Friday, 27 June 2008

THE TERRORIZERS (Edward Yang, 1986)

The Taiwan Film Festival finished today, and I was able to see another early Edward Yang film, The Terrorizers (1986). Last week I saw Yang's Taipei Story (1985), and although it was quite different from Yang's later Yi Yi (2000), there were enough similarities to suggest a cohesion. The Terrorizers, on the other hand, has almost nothing in common with later Yang, and only connects with Taipei Story through the milieu.

The Terrorizers tells a story connecting numerous characters and how their lives intersect. Like many such narratives, the last half is much more compelling, especially on first viewing, because of the difficulty of establishing so many characters and their various interrelationships. Even by the conclusion, there are a number of aspects that I still find puzzling and unexplainable. However, this does not take away from the power of the plot's unfolding. There is not just one but two artist characters in the film: a male photographer and a female novelist. As a result, the unfolding of the character's lives is presented in a very self-reflexive manner, in which art does have a profound influence on lives, even if this impact is mostly on the personal level. In addition to the two artist figures, Yang also includes a character, nicknamed "the white chick" (she is actually Eurasian), who is blatantly symbolic. Despite these distancing devices, the film never loses its sense of lived reality in modern Taipei. That said, it lacks the social zeitgeist quality of Taipei Story.

The influence of the European art cinema is very present here, probably more than Taipei Story. I found the often noted resemblance to Antonioni more prevalent here, as well as a continued affinity with Wim Wenders. But the film that I was reminded of most while watching The Terrorizers was not from the past but rather a work made a decade later, the Korean film The Day a Pig Fell in the Well (Hong Sang-soo, 1996). The rather drab look of both films, along with their multi-character narratives, are initially oft-putting but become gradually more effective as they progress. The figure of the artist is prominent, as is common with both Yang and Hong. The two works also share an interest in surrealism, as evident in the presence of sudden outbursts of sexualized violence as well as unmarked dream sequences towards their respective conclusions.

I doubt if the influence on Hong was direct. But it is interesting to note that both Yang and Hong, early in their respective careers, made similar films that merged European cinematic styles within their own emerging national cinemas. As it turned out, Hong would be more consistent in his output than Yang, although Hong's first film remains the most unlike the rest of his remarkably consistent output. As for Yang, I'm anxious to track down his 90s work to see how he moved from these early studies of modern and post-modern Taipei to the very different Yi Yi in 2000.

Monday, 23 June 2008

GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

They are very few movies that I come across anymore that I find wholly unique and difficult to classify, but Goodbye, Dragon Inn is one of them. No doubt this says something about myself and where my tastes lie. Anyone with a strong background and interest in experimental cinema, as opposed to art cinema, would find Tsai's film less distinct. My previous exposure to Tsai was several years ago with Vive L'Amour (1994), and there are some connections to that previous work here, such as the sparse amount of dialogue, the obsession with water, themes of alienation and emptiness, etc. But Vive L'Amour can be compartmentalized as part of Asian minimalism. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, however, pushes heavily towards the non-narrative avant-garde.

Coincidentally, the film I thought of most when viewing Goodbye, Dragon Inn is Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), which is playing next week at the cinematheque as part of the Jarman retrospective. This is not to suggest that the two are similar in any way. In fact, as experimental cinema goes, they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Blue consists of nothing but a blue screen and puts the primacy on the audio track. Goodbye, Dragon Inn has only two scenes of dialogue, not counting the film within a film, King Hu's Dragon Inn (1966). Also, while I strongly disliked Blue (but admittedly, this was almost 10 years ago), I loved Tsai's experiment. Nevertheless, both films share in common the characteristic of almost, if not quite completely, abandoning narrative altogether.

What I rebelled against in Blue was that Jarman, for me, not only abandoned narrative but left behind cinema itself. Goodbye, Dragon Inn on the other hand exists just about purely as film. The images Tsai composes are so rich that narrative would get in the way. What Tsai gives in the place of story is a reflective consideration of cinema itself, what it was, what it currently is, where it may be going. No other scene best reflects this than when the cinema itself empties and we as an audience are looking back at our mirrors, the empty seats that we too will shortly leave. The shot is held so long that it becomes a near Cage-ian experiment in what the audience will do when confronted with this emptiness. It is part of the provocative and perverse nature of the film that Tsai is commenting on the death of cinema as represented by the closing theatre with a work that absolutely relies on being seen in such a theatrical setting.

Taiwan Film Festival Extended (3 days)

The Taiwan Film Festival at the cinematheque, which was originally supposed to end today (June 22nd) has been extended to Thursday (June 26th). The screenings with English subtitles are as follows:

Tuesday (24th): City of Sadness (3:00pm), Taipei Story (8:30)

Thursday (26th): Eat Drink Man Woman (6:00pm), The Terrorizers (8:30)

The addition of the two Yang films is especially good news, since they only had a single screening each.

The Derek Jarman retrospective starts on Friday.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1984)

Art cinema is similar to popular film in being fond of trilogies. Long before Star Wars, there was Ingmar Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy, and ever since critics have been prone to dividing director's outputs in sets of threes. The difference is that the films are often not linked by a continuation of story, as in popular film, but rather by a continuation of theme. Hou Hsaio-Hsien has (at least) two separate trilogies in his output: the "Coming of Age" films Summer at Grandpa's (1984), A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), and Dust in the Wind (1986) and the "Taiwanese history" films City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1994), and Good Men, Good Women (1995). The historical films are generally considered the greater achievements, but if the first of the coming of age films is any indication, they are fine achievements that should not overlooked.

Summer at Grandpa's is based on the childhood memoir of co-writer Chu Tien-Wen. The story focuses on a pre-adolescent boy and his younger sister, who at the beginning of the film are sent from Taipei to a small town in the country when their mother falls ill. Not surprisingly, the story concludes when they return to the city. There is thus a very standard feel to the coming-of-age story presented. Even the idiosyncratic nature of Hou's style blends very naturally with the material. This is partly because Hou's approach here is less rigorous than in the later films. There are many of the Hou signatures on display: the use of long takes, long lenses, and shots of frames within the frame. The difference is that their deployment is less systematic than in a film like City of Sadness, especially in the outdoor scenes in nature, and as a result the film feels less distanced and more immediate, relatively speaking of course.

However, it is important not to take this familiarity for granted and ignore the subtlety on display here. The vague outline of the plot would suggest a tale in which the young city boy learns from the wisdom of the older patriarchal figure of the grandfather. Hou and his screenwriter handle the material more complexly. The key to this is the younger sister and her attachment to a outcast, mentally challenged woman in the village. The way in which this subplot plays out calls into question the authority of the grandfather, who is also a dominant presence as the village doctor. None of this is the least bit heavy-handed, but still refreshingly challenges the kind of gender norms we expect to find. And even though the boy's farewell to his friends is the last scene we see, the goodbye I remember most is the young girl's unanswered call to the woman who effectively became her substitute mother.

Hou has often expressed an admiration for the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, even making a whole film as a tribute, Cafe Lumiere (2003). This is the most Ozu-like of his films that I have seen, both in the greater classicism of the style and in the great doubled ending reminiscent of Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). In his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), Robin Wood has a great essay challenging the perceived conservatism of Ozu, arguing that he can also be read as a progressive or even radical filmmaker. I think a similar argument can be made for this film, an argument even more convincing given the overt political stance of Hou's later work.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

TAIPEI STORY (Edward Yang, 1985)

Like many, my only exposure to the work of the late Edward Yang was thorough his final film, Yi Yi (2000). None of his other films are easily available on DVD. I was hoping the Taiwanese film festival would include Yang's 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, often cited as his masterpiece and difficult to see in its complete version. The festival was missing this work, but did include Yang's previous two films, Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986). Both were playing here last night, unfortunately the only screening of each. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see the first of these.

Reading about Taipei Story before the screening, I was surprised to see the number of critics who compared Yang with Michelangelo Antonioni. The influence never crossed my mind in regards to Yi Yi, and I'm not sure it would have come immediately to mind with Taipei Story either. I would not argue against the modern existential characteristics of the work, but watching the film I thought of Timothy Corrigan's book A Cinema Without Walls (1991) which deals with the phenomenon of postmodernity and its influence on movie culture. What we generally conceive of as modernity and postmodernity collide in Taipei Story and give the film a real fascination and beauty. Unfortunately I do not have a DVD copy to provide stills, but many of Yang's most memorable images come from this collision. The scene that stays in my mind take place on a rooftop in front of a large neon Fuji sign, the two lovers dwarfed and in shadows while classical music plays on the soundtrack. The more Taiwanese cinema I watch, the more its influence on Wong Kar-Wai becomes apparent.

A curiosity about Taipei Story is that it stars Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who would become the major director of the Taiwanese New Wave. After viewing each director over the past week, there are actually few similarities between them. Yang is a much more conventional director. There are some uses of the long take, but there are plenty of sequences with more cutting and close-ups. Yang is interested in the spaces and objects of modernity (and/or postmodernity) and trying to relate the importance of these to the characters and their world. The West also plays a major symbolic role here, not surprising given Yang's background living in the U.S. The dream of California, represented both commercially by the lead character's brother and culturally through VCR tapes of American baseball, lingers over these people's lives as an illusion that oddly lacks any real utopianism. It is simply a retreat and escape.

In this way, Yang is certainly closer to European art cinema directors of the 60s and 70s, who in fact influenced Yang to become a director. After dropping out of USC film school feeling he lacked any talent, Yang re-engaged with the medium after watching art cinema classics, beginning with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). And much more than Antonioni, it is the New German Cinema influence I see as prevalent in Taipei Story. The inspiration is not so much Herzog as Wim Wenders in Yang's attraction-repulsion to America and the later films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Yang's enclosed compositions combined with elements of classicism. Hou's performance here reminded me of Fassbinder's roles in many of his bleak urban dramas.

In a short review of Yi Yi written a few years ago, I commented: "Throughout the film, Yang uses a repeated visual motif to express his multi-character narrative in which each strand comments upon the other: the overlaying of reflecting images of windows that create dense, layered compositions. Early in the film, one character states: 'Is there anything real left?' These compositions seem to ask the same question." Taipei Story is a very different film, but it has some of these same characteristics. And although the overlapping image shot is not a visual motif here, the film does end with one of these compositions. Although the sense of connection is not as elaborate (some could say schematic) as it is in Yi Yi, Taipei Story offers up a similar tale of past, present and future colliding in modern Taiwan. The much more pronounced cynicism around the family in this early work also provides a clue to the more subtle pessimism of Yi Yi.

A couple of links to writing on Yang:

Rosenbaum's career overview

Senses of Cinema profile

Friday, 13 June 2008

CITY OF SADNESS (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1989)

When encountering a film as acclaimed as Hou's City of Sadness, the result is often respectful admiration rather than immediate emotional impact. This is especially true when the subject is historical material that you may not be familiar with. This was certainly the case when I watched my first Hou film, The Puppetmaster (1994), nearly a decade ago. However, City of Sadness, despite being difficult to fully comprehend and absorb on first viewing, has a rare affecting power to match its political and social insight.

Hou's patient style is crucial to this affect. The first hour of the film is the most difficult, as Hou is putting into play many of the characters and situations without the usual exposition that we expect from historical dramas. One reason for this is that Hou is clearly speaking directly to a Taiwanese audience that does not need this exposition. Made in 1989, shortly after the loosening of four decades of strict censorship and martial law, City of Sadness was one of the first films to deal with Taiwan's past (and was very successful commercially as a result). Although it has the feel of an epic of vast historical scope, the film actually takes place within a four year period. It begins with the end of World War II and Japanese rule in 1945 to the establishment of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese nationalist government-in-exile in 1949 following the loss of mainland China to Communist forces. Hou concentrates on one family and how these historical events impact their lives. It reminded me of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang's The Blue Kite (1993), although usefully serving as a reminder that Chinese government oppression preceded the Communist rule.

The restraint Hou shows early in the film allows the last half of his work to have the force it does. The main event depicted, apparently for the first time in cinema history, is of the massacre of native Taiwanese committed by Kuomintang troops on February 28, 1947. But because of how Hou has quietly established the spaces of his characters, particularly the hallway of a hospital where two main characters work, he does not need to indulge in massive amounts of violent spectacle to have the desired visceral effect. Hou does not deviate from his long take, long shot approach, continuing to view the violence with the same perspective of the earlier scenes.

Adding to this distance is the lead character, played by Tony Leung, who is deaf and mute. All of his communication takes place through writing, which Hou renders through inter-titles, not unlike the style of silent films that he would later recreate more throughly in Three Times (2005). As many critics have noted, he becomes an audience surrogate, often forced to watch rather than influence events. It also brings a poignancy to his relationship with his leftist friend's sister, a romance that recalls the later work of Wong Kar-Wai. Leung's character is also a photographer, a chronicler of the personal histories, a role that extends to delivering news of the execution of fellow travelers to their loved ones. If he is an audience stand-in, he is also a representative of Hou himself.

When film critics and scholars discuss the most important artists of the last few decades, Hou and Abbas Kiarostami typically top the list, and despite their differecnes they both share an important quality. Like Kiarostami, Hou's distance does not result in alienation of feeling, but rather its intensification. Likewise, the small amount of actual violence shown does not mitigate the critique of oppression. Rather, it functions as an implicit statement against films that rely on gruesome extravagance. With City of Sadness, the result is an aesthetically beautiful film that uses its stylistic brilliance to convey its ideas about society and politics.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


The information on the subtitles for the Taiwan film festival at the cinematheque has been announced. Unfortunately, only four of the films have subtitles. On the positive side, one of these is City of Sadness (1989), widely considered to be the masterpiece of one of the recognized giants of contemporary cinema, Hou Hsaio-hsien. Also subtitled is an early Hou film, Summer at Grandpa's (1984).

The cinematheque also announced a Derek Jarman retrospective featuring eleven of his feature films, beginning with Sebastiane (1979) and ending with Jarman's final film, the experimental Blue (1993). The retrospective will run from June 27-July 10, although the screening dates have still not been announced.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

DEAD RECKONING (John Cromwell, 1947)

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

One of the many positive aspects of film culture here is the availability of very affordable DVDs of Classical Hollywood and art cinema releases. This allowed me to view a film noir I've always been interested in seeing, Dead Reckoning. I was familiar with the film from the last chapter of Frank Krutnik's great study of noir and masculinity, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), "A Problem in 'Algebra': Dead Reckoning and the Regimentation of the Masculine". Krutnik's book is one of the better studies of noir, but, perhaps because I had not seen the film, I found the last chapter difficult to follow. I look forward to revisiting it.

Part of the difficulty may be with the film itself. Dead Reckoning is one of the oddest films I can remember seeing. Although made in 1947, it comes across almost as a pastiche of noir. It stars Humphrey Bogart as a returning veteran who investigates a pre-war murder case involving his war buddy. As in many noirs, this investigation focuses on a woman, his friend's former lover who Bogart quickly falls for as well. Bogart's character, however, does not trust women as easily as his duped friend. He gives a speech early in the narrative about wanting to shrink a woman down to pocket-size so he can control her, only having her become full-size when he wants (presumably, when he wants her physically, although the dialogue is only implicit about this). This is such a hyperbolic expression of the usual noir anxiety over female sexuality that it reminded me of R. Crumb's comics about the headless woman. It is so blatant and obvious that it feels like a postmodern noir reworking rather than a film made before the term itself had gained any widespread popularity.

The casting plays a role here too. Bogart seems to be referencing his former roles as a detective in films such as The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). There are actually lines taken almost directly from the former, in a manner reminiscent of a recent neo-noir like Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006). And Lizabeth Scott as the female lead bares an uncanny resemblance to Lauren Bacall, Bogart's co-star in the later. Also recalling The Big Sleep are aspects of the plot revolving around a gambling house and its boss. And the finale (Figure 3) recalls the more well-known Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), although it was released earlier in the same year. Thus what this seems to suggest is not so much a knowingness about all or maybe even any of these affinities but rather a confluence of elements now considered central to the definition of noir.

Another one of these characteristics is the use of the noir cityscape in what appears to be a small Southern city (Figure 1) and the use of the flashback structure. The presence of both of these ingredients feels odd, particularly the flashback, which is esoteric in the fact that it is not really needed. The film begins with Bogart telling his story in a church to a priest (Figure 2) (even though he isn't Catholic), but the flashback is only half of the story. Eventually it ends and the last part of the narrative is told linearly. The flashback seems to have no clear purpose, which is unusual for classical cinema. Even noirs like Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) have a clear design for their use of the device. Here, we have to look at the device as purely ornamental and atmospheric, or use an art cinema reading strategy and search for possible thematic resonances. Or, it could be just an awkward and lazy way to give the audience narrative information and establish a closeness with the protagonist.

The final coda is also intriguing. Bogart, with arm broken, stands over the dying femme fatale (Figure 4). She is shown wrapped in white (Figure 5), saying how scared she is and how she wishes she could be in his pocket. Bogart then calls her "Mike" (his nickname for her) and tells her to (metaphorically) jump out of the plane just like he and his friend Johnny did during the war. The film ends with this image (Figure 6). The misogyny is blatant, but so is the homoeroticism (complete with the line that he loved Johnny more than her). And the film is made more incoherent by having the female character join the regime of masculinity. It is like a parody of a Howard Hawks film.

Ultimately, this is a classical film that, as a classical film, is a failure. It lacks the aesthetic distinction of a great auteurist and also fails as an entertainment. It is simply too stilted and too absurd for there to be any real emotional resonance. However, its intertextuality as an example of noir gives it an idiosyncratic appeal. That said, I'm more excited to read more about the film than to ever watch it again.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

SEX AND THE CITY (Michael Patrick King, 2008)

For the first time in many months, I ventured to a multiplex for a new mainstream release, the film version of HBO's Sex and the City. I enjoyed the series well enough, although less so as it progressed (early on there was something liberating about the show's frankness). I didn't have great expectations heading in, but figured of all the major summer releases, I would probably find this one more interesting than the others. Here are some thoughts:

- I found the film mildly entertaining, although much less funny than the series, especially the earlier episodes. It is heavy on melodrama, some of which is effective because of the performances. The writing is much flatter than the series as well. I wasn't bored, and not actively annoyed either. Given my low expectations of contemporary Hollywood, not bad.

- Aesthetically, the transition to the big screen did not change the style much. There were moments of bombast, especially the opening and closing, but generally it was TV functional cutting of the intensified continuity variety. King's background as a TV director does not differentiate him positively or negatively, since the televisual style has taken over mainstream filmmaking over the past couple of decades. There was a New Year's Eve montage through the snow that I thought was well-handled because it wasn't overblown.

- Narratively, the first hour was quite cinematic in adhering to the 3 act structure: 1st act (1/4 of film) (set-up); 2nd Act (1/2 of film) (rising drama); 3rd Act (1/4) (denouement). There is a major turning point an hour in, which is typical of Hollywood narrative. But then the film does begin to feel like a television narrative and is very loose for its last near hour and a half. This isn't inherently a flaw, but it does seem like it is neither tight and economical nor relaxed and character-driven, since the episodes and drama are very rushed and forced. And the conclusion is very quick for such an epic length.

- Ideologically, there is not much to add that hasn't been discussed. Yes, it is a Hollywood consumer product, and yes, there is a sexist dimension to the backlash against this. Other contradictions can be listed. What struck me was the film's sexual explicitness was combined with a simplistic view of sexuality (the Miranda-Steve subplot is pretty embarrassing). Perhaps King could have consulted Dan Savage as co-writer.

- Finally, the success and debate around the film is the most intriguing and at the same time boring aspect. The film opened here on Thursday, and with the Friday holiday, will certainly have a huge opening weekend. It is playing at 4 screens at the Co-ex multiplex here and every screening today was sold out. There is also mass advertising on television. Does this really say anything about the current social zeitgeist? Maybe, and we'll surely have lots of writing, both popular and academic, to explain the phenomenon. It's a cultural marker, to be sure, and more significant than Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and most other blockbusters. But it's also depressing that this is what passes as mainstream feminist (or is it post-feminist?) discourse.

- There's a discussion of the film over at Slate that is worth checking out.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

This Week

Opening this week at Cinecube is the 2005 film The King.
Starting Tuesday is the Taiwnese Film Festival at the Seoul Cinematheque, featuring films by Hou Hsaio-hsien, Edward Yang, Ang Lee, Tasi Ming-Liang and others. The schedule is here. Nothing on the site yet about English subtitles.

There is the Seoul International Film Festival from June 5-11. The schedule and description of the films is here.

And the Seoul LGBT festival, whose website is here. Unfortunately, the English section of the site does not seem to have any information.