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February 2007 Archives

February 15, 2007

July, 1988

july.gifDarezhan Omirbaev's penchant for spare, elliptical narrative, muted figures, and disembodied framing (most notably, of hands and feet) have often been (favorably) compared to the rigorous aesthetic of Robert Bresson. However, in imposing such a somber - and inescapably cerebral - analogy, there is also a propensity to overlook the wry, self-effacing humor and irony of situation that pervade his films: a lyricism that equally captures the human comedy in all its contradictions and nobility from the margins of Soviet society. This sense of the quotidian as a continuum of human experience, elegantly rendered in Omirbaev's recent film, The Road through Amir's recurring daydream of a mother milking a cow and her intrusive child (who, in turn, looks remarkably like Amir's own son) in rural Kazakhstan (an image that subsequently proves to be a catalytic historical memory from his childhood when man landed on the moon), can also be seen from the outset of Omirbaev's cinema through his incorporation of a decidedly Buñuelian sequence in the short film, July of a young boy who, while on the lookout for guards near the foothills of a kolkhoz commissary, curiously finds himself wandering into a recital hall where the performance of a young pianist is punctuated by the appearance of a horseman on the stage. Part pastoral observation on the pervasiveness of underdevelopment and the austerity of life in the rural villages of Soviet-era collective farms (and in particular, at the outlying frontiers of the Soviet Central Asia), and part autofiction on a pair of restless boys whose penchant for escapist (mis)adventures reveal a nascent, if displaced, creative sensibility, July establishes the aesthetic framework that would come to define Omirbaev's cinema: the overture of first love depicted through seemingly innocent - yet deliberate - passing touches (the bus encounter in Kaïrat, the movie house flirtation in July); the frustration of isolation inherent in a rural childhood manifested through acts of mischief (the opening sequence of Kaïrat, the courtyard fight of Kardiogramma), the subconscious act of self-reflection illustrated through literal self-reflection through the reflected image of a rear view mirror (Marat's drive home from the hospital in Killer, Amir's extended road trip to visit his ailing mother in The Road). Inevitably, what proves to be the most remarkable - and irresistible - aspect of Omirbaev's deceptively simple coming of age film is its ability to capture the interpenetration between reality and fiction interpenetrate with such seemingly effortless, uninhibited intimacy - a wide eyed innocence that hovers in the ephemeral - ever teetering between solemnity and absurdity, boredom and roguishness, anxiety and imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

February 10, 2007

The Last Mitterrand, 2005

last_mitterrand.gifIn an early episode in Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand (Le Promeneur du champ de Mars), the ailing president (Michel Bouquet) visits the royal catacombs of Saint Denis Basilica with his personally selected ghostwriter for his memoirs, a young writer named Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert), and regards the extraordinary realism of a sculpture, glistening from condensation, depicting the anguish of Catherine de Medici's convulsed body at the moment of death - a testament, he explains, to the unflinching aesthetic of a time during the Middle Ages when artists strove to capture both the mystery and anxiety of the process of death, the crystallizing moment of transis. In a sense, this indelible image of the body in a state of mortal transfiguration also serves as an incisive reflection of the president's own personal and public life. Approaching the end of his presidency and battling an incurable, aggressive cancer that has already begun to ravage his aging body, the still sharp-witted, gregarious, and charismatic statesman approaches his mortality with a self-possession and unshakeable conviction of his secured place in history, as well the profound culture impact that his death would have, not only in national politics, but also in the symbolic embodiment of an increasingly extinct French identity with the assimilation of a free (old) Europe under a common market, and the advent of the multi-pronged approach to modern warfare that has rendered irrelevant the old world-styled "gentlemen agreements" of international diplomacy. But in a long and distinguished political career that has weathered the humiliation of occupation, the devastation of world war, and the chaotic struggle of decolonization, his public service legacy is still haunted by the shadow of his early - and irreconcilably obfuscated - tenure in the German-installed Vichy government and in particular, the level of his implication in the notorious René Bousquet affair, the Vichy chief of police who carried out an anti-Semitic campaign that led to the mass deportation of French Jews during the early 1940s. Within this context, even the chronology of a photograph taken with Marshal Philippe Pétain, a Great War hero turned wartime Vichy head of state, misdated (perhaps intentionally) by one year during a passing comment by the president to Moreau during a working meeting (a murky timeframe that, uncoincidentally, spans Pétain's public image transformation from savior of France to Nazi collaborator), reflects the malleability of history: an error that may either reveal the fog of memory eroded by the ravages of time and illness, or a subconscious attempt to reconcile with transgressions of the past by a man acutely aware of his own mortality and culpability. Guédiguian's remarkable depth of cultural (and geographic) texturality and penchant for complex characterizations prove ideally suited for the film's nuanced, but illuminating portrait, not only of a dying man and public figure, but of the very embodiment of a national soul in the throes of its own transis - often willful, suppressed, and contradictory in its attempts to come to terms with an unreconciled collective memory, and foundering under an encroaching, realized fear of obsolescence and cultural marginalization in the wake of globalization at twilight of the millennium. It is this uncharted journey through the existential threshold between life and death that is inevitably captured in the film's allusive reference to the "walker of Martian fields" in its original, eccentric title, a paradoxically somber, yet whimsical evocation of the profound desolation - and disorientation - of existential passage.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 10, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007

February 4, 2007

Still Life, 2006

still_life.gifPerhaps what is most striking about Jia Zhang-ke's latest digital feature, Still Life, is its unexpected maturity, a marked evolution away from capturing the sad, eccentric tales of youthful indirection and cultural anachronism of contemporary Chinese life under an often contradictory, dual economy system that defined his earlier films towards a more somber - and classically humanist - portrait of anonymous, uprooted lives lived in the (un)certainty of state-sponsored phased extinction along the margins (and bowels) of China's profoundly transforming economic and physical landscape. Composed of two parallel stories of familial absence - a coal miner named Han San-ming searching for his estranged wife and teenage daughter (whom he has never seen) in a now submerged Sichuan village that had been demolished during the first phase of an ambitious, ongoing Three Gorges Dam project (envisioned by the late Chairman Mao Zedong), and a woman, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) seeking contact with her husband, a politically connected civil servant who has been sent to the village of Fengjie by the government to oversee the demolition project and has not returned home in two years - the film is a serene, breathtaking, and elegantly realized, if seemingly aesthetically depersonalized, panoramic tale of displacement, exclusion, and marginalization. That is not to say the Jia's recurring themes of the breakdown of family, the paradox of alienation in the most populous country in the world (a generational phenomenon that Jia allusively attributes to the government's instituted one child policy during the 1970s in his magnum opus Platform), the profound social polarization caused by the ossification of the state economy (in favor of opening certain market sectors to free enterprise), and the erasure of cultural identity in the face of globalization have been omitted from the film's aesthetic vernacular. Rather, Jia's brash, idiosyncratic touches of everyday absurdity - so integral to his meticulous (and implicitly political) illustrations of the contradictions of contemporary Chinese life (and particularly reflective of the cultural and generational intimacy revealed in his quotidian observations) since the country's formidable emergence into the world market - have been narratively tempered and relegated to the anecdotal interstices of offhanded humor (most notably, in sequence featuring a rock band featuring the lackluster choreography of visibly out of place hip hop dancers, in the image of Chinese opera-costumed performers playing with portable video games as San-ming observes the inclement weather from a window, and in the whimsical image of derelict structure that transforms into a launched rocket) in favor of a more contemplative exposition on an amorphous and faceless human condition in the wake of traumatic, if seemingly inevitable (and socially necessary) process of modernization.

Jia's more allusive, poetic, and subtler approach to illustrating the social repercussions of the country's rapidly expanding economy is perhaps best exemplified by his use of consumerist-themed chapters such as "Cigarettes", "Tea", and "Toffee" throughout the film - conventional goods in an international free market trade and examples of global corporate branding (as in the case of the ubiquitous White Rabbit toffee candies) - as the characters' fragile, connective tissues that continue to bind the characters (through the tactile reinforcement of their consumed consumer staples) to their absent and estranged loved ones: the cardboard from the box of a now-defunct cigarette company, Mango, that contains the former address of San-Ming's wife that is now located at the bottom of the Three Gorges Dam, the box of tea that Shen Hong retrieves from her husband's abandoned locker, San-ming's polite offers of cigarettes to his newfound friends and colleagues at a boarding house populated by migrant workers, the White Rabbit toffee that San-Ming's wife offers him as he broaches the subject of the possibility of a future life together (a tender overture comically - and quintessentially - interrupted by the unexpected razing of a derelict building in the background). However, in exploring themes of estrangement, cultural disconnection, and forcible uprooting, Still Life diverges from the rough hewn cultural testaments of Jia's earlier films and converges towards the broader, artistic experience of diasporic cinema, particularly, towards Tsai Ming-liang's and (early) Hou Hsiao-hsien's expositions on spiritual displacement and pervasive sense of otherness. It is this departure towards the universality of a certain aesthetic convergence that ultimately tempers the gravity of the film's powerful and poignant observations of marginalized existence. Inevitably, what had made Jia's cinema so incomparable in its originality and cultural authenticity has, itself, become a reflection of the borrowed culture of globalization that he has incisively captured in all its dislocated idiosyncrasy: erasing the inimitable precision of an indigenous voice - and implicitly, its role as cultural witness to the trauma of China's rapid transformation - towards a certain anodyne resonance of an all-encompassing, cross-pollinated, human polyphony.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2007 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2007