Carol: More than a lesbian romance; Ip Man 3: Fight scenes are worth the watch

Carol looks at forbidden love, domestic drama and class struggle in 1950s America

Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3. Cate Blanchett (right) and Rooney Mara in Carol.
Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3. Cate Blanchett (right) and Rooney Mara in Carol.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

What kind of movie gets released in a week when The Force has taken over all cinemas in this galaxy and ones far, far away?

Carol (R21, 119 minutes, opens tomorrow, *****) fits the bill as the opposite of a pew-pew-pew space opera.

But it would be selling this movie short to call it savvy counter-programming by film marketers. It is also unfair to label it a "lesbian romance", even if an affair between two women drives the story. The affair is like a meteor striking Earth - the social and cultural debris thrown out by the impact is as interesting as the meteor itself.

It is the early 1950s and New York shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) attends to customer Carol (Cate Blanchett). The socialite forgets her gloves at the store. Therese returns them and the pair strike up a friendship, one that will grow into something deeper.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Carol, however, is struggling through an acrimonious divorce. She is fighting for the custody of her daughter from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese, an aspiring newspaper photographer, has to choose if she wants to enter a dangerous new world or stay with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacey).

This work's mix of elements - forbidden love, domestic drama and class struggle - screams for an overwrought style of presentation. Or perhaps street realism livened up with the shock of explicit sex, as seen in Blue Is The Warmest Color (2014).

This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price Of Salt takes a different tack.

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adopt a detached, almost clinical approach. So while you have the stares of longing, the sideways glances and the coded speech of the classic repression romance, Haynes also makes the actors speak and move deliberately, their formality matching the meticulous 1950s set design.

This is retro cinema that is aware of its theatrical quality, but that knowingness is never ironic.

Some have accused Haynes of coldness, of seeing his characters as exhibits. That would be unfair. Distancing the viewer from the people in the story allows him to dial down the story's inherent soapiness.

Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

More importantly, it focuses on the isolation of Therese and Carol, who live in a world they cannot fully inhabit, much less relax in. It is a reminder that in 1950s America, their lives had to be performed, not lived.

And it is that exquisitely controlled performance as Therese that won Mara the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, adding to the five Golden Globe nominations it has earned. It is fair recognition for one of this year's best films.

Also sneaking into cinemas during this season of the Jedi is Ip Man 3 (PG13, 105 minutes, opens tomorrow, ** 1/2). Like Star Wars, Ip Man is a franchise built on action, underdogs winning and the journey of a person summoned by destiny.

Well, that used to be the idea. This third one shows symptoms of the Skyfall effect - if movie one is a lean Skyfall, then movie two has to be a bloated Spectre. The follow-up stuffs in more - more action, more melodrama, more plot - to lure the holdouts who saw the previous movie on DVD and need a push to buy tickets to the cinema.

The franchise purports to tell the story of the real martial arts teacher who taught Bruce Lee the ways of wing chun. It has just enough of what American television host Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness", to give it semblance of a biopic, when almost all of it is invented.

That "truthiness" quotient hits rock bottom in the latest instalment.

Having defeated Caucasians and Japanese occupiers (this series, if nothing else, applies a balm on Chinese historical humiliation), Ip Man (Donnie Yen) now has to fight gangsters in his new home of Hong Kong. Once again, all his protestations of humility achieve is to drive men to fight him - perhaps he should shut up about his love of non-violence if he really wants the fights to stop?

The baddies here include a British colonial official, shown as a corrupt idiot with a plummy accent, fond of phrases such as "cheerio" and "nefarious den of vice". Among the villainous foreigners is mob boss Frank, who just happens to be played by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. In Hong Kong cinema, that sort of playful scenario is perfectly plausible, so it is better to just roll with it.

Of course, Ip Man and the American have a showdown, in a stunt piece that slyly settles the question of East versus West martial arts supremacy, but which again is an issue born of a sense of inadequacy.

This swinging between extreme silliness and the poker-faced hero worship of Ip Man the character makes this more an exercise in pastiche than a movie. The fight scenes may be the only reason to watch this and, thankfully, they are above average.

See Rooney Mara almost let award-winning role slip away

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'More than a lesbian romance'. Subscribe