Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 “Earth,” Episode 2 – “The Cave of Two Lovers” – History and Love

The Cave of 2 Lovers

     “The Cave of Two Lovers” is a good episode for developing Katara and Aang’s attraction to one another, has a lot of great humor and ends raising the stakes and showing just how outmatched the world is by the Fire Nation. It’s a fun episode, though it isn’t perfect.

     The episode was directed by Lauren MacMullan and written by Joshua Hamilton and Aaron Ehasz.

   The story involves Team Avatar’s traveling to Omashu but being forced to take the legendary “Cave of Two Lovers” way after the Fire Nation keeps them from flying there (we later find out why they were there in the first place). From here they travel with a band of nomad hippies into the labyrinth but are separated as Aang and Katara must find their own way seperated from the group. As Zuko and Iroh are taken in my Song, a woman made a refugee by the Fire Nation.

The Pros: Sokka – Sokka is the practical one who attempts to make a map and to try flying to Omashu eventually. We also see his is good with animals as he plays music that causes some Badger Moles to like him and let him ride them. His face palming all of the hippies non-answers was hilarious too.

Katara – Katara is pretty expressive to Aang this episode and we see how they are teacher and student, friends and potentially lovers as when she kisses Aang the cave lights up. She is good at calling out Aang for his obliviousness too when he reacts opposite to how he feels about kissing her.

Aang – Aang is a kid in this in how shy he is around Katara and his arc is small as he just gets the strength to return the kiss that she is trying to have with him. It’s sweet and we see his attraction he has towards her as she is training him.

Iroh – Iroh eats a plant that gets his poisoned and is the voice of wisdom as Zuko is living in wounded pride. Iroh treats Song kindly and is grateful that she takes them in and cares for them. When Zuko steals her bird he calls Zuko out before sadly joining him on it.

Zuko – Zuko is empathetic towards Song’s scarring by the Fire Nation but doesn’t fully accept that he has been scarred by the Fire Nation. This denial leads to him taking her kindness for granted and robbing her. It’s a sad moment and shows just how broken Zuko still is.

Song – Song is a refugee of the Earth Kingdom who was physically scarred on her leg by Fire Nation troops. She isn’t bitter, just sad and takes in Iroh and Zuko even though they are total strangers. Sadly her kindness is not rewarded in kind and we see her watch sadly as they steal from her.

The Legend of Omashu – The name Omashu is the name of the Two Lovers. When one of them died the woman created a giant tower in the middle of the fighting villages that later became the town of Omashu as she reacted to her lover dying in the war. Her actions ended the war and lead to the city of Omashu that exists today.

The Ending – The ending is stark, you see Team Avatar experiencing joy only to have it taken away only to see that Omashu is now under the control of the Fire Nation, making the point of their journey suddenly more hopeless.

Okay: The Nomad Hippies – The hippies were funny but way to much of a caricature. They were singing fake folk music and were horrible and dancing and about “Living in the moment man!” which made for decent comedy but bad characters. I put them as okay mostly because of how Sokka reacted to them which was hilarious.

  This was a good episode but the nomad hippies and some of the editing brought it down. Plus Aang had a bit too many foot in mouth moments so I thought the romance wasn’t handled as well as the last episode that explored Katara and Aang’s romantic interests. The episode is still really good though and I do recommend it.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 “Earth,” Episode 1 – “The Avatar State” – The Cost of Fear

Aang's_spirit

     We return to The Avatar Universe reviews with the first episode of Book 2. “The Avatar State” is really the episode that shows there is no easy path to peace and victory for any of our heroes. Be they Iroh and Zuko or Aang, Katara and Sokka. In this we also see how those who may present themselves as allies may be just as big of enemies as any person serving Lord Ozai in the Fire Nation.

     The episode was directed by Giancarlo Volpe and written by Aaron Ehasz, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, Tim Hedrick and John O’Bryan.

     The story picks up where we left off at the end of Book 1 with Aang leaving to go and meetup with Bumi so he can be trained in Earth Bending. As they leave Pakku gives Aang scrolls to train and Katara water from the Spirit Oasis to help in a time of great need. From here they meet up with General Fong who asks Aang to go into the Avatar State so they can destroy the Fire Lord. When Aang is unable to do so and is having nightmares of the power of the State Fong goes to greater and more desperate means to get the results he seeks. Elsewhere Azula arrives meets with Iroh and Zuko and attempts to lure them into a trap.

The Pros: General Fong – Daniel Dae Kim from “Lost” plays the voice of this character and does a great job of showing a man driven by desperation to defeat the Fire Nation. You get the feeling he’s been fighting a losing battle and that Aang is his last option. For this reason he goes to desperate means to trigger the Avatar State and doesn’t even care after the Avatar State destroys his base. At this point he has lost the trust of Team Avatar for attempting to kill them though. He’s a great complicated character who shows the moral grey that is pretty common among folks we’ll meet in the Earth Kingdom.

Karata – Katara is the voice of reason in this and listens to Aang about his nightmares that he is having of himself being destroyed by his Avatar State. She protests when he volunteers to try and induce it to make up for all the time he’s been away and she ends up being right as the Avatar State ends up being far more dangerous than anyone realized.

Aang – Aang is driven by guilt this episode as he gives into the pressure Fong puts on him because he want to end the war as he feels guilty for the 100 years he was gone after he ran away. He learns he can’t rush it though when Roku warns him that if he is killed in the Avatar State than the Avatar Cycle ends.

Avatar Roku and the Warning – Roku saves Aang from himself this episode and educates him that the Avatar State is the experience of all past Avatars but because of that it is also the time when the Avatar can be ended. You see worry in his voice too as he realizes how young is and how easily he is pressured.

Iroh – Iroh suspects something is up and is Zuko’s protector. He defends him from Azula killing him an all the special troops she brought with her. We see how deeply he cares about Zuko, even trying to be kind to Ozai to make Zuko’s isolation easier.

Zuko – Zuko is conflicted. He has the action of his Uncle who truly loves him but his obligation he feels to his father who hates him. His desire for acceptance makes him easily manipulated by Azula and his anger blinds him in the fight against her. Where family is concerned and his father Zuko is raw even calling Iroh lazy and someone who doesn’t appreciate how great his father is. He doesn’t apologize either, revealing that the blind spot is still very much there.

Azula – Azula is ruthless and manipulative and also a fantastic villain. She threatens the captain of the ship to have them reach Iroh and Zuko and we see her defeat Zuko easily and Zuko not being killed only because Iroh directs the lightning she shoots away. That is right, she is perfectionist who can use lightning, just like Iroh. On her own she is only stopped from capturing them but is in no way defeated and the episode ends with her putting up wanted signs throughout the Earth Kingdom for Zuko and Iroh’s capture.

Okay: Sokka – Sokka is supportive and a good ally but doesn’t do much this episode but try to help Aang escape and support him when he is initially trying to induce the Avatar State.

   This is a solid episode and a great way of setting the stage for Book 2, both in establishing Azula as a villain to fear, the conflict of Zuko’s path and how high the stakes are for Aang and the importance of him learning all the elements before facing the Fire Lord. The theme of desperation turning allies into villains is a theme too as we see Zuko wanting nothing more than acceptance from his father and willing to go to any means to do it, and General Fong and his threatening of Aang’s friends and Aang’s life in order to make him go into the Avatar State.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Zuko_and_Iroh's_wanted_poster

City of God (2002): A Tragedy of Politics, War and Corruption

City of God Poster

    I was asked recently how what I consider the perfect film by one of my closest friends and mentors. My reply was a movie without any cons at its core but that it’s also a bit contextual too. “City of God” is a film I’ve seen twice and when I first saw it in High School it was a little traumatizing, the second time watching it though, this is a film that does everything right. There is a diverse range of characters and everyone you get to know has fascinating motivations and the fact that this is a movie with consequences.

   “City of God” was directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Katia Lund and written by Bráulio Mantovani based off the book by Paulo Lins and produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Elisa Tolomelli and Walter Salles.

    The story is around those in the life of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) as he recounts how he ended up in the middle of a standoff between Lil’Ze (Leandro Firmino) and his gang and the police, as a recounts as a journalist who has reentered the city from his childhood, the “City of God.” From here the past is recounted from “The Tender Trio” one of whom was his older brother, to the rise of Lil’Ze to becoming boss of the “City of God” and his eventual fall and all the connections between the major players in the “City of God.”

The Pros: Writing – The writing is sharp and I love how it is broken up into chapters. We get the story of Rockets path and his brothers story in the “Tender Trio,” “Knockout Ned’s Story” “Rise of Lil’Ze” and others. All aspects of the “City of God” are explored. There was a reason it won best screenplay.

Editing – The editing is sharp and so much is portrayed when so little is shown. Be it Rocket running and us seeing through the lens of the camera or a rape scene that is only shadow and screams…it’s horrifying and you get the horror in as little time as possible. The point is made and you see just how much of a monster Lil’Ze is and what Knockout Ned and his wife felt in those moments. It deserved the awards it won for editing.

Cinematography – César Charlone did an amazing job on the cinematography! Rio is shot in bright sun or darkness with layers of light. It feels like a city on the edge and you can see the desperation of the city. We see how lived in the city is and the desperation of the people. So much is potrayed in so little and this why Charlone won an award for what he did with the cinematography.

The Characters – Most of the characters are complex, and all of them have motivations. It is that that makes a character. No one stays the same and the events that happen change the characters and make them softer (Benny falling in love) or harder (Benny’s death and Lil’Ze cruelty growing) that you can’t help but be drawn in, even if some like Lil’Ze aren’t sympathetic.

“The Tender Trio” – Shaggy (leader who is killed by the cops after he falls in love and tries to escape), Goose (Rocket’s brother who tries to get out but is killed by Lil’Ze when he says he’ll tell and is done with crime after the snitch kills the wife that Goose was sleeping with) and Clipper who joins the church after an injury and the massacre that Lil’Ze commits in the Love Motel.

Carrot – Matheus Nachtergaele is wonderful as Carrot, one of the lower level drug lords who is friends with Benny and pretty calm. He never tries to kill Lil’Ze unless Blacky was trying to kill him under orders but due to him killing Blacky I think he was counting on negotiation until Knockout Ned becomes his partner against Lil’Ze and he finally has a chance against Lil’Ze and his control of the city. He is eventually caught by the cops in the final standoff.

Angélica – Angélica is Benny’s love interest and Rocket’s friend. She also has awareness too and sees how bad things are in the city even if things are stable under Lil’Ze’s tyranny. Alice Braga is wonderful in this role. It is her compassion that changes Angélica and she is the motivation for Rocket to become a photographer and how he gets involved in the gangs to get her drugs early on.

Benny – Phellipe Haagensen plays Benny who is Lil’Ze’s childhood friend and partner in crime who eventually becomes a hippy and is loved by all in the “City of God.” He is the one person Lil’Ze cares for and that is because Benny cares. Benny always uses diplomacy and after he falls in love with the woman that Rocket loved named Angélica. His final scene is fighting with Lil’Ze over the camera to give Rocket before he is shot by Blacky. He goes from the most selfish character to the most selfless character, his arc is opposite of Knockout Ned as he becomes the pacifist while Ned becomes the conqueror.

Knockout Ned – Knockout Ned is played by Seu Jorge and is one of my favorite characters. He is a peaceful man and doesn’t even want to do violence against Lil’Ze after Lil’Ze has him strip naked during Benny’s Farewell. It is only after Lil’Ze kills members of his family and rapes his wife that he becomes the paladin and seeks revenge against Lil’Ze. He starts out not wanting to kill innocents but eventually that becomes the exception as he gets fully invested in becoming a hood and feeding the war against Lil’Ze. This eventually leads to him getting shot as the kid whose father he kills in a holdup shoots him.

The Runts Gang – The Runts gang act as a unit and are loyal to each other. This leads to them turning on Lil’Ze for killing one of their own after Lil’Ze loses everything and the price Lil’Ze paid for shooting him in the foot and killing another of them. They are all sociopathic and live for chaos and anarchy and are the ultimate symbol and reality of the desperate, armed orphans.

Lil’Ze – Leandro Firmino plays adult Lil’Ze and a different actor plays the broken kid who is a bit of sociopath since the beginning as he shoots up a love motel and from there makes his start with Benny robbing from others. From here he gets into the drug trade and becomes the most successful drug lord in the “City of God.” Eventually his selfishness devours him as he rapes Ned’s wife leading Knockout Ned’s war to lead to his end and his killing by the Runts as he killed one of theirs. He dies with nothing and in the end couldn’t even support his friend Benny leaving, the only one he truly cared about.

Rocket – Alexandre Rodrigues plays adult Rocket who is a photographer working for the paper in the “City of God.” The story is told from his perspective and is based on the events in his life. He is a great character as we see he is too kind to be a hood. In the chapter “Flirting With Crime” he helps all the people he meant to hurt and eventually becomes a journalist. Part of him being put on the right path was his brother Goose warning him against a life of crime since he knew it was empty and usually short, even if it paid. Rocket’s arc as a whole is growing up he wants to get with Angélica which connects him with Blacky and later once again Lil’Ze and Benny and his becoming a photographer leads to Lil’Ze respecting him and his sweet nature is why Benny likes him. He is the character who is the observer and documenter of everything and his ending is documenting Lil’Ze’s murder and the corruption among the cops when they shakedown Lil’Ze for his money. His story shows everything he cares about how so much of his motivation isn’t just to live, but his love for the city he comes from, “The City of God.”

Consequences – Everything has consequences, Lil’Ze failure to pay the gun merchant leads the police to turning on him and shaking him down for all his money, Knockout Ned’s killing of a police offer leads to the boy’s son killing him and others we see before like Rocket’s first camera and the camera that Benny was going to give him eventually leading to Lil’Ze treating him with respect and having him take pictures of his gang for his publicity for the gang war. It’s wonderful and we see things carry over when the Runts kill Lil’Ze since he had killed one of their to try and scare them. Consequences are what make the film beautiful and matter since reality has consequences.

The Themes – The themes are those of consequences, the cycle of revenge is a never ending one, how desperation leads to crime and that there will be people who take advantage of that desperation to their own ends (Carrot and Lil’Ze, and the Police).

The Message – The message is that you do have a choice and that choices have consequences. Rocket stays out of crime and from it is eventually able to get out, but the choices made by corrupt cops fed the cycle of violence and random innocents are killed on multiple occasions by the gangs and police which breeds the ongoing cycle of violence.

   This film did so much right and even though it is long it never felt long. The action is constant and characters are always changing and relating to one another. We see the choice of not going into crime makes Rocket a good guy and how the attempt to kill Lil’Ze lead to Lil’Ze total downfall when he lost his conscience he had in Benny. No character stays the same and the message of how revenge always comes back in the end and how the cycle of corruption continues and may exist for a reason (lack of opportunities, stability when a single gang lord is in control). The fact that it is based off real events also lends power to the story and you can this is reflected in the cinematography and editing where you are in the world and feel for everyone, even the Monsters like Lil’Ze.

Final Score: 10 / 10. The perfect film from “Foreign Film Week.”

The Intouchables (2011): An Amazing Story About Connection Between Outcasts

the_intouchables

    “The Intouchables” is extremely deserving of all the praise it has received. It has gotten criticism in some circles for being racist but I’d have to disagree, and I’ll go into the reasons why in deeper into the review. To give part of my answer now though, the critics who see the film as racist do not give Driss enough credit as a character or the fact that his agency is what drives the plot, not Philippe’s.

    The film was directed and written by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano and produced by Nicolas Duval-Adassovsky, Laurent Zeitoun, Yann Zenou and Harvey Weinstein.

     The story is about Driss a Senelgese immigrant to France who ends up taking a job with the paraplegic Phillipe when he needs Phillipe to sign off on a welfare paper so that his family can receive money. From here the story unfolds as Driss’s past and family eventually meet up with his new life caring for Philippe as Philippe deals with racism from his own class background and how dismissive most people are of him because of he is a paraplegic.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – This film has one of my all time favorite soundtracks. The music gave me chills, especially since the scenes matched up with the music seamlessly. Ludovico Einaudi is truly a master of his craft and I want to hear more of his work after this.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and presents the fear or the freedom in different moments so well. Be it the car ride at the beginning and end of the film or the moments where Driss or Philippe are isolated from the world.

The Writing – The script is quick and witty and there is so much great banter between Driss and Philippe as Philippe is overly proper and Driss could care less. This leads to a great dynamic between the two. Magalie’s witty dialogue and Marcelle’s empathy are also beautifully written.

The Characters – Any of the characters we see for multiple scenes who speak get great exploration! This especially applies to the women who are Philippe’s aids. We see their romantic relationships and friendship with Driss develop over time and see how they change one another.

Magalie – Magalie is the character who Driss takes an immediate liking too but is not interested in him but loves to play around since she knows it will never go anywhere as she values the friendship and she is a lesbian, which is the reveal we have at the end. All the minor characters in this are great and Audrey Fluerot does an amazing job!

Marcelle – Marcelle is one of the people who is standoffish of Driss at first while Driss is getting used to living in the house. That changes when Driss shows awareness that she didn’t have, both in regards to the drugs she was taking to help with her stomach and her attraction to the gardener. She is Driss’s closest friend when Philippe asks Driss to leave. Clotilde Mollet does a wonderful job.

Philippe – François Cluzet plays one of the main stars who became paraplegic during his risk taking adventures that he used to share with his wife. This leads to him not having any confidence in his looks or physical appearance and leads to a huge insecurity and guardedness. This changes when Driss treats him like Driss would anyone and he values it since Driss doesn’t see a disability, he just sees Philippe. Eventually when Driss’s cousin is in hiding he kicks him out though and gives into the pressure from the rich white French folks from his family and older friends who never liked Driss but never are around unless they have to be. When he realizes that he when his next caregiver is treating him like a patient he has enough of it and has one last adventure with Driss. Cluzet does an amazing job and since he cannot move his body all his acting is in his face.

Driss – Driss is a character who has given up but after choosing to stay and help Philippe changes and finds he has passions beyond just existing, which was what he was doing before when he was getting welfare for his family. It is this passion for life that he discovers that rubs off on Philippe and from where they build their friendship. The story is really driven by Driss and we see this in the introduction as he bets with Philippe how the cops will react to them at different points as he is driving Philippe’s sports car. In the end he and his Aunt makeup and he leaves Philippe as a caregiver since he’s made his own path and had been the entire time, though in the credits we see that they still remained friends. Omar Sy is rich in this role.

Themes – The greatest themes in this are prejudice and how wrong is (in racism or prejudice towards a person based physical difference), to not fear to take chances (be it meeting someone new, a date or making up with someone you have wronged), and the theme of freedom (with a great flying scene and a few shots of birds).

The Message – The message is one that many films have done but it is done well here. That the groups that are looked down upon be they groups based on class, race or body are wrong and that all anyone wants in the end is to be free. We see in Driss’s talk with his cousin, in Philippe’s desire to fly and in Driss’s exploration of art and how he acts. He is never a servant or subservient as his entire way of being is a reaction to that and we see this when Philippe’s adopted daughter treats him like a servant and the other times Driss calls people out. Driss is a character who never loses agency, unlike Philippe who loses it the moment Driss leaves and he is stuck with a caregiver who treats him like a patient.

The Cons: Not Enough Time with Driss’s Family or Past – We learn a lot when Driss shares his backstory about how his Aunt and Uncle always wanted children so they adopted him from his parents in Senegal but things got complicated after his Uncle left and his Aunt had more kids. You get that because he was adopted he felt rejected and was never able to form a close bond, but you don’t hear this in the scenes with his family and that took away from the film.

Driss and Women – Driss is creepy sometimes and Magalie has to say no multiple times before he finally fully realizes it. I don’t know how purposeful this was or if it was a poor attempt at comedy, but those scenes were uncomfortable…especially since Driss has a lot more awareness with everyone else. It takes him much longer to learn with Magalie, which is a shame.

   This film is not perfect, but it is a favorite and I do think the criticism it has received for racism in regards to Driss can be argued certainly but I don’t see it in the actions or agency that the character lives. He drives the story and is arguably the main character, not Philippe. The one thing I would have changed is more time with his Aunt and cousins. We never get to know them the way we get to know the folks who worked with Philippe, but this is largely because Driss’s Aunt kicks him out of her house. How things could have been changed is giving more of the reasons why and more of Driss’s backstory earlier as it is an amazing backstory and I wanted to know more, even though the core focus was on the friendship between him and Philippe. Suffice to say, I recommend this film highly.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Art of Fighting (2006): The Reasons to Fight and the Cost

The-Art-Of-Fighting-2006-K-Movie

   We continue “Foreign Film Week” with “The Art of Fighting.” My friend described it as the a the Korean “Karate Kid” with more violence and that is an apt description. It is better than “Karate Kid” in a few ways too. For one it doesn’t idealize fighting, it shows the reasons why someone would fight and what it takes to win a fight. From here we are introduced to the two complex protagonists who drive the story and each of their reasons they choose to fight.

     “Art of Fighting” was directed by Shin Han-sol who was one of the writers along with Min Dong-hyun and produced by Lee Seo-yeol.

     The story is about Byeong (Jae Hee) who is abused by Pako (Hong Seung-jin)and his gang at his technical high school and attempts to fight back only to beat down again and again. When he runs into a strange neighbor named Pan-su (Baek Yoon-sik) who is a fighter and possible ex-gangster who he convinces to train him. From here the story unfolds as his father tracks Pan-su and they deal with the threats from the gangs in the area.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – As someone who loves the soundtrack to fighting games like “Tekken.” There is a techno rhythm to many of the fight scene and montages and it adds a lot to the quality of the film.

The Action – The action is brutal and solid in this film, it reminds me a lot of an early Tarantino or Rodriguez film and it’s extremely raw. For example every fight is mortal and keeps going until a person is finally down. It’s doesn’t romanticize it because of how honest it is on how blood is part of a fight. This is one thing it really does well.

Pan-Su – The strange neighbor is a great character. He only starts training Byeong because Byeong is so insistent and is getting him free stuff. That is how their relationship starts with Byeong paying for all his meals and drinks but things change when Byeong shows how much he’s grown as a fighter and Pan-su has nothing for respect for him at the end realizing that Byeong now knows the cost of fighting (given that Pan-su is nearly killed by Paku and the Police).Baek Yoon-sik is wonderful in this role.

Jae-hoon – Jae-hoon is Byeong’s friends who ends up being killed by Pako because he stands up to Pako when the gang is picking on Byeong. His death is brutal but before that he is a really kind and tough guy who manages to beat one of the bullies a bit before Pako comes in. His death is a tragedy as he is someone just trying to look out for his friend. Park Ki-woong is wonderful in the role.

Byeong-tae – Jae Hee plays the main character in the film who is a man who lives in fear until he loses his best friend and is ready to use all the training Pan-su taught him. It’s a great process to watch and we see he is a stubborn kid who doesn’t give up no matter what he’s put through. He also doesn’t kill, which puts him above Pako and Pan-su. His arc is also reestablishing a relationship with his father which he is finally able to do when he has the confidence and stands up for himself against the bullies.

The Message – The message is that sometimes there is a time to fight (self-defense, defense of another) but you have to know the cost, people die (Jae-hoon) and get hurt (Pan-su) fights are never pretty and should always be a last resort. If you can scare your enemy and cause them to run away, that is what you do. That is one thing I really respected about this film. The message is great.

Okay/Cons – The Cinematography – The cinematography is very hit or miss. At times the camera felt like it was fogged over and things weren’t clear while other times it felt home video like. For this reason it is hard to put it as pro or truly okay since there are some okay filmed moments but other times the poor quality clashes with it.

The Cons: The Bullies and Gangs- The bullies were just thugs (like in “Karate Kid”) and really had no motivation. At least the bully in “Karate Kid” was abused by his mentor and father, the same cannot be said about Pako who is mostly just motivated for revenge since Byeong’s father was the one who put him in prison.

  This was a good film, but not a favorite. I disliked how simple the bullies were and how they weren’t complex at all and at times it lagged because of it because the bullies got so much screen time. I also wish we’d gotten to know Pan-su more as he was the most compelling character in the film. The lack of backstory being fully explored since it was so focused on Byeong made the film good but not great. Byeong’s character wasn’t enough to carry the film to make it a favorite or a great film, still he wasn’t bad so it was good.

Final Score: 8 / 10.

Farewell My Concubine (1993): An Amazing and Tragic Tale Born of Abuse

Farewell my Concubine

   We continue “Foreign Film Week,” with “Farewell My Concubine.” This film is extremely tragic as well as powerful and has a lot of great themes that make how long it is feel not as long as it actually is. The overarching theme is how characters live with the abuse they were raised with and in turn doled out to those around them. This at its core is what makes it a tragedy and what I’ll explore when I get deeper into the film.

     “Farewell My Concubine” was directed by Chen Kaige, written by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei produced by Hsu Feng and based on the story by Lilian Lee which she wrote based off the original story “Qiuhaitang” by Qin Shouou.

     The story takes place in the Warlords Era in 1932 during the childhood of our main characters Douzi (who is son of a prostitute) and Shitou who is one his early protectors and love. From here the story unfolds through the Civil War, Japanese Occupation, Cultural Revolution to 1977 as our characters fates intertwine as they deal with the trauma from their childhoods and the trauma the nation goes through.

The Pros: The History – Chinese history is one of my passions and this film does a brilliant job showing the trials in the different eras. From the echoes of the Feudal system during the Warlords Era, to the fear during the Cultural Revolution when there was destruction of art and anyone involved in the arts was suspect as a dissident and promoter of the “Older Age.” From the Japanese occupation and the powerlessness the people experienced under the horrendous rule and the Nationalist era where elements of the Ancient Arts like “Beijing Opera” were still celebrated.

The Beginning – The film starts with Douzi and Shitou dressed as the King and Concubine in 1977 talking with an unseen director about how things are better now that the Gang of Four and Cultural Revolution are done, and about how hard that time was for the Opera and the arts before we go to a flashback in the Warlords Era and see Douzi’s prostitute mother cut off his extra finger so that he will be accepted by the Opera and trained.

The Soundtrack – Zhao Jiping did a fantastic job on the soundtrack. It plays like a living opera and fits to theme of life as a stage and how the tragic roles played sometimes become reality or reflect the reality going on around the characters.

The Characters – All of the main characters are complex and you can understand why they do the things they do. All of them are hurting and running away from the pain that they’ve experienced in the past. All of them fear regressing and being alone or being abandoned and this plays a major part in how they treat one another and how the drama plays out.

Master Zhang – Master Zhang is a unic and Douzi’s love after Shitou marries. He is a kind and supportive man who loves the arts and even stands by Douzi when he is on trial by the Nationalists for singing for the Japanese. They never talk again though when he won’t lie to protect himself but we see how much he means to Douzi when he is killed during the Cultural Revolution for being a lover of the arts and member of old money. Yidi does a great job as him.

Juxian – Juxian is the prostitute who buys her own freedom in order to be with Shitou after he saves her from a group of disgusting men who want to use her. She is hated by Douzi because of his mother abandoning him and she is eventually jealous of him when she sees that Shitou has feelings for Douzi. This leads to her working inside the Opera and helping to promote Xiao Si as Douzi’s replacement. She is a survivor and just wants to be loved and not alone. When she is denounced by her husband and he says he doesn’t love her during the Cultural Revolution she kills herself, fulfilling the dream where she jumps to her death because she is alone. Gong Li owns this role.

Douzi – Douzi is the outcast from the beginning. He’s child of a prostitute, is gay and is true to himself and his feelings while those around him are not and he fears losing his friend and love Shitou. This leads to him being cruel to Juxian, Shitou’s wife and his full embracing of the Opera. The Opera and later opium are the only escape he has from being rejected by society and his mother. This eventually leads to the pain of it all being to much and him taking his life like the Concubine in “Farewell My Concubine” which is something we see him flirt with throughout the film. He is the character who has been through the most pain and is the most raw in his emotions. In the end he does become the Concubine to Shitou’s King. Leslie Cheung is fantastic!

Shitou – Zhang Fangyi (Cao Cao of “Red Cliff” fame) does a wonderful job in this role as the bisexual actor who has two loves both of whom conflict with another and are parts of what he wants most. In Juxian it is a stable life and the ability to connect with another and in Douzi it his ambition and fame and fully inhabiting a role. Eventually he loses both, both from his own cowardice (denouncing Juxian) and inability to be honest with his feelings (only sharing physical affection with Douzi when they were teens). In the end he is the only one living and is wholly alone in a world that how accepts his art again.

The Message and Themes – The major themes and within that the message are how abuse destroys relationships. All the characters were abused by their bosses or mentors and this leads to them doing the same to one another and only seeing their own desires in the end. This prevents Douzi from becoming friends with Juxian, Juxian from forgiving Douzi or Shitou and possibly Xiao Si’s betrayal of Douzi as well. Those in power do it too as seen by the Master Guan’s betrayal of Douzi and Shitou and their betrayal of Master Zhang. There is also the theme of “Self Fulfilling Prophecies.” Juxian fulfills her dream of killing of herself when she feels how she felt in the dream and Douzi does the same when he takes his own life in the role of the Concubine in “Farewell My Concubine” bringing the story a close.

The Cons: No Connections Lasted – We see characters go through so much together but in the end they are left behind. Douzi kills himself with the sword as he practices “Farewell My Concubine” with Shitou. Shitou denounces Juxian which leads to her suicide and Master Zhang has no on stand for him and he only stand up for Douzi when Juxian and Shitou bring the sword he gave Douzi when they were lovers. I think this fits the theme but I wanted at least one relationship to last to show that not all bonds could be broken since love was another theme of this film and I wanted at least one romantic relationship to succeed.

Xiao Si – I never understood his turning against Douzi as he was raised by him as a child and the opera had always treated him with respect. From here I never understood his jealousy or desire to be the concubine. He fate is left open at the end since we see soldiers arrive as he is preparing to be the Concubine. He was one of the few characters that didn’t feel 3-Dimensional and his betrayal felt like it only existed to reflect the younger generation turning on the older generation during the Cultural Revolution.

   This was a great film, but be ready for how harsh it can get. Characters go through extreme physical and mental abuse and they never get the chance to heal as they only experience more of the abuse from the changes in government around them. It is a tragedy and unlike a Shakespearean tragedy, no one comes out victorious. If you know this going in, you will find a beautiful film that is now one of my favorites. There are so many rich characters in this film and it takes place in a rich history that brings to life one of the most powerful stories in the tragedy of the play “Farewell My Concubine.”

Final Score: 9.4 / 10.

Departures (2008): A Masterpiece About Healing and What We Learn From the Dead

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This is my second time seeing “Departures” and I must say, it is just as amazing the second time around. Back when I was an undergrad in College I was part of a Japanese Program where we studied Japanese media, history, language and culture. One of the films that we had got to study was this film and back when I saw it it quickly became a favorite film.

The reasons it is a favorite are numerous and I’ll go into detail in the assessment but for the major things it gets right is the soundtrack, the cinematography, the complex characters and the theme. It’s truly a masterpiece that pulls you in.

The film was directed by Yōjirō Takita, written by Kundo Kayama and produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa.

The story is about Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) who loses his job as a cellist when the orchestra he is a part of dissolves and decides to move back to his hometown of Yamagata with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When he follows up from an add in the paper he finds himself in a job in which he prepares the dead for cremation and their funerals. Resistant at first he eventually comes around but finds that the job has alienated him from those around him and he must deal with his own hurt as his preparing the bodies of the dead has helped families deal with the loss of their loved ones.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Takeshi Hamada does a wonderful job with the cinematography on this film. Whether it’s the opening shot of a car driving through the snow filled fog, the burials and how they capture the pain and relationship the living have to the deceased or the alienation that Mika and Daigo at times feel from the world around them and each other. There is nothing but beautifully shot scenes in this film.

The Soundtrack – Joe Hisaishi was the perfect composer for this film. The use of strings and piano capture the themes of memories and loss that every character feels in this film and the theme song “Okuribito” is now a favorite.

The Characters – There aren’t any 2 Dimensional characters in this film. Everyone has motivations for doing what they do and no one is really a bad person. We see how complicated character relationships are through the choices characters make and also the regret the living feel based on how they treated the now deceased.

Yuriko – Yuriko is the secretary of the encoffining business and has a rich story. She is comfortable with working with the dead and has a lot of respect for the Boss as he hired her after the owner of the bar she worked for died. Her story is also tragic too as she abandoned her child for a man who wasn’t any good and now regrets it but fears going back to see her son, ashamed of how he might see her. For this reason she asks Daigo to see his father one last time when she learns his father died alone as she fears the same thing as well, even with the Boss and Daigo as her adopted family. Kimiko Yo gives a lot of depth to this role and her character might be my favorite out of all of them.

The Boss – The boss has another name but I’m going to refer as the Boss. Tsutomo Yamazaki does a great job in this role as the eccentric encoffiner. He lost his wife and prepared her body for cremation which got him into the business in the first place. He has a very honest approach to death and accepts that everyone dies at some point. This doesn’t stop him from being extremely respectful to everyone around him and having a certain interpersonal awareness contrasted with how unaware he can sometimes be. His final scene is giving Daigo the car so that he and Mika can go visit Daigo’s father’s body to see him for the last time. He’s very much the father Daigo never had.

Mika – Ryoko Hirosue plays a rich character who has an astonishing ability to grow and adapt. She leaves Tokyo to return to Daigo’s hometown even though she’s always wanted to travel and she eventually accepts Daigo’s job once she sees how much respect is given to the dead and how important his role is in helping families heal and move on. She also stands up for herself too and voices how difficult the move was and tries to change Daigo’s mind about his job twice before she finally sees what is it is like. It is also her action that makes Daigo realize he should see his father. She is one of the most mature characters in the film and Hirosue owns the role.

Daigo – Daigo holds a lot of pain inside of himself but is also very much a child still. We see this in his moments of joy with Mika and his full embracing of his job as an encoffiner when he finds he is good at it and what he is able to give the families in honoring those who have passed. His arc is forgiving his father and moving on from the world he left behind when the orchestra was dissolved. He still holds onto his music though and uses it to express his melancholy memories and what he’s shared. In the end preparing his father for cremation and remembering his face allows him to forgive his father for abandoning him and his mother. Masahiro Motoki is wonderful in this role.

The Departures – Every departure is powerful, from the first moment where he has to help move the body of an old lady who has been rotting, to every suicide victim he cares for, every child he buries and every old person leading up to his father. Each reveals an aspect of humanity from our cruelty to our love, which is why I’m giving the powerful departures their own section since they made that much of an impression on me and were fantastically done scenes.

The Transgender Women – One of the departures is of a transgender woman who cared herself because her family never accepted her becoming a woman. It’s a powerful scene and we see the Boss’s and Daigo’s respect for her that carries over to the family when they give her woman’s makeup and finally honor the person she was the entire time. It is this that makes the father realize just how horrible he was and get him to the point of accepting that he always loved his son and regrets his actions.

The Bath House – The bath house is a place that Daigo goes to and is friends with the couple who owns it and their son who went to school with him. When the mother dies it makes Mika realize how important the uncoffiner job is and that Daigo is doing important work for healing and where the son finally accepts that his mother is dead and how he never respected her wishes in regards to the bath house and her husband who believes he’ll see her again and we see that he is the gatekeeper at the crematorium. The scenes with him are the most powerful as he recounts their last days where they celebrated their anniversary with a party and how she had him heat the bath house before she passed which gave him time to deal with the loss when he returned.

Daigo’s Father – Daigo’s father died alone and it is realizing the sad life that his father lead that motivates Daigo to not be that. He forgives his father and the stone he gave to his wife when he shared the stone his father shared they press to their son as a reminder that their son will not be alone as Daigo was. It is a powerful scene and completes Daigo’s arc as a character showing he no longer holds the resentment and hate for his father.

The Themes – Everyone dies, but that doesn’t stop us from living or change how their lives shaped us and can shape us. We see this in the Boss reminding Daigo to eat since it is the only way he will keep on living and we see how the lives touched the living and changed the living in every scene of departure. Whether it was the City Council Member mourning his mother or the Father truly accepting the loss of his Transgender daughter. All of them feel the loss and realize how they hurt the person through their actions and how important that person was to their life, changing them in the process.

The Message – The message is that the dead can’t do anything to hurt you and holding onto resentment only hurts you. This message of forgiveness is throughout the entire film and comes to a final conclusion when Daigo gives his father’s body respect and from it is finally able to remember his one happy memory he shared with his father and realizes he misses the life they never got to share…and in this knows healing.

The Cons: Pacing – At times the film is a bit too slow, this helps if you have other things to do but it makes watching the film all at once difficult at times. It is a meditative film so if you go in expecting it to feel long, you will be fine. I hadn’t seen it for years so I’d forgotten how long it felt inbetween the moments of high drama and character and for this reason it was a con for me.

This film is a classic and highly deserves all the awards it has one. It reveals what death teaches us about ourselves and that the dead are always with us and from that we can heal and grow or we can remain in denial over what we went through with those people when they were alive with us. I really love how at peace this film is with death and that it doesn’t have one dimensional characters. All of them are so richly written and the music, cinematography and amazing acting make this a film that is truly unforgettable and one of the best I have ever seen.

We’ve all dealt with death and lost people who are close to us or touched us in some way. For me seeing this film reminded me again of all the friends and family I’ve lost and how those individuals touched my life and helped me grow in different ways. I carry them in my memory and heart each day I live is another day to remember them and how much they meant to me and to so many others. The dead are a part of us and we carry them with us in how we live our lives.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10