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At the Movies

Charm and Excess


If you’re tired of Hollywood clichés and find most “coming attractions” to be assaults on your ear drums, you will welcome The Cup (also listed under the title Phörpa), the first movie to be made in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Don’t worry about the language barrier, because director Khyentse Norbu is able to tell its simple story by concentrating on the faces and gestures of his Tibetan monk actors. (Yes, there are also subtitles.)

Norbu made “The Cup” in a Buddhist monastery, whose residents, including the abbot (Lama Chonjor), constitute his cast, but he has clearly aimed the movie primarily at Western audiences. Growing up in a monastery himself, Norbu saw his first movie at 18, and then studied in England where he became fascinated with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu.

Though it lingers over Buddhist services and shows great respect for the abbot, “The Cup” is primarily a wry comedy that shows its rambunctious, orange-robed young monks passing notes to each other -- and sometimes even falling asleep -- during the liturgy. The movie extracts much of its gentle humor from the encounter between ancient tradition and today’s secular “temptations,” most notably the fascination of the monks for soccer.

The climax comes when the cocky 14-year-old Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro) manages to get a TV set into the monastery in time for the 1998 World Soccer Cup final between France and Brazil. And Norbu exploits an additional advantage: Geko, the abbot’s assistant, who is responsible for the discipline of his young charges, is played by Orgyen’s real-life father, Orgyen Tobgyal.

The movie takes its time, allowing viewers to get accustomed to prayer chanting and the sound of gongs, and to discover character distinctions among the monks. Two newcomers arrive at the monastery after a perilous escape from Tibet, sounding a political theme reinforced by the wise and kindly abbot when he sighs that he will probably never see his native land again.

A Coca-Cola can, used by the young monks as a soccer ball, ends up as a candleholder in the hut of a strange soothsayer who never washes his hair. The diminutive Orgyen wears the jersey of the Brazilian star Reynaldo under his robes, but roots for France in the finals because he believes it is has consistently supported the Tibetan cause. (Asked about the United States, he says it is completely scared of China.)

When Geko catches some of the young monks returning to the monastery late at night after watching a semifinal match in the nearby village, severe discipline seems imminent. But the abbot, to whom soccer is a complete novelty, can hardly believe Geko’s description -- “two civilized nations fighting over a ball!” -- and after determining that no sex is involved, tells his assistant not to let the boys know he has been told about it.

Orgyen says the reason the heads of prospective monks are shaved is “so girls will think we’re ugly,” but by the end we’re reminded of the Buddhist insight that “clinging to the I has created all the trouble.” Director Norbu may someday direct his talent to making a more profoundly Buddhist film; for now I’m grateful that he’s made one capable of charming a large audience.

Liam Neeson gets a chance to do comedy in Gun Shy, but deserves a stronger vehicle. First-time director Eric Blakeney, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to have pieced together bits from too many TV shows about undercover cops and strong men in psychotherapy. The result is that it’s hard to follow the plot, which is another example of Hollywood’s fascination with gangsters, and one that should make Dominican-Americans join their Italian-American cousins in protest against being constantly presented as criminals.

Undercover agent Charlie Mayo (Neeson) was exposed during a sting operation and shoved face down in a pile of watermelon at a wild Miami party while awaiting instant execution. Though rescued at the last minute, he constantly relives the scene in nightmares and understandably wants out from his dangerous work. Pretty soon he is seeing a psychiatrist who mostly says he has to see his other patients but recommends group therapy.

The movie’s notion of “meeting cute” is to send Charlie to Judy Tipp (Sandra Bullock), a gastroenterologist. Although she immediately takes on Charlie’s case and shows him her nice roof garden, their relationship is neither credible nor charming. This doesn’t mean that “Gun Shy” doesn’t have some legitimate laughs -- such as when Charlie manages to act super-cool during tense meetings with his criminal confederates and then races to the nearest bathroom -- but it’s no competition with “Analyze This” or “Out of Sight.”

The movie’s violence becomes tiresome, as does the contempt with which it looks at too many of its stereotypical characters. Why can’t writers of crime movies learn from Elmore Leonard who manages to suggest a little humanity in all but his most ruthless killers?

Friends I trusted told me to read David Guterson’s popular 1994 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, but I was lazy and waited for the movie. That was a mistake. Director Scott Hicks was apparently told that the novel was “poetic,” and decided to translate its narrative into exquisite nature-photography that calls far too much attention to itself. The result weakens an inherently strong story about the rounding up of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the 1950 murder trial of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a young Japanese-American accused of killing a fisherman on his boat off the coast of an island north of Puget Sound.

The most annoying aspect of the movie is its reliance on constant flashbacks. The novel employed a similar structure, but time works differently in film where constant shifts between present and past prevent viewers from getting a clear sense of what is happening when.

Since the intention was to make the audience sympathize with the plight of the Japanese-Americans, it was counter-productive to have the action seen primarily through the memories of Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a young American reporter covering Miyamoto’s trial. Amazingly, the movie never presents the daily lives of the Japanese-Americans living on the island, though there are entrancing shots of Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), the defendant’s wife, as it recalls her teenage romance with Ishmael. Over and over it returns to idyllic pictures of Hatsue and Ishmael running on the beach or meeting secretly in the trunk of a cedar tree, but there is no effort to show the young woman within her community.

Because her mother disapproves of interracial relationships, Hatsue writes Ishmael to say that they cannot see each other any longer -- a letter he receives while he is fighting in the Pacific during World War II. The effect is to undermine our sense of the injustice done to Japanese-Americans; instead, we are asked to identify with Ishmael’s bittersweet memories. The acting is good, and its photography supports the overall mood of romantic melancholy, but “Snow Falling on Cedars” ultimately drowns in sentimental excess.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000