January 15th, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

Beautiful. Dire.

Georgie, I, and two friends went out to see the new film by Zhang Ximou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers,") and it was well worth having to pick our way through the snow to get home.

The settings and costumes are intentionally opulent and gorgeous, the better to contrast with the ugliness and rot running through the character of the people involved. The story is set in the Late T'ang Dynasty period (936 AD), and the plot somewhat resembles that of "The Lion in Winter." We have an aging but still formidable Emperor (Hong Kong action film god Chow Youn Fat), a stong-willed Empress (queen of Chinese drama Gong Li) and three sons of varying levels of ambition and ability (Liu Ye, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie), either of whom the Emperor might chose as his sucessor. However, that's where the resemblance ends. In "Lion" Henry and Eleanor spar openly, argue vigorously, and scheme with a perverse pleasure, and the story ends with a rather bloody-minded optimism that things might yet work out for the best. The dynamics in "Curse of the Golden Flower" are quite different. The Emperor's rule is so absolute that he cannot be openly defied in even the smallest thing. Rigid requirements of courtesy and decorum forbid anyone to admit that anything may be wrong, so discontents must fester in secrecy. Both discontents and secrets are rife, as we quickly learn that Empress Phoenix has been conducting an affair with her stepson, Wan, the current Crown Prince (Liu Ye), and that Emperor Ping is conspiring with the Imperial Doctor to bring about the Empress' death by means of a slow and hideous poison--and things go downhill from there as plots, counterplots, and revenges layer on one another until the foundation of lies finally, and catastrophically, collapses.

The film is chiefly a vehicle for Chow Youn Fat, the ruthless Emperor, and Gong Li, the desperate Empress, as the two major players. Chow Youn Fat is following in the footsteps of James Mason and Sean Connery, maturing from an action hero to a powerful chracter actor; however, the script mainly calls for him to be formidable and inscrutable, which he does well. When he does finally unleash his rage, he is terrifying. Gong Li is given a wider licence to chew the beautiful scenery, and gives it her all, ranging from sensuality, to illness, to despair, to madness. They are ably supported by the three young men as the mostly bewildered sons, and Ni Dahong, Chen Jin, and Li Man as the Imperial Doctor, his wife, and daughter who are caught up in the machinations. There is also a cast of what seems like thousands of courtiers, servants, and soldiers who recreate the often stifling and regimented life of the Imperial Palace.

The ultimate resolution kept us surprised until the end, and I won't give away more than I have. Highly recommended for adults only, due to the extreme emotional and physical violence. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

Casino Royale

I realise that I hadn't gotten around to writing a review of "Casino Royale," which is a glaring omission for a spy fan such as myself.

All in all, I liked it very much. The film both returns to Bond's roots as a "blunt instrument" as Fleming had his Bond refer to himself, and updates his orgins to the modern day, wherein instruments are rather more blunt and brutal than was admitted to in Fleming's time. In the new MI-5, "double-o" status is earned by having killed twice in the line of duty. The pre-credit sequence shows us Bond "making his bones" in the course of one mission, one killing in a brutal and desperate fight scene, and one a cool assassination. The violence in this version of Bond tends to be brutish and messy. Bond is an all-in brawler with a killer instinct--no choreographed karate ballets here. Daniel Craig suits this characterization very well. Vesper Lynde (Eva Green) refers to him as one of those "Special Air Service types, with a ready smile and a complex wristwatch." Craig's muscular physique (shown in considerable detail in the torture scene) smacks more of the weight bench and the drill field than the leaner "Commander Bond" of Sean Connery's day. Indeed, Bond is pretty much a super-human as shown by the lengthy "free running/parkour" sequence that starts Bond into the main action of the story, wherein, while pursuing a terrorist suspect, he scales a construction site, makes multiple multi-story drops/leaps, and and chases the man (who also is inhumanly tough) a good mile without being winded. This exceptional stamina shows up again when he is poisoned to the point of requiring electrical defibrillation, and then gets up and goes back to the card table as though nothing had happened.

I was pleased by the updating of Fleming's storyline. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen)is an international banker for terrorists, thugs, and dictators, who is not above using his underworld connections to attempt to manipulate the stock market for his own gain. When Bond foils one of his plots, he resorts to an international high-stakes poker tourney in order to recoup his losses. I was not initially thrilled by the change from Fleming's baccarat to "Texas hold'em", but I have to say that it worked well. There is actually a bit more strategic opportunity for betting and bluffing in poker than baccarat, which adds to the plot.

The storyline essentially follows Fleming's novel from there on, with a few key twists, notably dealing with Vesper Lynde, which I shall not reveal for the sake of those that have not seen the movie and may wish to. I do want to comment at more length on both the card game and the torture scene after the cut.

There were some very interesting additional variations on the Bond traditions: the main title sequence was a particularly beautiful card-themed montage (Georgie said: "Worth the price of admission alone.") but lacking any female silhouettes, which have always been a feature in the past. The signature line, "Bond's the name, James Bond" and the classic "Bond in Action" theme do not appear until the end--marking Bond's true transition into the world of the double-o agent.

The film was very gadget-light, the only major one being the Aston-Martin equipped with the aforementioned defibrillator and a very special version of "Onstar--".

Very good and creepy performance by Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, aided by some very effective makeup. One point I wish the writer's had left out: in Fleming, Le Chiffre uses a Benzedrine inhaler--essentially, "speed". The film changed this to something that looks like a common albuterol inhaler used by people with asthma, which robbed it of its character point that Le Chiffre is a drug user in addition to his other unpleasant characteristics. Eva Green was quite effective as Vesper Lynde, and veteran actor Giancarlo Giannini was very good as Mathis, the resident agent in Montenegro. (I'm not sure why the action was moved from Monte Carlo to Montenegro, except that the Balkan states are a bit more plausible location for Le Chiffre's brand of thuggery these days--). And as ever, the principals were well supported by a cast of expert stunt performers--.

All in all, a very worthy addition to the Bond canon. I would recommend your young spy fans stay home, due to the level of violence.

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