Tragedy is easy
A quick note: Japan Foundation's Eiga Sai 2002 opens with "Nabbie's
Love," a harmless enough little comedy that won the NETPAC (Network
for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award in the Berlin Film Festival.
The movie is about a pretty young thing named Nanako (Naomi Nishida)
who arrives at her home island in time to see her grandmother Nabbie
(Tomi Taira) rekindle her long-simmering love for the forbidden Sun
Ra (Susumu Taira).
Before you start thinking of the film as "Wuthering Heights" for the
geriatric set, let me go on to note that Nabbie looks less like an
aged beauty than an endearing grandmother; Susumu as Sun Ra, however,
does cut a fairly dashing figure when posed against a ship's bow. To
provide needed comic relief, Nabbie's grandfather Keitatsu (Seijin
Nobokorikawa), gently pushes a young man named Fukunosuke (Jun
Murakami) to courting his granddaughter. Keitatsu encourages
Fukunosuke by singing racy little ditties about his granddaughter's
round bottom, while said granddaughter hangs the laundry out to dry...
The worldview is essentially benign, the humor more oddball than
actually twisted; this is not comedy a la Takeshi Kitano
("Hanabi," "Sonatine") or Takashi Miike ("Audition")--which may be
good news for those who like their entertainments that way.
The rest of the films in the festival (the theme is "Life, Love and
Laughter") are presumably in a similar vein. Perhaps the most
interesting of the lot is Shinobu Yaguchi's "Adrenaline Drive," which
I saw at the Hong Kong Film Festival. The picture takes classic
Tarantino elements--a boy and girl on the run, vengeful Yakuza in
pursuit, a sackful of bloody cash at stake--and presents them in a
cool, distanced manner Tarantino can only wish he could achieve. Not
great, but not bad either.
Hopefully next year, the festival organizers might see fit to include
more films from their back catalogue--which, after all, only includes
some of the greatest Japanese films ever made. Works by Kurosawa,
Ozu, Mizoguchi, Oshima and Ichikawa are, of course, always welcome,
but some of the lesser-known directors (lesser-known to local
cineastes, anyway) would make for a wonderful change--Naruse, Seijun
Suzuki, Kinoshita, Yabushita, Tezuka, early Takahata, to name a few.
One can always hope--
After the riches of Cinemanila it's hard to settle down to the usual
multiplex fare--Matt Damon as a killer spy? Mel Gibson farming corn
and fighting aliens? Mike Myers in an intentional James Bond parody
(which, when you think about it, sounds redundant)? It all makes you
want to throw your head back and snore, loudly. Thank god for
Greenbelt, which offers an alternative: Zhang Yimou's latest
film "Happy Times," about a middle-aged man named Zhao (Benshan Zhao,
a comedian) forced to pretend he's a successful hotel manager to a
blind girl named Wu Ying, or "Little" Wu (the lovely Dong Jie).
The film is reportedly based on a story titled "Shifu, You'll Do
Anything For a Laugh" but I don't believe it--it's really
Chaplin's "City Lights," cleaned up and relocated to modern-day urban
China. Zhang takes a huge risk by inviting comparison to Chaplin's
classic, unfashionably sentimental the film may be to today's
critics; it's a testament to his "unfashionable" storytelling skills,
I think, that Chaplin's movie works, while Zhang's falls flat on its
Part of the reason may be that Chaplin was already a veteran comic
filmmaker when he did "City Lights"--and even he realized what a
volatile mix of humor and sentiment the storyline (blind girl and
clown beggar) can be. "Happy Times," on the other hand, is Zhang's
first-ever attempt at comedy, and he seems under the impression that
it's simple to do--just hire a comedian to play the lead and write in
The truth is actually the opposite--comedy is never easy. A large
part of what makes a comedy funny is its timing, which must be
precise (that's why Chaplin can afford a flat, uncinematic eye--his
timing was impeccable). Zhang's editing was never his strong suit--he
started out as a photographer, and you see the influence in
handsomely made period films like "Raise the Red Lantern" (and even
in this picture's casually gorgeous lighting). "Happy Times" is too
slackly paced to be truly funny, and without humor to balance things
out the film tends to feel overpoweringly sentimental.
Part of the reason may also be the structure: Chaplin gives his Tramp
a simple reason for pretending to be a rich man--he's attracted to
the blind girl, and doesn't want to disappoint her. Zhang transposes
Zhao's affections to Little Wu's stepmother (Dong Lihua), presumably
to wipe out any suggestion that Zhao might exploit the blind girl.
Which means twenty or so minutes of clumsy exposition to explain the
situation (Chaplin's film, by this time, would already be off and
Zhang's film has to undergo all kinds of unlikely contortions to
avoid even a whiff of unwholesomeness--when Zhao enlists friends to
help him care for "Little" Wu, he's given a collection of some of the
most shapeless, harmless-looking retirees ever to grace the big
screen. When Zhao promises to hire Little Wu as a masseuse, he and
his friends throw together a makeshift massage parlor in an abandoned
warehouse, install Little Wu inside, then peer down at her like
benign gods from an overlooking catwalk.
The ultimate effect is creepy in its stubborn insistence to avoid all
creepiness, the way Disney movies feel perverse for insisting on
avoiding all sexual connotations. It doesn't help that Dong Jie as
Little Wu is a pretty young thing, all skinny arms and delicately
formed face; when she lays hands on each succeeding old man posing as
a customer, there's considerable erotic charge--Wu looks as if she
were kneading aged flesh back into life.
Still--the movie's agreeable enough, thanks to Zhao and friends; it
has its share of moving drama, thanks to Dong's sweet and unforced
performance. "Happy Times" may not be Zhang's best work to date (that
honor belongs, I think, to his intensely moving "Not One Less"), but
it's intelligently made, beautifully shot, lovingly acted. It
certainly beats the prospect of watching Mel Gibson fight off an
alien invasion with a baseball bat.
(Eiga Sai films will be showing at the Shangri La Mall; Antonio
Molina Hall at Equitable PCI Bank Tower 2, Makati Avenu; and
Tanghalang Manuel Conde at the CCP--call 811 6155 to 58 for
schedule. "Happy Times" is exclusively at Greenbelt Cinema, Makati)
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...