Monday, December 8, 2008

Suzhou River

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.

--Cody Beckman

(Suzhou River 蘇州河, dir. Lou Ye 婁燁, 2000)

Once Upon a Time in China

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.

--Rob Witt

(Once Upon a Time in China 黃飛鴻, dir. Tsui Hark 徐克, 1991)