Monday, December 8, 2008
Lou Ye’s Suzhou River opens with a dialogue between two people, Meimei and her videographer boyfriend, played over a black screen. The dialogue is repeated during its synced mise-en-scene near the end of the film; Meimei presents an ultimatum to her boyfriend, will he look for her with the loving faithfulness that she saw another companion, Mada, relentlessly pursue his lover, Moudan. He distantly replies yes to all her questions, but she responds that he is lying; she knows she can no longer be satisfied in the relationship and leaves. The videographer occupies the role of narrator, and his subjectivity within this role is emphasized by the use of pervasive voice-over narration and point-of-view shot. Returning to the beginning of the film, the dialogue from the end of the narrator and Meimei’s relationship is what incites the narrator to recollect, and, through the recall of memory, reconstruct the complicated story of these four characters.
The story begins some-when, at the end of Meimei and the narrator’s relationship, and shifts into a somewhere, the narrator’s mindscape (we see from his “eyes” through the point-of-view camera), which is grounded within the urban setting around the river. From this highly subjective narrative position we are taken from the Suzhou River to Happy Tavern, where he first meets Meimei. He shifts into a retelling of Mada and Moudan’s story recounted to him by Meimei, and then back to his own experience within the triangle between he, Mada, Meimei. Finally, we “return” to the scene of dialogue from the beginning of the film, the two separate occurrences acting as “book ends” to the narrator’s reconstructive telling.
The crossing paths of the “drifter,” the videographer, and “walker,” Mada, are expressed by differences in space and lighting. The videographer’s Shanghai seems much more restricted, not only by the limitations of the point-of-view frame, but also that his spaces were usually indoors and/or he participated in them during night. As a result of getting the motorcycle Mada can cover more space at an accelerated rate, and when he rides it is usually during the day. The cinematography also opens up more space without the restrictions of the point-of-view; the camera has an objective distance from the action and actors, and reveals more filler space of the city.
This drifting through memory-space seems to me an emotional reconstruction of the urban space of Shanghai through the authorial presence of the narrator, and creates complications with a sense of place. The camera ends up both revealing the cityscape and at the same time constructing it according to the narrator’s subjectivity; only certain places have importance and as they are tied together by the videographer become a pocket of space within the city.
(Suzhou River 蘇州河, dir. Lou Ye 婁燁, 2000)
Once upon a Time in China: borders
Of all of the characters, Aunt 13 is most respective of representing technology and ongoing change; the camera she brings from the west seems to be malicious in that damage is dealt every time it is used. In the beginning when she takes a picture of Wong with a bird, the bird dies, during the fire in the building she grabs the fan, stops to take a picture of the building falling down, gets in the way of Wing trying to put out the fire and the fan she rescued gets partly singed. It is no wonder that by the end everyone is ducking for cover when their picture is being taken. Only two other characters come out as accepting western ideals So and Wong Fei-hung. So seems to adapt well already learning medicine from the west and trying to learn in the east but he is unable to read Chinese. Wong rejects the west outright at first shrugging off wearing a suit and wearing shades but upon hearing that everyone in America wears sunglasses 24/7 he louses them immediately and soon after we see Aunt 13 wearing them at the show. “you can’t fight guns with Kung Fu” is the equivalent “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” Wong realizes this and adapts quickly by flinging a bullet with his fingers like a gun, this perhaps is when the trade off of him to accept the west.
Wong mentions to an official on how Chinese wheat is used to make western bread, and that increasingly more “foreigners” keep buying Chinese land. This calls back to the beginning of the film when the captain asks how Vietnamese will feel when they see the plaque “our land, our people” in that increasingly other people are closing in on china.
On another note, upon re-watching the film I discovered a unique but not so surprising discovery. I watched the dubbed English version, thinking it was the same film only in English. As it turns out this may be considered a different movie altogether. This is more apparent when watched dubbed version and original theatrical release back to back. All of the sound had seemingly been recreated. The music difference seemed more noticeable in the original while the dubbed had graded in so that it was less of a music video. All of the voice talents were good for a dubbed film it was clear or at least not obvious that there was one voice for two or more people unless there was a screaming involved. On the other hand what they said made less sense because of the editing, some things were taken out that developed character, and several lines were throne in to convince me that it was made to cater “the western audience.” The sound FX seemed like they had the original track from the first film.
As for the visual this is almost what makes it two stand alone films: Editing. The only scene left untouched (and for some reason makes me believe it is the most important one) is the measurement scene with Aunt 13 and Wong (or cousin and Wong for dubbed version). From what I can tell every piece of dialog is recreated an not as much as a single frame is missing form the picture. Some major differences happen here that in my opinion make it a lesser version but may have been cut for pacing reasons. First is the beginning, we are on a ship where solders believe they were being attached in reality. However, it was only firecrackers from the Dragon dance. This scene also establishes a painted paper fan handed down over to Wong. Later in the film there is a fire where this fan gets scorched and it is significant. However in the dubbed version the begging scene before the credits is nonexistent and when the fan is on screen Wong says that he doesn’t want the “present.” Second is Aunt 13 and her camera, in the original she takes Wong’s picture with a bird and kills the bird, in the building fire scene she sets up to take a picture of the place coming down in front of her thus for some reason the best spot to take a picture is in Wings way to put the fire out. And in the end scene it is understood why everybody avoids the camera, death seems to fallow wherever it goes. In the dubbed version, the first scene doesn’t happen, the only thing left in the burning building scene is “I have to save my camera” and so by the time we get to the end we don’t get the motivation to avoid the camera of deathly flashing. Third, there are several scenes that are trimmed down or cut out for some reason I can only justify pacing and time maybe in order to show on TV. The first two changes seem the most significant.
(Once Upon a Time in China 黃飛鴻, dir. Tsui Hark 徐克, 1991)
Saturday, November 29, 2008
My favorite parts of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood For Love are the numerous slow motion sequences in which So and Chow simply pass by each other. I have always found that Wong Kar-Wai has the ability to capture intimate yet seemingly empty moments and give them a weight and eminence that may otherwise go unnoticed (if it would exist at all). Some critics have said that Wong Kar-Wai’s style is too pop, too much like an MTV music video. In some ways this could be true. He often uses a fast paced editing scheme, off kilter cinematography and highly stylized and visually contrive sets. All of these are staples of the industrialized music video industry. Indeed, it is necessary to capture the minds of millions of ADD effected preteens, tweens and teens who lack an attention span of more than a few a seconds. However, such a view fails to incorporate many of the other scenes that punctuate Wong Kar-Wai’s films. Scenes such as those intimate passings-by of So and Chow.
Take for example another of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, Chungking Express (1994). The film opens with an action packed sequence in which a drug dealer (Brigitte Lin) sets up a deal with a group of South-Asian immigrants, only be cheated and forced to hunt them down. This portion along certainly follows the MTV paradigm, however, this portion is not the entire story. It is followed by the romance between and Lin’s character and a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro). They meet at a western style bar, go to a hotel and quickly commence to do nothing. Lin is too tired from the nights and excursions and falls asleep, leaving Kaneshiro to stay up and watch movies alone. This is not the long night of explicit and gratuitous love making that would punctuate the supposedly “pop” MTV work that Wong Kar-Wai is accused of. This is expressed even in the bar scene, in which the camera longingly follows the two characters as they sit and talk, with expressive, if not nostalgic long shots. A scene like this would be akin to Ambien to the MTV audience.
This same awareness of pacing and balance can be seen in In the Mood For Love. While it’s highs are not as high as in Chungking Express, In the Mood For Love paces itself against a singular design of fast paced, jump cut sequences (such as when So is running up the stairs in the hotel) and slow arid long takes (such as the slow motion shots) to create a balanced and conscious picture. Even in content, In the Mood For Love breaks from the MTV model. It certainly contains the elements of a Hollywood mass-market plot, circumstantial romance, cheating spouses, etc. However, Wong Kar-Wai does not cheapen the film by turning it into a run-of-the-mill domestic melodrama, or an over the top revenge picture. There are no explicit sex scenes. There are no great explosions or arguments. There is no wealth of tears. Instead this emotionally charged, nostalgic and energetic film plays with a graceful and prudent determination. Balancing the energy of the story and style of the film with a light, yet deliberate cinematic touch.
(In the Mood for Love 花樣年華, dir. Wong Kar-Wai 王家衛, 2000)
The Goddess represents the future of Shanghai. While the city lights are shining and prosperity is abound, Ruan Lingyu's character walks the street attempting to capture some of this prosperity, for her and her baby son. The past is represented by gossipers who have her son kicked out of school, because of his mother's 'alternative' lifestyle. Ruan Lingyu's character, the implied goddess of the intertitles, depicts the future through her steadfast love for her son, which unfortunately leads her to prositution and murder.
What the silent aspect of the film does so well is to create a situation that is not so melodramatic, but tragic. Through facial expressions, the silent monologue of the silver screen, we see the goddess cry and suffer, without feeling she is overacting. The absence of words also remind us that this is a film, but also that these situations are true because of the depiction of the city lights.
The Goddess represents not only the cultural future of Shanghai, but also the future of film in general. Ruan Lingyu's character is shown as a positive force in her son's life, despite being a prositute. Hollywood films until about the 1960s always depicted prostitutes in a negative light. The future of film is in this film, because it moves towards a positive portrait of a desperate lifestyle.
(The Goddess 神女, dir. Wu Yonggang 吳永剛, 1934)
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an Ang Lee film that visually represents the world of wuxia. Wuxia is a blend of martial arts, warriors, magic, and mythical swords. CTHD in a way is similar to one of Gordon Chan’s films, Painted Skin or Wa Pei (Hua pi), which was released recently in September. Similar to Crouching, Tiger Hidden Dragon, Painted Skin is also a martial arts and swordplay film. These two films are different in plot, timeline and characters. Yet, the similarity between them is significant: for instance, they both possess the mythical sword. In CTHD, the Green Destiny Sword is indestructible in term of cutting metals, and in Painted Skin, the Mythical Sword is a very powerful weapon when it is used against ghosts and monsters. When I made the comparison between these two films, I noticed that the director’s intentions for these movies are made for the western audiences.
After viewing CTHD, one of the topics that we discussed in class was why this particular film did not make a good profit when screened in China and Hong Kong, but on other hand did an excellent job in the United States. Besides the copies of pirated disks flowing around in the street, the reason that this film didn’t make a lot of profit in China and Hong Kong is because this is just a typical Chinese swordplay film with the influence of the Western story line. When it comes to swordplay or action films, the Chinese audience seems to pay high emphasis on the action. Without a doubt, this film has done an excellent job in term of cinematography, acting, music and costume, but it does somehow lack the action scenes. Furthermore, the fact that this film wasn’t dubbed into Mandarin was a major disappointment for the Chinese-speaking audiences. Because this film has acquired the actors and actresses from different places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, therefore, most of them do not speak the same standard Mandarin. An example of this is Li Mu Bai, played by Chow Yun Fat in the film, who was criticized for speaking Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. The question arises, why didn’t they just dub the movie into Mandarin in the first place? Now that I’ve seen it, it has made it much clearer that this is a transnational film.
Director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has done an excellent job in creating a bridge between Eastern and Western cinema. The success of CTHD has not only opened up a door for many eastern films, but increased the popularity of Chinese wuxia films in the western world, where they were previously little known.
(Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 臥虎藏龍, dir. Ang Lee 李安, 2000)
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
As a tribute to Yasujirō Ozu, Café Lumière is a fitting update and homage to the career of the Japanese director. The themes often central in Ozu’s films, modernity and generational difference, reveal Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film to be a modern day continuation of those still significant issues. The presence of trains, as in Ozu’s work, are utilized as a symbol of modernity and technology even more prevalent in contemporary society.
Technological progression and modernity have a strong visual presence in the film's diegesis through the repeated element of trains. Similar to Ozu’s films, trains represent the ability to reduce distance between characters in Café Lumière. As society progresses technology is intended as a means to simplify and ease life’s difficulties. Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) reveals that technology, rather than relieve the struggles of distance as families move away from each other, often creates the opposite effect. Train travel in post-war Japan allowed people to connect with each other throughout the country as the rapidly advancing society drew them apart. While trains allowed the family in Tokyo Story to visit each other even as they were spread about Japan, the relative ease of maintaining a physical connection could not bridge the generational gap created by the progressing society. The train was to reduce the time and effort needed to cross great distances, to keep people close figuratively, even when they were in distant locales. The relationship between parents and children in Tokyo Story provides a prime example as the children disregard their parents even after they’ve crossed a great distance to be with them.
The inability of trains to connect people emotionally even as it easily brings them together physically is again exposed in Café Lumière. Early in the film Yoko buys Hajime a conductor’s watch she purchased at a celebration of the railroad’s 116th anniversary. Rail travel in Japan has had many years to advance, forty-one since Ozu’s last film, and it is evident through the prevalence of trains in Café Lumière. Where train travel was once a long, arduous journey in Tokyo Story, it is now an effortless and dominating aspect of everyday life. Yoko travels by train throughout Café Lumière, most notably to her parent’s home. The all-encompassing existence of rail travel in the film is revealed as Yoko traverses the city in her daily life and the country as she visits her parents. Technology has taken over daily existence as large portions of everyday are spent on trains. Despite the relative ease of train travel; Yoko and her parents, while able to visit regularly still have a distant relationship. Technology has allowed them to be physically together yet they know and speak little about their lives. After announcing her pregnancy, Yoko’s parents are unaware their daughter had a boyfriend. Parental concern is voiced between the parents but not discussed with Yoko, particularly her father who never speaks of the pregnancy. Yoko’s plans to raise the child alone emphasize the generational divide as the older generation would not have had a child out of wedlock, especially when a suitable father is available. Advancing technology should make life easier, allowing for more personal time and connection but the generational divide seen in Ozu’s films is only expanding further as time progresses.
While trains emphasize the emotional distance between Yoko and her parents it also provides a connection with Hajime. As the audience is introduced to Hajime, Yoko gives him the conductor’s watch. Hajime and Yoko’s relationship is established upon their first shared scene as the closest one in the film. Hajime’s train recordings are also a topic of conversation between them. One of the most intimate moments of the film is a scene where Hajime shows Yoko a collage of trains forming a womb around himself as a fetus. The film ends as Yoko and Hajime meet on a train as he is recording audio. While technology, in the form of trains, can contribute to the alienation among Yoko and her parents it provides a connection between her and Hajime. Perhaps since they have shared formative experiences they are better able to connect in the midst of the ever-expanding world of technology. Maybe it provides them a common understanding that older generations aren’t completely familiar or comfortable with.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made with Café Lumière, an Ozu tribute that reveals the continuation of technology’s impact on daily life. The divide among the generations in Ozu’s films is shown to have continued throughout the last forty years. The progress of train technology, rather than providing more free time to enjoy life and family has not necessarily accomplished that feat. Café Lumière illuminates the complexities that arise as technology advances and the effect it imposes on daily life and relationships.
(Café Lumière 咖啡時光, dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢, 2003)
Saturday, October 25, 2008
In viewing Comrades, Almost a Love Story, I was reminded of the 1984 film directed by Sergio Leone entitled Once Upon a Time in America, or C'era una volta in America. Perhaps this seems a strange connection to make, as Leone’s film gets stamped with the label of “crime film”, while the somewhat lighter Comrades has marked melodramatic elements- not to mention the fact that the films explore different cultures. In addition to this, the two films are strikingly different in regard to their content and mood. In terms of their similarities, both films tell the story of immigrants living in countries known for promising economic security- America in the case of Once Upon a Time in America, and Hong Kong and later America in Comrades. Perhaps it was the American Dream quality I found in Comrades, one I had never before associated with Hong Kong, which led me to my comparison with Leone’s film.
Following the viewing, one of our topics for class discussion was “Does Comrades feel like a Chinese film?”- This question of Chineseness has maintained a central position in our class discussions since this time. Although this was the first film we watched in the course, I took the stance that Comrades does not feel like a Chinese film, but rather an American film. Now, after having viewed a variety of Chinese language films, I no longer feel that the film has an American quality, but one that expresses trans-nationalism.
In the world we live in, one of increasing globalization, cultural isolation is becoming an impossibility- I believe this can be easily understood through viewing films by directors such as Peter Chan- the director of Comrades . Chan is the child of two Chinese nationals, but was born in Bangkok, Thailand, spent his teenage years in Singapore, and later attended film school at UCLA. He seems to cross international borders without reservation, not unlike his protagonists in Comrades; these characters live in a world that appears to be undergoing rapid change. Perhaps Chan’s film is one predicting such transnational films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which have further complicated the question, “Does this film feel Chinese?”
(Comrades, Almost a Love Story 甜蜜蜜, dir. Peter Chan 陳可辛, 1996)
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
What I wish I hadn't heard before viewing this film is the way in which it is a paradigm for attacks on Zhang Yimou's alleged manufacturing of a false Orientalism. I very deliberately did not read the section on Raise the Red Lantern in Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu's article "National Cinema, Cultural Critique, and National Capital", as was assigned for this class, before seeing the film. I hate being told what to think.
So, in my viewing of Raise the Red Lantern I made a somewhat futile attempt to disregard and previous "knowledge" (aka speculation) on the implications and cultural critique implicit in the traditions and setting of the film. As we discussed in class, there are several reasons that the quirkiness of the family does not represent China as a whole, the first being the apparent surprise in Song Lian’s character when she learns of all this feudal families traditions. Also, most of the subtleties and intricacies of the very dynamic relationship between the four wives are necessarily unique to those for particular personalities. Never in the viewing of the film did I get the impression that the circumstances and roles of the characters the norm in the culture at large. It was however implicit of the possibility of such a chain of events to be allowed to happen, if not unnoticed, unrepented. You might compare this film to Deliverance in this respect. Its doodling banjos and bestiality are infamous. While the events of the film speak to the kind of horrible things people are capable of in a place like the not-so-old rural south, sharing many characteristics with the not-so-old rural china depicted in Raise the Red Lantern, it never implies those activities or the moral worldview represented therein to be the norm of the Nation-State at large.
As nothing more than just another "thinks he knows everything about movies despite knowing nothing about film" critical movie goer, I really enjoyed the films screenplay, acting, story, characters, and music. Most importantly it made you question yourself and the kind of person with whom you can identify. If there was any obvious cultural commentary, to me, it was embodied in the second wife with the "Buddha's face but Scorpion's Heart". All her actions were guided by and justified with an obsession with her reputation. Chinese writers from Lu Xun to Wang Shuo in Please Don't Call Me Human have pointed out China's obsession with saving "face" and how damaging this is to a cohesive and humanistic society.
(Raise the Red Lantern 大紅燈籠高高掛, dir. Zhang Yimou 張藝謀, 1991)