Tuesday, June 28, 2011

10th New York Asian Film Festival: The Chaser & Ninja Kids!!!

Now in its tenth year of providing New Yorkers with a more robust and complete picture of the cinemas of contemporary Asia, thanks to its emphasis on the multitudinous entertainment-first forms that have remained mostly outside the purview of the City's annual autumnal art cinema showcase, the 2011 New York Asian Festival will accelerate its focus on one of the more vital channels of the continent's popular modes, the Korean action thriller. Grouped under the heading, "Sea of Revenge: New Korea Thrillers," the NYAFF will be presenting a half-dozen features made in the wake of the extraordinary, industry-saving popularity of Na Hong-jin's The Chaser (Chugyeogja, 2008), along with the genuine article (for the first time at the Manhattan event). Na's handsome, if brutal 2008 debut fits the NYAFF's specific cultural imperative: highly accessible, and, in the case of The Chaser, well-crafted popular film art that the parallel cineaste culture has long had the habit of overlooking in its continuing (though laudable) search for new global forms and distinctive auteurs - a pursuit that has favored the 'twice-told' singularity of Hong Sang-soo's idiom, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the conspicuous humanism of Lee Chang-dong's novelistic, mid-level work. Whereas festival-heavyweight Hong's closed system derives foremost from Eric Rohmer's overtly verbal, art-house body of work, for example, The Chaser emerges from a set of more popular sources including the double-chase story structures of Alfred Hitchcock, the abject serial-killer narratives - and under-lit spaces - of David Fincher, and especially from the revenge archetype and predilection for cross-cutting of Don Siegel's classic Dirty Harry (1971), which Na further references in his own hillside neon cross and a last-minute rescue plot-line that resolves itself in a similar fashion to the Eastwood vehicle.

While The Chaser accordingly proves a comparative bleak portrait of sadistic violence and revenge short-circuited, Na nevertheless manages to incorporate a sly sense of humor within his pulsing prostitutes, pimps, crooked cops and killer johns story-line. Na generates comedic effects both on the level of form, as in one especially adept elliptical hard cut where a relatively placid police house is replaced by a teaming space of screaming officers, and through his character's behaviors, with the eponymous detective-turned-pimp Kim Yun-seok's immediately callous treatment of the young daughter of his missing call-girl (Seo Yeong-hie) a particularly memorable example. Kim, whose performance propels Na's film in much the same way that Yang Ik-joon's does in the actor-writer-director's 2009 NYAFF peak Breathless (Ddongpari), ultimately comes to serve as a guardian for the young girl, which in turn infuses The Chaser with the same sentiment that Lee Jeong-beom magnifies for his comparatively lesser, surrogate father-daughter 'Sea of Revenge' offering, The Man from Nowhere (Ajeossi, 2010).

If The Chaser therefore offers comparatively old-fashioned pleasure within an essentially conventional narrative form, Miike Takashi's Ninja Kids!!! (2011), based on the extremely popular and exceedingly long-running animated series Nintama Rantarō (1993-present), suggests a newer mode of digital-era storytelling, wherein the act of telling increasingly has come to supersede more traditional modes of showing. Throughout Ninja Kids!!!, Miike's narrative frequently stops in order to identify the film's many would-be ninjas and the school's instructors, as well as to explain their off-beat training regimens, with pre-pubescent, bespecled superstar Katô Seishirô, in the Rantarō role, providing the consistently humorous, Wes Anderson-brand informational voiced-off commentary. (Given that Miike is, in essence, adapting a 1,450-plus episode animated series makes Ninja Kids!!!'s emphasis on information all the more understandable.) Miike does no less violence to the naturalism and integrity of his film's spaces, whether a warrior is tearing through a digitally composited background or one of his many figures is sporting a pink, solid plastic bump on his head. Indeed, the film's animated origins often return to the fore, with Chuck Jones especially emerging as a key influence on Miike's over-arching self-reflexivity.

Ultimately, Ninja Kids!!! represents the latest entry into the international, boarding-school sub-genre that Harry Potter has come to define over the previous decade, albeit with a much greater quotient of fart-jokes, piles of animal excrement and gleefully irresponsible moments of slapstick violence. Ninja Kids!!! likewise distinguishes itself from the far (and needlessly) darker Potter pictures in its consistently on-point sense-of-humor, whether Rantarō is racing through a watery battlefield with arrows whizzing past his head, playing up the melodrama as a comedic cut changes the perspective on the mountain that he and his classmates are scaling, tossing his throwing stars in a game of catch with his unsuccessful ninja father or whether he is insisting simply that all ninjas love Ramen. Though the episodic Ninja Kids!!! does at times lose its early comedic verve, there are more than enough highlights to recommend the ever-prolific and sadistic Miike's enjoyably misguided attempt at making a children's film.

The Chaser will screen once at 3:15pm, Thursday, July 14, at the Walter Reade Theater, while Ninja Kids!!! will received its world premiere at 7:00pm, Sunday, July 3 at the same venue, with an encore presentation at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 9 at 6:00pm.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

Over the Edge: Tsui Hark's The Blade (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Tsui Hark’s The Blade (1995), which will receive a rare 35mm screening at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, is a mythical beast of a film. Cheng Cheh’s steel-plated revenge tale The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) provides its underlying narrative skeleton, and the rest is stitched together from marked flesh, mud, blood, smoke, fire, flashing lights, and shifting shadows. Much of the film is told from the point of view of the spoiled and cloistered young daughter of a sword factory owner, who lusts after two of her father’s employees, On and Iron Head. Her hothouse subjectivity lends the early sequences in the factory a vivid, sadomasochistic tactility that persists throughout the entire film. Tsui’s camera draws out the contrasts between the soft, pale hands of a monk and the tanned, scarred bodies of the sword factory workers who cut their muscled biceps in a Buddhist ceremony; it takes in the tattooed visage of Lung, the flying über-assassin who killed On’s father. The Blade also draws a series of parallels between men and animals, equating human flesh with raw meat.

Like Sam Peckinpah, Tsui pursues his genre-revisionist ends by juxtaposing brute physicality with disorienting stylistic abstraction. (An early sequence in which a group of laughing young men lure a dog headfirst into a bear trap recalls Peckhinpah’s The Wild Bunch [1969] while also foreshadowing On’s maiming at the hands of bandits.) Discussions of the film’s visual style often make reference to its use of frenetic cutting during the action sequences, but montage is not the only weapon in Tsui’s cinematic arsenal; every stylistic element is a freely moving part. Tsui consistently juxtaposes spatially and temporally disjunctive editing with teeming multi-planar compositions filled with whirling-dervish swordsmen, complex and frequently erratic camera movement, hallucinogenic primary colored lighting, and a bombastic musical score. The result is a kind of infernal overtonal-montage; a deranged work of film art that can only come to life in the projector. The Blade also makes extensive use of shadows, lens-flares, and reflections that – as a result of the rapid movement both within and between the film frames – often feel as real and solid as the objects photographed. In particular, a vertiginous action sequence set among ruined bamboo shelters creates a graphic lattice-like pattern of light and shadow that is truly avant-garde. After a while, the sensory overload is so extreme that the eye can no longer ‘look into’ the image-space; the illusion of depth is completely destroyed, and the motion-picture is revealed for what it is. A heady mixture of flesh and phantom that far exceeds the sum of its parts, The Blade will break you down.

The Blade will screen at 6:00pm, Saturday July 11 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.  Filmmaker Tsui Hark will be in attendance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Film: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the writer-director's era-bending perambulation through an unceasingly picturesque City of Lights - Darius Khondji (Se7en, 1995) and Johanne Debas deserve immediate citation for their deeply alluring lensing of the shifting French capital - manages to speak unerringly on the level of and to its assumed audience member (urban, liberal, upper-middle class and late middle-aged), without ever threatening even a hint of discomfort for the same bourgeois viewer. In a profound sense, Midnight in Paris is a work by and for America's complacent elite upper classes, for those who would deign to wonder aloud 'why anyone would live anywhere else when they could live in Paris,' or who still imagine that the nation's power-brokers consist predominately of French-hating, aesthetically insensate Republican W.A.S.P.'s, who (against all odds) still live in California. In this latter sense, the 'Marie Antoinette' Allen's cultural-cum-demographic politics belong squarely to the director's formative 1960s and 1970s, with just a dash of a more contemporary, Bush and Tea Party-hating variant of the director's signature 'bigotry for the Left.' Though the spectator is reassured that Allen's Owen Wilson surrogate is the one who always stands up for the help - of course does, don't all our betters? - Midnight in Paris has a serious class-problem, which ultimately manifests itself in Allen's extraordinarily anesthetized tourist's portrait of the French capital. Where Whit Stillman's similarly luminous, romantic and exceedingly verbal Metropolitan (1990) did manage a lower middle-class outside, Midnight in Paris remains squarely within the latter-day equivalent of the haute-bourgeoisie that Luis Buñuel skewered in the same Exterminating Angel (1962) to which Wilson's writer lead Gil refers in a fantastic encounter with the Spanish-born director. Of course, Allen, forever in his echo chamber, misses the irony that it is exactly his social class that Buñuel would ravage at present.  

Never mind, Allen wants you to know that he knows that Buñuel was a Surrealist. And that Ernest Hemingway wrote brusquely about the war and traveled to Mount Kilimanjaro, that F. Scott Fitzgerald married a ball-of-fire named Zelda, and that Auguste Rodin sculpted. Of course, Allen is no less inclined to ridicule Sorbonne-lecturer Michael Sheen's pontifications on any and every work of art that the Americans encounter, with Gil finally silencing the aforesaid with a bluff about Rodin, taken from an invented two-volume biography. Sheen's blowhard Paul, no less apt to resort to fiction presumably, responds to the writer's incantatory citation of authority, which Allen seems to suggest is all that matters to those egg-head academics. Allen's artist Gil, on the other hand, really cares about the art; he's the one who dreams about the past, and who is enraptured by meeting the Hemingway's and the Fitzgerald's and the Gertrude Stein's (which presents an undeniable, if shallow parallel pleasure for Midnight in Paris's acculturated viewers). The bourgeois Allen's surrogate truly treasures his Cliff Notes experience of "Lost Generation"-era Paris.      

Fortuitously, Stein, Hemingway et al. appreciate Gil's literary gift, just as we are asked to imagine the early champion of Henri Matisse and the author of The Sun Also Rises (1926) would value the work of our own age's evidently no-less gifted auteur. However, Allen's own writing in Midnight in Paris happens to interfere with this assumption, given how screamingly bad 'everything anyone ever says' actually is in the director's latest - a mouthful to be sure, but then again I would never assume that André Bazin or Manny Farber would be impressed by my prose. A self-deprecating Albert Brooks Allen most assuredly is not. Nor again he is a Stillman whose Jane Austen fascination has been digested in a manner that contrasts sharply with the writer-director's much too on-point, surface-level treatment of his own professed heroes. Nor is he a Buñuel or even more appropriately given his squarely middle-brow ethos, a Mike Leigh, whose strong sense of class indeed extends beyond his own current well-healed place. The latter director's exceptional 1976 tele-film, Nuts in May, in fact does impressive, if virtual work in sending up the American bourgeoisie of the early 2010s. Allen, on the other hand, seems to have no insight into his own moment, and no awareness of his socio-economic place, even if his film abounds with unintended sociological insights. When finally he does choose the Parisian present, it is for the continued existence of the boundlessly nostalgic boulevard café and, commensurate with another of the director's personal and artistic signatures, for the pretty (and notably) young-thing who shows an interest in the Allen surrogate.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Decade That Was: Oxhide Supplement (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Pushing the shared formal preoccupations of the minimalist-realist mode in contemporary film practice as far as any works of the last ten years, Liu Jiayin's Oxhide (Niu Pi, 2005) and Oxhide II (Niu Pi Er, 2009) occupy an unassailable position on the leading edge of latter-day international art cinema. As incarnations of no-budget, independent DV filmmaking, they establish both aesthetic and logistical strategies for the production of an artistically laudable self-made cinema. That is, Liu has made a set of films that engage deeply with the cinematic art of her precise historical moment, while also offering a template for the creation of comparably viable work under the most profound of restrictions.

Working in what appear to be the greater circumstances of poverty, Liu's twenty-three shot, 110-minute first feature Oxhide, filmed in the director's micro-sized family apartment when Liu was only 23 years of age, graphically magnifies the extraordinary limitations under which the filmmaker produced her first work: for each of the film's exceedingly small number of set-ups, Liu limits her visual field to an extraordinarily small fragment of what is already a very small space (fifty square meters, according to the film's US home video distributor, dGenerate Films). Within these gravely under-lit, static interior set-ups, Liu (a.k.a. Beibei) and her parents, mother Jia Huifen and father Liu Zaiping, playing with notable charisma what are said to be "fictionalized versions of themselves," eat, sleep, work and discuss (at times rather comically) the merits of discount pricing, squeezing into and out of Liu's highly constricted compositions; in most instances, the trio of non-professionals are only partially visible, with a set of hands or midsection all that appears on-camera. In one especially restricted framing, Liu shoots only the surface of a sparely lit desk, with a photograph flanking one edge and a laser print heavily cropped on the other. Throughout this, the film's lengthy second shot, father and daughter are audible off-camera, with Zaiping directing his daughter as she composes an advertisement for her father's leather goods store. Ultimately, the filmmaker gives her viewers a variety of pay-off, visualizing what had been only described heretofore, as the printer drops the newly authored notices onto the desk's surface.

Indeed, it is Liu's emphasis on off-camera space, procured through an exceptional reduction of the on-camera visual field (especially in proportion to what is signified off-screen - in a manner that has been eclipsed perhaps only by Abbas Kiarostami's more recent Shirin, 2008) that foremost marks Oxhide's contribution to contemporary minimalist art film practice. Considered as an aesthetic intervention, Liu's strategies shift the core of realist filmmaking from unaltered visual reproduction to the registration and indeed creation of space through primarily auditory means. At the same time, Liu's Oxhide methods no less indicate a filmmaker who has invented a style out of practical necessity: namely, that in shifting the emphasis from the visual to the auditory by means of reducing the scope of what is seen and what is brought into view through the film's exclusive use of a very limited natural lighting, Liu in effect masks (at least in part) the poverty of her micro-budgeted production. Oxhide's exceedingly restricted frame accordingly proves a polyvalent metaphor for the film's - and Liu clan's - comparable modesty.

Oxhide II opens with a twenty-one-plus minute static take, initially presenting Zaiping exclusively, as he forges another of his artisanal purses. Though the frame remains relatively tight, Liu's higher grade digital format (and even an on-camera, adjustable desk lamp) signal material advancements over Oxhide's relative visual poverty. Huifen soon returns from the market - she is heard of course before she is seen - and with Zaiping's present work complete, the couple proceeds to rotate the family's work table toward the stationary camera, thereby producing a proscenium as the surface of the now perpendicular table comes to fill much of the screen. In so doing, Oxhide II inaugurates its own presentational metaphor to stand beside the under-lit, constricted framings of Oxhide, which once again inscribed the earlier effort's material conditions in an equally allegorical manner. On and around this 'found' stage, the same trio of non-professionals spend the remaining duration of the film's 132-minute running time preparing, cooking and finally eating a total of seventy-three pork dumplings. (Their frequent debates about proper dumpling technique prove a source of charming, unexpected comedy that brightens the literally 'kitchen-sink realist' milieu.) While the home-made food items visually rhyme with the leather good that Zaiping is producing as the film opens, the commencing action seems ultimately to refer more to the first Oxhide; Liu essentially offers a negative scheme, in the film's opening as in its prequel, against which the director will work throughout the remainder of Oxhide II.

In contradistinction to Oxhide, wherein Liu's static set-ups mark discrete, spatially and temporally unconnected narrative intervals, Oxhide II presents a single facsimile of real-time across its minimal quantity of breathlessly long, stationary takes. When Liu cuts in the latter film, she most frequently does so along a semicircular axis, rotating to a new vantage on the persisting action; Liu's circular strategies indeed conclude where they first began following the closing dinner. The set-ups themselves extend the earlier work's visual restrictions, with bodies again frequently cropped both above the image and below. Liu's compositions also rely on a very subtle choreography of movement, as in the first film, which ultimately reveals the logic behind particular shot locations well after the cut has occurred.

In terms of its formal emphasis, Oxhide II ultimately trades the earlier work's preoccupation with off-screen spatial articulation (though it is once again utilized in the sequel) for a far greater interest in the narrative possibilities of extreme temporality. Joining Béla Tarr and Lisandro Alonso especially - Oxhide and Oxhide II likewise follow the post-Kiarostami Alonso's La Libertad (2001) in blending fiction and documentary within the context of manual activity - Liu depicts her task in its complete duration, with Zaiping and Huifen carrying on a conversation that at times picks up where it leaves off followings gaps that on occasion span more than half-an-hour. In this sense, Liu's duration permits her parents, in their 'fictionalized' versions of themselves, to speak as they would in reality, as people who live together and spend large amounts of time around one another do in actuality. In this sense, Liu adds to the realist mode once more, in this case within a film that showcases noteworthy maturation from her already extraordinary work in the first offering in the series.