Sunday, April 22, 2007

New Film: Syndromes and a Century

The critical consensus surrounding Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is that the film is mystifying, if not entirely incomprehensible -- though still quite good, whatever that might mean. While I would have concurred with the above after its initial local screening last fall at the New York Film Festival, a second viewing at the IFC Film Center this past weekend, yielded a work of far greater lucidity (at least for this reviewer), while maintaining the same evasive allure.

Syndromes and a Century opens in a country hospital with a young soldier applying for a position with a pretty female doctor. Throughout most of her nonsensical questions -- as in if he prefers squares, circles or triangles... it's the second, and clear ones at that -- the camera remains fixed on the gentleman. This choice sets up part two (of a two part narrative) where the camera fixes on the young woman as she interviews a better-dressed male in an urban hospital . (For the record, Apichatpong has suggested that part one somehow commemorates his mother while part two, his father, both of whom were doctors.)

Similarly, Apichatpong's decision to utilize long, static takes similarly establishes the aesthetic that will prevail in the first part, even as it reflects the languid lifestyle that predominates in its country locations. In contrast, Apichatpong moves his camera more often in the second, urban section (though it is a slow, crepuscular panning that does not denote the quote-end quote frantic pace of city life). Likewise, these urban locales tend to be confined to an antiseptic, colorless hospital whose windows are almost always shut (and therefore, that emits few sounds from the outside world) whereas greens and the saffron of the monk's robes constitute the more colorful palette of the earlier section. Moreover, part one, again in comparison to the second half and the sounds of the humming fans that ventilate the building, is entirely composed of the ambient sounds of the countryside -- that is, of the birds singing, the insects humming, etc. -- which pass in through the open windows on the continual summer winds.

In this pristine back country, Apichatpong emphasizes the act of storytelling that has long been a hallmark of his directorial work -- with his "exquisite corpse" Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) remaining the most obvious instantiation of this interest. Here, we have one tale following another, procuring a narrative that largely proceeds according to a set of digressions that again seems to cohere with the rural pace of life. In one exceptionally revealing example, within a second story that ultimately leads nowhere in particular, an older woman weaves a tale of a solar eclipse that produces this image subsequently. Comparatively, part two, after a Buddhist monk discusses a dream in which he is terrorized by livestock (as he had in the first section, though again from a different camera angle) is exorcised of storytelling, as if it is not only the walden-like natural world that is lost in Apichatpong's urban present/future.

Of course, the second half also lacks the religious presence of the first part, save again for the repetition of the earlier scene. Here, there are Buddha statues to the active monks and their summer festival in part one, where we see a dentist singing songs about teeth. However, this latter detail, far from being an amusing aside, confers an element of the cultural specificity that is conveyed as the purview of the rural episode: Thailand as a land of smiles, which to my understanding has long been a tourist symbol for the nation. Importantly, this same dentist also operates on a monk in both parts, which construe the varying meaning of the two halves -- in the first, he tells the youngish monk about his musical career and inquires about whether he'll receive credit for his good deed (thus showing his respect for the faith) whereas the second iteration is purely silent; in the urban environment the personal is lost -- Apichatpong features statues of individuals to compliment those of the similarly absent Buddhist faith -- as are the emblems of Thai cultural specificity.

However, the urban segment is not purely negation -- though it is this -- but is further a disquieting portrait of an (ecologically perhaps) ruinous present replete with the amputees that populate the white-walled hospital. Moreover, the film's second part concludes with a slow camera movement across a section of micro-fibre tubing that sucks in the smoke which is mysteriously present in the windowless basement (where the ill do their exercises to the airy space where this same action is conducted in the first part).
At this moment, to be sure, Apichatpong's narrative coheres as a pretty clear comparison of the urban and rural, past and present. However, the director then moves outside of the sealed hospital to a set of grassy landscapes that combine the natural and the architectural in the film's short coda. In this regard, it seems as if Apichatpong might be suggesting a tentative solution, though the continued lack of cultural specificity, apart from the pop song-group dance number that closes the film, assures that the director remains ambivalent toward this conventional (new urbanist) proposal. In this way, Syndromes and a Century preserves a degree of ambiguity against which the film's comparative structure largely militates.

Monday, April 09, 2007

New Film: The Wind that Shakes the Barley & Triad Election

The surprise generated by The Wind that Shakes the Barley's Cannes victory last year was not limited to the jury's oversight of the presumed winner, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, but rather extended to its apparent incongruity with the interior orientation and sumptuous aesthetic of jury chair Wong Kar-wai. With Ken Loach's latest finally reaching the States during the past month, the above proposition has become no less quixotic as The Wind that Shakes the Barley appears to be, by quite a large margin, the most conventional official selection from last year's fest. Of course, the symbolic value behind awarding Loach, beyond what it says about those films thought to be front-runners such as Almodóvar's, is self-evidently political, and in keeping with the tenor of Cannes over the past few years, anti-American. And while it isn't much of a stretch to assume that Loach's film is an implicit condemnation of the U.S.'s prosecution of the latest Iraqi war and more broadly, its War on Terror -- particularly when one considers the references Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty make to an illegal occupying army, as well as the extremely viscerally scenes of torture the director includes -- the fact is that The Wind that Shakes the Barley sustains a large degree of ambiguity when it comes to which tactics are best adopted by those opposing the British presence.

After the slaughter of an innocent near the beginning of the film, and the subsequent beating of train officials by British officers, Loach's narrative follows a small band of Republicans as they strike back against the far-better equipped British military. At the center of The Wind that Shakes the Barley --and of the militia itself -- are brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney); the latter is in fact the victim of torture in the aforementioned scene. However, once Britain forwards a truce, Damien and Teddy split ways with the former favoring continued guerrilla violence until Ireland is completely free of the British, whereas Teddy supports a maintenance of the hard-earned peace. While Teddy certainly possesses a moral authority earned by his heroic withstanding of extreme physical torture, Damien's clear socialist sympathies -- even leading the blue-eyed Damien to speak out in protest during the parish priest's homily -- mark the character as an extension of Loach's own oft-articulated leftist politics. As such, one might say that Loach tips his hand in favor of Damien's radicalism, though it is Damien and not Teddy who ultimately meets the greater tragedy -- though Teddy is by no means immune from the tragic either (given especially that he is Damien's brother). Hence, there seems to exist a futility to Damien's radicalism within this context, though it is likewise clear Loach does not endorse the alternative.

Joining The Wind that Shakes the Barley on New York screens later this month -- April 25th to be exact -- Johnnie To's Triad Election (a.k.a. Election 2) also shares with Loach's film a screening at last year's Cannes festival (vehimantly protested by the Chinese government) and as that parenthetical should indicate, political aspirations. In To's case, the enemy is Beijing, which is, as his narrative will make clear, the biggest syndicate of them all. Triad Election, as its sequel-obscuring U.S. title indicates, treats Hong Kong's underworld election with an unwilling, thirty-something tycoon Jimmy (Louis Koo) as the presumptive favorite. To be sure, Jimmy makes it quite clear that he has no interest in becoming the "biggest gangster" inasmuch as he is only interested in "making money." However, if one wants to be a businessman in Hong Kong -- and more pointedly as To suggests, China -- one needs be a gangster. In fact, while said balloting prompts extensive violent machinations as we are compelled to expect from the triad genre, it finally becomes clear that real threat to independent Hong Kong businessmen are not the triads at all, but Beijing. Indeed, China intervenes subsequent to the elections, demanding that centuries of tradition be discarded (for a result that will allow them to control the underworld of the former British colony).

Ultimately, the Triads are powerless against the Chinese, producing a message that may be far less sexy -- and less likely to secure hardware on the French Riviera -- than anti-Americanism, but one that remains a great deal more courageous. In fact To joins Tian Zhuangzhuang (and the latter's 1993 The Blue Kite) as a fearless critic of Beijing, thus reinvigorating a moribund national cinema. Moreover, while perhaps lacking the directorial pyrotechnics of his 2004 Breaking News, for example, Triad Election nevertheless features a great deal more visual inspiration than does The Wind that Shakes the Barley: for instance, in the director's staging of triad conferences in a pitch-black setting, thus removing everything but the visually essential from these meetings, there seems to exist a move toward abstraction in Triad Election that is on par with his genre-reversing The Mission (1999) -- and which matches his thematic revisions of genre. In other words, while Triad Election is every bit as indebted to a tradition of popular filmmaking -- albeit to the Hong Kong action film rather than the Anglo period biopic -- To shows an ambition in Triad Election which is largely absent in Loach's sympathetic portrait of the I.R.A. If only Wong was as brave heading a jury as he is making films (not that I still wouldn't have preferred Climates or heavy-favorite Volver).