With More Sex, Drugs, and Violence Than Ever
Soldiering on with the themes I began to write about very early yesterday morning/late last night, my first day at the Toronto International Film Festival included some major anticipated films that curiously involved some sort of mixture of sex, drugs, graphic violence, and good old fashioned rock & roll. While most of them reveled in potent combinations of these themes, each film had something unique to bring to the table.
Again, there are some major spoilers ahead, but necessary ones.
When we first meet the cast of characters that populates master director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s espionage thriller Lust, Caution, it is 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. The story of how these characters got here is told in a flashback, and the textures and tones that Lee chooses are sumptuous: brocades, luscious silks, delicately-ribboned cheongsams, and lacquer piled on top of one another; conspiring to create a very distinct period Chinese atmosphere. An atmosphere where the devil is in the gorgeous details. One character puts it nicely: “If you pay attention, nothing is trivial”.
As one industry wag put it, quite succinctly: “It’s Black Book as directed by Wong Kar Wai, with nastier sex.” A little bit broad, but throw in a little bit of Army of Shadows and that is pretty much the gist of it.
The film is epic in scope, telling the story of a group of radical students (though their conviction didn’t really shine through for me with only one viewing) who undertake a plot to assassinate a government official. Lee revels in his war-time romance and nostalgia: Wong (played in an audacious debut by Tang Pei) is a kind of aimless young college student who decides, on a whim, to become an actress. The group she joins also happens to be anti-government. Their first play is a hit, and they receive funding; which they promptly use to set up shop to trap Mr. Yee (Tony Leung).
Obsessed with American cinema like Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Wong gets great pleasure from the crowd’s applause, which makes it even more alluring for her to start playing the role of a lifetime: “Mrs. Mak”, who befriends Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). “Mrs. Mak” will do whatever it takes to see her role to completion: she understands that she must gain the trust of both Yees, but that she must become Mr. Yee’s mistress. It is interesting to see that Wong begins the film as a virgin, who becomes an actress, who then becomes lover to the Japanese collaborator—in a sense, his whore. There is a sense that her erotic awakening has nothing to do with her political convictions, and that those ham-fisted patriotic ideas are secondary to Wong’s journey. When she falls in love with Mr. Yee, there is never a real indication of which side Wong’s allegiance truly lies on.
While in the Jodie Foster/Neil Jordan collaboration The Brave One, there is enough absolutely horrific violence perpetrated against men and women, Lee chooses to take on a more puritanical American issue in his Chinese-language film: explicit onscreen sex has earned Lust, Caution an firm NC-17. If the most extreme, graphic shootings and beatings can be shown in one film, but two people having sex becomes an issue that merits a restrictive rating like the NC-17 in another, we might all in trouble.
This isn’t to say that the sexual adventures shared by Tang and Leung are chaste, by any means. The second sex scene in the movie is completely shocking: tackling a consensual bout of S&M-tinged exploration in a way that somehow isn’t totally vulgar. By the time Wong is Yee’s full-time mistress, things get a little bit nasty. The secret lovers meet in Wong’s apartment and I’m pretty sure that this is the most explicit onscreen sex I have seen in a big budget Hollywood-funded film.
Of course, since this is Hollywood-funded, there is not one penis in sight, but full displays of the female anatomy is a given. The two actors should be commended for their physical bravery in these porno-esque scenes; neither lets vanity encumber them. Also, since we’re talking about the price a woman has to pay for her sexual appetite, it is fair to note here that in the end, Wong actually breaks character to save her lover, who, in turn, has her executed.
This is the price girls must pay in cinema for being sexual beings, it sadly seems—immediately I was reminded of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves where Emily Watson’s Bess continually humiliates herself for a greater cause, her husband’s sexual arousal, and in the end she is also killed. I guess the “Caution” part of the title is a warning to women to not have sex or they might face death.
Lee should be given credit no only for his expert craftsmanship (which has become more than dependable over the years), but also for handing over the leading role so generously to a novice. Luckily Tang Pei is more than competent. Both come out looking very good.
Also of note is the sly supporting performance of the infinitely interesting actress Chen as the capable Mrs. Yee, who said she would have done any role, no matter the size, to be directed by Lee. The actress was up for the lead in Lee’s The Wedding Banquet many years ago, but lost out due to what she called “a casting requirement from the funding source”.
With the pivotal role of Mrs. Yee, Chen is able to define the idea of being a generous supporting player while stealing every scene she is in. This is a woman who has worked with David Lynch (on Twin Peaks as the enigmatic Josie Packard), Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Last Emperor), Oliver Stone (a solid turn in Heaven and Earth), and directed Hollywood films of her own (the misguided Richard Gere/Winona Ryder love story Autumn in New York). Chen continues to clear an unconventional path with her career, and hopefully Lust, Caution will show the public a new side of the already accomplished auteur.
Director Anton Corbijn swiftly transports viewers into the Manchester of days past with the very first frame: in vintage music ‘zine blacks, grays, and whites, while “Drive in Saturday” by David Bowie is blasting. Ian Curtis (newcomer Sam Riley, in a soulful film debut) is bored and listening to records alone in his room. Lined up in neat little rows on his bookshelf are titles such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
It’s simple enough, but speaks volumes. The same can be said for most Control, a film that is reflective and introspective, much more so than the average bombastic musician biography flicks. The only time it gets loud is when we hear the music of Curtis’ formative years (some of his heroes were The Stooges, and, of course, Bowie) and then later when Joy Division begins to roar in its infancy.
Corbijn and his lead actor do a marvelous job of capturing the mundane, day-to-day existence of a working class rock star-to-be at home or working menial jobs to make ends meet—much like most talented musicians do; mainly like the legends he revered so much. Curtis seems perfectly happy to steal prescriptions from old ladies, and then go out to shows to catch a glimpse of the newest loud band down at the local pub with his pals. He turns up to school the following days without much thought about the cycle of boredom he has created for himself.
Ian meets Debbie (played with utter conviction and an almost shocking youthfulness by Samantha Morton) through one of his dandy pals and quickly, the two are bonding over reading poetry—Debbie sees the spark and genius in his eyes and falls instantly in love. And so will the audience: Corbijn uses the actor’s beautiful face, filled with angles, to surprisingly tender effect. Wiley’s Curtis is a lethal combination of sad, innocent, and disturbed, and the photogenic new actor plays all of these facets of this rock legend without going overboard or relying on a gimmick (even his epileptic fits are handled with a tremendous sense of dignity). Let’s put it this way: this isn’t the showboating, grandiose, studied imitation that we have been treated to in the past with films like Ray or Walk the Line.
Although there is a small cascade of images that unfortunately recalls American Apparel adverts (complete with skinny young lads in tight little underpants and disheveled bed-head hairdos), this film is much more self-aware and reverent to its subject. It allows the viewer to make their own judgment calls as to the behavior of Curtis, especially when he begins to sleep with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian writer and fan. What’s intriguing about the story at this point is that the filmmaker presents Curtis as being reclusively timid and tightly-wound even before the band’s biggest breaks.
Again, with Riley, Corbijn has hit a jackpot: the pair conspires to capture the emptiness, the depression, and also the sweetness and charisma that must be present in a star for people to be drawn to them. Physically, the actor gets the moves and gestures down, and at the crucial moment where his daughter is born, the nihilism and darkness inside the man are fully exposed. Ironically, the front man for Joy Division is joyless. It is hard to translate capture this sort of silent, lonely artistic isolation without relying on too many of the usual rock star bio clichés (which are somewhat present, but not in an obtrusive way), but the dynamic duo of Corbijn and Wiley nails this one out of the park.
In her section of the story, which plays more like a British kitchen sink drama from the 1960s, Morton’s womanly Debbie (who in reality gave her blessing to this project, based on her memoirs) makes for a graceful calm center to the rock and roll shit storm brewing in Curtis’ mind. She is the kind of good soul that takes care of her man, dutifully, no matter what he does to hurt her. She plays the dedicated role beautifully, exploring the darkness that can unfortunately get spilled onto other people’s lives when they make the choice to love someone who is fundamentally damaged.
Morton, who is a two time Oscar nominee (for 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and 2003’s In America, would be wise to play the “supportive wife” angle during this year’s award’s season rather than going the leading lady route. It is a tough call as to where her performance should be placed, but if you think back to a similar “supportive wife” role like that of Jennifer Connelly’s in A Beautiful Mind (and one with much more screen time than Morton), you’ll quickly remember that Connelly took home the supporting gold that year, trouncing the competition. And she wasn’t even half as good as Morton in Control.
The actress, who has two other films at the festival (playing Mary Queen of Scots opposite Cate Blanchett’s monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like in Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely), is one of the most intriguing actresses of her generation; and she keeps proving it with a boldness that is missing from most other younger female actors when they choose roles. Morton takes risks.
The true star of this film, however, is the enduring music of Joy Division. As Ian says to Annik at a crucial moment in the film, some of the music might be lovely, but the band’s sound is “not meant to be beautiful”. The juxtaposition of music with pivotal moments—specifically the one where “Love Will Tear Us Apart” rears its head as Ian tells Debbie that he doesn’t think he loves her anymore and that she should sleep with other men, is more powerful than any gaudy imitation.
That delicate balance between the music and the drama will undoubtedly be wrongly categorized as typical music video posturing by critics who are unfamiliar with the band’s sound aesthetic, and also because of Corbijn’s involvement and his day job as a still photographer for musicians and other high-profile clients (he, in fact, shot a cover for one of Joy Division’s singles and had actually met Curtis). While Corbijn does capture the pure scrappiness of a rock and roll spirit ascending and crashing, and of the working class dream of gaining notoriety, he handles it not with just the poise of a professional photographer, but also as someone with a clear gift for working in the medium of film and dramatics. What could have easily ended up as a humorless exercise in hipster excess turns out warm and snappy.
Now, I will set myself up for a lot of flack over my disenchantment with this new Coen Brothers film by first stating that I have never really been as obsessed with their work as everyone else.
Sure, they have been consistent in bringing their particular brand of humor mixed with outrageous violence to the masses; to the delight of critics and audiences since 1984’s tight Blood Simple. When it comes to physical comedy set pieces, there are no better craftsmen around (I am thinking here of Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage’s robbing of the convenience store for Pampers that goes hysterically awry). When Frances McDormand took home the Oscar for her pregnant Minnesota cop in 1996’s indie wet dream Fargo, the team seemed to start going in a decidedly commercial direction with fluff like Intolerable Cruelty (or Intolerable Movie, as I like to call it), and the fun but dumb remake of The Ladykillers.
In between Fargo and Ladykillers, there have been glimmers of hope with the flat-out genius of The Big Lebowski and the noir-ish The Man Who Wasn’t There, both of which showcased the duos competence working with actors and employing innovative stylistic choices. The same goes double for O Brother Where Art Thou?, a challenging re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Deep South during the Great Depression. In this film they guided George Clooney to perhaps his best performance to date and long-time camera-man Roger Deakins to one of his most lush and light-filled excursions into the nooks and crannies of undiscovered America.
No Country for Old Men has many positive elements to it, mainly thanks to Deakins (again), and the actors: Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss (his best performance so far), Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, Kelly MacDonald (sporting a helluva Southern accent), Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, and the formidable Javier Bardem Anton Chigurh—perhaps the sickest villain in cinema history outside of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.
Each actor is given challenging, sometimes humiliating material to work with, and as is the case with most Coen Brothers’ films, and there is an off-kilter mixture of grisly violence with slapstick humor. There are some moments in the film that will make you want to puke your guts out—one that immediately springs to mind involves a man being shot in the leg and methodically picking out shrapnel and stitching himself back up. In No Country, though, the humor seems really forced. The juxtaposition of the funny moments with the nastiness of something like murder seems really irreverent of the duo—and slightly disrespectful to the characters.
When Moss finds a bunch of dead Mexicans in the desert and starts cracking little jokes, should the audience really be laughing at the bloodshed? It’s like when Steve Buscemi was being fed into the wood chipper in Fargo all over again; using extremely gory violence to get people to laugh. Something about it, for me, isn’t appropriate, but it’s very provocative. In No Country , there are a slew of sequences like this, but one that I immediately recall is the shot of Moss being chased down a river by a pit bull hot on his trail—it’s a funny image; a dog swimming after a man. It’s funny until Moss unloads the entire contents of his gun’s barrel in the canine’s face.
The film overall, despite it’s audacious brutality, manages some really nice atmospheric moments of tension as the characters hunt each other down in search of a missing bag of cash leftover from a drug deal gone bad. Like any other typical western, we never really know who is on the side of the law and who is evil. This ambiguity is a welcome change from the conventional trappings of the genre, and it is enlivened by a troupe of able players, but something in the film prevented me from ever fully connecting to it’s disjointed, take-no-prisoners approach.
I appreciate that there are many shadings to the film (and perhaps another viewing would be helpful), and it is a refreshing change of pace to see a story in which nothing is predictable and no one is safe; but by the end, I was just upset by what was happening. Maybe this is what the Coens had in mind, but for me, it felt overly manipulative and cold as ice. For Coen fan boys, however, this will count as another triumph.
Tomorrow will bring a glimpse of the innovative animated masterpiece Persepolis, from artist Marjane Satrapi; and Tsotsi director Gavin Hood’s Rendition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon.