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Archive for December, 2015

Jia Zhangke’s first movie about his hometown since Unknown Pleasures (2002), Mountains May Depart (2015) is both a throwback to his early work and something of a departure. For one thing, he places his characters much closer to the camera than in his previous films — necessitating more cutting within scenes and lots of panning back and forth in the first section of the movie, which Jia shoots in the squarish academy ratio. Consequently, it’s all the more surprising when Liangzi (Liang Jindong) punches out his nouveau riche romantic rival, Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), as he only enters the frame a few milliseconds before making impact — whereas had we seen him approaching, we might’ve been able to anticipate the blow.

The story opens in early 1999 when Liangzi (who has a job handing out helmets to coal miners) and Jinsheng vie for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao), who works in a stereo shop in Fenyang. In contrast with the more easygoing Liangzi, Jinsheng is possessive and creepy, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Tao chooses him, especially after standing up to him when he demands she stop seeing Liangzi. Accordingly, the movie doesn’t need to explain why they ultimately divorce when the story skips ahead fifteen years to find Tao back in Fenyang after several years in Shanghai, where Jinsheng is living with their seven year old son, Daole (aka Dollar). The last section of the film is set in Australia in 2025 and centres on a teenage Daole (Dong Zijiang), whose longing for his estranged mother manifests itself as an attraction to his equally lonely professor, Mia (Sylvia Chang).

In both Platform (2000) and this movie, Jia associates pop music with the end of Maoism and the economic reforms of the 1980s — changes he views with some ambivalence. Mountains May Depart opens with a euphoric group dance number accompanied by the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (1993) — which alludes to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe — and ends with a touching solo set to the same song, implying that China’s move from socialism to capitalism has made the characters freer but lonelier. (Or as Jinsheng puts it, “Freedom is bullshit!”) At the same time, however, a Cantonese pop album creates a bond between the characters (as well as helping to unify the episodic plot). Jinsheng impulsively buys it from a couple who come into Tao’s shop so he can give it to her, and soon after they become a couple. In 2014, Tao plays it for Daole during his first and only visit to Fenyang, and hearing it again in Mia’s class causes him to associate her with his mother.

Jia underscores the characters’ increasing remoteness from one another by shooting each of the film’s three segments in a different aspect ratio, starting out narrow and gradually widening as the characters become more dispersed. The early scenes, set during Chinese New Year celebrations, are swarming with out of focus background activity, and on the soundtrack, one hears a cacophony of offscreen noises, while the movie’s Australian settings are antiseptically clean, colourless, and sparsely populated. The harsh sound of Jinsheng cocking a gun in the middle of a tense conversation is shocking not only because it occurs offscreen without warning (we don’t even see him pick up the gun, much less cock it) but also due to the absence of other noises which makes it seem even louder. It’s touches like this that make Jia mainland China’s greatest living filmmaker.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

In both its choice of subject matter and its style, M. Manikandan’s The Crow’s Egg (2014) is clearly designed to appeal to the international market rather than the local audience and Tamil diaspora. (I mean that as an observation, not a criticism.) Like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which was a big hit practically everywhere but India, the movie is about the effects of neoliberalism on slum kids from the urban centres. But while the protagonist of Boyle’s film strikes it rich on an English-language game show — an unlikely rags-to-riches story which the movie posits as being emblematic of the nation as a whole — in Manikandan’s film, India’s economic rise leaves the kids worse off than they already were when a developer paves over the park where they commune with nature by eating raw crow’s eggs to make way for a pizza restaurant, which they can’t even step inside of.

For much of its length, the film resembles such neo-realist hand-me-downs as Children of Heaven (1997) and Wadjda (2012) in which adorable kids living in third world countries formulate modest goals and then pursue them with monomaniacal fervour. Here, two brothers (nicknamed Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg) who’ve never tasted pizza save up to buy one by collecting pieces of coal that fall from moving trains — as apt a metaphor for trickle-down economics as we’re likely to get. But when they go to the restaurant, the security guard turns them away on account of their ratty clothes. This leads to a clichéd scene in which the two brothers make a deal with a pair of spoiled rich kids, buying them some inexpensive sweets their father won’t let them have in exchange for their new clothes, which they don’t want anyway. (Conveniently, both sets of brothers wear the same sizes.) But when the two Eggs go back to the restaurant, the security guard turns them away again.

At this point in the story, the two brothers abandon their goal and are largely absent from the second half of the movie, which centres on a pair of opportunists who try to blackmail the restaurant manager after coming into possession of a video showing him slapping one of the kids on the ear. When the video winds up on the news, the manager’s lackey promises ominously to “take care” of the matter, and when the kids don’t go home that night, we’re supposed to infer that he’s murdered them. Only later do we learn the kids spent the night with a middle-aged man nicknamed Fruit Juice (which isn’t creepy for some reason) but forgot to tell their mother about it. In other words, the narration misleads us — or at least tries to; there’s never any sense the kids are in real danger — in order to whip up a phoney crisis when everything is fine, thereby postponing the inevitable happy ending in which the lackey sends a car to bring the kids to the restaurant for a free pizza.

In contrast with most Tamil movies, the film is unusual for its realism, not only in terms of the gritty mise en scène but also the atmospheric soundtrack, which is surely the densest of any Tamil movie I’ve seen. There’s a constant hum of traffic in the distance, and in one sequence, diegetic Bollywood-style music can be heard coming from an offscreen radio over a shot of the kids walking down a side street. Accordingly, while the score is obvious and clumsy (upbeat when the kids are happy, mournful when they’re sad), it’s still far less emphatic than is customary in Tamil films, where melodramatic wall-to-wall scoring fills in the gap left by the absence of other sounds. But while the movie conforms to the technical norms of American commercial cinema, the story is still too contrived for it to “cross-over” to a western audience. Like its characters, the film never fully escapes the ghetto.

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