Thursday, September 03, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Goddess of Mercy, Ann Hui, 2003

Zhao Wei carrying a baby in her arms while high kicking the bad guys hired by the infant's father is a nice female reappropriation of the male heroic bloodshed tropes of HARD BOILED et al, I guess. Her first encounter with Nicholas Tse also is wonderful and the back and forth between character study and pulp melodrama makes for some surprising twists.

In the end, the script might be a bit too preposterous for Hui to really make it work, and the mainland setting also doesn't feel completely natural, this time (what about those huge, military-style anti-drug maneuvers in what looks like a sleepy provincial town? Might very well be an interesting setting, but it isn't fleshed out enough). Still, always enough energy in here, even if some might be misplaced.

Raigyo, Takahisa Zeze, 1997

The textures are so drab and unwelcoming I thought for a while this might be shot on video. It's probably just a case of particularly aggressive, and quite inventive (photo-chemical) color grading transforming Japan into a zombie-industrial wasteland, though. A whole country turning into a dead zone, like a sea devoid of oxygen. There is a rather cohesive storyline but it feels random - the kind of film that could last 10 minutes just as easily as it could last 10 hours. Rather surprisingly, the sex isn't cold but desperate, bodies clinging to each other, and it leads towards death quite naturally.

Our Time Will Come, Ann Hui, 2017

Well-made historical drama, eschewing the modernist touches of THE GOLDEN ERA in favor of a more straightforward approach. Almost a bit too plot-heavy at times, although Hui manages to include a broad range of responses to history: there's Eddie Peng elegantly killing a whole patrol of Japanese soldiers, but there's also two women and a child huddling together in an abandoned building listening to the howl of the wind.

Takes a while until it finds its emotional center, though: Zhou Xun blaming herself, in a long shot, for involving her mother in her own political struggle and thereby realizing that she never really understood her / used to take her for granted; while slowly turning away from Eddie Peng and towards the camera. History doesn't mean anything if there isn't a private reckoning, too.

In allen Stellungen, Frits Fronz, 1971

The second-to-last Fronz film and maybe the most beautiful of them all ("lifeless in a horny way" - Silvia Szymanski). In color but only barely so, with flaccid, gentle light flooding the ever-same rooms of the hotel almost the whole film is set in. A self-contained world but also a world that contains everything, and a protagonist, a girl, who is ready to take in everything. She takes her time dressing up in front of the mirror and then it begins: Gigolos and lesbians, bank-robbers and bdsm, flamboyant gays and drunk hookers, acid trips and suicide.

All of it presented in long shots and driven by straight-faced deadpan delivery of highly artificial scripted dialogue. In a way IN ALLEN STELLUNGEN enfolds like a series of miniature morality plays. No impressionistic shortcuts, everybody gets to have his or her say. The scene with the bank-robber (cultivating the phoniest but also most beautiful Berlin accent possible) and his moll might just be the missing link between Fassbinder and Jürgen Enz.

Unlike in his earlier work, Fronz isn't content with stripping and voyeurism, but approaches actual intercourse, without actually getting there, though: we get, again and again, bodies rubbing against each other, with the camera placed close to the skin, transfixed by what still doesn't really happen. At least all the relevant parts are there, and in the right place, too, we know that now. Art brut made in Austria.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui, 1984

I remembered this being my favorite Ann Hui film while watching some of her films a few years back and I guess it still is. Incredibly precise melodramatic staging, like Wong Kar-Wai without the fetishistic overreach. A perfect trajectory from the enclosed spaces of tradition and patriarchy to the phony wonderland of colonial libertinage to the primal images of war: splintering glass raining down on Cora Miao, squatting at the bottom of the staircase.

Love's embrace might separate us, but history will tear us together.

Tiger, Löwe, Panther, Dominik Graf, 1989

Natja Brunckhorst is a force of nature, stubbornly asserting herself in the frame, enforcing her own temporality and energy level on every scene she's in. Everyone else is just a vessel, overeager to succumb to one of the worst scripts Graf has worked with (Sherry Hormann going for an overstuffed Sex in the City style romp). Graf himself seems to take his cues from french rather than italian and american cinema at this point in his career; in SPIELER this works quite well, here the whole thing just doesn't feel right, a clumsy attempt at mundane flippancy, like namedropping Proust, but then translating "madeleine" as "bread with sugar". Mostly, this is a one woman show, although some of Brunckhorst's scenes with the not-quite-Jean-Pierre-Leaud-but-nevertheless-charming Thomas Winkler work quite well, too.

It's still eminently watchable - even while most of the clutter really is clutter this time, Graf always finds ways to enrich his worlds, and given that this might be my least favorite among the 30+ Graf films I've seen, I guess I'm still very much in love with his work.

The Secret, Ann Hui, 1979

Watching this in the restored version is such a joy: this is indeed one of the great 70s thrillers, a slow-burn investigation grounded in social detail, while at the same time unfolding as a self-contained system of pure cinema. Sylvia Chang is frail and brave and rules the film.

Someone on here talks about the restoration being a hack job, but to my mind the new version looks wonderful (aside from the vhs-sourced title sequence). Sure, some detail is lost, as is completely normal when changing from one medium to another. The restoration has an excellent feel for the original material. So much better than all those glossy 4k restorations hell-bent on banishing history from film history.

Also watched: Bridge, Ann Hui, 1978

One of her contributions to BELOW THE LION ROCK. Very much in journalistic mode, with a good eye for the different social stata in Hong Kong, but also for quiet moments not strictly relevant for the narrative.

Sei donne per l'assassiono, Mario Bava, 1964

Beauty eating itself, turning style into style. Perfect film.

The Story of Woo Viet, Ann Hui, 1981

Emerging from a place of unspeakable violence, Chow Yun Fat navigates the world with a youthful innocence that only manages to sustain itself because in some ways he's already cut off from the world. The few anchors he's throwing out belong mostly to the realm of the imaginary: a future in America, Cora Miao as a platonic pen pal. A positively glowing Cherie Chung might be more tangible, but in the end she realizes that she, too, can't be his anchor (throwing herself on him, desperately kissing and clinging to him), and so she has to die.

This is, I believe, the paradox the film is founded on: The very fact that he is totally, irredeemably displaced grants him absolute agency - but only in a world that is already lost. So we're left with a melancholic travelogue through the spaces and textures of 70s exploitation films, punctured by short, rabid bursts of Ching Siu-Tung action.


Also watched: Road, Ann Hui, 1978

A sad, female-centered tale of poverty and opium addiction. Probably the most accomplished among her three BELOW THE LION ROCK episodes I have seen so far.

The Blue Mountain, Tadashi Imai, 1948/49

Let Setsuko Hara teach sex ed and you never know what'll happen!

First film I've seen of Imai, Japan's leading leftist director of the post-war era. Not quite sold yet, but there's lots going on here, to be sure, ideologically as well as stylistically. Like most of the reeducation films of the time this is far from subtle but at least this time the democratic furor feels absolutely genuine, to the point of conceptual overreach: why not tear it all down and return to a state of nature? Some surprisingly poetic moments in there, too.

Part 2:

Not much plot in part 2, it's mostly about working through, both emotionally and discursively, the events of part one. More often than not, this brings out the film's strengths. For starters, Imai makes better use of Hara, her face is so radiant at times, he just has to cut directly to fireworks, afterwards. There's also an extremely sensual beach scene, like something out of a sun tribe film.

Somewhere in the middle the film grinds to a complete halt while everyone is summoned in school to discuss the state of juvenile morality. Almost half an hour of excessive, mugging social theater, and clearly the best part of BLUE MOUNTAINS.

Boat People, Ann Hui, 1982

In an interview after the film's release Hui talks about how in her view the communist horrors of BOAT PEOPLE and the capitalist horrors of THE STORY OF WOO VIET cancel each other out. I'm not sure if this is quite true; even if both films end with all options lost and an escape over water, BOAT PEOPLE is clearly the much darker film, a tale of arrested development ("she still has the body of a 14 year old") and annihilation and not much more. In the end the difference might have to do less with politics than with the bustling Philippine location shooting of WOO VIET vs the emptied out Chinese sets used as stand-in for Vietnam in BOAT PEOPLE; and also with a driven, manic Chow Yun-Fat vs an apathetic, emptied out George Lam, who really must be one of the flimsiest reporter heroes in film history. I almost suspect that Hui gave him two scenes with a "real" Japanese actor (or at least someone who actually speaks the language) just to make clear for everyone that even his Japaneseness is phony, without substance.


Also watched: Where Are You Going, Ann Hui, 1992

A BELOW THE LION ROCK episode featuring Huo Dejian as himself restaging his treatment by Chinese authorities. Dense and clearheaded and a good supplement to the more paranoid takes on the imminent handover produced in Hong Kong.The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin, 1973

Love means disturbing the dead. Just wonderful how all those toppled crosses and gravestones feel completely natural after a while. This has nothing to do with blasphemy, either. It's a way of honoring the way of the world. The field of desire graves disorder. Again and again men with burning eyes in red and women without bras in yellow will enter, roam around a bit and finally get lost in it.

Sette note in nero, Lucio Fulci, 1977

The beauty of it is that at its heart, this really is a closed-off system: O'Neill isn't haunted, but cursed by images. They will come back, they will come for her, and it will be her own doing. She won't rest until they do. She's the beginning and the end of the image, their only audience, but also the camera and the darkroom (the tunnels right at the start, also somehow announcing the strange sexlessness of the film; this is a film about a face, not about a woman).

In a way it's like Hitchcock in psychotic overdrive, like Vertigo, only that not only Judy and Madeleine, but also Scottie turn out to always have been the same person. Suspense unhinged, cut off from logic and the outside world. When she steps into the murder room for the first time, she's already lost, because she has entered her brain. The rest is a game between optical nerve and cortex. The images keep coming back, every time triggering the same zoom in on her eyes, the same bonkers Frizzi music.

Sure, there's still another, more traditional film running in the background, a procedural filled with cues and policemen and telephone conversations. A backup, a leftover from Fulci's early 70s work, but it's rather obvious he doesn't care about stuff like that anymore. I mean, most of it comes down to returning again and again to the same random magazine cover, turning it into an endless readable and rereadable urtext. If one looks close enough, the World Formula is probably in there somewhere, too.

(I'm reading on here somewhere that this plays like a PROFONDO ROSSO rehash, only more conventional; I don't think so. To me, this feels much more radical and pure, much more primal than the Argento, a film I admire but don't love.)

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