LADY IN THE WATER
ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright
written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
starring Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Shi-hoo, Kwon Yea-young
written and directed by Park Chanwook
by Walter Chaw The creeping, inescapable feeling is that M. Night Shyamalan would like to be known as "M. Christ Shyamalan": a guy who wants you to drink the Kool-Aid; a messiah with a shrinking flock preaching a platform that his increasingly deluded, astonishingly arrogant fables are actually themselves the secret to world peace. He claims to hear voices--the first couple of times he did so (here in the stray interview, there in The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, that abhorrent mock-documentary he did for the Sci-Fi Channel), I thought he was kidding. Hell, the first couple of times he did it, he probably was kidding. But I don't think he's kidding anymore. And there's no longer any currency in playing this ethereal shaman card. Prancing about like a mystic while shitting away millions of other people's money isn't a pastime with longevity: it's something only a zealot would do. I think he's gone off the deep end, hubris first, overfed to bloating on a steady diet of his own press and the tender ministrations of yes-men too afraid to set off Shyamalan's diseased persecution complex by telling him that while he might be good at a few things, Lady in the Water was unsalvageable. When Disney executives did approximately that, Shyamalan took his ball and went across the street to Warner Brothers.
Thing is that everything Disney told Shyamalan about this film (that he needed not to take such a big role for himself, that he needed not to have an officious asshole of a film critic be the victim of an animal attack, that the script begged another pass through the typewriter at least) turns out to have been pretty fair, and temperate, criticism. What they also should have told him--if they didn't--is that, as an Asian himself, he should resist the urge to indulge in the two most damaging stereotypes this culture harbours for Asian women: the first the "me ruv you rong time" pidgin-shouting gook whore (poor Cindy Cheung, whose character Yung Soon is introduced from behind as two men try not to gape at her tits), the other the wizened non-English speaking Dragon Lady, spitting and cursing hilariously while offering the Ancient Chinese Secret, introduced by "regend say." No, I'm not kidding. Pair them with the Mexican family featuring five howling girls (who, in the film's prologue, hysterically identify a bug under their sink as a creature sent from the devil) and find in Lady in the Water a picture distasteful not only for its creator's raging God complex, but also for Shyamalan's abandonment of narrative, film craft, and shame. Put aside all of the film's philosophical pomposity and Lady in the Water is still boring, embarrassingly stupid, humiliatingly transparent, notably un-thrilling, and able in its one feat of enchantment (and only discernible twist) to make the low-brow decision-makers at Disney look like fucking geniuses.
Opening with a simple animation in the vein of Watership Down's prologue (if not nearly as cool), Lady in the Water tells of the sea-bound narfs, who once upon a time had a deep spiritual connection with Man--but Man was so consumed by an overwhelming need to "own everything" he lost contact with the narfs. Yet the narfs didn't give up on Man and thus send their daughters--in this case Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), an apparently-exceptional madam narf--to track down people they hope to "awaken" with some kind of Man-saving inspiration. Beginning its life as a bedtime story Shyamalan elaborated upon nightly for his kids, Lady in the Water succeeds, if nothing else, at putting us to sleep, and in record time.
Opposing the narfs are scrunts, dogs with grass for hair, while narfs successful in spreading their blank message of non-specific hope are ferried home by giant eagles that, in Shyamalan's wondrous fantasia, are called Giant Eagles. There's also a trio of monkeys made out of trees called the "Tartutic," completing a cycle of nonsense noises. I've been speaking an Asian tongue for thirty-plus years now and I'm pretty confident that noises like "narf" and "tartutic" and "scrunt" and "giant eagle" just don't occur. That's one place to poke a hole in this abortion--others include a scene where apartment superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) holds his breath for twenty minutes, or the question of how if the narf is only in peril from the scrunt when it's out of the water, why not get back in the water? In fact Story, despite having a luxury cave at the bottom of the pool, hardly spends any time there--they should've called it "Lady in Schneider's Apartment". I wondered, too, why a girl dragged around by her head and neck by a giant grass dog would have scratches on her legs alone, and how Shyamalan could have possibly thought that it was okay to cast himself as the to-be-martyred author of a new Bible from which a future President will take cues to save the universe.
The message of the film seems to be that it takes a village to save the narf that will reveal M. Christ Shyamalan as a true prophet. (I only wish it were ridiculous that the leader of the free world would be guided by a compromised mythology.) When the inevitable cheap sentiment section of the proceedings unfolds, with Cleveland using his high hanky-wringing past to heal Story in a ritual resembling one of those collective-sharing workshops, take a moment to mourn the exploitation of all these real actors (Jeffrey Wright, Mary Beth Hurt, and Jared Harris are likewise snared in this thing) doing their best to avoid looking their deranged master in the eye. It's the would-be emotional epiphany of the movie, the moment where Cleveland exorcises his demons and embraces the idea that everyone's life has value no matter how worthless they are, and it comes off like a sadistic parlour trick. I should mention that Method stuttering explosions aside, this is the first film in which I've liked Giamatti; that Howard would make a wonderful decorative candle; and that if Shyamalan has any friends left who still have his best interests at heart, it might be time to stage some sort of intervention before Philadelphia's favourite son's voices instruct him to climb a water tower.
Where Shyamalan envisions Grace as a group hug, South Korean auteur Park Chanwook sees it as an animal slippery and savage and prone to biting the hand that holds its leash. Park completes his vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy) with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, wherein, for arguably the first time, he contemplates a real psychic cost of avenging unimaginable losses, discovering, at the end of three films' worth of perverse bloodshed and genuinely Greek atrocity a better definition for the idea of Grace. Just the possibility of Grace in Park's world is something that verges on horrible, a reminder eloquent that the last and most terrible thing released by Pandora's box is Hope; credit Park for crafting a beautiful picture that takes the moral middle. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is hope personified in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: convicted of abducting and murdering a five-year-old boy, she spends her time in prison championing the downtrodden, going so far as to donate one of her kidneys to an antagonist as down-payment on a future favour. It seems like it's going to be a distaff The Count of Monte Cristo, but like ducks in a row, Park mows down routes to redemption (through atonement, through religion, through reunion, through traditional social structures, through violence) for his heroine, who is so attractive that no matter her actions, we wish her satisfaction.
Identification with the monster is nothing new in cinema, but Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is out to ruin you. After a first half that thrills with the audacity of its technical acumen, Park presents a second half that touches on the claustrophobia of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, climaxing in a scene before a video monitor in a children's classroom that counts as among the most sadistic and wrenching in a director's portfolio notorious for eliciting like emotions. The laughter in the film is of the delighted variety--like almost every other emotion elicited by the piece, it's designed to provoke a reflexive revulsion in our delight. When a wronged woman pauses before plunging a knife into her tormentor, our desire to see her to skewer the pig gives us pause in a way that any number of revenge pictures simply do not. Gruelling in the best sense of the word, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance embodies all the artistry, introspection, and courage to which something like Lady in the Water can only pretend. It's the product of an actual artist with an actual vision, shaping a piece with the same spring-loaded barbs as later, bitter Hitchcock masterpieces like North by Northwest wherein the heroes are villains and the villains are equally insupportable. More to the point, like Hitchcock again, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a self-parodying genre picture that does no disservice to pictures of the genre; an exhilarating exercise in the never-more-topical balancing of the ethics of man vs. the ethics of man as beast; and the umpteenth example of how the spirit of the age impregnates hack and master alike. Originally published: July 21, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Although The Village's DVD extras shrewdly avoided massaging M. Night Shyamalan's ego, Herzog/Cowen resumes the old auteurist rub-and-tug with the supplementary material they've prepared for Lady in the Water, by all accounts the bigger Shyamalan folly. Hard to know whether they're sycophants or merely vengeful DVD producers hanging him out to dry, but when "Reflections of Lady in the Water" (35 mins.) turns to the subject of editing and the strip of celluloid used to elucidate the process of cutting on film just happens to be a big fat close-up of Night's character, it's hard to see it as anything but an offshoot of Shyamalan's pervasive narcissism.
In fairness, the six-part piece, playable as a continuum, devotes an inordinate amount of time (for studio propaganda, at least) to cinematographer Chris Doyle, who is as eccentric as you may have read--I'm pretty sure that's him wading socked feet in the courtyard swimming pool in a throwaway insert--but also the least disingenuous person interviewed. Likewise, the least disingenuous things are said about him; perhaps that's why they return to Doyle time and again. (Paul Giamatti seems to extol the virtues of Shyamalan and the project itself through a puckered asshole.) Make no mistake, though, Shyamalan is the star of this show and nigh insufferable by the time he's feigning guileless about the filmmaking process, recounting his awestruck reaction to the F/X team's offer to computer-animate a shot of the eagle ("I didn't even know I could ask for such a thing!") and lamenting the amount of time it would've taken to edit Lady in the Water--a movie so wall-to-wall with unbroken takes that you could probably count the number of splices on both hands--on film. Sorry, dude, even if you could restore your cinematic virginity, the benefit of the doubt would only get Lady in the Water so far. That said, Shyamalan seems genuinely arrested as he relates the backstory for the Tartutic, creatures he says are so evil, why, they killed their parents right out of the womb! The man is one rhinoplasty away from buying a chimp and naming it Bubbles.
Also on board is "Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story" (5 mins.), a promotional featurette wherein a typically bashful, unpretentious Shyamalan reads excerpts from the movie's companion storybook (written by Shyamalan, illustrated by Crash McCreery), something he anthropomorphizes as the "little brother" to the feature film. For what it's worth, Shyamalan's enunciation of the word "pool"--and he enunciates it often enough that I wanted to throw a thesaurus at him--is like nails on a chalkboard. Rounding out the special features: a cacophonous montage of "Auditions," mainly for the actors playing potheads (2 mins.); a "Gag Reel" (3 mins.) that contains a preposterous number of cutaways in which Shyamalan reacts to the various flubbed lines and missed cues; and a block of thoroughly negligible deleted scenes (5 mins.), though one of them is a lingering (read: interminable) close-up of Bryce Dallas Howard's navel, lending credence to OUTLAW VERN's theory that she is the Beatrice to Shyamalan's Dante. As for Lady in the Water itself, it's presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* that's faithful to theatrical prints, if finally a bit too murky for its own good. (The scrunts and those Tartutic are that much harder to decipher on the small screen.) The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio is mercurial in the Shyamalan fashion but dynamic when need be. We Are Marshall propaganda and a trailer for The Nativity Story cue up on startup. Originally published: December 18, 2006.
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