Facing the Waves

Norlan-Dunkirk

When it comes to tragedy on screen, the presence of sea generally creates a sense of tension to the story and makes it more powerful, like Titanic.

It’s hard to say if Dunkirk is trying to tell a tragic story. Over the viewing experience however, I could strongly feel how a war battle in the vicinity of sea left people being extra exposed and vulnerable, to an extend that the so-called enemy and alliance, defeat and victory seem less significant. Under the pressing situation, people had to make choices, voluntarily or involuntarily, in the solo hope of survival or going home.

One of the stories that stuck with me and worked its way into the film was a veteran telling me about watching people walk into the sea, just as if they were going to swim home. I asked him, ‘Were they literally trying to swim back to England or swim out to a ship; were they killing themselves?’ He didn’t know, but he knew they were going to die. It’s a chilling thing to hear.    —-

For a war film that doesn’t involve much bright colour or long dialogue, what we are shown is three episodes of the famous World War II evacuation and a vivid depiction of lives associated with it. The desperate struggles happening near, above and at the sea clearly bring out a sense of belonging and patriotism among the British soldiers as well as civilians, which then led to a spirit of solidarity and people’s willingness to sacrifice. In contrast to the vastness of sea, the ugliness and narrowness of the nature of war is also largely revealed at the same time.

A sense of admiration and fear to sea seems to be universal, whether they are threatening a few little boats like what is portrayed in The Great Wave off Kanagawa (A print of which is recently showing at NGV), or an array of military ships in Dunkirk…It seems that any hatred, blood, screams could all be easily erased and conquered by the roaring waves, which in a way enable people to stop, to reflect and to forgive.

Waves
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai (36 Views of Mount Fuji)

Silence

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2 missionaries, 1 boat, an isolated island.
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Long journey, troubled souls, diminishing hope.
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No redemption, on the soil full of oppression.
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Only more blood, despair, and death.
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Silence, silence, endless silence.
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Do people want to be saved, or too scared to live?
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In the movie, there is a few scenes where Christian villagers were asked by the governor to spit or step on a piece of wood carved image of Christ or Virgin Mary, as a gesture of rejecting the faith. It’s a decision of life or death, while most of them chose death, holding onto the hope that they would be in Heaven eventually. The Father, after suffered all the extreme pain for being devout to his belief, chose to live. Before he stepped on that piece of wood, he seemed to have a moment of enlightenment by seeing a vision of Jesus and hearing him giving the permission to step on him. His desperation got deeper and he struggled to comprehend the meaning of praying to silence. The choice puts an end to the physical pain from the outside world, yet is that the end of his doubt? Or the start of more questioning by the silence.
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I was surprised that the film was shot entirely in Taiwan — a slight compromise of authenticity given the costs to deliver the message I guess. It more or less shows Scorsese’s approach to survival as a devout filmmaker, and a Father to Hollywood cinema.

Ghost, Shell, City

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
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Based on my limited knowledge of Japanese sci-fi manga, I initially thought the film Ghost in the Shell is a remake of anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (EVA) or a western adaptation of EVA. Even when I saw Scarlett Johansson’s posters on the street, I still thought she plays Rei Ayanami in EVA and it didn’t occur to me that this is actually a different piece of work.
Major Kusanagi
Left: Rei Ayanami(EVA).Right: Major Motoko Kusanagi(Ghost in the Shell)
Aside from my ignorance to Japanese sci-fi manga classics, Major Motoko Kusanagi actually does share some similarities with Rei Ayanami. They both have purple hair and red eyes, have limited or no emotions, and were built to fight as some kind of augmented human-like robots that are superior to normal human beings both physically and mentally. Being faces of the future world, they have tough bodies, but they are also longing to develop their own identities and connections to the outside world.
Major Kusanagi demonstrates what a “Ghost” would be capable of once she overrides the power that comes with the “Shell” and has established her own thinking and execution system. Scarlett Johansson did a great job expressing Major’s frustration and struggle of being a robot that takes orders and a proper mastermind that makes the decision, though this is not the first time Johanson plays a character that is surreal and from the future. Her recent characters include the seductive girl in  Under the Skin (2013) , the mentally enhanced Lucy in Lucy (2014) , and most impressively, the digitally augmented female voice of a virtual girlfriend in Her (2013). Johansson has given these “super-humans” a female voice with her appearance in these movies by following a path of creating female “super-humans”  that are expected to be prettier, sexier and smarter in all dimensions. Yet their fragile and complicated minds are as mesmerizing as their physical charm.

Major Kusanagi’s jump from the top of a building into the dark, gigantic urban jungle background is inevitably the highlight of the film. As a cyberpunk movie, Ghost in a Shell inherited the futurist and postmodern urban setting like the ones from Blade Runner (1982), with ubiquitous high-rises, flickering digital screens and rotating animated projections. Though obviously a duplicate of the skyline of Hong Kong, the 3D effect of  city created by the latest CI technology has improved tremendously compared with the augmented film scenes in Blade Runner from the 80s. One day when the digital technology is mature enough to present such settings via virtual reality glasses, it would probably be another step closer towards the cyber-world that is depicted in the movie.

Ghost in a Shell City
Top: Ghost in a Shell (2017). Bottom: Blade Runner (1982).

Gone with The Wasted Times

Wasted times

This is a film about 1930s Shanghai and its gangster past during the chaotic Japanese occupation period.

As a Chinese film, it is a nice piece of work that entails a sophisticated storyline and a unique style of art-house aesthetics, while still maintains its clear commercial intentions. With an all-star cast, it depicts the stories happening around three leading characters including a ruthless gangster leader (You Ge),  a Shanghaiese- speaking Japanese spy (Tadanobu Asano) and a lustful concubine (Ziyi Zhang) of a gangster boss. Each of them was after something they wanted during the wartime, and all thought that they had had  full control of the situation during the process of pursuing, while the end is pretty much tragic for all of them.

To me the film pays tribute to a wartime era where everything was unpredictable, all relationships seemed fragile, and people’s fate could turn into different directions at a blink of an eye. This might be the case for any wartime stories, however there seems to be an extra level of fascination involved when they are told in the 1930s Shanghai — back then a city under influences of different political parties, east and west cultures, while the local gangster groups still dominated the backend of the city’s criminal activities, and determined the ways things should be done in many circumstances.

I especially like the touch about the lives of a few supporting roles who have side stories that are peripheral to the main storyline. They include a maid who served the gangster family loyally but died as a victim as the result of a revenge spree by an enemy group, a dying gangster chauffeur who got rescued by a prostitute and then fell in love with her, and an actress who rejected the courting from the gangster’s top leader and hoped to get back with her estranged husband. They help the audience to catch a glimpse of people’s mentality during that era, where everything had some sort of unspoken rules, but they could also be steered away as lust and caution intervened.

The Chinese title, which literally means “A history of disappearing romance”, conveys a sense of both nostalgia and melancholy. With the end of war, aspects of the wartime humanity, genuine or distorted, all started to fall apart and became powerless, to a point that all comments seem absurd and further interpretation no longer seem necessary.