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You and Me (1971)
One of the great Russian films
16 November 2013
Let's out with it: not counting a diploma film, shorts, and TV work, this woman made only three films before her death, and on the strength of them feels like a major filmmaker. If one looks at these three films they are absolutely opposed to any kind of Soviet optimism: Shepitko's characters are lonely, sick, afraid, cracking up. Especially in YOU AND I, crack, crack, crack. The main character is a medical researcher who's been falling to pieces for some time. He returns to Moscow from a job in Sweden two years after he departed without really telling anyone, to a wife and friend who don't know how to handle him. Soon he's off again, this time on a train on a whim, where he ends up in Siberian boonies, doctor for the local laborers. Meanwhile the wife - who's already waited two years for the guy - and his friend get closer... As with WINGS, Shepitko's greatest film, the story itself is no great shakes - it's the technique that makes it sublime. The director is a great one for details, telling moments, weighty bits of conversation. But more than that she has a simply gorgeous sense of rhythm. YOU AND I, had it been just functionally edited, would have been quite bad. Shepitko's transitions - from place to place, time to time (the movie's liberally laced with flashbacks) - feel absolutely right, the film is poetic and moving.
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Lone Wolf (1978)
In the Forest
14 November 2013
Nearly wordless film based on one of Turgenev's Hunter's Sketches. So: mid-19th century. The hunter appears in the beginning of the film, lost in the woods during a downpour. He meets the "Lone Wolf" of the title, a large bearded silent fellow who maintains the forest for its aristocrat owner (meaning he keeps the starving serfs, who are in terror of him, from poaching or cutting trees). The Lone Wolf lives in a dilapidated forest hut with his little girl and baby - the wife's run off - and attempts to keep everyone alive on what meager items he can catch (fish in the pond with his bare hands, for instance) or barter for. The irony is that though he hunts the serfs for his master, he is in the same boat as they are. The baby's constantly crying, the child's silent and sorrowful, the serfs becoming bolder from starvation... If all this sounds downbeat, it is. There is also no dialogue at all between the first ten minutes or so, when the hunter (Turgenev's stand-in) meets the Wolf and departs, never to appear in the film again, and the last ten minutes or so, when the Wolf's master and all of his giggling foolish pals ride into the forest for a picnic "peasant style." They mostly gab in French, but enough Russian's spoken to convey that the Lone Wolf will not for long have a forest to guard.

Whether one likes this film or not depends a lot on one's tolerance for this kind of filmmaking ("minimalist," numerous scenes of the man's daily business, a lot of scenes with birds). It is not, I think, a lost classic, but it is one of the many interesting alternatives to the mainstream that appeared in the Soviet Union in the '60s and '70s.
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8/10
Much more interesting upon reflection
23 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
At the end of this one, the debut of John Garfield, directed by the great, underrated Michael Curtiz, I felt real irritation and loathing. It's a frustrating, maddening movie. A music teacher (Claude Rains) is the father of four spoiled little princesses who all play musical instruments, but who read movie gossip magazines and would rather play jazz music during every Beethoven session. One of the girls is early on in the picture married to a bumbling middle-aged fellow who she treats with gentle condescension, but he was worth marrying because he's wealthy. The two other sisters are the best of friends and make a vow that neither of them will ever marry, so that they can be together always. Of these two the elder has a boyfriend, but doesn't think terribly much of him. The youngest sister (Priscilla Lane) is the only blonde of the bunch and is the female star of the film. There's a final sister who remains a curious nonentity throughout and never has any romantic interests, so for all practical purposes there are only three sisters. So: Into their lives steps a handsome young dandy who is a composer of "modern" music and professes his disdain of Beethoven to Father. Even though Father disagrees with the young fellow's views, he's a generous old chap and allows him to board in the big house so that he can finish his prize entry composition on the grand piano. The girls are all quite taken with the young man: Isn't he dreamy? The composer has a pal, a down-on-his-luck working-class guy, John Garfield, who's far more talented than the composer but has had a lifetime of bad breaks and is very much rough around the edges. He enjoys nothing more than recounting his bad breaks and bemoaning the unlucky star he was born beneath. The composer hires him to "help" with the composition, but one gets the impression that Garfield writes the better part of it. Garfield falls for the youngest sister, because, though she's a spoiled little modern girl she's the only one who shows him much kindness. But the composer asks her to marry him and she, all in a swoon, immediately says yes. However, on the eve of the wedding the girl realizes that her best-friend-sister has secretly "loved" the composer all the while and, in a gesture of self-sacrificing nobility, leaves him at the alter and marries Garfield, who she doesn't love. However - and this is the truly hilarious bit - it turns out that the best-friend-sister realizes all of a sudden that the old boyfriend who she never thought terribly much of is the guy she "really" loves, and, the composer forgotten, marries him. The composer, dejected, moves far away. Fortunately Garfield, married to a girl he knows doesn't love him, and financially exhausted, kills himself in a car on an icy road. The composer comes back to town, meets the youngest sister, now happily single, and they're all smiles, smiles.

The girls are all no doubt supposed to be "charming," as is the composer. But they mostly strike one as a rather repugnant, narcissistic lot. The only real sympathetic character in the film is Garfield's character, who has endless bad luck and has to die so that the two vain little bunnies can rekindle their romance before the end credits. But after I turned the movie off, it occurred to me that this is what the attentive viewer is SUPPOSED to think. For the popcorn-chomping non-thinkers in the audience - the target audience - it is a nice little movie about four "charming" sisters and their romantic lives, all shot in the pleasant, anonymous style that would years later become the standard for TV sitcoms. But there are enough hints of what socially-conscious director Curtiz really felt about the scenario, enough seemingly throw-away lines of dialogue; there's enough wretchedness and anger in John Garfield's character (who feels like he's from a different movie) to hint at the film's deeper interests. The sisters and the composer are monsters, the kind of dim-witted, unfeeling people with money and "charm" that keep a guy from Garfield's class in his place, no matter how much talent he may have, by either ignoring him (the sisters) or exploiting him for their own ends (the composer, off to glorious career on Garfield's back). The movie's brilliance is in its quietly subversive intentions.
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Malick's Mirror
14 April 2013
Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS was supposed to be the "Russian 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY." With THE TREE OF LIFE Terrence Malick attempts an American version of Tarkovsky's MIRROR, complete with main character in sterile present reflecting on his tough-idyllic childhood, classical music, voice-over narration, fractured narrative, total indifference to conventional storytelling, excessive water imagery, and even a levitating mother. The difference is that Tarkovsky attempts a very tricky balancing act and nails it, while one feels Malick straining for every effect: add more poetry to that cake, there's not enough poetry! I've had problems with all of Malick's films since his return to filmmaking after post-DAYS OF HEAVEN silence; all of them have brilliant moments but none seems quite finished. Supposedly THE THIN RED LINE's original cut was five hours, and it shows: the film, terrific as it can be, feels like large chunks were sawed out of it and replaced by redneck poetry voice-over ("What is this thing, War?" and the like). Same goes for THE NEW WORLD, also with moon-struck whispered dialog that edges dangerously close to 15 year-old girl poetry, and THE TREE OF LIFE, which is worst of all in its silly murmured philosophizing, its shapelessness, its awful solemnity, and its obsession with being "poetic" at all times to the extent that it begins to make one ill: all these poetic panning shots and sweeping classical music come to nauseate. But even if I don't find them entirely successful THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD have grown on me with further viewings; I've seen TREE OF LIFE twice now and it has not. I suspect that Malick's films are just going to get more overreaching and bombastic - sometimes it's a good thing when the producer takes the film out of the director's hands and insists on giving it shape - which is a shame, because he really is the closest thing to a Great American Filmmaker currently living, and the TREE OF LIFE, for all its many misjudgments (the National Geographic special a third of the way through is wonderful, but belongs in another movie; Sean Penn's character, who could have given the film emotional resonance, is left to wander around aimlessly looking wounded throughout the picture) should at least get some credit for its lunatic ambition. Still, if this is what passes for great art these days...
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The Door (I) (2012)
A fine film from a great European director
17 February 2013
Szabo Istvan is not a contemplative filmmaker - which I don't really mean as an insult. A lot of "contemplative" filmmakers, at their worst, seem constipated more than anything (see some of the films of Szabo's younger countryman, Tarr Bela), whereas Szabo can achieve a forward propulsion that can at times be dazzling, as in the films with scenery-chewing actor Klaus Maria Brandeur that were the height of his international fame, or in "Being Julia." The director has a peculiar way of editing that has existed from his early Hungarian features ("Father," "25 Fireman's Street"); scenes often end abruptly, as though he had chopped the end off them, and then run to the next scene. This gives Szabos' films an odd rhythm that is alluring in his best work, but maddening and even incoherent in his less successful efforts.

"The Door" is not a peak; it is hardly a failure either. It shows the Szabo style at its best and worst. The dialogue is flung out by the actors, and can have the kind of hard brilliance that's found in the old screwball comedies (Helen Mirren, in what may be the best performance of her career as an astonishingly cantankerous old cleaning woman, has some especially hilarious insults and bitter, sour-faced advice-dispensing here), but much of it is also simply hard to catch. The movie keeps a fine, sprinting pace most of the way through. It only starts to crumble in the final quarter, at which point I admit I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. And here we have the failure of Szabo's films uncontemplative style. Watching his less successful films it is as if his producer has told him that he absolutely must clock in at under a certain time. "The Door" feels rushed; it hurries to the end, and suffers for it. One feels the same in other films directed by Szabo: "Taking Sides," which is gripping and interesting but finally frustrating, and the ambitious "Sunshine," which attempts to stuff Hungarian history from the late 19th century to the post-war era in under three hours.

Still, "The Door" is almost a great film from one of the last living European film directors of the old school. All of Szabo's work is worth seeking out. It's a shame that the few remaining filmmakers in the grand European style are marginalized - even when they make fine English-language movies with Oscar winners (see also Tavernier's "In the Electric Mist"), it's lucky if these see the light of day in most countries, while young "provocateurs" with nothing to say are lauded in the major festivals. And there's something at my local cinema titled "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters"...
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The Dancer (1951)
Naruse, 1951
16 February 2013
Not one of the director's best films, but of his films of this era this is the one that most implicitly cites the war as the major source of its characters' miseries. The social class is higher than is common for Naruse - not only are the characters comfortably middle-class (no one seems to be suffering economically in this film, except a former ballet teacher turned bus driver), but there isn't even any talk of lost relatives. The war caused the main character to give up dancing, and ruined her talented daughter's chance to study abroad and to make a real career of ballet. There is also the mention of how the war "destroyed the fabric of Japanese society," as well as the highlighting of the confused notions of "freedom" - the adoption of American ideas that to this day sit uneasily in Japan - in the post-war world.

Unusually, much of the film centers around the world of ballet, and even contains a number of ballet sequences. I went into it with the mistaken idea that it was based on Kawabata Yasunari's famous story "The Dancing Girl of Izu," but apparently the source is a more modern Kawabata story I haven't read. It's a handsome, if not tremendously distinguished film, but just about anything directed by Naruse is worth seeing.
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Almost Worthless
7 November 2012
"My hatred of Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it." - Oshima Nagisa

Completely bogus "documentary" about the first hundred years of Japanese film - a topic one couldn't possibly hope to cram into an hour movie, but that any number of living directors (in 1995) would have done far more justice to than Mr. Oshima. Despite claiming that the first two of Japanese cinema's "Golden Ages" occurred prior to the 1960s, this section of Japanese film history gets an almost hilariously skimmed treatment. As another reviewer here mentions, almost all major film directors - and I'm of the opinion that EVERY major Japanese film director began their careers well before Oshima and Co. - of the classic Japanese film are mentioned once, briefly, or not at all. But who at BFI (this was produced for their "Century of Cinema" series) got the bright idea to let the irreverent Oshima do this? The directors of the Japanese "New Wave" were, with few exceptions, hostile towards or dismissive of all that had come before in their national cinema. Oshima, though claiming to detest the "New Wave" tag in his largely first-person narration here, certainly feels that the era that he was a major player in, the era that opened the floodgates to the so-called extreme films that make up the bulk of the Japanese export market today, was the most important in the nation's cinematic history. And indeed, if one is looking for an overview of Oshima Nagisa films, one could do worse than looking here, as clips of his own films outnumber those of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Kinoshita, and Naruse combined. The the last of these doesn't even merit a clip or a mention in the whole film.

Oshima was one of those angry young filmmakers who cropped up like mushrooms worldwide in the 1960s - and in the mess of post-war Japan he had a right to be angry. However, his films, which highlighted social ills that were all too real, were for the most part angry and little else. Like many similar filmmakers of his generation all he could offer is a rather poorly thought-out extreme Marxism. Oshima's films contained a lot of violence and sex on the one hand and a great deal of tedious speechifying and little red flags on the other. This is not my sort of thing.

Like J. L. Godard in his pompous, ludicrous HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, we have a director who seems to have no real enthusiasm for his subject, but who does have a great deal of self-adoration and a wildly overinflated view of his place in film history. It's too bad that there remains, as far as I know, a good documentary overview of Japanese film. If you want a solid history of the subject stick to the books. Richie and Anderson's pioneering Japanese FILM: ART AND INDUSTRY is a good place to start.
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Alienation in Italy
13 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Another of the many Italian movies about alienation in the post-war years, very well made, beautifully shot, often interesting - but not up there with L'AVVENTURA or LA DOLCE VITA. The problem is the main character, one of the horde of young, nouveau-American European youth of the 1960s, ignorant of the war or much else besides, who only enjoys dancing to moronic music, polishing her nails, and reading comic books. Of course, she wants to be an actress. She goes through as many hairstyles as boyfriends in the course of the film, and though among them there are some recognizable faces (Franco Nero is the shy young auto mechanic here; the following year he would be cold-blooded killer DJANGO), the hairstyles tend to be more memorable than the men.

The problem with making a movie about a character as vapid as this young woman is that her story isn't compelling. Even though we find out later that she's really just a poor girl from the country from a hard-luck farm family, even though we cringe at the number of times she's exploited through the course of the film - there is one particularly cruel scene in which a young man, after sleeping with her, has her telephone the girl he really likes, just in case her mother answers - the life and death of a bubblegum-popping wannabe actress is not the stuff of great tragedy. She takes a leap just when self-awareness finally dawns: no one cares for her (except Nero's character, who she doesn't even notice), she's the butt of jokes, she really is just a beautiful idiot with no future once the looks fade. Of course, the real theme of the movie might be that thinking too much is a bad thing: in one telling sequence a jaded writer says as much to her, that her brainless, live-for-the-moment existence might be some kind of unconscious wisdom. But the life of the girl, who I suspect is a kind of symbol of the director's horror of modern Italy, grows a little tiresome before the end of the film.
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1/10
The joke is on... you!
7 June 2010
A work of breathtaking vapidity and exemplary foolishness, this is the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of the "Art Cinema," sans the unintentional humor. But HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA is terribly silly and, like all the directors' films not nearly as intelligent as it assumes itself to be (remember that we're speaking of a man who once took Maoism seriously - for years!). So, let's see... a series of random images - old still photos, grainy video of classic films - coupled with mumbled voice-over, grating sound effects, and so many flashing title cards that prove that Godard can spell. Those who would seek the meaning and profundity here are on a fool's errand. Anyone who hopes to learn a single thing about the history of cinema will find no hope in this four and a half hours of remorseless buffoonery.

Tragically, in this life people very often simply refuse to see what's in front of them. Anyone with any common sense and a genuine love for the medium can see that this series is shoddy, narcissistic, incoherent, and more than a little insane, within the first ten minutes of the first episode. In the span of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA one may find: images of Nazi death camps edited together with photographs of Charlie Chaplin and Hitler cut with not a little bit of hardcore pornography cut with (but of course!) some stray references to the war in Vietnam, Francis Bacon and Arthur Rimbaud. One must "read meaning" into this. Take your pick.

The series shines from the get-go: in Episode One we find video of a seemingly senile Godard rooting through his library, mumbling to himself ("Le cinema" mumble mumble, "Irving Thalberg" mumble mumble), along with grimy VHS footage of a few classic movies, and the amplified noise of his ancient word processor clicking, clicking, clicking for the better part of the first half hour. That's right, an annoying clicking sound and a mumbling balding old guy for a long, long time.

All this is of course "genius," which is above coherence.

Godard has for decades made movies that shine with his contempt for his audience as well as his magnificent opinion of himself. I admit that I do not hold the "New Wave" in very high esteem, and find most of Godard's films, even the early ones, pompous, intellectually shallow, and dull. I think a genuine history of cinema would reduce JLG to little more than a footnote. Yet he really has reached a stage where he can do whatever he wants and hear the cries of bravo oh great one! in the background. I suspect his fans prevented him from ever becoming a great filmmaker. Certainly there are flashes of talent in many of his early works, and CONTEMPT - the only one of his films where a producer reined him in - is a great picture. At this stage in his life he just comes off as bitter and weird. Better off skipping this set and watching one of the numerous truly fine movies that have the misfortune of being included in Jean-Luc Godard's pornographic Hitlerian navel-gazing extravaganza HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA.
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10/10
More Brilliance From a Master
2 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 10: The Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

Leave it to Hong Sang-soo to blow everyone else out of the water. After a frustrating beginning to my last day at the fest, I capped the whole thing off with a masterpiece. It's a long haul for me to get to Busan from where I live, and the first movie, the awful "Hamaca Paraguaya" - which I'd raced across town to see - was easily the worst movie I saw in all four days.

Why isn't Hong Sang-soo more popular in Korea? The house was packed, the film got a lot of laughs, and I didn't see anyone walk out, but I thought I sensed a few awkward silences. Hong hits some painful bullseyes. More than most countries, Korea is a huge movie-date place, and why would a fellow take his sweetheart to a movie that paints such a wince-inducing picture of the local men? The filmmaker punches holes in the male ego, and though his little stabs apply to all men across the board, they're also very specifically aimed at Korean men. If only every country had such a razor-sharp dissector of the inadequacies of the male half - I shudder to think. His genius is that his male failures are usually artists of some kind (in the new one, for the third time in a row, a film director - a self-depreciating touch) whereas, say, Bruno Dumont's male losers are inbred country thug types who don't surprise much when they choose to act uncivil. Hong completely demolishes the notion of the sensitive, intelligent, elevated artist type. In the end, like everyone else, they're out to get laid.

Hong's women rarely emerge unscathed, either, but they're usually smarter and more grounded than the men. Their fatal flaw is their passivity. Hong gets criticism for this by feminists, but in Korea the kind of scenarios he presents on film - brutish fella, weak-willed gal - is a common occurrence. The women in the director's films know the men they shack up with are clowns, but for some reason - is it that they don't expect anything more? or that they're attached to the idea of the sensitive, intelligent, elevated artist type so strongly that they succumb to it despite being confronted with the brutal truth? - they almost always end up folding. "Beach" is Hong's finest illustration of the second possibility - that the idea holds power, though the truth inevitably disappoints. The woman of the title, Moon-sook, mentions a few times in the film how much she admires Joong-rae as a film director, with the unspoken indicator that he doesn't measure up as a man. Unlike most of Hong's women, though, Moon-sook has the strength to disentangle herself from a relationship that's bound to go nowhere (Hong's women generally prefer to wallow in their martyr complex).

Joong-rae, the film director, is stunned when during a late-night soju session Moon-suk says she "seriously dated" two or three men while living for a few years in Germany. He continues to be fixated on this idea throughout the film, bursting out in front of Moon-sook once or twice, "I can't believe you slept with foreigners!" Hong's men are stuck in an adolescent state, and though they may be able to pull a fair approximation of adult behavior while sober, soju brings it all crashing down.

"Woman on the Beach" has been called Hong's most "accessible" film, and that's probably true. Though it contains a couple of his priceless soju-drunk scenes, it's his first without at least one painfully awkward sexual encounter. A concession to mainstream tastes? Or did Hong (unlike Tsai Ming-liang and Bruno Dumont this year) feel that it had just been overdone, that he simply had nothing to add to his gallery of such scenes? The lead actress, Go Hyeon-geong, supposedly voiced some trepidation when signing for the film at the thought of taking her clothes off - it's almost a requirement in a Hong film. Did he simply decide to respect her wishes? Hong's painful bedroom scenes are always memorable, but this film loses nothing from their exclusion. More accessible it may be, but it's not a sell-out. The invention, the accumulation of brilliant little details, and the cutting portraits of people in their folly is still there - and I haven't even mentioned the second woman yet, or I'd go on all day - and Hong Sang-soo is still one of the sharpest, and very best, filmmakers working today.
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Artistic Pretension
2 November 2006
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 9: Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina)

Here is a film that's created a polarizing reaction at film festivals, where some are inclined to take its painfully dull miserablism as brilliance. It's difficult for me to say that a film of serious intent is completely without merit, but "Hamaca Paraguaya" comes close. I can only guess that the film is an attempt to somehow capture the feeling of growing old and slowly dying, as that's exactly how I felt while sitting through it. First time director Paz Encina pulls off the dubious feat of making festival entrants Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Aki Kaurismaki look like directors of epic action pictures.

I'm quickly becoming hostile to the static long-shot held for an interminable length of time. Within the span of the film's nearly 10-minute opening shot (the first of less than thirty), with a pair of old people sitting on a hammock in a forest clearing mumbling repetitively in voice-over, the realization dawned that this 75-minute film was going to be a long haul. There are moments where the film very, very briefly acts like it might do something of interest, but those hopes are quickly dashed as the camera returns to the clearing, the hammock, and the mumbling old folks.

Why would a young woman, making the first film in her impoverished country since the 1970s, make one without a pulse? Anything of relevance that the film has to say about war, sorrow, and aging, loses all impact due to its deliberately alienating design. New art from obscure places should be encouraged, but art needs much more than what was on display in this film.
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7/10
Creaky Korean Rediscovery
2 November 2006
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 1.

The Arch of Chastity (Shin Sang-OK)

Shin's 1962 film was long thought lost, but a workable print was found in China and restored for its first public screening in over 40 years at the latest Pusan International Film Festival. This film, shot in 'scope, is a rather common sort of story in east Asia about the battle of tradition and modernity in the minds and hearts of the people. The film is set in a period of not-too-distant Korean past, perhaps the turn of the century (it's never made clear). In the beginning of the film a widow is shown her in-laws' family scroll, hung over the doorway, on which is written the old adage, "A man cannot serve two kings, and a woman cannot serve two husbands." The young widow is expected to be chaste for the rest of her days after the tragic loss of her pre-adolescent, crybaby husband. She is told by her old grannie-in-law, who was also widowed young,"Whenever I felt the urge to be with a man, I'd take this little knife and stab it into my thigh, like this," and then demonstrates.

Meanwhile, a lusty young farmhand rolls into town and remarks at how the forces of modern thinking have started to make themselves felt in the long years since his absence ("Even the old teacher has cut off his topknot!"). He soon falls in love with the widow, but she must keep her virtue and her in-laws' good name intact. One night the farmhand, unable to control himself any longer after finding himself stuck in the barn with the widow to avoid the rain, decides it is time for them to consummate their relationship - and the widow ends up pregnant. Problems ensue.

Far from being bad, "The Arch of Chastity" is still pretty creaky and dated, and much of the acting is a little broad. Like many Japanese movies of the previous decades, the female character is willing to completely destroy any chance she may have at happiness because she's so stubbornly willing to martyr herself for her virtue. The family is horrified on finding out that she's pregnant and keep her out of sight until she has her baby - then they give the baby to the father and tell him to leave town and never return. The topper is at the end of the film, when the widow is old and poor and still stuck taking care of the grandmother who never dies. The grandmother hates the woman passionately for breaking her chastity vow, and uses every chance to spew bile at her. Then the son, now fully grown, shows up at the doorstep. It's decades later, and everyone in the family is dead save for the hateful old shrew (and thus there's no reason to retain the front) and the widow still tells her son that his mother is dead. I don't think I imagined an audible groan in the audience.
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Baffling Further
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 8: Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Perhaps Apichatpong Weerasethakul's too new to the big leagues to come off as stale, as Tsai Ming-liang does - his films continue to surprise and puzzle. It's hard for me to put my finger on why I didn't like "Syndromes and a Century" as much as I was sure I would, given how enamored I am with "Blissfully Yours" and "Tropical Malady" (the latter is one of the best films of the new century). It probably didn't help that I was running on just a little sleep, the film moved incredibly slowly, and the Korean girl beside me was snoring away by the halfway point. I was expecting more of Weerasethakul's strange, lulling magic, but "Syndromes and a Century" seemed banal compared to the last two films. Still, if there's a film of the festival I'd like to see again immediately - barring Hong Sang-soo's latest - it's this one.

From the opening moments you know you're in Weerasethakul territory - a close-up of modest little fellow applying for a rural hospital job as he fields increasingly absurd questions from the female interviewer whose story will be the focus of the film's first half... and after a time a slow camera movement over the balcony to the lush fields and rain forest beyond, and rolling of the credits. The movie's divided into two parts, the first supposedly set in the 1970s and about the director's mother - though you'd glean neither the mother reference or the period setting from watching the film as neither is mentioned, and the setting looks like a rural Thai hospital of the sort you'd find today. A security guard is smitten with the doctor, and she goes on to tell him of a man she may already be in love with, a farmer of rare orchids, and how she met him, in an extended flashback sequence that the director sometimes intentionally confounds with the time period of the telling of the story. The camera drifts around the hospital, where a dentist sings for a monk who at one time wanted to be a disc jockey, and down corridors and along the outside of the hospital, where an ominous low buzzing noise plays over the soundtrack as the camera languidly drifts past outside statues.

In the second half the setting changes. We're now in a massive, sterile, big-city hospital, and the the rest of the film is about the man. At the start of the split the same interview from the beginning repeats itself, though the office and clothing worn by the two is different and there are slight but notable changes in the dialogue. Now the camera is pointed at the doctor conducting the interview, and this is the last time she will feature prominently in the film. After the interview the camera follows him as he goes about his duties and tries to find spare time for his beautiful girlfriend. Conversations recur, but again there are differences in the setting and dialogue. The man sneaks into a room in the basement with his girlfriend (a room used to store prosthetic limbs), followed by a very, very long shot of some kind of ventilation tube sucking smoke out of another room, and finally an outdoor dance aerobics sequence with peppy music. What this all means is anyone's guess.

Few filmmakers achieve Weerasethakul's mastery of the medium and its possibilities after so few films. He knows how to convey a sense of unease and menace through banal actions or images, and he has a singular way of continuing to fold over what little narrative exists in his films until he has an unusual type of origami, the meaning or possible meanings of which the viewer is left to mull over while scratching his or her head upon exiting the theater. "Syndromes and a Century" seemed a little too plain while I watched it, yet I can't help chuckling now and then or stopping midway through a sentence to contemplate it while writing about it. Ingmar Bergman once made a remarkable comment about Andrei Tarkovsky, that Tarkovsky had opened a door to "a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease." Apichatpong Weerasethakul isn't a Tarkovsky, but he is opening doors; "Syndromes" sticks to the mind in weird ways.
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Tsai Ming-liang Repeats Himself
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 7: I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)

I haven't seen Tsai's last film, "The Wayward Cloud," but I'm happy to report that "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" is better than his appallingly dull and pretentious "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," even if it's got nothing on Tsai's best work of the '90s, "Vive L'amour" and "The Hole." "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" represented the mummification of Tsai's style - the stretches of silence and static scenes where nothing happens, which had served him so well in his early career but with each passing film threatened to get old, finally found their ultimate negative expression. Tsai continues to grind his wheels with the new film, though it's hardly as unbearable as "Goodbye, Dragon Inn." The problem is that Tsai's style was something of a revelation when he made "Vive L'amour" - though it felt a little like a Taiwanese version of an Antonioni film it was actually a deadpan comedy, with a wickedly tragic twist at the end that turned like a knife you didn't even realize was stuck in your ribs all the while.

I hoped that a change of scenery might do Tsai good, and it was interesting to hear that "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" was shot in Malaysia, where Tsai was born. I wanted to ask him some questions after the screening about the differences he may have felt shooting in Malaysia, but unfortunately, like the Bruno Dumont session, questions were asked in Korean translated to the director's native language, and I don't speak much Korean, French or Chinese. No one speaks much in Tsai's new film (of the three main characters only one is ever heard to utter a word), there are frank and disturbing sexual scenes, and there are several shots of people walking slowly down darkened corridors or alleyways. All this has become a mannerism - rather than communicate incommunicability the lack of dialogue feels like an art film pretension now, rather than be shocking the sexual scenes strike anyone familiar with the director's past work as been-there-done-that, and the long static shots of people walking just serve no purpose whatsoever. Unfortunately much of Tsai Ming-liang's new film feels stale.
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9/10
Displacement
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 6: In Between Days (Kim So-yong)

Despite the Korean name attached to the director's credit it's a Canadian production shot in wintry Toronto, directed by a woman who spent most of her life in Los Angeles.

Restless, unhappy Aimee is a Korean immigrant who spends her days loafing with only friend and fellow Korean immigrant Tran, who she's too shy to tell she's in love with. Her mother is overworked and distant, she's out of place in Canadian culture, and spends her time drawing in her notebook during her English class at school until she finally gets too bored and quits. Most of the film is shot in Korean, and it isn't until about two-thirds of the way through that Aimee demonstrates that she can actually speak English. The lack of eventfulness in the film is punctuated by static shots of the Toronto skyline and and Aimee voicing the feelings she represses in imaginary conversations with her departed father, who lives back in Korea. Though Tran probably feels the same way for Aimee as she does about him, she waits too long to tell him - and by then he's drifted towards a flashier, squeaky-voiced Asian-Canadian girl.

"In Between Days" is a fine debut film about loneliness and displacement that gracefully manages to avoid falling into art film cliché. It's an incredibly rare thing to see this degree of assuredness and faith in silent moments, brief glances, and meaning underlying seemingly insignificant conversation from an American filmmaker. The film relies on simplicity and quiet strength when so many American "indie" films wallow in their own pretentious, desperate attempts to make saying nothing at all sound profound.
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Flanders (2006)
Another Lighthearted Fable From Bruno Dumont
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 3: Flanders (Bruno Dumont) Dumont provides the downer of the festival, as three rural farm fellows sign up to go to war in an unnamed Muslim country. Back at home the town slut pines over the two she was having sex with, and eventually has a mental breakdown. Thousands of miles away the boys find their squad decimated and the survivors drifting around the desert, raping local women, looting, and shooting kids. It all makes one wonder what Dumont is getting at - the director has a background in philosophy but chooses to center his films on inarticulate neanderthal types, but to illustrate what? The film is certainly powerful, and Dumont can pull a great tour de force, but there's a deep strain of nihilism that runs through each of his films that I find distasteful. The director draws parallels between life on the farm, where a couple of the lads have a turn rutting the pretty local girl who unflinchingly gives herself to them, and their war outpost, where they drag a woman out of her house and take turns with her in a kind of redneck hoo-rah. But Dumont is almost comically lacking in any kind of warmth, good graces, or humor, and his relentlessly bleak view of an animalistic humanity gets to be too much. At least "The Optimists" made me laugh.
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The Optimists (2006)
Life in the Swamp
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pusan Film Festival Reviews 2: The Optimists (Goran Paskaljevic)

Another pitch-black comedy from the director of "Cabaret Balkan," "The Optimists" is a similar gathering of loosely connected tales set in modern-day Serbia. In the film's gripping opening sequence a man drifts through a village completely submerged by floodwater and offers the gift of "optimism" via hypnosis to its depressed populace huddled in a warehouse; in the end of the segment he is revealed as a mental institute escapee. In another an enraged factory worker wants to kill his slick mobster boss after the boss rapes his daughter. The cops are all owned by the boss, none of the worker's friends offers to help him seek justice, and his wife pleads with him not to go through with anything rash ("What would we do if you're arrested?"). The man ends up apologizing to the boss for "offending" him, and getting his daughter to do the same - she'd bitten off part of the thug's ear as he was foisting himself on her, and she mumbles an apology for being so "inconsiderate."

At turns horrible and funny, "The Optimists" suffers under the weight of what one imagines can only be the director's unkind view of his countrymen. It would seem that Serbs are stupidly optimistic despite whatever hell may befall them, and the country is a swamp (visualized in the film's opening segment) where crooks and con men rule. In the few instances of anyone showing genuine kindness, he who does so ends up getting screwed for it, and perhaps it's best that it remains every man for himself. The cynicism of the film leaves an unpleasant taste, though it does have some darkly hilarious stretches.
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I'm Kwon-Taek's Buddhist Film
13 September 2006
This is that OTHER movie made about Buddhist monastic life in Korea in 1989. I'm Kwon-taek's film is far more conventional and has neither the depth or the strange, quiet poetry of One Shot Wonder Bae Yong-kyun's "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For the East?" The main character of "Come, Come, Come Upward" (Kang Soo-yeong, who won best actress at the Venice Film Festival for I'm's "The Surrogate Woman") is expelled from high school after wrongly being accused of having an affair with her teacher and decides to join a nunnery. The head nun has doubts about Kang's sincerity and devotion to the Way and casts her back into the real world after a crazed man becomes obsessed with her and starts to cause ripples in the serenity of temple life. The film eventually breaks off into two trajectories, one following another young, surer nun of serene countenance as she, too, is forced by the head nun as a test of devotion to face the evils and temptations of the outside world. One woman is destined to return to the monastery, and the other to forever live outside. Elegantly shot, as all I'm's films are, but underdeveloped on the narrative level, as many of I'm's films are, "Come Upward" never achieves the sublime heights of its similarly-themed counterpart in the same year. "Bodhi-Dharma" tried to convey the experience of Buddhist temple life through images, parable, and mystery; "Come Upward" is more literal, and plainer.
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Birdcage Inn (1998)
It's a hard-knock life
19 December 2004
One of Kim Ki-duk's earlier, lesser-seen films, "Birdcage Inn" portrays the hard times of a young Korean prostitute and the family that makes money off her in a Korean coastal city. As with all Kim's films, the plot is pretty ludicrous, but this one lacks much of the sensationalistic depravity that makes most of his films conversation pieces. Kim's really attracted to prostitutes and the business of prostitution - as, it seems, are many of his heroines (one character's transition at the end of the film foreshadows a similar character's change of heart in Kim's recent "Samaria"). He also seems to have a Mizoguchian love/hate feeling towards women. His girls may be whores but they have good hearts, and even though they may be smacked around repeatedly they persevere.

The main girl, Jin-a, has to be the prettiest whore in all of Korea working a seedy dive like the one depicted in "Birdcage Inn." She's down on her luck and is the sole income provider for this impoverished family and their little inn by the sea. The family, though, aren't really all that bad, they just have to put the kimchee on the table and the kids through school somehow. The high schooler son's obsessed with sad, muppet-faced Jin-a and installs a microphone in her room so he can listen in on her frequent trysts with customers. The father, well, aside from the time when he pretty much rapes Jin-a, he's an otherwise great guy. The mother takes it all stoically, which is more than can be said for the daughter, trying to get through university and court a potential fiancé amidst all the dirty business. She can't stand that her family resorts to such activities and she blames poor Jin-a for all of it. Still, "Birdcage Inn" eventually becomes the female-bonding film you figure it was intended to be from the get-go.

Like Lars von Trier, Kim tends to have his adorable lead actresses go through a good deal of pummeling and degradation in his films, and he continues to incur the wrath of feminists. But as I mentioned, despite its subject matter "Birdcage Inn" is probably the tamest of Kim's films until "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring," and actually manages to finish on a relatively upbeat note. At the end of "Birdcage Inn" the whore's still a whore and everyone's still stuck in a dead-end existence, but they're all oddly content and accepting, with a smiling, Ozu-like resolve.
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absence
21 May 2004
Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye Dragon Inn" is a spectacularly dull movie, a limp ode to the bygone days of cinema-going. A film smitten with its own stasis, "Goodbye" culminates in a shot held for an obscene amount of time of an empty movie theater. Tsai's known for holding his shots way past the point most directors yell cut, and the result can be strikingly effective in the right context (the brilliant final shot of "Vive L'Amour") but "Goodbye" is almost an art film parody in its studied minimalism. The money shot in particular is a groan-inducer that makes you long for a fast-forward button.

"Goodbye Dragon Inn" sounds like it ought to appeal: a homage to the glory days of cinema by a great director, but Tsai seems to be resting on the assumption that anything he cranks out these days is destined for acclaim (which is true). However, ever since "The Hole" Tsai's inspiration appears to be running out; what in the earlier films seems innovative comes off as mannered in the later ones. "What Time is it There?" is a good flick but hardly feels like anything new from the filmmaker, "The Skywalk is Gone" is a short-film punchline for "What Time?," and "Goodbye" is just grinding. Tsai's probably incapable of making a thoroughly awful movie and there are spots of greatness in "Goodbye Dragon Inn," but hardly enough to justify a feature-length film. You can almost feel the director yawning behind the camera as he's filming, telling his actress to just continue sitting for an interminable amount of time so he can pad it just a little more (though the movie is only 80 minutes long it feels much, much longer). The director's always threatened to deadend his limited stylistic resources and "Goodbye Dragon Inn" is the wall he's always threatened to hit. I like Tsai and think he has some worthwhile things to say, but he's said the same things over and over again and the point's been made. People these days have trouble connecting, the values of the old days have become buried under the industrial rubble of progress, yes yes. Tsai fixates on the same themes in the same way he fixates on an empty theater or a woman hobbling slowly across the screen. Since there isn't too terribly much variety thematically or stylistically in the his films, familiarity with his past work leads to a feeling of having repeatedly tread the same path. It takes a true master to be able to be as stubbornly dwell on the same ideas in the same manner over the course of a career and pull it off, and Tsai is hardly a Bresson or Ozu. Flashes of brilliance and invention are certainly to be found in Tsai's movies, but "Goodbye" just uses minimalism to mask its lack of substance. Slow movies don't have to be tedious and unrewarding, as a few Tsai Ming-liang films have demonstrated, but often the tendency among art film devotees is to equivocate slow and good. "Goodbye Dragon Inn" isn't very good. The ideas are slight, the homage curiously lacks feeling, and the whole thing just drags along way past the point of interest like Tsai's lead actress down the corridor.
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early hou
3 February 2004
Although "Boys From Fengkuei," one of Hou's earliest films, shows that the director had yet to find his own distinct style ( long shots, long takes, etc that would finally solidify in the tedious "A Time to Live and a Time to Die") it is an interesting film, especially for those keen to see the early development of one of the world's major filmmakers. The story is a simple one: a group of the idle youths shoot pool, flirt with girls (the film's enduring image) and cause a general ruckus in a small seaside town. Boredom and lack of cash cause them to move to big city Kaosuing where their small-town naivete becomes apparent (they are almost immediately upon arrival ripped off in an obvious con promising a porn film screening). Eventually they move into an apartment together and the most introspective of the bunch proceeds to fall for the girlfriend of a rather shady neighbor. Although the film may come off as slight compared to the director's later, more political work, it is an interesting little piece in itself. First of all, it is one of Hou's most entertaining and heartfelt pictures: he obviously has a love for this milieu (the small-time activities of punks), having grown up in it himself, and "Boys" shows surprising humor and depth of feeling that is lost in the director's dry later formal portraits of delinquents "Goodbye South, Goodbye" and "Millenium Mambo." There is also the theme that will be revisited in the great film "Dust in the Wind": that of the migration of the rural populace to the city, and the displacement that results. "Boys" lacks the technical polish and "importance" of the later films, but it is perhaps unfairly tagged as an apprentice work (along with the beautiful "Summer at Grandpa's") even though it has all the markings of a minor classic.
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distant episodes
28 March 2003
A VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS

One of the more colorful movie titles in history belongs to a film that was shot in black and white. However, the English title is a great deal more lurid than the original Korean title (¡°Oh! Soo-Jung!¡±), and is more suggestive of a 1960s Suzuki Seijun sex potboiler than a deliberately paced b/w art film. ¡°Virgin¡± IS ostensibly about the deflowering of a film director¡¯s young assistant, but in fact it¡¯s much more content to linger upon and play around with the little details that precede the big event. Soo-Jung¡¯s ¡°bachelors¡± are the down-and-out indie film director who she works for and the director¡¯s independently wealthy and seemingly none-too-bright drinking buddy. The central conceit of the film is that the same story (the wooing of Soo-Jung) is told twice (Hong likes to divide his films into interrelated halves), from different perspectives. Although whose perspective each segment is taken from is a little unclear (I assume that Part One is the rich guy¡¯s view and Part Two is Soo-Jung¡¯s, but that seems to create a couple of problems). The changes range from the minor to the quite grand (Soo-Jung is pawed on in a back alley by a different suitor in each half). What it all adds up to is a kind of cosmic game of chance. Two different sets of events build inexorably to the same result. Unlike Hong¡¯s other two recent films (I haven¡¯t seen ¡°The Day a Pig Fell in a Well¡±), the events of the first half of the film don¡¯t in any way dictate what happens in the second. But in ¡°Virgin¡± it is unclear what is truth and what is fiction, and I¡¯m not sure that any of the characters in the film can be trusted as far as they can be thrown. But what is real and what is imagined is not of primary importance. What is important is that the scheme allows for Hong to dwell on his favorite themes: chance disconnection, male/female relationships and what he seems to feel is the spiritual vacuity of modern Korea. Seems this vacuum doesn¡¯t just exist in Korea. Hong shares many of the same sympathies and stylistic traits with Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang and the Finn Aki Kaurismaki, i.e. a free-floating style that lacks what can be called a conventional plot, a dislike of excess cutting, muted acting, a predilection for silence and sparing use of soundtrack music, a subtle, dark sense of humor, and a rather bleak view of modern existence. Not to say that these filmmakers are the same, because each is certainly distinctive in his own way, but all three seem to fixate on a problem that is not endemic only to their particular locales (as firmly rooted in those locales as they all may be). Hong¡¯s films are neither entertaining nor reassuring, but for those who prefer substance to fireworks and cliche in their cinema, his works continue to reveal why he is among the best directors working today. It¡¯s a shame he isn¡¯t better known, either here in Korea or abroad.
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8/10
not quite so good
3 January 2002
Borzage's romantic melodrama follows a gifted young (female) pianist torn between her egomaniacal maestro and the absurdly good young farm boy she grew up with (played by a creepy, almost psychopathically serene Bill Carter). The music is really played by Arthur Rubinstein (who was given a huge paycheck for the time, especially considering the studio, Republic pictures, whose first color film this was) and features some great - if in the end excessive - pieces by Rachmoninoff and others. The characters are ultimately uninteresting and so sadly it hardly matters who ends up with whom, though everyone tries their best. It's all very nice though ultimately forgettable. The highpoint of this rather lavish production is the beautiful technicolor cinematography, which is quite nicely captured in the print restored by UCLA that is used on the laserdisc and VHS tape editions.
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Taurus (2001)
8/10
not quite as good as it wants to be
30 July 2001
Sokurov's latest film, "Taurus" can hardly be called a successful endeavor but it has a few things going for it. The story of Lenin's final days, his battle against his own physical decay and the understanding that his ideals never were and never will be realized is related by Sokurov almost as a filmed stage play shot in muted blue. "Taurus" depicts a giant who has outlived his time - isolated on a farm away from the world waiting out his death, ineffective and forgotten. Even those that are meant to take care of him treat him as an invalid or a fool. The film has many intriguing ideas about the nature of power and the reaction of an individual faced with his own mortality, but its excessive wordiness and repetitions bog it down. In its favor the film shows a surprising sense of humor in the face of all the dreariness which keeps it from being unwatchable and lightens up the intensity a bit. Mosgovoy's performance as Lenin is either pitch-perfect or more than a bit over the top depending on your taste.

As compared to the only other Sokurov film I've seen, "Mother and Son," this almost seems to be the work of a totally different director. Whereas "Mother" was almost entirely wordless, "Taurus" is heavy on the dialogue; "Mother" was shot in wide open outdoor expanses and "Taurus" takes place mostly in a single room; "Taurus" uses professional actors while the characters in "Mother" were obviously amateurs. However, both films share the same stateliness, the aspirations to High Art, and interest in visual experimentation. I can't say that I agree with the claims that Sokurov is a modern master based on what I've seen but he's certainly talented. "Taurus" has much to admire about it - and in a brilliant scene where Stalin comes to pay Lenin a visit it achieves greatness - but never quite achieves its lofty aspirations.
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9/10
city sickness
20 July 2001
This darkly humorous minimalist examination of loneliness and urban despair is a minor masterpiece. A withdrawn Taipei watch seller falls in love with one of his customers the day before she is set to fly off to a holiday in Paris. The film then follows both of their stories, connected by time: she knows no one in Paris and is miserable while he pines over her back in Tapei, sets every clock he sees to Paris time, and tries to cope with his mother's mental breakdown. The film's done in Tsai's usual manner: long static shots, no music, muted lighting and pursues the same themes as his earlier work but he's somehow able to not make it feel like old hat. "What Time is it There?" is a bit morbid maybe but very well done.
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