Taking offense

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has apparently come to its heterosexual senses, downgrading Brokeback Mountain from an L rating specifiying a “limited” adult audience to an O, for “morally offensive.” This is, as I understand it, way cooler than an NC17, but still not as awesome as the “condemned” rating that used to be handed out.

Some people take this stuff very seriously. (For context, some other 2005 films rated O by the Conference: Land of the Dead, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wedding Crashers, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin.)

I know that the USCCB doesn’t have nearly the influence of the old Legion of Decency, and I guess it’s not a bad idea for a religious body to try to give believers guidance related to a film’s moral implications. (Certainly the original decision not to slap the film with the most disapproving rating possible seems like a remarkably sensible decision on the Conference’s part.) What starts to seem condescending to me is the notion that one set of adults should be deciding, based on some presumed wisdom that’s rarely in evidence, what the rest of them should be permitted to read or view. I’m not sure whether it’s still considered a sin within the Church for a Catholic to go see a movie that’s been rated “morally offensive.” But it becomes clear that the shrill peanut-gallery objections to Brokeback‘s original rating are rooted in a desire to control others’ thoughts by discouraging them from accessing artistic works (or, in their words, “homosexual propaganda”) that might challenge their dogma.

Folks, if God gave us brains, you pay Him tribute by keeping them fully engaged, and operating them with confidence in your own moral judgment. And Brokeback Mountain is a stunner.

Hana-bi / Sonatine

Takeshi Kitano in Sonatine

Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Insert a hyphen, and you break the word into its component parts: flower and fire. In the translation into English, of course, you lose that subtlety, and all you’re left with is Fireworks. That’s a shame, because while Fireworks may evoke the image of guns blazing, it misses the duality that Kitano explores. Continue reading

Kitano on the Edge

Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Insert a hyphen, and you break the word into its component parts: flower and fire. In the translation into English, of course, you lose that subtlety, and all you’re left with is Fireworks. That’s a shame, because while Fireworks may evoke the image of guns blazing, it misses the duality that Kitano explores.

On the one hand, Hana-bi is violent enough to turn your stomach. On the other, it’s one of the most searching, guileless explorations of devotion and grief in recent film history. The whiplash transitions from the one mode into the other may seem like a gimmick, but they’re illuminating a character who demonstrates his love for one person through the violence he commits against many others.


Billed as “Beat” Takeshi, director Takeshi Kitano stars as Nishi, a cop whose daughter died of leukemia and whose wife, Miyuki, is slowly succumbing. His face is stony and impassive, a Kitano trademark that was apparently amplified by damage he sustained in a 1994 motorcycle accident. While Nishi’s visiting his wife in the hospital, his partner Horibe is shot and crippled. Horibe’s wife and children leave him; faced with nothing but loneliness in his future, Horibe purchases a beret and takes up painting.

Alongside those two story threads is another sort of sub-thread having to do with the death of another policeman, Tanaka, in a gunfight. The exact circumstances of the killing are revealed to us only in flashback, and only a little bit at a time, but they seem to have had a profoundly scarring effect on Nishi, who decides to effectively drop out of the police force in favor of sharing his wife’s last days with her. In order to finance the vacation, he becomes a criminal himself. And what’s more, he’s deep in debt to yakuza loan sharks, who pursue him relentlessly.

So much noise and turmoil in this film, and yet it’s regularly drowned out by extended moments of ineffable beauty. Long, wordless stretches of film highlight Horibe’s beautiful yet disquieting paintings (actually created by Kitano) of animals with flowers for heads. Nishi’s escape with Miyuki to the Japanese countryside includes Mount Fuji as a breathtaking backdrop and winds up at the sea, that handy metaphor for all the possibilities of eternity.

Along the way, Nishi hurts a lot of people. So focused is he on the experience at hand, on the here-and-now urgency of taking care of his beloved wife, that he deals with any threat to the serenity of that experience with the back of his hand, the muzzle of his gun, or a well-placed pair of chopsticks. It’s over the top, but it’s rich in meaning — a cautionary tragedy.


Kitano’s previous Sonatine is perhaps less finely honed than Hana-bi, but makes use of the same dramatic juxtapositions. Sonatine‘s spellbinding midsection, during which a troupe of gangsters goes into hiding at a beach house on a deserted shore, is bookended by depictions of super-heated gunfights, including the ambush that drives them into exile. These action scenes are stylized to the hilt, more Clint Eastwood than John Woo — Kitano pumps copious heat from his pistol, but his face remains absolutely impassive. When a victim is hung from a crane and dunked repeatedly under water, his death comes as if by accident, with a deadpan Kitano and his boys speculating on how long a man can hold his breath. This is the face of a man who’s been deadened by his grim profession.

Sonatine‘s beach scenes, then, are all the more poignant as Kitano allows his gangster demeanor to crack and then fall away. The thugs laugh, dash around, play childish games with one another. Kitano exhibits a rather morbid sense of fun, but is markedly relaxed, eventually allowing himself the luxury of falling in love with a beautiful stranger with a thing for gunmen. But the world they create for themselves still vibrates with our certainty that, because this is a gangster film and because there’s unfinished business in the larger world outside of this beach resort, Kitano will eventually be pulled away from this happiness, back into the business of killing.

Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano

Of course it happens, impressively and sadly. Compare the journey taken by Kitano’s character to the “character arc” on exhibit in a typical American action film. Both Sonatine and Hana-bi identify the defining events in an aging gunman’s life, and show the transformations that ensue. Sonatine is the story of a businessman trading in violence whose world is shattered by the realization of how much more full life can be when you allow it to be empty. And Hana-bi is a sharp, uncompromised study of a man whose love for his dying wife manifests itself by rubbing out everything that threatens to intrude on that relationship. Brutal? Sure. Also invested with an instinctive humor, sensitivity and gravity that puts the action output of today’s Hollywood to shame.

Fallen Angels / Happy Together

Hyped by its admirers as just about the greatest thing since, well, Godard, Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is a little too haunted by the ghost of Chungking Express for me.

Now, I loved Chungking Express, two whacked-out, indescribable not-quite-romances that conveyed the uneasy thrill of a whacked-out, once-in-a-lifetime pas de deux with someone you have no business pining after. Together, they offer a glimpse of something akin to but other than everday life, a timeless Hong Kong fantasia. Photographed in painterly swashes of color and light, Chungking Express is the escapist’s perfect real world fantasy. It’s also an inspired visual tour de force, exhilarating proof that at one hundred years of age, the cinema still hasn’t given up all of its secrets.

So it’s entirely possible that Fallen Angels pisses me off a little by proving that Chungking Express wasn’t entirely the one-off masterpiece that I considered it. Christopher Doyle, D.P. extraordinaire, recreates the gorgeous, smeared-color photography that so distinguished Chungking Express and Wong’s epic Ashes of Time. Takeshi Kaneshiro is back, as a mute delinquent who breaks into shops after hours and intimidates customers into giving him money. Sobbing on Kaneshiro’s shoulder is Charlie Yeung, who has been jilted over a girl called “Blondie.” Leon Lai plays a supercool, sunglassed hit man, and Michele Reis his never-present partner, who obsesses over him from a distance. Karen Mong is Baby, a forcefully sexy moll in an orange wig who seduces the hired gun. Like Chungking Express, the film tells two separate stories that intersect only briefly over the course of the narrative.

There’s a lot of great, audacious stuff in Fallen Angels — like a bizarre gunfight set to a loping hip-hop tune, and what might be the most incisive masturbation scene in cinema history, played against Laurie Anderson’s “Speak My Language.” There’s a lovely meditation on our fascination with home video cameras and the cockeyed warmth of family. There’s also an echo of the Chungking Express scenario that had a clerk pining after the obscure object of her desire by investigating and rearranging his apartment during the workday. (Chungking Express reimagined voyeurism by flipping its conceptual axes — instead of watching his actions from a safe distance, Faye Wong admires Tony Leung by occupying the same space he does, but at a different point in time.) In all, though, I think Fallen Angels is a bit overwritten, and a little too concerned with knowing exactly where it’s going. A disappointment, but a fascinating, spiky, outrageously gorgeous one. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Wong’s 1997 Happy Together, which was shot after Fallen Angels but made it to U.S. theaters first, sneaks up on you. The storyline is awfully slight — two lovers who fled Hong Kong for a more ostensibly romantic South American locale wind up bickering their way around Buenos Aires and feeding their own loneliness and alienation. The difference is that Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung, two of Hong Kong’s biggest male stars, are the couple. Like a John Woo movie (and, some would say, more to the point) that uses balletic violence as a shorthand for intense emotional feeling, Happy Together uses gay sex to establish an intense emotional attachment in a refreshingly frank way. Once the big sex scene is out of the way, the story is free to develop on its own rambling trajectory.

There’s evidence that the film was shot with only the loosest notions of how it would turn out, and the first work print was reportedly three hours long. Once again, Doyle comes through with images of staggering beauty, including a breathtaking overhead shot of the Iguaca Falls. Throughout Happy Together, the Falls is a symbol of the serenity that eludes Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai — they figured that it would be the first of many landmarks to be visited in their new life together in this foreign land, but somehow they never found the time. Represented by a kitschy decorated lamp in Lai Yiu-Fai’s apartment, it mocks his failed effort to find happiness.

Happy Together extrapolates this miserable little relationship — which is debauched by harsh words and infidelity — to signify a dangerous propensity lurking inside all of us. Is this one at all unlike or more notable than any millions of miserable little relationships in other cities around the world? A secondary character ventures to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of the Americas, and the camera spins around his perch at this lighthouse at the end of the world. Of course this story is the world’s story, and of course it must take us to the very end of the earth, on the assumption that being there, in the most solitary of places, somehow has meaning in itself. It’s a simple thing, but a demonstration of the power of shooting on location — dialogue and image combine to give a very real sense of place.

In the film’s very final moments, when the feelings of loss and longing are achingly complete, Wong Kar-Wai sticks it to us with a Chinese version of the old Turtles song “Happy Together,” which feels both ironic and, astonishingly, full of hope at the end of a hopeless story. This light touch — is he daring us to sing along? — is crucial to the final effect of a film that could otherwise be too dreary to bear. Happy Together discovers meaning almost by tripping over it, while the more carefully considered Fallen Angels seeks meaning out and pins it down like a butterfly on cork, where all its beautiful multiplicities can be admired. They’re both important films, but I prefer the one that’s the least structured and simplest.

Even in Hong Kong and especially in Hollywood, I don’t think there’s anyone else making movies that are anything like these (Wim Wenders probably comes closest, both stylistically and in terms of his dreamy disregard for conventional structure). They recall nothing so much as the French New Wave, but they’re unmistakably among the first products of a truly new sensibility. Once again negating pessimism and defying the lethargy that afflicts too much of international cinema, Wong Kar-Wai’s pre-millennial rhapsodies are giving this cinephile new hope that it’s not the end of the world, after all.

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang
Starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung, and Karen Mok
Hong Kong, 1995

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang and Ming Lam Wong
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Chang Chen
Hong Kong, 1997