Archive for the ‘foreign’ category

Li’l Quinquin

January 3, 2015

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“Open that cow’s ass,” commands a detective, “and show me what’s inside.” Before long, the growl of a chainsaw disrupts the lapping quietude of the oceanside crime scene. Welcome to the phlegmatic but askew reality of Li’l Quinquin, a four-part saga written and directed by Bruno Dumont for French TV and just now opening in America in limited release. Lengthy but never boring, the story comes divvied up into fifty-minute segments; the three hours and seventeen minutes march by like a Netflix binge-watch of your choice of quirky TV mysteries. Li’l Quinquin has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, but it also shares DNA with such creepy-cool freak-of-the-week programs as The X-Files and Fringe, what with all these cow carcasses turning up with human body parts inside them.

Genetic experiments? Alien shenanigans? If you seek resolution, you’re barking up the wrong mystery. Dumont, best known for a variety of bleak, severe dramas, would rather establish the community affected by, and possibly giving rise to, these weird events. Two cops — Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his right-hand man Carpentier (Philippe Jore) — move from suspect to suspect, confronting their own irrelevance when each suspect ends up in a cow. (Sample absurdist dialogue, in case my lede didn’t sell you: “I was sorry to hear about his body in a cow on the beach.”) Followers of Dumont’s earlier work have expressed surprise at the tone of Li’l Quinquin, which hews closer to the tongue-in-cheek, or at least to cosmic bemusement.

The eponymous character (Alane Delhaye) is a complex and prickly pear, a ten-year-old boy who likes to toss firecrackers into his own house. Quinquin is civilized enough to have a tender relationship with a local girl, but is nonetheless well on his way to a life of racist violence. We aren’t told how to feel about Quinquin or about anyone else; nobody in the narrative seems quite whole. The only person around who looks remotely Hollywood is a teenage girl who wants to sing on TV; her rather tone-deaf rendition of a song called “Cause I Knew” goes on interminably at least twice, once at the funeral of the first victim, where a gigglingly inept pastor almost derails the service and the organist plays bombastically and self-indulgently. Nobody seems to care about the dead woman except her widower, and he becomes cow stuffing before long. There’s even what might be a backhanded salute to superheroes when a kid dressed as “Speedy-Man” enters the picture, climbs a wall, and exits, leaving behind a chill of incongruous weirdness that outdoes the whole of Birdman (to say nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy).

I confess this is my first exposure to Bruno Dumont (but not my last). I make this confession to assure you that, though a background in Dumont’s prior work might help Li’l Quinquin work on a deeper level, it’s not mandatory. Feel free to jump right into this epic; it’s immersive, like a good thick novel, and the widescreen compositions, by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, showcase the enticing French countryside. It’s overall a soothing experience. The narrative isn’t heightened, and until the last half hour or so there isn’t even any non-diegetic music (why the movie finally allows some classical needle-drop is a question for more hard-nosed interpreters than I). The story stretches but is expertly paced — pacing is why a two-hour film can seem as though it’s crawling while a three-hour-plus work like this breezes by, and it’s a mystery of editing and the intuition of great moviemaking. Dumont uses the extra sprawl of his canvas and the luridness of his premise to indulge himself in the best, most playful sense. We don’t feel left out of the fun; we feel drawn in by the elliptical character-building and by the society on view, which we might say was splintered by the murders if we didn’t suspect it was pretty thoroughly splintered before.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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The Raid 2

April 13, 2014

20140413-183333.jpg2011’s The Raid: Redemption, which delighted fanboys the world over, was a simple siege film with some of the most elaborately brutal martial-arts sequences seen in years. Its writer-director, Gareth Evans, a Welshman working in Indonesia, had envisioned a much bigger and more complex crime drama called Berandal; the financing fell through, so he and his star, the young pencak silat master Iko Uwais, decided on the more controlled and less expensive story of The Raid. Now, on the heels of The Raid‘s success, Evans has reworked the Berandal script as a sequel, putting Uwais’ indomitable cop hero Rama undercover to infiltrate a major gang.

Now, part of the pleasure of The Raid was that it got in and out in 100 minutes. The Raid 2 goes on for almost an hour longer. In this case, less is more, even if the extended length allows Evans more opportunities for bone-splintering fight choreography. The fanboys, of course, will rise to the added beef. They don’t seem to mind overlength, as witness the success of the Marvel movies, almost all of which come in north of two hours (the latest Captain America tips the scales at two hours and sixteen minutes). They might not even mind that a good percentage of the big action numbers don’t even involve Rama. He sort of drifts through what’s supposed to be his movie, yanked into the fray every so often. I imagine the original drafts of Berandal either kept the undercover-cop character largely on the sidelines or didn’t have one at all. If he was an important element in those drafts, he really isn’t one now.

Ass-kicking females are always popular with the fanboys, perhaps so they can claim that the hyper-masculine entertainment they enjoy isn’t sexist. So here we get a character known as “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), whose specialty is killing people with hammer claws. She wears sunglasses and kills with zero perceptible emotion. She never talks (she’s deaf). She’s cool. She’s also not a person. Aside from her, the only women we meet are bimbos in a nightclub, a strap-on-wearing porn actress, and Rama’s long-suffering wife, whom Rama calls so that he can hear the sounds of his son at play in the background. His wife has been waiting for him throughout his two-year stint in prison (so that he can get into the good graces of a mob boss’s son in jail) and however long his post-prison life among the gangsters takes, and mostly his one phone call to his wife consists of silence so he can listen to his male child. Nope, not sexist at all. But hey, we got a girl who kills guys with hammers!

I shouldn’t have expected more, though the ecstatic notices in the geek press must’ve led me on. As a portfolio of martial-arts moves and ferocious carnage that reportedly won an R rating by the skin of its teeth, The Raid 2 is as chunky and adrenalized as the first one. People are pummeled, slashed, stabbed, shot, and otherwise treated impolitely; one lucky fellow gets a big hole shotgunned into his face. The sound of an aluminum baseball bat connecting with a skull is as viscerally cringe-inducing as it’s always been. As with many martial-arts sequences, though, the villains obligingly attack the hero one at a time; only once or twice do we see a group of men ganging up on someone. This sort of thing calls attention to itself as choreography, though I can see that it fills a desperate need among fans of action films, which too often give us computer-generated people fighting. Here, at least, we can see these are real humans risking and taking injury. It’s probably no accident that the martial-arts genre rose at about the same time that song-and-dance musicals were dying. People crave physical elegance and they’ll take it in action flicks (or in stuff like the Step Up series) if they have to.

Acting is not part of the elegance, and Iko Uwais is a conscientious nonactor; there’s more going on with Arifin Putra, who plays Uco, the mob boss’s ill-tempered and spoiled son, whom Rama must befriend. A smoothie of the type that used to be described as “dashing,” Putra brings a charge of decadence and privilege to his scenes. Uco ends up donating blood all over the carpet, along with most everyone else except the unstoppable cipher Rama. Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 doesn’t do anything plotwise that hasn’t been done 7,498 times before; its distinction is its feral, pounding fight scenes. Gareth Evans films them well. But his movies feel more like demo reels than like, you know, movies, much less cinema. He’s being praised for action you can actually see, follow and get excited by, and for telling tried-and-true stories; in other words, he’s being praised for being competent.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014

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A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008’s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

The Wind Rises

February 17, 2014

the-wind-rises-image02The Wind Rises, which may or may not be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, begins with a dream of flight. It’s early in the 20th century, and young Jiro Horikoshi wants to fly airplanes. His poor eyesight blocks him from being a pilot, so he settles for designing planes. Throughout the movie, Jiro confers with legendary aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni in their “shared dreams” of conquering the skies. The Wind Rises may be the most “realistic” feature Miyazaki has ever made — it lacks Miyazaki’s standard nature spirits and fanciful animals — but it’s still a humble tribute to imagination and creativity, and it unfolds in a gentle universe formed by nature and deformed by humans.

Jiro Horikoshi was an actual engineer; he designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which caused the Allies (and Pearl Harbor) so much grief in World War II. But this is not meant to be taken as a too-literal biography. Miyazaki mashes up Jiro’s life with Tatsuo Hori’s short story “The Wind Has Risen,” about a woman with tuberculosis (a disease Hori suffered with). Thus, Jiro is given a wife, Naoko, who has tuberculosis. To Miyazaki, I think, Naoko represents the innocence that would soon die in the inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Japan,” says a German ex-pat to Jiro, “will blow up.” Miyazaki may be saying that if we don’t blame Oppenheimer and his brothers in the Manhattan Project for the A-bomb and how the military used it, so we shouldn’t blame Jiro for the Zero and how the military used it. In part, The Wind Rises is a tragedy about dreams bent to the will of mass murder.

Miyazaki may not have as much fantasy imagery to conjure with this time — that’s pretty much limited to Jiro’s dreamscapes — but The Wind Rises is still world-class animation, with obsessive attention lavished on the smallest, subtlest things: the flush rivets in an airplane hull; a bowl of watercress salad; moths flitting about a streetlight overlooking Jiro and Naoko. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is realized with an almost spiritual horror, accompanied by vocal effects that sound like the groaning of an angry Gaia. Miyazaki doesn’t show us the casualties, just the wreckage of houses built by men who presumed to claim a patch of Earth as their own. It’s a warning to Jiro — who is on his way to university by train when the quake hits — that human minds, however advanced and well-educated, cannot master nature and her whims.

Far from being an apologia for a man who enabled death, The Wind Rises is the story of an artist/scientist who only wanted to make beautiful airplanes, but happened to be born in a time and country that hammered every effort and ambition on the anvil of war. At one point Jiro quips that the planes would be lighter if the weapons were left out. His spiritual mentor Caproni says that planes shouldn’t be built for war or money, and Miyazaki seems to endorse this. We spend most of our time with Jiro and fellow engineers, some of whom, like his grouchy boss Kurokawa, sternly keep the engineers on the track to military accomplishment, but most likely because that’s what the culture of Japan at that time demanded. Kurokawa also presides tearfully over the quick wedding of Jiro and Naoko, so he hasn’t been completely lost to the machinery of war.

Naoko is no Princess Mononoke, defiantly spitting blood and doing battle on behalf of nature; she’s a blank signifier of Japanese suffering. That’s about the only bummer here. Miyazaki is more concerned here with the conflict of feminine and masculine in one WWII-era male, the conflict between beauty and destruction. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The Wind Rises says that when art is made useful — mostly for the purposes of war — the earth trembles; some law of nature has been shattered. (Many guns, too, are masterpieces of design. Not to mention swords.) Miyazaki, not yet a year old when some of Jiro’s artwork strafed Pearl Harbor, has made a tragic epic about what happens when the spirit of creativity is put to corrupt usefulness.

The Illusionist (2010)

February 13, 2011

The Oscar-nominated The Illusionist is the latest in an odd, tiny subgenre of films imagining real-life directors as characters in the sorts of films they might’ve made. (2009’s Double Take, which envisioned Hitchcock in a Hitchcockian thriller, was another.) Tributes like these, of course, exist primarily out of film-geek love, as well as the sort of homage usually left to novels in which, say, Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle solve some mystery. If we can’t have a new film by the long-dead French comedy master Jacques Tati (M. Hulot’s Holiday), the rationale goes, we might as well embrace a tribute by French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville).

Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, only directed a handful of films, though his work spanned decades (his first feature was released in 1949, his last in 1974). He gained his performing chops as a mime in pre-WWII music halls, and this experience seems to inform The Illusionist, which, we’re told, Tati wrote in 1955 but never made; it was intended as a letter to his estranged daughter. The film itself certainly gets much of its emotional fuel from a father-daughter relationship between the titular magician — drawn and animated as a Tati doppelganger — and a young woman he meets in a Scottish pub. Romance is never possible between them; she is charmed by his sleight of hand, he is charmed by her innocence. She is young; the capacity for happiness hasn’t been ground out of her yet.

There are some laughs in The Illusionist, but a lot of it is melancholic and somewhat self-pitying. The magician has to wander around looking for steady work (in one strange episode he winds up washing cars at a garage; in another he plies his trade in a shop window, making his employer’s wares appear out of a hat), because he can’t make consistent money performing illusions for increasingly sparse audiences. It’s the 1950s, and rock music has invaded music halls; the Beatles-ish group in the movie is presented, rather meanly and homophobically, as a gaggle of giggling limp-wristed sissies. Meanwhile, all around the magician are similar old-school entertainers — a clown, a ventriloquist — who fall into despair, musing on suicide or pawning their props.

So the movie comes across as a vaguely bitter ode to how things used to be before modernism came and ruined everything. It’s beautifully crafted, though. We forget at our peril how miraculous cel animation can be; an entire generation is growing up on the canned plastic of Gnomeo and Juliet and twenty other computer-animated romps just like it every year, and, to put it mildly, they don’t all have the taste and ingenuity of a Pixar production. The Illusionist benefits from what I assume is some computer enhancement, but mostly we marvel at precisely drawn people in movements slapstick and subtle, sometimes both (the animation work on the young woman as she gets used to her new shoes is exemplary). The landscapes are gorgeous, the background characters are always doing something; it’s a fully created world, and one well worth seeing on a big screen. But the nostalgic sadness that suffuses this story — which has been divorced somewhat from its painful source — leaves us with little except how tragic it is when artists are outmoded. For an animator who sees multiplexes clotted with stuff like Gnomeo and Juliet, this movie may be more autobiographical than even Tati’s original script was.

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

January 30, 2011

2008’s Ip Man was one of the great modern martial-arts films. Its titular hero was based on a real-life grandmaster of Wing Chun whose main claim to fame in America is that he trained Bruce Lee. The movie followed the humble but virtuosic Ip as he taught students, defended his friend’s cotton mill against thugs, and struggled to survive during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. That last element gave the original Ip Man some gravitas, and even though much of the story was pure fantasy (Ip never fought a duel with a Japanese general, as the film had it), it was never less than engaging and entertaining.

The new sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, goes even further into Chinese nationalist mythmaking. Here, Ip is pitted against a loutish, brutal British boxer, who represents the British colonial rule that Hong Kong was under at the time (and which lasted till 1997, actually). This boxer has already killed another local master in the ring, and it becomes important for Ip to defeat him to restore the nation’s pride. I seriously doubt the real Ip fought an English boxer calling himself “the Twister” any more than he fought a Japanese general, but let’s go along with the conceit for the sake of fable, even if it turns the movie’s last act into Rocky IV.

The sequel unavoidably lacks the resonance of the original’s war-torn milieu, but three men return from the first film and keep it entertaining: director Wilson Yip, fight choreographer Sammo Hung (who also appears here as an Ip rival turned friend), and star Donnie Yen as Ip. Yen, slim and severe, walks calmly in a black ankle-length coat, looking like a country priest on holiday. Yet he also has an easy smile and an infinite amount of patience with his students. In this second film, Ip’s wartime experiences seem to have drawn him closer to his wife and son (there’s another baby on the way), and even though you can follow Ip Man 2 without having seen the first, you’d miss touches like Ip’s bittersweet, reflective smile when asked if he can fight ten men (viewers of Ip Man know he did, in a Japanese prison). Yen successfully creates a demigod we can nonetheless care about and relate to — even if everyone respects Ip’s fighting skills, he still has to pay the rent.

So the first half of Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip trying to establish a training school in Hong Kong by proving himself against the local masters (including Sammo Hung), while the second half throws him in the ring with the British empire. As the boxer, Darren Shahlavi gives a pretty awful performance, but he’s cruel and imposing enough as an avatar of British imperialist force (Morrissey should love him). I wanted a bit more of Fan Siu-wong, who has the bullish features and swagger of the young Toshiro Mifune, as the thug who made Ip’s life annoying in the first film but returns here amusingly gentled by marriage and fatherhood. But when Donnie Yen is up there defying gravity and seemingly breaking the sound barrier with his fists, a lot is forgiven. Ip Man 2 is a worthy sequel; I just hope they don’t go for a third outing — who’s left for Ip to fight and uphold Chinese exceptionalism, a Tibetan?


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