Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Summer at Grandpa's (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1984)

This inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro is a total delight.

Hou builds a space in which a world from a child's perspective is at once baffling and sad and exuberantly joyous: it struggles to comprehend a sick parent who cannot leave a bed but rejoices in all-consuming splashing play by the river.

It is a perspective that sees, in one moment, only the minutest of details, and in another, feels lost in a vast world. Food remnants, left by untidy, unheeding adults litter the floor of the train, but that focused, compact space of a set of train seats is suddenly a bewilderingly large expanse when the adults are absent.

Time speeds by in the morning, while turtle races absorb hands and eyes, but seconds tick interminably in the long afternoon, loose limbs lazing on the floor of a hot room.

Family is everything, dictating life's motions and providing the structure, comfort, love, but adults are capricious, mysterious creatures. Why does Grandma weep as she folds the clothes, and why does Grandpa chase away Uncle one moment and give him money the next? One can only stare, wonder, and shrug. That's Grandma. That's Grandpa. And it's nice, anyway, to sit with Grandpa and look at those old pictures while the sound of the phonograph plays its scratchy tunes.

And so, Hou's sense of space and perspective draws me in, and even when the summer comes to a close, and with the children, I am, perhaps, ready to go home, back to the routine of life, I cannot help but feel that sweeping vistas of the green paddy fields, the rush of the train just outside grandpa's window, the place on the landing where everyone's shoes snuggled against one another, have left an imprint on the mind and heart, much like those long magical summers of my own childhood have done for me. I can never go back to the time, but it remains, like a still center at the core of something that is me.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

Also reviewed at Seattle Screen Scene.

"I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
 Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet"
              ~John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

Time shifts and slips, and the past is a thing of soft veils and refracted reflections, three of you, two of me, then none, only the round white face of the clock and the sound of your voice, my voice. I can't reach you there, at the edges of my mind; you slip from view.

But in the now, a sudden scent presses the bright deep color of your dress, the shape of your hip, a white clasp at the dip in your neck, into my vision, filling it. A green dress with bright yellow daffodils, impossibly vivid. Could you have been so beautiful? 

The streets of the teeming city were empty then, only you and I were there, there in the rain, under the bulb, there in the passage on the stairs. Our shadows pass along those walls, where paper notices tatter, fade, and are smoothly absorbed into the place on which they were glued. The rain soaks us, pounds the pavement; water seeps down into the earth, the water stands in clear pools. At once, it disappears, leaving blackness; it reflects, leaving shimmers of light.

I can feel the press in the hallway, packed with furniture, movers. Was it there I first felt the press of your arm? Or in the cab? Your fingers slip out of my grasp, leaving their warm fading print.

I wait for you. You wait for me. Memory, shrouded and alive, floats in red, graceful curtains in the long deserted passage.

I whisper this fleeting, lingering thing into the ancient ruins, where boldly soaring arches and disintegrating figures in stone relief, settle into the earth, growing into the grass and mud.

Friday, October 16, 2015

VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Hou Hsiao-hsien structures his new film, The Assassin, as a sort of once upon a time tale. It begins with narration, a mix of the historical and the mythic, and I am at once immersed in a dream-like tale that will, indeed, haunt my memory, just as history and myth so often do, becoming reference points in my present, even when I am not consciously aware of their influence.

It is ninth century China, and political struggle infects the kingdom. The royal court fears a strong, militarized outer province, Weibo; too much delegated power is a threat to the court’s own strength. Weibo, with a century of nearly complete self-governance, fears a reduction in its autonomy. It is a struggle that absorbs everyone.

And yet within this kingdom, there is a mother who tells another story, the story of a single bird. Caged and alone, the bird sits silent, a small stranger in the human world around it, unable to sing to those so unlike itself. Its human keepers feel compassion for it and give it a mirror. Recognizing something like itself, it sings a song of sadness. It dances, and then it dies.

In this once upon a time kingdom, there is one woman (played alternately with beautiful stillness and incisive action by the wonderful Shu Qi), caught in the midst of a large world she cannot control, a world that has named her its assassin and imprinted upon her its own mission, denying her her own world. She dances an assassin’s dance with a swift grace that leaves me breathless, but her sweet, sad face is the print left on the mind and heart.

. . .

Read my full review on Seattle Screen Scene.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

(To read the full version of this essay, go to Seattle Screen Scene.)

Human, and faced with a sea of things, images, stories, characters, all bobbing this way and that, slipping and sliding away from me, I seek some rope to grasp, a line that might form for me a connection between the things. And if I can only pull that line taut, I might be able to stay above the waves and see a pattern in the flotsam.

It isn’t really flotsam, of course, that wave of films I found my fest-inexperienced self submerged beneath at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Each film in itself is a unique, individual thing, only forced, by necessity into a mass. And we should be used, in any case, to consuming art in the mass, collective form – in a museum, in an anthology – curated and then presented to us as somehow related objects. Even if we pick our way through an anthology or skip rather guiltily past the 13th century wing of the museum and make straight for the Impressionists, we are still aware of all of these disparate things gathered together under an umbrella of a particular Thing, and, invited to do so, the pattern seeking mind all the more eagerly links themes, ideas, modes, shapes, colors.

Artists, of course, do not live in a vacuum, and their works may be, certainly, drawing from other works, even without conscious intent. Still, it would be difficult to say 8th century Chinese landscapes were drawing any influence from Byzantine frescoes. And yet, place such a set of landscapes next to a few frescoes, I’d surely spot a pattern. I can’t help it; I put them together, and the one will converse with the other.

And so, while yet understanding the potential folly of such conjunctions and conversations, I can’t help but make them and hope that such a convergence will illuminate the individual objects themselves.

Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan film, Ixcanul, has very little in common with Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly British film, 45 Years, and yet, as the VIFF programming gods would have it, I saw them back to back on a Saturday afternoon early this October, and they nestle comfortably together in my mind, chapter 1 and chapter 2 in a little anthology of Domestic Intimacies.

Chapter 1: Ixcanul

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared.

. . . the heart of the film is with Maria and her mother, and the little domestic space they occupy, the close – if sometimes fraught – relationship they share. Maria’s maturation, the politics of the world take on resonance only because we are so thoroughly invested in the connection between these two women. We live with them through their daily chores, in the activities of farm life, of cooking and of baking, of devotion to their volcano god. In one scene, Maria and her mother set up a mating between their pigs. “Come on; let’s get her pregnant,” says the mother to her daughter, and the women, working quietly with the squealing pigs, expertly ply the rum to the pigs’ eager mouths, and the job is done. In another scene, the women visit a steaming volcanic spot of earth, and the prayers of the mother for her daughter, “Earth, wind, fire, volcano,” she recites, are evidence of another intimate routine. And then, in the night, the firelight of an open fire flickers over the faces of Maria and her mother, as they stir and stir a boiling vat. “Don’t stop; it will burn,” the mother chides, and Maria obediently moves more quickly. Daytime, and the women walk together, bundles of sticks casually balanced on their heads, moving easily through the landscape, gray volcanic rock, blond grass. Through all these tasks, so obviously familiar to them both, the two work in easy intimacy. Maria, we understand, is under the pressures of individual desires and shy quests for freedom, but always returns to her mother’s side, her mother’s protection. Cooking, bearing wood, bathing, butchering – all these things the women do together – and when Maria’s life reaches a crisis point, it is to her mother she turns, and it is the mother whose strong arms competently, passionately cradle her.

The film ends with the same shot, the same moment with which it began, Maria and her mother and the plaiting and crowning of the hair, but the scene has expanded and deepened. They reside within a relationship of long-standing patterns and behaviors, knowing one another and being known, a small circle of closeness into which I can now see. I understand the activity of the women, I understand something of what is on Maria’s face. I understand what she is to her mother and what her mother is to her, and when the pulling fingers catch for a moment on a snag of hair and then slide free, my own breath catches in a snarl of emotion.

It is the small gestures that cinema, perhaps like no other art, has the power to fill with meaning, and the gestures here, embedded in the small and domestic, ripple outward in waves of resonance.

Chapter 2: 45 Years

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years similarly, traces the gestures of the domestic life in such a way that in his story, too, they reverberate, growing only stronger the smaller they are. The film’s first shot is the shot of a house, downsized by the frame of the landscape but centered, a clear, if gentle, demand on the attention. It is a classic sort of house you might find in an English village, modest, but firm; it knows who and what it is without drawing undue attention to itself. It is, though, essentially a blank. It could be anyone’s home. But, like the first mysterious image in Ixcanul, 45 Years makes the meaning of its first image over the course of the film in such a way that, when the image of the house – in the same framing – is repeated near the end, that meaning is, almost unbearably, full.

At the center of the house is a relationship, a thing representing an accumulation of days and of small interactions, and the house and the relationship reside at the center of the film, building significance from the inside out: an offered cup of tea, the antiphonal low humming of two voices, two bodies moving easily around one another in a cramped bathroom, quiet chats in bed that begin simply, without preface. This is what the space of 45 years of married life together looks like, feels like, for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and for Geoff (Tom Courtenay).

. . . Kate and Geoff’s daily routine, examined over the film’s week – a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and a Saturday – struggles to maintain itself under the pressure of this stranger, and the strain of the pressure plays out within the small interactions between the couple. They are interactions that, from a distance, seem a part of a daily routine, but situated as we are, inside the circle of the home, so intently watching Geoff’s face or Kate’s face, small differences are earthquakes. Geoff smoking a cigarette. Geoff’s note, “I’ve taken the bus to town. Sorry.” Kate’s choice to stay in bed rather than go for her morning walk. Geoff’s choice to go with Kate on her morning walk, rather than stay home. Kate smoking a cigarette. These things, potentially, shatter. Small in themselves, they deviate ever so slightly from the quotidian norm, and a whole world shifts. Who Geoff is, who Kate is, and who they are to each other becomes a fragile thing. It may break in a puff of air.

A 45-year anniversary celebration for the couple closes out the film. It is a grand gesture, and for Kate and Geoff, from within their realm of small intimacies, it feels very grand indeed. They are not sure they should participate in such a thing at all. But they do, and its grandness brings all of its weight to bear on a newly brittle center. A week is a short time, but it is a long time to live with a home intruder, and the question of what of the marriage is after this long week, is the question to which the film inexorably leads.

The answer is the answer we might expect from the world Haigh has given us with Geoff and Kate: intimate, delicate, and complex. Were we outsiders to this world, we would miss it. Insiders though, we see: a tiny thing of dense, compacted import. Taking it in, I am, myself, in danger of breaking.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015, Sept. 25-26

The films I've seen so far, favorite to least favorite:

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Meta-texture exploded, stories, storytellers, tellings, interpretations. The cockerel crows, and we listen.

Inspired by the classic Arabian Nights, Gomes reflects on the socio-political situation of Portugal in 2014, by telling stories of his own - parables of sorts, though less direct - and layering story within story, and employing everything from magical realism to biting satire. Delightful, hilarious at times, and potent.

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
Narrative folded back over itself, through the looking glass. Perspective slides. See, feel anew.

Hong Sang-soo returns to his favorite meta textual themes and ideas, examining, in this tale told twice, how slight shifts in character, framing, and perspective change everything. Wonderful.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen, 2015)
". . . image extends into movement of world, expansion of space, stratagem of time . . ."

Andersen reflects on quotations from the philosophical criticism of Gilles Deleuze by way of images and scenes from the silent film era to the present, responding to the quotations with cinematic images and music he's curated. A total delight to the cinephile heart.

A Matter of Interpretation (Kwang-kuk Lee, 2014)
Life is a muddle that dreams revise, dreams recast. Tell me your dream.

Making a nice pairing with Hong Sang-soo's film at the fest this year, Lee's film circles around story-telling and art and the ways that those interpret and intersect with the human heart and the mind. Great stuff.

Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Story nestles within story, and "evil is not epic"; there is only a "severe selfishness."

Volume 2 of Gomes's trilogy continues to delight, exploring the socio-political environment of Portugal via stories. This volume of his epic work features a "bastard" who becomes a local hero, a judge who - in a Greek sort of theater - must decide who is guilty and who is not among the mass of complex humanity before her, and a dog named Dixie.

A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 2015)

Melodrama in all the right ways (see, Dickens). But epic (I'll see your two cities and raise them one).

A romantic, epic film, spanning the years of Jackie Chan's parents' early, war torn lives in the 1930's-50's: their romance and separations from one another and from their children, their forced moves from the village of Anhui, to Shanghai, to Hong Kong.

The Last Hammer Blow (Alix Delaporte, 2014)

A fine central performance from Romain Paul, reminiscent of Thomas Doret's in THE KID WITH THE BIKE, in a story that follows a 13 year old boy's grappling with his mother's illness, a newly discovered father, a love for soccer, and an adolescent crush.

A slight film in many ways but deftly personal - and it's, at any rate, hard to resist the music of Mahler, which twines its way throughout - in both plot and soundscape - and forces the film away from a trite sentimentality and away from too neat a play on the title.

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena, 2015)

Dear daughters, cats, anonymous women behind exercises, veils, glass. Fish in a tank. Birds in the city.

Dena explores the everyday lives of women and girls in Tehran. Beautifully shot and perhaps most notable for its inside look at a girls' school - their rules, rituals, exercises, and restrictions.

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc-Jin, 2015)

More Cinderella than Alice, I think, following the title character who works her fingers to savage rawness, in pursuit of dreamed-of life with her prince - though Cinderella becomes Alice down the rabbit hole of increasing despair and violence.

Thematic cohesion fails, and ultimately does not justify the horrors done to the bod(ies), however stylistically skillful, visually textured, and at times neatly comedic the film is. Still, there is an interesting thread relative to how the individual pursuit of a dream skewers (maybe literally) those closest to the dreaming individual: sacrificing those in a broader community or those in a nearest personal relationship. And another parallel thread follows - even if it fails to follow through on - an idea about the way the even the most well-intentioned communities fail the individual.

The final image, victory from one perspective, is no victory from another - and the intentional compromise of the ending as well as the ambitious thematic patterns throughout and the filmmaking skill, make me hopeful that this debut feature film from its young director, Ahn Gooc-jin, is a promise of good things to come.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson, 2015)

Beautifully shot, acted. Sheep swirl in pens around a single old man and another single old man, who remain in stubborn distance from one another - until they don't. And, through it all, the film veers towards metaphor and ends on a final image of trite symbolism.

Still, there's much to embrace if only in what it offers in its vistas of the sort of landscape that gets under one's skin - vast isolation and loveliness.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What's behind that face? : QUEEN OF EARTH (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

“My face hurts.”

“My face hurts all the time.”

Alex Ross Perry, in his new film, Queen of Earth, trains his camera on faces – and on interior and exterior spaces – in such a way that these faces and spaces take on an alien quality. The women’s faces are beautiful; the outdoor world location – shimmering water, sunlit leaves – is breathtaking; the rooms inside the film’s vacation home setting are spare and pleasing. But in the same way that a horror film might take a very mundane, ordinary space and fill it with inexplicable Otherness and dread, Perry’s efforts accomplish a similar effect. A lovely face, an ordinarily refreshing lake, a tastefully refined home – these all set my teeth on edge, or, at least, disrupt my usual sense of their essence. If horror is often a startling, unsettling defamiliarization of the everyday, then Perry’s film is that – and he uses discordant music, odd camera angles, and lingeringly long takes to achieve a sense of horror. But comedy might be described in a similar way – for it sets something very ordinary in a new, surprising frame – and the thing becomes ridiculous, even hilarious. Queen of Earth straddles that line between horror and comedy delightfully, making it something like black comedy but evading that definition just enough – perhaps because there is a certain poignancy running through it all – to make it one of the most unique film experiences of the year.

. . . Read the rest of my review over at Seattle Screen Scene.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

. . .

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

~Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”

I confess, I found myself a bit disappointed when I learned Christian Petzold’s new film, Phoenix, would be “about the Holocaust.” There is a certain weariness that arises out of the fact that so many use or have used the events of the Holocaust as a reference point, whether artistically, for a film’s central story (see Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, among others) or socially, for a cheap point in a debate gone awry (see my Facebook feed). I wondered whether I was up for seeing yet another movie centering around the much-documented tragedy.

But great artists work familiar things in such unfamiliar ways that even the cliché can take on unexpected, fresh resonance, and I see the familiar thing as I had not seen it before. It is both old and wholly new. Artists use myths, for example, in this way, and myths, in deft hands, never lose their power; Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his unashamed foraging through Ovid. Like myths, then, the Holocaust can be a powerful touchstone for describing our world. It can be a story that artists return to it over and over, mining for its significance, finding in it a means of plumbing the human soul, locating parallels with which to describe and understand the world.

And it is with a delicate, deft artistry that Petzold, in Phoenix, not only tells a fresh Holocaust tale but weaves it together, with beautiful ease, with two myths: three old and familiar tales together becoming an astonishing, new thing. . . .

Read the rest over at Seattle Screen Scene.