Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Moving on

I have decided to move the blog to Wordpress, a more contemporary and sophisticated form of blogging. As it's unlikely I will move these reviews to Wordpress, the blog will remain active, but not added to.

You can find the new blog at the following address:

The new blog will feature a more professional writing style, adhering to Sight and Sound's guidelines. Since I have started a postgraduate course in film journalism, co-established by Sight and Sound, I thought it would be appropriate.

I hope you all visit the new blog as much as this one. Many thanks.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Yol (1982, Turkey/Switzerland, Serif Goren/Yilmaz Guney)

Winner of the Palme D'Or in 1982, it's frankly a miracle that 'Yol' was made at all. Co-director Yilmaz Guney was formerly one of Turkey's most prominent and popular actors. Imprisoned in 1961 for publishing a Communist novel, his relationship with the state continued to deteriorate and he was imprisoned on a murder charge in 1974. During this period of imprisonment, he remained creative, writing screenplays which were directed by colleagues upon his advice. Though the film was directed by Goren, Guney later escaped from prison and fled to Switzerland where the film was edited. The film was banned in Turkey until recent years. One shouldn't think though that the film was rewarded with several prizes at Cannes because of its remarkable history. It's truly an exceptional film on its own merit.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 1980 coup by the army, which led to a state of emergency and the suspension of human rights, Guney's film is a realistic portait of Turkey at the time. The army remains active in all elements of public life. Curfews exist, roadblocks are everywhere and fear reigns given the arbitrary behaviour of the army. In this context, five prisoners from an open prison on the island of Imrali are given a week's leave. These are men from every corner of Turkey, all of whom seem to have unfinished business at home. One is Mehmet (Halil Ergun), who abandoned his brother in law during a botched robbery. His wife's family have now disowned him, and his wife is torn between her family and her husband. If she joins her husband, she will be cursed and no longer part of her family. Seyit (Tarik Akan) discovers that his wife prostituted herself in his absence. He is charged with deciding whether to commit the honour killing her family believes she deserves or whether to leave it to her. Seyit is torn between pity and hatred and must wrestle with his conscience on this matter. Another prisoner returns to his village in Kurdistan which is regularly attacked by the army, whilst another loses his papers and spends his entire leave in army custody, unable to see his family. Cutting between each prisoner's story, Guney weaves a tale of men who must deal with events that lead to their imprisonment and events that have taken place in their absence, with every possible emotion felt along the way.

Guney's indictment of contemporary Turkish society is powerful. This is a country that is politically volatile, taking an uneasy route towards democracy, where the power of the army during this period extends of every aspect of daily life. This is a country which is trying to modernise in many ways, but still a hostage to traditions, and each prisoner must deal with this natural conflict. Though Seyit is not as vengeful as his wife's family, he agrees to commit the honour kill because it is he who has been dishonoured above all. Mehmet is torn by the guilt of the death of his brother in law, which he admits to his wife, who still loves him and is willing to risk losing her family to be with him. Guney's portrait of his country is not a sympathetic one, and as he makes clear over the final credits, it was a film made under the hardest possible conditions. Whilst Turkey has now firmly been established on the cinema map thanks to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Fatih Akin, 'Yol' is arguably the strongest and most powerful film to come from this country, at least in regards to what has been seen in the West. 4.5/5

The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1967, Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev)

Until the emergence of Emir Kusturica in the 1980s, the sole Yugoslavian director of any international reputation was Dusan Makavejev, best known for his 1971 film 'W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism', which was included on Derek Malcolm's Century of Film list. I've yet to see this, but understand it's typical of Makavejev's style, combining satire with sexual anarchy, as well as references to sexuality from an academic perspective, with its title based on Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. 'The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator' similarly uses the study of sexuality as its foundations, with an opening lecture from an academic, who believes that sexuality is "more whispered than spoken about". Makavejev then uses images of sexuality throughout the ages over the lecture, with plenty of pornography from yesteryear.

Using editing between the past and present, Makavejev documents the ill-fated relationship between Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic), a sanitary inspector. Intriguingly, both Izabela and Ahmed are of minority descent; she's Hungarian, and he's Bosnian. What this shows is the ethnic and racial melting pot that Yugoslavia was, and this diversity and its historical conflict was only contained through totalitarianism. As soon as Communist fell, these historical conflicts spectacularly exploded. Perhaps their unstable union reflects the unstable union of the entire nation. Under the influence of early Godard, this relationship is shown in a breezy and whimsical fashion initially, with their trivial conversations in bed reflecting those of 'Breathless'. Contrasting these scenes are clips of Communist propaganda, which might initially seem non sequiturs, but perhaps make sense upon consideration. In a highly politicised society, Makavejev's films reject politics entirely. By showing the domestic and not the political world, he's perhaps more subversive than he would be by making a film that directly responds to the current political landscape. Sex is the best reaction to politics.

The relationship turns tragic when Izabela has a one night stand with the switchboard centre's resident skirt-chaser, Mica (Miodrag Andric) who she'd previously rejected numerous times after becoming dissatisfied with Ahmed's seriousness ("Damn this for a life!" she exclaims at one moment) and the overbearing domesticity in their relationship. The scene in an early part of the film when a body is found in a well, and a criminologist lectures us about the act and psychology of murder, now makes sense to us. Though in a moment of tremendous irony, the whole incident turns out to be an unfortunate accident. And that's probably how we should consider this film; as a blackly comic and ironic film. The use of sexuality is indeed subversive. Both this and 'WR...' were offered to sex theatres by the director as a means of getting distribution abroad. However, I should add that I wasn't overly enamoured by this film. Some of the documentary footage used didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the film, e.g. the footage regarding the rat problem in Belgrade, unless its meaning goes over my head, but makes for a fairly disjointed film overall. It's clearly the work of a fertile imagination, but I'm not sure that creativity makes a coherent product. 3/5

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Red Sorghum (1987, China, Zhang Yimou)

It's probably now hard to imagine that Zhang Yimou, artistic director of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games and preferred film maker of the Chinese Communist establishment, was once its film industry's enfant terrible. He started as the DoP on Chen Kaige's debut feature 'Yellow Earth', considered the first modern Chinese film or at least the first prominent film to emerge from the Beijing Film Academy which reopened in the late 1970s. Zhang Yimou then progressed to directing his own features, and his debut 'Red Sorghum' sets the benchmark for the fine films he made in the early 1990s. His masterpieces 'Ju Dou' and 'Raise The Red Lantern' would soon follow 'Red Sorghum' and in many ways explore similar themes. Each of the three films features Zhang Yimou's muse, Gong Li, as a young woman coerced into marriage to an older man. Each film is set in the pre-Communist past, usually the 1920s/1930s. These two factors are important if we want to consider this trilogy as acting as allegories on the Chinese present. Some critics have read these films, with their portrayal of a patriarchal and repressive society, as a reflection of the modern China, but obviously Zhang Yimou could not be too overtly critical of the present regime, hence setting these films in the past. Not that he didn't fall foul of the authorities, who banned his films. This makes his rehabilitation at the hands of the same authorities all the more intriguing.

'Red Sorghum' uses a narrative tool that Zhang Yimou would also use in 1999's 'The Road Home'; an unseen narrator tells the story of his grandparents. As mentioned, Jiu'er (Gong Li) is a young woman sold into marriage to an old, leprous winery owner in exchange for a mule. The opening scenes which explain her misery and confusion at these set of events is stunningly done. On her way to her wedding, she is carried in a sedan chair. Zhang Yimou uses extreme close-ups on her face, showing her intense sadness, but uses colour in an exceptionally spellbinding fashion. The chair is covered in red fabric, thus the interior is consumed by a bright and suffocating deep red. The use of such colour recurs in this film frequently, reflecting the colour of the wine Jiu'er produces. This isn't the sole use of colour; using expansive long shots and the natural environment, Zhang Yimou captures the gorgeous yellow and orange backdrops.

Jiu'er's marriage is ominously cut short when her husband is murdered. Although we don't know exactly by whom, the narrator suspects it's his grandfather (Wen Jiang), a hired hand who aided Jiu'er when she was attacked en route to her wedding. He later rapes her in a field, though Jiu'er's reaction seems rather submissive. Between them, they revive the ailing winery, much as Gong Li and her lover do in 'Ju Dou'. Until this point, 'Red Sorghum' is something of a fable but enters much more gruesome and graphic territory with the Japanese invasion of China, and Zhang Yimou doesn't shy away from highlighting the atrocities that occurred, which claims Jiu'er and her lover as its victims. This narrative twist comes so far out of nowhere that the film seems rather disjointed when viewing its second half, like it belongs to another film entirely. And that's probably why 'Red Sorghum' doesn't satisfy as much as Zhang Yimou's next two films with similar themes, although of course as debuts go, 'Red Sorghum' is exceptionally impressive and laid the groundwork for the following masterpieces. It's incredibly moving and aesthetically breathtaking (just look at that final eclipse scene). Although 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers' were perfectly good, one wonders whether Zhang Yimou's current place in the bosom of the Communist establishment will prevent him from making films of this quality again. 4/5

Monday, 29 September 2008

L'Avventura (1960, Italy/France, Michelangelo Antonioni)

One should be careful about making judgements upon the first impressions of an Antonioni film. If ever a film maker requires a second, if not several, viewings of his films, then it's Antonioni. My first experience of Antonioni was approximately a year ago, when I saw a double bill of 'L'Eclisse' and 'Il Deserto Rosso'. These are two of Antonioni's best known and most acclaimed studies of alienation. But his films have always divided audiences, with some critics bemoaning the slow pacing and the cynical portrayals of a jaded Italian middle class. The first screening of 'L'Avventura' at Cannes in 1960 is arguably the most famous first screening of any film ever, with much of the audience booing the film, forcing Antonioni and star Monica Vitti to flee the screening. In response, the films' supporters issued a statement declaring 'L'Avventura' one of the most important films not just in recent cinematic history, but the entire history of cinema. Indeed only two years later, the film ranked second in Sight and Sound's poll of the greatest films of all time behind perennial favourite 'Citizen Kane'. To this day the film remains notoriously divisive, and it's well accepted that Antonioni's films require numerous viewings to fully comprehend, so as I said in my opening, it's perhaps best not to rush in with a definitive statement.

The film starts with the three principal characters, Anna (Lea Massari), her on-off boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Vitti) embarking on a cruise around the Sicilian islands. At this point, we consider the main emphasis of the film to be about the relationship between Anna and Sandro, which is uncertain. Anna could be in love with him, but then she might not. Their sex is indifferent and they barely communicate. As Sandro explains "words are becoming less and less necessary. They create misunderstandings". In Antonioni's universe, shown in subsequent films also, his characters never have fulfilling relationships, and Anna and Sandro perhaps represent the archetypal Antonioni couple. Much like the most famous film from this year, 'Psycho', 'L'Avventura' then pulls the rug from under our feet with an incredible narrative twist - the disappearance of its most central character to this point, Anna. Intriguingly, Anna mentioned spying a shark earlier in the film, which she confessed to Claudia was a lie. However before she disappears, we ominously see something swimming in the water, but there's no doubt that this is a Macguffin, much like the money that Marion steals in 'Psycho'.

After the initial search, life seems to return to normal and Anna is seemingly forgotten. It's as if seismic events such as a disappearance cannot affect or change the entrenched sense of alienation amongst this bourgeois class. Claudia and Sandro's growing closeness, albeit frustrated and uncertain in nature, begins to resemble the previous relationship between him and Anna. Perhaps all bourgeois relationships are doomed to this sense of unease and anxiety. Claudia is unable to commit one way or the way, and it's evident that she feels guilt about Anna's disappearance, even if it goes unsaid. Sandro, who later takes up with a call girl, perhaps represents the jaded playboy that Alain Delon did in 'L'Eclisse'. Antonioni was always far more sympathetic towards his female characters in this series of films focusing on alienation. With Vitti as his muse, she was always unable to commit to love (when asked "why not?" she replies "I don't know why", whereas the men who desired her were not equally in tune with their emotions, although the final scene in which Sandro breaks down might represent a final acknowledgement of guilt. It should be noted here that this scene, like the final scene of 'L'Eclisse' is a superb demonstration of the use of settings and environment to reflect the inner emotions of the characters. Here, Sandro is flanked by Claudia, with Mount Etna in the background, threatening to erupt. Much like their emotions perhaps.

I have only seen four Antonioni films to date; this, 'L'Eclisse', 'Il Deserto Rosso' and 'Professione: Reporter', and each film I have only seen once. As I mentioned, the critical consensus suggests that you must see these films more than once for them to reveal their magic and meanings. At the moment, my reactions have been a combination of admiration and bewilderment. I daresay that sits in the middle between Antonioni's supporters and his critics; a kind of neutral, sitting on the fence position that fails to commit one way or the other. Like his characters. 4/5

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Liar (1981, West Germany/Finland, Mika Kaurismaki) and Zombie and the Ghost Train (1991, Finland, Mika Kaurismaki)

Whilst his brother Aki is quite a respected name on the arthouse circuit, it's easy to forget that his brother Mika was the first sibling to release a feature; 1981's 'The Liar'. Scripted by and starring Aki, it's an amusing homage to the French New Wave, most notably the early black and white Godard features. Whilst one scene in a cinema features clips from Bande á Part, the film it's closest to in tone is 'Breathless'. Ville Alfi is a hyperactive and articulate drifter who spends his time chain smoking, chatting up women and borrowing money from those he knows using numerous different excuses. He also reminds me of Johnny in the Mike Leigh film 'Naked'. Although not quite as bitter or corrosive, Ville Alfi is a man who escapes all situations, who's full of big words but small thoughts, and doesn't do anything because there's nothing worth doing. He's proud of his lack of accomplishments and in a sense of deadpan irony well associated with the Kaurismaki's finds his comeuppance in a fashion one never expected.

Zombie (Silu Seppala), the eponymous character in the second Kaurismaki feature, could be Ville Alfi ten years later. We first find him homeless in Istanbul, pale and ghost-like in appearance. In true flashback fashion, Kaurismaki shows Zombie six months previously, much healthier, and then charts his decline. Another drifter who can't stick to one thing, his musical talents are his only possible route out of his rut. However he has a self-destructive streak a mile long, scuppering his chances of enjoying a career with Harry and the Mulefukkers, a US-influenced rockabilly band that might as well be The Leningrad Cowboys (a film that featured Seppala). Seemingly followed and influenced by The Ghost Train, a much cooler leather clad trio who might as well be the devils to Harry and the Mulefukkers guardian angels (their effect is vampiric - sucking the life out of Zombie), Zombie turns to alcohol and his whole life falls apart when his girlfriend and mother leave him. Only Harry offers a chance of redemption.

There are obvious similarities between the two Kaurismaki films. Both feature protagonists who are drifters, without purpose and prone to self-destruction. The tone of the two films though couldn't be more different. Ville Alfi's a charming liar - you can understand how he manages to convince people to believe his stories. He's an articulate and thoughtful guy whose inability to get anything done is born out of some existential belief. Zombie however is a man whose soul is a bottomless abyss, whose alcoholic decline can't be arrested. Perhaps the fate of Zombie is a warning to Ville Alfi. This is what he might become. This is part of the issue I have with 'Zombie and the Ghost Train'. If this is true deadpan humour of the Kaurismaki trademark, then it's positively six feet under. The film is so unremittingly grim that each self-destructive episode of Zombie's life becomes more difficult to bear. Ville Alfi's scrapes seem slightly more harmless and the humour in his concocted lies is more apparent. Zombie cannot accept the help of others, throwing goodwill back in the face of those who offer it. Kaurismaki's career is rather idiosyncratic, making films in the US and Brazil, but Finland seems the natural home for these brothers, where their deadpan humour seems to work best.

The Liar: 3/5
Zombie and the Ghost Train: 2.5/5

Both films are released by Bluebell Films on 22 September.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov)

An incredibly rare screening of Parajanov's film, part of the 'Today is the Tomorrow of Yesterday' season at the BFI Southbank, which focuses on erasure. In this case, the erasure of love, culture and ultimately life. Until this point, Parajanov had made a number of pro-Soviet propaganda films and was considered a safe director. This reputation changed for good with 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors', a film that was commissioned as nothing more than a love story in the Romeo and Juliet style, but ultimately became a celebration of Ukranian culture, specifically that of the Hutsul culture in the Carpathian mountains. This culture had been practically destroyed by the time the film was made, so reviving it obviously was something the authorities were going to take issue with given the promotion of a homogeneous Soviet identity. Parajanov's difficulties with the authorities would increase when he made 'The Colour of Pomegranates' four years later, a film I recently reviewed. In many ways 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' can be seen as something of a dty run, where his interest in looking into minority cultures and aesthetic radicalism would take greater shape.

Set during the 1860s (the first was partly made to commemorate the centenary of Mykhailo Mykhailovych Kotsiubynsky's birth), Parajanov starts with an absolutely breathtaking scene of a tree falling, killing a man. Starting with an overhead shot, the camera then follows the point of view of the falling tree. And this is one crucial difference between this film and 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. This film favours very athletic camerawork, also seen in a 360 degree shot circling two lovers later - all thanks to the efforts of DoP Yuri Illienko. This contrasts with the long takes and lack of camera movement in 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. What follows is a tale of warring families. Ivan's father is killed by Marichka's father in another superbly shot scene - as the fatal blow is struck, the blood literally spills onto the lens, and the two children (played by Ivan Mikolajchuk and Larisa Kadochnikova as adults) soon fall in love. Set to marry, tragedy strikes when Marichka accidentally drowns. Grief-stricken, Ivan becomes a hermit, but later marries Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), though this is an uneasy union since Ivan is evidently haunted by and in love with Marichka, and is inevitably destined for a tragic end.

Aspects of 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' seem to be filmed as if Parajanov was showing the customs and traditions of this community in documentary fashion. It certainly would come as no surprise to learn that non-professionals were used as Parajanov meticulously documents these customs. The spiritual values of the Hutsul community seem to be a careful mish-mash of Christian and Pagan rituals. Just look at Ivan and Palagna's wedding, which is performed in traditional Hutsul fashion, with the bride and groom blindfolded and yoked together. Every festival has its own rituals, and as well as this, there's the local sorcerer, whom everyone allegedly has a need for. Palagna herself practices black magic in order to fall pregnant. This black magic at work is another of Parajanov's technical flourishes; there's an evident change in the elements (storms, winds), flashes and freeze frames, as well as a tree spontaneously combusting. Although the film has a more conventional narrative than 'The Colour of Pomegranates' as well as great aesthetic imagination, it doesn't have the same mind-blowing effect that the latter has. An artist incredibly singular in his vision, Parajanov's films have impressed me on certain levels but I've not been totally won over just yet. 3.5/5

Mother and Son (1997, Russia/Germany, Alexander Sokurov)

Given that Sokurov's 'Alexandra' has finally received a UK release, a full year after I saw it at the London Film Festival, it's perhaps useful to look at one of Sokurov's previous films about family bonds. Where 'Alexandra' looked at the love between a grandmother and her grandson, set during the Chechen conflict, 'Mother and Son' is a more dreamlike affair, featuring just two actors, the mother (Gudrun Geyer) and her son (Aleksei Ananishnov). What's interesting is how Sokurov dispenses with any personal information. Both the mother and son are nameless. We discover she was a teacher, but that's all we know of her. We know even less of the son, except that the mother suggests he's had a hard life and that she feels sorry for him. We learn nothing about where he lives, what he does or anything about his father. All Sokurov is interested in is the here and now - the tender and mutual love between the mother and her son.

What narrative exists is merely the son caring for his mother in her final hours before her inevitable death. Her death is not unexpected. She's clearly ill and both the mother and son know it's going to happen imminently. The son makes her final hours as comfortable as possible - one scene in which he combs her hair predates the scene in 'Alexandra' in which the grandson braids his grandmother's hair. Taking her for a walk, Sokurov transforms the world outside into a hazy and dreamlike setting with unnatural camera angles and the use of different filters and lenses. It's probable that Sokurov was inspired by the art of Caspar David Friedrich, the German artist whose work is striking similar - allegorical landscapes that evoke religious mysticism. Each scene resembles a Friedrich painting, with the use of mists, expansive skies, storms etc. Sokurov also films the mother and son in long shots to absorb the backdrop. There are few close ups during the exterior scenes; these are only used in the interior scenes. Sokurov makes no attempt at realism, creating a fantastic and illusory environment where death is just around the corner.

Clocking in at only 71 minutes, it might appear slight but Sokurov doesn't extend the film longer than is necessary. The amount of dialogue in the film is sparse. The mother and son only speak as much as they have to. Given that 'Mother and Son' is unconventional in dispensing with narrative, concentrating on its unique visual style and reliance on mood instead, it might be difficult for some. With patience though, it becomes rewarding. It's as moving an example of family love as I've seen, up there with Karoly Makk's 'Szerelem' (1971). Nick Cave once said that when he saw 'Mother and Son', he wept from start to finish. It's a film that can certainly have that effect. 4/5

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Ashes of Time Redux (2008, Hong Kong/China, Wong Kar Wai)

First, I have not seen the 1994 release of 'Ashes of Time' so I won't be able to make direct comparisons between the two versions to explain what changes Wong Kar Wai has made. But then it seems that very few people have seen it. Wong Kar Wai explained that now was the right time to re-release for the film for various reasons. One was that the film existed in numerous versions; some authorised, some unauthorised. This release should now be considered the definitive version. Wong Kar Wai is notorious for struggling with his final cuts of films. When 2046 was presented at Cannes in 2004, it was reported that it was unfinished and rushed specifically for that festival. Another was that the technology now existed to make various technical changes. Indeed, Wong Kar Wai regrets that he could not make the film now, believing it would be better with the technology now available. The cynical amongst us might suggest that Wong Kar Wai had one eye on the commercial success of recent wuxia films ('Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Hero', 'House of Flying Daggers') and wanted to cash in on it. Whatever the reasons for good or ill, it's great news that an important film by one of the greatest contemporary film makers can now be seen by a wider audience.

If one is expecting a wuxia film in the Zhang Yimou form, then expect to be disappointed. 'Ashes of Time' couldn't be any more different. Essentially, it's a regular Wong Kar Wai film, exploring the usual themes, but it has a historical setting and uses the wuxia novels of Louis Cha as its context. I should add though that all Wong Kar Wai uses is the characters, completely discarding the plot of the novels. The film's central character is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a middleman that one goes to if one needs someone killed. He lives alone in the desert having abandoned his hometown for reasons we only discover later. His only interaction is with those requiring his services and it becomes apparent that all those who seek his services are all inextricably linked in some way. Although this gives the impression that this is a film about revenge, 'Ashes of Time' is more a treatise on love. The characters have all suffered because of love and their hurt encourages their feelings of vengeance. The constant voiceover of Ouyang Feng gives him scope to ruminate on love, as does his interaction with his clients, dispensing such advice as "the best way to avoid rejection is to reject others". His advice is born from his own suffering, which we later discover. Born under a total eclipse, for Ouyang Feng love is destined to be out of reach - look how he enviously looks upon the swordsman with the nagging wife. These themes could have emerged from any Wong Kar Wai film. The cast includes Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, who all starred in Wong Kar Wai's previous film 'Days of Being Wild', and I'm sure certain parallels can be drawn between the two films as well as any of Wong Kar Wai's subsequent films.

It almost becomes a cliché when looking at films where Christopher Doyle is the DoP to admire the cinematography, but naturally I do. 'Chungking Express' was made the same year, and despite the complete differences between the films, it's intriguing to note the similarities in the ways the films have been shot. Both films favour a blurry and jerky visual style. The action scenes in 'Ashes of Time' just whizz by in a matter of seconds in a very frantic and frenetic fashion. Note too how Doyle captures the impending blindness of Tony Leung Ka Fai's swordsman. If you compare Doyle's work here with his work on 'Hero', superficially similar films, there's a vast difference in how the action is shot. In ways though, it does look like a dry run for 'Hero' - the emphasis on colour coding for each character's outfits, the often brilliant colour photography for the locations (look how scorching the desert is - a bright yellow) etc. Apparently one change of the film is cleaning up the narrative so that it's less confusing than the original version was, placing more emphasis on the Ouyang Feng character, though perhaps this undersells the talents of the rest of the cast. That said, even now it's still somewhat hard to follow. But then Wong Kar Wai's films have always been character driven rather than plot driven. 'Ashes of Time' is a fascinating film with an excellent cast, considered Wong Kar Wai's most under-appreciated film and that idea has much merit. Thankfully we now have a widely available definitive version. 4/5

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Japan, Kenzo Mizoguchi)

Along with Rashomon (1950), 'Ugetsu...' is one of the films that put Japanese cinema on the international map, winning prizes at international film festivals (the Silver Lion at Venice). Of course Japanese national cinema was as old as cinema itself globally but this was the first time in which the West had taken an interest in Japanese cinema. Mizoguchi himself had been making films for thirty years by the time he'd made 'Ugetsu...' and even his first widely considered masterpiece 'Tale of the Last Chrysanthemums' (1939) predates this film by some fourteen years. This era in Japanese cinema is arguably its finest - Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi (the last three had all started their careers in the silent era and had spent numerous decades making films) were all at their peak, with their films arguably united by a humanist agenda. Mizoguchi's film examines themes such as human weakness and moral decline, which was neither new to him nor his contemporaries - what is perhaps unique to Mizoguchi (though Naruse's films often do this) is consider the weakness of men and the inevitable consequence of the physical and emotional damage done to women.

Set in a divided Japan in the 16th century - a world of mystery and illusion, but also violence and lawlessness, warlords vied for domination. In this context, we are introduced to the film's two male protagonists, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa). These two mens are peasant potters with families but not happy with their lot in life. Genjuro believes his talents are capable of achieving great wealth, whereas Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai. Tobei's wife tells him "know your place or you'll regret it", whilst Genjuro's wife also suggests caution. Whilst Tobei is clearly a figure to be laughed at, as the samurai do at his futile dreaming, it's perhaps more Genjuro whose ambitions are potentially more dangerous, even though he's presented to us as a clearly talented and level-headed father and husband who wants the best for his family. Claiming there's nothing but pain and despair in poverty, he's certain he'll make a fine profit in time even though the permanent state of war makes life precarious. Indeed, once the village is looted by bandits, Genjuro refuses to flee thinking he'll lose everything, even though he's placing the life of him and his family in danger.

Both families have to start afresh and it's the ambition of both men which makes them abandon their families to make good on their ambition. Genjuro sends his wife to safety, promising to return once he has made enough wealth, but Tobei leaves his wife as soon as he gets the chance, fed up at her constant discouraging of him samurai dreams. The immediate effects of this are clear - Tobei's wife is raped by soldiers and Genjuro's wife is murdered for not handing over the food she possessed for her son. At the same time, both men achieve their dreams, reinforcing the idea that has been used by Mizoguchi before, especially in 'Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums' that a man's success is achieved at the expense of women.

The ghostly and ethereal aspect of the journey the men took from their home villages to where they are now based, on a misty river passing a man on the way who claimed he wasn't from a ghost ship, seemed innocuous at the time, but now takes on a more ominous dimension. Genjuro's talents are appreciated by Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo), the only surviving member of a noble family. Drunk on this appreciation, he begins a torrid affair with her, but there are enough clues even before Genjuro's meeting with a priest to suggest that all is not right here. Our awareness of this is apparent far sooner than for Genjuro, suggesting that he's truly and deliriously blinded by his ambitions. Despite coming across as a devoted father and husband before, when it comes to choosing between them and his dreams, he'll choose the latter every time, completely forgetting about his family because he's achieved the success he always yearned for. Tobei on the other hand is forced to confront his misdeeds, meeting his wife once more, only now she is a prostitute, forever ruined by his abandonment of her. As I said before, by this point our impressions of the two men have completely turned on their head from the opening scenes. Genjuro, once level headed has caused the greatest hurt and pain from chasing his dreams rather than Tobei, whom we had written off as feckless and prime for ridicule. It's absolutely brilliant of Mizoguchi to completely invert the circumstances of these two men.

A superb parable about greed and ambition, 'Ugetsu...' also acts as a startling commentary on gender relationships. The actions of the men in trying to achieve success has important consequences for their wives and the men are completely oblivious to their suffering. Even when Genjuro realises the truth about Lady Wasaka and refuses to go with her "to her world", she replies "A man may not care but a woman does", suggesting that the cruelty of men is entirely selfish with no thought whatsoever to the emotional effects of this. Thematically, it's a truly intelligent and perceptive film. Although Mizoguchi opens with a typical "scrolling shot" with the camera panning from right to left, for most of the film, Mizoguchi relies on long takes with a largely static camera, similar to his peers, Ozu and Naruse. Technical gimmicks aren't required when you have a film so confidently directed and so certain of its themes and significance. 'Ugetsu...' makes a case as the greatest Japanese film of all time and it's certainly no surprise that it ranks so highly on critics' lists. 5/5

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Yi Yi (2000, Taiwan/Japan, Edward Yang)

Edward Yang's epic is a subtle and quietly affecting exploration of the emotional crises faced by a middle class Taipei family. The three hour running time might seem overlong, but it gives its characters time to breathe and doesn't restrict them and also allows Yang to seamlessly weave between the issues each member of the family faces. Compare this to a similar film that was made at around the same time; Sam Mendes' 'American Beauty'. This explores many of the themes that Yang's film does (dissatisfaction, adultery, emotional breakdown) but without any of the subtlety, relying on more sensationalist plot developments to try to make its point. I've always considered Mendes' film, despite its commercial and critical success, to be overrated and trying too hard to make its point. Seeing 'Yi Yi', this has only reinforced my position. There's no question which is the better and more emotionally affecting film.

NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) is a businessman whose electronics company is facing financial difficulties, seeking a deal with a Japanese games maker in a bid to save the company. At the wedding of his wife's brother, he meets an old girlfriend, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). Having not seen her in nearly thirty years since he abandoned her, this chance meeting throws his life into chaos, forcing him to ask questions about his comfortable life as it current exists and also to wonder whether it's too late to start again and what if he'd stayed with Sherry. NJ's wife, Min Min (Elaine Jin) is experiencing an emotional breakdown and visits a mountain retreat of dubious nature. Their children, Ting Ting (Kelly Lee) is having her first lessons in love, and Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang) is constantly teased by classmates and finds himself in trouble at school. The family grandmother has a stroke which leaves her in a coma, which confuses and worries the children.

Starting with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Yang packs in every aspect of human life in between. Although it doesn't satirise the entire bourgeois lifestyle like 'American Beauty' (which was heavy-handed in any case), it does focus on dissatisfaction. At the start of her breakdown, Min Min realises "my life is a blank" and "what am I doing every day?". She feels she has little to show for her life and is desperately unhappy. We don't see that much tenderness between her and NJ. Whether this is a marriage that has been having problems for a while, we can only speculate. That might explain NJ's readiness to seek out the possibilities with Sherry. However, as the Japanese software designer whom NJ meets, explains "we never live the same day twice", and as Ting Ting's boyfriend suggests "life is a mixture of happy and sad things". 'Yi Yi' is not just a downbeat look at middle class life. It also considers the richness and possibilities of life and contains much humour - the tricks Yang Yang and his friends play, the scene caused between the wife of Min Min's brother and his ex-lover at a class reunion, etc. Yang doesn't settle for lazy resolutions and too much sentiment. 'Yi Yi' is a balanced and confident look at life at the turn of the millennium and unfortunately was to be the final film he made before succumbing to cancer. Most of Yang's films are unavailable on DVD, which hopefully might be addressed soon. 4/5

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Brief Encounter (1945, UK, David Lean)

To commemorate the centenary of Lean's birth, the BFI Southbank and Film Four are running seasons showcasing his entire directorial career. His early films are amongst the best of British cinema. 'Great Expectations', the definitive Dickens adaptation would arguably be up there as a contender for the finest British film of all time. I'd argue that 'Brief Encounter' is every bit its equal. It's probably the one film of Lean's whose reputation has suffered more than any other in the last few decades (Lean's style of cinema was very much the kind that the new wave of the 1960s was supposed to discredit and overthrow). Many see it as too restrained, too polite, too middle class in its approach at adultery. On the other hand, I would see this approach as very much to the film's advantage. The fact that the adultery remains chaste and unconsummated adds greatly to the pain and suffering it causes.

'Brief Encounter', scripted by Noel Coward, Lean's chief collaborator at this time is indeed set in a typical Coward environment - the middle classes of the South Eastern suburbs. As Laura (Celia Johnson) suggests she's an ordinary woman with an ordinary life and family, though this is a facade; her marriage is nothing more than a polite arrangement. Her husband barely listens to her when she reveals she met Alec (Trevor Howard) for lunch. This partial confession goes unnoticed as if he wouldn't even react to being told the complete truth. Typically repressed and emotional sterile, the violence of falling in love with Alec comes as a shock. This doesn't happen to ordinary people. They meet after he assists her when she gets some grit in her eye at Milford Junction train station, and although nothing out of the ordinary seems likely, they meet every Thursday over the course of five or six weeks and find that they have fallen in love with each other, perhaps partially a reaction to their emotionally unfulfilling domestic circumstances.

Lean shows their relationship in its euphoric moments. When they reveal that they're in love with each other, Laura loses her inhibitions, becomes less concerned about being discovered and doesn't feel so ashamed. But what Lean also shows, and this is what makes the film even more moving and brilliant, is the guilt and pain of such an adulterous relationship, even one with few moments of genuine intimacy. For instance, on one Thursday when meeting Alec, she returns home to discover that one of her sons was hit by a car. Though not serious, she feels such extreme sorrow as if it was the direct result of her adultery. In her typical middle class way, Laura wants to be sensible and in control of her emotions, but finds it increasingly difficult to. The fact that Alec and Laura can never miss their trains, that even despite their love, they must return to their spouses at the correct time, is even more in keeping with their commitment to their suburban mores but also more emotionally devastating for us, as we are in full sympathy with an adulterous couple.

Lean begins and ends with the scene in which Alec and Laura part, but crucially he films it front different perspectives. At first, we have no emotional attachment and no knowledge of how we arrived at this point. It's filmed purely from a neutral angle, as a friend of Laura's interrupts Laura and Alec's poignant parting. The second time we see this scene, it's much more personal as we're now aware of the relationship that existed and how a parting that is so tragic and so difficult is halted by an unwanted gossip. Such is the cruelty of fate. There are few more devastating but romantic images in cinema that the moment Alec places his hand tenderly and sympathetically on Laura's shoulder as he finally leaves. As I mentioned, 'Brief Encounter' has become a film that's easy to criticise; its detractors question why the couple can't consummate their affair and question the restrained and polite bourgeois nature of it all. Sure, it's manipulative and pulls at your heartstrings, but that doesn't matter when it's done so well and so believably. Considered a landmark of British cinema and rightly so. 4.5/5

Monday, 8 September 2008

Time and Winds (2006, Turkey, Reha Erdem)

The likes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Faith Akin have placed Turkish cinema on the map since the turn of the century. The likes of 'The Edge of Heaven' and 'Climates' have won prizes at major international film festivals and secured releases in the UK. 'Time and Winds' may have won two main prizes at the 2006 Istanbul Film Festival but that wouldn't normally be enough to gain a film recognition outside of its own borders. For two years, the film has received terrific word of mouth, never more so apparent than in the September issue of Sight and Sound. Where Erdem's film differs from the work of Ceylan and Akin is that it concentrates on the rural experience of Turkey as opposed to the modern Istanbul, but like the other films mentioned, 'Time and Winds' captures a Turkey torn between tradition and modernity and between religion and secularism.

Set in a poor village close to Izmir on the Western coast of Turkey, three children experience the plight of growing up - Omer (Ozkan Ozen), the son of the local Imam who harbours parricidal thoughts towards him, Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali), who has a crush on his teacher and is acutely aware of his father's humiliation by his grandfather, and Yildiz (Elit Iscan), who raises her younger sister much more than her mother ever does. These are children on the verge of becoming teenagers, thus they're experiencing the kind of emotional pressures that anyone at this age does. However this is a typical patriarchal community that exists in Muslim societies and respecting one's elders is an important feature of this community, even in adulthood (not that this is always implied to be a negative - the whole community works together to assist an elderly grandmother). Just look at how Yakup's father accepts his humiliation without complaint when his own father destroys a wall that he has built, a humiliation made worse by the fact that Yakup witnesses it and feels his own sense of pain. One theme that Erdem explores is that sons ultimately become like their fathers and despite Omer and Yakup's youthful defiance, it's easy to imagine that given the setup of the community they live in, that they might do so.

Utilising some gorgeous locations and scenery, Erdem creates a contemplative environment, where the three children spend their time pondering the community they live in and what they perceive the injustice of it. This rural beauty contrasts with the painful and difficult experiences of growing up, where there's always an impending sense of tragedy. Erdem's camera tracks and follows the children's movements to give an indication of their carefree lives outside the family home, but remains a static observer of life inside. Whilst I don't think it's the masterpiece that Sight and Sound's review and feature suggested, it is a fairly fascinating account of a part of Turkish society that doesn't feature so much in the cinema that reaches the West - the Muslim, patriarchal communities that exist outside of large cities. This to an extent reflects the contradiction modern Turkey faces. 3.5/5

Monday, 1 September 2008

Temptress Moon (1996, China/Hong Kong, Chen Kaige)

Chen Kaige's follow up to his Palme D'Or winning 'Farewell, My Concubine' has received a pretty muted critical reception in the decade since its release. Since seeing it for the first time a couple of years ago, I've always found this a little unfair. Although it's a film with certain shortcomings, I've never considered it the poor cousin to 'Farewell....' - instead I've always thought it just as enthralling but what's more has more visual and technical prowess as well as offering just as much ambivalence towards the modern China with it's allegorical narrative that examines the current era through that of the 1911-1920s period. Kaige also has a reputation for making overwrought and overdone films, but in the case of 'Temptress Moon', there's a school of thought that suggests this is a very knowing and self-referential film that dissects the very notions of melodrama. That is, by being so over the top, it comments on the genre itself. Silbergeld's "China Into Film" ( has a chapter on 'Temptress Moon' which discusses the film in this context.

Set during a period of social and political transition, 'Temptress Moon' starts in 1911 before the fall of the Qing dynasty and the resignation of Emporer Pu Yi (an event that is soon mentioned). The wealthy and important Pang family is fated for a similar decline - it's downfall to be caused by opium, the drug which all it's heads become addicted to (there's an ominous opening scene where Ruyi, as a child, smiles upon inhaling in). This corrupt family - witness Zhengda's demands of Zhongliang to kiss his own sister in an incestuous fashion, destined towards self-destruction and tragedy sows the seeds of its own fall, and has been argued to reflect the corruption of Communist China, echoing the ambiguous nature of Chen Kaige's previous films. At this point in 1911, the three children in the house, Ru Yi (the master's sister), Duanwu (her cousin) and Zhongliang (her cousin through marriage) will determine the family's fate - note the knowing scene where all three meet and look into the camera as if to declare their importance to the viewer.

At this point, when the film rushes into the 1920s and the three are now adults, the film lurches into more melodramatic terrain with tragedy never far from the horizon. Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung), now a blackmailer and gigolo working for a local crime syndicate has constructed a cool and emotionless persona after the trauma of his forced incest as a boy - he can never love again. Under the pseudonym Xiao Xie, he seduces rich women whilst his cohorts extort money through contrived kidnappings. When one woman is told Xiao Xie is dead, maybe that's a reflection on the changing identity of Zhongliang; that his identity isn't real, that he's not who he really is. Ru Yi (Gong Li) on the other hand has ascended to the leadership of the family after Zhengda was poisoned (no guesses by whom), a move which has caused internal strife within a family still bound by the traditions of a patriarchal society. Duanwu (Kevin Lin) is used by the family elders to keep an eye on her because he has no ambitions of his own, but this superficially dim-witted young man is smarter than he looks. Their fates are all destined to be entwined and because of such, the inevitable tragedy ensues after Zhongliang returns to the estate with the intention of seducing Ru Yi - the masks and personas these people wear begin to slip and the dynamics in the relationships between them begin to shift in ways you hadn't expected. As the film reaches its climax, it becomes more over-elaborate and melodramatic but you suspect (and Silbergeld agrees) that this is precisely the point - that it acts as a commentary on melodrama generally as much as it does itself.

Thanks to the photography of Christopher Doyle, 'Temptress Moon' is a visual feast with brilliant use of lighting - it seems very old fashioned but of course precisely of its own time (1920s) to focus an intense strip of light in the eyes of the actor. Chen Kaige uses a number of close ups on the faces of his actors generally, possibly to reflect the possible slip in their facades. Doyle's camera follows his protagonists wherever they go with a great amount of urgency; it's rarely still. More visual brilliance is shown in the sex scenes which are choreographed in a very dreamlike light. But 'Temptress Moon' is a film of substance too. Much like 'Raise The Red Lantern' and other films of the Fifth Generation era, it uses the past as a means of critiquing the present - the Pang family is a rigid and patriarchal society which is resistant to change but also quite vulnerable at the same time. The rise of Duanwu from nowhere to the head of the Pang dynasty has been said to echo the unexpected ascendancy of many Communist officials, Jiang Zemin specifically. Many critics remain ambivalent about the film probably because of its confusing narrative - when Miramax released the film, they added prologues to "help" the viewer. I've not seen a version distributed by Miramax and I don't think they're necessary anyway. Chen Kaige has not remotely approached these heights since, which is a shame because his opening run of films are wonderful. Now he's been co-opted into the Chinese film establishment, who knows whether he will again? 4.5/5

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Spain, Victor Erice)

Erice's breathtaking film was set during the initial years of the Franco regime, but was made during its final years. Needless to say, it's unlikely that it could have been made when the regime was at its strongest. Despite it not being overtly too critical of the regime, its sufficiently subtle in its approach - is the theme of loss of childhood innocence a reflection on the loss of innocence after a bloody civil war that had deposed a legitimate government?

Set in a village in Castile, a Francoist stronghold, a screening of James Whale's 1931 horror classic 'Frankenstein' becomes a community event. Whilst other children are frightened by the film, Ana (Ana Torrent), a young girl, is touched by the more poignant moments in the film, such as when Frankenstein's monster meets a young girl by a pond and plays with her. When her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) explains that the spirit of the monster lives in an abandoned outhouse in the village as a joke, Ana wants to befriend this spirit. A Republican soldier is now hiding there, and Ana tends to his injuries and brings him food, believing him to be the monster's spirit and their relationship to be similar to that between the monster and the young girl Ana identified with. However, is Ana helping the soldier or making his discovery more likely?

Ana's retreat into fantasy and identification with the film is possibly the consequence of a disintegrating family unit. Her father, a scientist is obsessed with bee-keeping and related experiments and there's barely any kind of relationship with his younger wife, who writes letters to her loved ones. In fact, you notice that there are no scenes at all with all family members in the frame at the same time. The only instance they're all together, at the dinner table, no two family members are in the same frame. Ana herself abandons her family temporarily - having given the soldier her father's watch, we know that the soldier is then discovered and murdered by the gunfire in the night. Ana doesn't know this, and only discovers then when her father deliberately and cruelly pulls out the watch at the dinner table. This completely shocks her since in the film, she could not understand why the community turned on and killed the monster - to her, this murder of the soldier just echoes that. This society is still divided and will turn on its "enemies". This is a disjointed family, perhaps reflective of Spain as a whole during Franco or at least certainly in its initial years when the entire nation was polarised by war. Is the imagery of the community of bees and windows in beehive shapes reflective of community under Fascism - ordered, organised, but devoid of individuality or imagination? Is Ana the only hope, the only individual in a homogeneous society?

Driven by the superb performance of Ana Torrent (who would later appear in Alejandro Amenabar's debut film 'Tesis') - which is surely one of the finest ever delivered by a child actor; believe me, she'll break your heart, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is one of the most poignant films ever about childhood and the loss of innocence. This scenario acts as an allegory if you like for the wider society under Franco; a society that is still divided but has hope in Ana. The constant reference to bees and beehives might reflect an increasingly organised society under Fascism; one that is ordered and controlled, where individuality is suppressed in the name of homogeneity. Featuring breathtaking cinematography from a near blind Luis Cuadrado, where the yellows dominate each shot, and a correct lack of dialogue - Erice never allows his characters to speak more than they need to, and a sense of isolation and lack of communication is precisely what is needed, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is a moving and heartfelt account of life under Fascism. 4.5/5

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Summer Palace (2006, China, Lou Ye)

Showing as part of the 21st Century Chinese Cinema season at the BFI Southbank (London), 'Summer Palace' is an ambitious but ultimately flawed account of the turbulent love lives of a group of Beijing students, which mirror the social, economic and political changes in China between 1987-2001. Certain elements of the film, including full frontal nudity and footage of the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square led to the film being banned in China and also a five year ban from film making for director Lou Ye, though the official word was that the film was banned for "technical reasons". It wasn't the first time he fell foul of the Chinese authorities - his 2000 film 'Suzhou River' remains banned in China, and Lou Ye was banned from film making for two years. Fellow Sixth Generation directors, Jia Zhang Ke and Wang Xiaoshuai have managed to escape formal disapproval of their films as of yet whilst remaining equally ambivalent as Lou Ye of China's modernisation in recent decades - perhaps their approach is a bit more subtle than Lou Ye's.

'Summer Palace' begins in Tumen, a border city between China and North Korea, where Yu Hong (Lei Hao), a young student receives notification of her acceptance to study at university in Beijing. Life in Beijing offers more choices, opportunities and freedom than she has been used to - she falls in love with Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), who begins to get involved in the student demonstrations which are developing at the time (1988-89). Somewhat immature and impatient, and perhaps unable to cope with these feelings, their relationship is turbulent and remains on-off. It's a relationship which exists beyond university and its difficulties reflect those China faced in the path it took to reach where it is today.

Lou Ye shows the student demonstrations with a combination of dramatic action and TV footage of the time. By using this footage, Lou Ye is arguably increasing the power and impact of the events - we know we are witnessing the truth rather than a recreation of what happened. What he doesn't show (and maybe we shouldn't be too surprised) is the aftermath of these events. We see the army trying to maintain order, but the massacres that followed the demonstrations are never shown, nor inferred. Even by the most understated of figures, there was a harsh crackdown on dissenters after these demonstrations, but the film doesn't even remotely reflect what took place. A shame, since Lou Ye was clearly brave enough to make a film about these events - maybe he should have gone further, though one could hardly blame him I guess given what the consequences might be for him.

After Tiananmen Square, Lou Ye shows us the rapid changes in both China and internationally - the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union for instance - Lou Ye offers documentary footage of each of these events, which also includes the return of Hong Kong to China, further evidence of the growing success of China and its emergence as a global superpower. At each global event, we dip into the personal circumstances of Yu Hong, Zhou Wei and the assorted other main characters, all of whom seem to have messy and chaotic romantic lives every time. As a group of people, they're difficult to care about or sympathise with, and that's partly where the film suffers because you start to tire of them failing to maintain relationships with each other, notably Yu Hong's self-destructive approach to romance. There's certainly things to admire here - the cinematography for instance, where a jerky camera and rapid cutting reflects the turbulence of both events and personal circumstances and Lou Ye's ambition is to be praised. However, there's enough flaws - the uneasy balance between being critical of Chinese modernisation and the need to appease the censors, as well as difficulty to engage with any of the characters to make it a bit of a mess overall, though it's certainly a brave and interesting one. 3/5

The Colour of Pomegranates (1968, Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov)

A loose biopic of the Armenian ashug (troubadour) and poet Sayat Nova, Parajanov's film is a beguiling, if sometimes frustrating film. It's defiantly unique in its scope and vision, which accounts for the difficulties Parajanov faced from the Soviet authorities, who not only banned the film in its original incarnation but also heavily re-edited it - no doubt for its supposed nationalist content and also the fact that Soviet audiences just wouldn't understand it. Parajanov himself was persecuted by the authorities, and was later imprisoned in a labour camp for four years on charges of rape and homosexuality.

'The Colour of Pomegranates' certainly requires the viewer's patience. Dispensing with formal cinematic narrative, Parajanov recreates the life of Sayat Nova by displaying his inner world. It's essentially visual poetry; the narrative driven by the scenes of abstract imagery and the native Armenian music. There is no dialogue, just voiceover (this and any titles are usually lines from Nova's poetry) and Parajanov uses a still camera which never moves. Parajanov makes no attempt at realism, but uses Armenian folklore to revive a national culture which was undermined and suppressed by the authorities.

Parajanov seems to portray Nova as an androgynous and mystical figure, using Sofia Chiaureli, a Georgian actress who was Parajanov's muse, plays Sayat Nova across five stages of his adult life, in contrast to using a boy and man to play Nova as a child and older man. Parajanov also obliquely accounts Nova's rise from humble carpet weaver to diplomat and King of Songs, and then his fall from favour at court, becoming a monk - it's only really reading up on Nova's biography that this all becomes apparent though. Parajanov has no interest in recreating Nova's world in a conventional fashion - by using elaborate music and dance, costumes and choreography, as well as a series of beautiful and enthralling images, 'The Colour of Pomegranates' is a justly acclaimed film, albeit one that really tests one's tolerance for art of the avante-garde kind. 4/5

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Red Angel (1966, Japan, Yasuzo Masumura)

Upon reviewing Masumura's 'Blind Beast' recently, I remarked upon how versatile a director he is, able to turn his hand at almost any genre and seemingly hop between them with ease, whether it be the lesbian melodrama of 'Manji' or the S&M infused amour fou of 'Blind Beast'. Between these films comes 'Red Angel', a strange black and white war film. One problem with being so versatile is that you spread yourself to thinly, don't always play to your strengths and fail to carve out your own niche or voice. My problem with the Masumura films I've seen, and I've enjoyed them on the whole is that I never feel sufficiently engaged. There's something unconsciously (for me at least) alienating about them and I never feel totally immersed in them. I wonder whether that's related to Masumura's desire to try his hand at various genres.

Starting with sounds of war (gunfire, bombing) over photographs of conflict, Masumura creates a powerful statement about the physical and psychological effects of war, specifically the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. Masumura doesn't hold back in showing these horrors; soldiers are injured and in gruesome scenes which remind me of the surgery scenes in 'Eyes Without A Face', amputations without anaesthetic are the norm for those "lucky" enough to survive. This is a recurring issue here; whether these men would be better off dead than being amputees for the rest of their lives, isolated from mainstream society. Many of them long to be put out of their misery. Then there's the moral anguish of the medical staff who are responsible for these life and death decisions. Against this backdrop, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is sexually assaulted by a group of soldiers. It emerges this isn't the first time that has happened, that all nurses are subjected to similar treatment and that behaviour of this kind is pretty much accepted and forgiven by the authorities. War is an unnatural state where social conventions and norms are rejected perhaps and in a world where death or severe injury is likely and human life has no sense of value, humanity falls by the wayside. I doubt this is any kind of excuse for this act, but might act as a sense of explanation for it.

Nishi's commitment to her cause forces her to make serious self-sacrifices - seeing a doctor's compassion but also his erratic behaviour, caused by his reliance on morphine to allow him to endure the horrors of the frontline, Nishi falls in love. At the same time, she tends to one severely injured patient in the most unconventional of means. Unable to relieve his own tensions (his arms were amputated - there's no doubt what he means), they start a short lived affair. These men are the desperate and the dying and Nishi considers it her duty to try to save them. When her lover dies, she blames herself and cannot forget, despite all the contrary advice she receives to think only of herself in this state of war. But the psychological scars don't heal. Proof that this conflict is too horrendous for anyone to possible bear is the outbreak of cholera that coincides with the massacre of the Japanese forces.

'Red Angel' is quite a struggle to get through; it's subject matter of amputation, drug addiction and gruesome conflict was probably just as groundbreaking and taboo-busting as much of Masumura's work at the time, but it also supersedes most other war films in that sense. Very few that I can recall have treated war in such an honest and depressing fashion, nor have they quite approached the subject of war in quite such a bizarre and peculiar way. It's beautiful and gruesome in equal measure with a dash of the erotic at the same time. Certainly unique, it's further proof of Masumura's talent, though I'm not convinced I've seen a truly great film of his yet. 3.5/5

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Seconds (1966, US, John Frankenheimer)

The third part of an unofficial 'paranoia' trilogy (which also comprised 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'Seven Days of May'), 'Seconds' might well be one of the most downbeat films you're ever likely to see, but shows a remarkable insight into contemporary America through the eyes of a director that cinema history tends to ignore the achievements of; perhaps because he was never auteur material, perhaps also because of the poor films he was making at the end of his career. In my opinion, it's more satisfying and thrilling than 'The Manchurian Candidate' and is easily one of the most stunning films of its decade.

Utilising the immeasurable gifts of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who made 'The Sweet Smell of Success' look so bleak, Frankenheimer's masterpiece is dizzying and disorientating for the viewer - the constant use of fish eye lenses to create an impression of a world out its natural order, where nothing is as it seems, as well as extreme point of view filming methods, following individuals with intense close ups. The ominous use of these techniques in the film's opening scenes indicate straight away that we're being shown events where nothing will be normal and the tension never once lets up from this point.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) seemingly has the middle class American dream - a successful job, a wife and children, and a prestigious house in the suburbs. But at the same time, there are obvious cracks in the facade. His marriage is loveless and he barely communicates still with his wife, and his children have long since moved out and started out on their own adult lives. A peculiar incident in which he's given a piece of paper with an address piques his interest; it's for a company which can offer him what every middle aged American male wants - "real freedom". Hamilton is offered a chance to start over again - the company can fake his death, offer cosmetic surgery and set him up with a new life, the life he always wanted. And so he becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a bohemian painter. However the cost of such a change is not just financial, but also psychological and emotional, as he struggles to adjust to his new life. Despite this freedom, Hamilton maybe starts to wonder whether it's all it's cracked up to be, and the consequences of not living this new lifestyle as it was intended are potentially dangerous.

Perhaps some aspects of 'Seconds' seem a bit quaint and dated nowadays - the party in which revellers dance around naked as if it were some cliched Summer of Love nonsense (but even this seems quite daring for a mainstream film of the mid-1960s), but that doesn't remotely undermine a stunning film that examines the frustrations and emotional lack in the white American middle class in such a frank and open fashion, certainly more insightfully than any other film of the age was prepared to do. The core values of this social class; achievement, prestige, success, the good life - these are all seen as not being enough for the individuals who reject this for the new life of freedom offered by "the company", though this freedom itself has conditions that are more than Hamilton can bear. A thriller that puts the viewer through the emotional wringer and which is constantly technically inventive, 'Seconds' is incomparable. 5/5

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

La Ronde (1950, France, Max Ophuls)

As alluded to in the previous piece, Ophuls' brief Hollywood career was completed after making 'Caught' and 'The Reckless Moment', but still at his creative peak, he resumed work in France, with 'La Ronde' being the first example of this. Based on 'Reigen', the play for Arthur Schnitzler which was banned for obscenity, a fate the film faced in certain countries, Ophuls weaves a mesmerising tale of a daisy chain of ten sexual partners (e.g. A sleeps with B, B sleeps with C, etc before returning back to A). Although Ophuls remains faithful to the original setting of the play, turn of the 20th century Vienna and scrutinises the sexual mores of society as well as its class differences, the crucial theme of the transmission of syphilis seems if not omitted, then underplayed, although this doesn't really undermine the satire too much.

One of Ophuls' masterstrokes is using the handsome and charismatic Anton Walbrook (most famous for 'The Red Shoes') as the film's narrator and master of ceremonies. An omnipotent presence over the events that unfolds, as well as influencing events to ensure the circle of lovers remains intact, he is the incarnation of our desire to know and dispenses romantic advice; "all are led the same merry dance, when love chooses its victims of chance". He initially sets up the whore with the soldier, then aids the pairing off of each subsequent set of lovers, all to keep the carousel going.

Ophuls shows how sexual impropriety crosses class boundaries; notice how the whore pairs off with both the soldier and the aristocrat, representing two arms of high society. The sole married couple both have affairs - as the husband says "marriage is a perplexing mystery" and perhaps the young gentleman who sleeps with his maid represents a sense of economic exploitation. Using typically elaborate camerawork, never more evident that the opening scene, unbroken for several minutes as it follows Walbrook's introduction and summation of the events at hand, Ophuls pans the camera in circular directions as if to denote the circular nature of the waltz of love. Good natured and whimsical, though no less specific in its observation of sexual attitudes of the time, 'La Ronde' is an enchanting cinematic experience by a film maker clearly on the crest of a wave. 4/5
'La Ronde' is released on DVD on 8th September from Second Sight.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Caught (1949, US, Max Ophuls)

Recently, I reviewed 'Letter From An Unknown Woman', a superior melodrama which remains probably the best of the four Ophuls films that I have seen. Made just a year after, 'Caught' was Ophuls' first attempt at making a contemporary American film. This too is another melodrama, but one that also acts as a scathing attack on certain American values of the era (materialism, ambition, success). Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), Caught's heroine starts as a rather shallow young woman about to enter charm/finishing school, with the sole intention of developing the refined habits and behaviour that will snare her a rich, successful husband. She reads fashion magazines, and romantically yearns for the good life. Naturally, her dreams becomes more of a nightmare.

Leonora meets and falls in love with Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a ruthless businessman with emotional and physical health issues. He's not so keen, but just to spite his psychoanalyst, he marries her regardless. Marriage isn't what Leonora expected it to be. Her charm school education is no use to her now. A man used to winning (who has heart palpitations when his superiority is threatened), Smith humiliates her in front of their friends/colleagues and wants to do his best to ruin her, ruling over her like a tyrant.

Escaping his clutches, she takes a job as a receptionist for the kind and self-sacrificing Dr Quinada (James Mason), and their attraction is mutual. However, when Smith finds her and wants her back (he can't accept losing her), Leonora is torn between the two men. Her yearning for a good life, for wealth, security and status take priority over love, though the crucial aspect is the fact she's pregnant with Smith's child and that Smith threatens a divorce citing adultery, giving him custody of their child, so perhaps Leonora is learning that her shallow ideals aren't what they're cracked up to be. Her eventual freedom is obtained in the most ironic of fashions, though not without a huge degree of tragedy, and what there is resembling a "happy ending" is incredibly subdued.

Like his fellow German, Douglas Sirk, Ophuls utilises the melodrama genre to raise significant and salient points about typically American values, increasingly held by many during a period of economic prosperity. Smith, unrestrained capitalism in human form is a cruel and merciless creature, who can't accept defeat and who must master others. Leonora's desire of Smith's world and her idealised notions of success and wealth display a sense of ambition that becomes her downfall. Only with the compassionate Quinada does Leonora find happiness, which refutes every ideal she previously held, although she struggles to let go of Smith's world. One wonders though, whether like Sirk's films, the satirical angle of 'Caught' was obviously noticed by its audience or whether it was just treated as a domestic nightmare and nothing more. Ophuls, who uses camera movement better and more interestingly than most, uses his technical gifts to show Leonora's world of peril - look at his use of lighting too when Leonora is faced with the moral dilemma of saving Smith's life when he has a heart attack. It would be so easy to let him die so she can be free and the contempt on her face is obvious, but Ophuls rejects such simple plot developments. 'The Reckless Moment' was made the same year, and should be considered together as incredibly pertinent dissections of contemporary American mores. 4/5

'Caught' is released on DVD on 8th September from Second Sight.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Day of Wrath (1943, Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Made during the Nazi occupation of his native Denmark, Dreyer's film uses the concept of persecution and witch-hunting during the 17th century as an allegory for the situation his country found itself in at the time the film was made. Who knows whether the Nazis were aware of Dreyer's intentions; you'd think the production would have been closed down if it was that obvious, but such is Dreyer's subtlety that perhaps those for whom the film was an attack upon failed to notice the point. Set around 1623, where a strict Lutheran orthodoxy led to the persecution of Catholics and other non-Lutherans in Denmark, Dreyer shows a community that is paranoid and distrustful of others, always quick to point the finger and accuse those who act outside of the norm as witches - a crime of course punishable by torture and death.

An elderly woman is accused of being a witch, a crime she vehemently denies. In what is assumed to be a reference to the Nazis, brutal methods are used against suspected criminals; in order to force a confession, torture is used, and even this isn't enough - the authorities want the woman to denounce others. Of course, she knows of one witch and the confession of which would cause shock waves throughout the pious community. An elderly pastor, Absolon (Thorkild Roose) has recently taken a young second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), much to the disapproval of his mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), and it was suspected that Anne's mother was a witch, only saved from the flames by Absolon's testimony, though one suspects whether she was saved solely to win Anne's heart. Therein lies at heart the hypocrisy of the community, where the power that resides in a small religious few can be manipulated and exploited for cynical purposes.

When Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), Absolon's son from his first marriage returns to his family home, the focus shifts from interrogating suspected witches to the actual existence of a witch in the community. Martin and Anne begin to fall in love, their idyllic happiness at their love blossoming (shown in rural scenes of walks and boat journeys) contrasting sharply with the world of paranoia and persecution that Absolon inhabits. Martin is more sombre and distant by his betrayal, acknowledging his sin, but the affair makes Anne more assertive. Even Absolon and his mother notice the change. Note how she wears her hair loose now, opposed to tied back in an austere fashion. Such is Anne's desire to be with Martin that she wishes her husband dead, a wish that indeed comes to pass. Whether this is an absolute statement on Anne's power or whether it's ambivalent due to his age, it's a statement later used against her when Anne is accused, like her mother, of witchcraft.

Dreyer uses the concept of religious dogma run amok to create a haunting and atmospheric world, filmed where those with power can manipulate and persecute others for their own ends. The obvious reference to the Nazi occupation of Denmark has subsequently been made – little wonder therefore that Dreyer fled to Sweden not long after the film was made. Much like in Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', Dreyer has a trademark of close ups on faces to show anguish and emotion - just watch how close he gets to the elderly lady denounced as a witch during her suffering, as well as Anne's face during her growing love for Martin. Dreyer learned his trade during the years of silent cinema when an actor's face could convey just as much as dialogue, so it's no surprise that he uses this form of expression so convincingly. The film's climax is as ambiguous as much of what we've seen before - whether Anne is a witch or not, despite her confessions is probably open to debate, but this shouldn't distract us from Dreyer's true aim perhaps - depicting an austere world of terror and fear. 4.5/5

Saturday, 26 July 2008

La Antena (2007, Argentina, Esteban Sapir)

Argentinian cinema is appearing more and more on the world stage at the moment. Pablo Trapero's 'Leonera' and Lucrecia Martel's 'La Mujer Sin Cabeza' were both in competition at Cannes for the Palme D'Or, and Lucia Puenzo's 'XXY', a sensitive portrayal of the life of a teenage hermaphrodite secured a British cinema release earlier in 2008 (a film I had quite a lot of time for too). 'La Antena', a throwback to the days of silent cinema and more accurately German expressionism was too released in May in cinemas. It's an intriguing commercial decision certainly, because it's essentially a silent film in black and white which shuns modern cinematic conventions, uses hand made effects rather than CGI and would sit comfortably with more the surreal films of the 1920s - just see how the film begins with fingers hovering over a typewriter, with piano sounds being heard. It's certainly the kind of film that won't be sought out by multiplex audiences.

The narrative itself plays second fiddle to an extent to Sapir's technical brilliance because it really doesn't hold the imagination that much. This is a city where no-one has a voice, where life is controlled by the hypnotic draw of television, and where some plucky central characters try to break this spell and liberate the inhabitants of the city. It's the kind of set up that has been done before, mostly in the world of science fiction, and to an extent in the films that Sapir seeks to draw inspiration from - there's a homage to 'Metropolis' in one scene, a film which has a similar plot to this one. Whether Sapir seeks to make any pertinent points about television as a tool that makes people docile and is used as a means of suppression in contemporary society, I don't know or maybe it's just a convenient enough basis for him to explore his imaginative visual ideas. Also, there's the significance of people literally having no voice - does this refer in any way to Argentinian history, where democracy has often been precariously placed and replaced by military rule/dictatorships in the past? Again, allegorical interpretations of 'La Antena' can be made, but such is the emphasis on the aesthetics of the film that you'd be forgiven for wondering this was Sapir's intentions.

I've no idea what kind of budget Sapir had to work with on this film, but as I assume it was minimal, he certainly stretches it a long way. We're used to watching modern films with gigantic budgets and you think to yourself "where did the money go"? Not so with 'La Antena', where you think completely the opposite, how did Sapir manage to achieve this with barely any financial assistance. Sapir clearly has an active imagination, a rich sense of film history (see his tribute to 'A Trip To The Moon') and a willingness to put his ideas on celluloid without any doubts. His use of subtitles for instance are different - I suppose they're aiming to be like intertitles from silent cinema, but they completely reflect every word that's said, rather than just the gist of a conversation, but they also leap from the screen. Sapir's world is also completely artificial, deliberately so. See how his distance shots of the city are clearly made from paper, but constructed to look effective as well as how such things would have been filmed in yesteryear.

Sapir is certainly a film maker of some promise and it will be interesting to see which projects he works on next. 'La Antena' is a feast for the eyes for sure and an imaginative piece of work. I'm not sure however that the narrative is much more than a slight premise for Sapir to get his ideas on screen, and that's fine - he clearly had to work with limited resources and 'La Antena' is more than the sum of its parts. Sapir's film has been likened to the work of early Tim Burton, but if we're thinking contemporary kindred spirits, then Guy Maddin is perhaps a more natural comparison and who knows whether his work has been an influence as he draws direct inspiration from surreal and expressionist cinema. 3.5/5

'La Antena' will be released on DVD on 18 August from Dogwoof Pictures.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ikiru (1952, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

Although much of Kurosawa's reputation rests with his samurai films and Shakespeare adaptations, it's easy to forget that before he concentrated on these genres, he was quite an adept director of contemporary films with a human conscience ('Drunken Angel', 'Stray Dog'). The finest example of such films is 'Ikiru', which in my opinion is his most complete masterpiece along with 'Ran'. If you take the basic set up; a mid ranking civil servant who has achieved nothing in his life discovers he's dying and wants to undertake one task of communal benefit, with modern eyes it seems a bit contrived, with the potential to finish the wrong side of sentimental. However such is Kurosawa's sincerity and empathy with his subject that the film emerges as a genuine triumph of human endeavour and an affirmation of life.

Acted by Takashi Shimura (one of Kurosawa's most frequent collaborators), Kenji Watanabe is a "mummy", someone who's been more or less dead for thirty decades, living for the minor achievements he's managed to accomplish, namely never taking a day off sick. It's a powerful performance, rarely relying on speech for Watanabe communicates purely in mumbles - it's all in the facial expressions. And that's part of the joy of 'Ikiru', how human faces drive the film as if it could be a throwback to silent cinema. Note how a drinking companion of Watanabe himself barely talks, just throwing quizzical looks in his direction.

Kurosawa doesn't keep us in suspense about Watanabe's health, explaining through voice over before the man himself knows, that he's dying from stomach cancer. Maybe this fact is laced with irony given that he never sought medical assistance for any illnesses in the past because he was too concerned that taking time off work would somehow be a dereliction of duty. Kurosawa then shows how Watanabe has got to the stage he has with flashbacks to his past - his wife died moderately young, leaving Watanabe to raise his son alone as he never remarried. These memories are what first springs to mind upon finding out about his impending death when he embarks on a period of soul searching (which includes copious drinking and skipping work), which then finally gives way to a moment of self-realisation - that life is short and he has to rescue the abandoned plans to build a children's playground in a poor part of the city.

Watanabe is just one part of the bureaucratic minefield though. When the local citizens first petition the council for the playground, there's an amusing scenario in which they are passed from one council department to the next before finally ending up back where they started (Public Liaison, which Watanabe heads) several hours later. Even when the playground has been completed, council departments all claim responsibility, sidelining Watanabe's efforts, especially the cynical and unscrupulous deputy mayor who has one eye on his forthcoming election. At his wake, prompted by the local citizens who mourn him, comes an acceptance that Watanabe was chiefly responsible for the playground's construction, and inspired by his zeal, his colleagues vow to follow his lead. Of course nothing changes - people are shown being passed from one department to the next in the very next scene.

Much like in the later work of Ozu, tensions between parents and children in post-WW2 Japan are apparent. In 'Tokyo Story', when the elderly parents from the countryside visited their city dwelling children, they had no time for them and regretted this when they passed on. The same occurs here, where Watanabe's selfish son and daughter in law are interested solely in Watanabe as a source of money - he overhears them discussing his retirement bonus and he subsequently neglects to tell them he's dying. Respect amongst the younger generation for their parents and elders appears to be lacking in both films and continued to be an issue in the works of Ozu for instance.

As typified in the iconic scene of Watanabe sitting on the swing in the playground in the snow, cooing a 20s love song as he awaits death, 'Ikiru' is one of the most profound and moving films anyone is ever likely to see. Thanks to Shimura, Watanabe convincingly transforms from a man whose entire life had been meaningless and unfulfilled to a man whose death-inspired zeal and determination was able to achieve something positive for the common good. Kurosawa's empathy for the man is evident and its this which allows the film to remain honest and not feel forced or manipulative, as well as offer substantive insights into the human condition. 5/5

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Red Shoes (1948, UK, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Justifiably selected as one of the ten best British films of all time in a recent BFI poll, 'The Red Shoes' is a dazzling reminder of the golden age of British cinema and perhaps the most famous example of the brilliance of The Archers production team (Powell and Pressburger). It's a film that works superbly on both a narrative and visual level - on one hand it's a moving melodrama about a dancer torn between her love for her art and her love for her partner, whilst on the other it was like nothing British audiences would have seen at the time, a dizzying explosion of colour and expressionism. Little wonder therefore that Martin Scorsese cites it as one of the most influential films upon his career.

Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a humble dancer in the Lermontov ballet troupe is discovered by the driven yet charismatic Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and made a star of, whilst simultaneously falling for the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). However in true melodramatic fashion, one can't have what one both loves, and Victoria has to make a choice - to marry the love of her life, or become a slave to her art. Add into the mix the ballet of The Red Shoes itself, based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the girl whose shoes would not allow her to stop dancing until tragedy struck. Victoria's life ultimately is fated to echo hers. Whilst this has the potential to sound a little contrived and unoriginal - the love triangle dimension has been done before (though this is love between a man and one's art), it's handled so confidently by film makers at the peak of their powers, it's always convincing.

Most discussion about the film rightly rests with its visual brilliance. Consider that the norm for British made films was to use black and white stock; very few films had been filmed in colour by the late 1940s. 'The Red Shoes' was something different, something new. The eye-popping use of colour would have been a revelation. The ballet sequences are a masterful example of expressionism, with Victoria's fragile psychological state laid bare for us to see. As she takes off in 'The Red Shoes' ballet, the theatrical setting transforms into something much more dreamlike and artificial, with Victoria floating in space whilst seemingly hysterical and traumatised by the prospect of being torn between Craster (love) and Lermontov (art). This sequence exists as a microcosm of the film's visual artistry; an assault on the viewer's senses, but the film is much more than that. It's a demonstration of British cinematic confidence during its peak by arguably it's finest film makers. A masterpiece. 5/5