Friday, December 19, 2014

Winter Ennui

Kis uykusu/Winter Sleep (2014) - Ceylan
Winter Sleep
Aydin (Halruk Bilginer) is a proprietor of an ancient, picturesque carved-cave inn. He also owns a lot of properties around this Anatolian mountain community. He is an insolent, arrogant man who inherited his father's wealth and once a stage actor. He lives with a much younger, beautiful wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and equally insolent divorcée sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin writes flowery columns for a community paper and is preparing to write a book on history of Turkish theater. When he is not writing, he talks to various guests who are staying at the inn. Things hasn't been good between Aydin and Nihal. She's been accusing him of not being interested in her philanthropic work and he in turn talks down on her lack of life experiences.

Winter Sleep is mostly composed of long winded indoor scenes broken up by some striking outdoor scenery. It's like kitchen table stage play where everyone sits down and argues for ages while drinking copious amount of tea. I really hated all three major characters who are extremely self-centered and very good at hurting each other's feelings with their petty resentments. I hate dialog where characters are all wearing their hearts on their sleeves and it happens A LOT in Winter Sleep. The only remotely interesting parts are about how Aydin and Nihal deal with poor folks - it starts out with Aydin and his property manager Hidayet visit one of the piss poor family after a young son from that family throws a stone at Aydin's car and breaks the passenger side glass. The family has been suffering financially and can't pay the rent. Hidayet had to remove their TV and other home appliances for collateral. Aydin is far removed from these tit-tat earthly affairs and has a hard time when confronted by it. Guilt ridden Nihal tries to help them but her ways lead to highly melodramatic results. What I didn't like about Ceylan's international breakthrough Distant was its pretty pictures have little to do with uninteresting main characters. There is no cohesion with its surroundings and these people who inhabit it. I have the same problem here with Winter Sleep, but only this time, they yak all the way through. It's as if Ceylan lifted his magic filter used in Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. The magic is gone: dialog is atrocious, slow zoom-in has no context whatsoever and voice over at the end felt like a cheat.

Winter Sleep is based on Chekov's short stories "Excellent People" and "The Wife". It's basically a filmed chamber play. I can see Nehal being a young wife trapped in a loveless marriage with a emotionally abusive older husband, a typical Chekov stuff. The thing is it's way too familiar, too predictable and too melodramatic, whereas in Anatolia there was a mystery that we are sort of trying to solve (setup being a police investigation). I checked imdb for writing credit as Ceylan writes everything with his wife Ebru and Ercan Kesal (Anatolia and Three Monkeys). Kesal's not credited as one of the writers for WS. Maybe that was the problem?

WS imho, definitely one of the weakest of all Ceylan I've seen. However unaffecting it was, Distant's minimalistic approach was refreshing and relies a lot on the viewer's imaginations to get into the minds of those two characters who are very different and distant. Chekov's work is all about confessing, divulging their inner thoughts for the readers/audiences. This may work on stage, but cinematically, it's too general and one note - Yeah it's winter and desolate. Yeah that's how they feel. FOR THREE HOURS. Anatolia was more layered, thematically and cinematically. I felt WS was just plain lazy filmmaking.


Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) - Diao
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Black Coal, Thin Ice is a strong, gritty policier that pulls you right in. It features one of the coldest movie protagonists, even in noir standards. The year is 1999. Liao Fan plays 'stached police officer Zhang, whose wife is filing for divorce. He gets injured while investigating what seemes to be serial killings- body parts found in various coal processing plants all over. Then five years go by in a brilliant transition shot. Zhang, now a drunkard, works as a security guard for some factory. Again, body parts are found scattered and it rekindles Zhang's interests in the case and springs him up to investigate on his own. There is a mousy woman (Gwei Lun Mei) working at a laundromat who holds the key to all the murders. As he gets close to the woman, he finds out that her husband, presumed dead as one of the victims from 1999, is still alive and might have faked his death (DNA testing wasn't available back then). Zhang coerces her to give him up. He is just very good at what he does. He is not brutish and doesn't necessarily use violence. But his heart is colder than Nothern China in winter. His environs - grim, cold, joyless and perverted, reflect his character.

The film's almost theatrical lighting scheme (yellow, green, red and purple) doesn't give the film any warmth or slickness, rather it accentuates Zhang's hollow existence. Only in the dance sequence he lends any kind of emotion for the audience. The greatness of this sad/funny dance number is about the same as Denis Lavant's in the ending sequence of Beau Travail. Diao's China, the Beijing Olympics still 4 years away, is still very much provincial ("Who brought in a horse in my apartment?"), yet fast changing and cold-hearted. More dynamic than Lou Ye's Mystery or Jia's Touch of Sin, Black Coal, Thin Ice announces the arrival of another major auteur in Chinese cinema. I gotta track down Diao Yinan's two other films ASAP.