Sunday, June 28, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Exodus & Fish Story

Pang Ho-cheung's Exodus (Cheut ai kup gei, 2007), screening as part of the 2009 event's "Hong Kong Film: New Action" sidebar, opens with a single, extended-duration, backward-moving take that director Pang pairs with Mozart's "Adagio and Fugue for Strings in C-minor." The shot begins on a tight close-up of a woman's eyes in a photograph, Queen Elizabeth II's as we soon learn (this opening scene occurs during HK's Commonwealth past), with the camera slowly pulling back to further reveal two men standing in their bathing suits and scuba gear. As the camera continues to mobilize backwards, we shortly see four more men dressed identically as they beat a fully-dressed gentleman lying on the ground. After the camera reaches the ground, Pang cuts to the title credit and then to further framings, also scored with classical music, of lead Simon Yam in highly modern urban interiors. As such, Exodus does not immediately explain the opening shot; Pang will withhold this sequence's narrative justification for a later exchange of dialogue: as in the film's primary subsequent plot line, there is a truth contained within this surreal scenario.

Exodus's principle plot subject soon crystalizes with Yam's interrogation of 'Peeping Tom' Nick Cheung, who claims, before suspiciously recanting, that he was attempting to gain evidence of a female conspiracy to murder all men. Again, Pang opts for overt stylization as he pushes in through a thin rectangular window as Yam's careerist uniformed police officer questions the suspect; Pang and cinematographer Charlie Lam's camera continues to move in and back out, reinforcing the actioner's postmodernist-typed art house aesthetic, along side the film's classical flourishes and its 21st century spaces. The image is spectacularly central to Exodus throughout: a low camera placement of Yam working on burnt chads of evidence through a glass table; another similarly low placement of looming, parallel freeways; and a mobile composition in which Pang reverses the visual field by framing one of his two nascent lovers in a wall-length mirror, all rate among the most indelible visuals of the recent HK cinema. Further compositions blend characters and decor, as for instance a bathroom-set narrative insert that combines the two in a single rouge palette, which provides a distant to echo to Pedro Almodóvar's thriller sub-corpus. Moreover, the film's seemingly less frequent and often more subtle sound manipulations equally impress: an extreme long of a worker ascending an industrial vat in a haz-mat suit includes the faint sound of the aforesaid's breath audible under his or her helmet. The capture of image and sound are indeed foregrounded in Pang's 'artful' genre picture.

Fortunately, Pang's narrative command is virtually equally to the control he maintains over his compositions. Focalized largely through Yam's protagonist - we follow him in his uncertainty, his disappearing skepticism and ultimately in his erotic desire - Exodus nonetheless exceeds the lead's knowledge base on occasion, relieving, in these spots, the audience of any uncertainty that it might still have with respect to the central premise. Without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that the film's penultimate extended, explanatory flashback, centering on one of the picture's two female protagonists, provides much of the picture's darkest humor, combining the improbable with the violent in the manner introduced at the outset. Pang's film is sure to be one of the more entertaining offerings in this year's NYAFF, and is almost certain to be its most visually striking.

It is even more imperative to say as little as possible about Yoshihiro Nakamura's highly entertaining Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrî), which seems the prohibitive front-runner for this year's "Audience Award" (following last year's well-deserved winner, Fine, Totally Fine). While I would at this point in the competition slightly favor Pang's offering, if for no other reason than for Exodus's sterling sense of composition in comparison to Fish Story's largely banal DV-imagery, there is no disputing the mainstream Asian pop appeal of Nakamura's latest. In particular this fictional tale of a 1975 Japanese punk record - which we are repeatedly reminded preceded The Sex Pistols breakthrough by one year - that saves the world in 2012, does as much with its coda as any other film this or most years: Fish Story features a Shawshank Redemption (1994)-style closer (and a similiarly easy, story detail-oriented brand of spectatorship) that shows us just how this happens, which the narrative's preceding, jumbled chronology and judicious handling of narrative details manages to keep unclear until the last. Nakamura also manages a substantial quota of humor - the film's ferry-situated Champion of Justice set-piece and its explanatory flashback rife with Karate Kid (1984) references ranks as the unmistakable highlight - that more than justifies the preceding hour and three-quarters.

Exodus screens at the IFC Center, Monday, June 29th at 12:50 PM and Fish Story at 6:15 PM, Thursday, July 2, at the Japan Society.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Eye in the Sky (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Yau Nai-hoi's Eye in the Sky (Gun chung, 2007), co-written by Yau and Au Kin-lee, marks the long-time Johnnie To screenwriter's first directorial effort, following credits in many of the maestro's finest (including, among a number of others, A Hero Never Dies, Running Out of Time, The Mission, PTU, Throw Down, and Election 1 and 2). Whether Eye in the Sky portends anything new in terms of subject matter - in our estimation, no - or world view - not for us to say - what does become immediately clear in Yau's move to the director's chair is his first-time delirium with the potentialities of the camera and sound track. Eye in the Sky is in other words the prototypical first film of ambition, with a style that one might expect to become more restrained in future - for example, becoming less reliant on punctuating zooms. Nevertheless, these very figures are in this instance well suited to the film's surveillance subject, which ultimately elevates Eye in the Sky over routine first film fare. This is a creditable if not promising feature debut.

Eye in the Sky opens with a largely wordless extended set-up, wherein Yau's surveillance aesthetic is employed to encourage the film's spectators to pay attention to the picture's trio of leads, Simon Yam, Kate Tsui and Tony Leung Ka-fai on a Hong Kong city bus. Placed in a position comparable to a viewer of surveillance footage, we do not yet have enough information to avoid incorrect inferences, though Yau will soon divide his principles into Surveillance Unit officers (Yam and Tsui, with the latter auditioning in the film's incipient passage) and criminals (Leung, as well as other Milky Way regulars including Suet Lam as 'Fatman'). In fact, it is Lam's conspicuous presence, always gnawing on something, that provides the SU with their first lead in a jewel heist that likewise opens Eye in the Sky.

Importantly, Lam's predilection for street food corresponds to Eye in the Sky's attention to the sensorium, whether it is these objects' taste and smell, or more to the point, the haptic intimacy generated by Yau's penetrating camera. We as viewers are thus given local color, and as such ritual, to augment the fixed surveillance visuals that otherwise define Eye in the Sky, and therefore to provide a means of locating the perpetrators on the narrative level. The film's surveillance footage, of course, does not presuppose the invulnerability of classical cinema, but instead depend on the visible (the camera and also the SU field agents who perform a similar task) remaining invisible to its' subjects. Eye in the Sky's frequent recourse to telephoto lenses and zooms, while again showing off the tools of the director - as opposed to the screenwriter - manufacture this sense of the viewer trying to hide him or herself from view. (To complete this aesthetic program, Yau produces occasion black & white inserts culled from supposed actual surveillance cameras and utilizes the bars of a televisual image in his optical delimitation of scenes, which he further marks with a cell phone vibration-inflected theme.)

Ultimately, Eye in the Sky makes us aware of the apparatus and the act of filmmaking that again in classical cinema is conventionally minimized. In this sense Yau's feature debut is very much a film about the camera and voyeur in space, a fitting subject for a first time maker (and here we said that his subjects have not changed). This is also a film that permits the magic of cinema to work a narrative trio of miracles at the film's end - or, as the NYAFF's program notes stipulate, it is the eponymous master and maker of the universe who is himself responsible. Naturally, Eye in the Sky's title points to the divine metaphor in the process of filmmaking, while finding a narrative cause for its Bazinian perfect "eye of god" visuals - if God could content himself with a single view- which in many cases Yau grounds in surveillance set-ups. This is a film that, for whatever its visual bells and whistles, retains the logical rigor of the screenwriting craft.

Eye in the Sky is scheduled to screen at 3:35pm, Monday, June 22 at the IFC Center in Lower Manhattan.

Friday, June 12, 2009

New Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, from a Brian Helgeland screenplay, enlarges the case for its helmer as the living embodiment of the auteur theory, without also reaching the heights of the director's finest recent work, or even that of the film's highly entertaining 1974 namesake, from television director (and as far as this writer can speculate, non-auteur) Joseph Sargent. That Scott's latest might be compared unfavorably - in many, but certainly not all respects - to the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, demonstrates the inadequacy of the theory as an automatic generator of quality, without foreclosing against its ability to delineate discrete artistic interventions. Scott is indeed in the midst of what is unmistakably his major artistic period, of which his Pelham 1 2 3 is the latest example, without again attaining the same level as Enemy of the State (1998), Domino (2005), or the director's masterpiece, and one of the great American films of the decade about to conclude, Déjà Vu (2006). Yet for those inclined to the auteurist project of uncovering a discernible artistic presence in the director's chair, Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 will not disappoint, and will be for some, invigorating cinema.

Departing from the original in its relatively ersatz treatment of its New York setting - Sargent's near documentary emphasis on location in the 1974 Pelham One Two Three, by comparison, permitted its spectator to follow the action from station to station along the Lexington Ave. 6-train line - Scott's film rather adopts this location more for what it gets the narrative than for any local inspiration from the setting. (Scott is not another Spike Lee in this respect, with the key similarities between this film and Inside Man [2006], as film scholar Lisa K. Broad points out, aside.) What it allows for is the co-presence of the film's subway car hostage situation - with its status as a terrorist event contested, but ultimately affirmed by the film - and the nearby markers of the American financial system. Whereas Déjà Vu conjugated September 11th with the Oklahoma City bombing of the mid-90s and Hurricane Katrina (I will have much more to say about this film in the current issue of Film Criticism), Pelham 1 2 3 adds the financial sector crisis of 2008-2009 to the personal experience of terrorism shared by the passengers of United flight 93. If the inclusion of a financial sector meltdown signals the eclipse of interest in domestic terrorism for many Americans by the economy, the Anglo Scott nonetheless almost doggedly refuses to forget this decade's defining moment of trauma. His is a much more complete picture of contemporary America than most critics will be willing to concede or even intuit - in spite of its patched together portrait of the Five Boroughs.

Importantly, Scott's New York no longer experiences the surveillance of Enemy of the State's Washington, in its malignant form, nor Déjà Vu's New Orleans in its more benign variety, read into this what you will - perhaps that Americans no longer fear surveillance, though the director does visualize the abducted subway through a web cam conversation, which is the film's most direct attempt at transcribing newish technologies. Then again, there is likewise very little social or technological commentary in Sargent's original - on this basis one could argue for the superiority of Scott's film - save for its portrait of a rather impotent mayor figure; par for the course, certainly, when representing political figures circa 1974. Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 briefly pokes fun at Giuliani's crisis response without exactly providing a positive counter-example in James Gandolfini's philandering incarnation.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 does however shares Scott's previous masterpiece's Christian context, which thanks to Helgeland's screenplay perhaps, takes on a Catholic inflection - as did also the director's 2004, Helgeland-scripted Man on Fire. With explicit mention made of Ryder's (John Travolta) Catholic background - in discussions of original sin (Scott's film does admit the sinfulness of all its protagonists and antagonists) and confessionals - with the concluding cross shape visible over Denzel Washington's shoulder, and the latter's need to redeem himself through a selfless good work, Scott once again, though with a different screenwriter than the tandem he used for Déjà Vu, produces a Christian allegory out of his terror-inspired subject. And as with the earlier film, a new life will be offered to one of the film's characters. While in Déjà Vu this required the re-writing of the past, of "fate" through its science fiction conceit, Scott and Helgeland have effectively classicized their solution in Pelham 1 2 3.

Of course, the term 'classical' should as always be used sparingly and with reservations when discussing the films of Scott. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is certainly no exception with its rapid editing and cross-cutting, its frequent use of slow motion (with variable mimetic precision; this is one of many respects in which Déjà Vu proves the exceedingly superior work) and zooms, the film's tight close-ups filling half of the frame before very shallow depth, its manipulation of the color palette and its combination of pop music (the throbbing refrain of "99 Problems" is the first) and highly effective scoring. Scott's cinema exemplifies David Bordwell's "intensified continuity" every bit as much as it does the auteur theory introduced at the outset.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New Film [Updated]: The Limits of Control (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the third paragraph.

Beset by a series of middling reviews and a release date that is hardly conducive to earning the film additional prestige, writer-director Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is nonetheless the filmmaker's best in at least a decade, and one of the stronger works of 2009's first-half. Conceived, according to the director, as if Jacques Rivette had remade John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), The Limits of Control consequently serves as a Rivette-inspired book-end for the American independent cinema of the present decade, pairing with David Lynch's similarly influenced 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive (which remains, for this piece's authors, the great American film of the 2000s). In other words, The Limits of Control represents a definitive turn toward the surreal modernism of Rivette and Lynch, away perhaps from Jarmusch's position on the vanguard of a cinematic postmodernism, albeit in a form that appears more concerted than the latter's highly intuitive approach.

Starring the Côte d'Ivoire-born Isaach De Bankolé as "Lone Man" - supporting players are likewise identified simply as "Nude" (Paz de la Huerta) and "Blonde" (Tilda Swinton), for example - The Limits of Control follows the lead through a trio of tasks that Jarmusch delineates through Lone Man's sequence of shellacked jackets and jewel-toned shirts (which remain unchanged for the duration of each job). De Bankolé remains impassive and untalkative throughout the film, where each conversation is introduced with his conversant asking if he doesn't speak Spanish; he always orders two espressos in separate cups, established in an early, characteristically wry conversation; and The Lone Man practices tai-chi in his empty hotel rooms, which Jarmusch compares to a subsequent Andalusian flamenco performance. In this gestural similarity, the director's signature conflation of cultures, their postmodern admixture, emerges.

Still, The Limits of Control is conceivably the director's most modernist work, which is established in part through the director's integration of four Reina Sofia-housed art works: as Nick Dawson identifies them on "A Cultural Glossary to The Limits of Control," we consecutively see "El Violin" (1916) by Juan Gris, "Desnudo" (1922) by Roberto Fernández Balbuena, "Madrid Desde Capitán Haya" (1987 – 1994) by Antonio López García and "Gran Sábana" (1968) by Antoni Tapies. With each, all of which explicitly belong to the Spanish modernist canon, Jarmusch introduces the key characters, motifs and thematic concepts that compose his narrative. The cubist "El Violin," for example, in addition to echoing this instrument's presence in the narrative, suggests the picture's indistinct temporality; "Desnudo" foretells the dream-like entry of de la Huerta's likewise named Nude; López García's painterly Madrid cityscape (an artist best known to cineastes as the subject of Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun, 1992) provides a model for the film's subjective understanding of the external world - we are reminded repeatedly that "reality is arbitrary" and that "everything is a matter of perception"; and lastly, the Tapies confers Lone Man's reduction to nothingness, or better perhaps, to a zero point following his final job. Jarmusch succeeds this final museum encounter with Lone Man's change into street clothes, sportswear with an African insignia, and his disappearance into the world community outside.

This conclusion marks the end of the film's Passenger-style (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) journey from the glass and steel of the north to the centuries-old pueblos blancos of Andalusia, and follows the film's lone on-screen hit job, also similar to the Antonioni film, which famously concludes likewise, with Bill Murray, the personification for Jarmusch of all that is wrong with American foreign policy, media and culture, the subject of the assassination. In undertaking this hit, the director identifies himself with those people that Murray's flag pin-wearing villain, comparable in appearance to Dick Cheney, condemns: the artists and musicians, hallucinatory drug users and and holders of bohemian values. This is the film's world community, its check to American militaristic hegemony, that Jarmusch proposes. Ultimately, emerging from Limit's rigorous high-modernist framework, is a sincere, charming, and perhaps somewhat juvenile celebration of art-for-arts sake. Make no mistake, Jarmusch is for the artists, and for the art that provides a hallucination within a universe that has no "center" or edges, a dream "you're never sure you've had."

This last admonition, ascribed to the best films, is made by Swinton's Blonde, who similarly identifies The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) as a source for not only her character but from the film more broadly. The Blonde, in fact, transitions into and out of the fiction marked by a poster depicting the aforesaid in a film read, leaving traces likewise, as will the nude, in a shifting set of transparent visual motifs; in Rivettian fashion, therefore, the fictional world bleeds into the universe that supposedly houses it. There is no outside for The Limits of Control's fiction, where characters such as the Nude appear before they fulfill their narrative function; though Jarmusch imposes a trajectory onto his film, he refuses to ground his lead in a forward flowing temporality. His hallucinations rather seem to disclose the variable temporality established in the Gris reference. As one of Lone Man's contracts puts it, "each one of us is a set of shifting molecules, spinning in ecstasy," providing a framework for the film's flux, Jarmusch's understanding of reality, and even a decisive metaphor for our current digital age.

The Limits of Control thus strongly structures and formalizes the film's key thematic concerns, procured through a clearly readable semantic field. This is a film that makes its own interpretation crystalline. At the same time, Jarmusch, like fellow auteurs Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, produces his organically consistent art for a world view that is, for this essay's authors, less than convincing: even more in fact than a malevolent nature (Grizzly Man, 2005) or nature that wars against itself (The Thin Red Line, 1998), Jarmusch's 'arbitrary' reality, its skepticism informed by perceptual uncertainty, hearkens back to the fan-boy mysticism of the Matrix trilogy. (In many respects, The Limits of Control is its high modernist corollary.) Reality, let us be clear, is not arbitrary, even if perception produces this effect. Nevertheless, the strength of The Limits of Control is the comprehensive expression of the film's ideas, however limited or dated, through its malleable modernist form. Indeed, this is a form that not only de-centers its protagonist, forging an on-going, waking dream, but one that confers this sense of the subjective in stylistic devices from bright flashes and visual disturbances to the frame to an occasionally atonal electronic score, set amid Spain's most chimeric places, from the fungus-like Torres Blancas (pictured) down to Murray's white, hillside fortress, into which Lone Man wills himself. Structured on a principle of theme and variation The Limits of Control involves a great deal of repetition, but far from serving as a minimalist test of its spectators' collective will, it strives more often then not to provide purely sensual pleasures -- syncing up its free flowing images to a pulsating electronic score, it often brings to mind a very thoughtful music video.

So, to the middling reviews: pretentious? Perhaps. Boring? Certainly not.