A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Having watched Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, I’m having a go at A Canterbury Tale (1944). So far: when you introduce an American character, a G.I., have him start every sentence with “say.” Say, that’s not a bad idea.

The American, John Sweet, wasn’t a professional actor; Powell saw him work in a production of Our Town in England (he was a G.I. over for WW II) and hired him for the movie; he never made another and now he’s a retired teacher in North Carolina. But anyway, I keep hearing John Wayne in Sweet’s voice, so I checked and the two were born within 280 miles of each other, 9 years apart, so I guess that explains the accent.

From the dialog, sounds like the movie was made before Pearl Harbor, during Lend-Lease. An interesting time in American/UK history, which we don’t often see onscreen. (Later: nope, it was made after Pearl Harbor, but to hear the actors talk about it, there were still a lot of isolationists in the U.S. after the Japanese attack. I should look it up. I’d say Pressburger got that wrong; maybe even after Pearl Harbor, the folks in England persisted for a while in thinking of the U.S. as a recalcitrant belligerent.)

The movie is a fable, a confection, a propaganda film, in part aimed at explaining to the U.S. what it was like to be at war in England (the English themselves didn’t have much use for the film at the time), a movie with four miraculous happy endings for the price of one. Everyone in it is so damned decent and honorable, with the young men preparing to ship out (the Normandy landings commenced on June 6, 1944), that I couldn’t help feeling moved, especially after being prepped by the explanation of England provided in Colonel Blimp. The heroic/sentimental English score didn’t hurt, either. There is a sequence of bombed-out buildings, followed by a quick shot of a blimp and contrails overhead, that alone is worth the price of admission for me. (Oh, and a jump cut from the 1300’s to now, in which a falcon transforms into a Spitfire.) The actors are all gone now, save for Sweet and Sheila Sim, and God bless them both. Criterion includes interviews with them, time (sixty years worth) robbing them of their youth but replacing it with the knowledge and wisdom provided by a lifetime’s experience… And speaking of sixty years, the Canterbury of the movie, one-third bombed out, is no longer to be seen, or even imagined, in the Kent of today. The bombs have been replaced by souvenir shops. Powell is a native of Kent. I’ve wondered a time or two in the film whether something autobiographical is creeping in.

It’s rare to find an actor or actress named Sim (my mother’s maiden name), at least of the English or Scottish variety, Sim also being an Asian name. Alastair Sim playing Scrooge might be the most famous… Did I mention that the movie is about a guy who sneaks out at night and, in some undescribed and undepicted way, projects a glob of glue into the hair of random young women? Sort of a weird call forward to Peeping Tom (1952).

Being a guy who just sits and watches, without thinking much about what exactly the director and cinematographer (Erwin Hillier, who did a lot of work, some of which I’ve heard of) are doing, I’m remaining mostly oblivious to Powell’s particular artistry here, wherein he experiments, taking a simple tale for his foundation and then continuing his filmaking evolution wrt the editing and camera techniques that he used to create what he later called “the composed film.” Lots of scenery and landscape shots that probably played with greater impact on the large screen; a cool blackout scene; the occasional dramatic  closeup of an actor, closeups like those no longer seen in movies, now that we’ve stretched the screen so far from portrait to landscape. Note to self: poll co-workers using iPhones and droids for their portrait-or-landscape preference. (Later: portrait predominates, but then, nobody around here is watching movies at work. Are they?)

The movie turns its back on any hope of commercial success: no stars, no romance, no serious mystery or conflict (the war remains out of sight). “Understated” is the word I’m looking for. Building to a finale in which soldiers, shipping out, sit in a church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” P and P have a message to share, but it’s hidden, to be winkled out by thought, I suppose. Lazy viewer that I am, I have not winkled it. The movie makes clear, repeatedly, that the message is there, just not what the message is. Turns out, though, that because the movie is the same age as me and because the disk contains interviews with two of the actors as they are now, I have learned something in spite of myself. Namely, that Life for me is not what I’m writing about, but about writing about it.

Robert Parker, R.I.P.

I started reading Robert B. Parker detective novels in 1973 when he published “The Godwulf Manuscript.”  Once he got rolling, he wrote a new book every six months or so and I looked forward to them and checked them out of the library and read them like I used to read Nancy Drew stories when I was a kid. Or I’d listen to them on tape. He’s written so many, over such a stretch of time, that I can listen to them more than once without remembering in advance exactly what’s going to happen. These days, he’s the only author that I treat this way… Jesse Stone is one of his ongoing characters and I was delighted to see Stone show up in a TV movie, with Tom Selleck doing the honors, back in 2005. I like Tom Selleck. He was, and still is, too old for the part, but I’m giving him a pass cause he’s Tom Selleck. The movie (Jesse Stone: Stone Cold (2005)) is true to the series and the Stone character and is as light and fluffy as the Parker books. Just something for a Parker fan to sit back and enjoy, especially knowing that there are four more after this one, and counting. The Spenser TV show never interested me, but then I wasn’t watching TV when it ran anyway (R.I.P., Robert Urich, liver (?) cancer, 55)… More recently, Parker turned out some westerns, and one of them, Appaloosa (2008), found the screen. Didn’t do so well critically or commercially, but it fit the book to a T. No better possible actor for it than Ed Harris. The book has two sequels; bring back Harris for another turn… Anyway, Parker dropped dead at his writing desk, just as my other lifetime favorite, John D. McDonald. Got to go find somebody else to like. Guys like George Pelacanos and Richard Price are swell, but they don’t crank out the lightweight material like Parker did.

“Saw” Redux

Checked out a pile of books at the library yesterday, including “Mr. Wolf and the Three Bears,” by Jan Fearnly (Harcourt, Inc. Copyright 2001). Forgot my rule: avoid children’s books with “fear” in them.

On the couch with the two- and three-year-old grandkids, reading.

The Mr. Wolf story: nice wolfe and his grandma prepare for a visit by the three bears. The wolves cook up some treats (after carefully washing their paws): sandwiches for momma bear, using recipes from a magazine article; cupcakes for poppa bear, using a recipe from a tv cooking show; a birthday cake for baby bear, using a recipe from a cookbook; finally, an added treat, required by the plot if not by logic, using a recipe from the intranet. Then the wolves clean the house, make party hats, etc., etc.

The bears arrive, but uh oh. The annoying Goldilocks has tagged along. She hogs the food, opens all the presents, and is in general a bad-mannered nuisance and pest.

Finally, it’s game time. Hide and seek. But, says Grandma Wolf, no one is allowed to hide in the kitchen.  The game drags on a bit as it seems to take grandma a long time to find everybody. When she has done so, it appears that Goldilocks has left and gone home without even saying goodbye.

From the text:

“Never mind,” said Grandma. “She’s gone now, and I’ve made us a special treat to celebrate.”

She disappeared into the kitchen…

[Next page]

…and emerged with a great big beautiful pie, all golden and steaming hot from the oven, with a buttery, crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth crust right on top.

[Picture of Grandma Wolf bringing out a huge pie.]

“Grandma!” cried Mr. Wolf. “You made a pie after all! Where did you find the ingredients?”

[Picture of the three bears and two wolves all licking their lips as they eyeball the  steaming pie on the table.]

“Oh, you never know what you’ll find in the kitchen when you’re playing hide-and-seek,” she said, smiling. “Happy birthday, Baby Bear!”

[They put four candles on the steaming pie. Baby bear is delighted. Grandma Wolf sits back in her easy chair with a big grin. Her white apron has remained spotless.]

My grandkids look at each other. They look at me.

“So, Grandpa,” they say. “What’s in the pie?”

Snacking in front of the TV

Sitting on the couch, watching TV and movies with others, I never snack. Alone, I must snack. Why is this?

I can’t just sit in front of the screen twiddling my thumbs, can I? I don’t knit or crochet or tat or whittle. Sorting and folding the wash doesn’t take very long. I don’t like to iron in front of the tube. Personal grooming is out in the family room. I can pet the cat, but not for an hour. Snacking is the go-to activity. I’m accomplishing something: I’m eating and drinking. Or is this not a habit, but a compulsion? Are my motivations darker? Loneliness? Comfort needed in the dark of night? Sublimation of other appetites? Boredom? Ennui? Is my snacking influenced by what’s on-screen, by whether I’m watching Criterion or zombies?

Ignoring the case where meals are eaten in front of the screen (no longer the tube, except for some of us) – meals are a whole different animal from snacks – I’m figuring that snacking is not an optimally healthful activity. I could be using hand-weights. I could be doing TV yoga. Why eat? And why eat salty snax instead of carrot sticks, almonds, Rye Crisp? Why alcohol instead of whey milk? Why grass instead of tobacco? Ok, that last one is easy.

I took a quick poll around me at work, but rats, it’s not simple. I was hoping for an easy two-kinds-of-people-in-the-world model, populated by those who snack alone and those who snack with others, in front of the screen. Instead, I get is a dichotomous planet inhabited by those who eat popcorn and those who don’t. What kind of a crazy divide is that, anyway? I get some who will snack only when alone, TV or no TV. I’m not that restricted. These loners with their mouths full are today’s version of troglodytous ancestors who, when they brought down the warthog single-handedly, would drag it back to the cave to be converted into jerky and consumed solo while star-watching on summer nights. Star-watching while jerky-eating, but also while listening to the embarassing sounds coming from the caves of others.

Others will snack only when not alone, as when the tribe gathers around the cooking pot wherein the hapless explorer sits up to his neck in soup liqours.

But between these two extreme poles of TV snacking behavior, there lies a multi-dimensioned spectrum of munching viewers. My assistant in the examination of this spectrum posted a query that resulted in these responses.

Later. The results of my extensive polling. I list the snackers in descending order of sanity:

1. Those who snack because they are hungry, or at least a little peckish.
2. Those who snack because friends are over and you’ve got to put something out for them, don’t you?
3. Those who snack for revenge, or out of deep shame, or as a howl of rage at the meaninglessness of Life.
4. Those who snack to improve the quality of their favorite TV sitcom.
5. Those who will only snack while holding a small stuffed animal.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two… (2000)

Yi Yi: A One and a Two… (2000)

*** Spoilers ***

Disclaimer: I know even less about Asian filmmaking than I do about filmmaking in general, which isn’t that much in the first place, apart from the fact that I’ve watched a lot of movies. I am a sino-cine-naïf, whereas, on the Filmspotting boards, for example, there are a great many most-knowlegeable Asian-film types. For example, the Far East Bracket boards contain a multitude of interesting discussions of Eastern films, including much about the films of the director who is at the center of this piece, Edward Yang.

Continued disclaimer: What I know about Japanese movies, for example, would probably fit in a haiku. What I know about Chinese movies, whether from the mainland, from Taiwan, from Hong Kong, or from Singapore, even less – perhaps into a cheng yu gu shi (four-character Chinese idioms – simple stories that have a deep meaning: “Shou zhu dai tu” (Don’t be lazy and rely on luck), “Zi xiang mao dun” (Your action contradicts your words), “Ye gong hao long” You claim to love it but you actually fear it). How would I know if the acting I’m watching is good or not in a Chinese movie? How would I know if the line readings are well done – especially in the case of an argument? Do subtitles undermine a movie? Every translation is a lie, they say. Or Nabokov or somebody said. Therefore, consider yourself warned. The following is less reliable than, yes, Wikipedia.

A couple of notes up front on cultural differences between the Western viewer and the Asian movie: (1) One bit of Chinese culture that didn’t work for this Westerner: Yang says that Chinese women are very strong-willed and he includes a number of moments in Yi Yi that I take to be demonstrations of this strength. For example, two of the movie’s adult leads are spending some quality time together in a hotel room when the female half of the pair suddenly goes off like a rocket, standing and delivering, in what to my ears is a shrill voice, a brief, loud speech of protest. Didn’t play as strength, exactly, to me. (2) Karaoke – Vaguely comic when involving serious mature businessmen? Yang didn’t know why Asians like karaoke so much, but he didn’t included the scene for comic purposes, at all. Naturally I googled the question. My favorite answer: “I don’t know why Westerners don’t like karaoke, just like they don’t understand why Asians are obsessing about it. Maybe because Westerners tend to do strenuous exercise while Asians like relatively peaceful activities.” (3) It occurred to me to wonder, while watching, which the elements in the film were present to demonstrate Yang’s unhappiness with Taiwanese culture in general and which were elements that he took for granted, while Western eyes looked upon them as sub-par. Cigarette smoking, I’m guessing, would be normal, whereas Yang misses the buses and trains of his childhood, now replaced in Taipei by automobile traffic.

So. Yi Yi is a movie about an urban Taiwanese family, the members of which respond to a variety of challenges in their lives, over a brief period of time.

The family members – since I refer to them frequently below – are NJ (father), Min-Min (mother), Ting-Ting (daughter), and Yang-Yang (son).

Before watching Yi Yi, with its excellent reputation, I happened to learn that its writer/director, Edward Yang, was diagnosed with colon cancer around the time that the movie was released. He died of the disease seven years later. Although no one knew it at the time, Yi Yi represented the culmination of Yang’s twenty-year film career, a career during which he made many respected films, little-known and hard-to-find in the U.S.

Knowing that the movie was Yang’s final work, instead of the brilliant production of a master filmmaker just entering his mature years (he was 53), rather cast a pall over Yi Yi for me, the first time through at least, dealing as the movie does with the fundamental issues of life. It had occurred to Yang as he wrote the screenplay that if he followed each member of a family of four, he could examine all aspects of life, and so he does. Although the work concludes with an affirmation, a sadness pervades it for me, perhaps my sadness, experiencing Yi Yi now ten years after it was made and three years after Yang’s death. Even the introductory music seemed valedictory to me, and the film left the father of the family at the latter part of a long road of thought and hard work with no obvious future success or happiness ahead of him. Yang’s commentary on the Criterion disk is especially touching.

Jackie Chan: “When I heard the news, I felt it was such a pity. Even though I knew that his death would come eventually, I didn’t know when. But why I would know that such thing was going to happen? Because I had been talking with director Yang to make a movie together and we discussed the possibility of making an animation called The Wind. After our third discussion, we found out that director Yang had fallen ill. Later on, he went to the States to get medical help. When I was making Rush Hour 3 in the States, he even said that he would come and have a meal with me. But he didn’t come, and I couldn’t find him. Who would have thought that after I finished Rush Hour 3 and came back to the Mainland for a new movie, I would receive the sad news of his death? Sigh! That’s life. There’s birth, old age, sickness, and death.”

Fragments from “The Wind” have been presented here or there and Yang’s wife, Peng Kai-li, has appeared occasionally to speak about this final project.

Yang cast his friend Wu Nien-Jen as TJ, the lead in Yi Yi. At the time, Wu was a respected director and author (twenty-three screenplays listed in IMDB; over seventy mentioned elsewhere) and had done some acting as well. He directed Duo Sang (A Borrowed Life) (1994), which is on Martin Scorsese’s list of favorite works and which Scorsese calls one of the most influential films of the 90s (I haven’t seen it, or I’ve forgotten it). But Wu disappears from IMDB following Yi Yi, save for one bit part in 2006. (Oops! A friend tells me that Wu is a fixture on Taiwanese TV. And, like Peng Kai-li, he appears at festivals from time to time.) The actress who plays TJ’s daughter in Yi Yi (Kelly Lee) never worked in another movie. TJ’s wife and son in the movie have a credit or two to their names since then but as I watched the movie, I felt the weight of time in a way that no simple drama can apply – as if everyone involved in it remained suspended there forever… Two weeks after shooting wrapped, a 7.6 earthquake struck Taipei and damaged the building where most of the movie was shot, causing everyone to move out.

In 1976, Gail Sheehy wrote the bestseller Passages, which popularized the idea that there are characteristic stages in adult life, just as there are for childhood. In the general conception, the young adult builds a first adult life structure and then, in his or her late twenties, experiences a stretch of time lasting five or six years during which it is psychologically possible for the individual to rethink his or her path through life, perhaps abandoning a career, perhaps entirely remapping future life plans. Whether this notion retains its validity today, I don’t know and haven’t bothered to check out, but in my case, I dismantled my “first adult life structure” completely and permanently at the age of 29. I was thinking about this while reading Edward Yang’s bio. He devoted himself to high-tech pursuits after graduation from college, but began to waffle and search, and finally at the age of 33 (just in time), returned from the U.S. to Taiwan and found a job in the movie business. Life provides second chances.

Providence then allowed Yang twenty years to work in an industry that he loved before imposing his mortal illness upon him at the age of 53, just as he reached the top of his profession with the release of Yi Yi (commercially, at least, if you count Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (A Brighter Summer Day) (1991) as his greatest work. It’s a four-hour epic about a boy who murders his girlfriend (in the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale), which I acquired the hard way.). In the subsequent seven years, Yang taught, founded a company, and worked on various projects, active in the industry, before his disease killed him. He made no more movies. Perhaps he said all that he had to say in Yi Yi, and in the films that he made before it, but I doubt it. Perhaps his illness changed his outlook on life, but I doubt that too. Perhaps it’s just a matter of health and available energy. Colon cancer is a brutal disease. I have several friends who are survivors, but their cures, temporary or complete, stretched out over many a debilitating month, and none of them exactly stormed back in their respective professions.

Finally, though, I realized that Yi Yi remains, endures, a monument to Yang – a lasting remembrance, and a much finer one than most of us leave behind, not counting our children.

Yang named the movie Yi Yi (according to his sometimes explanation) because Yi is the first character encountered in the typical Chinese dictionary, and Yi means “individual.” The movie is about individuals and the connections between them. The English title (also according to Yang) refers to the fact that the Chinese character for “one,” written twice in vertical alignment, can be viewed as meaning “a one” or as a single character meaning “two.” So, “A One and a Two.” Yang: “This signifies that what’s following the title (the film, that is) is not something tense, or heavy, or stressful. Life should be like a jazzy tune. Music is a fundamental part of Yi Yi, in the score and in the script.

A Taiwanese friend points out that Yi Yi is also a nickname for young children, such as is Yang-Yang in the movie. Yang-Yang is Jonathan Chang’s nickname, according to Yang; he retained it in the film to help the young man feel more comfortable.

Running time for the movie, 173 minutes. I presume that Yang crafted the film with the idea that I would be sitting in a theater to experience it. Are his calculations affected by the DVD and torrents and streaming and the viewer at home, who might watch the movie in one piece or twenty? A three-hour movie once seemed imposing to me; it often included an intermission that provided a break (not to mention additional popcorn revenue), but now, with 18 hours of a Lost season running like a movie on disk, a three-hour movie is a mere nothing. If a director has final cut, he/she can fashion the film without reference to running time, beyond artistic considerations. Otherwise, of course, a three-hour movie is likely to be trimmed by the studio. The shorter the movie, the better to move crowds through the cinema. For more, refer to Watching an Extremely Long Movie.

Because I knew the general arc of the movie in advance (we meet the family at a wedding, stuff happens to family members, we say farewell to the family at a funeral), just for fun I divided Yi Yi into 18 ten-minute segments, wrote down the numbers 1-18 on separate slips of paper, shook the slips in a cup, pulled them out one-at-a-time recording the sequence as I did so, and watched the movie for the first time in the order 1 13 2 11 6 5 17 10 8 7 12 18 3 16 4 15 14 9. Yep, by chance segment 1 came up first – a sign from the movie gods? My theory when I did this was that watching the movie in this way would allow me (or force me) to focus on the essential story elements without being distracted by the melodrama,… or was it to focus less on the story elements while I concentrated on and studied and admired Yang’s scene structure? Actually, I forget what I was thinking. Maybe I was just bored with/at the prospect of a three-hour family drama, even knowing that it was supposed to be a good one. For some reason, I’ve been ignoring or dodging Yi Yi for a decade. I’ve had it sitting on my desk, on my escritoire, on my ammunition locker. I’ve started it multiple times and bailed in minutes multiple times. Perhaps the Sixth-Generation mainland movies that I’ve watched, like Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace, 2006) and Er Di (Drifters, 2003), almost drove me nuts and phobiatized me to such an extent with their wordless-staring-off-into-space scenes, smoking and non-smoking, that even though New Wave Taiwanese movies are a whole different animal, I shied. A movie like Mang jing (Blind Shaft, 2003), entertaining as it was, didn’t ameliorate my dread. Or maybe I’m intimidated by all the Asian movie knowledge present amongst the habitues of some of the sites that I frequent, and wanted to cover my ass wrt reviewing the movie. Or, my God, am I just transmogrifying a classic film into a faux Chinese (500) Days of Summer? Is it just a damned stunt? Or on the other hand, if the movie is a classic, doesn’t it deserve multiple viewings; doing one like this – is that so wrong? I called three Taiwanese friends in the industry (Hollywood, not Taipei). They all agreed that wherever he is now, Yang won’t mind. It’s a movie. It’s an adventure. It’s not like I turned the screen upside down or watched the whole thing on rewind…

However, starting by chance with minute 0 of this extended-family drama, as I did, I found myself hoping for maximum introductions to family members in that first ten minutes. As the segment end drew near, I had met father, daughter, grandma, father’s wife’s brother and his bride, a jilted woman, a lovelorn man, another female family member, a bunch of kids, including a little boy getting picked on… and then got distracted as I learned that “riding the bus without a ticket” means sex before marriage. And then the segment was over and I was transported to minute 130. Felt like I was watching Lost.

And fooey, I only realized much later that segment 13 actually included minutes 120-129, not minutes 130-139, just as segment 1 comprised minutes 0-9, not minutes 10-19. I should have put a 0 on one of the slips of paper to rationalize the sequence. So that if I continued as I was, I’d miss a segment, and even though I thenceforward picked the correct segment, I perforce had caused myself to miss one by switching, because I couldn’t remember when I switched from incorrect to correct. Plus, because the movie in that incarnation of my viewing resided on two disks, I had to subtract 77 minutes to calculate any segment on disk 2, and I have a hunch that I didn’t always do so correctly. Jeez, trying to watch a movie!!

Before all this was revealed to me by the auditor in my brain, while still blissfully ignorant, when I jumped from 1 to 13, I did get what I wanted! In medias res! No waiting! Father desperately struggling to work a business deal. Father involved with a squeeze not his wife. Squeeze weeps alone in the dark – and this is two hours and ten minutes into the movie. Daughter/boyfriend relationship fraught. Father’s partner a problem. Japanese deal-maker a mysterious dude who does mysterious things. Chinese and Japanese men conversing in English. All this after less than twenty minutes of segment hopping. That’s movie-watching! Spare me the details.

And by random chance I then returned to minute 10 (hm, I got that right, for the “2” segment) for more character/family introductions and setup, and then back to minute 110, now knowing that the squeeze is the father’s long-lost love and they’re out for a night at the movies and a hotel room.

One thing I noticed immediately and was hoping wouldn’t continue: as we move from thread to thread in the story – or am I jumping the gun after only four segments? – between seven-year-old son, fifteen-year-old daughter, mother, father, in-law couple present for comic relief – the weight of the father/first love relationship seems so much heavier than the young boy’s interactions and philosophical questions, and the teen girl’s puppy love, and the mother’s angst, and the  in-laws’ fecklessness – that I’m suffering a little from Julie/Julia syndrome, just waiting to cycle back to the father. (The fact that he’s played by Nien-Jen Wu, and that his situation most closely approximates mine might also have something to do with my attraction to him, and to the winsome first love that he’s starting up with again (Su-Yun Ko, who’s first movie was also Yang’s first movie. She lives in Vancouver as of this writing, as does her character in Yi Yi). Wu – writer, director, actor – is interesting just standing there onscreen with a worried look on his face – what is he thinking, this ordinary-looking dude with the beautiful wife and beautiful first love?  Nien-Jen Wu as LJ I bought completely.

Also, with respect to the initial impact of the characters on me: Yang originally wrote the son, Yang Yang, as a ten-year-old. While auditioning ten-year-olds, he met Jonathan Chang, seven at the time, and decided to take a chance on him. In the same way, he signed a thirteen-year-old (Kelly Lee) to play the daughter of 15. 7 and 13 are not 10 and 15; does this decrease the weight of Yang Yang’s and Min Min’s screen presence? Did Yang rewrite to accommodate? To be determined.

Also, alternating between the older couple (father and first love) and the younger one (the teen Min Min and her interest, Fatty), each out walking hand-in-hand – does that increase the disparity in the individual dramas? Because Yang does a lot of this sort of alternating. I’m saying no at this point, the juxtaposition works, at least as I start out – original naïvité vs the “what happened and why” of the grownups.

The traditional Hollywood romantic arc begins with the meet cute and builds to increasingly intimate interactions, with a major dip just before conjunction (to grossly simplify). I think that 13-2-11-6-5 conforms to the formula for LJ, but it’s hard to keep track.

I’m picking up some early, seriously negative vibes about Taiwanese business practices and economic culture compared to that of a Japanese company and its owner, Ota, played by Issei Ogata, a well-known stand-up comedian in Japan. This reminds me that Taiwan was administered by Japan from the late 1800s up through WW II. The towns, bus and train systems, and cinema were all Japanese in nature. Not many cars and no freeways. Then, after the war and up through the present day, China, together with the West and America in particular, have been the dominate cultural influences, and not always in a good way. Cars have replaced the buses and trains, the populace chases the almighty dollar, and Yang, in reaction, made his movies.

When I was a kid, Taiwan was still called Formosa, at least in the U.S. The island had been administered by Japan from 1895 to the end of World War II and during that time, the Japanese attempted to convert the inhabitants of the island into Japanese themselves. That didn’t happen, but in the process the Japanese vastly improved the infrastructure on the island, building railroads, bus systems, and neighborhoods in the Japanese style (Yang grew up in one of them). They were benevolent overseers. Before the war, cinema on the island was completely Japanese in nature. (Portions of Yi Yi are shot in neighborhoods established by the Japanese and built in an old-fashioned Japanese style. Xi meng ren sheng (In the Hands of a Puppet Master) (1993), a film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, deals with this Japanification of Taiwan.). Moviemaking lapsed during the war. The Koumintang took charge of the island in 1945. In 1950, Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang (the Dragon Lady) and the Koumintang army arrived, supposedly for a brief stay before returning to the mainland to chase away Mao in the name of democracy. A quantity of nationalist movie makers came along. (Tony Ryans talks about this on the Criterion Yi Yi.)

At that time, the indigenous population didn’t speak Mandarin. In 1962, for example, 117 movies were made in Taiwanese and only 3 in Mandarin. However, in the 60s as Taiwan modernized, the government-created Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC) began producing Chinese-culture-oriented moral melodramas, “healthy realism,” to compete with the popular local kung fu and romance movies (e.g., Yang ya ren jia (Beautiful Duckling) (1965) and Ya nu qing xin (The Silent Wife) (1965), both of which I checked out from university, and which are also available online, but which are of no particular interest.) By the late 70s, there was no audience left for these mediocre films, or, in the face of superior Hong Kong product, for the local popular genres either, and Taiwanese movie-making became moribund.

At this point, with home viewing on the rise, the CMPC signed up two writers, Hsiao Yeh and Wu Nien-Jen (the lead in Yi Yi), to write some movies that the locals might want to watch. The two themselves were watching Hong Kong movies like Xin shu shan jian ke (Warriors from the Magic Mountain) (1983) as new filmmakers knocked out the old. The two writers had the idea of putting together movies made up of short films done by different directors. Guang yin de gu shi (In Our Time) (1981), their first effort, which launched the first New Wave in Taiwan, included four stories about Taiwan; Edward Yang directed one of  them, Desires.  (I’ve also seen cited Yang’s Hai tan de yi tian (That Day, on the Beach) (1983) as the era’s starting point.) The stories focused on daily life, urban and rural, rather than melodrama and martial arts.

As someone put it, “One of the wonders of late 20th Century world cinema was the sudden wave of extremely talented directors who emerged in Taiwan during the 1980s, an incredible efflorescence that essentially reinvented a national cinema where only its pale shadow had previously existed.”  (If you wrote that, I apologize for the lack of a citation. And while I’m thinking of it, there are some passages in this post that don’t seem familiar. Hope I haven’t been incorporating noted material into the text that I didn’t actually write.) The young directors (some names in addition to Yang: Te-Chen Tao, I-Chen Ko, Yi Chang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang) developed a new style, emphasizing the linear nature of real life rather than the dramatic arc that features a climax at its end. Some of the films that I’ve seen remind me of Italian neo-realism. Yang himself focused on city life, and the (ill) effects of materialism and technology – urban life in Taiwan in the 80s and 90s. His contemporary, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, focused more on the countryside. Yang plays with time-lines in “That Day, on the Beach.” In his next, Qing mei zhu ma (Taipei Story) (1985),  Hou Hsiao-Hsien plays a former Little-League baseball star struggling with a sense of loss in the big city. Then Kong bu fen zi (The Terrorisers) (1986), featuring crime and alienation a la Antonioni. Yang related movies to real life; he held that a motion picture can create something that we, the audience, might otherwise miss in life. At one point Fatty tells Ting-Ting that the relevance of movies is that they allow people to live more lives than they are allotted. Through a life of watching movies, we are adding “two times as much life” in what we see on film. Kung Fu extravaganzas don’t count.

The New Wave resulted in many wonderful movies in the 80s that won awards, while the populace meanwhile continued to spend its money on the creations of Hollywood and Hong Kong. Yang himself was never concerned about commercial success. His brief stint at Southern California’s film school turned him off to that aspect of cinema. How do directors try to make their movies commercial successes, anyway? I thought about this, and pursued Google hits about it, for maybe a minute. The simplest answer is that they try to make money. Ticket sales,  DVD sales, various other media window openings – each generate a revenue stream. How to ensure a torrent rather than a trickle? The answer, famously provided by William Goldman in a different context: “Nobody knows anything.” Some lengthier attempts to prove him wrong state that a movie must contain a critical mass of star power, a story that feeds the viewers’ dreams, etc., etc. What made New Wave films less commercial, less viewer-friendly? Lack of melodrama? Non-linear schemes? Quotidian subject matter? What makes a movie “more commercial”? Throughout the 2000s, Taiwanese directors have tweaked up their movies to make them sell. How? Backing away from art-house and returning to formula? And what, again, did New Wave emphasize? Does Yi Yi add commercial elements to the New Wave formula or not? As Yang pointed out somewhere, one of his movie budgets would cover about 20 seconds of a Hollywood film. Is it all about bigger budgets, more action, dumbing down, quicker cuts, more closeups?  All these questions are moot here, because Yang paid zero attention to them. Which means that I can save my answers for another day.

The New Wave directors at the outset were a group of young men with common goals and purpose. Twenty years later, Yi Yi is full of Yang’s friends, co-workers, and actors who have appeared in his previous films. Through the 80s and 90s, making movies and teaching movie making, Yang lectured in a hopscotch leapfrog way and then hung out with his students drinking coffee and talking about movies and how to make them. He liked teaching others, but mostly he wanted to make movies his way. In the U.S., as mentioned above, he dropped out of his film courses as a student at Southern California because he felt that there was too much in the coursework about the financial and commercial aspects of the art – aspects that never interested him or affected his own film making, which helps explain why his movies never made much money and are so hard to find (pace Yi Yi). Hard to believe that a masterpiece like A Brighter Summer Day isn’t available everywhere; I used a torrent to download it (and saw it for sale on eBay, of all places). Amazon has an Hou Hsiao-Hsien package of four films, which is a start. How western are Taiwanese films? Somewhere between China and Hollywood… Most important in acting is being honest.

In the 90s, the New Wave transmogrified into a Second New Wave, which became a little friendlier to its audience (i.e., more commercial). Ang Lee made his first movie in 1991. By the time Yi Yi arrived in 2000, the tide was out on the New Waves, to confuse a metaphor. Taiwanese main-stream cinema flowed on. There were a few successful Taiwanese titles in the first decade of the 2000s, but Taiwanese cinema continued (and continues) to struggle vs Hollywood and Hong Kong. The exception: Hái-kak chhit-ho (Cape No. 7) (2008), a box-office bonanza, which, when last I looked, was second only to “Titanic” as the top grosser on the island – the year it came out, it doubled the receipts of “The Mummy,” the next best grosser in 2008. Why Cape 7? Good production values? Characters and a story line that appealed to a wide audience? Its mix of Hoklo Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Japanese? Can it happen again? Nobody knows.

Yi Yi was released in a period when the West’s awareness of Asian film-making was taking a big step up. It won the New York Film Critics Circle best foreign-language film of the year award and the National Society of Film Critics award for best film overall. Jackie Chan became well-known; Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000) brought subtitles to the cineplex and was the top-grossing foreign film of the  2000, allowing Lee, maker of, for example, The Ice Storm, to go on and make The Hulk and Finding Woodstock (and Lust, Caution, to be fair); Wong-Kar Wai’s Fa yeung nin wa (In The Mood for Love) (2000) won 32 awards, with 23 more nominations, and was a top commercial release; John Woo came to Hollywood; Korean cinema blossomed. 6 of the top 20 foreign grossers of the 2000s were Chinese, Crouching Tiger being number one and the only Taiwanese film on the list.

But now, in 2010, the last I checked at least, down at the Taipei multiplexes audiences still prefer Hollywood and Hong Kong entries, and Taiwanese cinema continues to struggle, although following Cape No. 7 the industry has produced a number of quality films that have made some money, if not truckloads of it like Cape No. 7 did. The government has provided some funding, but there have also been some calls for rules requiring the theaters to screen more local film. There have also been a number of Taiwanese directors in addition to Ang Lee working outside the country, and a number of movies made outside the country that deal with Taiwan. Also notable, Blue Brave: The Legend of Formosa in 1895 (2008), the first Hakka-spoken feature-length film ever made.

Reading about Taiwanese cinema made me wonder what Asian cinema is available at my local libraries, here in the States (not counting the university holdings). Quite a few movies, it turns out. I counted 150 sitting on the shelf in a local branch library, from the mainland, including Hong Kong, and from Taiwan (e.g., 2 Young (2005), Lan (2009), Addicted (2002) (hmm, this branch of the library has put all of its Korean films in the Chinese section with a “Chi” on the spine of each DVD box)). Plus films with a broader distribution, like Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and the Film Movement selections, not sequestered in the Foreign Films sector.

The first thing immediately apparent in Yi Yi, to me at least, is the studied, planned character of the cinematography. I was rewatching a couple of scenes from the movie the other night and then switched over to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). This was like leaving a museum and crossing the street to a Safeway. As Matthew McConaughey, whom I’ve always said I couldn’t stand but whom, after I watched HTLAGI10D, followed by The Ghost of Girlfriends Past (2009), and read about him and his child, I decided I liked after all, though McConaughey and Jennifer Garner, what a pair of odd birds. But jumping from Yang to HTLAGI10D, I was struck immediately by the visual contrast between the two movies. The ordinariness onscreen of the latter, the feeling of flatness, clutter, lifelessness, when compared to the intelligence that can be felt in Yi Yi and Wei-han Yang’s shots. For me, sort of like spending a week in a spare but beautifully appointed bed-and-breakfast cabin and then coming home and stepping into my living room.  After Yang’s precise and thoughtful artistry, after his compositions onscreen, HTLAGI10D seemed shapeless. The characters act in front of the furniture, whereas in Yi Yi, environment plus characters together equal a statement as well as a context. Yang composed the movie. He wrote the dialog, modified the plot to fit his subsequent casting decisions, chose his locations, and crafted every shot and scene to support his vision. The setting, the frame, and the actors are integrated.

I was confronted with a second demonstration of differing cinematographical approaches one night later when, again after watching several scenes from Yi Yi, I switched over to Carlos Reygadas’  Stellet Licht (2007). Reygadas, like Yang, aims to create an environment/actor gestalt through the composition of his shots. However, one difference between the two directors, quickly apparent, is in their use of time. Yang’s shots run in real time, even in the longer static takes (which are never especially, too-longishly long). Average time between cuts in the first 20 minutes = 30 seconds. One click less than stately? Automobiles pass; characters, after standing and staring, move. The dreaded commercialism impinging upon the purity of stop-time meditation cinema? Yang, fastidious in his disregard for commercialism, doesn’t let such considerations impose a regime on his work. Reygadas in SL, meanwhile, dials back time to fit the timelessness of northern Mexico. He announces his purpose at the outset with a long, long, longggg nighttime take that gradually brightens with the dawn to reveal a new day on the farm, time lapse that at moments seems not to be lapsing at all, save for the odd cockcrow. Never in Yi Yi did I experience the feeling that, unlike the seized-up screen in front of me in SL, or the inaction in the mainland Er Di (2003) or Summer Palace 2006) or the Turkish Three Monkeys (2008), for example, the sands in my personal life hourglass were running out to no purpose as I sat watching a boat on the Bosphorous pass glacially before me, or a young man – in reality a young actor with no lines of dialog to be found on the next 10 pages of his script – sitting and  smoking without emotion. Someone described Yang’s method as “deliberate pacing.” For example, Yang has the camera fixed on Fatty (Ting Ting’s teen-love interest) in one of those lingering shots from across the street and I found myself watching the traffic light to see if it would change from red to green during the take. It would have, in the movies that I mention above, but because Yang moderates the length of these takes, in the same way that he moderates his distance from the subject of the take, the light did not have a chance to change. In long takes, while I am presumably expected to sit contemplating the dramatic situation, or the composition of the scene, or the meaning of it all so far, in fact I’d be thinking about traffic lights that I’ve known. Or maybe that’s the whole idea. If Yi Yi is in fact a meditation on urban life, what better to focus on than a stoplight? But it’s not to be. Yang isn’t in any hurry, but he doesn’t let that light change.

Some rainy day when I’m in the mood, I might just take a quick census in Yi Yi of closeups, middle, and long distance shots. I’ve been noticing the closeups in 30s and 40s Hollywood movies lately, some of them appearing suddenly, almost as a shock, up there in that old-fashioned square form factor that was just made for portraits. I mention this because Yang’s use of distance shots also stands out in the movie. With the exception of closeups (of which, offhand, I remember none), Yang mixes close, medium, and long shots in a way that puts a lot of air into the frame, the opposite of the claustrophobic or closed-in atmosphere found in some urban dramas. In the first twenty minutes, Yang includes more than ten shots that involve long views down hallways, through doorways, off balconies, so forth. These aren’t cutaway, placing, or Ozu’s  “pillow” or “curtain” shots, put there to provide breathing room. They’re integral to the plot, the action, frames or framing for actors at work…. #8: (start of disk 2) NJ writes check to Min-Min temple; boy in bathtub; brother-in-law wiped out by Piggy; boys drop water balloon on teacher… How many scenes per 10 minutes? [13] 2 full plus 2 partial  Ting Ting and fellow, LJ with Sherry at hotel, China + Japan card trick; hotel on phone; # 53 – 63 (103)… Especially striking is Yang’s preference to withdraw from his actors to a distance during their more intimate conversations. The Turkish director Nuri Ceylan in Üç maymun (Three Monkeys) includes a couple of long shots of conversations like this, but in his case I think that he was looking for the scenic Malik shot and used, for example, a couple arguing fifty yards away as an excuse to frame a landscape, which, in that case, led me to imagine that the two actors were tying up the 7th green while I waited impatiently, debating whether to play through. I do like the distance shots. I remember looking forward to Dersu Uzala (1975) because I thought that  it was filmed in Mongolia (Dersu was a Mongolian) – this was long before films such as The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) and Mongolian Ping Pong (2005) and Tuya’s Marriage (2006) – and I expected to get a good look at the countryside. But no. The film felt as if it had been shot in a closet. No scenery. (How come there are so many Mongolian movies around lately, or did I just name all of them?).

The life in Yang’s shots is not just a matter of thoughtful composition. He brings humor and energy to the task. Early on while making Yi Yi, Yang noticed the profusion of reflections appearing in his shots, Taipei being a modern city full of windows and architectural glass of all sorts. The only reflections in the countryside are found in rivers and lakes and the homes and shops of villages. In general, directors filming scenes through or in front of glass work to minimize reflections, mirror work excepted, but Yang began playing with the reflections. Exegesis followed their appearance in Yi YI, but I think that in general, or at least initially, Yang was just having some fun. That’s the way I relate to the reflections in Yi Yi, anyway – as a little eye candy. The movie contains scene after scene of conversations in moving cars, shot from in front of, beside, or behind the car, through the windows, with passing buildings, automobiles, and pedestrians clearly visible and moving on the glass; the movie contains scene after scene of conversations held in a cafe or apartment, shot from outside a window, with passing traffic reflected on the glass (the family’s apartment is located in a high-rise next to an elevated freeway). In one such shot, at night, outside Min-Min’s office looking in, with the office lights off, the city’s reflection on the window dominates, and Min-Min stands brooding while a blinking red light at an intersection pulses directly over her heart – a nice touch that was fortuitous, as Yang, off at an angle, didn’t notice it until he saw the day’s rushes. Then, as Min-Min cogitates, a coworker turns on a light inside the office and we are transported in a blink from the city outside at night to the office inside, with the two women in it. Nice. I happened to watch Man Push Cart (2005) shortly after this and was interested to compare the young Ramin Bahrani’s city work (he was 30 when he made the film) to Yi Yi. MPC features some reflections, in mirrors, but not in windows. Bahrini’s car and shop windows seem transparent. He shoots several scenes with the inital setup in the mirror, but this might just be a way of dealing with space constraints in small places. Nothing more than that, I hope. YY vs MPC in the reflection department: Japanese tea ceremony vs three-legged race at the company picnic. The fun that Yang has here is reflected in his comment, “Filming on location is magic.”

At one point the reflections put me in mind of a Chinese restaurant that I visit, which has two walls covered with mirrors, making the room look much larger than it really is. In addition to the scene in front of us, we’re often provided with a simultaneous view of the space behind the camera – interesting given Yang Yang’s project in the film of photographing the backs of people’s heads, to show them what they can’t see and help them know what they can’t know. So, a little amateur interpretation: in Yi Yi’s reflections, it is always character vs city, character in city, of city, but distinct from city. Man and his urban environment. The characters layered with the city, but individuated from it.

One editorial technique that has not been helped by my watching-by-segments is Yang’s habit in Yi Yi of overlaying the audio of the following scene on the video of the scene that precedes it. It’s an enjoyable way of connecting characters otherwise afloat on their own inner tubes in the ocean of life with other family members, by suggesting similarities or contrasts in their actions and situations. For example, as a nurse performs an ultrasound procedure that displays a mother’s unborn child, the soundtrack shifts from the nurse’s description to that of an NJ business associate predicting the future of video gaming – a beat in the movie that gives pause, offers a moment of insight if not into life, at least into Yang’s thinking – but that is lost and mystifying to a viewer like myself who is jumping randomly from scene to scene. In another example, we listen to NJ describe his first love while we watch his daughter’s first date.

Having said all that, Yi Yi is primarily a dramatic ensemble movie with six or so threads, not an exercise in auteur cinematography. Regardless of the thought and effort put into the images onscreen, that thoughtfulness doesn’t obtrude, never bespeaks itself, and never binds or otherwise limits the pace and focus of the film – except, for me, in those long shots of intimate conversation – and then in a good way.

With regard to those ensemble actors, I spilt some ink writing about child actors when I reviewed O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (The Year My Parents Went On Vacation) (2006).  In fact, I’m still receiving spam from several of the agents and casting directors whom I interviewed on the subject. Could it  be that I gave them a false impression, to whet their appetites, some promise of access for them to a bonanza of young local talent? I called these folks because at the time, I was wondering why there seemed to be so many good young actors around. I had just watched a string of movies with excellent acting by young people, movies including Mother of Mine (2005), Wondrous Oblivion (2003), Birth (2004), and Kabluey (2007). I never figured it out, but when I learned that Yang rewrote his script after casting Jonathan Chang and Kelly Lee, because they were younger than Yang-Yang and Ting-Ting in the script, I remembered that director Cao Hamburger did the same thing when casting OAEQMPSDF. In Yi Yi, Yang-Yang was originally meant to be 10, not 7, and Ting-Ting 15, not 13.

It occurred to me as I watched the first scenes with Chang in them that Yang might have been better off with a ten-year-old Yang-Yang. Jonathon Chang, at 7 – and perhaps it was just my mood at the time – seemed like a little kid, the child of one of Yang’s friends, reading the lines that Yang had written. A ten-year-old might have seemed a little more in touch with the world, a little crazy instead of just young, rendering his lines, a Yang-Yang more likely to be interested in girls than the seven-year-old onscreen could be expected to be, script or no script. Ditto Kelly, mutis mutatis, although at 13 she might have passed for 15 in my eyes if I hadn’t known that she wasn’t; and she did a lot of wordless work, which isn’t so age-dependent. Of course, I have no way of knowing how Yang’s script read before he rewrote it, but he was clearly plastic in his concepts if age 10 could become 7 and 15, 13.

Let me back up and disentangle this. In Yi Yi, Yang meant for Yang-Yang to do two (mutually exclusive?) things: discover girls for the first time and voice fundamental philosophical questions about life. No accident that Yang named the boy Yang-Yang. Meanwhile, Ting-Ting was to experience romance for the first time, and LJ, in his back-story, was to undergo life’s first true love and its loss. Yang kept Yang-Yang’s discovery of girls in the movie, along with a variety of symbols and portents relating to it, but a seven-year-old discovering girls is not a ten-year-old discovering girls. A second- or third-grader discovering girls is not a fifth-grader discovering girls. In Yi Yi, the energy in the trope is discharged somewhat by Yang-Yang’s extreme youth. But I view this as a good thing and I think that Yang probably did too, in the end. The voice for Yang’s naive but powerful questions about life did not need to be, could not reasonably have been, inflected by crosscurrents of sex, no matter how innocent, and a ten-year-old asking such questions (“I can only know half the truth because I can only see in front of me, not behind me.”) would have seemed just plain weird in any case. Yang also puts a camera in the young boy’s hands, making him an observer of life and its follies – an unspeaking, non-judgmental, passionless observer. As he takes repeated pictures of what he calls mosquitoes, and which nobody believes that he sees, his youth allows him the positive aspects of savant, wise fool. One critic saw him as the Puck of the movie, but I don’t see this boy saying, or thinking, anything like “What fools these mortals be.” He is not a trickster or mischievous or a wise knave and he doesn’t find those around him to be fools (trying to dump a bucket of water on a girl from the school balcony doesn’t count). He isn’t a personification of a land spirit or fairy or sprite. He’s a little human.

In a similar way, Ting-Ting at 13 is too young for her first romance to carry the energy that Yang meant it to. He introduces the bad girl Li-Li to steal Fatty away from Ting-Ting, but Fatty was gone already. When he bolted from the hot-pillow hotel room, it seemed natural to me that his flight was motivated by Ting-Ting’s youth. Or by simple mental illness, already manifesting. Two additional years on Ting-Ting and the scene would have felt different altogether.

And finally, LJ’s back-story with Sherry, first love lost, took place when he was 15. Again, too young to carry/hold/enclose the dramatic energy necessary? Or does the clock run faster by a couple of years in Taiwan?

Anyway, because of these age-related issues, the romantic threads in the storyline felt unequal in their dramatic weight to me. Perhaps this also had something to do with my watching of the segments out of order, so that arcs could not build power, or that as a consequence of my greater interest in LJ’s twin crises of late-life career angst and a revisit of his first love than I am in the awakening of a child to gender differences or the travails of an newly-minted teenager.

The dramatic-weight issue is partially redressed in Yang-Yang’s case by his function as the movie’s philosophical message-bearer, unencumbered by the  weight of worldly experience.  He’s obviously speaking Yang’s written lines, but, because he is a young child doing that, fact and fiction become irrelevant.

The mother, by the way, is left out of the romantic issues, spending her screen time suffering during the illness and death of her mother, in alternating silent grief and outbursts of angst regarding her life, before splitting for her Buddhist retreat. There is a scene in which Min-Min weeps because every day she goes and speaks to her comatose mother but has nothing to say. She tells her mother what she did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and is done in a minute. Her life seems so empty, so blank. She feels like a fool. This struck me because every day I go and speak to my mother, who is not comatose but suffers from a dementia that severely restricts her speech. I tell her what I did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening and it does not take long. In contrast to my mother’s life at the moment, however, what I tell her does not seem empty to me, even though it mostly involves no more than getting up, eating, driving, working. Just to say that it’s sunny, that’s it raining, that I ate too much, is to say that I’m still alive and in touch with the world, part of the world. Min-Min does the scene in a single take. It’s impressive, although as she suffered, I found myself watching the reflection of the freeway car headlights on the closed venetian blinds of her bedroom.

Now that I think of it, I don’t suppose that Yang is especially concerned in Yi Yi with maintaining an exact dramatic balance between and amongst the romantic threads in the movie. Instead, think of the plot as an outline, or set of bulleted points, that Yang is using to sum up the possible reactions of individuals in youth to the emotional storms brought on by sexual awakening: you can run from it, leaving echoes that reverberate throughout your later life; you can lash out violently; you can suffer passively, letting the issues vent around and over you; you can remain oblivious or unexposed; or you can study your experiences, question them, probe them, and develop a philosophical understanding of them that serves as a foundation for your future. Yang puts each approach on display. Perhaps the strength of your reaction to each will, as for me, depend upon your personal experience in the matter. (I’m talking to you, aren’t I? You’re reading this, aren’t you? So why shouldn’t I use “you”? Just asking.)

The heart of the film for me, in terms of drama and personal interest, comprises the pair of threads featuring (a) LJ’s business interactions and (b) the time he spends with his first love. There is a perfect simplicity to the plotting. As with the rest of the film, the plotting has a quality of outline to it. The  righteous businessman stands on the mountaintop and sees laid out before him a righteous business future, courtesy of a spiritually advanced Japanese CEO, a future that the lesser men in his company will with the best of intentions sabotage. Meanwhile, he is brought face-to-face with the life that he ran away from in his youth, ironically, because he wanted to achieve the business future that is now denied him. With respect to the romance, living a lifetime confers the ability to now perceive that first love as a distinct individual, separate and apart from yourself. There can be no question of going back, to restart, to take up the relationship again, not with two lives’ familial responsibilities standing between you. (It happens in plenty of movies. Looking for Eric (2009) and Innocence (2000) come to mind. But when this happens, neither individual is the same as when the couple was first together, which perhaps is the point.) You can try to go home again, to the home of your youth, but it won’t be there anymore. Your family, your friends then, are gone, if only because they’ve aged like you have. LJ left Sherry to pursue a life that, as he learns,  modern Taiwan dooms to failure by its pursuit of Western technology and get-rich-quick wealth, its quest to become “Silicon Island,” its political oppression now replaced by the mental and physical oppressions imposed by this pursuit. As so often happens in human society, fast economic advances, consumption, and urbanization neglect the spirit as well as the environment. In the end, LJ is left bereft, but for, fortunately, the most important thing in his life, his children. Yang-Yang delivers the director’s final summation of faith in family and future, of a hope that Yang himself, fatally ill, could only bequeath to those close to him who would live on after his death.

There is a paradoxical quality to the film. As Yang wrote the screenplay, he might have been using a checklist of dramatic elements: the puzzlements of a young boy; his first attraction to girls; the angst of a teenage girl; her first date, first kiss, first love, first loss, first treachery of a friend; the emotional conflicts and confusions of two teenage boys, in one case leading to violence, in  the other to a decision revisited in middle age. Marriage; pregnancy and birth; marital strife, infidelity, separation; financial cupidity and stupidity; serious illness; spiritual crisis; career stress, betrayal, and disillusionment; organized crime and governmental corruption; suicide; murder; death and a funeral. And yet, despite this almost comical litany, the chief quality of the film is a stillness, a quiet, a contemplative, measured pace, quick cuts and edits banished, an inward, calming, and ultimately positive affirmation of life.  At its heart, in spite of its endless series of melodramatic tropes, strung together like beads on a thread of film-stock, with scenes alternating rhythmically between character story lines, to mix metaphors, and in spite of the longish takes, which in most movies don’t cause us to feel still but to feel restless, here we experience the stillness. Yi Yi has that quality found in many of the greatest movies, the quality of “nothing happened but it seemed important,” curiously, given all of the dramatic events that actually do transpire in the three hours running time. Truth permeates the film like an aura. I noticed a feeling in myself while I was watching and tried to pin it down. It came to me finally that watching Yi Yi was something like time I spent with a particular therapist, who embodied a lifetime of meditation and introspection; when sitting with such a one, there can be that same quiet, stillness, in the room, and that same feeling of truth – a time to realize, share, and discuss matters of the greatest possible personal import in an atmosphere of healing tranquility. Spend enough time with a film and it can stop being a film and become a friend.

The stillness in Yi Yi does not imply timelessness or changelessness, any more than does the frozen quality of a photo from our youth, which instead reminds us,sometimes with a jolt, that everything has changed, that the photo’s world is gone, lost to us. Sherry’s presence, like the world in a photo, reminds LJ that a world important to him, that defined him, that he was part of, is gone forever and, distant as it has become, is still here in the present, but changed, changed into something beyond his ability to affect.

Finally, although for Yang, Yi Yi was just the next film in his open filmography – albeit perhaps in his mind his best yet, his most mature and fully realized – but surely only one more entry in an ouvre that would stretch on into later life – a middle entry on the list – for us, watching the movie now, with Yang’s personal history in mind, it’s impossible not to experience it as a valediction, a summing up, a final statement, Yang’s personal statement about his life, about Taiwan’s cultural situation, about Life itself. Yang reached the top of the mountain with his last film, and wasn’t required to come back down again.

Collected Dailies 7

Watching Community, Joel McHale keeps reminding me of somebody else. He looks a little like Jim Carey, but that isn’t it… now it comes to me: Peter Krause.

***

Watched The Kids Are All Right (2010) and saw an awful lot of acting, wall-to-wall acting. I mean, Please Give had acting, but it couldn’t hold a candle to this one. Thank God they didn’t let Streep anywhere near it. That would have been intolerable… Someday I plan to check out all of Julianne Moore’s movies and calculate the percentage of them in which she becomes nude, in full or in part, at some point or other, and then do the same for Charlotte Rampling, and see which percentage is higher. Of course Rampling is 64 and Moore is only 50, so Rampling’s gross numbers will be higher… If you know which campus that is at the end of TKAAR, please let me know.

***

I liked Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and Youth in Revolt (2009), so I don’t have a problem with Michael Cera. I’ve only watched Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) up to the battle of the bands at the beginning , but so far, I’m not feeling it. Maybe this is because a romantic comedy comprises the emotional road trip that begins with two individuals apart and ends with them together, and our enjoyment of the trip depends upon the chemistry between the two along the way. Do Scott and Knives have that chemistry? Cera, 22, and a high-school senior, or junior? Or are they even the couple in this movie? Do Scott and Romona have that chemistry? Not feeling it here… I’ll give it a chance, but A. O. Scott begins his NYT review, “There are some movies about youth that just make you feel old, even if you aren’t.” Scott believes that SPVTW is the opposite of that, but at the moment, I don’t… Ok, I take it all back. A likable movie that won me over. A good-natured movie that never required more than 60 seconds of attention at a time. Also helped to have a buzz on.

***

Having watched Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, I’m having a go at A Canterbury Tale (1944). So far: when you introduce an American character, a G.I., have him start every sentence with “say.” Say, that’s not a bad idea.

***

I wanted sleazy slasher horror – something to have fun reviewing – so I plucked Blood Creek (2009) off the shelf. Cover photo of a bald guy with a scarred, swastika-embossed noggin, in a leather jacket. Only four reviews on MRQE, including ones from FulVue Drive-in, Bloody-Disgusting. and Buried. Positive reviews. Promising. But uh oh. Original title: Town Creek. Not promising. Doulbe up-oh. Michael Fassbender is the Nazi. I should have checked the box more carefully. The man is a star. This is not good. On the other hand, Kevin Costner made The New Daughter, and that think was excreable. Don’t give up. Hmm. A cast comprised of Aussies and Brits and Germans? The budget to fly them all to West Virginia, where the movie is set would be… oops, my mistake. Filmed in Romania. Director  is Joel Shumacher, who has made, well, lots of stuff. Real movies. Two Batmans. Falling Down (1993). Tigerland (2000).  Phone Booth (2002). The man is 71. Going senile? Or have I stumbled over a real actual movie here by accident? Chances of sleazy horror? Going down!

***

Caprica (2009) – Dramatically tough to create an engaging 17-episode first-season series when you know that it’s going to end with the world blowing up? Well, disks 1 and 2 have kept the surprises coming. I’m not disappointed.

***

Looking for Eric (2009) – Ken Loach’s latest. I’m up to the part where we learn that our man walked out on his pregnant wife and now, thirty years later, wants to go back and hook up with her. How’s that going to happen? Otherwise, all that great Loach realism is on display, indicating that England is still England… Opening credits: the longest list of production companies I’ve ever seen on a movie. Given Loach’s low budgets, seems like every one of these companies must have been a individual who kicked in $20 or so (in £s, of course)… Oops. There goes the realism. Nice feel-good japes though. Fun to see a genuine sports hero switch over to acting, too.

***

Agora (2009) – The sound I was making as I watched it. Philosophy. The clash of religions. The Library of Alexandria. Rachel Weisz’s body double stepping out of her bath before you’re properly settled in your seat.

***

World War II: When Lions Roared (1994) – The lions are Hoskins, Lithgow, and Caine. When the parts were handed out, and I picture it sort of like a high-school play, the two obvious stars got Roosevelt and Churchill, leaving Stalin to the third. Who is that under that wig and those eyebrows and that Stalin ‘stache?… Yes… it is him… Good history movie. I read a great biography of Harry Hopkins’ years with FDR, the author of which I forget. Good to see Hopkins get some screen time for a change, well-played by Ed Begley Jr.

***

Flight of the Conchords – Guess if I want to see these guys anymore, it’ll have to be live.

***

For whatever reason, I haven’t watched any of those doctor and lawyer shows that each week deal with a current social issue or two. Until Eli Stone (2008), that is. I just watched the first season on DVD. Each episode, a new issue. My question is, given the fact that no one has ever learned anything in high-school civics/social studies class, why not just show an episode from one of these shows every so often? Couldn’t hurt.

***

The Hulk movies are entertaining except for the Hulk himself. It would make all the difference if The Hulk, when called into existence, was moved to do something other than rage and break things. Perhaps his big transformation could be triggered by Bruce Banner’s extreme hunger, and Hulk would binge on sushi, or the transformation could get set off by Bruce Banner’s powerful thirst, with Hulk doing Jello shots to an insane degree. Or, of course, Bruce could get a powerful itch down there.

***

Earthstorm (2006) – Starring Stephen Baldwin and, yes, Dirk Benedict. I’ve finally watched a movie starring Dirk. (The moon is splitting in half, and one of those halves, the big half, is going to fall down here. News at eleven.)

***

You know how when you go to IMDB and list all of a particular actor’s movies  and you haven’t heard of 98% of them? Take Malcom McDowell, for example. He made If… (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blue Thunder (1983), and at least 120 movies I’ve never heard of. Well, Cut Off (2006) is no longer one of them; I’ve not only heard of it now, I’ve seen it. (And hey, IMDB no longer numbers its lists of actors’ movies. Boo.)

***

My metaphor for Please Give (2010): it’s like a ride down a river, a river not too big, not too fast but not sluggish either, no rapids, bending this way and that in gradual fashion, heading towards (toward?) that final big ocean (which is you know what), but, between beginning and end of the ride, gets nowhere near that finality. You’re on board with eight ensemble actors, all of them indistinguishable from actual interesting, quirky (in the service of plot) characters. Nicole Holofcener is at the rudder. The ride ends and you get out and stretch your legs, refreshed and thinking that somewhere down the road, you’ll come to another dock, with Holofcener waiting in another little boat, ready to give you another enjoyable little ride.

***

I probably have heard more positive comments about Community (2009) than any other TV show. Finally Netflix’d the first disk and watched the first episode. Ultra smart, fast-paced, satisfying. Good to see Chevy Chase working, in something that’s good. He and Jeffrey Tambor seem to be converging into the same person (bad grammar? They aren’t merging; their appearance and timing are becoming more alike)… Uh oh. Episode 2 beats the same drum. One thing I loved about Lost was its knack of introducing new, frequent, unexpected developments… But now, more episodes. I like. Though why write a character who is of Arabic extraction and then cast a half-Indian/half-Pole? Plus cast a Pakistani as his dad? If you want Danny Pudi for the kid, and he’s great, he’s perfect, then why not just rewrite the character to fit?

***

A little love for The Box (2009) – Brisk pacing. Some money up on the screen. Frank Langella, James Marsden filling in for Tom Cruise, Cameron dressed absurdly to the teeth throughout, made up in a way that accentuates the wrong things, southern accent. I never had a clue where the thing was going but I didn’t mind the ride. Supremely silly. Richard Matheson wrote the short story. He’s 84 now. Wonder if he watched this and if so, what he made of it.

***

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009) – I love Joan Allen in so many movies. She’s perfect for O’Keeffe in her later years. However, here, at the age of 53, she’s called upon to play a 29-year-old beguiling the older Alfred Stieglitz, who was 52 at the time. There is suspension of disbelief, and then there is sort of looking sidelong. Oh, well. When she finally takes off for Taos, I breathed a sigh of relief. We lived in Los Alamos from 1970 to 1973 and a couple of times, we took off around the Jemez to Abiquiu to see if we could spot her, but we never did.

***

Netflix’d The Big Bang Theory (2007) due to the ongoing good reviews. Our TV isn’t connected to anything, antenna or computer, so TV shows come courtesy of DVD. Oops. Laugh track. Show is automatically disqualified, which is too bad, because the segment up to the opening credits made me smile. Same thing happened with The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006) and Mad About You (1992) with Helen Hunt. Laugh-tracks? Really? In 2010? I wondered for a moment if Big Bang might be filmed in front of a live audience, but no, and even if so, an audience that robotic would count as a laugh track anyway… Could it be that Big Bang started with the tracks and then dropped them?… 7,000+ entries for “The Big Bang” and “laugh track.” Filmed in front of a live audience. Could be professional laughers in the audience. Laughter could be enhanced with canned laughs. There are some clips with the laughter removed, leaving silent gaps. Other audience sounds betray live presence. So forth. Hmm. Probably still going to send it back. Too annoying.

***

[See the comment below for additional information and corrections to this post regarding this movie.] Finally getting around to The Double Life of Veronique (1991), or “the beloved Double Life of Veronique” as someone put it. ***Spoiler*** For some reason I thought that the Pole lived and the French… hey, how come I can say “Pole” but nothing better than “Frenchie”?… Anyway, I had that backwards, which took me out of the movie for a minute. The  cinematography is mannered but that’s ok. Weronika goes to the cardiologist, who evidently did not tell her not to smoke… There is a political layer to Double Live, with Poland achieving freedom at the same time that Weronika’s soul looses its mortal coil and heads west to France; this layer, twenty years later, is probably transparent to most U.S. viewers; it didn’t have much punch for me. I liked the real world photographed in the movie and Irène Jacob was ok. She’s 44 now and she’s made a bunch of ok movies, nothing special; Kieslowski died in his 50s of heart disease and AIDS. knowing where Jacob and Kieslowski were headed probably bummed me out a little as I watched the movie.

***

I’ve never tired of westerns. I was making a mental list the other day of all the 50s TV western series I could think of. A lot. An amazing number. So I’m glad to welcome Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) (2008) to my TV. I figured out the Bad pretty quick, and then the Weird, who, given the difference in cultures here, I thought at first might in fact be the Good. In fact, maybe he is the Good. Nah. It’s just that the Weird grabbed the most screen time at first, then the Bad. I presume that the Good will catch up in due course. I started another Asian western maybe a year ago, dropped it. No so this one. A train sequence at the beginning involves the G, the B, and the W all there and operating for difference reasons – one to rob the train, one a bounty hunter hunting, one after a treasure map. Result: gun-play and callbacks to Leone. The title is not misplaced. One can only watch and rewatch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) so many times. Just as Lost in Austen revisits Pride and Prejudice, and if it isn’t the same masterpiece as PAP, so what, just so does TGTBTW lets us enjoy the wine of TGTBTU in a new Asian bottle… Too bad Leone isn’t alive; I think that’s he’d have enjoyed this one, especially the finale, a complete, loving homage.

***

Is there an island with a neighborhood on it in the river next to the Bronx called City Island? Let’s Google Maps it… Huh. There it is. Well, kudos to writer/director Raymond De Felitta for making a swell comedy/drama – City Island (2009) – that takes place there. Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Alan Arkin, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Ezra Miller, and Emily Mortimer take the script in their professional hands and make us believe. And a fine script it is. De Felitta has won some prizes and maybe he ought to win something for this one. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Italian-American family members all yelling at each other at the same time, especially at dinnertime. De Felitta wrote Two Family House (2000), which I liked a lot and then totally forgot, like most of what I watch… Looking at the map, I realize how much I don’t know New York. I picture the Bronx more to the west, but if you’re coming down 95,  City Island is off to your left in Long Island Sound.

Blood Creek (2009)

I wanted sleazy slasher horror – something to have fun reviewing – so I plucked Blood Creek (2009) off the shelf. Cover photo features a bald guy with a scarred, swastika-embossed noggin, in a leather jacket. Only four reviews on MRQE, including those from FulVue Drive-in, Bloody-Disgusting and Buried. Promising. But uh oh. Original title: Town Creek. Not promising. And Michael Fassbender is the Nazi. Double up-oh. I should have checked the box more carefully. The man is a star. Check out that 24-minute scene in Hunger (3008). This is not good; not a sign of sleaze. On the other hand, Kevin Costner made The New Daughter (2009), and that thing was execrable (a word that would knock me out of the spelling bee). Don’t give up on the sleaze. Hmm. A cast comprised of Aussies and Brits and Germans? The budget to fly them all to West Virginia, where the movie is set, would be… oops, my mistake. Filmed in Romania. Director  is Joel Shumacher, who has made, well, lots of stuff. Real movies. Two Batmans. Falling Down (1993). Tigerland (2000).  Phone Booth (2002). The man is 71. Going senile? Or have I stumbled upon a real actual movie here by accident? Chances of sleazy horror? Going down!

So let’s see. Classy prolog in black and white. Fassbender in 1938 shows up on a West Virginia farm wearing that cool ankle-length Nazi black leather coat. Did he get to keep it? Must ask him next time I run into him. Here in Blood Creek, he’s a Nazi seeking a mystic Nordic runestone, a la the bad guys in Indiana Jones.

Cut to the present, in color. After one or two minutes of plot, we’re into the folks-in-a-farmhouse-with-an-angry-Nazi-zombie-outside movie. That horror-movie score with bass stringed instruments commences, a low ominous drone presaging trouble; it continues throughout the picture. The Nazi now is wearing a leather mask, never explained, and has suffered 70 years of wear and tear, and I immediately asked myself whether that was really Fassbender under there? Perhaps he flew to Romania, had a walk-on at the beginning, and then flew home again. My question was answered after a while when he peeled off the mask, as well as a layer of skin or two underneath, and it was still him – or at least I think it was him.

First sign that we’re dealing with schlock here: guy creeping up on farmhouse armed with a shotgun. Attacked by a  doberman (naturally. Nazi dog.) Dog bites him. Guy’s brother knifes the dog. Guy with the dog bite whips out a syringe with a big “RABIES VACCINE” label on the side. Injects himself with its contents into his abdomen, needle into flesh style. Then continues on. That’s good preparedness! I always try to carry a syringe like that when I jog but sometimes I just substitute an energy bar.

Second sign that we’re dealing with schlock: the problem of proportionality, viz:

Guy kills a couple of zombies in gorefest fashion, taking a few dings on his head and body to wear through the rest of the movie, and then, as he lies gasping  and attempts to gather his wits, his brother says, “The old lady is having trouble breathing.”

“Is there any aspirin in the house?” the gasping hero asks. He doesn’t know the old lady from Adam. In fact, he’s got her tied up as a zombie sympathizer.

“No.”

“Ok, then I’ll run out into the yard risking death, to retrieve my EMT bag.”

Not proportional.

Anyway, once the plot has been explained to us by the characters, we get the rules that allow the action to play out:

“He can’t come into the house because I used his runestone to something something something.”

And:

“He needs blood, plenty of it, but not his own – that would be poison to him.”

“Once his third eye develops and he crosses over, nothing can stop him, not even the runes.”

“How do you stop him from crossing over? There has to be a way.”

“There is. Maybe. But somebody will have to go outside.”

Yes, go outside, because when Fassbender came over from Berlin, he brought his ancestors’ magic bones with him to wear as a sort of suit of armor, currently hanging in the barn like a… a… mobile… and if the good guy can grab the bones and put them on, Fassbender can’t hurt him, cause he’d be hurting his own magic bones…

The one thing I want from a sleazy movie is to see something new, something that I haven’t seen before. Not too much to ask, is it? Like that horror flick where the woman says, “Come around anytime. My back door is always open.” Like that. Blood Creek delivers, twice. Number one new thing is, Fassbender can kill a horse and then bring it back to zombie life (oh, by the way, he’s not a zombie but I don’t have the energy to explain what he is is. Suffice it to say that he’s a Nazi, still kicking after all these years. Is this what Hannah Arendt was referring to when she mentioned the banality of evil?). Fassbender can’t enter the farmhouse, of course, I forget why, the rules, but he can send a zombie horse in there. A nice thoroughbred; I hope they haven’t been harnessing that beauty to a plow, but this is Romania. Now, though, the zombie horse is rampaging through the kitchen, getting shot a zillion times, mane on CGI fire, so forth. That, I haven’t seen before: flaming horse in kitchen, zombie or otherwise, Romania or elsewhere. It was kind of funny but also kind of cool.

Number two new thing I’ll get to later.

The film zipped by in less than 90 minutes. Well paced. After the credits and prolog, it felt like an episode of some kooky western. Perhaps Schumacher had a couple of weeks on his hands, a desire to see Romania, and his grandson’s script from film school (actually, David Kajganich takes the blame for the story. He was born in Ohio but that’s no excuse.). In the heat of the moment, as the movie flies by, Australian accents made an appearance or two. The action edits are of the I-can’t-tell-what’s-going-on-here variety, followed by blood spurts. No nudity, but in a moment of extreme crisis, the female lead uses a forefinger to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear; got to look good! (It’s Emma Booth.) Hard to identify who’s who among the male protagonists; in particular, who’s still alive and who’s dead now as they tussle with whatever farm implements they can lay their hands on. One of the guy characters is an Iraq war veteran; can’t remember if that helps him to survive or not. Schumacher’s one chance to save this thing: a commentary. But, no commentary.  😦

Things I missed by not paying attention:

– How did the good guy get the bad guy’s blood in him, so that when the bad guy tries to feast on him, the bad guy gets poisoned?

– How did this family live for 70 years in the closeknit hill country of West Virginia without aging, and avoid notice, meanwhilst harvesting derelicts and locals as needed for blood?

– How did ancient mystical Norse Nazi runestones get scattered all over the state?

But of course, the movie makes no sense.

Things I did learn even without paying attention:

– If you’re German immigrant farmers and you find a giant ancient Nordic runestone out in the field, you don’t contact a museum. You use the stone as part of the wall when you put in your root cellar.

– If you’re developing a third eye, you need to take a hammer and a metal punch and conk a hole in your forehead skullbone for the eye to see out of. This scene is probably not at the top of Fassbender’s resume.

I was reminded by a podcast to rewatch The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Blood Creek in comparison is a lesser rivulet. The finale of Blood Creek sets up a sequel. Fassbender, do this again and you’re dead to me.