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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Carry Tiger to the Mountain (2011)

Directors: Bennett Lieberman and Arnold Barkus
Stars: Xin Li and James Rich
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I've seen many films with titles sourced from odd places, but I don't think I've ever seen a science fiction film named for a tai chi position before. It makes sense here, because this has the particularly ambitious goal to merge two ostensibly incompatible concepts: time travel, the science fiction staple, and tai chi, a Chinese martial art practiced as much for inner tranquility and health benefits as for any of its pointers to self defence. Why writers and directors Bennett Lieberman and Arnold Barkus thought these would merge well, I have no idea, but that starting point provides all the good points to this short film, as well as all the bad points too. Marrying science to spirituality is a noble goal but also a impossible task and we leave the film as confused as to what we just watched as entertained by some of what went down. In the end, it's a human story about two people who don't know they're in love yet surrounded by a sci-fi attempt to spice up how they figure it out. Yet even that doesn't really work, so I'm don't know what's left.

Initially it comes over as scientific gibberish painted over a hippie backdrop. I'm still not quite sure as to whether it really leaves that by the end credits, because the more I try to fathom the answers to what it raises, the less I'm sure as to what the questions were. It's that sort of movie that moves around a lot and keeps us interested but without ever seeming to actually do anything. Certainly it's insubstantial to begin with, with an enticing narration all about time and dreams and trans-dimensional gateways, that may be as much freeform poetry as it is science hinted at by on screen mathematical formulae that may or may not attempt to describe the deliberately slowly edited living world they overlay. 'Dreams originate on the space-time manifold of cosmic consciousness,' expounds the eager narrator who seems unable to stop. 'They're forged in a turbulent furnace by quantum mechanical fields percolating bubbles of time into ever expanding oceans of simultaneous being and nothingness.' Oh yeah, baby. Right on.
It does get more grounded as we begin the film proper and watch Ali try to chat up Ming. He's a nerd but not outrageously so. He wears glasses and Tesla shirts and has that sort of constantly happy demeanour that makes me want to punch him. Ming, on the other hand, is a free spirit. The camera floats around her and she floats around him and it in a sort of dance. It's odd to see her during the staccato editing phases where the goal appears to be to capture moments of time and skip forward through them rather than let them unfold at normal speed. That seems somehow right for him, as a scientist aiming to figure out how to travel through time, but utterly wrong for her as nothing ought to contain her, even deliberate editing. Eventually they connect through tai chi, because she knows what she's doing and he doesn't, perfecting pratfalls but not moves. Apparently he's figured out that tai chi is the way to travel through time, though we're never quite let in on that secret. Carry Tiger to the Mountain is the move that presumably works.

And off he goes, blinking into nothingness and scaring the crap out of Ming. When he comes back only a few moments later, he's talking backwards and convinced that they're an item. The rest of the story may or may not explain any of why. And here's the real problem of the film. I can watch Ali because he's good at being a wacky sort of charmer with an undercurrent, half science and half new age, that prompts us to wonder which side of those strange bedfellows he sleeps with. I can watch Ming all day because she's a pretty Chinese girl who sunbathes on the roof and knows tai chi, and because, while she doesn't appear to do anything, she hints that there's substance there waiting to be found. James Rich and Xin Li aren't the most talented actors I've ever seen but they fit the story well, people caught up in something magical and never losing their sense of joy. So, while the sci-fi pretends to be substantial, it plays much more like meaningless jabber. As a quirky romance, it's well, quirky. New age time travel: A+ for ambition at least.

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