Author: Ezekiel Yu

Ezekiel Yu is a writer based in North Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in Literary Studies. His main focuses are in literature, cinema and culture. He may be contacted at
Read More
A stylized shot from "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong.

Flowers and Odd Things: Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” (2010)

In the same way that Steve McQueen’s Shame uses sex addiction merely as one avenue into deeper issues, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry takes a similar tactic with its protagonist’s malady (Alzheimer’s) in order to play upon its own – not just deeper, but insidiously so – concerns. For all the film’s talk about beauty, and its genuinely poignant moments of personal confession and aesthetic consideration, there is a sense of pervading cruelty which is under constant subversion, from the opening moments of a uniformed girl’s corpse floating face-down in a river – the title “Poetry” almost demurely phasing in beside its stillness – to Yang Mi-ja’s persistent self-deceit, which she both helplessly suffers and, in a way, actively (and selfishly) utilizes.

What do I mean by this, exactly? Of course, Yang Mi-ja (or just Mi-ja; played by the pitch-perfect Yun Jeong-hie) is not to blame for her sudden cognitive ailment – such is common enough for a sixty-six-year-old. And, at least outwardly, she is a kind, beautiful, somewhat genteel woman, with an almost precious comportment in her dealings with others. She has raised her divorced adult daughter’s son in her stead (the daughter, without a voice or body for most of the film, lives in Busan) and also works as a caregiver for a partly-paralyzed old man, Mr. Kang (Kim Hee-ra). All worth at least some admiration, surely. Lee Chang-dong introduces her in a doctor’s visit: Mi-ja’s complaints about arm pain quickly turn towards the more concerning issue of memory loss. She has begun to forget common words, which embarrasses her, but also becomes something she quickly learns to charmingly deflect from. When, in a phone call with her daughter right after, she neglects to mention this troubling issue, the viewer knows something is awry – indeed, this seems heralded by a grim scene outside the hospital: the floating corpse has been found (suicide, apparently), and the girl’s mother is in a mournful daze, creating a spectacle where several bystanders watch in mute fascination as the disheveled woman mutters and groans and collapses on the street. Nothing is explicitly stated – the event occurs matter-of-factly, with little dialogue. It’s a good scene, playing into the idea of a public’s inability to sufficiently deal with its darker elements, and will have deeper relevance for Mi-ja, later on, for this will not be the first time she encounters the dead girl’s mother. […]

Read More
A stylized shot from Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Priest"

Thwarting Desires: On Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

So what’s the deal with the priest?

Much has been said of the eponymous clergyman’s moral intrigue. His façade of almost cocksure piety, the intellectual judo he engages in his apologetics, and his verging-on-predatory manipulation of the young women in his parish. Jean-Pierre Melville doesn’t give much reason to doubt the “purity” of his intentions: he never sleeps with the women, but nonetheless seems aware of their admiration and does not discourage their private meetings with him. He is a handsome young man, and in a town seemingly bereft of such, is it any wonder many of the women flock to him? For some of them, sex isn’t even what’s desired: solely his presence, for a good deal of the husbands have run off to the forest to join the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation, and Léon Morin seems all-too-willing to simply utilize the possibility of sexual transgression (to sleep with a priest!) in order to create a captive audience. But an audience for what? And is there something deeper going on, something Morin himself would be loath to uncover?

For Barny (played by the incandescent Emmanuelle Riva), sex is what’s desired. It represents a culmination of sorts, for her. Bereft of God (she is a communist), widowed (her Jewish husband has died in the war), and sexually open (she crushes on one of her coworkers at the relocated wartime correspondence school, a beautiful secretary named Sabine), Barny does not seem so much repressed as she does availed of good options. This is an important point to make, as “repressed” is a loaded word, and it might be tempting to locate the source of Barny’s frustration in her, manifesting out of some unhealthy psychological baggage, as opposed to the machinations of the clergyman. There is nothing in Léon Morin, Priest to indicate that Barny, a bright, attractive and thoroughly secularized young woman, possesses any thorny complexes concerning her sexual desires – she even seems to dismissively analyze her feelings for Sabine as pure idealization, purging any kind of homoerotic transgression from their loaded exchange of gazes. Originally from Paris, and with her daughter in someone else’s care (in fear of the girl’s Jewish lineage making her a target for Nazi deportation), she lives alone, with mostly female company, and the men who work alongside her too old for serious consideration. The occupying soldiers (first Italians, then the Germans) are the enemy: in Jean-Pierre Melville’s world, to sleep with them would be a sin far greater than religious conversion, and is thus never an option. Sure, there’s stoppage, of a kind, but Barny seems – above all else – to be bored out of her mind, resulting in her intellectual prank on the clergy at St. Bernard’s. […]

Read More
A stylized set of portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh

This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.

So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration? […]

Read More
A screen shot of prison from the Lav Diaz film, The Woman Who Left

Home Again: On Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left” (2016)

The Philippines is not even a memory. I was a year old when they brought me to America, under circumstances still shrouded by vague detail, even at the age of twenty-four. Those islands live in distant waters called the past, and not even my own, but a past imparted to me in the monologues of aging women, or in the words of my father, who kept any talk of his childhood brief – too often were his words suddenly capped by the silence of memory, or the heat of a spiteful lecture.

We were a family on the move, never in one home for more than a few years, but the tattered and bulky photo albums stayed with us. My siblings and I often flipped through them, sometimes in amusement, and other times as if we searched for clues that could, if arranged correctly, direct us out of our displacement; could, in some way, solve the conundrum of our household’s misery. Were we conscious of this? Likely not, but an urge deeper than the entertainment induced by taskless boredom drew us back to these albums, nudged our fingers to trace bodies unwrinkled and darkened by an equatorial sun. Surely something more intense than a child’s easy delight brought our eyes time and again to the scenes of our parents’ wedding. Why did my father and mother, in our genesis, appear as strange to me as the strangers in the pictures? The church it was held in looked to be constructed solely by robust shadow and flashes of light revealing oddities: unfamiliar faces, clasped hands, frozen dancing, a gaudy cake our parents, close together, cut. My mother, bride-white, was very young, and her beauty (later burdened by five pregnancies and many separations) radiated so plainly there, even as a shade of the future seemed to haunt her joy.

Inside those albums were young, slim and smiling people who looked more like close relations to, rather than the younger versions of, those I knew as my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Something had trapped their vitality in keepsakes, rendering it as exotic to me as the world of heavy palm leaves, tin shacks and clubhouses surrounding them in the pictures. The Third World, they call it, and could it be truer? What else would you call a world that materialized out of nostalgia, heartache and slow chemical development? The phrase is normally bandied about in terms of economic deprivation, but from the beginning, whenever it was said, I felt the air out of a dream blow through me (“Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten…”). A dream, or a fairy tale, as my elder relatives often attached stern warnings to the stories of their former lives. Thus, the Philippines became less a real place than it did a repository of parables made for my moral benefit, locked away, again, by those distant waters called the past. […]

Read More
A stylized shot from Peter Greenaway's The Draughtman's Contract

Rapacious Arrangements: On Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982)

Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract doesn’t immediately offer itself up for easy assessment. There is much that’s attractive about it: the exaggerated period design, the score’s well-done pastiche, and incredibly mannered dialogue and acting serve well to conceal the narrative’s darker forces. And it’s certainly a dark affair, with its lust-fueled designs and intimations of murder. Murder so artfully concealed throughout the course of the story and which, as the denouement approaches, becomes more and more a grim actuality.

But don’t let yourself be fooled by all the feints and quirks (rather, simply view them for what they are) – it’s a very good film, and a funny one, too, perhaps kept from leaping over the bar into greatness by its distractions, visually appealing as they might be.

The Draughtsman’s Contract, set in 17th century England, begins simply enough: Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a draughtsman as well as an arrogant rake, is beseeched by Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) at a soiree to complete a series of drawings of her husband’s country house, Compton Anstey, while he vacations elsewhere. Mr. Neville accepts, but only on the stipulation that he is allowed to use Mrs. Herbert’s body for his pleasure during the course of his employment. She is visibly appalled, but relents, for she professes a desire for reconciliation with her husband, which should in some way be brought about by these drawings. Already, things seem awry, what with all the hushed exchanges and gossip that inundate the opening scenes, and this most disquieting of contracts. […]

Read More
A stylized photo of Dylan Thomas, author of Fern Hill and Dawn Raid

Analysis: “Fern Hill”, “Dawn Raid” by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas might not be a great poet, but he’s a good one, and definitely one of the most famous. He is also a very compelling orator of poetry, as he possessed a marvelous talent for emotive delivery. Before he withered from addiction, he was famed for his speaking tours during which he recited his own poems and those of others – many of which can be found online today. They are wonderful recordings and I encourage the reader to check them out, for they (in addition to being pleasurable listens) clue one into the sort of poet he was/is, and how that particular style reaps certain benefits and downfalls.

Thomas had a number of good/excellent poems, although the one that immediately comes to mind likely isn’t one of them (rage against it all you want, fanboys/girls). I’d argue some of his best are: “Among Those Killed In The Dawn Raid Was A Man Aged A Hundred…”, “The Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” “Deaths & Entrances,” “Love In The Asylum,” and perhaps a few others. His longer poems aren’t terrible, either – just way too long.

Take, for example, “Fern Hill.” It’s another good Thomas poem, and is, along with “Dawn Raid”, one of my favorites, but the prolixity drags its potential down. This is one of the previously mentioned downfalls of his verbose, nigh-bardic style, as it tends to be self-indulgent, and repetitive simply for the sake of rhythm and music. It makes for an entertaining recitation, but on the page? And yet, this is something which must be considered in any analysis of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. […]

Read More
A screenshot from Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

Crisis of Success: On Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2015)

After watching Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, I couldn’t help but think that, sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is success. Monetary success, I mean, since there are other metrics to the word than mere financial gain. Well, I suppose I also mean more than monetary success – acclaim, something most artists, in some way, want; perhaps more than just bags of cash (if you’re worth anything, at least). For with acclaim comes validation, and confirmation that the artist’s work means something more than what he or she can prove only to themselves. Even all this, however, comes with baggage: for if you have proved to yourself and others that your work is what it set out to be, and you’ve won your laurels (and your mansions), where else does one go?

One could, of course, retread familiar ground. You see this with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, two of America’s greatest filmmakers reduced to feeding off their own reputations, creating movies that certainly look and feel like their golden ages, but with none of the greatness. Their most recent productions (2019’s The Irishman and A Rainy Day in New York, respectively) amount to nothing more than self-mimicry – and why not? Scorsese and Allen, once young and hungry and eager to prove something, have regressed into luxurious waste, canonized as they are in most cineastes’ estimation. When you have nothing to prove, I guess all that’s left is pelf, and the desire for it. This late into their careers, anything Scorsese puts out will get praise solely on the basis of his reputation, and Allen, although his own reputation is mired in scandal, will seemingly continue to pump out trifles until he keels over.

In the case of Terrence Malick, you get some of this, but you also get something more curious. Yes, there’s the self-cannibalization of technique, but – contrary to the prior artists’ approach – along with that comes an opening-up of artistry, rather than mere imitation. For no other American filmmaker has developed their own visual language to the extent that Malick has, for better or worse. His pivotal collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki has been fruitful, no doubt, and has spawned legions of imitators, both of good-faith and parodistic. You know what I mean: the camera’s whirligig motions, swaying and swooping from arid landscapes into closeups while enigmatic lines are mumbled in voice-over. The impeccable lighting struck through with ruminations on time, death, self and God, or whatever Malick chooses from his grab-bag of philosophies. […]

Read More
Wallace Stegner sitting for an interview

When Everything Was Cresting: On Wallace Stegner’s “Recapitulation”

Who are the people populating our pasts? Are our parents still our parents? What of the lovers we might have shared days of passion with? Old friendships? What is the self, recalled? It is tempting to think of these as fact, carryovers from a spent reality, and this is how most people probably think – it would be, more or less, the truth, in any case. Outside of psychosis, memories are anchored to lived experience; it is only time and bodies that inflict change upon whatever remains. But time nibbles away at the peripheries, always, and bodies are as unreliable as the emotions they produce. Even if memories are proof of life, they are not immutable. We constantly edit, revise, ink out, and suppress memories in order to protect ourselves from their contents. This is either conscious behavior or, at times, some shadowy rearguard action of the subconscious. Trauma is downplayed and/or blotted out, faces meld with other faces, and we enliven certain events with happiness that may or may not have been actual, or make grimmer what may have been, in reality, neutral. Looking back, we find ourselves witness to a parade of things invented, distorted and colored; any future-aimed act of imagination anchored to what’s come before.

Somewhat grim proceedings, to be sure. However, it fits, since much of Wallace Stegner’s 1979 novel Recapitulation has a dark tenor to its pages, as the past and present merge and contradict in its protagonist’s mind. The book follows an elderly Bruce Mason, an ex-US Ambassador who returns to Salt Lake City to oversee the burial of his aunt, whom he barely knows. Regardless, she is attached (however weakly) to his former life in the city where he spent the better portion of his young adulthood, and so he carries out the obligation. The novel follows his brief stay in the city and contains a rather threadbare plot: he spends a few days attending to the aunt’s funeral arrangements and wandering the city, visiting old haunts. Nothing all that momentous happens…that is, if “momentous” means car chases, shootouts, and other high-octane dramatics. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens” on the outside, and is instead driven by character – specifically, by the emotions and reminisces of Mason as he attempts to reconcile who he was as a boy/young man with who he became.

Throughout his visit, Mason is pelted by memories of an old self, old relations, as well as the old Salt Lake City, which he attempts to resurrect in his mind’s eye many times, only for the present to assert itself and reduce his former stomping grounds to sheer memory. Wallace Stegner sets the book in the 1970s while Mason’s memories are set in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Much has happened in the interim, and Mason is caught in a state of – well, it would be mourning, if it weren’t for his conflicted feelings on the past. One gets the sense that even as he yearns for the city of his youth, there’s too much trauma attached to it that he can’t fully endorse its accompanying nostalgia, as Wallace Stegner implies. […]