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August 2005 Archives

August 29, 2005

NYFF Itinerary

I tried to maximize the number of films that I could catch at the New York Film Festival within the span of one week and another long weekend, making sure that my priority films (new Garrel, Haneke, Sokurov, Dardenne, Hou, and Straub/Huillet, as well as Gosho, Shimizu, and Shimazu from the Shochiku sidebar) were captured. With that in mind, I ended up with this screening list.

Main Program

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (Avi Mograbi)
Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
Cache (Michael Haneke)
Capote (Bennett Miller)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Gabrielle (Patrice Chereau)
I Am (Dorota Kedzierzawska)
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel)
Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)

Shochiku at 110 Sidebar

The Army (Keisuke Kinoshita)
A Ball at the Anjo House (Kozaburo Yoshimura)
Black River (Masaki Kobayashi)
The Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima)
Every Night Dreams (Mikio Naruse)
The Lights of Asakusa (Yasujiro Shimazu)
The Neighbor's Wife and Mine (Heinosuke Gosho)
Ornamental Hairpin (Hiroshi Shimizu)
Our Neighbor Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu)
Star Athlete (Hiroshi Shimizu)
Woman of the Mist (Heinosuke Gosho)

Views from the Avant-Garde

Program 1: A Trip to the Louvre x2 (Straub/Huillet)
Program 2: The Daily Planet (short films by Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, Stephanie Barber, Leslie Thornton, Michele Smith, Jeanne Liotta, Julie Murray, Ken Jacobs, Fred Worden)
Program 3: David Gattan: Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account In Nine Parts
Program 4: The Terrestrial Observatory (short films by S.N.S. Sastry, Jim Jennings, Ken Jacobs, Thorsten Fleisch, Fred Worden, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Luther Price, Mark Lapore)

Posted by acquarello on Aug 29, 2005 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 22, 2005

The Bow, 2005

bow.gifOne aspect of Kim Ki-duk's filmmaking that I continue to find problematic is his penchant for introducing elements of pseudo-mythical orientalism in his films: a kind of exoticized mélange of stereotypical, yin-yang images of Eastern culture that would have audiences believe that when a Buddhist priest attains enlightenment, he also acquires a certain level of physical dexterity and knowledge of hand combat techniques to earn his nth degree martial arts black belt (as in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring) or that there is a practical side to the art of Zen that, when mastered, can be applied to such nefarious activities as breaking and entering into people's homes (and seducing the lady of the house) without ever getting caught (as in 3-Iron). When introduced unobtrusively within the context of a better developed story, they are minor irritations in an otherwise commendable work. But when inserted as integral elements to propel an underformed narrative and reinforce ambitious, ephemeral themes that, when taken into root context, sink into the abyss of rationalized (and perhaps even morally justified) transgression, then no amount of evocative visuals or impeccable, aesthetic construction can redeem this inextricably mired concoction of half-baked philosophy and herb shop spirituality.

Such is the case with his latest offering The Bow, a film that combines familiar Kim elements of intimate isolation, triangular (romantic) conflict, and surrogate acts of transcendence. The opening sequence of the old man transforming his archery bow into a traditional bowed musical instrument by inserting a small drum and a wooden bridge provides a foreshadowing of this quasi-Zen holistic balance, a heavy-handed juxtaposition that quickly transforms from the sublime to the ridiculous when a weekend fisherman asks to have his fortune read: a bizarre fusion of divining ritual and vaudeville act that involves suspending an innocent, virginal young girl (and his self-anointed future wife) on a swing that is placed on the side of the boat in front of a large painting of Buddha, and target shooting the portrait as the girl precariously swings back and forth. However, even the loopy recurrence of these carnivalesque, fortune-telling sequences could not foretell the indescribably gauche realization and vulgar, transparent symbolism of the film's preposterous and embarrassingly laughable final scene. Rather than validating Kim's entry into a subtler, more artistically mature phase that had been reflected in his recent films since Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring, The Bow instead regurgitates like a bloated self-parody of his earlier work.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 22, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Kim Ki-duk

August 21, 2005

A Tale of Cinema, 2005

tale_cinema.gifHong Sang-soo makes a refreshing - and much welcomed - return to form with his most structurally complex, insightful, and thematically multilayered, yet deceptively facile and satisfying film since Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors in Tale of Cinema. The curious introduction of a narrative voice-over and the appearance of formalized, zooming into close-up - devices that have not previously been signature elements within Hong's earlier work - provides a hint of the film's concentric, overarching structure. As the film begins, Sangwon, an aimless and indecisive college student on school holiday after final examinations, avoids walking together with his older brother by instead taking a side street, where he finds a former girlfriend, Yongsil, working at an optician's store. Unsure of his own emotional preparedness in rekindling the relationship, he decides to watch a play while waiting for her to complete her work shift, delaying the decision to meet her later in the evening. The final words of anguish in the play, uttered by a desperately ill child unable to be comforted by his mother, would later be echoed by Sangwon from the rooftop of his parents' apartment after his own failed act of despair. In the film's corollary chapter, Tongsu, a struggling, rootless, and inscrutable filmmaker who has become obsessed with a short film directed by his former classmate - and in particular, the devoted and obliging woman in the film - encounters the young actress in person and begins to ingratiate himself into her company, acting out his projected image of her by imitating gestures and revisiting locations from the film in an attempt to realize his own created image of her. Concluding with a first-person voiceover, the film is a provocative and articulate exposition on the filmmaker's role (and moral complicity) as the creator of images and idealized fantasy, and an incisive cautionary tale on the demystification (and irresolvability) of unattainable illusion.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 21, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005

August 20, 2005

Shadow Kill, 2002

shadowkill.gifExploring similar human rights issues as Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging on the sociopolitical framework that lies beneath the inequitable administration of justice and capital punishment, Shadow Kill is told from the perspective, not of the condemned but of the reluctant executioner, an aging, guilt-ridden hangman named Kaliyappan. Set in colonial-era state of Travancore in Kerala, an idyllic, rural outpost in the southwest tip of India, the images of lush, textured landscapes of the film visually presage a thematic divergence from Death By Hanging wherein the clinical and sterile setting reflect the rhetorical tone and delineated logical argument of Oshima's cerebral polemic. Rather, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's vision of state-sponsored execution and intractable social codes are set against the overarching context of universal balance, cyclical natural order, and even fated inevitability. The opening sequence, composed of a single image of an extended black screen, provides a temporal dislocation to Kaliyappan's story: devoid of associative images, the introductory passage presents an (appropriately) terse summary of the appointment, imposed isolation, duties, and interconnected rituals of death and healing associated with the everyday life of a professional executioner, a "privileged" vocation that is traditionally passed on from father to son. In the opening sequence, a drunken, world-weary Kaliyappan sits in the counter of a tavern recounting his belated discovery of a condemned man's true innocence after carrying out his execution, a knowledge that has haunted him for much of his life. But in the death ritual is also the promise of salvation as the hanging rope is presented to the executioner to be burned in spare increments (until the next hanging) before the altar of Kali (the goddess of creation and destruction) and the holy ashes anointed upon the sick in order to cure them of their illnesses. (Note that the early episode of his daughter's celebration of womanhood is contrasted against the recounted episode of a young girl's violation and that the same actor portrays the brother-in-law in both sequences, further reinforcing the idea of the human condition as a universal, collective interconnectedness). One day, Kaliyappan is instructed to prepare for an execution and begins his ritual of purification, a period of intense meditation and focused spirituality that brings him extraordinary powers of healing. However, as the fated, grim ritual draws near, Kaliyappan begins to doubt his ability to bear the moral burden and carry out another execution (since the Mararaja has devised a convenient way to absolve himself of any guilt by dispatching a procedural pardon a few minutes before the appointed hour knowing that the document will arrive too late to save the condemned prisoner), and the looming reality of the inevitable execution increasingly pushes him further towards maniacal escapism, alternating between lapses of purifying, transcendent prayer and emotionally dulling constant intoxication. Gopalakrishnan's penchant for aesthetic naturalism, evocative compositions, and visual economy are particularly well suited to the idyllic landscapes of his native Kerala, creating an intrinsic juxtaposition between the timeless beauty and natural paradise of the countryside, and the unnatural, man-made acts of destruction (and self-destruction) that occur within it: an eternal violation of natural law that can only be set right by the spiritual healing of moral recognition and acceptance of personal responsibility.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 20, 2005 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2005

August 18, 2005

NYFF: Shochiku Sidebar

The sidebar this year looks even more exciting than the slate of films. The partial program though September 30 (the first week of the festival):

7:00 The Hidden Blade Yoji Yamada, 2005; 132m

11:00 am Souls on the Road Minoru Murata, 1921; 112m
1:15 Ornamental Hairpin Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941; 70m
3:15 Nezumi Kozo Noda Hideki, 2005; 110m
6:00 The Hidden Blade
9:00 The Castle of Sand Yoshitaro Nomura, 1974; 140m

3:00 The Neighbor's Wife and Mine H. Gosho, 1931; 64 m
4:30 Our Neighbor Miss Yae Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934; 76m
6:00 The Neighbor's Wife and Mine
Graham Greene & the Cinema

2:30 Our Neighbor Miss Yae
4:00 Woman of the Mist Heinosuke Gosho, 1936; 90m
6:15 A Story of Floating Weeds Yasujiro Ozu, 1934, silent; 86m (with live piano)
8:30 Every Night's Dreams Mikio Naruse, 1934; 64m (with live piano)

2:45 Forget Love for Now Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937; 73m
4:15 The Lights of Asakusa Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937; 90m
6:00 Our Neighbor Miss Yae
7:40 Forget Love for Now
9:15 The Lights of Asakusa

1:45 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939; 142m
4:30 Ornamental Hairpin
6:15 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
9:00 Woman of the Mist

2:45 Army Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944; 142m
4:30 The Ball at the Anjo House Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947; 89m
6:30 The Loyal 47 Ronin Kenji Mizoguchi, 1942 / 43 ; 241 m

Posted by acquarello on Aug 18, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 17, 2005

2005 New York Film Festival Line-Up

The slate of films for the 2005 New York Film Festival has been posted and the selections are more promising than I've seen in the past two or three years, especially when combined with the Shochiku sidebar program.

I'm planning to order tickets for:

Cache (Michael Haneke)
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan)
L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Who's Camus Anyway? (Mitsuo Yanagimachi)

It looks as though I'll be able to catch Views from the Avant-Garde this year as well.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 17, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 14, 2005

Passing Fancy, 1933

passingfancy.gifThe first of Yasujiro Ozu's Kihachi 'Everyman' pictures after Takeshi Sakamoto's recurring role as the stubborn and uneducated, but goodhearted rogue, Passing Fancy is a thoughtful, humorous, and accessible domestic portrait of family, community, and everyday life in the poor, working class suburbs of Tokyo (a social milieu that Ozu would return to in other Kihachi films such as The Story of Floating Weeds and An Inn in Tokyo, and also in Record of a Tenement Gentleman). The opening sequence of live entertainment at the local town hall comically illustrates the carefree existence, but seemingly inescapable poverty that surrounds Kihachi and his sharp-witted, but undisciplined son Tomio (Tomio Aoki): an inadvertently misplaced, empty wallet works its way around the room as each presumptuous finder retrieves, checks for content, then discards the object before Kihachi exchanges the larger wallet with his own, smaller one, initiating a new chain of ill-intentioned finders as Kihachi's wallet inevitably makes it way back to the original site of the lost item. Chronicling the quotidian of Kihachi's daily life as he alternately tries to dodge the responsibilities of work, win the affections of an out-of-work young woman named Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) who has been taken in by his widowed neighbor Otomo (Choko Lida), and teach his far more learned and responsible son important life lessons, Ozu's portrait of the working class is affectionately rooted in the inviolable bonds between parent and child and the collective strength of human community.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

August 11, 2005

Africa, I Will Fleece You, 1993

plumerai.gifAs a young boy growing up in the newly independent nation of Cameroon, Jean-Marie Téno's grandfather would tell him a great many tales to fuel his fertile imagination, among them, the story of a land inhabited by larks that, on one auspicious day, was stumbled upon by a group of hunters. Realizing the abundance of the land, the hunters decided to settle, enslaving the larks for their own personal gain before installing a chief to rule over them after their departure. However, the chief, as it turned out, was not actually a lark but was instead a hunter-sorcerer who, fearing his own mortality, slipped into the body of a newborn lark, creating a strange, new breed of larks that no longer had a sense of duty to its brethren nor respect for its fragile habitat. It is this national allegory of exploited and corrupted, "false" larks within the native, ancestral land of larks that Téno alludes to in the title of his film Africa, I Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai), a play on the children's song Alouette (lark). Ostensibly presented as a thoughtful, stream-of-consciousness personal essay on the filmmaker's beloved, academian city of Yaounde, the film evolves into a broader political and cultural commentary on the state (and perpetuated social ills) of post-independence Cameroon as the first post-colonial president, French ally, and self-anointed "Father of the Nation", Ahmadou Ahidjo consolidated political power under a single party rule that inevitably set the repressive authoritarian framework for the heavy handed government (and wide-scale corruption and political suppression) of his successor, Paul Biya. Recounting his childhood memories of being encouraged to study and to work hard in order to be "as the whites", Téno examines this culturally ingrained sentiment that has contributed to his country's inability to exorcise itself from the specter of colonialism that has kept the nation impoverished and disenfranchised, creating an inextricable cycle of Western dependency that prompts an observer to insightfully comment, "the principal victory of colonization was also to have perpetuated a real cultural genocide." In an incisive illustration of the country's systematic cultural genocide, Téno enlists the aid of his friend Marie Claire Dati to visit the city's major libraries: a bibliothèque that specializes in French-pressed, European authored publications and only offers a handful of books by African writers or on continental history (a cultural marginalization that is also revealed in Marie Claire's surprise that the head librarian is actually an indigenous African rather than the more typical situation of a French curator); the British consulate library with a similar disproportionality of native books, the Goethe Institute that promotes German language studies. A trip to the international repository, CLE completes the cultural portrait of the state of contemporary literature in Cameroon - a library established by missionaries to promote (Western) Christian history and ideals - and establishes the implicit correlation between colonialism and missionary work towards the ingrained philosophy of erasing indigenous identity as a necessary step towards religious conversion (a theme further explored in Téno's subsequent exposition The Colonial Misunderstanding): a systematic process that can only be turned back by cultural awareness, mutual respect, and self-empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Jean-Marie Téno

August 7, 2005

Le Parfum d'Yvonne, 1994

The brooding and achingly sensual Monsieur Hire was my first exposure to Patrice Leconte's films, and to a great extent, it was this initial encounter with haunted obsession and sad-eyed romanticism that propelled me to continue to seek out his body of work, trying to recapture in some way the searing melancholia and bittersweet intoxication - the elusive intensity of feeling - that had marked the experience. At times, his films would follow a similar trajectory of foreboding obsession and consciousness of elusive happiness without achieving a similar weight of tragedy (most notably, The Hairdresser's Husband); at other times, his films would embark on a different manifestation of obsession and fatalism that were accomplished and satisfying, but nevertheless remained sentimentally dissimilar to the experience of watching Monsieur Hire (as in The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the Train, and Intimate Strangers).

parfum.gifIt is interesting to note that Monsieur Hire is a tailor: a profession that, as rendered in Wong Kar-wai's atmospheric Eros installment, The Hand, involves a degree of familiarity but also a certain kind of calculated, analytical detachment. In hindsight, this paradoxical coexistence between intimacy and distance lies at the core of Le Parfum d'Yvonne as well. In the film, a carefree drifter and French expatriate named Victor Chmara bides his time "growing old as gently as possible" (and perhaps trying to evade conscription in the Algerian War), living a rootless, seemingly privileged life from one lodging house to another in Geneva when he meets a wealthy, flamboyant physician, Rene Meinthe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and his protégée, a beautiful, aspiring actress named Yvonne Jacquet (Sandra Majani). At first, Rene's relationship with Yvonne seems indecipherable - or perhaps, too sordidly obvious - to Victor as he tries to seduce the young woman behind Rene's back (or rather, under the dining table). However, even after realizing Rene's open homosexuality, his attachment to Yvonne remains a mystery, as the two travel in social circles where money and affection change hands all too casually. But Victor is also a mystery, introducing himself as a Russian count but without any visible means of support or a vocation (and who, at the beginning of the film, was compelled to change accommodations from the L'Hermitage luxury hotel to a more modest bed and breakfast guest house). Told through a series of intersecting flashbacks between recent past (filmed in brisk, rough, wintry darkness) and several years earlier (filmed in warm, sun-bathed hues and cerulean summer skies) from Victor's perspective, the film is an evocative and fascinating deconstruction, not only of obsessive impenetrability, but also the character demystification of the enigmatic narrative hero. Like Monsieur Hire, Victor's inescapable tragedy lies in his own tacit complicity to perpetuate the masquerade and transparent deception in order to hold onto the unsustainable illusion of blissful, idealized innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 07, 2005 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2005

August 6, 2005

Eros, 2004

thread.gifAlmost ten years ago, Time Magazine had featured an article of ten great international films from the late 80s to early 90s that had (up to the publishing date) not been released in the U.S. There were two films on the list that were also very high on my wish list: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue and Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds. With the emergence of DVD, I was finally able to see these films and while the former was every bit of the masterpiece that I had imagined it to be, I found the latter, particularly in the early encounters, to be something akin to a thinly veiled softcore porn film in the guise of high art. While I appreciated the hopefulness of Patricia (Fanny Ardant) and Carlo's (Jean Reno) reluctant, heartbroken encounter, and was even quietly moved by the star-crossed romanticism of Niccolo's (Vincent Perez) attempt to woo the young woman in the church (Irène Jacob) in the final episode, I could not help but find the early anonymous encounter sequences between Carmen (Inés Sastre) and the impeccably coiffed, Armani-suited sewage engineer Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) as well as between the uncharismatic American director (John Malkovich) and oversexed bohemian (Sophie Marceau) to be unnecessarily gratuitous, chagrining, ponderously self-important, and ridiculously laughable.

When Michelangelo Eye to Eye was released in 2004, it seemed as though Antonioni had begun to evolve this more immoderately voyeuristic phase into something a bit more distanced, formalist, and relevant. Alas, this evolution isn't entirely perceptible in his short film installment for the triptych Eros entitled The Dangerous Thread of Things. Replete with overt sexual metaphors (a middle-aged man squeezes his Maserati convertible between the narrow gateway of their villa entrance as he and his gauze-draped, translucently dressed, brassiere-less wife ponder the loss of marital spark in their relationship) and ridiculously contrived situations that invariably lead to female nudity and anonymous sex with a young woman on horseback who lives in a tower, the glimmer of hope for an artistic resurgence that seemed possible with Michelangelo Eye to Eye seems once again out of reach.

Steven Soderbergh's Equilibrium is a deceptively facile and compact, permutative story of déjà-vu. Retrospectively set in the 1950s as an overworked electronics salesman (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes haunted by an erotic dream of a mysterious woman in a blue dress, the film is an adept exposition on recurrence and the permeability of reality and dreams.

hand.gifWong Kar-wai's installment, The Hand is the first film of Eros and is also the strongest work in the series. Told through a series of elliptically fractured, episodic snapshots of the long-term, working relationship between a renowned courtesan (Gong Li) and her personal couturière, a sexually inexperienced tailor named Zhang (Chen Chang) through changing fortunes, ill-fated love affairs, personal betrayals, and the ravages of time, Wong is able to create an atmosphere of charged eroticism in the seemingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive act of dressing a woman. Distilling the essence of the innate intimacy in their unspoken ritual, Wong retains the imbued sensuality of In the Mood for Love and 2046 to create an equally understated and voluptuous tale of transfigured desire.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 06, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005

August 2, 2005

This Charming Girl, 2004

charming.gifIn 2003, South Korean filmmaker Park Ki-yong followed up his atmospheric and textural debut feature film Motel Cactus with the even more haunting, visually austere, and understated Camel(s), a film that subtly, but incisively, articulates the desperateness of (failed) connection between two emotionally unfulfilled people through ordinary gestures, uncomfortable silence, and anonymous - and ultimately empty - encounters. Lee Yoon-ki's equally muted film, This Charming Girl, follows in a similar vein of internalized pain and unarticulated sentiment of Camel(s) and other emotionally implosive films such as Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August and Song Il-gon's Flower Island. Presenting the seemingly mundane everyday rituals of an attractive, introverted, and mildly eccentric postal worker named Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-su), a seeming loner with a curious penchant for setting alarm clocks at odd hours of the day, avoiding personal conversations in social settings, and bringing home stray cats, the film modulates between past and present in order to illustrate the interpenetration of memory and human behavior. What is revealed in Lee's narrative economy is an insightful portrait of broken souls who silently bear the internal scars of personal trauma, continuing to perform the hollow rituals of social conduct as a reluctant, but psychologically necessary step to reaching out - and moving ever closer - towards reconciliation, healing, and even intimacy. Beyond the film's quietly observed exposition on displaced emotion and unrequited longing, it is this visual restraint and inviolable human search for reconnection and trust that invariably set the film apart from the nihilism and abandon of recent transgressive cinema that similarly explore the idea of empty ritual and intimacy, rendering a delicate work of stark, emotional nakedness without the abstraction of overwhelming flesh.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 02, 2005 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2005