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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

1h 27 min; Netflix.

It’s the beginning of summer. Yuki (or “Smile”) is a teenage social media influencer with buck teeth that she is getting corrected with braces—only she doesn’t like her braces and seeks to hide them behind face masks (in this anime world that COVID hasn’t touched). Yui, otherwise known as “Cherry” because of his last name (“Sakura”), is a shy and retiring teenage haiku writer who is filling in for his mother at the elder care community centre of the local shopping mall and who seems to have some sort of sensory processing disorder as he shuts out most of the world by wearing over ear headphones that don’t actually play music. By chance, they literally bump into each other at the aforementioned mall and accidentally swap phones.

Tangled up in all of this is one of the seniors who attends elder care, Mr Fujiyama, who constantly carries around a record sleeve emblazoned with the word Yamazakura across the front. He’s looking for the disc that used to be in that sleeve, and the mystery behind it serves to bring Smile and Cherry closer together. Meanwhile, the Daruma festival approaches.

There were a lot of things I liked about this: it’s a gentle and simple story, but I liked the nuances given to each of the characters that made them feel less two-dimensional. I liked how Cherry’s haikus popped up as graffiti all over the place (thanks to his friend Beaver, who was using them to practise writing in Japanese), and how the scenes and the story gave his poetry an added weight and meaning. “Haikus help me express things in words better”, he says a third of the way through the film, which means they open up additional insight into what his character is thinking and feeling. Smile could have just come across as a ditzy, too self-conscious and shallow bimbo, but there was also a shyness, a sadness and an anxiety to her that made her relatable. Even though Smile and Cherry are quite different, they shared a lot of similarities, and I liked how often they were portrayed in parallel, their bodies mimicking each other. The other thing that struck me was their relationship with their phones (perhaps because I’m old!): their devices were a near-constant part of their lives and, perhaps, their identities, and much of the movie was mediated through those small screens.

The other thing I liked was the layers of culture and history that the script wove on top of such a simple story—not just in Mr Fujiyama’s past, but also in the history of the shopping mall, Cherry’s haikus, the meanings bound up in the words he looks up in his saijiki (a dictionary or almanac of seasonal terms used in haiku), and even the Daruma festival and its related paraphernalia. (Daruma dolls abounded throughout this film: from what I can gather, they symbolise good luck, but they also encourage people to strive for their goals: they’re sold with blank eyes, and the idea is that you fill in one eye when you’ve landed on your objective, and you fill in the other eye when you’ve achieved it.)

The animation was quite different to what I’ve been used to seeing in other anime like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Your Name and even Studio Ghibli fare: the lines seemed sketchier and less defined; the colours were flatter, brighter and oversaturated; and the movement in some of the action scenes was more dynamic and crazier. I rather liked it and thought it suited the summer/candyland aesthetic the filmmakers were going for.

The ending was sweet and felt earned, though there were still some questions left up in the air that made it feel less resolved. But overall, I enjoyed this one as a light bit of fun and recommend it as a nice escape from lockdown.

3 stars.

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Review: Mulan

Mulan (2020)
Screening on Disney+

Tonight’s movie was the live action remake of Mulan (streaming on Disney+), and I have THOUGHTS.

Thing is, I don’t know if my thoughts can be pounded out in the time I have before bedtime.

Thing is, I wonder if I don’t do it now, I won’t get another chance. So here goes.

Given the Twitter reaction, I expected this film to be more of a trainwreck of a movie than it was. I had heard various things about it and some of the reasons why people were unhappy with it, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. I think it’s mainly two camps: one, the people who loved the 1998 animated film and were sorely disappointed because they were expecting something like that, and two, people who love the story of Hua Mulan and who wanted to see it done well as a Hollywood blockbuster in partnership with China, and they ended up disappointed too.

The 2020 Mulan is neither and therefore it’s sort of hard to figure out where it fits. This was symbolised somewhat by the opening credits, which featured the familiar mouse castle in a not-so-familiar Asian landscape with the addition of a great wall.

Firstly, it has some of the trappings of the 1998 film in its characters, storylines and even the music: Hua Mulan is a simple girl who comes from a small village and who struggles to figure out her place in the world that sees her as different. She does not act the way society thinks girls should act, and furthermore, she’s in possession of a very strong qi (which, if I’ve understood this correctly, refers to one’s vital energy or life force—something which is essential to Chinese martial arts). She knows that her role in life is to marry well and better her family’s social standing. But her spirit rails against this, and she somehow can’t help being who she is. (Note that the cricket scene in the original is sort of still there, but now it involves a spider.) Unfortunately being who she is means public shaming.

Meanwhile in the north, Böri Khan is rallying the Rourans and attacking garrisons all along China’s northern border, plotting to avenge his father, who was killed by the current emperor. He is aided by a powerful witch who can shapeshift and disguise herself as anyone she chooses. She is aiding him because she has lived much of her life in exile, rejected by her own people for who she is, and under Böri, she hopes to be somewhere where she can be free.

The emperor, realising that war is unavoidable, sends out a decree that every family must send one male to join the army. As Mulan’s father only has daughters, he consents to go. And as Mulan loves her father and knows he won’t survive a second war, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place, bearing his sword, which has the characters etched on it “Loyal, brave and true”.

If you were hoping for singing, you will be sorely disappointed: although the music sometimes picks up some of the themes of the 1998 animated film soundtrack and Christina Aguilera belts out “Reflection” over the credits (and Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan also does so in Mandarin), no one in the cast sings about their hopes and dreams, or about how they’ll “make a man out of you” (truly the best song of the original). The soundtrack is mostly instrumental, and I liked that it used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments.

In addition, if you were hoping for Mushu, you also be sorely disappointed: the red dragon has been replaced by a CGI phoenix who answers her father’s prayer and watches over her as the spirit of their ancestors (or some such thing). I rather liked that as Mushu was always a bit of a Jar Jar Binks character for me.

However, no singing, no cricket, no Mushu and even no grandma (who arguably had the best lines in the original) means that the movie is far less child-friendly, lacking much of the comedy and humour of the animated version. Mulan’s army buddies are still there as a bit of light relief (retaining some of the dialogue of their animated counterparts), and I kind of wish we had had a few more scenes with them as I liked the friendship that Mulan develops with them (and more particularly with Chen Honghui, who is the only one in the skinnydipping scene and who sort of slides in the Li Shang role, only he is not a commander). But otherwise, the movie takes itself very seriously (i.e. no cross-dressing in the other direction): the stakes are clear and the cost of Mulan’s choices weight heavily on her as she tries to live up to the creed on her father’s sword.

The last virtue—“true”—gives her trouble, however: how can she be “true” when she is lying to everyone around her? This moral quandary weighs heavily on her and, as the witch points out to her later, it is poisoning her qi and is preventing her from serving the emperor the way she should be. (Commander Tung recognises this in an earlier scene, though of course at that stage, he does not know her secret.) This is interesting as there are plenty of cross-dressing girls in other xanxia dramas I have watched and none of their qi was ever affected. This is also a big change: in the 1998 version, she was just an ordinary girl trying to spare her father and honour her family the only way she could; in this one, she is special.

When she is finally convinced of the value of being herself and is, in a sense, reborn like the phoenix, she suddenly has the power—or the qi—to save her country, her people and even her friends. But of course society is still a step behind, and her shaming and expulsion from the army seems overly harsh for western audiences, who would be more sympathetic towards acts of bravery than eastern audiences who, perhaps, would be more in agreement with values regarding law and virtue. (Something similar came up in the K-Drama Romance is a Bonus Book where one of the main characters is vilified for calling herself a high school graduate on her resumé when she was really a university graduate.)

The final act of the story is, in my humble opinion, where the whole thing gets a bit sloppy. While the action scenes, for the most part, are terrific and exciting, with backwards riding archery, spear fighting, somersaults on horeseback and Donnie Yen being awesome, the characters made some decisions that made no sense to me. Why does Mulan cast off her armour when some of it was clearly instrumental to saving her life? Why does she fight with her hair out? (Wouldn’t that be annoying?) Why do people act like Mulan is the only one who can save the emperor? (Surely she’s not!) And surely jumping onto a plank that’s revolving slowly in mid-air is a bad idea, no matter how awesome it makes you look when you’re doing martial arts on it??

The witch also plays a pivotal role in all of this—both as a foil to Mulan, but also as something of an antagonist in her decision-making. Unfortunately that story thread is given no room to breathe; I imagine that had this been a TV series, the clash of worldviews between her and Mulan would have been developed more over several episodes, not several minutes. As it is, things progress so fast, I had whiplash.

That said, I liked where the film ended—back in Mulan’s village where the opening scenes are book-ended with ones that close out themes of filial duty, honour, and ideas regarding what women can and can‘t do. Although it could be argued that Mulan is a feminist story of empowerment and male recognition of that power, I liked that the ending to this film emphasised honouring one’s family. Perhaps it was a compromise between east and west? For me, it worked. For others, it probably didn’t.

Along with the script, there are many things that could be criticised about this film. The cast was made up of Asian actors, but their delivery of the English dialogue left a lot to be desired and, to me, was jarring after spending so much time watching xanxia dramas in Mandarin. The costumes, props and overall production design was gorgeous and colourful, with nary a synthetic fibre in sight. (I only mention it because that is something that sometimes annoys me about xanxia dramas.) I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t historically accurate; this article notes:

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with “filial piety” engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with … it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

Also:

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

But as it had witches, magic and qi in it, I thought it was like other xanxia dramas I’ve watched that are set in some fantasy version of ancient China, so these things bothered me less.

That article also had this interesting part in it that only further serves to underscore the difficulty of where Mulan sits:

… joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

It seems to me that both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell come from less of an Asian background and more of an Asian American or Western Asian background, which is not the same thing. (It is interesting, though, that Disney chose a director who isn’t Asian. Was Chloé Zhao unavailable?) In my opinion, Mulan (2020) occupies the same space: it comes from Chinese culture, but its story is more Western in flavour, concerned with ideas surrounding identity, authenticity and the expression of those things in one’s society. So I’m not surprised Chinese audiences didn’t like it. I’m also not surprised that western audiences didn’t like it either. I enjoyed it, but one day, I’d also like to see a couple of the 15 adaptations made in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan if only to understand how others view the story.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most comfortable place to leave a review. But I am out of time and this will have to do.

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Review: Last Christmas

Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons herself, plays a down-on-her luck London girl named Kate Andrich. It is Christmas in 2017 and Brexit is dividing the nation. Kate works full-time at a year-round Christmas shop under sharp-eyed dragon lady Michelle Yeoh. She has Fleabag-level dysfunctional family issues—particularly with her mother (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay), who still behaves as if the war they fled in Yugoslavia has followed them to England. She’s such a hot mess with all the terrible eating and the drinking and the hooking up with random strangers, she just can’t get her life together, and she can’t land an audition even though singing professionally is the thing she most wants to do. By chance one day, she meets a way-too-understanding manic pixie dream boy named Tom Webster (Henry Golding) and begins to form an attachment to him, and that’s kind of where the downward arc of her character starts to swerve.

It is very important to say upfront that the marketing has let this film down: watching the trailer, you’d be forgiven for expecting a romcom dressed up in tinsel and George Michael tunes. It is NOT that (and a part of me wonders if unhelpful expectations led this film to score only 46 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s more of a journey of a young woman trying to turn her life around and deal with her baggage, and while Tom plays a role in that, the story isn’t about him or even them; it’s about her. Her growth comes about over scenes and days and weeks and things that feel a little repetitious and slow at times, but the overall effect is akin to a novel where small things are changing and a character is growing, just not all at once.

My movie buddy Fiona picked the twist well before it happened—perhaps because she was paying far more attention to the clues than I was (the film’s title is a big one), but also perhaps because she knows more George Michael than I do. (Also, I was still expecting a romcom. Nope!) I was still surprised by it, and while I’m still tossing up whether it was satisfying, there were things about the ending I liked and things that I kind of wished had been better. Overall, I liked where the movie left Kate and the audience. But I think I understand why its reviews have been bad.

Other things I liked: the leads were all engaging: Emilia Clarke made me feel for Kate; Emma Thompson was fantastic as her overbearing over-anxious mother; and if Henry Golding was a little too cardboard and a little too good to be true, well, there was sort of a reason for that. I agree that Michelle Yeoh was under-utilised, though her little character arc was weirdly charming and I liked the interactions between her and Kate. I also liked how many of the minor characters had something to do, and they milked whatever screen time they were given. And I liked that the movie was grounded in a particular time and place—with themes regarding immigration, homelessness and the general anxiety of the British people underscoring everything.

I don’t think this will be a film for everyone. If you’re expecting a Love Actually/Serendipity/The Holiday Christmas romcom, you’ll end up disappointed. If you meet the story on its own terms, I think you might enjoy it.

3 stars. Screening on Netflix.