Thursday, January 21, 2021

Love on the Frozen Land

Atlantis (2019) - Vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.02.35 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.12.02 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.01.14 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.59 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.17 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.10.51 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.06.39 PM The pitfall of political filmmaking in general, in my view, both fiction and non-fiction, is its didacticism that turns people off, however well intentioned and informative it might be. Without fail, these films come across as snobbish and classicist. It is doubly difficult as we live in an era where irony is dead and satire is getting harder and harder to pull off when the real world already feels like a grotesque satire of itself. 

Good filmmakers know how to use genre filmmaking in order to tell a topical, timely and socially relevant stories. In the recent surge of those films - Bacurau and Transit come to mind, filmmakers brought down sci-fi closed to home - political/economic instability & ecological devastation into a revenge thriller against first world, and a fascist takeover (history repeating itself) into an identity crisis, directly referencing the current state of Brazil and Germany/Europe respectively. These sci-fi genre tropes gave the filmmakers a lot of freedom to reflect on the current state of affairs while giving themselves a bit of distance to play around and even have some fun, while regarding them as if they are mere sci-fi and works of imagination, not socio-political realist films.

Writer/director/cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych (who lensed The Tribe) is one of those good filmmakers. And his stunning new film, Atlantis, proves that a science fiction can be both visually arresting and also socio-politically relevant to the present. In this case, it concerns his home country of Ukraine.

The subtitle in the beginning says it's the year 2025, a mere 4 years in the future. The Ukraine-Russian war seems to be over but wintry industrial landscape suggests that the war devastated the ecosystem and made a large swath of its land uninhabitable. The human toll both physically and emotionally is even greater, as we are introduced two PTSD ailing former soldiers whose sleepless nights are spent on driving around and shooting at makeshift targets planted on frozen tundra. The steel mill they both work at is taken over by multi-national corporation: an English-speaking figurehead on a giant screen talks of the bright future while pumping up Soviet style propaganda reminiscent of 1984. Many are fired from the job because of the automation of labor.

After his PTSD buddy's fiery suicide T2 style into the furnace at the steal mill, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) moves on and gets a job as a water tanker driver - water became scarce since the bombardment and landmines planted during the war contaminated much of the country's water supply. On the road, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer for a humanitarian group which identify the war dead by digging them up from half-frozen, muddy mass graves. It's a gruesome process, but it will give a lot of people closures, she says.

Talk of homeland takes a center stage. Ukraine might appear to be an unforgiving, desolate wasteland now, but where else would its inhabitants live? Sergiy is offered to work for an international organization and go abroad by a woman he rescued from a landmine wreckage. He says resolutely, "This is my home. Where could I go?"

The visual symmetry in wide ratio shot Atlantis is awe-inspiring. The industrial landscapes and machinery, as well as decay of abandoned houses (think of decay porn of Detroit, but doubling here as the war aftermath) have common with Ed Burtynsky's photographic documentations of the late stages of capitalist society - Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Anthroposcene (2018) and other documentaries that focuses on ecological devastation and human footprints on earth. Charting the country's recent history with human elements, Vasyanovych also finds common spirits with Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of China and its people.

Vasyanovych unsubtly comments on Russian expansionism as seen in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Western commerce influence, but the film is not without hope. Working with non actors (Rymaruk is a former soldier, Bileka is a medic), the director imbues real life experiences within their fictional characters to give sense of connection, sense of national identity. The bare bone romance between Sergiy and Katya with the cold and unforgiving backdrop hints at the glimmer of hope, human resilience and connection despite dire circumstances. It's there, even if we are only able to detect it through infrared camera footage.Atlantis marks the arrival of the first great film of 2021.
Please visit Metrograph for virtual tickets. The film opens on 1/22.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

We Won't Die Together Hand-in-Hand

Viaggio in Italia (1955) - Rossellini Journey to Italy Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.11.50 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.20.23 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.38.58 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.55.05 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.55.41 AM The childless Joyces - Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) are English couple travelling to Naples to settle some inheritance matter (Katherine's uncle Homer left them a villa). It is pretty obvious as the film progresses, their marriage is on the rocks: After 8 years of marriage, they don't know each other very well and find themselves uncomfortable when left alone only with each other. She hates his snobbery and self-absorption; he hates her jealousy and resentment. Reconciliation doesn't seem possible. 

While the estate matter is being settled, Alex leaves for Capri to unsuccessfully pursue an affair and Katherine remains in Naples visiting museums and archeological digs and thinking about that sickly young poet who stood outside her window in the rain. 

 Just like in Stromboli, the rugged, imposing background- active Mt. Vesuvius, which erupted only a few years before, reveals the chasm between the couple. 

There are a lot of driving shots. Rossellini emphasizes the couple's isolation and strict observers status as life happens outside the windshield of their car - Naples with its crowded streets, religious processions, livestock, a river of humanity on the other side of glass. 

While narratively weak and with the unconvincing ending, Viaggio in Italia is, as Deleuze points out in Cinema II, the prototype for what's to come - Antonioni's Urban ennui and isolation in L'Avventura and La Notte.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Role Play

 La Madriguera (1969) - Saura

Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 10.48.37 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 10.59.53 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 11.56.09 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 11.56.38 AM Industrialist Pedro (Per Oscarsson)'s life is work, coming home to his ultra modern concrete and glass house, saying how tired he is and going to sleep. His young wife Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) has some deep seeded issues from her childhood (her parents died in a plane crash), attached to her old furniture and suffers from nightmares and sleepwalking. Their childless marriage of 5 years is not going well. After indulging her in daddy issues and reliving her childhood in role playing, the couple goes into a full self-isolation - sending maids home and literally drawing curtains to the outside world, even pretending to be not home when their gossipy couple friends stop in with their children in tow. Pedro and Teresa engage in elaborate role-playing where he is Richard, Teresa's childhood sweetheart, a father of Teresa, and a St. Bernard dog saving sleeping beauty in a blizzard. Teresa is always a young girl, often dressed in Tartan miniskirts like a school uniform. But when it comes to real fantasy, like dressing in sexy black dress and lingerie, she refuses to consummate. After one such role-playing game, they end up in a maid's room with pictures of movie stars on the wall. And it seems they can only express their innermost thoughts, even class-consciousness, when they are playing a role. But their full-blown adult play game is obviously destined to end badly. Again, like a bourgeois satire of Buñuel, La Madiguera portrayal of upper-class decadence, contrast of old and new in the Franco era Spain is biting. Yet the portrayal of these couple by Oscarsson and Chaplin are deeply human and nuanced. This is a great film.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Relevance of Socialism a Century Before

Her Socialist Smile (2020) - Gianvito

Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.44.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.44.54 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.49.16 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 7.12.09 AM
Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf but overcame her disabilities and became a renowned women's rights activist and socialist is the subject of John Gianvito's documentary, Her Socialist Smile.  She made her first public speech more than a century ago and have written numerous books and her words are as relevant and powerful as back in 1916.

She became aware of economic disparities causing preventable diseases - such as blindness, and radicalized. Reading Marx and other philosophers, she decided that capitalism is the source of these inequalities and became an activist, opposing American involvement in WW1 under president Woodrow Wilson. She travelled the world advocating her pacifist stance and against militarism. She was disillusioned by the left's infighting and sympathized with syndicalists who sought action, such as IWW by general strike. 

Through series of fires - including one in 9/11/2001, destroyed much of Keller's records and archival materials.

So how do you make a film about a woman who was blind and deaf? Gianvito resort to a narrator Carolyn Forché reading some of the texts in a sound studio and use nature footage around Keller's childhood home in Alabama as well as some archival footage of her. The rest is her white texts in black screen with no sound. I understand it is important to read her texts on screen and Gianvito graciously grants enough time for us to read it. But it is a lot of texts. I mean A LOT. 

There are some graceful moments visually. Some of the close ups of nature accompanying the narration is beautiful and gets its sensory message across. But better alternative will be getting a copy of her book Out of the Dark and go out to a field and read it.

Sunday, January 10, 2021


Peppermint Frappé (1967) - Saura Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 10.51.18 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 10.58.19 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.24.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.28.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.33.27 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.34.32 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.45.12 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.54.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.56.40 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.58.13 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.59.00 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 12.08.26 PM
Geraldine Chaplin plays double roles in Carlos Saura's deliciously perverse Peppermint Frappé. A repressed radiologist Julián (José Luis López Vázquez) zooms in on his childhood friend, Pedro's young coquettish young blonde wife Elena (Chaplin). Convinced that they've met before, Julián can't help but obsessing over flirtatious and outgoing Elena.

While Elena's teasing continues, Julián moves in on his introverted brunet assistant Ana (also played by Chaplin). It is precisely because Ana's resemblance to Elena that Julián seduces her, to approximate her to his sexual obsession.

Dedicated to his idol Buñuel, the film's surrealism and Catholicism's grip on Spain, satire on bourgeoisie are all on display: Pedro and Julián grew up in a health retreat run by Julián's aunt who was a nun. They kept themselves busy by looking through the keyholes to satiate their raging hormones. It was Pedro who was always a dominant one. Driving a sports car with young blonde wife, Pedro still dominates the square Julián to this day. What's worse, Elena, a teaser with a mean streak, relentlessly plays with Julián's emotions and plays pranks on him with Pedro. Something's gotta give.

Peppermint Frappé closely resembles Vertigo in its sexual obsession and perverted desire of replacing unattainable with its approximation. A woman's identity is something Buñuel also plays with in his last film That Obscure Object of Desire which would make a fine triple feature.

Chaplin is quite enchanting in playing the double role. I might have to binge on some more Saura/Chaplin combo.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Your Wedding, My Funeral

 An Autumn Afternoon (1962) - Ozu

Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.04.56 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.23.14 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.33.25 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.46.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.46.46 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.51.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 7.00.23 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 9.13.15 AM From a pure aesthetic point of view, with symetry of the frames in both interior and exterior sets, boring but exact shot/reverse shot in dialogue scenes, perfunctory movement and gestures of actors, An Autumn Afternoon is not disimilar from Jacques Tati films. But just as with all Ozu films, it's about changing times and its effects on family - mutual guilt, regret, loneliness, nostalgia, melancholy. Also it's a good reflection of the recently minted materialist society - industrial factories with smoke stacks, golf clubs, designer handbags, household gizmos. And they all but overshadow real human emotions. Its that none-emotiveness, holding-backness and the boomer humor leaves a bad taste in my mouth. An Autumn Afternoon is supposed to be wise and poignant observation on fleeting human life, like all Yasujiro Ozu films are. And in a way it is. An old salary man is afraid of losing his daughter by marrying her off. She is 24 and not getting any younger. If he does, he will be alone and lonely. She doesn't say anything out of duty as a daugther because father knows best. The film is way too geriatric for me to appreciate it more.

Someone once mention that if the cinema survives for ways in the future and got discovered in some sort of archeological digs by our descendents or aliens from outerworld discovered it in a cosmic dust, without recognizing its language, what the future men or aliens will get out of it is perfunctory human activities - walking, in transit (car, train etc) and eating & drinking. If they dug up and saw An Autumn Afternoon, what they will mostly see is men eating and drinking, a lot. I mean, the amount of drinking scene in this movie far surpasses any Hong Sangsoo movie I've seen. It's too bad that Ozu had no interest in actually showing what they are eating. I'd like to have known that.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Hyper Sensory World

The Reason I Jump (2020) - Rothwell

The reason I jump Autism is not a dirty word anymore. We all know someone in our lives who are deemed autistic. But even though our society may have gotten better at treating people on the spectrum over the years (relatively speaking of course), our understanding of how a person with autism views the world has been rudimentary at best. It wasn't until 2013, when, a then 13-year old autistic Japanese boy named Higashida Naoki wrote a memoir called The Reason I Jump and British author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) translated the book with his wife into English, the whole world, for the very first time, had a chance to get a glimpse of how people on the spectrum perceive the world. The book has been a revelation for many, and helped thousands of anxious parents who for years had to cope with having autistic children without much guidance on the subject. Then again, it was those parents - their persistence, dedication and unconditional love that made this breakthrough possible; for it was Naoki's mother who devised a handmade Japanese alphabet grid so her non-verbal son could finally express himself in words and eventually write the book. I read his memoir a long while ago and it was truly an eye-opening experience.

The Reason I Jump is loosely adapted by documentarian Jerry Rothwell. With jumbled home movie footage and recent events with the help of immaculate sound design by Nick Ryan, the film succeeds in presenting the world of autism as an audiovisual sensory experience. As Naoki explains in his words (in voice over narration by Jordan O'Donegan)that he, as an autistic person, experiences time differently - not in linear fashion, but in spurts: what he experienced when he was little can be present right next to what happened two minutes ago- with all the emotions he felt then come rushing in with it. This explains autistic people's seemingly abnormal behavior - sudden outbursts of shouts, anger or laughter or unexpectedly stopping in their tracks, as if lost in their own worlds. The film also does a fine job of zooming in and superimposing images, approximating how an autistic person concentrates on details of an object and gradually figure out what he/she is seeing in front of them. Obsession, repetition and attachment to an object are also the signs of being on the spectrum, as they give them a sense of security in ever-changing surroundings.

The film start with a cute, button-nosed Japanese boy (Jim Fujiwara) wondering around the woods. With the whimpering noise he makes here and there, you can tell he is autistic. It seems that everything he sees, hears and feels is new and wondrous experience for him. He and the narrator in Naoki's words are coherent threads that guide us through the film.

We are introduced to five of those on the spectrum - Amrit in India, Joss in England, Ben and Emma in the US and Jestina in Sierra Leone. We also meet their parents who care for them. Amrit, although non-verbal, creates colorful, beautiful figure paintings from her surroundings and on her way to have her first gallery exhibition. With Joss, we get to see the progression of an autistic child growing into a man with uncertain future and their devout parents struggling with the fact. Ben and Emma are childhood friends and, unbeknownst each other's parents, have been communicating non-verbally for years and planning their future together. Jestina and her parents, struggling in a society where people with autism were considered possessed by demons and social stigma is stronger, help find a community and finally establish a school for autistic children.

The film acknowledges the horrendous social stigma associated with having an autism and doesn't disguise our atrocious past in treating autistics as subhuman by playing the audio clips of eugenicists and 1938 Nazi propaganda where they advocated for ending those 'invalids'' miserable existence. There are many heartbreaking moments but one of the most searing one is Jeremy, Joss's dad talking about his son's future and breaks down contemplating what's going to happen to his son when he is not around to take care of him anymore. And I am pretty sure that's the worries of thousands of parents who have kids who are on the spectrum.

Produced by Jeremy Dear and Stevie Lee, two of the parents of the autistic children in the film, The Reason I Jump is also a tribute to those parents who give unconditional love and care. The film asks for understanding and, above all, patience by showing how autistic people perceive the world. But perhaps the most moving part of the film is when Naoki says in the narration at the end that if he could get a chance to do it all over again, he wouldn't change a thing. The point being that Naoki and countless others experience the world differently, even better way than we 'normal people' do - a hyper sensory world we can only approximate on film.

The Reason I Jump opens virtually on Friday 1/8 nationwide. Please visit Kino Lorber website for more info.

Torching the Traditional Motherhood

Ema (2019) - Larrain Screen Shot 2021-01-06 at 6.29.03 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-06 at 10.34.22 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-06 at 6.48.15 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-06 at 6.53.25 AMScreen Shot 2021-01-06 at 9.21.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-06 at 9.57.58 AM
Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is in any way a mom material. She is first seen torching the traffic signal in the middle of the night in the Chilean city of Valparaiso with her flame thrower. This sleek platinum blonde beauty is a dancer in a group who dances street dance known as Reggaeton. She is in divorce proceedings from Gaston (Gael Gacia Bernal), a choreographer of the group, 12 year her senior and a foreigner. She also maintains numerous amorous relations within her team, mostly comprised of female persuasion. 

Ema-Gaston backstory is that Gaston can't conceive a child. So they adopted 12 year old Colombian boy. But when things got tough and the boy tried to burn down the house and half of Ema's sister's face (got that tendency from mom obv), they gave up the boy and sent him back to the system. The rest of the movie is Ema trying to get the boy back by manipulating her way into the boy's new adopted parents' lives. It's fun, horny movie that torches the traditional notion of motherhood into oblivion. 

Last October, Chile overwhelmingly voted (78 percent!) to rewrite their constitution which was written in the military dictatorial years of Pinoche which was supported by American government of course. Argentina just voted to legalize abortion. Seeing yesterday's shenanigans at our nation's capitol where Trumpers stormed the halls of our House chambers and reading the reactions to it online, one thing that struck me is that we as a society failed miserably for our next generation. No one under 40 will ever trust our government ever again to do anything right.  In this context, Ema is as much of a rebuke of the old generation than anything else. Who are we to judge what's amoral or what is a right thing to do? Burn the shit down!

Energetic with fuck-all attitude, Ema is a new breed of filmmaking that signals the arrival of the next generation who are more empowered and care-free, as if saying "whether we like it or not, the future is ours." I tend to agree.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Shanghai Surprise

Shanghai Express (1932) - Sternberg Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.26.15 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.27.18 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-02 at 10.27.29 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.30.59 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.32.50 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.34.04 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.34.33 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-02 at 10.25.46 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.38.00 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.38.32 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.47.04 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.39.19 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.40.21 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.40.55 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.42.51 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.44.11 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 9.44.52 PM Joseph Sternberg's portrayal of 1930s China is that of a Westerner's exotic dream of what the East is supposed to be like - full of danger and intrigue filled with beautiful, dangerous dames while everyone speaks perfect English. Shanghai Express is a visual feast made up of long tracking shots, expressive dissolves, gorgeous shadow play and most of all, its luminous star, Marlene Dietrich's stunning wardrobe changes.

Shanghai express's plot contains lost loves between a British officer Harvey (Donald Brook) and a courtesan known as Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) as they embark on a train ride from Peiping (Beijing) to Shanghai. Then there is a rogue element in Chang (Warner Oland in ridiculous 'oriental' makeup- raised eyebrows and three point mustache that looks like a Halloween gag costume for racists) who feigns to be a passenger but a revolutionary sleazebag who masterminds the train jacking and taking hostage of Harvey in exchange for his second-hand man who got captured by Chinese gov't troops earlier. Chang also threatens to keep Lily as his concubine and after her rejection, turns to Hu Fei (Anna May Wong), Lily's chamber-mate, and rapes her. The siege ends in Lily sacrificing herself - to stay with Chang to release Harvey without Harvey knowing it. After Hu Fei kills Chang and everyone gets released, Harvey, thinking that Lily chose the captor for her own volition makes the rest of the train ride a very uncomfortable one.

Silly plot aside, Shanghai Express is all light and shadows and how to light its star as beautiful as possible. And Dietrich is as always, stunning. Wong also shines as knife wielding dangerous beauty without backstory. It would have been great if there were a Hu Fei spinoff. Will investigate Wong's filmography in the future.