Kaige Chen is rapidly becoming, hands down, my favorite Chinese director. Farewell My Concubineand The Emperor and the Assassinare both brilliant, epic films about pivotal points in Chinese history. They are tonally very different films, one dealing with an attempt to assassinate the Qin emperor - the man who united all of China for the first time, but wasn't exactly Mr. Nice Guy when he did it - the other about the impact on the lives of two stars of the Beijing opera as they live through first WWII and then the People's Revolution. Both equally brilliant. Both cinemagraphic masterpieces. Both highly recommended. So I was thrilled to hear that Chen had directed a fantasy film. I keep waiting for a Chinese Lord of the Rings, and The Promise(Wu ji) is as close as anybody's yet come. Breath-taking scenery, and some truly incredible staging, and the goddesses flitting about are amply inspiring. Problem is the story sits closer to a tall tale a la Paul Bunyun than it does to epic fantasy. People outrunning bows and arrows and jumping across mountaintops, that sort of thing. And the actual story is very small - the usual king, princess and bad guy involved in a three way argument, with no sense of any actual residents of the kingdom beyond the inexhaustible supply of faceless toy soldiers to knock over. Really incredible to watch, mind you, and one all lovers of fantasy films should see, and its not fair to judge a movie for not being something else. But I can't help but thinking the expertise, the landscape, the talent, the means and the money is all there to make a truly sweeping fantasy epic - if only the right story would come along. When it does, I hope Kaige Chen will give fantasy another go. In the meantime, as eye candy goes, this is utterly tremendous.
The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves) This film was written and directed by Michel Gondry, who co-wrote and directed the brilliant Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind earlier, that film being one of my favorite SF films of recent years. Here Gondry has crafted another quirky masterpiece. But, while it's billed as science fiction according to NetFlix, it really isn't, any more than a Wes Anderson film might be, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be of interest to any fan of genre. (In the same way that a Wes Anderson film is.) The dream sequences are worth it alone, and it's a very funny, imaginative, and original film. It's also amazing what you can do without a budget. Sometimes a lot more than you can do with one.
Pan's Labyrinth - okay, I'm way late to the table on this one. What can I say? Loved it utterly. Am reminded of something John Grant (aka Paul Barnett) told me years ago, which is that while the average Hollywood SF film was two decades behind the literary version of science fiction, the best of filmic fantasy was as good as its literary variety. Certainly I enjoyed this as much as anything I've read from Neil Gaiman, with whom it bears some similarity. A darker, horrifying and adult sister to Labyrinthin some way, minus David Bowie and the Muppets. Guillermo del Toro is a genius. Now, did she really or is she? I think I know how I feel about the (possibly) ambiguous ending.
The Departed - not a bad Scorsese film, but Siu Fai Mak & Felix Chong's Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou) is way better, doesn't have Jack Nicholson ad-libbing over the script, and doesn't have the tacked-on Hollywood ending, which is infinitely inferior to the more subtle Chinese original. Not saying you wouldn't enjoy The Departed - most everyone who saw it did, myself and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences included - but you owe it to yourself to see the original. Also, while I usually dislike the need for sequels, Internal Affairs II threads itself back into the first film in a way I've never seen any sequel but Back to the Future II do (though it bears pointing out in an entirely different way), and leaves you with certain scenes and events skillfully reinterpreted. Complex, but brilliant. I haven't seen Internal Affairs III, so can't speak to that, but if you are tossing a coin between Matt Damon and Tony Leung, let me weigh in for Tony.