Posted by: asianfilmreviews | September 6, 2009

Sophie’s Revenge (2009)


Sophie's RevengeSophie’s Revenge – 非常完美

Director: Eva Jin

Cast: Zhang Ziyi (章子怡), Fan Bingbing (范冰冰), So Ji-Sub (소지섭), Peter Ho (何润东)

Hilarious! Inspiring! Wholly imaginative! Heartwarming!

These words, and other positively connotative adjectives like them, do NOT describe Sophie’s Revenge. Zhang Ziyi’s much hyped debut as an actress in a comedy and as a producer is a total mess of a film from start to finish. What the filmmakers have done is to make a love story that says absolutely nothing about love. It’s not hard to pinpoint WHEN it all goes wrong, because it’s from the opening credits which quite literally give away the ending (not that the ending should come as a shock to anyone with half a brain), but it is hard to narrow down just how the film, which I’m sure began with the writer’s honest intent to make an amusing love comedy, turns into a cliched, disingenuous, unoriginal, generic, unfunny, and frankly stupid waste of money, time, and collective energy – “hard” in the sense that there are many aspects of the film which speak to its rank idiocy. Should I begin with the characters’ shallow nature? The filmmakers’ stereotypical views of women and relationships? Or how about the insulting way it deals with the psychological after-effects from which some people suffer after a difficult breakup? Rest assured, all of this and more will be covered. But to close out this little intro, let me clear about this film’s implications – Zhang Ziyi should 1.) stop producing films and 2.) stop acting in comedies. No, that is not multiple choice. She has no gift for comedy and no mind for recognizing talent as a producer.

Cripes, I suppose a summary is necessary for those who don’t know the basic story, but I just hate to relive it like this. I’ll make it short. Zhang Ziyi is the titular Sophie, a distraught comic book creator who was dumped by her rich, androgynously handsome boyfriend Jeff (So Ji-Sub) for glamorous actress Anna (Fan Bingbing). She deals with the breakup in none-too-healthy ways. There are the hallucinations she has of Jeff still in her apartment, the binge drinking, and the withdrawal from her social life. Sounds endearing, right? Well, that’s what we’re made to think. Only when she meets the more ruggedly handsome professional photographer Gorden (Peter Ho), who coincidentally happens to be Anna’s ex-boyfriend, does Sophie devise a devilish revenge scheme – not to get Jeff back, but to get him back temporarily only so she can dump him. As Gorden, who was duped into her scheme with the understanding that she would win back Jeff while he would win back Anna, says to Sophie at some point later in the film when he discovers her true intentions, “you need a psychiatrist.” If there’s any character I can side with even a LITTLE bit, it’s him, but only because of this one line. But more on that later.

From a comedy perspective, I gather that the film is supposed to be funny. The problem is that it’s just not. And it certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. Take a look here as Sophie drunkenly learns of Gorden’s attachment to Anna:

Again, as far as I know this is supposed to be funny to a general audience, but I personally found it painful. Nevermind that the sexual sight gag is really, really old (wow, I’ve never seen comedic, simulated fellatio before – seriously, is the director five years old? I think I also visibly cringed when the horrible Western actor says, “Oh my God.”), but Zhang’s style of comedy seems to consist of the following: fall down as often as possible and run in to as many things as possible. It’s like she went to the Three Stooges School of Comedy but skipped all of the classes. Watch here as Sophie, in an effort to impress Jeff at his hospital using her fabulous looks, instead makes a fool of herself and assaults a lot of hospital patients in the process:

I suppose this style of comedy stems from Zhang’s desire to deglamorize herself. After the veritable assault of expensive costume epics of which she has been a part (not to mention her string of rich, high profile boyfriends and naked photo scandal), she is now trying to distance herself from art house fare. This would explain her absolutely constant pratfalls and unbelievably clumsy demeanor. The problem is that this style of comedy, while not necessarily unwarranted as a general rule, is simply out of place and frankly occurs too often to actually have any comedic effect. In that way, it acts like a crutch made out of burning matches. Making things worse (and less funny) is that much of the comedy revolves around physical violence, but the filmmakers are not smart enough to play it off in a dark or, failing that, genuinely funny manner. Yes, physical humor has always been a part of cinema, but the masters of such humor knew not to take it to the point where it becomes sadistic unless they’re trying to make a point.

In terms of characters, the film fares equally as bad. I don’t know why, but I have this assumption that the director gave the entire cast copies of Sex and the City to watch. That would certainly explain Sophie’s vacuous, caricatured, and rather stupid friends. There’s Lucy, Sophie’s literary agent who flirts and sleeps with practically anything with two legs, and Lily, who married early (and badly) but pines for a divorce to marry the rich man of her dreams. They dress in high fashion, talk in Chinese with spatterings of random, chic English phrases, and argue over sex, love, and men. What function do they serve? Well, in the film… not much. They occasionally provide emotional support for Sophie as she becomes increasingly depressed and they fully support her plan for revenge, badmouthing men while lusting after them at the same time. If the filmmakers thought this could in any way function as some sort of progressive feminist text, then in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” These women are empty, soulless fools, and if they are to represent modern Chinese women in popular culture, then I think Chinese women need a new spokesperson. Likewise, Anna is pure camp. Fan Bingbing is a lovely actress, but her Anna is really nothing more than a one-note diva. Though one reviewer claims to be compelled by her throwback to and mockery of the glamorous Hollywood of yesteryear, simply slapping on a few stunning dresses and playing the character with a haughty, spoiled attitude does not a Bette Davis, or even a Bette Davis parody, make. There is nothing behind this shell of a character (which really makes you wonder what Jeff sees in her besides her overt sexuality, but more on that below).

And the above includes Sophie, portrayed by Zhang Ziyi as an unhealthily obsessed lunatic. She stalks her ex-boyfriend, invades his apartment to plant pictures of her so as to remind him of who he dumped, has hallucinations about causing severe physical injury to Anna (at one point after pretending to befriend Anna at the gym as a plan to get closer to Jeff, Sophie hallucinates about breaking a light bulb and placing the broken glass on the floor next to Anna’s shower), and generally behaves like a woman with severe psychological trauma. And the insulting thing is that this is supposed to be endearing and funny! I’m sorry, but this is just sick. I have a very good friend who is still suffering from her breakup with her boyfriend six months after it happened. She’s run the gamut from obsession, to a desire for reconciliation, to hatred, she’s almost totally withdrawn from her social life, and she has even gone so far as to attempt suicide by overdosing on medication, after which she called me to say goodbye. If the filmmakers dare to portray an emotionally unstable woman, then there had better be someone damned special in front of the camera. Unfortunately, Zhang Ziyi simply does not have the gravitas or the appropriate talent to pull off this delicate balance between strength and emotional fragility, and the film really suffers for it. She instead plays off her character as pure quirk, acting not like an emotionally fragile woman in need of serious help but as an actress who is told to stand in front of the camera and act like she’s in a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, and Sophie therefore becomes an unlikable, naive, and frankly stupid person. The sooner Zhang Ziyi stops doing movies period, the better.

Are things any better on the men’s side? Not really. Jeff has the personality of a rock. And I find it more than a little strange how this U.S.-educated surgeon is only seen in the hospital twice (and one of those times is in flashback form). He spends more time going to parties, watching Anna’s movies, and hanging around on her movie sets than he actually does healing anybody. Adding to his sheer inanity is that he really does not like Anna… except when they’re in bed. All other times, he appears absolutely annoyed any time she opens her mouth. AND YET, toward the end of the film as Anna is filming a movie with multiple kissing scenes, he obviously can’t take it, as though she is in a sense cheating on him. Was he unaware of her profession before he jumped all over here? So why did he dump Sophie for Anna? Again, all I can say is that he’s intensely stupid, as apparently all guys are. But more importantly, why are Anna and Sophie fighting it out over Jeff? He’s not very likable, has absolutely no discernible personality, and apparently has no misgivings about switching girlfriends at the drop of a hat. Gee, is it because he’s rich and (I guess) handsome? Again, a progressive view of women this is not. Likewise, Gorden is poorly developed, occupying the tried-and-true role of the friend who becomes something more as the film moves on. How stupid is he? Well, he admits his feelings for Sophie, yet he lets her continue her psychotic tirade of revenge and even helps her in the process. There is no reason for him to fall in love with her, and as a result, their eventual relationship makes no sense. It’s pure caricature and wholly generic with absolutely no sense of ingenuity behind it. And so any changes that characters do go through, and there are a few, are totally superficial and carry no real dramatic weight.

And speaking of stupid characters, I think that every other human being on the planet figured out years ago that the characters from the following two clips (the dance instructor and the guy hitting on Anna at the gym in an attempt to blackmail her) are not funny. I show these so you, dear reader, can share in my pain. And if you honestly laugh, then shame on you.

Much has been made of the film’s style, and anyone who reads the review from the above link or the wikipedia page (which contains some of the above review) would be forgiven for thinking that the film is some sort of landmark in the combination of animation and live action photography or even in the use of color, but if you’ve seen other (and better) films such as Nakashima Tetsuya’s Kamikaze Girls or Memories of Matsuko, then Sophie’s Revenge will seem like a step down. And I’m sorry, but to those reviewers who claim the film does wonders in using lighting to represent emotional states, filmmakers have been doing this sort of thing since the silent era. In short, like with the characters, the style of the film is content with riding on the coat tails of everything that came before it without really deviating in any sort of creative way. To get a good sense of the generic manner in which this film is put together, just watch this short clip:

I love how the filmmakers actually use FIVE SECONDS of some banal pop tune for an unnecessary scene of Zhang riding in a car to meet her man and profess her love. It just epitomizes the whole film: unoriginal, empty, and completely meaningless, all the way up to the manufactured, seen-it-before ending that should come as a surprise to… nobody. I can deal with commercial fluff. Afterall, I sit through Japanese dramas, for crying out loud. But I cannot deal with something that insults my intelligence, something that passes itself off as a clever and witty take on relationships when it has absolutely nothing new to say and sidelines real psychological trauma for cheap laughs and no substance. If you made it to the end of this review, then I really do applaud you. It was probably the easiest one to write, but I think also the longest. If there is any vindication that I get from this film’s being made and released, it’s that it bombed in South Korea, opening at #8 with fewer than one million dollars on its opening weekend despite being a South Korean co-production and starring one of the industry’s premiere heartthrobs (as far as its performance at the Chinese box office, I honestly have no idea). So in the end, do I think I went overboard in my criticism of this celluloid trash? No.

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Responses

  1. Zhang is a crappy actress, is she over yet?

  2. Only if we’re lucky, Butch. This is not something personal, either (I really dislike Twilight and its depiction of vampire lore, but this is about Asian entertainment – otherwise I would most certainly criticize Twilight). Her films, her characters, and the way she chooses to portray them are not indicative of an actress of any merit. It’s no wonder that Cheng Pei-pei said that Zhang Ziyi has not improved since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

  3. ugh, since JUNE this…woman has spent a good 3 months promoting this retarded flim all over in China, oh, you won’t miss this poster and her face every *beep way you go!!! if this not forcing people to watch her interviews, and clips to push the box office, then I don’t know what force means anymore. ugh, guys, so lucky you are not there, I’m telling you, I’m so sick of being pinned down to smell the shit!!! everything about her is just, ugh, I’m out of here.

  4. I like Zhang Ziyi, but not in this. You’re right, it’s a crappy movie.

  5. I actually didn’t find the movie that bad and I laughed at parts too (not ashamed of it either). It’s a tad more watchable than most of the senseless movies from hk in recent years.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lily. For me, senseless is one thing (and I’ve seen my fair share of those films from HK), but insulting is another. Again, I have very personal reasons for disliking the central character and her ridiculous plot. I also just can’t get behind any film that actually moves women’s rights a step backward. I haven’t seen women this shallow since… never.

  6. “physical humor has always been a part of cinema, but the masters of such humor knew not to take it to the point where it becomes sadistic unless they’re trying to make a point.”

    Some would consider the Three Stooges such masters; even though none of their physical “comedy” had any point except perhaps that of being sadistic for the sake of being . . . sadistic.

    Otherwise, revenge fantasies are normal under stress, and are not necessarily pathological; they can be a healthy release. Comedy is essentially contradiction and exaggeration, so presenting such fantasies — not actual hallucinations — in a humorous way is as old as comedy.

    As for “feminism”? That hasn’t had much substance or meaning since the mid-late 1970s, when it became, or became revealed as always having been, a brassnuckled power struggle all dolled up in claims of oppression and victimization.

    • The Three Stooges certainly were masters at physical comedy and even a little bit sadistic, but their routines were never done in the pretense of anything other than what they were. They also had a consistent thematic presentation, and like early silent comedies, they banked on the saleability of no-strings-attached physical comedy routines.

      You’re absolutely right. Revenge fantasies are not necessarily pathological, which is why I did not generalize from Sophie’s Revenge to all revenge fantasies. Again, as I said to the previous commenter, I find it insulting that Sophie’s pathological nature is supposed to be endearing for personal reasons. She has rather disturbing hallucinations, and we’re supposed to laugh? That would perhaps be fine if there were anything remotely insightful in the film, but it reads like The Big Pop-Up Book of Relationships. And as for the issue of feminism, it indeed has a great deal of meaning if you look at it outside of the stereotypical bra-burning marches and rallies during the women’s movements. It’s much more than a movement and is still very much a part of critical theory in that it seeks to expose power structures in society. And those “claims” of oppression and victimization are still very real in many parts of the world.


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