22 January 2008

The Ghost Story of Yotsuya

The Ghost Story of Yotsuya or Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is an old Japanese film produced in 1959. The story itself was written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play in 1825. The film version was on screen here as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2008. It's the only horror film chosen to feature in this festival though and we had an almost full cinema.

The story is very simple: Iemon the samurai is unhappily married to Oiwa as they are too poor. Urged by his close friend Naosuke to take the hand of a daughter of a well-to-do merchant, Iemon decides to poison his wife, an atrocious act that not only deprives her of her life but disfigures her face in the process. Oiwa returns as a ghost to haunt Iemon and eventually causes his downfall. Despite this simple plot, it does entail a range of simple, yet universal and fundamental human emotions, such as greed, anger, jealousy, that result in a deep-seated need to plot revenge. A revenge that transcends life and death ...

My experience of watching this film may differ from other people who may have found that Iemon deserves this sorry end, but I am struck with the humanity of his desire, his wish to escape from his humdrum life, and his ambition. The Yotsuya ghost story may function as a morality play that teaches viewers to be happy with what they have and not to tempt fate. But once again I beg to differ. Iemon's own fighting at the end reminds me of someone who tries to fight off fate even though he knows fully well that he's going to be defeated. Even though a lot of people out there may think that Iemon has finally got his just dessert, I simply can't stop thinking: perhaps Iemon is a hero and in fighting so he's trying to negotiate with the rigid codes of being a righteous samurai that somehow gets into conflict with human nature.

Reading this far, you may have thought that I'm such a heartless person on the mission of redeeming a bad person and turning him into a saint. Of course I see Iemon's act as atrocious as he tries to get rid of his wife and his only child, but the whole film just makes me think further than that: in life who knows what the best deal is, or do we need to settle down with what we have at some point and be blind to what we might get or might have gotten. This just reminds me of Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken', as it's about choosing and being able to accept the consequences and implications of the choice you've made. Iemon simply can't tolerate this and he wants to climb the social ladder. In his case, it's even more special because he's granted a chance to do so. A sweet temptation perhaps, but again it's perhaps better not to be offered this privilege.

Another thing that I need to mention is how the audience received this film. There were laughs towards the end of the film, and they were probably something that were not originally intended by the director. The audience simply have changed; they were no longer terrorised by the film's ghostly elements. Does it mean that we are too hardened against them? Or does it mean that with the different group of audience, the film fails to deliver its moral messages? I'm not trying to answer these questions, but what I want to say is that the director's intention and the audience's reception need not be the same, especially in this case whereby it's shown to an audience of different time and place. But it does strike a more fundamental question: does it mean we are hardened against these moral messages too? Are we becoming too impervious to this catastrophe? Are we becoming more tolerant towards the crime that Iemon commits? Well, go back to read the previous paragraph carefully and you'll see what I mean ...

18 January 2008

Prasadtaek ประสาทแตก

A new play from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Prasadtaek proves to be another quality rendition of contemporary urban angst and frustration that befall people nowadays, i.e. you and me and other people surrounding us. It consists of five mini-stories that are interconnected, revolving around the main protagonist whose madness slowly comes to surface.

The cast is superb and the audience is promised two hours full of fun and frolick. Of course, for those professional viewers, you might rather cry than laugh, as some of the jokes are created to parody the contemporary corruption of human intimacy. The poignant scene is the third story -- the office scene -- whereby office staff resemble automatons and their relationships are rather superficial and tend to progress into alienation and frustration. The more they talk, the more they reveal their fragility. Of course, their boss is such a tyrannical leader, but without his aid the shallow, defunct intimacy among office staff would have sufficed to turn them into psychopaths.

I think the play does great job in portraying the fragility of human emotion and relationship and everyone seems to be 'mad' in this play. But hey what is madness anyway and the play seems to suggest that it is part and parcel of our life if we choose to live in this less-than-ideal society, full of threats and insecurities.

I wouldn't spoil the plot with more details as the performance I watched was the first public one. But what I want to say is this: Prasadtaek is a play well worth watching for those of you who want to look at yourselves 'honestly' from another perspective. You might not find it a straightforward mirror that reflects your appearance, but it should be compared to a magic mirror that may distort or exaggerate some parts of yours. But it's still your reflection nonetheless.

07 January 2008

I Capture the Castle

I promise myself not to take too long to write this entry tonight, as it's well past midnight and I've got a lot of things to do tomorrow. But of course I need to write something about this film which I grow to love. I did read the novel whilst in England and couldn't find any other novel that felt so British. It's so stuffy, eccentric, and mouldy ... Pardon my adjectives, methinks it's somehow impossible to describe this Britishness.

The film centres around the close relationship of the two sisters, Rose and Cassandra, who need to live with their weird father in a run-down castle. The father is a writer who hasn't produced anything for twelve years due to the writer's block and his inability to share his emotional anguish after the death of his wife. Despite his remarrying, things still don't look good and the whole family is poverty-stricken. Rose and Cassandra dream to escape this sad present, as best represented by their entrapment in the castle itself.
Of course, one day luck is on their side, as a car breaks down near their castle by accident and the two girls have an opportunity to meet two men, Simon and Neil, who inherit the whole estate. The story then develops in a predictable manner, as Rose tries to seduce Simon, with whom Cassandra secretly falls in love. As it is, Cassandra also has her secret admirer, gorgeous Stephen, whom she spurns.

However, what I think is good about this film/novel is that it does nicely portray how confused Cassandra is and how overwhelmingly she must have felt in such an age when love can easily blow her away. She is of course intelligent enough to rationalise all this and, through her journal, is able to make choices and grow up wisely and beautifully. I think I haven't given away the ending, but as I reflect, perhaps the ending is not that important. What counts is how one steers through, how one negotiates one's desire, how one learns that love is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Yet, one still needs to be loyal to love, if one can afford to ...

Now let's me disappoint you with the turn of the argument ...

"If one can afford to" is perhaps a good phrase that sums up this coming-of-age story too, as it portrays the departure of a good-old-day England full of honour and dignity, and in its place the arrival of a new English when capitalism finally kicks in, leading people to believe that money is god. The film is clearly nostalgic in this sense and shows Dodie Smith's yearning for that image that has long vanished. Cassandra sticks with loyalty and honour, whilst Rose escapes to America with her lover.

Even though some may feel that the last image is very telling and optimistic, i.e. having Cassandra perching up on top of the castle, understanding what love is and yet becoming defiant, I feel despondent because I believe that Cassandra is actually the England that has long gone, and her image is just a silhoulette projected by Smith's own desire for that old chivalric English to stay. The new England is probably Rose, not Cassandra, who is self-indulgent, spoiled, and not longer cares for ceremony. Only money matters for Rose, as she's understandably been living with poverty for so long ... Even though she realises in the end who she really loves, I remain suspicious no longer taking her seriously.

In the end, I do wonder what 'I Capture the Castle' means. Does it mean Cassandra understands her own entrapment and willingly lets herself be entraped in this English chivalric code of honour and 'truthfulness to her heart's desire' and fearlessness of poverty? Or does it mean Smith finally understands the dying old England and therefore attempts to capture it in her memory? Or does it mean Dechito's experience of England leads him to this representation and he lets himself be persuaded and captured by this representation? Before I can think these through, let me go to sleep.

04 January 2008

Hedwig and the Angry Inch ร็อคลั่นโลก

Had it not been for the peer-reviewing of a paper, I wouldn't have had a chance to watch this film. That's true, otherwise you would've found me slaving away behind a stack of exam papers to be marked. Watching this film is clearly a therapeutic experience, as it's a feel-good film that is not too melodramatic with a drag character finally able to stand on his two feet receiving standing ovation from the crowd around in the Jerry Springer show. No, it's nothing like that. I wouldn't say it's realistic either. But it chooses to resolve the question of sexual identity in a very interestingly optimistic way. (Now I'm sure a lot of people out there would beg to differ.)

Being queer has always been problematic and, I'm glad to hear, a great number of queer theorists prefer to keep it that way. Hedwig is, at the beginning, compared to the Berlin Wall that keeps the two sexes apart, i.e. he functions as an in-between watermark whereby femininity and masculinity are pitched against. Yet, people hate the wall as the wall separates the two sexual identities from each other. No wonder Hedwig hates himself too. This homophobic tendency reveals itself at the beginning when he decides to undergo a sex change operation, which leaves him 'angry' inch-long flesh where his penis used to be.

Why angry? Because with this sex change he can neither be male nor female. He no longer conforms to social categories that enable him to feel a secure sense of belonging. If we believe what Mary Douglas has suggested in Purity and Danger, this feeling of anger is generated by his inability to put himself in any of the social pigeonholes that have been created by white bourgeois men in their forties or fifties, the group of which is infamously and allegedly powerful enough to control the fate of the mass. This neither-nor position thus creates cynicism and anger.

However, what I think is important is how Hedwig resolves his anger. If his sexuality has been a cause for anger as the public has always viewed him as a freak, his ability to reinscribe a new meaning of his sexuality, or at least to bestow a new attitude towards his queerness, is something worth looking into. I believe that Hedwig doesn't finally think that people should view him as an ideal alpha-queer that is able to rule the world (even though in reality we DO have a lot of alpha-queers who rule the world!), but should at least allow him space for his bodily/sexually reimagining. Of course, they do in the film -- through his lovely songs, which, if you care to notice and put them side by side, relates his growth and maturity. It'd then not be too far-fetched to label this film Hedwig's own Bildungsroman.

The ending sees Hedwing gradually losing his anger as he has slowly learnt the meaning of his life. Of course, his reason for being (I prefer the French term --raison d'etre) is not to win Tommy Gnosis' love, but to learn (i.e. to know -- 'gnosis' means knowing) who he really is -- a body with desire. And it's not a unified body, but a fragmentary one at that. And it's not a unidirectional desire, but an multi-directional, uncontrollable and unfulfillable (if there's such a word!) one. It's not perfect, but he needs to cope nonetheless with this far-from-perfect state (as we've seen in the last scene when he's struggling to walk nakedly through an empty alleyway). Of course it's painful but it's a stage where queers need to go through. And there's beauty in this struggling, in the same way that there's something sweet and hauntingly good in his music. This is what I would call the shift in attitude, from a really bad pessimism to a tolerable optimism -- 'as good as it gets' is probably the best phase that fits here.

Another thing that gives his life meaning is his capacity as a psychopomp for Yitzhak and Tommy as they learn to shape their sexuality. I don't mean that Hedwig will become more like a coach but three of them need each other to work together and it's only in this spirit of friendship that a tolerable sexuality in an imperfect body can be imagined.

Well, you can see that I'm in a good mood today. That's why this review is so positive. Hedwig and the Angry Inch reminds me of Transamerica, a film that I hope to review somewhere sometime somehow ...

01 January 2008

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

There's never been a better way to kill the time during the New Year Holiday than watching a camp gothic film. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? proves to be one of the most entertaining, as well as sickeningly grotesque, films ever made in the entire film history. Hyperbole aside, I think the sibling rivalry of the two women, Jane and Blanche, really funny and at times it does leave me wonder why both of them need to share such a tormenting time together for so long.

Masochism and guilt are probably the reasons. Jane used to be a very famous vaudeville child star, but as she grew up, she was not as famous as her sister. However, it turns out that they need to live together as two aging spinsters when Blanche was mysteriously made a cripple and Jane was becoming more and more neurotic, torturing her sister in all possible ways.

In the fashion of Sunset Boulevard, the film dwells on exaggeration and seems to enjoy its gothic-cum-psychotic representation of Jane with thick make-up and excessive drag-like acting. Her sister, on the other hand, is sombre and portrayed as living in fear. Yet, I know she's equally devilish in her own way. But I still don't understand why she needs to live with her mad sister, when in fact she could've just easily put her in a madhouse. There were moments when I wanted to switch off the DVD player and go doing something else more worthwhile, unable to tolerate this unbelievable plot any longer. Yet ... yet ... the twist at the end is so clever and redeems the whole film, making the whole thing understandable.

One of the best moments in the film is when Jane is portrayed with her life-size doll that best captures her best memory in the time of her childhood when she was most popular. Watching Bette Davis's marvellous performance of this Jane reminds me of how fragile and sad this character is, living with her memory whereas the present only brings sadness and loneliness.

While Jane's character is noteworthy in the camp exaggeration of her deliberate forgetting of the past and guiltiness, Blanche's is equally noted in her fear and need for power in such a powerless state. Joan Crawford's performance is also distinguished in her role as an aging, powerless matriarch. The casting of the two main characters is, I believe, what makes this film really fun to watch.

If you manage to watch it until the end, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is not only about sibling rivalry, about the fear and desire of the two sisters, but also an exaggerated yet pithy representation of our own story-telling, of how we create our past in order to live in the present, of how we intentionally re-write our past to avoid our guilts or responsiblities, of how this past, though re-written, comes back to haunt us nonetheless. You may think I'm talking shit in this paragraph, but watch it yourself and you'll understand what I mean.