Any kind of preconceived expectations for this 2002 film from director Jeffrey Lau should be set aside right at the outset. Despite the presence of Wong Kar Wai as a producer, what is on display here couldn’t be more different from that filmmaker’s regular output. In Ming Dynasty China, a princess (Faye Wong) gets fed up with being confined within the walls of the royal palace and decides to escape on an adventure. To disguise her identity while traveling outside of the palace walls, the princess presents herself as a man, but this draws the attention of the supposedly-intimidating but actually kind of lovable rogue Bully The Kid (Tony Leung), who is looking for a suitable husband for his tomboyish sister (Wei Zhao). Things get complicated when he starts to have his own confused feelings for the disguised princess. While all these shenanigans are happening, the princess’s brother/Emperor of China (Chen Chang) is given permission by his dominating mother to track down his sister. All sorts of ridiculous romantic complications ensue.
It’s tough for me to say with absolute certainty, but there might be something of a language barrier here. Effective comedy has so much to do with timing, and there doesn’t appear to be much of that in Chinese Odyssey 2002, its free-wheeling nature leaving very little time for most of the laughs to register properly. Matters aren’t helped by some very poor visual effects work and a disorienting editing style that creates a good deal of unnecessary confusion, especially in the early going. Whatever limited appeal the film has comes almost entirely through the energetic performances. Faye Wong is her typical beguiling self (even though it’s never remotely believable that anyone else could mistake her for a man), Chen Chang goes through most of the film wearing a ridiculous afro wig, and Tony Leung plays against his usual screen persona by acting like a complete goofball. Everything mercifully starts to settle down in the final third, the screwball antics taking a backseat to more romantic concerns. It’s in this actually more conventional stretch where the film seems to finally find its footing, but to get to that point you have to sit through some truly patience-testing material. In the end, it’s all just a little too much to take. 4/10.
The second film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground. At least at first glance, the pointed social commentary that was pervasive throughout the director’s 1959 film Sapphire, the first in this collection, is less immediately apparent in this 1960 caper flick, about a group of eight men banding together on the promise of a big score. These men (among them British stars Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, Roger Livesey, and Nigel Patrick) all come from military backgrounds, but all of them for one reason or another had their service end on bad terms. They see the heist as an opportunity for some long-delayed justice, and they approach their illegal mission in the same manner as they would a military operation, each with their own duties and each expected to maintain a high degree of professionalism and obedience.
Sapphire was primarily an examination of racial tensions in late 1950s London, a focus that carried what was otherwise a fairly ordinary police procedural/whodunit narrative. The League of Gentlemen is more successful with its specific genre elements, and so it’s easier to enjoy simply as a heist film without the need for any additional subtext. That’s not to say subtext is completely absent though, as the film can also be seen as a commentary on the dissatisfaction and general sense of abandonment British military veterans felt towards their country after the end of WWII. It’s not something that threatens to overwhelm the film’s lighter nature; instead, there’s just a slight undercurrent of disdain, as these men go about taking some revenge on a country they feel has betrayed them. In fact, it’s the heist-as-military-operation conceit that generates most of the film’s humor, the irony of the situation inspiring plenty of witty wordplay and subtle visual gags. This aspect of the film is so strong that it elevates the actual heist itself, which isn’t the most memorable but suits its perpetrators in its efficiency and unnecessary flash, into something that maintains genuine tension and interest. That’s actually a nice way to sum up The League Of Gentlemen; it might not be the most exemplary heist film other made, but it’s given a distinct appeal through its fun hook and commitment to character. 7/10.
If I only had one word to describe this 2013 kidnapping drama/procedural from director Denis Villeneuve, it would be “uneasy.” It’s a feeling that makes itself known almost immediately, as a Thanksgiving get-together between two families quickly turns into a frantic search for missing girls, and for the rest of the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, the viewer is rarely, if ever, given a moment of reprieve. At its center are two men played by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, the former the father of one of the missing children, the latter a police detective assigned to the case, each forced into a situation that will bring out their darker impulses. Villeneuve, working from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, allows everything to unfold at an almost exhaustingly gradual pace, and he is expertly supported by Roger Deakins’ appropriately chilly cinematography, which brilliantly captures a small Pennsylvanian community on the brink of a cold winter. It’s an important note to make that, especially for a relatively mainstream thriller headlined by two normally-quite-likeable stars, Prisoners is close to uncompromising in its relentlessly intense tone (at the end of one particularly harrowing scene, the couple behind me in the theater could be heard consoling each other). Even though the film holds back from going over the edge into complete darkness, it’s still a grueling watch.
This is what separates the film from the pack though, its willingness to follow its two central characters into the dark abyss. At the beginning, Jackman’s character is an ordinary, albeit intense, man, one who considers himself prepared for the worst the world can throw at him. But he finds himself in a situation that leaves him completely powerless, a fact that he cannot handle and one that he will do his best to fight, even if his actions lead him down a road from which he cannot return. Elsewhere, the trajectory of Gyllenhaal’s character brought to mind Bong Joon-ho’s Memories Of Murder in its portrayal of investigative obsessions, although without that 2003 film’s offbeat sense of humor. Like that film, Prisoners shows its central detective engaging in increasingly reckless actions as he is consumed more and more by the case, and how that can result in terrible consequences, a risky but welcome decision that adds some complexity to what is otherwise a more by-the-numbers protagonist. Unlike that film though, Prisoners isn’t so much concerned with the elusiveness of evil as it is with the recognition of evil existing within anyone, just waiting to rise up in times of agonizing desperation, and in that purpose it’s incredibly successful. Only the need to bring out the Talking Killer near the end to tie up all the loose threads feels like a slight misstep, but the film more than makes up for it with a perfectly-judged open-ended conclusion that invites the viewer to ask themselves the question of whether those who willfully step far outside traditional moral boundaries are deserving of redemption. I thought the film was very impressive, the kind of thriller that, for those that can handle its subject matter and unwillingness to hold back, delivers both in its thrills and in its ideas. 8/10.