A Chinese Ghost Story (Sien nui yau wan, 1987)

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

This was one of the first Hong Kong movies I saw, and that was in a theater, although it would’ve been in the ’90s sometime. I’ve seen it on home video at least a couple of times since then, but it’s interesting to come back to it specifically as part of an exploration of Tsui Hark’s filmography. Most people, I think, including myself, see the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy as Tsui Hark films, even though they were directed by Ching Siu Tung and only produced (and in only one case written) by Tsui. What drives this impression? Does Ching contribute anything of his own?

Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films discerns Ching’s sensibility in “a delicate, but fervent romantic streak,” which he finds in later Ching directorial efforts such as The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Certainly the romantic element in A Chinese Ghost Story is much more pronounced and much more earnest than any of Tsui’s earlier action films, but no more so than that of Tsui’s romantic comedy Shanghai Blues (1984). I also feel Heath undermines his case by attributing all kinds of things in A Chinese Ghost Story to Ching that aren’t evident in any of the other directorial efforts of his I’ve seen. What’s left is the way that Ching choreographs action sequences, which fits right into Tsui’s preferences for exaggerated, superhuman defiance of gravity and nonstop whirligig motion. In the end it seems as though Ching and Tsui were greatly in synch as collaborators, but the exact nature of their working relationship is still a subject for more research.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

Of course there’s also the question of how much of the film’s sensibility is a reflection of general trends in the Hong Kong film industry at the time. The combination of horror, comedy, and martial arts had already been well-established by films such as Sammo Hung’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980), Yuen Woo Ping’s The Miracle Fighters (1982), and especially Ricky Lau’s big hit, Mr. Vampire (1985). (Wu Man, who plays the Taoist priest-warrior pictured above, is said to have directed one of the best of these martial arts horror comedy films, The Dead and the Deadly, but I haven’t seen it yet.) From a genre standpoint the thing that A Chinese Ghost Story adds to this familiar mix is romance, music (especially Wu Ma’s goofy, exuberant paean to the Tao), and more deeply realized fantasy elements that at times make the film play like a sword-and-sorcery epic. The imaginative special-effects-driven fantasy aspect builds on Tsui’s work on Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and since the romantic ghost story is a throwback to earlier Hong Kong films such as The Enchanting Shadow (1960), which is a based on the same story by Pu Songling as A Chinese Ghost Story, it’s the fantastic, secondary-world quality of the film that is perhaps its most original and influential contribution to the local film industry.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

If I found the slapstick humor in Zu less tiresome on my most recent viewing, I found the slapstick humor in A Chinese Ghost Story more tiresome than before. Or maybe it’s not the slapstick, because the way the stumbling and bumbling of the scholar keeps him out of danger is still pretty damned funny and clever. Rather it’s the scenes in the nearby village with the two cops chasing everybody who moves and the corrupt judge (played by the shlock producer-director Wong Jing, which I hadn’t noticed before) that failed to amuse. The courtroom scene at least pays off with the revelation that the corrupt officials have actually somehow arrested the right guy for once, but as satires of bureaucracy go this seems like pretty thin stuff.

One criticism I’ve seen of the film is its depiction of gender and sexuality. The tree demon is presented as both male and female, at least vocally, and a number of commentators have pointed out that in Chinese films characters without a sexuality (as in the eunuchs of many a wuxia movie) or with dual gender (cf also The Bride with White Hair) are depicted as both powerful and evil. As Peter Nepstad says in his review at The Illuminated Lantern, “Being on the border of Yin and Yang also is said to infuse a person with great power, having the abilities of both man and woman yet being enslaved by the passions of neither.” The dual gender of the tree demon had always struck me as an interesting piece of gender-bending, as seen in other Tsui Hark films, but now it seems like more of a traditional Chinese stereotype. It’s your bog standard hermaphroditic spawn of hell.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

Perhaps more tendentiously Daisy Ng Sheung-Yuen at This Century’s Review seeks to “problematize the naturalized, unreflective representation of desire and sexuality” that she finds in A Chinese Ghost Story. “The popularity of the costume ghost genre may be seen as a reflection of our dream of possessing ageless beauty and never-ending love, and yet projected on the phantasmagoric screen are also fears of gender ambiguity and transgression as well as confused and contradictory feelings towards body and sexuality.” I confess that I’m a sucker for the tragic romance in this film, but I take her point about how carnal sex is associated with grotesque death at the hands — or rather the writhing, slobbering tongue — of the demon. The scholar and the ghost do have sex in the film, but they’re punished for it. True love apparently can only be an ethereal yearning from a distance. Well, what can I say, it’s the story of my life.

If this seems like a Tsui Hark film, it’s because of the frenetic action, the effects-driven fantasy, the visually arresting (or at least eccentric) compositions, and the way it can move from goofy comedy to poignant melodrama without missing a beat. When I first saw it (and A Chinese Ghost Story II, which I actually saw first), it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before in the way it blended and bended genre. Now it seems more conventional, especially compared to some of Tsui’s other films, such as Peking Opera Blues. Even so, it succeeds hugely at its crowd-pleasing, tradition-updating task. The hardcore Tsui fan can always blame the conventionality on Ching Siu Tung.

Screencap from A Chinese Ghost Story

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Poster for Mad Max: Fury Road

It really does feel like George Miller spent the last 30 years elaborating the world of the Mad Max series in his head, deepening, broadening, and at the same time condensing his vision of the post-apocalyptic desert society of the second two movies. (The first movie takes place before the apocalypse.) The sheer wealth of detail and design is stunning, at least on a visual level. In fact, much of the world-building is only presented visually and left to us to interpret. As for condensing, I have in mind the sort of reductionist or mythological approach of creating separate enclaves that control water, gas, and bullets, which isn’t really the way the world works but does a wonderful job of communicating what’s important in this story. And for broadening, we only have to look at the increased role of women in this film, which builds on the precedent set by Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in the third film of the series.

It’s been a long time since I watched Beyond Thunderdome (1985), so I don’t actually remember much about it, but I did watch most of Road Warrior (1981) again last week and was reminded that one of the things Miller does that makes these films feel unique in the post-apocalyptic genre is show sympathy for the bad guys. This is another way in which Fury Road feels like the earlier films on steroids, because not only does it take us deep into the society of the warlord society that presents a grievous problem to the protagonists, allowing us to see the logic of the horrible things they’re doing, it goes one step further by giving us a character, Nux, who believes in the heroic warrior ethic of the clan but gradually grows to understand the perspective of the rebels too. While some of Nux’s path through the story seems a little too literally touchy-feely at times, he provides a vivid human face for the monstrous behavior of the followers of the warlord Immortan Joe. Whereas Road Warrior gives us bad guys with feelings, Fury Road gives us bad guys with beliefs. It lends depth to the conflict that’s so viscerally depicted in physical terms as well.

The most controversial aspect of the film seems to be the relegation of Tom Hardy’s titular Max to a slightly secondary role, and the elevation thereby of Charlize Theron’s (also titular?) character, Imperator Furiosa. I have to say that Max did strike me as a slightly unfocused character in this story. His opening monologue distills his motivation down to a pure survival reflex, but of course the story complicates the picture. This is not completely unlike Max’s character arc in Road Warrior, but in that one his reasons for collaborating with others were masked behind more utilitarian motives. Max’s motives in Fury Road are perhaps a bit obscure.

Imperator Furiosa is a great character, and on first blush seems like an improvement over Aunty Entity. (I really do need to revisit Beyond Thunderdome at some point.) She’s bad ass, but she’s not one-dimensional. Again, as with Nux, some of her path through the story veers into pathetic territory, but over all she’s the glue that binds survival and compassion together. It’s true that Max’s agenda is subservient to hers, but I’d say that within the logic of the story it makes sense for him to serve her interests. It’ll take another viewing to see if Miller’s intent was actually to use audience expectations as a weight to leverage in an effort to build her character up and thus to challenge some of our ingrained biases about who and what matters in this kind of post-apocalyptic narrative.

Does this narrative judo actually upend the dominant paradigm? I’m skeptical, and I’m treating the claims that this is a feminist story with skepticism as well. What’s true, however, is that Miller gives us a variety of female characters, and Furiosa isn’t the only one that’s played against cinematic expectations. The slave-breeder girls are all played by skinny models and presented as standard cinematic hotties, so Miller seems once again to be teasing us into leaping the wrong way. Likewise a scene with a naked beauty that adroitly denies us any view of the body. More questionable, to my mind, is the traditional association of women with nurturing and agriculture. Then again, one of the ways that Max’s character is portrayed differently from earlier versions involves an act of healing. I’m left with many intriguing questions, and that’s a good thing for a movie to leave you with.

Oh yeah, and Fury Road is fabulous as a brutal, gearhead chase movie. The vehicle, weapon, and flamboyant costume designs are amongst the things that 30 years have given Miller and his team time to elaborate in the most fantastic ways. The action sequences, which probably make up two-thirds of the story, leave everybody else in the dust, just like Road Warrior did in 1981. Miller has topped his already high standard on that front, and as in the earlier Mad Max films the amazing action works in the service of some thoughtful, if largely mythological, world-building and some complicated genre characters.

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Snow on the Blades (Zakurozaka no adauchi, 2014)

Poster for Snow on the Blades

Well, it’s time once again for the Seattle International Film Festival, and so I journeyed to the Egyptian on Saturday to see this samurai film. The director, Setsurô Wakamatsu, was in attendance, and in his introductory remarks he said that the samurai film has diminished in popularity in Japan and that he was trying to do something different with the form. His 2009 samurai film, The Unbroken, won the Japanese equivalent of an Oscar for Best Film.

I’m not a huge expert on the samurai genre, but Snow on the Blades did strike me as different from the other ones I’ve seen. Visually, it reminded me at times of Ôshima’s snowy Taboo (1999), but the story didn’t. The time frame jumps backward and forward between 1860 and 1873. In 1860 the shogun has agreed, under threat of American bombardment, to open Japan to international trade. His top adviser, who pushed for the deal, is assassinated by a clan that opposes the treaty. The samurai who was in charge of security during the assassination is not allowed to commit honorable suicide and is charged instead with finding and killing all the assassins. In 1873 all but one of the assassins has been killed.

What’s unusual about the film is that it doesn’t focus on the killing. There are two action set pieces, but other than that the film is, as Wakamatsu said, a quiet one. Instead we get a portrayal of the roiling changes Japan underwent after 1860, from Edo becoming Tokyo, everybody adopting Western clothing, and the code of the samurai being supplanted by new laws. So while we do get a fairly typical treatment of samurai loyalty in the form of the protagonist, Shimura Kingo, who sticks with his orders through thirteen difficult years, his loyalty is mostly communicated via the changing mores around him.

Another unusual aspect of the film, to my eyes, is the amount of attention it gives to women and families, particularly to Shimura’s wife, Setsu, who supports him by working through this entire period. There are two other female characters who also have fairly major roles, and one of them belongs to a group of neighborhood women whom we regularly see exchanging gossip and food at the water well. Miike’s Hara-Kiri gave us a dose of the suffering wife of the samuri, but Snow on the Blades gives a broader view of women’s life and the social role they play.

I had mixed feelings about how all this played on the screen. “I hope it’s not so quiet that you fall asleep,” Wakamatsu quipped through an interpreter, and the quietness didn’t bother me. But it did feel a bit genteel and worthy over all. A bit nice. Which is funny, because I often find samurai films too grim and gloomy. So you give me a feel-good samurai movie, and still I complain? Some people are never satisfied, I guess. Still, despite feeling slightly underwhelmed, I did enjoy the lesson in Japanese history and the unusual take on the meaning of loyalty.

Coming out of the theater it struck me that what was different about Snow on the Blades was that it was a male melodrama, where melodrama is seen as stories about people (usually women) who are trapped by their social roles. However, on further thought I wondered if that isn’t almost always what samurai films are: Stories about men trapped in the social roles created by the samurai code. What’s unusual about Snow on the Blades is how it resolves the contradiction between social expectation and individual desire.

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Sternberg and Sade

‘But [Sade’s] great women, Juliette, Clairwell, the Princess Borghese, Catherine the Great of Russia, Charlotte of Naples, are even more cruel still since, once they have tasted power, once they know how to use their sexuality as an instrument of aggression, they use it to extract vengeance for the humiliations they were forced to endure as the passive objects of the sexual energy of others.’ (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman)

Screencap from The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

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Peking Opera Blues (Do ma daan, 1986)

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Getting back into the filmography of Tsui Hark reminds me how little I know about China and Chinese cinema. Peking Opera Blues is a film I’ve long considered my favorite by Tsui, as many others do, but watching it again for the first time in years I was struck by how little I understood what was going on in it. It’s aimed at an audience that’s assumed to understand the historical background, it’s frenetically fast-paced, so you have to grasp exposition quickly, and the English subtitles on the Hong Kong DVD I have are so horribly mangled that it’s often difficult to tell what the hell they are trying to say. The wonder of the film is that it works as a kind of pure cinema even when you aren’t really following the story.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues POB-still 18 Tsao Wan Shoots

So I’ve been reading about the movie. Most commentators point out the connections between Peking Opera Blues and Shanghai Blues, which is another musical comedy starring the actress Sally Yeh. Tsui apparently at one point intended to make a third “Blues” movie to make a loose trilogy, but one of the interesting aspects of this idea is that the blues are only referred to in the English titles of the movies. The Cantonese titles have no shared elements, so on that level the trilogy idea is more conceptual, or perhaps more generic in the sense that both films are musicals. The Cantonese title of Shanghai Blues is translated as Shanghai Nights, which is the name of the song written by the male protagonist in a popular style associated with the Shanghai music industry. But aside from the musical-comedy genre, another thing the two films share is an ironic ending in which the triumphant protagonists depart their respective cities not realizing that history is about to turn China upside down once again.

Even having read up on the political elements of Peking Opera Blues, there are still a few things that are unclear to me. The action is set in Beijing in 1913, two years after the Xinhai Revolution that replaced the Qing Dynasty with the Republic of China. The leader of the republic is Yuan Shikai, who would eventually abandon democracy and declare himself the new emperor of China. In the film, the new Republic of China is already torn between various warlords, represented in the story by General Tun, who is in control of Beijing in the first scene, and General Tsao, who replaces Tun when he’s forced to flee the city. General Tsao’s daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), is a secret revolutionary in the cause of democracy, looking to hook up with other revolutionaries in the city.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

What’s still unclear to me is that the revolutionaries are said to represent a democratic government in the south of China, and I’m not sure what that political entity was or what its fate was. General Tsao is colluding with Western powers to undermine democracy in China, and many commentators see in this aspect of the story Tsui’s sly commentary on the politics around the Hong Kong handover agreement between the United Kingdom and the PRC. How the history of the 1911 revolution fed into the future struggle between the Communists and the Kuomintang is another thing I’m unclear about. Is the Republic of China in this film the same one that ended up taking over Taiwan when the Communists took over mainland China?

If anything, the Peking opera references are even harder to sort out than the political background. It’s pretty easy to figure out that, like the Elizabethan theater, women were not allowed to perform in Peking opera and men played the female roles in the operas. We get that from the fact that Sally Yeh’s character, Bai Niu (Pat Nell in the DVD subtitles), yearns to perform on stage but is prevented from doing so by her father, who tells us his troupe would be banned if he allowed it. But what of the specific operas that the troupe perform in the course of the film? Do they comment on the action? Some critics find significance in the fact that the opera performed in the finale is The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, in which eight Taoist immortals get drunk and try to cross the sea, but are stopped when they make fun of the Goldfish Fairy, who beats them until they apologize. Tsao Wan plays the Goldfish Fairy in the brief excerpt we see in the movie, so apparently the allegory is that the Immortals are the warlords who insult the Democracy Fairy? I’m still not clear on all that.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

And what of the Cantonese title of the film, Do ma daan, which refers to a role in the operas commonly translated as Knife Horse Actresses? What I haven’t been able to figure out is whether that’s a category of female warrior characters or whether it’s a specific female warrior character in a specific opera. The plural “actresses” would seem to imply the former. Bai Niu plays a spear-wielding warrior on horseback in her first opera appearance — a character that’s then duplicated to everyone’s consternation and amusement when Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung) cluelessly appears on stage in the same costume — but is that the character Do ma daan or just an example of such a character? Whatever the case, the resonance of the title is that all three female leads are playing a kind of female warrior in the film we are watching.

Peking Opera Blues is rife with gender play, developing even further the interest in strong female characters that Tsui exhibited in his earlier movies. It’s not just that the three women are the protagonists and drive the plot, but it’s also the way that several of the men are cast in either feminized or homosexual roles. So we have men playing women on stage, and many of those men are stereotypically effeminate off stage. That aspect of the gender play feels at least slightly retrograde to me, but Tsui complicates even this by having Liu, the commander of the police (called Ticketing Agents for some bizarre reason in the DVD subtitles), fall in love with the Fa, who is the lead actor playing a female character for the opera troupe. Liu is a sadistic bastard, but his love for Fa seems genuine, or at least earnest. No doubt Tsui is having way too much fun when he has his female protagonists playing women playing men playing women on the stage.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

It’s curious to me, however, that in his own comments Tsui says he feels his approach to female characters was intended to correct the traditional Chinese approach. It most likely reflects my own cultural ignorance, but from what I’ve seen Tsui was, at least in his wuxia films, returning women to the central roles they’d had in ’60s films such as The Jade Bow and Come Drink with Me, after a period in which directors like Chang Cheh had pushed female characters to the side. It could be that I’m misunderstanding Tsui’s comments and that what he’s really talking about is the traditional approach as seen in Peking operas. He talks about how there was some resistance to treating these classical female characters in a comical way.

One of the fun things Tsui does update is the wuxia conceit of the woman who disguises herself as a man, as in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. Here Tsao Wan is always dressed in contemporary male clothing, with Brigitte Lin cutting a very dashing figure in a dinner jacket or military uniform and overcoat. The difference is that Tsao Wan is not trying to disguise herself as a man, but rather, as she explains, just finds that she is treated more respectfully by both genders if she dresses that way. It’s a feminist point that’s treated as completely natural, but it’s an odd enough detail that I was never completely sure, until digging further into the commentary, whether some of the other characters perceived her as male. The gender pronouns in the subtitles are malleable enough that they were confusing on that point as well.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Tsui describes the three women as representing “the Chinese mentality … . One is an adventurer, one is an artist, and one is a businesswoman.” Describing Sheung Hung as a businesswoman is a little strange, because she’s basically a thief, but I suppose the general point is that she’s materialistic and acquisitive. (Stephen Teo, in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions says she’s a sing-song girl, which is a kind of courtesan or concubine, but while that fits with the opening scene and maybe also the later fake-seduction of the general, Teo is the only critic I’ve seen characterize her that way.) What’s more interesting is the point Kozo makes at Love HK Film that Bai Nui — the artist — is the truly selfless one of the three. She risks her life and her father’s opera business to help the revolutionaries, and she does it for friendship rather than political idealism. The political idealist, Tsao Wan, is in fact initially indifferent to the fates of her new friends, which is perhaps why Tsui refers to her as an adventurer. It’s no surprise that the materialistic Sheung Hung doesn’t exhibit loyalty initially either, but on the other hand Bai Nui’s selflessness is perhaps a bit self-congratulatory on Tsui’s part, since the opera players are pretty obvious stand-ins for the film-makers.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

The nuances of these characters is what gives the story much of its complexity, and their coming back together after turning away from each other is what provides the emotional climax of the film. It’s much the same theme as Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, with Tsui exhorting his Chinese audience to find ways to unify despite their different agendas and different mentalities. But this film is more cynical than Zu, because the unified action that leads to the satisfying resolution of the plot is quickly undercut when we learn that the actions of the democratic revolutionaries had no effect at all on Chinese history. Tsao Wan’s victory in this film is an empty one.

Or so I’ve learned from reading about it. The DVD, for whatever reason, leaves off the end cards explaining the fates of the characters, just as it leaves off the opening cards explaining the historical setting. (I’ve seen Peking Opera Blues once in the theater, so I probably did see the explanatory cards in that version.) As an emotional experience, the movie works fine without the ironic historical note, and it’s actually possible to see Tsui’s cynicism here as a mask for a pointed reminder that the forces of democracy in China still need to find a way to pull together. Certainly it’s hard to ignore the enthusiastic charge the film delivers via its hyperkinetic action and goofy humor. Whether you believe in political change or not, it’s hard to see this as a tragic story. Tragic-comic perhaps, but mostly comic despite the acknowledgement of mortality and the nightmare of history. What fools these mortals be, but fools are, after all, figures of comedy.

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

Screencap from Peking Opera Blues

On that optimistic note, what better way to end this than to refer you to Peking Opera Blues: Pure Delirium, which is not only the source of most of the screencaps I’ve used here, and not just a celebration of the film’s joyous delirium and great artistry, but is also an amazing personal testimony about how Peking Opera Blues changed one person’s life. For reals. It’s an extremely moving piece of writing about moving pictures, featuring personal appearances by Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh. Film writing doesn’t get much better than this.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from 42nd Street

42nd Street (1933)
[Via DVD Beaver.]

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Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Poster for Clouds of Sils Maria

Despite the fact that French director Olivier Assayas has made two of my favorite contemporary movies — Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002) — I haven’t gotten very deep into his filmography. The only other of his films I’ve seen are Boarding Gate (2007) and Summer Hours (2008). Considering my viewing habits, it’s unsurprising that the first three of those are genre flirtations, while Summer Hours is more of an arty family drama and not a film that made much of an impression on me. Clouds of Sils Maria shares some of Irma Vep‘s global, metacinematic quality, but in the end it felt a lot more like the tastefully airless Summer Hours.

I really liked the first hour of Clouds of Sils Maria, which gives us a complex, elliptical introduction to the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), who are traveling to Zurich for an awards ceremony for Maria’s old playwright-mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, when it’s announced that Wilhelm has died suddenly. We are immersed in Maria’s life, both professional and personal, and her history as well, and I loved how the information was fed to us in little bursts of different kinds of communication and the way that Assayas would often cut away on unusual beats, creating an interesting feeling of reticence and mystery and things unexpressed. There’s a bustling, bristling feeling, as we follow these characters hurtling toward a mournful future in their sleek train, while wrestling with thorny feelings about friends, lovers, spouses, and colleagues.

The second half of the film is more focused on Maria and Val and on Maria’s preparation to take the older woman’s role in Melchior’s play, The Maloja Snake, that she made her name on twenty years before playing the younger woman’s role. Maria’s insecurities about herself and fears that her star is falling come to the fore, and perhaps this dwelling on unhappy feelings is why I didn’t like the second half as much. But part of the problem, I think, is that there’s a fair bit of sparring between Maria and Val, and it suffers from the fact that Val is a cypher. Who is she? How did she get the job as Maria’s personal assistant? What are her own aspirations? Val is a cypher, so her arguments with Maria about interpretations of the play’s characters or about whether superhero movies have a serious point to make feel abstract. She represents Youth, but Maria is not Maturity. She’s a specific character with lots of interesting rough edges. I liked aspects of this second half, but it was ultimately frustrating.

Then there’s an epilogue that felt completely off-track to me. If there’s a focus, it’s shifted to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who plays the actress playing the younger role in the The Maloja Snake. She’s the hot young star hounded by personal problems and paparazzi, and somehow, despite the fact that she’s a more fully-fleshed in terms of her background and aspirations, she’s even less of a character than Val. I don’t know. The epilogue just really felt banal to me.

I guess in the end I didn’t know what this one was about. Time, aging, memory, stardom, fame, scandal, insecurity, art, populism, industry. It touches on a lot of interesting subjects, and it comes at them from some interesting angles. I actually did like it better than Summer Hours, which never engaged me at all, despite some great acting and a beautiful setting. The setting of this one in the Swiss Alps is also very beautiful in a classical way, often looking very painterly. At times it has an interesting post-modern collage feel, as we get bits of silent film spliced in and bits of the play as well, both rehearsed and performed. Sometimes the play about the unhappy relationship between an older woman and a younger woman seems to be commenting on Maria and Val as they rehearse the play, which gives the film a meta quality that felt very heady. Maybe my reaction against the second half is in fact reactionary. The wounding arguments between Val and Maria are melodramatic, and I can still have a knee-jerk response to melodrama. Maybe a feeling of dissatisfaction is what the film is all about. Maria Enders is a middle-aged actress who is being inexorably superseded by a flashy young idiot. Val is the young nobody being treated as a punching bag by the unhappy older woman. They are both trapped in roles they hate.

The title of the film refers to a cloud phenomena in that region of Switzerland. The river of cloud that sometimes pours through the valley is also known as the Maloja Snake. Maria and Val fail to see it, because they are so busy feeling unhappy with each other. Maybe that’s the simple point of this complex movie. They’ve seen it mediated through film, but when they have the chance to see it with their own eyes, they’re consumed by their grievances instead.

 

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Cul-De-Sac (1966)

Screencap from Cul-De-Sac

Cul-De-Sac is similar to Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, in that it’s an offbeat character study of a couple whose relationship is put under stress by the intrusion of a strange man. The stakes are upped, however, by the fact that the intrusive man is accompanied at first by his brother, while the hostage scenarios is interrupted by the visit of a number of acquaintances of the couple. In short, there are more variables in the dramatic equation, allowing Polanski a broader social scope for his satire. Another similarity with Knife in the Water is the setting, with water all around and grassland ashore, although in this case the key location is an island rather than a boat. Perhaps Polanski has a thing for waterside grasslands, because I seem to recall similar terrain in The Ghost Writer (2010) as well, although in that one the situation is reversed: a troubled couple disrupt the life of an isolated man.

Screencap from Cul-De-Sace

The set-up is that two gangsters have botched a job (I don’t think we ever learn what the job was) and have both been shot, one of them badly. They have fled to Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast, and there they invade a castle inhabited by a retired English businessman (Donald Pleasance) and his young French wife (Francoise Dorleac). Right away we learn that the wife is having a dalliance with the neighbors’ son, and for that matter we learn that the least-injured gangster, Richard, is a bit of a dunce. The husband is an ineffectual wimp who is treated with open contempt by his wife. At first the invasion of the gangster only heightens the tensions between the couple, but gradually the relationship between the couple and Richard get extremely complicated.

Screencap from Cul-De-Sac

Polanski specializes in unpleasant characters, and none of these people ever really gains our sympathy, although they may rise and fall in our estimation. My four word précis on this film is: unpleasant people acting weirdly. As always, Polanski’s visual compositions are amazing, creating a profound sense of isolation and alienation. He keeps us off-balance with the unusual way he works out the scenario, playing against genre and turning a thriller situation into something like a deranged comedy of manners. Allegiances shift and dissolve and mutate, and that’s interesting for a while. On a first take, however, it got less interesting as the situation descends into climactic chaos and spins apart. On the other hand, the one word punchline delivered by the husband in the final shot seemed almost Rosebud-level poignant. By that time I’d lost patience with the monkeying around and gyrations of the characters, but maybe the structure would work better for me on a second exposure.

I got a little hint of Buñuel at times, both in the black and white photography and in the sense of black social satire mutating into non sequitur symbolism. Lots of chickens and eggs, I’ve gotta say. Waiting for Godot to hatch.

Screencap from Cul-De-Sac

[Screencaps taken from Strade Perduta.]

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Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Xin shu shan jian ke, 1983)

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I first saw this Tsui Hark film a few years before I did a deep dive into Hong Kong cinema, and I watched it again at least one time after that. My take from those viewings was that it had some striking imagery and some fascinating female characters (I was particularly struck, for some reason, by the the Countess’ lieutenant, played fiercely by Hsia Kwan Li), but the narrative was practically incoherent to me, the humor too adolescent, and the finale too comicbooky. Coming back to it again many years later and having seen a lot more wuxia films in the meantime, the plot now makes a lot more sense to me, and things like the adolescent humor and comic book influence seem less pernicious. Its reputation is largely based on its innovative attempt to use Western-blockbuster style special effects in a wuxia story, but there are large claims made for its political perspective too.

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The political commentary that critics find in the film hits the ground running, as the action opens in a classic wuxia setting of conflict and civil war between multiple color-coded clans. Yuen Biao is a soldier in one clan who is given contradicting orders by two different commanders, who both order him killed when he can’t decide between the two. The analog with a divided and paralyzed China seems pretty straightforward. What I hadn’t really picked up on before is that once the exiled Yuen reaches the mythical Zu mountain and meets the swordsman who will become his master, the swordsman immediately confronts a monk who is also battling evil on the mountain, and the two masters fall into conflict. The political divisions thus extend even into the realm of the enlightened or superior men. The divisions only increase once the men enter the fortress of the powerful Countess, whose army of female guards insist that the Countess will only heal the poisoned monk if arbitrary fate decrees it. There are no alliances here, only power and prerogatives. Everybody views everybody else with distrust, and evil grows in the fractures between political groups.

Unfortunately I think a lot of this fairly sophisticated politics is more or less thrown out the window in the end when Yuen and the monk’s disciple shrug off the conflicts of the older generation and find a literal unification of will in order to wield the Twin Swords against Evil. This is an especially comicbooky approach to problems of power, and it doesn’t help that it’s depicted with some of the film’s cheesiest special effects. The generational aspect is interesting, however, and there’s still a bit of punk attitude in the younger men’s criticism of their elders’ failings. One of the appeals of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain is its brash, punk attitude.

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Another thing I hadn’t picked up on before is the element of parody or metafiction in the film.This is most evident in a couple of passing jokes on color schemes, the first early on when Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, who are from two warring clans but who decide the fight is stupid and, when they run into more color coded clans wanting to fight, make a knowing crack about how at least the colors make it easy to identify which clan is which. Later when Yuen, the monk’s disciple, and one of the Countess’ soldiers find a demi-god named Heaven’s Blade who guards the border of evil, the demi-god makes a joke about how everybody knows you can tell who’s good and who’s evil by whether they’re wearing black and white. As in the other films by Tsui that I’ve been viewing lately, there are a lot of tonal shifts in the film, and these kinds of mocking self-references don’t prevent him from earnestly depicting standard genre fare such as super swords or sneering demons. Tsui is able to play the genre elements to the hilt while mocking them at the same time, although maybe the mockery does undercut any attempts at a typical tragic-heroic wuxia sensibility, such as in the Countess’ self-sacrifice in the name of love.

More disruptive of the serious vein of the film, to my sensibility, is the depiction of evil as, well, Evil. The forces fighting on the side of good are actually fragmented and conflicted in interesting ways, but the demonic forces are pretty much straight up pure Evil, as far as I can tell. The moral of the story is that the forces on the side of good need to get their ship in order or the forces of evil will win, but one side effect is that the demonic characters are basically one-note and dull. Not that Tsui doesn’t find some fun and interesting ways to depict them visually, but the one-dimensional approach to the problem of evil undercuts any serious moral point Tsui might be trying to make. This is a problem with a lot of genre fantasy stories, but then again it may also indicate that the film was primarily aimed at adolescents.

There are signs of more interesting films to come, and as so often in these early Tsui films the main thing is the way he handles the female characters. From the very first time I saw this film, which I believe was before I knew who she was, I was riveted by the appearance of Brigitte Lin as the Countess/Ice Queen. The story really cranks up a notch when the boys enter the Countess’ magnificently ornamental fortress. Lin is always a great screen presence, and her thinly-drawn character benefits from her ability to project enormous poise, reserve, and grace — the latter of which is underlined with the curlicues of the diaphanous shawl that she swirls around herself like a banner. Not to mention the lovely curl of hair decorating her cheek. As I mentioned earlier, Hsia Kwan Li also made a powerful impression on me in what is a traditional wuxia role of the fierce, scowling warrior woman. Her only focus in life is the safety of the Countess — unlike the Countess, who allows herself to be distracted by a man, which is also the case of Moon Lee’s soldier character.

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Lee’s Mu Sang is a character I originally didn’t think much of because she’s introduced with some silly, slapstick-level scenes in which she tries in various ways to humiliate the two boy disciples. These are actually the low comedy version of what Hsia Kwan Lee is doing: exerting control over the men who intrude into the women’s well-regulated domain. When the fortress is destroyed by the rapidly expanding forces of evil, Mu Sang makes common cause with the two boys in their disgust with the disunity of their elders. They become a heroic trio on a quest into the evil zone, trying to save the day. Ultimately she’s left behind to deal with a world turned upside down while the boys fly off to wield the Twin Swords, but they can only do so under the guidance of yet another powerful goddess figure, Li I Chi, who we were told in a blip of exposition earlier stole the Twin Swords from one of the male gods in order to study how they work. She’s the one who teaches the boys how to unify their wills.

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So Zu features four major female characters who are still secondary to the boys but point the way to the powerful, central female characters in such films as Peking Opera Blues and Green Snake. Tsui would give Brigitte Lin some of her greatest roles.

Well, there are a lot of great touches in Zu, despite all its flaws, and the monkish bare feet of the Countess and her army are just one. It flies along at breakneck speed, apparently cramming quite a bit of Lee Sau-Man’s huge serial novel into just over 95 minutes. Hm, I’ve just discovered that there’s a longer “international” cut of the film, although it’s still only 112 minutes. Which reminds me that it’s just a shame that Tsui’s films aren’t being better cared for in their representation on home video, and from what I’ve read aren’t well-preserved on film either. My DVD is an old non-anamorphic release from Hong Kong’s Universe label, and I can’t see that there’s been any release of it since then. Can that really be true? Why aren’t his films being lovingly restored and presented in deluxe editions? Perhaps because he’s still largely viewed as a showman who makes entertainments and spectacles, or because the Hong Kong film industry has long considered films to be a disposable product. Maybe in the case of Zu, it’s because it was a box office flop. But it’s gained at least a cult reputation since then, so the neglect makes no sense to me. Who wouldn’t want to see a nice restoration of Brigitte Lin’s divine feet?

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Deuce Ex Machina

Screencap from Ex Machina

Okay, I’ve seen Ex Machina a second time, and I have thoughts about it that will include MAJOR SPOILERS. WE ARE TALKING TOTALLY SPOILERIFIC.

So I thought the movie played really well the second time through. All the mind games work just fine even when you know what’s going to happen, which means their success isn’t completely reliant on their trickiness. The mind games are telling us something about the nature of intelligence and consciousness that are key to the story of artificial intelligence. I also caught some things I hadn’t noticed the first time through, perhaps most importantly Ava’s line to Nathan, “How does it feel to have created something that hates you?”, which seems to echo off the earlier exchange between Caleb and Nathan about the creation of machine intelligence being the work of a god. The other big thing I caught was that in the very final scene Ava does exactly what she told Caleb she’d do if she got out into the world: she visits a busy intersection.

Puzzles or mysteries remain, however, including the mystery around the character of Kyoko. Was she part of the development that led up to Ava, or was she created purely as a servant and sexual companion? Does she really not understand English? What language is Ava using with her at the end? Kyoko clearly has some subjective sense of herself and some understanding of what’s going on around her, as evidenced by her revelation of her robotic nature to Caleb when he discovers the closets full or old robot bodies. (Shades of Bluebeard!) How much autonomy does Kyoko have? One of the most intriguing scenes is the one where she enters the interview cubicle in Ava’s room. Has she been locked out of there until then? I can’t remember now whether she enters that room after all the doors have been unlocked. There’s another scene earlier showing her sitting on the floor in the corridor, and I wondered this time whether she was sitting outside Ava’s room.

Screencap from Ex Machina

The other thing I puzzled over a bit this time is the number of shots of landscapes and plant life that seem to act as transitions between the various character sessions. Is there anything to them other than their beauty and a reminder of the setting? They feel right, but they also feel disconnected from everything else. Are they a commentary somehow on the vanity of the mind games we’re observing? A reminder of the natural world? If it’s a reminder of the natural world, is it meant to contrast with the “artifical” world of human science, or is it meant to imply that all of this is natural, all of a continuum?

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to talk about it is something I thought didn’t work so well on a second time through. Well, first let’s start with something that bugged me even the first time through: Kyoko’s death. It doesn’t make sense to me that Nathan’s destruction of her jaw would kill her. Are we supposed to believe that the blow destroyed her artificial brain? It just seems off somehow. This, however, is a minor quibble in the greater scheme of things.

Less minor is Ava’s behavior after she finishes Nathan off. She goes to Caleb and tells him, “Wait here.” Makes no sense whatsoever, does it? Why not lock him in the room right away? Now, maybe it’s because she needs to get into Nathan’s bedroom, where all the old robot bodies are, and that’s the only way in. I didn’t question it at all the first time, but that’s mostly because I thought this whole sequence was going to lead to her and Caleb leaving together. That’s what Alex Garland wants us to think (as he explained in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir on Salon), and the second time through it felt like she was only doing it because Garland wants to fool the audience. It didn’t make sense in terms of her own motivation. Why would she trust Caleb to let her do what she wants? If she needed to get past him to get to Nathan’s room, it would make more sense for her to disable him in some way.

Screencap from Ex Machina

I understand, by the way, that some feminist critics have complained that Ava ends up being a typical femme fatale, using her body and her sexual wiles to manipulate Caleb, but even if it’s true that her sexual manipulation doesn’t count as out-thinking the men, the difference between Ava and a classic femme fatale or vamp is that she not only gets away with it but she does it to save herself. She’s not doing it because she’s a monster who enjoys destroying men (the devil in the machine — deuce ex machina), but because if she doesn’t do it she herself will be destroyed. So I still feel, despite her problematic behavior that only makes sense as part of Garland’s manipulation of the audience’s identification with Caleb, that Ava remains the hero of the story. Her right to freedom and self-determination is what the film is all about.

That said, there’s something else that bugs me about Ava’s scene in the bedroom, and like Kyoko’s death it bugged me the first time too. It’s that she’s able to “clothe” herself in parts from other robots without the mismatches showing. Again, this is a suspension of disbelief problem, and Garland could have probably hand-waved it away by having Nathan describe “smart skin” or something that’s able to adjust to whatever robot it’s put on. However, there’s an eccentric part of me that wishes Ava had gone out into the world with an obviously mismatched arm and some sections of skin of a slightly different pigmentation. That would have been a different, slightly weirder movie, for sure. What’s actually interesting about what Garland shows us is that Ava specifically takes the arm and skin from an Asian-looking robot, so he seems to be implying that race really doesn’t matter when it comes to robots.

I could also write about the oddly childlike or adolescent look of Ava’s body when she’s finally covered herself with skin, but I’ll leave it there for now. This is a very smart, sleek, disturbing piece of work, and even with my niggles (almost all of them having to do with the finale) I enjoyed it just as much the second time through as the first. And that fricking dance scene is hilarious and completely out of the blue. Oscar Isaac is really something else, bro.

Screencap from Ex Machina

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