At The Movies: The Green Knight is a gripping adaptation of an ancient tale

Also lovely to behold is Dev Patel's striking performance.
Also lovely to behold is Dev Patel's striking performance.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The Green Knight (M18, 130 minutes, opens Sept 23, 4 stars)

In the comedy Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975), there are a couple of scenes in which King Arthur and his knights, a hair's breadth away from fulfilling a divine mission, are blocked by sneering French soldiers who greet the English monarch with oddly specific insults. Then the French pull out their weapon - a catapult, loaded with farm animals.

The movie is a classic, mostly because it is funny, but also because it exposes the futility of living up to chivalric standards. You may think of yourself as a person filled with honour, but all it takes to stop you dead in your tracks is a bunch of Frenchmen who think you are full of something else.

Writer-director David Lowery broaches the same general idea - that honour is an absurdly romantic delusion, or a form of mass hysteria - but frames his story as a fantastical drama instead of a comedy.

In his hands, the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight is a dream-like vision of suspense, tinged with horror. It is a tone more in keeping with its mediaeval source text than the one adopted by most movies about King Arthur.

During a Christmas feast, King Arthur and his court are interrupted by The Green Knight, a ghastly figure who issues a challenge: The bravest among them must "with honour" try to land a blow against him. The following Christmas, the same man must seek out the Knight, then submit to having the blow returned.

Arthur's nephew, the reckless, pleasure-loving Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), a young man eager to prove his worth, takes up the offer. It does not go as expected and with a heavy heart, he sees that in a year's time, he has to keep his promise.

As in Lowery's previous films, such as the crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) and romantic drama A Ghost Story (2017), the story unfolds at the speed of poetry - that is, slowly, but almost every scene is hypnotically beautiful.

Also lovely to behold is Dev Patel's striking performance. His Gawain might be a naive mama's boy, but the knight-to-be is also an immensely likeable and relatable narrator of this weird tale.

One Second (PG13, 104 minutes, opens Sept 23, 4 stars)

This reviewer has a soft spot for Zhang Yimou movies about folk searching for a thing they need right now - a warm jacket, a pot, a pair of shoes, a bowl of noodles.

This work is directed and co-written by the legendary maker of epic dramas celebrating the sturdiness of the common people (Red Sorghum, 1987; To Live, 1994) and less successful attempts at action thrillers (The Great Wall, 2016, the Western co-production starring Matt Damon). It marks a delightful return to his peasant resilience category.

His stories about people caught in the sweep of history often land him in trouble with China's censors, and the way it was done with this film made headlines. At the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was pulled at the last minute, allegedly in relation to how it depicted the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is not known if cuts were subsequently made, but the version shown here is coherent structurally and, most importantly, thematically.

Viewers will still get the sense that the fugitive played by Zhang Yi and an orphan (Liu Haocun) are two people at the bottom of the heap, untainted by politics, looking for scraps while avoiding being squashed by the powerful.


Still from the film One Second. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

There is not a lot of story here - the film opens in the 1960s or perhaps the early 1970s, in the era before the arrival of television in rural China.

The fugitive (Zhang) is seen skulking around villages somewhere in a dry, dusty region, eyeing the projector reels ferried from town to town by motorbike. He runs into another outcast, the orphan (Liu), and a projectionist, Mr Movie (Fan Wei), a man worshipped by villagers because he operates the village's primary source of entertainment, the cinema.

Co-written by playwright and poet Zou Jingzhi (the Wong Kar Wai martial arts film The Grandmaster, 2013), this drama tearjerker is, as one would expect, an ode to films and an embrace of humanity.

What stands out, however, is the craft. The elegant, sensitive photography, writing, acting and soundtrack come together to make this simple desert tale come alive.

Candyman (M18, 91 minutes, opens Sept 23, 3 stars)


Still for the film Candyman starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. PHOTO: UIP

The 1992 original movie had a twisty story about a white researcher of urban myths looking into a story about the ghost of a black artist seeking redress for racial crimes.

This direct sequel, directed by Nia DaCosta, a black woman, and co-written by Jordan Peele, the writer-director of acclaimed horror projects Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), amplifies the idea of a black avenger - a supervillain, almost - while adding new layers, such as white-led gentrification and police violence against black men.

This time, however, the main character is not a white woman but a black artist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose attempt at rekindling his creative spark by looking into the legend of the hook-handed killer does not happen without strange, gory consequences.

Coherence suffers because of an excess of characters, dialogue and plot convolutions, but DaCosta brings home a horror movie that feels scary, insightful and surprisingly laced with more than a trace of tragedy.