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Duo sang (1994)
One of the most perfect films of all time.
It's amazing how Nien-Jen Wu uses long takes, but a shot never sits on the screen longer than it needs to. Everything is a complete thought, a touchstone of understanding the people being depicted, and as soon as our senses and minds have been enveloped and the verse has reached a natural conclusion, we move forward. Unlike certain other filmmakers whose choices of long, static shots may cease to convey any further meaning after a certain point and lead to "boredom", there is a rhythm and song here that feels true to life and expresses the place, the time, the emotion, and the viewpoint of the filmmaker.
There's a ruleset Nien-Jen has with the film: the first being no closeups and the second being no forward/backward movements of the camera, except for one time when Nien-Jen breaks his own rule and creates a harrowing passage. In general the camera moves very little if it all, only when the movement of the characters needs to be followed in a shot. In any case where a large camera movement would be needed, there is an edit instead. In several instances the camera stays in one room while the "action" happens in another and it always works brilliantly, allowing us to imagine the exact magnitude of the situation for ourselves and removing any excessive melodramatics that might have otherwise occurred.
Every shot has multiple dimensions, layers to look at, and there is a natural brightness that is often contrasted with deep shadows throughout. Nighttime shots are very much cloaked in darkness with only minimal light to see the characters, but this doesn't ever obscure what they are doing and feeling. I was blown away throughout by how effortlessly gritty and yet inviting the images were. This is a GREEN film as well, with objects of nature (frequently lush trees and also fields/hills of grass) taking a prominent role in the film. We are especially exposed to these landscapes because of how open the homes are and the choice to peer outward into nature while watching the characters. The earthly tone provides a calm, a structure of how rooted the characters are into the life they've been given, and a sense of passing life.
This is also one of the most aurally tactile films ever, with the soundscape adding immense detail into what is happening to these characters. You feel as if you are living alongside these characters, hearing small sounds that naturally tingle our senses but are taken for granted, while at the same time being drawn directly into the movement and action of the individuals. The sound is sure to never overwhelm the images, and it usually does not draw attention to itself, but at the same time the exactly necessary sounds are heightened from what you might expect to hear if you were standing from the perspective of the camera. Thus we are constantly a passive observer, like a random villager watching from a small distance away, and yet also feel as if we are standing next to these people. Music is used sparingly in the film but it's surprising given the approach that it is used at all; a distinct and open feeling is always created when it appears.
Another departure comes with Nien-Jen's occasional usage of voice-over. This is a welcome and intimate touch, providing additional detailing to the story and a direct link to a tangible individual, placing us into the frame of mind of an old friend telling a special secret. Nien-Jen has a very discernible concern with telling a story, even though the narrative is episodic. He is not satisfied with only using form and images, metaphors and symbolism, but instead wants those to be important elements instead of the whole itself. Nien-Jen is allowing every tool of cinema to be used, as needed, to create his operatic vision and I absolutely love it.
The story is a two-fold love letter to appreciating what your elders have done for you and also a powerful statement for why humanity needs to treat every individual as someone who inherently deserves to be allowed a healthy standard of living. Nien-Jen's father spent his life working in the mines, killing himself in order to simply survive and provide for his family. He has to focus on just getting through life and being able to find enough enjoyment to not make daily living something that would drive a person to suicide or crime. His goals and dreams beyond that are very simple - visiting Japan once - and he isn't even able to fulfill that one dream because of how unfairly difficult and draining his life has been. We have to understand that a higher standard of basic living is a necessary right for everyone; only when that stability has been achieved can humanity more clearly work together and collectively be able to pursue higher intellectual understanding, growth, and communal peace.
The film does not overbearingly demand for us to feel this, but rather shows us and invites us. When you think about how sorrowful much of this story is, the treatment of it is not actually that depressing. Nien-Jen does not bask in the misery and ugliness of the situations or even highlight it more than a casual amount. Instead we are given truth and given an expansive portrait of a family, of a father and son, and their small joys in life allow us to process the heavier themes and to continually watch and question. Ultimately a visual recurrence characterizes the life of the father: we first see him and finally see him in a cinematic bath of white light. Over the course of this time he got no further towards bettering his life or achieving a desired journey than he could have in the time it takes a light to flash. It's sad but the respect we have for him, that Nien-Jen has for his father, is beautiful.