December 2017 Capsules

A Touch of Zen
The rare film whose greatness is both totally, utterly assured and constantly daring, pushing and probing at its own ambitions to create something more. The opening section alone evokes this seeming contradiction: Hu’s constant camera motions, cutting judiciously to closer and closer views of the central fort, tease out so much of the haunted textures that define roughly two-thirds of the film, but crucially never come close to spelling out the layout of the structure. It is a metaphysical realm even before the priests take the center stage, one defined by the delineation between standard society and the mystical forces that swirl just outside of the town square. Ku moves between these freely, defined by his indecision and complacency, serving as the perfect conduit and viewpoint from which to marvel at these barely superhuman figures. Methodical, explosive, eerie, A Touch of Zen seems to contain all of humanity’s attributes for good and ill, and then goes beyond in its final foregrounding of the mystical, the fundamentally unknowable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Establishes itself from the outset, with the tactical equivalent of a prank call, to be an exceptionally perceptive, playful and loving subversion of practically every single convention of the closest thing post-20th century culture has to a modern myth. At times, Star Wars: The Last Jedi almost feels like a series of constantly escalating dares that Rian Johnson is issuing over the span of two and a half hours, willfully bewildering and perplexing the viewer with totally unexpected events, structural conceits, and even performance choices. But to reduce such a textually and aesthetically rich film to gambits is foolish: it is as much invested in reinforcement as it is in subversion, and the journey to the former while balancing the latter is rendered expertly.

Like its predecessors (and especially The Force Awakens), the galactic struggles are consistently cast in terms of the personal, focusing on individual reactions and motivations as reflections of a wider movement. The whittling down of the Resistance makes this register even more strongly, but the decision to fracture the narrative into roughly four parts (so jarring at first that I nearly missed just how carefully the movie was edited together, especially in those oh-so-crucial Force conversations) means that the viewer’s grounding must be, even more than normal, in the characters. Their essential uncertainty, their hesitation to stand in the face of monumental events, is what defines them, and the film is willing to lean into these flaws in order to access something deeper, more painful than I could have expected.

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