On Tsui Hark’s Green Snake

Tsui Hark merges the punk outrage of his early films with the lavish, effects-driven wuxia of his later, much more financially successful works in this pointed denunciation of the hypocrisies both sexual and racial of China’s religious traditions, the backward superstitional blindness of Taoism and the calcification of Buddhism into a rules-based organizational structure that has forgotten the most basic rule of all major religions and moral philosophies: “Be excellent to each other.”

Based on an oft-told story of two snakes who over 500+ years master enough kung fu that they’re able to transform into humans, Tsui shifts focus from the usual hero of the story, the White Snake (played by Joey Wang) who falls in love with a hapless but decent young scholar, to her younger sister the Green Snake (Maggie Cheung), who is much more suspicious of the benefits of becoming human in the first place. As the White Snake’s tragic fairy tale plays itself out in self-sacrifice and honor and all those things myths tell us are important, the Green Snake sees only the lies and corruptions of the self-righteous and ultimately decides she’d rather be a snake.

The villain of the film is a super-powerful Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to keep non-humans and humans separate. Whether the non-humans are enlightened or not, whether they are moral or not, makes no difference. His xenophobia is pure. Similarly, his belief system demands that he totally repress any sexual desires he may have. The Green Snake challenges him on this and succeeds in turning him on. Surely any god would understand, seeing as she’s Maggie Cheung, of course. But rather than accept his defeat with humility, he lashes out in anger and refuses to uphold his end of their wager. He then kidnaps the scholar, forcing the young man into what can only be described as a Buddhist re-education camp (shades of the Cultural Revolution here), where he is literally rendered insensate by the mindless chanting of the monks (it’s a kind of spell where, deep in meditation, the monks’ ability to see, hear and speak is removed).

Eventually there is a final battle in which the snakes, in self-protection, unleash a violent flood. The monk lifts the mountain holding his monastery above the waters, destroying the nearby town and killing hundreds of people. Out of a mad desire for doctrinal purity, he tries to rise above the flood of emotion and worldly desire, only to cause mass destruction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s documentary about the Khmer Rouge that was one of my favorite films at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. The Khmer Rouge, like the Cultural Revolution, were human catastrophes on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, driven by the desire for ideological purity above all else. In a hyperkinetic fantasy film driven by Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang playing sexy snake/humans, Tsui presents much the same critique. But he seems to have mellowed a bit from the nihilistic explosiveness of the Hong Kong New Wave from 15 years earlier (best exemplified in his third film, and one of his greatest, Dangerous Encounters – First Kind). Rather than seeing the world as hopelessly corrupted and in need of burning down (the way the monk sees normal humans in the films remarkable opening sequence: ugly, deformed, lower beings), Green Snake offers the possibility that we might someday become decent enough for her to return. All we need to do is learn to prioritize basic human decency over the dictates of the arbitrary rules and regulations of our organizing institutions and ideologies.

VIFF 2013: Yumen

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is apparently bent on domination of the documentary world, or at least its cutting edge. While Lucien Castaing-Taylor has taken the film world by storm with his Sweetgrass and now Leviathan (co-directed with Verena Paravel), films about sheepherding and fishing that have become minor hits of the avant-garde, respectively, JP Sniadecki has been working in China, producing a number of films including last VIFF’s People’s Park (co-directed with Libbie Cohn) and now Yumen (co-directed with Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang). The HSEL also produced Manakamana, which played the fest after I left but has also received rave reviews, and I’m pretty sure I saw a credit thanking them on A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. All of these films (that I’ve seen) are notable for their use of sound, and Sniadecki in particular seems interested in the clashing of sounds, in the discordances between sound and image that can create unexpected meanings.

In People’s Park, this manifested itself in a kind of filmed version of early 20th century American composer Charles Ives’s experiments, best heard in Central Park in the Dark, where a three-dimenensional soundscape is created traverses and ordinary park and picks up all the sounds of music and chatter and laughter that one would hear (in the film this is accomplished in one single roving take through the park). Ives’s father, a quirky local band leader, used to march two separate bands in opposite directions around a square, listening for the discordances and unexpected harmonies as their different tunes slowly came together and broke apart. Ives’s work is full of such clashes, with bits of popular or folk tunes blended into a larger, more classically structured whole. Note that the integration of folk tunes into classical composition neither began or ended with Charles Ives, but Ives seems more interested in rupturing or fracturing the whole than someone like Brahms was in incorporating Eastern European folk melodies into catchy Hungarian Dances, to take one example.

Yumen is a similarly fractured whole, not just in soundtrack, but in narrative as well. Lying somewhere between documentary and fiction, it follows a handful of people as they wander around the ruins of a mid-20th Century industrial area, a hospital and some apartment buildings near an abandoned oil field. Shot in a scratchy 16mm that occasionally burns out in flashes of color (an effect used as well in La última película), the narrative builds from the ground up as we slowly piece together who the characters are via their bizarre actions (painting faces on walls, standing naked on pillars, dancing) and the narration which appears to be townspeople recalling the stories and history of the town, either form their personal experience or local legend. Mixed in as well seemingly at random (but of course not) are snippets of popular music or sound from TV programs. Yumen is located in the same Gansu province, in Western China, that is the subject of Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, and like that film it depicts the area as a cultural crossroads, a wholly unique mixture of ancient and modern, of Chinese and outside influences. But where Chai’s film is suffused with the mysteries of  Tibetan Buddhism and the mystical Sufi strain of Islam, along with other more primal legends and imagery, Yumen mystifies recent history, making the industrial world as magically ghost-ridden and full of possibility as the pre-modern past.

It’s an unfortunate irony that movies like this, so dense and challenging to take in and unpack at times, can largely only be seen in film festivals, smashed together against so many other films (four a day for a week, for me) that without careful notes, or a superhuman ability to write coherently quickly, details can easily be lost or forgotten. But on the other hand, sometimes those clashes produce serendipitous comparisons (I’ve already compared this one to three other festival films, a fourth is Yang Zhengfan’s Distant, a long-take film that sources sound in unexpected, and very different ways). As the festival recedes into my past, certain things, movies or simply moments within movies, tend to separate in my memory and stand in stark relief from the general wash, moments that take root and plant themselves in my consciousness. I don’t know if this is necessarily a marker of greatness in a film, but it seems like it should be.

The highlight of Yumen, and one of my favorite moments of the festival, comes near the end, when one of the girls who had been wandering the ruins takes a walk through the market of the village that remains behind in the wake of the vanished industrial boom. It’s a single long take, tracking backwards as she moves towards the camera. She’s listening to an iPod and singing along quietly to the song, Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown.

VIFF 2013: They Shot Pictures Recap Podcast

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

In addition to writing here at The End about the movies I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year, I am also podcasting about them on They Shot Pictures, an auteur-focused show I co-host with my pal Seema. She went to the Toronto Film Festival this year and we recorded two episodes comparing our experiences (well, it was one really long episode that we split in half). Part One is available now, in which we talk about the movies we both saw:

Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs
Hong Sangsoo’s Our Sunhi
Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Mark Peranson and Raya Martin’s La última película
Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin
Miguel Gomes’s Redemption
João Pedro Rodrigues’s The King’s Body
Johnnie To’s Blind Detective

I’ll update this post in a couple of days when Part Two goes live.

This Week in Rankings

I’m back and almost recovered from the Vancouver International Film Festival, so it’s time for a rankings update. My on-going festival coverage can be found here on its own index (now featuring a ranked list!), so far I’ve got reviews of seven of the films I saw there, along with reviews of Hong Sangsoo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (which didn’t play at the festival) and Johnnie To’s Blind Detective (which did play there, but only after I left). I’ll have a couple episodes of They Shot Pictures coming soon as well, the one on Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai movies we recorded weeks ago and a festival wrap-up episode on Vancouver and Toronto. The last couple episodes of The George Sanders Show have covered a pair of classics and their remakes, Harakiris and Solarises.

These are the films I’ve watched and rewatched over the last couple of weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my letterboxd comments, where applicable. For this week I’ve ranked the films of 2013 for the first time, but certainly not the last.

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi) – 12, 1962
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky) – 8, 1972
Dressed to Kill (Brian dePalma) – 11, 1980
Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper) – 21, 1982
Millionaire’s Express (Sammo Hung) – 21, 1986

Solaris (Steven Soderbergh) – 36, 2002
Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike) – 24, 2011
Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada) – 8, 2012
Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya) – 23, 2012
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher) – 27, 2012

Dredd (Pete Travis) – 31, 2012
Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira) – 34, 2012
9 Muses of Star Empire (Lee Harkjoon) – 41, 2012
Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn) – 51, 2012
The King’s Body (João Pedro Rodrigues) – 54, 2012

La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson) – 1, 2013
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh) – 2, 2013
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke) – 3, 2013
Blind Detective (Johnnie To) – 4, 2013
Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo) – 5, 2013

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell) – 6, 2013
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo) – 7, 2013
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang) – 9, 2013
Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao, & Huang Xiang) – 10, 2013
The Great Passage (Yuya Ishii) – 11, 2013

Trap Street (Vivian Qu) – 12, 2013
New World (Park Hoonjung) – 13, 2013
Distant (Yang Zhengfan) – 14, 2013
Mahjong (João Rui Guerra da Mata & João Pedro Rodrigues) – 15, 2013
Anatomy of a Paperclip (Ikeda Akira) – 16, 2013

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) – 17, 2013
Redemption (Miguel Gomes) – 19, 2013
Burn Release Explode The Invincible (Kim Soohyun) – 20, 2013
Bends (Flora Lau) – 22, 2013
3x3D (Peter Greenaway, Edgar Pera, Jean-Luc Godard) – 23, 2013

My First Love (Keiko Tsuruoka) – 24, 2013
Grigris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) – 25, 2013
Longing for the Rain (Yang Lina) – 26, 2013
The Spider’s Lair (Jason Paul Laxamana) – 27, 2013
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont) – 28, 2013

VIFF 2013: Stray Dogs

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

The latest film from Tsai Ming-liang finds his hero, played as always by the axiomatic Lee Kang-sheng, in precarious circumstances. When last we saw him (not counting last VIFF’s terrific short Walker, in which Lee was a slow-moving monk just trying to get a McMuffin) was in Visage, where is was directing a vampire movie in the Louvre with Laetitia Casta and Jean-Pierre Leaud. It’s been since that year’s VIFF since I’ve seen that one, but if I remember correctly, his film shoot was interrupted by the death of his mother and a flood of sadness. Stray Dogs is the story of Lee’s life after the flood (at least as far as I understand it after only sitting with it for a few days).

Unfolding in 76 shots over two and a half hours (at least by my count), the film is nonetheless not quite as rigidly minimalistic as Tsai’s other work. At times the camera moves and there’s even a short sequence with some shot/reverse shot editing (an action sequence near the end of the film). But most of the film is made up of very long takes, often featuring very little in the way of action, most notably the final two shots (which echo one from the center of the film) of people looking at an image. (There’s something spirallingly funny about us as an audience staring seemingly endlessly at an image of people staring at an image.) I cannot possibly do justice to how gorgeous the film looks, stunning blues and blacks and white and sparks of color and light and rain and mud and trees and rivers. I haven’t seen all of Tsai’s work, and only a couple in a theatre as opposed to mediocre DVD copies, but this is the prettiest I’ve seen so far.

The plot of the film, such as it is, revolves around Lee and his two children, a boy and a girl, as they live homelessly in the industrial rubble of Taipai. The kids spend their days wandering around a supermarket, which Tsai seems to take as a challenge to shoot in the weirdest ways possible (inside freezers and milk displays, from the points of view of the objects on display, frames distorted by reflections and refractions from glass and chrome). Lee makes a meager living as a human billboard, standing in the middle of a busy intersection holding a sign for hours at a time, buffeted by the wind and rain, barely noticed by passing motorists (at one point, a highlight, Lee breaks into song, a stirring anthem about crushing one’s enemies).

Not long after adopting a cabbage as a doll (a cabbage patch kid, get it?), the girl meets a woman (Lu Yi-ching) who works at the market and takes an interest in her, or at least an interest in cleaning her hair. Lu feeds stray dogs at night, wandering through abandoned buildings with freshly expired food products. One night she stands for a long time before a mural, a black and white landscape, and it’s after seeing the mural that she begins to help out the kids, eventually finding where they live. It seems pretty clear that they’d be better off with her, especially after Lee gets drunk and murders the cabbage.

The other woman in the film, Chen Shiang-shyi, opens and closes it. The first shot has her brushing her hair on the bed while the kids are sleeping. The last section of the film takes place in this same house, streaked black and white with flood damage, where Chen and Lee appear to be married with kids. She’s a doting mother, helping with homework, while Lee seems a drone, taking a long bath, sitting in a fancy massage chair, barely acknowledging the birthday celebration they’ve made for him. One night, Lee and Chen go for a walk to feed the stray dogs in the ruin. They look at the mural for a long time and she walks away, leaving Lee, and us, alone in the dark.

So my reading, as of now at least, is that the bookend scenes depict the dissolution of Lee’s marriage. Engulfed in sadness over his mother’s death, Lee has turned their home into a moldy ruin. The wife leaves and takes the kids or does not take them. Either way, they end up desperately needing a mother figure, as Lee proves himself wholly incapable of properly caring for them. Though the kids seem reasonably happy, they live, barely hygienically, in a literal hole in a wall. So being a single dad only teaches Lee how important having a mother is, which in turn only deepens his depression at the loss of his own. Perhaps the middle section of the film is only imagined, Lee working out what would happen if his wife did leave him as he soaks in the tub. Perhaps he still has time to save his family, to move them out of the blackness to the big, airy, white modernist mansion just down the way. We all just want Lee Kang-sheng to be happy.

VIFF 2013: Dragons and Tigers Awards

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

Last night at the festival, the annual Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, awarded to a distinctive film made early in a filmmaker’s career which has not yet won international recognition, was handed out. For the first time, I not only managed to see all of the competing films, but I attended the awards ceremony as well. The jury, composed of critic/programmers Adam Cook, Tom Charity and Geoff Gardener chose to recognize two films in addition to the overall winner: a special mention for Chai Chunya and Four Ways to Die in My Hometown and a first runner-up for Vivian Qu and Trap Street. The winner was Ikeda Akira, for his Anatomy of a Paperclip. These were my three favorites in the competition as well, all very good and well-deserving their recognition, though I probably would have reversed the order with Four Ways winning and Paperclip third. It was a great series of films and a fun competition, I’m already looking forward to next year.

I managed to snap some pictures with my phone from my seat ten rows back:

Professor Bordwell taking a picture of the jury and Dragons and Tigers programmer Tony Rayns.

A picture of the VIFF camera guy recording video of Tony Rayns giving his introductory speech.

Chai Chunya getting his award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.

Vivian Qu getting her award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.

Winner Ikeda Akira getting his award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.
I’ve managed to write about only two of the competition films thus far, Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible and Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, but I’ll get to the others eventually, along with the film that followed the awards presentation, A Touch of Sin, by former D&T award winner Jia Zhangke. About that film, suffice it to say for now: whoa.

VIFF 2013: Four Ways to Die in My Hometown

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

In the early 20th century, a number of intrepid researchers delved deep into rural America, looking to record the last vestiges of our-preindustrial past – folk songs, Scotch-Irish ballads, itinerant blues musicians, backwoods gospel preachers and singers. One collection of these recordings, compiled by Harry Smith and released in 1952, The Anthology of American Folk Music, served as a key inspiration for much of the popular music that dominated the latter half of the century – country and western, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. Its 84 tracks form an essential record of what Griel Marcus dubbed “The Old, Weird America” in his definitive study of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a series of samizdat recordings designed explicitly to evoke that lost world, a project Dylan has returned to again and again throughout his career, most notably in his early 90s folk albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and in his late masterpiece Love and Theft. The recordings are old, passed from generation to generation, and literate or not, they carry their history with them. The recordings are weird: a volatile clash of cultures, the sound of the pot melting as cultural traditions from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean work to forge the unruly mess that is America.

Chai Chunya’s Dragons and Tigers entry Four Ways to Die in My Hometown might just as well be called The Old, Weird China. Set as the title says in his hometown, located in the Gansu province, a borderland between Han China, Tibet and Muslim Central Asia, its stories and rituals are an amalgam of these disparate cultural and religious influences. The plot of the film is both allegorically mystical and semi-documentary in approach – the ‘four ways’ of the title, four deaths provide the spine for the stories of his fellow townspeople. Mostly centered on two young girls whose father is in hiding (he has lived in a coffin in a locked room for seven years) because humans are evil. The older girl explores the nearby river and has an affinity for animals (she sets a chicken free, floats with baby birds and plays with the family camel). The younger encounters a madman who lives in a cave and preaches about the beginning of the world (in darkness – the people need light) and later hangs around with a woman who, since an accident at a young age, can see dead people.

Less an attempt at making a kind of logical of even symbolic sense, the film is instead an evocation of the particular myths and mysteries of a specific geography, one that is rapidly disappearing as China modernizes and the children move away, into the far away, globally-connected metropolises. Some of the most memorable characters in the film are three aged shadow puppeteers, men who learned their trade out of necessity (always economic rather than artistic, as they tell it) in the middle of the most radically disruptive century in China’s multi-millenial history. They haven’t performed in years, but they put on a show for the film (One of a few performances in the film, each of which is interrupted: a Chinese opera, kids dancing before a bonfire (and wearing modern sunglasses). It’s magical, but there’s no audience. The last shot we see of their world is their carefully prepared screen, engulfed in flames.

The film opens with a song, a young man sitting by the riverside, playing his acoustic guitar and singing a catchy tune, a modern one obviously influenced by American music. Each chapter, each death, ends with a recurring rhythmic tune, a kind of chanting, driving hum, meant, as Chai said in the Q & A, to give the sense of continuity, a sense that someone or some force is watching over these people. Of course it would be musical.