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. —-Christopher Nolan
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.
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.