Monday, July 1, 2013

Jim has left the island: My appreciation of Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly, the black guy in "Enter the Dragon," is dead.  Strange that I'm feeling shocked and sad about it, considering I thought his whole career -- including his role in that movie, my all-time favorite -- was a sideshow act writ large.  Some perspective is needed.

He had a dubious claim to fame as the father of blaxploitation martial arts movies, a mutant genre that saw names like Ron Van Clief and Taimak.

He parlayed his almost literal 15 minutes in "Enter the Dragon" -- he's the first and only one of the good guys to die, natch -- into starring roles as a gi-wearing Shaft in movies titled "Black Belt Jones," "Black Samurai," etc., as if the Afro didn't hammer home the point.

He was the blowout and the black belt, in one package.  The combo seemed strange at first, fusing what were probably the two most disparate American minority groups.  Blacks and Asians were, and still are, often forced by circumstance into the same neighborhoods, but they were, and still are, always at each other's throats.

But onscreen, in the person of Jim Kelly, they found harmony.

I've heard that on the whole, whites prefer samurai movies and blacks kung fu movies; reason being that samurai were about upholding order and kung fu heroes about tearing it down.  It makes sense.

Reginald Hudlin, former BET president and a black man, remembers in the documentary "I Am Bruce Lee" how Harlemites cheered Bruce in "Way of the Dragon" for beating up The Man, in the form of Chuck Norris, on their behalf.  And Bruce laying waste to a dojo in the Japanese-occupied Shanghai of "Fist of Fury"?  That became Jim in the early scenes of "Enter the Dragon," taking out a couple of corrupt cops.

Jim was the unifier.  He took a cool thing, blackness, made it cooler by adding martial arts, and enriched both sides in the process.  Without him, for better or worse, there'd be no black martial arts heroes like those I mentioned.  No Fu-Schnickens.  No Wu Tang Clan.  No "Man with the Iron Fists."  (Hey, I did say "or worse.")

We now think of "Enter the Dragon" expressly as a Bruce Lee movie, but at the time (Bruce hadn't yet made a Hollywood-produced film) the studio split the billing between Bruce, Jim and John Saxon.  (Consider one of the early titles for it: "The Deadly Three.")

Bruce was the talent, of course.  John Saxon was the established white actor whose casting helped get the movie underwritten.  And Jim was the one who made the movie young and pissed-off and irreverent ... and relevant.

To "Enter the Dragon," Jim contributed his blackness as much as he did his fighting skills.  Shot as it was on a frozen-in-time island of indeterminate Asian location, with most of the cast in martial arts uniform throughout, the movie has Jim to thank for grounding it in a time: the Black Power '70s.

There is, as I mentioned, his fight with the cops.  His unapologetic Afro, accentuated in one scene by noise-canceling headphones tuned (of course) to funk music.  And his attitude, expressed in lines of dialogue that have become some of the movie's most memorable:

"Ghettos are the same all over the world.  They stink!"
"Please understand -- if I missed anyone, it's been a big day.  I'm a little tired."
"Out in the moonlight, baby."
"A human fly!"
"Only at how sloppy your man works."
"Bullshit, Mr. Han man!"
"Man, you come right out of a comic book."

Jim joins a couple others connected to the movie who've died in the past few years, for those keeping count like I am: Shih Kien (Han), dead in 2009, and Ahna Capri (Tania), dead in 2010.  Add to that Jesse Glover and Jerry Poteet, disciples of Bruce Lee the martial artist, both dead in 2012.

My biggest reason for mourning Jim's passing, as I mourned those other folks', is a selfish one: Jim's death feels like another part of Bruce Lee dying.

As much as I exalt Bruce and will probably forever think of him as that young shirtless guy jumping at the camera, I do occasionally remember that he walked on soil like the rest of us.  What reminds me are the ongoing lives of people who knew him, the ones who bore witness to his career and then carried on, it seems, because he couldn't.  While they live, he lives.

I guess that's the bitch of dying young: Others are stuck remembering you for a long, long time.

So now it's come time to remember one more.  Thank you, Jim.  And may you leave the island in peace.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

'Stoker,' or 'Internationally acclaimed director'

I went into "Stoker" with the same anticipation that I had for "Face/Off."  Or maybe for Michael Jordan's turn at pro baseball.

I knew it wouldn't work, knew the skill set wouldn't translate, knew the attempt would probably be embarrassing to watch.  Yet I had to bear witness, or else what kind of Day One fan would I be?

I remember when I first watched "Oldboy."  It was 2004.  (Asian movies were slower to release back then; the movie was already out on import DVD.)  I was walking the West Village when I saw the title on the marquee of the Angelika and thought it a sign from the universe.

"Oldboy" was a touchstone of Asian cinema at the time, just like "Infernal Affairs" before it and "Ip Man" after it: Every self-respecting Asian-film fan seemed to have watched it and had an opinion about it.  But "Oldboy" differs from those other two titles in a very interesting way: It's divisive.  To this day, I hear as many zero-star reviews about it as four- or five-star reviews (depending on what scale suits the viewer).

A lot of people think mixed reviews are the sign of a bad movie.  I couldn't disagree more; those are exactly the movies everyone should be watching, the ones that start and endlessly fuel conversations -- think "Dancer in the Dark" or "Lost in Translation" or "Drive."  A movie that offends as many people as it uplifts is one that hasn't compromised, one made by a director who had no purpose in mind other than to indulge his/her own visions (and Fuck you if you can't get with them).  People spend so much time grousing about movies that ply the middle of the road, then they seize up when one comes along that disregards any sort of consensus.  Go figure.

Hell, I'd even heard people say they couldn't finish watching "Oldboy," for its visuals alone.  My brother was one of these -- said the movie's violence made no sense to him and he had to turn it off, even sitting at home watching the DVD.

My friend Burke, a guy whose tastes I respected even if I didn't agree with him much, just told me, cryptically, "I want you to watch it and tell me what you think."

So in I went, by myself, at 10 p.m. on a weeknight.  And ended up watching what would become my favorite Korean movie.

That was a few years after the Korean Wave had started, but I had been disappointed by the movement up to that point.  The movies everyone talked about -- "Joint Security Area," also directed by Park, and "Shiri" -- I just found small-minded and obvious and excessively apologetic and naive about North Korea.  (Both movies were made around the time of the inter-Korean summit, and reunification fever was high.)

Jun Ji-hyun (now Gianna Jun -- Korean women are like BAPs when it comes to naming) is one of the worst actresses I've ever seen, so I hated "My Sassy Girl."  Not to mention, it was shapeless and just seemed an excuse for Korean people to trot around and act Korean (an unfortunate side effect of the screen quota and the low standards it engendered, I think).

I got the feeling that the Korean Wave was all smoke and mirrors, that people were jazzed by the cinematography and sometimes the acting, but that the editing and writing were a mess.

The standout for me at the time, Lee Chang-dong's "Peppermint Candy," was a great artistic achievement -- yet pathologically Korean and thus doomed to the arthouses.

Anyway, "Oldboy" -- this was some different shit.  It took the protagonist and the audience to Hell -- then brought them back, a successful Orpheus tale.  It played by its own rules, but by rules nonetheless.  It flipped hero and villain and narrative and answered the questions it raised, in a way that didn't cheat.  It plumbed the deepest corners of our minds, yet still respected story and structure.  I found it darkly beautiful (or is that beautifully dark?).

I went back for "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," and after a couple viewings I now see it as Park's best (as in most accomplished) work among those I've seen.  It lacks the cohesiveness of "Oldboy," but the way it unfolds its theme -- the reopening of old wounds -- through scenes of raw, sorrowful, horrific, bizarre beauty is damn near painterly.

Then "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and "Thirst" made me a fan for life.  (Props to my friend Fisk, one of the great white knights of Asian cinema, for hooking me up with DVDs and tickets when I needed them.)

Park deserves his rep as Korea's best-known director -- even if people usually just refer to him as "the guy who directed 'Oldboy.'"  (It's "BOCK Chon Ook," no W pronounced, case'n you wanna get specific.)  He rules Korean cinema for the same reason Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou ruled their countries' film industries: He satisfies the arthouse and the grindhouse.

Most Asian film that makes it into this country is on one of those ends of the spectrum -- those are the easiest markets to sell to, the cineastes and the fanboys.  It's the stuff in the middle, like comedies and romances, that have a tougher time finding an audience.  Park's stuff is extreme but artfully done, with themes that beg for interpretation.  Everyone goes home happy.

So anyway, "Stoker."  What struck me most about the movie was its language -- blunt, awkward, literal.  I think this is a cultural difference, an attempt to be terse that just doesn't work in English.  Every language has particular traits, and one of English's is its huge vocabulary.  With all those words, you can get specific in ways that you can't with less wordy languages like Chinese and Korean and French.  But the downside is, the omission of words in English is glaring and usually seems forced.

Korean is different, a language that's as much about what's unsaid as what's said.  And I think that's partly why Park's movies are so powerful.  People in his movies move in the most subterranean layers of Korean society -- vampires, black-market organ dealers, crimelords -- yet, because of the modesty and decorum built into the language, talk and for the most part operate like ordinary citizens.  The greatest crises they face, inexpressible as they are, are left to the imagination.

For a movie that Park didn't write (the writer was Wentworth Miller, best known as The Cute One on "Prison Break"), it does share quite a few elements with his best-known movies: family members who've been separated violently, incest, harm to a child, sex entwined with death, the grooming of a killer, our darker natures.  For that alone, I do salute the filmmakers -- these are subjects that Hollywood doesn't like to touch.  The movie's unconventional as Park's films always are.

Where it ultimately goes wrong, I think, is in its insistence on the three-act structure and a tidy 90-minute-area running time.  The evil uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), gets introduced.  He does weird shit.  A couple revelations lead up to a big confrontation between him, the daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) and the widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  Movie ends somewhat ambiguously, in foreign film style, but honestly it all comes down to a couple violent money shots.

Typical Hollywood moviegoers, narrative-obsessed as I've learned them to be, will probably complain most about Charlie's backstory, which gets told hastily in the final reels and is about as much of a letdown as the denouement to "Psycho."  It explains the movie's mysteries a little too conveniently while introducing a bunch of logical inconsistencies that I won't get into.  In short, it gives the movie somewhat of a shaggy-dog ending that does a disservice to the shocks that come before it.  Instead of coming off like a darkly impressionistic indictment of society like Park's Korean works, the movie just seems like a geek show, out to offend.

But anyway, I'll keep watching for more Park flicks in America just on account of the subject matter they might contain -- maybe that'll become his legacy here, starting conversations that Americans don't want to have.  In the meantime, he's an "internationally acclaimed director," a condescending label (let's be frank) that John Woo himself never quite summitted.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"The Berlin File," or "So what'd you think?"

"So what'd you think?"

I laugh to myself whenever someone asks me that after a Red Lantern pick.  No one asked me that after "The Avengers" or "Spider-Man 3" or "The Dark Knight Rises."

The question, I think, implies that Asian films didn't earn their way into the multiplexes through the usual means -- cultural power and sheer earning power -- and should therefore be subject to further scrutiny.  ("A-ha!  I knew I smelled a rat.")

Look, in case you don't know, it's a big deal that American multiplexes are playing subtitled films that star black-haired people.  Hell, I remember when Scarecrow Video in Seattle, then and now the world's biggest video store, had all of ONE Korean movie on its shelves (Bae Yong-kyun's "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?," if you must know).

Now you can watch Asian movies from the comfort of stadium seating, a distinction that not even European films have earned, and it's no con or accident.  It's a reflection of relevance and prosperity, an accomplishment that speaks for itself.

Don't get me wrong -- quality does matter, and in the end it's what'll separate the great directors and national film industries from the mediocre ones.  But quality is a matter for the long run and for the pundits.  For now, visibility and ticket sales are what count.

That brings me to our latest pick, Ryoo Seung-wan's "The Berlin File."  Anyone who watches the trailer or even reads a synopsis can guess, this is a "Bourne" series ripoff: There's the lone special-ops badass, the close-quarters combat, the intriguing European setting (Berlin, no less, one of the locations of the "Bourne" series).  But smirk at the filmmakers, and they'll smirk right back.  Of course the movie's unoriginal.  That's kind of the point.

East Asians are known for being good at playing classical music.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why Asian parents continue to subject their kids -- myself included -- to the music of dead white guys in powdered wigs and ruffled shirts, generation after generation?  My simple answer: It's a way to excel without breaking the bonds of conformity.  The music's 300 years old, it's scored, there's not a whole lot of room to reinvent it.  But given that the variables of said music are fixed, they can be broken down, worked on systematically till they're razor-sharp and -- here's the key -- used as substantial bases for comparison.

Everyone wants to be great, Asian people included.  But it so happens that Asian people have to do it under the rubric of conformity.  Korean pop, TV dramas, blockbuster films -- formulaic like Similac, and Koreans like it that way.  And so, I would say, does everyone who likes Korea's pop culture exports.

Korea's a culture built on imitation and refinement, not innovation.  For centuries, advancement in Korean society was built on memorizing the Confucian classics of China -- becoming the guy with the least ingenuity, in other words.  So why wouldn't Koreans apply the same approach to their pop cultural products?  Koreans will take someone else's concept and machine the shit out of it, polishing the edges till Spider-Man couldn't grab 'em.  This makes the culture easy to swallow and to sell.  Look at K-pop mills, which took the boy band concept and turned it into a science.  Dramas that use the same tropes over and over.  Big-budget movies like "The Tower" and "The Berlin File," made from cookie-cutter formulas.

Americans' first reaction to a derivative flick like "The Berlin File" is usually to scoff, because there's an unspoken assumption -- a good deal of it earned -- that Asian imitations are, as a rule, inferior.  (Thank you very much, Canal Street.)

But let's look at some hard-to-argue-with facts: The movie's set pieces are well staged.  The fights are well choreographed.  The movie has a slickness overall.  Productionwise, it's first-rate.  No one could leave it thinking he/she had just watched an arthouse experiment.

Asian people love the result of this obsessive, assembly-line attention to detail: streamlined, plentiful, addictive pop culture starring people who look like them.  I once asked my friend why the boy band g.o.d. was so much more popular in Korea than NSync, which was probably the world's biggest band at the time, and his answer was simple: The quality between the two groups is about the same, but Koreans can identify with g.o.d.  And in time, when quality truly ceases being an issue and Americans come to terms with the Asian tidal wave that's crashing over them, they'll warm to these movies too and come out to the cineplexes to watch them.  Or their hipster friends will drag them there -- whichever comes first.

For now, let the numbskulls invoke auteur theory and argue over "The Berlin File's" intrinsic artistic value.  Koreans are too busy moving on, which means refining the formula even further.  While you were sleeping, they went from myopically geopolitical thrillers ("Shiri") to slightly more world-conscious thrillers ("The Man from Nowhere") to pan-Asian thrillers ("The Thieves") to truly international -- multilingual, East-meets-West, shot-entirely-on-location -- thrillers ("The Berlin File").  Christ knows what's next, but whatever it is, it's going to look like it belongs in a multiplex.

"The Berlin File" is now playing nationwide.  See the official movie Web site for locations.