Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)

The Itchy and Scratchy Show

It's the small, relatively unheralded release of a four million dollar film--gargantuan by Philippine standards (most medium-sized productions run about half a million dollars or so), but practically peanuts by Hollywood's, where 'small' films run from twenty to forty million dollars. And it's easily the single best thing William Friedkin's ever done.

Yep; you heard me. Not a big fan of The French Connection (simpleminded adaptation of what actually was a very complex case--tho to be fair, Friedkin has a gift for shooting fast-moving vehicles), basically felt that The Exorcist just wasn't evil enough, and no, didn't think Sorcerer other than the appalling squalor of the opening sequences was all that good (check out the original by Clouzot), so I'm not acting as some kind of Friedkin fanboy, or apologist--I just honestly think this is the single best picture Friedkin's been involved in, hands down.

The dramaturgy is obvious enough--Ashley Judd is Agnes, a lonely woman working as a waitress in a lesbian bar; Harry Connick, Jr. is Jerry, her former husband turned convict fresh out of jail, who provides the incentive for Agnes to run to Michael Shannon (reprising the role he originated onstage) who in turn Peter Evans, the polite yet somehow unsettling war veteran and drifter who walks into their lives.

It gets worse from there; Evans could have walked in out of any Philip K. Dick novel, but his obsession over all things insectlike (egg-laying, biting aphids are an especially favorite topic) mark him as perhaps a citizen of one of Dick's later works. Actor-playwright Tracy Letts may deny it or not, but watching Shannon desperately slap away the crawling creatures covering his body you can't help but think of the opening scene in A Scanner Darkly, where Charles Freck scrubs his skin raw with a wire brush.

Dick is a master at depicting paranoid schizophrenia, and at one point that's a doctor's diagnosis of Evans' condition. Shannon's performance as Evans makes the film ostensibly different--he's sweet-natured enough that you understand why Agnes takes to him, but there's something coiled inside him, something not quite kosher that you can't put a finger on (at least not until the aphids start biting) that keeps you tense, ready to jump out of your seat. It's as if Travis Bickle where considerably more socially adept but still missing a few synapses, and you can sense the disconnect.

But if Evans is the baroque touch that sets the play apart from most other chamber dramas, Agnes is the mediating consciousness through which the story is filtered, and it's Agnes' fate that ultimately concerns us. I've read several articles on the film that mourn just how unlucky Agnes is with men, switching from a wife-beater to a full-on psychotic, or how the film is making some kind of statement on the readiness of victimized women to believe in someting impractical, just to deny--or at least temporarily escape--their own reality (seems to me I've known my share of these women all my life)...but there seems to be another, possibly more interesting way to look at this material, and the clue would come from author J.G. Ballard.

I've always loved his early disaster novels--The Crystal World is possibly my favorite--but perhaps the strangest element in the novels (and short stories, for that matter) are the protagonists' motives for doing what they do. Survival is actually not as important as the need to assimilate and perhaps integrate into their minds the nature and full meaning of their circumstances (flood, high wind, crystallization). In short, more important than food and shelter is the gift of understanding, and of belonging in one's radically altered world.

Thus Agnes' story. She's running away from her violent husband, yes, but finding Evans isn't a tragedy, it's a triumph. Evans manages to make her world make sense to her; manages to give her an all-encompassing enemy on which she can pin all her troubles and sufferings--and the troubles and sufferings of the entire world along the way--and she embraces his offering with the fervor of a truly lost woman. Never mind that the path Evans offers is ultimately self-destructive--survival is just not a priority.

I'm not being perverse; or at least, I'm being no more perverse than Ballard, who in Crash managed to find sexual pleasure in the gaping wounds and mangled limbs and massive bruises found in car-crash victims (in this Ballard anticipated the automobile apoethesis of Princess Diana--possibly the only truly interesting event in her otherwise tabloid life). For Ballard inner space is the only space worth exploring, and it's the landscape of the cerebrum and spinal cord that holds any fascination; an extreme pathological case such as Agnes'--and I submit that only Agnes would hold any lasting interest--seems almost ready-made for inclusion in the ranks of his all-too-strange literature.

Agnes' way of willing herself into a perfect (and perfectly self-destructing) love is just the kind of mental jiu-jitsu that Ballard's protagonists perform, and Evans' insane scenarios are just the kind of apocalypticaly paranoid situations Dick's protagonists find themselves in. You might say Agnes is a Ballard protagonist trying to create her way out of a Dickian situation.

Friedkin's direction couldn't be better; I can't before this imagine Friedkin as being a particularly appropriate filmmaker to translate Ballard, much less Dick, to the big screen but he seems to have performed the for me near-impossible task of doing both, and in the same film. It might be helpful in a limited sense to remember that he's dealt with single-room dramas before (the final half hour of The Exorcist) and even dealt with crazed war vets before ("Nightcrawlers," one of the more memorable episodes in the short-lived Twilight Zone TV revival), but evoking the spirit of two of the strangest, most philosophically complex writers in all of science fiction--that's quite a feat.

It helps that Friedkin helps maintain the claustrophobia of the setting--enhances it, in fact, knowing that confining much of the story in Agnes' little motel room is key to the film's power (he seems to be operating on the principle that a stew cooks much faster in a smaller covered pot than it does in a large uncovered one). It also helps that his sound design is superb--the overhead ceiling fan becomes a storm of rotor blades a la Apocalypse Now; the hiss of the creaky air-conditioner can almost be mistaken for the seething hiss of bugs crawling through the carpet. Even the sex is superbly realized; you see here as you so rarely see in other Hollywood films the sticky languor of fucking in ninety-degree temperatures--the dripping sweat, the stretched saliva rope, the moist skin glowing with trapped heat. Occasionally for punctuation Friedkin would zoom in--not the dizzying zooms of '70s cinema, but a quick, half-hearted zoom, almost like a hiccup. Don't know what to make of that--a holdover from his '70s filmmaking, or something he's just trying on for size?

As for the cast--Harry Connick Jr. adds to his gallery of wonderfully disreputable characters; Shannon is almost frighteningly self-contained, you can't imagine him having any life outside of his character's. As for Judd, she does the kind of intense, take-no-prisoners acting that Charlize Theron won one of those gold doorstops for, only here Judd doesn't resort to stunt makeup--the performance of her career, easy. Wonderful, intriguing film.

Comfort Women update 5/28/07

The latest news on House Resolution 121:

Dear Flips,

121 Coalition was hoping that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs would mark up House Res. 121 this past week and move the fight for “Comfort Women” justice forward, but that was not the case. On the flip side (haha) this means there is more time to spread the word and educate our friends and communities about the stories of the lolas and their fight for justice. You can’t really expect anyone to vote on something unless they really know the issue and believe in their hearts that there is only one thing to do: support House Resolution 121.

I had an amazing weekend sharing lola stories and presenting House Res. 121 to the Filipino American Coalition of Florida. They are now warriors in the ”Comfort Women’s” fight for justice. Remember the resolution encourages Japan to make a formal apology to the survivors and to take full responsibility of these war crimes. As we think about and commemorate our valiant Filipino War Veterans this day, let’s give silent thanks for the courage and the wisdom of the young Filipinas taken against their will during WW2. They are another kind of war veteran.

To read more about the Filipino American Coalition of Florida’s response to House Resolution 121, go to

Post: Filipino-American Coalition of Florida Support House Res. 121
Link: http://labanforthelolas.blogspot.com/2007/05/filipino-american-coalition-of-florida.html

Salamat,
Evelina

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I'm on Korean TV!

KBS News Broadcast of the Jeonju International Film Festival Opening Night

If you press the rectangular button on the leftmost corner of the little video screen, that should be play.

Thanks to Festival staff Areum Jeong, still helping me out above and beyond the call of duty!

Actually, I'm only on for all of two seconds, long enough to deliver a sound byte, what's left of what must've been a twenty minute interview. I like to think my few seconds of fame left an impression, though...

That, incidentally, is the interior lobby of the building outside of which these pictures were taken. I was all in black for the opening, in Lumberjack Red for the closing.

They did do another interview for closing night; I wonder if they ever aired that...?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Spiderman 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)

Third time's the charred

If you look at the reviews, the responses seem fairly consistent: "tired," one critic wrote; "by-the-numbers" another observed; "clearly not enjoying himself" a third one notes. Possibly they're projecting their own reactions to the film onto the filmmaker; that said, this is easily the most unwieldy installment in the franchise yet.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005)

This post is part of the Star Wars 30th Anniversary (and boy do I regret most of those years) Blogathon


A piece of Sith

Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo
Tell me that you love me and your love is still true.
You saw the Phantom mess, the Clones waded through
Don't leave while you got a dollar left to woo.

I've done all you wanted, what's left for me to say?
Double the action, thrice the CGI frappe.
Even got Tom Stoppard to make the drama play
(Though did he make a diff'rence? Can't tell either way)

Don't the FX matter, the ships that go "wheet!"?
Don't all that magma heat the soles of your feet?
Don't the colored flashlights send tingles up your seat?
Wasn't all that money spent good enough a treat?

Even put a polit'ckal subtext in for free
'Bout how "if not a friend, then you're my enemy"
Michael Moore it ain't, but wait a week or three--
My inbox'll fill with right-wing calumny.

My bro Coppola got me a dialogue coach
'Cuz he knows I'd rather handle a robot roach
So what if I let Hayden in his worries poach?
Humans are always so damned hard to approach.

But enough! I've called in the real big guns now;
Recycled the best stuff from Star Wars, and how:
Like that double-sunset, and James Earl Jones' voice--wow!
Can't you tell that I'll do anything for thou?

Don't you say that we're all done, that we are through
Four movies, and I still can't get through to you.
What do you expect, when I can't even spell "poo?"
Please--hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo



5/20/05

Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002)

(This post is part of the Star Wars 30th Anniversary (and boy do I regret most of those years) Blogathon)

Interview with a Jedi

(We are pleased to bring you an exclusive interview via internet of Jedi Master Yoda, one of the oldest knights of the Jedi Council, on his latest (second earliest, if counted chronologically) picture, Attack of the Clones...)


Friday, May 25, 2007

Fractured (Gregory Hoblit, 2007)

Fractured (Gregory Hoblit, 2007)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

I submit to you that Gregory Hoblit's latest film isn't a crime thriller or even legal thriller at all; one just has to see Anthony Hopkins' Ted Crawford make his furtive way round a swimming pool, observing his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) and her police lover Rob Nunally (Billy Burke) in a watery clinch, to see what the picture is really up to: a chance for Sir Hopkins to strut once more in Hannibal Lecter mode.

Consider: Hopkins is much too old for the physical demands of playing a serial killer (the last time he did, five years ago, Brett Ratner had to cut around the fact that he was using a stunt double much of the time). He is also too familiar to audiences now, is probably aware that they may be tired--is himself probably tired--of the role. If Sir Hopkins were to don yon hockey mask one more time, he would be laughed off the screen; he needed a new shtick, a new way to entertain the audience.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer 1936)

Max Fleischer's Popeye on a brand new DVD!

I Yam What I Yam

 
Max and Dave Fleischer took E.C. Segar's popular cartoon character "Popeye the Sailor" and ran with it, creating a series of shorts from 1933 to 1942 that rivaled Disney's Mickey Mouse in popularity--which was amazing, considering Mickey was a cute little mouse with big eyes and a squeaky voice, and Popeye was a balding, one-eyed roughhouse who spoke questionable grammar with a growl.

Perhaps the peak of the Fleischers' achievement (and possibly peak achievement of animated art, period) were three two-reeler shorts lasting almost twenty minutes, and in full color (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936); Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1937); Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939)), and perhaps the best of these was Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Jeonju Film Festival Photos The Third!

Final set of Jeonju pictures:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Indie Vision jury--Korean filmmaker
Lee Yoon-ki, me, and Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel. The lone girl in the group is Festival Vice-Director Ancha Flubacher-Rhim. This was outside some cultural center for our Juror's Dinner.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Juror's Dinner. I'm seated between Festival programmer Yoo un-sung and Jiri, in a traditional Korean meal of epic proportions (to get this shot I had to either cut off the picture's sides or shrink the people in it to the size of cockroaches, and I didn't want cockroaches). Poor Jiri couldn't eat anything, so for most of the dinner he lounged in his chair and struck a pose not inappropriate to the cover of GQ Magazine.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Standing in front of the ice sculpture at the festival's closing ceremony reception (they served whole platters of fresh salmon sashimi, and huge bowls of bright red strawberries (Jeonju, apparently, is famous for its strawberries)), crammed between filmmaker
Yoshiharu Ueoka (The Look of Love) and Takushi Tsubokawa (Aria). On extreme right is Kazakhstan's most famous film critic, Gulnara Abikeyeva, who was kind enough to present me a copy of her book, The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia.

I pulled Takushi aside and tried out my
theory re: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being the inspiration for Aria and in reply--he could just be trying to be polite--he put a finger to his lips and whispered: "don't tell anyone!"

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I had to pull Korean actor
Jung Chan (Jeong Chan) away from the mob of schoolgirls and pretty autograph hounds surrounding him to take this picture, thinking: this might lend the blog a much-needed influx of Korean fangirl readers. Note the "V for Victory" hand signal, customary in Korean photos.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Outside the crematorium--sorry, that was
Jiri's joke, but I couldn't resist--the complex where the festival was to have its closing ceremonies, I prevailed upon poor Areum Jeong (her official title was, if I remember right "jury coordinator;" I called her "nanny and nursemaid to sixteen cranky foreigners," heroically obliging gal that she was) to stop herding us for a moment and snap this photo of us three: Jiri, his lovely wife Olga Menzelová-Kelymanová, and I, moments before we stepped on that damned red carpet/shooting gallery.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And of course, Jiri was kind enough to lend me his wife for a moment to take this pic. Yes, Olga, if you're reading this blog, I'm a shameless sexist pig, so sue me.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

All good things must come to an end, the more wonderful the more inevitable I suspect, and the Jeonju Festival was no exception. The festival did have this lovely tradition--all the volunteers (they gave us plenty of souvenirs, but the one I really wanted were those cool yellow rain jackets) lined up outside the crema--sorry--arts and culture complex and sang us a specially composed song that wished us farewell and hoped we would come again. I couldn't resist; I had to grab poor Areum again (or was it Jeong Chan?) and ask him/her to take this picture of me with the volunteers.

Couldn't sing the song (though I did manage to wave the "V for Victory" sign), but for a moment there I enjoyed the illusion that I was one of them, singing the guests goodbye until next year's festival. Till then--an-yeong ni gaseo, or in Tagalog, paalam.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jeonju Film Festival photos too!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

On our one free day near the end of the festival, filmmaker
Jasmine Dellal, Atlyazi Monthly Editor Firat Yucel and I visited Hanok Village, where eight hundred traditional Korean houses have been preserved.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Arriving at the village, we found some kind of Korean dance being performed in front of Jeondong Abbey, a church built with Byzantine and Romanesque influences, and considered to be the most beautiful church in Korea.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

This is what I assume to be the main gate (it's the biggest, anyway) into Gyeonggijeon, a six-hundred-year-old shrine built to house the portrait of King Taejo, founder of the Jeoson dynasty (the photo before this showed a portrait of a later king--not sure who he was).




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

This is a palanquin for royalty. No, I didn't climb in--it'd probably fall apart if I did.




Near the shrine were some recreations (I suspect they were recreations--they looked as if they were in too good condition) of traditional Korean houses, complete with wood-frame doors held together by Jeonju's famous paper (extremely fragile--I almost put my finger through the door (Almost. Honest.), and centrally heated floors. The floors makes sense when you remember that heat rises from the floors to warm the rest of the house, that Koreans sit cross-legged on the floor to eat, and that they eventually sleep on it (I'd hate to think what the homeowners paid by way of fire insurance, though).

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

This is a typical Korean kitchen, circa I suppose 1400s. It's tough, putting food on a table, innit?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

"No smoking." No--really.




Note the roof--well, what little of the roof is included in the picture. Japanese roofs tend to have straightforward lines, while Chinese roofs have ostentatious curves. The curve of the roof of a Korean house or building is so much subtler, a sort of swoop between a Japanese and Chinese roof. As many a Korean has put it, it's like "the sweep of a bird's wings, about to take flight."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Some friends I made, visiting the shrine. That 'V" sign seems to be a gesture many Koreans make when having their pictures taken (unless it's some formal, occasion like a red-carpet affair)--I was just following their cue.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

"Victory, Joe!"

Jeonju Film Festival photos!

Just to reiterate--this is what the festival grounds looked like:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


To be more precise, this is what Cinema Street looked like--the festival's main street, in effect. Traffic is blocked off, and crowds wander up and down to get to the street's two main theaters, and to the festival's central plaza (which holds the press center, the video screening room, the much appreciated free coffee cafe, the outdoor concert hall / outdoor movie theater, the homoerotic statues). I talked about the festival grounds (and the food--Jeonju is a major culinary center of Korea) before here.

Stickers and posters of the festival were everywhere, including every business on Cinema Street; the streets were closed off for a week. Jeonju supports its festival big time.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Im Kwon Taek, standing between Festival Vice Director An cha Flubacher-Rhim and actor Jo Jae-hyeon, and introducing his 100th film Beyond the Years. Maybe my biggest frustration during the festival was failing to pin Mr. Im down for a picture with me. Ah, well, his loss...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


One of the volunteers; his name is Bruce Lee. No, really, it is. Well, anyway, it's what he tells foreigners his name is, because it's much easier to remember, and the resemblance is uncanny (it is, isn't it? I think so).

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


Now, to the left was this really nice guy named Gilbert, a Belgian that's been living in Korea now for some years, has a Korean girlfriend, and speaks the language like a native (mighty useful when you needed a translator on hand). Like all great bartenders, has a real gift for listening (he was the barista at the free guests' cafe for most of the festival--makes a mean expresso, too). Then on the last day of the festival I learn that his name was really Gregory--and all that time I kept calling him Gilbert, not once did he correct me! I don't know whether to be flattered, offended, or skeptical.

The other guy I haven't the slightest idea who he is.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


A pansori singer and his drummer, which couldn't help but remind me of Im Kwon Taek's Beyond the Years. From what I understand watching the film, the relatonship between singer and drummer can be professional, adversarial (which means the singing will suffer) or as intimate as between a husband and his wife; two men who've been friends since childhood; a police officer and his partner; two veteran soldiers standing side-by-side in battle. I don't know about these two, but they certainly performed as if they'd been doing it for years.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lucky You (Curtis Hanson, 2007)

Lucky You (Curtis Hanson, 2007)

Excerpt:

You have to give credit to director Curtis Hanson; he tries his level best not to repeat himself. After making his bones with suspense ("The Bedroom Window;" "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle;" "The River Wild") he does a noir epic ("L.A. Confidential,") that wins him a few Oscar nominations, then follows that up with a comedy on writers ("Wonder Boys"), a gritty urban fairy-tale about a rap artist ("8 Mile"), and now this. I find the post "L.A." films to be the most interesting ("8 Mile" being my favorite so far)--Hanson attempting the unenviable task of throwing away the crutches of genre filmmaking (suspense, noir), to focus on character and human relationships.

It doesn't help matters that poker is hardly the most visually lively of games. Critics have compared this picture to Robert Rossen's classic "The Hustler," often unfavorably, and no wonder: with all the overhead lamps hanging over pool tables the players look almost Bergmanish in their shadowy, black-and-white intensity (poker on the other hand occurs in a bright space lit solely for the benefit of TV cameras). And you can do trick shots with pool, shots that Rossen photographs simply, the better to capture their impossibility (my favorite has the cue ball put such english on a ball that it shot forward, curved around backwards in a small parabola, and sent a third ball into its pocket).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jeonju Indie Visions 3

Joachim Lafosse's Nue propriété (Private Property, 2006) is exactly about that--a piece of property, the question of its ownership, and the suffering people undergo when the issue is raised, again and again.

Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two sons Thierry (Jeremy Renier, who also starred in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant) and Francois (Yannick Renier, Jeremy's real-life brother) in a lovely countryside mansion owned by their father (and Pascale's former husband), Luc (Patrick Descamps). Thierry and Francois are overgrown puppies, a tad too frisky for poor Pascale--when she goes out dressed they make fun of her clothes; when she mentions having talked to their next-door neighbor Jan (Kris Cuppens), the two brothers burlesqe the neighbor dry-humping their mother.

Pascale isn't amused; in her eyes, she's wasted years raising these two, and she deserves something of her own--in effect, a little bed-and-breakfast joint, run by her and Jan (who really is her lover), financed by the sale of the beautiful countryside mansion their father left to the two boys.

Lafosse keeps everything teetering in a delicate balance; no one has clear claim to our affections, no one deserves our total enmity. Pascale might seem to be a monster of a mother, but her scenes with Jan reveal just how frustrated and lonely she is, what a deeply unhappy woman she has become; likewise, the two boys can easily be seen as the victims, only it quickly becomes clear how spoiled they are, how callow and selfish they can be. As Pascale becomes even more desperate, leaving the boys behind to stay at a friend's apartment, her abandonment is balanced by Thierry's ever more naked contempt for his mother (Francois on the other hand is the single sweetest person in the film, but one can't help feeling a little contempt at his passivity).

The film contains a different other level of irony, something I couldn't help but notice looking at all three onscreen, then later at the father: Thierry, who hates Pascale but is close to Luc (their father), seems to resemble Pascale; Francois, who dearly loves his mother but is indiffeent to Luc, resembles Luc.

The odd correspondences seem to confirm so many things people say about relationships--that like does repel like (Pascale hates Thierry's--her own, in effect--stubborness; Thierry stubbornly refuses to understand Pascale's needs), that predesposition does transmit itself across generations (Francois' tenderness towards Pascale evoke the feelings Luc at one point must have harbored for her; Thierry's bond with his father looks to be a distant echo of the attraction Pascale once felt for Luc). When they yell and suffer and inflict pain on one another it's doubly distressing, because you can see the genetic and behavioral similiarities in all four, similarities that they either pointedly ignore, or remain utterly unaware of.

The film ends with a long-take shot that gives an eloquent sense of closure to the story, puts everyone's questions and demands into perspective, and gives us the true value of the property in question, compared to what had just been irrevocably lost.

Chrigu is a documentary on the simplest, most potent subject matter I can think of: one's own mortality. It's Christian Ziörjen's coverage of his own exprience with cancer, and inevitable demise--a well nigh unbearably weighty topic, you might imagine, except for the protagonist's insistence that "the movie shouldn't be sad." It isn't--it's amiable, funny, courageous, anything but. The director (with the help of co-director Jan Gassmann) stuffs his film with footage of his travels (a beautiful interlude in India, and on the River Ganges), some early music-videos he directed (you might call this his audition piece), scenes of time spent with friends and family. He manages to keep most of the film remarkably free of the self-pity and pathos it could potentially have, and even displays a sense of irony (at one point he notes that a quiet moment in the film is actually filler to pad out the running time). Not much else one can say: it's undisputably powerful stuff; at some points somewhat self-indulgent--but when someone is making his first and final feature, one can hardly begrudge him the time spent or the minor flaws (I would have loved to know more, for instance, about the reasons behind his tight-lipped policy towards his mother--there's some affection there, all right, why wasn't there more? And didn't he have a girlfriend?). All in all, I wish I could leave as well-made a Last Statement.

Alessandro Angelini's L'Aria salata (Salty Air, 2006) pretty much has you in a death-grip from the start, and doesn't for the length of the film let go. It follows Fabio (Giorgo Pasotti) as a social worker in a penitentiary--he has high standards, but he never puts on airs; most convicts like him and confide in him. When he's confronted by Sparti (Giorgio Colangeti), his father--a man he's never seen, who has spent the past twenty years in prison for murder--he's confronted by an unenviable dilemma. Should he tell his father who he is? Should he treat him like any other prisoner? Less kindly, perhaps? More?

Angelini directs in a straightforward manner, keeping to medium shots that suggest the claustrophobia of prison, and simple staging that at one point turns into a bravura sequence (inspired, I suspect, by something similar in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) where Sparti enlists his fellow prisoners in an impromptu skit that humiliates the prison warden. Angelini relies on a strong script (which he wrote, with the help of Angelo Carbone) and even stronger acting--I don't know where Colangeti came from, and I've seen only one other film in which he's appeared (his debut in fact, in Pasolini, un delitto italiano (Pasolini, an Italian Crime, 1995)). Don't remember him in it, unfortunately, but I'm hardly about to forget him now. As Sparti, Colangeti is amazing; he incarnates the hardened convict, by turns arrogant and subversive, and only by increments and tiny moments do you eventually notice the cracks spreading over his facade, caused by his son. Part of the power of Colangeti's performance is that you're never quite sure how he feels about this, whether he's delighted or dismayed, excited or wary, invigorated or enervated, and you feel you need to know. One of the best films in the program, and my fellow jurors Mr. Jiri Menzel and Mr. Lee Yoon-ki thought highly enough of it to give it a special mention, to which I readily agreed.

Ying Liang's Ling Yi Ban (The Other Half, 2006) starts off looking like a documentary, with people directly addressing the camera; turns out they are consulting lawyers about the merits of their respective cases, which run the gamut from marital problems to malpractice to potential industrial disasters.

Ying Liang (who directed the film and wrote it with producer / companion Peng Shan) likes to mix these testimonies with the story of Xiaofen (playing herself), a law clerk in the same office, whose loser boyfriend Deng Gang (also playing himself) is constantly getting into trouble--at one point poor Xiaofen finds herself being interviewed by one of the office's lawyers (concerning, of course, the no-good Deng Gang), and awareness of the incongruity (I should be sitting on the other side of this table) seems to make her every bit as uncomfortable as relating the actual circumstances of the case.

Documentary mixed with drama, fictional footage mixed with nonfiction (at one point the threatened industrial disaster does happen, and Ying Liang inserts actual footage of the true-life incident), with Ying interchanging episodes of grim reality (the industrial disaster) with doses of absurdist humor (one client petulantly tosses her tea drink at the lawyer/camera). Ying's film is based on actual details, but he's not averse to resorting to a freely experimental spirit--the final shot seems inspired by something Rene Clair did in Entr'acte (1924), only here it's meant to emphasize something else entirely different: no matter what all the king's horses and men will do, Humpty Dumpty will not be put together again.

Some critics have complained about the final revelation, how it seems a tad too optimistic for the film's overall tone, but I for one have no problem with it--I think that it too is representative of what's happening in this swiftly changing society. Wild coincidences and listless lives and great disillusionment and major disasters will commingle with crude slapstick and sudden success stories, and this isn't too much at all, it's China. Nor are they--or we, for that matter--out of it.

It took some discussion, but on our last jury meeting Mr. Menzel, Mr. Lee and I eventually agreed on the Indie Vision winner, and wrote our justification thusly:


"The motto for this year's JIFF is 'Freedom, Independence, Communication.' All 12 of the Indie Vision films are we believe exemplars of these elements--they are independent of mainstream cinema, they are expressions of the filmmakers' will towards freedom, and they communicate these values with a strong voice.

"For the winning film, we believe it is an excellent portrait of the problems faced by modern society, and that it carries a strong environmental message; we also believe it makes inventive use of the voiceover and stylized acting. For these reasons we give the Woo-suk Award to Ying Liang's The Other Half."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jeonju Indie Visions 2

Faouzi Bensaïdi's WWW: What a Wonderful World (2006) is both a surprise and a pleasure: it's a James Bond pastiche directed by a genuine visual talent, with nothing seemingly more on his mind than the desire to give us luxurious confections that will stick to the teeth (think Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 Diva).

That said, there's a memorable streak of deadpan melancholy in the film, embodied by Bensaïdi's own expressionless performance as Kamel, the assassin at the center of the film's plot. He's perfectly matched by Nezra Rahile's Kenza, a traffic enforcer standing on her lonely concrete isle, guiding passing cars as if they were sheep (in her spare time she rents out her cellphone to walk-by customers). The two lonelyhearts' eyes meet, and WHAM!--instant fatal attraction. Negligible confection, perhaps, but a tasty one, nevertheless.

Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn's The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006)bases its story on the eponymous diaries of the real-life explorer, but the film's true focus is on Awa (Pakak Innukshuk)--in 1922, the last remaining shaman--and his attempt to hold on to the spirits that give him authority and power. Christianity has crept in and taken root amongst the Inuit people, and they regard Awa and his followers as little better than devil-worhippers.

It's a theme that, sadly, holds relevance even in the world today, where people insist on playing the conflict between religions as a zero-sum game, and words like 'tolerance' and 'compromise' aren't even considered to be in the vocabulary.

Kunuk and Cohn are interested in telling more than just Awa's story; in at least two lengthy shots, they meticulously record his spiritual history--how he came to be, and what his belief in spirits is all about. It's as if given the opportunity to listen, Rasmussen and his partner point a video camera at the man and record his words for posterity, and to hell with the audience if they find themselves falling asleep as a consequence.

Kunuk and Cohn record other things as well: the harsh beauty of the frozen landscape; Awa's daughter Apak (a real looker) and her sexual fantasies (fellow Inuit say she's making love with the dead); the claustrophobic ambience of an igloo's cramped quarters. The film--especially its finale--has a primitive yet haunting power, arising as much from its imagery as from the tragedy of its central character.

Stefano Odoardi's Una Ballata Bianca (The White Ballad, 2006) is a beautiful enigma of a film, about an elderly couple living together in a house; the woman is dying, and the two must come to terms with their eventual separation.

Odoardi films the couple entirely without dialogue, preferring instead to wallpaper the film with near-nonstop interior monologue; he eschews natural acting in favor of carefully arranged poses, in different positions throughout the rooms. Along with this couple he includes a pair of playing children, and a mysterious young woman.

The whole could easily be called pretentious; I like to think it reveals something of what a clogged and clotted thing a longstanding marriage can be, with bitter grudges, festering resentments, years of habitual self-absorption blocking the way to free and honest communication between a husband and his wife (the children are Odoardi's way of contrasting the directness of youth (the children simply come together and play) with the couples' emotional inertness). Of the more experimental efforts, this might be my favorite.

Ron Havilio's Potosi, le temps du voyage (Potosi, the Journey, 2007) is a family's epic journey across South America, recreating the parents' honeymoon odyssey over thirty years before. The trip brings them to Potosi, whose silver mines once financed the Spanish empire. Havilio and his wife Jacqueline scrupulously took snapshots of the people they encountered; years later, Havilio and his wife--accompanied by their three now-grown daughters--pore through these photos, trying to rediscover their real-life models.

Part travelogue, part recollection, part revelation of a Jewish family's inner workings, part testament of the endless fascination found in a single photograph, part chronicle of the sufferings both past and present of Potosi's silver miners (a persistent theme--it would be cruel to call it a running joke--in the film is that Havilo can come, go, raise three daughters, return, but the miners are still overworked and underpaid), the film is a rich tapestry of memories and relationships spanning continents and decades both. At four hours, it's a touch too ambitious--after leaving Potosi, Havilio insists on recording in detail the relatively eventless latter end of the journey--but in the context of the power of what had followed, that's a minor complaint. An impressive, poignant achievement.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jeonju's Indie Visions, a doc on Gypsy music, and what Johnny Depp's REALLY like

(note: post re-edited after checking with Ms. Dellal about details (and apologies for spelling 'Gypsy' with lower-case letters; it's a proper noun, like all nationalities))

Jasmine Dellal's When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan tells the story of five Gypsy bands from Macedonia (in Greece), Romania, India and Spain that go on a 6 week tour promoting Roma music in all its variety.

Gypsies are Northern Indians who emigrated to Western Europe, mixing their culture with the culture of their adopted country to make something unique, often influential--flamenco for example, that most Spanish of dances, is a Roma invention. Even so, they often struggle to survive, eking out a living in the margins of said adopted society. As festival program writer Chu jin-su puts it, "not once have the Gypsies harmed anyone, participated in wars, or conquered another nation. Despite this fact, they have been held in contempt as witches or friends of Satan, forcing them to struggle to retain their culture."

Dellal works with tremendous material--the Gypsies are a lively bunch, full of life and attitude and bravado, and they're not shy in expressing the same in their music. As Dellal put it, Esma, the musical "Queen of the Gypsies," was a far-from-slim middle-aged mother (though an early photo showed a bewitching, dark-eyed beauty), yet whenever she wanted to she easily took over the stage and audience, through sheer star presence and charisma (she has a powerhouse voice, too).

The documentary is a real delight (and I don't think I'm alone feeling this way--the picture won Jeonju's Audience Award), with Dellal intercutting performances with back stories of each band, their tales of poverty and racial discrimination adding context to the sadness you feel in their music. The film's something to look at too--Esme glows under spotlight, like a porcelain doll; Antonio el Pipa strikes a pose and you're held frozen by the drama of his arched back; Nicolae Neacsu of Taraf de Haidouks drags a deliberately broken string over his violin, and you're struck by the ingenuity of this homely instrument. 78-year-old Neacsu's is perhaps my favorite personal story--he supports his family with what he makes as a musician, lives an extremely humble and threadbare life, but when he comes home for the last time, hundreds of musicians show up to honor him.

I asked Dellal how on earth she got Albert Maysles (!?) to shoot the documentary, and she replied "We'd met at a film festival. I mentioned my proposed film on Gypsy music, he mentioned he'd like to shoot it. When I got around to doing this, I called him and said 'Albert, I don't know if you mean what you said about helping me shoot my next film, and I don't have a lot of money to offer, or even the money for a business class ticket' 'No way, just get me the cheapest seat you can find in the internet and let's do it!' he said.

"He's a master at putting people at ease so that his camera can come up close. Like if he were here while I was talking to you, it would almost be as if we were three old friends, and you can say anything to him. He was wonderful."

I asked how she got in contact with Johnny Depp (he had a short interview in the film, explaining that he came to be a big fan of gypsy music after having lived with them during the shooting of Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried (2000)). "I sent dozens of emails and packages to everyone I knew who said they could contact him. A package with sample footage got through.

"I have a story about him. We had a Romani (Gypsy) guy named George working as a soundman for the film and when I went to interview Depp, George asked me to deliver a letter. The short letter asked for an autograph for George's sons, explaining that his children were big fans of the star but were ashamed of being Roma, and would say they were anything but Roma. Depp said 'let me do something more,' and wrote this letter telling George's children how they should be proud of being Roma, that he was proud to have known the Roma and spent time with them, and that they should never deny their heritage."

The Indie Vision films over which I played the part of juror came from France, Norway, China; used everything from 35 mm to mm to DigiBeta to DV; were in experimental black-and-white, realist technicolor, or desaturated video; ran the gamut from lighthearted comedy to personal tragedy--ran the gamut in form and content and emotional tone, in other words. It was our unenviable task to screen the films, try make sense of them, and compare not apples and oranges but baseballs and hand grenades to try come up with a "best picture" choice.

Michael Schorr's Schröders wunderbare Welt (Schroeder's Wonderful World, 2006) is glossily made--most of the films did well within the confines of their small (sometimes microscopic) budgets--and resembles a German version of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (fantastic scheme involving development of a town (here into an international tourist attraction) has all the locals with all their eccentricities humming with excitement). Perhaps the most intriguing element is the web of the social and political complexities found in a town bordering three countries--Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic. Affable and amusing entertainment.

Yoshiharu Ueoka's Rukku Ubu Rabu (Look of Love, 2006) has a voyeur peeping on his neighbors making love; a pimp sending his Thai prostitutes to service various customers; a loner obsessing over a satellite flying overhead. Strange stuff, though fans of Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet might find this more familiar territory. It's annoying/amusing to see the voyeur peer into what practically can be considered a widescreen (Cinemascope, even) window, and be treated to a carefully posed profile view of the couple opposite making love; on the other hand, it makes sense that the voyeur would fantasize such a window and such neighbors screwing opposite--it's the eternal adolescent's idea of an interesting premise.

Joachim Trier's Reprise (2006), about two young men struggling to write their novels--one is an instant success, the other, no--dabbles in a little experimentation (a voiceover narrator explains through a quick montage what happens next in their lives, a la Tom Tykwer's Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998)); a strong debt is also owed to Truffaut's Jules et Jim (Triers is a self-admitted fan)). A story about two pretty European youths and their angst about art and love and life; a fairly experimental storytelling style, with an eclectic mix of punk and hip-hop songs. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Takushi Tsubokawa's Aria (2006) is about a recently widowed piano tuner named Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) who befriends a puppeteer with a beautiful, creepily lifelike doll named Aria. When Kuzo dies, Ota strikes out on a long road trip to look for the piano Kuzo's long-dead wife used to play during his performances; he's joined by Kuzo's clownish apprentice, and a mysterious woman who claims to have been Kuzo's daughter.

It's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, done in Tsubokawa's unique deadpan style--the apprentice is the Cowardly Lion, the mysterious daughter (who has to be Aria come to life) is either the Tin Man or the Scarecrow, and Ota is the film's glum male Dorothy. Tsubokawa repeatedly shoots the little van they ride in climbing up an endless-looking road rising heavenward (the concrete equivalent of a Yellow Brick Road); the giveaway clue, however, is a version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" played sweetly, hauntingly on a saw.

Where Tsubokawa's film differs from that great musical is on his insistence on dwelling on loss--a man losing his wife, a daughter her father. By emphasizing this theme (or, rather, by not emphasizing it), he renders the slight, barely remarked suggestion of hovering but not neccesarily malevolent death all the more poignant. Not without its delights, and not without its fair share of mysteries.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Journal d'un curé de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951)

My Senses of Cinema article is finally out:

Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951)

Excerpt:

It's strange how Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951), a film considered by many to be so spiritual, is so thoroughly immersed in the physical. But Catholicism--and the film is steeped in it--is full of paradoxes: loving one's enemies; believing in one God with three incarnations; needing to die to gain eternal life. Bresson at an early point of his career--using the Georges Bernanos novel--seems to be telling us that to present matters indefinite (the spirit, or soul), you need for material matters definite (the body, the world it lives in); more, to break free of the world of the physical you must first take a firmer hold on said world--for traction, if you like.

The film's first image is of the eponymous diary. You see the texture of the journal's thick paper cover; behind that, a blotter splotched with ink; behind that, a page full of scribbling. The act of writing--scratching ink on rough paper, carefully blotting it, just as carefully closing the cover to keep the contents safe--will become a repeated motif, emphasizing the act of physically capturing and putting down on sheets of flattened pulp one's thoughts and ideas and emotions. Capturing and rendering on paper, so to speak, such elements of the soul as one can record.

New 'Comfort Women' proof contradicts Prime Minister Abe's statement

If I may interrupt the Jeonju reportage for some late-breaking news on a topic I've mentioned here several times before:

New proof that Japanese authorities knew of comfort women in Indonesia

Thanks to Tonya J. for that article; at least the issue is still alive.

And what's that I hear? Resounding silence from the Japanese Diet, where what we have been waiting for all along is an official apology from the Japanese government, issued by its legislature.

We're still waiting.


Laban! Fight for Comfort Women

Thursday, May 10, 2007

El laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Excerpt:

The fairy tale that opens the picture--about a princess from an underground kingdom who wanders to the surface, can't find her way back, grows old, and dies--pretty much says it all: this is the story of a girl who was lost, and has since been trying to find herself. Or rather who felt lost, then fumbled her way to some form of self-assessment--what kind of person she is, what she will or will not do.

It's Spain, 1944; Franco's fascist regime has been in power for some years now. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is being driven along with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) through miles of woodland to her new stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez); Vidal welcomes his new wife--hugely pregnant with his precious new son--and stepdaughter, installs them in the old mill where he's staying, and continues on his sadistic business of hunting down and torturing the few diehard Republicans hiding in the surrounding mountains. Ofelia, mostly left to herself, explores the grounds of the mill, and an old labyrinth nearby; she encounters a giant faun (Doug Jones--he had previously acted out marine superhero Abe Sapiens in del Toro's "Hellboy") who explains to her that she's really the long-lost princess, and to regain access to her underground kingdom she must perform three tasks before the coming of the full moon.

Jeonju 9: Artavazd Peleshian, Johnnie To's 'Exiled'


(Post re-edited, 9.10 am, 5/10/07)

Artavazd Peleshian's films mostly run not longer than ten to thirty minutes, the longest (Mer dare (Our Century, 1983)) going on for almost an hour. They're what he (describing his Vremena goda (The Four Seasons, 1975)) calls a "cardiogram of the national soul and character" of Armenia, his native land.

He's considered the inventor of distance montage--what that is, I'm not quite sure, though I've googled it a little. Judy Bloch, writing for the
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, calls it a "counterpoint over time of images and sounds," claiming it creates "rhythms and moods his predecessors (Vertov, Eisenstein) never attempted." Gregory Pearse and Maria Wagner in cinemaseekers notes that he's often categorized as an "experimental documentary" filmmaker, but seem to subscribe more to fellow Armenian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov's view that he's "one of the few authentic geniuses of cinema;" that his cinema--or the cinema he creates by means of distance montage--is really "built entirely on the intuitive association between the images." In short, "it utilizes the ability of the spirit to "understand" reality instead of the ability of the brain/intellect."

Asking Peleshian himself doesn't seem any more helpful; his answers are as maddeningly vague. "In Eisenstein every element means something. For me the individual fragments don't mean anything anymore. Only the whole film has the meaning."



Mm-hmm, yep, sure; now I get it. The JIFF catalogue describes it as "A piece of montage. There is no meaning of pieces; it has a full meaning only when each scene is put together," which seems to take off (however awkwardly) from what Peleshian himself is saying. So it's with this headful of confused and contradictory notions that I sat down (with Mr. Peleshian and his wife some rows behind me) to watch some of his films.

Obitateli (Inhabitants, 1970) intercuts footage of birds taking flight--thousands of them spreading their wings across the screen in such a woosh! of air you want to cover yourself--with huge closeups of caged animals (you catch glimpses of bars here, there), wet, dark eyes staring straight at the lens; the contrast between freed and incarcerated creatures is striking, dramatic. Vremena goda (Four Seasons, 1975), his first to eschew archival footage in favor of footage shot by his cinematographer Mikhail Vartanov, opens with a shepherd in a raging river, struggling to keep hold of his sheep; the rest of the film continues its downward plunge with more shepherds sliding down cliff faces with more sheep, farmers dragging huge haystacks down alarming inclines, and so on. The sense of hurtling motion, of life unstoppable, of energy and will pulling and shoving forward and down is overwhelming. Peleshian scores the whole thing to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, of course (with additional use of Armenian folk music); I can't imagine anything else will do.



Kyanq (Life, 1993) is one of his simplest, his first and only one in color, and easily his most moving--a record of a childbirth. A lesser filmmaker would train his camera downwards, below the waist, and chronicle the child's passage out the birth canal; Peleshian focuses his lens on the mother's face, on her suffering and pain, with a heartbeat (hers?) pulsing on the soundtrack. To call it a great performance would be to cheapen it, demean it; it's simply a mother giving birth, no more, no less, and half the art (I think) is in Peleshian recognizing that in her face is the source of the film's true power.

Verj (End, 1992) is often (and it would be appropriate) called his last film (on this point things get confusing--both the JIFF catalogue and some websites say it isn't (that would be Kyanq), imdb.com says it is). The film's almost as simple as Kyanq: a train rushing through a tunnel, and in the distance is the suggestion--the merest hint--of a light. The finale is inevitable, almost superfluous, but Peleshian builds up to so much tension--with engine roar and whistle shriek and tiny blob of light--that when it finally comes, it's a stunning epiphany.

I can almost see what people mean when they say what they say; it is an intuitive cinema. Peleshian connects images together but not in a logical or narrative sense--beyond narrative? Supra logical? For want of a better term one might have to settle on the word "spiritual." The separate shots cohere and gain full meaning when the puzzle pieces are in place, and the picture is seen whole (think Susan Alexander and her endless puzzles--or, if you will, the structure of Kane itself). What's missing from these and other explanations, really, is what's missing when you get up to leave, that little je ne sais quoi that spells the difference between talking about the film and experiencing it, and it's on that difference, I think, that most of us founder when trying to talk about what Peleshian has done.


What I can say about his films is that there's a grandeur, a magnificence that doesn't put itself above its subject--no, it's clear that despite the amplitude or magnification of motion, size, intensity, Peleshian's sympathies are with what he's shooting. He doesn't assume the godlike viewpoint, though there are qualities of that in his imagery (thanks to the use of telephoto lenses--"for candid shots" as he puts it), but by avoiding voiceover narration, by refusing to pronounce judgement on them, by instead depending on music, or an accepting silence, he, well, exalts the images, lends to them a more intense appreciation ('Exalt?' 'Godlike?' Is it possible that religious connotations are unavoidable, perhaps should even be embraced?). Not many novelists can do that--I can think of Tolstoy, maybe, and parts of Hugo; not many filmmakers too--oh, Renoir comes to mind, as well as Welles, Ozu, Mario O'Hara.

And that was that. The house lights came up. I saw Mr. Peleshian, leaning on his wife, glumly making his way to the exit. I had to do it; I put out my hand--"I enjoyed your films very much, sir!" He shook hands, smiled briefly and nodded, and left. Feeble tribute, I know, but as I've been trying to say all along, it was hard--impossible, maybe--to put it all in words.



Johnnie To's Fong juk (Exiled, 2006) is easily the most fun I've had of any film in the festival--but I've always been partial to To; he's a more dependable storyteller than John Woo, a more intense dramatist than Tsui Hark, and a wilder fabulist than the low-key Ringo Lam. I've always thought he'd be the shoo-in for a Hollywood career, and wondered why he's never taken the plunge, unlike his filmmaking brothers.

In the letter To wrote for the JIFF's closing ceremonies, he had said he wanted to "relax, make a fun film" and I think it shows; unlike the grimly realistic Hak se wui (Election) films this one is almost all bombast and romanticism, Sergio Leone style; it even has some of the European architectural motifs you'd catch in the corner of your eye in Leone's work (the film was shot in Macau, and makes full use of the exotic Chinese-Portugese ambience), some of his sweeping camera moves (a character doesn't just walk into a room, he glides into it, with the camera as his magic carpet), and of course the harmonica (you almost expect to spot Charles Bronson hidden away in the shadows with his legs crossed).

The spirit may be Leone, but the plot is almost pure Peckinpah--the criminals past their prime, the hunt by a higher power, the desperate heist, the heroic turnaround and rescue--all are there. If you ever wondered what The Wild Bunch might have looked like if Leone had directed, wonder no more; To has done it on behalf of both legends.

The film's self-referential nature isn't as annoying as if, say, Quentin Tarantino does it; with Tarantino, you get all references and little else (well, a mysognistic, rather sophomoric sense of humor, I suppose). With To you get style, and the smarts to play the references with or against that style. Hence the climactic shootout--you go in primed by all the parallels to The Wild Bunch expecting a grand bloodbath, in slow motion; To plays it the other way, perversely, almost tosses the whole thing off one shoulder, and focuses on two details: the fate of a wife and child (strange, how Hong Kong cinema is so much like Filipino cinema in that respect--the survival of the family being of prime interest), and the development of an instant photo. It might be argued that this is what the film really is about, actually--the collecting or gathering together of photos for an album filled with unforgettable memories. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jeonju 8: Colossal Youth, Oshii's latest, shorts

 
Colossal Youth

Watching Pedro Costas' Juventud Em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006) is like diving off the deep end--I've not seen the previous two films of his Fontainhas trilogy, Ossos (Bones, 1997) and No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room, 2000) or any other film by Costas, and this is probably not the best (read: easy, convenient) introduction to his body of work.

It's maddeningly, fascinatingly obscure, that much I can tell you. Shot in DV, the film is mostly two and a half hours of a 75-year-old man named Ventura (played by an actor of the same name) wandering about, talking to what he fondly calls his 'children' (they may or may not be--the film doesn't confirm one way or another (and if they are his children, he must have been the busiest man with the most number of women this side of Noah post-deluge)). Actually, 'talk' is something of a misnomer: Ventura enters a room, exchanges a few lines of dialogue with the person in the room, and either he or that other person will relate an anecdote, usually some five to ten minutes long, on some past episode in his/her life.

The framing is almost always odd--indoors, Ventura and his fellow inmates (the term seems appropriate, given their circumstances and behavior) are often to one side of the frame, at a slightly skewed angle, the shot held a beat after or a beat before anything significant happens (one thinks of Bresson's equally off-kilter camera angles, and odd timing). At one point Ventura and a man play a game of cards, a brilliant beam of sunlight on the card table the only source of illumination (one thinks of a prison guard visiting his charge in solitary); other times Costas plays his characters off the featureless whitewash of new apartment walls, blank slates against which the people seemed poised to write their lives. Outside, we get repeated images of Ventura sitting on a red chair outside one daughter's apartment (she goes in and out without saying a word to him), or standing with an extremely patient government housing agent (you wonder why he humors Ventura, who clearly has no money with which to pay for all his vaguely ambitious plans) before the housing development into which he's moving, the building looming up behind like some modern ziggurat marking dead and buried lives.

The various monologues are not quite dull--many of the anecdotes are lovely, especially those of Vanda (Vanda Duarte, the eponymous heroine of Costas' previous film) and her tale of salvation from drugs through her husband and baby (Is this actual testimony, or a whitewashed account of how she wished her life would be like? Are any of these people--often shot with a ghostlike aura by Costas--real, or figments of Ventura's wish-fulfilling imagination? Again, the film doesn't confirm). And there's this one migrant worker (Alberto 'Lento' Barros, as Lento) who asks Ventura to transcribe a letter to his estranged wife, an assignment Ventura gradually takes over and makes his own, reciting over and over again an extravagant declaration of love that gets more and more elaborate with each repetition (a late version reads something like this):

Nha cretcheu, my love,
Being together again will make our life beautiful
For another thirty years.
As for me, I will come back full of love and strength.
I wish I could give you a hundred thousand cigarettes,
a dozen of those fancy dresses,
a car, the little lava house you've always wanted,
a threepenny bouquet.
But above all else,
Drink a good bottle of wine,
And think of me.

Here it's all work.
We're over a hundred now.
I still don't have anything from your hand.
I will soon...
Sometimes I'm afraid of building these walls,
Me, with a pick and cement
And you, with your silence.

The letter is richly referential (the title of his 1995 film Casa de Lava translates literally to "House of Lava") and in part, plagiarized: Ventura doesn't admit it to the poor man, but he takes details from
a love letter written by Robert Desnos (note Desnos' at one time close ties with the Surrealists--and keep in mind that Costas' film is filled to brimming with surreal imagery, vivid in their unnerving stillness).

The letter is also, like much of the film, stunningly beautiful. Ventura repeats the correspondence /poem over and over again, and it gradually comes to be the film's stanza--one man's forlorn plea for hope and love, in these hopeless, loveless slums, its extravagance inversely proportional to the man's powers to fulfill it, more an expression of his desperation, his will to imagine a better life for his beloved, than of anything else.

Susan Griffin in her
article on a photo exhibit on Tina Modotti tells a story about Desnos (I won't repeat it, it really belongs in that article); could Costas be thinking in the same spirit, having these lost men and women declare through their reminiscences--incantations, really--a better reality, perhaps a better future that they hope to bring about, mainly by utterance and repetition because they have little else? I don't know, I don't know; but the Desnos story is such an unlikely little anecdote you want to believe in it, the way this film and its focus on these characters seems like a willed hallucination, hoping against hope to change reality through its/their very existence.



After the near-unbearable weight of Juventud, it's tempting to say Mamoru Oshii's Tachiguishi retsuden (Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006) is an abrupt change of pace, but that would be perverse.

The scene: a noodle shop in Tokyo. The time: an hour before closing. Under the light of a full moon appears Moongaze Ginji, who orders a bowl of soup (the camera at one point revolves around the counter to reveal that the near-photorealistic noodle shop owner and Ginji are both digitally animated paper-thin constructs).

Ginji has specific instructions: "Put the raw egg on the noodles. Pour soup into the bowl." He swirls the soup, watching the egg--golden strands in the clear broth--quickly cook. "Nice landscape," he says. The noodle shop owner's reply: "It's only a bowl of noodles."

A narrator explains that the maverick ethonographer (his words) chooses the hour before closing because this was when the owner's psychic self breaks through his businessman's persona, when his very philosophy is apparent; the narrator goes on to note that soba was a commoner's food in the Edo era, and accompanied the spread of Buddhism.

When the noodle owner snorts "it's only a bowl of noodles!" Ginji replies that not only is it just a bowl of noodles, it's noodles made from bogus ingredients. Despite which Ginji is able to devour the bowl's contents at the zenith of its splendor, fully appreciating it the very instant before it vanishes forever. Only words can bring back the intensity of the original experience, in a manner surpassing the original.

The film (of which that opening sequence was but a sample) is a heady, dense, near-incomprehensible mix of Japanese fast-food lore, faux superhero mythology (think Justice League Unlimited animated as if it were South Park and hosted by the Food Network), postwar Japanese history, and postgraduate philosophy. It's some kind of history of con-men with absurd nicknames (the aforementioned Moongaze Ginji; Foxy Croquette O-Gin; Beefbowl Ushigoro; Hamburger Tetsu; Frankfurter Tatsu; Medium Hot Sabu--Tarantino can only dream of inventing aliases as wildly colorful as these) who put on elaborate, even philosophically didactic scams to avoid paying for their meals. Blink or be distracted for even a second, and you lose the thread of the intricate narrative; fail to see this, and you'll miss what I consider to be one of the funniest--and tastiest--films I've seen recently.

Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling seems to have the
clearest take of any non-Japanese on what the film's all about, yet is less than enthusiastic about the final product (For sources of inspiration he cites kamashibai, picture cards used to tell a story, and mentions (but carefully refrains from including) South Park (But why? Couldn't Oshii be a fan, or at least a casual viewer?). And I'd include the more recent Aqua Team Hunger Force and Terry Gilliam's animated sequences in the Monty Python series as possible influences). "Why a movie?" Schillling asks. "The short answer is that, after three largely successful decades in the animation business, Oshii can make nearly anything he wants, including this elaborate private joke. Which is, for the audience, the ultimate grift." Point taken, but it's still funny, I submit; the joke only gets better when you learn it's also on you.

*the longer answer, according to Production I.G. President Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, was that they didn't want to spend a lot of money on Oshii's next film, so they had college students do the post-production work, mainly for the privilege of doing so, and famous animators do the acting (the animators' contracts stipulated that they would help publicize the film (if they didn't their scenes would be cut), so promotional costs were small).


Europa 2005 - 27 Octobre 

Italian public television executive Enrico Ghezzi commissioned Europa 2005 - 27 Octobre from the husband-and-wife team of Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub to commemorate Roberto Rosellini's centenary . The result is this 12 minute short, a "sequel" to Rossellini's Europa '51 that at the same time refers to October 27, 2005--the day two Parisian youngsters (Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17) who were fleeing the police hid in a high voltage electric transformer and burned to death, sparking an
uprising in France.

It's difficult to say anything about the film (and if I didn't know anything about the context, well nigh impossible), but the entire short consists of the camera panning right from a huge graffitti on a wall with a bloody handprint, to stop at some building. Cut to a shot starting from the building, panning left past the graffiti (the camera is now several feet further away), ending at the fateful transformers. Repeat several times.

Again, what to say? The walls, the barred gates, the silence interrupted by a barking dog, all connote private properties, to be trespassed (as the youths had done) at one's peril (which the boys were in, actually); the only sign of protest are the graffitis spray-painted on the wall. The filmmakers repeat this searching, probing movement again and again, trying to find meaning in the deaths; one thinks of Ingrid Bergman's anguish in Europa '51, and one realizes that their mute repetitions imply an answer to their probing.

Manoel de Oliveira's O Improvável Não é Impossível (The Improbable isn't Impossible, 2006) is another commissioned work, this one from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to commemorate the 50th year of their musuem. Oliveira cuts images of the museum's treasures--from sculptures to artifacts to paintings to live concert performances--together without any comment save by the museum's officials. Like any master, he homes in on the tiny detail none of us would think of pointing out--the endless doors opened and closed in such institutions, implying necessary categorizing and compartmentalization (a museum's exhibits must be organized to make sense) at the same time there's access (the doors are constantly opening and closing, as prelude to and transition between galleries). Wonderful, puzzling little film.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Jeonju Day 7: Festival Grounds, Picture, More Turkish Cinema

This is the only photo of myself I've managed to snag so far, off of a festival photographer:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

They closed off two streets for about three or four blocks, and a city plaza, and filled them with these tall yellow tubes sprouting behind me; at night, the tubes glow, giving off a bright yellow light. Unseen are blossomlike lamps made out of (as I discovered, looking closely) plastic cups (nice recycling idea there), some giant Lego-like blocks that contain dvds--would not know if they were for sale, or just free for the taking--a temporary performance hall that held concerts every night, and a jury-rigged two-story JIFF center with galleries and, on the second floor, a much appreciated cafe that served water, green tea, and coffees--I'd usually have green tea and water, unless I'm in for a long film, or was into my third or fourth film, in which case an expresso was in order. To the right of the JIFF center was a video screening room, and right out front are some hilariously homoerotic statues with hypermusclebound male figures.

The theaters were all located in this area--two facing the plaza, two on nearby streets. Very convenient, especially if you had to run from one theater to another to catch screenings. Plenty of places to eat, though my favorite were hole-in-the-wall joints where I had 1) a large omelet the size of a serving plate, topping a mound of fried rice, with a side dish of dark brown gravy 2) a small place that served nothing but kongnamul gukbap.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Jeonju is famous for its bean sprouts (no wonder they kept stuffing me with em); apparently long ago some deputy governor cured an endemic disease found in the region by feeding people with sprouts, and they've been popular ever since.

Simply put, kongnamul gukbap is steamed rice topped with seasoned bean sprouts, green onions, garlic, sesame powder, sesame oil, red pepper powder, and served with salt-fermented shrimp, a soup made from anchovy and sprouts, and a raw egg cooking in a hot metal bowl. Hadn't the slightest idea how to eat this--the woman gestured me to pour the rice and toppings into the hot metal bowl to mix with the egg, but the bowl was too small; eventually I did it the other way, poured the egg into the bigger bowl and mixed it all together. Really good, and I can't stop marvelling at just how fresh the local vegetables are, whether in tourist traps or little places like this. Three thousand five hundred won, or a little less than three and a half dollars.

Side dishes--if they gave you only two, chances are you're in a tourist trap, if they put down as many as five, then you're in good hands--was a rotating reportoire that included kimchi, kimchied radishes, seaweed soup, little fried fishes in a sweet sauce, sprouts (of course), the oft seen bright yellow sweet pickled radish slices (always appreciated after eating hot kimchi), and this odd little plant with tiny leaves that had a distinct nutty flavor--showed a sample of this to some people (intrepid explorer displays his findings to anthropological experts!), and they told me it's a plant that's harvested in Spring, a real delicacy.

A popular snack is grilled squid:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The picture doesn't quite convey what I had--usually I'd just point to the desired item, they would slice it into thin pieces, grill it on a tiny mesh sitting on glowing coals, then serve it in a large paper cone. Extremely tasty, and with a little cup of sweetish soy dipping sauce, but chewy stuff--expect to take time gnawing on this. Four thousand won, around four dollars.

Just as good was this eight-inch length of squid tentacle, sliced into slivers and grilled. That was a bit expensive; five thousand won easy, and it took me fifteen minutes to wear the tough meat down and swallow, but the smoky-sweet flavor was something to remember.

Critics consider Nuri Bilge Ceylan's first feature Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997) to be the least of his efforts; I remember seeing it in Hong Kong and being unimpressed myself. On second viewing, however, the film turns out to be a wonderful piece of immersive art, giving you the sights (gorgeous contryside surrounding rustic buildings, in unforgettable black and white), sounds (steam hissing off of a hot stove as wet shoes drip on hot surface), textures (the fluff of a bird feather, floating miraculously over a classroom full of bored students) even smells (a girl's lunch gone bad) of a small town. Ceylan uses lengthy close-ups to capture details, and only ambient sound for accompaniment; I would call him the Turkish equivalent of Terence Malick only Malick, comparatively speaking, still depends on the crutch of a conventional narrative to prop up his pictures.

Along the way there's a boy and girl playing in the forest and being casually cruel--the girl flips a tortoise upside-down, saying this way it will die since it can't bring itself back on its legs, then returns it to standing position; as they leave, the boy flips it on its back once more, then peers into its implacable eyes before running off. I remember this detail staying with me for the longest time when I first saw the film--wasn't the boy at all affected by what he's done, what he knows he has done? Now I see that it does affect him (not for Ceylan the obviousness of loud regret and immediate redress)--the turtle haunts the boy's dreams, and at one startling point becomes his mother, crouched precariously at a windowsill, ready to fall over...

The core of the film--its McGuffin?--is a long picnic where the family of the boy and girl roasts husked corn over a fire. Grandfather recalls the war, recalls being taken prisoner in Iraq, being homesick and far from home; bespectacled Father lectures at length on Alexander the Great and his military campaigns; younger brother Saffet (Mehmet Emin Toprack) jeers at Father, Grandfather, and all aspects of middle-class life. Suddenly, Ceylan's film, all contemplative and serene (even when a turtle is being tormented) crackles with tension; a confrontation occurs--it's interesting that Saffet, the no-good unhappy rebel of a young man, manages to provoke a confession from his better-educated, more respectable, more highly regarded older brother--then fades away into the surrounding darkness, as boy and girl fall into an exhausted sleep.

I'm not quite sure I can regard this as a minor effort any longer (that said, I need--or have become interested in seeing--Ceylan's other works); at the very least it's an extremely beautiful film, uniquely structured (the closest equivalent might be Renoir's Partie de campagne (A Day in the countryside, 1936)--only Ceylan's film stretches out for the course of a year, and covers more ambitious ground in its narrative mode). A lovely film.

Zeki Demirkubuz's Masumiyet (Innocence, 1997) almost feels like Dostoevsky, as men obsess after and degrade themselves for women, women humiliate themselves and the men who love them for other men, and the endless, unhappy cycle appears destinied to continue in the figure of an innocent child. The title seems ironic--who's the innocent here, Yusuf (Guven Kirac), a basically decent man just out of jail who falls in love with the whorish Ugur (Derya Alabora)? Bekir (Haluk Belginer), who's also in love with Ugur and has been so for a much longer time, having undergone endless suffering and sacrifice for her sake? Ugur, who is insanely in love with her pimp Zagor, a violent criminal and chronic jailbird who beats and uses her shamelessly? Ugur's daughter Cilem, a quiet girl often left to herself, watching television? Or humanity in general, for thinking happiness within reach, if one can only have what one desires?

There's no nudity in this film, or explicit blood, or overt violence, but the intensity and cruelty and masochism on view is almost unbearable. Demirkubuz seems to merely turn his camera on his subjects and allow them to cut loose, but it must be more than that--Bekirk pulls out a gun and points it on two occasions that I remember, and thanks to Demirkubuz's staging and framing of the action one is palpably aware of the danger (a danger one rarely feels in Hollywood films). He shoots the scene in one take, like a stage play; on the first occasion the incident occurs in a hotel lobby, and Demirkubuz angles the camera in such a way that you can see the bullet will go through the door and hit a man standing outside. A later, even more frightening moment involves all three lovers on the floor and Bekirk trying to get a clear shot at Ugur, with only Yusuf in the way; the weeping, the raw emotions, the hand with trembling gun serve to keep you watching, wondering with bated breath just what will happen next, a tension Demirkubuz seems able to sustain for almost the length of the film. Amazing stuff.