Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Of Buddhas and Emperors

Let me get this first annoying little documentary out of the way before launching into something SPECTACULAR!

"Words of My Perfect Teacher" (dir. Lesley Ann Patten, Canada, 2003, 103 mins.) is "an irreverent portrait of Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche", who is the third in line from the Dalai Lama. Director Patten set out to do a bio-pic on him, but she admittedly gets distracted by his teachings and erratic behavior to turn the film into a meditative Buddhist lesson for herself. This is confusing and diffusing of all the subject matter involved here. Not only do we NOT get to really know Rinpoche, but the 100 minutes is HARDLY enough time to reflect on what Patten believes he is trying to teach her, not to mention the profiles of the other teachers (Steven Seagal?!) within this little film. It has taken three years for it to acquire distribution, and even though the filmmaker might suggest that it is part of its karmic journey, I would suggest that if she had taken a clearer and more precise point of view, it would have been a much more successful project. As it is, it is quite self indulgent as she is the narrator and incidental 'star' of the film. Instead of learning more about Rinpoche, or his teachings or the state of 20th century Buddhist prophets, we are left with Patten quizzing herself about why she is unable to get a focus on the project to begin with. I found it terribly frustrating to watch her, watch herself, watching him. Now, on to something EASIER to watch...

"Curse of the Golden Flower" (dir. Yimou Zhang, Hong Kong, 2006, 120 mins.) Oh. My. GOD! Yimou Zhang ("Hero" "House of Flying Daggers" etc.) has completely outdone himself here. The production design is so big, so MASSIVE, so blindingly intense, that it can actually become nauseating at one point. Zhang's use of color has always been fascinating and glorious. In "...Golden Flower", his use of color is so overwhelming that the performances and staging are forced up a notch into melodrama to compete against it. Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li play out a drama similar to "Lion In Winter", with three sons as pawns in their ploys for revenge and power during the Tang Dynasty in the 10th Century. Gong Li is incredible, considering the competition she has from the scenic and costume design. In fact, in the oddest way, she was reminding me of Meryl Streep in her technique and expressions. Chow Yun Fat survives his scenes on mere presence and never overcomes the elaborate costuming and armory he is dressed in. The three sons are caught in the melodrama and are perfectibly serviceable performances, but it is Gong Li that steals every scene she is in, which is saying a LOT considering...

The Production Design! Zhang takes Peking Opera to Ken Russell extremes and then throws in some Peter Jackson-like battle spectacle, creating a mind blowing fantasia of images! I spent most of the first 20 minutes gasping! And the last 20 minutes in AWE! The final battle is just out-freaking-rageous! However, the time between just got a bit... old. The reds, pinks and golds were swirling all over the place. The noise of the timekeepers in the palace and the protocol officers announcements put a surreal and not entirely pleasant edge to the proceedings. However Zhang may have been aware of this in his editing and pacing as all the spectacle would be balanced out by a stunning close-up of Gong Li. In the midst of this technicolor circus of chaos, her simplicity and solid technique anchored me back into the plot. It is in the running for some Foreign Language Film awards, and though the production elements make it deserving, it is so visually dense that the emotional heart of the the script suffers a bit. However, it MUST win for Costume Design! IT. MUST!

(On a somewhat side note, Ms. Ruthe Stein, of the S.F. Chronicle, made quite the restless spectacle of herself throughout the press screening I attended. You know it's pretty bad when you're being 'shush'ed' in a house of only 20! I will be sending an open-letter to her editor and post it here, later.)

P.S.: I just got home from the San Francisco Film Society's Annual Poster Sale (Member's preview)! The volunteers were doing a pretty good job, under the typically terrific supervision of Alex Ruhmann and Ben Friedland, who did NOT strong arm me into purchasing the half dozen or so items I walked out of there with. (It's a softer sell after you upgrade to the "Film Connoisseur" level.) There was a VERY tempting "Spider" autographed by David Cronenberg that I let get away...

I'll see 'em again tomorrow at "Pan's Labyrinth"...!

3 comments:

Maxxxxx said...

re "Words of My Perfect Teacher": "What are you doing?"

re "Curse of the Golden Flower": "Such a pretty bird!"

JimmyD said...

Yeah! Can't wait to see your "Dear Editor" letter!

Sue Jean said...

just want you to know .. aren't you glad? I HATED curse of the yellow brick flower --- the colors were like the designer was on acid ... the intercine wars between the sons/mothers/father ... gimme a break -- maybe if they'd had a score card so you could tell which team was the army of which villian ... i did not care about a single one of the characters --- they all deserved to die and I tried to get into the grand guignol of it all but couldnt .... after the first swoop of the blackbirds .. it got BORING ... what were we going to be slammed with next -- the hundreds and thousands of people made it ridiculous -- the winner was going to be the one with the most toy soldiers ...

i can't go on .... boooooooooooooooooring .. and I loved flying daggers ... didnt see hero so can't compare that one -- but curse of the yellow flower .... arrrrrrrrrrrgh! even the mostly chinese audience were laughing at all the wrong lines!

sj

p.s. have a happy holiday and vacation .... and come back iwth yoru aesthetic brain reattached!