I remember there was a night when I was training as a cadet soldier. I thought I could not go on. It was an endless exercise of search and destroy in the mountains of Kaoshiung in Taiwan. Out of the blue, a fellow cadet started to sing. His voice floated through the stillness, penetrated the cold and filled the forest with a melody that was both fitting and out of place. I did not wonder if the cadet would be punished for singing. I longed for home, more. But I also felt a strange peace.
Something brutal can be seen for what it is. Or with poetic irony. Something painful can be bitter. Or bittersweet. We can paint adversity in dark shades. Or bright, even colourful. Sometimes hell can be more hellish, seen through the eyes of an artiste. Watching 1917, the movie that is pulling the rug from under the favourites in this awards season, I see poetry, even beauty in the ravages of war. And it doesn’t make it any less cruel, any less inhuman.
Last week, I pondered over something close to home. The concept of home. A friend based in Los Angeles was back in Singapore for his son’s National Service enlistment. His wife is Taiwanese, his son was born in America. I got to know him last year when I was giving a talk to Singaporeans living and working abroad. Last Friday, I gave the same talk to some members of the Singapore Global Network, the good people who are reaching out to Singaporeans and friends of Singapore outside of Singapore.
I used to take home for granted. When my family members were still together. When nothing shook the foundation. Then circumstances pulled the rug from under me and suddenly there was little or no semblance of the home I knew, the home I grew up with. When some of us are uprooted, we may feel emancipated, freed. We may get married, have children while living and working overseas. We may make new friends, become a part of a community in a foreign land. But after a while, we all long for home.
For those of you who see this film as an almost vulgar cash cow of commercial filmmaking, the eastern equivalent of the Rocky franchise, you may want to know Ip Man 4 is back-to-basic filmmaking at its best. You know how the audience need to root for the protagonist? For this last instalment, you already care for him from the last three films. Yet even before the title appears, in the opening scene, the audience is told Ip Man is sick, his days are numbered. But he will need to do what he needs to do. Which is what the film is essentially about. How can you not root for him?
The film also starts with Bruce Lee, the most famous and revered name in Kung Fu, looking reverentially towards a slight figure in in the crowd. a quiet man in traditional long black Chinese robe, someone sure of himself, but composed. Could it be? Yes, it is. Ip Man is in the house. The humility that defines good martial arts is a principal virtue of the film. Along with the need for tolerance in a world where Chinese are immigrants. These values are embodied in this famed teacher of the Wing Chun fighting style. And Donnie Yen plays him with the kind of stoic charm that comes from confidence, which in turn comes from the success of this franchise.
There is nothing new in saying every marriage has a story. Watching ‘Marriage Story’, however, is quite a new experience. Directed, produced and written by Noah Baumbach, it is a story of a union that seems to be happy, until it suddenly isn’t. Its unraveling turns out to be a surprisingly light, yet sad, devastating story to watch unfold. As a movie, it is not ‘cinematic’ that it needs to watched on the big screen. In fact, it is quite an ideal TV movie. All 136 minutes of watching two ordinary people fall apart. Yet from the leading roles to supporting casts are names to be found on the biggest movies in cinemas today. So watching this front runner of the 2020 awards season streaming on Netflix is indeed something new.
The critics are all saying this is probably one of the best films of the year. And they are probably spot on. On this one point – This marriage story is so real. The acting. Scarlett Johansson is extremely engaging, if a little distant in the latter half of the story, as Nicole. The movie truly belongs to Adam Driver, who puts so much raw, aching energy into his character Charile that even his most trying moments pulsate with empathy. Alan Alda, Ray Liotta are the male lawyers while the sleek Laura Dern is the shrewd legal mind in stilettos who almost steals the show.
‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.’ I have read this line somewhere and I thought I knew what it meant. This year, two film projects brought me face to face with raw courage. One was for the Singapore Cancer Society, which involved interviewing cancer survivors, cancer patients, care givers and loved ones. I remember talking to this lady in her fifties, with a face that is virtually on the verge of a smile. She has battled cancer, not once, not twice, but three times. I cleared my mind before talking to her, giving her my full attention and not assuming anything. She started with a startling statement, “The way to love anything is to realise that it may be lost.”
There was a long silence before she resumed, “When I was healthy, I thought all these talk about staying positive in the face of adversity is new-age horseshit. When I was sick, I told myself, ‘Why don’t you try it? Really get into it? You have nothing to lose’. So I started with the discipline of a warrior. Each morning, I got up with a determination to practice my mind such that when I went to bed, I was satisfied with my progress”.