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Gilded walls, delusion sent by heaven
All the other comments point out the visual exuberance of this, indeed the Tang palace here would make Versailles look boorish. The film is a feast, a hot shower of melted color and gold. Walls are gilded, pillars are fire colored, ceilings are purple. Every frame an ornate sculpture. You can see why Zhang would be picked for the Olympic ceremony two years later - the festival at the end is like a trial run.
But now to see the makings of things clearly instead of being dazzled. It's precisely a dynastic beauty that overpowers the eye, clouds the mind with visual smoke. Gold here is both opulence and delusion, beauty and ignorance, not unconnected these two. Within this gilded cage unfolds Shakespearean drama with tragic irony in abundance between emperor, wife and three sons.
The idea, deeply Chinese, is that there's heavenly order in the world and man must take his place in it and devise his own order to mirror the higher one. The Chinese had indeed mulled over this long and hard to devise their own order that would support an empire. We see everything ordered here and the small rituals involved. Elaborate preparations are underway for a festival that celebrates the unity of heaven and man. But the medicine she's ritually made to take every day (to "balance her energies") is poisoned.
It is a household that we enter essentially. Scaled down from imperial machinations that involve poison and succession to the throne, we see an unhappy family. When the imperial doctor who has been administering the poison with his daughter is felled upon by mysterious figures in black in a marvelous scene outdoors, these are apparitions of guilt that have come to haunt. It's karma, another kind of heavenly order. Something went wrong once in this family and the world makes it wash up in front of them.
I like that it's all abstracted within walls here, that we don't venture outside for sweeping history. It has elaborate action only near the end and using the same gilded abstraction. And that it builds the same order for itself around a household essentially and karmas set in motion. All because a man took a wife out of convenience one day.
The art of controlling the weather
I'm always amazed to consider how much culture and worldview the Chinese have stored in them and how little of it has been tapped yet. Compare with American films, how many we get on our screens all across the world and what trivial philosophy supports them. The Chinese are still in a process of committing their vast narrative to first images.
So with these two films, it seems at this point that getting down the chronicle in a simple way is enough. We get history that flattens and oversimplifies, good lords against cruel despot, freedom against oppression, and swathes of conflict without nuance. The first was without worth, but they tap into something else for this second one.
Most of it is taken up by the machinations of the two rival sides for control over the narrative; ways to tip on their side the fateful battle before it begins the next day across the Yangtze. Some of it simple, rafts with infected bodies sailed into the opposite side, to both spread the epidemic and curb morale. A spy manipulated to spread a false story. It's the main stratagem however that elevates it to something more, gathering up a different view than just opera.
The stratagem is that the direction of the wind on the fateful night when navies meet is going to be crucial, wind having the power to decide the course of empire depending on which way it blows, north or south. The Way of Heaven central in how fates dispense worldly order.
You'll see this set up in an earlier sequence where one of the protagonists (who we have registered before as a kind of Confucian adviser to a lord) is able to stage and manipulate illusion (the barges with straw soldiers to gather up arrows) by having the knowledge of observing the structures of Nature - warm morning wind after a cold night means a fog that day.
And yet it still could have gone either way that night, the balance as fickle as a candleflame in the wind. It's the loving wife who has changed sides hoping to avert the war who tips the balance that night; seducing the tyrant with a tea ceremony that is just buying her husband time, another staged illusion that comes from knowing how to observe the weather of Man, fickle desire tricked by beauty.
The ensuing battle is a rip-roaring wind that blows north and rolls up an entire landscape of boats, men, and fortifications. This is the part most viewers will want to see.
It's all the other stuff that stays with me and how it suggests another vantage point rooted beyond appearances. They come from the far center of Chinese soul. Spontaneous nature carrying the way (the Chinese character for "heaven" also invokes "nature", "sky" and "spontaneous"). Letting yourself bend to the wind, timing the pull. Weather in and out. They evoke something that I can imagine from the hands of a tea master like Wong Kar Wai. He can make the camera bend to the way of things, permitting us to take our own place within them; love, regret, memory. Woo just forces things in his way like a warlord. The scene where the spy woman (the most spirited being here) returns from the enemy camp and she lets the fabric with the map unfold from her body - that's Kar Wai.
Die freudlose Gasse (1925)
Germany Year Zero
As an entry into Weimar life, well Vienna, Austria, but it must have spoken to and about both places equally after the war, this opens a window in a time of hyperinflation and scarcity. And this is what I was looking for, direct experience from within the world that gives rise to it, as something that was about life "now".
We see on one hand the controllers, from the butcher that people line up to buy his precious meat, to the war profiteer who's come to run a scheme on the stockmarket, to the madame of a private club who exploits innocent desperation. All of them lecherous cutouts - but no doubt cut from life. Meanwhile around them dance and mingle various crowds of those who still have.
And on the other side the hapless schmucks dangling on strings of this cruel world being manipulated from above, the poor family downstairs, the girl whose father loses everything when the market tumbles and she's forced to entertain in the club, the unemployed couple who must live in someone's barn. The fancy rooms are closed to them, the streets they know bleak and ugly.
It is all here in a sense, however much schematic. Being a silent, the visceral impression is of a nightmare and reverie, something you'd want to wake up from - and yet the presentation of reality, within silent limits of the era of course, we would call realist, not expressionist.
And this is seen in another way. One of the things that first stirred in the murk of Weimar was film noir, not the actual thing but its ghostly progenitors. Mabuse would posit a bleak world much like we see here, inspired from the same dazed hopelessness no doubt, but a devious mastermind was behind it, the product of dazed imagination. There are devious minds here, but all of them ordinary schemers.
There's clear sight in other words. It was still too early in Pabst's career however and for where I know him to have gone with characters and story much like these, this seems like a modest beginning, a ground floor for future ones to be built on top.
Chi bi (2008)
Death by a Thousand Cuts
This surely joins the list of great battle movies on just the scope it was conceived, though not really for what you'll see in this first movie. The epochal battle takes place in a second installment and here we have the setting up of lavish stage with characters walking in to assume their place in the drama, speeches that clarify and so on.
None of that even remotely interesting as storytelling. It's all filmed from the outside looking into actors on a stage, cleanly separating good from evil, every crucial point mouthed by characters and everything neatly reduced to platitude, nothing embodied or allowed to be inferred as anxious machinations of life; it's opera, something the Chinese know well from their own tradition.
And nothing is allowed to breathe in a cinematic way that creates pace and rhythm, allowing each moment to have its own natural resonance dictated by itself, everything forcibly cluttered in pretty much the same way, every frame packed. It's one thing to film war this way, it seems like war would dictate that as its own rhythm, but scenes of dialogue with a cut every two-three seconds?
It comes to mirror something else; so, a man of ruthless ambition mobilizing thousands on the field, moving ahead with his scheme to write epochal narrative, no one else allowed any control of their fate. And this is also the filmmaker, exercising control over the cinematic field where he wants to make history in such a way that nothing escapes from it - you'll notice that almost every shot is a pan, zoom, cut, crane move to what he wants us to see.
Inside Out (2015)
Traveling far, without stepping outside
To simplify complex things without losing their complexity is an utmost art. So I marvel at what they made work here and how deeply illuminating of life with such simple pieces, toys essentially. I believe it will go far in estimation. It's not intellectual - but it's driven by surpassing intellectual ability. It's inspirational - but colors everything on the way out with something that goes beyond "inspiration".
We have the animated ride about overcoming obstacles to be there for someone, the ride is great fun, the vistas imaginative; a lot of care went into making the inner architecture simple in textures and "locations", with childlike order. But the ride is transferred inside the mind of a little girl and they begin to build something else there.
Five emotions inside the heroine's head vying for controls of life, directing a "movie". External reality seen through screens and "cameras" that project cinematic light that carries memory. Memories stored in gleaming orbs that contain them. Colors associated with emotions. All this very simple, it goes without saying, that in other hands or other contexts it would appear reductive.
But the way it simplifies complex life inside the heroine's head to simple essentials that we can accept as building material for ours, how well they tied inner and outer so that I found myself nodding every time the bumbling "emotions" translated as believable behavior outside - all the different pieces come together by the end to form such a strong mechanism, simple without feeling like we have missed any nuance in the process. And all this as someone's soul at stake.
So far so good, fun, vibrant, intelligent. Maybe the best Pixar already. And then they turn the gear once more and color everything - it's one of the most poignant endings I've seen, it floored me and I'm someone who doesn't give to just anyone the power to touch me.
It illuminates - a happy memory only possible because of a sad one that preceded and these as part of the same flow - sadness that must touch all things - sadness that is joy and vice versa - multiply colored orbs now, each one a small gem of inferred ambiguous life. Each one a simple piece by itself. It has created a simple order in the soul, torn it and created another, simple but richer. With other animation films, we lose too much of our nuance in the process. The apogee is the lasting impression of seeing myself. Reflections released from their orbs and allowed to float would have a farflung view. But it's what we put into them from ours that lets us see. We would like our inner murk to be this simple so we accept it and are better off for it, nurturing our ability to see ourselves simply. To simplify complex things without losing their complexity is an utmost art. How much more so the art of simplifying ourselves without losing our complexity?
Two-worlds (arriving before oneself)
This is one that no one can afford to miss in a lifetime of viewing, that is no one who's interested in the deepest workings of how things move. In my third viewing now, it may just be the pinnacle of the first 30 years. But before saying anything more, let's clear the air from fixed perceptions so the thing can rise up in front of us vibrantly as what it is, all the more greater.
First we should reclaim it from the museum of merely academic appreciation that covers, silents in particular, with the shroud of musky relic. Coming to us from so far back it may appear as the studied work of a venerable master, its command of film as language reinforces that - and yet it's the work of a 25 year old (filming started in '24) who shot it by himself with his girl around Paris, hand-held, and edited in camera.
The workings of fate or grande history that demand crowds and decor are pushed to the side, this is a youthful cinema ("indie" we would call it now) that beats with the heart of young people trying to fathom life in the complex city (Kirsanov was an émigré new to Paris after all) and I urge you see it as such. Watch it as puzzling modern life that keeps you awake at nights, not as some scholar's symbolism.
Then to reclaim it from the clutches of "experimental" and "avant- garde", labels as though it were just about the tweaking of form, an exercise of trying to be ahead of time. There are many of those from the era, marvelous experiments in seeing, and Kirsanov was not just a wide-eyed country boy - he had articles published on "photogenie" before he made this and would know the radical tropes. But this enters beyond.
The best way I find myself able to describe it is this.
There's a story here that you can unfold (if so inclined) in a way that it makes simple sense, melodrama about an orphaned girl lost in the big city. Melodrama since well before of course, offered us a certain facsimile of life where this clearly begat that, the disparity caused grief, the resolutions restored clarity. There's a heart breaking scene here on a bench worthy of Chaplin, she wanders with a baby cradled in her arms, trials and tribulations that innocence must go through.
Now this facsimile rippled and violently tossed about like curtains at an open window are shuffled by gusts of air, ellipsis, abstraction, rapid-fire montage, and all the other tools that Kirsanov would have known from being in Paris at the time of Epstein and others. So far so good. The film would have been great with just this mode, wholly visual, "experimental". The girl Nadia is lovely, the air dreamlike.
But there's something else he does, that is still in the process of being fathomed decades later by penetrative thinkers like Lynch. There are hidden machinations in the world of the film, illogical machinery at play, that turn at a level deeper than we can clearly fathom at any point, remember that Kirsanov had to cross Europe collapsing by war and revolutions to reach Paris, he would have found out months after he left home that his father had been murdered on the street by communist thugs.
Suddenly there are ghosts here, the nagging sense of some presence that moves behind appearances, giving rise to mysteriously connected perturbations. A marvelous sequence shows one sister being seduced in a room (uncertain, but giving in), the other sister alone in their bed reading from a book as if daydreaming the whole dalliance.
And then the second sister knowingly letting herself be seduced, the first observing the scene from below as if she has splintered off into separate selves, one being seduced above, the other realizing in hallucinative daydream the mistake of giving herself to this boy.
This is marvelous. Impulses from an open window, and through the flimsy fabric of the curtains, the vague coming and going of people in a room, half-finished glimpses, but we begin to sense pattern here. Two girls, two murders, two seductions, but one calculated and wrong.
The most startling occasion is the opening, a puzzling violence has stolen into this world, creating the story, rendered with haunting imagery of a struggle before a window. Every account of the film I've read believes these are the parents of the girls and some madman, but this is not said anywhere. In the graveyard after, we see the father's grave with wreaths, a funeral that day, but none on the mother's, it looks abandoned. Maybe someone was caught where he shouldn't have been, calculated and wrong.
And this veiled and bubbling causality goes through everything to appear again in the finale, the first murder wasn't random, what says the second is? Maybe a holdup just so happened to visit him, maybe someone was paid off. The door is open, you go in where your body takes you.
Something to meditate upon
Victor in borrowed light
I like the story about the renowned Taoist master who was summoned by Genghis Khan himself in Beijing; missing him there, he had to travel for three years, crossing half of Asia to find him in his camp in Afghanistan, then about to wreak more havoc, and can you imagine the arduous trek to meet such a fearsome man, capable of who knows what if displeased.
Nothing greatly fruitful came from the encounter eventually, the warlord wanted to know about some secret recipe for immortality, the sage had only Taoism to give. So we might say the journey was so much perilous effort for nothing. They went their own ways after, one to raid India, the other walked back home. But something did happen. The long journey was chronicled by a companion and that gave us a precious and rare glimpse of life from the Great Wall to the Hindu Kush, only possible because an old man set out to go.
Journeys can be about who's waiting on the other end or not; but they're always about life glimpsed in the process, ways of traveling. Films too of course.
The destination here is a portrait of Genghis, his rise from nothing in the steppe to unify the tribes. It leaves off as he's about to embark on epoch-making history so we don't get the sweeping conquest and atrocity, we get a national hero molded to necessity by a ruthless world. A second film was in the works apparently but scrapped.
No matter. It's the lack of real journey that I miss. Oh we do get some glimpse of Mongolian rite and custom along the way, the savagery of life, it was filmed near where events must have taken place, and the faces and dresses on actors look "real" enough, even though the lead is Japanese. But it's always all part of obviously plotted theatrics. The whole shorthand used to jot down this chronicle, the breath that animates it, the eye that looks, none of it feels like it draws soul from another time and corner of the world, none of it jolts from the commonness of "historic epic".
I end up with a handful of movie scenes scattered about the steppe, borrowed gestures, poses and silences of somnolence, movie battles, and I'm just not satisfied with airbrushed convention and generic TV- level imagination as ground to walk on.
Fun thing to note. This victor managed to concentrate all this power and then just spilled it over half the known world, leveling instead of building. The neighboring Chinese were as genocidal (more in fact), but they had been cultivating for centuries a narrative of cohesion that creates culture that endures to create abstraction. When they celebrate their treacherous past, we get Hero.
I seldom review short works but this was a personal request by the maker who recently just screened in London so I gladly oblige.
Wholly different measures apply to short work of course. Is it sufficient? Does it show that it can make use of tools to weave the look of a film? More importantly, is it the seed of something that can be nourished to grow roots? Does it hint in microcosm of something that incubates life?
This is perfectly sufficient, it makes fine use of the tools. People from Oscar-associated work were brought in to help with music and effects, which shows drive and ambition to excel. It looks like it could be an excerpt from something larger, and that he wants it to be poetic and visual. But is there a seed here? Well, a seed can be in the film, in life we know, or in life the filmmaker knows and incubates inside of him. If you pour water in the right place, great things can grow.
This is one that sent church and censors in disarray when it made its way to America, no doubt for the divorced woman who runs fully naked through the woods. The things people would be so uptight about, so tame to us now. But it introduced Lamarr to Hollywood.
A young woman then who yearns to be open to sense things, live life, but she's stifled by thankless marriage. The whole plot is typical, what they were calling kammerspiel in Germany, about the twists and turns of love, until the moral denouement that inevitably parts lovers.
But instead of narrowing down to a room and stage, it opens up sense to things, we have a poetry of evocative skies, nature, reflections, glances of the eye that conjoin a wider world. In many respects it might as well have been a silent, dialogue is scant.
And it does more than paint in fact, it paints the state of mind that gives rise to the pulls that create narrative. You'll see this in the famous scene mentioned above, where capricious horse nature sends her out to meet her mate. Or the marvelous scene later that night of anxiously being unsure if she wants to go to his house, rendered with wind through an empty house and dark rolling skies above.
It's simple in contrasts and goes down rather easy but dressed and timed to resonate. The ex husband languishing in an empty room while the lovers are greeted with music in the tavern next door. Love isn't allowed last say however as if that would be too upsetting for the social norm.
But something else is, more poignant eventually.
The ending shows a working site with tools strewn about, deserted at morning. But does life stop in its tracks because a woman left? We now see workers file in and joyously go to work, the work of doing is resumed with song, the ground transformed, a faucet turned on and waters of life pour freely. It's the most vital scene in the film, emulating the Soviet filmmakers but so good it's worthy of being in Zemlya.
Memory, tumultuous ways
Another comment here gives some precious background around the film which frees us here to examine the cinematic, the work of moving illusion.
We cut at the heart of cinema when we say that memory is one of the central facets of what gives rise to reality, that faculty we have with the capacity to recall and project illusion, a cinematic subject. We have three characters stranded on a boat here, each reminiscing in turn about currents of life that brought them there.
The whole is what they were fond of calling a "cinematic poem" in those days, which means this. Memory as a way of shuffling narrative, creating currents of image so that it's not anchored on a stage, nor pivots around clearly revealed drama, but wanders off and about, free to gather up disparate views from the whole mundane horizon.
People walking places, empty windows, a flower by the side of the road, an affair, a Chaplin movie, tall grasses, these and others are all picked up to be scattered about again by the camera.
Those were wonderful times but so different - horizons that were open then are now closed and vice versa. So when a scene of inner turmoil is transmuted as the camera wildly swinging around at the hands of the operator, you get the painterly sense desired, how the known geography in front of the eye can be made to spill like a painter mixes colors. It's French inspired in this sense, the works of Epstein and others.
We have come up with more eloquent ways since, which comes down to a single thing. The silent makers worth knowing all dismantled perception, freeing eye from world. That was enough at that stage. The question then was how to regroup these fragments in a more penetrative sense that looks behind appearances to find soul, actually do it. All the subsequent cinematic schools of note would busy themselves with ways to thread this cornucopia of images, Italians first.
This might well be what this filmmaker was doing in his way, looking for soul, and it was enough to impress Welles when he was going to be down there in Brazil a decade later. But it is also randomly scattershot for long stretches, giving simply a fragmental sense.
As a last thing to note, the wonderful experiments of the silent era would soon draw to an end, this comes on the tail end. Sound rolled in, solidifying reality back to a fixed state, removing the sense of reverie ingrained in silence. You'll see near the end here a wonderful sequence of symphonic water - film could still be thought of as music, whereas not after.