Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: The Girl in the Spider's Web
Though I haven’t read the novels themselves (but heard plenty about them from those who have), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the original Swedish film adaptations of the “Millennium” series, or as they’re more commonly known, the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series. If you haven’t seen the six-part serial starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, I highly recommend it (they are available on Netflix). For me, they may be the definitive version of the stories, and Rapace the decisive Salander.
The first attempt at a Hollywood remake of author Stieg Larsson’s trilogy with director David Fincher and Rooney Mara as Salander fell flat for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the difficulty in paring down such a complex narrative into a 2.5-hour film. The failure led to a scrapping of the remaining two adaptations, and many considered that to be that. But where there’s money to be made, people will find a way. Author David Lagercrantz stepped up to write two more “Millennium” novels, and tinseltown deemed the first of them, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, to be the perfect reboot as a standalone sequel. But the film seems about as divergent from the source as Lagercrantz is from Larsson, and not wholly for the better.
The new film picks up three years after the events of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Salander has been mostly in isolation, acting as an avenging angel against abusive men, and seemingly on the run for it. She’s hired to steal a file from the NSA on behalf of its creator, who’s having a crisis of conscience after realizing its implications. Naturally, this sets off a chain of events that puts everyone in danger from an American NSA agent and a secret Russian criminal society, and reunites Salander with Mikael Blomkvist, her cohort from the previous entries. All of this creates an interesting sort of rousing spy thriller, with lots of cat-and-mouse suspense, technical wizardry, and global political repercussions. And on that level, for the most part the film works, offering plenty of visceral action and white-knuckle tension.
But if you look a little deeper, you notice several plot holes big enough to sail a Viking longboat through. Characters who are three steps ahead most of the time make insipidly stupid mistakes for the same of narrative convenience, seemingly impossible tasks are accomplished with relative ease, and revelations are made at the more illogical of times.
Yet, the film’s more significant sin revolves around its biggest character subplot. I’ll assume you’ve at least seen a trailer for the film by this point, and so this is no spoiler: the main baddie is Salander’s sister! Now I know what you are thinking, “But Derek, I read those books and/or saw those movies, and there was no mention whatsoever of a sister!” And you’re dead right. I was confused as hell when I saw that in the trailer, but wanted to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. I mean, surely they are going to explain such an inconsistency, right? Not really. While the film addresses the connection, that explanation doesn’t fit anywhere in the continuity of the previous works. In fact, it almost can’t! The main thrust of that first trilogy was Salander’s abusive relationship with her father, eventually leading her to exact revenge and spend half her life in a psych ward for it. Now, not only does Salander have a sister, Camilla, her father was apparently well enough in the intervening years to abuse her as well, something that Camilla blames Salander for (for some reason). I could go on, but the point is, none of it washes. Perhaps there is a decent and satisfying explanation in the book, but it’s not given onscreen, and thus the emotional core of the film falls flat.
But even playing devil’s advocate (let’s pretend this IS a standalone), the emotional resonance is still lacking, as Camilla (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) is given about as much development as a Bond villain, her icy menace matching her white-washed features. Her hatred of Salander seems forced, an attempt to add a layer beyond the basic McGuffin chase. And in return, Salander appears surprised, but not particularly distraught over the reunion. But then again, it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking or feeling at any given moment. Salander is known for being a cool customer, but there’s always a vulnerability underneath the façade. And while Claire Foy (The Crown) provides all she can through look and deed, it’s hard to tell what she’s really going on sometimes. But that’s less her fault than the fact that we often know Salander more from how she interacts with others than by herself. Here, she spends much of the movie in isolation, and thus isn’t afforded much opportunity for major development.
Which leads to one of the biggest missed opportunities in the film. Over the course, Salander ends up having to care for August, the autistic son of her employer. His relatively unique mental abilities and social ostracism actually tend to mirror much of Salander’s, and would provide a perfect opportunity to dig into her inner workings—if we got more than a few sentences and a brief chess match between them. Per Wikipedia, seems this element loomed much larger in the novel, and that’s a real shame. With her interactions with Blomkvist fairly truncated as well, there’s little left for Salander to reveal, and thus she’s relegated more to an archetype than a fully fleshed character.
Speaking of Blomkvist, the film makes another seemingly nonsensical change in recasting the character around 10-years younger (and far better looking). Swedish actor Sverrir Gundnason takes over from both the late Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig before him, and while he certainly does an admirable job, he’s quite simply completely miscast. Much of the character’s gravitas, authority, and experience stems from his age and experience, and young Gundnason, though mere fact of biology, just doesn’t hit the mark. And as such, most of his scenes fall flat and lack the weight they might otherwise carry.
What we’re left with here is a chimera of fast-paced, Hollywood thrills driving an underdeveloped family drama. The thriller part works overall; it’s a nice, tight story with lots of action, and in and of itself would have made for a worthy caper. The addition of the special child, while cliché, in this case would have afforded a great opportunity to develop our heroine through a kindred soul. But the real crime here is the absolutely preposterous attempt to continue the Salander familial saga, which fails both logically and emotionally despite decent performances in a few beautifully shot scenes. And that may be the summation: The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a thing of beauty to behold, but lacks enough substance underneath to bring to par with the rest of the series. It remains to be seen of audiences agree, and whether we’ll see Foy back again for The Girl Who Takes an Eye for and Eye, or if we may have to wait another near-decade for a new Salander to rise. Only time and box office receipts will tell.
YANG: Forgive—Don't Forget
As you may have heard, America and its Allies won World War II. Sorry for the spoiler. But if you’re a modern-day Japanese, that may be about all you know. That past, and the defeat that came with it, is slowly being marginalized. It’s rarely discussed in schools or homes, and thus much of the younger generation not only doesn’t think much about it, but doesn’t consider it really worth thinking about. Time to move forward, think to the future. But sometimes, we need to go back to move on. Forgive—Don’t Forget is one such story attempting to do exactly that.
Once the Americans took control of Japan following the war, they quickly proceeded to minimize, if not eradicate, much of the warrior culture that was seen to have led to the conflict. And there may be no greater symbol of that culture than the Japanese sword, or katana. Thousands were rounded up by the occupying military and either confiscated, destroyed, or given away as souvenirs to Allied troops. Three such swords were taken by the grandfather of Paul Ufema and passed down through the generations as dust-gathering trinkets. One day, Paul decided to try and identify the original owner of the sword and return it, if possible, to that family. As the documentary proves, good intentions do not an easy task make.
While the crux of the film is the attempt to return the sword, director Brad Bennett enlarges the scope to address the cultural significance of the katana and the war to the Japanese in modern times. To our Western minds, we assume the sword is still very much the “soul of the samurai.” But as Paul and crew journey to the land of the rising sun, they learn that isn’t necessarily the case. While very much true for older generations, scholars, martial artists, and craftsmen, the sword to many is an interesting relic, but not necessarily an ethereal object of reverence. So what is it? A weapon? A piece of art? A token of a bygone era? These are all questions explored, though not necessarily answered definitively.
As someone who’s studied the Japanese sword arts for the past 25 years, I personally found the subject matter, as well as the reactions, fascinating. The average modern Japanese doesn’t think much about warriorship anymore, and that’s somewhat by design. The study of the martial arts in Japan by its native sons and daughters has dwindled over the past decades, despite best efforts. In fact, its arts are more often studied by foreigners (like me) outside of Japan than by natives. The attempt to move on from the war, to prefer not to address its militarism and especially its failure, seems to be coming at the cost of a major part of its culture. And really, can anyone, from a person to a country, move forward in a healthy way without facing its ugly past?
But facing something like that is never easy, even with the best intentions. The doco shows not just how difficult it was to track down the owner’s family, but how hard it was to even get the sword to them. The red tape for bringing sword into Japan, let alone allowing it to stay, is somewhat mindboggling to the outsider. In the end, it required an ex-pat sword expert, Paul Martin, to help facilitate things. And even with that, it ended up taking a couple of years overall and two different trips before they were finally able to meet the family.
And it’s here that all the themes come to a head, as the original owner’s sister, still very sharp and active, expresses what the return truly means to her and her family. Whether it’s a matter of generation or culture, she still feels her brother in the sword, and its return is his return. Not only has he come home, but the gulf between the previously warring global factions is somewhat lessened, as the current generations, lacking animosity, are able to put the past away only by confronting the issues that led to this particular separation.
I found a lot of parallels to my own life in Paul’s experience. I too had a teacher, like a grandfather, who taught me the sword he was taught a few years after the war while being part of the occupying forces. 60 years later, I met the Japanese man who was like a brother to him, and over the years has worked very hard to heal the rift between the US and Japan and bring our cultures together. And thus, I found Paul’s work here especially meaningful from both sides, and the words expressed from everyone involved particularly poignant.
The sword may indeed be both art and weapon, and in the case of Paul’s, hold the soul of its owner. It is a symbol of the past that some would prefer to forget, or ignore, and others venerate to exaggeration. But it’s not the sword that’s important, it’s the people behind it. It’s the gestures they make to each other. And this is what the documentary captures so eloquently. Two families, once enemies, finding togetherness in something so capable of efficient division. It may seem contrary, but if we look into Japanese sword history we’ll learn there is already a phrase that describes just such a thing: Katsujin no Ken, the “sword that gives life.”