At a festival which offers hundreds of films, it’s idiotic to make generalizations, considering that even the most energetic critic can take in only about 25% of the complete schedule. The comparatively tiny size of the New York Film Festival, which showed 25 new features, 2 revivals (Oscar Micheaux’s BODY AND SOUL and Budd Boetticher’s SEVEN MEN FROM NOW) and a 4-program sidebar of avant-garde films, makes it far easier to draw conclusions. Indeed, I can come up with a few off the top of my head: melodrama is making a major comeback, and Asian cinema dominated the festival. However, I wasn’t able to see as many films I’d planned this year, due to an ear infection that lasted several weeks and often made me extremely dizzy. In compensation, I’ve written longer reviews than usual this year.
There’s another reason I didn’t go out of my way to see this year’s entire roster: by the time the festival began, 21 of its 25 features had found American distributors. I can’t blame the programmers for laziness or lack of adventurous spirit, since they only included 2 high-profile Indiewood films (POLLOCK and BEFORE NIGHT FALLS) and showed as many new films from the Middle East as from the U.S. In fact, 8 films included here were acquired *after* the NYFF slate was publicly announced. It seems as if the battle to get Iranian and East Asian cinema taken seriously in the U.S. has been won, and while I’m grateful that films like Jafar Panahi’s CIRCLE, Bahman Farmara’s SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE and Nagisa Oshima’s TABOO quickly found American buyers, the fact that I knew I could see them commercially over the next 6 months - TABOO opened just 3 days after screening at the festival! - didn’t exactly encourage me to jump at the chance to see them right now. I value film festivals most for the opportunity they provide to see films that can’t easily be seen under other circumstances, not as a preview of next season’s arthouse releases.
Despite my griping, the quality of this year’s selection - based on
the sample that I caught - was far higher than the past few years, with
4 ***1/2+ films and 2 shorts of the same caliber.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (David Gordon Green) ***1/4
It’s impossible to describe GEORGE WASHINGTON without saying something like “this is what GUMMO might have been if Harmony Korine had no desire to be a provocateur” - unlike Korine, Green really respects his Southern eccentrics - but 24-year-old Green’s debut feature also recalls films as disparate as DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE SWEET HEREAFTER. Set during the summer in a poor North Carolina town, the film revolves around a teenage boy’s fatal accident and its aftermath. However, this accident doesn’t occur until the 35-minute mark, which shows Green’s willingness to take his time. The slow pace pays off: while GEORGE WASHINGTON is as lethargic as a humid July afternoon, it’s never boring. In the press kit, Green reveals that he spent most of his tiny budget on camera lenses. It shows. While many indie directors are turning to DV (and usually coarsening the look of their work), he’s chosen to shot in 35mm Cinemascope. Cinematographer Tim Orr, who worked mostly with natural light, creates a beautifully burnished, glowing look. GEORGE WASHINGTON over-reaches for poetic effect a few too many times, especially in its voice-overs, but it’s easy to forgive occasional strains in such an accomplished film.
Distributed by Cowboy Booking International. Opens in New York October 27th.
CHUNHYANG (Im Kwon-taek, South Korea) **
CHUNHYANG is the first Korean film ever to play in competition at Cannes, as well as the only selection from Im’s 38-year, 96-film oeuvre to be distributed in the U.S. Unfortunately, his 1992 FLY HIGH, RUN FAR, a Kurosawa-esque period piece about a renegade religious sect, would make a better introduction than this creaky melodrama. Continuing the fascination with female suffering Im showed in TICKET and SOPYONJE, CHUNHYANG relates the life story of its title character (Lee Hyo-Jung), whose brief happiness is dashed when her noble husband Mongryong (Cho Seung-Woo) is called away to Seoul to finish his education shortly after their marriage. However, her real misery begins when the governor of her province sentences her to death for her refusal to betray Mongryong by sleeping with him.
Chunhyang’s story, set in the 18th-century, is actually being
told to a contemporary audience by a male pansoori performer, who offers
an overall narration and sometimes sings from its characters’ perspective.
(Pansoori, which was the subject of SOPYONJE, is a style of traditional
Korean music featuring loud, highly expressive vocals accompanied solely
by percussion.) This film's supposed feminism would feel right at
home in a WWI-era silent film: CHUNHYANG is a
saga of a chaste female victim - whose lack of sexual desire seems to be regarded by Im as a sign of her virtue - oppressed by an equally one-dimensional male villain. Her only hope lies in male rebellion. The pansoori framing device occasionally acknowledges our distance from this story - in the kind of modernist gesture accomplished so well by the voice-over in Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON - but most of the time, it simply offers a redundant summary of the on-screen action or the characters’ emotions. (In fact, Chunhyang’s voice is often drowned out by songs about how she feels.) If Im intends to comment on present-day sexism and political corruption - and the narrator’s final line suggests so - he fails to make CHUNHYANG resonate as anything more than a quaint, if pretty, period fantasy.
Distributed by Lot 47 Films. Opens January 2001.
It’s been a long time since a film left me as ambivalent as DANCER IN THE DARK. (In fact, I spent a while deciding whether to give it **1/2 or ***.) However, it’s far more likely to provoke extreme praise or complete dismissal, as it did at Cannes (before winning the Palme D’Or) a few months ago. Even so, my mixed response may be fitting: not since FUNNY GAMES has a film laid out European ambivalence-bordering-on-contempt towards America so directly. As much as the fate of its heroine Selma (Icelandic singer Bjork), this ambivalence is the true subject of DANCER IN THE DARK. It simultaneously views American pop culture (represented here by the Hollywood musicals Selma loves and wants to participate in, even if only by singing in a community theater production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC) as a necessary solace and pernicious opiate.
Feminist complaints about von Trier’s fetishization of female suffering are largely justified (especially when a particularly sadistic plot twist arrives in the final half hour), yet I think DANCER IN THE DARK is actually a great deal less sexist than BREAKING THE WAVES. Selma is never degraded sexually, the film never suggests that God will reward her sacrifice, and it carefully grounds her tragic fate in concrete social conditions, most of them specific to American life (the wide availability of guns, capital punishment, the lack of public health care). In fact, I wonder if this political dimension - which may not be subtle or profound, but whose blunt treatment of state-sanctioned violence is devastating - may lie behind the contempt so many American critics expressed towards the film at Cannes. Although DANCER IN THE DARK is set in Washington State in 1964, the American setting is (deliberately?) far from convincing, and we generally don’t take kindly to foreigners’ pessimistic American dreaming. When a lawyer says that Selma “loves Fred Astaire, but not his country,” he’s also describing von Trier.
The most serious flaws of DANCER IN THE DARK are formal, not ideological. In 1996, the style of BREAKING THE WAVES - its deliberately ugly, monochrome video-to-film transfer, seasickness-including handheld camerawork, violent pans and jump cuts - looked innovative, as did its decision to tell an outlandishly melodramatic Christian allegory as if it were cinema vérité. (Cinematographer Robby Müller shot both films.) After four years of imitations (which aren’t von Trier’s fault, of course), it now looks like old hat. von Trier used much the same Dogmatic style effectively in THE IDIOTS, but it doesn’t suit DANCER IN THE DARK at all, especially since Selma is essentially the same fragile waif played by Emily Watson in BREAKING THE WAVES and Bødil Jorgensen in THE IDIOTS. Apart from the fact that it’s a musical (a direction hinted at by the “chapter headings” in BREAKING THE WAVES), DANCER IN THE DARK is basically BREAKING MORE WAVES.
On the other hand, DANCER IN THE DARK wouldn’t be the same film without its mix of grit and fantasy. At best, it’s Dennis Potter updated for the age of electronica. The production numbers are both exhilarating - because they’re stunningly shot and edited, and also because for once, they expand upon BREAKING THE WAVES instead of rehashing it - and disturbing for their disjunction between Selma’s optimistic, Hollywood-inspired dreams and her grim life. The daydream that brings on the first song, a duet with Catherine Deneuve set in the factory where both women work, is also directly responsible for getting her fired.
DANCER IN THE DARK strikes me as a fascinating failure - the soundtrack album, which brilliantly combines various forms of electronic music with show-tune orchestration, is far better than the film - but I don’t expect it to leave anyone indifferent. In the end, that may be a sign of its worth.
Distributed by Fine Line Features. Opens in New York September 23rd.
The third melodrama about a woman’s misfortune I’ve seen in a row at this festival, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel, is the most heartbreaking of the three. The Proustian flow of Davies’ DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES and THE LONG DAY CLOSES is entirely gone here, as are the references to musicals. Davies is now speaking in prose, not poetry or song. Only once does he indulge in a moment of purely visual beauty (a 90-second shot of light patterns over water, taken from a speeding boat); the rest of the time, the film is largely an actors’ showcase. Nevertheless, his relatively conventional style is quite effective. Far from THE X-FILES’ world of UFOs and conspiracy theories, Gillian Anderson is completely convincing as a woman of 1906. Davies gets fine performances from the entire ensemble cast (including Eric Stolz, Dan Aykroyd, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Linney and Anthony LaPaglia), especially the women. An initially sedate surface conceals a minefield that heroine Lily Bart (Anderson) can’t find a way out of, and her efforts to maintain her social status - and, eventually, just to survive - without giving up her morality take on the force of a Greek tragedy. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH feels at once classical (in its sober, self-effacing direction) and modern (in its bleakness and emphasis on beauty and the promise of class mobility as traps, even if these themes were present in Wharton’s novel.) Unlike his compatriot Mike Leigh, Davies has taken on the Tradition of Quality and won. Surprisingly, this film was originally destined to go straight to cable in the U.S. , although I think Anderson has a good shot at an Oscar nomination.
A Showtime presentation, distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens December 2000.
THE COMEDY OF INNOCENCE attempts much the same task Terence Davies accomplished in THE HOUSE OF WRATH - trying to speak to a wider audience without dumbing down one’s work - but doesn’t match its results. Out of the 17 films I’ve seen by this prolific Chilean-French director (that’s less than 20% of his total body of work), it’s by far the blandest. The Borgesian narrative gamesmanship and ideas about the fluidity of identity deployed so radically in Ruiz’s 80s work have now become commonplace (even in Hollywood films like FIGHT CLUB and THE MATRIX), so it’s not too surprising that over the past ten years, he has evolved by often “smuggling” his customary preoccupations through genre trappings. (DARK AT NOON and SHATTERED IMAGE did this fairly succesfully, although I’m one of the latter film’s few defenders.) He plays the premise of THE COMEDY OF INNOCENCE - eight-year old Camille (Nils Hugon) suddenly decides that his mother Ariane (Isabelle Huppert) isn’t his real mother, hinting that he’s become possessed by the spirit of the dead son of Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), whom he now identifies as his mother - straight, emphasizing melancholy and parental anxiety over conceptual weirdness. While Ruiz builds a creepy atmosphere effectively, emotion has never been one of his strengths (although Huppert’s touchingly restrained performance helps), and THE COMEDY OF INNOCENCE seems painfully remote from its grief-stricken territory. I constantly thought "this should be really moving" without ever connecting to the film emotionally. Often, it comes across as the French answer to THE SIXTH SENSE (minus most of the gimmickry), and while Ruiz could have done worse, I expect much more from him.
Distributed by WinStar Cinema.
If SONATINE and FIREWORKS are Takeshi Kitano’s best films, I think that’s because they achieve a perfect balance of brutality, humor and sentiment, elements which co-exist in all 7 of the Kitano films I’ve seen. (I haven’t yet seen the reportedly great A SCENE AT THE SEA, which was just released on video, or the reportedly awful GETTING ANY.) His last film, KIKUJIRO, misfired by almost entirely stressing the last two, but BROTHER makes an even bigger mistake by largely eliminating them. All of Kitano’s usual trademarks are here: his taciturn, affectless scowl (countless gags are based on following a bloodbath with an un-reaction shot of his face), carefully poised framing and a jarring contrast between quiet and mayhem. Of course, there’s even a trip to the beach, as well as an innovative use of chopsticks that makes the eye-gouging in FIREWORKS seem kind. Wu-Tang Clan producer/GHOST DOG composer RZA would have been a perfect choice for the score, but Joe Hisashi is back once again. All that’s missing is the complexity and humanity of Kitano’s major work.
Shooting in the U.S. for the first time, Kitano hasn’t changed his style one iota. There’s little culture clash in BROTHER because there’s little culture in it, just violence: its cast of Japanese yakuza interact only with their American counterparts (of various ethnicities.) If the festival’s European-created visions of American life poked at its failures and hypocrisies, the American nightmare of BROTHER is basically the same as the Japanese nightmare of BOILING POINT. (The main difference between the American and Japanese characters is that the former are more talkative and the latter prone to masochistic displays of self-sacrifice, as if to parody the stereotype of Japanese men’s devotion to their bosses.) Kitano is on auto-pilot here, concocting a bombastic but empty Grand Guignol opus - it just might be the most violent film ever shown at the New York Film Festival - that over-stays its welcome.
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens June 2001.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong) ****
When I recently wrote that POLA X was the spectacle of Léos Carax with his youthful fireworks defused, I meant it as a criticism. But I could say the same of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and Wong Kar-wai and mean it as a compliment. While Wong created three indelible time capsules of 90s modernity in CHUNG KING EXPRESS, FALLEN ANGELS and HAPPY TOGETHER, he’s also made three period pieces (DAYS OF BEING WILD, ASHES OF TIME and this film), which have gone straight towards the sadness that CHUNG KING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS mixed with a speedy euphoria. However, he’s never before boiled his preoccupations with urban life and melancholy romantic yearning down to such a refined, potent essence.
The city is a character in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, maybe even a villain. Wong portrays 60s Hong Kong as a trap, full of tiny, over-stuffed apartments and neighbors who don’t know how to mind their own business. To emphasize its repression and confinement, he shoots characters through bar-like windows or fences or makes small rooms look even smaller by bisecting the frame with doors. Into this trap, he drops a man (Tony Leung) and women (Maggie Cheung), neighbors who might have found happiness together under different circumstances, but who are now stuck in failed marriages to unfaithful partners. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is a melodrama, but an uncommonly restrained one: if someone were to make the same story in Hollywood, it would undoubtedly include explicit sex and/or death. Neither takes place here, just a slow procession of loss and disenchantment. It’s a great film about ordinary unhappiness, a subject that's not exactly photogenic, and Wong’s masterful style - far less flashy here than in any film he’s made since DAYS OF BEING WILD - matches the subject perfectly.
Distributed by USA Films. Opens February 2001.
Films about writers are always dicey propositions, and painter Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir is no more successful than most. It’s well-crafted (apart from cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas’ fetish for the pointless use of a dingy green filter), energetic and features a fine performance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Arenas, but it misses his fiery spirit entirely. Born in 1943, Arenas was initially exhilarated by the Cuban Revolution, but quickly grew disillusioned with it and was eventually imprisoned for his homosexuality and political views. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1980, he succumbed to AIDS a decade later.
This quick two-sentence description of Arenas’ life leaves out one important aspect of it: his writing. So does the film. Schnabel finds his prison stay and illness far more interesting than his work, except insofar as his publication overseas contributed to his imprisonment. He also sanitizes his sexuality, touching on how much sex mattered to him as a liberating force without going anywhere near as far as his books. Ultimately, the film is fascinated by Arenas as a martyr and victim, not an artist. (It suggests that he became helplessly sick almost immediately upon arrival in the U.S., without ever explaining how he managed to write BEFORE NIGHT FALLS itself in his final few years.) While the final 15 minutes are quite moving, they’re essentially a classier version of PHILADELPHIA. Schnabel has made an all-too-staid biopic about a man who was anything but staid.
Distributed by Fine Line Features. Opens December 22nd, 2000.
The New York Film Festival may not have done EUREKA any favors by scheduling its press screening at 10 A.M. (The sole public one begins at 10:30 A.M.) It’s definitely not a film that should be seen while only half-awake. At three hours and thirty seven minutes, it holds enough material for several films: a hostage drama (that would be the first twenty minutes), a serial killer mystery, a road movie in the vein of Theo Angelopolous and 70s Wim Wenders, a portrait of small-town Japan (far removed from the high-tech consumerism Americans usually associate with the country) and, most of all, an in-depth exploration of shell-shock. Once the opening bus hijacking, in which six people (including the “busjack man”) are killed and three survive, ends, EUREKA takes a two-year jump in order to focus on its victims’ shattered lives. They’ve never quite come to terms with this trauma, which wreaks even more havoc on their lives when the bus driver (Koji Yakusho), now taking care of the two child survivors, becomes a murder suspect. Reacting to the atmosphere of suspicion around him, he decides that a bus trip with the children might be cathartic.
Alternating between long, meditative stretches where little happens and sudden, dramatic confrontations, EUREKA is, like recent films as disparate as HUMANITE, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, URBANIA and GEORGE WASHINGTON, a thoughtful look at the high stakes of witnessing death. Its tortoise pace and emphasis on violence’s consequences come across as an implicit rebuke to the cheap thrills of commercial cinema. At the risk of sounding like a reviewer for VARIETY, I’ve got to wonder if Aoyama might not have made a masterpiece by stringing together its most powerful moments - and there are enough of them for a two-hour feature - and leaving the landscape studies - despite the beauty of Masaki Tamra’s sepia-tinted black & white ‘Scope cinematography - on the cutting room floor. Unlike Angelopolous, he’s best at his most conventional, yet it’s also obvious that duration is key to the film’s achievements. (A shorter version might be a better film, but it would be an utterly different one.) At best, a work of such austerity and length should envelope one in its own universe the way Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN, Angelopolous’ THE TRAVELING PLAYERS and Béla Tarr’s SATANTANGO do, but EUREKA rarely held 100% of my attention. However, it’s quite possible that my opinion would improve if I saw it again in a more patient mood.
THE TASTE OF OTHERS (Agnes Jaoui) **1/2
If the word “middlebrow” didn’t have a set of inherently negative connotations, it would be a good way to describe the work of French screenwriters/playwrights Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. While their background lies in the theater, the duo’s work feels more like TV to me, and I don’t mean that as a putdown. Working with Alain Resnais on SAME OLD SONG, they helped him honor the musical while bringing a light touch to his customary narrative gamesmanship, but UN AIR DE FAMILLE, directed by Cédric Klapisch, has been the most successful adaptation of their work. Unfortunately, Jaoui doesn’t have the same luck taking the helm herself.
There are many family resemblances between UN AIR DE FAMILLE and THE TASTE OF OTHERS, which don’t make the latter film look any better. From the cast of UN AIR DE FAMILLE, Bacri and Jaoui themselves reappear, alongside Wladimir Yordanoff, while Castella (Bacri), a wealthy, middle-aged businessman alienated from his ditzy wife and looking for a new direction in life, is a variation on the character Bacri played there. However, THE TASTE OF OTHERS has a wider scope than its predecessor, which took place over the course of one evening, largely in one room. (Klapisch had the brilliant idea to not “open up” UN AIR DE FAMILLE from its theatrical origins, keeping almost all its action in one set while framing it elegantly in widescreen.) Its ethnographic dimension , reminiscent of some of Claude Sautet’s 70s films, uses Castella’s determination to stop being a Philistine as an excuse for a tour of French social stratifications. Through Clara (Anne Alvaro), an actress who moonlights as an English teacher, Castella meets a group of her artist friends (most of whom accurately consider him an ignorant bigot), while his two ex-cop bodyguards bring him into contact with the working class.
When these characters cross class boundaries, the results are most often a tangled mess of hope and bad faith, which could make a fitting subject for either a penetrating drama or hilarious farce. (UN AIR DE FAMILLE combined both approaches quite well.) Yet Bacri and Jaoui are reluctant to dig too deeply into their material. At best, THE TASTE OF OTHERS evokes middle-aged loneliness poignantly - the image of Castella sitting in a nightclub between his bodyguards, frowning as lights flash and house music blares, is priceless - yet its closing series of break-ups and reconciliations never achieves the balance Jaoui seems to be striving for. She’s cited Woody Allen as a model for THE TASTE OF OTHERS’ tone, and even he’s fallen flat on his face more often than not over the past ten years. (That said, her film certainly explores the intersection of class and art far more insightfully than SMALL TIME CROOKS.) It’s lite where it should be light and ponderous where it should be serious.
Distributed by Offline Releasing/Artistic License Films. Opening January 2001.
THE HEART OF THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada)
THE FOURTH WATCH (Janie Geiser)
THE GLASS SYSTEM (Mark LaPore)
SURFACE NOISE (Abigail Child)
MOON STREAMS (Mary Beth Reed)
LIKE A DREAM THAT VANISHES (Barbara Sternberg, Canada) ***
ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
(Per custom, I’ve only rated the one film on this program that runs longer than 30 minutes.)
The two best films on this 110-minute collection of shorts, ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY and THE FOURTH WATCH, are deeply melancholy elegies for cinema itself. By far the gentler of the two, THE FOURTH WATCH superimposes black & white film images over empty household interiors, created out of painted tin. As if in response to André Bazin’s aphorism that cinema is death at work, Geiser uses it to conjure flickering shadows that fade in and out in the blink of an eye. Out of these ghosts, she constructs an eerie reverie. Rather than lamenting the supposed death of cinema at the hands of new technologies, THE FOURTH WATCH recognizes our distance from film history while suggesting that images from silent cinema still have the power to haunt, even when far removed from their original context.
If THE FOURTH WATCH is a ghost story, ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY is a full-fledged horror movie (as well as a 13-minute distillation of Godard’s 4-hour HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA.) Using the metaphors of travel (which eventually becomes linked to the trains that took Nazi victims to the concentration camps) and childhood innocence, Godard structures his film as a journey back into the previous century. It’s not a pleasant trip. Each image of joy is overwhelmed by evidence of violence or degradation (drawn from documentaries, porn and a wide assortment of fictional films.) As HISTOIRE(S) implied, Godard sees the histories of cinema and the twentieth century as one and the same, and his 1995 documentary 2*50 YEARS OF FRENCH CINEMA opined that there’s no reason to celebrate a legacy falling victim to amnesia. In relation to both histories, ORIGIN is a cry against this amnesia.
Nothing else in LIGHT SPILL matched the impact of these two mini-masterpieces, but THE HEART OF THE WORLD, an extremely entertaining, fast-paced parody of Soviet silents, came closest. SURFACE NOISE and LIKE A DREAM THAT VANISHES offered barrages of dense and allusive imagery. A brilliantly edited analog to turntablist music (it’s no surprise that DJ Christian Marclay contributed to the score, which is as impressive as the film), SURFACE NOISE is reminiscent of Craig Baldwin, only without his narrative leanings and explicit politics. (Political overtones are certainly *implicit*, but on one viewing, they resist easy exegesis.) LIKE A DREAM THAT VANISHES is just as well-edited, but even more mysterious, full of evocative fragments that resist placement in a cohesive whole.
Programming a feature-length bill of shorts that holds together isn’t easy (in fact, it’s much like being a DJ), but curators Mark McElhatton and Gavin Smith organized LIGHT SPILL well. Even so, I could have done without the two weakest shorts: MOON STREAMS, a pretty but lightweight piece of hand-painted animation, and THE GLASS SYSTEM, a relatively conventional, tourist’s-eye view of Calcutta street life. As if to defend himself against the charge of exoticizing the Other, LaPore attempts to critique his own point of view by including a long take of two visibly uncomfortable Indian girls staring into his camera and having Indians read out-of-context English words and phrases on the soundtrack, but these gestures feel like strained acts of penance.
After seeing countless avant-garde films with an audience of two
dozen at MOMA and Anthology Film Archives, it was refreshing to see LIGHT
SPILL sell out the Walter Reade and draw a respectful audience, even if
Godard’s presence may have drawn much of the crowd. While I’d like
to see the other three avant-garde sidebars (which include new work by
Nathaniel Dorsky, Michael Snow, Peter Hutton and the Brothers Quay), the
Walter Reade’s scheduling, which leaves 2-hour gaps between some of the
programs, makes it impossible to do so.
After a period in which Chen Kaige succumbed to Tradition of Quality bland-out, Zhang Yimou seemed lost in the quest for a new direction and major filmmakers like Tian Zhuangzhuang and Ning Ying didn’t work, Jia Zhang Ke’s 1998 debut feature, XIAO WU, marked the welcome arrival of a strong new voice in mainland Chinese cinema. PLATFORM only confirms his promise. Using the travels of a troupe of musicians and dancers around provincial China between 1979 and 1989 as his “platform,” Jia takes on an epic subject (China’s opening to the West and capitalism) and structure (a large cast of characters and 198-minute running time) with little strain. If this story recalls Theo Angelopolous’ THE TRAVELING PLAYERS, which used a touring Greek theater troupe as a similar device for exploring 20th-century Greek history, his austere style brings Hou Hsaio-hsien to mind.
So far, PLATFORM has tended to polarize audiences, with its critics seeing it as the nadir of Asian art cinema’s minimalist vein. As it ended, it drew plenty of cheers, but I also overheard a number of people complaining about how much it bored them. However, *I* never once got antsy. Jia knows how to pace his film well - better than Shinji Aoyama, I think - and uses camera movement (and the lack thereof) to create a surprisingly varied set of rhythms. In the first half, the camera seldom moves, but as China wakes up from post-Cultural Revolution lethargy, the film’s style becomes far more energetic. Jia’s sardonic wit was evident in XIAO WU, and it makes itself known here in a number of playful touches (an argument in which a man and a woman wander in and out of the frame while trying to decide whether or not they’re dating, a false ending, an in-joke radio broadcast that mentions cinematographer Yu Lik-wai.)
Both of Jia’s films revolve around the impact of globalization on backwaters. (PLATFORM could be a prequel to XIAO WU, and Wang Hong-wei, who played the title character in that film, reappears in the lead here.) At first, the troupe (based out of the village of Fenyang) performs Maoist propaganda songs on traditional Chinese instruments, touring small towns where electricity is a novelty. Life seems to be happening somewhere else, and all the characters suffer from an odd passivity. As the 80s roll by, PLATFORM comes to resemble a Western, and Fenyang a frontier awaiting the arrival of “civilization.” Realizing that Mao has become unfashionable, the troupe becomes the All-Star Rock’N’Breakdance Electronic Band, although the debut of their New Wave phase draws a steady stream of projectiles from the crowd. As bad as the band is, Jia shows a real sensitivity to the liberating appeal pop music holds for his characters, staging several sublime dance scenes.
PLATFORM peters out as much as it ends, as the troupe returns to its home town only to find it transformed unrecognizably by consumerism and entrepreneurship. With a sharper ending, it might have achieved greatness with a sharper ending, yet one might have contradicted its muted tone and interest in viewing history through small changes in everyday life. By calling his main character “Mingliang” and choosing a cinematographer who’s a Hong Kong-based director himself, Jia emphasizes his ties to Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema, and both of his films feel like a small-town complement to Wong Kar-wai, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang’s profoundly urban cinema of alienation. Focusing intently on the local, PLATFORM offers a news bulletin with global ramifications.
1. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai)
2. THE FOURTH WATCH (Janie Geiser)
3. YI YI (Edward Yang)
4. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (Terence Davies)
5. PLATFORM (Jia Zhang Ke)