Thursday, August 27, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Starry Is the Night, Ann Hui, 1988

Ambitious enough: Two unequal love affairs set about 20 years apart, both mirroring each other and mutually entangled... and also pitted against Hong Kong's pro democracy movement, ie the struggle against another kind of unequal relationship. The past is clear-cut and depressing (Brigitte Lin alone in the hay), the present messy and intense (Brigitte Lin getting tomboy hair and drinking from sneakers).

In the end Hui shies away from the final oedipal conclusion the romantic entanglements clearly imply - does this mean that all hope is not lost yet for an independent democratic Hong Kong? We have until 2047, someone says at one time. Felt like a long time, back then.

Same year as Varda's KUNG-FU MASTER. Strange coincidence.

Song of the Exile, Ann Hui, 1990

Ann Hui recreating her family's history, or at least a variation thereof, and especially her own relationship with her socially and culturally displaced mother. Good eye for affection clouded by pettiness. The curses and the blessings of time spent together and of time spent apart. Are we lonelier when we don't understand each other or when we do? Meaning nothing is simple, but when you get Maggie Cheung to play yourself in your own biopic you must have done something right in your life.

The true standout here is Lu Hsiao-Fen, though, the actress playing the mother: the way she lights up when returning to Japan, a child again when with her family, the prettiest (and, coincidentally, richest) girl of the village again when with her former peers.

Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Clifford Choi, 1983

A rather strange project, feels like Shaw Brothers trying for an arty Ann Hui / Allen Fong-style social drama but then deciding to both sexing it up and inserting a ROCKY rip-off-storyline. (In other words: turning it into a Hong Kong film.) Someone on here mentioned Lino Brocka and indeed those early scenes of Cherie Chung drifting through the gutter feel like INSIANG channeled through soft-core porn, although the result is both more artificial and even sleazier than that sounds. The later parts suffer from a miscast Alex Man and rather underdeveloped fighting scenes. In fact, nothing really fits, but Cherie Chung is very good, and there's always enough going on to keep the interest up.

The Way We Are, Ann Hui, 2008

How to condense the experience of the mundane? How many / few shots do you need to evoke the experience of a single day in which nothing of importance happens? How to represent everyday routine without taking recourse to cliché-ridden tropes like repetition, montage sequeces etc?

Ann Hui has good answers to all of these questions, but I'm still not completely sold on the film. This really is very low key, and probably either a bit too low key or not quite low key enough for my taste. I guess it might have helped to either boil things further down (maybe make all of it about the mother-son relationship: what does coming of age feel like when there's no conflict at all?), or to open things up a bit. The scenes with Cheung Ka-on's friends are mostly left hanging in the air, for example.

As it is, this seems to be a bit too much concerned with finding the right timing for all of those piano cues signaling all of those small epiphanies of lower middle-class urban life.

The Falcon Out West, William Clemens, 1944

I was looking forward to this since normally I'm very fond of Old Hollywood comedy western. There's really not much going on with this, though. A slow and convoluted story, no stand-out performances, and a serious lack of, well, horseplay. Seriously, that joke isn't much worse than most of the ones that made the cut, here.

Spieler, Dominik Graf, 1990

Strangely enough, while almost all of Graf's films display an offbeat sense of humor rare in German cinema, his comedies rather consistently turn out to be the least funny of all of his films. TREFFER is the exception that proves the rule, I guess, but it certainly holds true for DREI GEGEN DREI, for DOKTOR KNOCK, and, although not quite to the same degree, for SPIELER.

It's not that the jokes are bad in themselves (SPIELER, especially, is a well-written film), but rather that the films do not seem to be interested in letting them register. They're not ends in themselves, but part of the environment. "Comedy" is more related to a certain kind of deformation of the world than to the response this deformation might trigger in the viewer. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. (The idea that comedies should be judged, first and foremost, for their "funniness" is extremely dubious anyway.)

Like in DREI GEGEN DREI and DOKTOR KNOCK, there's a certain mismatch, though, between anarchistic plotting and the insistence on total directorial control. In this case we basically get a slacker-comedy with an almost Klaus-Lemke-style hook, but broken up into a series of intricately derailing set-pieces, and accompanied by scripted dialogue. Extremely scripted, in fact, and it almost never stops, too.

We also get: Pans along wallpapers with faces draped in front of them, several beautiful iris shots, the crumbling, colorful textures of old Munich, posts and beams breaking up the frame at odd angels, a trip to France with Checkhovian hand grenades in the trunk. A foot chase across a busy highway that might be one of Graf's best action scenes. Several retreats into the bedroom where sex is only one of many possible (and not necessarily the most invigorating) outcomes.

My American Grandson, Ann Hui, 1991

Another low-key Ann Hui film, and certainly not one of her best. The plot about a bratty American teenager visiting his grandfather in a traditional Shanghai neighborhood isn't all that exciting and largely develops along the usual lines (it also has nothing to add to Mabel Cheung's pitch-perfect EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD). A benign Wu Ma is wonderful as the grandfather, though, and somewhere hidden in here is a thoughtful and quietly ironic film about growing old alone in a society that defines itself through dense social connectivity. So, a first draft for Hui's far superior THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT, maybe.

München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt, Dominik Graf, Michael Althen, 2000

Touched by a city. Call it psychogeography, but not as a Patrick Keiller style academic exercise, more like a Chris Marker take on a boulevard expose titled "Hot Nights in Munich".

The limitations of its (dual) perspective are obvious, but I always think it's much more interesting to fully embrace them than to make phony amends by way of inserting distancing devises. This is, pure and simple, Graf at his most inventive, and Althen at his most poetic. A rare stroke of luck.

Notre-Dame du Nil, Atiq Rahimi, 2019

Personal memory and historical allegory sometimes working hand in hand, sometimes not. Maybe the film is more interesting when they don't: how can nostalgic longing for a community of girls and for a rural landscape filled with enticing mysteries coexist with murderous ethnic violence? In theory, and especially after the fact, the violence itself might be perfectly explainable, but every single act of violence still comes out of nowhere.

Beautiful, painterly visuals, like in Rahimi's THE PATIENCE STONE. Those not all that slow slow-motion shots are a bit irritating, though, don't quite know what to make of them yet.

The Spooky Bunch, Ann Hui, 1980

A shame this still isn't available in a decent version, especially since there's a newly restored version out there (paid for by Josephine Siao herself, apparently). Also makes one wish Ann Hui would've indulged in her obvious love and knack for quirky b-movies a bit more often throughout her career.

Ordinary Heroes, Ann Hui, 1999

A messy and wonderful take on Hong Kong's leftist legacy that doesn't feel like a period film at all. The stocktaking of all of those ideological tribulations, factorial in-fights and very important names is outsourced to the performance of a manic street preacher who shows up a few times, mainly to announce a new chapter in the story. The bulk of the film is very immediate, just a bunch of people trying to connect to the world surrounding them while also fighting their inner loneliness. Then there's the cast: One of the best Anthony Wong performances, showing once again why he is so unique in HK cinema, Loletta Lee's quirky sadness and the sense of displacement surrounding Lee Kang-Sheng who'll probably always seem lost when not inside a Tsai frame.

Night and Fog, Ann Hui, 2009

The dark twin of THE WAY WE ARE, set in the same high rise settlement at the outskirts of Hong Kong. Only that this time, nothing is all right behind closed doors. Driven by a deep sense of despair, harrowing and surprisingly high-pitched, especially compared to the predecessor, but also to most other Hui films. Simon Yam's manic performance seems to take over the whole film, splintering the narrative, stretching it out over several povs and time frames. In the end nothing helps, there really is nowhere to hide.

Heartbreaking stuff, especially because of details like the sign language of the two sisters. Abuse encroaching on every single human interaction, even the benign ones.

Female Teacher Hunting, Junichi Suzuki, 1982

Gets over the rape-obsession often enough to arrive at some interesting moments, but all in all it's very plain, barely stylized. By this time a lot of these films long to be hardcore and no longer have many ideas about what to do with the restrictions. Yuki Kazamatsuri, who apparently was in the KILL BILL films, makes for a glamorous lead, though.

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