Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: Amphetamine 安非他命

When director Scud introduced his movie Amphetamine before its screening at the Berlinale film festival, he said, „maybe one day I’ll make happy movies, but for now I can’t.“ He was referring to the loss of friends to drugs in his recent past. As the title of the movie already suggests, that is precisely what Amphetamine is about. However, as Scud went on to explain, the Chinese characters making up the word 'amphetamine' literally mean 'is this not his fate?’, and thus the movie is also about fate and about love.
In short, Amphetamine is the doomed love affair between a Hong Kong finance manager Daniel (played by Thomas Price) and fitness trainer and martial arts aficionado Kafka (Byron Pang). The former is gay, and the later is straight. Kafka is desperate for love and, having just split from his girl friend, gives in to the overtures lavished upon him by Daniel. The two embark on a passionate love affair which is intimate but not sexual as Kafka cannot get himself to have sex with a man. Daniel, who is at ease with this part of their relationship, grows increasingly frustrated with Kafka’s worsening addiction to the drug amphetamine, whose destructive influence on Kafka interferes more and more with their relationship. Fuelled by the drug, the ghosts of Kafka's past come to haunt him, and he ends up craving for and at the same time rejecting the love offered to him by Daniel – in essence, reacting to love in the same way he reacts to the drug.
Amphetamine is a brilliant movie on many levels. It is beautifully shot and cleverly edited, mixing various levels - past, present, future as well as drug related visions – into a cohesive whole. Starting with the opening scene of a winged, angel-like Kafka hovering above the roofs of Honk Kong to the underwater scenes towards the end of the movie, it includes greatly imaginative, highly symbolic imagery which is a joy to watch. The actors are top-notch despite this being their first feature film (Thomas Price is a DJ and Byron Pang a model). The movie is highly erotic and features plenty of nudity of members of both sexes, which has led other reviewers to label the movie a soft porn (a fact which, I think, says more about the reviewer than about the movie).
Where I believe the movie fails is to tell the story convincingly. The negative turns of fate piled upon poor Kafka (a no-good drug dealing brother, poverty, the father’s early death, and the mother’s prolonged illness and eventual death; and even a gang rape, the trauma responsible for Kafka's unwillingness to have sex with Daniel) are over the top, creating more drama than need be. The dramatic ending is maybe unavoidable in the logic of this scenario, but ends up leaving a bitter after-taste – a feeling of 'too much’ (this is a very Western way of looking at it, obviously – quite possibly, a Chinese or Asian viewer may not be struck in a negative way by this kind of story telling). My other problem with the scenario is the premise - is a love affair like this (a passionate, non-sexual but intimate relationship between a gay man and a straight man) even likely to happen? Whether or not you are able to suspend your disbelief is crucial to whether you like or dislike the movie.
Personally, I like the movie a lot, and while it is not perfect, I wholly recommend it, for its technical and artistic brilliance, for the actors and for the raw emotions on display - even if I could have done with a little less drama.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

More information can be found at the movie's official site.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: The Third God, by Ricardo Pinto

I should start this review by acknowledging that it took me three attempts to finish Ricardo Pinto's fantasy novel The Third God. This fact reflects the dilemna I had with the book: too slow and problem-fraught to keep me interested over a longer period, yet captivating enough to make me come back to it again and again.
The Third God is the third and last installment in the highly original fantasy trilogy The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by the Scottish writer (of Portuguese descent) Ricardo Pinto. There are a number of factors which make this series stand out among contemporary fantasy. The prime reason is that the books present a highly original, fully fleshed out world unlike most fantasy worlds - it is not based on Medieval Europe (the artwork suggests an Aztec influence) and is one of the most original and most alien ones I've come across. The center of this world is Osrakum and the society of the Masters, the ruling class of the Commonwealth. Theirs is a world full of complex rules, rites and symbolisms; a world based on strict, unyielding hierarchy, where even seeing the face of a member of a higher caste usually means being blinded, if not killed. It is the Masters' cruel and merciless laws, and their utter disregard for life and for those on a lower social level, which constitute the essence of this world - and is also at the root of the problems befalling the world, and driving the narrative along. 
The narrative itself also departs from regular Tolkienesque fantasy: the story is told solely through the eyes and the mind of one central character, Carnelian. The first volume, The Chosen, sees Carnelian and his father return from exile to the court of Osrakum, where his father is supposed to oversee the election of a new God Emperor. Carnelian is thus introduced to the highly regulated and hierarchised society of the 'Masters', the rulers of the Guarded Land (the land surrounding the forbidden city of Osrakum) and the Commonwealth. There he meets and falls in love with Osidian, one of the twin sons of the dying God Emperor (and thus a likely candidate for the throne), who becomes his lover. The end of the first book sees the two youths being taken prisoner. In the second volume, The Standing Dead, Carnelian and Osidian are being smuggled out of the Guarded Land, and are eventually rescued by the Ochre, a tribe of 'barbarians'. They taken to the tribe's home in the Earthsky, a stretch of wild fertile lands bordering the Guarded Land. While Carnelian tries to integrate himself into the tribe, Osidian sows strife, allying himself with the Marula, a warrior tribe, and even adopting their god and their religious practices. In the end, Osidian and the Marulis massacre the Ochre tribe. Carnelian's plans to kill Osidian, but must then put his plan on hold and ally himself with his former lover when a Master arrives with his troops (which include huge dinosaurs equipped with flame-throwers) to seek out and destroy the two of them.
The Third Good sees Osidian and Carnelian leading a rag-tag army into the Guarded Land, taking the fight back to the nobles in their homeland. Osidian's tactics eventually sees them victorious, bringing him closer to his goal of usurping the God Emperor's throne from his brother. Carnelian meanwhile unleashes a force that eventually threatens to destroy the whole of the Guarded Land and the Masters with it.
There is much to love about the book. Pinto's prose is top notch, and the attention given to the description of the world down to the smallest, most intricate details is remarkable. It is the latter, however, which in my view also constitutes one of the book's biggest problems: the details slow the narrative down to a crawl for large parts of the book - it's really only in the last two hundred pages or so that the pace quickens. These last chapters, however, make up for a lot of the shortcomings of the book's beginnings. As the armies clash and horror after horror is unleashed in the wake of the battles, Pinto's terse prose and the realistic descriptions of the horrors of mass killings makes for very gripping, if not exactly joyful, reading.
As said above, the books are told solely through the eyes of Carnelian, and it is with his attitudes that the narrative stands and falls. The character is attaching and the love/hate relationship between him and Osidian is one of the book's driving forces; however, his indecisiveness and inaction in the first part of The Third God is infuriating. This indecisiveness has believable causes: as someone who grew up outside the closed world of the Masters, he is beset by moral doubts that none of his fellow nobles, and certainly not Osidian, display; but he also knows that he can only guarantee his own survival and those of the people he loves (his patchwork family of sorts) if he plays along with Osidian. But again, Pinto draws out Carnelian's moral quandaries a tad too long, and they stop being convincing. Another less convincing aspect of the narrative is Carnelian's interaction with one of the other characters, the Ochre warrior Fern, who eventually becomes Carnelian's new object of desire, and who seems in equal measure attracted to and repulsed by the young Master. This relationship, which takes center stage in the second half of The Third God, is less grounded than the relationship between Carnelian and Osidian, even if the eventual happy end does provide some solace after all the horrors visited upon the readers in the book's closing chapters.
In summary, The Third Good is, despite its shortcomings, a very satisfactory conclusion to one of the most outstanding fantasy trilogies of the past decade; not as good as it could be, but still high above the average, and confirming Ricardo Pinto's standing as one of Britain's best young authors.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Third God is published by Transworld. The paperback edition will be out on 4 March, 2010.
Ricardo Pinto's website contains a fair amount of background material on the world of The Stone Dance, and shows to what lengths he went to invent this world. He also provides synopses for the first two books of the trilogy, and the discussions provide some interesting insights into the author's ideas underlying the books.