Movie Review: The Wailing (2016)

the wailing

Last night, I watched the 2016 Korean horror movie The Wailing. It is currently running in theaters in Korea, and the general consensus of the audiences is that they don’t get it. The movie is purposefully confusing, and the director left huge room for multiple interpretations, hoping that the audiences leave the theatre with a lot of questions on what they watched. In this post, I would like to suggest one reading of the movie for people who already watched the movie. If you didn’t watch it, read this post after you watch it. Also, I emphasize that everything I say here is subject to change. I definitely want to watch it one more time, to test my interpretation, and also to make sure that I heard everything that is said in the movie accurately. The subtitles were bad and often inaccurate, and I had a hard time understanding the heavy regional accent spoken in the movie.

Let me start with the director’s understanding of his own movie. He says that he wanted to explore such questions as human suffering and God. Like Job in the Bible, people suffer and get punished. When innocent people suffer, especially, we wonder why they should be inflicted the pain, and when we can’t find an acceptable explanation, we turn to God. God, if there is one, should be able to offer an explanation on the suffering of innocent people. In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls ill, and in the process of trying to understand the cause of her illness and fixing it, the father encounters God. In exploring humans’ relation to God, one essential question concerns faith. When non-believers ask, “how can I believe something I don’t see?” believers respond, “once you believe, you will see.” To support his theological underpinning of the movie, the director borrows a phrase from Luke for an epigraph: Jesus resurrects three days after crucification, and to his disciples who question his resurrection, he announces, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

To me, the movie didn’t feel this theological. Or, to see the movie in theological terms is rather limiting. What I saw instead was everyday people who have to make difficult choices in their lives, and once they make a decision, they go back and keep asking if they made a right choice. The reason why a certain decision is difficult is because the options available are equally good or comparably bad. If one option is clearly superior to the other (a cheap, powerful vacuum cleaner as opposed to an expensive but weak vacuum cleaner), it will be an easy decision. But, when we debate between this job or that job, it is a difficult decision, because this job is good in these regards, but the other job is good in other regards. And when we eventually choose this job and work at it, we often wonder if the other job might have been better. It is when problems arise in this job that we get overwhelmed by self-skepticism and regret that we didn’t choose  the other one.

In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls sick, and he sets out to gain an understanding of why she got sick and what should be done. The director seems to think that the three mythical entities (the stranger, Il-gwang, and the woman spirit) represent different things in an hierarchical order (Jesus, mediator, evil, respectively), but in my view, they offer an equally valid explanation and solution of their own, although they are in conflict with each other. For instance, during the shamanistic ritual that Il-gwang performs to exorcise the daughter, the father questions his decision to heal his daughter through Il-gwang. When she writhes in extreme pain at the climax of the exorcising ritual, the father’s self-skepticism makes him overturn his decision. He orders Il-gwang to stop. The audiences are led to believe that the spirit that entered the daughter would be successfully kicked out if the ritual had run its course. Because the exorcism came to an abrupt stop, however, she was not completely set free.

But do we know certainly that she would be healed if the father sustained his trust of Il-gwang throughout? I think this is the point where the believers’ and non-believers’ different attitudes towards faith become relevant. The “I don’t believe what I don’t see” and the “you will see what you believe”are equally valid, although in different ways. What is certain is that these two attitudes will lead to different consequences. Three days after Jesus’s crucification, his disciples must have seen things that suggest Jesus’s resurrection and also things that suggest his death. To choose one interpretation over the other in the face of conflicting evidences depends on each disciple’s faith. Put differently, we believe something, if we want to believe it, and we don’t believe it, if we don’t want to. Different choices entail different consequences. It is really difficult to say one choice is correct or even better than the other. Once we make a decision, therefore, maintaining our faith in it and bearing consequences is the best things we can do. Nonetheless, it is human nature to go back to the past and ask, “what if I had chosen differently?” Nobody can answer this question, but we keep asking.

I think that the movie the Wailing does a good job at describing the delicate human condition in which a faith in our decisions gets consistently eroded by competing theories and evidence. In the last scene, Il-gwang says that the father should go back to his house immediately. Otherwise, his family will all die. The woman spirit insists the opposite. He should wait for the three morning cries of a rooster. Otherwise, his family will all die. And both Il-gwang and the woman insist that he does not listen to the other person. How does he determine his course of action in these two competing demands? He does make a decision, not a carefully calculated one but one made out of desperation ad hoc, and consequences await for his decision. Do these consequences suggest that who was right between Il-gwang and the woman? No. He will probably never figure it out. All he can do is to accept the consequences of his action. Not being able to precisely predict the consequences of our choice but having to go on relentlessly – perhaps this is the horror of life that the movie Wailing wants to portray.

 

Indecent Proposal: Renting Indian Women’s Wombs

indecent proposal

A couple of days ago, I watched an interesting movie. Indecent Proposal, a 1993 movie starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford, is a bad (sorry!), but enjoyable and quite thought-provoking movie. Here is a brief synopsis. Young, beautiful Diana Murphy (Demi Moore) marries her high school sweetheart. They are happy together, but they have no money. One day, billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) approaches the young couple on the verge of bankruptcy and offers one million dollars on the condition that he spends one night with the beautiful Diana. Understandably, the couple hesitates, but they agree out of dire financial needs. The movie focuses on post one night stand repercussions. The couple’s marital trust is called into question and gets fissured. Diana begins to date with John Gage and ultimately asks for a divorce from her husband, although she revokes it at the last minute and reconciles with her husband.

I cannot rate the movie highly as a work of art, but I really enjoyed thinking about the question that the movie raised: can money buy love? The young couple David and Diana think no, and that’s why they accept Gage’s offer. He can buy the right to “fuck” Diana one time, the couple reasons, but he cannot buy her heart. Her heart will firmly stay with her husband, so it is okay. One million dollars are a lot of money. Once they are out of poverty, they can be happy again. So, let’s take the bitter pill and forget about it. On the contrary, the billionaire Gage thinks that yes, money can buy love, and that’s why he makes the offer in the first place. In one scene, Diana asks Gage why he wants her. “You have money, and you can buy any beautiful woman you want,” she says. He responds, “I want you, because you said you are not for sale. I think everything is for sale.”

The movie is entitled “Indecent Proposal.” Many will find Gage’s proposal indecent, distasteful or immoral. And the movie appeals to that common sentiment. We audiences find ourselves thinking “Oh, I will never sell my husband or wife for money. One million dollars, two million dollars. No way. Forget it.” I agree. I feel that way, too. When the young husband David throws his fists like crazy at the helicopter that takes Diana and Gage away to a remote location for their night together, we vicariously throws our fists, too.

But let’s pause here and think. Why do we respond to Gage’s proposal with revolt and disgust? There can be many different reasons why people disapprove of his proposal, but one reason that the movie presents is that, as David and Diana initially thought, money cannot buy love. Put differently, there are limits to money’s purchasing power. We put a price tag on almost all goods, and they are for sale. Nevertheless, there are limits. The young couple was right initially, in thinking that there are things in life that cannot be bought. At the same time, however, there is something that they totally missed. It is that they underestimated the power of money. Or, to put the matter more precisely, they assumed -wrongly- that there is an invincible wall that separates what money can buy from what it can’t. This is a misconception. Money and money logic threaten to seep into every part of human life. There isn’t part of human life that remain impenetrable to the attack of money logics. David and Diana, in accepting Gage’s offer, think that he can buy Diana’s body for one night but not her heart, but the truth of the matter is that the body and the heart are not two separate things. There is no wall between them. Once Gage’s money buys her body, it will insist that it buy her heart as well. Consequently, the one night stand with Gage becomes a powerful attack on her heart, as the body goes in one direction and the mind soon follows it. The movie shows that Diana, after the fateful one night with the billionaire, gets drawn and emotionally attached to him, to the extent to almost end her marriage. This is the truth regarding the power of money that the savvy John Gage knows all along. That’s why he was almost shamelessly confident about his proposal. He knows that once she sleeps with him, she will become his, both in the body and the heart.

surrogate mothers

Now, this view of the movie reminds me of one interesting article I read a few days ago. The New York Times posted the article “India Wants to Ban Birth Surrogacy for Foreigners.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/world/asia/india-wants-to-ban-birth-surrogacy-for-foreigners.html?_r=0) According to the article, the Indian government recently decided to prohibit renting Indian women’s wombs to foreigners. The article does not explain why the government made that decision. I hope that the reason has something to do with what the movie Indecent Proposal suggests: that is, there are limits to what money can buy, and Indian women’s bodies are not for sale. What surprised me was people’s reaction. So many people seem to think that the Indian government’s decision is too radical. They seem to think that instead of totally banning Indian women’s surrogacy, it should just regulate it. In their view, birth surrogacy is a win-win situation for both parties: the affluent infertile western couple gets a baby, and the poor Indian surrogate mother gets money. So why not? By allowing birth surrogacy, we actually help the poor Indian women.

To people who show this kind of responses, I want to make John Gage’s offer. “I will give you one million dollars. Let me sleep with your husband for one night.” If your answer to my proposal is, “you b*tch, go to hell,” I gladly accept and totally understand it. You don’t have to write me a philosophical tract on what money cannot buy and the danger of translating all human values into monetary terms. You intuitively know that money cannot and should not buy everything, and I am glad you do know it. Then, pray tell me how and why your intuitive knowledge suddenly stops short in the face of poor Indian women. We’re talking about a proposal to rent a woman’s body, not just for one night but for 9 1/2 months. About 300 nights. When your spouse’s body is not up for sale, what makes you think that Indian women’s bodies are for sale? If you think that you love your wife or daughter or sister so much, your love transcends money, and thus she cannot be bought or sold, what makes you think that an Indian woman, who must be somebody’s wife, daughter, and sister, can be bought or sold? With Diana, we see that where the body goes, the heart goes as well. Imagine a woman who conceives and nurtures a life for 300 nights. Could you imagine the love and the sense of attachment thus developed in this process? What makes you think that this love and this attachment can be explained away in monetary terms, when your love and your attachment cannot be translated into money? In apologies for birth surrogacy, all I hear is “no, they are not really humans. Their love does not weigh as much as mine.”

When Food Becomes a Love Affair: Babette’s Feast (1987)

I love food. Food is such an important part of my life, to the extent that I feel I cannot become friends with people who don’t like food. I don’t know. I just feel very strongly that if you don’t like food, our temperaments are not really compatible.

I’ve loved food since my day one in the world, but my love of food is not simply carnal. I developed my own kind of food philosophy (to justify my insatiable desire for food, perhaps?), and Babette’s Feast, a 1987 Danish movie, is an excellent film that describes my food philosophy with a 97% accuracy.

Babette’s Feast tells a very simple story. The movie is set in a rural Danish town, and at the beginning, we meet a small family. A Catholic pastor of the town lives with his two daughters. They are beautiful, and many suitors ask for their hands. But the pastor rejects all the men, saying “for a pastor like me, my two daughters are my left and right arms. Will you deprive me of one arm?”

babette two sisters

Two daughters of the priest, Martine and Philippa

The movie is set in this rural town.

The movie is set in this rural town.

Out of the multiple suitors, two are unforgettable. An army officer falls in love with Martine, but when she shows no response to him, he leaves the town, saying to her, “I learned that in this world, some things are impossible.” Meanwhile, Philippa, with her heavenly singing voice, fascinates Achille Papin, an opera singer who visits the town for rest and recuperation. (The movie shows a lovely scene where Philippa and Papin rehearse a love duet from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDy_TeHgsgs) Unfortunately, however, neither Martine’s and Philippa’s love affair comes to fruition. After their father passes away, the two sisters remain unmarried and continue to live together in the same house. As old ladies now, they spend their time, paying visits to people in need and revisiting their father’s teaching. Boring, right?

Then, one day, a French woman named Babette arrives. She delivers to the two sisters a letter from Papin. He explains in the letter that Babette is a refugee from Paris and that he sends her to them in the conviction that they would help her. Babette begins to live with the sisters, and 14 years pass by, without any significant event. By the end of the 14 year period, the sisters prepare a simple dinner to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth, and Bebette suggests that she serves a real French dinner on that day. You can expect that the dinner becomes a big success.

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So, what does this movie say about food? The movie draws a sharp contrast between two meanings of food. Before Babette’s feast, food to the two sisters is simply a means to appease hunger and nourish the body. Their food philosophy is summed up in the following line from the Scripture: “who would give stone and serpents to a child who asks for bread?” No, nobody would, but the problem is that this statement is not sensitive enough to capture the rich, nuanced cultural meaning of food. It instead would approve any food, or any edible thing, insofar as it is not stone or serpents, or insofar as it allows us to forget hunger. But in our life, food means much more than that. And it is Babette’s food that is attentive to the cultural meaning of food.

First, Babette’s food takes time. Her food is not something one can whip up in 30 minutes, watching TV on the side. Her dinner preparation takes days, and when she cooks food in the kitchen, she squeezes out her best intention from her heart. She prepares dinner for the two sisters and their guests, to serve them the best dinner she can serve, as if it will be their last dinner on earth. Later, Babette tells the two sisters that she cooks as “an artist.” Watching Babette prepare food with so much love and care, I felt that my heart was touched as well. Food is about showing how much you care about other people.

Babette’s Special Entree

Second, because Babette puts in the food her best intention, her food takes out their best intention from her dinner guests. Two villagers are always at war with each other about their past business transaction. They accuse each other of cheating. At Babette’s feast, however, they put down their guard and start to exchange pleasantries and jokes. Consuming the food together, they reconcile. Food replaces arguments with jokes and laughter.

Third, food is a messenger of love. It is important to remember that Papin sends Babette to the two sisters. After rehearsing the Mozart love duet with Papin, Philippa knows that her heart melts out towards Papin, and that’s when she declares that she stops singing lessons with Papin and makes him leave the town. Papin gives up on Philippa, but she always lives in his heart. In other words, when he sends Babette to the sisters, it is his way of saying that he still loves Philippa. Similarly, it is important to remember that one of the dinner guests is the army officer who was in love with Martine in the old days. He is the one who is most appreciative of Babette’s feast and delivers an eloquent speech that says food brings together “truth and mercy,” “righteousness and bliss,” and “bodily appetites and spiritual appetites.” He is saying that food speaks words that remain unspoken in words. It connects two things that otherwise remain disconnected. At Babette’s feast, the love of the two couples – Martine and the officer, and Philippa and Papin – come to fruition, symbolically speaking. Rejected by Martine and leaving the town, the officer said to his lover earlier, “some things are impossible.” Now, at the end of the dinner, this statement of resentment changes into “some things are possible.”

Babette’s dessert

Fourth, food adds blood and flesh to bare bones. Back in the day of “who would give stone to a child asking for bread,” the villagers studied the Bible as a frigid theory without blood and flesh. They didn’t find its tangible application to their everyday life. At Babette’s dinner table, however, people begin to share their personal stories. Instead of simply remembering the teaching of “love thyself and thy neighbors,” the villagers stand in a circle, holding hands and singing together. Food makes a cold theory become a warm practice.

It is Babette, of course, who upholds all these wonderful meanings of food. To offer the feast, she consumes the prize money that she gains by winning a lottery down to the last penny. (In this regard, she is so my mom, who forgets all about money while buying food at a grocery store but becomes stingy about money all of a sudden and refuses to hire a cab on the way back home.) As a result, the Babette at the end of the feast is as poor as the Babette before the feast. But as an artist, she is always poor and she feels fulfilled, because she did all she could do.

All in all, Babette’s Feast is an elegant movie dedicated to all lovers of food. Highly recommend it.

Trigger warning: This movie will make you hungry. After watching it, I had my second dinner past midnight.

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

The-Babadook-Poster

I am not a big fan of horror movies. Not that I feel adverse to the genre itself, but I usually watch movies at night, and I am afraid that watching scary movies right before going to bed will lead to nightmares. But today, I decided to watch a movie in the middle of a day, and today was a gorgeous day with lots of sunshine, so here we go: The Babadook, a horror movie from Australia that arrived in North America last year to critical and public acclaim.

To say the conclusion first, I found The Babadook a really, really scary movie. Scary not because the Babadook, the ghost/spirit/monster of the movie, is scary (in fact, the Babadook does not do much but making some metal scraping noises and guttural, growling sounds. Not scary at all) but because the causes of fear that give rise to the Babadook are so real.

Let’s go into details. There are basically two main characters in the movie. Amelia is a single mother, and she lives with her six year old son, Samuel. Amelia became widowed 6 years ago. Her husband was driving her to the hospital, while she was in labor with Samuel, and an accident happened to kill the husband immediately. Amelia and Samuel survived, and the movie focuses on portraying the single parent family’s life. If you know around you someone who is a single mother, you may know how difficult it is to raise a child without a partner’s support. Our Amelia in the movie has an endless list of problems. She barely makes ends meet, she suffers from chronic shortage of sleep, and whenever Samuel makes trouble at school, she is called to school and gets worried about if the absence of the father negatively affects her son’s development. She does really feel the absence of her husband. When her friend says that with her husband’s new job, she gets so busy as to lose gym time, Amelia retorts with a sneer, “what a difficult life!” And, although the movie does not really develop this element, it throws Amelia’s unfulfilled sexual hunger as part of her mounting problems. The absence of the father is difficult for our boy Sam as well. He is consistently bullied by his friends for not having a father. When he attacks the bully, his tantrum is attributed to his fatherless condition.

However, these problems are all minor, subsidiary one. The deep, primary problem concerns the mother’s and the son’s sense of guilt. Because Amelia’s husband got killed on the way to the hospital, the husband’s funeral day became Samuel’s birthday. It means for the little boy Sam that his birth or his presence exacted his father’s life. Despite his young age, he knows that if he were not born, his father would be alive. And his peers say this to his face. Amelia is guilt ridden, too. Let’s face it. When a woman has to choose one between a child and a husband, chances are, the husband will be chosen. With spouses, we’re in mutually supportive relation. I help him, and he helps me. But a child? A child is completely dependent on me, and s/he is first and foremost my “responsibility.” Whenever Amelia sees Samuel, therefore, she feels some sort of mild resentment towards him. As Samuel feels about himself, Amelia feels, at the bottom of her heart, “but for you, my husband would be here. My life would be easier and better with him, but without you.” Such a horrible, unspeakable sentiment for mothers to have. Consequently, Amelia is trapped in a sense of guilt for resenting her son’s presence.

babadook 1

Nevertheless, both Amelia and Samuel do their best to put up the facade of a fatherless but still happy family life. Birthday parties are a requirement for any “normal” middle class child, so our Samuel needs one. But his birthdays are precisely the time when his and his mother’s shared sense of guilt rears its ugly head. It is not an accident that the movie starts with Sam’s birthday and ends with another. The Babadook appears in the first birthday, to give expression to the mother’s and son’s hidden anger at each other. And the Babadook is overcome right before the second birthday, when both the mother and the son recognize and own their anger and resentment directed at each other. The events between these two birthdays are what gives this movie a claim to the genre of horror. When our little Sam says, “if you protect me, I protect you. If I protect you, you protect me,” this statement sounds to Amelia’s ears as if saying that they have nobody to rely on but themselves. And Amelia is right. Nobody is available to help them. Not Aunt Claire, not local police. From this realization, it takes little before Amelia locks Sam in the house and cuts off the telephone life to frustrate Sam’s request for outside help. She needs to prove to her son and to herself that they can get by on their own. And at times, Amelia feels a desire kill her own son and escape her difficult life. This desire leads to the brutal killing of her dog Bugsy (one of the scariest scenes for what it tries to say), and overwhelmed by her own unspeakable desire, she enacts some blood shedding scenes and faints.

To repeat what I said above with some variation, The Babadook is such a success as a horror movie, because it is so real. Sometimes I wonder if we need a monster or a spirit for a horror movie, when our real life is already filled with horrors and easily lends material for a horror movie. Premised on the horrors of our real life, the Babadook makes us take a long look at the horrors of our everyday life. It is a hard movie to watch, but it is definitely worth your time.

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

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Whiplash describes interactions between a young jazz musician, who is talented and very ambitious about advancing his musical career, and his teacher, who brutally and mercilessly pushes the limits of his student’s capabilities. The movie receives raving reviews, both from movie critics and the general public, so I had high hopes for the movie. Whiplash is intense and emotionally engaging. I am glad I watched it. Yet, despite the movie’s strengths, I was left with a note of disappointment at the end of the movie. Let’s say that I met a beautiful woman at a party. She wore a beautiful dress and impressive makeup. After she changed into PJs and removed the makeup at the end of the party, however, I realized that she was not beautiful. Her beauty was mostly due to the pretty dress and makeup. Roughly put, this is how I feel about Whiplash.

My response to Whiplash has a lot to do with my (jaundiced, skewed, or prejudiced) way of watching movies. I watch movies in the way I read novels. Stunning visual effects and dramatic music are important, and I appreciate them, when they are used effectively in a movie. But first and foremost, I care about what the movie tries to show. When viewed in my narrative-centered and thus movie-inappropriate interpretive frame, Whiplash makes a half-baked success. The movie is definitely successful in its visual and aural effects. Jazz music used in the movie is a pleasure to listen to, and different camera walks and close-ups portray the characters’ emotions in vivid details. In addition, I should mention the two main actors’ superb acting. Basically, the movie has plenty of eye candies and ear candies. But the story that the movie tells leaves huge room for elaboration, I think.

The movie has two main characters: a young student named Andrew Neyman and his teacher Terence Fletcher. Andrew is currently enrolled at “the best music school” in the nation (the movie uses the fictional school called Shaffe Conservatory of Music, but I think it is really modeled on the Julliard). Understandably, Andrew is an already very talented drummer, but he has an indefatigable will for excellence. He always wants to do better. The movie makes this point through various episodes. Terence puts Andrew into competition with other students at the school, and when he proves his talent and becomes a core member of the best jazz band of the school, Terence makes him know that he is just a “temporary” core member. Andrew gets into a car accident on his way to a concert. With a bleeding head, he sits in front of his drum set.

If “strong-willed” is the key word to characterize Andrew, the word to characterize the teacher Terence Fletcher is “merciless.” Terence says, “there are no two words in English that are more harmful than ‘good job.'” He thinks that many teachers deprive the world of a future Charlie Parker by settling too easily. He believes that a truly talented music student who will become a future Charlie Parker won’t be discouraged by a harsh teacher who demands that the student push the limits of his or her ability. I think that this teacher-student relation is fascinating. A great deal can be made out of it. Unfortunately, the movie does not make much out of it. For example, what does Terence think about his teaching methods? He says, “I will never apologize for how I teach.” But in reality, this type of teacher is in trouble. The movie addresses this point by showing that one of his students, under intense stress that Terence’s tutelage causes, commits suicide. Andrew’s lawyer makes him confess that he is also emotionally distressed, a confession that eventually makes Terence lose his job at Shaffe. So, Terence cannot be 100% comfortable about his pedagogy. He must be at times haunted by the anxiety that his teaching is too merciless or too discouraging to his students. I am interested in learning more about the conflict that Terence experiences as a harsh teacher. But the movie is not sensitive enough to address the complicated facets and effects of the demanding teacher.

Likewise, the movie portrays Andrew in too broad a brush. Yes, he is strong willed and not easily discouraged. But what does he feel when he attacks Terence physically and gets expelled from Shaffe? I want to see more about the inner turmoil of the young musician whose brilliant musical career is obstructed all of a sudden.

Finally, I think the procedure through which Terence and Andrew get reconciled can be portrayed with more sensitivity. After Andrew gets expelled and Terence loses his job, Terence performs at a local jazz bar, and he invites Andrew to join his band to perform familiar repertoires that Andrew used to play at Shaffee, such as “Whiplash” or “Caravan.” On the night of the performance, however, Terence announces that his band is playing “Up Swing.” Andrew has to sightread the music, and he mangles the performance.  Nevertheless, our Andrew is, again, strong-willed and won’t easily give up. He begins to play “Whiplash,” without Terence’s conducting but inviting other members of the band to join him. They do, and the movie ends by showing Andrew’s BRILLIANT performance of the piece. Terence gets impressed and smiles his rare smiles, a conclusion that suggests Andrew’s growth as a musician, Terence’s success as a teacher, and the two men’s reconciliation. But, given the depth of their tension, this reconciliation feels too easy.

Movie Review: Still Alice (2015)

Movie Review: Still Alice (2015)

still alice poster When I said to my friend that I was going to see Still Alice, my friend uttered a deep “ugh.” I asked her if she watched the movie. She said, “no, but I read the novel. It was a disturbing book.” All right, that seals it. I like disturbing books and movies. Seriously, life throws all kinds of shit at us, and I want to know what kind of shit is tossed around and how we could respond to each kind of shit. There is no doubt that the movie Still Alice is disturbing. It is about Dr. Alice Howland, a famous scholar and professor in linguistics at Columbia University. A beautiful, accomplished woman at the age of 50 with a loving husband and three children. But Alzheimer’s disease strikes her. The movie portrays her downward spiral into the iron grip of Alzheimer’s. Given this topic, the movie should be disturbing. But my feeling after I finished watching the movie is that Still Alice is not disturbing enough. It is not as disturbing as it could be and it should be. The movie begins by showing Alice, delivering a talk at UCLA. She’s an irrefutable authority in her field, and to demonstrate her expertise, she opens her speech with such eloquence, elegance, and confidence. But towards the end of her opening sentence, she experiences a brief moment of blackout. She brushes it off, however, with a disarming smile and the humorous comment, “oh, I shouldn’t have that champagne during lunch.” Everybody laughs. In the next scene, the movie shows a lovely Christmas get-together of Alice’s family. Her husband (portrayed by Alec Baldwin) is also a faculty member at Columbia, and out of her three children, she made one lawyer and one medical doctor. In the opening scenes, my heart just melted out for Alice. Oh, she’s so pretty, so attractive, and so charming! She is intelligent without being arrogant, articulate without being pretentious, and kind without being uncritical. And her impeccable sense of fashion! This is beside the point, but in the scene where she had a meeting with her department chair, I wanted to literally enter the screen and ask her where she got that lovely green polka dot blouse that she was wearing. Basically, I wanted to steal every clothing item that she had. Anyway, the point is, I immediately fell in love with her, and I thought that I could look at her for hours and hours. As the movie progresses, Alice exhibits more and more undeniable symptoms of the disease. Yet in a good portion of the movie, Alice is still on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and she shares with us audiences what the disease means to her. For example, in one scene, she delivers such a beautiful speech to the audience gathered for a meeting of Alzheimer’s Association. She speaks about her own experience of the disease, the experience she sums up as “the art of losing memories.”

Alice delivers a beautiful speech at a meeting of Alzheimer's Association.

Alice delivers a beautiful speech at a meeting of Alzheimer’s Association.

As Alzheimer’s attack gains momentum, however, I expected that the movie would inevitably shift its focus from Alice to people around her. I had this expectation, because, well, Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes you to lose your mind. Alice is a smart woman, and she uses available resources very well to sustain her grip on reality as long as possible. For example, she writes up some basic questions on her cell phone and makes herself to answer them everyday. She even makes a video for herself to prepare for the day when she can no longer remember the name of her oldest daughter or her address. Nevertheless, after a certain point, these devices would and should fail. Such moments as the speech scene mentioned above where Alice is still charming and elegant despite the disease would be eventually replaced by scenes showing ugly, angry, helpless, and animal-like Alice. Curiously enough, however, this deterioration does not really happen to Alice. Yes, Alice fails to find the bathroom in her house and pees on her pants. Yes, she places her cell phone in the kitchen cupboard and throws a fit when she can’t find the phone. Yes, she even mistakes one of her daughters with her sister. The kinds of embarrassing things that any Alzheimer’s patient experiences happen to Alice, but nevertheless, I felt that Alice is too elegant and too composed and too intelligent throughout the entire movie. This is the time when the word “sanitized” came to my mind. I felt that I was shown a sanitized portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease. On a personal note, my grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s, and I observed the progress of her disease firsthand. Also, my husband’s grandmother was an Alzheimer’s patient. Alzheimer’s disease that I observed through these two women is a lot uglier and more degrading of human dignity than the movie shows. For example, one day, I came back home from school and found my grandmother yelling at someone on the phone at the top of her voice. She was still on the early stages of the disease, but when the automated voice recording asked her to press some numbers to proceed, she took a long time. The machine kept rejecting her attempts, and finally, out of sheer frustration, my grannie was yelling at the machine, using all kinds of profane words and unspeakable slurs. This is just one example. My grandmother enacted a number of ugly, dirty, embarrassing scenes, scenes that I could not even dream of when she was healthy.

Even in the last scenes of the movie, Alice is still too charming.

Even during the last scenes of the movie, Alice is still too charming.

But our Alice does not really show her ugly sides. Even the Alice at the very end is in continuation with the charming, articulate Alice of the beginning. And this was rather disappointing to me. I wanted to see more emotionally charged scenes: more uproar, more anger, more throwing of the fists, and more desperate interrogation of “why this punishment to me and my family?” As Alice speaks herself in the movie, all you have accomplished in your life is escaping you. Not only that but you get reduced to the level of animals. You excrete in your room and smear your shit on the wall. Or carry it in your purse.  How can you not be angry? How can you not be resentful of God or whichever being who metes out such a harsh punishment to you? Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, because it reduces a dignified human being into an animalistic creature. It creates overwhelmingly violent, intense emotions for the patients themselves and for people around them. The movie Still Alice does not come close enough to portraying those raw, unrefined emotions, I think. It is, to me, too clean. Too elegant. Too sanitized.

Movie Review: The Wind Rises (2013)

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I am a big fan of Miyazaki Hayao. I watched his My Neighbor Totoro (1988) when I was little, and I still remember the sense of thrill that coursed through my body then. I watched most of his movies, and I couldn’t wait to see his The Wind Rises, the animation film which he says is his last work before retirement.

As many critics have already pointed out, The Wind Rises is very different from other Miyazaki movies. The most blatant difference is in the choice of the main character: the main character Jiro is a “normal” “adult” man who goes to school, gets a job, and marries. In other words, in this movie, we don’t see any of Miyazaki’s signature characters, such as a cute animal, an imaginative spirit, or a little girl who loves daydreaming.

These are Miyazaki's characters.

These are Miyazaki’s characters.

Moreover, Jiro is based on the real person Jiro Horikoshi, who lived in Japan in the early twentieth century. According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Jiro Horikoshi (堀越 二郎 Horikoshi Jirō?, 22 June 1903 – 11 January 1982) was the chief engineer of many Japanese fighter designs of World War II, including the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter.”

This may appear like a very unusual choice for Miyazaki, but not that unusual, given his proclaimed interest in aviation and the blue sky, and also in his criticism of war and strifes between nations, as most clearly expressed in his Porco Rosso (1992). So, the fact that The Wind Rises sounds like a historical animation did not do much to shake my deep rooted trust of Miyazaki Hayao. Come on, we’re talking about Miyazaki Hayao. He has magic hands and brilliant imagination. Before I watched the movie, I had no doubt that in The Wind Rises, he would show me something exciting, profound, and illuminating.

Unfortunately, however, the Wind Rises was, to me, an “eh” movie. The movie begins by showing that Jiro, a young boy who dreams of flying and avidly reads foreign magazines on aircrafts, grows up to become an aircraft engineer. Because this movie departs from Miyazaki’s signature path, the movie does not focus on the sweet romance of dreaming and imagining, which ultimately creates a palpable force to change reality. Instead, the movie shows that the aircrafts that Jiro makes are all used as destructive tools in the Asia-Pacific War (Remember Jiro lived in the early twentieth century). So, the question that the movie raises is, how do we understand Jiro? He’s the engineer of the destructive tool. He makes aircrafts, knowing how they would be used. What does he think about his participation in Japanese nationalism, war, and destruction?

I think that the movie seems to evade this question. And I think that’s why this movie invoked a controversy both inside and outside Japan. On the one hand, many international critics seem to think that the movie refuses to subject to Jiro and his work to any sort of criticism and is too forgiving towards the engineer. So they question the Japanese nationalism which underlies the movie. On the other hand, however, some right wing people in Japan think that the movie is not patriotic enough. These people don’t like the fact that in the movie, all the aircrafts that carry the Japanese national flag crash.

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To me, the movie seems to intend these two kinds of contrary receptions. Commenting about his movie, Miyazaki says that he wanted to show that we can’t dismiss everyone living in an evil period as an evil. Instead, he wanted to show that people have to live a life, no matter what circumstances they are placed in. Put differently, we can’t totally exonerate them, because they were participating in the evil period in one way or another, but at the same time, we cannot totally dismiss them as pure evil, either, because, well, what could they do? Fair enough, but in this comment by the director, I see a reason why The Wind Rises ends up as a disappointing movie to me. I think that Miyazaki’s strongest suit is in his imagination. By imagination, I don’t mean empty, futile, meaningless daydreaming. Miyazaki’s imagination is based on the refusal to accept things as they are. He tirelessly explores what lies outside, and in his movies, those alternative ideas get actualized and transformed into a powerful force to affect reality. But I am not sure if the question that The Wind Rises raises – the question of an individual’s historical agency and responsibility – is a suitable one for his imagination. This historical question on our past seems to require not so much the imagination of an alternative world as thorough self-examination and critical analysis.

Simply put, the master of Japanese animation did not have a chance to put on his strongest suit in his last movie. Too bad.