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Posts Tagged ‘Asian Cinema’

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Oshima Nagisa’s greatness as a director was “inseparable from his indifference to whether his films were likable [sic] or not,” and although it is too early for me to say, after just one viewing, whether or not The Sun’s Burial (Taiyo no hakaba, 1960) is a great film, it is doubtlessly one of his most radically unlikeable, systematically undermining any attempt the spectator might make to sympathize with its characters. An exceptionally mean and nihilistic yakuza story set against a backdrop of unrelieved squalor, this 87-minute feature has enough plot for a miniseries and, as in Oshima’s subsequent and equally estranging Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960), there are too many characters for the spectator to keep track of all of them on first viewing. Some of the more memorable rouges here, none of whom having any redeeming qualities whatsoever, are a teenage blood merchant who sidelines in prostitution (or perhaps it is the other way around) and who in one scene catches her father trying to peak up her dress while she sleeps, a demented right-wing agitator who believes the Soviets are planning to invade Japan in the next two years, and a lame pimp first seen choking a whore with his crutch because he does not want to pay for her to have an abortion while another prostitute sitting nearby pretends not to notice. The film is by turns funny and shocking but it is never very affecting; perhaps influenced by Bertolt Brecht, Oshima evidently wants us to take a detached view of these characters rather than getting emotionally involved, but to what end? Even granting the dubious premise that emotional engagement precludes critical thought, the film creates a world so unremittingly sordid that no cure seems possible. When the frenzied slum dwellers burn down their own decrepit shantytown at the end of the film, the fire does not purify anything or anyone; it just leaves a smouldering heap of ash and rubble.

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My report on the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks as always to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it. Since writing this article, I was able to catch up with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which — in spite of its stylistically awkward conclusion — rivals Western as the best and most moving narrative film in this year’s festival. On the other hand, I don’t consider Darren Aronofsky’s mother! a success as its allegorical story isn’t grounded in enough realistic detail (few real poets can support themselves on their work alone, much less afford a house like the one in the movie), and I didn’t really enjoy watching it, but it’s such an audacious and at times exciting failure that you should probably see it anyway, if you haven’t already.

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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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