Running Out of Karma: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

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

Tsui Hark’s second variation on Kung Hu’s masterpiece, after 1992’s New Dragon Gate Inn (nominally directed by Raymond Lee). While that version added Tsui’s Bluesmovie style sexual complications, gender-ambiguity and a healthy dose of cannibalism while minimizing the fighting, this one ramps up the action and throws the whole thing into a 3D-CGI blender. The result is an uneasy mix of old school wuxia filmmaking with modern technology and Tsui’s off-beat sense of character and coolness.

It begins as the other films do, with the evil eunuch leader of the East Bureau, a Gestapo force that’s been terrorizing the populace in the name of the Emperor, holding a show trial for some honest officers that had been trying to expose his crimes. But right away, Tsui diverges from the traditional story: a black-clad assassin played by Jet Li bursts in and fights the eunuch (played by none other than Gordon Liu). This intergenerational showdown ends shockingly abruptly, and Tsui unmasks the new villains for his film: the West Bureau, and even eviler Gestapo led by an even more evil bad guy. This guy is the favored consort of the Emperor’s most evil concubine, and the chase that will send everyone to the Dragon Gate Inn is a search for a pregnant maid, possibly but probably not carrying the Emperor’s child. And also buried treasure.

The usual assortment of heroes and villains in disguise arrive at the inn, and like the other two versions of the story, the first half or so of the film involves everyone figuring out who everyone else is. There’s a nod to the cannibalism of the 1992 film (itself an homage to The Black Tavern, a 1972 Shaw Brothers wuxia directed by Teddy Yip Wing-cho), but it isn’t a major plot point. Added to the usual cast of estranged lovers are a gang of Tartar warriors, led by a tattooed and dreadlocked woman played by Gwei Lun-mei. Jet Li and his old friend Zhou Xun are the main romantic pairing: she’s carried a flute for him (an homage to Brigitte Lin’s flute in the 1992 film, perhaps) for many years and the two of them talk wistfully of the jianghu (the underground world of wandering knights that forms the homeland of the wuxia genre) and the sacrifices they’ve had to make because of it, a plot that leans heavily on memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Finally though, the fighting begins. Tsui retains his frenetic approach to action from his analogue collaborations with Ching Siu-tung in the late 80s and early 90s, adding to them modern technology. Tsui’s first real commercial breakthrough as a director, after several edgier failures, was with 1983’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, in which he imported Hollywood technicians to make a fantasy spectacular. He did much the same thing with 2001’s phantasmagoric CGI-fueled Zu Warriors remake. With Flying Swords, Tsui made the first 3D wuxia film (there have been several since, I particularly enjoyed Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which was only released in 2D here). I haven’t been able to see it in that format, or his second 3D film, Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon, so I can’t speak to how well he utilized that technology. What I do know is that Flying Swords represents an extreme in Tsui’s approach to wuxia action.

In 1995’s The Blade, Tsui pushed the dizzying effects of camera movement and editing as far in the direction of bloody darkness as he could, creating a highly disturbing variation on Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman template, drawing out the blackest aspects of Chang’s and Tsui’s worldview, an overwhelmingly visceral vision of the jianghu as hell on earth. Flying Swords, on the other hand, couldn’t be brighter or less realistic. It is wuxia as cartoonish fantasy, a world of freedom where literally anything is possible. There’s hardly a realistic movement in the entire film, hardly a shot that hasn’t been modified or manipulated by technology. This jianghu is a world without limits. Where if you want Jet Li to fight a dude while spinning madly hundreds of feet in the air inside a raging tornado, sure, we can do that.

Each generation gets the Dragon Gate Inn it deserves, I guess. King Hu’s is a classicist masterpiece, one of the most efficient action films ever made. New Dragon Gate Inn captures the spirit of post New Wave Hong Kong cinema, reframing old genres with an exuberantly cockeyed sense of humor and a cast of gorgeous movie stars. Flying Swords attempts to merge this sensibility with the 21st century vision of action as the destruction of simulated cities, with an inhuman weather event both wiping out the iconic Inn and unveiling an older, more mysterious palace: the wuxia Shangri-La or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But we only get a glimpse of it before it too is digitally erased, leaving our actors alone, in the desert. Yet, despite all the whiz-bang, what I’ll remember are the purely human elements, the way Gwei lounges in a collapsed frame, at ease yet poised to strike, her eyes alone betraying her excitement at the upcoming action. And Jet Li’s sad eyes, the tired face of a man who has spent a lifetime fighting only to see the world grow ever crazier. And Zhou Xun’s grim determination to join him on his hopeless quest.

Running Out of Karma: A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon

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

I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details about this, I’m not sure that anyone aside from Tsui Hark and John Woo really know for sure, but as I understand it the story is: following the breakout success of the Woo-directed and Tsui-produced 1986 film A Better Tomorrow, the two reunited a year later for a sequel. It was a very contentious shoot, with Woo walking off at some point and Tsui finishing the film. They worked together again on The Killer, but split for good during the early days of the making of A Better Tomorrow III, conceived as a prequel set during the Vietnam War. They both made their own version of the story, with Tsui’s official sequel released in 1989 and Woo’s coming out the next year as Bullet in the Head.

The first A Better Tomorrow, itself inspired by Lung Kong’s 1967 Story of a Discharged Prisoner, tells of the friendship between two mid-level gangsters, Mark and Ho, played by Chow Yun-fat and Ti Lung, respectively, and Ho’s policeman younger brother Kit, played by Leslie Cheung. It’s a crime saga about the unbearable demands of loyalty and honor among thieves and family bonds both literal and metaphorical. It was wildly successful and vaulted Chow to superstardom. The sequel is a fascinating mess, it seems exactly like the work of two highly individualistic and independent creators who don’t agree at all on what kind of film they’re trying to make. To solve the problem that Chow’s superstar killer Mark dies at the end of the first film, Tsui and Woo invent a heretofore unmentioned twin brother for him and shoehorn him into the plot. With wildly over-the-top comedy, melodrama and violence, it’s 80s Hong Kong excess of the highest order.

The third film is a prequel, which proves a much more reasonable and interesting way of getting Chow back into the story. Set in the final months of the Vietnam War, Mark travels to Saigon to help his cousin Mun (played by The Other Tony Leung) convince Mun’s father to return with them to Hong Kong before the North wins the war. The father is played by Shek Kin, the villain in many a Kwan Tak-hing Wong Fei-hung serial and also in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. This was one of his final films, although he lived to be 96, dying in 2009. As all of Mun’s schemes for getting his father out involve criminal activity, he and Mark quickly become involved with a mysterious badass woman, played by Anita Mui, named Kit. At the point we meet him here, Mark is a regular guy, a poor shot and not particularly cool. But he’s tough and resourceful and we see him slowly turn into the superhero of the first film, right down to the origin stories of his iconic wardrobe: Alain Delon sunglasses, black duster jacket and matchstick in his mouth (for the first half of the film, he dangles an unlit cigarette from his lips; as he becomes more aggressive it changes to a matchstick: his oral fixation progresses from the thing that is burnt to the thing that starts the fire).

As is inevitable, both men fall for Kit, a situation only complicated by the return of her long-lost boss-gangster boyfriend Ho. (Here is where I point out how weird these character names are: Ho and Kit, recall, being the names of Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung’s characters in the first film. It’s like this universe contains an infinite number of potential Marks (the spontaneously generating twin of the second film) but a very finite number of character names for those Marks to interact with). Things escalate, trips are made back and forth to Hong Kong, everyone gets shot to hell and it all ends on the last flight out of Saigon.

The differences between Tsui and Woo’s versions of the same backstory are striking and varied. Most obviously is the presence of Mui, a strong female character, the smartest and most capable individual in the whole film by far, the likes of which is wholly absent from Woo’s work. Compare her to Cherie Chung’s marginalized woman in Once a Thief, the part of the heist trio (with Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung) that stays home and does the housework for the boys, or Thandie Newton’s Girl Spy in Peril in Mission: Impossible II, a film almost entirely derailed the moment she goes from interesting antihero to passive objective. Chow’s Mark was the iconic figure of Hong Kong cinema in the late 80s, an icon so widespread you see its influence still in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life 20 years later. But in Tsui’s film, the person Mark idolizes, the person who teaches him to be cool is Anita Mui. Between this and the balanced approach Tsui gives to the woman’s point of view in many of his romantic films (Working Class, The Lovers, Love in the Time of Twilight, Green Snake, etc) as well as the brilliant job he and Carina Lau do in re-envisioning the notorious Empress Wu in the Detective Dee films, I wonder if Tsui should be getting more credit for progressiveness in his depictions of women, especially relative to such macho directors as Woo, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Ringo Lam, Wong Kar-wai and others of that generation.

More than that though is the metaphysical difference in the films. Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” films are about the codes of honor among men of action, with the tragedy coming from the ultimate incompatibility of those codes with the amorality of modern life in Hong Kong, as epitomized by his gangster villains, laissez-faire nihilists of the Randian variety that flourished in the latter days of Hong Kong’s hyper-capitalist colonial life. This is all seen through a prism of Christian, specifically Catholic, iconography as his noble but doomed heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of innocents. Bullet in the Head has much more in common with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter than it does with A Better Tomorrow III, though they’re sourced in the same original screenplay. Tsui doesn’t go in for grand statements about The State of Things, and sure as hell never puts anything into a religious context, Christian or otherwise. His heroes live in the same chaotic world as Woo’s, but their losses aren’t sacrifices, they’re simply losses. Where Woo elevates everything he shows, with slow motion, melodramatic music and a seemingly endless supply of doves, Tsui drags us down to earth, down to the practical comedy and pragmatic horror of everyday life. The love triangle in Tsui’s film isn’t spiritual, it’s mundane, and the conflict at its heart isn’t between honor and dishonor, between heroes who follow a code and those who don’t. Everyone in the film has essentially the same amount of honor: they’re all crooks, to be sure, but no one’s particularly vicious about it: it’s not personal and not ideological; strictly business. Even Ho, the ostensible villain of the picture, isn’t any worse a guy than Mark, he just happened to have loved Kit first, that’s all.

That’s not to say that Tsui’s films aren’t political, they most assuredly are. But what they aren’t, at least relative to Woo’s, are moralistic. Tsui began his career with a remarkable trio of punk anarchist films that, along with his fellows in the New Wave, turned Hong Kong cinema on its ear. As his career progressed, his films became more conventional, with wacky comedies, effects-driven extravaganzas, traditionalist martial arts films and lush romances. But that early spirit still lingers, in even his most mainstream films. If Woo is always reaching for something transcendent, something ineffable in his tales of sacrifice, Tsui is always knocking us down, urging us to see things as they really are, however absurd or inexplicable. Woo’s heroes famously fire dozens of bullets without ever needing to reload, Tsui’s are always finding that after a shot or two, their weapons are empty.

Running Out of Karma: Further Notes on Blind Detective

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

I reviewed this a year ago and it’s all still true. It’s a terrific film, one of Johnnie To’s best recent works. But rewatching it, another couple of things jumped out at me beyond what I mentioned there.

It’s more intricately structured that it appeared to me at first, with a series of doublings between Andy Lau’s detective Johnston and his suspects. The serial killer in particular is signified as an evil version of Lau: he dresses like his victims, he eats a lot, and he’s obsessed with eyes.

Also: Lam Suet is a cab driver just like the serial killer (also the role Lau plays in the imagined recreations).

All of the crimes revolve around not-seeing, or at least hiding in plain sight. One killer hides a body, implicating a victim in his crime, a couple of killers hide in closets, the initial killer hides in the crowd, the hordes of people wandering and shopping the busy streets. The serial killer hides far out of town, and goes untracked for so long because his victims, rejected lonely women, are ignored and unseen by the world at large.

The dancing motif is present right from the first meeting of Lau and Sammi Cheng, their fighting off the acid-thrower being performed as a series of tango steps. I don’t know much about the tango, but it seems like a dance where not looking at your partner (or looking at them with a particular kind of intensity) is especially important.

There’s also a great touch when Lau finally talks to Gao Yuanyuan, the dance instructor he’s had a crush on since before his blindness. They dance and he’s much better than her: she keeps stepping on his toes. Because she’s caught off-guard by him, or because he’s practiced so much that he’s surpassed her?

Interesting too that Gao, the center of the love triangle in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is here the love interest that the hero must get over in order to begin a relationship with Sammi Cheng, which is the same role she plays in Romancing in Thin Air.

Both this and Romancing involve the hero creating a narrative to help Sammi get over a trauma. In the first movie, Louis Koo literally makes a film to help her resolve the loss of her husband. In this one, Lau uses the Method acting like approach to detective work to create a narrative that ultimately solves (explains) an event from Cheng’s youth that’s haunted her for her whole life.

Both Running on Karma and Mad Detective use the same visualization approach to solving crimes. But those films are more spiritual, with karma and (possibly) ghosts aiding the police work. Blind Detective is resolutely materialist, turning the scene in Mad Detective where Lau Ching-wan eats an improbable amount of food into a two-hour movie.

The film is relentlessly monochrome, Andy and Sammi almost always clothed in black or gray, with only a few bursts of color (Gao Yuanyuan’s red dress, the rich browns of the serial killer’s mountain hovel) breaking the noir color palate. There’s a signature To shot: overhead on a black street at night, three streetlights forming white spotlight circles that a young girl (imagined) runs through. This is in contrast to the whites and greens of Romancing and the popping blues and reds of Don’t Go‘s screwball fantasy world. Typically To’s comedies are very colorful while his dramas are more stark. Here he takes the slightly distorting wide-angle lenses of his comedies and puts them to use in the sombre world of crime, mixing his tones visually as much as the script does in narrative.

I just read the five reviews of Blind Detective linked to on its wikipedia page and they are uniformly bad. Not just in their view of the film, but in their writing and analysis. The laziest possible critical ways out. (Broad acting! Tonally inconsistent! Looks great! Silly and therefore a step back from his serious films like Drug War or Election!) That wouldn’t be a big deal, there’s no shortage of awful film criticism in the world, except that I’m pretty sure that the reason this didn’t get a release in the US of any kind is because of these reviews in influential publications (the Hollywood Reporter, Screen Daily, Film Business Asia (which gave it a 2(!) out of 10)). At least Justin Chang’s review in Variety does the film justice. Of course, it’s not on the wikipedia page. This is an under-publicized problem with our system of art house and foreign film distribution: quite often the critics with the biggest or most influential platforms are, through ignorance or overwork or any of the random mood-altering events that can color your initial impression of a film, terrible at determining which films we should be allowed to see.

Eight More Films from VIFF 2014

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

After a fantastic eight days in Vancouver, I’m back home in Tacoma now. My cinematic viewing has abruptly shifted from Godard, Alonso and Ceylan to Growing Up with Hello Kitty 2 (at the point where Hello Kitty and her friend decide to build a “Cinderella Castle”, my 3-year-old daughter gets the same expression of pure joy on her face that I had throughout the running time of Hill of Freedom). Before I leave the festival behind completely, however, I want to take another look back at some of the highlights. This one will focus on some of the big name directors who had films at the festival. I’ll have another about some lesser-known filmmakers and short films when naptimes allow.

Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After was my favorite film from the Seattle Film Festival earlier this year, and it remains a favorite after seeing it again in Vancouver. It’s no less mysterious than it was on that initial viewing. Its dizzying series of inexplicablities seem more than ever to me an attempt at creating something more unsettling than the goriest horror movie: a film about the inability to comprehend the world as it is now, played out in a series of confrontations: generational, romantic, judicial, political, spiritual. The audience in Vancouver was much different than in Seattle. Bigger (the large auditorium was sold out, the pre-show lineup snaking through the mall further than I could track) and largely Chinese and Chinese-Canadian, the crowd was much more in tune with its daft chaos, laughing at all the right moments (the 40 or so people I saw it with in Seattle seemed more baffled than entertained). And seeing it at the end of a remarkable week in Hong Kong, with the instability and unknowability and fear of what will come when and if Hong Kongers get to vote for their own rulers in the coming years sparking massive protests throughout the former colony, only added to the film’s sense of urgency. One of the biggest and uneasiest laughs of the night came when the lost passengers, learning that they are now six years in the future, wonder if this strange world they’ve found themselves in is the result of the 2016 elections.

Another favorite was Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, wherein Viggo Mortensen (who also produced) plays a Danish captain in the Argentine military out on campaign against the local population. His 14-year-old daughter runs of with one of his soldiers, into the wild, despite the presence somewhere out there of a mad former soldier, gone murderously native. Mortensen sets off alone to track her down, one part Ethan Edwards, one part Aguirre. Like Alonso’s previous film, Liverpool, the only other one of his films I’ve yet seen, Jauja is composed of long, deliberate takes, but this is slow cinema that burns with purpose, always grasping into the unknown. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film as obsessed with what is not on the screen: every shot seemingly involves someone looking at or talking to someone or something off-camera, or heading out into space we can’t see. The unusually square aspect ratio (with rounded corners that make the film look like a slide projection) only heightens this effect, magnifying the blackness and blankness that surround our searcher. In contrast to the industrial whites of Liverpool, Jauja is gorgeously colored, the blues and reds of Mortensen’s uniform popping unnaturally against the greens and browns and grays of the desert, with an impossibly starry sky imparting a feel of fairy tale whimsy to what might have been a dour and bloody saga of futility. And then things get weird: our minimalist film becomes something extraordinary, equal parts Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Alain Resnais (specifically the coda of Wild Grass) and the Insanity Pepper episode of The Simpsons.

Speaking of talking dogs, Roxy Miéville is the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Adieu au langage (the title is translated into English for its release here, which I don’t really understand. It isn’t like the French title is opaque to English-only speakers, even for the most Francophobic of viewers, and puns on the French title are one of the primary structuring elements of the film. I’m sticking with the original.) A compendium of riffs and jokes and experiments, ruminations on the modern world (and Hitler, of course), I certainly would need to see the film several more times to feel like I have a firm grasp on it. Godard’s films, especially the later ones I’ve seen, are so densely packed with information (images, multiple images, epigrammatic narration, text on-screen) that it’s impossible to parse in a single viewing. I just kind of latch on to a few things and enjoy the ride. And what stuck here (aside from the brain-bending experiments in 3D technology) was the dog, running around the woods, playing in the snow, basically doing dog stuff. And the trees. Godard shoots with a variety of technologies, but whatever camera he’s using, I don’t think I’ve ever seen trees look as beautiful as they do in Adieu au langage, shades of orange and green I don’t recognize against the bright blue sky, the 3D giving them a kind of depth and motion that’s never before existed in the cinema and probably doesn’t in nature. These wondrous natural images, combined with Godard’s gnomic narrational musings made me realize for the first time just how much he has in common with Terrence Malick.

A slightly different approach to nature comes in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner, 19th Century British painter of landscapes, seascapes and boats. As played by Timothy Spall, Turner is a giant ball of grunt, thick accents, and lower-class taste disguising an erudite and romantic soul. In other words, the film very capably filled the role of “tasteful British picture about class and/or costumes” in my festival schedule (joining such memorable company as Made in Dagenham, The Young Victoria, The Angels’ Share, and Good Vibrations). It’s a perfectly fine, very likable movie, but I’d rather have just watched National Gallery again.

Also perfectly fine and perfectly without surprise is the latest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night (a correctly translated title that is nonetheless also odd because the film very clearly takes place over four days, though there is only one night scene). Major Actress Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker (solar panels) who has been laid off because her boss made her co-workers vote on whether they’d rather she continue to work or they get their annual bonus. It’s an absurdly blunt premise that the Dardennes, whatever its worth, remain firmly committed to. After earning a revote, the bulk of the film follows Cotillard’s Sandra (barely recovered from a suicidal depression) visiting each of her coworkers in turn to beg them to vote for her to keep her job when, after the weekend, a second vote will take place. She’s aided in her quest by her husband, played by Fabrizio Rongione, who also played the architect in La Sapienza (This makes Rongione the only actor two star in two different films I saw at the festival, as far as I can tell). Anyway, the fact that the Dardennes manage to make such a didactic and schematic premise watchable at all is a credit to their skill, but there’s only a few places this story could go, and when it ends up at its most obvious destination, the result is not transcendence but a pleasant shrug.

What is resolutely not what I expected it to be is Welcome to New York, Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story, with Gerard Depardieu the massive presence in the center (it’s unclear who would win the award for Gruntiest Performance of VIFF 2014 between him and Mr. Turner‘s Timothy Spall). He’s M. Deveraux, head of an international banking organization and potential future president of France with a prodigious appetite for sex. After an evening of debauchery, which Ferrara shows us in clinical, resolutely unsexy detail for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, Deveraux sexually assaults a hotel maid. He’s caught at the airport and, mirroring the opening, we follow in exacting detail the process of his arrest, booking and arraignment. The rest of the film is almost lyrical, as Deveraux and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) argue over the fallout of what he’s done and what it means for their past and their future. Deveraux, a leftist economist, despite devoting his life to helping the less fortunate, is exposed as no less a Randian egotist than the worst right-wing cartoon: his utterly unshakeable belief in the inviolability of his own self-interest the only guiding principle of his existence. I had expected the film, when I first heard about it, to concern itself with the mystery of the crime itself. A did-he or didn’t-he exploration of the legal system and our attitudes toward powerful men who commit crimes against women. Ferrara, though, ditches all of that. We know he’s guilty right from the beginning, and the film becomes even more darkly political as a result. There’s no balance, no epistemology, no other side of the story: there’s the insular, protected, heedlessly destructive world of the super-rich and powerful (right and left) and everything else is the margin.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Plame d’Or-winner Winter Sleep also concerns itself with the selfishness of a powerful man, but rather on the misdemeanor side of the ledger. Taking place almost entirely at a remote hotel in the Turkish hinterland, built, like the nearby village, out of the undulating cliffs and hills of the landscape, like something out of Tolkein. The hotel is run by Aydin (a masterful performance from Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who inherited a bunch of land and likes to write essays in the local paper (he’s also nearly finished researching his book: a history of Turkish Theater. Gonna start writing it any day now.). He lives with his sister, a divorcee, and his much younger wife, and their servants. One of the servants also works as a debt collector for the lands Aydin rents out. A rental dispute sets the film in motion: a family that can’t pay its debt feels humiliated by the man on the hill, who stubbornly refuses to understand why (he doesn’t get involved, he hires people to deal with such things). This thread is duplicated in Aydin’s interaction with the women in his life, the sister who attempts to puncture his pomposity and the wife who desperately tries to carve out a little world for herself without having him criticize or condescend to her. As viscous a satire of the culture of male intellectual pretension as Listen Up Philip, albeit at much greater length thanks to Ceylan’s icy rhythms and patient exploration of the alien and timeless Anatolian landscape. Alex Ross Perry’s film feels resolutely of the 21st Century as does Abel Ferrara’s, whereas Ceylan’s could have taken place at any point in the last 3,000 years or so, give or take a millennia.

Finally, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, possibly the richest and most-baffling film of the entire festival. A trip through the underworld, or purgatory at least, as one man, Ventura, relieves his past through the black and brown industrial landscapes of Lisbon’s Fontainhas district. A haunted, ghostly presence, Ventura slips in and out of memories and hospitals, wandering through impossible black spaces, both above and below the industrial ruins that pass as living spaces for much of the world’s forgotten classes and talking to acquaintances and friends, obliquely recounting crimes committed, mistakes made and losses witnessed. Dominated by shadow, splitting the screen, creating ancient irises, forming a primal void from which yellow apartment lights float like islands of life in a universe of emptiness, vertical lines relentlessly drawing our eye upwards, out of the archaic 1.33 frame. It’s an astonishing film, unique and yet deeply cinephilic, forging connections across a century of cinema, not just The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Here is a partial list of the movies I thought of while watching Horse Money: The Phantom Carriage, Goodbye Dragon Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, Pedicab Driver, The Thin Man, A Matter of Life and Death, Apocalypse Now, Ikiru, The Phantom of the Opera, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and well, just DW Griffith in general. After watching it, I was overwhelmed, but sure that this would be a one-time experience, so draining and difficult was it to watch at times. After a couple of days though, all I really wanted to do was see Horse Money again.

Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Amid the Very Important Films tackling Very Important Subjects in Very Important Styles at this year’s festival, there is, as there always is here in Vancouver, a place as well for more generically-oriented fare. I’m not speaking of the always-fecund indie-horror/thriller genre, which too is well-represented and well-attended, despite my almost total absence, but rather that most-reviled of all contemporary genres: the romantic comedy. Burdened by 15, 20, 40, 70? years of spunky professional heroines cursed with the twin scourges of awkwardness and beauty-concealing eyewear; bland, square-jawed leading men with suspiciously nice hair; meets cute, stirring declarations and string-swelling finales; the romantic comedy remains among the most formulaic, irritating, disreputable and wildly popular of all film genres. But as these things always go, along with the successful trash there are every year great gems to be found, too special for the mainstream, their denominators not low enough for wide release in America’s multiplexes. Films that persist despite all the odds in exploring the promise of this ancient and enduring form.
At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo, an annual denizen of the VIFF schedule (this is the 7th of his films I’ve seen here in Vancouver) and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters and questionable life choices. One of Hong’s funniest films, my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve. It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Moving from one of our most-established auteurs to one of our newest, the most-underrated film of the festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry). In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” pronouces the wife). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while remembering her previous relationship with the man, her boyfriends after the original break up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest boyfriend. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.

Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever (I’m still stunned she found a way to make the very familiar Hong Kong airport seem completely fresh in Ex), with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good TV, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.

French director Axelle Ropert’s second feature, the hideously named Miss and the Doctors (everyone agrees the original title, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (or, Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss) is vastly superior), tackles the equally complicated subject of the love lives of the middle-aged. The doctors are brothers, general practitioners in Paris. They each fall in love with a younger woman, the mother of one of their child patients. The woman, a beautiful bartendress (Louise Bourgoin), is estranged from the girl’s father, and at first resists the advances of both brothers. The older, taller brother, gruff and blunt, is played by Cédric Kahn, the younger, a blond recovering alcoholic who looks a bit like a Gallic Michael J. Fox, is played by Laurent Stocker (billed as being “from the Comédie-Française”). It’s a sweetly patient, funny and melancholy story. One of those movies where everyone has their reasons.

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is as self-lacerating a tale of artistic ego and male self-importance as I’ve seen in quite awhile. Trapped for the first third in the insufferable mind of young author Jason Schwartzman, the eponymous Philip, as his hilarious misanthropy turns increasingly cruel, we’re given a reprieve in the film’s middle section, as Philip’s now ex-girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) reconstructs her life in fits and starts after their breakup. The last section of the film finds us back with Philip and his mentor, legendary author Ike, played with gruff arrogance by Jonathan Pryce. Like his previous feature, The Color Wheel, Perry delights in the us-against-the-world egotism of his protagonists, drawing pleasure in the absurdity of the difference between how they see themselves and how the world sees them. It would be unbearable if he didn’t care just enough about these terrible people to laugh a little bit with them, and give them an ever-so-slight chance of happiness, however perverted the manifestation of that happiness might be. Unlike The Color Wheel‘s gorgeously grainy black and white, the new film is in color, vibrant and warm. However, also unlike the previous film, it’s shot in a nauseatingly close-up hand-held style. The choice makes more sense here than in something like, say, Humpday, thanks to a voice-over narration (delivered by no less than Eric Bogosian) that frames the film as a quasi-documentary. I’ll readily admit my distaste for this style has as much to do with my own middle-age and tendency toward motion sickness. Suffice it to say I’d prefer it if Perry and his accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams would take a step or two back from the characters. But whatever, there’s lots of ways to make movies.