What makes a movie good?

Is a movie good because some critics say it’s good? By the way, what is a critic? Isn’t a critic just an audience, albeit more informed? And if so, just like every other audience, they will prefer some certain kinds of movies to others. In other words, they merely function as a filter through which a movie is ranked higher or lower than others.

Is a movie good because most people say it’s good? No, it’s not, at least in my case. I wasn’t into Marvel movies as much as people of my generation. But there’s nothing wrong with liking a movie that is favored by the masses and regarded as low-brow by the intellects in ivory towers. That attitude of bragging about the dumbness of pop culture is also in fact mauvaise foi, that is to say inauthentic and defined by the pressure from social forces. So, just be self-indulgent. Basic tastes show nothing but a sign that we still retain connection with others, that we still share some values with people around us. And on the other hand, loving something that is dismissed by others proves your uniqueness. Either way, it is understandable to say that there’s differences between people’s evaluation, and it’s just idiotic to sacrifice our genuine feelings for the masses’ validation.

There’s a common method in assessing movies which is breaking the movie down into different aspects, such as cinematography, editing, casting and acting, film score and music, and so on, then rating each aspect with the scale of 5 or 10 point, and finally summing up the quality of a movie by the overall score it gets. But isn’t this method problematic when it fails to recognize the dynamic interactions between the elements? Take Black Mass, for example. Every aspect of it could be 10/10, but the overall score should not exceed 7/10 (cf. Mattimation). Also, we cannot treat every movie the same. Special effects should be one of the areas of analysis in The Lord of the Rings, but not in Brokeback Mountain. This formalist approach didn’t take into account how varying the reception could be, either. A movie that is appreciated by this person could be denounced by another. In short, this analyzing-summarizing method, despite its seemingly rational attitude, is indeed wrong-headed.

So if we should not base our judgement solely on critics’ opinions, public’s opinions, or a common analyzing-summarizing assessment tactics, then what else should we rely upon?

To me, in stead of spending time seeking validation from movie critics and ranking systems, why don’t we just listen to our heart and mind? Ask ourselves, is this movie touching us? Does it offer any scenes that we keep mulling over and revisiting? Does it shake up our worldview or consider an aspect of human behavior that we never considered?

A good movie must first and foremost be the one that makes us feel good. It makes us moved by the depiction of brotherhood in adversity, of striving that failed but worth, of melancholy in the inevitable decay, of justice for those who deserve it. It wowed us with the brilliant plot or sophisticated characterization, with aesthetically pleasing visual elements or sound effects, with vibrant acting skills or magnificent production design. There are million reasons to love or to hate a movie, but they should come from within us.

I came to believe that movies, or any other forms of art, are representations of life, and a better question to ask is not how good a movie is, but which “type” of life this movie nurtures. For life is limitless, movies should be infinite in its forms, from which one may find their “type”. With this in mind, we can see that “guilty pleasure” is actually not a thing to be ashamed of. A bird should not be ashamed if she hates swimming, and a fish should not feel guilty if he cannot fly. We were born different “types”. By listening to our heart and mind, we come closer to our “type”, who we truly are.

Long-legged Girls (2004), Vũ Ngọc Đãng

Widely considered as the first Vietnamese movie that depicts same-sex affair, Long-legged Girls (2004), or Những cô gái chân dài, directed by Vũ Ngọc Đãng, is definitely worth the attention of any queer cinema enthusiasts.

So far as I am aware, this is also the first Vietnamese film that incorporates the female gaze. Within only a few seconds from the start, there comes the nude showering scene of a 20-year-old male model. This must be an intentional tactic to accommodate the taste of women viewers and lend the film a more commercial appeal, which could also be seen in Lost in paradise (2011).

In her essay Long-Legged Girls and the Transnational Circuits of Vietnamese Popular Culture, Lan Duong says that these objectifying images of young men and the depiction of gay desire effectively tests the boundaries of gendered behaviors and sexual norms of Vietnamese film industry.

It demonstrates how queer subjects in Vietnam, marked by class and always restricted as hetero-normative national subjects in the public space, are negotiating the prospect of cultural visibility and performing gender in different spaces.

To be honest, I was sexually aroused to the baby-butt smooth body of Hoàng (Minh Anh) when I watched this movie for the first time. However, it took me a while to latch on the behaviors of Khoa (Trương Thanh Long). At the age of 14, when “homosexuality” was still so strange of a concept to me, I did not even bother wondering what was going on between the two male characters. But when I watched it again many years later, especially after my first straight crushes, I could finally relate to Khoa’s feeling, and I think Trương Thanh Long had delivered it quite well, with a subtly exquisite acting level that hardly any other actors playing a gay man role have ever been able to reach.

to be continued

God’s own country (2017), Francis Lee

Life happens in the unexpected corners of the world, and we need local voices in literature and cinema from which may all the gaps between all beings be filled.

A Vietnamese gay man might ask, how is it to be gay in the rural area of England, filling days with farming jobs and befriending no one but cows? Francis Lee answered that question with God’s own country.

Embracing such a quiet life in the countryside, with no college, no parade and no gay bars somehow makes people like Johnny become bitter with life and with others. His young years would have been wasted on dull work, binge drinking, and solitude if Gheorghe did not show up and showed him how sweet this life could be.

Like Ennis and Jack in Brokeback mountain, Gheorghe and Johnny have an unvoiced relationship. They exchanged love with no verbal expression. They had sex in a pretty strange way, rough and brutal, and it was Gheorghe who taught Johnny that sex could also be tender.

Gheorghe’s reluctance when Johnny asked him to stay derives from not only the fact that their relationship could be disapproved in a somewhat conservative neighborhood but also from the fact that Gheorghe is a Romanian migrant, pejoratively called ‘gypsy’, who are discriminated against for hundreds of years in Europe. They often live in caravans and lead a nomadic lifestyle, for they own no homeland.

[…]

But at the end of the day, they reconciled; the ‘faggot’ Johnny and the ‘gypsy’ Gheorghe made their own way to survive in God’s own country.

(to be revised)

mysterious-skin-2004-gregg-araki

Mysterious skin (2004), Gregg Araki

Traumatic experiences in childhood could leave huge impact on adolescence. To many people, it is impossible to escape those haunting memories, especially the intense ones like the early sexual encounter.

Eight-year-old Neil had sex for the first time with his charming coach, and from then on no other man could ever fulfill the void that his coach left in him.

“And I know some people might think it’s fucked up or terrible or whatever, but what happened that summer is a huge part of me. No one ever made me feel that way, before or since. Like, I was, I was special.”

To Brian, five hours of being raped by an adult was so mentally unbearable that he had to conceive of aliens to compensate for it.

The movie theme of pedophilia and child abuse really reminds me of the case of Charles Jouy and Sophie Adam in Foucault’s L’Histoire de la sexualité. What should we really think of people like Neil’s coach? Is pedophile really an identity?

All deviant forms of sexuality posed threats to the status quo. When it comes to laws or policy making, regarding utilitarianism, what matters is the well-being for most, not for all.

To queer people, it can’t be more accurate that hell is others, but that is the inevitable price we must pay for socializing. We should not ask for transgender bathroom; we’d rather ask for other acceptable forms of tolerance. Happiness is yet a small blanket for a great number of people in a freezing winter night; one’s satisfaction is compensated with another’s suffering.

This is why we cannot fully live the way we want to. Suppressing ourselves, or adjusting ourselves is to some extent a must for socialization.

(to be revised)

The way he looks (2014), Daniel Ribeiro

This movie was developed from the short film Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho.

People say that the opening scene is very important, for it can be read as capturing the overall spirit of the movie. This Brazilian film starts with a boy and a girl in swimsuit lying beside the pool. They are spending their bantering leisure time talking about summer vacation and sexual discoveries. Yes, it smells like teen spirit, with hormones and adolescent problems.

Why is it that Leo, the protagonist of the film, is innately blind? Is it because the director wants to emphasize the acoustic and tactile and fragranced aspects of intimacy, which blurs the boundary of gender difference?

He is young and beautiful, and he loves classical music. Who doesn’t want to protect such a lovely creature? His parents, however, are a little too overprotective. Growing up with such disability, Leo knows too well that he is different, and that other people manage to act as if it is no big of a deal in order to lessen his anxiety, so at some point he would love to start over in a completely new environment where he could know how real this life could be to a sightless man.

Apart from that adolescent problem, there’s also Leo’s aspiration to feel the intimate touches of another body. Then we have Gabriel, a pretty cool newcomer to town who makes Leo’s wish come true.

One of the themes of this movie could possibly be communication. Gabriel tries to use Leo’s language to help him expand his world, and it’s the language of touches and sounds.

I love coming-of-age movies because they help me relived all the possibilities of my youth, which I have and have not yet been through. Youth is a fleeting glimpse, but it harbors the eternity (Goethe).