Doodad Kind of Town

Movies, Stress and Blogging to China
May 24, 2008, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Blogging to China

While movie-blogging is my avocation, my “real” career is in IT.

Sometimes, these occupations do not co-exist peacefully.

Major work deadlines have been hanging over my head recently, and I’ve been putting in a serious amount of overtime. This has has left me somewhat depleted and stressed at the mere thought of grappling with multiplex crowds for a seat at “Iron Man” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Nor have I been able to get my tired ass to a theater to see a great indie flick like “Young at Heart” or “The Visitor.” Instead, I’ve been sticking close to an ever-buzzin’ Blackberry, running 4 am conference calls between various engineers and programmers (don’t ask), and continually haggling with end users over realistic delivery dates for the new systems we’re building for them.

The news ain’t all bad, however.

In between my almost-daily IT crises, I’m also struggling to prepare for a choir trip to China which kicks off in a mere 4 1/2 weeks. My life is an endless to-do list (“Get Hepatitis A vaccine,” “Arrange for neighbor to feed cat,” “Learn some basic phrases in Mandarin” and so on. ) In late June, I’ll be travelling with a local community college choir to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai to perform in pre-Olympics celebrations. We’ll be joining up with about 300 other singers from choirs around the United States to perform such venerable classics as Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Leonard Bernstein’s “Olympic Hymn,” and the ever-popular “Carmina Burana” (which can currently be heard in those Gatorade commercials with the still, black-and-white sports photos.)

OK, I’m pretty sure I lost everyone’s sympathies there. Tell people you’ve been on a conference call at four in the morning and you’re bound to get a shoulder to cry on. Tell them you’re crazed because you’re going to China in four weeks, and you won’t have many tears shed for you. I fully realize that I have a pretty high-class set of worries here.

And I assure you, I’m thrilled to be taking this trip-of-a-lifetime (and getting to actually do some of things on my master to-do list – as in “Things to do before I Die” – such as stand on the Great Wall, see the Forbidden City and attend the Beijing Opera.) But I’m also a bit pissed that work commitments are preventing me from fully savoring these anticipatory weeks leading up to the trip. When I have time, I squeeze in a little reading from my Eyewitness Travel Guide to Beijing and Shanghai or a few pages of Fuschia Dunlop’s delightful culinary memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.”

And, once in a while, I watch a movie.

In the spirit of preparing for my trip and boning up on Chinese culture and history, I recently rented “Farewell My Concubine.” I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters in the mid-90s, and it was a welcome reunion between this moviegoer and a great film. In just under three hours, it chronicles the 50-year friendship between two men who meet as boys in a troupe of street performers, ascend to stardom in the Beijing Opera, and ultimately are undone by China’s political upheavals, from the war with Japan to the Cultural Revolution. The historical underpinnings of the story give it an epic sweep, while the story of the two men, Douzi and Shitou, remains highly personal and intimate.

The third main player in the story is a courtesan named Juxian, played by Gong Li. I hadn’t realized just what an amazing screen presence she has till I re-watched her dramatic entrance in this film. When we initially see Juxian, it’s from some distance as struggles with a few men at the second-story railing of her brothel. To escape them she jumps – and lands in the arms of Shitou. There is a cut to her startled face as Shitou catches her, and the film gets a jolt of electric energy; you know right away that this character is a force to be reckoned with and that Shitou’s life and loyalties have been forever changed. Juxian eventually becomes Shitou’s wife, and Li’s performance as her character navigates the tricky, delicate relationship between Shitou and his loyal friend, Douzi, is never less than fascinating.

“Farewell My Concubine” is also a visually gorgeous film, the kind where I just wanted to freeze the frame every so often and admire the composition and lighting in an individual shot. Still haunting me is a shot of a very young Douzi though a single pane of a nearly frosted-over window, a image of great poignancy in the early part of the film.

More and more in these stress-filled days, I find I am drawn to films which are beautiful to look at, even if not much is going on plotwise. Which brings me the next film –

Over the past week, I’ve watched Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” twice in its entirety. To say that it’s beautiful is to state the painfully obvious – why wouldn’t it be beautiful? You’ve got the palace of Versailles as a set; loads of voluminous, frou-frou 18th century gowns and waistcoats and towering hairdos on your main characters; and the sweetly photogenic Kirsten Dunst in the title role. How could anyone make an ugly movie, given all that visual splendor to work with?

As I recall, this film was booed at its debut at Cannes. And I’ll admit that Coppola doesn’t seem to have much more aptitude for history or politics than does the frivolous, fashion-obsessed young queen whose life story she’s telling. But taken on its own terms, “Marie Antoinette” is a compelling confection of mood and atmosphere. It’s the fasion magazine approach to French history, but then, I’ve always enjoyed a good fashion magazine.

Coppola took some heat for her frequent use of current-day pop tunes on the film’s soundtrack; I’ll admit it has the effect of reducing singificant portions of the story to a series of entertaining-but-shallow music videos. But then again, why not? The point seems to be that the young queen, married to a doltish young king who can’t quite figure out how to consummate his marriage, is bored and restless and compulsively filling her life with empty pleasures. Why not show her and her best friends stuffing themselves with pastries and trying on cute shoes to the accompaniment of “I Want Candy”?

It’s actually quite effective, too, when the tone of the film abruptly changes as the monarchy falls out of favor: the 20th century hit tunes are gone and we hear only somber, period-appropriate music from this point on. The soundtrack gives us a clear message before we even get our first glimpse of an angry mob: the party’s over at Versailles and the day of reckoning has come.

Those final scenes in “Marie Antoinette” are harrowing. There’s a palpable, nearly unbearable sense of dread as we watch the king dining in near darkness as angry mobs outside scream for his death. And, for me, the film’s concluding scenes are nearly perfect. There are no bloody beheadings cheered by angry Parisians. Instead, we see Versailles, bathed in autumnal light as glimpsed from a retreating carriage window. Then a black screen. Then a lingering shot of a ransacked room in the palace – a chandelier lying shattered on the floor, a door pulled halfway off its hinges, furniture overturned and broken. It’s an understated yet devastating visual image for the end of an era. No blood-drenched drama at the guillotine would have carried the same impact.


4 Comments so far
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That’s fantastic you’re going to China, Pat! I actually grew up there – spent 2 years in Shanghai, a year in Hong Kong, and 3 years in Beijing. The Great Wall is a must, but the Forbidden City is not all its cracked up to be (other than to say you saw it). I would suggest the Summer Palace instead, which is gorgeous, has a lot more culture to it, and surrounds a manmade lake and mountain (as in, they dug the dirt for the lake and made a mountain with it). If you can see them all, go for it, but I’d put the Forbidden City at the bottom of the list. Oh, and make sure you get down to Silk Alley in Beijing, which is near the US embassy. Tons of designer clothing rejected from the factories for tiny issues like missing tags (of course, there are knock offs galore as well).Anyways, totally awesome. I look forward to hearing more about the trip!

Comment by Evan Derrick

Hey, Pat — China. Cool. Closest I’ve been is Taiwan.I really couldn’t agree more on your description of Gong Li as a formidable presence. I remember he best from “Raise the Red Lantern” which, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend before you jet off to the mainland. I also like her in Wong Kar Wai’s penultimate “2046”

Comment by Rick Olson

Enjoy your trip! I knw someone who just moved to Shanghai and they were extremely excited. I only know of the far East through cinema.Glad to know someone else thought Coppola’s latest was a great film. I really loved it and can’t wait to see what new films she has in store for us. I need to see more movies by women filmmakers!


Evan – Thanks, it’s great to get some input from someone who’s acually lived in China. My fascination with the Forbidden City comes largely from seeing “The Last Emperor” which was filmed there, but I believe the Summer Palace is also on our sightseeting agenda. (Our choir tour is very structured with specific sightseeing planned for each day.) I may have some questions for you before I go.Rick – I need to rent those films before I go (if I have time!) “The Last Emperor” – which I haven’t seen since it was first released – is next in my Netfix queue.JC – I like Sofia Coppola’s film a lot. She’s not so much a storyteller as a skilled creator of atmosphere and mood.

Comment by Pat

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