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.

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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.

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”.

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