Flirting with prestige with ‘1917’ and ‘The Garden Of Evening Mists’

JANUARY 18 — With the Oscar nominations just announced earlier this week, we've definitely entered that stretch at the beginning of every year where “quality” films begin to dominate the water cooler and pantry conversations among casual film fans at the office, school or wherever your workplace may be.

I'll need to take a step back and not comment on the nominations straight away just so that I can have a clearer head and a bit more perspective as there are definitely plenty of things that I don't agree with, especially the number of snubs to what have seemed like pretty sure bets before this and, of course, the shocking amount of nominations for merely above average films like Bombshell.

So let's save all that for maybe next week, and just spend this week checking out the two prestige films opening in Malaysian cinemas; one of them an Oscar frontrunner and the other one a Malaysian film with an international flavour courtesy of its source material (a Booker Prize shortlisted book) and its status as an international co-production.

1917

Dunkirk fans have been dissing this new Sam Mendes film as an inferior and wannabe Christopher Nolan film, and it's got such an uncool reputation that its Best Director and Best Drama Motion Picture win at the Golden Globes was deemed a huge surprise by many.

Let's just say that it's not the first-ever war film, and neither was Dunkirk, and if we're going to compare tastes, I can probably name a dozen or at least a half dozen other films that I much prefer compared to Dunkirk, with Samuel Fuller's forever immortal The Big Red One chief among them, and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line alongside Elem Klimov's Come And See making the top 5 at least.

While there's not much philosophising about the futility of war here, I don't think it's Mendes' point to make a cerebral war film.

With its now much touted one-shot gimmick, or actually a series of what looked like maybe six or seven long takes (I lost count, sorry) stitched together to give the illusion of it being a one-shot movie (there's a well excused exception to the principle here, which I won't spoil for you), it's quite clear that Mendes wanted to make a visceral war film, its long take and real time technique putting the viewers right there with the leading characters, experiencing all the fear, the noise, the adrenaline and the frustrations with them as well.

Yes, there have been other single-shot movies before, even true and actual single shot ones (ie. not ones disguised as one like this one and Birdman) like Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov, but something of a scale like this does not come very often, especially not in Malaysian cinemas. So forget the reviews, good or not, and just go see it, and marvel at the exquisite technical execution that's unfolding right before our eyes.

The Garden Of Evening Mists

There's something about prestige historical dramas that make them a point of national pride whenever one is attempted, anywhere in the world, especially in developing and Third World countries.

Maybe it's the large budgets needed to properly pull one off, which indirectly stands as a marker for the health of that particular country's film industry.

Or maybe it's just our deeply entrenched nationalist pride as human beings, as we're all taught to love and be proud of our country as soon as we enter school, wherever that might be.

So of course here in Malaysia there's a long list of prestige historical films being attempted and presented, from the more mythical Puteri Gunung Ledang and Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa to the more real world based ones like Leftenan Adnan and Paloh, just to cite more recent modern day examples as opposed to films from the 1950s and 1960s “golden era”.

The Garden Of Evening Mists is the latest one in that tradition to arrive here in Malaysian cinemas. But since we're now in the 2020s, where the internet has more or less erased borders when it comes to co-productions, this Malaysian film has a more international flavour to it with a Taiwanese director, an Indian cinematographer, a mix of Malaysian and international leading actors from countries as far off as Japan, Taiwan and England, a mixture of spoken languages from Chinese, Malay, Japanese to the more prominent English language used in the majority of the film, but more or less shot by a wholly Malaysian crew in Malaysia.

Adapted from Tan Twan Eng's novel of the same name, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, the film fits snugly into the expected patterns of almost all literary adaptations out there.

So no prize for narrative ingenuity and surprises here, as you'll more or less get what you'll get from the book, but it's in the technical presentation here that The Garden Of Evening Mists soars above most of its recent Malaysian counterparts.

With the jarring exception of Julian Sands' overly declamatory performance, the acting here is rock solid across the board, especially from Angelica Lee and Hiroshi Abe.

The cinematography, lighting, editing, basically the whole tech package here is of slick and polished international level that can easily compete even with Hollywood literary adaptations. I would've preferred a tech package like this coating a much stronger narrative content, yes, but just to witness something this nicely executed in a Malaysian film, by a Malaysian crew, is already something quite rare.

Let's hope that this means that the bar has been raised and that there's more to come.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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