Bodyguards and Assassins
In 1901, the first political assassination was carried out in Hong Kong in order to subdue stirrings of democracy. By 1908 the waves needed only a shore to break upon; Sun Yat-Sen would provide the direction needed. He was an important figure in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty to bring the nation into the years of the republic. There were many attempts on his life, so this provides the backdrop for action scenes whereby hundreds of Chinese extras get booted in their shit. Bodyguards and Assassins is an emotionally and kinetically overblown epic that delivers a flying tiger claw to subtlety. Whether it is factually accurate is as reasonable as the question of whether Chinese street fighters are indeed capable of flight. It is a well done action film that sets up a complicated story with numerous characters that are developed enough for you to care about them so it really matters to you when they are stabbed for the eightieth time in the groin.
Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Wen in the film) departs for Hong Kong to discuss the plans for revolution and set in motion the political figures that will organize a public and military uprising. The Qing Dynasty retaliates by targeting Sun via the Empress Dowager Cixi, who sends an army of assassins that appears to be large enough in size to sink the entire city under their weight. A revolutionary arrives ahead of time to prepare for Sun’s arrival, meet with a businessman (Li Yutang) who provides monetary support for the revolution, and run the newspaper that presses for rebellion. When the entire unit of bodyguards detailed to protect Sun Yat-Sen is murdered, Li Yutang steps forward to find a new contingent of bodyguards. Every opportunity to heighten the dramatic decibels is taken; Li’s son is chosen as a decoy, leading to many tearful partings; a beggar is given a chance to redeem himself; a corrupt cop is able to redeem himself in the eyes of his family; the daughter of one of the murdered bodyguards joins the unit to fight for revenge. The film takes its time setting the pieces upon the board, making clear that this is a desperate battle against unreasonable odds, the stakes being the future of the nation. The goal is to protect Sun Yat-Sen on his relatively short trip from the dock to two locations and then departure, the entire route an agonizingly exposed trap.
The details of the plan do not matter, because when the revolutionary arrives, the action involves a chaotic mess of superhuman feats to kill what appears to be the entire population of Beijing. The action scenes are involving, and there are some wicked stunts and jaw-shattering blows that are all like OOH. You don’t even care much when characters do the gravity-defying stunt work that is a legal requirement in all Chinese martial arts films since Crouching Tiger. The action scenes are equalled in bombast by the death scenes with lots of slow motion and tearful regrets. It is all very silly, and entertaining, and there are worse ways to spend a few hours of your time.
If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle
Silviu has fifteen days left in a juvenile detention facility in Romania. His crime is never explained, but his motive is made clear in that the only person with whom he lowers his guard is his little brother. His life has meaning only if he can protect him as a father figure, and no sacrifice is beyond consideration. Social workers cannot really reach him, as a straight life is no different than an imprisoned one, as long as his only goal in life is met. His final days are thrown into disarray when his mother sees him for the first time in years to say she is going to take his little brother away with her. This is a deeply involving drama about the choices that are made by people with very few options. Once a person has a criminal record in Romania, their alternatives shrink considerably. Sometimes opportunities must be forced into existence.
His hope for a straightforward life is mirrored by the social worker, Ana, who catches his eye. That most mundane of social exchanges, the cup of coffee, is as distant to him as a dive in an ocean trench. Even normal decisions become impossible, as he cannot shield his brother from his mother’s unwise compulsions. She detests loneliness, and so had children. When dumped by men, she took the children and traipsed around the city. We all know parents like this, and how they ruin the lives of their unfortunate offspring by rendering them as baggage, an audience to pitiful desperation. Silviu’s hand is eventually forced, and he must find a way through, even though there is no way.
George Pistereanu was a smart choice for the lead actor; his face is not emotive in the least, which makes sense for a prison film where walls must be maintained. He does have the appearance of a young kid who is more than capable of eviscerating someone who stands in his way. The character is capable of great violence in service of a tender act; in this, the right notes are hit every time. If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle is a quiet and brooding work that creates a suffocating environment where one must sacrifice all for a breath.
Colors of the Mountain
In a part of the world that regards football as akin to a religion, a child loses his brand new ball as it bounces into a minefield. The temptation to go get it anyway is overwhelming, despite what happened to that pig last week. This small issue becomes symbolic of the loss of innocence and the denial of a childhood in a part of the world torn by internecine conflict. In Columbia, the rural population is squeezed between anti-government rebels who demand attendance for all men at meetings and then active participation in whatever ineffective plans they have, and the military who sweep through the community seizing anyone who went to those meetings or know anyone who did. The lush and green countryside is drained of men, and then entire families who flee the insane and identical choice offered by the warring sides: join us or die. Manuel is a young boy who has a passion for footy, attends school, takes care of his chores, essentially average for a kid in a remote area. The flat place where they play has an adjacent area that has been mined in the past, apparently because it was used to land helicopters. When the ball is kicked out of reach, it parallels the life that will soon be out of reach for all of them.
Manuel has a teacher who is fresh from the city, and is dangerously naive about how precarious it can be for anyone who does not keep their head in the trench. She slowly loses her idealism as name after name is crossed out of her roll call, as they are ‘gone’. Even an act as well-intentioned as painting a mural (over pro-rebel graffiti) on the school wall puts her life in danger. Life is cheap here in ways no child should endure, and the point is made with surprising subtlety. One of Manuel’s friends is an albino, and there are quietly spoken rumors that albinos tend to have shorter lives. It is simply understood who will be sent into the minefield to retrieve the ball. Eventually the conflict razes their area until nothing of value is left – but the ball will be had one way or another. Perhaps the act of reclaiming such a prize is akin to taking one’s childhood by any means possible. This is a bleak but thoughtful consideration of the difficulty of rural life, where every inch of the Earth will become a war zone. The only differing aspects are the players – the fight will be the same no matter where you are.
Johann Kastenberger was a bank robber and long-distance runner in Austria; a novel was written about the man who had these synergistic hobbies, and this was developed into the German-language film The Robber. There are many potential methods to adapting this work about a man for whom the adrenaline rush was his reason to be; strangely enough director Benjamin Hiesenberg decided upon a static character study. This was not necessarily a mistake in itself, except that the character of The Robber has no character whatsoever. Whether this is due to the internal performance by Andreas Lust or the lack of any direction by the script, there is nothing there to understand, no insights to consider, and no person to care about. He is a driven man in jail, is released, trains for a marathon, and robs banks. He doesn’t care about the money, stuffed into trash bags as an incidental finding. He does care about the rush, whether it comes from decimating his race competitors or thefting a load of cash does not matter. So what? This theme has been explored before, and there are no new ideas here. What is left is a sociopath who genuinely impugns any human connections, kills his parole officer for annoying him after a race, and is on the run from the police. There is no reason to sympathize with this asshole, so we do not care if he escapes, is caught, is killed, or is raped by bears. He has a girlfriend who expresses love for him though he is incapable of any emotion beyond bland contempt. So we have a main character we hate, his girlfriend who says ‘I love you’ even though we have no idea why she loves this asshole, and a massive manhunt that we watch eagerly only in hope that he is caught, beaten, and burned alive. I hate wasting time in the theatre. Boring, predictable, pointless. Next time, make a character study about someone who has a personality.
Medal of Honor
Nothing seems to go well in Romania. When an elderly pensioner is informed by the veteran’s administration that he is to receive a medal of honor for bravery during the Second World War and will be decorated by the president, he manages to ensure that this goes to shit. The film traffics in the cynical and dry Romanian sense of humor, in that no matter what happens, it will be amusing in how it gets worse. Ion (Victor Rebengiuc) pursues this with the veterans from his past and with the labyrinthine bureaucracy, in search of what he could possibly have accomplished worthy of honor. He did nothing in the war worth remembering, apart from remaining alive. It provides a distraction from his dull life. His wife barely speaks to him, due to a long past betrayal about which he remains obstinately ignorant. He has not heard from his son in years since they had a falling out. Ion is mindlessly patriotic, and unjustifiably arrogant; the medal only feeds this inflated sense of self worth.
Still, he is broke and a pawn shop would pay nothing for this worthless hunk of metal. When he confronts another recipient of this honor, they spurn it as they would a rabid pedophile dog. After a time, however, it becomes a talisman, a source of pride for a man closer to the end than the beginning with nothing to show for his efforts. So when the government moves to strip him of his medal, it has become the only proof that his life has not been a complete waste of time.
Medal of Honor is not overtly funny as much as it is amusing in its sense of the absurd. The hoops required to address any issue are a running gag, the bureaucratic drones who busily do nothing become a source of irritation that becomes funny in itself, and the lead has a total inability to be as important as he pretends. The screenplay finds humor in the dull daily rhythms of life, and the stoic interplay between Ion and his wife touches a nerve. They have been married for thirty years, and there is nothing further to say; even without the bad blood, it bodes poorly for married couples in general that are unable to hide in routine. The heart of the film lies in Ion’s increasingly ridiculous attempts to be every bit as great as the medal would indicate, in his eyes if not anyone else’s. He is struggling to become a person of consequence in the eyes of his family – and he must be deceptive as he is nothing in his own. Fun fact: the former president of Romania, Ion Iliescu, makes a cameo as himself.
Also reviewed for the Wisconsin Film Festival: The Red Chapel, Carancho, Le Amiche, Troll Hunter, Viva Riva!, and Mozart’s Sister.