Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Chungmuro Film Festival Screenings

The 2nd Chungmuro Film Festival finishes tomorrow. I was only get to see four films this year due to a currently busy schedule: Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984), Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955), Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, 2007), and Lies (Jang Sun Woo, 1999).

The newest film, and one in competition, was Mad Detective. I've heard positive things about Johnnie To so I was interested in seeing one of his films. However, the film left me underwhelmed. It seemed simply derivative rather than a fresh take on the crime/detective/buddy cop genre. It begins fine and with enough energy to propel it, but cannot sustain its momentum because I do not believe I has anything new to say about the figure of the eccentric, method-inspired detective. The movies the film borrows from (Manhunter, Memento, and Frailty) are all significantly better than this reworking.

Paris, Texas and Lola Montes are both films I saw for the first time roughly a decade ago. Viewing them again was practically like a new experience, especially with the Ophuls film. Lola Montes was shown in a recently restored print conducted by the French Cinematheque. It is Ophuls last film and his first in color and widescreen, and it is a much bigger film in terms of spectacle and artifice than anything else he had made. It is probably his most distancing film as a result, a film very much distilling many of the ideas of his other melodramas but, for me, lacking in the emotional resonance of a film like Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). Even the technical virtousity does not match his earlier Madame de ... (1953), partly because of the pure size of the production. Certainly the film is worth watching, but does not match his greatest work.

Paris, Texas, however, may be Wenders' greatest film, even surpassing his work in Germany. What was most striking to me was how, as an outsider to America, Wenders nevertheless fit his film within the dominant paradigms of American cinema. This may be the influence of the screenwriter, Sam Shepard, but is nevertheless not that surprising that Wenders would be interested in making a paradigmatic American story given all of his previous meditations on America and its cinema in his German period.

The story begins with a man walking through the desert. After he collapses, the doctor calls his brother and we learn some things about him. His name is Travis, he has a son, and he disappeared over four years earlier. The rest of the narrative involves his reconnecting with his young son and eventually reuniting him with his mother. The ending is thus typical of the western (which itself is the most typical of American genres) in which the hero restores civilization but also has to retreat from this civilization himself. That said, the distinction of the film is its simultaneous reinforcing and questioning of this quintessential American type. The film begins with Travis as a mute, a parody of the stoic Westerner, but gradually he talks more and more, culminating in a extended conversation with his ex-wife in a peep show booth. This psychologizing of this figure reveals the essential neurosis that is, Shepard and Wenders suggest, at the heart of America itself: the desire for civilization (Paris) and the wilderness (Texas). At the same time, this is not really a deconstruction of the genre. Travis remains a sympathetic figure, and the film's ending, in which his wife and son reunite and twirl around together, is one of the more satisfying conclusions I can recall.

I'll discuss Lies fully in my next post.

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