Monday, 30 April 2007

El Topo (Mexico, 1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky) and The Holy Mountain (Mexico/USA, 1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

When you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’re not going to forget it in a hurry. The strange imagery, philosophies and set pieces which seem entirely random and disconnected have a lasting impact; it stays with you regardless of whether you like it or not. These films were released during the popularity of LSD and Eastern philosophies amongst certain Western youth subcultures; it’s really no surprise that The Beatles were reportedly taken with ‘El Topo’, as were much of the Hollywood new wave of the time (Dennis Hopper for instance). Their lawyer, Allan Klein, even part financed ‘The Holy Mountain’, though ensured it remained undistributed and unreleased for more or less three decades afterwards (a DVD release of both films is imminent). I’m not sure the films have aged very well, or would strictly mean that much to those outside its obvious demographic. Both are surreal journeys, often beautiful, often disturbing, but totally unique.

‘El Topo’ centres on a lone man, dressed in black, riding through the desert with a naked boy. He reaches a massacred village (beware; there is a lot of blood everywhere in this film, as well as ‘The Holy Mountain’), and vows vengeance upon those who committed this savage act of violence. A group of oddballs harass him, assuming he’s easy prey, though they are summarily dispatched with ease, and he then goes in search of the sadistic colonel. Having watched both films, you sense a repetition of certain scenes. At this point, the colonel’s men dance with the clergymen like lovers would at a traditional dance, which is repeated with riot police and local male civilians in ‘The Holy Mountain’. Another of Jodorowsky’s favourite violent acts is directed at the colonel; his penis is chopped off. Several small details such as these make you think the director would be in dire need of psychoanalysis. The man leaves his boy behind, taking up with a woman he saved from being raped, who tells him she will only love him if he kills four gun masters, all of whom are peculiar in their way; one has a garden of rabbits which die as ‘El Topo’ approaches, another has two henchmen, one with no arms, the other with no legs (paraplegic/quadriplegic dwarves are very common in his work), and so on. ‘El Topo’s woman has a rival, both of whom seem to strip without any motivation, and there’s a definite attraction between the two. Again, the director indulges his fantasies big time. When told to decide between him and the second woman, the first chooses the other woman and leaves his for dead…where he is rescued by deformed folk who live in a cave. When he awakes, they ask if he will lead them out, echoing the mole proverb we heard at the very start of the film; that he buries around underground, looking for the Sun, yet when he reaches the surface, he turns blind.

These people are stuck underground, and cannot escape. He builds a tunnel with money earned from begging in the local town. This town is populated with oddballs and freaks; old women in daring underwear, yet with men’s voices, and male sheriffs in full make up with a sexual appetite for their male prisoners, but all have a distasteful appetite for branding, or hanging and shooting their slaves, watching men box with barbed wire around their gloves, and playing Russian roulette in church. The town’s new priest is….you guessed, it El Topo’s son, who has his own issues, and wants to kill his father (though he has to help him with the tunnel first). El Topo’s labours result in tragic circumstances however, when the cave dwellers run down to the local town upon completion of the tunnel, and are savagely gunned down. El Topo extracts his revenge, and sets himself alight afterwards as his wife (also a dwarf) gives birth. Don’t ask what any of it means though.

‘The Holy Mountain’ is a comparatively more straight-forward (though baffling still) journey towards enlightenment. A figure resembling Christ is stoned on a cross, but comes down, and ventures into a violent and repressive Mexico City, where he is first intoxicated so he can be used as a bust for Christ statues (he then destroys them all but one, carrying his own effigy) and then followed by a prostitute (Mary Magdalene?) and a chimp. All the while people are being randomly killed by police whilst tourists record it all, and a toad and chameleon re-enactment of the Conquest of Mexico remains the most popular tourist attraction. He ascends a huge tower in the middle of the city, which is inhabited by the Alchemist (Jodorowsky), who seems to be some guru of sorts, and begins the Christ figure on his path towards enlightenment. Quite why this involves distilling his excrement and then making him inhale the fumes, whilst a naked woman plays the cello and a pelican wanders around, I can’t say. The Alchemist is also taking seven others on this journey, each a member of the elite (police chief, architect, weapons designer, etc), each aligned to a planet. When the near mute Christ figure is the sanest by some distance, you can imagine what kind of people we’re discussing. The Alchemist explains that immortality can be achieved by climbing to the top of the Holy Mountain, so they embark on a long journey, with the prostitute and chimp closely behind. The individuals forsake their riches and worldly goods (a comment on the con tricks of cults?), shave their heads, take LSD, and try to overcome their fears (one woman is scared of heights, and is told to simulate making love to the mountain). Upon reaching the summit though, Jodorowsky plays the same cinematic bluff that has been used in ‘Taste of Cherry’, amongst other films; introducing the fact that this is a film into the narrative. Apparently speaking to those he has brought up the mountain, he speaks of the metaphorical aspects of the mountain, before we realise he’s really addressing US, when he asks the camera to zoom back. It’s a nice gimmick, and we’re not too displeased to have a little prank played on us.

It’s impossible to explain logically what’s going on in either of these films. Dispensing with conventional narrative, Jodorowsky fills the screen with numerous bizarre images in succession. Usually they have no obvious connection to each other, but you can’t deny that a fertile imagination is at work here. Maybe these are films that need to be seen rather than enjoyed, unless you’re happily under the influence of certain substances. I imagine the same people who dropped acid or LSD to ‘2001’ and saw it as the ultimate life-changing and mind-altering experience would have seen ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ in similar circumstances. I think Jodorowsky succeeds more with ‘The Holy Mountain’. His political insights aren’t that interesting in themselves, but the way he frames them are, even if they’re usually soaked in copious amounts of blood. His handling of colour and images is vastly more impressive second time around; the Alchemist’s room is like something imagined by Dali or Bunuel. ‘El Topo’ is a surreal riff on the Western genre, but goes on too long. The final episode makes sense of the mole proverb which gives the film its title, and works pretty well on its own, but hardly seems to connect with the rest of the film. Both films are unique experiences; expect to feel a little disorientated afterwards. I assure you that you’ll have never seen anything like this before, and you probably won’t again.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

The Lives of Others was a surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, when it edged out the popular and critical favourite ‘Pans Labyrinth’, though the award was with hindsight, completely merited. Von Donnersmarck’s debut feature is a refreshing antidote to the likes of ‘Goodbye Lenin! which promoted the myth of nostalgia for life in the former East Germany popularly known as Ostalgie. One can point out that ‘Goodbye Lenin’ was nothing more than a gentle comedy, deriving much humour from the kitsch value of fashions and foodstuffs of the era, but ‘The Lives of Others’ smashes those myths to pieces, meticulously constructing a recreation of what life was really like for the people of DDR. It was an age when the Stasi monitored all aspects of public behaviour, whilst reportedly employing up to 300,000 informants through a combination of threats and bribery. Von Donnersmarck nominally focuses on the surveillance of one individual, the renowned playwright, Georg Dreyman. Though not considered subversive, a Minister named Hempf orders the surveillance because of his infatuation with Dreyman’s leading actress and girlfriend, Christa-Maria. The task is entrusted to Wiesler, who we previously witnessed lecturing about interrogation methods. Wiesler reminds us of Harry Caul in Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’. Both are lonely single men whose surveillance work takes over their life, who begin to empathise with the subjects of their surveillance, and who ultimately try to intervene and obstruct the surveillance. The final scene of ‘The Conversation’ is more or less reprised in this film, where Dreyman tears his apartment up looking for bugging equipment.

Wiesler initially reports Dreyman’s activities as they genuinely are, finding nothing of use to the authorities, though his partner takes particular enjoyment in the nocturnal habits of the playwright and his girlfriend. It is a combination of his empathy for Dreyman and his revulsion towards his superiors that leads him to file false reports, filled with banal information, at a time in which Dreyman’s behaviour becomes more subversive. When he writes an article about the burial of suicide statistics in East Germany, later published in the West anonymously, Wiesler notes that he is in fact writing a play based on Lenin for the 40th anniversary of the DDR. High ranking politicians are shown to be career-minded, with upholding socialism not even a second thought. Grubitz, a former colleague of Wiesler insists he gets results so that he can impress Hempf, whose motives for trapping Dreyman are highly dubious. Grubitz turns the screw by arresting Christa-Maria and encouraging her to inform on Dreyman, who is suspected of writing the article on suicide rates, which has tragic consequences, as she can no longer live with her betrayal of Dreyman.

Wiesler intervenes to save Dreyman, removing the typewriter that the article was written on from his house. However, Grubitz realises this and demotes him to steaming open letters (where he works with a careless state official who earlier told a joke about Hoenecker), where he remains for the following three years until the Wall comes down. As has been the case since then, East German citizens have been keen to discover what information was kept on them by the Stasi. Dreyman, who assumes he was never bugged, finds out to his bemusement that he was bugged, and that there are literally dozens of thick files held on him. He then tries to seek out Wiesler, who arguably saved his life. In a poignant and amusing touch, Dreyman dedicates a novel to Wiesler, who buys a copy in a ‘Karl Marx’ bookstore (see what I meant about Ostalgie?). Wiesler is asked if he wants the book gift-wrapped, to which he replies ‘It’s for me’.

The Lives of Others is a staggering first feature; the best debut from any country in recent memory. Whilst one might assume it’s going to be a heavy going and humourless depiction of life under authoritarianism, that’s not the case, as von Donnersmarck carefully balances tragedy with humour. It’s fashionable today to look at various aspects of Communism with an element of fondness, but there was a terrible human cost, and whilst the DDR was hardly on a footing with Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was still an overwhelming climate of fear and suspicion. Reports suggest that a Hollywood remake is in the works, which would surely baffle anyone who has seen this marvellous film.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Yellow Earth (China, 1984, Chen Kaige)

The two leading lights of the Chinese ‘Fifth Generation’ made their mark with the first masterpiece from this emerging movement. Chen Kaige was considered the prodigy of the Beijing Film School, and his colleague Zhang Yimou was just a vastly talented cinematographer, who turned director. Their careers were inextricably linked in the late 1980s and early 1990s as both managed to effortlessly make great film after great film, as if inspired by rivalry.

Chen’s ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Temptress Moon’ and Zhang’s ‘Ju Dou’ and ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ are amongst the finest films to emerge in world cinema in the last two decades. However, since the turn of the millennium, their careers could not have been any more different. Chen stumbled badly with ‘Killing Me Softly’, his first English language film, and has played catch up ever since, whilst Zhang has gone from strength to strength, immersing himself into the Chinese establishment with crowd pleasing (and government pleasing) wuxia films like ‘Hero’ and ‘House of Flying Daggers’, which have been very successful internationally in the wake of Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’. Despite the ravishing surfaces of Zhang’s recent films, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of substance, and now that his third wuxia film ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ has opened to pretty mediocre reviews, I’d guess that’s he’s stuck in a rut of rehashing ideas and offering steadily diminishing returns. ‘Yellow Earth’ is an artefact from the time in which these two directors were considered rebels, subtly undermining the Communist regime with their allegorical films, and this is a perfect example of this.

Set in 1939, a lone Communist soldier (Gu Quing) visits a remote village in the North. Appearing from the distance, as if Chen was paying homage to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, this soldier is on a mission to find folk songs that can be adapted and reworked as propaganda songs for the Red Army. What ‘Yellow Earth’ really examines is the cultural clashes that the Communists would have to overcome (and they arguably failed) in order to unite the country, which is a mass of disparate cultures with different customs, languages and beliefs. He arrives during a wedding, which sees a very elaborate and traditional ceremony, but we soon discover that this village (as well as many others) practices arranged marriages, a throwback to feudalism. This is in keeping in many ways with the early films of Zhang Yimou (‘Raise The Red Lantern’, ‘Ju Dou’), which were preoccupied with the historical subjugation of women in China. The solider remains uneasy about these feudal customs and speaks of the more modern ideals of the Communist Party. This awakens the libertarian instincts of Cuiqiao, a young girl who fears she will soon be forced to marry a much older man. Gu Quing tells her stories of women fighting in the Red Army, women finding their own husbands, and sexual equality, which increases her resistance to her village’s customs, but leads to a tragic conclusion. We hear of her older sister, who also married an older man but who is unhappy, and was beaten badly when she ran away.

Gu Quing represents the entire Communist Party. He makes promises for the future; to unite the disparate Chinese peoples, to replace outmoded customs, and teaches them the anthem “The Communist Party Will Save Us All”, the repeated chanting of which takes on a more ironic tone in time. Of course he cannot keep these promises, which might be Chen’s underlying motives – which the Party eventually failed to meet these objectives. Whilst it might control the cities and densely populated areas with an iron grip, the many remote villages inhabited by simple rural folk are completely out of the loop and largely left to their devices, with the same customs they always enjoyed. Cuiqiao wants to enlist in the Red Army and enjoy the freedoms afforded to women in the Party, and Gu Quing promises to return for her once he completes his mission and gets approval to do so. He fails of course, and before he can return, Cuiqiao is engaged to be married to a much older man she has never met. Cuiqiao is nothing more than a commodity to be sold by her father to her prospective husband. He tells her she was promised to him ever since he paid for her mother’s funeral.

Chen then introduces a scene that is deliciously ironic. In Yan’an, there is an elaborate ceremony for sons joining the Red Army, with music borrowed from the arranged marriages in the Shaanbe village. Chen hints at the Communists appropriating aspects of the feudal customs of the villages, but not realising the significance of them – these are the very same customs that the Communists abhor and vowed to outlaw!

‘Yellow Earth’ then reaches its tragic conclusion; that of Cuiqiao’s suicide. Without Gu Quing’s return, there is no hope, only suffering. Chen inserts another ironic moment; as she steers her boat into the river she sings “The Communist Party Will Save Us All”, and drowns herself at the point she reaches the word ‘Communist’, insinuating that there are no guarantees of this, that their promises are empty and that once again, they cannot change the customs and values of these feudal villages. Gu Quing returns of course, too late to have done anything. Does Chen’s closing scene of a prayer for rain, which seems almost Pagan, reinforce the inherent cultural differences between the villages and their so-called saviours?

It’s interesting that ‘Yellow Earth’ received a fairly easy ride from the Chinese censors given that it relentlessly questions the ability of the Communists to unite the Chinese peoples. Presumably they overlooked this in favour of the archaic customs of the countryside which contrasted with the modern ideals of the Communists. Considering that China had no film industry of any real note since the Communists took power, ‘Yellow Earth’ is simply a stunning exhibition of the creative talents of Chen and Zhang, whose photography is breathtaking. Over the next decade, the ‘Fifth Generation’ went from strength to strength, and ‘Yellow Earth’ remains one of its finest films. Whilst they remained peripheral directors, Chen and Zhang were amongst the most interesting and talented film makers in world cinema. Since they immersed themselves into the establishment, they’ve managed to get stuck into a rut. Hopefully they can regain their momentum, but who knows whether their time has simply passed as China changes.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Intimate Lighting (Czechoslovakia, 1966, Ivan Passer) and Party and the Guests (Czechoslovakia, 1966, Jan Nemec)

Both films are two of the most highly regarded films to emerge from the Czech New Wave, which briefly became one of the most fertile corners of the film making world during Dubcek’s policy of liberalisation and artistic freedom. However within a few years of the Soviet tanks invading and reforms giving way to Communist orthodoxy, it was all but over. These films also represent the duality of this movement; the former is a whimsical representation of small town Czech life, with no political agenda or influences, and the latter is a stinging satire aimed at the Communist state, whose response to Nemec’s film was to ban it forever. Nemec’s career in his homeland was more or less finished, distrusted by the state and considered a subversive film maker, but the same fate also befell Passer, despite this film being a carefree comedy about the simple pleasures of life. Both left for Western Europe and the United States respectively with mixed results.

Intimate Lighting is set in a small Czech village where music is a major local preoccupation. A very serious and impatient conductor is overseeing a rehearsal for a concert, which is gradually selling well. Bambas, a local resident who plays violin informs the conductor that a guest soloist will be joining them, who soon arrives – it is his old friend Petr, who brings along his pretty girlfriend Stepa (played by the second wife of fellow Czech director Milos Forman, looking something like a Czech Anna Karina). What follows is not so much a conventional narrative, but more a number of gently comic scenes, directed with warmth and empathy by Passer towards his characters. Minor episodes amuse, such as Petr trying to prove his strength to Stepa by gradually increasing the number of bricks he can carry (but he has to call Bambas to take them before he drops them), the family exchanging plates during dinner as they all worry someone doesn’t have enough (and the subsequent throwing of a chicken leg during an argument which spills a glass, to Stepa’s amusement), and a line of men urinating against a wall in unison.

The three men; Petr, Bambas, and his father all exasperate their wives to some degree though, mainly for their neglecting of them because of music. Stepa and Petr argue because she feels she has been ignoring them on their visit, and that he would rather spend time with Bambas than her, and it’s true to some extent, as many of her scenes focus on her walking around alone, frightening cats or speaking to the local village idiot. Yet Passer concentrates on friendship as his major theme in this film; the friendship between two men who have not seen each for many years, and how differently their lives have developed. Bambas is married with three children and lives in this village with his parents, whilst Petr lives in Prague. They reminisce about the past, get drunk, and make an abortive attempt to become itinerant musicians (they fail to get picked up when they hitchhike). A final scene of all drinking eggnog together is a potent symbol of family and fraternity. Passer’s celebration of life and its pleasures is a charming comedy, filled with many small scenes that will raise a smile, and presumably it’s ‘controversy’ resided in the fact that it was not a celebration of Communism. It is strictly free of politics and ideology, much like the early films of Milos Forman.

Nemec’s film on the other hand is a savage satire on conformity and Communism; an absurd allegory of the Bunuel school, both recalling his ‘The Exterminating Angel’ and predating his ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’. A group of seven (including three married couples and a bachelor) have a picnic by a lake, and spend their time eating and engaging in idle and banal conversation. It’s been suggested that Nemec and his co-writer Ester Krumbachova wrote the dialogue in a deliberately meaningless style, so the conversations seem disconnected, with the characters oblivious to what each other are saying. Trying to join another group of people who are on their way to a party, they are intercepted by a strange gentleman, who is then joined by a number of odd men. The apparent ‘leader’ (Rudolf) seems polite and friendly, but exudes a degree of menace, grabbing the arm of one of the group, who then tells the man to mind his own business. The group are then coerced into joining this sinister crowd. Some question, others remain passive. Some question whether they are being imprisoned or whether it’s just a practical joke. When one of the group tries to leave, the henchmen return him.

It emerges that these are guests of the host of the party. He is an affable, much kinder, and more reasonable gentleman, apologetic for the behaviour of Rudolf and his colleagues. Winning the trust of the group who accept the exercise as a practical joke, he invites them to a lavish banquet by the lake. The party begins well, but this all changes when one of the group escapes. The host then becomes less genial, refusing to give a speech, and thinks the guests are making fun of him when they all swap seats when it becomes known that they’re all sitting in the wrong places. When Rudolf offers to find the missing guest, complete with guns and dogs, the group are strangely co-operative towards this idea, and remain behind should he return voluntarily. The film ends on a disturbing note with the simultaneous extinguishing of candles and the violent barking of tracker dogs.

‘Party and the Guests’ has been read as an allegory on Communist state and society, and explores notions such as free will and conformity. The guests’ behaviour when faced with Rudolf and his henchman (who might be perceived as a secret police) changes very quickly from disobedience and questioning, to compliance and passivity. Submitting to the will of the henchman and the host (who resembles Lenin, and recalls any charismatic dictator) is second nature to them. When the Rudolf offers to locate the missing guest, they instantly agree, oblivious to the real meaning and consequences of the search. The barking of the dogs leaves us with no doubt as to what might occur once the dissident is found. Nemec’s theory about the ease of which people become compliant under authoritarianism can be applied wholesale, not just towards Communism. The most politically dangerous film of the Czech New Wave, it was banned forever because it failed each of the three criteria applied to films during this time. Not only was it subversive (despite the director’s protestations), but Nemec was out of favour and it was considered incomprehensible by the authorities. Thankfully, much of the Czech New Wave has been restored and released by the Second Run DVD label, and a significant movement that has been neglected can now reach a new audience. Both films represent different aspects of the Czech New Wave, in its apolitical and actively political states, but both faced the wrath of the authorities who presumably sought a film industry that would churn out propaganda efforts.

Monday, 9 April 2007

City of Sadness (Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1989, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

The leading director of the Taiwanese ‘new wave’ of the 1980s, which also incorporated Tsai Ming-Liang, Edward Yang, and Ang Lee, Hou is one of the most celebrated international directors of the past two decades or so. Most of his films have achieved recognition at international awards ceremonies, and influential critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum are fierce champions of his work. A poll of international critics, compiled by The Village Voice and Film Comment named Hou as the best director of the 1990s, and it’s likely that this was one of the films that was considered when these critics bestowed the honour upon him.

Hou’s family moved from the China to Taiwan during the late-1940s when the civil war on the mainland was raging, so ‘City of Sadness’ might be seen as one of his more personal films, exploring the effects of this tumultuous period upon a single family. It was the first film to address a taboo subject in Taiwan; that of the 228 Incident, when the Nationalist government brutally suppressed an uprising, which resulted in the deaths of between ten and twenty thousand civilians. It was only in the year before the film was made that it was even officially allowed to be discussed in public, and whilst Hou never actually shows the incident, it is never far away in our minds. We witness the aftermath of the civil unrest that took hold of the island, and the effects it had upon the population, especially when the government appeared to try to quell the trouble with the utmost force and with no rational approach.

Hou focuses on one family in particular, overseen by a widower and his four sons. The eldest is a semi-legitimate businessman, the second eldest fought during the war in the Philippines, and has yet to return (his wife still maintains he will one day), the third eldest has bouts of madness, and becomes a smuggler and small time crook during his period of normal behaviour, and the youngest is a deaf-mute photographer – the most sensitive and the brother we are obviously supposed to identify with. He communicates through words rather than sign language, with his writings communicated to us through the kind of intertitles you would see in silent films.

Through the semi-legitimate and illegitimate dealings of the eldest and third eldest brothers, we witness the widespread corruption that ran through China and implicated the Nationalist government (drug smuggling, counterfeit currency, illegal cigarettes). On numerous occasions, individuals discuss this corruption, coupled with hyperinflation which has made the price of rice sky-rocket, which was one of the numerous causes of resentment by the Taiwanese population towards the Nationalists and their scepticism towards the future of their government. The locals discuss the constant exploitation of the Taiwan – whether it’s by the Chinese or the Japanese – it doesn’t matter. After Taiwan returned to China after Japanese rule, unemployment in the region rose, and mainlanders often replaced the indigenous workers. Taiwan’s recent history of changing hands between occupying countries created an unstable population with multiple languages and cultures, and created mutual distrust and suspicion between these different groups. The third brother is at one point arrested for supposedly collaborating with the Japanese during the war and informing on others to save his own skin. Because of its precarious standing, the Nationalist government tried to instil order with force, which we see with the numerous arrests of many of the family on spurious charges more often than not, and the regular radio broadcasts that signal the introduction of martial law.

The emotional centre of ‘City of Sadness’ is the budding relationship between Wen Ching and his best friend’s sister, Hinomi. Her brother Hinoe is a teacher who has to flee to the mountains to avoid the Nationalist forces (we eventually see his murdered by soldiers). Wen Ching wants to join him, but is told by Hinoe to stay in their village to take care of Hinomi. They marry and have a child, but he too is arrested despite moving away. There was no escape from the Nationalist forces. The eldest and third eldest brothers are also murdered by the Nationalists, and we are given the impression that Wen Ching is merely in jail, and therefore the only brother of the family apparently alive. Hinomi’s diary recounts the incidents and her feelings and hopes for the future. Her final entry leaves the film on a sober and sombre note. The turbulent history of the island continues with the film’s epilogue, that of news that the Nationalists hot-footed it to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communists overthrew them in China. A one party state which still relied on terror at times existed until 1987 when liberalisation and democratisation policies were embarked upon. Hou’s film reminds us of an island forever subjugated by its oppressors, but prefers not to dwell on showing the events, and focuses on the human element and their place within the numerous tragedies that befell the island. In short, a masterpiece by any standards.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Goddess (China, 1934, Wu Yonggang)

Having played a number of emotionally draining female parts in her fledgling career, and also a victim of tabloid gossip after a salacious private life, Ruan Lingyu took her own life at the tender age of 25. ‘Goddess’ is the best and most readily available testimony to her acting talent, as she plays a prostitute dedicated to improving the life of her son. It was certainly one of the most progressive films of it’s time, and director Wu Yonggang had a reputation for making films with a left-wing slant. Compare this with films made during this decade in the United States where the Hays Code would have put paid to any director daring to make a prostitute a sympathetic character in a film. The title is ironic of course, a well known euphemism, and Ruan Lingyu’s nameless ‘heroine’ tries to balance her roles of prostitute and mother. She only takes this occupation up to provide for her son the life she never had, and it is later acknowledged that society has failed the women who have taken to the streets.

Fate plays her a poor hand when, on the run from the police who have ordered a clampdown on Shanghai’s prostitutes, she stumbles into a small time gangster’s headquarters, who hides her. However, he then considers her his property and that she is forever in debt to him. He takes most of the money she makes on the streets, threatens her son if she doesn’t do as he says, as well as assault her when he feels like it. Managing to put aside some money, she enrols her son into a private school. However her reputation is well known – neighbours gossip and refuse to let their children play with her son, who call him a ‘bastard’ and a child ‘from a bad family’. The final humiliation occurs during a talent show, during which every parent whispers about the dubious morality of the mother. The head teacher receives numerous complaints from parents and feels obliged to expel the boy but changes his mind after visiting. He can see she’s a good mother, and only works on the streets to provide for her son, and he senses her shame about what she does for a living. However, the fellow teachers and parents fail to be as sympathetic, concerned about the damage to the reputation to the school. The head teacher’s refusal to expel the boy loses him his job. In the film’s tragic denouement, the gangster steals the money the mother has been saving to fund his gambling. He refuses to give the money back, and hits her when she persists in asking for the money back. At the end of her tether, devastated, she hits him with a wine bottle, killing him.

As Yonggang has told us constantly throughout the film, society is unsympathetic towards its marginalised individuals. Even the judicial system fails to consider the circumstances behind the gangster’s death; his mistreatment of her, and that her actions were in self-defence. Sentenced to twelve years, her saviour becomes the head teacher who then offers to adopt her boy and raise and educate him. In her confinement, her solace is the thought that her boy will have a better future without being tainted by his mother’s reputation.

In her defining role, Runa Lingyu delivers one of the most moving acting performances ever seen. Yonggang helps with this, using numerous facial close-ups to reveal her heartbreak, notably when her gossiping neighbours discuss her moral standing during the talent show. He also contrasts the small village she lives in with the vibrancy of Shanghai, making it appear alluring, yet sordid. Perhaps this contrast comprises part of his agenda of showing his human side of prostitution – the village she resides in represents her responsible motherhood, and the bright lights of Shanghai represent her exploitation by her pimp and society. Much of the pre-Fifth generation Chinese cinema remains lost or unavailable, more so in terms of silent cinema. ‘Goddess’ was shown as part of the China Cinema 2007 season that has been rolled out nationwide. Several other films will be reviewed in due course.