Cultural Revolution Nostalgia? Film reviewed: Youth

Posted in 1970s, Bullying, China, Movies, Music, Vietnam, War by CulturalMining.com on January 5, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

We’re in the midst of a cold wave, and it’s so cold, I feel like extending my New Year’s holiday by a few more days. So I’m keeping my review very short. This week, I’m looking at an historical drama from the Peoples Republic of China.

Youth

Dir: Feng Xiaogang

It’s the early 1970s in China, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, fanatical members of the Red Guard tried to purge the entire country of “bourgeois elements”. There’s widespread upheaval. Millions of educated youth, the zhishi qingnian, have been sent down to the countryside to work on farms. And because it’s a Cultural Revolution, only a handful of operas and ballets are allowed to be performed anywhere in China.

Enter He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) a young woman with pigtails from a poor family. She has been chosen to join an illustrious art troupe that performs these productions as part of the PLA, the Chinese Army. She is escorted from the train station by the always helpful Liu Feng, right into the middle of a rehearsal, with rows of leggy women in extra-short gym shorts and clingy tops are running about the hall in perfect formation. He Xiaoping is in awe, but also self-conscious and intimidated. She’s naïve, unsophisticated, and unskilled… the exact opposite of two beautiful young women who are leading the group: Dingding (Yang Caiyu) and Suizi (Elaine Zhong). They are both relatively rich, come from big cities and look down on her simple ways. They say she sweats like a farm girl. But the director thinks He Xiaoping has natural talent. She tries to fit in but is constantly mocked and bullied. Will she ever succeed as a performer?

Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is a kind and generous young man, modest, hardworking and always ready to help other people. So much so that they start to call him Lei Feng, not Liu Feng. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier who died in the early 60s, but whose name and face is known to almost everyone in China. He’s on posters everywhere, and he’s a role model for everyone to follow. Liu Feng is seen as the living version of Lei Feng… but will his wholesome image stop him from showing his attraction to one of the women? At the end of the cultural revolution the group disbands and the members go their separate ways, becoming soldiers, journalists, and medics.

The story picks up later, during the time of the Sino-Vietnamese war, where some of them meet again, and again much later in a more modern China. Who ends up doing well, and who is left behind? And has anyone changed their ways?

Youth is an unusual look back at the Cultural Revolution. It works as a broad, epic romantic drama. The director Feng Xiaogang does Big Hollywood-style movies really well, with action, love, and as much gratuitous near nudity – steamy shower scenes, etc – as the censors will allow. I just had problems with the history. He sees it as a happy, nostalgic time of simple thoughts and good people. Sort of a Cultural Revolution-Lite. There have been many other movies about Chinese performers in the Cultural Revolution (Jia Zhangke’s Platform, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home) but this is the first one I’ve seen that paints it as a happier time. Then there’s the war – like any good war movie with lots of explosions, valour and “war is hell” feeling. But this is Vietnam, which China attacked to “punish” them. Why? Because they drove the genocidal Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia!

Even so, the director tempers the movie with a bitter-sweet ending that makes you think about present-day China in a new light.

Youth – in Chinese with English subtitles – is playing now in Toronto: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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European movies without subtitles. Films Reviewed: Every Thing Will Be Fine, The Danish Girl, Youth

Posted in 1920s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denial, Denmark, Depression, Drama, Subtitles, Switzerland, Trans by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If you want to see a European movie, but can’t stand reading subtitles, have I got some movies for you! This week I’m reviewing three movies by famous European directors with multinational casts but only using English dialogue. There’s a Quebec writer trying to forget a terrible accident, a Danish painter who moves to Paris trying to escape her gender, and some artists at a Swiss spa who just want to while away the hours.

937bf644-3b7d-46c3-afbe-2a31f9fc5010Every Thing Will be Fine

Dir: Wim Wenders

Tomas (James Franco) is a novelist in Quebec. He’s gone ice fishing to clear his mind, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. He has writers’ block, severe depression and marital problems. And his elderly father (Patrick Bauchau) is even worse. Tomas’s partner Sara (Rachel McAdams) really wants to help him, 84ae3573-1ae0-47b2-8096-2f80afa9120fbut he doesn’t seem to want to be helped. And then disaster strikes: driving home in a blizzard he doesn’t see two kids tobogganing down a hill right in front of him. After the accident he brings the older boy, Christopher, home to his mom Kate’s home (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It wasn’t Tomas’s fault but it messed up his life, Sara’s, Kate’s and even little Christopher’s. He hits rock bottom and tries to kill himself. It doesn’t work. But things do get better. Gradually.

His sorrows provide new material for his next book, and at 514025f3-9433-4f89-8c51-d373855a4ddea meeting at his publisher he encounters Ann (Marie-Josée Croze) a woman with a young daughter. And over the next dozen or so years, things really do become fine for Tomas. But what has become of the other people affected by the accident?

This is a movie about relationships, guilt and memory. It’s also about writing and the ownership of eba43d3e-47f0-4377-8f51-60673f8c9c2aevents and ideas. Who controls the way a story is told? The writer or the subjects? And it’s shot in beautiful Quebec locations. But is it a good movie? For the first half hour at least, Wim Wenders’ film is almost unbearably slow. Slow as molasses on a cold winter’s day. Slow as sap dripping out of a maple tree. Pauses between each line so long you could step outside for a break and not miss a thing. That kind of depressing slowness. But everything becomes much better as the movie goes on until, by the end, it’s actually a very interesting movie.

The second half redeems the first.

pgLRWV_danishgirl_01_o3_8707307_1441409186-1The Danish Girl

Dir: Tom Hooper

Einer Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a young, successful landscape artist 100 years ago, in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. He’s married to another artist a portrait painter named Gerda (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina). Gerda is a feminist and an artist, but can’t reach the fame of her husband. Probably because she’s a woman. One day Gerda has him pose with his legs together, wearing stockings and high heels, as a stand-in when her female model can’t Eddie Redmayne The Danish Girlcome. Something clicks on deep inside him, and the “Danish girl” of the title is born. She names herself Lili Elbe. Gerda is a bit surprised but takes it in stride. But for Lili this means big changes. She ventures out-of-doors and encounters a man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). But Lili is distressed to discover he’s gay and desires her as a man, not as a woman.

x900 copyLater Lili takes a break as Einer moves with Gerda to Paris. He consults doctors and psychiatrists there; he’s worried he may be going crazy. Lili comes back into their lives. Suddenly Gerda becomes the talk of the town with her unusual paintings and their enigmatic subject. Who is that woman in her portraits? Lili of course. Einer is more and more sublimated as Lili comes to the surface. His childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) appears in their lives again. He is very sympathetic to Lili’s plight but at the same time helps Gerda with their marital difficulties. Which one is he closest The Danish Girlto now? Lili suffers attacks on the street by thugs and even more terrible treatment by cruel doctors and psychiatrists. Will she ever meet a doctor who believes her? One that can transform her body to match her gender?

The Danish Girl is a visually beautiful, highly emotional historical drama, based on Lili Elbe’s memoirs as one the first famous, transgendered women. But it doesn’t work as a movie. It’s overwrought, melodramatic, even operatic in parts. It feels dated and stiff.

Redmayne’s performance is totally believable both as Einer and as Lili. And I understand that movies like this are made with potential Oscars and ticket sales in mind. But with the flood of big-budget movies and TV shows — Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl — aren’t they ever going to cast a trans actor in the lead role?

image-5586e5b5-a28e-42df-9115-006940b63cd5Youth

Dir: Paolo Sorentino

Fred and Mick (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel) are two old friends spending some time at a luxury spa in Switzerland. They’ve known each other for 60-odd years and are so close that Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weiss) is married Mick’s son. They’re family now.

Fred is an English composer and conductor who, though retired, still has melodies bouncing around his brain. He sounds them out using a candy wrapper between two fingers. He’s being pursued by a representative of the Queen, who wants him to conduct, in her presence, his most famous composition known simply as a Simple Song. He refuses.

Mick is a famous Hollywood director. He’s at the spa with his writers and image-abbd6cc0-ab01-4225-8103-55f195eec116actors, hammering out his latest, and perhaps last, film script. He’s waiting to hear from Brenda, an over-the-hill Hollywood diva (Jane Fonda) about appearing in this movie.

But they are far from alone at this exclusive resort. There’s also a young actor (Paul Dano) rehearsing a part in a German movie; an overweight soccer star, a mountain climber, a beautiful Italian model, and a Tibetan lama.

This is a great movie. The film is a series of vignettes, ostensibly about two old guys assessing their whole lives,

YOUTHdiscussing what they should have done, and what to do next.

But more than that, it’s also an incredibly beautiful movie to watch and listen to. It’s funny, surprising, a bit bombastic, and occasionally predictable. But above all it’s subtle. It’s not a high-concept movie, just a beautiful montage.

The director, Paolo Sorentino, is famous for his last film, A Great Beauty. But I like this one much better, because it’s not as plotty as that one, heading toward some supposedly profound ending.

This one just is.

Youth, The Danish Girl, and Every Thing Will be Fine all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And if subtitles don’t bother you, be sure to catch the a free screening at Innis Town Hall of the classic Kurosawa movie Ikiru, playing for free (Dec 15, at 6:30), courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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