Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Milk (2008)

Watching Milk, you can almost understand the pain of gay people... living in the decade fashion and music forgot

To be sure, marketing and PR would have you believe that this is the gay movie of the decade. Even self-avowed gay people who derive their sense of self-validation from this movie or plays like this might have you believe this as well. The truth: in Capote, you have the very model of an openly gay person who lived life in his own terms, created true and lasting things, and 2 superior biopics, Capote and Infamous. Coming late to the party, director Gus Van Sant has to settle for Harvey Milk as the subject of his gay biopic.

It's really slim pickings: by age 40, the openly gay Truman Capote would be a nationally acclaimed author; at age 40, Harvey Milk was still a closeted stock analyst who by his own admission, "haven't done a thing". By age 50, the openly gay Truman Capote would be feted as the American writer of the century; Harvey Milk never lived to 50, though he did become the first openly gay man to serve and die in public office (but not the first openly gay person to be elected to public office, despite the mythologising and PR by the gay community after his assassination).

In other words, there's really no contest aside from the mythologising of Milk as gay martyr, and this movie's awareness of the historical importance of its subject.

The historical importance appears to been the top concern in the mind of Van Sant, and the best parts of Milk occur when Van Sant deftly captures the sense of community, the whole "interesting people living in interesting times" feel, with just the camera panning over conspiratorial crowds crammed into the little drawing rooms or marching through the streets of the Castro district of San Francisco. Clever weaving of archival footage into the movie and recreations of other classic period snapshots add to the movie's brilliant evocation of the mood of a nascent movement in an age long past.

Yet the biopic's weakest link appears to be its subject, who just doesn't seem to bristle with the energy of the movement he found himself entwined with. Part of the blame may be laid at Van Sant's door: taking an entirely conventional approach, the biopic hits all the historical signposts of Harvey Milk's final decade, but leaves the depths (and hence the emotions) unstirred.

Consider: for a closeted, unremarkable man of 40, how did Harvey Milk actually get the idea and inspiration to change from Mr boring insurance salesman to Mr shrill activist? Just what radicalised him? The process itself would have made interesting filmmaking. Gus Van Sant doesn't go there.

Consider: How did Milk learn to get and then cultivate the support of non-gay people like the union leaders? Surely there's an interesting story somewhere, but Van Sant merely reports that Milk joined hands with them during a crucial boycott.

Consider: How did Milk turn from a three-time political failure to such a good politician? Surely there's an interesting story in there.

Consider: How on earth did Milk get the cooperation of his fellow supervisors at SanFran's city hall? How did the 'most liberal' slate of supervisors at the city hall feel like and work? But as above, Van Sant constantly skips over the process to bring us to the next Station of Milk's Cross. This is neither good documentary-making or filmmaking, if you believe stories are about the process of how people change, that the interesting bits are always about how one gets there, and not the destination itself.

As a portrait of Harvey Milk, there is a certain weakness in Van Sant's hands-off approach, which is inappropriate for a non-fictional film. While Van Sant wisely avoids lionising or mythologising Milk, he also avoids showing both good and bad sides of Harvey Milk or making any facet feel significant.

In this manner, I suppose any self-validating gay person might go into the cinema and have the biopic of Saint Milk he always wanted, and miss out a rather interesting, possibly dramatic, and very literary story lurking within the screenplay.

Take for instance, the secret movie about Milk the creepy manipulator and schemer: there's something disturbing about a pol who would deliberately hire community organisers to whip an angry gay crowd into a near riot so he could step in as a mediator, something extremely troubling about a gay activist who is actually prepared to lose a referendum fight he deliberately escalated so that lots of angry gays who will riot in the streets, and something rather cavalier about an activist who not only advises his campaign staff to out themselves, but make the decision to out other gay people on their behalf. A few eggs need to be broken to make an omelette isn't an assertion that normal people believe in.

Or take for instance, the secret movie about Milk the coalition builder par excellence: there's something positively tragic about how Harvey Milk builds coalitions with everyone in the political world, promising quid pro quos and unconditional support from his gay voters to his allies in city hall, yet chooses to single out constantly this one fellow to break promises, deliberately refuse to cooperate, and humiliate politically (Milk armtwists the mayor to reject the overturning of Dan White's resignation).

In the hands of a more confident director, the core of this movie could very well be about the tragedy and hubris of building coalitions, or about the simultaneous political genius and assholery of its central character. That it never even begins to feel like a proper biopic or a proper drama suggests Van Sant was not at all ready for Milk. After all, Capote showed us how one could make a proper literary drama about a flawed character, and Infamous showed us how one could make an engaging period piece full of life.

What saves Milk in the end are the acting of Sean Penn, and Van Sant's ability to create the feel of a community.

Answers to queries

Hopefully an occasional series...

It appears that I do have readers, and I wouldn't bear to delete my first genuine fan mail, even if it's just a query.

A reader named Questions for TSFF, linking himself to a wikileaks page about the Toronto Singapore Film Festival, asks the following, presumably in addition to the questions already raised on the wiki page:

As the Programme Director of the Toronto Singapore Film Festival, can you also confirm whether the festival is indeed a registered non-profit organisation - ie provide its official registration number and a link to the relevant Toronto city registration website?

The festival had been claiming non-profit status from its inception in its literature for sponsorship to potential sponsors in Singapore, but was allegedly only registered in 2008.

Dear Queries for TSFF,

As the Programme Director of the 3rd Toronto Singapore Film Festival, serving from roughly 1 August 2007 to about 1 April 2008, my list of duties were as follows:
  • Collecting the entries for the TSFF in Singapore through my mailing address
  • Curating the films with Ms Kristin Saw of the Substation
  • Programming the festival with Ms Kristin Saw
  • Advising the Singapore committee on an ad hoc basis on various issues, mostly funding and sponsorship
In the course of my duties, I came to know that the TSFF was not a registered non-profit organisation, and that the Canada committee intended to register it officially shortly before or after the festival.

Although I was privy to earlier drafts of the letters that were drafted for potential sponsors, I do not have access to the actual versions that were sent, and cannot confirm if the TSFF, its then-director Chia Yeow-tong, or the Singapore committee had presented themselves as a non-profit organisation.

In the course of my duties, I had no dealings with the Canada committee - all decisions being either made by the director Chia Yeow-tong or passed on by him personally to the committee in Singapore. Hence, I am unable to confirm if TSFF was indeed eventually registered.

Do visit the website for TSFF and direct further queries to info@tsff.org, or the addresses provided on the wikileaks page, which seem to be correct.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Ip Man (葉問) (2008)

In a telling sign, the Grandmaster called the dummy he beat up regularly The Missus (老婆大人)

The eponymous character of this movie happens to be the grandmaster of modern Wing Chun, and this is a mostly fictitious folk legend retelling about the man who would end up teaching a young Bruce Lee martial arts in Hong Kong. Why Wilson Yip chose to fib and outrageous spin the life of a person living in very recent and very recorded history - and present it as a biopic - is a mystery to me, and its rewards are not apparent.

Act 1 of Ip Man is interesting: its pseudo-Marxist prologue explains that due to the long economic boom (the Roaring Twenties, anyone?) in Foshan city, its inhabitants live in a Kuomintang paradise, with money for new clothes every year, and sufficient free time for heads of households to be gentlemen of leisure, engaging in hobbies such as opening martial arts schools.

That's a bold and refreshing take that suggests potential for development: the Grandmaster and his kungfu master colleagues as male tai-tais who engage politely in kungfu and yum-cha, instead of mahjong and yum-cha! Who of course get their male dilettantish tai-tai butts kicked by the real thing: a gang of hooligans from Northern China who rely on their fists and legs for day to day living.

The promising theme and lessons are ditched after Act 1 when the Japanese invade. I'm sure there's a reason why the Japanese army wanted Yip Man to teach them Wing Chun kungfu. The disagreeable general of the occupying forces, as per the tradition set by Fist of Fury, et al, does nothing but karate lessons all day long instead of occupying cities and terrorising civilians. Yet within the established 'historical interpretation' of Act 1, one would expect the General in charge of the occupation to be a Japanese tai-tai and for the story to develop from that foundation.

Character-wise, Wilson Yip fails even at creating a passable folk hero figure. The most simple formulation of heroism: The central character must face a moral dilemma, and chooses the painful, self-denying and sacrificial choice. Sadly, Ip Man is all about watching Donnie Yen play Chinese Steven Seagal, beating up Chinese opponents and maiming Japanese ones in disproportionate, one-sided matches while mouthing about the non-violent, civilised Confucian spirit of Chinese kungfu as opposed to the savagery of Japanese martial arts. Oy!

And worse yet, the characters who do find themselves in heroic situations, making difficult choices and sacrifices are the Japanese general who decides not to fix the final match/fight, and the collaborator who decides to take the punishment from both sides for collaborating. Oy!

There were 2 ways this movie could have gone: as a biopic, with a dedication to telling the truth or at least not blatantly telling untruths while embellishing the tale; or as a fictionalised folk legend full of heroism and whatnot. Wilson Yip fails at the biopic without trying, and fails at even the fictionalised folk legend that he tries for.

The only engaging part of the movie is in its first act, which no doubt is a holdover from the first draft of the screenplay. In what is a telling sign of the shameful tate of HK film industry standards, the writer of the first draft is only credited at the end credits, whereas everyone knows writers - regardless of which stage of production they were involved - are above the line credits.