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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Reality and Realism (Beyond the Hills, Betrayal)

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.