I refused to see the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes [sic] film when I saw that the trailer had him as a bare-knuckle/pit/cage/UFC-for-the-under-35-male-demographic character. Sherlock Holmes does not kick ass. And if you want to have a 19th-century English detective who does, then create one of your own. But maybe this film got away with a similar gambit simply because of my ignorance of the intricacies of the Tang dynasty (apparently “Detective Dee” is a historical figure, whom Tsui said he wants to make rival Sherlock Holmes in world consciousness). But then, DETECTIVE DEE also has the only 7th-century Umayyad ambassador who speaks perfect 20th-century Castilian Spanish, which I doubt many Chinese viewers will notice but which mightily annoyed this Westerner for as long as he was in the film (just the first 10 minutes, more or less). There’s also Chinese-pandering thematic elements, which I won’t spoil and can’t really say I minded, but which is an unmistakable, if weak-tea, version of the ending of HERO, widely derided as fascist.
As for the action, well … one of the seminal moments of my filmgoing life was the start of the opening fight in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON when one of the characters suddenly, unexpectedly and as-if-entirely-routinely starts running up the side of a wall. That specific moment popped my eyes out and ever since then, my opinion of wuxia fight scenes has pretty much turned on how continuous the stunts are — Jackie Chan actually is doing most of what you see. You get some of that here — I love the 100-foot hops in real time, e.g. — but Tsui’s style is probably too edit-heavy for me ever to embrace fully.
But this film is too much fun and with too much declamatory ass-kicking to denigrate. All the “Sherlock Holmes” mystery-detection elements are there — clues, secret agendas and the man with brains figuring things out with the help of sidekicks who might have their own agendas. There’s even an overture featuring a particularly creative method of death, which the detective figures out. Only because this is a wuxia movie set in 7th-century-China, it’s a phosphorus poison that, when activated by sunlight, causes the body to burn to a crisp from within, hence The Phantom Flame (I am not making this up. And it comes back in the movie’s best scene, dramatically.) No movie that features talking deer as religious oracles, **and then as kung fu fighters** will not have a sweet spot in my heart. DETECTIVE DEE also has characters catch in-flight swords with their hands, and black-clad ninja assassin teams who’d rather die than be captured. It’s all very agreeable popcorn nonsense and in a world where American multiplex viewers didn’t a-priori dismiss subtitled films, this film would be a huge US hit.
Contrary to appearances, I’m not just putting out for the Catholic film about holy martyrs, for a film about an Islamist terrorist attack on an Algerian monastery of Cistercian monks. I actually had some serious reservations going in about OF GODS AND MEN and several ideas about where it could go wrong — as an easy ecumenical homily or as a liberation theology wankfest. (The review at Slant perfectly describes a film I would dislike.) And I do think the film a little too eager at the start to burnish its ecumenist street cred. For example, it is hard to believe Brother Christian (the monastery’s head played by Lambert Wilson) would have no idea where the Islamist terrorists had come from, as he says. It was a reaction to the Algerian army’s nullifying an election the Islamist political party was poised to win, with the stated intention of imposing Sharia law and dissolving democracy as un-Islamic.
But neither of these things happen for a couple of reasons — one is that the film is as liturgically structured and as theologically engaged as the monks’ lives. It’s not as rigorous on that front as INTO GREAT SILENCE (how could it be), but there’s more than enough of it to make clear that these are men of serious religious conviction, not social workers, in Mother Teresa’s famous formulation. The prayer meetings, masses and readings often turn out relevant, and the theology is not scrimped on.
In a late scene, Brother Luc, the doctor who freely gives medical help to all the village, literally caresses the figure of Jesus in a crucifixion painting. He even tells a girl in an early scene that he had fallen in love as a young man, until a greater love come along (he means his calling, though he doesn’t put it in explicitly Christian terms, while conversing with a Muslim on secular matters). In another late scene, we hear Our Lord’s words that “whosoever will save his life, shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it” (the film in a nutshell, really). Brother Christian elaborates on those words, putting the decision to stay in explicitly Incarnational terms. And the climax of the film, when they pull out wine and play a music tape (the two best films at the fest both feature “Swan Lake” at the climax), the cinematography and iconography are clearly meant to recall a “Last Supper” painting. Martyrs don’t seek out martyrdom but do embrace it as part of embracing Him when it happens. (Frankly, I’d have been happy had the film ended there, or, if OF GODS AND MEN must continue to the actual kidnapping, with the images of the empty monastery.)
In an unbelievably insensate review in the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt provides more evidence that secular critics simply do not “get” religious films, saying
All that can be said is that Beauvois, who co-wrote the script with Etienne Comar, avoids any real scrutiny of the monks’ refusal to leave. Since martyrdom is viewed as the only plausible outcome of this decision, it’s a pity the director never analyzes it. No one presents any real argument for leaving. Nor does any one present any real reason to stay. What is gained by their deaths, for them or for the church? Will it do any good for the local community they profess to honor and serve? Does God even figure in the decisions? They say He does but how are they so sure?
At times, it’s hard to know what to say. Throughout the film, discussion of whether to stay or leave has been the subject matter. Honeycutt’s insensibility to what’s in front of him is encapsulated in a single word, used twice: “Real.” His problem is that all the discussion in OF GODS AND MEN explicitly framed as “what is true to my calling as a monk” (and therefore evidently not “real”). Even the monks counseling a move say not “I want to live” or some other form of “real” egoism, but speak in “calling” terms — “I didn’t become a monk to get my throat slit,” one says exactly. Ah … but they did. And as Honeycutt realizes, just as a matter of common sense, the local community will not be served by their deaths. So therefore, service to the community is not their raison de vivre. But if one has a calling from God greater than one’s own life, with service to man being a derived duty, then a decision to stay can make sense. And at that point, all Honeycutt does is throw his agnostic hands in the air — “how are they so sure?” as if he wanted a Richard Dawkins cameo or something.
You’d have to be a heartless bastard not to be moved by certain scenes in AFTERSHOCK, which covers 30 years of Chinese history between two devastating earthquakes — the Tangshan quake in 1976 and the Sichuan quake in 2008 — through a single family affected by both. But you’d also have to be a gauzy-eyed idiot not to barf at the maudlin hack quality of — well, practically everything in AFTERSHOCK, even the scenes that you can’t help but be affected by. The initial sequence in Tangshan climaxes with a Sophie’s Choice scene, in which a mother (Fan Xu) is told she can save one of her children. The rest of the film follows the consequences of that decision (though both children survive and grow up).
Not only is My Inner Heartless Bastard stronger than My Inner Gauzy-Eyed Idiot, but My Reason rebels at and resents being manipulated this way (those who’ve read Pauline Kael’s famous review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC know what I mean). The whole movie is really just one big long series of “And Then” scenes, few satisfying in themselves or given enough room to breathe and build. This may sound paradoxical, but AFTERSHOCK, weak though it is, might have worked better at four hours; it’s just trying to cover too much ground for two. And one particular ellipsis annoyed me … we never see the brother and sister meet, instead we get an overheard conversation during Sichuan relief efforts, in which one realizes the other is talking about the same “Sophie’s Choice” moment in Tangshan. Cut to a drive out to see the mother. As for that 1976 Sophie’s Choice scene, of course it’s heart-rending (and the reunion heart-tugging), but Fan Xu’s aggressive yelling act, however realistic, simply goes too far for a work of art and becomes abrasive and alienating. A little voice inside my head also tells me, though reason reasserts itself and I eventually come to doubt it, that maybe the one role involving a Western actor speaking English (the daughter marries a Canadian businessman and emigrates there, worth a couple of Vancouver-set scenes) is a bit of Chinese chauvinism. His performance, though short, is also one of the worst I have ever seen, failing even the basic ABCs of saying your lines convincingly. It’s as if: “these ‘foreign devils’ don’t even know how to act.”
Ah … Chinese nationalism. A comparison of this film and Zhang’s TO LIVE, Chen’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE and Tian’s BLUE KITE say some really poor things about Chinese movies in the last almost 20 years and their ability to criticize, or even portray in non-heroic terms, the country’s regime. I didn’t so much mind the “don’t rock the boat” theme in DETECTIVE DEE, because that’s a legitimate theme and one derived from a well-told story. But AFTERSHOCK’s portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army goes beyond mere nationalism or Hobbesian deference to authority and enters into the territory of fawning and fetishism that belongs more in a TOP GUN-type recruiting film. I have no doubt that the left-for-dead daughter was adopted by two PLA soldiers and that the Army led the disaster relief efforts in both quakes (though the film doesn’t tell you that China categorically refused all outside aid offers in 1976; but accepted them and genuinely cooperated with NGOs in 2008). But there’s needlessly heroic dialog, commie-kitsch posters and loving fetishizing of military symbols in both sequences. There’s also a mystifying scene of China on the day of Mao’s death, which ends the first section of the film but comes across as completely unnecessary except as another bit of flag-waving.
Reading over my notes, I downgraded this from a 6. There’s was real potential here and I love the concept of a Bizarroworld Christmas film, in which Santa spies on children and kidnaps and punishes the bad ones until he’s defeated by hunters in a kind of NIGHT OF THE LIVING SANTA story. But it really does take too long to get cooking and it is a bit of a cheat that Santa Claus doesn’t actually appear, except off in a sidebar involving his grave being dug up by a flamboyantly evil businessman. Instead, the main story deals with Finnish reindeer hunters dealing with the escaped elves set loose by this excavation project. These ugly, withered, naked old men as elves (among other things, including some pretty bloody images) also mean RARE EXPORTS is too sick-weird for kids, while adults either won’t get enough gore (if they’re Midnight Gorehounds) or will be restless at the weak storytelling. It’s not really a movie for anybody.
The first halfhour of RARE EXPORTS is really tough going — with the two stories not seeming to connect in any way and your interest (well, mine) far greater in the one that gets less time (the gloriously fruity kidnapping). Meanwhile the film spends more time with a routine and Finnish-glum fairy-tale setup involving a sensitive boy and his mean single father, complete with really overdone music and sound effects. But to be fair, the last halfhour of RARE EXPORTS had me pretty much grinning ear-to-ear. If you ever wondered how Santa can be in a million places at one time, this film provides an answer. There is a gag involving a fireplace (to say more would spoil it) that was very funny and there’s an even sillier DIE HARD reference. The thawing out of the first Elf is tense and well-directed, and you have to admire(?) the film’s integrity in pushing its premise to the end with a frozen snow-draped landscape covered with naked old-age-pensioner elves. But at the end of the day, there’s just isn’t too much to the film beyond the home-run premise that just ekes out a single.