Monday, December 21, 2009

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee may be the most interesting and gifted director alive today. He's done comedies of manners (Sense & Sensibility), comic book adaptations (Hulk), martial arts epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), trifling comedies (Taking Woodstock), and the quintessential gay romance of our times (Brokeback Mountain), amongst others. In 2007, he branched out even further, to the near-pornographically sexy Lust, Caution.

It must be said, right off the bat, that I'm a sucker for resistance stories about the amorality and difficult choices in occupied territory. World War II, with Germany and Japan trying to take over the world, is the best recent setting for such storytelling, although it's usually in Nazi-occupied territory like Paris. For Lust, Caution, Ang Lee chose Japanese occupied coastal China, which may arguably be even more fertile territory for storytelling.

20th-century China was a nation falling apart and constantly reinventing itself at the same time. The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, had been overthrown and replaced with a constitutional republic, which was threatened by warlord-based civil war as China had seen dozens of times in its between-dynasty history. As the republicans began to win the civil war, a new communist movement started gathering momentum, and the Japanese began to attack Chinese possessions in 1937, when the film begins. The film is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, two major coastal cities which also served as two of the main entries for non-Chinese into China. Shanghai, in particular, was one of the cosmopolitan centers of East Asia, with enclaves of Japanese, American, English, German, French, and more inside the city. The political nature of the time and setting allowed a massive importation of "Western" ideas into China - republicanism and communism being two obvious examples.

The film begins with a flash-forward in which we meet the protagonist, Tang Wei, a student in Hong Kong. She and a friend are quickly recruited by a handsome man and a theater troupe. The politics of the main characters are quickly made apparent when the friend suggests they do a play of Henrik Ibsen's. Ibsen was a favorite around the world of those inclined towards republican and bourgeois ideals, especially in China. The young actor shoots this down as too bourgeois, and recommends a patriotic play to help China win the war, a tacky little piece of socialist realism that wins instant patriotic success. The little troupe doesn't want to just be actors, however, and begins to plot against traitorous collaborators.

Although the film doesn't expressly say it, they're entirely incompetent other than Tang Wei, who is also the least willing to join in, but does so to chase a crush. She succeeds in getting into Leung's social circle, and is ready to start an affair with him in order to facilitate the assassination, when things suddenly go wrong and she sees just how violent and amoral her friends can be.

When the film picks up again three years later in Shanghai, Tang Wei's friends have found here - and Tony Leung - and recruit her again to achieve the same goal. She goes along with them again, but only after seeing that her life is even more cast adrift than it had been - her family life has gone to hell, and she doesn't appear to have any new friends, and only escapes into movies.

Once the the resistance recruits Tang Wei back into the plot to kill Leung, she returns to a world of carefully tailored dresses and endless games of mah-jong, combined with stilted flirtations with Leung, a poised, careful gentleman of the collaborationist government.

Everything in the film at this point, like Tang Wei, is brilliantly conceived, but empty artifice. There's a plot, there are characters, and it's all gorgeous, but it not real. It's an act. And when Tony Leung and Tang Wei finally consummate their flirtation, both the characters and the film tear away the artifice in a shockingly intense, brutal sex scene.

As the affair continues, Tang's alienation from her life continues - her resistance contacts prove to be shockingly incomprensive of her desperation, even when she breaks down and screams it at them. A romantic advance from her former crush proves awkward and rebuffed for being far, far too late - she is completely attached to her affair with Leung.

Tony Leung, meanwhile, is absolutely superb (as always) as Mr. Yee, the chief of police of the collaborationist government. His performance gives the impression that he is a perfect gentleman, stuck in a terrible situation outside of his control. Early in the film, it even seems like he might be likable enough that the young resistance troupe are entirely in the wrong to want to assassinate him. Slowly his character is revealed to be a despicable sadist, albeit a recognizably human one.

It is when he shows Tang Wei a moment of human kindness that everything unravels. When it occurs, it seems clear that she hasn't had a moment like that since the very start of the film, and her reaction is both entirely human and horrifically stupid. She is revealed as totally compromised, and her character is shown as starkly naked as the sex scenes for which the film is famous.

Lust, Caution is not an easy film to watch - no good resistance movie should be - but it is a stunningly beautiful, deeply compelling one. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Hidden Fortress: Flawed Experiment

Akira Kurosawa is one of the most influential storytellers in the history of cinema, using primarily samurai-based films to toy with different narrative devices. Arguably the most well-known of these is Rashomon, whose method of different people telling irreconcilable variations of the same event has become something of a subgenre on its own. The Hidden Fortress tells a fairly epic story: a samurai family has been crushed in battle, and now its final heir and loyal general must try to escape to safety with the family treasure. However, Kurosawa attempts to tell the story through the lens of two peasants caught up in the middle of the war.

The idea of telling an epic story from the point of view of the little people involved is respectable, and can produce marvelous results. The primary problem with The Hidden Fortress, however, is that Kurosawa takes two characters who are usually minor stereotypes in stories like this, and expands their roles dramatically while leaving the characters as stereotypes. In this case, the two peasants are greedy, selfish cowards, concerned only with making a quick buck and saving their own skin. Kurosawa may have some insulation against charges of classism by having another lower-class character introduced later in the film, but while she is more noble, she's still primarily a trait (loyalty) over a well-developed character.

The story of a young princess suddenly thrust into full responsibility for her entire family and nation, while a loyal - but defeated - general (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune) attempts to deal with her stubbornness and grief is a strong core, and many of the film's best scenes focus on that. It's just something of a pity that the story is watered down by the often-grating antics of the two-dimensional peasants.

A modern description of The Hidden Fortress is somewhat incomplete without mentioning its influence on George Lucas and Star Wars. Lucas is a huge Kurosawa fan, and the Criterion edition of the film includes an interview with him on Kurosawa's influence. The Hidden Fortress is most often cited as the direct inspiration for the characters of R2D2 and C3PO in the roles of the two peasants (although the robots are much less obscene and violent). The opening of The Hidden Fortress begins with the two fighting, separating, then becoming captured and enslaved before an unlikely reunion, much like the beginning of A New Hope.

It's also easy to see Kurosawa's influence on Star Wars in perhaps the best scene of the film, a duel between Toshiro Mifune and an enemy samurai.

The slow buildup of dramatic tension, followed by moments of dramatic action combined with the use of terrain and props bring to mind the best lightsaber duels from Star Wars, most notably the finale of The Phantom Menace, arguably the best section of all three prequel movies.

Although I've been fairly critical of it, The Hidden Fortress is still a fairly likable film, but it pales in comparison to some of Kurosawa's other masterpieces. Star Wars fans and Kurosawa fans should find it extremely interesting, but a Kurosawa newbie may be better off with The Seven Samurai or Rashomon.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76
The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51
The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26

The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

25. "Run" - Gnarls Barkley
My favorite Gnarls Barkley song. Almost impossible not to throw up my arms at the background 'wah!'s.

24. "Rehab" - Amy Winehouse
The most bitterly ironic song of the decade. Although I don't think all of Amy Winehouse's stuff is as fantastic as some do, songs like this show that she can be something special. So get off the crack and into the recording studio, lady!

23. "Entertain" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney's breakup wasn't all that surprising, especially as their later albums added more and more songs like this one, dealing with the perils of fame. With its thudding drums and intense riffs, this song may have been the best combo of the fuzzed-out classic rock of their final album and the anthemic punk of their earlier work.

22. "How To Disappear Completely" - Radiohead
If it's not clear from the songs on the list, I'll say it straight-out: I like fast songs more than slow songs, anthems more than ballads, rockers more than love songs, etc., etc. So it takes a damn fine slow song for me to grasp a hold of it. The primary attribute I'm interested in is lyrical evocation - does it make me feel a certain specific way? "How To Disappear Completely" reminds me of being on my college campus as one of a handful of people over Thanksgiving break, listening to Kid A, reading Watchmen, and dealing with a massive fog bank that made everything ethereal. It's a great song for anything along those lines.

21. "Mass Romantic" - The New Pornographers
Not to get all High Fidelity on y'all, but when they talk about the top five side 1/track 1 combinations? This would be my first pick, and also my pick for the best opening ten seconds of a song.

20. "Love Lockdown" - Kanye West
Although Kanye's shift away from more conventional rapping/producing is a bit disappointing considering the quality he brings to those, his auto-tuned breakup album 808's and Heartbreaks was still good enough that I can't complain too much. "Love Lockdown" is easily the standout track thanks to its complex rhythms and intense vocals.

19. "Seven Nation Army" - The White Stripes
To call this song "anthemic" would be something of an insult both to the song and the term. This was the biggest and best rock anthem since "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

18. "B.O.B." - Outkast
Do I have too much Outkast on this list? Given that there are more Outkast songs to come, after three so far (and two more I just barely left off), that seems like it might be a worthwhile argument. But while Andre 3000 and Big Boi are most often compared to Lennon and McCartney, no doubt due to their somewhat fractured personal relationship, a better comparison might be to The Rolling Stones: would you complain about having too many Rolling Stones songs in a Best of the 60's list? Cause I'm not taking "Sympathy for the Devil," "Paint It Black," "Gimme Shelter," or "Satisfaction" out of the top 20 of THAT list.

17. "All For Swinging You Around" - The New Pornographers
Picking favorite New Pornographers songs is like picking children. This is my favorite child, then. Pity the poor cat in my lap when this song plays, cause they're getting swung around.

16. "5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O." - The Coup
15. "Laugh, Love, Fuck" - The Coup
Funky beats, radical politics, and wicked humor: it's like The Coup are aimed directly at the heart of my musical aesthetics. The only real surprise is how many people with similar tastes haven't even heard of them.

14. "Portions for Foxes" - Rilo Kiley
Is this song happy? Sad? Pro-relationship-with-bad-girls? It's kind of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of rock songs, in that it can be interpreted as meaning a variety of different things, but it's excellent on the surface.

13. "You Know I'm No Good" - Ghostface Killah ft. Amy Winehouse
One of my few criticisms of Ghostface is that his intensity can be a little bit overwhelming, especially over and over. One of my criticisms of Amy Winehouse is that while she has a beautiful voice, her songs often seem to lack, well, intensity. So put Ghostface together with Winehouse, and the gestalt is incredible.

12. "Furnace Room Lullaby" - Neko Case
The last slow song on the list. If I want evocative and ethereal, I really can't do better than Neko Case's stellar voice. She's great doing power pop with The New Pornographers, but songs like this are simply transcendent.

11. "My Favorite Mutiny" - The Coup ft. Black Thought & Talib Kweli
There is a specific subgenre of hip-hop song that I don't know the name for, but I'm mesmerized by. Its attributes are: 1) a medium-to-slow, simple, rhythmic beat; 2) a wide range of guest stars; and 3) aggressive, usually self-referential and -aggrandizing lyrics. "My Favorite Mutiny" fits this subgenre almost perfectly, although with its "who's who" of "socially conscious" rappers, it's much more political in nature than others of the sort.

10. "Prisstina" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney is ofter heralded for their politics, a somewhat overrated trait having more to do with the historical context of the band's creation than the radical nature of their lyrics. They do have an amazing faith in music, which shows up clearly in this magnificently catchy tale of a good girl going bad for rock'n'roll.
(I'm really sorry about the video, non-anime fans. But it's all the internet gave me.)

9. "Get By" - Talib Kweli
You can tell a song is great when hearing it for the first time causes you to immediately go back and play it again. My jaw hit the floor at hearing "Get By" and I played it again. And as time went on, again and again and again.

8. "Everything's Just Wonderful" - Lily Allen
Another entry into the catchy-as-hell-pop-song-about-depression subgenre. Between Lily Allen and Justin Timberlake, amongst others, this decade threatened to give disposable pop a good name. Who saw that coming?

7. "Hold On, Hold On" - Neko Case
Neko Case, on the other hand, threatens to give country a good name. Good thing they haven't noticed her.

6. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" - Jay-Z
It's not only an excellent song, but it's stunning cultural impact may best be demonstrated in this clip.

5. "Flip Flop Rock" - Outkast ft. Killer Mike & Jay-Z
This may be the Platonic example of the subgenre of rap that I mentioned with "My Favorite Mutiny." Any Outkast song with Killer Mike has a great chance at being excellent. Add in a superb Jay-Z guest verse, and it's about as good as hip-hop gets.

4. "Kilo" - Ghostface Killah ft. Raekwon
I've called Fishscale my favorite album of the decade, and, with some very strong competition, I'm calling this its best track. The sample, swiped from an educational song about kilograms, starts it off right, and it's got Ghostface and Raekwon doing the cocaine-based storytelling they excel at.

3. "Hey Ya!" - Outkast
The most consistent criticism of "Hey Ya!" I hear is that it's overplayed. Yes, it's played a lot. A lot. But for it to be overplayed, don't you have to get tired of it? Ever? Cause I sure as hell don't.

2. "Breakin' Up" - Rilo Kiley
This combines two of my favorite types of songs: the breakup song, and the peppy song about depressing content. And it does it damn well, gospel, disco and all. The sheer joy and relief it conveys are refreshing in a world where pop songs are almost entirely about wanting to get into relationships or hating getting out of them. Listen now, and break up with someone close to you!

1. "The Whole World" - Outkast ft. Killer Mike
One of the big Outkast debates often centers on their first four albums vs. Speakerboxxx\The Love Below. Their earlier albums, though occasionally very experimental, still reside in the genre of southern gangster hip-hop, while the massive double album moves off the street and onto the stage, as it were, where hip-hop and pop mingle together. Both are excellent, but better yet is the bridge between the two: their 2001 greatest hits album, Big Boi and Dre present.... They recorded three new tracks for the album, including the standout "The Whole World" (another track of the three, "Funkin' Around," just barely missed this list).

"The Whole World" has Outkast at their best, with pop appeal but still some grime in the vocals, over a marvelous swinging beat. "The Whole World" is pretty much impossible not to like, and even grows on repeat listens. When I began putting this list together, I had it as my tentative #1, but was pretty certain that I'd pick something from the top 8-12 that would replace it. And yet, as the list took shape, I never really considered any other song better. "The Whole World" is the best song of the 2000's.