Monday, September 26, 2011

Eastern Monks & Detectives, Southern Ladies and Maids

Before I dutifully chronicle the films I've watched, I want to report that I gobbled up The Help by Katheryn Stockett in three days. The film followed the novel quite closely. There were a few differences but I think I enjoyed the novel and the film equally.

In the novel, Skeeter was described as unattractive - 5'11", skinny legs and arms & a beak nose. She was called Skeeter because she looked like a mosquito which created a pun when the black maids would address her as "Miss Skeeter." I didn't pick up on that in the film but reading it over and over reinforced it. I find actress Emma Stone, who portrayed Skeeter, to be quite attractive so it never dawned on me that her character was considered unattractive. The film had numerous flashbacks to Skeeter as a child and I thought her character was a late bloomer.

Miss Hilly came off worse in the book. Hilly was more snooty in the film but downright evil in the film. The character was gaining weight due to stress but Bryce Dallas Howard (the actress who played Hilly) is slender. Hilly's husband was running for office in the novel; I don't recall that from the book.

I recall a scene towards the end of the film where Skeeter or her mother says something about her mother's cancer going into remission. That was the first mention I recall of cancer in the film. I thought it was a plot point which was cut from the film. I did go to the bathroom during the film so I may have missed it but Skeeter's mother's illness plays a prominent role in the novel.

Skeeter's maid, Constantine, was part white in the novel and her daughter was sent away to Chicago because she was "high yellow." It is strongly implied the father was white and for awhile, I thought Skeeter's father would be identified as the father. In the film, my recollection is that Constatine's daughter used the front door of Skeeter's house and that was why Constatine was fired. In the novel, Constatine's daughter passes herself off as white at the DAR meeting which upsets Skeeter's mother and precipitates the firing.

I could continue to list the differences but they aren't important enough to affect the story or plot. The casting was quite effective because I imagined the actresses in their roles as I read the novel (with the exception of Cicely Tyson as Constatine who was described as 6'1" tall).


I saw two big budget, Chinese action films.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame starring Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau & Tony Leung Ka Fai; directed by Hark Tsui; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Shaolin starring Andy Lau & Nicholas Tse; with Bingbing Fan & Jackie Chan; directed by Benny Chan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

Detective Dee featured the fight choreography of Sammo Hung.

I saw Shaolin at the 4 Star but it is screening Wednesday and Thursday at the Viz. I saw Detective Dee at the Landmark Embarcadero where it is still playing.

I can imagine the pitch line for Detective Dee - let's do Sherlock Holmes in Chinese! I wasn't a big fan of the 2009 Robert Downey film but it was entertaining enough - long on special effects, short on character development and plot. It was kind of neat seeing Big Ben as it was being built and Downey can be likable enough given the role. At times, I thought Sherlock Holmes was channeling Tony Stark but Downey plays the wiseacre well.

Detective Dee seems to go for the same formula except with Andy Lau in the title role. Lau acquitted himself as well as the role allowed. At two hours, I thought the film a little self-indulgent. Regardless of the length, the film relied too heavily on special effects and ponderously long action sequences.

The plot, in a nutshell, features cases of spontaneous combustion involving people building a huge Buddha which reminded more of how I imagine the Colossus of Rhodes looked. China's greatest investigator, Detective Dee, is released from prison by the queen (whom he rebelled against years earlier) to solve the crime. I'll give you one clue: fire least, that's what the subtitled translation said.

Andy Lau and Bingbing Li have a love-hate relationship which is kind of cute and they choreographed a scene of the two of them which was sexy, exciting and humorous. That scene (which is in the trailers) is my favorite from the film. Chao Deng shows up as a blonde or albino rival investigator. I'm not sure why the character looked the way he did. Detective Dee is based on Dí Rénjié, a real-life government official who died in 700 AD. I'm not sure if the Deng character was based on a real person. Chao Deng turns in one of the better performances of the film as Dee's rival and grudging ally.

Detective Dee is about as much fun as Sherlock Holmes with its giant Buddha statue, spontaneous combustion and high energy action sequences. I'm not sure if Spaniards were in China the 600s but they were in the film.


Andy Lau got to show more range in Shaolin. In this film, Lau plays an arrogant general who is betrayed by his colonel and forced to seek sanctuary in a Shaolin monastery which he had previously violated by killing someone the monks had given sanctuary to and then vandalizing their sign.

Lau shows the audience arrogant to abject and gets to interact with Nicholas Tse (the Colonel) and Jackie Chan (the cook at the monastery). Marginally more interesting than Detective Dee, Shaolin still seemed interminable at 2 hours, 11 minutes. Chan performs his screen magic in one scene where he uses cooking utensils to defeats his foes. Chan's frenetic style of on-screen fighting is more to my taste than anything else in Shaolin.

Taking itself seriously than Detective Dee, Shaolin lacks some of the exuberance and joy which go into great Chinese action films. Nicholas Tse as the villain certainly goes over the top in convincing us how evil he is. Tse is quite a popular working actor now. I've seen four of his films in recent month - The Stool Pigeon, Bodyguards and Assassins and the fabulous The Beast Stalker.

Yu Hai is memorable as the abbot of the monastery and comes full circle as he had a role in The Shaolin Temple (starring Jet Li) which Shaolin is nominally a remake of. About the only thing which is the same in the two films is that the temple is destroyed.

Now that I think about it, a giant Buddha statue plays a major role in the climax of Shaolin also.


Seeing these two films leads me to believe the Chinese are making big budget films in the style of Hollywood action films. I hope they can do better.

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