31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-Nine, Thirty and Thirty-One: “Yi Yi” | “Pather Panchali” | “Winter Sleep”

The opening of Yi Yi—the three-hour swansong of the late Taiwanese New Wave master Edward Yang—had me worried: the character introductions are uneven, the musical theme is saccharine. But the film quickly recovered after that. It traces one year in which a well-off Taipei family faces crises of communication, trust, maturation, and the major transitions that we like to package into things called milestones. The father, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), heads to Tokyo to cement two relationships: one with the Japanese software developer Ota (a tender yet serious Issei Ogata)—with whom he talks in halting English, since neither knows the other’s native tongue and English is a global force—and one with an old flame, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). His daughter, Ting-Ting, has a crush on Fatty (Pang Chang Yu), the moody boyfriend of her best friend, Lili (Meng-Chin Lin). Her little brother, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang)—no doubt named for the filmmaker—is precocious and wise for his age, a fact that the adults around him don’t appreciate as much as they should. NJ’s mother is comatose but back at home; doctor’s orders are to keep talking with her as if she were conscious to keep her uplifted in case she does wake up. The family can say anything they want to her yet can’t expect reward from it. She is a vessel for catharsis, and one of the film’s chief themes is whether environment, or at least an unconscious entity, can have a tone, an emotion.

Several scenes occur in an empty room or in a room into which innocuous action is filtered, with the central narrative developing offstage in the actors’ urgent voices. There is a disconnect between sight and sound, yet also an esteem for and an effort to capture urban space unfettered by human presence or perception—an artifact and a memory that will withstand the most pressing concerns of the mortals on its periphery. We’re always on the periphery with these characters, not allowed to get too involved, because we’ve got three hours to hustle through, yet we grow quite attached to them. The standard rituals that form life’s milestones—the wedding, the firstborn birth, the anniversary—are all on display here, but Yang does not use them as clichés, rather as defense mechanisms by which people stave off the stress of transition, insomuch that by the time of the funeral that concludes the film, they’re exhausted and have no walls left to burn. There’s some commentary on globalization—McDonald’s, Coco-Cola, the English language—and we wonder why such staples in society have to promote themselves so aggressively when we all know what they are already (to foist their power, of course, in particular over youths), yet Yang’s view of this urban global culture is always impartial, leaving the people there to set the mood. Fatty does collapse into cliché—as he becomes the mortality-obsessed teen turned homicidal—and I was disappointed in his arc. But the film ends strong, and Yang-Yang’s climactic speech is undeniable.

Grade: A-

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As with most though not all debut films, Pather Panchali—the world’s introduction to West Bengali master Satyajit Ray—has its shortcomings, though it was and is quite an auspicious debut, especially considering the immense poverty and dearth of resources that it was made under and depicts. Based on a novel by B. Bandhopadhyay, and kicking off the filmmaker’s Apu trilogy, the film chronicles the efforts of Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) to care for her two children, Apu (Subir Banerjee) and Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta) and her aged cousin Indir—played by Chunibala Devi, in a performance so great, so minimalist and sexless and stoic, that I thought she was a man—in the absence of her husband Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), a poet who goes off to the city for work. Note that none of the Banerjees were related, yet their family unit is plausible throughout, so you could be forgiven for mistaking the coincidence. The story is built from vignettes that are connected perhaps a bit too loosely. There’s a contrast between the urban-industrial and the rural-pastoral that goes undeveloped; one scene set in a field of train tracks and power lines is supposed to suffice. I could have used more of that.

Granted, there is plenty of contrast between wealth and destitution, as is evidenced by Durga’s incessant impulse to steal fruits from the orchard of the family’s neighbor and (in a smattering of irony that I hope I am recalling correctly) once-landlord. And the vignettes host some truly beautiful moments: Apu’s introduction, which is constructed ominously enough to foretell a later death; the aforementioned train; an interaction with a candy vendor; a bathing scene; a play-within-the-play; a brutal monsoon; and an extended, impressionistic shot of a cow standing in the middle of ruins right after it. The photography is by Subrata Mitra, also debuting, and it is baffling that he had no experience with a camera before this. The film’s testament to innate talent over pedigree—to earning a living off artistic merit and not off playing to identifiable tropes, even while not everyone can succeed at that, much less use that to escape poverty—is thus very genuine. I hesitate to give away too much about the film, as it ends in tragedy (the monsoon is the least of it), and it is the sort of tragedy you must feel rather than be told about. Ray constructs this catastrophe with long takes, with set pieces of viscous silence and suspense, and the payoff is loud and vigorous. If there is one element that makes this film worth watching, however, it’s the music of Ravi Shankar. It doesn’t take long to see how he got famous. It’s stunning how broad an emotional range that man was able to create using just a handful of sitars and percussion. The soundtrack here is an aural feast.

Grade: A-

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The last three days of my July challenge saw me going west across Asia, from the Taiwan of Yi Yi to Ray’s India, finally ending with Winter Sleep in Turkey, on the cusp of Europe inasmuch as I was on the edge of the month, looking into an August in which I would not be burdened with thirty-one films. There is something sacred about an ending, something furtive and ethereal about having gone through a film—or a group of films—as a rite of passage, and emerging with the awareness of how it culminates. Spoilers cannot suffice for this feeling. Much of these emotions in fact were conjured by the Cappadocia depicted in this film, a borderland of modern buildings and houses carved into jagged, imbalanced, unstable towers of rock, a clash between nature and man, old and new, tradition and liberty. The most ostentatious of these constructions is an inn, the Hotel Othello, run by Aydin (the superb Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who spends his days writing hot air for the local news (on his rare Mac laptop, no less), extracting rent from the villagers, and insisting to himself that he will start writing his history of the Turkish theatre very soon. Towards the beginning, he’s riding shotgun in a truck when an indignant kid chucks a stone at his window. The entire plot emanates from that single moment.

Adapted by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who won the Palme d’Or for this, after several attempts) from some Chekhov stories, Sleep runs at over three hours and has been accused of wheel spinning. I disagree with that sentiment. The story uses as an axle two confrontations in its middle act—one between Aydin and his blasé sister Necla (Demet Akbag), the other between Aydin and his younger, more humane and simmering ex-wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen)—that are almost twenty minutes apiece. These scenes and others felt much more to me like real life than contrived cinema. People on different sides of a coin try to get their points across, things boil, they reach a détente and fall silent, then one of them can’t resist muttering a riposte, and the other’s passions grow inflamed, and it all starts up again and repeats itself…and so on. Tensions play out in the void between words, when words are calculated, as much as when they are spoken, and when they are, they aren’t always clear or accurately chosen or what ought to be said. Writing and acting scenes like that is a hundred times easier said than done, and Ceylan and his ensemble pull it off time and again. The effect is more hooking and exhilarating than one might think a three-hour gabfest should be. Throughout, the film shows awareness of time as a straggling process, but not without a pitch-black sense of humor. At one point, Aydin is told that his train is delayed by an hour, and that’s about how much of the film is left. Characters invoke Shakespeare and the tenets of Islam, with as much pretension as one may expect from artists and wordsmiths, yet the film is far from pretentious, as it exploits these references for irony and meta-commentary, which it earns. There is banal hunting scene, a use of English as a universal tongue similar to that in Yi Yi, and a climactic act of pure spite that nearly had me jumping from my seat. I’m with the Cannes jury here; this was a tremendous closer to the month.

Grade: A

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Well, folks, I’ve done it. Yes, it took me longer than I’d hoped to get the reviews finished, and yes, I abandoned my original schedule completely in the final days. Never mind. I watched all thirty-one films I said I’d watch, all within the month of July, and though the execution wasn’t perfect, the challenge was a success. There were a few duds and disappointments, but gratefully, there were no outright bad films in the bunch (except for maybe La Ciénaga), and I discovered five masterpieces (Eternity and a Day; Lore; In Vanda’s Room; Je, Tu, Il, Elle; and Open Your Eyes), several films that were close to, and several films that may grow on me in the coming weeks–which is more or less what I set out to do. Thanks to everyone who watched and read along, or who will watch and read along in the future. This challenge nabbed this blog its greatest number of readers yet (special thanks to the Robert Pattinson fans who recognized my approval of The Rover), and I will definitely do it again in the future (next January, perhaps) and am even contemplating making it an annual or twice-yearly tradition. I already have another list of films to get through. Furthermore, taking the effectiveness of this effort into account, I’m thinking of doing a similar challenge for literature, as God knows there are too many books that I need to read, so giving myself a concrete schedule of books just might do the trick. That’d have to be a yearlong endeavor, though, and the reading of each book would have to be drawn out to a week–two weeks, if it’s long. It’ll be more complicated. But it might be worth it, so don’t be surprised if you see a “52 Weeks of Literature” challenge springing up next year. In the meantime, I’m more satisfied than I’ve ever been to take a break from viewing films, and I’ll be glad to turn my focus back onto my Great Films reviews and other projects. Once again: thanks for reading!

31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-Nine, Thirty and Thirty-One: “Yi Yi” | “Pather Panchali” | “Winter Sleep”

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

When a people, a culture, a world enters the film industry for the first time, I welcome it gladly—and part of that welcoming is a critique of that culture’s inaugural film as a film in and of itself, equal to all others, no better or worse for its foreign novelty. The Fast Runner is the first-ever Inuit film—by which I say, the first film made entirely on Inuit terms, in their language, Inuktitut—and I think that some critics were quick to hail it as a masterpiece for this reason, a tendency that indicates to me a sort of racial condescension. “Oh look!” the attitude seems to be. “The Eskimos have discovered the cinema!” I am not so easily won over and not so enamored. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Runner adapts an ancient Inuit parable in which the titular athlete beds a woman betrothed to a rival clan’s prodigal son, ends up being framed for his older brother’s murder, and flees the premises. As an ethnography, of course, this is beyond criticism. The fur coats and tattoos; the construction of igloos; the way marine meat is prepared with a hammer; the openness towards sex; the treatment of sled dogs; the migration from snow to grass and river; the way life is lived—not just survived—in such a barren perpetual winter—these are all sights to behold. Critically, the Inuit culture values sport and physical strength, as one must be Spartan and horse-like to spend one’s life in the tundra of northern Canada. There are contests that routinely test such mind-blowing corporeal skills as kicking one’s feet up to knock down a pole and trying to use the back of one’s head to maneuver an elastic band off another’s hand. Similar contests—punching and mouth-pulling matches and such—serve as set pieces here. The scene in which the Fast Runner runs away from his brother’s slaughter, barefoot and nude, pecker literally in the wind, across snow and ice and stream in freezing weather, is marvelous, and one gains an immense trust and appreciation that the actors performed all their own stunts, with no stunt doubles (those jarring, albeit sometimes necessary, blemishes on agency and performance). Yet, as with most debut films, there are novice errors. The mise en scène is often lazy and generic; the actors often stand around like middle-school kids loitering in a park after hours smoking pot. Nearly three hours of that, where there could have been two, is hard to let pass. This is mainly a fault of the direction, though I do feel that the non-professional actors are overall better at small scenes between two or three people, for which their minimalism is more fit, than larger crowd scenes, which demand more incentive and animation. There are two pivotal scenes—a love scene in a crowded tent, and a coup d’état by stabbing—that are so absurd and so badly staged, I could not buy them, try as I might, and they nearly lost me. But they didn’t; The Fast Runner’s story is plenty gripping to recommend.

Grade: B

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In Dogville, the title village is constructed on a soundstage. The streets and the buildings’ floor plans are labeled in chalk. There are no ceilings, no walls, no windows, just some furniture—though the ensemble, in the tradition of theatre and by extension of cinema, acts like what’s missing is there, in character throughout. The existence of doors is mimed with action and sound effect, with no irony. We see the entire village population going about their day, performing quotidian tasks, within their walls, unaware of what’s going on beyond them—though we are. The camera may close in on action in one house and capture mundane movement in others, as if by accident, yet the actors on the periphery never let their guard drop. An entire culture is on display; we’re even allowed into these characters’ private thoughts, via John Hurt’s faux-literary narration. It goes to support what I wrote a few weeks back in my review of In Vanda’s Room: interiors are fallacious. Walls are not structures insomuch as they are concepts, secrets, barriers from knowledge, spheres of influence. More to the point, I don’t think this is a conceit (as some critics have said) but rather a different, more multi-dimensional way of perceiving life and action. The director, Lars von Trier, has given us access to see through walls as time travel would let us break those boundaries, to be omniscient. This—in tandem with the numerous shots looking straight down on the soundstage, depicting the actors’ heads as roving Pac-Man dots—convinces me that von Trier, in another of his endless controversial moves, wants us to play God, to exercise power, to judge these characters, to decide for ourselves between justice and mercy. It’s amusing how small, even petty, actors of the stature of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany can look through the machinations and dissections of von Trier’s ruthless eye.

Dogville is an epic set in the American West during the Great Depression. Von Trier hates America. He’s never been to America, though I’m not yet sure whether that’s because he hates it or because he’s afraid of flying (maybe both). Dogville has been called anti-American—not that there’s anything wrong with that by itself, but some have thought it a narrow position to take, and a naïve one when the lack of time spent studying the location in person is considered. To this, I advise you to bear in mind: Shakespeare never visited any of the exotic European locales he wrote about. Also: the film is kept bound within its tiny, nondescript village isolated in the Rockies to the point where I bought it. It’s an allegory of America, and it can afford to be inaccurate and even a little trite, and von Trier can get away with using it as a cathartic dumping ground for his various spites against the nation (you can get much relief out of doing that) because he is a sophisticated artist. The story he tells—like most of his stories—is simple, even when the canvas is broad and the ensemble vast. He sets his narrative up as a game, with rules and goals built to focus and challenge their characters, rules and goals that are constantly shifting but always clear. Grace (Kidman), running from the mob, hides in Dogville. She befriends the deliberately named Tom Edison (Bettany), the town’s writer—hence an inventor, so to speak, of tales and ideas—who persuades the close-knit-to-a-fault town to let her take sanctuary there, provided that she serves each of them with labor. She educates the kids, does the laundry, tends to the gooseberry bushes, acts as a surrogate to fill in the townspeople’s many disabilities and dysfunctions. She labors to survive. Who hasn’t? The whole plot jumps from there.

Von Trier is not for everyone. Not every actor wants to work with him. He is unafraid to disturb, upset, provoke, in the name of his art. On the other side of that penny, he can be soapy. Yet even the worst soap opera can be rescued by good performances (Cf. Shakespeare), and Dogville’s broad motley cast is fascinating to watch. Where else can you watch something like Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson as the ultimate mismatched couple, the husband a philandering boor and the wife a tight-assed, prudish spinster who puts up with seven kids and schools Grace on Stoicism? Not to mention Lauren Bacall as the old miser mooching off the townsfolk with her beauty products and figurines and crafting a ludicrous etiquette to observe around her gooseberry bushes? And James Caan as the mob boss with a surprising connection to Grace? Add to that Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, etc., and you have all sorts of acting styles and archetypes clashing in such fashions that one has to applaud von Trier for having the imagination and chutzpah to put it all together, and the ensemble for putting up with him. I hesitate to give away anything else about the story. I will say, though, that while the other two von Trier films I’ve seen (Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac) stumbled if not fumbled on their endings, Dogville’s denouement is a success. It is brutal, maddening, but well-earned and inevitable. Von Trier may be insane, but he has a point and he makes it well: the village’s poverty does not excuse its crimes. Grace’s ultimate actions against Dogville may horrify us, but would we judge the town differently?

Grade: A

Tomorrow: Reviews for Aguirre, and Bicycle Thieves, which I watched instead of Lore due to timing issues.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”