James Gray in an interview says The Yards (2000) came out of his father's job of supplying parts to the New York subway system, that Little Odessa (1994) and We Own the Night (2007) came out of years growing up knowing Russian gangsters, that We Own the Night also came from the fact that his stepbrother was a police officer. In the case of his latest film Two Lovers (2008) the project is, or so he claims, his least autobiographical and most personal work to date.
Like all of Gray's films it's heavily character-driven. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is bipolar and at times suicidally depressed; his parents (the benign Moni Moshonov, the unusually matronly yet still resplendent Isabella Rossellini) have arranged for him marry sexy, supportive Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), when what Leonard really wants is beautiful yet unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Not the most original scenario in the world, but part of Gray's uncanny appeal comes from the way he takes old-fashioned narrative arcs (the grateful nephew turned anguished informer, the prodigal son turned faithful avenger) and invigorates them, invests them with a passion and level of filmmaking they haven't enjoyed since, well, Francis Ford Coppola in his heyday (in the case of We Own the Night--which owes a good deal storywise to The Godfather--I actually prefer the former to the latter).
Gray delivers on the filmmaking, either with the quietly witty throwaway shot (Leonard waiting in a fine dining restaurant for Michelle and her married lover Ronald (coolly confident Elias Koteas), the vertical stripes on the upholstery matching the vertical slats of the blinds behind, matching the vertical thrust of the huge vase sprouting out of Phoenix's head, wordlessly underlining his turgid impatience) or with more elaborate sequences. In one scene, Michelle and Leonard are on their apartment rooftop, standing inside an open shed while she asks Leonard what he thinks of Ronald; Leonard leads her from one doorway of the shed to another, revealing shifting views of Brooklyn as he attempts to shift her view of her lover.
In the crucial scene where Leonard confesses his love for Michelle, the pair are back on their rooftop, the shot beginning with the camera perched atop a crane, starting from high behind Leonard's left shoulder and approaching the pair as Leonard approaches the object of his desire. Phoenix's performance here as Leonard is remarkably brave, or foolhardy--his tongue thick with lust, his voice halting and infantile, he shuffles forward like a weeping child, demanding comfort, satisfaction. One waits with bated breath for Gwyneth's Michelle to respond--will she embrace him, or push him away? Somehow Gray manages to make either possibility terrifying.
I can empathize with Tsui Hark as he viewed King Hu's Da zui xia (Come Drink with Me, 1966) for the first time, feeling a mounting sense of excitement as government soldiers battled bandits: Hu's measured pacing, his magisterial camera movements--simultaneously patient yet precise--envelop the balletic battlers in their struggle. One can see the influence of old-school action filmmakers in Hu, from John Ford to Akira Kurosawa, in the way ambushing forces stand along a mountain range, or the way opposing forces deploy themselves over a battlefield, like so many chess pieces. One even sees (I admit I may be reaching here) the influence of Hollywood musical directors like as Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, in the way the camera stays with the fight choreography, cutting only to punctuate, or to conclude the sequence--for what is martial arts but a form of dance, its arrangement a kind of choreography?
That's the film's first half; by the second one might accuse Hu of careless continuity, or shoddy production value. The heroine Golden Swallow (Chiang Pei Pei, who worked with Hu on only one major project (this one), but maintained a strong bond with the man for the rest of his life) is wounded by a poisoned dart and faints; when she later opens her eyes, liquid yellow drains upwards from the screen (Hu creates this effect by spilling the liquid on a sheet of glass positioned before the lens, the footage then projected backwards) to reveal the ceiling of a small hut. Later Swallow steps out of the hut and glares weakly at a small pond; the pond glares back, radiating a bright radioactive green.
Hu's color palette has become strange, his editing even stranger--when Golden Swallow confronts Abbot Liao Kung (Chih Ching Yian), the Abbot shoves her to the ground; Hu cuts and suddenly Swallow and Abbot are twenty feet apart, where a second before they were at arm's length. The Abbot has a showdown with Drunk Cat (Hua Yueh), and it's as if they could fold space, jump time, instantaneously switch positions with each other--Hu edits this sequence not so much for plausibility or logic, it seems, as for some kind of ad hoc clarity; to paraphrase the White Queen, he feels the need to depict three impossible things before breakfast.
I understand how a viewer enjoying Hu's crystalline action filmmaking might rebel when everything he's been enjoying so far has been pulled out from under him; also understand how this kind of response to the picture is ultimately incomplete. After achieving effortless mastery in the first half, Hu strives to exceed that mastery, strives for transcendence in action filmmaking, for the kind of abstraction and experimentation that distinguished his later masterpieces (Xia nu (A Touch of Zen, 1969) and Chung lieh tu (The Valiant Ones, 1975)). In this, his first and most conventional wuxia pian, Hu is already pushing the boundaries of the action film, seeking the next stage of development. He seems aware of how few films he will be allowed to make, and is impatient to realize as many new ideas onscreen as he possibly can--hence the density, the odd structure of the film.
After years of sitting through 16 mm prints of varying quality finally a Criterion DVD of Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954), about a mother (played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka) searching for her two lost children (shades of Sisa's search for Basilio and Crispin--but apparently the mother searching for her children is an archetype found in many cultures). With excellent commentary by Japanese Literature professor Jeffrey Angles and interviews of Kyoko Kagawa (who plays the young woman Anju) and film critic Tadao Sato, talking about the picture.
If there's a disappointment in all this, it's the fact that after drinking deep of a clear copy of the film, I find myself with little to say. What can you say about a film that may well be Mizoguchi's masterpiece, and one of the greatest films ever made? What can you say about a film that, as Tadao Sato tells us, is Mizoguchi's simplest work, the simplicity arrived at through comprehensive and absolute mastery of filmmaking in all its aspects? That it's a perfect distillation of Mizoguchi's vision, of a world of suffering and deprivation relieved here and there by moments of sacrifice and transcendent insight? That it's his most ruthlessly heartbreaking work?
That what is oft praised as possibly the single most beautiful shot in all of cinema, the descent of young Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) into a deep pond, is partly the result of an accident? As Kagawa put it in her interview, wooden boards were laid out underwater so that her walk in would be smooth, instead of that funny waddle people do when wading into deep mud. The boards, however, were extremely slippery and Kagawa extremely nervous; she had to pick her way carefully into the water.
The result is as unique and exquisite a death scene as any I've ever seen. Anju's steps as she enters the pond are hesitant and delicate, as befits a frail young woman entering a world of which she knows nothing about (actually a frightened woman desperate to maintain her balance); at the same time, there seems to be in her a kind of calm anticipation, a serene acceptance of her fate. Watching her impeccable posture as the water (undoubtedly cold) rises past her waist, one thinks of a shy maiden quietly advancing to meet her lover, simultaneously fearful and resigned and, yes, eager.
Interesting to compare this to Taiji Yabushita's The Orphan Brother, an animated version made some seven years later (please skip the next four paragraphs if you plan to see both films). As I pointed out in that earlier piece, Yabushita retells the story in childlike fantasy terms (in effect returning the story to its fablelike roots), with perhaps the loveliest effect being Anju's transformation into a swan.
There is one moment where Yabushita's film exceeds Mizoguchi's at least in terms of bleakness: when Zushio meets Tamaki there is no epiphany, no sudden access to spiritual wisdom to soften the blow. Tamaki is besides Zushio, who is decked out in the finery and grandeur of his office, and all she can say to him is: "Oh, the sufferings I've had!" Zushio's incredible luck has had little effect on her state of mind; she can only think of the enormity of her suffering.
But pessimism and despair can only do so much to turn the mind. I remember Mizoguchi's climactic scene, the awful image of Tamaki sitting blindly on the parched earth, waving a stalk over the drying millet. I remember Zushio's expression of dismay, as the realization steals over him that this parody of a human being at work could possibly be his mother. I remember his anguish at having to tell her of Anju's and Masauji's fate, of the hope in her face being ground, like a dropped cigarette, into the dirt as Zushio weeps inconsolably.
I remember most of all the moment when Tamaki's shoulders stiffen, a stern expression on her face as she says "What are you talking about?" Suddenly she's Zushio's mother again, reprimanding him for a moment of weakness; suddenly this scarecrow of a woman, left there to frighten birds away from the millet, somehow finds the energy within her to flash her old spirit. Every man has a breaking point, they say, and Tamaki showing us (after everything has been said and done) a mother's indomitable strength never fails to find mine.