September 2020 Capsules

Days
Even more than most of Tsai’s films, Days is in effect all about the body and its interaction with the surrounding environments, and while Lee Kang-sheng is deservedly getting much of the attention, it’s just as important to recognize exactly what Anong Houngheuangsy is doing here. It’s tempting to liken him to Lee in youth, and indeed at certain moments they appear quite similar even in the present day. But his situation, and thus the way he carries himself, is completely different. He lacks a Miao Tien or a Lu Yi-ching to surround him, cook for him, and govern the way he lives, and thus even when he appears more innocent, less prone to the acting out or pseudo-prankster behavior that Hsiao-kang indulged in, he has a responsibility to himself to uphold. His existence is thus one of a certain discipline, something that Kang never had and, as a result of his infirmity, can never have. It would be too much to suggest that Anong is some alternate vision, a way of life that Kang could have had, but Tsai’s renewed fascination, his fetishistic interest in the way this young, well-built man moves about his affairs, has its longing resonances that go well beyond the second half’s unity and separation. May we be able to continue watching alongside them.

August 2020 Capsules

Dirty Ho
Both Wang and Ho face two fights that test different aspects of their kung fu abilities before they come together for the finale, and while Wang’s, cloaked in niceties and explicitly designed to be as dazzling as possible, deservedly get all the love, Ho’s feel equally vital to Lau’s framework. Whether it’s the “cripples” or the imagined con artists, he fights a succession of enemies, each with a different ability that in turn forces the untrained Ho to adopt a complementary kung fu style, often complete with otherwise unseen weapons, makeshift or not. That these are with more obviously “different,” even dangerously stereotypical foes who then reveal themselves to be phonies, speaks to the unbridgeable divide between Wang and Ho, separated as they are by class and wealth. Yet they share a sense of purpose, a talent for disguises, and a drive for fighting perfection, and even if it’s only for the span of a film, it’s more than enough to unite them.

April 2020 Capsules

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [rewatch]
While I fundamentally agree with Sean that the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t especially make sense, it carries a thematic resonance that squares with a lot of the film’s more direct import. Like with perhaps the film it most tries to emulate, A Touch of Zen, one of the greatest of all wuxias, the fundamental aim is self-betterment in favor of transcendence. For the warriors at the end of their prime, it’s to discover love while fighting the desire for revenge; for the desert bandit, it’s to recapture the one treasure that he had to let go of; for the poisonous theif, it’s to try to learn the art that she could never even begin to master. Jiaolong is caught between all of these places, and indeed wants on some level to achieve them all simultaneously. Accordingly, she is able to access these differing experiences and worlds, shifting in class stature and appearance; it’s surely no coincidence that she’s the only character to have substantially differing attire, and there’s a direct citation of the many wuxias where women disguised themselves as men just by wearing their hair up. Zhang’s all-time performance echoes this too, shifting between wide-eyed excitement, sullen discontentment, and hungry attraction in a way that still communicates the very core of her being. Crucially, she’s the youngest: she says that she’s “just playing” a number of times, and there’s a refreshing unseriousness and untestedness to her character that allows her to shift between these roles, to explore without getting stuck in her ordained place like the rest. (The near-mythic import that all of the other main actors, even Chang Chen, carry in comparison to Zhang’s still-ascendant star can’t be underestimated either.)

So while the essential nature of the ending, taking all of the stories and wishes spread throughout into account, may not necessarily work, if there’s one person who could both exist in the real world and among the clouds, floating forever, it’d be Jiaolong.

March 2020 Capsules

High and Low
In essence, High and Low really is building entirely to the scene in the GI bar. Though there are numerous scenes of interaction with the lower depths and sequences with large groups of people, this is the first time that the viewer is truly presented with the masses that Gondo and the police have been insulated from. Of course, there is a great deal of narrative import that occurs, but even more important is the clash between texture — loud music, rapidly moving bodies — and the intruders: the groups of “disguised” police officers and the dark glasses-wearing kidnapper. Both implicitly stick out, and it is their in-between status that snaps Kurosawa’s concerns into place: high and low are impossible to bridge, but there’s a great deal of room in the pits in between.

January 2020 Capsules

Like Someone in Love
There aren’t many imposed time limits in either this or in the context of Kiarostami’s sadly curtailed career, but throughout there’s the sense of the director and his characters running out of time. The need to complete a sordid assignment, to replace a drive belt, to translate a few lines: none of these are given specific deadlines, but the characters nevertheless rush forward trying to get them over with. In their midst is Takashi, who has nothing but time: time to drive around, to light candles, to move across his apartment. Their collision is between the old and the new, the societal and the interior, and the results are unbearably poignant.

December 2019 Capsules

Eyes Wide Shut (rewatch)
It’s crucial that practically the only sexual element that Bill doesn’t shrink away from is the actual centerpiece orgy. Be it the couple passionately kissing on the street, the Japanese businessman with the Russian daughter, the sexual desires of his wife, even the obviously gay hotel concierge: these all visibly upset him more than the slow accumulation of passionless humping that is more glimpsed than reveled in. This is almost to be expected: above all, Bill’s obsession is not with perversion or desire, but with the maintenance in his status quo, only pursuing his little threads as long as he can ensure he won’t get blood on his hands. In the “real world” (on the NYC city streets of a studio) he is constantly under threat, as various intimations of subversive or unconventional sexuality — not to call all of them equally moral — challenge his stalwart viewpoint. In the mansion, he is free to roam and observe, to float from room to room, with a mask on and personality off, without a waiting call from a wife or patient.

But in the end, he’s still wearing a rented tuxedo.

November 2019 Capsules

Jojo Rabbit
Let’s leave aside the extravagant vanity and stupidity of this, a project that seems as much an excuse for Waititi to clown around in Führer cosplay as to indulge his worst and most juvenile tendencies: the twee coming-of-age story, the playful mocking that ultimately coalesces into love. Let’s even excuse the utterly incoherent at best, downright fascistic approach to Nazism, which doesn’t so much dismantle the very real and very dangerous ideology as it presents it baldly and plainly, hoping that the viewer will find these hideous statements and behaviors from cuddly and/or blasé puppets hilarious. Jojo Rabbit would be utterly irredeemable if it just stuck to its proudly “anti-hate satire” formulations and its virtually nonexistent comedy, but it somehow manages to sink lower, into simpering, sappy romance.

Much of Jojo Rabbit is almost literally cloistered, as at least half of the film takes place solely within the eponymous character’s home, where he co-habits with both his vaguely antifascist mother and a teenage Jewish girl. Like with everything in this, Waititi’s approach comes off as maddeningly incoherent, going as far to employ a terribly overextended use of every horror movie trick in the book to accompany her first scene. But slowly, gradually, the true intent is revealed: despite her experiences fleeing the rot of fascist power, she is as flat and childlike as everyone, the object of affection — laid out oh-so-helpfully with paper-animated butterflies — and just another figure for Jojo to latch onto. In doing so, her inherent identity, which has caused the gassing of her parents and her present fearful existence, is all but erased, seemingly replaced uncomfortably with the role of both mother and lover. And in a film that refuses to reckon whatsoever with the horrors of fascism, that lies about the nature of ideologies, that closes itself off from any interesting or subversive view of the modern world, such a grievous conflation is just left there, as abject as anything in this monstrosity of a film.

Martin Eden
It’s crucial that, for all of the political rabble-rousing Martin does in writing and speech over the course of this film, his prose writing, which appears to be a true cornerstone of his success, is relegated in small snatches, only fitfully represented. As shown in his previous work, especially Lost and Beautiful, Marcello’s sensibility is never settled but always restless, and paradoxically the seeming strictures of a narrative format only amplify his tendencies. In this particular case, his penchant for archival footage is weaponized for a specific intent, taking on the immense task of capturing the undeniable power of Martin’s writing. By juxtaposing the bits of writing with longer, more abstruse moments of perhaps-found, perhaps-created shots of mundane life, Marcello both creates an emotional and an intellectual bond, reaching across class and time to conjure up an ever more complicated, beautiful feeling.

October 2019 Capsules

Mahjong
“In ten years, this place will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And do you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history, the 19th century with the glorious age of imperialism right? Just wait ’till you see the 21st century.”

These words, said in English by an arrogant British industrialist in voiceover towards the close of Mahjong, of course shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value; Yang’s own Yi Yi four years later acts in many ways as a repudiation of a great number of the statements made in this and A Confucian Confusion, effectively the sister film to this. But it acts as a key signifier for Yang’s own intentions: in every work of his save perhaps A Brighter Summer Day, Yang sees the future of Taipei as its past and present, continually reflecting on the former as directly affecting and molding the latter. This is reflected most obviously in the familial relationships, which dominate practically all his films and especially this one, but it reveals itself in so many other ways: the scattered rock memorabilia (especially the Beatles), the past entanglements of multiple characters, and most importantly in language. Here, too, Yang gestures towards the future: Hokkien is phased further out, and English shares center stage with Mandarin. The effect is like a less overtly reflexive version of Mountains May Depart‘s third act: slightly uncanny, immensely focused on the minutiae involved in translation (skewed or otherwise), and eventually incredibly moving. It’s no accident that the two final definitive acts almost eschew language all together: Yang’s cinema is nothing if not at turns impossibly alienated and unbearably intimate, and Mahjong contains both of these impulses at their fullest force.

A City of Sadness
Even besides the obvious narrative and thematic implications that come with language and communication in A City of Sadness, its imprint on reinforcing Hou’s style feels paramount. Taking place at a much more contemplative pace than the naturalistic conversations found elsewhere (especially in scenes with co-writer Wu Nien-jen), the viewer is forced to consider not only what Tony Leung and Xin Shufen write to one another, but how they communicate by other means: the little glances, the manner in which they pass the pen and pad of paper back and forth. It feels so indicative that the words are not shown in inserts of the paper, but in intertitles: even their most inconsequential words are imbued with an additional, almost transcendent power. And the one exception, the message given by Leung to the widow, the words of a man who he never heard or spoke to, accrues its power from the materiality of his final statement, from the imprint of the ink.

Stray Dogs
The Taipei that Hsiao-kang grew up in has almost vanished. Gone are the motorcycle rides that acted as a reprieve from daily existence, the skywalks, the flooded apartments, the street stands. They’ve been supplanted by the high-end condos like Vive L’Amour‘s, only that the erotic potential is gone; even the streets feel sterile now. So Hsiao-kang can only go almost literally underground, with offspring in tow; they wander the construction sites and gleaming supermarkets, eating from plastic takeout trays and fitfully drawing mosquito nets around their meager living conditions. It’s not much, but it’s the home he knows, and the only home he can imagine.

September 2019 Capsules

Days of Being Wild (rewatch)
Wong’s characters’ obsession with time, which reaches its early peak here, fits so deeply into his overall aesthetic concerns because it’s at once concrete and yet subjective. Unlike a pair of earrings, a car, or a lighter, time isn’t something that can be contained, even by the numerous watches or clocks scattered around the relative ghost town of 1960 Hong Kong. Instead, it floats between them, suffusing the characters and their perceptions. For the male characters, it’s more concrete: Leslie Cheung means it when he says he’ll remember his minute with Maggie Cheung, even if he forgets everything else; Andy Lau’s existence is defined by being on the clock, first in vocation and then in tentative infatuation. For the female characters, it’s something more slippery: a state of constant reverie and remembrance, wondering exactly when their relationships went wrong. But no one can escape their own subjectivity, their own flawed commitments: even Tony Leung’s hustler has to glance at his watch before he brings the lights down.

August 2019 Capsules

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Pushes its insistent rhymings with the first film past any reasonable limit: this is no mere referentiality, but conscious inversion and recontextualization from the opening moments, a class-flipped take on the predecessor’s opening scene. That this transpires with the two new main characters, Yeung Yeung and Paul, lends a further unpredictable charge, and a few scenes pass before the original tripartite dynamic is even partially restored — Qi Hong, not coincidentally the most (relatively) stable and committed character of the madcap ensemble, only makes sporadic appearances, which only begin more than twenty minutes in. Instead, the love triangle takes place between the volatile Shen Ran and the two newcomers, yet parallels crop up: Paul spends much of the second half in a soused state heavily reminiscent of Qi Hong in his original state, complete with a penchant for Johnnie Walker; Shen Ran takes Yeung Yeung to the same restaurant where he botched his initial engagement, directly mentioning this fact and prolonging the inevitable conversation until after dessert; Paul cooks seafood for Yeung Yeung in his own relatively humble quarters. “I must have met you before” is said by the new characters multiple times, and in a sense it’s true; by the time the opening is reinvoked once more with Chi Yan sitting on the bus in tears and Shen Ran driving by her in a sports car, the viewer would be forgiven for a strong case of déjà vu.

And yet it feels all so new, or at least cyclical in a way that feels genuine. The economic aspect sets the tone: where the global crash acted as a plot catalyst in the predecessor, here the sudden downturns and upturns feel ultimately immaterial, as of little consequence to the viewer as to the characters, wrapped up as they are in their love affairs. And as lovely as Gao Yuanyuan is once more, and as hard Louis Koo pushes himself (to great and perfectly absurd effect), Miriam Yeung absolutely defines this film. The dichotomy between her severe “queen of the stocks” status and the devil-may-care attitude with which she throws herself into love couldn’t be clearer, and her acceptance of Shen Ran’s proposal halfway through somehow feels both so wrong and so right.

That paradoxical feeling resonates throughout this, a disquietude that intermingles with the euphoria emanating from To’s visual confidence and his ensemble cast’s overflowing charisma. In a sense, this is to be expected: both Chi Yan and Genie, the octopus acting as a feebler but still wonderful stand-in for Froggy, display a consistent sense of “reverse thinking,” predicting the exact wrong thing, which proves great for sports and stocks betting but only muddles the waters further in the games of love. The continual sense of things being not quite right maps onto the sense of entrapment or limbo here, as characters enact the same scenarios over and over. But at the same time there’s such joy, such genuine astonishment on display; the last shot suggests at once infinite heartbreak, bitter defeat, and a feeling that the war is not yet over, and may never be over. In that sense, it’s a perfect sequel, in the sense that it consciously expands the original, inverting and altering it to enrich both parts. It feels so carefully considered, yet so inventive and energetic in the undertaking, that it exists both separately and apart, inextricable and yet fully, gloriously alive.

Asako I & II
Obviously have much, much more to say about this heartstopping masterpiece, but one of the most important aspects seems to be the sudden intrusion of the March 2011 earthquake, only hinted at by iOS designs amid the almost timeless/fantastical quality of the romances. Rather than grounding its surprising, almost radical approach to this odd love triangle, Asako I & II restrains itself to bounding and locating it, all the better to bring forth the flights of fancy. In a film filled to the brim with little details, feelings, and gestures, this act registers as one of the most quietly powerful.

A Confucian Confusion
The pleasures and interests in A Confucian Confusion are perhaps best expressed in two contradictory, yet not necessarily mutually exclusive, statements made less than five minutes apart: the categorization of Taipei as a small town and as a big place. Coupled with the opening statements the unusually direct intertitle (which in itself is counterposed with the elusive, mysterious dialogue snippet intertitles interspersed throughout) calling Taipei one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the impression is one of a space in total flux, befitting a milieu in which everything, no matter how seemingly settled and predestined the existing structures are. As always in Yang, the mercurial and unpredictable flights of human emotion clash with the glass windows and steel buildings: a theater director makes a swerve from postmodern abstraction to comedy, people fall in and out of love with almost alarming regularity, and people decide to seek other forms of employment. Yang, incongruously but perfectly, plays this roundelay of absurdity as farce, but there is a surfeit of scenes pitched at his usual, startling emotional level; if this doesn’t quite aim for a comedy of remarriage, the implications of its overall narrative feel deeply in kinship with his past work, with the comedy tradition, with the state of the modern world.