Reduced but by no means relaxed, Japan’s return to the land of the fire breathing lizard after a twelve year sabbatical (where we’ve had to turn to South Korea for astounding East Asian genre fare) is a mixture of the high impact and the low key. Annulling the decades of tomfoolery and allegiance to matinee thrills that has infected the franchise, Shin revives the thunder lizard as a cantankerous, almost unknowable beast capable of unsublimated dispassion for the human race. Shin Godzilla is a work about the depletion of humanity that also, as ancillary achievement, depletes the gee-willickers Saturday morning routines plaguing most monster movies throughout history (from any nation). For this new film, think hysteria, but of the perverse, unhinged original-definition kind where the recesses of the mind are fodder for some destructive unclassifiable force.
In a broader statement to Japanese efficiency, as well as a rebuttal to the 2014 American Godzilla’s act of self-sabotage at the hands of a milquetoast individual hero, Shin Godzilla’s template isn’t organized around an avenging angel of a protagonist but a collective body of necessary action and nuts-and-bolts social ingenuity. It is, in other words, not a fire-and-brimstone adventure but a techno-thriller about the intricacies of the mass action and interlocking pistons and mechanisms of governmental and societal response to tragedy. Broadly, this is an in-the-offices Godzilla movie rather than one smitten with the trenches. A Godzilla film that is a statement about Fukushima, in other words, much as the original Gojira was a dark cloud with the nuclear fallout of WWII on the mind.
The connection between the two films is a little on the nose, a little programmatic in the “well we want to make a new serious Godzilla film to reintroduce him to the world again, so let’s do what worked the time we actually introduced him to the world”. But it’s the execution that counts, and shepherded to the screen by Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion, of all things) and Gamera-man Shinji Higuchi, Shin Godzilla is both apocalyptic and fittingly no-frills. The tone, rather than voluptuous and voluminous, is tightened, frightened, and battle-hardened. And ironic without being glib, which is harder than it looks; a scabrous undercurrent of comic turbulence exclusively channeled through copious, ever-expanding military text slathered all over the frame dryly mocks the film’s fetishistic appreciation of everything in Japan working in tandem like a machine. Each and every person, location, and piece of equipment we witness that could possibly play any role in any theoretical contraption to fell the titular beast is gifted an on-screen digital-text read-out describing their role, a slice of irony that stokes into full on absurdism by the time one of the information dumps takes up most of the screen.
Choice slivers of commentary aside, though, Shin Godzilla is refreshingly satisfied with testing the waters of the franchise without necessarily imagining any new moral vistas. It’s a back to basics approach, more or less, exorcizing that which has driven the franchise into the ground. In other words, it’s a re-materialization of the beast in a literal sense; it rekindles the tactility of Godzilla and the beast’s consequences, visualizing the impact of conflict rather than simply the conflict (and with visuals such as a wide-set, silhouetted shot of the beast going toe to toe with buildings far off in the distance, suggesting cosmic rather than merely human consequences to this conflict, Shin Godzilla is in good hands).
The film theorizes Godzilla as a morbid sculpture, a feet-in-the-ground dust-kicker (astoundingly, the fact that the character almost never moves is a great addendum to his menace and malevolence, as though it can wreak havoc at a standstill and doesn’t care to escape anything we pitiful humans can throw at it). That vision was the genesis of the character, not the defender of the Earth routine we’ve seen over-baked for decades; horror and disaster worked before, someone forgot that at some point, and if it’s broke …
Ip Man 3
The stable ground for a pure-action Ip Man film to stand on shook a little too much for comfort with Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, a fiercely aestheticized, abstracted, fascinatingly subjective interpretation of the character’s life that was an action film only notionally. But do try to find comfort where it rests, and comfort is somewhere adjacent to Ip Man 3, even if the film’s charms are relatively ephemeral compared to Kar-Wai’s impressionistic little devil (an important film, if not a masterpiece). Ip Man 3 is no important film, and hardly a Renoir as far as impressionism goes. But you could do quite a bit worse with 100 minutes on hand and a penchant for films that privilege movement, form, and momentum over narrative histrionics.
Now, the “But”: this particular film that privileges movement, form, and momentum over narrative histrionics also happens to privilege narrative histrionics, almost always to its bafflement. Ip Man (especially played by Donnie Yen) as a character living his life is subject enough (the character was the progenitor of the Wing Chun school of martial arts practiced by Bruce Lee, but also an expressly important figure and a national hero/myth even before Lee entered the picture). Yet this life is plainly not enough for the writers of Ip Man 3, leading to an over-cooked structure that is hazardously close to a disaster. Or at least, wade carefully: there be monsters there. Not sufficient with an aging Ip Man (Yen, never better and always good to begin with) organizing a martial arts school to give back to his community and educate the youth not only in body but mind and spirit, the film hits the ground running with … where to begin.
There are two separate A-plots involving relatively separate outside forces (the triad and Mike Tyson respectively, and not kidding) wishing to do harm to the school by either shutting it down or selling the younger students into slavery (again, “Mike Tyson sells people in slavery”, so bring your goggles to see through the story murk while treading). That not being enough (and, rest assured, it’s already more than enough), there are also tensions involving Ip Man’s father (jealous of his son’s success) and Ip Man’s wife (dying of cancer), both threads that are happy to be sublimated until the film calls on them to extend the runtime. And, annoyingly but expectedly, a young Bruce Lee makes a cameo appearance through an astounding lookalike in a scene that mirrors the breast cancer line in The Room for inexplicable lack of necessity.
But once the film swats away the recesses of deepest and darkest plot and broaches the trenches of its imaginative affinity with physical momentum and the kineticism and sculpting of the human body, the film’s ears perk up. These showpiece sequences are relatively insoluble with the narrative, but they cover a mighty number of sins anyway. Director Wilson Yip, choreographer Yen Woo-Ping, and Yen himself all work to invoke both high-impact fierceness and feather-light grace in their pristine but seemingly improvised compositions (as though the camera could flow in a new direction at any moment, and indeed much of the choreography was partly improvised). Thankfully quelling the deliriously unmodulated, scalding-hot jingoism of the first sequel (partly because the story this time around is too convoluted to qualify within any ideology or “ism”), the film’s consolation is a breathlessly inspired cavalcade of brutal ballets as floridly choreographed as dance but without sacrificing the primal tremble of a punch to the gut.
I would say “but that’s all the film has going for it”. But you know, write what you know, and Ip Man punches how it knows. It’s only sometimes great, but I’ll take unstable spikes and valleys to keep you on your toes over a stillwater flatline of continual, unflagging mediocrity (even “decent”-cy) any day of the week. Ip Man 3 doesn’t always have it, but it’s got it where it counts.