Rapid-Fire Reviews (III)

It’s been a great month. I got to revisit some classics in the cinema, discover directors I had thus-far unfairly neglected, reconnect with one of my favourite documentarians and with my love for Hong Kong cinema. Here’s the overview, rapid-fire reviews below. 

  • Split, by M. Night Shyamalan (02/03 – in the cinema)
  • Logan, by James Mangold (03/03 – in the cinema)
  • Gattaca, by Andrew Niccol (04/05)
  • Drug War, by Johnnie To (05/05)
  • 2046, by Wong Kar-Wai (05/05)
  • Perfect Blue, by Satoshi Kon (07/05)
  • Millenium Actress, by Satoshi Kon (09/03)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, by John Cassavetes (11/03 – in the cinema)
  • Three Colours: Blue, by Krzysztof Kieślowski (12/03)
  • Three Colours: White, by Krzysztof Kieślowski (12/03)
  • Three Colours: Red, by Krzysztof Kieślowski (12/03)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick (18/03 – in the cinema)
  • My Scientology Movie, by Louis Theroux (21/03)
  • Persona, by Ingmar Bergman (22/03)
  • The Lost City of Z, by James Gray (23/03 – in the cinema)
  • Yi Yi (A One and a Two), by Edward Yang (24/04)

I’ve been reconnecting with my passion for Asian cinema, starting with a Hong Kong double-bill. Drug War has all the marks of a classic Johnnie To: convoluted crime syndicates, undercover agents, betrayal, and perfectly paced shoot-outs that end in total carnage. There’s nothing that really approaches the balletic violence and Godfather-like gangster intrigues of his masterpieces Exiled and Triad Election, but if you’re looking for a well-rounded cop film, this will do just fine. 2046 is a sort of sequel to In the Mood for Love (seen and loved in February), revisiting similar themes of love lost, with an added layer of a meta-narrative which I struggled to get on board with.

My next stop was in Japan, with Satoshi Kon’s animations. Why I had not heard of him before is a mystery to me. Kon was a talented filmmaker, whose exploration of identity and juxtaposition of multiple layers of dream/reality has inspired the likes of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, etc.). As the video below shows, he was also a master editor, his films visually inventive, layered and surprising. I started with Perfect Blue, which tells the story of a young actress ready to do anything to succeed. Her descent into depression and madness is assisted by an abusive system, with its twisted scriptwriters, manipulative fashion photographers, and obsessive fans. It all becomes too much after she accepts to do a gang-rape scene for TV. From that point on, reality and fiction begin to merge as she descends into nightmarish despair, and we are dragged into it with her. Millenium Actress was much more accessible, focusing as it does on the life of a now-retired actress whose cinematic work mirrors her personal story, the narration here again benefiting from incredible editing, so that fiction and reality are made indistinguishable.  

The best Asian film of all this month though was Taiwanese. Running for nearly three hours, Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is a tender ode to daily life, as each member of a middle-class Taipei family works through their own interrogations about life: a middle-age spiritual crisis for the mother, nascent love for her teenage daughter. The young son learns to apprehend the world through a camera, while his father toys with the idea of giving his teenage love a second chance. There is a quiet comfort in joining them for a little while on their journey. I know I’ll be thinking of this film for a long time yet.

Where European classics are concerned, I finally watched Three Colours: Blue / White / Red, a triptych of films thought of as an exploration of the values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, not without irony. Blue, White and Red are also a trio of French actresses, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irene Jacob, directed by a Polish director: Krzysztof Kieslowski. They touch on love and grief, and the terrible things men and women do to each other. Blue in particular struck me, so beautifully punctuated by music is its story of a young window who decides to retract from the world and do “precisely nothing”. That is if I had to single one out, because they are very much worth seeing in a row. Only then does the act of fate threading together all the protagonists’ lives, in the trilogy’s final scene, accede to its full meaning: as a director’s act of kindness towards his flawed characters.

Moving north, I made my first foray into the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which I had neglected until now. Persona opens and closes with a series of rapidly alternating images, the meaning of which is obscure. The story is about Elisabeth Vogler, an actress struck dumb in the middle of a play, or rather, suddenly no longer willing, no longer capable of playing her role, any role. She retreats into silence, for in silence she believes there can be no lies. Anna is her nurse, a young girl with troubling memories and boiling emotions. The film is a long monologue, as Anna confides in her silent sister, shows tenderness and trust, but also incomprehension and rage. In a beautiful, crisp black and white, this film about identity and the struggle between self-representation and outward projection is surprising, striking, a wonder of filmic technique and meaningful, thoughtful dialogue. When the opening images re-appear in the final minutes, I had come to see in them symbols of fusion and eroticism, abandonment and emotional distances that cannot be bridged.

The big screen has also proved a real treat this month, and surprisingly so given my choices. I started off with Split, which finally reconciled me with Mr. Shyamalan. I was not expecting much from the B-movie premise about a deranged man inhabited by 23 different personalities who kidnaps and sequestrates three teenage girls. While not without flaws, this was a restrained film, James MacAvoy was brilliant, funny, creepy in his multiple roles, and it was an overall gripping experience. Logan, the latest instalment in the X-men franchise, of which I have seen very little and remember nothing, was also pleasantly surprising. An encounter with a young mutant drags the ageing and retired Wolverine is dragged back into action. Hugh Jackman was in full form and it made for a rather entertaining evening. The Lost City of Z I walked into having only seen the over-dramatic trailer, but this classical-style Hollywood piece about an early-20th century explorer of the Amazon proved to be a sensitive exploration of class, race and gender in colonial Britain. You can read my full review here.

My local independent cinema also reserved a few treats. I went to see my first Cassavetes film: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The owner of a strip-club and inveterate gambler, Cosmo Vittelli (played by Ben Gazzara, whom you might know as Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski), is strong-armed by the local mafia into murdering a Chinese gangster as repayment for a large debt. The acting was excellent and there was a intriguing strangeness to this piece of independent, low-budget cinema. I wasn’t fully convinced, but will likely check out more of Cassavetes. I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema for the first time, which is what it was truly made for. I took it all in, its obsessive perfection and depth: the 3-minute musical opening set to a dark screen, the apes’ discovery of murder, the incredible set design, the Blue Danube docking manoeuver, the monolithic darkness of the void, the deadpan, gravelly-voiced, sing-song-y demise of HAL 9000, the lengthy, fascinating psychedelic sequence. The film ended with a full 5 minutes of music. The lights did not go on. Almost three hours of film, ending past midnight, and hardly anyone left the room until the credits were done. I had a beer on the place de la Sorbonne after that and the day was complete. 

Another science-fiction piece worth the watch is Gattaca, which depicts a near-future world where eugenics have become the norm. Genetic triage allows parents to ensure that any and all congenital defects are avoided. In this world, the unlucky souls subjected to the lottery of life by their ill-advised parents, or “faith births”, are relegated to menial social functions. In our hero’s case, a high risk of heart failure prevents him from joining the prestigious spatial flight firm Gattaca. Of course, only the best and brightest in this fascist dystopia are destined to leave Earth for a brighter off-world future. Dreamily undeterred, he impersonates a wheelchair-bound übermensch (Jude Law) whose star-studded fate was crippled along with his legs. Together they game the ubiquitous genetic identification system, but the imposture risks being uncovered when a murder shakes the firm, and he comes under suspicion. An exciting game of cat and mouse ensues, as he tricks repeated police controls, and ultimately place his fate in the hands of his genetically superior brother, his benefactor, and his love interest (played by Uma Thurman).

Striking a different note to all of the above was Louis Theroux and his recent documentary: My Scientology Movie. Being a long-time fan of Theroux and his special brand of awkward interviews, and given Scientology’s tendency towards secrecy and aggressive (legal, ‘informational’) targeting of detractors, I was looking forward to this. Faced with the impenetrability of the religious organization and the impossibility of interviewing members, Theroux’s takes an unusual, highly interesting approach. With the help of an ex-Scientologist turned critic, Marty Rathburne, he casts and scripts a number of scenes designed to mimic scientologist practices and re-enact violent scenes presumed to have taken place at Scientology headquarters, complete with a fake David Miscavage and a pretend Tom Cruise. It’s uncomfortable, as can be expected with Theroux, at times revelatory, in a way past ‘talking heads’ documentaries have failed to be, if somewhat constrained by the very effective stranglehold of the church on information and the relative paucity of new faces for anyone who’s already heard from its critics. Overall, an enjoyable, worthwhile foray into the murky world of Scientology for anybody interested in the topic.