Somewhere between a Sixth Generation soap-opera splurge and a gender-flipped mimeograph of The King and I, Yim Ho’s Pavilion of Women starts out like a dated musical: bloated orchestral overture, bustling peasant crowds, grand-mannered crane shots. That it never ripens and rots with song is a blessing, but what’s left is nearly as difficult to love. Adapted from a not at all improperly forgotten Pearl S. Buck novel, Yim’s cluttered gala is fairly swollen with cliché, dead air, and dialogue mold. (A few gems: “Never trust a woman!”; “The Wu family owns half this town!”; “You are not my son!”) Buck is a literary fashion long gone the way of all flesh, but her antique idioms and Tara-on-the-Yangtze colonialism still have their champions; Pavilion of Women is hardly old-fashioned in treating Asia as a bonehead wilderness tackled by a righteous white man. It’s still limehouse material—that the Asians are played by actual Asians (unlike in the 1937 Hollywood version of Buck’s The Good Earth), and Ashley Judd doesn’t show up with eyelid prosthetics as a comely Chinese maiden, is as far from the Irving Thalberg epoch as we get.
The lionized director of Kitchen and The Day the Sun Turned Cold, Yim seems, at the slightest contact with Western studios (100 percent made in China, Pavilion was only coproduced by Universal), to have turned into Alan Parker. The movie never stops shimmering (candles, reflections, sunlight on grass), but the story is stillborn: Willem Dafoe is a liberal missionary-doctor hired by a powerful family as a tutor, just as the discontented matriarch (coproducer-cowriter Luo Yan) tries to hold off her asswipe husband by offering him a second wife. There’s even an orphanage fire. Overly color-coded and grotesquely melodramatic, Yim’s film is kneecapped by its soundtrack twice over—first by Conrad Pope’s score, which lies atop the action like congealed marshmallow, and second by wall-to-wall dubbing. All the characters save the leads have their lines intoned by radio actors Arch Obeler would’ve fired. When the Japanese finally invade, the earnestly grinning Dafoe is crucified yet again: Behold the new Heston.
To each his own punishment: Eric Stanze’s Ice From the Sun is a furiously pointless punk-gore loogie that resets the bar on how wretched an amateur indulgence can be and still garner public screen time merely on the impression of being “transgressive.” Wizards, angels, ice worlds, trapped souls, dimensional crossovers—the narration’s thick with hootenanny, but the movie is mostly a bunch of Stanze’s pals wandering around some northern scrubland, occasionally meeting Death (with a scythe) or visiting some kind of “other” place, i.e., a set where actors lick guns, play chess with themselves, or don rubber monster claws. It’s Mark Borchardt’s Coven with cosmic pretensions, or Lost Highway executed by a whippet-dizzy 16-year-old—whatever it is, it’s barely a movie.