ian’s review published on Letterboxd:
i think it's maybe worth saying that this film had me on the verge of tears within the first few scenes and at some point in the last half hour i was basically weeping. i'm weak to any kind of sentimental family drama, and when it's about a chinese immigrant family struggling and striving, and when the child of that family is a depressed twentysomething unable to find her place in the world... i think i would have to be made of stone for it not to move me. i have to give the film that much
all of which is to say that i understand why people are so adamant to celebrate this film and defend it from the cultural illiteracy of some of its critics. but my god, i found this so trite, deadening, cringingly silly and ultimately pretty emotionally vacuous. i kept trying to think of an appropriate comparison for this film, being as reliant on pastiche as it is - bad version of a stephen chow movie, bad version of the matrix, bad version of millennium actress. i think i've realised that for me it most closely resembles an edgar wright film, a director i broadly dislike, and with whom it shares many vices: a blinkered reverence for genre cinema that ends up being reductive rather than celebratory, an attempt to mimic classic action without understanding what gives a fight scene its poetry or potency, thinking that making a film dense is the same as giving it complexity or texture. i think the ersatz wong kar-wai sequences are the perfect illustration of how ineffectual its use of pastiche is - if you're trying to make it look like, say, fallen angels, why are you shooting it in the same glossy digital HD as the rest of the film? why does it have none of those idiosyncratic tilted shots, why is the step-printing so obviously contrived, where is the ROMANCE
the other person this reminded me of was dan harmon - again, not in a good way. i think it's very telling that the daniels reference rick and morty in interviews as an inspiration, and it's been bewildering to see people who would denigrate harmon's work as self-indulgent and philosophically empty then turn around and praise this film as something groundbreaking and innovative. the film's core emotional thesis - that despite the despair and toil of daily life, we can still open our hearts to each other and cherish the love we share - is of course true, but the way it's expressed, through the most stunted twee buzzfeed millennial writing possible, has a lot more in common with that "everyone's gonna die, come watch TV" quote from rick and morty than i think many of this film's fans would like to admit. this is why i find it so hard to take seriously the idea that this film has anything meaningful to say about generational trauma or the mother-daughter dynamics of immigrant households. if the film is teleologically structured around that final reconciliatory conversation between joy and evelyn, why is the dialogue before that point (besides the rock scenes, which was around the part where i cried) so stilted and limited to cartoon villain-speak? why do we see so much of evelyn's life in the other universes and so little of joy's? why does the film seem incapable of intimacy that isn't immediately undercut with some kind of toilet humour gag?
the one level at which this worked for me was on the meta (sorry) level of retrospectively examining and celebrating the careers of ke huy quan and james hong. i know this has been discussed a lot but it really is heartening beyond words to see someone like quan, who quit acting for 20 years, feeling like he had a place in front of the camera again. even with my cynicism it's impossible not to see that as a sign of important and material change for asian actors in hollywood, and even more than that i was really taken with the idea of the film as a kind of redemptive historiography of asian-americans on film, where you take these people who for years were treated as marginal and insignificant and then you make a whole movie which is full of references to hollywood cinema but this time it puts them at the heart and centre. i found this... less meaningful with michelle yeoh, only because michelle yeoh has literally been one of the most successful and beloved (not to mention wealthy) actors throughout all of east and southeast asia for over three decades at this point. like she is not short of acclaim or recognition, unless you only consider the recognition of americans (read: white people) important, at which point you're just sort of being racist lol. still, as a tribute to her obviously legendary career it did strike me as very sincere and touching and it was really cool to have a retelling of it in miniature in one of the timelines. also: it is UNREAL how good stephanie hsu is this. she was the thing that kept me watching more than anything else. i think her character isn't even given that much to work with but she still gets everything right: the sly, grim wit of her jobu tupaki persona, the black hole of despair she feels as joy, the way she modulates effortlessly between the two... i was enrapt. i really hope she becomes a star
the rest of this... i'm sorry but i just could not get on board with it. all the praise this movie has gotten for a supposed anarchic visual inventiveness but i can only really see gimmicks: the use of rotating lights around an actor's face that just looked like a cheapened version of clouzot's l'enfer, the changing aspect ratios that are so decontextualised as to basically feel meaningless, an "absurdist" visual humour that is less imaginative (and less funny) than most children's cartoons. not to mention the main universe is just... so bland and ugly, and not in an insightful way where it reflects the drudgery of working-class immigrant life, but in a turgid "A24 attempts to produce a blockbuster" way where everything is presented in sleek, "tasteful" widescreen that feels totally lifeless and undermines all the film's attempts to get weird (the costumes, admittedly, are still excellent). i think it says a lot about the limited imagination of american film culture right now that people seem incapable of talking about this film without talking about how it's sooo much better than that other marvel multiverse movie, and isn't it amazing that they did all this VFX on just a $25m budget, as if these are the only parameters within which we can debate art, as if because these guys made a marginally more original movie than the russo brothers (who also produced this, btw) we have to back them all the way. for all its attempts to crib from chinese/HK film history, it's depressing how little sense there is of a distinctly ASIAN-AMERICAN film history here; of the fact that there is, in fact, a rich lineage of wildly imaginative asian-american experimental filmmaking that was toying with film form before the daniels even touched a camera. if this film had felt the influence of jon moritsugu or shu lea cheang or even nam june paik instead of, like, ratatouille, i'd like to think it would've turned out better
the funny thing about the fanfare around this film is that there was actually another blockbuster hollywood asian film this year with a creative visual style, a fantastical high-concept conceit and a focus on complex mother-daughter relationships. it was called turning red, and it was a near-perfect movie. it had none of the shoddy, ill-considered attempts at surrealism or the embarrassing teenage boy humour (look i'm sorry i don't want to be unnecessarily harsh but the hot dog fingers and the butt plugs and structuring the emotional climax of the film around a really facile "everything bagel" pun... i kind of just wanna say: grow up already...). ironic, because turning red is a film for children, but i guess everything everywhere reads to me like a film for children masquerading as a film for adults; one which, even in its attempts at vulnerability, can't muster the integrity to just play its emotional beats straight (where turning red proves you can do this without ever needing to sacrifice the film's kinetic visual flare). i can only hope that future generations of wayward asian diaspora kids will learn more from the former than the latter