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Zhang Ziyi (#110 of 4)

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2013

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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2013
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2013

In my four years attending the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this was the first time where tickets for screenings weren’t sold out for every film by 10 a.m. the day prior. The economic wallop that briefly made its presence known at last year’s festival was brutally felt this year in some near-empty screenings, among them a program for avant-garde short films that included David Gatten’s awe-inspiring By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging. The lack of a surfeit of people robbed the screenings of their sense of urgency—that very specific do-or-die feeling you get at a festival when people are elbowing you as they try to shove their way through narrow doors and into the theater at the same time, rushing to find their seats. But the mellow atmosphere didn’t preclude the discovery of a few very good films.

Berlinale 2013 The Grandmaster, Gold, & A Single Shot

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Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot
Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot

Since coming home from the sumptuous, if lopsided, American road trip of My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai has been hard at work on his martial-arts epic The Grandmaster. Perhaps the most explicitly in dialogue with film history of all his works thus far, the film will read as a much-needed strike of lightning to wu xia for connoisseurs of the genre and a feature-length TV spot for others. Which is to say that its visual design is (surprise, surprise) magnificently original, but it lacks Wong’s characteristic elliptical approach to storytelling that has won him so many admirers. Pierre Rissient allegedly dismissed Wong as “postcard cinema”—and it hurts to say it, but The Grandmaster might be more impactful as a series of stills than a motion picture.

Set mainly over the course of the 1930s in Foshan, a city in southern China, the film narrates the Ip Man’s (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) rise to prominence as a Wing Chun grandmaster, focusing especially on his brushes with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of one of the grandmasters from the north. Although they cross paths across many years, Wong forgoes the melancholic romanticization of time we’ve come to expect from him and opts to tell their story in a disappointingly linear fashion, Hollywoodian flashback included. Essentially a biopic wrapped in a kung-fu art film, The Grandmaster’s ambition but feeling of incompletion brings to mind Sam Peckinpah’s analogous probing of national history, mythology, and masculinity.

The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai
The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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?

A Movie a Day, Day 45: Sophie’s Revenge

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A Movie a Day, Day 45: <em>Sophie’s Revenge</em>
A Movie a Day, Day 45: <em>Sophie’s Revenge</em>

I really have to work at not reading enough to spoil the movies I’m interested in before I’ve seen them. It’s worth the effort: I don’t want someone else’s opinion to color my first reaction, and I hate knowing what’s coming next because some reviewer outlined too much of the plot. But I feel like I’m constantly battling the barrage of publicity filmmakers and distributors want you to see, and I don’t always win. Sometimes I don’t get to be surprised enough by a film because I know too much about what’s in it. And sometimes a clever publicity hook reels me into a movie that’s not really for me.

That happened yesterday with Sophie’s Revenge, a self-consciously Hollywood-style romantic comedy from China that’s part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. Whoever wrote the blurb for the festival’s website got me with this: “You need to know: the conspiracy is real. 20 years ago, American film distributors secretly met with the C.I.A. and were told that it was their patriotic duty to convince audiences that China was hell on earth. To that end they agreed to only import Chinese movies about unwashed orphans riding in the backs of rusty trucks through industrial hellscapes populated by unwed mothers sitting in the dirt and crying over their abortions.”