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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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…: “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”

October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It may not be as widely and religiously paraphrased as those two straitjacketing maxims ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’, but consume enough film criticism (both amateur and otherwise) and the act of cheating one’s audience will surely be decried and advised against in due time if not frequently. Of course, the idea of a filmmaker wilfully betraying the implicit trust of a film’s audience might initially appear mean and in poor faith, but if this is an absolute sin, how many passable, good or even great pictures could be considered successful simply on the back of unfair narrative practices? To use an obvious, almost blah example, could the untimely, almost cynical killing-off of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be called cheating? Much has been said about the general expectation – at that time in the history of cinema viewership – that Janet Leigh, being a recognisable name, a star, and the clear narrative and emotional focus of the first half hour of the film, would be expected to remain a significant narrative and emotional focus, or at least visually present, for the remainder of the film. Had she been portrayed by a no-name performer, Marion’s death would almost certainly not have been one quarter as scandalous as it turned out to be. And even with the knowledge that Janet Leigh was not quite the drawcard that an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor would have been in that role, she was a big enough screen presence such that it would have been perfectly reasonable for an audience member to expect, even subconsciously, that she should not suddenly cease to exist, or that if she did, that she do so with a little more dignity and glamour. It’s undeniable that Hitchcock predicted the impact that the sudden screeching death of a Hollywood star would have on an audience’s psychology, an audience who – by decades of perhaps inadvertent, perhaps calculated conditioning – had come to place their entire sense of security in that of their leading ladies and leading men. Hitchcock knew this, and he exploited it, and boy did it cause a stir. And while the seismic cultural shockwaves were not always received with positivity, “Psycho” was an overall sensation, not to mention it’s being an enduringly effective thriller; it was the Master of Suspense taking his habit of audience manipulation to its logical extreme.

Running wholeheartedly with the idea that narrative deceit, that is to say, manipulation which is not a result of a viewer simply failing to heed or notice ‘hints’ and ‘clues’ present in a film, is not an absolute no-no and can in fact be a desirable theatrical experience, giallo maestro Lucio Fulci crafted, with 1971’s “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, a film whose cinematic form seems to flirt fitfully with the psyche of its central character Carol Hammond, played by Audrey Tatou lookalike Florinda Bolkan. The result is a pleasantly giddy murder mystery with an ending whose expository clunk might annoy whilst, at the same time, a small area in the navel flutters from the knowledge that the film has been one devious, mendacious ride. Like most of the best giallos, this film, about a young woman from money and influence whose homicidal dream about a neighbour/debauched party girl manifests itself stab-for-stab in a real killing for which she categorically denies any responsibility, feels more like a thriller than a horror picture because of its at times consummate craftsmanship to the point of sleekness and its weirdly elegant mode of genre filmmaking. From the very first image, it is clear that this picture will not adopt the apparent observational neutrality of something directed by Rohmer, opting instead to drift in and out of fantasy, misperception and blatant falsehood. In fact, it’s possible that Fulci decides to not simply drift but to wholeheartedly fashion his cinematic language in such a way that it is entirely in service of one particular character’s selective memory, scheming, hopes and dreams, and very possibly their self-delusion and even psychosis. It’s a bold move; one which, as implied earlier, could, probably did and probably still does leave many viewers feeling violated and unsatisfied.

So is “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” a horror picture and if so, from what exactly is the horror derived? In some ways it doesn’t quite adhere to modern concepts of horror cinema which feature either the traditional supernatural entities or humans that seem to be supernaturally malicious. By its end, this particular Lucio film deviates from most giallos by way of its very tight body count and sets itself apart from most horror films by the nature of its central crime, by the very fact that it has a central, inciting act as opposed to running on the palpable threat of an unpredictable series of acts. What may very well be presented as the fairly straightforward whodunit that it very well happens to be is dragged into the realm of horror by revelling in the mindscape of someone deeply fearful, deeply anxious and prone to terrible violence as a result of it, however momentary the violence. Not to compare it unduly to what many consider the quintessential modern horror film, but “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” in a way prefigures the manner in which filmic language is used to suggest character psychology as being the predominant narrative perspective in “The Shining.” As is the case with that movie, one can only wonder how often – if ever – Lucio Fulci presents ‘objective’ reality in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, that is to say, the kind of omniscient reality that audiences are privileged with when, for example, dramatic irony is being utilised. It seems that the horror in Fulci’s picture is not really the murder with which the film commences but Carol’s experience of it, her memories, her nightmare, her realisation, her self-deception. This being said, the film has a very shaggy quality about it as do most giallos what with its seedy, pulpy tone and the use of sometimes poorly synchronised dubbing of the kind common to Italian films from that period. In addition, some of the performances feel like one-take compromises and there is a distinctly tits-and-ass feel about it, which is probably not coincidental seeing as it was distributed by American International Pictures with its unabashed dedication to motion pictures with exploitative elements. This shagginess is perhaps the one element of the film which might allow a viewer to grudgingly accept, in hindsight – or realise in the moment – that the images and the sounds that Lucio presents are questionable in their trustworthiness. By the same token, it’s probably also the reason that the formal consideration applied by Fulci to “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” might go unnoticed by the casual viewer or disregarded by the cinephile. Not that either Fulci or the film itself seem to two shits about it.

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