Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Come Here

Complete first draft for In Review Online.

Over the past twelve years, Anocha Suwichakornpong has developed one of the more elusive and protean bodies of work on the festival circuit. Seven years after her auspicious debut, Mundane History (2009), a destabilizing, achronological story of the burgeoning friendship between a sullen upper-class young man and the male nurse taking care of him, she made one of the most notable breakout features of the decade. 2016’s By the Time It Gets Dark begins as an examination of Thailand’s history of student resistance to dictatorship before pinwheeling off to form a dense network of embodied memories, parallel lives, and metafictions. Her next feature, Krabi, 2562, a 2019 collaboration with Ben Rivers, pared back some of these impulses in favor of a documentary hybrid dedicated to the exploration of the eponymous island. Now, with her new feature Come Here, which premieres in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Anocha has opted for what appears at first glance to be an even slighter approach, albeit one that conceals a whole host of complexities. Running a slender sixty-eight minutes (including five minutes of credits), the film principally follows a group of four theatre actors from Bangkok, who embark on a getaway to a remote forest. Their stay is almost deliberately desultory and brief, mostly spent on what looks like a floating cabin docked on a river, as they drink, sunbathe, and engage in conversations that very slowly dole out initially withheld background information. Towards the end of the film, the actors stage this journey in a black-box setup, constructing a set of the cabin and recreating their conversations and activities almost word for word. Intertwined with this is a narrative as deliberately abstruse as the main plot is straightforward, focusing on a young researcher who appears to be undergoing a similar journey as the actors. However, this trip is much more eventful and marked with a mysterious tropical malady, complete with a startling morphing effect. Such a summary doesn’t quite convey the strangeness of Come Here, and of Anocha’s approach to the material. She largely avoids intercutting of these storylines, letting them play out in discrete chunks, and storylines and even characters float in and out of their own narratives; at one point, one of the actors even pops up in the same scene as the young woman without explanation. Shooting in 1.33:1 and muted black-and-white, Anocha generally favors long shots, but her technique varies, going so far as to include a few split screens along the middle of the y-axis of the frame, which let vast swaths of trees bleed into a city landscape, or enable a projection of one of the actors in the forest to shadow an image of her sleeping in bed. That visualization of realities blending into each other helps illuminate the concealed thrust of Come Here, as does a protracted centerpiece scene where the actors imitate animals to the point of macho exhaustion. Both narratives, in their intimations of fluid identities — both performed and genuine — clashing with quotidian realities, propose the forest as a realm of possibility and mystery, where performance can allow a person to move into a baser form of existence, something which the actors try to recapture in some form back in the city. Of course, this is not a novel framework, but what distinguishes Anocha’s approach is the deliberate deemphasis of this, almost to the point of imperceptibility. This can result in a somewhat hazy, unsatisfying experience of viewing, particularly in how loosely defined the characters can feel. But Come Here certainly feels of a piece with Anocha’s previous work, particularly in how difficult it is to pin down, and how it seems to transform in the mind. The surface pleasures are certainly there, but always, whether in the wild disjunctions or unexpected aesthetic developments, there is the suggestion of something lurking just below the water.

Monday, March 1, 2021

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces

Complete first draft written for In Review Online.

At this present stage in the coronavirus pandemic, when the perception is that things are swiftly getting better both in the United States and around the world, it is no surprise that the first of presumably numerous documentaries devoted to the topic have begun to arrive. These are largely works that adhere to the common conception of documentary filmmaking as that of conveying some objective truth, of capturing moments and answering questions about how this series of calamities happened. While this can indeed result in incisive and interesting work, it is by no means the only means of engagement, especially with a topic as all-encompassing as COVID-19. To help fill that gap, there is Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, which premieres in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Her last film was the daring and compassionate Present.Perfect. (2019), which solely used footage from various Chinese livestreamers in order to capture new, developing forms of self-expression and connection for the marginalized, and with River Runs, she applies that same precision and rigor to an even more contemporary topic. Zhu herself is from Wuhan, the Chinese city where novel coronavirus was first discovered, and where the entirety of River Runs is filmed, but any preconceptions of an exposé or explainer piece are quickly dispelled with the opening sequence, comprised of seven minutes of traffic camera footage from February 8-April 4, 2020, showing the gradual progression from total lockdown to comparative bustle. This is as close as Zhu comes to showcasing a governmental response to the crisis, and indeed coronavirus/COVID-19 is never mentioned by name in the entire film. Instead, River Runs takes place in the aftermath, or what one might deem the aftershocks of such a widespread crisis. Eschewing the dominant close-ups and constant patter of her previous film, Zhu only uses extreme long shots which contain no dialogue whatsoever, filming numerous locales within Wuhan. She especially focuses on large-scale construction, towering bridges, and above all the banks of the Yangtze river, which floods near the end of the film. With a few exceptions, all of the locations are largely empty, with solitary figures dwarfed in the frame, as much a result of Zhu’s camera angles as of a general social distancing decree: in one scene a soccer match can be heard just off screen, and the players and the ball occasionally intrude at the very bottom of the frame. In what might seem like an “objective” mix of cityscapes, River Runs introduces a devastating device, presenting four letters written by Zhu and based on true stories from four grieving people, addressed to a husband, a grandmother, a father, and an older brother, respectively, all of whom died from coronavirus. These letters are presented silently, placing a line of handwritten Chinese characters on screen one at a time, each detailing the often-mundane sadness with which each person is dealing, one that extends into such mundane moments as chopping a chicken or swimming in the river. The third letter in particular is presented in a different manner, in typed-out characters, and provides such a clear purpose for the documentary — the writer was unaware of her father’s affinity for the very bridges that form such a large bulk of the construction and backdrops — that I thought that it was Zhu’s own story. While this is not the case, it goes some way in detailing the ache of the film, the emotion that infuses the lonely, decaying buildings and shores. Through it all, the rapid development that epitomizes China in the 21st century continues, and it’s entirely to Zhu’s credit that she refuses to graft on the hopelessly tangled politics of this pandemic, to lean into unthinking praise or sprawling critique. Instead, she burrows to the heart of the daily struggle, the loneliness and discomfort with which the vast majority of people have been living in this crisis. By mapping that onto the specifics of a central city and its inhabitants, River Runs charts the present state of existence with stunning, heartbreaking clarity.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Cenote

Complete first draft written for Screen Slate.

In the span of three features, Kaori Oda has established herself as one of the foremost practitioners of the kind of immersive documentary filmmaking pioneered, at least in part, by the Sensory Ethnography Lab with films like Sweetgrass and Leviathan. Her debut film, Aragane (2015), is one of the most compelling digitally-shot films of the past decade, unfolding mostly in the near-darkness of a Bosnian coal mine and transforming the setting, the workers, and the tools into a disconcerting, wondrous dance of shadows and headlamps. After 2017’s Toward a Common Tenderness, a more personal essay film, Oda’s Cenote (2019) returns to this experimental mode, albeit with significantly more accoutrements. The documentary plunges into the deep, intricate sinkholes in Mexico that give it its name; cenotes were water sources for the Mayans and believed to act as conduits between the world and the afterlife. Today, they still exert a pull on the tropical jungle communities, especially physically; since the pits possess strong, unexpected currents, many people have fallen in and drowned, accidentally or intentionally. That sense of intertwined culture and danger is central to the structure of Oda’s film. Eschewing the strictly observational stance of Aragane, Cenote moves fluidly between modes over the course of its 75 minutes. After an extended opening that features cacophonous, near-abstract flows of water, sunlight, and figures both amphibian and terrestrial, the film alternates between underwater iPhone footage, which glides through the dark channels of numerous different cenotes, and Super-8mm footage of the surrounding communities, observing festivities, cemeteries, and above all faces. Over all of this, voiceover fades in and out, freely mixing interviews with residents, recited lines from ancient Mayan poetry, and scripted lines written by Oda herself. It is well worth noting that Oda serves as cinematographer, editor, and sound designer on her films, and that goes some way in accounting for the immersiveness of her work above and beyond the purportedly minimal concept. For Cenote is in many ways a maximal film, in its sensory affect and evocation of the at-times otherworldly nature of the sinkholes. At the same time, Oda’s ultimate achievement is to situate them in a real, tangible place, in a conception of culture that still manages to accurately reflects the unique blend of happenstance, tradition, and myths that form human experience. Often eerie, sometimes placid, and always beautiful, Cenote never fails to convey the unclassifiable, ever-shifting definitions and meanings that its subject can hold, often immeasurably influenced by a camera and light pointed there, a story told there.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Life in a Day 2021 First Draft

Complete first draft written for In Review Online.

Documentaries like Life in a Day 2020 almost inherently cling with desperation to a conception of the universal. Such works insist that there is always substantial common ground that humanity shares, which is almost exclusively laudable, casting our faults as small obstacles to overcome, nothing that a little peace, love, and understanding can’t solve. In this respect, such thinking feels very much from a more optimistic time, like early 2011, when the first Life in a Day was released. The 2020 flavor is, like its predecessor, directed by Kevin Macdonald and compiled from hundreds of thousands of videos commissioned by YouTube and filmed by people around the world on the same day, July 25, 2020 (ten years and a day after the first documentary’s day of filming). Of course, much has changed in the past decade, not to mention the past year or the days and weeks leading up to July 25. But in what seems like a concerted effort by Macdonald and his editors that is at best coddling, at worst actively pernicious, the tumult of the year 2020 and the extraordinary effects of COVID-19 are minimized, only present in sporadic bursts and existing more as a momentary irritancy than as the shadow of doom that continues to hang over much of the world. Of course, some locales and nations have only been slightly hampered by the virus, but the fact remains that most of the footage, in public or otherwise, looks as if it could have been shot at any time in the last fifteen years, with only occasional masks to mark the specific moment in time that is supposed to be so paramount to this project. Even more troubling and abject is Life in a Day 2020’s construction. Aside from a few structuring threads, Macdonald is content to organize the film, like its predecessor, according to topics, often conveyed in rapid-fire montages. While these skew universal, like (the head-slappingly obvious choice to open the film with) births or graduations — side note: with the many crowded, unmasked gatherings on display, one wonders how many people must have contracted coronavirus as a direct result of the filming of this documentary — the film moves into genuinely risible territory when it tries to tackle the issues of today. Abandoned spaces and compromised methods of communication due to COVID are contained in a single montage, and the treatment of Black Lives Matter is even worse. All protest footage is relegated to a two-minute sequence, less time than what’s given to both a proud MAGA anti-mask veteran, who gloats over the lack of protests in his suburban neighborhood and pridefully shows a letter of commendation signed by former President Trump, and a gleefully vindictive traffic officer handing out tickets on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The whole notion of institutional racism is just another topic to Macdonald, something to be neatly catalogued, unexamined, and forgotten alongside food preparation or, unbelievably, a compilation of oh-so-sick drone shots. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for Life in a Day 2020’s concept to be affecting or surprising: in one of two follow-ups from the first film, a mother plays footage of her young son before moving the camera to show his urn, him having died five months before from coronavirus; a Japanese couple breaks up on camera, with the man only belatedly realizing that it wasn’t just an act for the film. But such moments are few and far between, and the effect of the montages is to flatten each individual story, subsuming almost any conception of the particulars of individuals or cultures into a banal treacle, leaving the most damning moments as soon as possible and otherwise applying its bland inspirational tone without discretion. Naturally, the film ends with a boy speculating about a future humanity where every person’s brain is connected. At this moment when we are more divided than ever, such a wholehearted endorsement of unthinking unity feels like a slap in the face.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Top 100 #100-81 12/24/20 Revision

Before: 100. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
99. Sparrow (2008, Johnnie To)
98. Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)
97. Dirty Ho (1979, Lau Kar-leung)
96. Cure (1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
95. Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)
94. Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann)
93. Two English Girls (1971, François Truffaut)
92. Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)
91. 2046 (2004, Wong Kar-wai)
90. Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)
89. The Terrorizers (1986, Edward Yang)
88. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)
87. The Rocking Horsemen (1992, Nobuhiko Obayshi)
86. A New Leaf (1971, Elaine May)
85. All My Life (1966, Bruce Baillie)
84. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks)
83. A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor)
82. Out 1: Spectre (1972, Jacques Rivette)
81. Yearning (1964, Mikio Naruse)

After: 100. The General (1926, Buster Keaton)
99. The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
98. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
97. The Terrorizers (1986, Edward Yang)
96. Out 1: Spectre (1972, Jacques Rivette)
95. Pedicab Driver (1989, Sammo Hung)
94. Two English Girls (1971, François Truffaut)
93. A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor)
92. Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)
91. Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann)
90. Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)
89. Sparrow (2008, Johnnie To)
88. The Rocking Horsemen (1992, Nobuhiko Obayshi)
87. A New Leaf (1971, Elaine May)
86. Cure (1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
85. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)
84. Dirty Ho (1979, Lau Kar-leung)
83. All My Life (1966, Bruce Baillie)
82. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks)
81. Yearning (1964, Mikio Naruse)

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Goodbye, Dragon Inn First Draft

Complete first draft written for The Film Stage.

While far better known by its English title, the appropriately elegiac Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 masterpiece bears a far different title in Mandarin (rendered here in pinyin): Bú sàn, which roughly translates to “never leaving,” or, if one prefers the Sartre connotation, “no exit.” It forms the root of two distinctly contradictory Chinese idioms, which perfectly encapsulate the lamentation and beauty of Tsai’s film: Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yán xí, which is the infamous “all good things must come to an end,” and Bù jiàn bù sàn, which basically means “even if we don’t see each other, don’t give up and leave,” or “I’m not leaving until I see you.” From its title on down, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of the greatest films in the history of cinema and which received a long-awaited restoration last year, construes itself not as the simple paen to a dying artform that it is often perceived as, but as a constellation of complex, aching desires, both wholly in keeping with Tsai’s oeuvre and standing starkly apart from it. Of course, the timing seems too on the nose, given that theaters across America remain shuttered and spectatorship in its ideal form has temporarily ceased to be. But Goodbye is, above all, a resolutely present-minded film, less concerned with the future of theatergoing than with the material longing and mystery that its inhabitants experience. A brief description is in order: Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place over the final night of operation at the Fuhe Grand Theater in the Yonghe District of Taipei — the actual theater closed before filming began — which is showing King Hu’s landmark 1967 wuxia film Dragon Inn as its last picture show, and follows a few workers and spectators as they experience both the film and the space of the theater, which is possibly haunted and suggested to be a hotbed of gay cruising. This sense of compression is notable in and of itself: the shortest of Tsai’s theatrical features at just 82 minutes, it is also the only one of his films to take place in a single day and in one setting. But what is even more striking is Tsai’s choice of central subjects: one is the theater’s ticket taker, played by Tsai regular Chen Shiang-chyi — wearing a brace on her right leg and who possesses a seemingly unrequited love for the projectionist — and the other is a Japanese tourist played by Mitamura Kiyonobu. The name missing from this list is Lee Kang-sheng, the leading man in every other one of Tsai’s features and the subject of, to put it frankly, his erotic fixations, and who here plays the projectionist, unseen until the final ten minutes of the film. In addition, though these characters are the primary foci, the key character in a scene shifts with more fluidity than any of his other films: Lee himself takes the center stage in his few scenes, along with some of the more memorable, possibly spectral denizens of the theater: a woman eating a mountain of melon seeds (Yang Kuei-mei, another Tsai regular), groups of men loosely gathered in the dark backrooms of the theater, including frequent Tsai actor Chen Chao-jung, and most significantly of all Miao Tien (who played Lee’s father in many Tsai films) and Shih Chun, two of the main actors in Dragon Inn. If Lee is the fixed subject of all of Tsai’s other films, it is surely vital that Goodbye, Dragon Inn operates without a personified center. Instead, all the erotic fixations and intense longing are transferred to totemic figures and objects: a smoldering cigarette, a makeshift hallway of cardboard boxes, and above all the space of the theater, and by extension the masterwork unspooling on its screen. Dragon Inn, and King Hu’s direction, is masterful on the precise opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Tsai’s famously static, long-take style: quick cuts, rapid tracking shots, elaborate fight choreography. But they each share a particular relationship to Taipei; for all of the universal applications of cinema’s decline that Tsai’s film invites, these are both films and filmmakers intensely interested in a Chinese identity and sense of place. Hu’s picture provides the necessary counterbalance for Goodbye’s near-wordlessness — the film contains just eleven lines of dialogue across two scenes, the first coming 44 minutes in — offering a realm where its characters can express anything, move in whatever manner they choose. Tsai’s characters have no such recourse: the ticket taker is forced to walk with a pronounced limp, and the tourist is limited by his total unfamiliarity with the building. Instead, they project their desires and greatest wishes onto both the screen and the people around them. The ticket taker’s encounter with the film, where she sees the showcase fight scene of Lingfeng Shangguan and the projected beam forms a speckled light pattern upon her face, is understandably the most famous, but even more central to Tsai’s project is the scene early on where the tourist sees Shih Chun in the audience and sits next to him. It is unclear what his intentions are as he leans in — perhaps it is to ask for a light, perhaps to inquire about his acting, perhaps for carnal reasons, or maybe it is all of the above — but what is unmistakable is the look of pure longing on his face, and the disappointment with which he gets up and leaves the auditorium as Shih stays fixated upon the screen, watching his past life live the heroics he can no longer experience. Tsai’s filmography is one of the most concrete and teleological ever created, yet his individual films rarely resolve themselves in so neat a fashion, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn is the pinnacle of this inclination. Yes, the theater is closed and its residents scattered into the rainy Taipei night, but Tsai affords his characters the barest hint of a connection, which in this context registers as the most magnanimous of gestures. And then there is the Yao Lee song “Can’t Let Go,” dubbed “an oldie from the ‘60s” by Tsai (the same decade in which Dragon Inn was released), which lingers long after the final image of the theater fades away. Both wistful and accepting, bitter and sweet, it, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn refuse to side with one feeling over the other, and instead to embrace the irresolution, the mixed emotions that resonate no matter the end result. It is all in the passing of years, the endless possibilities: though we may have lost the space that connected us, that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to find each other, in another place, at another time.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn Incomplete Draft

Incomplete draft written for The Film Stage.

The timing seems almost too on the nose, to release a restoration of one of the definitive films about the decline of cinema and moviegoing at a moment when theaters across America remain shuttered and spectatorship in its ideal form has temporarily ceased to be. But to dwell on such ideas does a disservice to the film in question: Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), one of the very greatest films in the history of cinema, which received a long-awaited restoration last year. Far from a simple paen to a dying artform, it is freighted with complexities, perspectives, and histories that I can only begin to unpack here. There is no better place to start than with Tsai — quite literally within the film, as the back of his head appears in the final shot of the opening credits of Dragon Inn, alongside prominent Taiwanese film critic Alphonse Leigh — and the place Goodbye holds in his filmography. It is probably fair to say that Goodbye, Dragon Inn is, with the possible exception of Rebels of the Neon God, the best-known film Tsai has made, and notably it is his own personal favorite; Tsai went as far as to place it on his own Sight & Sound ballot in 2012. I happen to agree with this, yet when the film is examined beyond the basest elements of aesthetic style — Tsai’s penchant for long, static shots is in full effect here — Goodbye stands out as a wholly atypical entry within his body of work. A brief description is in order: Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place over the final night of operation at the Fuhe Grand Theater in the Yonghe District of Taipei — the actual theater closed before filming began — which is showing King Hu’s landmark 1967 wuxia film Dragon Inn as its last picture show, and follows a few workers and spectators as they experience both the film and the space of the theater, which is possibly haunted and/or a hotbed of gay cruising. This sense of compression is notable in and of itself: the shortest of Tsai’s theatrical features at just 82 minutes, it is also the only one of his films to take place in both one day and in one setting; the rest sprawl out over indefinite timespans and across numerous locations, sometimes moving outside the environs of one particular city or even a stable timeframe; even 1998’s The Hole, which revolves around the interactions between upstairs/downstairs neighbors in an apartment complex, has a few trips to the grocery markets. But what is even more striking is Tsai’s choice of central subjects: one is the theater’s ticket taker, played by Tsai regular Chen Shiang-chyi — wearing a brace on her right leg and who possesses a seemingly unrequited love for the projectionist — and the other is a Japanese tourist played by Mitamura Kiyonobu. The name missing from this list is Lee Kang-sheng, the leading man in every other one of Tsai’s features and the subject of, to put it frankly, his erotic fixations — Tsai is openly gay, and Lee is straight, though the two have lived together for a number of years now — and who here plays the projectionist, unseen until the final ten minutes of the film. Kiyonobu, on the other hand, is the only lead actor in a Tsai film to not become a regular (assuming that, as hinted by the director, that Days’s Anong Houngheuangsy will become one of his regular actors going forward), and who only appeared in one film after. In addition, though these characters are the primary foci, the key character in a scene shifts with more fluidity than any of his other films: Lee himself takes the center stage in his few scenes, along with some of the more memorable, possibly spectral denizens of the theater: a woman eating a mountain of melon seeds (Yang Kuei-mei, another Tsai regular), groups of men standing in the bathroom and the dark backrooms of the back theater, including frequent Tsai actor Chen Chao-jung, and most significantly of all Miao Tien (who played Lee’s father in many Tsai films) and Shih Chun, two of the main actors in Dragon Inn. If Lee is the fixed center of all of Tsai’s other films, it is surely significant that Goodbye, Dragon Inn operates without a personified center. The closest thing the film has to a center is thus the space itself, and by extension the masterpiece unspooling on its screen. Dragon Inn, and King Hu’s direction, is masterful on the precise opposite end of the spectrum from Tsai’s aesthetic style: quick cuts, rapid tracking shots, elaborate fight choreography. But they each share a particular relationship to Taipei; for all of the universal applications of cinema’s decline, these are both films and filmmakers intensely interested in a Chinese identity and sense of place. Dragon Inn was Hu’s first film made in Taiwan, as he sought to establish his own production methods apart from the Shaw Brothers, and became a blockbuster hit, inaugurating the flowering of his almost spiritual approach to the wuxia, drawing from the rhythmic movements of his actors and the grand landscapes of nature surrounding them to suggest a transcendental potential within the historical Chinese epochs and intrigues that formed the backbones of his narratives. Tsai, by contrast, is one of the great documentarians of the evolution of a city, with the majority of his films taking place within a slowly developing Taipei. His filmography is perhaps the most narratively cohesive of any non-franchise filmmaker, with each feature conceivably forming another chapter in the life of Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) as he grows up and grows old. Lee is the linchpin for Tsai’s oeuvre, and no other actor has been so intently, even fetishistically filmed by a single director over such an extended period, as Tsai maps his own longing and loneliness onto that of Kang’s. Without Kang as the central presence, Tsai seems to invest that same tortured eroticism into every facet of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as every single character seems to evince multiple strands of desire, each of which are embodied much more than spoken: the film contains just eleven lines of dialogue across two scenes, the first coming 44 minutes into the film. But