Uncertified Copies: The Year in Pirated Chinese DVDs

If anything, lists — which were already beginning to matter in the ’50s and ’60s (via Sarris’s The American Cinema, for example) — are even more important today because of the widening of many choices (as well as the narrowing of certain others, such as the choices made today by Turner Classic Movies and the various studio divisions who release box sets devoted to Old Hollywood versus the wealth of what used to be shown on network TV, albeit with commercial interruptions and other nuisances that may or may not be operative now).
— Jonathan Rosenbaum

As the title suggests, I didn’t get out to the theaters much this year, in large part because there seemed to be so few worthwhile movies playing in Hangzhou — especially when you compared what was shown in multiplexes with what you could get on video. To be sure, there were a couple exceptions, but even as much as I enjoyed The Grandmaster and Gravity, neither film was as interesting to me as my ten clandestine favorites listed below. (I haven’t seen the state-sanitized version of Django Unchained that opened here in the spring shortly after the integral version became available on DVD, and I’ve yet to catch up with Cloud Atlas in any form.) To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when I did venture outside of my apartment to see a movie, it was almost invariably a video projection rather than a 35mm print.

Two notable exceptions were Loin du Vietnam (1967) and Sans soleil (1983), which I saw at the Hong Kong Arts Center in May during their Chris Marker retrospective. But as wonderful as those films are, the single most euphoric moviegoing experience I had all year — and one that’s more representative of the times we live in — was seeing Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) the same week at the Hong Kong Film Archives, where it was projected digitally. Having previously seen the film several times on DVD, I already knew that there was a lot of humor in it, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie with a large, engaged audience that I realized just how funny it really is. None of the new films I saw this year were as pleasurable as that great movie, but there was still plenty to see if you were willing to compromise. Indeed, there are still a great many films that I haven’t had time to watch, though I don’t think this fact in any way diminishes the stature of my ten favorites, all of which I can recommend without reservation.

1 Modest Reception (Mani Haghighi) A pair of affluent Tehranis drive through a war zone handing out bags of cash to the impoverished locals, though it’s hard to say whether this is charity or a cruel joke. As the movie only gradually reveals who the characters really are and what they’re up to (they tell a different story to everyone they meet), we have to constantly reassess how we feel about them.

2 Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) Freud said that we go to the movies to watch our parents have sex but it’s even more fun when they get into an argument about how Mom is subtly being oppressed by Dad. In the 18 years since Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater has evolved from an amiable independent with a causal approach to story construction into a first-rate dramatist.

3 Beyond the Hill (Emin Alper) A kind of Turkish Western about a divided family coming together to fight a common enemy, this could almost be a film by John Ford or Anthony Mann except for the terse, elliptical storytelling that takes its time revealing information about the characters and leaves a slew of unanswered questions.

4 Tabu (Miguel Gomes) Taking its title from F.W. Murnau’s tale of the South Seas, this three-part narrative about the legacy of European colonialism is more than just a tribute to a great film. Each of its stories is fascinating in its own right, but taken together, they add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

5 Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) The experience of watching this movie, which consists of a series of loosely related, non-sequential vignettes, is a bit like trying to assemble an Ikea furniture set without the instructions. Some people may find this frustrating, but personally I was excited by the challenge.

6 Betrayal (Kirill Sebrennikov) An ordinary man learns that his wife is having an affair and the shock seems to throw the entire universe out of whack. While most narrative films give one the comforting impression that everything happens for a reason, this enigmatic marital drama is disquieting precisely because its plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

7 La Cinquième saison (Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth) Unsettling and hilarious in roughly equal measure, this apocalyptic parable about the unraveling of a tightly knit farming community is so spare and economical that it’s an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.

8 The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson’s next film is to be an adaptation of Inherent Vice (2009), but after this monumental curiosity about a weirdo sailor getting wasted on darkroom chemicals and cavorting with an orgy-loving prophet, an official Thomas Pynchon adaptation seems rather superfluous.

9 Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) Based on actual events documented in two nonfiction books and shot in a dispassionate long take style, this absorbing convent drama purports to be an impartial account, thereby obscuring how artfully Mungiu has shaped the facts of the case into a coherent narrative.

10 Here, Then (Mao Mao) More than most films, this inscrutable Chinese art movie contrasting the lives of disenfranchised hick teenagers and bored yuppies feels like the work of a director consciously testing the limits of how much information he can withhold from viewers without alienating them completely.

Some other movies I can recommend — nearly all of which I’ve written about on this blog already — are Behind the Candelabra, 5 Broken Cameras, La Folie Almayer, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Mud, Neighboring Sounds, No, Paradise: Love, Searching for Sugar Man, Silver Linings Playbook, Starlet, To the Wonder, Voice of My Father, and Wreck-It Ralph.

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Missing Links (Post Tenebras Lux, Neighboring Sounds)

It’s not unusual for the last line of dialogue in a movie to serve as a kind of summation statement, making explicit what’s already been implied. The line, “There’s no place like home,” in The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a clear example; less obviously significant is the final line of Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012), which for some reason ends with a group of English schoolboys playing rugby. To encourage his teammates, one of the players says, “They’ve got individuals, we’ve got a team. So come on, let’s go.” A straightforward remark made by a minor character, the line is almost thrown away, but it’s nonetheless a fitting conclusion for a movie that at first glance appears to be a collection of scenes rather than a unified story. The narrative consists of a series of loosely related vignettes, and by presenting them non-sequentially, the film makes it impossible for the viewer to construct a linear chronology of events. Accordingly, it only gradually becomes apparent how the different episodes are related to one another, and even after watching the whole movie, there are still a number of things that I find mysterious about it.

The film’s early scenes are fairly linear, revealing the characters through their daily routines. As the movie opens, Juan (Aldolfo Jiménez Castro) — a wealthy landowner of European descent — is living in the Mexican countryside with his wife, Nathalia (Nathalia Avecedo), and their two children who are still in diapers. Notwithstanding the film’s second sequence, in which a radiant, toolbox carrying devil quietly enters the couple’s home while they sleep, things only get weird following an episode wherein Juan goes to an AA meeting with his indigenous doppelgänger, Seven (Willebaldo Torres), when the movie cuts to the rugby players in a locker room getting ready for a match, even though no connection has been established between them and Juan. In the next sequence, Juan and his family attend a wedding reception, but now the kids are about ten years older and Juan is going grey. Therefore, when he’s shot by a burglar late in the film, there’s no suspense about whether or not he’ll live as his hair is still black, though it’s only here that something like a linear narrative begins to emerge. A scene in which two old men play chess together initially seems totally extraneous, its purpose only becoming apparent when the conversation belatedly turns to the subject of Juan’s recovery. I was intrigued by the movie not so much because I was curious to see what would happen next, but because I wanted to know how each scene fit in with everything that came before it.

Similarly disjointed, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds (also 2012) is a network narrative in which the connections between the characters are unusually tenuous. In contrast with a movie like Babel (2006), in which several apparently unrelated stories set in different countries all turn out to be connected, here the separate narrative threads don’t depend on one another, even though the characters all live on the same street in a middle-class neighborhood in Recife. One subplot centers on a bored housewife, Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who doesn’t have any interaction with the other major characters beyond offering some coffee to the private security guards who patrol the street by night. Furthermore, the individual stories are all fairly loose, revealing the characters through their daily routines, and while the film touches on a number of big issues — inner-city crime, rapid urbanization, the legacy of Portuguese colonialism — it’s not obvious (at least to me) how these topics are related. Even at 130 minutes, the movie is never less than compelling as storytelling, but its meanings are somewhat obscure.

One important character is a real estate agent, João (Gustavo Jahn), whose new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), grew up on the same street where he now lives. Early on, after sleeping over at João’s, Sofia discovers that her car stereo was stolen during the night, and João suspects that his cousin, Dinho (Yuri Holanda), is the one who did it, though it’s not clear that he is. (When João confronts him, Dinho gives him someone else’s stereo.) It’s implied that crime is pervasive in the area, but the movie doesn’t offer any explanation for this. Likewise, it’s not clear why Bia needs to smoke weed to get through the day, or why she deliberately provokes her sister, Betañia (Mariaangela Valéa), by buying a new flat-screen TV that’s slightly larger than hers. Later, when João tells Dinho that he broke up with Sofia, it comes as a surprise as their relationship seemed to be going well. The last time we see them together, João takes Sofia to see her childhood home, which is about to be torn down to make room for a new high-rise condominium, implying a connection between the demolition of Sofia’s old house and the termination of her relationship with João, though I for one can’t figure out what it is. To paraphrase Manny Farber, no film in recent memory has so thoroughly made me feel like a stupid ass.