Saturday, October 17, 2020

Struggle is Never Over

Born in Flames (1983) - Borden Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.26.10 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.27.28 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.28.30 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.28.50 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.29.12 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.32.23 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.33.27 AM 

Revolution is over. The Democratic Socialist government has taken over. Everyone is equal. Woman's liberation struggle is done. Or is it? 'Struggle is never over' as the truest socialist revolution mantra, Lizzie Borden envisions the future where the socialist revolution has won over the United States. Is it utopia? Hardly. Dystopia? Maybe. There's still residue of hundreds years of patriarchal society and misogyny everywhere. Faced with economic hardship and 'workfare' system still struggling with sexism and racism, there are daily demonstrations and violent clashes with the city cops on the street. There are daily sexual harassing on the streets and subways and the only difference is women watch out for themselves as a group - trained and find strength in numbers.

The post-revolution USA left is still very much factionalized- there is white activists who publish influential 'The Socialist Youth Review', there's the party officials who are very much keen on keeping taps on noise-makers, there's the woman's army- a radical militant group who is preparing for armed struggle and there's radical artists and singer types who preach their own little radical feminism.

The main character of Born in Flames is Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), a lesbian and a varsity athlete who is a radical women's rights activist. She is under surveillance by the FBI. Norris is the one who sees through the system for what it is even after the revolution: the power corrupts, and the society is once again tilting towards fascism. As before, she is everything white patriarchal society hates - a homosexual woman of color. As Norris slowly gets into the world of armed struggle with the guidance from Zella (Florynce Kennedy) and tries to unite the prevalent factionalism of the left, the government goons assassinate her in the jail cell after snatching her at the airport, as she did training with the sisters in the Middle East. It's her death that unites all activist women.

Born in Flames is quite a prophetic film and a stark warning against people who dream of utopia after one revolution. As all of us Bernie supporters knew, even if we ever have our fundamental change in our society, there will be a hard work ahead of us. We have to be ready/strive for continuous revolutions in order to keep the ideal. The film foretells the importance of media as well. Like many of the 80s dystopian films, namely, Carpenter's They Live, the film ends with blowing up the TV antenna on top of, get this, the World Trade Center. Shot in documentary style with news and surveillance footage and narration through out in gritty 80s New York setting, the film is a truly independent, original, American film. There are scenes of women's rape prevention bicycle gang, a rapid montage of working women in all different jobs, including sex work, as seamlessly cut from packing meat, to putting on a condom on an erect penis, to selling coffee at a bodega. There's a women punk rock concert with some great music. Can't believe I haven't watched this before. Born in Flames is a radicalest feminist film I've ever witnessed. It's so good.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Like Berlin, Old Folklore Gets a Makeover in Christian Petzold's Beguiling Undine

Undine (2020) - Petzold Undine Undine is a water nymph or spirit that appears in many folk tales and literature in Europe. One of its various versions is Little Mermaid, widely popularized by Hans Christian Anderson. It is said that she takes a human form only if she falls in love with a human. But when that human is unfaithful, he is fated to die. 
Christian Petzold, not a stranger to making films with strong female characters and using genre conventions to reflect the contemporary German issues, takes a stab at a fairytale romance involving the history of the city of Berlin in Undine. It starts with a breakup scene of a couple in progress at the terrace of a cafe. Undine (Paula Beer, seen in Frantz and Petzold's Transit), a historian at the city museum, is understandably upset when her smug boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) announces that he is seeing someone else. She is on a break from her job across the street and she warns him that she will kill him if he doesn't say he loves her when she gets back. The threat is overly dramatic. She gives a talk to the museum visitors about the transformation of the city of Berlin over the years - West and East, what was lost and what was promised, laying out the theme of constantly changing and renewing state of affairs. When she gets back to the cafe, Johannes is gone. By chance, smitten Christoph (Franz Rogowski, who played opposite Beer in Transit) who was present at the museum tour, is there to ask her out for a coffee at that moment. All of sudden, the fish tank shatters, knocking them both off of their feet. Their rather wet first encounter rapidly develops into a sweeping romance where the two become inseparable. 

Water is the constant motif here that stands for change. Christoph happens to be an industrial diver and spends much of his time under murky water of the river Spree. His job is taking care of the leaky turbine and other maintenance issues under water. Once he encounters a big catfish, nicknamed Gunther by his colleagues in one of his dives. Is Gunther a fish or some sort of water spirit? 

Gunther the catfish makes another appearance when Christoph takes Undine diving on a date. He was there to show her a remnants of an old bridge under water that bears her name. In an unusually beautiful scene for Petzold’s standard, since he is not known for his visual excess- we see Undine without her scuba gear, swimming with Gunther, slowly passing over Christoph. On land, Christoph tries to revive unconscious Undine, singing "Staying Alive" by BeeGees under his breath. Later he explains to her, it's the rhythm of that song that is perfect for CPR. Their love affair is sweet and intimate. Undine plays out like a whimsical romantic comedy at this point. And chemistry between Beer and Rogowski is quite remarkable. They both are unbelievably good in their roles as ill-fated couple. 

There is another history lesson as Undine practices her presentation on Humboldt Forum, a museum that is a replica of Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace), at her small but practical apartment overlooking the said building. If you've been to Berlin, you had noticed that everything is rebuilt after WW2. Stadtschloss was rebuilt in the 21st century. Undine's presentation tells that modern architecture teaches that form follows function. But it's not the case with the museum in the form of the eighteen-century ruler's palace. That Germany's pragmatism doesn't quite coincide with people's wishes concerning reviving the soul of the city. 

The Story of Undine gets a 21st century makeover too. She was upset when she was betrayed, but she gets a second chance at happiness being truly loved. Petzold, a master storyteller, reinvents the mythical water creature story paralleling the history of the city of Berlin while acknowledging the past just underneath the surface. 

Its whimsy and romance works thanks largely to Beer and Rogowski's excellent performances. It's so good!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Monotony vs. Chaos

The Woman Who Ran (2020) - Hong The Woman Who Ran Gamhee (Kim Minhee) is visiting Youngsoon (Seo Younghwa)'s house in the outskirts of Seoul. It's an almost pastoral setting. Youngsoon has a back yard and her neighbor has a chicken coop. Gamhee, married for five years, tells her long time friend that her trip to the house is the first time she is not accompanied by her husband. They never have been not together for even a day. How is that possible, Youngsoon and her roommate wonder over the grilled meat that Gamhee brought along with liquor. Gamhee says her husband believes that if they love each other, then they should be together all the time. And she doesn't seem to mind.

Again, Hong's new film is built around his muse Kim Minhee's character as she observes her surroundings. And of course the conversation naturally leads to reveal her relationships with men. Although Kim played many roles in slightly varying degrees in previous Hong's films, her characters were, however beguiling, more often than not, confrontational toward her male counterparts. In The Woman Who Ran, Gamhee seems to be more subdued and more comfortable with her situations and herself. Being a little bit older, it's as if she is tired of human entanglements and unnecessary interactions. But as the title suggests, Hong might be playing with something here. And everything is not what it seems. Who is the woman who ran if not Gamhee?

While they are having pleasant BBQ dinner, a new neighbor visits them. It's a young man and he passive aggressively complains about Youngsoon and her roommate feeding stray cats. His wife is afraid of seeing cats in their backyards and he wants to discourage them to feed the cats. They decline to do so, arguing the cats needs are just as important as humans. There are many references to animals in the film, including chickens, cows and cats, as women make case that humans are not the only animal with a conscience. With that, Hong seems to suggest that these relationships and entanglements are silly, in a larger scheme of things.

The next house Gamhee visits is Suyoung (Song Seonmi), a pilate instructor and a dancer friend. She lives alone in a modern apartment with a great view of a mountain. She recently bought the place with divorce settlement and some bank loan. She even scored a major discount because the building owner favors artistic types to live there. Gamhee again, tells the story about how she and her husband being inseparable. She could be so lucky. Their peace is interrupted by a 26 year old lovelorn poet at the door. He is in love with Suyoung. She shoos him off. The young man makes matters more complicated since she likes the neighbor who frequents the bar also frequented by the young man, she tells Gamhee. Gamhee makes an observation, "You live an interesting life!"

Considering Hong's penchant for a double take, these two encounters with older female friends might be a variation of the same encounter, suggesting infinite possibilities. And both of these encounters are interrupted by irate males.

Now Gamhee is in a cafe of a cultural center, coincidentally run by her frenemy Woojin (Kim Saebyuk). Gamhee used to date Woojin's now husband Jung (Kwon Haehyo), who is doing a book tour in the same building downstairs. Gamhee says she is there to watch a movie. Woojin, feeling guilty about stealing a man from her, apologizes to Gamhee who says it's all in the past and insists that she is not there to see him. Gamhee asks if he changed in any way since his career took off. Woojin says he is a chatterbox now and he comes across as insincere as he repeats his stories a lot in front of other people. It's becoming annoying.

She runs into Jung who was taking a cigarette break outside the building. Did she really come to see a movie or did she come to tell him off?

Deceptively simple yet deliciously playful, The Woman Who Ran again shows that Hong, a truly unique voice in cinema at his best, honing his skills as a storyteller by constantly experimenting with his usual theme.   

She goes back to watch the movie that she just came out of. It's the same scene of a beach with a jangling guitar soundtrack seen previously. Is Hong suggesting watching the film again to give it a second take? Or does the movie theater work as a sanctuary, a comfortable place for our heroine? In these Covid times, whether Hong intended or not, I'd like to think the latter is the case. As Gamhee sits alone in a cushy movie theater seats alone, eating a piece of bread, I want nothing more than being in the comfort of a movie theater, preferably alone.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Legacy of Colonialism in The Middle East

Notturno (2020) - Rosi 
NotturnoGianfranco Rosi, the documentarian behind such astonishing work as Sacro GRA and Fire at Sea, comes back with a biting and enormously affecting documentary on people living on the periphery of the Middle-East conflicts. Culling from the footage shot in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon for three years, Rosi patches together the impact of years of carnage and violence has on its inhabitants, especially on children. 

But Notturno, as the title implies, night precedes daybreak. Hopefully, this affected generation can break the cycle and move forward. 

Notturno starts with grieving mothers paying a pilgrimage to now an empty prison building where their sons are tortured and killed. One of the mother touches the walls, saying that she feels her son's spirit. She wails again as she feels the spirit leaving. 

There is an otherworldly image of a hunter/solider duck hunting in a marshland in his little paddleboat. Two oil field fires on the horizon bathes the night sky with an ominous orange glow, as he sets the trap with a set of fake ducks in the water and silently waits. Prevailing sound is the gunfire in the distance. There's a hunger in his eyes - no politics or war, just pure survival instincts. 

A young couple, dressed in western clothes on the rooftop overlooking the city, smoking hookah- the setting is very romantic. There's occasional gunfire in the distance. The young man is getting ready to do his nightly rounds as a singing messenger of god, leaving his secular day world behind. He walks around with his drum, chanting in a clear voice at night, casting his shadow under the dim street light. 

There's a platoon of Iraqi women soldiers patrolling a vast outposts. They come back to the shared barracks, tie their long hair all at the same time- it is a silent, communal ritual. Then they huddle together around a small gas stove to warm up their hands. Even in harsh surroundings, Rosi sees beauty everywhere. 

A doctor in a psychiatric ward where people with PTSD are treated is preparing to stage a therapeutic theater session. He gives out the scripts to a group of patients. These patients practices and memorize their lines in their bed, trying to do a good job for the doctor. The script is about how the colonial powers provided the settings for decades of armed conflict, government corruptions and the rise of religious fundamentalists. 

We move on to a very young boy in yellow rain cover in a fishing vessel at night. He is operating the pulley. He comes home exhausted and crashes on the sofa. It seems he is the oldest of the 8 siblings and one who provides income for the entire family. He goes out in the morning with his pellet gun to hunt for birds for food. His name is Ali and we go back and forth between the progress of the stage play in the psychiatric wards and Ali's daily life. 

Then we are introduced muddy tents city that is a refugee camp. Many children are experiencing flashbacks of being beaten and tortured by ISIS. They were captives of those fundamental extremists. Their crayon drawings depict unimaginable horror - decapitations, hanging, maiming, etc. Their teacher consoles them but helpless to stop them from having nightmares. 

Ali gets up early in the morning to stand on the side of the road until hunters drive by. They need to have someone to pick up their prey after they shoot them down. It's a grueling work. But in order to feed his family, he has to take any kind of job. 

The film features not only a human toll in the region but the broken infrastructure - river crossings are largely dependent on rickety square rafts that bump into each other, cars driving over the waterfall created by bomb blasted ravine in the middle of the road. The rows of ruined empty buildings... it goes on forever like that. 

Notturno ends with the close up of Ali's incredibly youthful face, his bright eyes darting the sky, unsure of what future will bring. The image invokes some of the cinema's most provoking shots - the freeze frame of Antoine Doinel's face in The 400 Blows, Monika's dead stare in Summer with Monika and the close up of Florya in Come and See to name a few. Then again, I am reminded that Ali is not a fictional character, but a real boy growing up in an unforgiving world. Notturno is undoubtedly, one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Powerful Indictment of Religious Patriarchy

Beginning (2020) - Kulumbegashivli Beginning
Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashivli's powerful drama Beginning has to be one of the most self-assured debut films in recent memory. Her approach in creating a suffocating, isolating environment for her main subject is so impeccably done, it easily invites comparisons to masters' work- Tarkovsky, Haneke, Akerman. With its metaphysical tinge, it also resembles the work of its executive producer, Carlos Reygardas's. 

With its slow build-up, treading on the verge of religious allegory, the film demonstrates Kulumbegashivli's mastery in how a female is perceived in religious, patriarchal society. With its use of full frame cinematography reflecting the claustrophobic atmosphere of the protagonist's mental state, Beginning is a truly mesmerizing experience. 

 The film starts with a five minute uncut scene inside of a Jehovah's Witness church. From the fixed camera in the front of the room we see congregants milling in, greeted by the pastor, David (Rati Oneli, who is also a co-screenwriter) and his wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashivli). Soon after David starts his summon on Abraham and him sacrificing his son before god, firebombs are thrown in, causing chaos. Next we see the church engulfed in flames in the distance. 

The church happens to be in the middle of an empty field. It's stated that it's some religious fundamentalist's doing. And it's not the first time the violence was committed upon David and Yana. And the local cops aren't doing much about it. 

Through the dialog, it is revealed that Yana doesn't want to be where they are. Their young son doesn't have any friends. Being a former actress now a pastor's wife, she feels life is going by, as if she isn't even there. Stubborn David still wants to concentrate on his career and asks Yana's unwavering support. She tells him forebodingly, "It's as if I'm waiting for something to start or to end." 

The centerpiece of the film is a seven minute uncut scene of Yana going into a forest and laying down on the ground. She closes her eyes and lies there motionlessly. The whole world and the sound around her - birds chirping, the wind and the shadows casting on her face by the swaying trees slowly fade. Her peace is only broken by her son's nagging. 

Her wish for some kind of change comes in the form of a devious character, Alex (Kakha Kintsurashivli). First seen in the burning church as a policeman, he comes in to Yana's house while David is away (to ask for elders assistant in building another church). He comes on to her aggressively, asking sexually explicit questions. Either paralyzed with fear or aroused, she starts answering his questions. 

She is then raped by Alex at night in a violent attack near a creek. Just like everything taking place involving Yana and the world, the scene is observed from a far in a wide static shot and as impersonal as possible. Why did she go out at night? How did she end up near the creek? The question mounts. 

Yana retreats to her mother's house with her son after the attack, but can't bring herself to tell her mother what happened. She thinks that Yana is having an affair. "Don't tell David if he doesn't know," she quips. Yana asks her why she didn't get a divorce from her abusive husband. "It was different times", she answers. 

David finds out what happened by listening to security tapes in the house. With the shame and guilt she feels, even though none of it was her fault, she breaks down sobbing. How could you do this to me after what I have done for you- is how David plays out the scene. 

As the film reaches a shocking conclusion, suggesting that Alex might be a physical manifestation of Yana's fears/wishes in order to escape her suffocating life, it becomes a strong indictment of religious patriarchal society. Sukhitashivli in a very demanding role gives quite possibly the performance of the year. Beginning signals an impressive arrival of another major female director, Kulumbegashivli, to the current global cinema scene.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Read Books Kids

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) - Jia Untitled 
Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of China's changing times, presents Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, a touching documentary on four contemporary Chinese writers. This is his third feature documentary on contemporary Chinese culture after Dong, about painter Liu Xiaodong and Useless, about the clothing industry. 

The film lays out four writers and their works chronologically. Sometimes in lengthy interviews, sometimes other people reciting the samples of their writings in various places, Jia highlights their individual stories. It starts from the beginning of the People's Republic, the land and marriage reform, the wars, the Cultural Revolution and to the recent economic prosperity. But instead of going through historical events, Jia opts for anecdotal storytelling of his subjects and people around them. Going micro and personal instead of expansive and historical, he achieves something far more intimate and engaging.
Jia starts the film by visiting his hometown Fenyang in Shanxi province. This is the region where the famous writer Ma Feng is from. He interviews the town elders who have been living in the region all their lives. They remember the deceased writer through the war against Japan and Russia and the Cultural Revolution. We get the glimpse of tumultuous Chinese history in rural areas through these interviews. As Chairman Mao's many initiatives, including marriage reform, the fabric of the society changed dramatically. Ma Feng's writing reflected these. 

Jia Pingwa, born in the 50 and from Shangluo, recounts his past: how his father's association with KMT was hard on his family and him getting a job. He tells how his good handwriting started his career, and how he was able to move to cultural bureau from doing physical labor. 'Returning to the place you grew up in, even though you are educated somewhere else' is the running theme with all four writers' life trajectories. It's something in the land that they grew up which Jia Pingwa describes it as 'blood land'. 

Then there's Yu Hua, born in the 60s in Haiyan, near the yellow sea. His anecdotal stories of trying to be a writer are often hilarious. He mastered his writing by reading handed-down books (banned during Cultural Revolution) that are missing front and back covers and often missing the end part of the book, so he had to imagine the endings himself. Growing up in rural community, he wanted to be somebody. After countless rejection letters, his writing finally caught an eye of a big time editor in Beijing. One of his books was To Live, one that got a screen adaptation treatment from Zhang Yimou in the 90s. 

Liang Hong, born in the 70s, is a writer and professor. Growing up in a big household in Liangzhuang, a small village in Henan province, she had to endure her mother's illness, her village people's prejudices (her father remarried after mother's death), and crippling poverty. Her work became synonymous with a case study for China's rural villages and migrant workers. In corresponding chapters (like a book, 18 chapters total), we get to hear about and from her family members, including her 14-year-old son. 

The title of the film is from Yu Hua's phrase, as he reminisces about his childhood. The sea is supposed to be blue in his school textbooks, but the sea near his house has been always yellow. 

As always with his films, Jia tells the story of changing times, migration and coming home. Added here is his love for literature. It's a big plus that all writers he features are gifted storytellers as much as he is. As an avid reader who is very concerned about the younger generation only capable of fragmented thoughts growing up with Twitter and Weibo, Swiming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is not only a lamentation of the disappearing past but also an effective reading initiative campaign.