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The Notebook's First Annual Writers' Poll: Edwin Mak

Each of the Notebook's writers were given the opportunity to submit two lists of their ten favorite films of 2008.  One is restricted to films receiving at least a week's theatrical run in the U.S., a limitation regretfully imposed only so that we may arrive at a final tally of the Notebook's overall favorites released this year.  The second list is optional, and opens up the field to anything seen in 2008, new or old, festival or regular release.  Each writer is also given space for words of explaination, rant, annotation, or anything else that occurs to them about their film viewing in 2008.
The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK)
Warlords (Peter Chan-Ho Sun, China/Hong Kong)
Che (Steven Soderburgh, Spain/France/USA)
Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, USA/China/Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary)
Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
Blind Mountain (Li Yang, China)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
24 City (Jia Zhangke, China)
Being based in London, I could offer only the second optional list, but it should still be concurrent enough. What strikes me in reviewing my selection is how many entries were touched by the moralistic – only the deliriously entertaining genre twister Sparrow and absurdist wonder that is The Sun Also Rises escape this category – offering one angle on looking back at this year’s film. Even films acclaimed for broaching sensitive issues placidly, belong to the moralistic – like Hunger and the Maze Prison question, 24 City and China’s modernising reforms, or Che and Marxist revolution. In that, what could be more successful an indication of moralism, than the consensus that each treated its topics fairly? The imperative of morality tales, like ideology, is not merely the justification of its corner but the conquering of “neutral ground.”
However, neutrality was by no means the most favoured approach. The heaviest global box-office hitter of the year (only narrowly missing this list) was a case in point. The Dark Knight made no bones about its didacticism. And due to a shared usage of larger-than-life “anti-hero” figures, it is tempting to link it to There Will Be Blood. Both titles reaffirmed populist moralism with such gusto, that it became almost Eisensteinian in zeal. But to separate the two, my preferred was the latter; on account of its consistency to its own moralist logic, even at the destruction of own its protagonists. It is the difference left between Day-Lewis’ character, who found himself mercilessly unredeemed despite volunteering to personalised humiliation; and the caped-crusader’s satisfying martyrdom after an ingenious narrative sleight-of-hand – that justifies the existence of a secret moral aristocracy no less.
Extending beyond the crises of Western liberal democratic thought, Warlords and Lust, Caution continued to entertain popular moral anxiety; and did so by demonstrating how ethical systems are interchangeable. Ang Lee’s blockbuster upheld, via an excursus on bodily intimacy, the moral authority of humanism; whereas Peter Chan’s dramatisation of a previously obscure incident in China’s late Qing dynasty history, appealed to a native Confucian system. And due to the virtual coincidence of Zhang Yimou’s Confucian-flavoured Olympic spectacles, the trials and tribulations of authoritarianism in Warlords gained an extra resonance. However, there proved to be moral vitality beneath these grand undertakings too; Blind Mountain being the latest reminder. Such is the potency of Li Yang’s social realism, that comparisons with veterans like Ken Loach do not seem like an overstatement; all the more remarkable since Li is yet to complete his “Blind trilogy” (Blind River is expected for 2009).
So far, each film mentioned anchors around humanism, but Delta stands as the anomaly – charting its moralist trajectory on a radically anti-humanist course. In a deceptively simple narrative – two siblings’ attempt at building a safe-house on uninhabited terrain, in a bid to escape their cruel social worlds – Kornél Mundruczó (and Yvette Biró as co-writer) forced human concerns to retreat where primordial nature advanced to the fore. And by doing so, they provided a thought-provoking meditation on morality’s own precariousness and ultimately arbitrary origin.
The inevitable question this line of thought leads to is: why did moralistic films present themselves again in such force? A reflex answer would be: because of the uncertainties arising from our world, and the actions of our rulers. But this response alone is inadequate in isolating who was responsible for making it such a force. In that, it becomes necessary to ask: is it simply worldly uncertainty that converts our filmmakers into compelling moralists; or is it our need for moral guidance that generates this fertile exploit? The answer to this will require further thought; just as 2008 was a year that left us pondering changes – some genuine others merely symbolic. We witnessed the final acts of the Bush (one last time go on...) and Blair era; the dawning of an unprecedented global economic menace; the return of direct action in Nepal, Greece and Thailand; an eastward tectonic shift in the balance of superpowers; and the herald of a new tentative American hopeful. It is no surprise then, that cinema showed many had lots on their minds.
Its too late now, but I reckon Wall-E deserves to break into this 10 (I only saw it last night), and it fits this moralistic trope perfectly too. Ah well…
why did moralistic films present themselves again in such force? I wonder: did they? Or do they every year? I feel like every year one could pick and choose a good amount of high profile mainstream and non-mainstream films from around the world that grapple with morality in such a way.
Since you put Stephen Chow on your profile’s Auteur list, were you able to see “CJ7” this year?
Daniel: For sure, morality with film is by no means anything new, but it was the variety and quality that stuck out for me this year. It just seemed like a vintage one, as it was for politics. I was curious also, with what kind of “shape” it would make in trying to connect these films… Adam: I did see CJ7, but was rather disappointed. What did you make of it?
I was actually pleasantly surprised by it. The, let’s say, “Spielbergisms” didn’t bother me so much because of the working-class populism I’ve always detected in his films. The appropriate slapstick seems pitched, both in age and tone, somewhere between “Fight Back to School” and “I Was Born, But…”, while I found the family dynamics pretty likable. Xu Jiao was pretty effective as a little boy, but then again at that age I suppose the gender differences haven’t quite coalesced. Chow’s straightforward performance grounded everything for me. It’s nowhere near as frenetic or straight-up funny as “Kung Fu Hustle” or “God of Cookery” or “King of Comedy,” but it worked well for me as a “Stephen Chow family film.”
You make a good case for CJ7, Adam. And “Spielbergism” is a good way of putting what it was that irked me. Perhaps CJ7 is only a logical progression towards a transnational aesthetic (it even had a theatrical release at the British Film Institute), and realises what was to come since Shaolin Soccer. ..Nice to share with a fellow Chow enthusiast here too!
Same here, Edwin. I’m looking forward to more articles from you as well.
A unique, consistent list. Seeing your general bias toward humanism and away from formalism, I’m not surprised you liked my post about Tuya’s Marriage. Thanks for the comment.
Alejandro: Could you expand a little on what you mean by toward humanism and away from formalism? I tend to relate formalism with film style rather than morality, and wondered if there was something I missed? “Tuya’s Marriage” is a tremendous film, have you seen any of the earlier two by Wang Quanan? Needless to say, I want to see them.
It sounds like you took my statement as intended. I commend your consistency (intellectual rigor, really) because my tastes are so eclectic that I couldn’t systematize a top ten list without a lot of disingenuous posturing. You have a clear vision—or is it a mission?—as a moviegoer. I recently saw Izgnanie and found it moralistically overbearing (talk about a sophomore slump). I wonder how that “played” for you, if you’ve seen it. I haven’t seen the other Wang films, but I noticed that he’s been working with Nan Yu from the get-go. Which is exciting enough in itself.
AA: That’s too kind. I’ve not heard of “Izganie,” but from your description, shall have to make myself wary of it.

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