Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wanted, Effi Briest, Shall We Dance? Exiled, Election

Wanted (2008) is absurd; yes, the filmmaker (one Timur Bekmambetov, who directed the fitfully entertaining Nochnoy Dozor (Nightwatch, 2004)) in all likeliness wanted it that way, but there's intentionally and well-controlled silliness, and then there's the suspicion that the director hasn't any idea what he's doing. So what's the scientific rationale for curving bullets--telekinesis? Angelina Jolie's magnetic personality (don't you dare shoot me, you relative unknown of a lead actor)? And in that scene where one car uses another as a ramp to flip over and fire into a bulletproof limo's open sunroof, why would a billionaire paranoid enough to install bulletproof windows in his vehicle leave the sunroof wide open?

But that's small change (about as significant as shooting the wings off a fly). Maybe my biggest problem with the movie--along with the huge dose of "I so don't care" that I felt watching it--is the fact that I'd seen this done before, only better. Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) also told the story of an expert killer hired to do a job that turns out to be of great significance, only O'Hara did it earlier, in 1986.

Granted this might be a classic premise that's been done to death over the years (The Manchurian Candidate, anyone?)--comparing the two, one finds that O'Hara's picture tells its surprisingly complex story (aside from the basic plot there's an election going on, and a vast power struggle to put various candidates in office) with a minimum of fuss: no fast cutting, no shaky-cams, no CGI to hide flaws or plot loopholes or actors who can't really fight. O'Hara takes the classic action sequence style of Ford and Kurosawa (a combination of medium and long shots carefully edited together to leave the fight choreography intact) as passed on by Gerardo de Leon to every subsequent Filipino filmmaker, and yoked it to an epic noir fantasy that's careful to stay rooted to its milieu. In fact, the film operates as a kind of parallel universe that, with a bit of exaggeration, can pass for Metro Manila of 1986 (or: the Philippines under the increasingly desperate, increasingly uncertain grip of the Marcos dictatorship). If Bagong Hari, like Wanted, has delusions of grandeur, I much prefer the former's delusions--it approaches its ambitions in a more persuasive manner, using cruder effects on a far smaller production budget.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Effi Briest... (1974) is unusual not only for having one of the longest titles in world cinema (the full title is Fontane - Effi Briest oder: Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen) but for being a book Fassbinder loved so much what he has done with the adaptation is nothing less than an attempt at translating the text to the film screen, in as comprehensive a manner as possible, and still be able to call it a film.

Huge swathes of text are displayed onscreen; Fassbinder himself narrates long passages that piece together and at times comment on the onscreen action. The connection between word and image may on occasion rival in complexity what Robert Bresson has tried in his adaptations--I'm thinking of the long tracking shot where Fassbinder's lenses follow Effi (Hanna Schygulla, in a perfectly controlled performance) while Fassbinder describes an episode of great emotional turmoil, full of weeping and guilt and shame--but "not properly, and not enough," or so Effi tells herself, and us. One watches her stride across the screen with the same fascination one watches a car-crash survivor, or rape victim--you look for signs of what happened on her face, interpret what few clues you see to support the theory you happen to be entertaining at the moment (she's upset; no, she's unhappy; no, she's tired). Instead of tired melodrama (the tears, the yelling), Fassbinder presents a strolling enigma; the passage quoted becomes, as a result, unforgettable.

It's tempting to call Fassbinder's adaptation an illuminated manuscript, complete with miniature illustrations lined with silver (the mirror images that occur throughout the film). Of course Fassbinder planned to save money using these techniques, but he's also turned a quite serious limit on resources into a unique (even amongst his own pictures) filmmaking style. A great film.

Looking at Masayuki Suo's Shall we dansu? (Shall We Dance? 1996) and it seems crazier than ever that they would have thought of doing an American remake, even with Hollywood stars. The whole psychology is wrong--Americans are often comfortable about impulsive acts such as joining a dancing school; they're all about taking themselves out of a rut and seizing the day (at least in movies they are). It's funnier that a Japanese salaryman should step off his subway ride and indulge in the shameful act of ballroom dancing; it's like watching a bunch of secret cultists indulge in kinky sexual rituals--even more embarrassing, I submit, since at least with kinky sex there's some primeval drive behind it that you can easily understand, perhaps sympathize with. Dancing is a near-incomprehensible urge, and Suo's achievement is in giving us the form and flavor of the act's hidden pull, its subterranean appeal. When Mr. Aoki (Naoto Takenaka, who's wonderful) executes a sudden left turn with barely hidden glee in his face, it's as if a child were acting out some shared, secret joke--we know without being told that he's one of them, and we should watch out for him in the future.

The DVD includes a trailer of the remake, and the remake's version of the hilarious scene where Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) and Mr. Aoki are caught in the men's room, in a clinch. In the 2004 remake Peter Chelsom shoots Richard Gere and his partner head-on, with the men's room door directly behind them. Anyone who enters will immediately see the two, so when the door opens, the partner has no choice but to collapse immediately, causing a flurry of distress and worry.

Suo's timing is much more confident. We see Sugiyama and Aoki on the left side, the urinals on the right. A fellow office worker walks past the couple looking straight at the urinals (which is plausible--men tend not to look at other men in public bathrooms), giving us this single awful second where the two are locked in a frozen embrace while their colleague unzips his pants. It's when it starts to register on the colleague that something odd's going on that Aoki is struck with the inspiration to faint--what makes the scene isn't Aoki's brainstorm, but that jawdropping pause between sidelong observation, eventual realization, and brilliant improvisation.

Looked at Johnnie To's Fong juk (Exiled, 2006) again, and the setpieces are still breathtaking, the colors striking, the moments of male bonding moving and funny and comforting, in the way French fries done with passion and style are comforting.

Hak se wui (Election, 2005) is a more substantial proposition (To admits he did Fong juk to take a break from the effort of making this picture and its sequel)--if one didn't know any better (and who's to say for certain if one does or doesn't?), one might imagine that the film is To's satire on elections, maybe the previous year's Hong Kong legislative or even American presidential race, with an ambitious if abrasive Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai as John Kerry?) taking on the more likeable, more establishment Lok (Simon Yam as George Bush?) in a contest for the chairmanship of the Wo Society Triad.

The movie is really all about the smoky rooms in which elderly men drink tea and conduct deals and negotiations--To seems to be saying that the difference between political parties and crime organizations is slim, which is hardly news (Coppola said as much decades back, only his accusation was leveled at large families and American corporations ). What's interesting is how thoroughly To covers the process by which power is transferred--not just what's explicitly debated and brought to a compromise, but even suggesting what isn't (you suspect, after all is said and done, that Lok had the elections sewn up and in his pocket long before Big D made up his mind to run for the position), and how this affects everything and everyone.

Emblematic of the whole film is the scene where Big D and his men stand on a high rock, dropping boxes down the steep hillside. Innocuous enough image (if at first glance puzzling), innocuously staged and shot with long lenses, until you eventually realize what's in those boxes. The horror and violence is there all the time, hidden by a latticework of wood, and the appearance of banal normalcy.

There's a subplot about a stolen Dragon's Head Baton, symbolizing the chairman's power, and later a few violent rubouts, but they're window dressing, meant to keep you keyed-up and interested; the meat of the film is in the process by which Lok tries to finagle his way into the top position.

It's difficult material--makes Mou gaan daou (Infernal Affairs, 2002) look straightforward by comparison. In an interview To admits he sat on his usual visual pyrotechnics while telling the first half of the story, to keep the plot front and center and coherent. But To can't help pulling off the occasional coup de cinema--the aforementioned hilltop scene, for one; for another, the scene of the various Triad heads locked away, and To's camera in yet another long shot watching them in their cells, side-by-side, an image and comic effect I'm thinking might have been inspired from Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) (the people are like animals in a zoo reacting to their isolation and impotence--in To's film they yell and raise fists; in Tati's they watch television).

David Bordwell cites Cheung fo (The Mission, 1999) as his favorite To, and I understand the choice; the film for its innovative style and sheer cinemaness may be To's masterpiece. But in terms of breadth of theme and depth of treatment, in terms of capturing a crucial element in not just Triad but Chinese culture (again, referring to To's interview, these crime organizations have apparently existed for four centuries) at a specific point of time (the 2004 Hong Kong legislative elections), of commenting in a sophisticated way not only on Triad power struggles but on power struggles in general, of unfolding a complex plot within a complex milieu, one might say that this is To's (and Hong Kong cinema's) The Godfather--a film with considerable commercial and artistic impact, well-told (isn't it strange that a director noted for his wordless action sequences is capable of a film so dense with (yet deft in its handling of) dialogue (with, of course, scenes that turn the tendency memorably on its head)?).

There are moments here that recall Coppola's epic, but with their own spin--the endless tea drinking, of course (healthier I suppose, especially in large doses, than the drinking of Italian wines); the large parties (here--and this I think was brilliant--the aftermath of a party that ended up being canceled); the glance and shout a father gives his son--throwing him the car keys and counting on him in that one gesture not only to understand what's happening, but to actively participate and block off all means of escape (it's like the entire subplot between Michael Corleone and his father collapsed into one electric moment).

But it's not just Coppola being referenced here; the immediacy, the camerawork, the often profane, often comical male camaraderie recalls Martin Scorsese's gangster pictures: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. One might say To's attempting to tell a Coppola-sized story through Scorsese techniques--all filtered through his unique Hong Kong-based sensibilities. Excellent, perhaps great film.


Anonymous said...

Wanted is boring - unlike Nightwatch-which made me stick to every frame (maybe because of the subtitles, hehe) - this is one of those movies - watch the trailer and expect nothing more out of it...

I don't remember if I saw Bagong Hari when I was a kid, but I remember seeing Kastilyong Buhangin. I hope to see it again - to see the action sequence you were refering to.

Btw, I trying every possible way to see at least half of your 100 Best Filipino Films. Thanks to CinemaOne I was able to see Kisapmata and Kakabakaba Ka Ba?

Noel Vera said...

Wish you could see Kisapmata as it was meant to be, uncut and on the bigscreen. But this I suppose is better than nothing.