Monday, February 26, 2007

i hate i love tell me why

Watched two movies recently. Both dealt with the issue of drugs. One Asian, the other Western. One dealt with crack, the other with heroin.

Protege is a fairly archetypal HK movie. It is a slick look at the entire economy of heroin trafficking from the poppy fields in Mae Sai to the streets of HK. Seen through the eyes of an undercover narc who is being groomed as the successor of the ailing drug boss. Moral complexity is thrown in as the narc gets involved with a single mother heroin junkie who lives next door. As typical of most such slick HK movies, it suffers from insufficient characterisation. While we dealt a look at the mechanics of the entire economy of drug trafficking, motivations remain occluded. The drug boss character suggests the usual understanding, if there is demand, he supplies. A detachment from the junkies. Highly unlike a typical HK movie however, there is a uncustomary lack of moral ambivalence in this film. Instead, the message is as clear as the silhouette of a Raintree standing proud on an empty field : Drugs are bad. They kill. And if you traffic drugs into Singapore, you are dead. Dead. Dead.

The other movie is "Half Nelson". It is not exactly an archetypal Hollywood movie. The lead actor, Ryan Gosling has made a name of himself starring in such indie flicks with fairly complex premises. His first success was "The Believer", which has him starring as a Jewish Neo-Nazi. If you thought Edward Norton rocked in American History X, than you should watch Gosling in Believer. In Half Nelson, Gosling reprises a role of conflicted identity. He is a fascinating History teacher in an inner city Brooklyn junior high school by day and a spiraling coke addict at night. His separate lifes meet when one of his students catch him high and sprawled with a coke pipe in the gym toilet after a tough basketball game.

The student, played by Shareeka Epps, is herself a "victim" of the hood. With a brother serving time for drug-related offenses, a single mother and her brother's chums who are "looking out" for her and tempting her into the world of crack dealing. A crack runner. Gosling battles a crumbling life, crumbling ideals, forgotten students. Seeking life through the crutch of cocaine. There is a bar scene when one of his former student's father walks up to him and thanks him for inspiring her daughter to History majors in Georgetown. He tries hard but cannot remember who the student is. It is a poignant and perhaps, most haunting scene. The film builds towards that pivotal climax when student deals crack to teacher in a motel. It is a scene worthy of any movie made in recent memory.

There is a quiet bleakness and subtlety to this film. It is compellingly genre-twisting; there is none of the stirring Dead Poet Society or Coach Carter motivation of the teacher-student movie dynamic. There is no big play on the white teacher and colored students inspiration narrative. It is very much a simple and truthful movie. Which despite its hard look at life, offers some hope. Not much. But still some. There is an exercise of choice in the end. And this exercise of choice gives that faint glint of hope.

Running in parallel in Half Nelson is a narrative of Gosling in class as he tries to teach dialectics, historical agency and change to his students. The principal wants him to follow the curriculum and teach the civil rights movement. He, on the other hand, is more interested in getting across Hegelian dialectics to the children. To get them to see the movement underlying the CRM. Why change happened. And more importantly, why change can happen and must happen.

There is none of the moral loud-hailing as in Protege. Morality in Half Nelson is nuanced, approximating a reality, a truth rarely seen in fiction. In one movie, you stand as a detached audience, learning a lesson. In the other, the distance between screen and you is as fine as a knife's edge.

Despite our weaknesses, despite our failings and our imperfections, there is a possibility of change. Why change happens, why it can happen and why sometimes it must happen. It begins with choice and the exercise of choice.

Quotes of the Day --

"I hate and I love and who can tell me why?" -- Catullus. Opening lines from The Believer

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." -- Mario Savio, UC Berkeley student and leader of Free Speech Movement. Excerpt shown in Half Nelson


Blogger Dorothy said...

Hello XB :) You're making me want to watch films that I have no time to catch :P

Anyway, I'd sent the questions to you already :) Thanks again!

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, xb. You have said it again. No matter how things appear to be restricted, other choices will present themselves. How he chooses his final choice, we will not know but it is his choice...

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Xeno,
This is my first visit to your blog and already I am interested! What a glowing review for Half-Nelson...I actually may check it out. Keep writing, you're very good at it.


7:15 AM  
Blogger don said...

i dont believe all drugs are bad. however i have to say heroin is a different thing all together. it has a high physical and mental addiction that the newer "soft" drugs dont have.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its 'Black' not Colored..are you in the 50's?

10:18 PM  

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