Monday, 29 October 2007

Night Train (1959, Poland, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)

The first film I reviewed for this blog was 'Mother Joan of the Angels' by this director, a stunning account of religious madness and sexual hysteria. His preceding feature, Night Train, is a superbly taut thriller, constantly challenging its audience about the identity of a murderer. Jerzy (Leon Miemczyk), in shades and a suit, boards a train bound for the Baltic coast. He's lost his ticket, but offers to purchase a two person sleeping car entirely for himself so he isn't disturbed. However his compartment is already inhabited by Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who refuses to leave. Not wanting to make a fuss, Jerzy agrees to share the car. Both are ill at ease, don't wish to speak and act very suspiciously. Jerzy is then pursued by a married woman, who follows him when he goes to a tobacconists at a brief stop, whilst Marta is being chased by her ex-lover Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), who acts as if he might explode at any moment. However, the train's passengers soon become alarmed by news that a murderer is on the loose in the area, and even more so when police suspect the murderer may be on the train. Suspicion then falls upon the private Jerzy.

Kawalerowicz does an exceptional job of keeping such a simple thriller so unbearably tense for the duration of ninety minutes. He reveals nothing about Jerzy; why he's behaving as he is, why he has no ticket, or will pay double to get a private car - to point the finger of suspicion at him. Marta acts quite similarly though we suspect this is the fallout of the collapse of her relationship with Staszek (and there are ominious razorblade cuts on her wrists) - plus, we never suspect her as we know the murderer is male. Both seem equally lonely and abandoned, though they never bond. In fact they want to stay out of each other's way as much as possible, though we're never told why.

Beginning with a trademark bird's eye view of the passengers running for the train (used to such great effect in Mother Joan of the Angels), Kawalerowicz creates a claustrophobic environment for his principle characters to inhabit, which is increased greatly when suspicion falls upon the pair and they start a collective mentality of persecution. One thinks of the wicked whispers of Clouzout's 'Le Corbeau' (1943) when a gang mentality can be so cruel and vindictive without much justification. As a thriller, it belongs in the Hitchcockian school (who had his own partially train-based thriller that year with North by Northwest) - the tension is unbearable and well handled at all times, and Kawalerowicz pursues forever relevant themes to his credit.

Alexandra (2007, France/Russia, Alexander Sokurov)

Sokurov's new film begins with the eponymous woman (Galina Vishnevskaya) alighting a bus, then boarding an unnamed train, which is heading to an army camp in an unnamed region, though we imagine this to be Chechnya. Given the mutual enmity and contempt felt between Russians and Chechens, how has Sokurov managed to create such a dreamlike and striking film about their relationship - by concentrating on the human angle of course.

Alexandra is visiting her grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), who she hasn't seen for seven years. He's now running a platoon, but feels no pride in his work, and constantly thinks of the atrocities he's seen. Sokurov also suggests that if the Russian army is at war with the Chechens, then they're going to struggle with the poor machinery and weapons, the inexperienced teenage soldiers doing the fighting, and the low pride and morale that makes each soldier question his patriotic duty, accentuated by the lateness of salaries being paid. Neither do the soldiers express any contempt for their enemies. Sokurov wisely does not show any of the war being fought; it's very much a representation of non-active army life, where very little takes place.

The humanity angle is further played out by Alexandra acting as a bridge between the army and the Chechen community. She visits local markets, buys goods for the soldiers, and befriends the locals who are more than generous. The region may be bombed out and decimated, but this war hasn't been able to destroy the basic decency and goodness of these civilian people. In whose name is this war being fought? The leaders would say for the people, but these people want peace and a chance to co-exist. The soldiers are shown as decent men, instructed by Moscow to wage a war they don't believe in.

A lack of action and narrative might put some off Alexandra, though it's a moving account of living through war and having to fight. There's almost a hallucinatory quality to it, and the performances, especially by Vishnevskaya are very good. Sokurov does not give the official account of the Chechen conflict that Putin would like to have us believe; it's a tale of simple peace and humanity, and all the more effective for being so.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Lust, Caution (2007, USA/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, Ang Lee)

After the commerical and critical success of 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005), Ang Lee has taken a slight misstep with 'Lust Caution', his first Chinese feature since 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' (2000). It has already achieved a degree of notoriety pre-release because of the NC-17 rating it has been awarded (which basically means box office death in the US, but what hope would a small budget Chinese picture have, even if it is directed by Lee) for explicit sexuality. This might paradoxically give it a sense of commercial longevity, especially given the anticipation to its showing at the London Film Festival, as well as press coverage, so maybe it's not going to be a total write off, despite the lukewarm reviews received thus far.

Primarily an espionage thriller set during the Japanese occupation of China, the film begins with a sophisticated young woman named Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang) in a bar making a clandestine telephone call before obviously meeting someone. The action then flashbacks four years just as troops of young Chinese men patriotically go to fight the Japanese. Mak Tai Tai is actually a young student named Wang Jiazhi, who becomes part of a drama troupe that is actually a fromt for underground activities and serves to raise Chinese morale. Their aim is to assassinate Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a collaborator known for his especially brutal methods at dealing with those who resist. Quite the skilled actress, Mak Tai Tai then takes on her greatest role - to seduce Mr Yee (whilst masquerading as the wife of a successful businessman) and make him vulnerable enough to assassination. Of course this leaves Mak Tai Tai vulnerable herself - to both love and the sexual desires of Mr Yee.

Many have compared 'Lust Caution' to 'Black Book' (2006), Paul Verhoeven's tale of a Jewish woman who infiltrates the Gestapo, but it also has traces of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Notorious' (1946), in which Ingrid Bergman had to feign love for a Nazi in order to bring him down. Given the graphic nature of Lee's film, it has far more in common with the former, and lacks the subtelty of the latter (wasn't sex more interesting in films when it was more chaste, when it was glances rather than organs everywhere, or is that just me?). Just for the sexual content, others look to Nagisa Oshima's 'In The Realm of the Senses' (1976), though it's not quite as deliriously crazed in that respect. Still, it's often pretty brutal stuff (especially the first time, which is pretty much anal rape, though her smile might suggest ultra-submissiveness). The fact that the underground resistance are not ready to go ahead with the assassination attempt means that the affair has to continue, which leaves her open to falling for Mr Yee and betraying her cause.

Lee's film looks nothing short of spectacular, but is seems a little all dressed up with nowhere to go. At 157 minutes, it's vastly too long, especially given that the first hour overelaborates the back story - it could have done with more editing. Given that the focus is on Mak Tai Tai's seduction of Mr Yee, do we need so much filler at the front end of the film? As much is devoted to the origins of the drama troupe as it is the main bulk of the narrative. It's interesting the next film rumoured to be made by Wong Kar Wai 'The Lady From Shanghai' (2008) isn't too far removed from Lee's film by the sound of things (both set during the 1930s, both espionage thrillers). I wonder what Wong might have made from this material. I'd be surprised if Wong would have filmed the relationship so explicity. For instance, the glances between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in 'In The Mood For Love' (2000) were far sexier than the explicit sex on show here. Maybe I'm nitpicking. 'Lust Caution' is perfectly OK; you can't fault it's look or performances and I'm sure it will receive enough coverage to find an audience, but it just felt underwhelming and overlong.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Funny Games (2008, UK/USA/France, Michael Haneke)

Given it's world premiere at the London Film Festival, Haneke's remake of his own 1997 masterpiece is bound to be divisive on release next year. Several critics have alresdy expressed bewilderment at Haneke's decision to embark on a remake of one of his early films, though he (and his producers) have justified it due to the fact that the original has barely been seen by an American audience (the box office receipts for the original amount to approximately $6000) and that Haneke always envisioned 'Funny Games' as an American film. Given the success of 2005's 'Hidden' (nearly £1m at the UK box office and just over $3.5 million at the US box office), Haneke now has the clout to remake his film and dictate his terms. Given the failures of compromised remakes like 'The Vanishing', perhaps it's best to allow directors to remake their films as they wish.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this version is the fact that it is a shot for shot remake; even the locations are to the same specifications as before, and only a couple of technical updates have been made (swapping a cordless landline telephone for a mobile). Some might question the purpose of this, but it's natural for Haneke, a director always content to challenge his audience to do this. Now what's the most famous shot for shot remake of recent times? Gus van Sant's 'Psycho' (1998) perhaps? Considered a total failure by most, I actually see plenty of merit in this as an artistic experiment, and I would consider Haneke's second version of 'Funny Games' in this respect. Surely this has loftier and more artistic ambitions than most of the remakes routinely churned out?

Those who have seen the original will know the narrative, but to summarise - a bourgeois family are visited by two ultra-polite men who then hold the family captive, subjecting them to a series of sadistic games, but what separates it from schlock horror is the fact that us, the audience, are implicated in the narrative. The two men give regular asides to camera, nods and winks, asking us what fate should befall the family, and that their convoluted torture is all in the name of entertainment. Some have accused Haneke of holding his audience in contempt, though I think he makes many relevant points that still make sense to a contemporary audience - how we consume violent images, how we have become desensitised to it (a theme explored ever since 1992's 'Benny's Video').

The casting is improved in places but not in others. The outstanding Naomi Watts (Haneke's first choice apparently) gives a more powerful performance than Susanne Lothar did, but Tim Roth with a wildly fluctuating American accent isn't as effective as displaying sheer helplessness as the late Ulrich Muhe did. Michael Pitt is fine as Paul, the more proactive of the two men, though he doesn't quite have Arno Frisch's charming malevolence. Perhaps he might have been better in the Peter role, who he more closely resembles, though Brady Corbet does a decent job himself.

It's probable that one would engage more with this film had one viewed the original, though it seemed the case that most of the audience at this screening probably hadn't. If that's the case, then surely the objective of the film has been met; to reach a wider audience. Not that it's going to be much a viable commercial proposition anyway. Although the violence occurs mostly off-screen, it's sufficiently intense and shocking to ensure it will achieve a restrictive rating. I don't think you can really compare and contrast the two versions to definitively argue which is better. They're companion pieces, and this remake certainly doesn't feel intrinsically undermined by the fact it's a copy of a masterpiece (and it certainly isn't obviously worse). There are also rumours of a remake of 'Hidden' could be in production, though Haneke has no intention of being involved.

Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days (2007, Romania, Christian Mungiu)

Who would have thought a few years ago that Romania would become a hotbed of film making talent? The first film to break through was 2005's 'The Death of Mr Lazarescu', which managed to secure a UK release on the arthouse circuit. Subsequent releases to critical acclaim have included 'California Dreamin' (also playing at the London Film Festival) and '12:08 East of Bucharest'. Further proof of a film making renaissance in Romania was at Cannes this year when 'Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days' won the Palme D'Or, which secured it a gala screening at this year's London Film Festival. Whilst there was some critical contention regarding whether the film deserved the main prize at Cannes, I'm pretty sure that none of the other nominees could match this film for sheer power and emotional impact.

Set in 1987 during the final years of Ceausescu regime, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a student who finds herself pregnant in a country where abortion is illegal. Assisted by her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), Gabita seeks an illegal abortion. Mungiu then demonstrates, in great detail, the lengths that desperate women would have to go to in order to achieve this. First of all, there's the issue of finding a large sum of money, which is borrowed with great difficulty. Then there's the booking of a hotel room under false pretences, and then finding someone willing to perform the procedure (Mr Pepe, a shady individual demands sex from Otilia when the pair cannot deliver all the money, and even then he explains it might not work); all of which needs to be achieved without raising the suspicions of the authorities. The consequences of being uncovered would be dire for all. The attention to detail of all these events can only make us sympathetic to the cause of the two women, but never maniuplates us emotionally. Abortion wouldn't be something entered into lightly, and the sacrifices that need to be made by both women are numerous. Mungiu never flinches from showing us the reality of the situation.

The lengths gone to in order to ensure the abortion is achieved has a natural impact upon the relationship between the women - both have to lie to each other, and Otilia has to lie to her boyfriend and jeapordise her relationship with him in order to keep the abortion secret. It's interesting that Mungiu places his focus not on Gabita, but Otilia, who does all the running to make the abortion possible and also to cover it up afterwards, including disposing of the dead foetus. She makes the ultimate sacrifices for her friend's benefit, and one wonders whether their relationship is salvagable by the film's climax.

Put simply, this is possibly the most impressive film of the year and deserves all the plaudits and prizes it will achieve. Mungiu remains sympathetic to the two main protagonists, but he never makes overt and simple political points which would be all too easy to lapse into. The film is immersed in the kind of tension that is unbearable and nerve shattering at all times, as the procedures that need to be undertaken could at any time arouse suspicion and land the two women in the kind of trouble that isn't worth thinking about. Marinca, given the most demanding role, delivers an absolutely wonderful performance - it's hard to see where you'll see anything better this year. 'Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days' really is faultless, and whilst I'm reluctant to throw around adjectives like 'masterpiece' just yet, there's every chance it will be seen as one of the key films of the decade in years to come.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007, France, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once described Hou Hsiao-Hsien as one of the two most important film makers in the world at the turn of this century (Abbas Kiarostami being the second). His previous film, 2005's 'Three Times referred back to three of the films Hou directed in the 1990s (Goodbye, Goodbye South, The Flowers of Shanghai and Millennium Mambo), and distilled all the themes he's examined throughout his career. With this mind, one might reasonably argue that Hou had revisited past glories and needed to pursue new projects (not that Three Times wasn't anything other than great itself).

'Flight of the Red Balloon' is the first film that Hou has made in France, and is both inspired by and a homage to the classic 1956 short 'The Red Balloon' by Albert Lamorisse. Indeed the film begins with a red balloon mysteriously following a young boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), as he rides the Metro. His mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) has just hired a new child minder named Song (Fang Song), and it is the relationship between Simon and Song that features more so than his relationship with Suzanne. Simon's father is absent and working on a book in Montreal, whilst Suzanne has enough problems of her own besides the lack of a husband; tenants who don't pay the rent, she's always rushed off her feet, and a job as a puppeteer that keeps her away from home (recalling Hou's own 1993 film), all of which affects her own emotional balance. Where is the support she needs?

Song potentially acts as Hou's alter ego in this sense; a foreigner from the Chinese diaspora observing Paris with the eye of an outsider. A student film maker, she is making a film that features red balloons, and she makes reference to the Lamorisse film in the early proceedings. What do we interpret about the motif of the red balloon; what does it represent? Song's caling influence upon the torn family? Is it anything more than in the imagination of those who see it? Hou avoids giving simple explanations and allows the viewer to interpret the imagery of the balloon.

One wonders whether Hou's ambitions are now aimed towards European film making, though IMDB reports that his next film is a Taiwanese thriller about an 8th century assassin reuniting the actors from 'Three Times' (Chen Chang and Qi Shu). As he seems to have reached a natural conclusion with his domestic film making with 'Three Times', it will be interesting to see how his career develops.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Eastern Promises (2007, UK/Canada/US, David Cronenberg)

Eastern Promises opened the London Film Festival (I saw the second screening) and is the first Cronenberg film to be filmed entirely outside of his native Canada. The film has aroused much discussion already; perhaps not for the level of violence (exceptionally brutal), but mostly for the fact that Viggo Mortensen (developing quite the creative relationship with the director) is seen in all his glory in an public bath house.

Written by Steve Knight, who was Oscar nominated for his script for Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises ostensibly focuses on a powerful Russian family, whose criminal behaviour is hidden beneath a veneer of respectability - head of the family Semyan (Armin Meuller-Stahl)runs the classy Trans-Siberian restaurant, and the threat to its impregnability from Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who's caring for the baby of a dead woman who has more links to this family than meets the eye, as becomes apparent through the translation of her diary, which implicates the family in much illegal activity. Torn between the family and Anna is Nikolai (Mortensen), the emotionally aloof driver who is drawn to Anna upon their first meeting, and thus his loyalty to the family becomes tested when the truth of what happened to the girl becomes known.

Nikolai is an intriguing individual - his past is dubious; his tattoos (which reveal his life story) mark him as a thief who spent years and prison, his relationship with Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's son has a homosexual implication to it (though it's more likely that Kirill, denounced by a later murdered Chechen as a homosexual, is in love with Nikolai, who in turn exploits this attraction, most notably at the film's climax) - we learn nothing about his character, but as a detective claims: tattoos reveal your life story, despite Nikolai's cool and calm exterior.

As already stated, the violence in Eastern Promises is brutal. In the opening scene, a man has his throat slit in a barber's (and the man who carried this murder out is murdered in exactly the same way). The public bath house scenes are as graphically shocking as anything seen recently, as two Chechens avenging the death of their brother take on an unarmed Nikolai (impersonating Kirill, their real target). It's an exceptionally well choreographed piece of work that reportedly took a week to film, but you have to wince your way through it (there is one exceptionally horrible moment in this scene).

British crime films have never really considered organised crime to be undertaken by immigrant populations, so what are Knight's aims with his script? Is he suggesting that the sudden influx of Russian money into London is earned illegally or immorally (whether that be through profiting from the privatisation of industry in Yeltsin's Russia in the 90s or through organised crime once here)? Is there any relevance to one character going to see a Chelsea match (Abramovich's success being the result of the 90s privatisation)? Certainly Knight considers the importance of the Russian community to London - the equal of Italian criminal families in the United States perhaps?

Many have stated that the success of the film relies on Mortensen's staggering performance, which he methodically prepared for in true method style - immersing himself in Russian criminal culture for several weeks, and it's certainly the case that he looks and acts the part, perhaps in contrast to Cassel's more hammy performance. Through his collaborations with Cronenberg, Mortensen has established his profile as a serious actor post-Lord of the Rings. Actress of the moment Watts is also excellent (I seem to be watching numerous films she's appeared in, after years of barely seeing her in anything). Certainly impressive though you'll need a strong stomach, but that's par for the course with Cronenberg, right?

Once (2006, Ireland, John Carney)

How does a romantic comedy that cost approximately £70,000 to film make $10 million and counting at the US box office? Simple. Follow the conventions of the genre, but do in a way that feels original and fresh. John Carney, an ex-bassist in Irish band The Frames directs his former bandmate Glen Hansard and Czech newcomer Marketa Irglova in this Dublin-set tale of boy meets girl (Carney states that the setting of Dublin is that of around 15 years ago when it had more of a working class feel to it). The unnamed characters randomly meet one day when he is busking and she is working one of her numerous jobs that she has to undertake in order to support her family, who are recent immigrants. She too has musical talent, and impresses him with a recital of a piece by Mendelssohn, which leads him to ask her to add piano to one of his own songs "Falling Slowly".

Their musical collaboration mirrors their budding relationship, though they both have problems of the heart that get in the way. He's considering moving to England to win back his ex-girlfriend, whilst she has a husband back in the Czech Republic. When he asks whether she still loves him, she replies in unsubtitled Czech, though we instinctively know what she says. Still, Carney refuses to make the path of true love simple and doesn't rely on the kind of contrived slush that most films of the genre would fall back upon.

Much of Once's appeal depends on whether you love the music or not, which kind of falls into the kind of coffee table folk practiced by the likes of Damien Rice, though not quite as bland. It's not normally my thing, but works in context really well, but it might understandably be a hurdle for some. Still, the film was done wonders for the profile of The Frames, even drawing the attention of Bob Dylan who offered them a support slot on his latest tour. Some cynics see this as nothing more than a promo for the band. I don't know about that. There's certainly a sense of something about this film; maybe it's the fact that a no-budget film has succeeded in the US, maybe it's the fact that music is a core part of the film and not window dressing - that it actually drives the narrative, but moreover it works on an emotional level for me, which few, if any contemporary romantic comedies ever could.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Control (2007, UK/USA, Anton Corbijn)

As a Joy Division fan, I was looking forward to Control so much. It had received great reviews, it's based on a biography by Ian Curtis' wife, and is directed by Anton Corbijn, who was the official band photographer and an artist I greatly why did I find Control so unengaging?

Not that there's anything obviously wrong with the film or anything. You couldn't fault the efforts of the acting personnel in any way at all; both Sam Riley and Samantha Morton as Ian and Deborah Curtis perform sterling work, and most of the supporting actors are more than adequate. Corbijn uses black and white to perfectly catch the period in which Joy Division emerged from - Macclesfield, a small town outside Manchester during the 70s, just prior to the explosion of punk.

Maybe the opening half an hour that concentrates of the teenage Curtis seems a little unnecessary beyond showing Ian meeting Deborah for the first time, and their teenage relationship that quickly became a marriage and family. Watching Corbijn longingly focus his camera on the semi-naked Curtis, listening to Bowie, Reed and Iggy Pop and reading Crash, The Naked Lunch and Howl (yeah, he's cool, we get it) just grates a bit after the first instance.

Curtis never appears to be too interested in keeping a balance between harmonious domesticity and his band (he's mean towards Deborah even before his lover Annik arrives on the scene, and he's nothing like a doting father on this evidence), so perhaps we should applaud Corbijn for not mythologising Curtis too much and presenting him as he really was. The steady rise of Joy Division around 1979-1980 coincided with Curtis developing epilepsy; the pressures of which eventually told as his condition was always going to affect the band (several gigs were abandoned during his horrifyingly recreated seizures) and his marriage. Falling in love with Annik, a glamorous Belgian wasn't able to make Curtis happy as he still felt bound to Deborah and was unable to make a final break with her. Eventually the mounting pressure told. Curtis delivers a soliloquoy admitting his weaknesses, that he's given all he can possibly give and yet people still ask him for more, which asks questions about the future of Joy Division had he lived - would he have still wanted the band to be successful and all the trappings that go with it. As we know, he didn't.

Corbijn films Curtis' decline as sympathetically as he possibly can without making him look too glamorous. We never really get to know too much about his relationship with Annik, which isn't surprising as the film is based on Deborah Curtis' book, and I'm not sure whether the mistress was involved in the production in any way. What was private between them presumably still remains so, so her character isn't fleshed out so much, and we never know whether they were happy, so maybe that's a valid shortcoming of the film - that you don't get the whole story, just what is known.

Control really succeeds in the recreation of Joy Division's music though. The actors playing Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook are all talented musicians in their own right, and with Sam Riley, they play Joy Division's music rather than rely on miming with backing tapes, and it works so much better for doing so. It evokes what it must have been like so much more, and also reminds you that live they sound so much louder and primal than they did on record, which was partly because of the excellent production job that Martin Hannett achieved on their records. It's then that the film comes alive. The fact that it doesn't always do so makes Control something of an uneven film. Maybe it's too reverential who knows; that the people involved want to do Ian justice so much that the film never feels alive.

Dead of Night (1945, UK, Alberto Cavalcanti et al)

Dead of Night is a superior horror film from Ealing Studios, best known for its whimsical comedies. Invited to a country house, an architect believes he recognises all of the other guests from a surreal and recurring dream. The other guests then all tell nightmarish tales they have experienced or heard (a racing driver who avoids death, a dead boy seen during a hide and seek game, a man who is possessed by the reflections he sees in a mirror, a jovial tale of golfers fighting over the same woman, and a ventriloquist and his dummy whose personas are inextricably linked).

Rather than using explicit shock tactics to frighten the audience, Dead of Night relies on the power of suggestion to create a genuinely disturbing work. It superbly combines five stories to create its climax, the most celebrated and best being the Haunted Mirror and the Ventriloquist's Dummy. These are psychological segments, showing mental breakdowns as played by increasingly unhinged protagonists. Both tales use themes of possession by supernatural forces, as if to speculate upon the frailty of personality. These are tales to make you think rather than blink, and because those who have these dreams believe them to be so real, it makes you consider the fine line between sanity and insanity, reality and illusion. When these tales interweave, they create a somewhat bizarre and head-spinning denouement, which involves a terrifying shot of the dummy moving off his chair and walking to the architect to strangle him (the dummy is incredibly frightening since you consider it was played by a very short man, so it does look lifelike). The end credits show the " dream" becoming real, with the architect receiving his invitation to the country house, and we know what we've seen will actually occur. Dead of Night is definitely one of the better psychological horrors, and a film the British Film Industry should be proud of, but alas, doesn't make any more.

The Hole (1998, Taiwan/France, Tsai Ming Liang)

At the end of the millennium Taipei is overwhelmed by an epidemic that the government cannot contain, and the rain is torrential and endless. Whilst most people are evacuated, in an anonymous tower block two residents stay around. The potential for connection is both metaphorically and physically created by a plumber's poor workmanship which creates a hole in the floor/ceiling which separates their apartments. The unnamed male and female protagonists go on with their lives as best they can in a pretty unpopulated city where food and provisions are scarce, but they sometimes meet, which then turns 'The Hole' into a surreal musical. In glorious colour, Tsai Ming Liang portrays her state of mind through stunningly choreographed song and dance routines where the woman believes she is Grace Chang, a Taiwanese pop singer from the 1950s and 1960s, and croons her way through several cabaret style songs of love and longing, which is in stark contrast to the dire situation she finds herself currently in.

Back in reality though, the protagonists try to stick with their routines; hers involves the odd stockpiling of toilet roll and he sticks to voyeurism. The prevailing theme in Tsai Ming Liang's films is the need for connection and the inability for individuals to achieve it in the modern world (maybe he's the heir to Antonioni in that respect), and these individuals struggle with their need to make contact with each other, though the final scene finds the man and woman finally doing so, which begins one final musical fantasy. Tsai Ming Liang's film may be as much about Grace Chang as it is these individuals. He closes with a respectful acknowledgement towards her music and the joy it brought him, as much as it did for the female protagonist of The Hole.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

The Ear (1970, Czechoslovakia, Karel Kachyna)

Like most of the films that were made during the burst of film making creativity in the late 60s in the former Czechoslovakia, The Ear was banned - the authorities took a disliking to the open criticising of the methods employed by the secret police to spy on its own government officials.

A middle aged couple, Ludvik (a high ranking bureaucrat) and his tipsy wife Anna return home from a party to find that she has lost her keys and that they are locked out. Ludvik breaks in to find that the keys are inside and the power and telephone is cut (yet the power at their neighbours is clearly on), whilst Anna rebukes him for his efforts as the gate was open. These small odd occurances combined begin to unsettle the couple and open existing wounds in their marriage (think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? under a totalitarian regime perhaps).

Thinking over events at the party, Ludvik begins to wonder whether he is under surveillance by the state, like a recent colleague who has since been arrested. He disposes of anything incriminating (which blocks the toilet) and takes care with what he says, partially drowning his conversations with Anna with the radio, though she doesn't share Ludvik's suspicions until she seens men furtively wandering in the gardens.

When the power returns and a number of men appear at the gate, frantically ringing, both assume Ludvik is about to be taken away, though it emerges that these men are friends of his from the party. Anna's paranoia outstrips Ludvik's, who at least superficially seems calm and reassured, though this is probably a facade whilst he tries to figure out what's going on. By the morning however, all becomes clear of the purpose of these men. For the rest of the evening, Ludvik and Anna project their fears onto each other and become totally frank about their loathing for one another in order to hurt the other - Anna taunts Ludvik with her history of promiscuity, whilst he tells her he was only interested in her money. However, when they find bugging devices all over their home (planted by their guests), this almost solidifies their marriage as they have to work together to save themselves. In a blackly comic denouement, Ludvik is promoted to replace Kosara, his friend who was recently arrested, though the future is somewhat indeterminate.

Similar to The Party and the Guests in its commentary of the power of the state, The Ear is far more open and far less cryptic than the former. It demonstrates the personal effects of political actions and the impact that fear and paranoia, rather than overt action, has on a marriage. Not that we find either Ludvik or Anna that sympathetic - both are driven by self interest and opportunism, which is possibly the way to get ahead in a totalitarian society. It's perhaps fitting therefore that even after Ludvik's promotion, both remain cautious and concerned for the future, no doubt in light of what happened to the previous incumbent of that post. Where Ludvik and Anna go from the long night that has just passed, who knows?