At the heart of Dust in the Wind, like so many Chinese films, lies a humming tension between old and new. The ways of modernization and urbanization glitter with promise for the Taiwanese youth at the center of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but they leave in their wake the destruction of their family units and the old traditions, and in the process end up wounding themselves as well. That the director and cast do such a good job with another common element of Chinese cinema - the layering of subtext under a surface calm - makes the film’s ideas and reflections resonate all the more.
Browsing: TIFF Film Series
A forgotten key opens doors to unattainable dreams in Ming Liang Tsai’s Vive L’Amour. In the midst of the unceasing movements and abrasive sounds of Taiwan this key offers sanctuary for the lonely denizens of humanity that are unable to thrive in the overbearing restraints of a city imprisoned by ocean. A young man briefly breaks the fourth wall as he looks into a convenience store mirror, primping for some nonexistent encounter in a gesture of listless vanity looking desperately into the eyes of the audience, unable to find companionship in the cinematic vision of Taiwan that Tsai has trapped him in. Love is the unattainable dream for the lonely Hsiao-ang, but he is not alone in his desire for connection. In Ming Liang Tsai’s Vive L’Amour meaningful connection is the unattainable collective dream for three weary urban inhabitants. They are all bereft of identity in the overcrowded and ever-shifting cityscapes of a ceaselessly changing Taiwan, starved for love but unable to achieve it because of the impositions of their shared environment.
Kaige Chen’s 1993 film Farewell, My Concubine is a masterpiece. It is a film of rare beauty that does not shy away from the pain and brutality that beauty comes from. The story is that of two men, Douzi (Zhi Yin as a teenager,Leslie Cheung as the adult) and Shitou (Yang Fei as a teenager, Fengyi Zhang as the adult), who as youths are sent to a training facility to prepare them for a life in the opera. The brutality is nearly unbearable to watch as they are beaten not only for their mistakes but for when they make none to prevent them from doing so next time. Everything from spankings with a wooden sword to holding a bold of water over their head for hours (sometimes days) at a time in all manner of weather is done to these boys as young as 5 or 6 years old. Douzi is brought to the school by his mother, a local prostitute, in the late 1920s or early 1930s so he can have a career and because she cannot take care of him at the brothel any longer. Douzi is turned away because he has a sixth finger on his left hand, and they fear he will scare the audience with his abnormality. Desperate, she chops the finger off with a cleaver and returns him to the school.
At one point, near the end of John Woo’s masterful A Better Tomorrow, Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) asks his partner-in-crime and best friend, Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), if he believes in God. Mark replies “I am the god”. In the context of the conversation and the film, he is talking about agency – Mark believes that by simply being able to control your own life, you can become a god. It’s not far from the literal truth, either - this is a man, after all, who can explode a single barrel with a shotgun from about 100 yards away while driving a boat.
Snubbed in mainland China as being too westernised, widely praised in the Western world as it’s more attainable in terms of narrative content, easily fluid compared with traditional wuxia films from the 1920’s mainland Chinese cinema. Largely defined as a period film and a martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the wuxia genre to a new and larger audience in terms of global distribution. The term wuxia refers to a genre know also as the heroic genre, where narrative favours heroism and elaborate swordsmanship. Traditionalist Chinese cultural values and the mystery of legend play a part in the wuxia genre, but it’s most popular for the themes of love and loss. The characters are central to the storytelling and their emotional states are often reflected in a series of powerful sword fights. Wuxia films are usually taken from popular wuxia genre novels and the idea for the film came from a novel of the same name by Wang Du Lu. The novel was part of a trilogy and the author’s widow reportedly visited the Beijing film set during the making of the feature. There is a grand tradition in Chinese culture where elders are respected, so it’s perfect that the wife of the novel’s author was given the rights to see it being brought to life by other artists in a new form.
Owing at least a facetious titular connection to his earlier film, A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker continues his exploration of nebulous leftist movements with The Case of the Grinning Cat. The earlier film highlighted the bodiless movements that unified a worldwide “New Left” that was all “grin” and the reckless passion of disenfranchised youth, but lacking the unification to instill the grand social changes proposed by the minds of youthful idealism, while The Case of the Grinning Cat ironically shows the “toothless” nature of civil unrest as disparate groups protest for their myopic self interests throughout Parisian cityscapes colored by advertisements, political campaign posters, imposing propagandistic images of the scoreless millionaires that represented France in the World Cup, and a precocious grinning cat overseeing the whole mess with harmless irreverence as the lackadaisical masses grimace their way mindlessly through the banality of their privileged existence.
As a species we are driven by powerful unknown forces to solve all of the mysteries of the world or find practical ways to deny the existence of the divine through the inadequate parameters of logic and reason. There is only so much mystery that we will afford ourselves so as not to interfere with the banal necessities of everyday life. The more trivial facts we stuff ourselves with to quench the insatiable thirst of our rapacious souls and the more intelligent that we deem ourselves the more doors of mystery we close to ourselves, particularly as we get older and feel content in the constancy of the limited parameters of our narrow existences, perhaps leaving small voids for parochial leaders to fill with modular dogmatic virtues aimed at silencing the disquieted soul. Some of us find the presence of the divine in works of art, works so profound that they seem to be delivered directly from the hand of god using the artist as a mere medium of divine expression. Chris Marker saw such divinity in the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, and in One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich he illustrates his faith in the films of Tarkovsky and their unparalleled grace that transcended tremendous obstacles to be brought into this world to show us all that cinema possesses not only the same expressive capacity of the other arts, but the power of divinity; particularly when in the hands of the world’s unparalleled master of film, Andrei Tarkovsky.
Chris Marker teamed with filmmaker Yannick Bellon to create Remembrance of Things to Come (2003), a photo essay set to film that documents the work of director Bellon’s mother, photographer Denise Bellon. Now is where description becomes difficult, as the film has an almost surrealistic quality, much like the photographs of Bellon and the artists she admired and socialized with. Surrealism is in fused into the film as we watch Bellon’s photographs on the screen, sometimes dissolving into one another while a narrator, Alexandra Stewart, reads us biographical information and quotes from Bellon and others.
Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967), co-directed by Francois Reichengach, draws its title from a Zen proverb reading “If the five sides of the pentagon appear impregnable, attack the sixth side.” If that sounds enigmatic, it is but it is also a great place to start when discussing the anti-war movement in the U. S. in the late 1960s as this film does.
Its original French title (Le Fond de l’air est rogue) roughly translated as “the depth of the air is red” speaks to a nebulous cultural zeitgeist. Without a common ideological center a galvanization of the “New Left” would fail to take hold. Despite a lack of gravitational mass for which the pieces of this new ideology to coagulate, this new consciousness screamed into the winds around the world, given voice and language by the humanist propaganda of the films of Sergei Eisenstein, a semantics that defined and implicated acts of social injustice as the unflinching eye of humanity could no longer gaze upon the “Odessa Steps” of the world without feeling a sense of personal obligation. The increasing ubiquity of the camera during the tumult of the 60s would ensure that no blind eye could be turned to the injustice of the world, one would be forced to confront it and through the reaction to that confrontation political demarcation points would be defined. These demarcation points would no longer be defined by blind nationalism but by the soul’s ability to look upon the dissimilarities of other populations in the world but still be moved by the universality of their causes as members of a universal tribe of humanity. Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat condenses that tumult into a dizzying whirlwind of sepia-toned images from leftist movements around the globe, all unified in their gasps for freedom but without a central figurehead or rallying cry around which to form as a cohesive unit capable of delivering swift social change they would evaporate as merely red whispers into the night breeze.