“The Assassin” and Pacing in Action Movies

Despite being about an actual assassin, “The Assassin” nearly put me to sleep. The film is based on a classical Chinese text from the 9th century titled “Nie Yianning”, a notable entry of Chinese fiction’s famed ancient martial artists, and is rendered beautifully with stunning cinematography and gripping premise. Yet its pace leaves a lot to be desired.

The film stars Shu Qi (“Journey to the West”) as the titular assassin Nie Yinniang, who has been trained for years and has become a superb killer sent to murder corrupt government officials. Qi is badass and kind of terrifying in her unwavering resolve as the assassin, appearing just enough in action to illustrate her skills without getting too attached to believe she is a sympathetic character. Yinniang reaches her limit, however, when the next target she is sent to kill is the nun who raised her. She does not complete the task, and as punishment is sent to kill the governor of the far Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The plot development of the movie, while slow, still manages to establish the premise within the first 30 minutes, which kept my expectations high at the start. The catch? Tian Ji’an is her cousin who she had been arranged to marry. Drama of the stickiest order ensues as Nie Yinniang takes up her next mission.

I can’t stress enough what a feast for the eyes “The Assassin” is. The cinematography of the Chinese landscapes are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. The lighting is exquisite as well, making the gold of the rich main characters shine in a way that adds to the luxurious sets and costumes. The shots of the uninhabited mountains transports the viewer back in time, another stunning element paid careful attention to in order to bring to life this historical drama. Some of the visuals foreshadow the plot as well, like when a blood-red sky at sunset is reflected in a lake, contributing to the mise-en-scène as well.

Unfortunately, the editing does not allow the screenplay to breath, making you feel every minute that passes by while watching this movie. There is far too much exposition, especially at the beginning where the assassin is given her orders to kill, only to then attempt to kill the following shot. Instead of feeling like a detailed chronicle of the assassin’s life, it often feels terribly redundant. Additionally, the shots themselves are way too long. Despite being a martial arts movie, the movie seems more preoccupied with the mundane aspects of daily life than the fighting itself. You literally watch people sit, eat and sleep while stuck with the same forlorn expression for the entire time, making you wait for any plot development (of which there is too little). This adds gravity to the characters, but in an unoriginal way as if they were all in a Western playing mysterious sheriffs who blew into town to restore law and order. To be sure, the editing wasn’t all bad. There was an effective switching from black and white to color in order differentiate the past in flashbacks from the present. But this does nothing to quicken the pace, making important developments feel understated and inconsequential, like when Governor Tian’s interesting origin story is delivered through a boring monologue.

Overall, “The Assassin” is a solid piece of film that feels more like a recorded play than a movie. There is a limited number of sets that the camera stays stationary on the majority of the time as monologues and exposition are dished out like nobody’s business. If you love historical pieces, this will surely delight. But damn, is it boring.

“Last Days in Vietnam” and Responsibility in Documentaries

The Vietnam War continues to be fresh in Americans’ conscious as one of the last conflicts of the Cold War, and “Last Days in Vietnam” does a detailed job in preserving the war’s memory by featuring interviews with American and Vietnamese people who lived through it. The film brings history to life, but its lop-sided coverage of the war shows the dangers of documentaries engaging in political issues.

The conflict is a very sensitive matter, which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War since it was a brutal satellite war for America to forward its imperialist interest in maintaining superpower status. The documentary does not get the perspective of the opposition to American forces. All the interviewees have ties to the United States, either as members of the American armed forces or as Vietnamese refugees who escaped to our country.

This does not mean there was no value to the film. To hear the first-hand accounts of the American men who actually fought the war was gripping, especially their very human emotional struggles as they dealt with the impact the conflict had on civilians who lost their homes and lives. The archival film footage of bombings, evacuations, military exercises and the like made vivid the clear descriptions of the Vietnam War I read about in history class. The tragedy became much more comprehensible by showing the individual people and actions it takes to mount a war in the first place. But the lack of perspectives outside of the forces with America makes the documentary a simple and concise history of only the mainstream American narrative of the war. To not have this view counterbalanced with that of the Soviet-allied forces makes the loss American forces hard to understand. There is no focus on the achievements and developments on the Soviet side that led to their success. Only the work of the American forces is then appreciated.

The documentary is very good on a technical level. At the beginning, I was deceived into believing that the incredibly conventional editing of the documentary would contain an incredibly conventional story. Instead, the intricate and chaotic nature of war strategy plays out in the most visually literate manner possible. However, if the viewer does not have a nuanced education on the Vietnam War, this film could do them a disservice by only presenting one flawed view of the conflict, and even then not focusing on the Vietnamese people who were most impacted. While chronicling America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, at no point does the documentary dive into historical analysis, leaving me wanting more. I’m sure the interviewees have strong views on the war that could have been shown in a balanced way to the benefit of the viewer’s knowledge without getting mired in politics.

I don’t consider the limited scope of the documentary a fatal flaw. To include the Soviet side would be to extend the documentary far past its hour-and-a-half running time, and would expect a movie to be as authoritative as a vetted history textbook. However, the lack of self-awareness in its obvious bias is concerning. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Those who truly respect history must resist this vantage point.

Black Comedy and the Role of Ratings

In my experience, black comedy is edgy by nature. Since the most common theme I’ve seen explored in the genre is death, I’m not surprised what makes black comedies so unique for me is how they force me to laugh at things I wouldn’t laugh at otherwise while still being in good taste. I watched the films “Heathers” (1988) and “The Truman Show” (1998) back-to-back in order to catch up on some highlights of the genre, and found another element it experiments with to great effect: the expectations we have of a film based on the age of the main characters. I only knew the basics about the protagonists of both of these films, so the dissonance between its subject matter and its treatment of said subject blindsided me so much I had to write about it.

All I knew about “Heathers” was that it was about the most popular (and mean) girls at school. This is a a well-trodden premise, and I was worried at the beginning when the basic high school stock characters were established that the film would be a straight-forward high school drama. And yet something feels off; the characters of the movie are more cruel and crass when dealing with sensitive issues than I can ever remember seeing when I was in high school. I found it hard to believe that even in the 1980s young people could be so nasty. Then, the film hits a turning point when the least-mean popular girl Veronica (Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”) tries to do the Heathers’ bidding by talking to the mysterious JD (Christian Slater, “Mr. Robot”), who has been watching and smiling at her from a corner of the cafeteria while the Heathers wreak havoc all of lunch. At this point I got worried. Another high school romance? But then the movie shows its true colors.

JD pulling a gun on bullies literally out of nowhere in “Heathers”. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database

JD gets harassed and called a “fag” by jocks because one of the most popular girls in school just talked to him, a prime example of the absurd logic bullies use to target others. He in turn brandishes a gun out of nowhere and shoots them (with what we later learn are blanks). What?

This scene is a prime example of the unique power of black comedy by being subservive on two levels. For one, suburbia is known for having low crime-rates, which makes them appealing to move to in the first place. This establishes the magnitude of how dangerous JD is to this community from the very first time we see him, and it is both fricking hilarious and fricking horrifying at the same time. But on a broader level, this disrupts our expectations of what a high school movie is like. It is a good introduction of the very dark and twisted view of high school presented in “Heathers”. I had zero idea the film is rated R, but I wish I had.

I had the complete opposite emotional reaction when watching “The Truman Show”. It is unexpectedly sweet and tender at its core, following 30 year-old Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey, “Bruce Almighty”) on a quest to find his high school crush who he loved but had whisked away, as he realizes something is very off about his hometown. I did not expect such a touching driving force for a movie about a man who is the star of a crazy successful reality TV show with everyone knowing it but him.

One of the darkest aspects to the film, in my opinion, is the idea that we do not really know the intentions of other people because we do not know what we do not know. It made me sad to think that Truman, who is kind, has intimate relationships with those he considers loved ones that are actually all actors. A notable example is when his closest friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich, “The Americans”) holds back tears after Truman says he is his best friend. I felt that.

After seeing that Jim Carrey was the lead and that the film was about a 24/7 reality TV show, I was concerned that “The Truman Show” would take a turn for the grotesque regarding sexuality and violence. Yet surprisingly, there is not any sex or violence. When Truman’s sexuality is addressed, it is to show how artificial his marriage to his wife Meryl (Laura Linney, “Sully”) is. When Truman is shown to have a habit of buying ambiguous magazines “for the wife”, I assumed it was porn. But instead, the magazines are shown to be full of close-ups of women’s faces, which he uses to construct a portrait of his love interest in high school whom he still misses dearly after so many years. It is sweet and shows a pure and romantic side to Truman that makes him a very sympathetic hero.

Meryl promoting hot cocoa to the camera after her husband Truman shares he believes his world is a lie in “The Truman Show”. Source: YouTube

In contrast, his relationship with his wife Meryl is dull and full of repetition, with scenes of them together focused on mundane daily marital life like saying goodbye before going to work or uniting at the end of the day. The fact Meryl is only acting like his wife is palpable, but she never misses a beat despite her regular advertising of sponsors’ products. But the injustice that Truman faces by having everything he knows be fiction is brought to the forefront when he finally confronts Meryl that something is very fake about their city and that he must go follow his dreams of travelling. She becomes visibly panicked, no doubt well-aware of all the anti-travel messaging he received to keep him on set, and tries to dismiss his ideas. And out of nowhere she pulls out hot cocoa and offers to make him some as she advertises the specific brand. While it is funny that she would stick to the script at such an inopportune time, it is also very depressing to see how she and all the other actors on the show value their professional relationships with Truman over their personal relationships with him. This makes his genuine, albeit short-lived connection with his love interest Lauren (Natascha McElhone, “Californication”) so charming. They are able to recognize their chemistry in spite of all the obstacles between them, making the movie a lot more heart-warming and fairytale-like than I anticipated.

When I found out the film was rated PG, everything clicked into place. The 1950s-inspired clothes and decor lent a sense of authenticity to the sanitized world that is supported by sponsors and the average Joe watching. I’m glad I didn’t know that, however, so I could feel firsthand how disarming it was for Truman to take to heart the idyllic artificial life his show’s creator Christof (Ed Harris, “Mother!”) made in an effort to shield him from the real world’s horrors. I would have expected the family-friendly PG rating to detract, not enhance the movie centered on the unfiltered human experience. And yet by showing how unnatural it would be to live in a world that is monitored and approved by the masses, the plot rises from science fiction thought experiment to social commentary, with a lot of heart added to the mix.

In conclusion, I found it very refreshing to see age groups redefined in “Heathers” and “The Truman Show” through the use of comedy. The movies take the stereotypes of the teenage bad boy and the wholesome adult everyman to extremes, which lends itself perfectly to critique the societal norms that allow these figures to emerge in the first place in an original and memorable way.

“Threads” is Surprisingly Relevant 33 Years Later

Finally released on Blu-ray, the warning given in the visceral 1984 apocalyptic film “Threads” feels all the more life-threatening in the midst of our political climate after Trump negotiated the denuclearization of North Korea with the DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The film holds back no punches as it spends the first half hour depicting the normal daily life of working-class Sheffield, England. Warnings of escalating tensions between the United States and USSR over Iran are reported through the television sets and radios everyone seems to be plugged in to, but it is easy for me to ignore the over-whelming presence of danger in favor of the true drama of the film’s premise: the marriage of young couple Jimmy (Reese Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher), who is pregnant. However, by the time the conflict has gone nuclear Sheffield has already emptied its grocery stores in an attempt to prepare for the worst, as it is a NATO center that would be a prime target for the Warsaw Pact if war ensues.

And it does, as the city is bombed. It is horrifying to see how little time passes between when we first learn of the conflict and when the absolute worst case scenario occurs. I, in spite of myself, was hoping the entire time that the escalations of the conflict between the two world superpowers would either resolve itself or spare outside nations. It was incredibly cruel and nihilistic to see how despite the citizens’ protests as the country comes closer to war, they are ultimately not listened to by the actual countries fighting. The film does an excellent job of painting the world of Sheffield by having a plot with a wide scope, focusing on Jimmy and Ruth but showing preparations of their families and emergency coordinators of the local government. It is so, so sad to see to how little regard the superpowers end up having for poor Britain despite Sheffield’s efforts to make their voice heard. It made me feel that the world would be a more peaceful place if only we would engage those we disagree with more often.

The vivid depiction of the impact a nuclear bombing would have on a city made my heart drop and my stomach hurt. It is evil, Hell on Earth, and I believe no mere human dispute could ever merit such extreme measures. It was eye-opening to see the fears of people around the world during the Cold War brought to life. As I was born after the conflict, I will never know what it was like to live wondering if my own powerhouse country would disregard any shred of humanity to use such weapons. But I worry that my generation is getting a taste of that fear with Trump’s taunts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last August, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea does not comply with the United States. I am not saying that everyone should watch “Threads”, a piece of well-made fiction, in order to inform their real-life decisions. However, I believe that a movie like “Threads” serves as a testament of the fears of a time that can allow future generations to understand better, synthesizing parts of history that define our country’s master narrative. Trump, being an adult by the time this film came out, was surely aware of the Cold War happening. I think it is impossible that he would want to invite so much destruction of humans lives to provoke a hostile nation threatening nuclear missiles. But based on his belligerent language, I bet he doubts such a threat could one day be serious. “Threads” is a strong example of how art plays an important role in forming public memory in the hopes of learning from it.

John Hughes Crystallized the Best of Being Kids in America

When I was still a film critic for The Michigan Daily, I went to a film festival at The Michigan Theater showing classic 1980’s films starring the Brat Pack as part of its “Kids in America: 80’s Teen Classics”. The theater didn’t publish why these films were being shown in the midst of Halloween (even after I sent them an email, the assholes), but their pervasive influence in pop culture from enduring quotes to merchandise is proof their legacy lives on.

Of course, a showcase of these movies would be incomplete without discussing the work of director-screenwriter and Michigan native John Hughes. He is said to be the pioneer of the teen film genre for good reason. His careful attention to organic dialogue is consistent throughout his repertoire. But what sets Hughes’ films apart is that he gives his teenage protagonists the respect they deserve. There is never a hint of condescending even in the midst of teenage problems one quickly outgrows after graduation.

Something I appreciate of his work is that he used vastly different protagonists to tap into different facets of American ideals in adolescence. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I have heard friends and celebrities alike call the film their favorite of all time due to the quintessentially American joie de vivre it conveys. If a baseball game, an art museum and fine dining is supposed to be the epitome of the good life in America, then I am underwhelmed. Lots of people have attained these ideals, as fortunate as they may be. But the way Ferris sticks it to The Man by refusing to take an exam on a subject he plans on never using is what keeps the film timeless. It kept the movie for me from being a purely hedonistic romp through Chicago to an escapist trip the “everyteen” protagonist deserves as they make their way through the awkward stage of not being a child yet not quite being an autonomous adult.

The grandeur of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”’s plot distracts from one of Hughes’s strengths that keep his legacy alive: having a keen eye for high school social hierarchy. “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink”, both starring Molly Ringwald, feel a lot like the same film on the surface. The well-trodden tale of a girl pining for a boy who is unattainable due to age or socioeconomic status could have easily fallen flat as a cliche romance starring teenagers. But the world in these films are so lushly populated by opinionated friends and family that the societal pressures driving the heroines’ decisions recreates those faced by teenagers in real life.

In the same vein, the director-screenwriter had a keen appreciation for the stock characters that populate American narratives of high school. This is showcased best in his classic “The Breakfast Club”. Having essentially caricatures of the five kinds of people you meet in high school forced into interacting with one another might sound lacking in depth. But the honest backstories and sincere performances elevate it to a gripping look at detention as a microcosm of high school social ills that ring true today. Though a friend of mine recalls laughing hysterically at the scene where the club divulges why they were in detention in the first place (after smoking weed no less), I was moved deeply. Here was a screenplay that understood how teenagers present themselves. Moreover, here was a movie that knew that teenagers’ problems are as real as those of any adult drama.

YA author John Green seems to have carried on Hughes’s torch in contemporary times, not only in content but in commercial success as well. Green’s novels and indeed the YA genre in general transcend their target audience to assimilate into America’s mass culture, much like Hughes’s films did thirty years ago. So while there is no obvious reason why to screen teen films from the 1980’s in October, there is never a wrong time to do so. Adolescence is an exciting time. Capturing the period you have your whole life ahead of as you begin to gain independence lends irresistible optimism and romanticism to any story, regardless of who experiences it.

Stop Romanticizing the Suicide Forest

Trigger Warning: Suicide

YouTuber Logan Paul has stirred controversy at the start of the new year after filming a vlog in Aokigahara, a forest in Japan that is a popular location for suicide attempts. Paul, who is 22, caught on camera the dead body of a man who hanged himself in the forest and made this the thumbnail of the since-deleted video. The intense criticism he received led him to write and film an apology that focused on the intent of his actions rather than their impact. This not only put into question the boundaries of the new Internet celebrity in the digital age, but it also made me ask more broadly how Americans engage with Japanese culture.

As someone who is diagnosed with major depression disorder and has been hospitalized twice for suicidal ideation, I do not take lightly to the claims that Paul laughed and smiled when he found a dead body in the Suicide Forest. Against my better judgement, I took the risk to my mental health and watched the video myself. What I found was less offensive and yet more dangerous than what I heard claimed. It is difficult to summarize a 14-minute(!) video, so I will consolidate my reactions instead.

Source: YouTube

Logan Paul is an idiot. He tries to set a respectful tone in the video by doing things like have trigger warnings and giving affirmations for those who are struggling with mental illness to seek help. And he clarifies that his laughter and smiles after finding the corpse come from his use of humor as a defense mechanism, which I believe. But his lack of consideration for people who are mentally ill in real life is evident by the fact he would videotape A LOCATION FAMOUS FOR SUICIDE ATTEMPTS in the first place. You do not visit a place of death for pleasure; that’s morbid. You do not maintain your lucrative brand by showing off a place of death (regardless of the fact the video was not monetized); that’s unethical.

The fact Paul says he visited Aokigahara because he wanted to end the year on an introspective and quiet note is offensive. The mentally ill and disabled are not here to make you, the neurotypical and able-bodied, feel better by showering us with pity without listening to our needs to make our lives easier. That would be enough to see that Paul was not respectful of the suicidal in the forest since the conception of his plan.

Source: YouTube

But then he crosses a line as a YouTuber (having foregone basic humanity long before this point) when he demonstrates that his interest in visiting was, in part, to maintain the attention and expectations of his fan base. Though his followers have argued that he should not be blamed for randomly capturing a corpse on film because he vlogs his life everyday, Paul’s self-serving interest is evident when he ignores one of his friend’s request to turn off the camera and leave. Instead, Paul walks to the dead body, bringing the camera along with him for the ride, only saving the viewer from having to see the corpse with a text screen explaining that doing so would violate YouTube’s guidelines. I was at a loss as to why he would do this when he looked so visibly distressed throughout the entire ordeal until the end of the video, when Paul reminds the audience he had made a commitment in one of his first vlogs to entertain his audience everyday. This somehow seems to be his excuse as to why he found himself in such a terrible predicament: he insists on sharing the “positive” and “negative” times of his life because he and his fans are family (the Logang) and this is “part of it”.

I am disgusted at the thought of impressionable young people learning about suicide and mental illness from this man-child. Scarier still is seeing members of the Logang defending him because he was doing his best to please as an entertainer when he stumbled across the body. I could write for a long time as to how fucked up this near-sighted vision of celebrity is, but I believe it has been better said by people before me. I would like to use this space as a blog dedicated to the arts to focus on how our media informed Paul’s decision to go to Aokigahara in the first place, which he said was based on what he had seen in books and movies.

“The Forest”. Source: The Mary Sue

When he said this I immediately thought of the 2016 film “The Forest”. The film loses itself in its attempts to scare with traditional-looking ghosts appearing from thin air while it illustrates the landmark’s role in Japanese folklore and contemporary society. This matches Paul’s description of wanting to visit Aokigahara because he heard it was haunted by the tormented souls of the dead suicidal who try to tempt visitors off the trail, presumably to meet the same fate.

The movie stars an American protagonist named Sara (Natalie Dormer, “Elementary”) who receives a call from police informing her that her twin, Jess (also played by Dormer), is assumed to be dead after having last been seen in the Suicide Forest. She goes to Japan to find her, driven to explore the forest in spite of countless of warnings to not go off her path at the risk of making herself vulnerable to being terrorized by the angry spirits that live there. At the hotel she is staying at, she meets travel journalist Aiden (Tyler Kinney, “Rock the Kasbah”) who knows a guide who can assist them navigate the forest. Once she begins exploring the forest with Aiden and tour guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), traditional Japanese ghosts and American demons begin to haunt her. Once one of the angry spirits of the forest warn her to not trust Aiden, she loses her peace of mind and becomes increasingly paranoid.

The superficial jump scares used are pointless and only serve to conform to the horror genre, echoing Paul’s interest in exploring the “haunted” aspect of the forest’s reputation without being prepared to face the real life tragedy that inspires it. The sudden apparitions of traditional Japanese ghosts and modern American demons in “The Forest” invoke short-lived fear in an otherwise dull film, showing the same lack of respect on the part of the director that Paul displayed in thinking that co-opting and exploiting icons of a foreign country’s social issues is somehow an appropriate subject for cheap and otherwise unoriginal entertainment.

The fearful tone of “The Forest” is poorly conveyed through closeups of branches and insects, and ghostly wails in the wind, which are not scary in the least. Additionally, several aspects of the real forest are distorted, making the purpose of exploring the tragic location unclear. Not surprisingly, the normal forest (even with an unfortunate association) is not scary by itself. The film decides to take creative license in an effort to bolster screen time by having Sara see that various corpses of people who committed suicide in the forest are held at the Aokigahara Visitor Center, which blatantly contradicts the fact that in real life the Japanese government and police work hard to conceal the dead bodies in order to not only avoid attracting more people contemplating suicide, but also to deter potential tourists like Sara due to the notoriety of its basin. Logan Paul is more than willing to play fast and loose with the meaning of the Suicide Forest as well, failing to make the connection of the sad suicides he’s heard of and the ghosts that are said to haunt Aokigahara as a result.

Something that I fear is that people struggling with mental illness will only ever be seen as weak and objects of sympathy, which is a key issue I take with Paul’s brand of raising awareness and “The Forest”’s plot development. The gruesome death of Sara and Jess’s parents in the movie is referred to throughout the film for no apparent reason. It’s confusing purpose finally appears right at the nihilistic end. Sara is warned by locals that she possesses “inner sadness” and that she should think twice about embarking on her journey. It is implied she begins to be haunted by the angry spirits of those who committed suicide once she enters the forest due to her being incapable of coping with her loss. To the movie’s credit, this defies my expectation that the loss was that of her sister due to the sheer amount of time spent on establishing the close relationship she has with Jess. But once the significance of her parents’ death is revealed, it makes her suffering at Aokigahara seem justified for being innately weak, devaluing her noble mission and painting every victim of suicide as the product of avoidable emotional damage. This is a grave misconception considering that most people with depression cannot trace their mental illness to a direct cause, which is irrelevant because even if there was a cause feeling depressed for long period of times is not healthy and deserves attention and care regardless of circumstances.

The movie overall is anti-climactic in the extreme despite its rich source material, much like Paul’s vlog. Not once does the YouTuber bring up the high suicide rates in Japan that allowed the creation of such a place like Aokigahara to exist in the first place. The lack of depth is a direct result of the stigma of mental illness that both works perpetuate. Paul in his video did not even stay in the forest to camp as he had intended, failing to realize his goal of ghost-hunting due to him going unprepared to face reality. “The Forest” ends with (spoiler) Sara annoyingly having no impact in the disappearance of her sister while still having invited the spirits of the forest to plague her anyway, equating the devastating deaths by suicide of the ghosts in Aokigahara with her untimely demise that she chose while in a perfectly healthy state of mind. Moral of the story: the media can take its lazy sensationaliztion of deadly illnesses and shove it up their ass.