Buster takes a rinky-dink train from his modest rural homestead to see to his late father’s estate, but falls for a girl along the way who turns out to be from the now-wealthy family that his own family has feuded with for generations. When they catch wind of Buster’s arrival in town, the gal’s father and brothers set out to kill him, but refuse to pull the trigger when he’s in their house, as that’s not how hospitable southern gentlemen behave. A comedy of manners and narrowly avoided attempted murder, it satirizes the senselessness of hostility between people who’ve held a grudge for so long they couldn’t even tell you what they were mad about to begin with anymore, and the silliness of where and when social niceties are expected.
The bigger laughs and excitement come as the brothers go to ridiculous lengths to see Buster dead, chasing him into increasingly precarious situations and eventually to a waterfall‘s edge where he pulls an insane, proto-Ethan Hunt style rescue stunt to save his sweetheart. But the lead up to that astounding action-comedy crescendo is plenty charming. The bumpy ride through the mountains is a hoot, such as when the train fits neatly through a tunnel like a Tetris piece moving into place, or when the camera lingers on the various people and animals (memorably, a donkey) that the train passes, building out our sense of a world beyond the frame. I do wish we got a spin-off where we followed the random fellow throwing rocks at the train conductor because I have no idea what that was about(but I was very amused).
A soldier returns from WWI and searches for satisfying work, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him in a chain gang, where he suffers through grueling work and miserable treatment day after day before finally making a daring escape. As a wanted man, he runs, narrowly avoiding the law’s clutches at several turns, and slowly finds himself on his way to the life he dreamed of, but a cruel and unjust system turns out to not be done with him yet.
A suspenseful and involving drama that doubles as an indictment of the inhumanity in the penal system it depicts, it boasts efficient storytelling by Mervyn LeRoy, and a solid, sympathetic performance by Paul Muni. More than a few sequences thrill, especially our protagonist’s nerve-wracking escape from the prison camp, and his nearly being caught on multiple occasions as he tries to skip town. Subtle formal touches stand out too, like a sideways tracking shot that passes over the faces of demoralized inmates as they listen to a man being whipped, or the sounds of hammers endlessly smacking rocks or railroad ties. Not to mention a powerful finish, which shows Muni just briefly emerging from darkness to say goodbye to a lover, before retreating back into it.
A searingly honest chapter in the life of an unruly foster child, Francois, who as the film begins, is handed back to Social Services by a youngish married couple who can’t bear his egregious misbehavior— stealing, fighting, hurting animals (some of which is tough to watch). From there, Pialat follows Francois into the home of the Thierry‘s, a much older husband and wife, who already have one foster child, an older boy, and also live with the wife’s elderly mother.
It bears resemblance to The 400 Blows as a heartbreaking, naturalistic, and semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story from a French auteur. Michel Terrazon, who plays Francois, even looks quite like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Their mischievous smirks are remarkably alike, and God can only imagine what kind of shit they’d pull if Francois and Antoine existed in the same world and met each other. It also brought the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike to mind.
Pialat doesn’t indict anyone for failing Francois or any of the other foster children we see getting shuttled around, some of whom are so devastatingly young and vulnerable (and adorable), nor does he excuse any of Francois’ heinous wrongdoing. He simply observes, giving equal aesthetic treatment to moments of kindness, pain, bonding, and separation. The Thierry’s, though sometimes tough, are patient, loving people who see the good and sweetness beneath by Francois’ volatile temperament; his growing close with Grandma Thierry is enormously touching. The ending hurts, but it’s in keeping with the film’s piercingly truthful beauty.
Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.
This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community.
“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.
Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture.
Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex.
However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.
However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.
Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.
Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer
Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.
To say it’s about an unhappily married couple coming undone isn’t exactly a fair synopsis, as that suggests Rossellini spends the runtime building up to Katherine and Alex openly acknowledging their marital dissatisfaction and acting on it. In fact, and to my surprise, Rossellini quickly establishes that these bourgeois Brits have little passion for each other anymore. Alex talks of being “bored” during the opening car ride, and Katherine remarks in the following scene in their hotel room that they don’t really know each other at all. All it took was a break from domesticity and routine – what was meant to be a business trip in Naples with a couple days of relaxation tacked on – for their alienation from one another to be thrown in sharp relief.
And so they spend their Neapolitan sojourn mostly apart instead of together. Katherine ventures out alone to see the sights – sculptures at the museum, catacombs, volcanic activity at Mount Vesuvius – in moody, potent sequences, some of the film’s best. Evocative of history, death, and the mysteries of the earth, the marble figures, rows of skulls, and eddies of volcanic smoke stir up something in Katherine, as if they’re bringing her to the cusp of a spiritual or emotional breakthrough. Alex, meanwhile, hits the bars and eyes local women. I do wonder if Rossellini errs in showing his cards and revealing that he sides with Katherine; Alex’s leering is less flattering than anything we see Katherine do with her time alone. Nights together reveal simmering jealousies and bitterness.
The story approaches its emotional apex during Katherine and Alex’s lone outing together to see the excavation of two skeletons, lovers entombed by ash after Vesuvius erupted long ago. A symbol of love that endured until the moment it was swallowed by darkness. It prompts an epiphany to manifest in the finale that, while far too abrupt, sees them briefly driven apart but finding each other once again.
In a fleet-footed adventure, two clownish peasants with a comical love-hate relationship (famously the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2) accompany a princess in disguise and her samurai guard on a trek through enemy territory. In exchange, they’ll get a piece of the gold that they help to haul… that is, if they don’t succumb to temptation and try to steal it before journey’s end.
Mostly light in mood, it shows Kurosawa playfully poking fun at human greed and the distrust it can sew between people, making up for a lack of complexity in character with captivating use of widescreen compositions (you wouldn’t know from the splendor of it that this was his first time employing the format). Most memorably striking are the high and low angle shots of the towering, jagged mountain peaks that the titular fortress is nestled between, where the peasants first meet their royal companions.
For laughs, the movie does rely heavily on the peasants quarreling and quickly becoming selfish, but for me, it stopped short of growing tiresome. It’s the blend of comedy and action that makes this a rip-roaring ride. The action is spectacularly staged, from the large set pieces (such as the early sequence in which a mass of imprisoned peasants revolt and flee from their captors) to the more contained confrontations (such as the spear duel between the guard and an old friend turned foe). The latter scene is shot with patience and deliberation, and is another clear inspiration for Star Wars, the spears reminiscent of lightsabers.
Jack, Zack, and Bob: a layabout pimp who isn’t much of a talker, a downbeat DJ whose way with words is buttery smooth, and an Italian tourist with an ever-growing notebook of American idioms, an affection for American poetry, and a less than firm grip on English. A motley trio who land themselves in the Louisiana slammer, which they manage to escape from. This being a Jim Jarmusch movie, however, the prison break isn’t for the sake of thrills or suspense; Down by Law is a cool, languid, funny and fable-like hangout film, with Roberto Benigni’s Bob serving as its crucial ingredient, the spark that along with Robby Müller‘s pristine black-and-white cinematography and John Lurie’s evocative score brings the magic.
Bob might be the foreigner, but Zack and Jack are even more ineffective at meaningful communication. Rather than verbally hash out their beef with each other, they can’t help but get into physical tussles. “Do you say, in English, ‘I look-a at the window’, or do you say, ‘I look-a out the window?’” “Well, in this case, Bob, I’m afraid you gotta say ‘I look at the window.’” Language itself might be the film’s most wonderful motif.
As charismatic as he is cynical and unscrupulous, down on his luck newspaperman Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas, fantastic) stumbles on exactly the kind of “human interest” story he can exploit to get himself out of the boonies of New Mexico and back into the big leagues of East Coast journalism. A man has gotten himself trapped deep inside an old Native American cliff dwelling just off the highway, and while getting him out could have been a matter of hours, Tatum – abetted by a couple of other morally bankrupt individuals who see an opportunity to cash in – connives to stretch the incident into nearly a week, allowing himself the time to generate national publicity and attract the media spotlight. Leo Minosa, meanwhile, alone and buried up to his waist in the claustrophobic darkness of the cave, can do nothing but wait as his health and hope of being rescued wane – a disturbing thing to witness. A riveting, gut-punching critique of media sensationalism and greed, the movie might not have any fedoras or foggy city streets, but it’s undoubtedly in the realm of film noir with its pessimistic, hard-bitten outlook and savagely amoral primary characters. I love that in the end, Wilder declines to give us any reason to have faith in these people, instead only further twisting the knife.
Gary Cooper’s pioneering Western deserves its place in the sun
The year 2021 marks the 120th birth and 60th death anniversary of Gary Cooper who, after some 100 films over four decades, is most remembered for one.
First let’s get the quiz out of the way.
The starring role in a Western was once offered in turn to John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston. All turned it down. Which movie was it?
The movie that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four?
The movie that won four Golden Globes? The same movie that marked Lee Van Cleef’s Hollywood debut, in which he didn’t deliver a single line?
High Noon (1952).
The very utterance conjures up images of the Old West but with a theme that’s as alive today as when it was released.
The story’s been told and re-told a hundred times. If you’re interested in the Cold War theatrics backstory you could do worse than read Glenn Frankel’s book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (Bloomsbury). But you’d do better to watch the movie – without distraction, start to finish.
It may be fun for 21st century audiences to insist ‘tell us the story’.
A more fascinating question though is: what does the story tell us?
High Noon is (it seems sacrilegious to use past tense) about the mother of all confrontations. The greatest of all showdowns. Not between Marshall and outlaw. Not between Sheriff and Indian. Not, as many critics have us believe, an allegorical political fight between communism and democracy. Not a metaphorical fight between civilization and chaos. Not a fight at all.
High Noon is, more than anything else, about a man confronting himself, his fears, his weaknesses, his utter desolation. His discovery that defiant strength sometimes hides beneath seemingly debilitating weakness. That the sensible thing (saving your skin), is seldom the right thing. That the only kind of respect worth fighting for, is self-respect. That respect comes not only from what you did ‘back then’ but also from what you’re doing ‘right here, right now’.
High Noon is also about a woman confronting herself. Her realisation that love is nothing if it isn’t tested. It earns its stripes not amidst the swirl of success but amidst the ruin of rejection. Courage and conviction are central to love – a love that flees both, isn’t love in the first place.
That’s what makes High Noon endure beyond its age, rise above its genre.
Contemporary audiences spoiled by colour, hi-def, high-octane direction, high-tech cinematography, editing, sound and polished acting may well wince at the movie’s relatively bare look and feel. But it struggled with the tools of its day to tell a story that would outlive it. We must approach it with the patience and understanding it deserves. The way we’d approach a 92-year old lady or a two-year old boy. We must make the effort to learn from it, to look beyond its apparent dribbling.
High Noon remains the first of the major Westerns to turn its back on scripts preoccupied with guns, girls and gold. Some of the most memorable 1950s and 60s Westerns – The Searchers, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 3:10 to Yuma, Last Train from Gun Hill, Magnificent Seven, True Grit – merely followed High Noon’s anthem of defending the defenceless, sacrificing self-interest for a greater good.
High Noon spoke compellingly to that generation then. It speaks as hauntingly to ours now. It will speak as eloquently to generations to come. Its lead actor – man’s man Gary Cooper – plays the fearful, conflicted, needy protagonist Will Kane. Four decades before Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny (Unforgiven). Like Cooper, Eastwood would play macho-lead for years before he played more flawed protagonists – heroes for their moral, not physical feats.
Critics may still pan the casting of 50-year old Cooper opposite 23-year old Grace Kelly but as the odds stack up against him, their age differential is the least of his worries. The 5’6” petite Quaker bride looks up at her 6’3” gangly groom and snaps: ‘You don’t have to be a hero, not for me’. He barks back ‘I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy!’
In those closing scenes with Cooper left alone to face near-certain death before vengeful outlaws, the camera rises to brood upon a town that’s washed its hands off his predicament. The soaring lens at once mocking his alienation and willing him to rise above himself. In one of Hollywood’s most poignant moments a forlorn Cooper nervously tugs at his belt, wipes the sweat off his brow and with one last despairingly hopeful look at the deserted streets, trudges toward his fate – an armed gang riding in on the noon train.
In one of the most courageous script-twists for that era the town’s lawman is rescued not by archetypal hired-guns, powerful ranchers or strongmen but by a woman. A deeply spiritual woman, who abhors violence. As he battles alone, his bride who first deserts him, turns back, then defends him in that final gunfight.
Producer Stanley Kramer, Director Fred Zinnemann, Screenwriter Carl Foreman and Music composer-conductor Dmitri Tiomkin, in their own way, stamped their identities on a film that shines even after repeated viewing. 2021 also marks Kramer’s 20th death anniversary. He produced and directed some of the best movies of that era – The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and produced The Wild One and Death of a Salesman.
Katy Jurado, the first Latin American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress in Broken Lance) won her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for High Noon. Fittingly, Jurado as Helen Ramirez, one-time lover of both villain and hero has some of the best lines.
It’s Helen who says with clarity: You’re a good-looking boy, you’ve big broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.
It’s Helen who talks courage into a fleeing Amy: I don’t understand you. If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight!
Amy taunts her: Why don’t you?
Helen taunts her right back: He’s not my man. He’s yours!
And it’s Helen who warns: Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too.
Of the hundred or so movies he acted in, over four decades from the 1920s to the 1960s, Gary Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor on five occasions and won twice – one for High Noon. He beat some heavies that year – Marlon Brando (for Viva Zapata!), Kirk Douglas (for The Bad and the Beautiful) and Alec Guinness (for The Lavender Hill Mob).
The 25th Academy Awards 1953 saw some pretty sharp 1952 contenders for Best Picture alongside High Noon: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Pandro S. Berman’s Ivanhoe, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man. DeMille’s movie won but High Noon should have. It isn’t merely a ‘Western’. It isn’t merely an American movie about American stories. It’s a universal movie about universal values and choices. It isn’t even a 1950s movie but a movie for all ages.
Gary Cooper’s filmography is overwhelmingly black-and-white. High Noon was no different. As if by extension, his character Will Kane demonstrates that when it comes to choosing between good and bad, life isn’t technicolour. It isn’t even grey. It’s, well, simpler. Cooper seems to say that the greatest victory is one in which we stubbornly choose what’s doing what’s right over self-preservation or meek submission to overwhelming power. Each age, Cooper seems to say, will make that choice harder by trying to redefine ‘what’s right’. It’s up to us to see through that.
Cooper carried that rather simple black-and-white moral compass late into his “colour” career – Man of the West, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, They Came to Cordura, The Hanging Tree. But in no other other movie is his morality as utterly convincing as in High Noon. There’s a point when you no longer see Will Kane but Cooper himself. And he seems to say, courage isn’t the absence of self-doubt but the refusal to stop wrestling with that same self-doubt. So he wrestles, with no more certainty than the fact that he must wrestle. He isn’t so much standing his ground as refusing to flee. He isn’t scared about giving up or giving in because his new bride and the whole damn town are watching him. He’s terrified because he’s watching himself.
In one scene Judge Percy laments: This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.
Few characters in movie history have been more wrong.