Thoughts on Oscar Films (1/2)
I'm writing as I prepare the smorgasbord for tonight's Oscar. I'm in that peaceful period between the weekend celebration winding down and the Sunday scaries kicking in.
I did not plan to spend Sunday afternoon writing a blog post. But three things happened just now. I received a text from a friend who said he didn't realize that writing and film is my passion. While he's not a close friend, I wondered about being seen. I also received a new reply from a stranger on Reddit about the symbolism of the miniature donkey in the movie Banshees of the Inisherin, one of the best picture nominees this year. At the same time, I clicked on a new post from one of my creative writing coaches/mentors/guides about this year's Oscar.
These three things made me realize how much time I've spent consuming, talking, and reading about films and how much I'm tired and sick of admiring others' work. In these moments, the shoulder figure - my therapist - comes up: "Lin! Your problem is that you're so enamored of people that inspire you, but you won't be happy until you hold your hose and jump in the water yourself!" So here it is, I already jumped in the water. This post is about the Oscar best pictures nominees, and to write it so fast that I stop worrying about it not sounding like X or that it needs revisions and editing and blah blah. Cathy Park Hong's essay 'Bad English' comes to mind.
Oscar excites me. To go for it or boycott it is the same as affirming its cultural significance. We can talk about who gives out awards and the bias in their perspectives until the cows go home. But I'm not going to do it today. This post is about the movies that made me sit in silence, reflect on what we have in common, and remember why we write, live, and tell stories. Usually, I don't love all the Oscar nominees or bother to see them all. But 2022 was a good year for films. Maybe the pandemic rut is finally coming to an end.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEVVO):
Of all the films on this year's list, EEVVO is the first I saw, and what a cryfest. I'm tearing up as I am thinking about it now. Grr. I made the colossal mistake of not packing tissues to the theater, expecting the movie to be a little superhero number casting the one-and-only Michelle Yeoh. How wrong I was. The movie was about everything and everyone all at once. It was about an unfulfilled immigrant mother struggling to communicate and reconcile with her family. She is so good at everything, yet it seems to her, nothing at all, piling in debt at the laundromat she clings on for life.
The mother's life could have turned out differently - an aristocratic princess, a lesbian sophisticate, a chef, a kung-fu fighter, or a nihilistic rock... but despite the fantasies, she sacrifices her dream plots for a family that doesn't seem to understand her, nor does she seem to understand them. They struggle to give love and receive when the love language and codes of belonging keep changing beneath their feet. Everyone feels like a foreigner at home, yet they continue to try to connect.
EEVVO has a great story. The rest of the work is HOW to tell it. This is where it shines the most. The movie probably would have half the effect if not for the garage-style visual effects and whimsical elements familiar to the 90s Hong Kong cinema, so confident and unseen in its weirdness that I remember sitting in the theater worrying about its mass appeal. How wrong I was again. The entire theater clapped their hands when the curtain rolled and gasped in awe. Turns out it didn't matter if you didn't watch any Hong Kong comedy film growing up (like this), the family and individual struggle, betrayal are universal.
The need to belong is timeless, powerful.
In tonight's award ceremony, I hope EEVVO wins everything, everywhere, all at once. I'll be wearing my chef hat and sausage fingers.
Banshees of Inisherin
On a remote island off the coast of Ireland, Pádraic is devastated when his buddy Colm suddenly puts an end to their lifelong friendship. With help from his sister and a troubled young islander, Pádraic sets out to repair the damaged relationship by any means necessary. However, as Colm's resolve only strengthens, he soon delivers an ultimatum that leads to shocking consequences.
I remember first reading the synopsis and thinking the storyline was ingenious. I was instantly hooked. The conflict is about one of the least talked-about topics most common in life - falling out with friends. I struggled to recall mainstream movies giving a serious outlook on friendship over time - let alone male friendship. Contemporary literary darlings like My Little Life and Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friends series don't count.
The first 20 minutes were slow and drab, just ike the remote island of Inisherin as depicted in the film. Going to the pub at 2 PM was the day's main event, for the men in the village at least. Townies pass the time at night at the pub again. They can't help but sing maudlin songs that embody the eventless, dreary place they live in.
The songs are composed by Colm, an ambitious musician in his last years of life. Colm's house on the hill is gothic, bare - a brutalistic aesthetic that perfectly matches his later actions in the movie. His lifelong friend Padraic, however, was nothing like. Padraic initially appeared simple-minded, jolly, and kind-hearted. Padraic lives with his sister Shioban, the sensitive, literary half contrasting his leathery, hot-bloodedness. In a way, Padraic is childlike, fed, cleaned, and emotionally cared for by the book-loving Shioban, who's ridiculed and outcasted by the villagers as a maverick for being old and unmarried. If Colm is a needle, Padraic is a hatchet. Colm wants knowledge and influence. Padraic is content with his donkey and pub jokes. But things are about to happen between Padraic and Colm that'd change Padraic's character forever.
Taste and class divides are present as much in a fictional town of 100 people as in our society. Colm plays a stereotype that conjures up the snotty elite. He aspires to high art, poetry, and music and wants to leave a long-lasting mark in history, yet he couldn't reconcile with his sympathy and love for the mundane and, quite clearly, for Padraic. Colm is conflicted. He wants a clean break from this town's mediocrity and the mediocrity he is so afraid to become, but Padraic doesn't take No for a No.
Time and place are not important throughout the entire movie. It's unclear when the movie took place. The movie may as well be a fable or a historical fiction. There seemed to be a war. Across the water of Inisherin, the characters watch the war and explosions afar, convincing themselves that the mainland would not promise a better life even if they get on the boat and leave the dreary behind. The setting seems intentionally vague, as the conflicts amongst the villagers transcend a time.
Banshees of Inisherin is a slow grip. In the end, I was haunted.
I found my impressions of each character changed and deepened in a small amount of time. Padraic is not the populist he seems. Nor is Colm simply the elite in despair. The teenagers and policemen may be tragic victims of a foreclosed small-town mindset and all the discrimination that comes with it, but did the sister do the right thing by leaving? Is she the symbol of the immigrant, the one that leaves things behind? What does the ending mean? Padraic's love for animals and care for his land - Is the return to nature to be lauded, or is it a sign of stagnancy and retrogression?
Disguised in a friendship breakup story, Banshees of Inisherin is about the heartbreaks in migrant movement observed by all types of life on earth, from the blue wildebeest to men. Its poetics and long shots masked the political undertone and the deep questions it raises. What does it mean to reject the bloodline past that we love, to reject where we come from when where we come from is no longer kind to who we are? In that lens, this is a movie about America.
Part II is coming up on Triangle of Sadness, Return to Seoul, The Menu, and Aftersun. For now, it's time to watch the Oscar.
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