This Week in Rankings

The end of the year came and went since my last rankings update. I posted a list of the Best Older Movies I Saw Last Year and a Best of 2013, More or Less. (That second one is already outdated and inaccurate, as I’ve since seen a few more 2013 films and learned that one of the films I thought had been distributed (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) had not and one of the films I thought hadn’t been distributed (The Missing Picture) may have been, but only in a tiny, unpublicized run solely for the purposes of Oscar qualification, which due to the inane system that governs list-making at large, probably means it won’t be eligible for most critics’ 2014 Best Of lists.)

I’ll have a real Best of 2013 list up right around Oscar Time, along with a 2013 Endy Awards post. For our end of the year episode of The George Sanders Show, we picked our favorites of 1933, and I handed out Endys for that year as well. We’re putting out George Sanders every other week for the time being, and our first episode of 2014 is up, on The Wolf of Wall Street and L’Argent.

I’ve only written a pair of actual reviews lately, on Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. I’ve also made and updated some lists on letterboxd, for Fritz Lang, Run Run Shaw, Andy Lau, Stephen Chow, and Martin Scorsese, along with my ongoing tracking of Running Out of Karma.

These are the movies I’ve watched or rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my reviews at letterboxd.

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (Paul Wegener & Carl Boese) – 3, 1920
The Haunted Castle (FW Murnau) – 14, 1921
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (FW Murnau) – 1, 1922
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang) – 2, 1924
L’argent (Marcel L’Herbier) – 11, 1928

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Hiroshi Shimizu) – 2, 1933
Dragnet Girl (Yasujiro Ozu) – 22, 1933
I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles) – 33, 1933
House of Mystery (William Nigh) – 24, 1934
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Bill Melendez) – 3, 1965

Two for the Road (Stanley Donen) – 6, 1967
Games Gamblers Play (Michael Hui) – 28, 1974
Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (Corey Yuen) – 13, 1982
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (WD Richter) – 22, 1984
The Magic Crystal (Wong Jing) – 37, 1986

No Retreat, No Surrender (Corey Yuen) – 43, 1986
Rich and Famous (Taylor Wong) – 42, 1987
The Romancing Star (Wong Jing) – 48, 1987
Painted Faces (Alex Law) – 9, 1988
Tiger Cage (Yuen Woo-ping) – 21, 1988

The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To) – 37, 1988
God of Gamblers (Wong Jing) – 18, 1989
Casino Raiders (Wong Jing & Jimmy Heung) – 22, 1989
All for the Winner (Corey Yuen & Jeffrey Lau) – 23, 1990
Tricky Brains (Wong Jing) – 21, 1991

God of Gamblers II (Wong Jing) – 25, 1991
Boys are Easy (Wong Jing) – 20, 1993
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell) – 21, 1994
Comrades, Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan) – 1, 1996
Love Actually (Richard Curtis) – 43, 2003

Ninja (Isaac Florentine) – 58, 2009
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (Gerald Peary) – 61, 2009
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) – 5, 2013
Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers) – 11, 2013
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (Isaac Florentine) – 19, 2013
Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams) – 28, 2013
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Molly Bernstein) – 33, 2013

Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen

Part One: Siegfried

Siegfried, heir to the throne of Xanten, begins his story as an apprentice blacksmith, forging an awesome sword. Having demonstrated his mastery of the craft, he’s sent out into the world where he kills a dragon, bathes in its blood because a bird told him it’d make him invulnerable, kills a dwarf and steals his treasure, then falls in love with Kriemhild, the pretty-ish sister of the Gunther, King of Burgundy. Gunther gets him to use his magic cloak to trick the Queen of Iceland, Brunhild, into marrying him, which Siegfried does, at first gladly and then more shamefully when Gunther (prodded by his evil advisor, the fearsome eagle-helmed warrior Hagen Tronje) basically forces Siegfried to rape Brunhild (while disguised as Gunther) on their wedding night. Then things start to get really tragic.

This is much different from what I was expecting, given what I know of Richard Wagner’s version of The Nibelungen: there are no Norse gods, no Ring, Brunhild’s not a Valkyrie and the story doesn’t end in fire (or the end of Valhalla), at least not yet (as I’m writing this, I haven’t watched the second part of the movie). The Burgundians are Christian, but Siegfried seems to belong to an earlier unspecifically pagan belief system (there’s a powerful contrast between a Christian wedding ceremony in a cathedral and the bonding of blood brothers before a great tree). Lang’s film seems a chronicle of a transition, from mystical pagan to chivalric Christian Germany.

There are narrative gaps that are either the result of sloppiness (possible, lets blame Thea von Harbou for all the film’s faults because she was a Nazi or something) or knowing elisions based on assumed familiarity with the material (the source stories go back centuries, as foundational to German culture as Homer’s epics were to the Greeks): why does Alberich the Dwarf King try to kill Siegfried? How does everyone seem to know about his one Achillean vulnerability? Why can Siegfried suddenly understand bird song? Why is Brunhild’s castle surrounded by fire? Assuming we know Wagner (or other versions of the saga), we’d have the answer to some or all of these questions, but then Lang is counting on our comparing his version to others and noting their dissimilarities, putting in stark relief his major variations: both their religious differences and his reframing the twisted psychodrama that leads to the tragedy in more natural terms: no love potion here, it’s Siegfried’s true love for Kriemhild that leads him to abuse Brunhild for the sake of Gunther. Brunhild comes off best in this world where everyone is a pretty terrible person, though limiting her revenge to just Siegfried seems a bit unfair. But he was the best of them, the one who purported to be a “hero” and should have acted like one.

Part Two: Kriemhild’s Revenge

While Part One of Lang’s Nibelungen paralleled its hero Siegfried’s transition form the world of myth (dragons and dwarfs) to the betrayals of reality (intrigue in the Burgundian court), Part Two finds us firmly planted in the actual, no magic helmets or talking birds to be found, just the single-minded quest for bloody revenge by Siegfried’s widow.

As the film begins, she remarries, to none other than Attila the Hun, setting us up for what is sure to be some badass war scenes as she inspires his horsemen to lay waste to the armies of Burgundy, bolstered by the fearsome appearance of Attila himself, by that perpetual avatar of Expressionism, Rudolph Klein-Rogge (who was also married to screenwriter Thea von Harbou, she left him for Lang in 1920). But the war never comes. Instead, years later, after Kriemhild and Attila have a young son, she finally persuades him to invite the Burgundian court to their home castle. Suspecting her foul intentions, Attila agrees, but on the condition that they be safe while they’re guests in his land, an ancient ideal of hospitality and safe passage. Attila won’t be her instrument of vengeance, neutered by fatherhood and his wife’s devotion to her dead hero he spends much of the film sulking and aghast at what unfolds before him.

Lang sets the drama in a relatively few sets, the ahistorical High Medieval style of the Burgundians’ costumes and castles (full chain mail armor, long shields) contrasted with the primitive loincloths and mud brick huts of the Huns. The Burgundians stand erect, tall and blond with their honor stiffening their backs, while the Huns scurry about, low to the ground like vermin or Tolkein’s goblins. Through it all Kriemhild appears impassive, wrapped in a great cloak, single-minded and impervious to reason, dominating and directing the action from dark corners of the screen, a granitic wraith.

What follows is a tragedy of conflicting imperatives as tangled as that in any Hong Kong Triad saga: Kriemhild must exact her revenge, the Burgundians must protect Siegfried’s murderer (the terrifying and ruthless, one-eyed Hagen Tronje) and Attila must not allow the Burgundians to come to harm. Destruction is inevitable given the demands of the honor code. (That the Burgundians’ steadfast loyalty to Hagen despite his many crimes was surely a foundational myth to the cause of German nationalism makes the film all the more disturbing: he may be Hitler, but he’s our Hitler.)

Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen (“Nibelung” applies to the followers of Siegfried, alternately applied to the Burgundians, who stole Siegfried’s gold (which he had taken from the Dwarves, called Nibelungs, after killing their King, Alberich) and used it either as the foundation for their great wealth (Burgundy being one of the more impressive pre-Charlemagne kingdoms) or threw it into the Rhine because it was cursed) is based on a different version the story, based on Nordic mythology and focused more on Siegfried and Brunhild. Lang’s follows fairly closely the Nibelungenlied, a epic poem composed somewhere around 1200. Wagner’s story ends with the death of Siegfried, as Brunhild burns his body, rides into the fire and it spreads to Valhalla, bringing about the destruction of the gods. Lang’s story also ends in apocalypse, albeit a terrestrial that leaves Attila the Hun as the most moral man alive.

Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Last night I rewatched one of my favorite new-to-me films of 2013 as my last film of the year, and happily it remains as great as I initially thought it was. A descendant of Paul Fejos’s 1928 Lonesome, about two people who find love in the urban crowd and then lose it. The crowd here is Hong Kong in 1986 and the people are Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai. Freshly emigrated from Northern China, Lai barely speaks Cantonese or English but gets a tiny space to live and a job delivering chickens by bicycle. On his long-anticipated first trip to McDonalds, he meets Maggie Cheung, who knows the lingo(s) and offers to help him get English lessons (from none other than Christopher Doyle). They become friends, and then friends who sleep together. They fall in love to the sounds of Teresa Tang, the Taiwanese singer who was wildly popular in the Mainland in the 70s and early 80s: their fandom marks them as outsider hicks in trendy, ultra-modern, present-obsessed Hong Kong. But inevitably they break-up because Lai has a girlfriend back home and Cheung has a dream of financial, not domestic, success.

A few years later, they meet again, Lai married to the girl from home and Cheung shacked up with Eric Tsang, a Triad boss with a heart of gold (a rare serious performance from Tsang, normally a lunatic ball of farcical nonsense). But again the timing is not right, and a brief failure to maintain mere friendship ends in rain-drenched heartbreak. The film’s final sequences are almost entirely dialogue-free. Several years and another continent later, Cheung and Tsang are hiding out in New York, while Lai is working at a Chinatown restaurant. Cheung thinks she glimpses Lai and chases him through Times Square, but she loses him in the crowd. A few years later, hearing the news that Teresa Teng died, Cheung wanders the streets, Teng’s music running through her head. She stops to watch the news on some TVs in a shop window and as the music swells, notices that Lai has been standing next to her, watching the same news. The film ends on their smiles, followed by a brief coda recasting the opening shot of Lai’s arrival in Hong Kong on the train, we learn that Cheung arrived on that train as well, that the two had bit sitting next two each other the whole time, sleeping back to back, their heads touching.

Director Peter Chan takes an unusual approach to the urban isolation romance. Rather than frame his characters in long shots, emphasizing the crowds around them (as in Lonesome) or their missed connections (as in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Turn Left, Turn Right), he shows them in tight close-ups and two shots, adoringly close explorations of the stars’ lovely faces. While there are occasional establishing shots of crowds (Lai bicycling through the Tsimshatsui district, narrating his life in a letter home; Lai navigating a crowd lined up for new housing, bringing water and chocolate to Cheung), for most of the film we are seeing the two leads either alone or together (a few times from the point-of-view of an ATM machine, the pair alone in a small square patch of screen space) while the world outside is reduced to blurry, fragmented noise. Even Eric Tsang is introduced to us only in pieces: first his massive, tattooed back, then brief glimpses of his face. It’s not until his relationship with Cheung is established that we see him as a whole.

Similarly we snatch bits of other romances that surround them: Christopher Doyle and Lai’s Thai hooker roommate Cabbage, barely dramatized but which will end sadly. Lai’s aunt and her obsession with a single night she claims she spent with William Holden, the high point of her life, a night so perfect the rest of her life could never hope to match it. Even the sad story of Teresa Teng, a star beloved in her youth who died young at 42. The flip side of romance is tragedy, just as the immigrant’s dream is a romantic one, the yearning for a better world, for perfection, and the failure to realize it, or, even worse, of finding it and failing to keep it. The film captures this whole range, and thus is Comrades the most romantic of films, not just a love story (almost).