Wednesday, October 30, 2013

219 - Ikiru (1952)

Following my last review (In The Mood For Love), I figured I might as well keep the theme of the Orient going with my thoughts on Ikiru.

Ikiru, as is nicely pointed out in the subtitles, is the word for "Living" in Japanese and is one of the most apt and intelligent titles on the 5-star list. Mr. Watanabe is a council worker who lives up to every modern perception of public office possible. He spends his life aimlessly pushing papers across the desk while the council itself sends the community around the merry-go-round of its departments in a clear lack of efficiency.

His relationship with his family is strained as his son tries to escape the monotony with his wife, but it is not until Mr. Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer that he decides to do something about it. It is at this point that the film takes a sudden turn towards 12 Angry Men as his funeral-goers argue whether Mr. Watanabe was as proficient as rumours suggested.

Despite the film being clearly split into two acts, it never loses focus of the moral picture it attempts to paint. At some point in our lives we seek direction or a kick that jolts us from an otherwise dull existence. It notes that we are all saving money for a rainy day, but what if that never comes? It is clear that Mr. Watanabe's son is far more vigorous in his youth and sees the opportunity to spend his father's money in ways that his father never could.

Obviously, as you can probably tell, Ikiru has a rather morbid undertone and occasionally veers towards depressing. But, rather than making you feel desperately sorry for Mr. Watanabe, its poignancy makes you want to kick him into action with an element of hypocrisy, before reflecting on the comparisons with your own existence.

According to Empire, this is Steven Spielberg's favourite film. Steven Spielberg is a very wise man.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

221 - In The Mood For Love (2000)

I know this isn't the next scheduled film to review, but I have watched the previous films (I promise!). Problem is,  I seem to have little time nowadays (as those who follow my Twitter feed will know), so the reviews are starting to pile up. In fact, I started writing this review on the train immediately after watching the film in the hope I can follow it through!

To start with, I was pleased to be able to actually watch In The Mood For Love as I took Ikiru on the train with me the other day only to find I'd forgotten to rip the subtitles (edit: I actually had, but didn't have them turned on, whoops!). I didn't fancy starting another Oriental film without some clue as to what was happening.

Ironically, for all my fear, In The Mood For Love didn't really require subtitles. The storyline is very simple - two couples move in next door to each other and the opposing husband and wife nip off to Japan for an affair. Their spouses realise this and try to work how it happened, taking turns to play the role of their spouses' lovers.

Initially, I was very sceptical of the film. What seemed like hundreds of Hong Kong nationals were thrown on-screen as neighbours and friends are introduced. Cleverly though, the faces of the cheating spouses are not shown as their impact on the filmed storyline is mostly irrelevant.

As the film settled down on the two protagonists, I slowly figured out why Empire had awarded In The Mood For Love 5-stars. They are very keen on films with strong imagery and In The Mood For Love is up there alongside the likes of Black Narcissus and Chinatown in terms of intelligent camera-work providing the feel of a scene. Downtown Hong Kong is captured in a strange beauty that I didn't think was possible having visited the province a couple of years ago.

Of course, the lingering camera shots are never going to be everyone's cup of tea and some scenes can be a little tedious if you are unable to appreciate or understand the metaphorical picture. That said, the simple storyline does go a long way to aiding this film's accessibility.

Friday, October 25, 2013

You Aren't What You Consume

OK, I'll admit it. I've been putting off watching the next film in Empire's 5-star 500. I wanted to get a brief idea of what Lars von Trier's The Idiots was about, so I read the summary on IMDB:

A group of people gather at a house in a Copenhagen suburb to break all the limitations and to bring out the "inner idiot" in themselves.

Not exactly the most action-packed sci-fi-adventure romantic-horror comedy-drama to have ever been scripted, so what exactly is the appeal of such a film and why on earth would Empire award it 5 stars?

To begin with, I ought to point out that I love film, and the list of 5-star films has thrown up some absolute beauties that I would probably never have sat down to watch had I not decided that this challenge was a good idea. Equally, there have been several films that have left me feeling very uncomfortable because of their content.

I'm not simply talking about films that have been tediously boring and the resulting awkwardness that envelopes my friends or family who are watching - I'm talking about ethics. The Idiots touches on a number of ethical issues that make me distinctly uncomfortable - where is the moral undertone in a film full of people pretending to be retarded?

This inexplicable discomfort tends back towards when I watched Crash with my girlfriend. Crash is simply about people who get their sexual kicks from car crashes. No, I didn't understand it, and it was a world very alien to mine. So, does this make me a prude? I don't think so.

The inspiration for this article came from a BBC article on the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 and if ever a game was known for it's disreputable and immoral image, GTA was it. I own GTA 4, have played GTA 4 and enjoyed GTA 4, making my moral issue with The Idiots even more intriguing.

In the BBC article, they quote Mary Hamilton, an Australian journalist, who discusses how games must evolve to become art:

It's a peculiar phenomenon that people invest so much of their identities in the games they play - as with the TV they watch or the books they read - and feel so attacked when people point out the problems they perceive within them. We are not what we consume. Game culture is slowly finding its feet within the mainstream. And in the same way that film, art, literature and so on are open to critique both on content and on taste grounds, games are too.

... and that got me thinking. Who am I to judge a film by its content? There are plenty of films I'd happily watch despite many people finding their content offensive - American History X is a brilliant film that I really enjoyed, but it is full of images, both graphical and historical, that would be deeply offensive to a lot of people.

This ethical issue is not a problem only faced by amateur reviewers such as myself. Even the late, great Roger Ebert found himself breaking his code when reviewing The Human Centipede:

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.

The question is, did he like it? Would he recommend it? Does it matter? If your moral standards mean you feel comfortable and relaxed in watching The Human Centipede, then why should he tell you that it didn't agree with him? Why should I tell you that The Idiots may not be my cup of tea?

The reason that these films make for uncomfortable viewing is that they hit close to home. I'm not suggesting by any stretch that you will go out and link a whole host of friends together in some grotesque experiment, or that you will go out and pretend to be retarded in order to garner attention.

No, what I'm saying is that these films could both be happening in the world at this very moment and that they are opening our minds to a world that we would be much happier to block out and ignore. They don't blur the line between fantasy and reality; they just tell it like it is, leaving very little to the imagination.

Admiring Avatar for its CGI-based beauty is very uplifting, but imagine this: replace Pandora with 17th Century North America, the Na'vi with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the humans with European invaders. Suddenly, this sci-fi action film has become a historical struggle and is much closer to home. The story is still the same.

At heart, Avatar is an invasion of one superpower against an indigenous species because it wants their resources. Some theorists would have you believe that Iraq was only invaded for its oil. But that's all far-fetched... isn't it?

And that's really my point. Some films disguise their stories amongst fantastical settings and loveable characters who are very easy to empathise with. Watching 101 Dalmatians doesn't make you want to commit atrocities that would leave PETA scratching their heads, so why should The Idiots make you want to act retarded?

We all need to get a grip. We're not omnibenevolent beings. We may be able to suppress primal instinct in exchange for a form of civility, but it doesn't mean that the world is full of roses and rainbows. Just remember, your shiny red apples are another person's poisoned fruit. Embrace the controversy and learn from it - you aren't what you consume.