Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Café Lumière

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.

--Chris McChane

(Café Lumière 咖啡時光, dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢, 2003)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

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?”

--Alecs Mickunas

(Comrades, Almost a Love Story 甜蜜蜜, dir. Peter Chan 陳可辛, 1996)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Raise the Red Lantern

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.

--Jon Schmitt

(Raise the Red Lantern 大紅燈籠高高掛, dir. Zhang Yimou 張藝謀, 1991)