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December 31, 2009

My best of 2009, plus two films of the decade

No numerically based lists are to be found here. As in previous years, this is based on what was seen during the calendar year of 2009. Most of the time I was at home, although I did venture to the Starz Film Center for some theatrical screenings plus the Starz Denver Film Festival. A nice surprise was to find that at the Highlands Ranch 24, a suburban multiplex south of where I currently live, Bollywood films will pop up on occasion.

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Best film of 2009: Red Cliff. The abridged version is currently playing theatrically in the U.S., but I saw the full five hour version on DVD. A rousing spectacle, and a reminder of how good John Woo is as a director of action, as well as more pensive moments. If I had the money, I would buy the Blu-ray version immediately, or better yet, book a theater with a huge screen to see this film as intended.

Also: Vincere. A remarkable film by Marco Bellocchio, about the corrupting influence of power, and the literal and figurative madness of idealism.

And: Sparrow. Johnny To's choreographed pickpockets in the rain was a part-time project made between his other many producing and directing chores. The film is relaxed, fun, and deserves to be seen by a bigger audience.

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Classic film on newly released on Region 1 DVD: Black Rain. Shohei Imamura had four films released on DVD in the U.S. Black Rain is for me, the best of those films. The AnimEigo DVD also includes the original color ending that Imamura chose to delete, claiming that he wanted to stay faithful to Masuji Ibuse's novel. There are interviews with Imamura's former Assistant Director Takashi Miike and star Yoshiko Tanaka. I read the novel, and Imamura's film is substantially different, only using a small portion, plus the names of the characters, essentially creating a significantly original story about Yasuko, the young woman caught in the rain.

Also: Revenge of a Kabuki Actor. I prefer the English language title, An Actor's Revenge. My favorite film by Kon Ishikawa. Like other AnimEigo DVDs, not only is the dialogue given improved colored subtitles, but simultaneous titles also provide context for some of the cultural references.

And: Angel Baby. Warner Brothers launched their Archive series to much acclaim. This dark little film about lust and faith healing is a reminder of what was produced for mainstream cinema before the huge corporations and marketing departments took over Hollywood.

Some DVD extras with something extra: Let's Get Started and The Whirled from the Benten DVD, The GoodTimes Kid, by Azazel Jacobs. The first is of Sara Diaz chasing a runaway bicycle wheel, a contemporary version of a Mack Sennett short, the second includes television appearance of early Sixties hipster Ken Jacobs, Azazel's father, with early Sixties television host Robert Q. Lewis, who might not have been as square as he looked.

Best soundtrack that came with a movie: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

Also: (500) Days of Summer. I should also mention a nice dance number that is more watchable than some of the stuff in what passes for musicals from Hollywood these days.

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Films of the decade: In the Mood for Love and Tears of the Black Tiger. Looking back, two films released at the beginning of the decade had reverberations for me that became more obvious by the end of the decade. Both films found inspiration in the films of the past - films largely ignored or unknown to western film critics. An interest in Hong Kong action films led me films by other Hong Kong filmmakers not always tied to genres. I had seen Wong Kar-wai's film in its initial theatrical release. The Criterion Collection DVD has an extra about films that inspired Wong. From there I have been watching and writing about other Chinese language films, as well as the handful of older Chinese language films I have seen.

I first saw Tears of the Black Tiger on a British DVD in 2003, when it became apparent that the Weinstein Brothers had no plans to release the film in the U.S. after a much publicized purchase at Cannes. I had no idea that I would be living briefly in Thailand about three years later. The film is mischaracterized by western film critics who are unaware of the older Thai films that Wisit Sasanatieng has used as his inspiration. In his book No Borders, No Limits, Mark Schilling discussed how even Japan had their own series of 'westerns", just as Thailand had in the Fifties. The lesson here is that there is much more to explore regarding Asian films and genre studies. Since buying Wisit's debut film on DVD, I have seen his other films. I will continue where possible to look into the work of other Thai filmmakers, both current and past.

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Posted by peter at 12:44 AM | Comments (2)

December 29, 2009

(Extended) Coffee Break

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb - 2009)

Posted by peter at 12:27 AM

December 27, 2009

Coffee Break

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Myrna Loy and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama (W.S. Van Dyke - 1934)

Posted by peter at 12:58 AM

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

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Aleksey Batalov in Lady with a Dog (Iosif Heifitz - 1960)

Posted by peter at 12:41 AM

December 24, 2009

The Disorderly Orderly

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Frank Tashlin - 1964
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

Tonal montage? Probably not intellectual montage? It's been years since I said goodbye to the film theory bandwagon, when semiotics was the buzzword, and too much writing about film had more to do with the writer's inner demons, on not what was actually happening on the screen, or the actual experience of watching a movie. I don't know what Sergei Eisenstein would have made of Frank Tashlin. As it is, the classical idea of montage is something that seems forgotten in mainstream filmmaking, when the emphasis is on the craft rather than bothering with any art. When it comes to montage, there are two examples that are my favorites. More obvious a choice would be the last several minutes of Antonioni's L'Eclisse when night falls when night falls on Rome, and the audience realizes that Monica Vitti and Alain Delon are never going to get together. But I also love this small bit by Frank Tashlin, a sweet little smile of artistry in between the loud pratfalls and belly laughs.

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Posted by peter at 12:50 AM

December 22, 2009

Because of Her

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Jiao wo ru he bu xiang ta
Yi Wen and Wang Tian-lin - 1963
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Because of Her was Hong Kong based Motion Picture and General Investment's attempt to answer back to rival Shaw Brothers, with a wide screen and color musical. The color is still there, preserved in an uneven fashion. The Cathay Scope is lost to an Academy ratio transfer which trims the image on all sides. This available version is still fairly entertaining, primarily on the strength of Grace Chang's charisma, and the extended musical numbers. The backstage story is the weak glue that holds the film together. That the DVD version is not in a widescreen aspect ratio is also important as this was the studio's first scope film.

Performer Meixin is in love with musician Ziping. Ziping has just found out that he can study music in Japan. He's about to tell Meixin that he's leaving Hong Kong, when one thing leads to another at Meixin's apartment. The beginning of a serious relationship in the eyes of the young woman turns out to have been a one night stand. Meixin picks herself up, and auditions for Shiming's musical troupe where she soon becomes the star attraction. Finding herself pregnant, Shiming marries Meixin. The two work professionally in a nightclub and join a new troupe when Ziping reappears. Of course there is more trouble for the three principle characters.

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In the time honored tradition perfected by Busby Berkeley, the musical numbers take place on stages that extend beyond assumed physical limits. One of the extended numbers is devoted to international travel with stops in Japan, a generic South America, Malaysia, Venice, and the U.S. The U.S. segment is primarily a Charleston number with lyrics expressing admiration for then president John F. Kennedy. The other big musical segment has something to do with angels and demons, with Grace Chang alternating between what looks like a white choir robe, and a far sexier skin tight black outfit. The sets are especially spartan compared to what was used for Shaw Brothers musicals done during the same time. More successfully realized is Grace Chang and a group of chorus dancers doing the twist at a rehearsal studio, a naturalistic setting that does not call attention to any budgetary limitations.

According to Wang Tian-lin, he primarily directed the musical scenes, while Yi Wen did the dramatic scenes, although they were often both together on the set. Because of Her was Chang's first movie in about two years after getting married. In spite of the film being a hit, it still marked the closing of Chang's film career, with only three more films before retiring from the screen. Chang is also reunited with two of her leading men, Roy Chiao and Kelly Lai Chen. The film uses Chiao's solid physical presence as the more dependable of the men in Meixin's life. I don't know who thought Kelly Lai Chen could sing, but his monotone vocals are especially glaring, though fortunately drowned out by Chang during their duets. Without giving away the climatic finish, I can only say that it was dusted off from use from other backstage dramas, and is cliched to the point of unintended hilarity. The real tragedy is that Grace Chang should have been in a better film.

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Because of Her is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

December 21, 2009

The Ramen Girl

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Robert Allan Ackerman - 2008
Image Region 1 DVD

I happened to watch The Ramen Girl on Saturday night. My excuse was primarily to see Kimiko Yo, who charmed me in Departures. In the film, she plays the wife of the chef who teaches Brittany Murphy who to cook ramen. To have seen a film one day, and read about the death of the star the next evening is disturbing.

I wasn't planning to write about the film because it's not the kind of film I would normally write about, and because, critically speaking, there are a few aspects about the film that don't work for me. The Ramen Girl is frankly a westerner's Oriental fantasy. There also a few gaps of logic, such as how Murphy's character could afford to stay in what seemed like an exceptionally large apartment when she was not making much money. On the other hand, if you don't have cable, and you don't feel like watching a film that requires simultaneous critical thinking, you could do worse than The Ramen Girl. It's not up there with Tampopo, or Like Water for Chocolate either on the level of filmmaking or the food, but consider it the equivalent of a lightly enjoyable snack between the heavier meals.

And if you decide to check out The Ramen Girl, it does have a Christmas scene that might be a little more poignant at this time.

Goodbye, Brittany. This one hurts. 32 is too fucking young.

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Posted by peter at 12:12 AM

December 20, 2009

Coffee Break

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Don Cheadle in Talk to Me (Kasi Lemons - 2007)

Posted by peter at 12:25 AM

December 17, 2009

Forever Yours

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Qing shen si hai
Yi Wen - 1960
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Of the five DVDs in Panorama's "The Grace Chang Collection", Forever Yours is the only one that is not a musical. No singing or dancing of any kind is to be found here. Yi Wen's film is a melodrama, and a pretty good one at that, closer in spirit to the films of Delmar Daves and Douglas Sirk, if more modest in scope and expression. Even Chang's character is closer to her Hollywood counterparts not only in her vivaciousness, but her ability to be assertive when necessary.

At a beach with some friends, Yiling spots a man standing at the edge of a cliff. As it turns out, suicide might not be on his mind, but Weiming moves to firmer ground upon meeting the young woman. Yiling works as an office girl at a Pepsi plant, pursued by a very determined Weiming. Caught in the rain, the couple finds temporary shelter in a modern house overlooking a beach. For Weiming, the idea of being alone with Yiming is heaven.

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This being a melodrama, Weiming has incurable tuberculosis which in no way is helped by his incessant smoking. Weiming's brother is an alcoholic, and the aunt and uncle who adopted the orphaned Yiling, don't approve of her relationship with Weiming. Even worse, Weiming is told by his doctor that marriage is virtually guaranteed to cut off years from his short life.

If Grace Chang portrays the modern woman of Hong Kong, Kelly Lai Chen might be said to embody a different kind of man as Weiming. There could be said to be an emotional gender switch, especially in a scene where Weiming breaks down and cries in front of Yiling. There is some gender play suggested in scenes where Liying is shown to have some position of authority at the bottling plant, while Weiming is an artist of sorts, with his miniature nature arrangements.

To what extent Forever Yours made an impression on Wong Kar-wai, it might be worth noting two connections with Wong's In the Mood for Love. Grace Chang is frequently seen in a cheongsam dress, as are several of the other women, particularly in the scene of Yiling and Weiming's wedding reception. Also, Kelly Lai Chen, who had virtually retired from acting at the young age of 35, has a cameo appearance in Wong's love letter to Hong Kong of the early Sixties.

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Forever Yours is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:34 AM

December 15, 2009

The June Bride

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Liu yue xin niang
Tang Huang - 1960
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

The biggest problems with The June Bride are that it hardly makes use of Grace Chang's musical abilities, and is mostly a comedy. And as a comedy, The June Bride is not very funny. This is one of those films were misunderstanding tops misunderstanding until all is well at the end. I'm not familiar with Tang Huang, but his direction here is not distinguished. If David Bordwell compares frequent Chang director Yi Wen to Charles Walters, than Tang Huang might be likened, at least with this film, to Charles Barton, the director of several Abbott and Costello comedies, where there is no such thing as too much mugging for the camera.

Within the context of a sceenplay by Eileen Chang (no relation to the star), The June Bride is of some greater interest. There are also some autobiographical elements to be found in the film, suggesting that there may be greater value to be found in analyzing the film from the point of view of the author, rather than as a star vehicle. There are some elements of Hollywood screwball comedy with the father of the bride being a businessman who is always seeking investors for what is revealed to be a dummy company. Grace Chang's character, Danlin, is a young woman who refuses to marry the man she is engaged to as long as she believes that the marriage is primarily a means of financial advancement for her father, and that her fiance is actually in love with a less socially acceptable bar hostess.

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There is a clunky, literal mindedness to the filming of the title song. We hear Grace Chang sing of waves, clouds, and we see the sun, and we see waves, clouds, and the sun. It isn't until about halfway through the film that there is a sense of play, with Grace Chang getting drunk unintentionally by Roy Chiao. Chiao plays a friend who puts the moves on Chang, confusing her with the fiance's bar hostess. In an overhead shot we see Chang staggering a bit in the living room of her fiance until she falls on a couch. A shot of the ceiling shows a moving double exposure of a chandelier. In a modified wedding dress, Danlin walks through a misty forest, encountering the three young men in her life, her fiance, his friend, and a musician who Danlin has met on the boat coming to Hong Kong. Each encounter is accompanied by three different styles of dance and music, with Danlin explaining to each man why they are not suitable suitors. I'm not sure if Tang was responsible for the couple of musical numbers in June Bride, but this one production number contrasts sharply with pedestrian visual style of the rest of the film. There is also an oddness to the fact that this film opens with silent white credits on a black screen, as if someone had not done some crucial post production work and there were no funds to make a correction. The three songs used in the film have lyrics by the more visually inventive director Yi Wen, which in itself suggests that he might have been originally scheduled to direct the film.

Based on the handful of Hong Kong musicals I've seen, I don't think Eileen Chang's feminism was unique as much as her feelings may have expressed similar ideas about women challenging Chinese tradition with more complexity and consistency. Within the Shaw Brothers musicals, the stories are generally about women who explore new ideas in social and physical mobility, usually to the chagrin of their elders. As the screen captures indicate, June Bride was filmed in standard ratio black and white, while the bigger budget Shaw Brothers productions were in widescreen and color. It might be an indication of Grace Chang's popularity that her fans supported her films in spite of the comparative cheapness of her studio, Motion Picture and General Investment. When the camera hits the streets, part of the action takes place at Victoria Peak, with tourists and children chasing after Roy Chiao and actress Ding Hao, a scene more chaotic than when Henry King filmed Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. For Grace Chang and Eileen Chang, love here is a many confused thing.

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The June Bride is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:58 AM

December 13, 2009

Coffee Break

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Peter Chen Ho and Roy Chiao in Spring Song (Yi Wen - 1959)

Posted by peter at 12:05 AM | Comments (1)

December 10, 2009

Spring Song

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Qing chun er nu
Yi Wen - 1959
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

After the general exuberance of Mambo Girl, Spring Song is a staid affair. If the title of the first film emphasizes Grace Chang's dance moves, the second film's title is about her voice. Chang's character is nicknamed "Songbird" after an impromptu display of her talents. Spring Song seems to have been made in part to show off Chang's versatility, with her not only performing songs that were designed to advance the story and themes, but also there's Chinese Opera and a little bit of rock and roll, sung in English. In addition to making Grace Chang an entertainer who can appeal to multiple generations, Spring Song is couched in civic lessons of working hard, staying in school, and getting along with everyone else.

Chang plays Quing, the eldest daughter of a man of modest means, a freshman at nearby university. One of her roommates at the dormitory is Jingni, the daughter of a wealthy man. Their friendship turns into rivalry, with Quing's musical abilities competing with Jingni's athletic prowess. Also contrasted are the two boyfriends who may be mismatched, with Jingni going with the nonathletic Monkey, while Quing is pursued by the muscle bound Buffalo. One problem with the film is that Quing and Jingni are confused by others who remark that they look similar, even though slender Jeanette Lin Tsui, as Jingni, looks nothing like Chang. After a series of misunderstandings, Quing and Jingni are friends again, with Quing accidentally scoring the winning points in a basketball game, and Jingni featured in the school chorus.

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Unlike Mambo Girl which used mirrors in a couple of key scenes, Yi Wen has the characters sometimes mirroring each others actions. The scene in the coffee house, as discussed by David Bordwell on his own site, is the high point of Spring Song. Roy Chiao (Buffalo) and Peter Chen Ho (Monkey) are both at the same coffee house. Neither is aware that the other is sitting in the opposite booth, nor is either aware that they are meeting each other's girlfriend. While not an exact match, both are adding cream and drinking their respective cups of coffee at the same time. While each is scanning the coffee house in anticipation of their dates, the camera pans from right to left, and later from left to right, mimicking the point of view of the two men. Part of the the frame image is lost in the transfer from film to DVD, but Yi ends the scene with the two confused men on opposite sides of the coffee house, after Quing and Jigni walk in, also confused and also angry. In the middle of the frame is another coffee house patron, visibly confused by what he has seen. Yi plays with the doubling of his characters in other scenes, or playing comic variations on each other. Near the end of the film, we see Quing's father and children, all with lollypops in their mouths, with the pan shot ending with Quing's father and Jingni's father, who is smoking a pipe.

There is a very light dialectic regarding westernization in Hong Kong, where Monkey convinces Buffalo that giving flowers to a woman is antithetical to Chinese culture. In the meantime, the college kids dance to "Que Sera, Sera" sung in Chinese. Chang and Chen go to a nightclub where we hear Bill Haley and the Comets singing "See You Later, Alligator", although the band performing in the film is seen from the chest down, in the signature plaid suits of the group they are impersonating. Quing's rock and roll moment comes with here singing the chorus line of Bill Hayley's song, much to the annoyance of Jingni. Spring Song is ultimately neither as comic or as tragic as Mambo Girl, but it does have a few moments to savor before the film is drowned by its more earnest intentions.

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Spring Song is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:03 AM

December 08, 2009

Mambo Girl

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Man bo nu lang
Yi Wen - 1957
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Mambo Girl begins and ends with shots of Grace Chang's feet. Chang is mostly now remembered for her singing, primarily in as part of the soundtrack for films by Tsai Ming-liang. Most of the musical numbers in Mambo Girl are solo performances with Chang singing and dancing to an appreciative audience of her friends from school. This is the first film I've seen starring Chang, part of my own burgeoning interest in older Hong Kong cinema, as well as an interest in Hong Kong and Asian musicals.

Mambo Girl also has some links to the more polished wide screen musicals from the Shaw Brothers. A scene in a nightclub features Mona Fong, at the time a singer, several years before she transitioned to become an accomplished movie producer. Male lead, Peter Chen Ho starred in several Shaw Brothers musicals, although he was always overshadowed by the female stars.

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Even if the film is no more accurate in reflecting its time any more that an MGM musical of the same era, it offers an interesting glimpse into Hong Kong popular culture, as well as a display of why Grace Chang was so popular. Chang plays Kailing, the most popular girl in school. On the eve of her 20th birthday, she discovers she has been adopted. With her sudden collapse of self-identity, Kailing seeks out her real parents. From the adoption agency, she learns her biological mother's name, and from the mother's former neighbor, is told that the woman might be working at a nightclub. Kailing finds a woman who might be her mother, indeed working at a nightclub, but as a washroom attendant. A school friend's mother, a widow, shares how one of Kailing's songs has been a source of encouragement, and in turn convinces Kailing to return to her adoptive parents. Kailing, her family and friends, all reunite for a big dance party on the night of Kailing's birthday.

As in something like Don Weis' Affairs of Dobie Gillis, too many of the "kids" look too old for the part. Unlike an MGM musical though, Mambo Girl does have some realism when Chang takes to the streets in search of her mother. The film offers a peak into the lives of Hong Kongers with a scene in a slum where Kailing's mother had formerly lived, as well as Kailing's solidly middle-class home on top of her adoptive father's toy store, and the mansion of her clearly more prosperous boyfriend. The two scenes in nightclubs provide an interesting contrast, between Mona Fong's conventional staging, and a scantily clad, non-Asian dancer whose appearance demonstrates some universality in exoticism and eroticism, from an Asian point of view. It is the crisscrossing of similarities and differences, of Chinese culture, Hong Kong life and a Hollywood genre, that makes Mambo Girl fascinating.

David Bordwell has some observations on director Yi Wen. Bordwell discusses the use of mirroring in Spring Song. More literally in Mambo Girl is the use of mirrors in two key scenes. When Kailing first discovers the truth about her birth, she sees herself in three reflections. In the scene where Kailing finds the woman who may be her mother, at one point we see not the women, but their reflection on a mirror. One might interpret these two scenes as the concrete idea of self-reflection as well as raising the question as to whether we see ourselves as others see us.

In his description of Mambo Girl on behalf of the Udine Film Festival, Simon Ko interprets the extended dance number at the end as showing "a household ruled by entertainment is in denial of reality". I would think that the song and dance would be the point, that the film was offering a bit of a respite for the Hong Kong audience, especially with Chang singing about overcoming adversity with perseverance and an optimistic attitude. That Mambo Girl would be popular with a teenage audience is no surprise as Kailing never has to fight for her right to party. Her adoptive father reminds the cranky woman next door that Kailing studies hard at school the rest of the week. In a culture where family harmony is prized, Mambo Girl offers the reassurances that the kids are alright.

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Mambo Girl is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:12 AM

December 06, 2009

Coffee Break

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Ruth Chatterton in Female (Michael Curtiz - 1933)

Posted by peter at 12:47 AM

December 03, 2009

If You are the One

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Fei Cheng Wu Rao
Feng Xiaogang - 2008
Tai Seng Region 1 DVD

It's too bad that If You are the One was not considered exportable enough for a theatrical release in the U.S. The film, released in late December last year, turned out to be one of the biggest box office successes ever in China. Over 50 million dollars may seem like small change compared to U.S. figures, but among Chinese films, this is the equivalent to Gone with the Wind. More importantly, if You are the One might give Hollywood a clue about making a romantic comedy about adults, for adults.

Feng Xiaogang still indulges in images that can be called beautiful, but unlike The Banquet, with its martial arts retelling of Hamlet, Feng allows himself to wander through several remote locations in China and Japan, while never losing sight of concentrating on his main characters. Fen Qin has come up with an invention that has earned him two million dollars from a venture capitalist. With financial stability, he begins looking for a wife, online, of course. He has a date with an airline stewardess, XiaoXiao, also known as Smiley. Sparks fly, but they are the abrasive kind. Still Qin and Smiley can't quite let go of each other either, with mutual challenges and a chance reunion that brings them together, if incrementally.

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This is not quite Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but it isn't Sandra Bullock chasing the hot young actor du jour either. Even with his wealth, Qin appears as a blue collar guy with his omnipresent white baseball cap. Ge You is, by Hollywood standards, an unlikely person to be a top star, yet I would suspect part of his appeal for his main audience is that he looks like the Chinese everyman. Shu Qi as Smiley, the stewardess in love with a married man, continues to prove her abilities as an actress, and will no doubt continue to be a Chinese language film star even when her days of being eye candy have long past. It is this grounding in reality that helps give If You are the One its charm, unlike too many films that have their main characters so quirky that they could only exist in some filmmaker's imagination.

Feng wisely leaves the quirks to his minor characters. When one of Qin's prospective brides appears wearing what appears to be a tribal wedding costume, and explains that that the last leg of a multi-day journey to her home village requires a day's travel by ox cart, you believe her. Another prospective bride sells cemetery plots and berates Qin for his lack of filial piety. In an indication of a more open China, Qin and one of his dates, a Taiwanese woman, discuss the alternating viewpoints of whether mainland China "fell" or was "liberated". If You are the One takes place in a very contemporary China where the past, personal, historical and cultural, casts its shadow on the present.

Even with a running time of over two hours, the leisurely montages allow for some vicarious enjoyment of two of the film's key locations. First is the West Lake area of Hangzhou, with Qin riding a wooden riverboat, listening to the history of the area, and later contemplating the purchase of a large glass house by the lake. Much of the latter part of the film takes place with Qin and Smiley on a road trip through Hokkaido, in northern Japan. In reading Jason McGrath's brief overview of Feng's films, the travelogue aspects of If You are the One work as both a means of appealing to a pan-Asian audience that may travel more freely between different countries, as a way of setting aside long standing tensions between China and Japan, as well as comparing the more eternal, consistent beauty of nature with the transient relationships of human society based more often than not on external conditions. That Feng has made the most commercially Chinese film is no surprise based on his respect by Chinese audiences.

If You are the One seems to have originated from a different film that Feng was planning, a satire on China's nouveau rich. There is still some satire, though it is a minor part of the film, and an element that should still be easily enjoyed by anyone of any nationality. There are some parallels to be found with the screwball comedies of the 1930s in If You are the One, Feng's interest in making popular films in different genres likewise recalls the career of Howard Hawks. What remains in the films of both countries and eras is the persistence of romance and optimism, even in the face of economic uncertainty.

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Posted by peter at 12:52 AM

December 01, 2009

Silence

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Chinmoku
Masahiro Shinoda - 1971
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD

Even if Masahiro Shinoda had not made his version of Shusuko Endo's novel, I suspect that Martin Scorsese would have still wanted to film Silence. The novel, much more clearly than the film, is about a Portuguese priest who continually compares his own ordeals with that of Jesus during his last days. Even before it became trivialized as a bumper sticker, the question here, as in both the film and novel for The Last Temptation of Christ is, "what would Jesus do?". This is not intended as sarcasm but as the motivating question probably probed by Scorsese himself during his own contemplation of becoming a priest rather than a filmmaker.

Viewed as part of Shinoda's own significant career, Silence might be best understood as being part of his own examination of outsiders who choose exile or death in the name of an ideal. What I found interesting is that even though Endo collaborated on the screenplay with Shinoda, the film does not adhere as an exact filming of the book. Both the book and film are primarily about a priest who travels to Japan during the 17th Century, when Christianity is forbidden in that country, in part to spread the word, and also to find out what has happened to his predecessor who reportedly denounced Christianity. While the opening chapters chapters involving Father Rodrigues voyage from Portugal to Japan, and closing chapters from the diary of a Dutch sailor are easily missed, much of Endo's intended message is lost without Father Rodrigues's inner dialogues. While some of the books elements remain in the book, such as Rodrigues comparing a character to Judas for the monetary reward given to reporting Christians to the government authorities, what really interests Shinoda is the general concept of faith.

Even the the tall, gaunt, David Lampson was probably cast in part because of his resemblance to the traditional image of Jesus, Silence, both the book and film, can be understood as not simply being about Christianity or even endorsing one faith over the other. One of the murkier areas of Japanese history touched on in both the book and film was the problem with different factions, representing both different expressions of Christianity as well as different European countries, in conflict with each other both within and outside of Japan. Not touched on in the film, and only briefly mentioned in the novel, is the role of Buddhism, with its own history of conflicting sects, and persecution of those who did not support the state endorsed temples and priests. What the film also does not explain is why there was an attraction to Christianity primarily by poorest of the Japanese. The film version of Silence only partially conveys some of the more abstract ideas, about the meaning of faith, and how it is expressed.

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Masahiro Shinoda

Shinoda is said to have been influenced by Japanese art in his color scheme that is primarily dark brown, black, brown and green. At one point, Father Rodrigues wears a red kimono during the time he is on the run until his capture. I can't explain the meaning, but during Rodrigues's capture, a character in a solid red kimono and mask appears, performing a kind of dance, while Rodrigues is dragged to prison. The other character to appear in red is a prostitute who takes up with Kichijiro, the man who revealed Rodrigues's presence to the authorities in exchange for silver pieces. Refused forgiveness by Rodrigues, Kichijiro requests that the prostitute spit on him in exchange for all of his money, and as a way to expiate his sins. It should be noted that in Japanese folklore, red symbolizes healing and purification.

In a very different way, Silence is as stylized as anything previously done by Shinoda. Instead of the highly theatrical sets of Double Suicide or the use of technique that might draw attention to itself, Shinoda uses the limited color scheme described above, and limited camera movement. At a time when most films were made in some kind of wide screen format, Silence returns to the old "Academy" ration of 1.33:1. I would have to dig out my copy of Sergei Eisenstein's film theory, but one might consider Shinoda's comment in regard to the square screen used in Double Suicide, "The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein said that God meant a square. And I dared to film the existence of God, in a calligraphy represented by that square." Silence is a film and novel exploring the perceived silence of God by one believer. Shinoda is in need of greater critical assessment of his overall career. At this point, most of the English language writing is devoted to individual films. My own understanding of Shinoda is based on only a portion of his total work. Silence might be understood as a Shinoda film as part of the filmmaker's own pursuit in discovering the visual equivalent to philosophical ideas.

Posted by peter at 12:42 AM