War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)


Sure to be among the longest, if not the best, movies to play on Seattle Screens this year is Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s longest novel. Running just over seven hours, and split conveniently into four parts, the film captures something of the essence of the book, while leaving out just enough to infuriate partisans of literature in its war against cinema. Being that this is the rare adaptation of a book I have actually read, I can happily carp on the minimization of some of the best characters, the wholesale elimination of favorite scenes, and the rejection of Tolstoy’s more bizarre musings on the movements of history. But I won’t, because taken as it is, War and Peace is majestic, the missing link between the silent epics of Griffith, Ganceand Eisenstein and the historical films of Terrence Malick.

Of the four parts, three are named after the film’s three primary characters, the fourth reserved for that monumental year 1812. It begins with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an earnest and reserved man who heads off to war only to lose both his delusions about martial honor in the battle of Austerlitz and his sickly young wife in childbirth. His story forms the spine of Part One, the longest of the sections, with the rest of the time taken up with stage-setting and character introductions, especially the two other main characters: Natasha Rostova, namesake of Part Two, and Pierre Bezhukov (Part Four). Key episodes from the book are rushed through (Pierre’s drunken revelry and disastrous marriage, Natasha’s brother Nikolai’s experience at Austerlitz, etc) but the focus remains primarily on Andrei and his view of the world. Multiple voice-overs compete for our attention, internal monologues for many, many characters, along with a narrator who at times might be Pierre but at others matches more closely Tolstoy’s own voice. These voices, with their philosophical musings, mixed with gorgeous images of the Russian countryside, make it obvious that this is a film Malick certainly saw before making The Thin Red Line or The New World. Bondarchuk goes just about as far in the direction of romantic transcendentalism as one could expect from a Soviet-era production.

The second part, Natasha’s story, is probably the best. Lyudmila Savelyeva has something of the charm Audrey Hepburn brought to the role in King Vidor’s fine 1956 version of the book, growing believably from effervescent pixie to hollowed-out saint through the course of the the story’s seven years. Her debut ball is a magnificent bit of filmmaking, dare I say Minnellian in the shear joy of her first dance with Andrei. Her fall from grace is filmed just as impressionistically, as Bondarchuk abandons the tedious recounting of dialogue and plot in favor of the mad rush of excitement and temptation that leads the poor girl into an deliriously ill-considered romance with Pierre’s dastardly brother-in-law.

The third part is mostly concerned with the Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army fought the French to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow before ultimately retreating, setting the stage for the Bonaparte’s disastrous winter withdrawal. The battle scenes are as spectacular as everything else in the movie, with reportedly more than ten thousand extras populating vast scenes of movement and death, which Bondarchuk films in every way imaginable: split screens and wipes, helicopters and cranes and tracks and handheld cameras, POV shots and long arcing movements. It’s as glorious as it is horrific.

The final section, after these spectacular middle parts, is a bit of a let down. The focus centers on Pierre, the brains of the film (such as he is with all his deluded ideas, barely hinted at in the film), where Andrei is its heart and Natasha its soul. Various plot threads are rushed to their conclusion, new characters sent on their tragic ways almost as soon as they are introduced. Rather than building in cumulative power over the course of its massive run time (as Hu Bo’s upcoming An Elephant Sitting Still does), or capping the proceedings with an unexpected change in tone and direction (as does Satantango, that other great behemoth of Eastern European cinema), War and Peace just kind of fizzles out. It’s been more than a decade since I read the book, but if I remember correctly it kind of does the same thing. A novel that big, in length and scope and ambition, can’t ever really end though, it goes on long after you’ve put it down. Despite its length, the film doesn’t approach the all-embracing nature of the book and its failure to do so is a good argument for the claim that no film can really express the totality of a great massive novel. The movie is at its worst when it tries to stick to the novel’s plot. But at its best, it captures the same great heights of Tolstoy’s most stirring sequences.

The Great Battle (Kim Kwangsik, 2018)


One of the more peculiar and underexamined genres of the 21st century is an outgrowth of the two films at the heart of the Oscar race in 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The former revived the sword and sandals craze of the 1950s: epic war movies set in the distant past, with handsome men and headstrong women wielding spears and arrows as they face oncoming hoards of villains; while the later breathed new life into the wuxia film, updating King Hu and Chang Cheh classics to a contemporary art house setting. As Gladiator spawned Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven and a handful of Arthurian, Viking and assorted other medieval adventures, Crouching Tiger led to Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of ornate epics Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, along with countless lesser adventures produced across Asia (Mongol with Tadonobu Asano, Musa with Zhang Ziyi, God of War with Sammo Hung and The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and Korea’s own The Admiral: Roaring Currents with Choi Minsik). The decisive factor the revival of these spectacles was the easy availability of computer generated imagery, drastically reducing the time and cost of producing a “cast of thousands”, while also amplifying the action sequences with slow motion (“bullet time”), erasure of wires, cartoonish gore, and the stitching together of disparate takes to create an illusion of seamless, continuous action. What the technology has thus far been unable to do, unfortunately, is raise the quality of the films’ scripts.

Into this heady tradition steps Kim Kwangsik’s The Great Battle, the story of the siege of Ansi fortress in northern Korea (at the time, AD 645, the kingdom of Goguryeo) by the massive army of Taizong, the Tang Dynasty ruler generally considered among the greatest of all Chinese Emperors. Outnumbered 40 to 1 (that is, 200,000 to 5,000), the Koreans are led by Yang Manchun, a mysterious historical figure embodied on-screen as a brilliant, brave, passionate, wise, honest, charming, generous, and handsome leader by Jo Insung. At his side are a pair of bickering captains (a tall, elegant leader of swordsmen and a hairy, gruff leader of axemen, the Legolas and Gimli of the story), a pair of young lovers (the leader of the cavalry and Yang’s sister, who leads a fearless band of crossbowwomen) and a callow youth, who has been sent to assassinate Yang by the leader of the Goguryeo army (who had killed the king and precipitated the war with the Tang), but who is instead so impressed by Yang’s moral and martial courage that he becomes his flag-bearer instead.

The cookie-cutter characterization and rote emoting of the generic plot can be tough to take, but fortunately the film’s real interest lies in its action scenes, which are of uniformly high quality. A siege movie, we are treated to a variety of infernal machines developed for the sole purpose of killing men on top of walls. Many of them we’ve seen before, but the film builds neatly from trebuchets, ladders and battering rams to massive towers and ultimately a gigantic earthen mound that takes months to build. Only the scrappy heroism and purity of Yang and his men (and women) are able to overcome the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of the Tang. The combat itself is well-done, with a steady camera tracking though the bloody chaos, limbs and CGI reds flying as soldiers more or less follow the laws of physics. It’s all easy to read and delivers the essential violence that is the genre’s reason for being.

But that’s all it does. The better films in the genre have higher ambitions: Alexander‘s vision of a world-conquering madness; Hero‘s meditation on power and national unity;  Baahubali‘s genre-blending, intricate story-telling and wildly imaginative special effects; even The Great Wall‘s melding of medieval warfare with 50s style science-fiction; or Red Cliff, to date the finest example of the genre, deftly blending unique characters and relationships on a grand scale of schemes, tactics and action. The Great Battle plays it safe, content with the cliché, lacking even enough ideology to be a propaganda film.

SIFF 2017: God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)


Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

It’s the King Hu film I can never quite remember, The Valiant Ones, remade as PRC propaganda, all national, class and gender unity in the face of foreign aggressors (in this case: samurai masquerading as pirates in Ming China). The action is mostly very good, but there isn’t nearly enough Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao (The Blade) weirdly looks like Jimmy Fallon now. Veteran kung fu/ninja star Yasuaki Kurata is exceptional as the samurai leader.

The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon, 2016)


Hot off its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and the announcement of its being chosen as South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award, the latest film from director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, The Bad, The WeirdI Saw the Devil) opened this past Friday. But not in Seattle: it’s only playing at the Alderwood Mall AMC in Lynnwood and the Cinemark theatre in Federal Way, another example of the mixed-blessing that is the state of Asian film distribution in the United States. On the one hand, were this exact same film French or German, you could expect it to be picked up by one of the major art house distributors and get a nationwide roll-out, eventually playing somewhere like SIFF or a Landmark theatre. Along with that would go critical attention and a much wider audience. Instead, as Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Indian films are increasingly only released in the US in small runs targeted at diasporic and immigrant communities, with no advance publicity and little advertising to the public at large, it’s likely that if The Age of Shadows does develop an American following, it will come only once the movie is widely available to stream on the internet. But on the plus side, for those of us that happen to live near a major urban center, we get to see some of the best movies in the world in a theatrical setting, with no waiting.

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13 Hours (Michael Bay, 2016)

The prospect of a Michael Bay movie about Benghazi is contemporary American absurdity at its finest. The maker of hugely successful disasters, overblown, crude, racist, misogynistic, incomprehensible, telling the story of one of the most ridiculous issues of our time, a tragedy crudely trumped up into an inane scandal by the basest elements of our political culture. After the jingoistic marketing around Clint Eastwood’s hit American Sniper a year ago (which I believe completely misrepresented that film), how could 13 Hours, in the hands of a far less sophisticated and nuanced filmmaker, hope to be anything but a wildly offensive distortion of history at best, and a piece of vile propaganda at worst? Well, I’m somewhat happy to say that 13 Hours is not nearly as racist as you’d expect it to be. It is crude, it is overblown, it does completely lack subtlety, but Bay, true to his only real belief as a filmmaker (that his movies should amass a fortune), has attempted to make a film that will appeal to all audiences, it sidesteps the kind of cartoonish racism one would expect in a war film set in North Africa and instead appeals to much deeper, much broader base instincts in the American audience: our love of firepower, our distrust of government, our isolationism.

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