Tai-Pan

March 12, 2012

Tai-Pan is the sort of epic adaptation of a best-selling novel that has become almost completely the province of the TV miniseries. And, frankly, that wasteland seems like a good place for such a thing. With television, you can always give up early, or occupy your time with odd jobs during the slow parts. Tai-Pan traps you in a dark theater for two hours.

It’s pretty bad. The thing is based on a fat novel by James (Shogun) Clavell, who seems to love the sort of intricate plotting that might be reasonably interesting spread out over 10 hours, but which is darned near incomprehensible squeezed into two. This one is all about the founding of Hong Kong in the 1840s and the dynasties that sprang up thereafter. Lotsa sprawl, lotsa brawl, lotsa exotic women in silky gowns.

It follows two warring English traders: Struan (Bryan Brown) and Brock (John Stanton) who deal largely in opium as a means of getting Chinese tea. The reasons for this are much too complicated for their own good; what it boils down to is that these Occidentals get kicked out of China and have to take their business elsewhere.

So Struan masterminds Britain’s takeover of Hong Kong, and builds up the little island. Naturally, Brock wants control, too. But things don’t even begin to get messy until Struan’s son (Tim Guinee) and Brock’s daughter arrive from England—they’re about the same age, and marriageable, and….

Also in the mix is Brock’s son (Bill Leadbetter), who is even more evil than his father. And then there’s Straun’s mistress, a Chinese concubine (Joan Chen), who is not merely forced to fulfill her master’s wishes but also to spout some of the worst fractured English since Charlie Chan was ushered off the screen.

I suppose it’s possible this might have been fun, but under the sluggish direction of Daryl Duke, nothing ever seems to happen. It’s the first American film made in mainland China, and there are a few pieces of handsome window-dressing, but nothing to redeem the poor storytelling.

This, despite millions of bucks from the Dino De Laurentiis company, including some top-notch collaborators: scenarist John Briley, who wrote Gandhi; composer Maurice Jarre; cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

The cast also is leaden, although Brown, the likable Australian actor who recently played the hero in F/X, tries to get something going. He’s decked out in swashbuckling clothes and he does a fair imitation of a Scotsman (Sean Connery’s accent seems to have been the model). But he’s defeated by the overall lack of anything like direction or focus or passion.

With nowhere left to turn the viewer is left with the often unintentionally funny dialogue, which is of the “I shall not kneel before any man” variety. But even this game gets dull after two hours, and you’re left wishing the whole disaster had gone directly to network television, where we all could have ignored it much more easily.

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1986

A thoroughly dismal experience; I can’t even imagine it would serve for Bad Movie Night. Bryan Brown seemed to wander into a lot of projects like this, although he never seemed to care much. The good new is, this kicks off a week of postings to exotic locations in Eighties movies.

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The Last Emperor

September 16, 2011

In The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has found one of the remarkable true stories of the 20th century, yet it is one that may not be familiar to Western audiences. It is the life of Pu Yi, the final imperial ruler of China.

At the age of 3, in 1908, Pu Yi was declared the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and the Son of Heaven. He was ensconced in the lavish Forbidden City in Peking, a walled group of palaces where he was pampered by an army of women and eunuchs. Like the emperors before him, he would rule China absolutely.

Except that the China outside the Forbidden City was changing. The 20th century overwhelmed Pu Yi; first the war lords reduced his power, then the Japanese came and installed him as a puppet ruler of Manchuria. After the war he was arrested by the Red Army, which imprisoned him and “re-educated” him. Eventually freed, he survived until 1967, when he died a simple gardener.

Bertolucci, who wrote the script with Mark Peploe, sees the awesome possibilities of this strange life, and he has mounted this film with all the grandeur of a David Lean super-production. Filmed entirely in China, including the Forbidden City itself, The Last Emperor features an eye-popping array of magnificent locations and costumes (photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro). Some scenes required thousands of extras, all dressed in rich period clothing.

While Bertolucci satisfies the epic requirements of such as story, his finest moments come in the human details. Bertolucci has always followed the individual journey within overpowering socio-cultural events (Last Tango in Paris, 1900), and here he peels away the ornate exteriors to find a peculiar person. To borrow the title of another Bertolucci film, it is the tragedy of a ridiculous man.

Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone, the excellent actor from Iceman) is not himself an epic character, one of history’s great men. He is not even all that likable. Rather, he is made pathetic and tragic by the events that happen to him. Throughout his life, Pu Yi goes complacently along with whatever is happening at the moment. He enjoys servants slaving for him, accepts having both a wife (Joan Chen) and an official concubine (Ying Ruocheng), and is willing to aid the Japanese so he can return to power.

Thus it is moving when, at a Communist parade at the end of the film, Pu Yi finally extends a sympathetic hand to someone who had been fair with him. When he does, a Maoist marcher angrily tells the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to “Get with us or —- off!” This time Pu Yi pulls back, choosing to (literally) tend his own garden. In the final scenes he seems to have found some small measure of self-knowledge.

With a passive hero, Bertolucci smartly allows other characters to energize different sections of the film, such as Pu Yi’s English tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the two women in his life. Still, some sections in the middle of the movie flag a bit, although the device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the Communist prison (where Pu Yi still has his shoes tied by a servant) gives the early scenes a layer of poignance—we already know the sad downfall of this poor pawn of history. The remainder of the film wrestles with the unexpectedly touching question: What do emperors do when there are no more emperors?

First published in the Herald, December 1987

I always felt a little more respect than passion for this movie, until I saw it a few years ago in a super-long version, when it looked completely rich and sensual and mesmerizing. Even working on an epic scale, Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, with all his peculiarities. The movie won nine Oscars and led Bertolucci to make his classic acceptance speech remake about Hollywood being “the big nipple.” Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, etc.