Post-graduation Relaxation

The post-graduation party on Thursday was quite a night! This is partly the reason why I did not get up until 2:00 PM Today. And what did I do today? I just spent most of my time watching movies on DirectTV, which was having a free trial of their dozen or so HBO, Showtime, Encore and Starz channels. The films I watched today were "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle", "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy", and "Pavillion of Women".

I've seen the first two films, which were just mindless comedies. Interestingly enough, Jon Cho who played Harold in "Harold and Kumar" was one of the lead actors in "Pavillion of Women", which also starred Willem Dafoe. The film "Pavillion of Women" was loosely based on the Pearl S. Buck novel of the same name.

This 2001 adaptation of the novel is set in 1937 and was filmed in China and partially financed by the Beijung Film Studios. The Chinese actress Yan Luo not only stars as Madame Wu, but also helped write the screenplay and produce the film. She's beautiful and stately and gives a fine performance. Willem Dafoe is cast as a village priest who runs a local orphanage. They are attracted to each other and the inevitable happens. But that is only part of what the story is about. Basically, it's about the oppressive world of the old-fashioned traditional Chinese family. And the future promise of communism.

"Pavilion Of Women" centres on a romance between leading characters in whom both Chinese and Western mores collide. This is a cross-cultural romantic story adapted from a book by the prolific American writer on China, Pearl S. Buck, set in the late 1930s. It is a cross-cultural challenge to the audience, as much as to its characters. Many Chinese would say that its romantic plot was unthinkable or impossible in the 1930s–which is, of course, part of the point of the story. Western fans of Pearl S. Buck might be irritated by deviation from her book. However, this film has first class cross-cultural direction and acting, and was beautifully photographed on location in elegant settings of old Suzhou. It is a fine example of what the Chinese film industry can achieve in co-production. The DVD has high quality picture and audio, but could be improved with special features such as biographical and production notes.

At the time this movie was released, critics savaged the film for having deviated from the source material, and the fact the predominantly Chinese cast struggled with their English dialogue. Overall, I didn't think the film was bad after seeing it for what it was meant to be: a simple love story with elements that criticised old Chinese culture, the conflicts within relationships, the positive impact of foreign missionaries, and how the KMT and the Japanese Empire ruined China. After all this movie was a Chinese-American co-production, which allowed for filmmakers to make full use of Suzhou province to capture to simple, yet romantic setting, access to talented local actors and most of all giving viewers a chance to experience pre-Revolutionary China. The only trade-offs to the film were a greater criticism of KMT misrule during that period, the communist party was portrayed in a more positive light and the final minutes of the film detailed how the Imperial Japanese Army would rape, murder, loot and bayonet anything that comes in their sights.

Willem Dafoe is a great, but underrated actor. His performances range from playing Charlie Sheen's mentor Elias in "Platoon" to playing a conflicted Norman Osborn in the "Spider-Man" films. Whatever films he is in, whether he is a hero, villain or just a supporting character, he always give a strong, consistent performance that adds substance to the movies he is in. Even though Pearl Buck's adaptation was mediocre, his performance made the movie worth watching to the very end, despite having issues with the broken English coming from the Chinese actors. I guess this is where I am supposed to say I now understand why Japanese were irritated with that "Memoirs of a Geisha" movie starring Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li.

Jon Cho was decent as Fengmo, the progressive son of Ailian who is exposed to western learning and secret member of the CCP. Considering he is Korean-American, I found it hilarious when he marched into the fields during the ending in a vintage PLA uniform and smiling like one of the soldiers I saw in an old Chinese propaganda poster. Now I am interested in reading the book among others I'd like to get from Strand if I go to NYC again.

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