One of the more unusual features of the various Communist regimes around the world has been their interest in what’s usually called heroic art — it’s actually visual propaganda. These are massive murals and statuary (both free-standing and incorporated into architectural structures designed to impress) showing inspired workers looking forward to the future with optimism in their eyes or brave soldiers defending the land against enemies both without and within. This is idealism blended with an intensely nationalistic realism, and its purpose is to deliver messages to the illiterate peasants. Despite improvement in literacy, the display of this art has persisted into relatively modern times both in China and, more commonly, North Korea. I’ve always found its naïveté faintly amusing. Sadly, I’ve just sat through a film having as much interest as such art.
I had great hopes when I saw the news of 1911 or Xinhai geming. On the centennial of some of the pivotal events in Chinese history, it’s appropriate to look back and remember. Except, this is yet another example of history distorted for the purposes of making a film — in this case, a film as a starring vehicle for Jackie Chan. The poster on the left is all that’s wrong with the film. The poster on the right shows an ensemble cast which is how the film should have been made. So instead of the result being a good piece of cinema, distorting the facts in a way I could tolerate with no more than mild disapproval, I’m left with a result that’s neither good history nor a good film. Sadly, 1911 or Xinhai geming messes with the history and must rank as being one of the most boring “historical” films of the last decade. (For a general discussion of this problem, see Should historical films be like documentaries?)
So we start off in April 1911 with the second attempt to stage an uprising in Guangzhou. As in the real world, a few brave souls under the leadership of Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) caught the local Qing Dynasty officials unprepared but, when reinforcements arrived, most of the revolutionaries were killed. The second major set-piece is the Wuchang Uprising which, although starting off in a somewhat unplanned way, became the trigger for many of the southern states to throw in their lot with the revolutionaries. The combination of these two military events and their consequences is called the Xinhai Revolution which, in turn, prompted the abdication of the Emperor in February 1912.
For what’s its worth, my own view of this period sees two figures as pivotal. Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao) was one of the founders of the Tongmenghui in 1905 (later changing its name to the Kuomintang), intending to create a republic for the Han by throwing out the Manchus. The second key figure was Yuan Shikai (Chun Sun) who beautifully exploited his control of the Chinese military to destabilise the Qing Dynasty and replace Sun Yat-sen as President. Had he not then tried to declare himself Emperor, China might have followed a very different path. As an aside, it was fascinating to watch Chun Sun transfer his portrayal of Yuan Shikai to the cinema. He was mesmeric in the excellent serial Towards the Republic which aired on television in 2003. This is not to deny the historical role of Huang Xing who, after training in Japan, became the leader of the military wing of the Tongmenghui. But the adoption of Huang Xing as the lead character in this film is little more than an excuse for Jackie Chan to do his serious acting bit, inspiring the men in trench warfare and leading from the front when it comes to attacking across no-man’s land. As one of the two directors alongside Li Zhang, he even allows himself a little hand-to-hand combat to disarm an assassination squad trying to kill Sun Yat-sen on his return to China. We can’t have Jackie and not have him show off his skills.
Although the various revolts and uprisings were the essential precursors of change, the real power lay in the hands of the military where Yuan Shikai was supreme, and among the emergent middle class where Sun Yat-sen was dominant. Such fighting as took place was the stimulus to shifts in political allegiance as the Qing Dynasty ran out of money and lost its credibility among the power-brokers. Interestingly, Huang Xing drew heavily on the universities where the newly educated young from the middle and upper classes were full of enthusiasm for change. The first military conscripts for the revolution were almost all students. It’s important to recognise this revolution was not a peasant uprising. The hoped-for republic was all about a redistribution of wealth and better commercial opportunities for all.
All of this gets lost in some stirring images of warfare interspersed with battlefield surgeons hacking off the limbs of the maimed. We are repeatedly shown pictures of the initial martyrs from Guangzhou and have some of their words quoted to us. The realpolitik that produced the fall of the Qing Dynasty is left cloudy and vague, largely because the role of Yuan Shikai is woefully underwritten. The result is a mishmash of bits of fighting, Sun Yat-sen goes to Europe to persuade the Western bankers not to continue funding the Qing Dynasty, and then there’s a swift elevation of Sun Yat-sen to temporary president. Unless you know the history, you are likely to be confused. There are occasional bursts of explanatory notes on the screen, but they do not linger long enough to read as we plunge into the next scenes. The only thing approaching an emotional heart to the film is the relationship between Huang Xing and his mistress Xu Zonghan (Bingbing Li). They are thrown together just before the abortive attack on Guangzhou and later have a child as a gesture to their confidence in a better-looking future. They were wrong, but that’s the next film to be made in this historical sequence.
So, I’m sad to say 1911 or Xinhai geming is not a film I would recommend anyone to see unless you don’t mind the politics sacrificed to a few battlefield scenes. Although Jackie Chan does his best in a straight role and Winston Chao is really pleasing as Sun Yat-sen, the development of the historical narrative is poor and their efforts come to little because we’re not encouraged to identify with them as individuals or with their struggle to depose the Qing Dynasty. It all just happens as if you’re walking through Mao’s Beijing viewing a series of murals on which heroic figures holding flags seem to be fighting for something important.
I recently began the review of a film based on a novelette by criticising the scriptwriters and director for failing to ditch the poor-quality source material and put together a decent film for a modern audience. This film is the mirror image being a really good version of an even better short novel. Welcome to the world of the police procedural as seen through the eyes of Ken Bruen. He’s an Irish writer, more often in the old school style we call hardboiled. In some senses, he also throws in noirish elements. Yes, this combination usually refers to PI stories of an American ilk but, with the Jack Taylor series, we’re somewhat improbably transplanted to Galway where, it turns out, people are just as violent and dangerous as on the mean streets of a random US city.
Another series considers the working partnership of DS Tom Brant and CI James Roberts in London. After the so-called While Trilogy — A White Arrest, Taming the Alien and The McDead — Blitz appeared in 2002. This is the second of Ken Bruen’s books to be turned into a film, the first being London Boulevard starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightly. This is a free-standing novel, the film being in a similar spirit to, but rather better than, The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.
This version of Blitz stays more or less faithful to the novel in that the sociopathic Barry Weiss (Aidan Gillen) takes it into his head to start killing police officers, and our team of Brant and Roberts are given the task of tracking him down. It’s interesting to watch Jason Statham without the usual flamboyance. He’s as violent as in the majority of his other films, but this has a more naturalistic feel with the script giving him the chance to show how and why he has ended up as lethal as the man he’s chasing. In many ways, this is an impressive performance and it’s a nice counterpart to Paddy Considine who rather plays against type as the gay Chief Inspector. Thus, for different reasons, both officers are the subject of disapproval: Brant because his violent exploits get written up in the local newspapers and give the police a bad name, and Roberts because of his sexuality. There’s real on-screen chemistry between the pair and this helps lift the film above the merely average British police procedural level. The other impressive element is the subplot involving the young Elizabeth Falls played by Zawe Ashton. This character came out of the White Trilogy in something of a mess. Having worked undercover, she’s just out of rehab for a serious addiction problem, and is struggling to cope with life. I’m not wholly convinced by the behaviour of DI Craig Stokes (Luke Evans), but with the only help coming from Stokes and Brant, her isolation in the community is entirely realistic.
Aidan Gillen, more recently seen in Game of Thrones as Petyr Baelish, is wonderfully narcissistic as the killer — he names himself Blitz, strutting and preening when given the chance, but also displaying a pleasing malevolence when called to violence. Without a strong performance, the film would have lacked balance. With him and the venal informer Radnor (Ned Dennehy) dancing attendance, even with his slightly damaged knee, we have a credible threat for our detectives to confront.
As to the plot, the first half of the film is nicely constructed and flows in a believable way. The second half, however, is riddled with unexplainable moments. Like once the detectives focus on Weiss as a suspect, why does it take so long for someone to read through his past criminal record? I suppose we can later guess who telephones Brant while he’s attending the funeral of CI James Robert (Mark Rylance), but everything that follows just becomes increasingly improbable. This is not to say the ending makes the film unsatisfactory. Once the police accept they have nothing more than circumstantial evidence and must let Weiss go, the ending is inevitable and emotionally satisfying. No-one would want a cold-blooded killer like Weiss left out on the streets. Yet, why is the evidence only circumstantial? There’s no proper attempt to search his flat for the bag that later turns up there, no voice print from the telephone recording they have of Blitz, no attempt to trace the money in his possession and whose fingerprints were on the envelope? Worse, the manner of the ending raises far more questions than the film chooses to answer. How could any police force cover this up? That said, this is a different ending from the novel and, on balance, I prefer the novel’s rather more understated but entirely understandable conclusion. Bruen’s ending certainly would be an unsolved crime.
Overall, the book is better because it deals with more of the politics of policing, describing the infighting between the officers in management and those at the sharp end who must go out and do the work. Nevertheless, this cuts down to the bare essentials of the plot and, with considerable verve from first-time director Elliott Lester, it carries through to the end, not allowing much time for thought (a good thing, in a way, given the film’s ending). There’s some verbal humour to leaven what would otherwise have been rather too grim — the knowing inclusion of several behavioural and action clichés also adds to the amusement. If you are offended by crude language and some explicit violence, then this is probably not for you. Otherwise, Blitz is a slightly obvious story told in a somewhat kinetic way. It’s worth seeing if you enjoy the British style of police procedurals/thrillers and can stop yourself analysing the film as you go along.
So now Ji Woo (Rain) gets us over to China and, using Jin Yi (Na-yeong Lee) as a bait, brings many of the bad guys out of the woodwork. Yet, at what cost? If the client no longer trusts him, what progress can he make? Although Kai (Daniel Henney) may be no more trustworthy, he’s less pervy and more restrained. Have you noticed how Rain takes every opportunity to try planting a kiss on the reluctant client or, when a taxi veers violently around a corner, seizes the girl in a protective embrace? His character is genuinely sexist in every bone of his body. I’m completely baffled as to why he should have decided to play someone so unlikeable. Surely his fans cannot be pleased to see him acting as such a relentlessly unpleasant person. I don’t care anything that Rain can fight or, better still, run away. As this character, he doesn’t deserve to succeed. Or, if he succeeds, he certainly doesn’t deserve any loyalty from staff, previous associates or clients.
The truth now comes out into the open as it’s admitted Daniel Henney knew General Wei (Ti Lung) has been behind some or all of this, having killed the girl’s parents. As a loyal dog, Daniel Henney is told to bring Jin Yi to Macao. So now he has to choose whether to stay loyal to the girl or give her (and the bank note) up.
Jin Yi now realises the stupidity behind all the attempts to kill her. If the baddies think she has this bank note, they should ask her for it before trying to kill her. Sadly, the writers’ forgot to include this in their “how to be a villain handbook”. A flashback shows her picking up this bank note from the mortuary when taking the personal effects following the deaths of her parents in the US. Then, because no-one can think of anything better to do, we have more silly fights and chases to pad out the time.
I’m impressed I finally managed to work out they want the bank note. I still don’t really know who “they” are nor why they want this bank note. It’s apparently something to do with missing gold which the bad professor knows all about. But despite this fog of uncertainty, I feel I’m making progress.
Detective Do Soo (Jeong-jin Lee) giving life-saving mouth-to-mouth to Detective Yoon So-ran (Yun Jin-seo), his female junior, is appreciated by her and noticed approvingly by their colleagues. Perhaps she should invite him round to meet her parents before he changes his mind.
As in all the best television shows made for the international market, we now move with the usual dramatic speed to picturesque Macau where all the more photogenic tourist attractions can be shown off to the best advantage as General Wei proves to Ji Woo that he’s one of, if not the main, enemy. Kai (sorry Daniel Henney) gets to do what he does best which is to seduce the girl, and after another silly fight, our hero is finally captured by Do Soo. At least Rain won’t be able to run away for at least half an episode. One thing which I find consistently annoying is the artificiality of all this chasing and fighting. It brings everything else to a halt around it while everything is staged. For example, in a major Macau hotel complex, Do Soo and Ji Woo fight in front of guests and then drive everyone away from the pool area, but hotel security never puts in an appearance and the local police are not called. Remember, Do Soo is not a police officer entitled to operate in Macau. Having ended with a soaking in the swimming pool, the perfectly groomed, but now handcuffed policeman and prisoner, walk without attracting attention in front of the hotel as Kai and Jin Yi head for their car and drive away. Fortunately, in a later episode, this is corrected with our hero clubbed to the ground and blood streams down his face and neck from the wounds. For once, there are consequences to all these blows.
After an exchange of information and the introduction of evidence designed to frame our hero, things are looking bad for Ji Woo. Do Soo should be feeling more pleased but there’s something niggling at him. Anyway, because this is a plot written for the lowest common denominator audience, Ji Woo writes a summary of the case so far on his cell wall and then escapes. Naturally, our hero wants the detective to do some of the investigative work for him. Soon he has tracked down his client who has reconfirmed her relationship with Kai. There’s a moment or two of physical confrontation — Daniel Henney actually manages to do something more than stand around in his statuesque style and, in that minute, exerts himself in a fight. This would be good except he’s weighed down by guilt and ends up on the floor.
Our supposed hero Rain and Na-yeong Lee now sit close to each other in a car, watching to see what happens when Kai wakes up. For once, there’s no attempt from Rain to paw the girl. After a few minutes. Ji Woo’s predictions are proved correct as villains descend on their location. Kai’s transition to the Dark Side looks certain. They both spend the night reflecting on progress to date and then follow Kai to a meeting with General Wei. After an exchange of threats where, for once, you actually have the sense of real screen presence from Daniel Henney, our girl makes the mistake of stepping out of hiding to confront him. After a short and ruthless fight, all three principals are in the hands of General Wei. Back at the police station, Do Soo and his loyal side kick are going to be framed for helping our hero escape. This is motivating them to get to the bottom of what’s happening. I could mention the various subplots based at Ji Woo’s office and the activities of Nakamura (Seong Dong-il) but they are so painful, I prefer to allow them to fester quietly out of sight.
We now get into the aftermath of the capture. Ji Woo, Jin Yi and a turncoat associate investigator (Gong Hyeong Jin) sometimes employed by Ji Woo are tied to chairs. For fun, our mad (and bad) professor — an underling of General Wei — has a civilised thug inject rattlesnake venom into the third wheel for the other two to watch. We’re all supposed to think this execution is deeply upsetting. Rain sheds a tear, anyway. Jin Yi is next but, just as the thug is about to use the hypodermic, Do Soo and girlfriend detective turn up outside and start battering on the door. Let no-one say Ji Woo lacked foresight in leaving this dedicated pair of officers a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. While the professor tries to get rid of our amorous detectives, Ji Woo and Jin Yi untie each other and, despite having been tied unmoving to chairs for hours (which usually paralyses the body due to restricted flow of blood) they escape with the usual exchange of blows followed by a chase through the streets. Fortunately, Do Soo is fixated by his pasta and his girlfriend (of course) and so fails to spot the various groups run toward and then past the restaurant. Such is the power of love when faced by pasta. This last episode has been a bad one for Daniel Henney lovers. He’s been unconscious in bed recovering from concussion. He should talk firmly with his agent to ensure more screen time.
And let’s not forget the first death of the show. He may only have been a minor associate of the great detective, but Gong Hyeong Jin didn’t really deserve to die. Indeed, when you consider all the various attempted killings so far, with people missing death by guns, swords and motor cars, it seems singularly unfair someone should hold this ineffective guy down and cold-bloodedly poison him. It takes all the fun out of the show, really.
For all the reviews see:
This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.
With Cinders Ko Eun-seong (Han Hyo-Joo) standing the middle of the road, we’re allowed a brief flashback as the Brat Seon Woo-Hwan (Lee Seung-Ki) comes to her rescue. He snatches her from in front of the oncoming truck (Korean drivers never seem to slow down or try to take evasive action — it’s death or glory for them). Now we have a better view of how his father came to die, we’re expected to be even more sympathetic to the poor boy. Fancy having to carry all that angst around inside for so long. Not that his father’s death was insignificant, you understand. But this is all very convenient psychology by the scriptwriters.
Now our happy couple-in-waiting are alerted to mutual physical attraction, they have an issue to nip in the bud. So, in later discussions, we have Cinders telling the Brat he’s been promised to Ugly Sister Yu Seung-Mi’s (Moon Chae-Won) and she’s not going to come between them, while Buttons Park Jun-Se (Bae Soo-Bin) formally tells the Brat he’s in love with Cinders and would prefer it if the Brat lived up to his nickname and kept his distance. The best the Brat can do is confess his love to Ko Eun-Woo (Yeon Jun-Seok). He calls the girl “Spy” which our heroic piano player thinks is a pretty name. It’s just frustrating scriptwriting to have the future brothers-in-law sit down for a meal and watch the Brat fail to use Cinders’ real name. I know the whole plot would be short-circuited, but that would be better than this artificial rubbish. This is not Korean drama at its best!
Now we’ve got another of these pesky coincidences. Of all the beef soup shops in all the towns, in all the world, an ex-friend of Dead Dad Ko Pyeong-Joong (Jeon In-Taek) walks into the second restaurant and happens to recognise Cinders. He asks why she’s working there when there was such a big insurance payout. This puts Cinders into a tailspin. She goes round to the insurance company and finds out how she was cheated. When she was in grief, Evil Stepmother Paek Seong-hee (Kim Mi-Suk) asked her to write out a power of attorney, “for the funeral arrangements”. When making the claim at the insurance company, Evil Stepmother had a minion at the end of a telephone number pretending to be Cinders and confirming the power’s validity. When she confronts Evil Stepmother, the story is that all the money went to pay off her father’s creditors and there’s nothing left. Depressed, she sits in a park as night draws in. The Brat panics when she misses a meeting with him and doesn’t come home. He rings Buttons and he goes to see Cinder’s friend Lee Hye-Ri (Min Yeong-Won). Finally, he gets a little more of the backstory from her. Eventually, Cinders goes back to Granny’s place to find the Brat pacing anxiously outside.
After a day working to sell meals to a Church when they clean the public spaces without being asked and impress the Pastor who watches unobserved, the Brat brings lunch for Cinders and then sees her home. Surprisingly, Evil Stepmother and Ugly Sister now appear demanding to talk to the family. They tell a version of the truth which has Cinders picking out Granny Jang Suk-Ja (Ban Hyo-Jeong) as a target and then wheedling her way inside. They produce documents to “prove” their case including the power of attorney in Cinders’ own handwriting. Waster Daughter-in-law Oh Yeong-Ran (Yu Ji-In) is so outraged, she slaps Cinders and with Draft Granddaughter Seon Woo-Jeong (Han Ye-Won) egging her on, they demand she leaves. Rather than stand and fight for her good name, she packs a small case and goes to Lee Hye-Ri (Min Yeong-Won) who, in turn, calls Buttons. He’s all ready to sue everyone in sight — it comes of having a law degree and an inflated idea of his ability to litigate even though he’s never actually sued anyone in anger before.
When Cinders tries to resign, Granny brushes it aside and demands she prove herself at the second restaurant. This forces her back to working with the Brat and, as further evidence they will get together, she complains she has lost her mother’s necklace. Not only does he buy her a replacement, but also gets up at the crack of dawn to deliver her bicycle. Now that’s love in action. As it’s his first payday, the Brat is persuaded to buy Granny a present and Cinders guides him. Granny is overcome that the boy has shown such kindness. Even the Brat is beginning to see the upsides of a healthy emotional interaction with his family. When talking with the loyal retainer Pyo Seong-Cheol (Lee Seung-Hyeong), Granny says she’s on a mission from God to establish the truth about Cinders. It’s going to interesting to watch what she does.
When the dynamic duo hear they have won the Church contract, Cinders takes the Brat out for a drink and a snack. Unfortunately, for reasons only the scriptwriters seem to understand, she returns the necklace and leaves. He stays on and drinks himself into a state. Cinders is therefore disconcerted when he batters on her door and then collapses on top of her. After a disturbed night with him on her bedding and she sleeping in a chair, she leaves him with breakfast. A nice touch of thoughtfulness there.
Now we’re into the big deal that will lift the second restaurant over the 20% margin — being old, I don’t understand any of this because a small outlet can’t produce and supply bulk food orders. I would expect the food to come from the factory. So attributing the turnover to the restaurant looks decidedly screwy. Anyway, Cinders has found out about a big contract to bid on and wants to modify the official proposal produced by Head Office. This is just as well because Park Tae Soo (Choi Jung Woo) is out to sabotage the deal and has already leaked the proposal to a rival. Granny refuses to decide when Cinders makes her pitch but has a minion redraft the proposal in secret. Now our dynamic duo are off to the coast. Granny sends the Ugly Sister after them with a copy of the amended proposal. Buttons will be there as well. A big crisis is on the horizon.
For all the reviews, see:
This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.
Now the misunderstandings of the relationship between Cinders Ko Eun-seong (Han Hyo-Joo) and Buttons Park Jun-Se (Bae Soo-Bin) break out into the open. It’s all Buttons’ fault. He invites her round to his home to cook the meal she made for Granny Jang Suk-Ja (Ban Hyo-Jeong). He proposes to put this dish on this restaurant’s menu and wants to know how it’s done. This is the couple relaxed and sharing the preparation of the food. Rising to the occasion, he then asks whether she will become his girl. She refuses saying she cannot have anyone in her life while her brother Ko Eun-Woo (Yeon Jun-Seok) is still missing. They agree to stay as they are. Unfortunately, Draft Granddaughter Seon Woo-Jeong (Han Ye-Won) has seen them go into his condo block and is devastated. Returning home, she wails and moans. Even Granny is upset because she has long hoped Buttons could marry her granddaughter. She cools towards Cinders when she returns. Worse, Waster Daughter-in-law Oh Yeong-Ran (Yu Ji-In) and Daft verbally abuse Cinders. Amazingly, the Brat Seon Woo-Hwan (Lee Seung-Ki) comes to her rescue. “Have a little self-respect,” he tells the hysterical duo.
The Brat’s now definitely conflicted when it comes to Cinders and, the following day, he gets into close contact with her on a crowded bus, shielding her from the men who would otherwise lean on her, and then when putting up posters. There are definitely stirrings in his loins. Evil Stepmother Paek Seong-hee (Kim Mi-Suk) is overjoyed when she hears Cinders has apparently blotted her copybook and is actively encouraging everyone who will listen to throw her out of the house. Equally Buttons is getting earache from his Dad Park Tae Soo (Choi Jung Woo) who now believes he refused to join the company because he was seducing the heiress. Buttons tries to repair the damage by going round to see Daft. “I can never see you as anything other than a sister,” he tells her, “this has not changed because of Cinders.” Can’t see how this is going to make Daft feel any better, but it’s worth a shot.
We now come to the big day when the masterplan goes into overdrive at the second restaurant. The world comes to their door as their children-friendly, bring an old person with you for free meal promotion takes off. Everyone is there as either staff or a volunteer. Buttons and Cinder’s friend Lee Hye-Ri (Min Yeong-Won) turn up from his restaurant, Ugly Sister Yu Seung-Mi’s (Moon Chae-Won) is there to keep an eye on her man. Shame about that because she sees she’s losing out in the Brat stakes to Cinders. Indeed, after a karaoke session, the tension between Buttons and the Brat produces a confrontation. Buttons accuses the Brat of being in love with Cinders. The Brat is so outraged at such an absurd suggestion, he plants a fierce right hook on Buttons’ upper lip. With remarkable restraint, Buttons walks away. All this is witnessed by Ugly Sister whose day is now a total loss. She goes home to cry herself to sleep. Meanwhile, back at the Granny house, Granny’s squared the circle and remembers Cinders is the adopted granddaughter and the real granddaughter walked out of the house, swearing never to darken the door again. It’s not for her to referee a dispute if the girls want to fight over a man. She’s therefore back to sunshine and smiles with Cinders. But when she hears the Brat worked his tail off, she waits for him to fall asleep and then washes his feet. Love is thicker than water.
The next day, our dynamic duo are out and about promoting the second restaurant, looking for group sales. Cinders has a blister on her foot, but she’s gamely smiling and pushing ahead. There’s a nice moment when the Brat insists on Cinders taking the back seat on the bicycle while he drives her back to the restaurant. This forces them to hold each other as she wobbles on her perch. Naturally, the Ugly Sister sees them arrive. She’s going into depressed jealousy but comes out of it long enough to agree to smuggle accounting information out of the company so that the Brat can understand how the business is doing.
Back with Dead Dad Ko Pyeong-Joong (Jeon In-Taek), the Ugly Sister has been corresponding with him as Cinders, claiming to be ashamed of her father’s fake death and being unwilling to come back to Korea from the US to see him. Evil Stepmother uses this as a wedge to persuade him to move out of Seoul. She offers to set him up as a subsistence farmer in a remote valley. Eventually he gives in and, buying Buttons a thank-you meal, he is readying himself to leave. Except, with one of those coincidence we have come to know and love so much in this Korean drama, he’s on his way to the bus station to collect his ticket and the address of the farm, when he sees Cinders drive by in a bus. Now he’s determined to leave no stone unturned in Seoul. Evil Stepmother is overjoyed at this development. And her mood is further darkened when the Ugly Sister predicts the Brat will fall for Cinders. Without going into details, she despairs at her disappearing chances of marrying.
It’s the death anniversary of Granny’s son and all hands are called to help prepare the meal. Because he’s been studying abroad, this is the Brat’s first chance to join the family at this time for many years. Cinders is moved to see how much the Brat actually cares. Indeed, you can see her hostility melting away as she watches him cry in the garden after the ceremony. The next day, we’re back in the race to promote the second restaurant. Cinders and the Brat are beginning to co-operate more effectively but, trying to help from behind the scenes, Buttons steers orders their way. Sadly, this is detected and it provokes a big argument between our pair. How can this be a fair competition if Buttons is helping Cinders? Well she’s out of the car in a flash and standing in the road giving as good as she gets. So preoccupied is she, the imminent arrival of a truck goes unnoticed.
For all the reviews, see:
I want to start this review of Departures or Okuribito (2008) by remembering two very different written works, both of which have remained with me for decades albeit for entirely different reasons. The first is a novel, The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Even after sixty years, I can remember the detail of the funeral parlor in LA where they prepare the dead for burial in the Whispering Glades, the fictionalised version of Forest Lawn. I don’t think anyone has beaten this satire on the American way of death. It’s pitilessly vicious and occasionally hilarious. What makes this book particularly relevant to this film is that it skewers the inherent dishonesty of the West in cloaking most of the events surrounding death with pointless euphemisms that deny the reality of death. The idea we should openly treat the corpses with respect has long ago disappeared as has the practice of laying out at home before being taken off for burial or cremation.
The second was a short story and, as I recall from distant memory, it was called The Sin Eater. Sadly, I can’t remember the author. It described the Welsh practice of laying out food on the chest of the deceased. A priest prayed over the food. The family then paid someone to eat it and thereby assume the sins of the deceased. This was a real practice, but caught in a beautifully atmospheric story. At least this ritual required the family and friends to visit with the departed one last time to honour his or her memory, and satisfy themselves he or she would arrive at Heaven’s Gate without sin. However you look at it, this was more useful than a wake after burial or cremation when everyone comes to eat (and drink) for quite different reasons.
Departures or Okuribito deals with the inherent contradiction in Japnese culture when it comes to death. It was a complete surprise to me as an outsider. Frankly, it had never occurred to me that such a ceremony would ever take place. So it requires several different layers of comment. Essentially, the ritual is that the deceased is laid out in the family home as rigor is passing. A Nokanshi then publicly undresses the body, washes and prepares it for burial, and redresses it. Men are shaved. Women receive make-up. The family and friends say good-bye and the body is then placed in the coffin, ready for transport to the crematorium.
To describe the process in such banal terms is deliberately to hide the gentle beauty of the ceremony. In some ways, the Nokanshi is dispassionate, folding and unfolding the clothing in a mannered and unflustered style. But the underlying reality are final acts of dignity and respect to the person who has died. No matter what his or her religion, he or she deserves to go through to whatever waits “on the other side” looking their best. This is the least friends and relatives can do for those who have died. It’s partly done out of affection and partly out of a sense that the family and friends who have lost a loved or valued person should always receive closure. That we might find it strange a husband willingly accepts a male Nokanshi washing his wife does not change the fact that the whole is a work of performance art. The profession has arisen from an aversion to touching the dead, it being something of a cultural reversal because, originally, the family used to wash and prepare their own dead before they were placed in the coffin. When they found it too repugnant, they paid someone else to do it for them. Consequently, a Nokanshi is viewed as something of a social pariah because of the work. He may be functionally necessary, but his profession makes him untouchable.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) comes from a broken family. His father left home when he was young. He was always reasonably gifted as a cellist and, as soon as he was old enough, he left the small town and, for a while, made a living as a professional musician. But, when his orchestra can no longer pay the bills, it’s perfunctorily disbanded — ironically, immediately after performing Ode to Joy Beethoven style — and, in a somewhat depressed state, he sells his top-of-the-range cello, and retires to his home town with his young wife Mika (Ryôko Hirosue) in tow. As a result of a misprint, he’s tempted to apply for a job only to find himself immediately accepted for work as a trainee Nokanshi. The owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) uses a mixture of bribery, pleading and bullying to capture the only applicant for the job. There are some very amusing moments in the early part of the film. But, as always, there are problems brewing. The town turns against Daigo with even his best friend abandoning him. Trying to hide the terrible secret of his job from his wife only makes her discovery of the truth all the more devastating. When he will not give it up, she leaves him. This leaves three allied issues for resolution. Daigo has never really forgiven his father for leaving home. His wife was resentful at being made to leave Tokyo and feels further betrayed in her husband’s choice of new career. And then there’s the town itself.
After some months, his wife returns. She has discovered her pregnancy and comes back in the hope of persuading Daigo to leave with her. On the evening of her return, the owner of the town’s baths, Tsuyako (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) dies. She had been a pillar of the community, briefly a friend to Mika, and the mother of Daigo’s best friend. Mika attends the ritual which Daigo performs. After months of practice, he has mastered the art and even a sceptical Mika is moved by what she sees. Daigo has always been a performer albeit he’s finally stopped hiding as one of many in the orchestra. Now she sees a true professional. Even without a musical instrument, he can still “sell” a performance to an audience. His best friend is also more forgiving. When his own father dies, Daigo performs the ritual for himself as the sole grieving family member. Through this, he finds some reconciliation in his heart, particularly when he finds a small, smooth stone in his father’s dead hand.
Although this is, in many ways, an ensemble piece, it’s the performance of Masahiro Motoki that holds it altogether. Daigo has always been an introvert, holding his emotions inside. This has made him an indifferent husband, the marriage being held together rather more by Ryôko Hirosue’s love for him. Overcoming the bitterness he feels towards his father for abandoning them and achieving peace of mind through both music and work, is elegantly choreographed by director Yôjirô Takita, working from a script by Kundô Koyama. It’s a journey of redemption, at times sad, then humourous and finally modestly triumphant. In a sense, he heals his relationships with the living through his ability to treat the dead with such reverent respect.
Let’s conclude with a simple question: what’s the point of a ritual? In a way, the tradition behind the activity gives it meaning, in this case, as a way of showing reverence. It shows deep respect and is one of the possible ways in which we, as a group or society, may say something profound through practical engagement — by providing a gateway through which the dead may pass into whatever awaits them while the onlookers say a proper farewell. Overall, Departures or Okuribito is a remarkably moving film and it’s no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 2009 and divers prizes as best film with the best performance by Masahiro Motoki in festivals and awards around the world. You should make every effort to see it.