Between Chongqing Blues and 2001’s Beijing Bicycle, the only other film of his I’ve seen, I think it’s fair to dismiss Wang Xiaoshuai as a world-cinema poser and move on. Ostensibly a naturalistic bit of cinema verité, Chongqing Blues is in actuality an unwieldy barge of clichés, heavy-handed symbols, and clumsy, inconsistent formal choices. The tortured soul Wang plants his camera behind is Quanhai (an excellent Wang Xueqi), a sea captain who returns home after a 15-year absence when his 25-year-old son, Bo (Zi Yi), is shot and killed by a police officer. For a little while, it looks like Wang Xiashuai may be interested in simply following Quanhai around Chongqing. But as he starts to pile on the manufactured melodrama, it becomes clear that he’s really just contriving a way to force Quanhai to see the consequences of his absteneeism. You do the math: 25 minus 15 equals 10 years away and nearly two hours of stupid metaphors and torturous dialogue devoted to showing how badly losing his papa fucked Bo up.
But instead of experimenting with drugs, piercings, and casual sex like most troubled youth, Bo goes into a mall and stabs two people, taking a third hostage. After nearly five hours, Bo emerges and is shot dead by a cop. All of this information is clear early on, but most of the film consists of Quanhai interviewing witnesses who parcel out information we pretty much already know. The interviews are intercut with flashbacks and security-camera footage of the event, segments that add nothing and emphasize Wang Xiaoshuai’s lack of control over cinematic form. Dardenne-style tracking shots clash with more conventional shot/reverse-shot editing, as if he only understands the former as the trendy world-cinema style du jour and has no idea what it actually does or how to maintain it.
Not that even that kind of rigor could save material this dire. Quanhai spends hours pouring over security-camera footage, eventually enlarging a frame to the point that his son’s face becomes an incomprehensible mess of pixels. “The bigger they are, the blurrier they get,” says one character. Another: “Taking a photo is a laughable attempt to cheat death.” (Don’t worry: There’s more where those came from.) After he finally comes to terms with his son’s death, he travels to the ocean, which is of course a metaphor for the distance he left between himself and his family. “Don’t all rivers lead to the sea?” his ex-wife asks before explaining that she dumped Bo’s ashes in the river so that he could find his father. (See?) I imagine the film will find defenders who argue that all this risible daddy-issues nonsense is actually a metaphor for the youth of China, abandoned and left to hooliganism by the paternal Chinese blah blah blah. And sure, I could buy that. But I’m not entirely sure how it’s any less stupid.
I’m not entirely sure about anything going on in The Strange Case of Angelica, the latest film by the world’s oldest working filmmaker, the 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira. As the title suggests, it’s a fable of sorts, relating the story of a Jewish photographer (Ricardo Trêpa) who falls in love with the recently dead Angelica (Sarah Paulson lookalike Pilar López de Ayala) after being asked by the deceased’s family to take a picture of her corpse. De Oliveira takes this story as a starting-off point to, as far as I can tell, just goof around for a while. The film is largely gorgeous, and it has a number of terrific scenes and knockout gags (one in particular featuring a caged bird and a hungry-eyed cat).
But I can’t for the life of me figure out how all these playful digressions—including a long dinner-table conversation in which guests touch on the economic crisis, the “seven mosquitoes of the Apocalypse,” and the relationship between matter and antimatter, which I can’t tell if it’s just pretentious claptrap or a winking parody of pretentious claptrap or what—connect in any meaningful way. Ultimately, watching the film is kind of like listening to your grandpa tell a rambling story; he may not connect all the dots, and you may not have any idea what the hell he’s even talking about some of the time, but you enjoy the telling all the same.
I have not seen Kim Ki-young’s reportedly amazing (and amazingly nuts) 1960 thriller The Housemaid, so I cannot personally confirm or deny that Im Sang-soo’s adaptation is a back-asswards inversion of everything that makes the original so special. But since nearly everyone who has seen Kim’s film is saying that, I’m willing to accept it. Im keeps the premise of Kim’s film—Eun-yi, a poor young woman, becomes a maid for a wealthy married couple and sleeps with the husband, at which point chaos reigns—but completely reverses the dynamics within that setup. The maid (Jeon Do-yeon), the psychopathic aggressor in Kim’s film, is here a passive victim, seduced by the husband (Lee Jung-Jae) and summarily exposed to mental and physical abuse by his wife (Seo Woo) and mother-in-law (Moon So-ri). I can’t comment on how these changes affect the movie in relation to the original, but even without knowledge of Kim’s film, the remake is a leaden, unsubtle mess. Im fashions the narrative into a blunt-force assault on class inequality, a point that is made satisfactorily within the first 15 minutes then run into the ground for another hour and a half. (“You don’t even think of me as human,” Eun-yi tells the husband, who then turns to his family and says, “That’s just how those people are.”) It’s not even especially entertaining; there’s no real structure or pace, and even the supposedly controversial sex scenes are too outrageously stylized to carry much subversive charge. Only in its gleefully nasty conclusion—and even more so in the hilariously nonsensical bugfuck epilogue (or whatever) that follows—does the film come to any sort of actual life.
Within the still-going-strong Romanian New Wave, Radu Muntean remains somewhat lesser-known than compatriots like 2007 Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective), and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Un Certain Regard entry Aurora; more on the latter tomorrow). Hopefully Tuesday, After Christmas, screening in UCR, will help to change that. It’s a modest but beautifully calibrated film, and a good showcase of the strengths of current Romanian cinema. In a series of unshowy long takes, it follows Paul (Mimi Branescu), a married man whose affair with a young dentist (Maria Popistasu) destroys his relationship with his wife (Mirela Oprisor). It’s an old chestnut of a narrative, but Muntean’s sensitivity and steady eye allow him to capture a number of startlingly intimate and truthful moments without once veering into melodrama. Equal praise is owed the film’s trio of wonderful performers, who unearth the layers of emotion within intimacy and agitation. Tuesday, After Christmas may be too familiar to be much more than very good, but if Muntean can find something a bit more creative on which to turn his gaze, “very good” won’t even begin to cover it.