Friday, June 27, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Sparrow (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Johnnie To's Sparrow (Man jeuk, 2008) is the second of the director's most recent pictures to screen at this year's New York Asian Film Festival - following his supernatural, semi-comic crime thriller Mad Detective (2007) - and though it largely breaks from the director's preferred action idiom, To's very latest is both superior to the fest's other entry and likewise rates as one of the 7th installment's most immediately satisfying works. With Sparrow, To has purportedly created a work with no other intention than to make precisely the film he wanted, which it would seem was a French film from the nouvelle vague era. Not exactly a "New Wave" film, however, as Sparrow's most conspicuous references include Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) and Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) rather than say the films of Truffaut or Godard. In sum, To's latest is a film made in the broader spirit of the era, cobbling together a series of allusions connected by their mutual period and national context, and most importantly, by the director's unmistakable affections.

Sparrow opens with the eponymous animal fluttering into the spartan Hong Kong flat of the perpetually grinning Kei (Simon Yam). As such, To immediately commences with his sequence of references by alluding to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samuraï (1967), whose 1970 Le Cercle rouge, importantly, the Hong Kong director plans to remake for a 2009 release. Kei, as we will discover in the following scene, is a pickpocket, prompting the aforesaid Bresson paean: specifically, To alludes to the balletic, train-bound theft that earlier marked the French director's perfecting of (action) film editing. Yet, both of the opening sequences are imprinted with a lightness that is at once incommensurate with its Melville and Bresson sources and also perfectly at home in the To film; the song-and-dance sequence of Demy feels eminent throughout - no doubt thanks to the Michel Legrand-style score which Termite Artist R. Emmet Sweeney noted following the screening.

While there are other obvious allusions worth noting, from a pair of set pieces utilizing ballons - think the recently re-fabricated The Red Balloon - to the Umbrellas of Cherbourg denouement, Sparrows remains more than the sum of its references. For one, this is a film of unsurpassed tactility, registering in the bird's light feet on Lam's hand, the razor blades that the jovial pickpockets hide on their tongues, the spikes driven into Kei's hand or the female lead's (Kelly Lin) smooth touch of another's hand. Like the heightened abilities of Bresson's Dostoevsky-inflected lead, To's players manifest a similarly magnified sensitivity, which the director routinely emphasizes in his precise mise-en-scène. While Sparrow may largely lack the action set pieces of say an Exiled (2006), To's filmmaking is exceedingly skilled as always, mixing the director's commonly mobile takes with a profusion of disparate angles (many of which favor an overhead position).

Speaking of set pieces, it makes a good deal of sense that To would favor relatively discrete blocks of narrative given the picture's two year gestation period - not that To's more rapidly-completed works possess a markedly different character. Consequently, it is also at this level that those things which most recommend the superb Sparrow become evident: as for instance the film's commendable light comedy, which can be witnessed in a pair of fine elevator-based set-ups. In other words, while Sparrow may be more than the sum of its references, it very much remains (in the best sense) a sum of its parts.

In the above respect, Sparrow does accord within To's traditional practice. On the level of theme, likewise, we can further see its explanatory value, particularly in his latest's emphasis on game-play (a key theme in many of the director's films, including his sterling 1998 A Hero Never Dies). Here, To's concluding shootout is replaced with what amounts to a contest of skill, centering on the protagonists' profession, with the film's beautiful female lead as the ultimate prize. In this extraordinary passage, the libidinal and violent are replaced by the game, which retroactively confirm the significance of this theme across the director's corpus. His is a cinema of prowess, where his players (within the director's equally achieved mise-en-scène) are forever called upon to show their level of skill, be it in his generically-prompted shootouts or in Sparrow's substitute 'game.'

Though singular on the level of narrative, Sparrow nevertheless emerges as central to To's craft as a whole; the film's differences reinforce the film's essential similarities to the director's body of work.

Sparrow screens at the IFC Film Center in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, July 2nd at 9:40 PM.

Update: See the aforementioned Sweeney's analysis here. As always, Rob's post is exceedingly well-written and insightful; note especially his underlining of Hong Kong's centrality to Sparrow (a point we forgot to mention). If there is a theme to the 7th NYAFF thus far, it would seem to be its selections' love affairs with the continent's highly photogenic cities.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Dainipponjin (by, Lisa K. Broad)

The charming Superhero mockumentary Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) opens with a wistful ode to ode to the compact umbrella, which despite its diminutive size, is able to grow large and shield its owner in an hour of need. Dai-Sato, played by writer-director Matsumoto, has a particular fondness for expanding objects because they remind him of himself; in his role as superhero Dainipponjin (a.k.a. Big Japan Man) he too must grow to several times his size to protect Japan from monstrous “baddies.” Throughout the film mild-mannered Dai-Sato is shadowed by an unseen cameraman/interviewer who attempts to get a sense of Dai-Sato’s life as a 6th generation Dainipponjin. It quickly becomes apparent that the superhero’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dai-Sato lives in a rundown shack whose gate is defaced by graffiti and heckling notes. As the filmmaker follows Dai-Sato inside, his camera lingers on the overgrown lawn and rundown child’s swing set that hint at Dai-Sato’s troubled domestic life. Dai-Sato longs for the days of his grandfather’s reign when baddies were plentiful and Superheroes were idolized by children and respected by adults. When we finally witness Dai-Sato’s transformation into Dainipponjin, it is preceded by a shabby religious ceremony in an outbuilding of a local power plant. The presence in the background of a sheepish looking employee wearing a windbreaker illustrates with comic precision how much the lot of the superhero has declined since golden era. Later, in a very funny sequence we meet Dai-Sato’s senile grandfather who escapes from his nursing home, transforms into diaper clad giant, and wreaks havoc in an attempt to reclaim his youth.

In terms of its tone and subject-matter Dainipponjin is very much of its moment. It shares The Incredibles’ (Brad Bird, 2004) interest in the everyday logistics of super-heroism, while also partaking in a gentler version of the cringe comedy made popular by television shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the often unlikable protagonists portrayed by Ricky Gervais and Larry David, Matsumoto is a thoroughly cuddly sort who is devoted to his housecat and proudly takes his young daughter to visit the bunny rabbits at the petting zoo. Stylistically, Dainipponjin is intensely heterogeneous. The handheld interview segments which consist mostly of static long-takes and following shots derive much of their droll humor from the juxtaposition of foreground and background action. The sequences where Dai-Sato transforms into Dainjipponjin parody the rapid montage style and pulsing techno music of contemporary action films, while the monster fights are rendered in the idiom of video games (before each battle a dossier flashes onscreen to highlight each Baddie’s powers and weaknesses). A giddy coda section featuring the American “Super Justice” Family makes whimsical use of antiquated models, reveling in the current nostalgia for pre-CGI effects evinced by Michel Gondry’s similarly funny and poignant Be Kind Rewind (2008).

Dainipponjin screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Friday, July 4 at 2:30 PM.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Sad Vacation

Writer-director Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation (2007), one of nine New York Asian Film Festival entries originating from upstart Japanese production-distribution outfit Stylejam, completes a loose trilogy that also includes the filmmaker's 1996 Helpless and his 2000 Eureka, which for many cinephiles, this writer included, continues to rank as the finest Japanese film of the current decade. On the basis of the latter achievement alone - the only of Aoyama's films I've had the privilege to see - Sad Vacation easily ranks as one of the most hotly anticipated of this year's NYAFF selections, at least for those spectators who incline more towards the art house than the grindhouse.

Sad Vacation early on seems to meet precisely these very high expectations. Following an opening pre-credit passage that re-introduces Helpless's protagonist, Tadanobu Asano's Kenji, into Aoyama's narrative universe, we see Asano/Kenji floating down a lazy river like Michel Simon in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) - or better yet André Bazin's description of Simon floating in the Marne, "yellow" and "glaucous" with its "tepid" August warmth. Aoyama has resurrected this image in the precise colors that the film theorist once used. Hence, Aoyama has shown himself to be an attentive student of his former University of Tokyo professor Shigehiko Hasumi; the spectacle of the everyday comes vividly into focus in this early passage, as does the director's unmistakable sensitivity for texture.

The film's essential looseness continues throughout much of the film's first two-thirds, in spite of the dramatic pyrotechnics that mark Aoyama's equally conspicuous melodrama. These two tendencies combine in the picture's Kyūshū garage, into which Kenji moves after spotting its proprietress, his long-lost - absentee - mother (Eri Ishida). Kenji, still with an enormous amount of animus toward his mother and perhaps intent on exacting some measure of revenge for her past neglect, brings with him Yuri (another Helpless holdover) and the Chinese boy Achun whom he had saved in the picture's opening sequence - in other words, he brings his surrogate family to the second collection of drifters who have congregated at the Mamiya's place (among these is Eureka's young heroine Kozue, Aoi Miyazaki), themselves forming such a grouping. In this way, Sad Vacation reapplies one of the key thematic constructs of the director's 2000 masterpiece: the reconstituted familial unit.

Moreover, since many are also heroes of the earlier two works, they also live with the same traumas they did in the earlier pictures. Indeed, this reusing of prior characters marks the film's most formally compelling feature. (The flash-forwards that pepper the narrative - the other most noteworthy device in Sad Vacation, which the NYAFF's program notes compare to The Limey - though distinct, do not appear to possess a similarly organic narrative function.) Specifically, Aoyama's narrative strategy constructs a diegetic world that emerges as far more than the sum of the film's plot elements. Like the spiritual undercurrent, a key subtext of Eureka similarly, which is expressed in a sign that we return to on multiple occasions - "We are not alone" - the film's story world extends far beyond the visible. As with The Darjeeling Limited, this is a film with a clearly articulated author (perhaps the explanation for the flash-forwards?) and with many narratives threads that might have been pursued alternatively.

But it is that favorite contemporary Japanese theme of the dysfunctional family (spanning back to at least Yoshimitsu Morita's fine 1983 The Family Game) that Aoyama pursues. While Aoyama's vision remains lucid throughout the picture's final third, with both his explicit condemnation of Japanese mothers and fathers and his humanistic affirmation that we must concern ourselves with the living - though Kenji's mother's heartless statement of this view is less credible - the film's plot becomes ever more labyrinthine in Aoyama's attempts to weave in its rhyming antecedents. Consequently, it becomes increasingly evident that Sad Vacation fails to stand on its own as a feature, requiring an awareness instead of not only Eureka but also Helpless - less to understand the film's transparent point-of-view than to juggle its ever-multiplying character count. What had been a languid float through the water and then a digressive congregation of the damned finally becomes a test of character recongition that detracts from Sad Vacation's greatest strengths.

And then there is the Sad Vacation itself, narratively repeating the theme of the eponymous Johnny Thunders song that scores the opening credits. With said "vacation" we have one last melodramatic turn, which collectively constitute a piling on that cancels Sad Vacation's earlier promise.

Sad Vacation screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Sunday, July 6 at 1:15 PM.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Adrift in Tokyo / Tenten

As one of the twenty-six feature-length Japanese pictures screening at this year's New York Asian Film Festival - among the forty-three films total - writer-director Satoshi Miki's Adrift in Tokyo (Tenten, 2007) may not rate particularly high on many Asian cineastes lists of must see's - considering especially the presence of such higher-profile auteurs as Takeshi Miike (Sukiyaki Western Django), Shinji Aoyama (Sad Vacation), Hur Jin-ho (Happiness) and Johnnie To (Mad Detective and Sparrow), to say nothing of its ever popular slate of Manga adaptations, J-horror and hardcore action. Yet, it somehow might be too much to expect that any of the other forty-two will match Miki's fifth feature, a comedy of extraordinary narrative simplicity and organic interdependence that finally provides a physic alternative scenario for the film's two - presently - family-less leads.

Among the film's many sterling comic set-pieces, Adrift in Tokyo opens with creditor Fukuhara's (Tomokazu Miura) arrival at slacker law student Takemura's (Joe Odagiri), where the former shoves his sock in the latter's mouth - before complaining that it has become damp upon sliding it back on - and where the latter is left with the same three-stripe Aquafresh on his rump that he proudly noted purchasing in the film's introductory voice-over. Miki registers this opening sequence in wide-angle, long shots that maintain longer-than-average durations. Here his hand-held camera is affixed to a tripod, which importantly will be eliminated for much of the film's remaining run time.

As Adrift in Tokyo proceeds, Miki's camera is indeed mobilized alongside the film's narrative. Speaking of the latter, Fukuhara offers Takemura the opportunity to pay his debt by accompanying him on a walk around the city (with its end to be stipulated subsequently by Fukuhara). With Fukuhara assuring Takemura that his intentions are neither criminal nor untoward - though there is a narrative justification that Fukuhara will soon supply - they commence their "wanderings" around Tokyo, a city that Fukuhara notes is "perfect for taking walks" becuase of its "varied scenery." In fact, it is precisely the film's setting that soon emerges as one of the film's primary subjects, be it an autumnal sidewalk or a nocturnal, neon-saturated thoroughfare. Miki succeeds continually in locating the picturesque in the world's largest metropolis. Adrift in Tokyo thusly reminds us of the paramount importance of place in this most setting-dominated of artistic forms. Of course, the signifance of the background and the film's many cityscape inserts are not inescapably readable as the film's point, and as such can procure a sense of loss in their own belatedly focused reception. Upon Adrift in Tokyo's conclusion, in other words, I felt the need to almost immediately see it again.

However, it is just as often the city's indescript corners of Tokyo that attract the filmmaker's attention. In one instance, Fukuhara and Takemura encounter a small, stand-alone watch retailer; Fukuhara proceeds to ask the proprietor how such a business can survive to which the latter responds by showcasing his martial arts prowess. In precisely such an instance, Miki effectively highlights his concern to document an evanescing city and also his supreme comic talents. This is a film that is equally parts poignant and comic.

With respect to the film's comedy, a number of the finer moments are supplied by Mrs. Fukuhara's three co-workers, who themselves constitute the picture's primary sub-plot. We are introduced to the trio with one asking the others to smell his horrifically-scented coif - evidently, we are told, it has the mossy and earthy smell of a "cliff." Or, there is their diverting turn as film extras for aged actor whose sighting is said to bring good luck.

In many respects, as funny as Adrift in Tokyo is, it is the film's poignancy that stands out. To be sure, the pair's walk - for reasons that have been elided in this review - is quite likely the final journey through Tokyo for one of the two. This finality is reflected in the picture's autumnal setting and extended into the types of places (like the watch shop) that the pair encounters. It becomes, moreover, an opportunity for Takemura to be sutured into a family for the first time in his life - in one fine instance, Fukuhara even pretends to be his father and one of the older gentleman's female acquaintances, his mother - and for Fukuhara to take his walk, a favorite pastime of he and his wife's, with a stand-in for his long dead son. In this respect, Adrift in Tokyo repeats a seemingly common recent Japanese refrain of the broken family remade by unrelated surrogates.

Adrift in Tokyo
ultimately enacts an alternate past for one of the two leads, and substitutes for a future that the second might not get. In the form of comic divertissement, Miki has created a total work of art.

Adrift in Tokyo screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Thursday, July 3 at 4:20 PM.

Monday, June 16, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Mad Detective

Warning: the following post contains partial spoilers.

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai's Mad Detective (2007, Hong Kong), from a screenplay by Wai and Au Kin Yee, represents To and Wai's first directorial collaboration since 2001's superlative Fulltime Killer, with which it shares a heightened sense of its own status as cinematic form - beyond To's ever-present generic awareness. Here this increased emphasis is procured both visually, in the conspicuous lens flaring that pairs with To's ubiquitous low-key lighting, and narratively (no doubt owing, at least partially to co-writer, co-director Wai's contribution) in the re-introduction of the figure of the double - or in the case of Mad Detective, septuple.

Mad Detective orbits around Lau Ching Wan's soon-to-be ex-detective Bun, whom we first see investigating a crime by being kicked down a flight of stairs while voluntarily inside a suitcase; he then offers an ear that he has chopped off to honor a retiring officer. Suffice it to say that Bun is the eponymous detective. Following a subsequently-introduced officer's 18-month disappearance, Lau is invited to assist for his investigatory brilliance. Yet it is less his analytic abilities, as we soon see, than his facility to see through to a person's true personality that accounts for his unique skills as a detective. To and Wai handle this plot element by fluidly replacing the film's characters with separate performers to represent their inner-selves, or in the case of the missing cop's partner, his seven selves (including a sweaty, overweight replacement and a sexy, female superego). Consequently the lightly surreal effect of the pair's strategy at times simulates the perceptual experience of Bun and his seamless transitions between reality and fantasy - an alternation supported well by the assertive nature of the cinematic image.

Mad Detective culminates, fittingly, in a Lady from Shanghai-inflected house of mirrors where the picture's multiple doubles (and septuples) replace figural reflections. With each in search of his missing gun - a generic staple, to be sure - To and Wai's generic revision racks into focus. At this juncture, the filmmakers have crystallized their reframing of internal character conflict by contrasting it with its generic predecessors: the bodies are reflected by other figures with the shattered glass on the ground beneath. While ultimately Mad Detective may not mark the height of To's commercial cinema powers, To and Wai's film nonetheless reinforces the pair's collaborative identity, while offering more than serviceable revisionist filmmaking.

Mad Detective screens Sunday, June 22 at 7:20 PM at the IFC Center in New York. It is also available on a Mei Ah region 3 DVD with English subtitles.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Now at The Museum of Russian Art, Minneapolis: A Breath Withheld and a Tradition Extended

A relative newcomer to the Twin Cities' premiere art museum roster (see The Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum and The Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul), The Museum of Russian Art in South Minneapolis is to the Upper Midwestern scene as the Hispanic Society of America is to the New York art world: a little-known gallery gem devoted to the art of a single nation and housed within an architectural curiosity.  And with the museum's current hangings, "The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" and "Russian Impression on the Edge of Soviet Art," the Minneapolis exhibition space proves every bit as indispensable to its unique cultural landscape as is its spiritual cousin.

"The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" features the work of turn-of-the-twentieth century photographer Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), who attempted a process of color photography in chronicling the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.  Prokudin-Gorskii's method involved photographing the same subject three times in rapid succession, utilizing red, green and blue filters in the sequential frames.  These individual stills, originally captured on a single, narrow glass plate mounted to the camera, have been re-combined digitally to construct early twentieth century color photographs with a distinctly stereoscopic look.  Yet, given that these images contain three different moments of registration, this is not conventional color photography - of a single fragment of time, but images of duration, a proto-cinema made shortly after its inception.

Nowhere is this work's unique ontology more visible than in a Georgian-set photo, "Harvesting Tea," which like most of the work in the show remains undated.  Here we have a series of women and children lined up with their baskets as they face the apparatus.  While the majority of the figures are presented in crisp focus, a few show some blur, which given the image's three-color process, registers in both an indistinctness and also single segments of non-naturalized color: for example, a girl near the left edge wears a bonnet that has become almost violet (haloed in yellow) with her apparent movement.  Similarly, a young woman's headscarf to her right has separated into a vivid green, while her face featuring pink and green highlights is procured without clarity.  Likewise, this same pink and green is visible in the vegetation below their feet, thereby indicating a slight breeze touching the flora.

As such, Prokudin-Gorskii's method creates not only an approximate facsimile of the colors elided in most of the period's photography, but a trace of duration, where the stillness of the standing figures is made all the more apparent by their contrast to their blurred counterparts.  What we see in other words, is an index of figural movement and its absence - which, though true of traditional photography of the period, remains implied in images of a single duration.  This is photography not as an indivisible moment of time, but of a short series of moments, of a breath withheld by each of the photograph's human subjects.

Of course, the primary interest for most in "The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" (not even excluding myself, necessarily) is the ethnographic content of these images.  Among the many curios on display is "Iconostasis in the Church of St. John the Theologian" with its wall of icons and extravagant ornamentation; a similarly excessive, patterned Islamic interior, "Home of a Wealthy Sart" in Uzbekistan; the lone surviving photograph of a church destroyed during the Soviet period of iconoclasm ("The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God in the Ipatevskii Monastery"); the lone descendant of Genghis Kahn, "The Emir of Bukhara," 1911 (pictured above); the mustard-hued water in "The Shilovskii Mine," Ural Mountains; and the emblematic "Armenian Woman" in the Artvin-Caucasus Region with her blue and red velvet dress as she stands before an infinitely green wood.  As with the Georgian image described formerly, her headpiece is slightly blurry owing to what seems likely a sudden, uncontrolled movement.  Thus we might say that an unconscious details the uncanny in "The Lost Empire."

In the museum's primary, ground-level exhibition space, "Russian Impressionism on the Edge of Soviet Art" provides an extensive survey of a style that remained prominent in Russia and the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century.  Among the showcase's many highlights are the works of Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gerasimov (1889-1963), grouped in a dimly lit side gallery where the artist's unique textures (the mimetic wetness of "After the Rain," 1930s, and the thick, again liquidy impasto of "Still Life with Flowers," 1935) and his idiosyncratic processes (in "Trees in Bloom," 1930s, the artist's blue background was applied following the registration of the tree's branches, thus making interchangeable the image's fore and back-grounds) become evident.  Sharing this space, among others, is Filipp Andreevich Malyavin (1869-1940) whose earlier "The Seer," 1900s, manages a Rembrandt-esque ocular vortex collapsing in the orange-colored eyes of its eponymous figure.

Highlights of the main gallery space include the Tkachev Brothers' (Sergei and Aleksei Petrovich) handsome twilight "Evening," 1955, and their equally eros-infused "The Washing Woman," 1956, where a faraway enough viewpoint confirms that the woman is performing the action in her brasserie; Mikhail Yurevich Kugach's undated "Ancillary Textile Works" with its transparent blue materials that wrap a foregrounded female figure; a similarly slightly clunky though still evocative Hooper equivalent "In the Factory Canteen," 1950; Amir Khushulovich Valiakhmetov's (1927- ) Kokoschka-flavored 1990s "Golden Wedding Anniversary" with its inclusion of every imaginable hue; a fourth Gerasimov, "Pionerka," 1930s, with a saturating orange light that infuses this highly erotic portrait of its young female subject; and Eduard Georgievich Bragovsky's "Logging on the Vetluga," 1964, with its equally vivid red hued peasant woman recalling the visual lexicon of prevailing Socialist realism. Before and after the Soviet takeover, what emerges is the extraordinary palette of the Russian empire.

"Russian Impressionism" runs through September 13, 2008.  No end date is currently listed for "The Lost Empire."  Special thanks to Lisa K. Broad for her insights plagiarized above and to my mother and unparalleled Minnesota advocate, Debby Anderson, for planning the excursion.