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Capone's Art-House Round Up with Zhang Yimou's THE FLOWERS OF WAR, Wim Wenders' PINA 3D, NORWEGIAN WOOD, and MULBERRY CHILD!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Welcome to the rapey-ist awards season since GANDHI went up against E.T. and TOOTSIE. From THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO to IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY to the latest from the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, RAISE THE RED LANTERN, TO LIVE, HERO), the movies have become a downright creepy place to go these days. THE FLOWERS OF WAR picks one of the darkest periods in world history--Japan's invasion and brutal decimation of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937 (commonly referred to as "the Rape of Nanking"). I've seen some pretty graphic documentaries about these events, but Zhang's movie picks a weirdly, not convincingly uplifted aspect of this time and the result is a strangely jovial movie that always seems in search of the cute angle rather than be somewhat true to the facts.

If you wanted to know what Christian Bale did between THE FIGHTER and THE DARK KNIGHT RISESE, this is it. He plays John Miller, a Western mortician sent to the Catholic church in Nanking to bury the priest who has just died, but the invasion is happening right as Miller is arriving. When the caretakers of the church and the dozen or so young female students admit they don't have any money to pay him but they need his help in protecting them from the onslaught of Japanese soldiers, he refuses and starts tearing the place apart looking for money. But when the soldiers bust through the church doors and threaten to rape the school girls, Miller dons the dead priest's robes and pretends to be the riding holy man in charge, defending the girls and eventually chasing off the handful of would-be attackers.

While this is going on a group of courtesans is hiding out watching the final remnants of the local Chinese military defend Nanking, giving them time to find a way to sneak into the church and hide in the attic, unbeknownst to Miller or the students. What follows is one bizarre moment after another involving a music-loving Japanese officer demanding a concert from the students; the courtesans doing the dumbest shit possible, including sneaking out of the protected compound to find music strings and expensive earrings; and the social barriers between the prostitutes and the tween school girls break down so they can be chums. Meanwhile, Miller falls in love with the lovely lead courtesan Yu Mo (played by Ni Ni), who basically trades sex for protection and eventually helps escaping Nanking.

Based on the novel by Geling Yan, THE FLOWERS OF WAR never misses an opportunity to find the lighter side of every situation, until it finds the absolute darkest situation imaginable. For example, the scene where two courtesans sneak out to their burned out brother to find their missing items ends about as badly as it possibly could, and for a brief moment Zhang makes us remember that this was a war in which the Japanese systematically used rape as a means of subjugation and as a precursor to death. But before that happens, he treats the escape like a whimsical moment; the tonal shifts here are disturbing.

I guess I can understand the filmmakers attempting to tell the story about people just trying to survive with the most unspeakable war crimes going on just outside the gates. But the film makes its ultimate turn into unsettling territory when the Japanese request that the school girl choir be taken from the church to perform at a "party" celebrating the invaders officially taking control of Nanking. Miller knows that if the girls leave, they will never return, and what happens is, well, predictable and icky. Thankfully, we are spared seeing it carried out. And frankly, the moral center of this film and the judgements made do not sit well with me. I know there is something resembling a noble message somewhere in here, but it escaped me.

Bale is really trying in THE FLOWERS OF WAR, but even he seems like he's flailing as the fast-talking Miller, who is always cutting deals, making moves, and conning someone out of something. But it's his flirtations with Ni Ni that are the strangest to watch. Not that she isn't stunning, but he seems preoccupied with having sex with this woman for large sections of this movie. In a film so front loaded with the threat of rape, maybe you need to put casual sex on the backburner. I'm just saying. I found this movie difficult to watch because its sense of logic and justice seemed backward and sometimes insulting. And the fact that the painfully misguided THE FLOWERS OF WAR is China's official Oscar entry (it didn't make the short list) does not bode well in any language.

Another Foreign Language Oscar candidate (this one from Germany, and it did make the short list) opening in select theaters right around now is director Wim Wenders' lovely and elegant documentary PINA 3D, a profile less of the person than of the dance of famed choreographer Pina Bausch, whose most celebrated works are recreated by some of her finest dancers is glorious and extremely effective 3D. You could fit what I know about modern dance on the head of a pin and still have room for a vegetable garden, but I'm fairly certain I know gorgeous movement when I see it.

Interspersed with interviews with former company members are examples of some bizarre experimental dance pieces that seem so perfectly suited (perhaps even staged) for the big screen that I completely understand why Wenders would seem like the perfect fit for this means of artistic expression. The dances are curious, daring, hypnotic, and sometimes thrilling because they are unlike any conventional works I've ever been exposed to. But then to add the 3D element puts the audience on the stage among the dancers (hopefully this will not lead to dancing in the aisles).

I think Wenders' specialty is incorporating other forms of artistic expressions in his films, whether it's Nick Cave in WINGS OF DESIRE, the Portuguese group Madredeus in LISBON STORY, or his exploration of lost Cuban music in BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB. But this is a different animal altogether. There's one performance that sticks out in my head for no particular reason other than it actually seemed to generate a sense of tension during the dance, and it involved just a few dancers in a space with chairs that they stacked and positioned and weave in and out and through and under and over. And I was mesmerized wondering how someone could actually choreograph something so strange and lovely.

Pina died in 2009, and there is a bit of footage of her in action just to let us know she was capable of executing the moves she was teaching to others. This film is a fitting tribute to her marvelous creative force, and I hope those of you who are scratching your head about why I even reviewed this give it a chance before dismissing it. If you're going to spend your money on 3D this weekend, skip the unscreened Underworld sequel and check out PINA.

I'm going to admit, I was a bit baffled by this one, the latest from the great Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran (THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA, VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN) telling a story based on the novel by Haruki Murakami about three Japanese young adults involved in a twisted-up love triangle that we pretty much know no one is getting out of unscathed.

Set in a late-1960s Tokyo boiling over with youth protects, NORWEGIAN WOOD focuses on Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), who is deeply in love with Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi from Babel). The pair have been friends since they were kids, but she had always been in love with the third member of their group who committed suicide when they were young. Naoko is a sensitive girl who feels things a bit too deeply for the rough world around her. She goes into seclusion, and Toru thinks he'll never see her again. When in college, Toru meets the shining light of his life Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who is a lot tougher, forward thinking and brimming with confidence. She makes it clear that she and Toru have a future together. Naturally, it's at this point that Naoko re-enters the picture to confuse things.

NORWEGIAN WOOD is a strange little film in which the characters speak very frankly and explicitly about their sexual histories and needs, and that's a fun change from much of what Tran Anh Hung has done in the past. While Toru is able to maintain a juggling act for a time, it becomes clear that he will have to decide which of these two women he wants to be with before one or both of them lose interest. Naoko represents a part of Toru's past that he doesn't want to give up, while Midori is sexy, mysterious, and more mature than any woman he has ever known.

Despite the forthright sexual politics and strong performances from all three leads, especially Kikuchi, the film takes an extraordinarily long time to get where it's going (with a running time well over two hours). Still, the film is a beautiful display, with many of the encounters between Toru and his women taking place in tall fields of grass or in the rain. With just the right touches of melodrama and romance-novel imagery, NORWEGIAN WOOD might be enjoyable for those with a sappy streak running through them. I might be accused of that from time to time, but this movie just didn't break through the way it needed to.

What begins as a documentary about the disconnect between a Chinese-born mother and her extremely Americanized daughter becomes an unexpectedly moving story about growing up during China's painful Mao's Cultural Revolution and how generations show affections to each other and the generations that follow. Narrated by Jacquelyn Bisset and directed by Susan Morgan Cooper (AN UNLIKELY WEAPON), MULBERRY CHILD starts off in Chicago and springs forth from the words of Jian Ping, who expresses a great deal of concern about how little time she and her daughter Lisa are spending together. Lisa works 60-hour weeks, travels constantly, and is a social butterfly to the exclusion of spending time with her mother.

In an unusual but effective way of helping her daughter understand where she came from and why a relationship between the two is critical to her, Jian writes a memoir, MULBERRY CHILD, about her struggle as a child in a family that received little justice during the Cultural Revolution. But the book also reveals how the family managed to stay together while various members were imprisoned or sent to live in the countryside to see how farmers lived (as Chairman Mao commanded). Eventually, mother and daughter take a trip to China together to visit Jian's still-living parents and extended family, and to attend the Beijing Olympics.

The film uses reenactments to show moments from Jian's childhood, but it doesn't feel like cheating in the documentary format. It actually breathes a lot of life into her writing and puts human faces on the suffering and injustice that occurred in this era of Chinese history. Perhaps what is most saddening is a scene in which Jian and Lisa visit the Cultural Revolution Museum, which is empty and secluded, as if the nation is so ashamed of this period that it almost wants to erase it from the history books. The concluding moments when the two women finally make it see their family is as wonderful as it is touching and evocative, and the change it has on Lisa is profound. MULBERRY CHILD begins seeming delicate and quaint, but it transforms into a powerful statement on history's impact on the bond of family, and how it can strengthen those bonds as it attempt to weaken them. Great stuff from everyone involved.

-- Steve Prokopy
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