[REVIEWS] I Come with The Rain

[REVIEWS] I Come with The Rain
Not that I would ever dare to compare Seneca with Park Chan-Wook, but one of the themes which transpired from his latest, sublime 박쥐 (Thirst) is that knowing your sins is the first step on the path which leads to salvation, no matter in whichever shades of gray or shadows that moment will come. They might have found acceptance beyond their own borders thanks to nearly unrivaled cinematic flair, but the morality plays which have been brewing at the core of Park's last five films, all the more pungent with every new stroke, are just as important in defining his body of work as his gusto for sumptuous art direction and visual mastery. It's regrettable, then, to see them often overlooked at the altar of adrenaline-filled tour de force sequences which drench such cinematic magic. It would be like getting served the finest pork ribs in the world, and going straight for the bones, ignoring the juicy meat which surrounds them. Their styles and notoriety in the west are certainly different, but Tran Anh Hung's career and particularly his works' acceptance has often moved along similar lines.

Sure, if you single out something like Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya) or Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (The Vertical Ray of the Sun) as vapid exotica tailor made for the western festival crowd, you will be served with enough evidence to justify such observations. Yet, beyond the lavish sounds of nature enveloping Tran's impossibly pretty settings, and past the idyllic and transcendental mojo of such small stories lies something much richer, delving into Tran's experiences in his native Vietnam and its tumultuous history. It's not just heightened nostalgia, but also a subtle touch of angst directed at what changed this almost ideal world which defined his youth (or the memories those days left in his mind) - and I don't necessarily mean that in political terms. Thankfully, his gritty Xíchlô (Cyclo) managed to bring such issues to the forefront with enough verve to prove how layered and satisfying the Danang-born, France-based director's films are, but it also confused many more viewers, wondering if it was truly the same director who made a name for himself with his excellent 1993 debut. Inevitably, his fourth film I Come with the Rain will evoke similar feelings, and might indeed generate the most polarized of reactions yet - although Cyclo was met with surprise, it was hardly underappreciated, at least by those who watched it.

Nine years have passed, too long a hiatus even for the most striking of directors, so you're often left wondering whether you're merely connecting dots that don't exist to begin with, or if any of this is truly related in any way with his past three films. But whatever your position might end up being, most people will agree that this film marks a turning point for the director, not so much in a stylistic sense, but more in terms of themes and the way he presents them. Taking a more straightforward, bottom-line approach to the proceedings will show how, at least on paper, Tran's long awaited return wasn't all that risky to begin with. Even considering its three year plus-long gestation period, the film cast Lee Byung-Heon with perfect timing, right as he was taking his first steps towards a debut on the world stage, and Kimura Takuya, one of the very biggest stars in the continent for the last two decades. So you get two huge Asian stars, a Hollywood name with good enough popularity like Josh Hartnett, and a director who can tempt the right western festivals and distributors - an alluring troika of elements encompassing over half the world film market. That the results weren't all that impressive is by no means surprising, because this is as far from the often precious affairs multi-national coproductions with huge stars end up becoming as you can get. It's almost as if Tran wasn't the slightest bit concerned about the weight that the name value he was working with carried, which in turn might have "betrayed" the expectations of the mainstream, causing a rather lukewarm box office reaction in Japan (only about 2-300 million yen) and a downright disastrous flop in Korea (a paltry 200,000 odd tickets when it released last November).

And in all honesty, if you were simply looking at the poster, those names would trump over Tran's legacy with the kind of prowess that would easily convince you to forget what this man has been doing since 1993; to even bring forth the idea that this would be a simple genre affair with big stars, lavish visuals and ultra-violence surrounding a narrative structure whose shortcomings you're willing to forgive because of what's on display. That's where the polarized reactions and my bringing up Thirst come into play, because how you approach this film will eventually influence the way you react to what happens in the second act, and the director's previous body of work and his recurring themes play a major part in shaping that approach. I'm not saying that having understood Tran's previous three films will suddenly make I Come with the Rain better, anything but. The point is, if you know what you're looking for, you will more or less get it. How to balance that with your expectations is a whole different can of worms, but we can always start from the basics.

And basics they are indeed, at least at the beginning. Josh Hartnett is Kline, a former cop haunted by a traumatic experience from two years earlier, and now working as a PI. He is contacted by the world's most powerful pharmaceutical tycoon, a sort of 21st century version of Charlie from Charlie's Angels, but delivered with almost Shakespearean gravitas. Finding his son Shitao (Kimura) is Kline's new mission, pampered with all the money he needs, and all the possibilities that kind of employer can open. His journey begins in The Phlippines' easternmost island, Mindanao, where Shitao was last seen helping out an orphanage by frequently contacting big papa for dinero, contacts which have been cut for much too long. Kline is led to believe Shitao was murdered there, but his investigation eventually brings him to Hong Kong, where he teams up with old buddy Meng Zi (Yue), but where he also finds vicious Triad kingpin Dong-Po (Lee) and his drug-addicted belle (Tran's wife and muse Tran Nu Yen-Khe). They all strangely gravitate around a peculiar fellow, part diviner-part vagrant and looking like the spitting image of the Chen Shitao Kline was sent there to find.

This "gravitating" around Shitao is an important point, one which might lead to major spoilers if delved into with detail, but let's just say that Tran called this film a "modern interpretation of the New Testament" and you should get the point. What is intriguing though is not so much the religious and spiritual allusions, a crucifixion here and a quote from the scriptures there. It's rather the manner in which Tran approaches how these characters seek and find their own salvation. And that is where the comparisons with Thirst came to mind - not so much in a thematic sense, but more for the kind of reaction they evoke. If you take Thirst's textuality and strip it of all the sensory elements which help deliver the message, you'll be left with a quasi-vampire flick that's too smart, quirky and uneven for its own good. Similarly, you will not see narrative elements deliver those messages here, at least not exposed the way you would expect from a normal genre flick with loftier aspirations. It's, again, more of a sensory feeling which Tran manages to convey with his strong images, the tremendously atmospheric music (After using Creep for Cyclo, he completely immerses himself in Radiohead sound for this) and the almost disarming, relentless rhythm it creates.

Take, for instance, Lee Byung-Heon's character. Narratively speaking, he's just a devolution of his Chang-Yi character from 좋은놈, 나쁜놈, 이상한놈 (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), just with a snappier wardrobe and different obsessions. Considering the little dialogue he's given, and the nonchalant way with which his issues are resolved, you might even think Lee was wasted on the role. But I'd say it's the exact contrary: Dong-Po's obsession and desire for his own personal salvation is much too visceral to be embellished by what would be largely unnecessary narrative checkpoints. The same goes for Lilly, whose escape from addiction thanks to Shitao is effectively conveyed with nary a word, and just the use of powerful visuals. Yes, it's "that" kind of film, the kind which doesn't work as a simple text, but structures its storytelling around more three-dimensional means. That is another reason why the brutality on display ceases to be masturbatory, grindhouse-like violence and becomes another kind of character in itself. Dong-Po could just shoot the poor victim before him, but he first shoots his dog and beats him with it. Remove that scene from its context, and it's just a grotesquely unnecessary, almost puerile way to approach violence. See it with Dong-Po's obsession in mind, and it kind of starts to make sense, in the grand scheme of things.

Seen that way, there are sparks, moments when I Come with the Rain truly excels, like during that Music Video meets LSD-induced trance sequence - often nearly incomprehensible on purely narrative terms, but strangely effective on a visceral and emotional level. Of course that is never enough to mask the fact that the entire plot is an excuse cobbled together to deliver those basic, effective points about salvation and the desire to achieve it (not to mention the spiritual effect it has on people), but all the evident flaws notwithstanding, that raw power and visual, almost sensorial storytelling helps the film tremendously. It's surprising then, to see that it's actually the performances which bring down the film at least a notch. Lee mostly excels with the little he's given, and both Hartnett and Tran Nu Yen-Khe give fine performances, but not only do important supporting performances like those of Shawn Yue and Elias Koteas fail to make a mark, even what should be the very flagbearer of the film's themes, Kimura's acting, is far from satisfying. Or better, when he simply emotes with his body language during the first half of the film, he's terrific - something you'll often notice in his work at home, perhaps stemming from his singing career with SMAP. But once he begins speaking in rather listless English, all the patterns and dichotomies which have trapped his performance inside the same glass ceiling since the early 90s emerge, and Shitao is much less effective a character than the premise might have suggested. Kimura is in the same light as Bae Yong-Joon, performers whose image and persona so strongly dominate their every motion that finding any sincerity or spontaneity in their acting is a fruitless endeavor, considering how calculated and manufactured the entire ordeal is.

For those and many other reasons, I Come with The Rain is one of this year's most unique, even befuddling experiences. It brims with atmosphere, and offers moments of true cinematic brilliance, but although the message is delivered effectively, the film never really manages to bring all those elements together and create as organic and satisfying a whole as the premise made you anticipate. What's for sure is that Tran has moved his spectrum away from the memories of Vietnam and onto a much broader, universal scope. And with an adaptation of Murakami's ノルウェイの森 (Norwegian Wood) being next in line, it might lead this fascinating director into an all the more intriguing second career....


I Come with the Rain
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenplay: Tran Anh Hung
Produced by: TF1 International, Lumiere International, Studio Canal, Morena Films, Better Wide, LeBrocquy Fraser Productions
Int'l Sales: TF1 International
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release: 6/6/2009 (Japan)
CAST: Josh Hartnett, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, 이병헌 (Lee Byung-Heon), 木村拓哉 (Kimura Takuya), 余文樂 (Shawn Yue), Elias Koteas, 李璨琛 (Sam Lee)

I Come with the Rain

  • Tran Anh Hung
  • Tran Anh Hung
  • Josh Hartnett
  • Tran Nu Yên-Khê
  • Byung-hun Lee
  • Takuya Kimura
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Tran Anh HungJosh HartnettTran Nu Yên-KhêByung-hun LeeTakuya KimuraThriller

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