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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Pattern Recognition (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Modest Reception)

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Like many of Hong Sang-soo’s films, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) has a loose, inconsequential narrative that’s unified by the director’s taste for doubling. In the opening sequence, the title character (Jeong Eun-chae) falls asleep while waiting for her mother (Kim Ja-ok) at a restaurant, and has a dream where she meets Jane Birkin (playing herself), who tells Haewon that she resembles her daughter. Similarly, over the course of the movie, Haewon is wooed by two older men who could be regarded as competing father figures: Seonjun (Lee Seon-gyun), a morose film school professor who vaguely resembles Serge Gainsbourg, and Jungwon (Kim Eui-sung), a jolly screenwriter who lives in the US. Writing about Hong’s In Another Country (2012), which I haven’t seen, David Bordwell argues that the director’s patterning of motifs engages the viewer in a kind of lighthearted game, but that’s no substitute for a gripping narrative.

An obsessive minimalist who returns to the same themes in film after film, Hong often gives us two versions of a particular scene, thereby testing the viewer’s ability to recall the differences. Early in the movie, Haewon goes for a stroll with her mother, who points out a young man she finds handsome (Ryu Deok-hwan). But while neither of them sees the man throw his cigarette on the ground, Hong underscores this action by zooming in on the butt. A little later, the two women are browsing outside a bookshop when they run into the man again. He tells Haewon that she can pay whatever she likes for the book she’s looking at, but she declines as it would reveal too much about herself. Later on, after breaking up with Seonjun, Haewon is walking in the same area alone when she notices a cigarette on the ground, suggesting that the handsome man will make another appearance. So it comes as a surprise when Jungwon emerges from inside the bookshop instead. He makes Haewon the same offer as his doppelgänger, but when she declines again for the same reason, he counters that she just needs to pay enough not to reveal herself. But while this sort of patterning is amusing for its own sake, I can’t say that I cared very deeply about any of the characters.

On the other hand, Mani Haghighi’s Modest Reception (2012) also has a somewhat loose narrative that’s unified by its patterning of motifs, but the story it tells is vastly more absorbing. In the opening sequence, a pair of wealthy Tehranis, Kaveh (Haghighi) and Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti), gain access to a remote mountainous region on the Afghan border by literally throwing bags of cash at a soldier (Saeed Changizian) guarding a checkpoint, introducing a motif that’s repeated and varied throughout the movie as Kaveh and Leyla attempt to trick various people into accepting large charitable donations without them realizing it. We don’t see the events leading up to their journey, and as the characters tell a different story to everyone they meet, it’s only at the end of the film that we learn why they risk their lives entering a war zone to give money to a bunch of strangers. Watching the movie, I not only wanted to know what was going to happen next, but was trying to figure out what led up to this point based on certain clues dropped throughout the movie.

Late in the film, Kaveh and Leyla come across a man (Ghorban Nadjafi) in the process of digging a grave for his infant daughter, which is extremely difficult as the ground is frozen solid. Kaveh cruelly offers to pay the man for his daughter’s corpse so that he can feed it to the wolves, and though the man holds out for a while, he eventually gives in when Kaveh starts burning wads of bills — money that the man needs for his other children. Leyla is so disgusted by Kaveh’s behavior that she leaves him there, but after she and the man are gone, Kaveh tries to finish digging the grave himself, which is nearly impossible as he has a broken arm. (By this time, the sun has set and wolves can be heard howling in the distance.) Earlier, Kaveh had told the man that he knew what it was like to lose a child, and the zeal with which he attempts to dig the grave suggests that he may have been telling the truth, though we can’t be sure. Likewise, shortly after leaving Kaveh, Leyla pulls over to vomit by the side of the road, hinting that she might be pregnant without making it explicit. In other words, what makes the film so compelling is the manner in which it reveals story information so as to generate mystery and suspense.