Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wars at Home: Opening the hidden cultures of "Persepolis" and "Lust, Caution"

I had the pleasure of viewing not one but two excellent movies this past weekend. Because one of them hasn’t been commercially released yet and the other is probably close to the end of its theatrical run, writing a formal review of either at this point seems like a somewhat useless exercise. So instead I’ll offer some of my initial, unfiltered thoughts on both films, in the hope that they’ll encourage any of you who have access to them to see them at your earliest opportunity.

The first was the animated film “Persepolis,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and which I saw at this year’s AFI Fest in L.A., in conjunction with a special tribute to Catherine Deneuve (who did the voice-over for one of the characters in “Persepolis”). It was something of a battle to get tickets: I ended up waiting over an hour in the rush line, and nearly got drawn into an ugly altercation with an older woman standing behind me who took extreme umbrage at the fact that I was joined by two friends who arrived later than she did. Never mind, of course, that there were plenty of people in front of us who were doing exactly the same thing, that she had been unsuccessful in her efforts to get the AFI volunteer staff to dislodge any of them, and that WE WERE ALL CLEARLY GOING TO BE (AND ULTIMATELY WERE) ADMITTED. The friend who arrived last received the brunt of the woman’s abuse, which began with a "fuck off!" and only went downhill from there. I’m sorry to say her comments eventually took on a racial cast, but I’m glad to report that my friend was sufficiently roused to give as good as she got (and more) even if she did counter racism with a bit of age-ism. (“Wrinkly hag” was one of her parting volleys, as I recall.) It helped that the AFI volunteers and the rest of the people in line were as unsympathetic to the woman as we were: to quote a gentleman just behind all of us, “That lady’s a nut!”

Fortunately, the event was well worth the fight to get in. The tribute part was interesting as such things go, mixing clips of Deneuve’s films with a live conversation between the lady herself and L.A. Times film critic Ken Turan. Deneuve was a class act, still elegant at 60-odd, in marked contrast to our acquaintance (probably about the same age) from the rush line. As for the movie, it was an absolute treat to watch. For those of you thinking “cartoon—meh,” let me hasten to assure you that this isn’t like any cartoon you’ve ever seen. It’s not a Disney movie, nor a superhero comic, nor a Frank Miller saga, nor yet is it in the vein of Miyazaki’s dream fables, though in sensibility it may be closest to the latter. Based on a popular graphic novel series by Iranian expat Marjane Satrapi and jointly directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, it recounts, in a tidy 95 minutes, Satrapi’s childhood growing up in a liberal family during the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, her adolescent years as a student in Vienna, and her return to Iran as a young adult, before her final farewell to her motherland. Deneuve voices Marjane’s mother, and Deneuve’s own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, voices Marjane as a teenager and young woman. The film is in French, with English subtitles, though an English-dubbed version is in the works. (See the subtitled version if you can, though I’m biased against dubbing in general.)

“Persepolis” is a remarkably fresh, frequently funny, and always-incisive sketch of a particular culture during a particular historical period that most outsiders have little knowledge of, and it captures what it was like to live in such a time and place (times and places, to be exact) through small details, both comic and traumatic, that were obviously seared into Satrapi’s memory. At the same time, Satrapi’s coming-of-age narrative—her childhood games, her relationship with her family, her first loves, her feeling like an outsider at the awkward age—have a wryly poignant quality that’s no less appealing for being so familiar. Above all, the film displays a delightfully droll wit, conveyed through the writing but even more through the (mostly) black-and-white animation, which manages to be at once economical, even minimalist, and beautifully expressive. The only bad thing about “Persepolis” is that it most likely won’t play widely in the United States; it’s currently slated for limited release during the Christmas holidays. Still, there’s always hope, especially since it’s apparently been short-listed for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and could very well give “Ratatouille” a run for its money.

The second film I saw this weekend was Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival only to premiere to lackluster reviews in the United States. It’s relatively rare that I am in complete disagreement with the majority of the critics I read, but this is one of those times. The film’s primary claim to fame (or notoriety) is its extremely explicit sex scenes, which earned the dread NC-17 rating from the MPAA after Lee refused to make the requested cuts. The American critical consensus seems to be that the sex scenes are the only interesting part of an otherwise inert, over-long, and painfully dull movie. Frankly, I’m not sure what movie they were all watching, but it wasn’t the same one I saw. Yes, it’s long, clocking in at over 2 1/2 hrs, but never once did I find it less than fully engrossing—and I have an absurdly short attention span.

Like “Persepolis,” (though totally unlike it in other ways), “Lust, Caution” is a portrait of a very historically specific time period—in this case, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WWII, which is bound to have more resonance with those of Chinese extraction, and perhaps other Asians, than others—and is arguably somewhat less attuned than “Persepolis” to Western sensibilities, since 99% of its drama and emotion takes place beneath the outward interactions and dialogue. Adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, it centers on the long-running attempt of a group of student actors-turned-revolutionaries (we’re talking nationalists, not communists) to infiltrate the household of a running-dog official named Yee (Tony Leung) and assassinate him. At the crux of the plot is a girl named Wong (newcomer Tang Wei) who poses as Mrs. Mak, the fictional wife of a Hong Kong businessman, in order to seduce Yee and betray him to his death. Ultimately, she achieves the former; it’s the latter goal that proves trickier, for a number of reasons.

On the surface, “Lust, Caution” has a smoothly aestheticized period feel, dwelling with sensuous languor on such details as the glossy fabric of a cheongsam, the wash of ivory tiles (the movie really made me wish I knew the rules of mahjongg), and the mark of lipstick on a coffee cup. And yet, almost every moment from the time Wong and Yee first come into contact is laden with almost unbearable tension, as we attempt to read what’s really going on beneath the murmurs of polite conversation and the glances carefully exchanged or avoided. At no moment are we truly sure, though we may guess, whether Yee is on to “Mrs. Mak”; whether he’s falling for her; whether she’s falling for him; whether or how much Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) suspects; whether anyone is being watched; when and on which side the shoe will drop with respect to Yee’s ultimate assassination. This near-constant undercurrent of fear, or anticipation, or both, periodically rises to the surface and explodes in scenes of shocking violence, both sexual and otherwise, that Lee films with appropriately desperate urgency.

As is often the case with Lee, however, the best moments are the quietly intimate ones. There are few directors who can coax more exquisite performances from his actors (“Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain” are two superb examples), and “Lust, Caution” may be his most accomplished effort to date in this regard. Tang Wei makes an impressive screen debut as the conflicted Wong. At first she seems not quite beautiful or sophisticated enough for her role as seductress, but gradually, as you see her develop from a naive, self-effacing young student to a more experienced, though no less vulnerable, woman, you appreciate why her Wong succeeds where other, more highly trained agents failed. Still more impressive is the more seasoned Leung, who’s got quite possibly the most expressive face of any Asian actor living today: at critical moments in “Lust, Caution,” you can see it open up and reflect pain, melancholy, and shock, without giving away the ultimate mystery of Yee’s motives and character.

Some might complain that Lee spends too much time setting up Wong’s introduction to her revolutionary comrades, which begins with their production of a cringe-inducing “patriotic” drama that brings the crowd to its feet shouting “China will not fall!” But I think this part is important in showing how the historical context could move such clueless kids to bite off way, way more than they should have ever tried to chew. Lee adeptly shows their stunning innocence—which would be funny if it weren’t, at the same time, so heartbreaking—without needlessly caricaturing them. Even the initially one-dimensional character of Kuang (Wang Lee-Hom), the group’s passionately idealistic leader, gradually deepens enough to make him, too, no less than Wong or Yee, another player tragically trapped partly by history, but also by his own self-fulfilling sense of fate. There’s more than one potential love story going on here, and in some ways it’s the one that could, possibly should, have happened, but never did, that’s the most poignant. “Lust, Caution” is a film filled with unspoken might-have-beens, that Lee knows just how much to signal without overplaying his hand. And it’s the beauty of those might-have-beens, and the thoughts and questions they leave in the mind, that linger longest after the credits roll away.

GRADES: “Persepolis” A-; “Lust, Caution” A-


My one regret of the weekend is that I didn’t make more of an effort to attend the AFI's Tribute to Laura Linney, which was on Friday. If I could have gotten tickets in advance, nothing would have stopped me from going. But the prospect of another rush-line situation with no guarantee of admission didn’t seem to justify slogging through Friday afternoon traffic from Century City to Hollywood (an easy 45 min. to an hour, right there, even though the actual driving distance is less than 7 miles) to get there by 5:30. Still, they apparently let in all 75 people in the wait line. And I would have been able to render homage to la Linney in person, albeit from a distance.

Forgive me, Lady Linney, I’m still your faithful disciple, and will see “The Savages” when it opens in theaters!


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