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Archive for July, 2013

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Based on two nonfiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran (neither of which I’ve read) documenting an actual case that occurred in Moldavia in 2005, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012) tells the story of a twenty year old orphan, Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan), who joins an Orthodox convent, and her childhood friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur), who wants to take her to Germany. But while Voichiţa doesn’t want to leave the Order, which is like a family to her — she even calls the priest (Valeriu Andriuţă) “Papa” — Alina refuses to leave without her, and eventually she kicks up such a fuss that the other nuns become convinced that she’s possessed by the devil. Shot in a long take style that recalls the cinema of the 1910s, the film lays out this story as simply and as matter-of-factly as possible without any overt editorializing, though it’s far from impartial.

Although the movie is two and a half hours long, the narrative is uncommonly unidirectional with only two minor subplots — one involving Alina’s slowwitted brother (Ionut Ghinea), who also joins the monastery and later gives the priest permission to perform an exorcism on her, and the other involving the local bishop who refuses to consecrate the church until the priest finds enough money to have it painted. However, despite the apparent guilelessness of the storytelling — which seems to be dispassionately reporting the facts of the case in an objective style — and the film’s nuanced characterizations (the priest and the nuns are well meaning, and Alina is partly to blame for her own fate), Mungiu implies that the church is stuck in the past in part through his mise en scène, which contains little evidence of modern conveniences, giving many scenes a medieval ambiance. And certainly the drab colour scheme doesn’t make convent life look very attractive. In other words, although the story is based on fact, Mungiu includes only those truths that support his thesis.

An Affair to Bewilder

Kirill Sebrennikov’s Betrayal (also 2012) begins with two mysteries, one personal and the other formal. In the film’s opening sequence, a man (Dejan Lilic) goes to the hospital for a routine checkup and is told by the doctor (Franziska Petri) — who he’s never met before — that his wife (Albina Dzhanabaeva) is having an affair with her husband (Andrei Shchetinin). It’s not explained how the doctor knows who he is, and even if what she says is true, it’s not clear why she tells him. (It’s subsequently implied that the doctor is sexually unfulfilled in her marriage, suggesting that this may just be a ploy to get the man into bed.) Later, as he’s leaving the hospital, the man narrowly avoids getting run over by an SUV that crashes into a bus shelter, killing several people. This being a movie, one expects that the accident will somehow tie in with the affair, but it never does and the man soon forgets about it. Indeed, it’s not even explained what caused the crash in the first place, and the film would be a lot less unsettling if it was.

In other words, whereas most narrative films give one the comforting impression that any mystery can be solved, what’s disquieting about this movie is that the plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s as if the man’s discovery of his wife’s infidelity were enough of a shock to throw the universe out of whack, and things get really strange after he catches a glimpse of her having sex with the doctor’s husband on a hotel balcony. In the next scene, the bodies of the man’s wife and her lover are discovered near the hotel after having fallen several stories to their deaths, though we can’t be sure if it was an accident or if they were pushed. Later on, the man confesses to murdering them, but the investigator in charge of the case (Guna Zarina) inexplicably tears up his statement and tells him he can go on the condition that he give her a kiss. Needless to say, this kind of storytelling more closely resembles the world we actually live in than a film like Beyond the Hills in which the plot, though absorbing, is improbably logical.

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One of the many questions raised by Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) is who the title is supposed to refer to. The story begins in Guangdong in the 1930s with Ip Man (Tony Leung), an up-and-coming martial artist, falling in love with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung fu master from the northeast of China who’s an accomplished fighter in her own right. The action then shifts to occupied Manchuria where Gong’s father (Wang Qingxiang) has a falling out with his disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), over the latter’s decision to collaborate with the Japanese. Years later, following the revolution on the mainland, Ip winds up in Hong Kong where he attempts to rekindle his romance with Gong, but her homesickness and an old injury drive her to opium addiction. Rather than following a single protagonist consistently, the film is about the times in which the characters live.

Accordingly, the storytelling is rather episodic and often elliptical. When Gong and a Nationalist agent known as the Razor (Chang Chen) Meet Cute aboard a moving train where the latter is being pursued by Japanese soldiers, it’s not explained why he’s bleeding, and when he takes out a blade, it’s not clear if he means to attack the soldiers or commit suicide. As Gong saves his life by pretending to be his spouse, it appears that the film is positioning him as a romantic rival to Ip, but while the Razor also ends up in Hong Kong after the Revolution, he and Gong never cross paths. Furthermore, although Ip and the Razor both start their own schools to teach kung fu, one couldn’t describe them as rivals as they never meet. Frankly, it’s not clear to me why this character is even in the film, and although it’s never less than involving, ultimately the plot seems to sputter out without having reached any particular destination. For better or for worse, it appears that Wong is more interested in creating a mood than in telling a unified story.

More straightforward and at the same time far more convoluted, Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012) is a breathlessly paced thriller that’s too singleminded to ever pause for character or mood, or even to explain the fast moving plot. The film opens with a mid-level drug manufacturer, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), getting sick in his car and driving into a restaurant. The reason for his sudden illness becomes apparent a few scenes later when the cops discover the charred remnants of his meth lab, though it’s typical of To’s filmmaking that a causal connection between the two events is never made explicit in the dialogue, leaving it to the viewer to infer it. In a recent blog entry, David Bordwell praised the movie for this sort of “glancing exposition,” which no doubt contributes to the film’s headlong pace, though personally I’m not convinced that the story is worth making the effort required to keep up with it.

As in a classical Hollywood movie, the narrative has two principle lines of action, though both are strictly business. Facing the death penalty, Timmy makes a deal with a police captain, Zhang Lei (Song Honglei), to inform on his boss, which creates suspense on two fronts: Will the drug dealers discover Zhang’s real identity when he goes undercover, and can he trust Timmy, a man who’s willing to betray anyone in order to survive? Meanwhile, in lieu of a relationship subplot, the second line of action concerns four of Timmy’s subordinates: a pair of idiot stoners who unwittingly lead the cops to a second meth lab, and two badass deaf-mutes who go on the run when said lab is raided by the police. As this description suggests, the characters are all stock figures with a limited number of distinguishing traits, and there are lots of obligatory scenes familiar from countless other cop movies — as when Timmy tries to escape from custody by hijacking a bus full of kids — suggesting that To and his producing partner, Wai Ka-fai (who co-authored the screenplay), place a greater value on relentless forward motion than originality or feeling.

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When reviewer Adam Nayman crankily described Silver Linings Playbook (2012) — a film that I rather like — as “an utterly conventional genre picture dolled up […] as an unkempt psychodrama,” and “an experiment in flattering a mainstream audience into thinking they’d had an edgy viewing experience,”¹ he could’ve been talking about any number of recent American independent movies which strive to be realer and/or quirkier than today’s Hollywood cinema while holding fast to its classical form. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.) On the other hand, although Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On (also 2012) is unusual among US indie films for its elliptical narration which obscures the characters’ motives, this kind of storytelling is itself a convention of postwar art cinema, wherein the external causes required by Hollywood movies to motivate action are either internalized or omitted altogether.²

Divided into four chapters, the story centers on the ten-year relationship between a documentary filmmaker, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), and a lawyer, Paul (Zachary Booth), who meet on a gay sex line in the late ’90s. At the end of their first rendezvous, Paul tells Erik not to get his hopes up as he already has a girlfriend, so it comes as a surprise a few scenes later when Erik tells a friend how happy he is in his relationship with Paul. (Although it seems likely that Paul isn’t really attracted to women, the film leaves open the possibility that he is.) Later, when Paul checks into rehab, Erik decides to stay away from him for the duration of his treatment, and one night he goes to a club with the intention of picking someone up. However, the film then jumps ahead three years to find them already back together, and when Paul subsequently relapses, there’s no specific cause that sets him off. (The movie suggests a connection between his job and his drug use without making it explicit.) But while the characters’ motivations are often vague, their behavior is never totally inexplicable as the film drops enough clues for the viewer to infer the reasons for their actions without having to spell it out.

More elliptical still is Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (also 2012) in which all the important events in the film take place not so much offscreen as within the characters’ minds. The story begins with a French woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), moving to the States to live with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), but not long after the relationship begins to unravel for reasons that are hinted at more than explored. (It’s characteristic of the movie’s style that when they do have a fight we can’t hear what they’re saying.) Eventually, Marina goes back to Paris and Neil becomes involved with a devout rancher, Jane (Rachel McAdams), but this relationship falls apart as well when Neil unaccountably refuses to marry her. It’s implied that Neil is incapable of truly loving either woman, but in the absence of any specific reason for this, Malick falls back on notions of original sin, suggesting that he’s hit an intellectual dead end in his filmmaking.

All of Malick’s six features follow the same pattern of development, moving from innocence to disillusionment, though the reasons for his characters’ dissatisfaction have become increasingly obscure over time. In this film, Marina and Jane are both idealized Madonna figures who seem to offer Neil the possibility of returning to the womb, and the movie likens his inability to commit to either woman to the loss of faith experienced by a Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), which also lacks a specific cause. (Significantly, Neil is a non-believer as well.) But while the endings of The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2004) were equivocal enough to suggest that a return to innocence was still possible, and The Tree of Life (2011) ended with the characters reunited in heaven, here Neil’s relationships ultimately fizzle out and Father Quintana’s prayers go unanswered. Nevertheless, Malick seems unwilling to entertain any solutions to the characters’ problems but religious belief — as if that would make Neil a better lover or help the wretched people whom Father Quintana ministers to. Accordingly, the characters’ misery is made to seem inevitable, thereby discouraging the viewer from thinking too hard about why they’re all so unhappy or how their problems might be remedied rather than just waiting for God to take care of it.

Notes:
1. Nayman’s reviews of Silver Linings Playbook and Keep the Lights On can be found at Cinema-Scope Online.

2. In Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), dreams and flashbacks trigger realizations, while more enigmatically, in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), the husband’s abrupt declaration that he wants a divorce is preceded by a flashback showing him and his wife laughing together in bed. For more on art cinema as a tradition distinct from Hollywood filmmaking, see David Bordwell’s essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” reprinted and expanded in Poetics of Cinema (2007), p. 151-169.

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