Blindspot: “洞” aka “Dong” or “The Hole”

February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Dong” is the kind of film that makes me, the relatively casual but nonetheless invested viewer,  feel compelled (if not necessarily with effect) to do some leg work and familiarise myself with some abridged version of modern Taiwanese history, not because the film cannot be appreciated in a historically decontextualized manner – it being plentiful in esoteric delights and mischievously inventive visual storytelling – but because writer-director Tsai Ming-Liang is most certainly making some kind of socio-political statement, one which he is not wary of placing foremost and forefront. Why else would he begin the film with a blacked-out five minute opening credit sequence accompanied by audio montage of (presumably) fictional news reports and interviews that briskly establishes a dysfunctional, dystopic pre-millennial Taiwan in which major cities have been ravaged by some sort of virus days before the year 2000 is due to be rung in? There is obvious discord and civil revolt, and a sense that the Taiwanese government has somehow failed its people, some of whom now choose to ignore calls for evacuation of the nation’s major urban areas. Not to mention that the aforementioned virus is said to result in something called ‘Taiwanese fever,’ a disease characterised by humans becoming critter-like, favouring dark, dam corners and scuttling about like cockroaches. If this is not an acid comment on some aspect of the Taiwanese national character, what on earth could it be? There is most definitely a very biting, very critical social commentary being made here which, in the absence of any further knowledge or specifics, is still plain as a rainless day. Yet, the beauty of this early Tsai Ming-Liang picture – despite and because of its confrontationally ‘patient’ pacing and its distinct paucity of dialogue – is that it can just as easily function as a stripped down, almost blackly comic apocalyptic pantomime that explores the inertia and/or resilience it takes for one to persevere in the midst of a crumbling social fabric, or zero social fabric whatsoever. “Dong” could also be viewed as Ming-Liang shedding a tear for the cost to one’s humanity of a severely urbanised society, admittedly one of art cinema’s long-held fascinations, yet one which is approached here with such idiosyncrasy however grating.

Set in a dank, dilapidated apartment block in the midst of what seems to be several weeks of ceaseless rain, two individuals living in vertically adjacent units (he above, she below; query gender commentary) are brought into an unprecedented degree of contact when a hole forms in the floor/ceiling separating them. As expected, the appearance of this aperture is a stark violation of privacy, but also a portal through which two people are forced not to necessarily interact, but to at the very least acknowledge the existence of another human being. Now, I can certainly appreciate how a hole in one’s ceiling would be most unnerving (probably a touch more than a hole in one’s floor), but is the sense of excessive exposure and unwarranted interpersonal proximity that plagues ‘the woman downstairs’ and ‘the man upstairs’ so radically different to the anxious desire for privacy that drives us personal device era millenials to cocoon ourselves in our own private experiences, our own social networks, our own worldviews? As an individual who spent years riding buses and trains on a daily basis, I certainly encountered a staggering number of people who seemed to consider a word from a stranger or even a friendly look somewhat akin to drilling unsolicited into their ceiling.  It has also occurred to me, after the fact I should add, that the relative absence of the woman and the man’s fellow tenants in the film did not initially strike me as being particularly unusual, having spent months in apartment buildings in which I only ever saw one or two fellow tenants. In some ways, this baseline level of isolation probably explains these two characters’ ability to exist as they always have in the midst of such desolation, though their souls slowly begin to give way under the weight of alienation and isolation; this in addition to it being a sad reflection of high-density-living culture.

I think a certain mental transition needs to be made in order to appreciate this film. The static, quiet uber long-take wherein the only thing seemingly being photographed is time itself oftentimes creates an impression of extreme naturalism, replicating the extended stretches of anti-drama that fill the lives of most people. Tsai Ming-Liang is not at all shy of pushing this technique to the edges of what many would consider excessive, but at the same time counterbalances this by brazenly lacing his film with the absurd (rubbish bags dropping down from higher storeys as though plummeting chunks of sky) and punctuating the proceedings with several one-take musical numbers that appear to be expressions of the kind of suppressed desire for closeness and intimacy that lonely urban urchins might slip into every so often.  This general push-pull dynamic creates a subtly trippy mood which, for a person like myself who focuses on form as much as I do content, is wholly unique and enough to tickle my sensibilities even though I have the constant nagging feeling that there is a deeper socio-political commentary, some knowledge of which would enhance my appreciation of “Dong” and the impact of this film’s final, beautiful moment.

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Glancing over my cinematic shoulder

February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

After trying so valiantly (and sillily) to cultivate an air of scholarliness by avoiding the first-person (at least as of late), it now seems only fitting that my being a person with a name and a face and a personality, one who is a prisoner of his own subjectivity and peculiarities, manifest itself once again in prose, that is to say in a manner that is explicit as opposed to implicit. [It is at least my hope that my words thus far have not been taken as any more than an ocean of subjectivity within which random buoys of theory bob]. So henceforth I shall periodically refer to myself not as ‘yours truly’ or ‘this writer’ or ‘one’, but as ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Why though?

The fact is this: there comes a defining moment when one’s interest in something is so well publicised within their social network, however tiny or sprawling this network is, that they become the inadvertent go-to person and default expert in said something. Flattering as this promotion might be, however, unless one (there it is again) is prodigiously knowledgeable about their field of interest or occupies a professional role which formally renders them an expert, the feeling of being a touch fraudulent is not one which retreats easily. While it is probably true that I see a wider range of films than most people I know (‘wider’ by which I mean year of release and countries of production), I do not see a great many, numerically speaking; I certainly did not see the hundreds of new releases that many professional film critics managed to sit through in 2014 alone, nor am I able to find the time and the energy to view two films a day in the way that Martin Scorsese is reputed to do. At the same time, certain beloved family members nonetheless insist that I have seen everything that is worth seeing, a statement which I must sadly decry as false.

Whether or not it is true that I am being held to an inaccurately high standard by others, or whether the actual truth is that my semi-regular perusals of the ‘Recommended Viewing’ lists compiled by the good people who manage the cinephile website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? makes it painfully obvious that I have seen barely any films at all; painful and startling. This pang of self-disappointment has precious little to do with tally-keeping – (I’m looking at you, all those who take great pride in having seen a particular movie fifty times) – and more with the sense that one’s grasp, my grasp, of cinema is far weaker than I would have it. Obviously, as I attempted over the years to broaden my scope, as I familiarised myself with the works of certain filmmakers or particular eras or movements or national cinemas, others fell further and further into what I shall call my cinematic blindspot. Certain aspects of this magical medium that for various reasons strike me me as being worthy of exploration, for reasons even less clear, go ignored and unexplored as the years trudge on.

…hence the Blindspot Series, a personal project during which I will dedicate eight months of the good year of 2015 to viewing and pondering and reviewing films by the likes of Chantal Akerman, who made a bona fide, uncompromising sociological masterpiece at age 24 and is increasingly being acknowledged as a patron saint of the modern European art film, in addition to her place as a defining force in feminist and queer cinema; Hirokazu Koreeda, the seemingly lower key peer of contemporary Japanese auteurs like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Sion Sono etcetera, but one who – on the basis of his humanist bent – already seems to evoke amongst cinephiles a certain reverence reserved for the likes of Ozu; Charlie Chaplin, an artist whose work I have admittedly shied away from on the basis of an unfounded belief that he is somehow overrated, twee or comfortable, all three being unfair and hopefully/most likely untrue; Kenneth Anger, experimental maverick and queer cinema pioneer who dared to acknowledge the repressed and explore the transgressive and in doing so inspired the American New Wave generation and their affinity for the subconscious; works of Taiwanese Masters from the Second Wave of that national cinema, namely the legendary Hou Hsou-Hsien and Edward Yang, and enfant terrible Tsai Ming-Liang who is apparently hanging his hat after releasing his final works in 2014…plus an Ang Lee picture, made before he became one of Hollywood’s better directors; Silent Cinema, from the era when film was almost entirely about images, when – some would say – film was at its purest. The farther removed one is from this period, the more instructive these works must surely be; the Czech New Wave, the other heralded but somewhat less sexy sixties-era European cinematic free-for-all that saw a young cohort of filmmakers tossing rulebooks to the breeze and embracing cinema as a medium of unfettered expression and political incisiveness; and the handful of African films which managed to find their way onto the world stage and continue to do so despite the continent’s reputation for nothing but poverty and suffering, an illusory feat achieved by the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Henry Barakat, Souleymane Cissé and Djibril Diop Mambéty, amongst many others.

First stop: Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Dong”.

The horror…: “キュア” aka “Kyua” or “Cure”

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crime procedural, released in 1997, would make for the perfect subject in a debate that seeks to determine how exactly a thriller differs from a horror film and which of these two genres “Cure” fits into. Any adjudicator with a lick of sense would be biased in favour of it being a horror film for whatever the label is worth, but humour both sides for a moment:

Those in favour of “Cure” being a thriller might argue that ‘the horror genre is exactly as it states, a genre; and what is a genre but a compendium of conventions and tropes which one can chose to adhere to or which one can choose to subvert? The point being that these conventions form the core of a genre and must be observed, whichever fork one ultimately decides to go down creatively. Many films contain moments that chill, that frighten, that disgust, that haunt, but does this make them all horror films? Could every film that contains a humorous scene or two be reasonably labelled as a comedy? For this reason, any film that hopes to be considered a genuine entry in the horror genre must adhere to this genre’s chief criteria, one of these being that the primary aim of the film should be to evoke the fear response (which in itself can be tricky to prove), and another being that the premise must involve a classic element of horror. Murder is not a classic element of horror, nor is crime in general, or blood, or fear. Actions and themes are not elements of the horror genre, entities are. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, demons, witches, goblins, gremlins, assorted monsters…all the traditional expressions of humanity’s desire to comes to terms with a malevolent universe. Then there is the modern era of horror where humanity itself can be a representation and extension of said universe, being inexplicably wicked in ways that make it – make us – seem supernatural or abnormal: serial killers, tyrants and sadists, and remnants of the occult. Now, this is not to say that a film like “Schindler’s List” does not depict unspeakable horrors, but the central entity is far too vague, far too diffuse, despite stemming from one misguided, moustachioed mind belonging to perhaps the one  human being closest to attaining the status of supernatural monstrosity. Which is why a film like Dreyer’s “Vampyr” at which and during which many contemporary audiences would probably find themselves yawning and falling asleep is technically a horror picture whereas a film like “Blue Velvet”, while it can cause the heart to race and the mouth to go dry, is probably more of a thriller. Frank Booth may be crazier and more violent than the original on-screen Nosferatu, but he’s ultimately just a scary gangster who’s into rough stuff and kinky shit.’

In response to the above, those in favour of “Cure” being a horror film would argue that ‘the aim of a horror film should not be to simply scare but to evoke horror, and that scares can be and often are momentary while horror can and often does linger far longer. Where fear will trigger the sympathetic response of a galloping heart, a peaking blood pressure, dilated pupils and cold sweating, horror works on a more intellectual level, affecting and informing one’s worldview and emotional landscape long after the instance of acute terror has been and gone. There probably was a time when people lived in dread of supernatural entities, but for modern society, horror art only truly came into being when that which presented itself in the pages of books and on screen dragged itself out of the theatre and into people’s homes; when the focus of fear was not on that which most people believed to be hocus pocus but on that which everyone was aware could be very well living around, with, or within them. Is “The Shining” horrific because of the elevator gushing with blood or the vision of the two dead twins in the hallway, or is it a touchstone of modern horror cinema because it hammers home the idea that you could be married to ‘evil’ or fathered by it? In the same way, “Cure”, ostensibly a police procedural that follows Tokyo Detective Takabe and his psychiatrist colleague Sakuma as they endeavour to solve a spate of seemingly ritualistic murders committed by a disparate array of perpetrators, none of whom can remember let alone explain their terrible actions, finds its horror in domesticity, in the drab, the daily and the usual. The investigation eventually leads to an enigmatic and apparently amnesic young man who may or may not be inciting these murders by hypnotic suggestion. Silly as the premise might sound, the approach taken by Kurosawa ensures that any skepticism regarding the plot’s plausability are kept at bay during the film’s runtime, and by the time the end credits roll and one begins picking apart whatever improbabilities and inconsistencies might exist, the creeping horror that the film creates would have already seeped into the subconscious and began working at it. So while it might take the shape of a thriller structurally and visually and adopt the pace of a psychological drama, “Cure” is probably more worthy of being labelled a horror film than the 101 so-calleds that seem to premiere every month, trashy pictures featuring cheap scares and gratuitous gore that will barely trouble the soul once the popcorn tub hits the bottom of the bin at the theatre exit.’

As previously stated, a sensible adjudicator would give the victory to the latter. But why? What is the horror that “Cure” evokes and why is it so potent? The fact is this: while Kurosawa’s movie contains images that may very well belong in a horror film – faces being peeled of skin and a disturbing mummified monkey – most of it is generously paced and photographed in a stately manner and with an autumnal palette. But it is this very gentleness that gives the film its pervasive sense of dread, the sense that violence is not always cognizant of its existence, like a wolf in sheepskin that thinks it’s actually a sheep. If these murders are being incited by a process of hypnotism, and if they are always carried out against individuals that bear some significance to the perpetrator, what deep, untapped reserves rage exists within even the most benign-seeming individuals? An elementary schoolteacher, a general practitioner, a low level cop…folks who would be generally considered average, by-the-by people are shown here to harbour feelings so deep and so malevolent that even they may not be aware of these until they manifest in the act of killing. But the horror is not so much that any old person could, out of the blue, pick up a knife and carve a giant ‘X’ into their partner’s throat, but that subterranean deposits of resentment exist at all; that they are there regardless of whether or not they ever show themselves. An early moment in the film touches on this: while picking up his dry cleaning, Detective Takabe finds himself standing next to a man who is muttering angrily, violently to himself – totally unaware of Takabe beside him – only to switch on a dime, almost unaware, and politely receive his dry-cleaning with a smile and genuine-seeming word of gratitude. How aware is this man of this rage within him, and if so, how much does he know about it? Does he have the slightest inkling what he may or may not be capable of?

The young man, Mamiya, who is likely at the centre of this strange homicidal ‘movement’ keeps asking people who they are. At first it seems that his amnesia is the cause of this until it becomes clear that the question is partly rhetorical and wholly existential. Most people appear to be thrown by the question, as though it is something they have never ventured to consider. Perhaps herein lies the true horror: the idea that one can live with someone by virtue of being that very person while not knowing even the tiniest bit about them, being completely unaware of that which informs their behaviour and their thoughts and that which slowly eats away at their souls. The way in which “Cure” paints this picture is subtly terrifying. It could be said that the film’s final stretch leans a little too heavily on elliptical storytelling as a way to utterly disconcert viewers emotionally, leaving them to wonder whether or not Mamiya has somehow found a way to plant murder in the minds of Takabe and/or Sakuma. Kurosawa should perhaps have trusted more in the robustness of his film’s psychological pull, but however much “Cure” might lose its footing in the last ten or so minutes, the very final shot finds the heart trampolining briefly up into the throat. Where a person could easily watch a zombie movie, yelp a handful of times and walk out into the night completely relaxed and not in the least bit jumpy, it would be kind of surprising for someone to walk away from “Cure” without feeling even vaguely, non-specifically uneasy.

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