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