August 2017 Capsules

88:88
I could describe how I perceived the film, but I’m not even certain that my view was in any way accurate. Importantly, I almost totally missed the poverty aspect that seems to the focal point of many fine, laudatory reviews, and focused instead on the way in which it depicts a very specific type of navel-gazing, academic, young urbanite ennui. But in either case, I can’t truthfully say whether the aggressively abstract, functionally plotless and untethered style works in concert with the subject matter. It is alternately dazzling and distracting, and though that makes the little nuggets of information that aren’t dull mathematics all the more valuable, it still doesn’t provide a justification in a way that feels satisfying. 88:88 keeps moving until it comes to a stop, and while the invigorating feeling cannot be denied, it leaves me wondering what was trying to be said, what feeling was trying to be invoked.

From Nine to Nine
I wouldn’t even know where to begin with regards to the politics of this, though I was fascinated (if not pleased) by the predominant use of robotic filters on the narrators. This choice feels of a piece with the intentions of From Nine to Nine as a whole; unlike, say, 88:88, the film aims for that movie’s sense of alienation sans most of the abstraction. If the film feels a bit didactic and uncomplicated at times, it makes up for it with images that grow even more striking once the film samples are incorporated, adding a new, far more intriguing layer of interior thinking that does complicate the protagonist (who remains unnervingly blank the rest of the time). And of course, there is that sublime club scene, which to my mind could exist entirely separately as a truly beautiful short; the murkiness that elsewhere obscures, here magnifies a certain kind of otherworldly majesty.

The Wedding Banquet
Perhaps I place too much emphasis on traditions, on the respect paid to the past, whether represented in person (via Wai-Tung’s parents) or purely through the familiar customs of the wedding banquet, which have always been well-known to me, but Lee displays an admirable, astonishingly touching sensitivity to both cultures that Wai-Tung inhabits. It is a film equally about queerness as it is about the Chinese culture, and as such contains no small amount of specificity from both sectors: the Poison VHS, the Chinese scrolls (one of which is read in full), the martial arts serial, the pink triangle. All of this lends the plot, which at times lapses into something which lacks the studious and loving attention paid to establishing the web of relationships, a certain charge, a feeling of recognition and reconciliation. The Wedding Banquet is simply but handsomely mounted, but the layers of detail is no veneer; it is the lifeblood that defines what each character lives for.

Pickpocket
Benefits greatly from how stripped down and focused it is on Xiao Wu, whether or not one wishes to view it through a national critique lens. Pickpocket thus functions as equal parts sign of the times (in a very particular society and time period) and watchful character study, which Jia weaves together with a little bit of shakiness (surprisingly little, considering this is his debut) and a great deal of finesse. But the shakiness fascinates me even more than the expertly executed master shots or the kinetic montages, great as they are. Whether it be the handheld, the simultaneously foregrounded and interior performance of Wang Hongwei, or even the preponderance of small supporting characters, the roughness around the edges suggests to me something endearing, straining to coexist alongside the more clearly accomplished elements.

Sweetgrass
It’s odd to describe a film as doggedly realistic and faithful as Sweetgrass as shape-shifting, but that is exactly how it feels, even as it grounds itself in the hills and fields of Montana with unerring steadiness. The move from the electrifying focus on the sheep to the only somewhat less fascinating (and more disquieting) perspective on the ranchers is the most obvious of these shifts, but it is also, crucially, present in the aesthetic decisions. The frame seemingly opens up, stretching across the endless plains and mountains, and the audio becomes more and more intimate as the camera becomes more distant. The continuity of image is broken into gunshot flares and nighttime scenes, and the herds of both sheep and their herders is broken into solitary figures scrounging for artifacts and weeping and cursing the imminent death of the drive (and, in a way, the Western). These pivots are noticeable, but they all arise from the common foundation of the sheep, and this sense of the quotidian that arises in the second half lengthens the viewer’s perception, making something which by all accounts should be of mild interest into something approaching monumental, status. (It doesn’t hurt that it possesses some of the most arresting images I’ve seen recently, on standard-definition digital to boot.)

As Tears Go By
As Tears Go By begins with a shot that particularly encapsulates ’80s culture ā€“ a storefront view of a wall of televisions ā€“ and only gets more entrenched in the aesthetic as it goes along. But this being Wong Kar-wai’s debut, it still feels wholly his, and he finds fascinating ways of melding the more down-to-earth yet heightened sensuality that became his trademark. This extends to the often duelling narratives that Wah finds himself caught in the middle of, illustrated no better than in the early scene where a night out is interrupted by Fly breaking into the apartment. The film lives and thrives on these whiplash moments; it seems as if Wong hadn’t yet perfected the languor that I love so much about his films, and so there is no small thrill in the chases, or the extended scenes of almost sadomasochistic violence inflicted on and by Wah (often shot in extremely long slow motion shots), or of course the unspoken flirtations.

Leviathan
In a gambit by equal measures audacious and paradoxical, Leviathan continually seems to aim for inhabiting two separate approaches. Whether it be low or fast, meditative or dynamic, spare or visceral, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel somehow manage to achieve all of these contradictory moods by dint of the utterly inconceivable filming techniques on display. If the film were nothing more than a compendium of the possibilities of the digital camera, then it would still be spectacular. But its context is also key, the balance between the hulking, clunking machinery of the boat, the precarious situation of the fish and birds, the wearying monotony of the workers, and the crashing waves. These are of course pat concepts, but they feel alive when shot in such extreme close-ups, in the rush of the camera cutting through the water and air. Indeed, what seems to be the default mode is a curious cross between stasis (the long takes, some lasting for over ten minutes) and motion (with few exceptions, the camera is constantly rushing through its environment). In this setting, where darkness renders the slightest movement or light source into an impressionistic blur, there is the feeling that Leviathan is the realm of both the real and the fantastical, where senses are broken down into their base elements.

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