Sunday, September 5, 2010

Last Train Home

The best Chinese documentaries of the past decade seem designed to fuel our apocalyptic imagination. Whether in the post-earthquake wasteland of Du Haibin’s 1428, the critiques of Kafka-esque bureaucracy in Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment and Petition, or the monumental portrait of a declining industrial district in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, we discover a world in which the center is barely holding and the stakes could not be higher. This is severe, tough-as-nails realism that tests the audience’s endurance, even as the life-and-death urgency beneath the surface makes it difficult to turn away.

Rivaling China’s finest documentarians, first-time director Lixin Fan begins his Last Train Home with a handful of unshakable images. First he presents a stunning aerial view of the nation’s overflowing masses, slowly panning left until the screen is clogged with a sea of migrant workers waiting for their train ride home for the Spring Festival. A subtitle bills this claustrophobic vision as the largest annual human migration in the world. Soon after, Fan cuts back to the kind of dingy, fluorescent-lit environments where this floating underclass spends the rest of the year eking out an existence. His camera repeatedly returns to the endless piles of blue jeans lying around the Guangzhou factory where his central subjects, a middle-aged married couple, make just enough money to fund their children back in faraway Sichuan. [The rest of the post can be read at Film Comment.]

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mao's Last Dancer

Watching Mao’s Last Dancer, Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Chinese-Australian ballet star Li Cunxin’s memoir, you might find yourself forgetting that ballet is an art. We meet the young Cunxin as an unremarkable 11-year-old mountain villager in the late Seventies, plucked by the fates to join the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy and undergo years of grueling training to become a ballerino. In these early scenes, dance is introduced as an escape from a life of poverty and obscurity, not as a medium that might provide emotional release in an era of Maoist oppression. From then on, the film maintains a consistently uncurious and coldly practical view of ballet, one in which effort is enough to equal creative achievement. After taking the proverb-laced advice of his wise old master, the young-adult Cunxin (Chi Cao) begins working on strengthening his technical abilities and distinguishing himself from his classmates, a task that pays off when visiting American ballet director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), who enlists him to join his company in Houston, Texas. And so a star is born, though we are never allowed to understand what exactly makes Cunxin such a magnetic performer. Dance, after all, is merely a matter of athletic discipline, a means of international exchange, a set-up for cheap family melodrama—anything but an art form that might have something to communicate to its audience. [The rest of the post can be read at Reverse Shot.]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spring Fever

When a movie takes it upon itself to exorcise a society’s moral and sexual hang-ups, the process can be both exhilarating and exhausting to watch. If the filmmaker’s attempt to play cultural crusader elicits something less than the intended shock and awe, we are left wondering what all the fuss is about, and whether the taboos at hand have not already become old news. Following in the footsteps of such recent hot-blooded provocations as the New French Extremity and the marathon sex in Ang Lee’s PRC-censored Lust, Caution, Lou Ye’s Spring Fever opens with two men, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) and Wang Ping (Wu Wei), making their way to a secluded shack in the woods for an afternoon fuck. Cloaked in heavy shadows, their tryst becomes an act of disappearance. “I love you,” one whispers, his wedding ring gleaming in the dark. [The rest of the post can be read at Film Comment.]

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stevie Wonder's Jungle Fever

At the height of its popularity, soul music earned its reputation for plumbing emotional depths and encouraging social awareness. But in movies, more often than not, the genre is dismayingly used in unimaginative and superficial ways. Michael Mann’s Ali is a good example: each time the film becomes stiff and tight-fisted just as it’s supposed to be hitting an emotional high point, Mann insists on plugging in predictable selections from the Sixties R&B songbook. A lovers’ spat is scored to Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way”; the death of Malcolm X is announced by the surging orchestration of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The choice of music feels at once incidental and obligatory, and though together these two songs constitute only a few minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour biopic, it’s painful to listen to such deep reservoirs of feeling and artistry being used as short cuts for what the dramatically lit, coffee-table-book images lack. In Ali, Mann treats black pop in the same thoughtless way Lawrence Kasdan did in The Big Chill—as a string of oldies-but-goodies that reproduce our stereotypes of a particular historical moment.

Since even the best pop songs tend to hew to a single definable mood or circumstance (a simplicity that becomes even easier to take for granted as time passes), how can a filmmaker use an old chestnut in ways that are emotionally ambiguous and politically suggestive? And how can a film do justice to the complexity and history of the music it employs without making music the center of its attention or the object of excessive reverence? Jungle Fever is the only movie I can think of that provides a multifaceted, forward-looking response to these questions in the context of classic R&B. Like many of the finest Spike Lee joints, the 1991 film is inconceivable without its carefully crafted soundtrack, and the music smooths out and opens up new ways of entering into Lee’s dynamic, purposefully choppy structure. Despite being one of the director’s most passionate urban symphonies, this is a work so aesthetically and thematically scatterbrained, so willfully contradictory, that it often gets lost in a career packed to the brim with provocations. But more than in any of Lee’s other work, incoherence serves as a source of its vitality, giving him the license to avoid the neatly defined philosophical binaries of Do the Right Thing and the pieties of Jungle Fever’s immediate follow-up, Malcolm X. [The rest of the post can be read at Reverse Shot.]

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Swooping across sparkling azure waters, the first shots of Neil Jordan’s Ondine envision Ireland amid a sea bubbling with ancient mystical forces. When the camera settles on the boat of a glum-faced, scruffy-haired fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell), we know sooner or later that something supernatural is bound to intrude upon his dreary routine. It finally arrives in the form of a beautiful amphibious female (Alicja Bachleda) curled in a fetal position in his net, a discovery whose strangeness the fisherman accepts matter-of-factly. As in the director’s previous cinematic homecomings, such casual acknowledgment of the world’s magical-realist capacities serves to indicate cultural Irishness—a reliance on wild Celtic imagination in the face of an unstable modernity. Once Syracuse’s young, wheelchair-bound daughter (Alison Barry) identifies his catch as a “selkie”—a half-woman, half-seal creature who can shed her original moss-clump of skin in exchange for a seven-year fling with a landsman—we are encouraged to suspend our disbelief, sit back, and wait for these unconvincingly reticent lovers to get it on. [The rest of the post can be read at Film Comment.]

Monday, April 26, 2010

Henri Cole: Pierce the Skin

The idea of an anthology of Henri Cole’s selected poems will likely inspire conflicted feelings among his most ardent readers. Much like a museum retrospective does for a visual artist or a greatest-hits album does for a pop singer, this kind of collection can serve two important functions in the life of a poet: not only does it implicitly coronate him as a major force within his art form, but it also symbolically sets aside his previous work and enables him to advance into the next chapter of his career.

The problem with this format, though, is that like many of his peers, Cole tends to write books, not just loose arrangements of easily excerpted poems. The scope and texture of his finest verse is best appreciated by reading his three most recent volumes as they were originally published, back to back, in as few sittings as possible. While modern poetry’s bias toward book-length projects can often seem like a beleaguered genre’s attempt at self-aggrandisement, in the case of Cole and other authors of his caliber, it allows for an expansiveness of mood and form, and endless possibilities for juxtaposition and Whitmanian self-contradiction—qualities that inevitably get lost when the poems are reassembled and recontextualised. [The rest of the post can be read at The Oxonian Review.]

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Taking its cues from Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up and Jafar Panahi'sOffside, both of which employed a blend of fiction and documentary to chronicle extreme cases of fandom, No One Knows About Persian Catsoffers a number of Tehran's real-life indie-rock obsessives an opportunity to enact their trials and vent their frustrations on camera. Filmed surreptitiously over the course of seventeen days, Bahman Ghobadi's latest follows twentysomething rockers Negar and Ashkan, who—fresh off their brief stints in prison—are frantically trying to gather their fellow bandmates to play a music festival in London. As they scramble to obtain fake passports, polish their songs, and mount a local show, Ghobadi surveys the cultural landscape: a network of cellars, attics, cowsheds, and hidden studios that provide the only available space for these musicians to indulge their illegal passions... [The rest of the post can be read at The L Magazine.]

Friday, April 2, 2010

City of Life and Death

More than anything else in cinema, films about twentieth-century atrocity heighten our awareness of what’s ethically at stake in the representation and dramatization of suffering. Writers across a wide range of disciplines continue to discuss how such subject matter has held visual media—and indeed our entire image-saturated culture—in a moral and epistemological crisis. At times this strain of philosophizing has proven tiresome, particularly in the obvious ways it yokes a discourse of melodramatic extremes (with adjectives like “unfathomable” providing the routine description of the Holocaust) to film theory’s ever-shifting, ideologically charged attitudes toward realism. Still, the topic has the power to organize artists and critics along partisan lines, pitting self-conscious avant-garde practices against seamless traditional narrative, Godard against Spielberg. It’s no surprise then that Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death has found itself embroiled in a controversy of increasingly global proportions. This big-budget epic about the Nanjing massacre has received a mixed reception not only in China, where its ambiguous political sympathies have periodically been attacked as unpatriotic, but also in the world of international cinephilia, where the atrocity film maintains its schizoid status as a prestige item, a bad object, and a testing ground for the capacities and inadequacies of art.

For viewers on the mainland, City of Life and Death is an unprecedented opportunity to see one of the most devastating episodes in the nation’s history elevated through a universalizing, readily exportable cinematic language. Much of the film’s urgency stems from its conviction, implicit in its aesthetics, that the massacre is worthy of being translated in slick Hollywood terms, and that it should be canonized as one of cinema’s great historical subjects. The process of memorializing those horrific few weeks in 1937 when over 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were exterminated has been an arduous one, since the most conservative Japanese continue to deny that it ever happened, and the PRC government has repeatedly manipulated the facts to its own political advantage. Previous Chinese and Hong Kong–produced films on the subject have been uniformly crass, though audiences have rallied around glorified exploitation flicks like T.F. Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre and Wu Ziniu’s Don’t Cry, Nanking (both from 1995), because they at least mirrored the intense feelings the massacre continues to provoke. Since the event only reached widespread international recognition in 1997, when American journalist Iris Chang published her book The Rape of Nanking, this high-class silver-screen treatment seems like one more significant step in granting the mass killings truth and legitimacy, the appearance of a commonly shared knowledge. If the major task of cinematically commemorating a past trauma is to earn it admission into popular consciousness, then Lu’s may be the first truly successful Chinese film of its kind. [The rest of the post can be found at Reverse Shot.]

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Neil Young Trunk Show

Though few aesthetic experiences are as necessarily social and participatory as concert-going, when live music is captured in that other communal art form known as cinema it is difficult for it to feel anything but awkwardly isolating. Sitting in the darkness of the theater, watching others experiencing the performance at some previous time, the concert-film viewer is always stuck on the outside, unsure whether to clap, stomp, or sing along or just watch reverently. A successful product of the genre, like 2006’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, can reduce our awareness of this chasm between ourselves and the onscreen stage, inviting us to bask in the good vibes. Or, like Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold (also released in 2006) and its new follow-up Neil Young Trunk Show, it can ignore the live audience altogether and emphasize its own meticulously designed theatricality. [The rest of the post can be read at Reverse Shot.]

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sinophilic Cinephilia: Asia Society's "China's Past, Present, Future on Film"

There are a few reasons to justify Richard Brody’s claim that Chinese filmmaking was “the crucial story in cinema of the past decade.” The astonishing output from Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing, Li Yang, Ying Liang, and other young Mainland mavericks has not only been the perfect complement to the Western media’s sensationalized narrative of an ancient, exotic civilization’s reemergence onto the world stage, but it has also functioned as an antidote to millennial death-of-cinema anxieties. Here it seemed that a national movement of filmmakers were reclaiming the moral and political commitment that had made movies a central part of American culture in the Sixties and Seventies, and that in the process they were building an aesthetic legitimacy for the digital medium that was rumored to be spelling the end of their art form. Wrap all of this up into the image of a courageous, self-jeopardizing auteur defending his art against an authoritarian regime and delivering news to the outside world about the oppression of his people, and the new Sinophilic cinephilia seems even more of an inevitability.

I don’t mean to sound willfully cynical about high-brow Western spectatorship, or to dismiss the much-praised progress of Chinese cinema as a mere marketing ploy. To my non-Mainlander eyes, the profound achievements of this latest generation of Chinese filmmakers are as fascinating as the iconicity they have acquired. I’ve certainly been complicit in heroizing a Jia or a Wang, and as much as a critic would like to maintain his cold rationality, most recognize that the excitement, sentimentality, and outright fandom that a great artist or promising new wave can inspire are the very essence of cinephilia. In the midst of all the hype, though, it helps to watch as widely as possible and keep a firm grasp on the bigger picture. This has been slightly easier to do in New York in the past year, which has seen a handful of strong film series covering both classic and contemporary PRC cinema.

Thanks to The Film Society of Lincoln Center, audiences have been treated to a small collection of recent work from independent directors like Ying Liang, Yang Jin, and the Korean-Chinese Zhang Lü (in last April’s “On the Edge: New Independent Cinema from China 2009”), as well as an unprecedented retrospective of films from the “Seventeen Years” period between the founding of the PRC and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks sidebar last September). If that didn’t satisfy your appetite, an ardent filmgoer could seek out the occasional screening at China Institute or the Asian CineVisions series at MoMA. This month, though, is a real embarrassment of riches, with MoMA’s Jia Zhangke retrospective launching this Friday (complete with short films, other rarities, and appearances by Jia and actress Zhao Tao), and Asia Society’s program of seven independent Chinese films made between 2005 to 2008. [The rest of the post can be read at The Auteurs.]

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jia Zhangke's Retrospective at MoMA

Art cinema is no less invested than Hollywood in the act of star-making. Take for example Jia Zhangke, whose career now seems marked by destiny. Charging through the 00s with a steady flow of extraordinary films, this precocious director quickly soared into the uppermost echelon of international auteurs, finally landing last year on the pages of his own New Yorker profile. The current wave of China fever has further cemented his role as the leading ambassador between his nation's underclass and the rarefied world of Western aesthetes, but reputation is a slippery thing. Since gaining approval from China's censorship board, Jia has begun to look more like a figure of the establishment, an image in conflict with that of the renegade whose earliest works were made illegally and on the cheap.

While some cry "sell-out," what of the films themselves? Jia's breakthrough came with Platform and Unknown Pleasures, two patiently observed views of hometown ennui that remain his greatest achievements. Attuning his audience to the passing of each moment, he unravels large swaths of time punctuated with signs of his characters' entrapment: the whistling of a kettle; a pair of lovers quarreling on a wall that encircles their city; a motorcycle that repeatedly breaks down. Following these first successes, The World and Still Life seem to focus and intensify Jia's gifts as a visual stylist, applying them to a broader, more boldly surrealistic canvas even as he reveals a weakness for the metaphorically obvious. The recent fiction/non-fiction hybrid 24 City is a triumph of a different order: a seemingly prosaic talking-heads doc that gives off exhilarating sparks of melodrama, allowing Jia's muse Zhao Tao to match the exquisite expressiveness of Gong Li. [The rest of the post can be read at The L Magazine.]

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Brighter Summer Day

Those of us who get easily swept up in the tender, boundless empathy of Yi Yi may find it difficult to remember (or, due to the general lack of availability of Edward Yang’s other films, may not even realize) that much of this great Taiwanese director’s career sprang from his bitter sense of irony. While Yang’s final masterpiece suggested an artist beginning to make peace with an unjust world, his other major works were made in a spirit of indignant protest against a culture he felt was actively suppressing its own history and cheating its youth. Now that the World Cinema Foundation’s newly restored print of the 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day is finally making its stateside debut as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects slate, Yang fans will get a stronger dose of the anger that only occasionally disrupted Yi Yi’s chastened world-weariness and Ozu-like tranquility. Where Yi Yi was dominated by brightly lit compositions contrasted with a handful of melancholy nighttime sequences, A Brighter Summer Day traps its audience in a permanently murky atmosphere—one that seems intended to precisely capture the political anxiety of its historical moment, but that also renders our relationship to time and space unstable.

Nothing about the film’s premise leaves room for the lightness that Yi Yi endowed its ruminations on life and death. As if A Brighter Summer Day’s four-hour length weren’t intimidating enough to the uninitiated viewer, Yang makes sure to weigh his film down from the get-go, both formally and thematically. The unusually long Chinese title makes blunt reference to the first case of juvenile homicide tried in Taiwanese history, an event that galvanized the island and upon which the film’s central plot strand is based. The first shot metaphorizes Yang’s commitment to bringing a buried history into the light, with a single bulb hanging down the center of the screen, barely illuminating the darkness of an unidentified room. Soon after, a title card appears to situate the film’s sprawling, novelistic narrative and large, mostly early-adolescent ensemble within the context of the mass migration of mainland Chinese to Taiwan, which began after the Kuomintang’s defeat in 1949. By the Sixties, a generation of young people had emerged whose only sources of security were admission to a prestigious school or alliance with a street gang.

With its sovereignty as a state held at the mercy of its various colonizers (and long denied in both the East and West), Taiwan has always been a contestable and provisional nation. It is within this marginality that Yang locates the dilemmas of a contemporary Chinese identity, one that is both liberated and imprisoned by the globalization of culture. As in a number of other important Chinese-language films, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness and Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, the shifting political landscape is communicated through bits of sound design, usually a fuzzy news broadcast placed incidental to the action. The implication is that the characters’ sociopolitical fates are as tenuous as these barely audible sounds, which ironically must travel down the same channels as the imported pop culture that the nation fanatically consumes. Here, the first instance of government-controlled media being used as a narrative device is a roll call of honor and implied humiliation, as a radio announcer robotically recites the names of students whose exam scores have earned them entry into a good school. The obsession with education that has been forced upon this society—and the accompanying illusion of Taiwan as a meritocracy—forms the basis for tragedy ahead. [The rest of the post can be read at Reverse Shot.]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blood Done Sign My Name

As the source of so many of our ideas about justice and heroism, the Civil Rights Movement would seem like an ideal subject for tough, complex filmmaking. More often than not, though, cinema has reimagined our nation's racial history as a string of misty water-colored memories, and has shown less interest in examining unhealed wounds than in immortalizing an image of one big American kumbaya. First-time director Jeb Stuart's Blood Done Sign My Name travels a similar path, opening with the requisite archival footage of hippies, James Brown, and the moon landing, and interviews of smiling North Carolinians reminiscing about the good ol' days. When it launches into the first of its multiple intertwining narratives, one would be forgiven for fearing yet another tale of valiant whites a la Atticus Finch or the FBI agents in Mississippi Burning. Based on the autobiographical recollections and research of historian Timothy Tyson, the film frames the murder of a black Vietnam veteran in Oxford, North Carolina, and the riots and legal battles it gives rise to, with a portrait of Tyson's progressive white family trying to take a strong anti-racist stance in their segregated town. [The rest of the post can be read at The L Magazine.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives

More than thirty years after Word Is Out premiered at San Francisco's Castro Theater, one of the most intriguing things about it is how clearly and drastically it has aged. Watching this pioneering gay documentary now, it's easy to view it as a barometer of how much has changed for the public perception of homosexuality in America, since the film predates the AIDS activism that galvanized the gay community in the Eighties, the post-structuralist queer theory that became academic vogue in the Nineties, and the mainstreaming of gay experience that continues to reach new heights (or lows—depending on your perspective) in the new millennium. Formally, Word Is Out is also something of a relic. Intercutting the direct-to-camera reminiscences of twenty-six gays and lesbians, it combines two modes of self-exposure—the act of coming out and the interview-based documentary—that trace their appeal to the psychoanalytic notion of a "talking cure," which has since fallen out of favor as a model for truth-telling. Understandably, the contemporary audience wants more from its queer cinema than an expression of what now seems obvious; aesthetic subversion and politically astute critique have taken precedence over earnest, tear-stained testimonies... [The rest of the post can be found at The L Magazine.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Room and a Half

The writer in exile emerged as a romantic figure over the last century, providing soundbite-ready evidence that art can be a vessel for a society's jeopardized soul. But while this collision of tortured artist and sweeping political backdrop seems like perfect fodder for many a biopic, it also risks accentuating what people hate about the genre: its tendency toward monumentalism, and its simplification of history through the lens of individual heroism. [The rest of the post can be read at The L Magazine.]