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Land of Milk and Honey 

Millennium Mambo and James’ Journey to Jerusalem

Thursday, Mar 25 2004
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JEAN-LUC GODARD FAMOUSLY DECLARED that all it takes to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Both turn up in Millennium Mambo, a ravishing bauble about la dolce vita in Taiwan, but frankly, the gun’s an afterthought. This is a movie about the girl.

Set in and around Taipei’s hippest nightclubs, it’s a dreamy drift of a story about Vicky (Shu Qi), a self-absorbed party girl and hostess-bar employee who bounces between two men: her doper boyfriend Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-Hao), a petty thief and would-be DJ; and a calm, older gangster named Jack (Jack Kao), who makes her feel safe. Devoted to an anomie no more purposeful for being frenzied, Vicky spends her days guzzling whiskey, smoking enough cigarettes to outpollute an oil refinery and obeying the rhythms of a techno beat that keeps her from hearing the fragile flutterings of her own heart. More an appendage than a full-fledged person, she’s caught up in a dance of attachment and loneliness, intoxication and sobriety, that takes her nowhere.

Normally, this kind of alienated-youth picture would have me bolting from the theater faster than an outbreak of Ebola. But Millennium Mambo was directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the great chronicler of modern Taiwan who, to my mind, has been the world’s greatest filmmaker for the past 20 years. His previous movie, Flowers of Shanghai, was a masterpiece — as beautiful as a Vermeer, as oblique as a Henry James novel — about courtesans struggling to win whatever little freedom they could within the lethally narrow confines of the social order in 19th-century China. Although slighter, Millennium Mambo can be seen as a modern companion piece to Flowers. Like those courtesans, Vicky too is trapped. But she’s also a prisoner of her own vacant narcissism and aimless freedom. In Hou’s vision, she’s an avatar of the new, consumerist Taiwan — radiant and enticing, and only dimly aware of its own shallowness.

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The movie was shot by In the Mood for Love’s Mark Lee Ping-Bing, whose lighting most Hollywood stars would kill for. He transforms Vicky’s world into a symphony of dark rooms graced by swathes of orange and yellow that give her flesh a wondrous glow. Hou has the great filmmaker’s knack for taking the banal and then reinventing it — he can turn his heroine’s romp in the snow into a moment of transcendence. Millennium Mambo begins with the camera following Vicky as she walks blithely through a seedy overpass in nighttime Taipei, the taillights of passing cars tattooing the darkness. Although the setting could hardly be less glamorous or the action more ordinary, Hou endows this shot with such thrilling poetry that, when this carefree young woman finally bounds down the overpass stairs and away from our eager eyes, we feel ourselves inexorably descending into a less buoyant emotional realm.

While Millennium Mambo’s stylistic brilliance alone would make it worth seeing, I can’t deny that it’s somewhat tedious. By my reckoning, Hou has made at least 10 better movies, and it underscores a daunting truth about American film culture that it is only the first of his works to receive nationwide distribution. This one wouldn’t have been distributed either were it not for Shu Qi. Full-lipped and luminous, she isn’t merely one of the world’s most beautiful actresses but an international erotic icon whose youthful nude photos have been downloaded onto many millions of computers. It’s too early to tell how far she can go as an actress — Hong Kong filmmakers have generally exploited her beauty rather than nourishing her talent — but here, as in Viva Erotica, Shu hints at a core of melancholy that, along with her surface fizz, suggests she has it in her to be an Asian Marilyn Monroe. Hou seems to think so. From the first frame to the last, he follows her movements with a lover’s eye — and finds grace in her every gesture.

 

 

THE CAMERA IS ALMOST as generous to Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, the star of James’ Journey to Jerusalem, an enjoyable, sneaky-smart fable about the collision between innocence and experience. The open-faced South African actor plays James, a Christian Candide who leaves his Zulu village to visit Jerusalem before becoming a minister. But, upon reaching Israel, he’s instantly tossed in the Tel Aviv slammer, and is rescued, so to speak, by a contractor, Shimi (Simon Daw), who gets him out of jail, houses him with other migrants and puts him to work doing manual labor. James soon winds up working for Shimi’s curmudgeonly father, Sallah (Arie Elias), an old-school Israeli settler who refuses to sell his ramshackle house so that the property can be turned into one of the soulless apartment blocks that increasingly dot the Israeli landscape. He’d rather have a garden. The old man keeps warning the young African not to be a frayer — a Hebrew word for “patsy” — and James proves an apt pupil, gradually learning the rules of a society where everybody has an angle.

The movie is the feature debut of director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, who co-wrote the script with Sami Duenias. He gives us an Israel that’s a “godforsaken country,” as one soldier terms it. Dusty, messy and casually racist — James is called “Blackie” even by those who like him — it’s a Holy Land caught up in an exploitative logic that’s a far cry from the ideals that created it. Here, milk and honey have become cell phones and real estate, and you get them by profiting from other people’s labor. To emphasize the point, Alexandrowicz gives Tel Aviv a nasty, smeary look, as if it had been shot on waxed paper that had once held a particularly greasy falafel.

Naturally, nothing about the film’s moral lesson is specific to Israel. On the contrary, characters like James have become a staple of modern filmmaking, be it the honorable Nigerian doctor caught up in an organs scam in Dirty Pretty Things, the sweet Latino gigolo in Star Maps, or the good-hearted small-town kids in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s earlier classics Boys From Fengkuei and Dust in the Wind. All these decent souls taste the poison apple of modernity and know that the folks back home — like James’ fellow villagers in Africa — won’t understand that our present-day Jerusalems are far less holy than they used to be.

MILLENNIUM MAMBO | Directed by HOU HSIAO-HSIEN Written by CHU T’IEN-WEN | Produced by CHU and ERIC HEUMANN | Released by Palm Pictures At Laemmle Fairfax Cinema

JAMES’ JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM | Directed by RA’ANAN ALEXANDROWICZ | Written by ALEXANDROWICZ and SAMI DUENIAS | Produced by AMIR HAREL | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At Music Hall, Encino Town Center, One Colorado


How Not To Kill a Lady

In this golden era of the leaden remake, Joel and Ethan Coen have always promised something brighter. Rather than merely copy old movies, they’ve taken them as the starting point for jokey, fractured riffs on the idea of noir, romantic comedy or Capra corn. Until now. Their misshapen new movie, The Ladykillers, is based on the 1955 Ealing Studios classic about London thieves, led by scary Alec Guinness, who use a clueless old woman’s house as a base of operations for a robbery. Such a wicked storyline seems right up the brothers’ alley, and at first you may think they’re pulling it off. They neatly transpose the action to the South and turn the old woman into a devout African-American church lady (Irma P. Hall). Better still, they unleash Tom Hanks, a terrific comic actor who — after playing the Noble American for the past few years — relishes

the chance to ham it up. Sporting goofy fake teeth, he plays the bearded, white-suited Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a mountebank who speaks with amusingly old-fashioned grandiloquence, punctuating his words with a rapid, air-sucking laugh. He’s surrounded by a band of crooked brothers, including a muscle-bound dolt (Ryan Hurst), a brutally efficient Asian with a Hitler mustache (Tzi Ma) and a sassy black dude who can’t stop saying “motherfucker” (Marlon Wayans). (Having demonstrated their mastery of insensitively portraying Jews, the Coens have moved on, heroically, to African-Americans.)

It’s the disease of Hollywood remakes that they nearly always lose sight of what made the original good in the first place. Where Alexander Mackendrick’s film offered a delicately diabolical blend of the ordinary and the brutal — it was a character comedy about a hilariously thwarted attempt to kill a frail old woman — the new Ladykillers bludgeons you with cartoonish gags about stupid football players, irritable-bowel syndrome and (for the second Coen film in a row) somebody accidentally shooting himself in the head. For all their considerable talent, the Coens have almost always had trouble telling stories, and here they cram the whole biddy-bashing premise into the last few minutes, where it lacks all menace and brio. Is it possible that these aficionados of black comedy don’t realize that The Ladykillers is supposed to be one?

—J.P.

THE LADYKILLERS | Directed by ETHAN and JOEL COEN | Written by the COENS from a screenplay and original story by William Rose | Produced by the COENS, TOM JACOBSON, BARRY JOSEPHSON and BARRY SONNENFELD | Released by Buena Vista Pictures | Citywide

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