Monday, October 22, 2018

Tug and Pull

Phantom Thread (2017) - Anderson
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If you love someone, do you want to emulate their ways of life or make them emulate to your ways? Or do you compromise half way? Phantom Thread, PT Anderson's exquisitely executed film, is in many ways, more refined version of The Master.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a middle aged, famous designer of women's clothes- specifically, dresses. He lives and works in his townhouse in London and follows strict daily routine. His life is always surrounded by women - Cyril (Leslie Manville), his sister and trusted confident of his business and about a dozen seamstresses working for him. He can be fickle sometimes, and lets his irritation known when the slightest details bother him. Obviously he has mommy issues. Mostly, his life is all about work and nothing else.

Woodcock drives out to the countryside for a short getaway. At a restaurant of an inn where he is staying at, he takes an instant liking to a clumsy waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) of an indeterminate origin (never really pronounced in the entire film). He whisks her to his London atelier and starts measuring her size under the watchful, cold eyes of Cyril who quietly jots down the numbers. The process is all work, not desire. Her gawky figure is perfect for a fitting model. So starts a delicious tug and pull relationship drama.

Alma turns out to be much more than a muse for Woodcock. As difficult of a man he is to be with, for the man she loves, Alma is determined to show him that life doesn't have to be a constant work even if you are that talented or a genius. But Phantom Thread is not 'life lessons' kind of a movie, nor does it pretend to be one of those life affirming movie where a younger woman makes older, driven man stop and smell the daisies. Anderson makes it about a woman going to extreme measures into be part of the man she loves and he finally accepting it - there is something endearing and sexy about that, even though there is no sex scene in the film. Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps is totally up to the challenge against Day-Lewis who tones it down for the role significantly. And it's a beauty.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Norwegian Pop Band

Paterson (2016) - Jarmusch
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Paterson could be alternately called "As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw the Glimpse of Beauty" or the Japanese minimalism inspired "A-ha!" Contemplation on interpreting and creating art has been Jarmusch's MO for a long time. He just applied it to existing genre conventions as in Western (Dead Man), Samurai flick (Ghost Dog), Hitman (Limits of Control) and Vampire (Only Lovers Left Alive). In Paterson, he strips things down to a bare minimum. It's about a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) living in Paterson, NJ. The town happens to be the birth place of such poets as Williams Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

Paterson leads an unremarkable day to day life. He writes poetry in his little notebook before and after his shifts. He eavesdrops his passengers sometimes, loves his quirky, exotic wife Laura (luminous Golshifteh Farahani) who dreams of owning a cupcake business and country music stardom, takes their pet bulldog Marvin for evening walks, stopping in at a local bar for a beer. He observes small coincidences in his surroundings and experiences little dramas here and there - the bus breaks down, a fight at the bar, Marvin tearing at his notebook, meeting Japanese tourist/fellow poetry lover (Masatoshi Nagase). But in general, Paterson is appropriately quiet and gentle. Inspiration doesn't have to come from something high and grand. Your everyday surroundings, however mundane, can give you that, Paterson seems to say. It's a lovely movie.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Long Live the Flesh

*reviewed slightly different form back in November 2017. The film opens at Museum of Moving Image 10/19-10/28

Caniba (2017) - Paravel, Castaing-Taylor
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Issei Sagawa killed a Dutch woman in Paris and ate part of her body in 1981. It was a case of strong fantasies that twisted one's mind and giving way to violent urges. He was declared insane and sent home. Now in his 60s and partially paralyzed, he is in care of his brother Jun. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the duo behind a mindboggling, sensory experience that was Leviathan (2012), plunge into face the darkest of human desires and capture only way they can – in extreme close ups. The result is one of the most deeply disturbing love story ever told.

With only long takes, in mostly extreme close up and out-of-focus most of the time of Issei's aging, almost reptilian face, Caniba is a fascinating movie watching experience.

It's usually Jun carrying on a conversation off screen with his semi-comatose brother on the foreground. Issei blurts out almost haiku style answers, often trailing off to yonder. For our (dis)pleasure, Jun flips through a crudely drawn but extremely graphic manga of Issei's deeds (published a long while ago- Issei's been living off of his notoriety) while chastising his brother the whole time, "This is too much for me," "some people like this I suppose," "you weren't eating her while she was alive?" and so on. It goes on forever.

In that crude manga, Issei is always portrayed as little orange creature, the worst caricature of an Orientalized person craving for a fair skinned white woman. After Jun disses the book as 'disgusting shit' and putts it down, Issei says, "C'est fini."

Caniba can be a squirm inducing, endurance piece for people who find the subject matter disturbing. It also contains footage of fetish porn where a girl pisses on a man's face.

Then there is completely innocuous 8mm home movie footage of young Sagawa brothers. They were just like any other home movies, showing happy days when they were children. Then it turns out that Jun is a lifelong masochist and has been inflicting pain on his body with barbed wires, kitchen knives and pins for over 60 years. This part of the movie is perhaps the most difficult to watch.

When he confesses his vice to his brother, it's as if they are in competition - Jun passive aggressively belittles himself and his brother - "You aren't shocked because my fetishes pales in comparison to yours." "I wasn't shocked." Issei replies. Their relationship, just like any other siblings is on a base level, very relatable. Issei, aging and invalid, knows Jun is the only one who truly understands him and loves him even though he is a murderer and a cannibal.

In theory, Caniba is exactly what I look for in filmmaking - technically daring, psychologically complex, and intellectually stimulating, etc. But its subjects' sexual fetishes are too far extreme and disturbing, I can't say I enjoyed the film. Its somewhat happy ending involving cosplay maid in her black and white uniform taking care of Issei was an interesting touch if not a little jarring tonally.
To regard Caniba as just another observational documentary would be a great disservice. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor definitely make an adventurous pair. Their approach and methods in expanding cinematic universe with taking on a challenging subject is more than brave endeavor. The duo peeks into the heart of darkness and it’s truly disturbing. Caniba is a best non-horror horror movie of the year.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Running Away is Not a Solution

Taipei Story (1985) - Yang
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It is hard to let go of old ways. Taipei Story tells the story of Lung (Hou Hsiao Hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin), an on and off childhood sweethearts adulting in the fast changing world. And it's a good one.

Lung just got back from living in California and finding it way too easy and comfortable slipping in to old ways - managing his father's fabric shop, visiting his old baseball coach and reminiscing good old times with Chin's father. It seems Lung left Taiwan because of his love Gwan (Ko Su-Yun) chose Kobayashi over him and moved to Japan. Chin, working at a classy architecture firm as an assistant to powerful Mme. Mei, finds herself out of the job after a company takeover. Chin decided to take some time off, hoping that now Lung's back, maybe they can get together and move to Cali. In the mean time, she hangs out with her little sister's motorcycle riding group of youngsters. And this provides some of the most memorable visual sequences in the film.

Still bound by tradition and loyalty, Lung blows an opportunity partnering with his brother-in-law in Cali by lending his nest egg money to Chin's father who is a sentimental drunkard and helping his old buddy who now drives a cab to make ends meet. Lung hates all these sinewy old connections in Taipei, but realizes running away is not the solution. You can't run away from who you are.

Chin's brief fling with her married co-worker doesn't go anywhere and she gets super jealous when Gwan visits the city. And her shenanigans with cram school kids brings more complications when one of the boys taking a liking to her. Where is her prince charming, her knight with shining armor to take her away from all this clinginess? Always hiding behind her dark shades, Chin wants very much to be free.

Somehow I could see the ending from a mile away. But don't matter, Taipei Story is a terrific film with great characters charting growing pains of 30 somethings in a specific city which also happens to be very universal. Hou is amazing as Lung, a moody man with a chip on his shoulder.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Godard Points Us in the Right Direction

Le livre d'image/Image Book (2018) - Godard
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With Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard is still at it at age 87. With his presence strongly felt at Cannes this year with its poster of Belmondo and Karina kissing from Pierrot le fou (purely out of their nostalgia trip and other superficial reasons) and Cate Blanchet led Jury ironically awarding him 'the Special Palm d'or', whatever that means. But in stark contrast to youthful exuberance and liberty of his earlier films, Image Book is in large part and as expected, dark, brooding and more inscrutable than ever and indirect condemnation of the cheap spectacle the festival has become. Completely consists of existing footage - from Hollywood, European and Soviet films, war atrocities, news footage of ISIS and films from the Middle East in later part, Godard grimly goes on about the power, or lack thereof, of images in his raspy, groveling voice over.

Like most of his essay films since the monumental Histoire du cinema, his fragmented, loosely connected images have been, if not anything, reminder of the terrible history of humankind. Image Book is no exception. With Bertolt Brecht's quote, "Only a fragment carries a mark of authenticity," he somewhat frees us from dwelling over his use of edits - how he cuts two images together, how he stops and drags an image, his discontinuous soundtrack, spastic English subtitles and digital manipulation where colors bleed and image become almost abstract. Truth is in the images themselves. And as far as collages go, it's an assault on your eyeballs, very much like that famous shot from Un Chien Andalou which he references to in the film.

His thin image thread is there with the picture of hand pointing up, renaissance paintings where gestures have hidden meanings to recognizable movie clips include Vertigo, Kiss Me Deadly, Ivan the Terrible, Dr. Mabuse, Johnny Guitar, many from his own filmography and countless others I don't recognize. Train shots from various films invariably ends up in Auswitz footage. With Godard saying, "I have the courage to imagine. I take the train of history and I think of people who take the train for a job and who do not have courage to imagine." With images of 35mm film going through a projector, its thick and hammy celluloid strip jittering through the loop like a convulsing snake or slap of meat going through a tenderizer, Godard puts emphasis on the physicality of communication, the visual language, rather than spoken one.

The second half of the film settles into West's notion of Middle East as it was chastised by Edward Said in Orientalism. With barrage of film clips from old Egyptian films and other Middle Eastern nations, Godard examines An Ambition in the Desert, a book by Albert Cossery, an Egyptian born French writer. The book tells a story of a imagined Middle Eastern emirate of Dofa, a non-oil producing state therefore escaped from the Western colonialists' influence. It's deemed as paradise in the Middle East. Series of explosions rocks Dofa and Samantar, the main character of the story, would find out the attacks are planned by machiavellian Prime Minister of the emirate, Sheik Ben Kadem, who welcomes the influence from the west for his own political gain. Godard delves deeply into the subject, juxtaposing old Egyptian movie clips, surveillance ISIS footage and everyday street footage digitally manipulated to abstraction.

Godard's latest offerings are hard nut to crack, even more so than usual. Image Book is also the ones that needs to be mulled over after viewing. I didn't know about Cossery's book. I had to look it up. Even as an avid fan of his filmography, most of the stuff he talks about go over my head. But with Image Book, there seems to be a concerted effort for Godard to point us in the direction where he sees a corner of the world that is underexposed, underseen and misrepresented by the western world. He references his 1987 film King Lear a lot in Image Book, especially a shot of Cordelia (Molly Ringwald)'s dead body lying on the rock - as if telling us that Cordelia, the righteous, virtuos one, is dead and there is no good one left in the world. He also leaves in his coughing fit during the middle of voice over. Godard knows his time is almost up. There is a sense of urgency in his gravelly voice. Say what you will about cranky attitude, his stubbornness all these years not to conform, his perceived snobbiness. Yes, the representation and how you tell the story matters. But I'd rather get dictation from Godard and have him point me to the right direction than from anybody else. I sincerely hope Image Book is not his farewell message to the world.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is Quietly Spectacular

Roma (2018) - Cuaron
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Alfonso Cuarón, a director known for his meticulously crafted Hollywood sci-fi movies Children of Men and Gravity, goes back to his native Mexico and gets more personal with Roma, based on childhood memories of his nanny. It is his first Mexican film since Y Tu Mamá También in 2001. The result is a well-balanced, mature, humanistic and highly subjective observation of a woman’s life.

We are introduced to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman working as a housemaid for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City. Shot in sumptuous black and white, large format (instead of getting help from his regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón shot the movie himself) and using subtle unassuming techniques (mostly in wide angle, slow pan and tilt), the movie focuses on the life of a woman and her profession, which is seldom a subject for a major motion picture.

We start with a long, static shot of the stone floor of a narrow, gated driveway being washed. We hear sounds from the lively neighborhood – dogs barking, children playing, various street sellers signaling their arrivals. The sudsy water is thrown over and over, and we see a plane going across the sky in its reflection on the floor. After the initial title sequence, we slowly tilt up to reveal Cleo doing chores in the courtyard. With this opening, Cuarón sets up the rhythm of Roma – the steady, forward march of time. We are about to witness for a little more than two hours the trials and tribulations of Cleo, the house servant, within a year’s span. The year is 1970.

Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García) are two live-in housemaids for Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her mostly absent husband, her old mother and their four rambunctious children. Cleo and Adela wake up before everyone else, cook, wake the kids one by one, get them ready for school, clean, wash, get groceries, carry luggage, make tea and do everything else in between. It is clear that much love is shared between the family and Cleo. Kids love her and say so often, and Cleo does too.

Sofia goes through a tough time dealing with the fact that her husband is cheating on her – he fakes business trips to Canada when in fact he is staying in the city with another woman. She appreciates all Cleo does but also lets her know her place on occasion. Cleo is part of the family but not quite: in one continuous sequence we see the whole family viewing a TV program together. It is some silly comedy and everyone is watching and laughing. Cleo, while mindful of everyone’s needs, watches and laughs with them. She approaches the couch where the kids are sitting and sits down on the floor next to them. One of the kids leans his head on her shoulder. Sofia tells her to go and make some tea. She gets up and goes to the kitchen.

Cleo gets pregnant by Adela’s cousin Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a brash martial arts practicioner. He abandons her as soon as she tells him that she is pregnant. Sofia, perhaps feeling the sisterhood of abandoned women and/or out of the goodness of her heart, embraces Cleo’s pregnancy and pledges her support.

It is the small details Cuarón shows us that have a cumulative impact, like the sequence of the father very carefully parking his oversized car in the narrow driveway, the constant presence of dog shit on the floor, a plane flying across the sky…. With Roma, he doesn’t make a broad political or cultural statement. It is not that Cuarón ignores the social stratification or political climate in Mexico during 1970 and 1971. Quite the contrary – the family Christmas getaway in the mountains, at the opulent mansion of one of Sofia’s friends, reinforces the masters-and-servants relationship as they have separate living quarters and hangout areas. This is also where we get the only clue to Cleo’s background as she muses on the barren landscape and tells her friends, “This is what my hometown looks like. Drier than this though.” Then there is the Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971 where government thugs (known as Los Halcones) shoot and kill 120 protesting college students. The chaotic scene on the street plays out while Cleo, accompanied by Sofia’s mother, is on her way to choose a crib for her baby. She encounters Fermín, now as one of Los Halcones.

In focusing on Cleo and her surrogate family, who are painfully human with all their faults and blemishes, Cuarón makes the film very personal and subjective, therefore becoming universal.

Although the spectacular uncut ending sequence on the beach might be a technical marvel, Cuarón’s craft does not take away from or overshadow the overall emotional impact it has on the audience. The sequence encapsulates everything Cuarón has been working for – pairing technical virtuosity and universal human decency to a maximum impact. Quietly spectacular, this larger format, digitally shot film needs to be seen on the big screen. Hopefully Netflix, its distributor, will release it in theaters for a while before putting it in their streaming queue.

The underlying theme of Roma is giving love and respect to people who we take for granted – those unsung heroes, the backbone of our society. We make movies of spectacles and amplified emotions. Cuarón focuses on miniature crises in one year in the life of Cleo. Roma is a guileless, subtle, deeply felt human story that is definitely Cuarón’s best and most mature work and one of the year’s best films.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Fatalistic Love Story

Cold War (2018) - Pawlikowski
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Cold War is a tragic, fatalistic love story set in Poland after the second world war. The year is 1949. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza), two musical enthusiasts are seen traveling and collecting samples of Polish folk music in rural areas. They are two pivotal force behind a newly established Polish State run music school. While auditioning many young, talented pupils, a sultry, troubled girl Zula (Joanna Kulig) catches Wiktor's eyes. It's a school where they train students to be entertainers on stage - involves not only singing but choreographed dancing in traditional garbs. Zula, talented and has a beautiful voice, becomes a star soon enough. And Wiktor and Zula soon become lovers. Now the year is 1952.

Soon the school and its trope becomes a success, the communist regime takes an interest and pressure them to integrate pro-Stalin propaganda songs. Irena objects at first but relents at the Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the founder of the school's insistence. But it gives school and Zula an opportunity to travel and perform elsewhere in Europe. While they are performing in Paris, Wiktor suggests Zula that they defect to the west. But Zula fails to show up at the rendez-vous point and they are separated.

Many years passes. Wiktor is now living in Paris, composing and playing piano in a jazz ensemble living in a tiny apartment, like a true bohemian in French movies. After seeing Zula perform with her traveling Polish group on stage in Zagreb, and after forcefully removed and put on a train out of Yugoslavia, they are reunited in Paris. But the whole Paris scene doesn't satisfy Zula. It's too stuck up and Wiktor seems to have lost his mojo in a foreign land - "In Poland, you were a man!" Zula chastises him. After couple of jealousy fueled fights - involving a poet Juliette (Jeanne Balibar) and movie director Michel (French director Cedric Kahn) in Wiktor's circle of artist friends, Zula goes back to Poland. Wiktor, crestfallen, decides to go back to Poland for Zula, risking being jailed as a unpatriotic traitor.

Shot again in full frame monochrome by Lukascz Zal, Cold War is every bit as beautiful as Ida. His use of head space is there and it's lovely. Kulig has a clear and beautiful singing voice in every style, providing some of the loveliest vocal tracks for the films great jazzy soundtrack.

Pawlikowski deftly directs, like his previous film, Ida this 90 minute film in a breeze. But whereas this quick, no moment to spare, no time to contemplate pace worked for a young woman coming of age story, for something like Cold War and the subject like tragic love, I wish the director spent a little more time with Wiktor and especially more with Zula, since Kulig, resembling Slavic Léa Seydoux, is very lovely to look at and listen to. Constant fade to black after pivotal moments in their lives doesn't feel like just times passing or mere transition but more like we've missed out on a lot of details. I understand Pawlikowski's driving idea of 'love has no ideology or borders', but the absence of the couple's political allegiance/aversion as 'artists' bothered me (same way as Ida wearing religion on her sleeve in Ida), especially no background for either of them were ever fully explored. The ending is beautiful but I feel like the rest of the film didn't quite earn it.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Allegorical Tale of Haves and Have Nots

Happy as Lazzaro (2018) - Rohrwacher
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I've come to love folksy, good hearted nature of Alice Rohrwacher's delicate, charming films about rural Italian villages and their eclectic inhabitants peppered with her brand of unsentimental magic realism. Happy as Lazzaro, her latest offering is an allegorical tale that goes wonderfully unexpected ways.

Inviolata is an isolated mountain village that seems like it is stuck in the middle ages. The farmers are seen tending livestock, harvesting tobacco plants and living in squalid conditions. Electricity seems to be scarce as they complain when the only light bulb in the common area of the house goes out. Everyone in the village, young and old, is working from morning to dusk non-stop. A wide eyed, good natured boy, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), seems to be in everyone's demand. Whatever the task, he is there to do it without questioning.

Nicola, in a funny suit and tie who seem to be in charge of the whole production comes in to collect the villager's tobacco harvest, does the calculation and tells them that they are in the red again after all the expenses that he brings in - light bulbs, supplies and what not. The villagers complain but quiet down soon enough. It seems their arrangement has been like this way for a long time. Nicola's wife, marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi of Life is Beautiful and Johnny Stecchino) and their spoiled children Tancredi and Maria are in town, staying in their opulent mansion. Tancredi, a blonde boy who is clueless about the villager's living conditions, strolls around in his fancy clothes and his walkman, bored out of his skull. But he takes a liking to Lazzaro who obliges to his every whim.

After Lazzaro showed Tancredi his secret hangout up on the dusty hill, the rich boy comes up with an idea of kidnapping himself and sending a ransom letter to his parents. Days go by. Nicola suspiciously refuses to call police and marquise refuses to pay the ransom. Lazzaro, busy working, but also worried about his new friend up on the hill all by himself, worries himself sick and falls ill. Maria secretly calls the police and all hell breaks loose.

See, the first half of Happy as Lazzaro plays out like a gritty yet affable tale of small folks up in the mountains. Everything is very authentic and natural, showing their way of life- Young people fall in love and want to leave the village. They have to protect livestock from marauding wolves, tobacco plants need to be harvested and smoked and dried. It plays out something like humorous version of Ermano Olmi's realist film, except some strange inconsistencies like the presence of Tancredi's walkman and flip phones (Rohrwacher deliberately makes the time period obscure). You think it's a throw back of old, folksy yarn so far, then the film turns into something different altogether.

After the arrival of police, it is revealed that the town of Inviolata has been taken advantage of by the marquise and Nicola: after the historic flooding long ago, the town was cut off from the outside world and unbeknownst them, the marquise family continued to exploit them for their labor in their little modern feudal system. By the time our Lazzaro, who had fallen ill and in his delirium, fell from the cliff looking for Tancredi, regain his consciousness, many years had gone by and Inviolata had been emptied out.

Lazzaro meets two thieves, Ultimo (great Sergi Lopez) and Pippo, at now abandoned villa of the marquise and hitch a ride with them to their house, an old tanker beside the railroad tracks. There Lazzaro reunites with Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice), who was a little girl back in Inviolata and now is a grown up. In fact, most of the villagers who live in the same place, are all old now. They are scraping by, by way of stealing and scavenging. They regard Lazzaro, who hadn't aged a bit, with great deal of skepticism at first, calling him a ghost. But recognizes his innocence and good heartedness. Lazzaro, who had sworn his friendship with Tancredi, would never stop looking for him.

One can regard Lazzaro as Chance character in Being There. Almost saint like, Lazzaro is a metaphysical being that is too good to be true. In fact, all the villagers are. What's done is done. They don't hold the grudge against the marquise and her family. They are even willing to give them expensive pastries.

Rohrbacher makes a point about the current immigration situations that it's just as exploitative as the middle ages. As Lazzaro and Antonia watches, there is a scene involving a sort of reversed slavery auction: The recruiter shouts that a job pays four euros and 50 cents. Migrant workers grumble that the wage is too low. But instead of asking for higher wages, they compete for lowering their wage demands just to get a job.

Child actors are great, so is always excellent Alba Rohrbacher. And Hélène Louvart lensed 16mm cinematography is gorgeous. But the real star is Tardiolo. There is sense of decency in that babyface and wide fawny eyes. Lazzaro is someone who is desperately needed in this cynical, cruel world. Alice Rohrbacher's writing shines in bringing out humor and humanity in an whimsical yet pointy allegory full of wonders.

Emotions Run High in Hong Sangsoo's Grass

Grass (2018) - Hong
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Yet another slight bunch of vignettes taking place in and around a coffee shop in Seoul, Grass is ever prolific Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo's first release of the two this year (the second one being Hotel by the River, read Pierce's review here). It sketches out 4 different 'conversations'. Clocking in brisk 66 minutes, the film sees director's ever present muse, Kim Minhee passively observing then participating in those conversations. Being in 5 of the last 6 Hong films, one can assume that Kim's contribution to his artistry is only growing. Here, she is still a beguiling beauty, but shows that she can be merciless and downright nasty when she wants to be even without the help of usual heavy consumption of soju. Grass is not groundbreaking or anything, but it's perhaps more cynical and darker than his other films. Still, Hong's human comedy continues with slight variations each time with delicious results.

Areum (Kim) is seen typing away her thoughts in her macbook in the near-window corner of an unassuming coffee shop. She eavesdrops conversations of customers and gives her thoughts in a constant voice-over. One can wonder if these conversations and arguments were her creations.

There are much discussions about death: the first conversation she eavesdrops is from the young couple. Their chat starts harmless then descends into emotional outbursts- the girl accusing the boy of their friend's death. Then there is an old stage actor whose attempted suicide over a woman left him jobless and homeless. But his pupil can't bring herself up to invite him to stay with her family. Areum makes assumptions and judges these people harshly in her thoughts.

What brings Areum's disdain out in the open is the presence of an actor/writer (played by Jung Jinyoung, pretty much Hong stand-in), who is looking for a writing partner for his new script. After his request gets rejected by his writer friend (Kim Saebyuk) who chastises him by saying, "writers write alone," he tries his luck on the beautiful stranger. Areum outright says that she is not a writer. She just writes for herself. He insists that they collaborate. And in order to do that, he needs to move in with her and spend 10 days observing her. Saved by her younger brother's arrival, she excuses herself out of the conversation. On the street, she tells her brother with the tone of disgust how the actor came on to her.

Her nasty streak continues when she meets her brother's new girlfriend. She skewers the young couple for thinking about marriage without knowing each other too well. "You are already set up for a failure!" She then blows up on her brother for not picking up the check for their lunch and scowls him for being pussy-whipped.

It's no use to describe Hong's style here anymore - minimal long take, goofy auto zoom and pan, two shot long takes. He's obviously not interested in 'making a mark' with his 'style'. But with just one look at his films, everyone can recognize that they are his. No style has become his style. I heard him saying "because I ran out of things to name," when asked why the film is called Grass at Berlinale. He tries different things here and there - notably in Grass, there is an extended over the shoulder shot where we don't see a man's face then camera pans to see his shadow on the wall gesticulating as the conversation heats up. The usual chicken scratch titles are gone and replaced by what looks like xeroxed title cards. Yet these (no) stylings don't add up to much, nor does dissonant classical music, that blares all over dialog, which only serves more as an absurd comedic effect.

The later part of the film brings them all together back in the coffee shop, drinking off of couple of soju bottles they sneaked in in the grace of unseen, good-hearted shop owner. There you see Areum accepting an invitation to join the conversation. She's shown that she can take care of herself from unwanted and frequent men's advances, and when necessary, doesn't take shit from anybody. “Emotions are gullible and forceful, precious, cheap and alluring.” her voice over says. Even if Areum looks down on everyone from her pedestal, at the end, emotions are what makes us human, Hong seems to say.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Being Relevant

Double vies/Non-Fiction (2018) - Assayas
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It seems, along with Godard, Olivier Assayas is one of the cinema's keenest chroniclers reflecting the soulless modern world in the late stages of capitalism. He reflected on the internet porn industry and shady side of desire in Demon Lover, corporate espionage and power politics in Boarding Gate, Hollywood & stardom in Clouds of Sils Maria and fashion industry in Personal Shopper. Now he takes on the fate of the print media with a biting new comedy, Non-Fiction. Unlike his last two collaborations with Kristen Stewart with international cast and locations, Non-Fiction takes place mostly in Paris with an ensemble cast of French actors - Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne and Nora Hamzawi. Although the scale of the film might seem smaller and less glamorous, Assayas' observation on the publishing industry and the rising popularity of TV are, as usual, spot-on.

Canet plays Alain, a book publisher. He is not too hot about the new manuscript of his long time client, Leonard (Macaigne), a semi-respected author. Alain used to like Leonard’s books, but the author's thinly veiled, self-aggrandizing autobiographical works have been getting on his nerves lately. So he decides to pass on his latest. Alain is also dealing with office politics with physical books transitioning into digital format and sales figures where prestige doesn't necessarily produce profit anymore. And there is a rumor of a large media conglomerate taking over the company he works for.

For Leonard, who is going through a hard time with his live-in girlfriend Valerie (Hamzawi), a sharp tongued political consultant for a major political candidate for the upcoming election, the news of Alain's refusal to publish his new book (titled Full Stop) is a big blow. Leonard also happens to be having a long term affair with Alain's actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) who also appears (thinly veiled of course) in Full Stop and she is deathly afraid of Alain finding out.

Valerie is getting frustrated because her earnest candidate's message is not getting through to people. In this post-Trump, post-truth era, there’s just too much noise for people to filter out, Leonard tries to console her to no avail. It doesn't help that when the allegation of sexual harassment turns up from the candidate's past.

Selena talks about a policier TV series that she has been starring for 4 seasons. It's physical work and kind of cool to be a feminist heroine but she doesn't feel any joy doing it anymore. Any TV show is something to put on when working stiffs get home after long day of work and binge watch and relax, she says. Alain chimes in that it's like those adult coloring books that are money-makers for publishing companies. They are for relaxation, nothing more. Selena complains that only other job offers she gets is Phaedra on stage, obviously because of her age.

All of these characters are trying very hard to make a mark in their own field. They want to desperately matter in an internet age where people prefer blogs instead of esteemed magazines and a twitter rumor can ruin someone's reputation in an instant.

Non-Fiction is a very wordy, very French film. In cafes, apartments and hotel rooms, they smoke, drink and talk non-stop. Leonard quips that because of twitter's narcissistic nature, it’s very French.

Printed literature versus e-book and the intellectual property rights versus the internet being the purveyor of democracy are all hot topics these days. Do we really prefer that digital media you bought, which eventually disappears from your computer’s digital library, to physical media that can never truly disappear? I feel that Assayas is the only major director who actually verbalizes these issues on screen.

A lot of big words are thrown about and discussed among these urban, cultured professionals - Unwitty witticism, auto-fiction, dematerialization, post-truth, etc. These characters embody the anti-thesis to the anti-intellectual world where everyone is free to spout three sentence haikus on twitter without any consequences.

Where it lacks Assayas' languid visual language, Non-fiction makes up with his sharp, witty dialog and humor. Macaigne, a comedian with his unkempt hair and portly disposition, appearing in many of quirky French comedies of late, is becoming a major figure in French cinema. He has worked his way up to having a full nude love scene with Juliette Binoche here.

In this fictional light comedy with its English Title Non-Fiction, along with its French Title Double vie, Assayas once again rightly reflects our society in real time. To top the movie's meta-ness, Alain tells that he is in negotiation with Juliette Binoche to do an audio book of Full Stop. This got the biggest laugh from the audiences at the film's press screening.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Basic Human Needs...in Space: Claire Denis' Rapturous New Film, High Life

High Life (2018) - Denis
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Hazy mist sprays over the vegetable garden from a sprinkler system. Monte (Robert Pattinson) in space suit is seen outside the space craft, doing some sort of repair. There is a baby in a makeshift crib. He is cooing the baby through the speaker system. As she cries louder and louder, he loses his concentration and drops his wrench into the void. So starts a rapturous new film by Claire Denis, High Life.

With jumbled timeline and voiceovers over the course of the film, we gather this square, retro looking spaceship once was populated by convicts on death row being subjects to medical experiments as they get close to the nearest black hole. Doctor on board is Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who apparently killed her entire family on earth. She administers drugs and experiments to the crew mostly comprised young people of all genders and races. It's their reproductive abilities near the black hole she is most concerned about. The experiment can't fail because the ship is programmed to cut off life supplies if it does. It's now Monte's job to keep it going. So this is the basic idea for High Life.

It's all about basic human needs- eating, shitting, fucking and making little babies, in space. It's all about the human bodily fluids. Shit happens and people die. The ship's interior is beige colored and stained (with human fluids) and worn out in that queasy 70s way. Doing Science Fiction, Denis goes about it with bare minimum - no grand establishing shots of the interiors, no extreme high-tech, anticeptic looking dingerdos, just because it's not her concern. There is a 'fuck box' where crew uses to get their rocks off. Monte is practicing celibacy because he wants to control himself. But Dr. Dibs has other ideas about that. Denis pushed the limit of what is considered good taste with The Bastards. With High Life, she pushes even further - Taboo isn't taboo anymore. It has sharp edges like her other films. And It's those ecstatic moments, like in many of her other films - frozen bodies floating in space, meteor showers, baby eating dirt in the vegetable garden, dead dog in the stream, sudden burst of violence and emotions that puts High Life very much in the top tier of all Claire Denis-ean film.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bi Gan's Sophomore Effort, Long Day's Journey Into Night is a Stunner

Long Day's Journey into Night (2018) - Bi
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Bi Gan's sophomore effort, Long Day's Journey into Night, after his phenomenal debut Kaili Blues (2015), doesn't disappoint in terms of ambition, technical prowess and sheer ecstatic beauty. I've never experienced anything quite like it as far as an immersive movie going experience goes. If the uncut 40 minute shot in Kaili Blues took your breath away, just wait until you see a continuous hour long 3D scene in the later half of the film. Its pure cinematic power let you believe that cinema is still alive and well. Bi Gan is no joke folks. He is that rare combination of a filmmaker who really knows how incorporate technology into an artistic medium and runs amok with it.

Lu Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to Kaili for his father's funeral after many years of absence. There at his father's house, he finds an old photograph of a woman hidden in an old clock. As Lu tries to find her whereabouts, the noirish road trip morphs into an internal journey where his past and present and dreams are all intermingled. There are some very loose and abstract connections throughout, about his lost love and his sidekick named Wildcat who was murdered. It's a monsoon season in Kaili, the southern subtropical region of China. The air is damp, the walls are blackened, the basements are flooded and it's night. It's always night. The water drops flicker under the overhanging lighting fixtures. The sound of raindrops gently hitting the metal sidings, the cigarette smoke, the colors.... The atmosphere is so rich and dense, you want to reach out and touch it.

Lu hits up a mysterious woman (Tang Wei of Lust, Caution) in a shimmering green dress and follows her in his car into a dank tunnel. Her resemblance to his old flame is uncanny, he tells her. She flirts but never gives in, always leading, always seductive. Her name is Wan Qiwen. That's a Canton popstar's name, he quips. Is this scene from the past or is it a dream? In an outdoor stage, Lu waits for Wan to come out and sing. A woman suggests going to a movie to kill the time. This is just over an hour into the movie. He goes into the movie theater and puts a 3D glasses on and this is our cue to follow the suit.

We see the title for the first time in 3D as we follow Lu at night. A boy in a room where Lu wakes up in, says he will show him the exit if he beats him at ping-pong. Lu handily beats the kid at the game. The the boy leads the way down to an outdoor market. There is only one way to go down and it's the jerry-rigged one-seat cable car/zip-line. We follow him from behind and slowly descends into the dimly lit labyrinthine market. Now Wan is a young woman who manages a pool parlor. There are young hooligans giving her a hard time. Lu intervenes. It's her boyfriend's business and she is just overseeing it in his absence. It's dead of the night and she is closing the shop. Lu is mesmerized by her likeness to Wan/ex-lover and can't get away.

This lucid, languid night stroll continues ever so leisurely. Lu loses Wan and then finds her again. Like in a dream, the time stretches yet stands still. We take a literal flight to the other parts of the market, we take the steps up and down, waiting for a daybreak, all in one continuous take. The darkness in Long Day's Journey into Night is comforting, seductive and beautiful, never ominous or threatening. You are taken for an intoxicating ride and you don't want to wake up from this dream. You don't want to get out of the spell Bi Gan put on us. Long Day's Journey into Night is an unforgettable moviegoing experience and the most audacious film in years. Please see it in a theater, if you can.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Jia Zhangke's Ash is The Purest White is an Epic Melodrama at Its Finest

Ash is the Purest White (2018) - Jia
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An epic melodrama spanning 17 years, Jia Zhangke's new film, Ash is the Purest White, harkens back to the Chinese auteur's earlier films. I say this not just because it mostly takes place in Shangxi province (the director's home province where he made 3 of his early films), but also because he abandons the episodic/omnibus storytelling of Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart, two of his last films. Instead, he concentrates on a long and arduous relationship between Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia's long time partner in crime) and Bin (Liao Fan of Black Coal Thin Ice). Ash can be seen as the compendium of 48-year-old auteur's filmography and its 144 minute running time can feel like a slog at certain points. But it's one of those films that gains strength and poignancy over time and certainly is the future classic in the making. It's definitely his most mature film to date.

The film starts in Datong, the nothernmost area of the director's home province Shangxi. The year is 2001. Qiao is seen in full frame video shot footage instructing dance moves in a dance hall. With her bangs and youthful looks, this footage might as well be from Unknown Pleasures (which came out in 2001). She enters the majong parlor, and it's in 1:85 aspect ratio (they used several different formats for varying degrees of success). She is the squeeze of a local low level mob Bin, who runs a majong parlor. It's a dangerous business and there are competing younger mob factions ready to take him and his men down when given an opportunity. Times are a changing.

Bin brings Qiao to a field which saw volcanic activity thousands years ago, to teach her how to shoot a hand gun. It's an unregistered, illegal gun he acquired. The Chow Yun Fat-starring Hong Kong action movies had a bad influence on Bin and the rest of his generation. He mentions that the ashes from the volcanic eruption is the purest white, foreshadowing the rapid change in China, where anything old is demolished, buried or drowned for the new generation. A clean slate. A new beginning where no regrets, no tears, no sentimentality are allowed.

After a hit on Bin's crew sees him fatally attacked, Qiao fires the said illegal gun to save his life and is sent to jail for 5 years. Now it's 2006, and Qiao is out of jail and looking for Bin. He never visited her in jail and has moved to a town near Three Gorges dam. So this is where the road movie of Qiao starts: she meets various characters on the road/river with the rapidly changing nation in the background. The technology has changed appropriately, the fancy office buildings go up, all sorts of business ventures spring up. But people, the flood of people, trying to eke out the living with the changing times and circumstances, remain the same.

Bin, with a new girlfriend, refuses to see Qiao. Heart broken and with nowhere else to go but back to Datong, she almost agrees to go with a new venture capitalist whom she meets on the train, to the west. Decisions we make in our lives, good or bad, would lead to a different life than where we are right now. But how much can we deviate from our natural instincts, our traits, our character?

It's the New Year, 2018. Qiao finds Bin back in her life in Datong. He's had a stroke due to excessive drinking and is now a wheelchair bound. Qiao, who never married, silently takes care of him. He throws a fit sometimes, reliving his jianghu (underground gang) days in his head. She doesn't let him go off though. Is he ever going to change?

Ash is the Purest White is a full-on (un)sentimental melodrama in epic scale. It's perhaps Jia's most down to earth, character study work. The long stretch in the middle gains more poignancy as the film goes along and afterwords. Some people reinvent themselves along with the changing times and some people don't. Some things in them though, remain the same. Jia expertly juxtaposes these conundrums, reflecting the soul of a changing nation. Ash is the Purest White is a deep and poignant masterpiece from a seasoned filmmaker.


Monday, September 17, 2018

He's a Lumberjack and He's Not OK

Mandy (2018) - Panos Costamos
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Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is a raven-haired woman living in isolation in the woods with her lumberjack husband (Nicolas Cage). Usually donning some deathmetal t-shirts or her husband's baseball jersey and a nasty scar across her face, Mandy possesses that other-worldly, melancholy aura. Perhaps it's that aura that attracts a gang of violent religious nuts to her- a cult headed by Jeremiah (Linus Roache). The gang break in to their cabin one night. They tie the husband up. But after being rejected by Mandy, Jeremiah and the gang sets her on fire in front of the husband.

Her death propels the movie descending rapidly into total mayhem and provides perhaps Nic Cage's Nic Cagest performance in years. That long take rage scene in his underwear in the bathroom is a sight to behold. There are Hellraiser type demons, a tiger, axe smelting, a King Crimson song, a chainsaw fight, multiple title and animation sequences thrown in. Normally a concoction this wild and unwieldy wouldn't work at all, but Costamos manages to make Mandy, through dark brooding visuals and Jóhan Jóhansson's soundtrack, a visual tone poem akin to Valhalla Rising, with Cage as our avenging angel, slogging through hell and back (or not). It's an amazing visual feast and a cult classic in the making.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Brigade of Police Poets

Les arts de la parole (2016) - Godin
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Steeped heavily in literary references, Quebecois filmmaker Olivier Godin's Les arts de la parole follows the trials and tribulations of detective Koroviev (Michael Yaroshevsky). With a leather patch over his eye, Koroviev is a studious and sensitive fella who teaches poetry in a brigade of police poets. He and his 'singing detective' partner Margerie (Michel Faubert) are put on the duty of keeping a watch (through the peephole) on Clemént (Etienne Pilon), a bank robber. Soon Koroviev is out with Clemént at a jazz club where his son plays saxophone. The musician doesn't know that Koroviev is his dad though, and Koroviev doesn't ever seem to have a chance to tell him the fact. The detective is in search of a bible annotated by Pierre Maheu, his literary hero and the captain of the legendary ship, St. Elias.

Koroviev sees Coriandre (Jennyfer Desbiens), a pre-Rafaelite beauty with heavy eyelids on stage and gets smitten. Margerie also pursues her by singing to her on the phone, much to Koroviev's displeasure. Coriandre knows Maheu because he lived in a house next to her dad's in the countryside.

With its droll humor and painterly framing and dissolves, Les arts de la parole strongly resembles '80s Godard. Add the crime genre elements, Vertigo style dualism and full of quirky characters, you got a charming, entertaining film.