Saturday, July 6, 2013

Art of Life

Museum Hours (2012) - Cohen
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It's Cohen's landscapes that are so arresting- the mundane urban settings become meaningful -- the empty, stillness of the frames get more resonance by sporadic, gentle musings. Museum Hours loosely concerns an old guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) at Kunsthistorisches Museum and a middle aged woman Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) from Montreal, visiting Vienna to see her distant cousin who fell into a coma. There is a gentle flow to the film that is not hurried to anywhere, not married to anything, so it slowly puts your mind at ease. It opens you up, to put you in place of an observer, not unlike observing a painting in a museum.

Kunsthistorisches in Vienna is famous for housing, among other things, large volumes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's work. Bruegel's paintings, along with Goya's happen to be some of my favorites. Cohen even dedicates a chunk of time for a museum guide to explain his work that even without their subversive nature, everything has equal importance. The guard narrates that he finds new things every time he sees Bruegel's paintings -- there is a broken egg, a man is squatting down and defecating in this corner, etc. Gently weaving real life and chance encounters of these two people with numerous paintings in the museum, the film is a sublime beauty. Anne singing to her cousin, snowy melancholic Vienna streets under the street light, Johann lovingly talking about his young coworker, a skate kid sitting, staring nowhere -- these images and sounds are equally beautiful and resonant in Museum Hours. Quite possibly the front runner for my favorite movie this year.

*the film was preceded by Cohen's ultra-short, Springtime shot in industrial Gowanus area in Brooklyn. Mood and imagewise, and not knowing his work at all, it was a good indication of what's to come.

Revisionist History Sold as Light Entertainment

An Inaccurate Memoir (2012) - Yang

Taking cues from The Good, The Bad and the Weird and Let The Bullets Fly, Leon Yang's An Inaccurate Memoir is a large scale, genre mash-up period piece taking place in dusty Northern China in 1930s. 

It starts out with the disrespectful Japanese army carting off a giant statue of Buddha into their base while a gang of colorful bandits break their leader Fang (Huang Xiaoming), out of jail in a daring rescue mission and retreat to their elaborate desert underground hideout. The bandits have allegiance to no one but to themselves and only care about getting rich. They are mostly into thieving and kidnapping business. But things change when they unwittingly kidnap Gao (Zhang Yi) for ransom, thinking he is a rich man.

It turns out that Gao's mission is to assassinate emperor Hirohito and his kidnapping was a ploy to get the bandits involved in his cause. So you can guess how it's going to play out: the greedy bandits grow a pair and find newfangled nationalism! The middle part is filled with a bungled bank robbery attempt (in traditional Chinese doll masks), multiple love intrigues, cornrows and other way-too-modern-looking attires, many fuzzy subplots and the big raid at the Japanese base in order to kidnap a Japanese prince. 

The thing is, we know our history that there was no kidnapping of any Japanese princes, Hirohito didn't get assassinated and it wasn't the Chinese who ended the WWII. The movie ends as the remaining bandits about to embark on their mission to Japan.

Told in conscientious Gao's narration, An Inaccurate Memoir is a pure wish fulfillment filled with incredibly good looking people -- never mind that they are living in a dusty hole, they always look fabulous! -- sold as a sleek entertainment. Its half-baked plot makes the film not so entertaining, though. Also, I had a hard time buying "we honor those nameless heroes who fought for our freedom" message at the end. Honestly, I don't foresee anyone getting choked up about it.

An Inaccurate Memoir plays Sunday, July 7 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2013. For tickets and info, please visit FSLC website.