Friday, September 28, 2018

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

Ash is Purest White (2018) - Jia
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An epic melodrama spanning 17 years, Jia Zhangke's new film, Ash is 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 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.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Birds of Prey

Figures in a Landscape (1970) - Losey
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Two English men are first seen running, with their hands tied behind their backs, from the relentless pursuit by a hellicopter. There is no explanation as to why or how or what. Figures in a Landscape is one of those 70s wtf movies steeped in metaphor that are gripping and hypnotizing nonetheless.

Robert Shaw (who also wrote the screenplay) along with young Malcolm McDowell, does amazing amount of cadio in an unnamed, rugged countryside (by looking at olive trees and snowy mountains at the end, my guess is Italy). After raiding a village at night, killing some villagers to steal some food, clothes and a rifle, the fugitives still find themselves the prey to the bird above. Things get more tense after Mac (Shaw) methodically shoots down one of the pilots off the copter. Now there is an army with automatic weapons pursuing their tracks along with the copter. With their visors firmly stuck in their faces, all the pursuers are silent and nameless.

Mac has no scruples about killing people but the young man is morally conflicted. Mac angrily accuses him as a hypocrite. Grinding his teeth and snarling, Mac is a great precursor to Quinn in Jaws. He even showcases his loony sense of humor when things go dire - as they are cornered in what it looks like a sugarcane field with the copter firebombing from above and angry farmers trying to put out the fire by releasing water from the irrigation dam, the duo has to resort to crawling in the muddy field surrounded by inferno. What does Mac do? He catches a little snake, waving around like a lunatic, happy as a clam.

The hellicopter serves as a dominating force - an oppressive government or a dictator, a bird of prey, toying with you from above with its absolute power until it comes in for the kill. As they approach an arbitrary border to freedom in the snowy mountain, Mac's obsession - bringing down that symbol of oppression - a copter/a shark from above, takes over, even if it means costing your life. Visceral and oddly captivating, Figures in a Landscape is a very interesting film.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Anti-Thesis of an American Film

Moonlight (2016) - Jenkins
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I haven't seen this up until now. I'm a bad person I know. Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins, is the antithesis of everything an American movies is- loud, overwritten and flat. Obvious influence here is films of WKW, to the point of almost distracting. Still, it owes a lot to its visual and aural landscape. Let's face it, no one is going to see a poor gay black boy on screen however authentic the film is. But despite all the stylings, the film's authenticity comes from its characters. There are no voice overs or heavy handed monologues. Jenkins lightly sketches out the three stages of life of Chiron, unsure of his identity and his place in the world and important people in his life. And it's those things unsaid, negative spaces, sporadic dialog that give the film its emotional heft. The ending is just about perfect.

It's a beautiful film. Can't wait to see If Beale Street Could Talk.