Sunday, March 31, 2013


       From the earliest age I have thought that the world we
       live in betrays us – this thought remains with me.

                                                             -- Mikio Naruse

Stripped of eroticism and sensuality, this act foregrounded  by the film’s title is a decidedly Sisyphean act. It is a recurring motif within the story that lays bare the central character’s daily struggle to keep her dignity. Each night, Keiko repeats this ascent, more mechanical, more labored each time, on her way to a world that compromises her.

The stairs lead to the Carton Bar, a seedy establishment tucked somewhere in Ginza’s red-light district. Keiko is the madame who runs it. Unlike the wards who work under her, however, Keiko has retained both beauty and respectability. She wears her kimono conservatively and prefers a midwife’s hairdo. And yet, she has remained popular beyond her youthful days.

Towards the beginning, everyone around Keiko reminds her that she’s facing the crossroads of her life: either she settles down with a husband or, alone, make provisions for the future. She is a widower but has retained such attractive qualities that she does not lack for prospective suitors. As the story develops, these would-be husbands, with varying motives, come out of the woodwork.

As the film culminates, we are given to witness Keiko’s fall from grace, something that seems to come with her territory, a commonplace about her job, as a result of a painful miscalculation that reminds her of her station in life. We see the men around her proposing marriage or something less decent, but the film’s concluding images re-emphasize a return to what she dreads doing. Her face and demeanor reveal a measure of strength and dignity, her aspect embodying that Japanese feminine quality belovedly and steadfastly portrayed by Naruse in many films, a silent and all but stoical sufferance amidst unjust, often inescapable circumstances.

Naruse's aesthetics and thematics, on the basis of this film, parallel not only that of Ozu but also that of another illustrious peer, Kenji Mizoguchi. The camera movement is spare and stately, which recall much of Ozu's mature work, but the subject is very much the territory of Mizoguchi. Sympathetic figures who are forced by straitened circumstances into a kind of prostitution are the commonality between Mizoguchi and Naruse. Not only are we reminded of Life of Oharu, but other films with similar themes like A Geisha and Street of Shame. From the West, Fellini also contributes to this sub-genre of sorts with Nights of Cabiria, a film featuring a beleaguered prostitute who soldiers on despite the world's treacheries.

reviewed: September 6, 2006

FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL (Errol Morris, 1997)

Four singular men, four oblivious but intrepid sentries at the lonely outposts of their chosen field: Topiary gardener, wild animal trainer, robot scientist, mole-rat specialist. What similarities bind them together? Not much, it seems. We might even be reminded of the story involving the elephant and the blind men: the stories waiting to be told are bound to be as wildly distinct and different as chalk and cheese. But take away the outer trappings and boil it down to human experience and something unexpected emerges.
Montage, ingenious intercutting and careful juxtaposition are the tools of choice for Morris here, weaving together words and manners of these four human souls in a very lighthearted, comical tone, interspersed joyously with archival footage of films and other supplemental clips that augment what is already a riveting account of four colorful characters. When Morris allows each of these personalities to expound on themselves while simultaneously overlapping visuals pertaining to another of this motley group, the viewer begins to understand and discern their commonalities and the intersections of experience.
In sociopolitical terms however, Morris stops short of asserting parity and advocating the egalitarianism of human occupations in a society that tends to keep castes and hierarchies, preferring to keep the proceedings in a light, but fascinating and entertaining tone. What’s clear is how this film might encourage diversity, uplifting our perspective of what are heretofore dismissed as unglamorous jobs.
Their dreams, their pride in their work, their single-mindedness in performing their tasks, their sense of wonder towards their chosen vocations, the source of their longevity, their natural gravitation to their jobs, their humility and their urgency to pass down their professions, the unknowable dimensions of their daily calling: Morris documents all of this, paradoxically, with both reverence and comicality. The steady stream of visuals and the infusion of carnival-like and playful music on the soundtrack make sure that the mind is engaged even as the narration comes in a forthright, relaxed and insightful fashion from the subjects themselves.
Did Morris ask the same set of questions in getting a seemingly uniform set of answers, or did the shock of serendipity in discovering their kinship only come to the documentarist during the editing process? A unique individual himself pursuing a unique job, Morris must have known all along and intuited the answers beforehand. Perhaps he could have chosen his subjects at random, and the results would have been the same. Morris, after all, is one of them – a kindred, quixotic spirit.
Remember how Herzog made a bet with Morris to eat his shoe if the fledgling aspirant ever managed to make a film? Well, suffice to say Herzog lived, happily, to regret it. Morris has been proving everyone wrong all his life in his usual maverick way – fast, cheap and out of control.
reviewed: January 5, 2007

Thursday, March 28, 2013


The Iron Curtain may now be a construct of the past -- symbolically and ideologically torn down with the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe in 1989 -- but little seems to have changed to alter the biased and marginalized view of Eastern Europe. Popular misconceptions are such that Eastern Europe remains economically, and therefore culturally, stunted vis-a-vis their Western brethren. Few non-sequiturs are in desperate need of rectification as much as this last statement. Even under Socialist control, culture oozed from the wounds of repression, and paradoxically the totalitarian shackles served to spur on the flowering of man-made artifacts.

One of the cultural fronts that deserves more widespread investigation and appreciation is the arena of cinema. "Films made in Eastern Europe seem of little or no interest to people in the West. The audiences in western countries find them as antediluvian as the battle for workers' rights in England in the time of Marx," once remarked the Polish master director Andrzej Wajda in his autobiography (Double Vision, My Life in Film, 1986). More than twenty years on, this lamentation seems as true and self-evident as when it was first ventilated. Outside their places of origin, Eastern European films remain confined to film festivals, art-house cinemas, and film societies.

If there is one beacon on the horizon for the plight of marginalized cinema, however, it must be the emergence of new forms of distribution, most notably digital technology and internet commerce. The DVD format, abetted by the split-second availability afforded through e-commerce, is quickly changing the paradigm of distribution. Of late, DVD companies like Second Run, Clavis and Kino and other non-specialized companies have undertaken the task of making available classic films from the hub nations of Eastern European cinema, like Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. (This is not counting the domestically produced titles in Eastern European countries themselves. If only everyone was a polyglot...). It's a genuine windfall for the cineaste always looking to broaden his cinematic horizons.

One of Second Run's recent releases is Jan Němec's The Party and the Guests. Jan Němec is more popularly known for another film entitled Diamonds of the Night. He may not be as well-regarded as the other Czech New Wave directors canonized by the West (namely by Criterion), to wit,  Jiri Menzel (Closely Watched Trains) and the duo of Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos (The Shop on Main Street), but he is no less accomplished. What is probably his drawback -- evident in The Party and the Guests -- is the subtlety (his censorship-circumventing use of allegory) and allusiveness that might be lost on audiences not familiar with the Czech experience.

Wilderness scenes open this seemingly innocuous film, not unlike the idyllic picnic that opens Jaroslav Papousek's Ecce Homo Homolka. A group of middle-aged couples sprawl on the grass like Monet figures and partake indulgently of slices of cake and wine. Changing into their Sunday best and sauntering through the woods, they stroll straight into something disconcerting, something untoward. They are overtaken and manhandled by a group of thugs, who escort them to a clearing in the forest, where a man named Rudolph presides over them, perched behind a desk, a prop conjured out of nowhere. Their captives? They are imprisoned in an imaginary closure drawn on the sands. 

Middle-class folks trapped in the woods? Held hostage in an absurdist scenario? Wasn't this all dreamt up before? Why, we are flush in the confines of a seemingly Bunuelian conceit. But the real demiurge of these Bohemian woods soon makes an appearance, the host of the eponymous party -- a wedding reception -- where the buttonholed guests, it becomes clear, are en route. The Prospero-like host orders his Caliban-like minion, Rudolph, to un-detain the guests, who are soon escorted to a picturesque lakeside reception.

But the the theater of the absurd is just starting to thicken (literally: the scriptwriter, Esther Krumbachova, reveals that she patterned the film's dialogue after those found in the plays of Eugene Ionesco). It becomes strikingly clear that we are in the middle of socialist allegory (a prophetic satire of the increasing Soviet intrusion into Czechoslovakian affairs, culminating in the 1968 invasion) as the host, who bears a striking resemblance to Lenin but acts and preens autocratically like Stalin, holds forth in fulsome platitudes, underscoring a comic ridicule. When one of the guests is discovered missing, he takes it an an insult and all but declares the party a big fiasco. A search party is organized, sniffer dogs deployed, but everyone joins the search: a wasteful notion that no one seems inclined to contradict. Totalitarianism, anyone?

Probably the most absurd moment of this film is when all the guests suddenly discover that they are seated at the wrong table and like a confused herd of animals, everyone reshuffles to find the table with their names. It's the confusion, it seems, of the overly ordered lives in this socialist state. The host, who wears a resplendent and magisterial white attire reminiscent of Stalin's aggrandizing portraiture, and his minions, wearing their familiar raffish, gangster-like get-ups, are not impressed. And the fugitive guest, who seems to be the only dissenter in this increasingly repressive state of affairs, must be brought back to the fold. These are the streaks of Fascism that Jan Němecseems to be telegraphing to us. (His other harrowing but paradoxically lyrical film, The Diamonds of the Night, reveals the objects of this pernicious force, the effects of such malevolence.)   

The Party and The Guests is one of the signature films of the Czech New Wave, and touted for its oblique political barbs to be the most controversial of the pack. The Czech title translates as About the Celebration and the Guests, but this title that has come down to us -- one that smells of cadre and Communist bureaucracy -- seems more apt, more resonant with connotations. When this film was screened in its homeland, the caustic satire was all too obvious that it received an immediate ban. There are a lot of domestic references, it appears, in the original language which are lost in translation. What we inherit today is a document that foreshadowed a dark era in Czech history; few films are as visionary as this.

reviewed: May 13, 2007

Monday, March 25, 2013

PASTORALE (Otar Iosseliani, 1976)

Director Otar Iosseliani, who takes up residence in Paris, France, originally hailed from Georgia, a former Soviet republic that boasts of a rich filmmaking tradition. Film  luminaries like Tengiz Abuladze, Mikhail Kalatozov and the Shengelaia brothers are products of this Transcaucasian country, the most advanced and sophisticated filmmaking  nation of all the former Soviet republics. Before trying his hand at directing films, Iosseliani was a painter and a professional musician. He studied film under the tutelage of the great Dovzhenko. From the start, his works inaugurated an uncompromising filmic style that ran afoul of the Soviet censors. After his first film, April, incurred official ire in 1961, many of his subsequent films would encounter similar displeasure from authorities. Three notable features, When Leaves Fall (1967), There Lived A Singing Blackbird (1970) and Pastorale (1976) marked the turning point for Iosseliani. These films garnered for the director an international reputation on the festival circuit, a development that convinced him to emigrate to Paris. 

Iosseliani’s career as an expatriate is no less marked with distinction. Les Favoris de la Lune (1984) won him the 1984 Golden Lion at the Venice Festival. His other films continue his visual and stylistic trademark of often plotless narratives lensed with documentary-like observation. Although getting on in age, Iosseliani remains an active filmmaker, releasing films at a constant rate that has kept him at a high profile
among his growing ranks of followers. 

Pastorale, the film under consideration, was never exhibited in the West until 1982. Like the film that preceded it (There Lived…), Pastorale was shelved by Soviet censors on account of its “formalist aesthetic.” That is to say, it was a film marked by stylistic experiments and obliqueness – infractions that were frowned upon by the State and those who still prefered films in the Socialist Realist vein. 

There’s supreme irony underlying a title like this. Put it in the mouths of city-dwellers and it brings up the long-standing tension between the two poles of contemporary living. What might heighten this into animosity is that the story takes place in a socialist state, where the rural inhabitants are regimented into farm collectives, while their urban counterparts luxuriate in sophisticated and sedentary jobs. It’s a bitter blood feud waiting to happen. 

Characters in Iosseliani’s universe, particularly in Pastorale, are no different. There is, however, a measure of civility – an uneasy truce founded on pragmatic grounds. The conflict runs just under the surface. Look closer: everyone seems to be in a bad mood in this film. There is an uneasy truce among the characters whose momentary juxtaposition makes for fragile configurations in which the figures put on tenuous smiles while trying to hide mutual contempt.

This is the Georgian countryside, after all, a neglected satellite of the Soviet empire, and the guests are city denizens trundling behind them gilt-edged orchestra instruments. Why these musicians have rusticated to this corner of marginalized peasants must owe to the image of serene rural settings where practicing their musical craft can be facilitated.

Immediately, the hosts become the butt of neighborhood jokes: the musicians are asked to play at lowly funerals, to be paid a pittance that befits their slight dexterities, something along those lines. This escalates as a prodigal son of the host household comes to visit from the city and carts away the best wine and meat – the hosts are far from pleased, to say the least. 

The displeasure and the inconvenience felt by the peasant hosts come to a boil when a neighbor building a house next door presumes to install a window facing their courtyard. On a different day, the neighbors might condone this seeming act of communality (neighborliness even). They might even welcome it and encourage it. But patience seems to be running thin. In other words, this quibble over a little architectural nicety is overblown. Suffice it to say that the members of this household regret the fact that they have to
speak in undertones lest they bother the guests and their cold instrumentation.   

There is a telling and trenchant image midway through the film when a truck carrying farmers, with their picks and shovels raised upright like arms, stop at a train intersection, giving right of way to a train carrying what appears to be well-heeled urban passengers: there are sombre and deadpan faces looking at each other from a kind of demarcation line. The sequence is incendiary, the metaphor of class conflict no better illustrated in any other film in memory.

Even the host family's teenage daughter, who initially seems to establish a genuine connection with his urban counterparts, is not spared the undercurrent of enmity. She plays their parlor games, takes them around the village and indulges all their whims. But soon she must also take up the shovel and join the collective of workers. In the end, she finds little affinity and affection for a phonograph record – a military march that is cavalierly chosen, to say the least -- left by the visitors.

Money, in the meantime, has changed hands. 

reviewed: September 27, 2006

ELENA AND HER MEN (Jean Renoir, 1956)

All Jean Renoir ever wanted to accomplish with the films he turned out in the mid-1950s was to get his feet wet again in the French film industry. After being forced into exile in America during the Second World War and directing in Hollywood, these were, for all intents and purposes, his comeback films. When all was said and done, however, the three films made in quick succession (The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1954) and Elena and Her Men (1956)) coalesced together as though into a constellation, prompting film historians to bundle them together under the rubric of a trilogy. Running through them are similar threads that might not have been apparent even to Renoir: the director’s obsession with the theme of life-as-theater and the apotheosis of strong female characters.

Capping off this putative trilogy is Elena and Her Men, a grand pageant that’s part romantic comedy, part musical and part farce. Set in 1880’s France among the military brass during Bastille Day festivities, this Ingrid Bergman vehicle follows the sagging fortunes of a Polish princess in search of a suitable and wealthy husband to prop up her aristocratic family. What transpires, instead, is how personal idealism and involvement in politics might entail self-sacrifice in order to inspire a military general to the pinnacle of ambition, the seat of presidency. (For the Polish princess, it has the makings of a selfless act worthy of theater, a kind of performance that mirrors those of female leads in The Golden Coach and French Cancan.)

But there are many romantic permutations afoot, as the title suggests. When the story begins, she seems doomed to a cynical marriage of convenience to a shoe magnate, an old suitor to whom she thoughtlessly betroths herself. This shrewd businessman would ultimately leverage her feminine charms – and much more, it is hinted – in order to clinch a business deal with the military general who becomes smitten with her. Almost oblivious to her future husband’s shady manipulation of her, she nonetheless throws herself into the breach, egged on by the general’s approving think tank. 

Among this advisorial committee of the general is an aristocratic bachelor who also has romantic designs on her, and shows his pure, even heroic, albeit often jealous, intentions by engaging potential rivals to duels, including the battle-tested general. His dynamic love propels him to perform wildly romantic gestures, mirroring the idealism and heroism of the princess.

Will she marry for love, for her political ideals, or for the security and practicality of it all?

Renoir revels in the improbability of this story, magnificently conjuring up the tumultuous ethos of the film’s locale. Rich and sumptuous colors go hand in hand with the festive atmosphere of its setting, no more apparent than in the street festivals and the period costumes. Adding to the beautiful chaos is the farcicality of the plot and its characters: a princess almost prostituting herself in her deep-felt political beliefs, a tycoon practically selling his wife to sweeten a business deal, an aristocrat doing a contortionist’s act of sorts to get the woman of his dreams. Watch it to see how all the engaging and entertaining twists finally come together. But this film leaves us, too, with an unflinching satire of military and political ambition, and how love can actuate the most grandiose gestures, how women might have more to do with man’s achievements and success than sheer inspiration.

reviewed: January 4, 2007

STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-Ke, 2006)

The Three Gorges Dam is indisputably an amazing human achievement, a masterwork of science and engineering. Started in 1993 and scheduled to be completed in 2008, it’s been a long grandiose dream by the progress-conscious Chinese leaders in power. All the monumental superlatives befit this megaproject that it invites comparisons to other human marvels throughout human history. The comparisons do not stop at the sheer magnificence and their positive impact, but also encompass the enormous human cost that attend their construction.The Three Gorges Dam is an awe-inspiring sight but it conceals the high price that has to be paid to make it a reality.

This is what, in essence, Still Life tries to dramatize. We are forewarned with the title. Still Life not merely denotes a genre of painting, it also connotes lifelessness, the inanimate, the stunning of life. By focusing on the literally dwarfed lives who suffer displacement and separation and are made to fight for their traditional way of life, Jia Zhang-Ke continues his faithful documentation of the common Chinese divided between their resistance to sudden and bewildering change and those who join the nation’s rush towards development and modernization.

The future is here, and it is an unstoppable juggernaut. The past – and everything attached to it, cultures, values, traditions – are doomed to be overwhelmend and submerged by the torrents of a new dam. This reality is captured in the old city of Fengjie, the film’s setting, one of the unfortunate paths for the dam, where many people’s fates hang in the balance. We witness the marking of the buildings condemned for demolition and we get poetic and naturalist images of walls crumbling down, side by side with glimpses of concretization as it starts to encroach on people’s lives. The city is divided, almost in chaos, those who take advantage of the employment the dam-building has brought, and those who will be soon displaced, divested of all imaginable property, abstract and concrete, their concepts of hearth and home. This is all for progress and the greater good – but at what price?

The human cost is dramatized in two sections of this dramatic diptych. One involves Han Sanming, a coal miner who is in search of his ex-wife and daughter whom she hasn’t seen for 10 years. Their last known address is already deep in water, no longer on the map, and Han must make a living as a demolition worker, while trying to find out the whereabouts of his lost family. His family’s story is one that will try to brook disintegration.

The second section of this film is devoted to a nurse from out of town looking for a husband who seems to have abandoned her in favor of his perpetually hectic job overseeing the demolition and reconstruction of Fengjie. These two souls might be drifing apart, a sacrifice at the altar of the Three Gorges Dam.

In Still Life, Jia’s directorial trajectory seems to be heading inexorably toward glossy artifice, notable in his latest works like The World and The Platofrm. It’s a stupefying contrast to the rough-hewn documentary-like realism of Artisan Pickpocket, his first film. But Jia’s themes and compelling way of telling his stories remain his strong suit. The only seams in Still Life are the insertions of incongruous images – U.FO.s and space shuttles, of all things – that seem to try to break the starkness of human drama or just to see if we are watching. This playful gimmickry nothwithstanding, Still Life deserves all the accolades it has received, including the 2006 Golden Lion at Venice.

reviewed: January 5, 2007

Friday, March 22, 2013

FLANDRES (Bruno Dumont, 2006)

                                  We are the Dead. Short days ago
                                  We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
                                  Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
                                  In Flanders fields.

   -- John McCrae, In Flanders Fields

Flanders, as a geographic region in Europe, has had a long and convulsive history since time immemorial, shifting and changing boundaries according to the dispensations in power. At various times, Flanders has referred to parts of Netherlands, France and in a more contemporary time, a region of Belgium. It’s not at all anecdotal that poets have been inspired by its often sanguinary and turbulent past. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Bruno Dumont had frightening lullabyes about Flanders sang to him as a child.

Bruno Dumont’s vision of Flanders, however, does not encompass a daunting piece of history or geography but instead whittles down its focus on a small fictional village, unnamed but might as well be the titular one. Dumont’s eye zeroes in on small-town lives whose passions are a virtual battlefield – with concrete repercussions, and, in modern parlance, collateral damage.

Dumont’s Flanders is a tale of pent-up passions, jealousy and revenge. There are few discernible heroes here, except for men and women who follow the dictates of human desires and needs to the detriment of virtues. Characters are actuated by primal – even primitive – compulsions that we might associate with those who have little to go on, little to call their own and little to hold sacred.

Demester is one such character. Like Pharaon in L’Humanité and Freddy in La Vie de Jesus, he is the prototypical Dumont hero: a farmer with limited prospects, his emotions in check, his eyes brooding with unreleased passions. There is a war halfway around the world and Demester is one of the conscripts from the village called for a tour of duty. Days before call-up, Demester has one last roll in the hay with Barbe, a girl who excites lust but also what little sense of romance the men of this village harbor. Barbe has the proverbial loose morals and entertains the new man in town, Blondel. This happens with the least secrecy imaginable; all under the smoldering eyes of Demester.

It also happens that Blondel is one of the conscripts and we almost sense that there is war-within-war about to take place. There is an air of inevitability surrounding this film’s spare story. In the confusion, death and destruction of war, there will be casualties along the way. But the mayhem that ensues catches us off-guard. Rape, cold blooded executions and other atrocities, with little regard for life, take place.

Dumont creates tension like a coiled spring. Instead of the cheap currency of words, the pregnant silences bespeak the burning passions of its characters. When the bombs explode and bullets thud on impact, one can feel the dissipated emotions, the deadening of tensions. It is almost anticlimax. But we almost nod in agreement: the war-torn landscapes, the war atrocities exteriorize what the dry, gray farmlands are too mute to express, the pent-up rage of characters. When Dumont projects these uncurbed and uncurtailed emotions of a small-town love triangle into a full-fledged war, we might also begin to receive the dishonor of actual wars, the hair-trigger emotions of those who rule us.  When we hear the confession at movie’s end, we can’t seem to take these words at face value. Words might belie what other readings we might have of Flanders. Maybe not.

Title in English: Flanders
reviewed: January 13, 2007 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

OFFSIDE (Jafar Panahi, 2006)

On the surface, Jafar Panahi's latest film, Offside, may zero in on sporting fanaticism, situated as it is among the heady throngs that passionately love and support football, but something else is in its crosshairs, what still obtains today in Iran as a forbidden brand of spectatorship. In fact, football stays mostly in the background in Panahi's scheme of things, skirting what would have certainly become yet another entry to the much-investigated phenomenon of football mania. The filmmaker instead follows around the distaff side, Iranian women, in a thinly-veiled exposition of their civil liberties -- or rather, the lack thereof -- choosing an unlikely but opportune time and place to do so: Iran's final game at the Azadi Stadium, against Bahrain, in a bid to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

All roads lead to Azadi Stadium, a hallowed temple to the Iranian man’s worship of the sport in question. But this supposedly national pastime forbids women from watching at the stadium. (There are no comfort rooms for women in this edifice, a subject of a comic set piece along the way.) This proscription, however, is under siege, the subject of circumvention by women who are not doing it for political reasons but for the sheer love of the sport. At the stadium, however, it would take inordinate bravery to slip past security and scrutiny; ultimately several of these intrepid women are caught and herded to an enclosure within the stadium – within tantalizing earshot of the football match.

The impassioned dialogue between the youthful security men and the football-obsessed women that ensues forms the edifying and humorous core of the film. While trying to do their jobs, the security men nevertheless show vulnerability to be swayed from official position. The discourse is forthright for the women: what sort of baleful influence can be absorbed by watching a football game? Why is the accident of nationality and gender determinants of who can watch the game? Why, for instance, could Japanese women watch at the revered stadium? It’s street-level reasoning but it cuts to the heart of the matter. All the poor security men can offer is officialese and knee-jerk putdowns that demean women as worse than "cattle" for their recalcitrance. So when one of the girls manages to escape, it's a moment of great hilarity for the rest of the girls in custody.

We are judiciously never distracted even by snapshots of the football match. But instead we get all the zeal and excitement, the flag-waving passion and all the paraphernalia of worship and allegiance. For the delectation of the captive women, one of the obliging security men even volunteers a running commentary of the match. We witness the brand of enthusiasm and boisterousness of women, how perhaps Iranian women can be as fanatical – and therefore as human –  as Iranian men in their love of the sport.

This brand of women is shown as legion, coming from all walks of life, seemingly unafraid of the repercussions of their audacious act. It is the height of boldness that one of them dresses up as a military man and usurps the seat reserved for a high-ranking official. But in the din of celebrations in the streets, is it this easy to challenge and interrogate the patriarchy and theocracy that underlie Iranian society? It’s the mark of intelligent circumvention that such a serious social issue is addressed in a warm and funny comedy. The humor it offers goes down easily, while forwarding fundamental and commonsensical arguments not so easy to refute. 

reviewed: January 31, 2007

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Edward Yang, 1991)

Feral youth, tragic lives. Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day tries to coax a coming-of-age story full of innocence and wonder from its premise, but the turbulent currents of the times in which it is set -- Taiwan in the 1960s -- will not allow such a rendering. Early in this sprawling, but masterfully orchestrated film, an engrossing but lacerating 237-minute tome, the image of its main character summoned before his school's headmaster for frightening atrocities is established. This is the heartbreaking refrain in the young but troubled life of Si'r, a young Taipei teenager, and while we are afforded glimpses of blissful moments that befit his age, we realize that the rites of passage he is meant to negotiate are far from the normal, the blissful.

Epic in its scope and sweep, novelistic in its details, as Jonathan Rosenbaum once described it, A Brighter Summer Day sets the tone with a portentous preface: its story is set at a time of a great social upheaval, it encompasses a relatively short span of time but is nevertheless an uncompromising saga of those who escaped the civil war in mainland China in 1949, particularly their children who are brought up in an atmosphere of insecurity and must struggle for identity and direction. They comprise the clean slate -- rather, the rapidly smearing and smudging register -- that mirrors the new country and its growing pains.

As the 1960s unravel, Taiwan is in turmoil. Many of those too young to remember their parents' mass emigration nevertheless reflect the unease of their parents who fear the specter of the old country, Communist China. These directionless, disoriented youth form gangs and claim the streets as their own. But if these rebellious youths are portrayed to be capable of crimes, they do not appear to be the hardened kind, incapable of turning their lives around. Si'r, for one, is not without hope, who, although embroiled in gang activities for the most part, attends a night school in downtown Taipei. With his Elvis-singing diminutive friend Cat, and a samurai-wielding, general's son named Ma, they ricochet from one juvenile paroxysm to another. Yang suspends judgment on them, allowing their lives to unfold freely, by shooting them from long shots, an uncritical distance. But there is a tug-of-war of fate at work, a Manichean color scheme: the pitch-black and dangerous cover of night contrasts with light, almost white, colors of the background in daytime scenes.
Much like anyone their age, music, movies, girls and other youthful interests figure prominently in the lives of these juveniles, but so do their gang activities, the control of their territories, violence. No  one is spared, not their elders, not their teachers at school, there are few authority figures to speak of. More ubiquitous than authority figures are baseball bats, pistols, samurais. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien's autobiographical 1986 film, A Time to Live and A Time to Die, Yang's  film incorporates scenes of gang violence, but avoids sensationalism by elliptical reference and, in one crucial scene, by shrouding an act of revenge by samurai-wielding gangsters in the cover of night at the height of a typhoon. As if to reflect this youthful cataclysm, Yang sets some scenes against ominous backdrops: the rumble of armored tanks and the arrests of Secret Police are a constant, ominous presence, giving strong, unmistakable impressions of a militarized state. All the throwaway details and the ethos of 1960's Taiwan are painstakingly recreated by Yang, something that can only be rivaled by another Hou film, City of Sadness.
Si'r, his family and his gangmates are a reflection of the Taiwan of those times. They seem helpless at the crossfire of outside influences. We see and hear many references to Western influences, mostly those of Americanization: the movie title itself derives from Elvis Prestley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Movies like Rio Bravo and The Misfits play in the local theaters; Si'r sister is a convert to Christianity and transcribes English lyrics for Cat, and Honey, a legendary gang figure in hiding for killing a rival, recounts his favorite novel to Si'r, Tolstoy's War and Peace, just days before the enemy gangs catch up with him. From the hollows of ceilings, a wealth of Japanese weapons and other leavings come pouring down. In any other movie these details may be left out of the reckoning, but these details are the fine threads that are weaving the fabric of this new society in a cataclysmic transition.
Si'r's own fate swings uncertainly from one apex of the pendulum to the other. Forces -- both evil and good -- are bargaining for his soul. At one moment, he either shows pious love or waxes poetic and earnest with his feelings for a girl. The next moment, he shouts down his teacher and bludgeons another with a baseball bat.His fate hangs precariously in the balance. It seems to hinge on a young but earnest love with a seemingly pure teenage girl named Ming. It seems to hinge on finishing his immediate education. It seems to depend on avoiding his sometimes mercurial aggression -- to a large degree an influence of the violence around him. But his elders are preoccupied with their own dilemmas. Everything around Si'r is breaking his heart: he has no remaining refuge, not his friends, not his family, not his young, pure love. 

reviewed: February 6, 2007