Red Houses

Reflecting the State of Things: Ethan Hawke in Gattaca.

Gattaca
area theaters

Red Corner
area theaters, starts Friday

East Meets West
U Film Society, starts Friday

BUTTERFLY, MEET BRICK wall. One easy recipe for a dramatic movie is to pit the sublime (valiant individual, holy fool, etc.) against the inflexible (state, corporation, etc.) and see what happens. Often these scenarios become "underdog" stories of triumph, and Frank Capra's name is invoked. Luckily though, "often" doesn't mean "always."

Putting a nifty twist on the butterfly/brick wall theme, Gattaca proposes that genes are destiny and that, in the future, inequality begins in the womb. This isn't too far removed from our current clones and (sadly, inevitably) the desires of would-be parents, imagining a world where an overclass of "perfect" people get all the breaks while the rest are merely broken. However, this great premise ignores a clear political or economic superstructure: In the decades to come, either America stops voting or it erases civil rights and labor history from the textbooks.

In other words, while it's certainly scary that "blue blood" could become "blue genes," this is Hollywood, after all: The human spirit will still be around, and Vincent (Ethan Hawke) makes a good butterfly hero. He's a bad-risk specimen with flawed DNA who manages to pump himself up and into another person's identity, just to be an astronaut. Cops show up, and he could get caught--either for murder or impersonation, and it seems like the worst crime is the latter.

Dressed up in a sleek, minimalist style with eerie monochromatic light and the abrupt hum of electric cars, Gattaca looks and sounds great. (Future fashion, however, seems limited to sharkskin suits.) The movie is also persuasively obsessed with body junk. Fingernail clippings, dandruff, and stray hairs are not harmless dander but incriminating records of one's very existence. I liked the way in which this literal nit-picking gained dramatic force, so imagine my disappointment in finding that Vincent (from the Latin for "conquer") had been given the last name of "Freeman," and his genetic doppelgänger the name of Eugene ("You-gene").

Did Gattaca need to give the butterfly an anvil's weight? At least Red Corner means to trust its audience. The victim here is Jack Moore (Richard Gere), a guy who generally expects to flap his wings at will--yet he too becomes a specimen, pinned down. Awakening in China with a dead, bloody woman at his side, he's faced with an execution scheduled before his next paycheck. His crash course in Chinese law leads him to realize that "innocent until proven guilty" isn't part of the program.

But Jack's a lawyer, and his negotiations on a major media deal have shown him to be cagey. This leads him at first to mistrust Yuelin (Bai Ling), a court-appointed "advocate." In turn, she trusts him but is nervous about breaking with tradition. She reminds the American Jack of their differences: "In China, we hold the welfare of the state above that of the individual. We have six times the people and one-tenth the crime rate of America." In short, you're history just because they need you to be.

Red Corner could go wrong a lot of ways, and almost does in a ludicrous chase scene, but it hangs on to the idea that individual liberty and innocence are worth arguing for. And it leaves sex out of the equation; attractive as Yuelin is, she remains Jack's intensely devoted new friend, and he isn't asking for anything else. What Red Corner does right is place naturalistic dialogue in the mouths of these two actors, especially Ling. Now, whether this movie is really a threat to the People's Republic--as Tibet-supporter Gere thinks it is--is another question. Basically, Red Corner is a less foolish John Grisham.

Finally, imagine a state that decides its brick wall needs a chink or two. That's the main joke in East Side Story, a completely amusing and wholly enlightening documentary about the movie musicals made under Communism. I had always heard about the boy-and-tractor tradition and suspected there were ideological missteps like these; even Sergei Eisenstein once created an orgiastic montage about a milk separator. But the funniest part of this portrait is that the creative comrades were ordered to concoct musicals--even though socialist realism had no place for dreams.

The whole situation is packed with giddy ironies and socialist kitsch, but East Side Story is resolutely earnest about it. People who once worked on these films, even the so-called "Doris Day of the East," explain how they tried to cut loose with song and dance. So we see Soviet farmers singing about harvest quotas, Czech women receiving orders to be beautiful, and East German teens belting out "Urlaub! Reise!" in a 1968 film about summer vacations. Since 1968 was pretty stressful in other places, this is more than a little ridiculous.

With its incomparable portrait of aspiration in the face of social control, East Side Story provides final proof that butterflies will endure no matter what brick walls they hit. More so than a beleaguered lawyer or a gene-deprived astronaut, this movie's characters show the human spirit soaring--even when that spirit is stupid.

 
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