Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 11, 2008 8:37 pm 
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(From Netflix)

JUSTIN LO: THE CONRAD BOYS (2006)

A sweet little production

This little movie is not guaranteed to raise your blood pressure much. But the more you watch it and get to know it the more endearing it becomes for its treatment of family issues and coming of age themes in which being gay is calmly taken and accepted as a given but--and this is a good thing--is not the main point and is simply accepted by the protagonist. He has a lot of things to deal with, but who he is happily isn't one of them.

Highly recommended to watch the DVD with Justin Lo's commentary. He gives a good picture of how a no-budget production can be made in a professional manner and why the result looks and sounds pretty darn good. Sure, this is not a very intense or charismatic main character, but I don't agree with some who've said that Justin Lo--who with remarkable self-possession and apparent calm produced, wrote, edited, directed, and starred--should have picked somebody other than himself to play Charlie. Okay, Lo isn't a great actor, like River Phoenix, who maybe (but this is highly theoretical) could have made this character heartrending and unforgettable (I guess I'm thinking a little of Running on Empty), but he's still well cast as Charlie, in whom he seems to have written a good deal of himself, and thus thoroughly believable. At the same time the commentary makes it clear that Justin is not Charlie: the movie is not autobiographical, even though both Lo and his protagonist are half Chinese and half European and gay. In real life Lo was not 19--but he looks young enough for the part. His looks kept reminding me of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt--which is an irrelevant association but a positive one, since Gordon-Leavitt is such a fine actor.

Now, somebody asks why Jordan, the dashing stranger who comes into his life, would even be attracted to Charlie? Well, that's obvious: because Charlie's cute (and obviously gay, in a good way) and sweet--an innocent angel who's all the things Jordan, who's been around the block too many times, is not--and more sensible too--somebody to show the world to, a virgin bride if you will, who will provide the stability in the relationship that he lacks. That's why Jordan's wanting to take Charlie on the road with him makes sense.

It is true that this qualifies to be a Movie of the Week, and not much more. As sincere and true as it is, it's not very ambitious. That's the paradox. Lo deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, loss of parents, alcoholism and recovery, a diminishing future for the main character, (apparently or for all we know) first sexual experience, a stranger who brings danger and illegality into one's life, but the writing, though sincere and authentic, isn't lively enough--compare S.E. Hinton, for instance--to make the milieu come to life. (It's also a limiting factor that Charlie, the main character, is very shy and uptight and has almost zero social life). Compare the world of Hinton's The Outsiders as realized on-screen by Coppola.

But that's not what Lo is trying to do--nor something he could have done: he didn't have access to a dozen Brat Pack dreamboats. The heart and soul of the picture is the exciting stranger, Jordan (quite well brought to life by Nick Bartzen). To continue the S.E. Hinton comparison, it's more a Rumble Fish kind of situation. Charlie winds up stuck with raising his younger brother Ben (the soulful and adorable Boo Boo Stewart) alone for a while. His father Doug (Barry Shay) was an alcoholic and split. Their mother dies suddenly. Charlies defers his acceptance at Columbia and stays in town working in a restaurant. Soon, Doug reappears, two years sober, with a decent job and place to live, wanting to help out. Geeky Charlie has to deal with a lot of disreputability, and also with Ben's gradual estrangement, nightmares, and acting out at school. Then along comes Jordan, and disreputability starts to take on a strong appeal. Lo's screenplay sets up a world in which there are strong moral imperatives in the protagonist's mind, but in the end nothing is as clearcut as he thought. It's simple but it's never schematic; it works.

In the commentary Lo shows how he used his family and friends, all of whom, plus the crew, he fully acknowledges, showing himself to be very much a team player at ease with his role. He uses the same park space four times for different scenes, and even successfully transforms his sister's childhood bedroom into a vice principal's office. Lo worked with available locales and people, other than the lead actors (who are all fine). Charlie's best friend Tori is even played by Lo's actual best friend Nancy Hancock. Lo comments repeatedly on the fact that he had a good cinematographer, and indeed the lighting is excellent throughout, so, as he says, this looks like a movie that cost much more to make.

That ought to be encouraging to anyone who wants to make a first film and doesn't have extensive means. In his commentary Lo says Brokeback Mountain is one of the best films of the past ten years, and declares that Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius. Can't quarrel with that! Think globally, act locally: that was the right way to work. Good luck with future film-making, Justin.


RYOSUKE HASHIGUCHI: SLIGHT FEVER OF A 20-YEAR-OLD (1993)

Shock and understatement

In this gay-themed Japanese film from the early Nineties, Tatsuru (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a college student, and Shin (Masashi End├┤), who's in high school, work out of the same Tokyo bar called Pinocchio as gay rent boys. Yoriko (Reiko Kataoka) and Atsumi (Sumiyo Yamada) are their respective girl friends--but not girlfriends, though they'd both like to be. Tatsuru and Shin are teen dreamboats in their way: both have boyish, androgynous good looks and perfect hair they're always fussing with. At first the focus is on the tall Tatsuru, who's shown with a john in the opening sequence, which establishes that he is sexually ambivalent and emotionally shut down. He's good at sex supposedly, if you like making love with an alabaster robot. He's cut off from his family despite his father's attempts to maintain contact and lives in a tiny apartment by himself till Shin, who knows he's gay and comes out to his parents and is kicked out of the house, moves in with Tatsuru. This is only supposed to be temporary, but it brings things to a head because little Shin's in love with Tatsuru, as he's told Atsumi. She chides Shin later for chickening out of this opportunity to declare his love to Tatsuru. This is the old theme of the gay kid who falls in love with a straight guy, except the object of his affections isn't straight but just unwilling to admit he's gay, and to make things worse is a colleague in the skin trade.

Ironically, Shin is a washout as a male prostitute. Or perhaps it makes sense that somebody who knows he's gay and is in love with someone he sees all the time will have trouble turning the sex on and off mechanically the way Tatsuru can.

Slight Fever (Hatachi no binetsu) reeks of urban ennui, though cultural differences make it a little hard for a westerner to assess the mood of this elegantly understated film--which, nonetheless, is as Hashiguchi starts out a commentary by saying, "sensational," never more so than in the scene toward the end where he himself plays a client in a hotel room who winds up with both Tatsuru and Shin in his bed, a situation that goes very badly for all concerned. This is one of a series of tense surprises. In a previous one Tatsuru goes to Yoriko's house to help move a TV and is forced to stay to dinner only to discover Yoriko's father is one of his clients. Maybe this is meant to be funny, but both males appear to be imploding throughout a meal in which the two females chatter on and on. It seems like the only communicating in the film is with or between females, but it's mostly just empty chatter. The conversations that matter between or among the males never take place.

The technically so-so DVD includes a bonus section made ten years after Slight Fever's release where director Ryosuke Hashiguchi describes the experience of this, his first film, and two of the main actors who've had successful careers since tell how it was for them this first time. None of the four principals had had previous acting experience. The interview films also show stills taken on the set. Hashiguchi looked a lot younger, was boyishly handsome, much like Hakamada, who was fresh from the provinces and a fashion model whose cold, blank expression the director liked; and in fact as Hakamada reports, he and the director were confused with each other on the set more than once, though Hashiguchi never acknowledged the resemblance. Hashiguchi, with typical Japanese reserve, reveals little about himself other than that he is gay and that he labored over the script for 2 1/2 years because he wanted other people to "understand how it is." The gay life--did he live it in this way? Yes and no, probably. A gay man who had a sexually promiscuous youth can easily imagine what it is like to be a rent boy. Or maybe he was one. What is clear is that the contrasts between Tatsuro and Shin dramatize the difference between a boy who knows he's gay and one who's struggling with the fact. This and the boys' being cut off from their families make this story utterly different from The Conrad Boys and much more alienated in feeling.

Hashiguchi reveals that the film was a surprise hit in Japan and young men and women are seen in stills lining up for blocks to see it, while provincial gay boys wrote the director to tell him his film saved them from suicide. Hashiguchi isn't wrong when he says the film is badly made. The project was underfunded and rushed and the technical package is unimpressive. It's shot in 16mm. Visuals are okay but not great, and as the director points out things fell apart style-wise when he chose to take on the role of the john in the hotel room at the end and they switched to a hand-held camera that gets way too jiggly at one point. But if this is the seminal gay coming of age film for a generation of gay Japanese boys, those faults don't matter. There are also signs that Hashiguchi has a flair for plot and editing, despite the extreme haste in which the latter had to be done, and his later efforts (which I haven't seen) are rumored to be successful. Judging from the lack of external reviews the film seems to have had zero theatrical life in the West, so despite its local success and a sort of interesting blend of shock and understatement and the fact that the performances do work, it seems like a minor film even from the gay point of view. Some scenes are fascinating--or creepy; others with a slight shift in plot elements could just be moments from some conventional Japanese TV series. But if this was a ground-breaker and now could be a conventional TV series, that's not such a bad thing either.

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