Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Rise of a Tiger Mom: Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

While the cast and crew of Everything Everywhere All At Once revel in a essential takeover of Awards Season, can Oscar glory be far behind? My own enthusiasm for this inventive but strenuously confusing lark of a film is not wholehearted, but I’m happy for the attention being paid to the whole glorious tradition of Chinese action movies. I do love seeing Asian men (and women!) fly through the air while performing feats of derring-do. And I’ve long had a deep affection for the lovely and talented Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysia-born actress who grounds every role she plays—however outrageous it might be—with dignity and down-to-earth humanity.

 Many western filmgoers first met Yeoh as the steely matriarch in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, a satirical romp that some have found borderline offensive in its focus on wealth and power among the Chinese families of Southeast Asia. Yeoh is wonderful in that film, of course (especially in the pivotal mahjong scene), but it only gives us a small glimpse of her versatility and her physical gifts. That’s why I was thrilled by the re-release of Yeoh’s triumphant 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This lavish production from Taiwan, an early career triumph for director Ang Lee, was the rare foreign language entry to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. This was the year when the top prize went to Gladiator, but Crouching Tiger won for its cinematography, art direction, and Tan Dun’s musical score  while also collecting the expected award for best foreign language feature. (Clearly, the Academy was in the mood to honor costume dramas of epic proportions).

 Doubtless because of Yeoh’s ubiquity these days (I’m sure the videotape of her outrageous ad lib at Sunday’s SAG Awards has gone viral), Crouching Tiger is now back in actual theatres. How wonderful to see this film as it ought to be seen. Especially in the pandemic era, I well know the charm of curling up on your living room couch to watch a film. Still, large-scale movies are made for—and deserve—larger-than-life screens. As I lounged in my comfortable thaatre seat, everything impressed me: the music, the pacing, all the central performances, the immense scope of the action. This was a long-ago and far-away world I didn’t know, but one I was thrilled to explore.

 The chief critic at the Los Angeles Times, has reported that the film, for all its success in the west, was NOT an enormous hit in Asia. Perhaps it deviated too much from the formulas that Chinese movie-goers expect in their entertainments. In any case, it tells a story that is both highly formal and highly emotional, involving 19th century warriors trained in the mysterious arts of the Wudang sect. They fight off their enemies, bounding high into the air, in the service of some noble cause—in this case the preservation of the 400-year-old sword named Green Destiny. While fighting hard, they also love hard, but are also bound by strong internal rules, like the one that keeps Yeoh’s character, Yu Shu Lien, apart from the noble Li Mu Bai (Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat). What complicates matters is the exquisite young Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who sometimes works in close collaboration with Yu Shu Lien and sometimes fights tooth-and-nail against her. A true wild card, Jen may be the crouching tiger of the tale, or more likely its hidden dragon. Her enigmatic behavior in both war and love keeps the plot moving. And I for one adored the fact that women can be fighters as well as lovers.


Friday, February 24, 2023

From Uncle Tom to Sweet Sweetback: The Academy Museum’s New Exhibit

As Black History Month winds down, I want to consider the Academy Museum’s new major exhibit. Called “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” it’s slated to run through July 16, and it’s well worth seeing for its insights into how African-American actors and interracial subject matter came to be a part of mainstream Hollywood motion pictures.

 In cinema’s early days, Black characters were exclusively played by white actors in dark makeup. This held true when the characters were evil (the rapists and rapscallions who go after white women in Birth of the Nation are the obvious example). But it also applied when they were sympathetic, as in many early filmed versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The exhibit’s second room, which includes the provocative “Balcony Seating Only” installation, reminds us that Black audiences who chafed at the indignities of segregation once flocked to so-called “race movies.” Films like 1937’s “Harlem on the Prairie,” starring Herb Jeffries, mimicked popular Hollywood genres (for instance, the western and the detective story) but featured all-Black casts.

 It was the advent of the musical that allowed African-American performers to become increasingly popular with white audiences. The exhibit pays tribute to such crossover 1940s talents as the Nicholas Brothers (seen in their fabulous staircase number from Stormy Weather) and the sultry Lena Horne, a great favorite of my parents. Of course some terrific film clips from musicals like Porgy and Bess (1959) and Carmen Jones (1954) are on view. While watching the latter I was thrilled to spot my first teacher, future Kennedy Center honoree Carmen de Lavallade, among the background dancers.

 Some Black musical talents were featured in white films too, but generally in roles that could be snipped out for the Southern market. In this section of the exhibit I learned for the first time about “soundies,” two-minute musical presentations viewable by the Word War II-era public through coin-operated machines located in nightclubs and other gathering spots. The soundie has been called an obvious precursor to today’s music video: at the museum I watched Fats Waller outrageously mugging to “This Joint is Jumpin’” and Cab Calloway extolling the charms of “Minnie the Moocher.”  

 There’s a big jump from the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s to the era when Sidney Poitier played out on screen the tough issues facing African-Americans within the unfolding history of this nation. The exhibit naturally showcases Poitier’s landmark Oscar win for Lilies of the Field, as well as his appearance in such controversial hits as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night (both 1967). Appropriately, visitors can watch the clip of Poitier, his eyes flashing in anger, returning the slap of a bigoted Southern land-baron in the latter film. But this focus on Black stars does not preclude attention to rising Black directors like the gutsy Melvin Van Peebles, whose bold and angry Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) pointed the way toward the so-called blaxploitation era.    

 I realize that exhibits such as this one are constrained by what they can realistically cover. Time and space are not, needless to say, limitless. But I’m curious to know why 1971 was chosen as an ending date for this exhibit. The evolution of the heroic and strait-laced Poitier persona into Shaft and Superfly is surely worth exploring. And I’d love to know about the changing dynamics of audiences who are increasingly ready to root for a Black character more human and more flawed than those Poitier once played. Which, I guess, means a second part to “Regeneration” is much needed. When it opens, I’ll be there.







Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Spirited Away to Howl's Moving Castle

When it opened in September 2021, the new Academy Museum devoted its top exhibition floor to a major retrospective of the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The 82-year-old Japanese animator, who has been internationally acclaimed for his prolific work as a writer, director, and manga artist, is best known for films that explore the supernatural. Miyazaki’s work (like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away) often features children in whimsical settings, but his imaginary worlds are hardly benign places. This is tougher stuff than the Disney universe., but real beauty is also present.

 While I was browsing the huge and very colorful Miyazaki exhibit, the section that caught my eye was devoted to a film I’d barely heard of. The centerpiece of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is an enormous, ramshackle structure with anthropomorphic elements like legs that give it movement and an entrance like a gaping mouth. When  I studied the footage of the castle, set against a gorgeous rural vista, I was completely captivated. Clearly Miyazaki was captivated too—by British author Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 fantasy novel of the same name. As in Miyazaki’s screen adaptation, it focuses on a sensible, hard-working young woman named Sophie, who is first seen trimming bonnets in her family’s modest hat shop. Sophie lives in a market town that is vaguely Dickensian:  it’s quaintly Victorian in style but with a nervous sense of a coming Industrial Age. Magic is always lurking too: in nearby communities live kings, queens, and wizards, including the attractive but dangerous Howl. When Sophie runs afoul of the evil Witch of the Waste, she finds herself transformed into a decrepit but feisty old lady who knows better than to stick around. That’s  how she finds herself, after an encounter with a surprisingly devoted scarecrow, coming to live in Howl’s moving castle, along with a fire demon named Caliper and assorted others.

 It's a complicated novel, and Miyazaki cuts some of Sophie’s intricate family story as well as hints of Howl’s long ago and far away upbringing. Surprisingly, he turns some of Wynne Jones’ scariest characters (like that witch) into comic relief and re-thinks the whole power structure of the royal kingdom that looms so large in the book. One thing he leaves intact is Howl’s castle’s wonderfully magical doorway: from the inside you spin a knob that determines if you’ll exit into Sophie’s market town, or the bustling seaside city of Porthaven, or the royal capital of Kingsbury, or a mysterious place linked to Howl’s own past. Miyazaki clearly revels in Howl’s rather vainglorious good looks, and particularly into Howl’s ability to transform himself into giant swooping birds and other critters. He also allows us occasional glimpses of the youthful Sophie who still exists, despite her transformation into an elderly body.

 Most striking, Miyazaki adds to Wynne Jones’ story a sense of impending military doom. The stiffly uniformed legions who strut through the towns are a marked contrast to all the homey townfolk, and we see the sky being polluted by sinister aircraft. Ecological disaster is much on Miyazaki’s mind in several of his films, and war seems to be another way in which men and women push themselves to the brink of destruction. Thank goodness, though, for a happy ending.

 The English language version of Howl’s Moving Castle, lovingly overseen by Pixar, features the voices of such legendary talents as Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall (as the Witch of the Waste), and an elderly Jean Simmons as the old-lady version of Sophie. Though their voices are classy, you’ll remember Billy Crystal as a wisecracking fire demon.