January 2022 Capsules

In the Mood for Love [rewatch]
While it serves different purposes in different films, Wong’s voiceover has always been central as another layer in his characters’ and cinema’s means of expression. But while there are numerous phone conversations that hang over the film’s images, In the Mood for Love only contains two lines of true voiceover. They both come from Cheung, immediately after she and Leung realize they both know the secret that initially unites, then ultimately divides them: “I thought I was the only one that knew,” then “I wonder how it started,” both laid over a distant, hazy shot of the two of them walking away together.

Wong then cuts to black, then to what appears to be an innocent conversation, then an alarming upsetting of propriety, then a tentative and tortured reenactment. If cinema can be said to embody mindsets, to flesh out characters, then this may be among the greatest of examples: the decision to go down this path is not made on screen, but it is embodied in that brief strip of black leader, that ambiguous space between thought and action, made in an instant that haunts and grows in the mind.

December 2021 Capsules

Benedetta
As a Christian, I’m naturally inclined to believe in the validity of Benedetta’s visions, but I was surprised the degree to which the film — and Verhoeven — seem to agree, or at least in the conviction of her beliefs. Many have rightly commented on the general primacy of power relations over the lesbian copulations that were supposed to be the backbone, and it’s important to situate that within how it relates to the central dilemma of faith: the belief in something that can’t be directly experienced. Numerous characters, even Rampling’s daughter, invoke this, twisting it for their own ends, and while the film can be said to be a critique of the Catholic Church, a central core of faith remains intact. The two characters who most fervently express a desire for faith, Benedetta and the Reverend Mother, maintain it to the end, and as such remains unchallenged in that realm, even by the forces of lust for sex or power. What they end up doing with that desire is where interpretation lies, and where purity is corrupted.

November 2021 Capsules

Shanghai Express
It’s so crucial here that none of von Sternberg’s characters fundamentally change, perhaps not even Dietrich. Despite their harrowing journey, they are either too enmeshed in China (Wong and her quiet patriotism) or too set apart from it by their foreign mindsets to be truly shaken. What matters here, and what von Sternberg so vividly conveys in his structure, which treats the entire upheaval of a vicious power struggle, is how events shed new lights on preexisting perspectives. Carmichael, previously the butt of most every joke, emerges as a guiding light, a conduit towards a deeper understanding. And it is with a great, unexpected tenderness that Dietrich rises to receive it, while keeping her luminescence intact.

The Souvenir: Part II
Aside from its clear purpose as an elaboration of an artist’s vision liberated from the strictures of a threadbare film school student’s budget and limited sets, the climax’s imagined short film acts as a synecdoche for Hogg’s larger vision. The Souvenir: Part II itself cycles through styles, throwing in privileged moment after moment, with the metafilm conceit helping the viewer to cast a different glance on each successive shot: is this Julie’s film? Garance’s? Patrick’s? Of course, it’s all Hogg’s film in the end, but there’s a productive tension of reality and unreality, most evident in Julie’s amusing but honestly painful attempts at communicating messy interior life to well-meaning but confused actors. In general, there’s a fitting sense of instability and tentativeness, thrown into further relief by the greater time spent with Julie’s mother and her own modest burgeoning artistic practice. And the very ending acts as a strange hall of mirrors, both an entrapment and a liberation, a closing of a chapter.

Round Midnight
I keep coming back to the moments where Gordon talks about his reeds. He seems to be playing on a single reed at a time, specifically requesting a Rico 3. I don’t know what the reed market was like in 1959; now reeds come in boxes of five (for tenors) and aren’t all that expensive. Moreover, Ricos are the starter reeds, the ones that come gratuit with your new horn. I play Vandoren Java 2 1/2s, designed specifically for jazz; I wonder if Gordon opting for the stronger reed helped with the richness of his sound, which regains its former luster over the course of the film. That Round Midnight can carry and sustain that detail only goes to show the key role experience should play when it comes to the creation of art.

February 2021 Capsules

PTU
The apartment raid, with the slow staggered ascent of Yam and his team with manually flickering flashlights, is at once one of the great summits of To’s ethos and its antithesis, with all that elegiac cool in service of a pointless raid that terrorizes a few women. Such is the greatness of PTU, a film that totally embodies everything masterful and terrifying about To’s filmmaking, where the wanton police brutality combined with the assuredness of the filmmaking could be repugnant if it weren’t for the interfering elements: a child riding a bike, an unexpected stabbing, an invitation to mahjong. Truth is subjective, bound to be written by the forces in charge, and it doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire.

October 2020 Capsules

Beginning
Seems to fully inhabit the material and the supernatural, which isn’t to say that the two continually coexist at all moments within this. Moreover, religion here is less the constant, forbidding presence that one would expect for a film all about the subjugation and degradation of women, and more a force that can be siloed off, that can be ignored for a time in one’s own solitude. For what Dea has internalized is an intensely focused, and just plain intense, approach to compartmentalization as evoked by composition. The innovation is less in the actual frames themselves, which tend closer to a de rigeur arthouse style (albeit even more beautifully executed than normal), and more in the context created around them, where a potent cocktail of quotidian and nightmarish tones and narrative throughlines is evoked at all times, even when the film focuses on a much different aspect of Yana’s life. By design, Beginning is a slippery film in multiple senses, where a brief respite in the woods can turn into something far more worrisome just by the elongation of the same shot, and where a pivotal location revisited ten minutes later can radically recontextualize an innocuous activity. Perhaps what’s strongest about this film is its deft balance of clear thematics with a certain inscrutability: ultimately motivations matter less in the face of such a distinct mood, which never lets up and only grows more thorny, more piercing.

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 thief, 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.