“Taxi Driver” - Martin Scorsese (1976)


Taxi Driver (1976) was a landmark film in many ways.  Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or in 1976, the film represents the peak and signature performances of director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro. But beyond those specific individual achievements, what singles the film out and marks it for greatness is its uniquely powerful expressionistic presentation [1].  By “expressionism” I mean here that the mode of artistic presentation entails depicting the entire external world as a manifestation of the inner feelings (the psychological interior) of the narrator (usually the author and/or principal character). The German Expressionistic films of the Weimar Republic period, reflecting the general Expressionistic art movement in painting and architecture at the time, presented expressionism at its most explicit, with severe and artificial distortions of the depicted physical world that depicted a disturbed state of mind.  Since then expressionistic film expression has been more modulated, but there are still exemplar filmmakers in that mode today, including Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog.  However, Taxi Driver probably tops them all in terms of the urban expressionistic nightmare it depicts in an ostensibly realistic setting.

Taxi Driver also carries with it Existentialistic overtones, a not uncommon artistic companion of expressionism, since this film portrays the sense of deep-seated anxiety that is characteristic of the existentialist sensibility.  Modern exemplary filmmakers that tend to focus on the existentialist mode include Michelangelo Antonioni,Wong Kar Wai, and Majid Majidi, but there are many films that conform to this genre.  As I have discussed at greater length in "Existentialism in Film 1" [2] and "Phenomenology and Red Desert" [3], existentialist films involve a profound sense of both alienation and transcendence.  Alienation here is general: it involves a fundamental sense of separation and isolation on the part of the protagonist from his or her social environment and entire world of involvements. The reason for this sense of separation can be found in the manner in which Existentialism contrasts with Essentialism.  Essentialism, which we could also call Objectivism, applies the principles of objective, natural science to everything and is the conventional means by which our modern Western culture characterizes the world.  According to this mode of thinking, everything in the world can be understood  in terms of its essence, which is what distinguishes it from other things.  We can then understand the entire world (from the Essentialist perspective) in terms of the state-based relationships connecting these essences. Existentialism, however, has a perspective that contrasts with Essentialism by emphasizing not essence but existence – something more primordial and beyond the relationship-based notion of essence.  The Existentialist position argues that there is something fundamentally missing about Essentialism – we feel that we are more than just the essences that are said to describe us, and we feel alienated from such a diminished view of our existence.  Existence entails contingency and possibility.  There is something we feel that must transcend the essentialist depiction of reality.  The Existentialist viewpoint is concerned with more than a description of what is.  It senses transcendent contingency and possibility – that eery awareness that unforeseeable and unfathomable events, even our own deaths, may be imminent.

Early definitive portraits of Existentialistic unease appeared years ago in two groundbreaking novels: Albert Camus’s The Stranger (aka The Outsider, 1942/1946)  and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938/1949), in both of which the respective protagonists famously felt separated from everything around them.  But these works convey their message by means of written words, which are inherently grounded in Essentialism.  And as I remarked in those two earlier film essays, the film medium is probably an even better vehicle than the written word for the conveyance of existentialist and expressionist feelings. In fact, the direct transcription of outstanding expressionistic/existentialist written works onto the screen is often not as successful as other works that are similar, but have been more specifically sculpted for the cinematic medium.  Thus Brazil (1986) was a more effective expression of its artistic inspiration, Orwell’s novel 1984, than the explicit film adaptation of that novel (1984, 1984).  So, too, Taxi Driver is a more effective cinematic presentation of Existentialist alienation than Luchino Viconti’s The Stranger (1967), the film adaptation of Camus’s novel.  This was no accidental side effect of the filmmakers’ cinematic stylistics: Taxi Driver’s scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, had earlier written a book on film aesthetics, Transcendental Style In Film [4], which  explicitly examines how alienation and transcendence have been presented on film by some earlier masters.

Note that when Existentialistic stories are presented, the narrative structures are rather different from more conventional stories.  In most typical narratives, there is a metaphorical journey undertaken by the protagonist(s), who identify and seek a remote target that must be reached for fulfilment or salvation. Thus these protagonists generally know where they initially are and where they must go.  But in Existentialistic stories the protagonist is intrinsically lost from the outset.  There is a deep sense that something is wrong, but also a fundamental bewilderment in terms of where to go or what to do.  This sense of aimlessness and incapacitation in Existentialist works can frustrate some viewers and critics, who are waiting for the narrative journey to take shape and set forth [5]. The narrative structure of Taxi Driver struggles with this problem of aimlessness, and in the end Scorsese and Schrader manage to fashion a narrative scheme founded on this desperate search for a meaningful goal.  Anyway, what matters in this film is not so much its narrative structure as its expressionistic depiction of a dark, disturbing mood.

The story of Taxi Driver concerns a young ex-US Marine and Vietnam War veteran, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who gets a job as a taxicab driver for a New York City cab fleet.  Bickle is a loner who lives in a spare, one-room flat, with only a diary for expressing his thoughts.  He drives all night, usually from 6pm to 6am, through the bizarre Manhattan underworld peopled by social outliers, such as prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, and various underworld types.  Everything is seen from his point of view, with occasional voiceovers recording his diary notes or letters that he sends to his parents, who are far removed from his existence.

Travis is cut off from everything and everyone, with no meaningful relationships in his life.  As the story unfolds, he will encounter two different women with whom he briefly attempts to strike up relationships.  These are overlaid on top of his fundamental problem of alienation: his dysfunctional relationship with the world.  So over the course of the film, there are three concurrent narrative threads to follow along, all of which are his attempts to come to terms with his sense of alienation:
  • the relationship with Betsy
  • the relationship with Iris
  • the relationship with the world.  Admittedly this one is rather general, but it makes sense to characterize it as problematic relationship in this context.
With respect to all three relationships, Travis tries to overcome his sense of powerlessness and futility with respect to having an authentic impact on his surroundings.  The story breaks down into roughly four sections that relate the frustrating evolution of these relationships.

1.  Hopeful Engagement
The early scenes show Travis cruising through the New York City night scene and delivering his fares.  Despite his worldly experience as a US Marine, Travis is fundamentally an innocent, almost naive, individual, who is disturbed by the corrupt world of New York City night people.  At the close of every workday, he has to clean out the semen, filth, and blood that is left in the back seat of his taxi by his degenerate passengers.  Travis’s sense of alienation and unrelenting distress is reflected in the insomnia he suffers, which further deadens him to his surroundings.  One day, however, he spies a beautiful girl on the street, Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), who is a volunteer campaign worker for a US Presidential candidate, Senator Charles Palantine.  In all the filth and grime of the city environment, here is a beautiful flower of perfection. Immediately Travis feels that he and Betsy must share some intrinsic inner connection – she must be his destined soul-mate.  How many of us have sometimes felt this way?  We encounter a person of the opposite gender who is just so perfectly suited to our inner nature, that there must have been some destiny behind our meeting. 

Despite obvious differences in class and breeding, Travis is boundlessly confident that he and Betsy were meant for each other, and he boldly approaches her directly.  For her part, Betsy is guardedly charmed by Travis’s effervescent innocence.  So Travis now has a hopeful goal and a route to fulfilment.

When Senator Palantine hires his taxi one time, Travis’s romantic enthusiasm for Betsy spills over to embrace the senator’s candidacy.  Palantine, himself, is an unbelievably empty-headed political hypocrite who merely repeats the mindless mantra, “we are the people”, throughout the film.  His character is something of a master stroke on Scorsese’s part, because Palantine’s platitudes effectively represent the dead-end emptiness of essentialism.  Unconsciously, Travis will come to sense that Palantine is the embodiment of his own frustrations with the world as the film wears on.

2.  Powerlessness and Frustration
Travis’s optimism proves transient.  Despite his innocence, Betsy soon recoils from Travis’s lack of polish and dumps him.  Innocence has been rebuked and rejected.  Then a 12-year-old street girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), jumps into Travis’s cab and urges him to get her away from some imminent danger.  But Travis hesitates, and the girl is wrestled out of his cab by her drug-dealing pimp, Matthew (Harvey Keitel), aka “Sport”, while Travis simply watches helplessly from the front seat of his cab.  Here is the city’s corruption of innocence at its most extreme: a pretty, underage girl coerced into prostitution.

The solution to life’s problems seems invariably to be violence.  One of Travis’s passengers (played by Scorsese, himself), tells him that he will kill his unfaithful wife by blowing her to pieces with a 44 Magnum pistol.  This seems to be the only path to take for Travis, too.  He buys an armory of guns from an illegal weapons merchant and starts preparing for some unspecified mission of violence.

In the meantime, Travis meets Iris again and arranges to become of her “clients”.  His goal is to rescue her from her degenerate life, but he doesn’t know how.  He does manage to make some sort of connection with her, though, and though transient, this turns out to be his only meaningful relationship in the film.

3.  Self Destruction
Existentialist rejection of the Essentialist-modelled world can lead to a rejection of one’s own essence-derived self conception.  This is clearly happening to Travis, as the viewer sees him heading down the path of self-destruction.  Travis evidently wants to strike out at the indifferent world and do something that has an impact on it.  His symbolic target becomes Charles Palantine, whose inauthentic disconnection from true human engagement somehow must unconsciously make him the ultimate target of Travis’s wrath. 

Travis prepares a letter to be sent to Iris with some money and a message that says, “at the time you read this, I will be dead.”  Travis’s voiceover reflection sums up his current state of mind: 

“Now I see it clearly.  My whole life has pointed in one direction.  I see that now.  There never has been any choice for me.”
Fully armed and now sporting a bizarre Mohawk haircut, Travis goes to a Palantine political rally to carry out his assassination.  But before he can act, he is recognized by guards and flees the scene. That night, and now even more mentally deranged, he pursues an alternative path by heading down to the Lower East Side to engage in a violent, shoot-first rescue of Iris.  A bloody shootout ensues, with Travis killing Matthew and two others while getting critically shot in the neck, himself.  At the end of the devastation, Travis tries to shoot himself, but he out of bullets. The police arrive, and Travis is taken away.

4.  Aftermath
It is now a few months later, and the viewer learns that Travis, after being in a coma, has survived and recovered from his wounds.  Despite his murderous killing-spree, Travis has been hailed by the press as a hero, since he killed low-life drug dealers.  Iris is back safe with her parents, far from New York.  Travis is back on the same taxi night shift and living as before.  One of his fares turns out to be Betsy, and they engage in cautious, impersonal small talk during the ride, after which Travis refuses payment and silently pulls away from the curb.
The ending of the film is one of pure irony. Travis has finally been returned to normalcy, at least outwardly. But that last shot of Travis slowly, reluctantly pulling away from Betsy is an indication of his continued isolation and tacit desire to make connection. He is now mentally confined by even bigger walls, but perhaps he has abandoned his struggle to overcome them.

As I mentioned earlier, the expressionistic presentation of a mood is what makes this film outstanding.  Scorsese’s picture of the ominous and threatening New York City night scene is undoubtedly aided by his being a native of the city.  The focalization of the film remains almost exclusively on Travis Bickle, except for short moments with Betsy and Iris.  Why were these two singled out in this fashion?  Perhaps the moments showing those girls' personal connections with other men highlights Travis's nightmares concerning aspects of their lives outside the scope of his influence. So these sequences, too, add to the film’s atmosphere of anxiety and separation.  Another particularly memorable scene is when Travis, alone in his apartment, slowly and knowingly tips his portable television off its stand and wrecks it.  The drift towards self-destruction is captured perfectly without words.

The film’s overall mood of threatening alienation is immeasurably enhanced by the film score written by Bernard Herrmann, who was perhaps the consummate film music composer and whose music for films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Brian De Palma provided indelible signatures for those specific works. In this case here in Taxi Driver, the mood of the film is so linked to Herrmann that I feel he almost a co-author of the film.

Some people simply dismiss Travis Bickle as someone who just went crazy and who at the end remains a loaded time-bomb who might erupt again in the future.  Perhaps so, but the power of this film is its ability to give us some understanding of Travis. We can empathize with his agony and lost innocence.  We know him as we know ourselves.  At the film's end, meaningful connection possibilities with Betsy, Iris, and the city at large seem to be gone forever.  There is only the dark urban nightmare around him, and that still remains a threat, as shown in the last frames of the film.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Expressionism in Film", The Film Sufi (2008).
  2. "Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi (2008).
  3. "Phenomenology and Red Desert", The Film Sufi (2010).
  4. Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style In Film (1972/1988), Da Capo Press.
  5. This has been a criticism of some of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, such as Red Desert (1964).

"And the Pursuit of Happiness" - Louis Malle (1986)


Louise Malle was a commercially and artistically successful feature filmmaker with a career that spanned three decades and two cultures: France and the US. But I feel that it was in the area of documentary filmmaking where he did his best work, in both cultures. Rather than attempt to record “objective” reality, Malle largely embodied the more subtle documentary style of cinéma vérité originally championed by the French. In this mode of filmmaking, the observer is an acknowledged part of the story being told – it is the storyteller’s journey towards a more enlightened view of his or her interactive environment that the viewer experiences. Note, however, that a cinéma vérité film does not dwell on the observer – what is presented is the world “out there”, as seen from the observer’s perspective.  This picture of the external world, out there, may be subtly influenced by the observer’s presence, as authentically acknowledged by the cinéma vérité filmmaker.

Among Malle’s great documentaries are the magnificent Phantom India (1969) and Calcutta (1969), which revealed a cultured Frenchman’s appreciative attempts to understand the wonder of India.  After moving to the US in the late 1970s, Malle’s documentary fascination turned to a contemplation of just what it is that constitutes American culture, with God’s Country (1986) and then And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986), his last documentary effort.  In all these cases, Malle demonstrates a sympathetic attempt to arrive a critical understanding of his subject.  And this he shared with his audience.

And the Pursuit of Happiness was one of Malle’s most personal films, since he examines the various facets and multiple experiences of being an immigrant to the US, as he himself had once been.  Indeed, the film seems to be very much a personal effort on the part of Malle, since he is credited as being the photographer, narrator, producer, and director of the film.  Just as he had done years earlier in India, Malle evidently travelled around the US and recorded what he saw. And following the cinéma vérité tradition, he lets those he see tell their own stories. 

Although the film, of course, is edited, and only the choice footage survived that process, I felt when watching the film that the interactions with the various people Malle encountered were authentic and unrehearsed. The behaviour of the people before the camera might have been influenced by the knowledge that they were on film, but their actions and words were generally spontaneous.

The title of the film, “And the Pursuit of Happiness”, is drawn from a line in the US Declaration of Independence, which refers to what it considers the “inalienable rights” of man, which necessarily include, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  To be able to pursue happiness in one’s own fashion, that is with the largest compass to one’s activities that does not harm others – it is this that is held to be a basic human right.  And that is precisely what draws so many people from all around the world to America.

For the most part, the people that Malle encounters and films are ordinary, everyday people who are just looking for a new life.  But Malle does interview a few not so ordinary people, too.  These include

  • Boris Leskin, a prominent Russian stage actor who came to the US in 1979 at the age of 56 knowing almost no English and having to start over from scratch.  By the time of this film, he is teaching acting classes and has restarted his acting career in America.
  • Franklin Chang Diaz was born in Costa Rica of a Chinese father and a Costa Rican mother. Like President Barak Obama, he is an example success story of America’s ethnic melting pot. After coming to the US during his high school years, he was graduated from MIT with a PhD in physics and then went to become the first immigrant to be a NASA astronaut in the US space program.
  • Derek Walcott, from the Carribean island of Saint Lucia, became a famous poet and playwright in the US.  A few years after his appearance in this film, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1992).
  • General José R. Somoza was the son of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, and had lived a life of privilege in Nicaragua during the long, corrupt rule of the Somoza family.  He evidently brought a considerable amount of his wealth with him to the US when the Somozas were forced from power, because he is shown in this film living in luxury.
But Malle’s film covers people of many stripes and lots of themes, and there are roughly four general topic areas that come under focus along the way:
  1. Freedom to start a new life
  2. Educational opportunities
  3. Acceptance of immigrants
  4. The Problem of illegal immigration

1.  Freedom to start a new life
In this section Malle shows refugees from Cambodia arriving at US customs and happy to escape the genocidal conditions in their native country that led to the deaths of about one-quarter of the population (~ 2 million people).  These people are pursuing the dream that many people contemplate: to start a new life. Also shown is a Kurdish taxi driver, who has managed to join a worker’s cooperative that owns and operates its own taxi service. Here Boris Leskin is shown celebrating his own new life in the new world. 

Many new arrivals find their way to communities of their own people.  Malle shows people in “Little Saigon”, an area of Orange County, California, where 100,000 Vietnamese people have settled.  Cuban immigrants have almost come to dominate the city of Miami, where 65% of the population was said to be Hispanic.  Almost none of these people want to go back to their home countries, ever.

2.  Educational Opportunities
In this section Malle shows how the American system of universal education benefits many immigrant schoolchildren.  Some of the children shown in this segment include Chinese students, an Indian Sikh prodigy, and the aforementioned Franklin Chang Diaz

3.  Acceptance
Malle travels to Nebraska, in the American heartland, and shows a small town with an immigrant Vietnamese doctor – apparently the only non-native resident in the town.  As is generally true with the unassuming American Midwestern people, the doctor is readily accepted and included in the local society.  However, this acceptance doesn’t prevail throughout the US.  Malle also shows American blacks in Houston, Texas, who are at odds with the local Vietnamese immigrants. The blacks feel that the Vietnamese are being used as tools by corrupt landlords to force them out of their own, traditional neighbourhoods. In addition the film also shows a number of Arab immigrants, who although they have achieved comfortable middle-class status, feel the effects of social discrimination (for being Muslims) and discomfort with the “corrupt” American lifestyle.

The famous writer Derek Walcott is shown in this segment expressing what seems to me to be an eccentric view, perhaps what you might expect from an intellectual.  He argues that America’s “aggressive democracy” enforces too much conformity.  He thinks immigrants feel the pressure to conform to social mainstream standards and are reluctant to express their true feelings.  Malle lets Walcott speak his piece and says nothing.  But the rest of the film portrays the falsity of Walcott’s claims and just how happy the immigrant newcomers are to be in a country where they can express themselves – especially the various young girls and women who are interviewed in the film.

4.  Illegal Immigration
The last segment covers the somewhat intractable problem of illegal immigration in America. Malle shows scenes of the American border crossing near Tijuana, where vast numbers of people seek to cross into the US every night illegally.  Many Americans see the source of this problem to be the practice of American landowners and factory owners hiring cheap fruit pickers and running “sweatshops” filled with exploited illegal immigrants paid a wages well below the government-specified minimum wage. They believe that if the US would rigorously outlaw such practice, then the illegal immigration flow would subside.  An extreme proponent of this perspective is FAIR – the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who seek to (1) drastically reduce legal immigration, (2) eliminate political asylum and illegal-immigrant legalization, and (3) repeal the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which grants citizenship to people born in the US. I don’t think the issue of illegal immigration can be solved this way, and furthermore, the FAIR organization is itself suspect – the widely respected Southern Poverty Law Center (famous for legally opposing racism in the US South), has claimed that FAIR is a hate group. Managing the immigration flow into the US will remain a complex problem for some time, and no simple solutions are at hand. As Malle shows, there are many people who are desperate to come to the US, whether there are low-paying jobs waiting for them or not.  Besides the people from relatively distant Cambodia, there are eager people closer to home, such as those from El Salvador, who are shown fleeing that country’s violence and famine. 

In ironic contrast to these desperate people at the bottom are wealthy immigrants like General Somoza, who after having plundered their native country, brought much of their wealth with them.  But even here, Malle doesn’t express any personal condemnation; he always lets these people speak for themselves.  Perhaps the ultimate expression here is that of General Somoza’s son, who appears to be a thirty-ish householder living in more modest circumstances in the US than he did in Nicaragua.  When he is asked by Malle which place he likes better, he says it is the US.  His life here is more natural, better.  He is free.
★★★

“Forks Over Knives” - Lee Fulkerson (2011)



The documentary film Forks Over Knives (2011) is dedicated to convincing its audience that adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet is the most important act we can take to ensure good health and combat disease.  This is more than just an “eating healthy food is good for you” message, which many people will noddingly accept, but which will have little impact on their everyday eating habits.  After all, everyone already knows that eating food is a key activity in our daily lives, and most people who are presently in reasonably good health already think that their eating habits are within the boundaries of normalcy.  Why should they suddenly be converted to what seems like a strict dietary regimen, especially when everyone else they see around them eats the way they do?

Nevertheless, this film seeks to convince its likely reluctant viewing public that adopting a plant-based (i.e. vegan) diet is not just a good idea, but is of crucial, life-saving importance for everyone.  In particular, the producers of this film argue that by so doing, one can actually reverse the progress of many serious degenerative diseases, including coronary heart disease.  In this respect Forks Over Knives has a similar message to Mike Anderson’s Eating, 3rd Edition (2009), and because of the overlapping of themes, I suggest that readers examine my earlier review of that film for additional commentary. 

Actually, comparing those two similarly-themed films highlights a fundamental issue of documentary film presentation.  If you seek to convince your audience concerning the truth of some proposition, what is better – exposition or narrative?  We know that presenting a convincing logical argument is important, but we also know that telling stories that captivate the viewer are even more important.  Each of these films follows both of these two paths, but Eating, 3rd Edition is probably more oriented towards the emphatically asserted logical argument side of things, while Forks Over Knives, leans more in the direction of story-telling to make its points.

In fact Forks Over Knives follows a number of stories in parallel, switching back and forth among them.  Two of the stories trace the distinguished careers of two important nutrition professionals: 
  • Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a physician in the field of cardiology and the author of the book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (2007) [1].
  • Professor T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist at Cornell University and author of the book, The China Study (2004) [2].
Both of them grew up on farms and followed traditional meat-and-dairy-based diets during their early years, but eventually their separate professional experiences provided them with the empirical evidence to change their minds about that diet. 

Interleaved with the stories about the two specialists are several other stories about ordinary people who adopt plant-based diets on the recommendation of their personal physicians [3]. The people in these secondary stories already have significant health problems to begin with, and this includes a group of 17 people with very serious cardiac problems who were placed under the Dr. Esselstyn’s care.  An additional, originally unplanned patient is the film’s writer-director, Lee Fulkerson, who volunteered to have himself medically assessed and was told that many of his health indicators (blood pressure, blood cholesterol level, etc.) were dangerously high.  These patients were not given any medications [4]; they were all just instructed to follow a rigorous plant-based diet prescribed by their doctor. Over the course of several months that the film was in production, all of them showed dramatic improvements in their bio-indicators and general health.


Such human-interest stories may give a personal touch to the film, but to me, they are not as interesting or convincing as the more evidence-based accounts associated with the work of Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn.  Individual testimonials, which are the stock and trade of infomercials, are an easy sell, and one should always be cautious about making generalizations from them.  In fact food faddists, like Robert Atkins and Adelle Davis, have long been popular with the general public and perennially top bestseller charts, but any evidence concerning the effectiveness of their approaches has always been scanty.  Atkins advocated a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, while Davis promoted a high-protein breakfast diet, but both of their dietary regimes are now discredited.  The fact that they had large followings was probably attributable to the fact that people who follow any prescribed diet are likely to lose weight – simply because the more limited food options on any diet lead to a reduction in snacking and overall food consumption.

The problem with nutrition science is that the field is immensely complicated, and even though new discoveries are regularly being made, we are still only at the doorstep of knowing the intricacies of how food intake affects health.  For example although vitamins have been identified as essential nutritional ingredients, it seems that there are associated, but not well understood, micronutrients coexisting with these vitamins in nature that are needed for these vitamins to be properly absorbed and processed in the body.  Animals evolved in the wild to digest and process these foods that included the associated micronutrients along with the vitamins and caloric food elements.  So if a person takes vitamin tablets, these micronutrients are mostly absent, and the benefits from the vitamins are likely to be reduced.  

Because the field of nutritional science is so complicated, medical schools give their students little, if any, training concerning nutrition. This leaves doctors will little option other than to repeat the mantras that are endlessly repeated by the meat-and-dairy industry advertisements claiming that
  • meat is the most essential food, because it is rich in protein and we are mostly made up of protein, and
  • milk (from dairy cows) is equally essential because it is rich in calcium, which is needed for strong bones.
So most people, as the film suggests via on-the-street interviews, don’t question these ideas.  But Colin Campbell shows that these statements are misleading (see below).

Of course, the meat-and-dairy industry has a vested interested in getting people to consume their products, and so they spend vast sums of money in advertising and use their political muscle to lobby for government subsidies in order to further their aims.  And they convince a lot of people: the film shows Connie Diekman, a past president of the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), who espouses the virtues of meat protein and cow’s milk. In fact Forks Over Knives has some interesting material from Dr. Neal Barnard, the head of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, concerning the disturbing influence the meat-and-dairy industry has on the US Department of Agriculture's recommendations for dietary health.  Many of the USDA's specialist advisers are under the pay of the meat and dairy industry.  In particular, he discusses how big agribusiness in the US manages to get government subsidies to provide cheese, meat, and milk products to school children.

There are very few people who are in a position to counter the meat-and-dairy propaganda with objective evidence, particularly given the inherent complexity of the nutrition field.  Nevertheless, even if the nutrition field is extraordinarily complex at the biochemical level of causality, one can still pursue a scientific path of investigation at the higher level of human health outcomes.  This is the path that Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn pursued in their separate ways: one based on epidemiological research and the other on clinical practice.

The journey of Caldwell Esselstyn, a Yale graduate and former Olympic rowing champion, to arrive at an understanding of animal-based foods' harmful effects is based on his long-term clinical experiences. He first began to realize the problem when he learned that during the German occupation of Norway, when the German army confiscated the local pastoral animals to feed their own troops, the Norwegian mortality from circulatory diseases was dramatically reduced. After the war, when the Norwegians returned to their carnivorous diet, the mortality from circulatory diseases returned to prewar levels.  Inspired by this evidence, Esselstyn has gone on to reverse the degenerative progression of coronary heart disease in his many (several hundred) patients by prescribing strictly plant-based diets.  As a doctor, he is frustrated how our modern diet needlessly harms us: every year there 500,000 Americans who undergo heart bypass surgery, at a cost of $100,000, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who die of heart attacks annually.  Almost all of this could be avoided if people were to follow a plant-based diet.  According to his biomedical explanation, animal foods cause the deterioration of endothelial cells that line the blood vessels and maintain appropriate blood flow. As these endothelial cells are damaged, a person is more at risk of a heart attack.   But, interestingly, a plant-based diet can actually lead to the restoration of these endothelial cells in the blood vessels, and therefore a plant-based diet can actually reverse the course of coronary heart disease.

Dr. Campbell’s journey followed a different path – that of a biochemical researcher.  He was one of the leaders of the China-Cornell-Oxford project, which was a large observational study of health outcomes in rural China during the 1980s.  This study covered a large area of China that included variously different diet practices.  But an important advantage of this sampling was that the genetic pool of all these people were very similar – Chinese Han people.  So this made comparisons across the other factors largely independent of genetic variations.  In addition, since the study concentrated on rural populations, it examined populations that were generally stable and unchanging over decades of time.   Thus the size, scope, and advantageous characteristics of the study were unprecedented.  The results of the study were published in Campbell’s book, The China Study (2004).  This is a fascinating book and well worth reading the whole thing, not just a summary.

Campbell and his team in The China Study examined 367 diet and health-related variables across 65 counties in China, in each of which 100 people were randomly selected for investigation.  This led to 94,000 correlations between diet and disease, and Campbell’s team found about 9,000 of these correlations to be statistically significant.  The most important conclusion they came to was that a plant-based diet is correlated with lower incidences of cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease. This association between disease and animal-based food extended even into very low percentages of animal-food consumption: the less animal-based food consumed, the better the health outcomes.

Campbell’s studies also showed that the two meat-and-dairy industry mantras about protein from meat and calcium from milk were fundamentally misleading. The fact that a plant-based diet supplies an adequate amount of protein seems to be little known among the general public, and few people know, for example, that  broccoli has double the protein per calorie that beefsteak has.  Moreover, Campbell remarks that animal protein creates a condition in the body called, “metabolic acidosis”.  To combat this condition, the body draws on its most readily available acid buffer: calcium from the bones. Low-fat milk makes this situation even worse, because with lower fat, the protein becomes a larger proportion of the total (not to mention the fact that low-fat milk is correlated with prostate cancer, according to Campbell).

There is also a small feature in the film discussing Dr. John McDougall’s clinical work that suggests a vegan diet can reverse the course of breast cancer.   This includes an interview with role model Ruth Heidrich, who attributes her survival from breast cancer to her vegan diet.  Even now in her seventies, she  is still participating in triathlon competitions.

Why is it so difficult to change public behaviour on an issue that seems as though it would be clear cut?  People imagine that it would be much too difficult to give up meat and milk, but it really isn’t that hard.  It might be helpful to compare the issue of eating meat with smoking.  I have not found very reliable statistics, but it is generally believed that during the during the 1950s, more than 50% of men smoked and more than 50% of doctors smoked [5].  There is even one figure that states that in 1951, 87% of British doctors smoked.  How could this be, when doctors even then had information that smoking was harmful to human health?  It seems that many of doctors, just like everybody else, found it too difficult to follow an independent path on this score. But when the US Surgeon General’s report appeared in 1964 connecting smoking with lung cancer, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of doctors who smoked. Since then smoking has gradually come down, across the board.  And you don’t find many doctors smoking these days.  Some day the same change may come about in connection with eating meat and dairy products.

I have remarked previously about the four main spheres of increasingly more personal interactive compass that underlie why you should be vegetarian:
  1. World. It takes more than ten times both the land acreage and energy from fossil fuels to produce a calorie from animal food than from plant-based food.  We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. The world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production, particularly methane, which has more than twenty times the impact on global warming than does CO2.
  2. Community. Every year roughly 50 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
  3. Body. As outlined in this film, a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food (meat and dairy) is very harmful to human health.
  4. Soul. Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be.
Forks Over Knives, like Eating, 3rd Edition, covers the first three points, but focuses primarily on the third point.  Earthlings (2005), focuses on the second point.  Most people become vegetarians or vegans (for example former US President Bill Clinton, who was influenced by The China Study) from considerations made by the third point.  Others, like film director James Cameron, are primarily moved by the second point.  But in the end, it is the fourth point that will be the most important for you.  Each person, like Drs. Esselstyn and Campbell, can have his or her own journey down this path.  If you have not begun this journey, Forks Over Knives is your invitation to join it.
★★★½ 

Notes:
  1. Esselstyn, C. B., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, (2008), Avery Trade.
  2. Campbell, T. Colin, and Campbell, Thomas M., The China Study (2004),  BenBella Books.
  3. These physicians are Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. Matt Lederman.
  4. Dr. Esselstyn’s patients were originally given cholesterol-lowering medications, but I believe that now their only treatment is to have a plant-based diet.
  5. Smith, Derek, Tobacco Induced Diseases (2008), 4:9 doi:10.1186/1617-9625-4-9, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2556033/

“Un Flic” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1972)


There are various arguments concerning the precise specifications and boundaries of film noirbut few can deny that the supreme virtuoso of the genre was French director Jean-Pierre Melville.  He took this form of cinematic expression and refined it to almost surreal levels of artistic and dramatic abstraction. His last film, Un Flic (aka A Cop and Dirty Money), which was made the year before his untimely death in 1973, is so lost in moody and impressionistic images that its narrative absurdities seem not to matter.

As discussed in my review of Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), the main characters in a film noir are usually disillusioned outsiders and lawbreakers who want to forget the past and have little hope for the future.  They are often caught in some kind of gloomy, urban maze from which there seems to be no escape.  So normally you don’t expect a film noir protagonist to be a high ranking policeman, unless it is someone who has booked a ticket to the dark side.  But in Un Flic, the presumed protagonist is such a cop (that’s what “flic”means in French), and this lead role is played by French superstar and Melville favorite, Alain Delon.  Although he ostensibly upholds the law, he does so with a degree of cynicism appropriate for this noirish landscape, and he has a personal involvement with criminals of similar disenchantment.

In fact that sense of disenchantment, not uncommon to a film noir, is taken to an extreme degree in this film, and it is perhaps its distinguishing feature.  All of the characters seem so alienated, that there is almost nothing for them to say.  Indeed dialogue in the film is kept to a minimum, and much of the time communication is through the exchange of glances.  This pervasive sense of alienation is signaled by an opening title (and later repeated by Delon to a colleague in the story) quoting 18th century French criminologist Francois-Eugene Vidocq to the effect that as far as police are concerned the people they encounter only arouse two feelings, puzzlement and derision.

The principal characters are the policeman (Delon) and the collection of people around a smooth nightclub owner and thief (played by Richard Crenna):
  • Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is something like a combination detective and inspector of a local Parisian precinct.
  • Simon (Richard Crenna) owns and operates “The Cotton Club”, a Parisian nightclub. He is also the leader of a sophisticated criminal gang.
  • Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) is Simon’s gal, but she also has an affair with Coleman.
  • Paul Weber (Riccardo Cucciolla ) is a middle-aged banker who has lost his job and has joined Simon’s gang.
  • Louis Costa (Michael Conrad, known for his later role in US TV series Hill Street Blues) is another member of Simon’s gang.
  • Marc Albouis (André Pousse) is also a member of Simon’s gang.
  • Gaby (Valérie Wilson) is a transvestite with connections to the criminal underworld, but is trying to clear her record by serving as a police informer.
Actually, one could say that the two adversaries, Coleman and Simon, are on equal footing and are equally protagonists, although on opposite sides of the law.  The narrative focalization of the film is almost exclusively on these two.  There is a significant contrast between the characters played by Delon and Crenna, though, which seems to be related to their innate dramatic personas:

  • Delon, though refined and handsome, projects narcissism: he is self-absorbed and opaque.  He gets his way by coldly beating and torturing his captives, and he appears to be unaffected by death and the pain suffered by others.
  • Crenna, in contrast, projects thought and reflection. He seems more aware and sensitive to the people around him. The viewer can mentally emphathiize, though not sympathize, with his character, Simon. Even though the film title refers to the cop, the actual story tends to follow Simon’s efforts to pull off his heists, and so that character becomes the primary protagonist.
The story goes through four stages, or acts, but an identifiable narrative goal, which is Simon’s big heist, is not really established until the second act.

1.  Establishing the Scene.
In the beginning there is a long (11-minute) sequence detailing Simon’s gang robbing a somewhat remote bank situated right next to the ocean.  It is late in the day, the weather is heavily stormy, and there is almost no dialogue as three of the men, clad in trench coats and fedoras, successively enter the bank, with Costa waiting outside in the car.  The heavy rain and wind, clouded in mist and fog, casts a pall over everything – perhaps even more pervasively than the darkness typical of a film noir. As we struggle to make out who’s doing what in the mist, there is so much attention to incidental detail that it seems as if the “camera” (i.e. the “silent narrative witness”) gets distracted: while the camera is fixed on Costa in the car outside, the gang members inside evidently make their move.  When we cut back inside to the bank, the robbers have already drawn their guns and are demanding the money.  Things go awry when a teller sets off an alarm, grabs a gun, and shoots Albouis, before getting gunned down himself.  Simon and the others get away in their car with the money, eventually burying it somewhere in the countryside.  Then they drive back to Paris and deposit the seriously wounded Albouis at a medical clinic.

Meanwhile Coleman is shown attending to the seedy crime scene in his district.  A beautiful girl has been murdered at one location, and a pedophile has been robbed by his client at another. Coleman shows no empathy for anyone, and he readily punches detainees in order to get them to talk.  He also arranges a meeting on the street with his informer, Gaby, who tells him that a heroin shipment, carried by a drug mule known as “Suitcase Matthew”, will soon be made on the Paris-to-Lisbon train.

At this point of the story, two spheres of interaction have been established: that of Simon and that of Coleman.  And we know that Simon and his gang have, temporarily at least, gotten away with their robbery.  Coleman will probably be their adversary.  But the major narrative quest is yet to be determined.

2.  The Plot Thickens
In the next section, things become much more complicated, to the near bewilderment of the viewer.  It turns out that Simon owns a flashy nightclub and that Coleman is his good friend and often frequents the nightclub.  Not only that, but Simon’s woman, Cathy, is having an affair with Coleman on the sly.  Yet it seems, on the surface at least, that Coleman is unaware of Simon’s criminal activities.

Simon is now worried that a police dragnet of the Parisian clinics will uncover Albouis and get him to squeal, so, in another intricate scheme, he arranges for his men and Cathy to masquerade as medics and to go the clinic to kill Albouis.  Cathy dispatches Albouis with a lethal injection and reveals that she is clearly a trusted member of the gang.  The viewer has to wonder at this point: either Coleman must be aware of Simon’s criminal perfidy or his affair with Cathy must be pretty superficial.

Simon now plots a much bigger caper: he intends to rob the drug haul carried by Suitcase Matthew on the Paris-Lisbon train as it nears the Portuguese border.  Somehow the money from the previous bank robbery is associated with this heist.  Simon is supremely confident that his plan is foolproof and tells the other gang members:
“and when the goods are ours, the very men we robbed will buy them back.  No complaints lodged, no detectives on our heels.”

So Simon and Coleman are now both working at cross purposes to intercept a big drug shipment  undertaken by a shadowy third party about which the viewer never learns much.  But at least the principal narrative quest has finally been established.

3.  The Robbery on the Train
The robbery on the train is totally outlandish, and once more there is very little dialogue over more than 20 minutes of screen time. The Paris-Lisbon train stops at the Bordeaux station, where Suitcase Matthew books a sleeping car apartment and is given his drug shipment.  Then the train departs to the south, while Simon, Weber, and Costa fly in a helicopter above over the train as it moves at speed.  Simon is dropped down by a rope from the helicopter onto the top of a train car and manages to work his way inside.  Again there are long, intricate sequences that suggest detailed planning, and yet the entire operation seems to be so dependent on fortunate circumstance that one cannot believe any level-headed thief would attempt such an operation.  The improbability of the scene showing Simon picking a lock with a horseshoe magnet is particularly absurd.  But this extreme slowing down of the action under tense circumstances a la Rafifi (1955) adds to the melodramatic pitch.

Anyway, Simon’s team pulls off the heist and makes it back to Paris. Coleman, acting on Gaby’s information, had planned to intercept the drug shipment, but finds Suitcase Matthew empty-handed at the next train stop. Angry with his failure, Coleman accuses Gaby of giving him misinformation and slaps “her” in the face.

4.  Closing the Circle
Coleman eventually learns about Albouis, links him to Costa, and has Costa arrested.  After interrogating and presumably torturing Costa, Coleman links everything to Simon.  Simon makes plans to get away with the stolen heroin and phones Cathy to come pick him up in her car.  But that phone call has been tapped by the police and overheard by Coleman.  He arrives when Cathy does, and guns his friend down on the street.
Since the story of Un Flic seems to be categorically unrealistic in many respects, we have to accept the film as almost something like a jazz riff – an impressionistic sequence of colored tones that evoke an overall mood, rather than a story that makes sense.  The mood is ice-cold and lacking in human passion – just tinted by Delon’s ambiguous grey stares.  Perhaps a symbolic evocation of this sense of pale indifference and unreality are the images of blonde hair in the film, all of which have associated interactions with Coleman.  In fact all of these blonde figures stand out in Coleman’s dim grey world like bizarre traffic lights of artificiality and deception.  These are signals of a key film noir aspect: the problem of finding someone to trust in a tangled world of deception.

  • Early on, Coleman contemplates the open-eyed visage of a beautiful dead woman who seems to be staring absently into space.  He looks into her eyes for a moment and then turns away.
  • Suitcase Matthew has a beefy physique and physical manner that suggests the social milieu from which the criminal element commonly emerges. But this contrasts markedly with his bright blonde hair that looks as if it has been artificially colored.  This is bizarre, because as a drug mule, he is supposed to be someone who blends in with the crowd.
  • Cathy, played by Catherine Deneuve in her usual style of aloofness, is utterly cold-blooded. She kills Albouis without a trace of emotion, and when she watches her lover Simon dying on the street, she seems only mildly contemplative.
  • The transvestite Gaby also has vividly blonde hair and is a deceiver on many levels. Yet although she snitches on the criminals she knows and pretends to be female (the viewer is deceived, too, because her true gender does not become evident until late in the piece), she is the only one who seems to have genuine human feelings. Adding further to this deception, at the viewing level, is the fact that this role of a male cross-dresser is played by actress Valérie Wilson. (Of course, having Delon’s presence in the film has its own suggestive connotations of deception, too. Given Delon’s admitted past same-sex experiences and connections with gangsters, the savage scorn he projects towards gays and gangsters in the film is a further deception on the part of Melville.)

One has to wonder about what Coleman knows along the way and what are his final motives. If he is intimate with Cathy, could he be so unaware of Simon’s and her criminal activities?  When Costa indicates that he would never rat on his pals, Coleman expresses utter confidence that he will do just that. So torture seems to be the route that Coleman takes to get the needed information. And when Paul Weber was about to be arrested, Coleman was indifferent about preventing his suicide.

When Cathy shows up in the car at the end to pick up Simon, one might surmise that she is there to set up Simon for the fall, but I don’t think so. Consider Coleman’s response when his colleague suggested to him that he had pulled the trigger too early on what turned out to be an unarmed Simon: “I wasn’t sure if he would commit suicide”. Yeah right. So he killed the man in order to prevent him from killing himself? We don’t buy that.  No, it seems to me that Coleman guns down Simon out of jealous anger that Cathy had made her final choice in favor of Simon and not him. Final evidence of Coleman’s depraved narcissism.

In fact there is no real warmth of humanity to any of the characters in this film, so it is difficult for the viewer to identify with or feel empathy for any of them.  Simon is a ruthless killer.  So, too, are Coleman and Cathy.  It is as if Melville has presented us with just those same two very limited options of how we might feel towards his characters: indifference or derision.
★★

“Curse of the Golden Flower” - Zhang Yimou (2006)


Loyalty, Filial Piety, Ritual, Righteousness

These are the four virtues of Confucianism, which have been a guiding moral compass for traditional Chinese society but which have also been cynically exploited by extractive social elements in that society, too.  All four virtues express the advocacy of restraint and the submission of individual aspirations before a common plan. The ramifications of this notion are an underlying theme of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which was both a big-budget [1] historical epic (with the usual violence and histrionics) and an artistic success.
     
Zhang Yimou’s early films centering around the struggles individuals trying to make their way in difficult social circumstances established him as one of the world’s foremost film artists.  His film narratives were not just about the struggle to find fulfilment in China – they movingly explored the existentialist depths of human longing and resonated on a universal plane.  But then having moved to the top of his profession, Zhang seemed interested in widening his expressive repertoire by venturing into the escapist Chinese wuxia martial-arts genre (Hero, 2002; House of Flying Daggers, 2004). Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) was his third venture in this cinematic style, but to me it represented another shift in direction.  On this occasion Zhang recovered his artistic bearings and managed to produce another powerful statement about the human condition that was worthy of his earlier masterpieces. 

Although it is masterful, this film is a dark, disturbing work – about as bleak as you can go, and Zhang’s artful cinematic expressiveness is employed at full throttle to convey a sense of gloom and despair.  Indeed it is worth comparing this film to its cartoon-like wuxia predecessors in Zhang’s work, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, because the themes and visual stylistics are so sharply in contrast. One thing that all three films share, though, is a complicated set of interlocking relationships involving multiple deceptions as to who one is.  In all three films, the principal characters and the viewer, too, are often deceived about the true identities and past histories of several key people.  Along the way, there is always the question, in the minds of us viewers, as to just when these secrets are uncovered in the minds of the main characters. Because of these complications, I will go over some of the details of the narrative.

Zhang adapted his script from Cao Yu’s 1934 play, Thunderstorm, which concerned moral degradation in contemporary Chinese society.  Zhang moved what was a contemporary story way back in the year 928 of the Later Tang Dynasty [2] around the imperial court of a Chinese emperor (although the story is entirely fictitious). The principal characters are
  • Emperor Ping (played by Chow Yun-Fat)
  • Empress Phoenix (Gong Li)
  • Crown Prince Wan, the oldest son of Emperor Ping (Ye Liu)
  • Prince Jai, the 2nd oldest son of Emperor Ping (Jay Chou)
  • Prince Yu , the youngest son of Emperor Ping (Junjie Qin)
  • Imperial Physician Jiang (Dahong Ni)
  • Mrs. Jiang, the mother Jiang Chan (Jin Chen)
  • Jiang Chan, the Jiang’s daughter (Man Li)
The plot does not have a clearly identifiable structure, but I will divide it into four main stages or “acts”.  Stage 1 concerns the introduction of the principal characters and is dominated by Emperor Ping.  It also establishes that something is clearly wrong with Empress Phoenix. Stage 2 covers more complicated relationships that are evolving in reaction to Ping, who is largely out of the picture in this section.  Stage 3 returns to the imperial court and personal confrontations between the principal characters.  Stage 4 depicts the climactic showdown between Ping and those who oppose him.  Because there are so many deceptions going on in the story, I identify some of them with a “D” at various points along the way.

1.  Emperor Ping and His Court
Initial images show the imperial palace run by thousands of attendants operating in massive mechanized synchronization, with no accommodation for individuality.  At the same time an imperial army led by Prince Jai returns to the capital after a three-year campaign.  When Emperor Ping greets  Jai’s return, it is evident that Ping is still a formidable swordsman and that there may be some future conflict between Jai and Ping.

However, a more prominent conflict is quickly revealed.  Crown Prince Wan has for three years been having a secret affair (D1) with Empress Phoenix, who is not his birth mother.  Also, Phoenix is suffering from some strange illness, which turns out to be due to Ping’s secret order (D2) that imperial physician Jiang add poison to Phoenix’s regular dosages of medicine to cure her alleged anemia.  Administered over two months, this poisonous fungus will destroy the empress’s mental faculties.  In order to protect his own position, Jiang wishes to use his daughter, Chan, who is one of Phoenix’s servants, as a spy; and for similar reasons he encourages her to have a secret affair (D3) with Crown Prince Wan.

When Ping calls the royal family together, we get a picture of his doctrinaire rule.  He sternly reprimands them for not properly aligning themselves with the Heavens (i.e. not following his rules).  Seeing that Phoenix is reluctant to take her two-hourly medical dosages, he insists that she must follow heavenly ordained orders: “medicine is governed by dosage, just as life is governed by natural law,” he reminds her.  In fact he sees it as his duty to maintain law and order within his own family in order to set an example for the whole country.  This follows Chinese tradition, according to which an emperor’s commands are to be rigidly followed according to Confucian tradition, provided that the emperor is recognized to have Heaven’s mandate to rule.  Sitting at the top of the hierarchy, the emperor must embody and enforce the Confucian rule-based system for all to follow.

So the narrative goal of Phoenix is how she can survive in this oppressive situation.

2.  The Jiang Family Intrigue
Phoenix interrupts a tryst between Wan and Chan, and learns about their affair.  From a clandestine meeting with physician Jiang’s wife, she also learns about the poison being administered to her.  But after this meeting, Mrs. Jiang is captured by palace guards and brought before Ping, who recognizes that she is his former lover of 25 years before.  We learn from Mrs. Jiang that back then Ping had been an army officer who had conspired with the King of Liang to take over the throne and marry his daughter, Phoenix. Ping had ruthlessly then ordered the destruction of his lover’s family, but unbeknownst to Ping (D4), she had escaped and married the royal physician.   Given the fact that Crown Prince Wan was not mothered by Phoenix, we suspect that Mrs. Jiang is his birth mother (D5). This would mean that the Wan-Chan relationship is incestuous. In any case, to get rid of the Jiang family messiness, Ping assigns the imperial physician to become the governor of Suzhou and to depart with his family immediately.

So far Phoenix has been seen as powerless, but now it is revealed that she has secret plans afoot to stage a rebellion (D6).  She informs Jai that she wants to force Ping to abdicate the title to Jai, and not the crown prince, Wan.  Jai, citing his devotion to the Confucian value of filial piety says that he cannot act against his father.  But seeing his mother being slowly poisoned by Ping,  he changes his mind; he decides to forgo the Confucian dictum and act according to his compassionate feelings for his mother.

Meanwhile Wan rushes off on horseback to chase after his lover, Chan, who is now on the road with her family to Suzhou.  He meets the family at a roadside inn and learns from Chan that Phoenix has been conspiring with the state army in some way, so he races back to the capital to see if he can put a stop to it.  When Chan’s mother, worried about incest, cryptically tells her to forget about Wan, Chan also rushes back towards the palace.  At this point some mysterious black-clad ninja-like warriors (moshuh nanren?) descend on the Jiang quarters and methodically start killing everyone.  It is clear that Ping’s intention is to exterminate the Jiang clan; only Mrs. Jiang manages to escape, and she also races back to the capital.

3.  Confrontations and Revelations
Back at the palace, the fearful Wan confronts Phoenix about her plans for rebellion.  When his apprehensions are confirmed, Wan angrily stabs himself, but not mortally.  Ping goes to his son’s bedside seeking to gain his confidence and informs him that he has always known about Wan’s affair with the empress.  That evening at a royal banquet honoring Jai’s appointment to lead the palace guards, Chan and her mother, who have been captured by guards, are brought before Ping.  With all the contestants finally in front of each other, angry revelations are made.  Wan and Chan are informed of their incestuous relationship.  Ping tells Chan and Mrs. Yang that they know too much and must be exterminated.  Chan runs away, but the black ninja-like warriors quickly and silently kill both Chan and Mrs. Jiang.

4. The Armed Rebellion
Now the most dramatic and disturbing events of the story take place.  With most of the secrets revealed, the armed rebellion is launched, and Prince Jai’s force of ten thousand soldiers attempts to storm the palace.  Inside the palace and to the surprise of all, Prince Yu suddenly kills Wan and attempts to seize royal power for himself with a small armed force.  But Ping’s ninja-like warriors quickly kill Yu’s men, and then Ping takes off his cloth belt and laboriously and sadistically beats his own son to death with it. 

In the meantime Jai’s attack continues.  Although his forces are initially successful, it becomes clear that Ping had been forewarned by Wan and had prepared a huge imperial army that attacks and overwhelms Jai’s forces.  In one of cinema’s most devastating scenes of military slaughter, we see Jai’s army utterly annihilated. Jai is captured alive and taken before Ping, who informs him that his punishment will be to personally administer his mother’s daily poison until she becomes a vegetable.  Rather than submit to such a horror, Jai kills himself, while the sadistic Ping casually watches and munches on his food.  The film ends with Ping ordering the defiant and completely defeated Phoenix to take her medicine once more.

What are we to make of this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy, filled as it is with such carnage and grief?  Narratives always involve a (usually metaphorical) journey of some sort.  There are invariably various roadblocks, lost trails, and adversaries that must be overcome along the way in the effort to reach the desired destination.  In Zhang Yimou’s films the protagonist’s goals are rarely achieved, and it can be a success even to survive the difficult narrative journey.  With Curse of the Golden Flower, as in Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Shanghai Triad (1995), even survival is denied: all is lost, all hopes are crushed, and the protagonists are annihilated, but this time on a more epic scale.  At its essence this film is a horror story, and it carries the fascination that a good horror story can offer.  In examining the film’s virtues, there are two perspectives worth considering: it’s expression and its larger meaning. 

With respect to the film’s expressive qualities, this is truly a dark and disturbing masterpiece of expressionism.  Zhang Yimou pulls out all the stops to create an oppressive, threatening environment that renders the imperial palace an opulent prison.  The cinematography has its share of martial-arts “wire-foo” swordplay, but it is much more constrained on this occasion and fits much better into the story than such pyrotechnics did in Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  In the action scenes here there is the characteristic stop-and-go cinematic pacing that offers an impressionistic presentation of the action.  Such wildly varying temporality is the way one remembers one’s own experiences of intense actions, and Zhang effectively conveys those feelings here.

But those swordplay action scenes, skillfully presented though they may be, are not what create the truly expressionistic atmosphere of the film. It is the film’s larger scope and long shots involving thousands of people that create the relentless sense of confinement and doom.  Emperor Ping, masterfully played by Chow-Yun Fat, is the embodiment of calculating cruelty that sits at the very top of this overbearing system of coercion.  He is not a howling, fiendish animal, as might be portrayed in lesser horror films; his manner and demeanor is recognizable to us.  We recognize elements of his character in our own midst, and that makes his role even more unnerving to see, even more horrifying to contemplate. Ping is gradually seen to be merely the human face of a some mysterious dark force, which is also manifested by the contingent of ninja-like warriors who suddenly drop down from the sky out of nowhere and swiftly annihilate their victims.  These inhuman killers work silently and seem to represent some satanic force of nature that is beyond human comprehension.  In this sense, they are like ghosts or spiritual demons from whom there is no hope of escape.

The climactic battle scene in which Prince Jai’s army is destroyed is a signal example of this idea.  The giant moving metal wall that imprisons and confines Jai’s army is a figurative indicator of the claustrophobic sense created.  Jai’s army is symbolically crushed by this confinement and is quickly emasculated.  His men are unable to engage in the swordplay for which they are prepared and are instead quickly exterminated by a massive onslaught of arrows fired from over the confining wall.  As we watch this scene, we see human agency crushed by unfathomable, mechanical power.  After the bloody annihilation, thousands of diligent workers rapidly remove all the dead bodies and replant the chrysanthemums in the palace courtyard, leaving it exactly like it looked it before the battle.  No trace of resistance to the pervasive imperial domination is allowed to remain.

These expressionistic elements all contribute to the larger themes underlying Curse of the Golden Flower.  The foundation of the oppressive horror that pervades the environment is the notion of a vast mechanical system that is powered by ordinary humans, not demons.  From the earliest scenes of the film, one sees the imperial system mechanically operating by means of people forced to suppress their individual human traits and act in synchrony with those around them.  Their humanity has been lost and has been made part of an inhuman machine.  To support this suppression of humanity, the four Confucian virtues of “Loyalty, Filial Piety, Ritual, Righteousness” have been invoked in order to promote blind subservience to the authorities. Zhang’s depiction of this blind subservience to autocracy as something that fuels an unspeakable horror is diametrically opposed to his message in Hero, which advocated blind subservience to an all-powerful ruler for the sake of social order.  This sets right the imbalanced view that was projected by Hero.

On this account I would comment that of course we know that social disorder is a fundamental problem and that human social welfare has risen above primitive conditions by means of human institutions that curtail random violence and chaos.  However, these same institutions (such as for example the traditional Confucian social framework) can often be exploited by coercive elites in order to maintain their dominance and suppress human autonomy to an extreme degree.  In films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, this oppressive social confinement – a system that makes humans operate according to inhuman, mechanical rules – is in the background.  But here in Curse of the Golden Flower, this oppressive system is more explicitly represented. 

This is where the Jiang family plays a role in the story.  The imperial physician is not an evil man, but he has to play his part and contribute to the mechanized evil.  He knows that if he disobeys the emperor’s commands, he and his entire family will be exterminated.  So he and his innocent daughter consent to the system’s commands and participate in the slow poisoning of the empress.  Yet in the end, they “knew too much” and were all exterminated anyway.  Similarly, Crown Prince Wan also submits to the demands of the system and is unwilling to act against it.  His revelations of his mother’s plans to his father ensured that rebellion’s doom.

There were two figures, however, who defied this oppressive system, and interestingly, they were both women: Empress Phoenix and Mrs. Jiang.  These two heroines defied the unvanquishable oppression knowing that they would be destroyed, but they could not agree to suppress their own innate feelings of what is right.  At one point Empress Phoenix confides that she knows she will eventually be defeated and turned into a cretin, but she will not give up without a fight.  In the end Prince Jai was won over to this level of thinking, too.  He tells his father in the last scene that his rebellion was not for personal gain (that is, to become emperor), but to act in support of his mother.  He was acting according to the authentic feelings of his conscience and his heart. 

Gong Li has a difficult role in this film, since her options for action are so limited and she is mostly shown grimacing in pain. Nevertheless, she manages to represent the unquenchable spirit that has characterized some of Zhang’s best films.  In the end and crushed in every way, she doesn’t submit.  She still throws the medicine away in defiance.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. At the time of its production, Curse of the Golden Flower had the largest production budget, $45 million, in Chinese film history.
  2. This was a short-lived rule (924 - 936) that prevailed after the fall of the epic Tang Dynasty (618 to 907).