Limite (1931)

27 05 2008

Mario Peixoto’s first and only feature film has, through years of being bruised and battered, (both physically and critically) resurfaced with quite a bit of damage. Normally, I wouldn’t make a big deal about the quality of a film print but in this case, it is an unavoidable factor. At times, the nitrate decomposition takes up more screen space than the actual film itself. And yet, somehow, the non-ideal conditions do evoke a very bizarre atmosphere. Certainly, this was Peixoto’s intention from the start, but the state the film is in now lends it an oddly poetic tone.

A man and two women on a boat, drifts aimlessly in the ocean with the likelihood of death. All three characters recount how they got to their current state. The audience is shown sequences that may or may not have something leading up to narrative. A woman walks around in a desolate town, and runs her finger across a pair of scissors. A man goes to a graveyard and is greeted with an odd conversation, and then goes looking for a woman…

My retelling of the story is sketchy but that pretty much explains the appeal (at least to me) of the film: it is a series of undeniable images. Of course, this search has been explored to greater lengths with people like Werner Herzog, but Peixoto deserves plenty of credit for being one of the first. Similarly, the set up of the film is really quite wonderful and feels completely removed from even the more out-going cinema of the time. This makes Murnau’s Tabu look like a really standard film from the 30s. Though, Murnau’s film is more instantly captivating where as this takes sometime getting use to and even then, it drags. Oh boy, does it drag. The initial novelty of the film wears far too thin to carry it for 115 minutes but with that said, there’s a lot to appreciate here.

The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993)

25 05 2008

I suppose it’s quite fitting that I finally got around to seeing Tran Anh Hung’s first feature after watching a pair of films from Hiroshi Shimizu. The unique “plotlessness” of Shimizu that I have lionized these past two days seems to have a found a modern link in this and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. A few months back I saw the latter film, which is undeniably beautiful but at the time, I was far too concerned with the limitations of the narrative. Like Shimizu, Tran’s aforementioned features (Cyclo, while great, doesn’t fall into this category) are, on the surface, very cheerful and easy-going. In addition, both seem very keen on long tracking shots through multiple rooms. Unfortunately for Tran, his strokes aren’t nearly as masterful as Shimizu’s when it comes to characters.

Mui, a young girl, becomes a servant for a mourn-stricken family. She observes their multiple ways of dealing with pain. The grandmother, saddened by the loss of her husband and her grandchild, spends all of her time praying. The older boy in the family spends his time making wax bugs while the younger one creates mischief, teases Mui, and above all, farts. (More than likely a nod to Ozu’s Good Morning) The household’s mother handles her sadness much better, but when her husband leaves with the family savings, she can no longer bear the pain. Ten years later, Mui is still working as a servant but now she does so for an engaged songwriter.

As always, Tran’s greatest cinematic strength is his literal attention to detail. There are thousands of shots in this and his other two films that reveal the textures to the smallest of objects. It seems pointless to even attempt to comprehend the beauty of the images here. Even screenshots do little to no justice to the feelings they produce when witnessed in live motion. The film never really has a dull moment because it can really appreciated without any understanding of the developments in the plot.

This is the film’s downfall, then, I suppose. While the film’s opening moments feel natural and uncontrived, the final section is dampened by goofy Cinderella-inspired symbolism. This isn’t too much of a problem, per se, but the mood is inconsequential to begin with so once the drama begins to kick in, it feels very manufactured. Perhaps I am simply resisting calling it a masterpiece, which is what it should be. The awe-inducing images combined with a setup that obviously has roots in the films of Ozu and (Satyajit) Ray: sounds like something I should be embracing on all levels. If only it had maintained that observation/carefree sensibility the whole way through. Still, it is a wonderful debut from a wonderful director, who, unfortunately, has a very small output.

Anma to onna (1938)

25 05 2008

Still reeling from the post-viewing high of Kanzashi, I decided to give this earlier Shimizu feature a try. It isn’t nearly as great and it suffers from a few narrative hiccups, but for the most part, it is further reinforcement of just how skilled Shimizu is as a filmmaker. Not only that but with this film, it is becoming more and more clear that he has his own recognizable style. Really, I got off on the wrong foot with Forget Love for Now since it seems to provide little representation of what he has going on in this and Kanzashi.

Two blind masseurs, who make a hobby of counting how many people they pass, find work in a secluded town. One of the masseurs, Tokuichi, inadvertently falls in love with the kind Michiho. The two begin a playful but infrequent relationship. All hope appears lost for Tokuichi when Michiho develops an interest in Shintaro, a lonely man who continues to prolong an uneventful vacation with his nephew.

Like Kanzashi there is no noticeable “drama” here and the sensibility is similarly carefree and happy. There’s silly comedic hijink that only deepens the theory that Shimizu’s world is one of never-ending happiness. That’s a pretty superficial assessment, though, and a false one at that. Once again, essentially nothing important happens on the surface, but Shimizu’s films seem to be more about what his characters don’t say, rather than what they do say. Perhaps it is difficult to comprehend but there really is a heartbreaking, almost tragic, would-be romance floating underneath the cutesy humor.

In a way, I’d like to think of this film as a poem, if not a fully-fleshed out character-driven film. The short running time (65 minutes) contributes heavily to such a feeling, but the moments of heartbreak and beauty are presented in such a fragmented way. This is not a criticism at all, in fact it is praise as really no one was making cinema like this during 30s. To say that Shimizu’s cinema is a precursor to Wong Kar-Wai’s is a bit of an exaggeration. Yet in this film, Shimizu captures some wonderful moments and does so in a way that is fleeting but memorable. A perfect example would be he sequence in which Tokuichi passes in between Shintaro and Michiho. Once again, a masterpiece from Shimizu but I still prefer Kanzashi as that one feels a bit more balanced and a lot more developed.

Kanzashi (1941)

24 05 2008

My first exposure to the cinematic world of Hiroshi Shimizu came with 1937’s Forget Love for Now (Koi mo wasurete) and honestly, it was a tad bit disappointing. It is a very fine film, no doubt, but between the non-ideal viewing conditions and somewhat melodramatic sensibility, it didn’t nearly live up to my expectations. This film, on the other hand, seems to correct all of the problems I had with that film. If anything, Kanzashi is one of the most undramatic films of all time, at least in a traditional sense. It downplays all the conventions of storytelling and yet communicates something extremely profound, if unexplainable.

The film opens with a fairly long tracking shot that follows a pair of women making their way to a hot spring resort. We cut to another group that includes by a recuperating war vet, Osamura. While taking a bath, his toe is pricked by a hairpin, which had been left there by Emi, one of the women in the opening sequence. He is baffled by his discovery but also sees a poetic illusion within it, leading the professor (another resort guest) to believe that some immediate romantic spark exists between Emi and Osamura. Emi returns to the resort to apologize but Osamura attempts to downplay the injury. They both become absorbed into an ideal way of living, shared with resort neighbors.

At the time of it’s release, Shimizu’s film was written off as being purely escapist and it is easy to understand why. Once the principle characters are introduced, little drama is injected into the story. Instead, the film is built around a series of snapshots ranging from awkward (Emi and Osamura’s first meeting) to silly (the snoring contest) to heartbreaking (the poignant finale) and all of this is filmed in Shimizu’s extremely austere style. His camera remains static for most of the film, with only a few exceptions. Combine this with Shimzu’s sharp humor, which is perfectly profiled in the introduction of the professor, and the result is something that anticipates the early features of Fassbinder, as well as the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

Even when stacked up against the best of “plotless Asian” cinema, Kanzashi feels uneventful but this is, if anything, a strength. Where the film isn’t so much escapist entertainment, as it is about people participating an escape, it perfectly captures moments bursting with emotions nuanced to the point of appearing trivial. The “group” that we follow is almost like a perfect family, but underneath their fleeting moments of happiness, is something overwhelmingly sad. From time to time, Emi receives messages from Tokyo that encourages her to come back. In the end, everyone returns to Tokyo except for her. We know little to nothing of Emi’s past but it is lack of character exposition that makes the film so powerful. It captures a brief period of time in which essentially nothing happens, at least not on the surface, but underneath is a lot of drama and it is riveting as hell. In other words, a complete masterpiece.

Billy Liar (1963)

24 05 2008

It’s quite funny that this came out the same year as Anderson’s This Sporting Life since this film represents a deviation for the “angry young men” genre, occasionally approaching a level of parody. Proclaiming it as an ancestor to modern quirky indie films may be an exaggeration but it does maintain a free-form style not unlike that in Altman’s more immediately groundbreaking Brewster McCloud. Still, this is a few years earlier so it is exceptionally evolved for its time, especially considering how dull and repetitive many of the British New Wave’s features were becoming. An enjoyable way to spend 90-some minutes but one shouldn’t expect substantial emotional resonance.

William Fisher is a lazy young man frustrated by the constant nagging of his parents, as well as the demands of his multiple girlfriends and his dull desk job as a clerk for a funeral home. He frequently escapes from reality to the country of Amborsia, a dream in which he is the prime minister. His optimism carries over to some of his real life experiences as he attempts to become a screenwriter in London. However, it is clear that he is over his head and in the mean time, he meets Liz, the only girl who seems to understand him and the only girl he seems to have genuine feelings for. They plan to escape to London and start a life together but William feels attached to his “boring” lifestyle and can’t fully make up his mind.

While well-regarded for its strange comedic sensibility, even more is written about the poignancy in Billy Liar. At the risk of giving the final sequence away, I must say that it is a very emotionally relevant decision made by the film’s protagonist. He ultimately resists the change in his life that he is so eager to facilitate. While it is disappointing to see William run away from the beautiful Julie Christie, it also communicates something deeper, in retrospect, that I think every human can relate to in some form. Even if we despise our current way of living, we are still attached to its rigorous flow.

Now, this is probably giving the film too much credit. It basically goofs around for ninety minutes and tries to deliver something profound within the closing sequence. The rest of the film plays about in a much more inconsequential but equally riveting manner. The self-consciously “serious” finale is a bit jarring, though, in spite of Schlesinger’s best attempts to have it play in with the rest of William’s fantasies. It’s almost impossible not to think of Brewster McCloud and its finale, which tries similarly attempts to be poignant but pulls it off in a way that corresponds with the rest of the film’s silly, carefree tone.