Friday, February 06, 2015

Atom Egoyan's THE CAPTIVE

 Atom Egoyan's recent movie THE CAPTIVE makes him feel even more like himself. It got shredded and mocked by the critics last year during its premiere at Cannes, yet, for me, the film is in its own way a throwback to Egoyan's triumphant run of the Nineties, where movies like THE ADJUSTER and EXOTICA illustrated what an unusual sensibility he can bring to the Canadian screen. Of his past decade-and-a-half of movies, the only ones I haven't seen are ARATAT or ADORATION, but I'm probably pretty safe in saying that, with THE CAPTIVE, snooty-Cannes-critics aside, he seems more in tune with his own peculiar obsessions than we've seen in some time.

There is nothing particularly original about a story involving the disappearance or death of a child -- indeed, this is the third time that Egoyan's dealt with this topic, after THE SWEET HEREAFTER and last year's DEVIL'S KNOT -- but there's a brew going on here that feels suitably off-kilter and tart, a nicely aesthetic confusion for one's touchy palate. Somebody should, if they haven't already, write a Master' thesis about 'detachment' and 'abstraction' in the films of Egoyan (and his Canadian-cinema older brother, David Cronenberg), because there's a distancing to his stuff that, when it works, only adds to the notions of unsettlement that he's continually trying to provoke.

In brief, this movie is a domestic drama, overlapped with a police procedural, then seasoned with whatever the fuck Egoyan's always going on about regarding our voyeuristic impulses -- a favourite obsession of his, one whose inclusion here feels odd and distracting, yet hey, that's the pont. (I think.) Like in Cronenberg's films, there's an abiding weirdness at work that you can never quite figure out. The acting and pacing sometimes seems off, but you can't put your finger on why; the dialogue, as spoken, is either stilted or spot-on; the story either too vague, or perpetually right on the button. Egoyan's either always not trying enough, or simply too hard, and often both efforts emerge at the same time. It's hard to make sense of what he wants us to think.

As it should be. This is the proper combination for him, this uncertain mixture of tones. It makes it impossible to discern if the movie is exactly working, per se, but more and more as I age I don't want a movie to work -- I want it to breathe. Sometimes those gasps of breath might be muted, even suffocated, and at other times they might emerge as a rough sort of bark, but it's that uneasy exhaltation of air that his films at their best bring that makes me sit up straight.

There's much to admire in some of his more 'mainstream' films, but I like Egoyan best when you're never quite sure if he knows just what the hell he's up to. You can almost feel him trying stuff out, artistically, searching for the proper tone, sometimes even in the same scene. There's a moment three-quarters of the way through THE CAPTIVE that seems like it would be a definite game-changer, narratively-speaking, in terms of where the plot has to go -- but nothing comes of it. Never mentioned again. I don't know if a subsequent scene was left out of the final edit, or if Egoyan never intended to follow-up on those implications. Its omission was a real head-scratcher for me, but then I just thought: "Well, it's Egoyan -- he's funny that way."

I wasn't sure what I'd just seen, or why it was there in the first place, but on a deeper filmic and philosophical level, his films have always been obsessed with the nature of observation itself. Why do we watch what we do? What do we get out of it? What happens when we're not watching?

This film is filled with people looking at screens, or through windows or windshields, watching cars coming or going, or else they're simply studying each other, trying to suss out intentions, The cumulative effect kind of got to me near the end, and I had a curious sensation I haven't had in some time while watching a film; I started to get uncomfortable with me as a viewer (and person?) watching them do all this watching. I don't know if Egoyan had this effect in mind, but he sure put in mine.

Another aspect of the film that I loved (which is admittedly personal), was that it was great to see Canada play itself, to see Niagara Falls and Ontario feature so prominently as a character, the winter weather a part of the narrative turf of the story. Rarely do Canadians get to see their own stuff on the screen, and to see this familiar terrain of my youth paired with Egoyan's own creepy aesthetic provided a welcome frission that augmented its creep. Add in a crew of prominent Canadain actors -- Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, and Egoyan stalwart Bruce Greenwood -- and the movie itself felt more 'Canadian' as a result.

Is there truly anything 'Canadian' about THE CAPTIVE? I would say yes, in that its entry-point into an ostensibly 'thriller' narrative is subdued in comparison to what a mainstream American approach would look like. Egoyan gives us perpetually-jovial Ryan Reyolds, but saps him of all the pretty-boy charm and flippant jokes that he's made his whole career out of; he upends any suspense by interjecting scenes designed soley to set up moods of discontent -- in the characters, and probably the viewers, too. There are gobs of emotion scattered throughout the movie, but everybody's trying to suppress, to not reveal their own passions, and for mild-mannered Canucks, what's more Canadian than that?

Again, I don't know if the film 'works, and I can sort of get why nobody at Cannes gave it much of a go, it being at times subdued and lurid, over-the-top and plain dull, an amalgamation of pseudo-European arthouse ambitions with genre-picture suspense, but Egoyan's films have always included, at their core, a dispassionate and clinical vibe that seems to examine humans with a reserved mode of detachment, and it's this emotional disconnect that's often going on that paradoxically drew me in here. (This film is about how we end up watching each other, and why, for what means, and because no character truly allows anybody else in, why should I as the viewer receive a free pass? ) Even when the characters are full of quiet rage and despair, we're somehow not emotionally allowed to truly synch up with their pain, as if as a director Egoyan's always saying 'just wait'.

THE CAPTIVE awkwardly, yet doggedly, builds on the previous themes of Egoyan, and to what end I'm not sure, but the very last shot of the film ended up moving me just a bit,,unexpectedly so, and I wondered why, exactly, and if it was even supposed to be meant as sentimental, or was I just reading it wrong. As the screen cut to black, leaving me with those lingering questions, I eventually mentally shrugged, thinking: "Hey, it's Egoyan." It was good to think that thought, and mean it. It's been awhile.


Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's novel THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is as delicate and comfortingly elegaic as its tile, even as it deals with the most terrifying and lingering elements of nationality and memory, war and forgiveness. Narrated by a recently retired female judge, a strong-willed Malay of Chinese descent, the book has the kind of warmth and generosity, openness and tenderness that often seemingly emerges from only women writers, and so I was a little stunned, after finishing, to discover that the author was, in fact, a man. (Go figure.) There's this kind of traditionally feminine spirit he's tapped, a feeling of forgiveness, that bleeds through the whole book, and an approach to detail that illuminates its grand and troubled themes.

Tormented by aphasia, a neurological condition which means that one can sometimes no longer make sense of alphabetical letters on the page, the narrator commits to put pen to pater while she still can, remebering in detail her disturbing years as a teen -- a time that was spent in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, after which she struck up an unlikely friendship (are there any other kinds?) with a Japanese gardener who stayed in Malaysia past the end of the war, and who also, long ago, had worked in the gardens of the Emperor of Japan. What follows is a narrative that painfully tries to explore how we can forgive and forget -- which makes it sound maudlin and mediocre, the stuff of a thousand clunkly memoris, but the subtle grace of the prosem and the soul-killing pain of these events, combine in an artistic elixir that soothes as it stings.

Eng uses his main character and her Japanese friend as metaphors for what many Asian countries have  had to grapple with since the end of that war -- namely, how do you move on and reconcile the irreconcilable? Issues of war-time forgiveness and inter-nation animosity would have held no interest for me, at all, fifteen years ago, but living in Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines has sort of sensitized (or at the very least interested) me to these kinds of issues.

Japan, China and Korea are swept up in a kind of perpetually antagonistic state of eternal sniping; the idea of 'saving face' is fucking huge in Asia, and no country wants to give in, or even appear that might be doing so. China and Korea have not forgiven Japan for its wartime atrocities; Japan does not seem to educate its young people well about all the shit that went down. All sides, at least in my view, have points worthy of contention. Yes, Japan, in many respects, has done a piss-poor job of reconciling with its war-time imperial ambitions. (However, Japan is also such a group-think environment that those who have done legitimate research into what actually went down are not usually guaranteed the widest of audiences.) Yet China and Korea will not let anything go. Do England and France contine tu shut out Germany due to the sins of the past? No. They've moved ahead. Because what other choice do we have? We're talking about events that occurred almost a century ago. At a certain point, one has to move on.

Yet, inside of these intensely political and national(istic) arguments reside actual people and their tangible pain. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS does a good job of illustrating the complexity of moral capitulation. Can you truly befriend a person from a country who has inflicted such harm? Can we trust what anyone says? What do we owe to our fellow citizens, to strangers, to the past? And what should we give to our own furture?

These are all important, but rather ephemeral topics to establish any real narrative grounding, but Eng creates a portrait of a Malaysia post World War II in which these ideas are populated by real characters in pain. If you know a little bit about the Emperor of Japan, or Japanese gardening, or the Chinese in Malaya, or wartime history, you'll be more than intrigued, but you don't need to know much to get something from this book. There is a steady, even abiding sense of sorrow that percolates through every page and its prose. This can, admittedly, sometimes get a bit tiresome; how many descriptions of mountains and insects and the sun slowly setting does one need to read in a single story?

Then you glance again at the title, at the quiet pulse of place invoked by those simple words, and you realize, or at least I did, that sometimes the way best way to approach the human heart and its endless emotional and historical offshoots is through suggestion itself, a slight sketch here and there.