Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)

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One important, vital aspect of my heritage that took me far too long to understand was the role of the Taiwanese dialect, specifically Taiwanese Hokkien. For many years, my parents spoke to each other semi-frequently in a language that sounded similar to the Mandarin that I knew, but which was generally unintelligible to me. I must confess that I still know very few words of Hokkien, but more important to me is the context in which my parents used it. Whether they intended it as such or not, I always felt as if they were keeping some form of secret from me, discussing things in front of my sister and me that we couldn’t understand, whether we wanted to or not.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s second masterful feature, doesn’t traffic in this level of a language barrier, but its use of language is no less revealing. In its portrayal of two estranged partners – Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin) – living in a rapidly modernizing Taipei, the film switches frequently and consistently between Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese. Without perhaps no exceptions, the conversations that only involve Lung, whether it be with childhood friends or elderly acquaintances, utilize Hokkien, while all conversations involving Chin – except those, crucially, with her parents – use Mandarin.

Though it is never stated outright in the film, my general impression of the role of Mandarin in Taiwan is that of the language of modernity – notably, Hokkien was banned in schools until roughly around the time this film was made. Accordingly, the business world of Chin and the deadbeat society of Lung are carried out in entirely different manners of speaking.

Yang is wise to never make Taipei Story a simple story of the struggle between the memories of the past, which Lung is never able to shake off, and the promises of the future. The conflict is complicated by both parties: Lung constantly tries to move to the United States, in a way not dissimilar to that of my own father, while Chin falls in with the youthful biker gangs that her younger sister hangs out with. Both members of the couple, to put it plainly, strive to capture and retain something of their youth while still prospering in the modern capitalist society of the mid-’80s.

In Yang’s vision of Taipei, this seems to be little more than a fantasy, as one has to choose between one or the other. But of course, this is never approached in a didactic or obvious manner, allowing for, as the film puts it, fleeting moments of hope to linger. That the film is maybe the most tragic of the Yangs I’ve seen is a testament to this sense of latent fatalism, of people too caught in the past, whether they realize it or not.

Through these inextricably entwined journeys, Yang shoots with his particular combination of intimacy and distance that never fails to surprise and move me. A shot from the other side of a mammoth office building, two perfectly rhymed tracking shots, numerous gazes down onto the busy streets of Taipei, all coalescing perfectly with the immaculately posed figures quietly discussing troubles in an apartment, or on a playground, or at a bar.

Those figures move inexorably towards their ends – one trading the world of physical architecture for the digital architecture of big data, the other beaten in a final attempt to prove his own sense of self-worth over the generation already overtaking him – but they do so with an inordinate sense of care on the part of Yang. Not one interaction, one small gesture ultimately feels out of place, and what resonates is the forlorn face of Lung, the implacability of Chin, each equally conveying an overwhelming sadness.

January 2018 Capsules

Millennium Mambo
“Dream of a dove flying.”

Always on the cusp of something but stranded in the moment, many beginnings but no endings.

A Man Escaped
There’s something very vital about the subtitle of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, which I can’t recall reading before I actually saw the film. Lifted from a scene almost exactly at the midpoint of the film, it is one of the points where the film becomes its most clear and removed from the (terrific) abstraction that otherwise characterizes it. Through the words of Jesus through John, as spoken by our hero Fontaine, the escape that he succeeds at is directly equated with spiritual salvation, even as his predecessor is being shot at that very moment. This divergence between the realm of the spiritual and the realm of the actual is key, layering ideas of transcendence that never distract from the intense, slow procedure of escape but rather enhance and contextualize them. Without more than a hint of background given to Fontaine, the viewer must draw the reason, the emotion from the struggle to survive itself, and the cell becomes its own crucible. Whether it is faith, chance, sheer will, or a combination of all that enables Fontaine to make his escape, there is no way to describe that feeling of cathartic release other than overwhelming grace.

The Hole
Yes, those musical sequences. Even if they weren’t so delightfully varied, so transcendently effervescent and yet grounded in the dilapidated Taipei that traps the protagonists, their programming alone is nothing short of masterful. I hadn’t noticed the placement of them at ~15 minute intervals, but what matters is their complete harmony with the emotional tenor of the film’s development, coming just after what would be considered an emotional crescendo in a regular movie and acting as the logical extension of that.

But, of course, this is still the realm of Tsai Ming-liang. The overtly apocalyptic tone and scenario feels like his trademark vision pushed to a kind of breaking point, and it’s remarkable to see his locked-down perspectives open up to no small degree, boasting pans, extended tracking shots, and even what appears to be a handheld shot, hurtling through a mall as it follows a squad of exterminators. But these don’t disrupt the stasis so much as heighten it, fleshing out the spaces so as to render them all the more claustrophobic yet cavernous. Decay and madness come hand in hand, the malaise is literalized, and any method of escape, no matter how fleeting, is what matters.

December 2017 Capsules

A Touch of Zen
The rare film whose greatness is both totally, utterly assured and constantly daring, pushing and probing at its own ambitions to create something more. The opening section alone evokes this seeming contradiction: Hu’s constant camera motions, cutting judiciously to closer and closer views of the central fort, tease out so much of the haunted textures that define roughly two-thirds of the film, but crucially never come close to spelling out the layout of the structure. It is a metaphysical realm even before the priests take the center stage, one defined by the delineation between standard society and the mystical forces that swirl just outside of the town square. Ku moves between these freely, defined by his indecision and complacency, serving as the perfect conduit and viewpoint from which to marvel at these barely superhuman figures. Methodical, explosive, eerie, A Touch of Zen seems to contain all of humanity’s attributes for good and ill, and then goes beyond in its final foregrounding of the mystical, the fundamentally unknowable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Establishes itself from the outset, with the tactical equivalent of a prank call, to be an exceptionally perceptive, playful and loving subversion of practically every single convention of the closest thing post-20th century culture has to a modern myth. At times, Star Wars: The Last Jedi almost feels like a series of constantly escalating dares that Rian Johnson is issuing over the span of two and a half hours, willfully bewildering and perplexing the viewer with totally unexpected events, structural conceits, and even performance choices. But to reduce such a textually and aesthetically rich film to gambits is foolish: it is as much invested in reinforcement as it is in subversion, and the journey to the former while balancing the latter is rendered expertly.

Like its predecessors (and especially The Force Awakens), the galactic struggles are consistently cast in terms of the personal, focusing on individual reactions and motivations as reflections of a wider movement. The whittling down of the Resistance makes this register even more strongly, but the decision to fracture the narrative into roughly four parts (so jarring at first that I nearly missed just how carefully the movie was edited together, especially in those oh-so-crucial Force conversations) means that the viewer’s grounding must be, even more than normal, in the characters. Their essential uncertainty, their hesitation to stand in the face of monumental events, is what defines them, and the film is willing to lean into these flaws in order to access something deeper, more painful than I could have expected.

November 2017 Capsules

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
By no means a slow burn, and yet the kills come in swift and brutal fashion only after the atmosphere has been totally, completely set in place. Scenes are elongated and yet completely compact – the scene with the hitchhiker, conducted entirely within the confines of the van, contains its own taut, visceral fear even before the razor blade comes out. And Marilyn Burns’ perpetual screaming, at once continuous and unchanging and always impactful, the editing and score combining to create something utterly inhuman. The ending, with its brief hint of hope amid the horror still visible in the rearview mirror, still provides an overwhelming moment of catharsis, a small triumph that still registers.

Unfriended
Looking at Unfriended from the vantage point of three years into the future, there have already been some drastic software changes that put me at a slight remove. The Facebook interface is overhauled, OS X is sleeker, just about every program or website here is reconfigured in some way. And there’s the fact that, though I watched it on my computer and am a contemporary of sorts with these teens if they existed in real life, I only sparingly used Skype in the same way, and my own desktop/browser/application dock/etc. are entirely different and less cluttered. But that doesn’t take away from the experience, and in some ways enhances it: the rapid blur of the cursor, the slightly-too-quick typing (even if it includes some extremely apropos typos), the excessive lagging all create a truly uncanny atmosphere, a disconnect between the way I look at my screen and the way Blair looks at her own. What exists on the screen is a heightened replica; there’s an odd sort of mise-en-scéne and blocking at play here, often cutting off half of the central Skype call and inadvertently creating two different reaction shots (creating six different reaction shots to a default profile icon is ingenious), and in general creating an almost 3-D feeling with the numerous layers of apps. The effect is natural enough that it feels spontaneous, but it’s still immensely striking. Gabriadze doesn’t need music, cuts, or unconventional cinematography to do this; it’s already created in the comfortable and familiar dimensions of the laptop screen, in our ingrained reactions to the sounds of notifications twisted by their contents. When even Google and Facebook aren’t functioning in the expected manner, it’s already too late.

The River
Tsai has obviously used stasis to extraordinary lengths and effects throughout his oeuvre, but halfway through I wonder if he’s employed it elsewhere in such a specifically patient manner. The style here isn’t vastly removed from that of, Vive L’Amour, but it’s applied to a much more specific and ostensibly insular societal institution. In Tsai’s world, the family is as amorphous and free-floating as the individuals that inhabit it, and part of the fascination that I had watching The River was seeing just how they would come together. Of course, the movie goes down immensely dark and upsetting paths, realized with some extraordinary plays with light and shadow, but the core images – rain, Lee Kang-sheng’s pained face, the decay of urban Taipei – remain the same. And Tsai (and I) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Night of the Living Dead
Almost certainly one of the most productive examples of a film effectively split in two. The first third or so – “They’re coming to get you Barbra” included – establishes an immense tone of melancholy and paranoia, buoyed by the dueling insular intensities of Jones and an effectively mute O’Dea. With both communicating the most fundamental fears and emotions with furtive glances and odd movements, Night of the Living Dead could conceivably have stayed in this vein for the entirety of its running time, especially with the radio providing clarification and more mystery in equal measure. But with more characters and the television comes necessary, even vital complications. Romero seems to be entirely truthful when he says that Jones wasn’t cast because of his race, but it adds a log to the raging fire that is this movie, only highlighted by the newsreel-esque footage playing under the credits. Primal tension is replaced by all-too-human tendencies towards self-destruction, so much so that the eventual resurrection by zombie bite is almost an afterthought.

September/October 2017 Capsules

Clueless
It’s all too fitting that Clueless at once hews closely to and sets itself entirely apart from the standard template of the American teen comedy. In outline it conforms, as girl tries to meet boy before realizing she’s loved another all the while, but Heckerling’s skill is such that it never feels remotely formulaic or inorganic to the development of Cher as both character and ideal. This is owed in small part to the stylistic devices (blatant voiceover, atypical stirrings of music) but the key factor is the surroundings, literally and figuratively sunny. Every character both does and doesn’t fit in with the Beverly Hills setting, which is an all-inclusive, ultimately deeply loving and caring environment. There is never the hint that things will go dreadfully wrong for any character, and that makes the whole thing sing.

October

Platform
As with most films, I kept going back to various works this reminded me of – Edward Yang in approach, To Live in rough thematic scope, and even Twin Peaks: The Return in editing and screenplay structure – but this is really a thoroughly surprising, immensely affecting work, in the way it mirrors the rhythms of everyday life. Duration helps with this of course, but even more key seems to be the structure of the scenes. This isn’t the realm of the memory film, where the events feel as if they are being recalled from a distant vantage point, but there is a similar weightlessness here, of time slipping away with each passing day in the way in which many events that are alluded to become elided or barely touched on before the next “non-event” occurs. Everything and nothing feels important in this decade-long span. In this context, the extended long shots and pans feel like the only logical way in which to film this, rendering each space with a tactility and sense of grounding that achieves a perfect, empathetic distance.

Ashes of Time [Redux]
Hadn’t gone in knowing about the various differences between the original and redux versions, and thus I’m wondering just how much of the pixelated smear that defines so much of Ashes of Time comes from Wong’s tinkering. Regardless, this is maybe shot-for-shot the most stunning looking film I’ve ever seen, radically reinventing itself and adapting with the utmost fluidity to each scenario and season. The main setting is the desert, but the smallest glances at another place, whether shown in hallucination or vision, sear themselves into the mind just as strikingly. Narratively, events sort themselves out in time, but the emotions and ruminations remain crystal clear from the very moment of their emergence, remaining ephemeral, haunting, yet transporting to the last.

Certain Tendencies [REAR WINDOW]

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It is perhaps no accident that the one apartment glimpsed more than once that is not explored by the roving eyes of Jeffries (and, of course, the viewer) is the one of what appears to be a loving and relatively normal family. Implicitly, the audience can grasp that what attracts the voyeur is brokenness in all its forms, whether it be creative rut, the fading luster of a new marriage, a hunger for something more in life, or simply the damn heat of summer in Greenwich Village. And from those elemental building blocks, those concerns which when combined form a microcosm of society at large, Hitchcock weaves something truly indelible, something which might even be perfect.

Rear Window may even surpass its legendary status purely based on how much it contains beyond the justly famous murder mystery plot. This is patently obvious from the objects of focus throughout; the case of Lars Thornwald isn’t even spotlighted until around the end of the first third, and Hitchcock places equal emphasis until then on the action happening inside the apartment as he does on the voyeurism – though, of course, the latter informs the former to no small extent. Lisa and Stella especially are incredibly thought-through characters, neither falling into a set stereotype but instead emerging as credible sources of both repartee and a tenderness that Jeffries struggles to reciprocate, turning instead to the outside world.

And it is indeed a world, populated with people who overcome the lack of audible dialogue to inhabit a general sense of longing and not-so-private conflict. The degree to which Hitchcock establishes each object of attention is such that when the silence is broken, and the camera leaves the confines of the apartment for the first time, it feels like the natural course of action. The viewer’s sympathies lie with the grieving couple not only because of their loss but because they feel like more than just objects.

It goes without saying that the outside goings-on reflect the inner turmoil of Jeffries to no small extent. More than anything, it is in the patterns and routines that he observes and his own pattern that he is forced to adopt due to both external influences (his confining cast) and his own obsession. Miss Torso dances and entertains men, the newlywed husband smokes forlornly out the window, the couple struggle to weather the elements, and all the while Jeffries can do nothing but watch. No wonder he fixates on the murder, a break in the monotony that, by proxy, affects the whole complex.

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 – a storefront view of a wall of televisions – 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.

Manakamana
It says quite a bit about Manakamana that I can, at the same time, hold the structure and order of the rides and hop around within said order. It’s a little difficult to determine to what extent this is intended by Spray and Velez – though it’s hard to imagine a different order working as harmoniously – but such is the nature of this incredible work. It lives and soars on so many aspects – the quiet conceptual genius of simply observing no more than three or four bodies for ten minutes, the playful seamlessness of the blackout transitions (including mid-film sound collage) – but there is above all such fluidity, such linkage through motifs, both spoken and unspoken. Funny, melancholic, hypnotic, baffling, all both free of and plainly steeped in the specific context of the temple in Nepal. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, to be sure, but to say so would deny the immense pleasures in each segment: a cat wandering on three band members, a perfectly executed water bottle birdy, the way so many look into the camera lens.

July 2017 Capsules

The Host
Brazenly careens through a multiplicity of narratives that would be more than enough to make up a single film on their own, but The Host never really loses sight of the family (and not the monster) at its core. Bong knows exactly when to engage fully with the broiling emotions a la something out of Godzilla, and, rightly or wrongly, he isn’t afraid of making his protagonists seem more than a little foolish or silly. Indeed, it is these moments that makes their nigh-suicidal showdowns with the monster that much more compelling and thrilling. Throughout the film runs an undercurrent of grief and shock that, along with Bong’s fluid and sometimes confrontational direction (those intensely discomforting close-ups!) propels The Host through an unwieldy plot to an immensely cathartic, fitting conclusion.

Okja
Recoups rather nicely after a singularly awful opening by moving – and firmly staying in – its most endearing and sincere mode. Okja is an odd movie in that it never loses a certain vitality or tendency towards the heartwarming despite its presentation of a bleak, nigh-fatalistic worldview, where the actions of the few are outweighed the commercial interests of the machine. Part of that is the intensely strong core of Mija and Okja, well-established by the opening 30 minutes, but it also comes through in the form of the ragtag crew of the Animal Liberation Front, Dano especially. Perhaps it’s too broad at times, too endearing, but Bong guides the viewer through with a steady, loving hand, by turns exhilarating and moving.

Wonder Woman
Almost depressing in some ways, given the critical and cultural hoopla that has descended upon Wonder Woman to a far greater extent than might be expected. It is somehow both anodyne and embarrassingly ridiculous, attempting to blend two disparate realms – the realm of myth (as opposed to more standard superhero mythology) and the very “real” concerns of World War I – with immensely clunky, repetitive dialogue. Jenkins has a bit of an eye for iconography but not much else, and the actors struggle to do their best with shaky material – a problem Gadot is particularly saddled with, faced with one tremulous reaction shot after another. Pine, incredibly, is the only one who comes out better off, as he is given an actually credible and fully-fledged character who manages a rather nicely-executed juggling act of love and duty. Otherwise, this lurches from scene to scene with little interest, only buoyed by the occasional swell of feeling that sometimes lands. And perhaps worst of all is how conventional this feels, how utterly predictable its narrative progression and reception is. This is no return to form or revolution; it is the status quo.

Pushing Hands
I’m generally wary of ascribing glaring faults to directors, but it seems fairly apparent that, at this point, Ang Lee was far less skilled at directing scenes in English than in Chinese. Nearly every scene that involves the admittedly thinly drawn character of Martha (that is, more than a third of the movie) feels either flat or shrill, and while the scenes conducted in Mandarin are only somewhat better, there is a sense of community and tenderness that is otherwise absent. It is perhaps inevitable that the most intriguing sequence is the opening, a wordless depiction of the cultural divide that implies what the rest of the movie proceeds to explain in ham-fisted and even didactic terms – the fact that Lee is so clearly on the side of the father makes the bluntness even more regrettable. There is a certain visual interest, but little else distinguishes this misguided, if slightly moving, film.

Vive L’Amour
The languor of Rebels of the Neon God is replaced with something more fearful; though the youth of this film are just as – if not moreso – disaffected as that film, they seem less possessed by their milieu as thrown into sharp relief. The huge pools of water are replaced with water bottles, and the general dank settings are replaced by the near-pristine walls of the duplex apartment. Said apartment, the point of intersection/purgatory for the two (or three) protagonists, feels at turns like a place of refuge, self-discovery, or existential fear, something Tsai achieves with very simple but very lighting changes and camera movements. His capacity to cut the viewer to the quick with a single line (or, in the first significant set of dialogue lines, a prattling set of phone conversations) is immense, as is his eye for duration, not just in his trademark static long shots but in his tracking shots as well; extended shots of people walking or driving in cars feel even more propulsive than the rest of the film. And throughout, the viewer feels almost like a voyeur, as the vulnerabilities and secrets of these isolated people can only stay hidden for so long.

Green Snake
Establishes itself with such vim and vigor that it almost seems to slow down when the snake-turned-human sisters show up, not before. No matter; Green Snake is so ineffably fantastical that its majesty seems to cascade off the screen with every swooning tilt, every blurred close-up, every dissolve that moves inexorably closer to its subject with something bordering on the mythic. This sense of the fantastic is undeniably key to this story of monks wielding the power of gods and monsters assuming flesh, but it is heightened almost past the point of no return. Yet Tsui Hark burrows deep, cutting through any hint of undeserved excess to arrive at the elemental core, of love, barely concealed jealousy, and ultimate destruction. And of course, Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong are almost too intensely alluring, with a kind of vamping that almost burns through the screen, equal parts maturity and melancholy.

Hiroshima mon amour
The opening sequence of Hiroshima mon amour – a dizzying collection of direct allusions to the horrors and trauma of a city – is justly acclaimed, but it is worth considering its place, narratively and structurally, within this film. Though it opens the film and is the series of moments for which the film is most remembered, it bears only some resemblance to the eighty minutes that follows it. Okada and especially Riva, the faces and figures upon which the film rests, are abstracted into clasped bodies – equated, at the very beginning, with the ashen corpses of the bombed – and voices, and they speak in a blunt way completely at odds with their curious, almost emotionally revealing conversations. It is as if they are speaking from a point far later or, even more likely, in a distant memory, far away from the slightly unreal, scarred city that dominates their existence. Their nationalities and differences in culture are all the more pronounced, and all the more deeply felt, with the inexorable passage of time.

Theatre of Blood
Chalk it up to my general horror myopia, my suspicion of melodrama outside of a concrete sense of emotion, my general distaste for wanton killing, my status as a critic, or any number of general predilections, but I found it very difficult to get into Theatre of Blood as a whole. By virtue of its jerry-rigged structure, stringing together an alarming number of purportedly justified murders while it seems no investigation is ventured at all, the film goes through highs and lows, with the undisputed high being a quite well-choreographed fencing duel through a gymnasium and the low being…one of three or four particularly gruesome murders? Leaving aside the illogicality of nearly every character’s actions save Price and Rigg (both of whom are clearly having much fun, for better or worse), the film can’t decide what tone it wishes to assume, and instead shifts awkwardly – sometimes in the same scene – between seriousness (as signaled by the lachrymose score) and hilarity. And all of this comes from an irreconcilable fact: Lionheart (not Price) is a fairly bad actor. Some nice shots from Hickox, though.

The Emperor’s New Groove (rewatch)
Leaving all of the insanely clever and intensely paced gags, I was struck at how totally The Emperor’s New Groove nails every aspect of its construction. From the brilliantly modern corporate speak, used both in and out of the royal court (“Emperor or not, it’s called common courtesy”), the purposefully sparing use of some of the best characters (the waiter, Pacha’s family), and even a heartwarming redemptive arc that, in its breathless movement through multiple betrayals and reconciliations, almost manages to outpace the film at large, it is exceedingly well-crafted, even if its pacing is too manic to let everything fully settle. But of course, one must return to the gags, to the absurdity that makes constant fourth-wall narration both obnoxious and consistently funny, that makes a dramatic zoom-out into something oddly suggestive of a wider world, and that makes pathos acutely earned.

Taste of Cherry (out of order)
Humanism is really a word that should be taken for granted when it comes to a director like Kiarostami, and yet it seems nigh impossible to describe Taste of Cherry as anything but. The scenario has such an overwhelming pathos baked in, but there is something ineffable about its brilliance, something so logical and elemental, that makes it devastating. Much of it is in the little feints: the brief use of the clergyman’s friend, the lack of introduction for Badii’s potential savior. But just as key are the big moments, the way in which Badii must get all the details right for fear of dying “unnaturally” or the laundry list of the things that make life worth living. And somehow each choice just amplifies the ache, the necessity of life; Kiarostami’s camera is never exploitative, never too distant, and especially in the transcendent final scene, never not quietly radical.

2016 SFCA Capsules

Manchester by the Sea
Grief – all-consuming, life-altering grief – is a rarity in the American cinema.
More often than not, it is dealt with and then pushed aside, and to be fair Manchester by the Sea does not fixate solely on one man’s overpowering grief. But it is woven into the structure and the backbone of the film, shadowing and enriching every interaction, every pause, every Atlantean movement.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an oddity from a cultural point of view. Ostensibly a straightforward drama in the standard independent vein, it expands outwards, not necessarily in scope (as in his landmark 2011 film Margaret) but in depth, unspooling out its insight over 137 minutes in great detail. Its focus is Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor in Massachusetts who returns to his eponymous hometown to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies. It is clear, even in the wake of this traumatic incident, that Lee has been carrying a deep sadness for some time, a revelation only clarified midway through the film. With this grief comes a sense of purpose and relentless drive; he is almost exclusively seen stone-faced, thinking rationally when others are overwhelmed, though his sarcastic and impulsive nature – something shared with many residents of the town – shine through on multiple occasions.

And it is this sense of the town, of the various people that surround Lee in an orbit, some supportive and others dismissive, that lend Manchester by the Sea its ultimate power. Lonergan renders this drama with an intense vitality that feels almost too close to real life, with equal parts poignancy and levelheadedness.

Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart reconciles those two most opposing of artistic tendencies: the intimate drama and the epic. Provocatively, the simple tale of a mother trying to connect with her son is both situated in and symbolically made into the story of an entire nation’s history over the course of three decades. It is entirely to Jia Zhangke’s credit that the film emerges not as a political treatise or heavy-handed metaphor, but as melodrama of the highest order, that moves with inexorable energy through the passing of time, technology, cities, and love.

Much of what makes Mountains May Depart so ineffably radical lies in its simple but oddly confounding structure. Separated into three parts of roughly equal length, each section, set at the turn of the millennium, 2014, and 2025 respectively, has its own plot, tone, and accompanying aspect ratio. Though they all are connected by a well-established narrative core, each part feels as if it could stand alone – though, of course, the emotional heft is only magnified as the film moves along. It feels audacious in some unquantifiable way, succumbing to emotion yet never losing control of the larger narrative of the Westernization of China, and though its sincerity seems to have invited laughter, its power and prowess shines through, as Jia always finds the exact right tenor to devastate and move the viewer. Mountains May Depart demands openness and reconciliation between both the characters and the viewers, a concrete sense of understanding that reaches the sublime.

The Handmaiden
Erotic romance, especially of the queer variety, has become a hot topic among filmmakers in recent times; one need only look to films like Blue is the Warmest Color and Weekend to see explicit sex treated with genuine love and care. But what separates The Handmaiden from those (excellent) films is that said romance is gleefully wrapped within a dense and thrilling web of cons. The ultimate goal that each participant tries to achieve, which is only fully uncovered just before the final act, seems entirely beside the point; what matters much more is the swooning romance and charged close-ups with which each woman views the other, the gonzo sensibility of Park Chan-wook that bursts forth in virtually every scene.

What makes The Handmaiden so delightful is that sense of exhilarating disorientation, of allegiances being formed and broken before the viewer’s very eyes, as Kim Tae-ri’s and Kim Min-hee’s characters engage in lithe pas de deux, all too frequently intruded upon by lecherous and self-serving men. True, their entire romance may be something straight out of the erotic novels that the count of the estate obsesses over, but it is between them (and the viewer). And when the viewer looks back at all of the twists and turns, the miracle is that they all remain true to these characters; love does not conquer all, per se, but it feels like enough. Indeed, it almost feels like a fairy tale or a story, something literalized by that last, glorious dissolve.

Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong Sang-soo’s films have always had an incredible, intuitive understandings of the immensely flawed characters at their center, but Right Now, Wrong Then may represent one of the first times that he has pulled off this trick twice (or, if you like, four times) in his remarkable oeuvre. Roughly speaking,
the film follows a well-known director (Jung Jae-young) visiting a small town for the first time when he meets a shy artist (Kim Min-hee). They talk and drink together, the director leaves, and, quite unexpectedly, the sequence of events repeats with many small but important differences.

Hong’s films have almost always had various structural conceits – something similar appeared in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate – but there is a special symmetry in this case, a near 1:1 reproduction that nevertheless feels radically different in approach. The complicating factor, of course, is Kim’s character, who is cast as an equal to the almost archetypal director in Hong’s filmography. She has many of the most affecting moments, and her vulnerability gives even more heft to Right Now, Wrong Then‘s emotional pull.

But what makes Right Now, Wrong Then so gratifying is its sense of warmth and control, to an even greater extent than most of Hong’s other films. Perhaps it is because the film is so much of a two-hander, but he plumbs the depths of his characters to a profound degree, teasing out more flaws, inadequacies, and personal failings while never doling out an ounce of judgement.

Kate Plays Christine
I will readily profess to having nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the contemporary documentary landscape, but I cannot recall ever seeing a film like Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene’s radical study of both ethics and performance. Not coincidentally, those two ideas dovetail nicely with the ostensible subject: Christine Chubbuck, a newswoman known solely for her on-air suicide. Greene’s film, almost akin to docufiction, is less an investigation than an interrogation, using the figure of actress Kate Lyn Sheil as both avatar and experiment subject.

Lest the wrong impression be given, it must be emphasized that Lyn Sheil is effectively the co-auteur of the film, giving perhaps the performance of the year with an endlessly layered, immensely subtle performance that shifts in and out of character. Even the way she acts as an interviewer is utterly fascinating, infusing her questions with both care and a hard-edged professionalism, giving off the sense that she wants to get the role right.

But the whole point of Kate Plays Christine is that one deeply troubled woman’s life cannot be distilled without distorting the facts (as in Antonio Campos’s immensely flawed and questionable Christine), and Greene reaches that conclusion without ever showing his hand, save for the bracingly high-wire finale. The whole journey is expertly, mesmerizingly rendered from beginning to end, and along the way so many different facets of one person few truly knew are brought up, only to be washed away by real footage in living color.

June 2017 Quick Capsules

The Wolfpack
Curiously distended and aimless, despite the inherently compelling and dramatic subject matter. At times it almost feels as if Moselle is stalling or simply too endeared with an observational mode of filmmaking, content to simply record the scattered observations and retellings of her subjects rather than provide any sort of motivating force – aside from, that is, her actual physical presence with her camera. This dovetails, unfortunately, with one of the other significant aspects that was truly unexpected on my part: the particular brand of cinephilia that the Angulos’ exhibit as depicted in the film is far more elemental and basic than I had anticipated. Moselle shows shockingly little interest in it except when it is deemed essential to the story (the movie theater visit, a reenactment here or there) and otherwise abandons it. The Wolfpack has its own small share of pathos, but otherwise feels rather inert and lifeless.

Troll 2
Indefensible in damn near every conventional way, and yet Troll 2 has a strong tinge of the unassailable to it. There is something to the general competence of the technical aspects – some extraordinarily odd camera choices, editing, and special effects aside – that casts all of the totally incompetent plotting and acting in a different light. Not to say that I view this as some sort of high-trash masterpiece, as it manages to become dull roughly an hour into its ninety-minute runtime, but it remains so consummately dedicated to its weirdness, its transparently demented and malicious environment, and its bozo logic that it occasionally becomes mesmerizing.

Tabu
Appeals so greatly to that sense of the elemental tale as old as time that I seem to gravitate so strongly towards, and yet I think that Tabu is putatively something that does not fall into that. By way of parallel construction, Murnau sets the idyllic island and the hustle and bustle of a more modern way of life in direct opposition and manages to find more than a little bit of resemblance. But what matters most, and what the lovers on the lam seem to miss, is the sense of community and ritual among the beaches and the palm-frond villages, and the evident guilt and fear that they hold becomes so much more than just forbidden love under the watchful eye of Murnau. They attempt to resist nature itself, swimming against the tide of time to no avail. Such a doomed struggle is handled with the most simple of techniques, and yet a whole world is alchemically conjured in the dissolve from a written language to English, in the refusal to use an intertitle. In the land of Murnau, the emotions howl just as strongly as the waves.

To the Wonder
Putatively, this is one of Malick’s most modestly pitched films – a love story centering on a couple, with a priest in the periphery and a former flame even further from the center – very likely the least ponderous film he has made since Badlands. But almost everything else about it feels like a kind of next step for Malick, albeit one that looks back. Every character feels like a variation of one of his previous characters: Kurylenko to Pocahontas, Tatiana to Manz, Affleck to Jack etc. and Malick’s style pushes Lubezki’s rushing camera movements even further. What is different is the lack of any inhibition, as his characters dance around each other, coming together and breaking apart as quickly. Kurylenko’s status as an outsider seems key here – as does Bardem, their voiceovers in their “native” languages are among the loveliest aspects of To the Wonder – something only deepened by the sense of this vaguely defined but distinctly modern and American milieu. Unlike Knight of Cups or Song to Song there is no society to be commented on; this culture simply exists, much in the same way that it has for decades and as it likely will for years to come. So what changes are the relationships, the people as they grow and wane in their passion, in their sense of inner life, something which Malick explores with an aching, unmistakably poignant passion.

Knight of Cups (rewatch)
Several orders of magnitude more fractured and aimless than what I can recall from the rest of Malick’s oeuvre, for a number of fairly apparent reasons. Almost certainly the main problem is built into the intertitle-separated structure. This wasn’t an issue for the only other Malick I can remember having clear delineations such as this, the extended cut of The New World, but where that movie even gained a hint of the novelistic, this film feels like it loses something in the blitz of characters that remain fairly confined to their own segments. It certainly doesn’t help that Bale’s presence is (whether through his performance or Malick’s realization of it) near-absent in ways that do and don’t feel productive. And the spiritual allegories here feel unmoored from the moment in which Rick lives, foisted upon the narrative rather than organically developed.

But it must be said, few directors could handle such an unwieldy, risky text nearly as well as the deft hand of Malick. His conjuring of awe, of the lightness of movement, character, and narrative is almost wholly sui generis; the signposts may be clear (an earthquake as the inciting incident, the virginal woman as redeemer) but they feel both otherworldly and grounded, rendered in pristine shimmering that flows in the light and dark. The result is nothing short of awe, something that Knight of Cups holds more of than it should have any right to possess.

John From
I’m tempted to separate this neatly into halves, the first being an exceedingly well-developed hangout film and the second a considerably dreamier and fantastical endeavor. But to do so would rob John From of its more impressive distinguishing traits, particularly its actual justification for this switch. The pivot isn’t truly a pivot at all, but a rather organic (literally) metamorphosis, as the film evolves before the viewer’s very eyes in ways both expected and unexpected, visible and invisible. Much of the credit must go to the immensely fluid and always engrossing guiding hand of João Nicolau; the closest analogue in my limited knowledge is Linklater (at least for the first half), but his sense is more rigorous but with the same sense of looseness, containing a plentitude of rather dramatic tracking shots. Utterly pleasurable.

The Day He Arrives (rewatch)
Went into this particular rewatch with all of the praise and love that this receives from some of the most fervent Hong admirers in mind (especially Kevin B. Lee’s video essay), but that can only account for some of my drastically altered perception and immensely greater love for this film. The Day He Arrives feels like, among the seven Hongs I’ve seen so far, the clearest summation of what makes his body of work so immensely special and beguiling. Even though it feels in some ways like an oddity – the black-and-white, the pointed use of voiceover – it manages to marry the immensely playful structure with a certain looseness, a use of dialogue that at first glance seems somewhat unrelated to the plight of the central character. Of course, nothing is throwaway and everything is important in Hong’s world; the slightest bit of difference in who enters or doesn’t enter the frame, the change in the type of zoom he uses, the reappearance of figures in entirely different contexts. And it moves along with such grace, such melancholy drive, pinballing off of slightly different characterizations and conversations, that it achieves its own kind of sublime.

Daughter of the Nile
Moves with astonishing fluidity (in the span of a single cut) between a slightly narcotized, dreamy feeling among nocturnal settings and the comparatively harsh, glaring light of day, but what remains predominant is the extent of Hou’s reserved intimacy. Though his camera floats far less than I expected, his locked down frames consistently stun, bringing the viewer closer with a medium shot than most filmmakers could accomplish with a long shot, and the mood remains so warm, even as the characters fall closer and closer into the depths of the modern world. Perhaps the story is too small for its own good, but the scenes in the night school and KFC (admittedly, the ones I was most interested in) act as marvelous embellishments, and the commitment in Daughter of the Nile is apparent from beginning to elegiac end.

Nerve
More than a little worrying and dangerous, simply by virtue of the degree to which it displays and even glorifies the culture that forms its center. Despite the supposed objections that Nerve has towards Nerve, there is a very certain glamor given to the foolish daredevils, a seductiveness in the admittedly gorgeous oversaturated lights and the slow-motion shots of its heroes walking through crowds of admirers. This extends to the fantasia of the Internet, all touchscreens, flashy pans, and flowing data, something which perhaps wisely extends to the “real world,” which itself is a series of disembodied streets and unmoored building. Someone much more dedicated to this could easily make a case for this as high art (certainly there’s something interesting in its brazen commitment to a despicable culture) but I am content to both appreciate and feel wary at this, with whiplash regularity.

Split (rewatch)
It was much more apparent to me on this viewing just how meticulous and unnerving Shyamalan’s direction was, and I do think I originally did it a disservice by questioning how much of the film truly functioned as a thriller. For this does truly feel like a tightly coiled spring that expertly unravels over the course of the film; even Betty Buckley’s scenes carry a charge with how unsettling Kevin’s intentions remain. And of course, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy hold the screen, he with his multivalent, rapidly switching personas and she with a hypnotic intensity, projecting fear and will with the same glance.

Game of Death
It’s difficult to ascertain whether Game of Death benefits or suffers from the inclusion of actual Bruce Lee footage. On the one hand, it substantially raises the level of overall interest in this otherwise half-hearted effort, and even makes the viewer scour the other segments for other moments that actually feature the legendary martial artist. But it also highlights just how shoddy many of the other fight scenes feel, which themselves seem nothing short of brilliant (thanks to Sammo Hung’s choreography) when placed next to stiffly performed, rote conspiracy machinations. The film certainly improves as it becomes more and more about Billy Lo’s revenge, but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more screen presence in one scene than the Bruce Lee doppelgangers do in the entire film, it spells trouble.

The Great Wall
Explicitly calls itself a legend at the very start, which Zhang Yimou uses as essentially a carte blanche to create his own alternate version of Imperial China. And like a legend, The Great Wall feels almost too barebones, moving from one great feat or hurried conversation to another, with little time to truly delve into the characters. But the actors all perform their parts ably, and this truly is a kind of showcase for Zhang, a fluidly grandiose and thrillingly fun series of daredevil tricks, using more in one introductory battle than many would in entire films. There is much power to be found in the well-timed close-up or the particular body movement, and like many of the other actually competent and sometimes genius directors Zhang realizes this, and uses it to no small effect in this flawed, endearing work.

The Unbelievable Truth
Nervier and looser than Trust, perhaps for good reason – even more than that film, The Unbelievable Truth is as compassionate and playful with its peripheral characters as it is with the duo at its center, and Hartley uses them to great, hilarious effect. Of course, there is a tension, borne not only out of Audry’s apocalyptic obsessions but from the inescapable feeling of patterns repeating themselves, bits of dialogue and situations playing out over and over, which feels comedic sometimes and tragic at others. And there is catharsis, melancholy, vulgarity, and connections broken and found aplenty, almost too much for one to bear. But it is glorious and true, beautiful in its overt yet unassuming way.

Stranger by the Lake
Was most astonished by how much inherent feeling Guiraudie manages to wrest from the anxiety-ridden climate that eventually develops in Stranger by the Lake. The cruising scene is depicted with an unspoken matter-of-fact attitude, completely unapologetic yet almost labyrinthian in the expanse of the woods (which contrasts with the wide-open, exposed vision of the beach), in a way that feels utterly refreshing. But even more gratifying are the distinct, discrete patterns of behavior, the locked down, tightly wound direction of Guiraudie, and above all the characters, particularly Henri. He radiates a gruff sort of care, a longing that feels cut from the same cloth as that of the various gay men looking for connection, and serves as a kind of conduit, a balancing point between the simple carnal pleasures and the sinister, the suspenseful, the genuinely shocking.

Staying Vertical
Staying Vertical seems to suffer primarily from an abundance of narrative concerns. While Stranger by the Lake was extraordinarily focused on a man and his interactions with primarily two people and confined its setting to a week at a beach, this film feels almost sprawling in comparison, as Leo moves around the city and countryside and forging uneasy relationships with many groups. This isn’t necessarily a weak aspect, as much of the pleasure is derived from the variety of odd happenings that arise out of this hapless screenwriter’s apparent sense of overcommitment. But it feels like a faintly uneven experience, something mostly smoothed over by Guiraudie’s hypnotic, ceaselessly rigorous direction. Pleasantly befuddling, if a bit shapeless.