Friday, September 26, 2014

VIFF 2014: Fruit Chan's The Midnight After

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. This is a revised version of my review from the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.

The end of the world, maybe. A late-night minibus, packed with commuters traveling from (if my geography is correct) the center of the city to one of its satellite neighborhoods, seems to drive instead into the Twilight Zone: everyone else in Hong Kong seemingly disappears, and then the passengers themselves begin dying in unusual ways. Lam Suet drives the bus, Simon Yam (sporting perhaps his most incredible haircut yet) grabs a leadership role being the oldest and loudest, Kara Hui spouts metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about the Photon Belt and their impeding transportation (over 1000 years) to their new home near Sirius, while the younger generation (soccer fans, punk kids and college students) have no theories as to what's going on and no direction (the girl Yuki and boy Chi withhold possibly relevant information at every turn, a married couple apparently sees the world through soccer metaphors, a computer programmer has some tools but no idea what to do with them).

As it becomes clear that director Fruit Chan won't give us, or them, a clear explanation of what has happened, he offers a handful of possibilities, based on the insecurities and anxieties of contemporary Hong Kongers both primal and political: is it a Fukushima-type disaster, from a nuclear plant on the Mainland? A plot by the North Koreans (who claim to be the source of all Chinese culture)? A SARS-style epidemic? Is it somehow related to the fact that Hong Kongers are soon to be allowed to vote for their own Chief Executive? Is it ghosts? Aliens? Are they ghosts? What does David Bowie have to do with it all?

Based on a serialized web novel called Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo by PIZZA (a pseudonym, one assumes), the film is as hilarious as it is horrifying. It's full of beautiful grotesqueries, primally disturbing imagery (a man in a gas mask, a woman with unnaturally flowing hair, a red red rain) but the eeriest of all are the empty streets of Hong Kong. One of the most densely populated places on Earth (even at 2:30 in the morning, when the film begins, it should be bustling with human activity) suddenly emptied of people and vehicles and noise. But what it isn't is a concise and coherent narrative. On-screen titles give us the exact time and location of every event (like in Psycho) but that information only gives us a false sense of security, of order. Knowing the time and place is nice, but that doesn't free you from the random whims of the universe (like in Psycho). Images and events are left unexplained: mysterious phone calls, vanished memories, flashbacks to pasts both sad and happy. Members decline to share possibly important (and bizarre) facts with the other members of the group. An impromptu justice system is established and an execution agonizingly botched. A prime mover of the first half of the story mostly disappears from the back half, his mysteries left unresolved. All of this dangling and inexplicability and incongruence is not a failure, of course, it is The Point. The film is the horror of death as Unanswered Question, and as the end of the possibility of Answering Questions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

VIFF 2014: Tsai Ming-Liang's Journey to the West

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

When I was young, in the first half of the 1980s, whenever I committed some minor childhood infraction, my punishment (this being before the adoption of the "timeout" lingo) was to stand facing a wall for some indeterminate amount of time, usually around ten minutes, which of course feels like an hour or two to the temporally expansive pre-adolescent mind. I committed a lot of infractions, so I became quite used to this, and eventually even learned to enjoy it. I'd stare at the wood-paneling (again, 1980s), count the small nail holes, follow the flow and swirl of the knots and the minute contours of the wood, the various shades of beige and brown swirling in an alien, pre-historic landscape. Forced to stare at an apparently empty, action-less space, I learned that if you look at it long enough, anything can become interesting. I learned that boredom is a state of mind, not a state of being.

Little did I know this experience was training me to watch Tsai Ming-liang films. This hour-long short, a continuation of his even shorter film Walker (which I reviewed at VIFF 2012), observes Tsai's muse Lee Kang-sheng as he walks, dressed as a monk in flowing red robes, through a city. In Walker he walked through Taipei, carrying a mysterious parcel through streets and crowds, finally reaching his destination, whereupon he unwrapped and took a bite out of a sandwich, made all the more delicious by the very long time it took to take it home. This time the monk is in Marseille, and there appears to be a plot, and a co-star, none other than French cinema icon Denis Levant. The story is hinted at in the title and somewhat clarified in an accompanying note from Tsai:
"His walking, so special and so slow, in all the four corners of the world recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures. In the classical Chinese novel "The Journey to the West", Xuanzang frees the Monkey King from his prison at the foot of a mountain. In Marseille, there is a rock that resembles the face of a monkey: in the bay of monkeys. Fashioned by the effects of time, Denis Lavant's face is like these rocky shapes and I am irresistibly attracted to it. That was how I started to think of Lee Kang-sheng walking on his face..."

The film opens with its longest shot, an extreme closeup of Levant's face, lying on a diagonal, half in shadow. As Tsai forces us to stare at it at seemingly interminable length, the face becomes something else, an alien landscape of valleys and mountains and rivers and crevasses; every pore, every grey hair a story, every fold of Levant's now 50+ year old face containing multitudes. We'll revisit this face at the seaside, I assume at the Bay of Monkeys Tsai refers to, making literal the transformation from face to landscape.

Most of the film though chronicles the monk's journey through the city in a series of long shots, the camera even more static than the monk. These shots inspire a fun, Where's Waldo-esque challenge where you try to pick the monk out of the crowd (hint: he's the thing that's not moving). But they also seem to be allegories for Xuanzang's journey. A pungent red wall becomes perhaps the scene of a mighty battle the monk witnesses, a long staircase a descent into the underworld. The monk begins to appear in reflections, the mirror in a man's apartment, a glossy wall overlooking a plaza packed with travelers and people at play (a crowd gathers around a man playing the piano, another man sets adrift giant bubbles). Are the mirrors indicative of his journey to "the other side"? In one of the film's final shots, the monk is being followed by what looks to me like Denis Levant, also walking very slowly past a sidewalk cafe, following a patch of sunlight. The Monkey King, freed at last, being led back to the East?

It's a fact about the way I watch movies, some might call it a defect, that I tend to narrativize everything I see, to try to build a story out of the images on-screen, whether any particular story is necessarily intended. Even in the most abstract of experimental films I find myself creating theories and explanations for what I'm seeing, a background and a future. I think Tsai invites this kind of theorizing, and one of my favorite films from VIFF 2013, his Stray Dogs, provides a great example of this kind of filmmaking, wherein a movie can be about any number of things and the viewer finds themselves with the choice of actively fitting all the pieces together to tell a coherent story or not, of letting it work simply as image and sound, mood and emotion. Tsai gives us hints of possible avenues to walk down, but he never tells us exactly what he thinks is going on in his movies. I choose to take the title literally and see this as an adaptation of Journey to the West, as much or maybe even more so than the similarly-titled (and just as good) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons directed by Stephen Chow that was also released this year. The two films would make a great, if whiplash-inducing, double feature.

In the end, Tsai leaves us with this postscript, some famous lines from the Diamond Sutra, one of the Sanskrit texts translated by Xuanzang into Chinese:

All composed things are like a dream,
A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning,
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Soi Cheang's Accident

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Essentially a Milkyway Image version of The Conversation, a internalized paranoia thriller with metaphysical implications and a visual style that lodge it firmly in the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai universe even though they (probably) had relatively little to do with the production. Louis Koo plays The Brain, the leader of a group of hired killers who specialize in making their hits look like (wildly improbable) accidents, Rube Goldberg assassinations. Implicit in their work is the belief that because they create "random" events, nothing in the world is a matter of chance. As Koo explains, they are not the only ones in this business and in killing certain folks, they likely have created powerful enemies. Koo, driven by the film's opening image (a woman dying in a car accident, his wife) sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. When a hit goes wrong, it must be a work of a rival, or a betrayal by his team. The universe is not random, it is actively trying to destroy him.

Images of chaos abound: balloons, bouncing balls, a broken watch, falling leaves. As Koo becomes obsessed with his suspect, he spies on him, first with a small monocular, tunneling his vision of the man at work to a small iris. We later see a wide shot of his office building (the suspect in an insurance agent, a man who makes his living betting against chance), a massive grid of circles, like a Connect Four board infinitely multiplying Koo's vision: potential suspects are everywhere. Koo eventually installs himself in the apartment below the suspect, where he listens to his every move Lives of Others-style, mapping its layout on his ceiling, a desperate attempt not at imposing order on chaos, but at solving the conspiratorial order that must lie behind everything that he sees.

This was Soi Cheang's first film for Milkyway. (He would make another with Motorway in 2012,  a getaway car heist movie in which the car chases rely on stasis, specifically a 90-degree turn performed from a dead stop. An audacious move for a genre that has for 40+ years hinged on more and more reckless uses of speed). The screenplay is credited to the team of Szeto Kam-yuen and Nicholl Tang, who previously worked on Cheang's The Death Curse and Home Sweet Home (Szeto as well had been with Milkyway since 1997, having worked on Wai's Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, three 1998 films and Exiled, as well as the non Milkyway Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films SPL and Flash Point. He died in 2012 at the age of 48 due to lung cancer.). It's also credited to the "Milkyway Creative Team" a catch-all sometimes used by the studio to indicate its committee process at work, wherein the various screenwriters and producers working for the company have some input on the final film, but not so much to earn an individual writing credit. Like Motorway, Accident fits snugly within the visual style Johnnie To has established as the Milkyway norm: crisp images with vibrant color, deep black shadows shot through with unexpected shafts of bright white light and elegance in composition that allows for spatial clarity in the editing of suspense and action sequences. These are the only two of Cheang's films I've seen so far, though I hear and very much believe that his earlier stuff is well-worth watching.

It's the thematic interactions with To and Wai's previous work that strike me as most interesting about Accident. One of the running theories of the Running Out of Karma series (if I ever get back to actually writing about To, as opposed to the dozens of other Chinese-language cinema tangents I find myself getting lost within) is that the governing interaction (conflict isn't the right word at all) in To's films is that between fate and chance, between the complex web of forces that rule our lives (fate, karma, traditional moral and filial imperatives, even government itself) and the seemingly random ways in which those forces manifest themselves. Encounters (or the lack thereof) between lovers and enemies, coincidences, and luck routinely form the basis of the plots of the Milkyway films, which are in turn populated by doomed characters, fated to play out a pre-ordained role with little free will to be found. The Election films are the darkest, while the slapstick romantic comedies are the lightest, but the underlying metaphysics remain remarkably consistent in film after film. Life is a game and the degree to which the game is rigged marks the line between comedy and drama, between violence and farce.

So Accident, then, takes this vision of a universe governed by fate and administered through chance and turns in into paranoid fantasy. Louis Koo, The Brain, convinces himself that sinister forces are controlling his life (much as they indeed did for Koo's gangster in Election 2) because he, like To and his writers, has devoted his life and career to creating elaborate illusions of chance. The set pieces in Accident are as cunningly designed as the culminating randomness of PTU or Expect the Unexpected. But where To's heroes are constantly striving outwards, struggling against the system despite the hopelessness of the task (even if they don't even know anymore why they're doing it, as in Vengeance), The Brain retreats ever further inward, lost in his delusion (think of the mirrors which Koo carefully positions around his apartment, allowing him to see all the angles at once so that no one may sneak up on him with the fracturing of identity in the mirror-shattering climaxes of The Longest Nite and Mad Detective), his universe collapsing in on itself until even it too is erased by the inevitable consequence of an accident.