fbpx

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.

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