Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012 Part One: Old Movies

An annual tradition here at The End, these are the best movies I saw for the first time this year, not counting recent releases (anything less than three years old). As always, the rankings are not meant to be taken too seriously, I saw a lot of great movies this year and would recommend each and every one of these.  I've included links to the ones I've written and/or podcasted about.

1. Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1995)
2. Perceval le Gallois (Eric Rohmer, 1978)
3. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
4. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
5. The Time to Live, the Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)
6. Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
7. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
8. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
9. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
10. Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957)
11. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)
12. The Saga of Anatahan (Joseph von Sternberg, 1953)
13. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
14. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975)
15. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957)
16. Broadway Melody of 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)
17. Man's Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks, 1964)
18. Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim, 1919)
19. The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)
20. Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)

21. Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)
22. Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987)
23. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
24. On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956)
25. Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)
26. Diary of a Lost Girl (GW Pabst, 1929)
27. Jet Pilot (Joseph von Sternberg, 1957)
28. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian DePalma, 1974)
29. A Summer at Grandpa's (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1984)
30. Safe in Hell (William Wellman, 1931)
31. Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944)
32. Le notti bianche (Luchino Visconti, 1957)
33. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainier Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
34. Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)
35. Days of Youth (Yasujiro Ozu, 1929)
36. China Gate (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
37. Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957)
38. The River (Tsai, Ming-liang, 1997)
39. Objective: Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)
40. Cockfighter (Monte Hellman, 1974)

41. Mad Monkey Kung Fu (Lau Kar-leung, 1979)
42. Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Liesen, 1937)
43. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
44. Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)
45. Comrade X (King Vidor, 1940)
46. The Poor Little Rich Girl (Maurice Tourneur, 1917)
47. Yesterday Once More (Johnnie To, 2004)
48. Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975)
49. The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
50. Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh, 1957)
51. 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957)
52. Daughter of the Nile (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987)
53. City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
54. Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)
55. They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941)
56. The Constant Nymph (Edmond Goulding, 1943)
57. The Rink (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
58. Bardelys the Magnificent (King Vidor, 1926)
59. Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)
60. Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957)

61. Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968)
62. Caged Heat (Jonathan Demme, 1974)
63. Hallelujah! (King Vidor, 1929)
64. So Long at the Fair (Antony Darnborough & Terence Fisher, 1950)
65. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
66. The Flying Guillotine (Ho Meng Hua, 1975)
67. Ill Met By Moonlight (Powell & Pressburger, 1957)
68. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
69. In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
70. The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)
71. Broadway Melody of 1936 (Roy del Ruth, 1935)
72. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)
73. Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey, 1932)
74. Liliom (Fritz Lang, 1934)
75. Merrily We Live (Norman Z. McLoed, 1938)
76. Executioners from Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 1977)
77. Number Seventeen (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)
78. Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955)
79. Springfield Rifle (Andre de Toth, 1952)
80. Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957)

81. I Flunked, But . . . (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)
82. The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944)
83. Northern Pursuit (Raoul Walsh, 1943)
84. Killer Clans (Chor Yuen, 1976)
85. I am Waiting (Koreyoshi Kurehara, 1957)
86. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922)
87. The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)
88. Flunky, Work Hard (Mikio Naruse, 1931)
89. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
90. Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983)
91. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
92. This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943)
93. The Lady and the Beard (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)
94. Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
95. The Crimson Pirate (Robert Siodmak, 1952)
96. Show People (King Vidor, 1928)
97. The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945)
98. The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
99. The Armor of God (Jackie Chan, 1986)
100. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Roy Rowland, 1945)

101. Swordsman (King Hu, 1990)
102. The Tin Star (Anthony Mann, 1957)
103. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
104. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 1941)
105. Project A 2 (Jackie Chan, 1987)
106. Fire Down Below (Robert Parrish, 1957)
107. Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
108. The Rising of the Moon (John Ford, 1957)
109. Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974)
110. The Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1957)
111. Les Girls (George Cukor, 1957)
112. Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava, 1974)
113. The Great Waltz (Julien Duvivier, 1938)
114. Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935)
115. Heroes for Sale (William Wellman, 1933)
116. Great Day in the Morning (Jacques Tourneur, 1956)
117. The Enemy Below (Dick Powell, 1957)
118. Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)
119. State Fair (Henry King, 1933)
120. A Song to Remember (Charles Vidor, 1945)
121. Time Without Pity (Joseph Losey, 1957)
122. Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957)
123. The Green Green Grass of Home (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)

This Week in Rankings

A Charlie Brown Christmas - 3, 1965
The Flying Guillotine - 11, 1975
Killer Clans - 10, 1976
Executioners from Shaolin - 11, 1977
Mad Monkey Kung Fu - 10, 1979

Django Unchained - 2012
Cosmopolis - 2012
This is 40 - 2012
Vamps - 2012
Les Misérables - 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Mad Monkey Kung Fu

If I had to pick a favorite Shaw Brothers director, and thankfully I don't, Lau Kar-leung would be my choice.  His visual style isn't particularly innovative or beautiful, and he doesn't bring the raw, anguished physicality that distinguishes the work of Chang Cheh, or the sense of the spiritual transcendence found in the work of King Hu.  His direction is elegant and precise, valuing the clarity of the image above all else, particularly if those images involve bodies in motion.  In this sense, he's the kung fu heir of Fred Astaire, who famously demanded that his dances be shot with as few cuts as possible, with the actors visible in full, head-to-toe shots.  I'm willing to bet that Lau's average shot length is higher than most Shaw directors, as his films always seem to have a few scenes of extended single-take action, with dual combatants engaged in a series of movements as intricately intertwined as any Astaire-Rogers foxtrot.

Lau's skills as a performer take center stage in Mad Monkey Kung Fu in addition to his obvious talents as director and choreographer.  I've seen him in smaller parts in other films, but never in as big a role as he plays here.  I'll admit, seeing him actually perform his routines was as fun and exciting for me as when I first started seen Bob Fosse perform his own routines in movies like Kiss Me Kate and Give a Girl a Break.  Lau often worked with his adopted brother Gordon Liu, and the two couldn't form a better, closer choreographer-performer partnership.  It's great when two (or more) minds can collaborate in creating something as elaborate as a dance or kung fu routine, but there's a special charge in seeing someone performing their own work, unmediated by the artistic drive of their collaborator(s).

Lau plays a traveling performer and master of the Monkey Fist kung fu style, which mixes quick, darting movements with circus acrobatics with goofy monkey-sounds and scratches.  The Monkey King story is an enduring one in Chinese mythology and films, but I still can't help but think Lau was led in this more comically lowbrow direction following the breakthrough success of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master (directed by Yuen Woo-ping), which was released the year before, in 1978.  Before this, the Lau films I've seen have all been very serious (Executioners from Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) with the later even mixing in some King Hu-inspired Buddhist theology.  Even Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja), from the same year as 36th Chamber, treats its comic premise rather seriously.  Mad Monkey Kung Fu starts seriously enough, with Lau's performer Chen tricked into getting blackout drunk by a gangster (the great Shaw Brothers villain Lo Lieh) which leads to Chen's sister agreeing to become Lo's mistress and Chen agreeing to have his fingers broken so that he'll never be able to do his kung fu again.  But much of the rest of the film is devoted to silly comedy and mugging.

Several years later, Chen is a struggling street performer (he has a trained monkey) who befriends a local pickpocket, serendipitously named Little Monkey.  Chen trains Little Monkey in the way of the Monkey Fist so that he can defeat the local extortion gang.  When that gang turns out to be headed by Lo Lieh, who savagely beats the unprepared Little Monkey, the training begins in earnest for a final revenge showdown.  These final training and fight sequences are some of Lau's best work as a choreographer.  The last training session, with Chen displaying impossibly quick and detailed movements and Little Monkey quickly learning to mimic them until the two are totally in sync reminded me of nothing less than one of the great tap duets in film history, Gene Kelly & Donald O'Connor's "Moses Supposes" from Singin' in the Rain.  

Beginning with Mad Monkey, Lau increasingly seemed to reach for the blend of action and comedy Chan and Sammo Hung were then pioneering and that would reach its apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view) with the films of Stephen Chow and Wong Jing in the 1990s.  His next film, 1980's Return to the 36th Chamber, is easily my least favorite of his movies thanks mostly to the lameness of its comedy, and though My Young Auntie, Legendary Weapons of China and especially 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (all made between 1981 and 1984) mark somewhat of a return to form, he never really regains the seriousness or ambition of the first 36th Chamber.  After the mid-80s, his career as a director pretty much ground to a halt (along with the Shaw Brothers studio as a major force in Hong Kong cinema), though he did have one masterpiece left: directing Jackie Chan himself in Drunken Master II.  Lau's in his late 70s now, and hasn't worked since acting and choreographing Tsui Hark's Seven Swords in 2005.  But he does have a film upcoming: he's credited along with Yuen Woo-ping as the choreographer for Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Killer Clans

Showing more of a noir-by-way-of-Yojimbo influence than most Shaw Brothers films, this Chor Yuen-directed adaptation of a novel by Ku Lung shows that there's more to kung fu movies than simple revenge and enlightenment plots. Chor takes his time setting up a world ruled by devilishly clever gangsters demanding absolute loyalty from their subjects. A master swordsman, Meng Sheng Wen, an assassin for hire, is ordered by his boss to kill the head of the Lung Men Society, Uncle Sun Yu. He takes his time heading out for the job (distracted as he is by a pretty, poetry-reciting girl living in the local Butterfly Forest) and in the meantime a gang war is started between the Lung Men Society and the Roc Society, a rival criminal organization. Various bodyguards are killed on both sides, and Uncle Sun's secret weapon, Lo Lieh playing a mysterious man with a deadly, razor sharp hat, is killed, but by who?  Was it Meng?  A weaselly assistant-turned traitor? Or was it Uncle Sun's right-hand man, the master of 72 secret weapons, Lu Hsiang Chuan (played by Yueh Hua, from Come Drink With Me)?

The film is simply bursting with minor characters that Chor, along with the great stable of actors at his disposal at Shaws, is able to give more depth than their screen-time really earns. The most poignant, and disturbing, scene in the film comes near the end, as Uncle Sun makes his painstaking (and rather unbelievable) escape from an assassination attempt. A man who owes him his life helps him, and the price for that loyalty, as he well knows, is that he'll have to kill himself to prevent Uncle Sun's enemies from getting any information from him. Unfortunately, both the man's wife and two children also see Uncle Sun. So the man and wife commit the group murder-suicide honor demands. It's absolutely heart-breaking, and pushes the bounds of good taste, not unlike Hitchcock blowing up the kid on the bus in Sabotage. It's telling though that in a film about disloyalty and betrayal, it's those who are most loyal and honorable to their bosses who seem to suffer the most. Not only this simple peasant family, but everyone who aids Uncle Sun's escape dies for the cause while only by betraying his master does Meng Sheng Wen defeat the "bad guys" and ride off with the pretty girl.

Meng doesn't have a "code" and he doesn't do his job. He just does what he likes when he likes, like Mifune in the Yojimbo films. He has his own sense of right and wrong, and that is what dictates his actions, not some social construct like "honor" or "loyalty". His greatest trait is that he's flexible, where everyone else in the film is bound by their social status and proscribed role. Uncle Sun spends decades thinking up an elaborate escape route (to the point that he has a man living in the sewer below his house for years, waiting for the one day he'll be able to help him escape on a boat) but never imagines that he could be betrayed by the person closest to him. Meng brings the Taoist corrective to the rigid Confucian world the gangs exploit. Meng is played by Chung Wa and while he brings a fine relaxed energy to the often overwrought Shaw Brothers world, but the role might have been better served with some Mifune-esque electric charisma. As it is, his character disappears for large sections of the movie, and at times he ends up seeming more passive and lucky than wise.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Executioners from Shaolin

Much like the anti-Qing struggle referenced in the first night of A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas, the legend of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple is a common narrative backdrop in kung fu movies.  Respectively they're kind of akin to the role the Civil War and Little Big Horn play in American Westerns.  The Temple story is also a subset of the larger Qing-Ming war, as in addition to being a Buddhist monastery with a sideline in innovative kung fu techniques, the Temple was also, according to legend, a center for anti-Qing activism in the decades after they took over the country (late 1600s-early 1700s).  Central to the story is the character of Pai Mei (or Bak Mei), one of the five elders who survived the burning of the Temple and in some versions of the story brought about its destruction by collaborating with the Qing (he's the Shaolin Judas or Benedict Arnold).  You might recognize the name from Kill BIll Vol. 2, where Pai Mei is the white-robed kung fu master who instructs all of David Carradine's assassins, including Uma Thurman.  In that film, Pai Mei is played by the great Shaw Brothers star Gordon Liu, made up with a long white beard and eyebrows ("Pai Mei" apparently means "white eyebrows").

Gordon Liu plays a small but notable role in Executioners of Shaolin, directed by his adopted brother Lau Kar-leung.  The two would of course make several great films together over the next decade, the greatest of which was made the next year, 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which takes place earlier in the Temple's history and chronicles its entrance into the wider political struggle.  Executioners starts at the end of the battle for the Temple, with a fight between Pai Mai (played by Lo Lieh) and one of the temple masters played out before an abstract red backdrop as the credits roll, a Lau trademark.  After Pai Mai kills him, we cut to various monks fleeing the destruction and Gordon Liu gets his standout scene as he takes on the Qing forces so his brothers can escape.  From then, the film follows the life of Hung Hsi-kuan, played by The Flying  Guillotine star Chen Kuan-tai as he practices for 20 years or so to avenge his master's death.

But here's where the film gets weird.  Instead of simply training and working out the various martial tactics he'll need, as in many another kung fu film (Shaolin Mantis, say, or in the best case, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) or the search for a kind of spiritual enlightenment that'll provide him with untold power (The Tai Chi Master or 8 Diagram Pole Fighter), Hung meets a nice girl, gets married and has a son.  The whole middle section of the film is in fact a marital comedy.  Hung meets Ying Chun, played by Lily Li, when he and his fellow fugitive monks are posing as street performers and keep interrupting her own performances.  They argue over whose kung fu is superior: his Tiger Style or her Crane Style and end up falling in love.  Over the next decade, while she does the laundry and raises their son and he trains to defeat Pai Mai, he repeatedly rejects her suggestion that he learn some of her Crane Style too.  When ten years have gone by, he challenges Pai Mai and loses, but escapes.  Pai Mai's secret is that he can move his vital points (attacking said points are the key to defeating him) from his groin to his head at will, such that when Hung (and his master before him) kick Pai Mai there, their foot gets stuck in the empty space where his testicles should be.  Hung goes back to the drawing board (in this case, a copper statue filled with marbles, I'm unclear how this works) and figures out that he needs to attack Pai Mai only at certain times of day.  He trains for seven more years, again refusing to adopt elements of his wife's Crane Style, challenges him again and loses.

Here the son, Wen-ding, enters the picture.  By his father's orders, he's only been trained in his mother's kung fu style.  But the two of them find an old moth-eaten Tiger Style manual and Wen-ding trains for a year to take on Pai Mai.  By using a combination of both his parents' styles, Wen-ding is able to defeat Pai Mai.  So, the unstoppable villain is a man who can willfully castrate himself.  A man alone is unable to defeat him, no matter his skill at the manly (Tiger) style of fighting.  Only through the combination of male and female (Crane) styles can he be bested.  Yin or Yang alone cannot defeat the void, the absence of Yin or Yang, it needs to be a balance of both together.

I'm not sure how much of the Hung story is original and how much based in legend.  It sounds very similar to the stories about Fong Sai-yuk, whose mother trained him in kung fu (she was the daughter of one of the Five Master of the Shaolin Temple who survived its destruction) while his father was active in anti-Qing resistance.  In one version of the legend, Fong Sai-yuk is killed by Pai Mai.  Jet Li played Fong in a pair of excellent films from the early 90s, but neither of them make reference to Pai Mai or the Temple, as far I as can remember.

Lau would return to the martial arts as marital comedy style of film to great effect a few years later in Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja) in which a married couple argue over which nation's martial arts are superior, his Chinese or her Japanese.  But I don't think I've seen anything like the transgressive view of gender on display here from Lau before, or in any other kung fu film, for that matter.  Not until the gender-bending of Ching Siu-tung's Swordsman II at least, and even that film is pretty misogynistic.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: The Flying Guillotine

A crazed Qing Emperor suspects everyone around him of disloyalty, and when two well-respected advisors dare to suggest that maybe he shouldn't have killed a bunch of innocent teachers and intellectuals, he decides to kill them, along with anyone else who might be disloyal.  He tasks another advisor with developing a hit squad of a dozen assassins utilizing that advisor's newly developed super-weapon, the flying guillotine, a combination of razor-sharp frisbee and basket on a chain that in trained hands can decapitate a person from 100 yards and occasionally, inexplicably, explode.

Inevitably, certain members of the squad, though initially chosen for their martial arts skill and loyalty to the Emperor, begin to have second thoughts when they realize the nature of the people they're assigned to brutally murder. This leads to the revolt and escape of the group's most talented member, Ma Teng, played by Chen Kuan Tai (one of the villains in Crippled Avengers and one of the aged stars of Clement Cheng's Gallants).  The multi-year hunt for Ma, combined with the self-serving schemes of the most evil member of the squad (Ah Kun, played by Wai Wang), tears the group apart and eventually kills them all.  The Emperor, of course, survives unscathed.

Director Ho Meng Hua is one of the lesser-known Shaw Brothers directors, though he was one of their most prolific.  He started there in the mid-50s, working in all kinds of genres before the kung fu boom of the late 60s and 70s.  I've seen a few of his other movies (The Lady Hermit, Vengeance is a Golden Blade and Shaolin Handlock) and while they're all fine, he hasn't really stood out to me, this is easily the most creative visually (lots of Lo Wei-style overhead shots to go along with the expected excellence in action editing) and interesting politically.  Lots of kung fu movies are set during the early years of the Qing dynasty, when the northern Manchu took over the country from the Ming Dynasty, leaving the nation's dominant ethnic group, the Han, powerless for the first time in 2000 years or so (not counting the few hundred years of Mongol rule).  The situation is ripe for allegorical interpretation.  Whether you're a Maoist celebrating the struggle against first the sclerotic Qing, then the invading Japanese and finally the Nationalist Kuomintang or an anti-communist refugee fled to British-ruled Hong Kong, you can see yourself on the side of right in the Ming-Qing battle.  Even Chinese gangsters (triads) like to see themselves as descendants of the secret pro-Ming societies that fought the Qing (see Johnnie To's Election for the triads' view of themselves as historical actors).

What we get with The Flying Guillotine comes at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution on mainland China, a decade of government-sponsered internal terrorism, with intellectuals, teachers, and just about anyone else being purged for lack of loyalty to the regime and/or ideological incorrectness.  In the film, we see the inner-workings of an assassination squad, under the thumb of an Ivan the Terrible-like emperor and armed with an unstoppable weapon.  Even under these circumstances, though, basic human decency shines through, as Ma Teng (and a couple other assassins) see the light and do their best to escape (the Emperor is far too powerful to actually be defeated).  On the run, Ma starts a family and lives a noble, peaceful life as a farmer, his drive to quiet domesticity contrasted with Ah Kun's deceitfulness and backstabbing ambition that leads to the disintegration of the hit squad.  So, the film is therefore a neat allegory for the strife caused by the tyrannical PRC over the previous decade, with subjects encouraged to fight amongst themselves or simply hide-out, unable and unwilling to challenge the dominant power structure.  Or, conversely, the life of a peasant farmer was idealized during the Cultural Revolution: those intellectuals who survived got themselves corrected by being sentenced to the country to work on collective farms.  Thus, the film is about the struggle of the decent, communist farmer against the destructive ambitions unleashed by modern capitalism, with the Emperor standing in for the KMT's dictator Chiang Kai-shek and Ah Kun, I don't know, Nixon or somebody.  Or maybe it's about the revolution in general, about how radical revolutions always decay into petty in-fighting over ideological purity leading to mass execution as happened in Russia, China and France ("guillotine!").  Such are the perils of political allegory in Chinese film.  It is, after all, a nation that allows Taiwan to be its own country as long as everyone pretends it's actually part of China.

Also, lots of people get their heads cut off.  That flying guillotine really is a horrific sight, and Ho does well to match it with the sound of it spinning through the air, such that by the end of the film, all it takes is that distinctive whir to set us on edge, unconsciously shrink our heads into our shoulders and wish we had ourselves a steel umbrella.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Week in Rankings

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog - 6, 2008
Let the Bullets Fly - 9, 2010
The Deep Blue Sea - 4, 2011

Girl Walk // All Day - 10, 2011
Pina - 22, 2011
The Kid with a Bike - 26, 2011
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

VIFF 2012: East Meets West

Jeffrey Lau's 1994 film The Eagle Shooting Heroes stands out among the weird and wacky world of Hong Kong comedies as possibly the weirdest and wackiest, at least in my fairly small sampling. A parody of the same source material that formed the basis for Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, and featuring most of the same cast (it was shot either concurrently or just after that film, in an attempt to recoup some of the epic's cost overruns), it sticks mainly in my memory as the film in which the great Tony Leung spends much of his screen-time impersonating a duck. Lau also directed the two-part Stephen Chow epic A Chinese Odyssey, which is weird even for Stephen Chow.

So it was with much excitement that I rushed from the screening of People's Park to see East Meets West, which may or may not be a sequel to The Eagle Shooting Heroes (I didn't think it was at all, but a comment at imdb says so, and they're usually right, right?). I was not disappointed.

It starts with a lightning fast 30 minutes or so, when a whole bunch of characters are introduced, and back stories given, while jokes fly by faster than edits. One character, played by Karen Mok, finds her father, a former major pop star played by former major pop star Kenny Bee working in a haunted house: "being a zombie is a perfectly respectable profession!" They set off to find her hated step-mother ("It's God's will that I go to Guangzhou to chop the bitch!") who has gotten them into trouble over some debts.  They hook up with a rich girl musician, her bodyguard, a single dad and his son and a wannabe actor/cab driver as they flee from hordes of homeless musicians ("Don't drive so Donnie Yen!") and reunite Bee's band ("The Wynners") to hold a fund-raising concert.

I saw Kenny Bee for the first time earlier this year in one of Hou Hsiao-hsien's first movies, the mediocre romantic comedy Play While You Play (aka Cheerful Wind), so it was a treat seeing him here, 30 years later. He's not as charismatic or funny as Teddy Robin, another 70s pop-star was in his hopefully career-reviving performances in 2010's Gallants, Merry-Go-Round and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, but he's a lot better here than he was in that Hou movie.

Anyway, it turns out these people are all reincarnations of a group of gods that have been fighting a multi-millennia struggle against the eighth of their group, who became twisted and evil and defeats them in every lifetime. Lau has a lot of fun with the superheroes in the modern world conceit (their makeshift costumes are terrific: a bicycle hemet, a face covered with flour, single-lensed sunglasses, etc), a pleasant contrast with the bleak and miserable worlds of Hollywood films like Kick-Ass or Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. And while the special effects are merely OK compared to the state-of-the-art, giving the films a kind of plastic, phony sheen found also in recent films from Tsui Hark, Lau manages to create some nice, memorable images (though he doesn't quite have Tsui's skill as a visual filmmaker). The film loses some narrative steam towards the end, but it never stops being fun and clever. Even when Lau goes for sap, it goes for the biggest, gooiest, cheesiest love-conquers-all-even-a-heart-ten-sizes-too-small sap it can muster.

VIFF 2012: People's Park

A few thoughts I jotted down while watching People's Park, a single-take documentary set in a park in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan by directors JP Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn:

  • So this is a lot like Russian Ark, the single-take trip through the Hermitage directed by Alexander Sokurov, except that film was fictional and moved freely through time as it compressed and stretched hundreds of years of history into its one shot, whereas this film is a real-rime documentary, and therefore rooted in the present. A present which is now past, but that's beside the point.
  • There's no subtitles and no story. Nothing appears to have been staged for the camera. But we're narrative-creating beings and not even the simple act of people-watching can stop us from making up little stories about the faces we see. That kid is sad, that man is hungry, those people are in love, those people can barely stand to talk to each other, etc.
  • As the camera tracks along a bend in a small stream, the next film that comes to mind is Renoir's A Day in the Country. And also People on Sunday. Great films from the thirties about middle class Europeans hanging out in a public park on a sunny afternoon. 
  • Also the city symphony genre (À propos de Nice, Man with a Movie Camera). Why did they stop making those? 
  • These middle class Chinese folk are no different. In fact, they seem thoroughly Westernized. One guy flashes a peace sign at the camera. Almost everyone wears Western clothes. I see: jeans, T-shirts, slacks, print dresses, polo shirts, cargo shorts, sneakers, capri pants, cowboy hats. I wonder if these clothes have been adopted because they're 'evolutionarily' better than traditional Eastern clothing, or is it cultural, Hollywood, imperialism, like the way Clark Gable killed the undershirt industry with It Happened One Night, or James Dean caused a boom in blue jeans?
  • Is there a specific term for fashion historians? What are their internal disputes like? Are there competing models of fashion history? Are there leftist factions that rail against the imperialist machine? Do they advocate a revolutionary fashion as a consciousness-raising measure? Do they assert that you can't fight the fashion hegemony while wearing the clothing style of the elites?
  • That said, there is one big difference between their clothes and what you'd see in any given US city park: an almost total lack of logos, either corporate or team sports-related. In general there are just a lot fewer shirts with writing on them.
  • There's so much music in this park. A band decked out in orange and white polo shirts leading a sing-along. People dancing in a square, not quite in time to the music coming from a loudspeaker. A long arcade is home to a band playing traditional Chinese instruments, as well as a group of people doing karaoke.
  • The sounds in the arcade clash, reverberating against its columns creating an atonal distortion much like that Charles Ives recreated in Central Park in the Dark, which captures the sonic experience of walking through the park as sounds fade in and out, inspired by his father's habit of sending two marching bands in opposite directions around a square, smashing their sounds together and breaking them apart.
  • After cruising through the cacophonous arcade, suddenly we break back outside where we see: couples dancing a waltz. A breath of classical air after the oppressively fuzzy modernity.
  • Near yet another band playing, there's a man doing calligraphy in water on the stone walkway. Nearby is a kebab stand selling hot dogs on sticks. Meats on sticks is a universal human value.
  • In the end we're back where we started: a group of people dancing to pop music (Michael Jackson is a universal human value) in a large plaza. These dancers are more professional than the out-of-time folks that started the film though. They seem like a descendant of Jia Zhangke's breakdancing troupe from Platform. Except for the old man who dances with a chicken. I have no idea where that comes from.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

This Week in Rankings

The Hole - 20, 2009
The Turin Horse - 16, 2011
Bernie - 20, 2011
Girl Walk//All Day - 24, 2011

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate - 26, 2011
Shut Up and Play the Hits - 2012
Prometheus - 2012

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

This Week in Rankings

Summer Stock - 24, 1950
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - 28, 2010
Ong Bak 3 - 49, 2010

Life Without Principle - 9, 2011
The Grey - 13, 2011
Take This Waltz - 25, 2011
Headshot - 30, 2011
Holy Motors - 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

This Week in Rankings

The Haunted Hotel - 4, 1907
Lightning Sketches - 5, 1907
The Artist's Dreams - 2, 1913
Down on the Phoney Farm - 6, 1915
Bobby Bumps Starts for School - 5, 1917
Firemen Save My Child - 8, 1919
The Bomb Idea - 10, 1920
Springtime - 6, 1923
A Trip to Mars - 8, 1924
Scents & Nonsense - 9, 1926

Broadway Melody of 1936 - 12, 1935
Rosalie - 22, 1937
Broadway Melody of 1938 - 26, 1937
Broadway Melody of 1940 - 14, 1940

The Tell-Tale Heart - 23, 1953
Ben-Hur -23, 1959

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This Week in Rankings

A Day's Pleasure - 7, 1919
The Postman Always Rings Twice - 11, 1946

Hearts and Minds - 13, 1974
Eraserhead - 10, 1977

Lincoln - 2012
Wreck-It Ralph - 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln begins with the President talking to a pair of black soldiers after a battle, one praising him for being such a swell President, the other insisting he do something about the inequality in pay between black and white servicemen.  The threesome is joined by a pair of white soldiers, one of whom compliments Lincoln on, and then begins to recite, his Gettysburg Address.  He trails off, forgetting the ending, but as the four soldiers turn to leave, the one who'd been berating him turns, looks Lincoln in the eye, and finishes the speech:
 It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Thus are the terms of the conflict we are about to watch set in motion.  Not a hagiographical biopic about a national saint, but a gritty, detailed look at the machinations required to turn rhetoric into action, and about the gulf that lies between the ideals we hold and express in words and the reality of what we are actually able to achieve in our debased, messy world.

The bulk of the film plays much like an extended, 19th Century-set episode of The West Wing (it's got the same highly entertaining mix of political seriousness and fast-talking humor, though instead of the TV series's famed "walk and talk" steadicam sequences, we get a lot of "sit and talks"), as Lincoln and his cabinet try, in January of 1865, to round up the necessary 20 Democratic votes to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) in the House of Representatives.  The first section of the film is an expositional wonder, as not only are the main characters (including Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Republican poobah Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and various members of the White House-hold, among others) introduced and motivated, but the political issues involved are explained with a detail, clarity and respect for the audience's intelligence that's extremely rare in a Hollywood film.  All credit should go to playwright Tony Kushner's screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating and engrossing book Team of Rivals.  It's as good if not better than anything I've seen from Kushner, and that's saying a lot for the author of Angels in America.  Lincoln's explanation of the complex tangle that is the suspect legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, and why it must be superseded by a Constitutional Amendment before the war ends is a wonder of relatable wonkery.  After this exposition, the film settles in as a classic race against time: the President's men must get the necessary votes before a peace expedition from the South arrives in Washington to surrender.  If the South is willing to surrender, then no one but the most radical Republicans will vote for Abolition and slavery will continue, conceivably forever.  A trio of fixers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) is assigned to the task of persuading the Democrats (Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others) without bribing them, while Lincoln stays on the sidelines, coping with his home life (manic depressive wife Mary (Sally Field) and his two sons, the oldest of whom, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to enlist) while trying to keep the various factions within his own party and cabinet from undermining his efforts.

The heart of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Lincoln, which will very possibly win him a well-deserved third Academy Award.  Beyond the superficial elements (his resemblance to Lincoln, his remarkable voicework), Day-Lewis captures the heart of our most melancholy president, tall and gangly with a shuffling, stooped walk and the manner of someone who doesn't quite seem to occupy the same space as those around him and yet has such an easy, disaffecting way with story and anecdote that he's instantly relatable.  This Lincoln has a fascinating kind of tangentiality: his preferred mode of persuasion is telling a story, the meaning of which is often rather ambiguous.  When pressed to make his point more clearly, he manages to summon an anger and eloquence unseen by American audiences since Martin Sheen cursed God in Latin.  Day-Lewis captures the fire and the sadness in Lincoln, he presents him as a man almost destroyed by personal tragedy, an unrivaled national calamity and the unendurable burden of history, for he is fully aware that his is the most important job in the history of his nation, and that if he fails it will mean lifetimes of suffering for untold millions.  He is a man who is consciously prolonging a war for the sake of passing a piece of legislation, knowing as he tours the battlefields full of dead that they died because of his belief in the greater, future good.  The most remarkable thing about Lincoln is that he endured.

Which brings us back to words and actions.  The nature of politics is to lie in the gap between ideals and reality, and Lincoln dramatizes this like no film I know.  The plot of the film follows an attempt to actualize a part of the ideal enunciated at Gettysburg.  The film's most fully-realized subplot revolves around Thaddeus Stevens, a thunderous opponent of slavery noted for his fiery speeches on the floor of the house and his unwillingness to compromise.  But in order for the Amendment to pass, Stevens must moderate his rhetoric so as to blunt the argument that abolishing slavery is merely the first step on the road to full racial equality.  Everyone knows that's what Stevens believes, but if he says it in the debate, his side will lose necessary swing votes.  And so, in order to achieve his desired action, Stevens must stand mute and refuse to articulate his true beliefs.  How he threads this needle and outwits his interlocutor with an inspired burst of invective is one of the film's many joyful turns.  Other subplots revolve around rhetoric as well: Lincoln's attempt to persuade one representative culminating in said Congressman's joyous cry on the House floor when he finally makes up his mind (a nifty little performance from Stuhlbarg); a semantical error a Democrat makes on the nature of the peace expedition that nearly undoes the whole project but for Lincoln's lawyerly sophistry; even the final resolution between Lincoln and Mary, as she finally understands the enormity of the responsibility and grief he suffers under only because he had until then refused to articulate it in words, preferring to allow himself to be silently crushed under its weight for the good of the nation.

Ultimately, of course, the Amendment passes and the film might have ended there, ten weeks before the assassination.  But Spielberg isn't quite finished: instead we jump to Lincoln's last night where we see him leave the White House for the final time, receding into silhouette as his butler looks back at him like he's had one of those movie premonitions that cause double takes.  The sequence has a cloyingness that the film for the most part avoids: for much of the film Spielberg restrains his natural schmaltziness in favor of a pared-down visual style to match the film's dingy, drained, Eastwood-grey color palate.  When the assassination does come, we don't see the action at Ford's Theatre, rather we see Lincoln's youngest son hearing the news at a different theatre across town (thus Spielberg manages needlessly to drag a child into a film that is otherwise entirely about adults, as he's done in pretty much every one of his films for the last 30 years).  Why this should be is not entirely clear (surely there are far more interesting ways of dramatizing Lincoln's last night, with its triple assassination attempts, and so on; at least they made a call on Stanton's pronouncement after Lincoln's death: he belongs to the ages, not the angels) but it does lead to an interesting postscript.

After Lincoln's death, we cut to a scene set a few days earlier, the end of his Second Inaugural Address.  Paralleling the film's open, we're given a profound rhetorical statement which does not (yet, 150 years later) match our nation's reality.  But now, we don't have a Lincoln to struggle to actualize these beliefs on our behalf.  The film thus ends with an exhortation, a challenge.  It doesn't have the volcanic fire of War Horse's final scene, a family reunion in the midst of a destroyed world.  Like in most of the rest of the film, Spielberg's aesthetic showmanship is subordinated to the words. It's just a man giving a speech to a crowd. . . unless it becomes something else.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

VIFF 2012: Memories Look at Me

After several days of festival movies filled with storytelling gimmicks and dazzling displays of artistic virtuosity, I was utterly unprepared late on my fifth day at VIFF for the hyper-mellowness of Song Fang's debut film about visiting her family as an unmarried adult.  It's a fuzzy blanket of a movie, a fuzzy blanket of death.  You'll recognize Song as the Chinese student in Paris in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, and she plays herself here beside her real-life parents as they discuss mundane family events and history in dialogue that is largely scripted but feels improvised.  The movie is thus a lot like a Liu Jiayin film, but where Liu foregrounds her formal playfulness Song seems to be trying to erase any sense of artificiality from her filmmaking.  Her takes are long but not ostentatiously so and in some scenes she even uses traditional analytical editing where the demands of minimalism would require a long take.  She cuts axially out of and into a frame and sometimes the camera moves, but never for its own sake.  Much of the film is confined to a single set, her parents' apartment, and Song uses different set-ups in the same locations to give a sense of variety to what could otherwise be a very static, boring space.

The plot is structured around a series of conversations between Song, her parents, her brother and an aunt and uncle.  The conversations invariably turn out to be roundabout ways of nagging Song to answer one simple question, finally posed halfway through the film: "How long will you go on living alone?"  There's a cautionary tale about a great uncle who remained single and ending up staying up all night and sleeping all day, a long talk about taking care of a family friend sick with cancer, long shots of family members cutting each other's finger nails and so on.  It's a question Song is clearly asking herself: the more she stays, the more nostalgic she gets for her youth, when she lived at home and had people to take care of and who would take care of her.  Family as a bulwark against the solitude of death.

The high point in the film is when Song's brother comes to visit and promptly falls asleep.  Soon, everyone else is napping too.  I love when people take naps in movies (see for example, Chungking Express) and this has got to be the purest depiction of the joys of the warm afternoon nap ever committed to film.  But as Song watches her parents sleeping, first her father, alone in closeup, then her mother bedside him, the film's melancholy heart breaks.

VIFF 2012: Moksha: the World or I, How Does That Work?

The longest, most unwieldy title of the festival belongs to this film by Korean director Koo Sungzoo.  It opens with a closeup of a man screaming, shouting for help as he finds himself chained to the ground in the middle of an empty, frozen playground.  How and why he got there is never really explained: he's a man trapped in a metaphor, and the only way for the film to end is for him to figure out what it all means.  Throughout the film various people walk by and talk to him.  A woman slaps him repeatedly, he chats with a passing drunk, a priest dances for him to achieve "supreme perfect wisdom" ("Don't dance, call the police!" the man desperately pleads).  He gets yelled at by a crazy bride on her way to a wedding, he shouts angrily at a phantom "crazy filmmaker", he has a conversation with Edgar Allen Poe (apparently, I missed this but Koo and Tony Rayns discussed it in the post-film Q & A), at some point comes the realization that "the afterlife is awful but you can't kill yourself because you're already dead."

This is all suitably weird, but the film is necessarily limited to its central metaphor.  There's not a lot of mystery about what it all means, and in a Dragons & Tigers series dominated by films about death (I saw five of the eight films in the competition, this one along with A Mere Life, Memories Look at Me, A Fish and the eventual winner, Emperor Visits the Hell and they are all more or less explicitly about death and/or the afterlife) this is probably the least subtle and the least resonant.  It plays as more of a thought experiment than a dramatization.  Still, it's pleasantly off-beat and the central performance by Jang Hyeokjin is impressive considering how central he is to nearly every frame of the film.  The fact that this was probably my least favorite of the films I saw at VIFF this year says less about its quality than it does the quality of the festival as a whole.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Week in Rankings

Blind Husbands - 3, 1919
Ali: Fears Eats the Soul - 5, 1974

The Shining - 4, 1980
Skyfall - 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

VIFF 2012: Something in the Air

The latest film from Olivier Assayas has apparently been retitled After May (a direct translation of its French title, Après mai) for its US release, but I do like this festival title better (though the classic Thunderclap Newman song does not appear in the film).  The original title's reference is most likely lost on the American audience, which isn't likely to be familiar with the protests and riots, both political and cinephilic, that rocked Paris in the spring of 1968, but the details aren't particularly relevant to the story, which fits neatly into the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age-in-the-70s category with films like Almost Famous or Dazed and Confused.  It also, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a neat companion piece to Assayas's last film, the epic Carlos.

Where that film chronicled the eclipse of ideology by the sheer enjoyment its hero found in acts of destruction, in this one we see the idealism of the leftist political movements of the 1960s dissipate as its teenage protagonists grow up.  The story focuses on Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), an apparent Assayas stand-in, a bookish type who partakes in some (ineffectual) protests, argues the finer points of ideology but is increasingly more interested in girls and art (he's a painter).  After a bit of vandalism backfires, Gilles and his friends go into hiding, cleverly disguised as a rich kids' summer vacation in picturesque Italy.  He begins a romance with Lola Créton's character Christine, a more committed, and very cute, activist while Gilles's best friend Alain hooks up with a redheaded American (she "studies sacred dance. In the Orient, they still dance for the Gods").  Meeting up with a radical film crew provides some of the film's best lines: interested in filmmaking, Gilles asks if he can borrow their equipment sometime and is told "We only do agitprop, we don't lend for fiction."  Later, after the filmmaking collective shows one of their documentaries they lead an Q & A, which leads to a priceless encapsulation of the cul-de-sac that is radical politics as different factions of audience and filmmaker argue over whether a "revolutionary cinema requires a revolutionary syntax", or if revolutionary syntax is simply the "individualistic style of the petit bourgeoisie" and that what they need to do is "enlighten, not shock the proletariat".  Gilles sums them up later as "boring films with primitive politics".

The second half of the film, as the kids return home and go their separate ways, is a delicate balance of disillusion and hope for the future, as Gilles becomes less interested in politics and more in love with art and filmmaking in particular.  While Gilles gets a job working for his dad at a TV studio and watches and reads about movies in his free time, along with putting together trippy light show for rock bands, Christine remains a committed lefty while Alain and the redhead drift.  The requisite "decadent 70s" sequence is set at a house similar to the one in Assayas's Summer Hours.  But where the party that ends that film is all golden sunlight, cheery kids, innocence and beauty, this one is a druggy, fiery haze ending in chaos, death and Captain Beefheart.

In Carlos, Assayas chronicled the descent of 60s radicalism into the kind of nihilistic violence we call terrorism today.  With this film, he tackles the flip side of that same subject, as leftist idealism fragments both in the face of bourgeois temptation (drugs, money, art) and under the weight of its own radicalism.  All radical movements crumble for the same reason: purity becomes more important than reality and the radicals cannibalize themselves (see what's going on in the GOP right now).  That's why we're a little sad to see Christine still helping the collective schlep their boring films around to increasingly small audiences of like-minded radicals, though she alone has remained true to their youthful ideals.  She seems happy, and certainly admirable as a person, but somehow diminished.  Gilles on the other hand is open and expansive, absorbing politics as he absorbs everything else he encounters before eventually moving on to the next discovery, the next world.  We leave him working on a B movie set at Pinewood Studios surrounded by Nazis and dinosaurs, an artist on the ground floor, looking up.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

VIFF 2012 Ranking and Links

Here's a preliminary ranking of the 31 movies I saw this year at the Vancouver International Film Festival, with links to the write-ups I've done for them so far.  I'll be writing about the rest of these over the next few weeks; the pace has slowed lately due to first a cold then parental responsibilities. Hopefully I'll be able to finish these by the end of the year.

6. Walker
8. Tabu
17. Mystery
18. A Fish
19. The Unlikely Girl
20. East Meets West
21. People's Park
22. Amour
23. In Search of Haydn
24. 10 + 10
25. Mother
26. Antiviral
27. The Angels' Share
28. A Mere Life
29. Everybody in Our Family
30. Beautiful 2012
31. Moksha: the World, or I, How Does that Work?

Updated Feb. 1, 2013: Rankings updated. Obviously I didn't finish by the end of the year, but with only six movies left to write about, I hope to finish soon.

Updated July 18, 2015: Only one left. I will finish it someday.

This Month in Rankings

Flunky, Work Hard - 19, 1931
Murders in the Rue Morgue - 17, 1932

Swordsman 2 - 19, 1992
The Master - 2012
Looper - 2012
Cloud Atlas - 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

VIFF 2012: Neighboring Sounds

Kleber Mendonça Filho directs the fourth film in what turned out to be a surprisingly strong showing for the Portuguese language at this year's festival, along with Reconversão, Tabu and The Last Time I Saw Macao.  Three of those focus on the remnants of the Portuguese colonial experience on other continents (Tabu in Mozambique, Macao in China and this one set in Recife, one of the largest cities in Brazil).  In many ways, this is the most conventional film of the bunch, a familiar-seeming network narrative of a few weeks in the lives of the residents of a particular street in a relatively affluent area of town.  As usual, there's a multitude of tensions bubbling under the placid surface, along class and racial lines as well as the requisite secrets from the past haunting certain folks.  For most of the film's running time, that tension remains constant but unrelieved, it's only in the final scenes that some actual violence bursts forth, unfortunately in a bit of an anti-climax.

The most interesting thing about the film is explicitly stated right there in the title: the sound design.  Though the film is set in a few houses and an apartment building on what appears to be a single street, we never get a clear layout of the neighborhood.  It's disorienting visually, but the sound design knits the space together.  Sounds from one area are constantly bleeding into another, kids playing, dogs parking, cars passing by, the on-screen space is always filled with off-screen sounds.  This is how the neighborhood is experienced: not as a community where everybody knows everybody (all the community gatherings end in disaster, first a hilariously petty condo board meeting, later a birthday party) but as an occupied space that is forever invaded by outsiders' noise (this is literalized in a zombie-invasion like dream sequence).  The two characters we spend the most time with, a handsome, charming rich guy named João who lives in the high rise and a housewife who buys pot from the water delivery guy, has an affair with her washing machine's spin cycle and is tormented by the barking dog next door never actually meet.  Their storylines merge somewhat at the end, but only aurally, never visually.

The individual characters do have storylines of their own, but they aren't quite as conventional as in a network film like Magnolia or Short Cuts, which follow the series of short stories model.  João's story is my favorite: he falls in love with a woman, they hang out together, they take a trip out of town (the only time we leave the neighborhood) and wander around his grandfather's estate and its village, walking through the ruins and hearing the sounds of the past (people chattering, a movie-projector humming).  But Mendonça Filho even trips us up there, as the romance plot is resolved entirely off-screen, leaving João to briefly tell another character how it ended.  The film is full of these little bits of rug-pulling that keep the viewer perpetually off-balance.  If the film had left is in that state it would have been great.  Instead, the film wraps things up with a bang in a more or less neat bit of narrative balance.  I want it to end just slightly earlier, just before the crescendo peaks, leaving us forever on the edge of the crash.

VIFF 2012: Three Sisters

By nine o'clock on Tuesday, October 5th, my VIFF experience was four days and fifteen movies old.  I trepidatiously settled in for movie #16, a two and a half hour verite-style documentary about three poor kids in China by acclaimed director Wang Bing (his nine hour documentary West of the Tracks recently tied for 202nd place in the Sight & Sound poll with Manhattan, Cleo from 5 to 7, The Shop Around the Corner, WALL-E, Badlands and There Will Be Blood, among others), wondering if the onslaught of reality, old age and festival-induced sleep deprivation would knock me out.  I armed myself with a "litre" of Mountain Dew and a pack of gummi bears, and when Wang himself, there for a post-show Q & A that would push the night into the morning, wished us all luck in staying awake for his movie, I had a feeling things would work out alright.

The experience of watching the film is much the same as that of any other so-called "Asian minimalist" movie, like something by Tsai Ming-Liang or Jia Zhangke.  The pace is very slow, not a whole lot happens in the long, single-take scenes, and enjoyment of the film depends on one's interest in watching other people do normal boring things (basic tasks like making soup or cleaning shoes) and also in the willingness to let one's mind wander.  These types of films are meditative not because they make you think but because in their opiated snail's pace, they allow you to think.

Various more or less coherent things I thought of while watching this film: what this country needs is a rural electrification project like the one that lifted much of America out of exactly this kind of poverty in the mid-20th Century, Mao's mid-century reforms had exactly the opposite effect (later in the film, they do appear to have electricity and television, and I may be exaggerating the effects of the New Deal in the US, but still); How do you document the lives of the poor without being exploitative or dilettantish? Is that  just a First World Problem?; The best way to tell if a country is developing economically is if they start making documentaries about poor people; The village is situated high in the mountains near what appear to be run down and out-of-use terraces, I wonder if those terraces are ancient ones that were abandoned in misguided communist land reforms (that led to mass deforestation and erosion), or if they are themselves the misguided reforms.  Either way, they're being used as sheep food on a wind-scorched landscape now; If this film were sub-titled The Shit Collectors of Yunnan, would that increase its box office?; Can a film be beyond criticism? Does talking about a film like this as a film trivialize its very serious subject, or is the act of making a film about such a subject necessarily trivializing?; Does Truffaut's assertion that it's impossible to make an anti-war film apply to anti-poverty films?  Does filmmaking in some ways glamorize poverty?

Three Sisters is about three very poor girls who live in a remote mountain village in Yunnan province.  The environment is perpetually damp and foggy, but the kids don't seem to mind too much (when they're gathered around a fire drying one of their mud-encrusted shoes, one of them cheerfully exclaims "today we'll dry your shoes, tomorrow mine!"  Similarly, when checking each other for infestations in what appears to be a nightly ritual, we hear the joyous shout "I found more lice!").  Their father is away, looking for work in the nearest city, the kids are staying with their grandfather in the village (the mother appears to have run off? I don't really remember).  We follow them through their various rural tasks (one of them greets another working child in a pasture with a matter of fact "everyone's out collecting dung today").  They don't seem especially miserable, but neither do they seem particularly happy.  They live in a half-modernized world: they have TV and locks on their doors, but little of the labor-saving comforts of the 21st century.  Missing from most of the film are the communal aspects of village life: festivals, religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, games, storytelling, all those things we lament as lost and celebrate in John Ford films.  Near the end there is an autumn feast at the girls' uncle's place in a neighboring village that packs dozens of people into a tiny house for tons of (delicious looking) food and an impromptu political meeting.  It's not especially cheerful, but at least it looks warm.  

The oldest sister, ten-year old Ying Ying, comes across as a truly heroic figure.  She appears to do most of the farm work (sheep and pig herding, milking, dung-gathering, potato-planting, etc) and takes care of her younger sisters (cooking, cleaning, etc).  She simply does what she has to do.  On the rare occasions she gets to attend school she leans far forward over her desk, straining to take in all she can from her teacher, unable to prevent her desperation to learn from taking physical form.  Wang encourages us not to look at the film as a political statement ("oh isn't poverty so awful") but as a story of Ying Ying's heroism (not that that will get his movie shown in China, but his point is a good one regardless).  She does it all but she doesn't suffer, she inspires.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

VIFF 2012: In Search of Haydn

The third of director Phil Grabsky's biographical documentaries of famous composers is about as good a film about Joseph Haydn as you're likely to see.  Unlike the subjects of his first two films in the series, Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn doesn't have a particularly interesting biography, nor does his music have as ubiquitous a presence in modern life. In fact, his life can be downright dull at times: he seems like a basically decent guy, though not exceptionally so, who was well-employed for most of his life and achieved great success and renown for his work.  Basically the opposite of our ideal tortured artist.  Musically, he appears to be more respected by professionals than loved by the general populace; his name is probably more famous than any of his tunes.

The great strength of Grabsky's Beethoven film (I haven't seen the Mozart film yet) was its emphasis as much on the music as on the biography: he has a knack for getting inside the music and showing what is really unique, interesting and powerful about it.  To that end, Haydn presents a bit of a dilemma in that he just wrote so much music: over 100 symphonies and string quartets each, along with operas and keyboard music and more.  Trying to cover it all in the film's less than two hour running time is next to impossible.  Still, Grabsky does get some fine commenters (Emmanuel Ax and Marc-Andre Hamelin in particular) to explain in lay terms just how experimental and unusual Haydn was, and why he was to be such a huge influence on every composer that followed him, Mozart and Beethoven first among them.

Words and phrases used in the film to describe Haydn's music: sparkle, spirit, burst of life, surprise, humor, overt, modest, entertaining, great intelligence and seriousness, eloquent, rhetorical, inspirational, spirit, spiritual, exploring, pleasant, music for everybody, democratic, repetitive with long long phrases, not very difficult - but difficult to make beautiful.

The best parts of the movie are the performances.  Not just for the music itself (by the Orchestra of the 18th Century and the Endillion String Quartet, among others) but for the way the film captures them.  There are the standard, Great Performances-style long shots, of course, but Grabsky also frequently intercuts extreme close-ups of the musicians at work: say, the fingerboard of a cello or the strings of a violin.  The performance is broken down to its most basic elements, made physical and tactile.  Music can be so ephemeral, so abstract that grounding it in this way reminds us of its tangible reality, that it is created and performed by people on instruments.  To often music, classical music in particular, is treated as if it were an emanation from on high, divinely inspired by "genius" as a gift to all humanity.  Grabsky's project is to fight that rarefying impulse, to root the music in the people who wrote it and, just as importantly, in the people who perform it.