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: Rambo: Last Blood Wears Its Muddled Ethos Like a Purple Heart
The Looney Tunes nature of Rambo’s murder spree tempers much of the script’s ideological offense.3
When we last saw battle-scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), he was walking toward the dusty homestead of the father, and the metaphorical American fatherland, that he left behind several decades prior. That was at the end of 2008’s Rambo, a film released early in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Dubya’s war-mongering doctrine was well-complemented by this tale of a steroidal white savior getting savage with big bad Burmese rebels. Body-disintegrating bullets and longing bro-ish gazes said everything words couldn’t. Mission fuckin’ accomplished! It was completely offensive and totally awesome—as long as you could key in to the undercurrent of virile camp.
Give credit to Rambo: Last Blood, capably helmed by Adrian Grunberg, for tapping that gleefully repellent vein one (apparently) final time. Rambo is still on his dad’s ranch, though the old man has departed this mortal coil, leaving behind Maria (Adriana Barraza), who has worked the farm for decades, and Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a college-bound 17-year-old who Rambo treats like his own flesh and blood. Gabrielle has hopeful dreams of the future and loves riding horses with her “Uncle John.” But before she heads off to school, she wants to face the abusive father (Marco de la O), now living in Mexico, who abandoned her many years ago.
Mexico, full of what our current commander in chief might term “bad hombres,” is portrayed here as a cesspool of drug addicts, sex traffickers, and violent hedonists, in addition to a single crusading journalist, Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people. Before we’ve hit the 15-minute mark (the film itself runs an exploitation-flick-friendly 89 minutes), Gabrielle finds herself in the clutches of two evil pimps, brothers Victor and Hugo Martinez (Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who oversee a back-alley prostitution empire. Time, then, for John Rambo to go all Taken on these mofos.
That he does, though you may be surprised to learn that the kidnapping plot is resolved by the halfway point, after which Last Blood becomes a hilariously gore-splattered variant on Home Alone, with Rambo using all of his survivalist skills to exact revenge on the brothers and their innumerable disposable henchmen. You better believe his iconic compound bow is an integral part of the plan, though his even more characteristic red headband and greasy/stringy Fabio mullet are, sadly, lost to time. In a film filled with all manner of elating kills (sawed-off shots to the head, razor-sharp machetes to the ankles and throat), nothing is more exuberantly cold-blooded than Rambo blasting the Doors’s “Five to One” as a diversionary tactic.
The Looney Tunes nature of the murder spree tempers much of the ideological offense of the screenplay, though the Rambo films have always been incoherent texts—propagandistically gung-ho in some moments, peculiarly upstart and rebellious in others. There’s a scene here in which Rambo drives up to a border fence on the Mexican side, briefly glances at the English sign warning him off, then floors the accelerator and crashes through the barbed wire. Boundaries mean nothing to Rambo; after this scene, he shuttles between the U.S. and Mexico as if he were popping down to the local grocery store. Though it’s only right to ponder whether lone-wolf actions such as this are more on the side of righteous or regressive fury.
The latter seems more likely, in no small part because of how often Rambo has been co-opted by hawkish powers-that-be. After seeing 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series in which Rambo rescues American POWs in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was heard to remark, “I know what to do the next time this happens.” And Reagan is alluded to in both the fourth and fifth film via the initials of the name on the family farm mailbox: R. Rambo.
Yet there’s still the matter of Stallone himself, who at 72-years-old has become even more of a gloriously sinewy sight gag, one that tends to cut against any serious ambitions or ideas that these films, this one in particular, might harbor. The degree to which he’s aware of his own absurdity is debatable; never forget that he boasts a 160 Mensa I.Q., so the joke could very well be on us. Intentional or not, he consistently courts the ridiculous to touch the sublime, and that’s certainly true in Last Blood, which he stalks through like Frankenstein’s monster.
There’s a lizard-brain thrill to his single-mindedness, and a stab, such as it is, at emotional complexity when Rambo’s killing spree culminates in a literally heartrending gesture. This is followed by a scene set on a sun-dappled country porch that draws equally on the multifaceted mytho-poeticism of John Ford and the jingoistic stupidity of John Wayne circa The Green Berets. That neither sensibility fully overwhelms the other is testament to the Rambo series’s consistently wandering convictions—a muddled ethos worn as proudly as a Purple Heart.
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio, Oscar Jaenada Director: Adrian Grunberg Screenwriter: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard
On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.
21. I’m So Excited! (2013)
The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard
20. Julieta (2016)
Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard
19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)
More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard
18. Broken Embraces (2009)
After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard
17. Kika (1993)
By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard
Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey
Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.3.5
James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.
Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.
For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.
But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.
The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.
Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.
It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.
Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122
Review: Judy Finds a Paint-by-Numbers Drag Revue at the End of the Rainbow
Renée Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting eludes her.2
“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.
That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.
Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.
There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.
This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.
Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.
Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-‘60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery Director: Rupert Goold Screenwriter: Tom Edge Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
New York Film Festival 2019
If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.
“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.
More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.
The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.
It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.
In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…
Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene
A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)
Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen
I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund
Liberté (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik
The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)
Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)
Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole
Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)
Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen
Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray
Sibyl (Justine Triet)
Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole
Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)
Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac
Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here 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. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac
Review: Loro Mostly Signals Paolo Sorrentino’s Fealty to Wealth Porn
Like most of Sorrentino’s films, Loro is closer to a stylistic orgy than an existential rumination on Italy’s heritage.2
Paolo Sorrentino’s films are closer to stylistic orgies than existential ruminations on Italy’s heritage. Most of his productions are consumed in debauchery for the better part of their running times, and capped by obligatory lambasts against said behavior, which is meant to inform the narratives with “deeper” meaning. Sorrentino is so devoted to tracking shots of beautiful female bodies, to montages of drug abuse, to brief explosions of loveless, commercialized sex, that the particulars of his characters, settings, and plots are essentially interchangeable. In Loro, Sorrentino’s regular leading man, Toni Servillo, may be playing the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the actor could just as easily be reprising his fictional writer from The Great Beauty for all that actually matters.
If Sorrentino were to confront the fact that he’s essentially a sensationalist, his films might achieve a kind of nihilistic purity. Loro initially promises such an about face, as its opening 45 minutes have a hard and lurid pull. At first, its protagonist appears to be Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hustler who moves to Rome and builds a harem with promises of TV roles and mountains of cocaine. Sergio is a handsome and charismatic wild man, and Sorrentino characteristically fetishizes the character’s life of anonymous sex and endless partying. The point of Sergio’s networking is vague, as he references wanting to get in the same room as “him.” This desire is realized by the beautiful and mysterious Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who urges Sergio to set his act up within eyeshot of Silvio’s sprawling property. Dramatizing these negotiations, Sorrentino stages the film’s one legitimately erotic sequence: Kira dry-humping Sergio as she talks with a power broker on her phone. This moment elegantly underscores Sorrentino’s initial interest in the intersection of power, sex, and money.
One is primed, then, for a battle of the charismatic crooks, in which Sergio falls in with Silvio—a melodramatic hook that Sorrentino leaves dangling as the film devolves into a series of disconnected sketches. (It bears mentioning that this 158-minute cut was edited down from a much longer one.) Instead, Loro switches protagonists, homing in on Silvio as he attempts to become prime minister again after the leftist party has ousted him. We learn virtually nothing about Silvio’s politics or business machinations, as Sorrentino turns the figure into another of his tortured symbols of the decadence of classist culture. At a certain point in the film, Silvio decides to flip six leftist senators over to his side so that he can regain power, a potentially fascinating process that Sorrentino reduces to one (vivid) scene and a montage. What Sorrentino doesn’t skimp on, however, is the endless pillow shots and self-conscious bids for Fellini-esque surreality. The film’s title is Italian for “Them,” potentially referencing Silvio’s demonization of the liberal press, but the plot is hermetic and sentimental.
Servillo is magnetic as always, and he has a few startling moments in which he replicates Berlusconi’s smug and wax-like smile, but his kinship with Sorrentino leads the film astray. It’s distasteful and baffling to see a reactionary strongman utilized as a lonely romantic figure, which probably happens because Sorrentino’s love for his actor muddies his view of Berlusconi. The filmmaker turns the politico into a Gatsby who prowls his land fighting with his estranged wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), who voices the film’s trite lessons on the shallowness of rich and horny old men—sentiments which ring hollow given the stature of Servillo’s presence and Sorrentino’s ongoing fealty to wealth porn.
Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giovanni Esposito, Ugo Pagliai Director: Paolo Sorrentino Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 158 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Promare Finds Studio Trigger Spinning its Anime Wheels
The film often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up.2.5
Loud, chaotic, and borderline nonsensical, Promare is the logical result of anime studio Trigger creating what amounts to a feature-length extension of its prior work. Set in a future where high-tech firefighters clash with pyrokinetic humans called the Burnish, the film pays explicit tribute to anime series like Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and others in everything from names to character and robot designs to basic personality types. The film leaves you with the sense that director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima, and their frequent collaborators could create it in their sleep, both because they’re clearly great at what they do and because their ultimate product scarcely departs from established formula.
The film’s bombast is present even in its individual character introductions, which use giant block letters to name everyone from the supporting cast up through pivotal players like protagonist Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama), a blue-haired firefighter with boundless energy and determination. His long-held truth, that the world is neatly divided into firefighters and Burnish terrorists, is shaken over the course of the film as he fights the slender, melon-green-haired Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome), who leads the rebel Burnish.
Promare is immediately striking to look at, with a style that favors a cool color palette, minimalist backgrounds, and abstract geometric shapes; fire, for one, is frequently rendered as purple triangles. The characters are drawn in pleasantly smooth lines, and they pilot chunky, ice-shooting robots whose siren lights send out solid beams of red and blue. The camera tracks each action scene, every zoom through the scenery and every collision of a fist with a face, in roving close-ups with thrilling precision. Everyone screams their feelings aloud over and over again (“Only your soul should burn!” cries Galo as he crosses swords with Lio at one point), albeit against a typically regrettable score from Hiroyuki Sawano, who leans so heavily on songs with cheesy vocals that they swiftly become a distraction.
Mixed metaphors and baffling plot twists ensure the film doesn’t totally hold up to scrutiny, but its escalating weirdness is part of the fun. All the same, its loudly repeated message remains clear: Rather than douse a fire, sometimes you need to let it burn as bright as possible. Promare is a mix of themes from Nakashima and Imaishi’s prior collaborations, wrapped up in a pat “the Other is a person, too” premise used for a familiar inspirational conceit. Galo, in looks and personality, is a clear analog for Gurren Lagann’s Kamina, who perishes early in the series so that other, less static characters may wrestle with his ideals. Leaving such a character as the hero in Promare exemplifies its rather straightforward trajectory.
While the film’s propulsive, slapdash plotting provides no shortage of frantic action, it leaves little room for the personalities, actions, and philosophies of its peripheral characters to sink in through gradual escalation. Promare often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up, a climax that’s outstanding to watch yet empty beyond its pure spectacle. And in this context, the fact that so many designs echo Studio Trigger’s prior work feels less like a fun reference than a concession that Imaishi and company are spinning their wheels.
Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video
Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.4.5
The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.
The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?
Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.
Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.
Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.
Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.
The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.
Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.
Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.
The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.
Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.
Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: I Was at Home, But… Pushes Narrative to an Elliptical Breaking Point
Angela Schanalec’s film configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.3
Writer-director Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, in the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, is technically a domestic drama—albeit one that takes its time revealing the nature of the fractured family at its center and frequently departs from their home. As in her prior feature, 2016’s The Dreamed Path, the German filmmaker has taken a fairly simple premise and built a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function.
Grief is the unifying thread of I Was at Home, But…, though Schanalec gives us the lingering air of despondency well before identifying its source. In the first of many sudden, unexplained spasms of emotion in the film, a woman sprints through a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to embrace a boy being held in some kind of child services office—a scene cut into precise visual fragments by Schanalec’s stiffly choreographed style. After being offered many a context clue, we come to understand that this woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), is the mother of this child, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who’s earlier seen emerging from the woods at dawn, his dirtied yellow jacket and look of stone-faced torpor indicating a prolonged absence from his mother’s life. Phillip has a little sister, Flo (Clara Möller), who observes this zombified return, and together the three of them occupy a white-walled, high-ceilinged modern apartment in a gentrified part of Berlin, a home reverberating with the aftershock of a recently deceased patriarch.
These are the concrete details of the film’s scenario, but before they all have a chance to register, Schanalec offers a number of puzzling diversions: a scene of a dog hunting a rabbit before falling asleep in a barn alongside a donkey; a grade-school rehearsal of Hamlet, performed in an affectless, Straub-Huillet-evoking manner from a version of the play translated by Schanalec’s late husband, Jürgen Gosch; and an episode of Astrid purchasing a secondhand bicycle from a man (Alan Williams) who talks through a voice box. Each of these threads recur throughout the film, with the latter in particular amounting to something of a comically elongated red herring as the bike proves faulty and Astrid hassles the man for her money back—all of which can only be said to circuitously tie into Astrid’s emotional arc. Even less logically related to the film’s apparent central narrative is another subplot concerning the deteriorating relationship between Lars (Franz Rogowski), a teacher overseeing Phillip’s reintegration into school, and the man’s girlfriend, Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg).
The manner in which these various threads weave in and out of the scenes sketching the family relationship, commanding equal attention in the way Schanalec, working as her own editor, partitions screen time, makes it tough to call anything the “primary” focus of the film. Throughout I Was at Home, But…, its destabilizing ellipses and odd points of emphasis—a scene of Astrid at a supermarket, for instance, focuses only on her dog as it diligently waits outside with the shopping carts—discourage the viewer from fixating on anything beyond the present moment and its complexity, so that any natural impulse to chart the narrative’s larger trajectory or the psychological development of the characters is frustrated.
Fortunately, Schanalec’s staging is rarely less than compelling. Never as grandiose with her deep-focus master shots as Ruben Östlund, the filmmaker nonetheless shares with the Swedish auteur a preference for subtly off-kilter compositions, chilly soft light, and slick modern architecture, while her exacting use of sound—punctiliously ADR’d and selective—is what most closely aligns her with her frequently cited forebear: Robert Bresson.
This stark cinematic language, combined with a severe acting style in which even a dry cleaner’s assessment that a coat might not wash properly is spoken like a terminal diagnosis, makes I Was at Home, But… a decidedly austere affair. But this is less a pose of artistic seriousness on Schanelec’s part than a strategic leveling of affect to make key moments register with the sharpness of real-life trauma. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Eggert unleashes a torrent of Method naturalism as her character violently recoils from the unwanted attention and embraces of her despondent children, whose company she’s gradually replacing with a tennis-playing boyfriend, Harald (Thorbjörn Björnsson). Later, Schanelec grants Astrid redemption in the heartbreakingly tender image of the woman holding Flo in an empty locker room after a swim practice, their damp bodies intermingled as one.
Similarly ameliorating the film’s air of formal severity is its subterranean sense of playfulness, which casually reveals itself in the background of frames, the silent pockets of conversation, and the latter halves of Schanelec’s long takes. Whether sliding a pair of student fencers into a frame as a somber conversation plays out in the foreground or observing as an already-malfunctioning bicycle topples over its flimsy kickstand, Schanalec periodically indulges a kind of drawn-out physical comedy, though it’s a dialectical joke in the film’s centerpiece that seems to have been most carefully engineered. In an extended tracking shot, as Astrid walks alongside a filmmaker (All the Cities in the North director Dane Komljen) and berates him over what she interprets as his film’s ethical malpractice of casting actors alongside real hospital patients, it becomes clear that she’s displacing her own pain about her husband and son, who’s troubled by a case of sepsis brought on by his disappearance. But the irony is that her withering critique of acting as a false façade arises in one of the film’s more commanding instances of capital-A acting. The scene closes with the nearest Schanalec gets to writing a howler: “Unbearably bad cinema,” she says, “but I still hope you get the professorship.”
The film is at its best in such instances, when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between Hamlet and Astrid’s life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving the dog and the donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.
Cast: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Clara Möller, Lilith Stangenberg, Franz Rogowski, Thorbjörn Björnsson, Lucas Confurius, Wolfgang Michael Director: Angela Schanalec Screenwriter: Angela Schanalec Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Midnight Traveler Is a Harrowing Document of a Family’s Escape
The documentary doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles.3.5
Afghani filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s documentary Midnight Traveler has the insular feel of a home movie, but at the same time, the family saga that it recounts can’t avoid placing itself within a larger geo-political context. The film, shot using three mobile phones, captures Fazili and his wife Fatima’s flight from war-torn Afghanistan to the West, along with their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. The depiction of their journey across 3,500 miles does more than humanize the plight of refugees, so easily spoken of in the terms of mass demographics in the political discourse of Europe and America. It also gives this family’s desperate situation experiential weight, emphasizing the time and the spaces that define their struggle to reach an unknown destination in Europe.
A filmmaker whose documentary film about a Taliban leader has made him a wanted man in Afghanistan, Fazili brings a director’s eye to what may be taken as a representative experience for hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa: the clandestine trek across multiple borders on the path to a Western democracy, reliant at times on seedy smugglers and untrustworthy bureaucrats. Despite the nocturnal intrigue implied by its title, Midnight Traveler takes place mostly during the day, and focuses less on tension than on texture. The first-person camera takes in the details of a life indefinitely in suspense, the transitory homes the family fashions out of goat-inhabited basements in Afghanistan, shady enclaves in the Bulgarian woods, and the squalid rooms of a refugee camp in Sofia.
Balancing rough-edge verité with highly composed images and a meticulous structure, Midnight Traveler doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles. A memorable scene has the bespectacled Nargis standing on the rocky shore of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, reacting giddily to the cool water splashing against her feet. We see what may well be Nargis’s first encounter with the sea through her father’s eyes, the boundless potential he sees in her reflected by the nearby expanse of the Black Sea.
The unsteadiness of mobile-phone video lends Midnight Traveler’s imagery an acute sense of intimacy, but we aren’t totally constrained to the perspective of the family’s patriarch. Fazili occasionally cedes control of his camera (and the voiceover narration) to Fatima or Nargis, who use it to log their own reactions to the family’s travails. Nargis weeps as she recounts witnessing right-wing Bulgarians pelt rocks at a group of refugees that includes her mother; in a lighter moment, Fatima tells the story of how she, an artist and filmmaker in her own right, turned Fazili, the son of a mullah, into an open-minded, secular man.
The documentary’s final act depicts the family’s life in a Serbian camp as they wait through an arcane asylum-application process—an experience that could be described as Kafkaesque but more in the style of the author’s short “Before the Law” parable than of his labyrinthine nightmares. Dreary boredom accompanies a sense of dread as the family waits for over a year to hear whether their application will even be reviewed. Committed to his project, Fazili shoots everything, not even putting down the camera throughout an argument he and Fatima have over his compliment of another female refugee. All the same, Fazili professes to struggling with applying his artistic ambitions to his family: When his youngest daughter, Zahra, goes missing in Serbia, he admits in voiceover that he considered recording as he searched for her through bushes, half expecting to find her dead body.
Although written text on screen periodically appears to fill in the inevitable narrative gaps of a documentary shot on the run, Fazili’s project draws a circle around his family and their immediate conditions. It’s a narrative approach reflected in the shallow focus of a Samsung phone’s camera. Glimpses at the outside world are oblique, perhaps sometimes intentionally vague: Faces of fellow refugees are blurred, and Midnight Traveler never zooms out to give us a sense of the grand, sheer sprawl of Istanbul or Sofia. We’re left feeling as lost and isolated as the Fazilis, in unfamiliar settings—anonymous city streets, goat-inhabited basements, Bulgarian forests—that we perceive only from their embodied perspectives.
The tight focus on the family’s travails belies a structuring absence in Midnight Traveler: the cause and history of the conflict that Fazili, Fatima, and their daughters are fleeing. There’s discussion of the Taliban but not of the other major force at play in war-torn Afghanistan: the United States-led coalition force that’s been fighting in the country for nearly two decades. That NATO now forces refugees from the destabilized region into legal limbo—that seeking help from the U.S., the leader of the coalition, doesn’t even appear to be within the realm of possibilities—may be the unspoken point of this harrowing film.
Director: Hassan Fazili Screenwriter: Emelie Mahdavian Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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