Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 1, 2007

Two Chinese genre films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

The two Chinese films from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival that I had a chance to see were typical genre offerings, but both demonstrated the ability of all involved to find something fresh and interesting to say. The first is “Exiled,” a gangster movie from Hong Kong directed by Johnnie To. It obviously owes a lot to John Woo, a pioneer in the field, but comes up with some new wrinkles. The second is “The Banquet,” a film made in China that is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is set in the early 10th century. It is directed by Feng Xiaogang in the style of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with all the expected gravity-defying swordfight scenes. I generally resist the blandishments of such costume dramas, but found much to enjoy in “The Banquet” nevertheless.

“Exiled” revolves around the conflict between five hit-men, who are old friends, and the gang bosses they have run afoul of. Four of them were originally dispatched to carry out a hit on Wo, the fifth who had tried to kill one of the bosses, but changed their mind during the opening shoot-out of the film that takes place in Wo’s apartment. After putting their guns away, Wo cooks them up a lavish meal. However, the meal ends on a tentative note as they acknowledge that unless they terminate Wo, they will be killed themselves.

In a climactic scene that reveals Johnnie To at this most inspired, the five assassins have a shoot out with the bosses’ henchmen. In the course of the battle, Wo and the boss get shot. Afterwards, both end up at the same filthy clinic run by a money-grubbing doctor where the shooting resumes. The action choreography and the sardonic humor that pervades the scene is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Throughout this bloody scene and others like it, Wo and his old friends comport themselves in the laconic, affectless manner of characters in an Aki Kaurismaki film, especially “Leningrad Cowboys Go to America”. All this once again demonstrates the kind of cross-fertilization that goes on between West and East in film. If “Kill Bill” could not be made without John Woo, then “Exiled” could not be made without “The Wild Bunch” and “Leningrad Cowboys Go to America.”

While watching Feng Xiaogang’s “The Banquet,” I found myself thinking about the remarks that Sol Yurick made on Shakespeare in a Brecht Forum class about 15 years ago. Yurick’s goal was to debunk the world’s great literature–in other words, to unlearn everything you learned in Literature 101. For Yurick, the Kings and Queens of Shakespeare’s tragedies are no better than Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and hardly worth immortalizing. Of course, it is the language and drama that makes Shakespeare special, but Yurick confessed that he was unable to get past the piggishness of the major characters.

The Empress bathing in rose petals

With something like “The Banquet,” you are left with even less to chew on. This is Hamlet but without the soaring language. While director Feng Xiaogang clearly aims at the tragic gravitas of Shakespeare, he is clearly constrained by a rather pedestrian screenplay which mostly consists of exposition. Characters are continually explaining why someone is forced to behave in an evil manner. Their speech is oddly evocative of silent classic dialogue frames from the 1920s: As day follows night, my lord, you can count on the support of the Sheng Kingdom, etc.

What makes “The Banquet” worth watching is the display of intimacy between the Emperor and Empress, who are the counterparts of Hamlet’s uncle and mother. The characters’ eroticism is the most convincing aspect of the film, touched as it is by their respective distrust of each other. Love and death are close companions in the higher elevations of both Elizabethan and Medieval Chinese courts evidently.

Additionally, the film is visually impressive as scene after scene draws upon elements of ancient Chinese architecture and costumes. It is like a trip to the Metropolitan Museum but a lot more fun.

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