[REVIEW] Jojo Rabbit

I remember wanting to watch this show when it first came out last year. I was in the cinema and two popular films were airing then: Knives Out and this. Perhaps it was because of Daniel Craig or Rian Johnson, I caved in to that mystery crime-solving film. As I (finally) watched Jojo Rabbit, I kinda regretted not watching the movie in cinema because it featured some pretty soundtracks. Yes I’m a sucker for good OSTs) and Jojo Rabbit included my all-time favourite David Bowie’s “Heroes” or “Helden” in German.

Anyways, if you haven’t already know Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy war film by Taika Waititi, the man responsible for Thor: Ragnarok. The story is set in Nazi Germany in the waning years of World War Two. Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, is a ten-year old boy who idolises the Nazi doctrines so much that his imaginary friend is a wacky version of the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. While eager and enthusiastic to serve and dedicate his life to Hitler, Jojo finds himself unable to kill a rabbit during one of their training sessions. As a result, he was humiliated by his peers who labelled him “Jojo Rabbit”. Wanting to prove his worth and bravery, Jojo later threw a grenade unsupervised. Unfortunately, this accident left him with several scars on his face and a leg injury.

While resting at home, he discovered that his mother, Rosie who is secretly an active anti-Nazi supporter, was hiding an older Jewish girl, Elsa, in their house. So let’s see what we have here: A house with a young boy who reveres Hitler, an anti-Nazi mother and a Jewish girl. You might expect Jojo to report this matter to the Gestapo but Elsa simply threatened him with Rosie’s life, and yes being Jojo the ‘rabbit’ Jojo gave in. Fast forward a few months, Rosie was caught and publicly hanged. But things did not fare that bad for Jojo and Elsa. Soon after that, the Americans managed to break the German fortress and capture the city, effectively ending the war on the Western front.

THE HUMAN SPIRIT

One thing that struck me most was the characters in this show. We have a young Nazi fan, a Jew orphan and an anti-Nazi mom living under the same roof. Oddly, they live in peace (wells apart from the occasional squabbles over the tiniest things) amidst a troubled time. Although playing only a minor role, Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) leaves the deepest impression on me.

She certainly is not the average mom that berates her son for risking his life and joining the Hitler Youth. Instead, she loves him unconditionally despite their differences in beliefs and I especially liked the way she ties his son’s shoelaces every time it comes off. Rosie is certainly an independent woman and she stands fiercely for the cause she believes in: a free Germany. She loves Germany so much, felt the war was stupid and pointless and spreads the “Free Germany” messages to the locals in spite of all the associated dangers that come along.

And let’s not forget our title character: Jojo Rabbit. He is indoctrinated since young and faithfully volunteers his life to the Nazi mission and goals in creating a Greater Germany. But let’s omit the fact that he is after all just a ten-year-old boy. Now don’t get me wrong here. There are many incredible young people out there in the world who have contributed great deeds to the community. But as a ten-year-old, what does he know about the brutalities and horror of war and discrimination against Jews?

I am glad that it is the childhood innocence buried deep inside Jojo and not the Hitler worshiper that ultimately won his heart and mind. The boy did not have to make up Nathan’s letters but he decided to do so to make Elsa happy.

MOVING FORWARD

Another noteworthy point to talk about is the motif of shoes. We first saw Jojo with this untied shoelaces when he first left his house after the accident. We then see the shoes, in fact several of them, once worn by the anti-Nazi supporters who are hung in the public square. Rosie’s maroon heels keep reappearing throughout the film and often not, we see the shoes first before we see her face.

The maroon shoes that stands out from a dullish country

We later see him crying and struggling to get the knots of his mother’s shoes done, seemingly as a way of telling Rosie that he misses her and wants to do something for her just like how she has over the years. But Jojo fails to tie her lace and clasps her legs tightly with his arms as though begging his mother to wake up and teach him again for the last time.

Jojo sits in dispair as he sees his mother among those hung

Shoes are literally the essential tools to walk and move forward from a stationary state. With that said, it does represent the journey one has walked so far on the surface of this earth. While I may be looking too deep into this, it seems that the shoes (and it tied of course) represents the characters’ personalities in a way. Rosie’s shoes are always tied neatly, enabling her to move freely and advocate for the cause she believes in. In other words, she is not confined physically and literally.

As Rosie passed on, her laces are unlaced, but not tied together like Jojo’s shoes when they were at the park, symbolising how her fight for the free Fatherland has sadly cost her life.

The ballet shoes of Jojo’s deceased older sister, Inge

SEEING IS BELIEVING

They always say that “seeing is believing” and in this film, this was the case for Jojo when the invasion of Allied forces into Germany shattered the way he looked at war through his rose-coloured glasses. Having never battled on the front lines (of course), Jojo would never understand how war really is like and he really wanted to. Surely the idea of becoming a stronger nation is enticing and favoured by any patroitic citizen. But Jojo has not realised the cost (or cause) for it. The chance has come for him to serve his nation but when he finally experiences it, he is paralysed with shock and he fled like he first did in Hitler Youth Training Camp. War is no child’s play and more that but rather deafening explosions, flying bullets and grenades, and innocent civilians shot dead in the crossfire.

This brings me to another point: the imaginary Hitler played by the director himself. It is remarkable how for Jojo, the Nazi ideals have manifested themselves into the very form of Hitler himself. Initially, Jojo followed the words of the wise leader (and his friend) but as he saw the true nature of the war, it is a relief to see how Jojo ultimately stands up for himself and kicks this ‘Hitler’ out of his head.

DANCING IS FOR THE FREE

The whole setting and mise-en-scene of Jojo Rabbit just does not seem like a regular war film. Fighting scenes are at its minimum; you hardly see any soldiers or guns firing in the city. It, however, reminds me of a Wes Anderson’s film. The colours are unusually bright for a war film, as though siding with Rosie’s belief that optimism is the way to end the war.

I would have preferred if Taika Waititi had shed more light on the family, especially more on Inge and their dad. It is a theory that the dad, like his wife, is also an anti-Nazi supporter than a German soldier but no one really knows for sure. The movie seems too fixated on the friendship between Elsa and Jojo. While that is important and primarily the focus of the film, I wished the film had more comedic moments of the boys’ training and propaganda lessons at the Youth Camp. This would allow us to fully appreciate the power of information (or propaganda for the matter) and the importance of inculcating the appropriate ideas to young minds. Perhaps these may show a greater contrast in Jojo’s image of war towards the end of the film.

Jojo Rabbit is not just another war film that speaks of terrors. It is a film that also describes the beauty of freedom and human spirit and in this messy times that we live in, we are in need of more films.

Dancing is for the free
P.S. I love how the characters are dancing in sync with the non-diegetic soundtrack here

Rating: 3 out of 5.

[REVIEW] Goodbye, Dragon Inn 不散

Ahh, a film about cinema. Nope, it’s not a boring documentary about the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies or film’s evolution to Disney films and CGI movies. Goodbye, Dragon Inn presents a touching tribute to the cinema prior to mass-produced Hollywood movies.

CINEMACEPTION

Imagine watching a cinema while inside a cinema. Sounds strange but yep, this it the case for Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2003 work. The film opens in an unusual way; we hear a male narrator reciting the backdrop to another Chinese film, King Hu’s wuxia film Dragon Inn (1967). The background sounds blast loudly on my speakers and the brightly coloured cinema screen contrasts greatly with the pitch-dark scenes we see later. When we see the credit scenes, we noticed that the old Taipei cinema is actually packed with movie-goers. But this was the exact opposite case in the film’s ending.

As the film progresses, we see the emergence of three major plot lines: a homosexual Japanese man cruising for a sexual encounter in the old Fu-Ho theatre; a fairly young and crippled ticket woman making her way to the projectionist’s room to express her love for him; and actors of the 1967’s film reuniting in the theatre as they watch their former selves on the big screen for the last time.

A young grandson in the cinema hall

You might not have noticed it at the start but the cinematography is carefully selected to mimic the actual viewing experience in a cinema. The opening credits are shown at the beginning and we see the various types of cinema-goers. There are those who munch their snacks without a slight bid of regards to others and the fidgety ones who keep interrupting your movie experience. And at the same time, we have a serious audience who keeps his eyes glued to the screen even when their neighbour is sexually pestering him. While the wuxia movie is showing, the life outside the cinema hall has not stopped. The ticket lady limps to deliver her gift – a Chinese longevity peach – to the projectionist she likes. All these events unfolding itself while Dragon Inn is showing resemble how real life does not stop for anyone, let alone a movie.

REEL IS NOT REAL

Despite its relatively simple plot, the 2003 movie can be rather hard to watch as we impatient audiences are so used to big and animated actions on the screen. I expected epic and comedic scenes in the show where the Japanese guy and the ticket lady can each find their love in the cinema and live a happy married life. But no, this is not what Tsai gives us in the 90 mins shot. We did not get a quick escapade of life; we are, on the contrary, shown a glimpse of real life in a Taipei city.

Tsai adopted a series of long takes to mimic real life screen time and at first, it does help to build-up anticipations and emotions for the climax. But as we soon get used to this, long takes simply lowers our expectations that anything will happen. We are forced to sit through minutes where nothing really happens. But that’s just the way it is with life, isn’t it? Life is nothing as wild as presented in the 007 series or as romantic in the Before… trilogy and you would be the luckiest person on earth if you had friends like Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Chandler, Monica and Ross. Just like how we see the characters in Goodbye, Dragon Inn eating, taking long toilet breaks and walking around doing nothing, real life, unfortunately is filled with repetitive and mundane moments. But we all have hopes for each day that someone out there will persevere through flights of stairs to express their feelings for us with a steamed bun.

Homosexual scene in the cinema’s toilet

And certainly life has its own challenges. In this movie, we witnessed how the characters have unfulfilled and unattainable desires. In the homosexual scene, there are just too many people coming in and out of the toilet, making it impossible for any sexual acts to be performed. The Japanese guy was rejected by the handsome Chen Chao-Jung in the dark alleyway and our projectionist ignored the longevity bun left by his colleague. It is entirely different world of the Dragon Inn where the brave and valiant heroine can save the day in the fictional Ming Dynasty setting. There simply is a gap between our world and the cinematic world.

The gap between real and fictional worlds

A TRIBUTE TO THE PAST

With the adoption of the 1940s song liu lian 留恋 as the film’s closure, it feels like Tsai is dedicating his film to the people and memories of the past. Having fond memories of his childhood, Tsai shares this nostalgia through the old movie paraphernalia and collectibles which were used as props. Most notably, the casting of Miao Tien and Shi Jun as themselves and the choice to screen the martial arts classic only invoke childhood memories in, possibly, the cinema-goers who have grown up seeing them.

As I watched the film as part of my class, I couldn’t help but feel emotional in the last few scenes, specifically the one where the ticket lady cleaned up the cinema. It is interesting to note that it is in fact our very first time seeing the massive Fu-Ho theatre in all its glory and yet it’s our last time. It seems to me that this particular long take scene is for us to arrest this moment, forcing us to remember the cinema in its details before it closes down. And yes, the scene is extremely long and screen time felt like real time. When I was watching it, it has a similar dreadful feeling when our loved ones bid us farewell. It’s like the cinema is bidding us goodbye or maybe it’s the other way round, for us to thank the cinema for the memories and say farewells. If the cinema is a person or has emotions, I guess this is how it feels.

And while we are at the topic of nostalgia, let’s talk about the ghosts in the movie. They are unlike any you’ve seen, well, in movies hopefully. Gone are the long hair wigs and pearl-white drapes. The director wants to challenge and critique Classical Hollywood Cinema here by making the ordinary extraordinary. Forget long-haired blood-dripping ghosts, the ones we see in the film look, behave and munch on peanuts like normal beings. In addition, by abandoning dramatic moments, we are given an emotional climax – Shi Jun crying as he realises it’s the last time he will ever see himself on the big screen. This, again, proves Tsai’s point that films do not need a predictable story to impress and appeal to viewers. And as Tsai Ming-Liang envisioned, he, indeed, need not follow the footsteps of Hollywood films for Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

“我想起月下,我想起花田。多少的往事留在我心田。一半是心酸,一半是甜蜜。一年又一年常叫我留念”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.