On September 27, Fox World Cinema is releasing two eye-popping imports with hyper-saturated colors, fast-moving edits, and overlapping plots shown from multiple points of view. Both have earned some deserved slamming for trendy style, sloppy narrative, and lack of depth, but don’t they deserve your strained eyeballs, precious time, and individual judgment?
The Butcher, The Chef, and The Swordsman reeks of the short attention span and glossiness one might expect from a director of commercials. But while Wuershan’s look and editing have layers upon layers of gimmickry (shifting film stocks, video game references, rock and hip-hop on the soundtrack…), the characters are as raw as can be. Liu Xiaoye plays the first of the movie’s three namesakes, burping, spitting, suffering permanent bedhead, and lusting after an unattainable hooker (Kitty Zhang from Stephen Chow’s CJ7) exactly as a Mainlander might have been portrayed in Hong Kong movies 15 years ago. The scheming, vengeance-seeking, quick-chopping middle character is played with comparable subtlety by Ando Masanobu (Battle Royale, Kids Return). As for the swordsman played by Ashton Xu, his confidence proves to be a bigger undoing than his colleagues’ inaction. That the protagonists in such a vehicle are so utterly pathetic–and not in an ironic Revenge of the Nerds manner–is actually pretty cool. Shockingly, the three plots stand out from one another despite being intertwined and somewhat complement each other, too. And despite the world being shown as glossy, it’s also bitter and brutal. You can’t polish a turd, but Wuershan packages the shittiness of the world in a deceptively fun and underhandedly smart way in his debut feature.
The high-budget Bollywood flick Dum Maaro Dum is less conceptual, more conventional, and impossible to label as subversive. Yet, director Rohan Sippy tries to lend the slick-but-somewhat-gritty drug-trafficking movie street cred by giving the musical numbers onscreen sources, showing some decent action and violence, and including Soul Train-inspired club and seaside rave scenes. (And film freaks will like the Wong Kar-Wai references, too.) Sippy does a capable job of introducing four or five characters that could have easily carried the story and shifting the tale to show each of their perspectives. It could have been a boring onslaught of caricatures coming and going, but their angles and characterization aren’t bad. The tough-guy inspector played by Abhishek Bachchan (Mr. Aishwarya Rai) reveals some interesting flaws and the innocent student and stewardess (newcomer Prateik Babbar and supermodel Bipashu Basu) who get sucked into the drug trade do have compelling stories–all told at a brisk pace. The toughest role is Rana Daggubati’s hippie who brings about their ugly fates. Can he make up for being an asshole by helping Bachchan take down the local drug kingpin? To be honest, the plot twist isn’t very exciting but I was pleasantly horrified to see the guitar-playing slacker sit unscathed while his friends and colleagues were jailed, held sexual hostage, or killed in India’s upscale setting of Goa. It’s an utterly amoral statement that wouldn’t happen in Miami Vice.
I might be giving the filmmakers too much credit. Most likely, Wuershan and Sippy just wanted to show off their production skills, showcase some pretty faces, and make some broad quasi-philosophical statements about violence and drugs. (And rake in some dough in the process.) But sometimes a movie is what you make of it. I emerged with a handful of complex, interesting ideas. You might, too.