Androcles and the Lion (1952)

Having watched Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), I continue my G. B. Shaw refresher with Androcles and the Lion (1952).

As I mentioned when reviewing the earlier films, Shaw takes pains to get his point across, one way or another. His preface to Androcles runs longer than the play itself. Bottom line: Jesus had some good ideas but they mostly died with him. Let’s not worry about it (says I, not Shaw). Aesop, who wrote the original, would be scratching his head, I presume.

This is only about half Shaw, anyway, the other half being Hollywood, or Gabriel Pascal’s notion of it. After Pascal’s successes with Pygmalion and Major Barabara, he went all in with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), filming in Technicolor with Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains, in Egypt (or not. Conflicting info on this), before the war ended. When that flopped, he backed off on Androceles and left most of Shaw’s thoughts on Chrisianity out of the movie, substituting fun with the lion and gladiators. Being dead, Shaw probably didn’t care. [Or maybe there is another whole history here that I’m missing. Androcles came seven years later and was released into a different England that CAC. If I ever do the research, I’ll come back and edit this. Or get it right in my CAC review.]

When I saw Victor Mature gazing down from a balcony upon Jean Simmons in this one, I immediately asked myself, what chemistry is this? Victor, dressed in his Roman legionaire togs, looked tired, world weary, aging. Just his role, or too many late Hollywood nights? I remember when I first noticed Pacino looking old. He never tried to hide it and I respected him for that. It turns out, I like haggard. Some, age hardly touches. Paul Newman. Some age early. Tommy Lee Jones got the gig in Space Cowboys (2000), side by side with Garner, Eastwood, and Donald Sutherland, and didn’t look out of place with those three geezers at all. Supposedly, he was their contemporary. Either way with Victor, the true ravages of age or a role calling for a worn-out legionaire, I took his interest in Simmons, who was dressed, or wrapped, in a simple white fabric and was in her early twenties at the time, radiating a mixture of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor with plenty of black-and-white closeups, and at least one moment in that white shift when we can tell she’s excited to be hanging with Victor, I took Victor’s interest, I say, to be that of an older man called upon to reflect on life’s beauty and missed opportunities. Then I discovered that he was only 38 when he made the movie and that whole train of thought went out the window. Just as well, cause later when he and Jean start to breathe heavy whilst discussing religion, he looks younger, though still with that mug of his.

The two of them, Mature and Simmons, went on the next year to make The Robe (1953), wherein Burton takes pride of place and wherein Simmons wears the same white clingy thing that she’s flaunting in Androcles (well, she’s flaunting what’s in the clingy thing, I guess), and then The Egyptian (1954), again with the white clinger. The Egyptian is the effort that occasioned that famous quote about the male star’s bosom being larger than the female’s. More tanned, too.

Jean Simmons, like Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle and Barbara Undershaft, gets more than 50% of the spunk and argument in the movie. Here, though, rather than facing a Professor Higgins or Barbars’s  magnate father, Simmons deals with a diffuse collection of hypocrites, plus the hunky lunk.

Shaw taken up by Rex Harrison, Leslie Howard, and Wendy Hiller is one thing; Shaw taken up by Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Jim Backus, well, that’s something else. It’s not exactly that this is Shaw 4 in the franchise, but Gabriel Pascal picked the best for 1938, then the next best for 1941. Shaw worked with him on those; but by the time Androcles  rolled around, Shaw had left the building. Not to worry. Innumerable Shaw plays have been filmed, and filmed again, since then. I have seven more on reserve, just in case I haven’t had my fill yet.

[Taking a break to remind myself what a catbird seat is. Ah, that’s better. But still not where it came from in the 1800s.]

What else? Androcles later played the owner of Mr. Ed. Alan Young. 91 and still working. Has been associated with a cultural treasure trove of properties, from The Hulk to ER to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Doogie Howser to Batman to the Chipmunks. My God, the man is a legend.

Movie notes:

Robert Newton, who owns the most amusing moments in Major Barbara (1941) as Bill Walker, is back here ten years later, to again provide LOL moments in the movie, as Ferrovius.

Jim Backus , with Mr. Magoo straining to get out, puts me in mind, for some reason, of The Phil Silvers Show (1955). Similar vibe.

As they march along, back in A.D. 161 (or whatever year it is supposed to be), the Christians sing a lusty version of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Never mind the anachronism. Between verses, the members of the group remind each other that every man jack of them is about to become lion chow. Some soldiers.

“man jack” comes from cricket, where the worst batsman is listed at number 11 (i.e., 8, 9, 10, jack).

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Major Barbara (1941)

Major Barbara (1941) – I sat down to watch this one mainly to see Wendy Hiller again. Wasn’t disappointed. Looks great in her Major uniform. Looks great in her modest rich-girl’s frock after abjuring the uniform. Shows chemistry with her squeeze here, Rex Harrison, just as with Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938) and Roger Livesey in “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945). In the opening scenes, I mistook the film for a romantic comedy. I forgot for a moment that I was watching a Shaw play, possibly because the opening scenes weren’t in the original play.

After being away from Shaw for a long time, I was looking for something to read on vacation the other day, and took along Man and Superman (which Shaw wrote two years before Major Barbara, in 1903). I had forgotten what an interesting blend of romantic comedy, conversation, politics, and religion some of Shaw’s plays present (he wrote more than sixty). Man and Superman scoots along as a comedy of manners, which we could use more of these days, as a change from rom com. Scoots along,  except for Act 3. This monster is often cut from the play and/or performed by itself and as I read it, I could not believe that any human being without an eidetic memory could regurgitate its dialog without a prompter of one kind or another supplying half the lines. Things to listen to before you die: the ’50s concert version of Act 3 with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander, and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. The play comes with a 58-page appendix. Shaw’s characters tell you what he thinks, during the play, and in case you weren’t paying attention, Shaw himself tells you what he thinks again, afterward, in print.

Or in the case of Major Barbara, he tells you in advance, in a preface, just so you don’t go into the play with any wrong ideas in your head about the points he’s about to make. Unfortunately, his performance of the preface, in the original movie, is not to be found on the DVD. Bummer.

Major Barbara, the play, was produced in 1905. Young penniless academic fellow (Harrison) falls hard for young Major in the Salvation Army (Hiller), who turns out to be a daughter of the world’s most successful (richest), but eccentric (so you’ll like him) maker of weapons (Robert Morley)  – as opposed to, in Pygmalion, not-so-young well-off academic fellow (Leslie Howard) falls hard for poor young flower-seller (Hiller). Major Barbara is a comedy of ideas, with romance included to provide a little oomph. The words flow and in the original play, which consists of three hours of nonstop talking, the actor playing Barbara’s dad had a lot of trouble remembering the lines in his speeches, to the author’s annoyance. I shouldn’t wonder, at the forgetting or the annoyance. The movie is cut to an hour and a half, with several lively scenes added (with Shaw’s approval) and a lot of speechifying removed. The result moves along nicely.

After the movie introduced me to the Salvation Army Major and her academic woo-er, and her rich siblings and her rich parents, I gradually came to see that the central issue in the movie/play was: How can Barbara best serve society? By helping the poor directly, or by moving among the rich and co-opting her father? While the ins and outs of this question played out, I kept asking myself how I was expected to react to Barbara’s father, and how the London audiences of 1941 reacted to him. He is clearly sympathetic, as he searches in vain for an heir amongst his children, an heir to whom he can leave his mega-company. In due course, his attention falls upon Barbara’s fiancee. This causes her to ask herself whether she is prepared, in essence, to take money from the devil to do good in the world. What interested me, however, was the fact that Shaw takes it as written that the world’s greatest weapons maker was fundamentally in the wrong, whereas the movie was shot during the Battle of Britain and the death and destruction from that period was fresh in the audence’s mind, even as the country braced for invasion by the Germans.  Cast and crew would run to the bomb shelters during filming in London, and then return to the set when the all-clear sounded. (Or the film was shot at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Or both.) Did the audience agree with Shaw about weapons barons, with Krupp in mind? Or did their thoughts turn  toward the U.S., which was not yet in the war, as a source for weapons with which to answer the Germans. Note to self: research this question on some rainy day; a twenty-year-old audience member of the time would be ninety now, so begin by calling around to retirement homes in the London area.

As for Shaw’s take on how to deal with the poor, I refer you to the movie. Shaw was a Fabian socialist. He articulates many of his ideas for the improvement of society via the speeches of dad the magnate in the movie’s final act.

I read a review of Major Barbara in which the critic opined that there was much to relish in the movie but that in the end, it just sort of sat there. Hmm. If you watch a Shaw play, you will be lectured; perhaps it was the critic himself who just sort of sat there while he took his medicine.

Movie notes:

– Deborah Kerr’s first movie.

– Major Barbara has a great deal of dialog in it that, it seems to me, would be of great interest to Kurosawa (who, like Shaw, had an abiding interest in the poor and what to do with/about them). Discussions of right behavior. I’ve got to Google Shaw and Kurosawa and see if there is any connection between them… Well, there is someone named Shaw Kurosawa.

– The producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, and Shaw met while swimming nude on the Riviera.

– Shaw especially liked Wendy Hiller, but, alas, there is no indication that he met her while swimming nude.

Akahige (Red Beard) (1965)

This post includes descriptions of various plot points, which descriptions could be construed as spoilers.

My piano teacher in high school was also the school’s music-department chairman and conductor of the orchestra and dance band. He later went on chair the BYU music department. His wife had an operatic career of some sort. He had black hair and a permanent five-o’clock shadow but his wife told me one time, apropos I don’t remember what, that his beard came in red when he let it grow out. I never saw that happen.

Barbarossa (Emperor Frederick) drowned on June 10, 1190, in the Saleph River, as his army was approaching Antioch from Armenia during the Third Crusade.

That’s what I know about red beards.

Possible beard marathon: Red Beard, Yellowbeard, Blackbeard, Bluebeard, Silver Beard, and Janice Beard.

Or, for those who like lists: The King’s Beard; Growin’ a Beard; The Lady and the Beard; Spock’s Beard: Don’t Try This at Home; The Man with the White Beard; The Dreaded Beard; Beard Club; Beard & Co; Beard & Moustache Experiments Nos. 1-4; Beard the Lion; Bested by a Beard; Bothered by a Beard; Hello, Fred the Beard; Enter the Beard; Father’s Beard; Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard; Sam’s Artistic Beard; Snow Beard; The Beard; The Winter of the Beard; Why Father Grew a Beard; and With Peter Beard in Africa: Last Word from Paradise.

Asking friends who would know about red beards in Japan: there aren’t any natural ones, or any natural red hair, either. The occasional dark brown, but no red. Kurosawa bleached Mifune’s beard, which took Mifune three months to grow, to give the impression of red on black-and-white film stock. It didn’t work for me.

The movie is inspiring me to tug at and rummage around in my own beard like Mifune does in his. On occasion, he acts as if he’s surprised that it’s there.

Executive plot summary: (a) wise old doctor, (b) upper-crust-up-and-coming-young-doctor-to-the-elite-with-modern-ideas-and-no-particular-use-for-the-poor, (c) clinic for the poor. (d) conflict and learning of Life Truths by the young doctor.

Executive summary of director’s message: The poor are human too, and deserve care and respect. (My first take, after watching the movie.) Suffering is necessary for growth and the development of a moral personality. (My second take, after reading a little about Kurosawa and watching the movie again.) There is a lot going on in Kurosawa films, relating to the auteur, the economic state of the industry, the director’s desire to make history with film, an East/West dichotomy running through his films… You could write a book. In fact, several folks have. (My third take, after wishing that I had just watched the damn movie and left it at that.)

The problem is, now that I’ve dipped my toe into the ocean of Kurosawa cinema knowledge, anything that I write in this review will seem, to me at least, too simple and incomplete to be satisfactory, in view of all the complexities of the film and the rest of the director’s oeuvre that I’ve been exposed to. This review isn’t a summary of the salient, it’s the result of one blind guy feeling the elephant. Can’t stop now, though; probably describing the elephant’s knee here, rather than the animal’s total corpus.

The director’s message, the one about the poor, is not a message of any particular interest in the U.S., today or ever. If you’re poor, why aren’t you rich? The U.S. labeled Slumdog Millionaire a feelgood movie – the U.S. of A., where Henry Fonda/Tom Joad, if he were alive today, would still be pissed off.

I remember reading about Japanese attitudes toward the poor and homeless a long time ago, those attitudes chiefly featuring denial of the existence of a problem. From the ’60s boom (“The Economic Miracle”) through to the early ’90s, almost all Japanese were middle class. Poverty, if it happened to crop up here and there, was a sign of mental illness, laziness, terrible luck, or some moral lapse. I called my nephew, back from many years in Japan with his Japanese family, to ask him about the current situation there, at least where he lived, in the vicinity of Kyoto, in re poverty. He said that indeed, since the ’60s, there hasn’t been any poverty. The homeless, what few there are, are mentally ill males. If asked about poverty, he said, the typical Japanese response would be “Poverty? This isn’t the United States. We’re all the same here, not like there. But there is poverty in places like India and Africa. We should donate something to those poor souls.”

So says my nephew, and according to articles like this one, his remains the majority view in Japan, although there is a large and growing poor subclass that has come into being in the last twenty years of economic stagnation in the country. Many college graduates have trouble getting on a career track. Red Beard was made in 1965, at a time when poverty and its relationship to the government was ceasing to be the post-war social issue that it had been when Kurosawa was making movies in the ’40s and ’50s. However, Kurosawa did not trust the materialism and apparent prosperity that were emerging as a result of privileged, opaque government/business relationships, and his movies of the time show it. Red Beard itself is set in the early 1800s, a time when the young protagonist could begin with a disinterest in and scorn for the poor, but then grow to see them through different eyes. However, Kurosawa was commenting on the current situation in Japan. He returns to the subject of the poor, in modern times, in his next film, Dodes’ka-den (1970). The trailer for that film includes the following narration: “This is a story about bizarre people in a bizarre town. But it is a story about people you know. The sorrow, nobility and cruelty of humanity, blended with humor into a beautiful melody.” That is, it’s a movie about folks living in slums, with a trailer framed for those to whom slums are a foreign concept.

However, Kurosawa’s primary focus is not on poverty or governmental inefficiency in this or in his previous films,  I learn, after focusing on the poverty throughout the movie. In the ’40s and ’50s, the Japanese were struggling with the consequences of their defeat in the war. The fire-bombing of Tokyo (50%+ destroyed) and other cities, followed by the twin nukes, were closer to Kurosawa’s audiences for  Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, Roshomon, and Seven Samurai, than 9/11 is to us. In Red Beard, at first, I didn’t pick up on Kurosawa’s persisting, basic message to his countrymen, his message following the catastrophe of defeat and the discovery of so many who had placed their faith in their government that their government had been lying to them – that message being summed up in a quote from Drunken Angel (1948): “Willpower can cure all human ailments.” That is, Kurosawa believed that morality is based upon a person’s choices when, for example, that person is faced with poverty or stultifying bureaucracy. As an existentialist, he believed that the individual’s personality determines the individual’s fate. Many of the patients at the clinic in Red Beard are there because of the ill effects of poverty, but as the film makes clear, their illnesses are a sign of pain and damage in the spirit, in the mind, in the soul, not just in the body. The chief protagonists in the movie – the old doctor, the young doctor, and a twelve-year-old prostitute, know or learn that caring for others is the true basis of humanity. Early in life, Kurosawa witnessed human savagery and he never forgot it; his belief system provided a way forward for himself and his country; a system that did not prevent him from becoming increasingly pessimistic with age. (He attempted suicide in 1971; his brother also committed suicide.)

A recent study suggests that after bottoming out in unhappiness in the 40s, most of us become happier as we age into our 50s, 60s, and 70s. Unless your artistic vision changes and you can no longer find funding for your films, as happened with Kurosawa in the years following Red Beard.

The young doctor, who arrives at and gets stuck in Doctor Red Beard’s clinic, has studied at Nagasaki and wants to be physician to the Shogun. (All of Kurosawa’s principal protagonists are men, with the exception of Yukie Yagihara in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946). ) He is not happy at the prospect of ministering to the poor. Japan was long closed to the West, with the exception of the port of Nagasaki, which was opened to the Dutch in the 1600s. Foreigners were called “red-haired persons” and Dutch medicine, as represented by the Dutch doctors in that port, was referred to as “red-haired medicine.” To study in Nagasaki was to learn the medical techniques of the West. For the young man to now be stuck in a rural clinic run by a tyrant named Red Beard was perhaps meant to suggest, in part, that Red Beard was a bridge between old and new, traditional and newly enlightened, and between the medicine of body and mind. Or perhaps the title is ironic.

In my first take, as I mentioned above, I thought that Kurosawa, perhaps mainly, was teaching his ’60s audience about the meaning of poverty, or reminding them of its existence. For example, a seven-year-old boy sneaks into the clinic repeatedly to steal gruel. The dueña of the kitchen hates this, calls the boy a little rat, and chases him relentlessly. Yet when she hears his story (he’s poor and he’s hungry all the time and so are his parents and his brother), she is humbled and weeps. Message to audience: the boy is deserving of your pity and caring; if this hardened, responsible, hard-working woman can be touched to the quick by this boy and his situation, so should you be… However, a moment’s thought suggests that this woman already knows everything there is to know about poverty. She works in a clinic for the poor. She’s older and experienced. Why is the boy stealing gruel? Because he’s hungry. Duh. If the dueña thinks that he’s a rat, it’s because she’s a hard-hearted old gal, and no tale of woe is going to change that – unless she’s ordered to knuckle under by the script. And Kurosawa doesn’t leave it there. He takes the boy and his poverty to the next level and to the level after that. Poverty is bad; get that through your thick skulls. Take a goddamn stand… But no. For Kurosawa, pain and suffering are necessary, essential, for spiritual growth. As with the operation scene in the movie, when Red Beard must get into a young woman’s abdoment, you must not look away; you must absorb the trauma; this is how you grow; Kurosawa himself witnessed death and destruction in his youth and did not forget it. An earthquake scene in Red Beard draws on Kurosawa’s memories of the great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which killed up to 140,000. Kurosawa’s brother took him out to see thousands of corpses and told him not to look away; if he did, he would remain frightened; if he didn’t, he would be enlightened. Up through Red Beard, Kurosawa did the same with his heroes. The highest morality is to help others. Originally, this was Kurosawa’s solution to the problem of post-war recovery and he preached it in his movies. The point is reiterated many times in Red Beard.

Kurosawa’s ideas, that through trauma you can change for the better, are strange in Japan, where social standing is so important. He often uses illness as a metaphor for the problems caused by government in post-war Japan. In Drunken Angel, a doctor treats a gangster who has TB. The gangster is involved in black-market corruption; the government allows mosquitos in puddles. In Ikiru (1952), a government bureaucrat has cancer and, faced with death, discovers how inefficient – useless – the government is. But in Red Beard, even as we are shown the illness, Red Beard is dismissive of the possibility of changing the structural problems that cause it, and tells the young doctor so; hope lies in the response of their patients to the pain and injury visited upon them in their lives. The film begins to expand Kurosawa’s canvas to the many and varied problems of Life. It ends optimistically, but there is gloomy pessimism ahead in, for example, Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985), with Kurosawa becoming increasingly detached, as did Hitchcock in his later career. The narrative in Red Beard weakens in the movie’s final act, in the sense that Red Beard and the young doctor recede, the focus turns to a young girl, a young boy, and specific small acts of kindness – an unexpected turn in the third hour of a major movie, with Kurosawa’s dramatic organization not so clear on a first viewing. This is a harbinger of Kurosawa’s growing lack of interest in the strong narrative drive of his earlier movies. His next production contains virtually no narrative at all and although he includes it again in Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, and Ran, he drops it for good in his final four films.

The movie shoot took two years to get in the can, rather than the scheduled fifty days that Kurosawa originally planned. This means that everything, and I mean everything, that you see on the screen and hear in the movie, is there on purpose and for a purpose. Red Beard was Kurosawa’s last movie with Mifune after they made sixteen together. Why? Mifune couldn’t do anything else for two years. I wonder if that had anything to do with it. There was some sort of struggle or conflict between Mifune and Kurosawa during those two years, but I don’t know the details. The movie was one of the most expensive made in Japan to that date and created concern in the industry before its release. Meanwhile, Kurosawa was hospitalized at least once with exhaustion.

Red Beard represents a dividing line between Kurosawa’s twenty-four films of the previous twenty years and his seven of the next thirty. It marks the beginning of his struggle for funding, which persisted for the rest of his career. The movie was hailed as a masterpiece in Japan and it was the biggest film of the year, winning Kinema Jumpo‘s Best Film and Best Director awards, but it flopped elsewhere. There were a lot more – a very lot more – art houses in the U.S. in the ’60s than there are now, and I suppose that Red Beard appeared in some of them, but I don’t remember it.

Remember it? Who am I kidding? The only Japanese movie that I clearly remember seeing in the ’60s was Woman in the Dunes (1964), and that one probably encouraged me not to go to any others. I also remember watching Mothra (1961) on TV. That was the one about the giant moth that left a contrail when flying around way up there. I guess big moths don’t flit as much as little ones, because the contrail was always a straight line.

Red Beard was also the last movie Kurosawa made in which a man learns and grows and experiences some sort of enlightenment. It was his last movie with a charismatic, heroic figure in it, which may be one reason why he never used Mifune again. Mifune, what a presence! He electrified his audience’s right from the start in Drunken Angel and he’s no different in Red Beard. (Speaking of heroes, although Kurosawa joined the Proletarian Artist League at the age of 19, and was jailed for it, he never participated in a political movement again. His heroes are always solo, not part of a group.)

Before I forget: I notice that Kurosawa was born in the same year as my dad, 1910.

Red Beard was also Kurosawa’s last black and white movie, and his last wide-screen movie (except for Dersu Uzala (1975), which he made working with the Russian film industry). He switched from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 with the growth of TV. I remember Ran (1985) as a widescreen extravaganza, but Kurosawa shot it 1.85:1.

Japanese cinema made and released more movies in the ’60s than in any other decade; the Japanese New Wave was at its height; but TV and Hollywood were taking their toll. Kurosawa’s artistic epiphany, leading to a drastic change in the content of his movies, came at the worst moment for him, $$-wise. Commercially, after Red Beard it was all down hill or downhill for Kurosawa wrt funding. He acquired a reputation with some in the industry of being almost insane in his emphasis on detail. In Red Beard, for example, he shoots a scene in the town with a shop fully stocked, fishermen in the river with their nets, a bridge, etc., etc., for a brief (but highly effective) scene. His budgets became insupportable in the new economy of cinema. Historical films (jedai-geki) were adopted by TV and Japanese cinema went low-budget/soft porn. To make a point, Kurosawa made his next movie for less than a million, with a 28-day shoot; unfortunately, it flopped at the box office.

Further cause for Kurosawa post-Red Beard angst:  a tendency arose to displace him in critical studies with the “modernists” Ozu, Mizoguichi, and Oshima.

Nevertheless, Kurosawa told Gabriel Marquez that every movie he made was different from the one before, and Red Beard marked a significant point in his evolution. Speaking of which, Kurosawa’s career can be divided into four parts: early films; post-war reconstruction, with the hero as protagonist (culminating in Red Beard); the four pessimistic films with a wider world view (culminating in Ran); and the psychological, biographic final works.

Back to the movie: The young doctor arrives at the clinic for a visit and discovers that he’s been shanghaied, if that term is appropriate in this context. He is rebellious but it doesn’t take long – two patient deaths, an operation, and nearly getting his throat slit – for him to begin getting with the program. This is a case where the emotional impact of melodrama hits you or doesn’t, but even if it doesn’t, two and a half hours of movie remain, during which Kurosawa will have several more goes at you… By the halfway mark, he has presented us, and the young doctor, with four distinctly melodramatic stories. In fact, he lays it on with a trowel. Such is the quality of the cinematography and acting, however, that I was engaged. Maybe about to raise my eyebrows, but, in the event, they stayed down.

The young doctor is enlightened by intermission. Three stories are behind us with a fourth begun, and Kurosawa rolls out the piece de resistance, to mix metaphors. He begins with Red Beard confronting thirteen (I counted) brothel enforcers. He breaks one bone in each. Dude. Kurosawa’s last high-spirited fight scene. Did I mention that I’m going to learn Japanese just so that I can growl and shout in that low guttural voice? I went to a Japanese wedding and we took turns at the microphone and I was soooo tempted to go gutteral in English, but I didn’t… I could also use a little Japanese vocab because my daughter and her boyfriend are leaving to work in Osaka in a couple of months.

Now the young doctor is assigned his first patient. We’ve already watched what seems like a whole movie at this point, and so… Intermission. Intermissions were big, back in the day. Every blockbuster had an intermission. What happened to intermissions? Got to get audiences in and then out again?

The young doctor’s first patient after the break is a twelve-year-old refugee from a brothel, a twelve-year-old (the actress was fourteen when shooting started, sixteen at the end). Her story draws from Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. The initial scenes between doctor and patient  jerked a few tears from me.

Being intrigued with actors I didn’t recognize helped. Mifune stays back behind his beard. The young doctor on the road to enlightenment is played by Yûzô Kayama, who wasn’t especially familiar to an Asian-movie beginner like me. (He was Toho’s hottest young star at the time, Mifune’s co-star in Sanjuro (1962).

I read somewhere that Red Beard contained a number of under-dramatized scenes. At first I thought, oh yeah, slow scenes. But slow scenes can be present for a variety of reasons, not necessarily dramatic ones; in fact, most often, not dramatic ones, in the Asian context. Kurosawa wasn’t big on slow scenes in his films up to and mostly including Red Beard (as opposed to long scenes and long takes). He does introduce  a number of slow scenes in Red Beard as one more step in his directorial transmogrification. But if anything, his dramatic scenes are over-, not under-, dramatized. Set me straight here if you know better; Kurosawa can’t; he’s dead. The melodrama in Red Beard, which begins at an emotional  pitch well above the level at which many movies leave off, continues to build until I sat thinking, this is the guy who made Seven Samurai (1954), Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961)? He’s not wearing his heart on his sleeve here, he’s holding it under our noses taped to the end of a long pole. But I was moved and I guess that’s what counts.

With respect to long takes and other photographic and editorial techniques in the movie that I noticed or that were pointed out to me (the movie provides a class on zoom photography and long takes):

– Kurosawa had a formal system all his own for shooting his films. He didn’t follow Hollywood conventions, which is a big deal, because we get used to seeing the same type of shots and some of Kurosawa’s camera work can present initially as, for example, using poor jump cuts or continuity errors. He doesn’t care (I mean, he’s in heaven so who knows, but he didn’t care at the time that he made his movies).

– When the young doctor is visited by a deranged patient in the first act of the movie, his interaction with her includes a single take of five and a half minutes. There are plenty of other long takes in the movie, too.

– When the patient enters the doctor’s room, because Kurosawa is using a zoom (telephoto or long) lens, the doctor and patient appear to be face to face; but then Kurosawa cuts to a perpendicular shot and we see that the two are at opposite ends of a long room. The cut plays like one of those continuity errors mentioned above. This happens multiple times in the movie. Before Red Beard, Kurosawa set up cameras at right angles like this from time to time; after Red Beard, it became his configuration of choice. Flat from one angle, separated from the other. A metaphor? A move toward metaphoristical cinematography? It can be a striking affect. In a scene in the garden between doctor and nurse, the two are  together, cut and they’re apart with a tree between them, cut and they’re together, cut, they’re apart. Multiple cameras shooting at the same time, together with zoom lenses and long takes, are good for the actors; the cameras stay out of their way and they can play their parts in real time. Kurosawa never used the wide-angle lens favored by, for example, Welles and Scorsese. There are many shots in Red Beard in which the characters in a scene appeared crowded together, stacked up, because they are being photographed from a distance. This can lend a strange intimacy to some scenes – crowd scenes in a closet.

– In the 5.5-minute take, the camera doesn’t move, but as the doctor slowly comes closer to the patient, it zooms in a bit four times, keeping the two at either edge of the frame. The action and score distract us from the zooms. Pans and zooms can be tough to do with a telephoto lens because any twitch in the axis is magnified.

– Kurosawa favors the wipe (a line moving across the screen to erase one scene and replace it with another).

– I found out what a “key light” is. Unsurprisingly, it’s the principal light used in a scene, to highlight and impart dimensionality. In Red Beard, there are several scenes in which a face is lit and the rest of the frame is left in gloom.

– Kurosawa uses reverse-field cutting throughout his films… Let me back up. Kurosawa places cameras where and how he wants, according to his own rules, as I mentioned. He does not follow the rules of Hollywood. His flouting of continuity by using zoom photography and right-angle camera placement is one example of this. Another example is that, whereas Hollywood places several cameras and leaves them there for a scene, Kurosawa might move the cameras such that some shots in a scene are taken from unique positions. As for those  reverse-field cuts: this is not the same thing as reverse-view cuts, where, for example, two characters are facing each other and we switch back and forth between their faces. Kurosawa will cut to a 180-degree shot in general without observing Hollywood’s 180-degree rule, which is that you always keep two characters’ right-to-left perspective the same. If you cross the 180-degree line when you move, their right-to-left shifts to left-to-right.  (In Hollywood, reverse field shots are used to denote subjectivity: what the character is seeing or thinks that he sees.) Also, Kurosawa will shoot with two cameras pointing in the same direction, with one farther back. Cutting between the two displays the same scene with different width of field and different flattening. I’ve been dipping into The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, by Stephen Prince. Interesting stuff! Unless you have to take a test on it.

Other movie notes:

– Who does steady, heavy, very heavy rain better than Kurosawa? And wind? And wind with dust in it? After a long, still take (not under-dramatized, mind you), a dusty wind montage, spelling danger, fills the screen with motion and energy. Red Beard also contains some nifty falling snow and the earthquake mentioned above.

– Who does sitting on tatami better than the Japanese in their historical dramas? After a couple of hours watching Red Beard, the sight of a Western man sitting in a chair with his legs crossed seems positively strange. I used to sit on my knees (seza) for an hour or two in group therapy but that was years ago and now when I try it with my grandchildren, the backs of my knees hurt and my feet cramp in the arches. Bummer. But at least I’ve still got arches, and my nephew tells me that seza will eventually pull off your kneecaps. Hopefully, now that he’s an Oakland A, Hideki Matsui will stick to chairs, and to the bench in the dugout.

– Kurosawa was one of the masters of sound. In Red Beard, he finally had four tracks to work with and throughout the movie, the musical score pauses to allow him to show it off. Homework: difference between diagetic and ambient?

Red Beard ends on an upbeat note. The three major protagonists each aid healing, in part through Western medicine, in part through Eastern mysticism, including calling down a well to bring back a soul on the verge of departing. This, Kurosawa still belived at the time, these small acts of good, were the best way to deal with the ills of life and the world. I felt some regret during the closing scenes, because  Kurosawa’s career as a highly productive, popular filmmaker was drawing to a close with them. He was about to begin a 28-year struggle to fund his mature aesthetic and moral vision, making only two movies in the ’70s and two in the ’80s. Of course, he was making masterpieces, so that counts for something.

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Why are there kilts? They’re basically miniskirts to be worn in a country of raw weather. And that includes what they always say about kilts. Roger Livesey is called upon to don his on a day of fog and blustery winds. I didn’t notice whether he changed kilts from day to day. One presumes that even if he did, they’d all be made using the same clan plaid, so I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another.

Never mind. Although the movie is set on an island in the Hebrides, Livesey never left London, where he was also starring in a stage play during the shoot. A double did his exterior shots. You coulda fooled me.

It’s ironic that Livesey was never on the island set. The movie is a romantic comedy and a young James Mason was asked to be the male lead. When he heard about the island work and the cold and, one presumes, the kilts, he demanded a guarantee of first-class hotel accommodations, and Powell and Pressburger told him to forget it. Livesey wanted the part, but it was written for a dashing young twenty-something officer, and Livsey was 40 and in Colonel-Blimp shape. However, he lost weight and got the part and then, in the event, did all of his work indoors. So there, Mason.

Wendy Hiller reminds me of Glenda Jackson, both Wendy and Glenda worthy of a major crush. Although Dame Hiller was born one year before my mother, starred in this movie when I was still in diapers, and passed away several years ago, through the magic of cinema she lives on, just as accessible to the likes of me now as she probably would have been if she lived down the block right now. I last watched her in Pygmalion (1938) and notice that I have her Major Barbara (1941) sitting on my TV too. Bernard Shaw liked her.

This movie is beloved, in spite of having quotes and an exclamation point in its title. I was thinking about making a list of the ten most beloved films, but I realized that I’d put myself in the position of explaining why films eleven through fifteen were beloved but not beloved enough to make the cut.

Can a movie be beloved if most of those who loved it are deceased?

As they say in the movie, “Rùn do chridhe air do chuisle” (“May your pulse beat as your heart would wish.”)

One way to measure how good a romantic comedy is, is to see how quickly and how much you want the two protagonists to fall in love. In the case of ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, with Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller as the lovebirds, for me, the answers are: quickly and a lot.

It’s not a long movie, so the two can meet and some things can happen, and since he’s got to return to the war in eight days, there can be a whiff of suspense a la Brief Encounter (1945), and then, that’s it. Powell and Pressburger tossed it off while waiting for the Technicolor cameras being used by the Army, so that they could get A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (1946) under way. Well, maybe they didn’t toss it off; it’s full of effects and the crew did have to go out and rough it, with Powell lashed to the mast at one point, filming rough waters.

In addition to love, the movie’s got Gaelic, a wedding dress lost at sea, real Irish mist and fog, Maureen O’Hara’s sister, wolfhounds, scenery (the Isle of Mull), a laird, a trained eagle, and a great big whirlpool. Petula Clark is in the movie as a young girl, but I didn’t notice her, and anyway, I’m guessing that “Petula Clark” is no longer the household name that it was in the ’60s.

And lastly, can you name the following movie, which I remember watching when I was in high school? It came on TV late at night and seemed unlike anything that I’d seen before. It hinted to me that there was a lot more to movies than I yet knew. It was about a young fellow who sets out in Scotland to do something or other and must avoid the Cambells at all costs, and then ends up falling for a young female Cambell. Or something like that. A movie I loved but have forgotten lo these many years.

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.

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.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Watched Gunga Din (1939) the other night. It’s a Hollywood movie, made for fun, with Hollywood Englishmen and Hollywood Indians. Nothing wrong with that. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), though, reminds us that there are real Englishmen and that some of them, the upper upper class,  aren’t like you and me, unless you happen to be one of them – perhaps one like that fellow in Seven Up! (1964) who later in the series refused to return, but made an exception when he married a Bulgarian woman who was fostering a cause – in which case can you lend me 50 lbs till the weekend?

A lot of my movie-watching choices are inspired by film discussions that I listen to on podcasts such as /Filmcast, B-Movie Cast, Movies 101, Double Feature, etc. Such is the case with Colonel Blimp, featured on Filmspotting recently. First thing to impress me in the movie was its color. I wrote a review of  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and I remember reading about the care and trouble taken with the color in that movie. Some woman – I forget her name – was the great Technicolor expert. She’d come on set and… choose the colors? Tweak the lighting? Do something with the film or developing lab instructions? Whatever it was, the color jumps out at you in Hood and Blimp. Cinematographer Georges Perinal handled the color chores in  Blimp. He was lucky to find the color stock in 1943, at the height of the war. When Speed Racer (2008) came out, I remember a lot of chatter about the color in it (I liked the color, but not enough to finish the movie). We’re living in an age of greater subtlety in color palates now, and different taste, but it’s still a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on the richness of a Colonel Blimp. And what happened to the “r” in “colonel,” anyway?

The first startup company that I worked for encountered a rough patch and was acquired by the Arthur J. Rank company, which also made Colonel Blimp. Perhaps you’ve seen the big dude at the beginning of any Rank film, hitting the… the gong? Whatever that big cymbal thing is called… I never got to meet Mr. Rank, if he was in fact still living at the time of my company’s acquisition. Before I could, Rank Co.  turned around and sold us to some awful Texas conglomerate with a three-letter name, the first being D, the other two I don’t remember. DTS? DBT? But I was long-gone by then anyway. While Rank held us, though, young English engineers would trek over to the U.S. They always wore ties and sport coats, which in Silicon Valley made them seem even geekier than they were in the first place.

Colonel Blimp was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell, a team that made a number of great movies, including (1946), A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). Powell is the one who wrecked his career with Peeping Tom (1960) and then later came to Hollywood to do some work with Coppola and Scorsese and to marry, in his senior years, Scorsese’s brilliant young editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Blimp takes us briskly through the life of one soldier, comparing his ideas of decent behavior with those of England’s Boer, WW I German, and Nazi opponents. The movie surprised me with its temperance where the German people were concerned, considering that the movie was made in 1942/1943. Surprised me and enraged a great many in the English audience of the time, who were not in the mood to share Blimp’s readiness to forgive. Churchill tried to have the movie banned, and it was censored somewhat before its release. Blimp the cartoon character was created in 1934 and was meant to personify stupidity in its many forms; the movie’s Blimp character, however, is provided with a core of romantic sentiments and decency that cause us to understand that in evil times, “good” can seem like “stupid.”

One spot where the movie jarred me came with the arrival of World War I. Colonel Candy (the Blimp character) has spent years shooting big game in lieu of possessing his beloved, while continuing to serve in the army, and now, having left him onscreen moments ago as the young man bereft, we find him older, in 1918 toward the end of the Great War, behaving more as if it were 1914 at the war’s beginning, all polish and privilege, not after the years of horror that the army had endured by the end. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a better movie for aging a character from glowing youth to corpulent red-faced age. Roger Livesay in the role of a lifetime.