Saturday, September 13, 2008

MY SISTER, MY LOVE (2007)….9.5/10

Hiroshi Ando is a relative unknown, having had only one of his four feature films to date breach the Japanese border, and only in a small circuit of festivals. This is an unfortunate circumstance, because the evidence of his latest work, "Boku wa Imouto ni koi wo suru" (My Sister, My love), suggests a burgeoning and sensitive talent that is being overlooked. Or, having personally only seen this newest film, perhaps he has just entered a new stride.

MY SISTER, MY LOVE is both subtle and direct in all of it's capacities, relying on the clarity of the most moderate displays of emotion, the most ginger movement of the camera, and the most delicate probing of a controversial issue; that of highschool age fraternal twin siblings, Iku and Yori, who are in love with one another, and have been so (internally) all there lives. Iku and Yori are inseparable in the sense that they are together in mind always. They also happen to sleep in the same room together, walk to and from school with one another, eat side by side at dinner and breakfast, etc. A perfect example of Ando's subtle command over convincing us of the twins' connection is in his early focusing on their hands; once when the childhood Yori is tying a small flower stem into a ring, and then shortly after in a close up of Iku's teenage hand as she leans on a window sill, pondering Yori's seeming coldness to her. All things considered, Iku and Yori's bond isn't claustrophobic. They have their moments apart, certainly, but are always thinking of the other. They are best friends with a quiet understanding of one another and a quiet way of being with one another...a quietude, beneath which resides deep emotions. The opening scene depicts Yori (the boy) offering Iku (the girl) a ring he made from a small flower as they sit alone together in a vibrant green field. While they unabashedly smile to one another, Yori says with a child’s conviction, “Iku is my bride,” leaving no ambiguity about their irregular closeness. Though the twins had made such an innocent but honest declaration of love in their youth, it isn’t until their coming of age that they acquiesce to its true breadth. Despite saccharine overtones and a lilting guitar melody in the opening "proposal" scene, there is something innately impending and unfortunate at the core of it.

Writer / director Hiroshi Ando doesn't take any easy roads with this film, allowing himself no obvious gratuities concerning sexuality or youth, either in content or methodology. Scenes unfold in long effortless takes (ranging from 10 seconds to 3 min), with a camera that alternates between a rather steady handheld dynamic, to fixed shots, to almost imperceptible glides that slowly encroach on characters. That “glide” becomes a presence within the film, a vehicle for Ando’s soft (but not underdone) handling of confused emotions, as well as a reciprocation of the metered performances within each scene. The subsequent effect is a sense of the air, a patient and full awareness of each moment, no matter its banality, and a saturation in the ponderance of every word, no matter its seeming innocuity (most of what the characters say has resonance and importance, it’s just a matter of the words coming out slowly and in their simplest terms). Suffice it to say, if a scene is better served by silence and a glance, or by the most average exchange of words, Ando won’t hesitate to leave it stripped bare, and rightfully so. Nothing is forced in MY SISTER, MY LOVE.

Matsumoto Jun (most notable as a member of the J-Pop band ARASHI, and the childish, arrogant, polarized male lead, Tsukasa Domiyouji, in the hit J-Drama HANA YORI DANGO 1&2) delivers an uncharacteristically understated and solemn performance as Yori…a performance that is allowed to unfold because of the blank slate of long takes and subtle camera movements aforementioned; a case of form fitting function. Therefore, moderately-expressed but urgently-felt emotions, as well as simple but tumultuous self-questioning propel the film, not artificially / analytically heightened tensions, nor, as one might expect of the content in relation to Japanese societal conventions, by pure didactics.

For a non-Japanese viewer it is unapparent that names carry great bearing in MY SISTER MY LOVE, and, for those adept to their meanings, suggest certain things about the twins before we even get to know them. The name ‘Iku,’ for instance, means “to go, to continue.” It can mean “fear, reverence, or awe,” and in colloquial language it means “to come” or “to orgasm.” Considering these many meanings, it becomes clear that the name Iku is perfectly chosen to embody her characters emotional awe for Yori, and is a subtle way of injecting sexuality into a very chaste film. ‘Yori’ means “other than,” “more than,” “out of.” In the vain of preference, it can take the form of “over;” such as the saying ‘Hana yori dango’ (dumplings over flowers…meaning necessity over materiality). But Yori can also mean “having a tendency towards; being close to…” The multiple definitions of this name are likewise evidence of its deliberate choosing. If you combine the twins names, though non-sensical in Japanese, it becomes something like, “other than to go,” which could be molded to mean an unwillingness to leave, an alternative to fatalism or finality, as in the way that the twins never want to be apart from one another, even if they can’t love each other to the extent that they feel. “I never want to be apart from you” Yori says. (dictionary sources; - -

For comparison's sake, I would liken "MY SISTER, MY LOVE" to two films; firstly Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS (2003) for its specific content concerning twins, Isa and Theo, who are also in love. But note however that THE DREAMERS is inverse to MY SISTER MY LOVE in its use of graphic sexuality and persistent sensuality (though executed aptly and artfully by Bertolucci).

The character of Matthew in THE DREAMERS, the new friend that Theo and Isa invite into their peculiar tight orbit, is like Yori in that he has an insider’s view that is also detached and objective. Isa and Theo’s father responds to something that Matthew says at the dinner concerning objectivity. He says, “We look around us and what do we see?...Complete chaos. But, when viewed from above, viewed as it were, by god, everything fits together.” He unknowingly but accurately implies of Matthew that his role will be that of an observer, an haphazard undercover agent that lives with the twins over the next month of their parents’ absence.

Ando infers something similar upon Yori within MY SISTER MY LOVE’s visual language. Not only does Yori have the top bunk bed at home, but at school Yori often hangs out on the roof, and in a specific scene he gazes down upon Iku from an open second-story window (note an OPEN window, not through glass) as she leaves the schoolyard with her friends. Ando suggests that between Yori an Iku, Yori has the greater clarity of vision. He sees farther down the track of their uncommon union after it is brought to the fore, and perceives a dark cloud that vexes him openly. But perhaps the most obvious suggestion comes from Iku herself at the beginning of the film, when her and Yori, clad in their gym uniforms, are in the school nurse’s room. Iku says to the nurse, who is mending her and Yori’s identical schoolyard scrapes, “when mother was pregnant she lied on her side to sleep, so all the brains slid down to Yori.” And after that, Iku says even more explicitly to herslef, "Between Yori and me, he is the capable one." So, when Yori begins to build a distance between he and his sister, even though he is the one who initiated the opening of the emotional floodgate, it is because he understands the inevitability of disaster. He doesn’t reach this conclusion all on his own though. Tomoka (a girl who is infatuated with Yori and who caught him and his sister kissing) plants the seed of fear within him, using her knowledge as an implied, but not explicit leverage against him.

THE DREAMERS and MY SISTER, MY LOVE also relate in the way that close council to the twins in each story try to show them the "error" of their ways. For Isa and Theo, it is Matthew who has their best interests at heart. “You won’t grow like this. Not if you keep clinging to each other the way that you do” he tells them, among many other purely intentioned, subtle and/or direct pleas towards sensibility. “Why, why are you so cruel?” Isa replies to Matthew, afraid to see his truth. For Iku and Yori it is Tomoka, a meddlesome self-interested party that tries to lure Yori out of his kindred coupling via fear peddling. But the character of Yano is the other half of this binary role of council. Yano is Yori’s best friend who is unfaulteringly honest in both his feelings for Iku, and his eventual effacing of those feelings, though pure of heart, for Yori’s sake, as revealed in two key conversations between them. "You still like Iku?" Yori asks. "I like her." Yano replies without batting an eye. "Are you thinking of stealing her away from me?" "Thinking about you want me to?" Yano asks back, understanding Yori's guilt and hesitation. And a later conversation reveals his true bond with Yori, something we have sensed all along in Yano's actions and tones: Yano says, "If you waver you're done for. Don't lie about your own feelings. Using one girl to forget another is useless. Isn't it right to tell the one you like 'I like you'...even if it is your sister?" Similarly to Matthew, Tomoka says to Yori as she holds him back from chasing after a distressed Iku, “If you go after her now, things will never change.” This is true, but her motivations are pretense to her fixation. “You are so cruel” Iku says to Yori before she runs, having just found out that Yori accepted Tomoka as his girlfriend (even though he made it clear Tomoka that he doesn’t love her and that their relationship is a pathetic front). “If we keep this up, you will only get hurt” Yori says to Iku. But obviously, the hurt has already been had, and it has come from Yori himself. Or as Yano says, "It cant be helped... BECAUSE you like her." Iku is justifiably broken and, like Isa, is not prepared to face the truth in her loves’ gesture.

Subsequently, one cant help but feel the same sting when in THE DREAMERS Isa pleads to Theo, “It will always be you and me, right?” And likewise in MY SISTER, MY LOVE, Iku says to Yori, “I...can only love you, Iku.”

The second film I drew upon when watching MY SISTER, MY LOVE was Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). The manner in which these two sets of characters, (Jack Twist and Ennis Delmar equating Iku and Yori) who are interminably drawn to one another, allow the fear of that love's "wrongness" and the assumption of grave consequence to unravel it. Pain comes from within their binary orbits, not necessarily from without. Ennis and Yori emulate one another because they share in their consuming fear of reprimand (better describes as a complacency in fear tinged with genuine concern). Hiding away in an empty dark classroom Iku asks “why can’t we hold hands in front of other people? I really don't like that. What about you?” “For me, it's ok to remain like this, if it means we can be together," Yori responds. Ennis does the same thing to Jack, by relegating their love to camping retreats on Brokeback Mountain, and rejecting Jack’s open pleas for them to move somewhere, get a cattle farm together…to live and work together. Ennis always has an excuse,, but you can see the confliction and insecurity that riddles him.“This thing gets a hold of us in the wrong place, at the wrong time…” Alternately, Jack and Iku are full and at the mercy of their love, wanting nothing besides, despite it’s flaunting of convention.

The scene in which Yori admits his love to Iku , which occurs early in the first act, is strongly akin to first love scene between Jack and Ennis, but with a complete inversion of pacing. The pitch in the explosive scene from BOKEBACK MOUNTAIN undulates masterfully, offering a confusion of push and pull and the unprepared shattering of an invisible tension as Ennis, startled from sleep by an unconscious advance by Jack, half wrestle themselves into making love. In MY SISTER, MY LOVE, that same pitch, in that same kind of moment, is drawn out and slowed to a whisper. The push and pull is the same, but it’s the difference between a hammer swing and a pin-drop, both working perfectly in their respective contexts. Yori sits down next to a warmly lit slumbering Iku, holds her hand and gently kisses it, and then hovers his face above hers, awakening her as their lips almost touch. Even after she awakes, Yori holds in his hover, and the two look straightly at one another without a wisp of air between them. Yori admits his feelings to her slowly, and his inability to restrain them any longer. He gives her an ultimatim; “Decide now. Be with me or with other guys. If you want to be with me, you will show me with a kiss. I've lied to myself, ever since I was a child. I don't want to let go anymore." "So putting this all on me. So mean...that you decided this all by yourself" she softly accuses. But Iku, after her resistant sharpness, acquiesces, and she reciprocates Yori's openness with a kiss. What’s most interesting about these kindred scenes is that both of them unravel as one unbroken handheld shot, but utilize entirely different pacing and extents of disclosure, and still manage to approximate one another's meaning and urgency .

After a second act, in which Yori underhandedly distances himself from Iku, entering a shell of a relationship with Tomoka, MY SISTER MY LOVE ends where it began. In the final sequence of the film, a reunited Iku and Yori travel together by train to the field from their childhood. “Let’s go there. We can make rings for each other and say it again [the marriage proposal from the opening scene],” Yori suggests. But what the twins arrive at is not a lush sun-bathed field, but a bristled barren patch that holds no measure of its former glory. Yori says with a kind of sullen astonishment,“As expected... We really can’t go back…to that time, and that place.” Now, what could descend into a bout of sentimental melodrama is kept in check by Ando’s sensibilities of moderation. Ando doesn’t delude with an unlikely sense of hope, or a strained delusion that the twins can perpetuate their love affair without garnering future rebuke, or that that rebuke may not eventually sour their unity. He also inversely doesn’t saturate us in melancholia or pity. Instead Ando crafts a resolution that is, in a sense perfect because it doesn’t deviate too far from the emotional center of the film and break its crucial tonal consistency. By this I mean, that in the twins’ solemn acceptance of the impossibility of their love to actualize in the way that they desire, they devastate us but don’t let us hit the ground; a metaphor held beautifully in an incredible extended handheld shot of Iku and Yori playing a childhood game of piggy-back, in which a game of jan-ken-po (rock-paper-scissors) every 10 paces determines the mule. “I lied. For Iku to be my bride...I can't do it,” Yori says in muted sobs, with Iku on his back, her hair draped over her face and his shoulder, holding on to him with such apparent love.

Unlike Theo and Isa of THE DREAMERS and Jack and Ennis of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, who choose fatalism over a future, Iku and Yori choose to consider the facts and come to a pained but rational appreciation of the impossibility of their continued romance. They choose to spare themselves unremitting suffering in the future, and are able to make the decision on their own terms, rather than concede to an imposed mechanism (not that conventions of accepted love aren’t at fault here). Iku and Yori can still be together, share with each other, and even love one another…its now simply a matter of extent. Restraining love is a painful thing to endure, especially when it is for the person closest to you…but it CAN be endured. They’ve known that kind of denial all their lives. In a way, it is a return to form for both of them. And so Iku buries the small broken flower that Yori picked the night before in remembrance of his childhood marriage proposal, leaving the icon of their love precisely where it was born. “Having the memory of this flower being here…makes me feel better,” she says. And after playing a childhood game tinged with finality, they pull themselves together, wear a smile, and walk hand in hand through a dry open field, on with their lives.

MY SISTER, MY LOVE is a minor masterpiece of centered and confident storytelling, restrained and judicious editing, and beautiful but humble cinematography, all of which combine to best serve its tone, content, and performances. Sure, Ando employs a certain conventionality in the film’s overall arc and three-act structure, but the pacing, tact, and manner of simple non-affronting candor with which he navigates that arc is what sets it apart from any commonality.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)......8.5/10

“I affirm life despite everything.” -Juan Antonio (Bardem)

When I think on Vicky Christina Barcelona I do not wallow in the mire of a pointless existence, even though there are underpinnings of this attitude in the finale of the film, which brings each character, principle and peripheral, in spite of their actions, right back to where they started, stifling their actualization, slave to their old moralities, emotional trends, and life decisions. It’s a powerful note to end on, the futility of our efforts as emotional irrational individuals, but again, I don’t remain on it too long. This feeling, intentionally or not, isn’t made to resonate as deeply and lastingly as the films overarching elements of sensuality, complex love, the challenging of our moralized concepts of love (ie commitment, marriage, exclusivity, orientation, etc), and the vulnerability we experience in love being so close to the kind we experience in travel. However ironic, I felt affirmed of life after watching this film. And even though I sometimes have little sympathy for the woes of the wealthy, especially those that can summer in Spain without batting an eye, I'm continuously interested in Allen's dissection of the subject, and his career spanning reveal of the cross-class inevitability of emotional starvation.

Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), the empassioned, intrepid, and quite forward Spanish painter who boldly propositions single Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and engaged Christina (Scarlett Johansson), two friends on summer holiday in Spain, to join him for a weekend in his hometown, speaks of love and life as transient, and so this translates into the unfolding of the film itself. Things never feel constant. But no matter the brevity of experiences, they are still had, emotions are felt, and we are changed in accumulation, no matter how concealed we are about it. Vicky Christina Barcelona doesn’t follow a straight narrative path. Rather it deviates and accumulates, allowing things to fall in and out of sync with one another.

Vicky… keeps a curious softness throughout, despite the innate seriousness of its mingled ideas of expectation, love, and futility. This is due in part to Allen’s dynamic lightly incisive writing, and due also to having elected cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her), to shoot Vicky. The result is a sensuous and yet mildly stated series of softly moving, sunlight bathed, intimate sequences that showcase Spain as much as the tumult of characters discovering, breaking, and then rebuilding their personal boundaries. For a film so attentive to the Spanish setting and the intimate experience of two women within those borders, it was a perfect choice to utilize someone of cultural knowing and familiarity to capture their images. Helping this visual moderation along, Allen never saturates his film in any kind of situationally obvious gratuities, like depictions of explicit sexuality, and yet there is a constant weave of sensuality and eroticism, not unlike the heightened sensitivity of people about to make love.

The character of Vicky, the determined, intellectual, pragmatic, and generally unimpulsive brunette who is an emotional foil to Christina’s cavalier, is most certainly channeling Allen himself in her qualities and pentameter, as is the film as a whole. But the trinity of Vicky, Christina, and Juan Antonio are more so an equivalency to the moral trinity of Allen’s last effort, Cassandra’s Dream. If Ian (McGregor) stands for the one who can disagree with but stomach a grave immorality (murder) in concern for his ambition, and his brother Terry (Farrell) is the one who cannot cope and cripples with guilt and self-disgust after the transgression, and their uncle Howard (Wilkinson) is the completely unsentimental schemer who commissions the murder in pure self-interest, then Christina is Ian in her impulsiveness and wide-eyed self-concern, Vicky is Terry in her seduction into breaking her moral code and the resonance of her guilt and moderate psychological unraveling, and Juan Antonio is Howard. Juan Antonio is not at all the insistent, detached, and calculating man that Howard is, but he shares both in his directness and in his ability to move on unbroken by losses and experiential transience, never void of, but never crippled by nostalgia.

Some have put forth that Cruz’s character Maria Elena, Juan’s tempestuous ex-lover, is nothing more than an attractive distraction from the films moderate and less-than-causal unfolding, with her surprise arrival halfway into the film (which is only the continuation of her constant mention by Juan to Vicky and Christina). To consider that true is to be in neglect of her bountiful functionality within Vicky Christina Barcelona’s weave of self-defeatisms and imbalanced passions. Maria and Juan’s fervent but otherwise poison-spitting romance offers Christina, who moves in with Juan and is the better fit than the frank and focussed Vicky, a venue to be sensually, creatively, and emotionally actualized. Christina repeatedly iterates how she has so much love and so many ideas to offer, but doesn’t know how, or have the talent to, share them. She floats through life half-finishing things, bursting with new passions and then straying as they fizzle. The strength of this amorous intermediary capacity, with her own heart being the bond between two others as she enters into a triangular relationship, is what emphasizes how systemic what Maria Elena describes as “chronic dissatisfaction” truly is for Christina.

Maria Elena encourages Christina to follow her existing penchant for photography. And so it burgeons into a promising creative outlet for Christina. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio even build her a darkroom so that she can explore her craft. Maria Elena convinces Christina to take photographs with film rather than in digital so that there is no intermediary between her and the tactility of creating and making art, and in the end it is but another layer of sensuality added to the film’s texture. Not only do Maria and Juan help Christina actualize herself creatively, but also actualize sexually. And what’s more is that they offer Christina the opportunity to be a ‘facilitator.’ Christina is “the missing piece” of the Juan and Maria puzzle, that in its absence results in erratic and violently empassioned frustrations. Maria attempts suicide twice in fact, and almost accidentally kills Vicky, now married to her fiancé Doug who flew to Spain for an early ceremony, when she meets Juan for a final rondezvous.

“Maria Elena and I are meant for each other and not meant for each other. It’s a contradiction. Maybe you have to be a poet like my father to understand it, but I don’t.” With Christina, a balance is earned between Juan and Maria. It may be partly to do with her existential insecurities that create an avenue of focus for Juan and Maria, and maybe it is Christina’s passivity that radiates and softens them. In any case, she brings stability and an idealism along with these qualities.

Amidst all of this compounded positivity and direction lavished upon Christina, she still finds her commitments wavering and finally dissolving. Just as Juan describes his polarized romance with Maria as a contradiction, Vicky is also slave to her own contradiction. She fears complacency and yet is continuously complacent in her distancing from situations, places, and people. Juan Antonio understands this, so when Christina breaks up with him and Maria Elena, he is the calmest and most sensitive person in the room, pleading to an enraged and wounded Maria that Christina will find the right person one day, but that it simply is not them. He brings them together in an embrace and tells them to think upon and be thankful for the love and happiness that they had fleetingly created together.

After all that happens, of which there is MUCH I have not mentioned, everyone ends up at the starting line again, no matter what individual paths they took during the summer. Vicky is still looking for the elusive “something more,” Christina is married just like she always planned on being even though there is an irreparable splinter in her formal concept of commitment and stable love, and Maria and Juan are unable to be with each other despite their kindred nature. It seems dismaying, but if you get caught up in the “what’s the purpose of life if we all suffer and ultimately cease to exist” you wont see each moment for its own sake. I’m reminded of a line from the recent incarnation of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in which the character of Charles Ryder says with such clarity “I want to look back on my life, and say…that I lived…” It is exactly the line I dwelt on as Vicky Christina Barcelona closed its curtain.

Friday, April 25, 2008

HELP ME EROS (2008)....7.5/10

"New Blood Draws on Old Themes:
-Taiwan New Cinema' Seeks an Identity of Fearlessness"

Anyone familiar with the Taiwan New Cinema movement of the past 20 years, or comparatively the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (TASTE OF CHERRY), or even select works of Michaelangelo Antonioni (L’AVVENTURA), will be better apprised of how to palate Lee Kang-Sheng’s sophomore effort, HELP ME EROS (2008), with it’s long uninterrupted shots (30sec-5min), navigation of peculiar but banal human experience, dire scarcity of dialogue, metered accumulation-based narrative arches, and social commentary mostly devoid of irony (reminiscent of Italian Neorealism). The addition of EROS’s more abhorrent sexual leanings seats it on the mantle of recent permutations of the Taiwan filmic movement (THE WAYWARD CLOUD, I DONT WANT TO SLEEP ALONE) that delve into the marginalized mire of modernity, and makes it very much of the modern generational context, a new floating socio-political context that garners old wounds. Those new to such labored undistracted tenets of filmmaking may be affronted by the patience required, but their design is such that each moment is held extensively and deliberately so that every detail within it can become accessible to the viewer, burgeoning an experiential and dimensional understanding almost by force.

HELP ME EROS is an ambitious and unrelentingly beautiful film, that is also unfortunately at odds with itself, suspended somewhere between prose and grit but uncomfortable in such tonal ambiguity. EROS unfolds in a world of too little or too much gravity; a stagnant orbit of emotionally starved semi-dimensional characters, fluorescent light, sexual escapism, and commerce, suffering incongruity alongside boldness and brilliance. While writer/director Lee Kang-Sheng mostly overstates his existential meanings with non-diegetic songs that spell out woes like a bludgeon, and falls short in terms of blending his content and aesthetics as a whole, he does succeed marvelously within visual moments, of which there is no shortage. It is these moments of perfectly framed peculiarity, poignancy, comedy, and loneliness in collage, rather than blending, that buoy HELP ME EROS to success. Lee Kang-Sheng’s visual language is his strongest asset, with notable thanks to Tsai Ming-Liang as production designer, and helps to enhance if not mask what is otherwise a rather conventional narrative arch.

The opening tracking shot introduces Shin; by all accounts a beautiful petit Taiwanese woman, who slowly emerges from a pitch black street, drawing her rolling suitcase behind her on the concrete into a swath of neon light emanating from a street-side bar. The bar hosts a cast of scantly clad women of similar descriptions to Shin. This haunting lateral shot, beginning with sounds and barely perceptible movement in a pitch-black frame and slowly graduating to a pocket of neon glow, implies rather strongly that this dwelling of commerce commingled with iniquity and fantasy is an oasis or a haven amidst urban anonymity…and in a way it is, but one that stagnates its population more than heals them. If nothing else it fatefully brings our main characters together.

Following this sequnce, we are introduced to Ah Jie, the newly destitute, casually suicidal protagonist played by writer/director Lee Kang-Sheng, in a long angular shot from within his apartment, watching him like a security camera as he embraces a large, coiled, snakelike pillow, staring at the plasma screen on his wall. Cinematographer Pen Jung-Liao uses this ‘security camera’ angle often, which tends to enhances the banality and detachment of moments, if not obscure them subtly, rather than suggest any type of voyeurism. Ah Jie is watching a cooking show in which the Chef, who actually becomes a peripheral character in the narrative, is preparing a dish in which a fish is clubbed, scaled, splayed, and served while still alive, its mouth gasping as it suffocates in open air. The sound of it flopping violently but feebly in the stainless steel sink is dismally memorable. This calls to mind a scene from Korean filmmaker Kim Ki Duk’s THE ISLE (2001) in which a man callously slices off the flanks of a fish for sushi, and then tosses it back in the water to creep out his girlfriend, revealing as it swims away, raw and razed, that it can indeed survive in such a wounded state. Ah Jie listens to the assistant who asks the chef, “What do you think its thinking?” “Help me” he replies. And so in one image and one line Lee Kang-Sheng sets up roughly the entirety of his character’s disposition. We switch to close-up and see Ah Jie is smoking a joint and coughing quietly, as he does through out the film, staring half frightened and disgusted at the sight of the gaping-mouthed fish…perhaps most frightened because it is a grisly mirror of himself, as suggested by its persistence to remain in the frame with him. Ah Jie is splayed economically if you will, and gasping in the vacuum of former wealth, which mutates into a kind of anaerobic materialism. It is noteworthy to consider a similarly natured scene from Tsai Ming-Liang’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (2001) in which Lee Kang-Sheng’s equivalently dispossessed character, Hsiao Kang, embraces a pillow while watching television in a state of discomfort, again keeping both himself and the tv screen framed. Hsiao Kang is in fact watching Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS (1959), which likewise informs heavily on his character’s literal and cognitive identity.

EROS’s other principle character is Chyi, a helpline operator whom Ah Jie calls exclusively to share his mumbled sorrows and his dispassionate notions of the futility of existence, while he secretly fantasizes about her beauty. Truthfully, Chyi is obese and desperately lonely within a vacant marriage, her own existential vacuum. Her husband is the Chef from the program Ah Jie was watching, and he uses Chyi as more of a beefeater for his bizarre culinary creations than a companion of any sort. He cooks for her constantly and is mostly responsible for her transformation into an overweight terminally depressed woman, whom he is physically revolted by (compounded by the fact that he is gay), but she propels her own misery as well by complacency.

In his destitution Ah Jie becomes almost singularly obsessed with growing and salvaging his small marijuana crop. He saturates the plants in florescent light and breathes on them to make sure they have enough CO2, “so they can get better, like I need to.” In the meantime, Ah Jie and Shin get together. They’re both detached and floating, and that mutual experience, coupled by convenience (Ah Jie lives above the bar where she works), brings them together. But basically, all they do is smoke and fuck. I say fuck not to be crass, but because they simply don’t “make love.” These are not sensitive experiences, per se. They are base and vigorous. Only once do they choose a sexual position that demands they look at one another. After the near comical standing sex montage in a glowing white room on top of which is played an ethereal buddhist-like chanting, Ah Ji is shown talking online with Chyi with a yet unaffected indifference to life. “No one would care if I was gone” he writes, after which he asks, “Who is the fat chick next to you?” in regards to her 'buddy icon,' not realizing,or course, that its her. “That’s my friend. She used to be skinny but her husband cooks for her every day.” Chyi lies to Ah Ji to keep her own fantasy alive, and subsequently feeds his, even as she holds a corn cob between her teeth in order to type her deceit. Ah Jie and Shin are lying down side by side naked in the now dim room. Shin distracts Ah Ji from his conversation, one fantasy to another, and begins to kiss and finger his anus, laying down on top of his back in the opposite direction. Shin’s adamant oral stimulation is transcendent in that it underscores the analogous nature of herself and Chyi (a chronic eater), as purveyors of base coping mechanisms under the gravity of the same character; Ah Jie.

Thus the electrifyingly banal stage of desperation and escapism has been set, leading, in a series of crafted but utterly simple moments, to a particularly acute self-reflexive flourish of a climax, and the last of the explicitly sexual scenes (which punctuate the film, if not precede and outlive it). After a failed kidnapping of one of Shin’s coworkers, all the girls retreat to Ah Jie’s apartment to smoke themselves into solace. Ah Jie inhales deep full breaths of smoke, and blows them into the lungs of others at the near closeness of a kiss. This is something he came up with on his first night with Shin. It reflects his method of breathing on the marijuana plants, an ironic gesture of life-giving with an injurious vehicle. The apex of this sequence is a nocturnal rooftop ménage-a-trois in which Ah Jie and two of the girls form a pyramid of oral copulation, while Shin smilingly observes the hedonism, the same haunting and tonally serious chanting from the standing sex montage is played over top and lends an urgency or impending anxiety to the moment. While the sex in this scene is rather intense, spilling into yet another montage of near absurdist positions, it is heightened into the more dimensional language of HELP ME EROS by a swathing of the three naked writhing bodies in designer patterns, projected in light, as though it were their very skin. I was immediately reminded of the scene in JURASSIC PARK (1993) in which the GAACATTGA sequencing of DNA amino acids is projected onto the skin of a Velociraptor, as though it were the ceiling grating just above it that held the patter within its mesh.

This visual event makes resonant sense within HELP ME EROS’s filmic dialect, even though it takes on a seemingly new dimension. In reality, this phenomenon has occurred before, on multiple occasions, in multiple capacities, from very early on, however by more naturally occurring means. For example, early in the film, Ah Jie sits on a sill in his apartment with the window open, smoking a joint, lulled by the quiet city murmur. He is talking to Chyi on his cell phone, mumbling his discontent once again. The blinking neon sign of the bar downstairs is reflected in the open windowpane, which is subsequently superimposed, projected if you will, on Ah Jie’s face, for it lies between him and the picture plane. What gives the scene most of its consequence is the fact that it’s shot on a fixed diagonal, a small decision that removes the moment marginally from reality. Compound the diagonal angle with the contextual reality of the scene; not only is the reflected blinking neon sign superimposed upon his face coming from an establishment that unabashedly sells the male fantasy of scantly clad women of ideal beauty and frail femininity, but Ah Jie is simultaneously projecting his own cerebral fantasy about Chyi. He imagines her as the thin, soft-skinned woman next to Chyi in her buddy icon, but barely clad in a in a red plaid schoolgirl uniform, twisted about and writhing on her cubicle desk amidst all the other focused workers. Ah Ji blows smoke into his phone and it travels to her lungs on the other end, an arousing transcendent gesture. Here we have driven home the core ideas behind the film; that desire shapes both our content as human beings, and our perception of the world and its tenets. Cognitive fantasy and tactile reality seem to occupy a similar space within the film, constantly overlapping one another. In the key of ‘projections,’ the characters and mise-en-scene of HELP ME EROS are constantly bathed in the projected neon glow of urbanity and commerce, neon lights are reflected deliberately in mirrors and windows alongside characters, compounded by, if not informing, the constant attitudinal/behavioral projection of ‘materialism through fantasy’ that all the characters externalize, not just the three leads.

During the rooftop ménage-a-trois we encounter a critical and final shifting in the nature of materialisms, which drive the film. EROS’s “materialism” adapts from a branded and possessive type, to a sensual escapist materialism of sex and smoke. Ah Ji repeatedly tries to sell his possessions at a pawn-shop to supplement cash, such as, aptly enough, his wallet, and increasingly retreats to his desolate realm of smoking, sexuality, and the externalization of cognitive fantasy. The designer patterns that are projected onto the entangled bodies precisely embodies this notion of sexual escape as a “sensual materialism,” and is placed at the apex of this transitional arch.

Tangential communication, another of the films critiques, reigns in HELP ME EROS, and calls to mind the devices, sheen, and censure of the third act of Hou-Hisao Hsien’s THREE TIMES (2005) entitled “A Time For Youth,” which is marvelously successful in being both labored and concise in its vision. Not only does EROS have people displaced in or victim to their own surroundings, but they extend themselves indirectly and incompletely to others. E-mail, text-messaging, phone calls, sex, cooking, television; all these modalities are used paramount over actual conversation. In fact, Ah Jie, at his most desperate, wishing he could make amends with Shin who has left him and returned to the country after his selfish outburst, asks one of the girls at the bar to “help me text her.” To recapture the woman he finds he actually cares about, and who actually exists as he experiences her, he chooses an even more removed gesture of communication. Ah Jie was curt and explosive to Shin after finally discovering that Chyi is in fact not the beautiful woman he had mistaken her as. Shin is literally the only person to speak the truth of the moment in this film, lashing back at Ah Jie’s childish behavior, but not knowing the reason behind it. By demolishing Ah Jie’s marijuana plants, kicking the dirt around in her silver miniskirt and absurd yellow pleather heals, she tries to break him out of his pathetic spiral of self-loathing self-delusion. “I can’t live without it” he says.

Tangentiality extends to the visual realm of HELP ME EROS as well. Sexual participants never look at one another; faces are almost always burrowed, eating out orifices in a way of relating to the obese helpline woman who is given food instead of love, scenes captured entirely in reflections or partly in security cameras, etc. Again, the visual dimension of HELP ME EROS is chiefly its most successful, if not sometimes obvious.

Along the way of this beautiful but incongruous film, Lee Kang-Sheng hints at a broader social context; that of the suspended cultural identity of Taiwan, through diegetic news bulletins about the ‘Opposition Party’ and demonstrations at the National Day Celebrations, but these sidenotes are far too late in their mention and feel tacked on to a film that doesn’t have enough confidence in its own strictly existential substance. Tsai-Ming Liang (executive producer, production designer) is a far greater artist in that capacity because he weaves social contexts into his work more subliminally and thoroughly. In this vein, however, Hou-Hisao Hsien (THREE TIMES, CAFÉ LUMIERE) may be the greatest of the Taiwan New Cinema filmmakers because he is able to utilize socio-political references even more thoroughly and diegetically than even Liang. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s narratives unfold in normal, virtually unstylized social realms, where the public and private constantly breath into one another, and where social contexts arise as seemingly haphazard realities of the moment even though they are actually meticulously woven in.

The final act of HELP ME EROS holds its most jarring and affecting sensory moment, which ironically has nothing to do with sexuality. After spending almost 90 minutes steeped in the dim and dank urbanity of Kaohsiung, with its nocturnal interplay of neon glow and shadows, we are thrust into the lushness of a beetlenut forest in clean even daylight. The transition is so sudden and striking that it makes your head spin for a moment. We spend only a short while in this place, but in its presence we gather a truly sensitive and soft feeling for the first time in the film. We observe Shin helping collect beetlenut branches, and working presumably with her father. We wonder why she would leave this lush serenity for the city, but after some thought, it appears that the same kind of dull anonymity exists out there as well.

Now that Shin has left, and Ah Jie is unable to contact her, he tries to take his own life, something he’s been pondering and putting off for the entire film. He closes all the windows, opens the valve of the CO2 tank in his claustrophobic kitchen, and lays prostrate on the floor. It’s either ironic or perfect that he should choose this method of all methods to kill himself because throughout the film he is trying to offer life and calm with respiration; breathing his CO2 to sustain the marijuana plants, and smoke into peoples lungs to make them forget their woes. In a slightly comic twist, he runs out of gas, failing in his first suicide attempt. This calls to memory a scene very early in the film. Ah Ji is talking on the phone to Chyi while the teakettle whistles at a scream. He allows the flame to burn for the duration of the scene, which lasts roughly 5 minutes in a single take. He is, therefore, to blame for his own incapacity to commit suicide. Not realizing that Shin has just returned, heeding his urgent calls perhaps, Ah Jie decides to jump out of his apartment building window, from three stories up. Choosing to jump out the window is ironic as well because it was Chyi who suggested in their first conversation, the very same scene in which he lets the tea-kettle boil too long, to open his windows in order to lift his depression.

As he opens the window the sounds of the bustling city below swell into the apartment, and we get a sense of life rather than death. But Ah Jie is resolute, and we are rewarded by a gorgeous if not overly sentimental metaphoric ending, in which we see not his bloodied fallen corpse, but an endless rain of lottery tickets covering the swatch asphalt and concrete on which he and Shin ahd met. Shin stands in the elegant storm of paper, wearing little angle wings that catch the tickets on their curves like new feathers, looking up with tears of understanding. If not for the melodramatic and simplistic song of love lamented played over top, this moment might have been totally palatable, but alas, Lee Kang Sheng is still purging his more youthful or sophomoric approaches to cinema. All things considered though, his is certainly a name to look out for in the realm of new filmmaking, with bold ideas that I feel will become less and less derivative and more and more congruous and confident as he progresses.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

PARIS (2008)..........8.5/10

The strength of PARIS lies in being steeped in its own disjointed nature. Cedric Klapisch, who’s last two films L’aberge Espagnol and Russian Dolls, were more or less about the thrusting together of people or the recapturing of those friendships, whereas PARIS hinges more on a despairing and inherent note of separation, and the reigning faculty of chaos, albeit with the undercurrent of people pulling towards one another. PARIS is thusly inclined, both in story and structure, from the first frame to the last. Particularly telling of the films philosophy were the beautiful opening shots through a rain-beaten car windshield. It produces blurred images of urbanity, becoming clear with the swipe of the blade, only to again be obscured.

PARIS is an interweaving tiered narrative of human fragmentation told through structural fragmentation and shades of coincidence, however not one which is unnatural or imposed. (For my own purposes, this review will be as equally fragmented). Though ultimately each of the characters are together in geography, and therefore encounter each other to varying degrees, they are more or less just swimming in a fishbowl of concrete and glass. The editing of the film is to be commended for the levity and subtlety it affords us in swaying each narrative thread into the other, if only to have one character ride past another on a bicycle, enter the bakery in which another character has just been hired, order produce from them regularly at the open air market, or to see them unknowingly from a passing taxi while making a perfectly apt judgment about them.

Not surprisingly, PARIS has a distinct global sensibility because of the diversity of peoples and places exposed within the film. Ranging from the center of Paris to its scaffolded outskirts, from the wealthy to the working class, to immigrants risking reprimand and exhaustion to get to the ‘city of lights’ from north Africa. Again, this isn’t an imposed quality. It is one that arises as a natural observable element of the city and the manner in which the world is indeed getting smaller. Within this diversity is a common root, and in afflicting each person with the same emotional forces, shows both an external and an internal universality.

Based on this observation it seems apt to mention that through out PARIS’ course, I was reminded of the Vietnamese film THREE SEASONS (1999), which quite gracefully (almost to a fault) follows four characters that are swimming in the marginalized malaise of modern Ho Chi Minh City, and is a tonal match to PARIS, if not a few shades less humorous. It too bears ‘the city’ in all its pervasive grit and glory, holds to the same mentality of disillusionment amidst modernity, broadens its scope with diversity (a white American is one of the main characters), and forgives its own sentimentality with strokes of harsh emotional complexity.

Paris, the living, breathing, aching city is so palpable and ubiquitous a presence that the title of the film is unmistakably appropriate. The capturing of the city to such a degree was not merely haphazard, but is a careful and artful testament to the visual dynamic of a Klapisch film. Kudos to Christophe Beaucarne for his photographic economy and fluidity.

PARIS purports that there may be a kind of perspective above all of that weaves convolutedly in the streets. I’ll borrow a quote from THE DREAMERS (2004). “We look around us…complete chaos. But when viewed from above, viewed as it were, by god, everything fits together.” This notion is a jumping-off point, if you will, for a number of thread intersections, and is instilled in the omniscience of the character of Pierre (Duris), a former dancer and now a recluse in his fifth story apartment, who overlooks the chaos of urbanity and humanity in a state of his own ever impending death. I don’t think he sees the world “fitting together” as the quote suggests so cleanly, but he certainly attains a kind of uniformity in his observations and judgments. His sentimentality and intrigue, if not his disdain for those who reject theirs, arises mostly from what potential is taken from him by this chance heart condition. In this state of suspended life, as is often the case, Pierre acquires a kind of unpretentious wisdom and fervor in awakening others (particularly his sister) to their own stifling self-loathing.

One of the bridging ideas in PARIS, and for that matter THREE SEASONS, is the warring simultaneity of “the traditional and the modern.” The character of Roland Verneui (Luchini), a Sorbonne history professor afeared of his vintage and eccentricity, says to his class that the idea of a ‘rooted traditional culture, oppressed and struggling against the waves of modernity is a myth in a sense, because modernity itself is defined by or built upon the mingling of all that came before and all that is strived for afterward. Modernity doesn’t exist without its predecessors.

Beyond this kind of talk, Klapisch brings the issue of generational conflict into the concrete realm. The character Roland, a historian of the city’s past, has an architect for a brother, Francois, building the proverbial future of Paris. Furthermore, Roland, who feels he has mutated into a vessel of ineptitude and verbosity, seeks the affections, via anonymous text messages, of a vibrant and generously featured female student named Laetitia (Laurent). The fact that he is using text messaging in his tactic is perfectly beneath his demographic, and therefore is well suited to holding the tension between ‘modern and traditional.’ Though maybe it isn’t so beneath a character who describes himself as still feeling like he’s 15, and so burgeons the topical complexity of PARIS. Among the other threads, Pierre’s sister Elise (Binoche), brings herself and her children to live with him in his dying days. Elise is a divorced mother of age 40, and is sadly discouraged by the prospect of ever meeting someone again romantically, at her age. So in this pocket of the film, we have the brimming lives of Elise’s children that have just begun to live, and that of Pierre which is standing on the mortal threshold.

There are nuances abounding in this sprawling film that are caught only by the net of a city grid. There is much more teaming in its moments, threads I haven’t mentioned, and ranges in emotion than I have neither time or inclination to discuss. In the end however, PARIS is a near masterpiece of disjointed continuity, if I might coin a term. What ultimately ties these threads of humanity together is not tactile per se (beyond the city as a vessel of their malaise), but ideological or thematic. Each character or group of characters are united in their experiences of death, in their clumsily striving for connection or rebuilding, and in their simply being confoundingly imperfect and simply driven creatures. And like so many films about disconnection in the modern era; BABEL, NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE, the result of the narrative is a proof by contradiction. It seems to be inevitable that they will reveal that which connects, in spite of the prevalence what separates us.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


It is perhaps ironic that a film which concerns itself with the rebuilding of a man's capacity for speech, has left me without words of my own.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

CASANDRA’S DREAM (2007)…..8.5/10

Woody Allen has certainly still got game. His most recent effort CASANDRA”S DREAM, which effectively erased SCOOP from my pained memory, is a film in step with MATCHPOINT (2005) and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989), but it unfolds in an even plainer fashion than either. It’s unlikely savagely humorous at times…if your adept to that brand, but is otherwise an acute and dismal affair. Even in the first hopeful rustlings, with brothers Ian and Terry musing over purchasing a small boat as a bright escape from their lives of stifling mediocrity, there lies the seed of an unraveling, perhaps merely for the coupling of the brothers’ aspirations with a dim overcast sky. What truly turns the tide is their rather wealthy uncle who is willing to help them in their considerable financial goals (Ian wants to invest in Hotels, and Terry has a severe gambling debt) if they agree to do a terrible deed for him in return.

McGregor and Farrell are magnificently anonymous in their roles. Not that they're void of detail, but that they embody the kind of nearsighted, everyman desperation of the working class, which the film deftly hinges on. What CASANDRA thrives on however is the inevitability of ambition, the persistence of choice, and the absence of justice as an empirical ideal.

Vilmos Zsigmond, who famously worked on THE DEER HUNTER (1978) is at the top of his understated game as cinematographer in CASANDRA’S DREAM, having the camera often seem light and afloat, but still (an apt quality considering where the films namesake derives), avoiding any tight close-ups or shots from afar. The camera stays low and within the plane of action, appropriately for a film that would surely suffer from any loss of groundedness. As for the resulting visual experience, we don’t become complicit in the drama or morality per se, but are certainly made to reside within it, unable to effect the outcome, watching all the same. The story is all the more interesting because of this inclusive groundedness.

THE ORPHANAGE (2007)….8/10

Relative newcomer J.A. Bayona has fashioned an unexpected sense of sanity about the peculiarities of this tense psychological horror film. I hesitate to use the maxim of ‘horror’ to describe THE ORPHANAGE because of all the unfortunate resonance of mediocrity the term has. But rest assured, Bayona is, here, a confident and sensitive helmsman of precarious material.

Belen Rueda plays Laura, a mother suffering through the disappearance of her child from their new home; the very orphanage in which she lived as a child, that she has now purchased and renovated. Rather than simply and typically descending into a state of exponential madness, Laura retains a shade of self awareness about the stress, absurdity, and peculiarity of her increasing spectral encounters, encounters that hold clues to her sons whereabouts, even as she seems to actively deteriorate. I was surprised at the mostly rational mind she kept while suffering and mentally spiraling; thinking things through in the terms of the ghosts' own playful dogma, keeping a cautioned openness during the session with the medium (Geraldine Chaplin), etc.

The unfolding of the narrative is tactful, never relying on cheap, manipulative, or arbitrary tactics to frighten. All anxiety and tension arises from within the narratives construction, rather than, as in most horror films, from without. The gravity of the film arises from the wholly convincing emotional weight of the characters amidst their plight, and the subdued but eerie goings on. I’d be remiss to neglect that THE ORPHANAGE not only well written, but is also beautifully and hauntingly photographed. Cinematographer Oscar Faura avoids the cliché of overly personifying the house, turning it into a character of evil. The orphanage, as a structure, is simply the place in which something terrible happened (though it is not especially the focus of the drama). The austere of those unseemly events is palpably present, but doesn’t turn the house into some unlikely deviant structure. The characters are almost always present over the architecture anyway. For that, and many other tonal decisions, THE ORPHANAGE is quite reasonable in terms of what it expects the audience to believe or to swallow as far as the supernatural is concerned, making the finale and the 'medium' sequence resound that much more.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (2007)……10/10

Absolutly brave filmmaking. 4 MONTHS is an uncommon, unsparing, texturally unsentimental film that never “suffices to say” anything. It never cuts from a scene, complacent that the audience “gets it.” If it did cut, it would shatter the trenchant pillar of realism and well drawn anxiety on which it stands. I'm citing the agonizing dinner scene specifically because of what is going on simultaneously outside of the scene, and also inside Otilla's (the protagonist) churning thoughts. Not only are we steeped in the narrative tension almost by force, with long uninterrupted handheld shots, but we are made keenly aware, by that regard, from the very start, how difficult and pervasive the repression is that weighs upon Romanians at this time (late 80’s) and how it informs each characters attitude, regardless of the nature of ones goals. Just getting a pack of cigarettes, or booking a hotel room becomes an arduous task. The same kind of unmitigated attention is given to the entire spectrum of details within the film, and by this stroke avoids any hampering narrative singularity, considering the severity of its core subject. I find that in films of this stylistic nature (anything by Tsai Ming-liang), one can detect the greatest prevalence of and opportunity for nuance, whether deliberate or arbitrary. The longer you look, the more you see and can draw from. It builds a more experiential and much less passive medium.

Fortunately, the film does not placate us with a simplistic ‘victimizer/victim’ conventionality, and offers the unfolding of authentic, frail, confused, and at times pathetic characters that surprise at with their alternating fortitude and naivety, and a scenario that takes all the time it needs to accumulate its details.

As the credits roll, we retain the ability to form our own opinions about the issue concerned; a woman named Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) assisting her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in an illegal abortion, because 4 MONTHS doesn’t berate us with agenda or propaganda, nor does it stoop to any academic exposition. All we need to understand in order to appreciate this film is offered in its own language of editing and mood. What I sensed from the manner of Mongiu’s film is that these types of things [abortion] will be inevitable, no matter the hazard, and that as a solution, it bears great consequence no matter what the outcome. 'Pro-choice' or 'Pro-life' doesn't really enter into it except from the viewer's own position. That is what makes 4 MONTHS such a brimming success: its willingness to peer unabated, and its refusal to judge.

LUST, CAUTION (2007)….9.5/10

Ang Lee’s latest feature, taking place in Japanese occupied Shanghai, is a film lavished with classical aesthetic sensibilities and period detail, heightened by a bold streak of dimensional sexuality. LUST, CAUTION dips and sways between shades of noir, espionage, rending emotional portraiture, a story of youth and ignorance, and political period drama, never settling as but one of them. It’s a solution, not a mixture. A near perfect amalgam, helmed by two wealthily talented leads (Tony Leung, Wei Tang), a director in peak performance, and a warmly convincing family of idealistic friends daring to change their world.

Youthful and beautiful Wong Chia Chi (Tang) is a college girl that gets swept up into a novice resistance scheme by the ambition of her fellow theater group. After their promising start as patriotic performers, and realizing Wong Chia Chi's immersive capacity as a performer, they attempt to elevate their goals to ensnare and eliminate a local high ranking officer of the collaborationist government (Chinese that are aiding the Japanese occupation) named Mr. Lee, using Wong Chia Chi as sexual bait, so to speak, though not as such at first. The sexual nature of her mission arises as an unplanned but vital opportunity. Her cosmopolitan alias is Mrs. Mak, and her companions all have their own roles etched out from a false history. The scheme drags on and dredges her soul, getting ever more consuming and precarious, especially as it resumes after a long postponement.

The most effective, and least disguised tactic of the film is strictly narrative. LUST, CAUTION builds the catalyst and model of the young groups subversion agenda from their preexisting involvement in theater. No better tactile element threads the body of the film together, for it stems from their ambitious beginnings, to their subversion methodology, to their fatal and final curtain call. The groups last scene together,and the second to last scene in the film, is especially powerful because in it they kneel defeated at the stage of their execution; a stage without any audience but the night, completely stripped of their invented roles. As this unfolds, and the camera lifts above their heads to reveal the blackness of the quarry into which their bodies will fall, one can only recall the triumphant ovation and resounding cries by the audience, “China will not fall!” at the end of their first play together years before. “China will not fall!”

LUST, CAUTION builds a significant bridge to Lee’s previous film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, by exploring the emotional degradation that occurs in subverting ones own identity and inventing passions, which the young activists must do in order to, in turn, subvert the collaborationists. The irony continues further when we discover that, not only was Wong Chia Chi and her group watched unknowingly by actual resistance outfits eager to use them, but the collaborationist govt itself, was watching them as well, using Mr. Yee (Leung) as a convenient bait in order to gain information about the resistance cell. LUST, CAUTION rounds out as an elegant mobius strip of espionage, charade, and broken hearts that is so beautiful to behold.

PERSEPOLIS (2007)…..8.5/10

Marjane Satrapi’s film, which impressionistically trails her own experiences as an outspoken child from the Islamic Revolution in Iran, to her emotionally taxing years apart in Europe, is brimming with honesty, humor, and harsh history, with all the resonant capacities of a live action film…perhaps ironically even more so, for at moments it seems to extract the heart of an experience so purely, it comes across distilled to an essence.

PERSEPOLIS is structured and styled much in the manner of the director’s original graphic novel of the same title; incremental, sectional, flowing generally by virtue of chronology, but jumping from moment to moment. It was also animated purely by hand, with felt-tip tracing. This makes a tactile link between the two manifestations of this wonderful story; film and graphic novel. It’s uncommonly rich in its utter simplicity, and ever inventive for the same reason. What makes it even more appreciable is just how starkly different it is compared to the daunting prevalence of over-manufactured computer animated films being pumped out of Pixar and the like. PERSEPOLIS comes across as a retreat to basics, and yet speaks volumes more by its modest innovations.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)…....10/10

The Coen brothers offer up an utterly flawless display of craft, pacing, and mood. NO COUNTRY dwells in a similar moral territory to Allen’s MATCH POINT (2005), in that it exists in a world that operates firstly on chance and secondly on causality. It is a world in which “justice” is a lofty imposition of man without gravity. Also like MATCH POINT, the only character explicitly aware of the tenets of chance is a man with a gun. The man is Anton Chigur (Bardem), a grim and soulless specter of heedless violence, who is after a rather unfortunately fortuitous but resilient man named Llewelyn Moss (Brolin). Moss, a hunter from the Rio Grande, stumbles upon what looks like a slaughter, finding a stash of heroin and more than $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and sets the next two hours of atmosphere and tension in motion; a cat and mouse game between him and Chigur, only it’s more like a panther and mouse game. The back and forth of the film is punctuated by scenes involving the investigating Sheriff , Ed Tom Bell (Jones). He’s an oldtimer ready to be set out to pasture, and the barbarism of this ensuing match is proof enough to him, even though he deals merely in the aftermaths of its passing. "I feel overmatched" he explains. "I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it, but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know." Ed Tom Bell sees the world as a place thats grown inexorably harsh under his watch, but an old friend evens out the keel for him. "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming" relating a rather cruel story of many years past.

The preponderance of "what's coming" is a constant hanging question in NO COUNTRY, and is the crux of the films existential framework. Or rather, its that you "can't see what's comin' that propels the story, despite its rather fatalistic certainty. "Watcha doin?" a flirtatious woman asks Llewelyn poolside, just before his death. "Waitin for what's comin" he says back with a smirk and a lean. "You never see it" she says rather plainly. Or even earlier, Bell's deputy, at the sight of the drug deal slaughter says, "This sure is a mess, aint it?" "If it aint, it'll do till the mess gets here" Bell replies with a mix of nonchalance and concern.

The pacing is moderate and perfect, flowing no faster than the dust blown in the Texas breeze, but all the more gripping for it. The pacing roots NO COUNTRY on a scale we can appreciate without having to suspend our disbelief too far. Each character is so immediately rich and secretly complex, playing just beneath an archetype. The three leads (Jones, Bardem, Brolin) stand as a kind of attitudinal or moral ‘past, present, and future’ vehicle, which works as brilliantly as the trinity of moralities in Allen’s recent murder drama CASANDRA’S DREAM. In that sense the story is quite existential, with a manner that says as much in its measured language as it does in its likewise unfolding, recalling Antonioni’s masterwork THE PASSENGER (1975).

The greatest match that Chigur meets is neither Llewelyn, nor the hired contract killer Carson Wells (Harrelson), but little Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn's wife. She challenges him in a manner no one else had through out the film because she refuses his entire ideological model, and does so without bullets or braun. "Call it [the coin toss]. Its the best I can do." In refusing to call the coin toss on which her life was staked, saying to him "That coin 'aint got no say. It's just you" she rattles Chigur's idea that we are fixed in our design and convictions or that the best any of us can do in this desolate world is weigh our lives against something vastly arbitrary. She says like so many others, "You don't have to do this." What she gets across more than others however, at least to the audience, is that we needn't slave ourselves to ideologies and refuse to break the chains simply because of our seeming design. But as Chigur checks his boots on the way out of her mother's house, its clear he didn't absorb her meaning. He's the heedless soulless future...or is he past, present, and future. Chigur's curious nature reminds me of a despairing passage from the novel THE SORROW OF WAR by Bao Ninh. "Like the dead, one felt no fear, no enthusiasm, no joy, no sadness, no feelings for anything. No concerns and no hopes....and no regard for the clever or the stupid, the brave or the cowardly, friend or foe, life or death, happiness or sadness. It was all the same; it amounted to nothing."

The film, sparse but viciously taut, holds onto no one, and the body count rolls off the celluloid like so much water from a rain-beaten windshield, not stopping to sympathize, moralize, or heighten their passing. In fact, several significant deaths occur off-screen. This is a world that believes in no cannon of pure justice and understands that causality is but a pretense for the truth of chance, and NO COUNTRY refuses to satiate an audience with expectations of how a story should unfold.

Despite the preceding parade of ruthlessness, the final words of the film have an almost hopeful tinge to them. In the scene Tom Bell, now retired but just as amiss in respite as he was in the worlds violence, relates a dream to his wife, concerning him and his father. "When he [his father] rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do and I, I could see the horn from the light inside of it, about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead, and he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold... And I knew that whenever I got there he'd be there... Then I woke up." One might read into this sentiment that for every expanse of darkness or hazard in this forsaken world, there will be a soul prepared to bring a light into it. It suggests that both eventualities are inevitable.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

ATONEMENT (2007).......8/10

"The Clarity of Passion"

*contains many spoilers
In the first few minutes of the film, aspiring playwrite Broiny (Ronan) remarks to her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) that “in a book all you have to do is write the word ‘castle’ and you can imagine the steeple and walls…but in a play it’s difficult…it all depends on other people.” Indeed ATONEMENT proves how much of each persons life, each persons happiness, “depends on other people.” God help you if your architect is nearsighted. The fact that Broiny mentions this just before she next remarks of Cecelia's broken relation with Robbie (McAvoy); son of the groundskeeper and friend of the family, seals the two notions together and sets all the calamity in motion.

ATONEMENT, a suspenseful and incisive mood piece, a perfectly placed period drama that isn’t stifled by insularity, and a tale of hapless love torn asunder by lies, is more than the sum of its faculties because of the levity with which it navigates through them, and the broadness of its accessibility. Director Joe Wright, with reputedly faithful consideration to his source material, engages what might otherwise be a rather straightforward fatalistic unfolding of events and irrevocable consequences, with all the amenities that film allows. Sound, framing, montage, juxtapositions, and structure are all utilized to a rich and poetic extent, never wavering in, but perhaps flaunting, their functionality

The reason the film is so successful in dramaturgy, though it owes grand favor to all its aesthetics and impeccable composition, is because we are utterly and rather swiftly convinced of the gravity between Cecelia (Knightly) and Robbie (McAvoy), the very crux of the story itself. This is where Atonement succeeds over, say, Jeunet’s lush but grim A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004), a film that bears certain emotional and circumstantial likeness. Jeunet’s film seems to have to tell us explicitly that the principle characters are “soulmates” rather than allow it to be implicitly and therefore more authentically understood. The subsequent convoluted yarn that unravels is just slightly less compelling without anchor and urgency, though still beautiful. Not only are we convinced of Celia and Robbie’s internalized penchant for one another, it is an understanding that is accomplished in mere glances and gestures, viewed if not obscured from a distance through a window; a quiet quarrel of expressions and mannerism speaks volumes. Beyond the brilliance of the two leads in ushering these simmering complex emotions, we have a telling structure of visual juxtapositions in montage, which reveal in the abstract, the very same connection; Cecelia diving into the water as Robbie surfaces in his bath, Cecelia wiping lipstick from her face to reveal a kind of physical honesty to herself in the mirror as Robbie attempts his own version of honesty in a letter meant for her with mirrors at his face level, both smoking and pondering their words, both (ironically at this moment of self-honesty) putting on costume and façade for the impending dinner later that evening. This contradictory moment is embodied in the nature of mirrors themselves (a substantial motif). Mirrors are a contradiction because they are both the truth and deception, a reflection is accurate but also inverse.

Color makes its own statements in ATONEMENT, but in small ways; not as vibrantly instructive as in a film like RAN (1985), or as strictly aesthetic as in a film like ROMEO + JULIET (1997). It exists in a middle ground. Broiny, blond-haired, blue-eyed, naïve little wordsmith, wears white as a child, but as a young adult coming to terms with her transgression by working as a nurse for the red cross, the purity of her white uniform is marred by the violence of a bright red cape (I mean bright), and the red “x” that its straps make across her chest (not unlike the small jagged war wound across Robbie’s own chest). The "x" carries the guilt across her heart of having spun the falsehood that tore the two new lovers apart, sending Robbie to jail and then war, and Celia to the exile of urban disillusionment. For the fateful dinner party Cecelia puts on a shimmering leaf-green dress, and because of the inter-splicing in this sequence we can’t help but notice the connective theme of green in Robbie’s house as he leaves for the same dinner, nor can we help but draw Cecelia’s colorful elemetal connection to Robbie’s practice as a gardener. The nuances in ATONEMENT abound so much so that from the very beginning we feel the bond between Cecelia and Robbie…the rest is aftermath. We follow in tow because we are given the legs to stand on. It is because of these nuances that when the two say “I love you” in the library, partly removing each others costume and breaking their silences, we believe it. It is also one of the most brilliant love scenes I’ve seen on film because of how much it communicates beyond mere sexuality. I’d compare it, only in recent cinema, to the gestural complexity of the first love scene in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), which undulates its pitch masterfully.

Like in all truly great love stories, love is a palpable but distant ideal for Cecelia and Robbie, though within their grasp for but a moment. “We just travel in different circles,” Cecelia explains as pretext to her affections for him. CASABLANCA, the most romantic movie ever made as some say, has only two kisses in it, and Bogart doesn’t even get the girl in the end! What’s “romantic” is the yearning, the aching, the struggle for or towards love. These are the more tangible qualities of love (or at least the more cathartic), and ironically they are the greatest proof of the enduring and prolific stain that love can leave on us, even when distilled by tragedy, time, distance, war, class, etc. ATONEMENT is testament to the inevitability and boundlessness of attraction and love, as well as the inevitability of its forfeit and difficulty. Maybe Robbie and Cecelia would wind up hating each other, break up over some petty quarrel, but the tragedy lies in the ‘not knowing,’ the ‘never got the chance.’ This emotional thievery is what makes the very last scene such a contradiction to its nature. It’s blissful and pure on the surface, which belies the devastating truth that it is but an impossible and imagined joy, as Broiny (played in later life by Vanessa Redgrave) explains as author of her autobiographical final novel in tight inescapable close-ups. .

The most effective decision in ATONEMENT may be that it waits until its final breaths to rip the carpet from under the narrative and riddle the audience with a kind of half-doubt about everything they have just watched and been swept up in. It is the kind of film that demands by this twist, and its own infectious emotion, for the viewer to reconsider and reconstruct and to revisit. This decision is not arbitrary or manipulative because the entire narrative is spun by the 'imprecision of truth,' the shades of perspective and speculation, which bear grim consequence. It drives the point home completely, that we now question everything we just saw as Broiny had to do. ATONEMENT opens with the sound of a typewriter striking away, the title banged out stroke by stroke. We will come to recognize this sound not only as a structural marker, but also as a constant echo of fabrication, and as Broiny’s musical theme to a degree. From this moment we should have an inkling of how speculative many elements of the story are, especially because the first shot is of Broiny typing, but we don’t. She’s the architect of the whole story and the catalyst of its entire drama…but we don’t know as much as we think until the very end. We learn subliminally that truth follows her, but never walks with her, as told by a particularly excellent shot in the hospital. The camera tracks backward through a dim hallway in pace with Broiny who's walking toward us. As she takes her steps, the ceiling lights behind her turn on one by one...always following behind her, never the one above her.

The early rustlings of the narrative have much to say in their details about an impending discord, and none are better than the buzzing of the bee. Broiny looks to her window when she hears the buzzing of a frantic bee, clawing at the glass. This image already resonates as a note of violence when shown in close-up, and because of what Broiny sees unfolding outside at this very moment between Celia and Robbie, it speaks to the hazard of trying to understand things with an obscured perspective. It is through this window that Broiny makes her first grave misconception, just as the bee, not understanding that glass is clear but solid, writhes its body against it ceaselessly. For Cecelia, it is her proclivity towards water that foretells disharmony. It’s not so much that she’s drawn to water, but more like she can’t escape it. First she jumps into the fountain to retrieve the shard of broken vase, she dives into the pond to escape the raised issue of Robbie, and she sits on the shore of a violent sea to ponder her distant lover. These are all part of a foreshadowing because they all couple water with a negative ideal. Cecelia’s fate lies within her proclivity. Her demise is drowning in a tunnel during the bombing of London. Its one of the more haunting images in cinema history; her body trails away from us suspended in the dim water like a grim marionette, arms extended. The scene in which she retrieves the shard of vase is, in its own way, an impressionistic foretelling of her death. Her scuffle with Robbie at fountains edge fractures the vase. She goes in after to retrieve it, only to fix an image in our minds to be recalled when her fragile body is floating amongst the tunnel’s debris. One might also recall the scene in which Cecelia lays prostrate on the diving board above the pond, wearing the purest white bathing suit and cap. Her body hovers like a still spirit over the water while her reflection in the pond ripples with a quiet intensity; the reflection serving well enough as both her body trapped underwater, and the simmering of her hidden emotions. The great irony of her fate is that Robbie’s final experience on the beaches of Dunkirk is that of insatiable thirst. It’s befitting though, that they should both die underground in the dark, together at least in circumstance.