Thursday, August 17, 2017

Overlooked Asian Movies: Devdas, Metropolis, As Tears Go By

Devdas (2002)

Earlier in the spring, I told a friend I aspired to watch more movies hailing from India, not because of some trendy commitment to physical diversity or because Indians are aggressively marginalized as a minority – Lord knows Asian-Americans are the most overlooked opportunity for virtue signaling in the nation – but because I’m fascinated by the massive variance in filmmaking techniques around the world. The first stop on my tour guide through the region was the much-lauded Apu trilogy, actually originating from Bengal and resurrected by the good film fans at the Criterion Collection. I muscled through this 5.5-hour epic with a fellow tourist of short patience, who was staunchly fixated on sores like a repetitive soundtrack and remained unmoved by its depictions of maturity, loss, and life lived in accordance with simplicity. I appreciated the series as a whole, even though it died out (literally and figuratively) towards its end, but wouldn’t remotely call it emblematic of “Bollywood”, per my stereotypical understanding of it.  Clearly this wasn’t the key text for such sprawling crowd-pleasers as Slumdog Millionaire or Moulin Rouge, both made by western directors who were inspired to imitate the country’s cinema.

Fortunately enough, an Edwards multiplex in my mostly Caucasian area makes an inexplicable habit of showing Indian blockbusters every couple weeks, and so I drove out on a whim one night to catch a film from 2002 I’d never heard brought up in any forum. Devdas clocks in over three hours long with intermission – absolutely unfathomable for any American musical – and runs about an hour longer than any of the Apu movies, but feels less laborious than any of them. Just in terms of being compulsively watchable, it may surpass every film that stretches on so long, but lost in the nearly nonexistent conversation surrounding it is the wallop of cinematic splendor that its director lays over an extremely sappy story.

In its form, Devdas defies comparison to pretty much any American film besides Titanic, but content-wise it basically resembles an extremely expensive Hallmark or edgier Lifetime movie, focusing on love triangles, generational conflict, and class division. The story is much too complicated to recount accurately several weeks after watching it, but the plot heavily depends upon such familiar tropes as alcohol addiction, unreturned letters, avaricious siblings, unsympathetic parents, and arranged marriage, one of which is not as endemic to American entertainment. What raises Devdas on paper above and apart from standard made-for-TV fare is the immense verve with which it treats its subject matter, never once succumbing to condescension or laziness. There’s not an inkling of cynicism to be found in the movie’s monstrous length, and one can sense vicariously through the screen that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is fully invested in the star-crossed lovers’ fate. The creators’ empathy even touches archetypes who are stereotypically slighted, specifically a courtesan vying for Devdas’ love, depicted here as a lonely and compassionate soul rather than a jealous whore (as many characters malign her).

I get the impression that many self-tokened cinephiles dismiss Bollywood as a movement, either because traditional media ignore it altogether, because the posters look unappealing, or because they perceive it as uniformly ‘cheesy’. If sincerity is sufficient grounds to convict something of cheesiness, then Devdas definitely reeks of cheese, and should be considered all the bolder for it. One can draw a teachable contrast between this and La La Land, another film lauded for an ostensibly surprising ending that doesn’t really shock in retrospect. Damien Chazelle orchestrates his picture with a prevailing spirit of distance and elitist enlightenment; he isn’t fashioning a conventional musical so much as a commentary on classic MGM musicals, thinly veiled as just the thing he’s taking apart. I second Mark Steyn’s assessment of the film, calling it a “half-hearted semi-musical” by an author who doesn’t believe in the versatility of the form, and the twist ending of La La Land doesn’t register as much of a twist once one realizes how Chazelle has been skewering musicals all along. Unlike the newer movie, Devdas doesn’t deliberately slip out of musical mode halfway through to make a snobbish point about the harsh onset of reality. In fact, the movie commits even harder to the musical routine as it chugs along, reaching for ever greater emotional heights. Bhansali not only includes a drinking song as the last in the soundtrack but plays it completely straight, provoking laughs while shedding light on how far the alcoholic singer has fallen from grace. Devdas’ coincidence of mirth and seriousness reels viewers into a lengthy tale of unsanctioned love, and its over-the-top finale feels genuinely affecting having established that connection.

Notwithstanding its fairly formulaic narrative, the film is bursting with extravagant flourishes to make the most bombastic Michael Bay production look relatively restrained. The costumes and sets are gorgeously realized, of course, and the camera impressively remains in near-constant motion. The editing masks the runtime quite efficiently and makes creative use of match transitions, though the presentation is somewhat marred by ‘hard’ audio cuts-out that seem like they were plucked from an older movie. Otherwise the sound mixing is fantastic, and decidedly non-Hollywood. Instead of enlisting musically untrained actors to provide the soundtrack, as is the custom of today, Devdas delegates the responsibility to a different set of professional singers, soaks their recordings in reverb, and allows the cast to lip sync while emoting and dancing. As a result, the musical numbers relish their fakeness and come across as larger than life, averting the periodic plague of blatant over-dubbing that surfaces in La La Land or other movies sung by their casts that want to be taken as realistic. Seeing this in optimal viewing conditions with blaring surround sound, I sometimes neared a state of euphoria I hadn’t experienced since Arrival.

If there’s one word to encapsulate the effect of Devdas, it would be euphoric. As cheesy as it sounds, the film immerses people in a rush of Pure Movie Magic, and how could anyone fault it for that? Would that there was a respectable home video release to replicate my experience, but Devdas is pretty much out-of-print and can only be rented via arguably unethical sources like Google or Amazon. Even the subtitles in the theater seemed to have been translated literally by a first-year Hindi student who didn’t bother to make the English idiomatic (characters say, “Only if such and such…” when in English they’d say, “If only such and such…”).

On the bright side, this is the type of the story one can follow with or without understanding a word of dialogue, which might explain why Hallmark movies continue to find their crowds.


Metropolis (2001)

I’ve seen a lot of people online erroneously classify the Japanese anime Metropolis as a remake or homage to the silent film Metropolis, which nobody I know in person has seen. Perhaps they’ve been led to believe this because the movie is named Metropolis, and it’s inconceivable to them that a movie about a metropolis wouldn’t be related to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but the 2001 film is actually based upon a 52-year-old manga written by Osamu Tezuka, who never saw more than a still image from the 1927 one.

Regardless of inspiration, it’d be more fitting to peg the Madhouse production as an accidental remake of Akira, written by the same man who made Akira.  Self-plagiarism is real, alack and alas, and in Metropolis it’s working overtime. Consider that both movies are set in vaguely constructed future worlds, both incorporate corrupt bureaucratic officials abusing science, both concern the doomed friendship of teenagers on the run from the military, and both abruptly escalate to an explosive climax in which a super-powered mutant/cyborg unleashes chaos on the city in retribution. Maybe it’s unfair to knock Metropolis-the movie for this, considering that the comic series predated Akira by three decades, but Katsuhiro Otomo’s script still doesn’t deviate much from well-tested narrative structures: this is basically a cyberpunk amalgamation of Blade Runner and King Kong, the overlap becoming especially blatant in the last eight minutes.

Most of the praiseworthy attributes in Metropolis can be traced to its aesthetics. Tezuka more famously created the Astro Boy series, and the characters herein share the same rounded, wide-eyed features that place them firmly in cartoon land. The art designers deserve the utmost credit for imbuing each model with distinctive and immediately telling characteristics. Metropolis is an adult-oriented movie that has no moral qualms about teaching viewers to profile people by appearances; the scrawny, Boy Scout-ish good guys look like good guys, while the beak-nosed, sunglass-toting bad guys look like bad guys. The city itself has magnificent depth, stretching from a prosperous and colorful surface district overrun by levitating cars to a dingy, industrial underworld populated mostly by repurposed, robotic trash cans. Director Rintaro keeps a rather leisurely pace, content to wander about the metropolis’ many levels for the first hour, but injects just enough chases to sustain interest. For its lighting, hand-drawn animation, and grandeur alone, Metropolis more than justifies itself to a narrow demographic of animation devotees.

What makes Metropolis a vertically segmented film as opposed to the broadly appealing Devdas is its disjointed worldbuilding and preoccupation with sci-fi clich├ęs over telling a compelling story. A hefty chunk of the middle act deals with left-wing “revolutionaries” leading a coup against the “fascist” government of Duke Red, in order to restore “the rule of law” and be recognized as a proper political party, but Otomo doesn’t visualize how any of the rabble are being oppressed, or even articulate what the ruling class’ policies are. Trying to pick apart the movie’s setting poses even more of a challenge in 2017, when our language has trivialized political terms like “fascist” to the point of making them vacuous. The rest of Metropolis wants to make audiences ponder over “robot rights” and the ethics of “robot labor”, without really developing a single robot character. The themes that come to dominate the film have been discussed so much better in so many other pictures that their inclusion in the anime feels rote and trite, like a tacked-on plea for legitimacy from American critics that wasn’t ever needed.

Rintaro and Otomo thus compose a beautiful and confounding shell of a motion picture, one that’s sure to alienate casual moviegoers but leaves on such a high note that fans of anime will readily forgive it. Akira and Metropolis are interchangeable in many ways – their stories, their visuals, their characters who constantly cry each other’s names in anguish – but for all the things the latter carries over, it misses the element of tragedy and unchained adolescence that’s made Akira a grandiose, disturbing classic.


As Tears Go By (1988)

Danny Boyle once remarked that the best film any director will make is his first one, precisely due to the imperfection of it. So reasoned the British director:
It may not be your most successful or your technically most accomplished, whatever.  It is your best film in a way because you never, ever get close to that feeling of not knowing what you’re doing again. It's guesswork, inventiveness and freshness that you never get again… The Coen brothers are geniuses, but they never made a film as good as Blood Simple.

Boyle is right to sing the praises of Blood Simple, a 96-minute beast of a movie that requires no defense, but As Tears Go By also makes a pretty sturdy pillar for his hypothesis. Wong Kar-Wai has gained a reputation in western media as a romantically-minded genius, mainly celebrated for leisurely, moody art pictures like In the Mood For Love, but Tears stands out as the kinetic, scattershot work of someone who’s still fermenting his style and eager to announce his presence to the world. It’s undeniably sloppy, but the shortcomings here are exactly what make Early Wong so likeable and entertaining, more so than the languid, critic-proof dramas he turned to making after Chunking Express.

The story, for those to whom it matters, concerns a mobster named Wah who’s attempting to balance his girlfriend woes with a hazardous lifestyle that frankly can’t sustain itself. One day he gets a call that his cousin will be staying at his place, which ultimately leads to a taut relationship that I’ll presume is much less controversial in Hong Kong than it would be in America. The narrative unfolds through a series of repetitive, increasingly violent bouts with rival gangsters, from which the protagonist has to whisk away his younger brother all while he feels drawn to leave the criminal life. As in Devdas, the movie primarily occupies a kind of fantasy land of the director’s imagining, wherein emotions are heightened and consequences downplayed, but a final act pivot takes the story in a direction that seems at first unsatisfying, yet inevitable.

If we’re being brutally honest, storytelling generally falls secondary to Wong Kar-Wai’s singular visual impulse, and why would he have it any other way? Critics love to prostrate themselves before the ambiguous or inscrutable for the sake of looking more perceptive, so Wong has shrewdly produced a string of pictures that eschew traditional narratives and don’t challenge his viewers’ expectations. Nearly 30 years ago, however, the man directed a relatively linear story that also retained the visual flourishes bound to become his signature. As Tears Go By, consequently, may be his most engaging and spirited creation, uncorrupted by artistic snobbery or melancholic brooding over detachment, the latter of which characterizes nearly all his later output.

If nothing else, and even if one deems the premise in poor taste, it’s simply a joy to watch a director flawlessly navigate and synthesize so many disparate genres. Part of the film is clearly taking after John Woo, besting all Wong’s other pictures for the sheer frequency of fists being thrown on screen. His favored step-printing technique (which reduces the frame rate and blurs the image for artistic effect) often distracts in his more grounded tales, but feels right at home in Tears, giving a vicious and strained quality to the action. When the violence abates, though, the film starts to play as an earnest romance, reaching peak melodrama in a glorious, nearly wordless sequence that’s scored to a cover of Take My Breath Away. At other points, Tears functions like a goofy parody of The Godfather or other American gangster films, which makes the ending even more of a left field closer.

The tension between the romantic and criminal sides of this madcap movie directly ties into its main theme, if Wong had one in mind.  Like a lot of Japanese and Chinese cinema, particularly in the gangster genre, As Tears Go By shows a concern with masculinity and femininity in modern society, juxtaposing the aggressiveness and impulsivity of its male characters with the fleeting tenderness of its female ones.  Wong certainly goes out of his way to showcase Maggie Cheung’s luminous beauty, and none of the men adhere to metrosexual ideals.  The film wouldn’t be all that smart if the paradigms merely stopped at gender, but I’d argue that they stand for more.  Andy Lau’s opposed allegiances, to his little brother and his cousin, don’t just symbolize a choice between two lives: a hard one and a stable one, one marked by competition, the other by love.  They symbolize a choice between youthfulness and maturity, the former being spent in isolation or platonic friendship, the latter in committed marital harmony.

Underneath the obvious generic dressings, this is at its core a coming-of-age story, reinforced by the vocabulary of the film itself. On one hand, the protagonist has his fraternal and filial duties to carry out, both in service to people who may or may not be related to him by blood (“The Godfather” figure and his “little brother”, which could be a term of endearment). On the other hand, he feels an irrepressible attraction to multiple women, with whom he might start an actual family of his own instead of idling his days away in the mock-family construct of the mob. Far more than just time-filler, Wah’s ex-girlfriend performs an indispensible part in his character arc. The uncomfortable scene where the two meet in the pouring rain and Mabel reveals that she’s married is brimming with Wong’s stylistic hallmarks, yet it also signifies a kind of epiphany for the hero, that the friends he’s grown up with are entering adulthood and leaving him in their wake. As Tears Go By presents several opportunities for Andy Lau to leave the quagmire of his youth, and how he deals with them forms the heart of the movie’s drama.

Wong’s first directing foray is certainly uneven and slapdash, the invention of a former screenwriter who’s still figuring out the craft. Its lack of precision may pose stumbling blocks to those who celebrate In The Mood For Love, which is more pristine and pruned to a degree that none can sneer at it, but the infectious energy and imbalance of As Tears Go By make it the creator’s most accessible and meaningful expression, a colorful, neon-drenched Blood Simple for a Romantic auteur.