex-boyfriend reminded me that I only missed 2 out of 25. It was another awesome engagement, but that one was focused on celebrating the release of the film Grindhouse (2007), thus they were all GRINDHOUSE features. This month? It was a slow build-up, and you HAD to be there. If you missed it, then you missed out.

As a cinematic architect, Quentin Tarantino built up the entire program this month in accordance with showing the grande finale which was Kill Bill: the Whole Bloody Affair. The last films I saw before I saw Kill Bill were the films contained in the triple martial arts feature: Avenging Eagle (1978), Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), and Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1973). I believe that the first two films were the very first Shaw Brothers films I had ever seen in my life, although I cannot say for certain. Going to college in Santa Cruz, I have to admit that there were several times I found myself hanging out with young men who would light up a joint and toss on a kung-fu movie, while I sat there amused on the couch, drinking a beer. In any case, I was totally consumed by the ones I watched at the New Beverly. Unlike those lazy college afternoons, I was sitting in my favorite movie theater watching an incredibly colorful print and engulfed in some pretty intense storylines regarding honor, friendship and respect. Avenging Eagle was undoubtedly my favorite (and not just because the stars were super hot). This film got me due to the fact that the narrative had a wild amount of humor intermixed with the drama and the physical dynamics that were truly on a different level than anything I had seen (at least recently). It was shot in such a way that the camera work itself seemed balletic alongside the intensely beautiful martial arts.

What I remember noticing as well was that each fight told its own story. Being a noir scholar, I felt that these fight sequences were not dissimilar to the way that noir cinematographer John Alton used to talk about physical darkness in film: he said that there was more contained within and more fullness/usefulness to shadow than there was in light. Thus he used more dark. If you see any of his films, they are some of the BLACKEST films ever committed to celluloid. Now, I’m definitely an action girl. I dig me some Die Hard, some Commando, some Lethal Weapon and many more. But what action films seem to do and martial arts films do not is weave the action directly into the narrative. Martial arts films create a very significant and almost sacred space for the action to take place in. Within the films we are used to, the action simply is part and parcel of the film, just as most films are shot using light as a method of focus. Alton’s theory of using darkness to flip things around was significant. It said: read this film differently- this is not your standard film, with your standard everyday narrative. And, indeed, Alton’s films were most definitely not standard fare. Watching these Shaw Brothers films and seeing these action sequences spoke to me on that same level.

I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to see Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, to be honest. It sold out in no time flat. I was gut deep in the middle of writing something for the Film Noir blogathon when they went on sale, and totally missed out. To be honest, I wasn’t that upset. I thought, “No big deal, so there’s gonna be s’more gore, in color, it’d be cool…but I missed my chance at a ticket. Oh well!” I got lucky. And I am so very very thankful that I did.

New Beverly Cinema, March 28, 2011

I would like to point you towards two lovely write-ups that have been done on Kill Bill, as they are smart, succinct and perfectly written. They also go into quite different arenas than I will. However, I think they deserve to be read, as they assist me in my argument on why this version of the film is so wonderful. The first, from Mr. Beaks at Ain’t it Cool News, is a beautifully composed piece that essentially posits: “Shorn of commerce-conceding baggage, turns out KILL BILL is a masterpiece after all.” The second, from Todd Gilchrist over at Cinematical, discusses all the things that were done correctly in this updated version and the things that he feels were not necessary. Both pieces say much of what I feel on the subject and are exceptionally written. In addition to those pieces, however, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share.

I like to refer to myself as a feminist film theorist. People bristle when I say that…I could care less. But I’m that chick that has a raging hard-on for horror films, action films, Giallo, pre-code and noir and finds very little that is “anti-women” in any of it. I don’t think violence inflicted upon a female in a film is, in and of itself, misogynistic. You have to really prove to me that there is misogynistic intent. Then again, there are so many films that are furiously angry towards women in such a way that it cannot be immediately understood. To me, those are the most dangerous pieces of media. Then again, it’s a very tricky area with lots of fine lines. That said, I would like to argue that Kill Bill:The Whole Bloody Affair is, by and large, one of the strongest pro-female films I have ever seen. Indeed, I feel that Tarantino himself is an incredibly pro-female director. Unlike many filmmakers who divest their female characters of all their agency (and yes, this does include some female filmmakers sometimes) Tarantino’s modus operandi is to instill as much power in his ladies as possible. Powerful examples of this (aside from basically every female character in Kill Bill) include the characters played by Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997),

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown...The New Beverly showed several trailers of her early films during March; films that clearly influenced the way Tarantino chose to portray women in film

Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Death Proof (2007), and both Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna/Emanuelle in Inglourious Basterds, the brave and talented projectionist who, essentially, wins the war through her actions in the film

The empowerment that the women in his films receive is, by and large, more effective than the empowerment that I have seen any women receive in “chick flicks.” But then again- perhaps Kill Bill is just my kind of Chick Flick. Tarantino uses the Kung-Fu rhetoric within Kill Bill to establish and discuss the reclaiming of power within one woman, played by Uma Thurman.

Uma Thurman as The Bride/ Beatrix Kiddo

He leads us, through several different time shifts, through her multiple rebirths. He shows her powerful as a well-oiled machine and as helpless as a newborn baby and aligns us with her each time through her direct address. And just at the point in the film when she is the most powerless, when she has been stripped of all possibilities of escape and the world at large thinks she has been, literally, laid to rest…she is reborn yet again through her inner strength that she was trained to translate into outer strength. Now…seriously…how new-age-y does that sound, right? But that’s what happens. And it’s damn BLOODY. Holy CRAP.

The devastation of the Crazy 88 in The Whole Bloody Affair takes on a whole different meaning than it did before. The additional footage and the fact that it was entirely in color made the scene completely seamless. By repairing the color consistency and removing the black and white shots, the whole thing reads more like the gore-filled ballet of beauty it was intended to be.

Just as I noticed that the Duck hood ornament from Deathproof was the same one featured prominently in the trailer for Convoy showing right before Five Minutes to Live (Bill Karn, 1961), I realized that many of the elements that had been featured in the martial arts triple feature were the ones focused upon in Kill Bill. Honor, integrity, physical dexterity/ability, and (most importantly) revenge. However, placing it within western confines and the female spectrum lent it a uniquely new flavor. While Tarantino clearly used the original Kung-fu films as part of the original thematic parchment, the strong female iconography was the other main layer he put on top, in addition to the other, more aesthetic ones (the anime section, the graphic violence, etc). In total, his Kill Bill palimpsest reflected the Shaw Brothers title card that he slated at the very beginning of the picture, but also each of the additional filmic influences, from Lady Snowblood to The Searchers. Through this combinatory tactic, Quentin Tarantino created a new product that we know as Kill Bill and is best seen as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

If one were to look closely at Deathproof or Inglourious Basterds or his other works, you could see the same kind of architecture. They are all cinematic palimpsests: layered parchments that reflect the past but have new stories written upon them. Cinema itself is like that, a kind of self-reflexive medium, so it is no surprise that Tarantino’s work would constant reflect and refract its own history. But his twist is that it is not simply mirroring, it is creating as well. And to me, that is impressive.

I know that what I learned this month was that I really don’t need any damn commentary for a Quentin Tarantino film, because I needed to know about Tarantino films, I learned at the New Beverly Cinema. Thanks again guys for an amazing month. See ya in the front row soon!

Wonderwall: The Red Chapel and the Principals of Cultural Exchange

The Red Chapel is not what you would call a typically Korean film. I am using it for my first entry in the Korean Blogathon because I feel like it is far too important to go unnoticed, especially amongst people who have more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema.

The identity of Red Chapel has a semi-permeable membrane. Sometimes identifiable as a Danish picture, sometimes Korean, sometimes an amalgamation of both, this film has nationalism floating in and out of it like rubber toys in a kid’s swimming pool, creating a piece that is, above all, complicated as hell.

Directed by Mads Brugger (a caucasian Dane), and starring Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell (two adopted Korean Danes), this documentary tells the story of how the group of them traipsed into the hermetically sealed, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea to perform a comedy bit/routine.

“Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” says Mads’ voiceover during the first 10 minutes of the film, and he is not incorrect. It is common knowledge that Hitler himself owned a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, and was said to have loved it, and that was the film that made fun of the man himself! However, as Red Chapel moves forward, it becomes a harder and harder film to watch, and the comedy drains from it.

Reviews called this film a “more intelligent Borat,” and one of my best friends even acknowledged that, essentially, North Korea gets “Punk’d” within these somewhat harrowing 87 minutes. But I have a difficult time with either of these simplifications (even though I realize that my pal’s comment was just an off-hand remark). The reasons for my discomfort have to do with what I feel is a very tenuous situation that evolves within the film between the filmmaker, his actors (friends?), and the North Korean company that they keep/situations that they are in.

Jacob and Simon are young men who have been raised in Denmark virtually all their lives. It seems that they were given up for adoption by South Korean parents when they were extremely young, and have grown up in Denmark. While they are aesthetically Korean, they speak Danish and are, more or less, culturally Danish as well. In addition, Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” making language even more of an issue (even his English is subtitled).  Upon being approached to do this project, one could see how these young men would find it appealing. While North Korea has clearly not been even slightly part of South Korea for 50 years and counting, it is still close enough to these boys’ heritage for them to want to go back and want to investigate, dictatorship or not.

Oh North Korea…what a place! The Red Chapel is an incredibly important film because it goes behind the scenes of North Korea in a way that nothing has in many years. It is also crucially important because it dissects Korean individuals who have been once removed from their home country, and are asked to revisit not only their originating culture but also come to grips with aspects of their history that they didn’t necessarily know that would have to face or want to face.

While Korea was split into North and South in 1945, and the two locations could not be more distinct at this point, the simple fact is that the country used to be one and it is the location that Simon and Jacob both hail from originally. The most fascinating element of the entire film was that, while skewed to “expose the evil of the system” (as Mads’ voiceover states), the most evil was revealed through the smallest and most seemingly insignificant details. While we are told about people starving by the millions and the various tortures and death camps, it was actually Jacob’s total experience and the reappropriation of the comedy show that truly seals the deal.

While discussing all the North Koreans that they have been dealing with throughout the film, Jacob says sadly at one point in the film, “It’s psycho, cuz they’re all really nice to me.” While he’s right, it also made me wonder what his treatment in Denmark was!

The North Korean treatment of Jacob was gut-wrenching. First of all, they wanted to look good in front of the camera. Not only did they want to look good so that they could make their Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) happy, but they did so in order to make North Korea look less like the totalitarian regime that it is. According to Mads, had he been born in North Korea and not in South Korea, Jacob would’ve been aborted or killed due to his disorders (spastic/cerebral palsy). His “specialized treatment” by their “handler” Mrs. Mak was not only completely unusual but also basically impossible in the Kim Jong Il Reign.

As the film progressed, and we were introduced to the comedy routine that Simon and Jacob were to perform, we were also introduced to what North Korea actually was. It became clear to me that the voiceovers by Brugger that told us of all the Kim Jong Il horrors were almost unnecessary when we saw what became of the show: it was ripped to shreds. The “cultural exchange” that Brugger kept discussing with the North Korean handlers that had been assigned to Simon, Jacob and Brugger became nothing but another form for North Korean propaganda. Big surprise, eh? Not only that, but they managed to marginalize Jacob’s character as well, frustrating the young actor and depressing him even further than he already was.

Mads Brugger commented over some stock footage of North Korean dancers that people in North Korea lost their identity to the totalitarian government of Kim Jong Il, their Dear Leader, and were nothing but pixels. This analogy fit the bill just perfectly. Within the new show, Jacob lost his voice and his agency and Simon became nothing but a robot for political discourse. Pixels, when put together, fit into a picture. This is exactly what the North Koreans were hoping to see happen. There was to be no cultural “exchange” within this particular experience. In a way,  the most disturbing part of the film was that Mads Brugger knew that this would happen and Jacob and Simon did not. Not only were they pixels for the North Koreans, but they were pixels for Brugger’s own political agenda.

At a particularly painful section in the film, Jacob spits out at Mads, “You have no moral scruples, do you Mads?” and, at that point, it is quite clear that he seems not to. There is always the chance that when they get back to Denmark it will be fine and good, all will be explained, and things will be peaceful again, but in a sense the director seems to be as much of a totalitarian as Kim Jong Il, just with Leftist ideals. Jacob spends a good amount of the film in pain, and is the one person who points out that the North Korea situation is not as simple as we think it is.

The beautiful thing about this film is that we are able to view the film through the eyes of two young Korean-Danish boys and one Caucasian Danish adult, and it seems that the outcome is more deftly complicated than when we started. One can argue that a totalitarian government is always wrong, and politically that is 100% correct. But what about the people?

Mads Brugger’s voiceover seems to be intentionally black and white, so as to lay out the “evil vs. good” arguments that many people in the world seem to be obsessed with. What balances it out is Simon and Jacob, the Korean youth, who see that experiences with human beings in a country make any black-and-white argument problematic and place it into a state of grays. North Korea has never been seen in this way due to the political nature of the country, and it is a groundbreaking move.

While it did not take place within the confines of the country itself, there was a cultural exchange that took place within the context of this film and the participants in it. When Jacob and Simon sing Oasis’ Wonderwall with a group of North Korean schoolkids you can see that these two young men have broken free of what they previously were in Denmark and reached a new identity that encapsulated their Korean-“ness” as well as everything that they were before. They regained whatever agency that the North Korean “handlers” had attempted to remove from them and reinstated it within themselves. The two young men that returned to Denmark were not the same men that went to North Korea, and that in and of itself is a big deal.

The Red Chapel is a wonderful film and, while it is alternately disturbing and emotionally wrenching at times, I found it to be highly worthwhile. If you get a chance, please please please put this on your “to see” list.

Book ’em, Noir-o!: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key

On February 9, I traipsed down to my local movie theater, The New Beverly Cinema, notebook in hand, excitement in heart. There was a double feature of two films that I had never seen in my favorite genre: film noir. At first, I thought I had seen This Gun for Hire, but as the film opened, I realized that I hadn’t. The opening sequence is so very memorable that there is no way I could have forgotten that!

Double your pleasure, double your fun at the New Beverly!

The beginning, in a San Francisco flophouse, made me think it was going to be a San Francisco noir (always fun! Who doesn’t enjoy seeing shots of Fisherman’s Wharf in the ’40’s?). But I was dead wrong. After Alan Ladd has an entertaining and violent run-in with a maid, tender moments with a kitten and a handicapped child, and commits the crime that the narrative of the film is based, the plot, like Ladd’s fate, heads south to Los Angeles.

These geographic locations, while endemic and indeed fundamental to the film noir genre, were my first clues that there might have been some “work done” on the original material. The opening credits are superimposed upon a leather-bound edition of the book with the author’s name prominently featured: Graham Greene. My familiarity with Mr. Greene first came as it did with many other people who I know through the film The Third Man. Although the stars of that film were as American as apple pie, the film is as British as tea and crumpets. Knowing this, having Veronica Lake utter massive pieces of dialogue at Alan Ladd about being an American patriot struck me as more than a little bit odd.

So I did what I normally do in this case: a bit o’ research. What I found was that, indeed, it was just as I thought: the source material had been tampered with, but for quite fascinating reasons. I am someone who loves to look into adaptations. I have written and spoken about them, and think that finding out the “story behind the story” is always fun- it’s the olive in my martini. This film was greenlit, essentially, after two things occurred. Most importantly, crime fiction had become an excellent area for the studios to develop scripts from. They were striking gold left and right in that arena. In addition, Graham Greene’s position within the literary community had achieved some notoriety.  This Gun for Hire, purchased by Paramount in 1936, was only developed as a script in 1942, after Warner’s remake of The Maltese Falcon did quite well. It was clear that This Gun could be risked at this point. And it was a good risk.

The original title of Greene’s work was A Gun for Sale, but published in the US as This Gun for Hire. But the title was not the only thing that they changed. Alan Ladd’s villainous character, Raven, is supposed to be hare-lipped and quite disfigured according to the literature. Up on the big screen, however, it became a bad wrist due to some nasty child abuse, thus bringing up both Freudian issues and incurring more sympathy for Ladd’s anti-hero/villain.

However, none of this is quite as intriguing as the political alterations that were made. The writers of the film, as keenly noted by Rose Capp, “embellished Greene’s left-leaning political thriller with some definitively American elements, not the least of which was the incorporation of prevailing American propagandist sentiments…Tellingly, the American script also transforms Greene’s wealthy industrialist Sir Marcus into a monstrous figure of capitalist corruption.” Not that big of a deal, right? That happened fairly often. It was 1942. It was wartime. Pumping a bit more propaganda in there was no big deal.  What I noticed that was a big deal was the person who put all of this together: Albert Maltz. Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten.

12 Dec 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Cited for Contempt. Los Angeles: Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered. They are (left to right), Robert Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Lawson, and Ring Lardner, Jr. Dalton Trumbo is scheduled to appear shortly. These are the men who refused to state whether or not they are Communists when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington recently. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

This Gun for Hire is the first thing on his list of credits, but…there is something unusual about the way that the material was translated. The “gung-ho spirit” was strange and forced. It seemed misplaced, even for a genre and a time that centered upon a certain amount of patriotic “umph.” When Veronica Lake makes her plea to Alan Ladd’s character to “do it for the cause” of America, it still seems that “the lady doth protest too much.” There is also something very significant in the main villain, Brewster. He is, as Capp points out, a figure of Capitalist corruption. Was Maltz still able to keep his (and Greene’s) voice within the material? As many of us know, the Hollywood Ten were not un-Patriotic. But they were critical of certain elements of the system that made it unlivable for the everyday man, much as Greene was. We may never know the answers to these questions, but watching the film, I did find this element fascinating.

The next film up was The Glass Key. Someone had tweeted on the New Beverly twitter feed that those who were going should look for similarities between this film and Miller’s Crossing. Being a HUGE fan of that film, I was even more excited to see The Glass Key than I had been in the first place. As the credits went up, the first thing I noticed was that, similar to This Gun for Hire, it was ALSO a film based on a book. So I was quite intrigued to see the transition from Dashiell Hammett to Coen Brothers and everything in between! To write that I was stunned is an understatement. There is more than a passing similarity.

When discussing Miller’s Crossing in his book, More Than Night, James Naremore notes that “the Coen brothers mix together ideas from The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Maltese Falcon, all the while carefully avoiding direct quotation from the novels. Although their film involves a certain amount of burlesque, it is in one sense deeply true to the imaginative world created by Hammett.” (Naremore, 214) Admittedly, I have not read all the originating source material, but I cannot help but feel that Naremore’s analysis is correct. When you watch Miller’s Crossing, it has elements of Falcon as well as Key but done in such a way that it falls into a category of films that I have dubbed Cinematic Cover Songs. The basic theory behind this holds that what we love about a good cover song is that it maintains the tune (thus we have recognition) but it spins it in an entirely new way so that we can enjoy it as though it were a new piece of media entirely. Thus Miller’s Crossing from the Dashiell Hammett literature as well as, I would argue, the films made from that material.

The Glass Key is a bit complicated, material-wise. The Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film from 1942 was not the first film adaptation. In fact, the first time this Hammett-penned story hit the silver screen was when Paramount filmed it in 1935. It was a property that had been owned since 1931, but due to the now heavily-enforced Production code, it had been going back and forth in order to deal with the more “unsavory” elements within the script; in particular, the corruption within government figures and authority figures.  This version of the film, was directed by Frank Tuttle (who also directed This Gun for Hire, by the way), starred George Raft and Edward Arnold, and didn’t seem to garner as much critical acclaim as its sibling film from 1942. James Naremore noted that it stayed closer to the Warner Gangster cycle of films, but made major alterations to the plot and characters in order to make nice with the Production Code Administration. (Naremore, 57)

The Glass Key, dir. Frank Tuttle, 1935

The Glass Key, dir. Stuart Heisler, 1942

The first Glass Key was left alone and would have probably stayed exactly how it was, a somewhat minor film, remembered only for being a Hammett adaptation and for having PCA issues. However, due to the same film/literature adaptation gold rush that gave This Gun for Hire a shot, Key was given another life. With the success of  1941’s Maltese Falcon (a piece that had two previous versions in its own right- the 1931 film of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady), Hollywood decided that perhaps Hammett’s writing had finally come of age, and they would try it again. Thus they remade Glass Key. Of course, Alan Ladd had just come off of This Gun for Hire. He had been remarkably successful in that breakout role as Raven, and his chemistry with Veronica Lake was undeniable, so they snatched him up, paired the two of them up again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All in all, it was a great night at the movies, I would say. Two brilliant films with some fascinating connections. But noir is like that. Misty, murky and secretive. Gotta walk down that alley, talk to the detective, chat up the girl, do the research. Never know what you’ll find…