The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Shinichiro Sawai, 1993)

bloom-in-the-moonlightAll those songs and rhymes you learnt as a child, somehow it’s strange to think that someone must have written them once, they seem to just exist independently. In Japan, the name behind many of these familiar tunes is Rentaro Taki – the first composer to set Japanese lyrics to European style “classical” music. It’s important to remember that even classical music was once contemporary, and along with the opening up of the nation during the Meiji era came a desire to engage with the “high culture” of other developed nations. The Tokyo Music School was founded in 1887 and Taki graduated from it just four years later in 1901. However, his career was to be a short one as his health gradually declined until he passed away of tuberculosis at just 23 years old. Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Waga Ai no Uta: Taki Rentaro Monogatari), also the title of one of his most well known and poignant songs, is the story of his musical career but also of the history of early classic music in Japan as the country found itself in a moment of extreme cultural shift.

Defying his father’s wishes and travelling to Tokyo to pursue a musical education, Rentaro Taki (Toru Kazama) becomes fascinated by the piano and is determined to become a high level pianist. Even knowing how hard it is to conquer the instrument and that many of his contemporaries have been studying since early childhood, Rentaro refuses to lose heart and pushes himself to become the best piano player that he can possibly be. Always a sickly child, Rentaro’s intense devotion to his instrument begins to threaten his health but his ambition knows no limit. The purpose of the school leans more towards the study and dissemination of Western music among ordinary people but soon Rentaro and some of his fellow pupils grow tired of the idea that their role is that of teachers and scholars and begin composing their own work. Rentaro’s songs become what is really the first kind of modern folk music, marrying the European classical music of the foreign elites and the more egalitarian, everyman quality of the accompanying lyrics to create a new kind of Japanese music.

The tale is narrated at times by a fellow pupil, Yuki Nakano (Isako Washio), who encounters Rentaro at the same time as he encounters the piano. The star pupil at the school and sister of an already internationally famous concert pianist, Yuki is nevertheless insecure about her own skills. Rentaro quickly surpasses her though the two become close and eventually a source of mutual inspiration. Adding to the melancholy nature of the tale, Yuki falls in love with Rentaro and his musical intensity but the pair are separated when she is selected as one of the first pupils to be sent abroad to learn from the classical music masters in Germany. A year later, Rentaro is also permitted to go and the pair are briefly reunited but it will be for the last time as Rentaro’s illness intensifies and brings an early end to his musical career.

Times being what they are, Rentaro and Yuki are denied the possibility of pursuing a romance, adding to the theme of poignancy and missed opportunities running through the film. Indeed, the final piece Rentaro composes and which he is still working on right up to the end is for Yuki and is titled “Regret”. Dedicating himself to music above all else, Rentaro leaves behind him a musical legacy but still, as one of his songs puts it, longs for the “brightness of bygone days”.

Rentaro was from a wealthy family, and even if his father did not approve of his decision to study music, he continued to support him even whilst worrying about his constant ill health. Many of his fellow pupils were not so lucky including his good friend Suzuki (Ryo Amamiya) who is forced to leave the school when his father becomes ill leaving him responsible for each of his siblings. Eventually Suzuki is able to return to the world of music as a teacher, playing Rentaro’s folk songs for the local village children and helping to make his friend’s work some of the most well known in Japan.

Little is seen outside of the rarefied world of wealthy students and their internationally focussed cultural pursuits but at times the other world is allowed to slink in, particularly in the case of an inn girl who is charged with looking after Rentaro during one of his periods of convalescence. The girl, Fumi (Miki Fujitani), also becomes fascinated with Rentaro’s intense love music but any attachment on her part can only lead to tragedy. All else aside, Rentaro is the oldest son of a wealthy family and not seriously considering a formal arrangement with someone like Fumi. Eventually she will be sold off as a concubine to a wealthy man, there are no better options for her even in the bright new Meiji era.

As in much of his other work, Sawai neatly avoids the more sentimental elements of the story even if melodrama is a necessary part of its appeal. Bloom in the Moonlight is among his more straightforward efforts sticking to the prestige picture approach without any of the stranger or more expressive sequences which often crop up in films such as W’s Tragedy or Maison Ikkoku. As a neutral biopic, the treatment of its subject is at times superficial, skipping other interesting details of Rentaro Taki’s life such as his late conversion to Christianity preferring to focus on the tragic love story which becomes the genesis of his final, unfinished work. Nevertheless, Bloom in the Midnight succeeds in telling the sad story of a musical genius who poured all of his intensity into a few short years leaving a body of work behind him likely to outlive us all.


Rentaro Taki’s songs are still very popular today and if you’ve spent any time at all watching Japanese films you will definitely have heard them.

One of the most recognisable – Hana

And one of the most well known – Kojo no Tsuki (with footage from Throne of Blood!)

 

A Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1993)

Touch of FeverRyosuke Hashiguchi’s debut feature A Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Hatachi no Binetsu) proved a surprise box office hit in Japan and is also credited for helping to bring male homosexuality into the mainstream. A no-budget movie shot on 16mm, A Touch of Fever is the story of two ordinary boys each going about their everyday lives whilst also beginning to understand themselves in terms of their sexualities, mirroring each other perfectly in their inner confusion.

Tatsuru is a college student by day, but he spends his nights working at Pinocchio’s where he entertains male customers looking for some no strings action with a disinterested young man. Among the other youngish guys working at the club is Shin who is actually still in high school. Shin is out to his parents, but they haven’t taken it well so he’s couch surfing, leading to him to ask Tatsuru if he could temporarily move in with him. Along with all of the practical problems this may raise, Shin has something of a crush on his older colleague, but Tatsuru is filled with doubts about many things and his apartment is in no way big enough to contain this particular elephant in the room.

Tatsuru is about as detached as they come. He claims that he can separate love and sex and that for him his work is just a mechanical action that he happens to be pretty good at. The first client we see him with interrogates him about his non-compensatory love life, assuming that he must have a girlfriend. Tatsuru gives a non-committal answer about whether he also sleeps with women which offers the first indication of his slight resistance to the idea of being gay even if he has no problem earning a living through sleeping with men. Throughout the film he also conducts a parallel (platonic, if fliratious) relationship with an older female student, though when he decides to try and take things further she more or less shuts him down explaining that she’s confused about her feelings for him – she wants him in her life, but probably not in a romantic way. As if to underline the point, an attendant begins to spray cleaning fluid over the passenger side window of the car Tatsuru is sitting in, effectively painting him out of the picture.

Shin, on the other hand, is very clear about his sexuality but less so about the idea of selling it for money. Uncomfortable with the atmosphere at the club, Shin has decided he only wants to do it with people he likes, as impractical as that may turn out to be. What Shin wants is romance, but that’s exactly what Tatsuru is currently unable to acknowledge. When taken to task by one of Shin’s female friends, Tatsuru offers a series of justifications about different kinds of love but remains rational and closed down. At the moment it appears something may happen between the pair, it’s Shin who ultimately can’t follow through. Whether due to “chickening out” as his friend accuses, a lack of belief in his object of affection, or simple vulnerability, Shin is not quite ready to acknowledge his true feelings either.

Both boys have also become estranged from their families and particularly with their fathers. Tatsuru’s father leaves gruff answerphone messages and then when he finally gets through, suggests that his son is a drain on his resources that he could well do without. Having left Tatsuru’s mother for another woman, dad is now cash strapped – so much so that his new partner has had to have an abortion because of all the loans he’s taken out for Tatsuru’s fees. The final parting blow is to say that (contrary to the suggestion of a complete divorce between father and son) Tatsuru is now the sole heir of the Shinomori name which is yet another burden for guy who may be gay and therefore may not necessarily be looking to pass that name on. Shin’s father had something of an apoplexy when he found out his son was gay and threatened to have him sent away to the self defence force for some “toughening” up, going so far to trample all over Shin’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer and leading him to leave home at such a young age.

Hashiguchi’s first feature is his most melancholy but also oddly innocent. A theme which recurs throughout his career – that love is sad and ultimately impossible, rears its head during the film’s final scene in which Hashiguchi himself plays a sinister customer. This uncomfortably long sequence which breaks with the formalist camera movements of the the earlier part in favour of destabilising, unbroken handheld, acts as the climax of the film as the pair are once again symmetrically opposed. Tatsuru likes things impersonal but this guy wants to talk, whereas Shin craves connection but finds the customer unpleasant in his wheedling, direct and almost forceful approach. “You wouldn’t know the pain of being unable to speak out about how you really feel”, says the customer, oblivious to the obvious subtext. This long, strange, and uncomfortable encounter does at least lead both boys into the centre ground, making each clearer both about themselves independently and about whatever it is that exists between them.

Contrary to the customer’s assertion about the impossibility of true connection, the film ends on a note of hope as the boys walk home together with a little more lightness in their steps. When Shin enquires how much Tatsuru was paid for something that he previously disapproved of but seems to have got over now, he tells him he’s underselling himself and ought to value himself more. Tatsuru says he’ll bear that in mind – that has, after all, been the problem all along. In one sense, the “fever” has broken – a weight has been lifted, leaving both boys freer to go about their lives with more clarity and less angst. Perhaps it isn’t all so sad and impossible after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Room (部屋, Sion Sono, 1993)

The roomThough the later work of Sion Sono is often noted for its cinematic excess, his earlier career saw him embracing the art of minimalism. The Room (部屋, Heya) finds him in the realms of existentialist noir as a grumpy hitman whiles away his remaining time in the search for the perfect apartment guided only by a detached estate agent.

Sono begins the film with an uncomfortably long static camera shot of a warehouse area where nothing moves until a man suddenly turns a corner and sits down on a bench. We then cut to a rear shot of the same man who’s now sitting facing a harbour filled with boats coming and going as the sun bounces of the rippling sea. We don’t know very much about him but he’s dressed in the crumpled mac and fedora familiar to every fan of hardboiled fiction and walks with the steady invisibility of the typical genre anti-hero.

Before we head into the main “narrative” such as it is, Sono presents us with another uncomfortably long shot of the title card which takes the form of a street sign simply reading The Room, over which someone is whistling a traditional Japanese tune. Eventually we catch up with the hitman as he meets a young female estate agent identified only by the extremely long number she wears on the jacket of her official looking business suit. The hitman gruffly lists his poetical demands for his new home – must be quiet, have the gentle smell of spring flowers wafting through it, and above all it must have an open, unoverlooked view from a well lit window. The estate agent reacts with dispassionate efficiency, her gaze vacantly directed at the floor or around the rundown apartments which she recommends to her client. Together, the pair travel the city looking for the elusive “Room” though perhaps that isn’t quite what they’re seeking after all.

Sono shoots the entire film in grainy black and white and in academy ratio. He largely avoids dialogue in favour of visual storytelling though what dialogue there is is direct, if poetic, almost symbolic in terms of tone and delivery. The occasional intrusion of the jazzy score coupled with the deserted streets and stark black and white photography underlines the noir atmosphere though like the best hardboiled tales this is one filled emptiness led by a man seeking the end of the world, even if he doesn’t quite know it.

In fact, the relationship between our hitman and the passive figure of the estate agent can’t help but recall Lemmy Caution and the unemotional Natasha from Godard’s Alphaville – also set in an eerily cold city. If Sono is channelling Godard for much of the film, he also brings in a little of Tarkovsky as the hitman and estate agent make an oddly arduous train journey around the city looking for this magical space much like the explorers of the Zone in Stalker. Yet for all that there’s a touch of early Fassbinder too in Sono’s deliberately theatrical staging which attempts both to alienate and to engage at the same time.

The Room’s central conceit is its use of extremely long shots filled with minimal action or movement. In a 90 minute film, Sono has given us only 44 takes, lingering on empty streets and abandoned buildings long enough to test the patience of even the most forgiving viewer. Deliberately tedious, The Room won’t counter arguments of indulgence but its increasing minimalism eventually takes on a hypnotic quality, lending to its dreamlike, etherial atmosphere.

Here the city seems strange, a half formed place made up of half remembered images and crumbling buildings. Empty trains, scattered papers, and lonely bars are its mainstays yet it’s still somehow recognisable. Leaning more towards Sono’s poetic ambitions than the anarchism of his more aggressive work, The Room is a beautifully oblique exploration of the landscape of a tired mind as it prepares to meet the end of its journey.


Original trailer (no subtitles):

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):