Monday, April 21, 2008

La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
English Title: The Jetty

Memory is the thematic and aesthetic core of Chris Marker's masterpiece La Jetée (The Jetty). Set in the far future, during the aftermath of third World War, the film tells the story of a man haunted by a distinct memory from the past, a beautiful woman he has seen as a boy in the airport just before the eruption of the war. That memory makes him a unique and indispensable individual to the victors who in trying to connect with the past and the future to salvage the present from a scarcity of important resources, are experimenting on its prisoners who have concrete mnemonic images. This man's most persisting memory is represented by a still picture of a woman in a pleasantly feminine posture, her face beaming with comforting contentment, and her hair flowing peacefully with the wind. It is his last memory of peace.

It isn't highfalutin science fiction. Actually,
La Jetée is simplistic in its science and entirely evasive of the details of time travel, but accurate in the atmosphere and the emotions of being confronted by a recurring image of the past. It is oddly romantic and fluently scary, especially in the way it belabors memory as a fathomable obsession and a manipulated resource. The plot's elliptical form only reinforces Marker's thematic quirk, the way the mysteries of time, of the human mind, and the human heart converge in a highly intimate tale of emotional longing.

La Jetée's aesthetic stance approximates a cinematically unconventional act of mnemonic recollection. While cinema has represented memories as elegant trips to the past through fluid flashbacks which are often granted the same clarity as the present, La Jetée takes a different course, visually experimental but still conventional in its storytelling methods. The film can accurately be described as a photo-montage, where black and white images are flawlessly stitched together. Guided by a narrator, the film takes the shape and feel of a storybook being told from start to finish.

Let not its unique form and style intimidate you.
La Jetée showcases Marker as a filmmaker adept in the basics of filmmaking. The twenty nine-minute film is perhaps the most impressively edited film I've ever seen. The black and white stills magically move through the fades to black, the perfectly-timed cuts, and the transitions that are all the more made effective by pertinent yet bare sound effects and the memorably apt musical score. In one sequence, the man is first experimented upon by the victors. The rhythm of his heartbeat provides an unmitigated tension that fuels the ethereally ravishing photographs of the man suffering; his teeth sinking on the reed hammock which serves as his bed and his hands contorting in manifestly pained shapes.

There's a single moment in
La Jetée wherein Marker decides to suddenly erupt from the confines of still memory, and allows one of his subjects to move, although very momentarily. It's intriguing because it is both startling yet magical, the way the girl awakes from slumber and truly awakes, blinking and smiling. It is as if the image has escaped from being merely encapsulated as a figment of memory but has become a part of the present, unlimited by the inadequacies of the human mind. But why did Marker choose that moment to break his unique style? It is perhaps it is only in that moment wherein the man has sufficiently let go of the memory, and believed it as a present emotion: of comfort and relief. In contrast, it is only in the museum where the animals of the past have been frozen for perpetuity did the man truly perfect the art of time travel (probably in acceptance that the past, like these frozen animals, need to be immobile for that is memory's most innate nature). That was exactly what the man's captors needed, a perpetuated memory not a fleeting emotion.

La Jetée is a film that is continually changing and evolving. It inhabits the very quality that makes photography a veritable art form, the way it captures a real moment in time for perpetuation and incessant interpretation. Similarly, La Jetée has the story of a man and his obsession with his memory of a girl waiting in the jetty made eternal. Yet beyond that story is Marker's art which plays differently every single time it is seen. The first time I saw it, it impressed me with how the narrative was perfectly told through mere photographs. The second time I saw it, I was left enchanted by its subtle tackling of the interconnections of time, memory, love, and obsession. The third time I saw it, I became fascinated by Marker’s fluency in his medium. Metaphorically put, La Jetée is as open as the clear skies that day when the image of the girl was engraved on the man's mind, and as tremendous and terrifying as the apocalypse that befell the world after it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

The Forbidden Kingdom (Rob Minkoff, 2008)

The Forbidden Kingdom marks the first on-screen team-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li's, two of Hong Kong's most internationally-bankable superstars. However, all promise of being superbly entertained gets thrown out the window because film, instead of being helmed by Hong Kong's roster of directors (who've had experience working in Hollywood) like Tsui Hark, Ronny Yu, Wilson Yip or Benny Chan, is directed by Rob Minkoff. Minkoff directed the two Stuart Little films (1999, 2002), the horrendous The Haunted Mansion (2003), among a few other movies. The problem with Minkoff is that he has no real sense of why kung fu movies are so fascinating. Instead of concentrating on the spectacular acrobatics and stunts (which Chan and Li would be more willing to perform), he goes on into making a film that is as colorful as a pack of Skittles and as dumbing as an entire day watching the Disney Channel.

The plot is your standard The Wizard of Oz-derivative, where the young hero gets spirited away to another land to accomplish a mission, helped of course by a few of the land's friendlier natives. The young hero here is Jason (Michael Angarano), oft-bullied Boston native whose dreams are composed of vivid recreations of the kung fu flicks he regularly watches. He is drawn to a mysterious staff he chances upon in his favorite Chinatown store. The same staff transports him to mythical China, where the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) rules tyrannically while everyone awaits for the prophesied boy who will return the staff to the Monkey King (Li) and restore order in the world. With the help of a Taoist immortal Lu Yan (Chan), a mysterious monk (Li), vengeful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), Jason travels to the Jade Warlord's castle to complete the prophecy and return home.

Unable to muster the competency and imagination to mount a rousing kung fu-fantasy epic, Minkoff makes do with aping under the guise of influence. The Forbidden Kingdom has a little bit of everything in the Hong Kong section of your nearest video rental store. There's Chan's reprise of his fighting style in Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978); the Golden Sparrow is a character popularized by Pei-Pei Cheng in Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966) and Golden Sparrow (Chang Cheh, 1968); Li Bingbing's white-haired witch is an obvious reference to Brigitte Lin's star-turning turn in The Bride With White Hair (Ronny Yu, 1993) and its sequel The Bride With White Hair II (Ronny Yu & David Wu, 1993); there are scenes that echo Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), and a few other popular Hong Kong titles.

I must admit that the film's geeky fascination with Hong Kong pop culture is endearing, but the endearment quickly wears off when the film jumps from one fight scene to another with reckless abandon, supposedly showcasing the talents of its two Hong Kong superstars but only succeeds in showcasing the director's deficiencies. Despite a team of effective artists and technicians including cinematographer Peter Pau (who lensed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, glitzy Hong Kong musicale Perhaps Love (Peter Chan, 2005), and beautifully shot yet disappointing The Promise (Chen Kaige, 2005)), action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who directed Jackie Chan in many of his earlier films and has made a successful career choreographing fight scenes for several Hollywood films), and art director Eric Lam (who effectively recreated Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)), Minkoff was not able to make all the elements cohere.

The humor is quite corny, far cornier than the slapstick humor which paved for Chan's indubitable charms. Li is a very stiff comedian and fares better when kicking, punching, and jumping rather than when he's exchanging witty retorts with his co-star. For all the hype that this film collaboration is getting, the result is rather infuriating. Even their inevitable face-off inside an ancient temple lacks the requisite kineticism, that cinematic spark, to even be remotely fascinating. Thus, their most memorable moment together turns out to be in the director's tasteless attempt to get laughs out of the audience, where Chan comes face to face with Li's urination. All in all, the promises that the idea of Chan and Li working on a film together fizzled right from the get-go.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2001)
Japanese Title: Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu

In one of my morning commutes to work, I inadvertently sat beside this peculiar old man of probably eighty years of age. He smiled at me. I did not return the unspoken morning’s greeting as I was in no mood for weekday pleasantries. When the conductor came to collect our fare, I immediately gave him the correct amount and went on with my business. The old man got two little coins which I knew were not enough to cover his fare and gave it to the conductor. The conductor remarked “Sir, this isn’t enough. Your eyesight must be so bad that you picked up the wrong coins.” While, struggling to remove from his purse the correct fare, the old man retorted with a grandfatherly smile, “I may not be able to see these coins, but I can see a gorgeous woman more than a mile away.” The conductor laughed and received the correct payment. I, however, was more humbled than anything. It would take a quirky old man and his witty retort to make me realize the youth I was wasting away in my intent to flow along the work-a-day world. I finally gave the old man the long-delayed smile he deserved minutes ago.

At the very ripe age of 74 and with several outstanding films including two Cannes Palm d’Or winners under his belt, Shohei Imamura crafted Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a quirky if not entirely whimsical concoction that seems to be dwarfed by the richer and more complex films Imamura made before it. The film tackles the story of Sasano (Koji Yakusho), a retrenched salary man who moves from the riverside tent city in Tokyo to a rural town upon the parting advice of a homeless philosopher named Taro whom he befriended. The philosopher urges him on a treasure hunt but upon arrival in the seaside town, he gets sidetracked when he discovers and eventually falls in love with Saeko (Misa Shimizu), woman with the curious condition of swelling up with immense amount of water that can only be released by the commission of a wicked act such as shoplifting or through sexual intercourse.

Despite the very simplistic if not trite predisposition, the film is still very much underneath the umbrella of the Imamura’s constant artistic interest, the relationship between the marginalized social strata and human sexuality. Here, Imamura again examines the always-reliable downtrodden Japanese corporate slave, pushed away from the norm of the economically successful post-war Japanese individual by forces which are beyond his control. However, instead of furthering such examination of the unlucky impoverished Japanese as composite for a commentary on contemporary Japanese society, Imamura most delightfully steers away from what is expected of him. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge does not have anything drastically important to say about society in general nor does it need to say anything pertinent of the times. Imamura has already spent a long and illustrious career doing exactly that.

Later in his career, Imamura would strive for humanism within the familiar context that he has grown accustomed to. Such humanism finds climax and maybe, near-perfection in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, where Imamura’s thematic thrusts are inward, very similar to traditional parables and fables where the narrative primarily serves the characters’ growth to their inevitable betterment supposedly to touch on a universal human trait. The inward thematic thrust of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge becomes more apparent when the film is compared to his earlier works where the elaborate storytelling and characterizations are usually evocations of social and cultural situations that are larger than the films themselves, like the anti-American sentiment within a Japanese society that is under the influence of the American victors in Pigs and Battleships (1961), the struggles of the post-war Japanese women living in the fringes of society in The Insect Woman (1963), among plenty other grander themes that most of Imamura’s films apparently allude to. What Warm Water Under a Red Bridge most successfully imparts is the very personal appreciation of the proper pursuit of happiness --- not through the modernized method of financial stability as dictated by modern norms but through the most primitive yet certain representations of human satisfaction: a job that sufficiently provides and more importantly, an always interesting sex life.

In Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, sex symbolizes a bevy of human needs. In a humorous utilization of magic realism, Imamura conceives a woman’s orgasm as life-giving. He meticulously, and with a glorious touch of lyrical humor, paints how Seako’s fluids flow from the wooden panels of her house, down the drain, and into the river where a school of freshwater fishes delightfully feed on the water-bound nutrients. The sudden abundance of catch impresses the group of village fishermen, including the African student who is training there for the Olympics. It’s quite a refreshing tone, especially in a nation whose pornographic offerings consider such abnormality as a prized commodity along with other impractical yet curiously alluring sexual acrobatics. Here, its nothing short of magical, the way a community of men suddenly become under the spells of a particularly special woman, not through her ill-motivated whims but simply because she is created by nature that way.

Above the life-giving metaphor of sex is the overt satisfaction that is derived from letting go of the societal norms that have encaged the salaried Japanese man, and just seeking out true happiness. That is exactly the inevitable course that Sasano finds himself in. It’s a brush of impractical yet kind fate --- the way he becomes entrusted with the secret treasure by Taro, the way he is conveniently pushed out of the marriage by his nagging wife, the way he notices Saeko in a fit of orgasm while shoplifting in a nearby convenience store. Drawn first by the his desire to cure Saeko of her shoplifting ways through thrusting his sexual capabilities as the least immoral method of releasing her overflowing fluids, he eventually finds his place within the simplistic demands of that rural town where his unique schedule provides for him a sense of belongingness that is absent among the impersonal atmosphere of city living. It is the sex that perpetuates his purpose there, and when that is suddenly troubled by an enterprising ex-convict who sees Saeko’s talents as a source of fortune, he comes out the surprising hero, and defends it the way he hasn’t defended anything in his entire life.

The final few scenes in the film are both intriguing and wonderful. Sasano, jealous from the supposed infidelity of Saeko and disappointed because of the sudden depletion of the fluids that has become the source of his satisfaction, confronts his woman in the breakwaters beside the highway. All reason, sorrow, and questions are erased when in a fit of emotional upheaval (similar to Saeko’s being filled with water), he just lets go and makes love with Saeko. It’s probably one of the loveliest sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, where the sex is there not to make a harsh and guilt-ridden commentary on such pleasures but to celebrate it. Imamura’s visual style makes sure that the sex scenes in the film are both tasteful yet interestingly comical, with both of his actors brandishing an unlikely thus surprising indifference of the entire erotic act --- as if the sex only serves that very particular purpose of momentarily curing Saeko’s condition. In that final lovemaking sequence, it’s different. We are suddenly become knowledgeable of the emotional investments both have committed in that previously only sexual relationship. We acknowledge the hurt, the insecurities, the probable disappointments that suddenly blew up a few moments before Sasano lets go and makes love to Saeko. In that scene, the copulation is clearly not to cure Saeko’s condition, but to represent that final vow --- that with or without the fluids, Sasano has committed his entirety to Saeko. Metaphorically, that also represents Sasano’s acceptance of this new type of happiness, this new type of satisfaction that only Saeko and the entire simplicity of that rural town can provide. Imamura, in a stroke of genius, caps that final lovemaking with Saeko bursting her fluids in the air like a geyser exploding. Funnily, affectingly, and beautifully, a rainbow appears from her fluids as the film’s quirky musical score plays in the background.

In one of the film’s flashbacks, Taro reminds Sasano to have fun while he still can, or in the screenplay’s more imaginative terms, while he can still get an erection. Taro continues to say “Drown yourself in a woman's arms, be faithful to your desires without worrying about daily cares.” Taro’s reminders are the indubitable theses of Imamura’s swansong. It is inaccurate to refer to Warm Water Under a Red Bridge as profusely impertinent compared to Imamura’s other works. In fact, it probably is his most revelatory film; wherein the socially-aware artist suddenly steps out of the supposed legacy he is building to create something surprisingly amiable, entertaining, and personal. He generously grants his viewers the same grandfatherly advice the old man in the bus made to me: to live your life how it should be lived thus finding true happiness.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Love of Siam (2007)

The Love of Siam (Chukiat Sakveerakul, 2007)
Thai Title: Rak haeng Siam

To label Chukiat Sakveerakul's The Love of Siam as simply a gay teen romance is to misjudge its power and intention. Within the two and a half hour running time (the director's cut is reportedly four hours long) of the film, Sakveerakul essays not only the two young leads' reunion and inevitable attraction but also a family's slow and painful road to accepting a long-delayed reality. I would like to think that The Love of Siam, above everything else, seeks to reaffirm the life-affirming values of loving and being loved without sacrificing the portrayal of the very palpable pain that usually accompanies the emotion.

The twenty-minute prologue tracks the histories of young Mew (Arthit Niyomkul) and Tong (Jirayu La-ongmanee), who are both schoolmates and neighbors. They form a very close friendship which was abruptly ended when Tong's family had to move out when Tang (Laila Boonyasuk), Tong's elder sister, went missing during a trip in Chiang Mai, causing the family tremendous and irreparable sorrow. Years later, Mew (Witwisit Hirunwongkul), lead singer and composer for an up and coming boy band, again crosses path with Tong (Mario Maurer), who is struggling at home with his domineering mother (Sinjai Plengpanich) and alcoholic father (Songsit Rungnopakunsri). The two reconnect and inevitably fall for each other, disrupting whatever peace they have grown accustomed to.

To make matters more complicated, Mew's Chinese neighbor Ying (Kanya Rattanapetch) is hopelessly in love with Mew, not knowing of his homosexual tendencies. On the other hand, Tong is currently dating Donut (Aticha Pongsilpipat), presumably not knowing of his own homosexual tendencies too. Tong's family, more specifically the father who's been spending days and nights drinking, is still suffering from the loss of Tang. June (also played by Boonyasuk), Mew's band manager who looks a lot like Tang, is then recruited to pose as the long lost daughter, momentarily easing the father of his staggered pains.

The Siam in the title refers to Siam Square, a shopping district in Bangkok where most teens hang out to shop, dine, meet, and have fun. Siam Square, in the eyes of the Bangkok youth, has become both the place for welcomes and farewells, of declarations of love and hurtful break-ups, of chance encounters and scheduled meetings. In the film, the popular venue is not only the setting for Mew and Tong's reunion and the numerous other events in the story but it also represents the unpredictability of the many facets of love which the film so intricately paints. While Siam Square or any other shopping mecca are ordinarily thought of as accessories to the bastardization of love and romance because it commonly equates blatant commercialism with the love's outward depictions like dating, gift-giving, and hanging out, The Love of Siam uses that very element to depict love's many wanderings and permutations. Underneath the glow of the traditionally amiable romance, The Love of Siam strives to say something more about the act of loving, whether romantically or familial: that it is more a nebulous network-like journey to maintain hope than a straight path to the assumed happy ending.

In fact, The Love of Siam ends without any of its characters fulfilling the traditional conclusions of a love story. There are no happily-ever-afters or expected closures. Instead, the film ends with a mere spark of hope. That hope that closes the film actually opens up million of possibilities for its characters, as numerous as the countless fortuitous encounters in Siam Square that initiate relationships between strangers or abruptly conclude long-standing affairs all within the fateful movement of time. Sakveerakul drafts a bittersweet ode to the complexities of loving, which commercial cinema has tended to avoid throughout the years. What he exclaims in The Love of Siam is that daringly traversing outside the common simplicities of love is far more gratifying than safely assuming formula.

Through the interconnected lives of two boys who are on the verge of self-awareness amidst their own individual conflicts and the people surrounding them, Sakveerakul notes that love survives notwithstanding the dilemmas that pervade the world. As Ying translates from a Chinese song, "as long as there is love, there is hope." Corny as it sounds, the Bangkok of The Love of Siam thrives on that noble aspiration, without knowing that it does so.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Doomsday (2008)

Doomsday (Neil Marshall, 2008)

In the near future, a viral outbreak would force Britain to separate from Scotland, constructing a well-guarded wall on its border to enforce an unusually cruel quarantine where an entire people are left to die. Decades later when the same virus starts threatening London, a group of courageous soldiers lead by chick-with-a-history Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is commissioned by the government to go back to Scotland and bring back a survivor to London. Long-neglected Scotland has transformed into a world of its own, with grunge rocker-cannibals lead by mohawk-donning Sol (Craig Conway) and medieval knights lead by their eloquent lord Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell) lording over what feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Doomsday, Neil Marshall's third feature film, is obviously gifted with a large-enough budget to pay for all the indulgences of his unusually wild imagination. Marshall largely succeeded in creating atmosphere from scraps with his werewolf mayhem flick Dog Soldiers (1999) and his underground pseudo-feminist gore-fest The Descent (2005). In Doomsday, Marshall replaces his gift for magically pulling out cinematic dread out of a hat bought from a 99 cent store with his delusion that he can transform his fanboy knowledge of the best moments in cult filmmaking into a working and coherent film. Unfortunately, the delusion remains a delusion. Blanketed with the look and feel of a 20th century cult classic without the paramount intelligence that made those cult classics withstand aging, the film feels severely outdated. Doomsday is literally an anachronistic mishap. Although enjoyable because of its relentless display of blood and gore, it feels like an utter anomaly right from the get-go.

It's a good thing that at times, Doomsday can be hilarious. While Marshall starts off the film with an air of seriousness (with an authoritative voice narrating the details of the viral outbreak up to Scotland being enclosed with miles of steel and mines), the heavy tone is quickly buttressed by a valuable shoot-out, where the ridiculosity of big 'fro assassins and big-titted blondes in a bathtub slugging it out until they are brutally killed. From then on, Doomsday descends into an arena where big budget meets purposeful bad taste. It doesn't entirely work but at least the imaginative blending of supposedly unmixable genre elements supplies the viewer with a source for laughs and disbelief. Think of it like a cod-flavored ice cream; it isn't exactly something one would call a perfect dessert but is something the gastronomically-daring would try out of at least, curiosity.

While there is a flagrant abundance of heads being severed and limbs being smashed, at least the violence is done with cartoonic flair (something completely absent from the abysmal massacres of The Descent). The violence is done at the expense of humanizing characters, but Marshall is not a director who cares much for humanity anyway, especially with films where characterizations are mere a setups for his grisly situations. Apart from Sinclair who is propped with a backstory, the rest of Marshall's characters aren't given enough personalities to distinguish themselves from each other. It's probably best to kill them off that way, since without the baggages of natural pity, sympathy and empathy to the human characters, their honorless deaths (one gets his throat slit; another is roasted and fed to a hungry mob) become less offensive to the senses.

Doomsday is comical, undaunting, and perplexing in its illogical absurdity. It isn't punctuated with a distinct style that might make it an intriguing piece of cinema, aside from the fact that it harbors the same distaste for humanity Marshall has always inflicted his films with. It isn't one of the films that will be thought of as "so crazy, it's genius" many years from now. It is more a hodgepodge of influences than anything else. Unfortunately, Marshall is still in no position to adequately copy off from the masters. It's a delirious effort of unifying Marshall's cinephile artifacts into a bubble of gratuitous bad taste. It is still a fun ride, one I would never dare experiencing again unless I am threatened to be fed to a mob of hungry Scots.