Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2008

2008 Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:24 pm

In an era of rising real estate prices and falling construction cranes, New York no longer has the allure for me that it once did. Among the charms are the film festivals that present independent, documentary and foreign films that are not likely to be seen anywhere else in the U.S. By far, the most eagerly awaited of these for me is the Asian Film Festival hosted by Subway Cinema and organized by the indefatigable Grady Hendrix who I salute for his creativity, hard work and organizational talents.

The festival begins tomorrow and information, including a schedule, can be found at http://www.subwaycinema.com/. This year I saw 6 of the films in advance and-as always-am impressed with the high quality of Asian films. Often using a tiny fraction of what it costs to make a Hollywood blockbuster, they produce some really quality work. I strongly urge New Yorkers to attend the festival. I also invite non-New Yorkers to continue reading this article in order to find out about some movies that hopefully will be available in your local theaters or on DVD some day.

Although I did not plan it this way, the 6 films I requested from Grady fall into three categories. Here goes:

1. Wars of National Liberation

The Rebel” is the first movie I have ever seen shot in Vietnam. Set in the 1920s, it is clearly related stylistically and thematically to “Once Upon a Time in China”, another exciting mixture of anti-colonialism and martial arts. The two main characters are a cop named Le Van Cuong and an anti-colonial fighter named Vo Thanh Thuy that he falls in love with. Shocked by the brutality of the French occupying forces and their Vietnamese puppets, Le Van Cuong joins the resistance. After being captured by the French, Le and Ho end up in a slave labor camp where they watch their countrymen beaten like mules. They escape and make their way to the small village where the leader of the resistance-Vo’s father-is based. This leads to the film’s climactic showdown between the French and the heroic resistance.

For fans of Asian martial arts movies, you are in for a treat since all of the fight scenes eschew the kinds of gimmicks that have shown up in recent movies with their gravity-defying stunts (accomplished through wires, etc.) “The Rebel” is old school, so much so that Vietnamese American stuntman and actor Johnny Tri Nguyen who plays Vo and other cast members refused to use doubles.

Vo’s nemesis, his former boss in the colonial police, is Sy, played by Dustin Nguyen. Like Johnny Tri Nguyen (no relation), Dustin is Vietnamese-American. His family escaped Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and the film’s editor, Ham Tran was also a boat person. This background does not prevent them from making a full-throated anti-colonial potboiler.

The opening scene in “Assembly” (“Ji jie hao”) takes place in 1948 during the Civil War in China. The main character is People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu), who leads his men in an assault on a nationalist stronghold. The scene is reminiscent of recent Hollywood movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Letters from Iwo Jima” that offer up images of war in their full horror, with severed limbs, spilled intestines, etc. What makes “Assembly” more interesting, to me at least, is that it looks at a period of history that has never been the subject of a war movie. The willingness of Communist soldiers to put their lives on the line is a welcome reminder of a period in Chinese history when altruism was still held dear.

During the aftermath of the battle, Gu Zidi decides to kill his Nationalist prisoners, a war crime that lands him in the stockade with Wang Jincun (Yuan Wenkang), a former schoolteacher whose crime was cowardice rather than murdering prisoners. Gu Zidi is offered a way out of jail. He will lead his company to an abandoned mine that will be used as a line of defense against the Nationalists. It is a highly dangerous mission that Gu Zidi accepts, even after complaining that his company is understaffed. He invites Wang Jincun to become his political officer-more on the basis being able to read and write than ideology. Gu Zidi, like just about all the men under his command, is illiterate.

During one especially poignant scene, Gu Zidi describes his early childhood to Wang Jincun. His parents sent him off to work as a servant on a landlord’s estate. When he accidentally allows the landlord’s son’s pony to escape, he is beaten. But, he adds, the beating was nowhere near as bad as the beating he got from his father who lost half his land to pay for the cost of the missing pony.

During the battle at the mine, everybody is killed except for Gu Zidi who then ends up recovering from his wounds at a PLA hospital. The death of his men haunts him so much that he dedicates the rest of his life trying to find their remains and convincing the Army and state bureaucracy to honor them.

After the end of the Korean War, the mine has been put back into production even though the remains of Gu Zidi’s men are buried under a mountain of coal. In defiance of the miner’s foremen and the Communist administrators who are anxious to resume production, he digs through the coal each day to find proof of their death. “Assembly” is a very powerful reminder of the egalitarian values that allowed the great people’s revolution to triumph. It is a hopeful sign that Chinese film-makers still adhere to such values.

2. Unconventional policiers

Mad Detective” (“Sun taam”) is directed by Johnnie To, who is best known for movies like “Fulltime Killer” that push the boundaries of Hong Kong cop movies. The screenplay is by Wai Ka-fai, who shared directing responsibilities.

The mad detective in question is one Inspector Bun (Lau Ching-wan) who pushes the art of detecting to the extreme. In the opening scene, he is in police station asking one of his colleagues to help stuff him in a suitcase which will then be pushed down the stairs. He is reenacting a crime scene that will help him identify the killer.

We soon learn that his unconventional crime-fighting techniques are the function of a psyche that is barely under control. At one point, that control is lost as he offers up a gift to a retiring police captain in full view of his fellow officers. He calmly takes a knife from his pocket and slices off his ear in Van Gogh fashion that he then hands to the captain as a gift.

After being forced to retire with a permanent mental disability, Bun is pressed into duty once again by his former comrades who are stymied by a crime wave being carried out by a number of different culprits, but with the same gun. That gun was stolen from a police officer whose partner disappeared during a chase in the woods in pursuit of an unidentified suspect.

It is Bun’s contention that all of the suspects are in fact the same person, the fractured identities of the cop whose gun was stolen and who killed his partner as well. The plot unfolds with Bun and a cop who has been assigned to work with him tracking down the mysterious killers who Bun insists is a single person. As an expert in detecting peoples’ “inner personalities” (ghosts, really), Bun is in a unique position to solve this crime. However, we are never sure if he is seeing things as they really are or hallucinations since he has gone off his medications.

The Masters of Cinema collection in the United Kingdom has included “Mad Detective” in their select catalogue alongside masterpieces by Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles. That and my thumb’s up should be ample recommendation.

Joining “The Rebel” as a unique experience, “Kala” (Dead Time) is the first Indonesian film I have ever seen. The main character is Janus (Fachry Albar), a narcoleptic reporter, who witnesses what appears to be an accidental killing (a pregnant woman struck by a truck) in the opening scene. That killing turns out to be related to several other killings whose motive and perpetrator he is anxious to discover.

Another victim is an old friend who is pursued by a ghost that he first spots on top of a wardrobe in his bedroom, who then pursues him crawling on all fours down the hallway like the ghosts in “Grudge” and other Asian horror movies.

But this is definitely not the cut from the cookie mold Asian horror movie, even though director Joko Anwar was expected to make such a movie. Instead he has crafted a very atmospheric film noir on a relatively low budget that reminds me of the films of Jacques Tourneur, including “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie”. Like Tourneur, Anwar is far more interested in conveying mood than orchestrating on-screen mayhem. When killings take place, they are almost anti-climactic. The movie moves along through a series of compelling images out of the noir vocabulary such as gloomy, neon-lit streets and hotel rooms with ceiling fans. It also includes some totally unexpected secondary characters such a gay cop named Eros.

3. Japanese militarism, left and right

United Red Army” (“Jitsuroku rengô sekigun”) is a 190 minute semi-documentary (actors re-enact real historical events) about the group formed through the fusion of two of Japan’s most notorious terrorist organizations in the early 1970s, the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Left Faction. It was directed by the controversial director Koji Wakamatsu who was a construction worker before he began making films. The first films he made were so-called “pink films”, or soft-core Japanese pornography. In the early 70s he gravitated toward the Japanese ultraleft and was even considered a sympathizer of the United Red Army.

He made the film in an effort to humanize and possibly redeem the United Red Army (URA), but this is an almost an impossible task as they far exceeded any of their counterparts like the Weathermen or the Baader-Meinhof gang in cruelty and self-deception. Wakamatsu’s film begins by setting the context for an ultraleft development in the student left in Japan-not that different from what occurred everywhere else. Frustration over the inability of mass demonstrations, even those incorporating “exemplary” physical confrontations with the cops, to end the war led a segment of the movement to opt for Narodnik type tactics, but in the name of “Marxism-Leninism”, and Maoism more specifically.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, such students were encouraged to use violence against their opponents on the left. Since the Red Guards were encouraged by Mao, who was ostensibly the world’s greatest revolutionist, to beat their rivals into submission, why not do it at places like the University of Tokyo?

After the URA decides to train itself in guerrilla warfare techniques, several dozen of its key members go up to a large mountainside shack where they spend their time in nearby woods and fields marching or taking target practice. In the evenings there are “self-critique” sessions in which members are required to correct themselves for one inadequacy or another.

When they are deemed to be inadequate self-critics by the cult leader Tsuneo Mori, who is given to exclamatory rants about the need to become “true communists”, other members take turns beating them in the face and stomach, or even stabbing them. Fourteen members of the small group died as a result of this kind of violence.

Eventually the cops found out about their location and pursued them to a ski resort near Karuizawa and laid siege to the heavily fortified lodge from February 19, 1972 to February 28, 1972. The film describes the confrontation in dramatic and convincing detail. So repugnant are the URA activists that I almost found myself cheering the cops, despite my long-standing socialist convictions.

Japan was so shocked by the behavior of the URA that the left was put on the defensive for a number of years. Although I am no expert on Japanese politics, I do have to wonder if the weakness (non-existence, almost) of the Japanese left is the price paid for the stupidity of the URA.

Yasukuni” is a documentary by a Chinese director who wanted to examine Japanese nationalism at the so-named infamous shrine to Japanese war veterans, including some major war criminals.

The shrine is a pole of attraction for ultra-rightists in the same way that a Confederate War monument might be. Unlike the Germans (except for a small minority), the Japanese have never felt the need to view WWII in exactly the same terms as an evil for which they have to atone. In recent years, the tendency to view the Japanese Empire as something to be proud of has accelerated, even to the point where Prime Minister Koizumi has felt comfortable making pilgrimages. The film depicts the noisy protests over his visit and other expressions by delegations from Taiwan and Korea to challenge the war-making character of the shrine. In one particularly moving scene, a Taiwanese activist asks for her father’s remains who was forced to serve in the Imperial army with many other indigenous Taiwanese people.

1 Comment »

  1. The fascistic Japanese writer and Emperor-worshiper Yukio Mishima once debated some of the ultraleft students at Tokyo University. He said that he went into the debate as if entering a lion’s den, but said afterward that he had a newfound respect for the students, as he shared their enthusiasm for extremist politics and physical violence.

    Comment by John B. — June 21, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

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