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Posts Tagged ‘Asian Cinema’

My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.

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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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As a contract director for Nikkatsu, Seijun Suzuki pumped out about forty B-movies between 1956 and 1967, when the studio fired him for making “incomprehensible” films. In an interview in the ’90s, he said, “In normal movies, they take care to show time and space. […] But in my films, spaces and places change,” adding, “I guess that’s the strength of entertainment movies. You can do anything you want to as long as those elements make the movie interesting.” Shot in twenty-five days, and edited and mixed in just three (a normal production schedule for a Nikkatsu B-movie of the period), Gate of Flesh (1964) is less willfully avant-garde than Branded to Kill (1967) — the film that got Suzuki sacked — which suggests that the difficulty one sometimes has in following the plot is more likely the result of the haste with which the movie was made rather than a deliberate choice.

Set in a bombed out quarter of Tokyo during the American Occupation, the noirish storyline revolves around a brutish ex-soldier turned penicillin thief, Shintaro (Joe Shishido), who holes up with a band of prostitutes while recovering from a gunshot to the leg. The women — whose brightly coloured clothes contrast nicely with their scorched surroundings — form a kind of mini-cartel, each having vowed not to give it away for free. (To make it easier to tell them apart, the movie associates each woman with a different colour.) When they discover that Machiko (Misako Tominaga), who always wears a black kimono, refused payment from a trick she’s fallen in love with, the other women force her to strip, tie her hands, and beat her with a stick. According to Suzuki, the studio wanted an erotic film, and he lingers on Machiko’s punishment with kinky relish.

Notwithstanding his taste for jump cuts, here Suzuki doesn’t violate the rules of continuity editing as flagrantly as he would in later films. The only really unusual thing about his coverage in this movie is his apparent aversion to shot-reverse shot cutting. Instead of alternating between Machiko’s humiliation and the reactions of the cartel’s newest member, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) — who’s both figuratively and literally green — Suzuki superimposes the latter over the former, though I don’t know if he did this to make the sequence more interesting or if he just did it to save money. In an interview on the DVD, the film’s production designer, Takeo Kimura, frankly admits that he decided on a theatrical style for the sets in order to cut costs, and the lighting is accordingly non-naturalistic. In one nighttime scene, an unmotivated spotlight follows Sen (Satoko Kasai), who always wears red, as she moves around the hovel where she plies her trade.

What makes the film a little confusing is its tendency to cut away in the middle of an action to an unrelated event in another location. Early on, the movie jumps from Sen asking Maya if she’s a virgin to a gratuitous scene in which a black preacher (Chico Roland, in an indescribably bad performance) comes upon a woman’s body in a field somewhere. I didn’t catch whether the woman was dead or merely unconscious, and ultimately it doesn’t matter as she’s never mentioned afterwards. And later, when the cartel members threaten to do unspecified harm to Machiko with a razor, it’s unclear if they go through with it. At the point where the sequence breaks off, they don’t seem to be moved by her pleas for mercy, but the next time we see Machiko, she appears to be alright. However, while Gate of Flesh isn’t an entirely successful movie, thanks to its lurid plot, eye-catching colour scheme, and copious sex and violence, at least it’s never a boring one.

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Tayla Lavie’s Zero Motivation (2014) begins with two female NCOs walking back to a remote base in the south of Israel after a weekend furlough. When Daffi (Nelly Tagar) refuses to go on, saying she can’t face another week, her friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) tries to encourage her by saying they’ll set a new record for minesweeping. Only later do we learn that both women work in the personnel department and the only minesweeping they ever do is on the office computers. Periodically, their commanding officer, Rama (Shani Klein), scolds them for their laziness at a time when others are dying for their country, but that’s the closest anyone comes to even mentioning the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in what is essentially an office comedy.

For reasons that are never spelled out, Daffi has her heart set on being transferred to a base in Tel Aviv (even though her family lives in Haifa), so when an unfamiliar young woman, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), turns up at the base, Daffi jumps to the conclusion that she’s been sent to replace her. Only after Tehila is unmasked as an impostor does Daffi discover that Zohar never mailed the countless letters they wrote together requesting a transfer — partly to spare Daffi the embarrassment of having them read by anyone, but also because Daffi would be helpless without her (her only useful skill is her ability to operate a paper shredder), and because Zohar has no other friends in the department, which is full of passive-aggressive skanks.

There are some real laughs in the film, but for the most part, the story is a little too serious to ever be very funny. We eventually learn that Tehila’s purpose in sneaking onto the base is to see Eitan (Moshe Askenazi), a soldier whom she had a one night stand with four months earlier and has been hung-up on ever since. But while there’s a hint of farce in a scene where Eitan tries to conceal a female officer in his room when Tehila barges in in the middle of the night, her heartbreak when Eitan finally disillusions her is too real to be laughed at, and in a particularly gruesome sequence, she attempts to remove a commemorative tattoo from her belly with an Exacto knife. The movie’s least convincing scenes are its few forays into out-and-out hilarity, such as the improbable happy ending in which Daffi and Zohar make up and all their dreams magically come true, as if by divine intervention.

Unlike war movies made in the United States, the few Israeli films I’ve seen about the military don’t have much recruitment flavor — maybe because national service is mandatory there so there’s no need (or appetite) for movies that try to sell young people on enlisting. (In this film, the IDF’s macho culture is treated simply as a fact of life rather than a problem to be solved.) At the same time, the movie is conspicuously silent on the Palestinian question, which is alluded to only in passing, as when Zohar puts up posters commemorating every war Israel has fought since 1948. The impression I get from the film is that most Israelis are too busy with their own lives to worry about political issues that don’t directly concern them, and instead of giving recruits a sense of mission, military service is a meaningless obligation they’re forced to endure whether they like it or not.

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Five years ago when I was living in South Korea, one of my coworkers asked me why the films of Kim Ki-duk were so popular in the West. Being somewhat blindsided by the question, I didn’t have a good answer at the time, though had I been more on the ball, I might’ve pointed out that, while his movies have won numerous prizes at different European film festivals, only Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) was a modest art house hit — prompting an almost hysterical backlash from critics with Tony Rayns, an expert on Asian cinema, leading the charge. (If I recall correctly, he dubbed Kim “the overrated poster boy for Korean cinema” in an article for Film Comment.) Personally, I rather liked The Isle (2000) and Spring, Summer… despite their ham-fisted poetic conceits, but after seeing Bad Guy (2001) and 3-Iron (2004) — both utterly idiotic — I had to concede that Rayns had a point and I subsequently lost interest in Kim’s work.

So why do his movies keep getting invited to festivals like Venice and Cannes? Kim first came to prominence with The Isle, which provoked a scandal at the Venice Film Festival due to its juxtaposition of pastel coloured natural settings with scenes of self-mutilation and unsimulated animal cruelty, reportedly causing some audience members to throw up or faint. Jumping ahead thirteen years to Moebius [sic] (2013), one finds that Kim has inflated the onscreen brutality to cartoonish proportions while dispensing with the pretty colours and meditative rhythms of his earlier work. Wielding his DV camera like a blunt instrument, Kim has no flair for blocking, framing, sound-image relations, or constructing time and space, but instead seems to regard the camera simply as an instrument for recording profilmic content in much the same way that some performance artists document their work on video.

That said, I still might’ve enjoyed the film as canned theatre had any part of its story made sense. However, it’s doubtful that a married man whose wife already suspects him of having an affair would be so careless as to get it on with a shopkeeper in the front seat of a parked car in full view of both his wife and their teenage son. And while one sometimes reads stories in the news about vengeful wives castrating their husbands, I’ve yet to hear of anyone chopping off their son’s penis and eating it when they fail in their original aim. Furthermore, although it only took the Tokyo police three days to nab Sada Abe in 1936, the wife in this movie evidently spends several months wandering the streets barefoot only to return home out of the blue still wearing the same bloodstained clothes and is immediately welcomed back into the family. While she’s away, her son buys a bottle of Pocari Sweat (which tastes as gross as it sounds) from the shopkeeper and she inexplicably flashes her tits at him. And when he’s later sent to juvie for reasons that elude me, his father mails him a how-to on orgasmic self-mutilation, which the guards obligingly pass along to him.

To be sure, the film’s hyperbole is sometimes amusing in a demented sort of way (I was particularly tickled by a slapstick sequence in which a rapist has his dick cut off by the teenage boy and then chases him down the street in an attempt to retrieve it, which plays like an uncommonly twisted Buster Keaton short), but mostly it’s just monotonous. I lost count of how many times the husband bitch-slapped his bitch wife, who invariably falls backwards to the floor with her skirt flying up around her waist so that we can get a good look at her panties. And there are seemingly just as many scenes in which the shopkeeper stabs the teenage boy or her rapist in the back with a big knife and then swivels it around like a joystick until he climaxes without causing any serious injuries. Yes, the actors’ dedication is admirable, but if you’re going to be slapped around, felt up, and stripped on camera, don’t you want it to be for a movie that doesn’t suck?

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