Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Mood for Love (2000)

     Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you another foreign film. This one’s from Hong Kong, “In the Mood for Love”, made in 2000 by a guy named Wong Kar-wai, who is apparently a groundbreaking director that I never heard of until recently. But this film, which is I guess his best film, made it to spot number twenty-four on the latest British Film Institute Sight and Sound poll, the one that claimed “Vertigo” the greatest film of all time.

     The film takes place in Hong Kong in the 1960’s and spans across a couple years. We first meet two young people, a man named Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and a woman named Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man yuk). Chow finds a room in an apartment for him and his wife right after Su gets the room next door for her and her husband. As they move in their furniture on the same day, they seem to start off on a chaotic start, but eventually they start talking to each other and asking where the other’s spouse is, which is usually overtime at work.

     But soon, the two of them are consumed by a terrible feeling: that their spouses are seeing each other. What makes it worse (and at the same time very interesting to watch in the film) is that the spouses’ faces never appear on-screen: we hear their voices in phone conversations occasionally, but we never see them. And because of this, there’s even more uncertainty that the viewer feels as well as Chow and Su.

     Through this situation, however, Chow and Su seem to start bonding as they start spending more time together. And at one point, they have a short conversation reflecting on what they do with themselves both alone and with their spouse:

CHOW: On your own, you are free to do lots of things. Everything changes when you marry. It must be decided together. Right? I sometimes wonder what I’d be if I hadn’t married. Have you ever thought of that?

SU: Maybe happier! I didn’t know married life would be so complicated! When you’re single, you are only responsible to yourself. Once you’re married, doing well on your own is not enough.

CHOW: Don’t brood on it. Maybe he’ll be back soon.

SU: What about you?

CHOW: Actually, we’re in the same boat. But I don’t brood on it. It’s not my fault. I can’t waste time wondering if I made mistakes. Life’s too short for that. Something must change.

     And this decision to change results in an increasing relationship between Chow and Su… which the neighbors start to notice, unfortunately for the worse. Eventually, to make a long story short (ironically, since this film is under two hours long), Chow and Su start parting their ways, to get rid of feelings that they are going in the same direction as their cheating spouses. Within a couple years, Chow goes from Hong Kong to Singapore and back, with Su trying to go with him but just barely connecting with him in time.

     The film ends on a very ambiguous—and, in my opinion, unsatisfying note… though that’s probably what Kar-wai was intending. Chow, in an earlier scene at a restaurant with a friend, talked about how people in the old days, if they had a secret they could not share, went up to the mountains, made a hollow in a tree, whispered their secret into the hollow, and covered it up with mud. And so, a little time after Chow returns shortly to his old apartment (and just misses seeing Su there with her son), he goes to the mountains of Cambodia and whispers a secret into a hollow, where it remains till who knows when.

     I’ll be honest with you guys about a topic that I’ve been thinking about on and off this semester: marriage. Not that I’m about to propose or anything, mind you, I’m not even dating anyone. But I have been wondering a lot about when that might happen, and whether or not that ever will. But whatever situation I find myself in, in a relationship or not, will I still follow the Lord’s commands for my life? An interesting passage of Scripture is found in 1 Corinthians 7, where the apostle Paul talks about marriage based a lot on his own convictions: as he says, “I, not the Lord” (7:12). He goes so far as to say that being single is better than being married!

     Paul writes, “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (7:32-35)

     The conversation I quoted between Chow and Su reminded me of this passage: marriage is hard work. It takes the constant effort of both the man and the woman involved. And sometimes, as Chow and Su have found, things can fall apart. Su was right: doing well on your own is not enough. But that’s what Paul talks about here: being married can cause a division between your interests. It’s not a bad thing by any means, but if not treated the right way, it can take away your devotion to God, and if that’s gone, so is your marriage.

     So my prayer for you is that whatever situation you find yourself in, married or single, dating or waiting, that you will glorify God in everything you do and be grateful regardless of how alone you might feel sometimes. Because He is always there for us, especially in the tough times.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Groundhog Day (1993)

     Earlier last month, something happened on my school’s campus that affected a lot of us. One of our students, after playing a game of rugby outside and suffering an asthma attack, passed away suddenly, and a lot of us (especially guys like me who were in his dorm) were taken aback. Personally, I had seen the guy the night before and had talked to him for a very short amount of time, and I never thought for a second that he’d be gone the next day. It really made me think about how we need to make every day count and be a blessing to whoever we come across everyday.

     Perhaps that is the moral of “Groundhog Day”, which takes that idea in a much lighter direction, which makes for an incredibly funny, incredibly entertaining, and often very moving film. Bill Murray plays a Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors, one of the most sarcastic and self-centered people anyone might have to deal with. In early February, he and two other news workers, Rita (Andie MacDowell) and Larry (Chris Elliott), travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the town’s most celebrated event: the Groundhog Day celebration, where Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog comes out to see or not see his shadow. However, this is the last place Phil Connors wants to be, declaring this is the last time he will cover Groundhog Day before leaving the news station. After a long, hectic day, Phil goes back to his motel room in Punxsutawney.

     But the next morning, Phil wakes up with déjà vu. The radio, just like the morning before, announces it’s Groundhog Day, and Phil goes to work the same way he did yesterday. It seems he is once again living in Groundhog Day. And he goes through the day, and wakes up the next morning to find it’s February 2 again. And he starts thinking: I’m living the same day over and over again. That means I can do whatever I want, and the next day I won’t have to face the consequences.

     So at first, Phil takes advantage of this. He meets a beautiful woman and basically has a one-night stand. He spends money on whatever he wants, since the next day he’ll have the same amount of money. He even goes driving half-drunk one night with some other guys, destroys a bunch of property, and gets thrown in jail. But at 6:00 A.M. the next morning, he wakes up in his bed in Punxsutawney at the start of a new Groundhog Day.

     Eventually, though, Phil gets tired of doing whatever he wants. Now he just wants this day to be over. So he repeatedly attempts suicide: driving over a cliff, jumping off a building, anything to get this curse over with. But even when he is dead, he wakes up to Groundhog Day. And one day, having coffee with Rita, he tells her what’s he experiencing. And amazed as she is, the two of them start to hit it off. It takes Phil several days of doing this to actually have a successful date with her, but soon he starts falling for her.

     But one night, Phil sees a homeless man on the street. He has seen this man every “day” in the morning on his way to work, but tonight he takes him to a shelter where he can be warm. But once he takes the man there, he finds out he is dead. He has been dying all this time. So the next day, another Groundhog Day, Phil takes the man to a diner to have a nice hot meal. And after spending the day with this guy (and failing to resuscitate him at night), Phil decides to spend the rest of his Groundhog Days helping people. He saves a kid from falling out of a tree. He fixes an old lady’s tire. He saves a man from choking on food at a restaurant.

     Phil even learns to do other things. He starts taking piano lessons. He takes up ice sculpting. He learns French. And he builds more and more on his relationship with Rita. And after a great Groundhog Day, with a great news story in the morning, an afternoon of helping the neighborhood, and an evening of fun with Rita, Phil and Rita stand in the snowy park as Phil reveals to her an ice sculpture of her face that he has done.

PHIL: I know your face so well, I could have done it with my eyes closed.

RITA: It’s lovely. I don’t know what to say.

PHIL: I do. No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now. Because I love you.

     They kiss and go back to Phil’s room (which I do not approve of, but whatever), and wake up the next morning: February 3. Time has moved on, and Phil Connors has become a better man.

     I guess the moral I got out of “Groundhog Day” was the idea of making everyday count. Because what if there is no tomorrow? Or in Phil’s case, what if tomorrow is today? What will you do to reach somebody else? Are you willing to sacrifice your own pleasure today for someone else’s?

     In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells that as long as we focus on Him and His plan for us, all our own needs will be provided: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) That’s often hard for me to do, but I need to remember that whatever I do to further the kingdom of God will be worth it in the end. My prayer for you is that you will live that same way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

     You know who I haven’t talked about on “Reel Christianity” yet? Ingmar Bergman. I haven’t mentioned him or his work yet because up until August, I hadn’t seen any of his films. And then once school started, and I took advantage of the free time I had, I was able to get introduced to Bergman’s work. Bergman was a pioneering Swedish filmmaker about fifty years ago whose films often contained a lot of spiritual themes and questions, films ranging from “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” to “Cries and Whispers” and “Fanny and Alexander”. As the years went on, his work got more colorful, more sensual, and even more personal.

     But today, I’d like to share with you an Ingmar Bergman film that sticks out in my mind from 1961, “Through a Glass Darkly”. Featuring a musical score consisting of a single movement from one of J.S. Bach’s cello suites, “Through a Glass Darkly” indeed takes its title from 1 Corinthians 13. But we’ll talk about that later.

     The movie is centered on four individuals: Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her teenage brother Minus (Lars Passgård), and her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). Karin is suffering from schizophrenia and has just been released from an asylum, but Martin tells his father-in-law that her disease is incurable. The four of them are together vacationing on an island somewhere in… well, Sweden, I guess, and since they are together for the first time in a while, they get each other gifts, which from David seem like they were pretty last-minute.

     It’s easy to tell early on that this family is a little dysfunctional. Minus makes it known to Karin that he and his father have not really talked for quite some time, and Minus even starts to come on to his sister a little bit—a theme that is not verbalized in the film. Also, Karin starts hearing strange sounds and voices that prompt her to eventually find David’s diary, where it is written that her disease is incurable. And on top of all that, David, a writer who acknowledges he has sacrificed time with his children for his work on many occasions, feels distraught that he cannot stay on the island with them for long.

     Through all of this, there are two very important (and, in my opinion, very cool) conversations in the second half of the film. One takes place between David and Martin as they are fishing on a boat. Martin accuses David of neglecting his daughter in the past, but David tells him a very personal story.

DAVID: When I was in Switzerland, I decided to kill myself. I hired a car and found a cliff. …I was empty. No fear, no regrets, no expectations. I aimed the car at the cliff, stepped on the gas… and stalled, stopping dead. The transmission went out, you see. The car slid on the gravel and came to a halt, front wheels over the edge. I crawled out of the car, trembling. I leaned against a rock across the road. I sat gasping for breath for hours.

MARTIN: Why are you telling me this?

DAVID: To tell you I no longer have any pretense to keep up. …From the void within me something was born that I can’t touch, or name. A love. For Karin, for Minus… and you.

     David talks about this love he has realized later on in the film, after Karin has had an episode and a helicopter ambulance comes to pick up her and Martin. This leaves David and son Minus alone at the home on the island, where they finally have a real conversation.

MINUS: I’m scared, Papa. …Anything can happen. Anything. …I can’t live in this new world.

DAVID: Yes, you can, but you must have something to hold onto.

MINUS: What would that be? A god? Give me some proof of God. You can’t.

DAVID: Yes, I can. …I can only give you a hint of my own hope. It’s knowing that love exists for real in the human world. …I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence, or if love is God himself.

MINUS: For you, love and God are the same.

     And the film basically—after a final line from Minus: “Papa spoke to me”—ends, pondering this idea that God is love, and if one is surrounded by love, he or she is surrounded by God.

     I mentioned that “Through a Glass Darkly” takes its title from 1 Corinthians 13:12, which some translations such as the New International Version (which I use in this blog) read: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” The idea that we cannot fully see God until we see him face-to-face is something that I feel as hinted at in several of Bergman’s films. But in this life, perhaps the strongest way we can see God at work in and through us is through His love.

     In 1 John 4:8, we read that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” So maybe in order to really see God around us, we need to love others—turn the other cheek, sacrifice our time, whatever it might look like. My prayer for you today is that wherever you are, whoever you work with, that you may be willing to love others, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Spartacus (1960)

     A few months ago on “Reel Christianity”, I talked about what I now proudly call my favorite Stanley Kubrick movie, “Paths of Glory”. I said first that Kubrick’s directing style was so unique that I felt if I saw a Kubrick film for the first time, having no idea what it was called or who made it, I could still point it out as a Stanley Kubrick movie because of the angles, cuts, and dialogue that was so unique to one of his films.

     Then, back in June, I saw “Spartacus”, and I was beaten. Apparently Kubrick took over directing “Spartacus” from another filmmaker, and because the star Kirk Douglas was also producing the film, Kubrick and Douglas (who worked together wonderfully in “Paths of Glory”) constantly feuded. Kubrick later would say that “Spartacus” was the only movie where he did not have complete control, and I can understand that by watching it. A few times you see technical details that are distinctively Kubrick’s, but for the most part you can’t really tell. I now compare “Spartacus” to being the father of “Gladiator”, in many different ways.

     Douglas’ Spartacus starts out as an angry, violent young slave in Libya until Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) buys him to be a gladiator in his establishment. Spartacus joins several other young men that will fight to the death with each other as a form of entertainment. Because of this, the men make no attempt whatsoever to get to know each other. Spartacus tries once with a man named Draba (Woody Strode):

SPARTACUS: What's your name?

DRABA: You don't want to know my name. I don't want to know your name.

SPARTACUS: Just a friendly question.

DRABA: Gladiators don't make friends. If we're ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.

     From the very beginning, Spartacus is hostile—and who wouldn’t be? But part of the reason is because he’s fallen in love with a slave girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons), about whom the guards keep teasing Spartacus until he can take it no more. Soon, Spartacus leads the other men in an uprising and leads them out of the establishment. And for the next few hours or so, “Spartacus” goes back and forth between showing us Spartacus’ whereabouts (including reuniting Varinia and conceiving with her) and the Romans who are after him and the rest of the revolting gladiators. I’m going to skip most of this, though, so I can get to the really important stuff. (Or, at least, the stuff that I found most important.)

     Eventually, Spartacus and his men, including a new friend named Antoninus (Tony Curtis), fight against the legions sent by the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier). In the end, Spartacus’ army is overwhelmed, and the Romans capture them—but they say that they will let them live as long as they identify Spartacus. And here we get the iconic scene where Spartacus is about to stand and make himself known, when all of a sudden Antoninus and every other man gradually stands up and yells: “I’m Spartacus!”

     So I guess all the captives are eventually crucified, but then Crassus takes Spartacus and Antoninus somewhere else where he commands them to fight to the death—and whoever wins will be crucified. So both men, in possibly the film’s most intense scene, fight each other trying to kill the other but yet save the other from a more painful death. Spartacus eventually kills Antoninus, but then is sentenced to die by crucifixion. The film eventually ends with Varinia showing their newborn son his father on the cross, not yet dead, and promises the child that he will grow up a free man because of what his father did.

     I bet you might be thinking that I’m going to make a comparison between Spartacus and his sacrificial death on the cross and Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross. Well, yes, that’s a really good comparison to make, and it makes a lot of sense. Spartacus, like Jesus, is a poor man who leads a group of other men for a good cause that they are willing to die for, even death on a cross—which, yeah, would be extremely painful. But that’s not what I felt the real focus of the movie is.

     What I really saw in “Spartacus” was the sense of brotherly love that Spartacus tried to show. Even in the beginning, as a gladiator, he wanted to befriend the other men, not kill them! And the friendship between him and Antoninus, which I didn’t talk much about in this article, is a very powerful one that is worth seeing in the film. And it’s this aspect of Spartacus, the man and the movie, that I related to Jesus and his love for his disciples.

     Right now in college, I have a job as sort of a residence life coordinator. But my job is more of the “spiritual life” aspect of the dorm (I’m at a Christian college), and one of the passages of Scripture that my boss recommended I read over the summer was John 15-17, a passage that I would hopefully keep in mind as I lead other student leaders in the dorm this year. John 15:13 contains one of Jesus’ most important verses about brotherly love: “‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.’”

     Spartacus was willing to lay down his life for the freedom of his friends, and so were his men. Now, granted, the scene where he kills Antoninus isn’t exactly following that analogy, but he killed him because he didn’t want him to have to face a worse death. He was willing to die that death, as Antoninus was for Spartacus. My prayer for you this week is that you would find opportunities to sacrifice your time, your resources, whatever you have to serve the people close to you.