Ringo Lam came off of a very extended hiatus in 2014 with Wild City, his first feature film in more than ten years. Although flawed, the film still show flashes of what made Lam’s movies great back in his heyday in the 1980s when he made classics such as City on Fire, Prison On Fire, Wild Search, and Full Contact with the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat. Lam’s second film in three years, Sky On Fire, just released in the U.S. and Hong Kong and like its predecessor it’s a mixed bag. But whereas Wild City retained some of the grit of Lam’s earlier classics, almost all of that texture has been sanded away in this new release.
Though not as dreadfully unmemorable as fellow Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s last flick, Operation Mekong (2016), which I forgot I’d even seen the moment after I left the theater, there’s a certain unnerving genericness to Sky On Fire that is discouraging. Lam used to be one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive directors, with a streetwise style that pulled no punches. Some remnants of that still remain in Sky On Fire but for the most part the film is unremarkable and anonymous. The film follows Tribo (Daniel Wu), the security chief of a medical research firm, as he uncovers corruption and malfeasance involving what the subtitles call “ex-stem cells,” a prized medical breakthrough that can cure cancer. Along the way Tribo tangles with a group of thieves led by a young dude named Ziwan (Zhang Ruo Yun) who have stolen the former stem cells, as well as various baddies out to get their hands on the coveted objects.
In Sky On Fire there are some remnants of Lam’s former mastery. Some of the action sequences are crisp and effective, including two scenes involving hand-to-hand fighting in cramped interiors. The first, which takes place in a small kitchen, features rapid-fire fight choreography that escalates rapidly and convincingly and that displays a mastery of space, movement, and editing. The second, in a narrow hallway, includes painfully realistic-looking violence including an actor’s head shattering the ceramic tiles lining the hallway’s walls.
Similarly, a car chase through the confined streets of Central makes good use of that district’s narrow, winding roads. But besides that the film has very little Hong Kong flavor, which is probably exacerbated by the international cut being dubbed in Mandarin. At first I couldn’t even tell the movie was set in Hong Kong, which is definitely not a good sign.
Sky On Fire also suffers from a convoluted plot and a very uneven tone throughout its running time. Lam makes the unfortunate decision to include a sappy cancer-patient storyline that sucks all of the life out of the narrative. It’s not helped by the fact that Amber Kuo plays the cancer patient in question since she’s a mopey drip throughout the movie. The film alternates to ill effect between the attempted pathos of her situation and the slam-bang action of the rest of the story and neither aspect of the movie meshes with the other.
By the last third of the film the wheels have completely come off as the story swerves into absurdity. The good guys end up in a fight scene in a hospital room while an incapacitated Amber Kuo lies whimpering in the bed. Suffice to say that the weapon of choice in this scene is a pole-mounted plasma bag. Following this unlikely scenario everyone including the terminal cancer patient piles into a car and speeds off, guns blazing. Luckily Tribo thoughtfully reminds everyone to buckle their seatbelts as they veer toward more vehicular mayhem. Other scenes are similarly clichéd, including a character tensely hacking something important from a desktop computer as the screen displays the download status. Can’t they just go on the cloud these days and not have to spend time breaking into an office and using a terminal? Other missteps include some very questionable CGI including fake-looking explosions and fires and a poorly matted rendering of the Sky Tower, the skyscraper where much of the action takes place.
The film wastes a lot of talent, from venerable Hong Kong character actors Wayne Lai and Philip Keung to Daniel Wu, who is stern and scowly but not terribly compelling. Idol drama star Zhang Ruo Yun in his first film role is adequate but unmemorable. Joseph Chang, on the other hand, gets it done with another strong performance. He’s shaping up to be a fine actor and here he combines a notable physicality with a sensitive intensity.
The movie also benefits from advances in digital cinematography as it looks slick and beautifully photographed. But all the pretty photography in the world can’t give the film coherence or make it connect emotionally, which is unfortunate given Ringo Lam’s past work. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to redeem himself with another, better movie sometime soon.
Sky On Fire opens Dec. 2 across North America
So the awesome new documentary, We Are X, about legendary Japanese speed metal band X Japan, dropped last week here in San Francisco. An energetic and engrossing look at one of Japan’s most popular bands, the film follows the group’s long and often tragic history, as seen through the eyes of its charismatic leader Yoshiki, the band’s drummer, pianist, composer, and mastermind.
I attended a screening of the film at Mezzanine in San Francisco, followed special performance by Yoshiki, who performed a short set including a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner (!) and held an extensive Q&A/lovefest with his adoring fans.
As a special perk I also got to meet Yoshiki backstage, where I tried desperately to control my fangirling. I got to shake Yoshiki’s hand (soft and smooth) and observe him as he chatted with his friends while a hovering videographer and a photographer documented his every move. I’m happy to report that despite his superstar status Yoshiki is a nice fellow, especially for a rock god.
The next day I got the chance to sit down with filmmaker Stephen Kijak to talk about We Are X. I’m also familiar with Kijak’s earlier film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006), so it was fun to talk with him about his experiences working with two pop music legends.
beyond asiaphilia: So what was it like to show the film to room full of fan people last night?
Stephen Kijak: Last night was amazing! We were in Austin the night before and then San Francisco last night for the screening and both cities had the most passionate fan response I think I’ve seen. Just young people, too, that had a history with the band and discovered the band as teenagers–collecting all this stuff, they had really deep knowledge of the band and a really passionate response.
BA: So what is the difference between when you show it to a general audience versus people who know every detail of the history?
SK: At the festivals, some of the fans find out and make their way, so you kind of test each audience by starting off with a, “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“, and you see how many people do an X. At Sundance, I think, maybe five?
SK: We did a festival in Moscow, the beat festival. It was all music and documentaries, and it’s a lot more accessible to the general public. We went “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“ and the whole place went up in Xs, the whole cinema. So, like, the metal heads of Russia all came to Moscow to pay homage to Yoshiki! You know, it’s one thing when it’s a screening of the film but when he’s going to appear afterwards to either take questions or play piano, it becomes a real event for the fans.
SK: Because usually, you’re seeing him on top of a drum riser with pyrotechnics and it’s a stadium show, and here he is in a movie theatre with you-
BA: Ten feet away.
SK: It’s pretty intense.
BA: He was really close. I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t breathe in that room last night.
SK: Yeah, I could not believe it, actually. It was intense last night.
BA: Yes, at one moment when he was playing the second song he paused. People were singing along–
SK: Endless Rain. Yeah.
BA: They were singing along quietly. Not loudly. Which I thought was very beautiful. And then he paused and stopped playing and they kept singing.
SK: They kept singing.
BA: It was just, like-
SK: Oh, my God, right?
BA: That was the moment. Wow. His charisma is amazing. Just amazing. But anyway, ok, we’re done squeeing here.
BA: So I actually know your other film about Scott Walker, which I really love, and again it’s kind of weird, because you’ve done the Rolling Stones movie? And the Backstreet Boys movie. Then, this X Japan movie – everybody knows who X Japan is in Asia but here they’re a little more obscure. Scott Walker is definitely obscure these days unless you’re really, really, really hip. So what are the different approaches you have when you have to deal with these incredibly famous people like the Rolling Stones versus Scott Walker?
SK: It’s all storytelling. You have to just tell a story, and that’s it. Scott Walker–I was the fanboy, you know, I was obsessed with his music. But you really have to just approach them professionally and go ok, I’m not a fanboy, I’m a professional storyteller, I need to figure out how to break this down and piece it together in the best way possible that’s going to be emotional and cinematic. I’m not just putting facts in order to tell you A, B, C, D, whatever it is. My creative approach is always that of a kid making a mixtape for his friend. The art of the mixtape was something that I tried to perfect when I was younger. I worked in a record store, I was taping songs off of records and making mixtapes for friends and wrapping them up in these little packages, and to me the movies are literally an extension of that because you have to figure out how to tell a narrative, you have to communicate it in a way that’s going to move people emotionally and half the time the technique is to imagine you’re literally making them up –
BA: You said that last night, yeah.
SK: It’s a way to work that, if you had the choice, what would be the beats, where would you go next, logically, if you were trying to craft a drama. Because you can’t let the celebrity and all that get in your way. They try to get in your way and you can’t let them.
BA: That’s my other question. Both Scott Walker and Yoshiki are quite strong characters, human beings, personalities. There must have been some push and pull with them, right?
SK: I weirdly feel that the two films are slightly similar in that you’ve got a beautiful enigma kind of hovering in the middle, which are our central characters, but they couldn’t be more opposite. Scott Walker was someone who was super-famous who, because of the shock of fame, retreated into this kind of wilderness. And he tried to surround himself with silence and he really keeps himself well-hidden and protected and really just wants the music to be the only thing you’re confronting. So our access to him was relatively limited. I think I might have had forty-five minutes to interview him, and it was the last thing I did.
BA: Weren’t you in the studio with him, though?
SK: We were in the studio. We had, like, one and a half days. We really did not have a lot of time. Which was insane, to think we had to make a whole film and he gives you just enough. But he’s a master of that economy within his music, so it kind of makes sense. Whereas Yoshiki is fully revealed at all times, you would think, it’s constant cameras. I had ten billion hours of archive to work with. He’s been having himself filmed and archived forever and it’s actually very well organized and logged. It was an open door policy. I mean, cameras everywhere, people were filming us filming him, it was kind of excessive. But at the same time he wears a mask which you need to try and chip away at.
SK: Which is a great cue to go okay, we can go all doppelganger on you and work with a lot of visual doubles and splits. It gave us a clue to a visual world we could create.
BA: Did you pull all that B-roll from his archive? All the psychedelic, dreamy stuff, was that something he shot, or did you shoot that?
SK: Well, the real psychedelic crazy stuff was probably stuff we created. We got a brilliant graphic design team that created that title sequence and all the really psychedelic sequences within the movie which are probably things we made, but we would generally make them with things we shot or from his own archive.
BA: Although there is that one part with the David Lynch footage—
SK: That was like a total surprise. I knew they had worked together and I had been combing through the logs going, where’s Lynch, where’s Lynch, and just one day it was like, box 903 and tapes one through twenty and I was like, what’s this, let’s just start looking at things, and there he is. He basically directed a music video for Yoshiki that I think kinda got shelved but it was right before he was gonna make Lost Highway so I think he was testing out a lot of tricks. Like the fire in the desert and all that stuff, but there’s Yoshiki in the middle of it.
BA: It was like, oh yeah, there’s David Lynch. Because it’s not flashy the way you put him in there! So, you make a lot of documentaries. You made a narrative a while ago but it’s been pretty much straight up docs and music docs. And it sounds like you were a big music fan when you were a kid.
SK: It’s a pocket that I like being in, I love. It motivates me. I feel like you can turn these stories around so many different ways. And each one provides unique challenges in terms of how to approach it, and they’ve all been radically different and this one especially, starting from no knowledge of the band. It was like great, I know nothing about this band, let’s hop in and take this on, you know? And the majority of those people you are trying to reach here in the West are going to be like me, like who the hell are these guys? So I can be that guy and that conduit and you can maybe see it through my eyes. Yet at the same time given the privileged access that we were allowed, what I discovered, thankfully, was that the fans are seeing a side of the band that they’ve never seen before, so it kind of works both ways.
BA: And has it screened in Japan yet?
SK: I think it’ll be February or March – I’m not a hundred percent sure.
BA: Oh, because the record is coming out.
SK: Yeah. The record is coming out and I think he kind of wanted kind of like a homecoming, with the success of the film in the States, like with the wind in his sails. I think it was very important for him. Because it would have been very easy just to make the film and release it in Japan and be done with it. But there is an aspect of this whole thing that is about trying to expand the awareness of the band just to see what kind of a success they can make of themselves outside of their comfort zone and the film is a big part of that.
BA: Is he pretty hands-on about that stuff?
SK: Yeah. He runs everything. I mean, look at the tour. There’s no artistic director. He runs everything, standing up on his drumstool, on his drum riser, dictating everything–the pyro, the lights, the screens, where the band goes, who walks down there, when things explode, when the CO2 blasts out, when the drum goes out (laughter), I mean, he’s running it all himself, all the time.
BA: He’s orchestrating it.
SK: It’s absolutely mind-boggling. So he’s got a plan. And if this ever makes this way to fans in Japan–they’ve been so patient. And we thank them for their patience. It’s coming, we haven’t forgotten about you.
BA: It’ll be interesting an experience to see how that’s received.
SK: I really just can’t wait, because we did show it at the Shanghai International Film Festival and it was in some freaking movie palace and it was off the charts– security, people rushing on the stage, screaming…
BA: Throwing dolls up there…
SK: Everything. They actually had advised him not to do a red carpet because it would be too crazy. He said, well, then I have to do a red carpet. It’s like he orchestrated the event in such a way that there would be pandemonium. But it only got people more excited. He’s a master showman.
BA: It’s interesting because I think in the movie he comes off as being this very delicate angsty person – which I’m sure he is, but what seems to me is that his personality also has an incredible steeliness to it. What you did to try to bring that out as well|? How did you balance that with his tragic life?
SK: Well I think you just have to present it. You just have to see it and draw your own conclusions. You know, we asked Pata, the guitar player, are you ever worried about him, seeing him collapsing. I mean, Pata’s been there since day one and he’s man of few words, but he winks at you and he goes, pssht, he’s not that weak. Come on. (laughter) Not that guy. Give me a break.
BA: So it’s the mask again.
SK: But there’s psychic and emotional pain and physical pain and I think there’s a really interesting relationship between the two. The physical pain helps numb what’s inside. But he carries himself in a very calm, peaceful, quiet manner outside of the realm of his rock star presentation. But he also just lets it out. And I think that’s the case with a lot of performers. The stage is where they unleash it, right?
BA: Do you think that you were able to penetrate the mask that he wanted to show you?
SK: Oh yeah. I mean, granted, it was hair and makeup for every interview, but we had to stop half the time, because he’d be crying and getting very emotional. I think once he decided he’d let me in, in a way, he was really forthcoming and I just felt a closeness in these interviews that I don’t usually get to with musicians. I mean you try to go there and sometimes you just can’t get through.
BA: How long did that take?
SK: The first interview was the day after Madison Square Garden and really we had started with that–I had no preparation. We were shooting days after we got the job, really. And so he was exhausted and kind of elated at the same time. We just sat him down for a very quick forty-five minutes and one of the first things I asked him was, what an amazing night, who do you wish could have been here to share in this experience, you know, totally loaded question – but he immediately started talking about his dad and just got really choked up. And we just went from there and I think just having him observing how we work – he was very impressed with the crew and the team, I think a lot of people who will normally shoot with him or try to approach him for interviews or anything especially in Japan are doing so with a real reserve and they put him on this pedestal, and we just had to go for it. No boundaries – I mean, it was respectful, but we were invasive. And I told him, look, we’re gonna be as obnoxious and as annoying as we can be during production and I’m going to make you uncomfortable and we’re going to cross as many lines as we can, because we can always pull it back in the edit if we need to. But let’s not be censored. If you want to make a great film, that’s kind of part of it, so… And he got it–-I think once he was in, he was all the way. Because he was resistant to making the film apparently, for years.
BA: So what was surprising to you about making this movie? What did you learn about them that you didn’t expect?
SK: Well, it was just the whole thing. It was X Japan itself. It was literally being side-stage at Yokohama Arena, literally a week after meeting him, to see them warming up – warming up – for Madison Garden with two sold-out arena shows. I had never seen anything like it in my life–just the intensity of the fans. I think that was THE most jaw-dropping, just seeing twenty thousand people X-jumping, and crying, and singing along, and just that simultaneous collective passion was at a level I had never experienced. I mean it was an actual just shock in the most beautiful way, literally just being privileged to stand right there. I’m right here, the stage is EXPLODING, there’s pyro, there’s all this stuff, and there’s just a sea of people with their little glow sticks making Xs as far as the eye can see and I was just, where am I? What has happened to me? I just couldn’t believe it.
BA: So you hadn’t witnessed Asian pop music before-
SK: Not to that level. Not to that level. I mean that was pretty awesome. Pretty awesome. It’s a question you get a lot, and it’s never just one thing, it was just kind of the totality of that experience. And then you realize what a heavy burden you have to carry. I’m sure there’s a million fans that wish they could have been in a position to tell the story.
BA: So did the moviemaking change you?
SK: I think they always change you a little bit. I know I have a lot more grey in my beard right now. But, they always change you in some way. I mean, Scott Walker had set a certain bar as an artist and he was someone I felt that I could learn lessons from in terms of how strong you have to be to be an artist and to go down a certain path. I don’t think I could ever be that strong, to go so fully into an artistic wilderness on your own and do something, though I would love to. I think sometimes economically and just logically you kind of can’t do that –
SK: But, in Yoshiki’s case, X Japan… there was such an artistic freedom. It was more about freedom, in a lot of ways. He didn’t mess with us at all and literally, the film was 90% finished, accepted into Sundance, and then we showed him a cut. He gave us that much kind of leeway.
BA: Did you get feedback after that?
SK: A little bit. But it really, it was so minor, because the film was done. There was kind of no going back after a point, so it was a bit of a risk. I think what I took away from his kind of artistic project that allowed us to push it that far visually and emotionally. You kind of feed on the artist and their aesthetic world–that’s kind of how I try to then put that back into the film and try to make sure it’s all calibrated in a way that feels like the music and feels like the show and has a visual aspect that rises to the level of the subject, you know. And it was that kind of excessive freedom that I think he brings to his art that really fueled us and let us really stretch out and do something different with it.
BA: Did you feel like he was collaborating with you?
SK: Oh yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. You know, he says, “Oh, I was too busy to mess with you,” Because he is really on the go all the time. But he said to him it was just a level of trust, so he couldn’t be involved because it’s too painful. He says it a lot and it’s a good story but I do buy it because I’ve seen it in action–he could hardly edit the DVD of the Last Live concert, you know. He said it took him three or four years to finish it because he would watch five minutes and he’d have to go cry and take a break. And that’s one show, forget about the whole career.
BA: Did you ever find a barrier or a wall that he wouldn’t let you through? Like when you asked him about why Taiji got thrown out, and he said, “I’m not telling.”
SK: Those aren’t necessarily walls or barriers, there are just certain things that you know, if he’s not gonna answer, he’s not gonna answer. And we’ve never got an even off the record, that’s one he’s going to take to his grave. Which is fine. I think we need to leave a little mystery intact.
BA: Cool. So you’re still in love with this movie?
SK: I love this movie. I love this movie. I can’t remember – was it Picasso, they asked him, what’s your favorite painting, he says, “the last one, or the next one,” or whatever it is. It’s only in the last few weeks of really showing it to a lot of diverse audiences where you’re really feeling the impact of it. And your perception of it keeps changing. But, yeah, I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of it. I love it. Which I said about the Backstreet Boys movie, and I love that movie. (laughter) But this one’s just like another level. There’s just something other about this one. It was more of a challenge and I just think it’s visually one of the most stunning things I’ve done yet. I had such great collaborators, like really great collaborators, behind the camera and the graphics team, my editorial team… Everyone just knocked it out on this one. I love it.
Have A Good Night: South Korean movie roundup: Train To Busan; Tunnel; The Age of Shadows; Asura; The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s new joint, The Handmaiden, dropped this week in US theaters (although it was released in Asia this spring) and it’s the latest in a long string of South Korean genre films released in the US this fall. One thing I wasn’t able to do this summer was to see any South Korean films in theaters. For the most part foreign films screened in Taiwan are only subbed in Chinese, not English (unlike foreign films in Hong Kong, which thanks to British colonialism are subbed in both English and Chinese). So with the exception of some films screened at film festivals, Korean-language films in Taiwan were linguistically inaccessible to me. Because of that, I saw no South Korean films for almost three months.
Luckily, since my return to the States there’ve been plenty of South Korean movies released in US movie theaters. I was happy to find that Train To Busan was still playing theatrically when I got back to the US in August. Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, it’s also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince; The Suspect) is excellent as Seok-Woo, a divorced hedge fund manager who finds himself and his young daughter on a high-speed train full of the undead on a harrowing ride from Seoul to the southern city of Busan. He conveys an appealing sense of vulnerability and self-doubt through his rangy frame and expressive face. The narrative builds swiftly and efficiently, setting up the basic premise (South Korea is being overrun by zombies created by corporate malfeasance), defining the main characters (including Seok-Woo and his daughter, a tough Busan man and his pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a young couple in love, and a greedy CEO), and establishing the film’s framework (a group of survivors trapped on a speeding train full of voracious undead). Though the film doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions, the depth of emotions between the characters, the intense and effective bursts of violent action, and the film’s overwhelming sense of dread as the train hurtles toward its unknown fate all add up to a deeply satisfying cinematic experience.
Following Train To Busan was the disaster movie Tunnel, starring the redoubtable Ha Jung-Woo, one of the best actors working in South Korea right now. Ha plays Jung-Soo, a regular guy whose life is changed forever when he’s trapped in a collapsed tunnel on the road home to his wife and young daughter. Based on a true story, the movie follows Jung-Soo’s ordeal as he struggles to survive while buried beneath tons of wreckage and along the way incriminates the corruption and incompetence responsible for the tunnel’s collapse. Good thing I watched this one at home on a press screener rather than in a theater since I probably would’ve died from fright and claustrophobia if I’d seen it on the big screen.
Kim Jee-Woon’s outstanding 1930s spy thriller The Age of Shadows also released in the US this fall. Shadows is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea and follows two men, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a member of the underground resistance to the occupation, and Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-Ho), a Korean policeman who supports the Japanese. Lee Byung-Hun makes an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance but it’s Gong and Song who carry the film through their excellent performances. The film, a high-budget co-production with Warner Brothers as well as South Korea’s Academy Award entry, is a slick and well-made production that breaks little ground conceptually or aesthetically but which demonstrates Kim’s continued mastery of a variety of genres including the Western (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), the gangster film (A Bittersweet Life), the revenge film (I Saw The Devil) and the horror film (A Tale of Two Sisters). The action scenes are fast, effective, and economical, and the narrative, though dense and somewhat confusing at first, resolves clearly at its conclusion. One extended sequence on a train full of spies and police, with the betrayals, lies, and mendacity layered on thick and fast, builds expertly to its explosive resolution.
Kim brings out the best in his actors and in Shadows Kim draws out an impeccable and nuanced performance from Song as the Korea policeman collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (represented by Om Tae-Goo as the archetypal evil Japanese villain). Song effectively conveys the state of mind of a man slowly experiencing a moral epiphany and his character arc is compelling and convincing. Following his turn in Train To Busan Gong Yoo is also outstanding here in a similar role as man tested far beyond his normal bounds, expressing a notable vulnerability and empathy.
Following The Age of Shadows was the release of Asura: The City of Madness, a bleak little movie that exposes the very worst of human nature. The film is an intense and brutal examination of top to bottom corruption in the fictional city of Anman, with all concerned trapped in an existential prison of despair, greed, and violence. Relentless and unflinchingly brutal, the film is a blood-soaked extravaganza of violence and betrayal.
Jung Woo-Sun stars as Kan, a cop who serves as the hatchet man for Anman’s corrupt mayor, Park Sung-Bae. Park is played by South Korean superstar Hwang Jung-Min, who in recent years has successfully played a range of roles including family men, hoodlums, cops, and criminals. Here he takes the Francis Ng role as Park, the flashy psychopathic mayor. Ju Jihoon plays Kan’s best friend and partner who goes to the dark side. Kan himself is a conflicted character caught between the corrupt mayor and a ruthless prosecutor who is trying to bring down the venal politician. Jung Woo-Sun scuffs up his handsome face with cuts, scars, bruises and stitches in an effort to conceal his leading-man good looks. He’s compellingly intense in this film, unlike in his past films as a romantic lead. I’ve found him somewhat stiff in many of his past performances and didn’t think he had it in him to be so fierce but in Asura he nails it. Here he makes good use of his 6-foot-plus frame and uses his imposing physicality to loom over and threaten his adversaries. At the same time he conveys the frustration and impotence of a man unable to escape an endless web of deceit, treachery, and backstabbing.
South Korean movies are known for pulling no punches when it comes to gore and violence and Asura is no exception. The film includes scenes of people pushed out of and run over by cars, death by multiple stab wounds, blood pulsing out of gunshot wounds, severed fingers, slashings, beatings, knifings, choppings, and the shooting of injured or helpless people—the list is endless. While A Bittersweet Life had many of the same types of violence the story and characterization was much richer and the film’s main character gradual revealed a moral center. In Asura everything has gone to hell and the characters exist in a universe devoid of morals, ethics, or empathy. Only the main character has any redeeming qualities, as demonstrated by his devotion to his dying wife, but even that is relationship is full of despair and hopelessness. Cynical and bleak, Asura ups the ante as an extreme entry into the already intense pantheon of South Korean gangster movies.
Which brings us to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England. Park transfers the story to 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation (incidentally, the same period as The Age Of Shadows). The story follows the exploits of Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a young grifter who is planted in the household of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) in order to facilitate Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), another con artist who is intent on swindling Lady Hideko out of her inheritance. But as with all best-laid plans, things go awry.
Ha Jung-Woo is excellent as usual, exuding an unctuous intelligence that makes his slick and sneaky character almost sympathetic. Kim Min-Hee as the Lady Hideko is also particularly good in her role as the duplicitous noblewomen with the wads of cash that everyone wants. Kim Tae-Ri as the titular handmaiden is also fine, although her screechy laughter will win no awards. But there’s a severe dissonance in the film’s execution that keeps it from being completely successful.
So much of this movie is outstanding—the clever narrative structure, the acting, the high-gloss production—but director Park can’t help using a bludgeon when a scalpel will do. Perhaps as expected from the director of Oldboy, when given the choice between delicacy and bombast Park’s direction veers towards sensationalism and heavyhandedness. There’s an odd and jarring dissonance between the subtlety, wit, and precision of much of the film and its overwrought and clumsy scenes of sex and violence.
This is particularly evident in several gratuitous lesbian sex scenes that overdo it to the point of parody. In other parts of the film Park makes several scenes very sexy, including a teasing interlude revolving around a bathtub and a thimble, and another involving corsets and long rows of satin buttons. But just in case we don’t get it, the actual sex scenes, which are supposed to be hot and seductive, are reduced to extended sessions of naked chicks panting and moaning, including gratuitous softcore tittie shots and faked squeals and giggles. Although it gestures toward feminism, in some ways the film doesn’t feel very feminist at all. There’s a liberatory joy in several of the scenes where Hideko and Sook-Hee defy the patriarchal conventions of their situation, but other parts of the film just feel like a dirty old man leering at the girls’ boobs and crotch. You know it’s a male filmmaker when there’s a vag-cam shot. Park Chan Wook, why you gotta go there? Feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (Born In Flames; Working Girls) once famously stated that she tried to never film a woman’s body in a sex scene that the woman herself couldn’t see, in order to counteract the objectification inherent in the male gaze. Park goes to the other extreme here, framing the women for maximum ogling and visibility to the viewer.
I’m wondering how this reads to queer viewers—is it empowering to see explicit queer sex portrayed this way on the screen or are these scenes made for the benefit of the scopophiliac Asiaphile male viewer? In other words, do queer women find these scenes hot or do these scenes just pander to orientalism and Western male fantasies of Asian girl-on-girl sex? Given the clumsiness and unoriginality of their execution, I’m leaning toward the latter.
True to form, Park also turns up the torture porn, including shots of severed fingers and pickled body parts in jars, but then subtlety has never been Park’s strong suit. Why show one instance of dismemberment when you can make it three, including loud, crunching sound effects? Then please show us the body parts being swept into a trash can for good measure. These scenes leave very little to the imagination, which is very jarring compared to the clever exposition present in the rest of the film. As with the sex scenes, the sudden lurch from subtlety and precision to bad slasher film aesthetics took me out of the viewing experience, and not in a good way.
So that’s a bumper crop of South Korean films released here in the US in 2016, and that’s even not counting The Wailing, the creepy, off the chain black comedy/supernatural thriller from Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea; The Chaser) that came out last spring. I’m happy to have been able to see them all, despite my SK movie hiatus this summer. It’s been a good year–here’s to more to come in 2017.
Special shoutout to Anthony Yooshin Kim for helping me formulate my thoughts on this post.
Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which looks at the struggles of a young Korean American man in Los Angeles coming to grips with his queerness, at first may seem like a throwback to pre-Stonewall “gay=guilt” cinematic tropes. But rather than a retrograde portrayal it instead represents a step forward in queer filmic representations, recognizing the significance of intersectional identities found in LGBTQ people of color.
Spa Night is a thoughtful and nuanced movie that goes beyond a lot of queer cinema’s current trend toward hot makeout sessions interspersed with romantic melodrama. Back in the day when New Queer Cinema took off back in the 1990s with movies like Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche 1994), The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Münch, 1991), and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), among many others, it was important to show queer sex onscreen since it had been silenced and suppressed for so long. At that time just the act of boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing signaled a radical moment. But now it’s almost become a cliché—I wrote a couple years ago about how every film I saw at Frameline Festival included the obligatory buffed dudes/cute chicks in tank tops stripping off and faking same-sex sex. Even mainstream television has queer couples tongue-locking all the time, so although homophobia remains rampant in US culture at large, it’s not as rare as it was back in the nineties to see LGBT coupling onscreen.
So in some ways Spa Night may seem relatively tame in relation to mainstream queer cinema (and it’s great that there is a such a thing, btw). Instead of a standard coming-out story where boy or girl announces his or her queerness to the world and such announcement is revelatory and life-affirming, Spa Night presents a much more layered and densely observed look at a young Korean American man’s gradual recognition of his sexuality. The film’s realization of the main character’s mixed feelings, confusion, and shame may seem like a reversion to the old days when any gay character was a tragic homosexual destined for unhappiness and grief. But Spa Night acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is not the end of confusion but often just the first step to self-realization.
The film depicts the complexities of a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality within a traditional Korean immigrant family. Set mostly in a bathhouse in Los Angeles’s Koreatown the film is not without several steamy suggestions of gay longing and desire, but for the most part the action is implied rather than explicit. David, the main character played by Joe Seo, grapples with maintaining a balance between his family obligations and the burgeoning realization of his sexual desires. Presented without judgment or blame, the film instead simply delineates David’s attempts to fulfill his family duties and his parents’ wishes for him to marry and carry on the family name while gradually recognizing his own sexual identity. The film recognizes David’s struggle to reconcile these sometimes oppositional forces. It also acknowledges that the simple pre- and post-coming out binary may not work within the bounds of a non-Western cultural context, as David’s filial piety, family responsibilities, cultural expectations, and other culturally specific concerns come into play.
Although it may not seem as edgy as its predecessors in New Queer Cinema in fact Spa Night is a step forward for the genre. The film recognizes the very different tensions that queer Asian Americans may face as they balance a multiplicity of identities, histories, and expectations.
So here’s how it happened. My family spent this summer in Taiwan and I was hoping we could brush up on our vernacular Mandarin by watching some Taiwanese television. I thought we could acquaint ourselves with Asian pop culture in general as well, so Korean dramas could also be a part of that mix. I wanted to look at Taiwanese dramas to work on our Chinese-language skills, but somehow my daughter ended up watching the gender-bending K-drama You’re Beautiful instead. Because the plastic surgery on the boys’ noses was way too distracting I only followed it intermittently, but I would occasionally glance over at the screen and watch a bit with my daughter, since the show is charming and amusing.
And then, boom! I caught a glimpse of a boy with the most amazingly beautiful and fascinating face, who stood out even amongst his very pretty co-stars. I literally could not take my eyes off of him, he was that mesmerizing. Although he didn’t seem to have any plastic surgery and his teeth were distinctly crooked, it was impossible to stop looking at him, he was so charismatic. I soon found out that the actor in question was Jung Yonghwa, the leader of the Korean idol band CNBLUE.
K-Pop is a very strange universe and the more I find out about it the less I’m sure I like it. Commercial pop music around the world is by nature a very capitalistic place but K-Pop in particular seems to be pop music to the nth degree. The songs are hyper-catchy but not necessarily very deep or meaningful, and seem to be designed to be listened to for about a week maximum, after which they are supplanted by another hyper-catchy and not very deep tune. The performers are uniformly young and beautiful, either by nature or makeup or cosmetic surgery. Most of them are drilled to be precision dancers, and the fashions are ultra-trendy, with mas de moda hairstyles in many rainbow colors. The music videos are glossy and slick, with crazy dreamlike imagery meant to stick in your backbrain just long enough for you to pay your money and download the songs.
Plus, in order to sell songs, groups go on a variety of music shows and compete viciously for trophies every week. There seems to be about a half-dozen of these and the groups make the rounds after dropping each song, participating in a sadistic hazing ritual that pits group against group based on digital streaming, record sales, music video views, and popular voting both ahead of time and live as the shows progress. It’s kind like the hunger games for pop music except without the literal dying, but the humiliation for the losers and the jubilation of the winners is similar enough to a fight to the death. So it’s not exactly the most nurturing and comforting creative atmosphere.
CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world. Along with their labelmates FT Island they are one of the few bands, as opposed to dance groups, to become K-Pop stars. CNBLUE is partly an idol group, partly a pop-rock band, and partly a collection of male supermodels, as each member is pretty damn good looking. But the band can also play their own instruments and sing, and they also compose most of their songs, so they don’t fit the typical K-Pop mold. They are also most emphatically not a dance group, and their music is much more rock than hiphop or dance-oriented like other K-Pop groups.
So I’ve become completely fascinated by Jung Yonghwa and CNBLUE. Some reasons for my interest include:
Boys with guitars
I’ve always loved rock music, from punk to metal to power pop, and CNBLUE plays some of the catchiest pop-rock around. Yonghwa has a knack for writing hooky, complex, and accessible tunes that earworm into your brain immediately. I’m Sorry, Can’t Stop, and Cinderella, to name just a few of their most popular tracks, are all catchy as hell and each is unique and distinct from each other as well.
Great live shows
CNBLUE is famous for their balls-out live performances and Yonghwa in particular leaves it all out on the stage for every show. The interwebs are full of youtubes of their rocking live shows which seem to get better and better as the years go by. No doubt their grueling touring schedule of the past six years since their debut has helped them improve their live performances immensely, as they have literally played hundreds of shows in that time, which is par for the course for many top-tier K-Pop groups. (From 2013-2016 CNBLUE played more than 100 concerts, as did Big Bang and Super Junior, two other kings of the K-Pop world). Ironically, when appearing on Korean television shows (which K-Pop groups do incessantly) CNBLUE doesn’t always get to play their instruments live, since the TV shows are designed for dance groups, not bands with guitars and amps. But even when hand-syncing CNBLUE members manage to rock the house with their sheer energy and stage presence.
K-Pop has this thing called “visuals,” which basically means how good-looking your group members are. Members are usually recruited for their physical beauty and if they are not up to snuff then their agencies aren’t shy about sending them out for a spot of plastic surgery to fix things up. CNBLUE, however, is pretty well-known for their excellent visuals without going under the knife (and the rumor is that their agency, FNC, picked the members in particular because it was too broke at the time to afford plastic surgery). In other words, CNBLUE’s members were chosen specifically because they are tall and good-looking first, with their relative musical skills secondary. They’re widely regarded as having “no visual flaws,” which in K-Pop fan parlance means each member is exceedingly handsome.
So all four members are supernaturally beautiful, with guitarist Lee Jonghyun in particular possessing inhuman good looks. Yonghwa not only has a beautiful face, with large, wide-spaced eyes, an elegant nose, and a narrow jawline, but he also possesses a remarkable amount of charisma, charm, and stage presence for a young man in his twenties. So it’s a lot of fun to watch CNBLUE since they bring the pretty. Although this has certainly helped with their mass appeal, in some ways their beauty has worked against them as far as being taken seriously as musicians, since they are considered idols first and musicians second, despite their musical skills. I’ve had a hard time convincing my friends that it’s about the music and not just the visuals when it comes to CNBLUE since their good looks are so immediately overwhelming at first.
The secret menu: Japanese releases
CNBLUE has released a huge number of albums in Japan that contain a whole nother catalog of songs created for the Japanese market. Not only does this mean that they’re sung in Japanese but the music tends to be more the rock side rather than the pop side. Which means these albums contain many more heavy-duty power chord guitar-based tunes specifically designed to be played at full speed in live stadium shows. Their first major-label Japanese release, Code Name Blue, rocks hard and loud and contains several of their best J-Rock style arena songs (Where You Are; Come On; In My Head; Have A Good Night). Many of these were written by Yonghwa, whereas the songs on their Korean albums they were releasing at the same time (2012) were still mostly written by other people. Even second vocalist Jonghyun, who leans toward pretty crooning on their Korean releases, rocks out on the Japanese albums, and Yonghwa belts like a boss. For those who prefer their tunes to rock a bit harder, the Japanese releases are the way to go.
CNBLUE just dropped their latest mini-album at the beginning of April, a five-song EP called Blueming (hint: flower pun). Included is the lead track “You’re So Fine,” which includes a poppin’ bass line and some soulful vocals from Yonghwa, who also wrote and produced the cut. The tune is a fat and catchy track, with its synchopated rhythms and swinging horns giving the song a 60s R&B feel. Yonghwa is a smart and savvy songwriter and he includes four or five singalong hooks in both Korean and English. His vocals are impeccable as well, with effortless octave jumps, seamless transitions to falsetto, smooth dynamics shifts and rhythmic patterns, and an easy control of his tonal and volume range, whether spitting a syncopated patter, swinging a sweet ad lib, or belting out the chorus. In most K-Pop songs the vocals are divided among the various members, with one person singing the lead, one the chorus, one rapping, one in falsetto. Here Yonghwa sings almost all of the parts himself, with a little help from second vocalist Jonghyun, which is an impressive feat for song with such variations in the vocal line.
The song’s music video is quite K-Pop, with over-the-top costuming, hyperkinetic editing, and a hypersaturated color palette, as well as the ridiculously handsome look of the four band members—if you aren’t used to the genre it’s probably best to listen to the song without watching the MV as its high-gloss styling can be quite distracting and overwhelming.
There’s been some bitching and moaning among certain CNBLUE fans since this release is much more on the pop side (and the title track is very retro R&B), rather than rock. To a western observer such as myself it’s odd to hear a musical group criticized for stretching its creative boundaries and trying out different genres. I’m used to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and the Beatles, to name just a few, whose sound always changed and evolved with every release. To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. What I’m hearing is the convergence of their musical styles between their Korean and Japanese releases. With the exception of You’re So Fine, the tracks on their most recent Korean release, Blueming, sound a lot like the ones on their two most recent Japanese albums, Colors and We’re Like A Puzzle, showing a heavy dose of Oasis and brit-pop influences.
Their most recent Japanese single, Glory Days, which dropped last week, is an effortlessly listenable slice of J-pop-inspired pleasure, with a pretty piano line weaving through the melody and the lead vocal relaying between Yonghwa and Jonghyun to create a catchy, upbeat track. The subtle addition of strings and a church organ adds a reverent and dare I say spiritual atmosphere which is echoed in the beautifully conceived and shot music video to the song. Not as hard-edged as some of their other Japan releases, the recording has a delicate and wistful beauty to it. Despite its seeming simplicity the track reveals its complexity after several listens, attesting to Yonghwa’s increasing skills as both a composer and a producer.
Right now there are some obstacles that may keep CNBLUE from fully exploring new musical directions. The first is that, as part of their job as K-Pop idols, they also are required to be active in other entertainment fields, including modeling for fashion magazines and appearing on variety shows and in advertisements. Whereas Western pop stars mostly have the luxury of focusing primarily on their musical output and somewhat less on their public image, in K-Pop world it’s a different story.
Like their fellow K-Pop idols, the pressure is on for CNBLUE to constantly produce new musical product, pose languorously for various fashion spreads, wear stylish and trendy outfits at the airport, appear in dramas and variety shows, tour around the world, and otherwise live their lives as South Korean pop music celebrities. All four members have acted in Korean dramas, and Yonghwa is awaiting the 2017 release of his very first movie, the Chinese film Cook Up A Storm with Hong Kong superstar Nicholas Tse. And as per all South Korean males, the four members will soon have to serve their mandatory military duty, which lasts a little under two years and which will probably take place in the next couple years for the two oldest members, Yonghwa and Jonghyun.
A more immediate threat is the involvement of both Yonghwa and Jonghyun in an insider stock trading scandal earlier this year surrounding CNBLUE’s fucked-up agency, FNC Entertainment, which by all accounts is sleazy and badly run. After almost of week of mudslinging and speculation Yonghwa was cleared of all suspicions of insider trading, but in a surprising twist, the investigation then revealed that Jonghyun was also involved in the case. Despite Yonghwa being declared innocent of all charges and Jonghyun only receiving a small fine, some K-netizens feasted on the possible downfall of two of K-Pop’s biggest stars. It was an unsavory spectacle to observe and some online commentators took a particularly vicious glee in attacking the squeaky-clean idols. The whole situation was really distasteful and in my opinion was being used as a distraction from various political scandals happening now in the country including a multi-billion dollar scam involving the Lotte group, one of the country’s biggest corporate conglomerates. I also suspect that Yonghwa’s shady boss may have been throwing Yonghwa under the bus to keep himself from being implicated.
It’s hard at this point to tell exactly what the turn of events were due to the opacity of motivations of all concerned but by all accounts Yonghwa bore the brunt of the bad publicity . As a side note, Yonghwa is hugely popular in China and interestingly enough, the Chinese press was much more supportive of Yonghwa than was the South Korean media.
If for some reason Yonghwa’s career takes a damaging hit it will be a loss for everyone concerned because he’s the real deal and not just a run-of-the-mill disposable idol. The only possible silver lining is that it may scuff up his clean-cut image a bit, which ironically may make him more marketable in the West, where being a bad boy is a badge of honor, not something to be shunned as it seems to be in South Korea. Also notable has been the unwavering love from most of CNBLUE’s and Yonghwa’s devoted fanbase, thousands of whom throughout the length of the scandal expressed their undying support across social media platforms such as twitter, weibo, and instagram.
But despite the admirable loyalty of the fans (along with some petty bickering), after following the insider trading accusations and its aftermath I’ve liked K-Pop and the whole bloodthirsty South Korean entertainment scene even less. It’s heartbreaking that someone can be crucified in the press without even going to trial and Yonghwa’s case was a very ugly spectacle. God help us as a species if this is the way we treat our artists, especially young people like CNBLUE. Capitalism eats us all and it will be especially tragic if the aftereffects of the scandal hinder Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s ability to make music. Because in the end, despite their physical gorgeousness, their modeling talents, their fashion sense, and their acting skilz, CNBLUE is really about making great music. Everything else is just gravy.
UPDATE: As another example of their artistry here’s a link to the lyrics for “Glory Days.”
who gently nudged my back
Most likely written by Yonghwa after the insider trading mess this summer, the song is all about keeping faith during hard times. When read together while watching the MV of the track the entire song comes together beautifully as an expression of Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s state of mind during and following the nasty controversy they faced.
Johnnie To’s latest joint Three just dropped on a day-and-date release in North America and China and it should please most of his followers, from genre film aficionados to cinema scholars. Although at first glance it seems like a straightforward action movie, in fact it’s a smart and nuanced film that shows To’s mastery of the cinematic language as well as displaying the continued development and refinement of his singular filmmaking style.
The setup is simple—a cop (Louis Koo) brings in a smirking criminal (Wallace Chung) to a busy Hong Kong hospital in order to ready the perp for surgery for a bullet lodged in his head. The criminal, however, has a different idea and refuses to consent to the operation. Meanwhile, the driven neurosurgeon who hopes to oversee the surgery (Zhao Wei) deals with the fallout from her inability to stop killing or disabling her patients. This seeming simplicity is deceptive, however. Three is in fact a complex and cerebral film that dispenses with direct character development, relationships, or other narrative conventions and instead relies on inference and suggestion to explicate its story.
Johnnie To set an earlier film, Help!, in a Hong Kong hospital but while that film was absurdist in an over-the-top way, Three is more of an understated absurdist movie. The film is almost parodic in its uses of stock crime film characters—the defiant criminal, the upstanding cop, the haughty surgeon, and so forth. To uses these conventions to accentuate the artificiality of the situation while adding refinements that add his particular filmmaking stamp to the proceedings.
To strips the film down to significant actions that imply rather than explain their relevance to the story, employing an elliptical storytelling style and spare, minimalist plotting that recall his 1999 film The Mission. As in that masterpiece To manages to convey vast swaths of meaning through simple, subtle gestures. In addition, like some of his more baroque films such as Mad Detective and Too Many Ways To Be Number One, To includes several quirky elements that juice up the proceedings. There are several oddball secondary characters include a long-time in-patient constantly searching for a power source for his devices, a suicidal paraplegic recovering from one of Zhao’s botched brain surgeries, and Lam Suet in yet another memorable turn as a clumsy cop who ends up oblivious to a knife half-buried in his ample rump.
Three also recalls The Mission’s minimalist approach to a hyper-violent situation. In that film, by stripping down the action To accentuated its violence. In Three, the gore is mostly found on the operating table, with the sound of cracking skullbones, the whirring of the surgeon’s electric bone saw, and closeups of the surgical needle stitching through skin and sinew creating a visceral revulsion. So when the real shooting starts it seems all the more intense and cathartic.
The film is full of repressed tensions, with each of the three lead characters a bundle of barely contained anxieties. To uses Louis Koo’s stolid stoicism to good effect here as Koo expresses his pent-up tension through the slightest clenching of his jaw or flicking of his gaze. Zhao Wei also effectively expresses the tensions of her neurosurgeon character, a PRC immigrant now working a high-stress job in Hong Kong, and her interactions with thesociapathic criminal are fraught with tension. These and other barely restrained tensions permeate the narrative and capture the hospital milieu’s underlying anxiety.
The film explodes into violence in the third act, and To’s cinematic mastery is evident in the climatic shootout, where the story is told with small visual cues that lead up to a shoot ‘em up melee. A powdering of dust from a shaking ceiling, the subtle shifting of glances from character to character, and a single smear of blood on small, blunt nail clipper presages an explosive melee that consumes the hospital ward.
The staging of the shootout is itself a self-referential meta-comment by To, recalling the bullet ballets of classic Hong Kong gangster films exemplified by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow. In an incredible three-minute long single take that mimics speed ramping, the slo-mo in this sequence is all mimed in real time by the actors and achieves a beautiful kinesthesia. Ironically, this sequence has all the choreography and grace that To’s last film, the musical Office, lacked. But it shares with that movie To’s gliding camerawork that is almost constantly in motion throughout the film and which is magnificently orchestrated in this long-take faux slo-mo sequence. Three also shares Office’s sense of theatricality (also found in Exiled, which was all about re-presenting the Wild West), with the film’s action taking place in a confined space, the hospital interior, which heightens both the narrative tension as well as the unreality of the mis en scene.
One thing I love about Johnnie To’s movies is that they can be enjoyed as commercial genre films and nothing more. But if you’re paying attention and are looking for more, they’re also layered and nuanced well beyond that, and Three is no exception. It’s another intriguing and intelligent film from To, who continues to make fresh and vital, significant movies even after decades in the business.
For locations of North America screenings go here.
Movies about famous people are a Hollywood staple, and stories about the disheveled lives of tragic pop musicians are an especially popular subgenre. Although I haven’t caught up with either the Amy Winehouse or the Nina Simone documentaries from last year, I recently saw two new biopics about American music legends that are currently making the theatrical rounds.
The first of these, I Saw The Light, traces the meteoric rise of country music superstar Hank Williams, following the last six years of his life as he dominated the charts with thirty hit songs (and seven number ones) in the 1940s and 50s. These include classics like Lovesick Blues, Jamabalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’, and many more. I’m a fan of Williams’ stripped down country tunes and I also like Tom Hiddleston, who stars as Williams, so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. Although enlivened by Hiddleston’s charisma the film alas is a pedestrian retelling of Williams story that veers away from the sharp edges of its subject matter.
Williams led an interesting life as one of early country music’s most influential singers and composers but the film focuses entirely too much on the boring relationship between Williams and his talentless estranged wife Audrey, as well as other relationships with various women throughout his life. Although the movie doesn’t ignore Hank’s drinking and philandering ways, it only briefly references his pill-popping and his morphine addiction. Weirdly enough, the film elides what might have been one of its most dramatic event, Williams’ sudden death from a drug/alcohol/heart problem cocktail at age 29. Instead we get a solemn epilogue that explains his passing and its effect on his fans.
Tom Hiddleston demonstrates why Loki is the best part of the Avengers franchise, showing off his magnetism and his lean and lovely good looks. He also sings all of the songs himself (although Hank Williams isn’t that tough to imitate) and looks dapper and hot in various vintage suits. But at age thirty-five Hiddleston seems a bit too old to be playing Williams in his mid to late 20s, with his receding hairline and crow’s feet telling the tale.
The movie also fails in its attempt to make Williams into a spiritual ancestor of 27-club rock stars Morrison, Hendrix, and Cobain, mostly because the film averts its eyes whenever the picture might get too seedy. We don’t see Williams at his worst and the film’s glossy star treatment avoids showing anything too messy. Cherry Jones as Williams’ mom brings a salty dimension to her character and there are hints that her contentious relationship with Audrey could spark into something more lively, but even their mild catfights are sadly muffled. Entirely too genteel when it should be down and dirty, the movie lacks the edge that would elevate it beyond an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. In addition, the film never gives a sense of Williams as a musician or a musical talent besides his ability to make hit records. It’s more about his celebrity than his artistry and as such doesn’t offer a lot of insights into why Williams merits a movie of his own in the first place.
Miles Ahead, which looks at the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is an entirely different story. Don Cheadle directs and stars in this one and, unlike I Saw The Light, the film revels in Davis’ eccentricities and dirty laundry, as well as giving a sense of his enormous musical gifts. Alternating between a fictional account of Davis’ lean years in the 1980s, when he was suffering from artist’s block and hadn’t released an album in more than five years, and the 1950s when he made his most celebrated music and was also married to his first wife, dancer Francis Tyler, the film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ cocaine habit, his cheating on Francis, his love of guns, or his questionable taste in clothes in the 1980s. Cheadle presents Davis as a complex human being with many warts as well as a celebrity and a musical innovator. Like Hiddleston, Cheadle also plays many of the songs in the film, apparently having spent years learning the trumpet in preparation for this role.
Cheadle adds some imaginative cinematic touches to the movie that give a sense of the addled and sideways-thinking interior of Davis’ head. In defiance of conventional moviemaking logic he includes several clever fantasy-based scene transitions and during one sequence he abandons realism completely, cutting rapidly between 1980s Davis getting into fight at boxing match and 1950s Davis playing his horn in a session in a nightclub. The scene ends up with 1950s Davis and his combo jamming in the middle of the boxing ring while 1980s Davis flees the scene. Despite mostly having control over the more fantastic elements of the storytelling, Cheadle’s cinematic invention at times threatens to go a bit too far. An extended plot element involving the heist of the master recording of one of Davis’ studio sessions featuring Ewan McGregor as the obligatory white guy, aka a completely fictional character invented to appease Hollywood investors, at times veers very close to becoming a Guy Ritchie movie complete with car chases, shootouts, and shady gangsters. Here the movie plays fast and loose with some of the facts for the sake of ginning up the narrative to make it more commercial.
The film’s treatment of another aspect of Davis’ life also reflects Hollywood’s tendency to avoid representing difficult topics for fear of losing audience and profits. The movie soft-peddles Davis’ abusive relationship with his first wife Francis, making him out to be an overly controlling partner instead of an out-and-out batterer. While it’s creepy that Davis forces Francis to abandon her career as a dancer, the film implies that the two of them loved each other despite Davis’ abusiveness. However, Cheadle doesn’t shy away from another less-than-rosy episode Davis’ life, recounting Davis’ 1959 run-in with the NYPD during which he was beaten and jailed for walking a white woman to a cab. In these days of heightened awareness of police brutality against the African American community this sequence takes on an added relevance, documenting the historical precedents for contemporary discrimination and racism.
Though not without flaws, Miles Ahead is a much more risky and creative biopic than I Saw The Light. Add in Cheadle’s spot-on depiction of Davis in all his quirky genius, either as the suave and sexy 1950s Miles or the frazzle-haired and coked-out 1980s Miles and the film is pretty consistently engaging throughout its running time.