Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Film: The Tree of Life

Opening with a quotation from the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, verses four and seven, writer-director Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, honored earlier this year with the Palme d'Or, immediately inaugurates the first of two theological matrices that will guide the picture's historically and perspectivally fluid narrative: the suffering of the righteous. Malick begins by identifying The Tree of Life's maternal heroine, Jessica Chastain, as a guiltless Job-figure, who experiences the loss of her middle son R.L. (Laramie Eppler) at age nineteen. Chastain's voice-over and Malick's reproduction of her childhood point-of-view, in externalized, elliptical form, accordingly highlights the female lead's subjectivity from the start, though Malick will quickly replace hers with that of her eldest son Jack, played in childhood by Hunter McCracken as an adult by Sean Penn; in so doing, Malick extends the shifting narrational strategies of both The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Jack, by comparison, is presented as embodying the second of the work's overarching theological concerns: the struggle between "the way of nature" and "the way of grace." Unlike his essentially sainted mother, who helps to reveal the latter path to the young man, Jack favors the selfish pursuit of 'nature' in the image of his fear-inducing father (Brad Pitt). Indeed, Pitt's temperamental, capricious and on occasion violent patriarch provides a second source of the familial trauma that Chastain quietly suffers and which Penn brings with him into angst-laden adulthood.

Jack's glass-and-steal present day provides The Tree of Life with a point of temporal departure for the picture's visually and auditorially disjunctive exploration of the former's childhood subjectivity. Commensurate with the interior, Proustian register of Malick's narrative, The Tree of Life is comprised almost entirely of snapshot sound and image details gleaned from the life of the Waco, Texas family, with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography attuned to the texture of the silk curtains covering R.L.'s prepubescent face and a sudden swarm of blackbirds filling the twilit sky. Malick and Lubezki's camera frequently mobilizes, pushing through the tall Texas grass just as Malick's camera once glided through the Virginia low country and down the Guadalcanal hillside. Rather than the "contact" of the former or the combat of the latter, the experience that Malick registers in The Tree of Life is that of the boys' childhood, however, whether it is the idyllic summer afternoons spent chasing Chastain with a lizard or a garden hose, roughhousing on the front lawn or coiling in fear in the presence of Pitt's disciplinarian father. Malick's jagged, elliptical cutting on these latter occasions, it bears noting, serves to amplify the boys' dread with the film's jump editing proving as unpredictable (though frequent) as Pitt's flights of rage.

Indeed, it is in Malick's articulation of subjective experience, which is to say in his impressionism that the director once again proves himself a master of narrative cinematic practice. Malick's film language is as always singular and immediately recognizable as his own, even if it has never been quite this fragmentary. There is, to be sure, a degree of mystery in Malick's pairing of images at times - though in others, the thematic echoes that obtain provide obvious justifications - with the director's strategies more intuitive than not on the micro level. With respect to the images specifically, there is understandably a high degree of unevenness, whether on the one hand it is the director's incantatory depictions of the natural world (here, as always, the director favors low-angles of towering deciduous trees), or the advertising visual ethos on the other, in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, which emerges in the post-modern urban present and in the picture's creation of a spiritual plane, marked by sweeping salt-flats and endless beaches. Malick seems most susceptible to visual cliché when Penn's Jack appears on screen.

Though The Tree of Life's "foundation of the world" passage draws on a no less recognizable set of graphic sources, from high-resolution NASA photography and IMAX nature filmmaking to Robert Zemeckis's Contact (1997) wormholes, the sequence, with its separation of light and dark, unthinkably luminous clouds of gas and blazing lava - and of course its dinosaurs; Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) offers another context - overwhelms with its visual beauty. (In this latter respect, Nathaniel Dorsky provides another unexpected point-of-contact.) Malick accordingly inscribes God's response in the Book of Job - the director's intrinsic transcendentalism meshes nicely with the maker's Biblical reply - in a manner that if anything does justice to this loftiest of sources. The Tree of Life likewise presents Job's restoration - which is to say, Chastain's - in the film's concluding spiritual reunion, where Jack's pursuit of grace additionally crystallizes (with great depth of feeling) in his forgiveness of his father. Here, Malick's first effort at autobiography seems to present the artist's most confessional moment. In this as in so many other ways, The Tree of Life absolutely abounds with grace.

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.