Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'Tis a Pity, No Elephant

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) - Hu
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Its a day in a grey and cold border town in China. With always moving camera with long takes, the film closely trails the lives 4 of its citizen's ultra depressing lives. There is a bullied high school boy (Peng Yuchang) with unsympathetic parents, a local gang leader (Zhang Yu) who is out to get the boy after his younger bully brother gets pushed down the stairs and dies, a classmate/love interest (Wang Uvin) of the boy, whose afraid of her affair with vice principal ever being discovered and an old man whose family is passive=aggressively pushing him to go to a retirement home. Suicide of a jilted lover, death of a pet dog, uploaded scandalous video and social media stigma, betrayed friendship, their lives never lets up.

Director/writer Hu Bo portrays these down in luck, relentlessly bleak lives with much empathy and tenderness. Honestly I didn't think I would like An Elephant Sitting Still. But after an hour and a half in, I was drawn to their flight, their impossible, inescapable situations. With very intimate, highly subjective camera and lens work, An Elephant achieves a rare familiarization with the audiences. Its one day in the life of... premise really works to the benefit of its 4 hour running time. There is even Nolan style (but not used as a stupid plot device) time bending with character story lines crossing, overlapping timelines.

It's a substantial human drama with deeply felt characters with their crushed, burdened souls. The idea of using an immobile circus elephant (which never materializes on screen) as a wised out Buddha who silently observes human follies play out around him as some sort of metaphor for happiness/salvation has a direct lineage from that of a whale in Werkmeister Harmonies. It's better off that we don't get to see it. Only hear its roar during its end credit, just like that that donkey's cry in the beginning of Au Hasard Balthazar. The beast of hopes and dreams. The beast of burden. An Elephant Sitting Still is beautifully tragic. And it a major film that came out in recent years that I can recall.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Art of Seeing

Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976) - Wenders
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A man drives his volkswagon bug into a lake while another man, preparing his morning shave in his van, looks on. The man in the volkswagon emergies from the water with a dripping suitcase, strikes up the conversation with the man with a van who happens to be a traveling film reel deliveryman/projectionist. They take off together in the van. So starts Wenders' ultimate road movie KIngs of the Road.

Clocking at 2 hours 48 minutes, this leisurely paced, sort of midlife crises movie encompasses a lot of Wenders' preoccupation in his long illustrious filmography - desire to love, Germany's war past, rootlessness, American rock'n'roll, aversion to sex and violence in films, etc.

It would be a hard sell in this day and age to pitch the idea of where two complete strangers going on a long journey together without revealing their backgrounds or their innermost thoughts. But that's exactly what this film is - short on backstories, mutual unspoken understanding of heterosexual male anxiety in the material world Germany in the mid 70s.

It is revealed in the middle that Robert the Kamikaze (because he rammed his car directly into water, played by Hanns Zischler) who has left his wife and is afraid to call her, has also some unfinished business with his type-setter father, whom he visits. Then there is Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) the traveling projectionist and recurring character in many of Wenders' films. However rootless, traveling from small town to small town, floating through life, Winter has no worries in the world. He is also a walking contradiction - He wants to connect and love but he also wants to be left alone. He visits where he grew up, a dilapidated house on the river Rhine, and while kamikaze sleeps, he cries on the edge of the river.

Kings of the Road is a snapshot of Germany's post-war generation from a male perspective. They are silent, emasculated types who has trouble expressing their feelings. There is no conviction in Robert exclaiming "Yanks have colonized our subconscious!" while listening to rock'n'roll, either. It's that mutual silence and understanding that bond them together.

Oddly, for a film about projectionist, Kings isn't about cinema. It's more to do with changing times. Typesetter, projectionist, these dying professions are regarded fondly with much melancholy. It ends with Winter visiting a shuttered theater. The owner laments that her late father would not allow to show 'whatever passes as film nowadays'. 'Film used to mean art of seeing.' A lot of pregnant silences in Kings of the Road. Things left unspoken. Art of seeing it is. We see a lot of mundane stuff - casual male nudity, shitting, jerking off, vomiting, making coffee, driving, sleeping, etc. And it's us who needs to find meaning in everyday life.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Journey Not a Destination

Notes from a Journey (2019) - Fawcett, Pais
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Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais, a pair of experimental filmmakers who describe themselves as two halves of a one artist, present their latest work, Notes from a Journey: a travelogue of sorts filled with startling visual and aural landscapes. And it's a thing of beauty - an examination of internal psyche through nature and vice versa. It's a great companion piece to their Studio Diaries, a series of 100 visual essays documenting their creative processes for a period of time.

Notes from a Journey starts out like a typical travelogue. We see the horizon from the train window. It's various English pastoral of greens and yellows. It's comforting to follow the outlines of the gentle hills. The uninterrupted outline of the hills and lulls of the locomotive give the sense of calm and continuation. Then the thin red line appears, going across the frame. The background color slowly changes from sky blue to black then back to blue. The line's angle changes and it moves up and down. It tricks your vision as if the line is not straight. There are hues, there are textures, there are natural and artificial soundscapes.

There is a shift in the middle of the film. The double exposure of a thorny trees with scathing noise changes the perspective of the film from our passive pair observing to them on the forefront. We see them searching and listening with modern equipment in their tent at night. What are they looking for? Merely recording the sound of nature at night, a paranormal activity, a reenactment of what field zoologist do...? We are still at the infancy of the great visual & aural medium. Daniel & Clara makes a point that they are always searching.

It's not the destination but it's the journey. Daniel & Clara flip through the pictures of countless standing rocks of Avebury, lay them down on the bed. It's as if they are searching for something solid, something permanent, something that will ground them. Silbury Hill in Avebury, a landmark prominently featured many times in the film, shot in different methods and formats is a man-made monument from ancient times. It's physicality and presence is tremendous, yet it is artificial. Whatever we see and feel solid and permanent, they are not. We see the silhouette of Daniel & Clara's sharp features in the dark room, then there is smoldering smoke hanging above the bed. Notes from a Journey reminds you that the illusive el dorado of cinema is not the destination but the journey itself.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Preview: Panorama Europe 2019

Museum of Moving Image (MoMI) hosts the 11th edition of Panorama Europe, showcasing current crop of best European films- both narrative and documentary works. The series presents a portrait of contemporary Europe during a period of tremendous flux. Also, though some of the films are by established directors many are by first-time and emerging artists, and 9 of the 17 films presented here are directed by women.

This year's lineup includes Mademoiselle Paradis, involving blind pianist protege and Dr. Mesmer, Fugue, a new film by Agnieszka Smoczyńska (The Lure) and Several Conversations about a Very Tall Girl, an intimate Romanian lesbian romance in the age of social media.

Panorama Europe runs May 3rd through 19th.

A Festival Pass (good for all MoMI screenings) is available for $50. All films will be shown in their original languages with English subtitles.

Here are four outstanding films I had a chance to see:

Madmeoiselle Paradis - Barbara Albert **Opening Night Film
Madmoiselle Paradis
Maria Dragus (Graduation, The White Ribbon) gives a virtuosic performance as Therese Paradis, a blind pianist protege in 1777 Vienna in Barbara Albert's period piece.

Therese, a young woman who became blind at young age, is administered to the care of Dr. Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow), a controversial figure, whose idea of animal magnetism that there is natural energy transference among all living creatures, still met with skepticism in Viennese social circle. But thanks to his unusual method, Therese slowly regains her sight, albeit fragile and weak still. All the new stimuli interferes her playing piano and her parents who are more worried about losing her disability pensions bestowed by the queen, scolds her that she is better off being blind.

Young and naive, Therese needs not only to contend with her newfound sense but also social, sexual and class dynamics. Also she is pushed to question her purpose in life for the first time. Albert expertly demonstrates the disparity in treatment and struggles of those who are disabled in the 18th century.

3 Days in Quiberon - Emily Atef
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Romy Schneider, a luminous movie star of the 60s and 70s, died at age 43. In her private life, unlike her coquettish on-screen persona, she struggled with fraught relationships, family tragedies and alcoholism and hounded by tabloids. Filmmaker Emily Atef and actress Marie Bäumer tackle the brief days of her life a year before her death, when she was being treated at a spa in Brittany. Based on the interview and a photoshoot she gave to a German magazine crew in Quiberon, Atef builds an intimate, humanistic and respectful portrayal of a tortured artist.

Bäumer's uncanny resemblance to the late actress only enhances her soulful performance. Her Frau Schneider is a guilt stricken workaholic mom, fragile lover, victim of her own fame, broken soul by tragedies and who yearned to be left alone. The film also stars Charly Hübner as the photographer/former lover, Robert Gwisdek as a sharky reporter, Briggitt Minichmayr (Everything Else) as Schneider's best friend and Denis Lavant shows up as a superfan who ends up drinking and playing accordion together.

Several Conversations about a Very Tall Girl - Bogdan Theodor Olteanu
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Bogdan Theodor Olteanu's simple lesbian romance in the social media age hits all the right notes. Mainly dependent on two leading actresses Silvana Mihai and Florentina Nastase, Olteanu sketches out the beginning and end of a new short relationship as intimate and real as one can be. The two nameless women - Mihai as an older, urbane film student who is more experienced of the two and Nastase as a fresh faced web content writer from the countryside, bond over Facetime with their former shared fling - a very tall girl. They meet irl and start seeing each other. In the beginning, it's tender and sweet. But soon the shier, passive younger woman, after aggressive advances from the older one, withdraws herself, telling the other to be patient. Their budding relationship seems all too real and spontaneous.

The film student's video documents of her friends - a lesbian couple seen in the above picture gives the performance aspect of human relations, as a film within a film. But unlike other meta themed movies, that aspect of the film doesn't overshadow the relationship of its characters which feels genuine and real.

Olteanu and co.'s portrayal of homosexual relationship is an astute reflection of a country still very much steeped in traditions in modern age and a tender, intimate take on a slice of life.


Extinction - Salomé Lamas
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Falling somewhere between Chris Marker and Ben Russell's work, Portuguese director Salomé Lamas' 'parafiction' Extinction charts the complicated history of Transnistria which fell victim to be an unrecognized state after the dissolution of USSR. With a young man named Kolya, the unseen crew travels travels through borders, accompanied by monologues and unseen conversations at various checkpoints that give some background about ominous influences Russia holds in the region.

Shot in grainy black and white with old Russian architecture, Extinction gives that distinctive cold war era dystopian Sci-fi vibe even though it concerns the present and real life situation. Lamas examines the concept of borders in people who belongs to a country that is semi-permanently in limbo. But instead of being didactic, she raises more questions and asks audience's active participation in answering those questions.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Preview: Art of the Real 2019

As an adventurous spectator of cinema who writes about films and very much interested in where cinema is headed as an art form, I can say enough that Art of the Real, a film series that showcases innovative, daring, non-narrative films, has been a great wealth of resource and a place of discovery over the years.

Since its inception in 2013, Art of the Real at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center has been celebrating genre-bending, non-narrative filmmaking. In its 6th year, the series presents new such works by filmmakers from around the world, plus retrospective by Japanese experimental filmmaker Toshio Matstumoto's non fiction work and a tribute to the late Lebanese filmamker Jocelyne Saab. If you are a curious about the possibilities of cinema as an art form, and hungry for something new and thought provoking as well as entertaining, Art of the Real series is the place to be.

The series runs 4/18 - 4/28. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.


Closing Time
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Swiss filmmaker Nicole Vögele's observational film Closing Time focuses on a tiny late night food stall owned by Mr. Kuo and Mrs. Lin, under freeway overpass in Taipei. The film leisurely explores the surroundings of this night neighborhoods - an arcade parlor owned by a young couple, a dollar store next door, a wayward dog waiting for its long lost owner, a late night/early morning market where Mr. Kuo shops. Stragglers converse over a rice porridge with side dishes about the weather - the recent strong typhoon destroyed domestic produce, leaving not too much choices for Mr. Kuo to shop for ingredients, about the changing neighborhoods, about working too much... The couple prepares and cooks 6 nights a week. We barely get to see them in daytime. The sky is always dawn violet, the street is filled with thousands of mopeds, traffic lights and signs of the shops reflected on the puddles, with the sounds of the night. You get used to the rhythm of this working class microcosm. It's quiet and somnambulistic.

On his moped, Mr Kuo takes off on the road in the later part of the film and ends up in a small town down in the south of the country. We don't know what conspired for him to take this path. Was he tired of his daily routine? Did he want to get away? Don't matter. We are afforded to a lush scenery of Taiwan's countryside. Beautifully composed in Super 16mm in a rainy season of Taiwan, Closing Time is a contemplative film shedding a light on a part of the world that rarely gets attention.


Those Who Desire
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Valencia in southern Spain is a home of the Colombicultura, an exclusively male subculture where brightly colored male pigeons train and compete. Filmmaker Elena López Riera who grew up in the region, documents one of these competitions. The lone female pigeon is released in the air. Soon all male pigeons take to the air, chasing after her. There are amazing amount of rules and all these judges with walkies, watch intently every single move of these horny pigeons. It's not the speed, the narrator say, but lust and ability to conquer. I don't know what that means exactly. We see the swarm of pigeons in the air, on the ground. It's an orgiastic sight. But the competition ends due to bad weather before anything is determined.

Those Who Desire is the grossest projection of macho culture I've ever seen, but it's also fascinating.


Karelia: International with Monument
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Karelia, the Northwest republic of The Russian Federation, bordering Finland has a rich cultural, political history. It had been occupied by Sweden, Finland and Russia. Spanish filmmaker Andrés Duque tries to link the cultural significance- the origins of Finnish epic where legends and magic with today's Karelia and ends up with documenting Orthodox Christian family, the Pankratevs, living in the remote area surrounded by nature, practicing some of the shamanism rituals handed down from generations. This first part of planned two part film about the region, Duque also digs up the not so flattering history of Stalin era massacres that took place in the same woods where Pankratev children play, and the Putin regime's effort to rewrite the history. Interesting history lesson contrasts with idylic family life in Karelia.


Movement of a Nearby Mountain
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Movement of a Nearby Mountain starts with a narration which tells a water fairy who was captured by hunters. In order to free from impending enslavement, the fairy promises the eternal riches pointing to the mountains. Iron. "Gold lasts a breath, silver lasts a lifetime and iron lasts forever". Soon as fairy was let go, it disappears into the water laughing. Its laughter forever lingering in the forest. This narrations repeats at the end of the film. Once in German, the other in Igbo.

Cliff is a Nigerian man who owns and operates a chopshop in the Austrian Alps. He works there, cooks and eats there, shaves there - seems like his spends his waking life there. He buys cars, refurbishes, sells them whole or parts and also exports them to Nigeria. He deals with Hungarians and other Eastern European customers, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. Sometimes things heat up haggling the prices, but he seems to have his usual customers and well liked. But he is usually alone, spending days working. He sings Christian hymns under his breath.

We see a man of two worlds, bound by metal. The chorus of insects in the Nigerian jungle at night carries over the driving shot in the snowy Austrian Alps on autobahn. Sebastian Brameshuber's contemplation on these contrasts and the intimate portrait of one man against the stunning forest backdrop speaks volumes without saying much.


Swarm Season
Swarm Season
Hawaii's Big Island at a glance, is both a paradise and hellscape: the luscious vegetation along the coast contrasting vast black volcanic field created by overflowing volcanic activity inland that resembles the surface of Mars. Filmmaker Sarah Christman examines the intersection of elemental and superficial, nature and technology, ancient traditions and development, looking inward and space exploration, extinction and survival through the eyes of Manu, a preteen girl and her family who are in beekeeping business.

Manu helps out with her mom's honey producing by tracking wild bees and locating their beehives and relocating them. But she is also an average girl of her age, playing with My Little Pony toys in the sand and daydream while laying in the field. There are biologists collecting queen bees from the hives to study their swarming patterns and their survival.

Manu's dad is a tribal activist protesting the construction of another large telescope on top of the sacred volcanic mountain, Mauna Kea (13,803 ft). Then there is a group of astronaut training for Mars exploration in isolation on the mountain- ideal training ground because of similar climate (lack of oxygen and rough, barren terrain).

Swarm Season features some spectacular scenery of molten lava flowing out to sea, miles of barren black field created by volcanic eruptions, the underwater explosions as well as intimate tender moments with Manu and her family. The film's philosophical musings and seeing the bigger picture don't overshadow its anthropological study of its people and surroundings. It's a great film.


Accession
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I've seen filming process as germination in one other film recently. It was Anocha Suwichakornpong's superb By the Time It Gets Dark. Where as the idea of film relating to germination was more of metaphorical one in By the Time, Tamer Hassan, Armand Yervant Tufenkian's Accession is more of a literal one. 13 correspondences in letter form about sending seeds are read mostly by someone related to the persons who wrote it, in various places and times in America, over the lovely hand processed 16mm footage. There are no other diegetic sound or effects sound to accompany these images and the narrations.

Accession is a testament of America as an agricultural society. Seed keeping, passed down to generations in families, is a dying tradition, so is the celluloid. Bringing forth new life year after year and the nurturing those who sow is somewhat equated here with the tradition of filming and creative process of so called 'experimental films'. Lovely, melancholic and resonant, Accession is a lovely piece of cinema.


Acid Forest
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Curonian Spit, a scenic peninsula in Lithuania is a Unesco Heritage site. It's also the home of Curonian Spit, a scenic peninsula in Lithuania is a Unesco Heritage site. It's also the home of Acid Forest, a swat of forests full of dead pine trees occupied by thousands of big, black, migrating cormorants who made those trees their homes. It's a tourist attraction. There is an elevated wooden platform to take in the scenery. Many tourists from all over the world climb up the wooden stairs to witness the devastating view. They all have something to say in their native language. Some comments that it looks like a nuclear fallout, or tornado aftermath. The guide explains to gaggle of Japanese tourists that trees died of the birds shitting on them constantly, to their amazement. Some invokes Hitchcock's Birds.

Many of these observations and amateur theories are downright hostile. Many jokes about having a gun and shooting them all down. Many complain that the birds are protected by the EU laws. Filmmaker Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė observes all the human activities from above, from a bird's eye view. Constant fly over shots of the whitened branches of the pine trees reveal thousands of these birds making home in Curonian Spit, oblivious of human crowing with their opinions down below.

A biologist is heard explaining to a TV crew that many of misconception about the birds are untrue, making a point that cormorants have existed since the ages of dinosaurs and it's not only their droppings that kill the forests. But we see the human interference at the end as we control much of our nature's destiny, unfortunately.


Walden
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Walden consists of 13 slow 360° controlled panning shot from left to right. Each shot lasts about 10 minutes. It starts from Austrian forest where trees a being cut down with a buzz saw. Then the lumber is transported by trains, trucks, boats all the way to the Amazon, the lumber is finally transported by hands deep into the jungle. The film can be a slog for someone craving for a narrative or character to hold on to, but the key here is giving yourself up to the flow as the panning, moving picture creates its own steady velocity.

Each stage strategically stationed and shot in wide format and 50 fps for maximum coverage and the smooth movement, Swiss filmmaker Daniel Zimmerman's film takes an ironic, paradoxical look at a journey of timber in a global economy we are living in, done in a vigorously formalist approach.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Interview: Bi Gan on Long Day's Journey into Night

Bi Gan
There are many talented young filmmakers out there but no one impressed me with their first couple of highly ambitious and accomplished films like a 30-year old Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan did. The sheer technical prowess and visual and literal poetry of his debut film Kaili Blues in 2015 left me speechless. And ever since its debut at Cannes last year, Bi's sophomore effort, Long Day's Journey into Night had become, even before I found out that the last half of the film was shot in one continuous take in 3D, my most anticipated film of 2018. When I finally saw it at NYFF, I was in cinema heaven.

Cut from the same philosophical cloth as Resnais and Tarkovsky and his visual language llneage traces back to that of Hitchicock, Lynch and Wong Kar Wai, watching Bi's film feels like a waking dream and unlike any other film experience I've had previously.

The film became an unlikely success in mainland China, thanks to its distributor's sly marketing campaign last winter, enraging many moviegoers who were expecting a linear narrative romance that is shot in 3D.

So without further a do, here is my conversation with Bi Gan:

Screen Anarchy: I watched the film at last year’s NYFF. It was definitely my favorite film last year. Even though I don’t want to ask you about technical questions, I can’t help being overwhelmed by its mesmerizing visuals. Obviously I am talking about uncut the last 57 minute 3D portion of the film. What I’m wondering is, 3D technology is usually used by filmmakers to give the audience the experience close to reality. But here you are using it to the opposite effect. You are trying to emulate a dream. How did this idea come about? And what do you make of the 3D technology?

Bi Gan: My first film Kaili Blues was about time. So when I decided to make the next film, I kept going back to the ideas of dreams and memories. I thought about what would be the best way to express that. Then I thought I would find it maybe in 3D. Of course in the past, when they use that kind of technology, it’s mostly in commercial films. Art films were not utilizing 3D in that way, except for some experimental films. I wanted to combine art film and 3D to portray dreams. I thought 3D would be best suited for portraying more ‘realistic reality’ of a dream in a long take just because the whole sequence is in night time and it’s a long night. I wanted us to lose ourselves in this different dimension. So even though the film is only a hundred and twenty minutes, when we think back to it, it is very much like our memory which is three dimensional and that’s how I wanted to portray it and also have the audience experience it after the fact like a lingering memory.

It was a big box office success in China for a small indie film. How did that happen? Were you surprised by its success?

When I did Kaili Blues, I made it with nothing. Yet it made several millions locally at the box office. People around me were pretty surprised that the film became kind of a minor success. In terms of this film's release, I wasn’t surprised at the box office considering how they promoted the film- as a romance film, but what was surprising for me was after people have watched it, they told me ‘you are not a crossover director. You are still just an arthouse director.’ Hearing that gave me a jolt of self-check because I was made to believe that I was an art house director whose work has a crossover appeal, back to just an art house director. I was put in place. (laughs)

The audience might have been sold short on romance, but I’d like to think that your film is a game changer for Chinese independent cinema. It seems like a different landscape now than the 1990s and 2000s when Jia Zhangke started making films. Is there a bigger market and support for independent films in China?

For general audience, they just want to know whether the film is good or not. It’s not about whether my film is an art house film. So when a film like Long Day is released, the audience doesn’t quite understand what to make of it. For a lot of them, this film is the first film they watch that is not a widely seen commercial movie. And so they still might not accept it. But at least they watched it. So that’s kind of a positive step.

But there are so many movie theaters in China at the moment, doesn't that allow more room for art house films to be shown?

More screens don’t mean that they will be showing art house films. It simply means there are more screens to show more commercial movies, So no. there are still less opportunities to show anything other than commercial movies.

I have to ask, how many takes did you do of that single take?

The sequence took two tries to make it happen. The first time we did three takes. It took one to two month of preparation and all of those takes did not work. So we had to go back in and prepare all over again. So the second time around, it was five takes and it wasn’t until the last two takes that we succeeded and it was the final take that we see on the screen.

Aside from all the technical stuff, shooting it at night and in the rain, was it a difficult shoot for you?

For me, filmmaking is always hard. So at the end of the day, I achieve something worthwhile then that is good enough for me. But the hardest one was the 3D night shoot. 2D shots we could adjust lighting but for the 3D one take, we had to prep everything way in advance and you can’t move anything around so it was a very stressful experience. Because of lighting master Wang Ju Ming, we were able to accomplish what you saw on the screen in 3D.

Due to loose narrative, was it a challenge for the actors?

During the script level I was already working with the actors. I was describing what I want them to be doing. But it was a collaborative thing where I constantly asked them questions. It was the same even on set, to develop character traits and movement and stuff like that. There is a sequence where an actor is eating an apple, that was a decided on set and was a very last minute, very collaborative decision. I like the film set to be very relaxed. I want actors to be relaxed. I try to have a relaxed, collaborative environment as much as possible.

Kaili looks mysterious and romantic at night. Is it like that only in your films or does it really have some mysterious properties?

So when my friends come to visit Kaili, they feel like I lied to them about what Kaili looks like. I mean, what you see on screen is a dream version loosely based on memories. But in real life Kaili is a 4th tier province in China. It’s very modern. The good news about being in there is within twenty to thirty minutes you can drive down a winding roads to beautiful rivers. The sky is very blue and beautiful. But other than that, it’s a pretty much any other modern city with all the urban comforts you can find anywhere.

Oh damn. Really? That's disappointing.

Yeah I lied to you with my films.

Can you talk about the significance of the color in the film? There is the color of green - the green book, the green dress. Then there is red.

When I was setting up the film, I wanted to set up the color for characters. I thought green would be a good color to represent the female lead. And as her personality changes to something more realistic, I wanted to slowly evolve it to red. In classic mysterious female characters in films, whenever the door opens they disappear in to the background. Kaili itself is pretty green in general and so I liked the idea of her being in that green dress so she can disappear whenever into the background.

Love that canto pop, Reason to be Strong (by Karen Mok) and that melancholic Japanese song (by Naoko Ken) at the end. How did you decide on those songs?

Quite simple. I grew up listening to those songs. And I wanted them put in my movie.

Those are excellent, excellent choices. So what’s next for you?

I just started to write. I don’t know what it’s going to turn in to yet. I am in the process of writing things down.

Please keep making art films and I think the film is really tremendous and I hope the film makes a lot of money so you can make more art films. I thank you for talking to me.

Thank you. I will work really hard to make the next film.

Long Day's Journey into Night has a limited release on 4/12. Check Kino Lorber website for the city near you.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Shallow Us

Us (2019) - Peele
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Jordan Peele's follow up to Get Out is not what I expected. It is still cartoonish in its horror tropes with pop culture references, but it's far more sophisticated than the no justice, no peace poverty porn of the 90s gangsta movies. While the inner city/rural poverty and systematic racism of the powers that be vastly remains in America, it is also true that so called middle class in this country can afford material goods and convenience of the smart phones and cable TV.

Peele, a comedian with his middle class upbringing and films that reflects post-Obama cool nerd sensibility, puts the middle class, African-American Wilson family at the film's center. The film clues you in with the title card in the beginning, saying that there are vast network of underground tunnels in America. It segues into 1986 when MJ still ruled and Hands Across America campaign (one of those celebrity fed kumbaya session to end poverty campaign) adorned the TV tube (if it was We Are the World instead, Us would've been a very different movie).

It's present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her goofy husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children Zora and Jason start their Summer vacation at their Summer home near Santa Cruz. Adelaide is uneasy about jogging through her childhood memory - she got lost in a Santa Cruz pier in 86', ended up in a haunted house attraction and saw her double in the mirror room. She tells her husband that the experience haunted her whole life and believes her double is still out their to get her. Soon after that, a heavily back-lit family in the manner of Hands Across America style appears at their front yard. And Us becomes a home invasion movie with the doppelgangers trying to kill the Wilsons.

It turns out only Adelaide's double can speak, albeit stuttering, out of breath fashion, telling her that it is a reckoning long in the making. After they manage to get away, they find their friends, more affluent white family, also had been attacked and murdered by their doubles. The spotty TV signal tells that it's a nationwide phenom. This is where Us fails to be more relevant.

Smart and quick witted, Peele knows when he needs to be obvious - title Us also doubles as US, as above so below/mirror image concept, a guy holding Jeremiah 11:11 sign, NWA's Fuck da Police blasts from Alexa like device (Police is 14 minutes away) in a pivotal moment, and when to be subtle - ok, not really. There are clever moments like Adelaide telling her white friends that black people don't have time to do frivolous shit (I forget what the conversation was about), suggesting the larger context that black movies can't afford melodramas because that would be a luxury. Or Gabe impulsively buy a used boat which is named B-yacht'chy. Also liked that Peele didn't overlit his actors, especially Nyong'o whose very dark complexion gives her more time to act with her expressive eyes.

But I don't believe allegory and horror genre are enough to tell the whole story of racial AND economic injustice in this country. And I don't think whatever the elevation the genre has been garnering as high art, it can't express the corruption of humanity by capitalism wholely.

I always thought if there was a shake up in social order in this country, it would be borne out of the racial injustices, not the economic one. Have we passed that stage of overcoming racism already? Is it really possible that Bernie's populism has a real chance to win because he combines that rare racial, cultural social class divide? Or am I just still a pessimistic old man overly cautious? Us isn't a masterpiece. Peele taps into the zeitgeist and makes it entertaining, but his films still stays as a Twilight Zone level, safe entertainment.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

László Nemes' Sunset is a Cerebral, Dazzling Study of Chaotic Times

Napszállta/Sunset (2018) - Nemes
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László Nemes' follow up to haunting holocaust drama Son of Saul, Sunset is yet another period film that is an equally challenging, equally powerful, heady masterpiece. And it’s still early in the year, but it’s definitely a film to beat.

It tells a story of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young heiress to her famous hat-maker parents who perished in a fire. She came to Budapest, to her parents' hat-making showroom/shop to get a job as a lowly milliner. But the manager of the shop Oszkár (played by great Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Police Adjective and Snow Piercer) doesn't want her there, saying the city is not for a country girl like her. But Írisz is determined to stay and claim her birthright.

What’s intriguing about Sunset is its setting and specific time period. The year is 1913, not long after the industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, hurtling rapidly toward social and political chaos that caused World War I, the war to end all wars, where 16 million souls perished. It was also the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Soon Írisz finds herself in the chaotic social upheaval where socialists, communists, anarchists, monarchists, ultra-nationalists and cultists all want to get a piece of the action. Violent confrontations spill out on to the streets and dangers and mysteries are around every corner, where nothing is what it seems and everything is deeply layered.

Írisz finds the family secret that her brother she thought she never had is still alive and might be the leader of an underground violent anarchist group eager to eliminate who he deems as members of elite class, including Oszkàr. Does she choose to follow her misplaced allegiance to Oszkàr or her mysterious long lost brother and his murderous plot to topple social order?

Nemes keeps his Son of Saul’s subjective perspective here, focusing closely on Írisz on steadicam, following her exclusively. It makes a startlingly absorbing theater experience. As well as the visuals, Nemes put an emphasis on creating soundscapes that reflects the tumultuous times with disorienting, off the frame whispers, conversations and an altogether ominous soundtrack.

Sunset juxtaposes a society on the brink of self-destruction with something trivial and decadent as a designer hat shop. There is something creepy about all the beautiful, young women hat-makers preparing for the dance ball for the crown prince and princess and be chosen as a personal milliner and move to Vienna. Extremely inquisitive, Írisz tricks everyone into taking the spot of the chosen milliner and witness the rather Eyes Wide Shut-like ritual of the Austrian royals, full of conspirators and cultists.

Clueless about the whirlwind of her surroundings, but ever so curious and strong willed, Írisz is a proto-feminist in the making, bravely throwing herself into the unknown, time and time again, as an unreliable guide for us to make heads and tails out of what we are seeing and hearing and closely experiencing what it’s like to live on the eve of greatest self-destruction us humans ever perpetuated on ourselves (at that time).

Írisz tries to keep up with the rapid flow of this mercilessly changing world in order to not to get swallowed up. There is something defiant about her choices and actions throughout the film. Her endless curiosity and determination to see the world head on are something to be admired.

Nemes doesn't give an easy answer to any of these intrigues. Instead, he makes us work for it. And it’s damn well worth it. As the title indicates, the film tells a lot about human hubris and rightfully reflects on the decadent, chaotic world we lead toward the edge of extinction right now. One can read Sunset as a warning that history repeats itself. But it’s the last segment that also shows the endurance of human spirit. Let’s hope we are strong enough to withstand what’s coming for us.

Sunset opens New York and Los Angeles on 3/22. Sony Classics is releasing it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Interview: Laszlo Nemes on His Challenging, Mesmerizing New Film Sunset

Laszlo Nemes
I saw Hungarian director/writer László Nemes' sophomore film Sunset at this year's Film Comment Selects series and was blown away by it. It is just as strong as his phenomenal debut film Son of Saul, a riveting Holocaust drama that brought him awards and international recognition. Layered, complex and technically brilliant, Sunset is a challenging film that will leave an indelible mark on many year end lists as one of the best films of 2019.

I missed the chance to talk to him in New York due to his flu symptoms, but he graciously granted a skype interview at a later date. This is the how the interview went down:
So SUNSET is co-written by Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier. How was the writing process for this particular film?

Well it was strange because it’s a Hungarian film, the language is Hungarian and we were speaking French and writing it in English. We were under the influence of many languages I would say. But the thing is that Clara speaks Hungarian and Matthieu also spent quite a lot of time in Hungary. So we were bunch of outcasts in a way and eager to cooperate on the second film. Good thing is that we don’t have the exactly the same aptitudes - I am better in scene design, Clara is better at interactions and character’s psychology and Matthieu’s better at structure, so that create this back and forth dynamics that this film required.

It was a quite a lengthy process and we also had to adapt to certain situations, for example, one of the supporting actresses left the first day of the shoot so we had to change, as we were shooting, many aspects of the scenes. Writing script requires constant nourishing and development.

What I hear is that you conceived this film while you were shooting SON OF SAUL, is that right?

Yes. Yes even before that, actually. I wanted to make a film about a young woman at the turn of the century with her personal fate was reflecting the birth of the century and the turmoil of civilization.

Just for the audience who might not be familiar with the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, 1913, can you give us a little bit of a background?

Well I can’t really. I’d just like to say that we don’t need a manual for this film. You know people usually think that for historical films, period films they need some sort of manual or explanation but our approach to the film was not political, not societal - the ones that you recreate sort of historical facts or atmosphere. We wanted it to be about this one person going through this turmoil, not really seeing the cause of it or seeing it through from beginning to the end.

I feel that history takes place and you don’t have the control over the situation. That being said, that’s what is in the beginning of the film in the title card that this takes place before WWI in a civilization, in a country, in a kingdom, with many nationalities and many languages. That we are in a world of dual kingdom where multiple ethnic groups coexisted. I guess you can say that was the world full of promises but we knew what happened. WWI and then WWII that brought us the sad end of those promises and the end of civilization, so to speak. So that was all you need to know, really.

That’s what I liked about the film. Just going in there without any kind of specific prior knowledge about the region, but it was invigorating for me watching this and thinking about all the things that are going on around the character of Ìrisz (played by Julie Jakab).

Wanted to ask you about the consistency of the subjective view of the world through one central character. How you film this is very distinctive. Is this always the case when you do a film?

That’s how I did it for Son of Saul and Sunset, but that doesn’t mean I will always do it that way. Just that I am really interested in the limitations of human beings as opposed to giving an impression of a god-like perspective.

Ah, I see.

More and more I have that impression in cinema, through television and the internet. Multiplication of angles, you know, high angle shots that give the audience a voyeur’s position, giving you that safe distances at the same time giving god-like power over the whole situation you are seeing in front of you. It gives you a false sense of power.

I just wanted to go back to the core of human perception. That’s what really interests me because that’s how we really experience the world and there are limitations in our perceptions. We are in the labyrinth of our lives. We don’t always have the key to see the world. I wanted to approach this film with this person who doesn’t have the key to the understanding of the world and how she copes with that. There is this rebellion in that I wanted to make the viewer out of the comfort zone a little bit.

Is the technology advancement like VR experience of any interest to you?

Well I don’t know. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t exist. I’m just saying that our brain is a way of virtual experience and there is much more to explore before we all become slaves of the technology. (we laugh) And I do think we are becoming slaves to technology and to the computers, you know. I’m not sure if you saw the film on 35mm at the Lincoln Center or…

Yes, I did.

OK, so you see what difference in experience can be when you have the chemical, physical, mechanical grounding in the world as opposed to everything being virtual. I think it’s a serious question and I am worried about that.

Is that why you continue to shoot on film?

Yes. I really like the look and feel of film. That’s what I really think how cinema should defend itself rather than trying to be television and beat it at that ground game. It’s not gonna happen. I truly believe that shooting on film and seeing it on the big screen is something you can’t replicate at home. People feel the proximity of film when they see it in theaters.

As you mentioned, Ìrisz doesn’t know what exactly going on. But she is fearless - she just jumps in to whatever is out there. That’s why I was fascinated by the character. I know that she was in SON OF SAUL. Is that how you cast Julie Jakab in SUNSET?

Yes I knew her and I wanted to work with her. The secrets that existed in her own personality, the sorrows that she has in her own life - she had major catastrophes in her own life, that I think she conveyed through this invisible link to the audience. I think that resonates in her character. Ìrisz has a hard time understanding herself and that she remains a mystery and I think Julie also has been a mystery to me. It’s not a performance based acting that I was looking for. It was something more invisible in a way that creates much more…I don’t know, ‘metaphysical link’ to the audience. It may not be satisfying in the usual acting way with the good moment, with the right moment while watching the film. But she, I think, creates an aura that goes beyond the dimension of the film that can resonate after the viewing.

It’s in her eyes. I could see it in her searching glances.

That’s good.

She is great. But one thing that struck me was that how Jakab could tie SON OF SAUL and SUNSET together somehow. That her character in SON OF SAUL could be the daughter of Ìrisz. Was it intentional?

I think it was more unconscious in retrospect. It is interesting to be pointed out as I said at the Q & A, that this girl in this beautiful hat in this beautiful setting has the same face in the most desperate human situation in WWII. Yet how we arrived there is something of a mystery. Anyway it creates another reflection on the part of the viewer when they see both films.

It really worked, for me, at least.

Another great actor Vlad Ivanov known for his Romanian films (FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS, POLICE, ADJECTIVE and SNOWPIERCER) is a big part of SUNSET. How did you cast him? I didn’t know he spoke Hungarian.

It’s interesting. Vlad had to learn his lines.

Really, wow.

He really did. It was a heroic, tremendous effort and I am extremely grateful for that. He is an incredible actor. He has an incredibly disciplined way of acting. I wanted to work with him for a while. In a way, I wrote the part for him. I really thought from the beginning that he was the right person for this role.

He also has a layers that are difficult to decipher and I really wanted to have this imbalance for the viewer not to be able to categorize him or put him on one side or another, same as Irisz can’t be easily categorized. It was a good opportunity for me to put the viewers in that position.

I always take each actor as a person and work with that energy of this one person. What I learned from Bela Tarr is that we need to find the person before you find the actor.

With your two films, your visual style widely regarded as arresting and mesmerizing. But the sound design in Sunset is nothing short of brilliant as well. How important is the sound for you when you make a film?

It’s very important. For me it’s half of the film. I really believe that. I also believe that sound is not just there to replicate what is already present in the image. We can go beyond that into the invisible, psychological realm and also into the spirit of the film through the soundscape. We spent almost 6 month on the sound alone. Tamás (Zányi, the Sound designer for both Son of Saul and Sunset) who is a loyal companion to me and I wanted to create layers of sound around Irisz where the she loses herself in the turmoil and whirlwind of visuals but she would find more layers, new layers to lose herself in, as if she were in the labyrinth. That’s what
Sunset’s soundscape suggests and reinforces. That way we can really have an access to her mind. It contains the very conflictual elements in her being and in her perception of the world.

There is a certain finality in naming the film SUNSET. I know it was about possibly the end of civilization as we knew it. I can totally see the relevance of that in the world we are living right now - with the rise of nationalism, Basket of Kittens and chaotic political climate globally. I am wondering if you consciously decided to make this film now.

I’d say I am very sensitive to the path that our world is on right now. I feel the sense of despair in our civilization for quite some time. I tried to go beyond the political level but there’s this metaphysical vibrations that I can feel in the world. I feel that we are petrified by our own capabilities. I don’t think mankind was able to assess, really look in to, itself. We fail to assess the potential for evil that lies within itself although the recent history, say, past 100 years or so, or take the 20th century was horrendous. Then we can see that there’s not much for optimism. Even with all the development and technological advancement have not created more humanistic society but only self-destruction or increasing desire for self-destruction. It’s always looming and I really feel that. And I guess that semi-consciously wanted to reflect on my films.

So what would be the next step for you? What are you planning?

I think I might film something in English at some point. I am looking forward to expanding myself and find other approaches to the film. It is too early to tell but am writing several things at once. I can’t talk about anything specific but I will do something in English.

Sounds good. Looking forward to it.

Sunset opens 3/22 in New York and Los Angeles.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Artist's Hell Realized

Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Bergman
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Vargtimmen tells a story of an artist struggling with isolation, paranoia and madness. The title refers to the night hours when most people die and also when most babies are born. In the black card title sequence, we hear the film crew getting the shot ready. The first scene is Alma (Liv Ullman), the pregnant wife of a recluse painter Johan (Max von Sydow), staring directly into the camera, addressing that her husband went missing. The film being the-post Persona era Bergman, it's filled to the brim with surrealist images and dream logic. Visuals are often frightening - as Johan struggles to ward off a feral child on the beach which is filmed in extreme high contrast and ends up killing the kid and dumping his body in the water. And a grotesque dinner party that reveals Johan's scandalous past and devolves into a string of ghastly sights involving an old woman pulling off her face and eyeballs, cross-dressing and necrophilia even.

It's an odd film that doesn't really give any clear statement or answers directly that Bergman wrestles with usually. It seems more personal, dealing with personal demons therefore more obscure in its presentation. It's still a very interesting experiment.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Interview: Jia Zhangke on Gangster Genre and Ash is Purest White

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With his sprawling gangster epic melodrama Ash is Purest White opening this Thursday in New York, Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of changing China, was in town and I was lucky enough to snag an interview. Spanning 17 years, Ash is a culmination of all of Jia's work, once again, starring his wife/muse, the great Zhao Tao in a performance that gathers more power and poignancy as the film goes along. The film ended up near the top of my favorite list for 2018 and everyone needs to see this beautiful film. So without further a do:

It seems you are going back to the long form storytelling with ASH IS PUREST WHITE, harkening back to your old films like PLATFORM or UNKNOWN PLEASURES rather than episodic storytelling of your past two films, A TOUCH OF SIN and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART.

So first, thinking about doing a film about underworld (Jianghu), not only as a subject but as a genre. What attracted me about those jianghu films, is about the philosophy and their codes of conduct into personal relationship, cultivation of sense of loyalty. These are the values that I wanted to examine but did’t want to somehow pinpoint one particular era or one particular time pertaining my youth or contemporary time. What I wanted to examine was how these values and philosophy of the underworld evolved and changed and eroded in these long stretch of time so I can explore the connections between these- how it had changed and shifted to pursue wealth and power in the mainstream society. That’s the reason why I decided to not only narrating this particular underworld genre and motif but also long time span of 17 years in order for me to do so.

And another point of departure is I remember that when I was young and growing up in Shanxi Province, there was a big brother character, like a Brother Bin (Liao Fan of Black Coal Thin Ice) in the film in my own neighborhood. I remember that he was strikingly handsome and very masculine and well versed in cultivating that kind of personal bond and resolving conflict. He made a huge impression on me growing up. Later when I went back home from College I saw him middle aged, squatting by the street eating a bowl of noodles. All his underlings and brothers were gone. So I think that not only examining this particular underworld genre portrayal of how they evolved and how the values have been eroded, I also wanted to see how time change and change an individual such as this particular case the head of the gang and how this person changed internally but also externally in terms of appearance. How this face aged through time. Those are the two elements I wanted to examine.

It’s interesting you say the because the big part of the film belong to Zhao Tao’s character. In some strange magic she hasn’t changed not only physically but she had this inner strength and it’s her who goes to jail for and rescues Brother Bin at the end. She was the only one who was loyal to him all throughout those years. How did you come up with that character?

I wanted to make a comparison gender-wise in jianghu and also society in general. China is a very male oriented society and that kind of principles we used to have have changed. Male population seems to be more inclined to pursue those wealth and power and lose themselves in it. And on the other hand, the female population ironically are the ones holding on to those traditional values and cultures and those principles they didn’t lose. I wanted to create those contrast in current society. I’m not saying that the past was better. I‘m just showing what is changed in society.

The film is French co-production. How was working with the French crew?

In terms of collaboration with my french partner MK2, the distribution company which I worked with past 3 films. So iI do think that gave me more options in terms of finding the talents and the people I can work with from the French side. For this particular film, the cinematographer was Eric Gautier collaborating with me for the first time. Sound mixers and also the hair and makeup were all french artists. In the past I tend to have a very close-knit crew from China. It was not so much about the funding and investment on the film that was important. It was more to do with creative team that I can pull from French side. I enjoyed a lot more that collaboration.

Was it a challenge to create that period in terms of production design?

The challenge was how to recreate this period that was seen in 2001. Because the people back in the day the way they look and their faces were completely different from how people look now. When doing the casting process I needed to make sure that I find the faces that had a bit of wear and tear, that show the ravages of time and hard work. They tended to have darker complexion and so on. Today’s young people, even if they are from the same province, same county, same hometown, they have a lighter skin tone with smoother surface - hamburger face that I constantly joke about- well-fed, well- nurtured and well protected in terms of sunblock and all that. So how I’m going to choose the right faces - actors and actresses and extras. So when I was actually positioning my main characters with all the makeup and movie magic, I was very concerned about how they would look believable so people will say yes these are indeed from 2001. So restaging of it was pretty challenging.

What’s interesting to me is that you are retracing your steps of your previous films be it Shanxi Province or Three Gorges Dam. How much have they changed since then?

So in terms of revisiting those places I previously shot my films in, instead of change of scenery that I witnessed that astonished me, it was how much it hasn’t changed for 17 years. For example, a lot of public spaces that were there are still standing, shockingly, compared with most of the 1st tier and 2nd tier mega cities- tend to demolish everything and restart completely. So the skyline would be completely different. Places like Datong and Three Gorges Dam, 17 years ago and when I made Still Life, many of the buildings and public spaces are still there and still very much the same. So many feels that as a country, China is a fast changing society and of progress. At the same time, it’s not balanced in urban city and in rural areas. So a lot of people are left behind and they never had a chance to catch up with mainstream progress that’s been so visible to the world.

Qiao (Zhao Tao’s character) in the first part of the film, when she bid farewell to her father at the train station and also the worker’s dormitory in the background - those were already there when I made unknown Pleasures in 2001, so I was so shocked. You see it a little weathered and can see the traces of time, but they are still there!

The question I had about Qiao is that she had a chance to leave everything behind and go west (Xinjiang) with this venture capitalist that she met on the train. But she doesn’t. I wonder about the choices that she made.

I think after breakup with her long time lover, she decides that it’s time to make a change, to break away from that past relations and trying to find the new one. It just happens to be this chance encounter with that person. It was almost like a very very short fling. But after that experience that she realizes that to go with him, to Xinjiang in this case, she would be removing herself completely from the underworld that she still very much see herself a member of. So she at the end makes the final decision. At the end of the film she says “I am jianghu and you are not.” She is actually telling this to Bin. It’s that spirit of jianghu she is abiding by, not any men.

You told me in 2014 that you might be doing a period piece about Chinese journeyman traveling West first, Europe and then South America. Is it still happening? If not, what’s next for you?

It’s not anywhere in preparation stage. It’s still one of the films I very much want to make. The next film we are preparing for is a period piece set in the late Qing dynasty. It’s going to be Wuxia genre film.

I am very much looking forward to that!


My review of Ash is Purest White

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Volcanic Desire to Live

Stromboli (1950) - Rossellini
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Karin (Ingrid Bergman), a war refugee of Lithuanian descent in an internment camp in Italy flirts with a young Italian soldier to get out of the camp. They get married and move to the soldier's hometown Stromboli, an isolated volcanic island where its very religious, very conservative unwelcoming inhabitants greet her. Worldly and ambitious Karin finds the first day that there is absolutely nothing in Stromboli that she likes. Its barren landscape and rudimentary stone houses and old men hanging around her home profoundly depress her. Her young husband turns out to be nothing but a brute too, slapping her around and locking her in the house. She plans to escape, even if it means seducing half the village and climb across the volcanic mountain to get to the other side of the island.

It's interesting to see Rossellini's neorealist approach with non-actors and almost documentary-like sequences clash with sheer star power of Bergman is an interesting mix. But I don't mind. Bergman is magnetic.