Blindspot: “Bamako”

June 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

One can only imagine how Bamako plays to viewers who have never lived anywhere in Africa, or rather, those who do not feel that it is their place to level candid criticisms at the continent and its people for fear of being accused of western paternalism or much worse. But for someone born and raised in the ‘Motherland’ – generally speaking, of course – Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s breakthrough 2006 picture, which is to say the one which positioned him squarely on the world (festival) stage and in the sights of discerning cinephiles hungry for new voices, is one whose greatness almost trips over itself before becoming evident. Weirdly reminiscent of a Robert Altman picture with its wandering approach to largish ensembles in which subsets of characters don’t necessarily interact while being nonetheless engaged in a kind of meta-textual conversation with one another by virtue of their being in the same narrative universe, Bamako takes place in the titular Malian town which also happens to be Sissako’s home turf and is basically centred around an imaginary court case: plaintiff,  debt-ridden Africa; defendant, The World Bank, the IMF, ‘The West’ and all other purported contributors to Africa’s fiscal woes. Staged in – of all places – the actual courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house, the proceedings establish an interesting, Kiorastami-like interface between fiction and non-fiction as characters wax and spar polemically about the political and economic state of the African continent at the time of filming, which is no less relevant now than it was nine odd years ago.  As these impassioned – sometimes detrimentally so – rants fly out from the screen, life goes on both within the courtyard (yes, there’s a bit of a pun here that needs to be acknowledged) and within the homes that form its walls, though always in the shadow of something greater and elusively oppressive. It must be said that the form that this film adopts is a most uncanny distillatory representation of Africa’s contradictory nature, which is to say that it is a scatterplot mix of pre and post-colonial, western and non-western, impassioned and apathetic, hopeful and demoralised, humorous and not at all amusing, sexy and just plain daggy, all swirled into one heady, dysfunctional yet lively soup. But the compositional richness of Bamako is not simply a visual pleasure. It registers – in these eyes – as a subliminal explanation of why it is that Africa may find it so hard to hold its own in a global society which may admittedly not be quite as charitable as it makes out to be. The image of women and men of the law in full robed garb, seated in a dusty outdoor makeshift court through which people blithely waltz without much thought for the possible disrespectfulness of their actions is one such example of Sissako’s concurrent skewering and celebration of the absurdity that can be and often is startlingly true of modern African society.  But despite the very obvious playfulness of the movie – playful to the point of featuring a seemingly pointless film-within-a-film called Death in Timbuktu, a “Sahara Western”  so to speak (as opposed to Spaghetti Western) featuring Danny Glover of all people – and the bubbling undertones of intellectual indignation and rage, Bamako is at heart a gently sombre work.  However peripheral they may appear in the face of the rhetorical bluster of the court/deposition scenes, the quiet moments of ordinary townsfolk mourning lost love, lost lives and an unknown/unknowable tomorrow, and the fantastic musical sequences featuring emotionally hypnotic local songstress Melé (Aïssa Maïga) as she takes to the stage of a Bamako bar…it is these which seem to speak with more clarity, elegance and fire than the many oratories designed to equally heat up the soul. It’s as if Sissako, in attempting to fashion an erudite exploration of post-millennial (West) Africa and its myriad economic issues, settles on the milder, more humanist (though no less radical) notion that the viability of the African continent depends less on its dealings with a potentially dishonest wider world and more on a commitment to dealing honestly with itself.

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Blindspot: “千禧曼波” aka “Qiānxī Mànbō” or “Millennium Mambo”

May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

Twenty minutes into Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s electro-scored 2001 pseudo-Wong Kar Wai pastiche (pseudo as in ‘seemingly, but not at all’), I’m convinced that Millenium Mambo is not the most ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is revered in the cinephile world to the point of being considered – by some – to be our greatest living filmmaker. This series I am embarking on should one day provide sufficient context with which I can/may judge such a haughty, hyperbolic appraisal, but for the moment, or more specifically, in the instant that this picture cuts to black and the credits begin to roll, I am convinced that this man Hsiao-Hsien has – in the last quarter of a decade – almost certainly made something that I will see and whole-heartedly adore (based on his general aesthetic, his pacing, his framing), but that this his meditation on youth…or time…or romance…or all three…or none at all, Millenium Mambo, is just not it. Starring the open-faced and stunning Qi Shu as Vicky, a young Taipei bar hostess in the grip of a serious case of post-millenial ennui and a very Gen Y brand of entitled aimlessness, Millenium Mambo is thematically comparable to an Antonioni picture whose characters aren’t able to articulate even to themselves why they may be so dissatisfied with everything, which is to say that there is precious little to intuit in the faces, the movements, the essences of Hsiao-Hsien’s characters, and that whatever little there may be in the way of motivation isn’t readily apparent. These individuals are defined not by words or plot-propelling actions but by the most fundamental modes of behaviour; by the way that they hold themselves when alone versus while in the presence of others; by their decision to pull out a cigarette and smoke it, when they choose to smoke it and how deeply. Honestly, the smoking in this film makes it something of a throwback to the aloof sixties and anxious seventies. On the surface, Vicky has every reason to hate her immediate situation (torn between a frankly diseased relationship with a head case DJ boyfriend and an older gangster suitor; being dissatisfied with her line of work etcetera), but her inertia is almost masochistically silly. Yet this is not so much a slight against the film as it is a slight against the character of Vicky in whom the director and his writer Chu Tien-wen nonetheless invest a generous amount of patience and interest, which they have every right to do whether or not you or I find her as compelling an entity as they do. As previously implied, this film seems to eschew story (almost aggressively so) in favour of mood and spatial intimacy, and with the druggy, roving, saturated image Hsiao-Hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin achieve with what seems to be a fairly long lens, Millenium Mambo concocts the oppressive sense of longing for something unknown and undefined but almost certainly better than what is presently at hand, which may very well describe Vicky and her fellow characters. And perhaps myself as a viewer and beholder.

Blindspot: “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

If anyone has ever wondered how on earth one constructs an igloo, they should be directed to Robert J. Flaherty’s 1927 proto-documentary, a film which will rectify this knowledge gap while magnifying the sense of wonder that this level of craftsmanship deserves. Watching the titular Nanook, the patriarch of a small Inuit family living in the Ungava peninsula of Quebec, Canada, gracefully slicing bricks of snow until they fall into place to create a marvellous snow dome (which he crowns with an ice window, almost showing off by this point) feels surprisingly revelatory; especially considering this film is an 80-year old bona fide landmark of silent cinema whose impact should surely diminish with age, surely. “Nanook of the North” is – to recycle the word once again – wondrous on various levels, not least for the industriousness displayed by Nanook, his family and the few others who have honed (perhaps without choice) the kind of skill and resilience required to survive year-round sub-zero temperatures, single-handedly slay polar bears and finding a version of ‘home’ in the midst of unforgiving desolation. In fact, Flaherty’s picture may be enough to convince some short-sighted fool that living in the arctic isn’t so bad (or, at least, not so hard) and this is partly because of how warm-hearted, sincere and genuinely happy Nanook, Aye his wife (or one of two, it sometimes seems) and their fellow Itivimuits appear to be as they go about their business of hunting, trading pelts and being generally nomadic. In fact, the film’s main conflict (apart from that which exists between man and his natural surroundings) occurs when two dogs in Nanook’s sled pack become quite snappy with each other.  As for Flaherty as a filmmaker, the practicalities of shooting this picture with early (which is to say, not particularly compact) film technology in a relatively uncontrolled environment (apart from the handful of scenes shot within the igloo which look suspiciously more spacious than one would expect i.e. shot in some sort of studio) is technically impressive, and would be in any instance let alone a feature debut.

The term ‘verite’ is often bandied about when “Nanook of the North” is mentioned in the context of the documentary lineage and this film’s place within it. While “Nanook” very deftly eliminates – whether inadvertently or with intent – the confected veneer of commercial studio films from the period, it’s not a Frederick Wiseman film void of narration or extra-diegetic interferences other than editing. Flaherty himself is present in the film in the form of title cards, as an omnipresent observer and guide, and he constructs something of a loose, schematic narrative within which to frame the lives of Nanook and his clan. In addition, the simplistic beauty of Flaherty’s photography, while being staged and artful in a mythical, John Ford kind of way, only serves to highlight the subject of the image and not just the poetry of the image itself. But even more impressive, perhaps, is the light touch with which Flaherty handles ethnography: the relative absence of western condescension or exoticism for the sake of commercial draw. For a film made in a period during which casual racism was somewhat more openly institutionalised than it is now, Flaherty displays a seemingly unprecedented degree of respect for the Inuit way of life and there is little evidence of him making a case for the ‘otherness’ of Nanook and his kin, despite the (now)outdated use of the term ‘eskimo’ and the instance in which Nanook – and by association, his fellow Inuit – is characterised as ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘simple.’ Despite these regrettable inclusions, “Nanook of the North” remains impressible progressive in its sociocultural outlook. Besides, after witnessing Nanook and Co at work and at play, making a case for their inferiority would take a little more effort than the word ‘simple’.

Blindspot: “そして父になる” aka “Soshite Chichi ni Naru” or “Like Father, Like Son”

April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

As the camera gently drifts outwards and upwards until the sunset sky begins to impart a pinky orange hue on the cluttered skyline of a low-rise city district as though revealing the soul of urban Japan, it become startlingly clear how perfectly this closing shot somehow manages to almost summarise/encapsulate the preceding two hours that were spent in the rightfully hallowed directorial hands of contemporary maestro Hirokazu Koreeda. Not only does this moment highlight the fact that Koreeda’s cinema lives and dies on framing and pacing more than perhaps any other techniques available to him, it also echoes the way in which the stately modesty and surface simplicity of “Like Father, Like Son” gives birth to a narrative far more psycho-emotionally complex than a film this tender has any right to be. By this I mean to say that the film quietly, gently burrowed its way deep into the heart of its themes so much so that I found myself blindsided by a ton of profundity and emotional resonance three-quarters into the movie. Even the title which sounds like a pun, film unseen, reveals itself to be far richer, being ironic in one instance while a painful affirmation of poor paternal legacies in another. Premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and wowing jury president Steven Spielberg so much so that it nabbed that year’s Jury Prize and Spielberg himself purchased the rights to a US remake (for those unable to read subtitles), “Like Father, Like Son” – without any indulgent foreshadowing or attention-seeking histrionics – sets up the story of two families burdened with the news that a grave error was made in a certain hospital nursery and that for the last six years they have been raising another couple’s son as their own. A more conventional film would most likely have featured not one but two pairs of discordant father-son pairings so as to ‘balance’ the centre of emotional gravity. It may also have overplayed the socioeconomic disparity factor, which I suspect the US version might very well do, post-Occupy and all. But this original iteration of the picture has its eye on deeper familial and social dynamics, and while Keita Nonomiya, played by the most adorable little boy this side of anywhere, may be too much of a meek, underachieving six-year old in the demanding eyes of Ryota, his workaholic architect father, their counterparts in Yukari and Ryusei Saiki display no evidence of discord; at least nothing worth centring a narrative around. Now this may very well have everything to do with the fact that the Nonomiya trio – mother Midori, father and son – is Koreeda’s main focus as a writer. But this lop-sidedness feeds into some of the movie’s prime concerns i.e. (a) the importance of the hereditary ‘blood’ link in determining the depth and tenacity of a relationship, (b) how socioeconomics impact one’s fitness for fatherhood (and parenthood in general), (c) how one’s own upbringing influences their parental philosophy, and (d) the curious timeworn phenomenon of the mother-son connection. I find that I cannot quite wait for my next encounter with Koreeda.

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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