After the news that the legendary Leslie Cheung had committed suicide in 2003, my family has never mentioned Farewell My Concubine. Not that my 5 year old self at the time could understand, but after revisiting Chen Kai Ge's masterpiece yesterday, I have not been able to brush away the idea that it is a perfect film.
If we put aside Gu Chang Wei's stunning cinematography, the film itself is both a heart-wrenching story of self-discovery and the result of a cultural revolution that shaped Asia's history. I would separate the story into three chapters, essentially by looking at the three actors who played the main character Douzi/Dieyi, respectively Ma Ming Wei, Zhi Yin, and Leslie Cheung. Casting Ming Wei, a female actress, to play the young Douzi, is only the beginning of Douzi's pursuit and struggle with his gender identity.
There can be no analysis of Farewell My Concubine, not that this is an analysis, without mentioning the infamous line Douzi repeatedly wrongly recites. The protagonist in fact says "I am by nature a boy, not a girl" instead of "I am by nature a girl, not a boy". His repetition of the latter is the viewer's, at least mine, first glance at his internal struggle. His punishment for mistaking the crucial line and almost costing them funding for the show results in Shitou, the other male protagonist who is later Douzi's love interest, shoves a pipe in the boy's mouth -- which Douzi receives without complaining. We are provided another hint at his sexuality.
The movie flashes forward and Shitou and Douzi are shown to be popular actors under the names Xiaolou and Dieyi respectively, with Dieyi playing the feminine character beautifully. The director here incorporates all aspects of Peking Opera, which had a monumental importance in Chinese culture, and still does. Between a cultural revolution and the Sino-Japanese war, Dieyi juggles his identity crisis with a seemingly clueless Xiaolou, who takes interest in a beautiful prostitute from an upscale brothel. Their falling in love causes Dieyi to breakdown and become extremely passive-aggressive. His hatred of Xiaolou's new woman is undeniable, and to me was the second depiction of Cheung's stellar acting skills, the first one being when he tells Xiaolou that he wants to be with him forever -- which Xiaolou obviously did not interpret correctly.
Dieyi's deterioration is worsened by Xiaolou's "betrayal" when he loses his role to a young boy trained in the same type of roles as he is. The friends' falling out leads to a disgusting confrontation, during which Xiaolou confesses that his former concubine performed for the enemy and led homosexual relationships, leading an angry Dieyi to tell the mob that Xiaolou's wife is a prostitute. The "brouhaha" leads to Xiaolou's wife committing suicide, furthering the deterioration of the protagonists' friendship.
The final scene of the movie is what made me and many viewers see that this movie is, in fact, flawless. Xiaolou's final stare after distinct sound effects lead us to believe that Dieyi in fact commits suicide with the sword may remind some of the final stare in Oldboy by Park Chan Wook. As haunting and distressing, but with much more emotion (I'm not critiquing Oldboy here; it's also one of my favorites).
I've purposely decided to skip through some aspects of the film, and believe me a lot more happens. But the scenes I mention above are to me the highest points of the plot. I've also decided to not mention Xiaolou's wife's name, because despite her irreplaceable presence in this film, I wholeheartedly believe this is the tale of these two men -- one who is in love and one who does not see the love. I cannot imagine how controversial this film, or the book, must have been when it first came out in China, a nation known for being homophobic and bigoted. Cheung's performance was acclaimed for obvious reasons, one of them being that he portrayed a character in such an ambitious film perfectly, hurting the viewer as much as him.
The director tells two, even three, stories at the same time, however never overwhelming the viewer but instead delivering serious undertones in every aspect of the film. From the cutting off of a young Douzi's (when played by a female character) finger to the same imagery with blood later, every shot is meticulously planned and could not have been replaced. The depiction of the Peking Opera, whether first-hand or in the background, adds to the cultural development of the time, one that the director is extremely familiar with, and has made familiar to his viewers through this film. This is the moment in my review where I have nothing to say but to be in awe over how good this film was.
All in all, a character struggling with his (their) gender identity, an era of revolution, a tasteful look at the Peking Opera and a whole lot of blood were enough to make me fall in love all over again with Chinese cinema. There's a reason why although this film is over 2 hours and 45 minutes, it is still called a must-watch by everyone who has seen it.
If you've read my short post Packing Light + Experiencing Heavy, you're aware that I am going on a 3 week trip to Asia this summer. From (way too) lengthy plane rides to my favourite train rides, I'm going to finally find time to read. I've decided to bring three books with me, in the hopes of reading one a week, and as the former crazy book blogger I am, I've decided to write about them.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Oddly enough, I thought I read this book but it seems like I haven't. The Remains of the Day by the same author is one of the most well-thought, well-written books I have ever read, with the most complex characters I can think of in literature, so I know this one will please me.
The House of Hades, Rick Riordan
If you have been following me since my days as a book blogger, you know that I stopped the series at the third book, and never picked up this one. As an avid Percy Jackson fan, I know that I will utterly enjoy this light-hearted and easy-to-read book. I'm not quite sure if it's a good idea for me to not take the last book of the series, though, because what if I just need to know what happens?
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies shaped my life in a way no other book had, and the reoccurring themes of loneliness and immigration in Lahiri's novels are heartfelt, and portray a side of immigration I did not know about, seeing that I was so young when I first left my home country.
By now you must know that I am a sucker for poetry books, especially the ones that tell a story more than they rhyme. I've followed #Instapoetry since the day the hashtag started on Instagram, and ever since, I've slowly gravitated to the beauty of shorter poems because despite their length, they capture the essence of life, emotion, or anything they try to convey. This month, I received Laura Foley's WTF, a collection of poems reminiscing her father's experiences as a prisoner during WWII. The book is actually named after her father's initials. I bet you thought it meant something else.
WTF starts from the start, and I mean from the start. Foley narrates her earliest experiences with her father; some good ones, some bad ones, and some horrible ones. What made me adore this book was that the war was not glamourized or fetishized, like many authors have done in the past. As important of an event as it is, it means that, in my opinion, only a select group of people may write about it, and that is the ones who know about it or have experienced it.
Foley's poems do not only talk about the war, even though she has the resources to do it, and write a fantastic book about it. They talk about how the war shaped her dad, consequently how her relationship with her dad shaped her. Through a series of connected poems, Foley tells the story of her unique life, hinting back to events and people who have shaped her along the way.
I've definitely fallen in love with her writing style, seemingly because I am obsessed with Rupi Kaur and the trend of shorter poems that tell stories, yet Foley's longer poems followed by shorter ones read the way they should have been told. Taking breaths in between the poems, I devoured the book and forgot that it was even a series of poems -- it felt so much like a narrative, it was stunning. Had it had drawings, I probably would have cried even more.
**This was originally a class assignment that I had to submit online, so in order to not lose the original file as I have to delete it from my hard disk, I am posting it here!**
In the era of Hollywood whitewashing and the Muslim ban, one could not possibly choose a better time to watch The Battle of Algiers.
The 1966 historical drama directed by Gillo Pontecorvo scored a perfect 4/4 on Roger Ebert and no less than an unanimous 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and for good reasons. The non-linear plot line grasps the viewer’s attention immediately, and right off the bat, you wonder to yourself “Who is this man hiding in the walls of a bathroom, and what has he done?”. By breaking away from the traditional linear narrative, Pontecorvo plunges his audience into a world that seems more real that one that is fabricated, the fictional one — because what happened on screen was not fictional. Stunning close-up shots of the characters are powerful enough to tell their story in the span of a few seconds and the low-key lighting intensifies every ounce of emotion these characters feel. We can see and sense the emotion, especially in the scene where Little Omar reads the letter to Ali. They are positioned almost perfectly in the centre of the frame, their bodies taking more than half of the space. It feels as if we were sitting there, waiting for Omar to read to us, feeling the same anticipation as Ali. I did not for a single second doubt of what Omar had been reading, although he could have easily lied to Ali. Yet, the sentiment of friendship and their body language proves to us, an audience in the dark, that Omar was on his side, and would not have betrayed him. The director’s choice of shooting in black and white is not only the right way in this case, but also the only way it could’ve been done. Black and white captures human emotion by creating a way, way more personal connection with the viewer, and for me, in a movie like this, human connection and the portrayal of emotion is crucial.
This movie evidently addresses issues of racism that are, sadly, still quite relevant today. The Battle of Algiers is based off the Algerian War of Independence that occurred from 1954 to 1962, and depicts the atrocities that were committed on both sides of this brutal war. Pontecorvo’s said neutral position was definitely conveyed through his film, with portrayal of what both sides of the war inflicted on each other, for example the bombing from both sides, however it is not hard to see that his loyalties rest on the side of the National Liberation Front (FLN). The director’s choice of using non-professional actors is a great, if not perfect, way of conveying his message, as these people have truly gone through what this movie is essentially about, and none other could express emotions as raw as theirs. This movie, although from the 20th century, manages to touch upon our current society’s fear of the other, and is scarily similar to Trump’s America, a nation that believes that in order to preserve their culture, they must fear the other — by installing more fear and oppression. Even further, this film addresses an issue that is way too present nowadays, and that is Hollywood whitewashing. Pontecorvo’s cast could not have been better, and my love for this film was deeply influenced by it giving the respect Algerians deserved, by not whitewashing their entire cast. Had this film been produced in 2017, I would not have been surprised if Ryan Gosling was cast as Ali, and Jennifer Lawrence as Fathia.
Despite having been nominated for three Academy Awards and many more awards, The Battle of Algiers did not receive unanimous positive critics— especially not from the French, who banned the movie for years. Again, it was quite obvious that Pontecorvo’s sympathies were on the side of the FLN, and that tiny hint of subjectivity is my only issue with this film. A fully objective point of view would have strengthened this movie’s motives even more, because of how raw it would have been. By leaning towards one side, whether or not it is the “good” side, the essence of the war was transformed into an opinionated, almost too personal piece, however, equally as important and relevant in terms of sociopolitical issues. Pontecorvo’s masterpiece can easily be compared to Battleship Potemkin, another great political film that managed to convey emotion and fear through a beautiful narrative and stunning black and white cinematography.
The Battle of Algiers is, and will remain, a film that I will recommend anyone trying to understand colonization, fear of the other, war, or simply, human rights. It might also be one of the rare films left where, you know, people of color are played by people of color.
Katherine ♥ Zhang
I am always honored to be part of the Poetic Book Tours group of bloggers as I get to work with amazing bloggers and a great manager, and I have to admit that receiving books I'd never pick up for review is definitely a plus. This month, I had the honor to review Stranger Than Life and I had never been happier to receive a book in the mail.
A satirical piece depicting the post-modern world we live in and all of its glory and nonsense in the form of meticulously drawn caricatures? That's Stranger Than Life.
MK Brown's collection of comics covers an array of daily societal (mis)adventures the everyday citizen of the 21st century experiences, however in a series of ridiculous and "stranger than life" ways. From following two flies who want to make movies (I relate) to work meetings interrupted by pretty horses, this anthology, if I can call it this way, makes fun of the average citizen and how they take everything way too seriously.
Brown is known for creating wacky, different, and extremely funny characters, and I have to say that I laughed my way through the book. "I like to draw things I don't understand so that others don't understand them also." is the caption Brown used for her Science and Technology chapter, and I have never related to something as much. From the humorous ways she draws your average middle-class white boy to turning a volcano into a bearded man, the charm of the stories is found in their complete nonsense.
My favorite pages were 84 and 85, respectively a drawing of cars driving in "Spellcheckville" with falling "bockses" and danger spelled "dagner", followed by a 2-panel comic of a doctor saying to his patient that "it might be a little painful", before shooting an arrow at him. I think that Brown's humour is depicted all throughout the book, but it is in her short one or two-panel pages that she is able to create an entire universe of comedy.
What I personally disliked was the switch from color to black and white, because yes, many of the pages are even in color. The illustrations are stunning, and despite the drawings being completely out of my comfort zone (as I'm more familiar with Archies and Japanese animation), I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The color shift did throw me off though, just because it felt like reading an entire new book and it took a few pages before I could adapt -- and then it switched back to black and white.
All in all, I highly recommend this humorous piece : it reads quickly, is absolutely hilarious and honestly turns everything you've ever known around. The wackiest characters and stories I have ever read are found in these four decade long comics, and I enjoyed every single second of it.
You can purchase the book here, and if you want more information, click here! #StrangerThanLife
Read previous PoeticBookTours reviews here.