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Review: Journey to the West

Stephen Chow’s distinctive vision is evident in the seemingly boundless imagination of his scenarios, and in the film’s sincere spiritual concerns and generosity toward misfits and outsiders.

3.0

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Journey to the West
Photo: Magnet Releasing

Stephen Chow may not be the star of Journey to the West, but his distinctive vision is nevertheless all over his new 3D action epic, not only in the seemingly boundless imagination of his scenarios, but in its sincere spiritual concerns and generosity toward misfits and outsiders. One only needs to note a particular moment during its first big action set piece—a showdown between Buddhist-in-training Tang Sanzang (Zhang Wen) and a demon who takes the form of a giant fish and terrorizes a river village—to grasp Chow’s impishly humane sensibility at work. What at first seems like an easy joke, one involving an obese woman jumping onto a makeshift seesaw in order to launch the fish demon into the air and beach it, turns on a dime into a hearteningly heroic moment.

The title refers to the classic 16th-century Chinese novel, but this is hardly a faithful adaptation; instead, Chow uses elements of the source material as a springboard to, among other things, stage a dialogue between two different poles of heroism. On one side, there’s Tang, the demon-hunting Buddhist who’s so committed to his religious ideals that he shuns all sorts of earthly temptations, especially of the romantic variety. His polar opposite is Duan (Shu Qi), a ruthless female demon hunter who prefers to kick ass and destroy her targets rather than appeal to their inner humanity, as Tang has been taught to do with his book of “300 Nursery Rhymes.” Tang finds his religious beliefs rattled upon seeing Duan’s impressive displays of might when his attempts at reason prove ineffectual.

Duan, however, isn’t entirely your prototypical woman-warrior badass. She does, in fact, fall in love with Tang, even as he staunchly resists her blatant advances, sticking to, among other things, the idea of a “higher” love beyond the merely fleshly. True to her forward nature, however, she goes to some pretty extreme lengths to try to seduce Tang, at one point going so far as to stage an entire elaborate ruse in order to trap him into having sex with her. In some ways, Tang recalls Mui, the acne-ridden baker from Chow’s Shaolin Soccer who went to similarly great lengths to win the affections of a lead character afflicted with a similar case of spiritually minded tunnel vision. Do these characters suggest a regressive view of women on Chow’s part—an inability to conceive of a female character who, tough as she may be, still ultimately conforms to traditional notions of finding fulfillment through romance? Perhaps the fact that Duan, for all her clumsy attempts at seduction, seems to genuinely admire Tang’s asceticism through it all could be seen as a mitigating factor in this particular case. As with Tang’s internal religious struggles, Chow is open enough to give all of his characters and themes dialectical shades of gray.

None of this detracts from the sheer exhilaration of seeing Chow’s imagination roam free in bringing this oft-adapted Chinese text to life. This is the kind of ceaselessly inventive film in which pop songs are used as potential soothing agents for demons, a warrior grows a giant foot while doing battle with a demon, and a seduction attempt involving a kind of miming spell goes wrong in uproarious fashion. But, as ever with Chow, there are genuinely serious undercurrents throughout the relentless playfulness: a respect for spiritual ambition, a recognition of the horrors of death mixed in with the broad comedy, and ultimately a striving for transcendence. Rarely is it that a CGI-heavy spectacle such as this could be called both entertaining and inspiring in the same breath, but such is the unexpectedly special magic of Journey to the West.

Cast: Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, Huang Bo, Show Luo, Lee Sheung-Ching, Chiu Chi-Ling, Chrissie Chau Director: Stephen Chow Screenwriter: Derek Kwok, Huo Xin, Wang Yun, Fung Chih-Chiang, Lu Zheng Yu, Lee Sheung-Ching, Ivy Kong Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 110 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2013 Buy: Video

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Review: Manta Ray Is a Story of Friendship with a Necessarily Humanist Outlook

Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s films is as an oblique portrait of Thailand’s Rohingya refugee crisis.

3

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Manta Ray
Photo: New Directors/New Films

Thai writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray begins with a dedication: “For the Rohingyas.” While persecuted and stateless for decades, the people of this ethnic group have suffered greatly in recent years due to state-sanctioned military offensives and calculated measures to ensure their starvation. As such, an overwhelming majority of Rohingyas have fled from their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to find safety in neighboring countries. The government’s treatment of the refugees has been deplorable—human trafficking camps and mass graves have been found—and Manta Ray functions as an oblique portrait of Aroonpheng’s anger about the situation.

The film opens evocatively, with an armed hunter perusing a dense forest, his vest and the flora around him illuminated by multicolored lights. The scene is soundtracked by minimal strings and the rhythmic chirping of insects—a sonic palette that bolsters the lush imagery, effectively establishing the film’s serious but ethereal tone. We see mysterious men digging graves and quickly witness the contrasting work life of one of them: a nameless fisherman with bleached blond hair (Wanlop Rungkumjad). One day, this fisherman finds a man (Aphisit Hama) collapsed on a stretch of muddy ground—his prostrate body lying against a haunting backdrop of entangled mangrove roots—and rescues the injured man and tends to his wounds.

The man the fisherman saves is never identified, but one assumes that he’s of Rohingya descent. He’s mute, too, and in the numerous near-wordless sequences that depict this new relationship is a sense of camaraderie. The different diegetic sounds—from the hypnotic crashing of waves to the crunching of dry leaves, the scraping of spoons to the sloshing of vomit—instill a meditative ambiance. The horrors and tragedies that the Rohingya man faced are unknown, but the lack of dialogue makes clear his need for reflection and quiescence.

That neither of the two men are explicitly named reflects Aroonpheng’s frustration with Thailand’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis: In Thailand, the Rohingya aren’t given legal status, and current efforts to help them have been inadequate. The relationship between the two main characters in the film depicts a reality that’s unrepresentative of Thailand as a whole. Even more, one suspects that the man the fisherman saves isn’t explicitly identified as Rohingya because the Thai government partially funded Manta Ray; any explicit mention may lead to censorship, preventing the film from being screened as is—or at all—in Thailand.

Eventually, the fisherman gives the Rohingya man a name: Thongchai, after the famous Thai pop singer Bird Thongchai McIntyre. The fisherman sings a line from one of the artist’s earliest singles, and the lyrics match the current situation of the fisherman and the man he saved: “Only the beach, the sea, the wind and the two of us.” The romantic sentiment of the original song is rendered differently given their circumstances; for them, it’s loneliness, helplessness, and resiliency fueled by friendship. The strength of their relationship continues to grow as the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to ride a motorbike, as he tells stories of an ex-wife, and the two ride a Ferris wheel together. Most arresting is a gentle scene that finds the two swaying in a home decorated with multicolor lights and a toy disco ball.

The fisherman soon mysteriously disappears and his ex-wife, Saijai, enters the film. That Saijai is played by molam singer Rasmee, née Rasmee Wayrana, foreshadows the bond that she and Thongchai begin to share. Some of Manta Ray’s scenes loosely play out as refracted, alternate versions of those previously seen with the fisherman. These, in addition to a few dreamlike montages, contribute to the film’s lightly surreal veneer. Ultimately, what Aroonpheng accomplishes with these ambiguous and fantastical scenes is an underlying current of uncertainty, and uneasiness, regarding any comfort that Thongchai finds in Thailand.

The fisherman’s disappearance is preceded by a cryptic phone call, hinting at a darkness lurking behind the scenes. And when a homicide suddenly occurs, the impression that government corruption is responsible becomes less elastic. Despite brief moments of serenity, Aroonpheng posits that the Thai government is far too nefarious to ever grant the Rohingya people a place they can safely call home. Beyond this, the fact that Thongchai easily slots into the role of Saijai’s lover, but is quickly discarded when the fisherman later returns, shows the hateful ideology that fuels some Thai people’s prejudice: Assimilate completely, according to our standards and in our time, or face exile. In Thailand, the Rohingya live as vagabonds, and Manta Ray’s final scene elegantly reveals Thongchai’s understanding of this tragic reality.

Cast: Aphisit Hama, Wanlop Rungkumjad, Rasmee Wayrana Director: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng Screenwriter: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: End of the Century Tells a Sexy and Haunted Riddle of a Romance

The film is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable.

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End of the Century
Photo: New Directors/New Films

A triptych of snapshots, two real and one possibly imagined, from the lives of two gay men, writer-director Lucio Castro’s End of the Century is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable. More precisely, up to the moment that one of these men, Ocho (Juan Barberini), remains unknown to himself, withering in uncertainty, Castro’s feature-length directorial debut is a profound and casually artful expression of the lengths to which people go in order to not have to embody their desires.

The film begins at a literal remove from Ocho, capturing the fortyish man as he walks through the octagonal streets of Barcelona. By day, he drinks in the city, and by night, he checks Grindr before jacking off. Right away there’s a hint of José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia in both Castro’s blocking of the handsome and scruffy Ocho and the ineffable weight that emerges from the way he looks at the world, as if the man were willing it to look back at him.

And yet, unlike the tormented artist at the center of Guerín’s film, Ocho is a sensualist who seems resistant to emotional nourishment. That isn’t immediately understood, and isn’t obvious from Ocho’s botched meet-cute with the adorable Javi (Ramon Pujol) at a local beach—a scene that ends with Javi curiously annoyed and Ocho frustrated by his own lack of follow-through. But they get a second chance, after Ocho catches a glimpse of Javi on the street and invites him up to his apartment—and after small talk pregnant with desire, the men have sex with a passion that doesn’t faze Ocho but seems to leave Javi haunted.

Javi’s look would seem to contain multitudes, an impression that’s confirmed after he and Ocho reunite that evening, drinking and eating on the rooftop of Ocho’s building and alternately speaking about their lives. Ocho, who’s Argentinian, is visiting from New York, on the rebound after a 20-year relationship that came to an unexpected end, and Javi is married to another man and living in Berlin. There are multiple worlds between them. And yet, there’s an ease to the way they present themselves to each other that feels very much like the initial stirrings of love. It’s something that Ocho seems to sense, and is possibly why he tells Javi that it feels as if they’ve met before. To which Javi responds, “We have met before.”

If this moment is as discombobulating to Ocho as it is to us, we’ll never know, as Castro radically cuts from the scene before any emotion can register on the man’s face. It’s here that End of the Century seemingly reboots itself, capturing Ocho going through the same motions as he went through at the start of the film, walking through the streets of Barcelona before arriving at the apartment of a friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro). And it’s here, sitting across Ocho and through words filled with quiet anguish, that Sonia speaks of her life in ways that come, like so many other moments in the film, to reverberate with Ocho and Javi’s rooftop musings.

Who is this version of Ocho who’s now with a woman? Who is Sonia’s ex, Eli, and was he really in love with Ocho at one point? And who exactly is this woman who talks, and sometimes sings, of her heartache as if she knows that it might kill her? The film doesn’t answer these and seemingly countless other questions, delighting in our uncertainty over its mysteries until suddenly it all seems to fall into place when Ocho meets Sonia’s boyfriend: Javi. End of the Century’s masterstroke isn’t so much this reveal—which is impossible to expect, given that Castro puts little effort into making Barberini look 20 years younger—but how the filmmaker tasks the viewer with stitching together the story of two men’s lives from how their conversations echo each other across a vast expanse of time.

Castro has a gift for elision. The Ocho of old, who pukes after receiving a blowjob from a stranger, is a long way from the Ocho of new, who doesn’t bat an eye when Javi asks him if he has a condom and Ocho responds, “I’m on PrEP.” But if Ocho’s response to his ostensibly first sexual encounter with a man registers as shame, it’s understood to be something else entirely as soon as he pulls David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration from Sonia’s bookshelf. A bit too on the nose, perhaps, but there’s a quiet beauty to the moment where Javi finds the book, after Ocho has left him for the first time, and opens to a bookmarked page. In this moment, he understands Ocho through Wojnarowicz’s words and, suddenly, we comprehend why Javi appears so tormented throughout the film’s first section.

The story of so many gay men’s coming out is similar, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Ocho and Javi’s conversations about who they are and who they want to be not only mirrors Wojnarowicz’s writing, but also Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The nonlinear quality of End of the Century, then, could be seen as Castro’s way of putting some distance between Haigh’s film and his own, which similarly resides in a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality.

But if Weekend progressively inches toward the real, End of the Century embraces only fantasy in the end, offering up in its final section a vision of what Ocho and Javi’s lives may have been like if Ocho hadn’t at one point in time pledged allegiance to Wojnarowicz’s pursuit of “perpetual freedom.” It’s a jarring endnote to an initially mysterious film, as the philosophical inquisitiveness of the first two parts is replaced by an indulgence of fiction as wish-fulfillment. (It would be understatement to say that the moment doesn’t hold a candle to the allegorical plunge of Tropical Malady’s second half, where the desire of two men for each other is elevated to the level of myth but without it losing its present-tense veracity.) Whether or not we’ve been dropped into a projection of Ocho’s imagination is almost beside the point, as End of the Century leaves us with the not-so-ambiguous impression that Castro believes that a gay man’s path toward happiness is only possible through the performance of domesticity.

Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mía Maestro Director: Lucio Castro Screenwriter: Lucio Castro Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film isn’t unlike Dan Reed’s Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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