Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto 08 — Day 5 capsules

I’m gonna save the two Terence Davies movies to write about after the fest because they dredge up a series of issues about Catholicism and sexuality that I don’t want to write about on a quick deadline, in short capsule form or with several drunken-Welshman-inspired Strongbows in me.

ASHES OF TIME (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994) — 7 (formerly 8)

Ultimately, it’s a lot of gorgeous pictures, but really not a movie. This “redux” cut of Wong’s one attempt at the wuxia genre, which I saw with The Man Himself doing the intro 20 feet from me, straightens out the chronology and provides back story with seasonal title cards and “rest of the story” codas, but without really managing to make the film more emotionally involving. The all-new score doesn’t help either — the old electronic score avoided the problem of supplying emotion that isn’t in the image or drama. This one, Yo-Yo Ma solos and all, is trying WAY too hard and in quite blunt ways. Still … this will always remain one of the most visually gorgeous movies ever made. And the plots remains what it is through all the fog — the same brother-sister feud, the same eggs, the same spinning birdcages, the same peach blossom story, the same memory-erasing wine, the same confusion over which Tony Leung it is, and the same realization that memory is both painful and what makes man man. The grainy stock and the combination of beige-orange sand and azure sky, plus the visual strategy of hiding faces create a film that isn’t realistic at all, but looks more like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as shot by a French Impressionist rather than a British Realist. And this haziness and dreamy quality is perfect for a memory film, as if the images are burned in orange-glow light. There is little green or red in the film, which makes the few times either appears so startling. The fighting scenes you either got the first time or never will get — all quick edits, smeared-light on the images, but relatively realistic sound. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and CHUNGKING EXPRESS are still Wong’s best films though, because of their tight focus, which “compensates” for Wong’s elliptical style. Whereas, ASHES is more sprawling (see below for Victor’s Rule). Unlike APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which I thought was an addition to an already great film, I see ASHES OF TIME REDUX is an inferior cut of a film that was “only” a flawed masterpiece to begin with. But everyone still HAS to see it.

GOODBYE SOLO (Ramin Bahrani, USA) — 8

If you’ve ever ridden in a taxicab in a major (North) American city, you’ve met Solo. He may be from West Africa (as Solo is in this movie), or from the Caribbean, the Middle East or South Asia. In fact, on my way to another movie, I took a ride with a Toronto cabbie who was a Sikh and when he discerned I was in town for the film festival, told me he already had seen SINGH IS KINNGH. I told him of my being within spitting distance of Amitabh Bachchan serenading an Indian matriarch at BLACK and sang to the cabbie Dharmendra’s opening bars of “Yeh Dosti” from SHOLAY (prompting a huge laugh from him that this white boy knew that song). All of which is just a way of saying that Bahrani, whose first two films MAN PUSH CART and CHOP SHOP I didn’t see, creates real characters in a way that no other American indie director does. GOODBYE SOLO was the sort of movie Sundance Film Festival pushed into the American consciousness before “Sundance” became a brand name in its own right, and a shorthand term for preciousness, quirkiness and perkiness. It’s offhand, naturalistic, perfectly acted and written, and utterly authentic even while the story is a bit fanciful, though never fantastical. Basically North Carolina cabbie Solo (do Senegalese dominate the Winston Salem cab industry? I have no idea, but I *trusted* this movie in a way I didn’t the YOUSSOU NDOUR film) picks up a depressed old white man William who makes an appointment with him for a couple of weeks hence to take him to a peak in the Appalachians that has the wind blow up from the valley (meaning if you toss something down, the wind blows it back to you). What follows is quite predictable, though like with the best cab rides, the journey is as important as the destination. In that interim period they become sort-of friends and they find out about each other’s life beyond the relationship that defined their meeting. Solo, in other words, is the ultimate Helper Guy and William keeps trying to toss him away, but the wind keeps blowing him back. To make the Ultimate Wack Comparison, GOODBYE SOLO is what AMELIE would have been if it had been directed in the American indie realist vein — and it has all the tough subtexts that Jeunet’s films is often not credited with. Solo’s and Amelie’s helpfulness both cover up vast emptinesses in their own lives and often irritate the people they’re intended to help.

September 12, 2008 Posted by | Ramin Bahrani, TIFF 2008, Wong Kar-wai | 1 Comment

“All the leaves are brown…”

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Starting today, Washington cinema-lovers will have a great opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest film ouevres. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is having a comprehensive retro of his released films — meaning 2046 is not included — at the AFI theater in Silver Spring. The AFI is a wonderful place to see a picture and hopefully, they’ll put it in one of the bigger theaters (they played THE LEOPARD in the smallest one … grr). One measure of Wong’s importance is that he’s already being cited as an influence by the next generation of film-makers — Sofia Coppola thanked him when she accepted her Best Original Script Oscar for 2003.

A few years ago, I was writing occasional TV reviews (about fortnightly, I’d guess) as a favor to the arts editor at The Washington Times, and one review I did was of a Sundance special on Wong, where I describe some of what is vital and important in the man’s work. As for this retro, ASHES OF TIME and AS TEARS GO BY are the films I *have* to see, meaning they’re the ones I’ve never seen before. My favorites are IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and CHUNGKING EXPRESS, though I love all that I’ve seen with one exception. And if you’re new to Wong, I’d recommend CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS as the places to start (though unfortunately those two are playing at the end of the retro).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.33.25 PMWhile I was quite bored by HAPPY TOGETHER (seeing no point to all the on again-off again quarreling or being in Argentina or the black-and-white), CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS are both great works of romantic longing. In the latter film, the flashbacks of the silly old father and the repeated line “somebody else decides who lives and dies” are pitch-perfect examples of a tactic I love — repeating the same words or images, but in a different context which gives them a wholly new meaning (I could also cite THE END OF THE AFFAIR and BRIEF ENCOUNTER). There’s also a cramped quality to Wong’s framing and sets in these two films with frequent use of long narrow corridors and distorted or eccentric lighting, and most of the action seems to take place at night, as if the world can’t breathe, but it’s cool to look at. The earlier DAYS OF BEING WILD is film in a similar style, but is closer in mood and narrative (lack of) structure to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. As for EXPRESS, I can’t hear The Cranberries sing “Dreams” any more without imagining Faye Wong singing it in Cantonese. And when I hear “California Dreaming,” I get the images of a T-shirted Faye Wong slinking through the film’s titular Hong Kong fast-food joint, listening to this Mamas & Papas song, absolutely oblivious to the world outside her.

Wong is also one of the directors I’d cite — Quentin Tarantino being an obvious other one — as among the high-points of post-modern film-making. They handle pop reference, pastiche and stylistic panache without collapsing into nihilistic decadence. There’s a point to it all, in words — in Wong’s case, his early loosely-structured stylistically playful tales of amour fou cover his character’s deepest romantic longings and heartbreak. DAYS OF BEING WILD, a tone poem centered on a character’s madonna-whore complex and his casual moving from girl to girl (imagine James Dean without the Method for the general sense of Leslie Cheung’s character). This gentleman thinks a single shot from EXPRESS is the single greatest shot in the history of the medium — “expresses more longing and yearning than most films can accomplish in two hours of anguished dialogue.” Take all such superlatives with a grain of salt of course, but this is a very sane opinion that will never be cited on his commitment papers (like his opinion of GERRY will).

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And in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, the theme molds itself into a style that turns the film into a kind of middle-class tragedy — a florid memory piece about a man and a woman whose respective unseen spouses are having an affair with one another and what may or not happen between them. Like bittersweet memory itself, MOOD fixates on iconographic snatches, moments out of time, and a soft, romantic, almost fetishistic memory for detail tinctured with regret — Tony Leung’s hands, Maggie Cheung’s hairdo and dress, Tony’s pants crease, and Maggie’s hips. A lot of Maggie’s hips. In fact, a joke title for the film is IN THE MOOD FOR ASS. The film is a stylistic tour de force, filled with great touches by Wong — the way that when the couple walks down the beige brick street, reconstructing their spouses’ affair, we first see their shadows on the wall; the freezes of first Maggie and then Tony walking down the hotel hall away from us; the slow-motion last touch of hands when they’re “play-acting” the parting greetings; the way “Yumeji’s Theme” changes in meaning from longing to reverie and the way the relationship itself has actually changed from one playing to the next.

But the first time I saw the film, when “Yumeji’s Theme” swelled up for like the eighth time and we saw Maggie’s legs while the flask swayed in time with her movement and the notes weeped away on the soundtrack — there was audible groaning in the TalkCinema audience. Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.37.24 PMOf the films by Wong I’ve seen, MOOD and DAYS OF BEING WILD were the ones that required a second viewing to grow on me. Of the two, MOOD is the more pleasurable as a pure sensual object, lovely to look at, listen to and luxuriate in — but neither is the easiest film to try to make sense of or follow. Both are quite elliptical in terms of exactly what happens — although generally chronological, they follow an emotional structure with few of the usual plot cues. In MOOD, there’s never an instant where were TOLD that Maggie and Tony are no play-acting their respective spouses and are now themselves. On second viewing, basically knowing what happens, MOOD at least became much clearer, especially in terms of the POINT of every scene and what’s really going on. It’s like MEMENTO or 8 1/2 in that once you get the general sense of the film’s architecture that a first viewing gives you, it becomes a piece of cake and most everything makes sense. For example, it became much more obvious how many hints Wong dropped that Tony’s wife and Maggie’s husband were cheating (which gave the early scenes much more point). What I took to be a barrage of too many codas now became a logical progression of plotted scenes. It all ends at Angkor Wat, a monument to permanence that absorbs into itself the hearts of men, breaking over ephemerality.

March 4, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized, Wong Kar-wai | Leave a comment