a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Raise the Red Dead at Dawn, Lenin!

Since Fifth-Generationer Zhang Yimou's allegedly about to emerge from his coma of wan, twee, or simply beneath him titles, I thought I'd try and play catch up. Because, really, having only seen one from the Classic Zhang Catelogue is pathetic. Arguably his most renowned, Raise the Red Lantern (1992) more than fit the bill, echoing a most likely fictitious time when Chinese imports occupied that international niche where period piece + stately camera set-ups + anal-retentively placed themes + Gong Li = majesty. At the same time, it proves why Zhang is and will probably continue to be the master of this era. Another critique of Chinese feudalism, Lantern finds Gong as a 1920s student who, when no longer able to be supported by her aunt, decides to up and become the latest mistress to a powerful man in the North. In fact, she is mistress number four: set in a complex of four houses, each mistress keeps one as residence, and each night said powerful man decides which mistress he will visit, sleeping with her then rewarding them with a reportedly ace foot massage, a room full of the titular objects and the right to select the next day's menu. Understandably, this leads to gobs of passive-aggressive bickering and back-stabbing among the four. If we're judging from pure subject choice, Lantern would already be a keeper. But there's also Zhang's style -- little else but spatially-resplendent wide shots (somewhere Wes Anderson was taking notation); interplay between primary colors (red and blue particularly); and the purposefully glacial pacing. Zhang hurls us right into their snail-paced world, calling up comparisons to Marguerite Duras' decadence fests (India Song, mostly) but still very much it's own. Bring on Ju Dou, To Live, The Story of Qui Ju, and Shanghai Triad...

Also critiquing its native country, and to a more surprising degree, the wacky Berlin romp Good Bye Lenin! (2004, Wolfgang Becker) has this to say: post-Berlin Wall Berlin kinda sucks. All those Coca-Cola advertisements and everyone converting from antennas to satellite dishes. Drab apartments being infiltrated by IKEA visits. Party members becoming drunkards or TV addicts. Back before all this, East Germans at least had a national voice, a purpose in life, even if it wasn't very recommendable. Not very surprising when you get down to it, actually. Other than that morsel of information, I can't think of much reason why Becker's film -- a reasonably affable trifle in which a dedicated son tricks his mother, recently awake after an eight-month coma, doesn't get shocked by that missing Wall and rapid-fire uprise of Westernization -- needs to be remembered. MD'A brought up a comparison to Underground, Emir Kustirica's nut-job re-telling of a half-century of Yugoslavian history, and it's a testament to Becker's lack of imagination that I didn't even think of that one while Lenin! was rolling. Then again, that Becker was able to keep a film laying out a ruse limited entirely to one person's bedroom for as long as he was -- say, an hour, rather than the far shorter length I had predicted -- is something, at least.

Keeping it small-time, shockingly, is what makes the re-vamped Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zach Snyder) so brutally, swiftly effective. Doing the only thing you can do with remakes, Snyder uses the Romero as a kicking-off point, adding more characters, taking away most of the zombies-in-the-mall stuff but keeping this credo: death comes to both the wicked and the saintly. The to-be-classic opening sets the scene: small, tranquil moments upset by grand carnage that comes at 45-degree angles -- not quite as sudden as moments in 28 Days Later (it has nothing like the scene where one "soldier" instantly hacks away at one who's just found out he's been infected), but it makes up for that by putting what was in the third act in the first, then letting it filter nicely into the script. Likewise, the satire of the original (consumerism) has been shifted to -- wouldn't you know? -- 9/11: a scene where the survivors pore over several TV news reports echoes the WTC while a character mutters something to the effect of America always having things covered. Thing is, it doesn't, and the survivors must light out on their own to foreign (and unresearched) lands (using the rich bastard, no less). Characters barely filled-in without being totally distracting (even the Requisite Unconvincing Love Angle gets all of two scenes), though there's little about them being dehumanized, Lord of the Flies-style. With an exception or two, they almost instantly become professionals (and in the course of only a few hours), barely mentioning their departed loved ones before toting rifles and (literally) taking tips from Tom Savini. Otherwise, mostly solid all around, fulfilling the gore levels (head-shots don't disappoint) while doing the same for long stretches of minutae. Best gag: the way chess is introduced into the pic.


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