Jason Bellamy: “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” That’s a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong’s films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he’s developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong’s filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he’s using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he’s referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he’s approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop’s mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn’t everything, it’s a lot of it.
That theme pops up again and again in Wong’s films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong’s In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, “They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it.” While that’s particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong’s lead characters. In this conversation we’re going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we’ll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I’d like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong’s body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?
Ed Howard: That’s a great place to start, because Wong is one of those directors who often hardly seems to be making individual films so much as releasing fragments of one larger film that encompasses his entire career thus far. 2046 is more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and characters in both films are slightly altered versions of people who appear in Days of Being Wild, but those aren’t the only Wong films that seem part of a coherent larger universe. He returns again and again to his familiar stock company of actors, who often reappear from film to film playing the same characters, or variations on the same characters, or different characters with shared names. His films are linked in countless ways; that line about the expiration date is repeated in Fallen Angels (1995), which includes a character made mute by an accident involving expired pineapple. Similar repetitions and echoes recur throughout his filmography. It’s hard to think of another contemporary director whose films are quite so thematically consistent or as intricately interwoven with one another.
The effect is cumulative, to the point where I wonder if Days of Being Wild is the Wong film that affects me least because it’s really not quite as good as the others, or merely because it doesn’t have the same already-constructed framework of associations, characters and emotions to build on. By the time Wong gets to 2046, the effect is dizzying, a wild patchwork of references and vignettes that swirl in a vibrant color wheel around the same story that Wong has been telling over and over again throughout his career, a story of missed connections, longing and desire, unresolved dramas. Wong’s characters are often haunted by their pasts, so it’s appropriate that the films—and especially 2046—are also haunted by the past, by the films Wong has already made and the characters he’s already created. When Lulu (Carina Lau) appears in 2046, she fills us in on what happened to her after the events of Days of Being Wild, and her story is unquestionably enriched by the knowledge of her character from the earlier film. If one hadn’t seen Days of Being Wild first, her story in 2046 might be just another element in that film’s array of people desperately seeking love and connection, but with the earlier film as a reference point it’s heartbreaking to realize that so many years later, Lulu is still looking for a “legless bird,” a restless, dangerous, passionate man to replace the one she’d loved and lost so long ago.
The flipside of that argument, perhaps, is that Wong’s films are so interconnected that one has to see them all, or a lot of them, to get the full effect, and that those who don’t make that commitment might be a bit adrift with any given individual film. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine getting a whole lot out of 2046 without having seen many of Wong’s earlier films first—it’s a loony apex of self-referentiality. Maybe that’s a limitation, but I don’t see it that way. Entering Wong’s world is always a pleasure, and his cast of characters and types—restless romantics, would-be noir adventurers, lovelorn cops and self-consciously posing criminals—all seem to be engaged in a search that, for Wong, might just be the essence of being human. The searching, restless quality of his films and his characters, the desperate desire for love, is a core human quality, which Wong’s characters simply express in more eccentric and dramatic ways than most, and Wong matches their inventive romantic gyrations with an equally exaggerated, expressive style. Film and characters together are striving for connection, remaking the world through the eyes of one hopeless romantic after another.
JB: I’d love to disagree with you just for the sake of argument, but we’re of the same mind on this one. As you suggested, Wong seems to be creating one sprawling work—a feeling that is enhanced not only by the ways that his films overlap when regarded from a distance, but also by the episodic construction of his individual films, wherein narrative cohesion is often flimsy at best. While In the Mood for Love tells one story from start to finish, the other pictures we’re discussing include abrupt shifts in narrative focus and even tone, to the point that when reflecting on Wong’s filmography it feels more natural to think of each vignette within its own organic narrative and thematic margins, rather than according to the boundaries created by the opening and closing credits. One could argue, for example, that the story of the cop in Chungking Express would fit just as nicely into Days of Being Wild or 2046. Wong’s vignettes are malleable that way, to the point that their assemblage within any given film seems almost arbitrary. It’s an effect that reminds me, strangely enough, of the way that so many of Woody Allen’s whiny rants on love are so readily interchangeable from film to film—any exchange from Manhattan could easily fit into Husbands & Wives or Deconstructing Harry, just to name three.
Actually, maybe that isn’t so strange. After all, Allen’s films are often criticized for their repetitiveness, which is also a complaint I’ve heard aimed at Wong’s body of work. We agree that the cumulative effect of Wong’s films enhances the individual works, but what if Wong were as prolific as Woody? At that point might the magic spell be broken even among his most ardent fans? I’m sure some would argue that Wong has made enough films to have already answered that question. But before we jump to the end, let’s begin with what for our purposes is the beginning: Days of Being Wild. You already mentioned that it’s the film that affects you least, but why? Is it because it doesn’t benefit from the momentum and background of the subsequent films? Or is it underwhelming all on its own? And if so, how?
EH: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Days of Being Wild doesn’t quite move me like Wong’s other films. To be sure, there are wonderful moments in this film. The opening scenes, in which Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) seduces Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) through cocky persistence and smooth talk, are delightful, especially his romantic gesture of spending a minute watching the clock with her, telling her he’ll remember her forever because of that minute. (That all of this later turns out to be just the game of an unregenerate ladies’ man doesn’t quite erase the romanticism of those scenes.) There’s also the wonderful sequence in which Li-zhen spends the night walking around town with the cop Tide (Andy Lau), talking through her heartache and sadness with him. It’s a beautiful sequence, with a late-night noir atmosphere as the two near-strangers stroll through the dark and empty town with its rain-slick streets.
The imagery in this film is gorgeous throughout; this was Wong’s first film with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot nearly all of Wong’s subsequent films, and it’s the beginning of a very fruitful creative partnership. The lush green jungles of the Philippines, where Yuddy eventually goes to find his birth mother, seem to hang over the film like a premonition: the credits roll over a tracking shot of the jungle, thick and wet, with layered shades of green, and this image is reflected in the overall green tint of the film. It’s as though that jungle aura has subtly infiltrated the city, overlaying these urban spaces like a damp blanket.
So the film’s atmosphere is certainly enthralling, and it has sequences that are as potent as anything in Wong’s later work. If it’s still a little underwhelming, I think it’s because I just don’t connect with these characters as deeply as I do in Wong’s other films. Li-zhen has more substance here than Maggie Cheung’s rather generic yearning girlfriend in Wong’s debut, As Tears Go By, but she’s still fairly one-dimensional, and the same could be said of Corina Lau’s Lulu; both women are defined almost exclusively by their desire for the male protagonist. There’s not as much of the eccentric character detail that fleshes out the similar romantics and heartbroken drifters of the later films, and the result is that the film feels like a stripped-down template for a typical Wong scenario. The later films were built on top of this foundation, and the flourishes and elaborations of the films to follow are what make them truly special. Wong’s best films are highly specific in their examinations of the desire for connection—one character channels his loneliness into the collection of pineapple cans, another rearranges the apartment of the object of her desire, another recasts his life and loves as a sci-fi adventure story—and Days of Being Wild, for all its admirable qualities, is comparatively lacking in that specificity.
JB: Indeed, there’s a kind of directionlessness to Days of Being Wild that keeps it from feeling centered on its axis. The film’s core themes are the same ones we outlined earlier, and yet both times I’ve watched it I’ve come away uncertain as to what it’s really “about.” Over the final 20 minutes, there are several moments that feel like the period at the end of the sentence, only to turn out to be commas or semicolons: Yuddy walks away from his mother’s home, not allowing her to see his face; Yuddy leaves Tide’s hotel room with both of them now remembering one another (or maybe not) from Hong Kong; Yuddy gets shot on the train; Yuddy’s mother, in a flashback, watches her infant son being taken away from her; Yuddy, in voiceover narration, has his epiphany about the bird with no legs; Yuddy and Tide talk openly about the woman that unites them; and the phone rings at the booth where Tide told Li-zhen to call him. Each of those moments feels like good places to end the film, and yet it keeps going. And while it’s not my place to argue how the film should end, I’ve never felt a clear sense for why it keeps continuing, especially given its ultimate destination (more on that in a moment). Those final 20 minutes feel slapped together, strongly at odds with the first half of the film in which many scenes are unnecessarily drawn out. (I want to slam my head into the wall each time Yuddy’s “aunt” delivers one of her “haven’t we covered this already?” monologues about why she won’t help Yuddy find his mother.)
I wholeheartedly agree with you that there are terrific moments within the film—a few of them moments that, not surprisingly, are part of the requisite mini-montage that precedes one’s ability to press “play” on the DVD menu: Yuddy’s goofy-suave dance of solitude in his apartment; Lulu seductively swaying her hips in front of Yuddy before they have sex; Lulu, glammed up, strutting into the frame in search of Yuddy; and of course those treetop shots of the Philippines. And you’ve mentioned some other great scenes on top of those. But compared to the rest of Wong’s work, everything seems a click or two off. Take, for example, that over-the-shoulder shot of Lulu strutting toward the door in search of Yuddy: earrings dangling, cigarette in her lips, the bright door reflecting enough light to create an alluring silhouette. Lulu throws open the door and Wong rack-focuses to Zeb (Jacky Cheung) sitting in her dressing room, and then rack-focuses back to Lulu, her face turned toward us over her shoulder so that we can see her bright red lipstick and blue eyeliner. It’s a stunning shot—and yet it’s not quite in focus. Not at first. That might seem like a petty criticism, especially in isolation, but it’s the kind of inexactitude that you couldn’t imagine from Wong in the ever-so-precise In the Mood for Love. (To think about it another way: the classic reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man wouldn’t have the same panache if the camera needed a moment to focus on Orson Welles’ face.) It’s still a great moment within the film, but it’s one with a small yet glaring imperfection.
I feel the same about the way Wong handles a subsequent scene between Lulu and Zeb at the restaurant, immediately after their violent confrontation in the rain when Lulu scolds Zeb for thinking he can become Yuddy just by taking his apartment and his car. The restaurant scene begins with Zeb putting a large wad of cash on the table in front of a depressed Lulu and then sliding into the booth. “What’s with all this money,” Lulu asks. After a long silence, Zeb replies: “Like you said, you’ve got to deserve something.” Zeb’s body is slightly turned away from Lulu, his eyes searching the ceiling for words. “He looked real good in the car,” Zeb continues, in reference to Yuddy. “I looked like a joke. So it was better just to sell it.” Again there’s a long silence. Zeb’s sadness and longing hang there like the moisture in the air. He wishes he were Yuddy, wishes Lulu wanted him like she wants Yuddy. It’s a moment that comes almost out of nowhere (Zeb is a minor character), but it might be the most poignant moment in the film. And yet from there Wong employs an awkward cut to look Zeb in the eyes, from Lulu’s point of view across the table, as he convinces her to take the cash and go to the Philippines in search of Yuddy. It’s a simple cut to a sensible enough camera angle, but with that cut the mood is broken. The subsequent shot doesn’t seem like a new point of view but like a new take, a new scene, a new moment. It’s like hearing a record skip.
Days of Being Wild seems undone by similar small but significant scratches that repeatedly taint the atmosphere that Wong is attempting to create. Wong frequently recreates that atmosphere—because that’s one of his greatest gifts—but soon it’s lost again, or it seems disjointed from the rest. The final scene is a perfect example of the latter: After the aforementioned moment when the pay phone rings in the sad darkness, Wong cuts to a well-dressed man sitting on a bed, filing his nails, getting ready for a night on the town. The room is dark. Is it Yuddy? Is he still alive? Is it Tide or Zeb; have they become what Yuddy was? No, no, no and no. Instead it’s a character we’ve never seen before (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who primps and preens for about two-and-a-half minutes to the sound of Xavier Cugat’s haunting “Purfidia,” before turning off his bedroom lamp and walking out of the frame, ending the film. According to a typically thorough post by David Bordwell, that last scene was intended as a prequel of sorts for a sequel that never happened, but nevertheless it’s the final scene of this film. And I’m curious to know what you think about it, and whether it’s damning that two-and-a-half of the film’s most engaging minutes really have nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.
EH: I think it’s pretty typical of this film which, as you say, has lots of interesting images and moments but often leaves them dangling, disconnected from one another and from the film as a whole. The last twenty minutes or so—which, I’ll be honest, were utterly baffling to me the first time around—are especially disorienting, and not just because of the elliptical storytelling or the sudden introduction of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s unnamed character. The scene where Yuddy triggers a shootout with a group of thugs and gangsters is a sudden and bizarre diversion from the tone of the rest of the film, like it was pasted in from a wholly different film. Wong had a background in Hong Kong crime dramas, first as a writer and also in his directorial debut As Tears Go By, and this scene makes it clear that those films were still a lingering influence in his work, one he’d soon submerge much more deeply. (Another obvious reference point is Taxi Driver, and Scorsese in general, especially in the use of music.) Violence often erupts suddenly in Wong’s work, fast and frantic, but in the later films such incidents become less common, and when they do happen they’re jarring because of the violence and its effects on the characters, not because, as here, there seems to have been a stylistic tear in the surface of the film itself.
That’s not the only sign that in Days of Being Wild Wong was still pulling together the elements of his style into the coherent—but eclectic and unpredictable—aesthetic that would fully gel with his next film, Chungking Express. It’s funny you mentioned Orson Welles, because sometimes Days of Being Wild seems modeled on the angled cameras and striking framings of Welles the director, with the camera frequently either looking down on the characters from a skewed godlike perspective or craning up at them from the gutter. At one point, as Tide walks away from Li-zhen into the night, the camera suddenly positions itself, for no apparent reason, down by her legs as she leans against a wall; for a moment, the composition allows this shy, awkward young woman to become a femme fatale, her bare legs towering over the decreasing figure of the cop as he strolls away down the street. In other scenes, Wong’s visual language references the conventions of melodrama, particularly in all the mirror shots in which the characters aren’t seen directly, only their reflections appearing from odd angles. Yuddy’s “aunt” and Lulu are especially suited to melodramatics, and it’s fitting that they’re often the characters associated with mirrors in this film—most notably when Lulu, enraged over Yuddy’s sudden departure for the Philippines, throws everything off her dressing table and shatters her mirror at the nightclub where she works.
Even if everything doesn’t quite fit together in this film, the stylistic clashes are fascinating, and there’s a sense that Wong is discovering and assembling for the first time the distinctive elements of his personal style. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable, as when Wong and Doyle construct a bravura tracking shot that follows Yuddy up multiple flights of a staircase and into the train station bar where he’ll soon be embroiled in a shootout. It’s the flashy look-at-me maneuver of a director announcing his presence with a style-for-its-own-sake flourish. There’s a similar joy in the sequence of Lulu dancing for Zeb in the stairwell of Yuddy’s apartment, raising her arms above her head and swinging her hips seductively. It’s the moment when Zeb falls for her, and the camera peeks down on the scene from above, glancing over Zeb’s shoulder to convey a sense of his perspective, the dizzying angle creating a sensation of vertigo, as though the smitten young man might fall, or leap, into his feelings of desire and love. I feel like I could just keep picking out these moments, because this is a film of moments, where the individual elements never quite cohere into a whole. In subsequent films, I think, Wong would figure out how to maintain that emphasis on the heightened reality of individual moments while slowly accumulating those details as part of a larger picture; here, many of the details are compelling even if the film as a whole doesn’t have that cumulative impact.
JB: There’s no question that Wong learned to better maintain the tone of his films—even with significant shifts in point of view—in subsequent efforts. Like you, when I watch Days of Being Wild I find it fascinating to see an artist discovering his form in the film’s thrilling moments, but I find the stylistic clashes far too jarring to feel that the film is thrilling on the whole. The outbursts of violence are a good example. The film has three of them, and while the first one is poorly staged (Yuddy’s assault on the lover of his “aunt” is one of the least convincing ass-whuppins this side of the hurtin’ that Sonny Corleone puts on his brother-in-law in The Godfather) and the third one is curiously extreme (the shootout), the second one is rather well done: Zeb striking Lulu in the middle of a rain storm and knocking her to the ground. But the scene doesn’t quite work because it doesn’t feel earned. We just haven’t seen enough of Zeb or Lulu to be emotionally invested in either of them, and so it plays like a narrative aside. It’s a potentially great scene, it just isn’t great in this movie.
That’s kind of the way I feel about the finale, too, although in that case I think it is a great scene, even within this movie. The drawback, though, is that it makes me wish I’d just watched that movie—the one about Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s invisible man. I think those final minutes expose Days of Being Wild’s biggest fault: Leung isn’t in it. Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung give solid enough performances, but they don’t have Leung’s magnetism. Over the course of the films we’re discussing here, Leung proves himself to be unfailingly watchable. He has an effortless energy. The camera loves him, even from afar when he’s buffing his nails. He has the kind of magnetism that we’ve seen recently from George Clooney in The American—Leung can make the most mundane acts compelling. I think Days of Being Wild also suffers in comparison to Wong’s other works due to its blue-green color palette, which feels muted compared to the vibrant reds, yellows and greens that we encounter elsewhere. But even with the subdued palette, and even with all those little imperfections that I mentioned earlier, I find myself thinking that if Leung had been cast as Yuddy, that might have made all the difference.
EH: One place we definitely disagree is on the film’s color palette, which I think is gorgeous and wholly appropriate to the film’s melancholy mood; it’s muted, but deliberately so. We also seem to disagree about Leslie Cheung, and maybe about Yuddy, because though there’s no doubt that Tony Leung Chiu Wai has movie star charisma to spare—along with Maggie Cheung he’s probably the most compelling presence in Wong’s films—I think Leslie Cheung does an excellent job of making Yuddy an interesting character.
But not an especially likable character. He’s a womanizer whose smooth words and tough guy pose are eventually stripped away, revealing a fragile and pathetic loser who is unable to take responsibility for his own life. He likes to think of himself, romantically, as a bird with no legs that can’t stop flying for even a moment: “The bird can only land once in its life. That’s the moment it dies.” This dialogue could be uttered by any number of (overly) romantic Wong heroes, including those played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the later films, but the difference is that in Days of Being Wild the main character and his romantic pretensions are utterly demolished. Yuddy is twice told off in the film, his shield pierced by people who see right through him. First, his “aunt,” finally sick of his incessant moping over his missing mother, tells him that he’s using his adoption as an excuse, which is of course true, as evidenced by the somewhat stunned look on Yuddy’s face when she finally tells him where to find his mother, and his obvious ambivalence about getting what he’s always claimed to want. In his eyes you can see the realization that his bluff has been called, and now he’ll actually have to do something besides complain and half-heartedly seduce women.
The second time Yuddy’s cool façade is broken is by the cop, Tide, when the two meet up in the Philippines. Yuddy starts rattling off his familiar bird metaphor, but the cop interrupts him, dismantling the romanticism of Yuddy’s self-image as a free spirit. Yuddy is just a drunk who was found in the garbage, the cop says, referring to the pathetic scene he’d witnessed where Yuddy was robbed by a prostitute after passing out in the street. I don’t think any other Wong protagonist gets his ego and his sense of “cool” punctured as thoroughly as this.
JB: That’s certainly true. And we’re actually not that far apart on Yuddy and Leslie Cheung’s performance. I agree that Yuddy is a compelling enough character and that Leslie Cheung delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. And yet those final two-and-a-half minutes with Tony Leung Chiu Wai are almost enough to make you forget about everything that precedes them; that’s my point. Each time I watch the film I find myself thinking back to that last shot of Yuddy on the train, looking upward as the life drains from his face, and I can’t help but feel that somehow Leung would have made that scene the definitive end point. There would have been no need to go further.
Of course, that’s speculation, an attempt to understand why the film doesn’t affect me as deeply as Wong’s others. And, actually, Chungking Express is kind of in the same boat. It’s a more tonally consistent film than Days of Being Wild—within its vignettes, at least—but it, too, feels like a collection of arresting moments scattered within less-than-absorbing filler. Chungking Express is a sweet film, by far the most lighthearted of the works we’re discussing here, and while Wong does sweetness quite well, he doesn’t do it extraordinarily. Most of the film’s best moments are the ones where heartbreak and loneliness are close enough to touch. That’s not to say that they’re “sad” scenes, necessarily. One of my favorite moments in all of Wong’s filmography is the shot of Leung’s cop landing a toy airplane on the naked back of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow)—a romantic and sexy scene if there ever was one, but a heartbreaking one also, because Leung’s character is remembering this moment after their breakup, missing the relationship that he thought would last forever.
That’s Wong’s gift—the ability to make a scene touching and devastating all at once. But in between such moments, Chungking Express offers many that are atypically frictionless. For a film that’s about two heartbroken guys, it’s unusually cutesy, isn’t it? Or do you think Wong finds his usual level of emotional conflict from a different angle of approach?
EH: Wow, I don’t agree with you on this film at all. Chungking Express is quite possibly my favorite Wong film, with 2046 a pretty close second. For all the lighthearted humor and “sweetness” to be found here, Chungking Express isn’t exactly a cuddly film, and if it’s “cutesy” at times then it’s a cuteness mixed with real pain and also real beauty. It’s a hyperactive pastiche that evokes a very complicated stew of emotions, with Wong’s familiar heartache and loneliness spiced with brighter, warmer emotions. The film is practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters’ internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery. It’s a remarkably sensual film, not just in that sexy interlude that you mention (which, I agree, is one of Wong’s very best scenes) but in the beautiful candlelit sequence where the candles’ lights seem to elongate, stretching upwards, or in the kaleidoscopic, fragmented reflection of a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the cop in the first half of the film) and the unnamed blonde-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin) in the surface of a bar.
As I alluded to in discussing Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express is the film where Wong consolidates the elements of his style into a coherent and powerful whole, even while telling two different stories connected by only the slightest of threads, and even while splintering each of those stories into discrete moments and incidents. What holds the film together, more than anything else, is music, a very rigorous and programmatic use of music that closely associates songs with particular characters. Each of the women in the film has a single song associated with her. For the blond-wigged drug smuggler, it’s Dennis Brown’s great “Things In Life,” which announces the blond woman’s presence whenever it’s chosen on a bar jukebox. For Faye (Faye Wong), who desires Leung’s cop, it’s “California Dreamin’,” which she blasts at work at the food stand, turning up the volume and bobbing her head, lost in the world of the song. Even the stewardess ex-girlfriend gets a song, a soulful Dinah Washington tune, and when the cop finds Faye playing this song one day instead of her familiar “California Dreamin’,” he tells her it’s wrong for her, recognizing that the song belongs to another woman.
What Chungking Express is about, ultimately, is the possibility of human connection in an increasingly impersonal and distancing world—a theme that runs throughout Wong’s work but is perhaps expressed most potently (and most optimistically) here. In this film, just as songs come to define the essence of a person, in a more impersonal way numbers often stand in for people as well: the answering machine service where Kaneshiro’s cop is known only by a number, the cops’ badge numbers that pretty much replace their real names. In this context the urgency of emotional connection, of real feelings, is even more important, though often it seems that these characters are better at channeling their feelings into things rather than people. That’s why Kaneshiro’s character attempts to quantify his heartbreak in cans of pineapple, while Leung’s character in the second half anthropomorphizes his apartment and talks to beer bottles when Faye stands him up. He says he likes to see his apartment cry when it’s flooded with water or when a towel drips tears after getting wet; he likes to feel that these objects are not impersonal, that there is feeling and emotion invested in them.
Indeed, that’s the impulse behind Faye’s interventions in the cop’s apartment, rearranging things and adding new elements in an attempt to insinuate herself into his life through incremental adjustments to his living space. That’s a frequent trope of Wong’s films, in which his lovelorn characters often try to achieve closeness and connection through the empty apartments occupied at other times by the people they desire. This is the only form of intimacy available to the killer and his partner in Fallen Angels, and similar scenes recur in Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. I think Wong finds it such a compelling and enduring concept because it so completely expresses the simultaneous distance and intimacy between these characters. In the living space of a loved one, his characters are surrounded by intimate details of the person they desire, but it’s a strictly one-way connection, and often a closer, more physical connection eludes them. In Chungking Express, the idea is expressed most poignantly in the scene where Leung’s cop wanders all around his apartment looking for his stewardess ex-girlfriend, half-convinced that she’s returned to him, and in the process he completely fails to notice Faye, who’s dodging him and hiding just out of his sight. It’s a playful and funny sequence, and even a little “cutesy,” but it also expresses the heartbreaking fact that, obsessed with his past and his pain, the cop is unable to see the hopeful future that’s right in front of his face.
JB: Oh, come on, man. That scene is “cutesy,” and not just “a little.” We don’t have to consider “cutesy” an insult, and, truly, I don’t, but we at least have to call it what it is. I think you’re right, of course, that there’s genuine heartbreak in this film, and even in that scene (although to a far lesser degree), but in the traditional sense Chungking Express is more comedy than tragedy, not just because of the somewhat atypical happy ending, but also because almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy. For example, think of Qiwu, the cop in the first half of the picture, making funny expressions as he munches through one of his cans of pineapple, or offering pineapple to his confused beagle. Think of the montage of Qiwu calling seemingly every woman he’s ever known in an effort to land a date, at one point phoning someone who he hasn’t talked to since the fourth grade, who not surprisingly doesn’t even remember him. Think of Qiwu repeating his lame pickup line four times to the blond-wigged drug smuggler until he lands on the language they share. Think of Qiwu coming up with three reasons why a woman would be wearing sunglasses at night, never considering that they might be a disguise, or later cleaning the drug smuggler’s shoes, perhaps wiping away evidence, thus repeatedly proving his bumbling ineptitude as a cop. Or think of Leung’s cop, number 663, talking to a bar of soap or to a “crying” dishrag. Or think of almost every scene with Faye, the virginal innocent, a schoolgirl in a woman’s body, playing in Leung’s character’s apartment: flying a toy plane around the room, submerging the toy in a fish tank, swapping out the labels on cans of fish or calling her uncle on a sunny day to say that she’s trapped in a rainstorm when really she’s watering a plant in the shower. None of those moments are riotous knee-slappers, but I think they’re more likely to induce smiles than tears, and while I would never suggest that genuine pain is entirely overlooked in this picture, I certainly don’t feel Chungking Express has the same soul-crushing emotional intensity of the other films we’re talking about here.
In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that Chungking Express is a lesser film than Wong’s other works. I only mean to point out that it’s quite different. Chungking Express is an optimistic picture, one that suggests that no matter how bad things seem at any given point, there is always hope for improvement, sometimes in the most unpredictable of ways. Kaneshiro’s character begins his birthday convinced that no one out there is thinking of him, and he leaves his story fortified by the simple gesture of a woman he doesn’t know. Leung’s character begins his story in love with the flight attendant, then falls in love with Faye, then loses Faye just as quickly and ultimately finds happiness giving up his badge and taking over the food stand where they met. What I enjoy most about the film is the way it reflects how childlike and vulnerable we can be in private moments: Kaneshiro’s character tries to exude cool, but the password to access his voicemail is “Love you for 10,000 years,” and his apartment includes large stuffed animals; and then there’s Leung’s character, who walks around his apartment in his underwear while clinging to the playfulness that he enjoyed with his girlfriend. In some of Wong’s films, his characters are perhaps overly poetic, but these characters feel modest, accessible and familiar, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s an ultimately touching film, but I don’t find nearly the level of poignancy in it that you do.
EH: I never meant to imply, of course, that Chungking Express isn’t funny and lighthearted, because it undoubtedly is both. But that humor, that playful sensibility in these sometimes almost-childlike characters, doesn’t diminish the poignancy of their floundering search for love and intimacy. The film focuses on the same themes of heartache and connection as Wong’s other films, but does so with much more humor, and with much more optimism about the place these heartbroken characters ultimately end up. (For the most part, anyway: notably, the blond-wigged woman kills the former partner who betrayed her and then wanders off alone, a much more expected Wong ending.)
Wong uses his newly assured, eclectic style to explore these emotions, balancing the playfulness of the characters—and of the stylistic flourishes he slathers over the film—with the more painful and heartbreaking aspects of the stories and characters. The scene you bring up where Qiwu gets a birthday call from the blond woman is a good example. Wong’s aesthetics magnify the moment, enhancing its emotions and its surprising beauty. Qiwu makes the call to his answering service, gets the message, and Wong inserts a shot of a clock turning from 5:59 to 6:00, marking the anniversary of the exact moment when Qiwu was born. That’s what Wong is all about, that kind of heightened reality, an intensified reality where every gesture is meaningful, where every coincidence is magnified into a real movie moment. Qiwu is happy to get a call on his birthday, just when he most needs that assurance of human connection, and he says he’ll remember the moment forever, that he wishes he could can it like pineapple. Wong freezes the frame on a shot of Qiwu with his hand on his chest, as though trying to hold what he’s feeling now in his heart. It’s a very moving scene, one of many in this film.
That’s because the flipside of your correct assertion that “almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy” is that all that humor and whimsy is wrapped around characters who are, like most of Wong’s romantic heroes and heroines, desperately seeking to either regain the love they’ve lost or to discover love anew. That scene where Qiwu calls all the now-long-outdated names in his little black book is very funny, yes, but there’s also something sad about it, especially since it draws attention to his now-ended five-year relationship, as some of the women he calls say they haven’t heard from him in exactly that many years. Chungking Express may not have the “soul-crushing emotional intensity” of most of Wong’s other films, but only because its emotions aren’t really “soul-crushing,” for the most part—they’re certainly intense enough, though.
JB: That’s true, and my comments about the frictionlessness of Chungking Express are relative to its place within Wong’s filmography, which is heavy in “soul-crushing” gravity. Meanwhile, I have to recognize that your defense of the film’s poignancy, in spite of its playfulness, is somewhat upheld by the fact that the blond-wigged woman’s story makes for the least powerful vignette in the film, despite its considerably more severe tone—one marked by violence and death. To be clear, I’m not saying that her vignette is unaffecting, because I’m consistently crushed by the simple brutality of the moment when she kidnaps the shop owner’s daughter and leaves him to agonize over his daughter’s fate, unaware that the kidnapper is treating her to bowls of ice cream with every intention of returning her safely. For the most part, though, the wigged woman’s story draws its power from the ways it overlaps with Qiwu’s story, and perhaps from its intrigue, and when her story ends we’re reminded of how little we know of her. Her anonymity, of course, is one of the main reasons that her vignette is less affecting than that of either of the cops, as is the fact that she has less screen time than either of them. But I suspect that another key factor is attributable to the vignette’s style.
Earlier you said that Chungking Express is “practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters’ internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery.” I agree with the latter part, but I don’t think the first part requires any sort of modifier, and sometimes I wonder about the ultimate effect of Wong’s “visual ideas.” Chungking Express is, indeed, overflowing with style, and no more so than in the vignette of the drug smuggler, which is highlighted by off-kilter slow- and fast-motion sequences that turn the florescent city lights into neon blurs. It’s an appropriate visual treatment, underlining the way in which the drug smuggler is always on the run, never settled (until, of course, she meets Qiwu and reduces to his speed, eventually even taking a nap), but it’s not a treatment that lends itself well to repeated use, and by the midway point it feels overdone. It’s a flourish that can be defended but that doesn’t quite fulfill—an exercise in style that has substantive justification and motive that nonetheless winds up feeling like nothing more than gratuitous ornamentation. It’s the most obvious example, in my opinion, of a time when Wong shoots for that “heightened reality” that you mentioned and misses the mark. But I suspect you might think otherwise.
EH: You suspect right. Part of it is that I may just have more appreciation for gratuitous style for its own sake than you. But more than that, I find the style of Chungking Express to be utterly thrilling in every way, including the manipulation of speed that makes the drug smuggler’s scenes leap unpredictably from frantic action to languid lyricism. As we’ve both pointed out, Wong is usually dealing with very strong, intense emotions, so it makes sense that he’s developed a visual style that’s suited to expressing those emotions with an appropriate level of intensity. At the same time, the hyperactive pastiche of the scenes with the drug smuggler represent a nod to Wong’s immersion in genre filmmaking, and the blond-wigged woman herself is another of Wong’s genre archetypes, even if Chungking Express as a whole distances itself from the hyper-violent stylization of As Tears Go By or Fallen Angels.
The drug smuggler seems to come from a different world (and a different film) from the cops, who despite their profession don’t exactly seem like they come into contact with high crime every day. You’ve already pointed out some of the most comical signs that Qiwu is a lousy cop, but my favorite is the throwaway bit of dialogue where he says that he used to call his girlfriend every time he made an arrest, which makes it sound like a very rare special occasion. When Qiwu and the smuggler come into contact, it’s not just two different people clashing, but two different styles, two different types of films: the self-conscious gangster poseur and the idiosyncratic romantic. The clash is embodied as well in a playful Easter egg, the one scene (as far as I’ve detected) where the film’s two main women come into contact, when Faye walks by the blond-wigged woman during the film’s first half. The blond woman is posing dramatically in her trench coat, considering her next action in trying to track down her betrayers, and Faye goes strolling by carrying a tremendous Garfield stuffed animal; that about sums up the gulf between the cutesy and the intense in this film. It’s a conscious clash, as is the scene where the blond woman kills her former partner, and his bloody body falls in an alley surrounded by cute, cuddly kittens, his lifeless hand extended towards an expired pineapple can, which brings the two thrusts of this story together, so that the genre story and the breakup story are resolved with the same moral: everything expires, everything comes to an end.
It’s interesting that you criticize the repetitiveness of Wong’s style in this film, because Chungking Express is largely built around repetition, around parallels and mirrors, and not only because it’s split in half between two stories of heartache and recovery. I’ve already praised the repetitive use of music, which is my favorite element of the film, and Wong often pairs these aural repetitions with visual cues that signal a particular song’s appearance, like the CDs spinning and reflecting light in a jukebox display, an image that’s linked to Dennis Brown’s “Things In Life” and by extension to the blond-wigged woman. While I can see why you might say that film overuses certain of its stylistic devices, I find the recurrence of these flourishes both purposeful and hypnotic, an integral part of the splintered but inherently playful world that Wong is creating, where some people play at being gangsters and others play at interior design.
JB: What we’re getting down to here is a matter of personal taste in a very specific area. Because, see, I like Wong’s use of repetition—it would be almost impossible to enjoy Wong otherwise. It’s just that whereas “Things In Life,” “California Dreamin’” and Faye Wong’s cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” stand up well to their repetitive aural implementation, I don’t feel the same about Wong’s visual treatments in regard to the blond-wigged woman. Again, Wong’s use of alternate speeds is perfectly appropriate and easy to defend, from a structural, mathematical standpoint, but it’s a device that simply proves tedious to me—much in the same way, I suppose, that 3-D proves tedious to many viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar, even when it thematically enhances the otherworldly experiences of the protagonist. To those who enjoy the visual flourishes, it’s poetry. To those who find those flourishes empty and irritating, it’s gimmickry. The shots you mentioned of those spinning CDs in the jukebox showcase Wong’s ability to create arresting visuals out of the mundane; I love those shots. But when Wong attempts to enhance a chase sequence by altering the frame rate, it reminds me of the kind of overdirection that too often dooms Danny Boyle. I agree that it’s a gimmick that’s “suited” to the emotions of that scene, but that’s different than saying that Wong’s manipulations actually enhance the effect.
Perhaps then that has something to do with my fondness for In the Mood for Love, which has no shortage of style or repetition but is the most tonally and aesthetically consistent film we’ll cover in this discussion. It’s the film that, to me, shows Wong at his most refined. I realize that could be a disappointment for some who appreciate Wong precisely because of the way he’s willing to cross genres and mingle moods, but each time I watch this film I’m taken aback by its cohesion, by the way each and every second of the film seems in balance with the rest. At the outset we discussed something I’m sure we’ll come back to later—the way Wong’s films overlap to create one sprawling opus—but In the Mood for Love is the film that best stands alone, as if it’s the axis on which the other films pivot. It’s a painstakingly crafted film that feels effortless, one in which each flourish seems borne not of concept but of soul. It is, I think, cinematic perfection (which is not to imply in any way that it is the only kind of cinematic perfection).
It’s also an emotionally devastating film, and a special kind of emotionally devastating film at that. As Steven Santos summarized over at The Fine Cut, “Every image sticks in your head like remembrances of a lost love. It is almost embarrassing to even attempt to communicate how devastating this film is. I often space out the viewings of this movie because it does become hard to deal with in that aspect. It’s a movie that almost actually begs to be watched alone, the very opposite of what most romantic pictures (aka ’date movies’) are designed for.”
EH: That’s an interesting way of putting it, that this is a romantic movie that should be watched alone, because In the Mood for Love is very much about a romance in which both of the people involved remain alone, together and yet not, simultaneously intimate and isolated. The film is a moving quasi-romance between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who live in the same building and who form a connection when they realize that their spouses are cheating with one another. At one point, Mr. Chow rents a new apartment as a place to write—he’s trying to write kung fu serials with Mrs. Chan’s help—and the two of them spend many days there, talking and working. They have all the accoutrements of an affair, including a secret apartment just for them, without actually moving beyond their emotionally charged friendship.
In these scenes, Wong’s camera glides around them, showing them in mirrors or partially obscured by the hazy gauze of curtains, images that prevent them from being seen directly. One tracking shot reveals Mrs. Chan in a segmented mirror, smiling at Mr. Chow, but as the camera pans right across multiple reflections of him at work, he’s looking down, not meeting her gaze. Then the camera tracks back to pass her again (she’s now intent on reading as well) and finally all the way back to the left to catch one more reflection of him, looking up at her now that she’s no longer paying attention. They are together yet separated, each feeling for the other but not quite connecting, their gazes falling on each other at different times. Sitting across the room from one another, they’re brought closer only in an illusory way by the mirror.
A similar effect is achieved by panning from one room to another in the building where they live in adjoining apartments; they sit back to back in their individual apartments, separated from one another by the wall between the rooms, so close and sitting in the same solitary pose, but unable to get any closer. It’s the perfect visualization of the frustrated romantic connections that are one of Wong’s primary subjects, and In the Mood for Love is full of such formally rigorous shots. You’re right that this is Wong’s most “refined” and “aesthetically consistent” film, a film where every element of the mise en scène and composition contributes to the sense of separation between these two people who clearly love one another.
JB: The relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan is one of the most interesting you’ll find in cinema. They clearly love one another, yes, but they are also united in their suffering. As much as this is a story about the creation of a new relationship, it never stops being a story about the destruction of existing relationships: the marriages of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. That makes In the Mood for Love a 180-degree turn from the trajectory of the typical Hollywood romance, wherein new love is almost always cherished over old or existing love, to the point that there are films like 2001’s The Wedding Planner, in which the audience is encouraged to root for Jennifer Lopez’s character to steal away the groom of the very wedding she’s been hired to coordinate—a plot twist that if it happened in real life would cause people to recoil in horror but that within the film itself is treated like the pinnacle of romance and soul-mating. In Wong’s film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can never get beyond their marriages, in part by choice (they don’t want to become their cheating spouses) but mostly because the hurt of those betrayals is too strong to escape.
That, as much as anything, is why this film is so devastating and why it begs to be watched alone, because is so superbly shows how difficult it is to move beyond heartbreak, which as a rule is a deeply personal and isolating experience. And what’s interesting is that while most films suggest the isolation of a failed relationship precisely by creating isolation—think of Jon Favreau’s emotionally inhibited Mike in 1996’s Swingers, who can’t ever get a relationship started with a new girl because he’s still fixated on the last one—In the Mood for Love makes that feeling of isolation excruciatingly palpable precisely by bringing two characters together. It’s because we know that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have feelings for one another that we fully appreciate the trauma of their spouses’ infidelity—because the latter paralyzes them from fully giving in to the former.
Wong captures the coming together of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan with the kind of heightened reality that you might expect if this were a straightforward romance: all those slow-motion pass-bys on the way to the noodle stand, the characters illuminated by street and shop lights, the haunting “Yumeji’s Theme,” which suggests yearning and passion and, just as much, sadness and isolation. But despite appearances this isn’t a film in which new love will soothe the pain of lost love, and even though these early scenes seem to foreshadow a typical romantic partnership, the rest of the film will consistently thwart those expectations.
EH: One way in which Wong thwarts those expectations is the clever way he stages conversations between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, in which it initially seems as though they’re finally getting beyond their platonic joint suffering, finally expressing their real feelings for one another, only to turn those conversations on their head as we realize that they’re actually role-playing as their cheating spouses. In one scene, they act out what they imagine might have happened when their spouses first began their affair, trying to guess who would have made the first move. The scene thus plays out twice with virtually identical dialogue, the only variation being which person is the assertive one. The first time through, it seems like the conversation between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan has suddenly turned flirtatious and light, but by the end it’s clear that, though they’re speaking words of seduction and desire, the words aren’t meant to apply to one another. They recreate their spouses’ affair verbally, and perhaps even emotionally, but not physically. Still, the words they’re saying during these recreations often seem like expressions of the characters’ own feelings for one another, though ostensibly they’re just trying to understand and cope with their spouses’ betrayals.
As you say, their fixation on the past prevents Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan from forming a new romance of their own, but they’re also held back—as Ebert implies in the review you quoted at the start of this conversation—by the time and place in which they live, by social pressure and their sense of propriety. They are very conscious of perceptions, very conscious not only of maintaining their marital fidelity (even when their spouses don’t) but of maintaining the appearance of fidelity. That’s why Mr. Chow rents an apartment across town where they can be together while avoiding even the suggestion of an affair. Before that, when Mr. Chow’s landlady and the neighbors unexpectedly return home early from a night out, Mrs. Chan is trapped in Mr. Chow’s bedroom, unable to leave without creating the impression that they’ve been caught cheating.
There are thus several barriers that prevent these two lonely and sad people from starting the romantic relationship that they clearly wish they could. To continue your analogy to the conventional Hollywood romantic tradition, if Hollywood romances are in almost every case about the formation of a romance, Wong’s film is instead dedicated to exploring all the reasons why a romance doesn’t form between these two characters, why a romance is unable to form. The closest they come to real romance occurs after Mr. Chow leaves, on his own, for Singapore. He never sees Mrs. Chan again after this, but at one point she does come to visit him, entering his apartment when he’s not there, walking around the room, laying on his bed, smoking his cigarettes, and stealing his slippers as a souvenir before she leaves. As I said before, this is a recurring trope in Wong’s work. It’s a kind of intimacy, a way of being close without actually being close, and it’s also a downer echo of the playfulness of Faye in Chungking Express. Like the cop in that film, Chow comes home to an apartment that’s been subtly altered, its interior marked with the presence of a woman who loves him, but whereas these visits were a precursor to future connection and romance in Chungking Express, in this film the woman leaves for good after a single visit, leaving behind only phantom traces.
JB: That’s a powerful scene because of what it signifies, even though the scene itself is quite unassuming. When Mrs. Chan sits in Mr. Chow’s apartment, it’s as if she’s sampling the life she could have had, and frankly could still have, with him. Up to that point, Mrs. Chan has been in the apartment that Mr. Chow shared with his wife, and she’s spent time with him in the apartment that they both maintained was nothing more than an office for writing, but until she steps into his Singapore apartment, she’s never seen what Mr. Chow’s life looks like free from his wife and free from the pretense of marital fidelity. In Chungking Express, Faye infiltrates the cop’s apartment because she’s too uncomfortable to find another way to initiate intimacy, but in this film Mrs. Chan has already been intimate (emotionally speaking) with Mr. Chow, and so when she enters his Singapore apartment it’s as if she wants to conjure the closeness that she’d felt so many times before.
That scene is ambiguous enough that we can’t know Mrs. Chan’s specific intentions. It’s possible that she shows up in Singapore open minded to the possibility of staying there, giving in to her feelings for Mr. Chow. But mostly it feels like a quiet goodbye, like someone lingering in the doorway watching her lover sleep before she returns to the real world. That would make that scene the first of two heartbreaking solitary goodbyes, because the film’s final scene of Mr. Chow at the temple is cut from the same emotional cloth: a man, on his own, whispering into a notch in the rock wall, speaking secrets that we cannot hear but have no problem guessing. In that latter scene, Mr. Chow is spontaneously following up on a practice from an old legend in which people would climb mountains, whisper their secrets into a hole in a tree and then cover up the hole with mud to lock their secrets inside. The spontaneity of his action—he sees the hole and comes up with the idea—is a sign of how much he still thinks of Mrs. Chan, even though they have gone their separate ways.
Wong captures that scene from a variety of angles, each of them powerful in their own ways. Most memorable for me are two specific shots: one from far above Mr. Chow, as seen from the vantage point of a confused onlooker, which shows just how fully and unselfconsciously he commits himself to the exercise, and one from close up, near Mr. Chow’s hands, as if seen from the vantage point of the wall, which allows us to watch Mr. Chow’s jaw rising and falling as he whispers his secrets. I love those shots because they lay bare Mr. Chow’s deep feelings for Mrs. Chan, by showing the solemnity with which he takes part in this ritual, while also protecting the privacy of those feelings. We know all along that these characters love one another, but that scene and the scene of Mrs. Chan in the Singapore apartment suggest that we still might not understand the intensity or character of their bond.
EH: Absolutely. As much as Wong delves into the intense emotions of his characters, he always does grant them the privacy to hold back something from the camera, to maintain some mystery and distance. It’s an acknowledgment that some things can’t (or shouldn’t) be put into words, that some things can be felt but not necessarily articulated. Wong is great at conveying that quality of ineffable emotion, powerful but never fully understood, one suspects, even by the characters themselves, let alone by an audience watching from outside. As you say, the formal aestheticization of scenes like the one of Chow whispering his secret brings out the rich emotions of such moments in a subtle, suggestive way that leaves plenty of room for ambiguity. In the Mood for Love may not be Wong’s flashiest film, but it’s still formally dazzling in quieter ways.
In the early scenes of this film, for example, Wong uses a simple but formally audacious technique to foreshadow the themes and relationships of the film to come. As Mr. Chow and his wife, and Mrs. Chan and her husband, move into their new adjoining apartments and settle in, the main characters’ spouses are mentioned and sometimes speak from offscreen, but they are never actually seen. This disorienting aesthetic choice makes it seem, in these early scenes, like the main characters’ spouses are already not quite there, that the two marriages are somewhat distant and abstracted, because the way in which Wong films their marital conversations is so alienating. Though at this point Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan barely know each other well enough to say “hello” in passing, it already seems like they are connected at a deep level because, in parallel scenes taking place in adjoining rooms, they both interact with these ghostly spouses. Since neither Mr. Chan nor Mrs. Chow ever appears in the flesh, it begins to seem like the main characters are speaking not to their invisible spouses but to each other. Even before their spouses increasingly disappear on long “work” trips, even before the suspicion of infidelity crops up, the framing of these scenes suggests splintering and isolation. In these opening scenes, Wong frequently shoots people from behind rather than directly, or captures impersonal details like a stray leg or the back of a neck—images that add to the impression of disconnection. Only when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan begin forming a friendship does the style of the film become smoother, less prone to such distancing effects, as their growing—if unconsummated—love for one another mitigates the effects of their unsatisfying marriages.
JB: In the least, it mitigates the loneliness they feel. Before the role-playing scenes you mentioned, there’s the scene in which Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan first go to dinner together and cautiously circle the reality of their situation until it’s unmistakable to both of them. Mr. Chow asks about Mrs. Chan’s handbag and where he could get one for his wife; Mrs. Chan asks about Mr. Chow’s tie, and where he bought it. The truth, as both have long suspected, is that those items came from their cheating spouses, purchased on trips abroad, and purchased twice: the same handbag for Mr. Chow’s wife and Mrs. Chan, the same tie for Mrs. Chan’s husband and Mr. Chow. It’s a difficult scene to watch because it’s the moment in which both characters confirm for themselves not just their spouses’ infidelity but the proximity of that unfaithful behavior to their everyday lives—an affair unfolding right under their noses, with surprisingly little effort to conceal it. Wong captures his actors in single shots, cutting or whip-panning back and forth between them, often showing us the character who is listening, processing this information, rather than the one talking. Mr. Chow takes drags of a cigarette. Mrs. Chan stirs her coffee. Finally, when the truth is obvious, wafting between them like the smoke from Mr. Chow’s cigarette, Mrs. Chan comes out with it: “I thought I was the only one who knew”—one of the film’s key lines.
Later, when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan rehearse their inevitable painful departure from one another and Mrs. Chan breaks down in tears, it feels like as much as anything she doesn’t want to lose her confidante, her shoulder to cry on who understands exactly what she’s going through. “Don’t cry,” Mr. Chow says consolingly. “This isn’t real.” And although he means that this isn’t really goodbye, he’s actually summing up their relationship. At one point or another, it will be time for both of them to face the reality of their “real” lives. Their avoidance of the lonely, messy truth has as much to do with the connection between them as any shared attraction. That said, their fantasy of avoidance isn’t without genuine romance—romance that’s struggling to get out. The next time we see Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan having dinner together, they camouflage their budding feelings by pretending to pantomime their spouses’ dinners, with Mr. Chow ordering his wife’s favorite dishes for Mrs. Chan and vice versa, as if they’re doing research. Their expressions during these meals—actually two dinners spliced together—are serious, far from flirtatious, with the only smile coming when Mrs. Chan implies that Mr. Chow is doing a good job of mimicking her sweet-talking husband. But there’s romance in the air anyway thanks to the soundtrack: Nat “King” Cole singing “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.”
In a recent piece for Salon about “the songs that belong to the movies,” Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Cole’s rendition “communicates the idea that we’re seeing the big screen equivalent of a swoony pop song about a great love that couldn’t be. It also captures the sophistication and international flair of 1960s Hong Kong. The sight of two gorgeous Hong Kong professionals flirting with each other while an African-American pop star sings a love song in Spanish sums up the director’s one-world aesthetic better than any other scene in his career.” I’m not sure I find “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” quite as memorable as Matt does, but I agree with him on the last part, and so I wanted to use this scene as an opportunity to discuss Wong’s use of music in general. For me, the signature Wong tune of this film and of his entire filmography is the orchestral “Yumeji’s Theme,” which is used consistently and also appears in subsequent films, and yet I think it’s true that Cole’s rendition of “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” better exemplifies Wong’s approach to music in general, which in addition to being suggestive of one world is also noticeably unpretentious.
EH: There’s no doubt that “Yumeji’s Theme” and Nat Cole’s renditions of various Spanish songs both do a lot to shape and define In the Mood for Love. What they have in common, I think, is that swooning, romantic quality, tinged with more than a little melancholy—perfect music to accompany this story of unfulfilled yearning. “Yumeji’s Theme” and the Cole songs each represent one of the two major facets of Wong’s use of music, and in that respect In the Mood for Love does provide the perfect opportunity to discuss the role of music in Wong’s cinematic world. “Yumeji’s Theme” weaves throughout the entire film, recurring again and again, embodying the film’s themes through its delicate, insistent plucking and aching bowed tones. The repetition of it ensures that this beautiful piece of music becomes synonymous with the film’s central relationship, contributing to the consistent atmosphere of gloomy romanticism as much as the film’s rigorous visual aesthetic. The Cole songs, on the other hand, are linked to particular moments, the way that “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” drifts moodily through the background of that dinner scene, augmenting the moment’s rich but subtle emotions.
While “Yumeji’s Theme” represents Wong’s careful creation of overarching moods, the Spanish-language ballads reflect the director’s tendency to take individual moments and magnify their impact through pop songs and hyper-stylized visuals. In the Mood for Love is a film of nostalgia, a film where the past tense is implicit in its sleek, glamorous images of Hong Kong’s past, and if “Yumeji’s Theme” is a timeless piece, the Cole tunes are unmistakably of a previous era, contributing to the film’s glossy evocation of a time and a place that have slipped away, much as this relationship slips away. (And to the extent that the film’s heartache is caused in part by the social norms of an older time, these songs serve to locate the main characters’ frustrated relationship in its period context.)
You said before that In the Mood for Love is the Wong film that stands on its own the best, “as if it’s the axis on which the other films pivot,” and I think that’s true. It’s a film with countless connections to Wong’s other works, but for the most part those connections radiate outward from this film’s calm, melancholy center. Like all of Wong’s films, scenes here echo ones in his earlier films—the Singapore apartment visit, as I already mentioned, and also the scene where Mr. Chow whispers his secret to a hole in the wall, which resonates with the ending of Happy Together—but for the most part those connections are external to the film’s real essence. More than any of Wong’s other films, In the Mood for Love homes in on a narratively simple but emotionally complex story and explores the subtleties of its central relationship in a direct and moving way, without excess. It’s only in retrospect, especially in relation to 2046, that In the Mood for Love becomes part of a larger network within Wong’s filmography, reaching back to obliquely tie into Days of Being Wild as well: Is Maggie Cheung playing the same character here as she was in that film? Is Mr. Chow the unnamed character that Tony Leung played at the end of that film? Such questions are unanswered, and largely irrelevant to the effect of In the Mood for Love, which is moving and beautiful whether one has seen all of Wong’s other films or none of them.
In comparison, 2046 is a relentlessly meta film, a film that builds upon the foundation of Wong’s entire oeuvre and especially on the foundation of Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Together, these films constitute a loose trilogy, presumably not quite the trilogy that Wong would have made if he’d been able to follow up Days of Being Wild as originally intended, but a trilogy in which loose strands from that earlier movie are picked up and woven into a very different patchwork, where characters reappear in very different circumstances, and where past, present and future are compressed and confused. The title and sci-fi trappings of 2046 make it seem like the number refers to a futuristic year and a futuristic Hong Kong, but in fact the title refers to the number of the room where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan shared their most memorable moments together. As the film’s voiceover says, in room number 2046, nothing ever changes, and nobody has ever come back from it, because 2046 is the past, is memory. Chow writes a science fiction story where 2046, the room where he spent the bulk of his most intimate time with Mrs. Chan, is a place that is always frozen because it’s a disconnected moment in time, a cherished but painful memory where he can relive, over and over again, the same doomed romantic story. 2046 picks up on the past tense perspective of In the Mood for Love and expands it into a collage of memories and imaginings. This film is haunted by other movies just as Chow is haunted by memories of his past.
JB: Exactly right. Though it seems an awkward comparison, 2046 always reminds me a bit of A Christmas Carol. Tony Leung’s character doesn’t observe his past, present and quasi-future in quite the same fashion as Ebenezer Scrooge, but Mr. Chow seems similarly outside of his own story even while he’s within it. Just as the mythical 2046 location within the film is a place where people go to look back, 2046 as a whole is a representation of Mr. Chow filtering through his past, examining his feelings in the present and seemingly wondering what all of this means for his future. In the way he stumbles across characters who in name or appearance are reminiscent of characters we’ve met in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and to a degree even Chungking Express, it’s as if he’s conceding that his own perception of the world might have been skewed, as if he’s examining it from a new perspective.
I’m fascinated by the thought of what 2046 must look like to a viewer who can’t spot the references to those earlier films. Does this film have the same meaning without that context? Does it feel like a collection of loose ends rather than like a somewhat unorthodox way of tying those loose ends together? I suspect the film is compelling in its own right, if for no other reason than because Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are so compelling together, as Chow and Bai Ling, neighbors in the same building with a habit of sleeping around, who get involved in yet another of Wong’s star-crossed romances. They’re both beautiful to look at; let’s start there. And Wong only enhances that with his typically striking visuals. He films the actors from in front, from behind and in profile. He centers them or moves them to one of the edges of the frame. He shoots them in two-shots and singles, and in one especially memorable composition he captures Bai Ling in the foreground, in focus and in profile, her face overlapping that of Chow’s, out of focus and facing the camera, as they connect over drinks for the first time. It almost makes no difference how Wong shoots them—they’re breathtaking from every angle.
If the relationship at the core of In the Mood for Love is defined by emotional connection and lack of opportunity, this relationship is the reverse: physical connection is frequent, and the attraction is there, but no matter how often Chow and Bai Ling are lovers they never find love. She is ready. He is not. One of the unusual things about their relationship is that even though she’s the victim, the one whose feelings are unrequited, the one who dares to open her heart, Chow is the one I always feel sorry for—at least until the end. He’s paralyzed. If he is indeed the exact same Mr. Chow from In the Mood for Love (and I’m not stating that as a given), then his experiences from the unfulfilled relationship in that film have changed him, turning him from a deferential, compassionate, warm man to a selfish, guarded sometimes jerk. Not only is he unwilling to give his heart away, he’s also unwilling to act with sympathy toward the woman who falls in love with him. He’s trapped.
EH: Yes, he is. He’s trapped by his past, unable to break free of the mental prison he’s constructed for himself based on the aborted romance of In the Mood for Love (and I don’t have much doubt that, if this maybe isn’t quite the same Chow as in that film, it’s at the very least a version of that character in some form). Though 2046 is about Chow’s relationships with several women he meets during the years after his friendship with Mrs. Chan, his relationship with Bai Ling is at the center of the film because it’s another frustrated could-be romance, as in the previous film, but frustrated for very different reasons. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan were both holding back, preventing the seemingly inevitable from happening by maintaining their composure and their loyalty to their respective disintegrating marriages. The relationship between Bai Ling and Chow initially seems similar in that both parties claim to be utterly uninterested in a conventional relationship beyond casual sex: they start out as unsentimental “drinking pals” because she’s heartbroken over her cheating boyfriend and he just wants some company to fill his otherwise empty time. Predictably, she soon falls for him and wants more, but he remains aloof, making this a much more unbalanced relationship than the mutual restrained longing of In the Mood for Love.
This relationship is defined by two key scenes in which the subtle rigor of Wong’s aesthetic amplifies the bleak emotions of these moments into iconic portraits of heartbreak. In the first of these scenes, Chow, in a gesture of calculated callousness intended to prevent Bai Ling from falling for him, offers her money after the first time they sleep together. He pretends that this is just a transaction, when the passionate and sensual way in which Wong had shot the actual sex scene suggested anything but. She takes this slight in stride, trying to stay flirty and light, smiling and biting her lip as she tosses back some cutting banter, and she subverts his cruelty in a playful way by taking only a token sum and telling him he can come back anytime for the same low price. But as Chow walks away, Wong holds the shot on a closeup of Bai Ling’s face, facing the camera rather than Chow. As he departs in the background, her face changes: her lips begin to quiver slightly, the veins in her neck throb, and her eyes seem on the verge of leaking tears that she’s desperately trying to hold back. The shot breaks only when a single tear finally winds down her cheek, causing her to smile ruefully and move away. The scene as a whole, and especially that final shot, captures the complicated emotions welling up within this supposedly casual relationship.
The second key scene takes place after the couple breaks up, and both of them begin loudly taking other lovers to reinforce to the other that it’s over. Bai Ling listens to Chow having sex with another woman, and Chow frames her sitting against the wall listening to the sounds coming from the other side. The composition is drastically unbalanced: Bai Ling is shunted off to the right side of the frame, with a conspicuously empty red cushion next to her and a lot of blank space filling up the other half of the frame. The shot conveys a haunting absence, the absence of the man making so much noise just on the other side of the wall, the man who represents the missing other half of a composition that naturally seems like it should have been a two-shot. Instead, this is a two-shot with one of the participants removed; Chow, having lost what he sees as his one real shot at love, no longer wants to be tied down into such cozy compositions. If In the Mood for Love is about a love that’s frustrated and tainted by circumstances beyond the lovers’ control, 2046 is about the damage we do to our own relationships, and about all the myriad ways in which the present is affected by the past.
JB: I think that’s true. And it leads us to the scenes that perhaps best convey the haunting effect of the past, while also most overtly uniting 2046 with In the Mood for Love: the three cab ride scenes. In the first scene, Chow and Bai Ling are shown in the back of a cab, with Chow passed out on Bai Ling’s shoulder. In his unconscious state, Chow, seated to Bai Ling’s right, reaches his hand over into Bai Ling’s lap to take her hand—a gesture that recalls the moment when Mr. Chow cautiously extends his hand to Mrs. Chan in the back of a cab in In the Mood for Love. As before, Mr. Chow’s hand is rejected (at least at first), but not for the same reasons. It might not be obvious at first glance, but this moment between Chow and Bai Ling isn’t a reproduction of the cab scene in In the Mood for Love so much as it’s an echo of it. By that I mean that Chow isn’t reaching for Bai Ling’s hand because he’s falling in love with her, which is why he tries to take Mrs. Chan’s hand in the previous film. Rather, Chow tries to take Bai Ling’s hand because he’s imagining that she is Mrs. Chan. Somewhat incredibly, Bai Ling seems to know this. Although her rejection of Chow’s hand could be read as the act of a woman accustomed to warding off the drunken advances of programmatically predatory Lotharios, which Chow certainly has become, a closer look, and perhaps a repeat viewing, suggests that Bai Ling knows that she is nothing more than a stand-in for someone else.
This is confirmed quite a bit later in the film, when Chow tries to imagine a happy ending to his futuristic novella and admits that he doesn’t know how to write it. Once again, Wong puts us in the back of a cab with a passed out Chow slumped over on the woman next to him, although this time that woman is In the Mood for Love’s Mrs. Chan—her first of two brief physical appearances in the film. “Some years back I had a happy ending in my grasp,” Chow says, “but I let it slip away.” These scenes suggest that Chow is living in a dream state. He drinks to forget about Mrs. Chan and, in a way, to remember her. The film closes with yet another cab scene, this time showing Chow, alone, slumped against the cab door. He’s awake this time, and all too aware of his solitude. Given the preceding cab scenes, this, too, is “a two-shot with one of the participants removed.” And my question to you is whether you find this final scene hopeful or hopeless. Chow implies several times in the narration that he’s the only one who has ever returned from 2046, which suggests that he’s the only one who has given into his nostalgic fantasies only to spot them for what they are and return to present-tense, forward-looking living. Clearly the guy in the back of the cab at the end of the film hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but I wonder if you think that Chow is heading in that direction. Or, instead, is he doomed to more of the same?
EH: That’s an interesting question, and one that 2046 leaves deliberately up in the air. Chow’s narrated insistence that he’s the one person to ever return from 2046—implying that he’s broken free of the past—is contrasted against the fact that we never actually see him breaking free of the past as the voiceover says he does. Instead, the film provides a happy ending for a character whose story parallels Chow’s in many ways, and in whose life he intervenes, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the owner of the hotel where Chow lives, has an on/off affair with a Japanese man, an affair that, like Chow’s would-be romance with Mrs. Chan, is frustrated by circumstances. Jing-wen’s father, remembering World War II and the often-barbarous Japanese occupation of China, is prejudiced against the Japanese and refuses to allow his daughter to see this man. When Chow moves into his apartment, Jing-wen is trapped, like him, in the past, hung up on a love that she just can’t forget. She paces around the empty room next door to Chow—room number 2046, of course—reciting her lover’s last words to her and rehearsing the words she could have said but didn’t, the words that might have allowed her to avoid this heartbreak: “please take me with you.” She’s trapped in the past, trapped in 2046, just like Chow is.
Later, Chow will explore Jing-wen’s story—and by extension his own—through the sci-fi fiction he writes, in which a man takes a long train ride away from 2046, away from the past, accompanied only by androids, versions of the various women in Chow’s life. The android played by Faye Wong, a version of Jing-wen, has delayed reactions and can’t express what she feels until long after the moment has passed. It’s a very clever metaphor for the inability to connect in the present that leads to the backward-looking obsession with missed opportunities, like Chow’s fixation on Mrs. Chan or like Jing-wen pacing around the empty apartment 2046, telling the space, yes I’ll leave with you, long after the man she should have said it to had left. These people are out of sync with each other, like androids with faulty programming, like Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan who could never quite get beyond their circumstances to express their real feelings to one another. Chow invents the concept of delayed reactions in his story ostensibly as a metaphor for Jing-wen and her Japanese boyfriend, but the story becomes about his own life too, reflecting his past with Mrs. Chan. It’s also a kind of wish fulfillment for Chow: he sees Jing-wen broken up by her failure to say what she really wanted to say to her boyfriend, and he imagines that the same condition may have afflicted Mrs. Chan, that she too wishes she had said, “take me with you.”
Chow’s fiction is thus a way of rationalizing these failures to connect. People are out of sync with one another because they’re malfunctioning, maintaining stoic, unrevealing expressions in front of those they care about, only smiling and crying later, only later saying the things they’d wanted to say when their loved ones were there. Chow himself, whispering his secret into a hole in the wall at the end of In the Mood for Love, is indulging in this temporal disconnection, expressing his feelings only when it’s too late. Chow’s sci-fi writing is another way of trying to work out the problems of the past, though again he can only express his feelings indirectly, by constructing androids who stand in for real women. By the end of the film, Chow, in the back of a cab alone, leaning against the door the way he’d once leaned on both Bai Ling and Mrs. Chan, hasn’t quite decided to return from 2046 for good, but it’s clear that he wants to, very badly, and that his stories are attempts to deal with the past, to close it off into a metaphorical fiction and write a happy ending.
The problem is that he doesn’t know what that happy ending could possibly be, and it’s telling that the one example of a happy ending that the film provides—Jing-wen finally moving to Japan and marrying her boyfriend, with her father’s grudging acquiescence—involves not forgetting about the past but correcting the mistakes made in the past and being reunited with one’s true love. Chow still can’t imagine a happy ending that’s not romantic. He can’t imagine the happy ending where the gloomy romantic finally cuts ties with the heartbreak of the past and moves forward into a different life. Maybe that’s the answer to your original question: Chow, as much as he might want to escape 2046, still isn’t quite ready to do it by the end of the film.
JB: That’s pretty much the way I see it, too. In the Mood for Love has an ostensibly heartbreaking conclusion with the scene at the temple wall, because Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are alone and, we know, don’t need to be, and yet the conviction of Mr. Chow’s love, evoked so well by the way he whispers into the wall, is so touching that it adds some sweet to the bitter. It’s a textually sad scene that I find subtextually uplifting, suggesting a man who holds onto the past not because of an inability to escape it but out of respect for its significance. The conclusion of 2046, on the other hand, is textually hopeful, because Chow claims to have escaped 2046, but it’s subtextually depressing, suggesting a man who has been inside his fantasy for so long that he can’t distinguish between it and reality. The actual final shot, coming just after the shot of Chow slumped against the cab door, is a slow zoom toward what Manohla Dargis perfectly described as “a large cavity that looks at once like the amplifying horn of a Victrola and a sexual orifice of unknown provenance.” Dargis argued that Wong “never explains the significance of the cavity because, like Kim Novak’s blond twist of hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the image has a power that renders further explanation superfluous,” and she might be right. But to me the zoom suggests a move into darkness, as if leaving reality to reenter the coziness of the womb.
When to hold on, and when to let go. It’s a quandary that characters face over and over again in Wong films, and it dominates his next feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. Wong’s only English-language film, My Blueberry Nights uses Norah Jones’ Elizabeth as a thread binding three vignettes—one that is primarily hers and two that aren’t. The film is perhaps best known for its predominantly negative reviews, in which the film was called “contrived” (The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson), “maddeningly superficial” (Slate’s Dana Stevens) and “affected and emotionally inert” (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott). These are the kinds of adjectives that have been flung at Wong by his detractors all along, but this time they came from some of his fans. The film has supporters, of course, among them Matt Zoller Seitz, who takes the position that minor Wong is still worthy of major appreciation, but on the whole My Blueberry Nights created a sense that Wong’s effect was lost in translation.
Love it or hate it, My Blueberry Nights certainly feels like a different kind of Wong film, even for all the ways it feels so familiar—from the slow-motion shots of melting ice cream, to the striking use of color, to the (really, again?!) shots through storefront windows. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume, based on some of the comments you’ve made already, that you consider My Blueberry Nights “minor Wong.” And so my question for now isn’t if, as Matt contends, minor Wong is still major. My question is what makes My Blueberry Nights minor?
EH: I’ll answer that question, but first I want to stick with 2046 for a moment, since you brought up the very provocative image of the mysterious horn/hole that appears at both the beginning and the end of 2046. Obviously, that image is connected back to the hole into which Chow whispers his secret at the end of In the Mood for Love, so in that sense it’s both a descent into darkness—because Chow has allowed his past to envelop him and overshadow his present—and a repository for passionate emotions. The presence of this mysterious horn suggests that in many ways 2046 is a feature-length expansion of that haunting scene from the end of In the Mood for Love. Throughout 2046, Chow is haunted by the secret he whispered at the end of the previous film, the secret that echoes through the bottomless chamber of that horn. At one point, the Faye Wong android tells the train passenger fleeing from 2046 that she will be his tree, that she’ll hold his secrets for him, and this is a potent metaphor for Chow’s cavalier treatment of women as a way of holding back the pain of the past.
The androids connect Wong’s film to some of the 1960s films of one of his most obvious influences, Jean-Luc Godard, whose Alphaville and Anticipation both end with women—brainwashed, robot-like inhabitants of futuristic societies where emotion has been suppressed—rediscovering love and emotion, relearning how to express one’s deepest desires both verbally and physically. Although 2046 ends with several nods in that direction, it doesn’t quite strike such an optimistic note. At the end of the film, Chow is still out of sync with his present.
Moreover, Chow often doesn’t treat the women in his life as people, but as objects. He’ll attach himself to a woman to pass the time or to distract him from his pain, but he intentionally keeps these relationships casual and transitory—which is why he can so easily dehumanize these women by casting them as robots in his fiction. He occasionally connects with a woman at a deeper level, as he arguably does with Jing-wen, but not in a romantic way. In fact, the poetic idea of whispering a secret in a hole actually has vulgar, unpoetic connotations when the repository for the secret is a woman, an alternate meaning that Wong toys with several times here. For all the ways in which Wong is sympathetic to Chow’s heartache in 2046, he’s also fairly critical of the character’s misogyny and self-absorption, his tendency to treat women as interchangeable stand-ins for the one woman who really meant something to him.
Anyway, I do agree that My Blueberry Nights is minor Wong, though as you suggest it’s hard to pinpoint why, since so many of the typical elements of his films are there: the episodic narrative with loosely linked characters, the colorful aesthetic, the quirkiness, the thematic emphasis on heartbreak and redemption, what might be called an obsession with obsession. So what’s missing? For me, at least, what’s missing is largely intangible, and it’s the sense of deeper emotional complexity that undergirds all of Wong’s best films. Coming after the dense, evocative 2046—a film that can be read and felt in many ways and at many levels—My Blueberry Nights almost feels like Wong needed a break from that film’s emotional overload, its convoluted web of allusions and ideas. My Blueberry Nights is a small film, often charming and even moving in places, but its scope isn’t as sweeping, its ambition isn’t as apparent, as in Wong’s peak work.
JB: For me, the primary weakness of My Blueberry Nights is that it trades the ethereal for the literal. Thus, while it might look like a Wong picture, it doesn’t feel like one. Compared to the other films we’ve discussed, My Blueberry Nights is a small picture, both in ambition and in impact, and yet it’s weighed down by big, melodramatic gestures that more often than not feel empty and excessive. One of the things that makes Wong’s other films so consistently compelling is that his characters are so difficult to figure out, even when they seemingly come right out and tell us what’s on their minds or in their hearts. In those other Wong films, a character’s emotions are usually best expressed through music cues, camera angles and the mise en scène. Facial gestures and emotional outbursts are to be distrusted: smiles mask pain and embarrassment; tears suggest sadness but without quite explaining why. In this film, it’s different. Characters are more extroverted, sometimes to the extreme. Especially painful is the film’s middle chapter in which Rachel Weisz’s Sue Lynne breaks into interminable melodramatic tantrums—outbursts that seem unusual within the Wong universe on their own and that are further accentuated by Wong’s decision to sometimes capture them from a distance, taking in each gesture of Weisz’s full-bodied spectacle.
One could deduce from this that Wong is making a boldface statement about the behavioral differences between Americans/Europeans and Asians (in addition to making a statement about the behavioral differences across eras). I can buy that. Perhaps Wong feels he’s being true to these characters, to their American (and European) way of being. That makes perfect logical sense. But no amount of rationalization can keep this film from feeling like a departure from Wong’s very essence, as established by his previous films. There’s just something altogether wrong about watching Wong’s characters dump their feeling out onto the table in front of them, akin to the way David Strathairn’s Arnie scatters a pocketful of Alcoholics Anonymous chips across the bar, and I say that fully realizing that Days of Being Wild is hardly void of big emotional outbursts, whether it’s Yuddy assaulting the lover of his “aunt,” or Zeb and Lulu arguing in the rain; in my mind those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The emotions in My Blueberry Nights don’t just feel big. They feel sloppy. And until this film that’s a word that I’d never thought could apply to Wong.
EH: Interesting. I agree in a way that My Blueberry Nights is sloppier than usual for Wong, that it pours out its emotions in a particularly blatant and broad way, but I’m not sure I agree that the emotions themselves are any bigger or more inherently (melo)dramatic than in Wong’s other films. In the Mood for Love is all about restraint and discretion, true, but for every Mrs. Chan in Wong’s oeuvre there’s a passionate, unfettered Lulu. I think what sets My Blueberry Nights apart is not that it’s about characters who express their emotions in big ways, but that the ways in which they choose to express those emotions are less artful than those of other Wong characters. Wong’s films are filled with people who pour out their emotions in grand gestures, from the cop who measures his heartache in cans of pineapple to the girl who tries to connect with the man she loves by redecorating his apartment to the lonely mute in Fallen Angels who tries to cure his alienation through outrageous and often violent acts to Chow in 2046 creating a garish fictional artifice to house his long-fermenting pain. What these characters have in common, besides the grandeur of their emotions, is the artful, creative ways in which they express what they feel. They don’t just unleash torrents of raw emotion; they create readymade metaphors for their feelings and try to remake the world to reflect their inner turmoil. Their actions mirror those of Wong as filmmaker, molding the raw material of drama and emotion into cleverly structured narratives packed with metaphors.
The characters in My Blueberry Nights, on the other hand, largely do unleash torrents of raw emotions, largely without the mediating influence of the metaphorical constructs that structure the emotions in Wong’s other films. In that respect, the decision of the film’s central character, Elizabeth (Norah Jones), to set off across the country to escape her heartache over her broken relationship, is a typical Wong device. Elizabeth is putting distance between herself and her pain, not just metaphorical distance but physical distance, and the passage of time is reflected in the film’s intertitles in the form of distance from New York City, distance from the site of her heartbreak. Like many other Wong characters, she doesn’t just suffer quietly and privately, but concocts a way to write her feelings onto the world in a big way. It’s not as powerful a metaphor as the pineapple cans or the visits to loved ones’ apartments in previous Wong films, but it does arise from the same sensibility. The other characters in the film, in contrast, feel just as intensely but the ways in which they interact with their pain aren’t nearly as interesting. The story of the drunken Arnie and the unfaithful Sue Lynne frequently verges on cliché, as does the story of the self-consciously posing gambler Leslie (Natalie Portman) and her father, with whom she has a relationship that is externally cool but secretly loving. Most of Wong’s films traffic in big, melodramatic gestures and intense emotions; the difference here is not the quantity of emotion but the quality of how it’s expressed by the characters, and by extension how Wong chooses to frame and filter those emotions.
JB: You know, I think you’re right. The reason that the (melo)drama of My Blueberry Nights feels so sloppy and blatant isn’t because its emotions are less restrained. It’s because its emotions are artless. In film after film, Wong creates worlds of heightened reality, but with My Blueberry Nights he trades poetry for hyperbole. It’s Wong’s Las Vegas—exterior dazzle without a soul, built of structures that remind us of the real thing without coming anywhere close to achieving it. A good example would be that fishbowl full of keys at Jeremy’s restaurant, each set a remnant of relationships gone wrong. On the face of it there’s nothing about a fishbowl of keys that’s less metaphorically powerful than 30 cans of pineapple, and yet the effect is nowhere near the same. At one point Elizabeth asks Jeremy (Jude Law) to tell the story behind one of the sets of keys. “Those belonged to a young couple a few years ago; they were naïve enough to think they were going to spend the rest of their lives together,” Jeremy says. “What happened?” Elizabeth asks. “Life happened,” Jeremy explains. “You know, things happened. Time happened. That’s pretty much always the case, more or less.”
Amazingly, that passage is more stilted in the film than it is on the page. But the problem isn’t with the dialogue itself, even though it seems lifted from an episode of Scrubs. The problem is that in that specific moment the film is without subtext. Jeremy might be trying to reach Elizabeth on some deeper level, but if so it’s buried so deep that I can’t find it. In Matt’s “Directors of the Decade” series for Salon in December of 2009, he called Wong (among others) a “sensualist,” someone with “a lyrical gift for showing life in the moment, for capturing experience as it happens and as we remember it.” Continuing the definition, he wrote: “The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They’re interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences. If their films could be said to have a literary voice, it would fall somewhere between third person and first—perhaps as close to first person as the film can get without having the camera directly represent what a character sees.” I agree with that. But I couldn’t apply that description to the fishbowl scene because I can’t detect any emotion in that scene—not in the characters or around them.
EH: I agree. The fishbowl seems like the kind of metaphorical device that Wong frequently uses in his films, but it’s dealt with in such a superficial way that the scenes revolving around it don’t come anywhere close to the emotional intensity that characterizes his best work. Jeremy’s dialogue about the keys is so generic that it could apply to anyone, though it seems to me that he’s trying to talk about himself and his ex-girlfriend Katya (Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power). What should be a resonant, touching moment is weighed down by sitcom-level abstractions about love and heartache. At times like that, My Blueberry Nights seems like a third-party attempt to mimic Wong’s style rather than the product of Wong himself.
Which is not to say that My Blueberry Nights is without its charms. You earlier cited Matt’s appreciation of this film as “minor Wong,” with the implication that the minor work of a filmmaker as great as Wong is still pretty major in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t go that far—at least not for this film, although I certainly have my own favored auteurs where even their “minor” works seem great to me—but My Blueberry Nights is at least enjoyable. Some of its problems arise from Wong’s attempts to adjust to the Western setting and characters, but there’s also a certain appeal in seeing the director’s Hong Kong aesthetic transplanted to the US. The lights of Reno’s casinos, neon diner signs in Memphis, the lights of traffic in New York: all are substitutes for the bright, busy glow of Hong Kong that suffuses Wong’s other films. As a result, My Blueberry Nights has a warm, colorful look that’s like Wong’s other films but somehow also not, because it has the distinctive feel of a foreign eye looking at America and seeing only the parts that reflect (or can be subsumed by) his own sensibility.
It’s a very sweet film, too. There’s darkness here, of course, but as we’ve already discussed the film’s melodramatic elements are possibly its greatest weakness. Instead, the film most appeals to me when it’s sidestepping the darkness and delivering sentiments that are cute, and light, and sweetly romantic. For that reason, I like the laconic reunion of Jeremy and Katya, in which the dialogue is no more substantial than it is elsewhere in the film, but Wong gets across the tender nostalgia of the scene through the atmosphere: the glossy night-time New York street corner, the faces of the actors, the cigarette smoke that wafts in the night air. I’m also moved, in this film’s modest way, by Wong’s typical amplification of a kiss into a slow-motion spectacle, a device that’s recycled for the very sweet conclusion. And as portraits of romantic obsession go, Jeremy frantically calling anywhere he can think of and speaking to anyone named Elizabeth in the hopes of finding his friend is pretty satisfying and funny, especially when he excitedly spends several minutes gushing over the phone to someone who turns out not to be his Elizabeth. The film’s pleasures are modest and small-scale, but not entirely absent by any means.
JB: No, the pleasures aren’t entirely absent. But they are sparse and fleeting. My favorite moment in the film, the one that lingers beyond its frames, is the unpretentious yet touching goodbye between Elizabeth and Leslie on some lonely highway in Nevada. It’s perhaps the film’s most genuinely American image: two cars following one another down the blacktop amidst the rugged terrain that lies between so many distant southwestern outposts. The women are in separate cars but they’re still joined by their proximity, until Elizabeth hangs a left to complete her journey while Leslie remains on the road to complete hers. They share a honk and a wave, and now they’re alone again, Portman flashing a little look that shows how quickly Leslie feels Elizabeth’s absence. Gustavo Santaolalla’s “De Ushuaia a La Quiaca” has been used in so many films over the past decade that it’s become cliché, but within the boundaries of this film it’s yet another appropriate Wong musical selection, a piece that suggests the sadness of farewells and the thrill of new beginnings. That scene touches me, as do so many compositions: Elizabeth’s face reflected in I’m-not-sure-what while sitting with Jeremy in his restaurant; Arnie slumped over by himself at the bar; Elizabeth with her arms folded on the diner counter, chin on her arms, lost in thought; and so on. But I agree with you: so much of this film feels like someone approximating Wong’s style. The techniques are his, but the effect is absent.
One of the things that I love so much about In the Mood for Love is that for all of its painstaking, clearly strategized artistry, it feels effortless, as if the film’s drama naturally walks into cinematic and emotional focus, without Wong needing to tape down any marks. Here it’s the opposite. My Blueberry Nights feels labored. For example, so many shots of Jeremy, whether he’s missing Elizabeth or sharing a smoke with his ex, are shot through the storefront windows of his café, allowing Wong to add some exoticism and color to his compositions thanks to the window paintings that obscure the characters’ faces. They are nice shots, for a while. But as with his use of speed in Days of Being Wild, Wong’s style enhancement eventually becomes style alone—excessive, rigid and ultimately empty. In this picture, even Wong’s use of music sometimes feels forced, the most glaring example being the moment when Arnie threatens Sue Lynne with a gun and Wong transitions out of the confrontation with Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” a song that has already been established as Arnie’s theme but feels completely inappropriate anyway. And of course no one is working harder than Wiesz, who by the time she runs out of ways of portray drunken rage and despair is only halfway there.
EH: “Labored” pretty much sums this film up. It’s a film that’s working very hard in order to come across as charming and endearing, at least when it’s not working equally hard at overcooked melodrama. It’s a very uneven, unbalanced movie as a result. The scene where Arnie pulls a gun on Sue Lynne epitomizes everything that’s wrong with this movie, while the other scene you pick out, the highway goodbye between Elizabeth and Leslie, represents the potential good movie lurking within this material. Portman’s Leslie is an interesting character, and Portman, who’s not saddled with as much melodramatic baggage as Wiesz, delivers a subtle, sympathetic performance that’s probably the best in the film. Portman never quite disappears into the character, which could be problematic except that here I dig her obvious enjoyment of this role, the pleasure she takes in playing this slightly outrageous gambler and loner.
I often appreciate the kind of correspondence she’s playing with here, where an actor’s interest in her role dovetails neatly with the character’s own persona, so that Portman’s crooked smirk and subtle glimmer of mischief can be read as either the character’s playful penchant for bluffs and deceits or the actress’ similar delight in the feints of her own performance. What I like about this character, in comparison to the much heavier material with Arnie and Sue Lynne, is that her arc is poignant and sad without sacrificing the lightness and stylishness that I associate with Wong even at his most emotionally intense. The final twist of this storyline—that Leslie won the big poker game and told Elizabeth she’d lost mainly to ensure some company on her trip to see her father—is a good example of clever gamesmanship that hides an emotionally resonant payoff.
That’s why that storyline feels the most like vintage Wong to me, if more the Wong of Chungking Express than of In the Mood for Love. On the whole, however, we seem to agree that My Blueberry Nights is minor Wong, perhaps with moments and images that at least nod to Wong at his best. As with all of his films, there’s a sense of interconnection with his larger oeuvre, here felt especially in the road trip vibe of Elizabeth’s cross-country journey, which most directly ties into the much more powerful exploration of similar themes in Happy Together. Like that film, My Blueberry Nights is also an interesting example of what we’ve discussed elsewhere as Wong’s internationalism, his tendency to act as though borders barely exist. Just as the Hong Kong Chinese of Happy Together head to South America and use the landscape as a venue for their emotional struggles, there are hints of the same idea in My Blueberry Nights, in Elizabeth’s desperate tour of America as a way to put distance between herself and her heartache. My Blueberry Nights might be Wong’s weakest and least consistent film in terms of quality, but in other ways it’s an utterly characteristic work; it doesn’t fail by venturing outside of Wong’s comfort zone but by resting too complacently in this familiar territory without the adventurous style and emotional depth of the director’s other work.
JB: That actually brings us back to the beginning of this discussion, when I asked you whether the recurring themes of Wong’s filmography strengthen the individual pictures or water them down. We seem to agree that the other pictures we’ve discussed are stronger for the ways they overlap (or are overlapped by) Wong’s other films; or at least we seem to agree that the individual films are not weakened by the ways they refer to and remind of Wong’s other work. But in the case of My Blueberry Nights, I’d suggest it’s a little of both.
There’s a moment early in the film when Elizabeth asks to take a look at the security tapes that Jeremy says are like his diary, so that she can confront the image of her ex-boyfriend out with another woman. The scene unfolds without dialogue. Instead, we get “Yumeji’s Theme,” this time played softly and slowly on harmonica, a rendition that sounds not just Americanized but also as if it’s a distant echo of the orchestral version from In the Mood for Love. And that’s perfect, because that’s exactly what it is. Just like Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan attempted to reenact the meals that their cheating spouses were having without them as a way to confront that infidelity, Elizabeth looks at the security tape and watches the man she loves dining out with another woman as a way of coming to grips with the brutal reality of their failed relationship. The harmonica version of “Yumeji’s Theme” would make for appropriate background music even if it didn’t directly refer to In the Mood for Love, but there’s really no doubting that this short scene is all the more effective for those who spot the reference and feel the breeze of that film’s hurricane of emotions wrapping around us.
Alas, at other times in My Blueberry Nights, the references to Wong’s previous films only seek to illustrate the comparative majorness of those films in contrast to the minorness (and sometimes that’s an understatement) of this one. In the Tennessee chapter, for example, there’s a moment when Sue Lynne squeezes by Elizabeth in a tight hallway at the bar. Wong shoots the scene using one of his favorite compositions: putting his camera right up next to a wall so that the wall seems to run into the camera at about a 15-degree angle. It’s a shot we’ve seen many times before, particularly in Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, but seeing it here doesn’t enhance My Blueberry Nights, because unlike the harmonica version of “Yumeji’s Theme” it doesn’t trigger any specific emotional response. Instead, it simply invites comparison, and by doing so makes My Blueberry Nights feel small. Although Wong is proof positive that effect can be amplified by thematic weaving and repetition, the problem with this approach is that future missteps threaten to taint previous successes by association. My Blueberry Nights doesn’t, in my mind, cheapen In the Mood for Love, my favorite Wong film, or do much to detract from my overall opinion of him as an artist. But if he were to string together numerous other misfires, I worry that it might send the whole structure tumbling down, like a Jenga tower that grows weaker by borrowing from itself. The safer thing to do would be to cover these films with mud, sealing them in small compartments. Of course, to do so just wouldn’t be Wong.
EH: No, it wouldn’t. The compartment metaphor suggests that Wong’s oeuvre is like an apartment block, with each of his films an apartment within the larger building, a tempting construct considering Wong’s fascination with urban environments and his Hong Kong-centric perspective. However, these individual rooms in the building of Wong’s oeuvre aren’t sealed off from one another, not by any means. Characters fluidly pass from one room to another, crossing over into the lives and stories of the Wong heroes in adjoining rooms. Such fluidity between ostensibly separate urban spaces is a thematic foundation of Wong’s work, as evidenced by the parallel disintegrating marriages in the adjoining apartments of In the Mood for Love, as well as the repeated emphasis on lovers who interact with their loved ones’ apartments as stand-ins for the people they love. Wong’s films often revolve around the significance of particular rooms—notably room number 2046, which appears in several different incarnations throughout his work—and in the same way the separate “rooms” of his individual films are permeable to echoes or ghosts that flow from room to room.
In this way, the interconnectivity of Wong’s career becomes a metaphor for the urban interconnectivity that he explores within many of the individual films, the sense that in the neon-lit modern cities of Wong’s films, no one’s life is truly separate, no one is truly isolated no matter how alienated and disconnected they might feel. No matter how bleak Wong’s films can sometimes seem, no matter how dark the emotions he dredges up can be, that utopian idea remains at the center of his career, the thread winding through his films and tying them together.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist
The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.1
Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.
Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.
Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.
The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures
Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.2
With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.
At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.
Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.
Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.
Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
17. Zombi Child (2019)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac
16. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith
The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.3
Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.
Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.
While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.
Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.
Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.
Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style
The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.3.5
A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.
Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.
Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.
The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.
Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.
But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.
Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.
Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin
99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan
98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy
97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith
96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund
94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill
92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)
So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown
91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020