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Vanity Fair is known primarily as an account of 19th-century social climbing, utterly English, stuffy, and domestic. Yet there’s another theme or two in that overstuffed chronicle, as was recognized by Leo Tolstoy, who modeled War and Peace on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, and has now occurred to Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair. The Battle of Waterloo is a pivotal event in the book, as it is in Nair’s adaptation of it, and exotic India—where both Thackeray and Nair were born—beckons to Becky Sharp, the heroine of this “novel without a hero.” In Nair’s motley retelling, Vanity Fair doesn’t quite become Mayfair Masala, but it’s certainly Eastern enough to complement the two other Asian epics that arrive this week.
Nearly 900 pages in its current Penguin Classics edition, Vanity Fair is not easily condensed into a 135-minute drama. Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet’s original screenplay, reworked by Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes in consultation with the director, marshals nearly a dozen characters whose fates are intertwined over several decades. Becky (Reese Witherspoon) is the orphaned, impoverished daughter of an English artist and a French chanteuse. At boarding school, she becomes close friends with Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), whose family is wealthy but not aristocratic. Becky and Amelia’s older brother, Jos (Tony Maudsley), who’s visiting from his post in India, are immediately smitten with each other, but she is considered too lowly to marry a Sedley.
Becky is sent to work as a governess at the shabby home of disheveled nobleman Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) and soon impresses Pitt’s sister, Matilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins), who invites the young governess to live with her in London. Becky falls from Mathilda’s favor, however, after she impulsively marries the old woman’s nephew, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), a charming army officer and a hopeless gambler. Meanwhile, the Sedleys are driven into bankruptcy, leading imperious businessman Mr. Osborne (Jim Broadbent) to command his son, George (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), to end his engagement to Amelia.
Such a break might benefit George’s friend and fellow officer, William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), who secretly adores Amelia. But George, who doesn’t love his fiancée, marries her to spite his father, thus beginning an unhappy union that parallels Becky’s. Even after George dies at Waterloo, Amelia stays faithful to his memory, refusing to be more than friends with Dobbin. Crushed by her husband’s debts, Becky becomes scandalously close to the wealthy, conniving Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who collects her father’s paintings.
Although Nair was a childhood fan of Thackeray’s book, her Vanity Fair is far from obsessively faithful. Indeed, the director boasted to the New York Times that “I didn’t hire a single person who had ever worked on a period film.” (If she’s referring to the actors, however, she’s mistaken: Every one of the movie’s nine billed performers has previously appeared in a historical movie.) Nair has moved much of the drawing-room chatter outside and supplemented the usual English creams and grays with vivid, iridescent colors. (She quickly establishes her design agenda by embellishing the opening credits with a peacock.) The two most audacious sequences are essentially raves, one set in Vauxhall Park and the other at an opulent Steyne gala: While Indian or Arabic music plays, dancers slither sinuously as the pre-Edison equivalents of strobe lights flash. It wouldn’t come as any great surprise to spot Becky slipping Amelia an E.
Upsetting as they may be to purists, such scenes could work if they formed part of a coherent larger assault on the source material—after all, Nair has dedicated the film to anti-Orientalist Edward Said. But the flamboyant parties, like the movie’s brazenly extrapolated happy ending, just contribute to an overall sense of confusion: Everything about Vanity Fair is jumbled, from its periodic invocations of India to its assortment of acting styles.
Despite an adequate English accent, Witherspoon essentially plays Becky as if she were the protagonist of Legally Blonde 3, and Ifans’ effort not to appear buffoonish leads to near-paralytic stiffness—a particularly unfortunate development, given that Dobbin is widely considered Thackeray’s alter ego. In general, the younger players pale next to the confidently stylized performances of the older actors, especially Atkins and Byrne, who also have some of the best lines. The empire may have faded, but British theatrical hegemony can still easily overwhelm revisionist provocations as haphazard as this one.
In 1999, writer-director Kang Je-gyu set South Korean attendance records for a homegrown film with Shiri, which addressed the generally taboo subject of hostility between the two halves of his ruptured country. Audacious as its theme may have been, the movie was nothing more than a pastiche of the Anglo-American spy and Hong Kong action genres. Now Kang has topped Shiri—or at least the Korean box office—with Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, which is also about the North-South conflict. The new film, set during the 1950–1953 Korean War, is much more naturalistic than its predecessor—but only in certain ways.
In essence, Taegukgi is the sort of battlefield movie Hollywood used to make: a wartime family melodrama with elementary psychological conflict and broad-stroke characterization. Indeed, the fundamental story could very well come dressed in the blue and gray of American Civil War sagas: When North Korea invades the South, shoeshine boy and would-be cobbler Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) is prepared to fight, as long as his younger brother, Jin-suk (Won Bin), is not called up. An excellent student, Jin-suk is expected to be his fatherless family’s salvation, so Jin-tae has abandoned his own education to support his brother’s. (Jin-suk also supposedly has a weak heart, although that doesn’t affect him in any noticeable way.) After Jin-tae fails to keep his brother out of uniform, he decides to become a decorated hero and then use his influence to have Jin-suk discharged. But as Jin-tae’s exploits turn increasingly reckless, Jin-suk becomes alienated from his brother. Ultimately, the two men find themselves on opposite sides, their sibling rivalry gone literally amok.
If Kang’s fundamental narrative is glib and unconvincing, he dresses it in persuasive details. A Korean descendant of such high-pitched cinematic bloodbaths as The Wild Bunch, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon, Taegukgi features spurting arteries, maggot-infested wounds, and mounds of corpses. There is no glamour and less honor in the film’s many battle scenes, in which South Koreans are nearly as likely to massacre prisoners and bystanders as are their cousins from the Communist North. In addition, the film pointedly observes, such barbarism is not restricted to the combat zone. Away from the front, apolitical South Korean civilians—including Jin-tae’s blameless fiancée, Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo)—are rounded up, accused of being Communist sympathizers, and often shot.
Although they’re mentioned, American and other United Nations– affiliated troops are never shown. The film depicts the Korean conflict as an intramural struggle rather than a local flare-up of the global Cold War—a popular position in contemporary Korea, if perhaps a naive one. Kang’s script is also ingenuous, from the array of stock supporting characters—the fortune teller who’s always wrong, the family man whose attachment to a photo of his wife and child foretells his doom—to its use of such Victorian-style narrative talismans as a handkerchief and a fountain pen. Though the director’s acknowledgment of war’s butchery and anti-Communism’s excesses is anything but simplistic, these features and Dong-jun Lee’s score argue strenuously that Taegukgi is sheer, if blood-soaked, soap opera. Only connoisseurs of war films or Cold War politics are likely to experience it as anything else.
Set in mid-18th-century Siam, Bang Rajan is the least contemporary of this week’s Asian-themed films, yet it may well be the goriest. Director and co-writer Thanit Jitnukul’s historical epic, as big a hit in its native land as Taegukgi was in Korea, celebrates the suicidal determination of one remote jungle town to halt the Burmese advance on Ayutthaya, then the capital of the country now known as Thailand. (The Burmese also invaded Siam in last year’s The Legend of Suriyothai, but that movie was based on events that happened two centuries earlier.) Principally a series of savage battles, the movie introduces various residents of the titular village mostly so the audience can care whether they live or die—not that their odds of surviving ever seem particularly good.
With more guns and fewer elephants than Suriyothai, Bang Rajan looks much like any battleground flick of the last 20 years. The movie’s visual style is characterized by the customary quick cuts, elegiac slo-mo, and faux-combat handheld camera—it’s a 235-year-old conflict seen through the lens of CBS News’ coverage of the Tet Offensive. In between the first and second major clash, we meet the villagers’ new leader, Chan (Jaran Ngamdee), who has an outsized mustache, a punky-looking flattop, and a simmering grudge against the invaders, who butchered his wife. Then, before the final showdown, we learn more about two brave young couples who will fight together, as well as a superb fighter and perpetual drunkard who’s just waiting for the emotional shock that will finally sober him up. Once the cannons begin to fire, however, these characters are all just so much random flesh to be punctured by arrows, hacked by swords, or pounded by a giant mallet that might seem comic if its effects weren’t so horrific.
Though both Vanity Fair and Taegukgi also gawk at fields strewn with bodies, Bang Rajan leads the pack in desecrated remains. (At one point, a devilish Burmese commander brandishes the severed head of a Thai woman.) The imagery is so incendiary, in fact, that it suggests a propaganda flick, the sort of movie that prompts viewers to dust off their rifles and head for the border. Neither occasional discussion of Buddhism’s consolations nor Chatchai Pongprapaphan’s soundtrack, which melds primal cries and thumps with Philip Glass–style violin ostinatos, does much to calm the feverish mood. Only the fact that these battles occurred in 1765–1766 suggests that Jitnukul is more interested in contemplation than vengeance.CP