Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

Filmspotting has a Movie Dictator Club. My Canadian friend Matt the Movie Watcher assigned me Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) a while back . The Criterion version that I watched is immaculate. Set in the 1940s, this naturalistic (till the director starts riffing) film of country life in Quebec is fresh enough to have been made yesterday. The Canadian National Film Board helped with its production; correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this might have been the first major example of Quebecois film. The NFB has funded quite a few works that feature drama in lesser-known areas of Canada and without it, film in Quebec might never have got off the ground. I grew up in a small rural town in the late 40s and early 50s and instantly related to the setting and characters in this movie. It was filmed in Black Lake City and at the Thetford asbestos mines in Québec.

I can recommend the movie without reservation to anyone interested in a quiet, closely-observed visit to a small town in the country in the 40s, featuring a variety of interesting characters making a hard life seem a little easier that it probably is – especially since the town is dominated by an open-pit asbestos mine that coats everything, including the lungs of the residents, with carcinogenic dust.

Having said that, it strikes me that the director, Claude Jutra, who here adapted a short story for the screen and directed the movie, turned his back on the possibility of making a classic film, ending up with a very good movie instead. I’ve just posted a review elsewhere of “Mother of Mine,” and I had the same thought about the director of that film, Klaus Härö. In both cases, the director seems not to trust the tremendous power of the basic story that he is dealing with and instead tacks on an unnecessary melodramatic narrative that entertains us in the moment but can’t stand up to scrutiny later, relegating both films to the category of rural picaresque. Jutra might well have worked from a checklist here that includes a teenager breathing his last, a journey over unpaved roads with a hard-to-manage coffin (when “As I Lay Dying” was published, this trope should have been moved to the Pantheon and left alone there), a teen’s first look at the adult female rack and I’m not talking about Bambi’s mother here, so forth. A documentary about Jutra is included and it’s as interesting as the film itself. A life of struggle to make movies by a gifted man with money woes. Puts me in mind of Orson Welles.

I also seem to be developing an aversion to characters who stare straight ahead without speaking, leaving us to divine their thoughts and relieving the author of the responsibility of writing intelligent and original dialog for them. Jacques Gagnon, who plays a young man whose final sudden coming of age is compressed into the confines of a day or so, underacts in a way that perhaps mimics the frozen silent wastes of those great northern forests up there, which will probably be filling up with refugee polar bears any day now.

And Bravo! to Olivette Thibault, who gets her ashes hauled here at the age of 57 by a youngish Jutra himself.

Mon Oncle Antoine is filled with interesting characters and interesting moments, entertains in its every frame, and is a gem indeed. Thanks to Matt for choosing it!

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.

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.

13 Tzameti (2006)

Géla Babluani, Director.


The title in Georgian: “13 Thirteen”

Genre: Violence porn.

The director’s excuse: “I was raised in the 90s in Georgia when there were three civil wars. I was exposed to chaos. To violence. And that’s not even counting the TV shows I watched.”

The pitch: “Blood Sport” meets Texas Holdem meets “Deer Hunter” meets early Roman Polanski.

Reviewers’ suggested metaphors: “The inhumanity that comes with wealth and boredom, and desperate attempts to survive in a place that’s simultaneously culturally and geographically alien.” “An indictment of the futility and folly of putting too much metaphysical stock (belief in fate and destiny) in what is a fundamentally meaningless pursuit (sports).” So forth.

The lead actor’s excuse: “I had never done a movie before but my brother was the director, so…”

The director’s reward: Financing to remake the movie in Hollywood.

NRA rating: A+. Guns do not kill in this movie; actors kill.

Budget: The director filmed for 5 months over a 15-month period. Script calls for a castle but all he could line up was a big house, occasioning dialog such as “We used to do this in a castle.” (Doesn’t help the “rich getting richer” metaphor.)

First sign of silliness: Picture yourself on a tile roof, pulling off tiles. Somehow you manage to punch a hole in the roof (Rififi homage). Every time you walk by it, characters below are discussing plot points, which you can hear clearly.

Second sign of silliness: Vital papers blow out of the window and land where the hero can find them.

Third sign of silliness: He doesn’t give them back.

Hiding the silliness: The director did some filming to make the ceiling hole somehow more believable, but he wisely left this work in the Deleted Scenes section.

Subtlety: “There is an ax on the terrace,” says the woman. The ax is not used later in the film.

Music: Mostly silence w/ ambient sounds. The occasional quiet jazz nudge. Great.

Characterization: None to speak of.

Color: One sorehead opined that Babluani made the film in black and white because he didn’t want to deal with the problems and challenges of color. Babluani himself says that his first visions of the story were in black and white and so that’s the way he had to make it that way. Works for me, but I’m a lover of black and white.

David Lynch: In some alternate, parallel universe, the police play out their parts in full. In this movie, we can see only parts of that film, intermittantly.

The crowd: Part of the thrill of a public group performance is having a crowd watch it happen. Get lots of interesting faces and dress the actors in all sort of ways. In fact, have them dress at home and just show up. Feast for the eyes. Note that at least one reviewer will crab about this bunch no matter what they look like.

Handicapping: If you’re going to bet on a last-man-standing, mass suicide event, consider the following:

1. Try to bet directly with the men in the event. You’ll only have to pay off one of them.
2. The star of the movie will win.
3. Turns out, two other guys get to survive. One of them will be the really, really fat guy, because the director is not going to ask him to fall down. He might not be able to get up again.
4. The guy who looks like Russell Crowe can’t win, but he can be saintly because after winning three times already (no mean feat when the odds last time were 42-1), he recognizes innocence in his opponent and so doesn’t pull the trigger.
5. When three bullets are used in a six-bullet cylinder, does it matter whether there is a bullet in every other chamber or three bullets in three consecutive chambers? Experiment to find out.
6. Professional betting makes no sense to the amateur. Ditto movie betting.

The good parts: Some reviewers have suggested cutting out the first and last thirds of the movie. The guys who suggest this are the same guys who back in the day read only the good parts of Lady Chatterly. Probably don’t cuddle afterwards. Probably won’t finish reading this review.

The money shots: Ten or fifteen men stand in a circle. They load their guns. Heft and jiggle them. Spin the cylinders. Each man touches his gun to the head of the man in front of him. The goal is for all of them to shoot at once. The bulb lights up. As is often the case, all the participants don’t shoot at the same time. Also as is common, the experience is better for some than for others.

Sweat: The actors must act as if they are really going to be shot in the head. Because of safety issues, live ammunition, and standing there WITH A GUN TO YOUR HEAD, most of them weren’t acting.

Variations: Each round has to be different, or boredom sets in. (Some reviewers, who have seen too much of this kind of thing, will get bored no matter what you do, if you keep it tasteful.) One participant must have trouble loading his gun; one must be unable to pull the trigger; most must be able to perform only when drunk or drugged; etc.

Useful factoids from the film:

1. Morphine is the drug of choice
2. Stop signs in France say “Stop.”
3. Every French film contains the word “personne.”
4. Chief bad guy has same last name as my brother-in-law.
5. When does a Frenchman say “oui” and when does he say “si”?
6. Which country shows the countryside with fewer inhabitants, the U.S. or France?
7. Do European movies understate the bad guys a little for effect, or do U.S. movies overstate the bad guys for effect? Or both?
8. The protagonist has been up a ladder before. He is pretty nimble moving from ladder to roof and from roof to ladder.

Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) (2005)

In my capacity as a Spout Maven, I’ve reviewed a number of films distributed by Film Movement, including Mother of Mine, the movie under discussion here, A Peck on the Cheek, Be With Me, and Drifters. The promotional material included with the DVDs of these movies and the introductions on the disks themselves describe Film Movement as a film-of-the-month subscription club. Members receive award-winning foreign films in early release, by mail, “to keep,” once a month. The films can later be found at Netflix, Blockbuster, or your local library. A nifty idea for some few film buffs, but every time that I hear about this club, I worry about its health and survivability. What kind of market can there be for a little club like this? How long can a company like Film Movement survive, if it relies upon a subscription base that is bound to be relatively small?

Visiting the company’s website, I saw that Film Movement now also acts as a film distributor, with theatrical, institutional, television, DVD, rental, retail, wholesale, in-flight, and emerging-channel segments. Larry Meistrich, who founded the company as a film club in 2001, has since moved on. I contacted Film Movement to ask about their move into distribution and how it now compared, revenue-wise, with the subscription side of the business. After some back and forth, the president of the company, Adley Gartenstein, was kind enough to update me on Film Movement’s current direction. His response, in part: “The original plan was to be a DVD-of-the-month club. Now we pride ourselves on being a full-service North American distribution company with many creative and successful windows of exploitation. We still have a DVD of the month which gets an exclusive window, often before the theatrical. We think of it as a private preview club. But it is the smallest revenue generator for us. It is still important to us and we feel very devoted to our loyal members, but we have over the last two years put a lot of resources into building our theatrical distribution and our VOD channel. I am proud to say we have had our greatest box office success with our recent theatrical releases, and we launched a VOD channel called Film Festival on Demand which is available in approximately 9 million homes and we expect it to grow to 18 million during 2009.” So I can enjoy watching and reviewing their films without feeling concern for them.

Meanwhile, Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) is a well-made Finnish film that I enjoyed and that I can recommend. Solidly acted and beautifully shot around Turku, Finland and Ystad, Skåne, on the southern coast of Sweden, the movie tells the tale of a boy taken from his mother during World War II, who must adjust to a new family in a neutral country but then return home, fundamentally altered by his experience.

The boy Eero (Topi Majaniemi) is called upon to look concerned, angry, pensive, and occasionally to ask a question or blurt out a passionate protest, and does it all well. I watched Birth the other night and Cameron Bright, another ten-year-old actor, comports himself well in the same way, including his time in the bathtub with Nicole Kidman. The dialog in Mother of Mine is limited, the expressions heartfelt. Eero’s Swedish foster parents, Signe and Hjalmar (Maria Lundqvist and Michael Nyqvist) made me want to go live on the farm, too. I’ve got a soft spot for movie dads who stand up straight, square their shoulders, and with great sympathy say and do the right thing when it isn’t easy to. Atticus Finch comes to mind. In my younger days I had a good friend who was a farmer. He didn’t say much, but he was as solid as a rock and when he spoke, he meant what he said and he always made sense. Michael Nyqvist in this film reminds me of him.

Eero’s mom, Kirsti, played by Marjaana Maijala, provides the Finnish glamour. Esko Salminen and Aino-Maija Tikkanen, Eero and Kirsti in their twilight years, both seem sufficiently worn down by life to contrast dramatically with their younger selves. And what is it about Scandanavian husbands and wives arguing with each other? Have we been trained by Bergman to just settle back and enjoy it as the two of them go back and forth in that Scandanavian tongue while outside their mossy-roofed houses the wind bends the grass in waves on the förtöja?

It says here that the movie is quite different from the book it was based upon. Or does it say that? Sample Google translation to English of Swedish webpages on the subject:

“Härö not, in any case would like to condemn other people more closely than themselves. Haluaisin olla rmollisempi mutta toisaalta myös rohkeampi sanomaan stop silloin, kun tiedän, että jokin asia on väärin. “I would like to have Merciful but on the other bolder also say stop, when I know that one of asia is wrong. Haluaisin astua rohkeammin heikkojen puolelle.» I would like to enter braver the weak side.”

He’s just sayin. The director Härö is in his thirties, whereas the author of Äideistä parhain, Heikki Hietamies, was born in 1933 and would have been the age of Eero during the Russian/Finnish conflict. Hietamies is known to include considerable autobiographical material in his fiction.

And finally, this is a golden age for cinematographers. Having just admired Raúl Pérez Ureta’s work in Madeinusa, I got to feast my eyes on Jarkko T. Laineen’s Skåne. Some of these movies are so good-looking, it’s worth putting up with any other problems in them just to take in the views.

One question I did have: The boy goes from Finland to Sweden. He has to learn Swedish, which probably wasn’t easy, as Finish is not an Indo-European tongue and completely unrelated to Swedish. There is a great deal of correspondence by letter in the movie – writing letters, reading letters, reading the letters out loud, so forth, shots of the letters lying around. Did Kirsti write in Finnish? If so, how could Signe read them as she did (the movie made clear that she didn’t speak or understand Finish). Likewise with letters from Signe to Kirsti. I’m guessing that Härö skated over this one.

This concludes my review of Mother of Mine. In what follows, I speculate about why the director, Klaus Härö, made some of the choices that he did as he shot and cut together the movie.

Note: The movie features a busy flock of Skåne geese. These good-natured birds have lived in southern Sweden since the Stone Age and I was all awww at the sight of the notable fowl until while chatting with a relative from Ystad, I learned that, at least for him, the main function of the Skåne goose is to act as centerpiece at the family’s annual Martinmas dinner.

I was listening to a movie podcast the other day and one of the hosts on it opined in passing that there has never been a movie with bookends that wouldn’t have been better without them. (Bookends are single scenes at the beginning and end of a movie that together serve as a framing device for the narrative, providing context or serving a variety of other dramatic and esthetic purposes.) This caught my ear for two reasons: I had just watched Flawless, an ok though silly movie that uses bookends to first misdirect and then uplift the viewer, effectively, I thought; and Chaos Theory, the bookends for which just provide extra time to enjoy the happy ending; and somewhere recently I heard or read that Mother of Mine itself included bookends. As I listened to the podcast, I imagined myself on it, called upon to defend the Mother-of-Mine bookends. Later while actually watching the movie, I discovered that while bookends are present, I was interested in all of the movie’s non-sequential scenes, not just those at start and finish. I ended up noting all of Härö’s chronological editing choices and herewith speculate on why he made them – why he arranged scenes in the order that he did. Was he shuffling clips in time to mask a lack of dramatic material, or to reset expectations in the narrative arc, or infuse the film with artificial nostalgia, or perhaps gin up a little auteur before releasing his small Finnish film into the Eurocinema market?

*****SPOILERS ALERT: Various plot points are discussed below, in detail.*****

First, the bookends:

An onscreen notice informs us that during Finnish/Russian hostilities at the beginning of World War II, 70,000 children were sent from Finland to safety in non-combatant countries, most to Sweden. Then, the movie begins with Eero the boy standing in the woods, staring up at the stars at night. We hear him, voice over, now sixty, saying “Mother, do you still remember how it all began? How the war began?” Russian bombers approach and bombs fall. (At first impact the boy is startled and jumps so convincingly that the director might have fired off a gun right behind him on the set.) The boy runs to his mother and they cling to each other outside their home. Cut to present day for the opening bookend. Eero at sixty brings his mother a birthday present, late. It is clear that they are estranged and have been so for a long time. He tells her that he’s been to a woman’s funeral in Sweden. Quick cut back to his visit to a farm in Sweden for the funeral. We understand that he spent time there as a boy and that he had a strong bond to the woman who has died; his mother comments about this in voiceover. Härö, the director, is telling us immediately that war came, that mother and son survived it, but that something happened in Sweden to destroy the bond between them – the bond dramatized as they held each other during the bombing raid. Given the notice at the beginning about war children and this awkward moment between the two adults, the theme of the movie is announced: sending the children to safety was not to be all good. The leading bookend ends with a cut back to a time when mother, father, and boy were still together and happy.

The movie ends with a trailing bookend, again mother and son: the old Eero, touching his mother’s arm as he leaves her, signifying reestablished emotional contact after a lifetime, makes his way outside to look up again at the stars, and the scene fades into the original image of him as a boy looking up.

In my last review, I wondered why some movies are better the second time around. One reason, or so I supposed, was that in some cases on second viewing you aren’t waiting for something bad to happen when nothing bad is going to happen. You know what’s coming and what’s not coming and can spend your time enjoying the movie scene by scene, without, for example, worrying that someone is going to get killed at any moment. One way that a director can help the viewer get a leg up on such enjoyment the first time around rather than the second, is to serve notice up front of what to expect. Such might be the case with the director of Mother of Mine. Before the movie begins, he posts the notice about war children. Then he shows us the child of interest and informs us with the bookends that Eero and his mother both will survive the war and live out their lives. And so, with this introduction, we know in advance that the boy and his mother and his temporary alternate mother are all going to live through the war, that he will develop a bond with the alternate mother, and that he will become estranged from his mother. Perhaps this presages some trauma to him that will cause this fifty-year emotional separation from her. We do know that no resolution of their problems will come when he is young; whatever happened back then, it has taken the man fifty years to approach his mother with reconciliation in mind. In other words, the bookends are not entirely volitional for the director. He can start with a bookend or, at the end of the movie, he’s going to have to do a “fifty years later…” jump to get to this resolution. The other, untaken, option would have been for mother and son to settle up while they were both still young. But with the bookends, as viewers we are invited to experience the unfolding film as one instance of the lasting bad effects of war on a child. Or so we imagine.

And now, the other flashback and flashforward cuts in the movie and my speculations about them:

CUT: Back to Eero’s happy family time before the bombs fall. Having set the context, the director returns to the beginning of the story and the movie now proceeds sequentially in time. Father leaves to fight. Jump ahead to news that father is dead. Jump ahead from there to Eero being shipped out to Sweden. The movie moves forward steadily now in time, with no flashforwards and only three flashbacks to Finland that serve to emphasize how much Eero misses his mother and worries about her, and how hard it is to get a straight answer out of her about the dangers ahead. These come one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters through the movie.

Up to this point, the movie has fleshed out its central thesis with a variety of dramatic incidents, that thesis being, again, that in the fog of war, the adults try to shield the children from physical and psychological harm, in this case by (a) removing them to a distant safe place and (b) refusing to share with them any meaningful details about the actual situation at hand. Kirsti (the boy Eero’s mom) and his dad (before his death) tell Eero only that everything will soon be fine and as before. However, children hear things. Eero hears of the Russian bombing of Helsinki. He hears that his mother is working for the Nazis. His overriding concern for his mother interferes with him forming any sort of connection with his new foster mother, Signe. The adults’ refusal to share information with him is only exacerbated by what he does manage to learn on his own.

A word on war children: The term can refer to children forced to serve in the army during a war (widespread in Somalia), children left behind when their soldier fathers go home (children of Viet Nam fathered by American soldiers; children of Finland fathered by Nazis), or children displaced by war, like those in England (the Narnia books), Finland, and Germany. The first of the Finnish children sent to safety in other countries (mostly to Sweden) left during the Winter War between Finland and Russia (30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940). At that time, most believed that Russia would easily invest Finland. Finnish parents feared the coming Russians and their mistreatment of women and children. In the event, Russia took Karelia and then the struggle bogged down and a truce was agreed. After an interim, Finland signed a pact with Germany, Great Britain declared war against Finland (but didn’t do much fighting there), and with Germany’s assistance, Finland took back Kerelia. This second phase of their war with Russia the Finns named the Continuation War (25 June 1941 to 19 September 1944). Russia and Germany saw it simply as part of the struggle against each other. Most of the children sent out of the country left as their parents returned to Karelia to rebuild. Finland later fought Germany in Lapland. Between 60,000 and 80,000 children were moved out of Finland during these periods of conflict, most during the Continuation War. (If the children were all as much trouble as Eero, 80,000 seems like an awful large number.) 20% never returned (about 15,000), because they had no family to return to, or because of concerns that Russia wasn’t finished with the country, or because the Finnish economy lay in ruins. Of those who did return, a large number went back to Sweden during Finland’s economic doldrums and Sweden’s hot economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Studies conducted later suggest that the children who stayed behind in Finland made out better than those who left, psychologically. There were 2,000 civilian casualties in Finland during the war, some of them children, but a much greater number of the war children struggled to adjust once the war ended, part of their problem being that the country was unaware of any such problem. There is a documentary, War Children (Sotalapset)(2003) on the subject. The movie seems a little casual about chronology, but we know for sure that Eero doesn’t arrive in Sweden before late 1942, because that’s the year on Signe’s daughter’s gravestone. Yet after Eero talks to his mother over the phone at Christmas dinner, we’re given a scene where the Russians bomb Helsinki and to me, the implication was that this was happening for the first time; that bombing occurred in December, 1939.

To this point, one hour into the movie, the director’s use of cuts to jump back and forth in time seem straightforward to me. He sets context at the outset by placing a scene in present time and he uses three flashbacks during his telling of Eero’s story to emphasize the impact of events in Skåne on Eero’s frame of mind. We have seen Eero grow increasingly concerned about his mother and her welfare, making two attempts to return to Finland, at the risk of his own life. As he tells Signe, he doesn’t want his mother to die. But the director now jumps forward into bookend territory again. Why? The immediate impression is that we’ve reached a point of inflection in the narrative and this jump lets us catch our breath and serves as a semicolon: the boy now will settle in at the farm. The old Eero says to his mother, “You did survive, but I wasn’t important to you.” Puzzling. Where does this come from? He was obviously important to her, in every scene so far. Or does he mean that she didn’t keep him adequately informed? “Do you want me to have a guilty conscience again?” she asks him. “No, Mother. That’s exactly what I don’t want.” “Why didn’t you ever talk about it?” his mother asks. Aha. So we now learn, in advance, that after he returns from Sweden, he won’t talk to his mother about his experiences there. “I tried but you didn’t listen,” he says. Hmm. So obviously we don’t know what’s going on here. The conversation is essentially a foreshadowing. “Not true,” Kirsti says. “I would’ve listened. I’m your mother.” “You just wanted everything to be all right. That’s what you wrote me and I never knew how you were doing.” “You were only a child. You must understand that. I couldn’t burden you with my worries. Why didn’t you talk when you came back home?” she asks. “Talk to you?” “Who else?” “Don’t you understand? You weren’t my mother anymore.” So. Foreshadowing. We’ve already seen that Eero is constantly frustrated in his need to know how his mother is doing back in Finland. Her failure to be forthcoming is the cause of what is to come, it seems. We’ll now see how his mother’s refusal to share her situation with him culminates in his rejecting her as his mother and taking Signe to replace her.

Why this jump to what seems to be bookmark 1b? Why foreshadow Eero’s apparently upcoming lifelong change of allegiance to Signe? Is this break in the nature of an intermission plus recapitulation? Or is the director unsure of his case and arguing for it in advance? Will Eero’s concerns for his mother simply ebb now? Has he maintained his relationship with Signe up to the present day? (Recall that he’s just come from her funeral.) Why come to his mother now to discuss this after fifty years of silence? Is Härö just reminding us that we’re vectored in the end to this elderly couple, so that we don’t come to the end of the movie and think “Oh, yeah, forgot about this part” when we get there? The answer is that Härö has a couple of revelations in store for us and needs more time to set them up than the end of the film allows, but watching the movie in real time, my reaction was “Huh?” All signs up till then pointed to a simple but powerful human drama, told without artifice. So that perhaps here Härö here is simply articulating what he has been showing heretofore – that Kirsti chose the wrong path in addressing the concerns of the child by not talking/sharing frankly enough with him. This should be the essence of the movie. Eero here implies that it is the essence, that because his mother would never share the truth with him, he finally transferred his emotional attachment to Signe (who, ironically, shared even less with him than his mother did, in the end). The director, however, did not trust this human truth enough to let it carry the movie, even though he showcases it here. Instead, in what follows he extends the lack of communication between adult and child into the realm of soap opera, ruining the film’s chances for emotional greatness. It turns out, as we come to see, that Eero isn’t talking as much about his mother’s refusal to share up until this point in the narrative, as about a misapprehension that he acquires later on. Given that fact, the dialog in this interlude was a real head-scratcher. Quite a bit of plot machinery, relatively speaking, will be required to resolve it while I, as a simple viewer watching it, was still back on the farm with Eero recovering from his frantic attempts to escape.

The movie proceeds, with Signe and Hjalmar learning that Kirsti has a German lover; Kirsti asks them to keep it a secret and raise her boy. Eero learns of this. After all his worry, he now learns that his mother doesn’t want him back. He is accepted into the Jönsson family. Flash forward to see him at Signe’s funeral; this cut is used in the same way as the three flashbacks in the first half of the movie – to accentuate his feelings and experiences when young, in this case by contrasting them with his grief at Signe’s death.Back to his happy life with his new family. Signe swears that she’ll never let him go. The war ends. A letter comes from Kirsti; she’s changed her mind. Signe doesn’t tell Eero. She struggles to keep him, but can’t. He returns to Finland, unhappily.

And so, now, one-and-a-half hours into the movie, in the final less-than-ten-minutes of the boy’s narrative, Härö has one last opportunity to dramatize the effect of the war and Eero’s separation from his mother. Eero arrives in Finland not knowing that his mother wants him back and not knowing that Signe only let him go because Kirsti did want him so badly. This information has been withheld from him. As far as he’s concerned, an indifferent mom ordered him back and a promise-breaking Signe made him go. If the director had trusted the simple power of the situation, he could have let Signe tell the boy that his mother wanted him, and then they could have both dealt with their conflicting emotions, and Eero and Kirsti could have done the same. Or Härö could have let Signe withhold that information but then let mother and son have it out in Finland, with all revealed and dealt with at that end. But such would lead to reconciliation and healing and would undermine the whole point of the movie: that war children in many cases concluded their escape from war in a permanently damaged condition. Thus, the boy must refuse to talk to his mother and she must dither and let him remain silent, even though most moms at this point would force the child to discuss the situation presenting us with the scene we want to see and deserve to see without having to wait for a fifty-year jump for it to arrive, drained of its power by the decrepitude of the protagonists – the scene that could raise this film above melodrama. Eero confronting his mother with the fact that he knows about her lover. How could she be unfaithful to the memory of his father like that? How could she ask Signe to keep him if she truly loved him? And how could Signe, who also claimed to love him, now unaccountably send him back like this? The rage and grief of a damaged young soul, bared.

But no. Härö goes so badly wrong from the moment that Eero steps off the boat, back in Finland, if not already by having Signe stay mum. Härö turns his back on a grand dramatic opportunity. Instead, he sticks with the machinery of melodrama, which dictates that there are things that Eero must know and other things that he must not know. In the course of the movie, he must learn that his mother is in Helsinki, not at home; that she’s with a German; that she doesn’t want him back; that Signe wants him desperately and swears never to give him up. He must not know that his mother gives up the German for him and tells Signe so.

The children descend from the boat into the arms of their loving parents, with only Eero left to wait on the dock, isolated, for his mother’s late arrival. None of the other children demonstrate any visible damage, as Eero does. Why his mother’s late arrival? No reason. It’s a cheap melodramatic) beat, not meant to show that she is uncaring or unloving or irresponsible, but to mislead Eero into thinking that she doesn’t care enough to show up on time. It also suggests to the viewer that the mother is feckless, whereas her real faults in the movie have been, first, to try and protect her son by reassuring him in the face of evidence and fears to the contrary that he has nothing to worry about, when instead she needed to share more with him a fault that many parents would naturally fall prey to, and which might be part of an argument for not separating the family in the first place – and second, to fall in love while he is away and briefly consider giving him up – something that she then completely abjures, sacrificing her love for Jurgen instead of that for her son. So Härö does her a great disservice in the return scene, having her hustle in late for the return of her son, so as to unnecessarily ratchet up Eero’s alienation another notch. (And by the way, the smooth return of the other children, with only Eero having a problem as a consequence of the knowledge denied him, undercuts the director’s focus on the general damage incurred by the children because of their government’s policies.)

At any rate, Eero has nothing to say to his mother on his return, but instead of staying with this while his mother pursues it, we jump ahead an unspecified number of days to a knock at their apartment door. A letter arrives from Sweden as his mother prepares for a job interview. Eero answers the door. The postman knocks to deliver this letter? Eero tells him that Kirsti doesn’t live there anymore. The postman is mildly surprised but takes the ten-year-old’s word for it and mosies off, letter in hand. “Who was it?” Eero’s mother asks. He doesn’t answer, so as not to spoil the plot. “Eero,” his mother says, conveniently letting that go. “All the bad things are over. Mother is here now.” So much for confrontation. We’re just riding along on the missing information here. The letter sent back, we learn later, contains an explanation from Signe of why she hadn’t told Eero that his mother wanted him back, plus his mother’s original letter saying how much she loved him and wanted him back. The rigors of world war and their lifelong impact on a mother and child have here been reduced to Eero answering the door instead of his mother and sending an acquiescent postman on his way. Did Signe try again? We presume not. Did Kirsti ever write to her? We presume not. Did the two exchange xmas cards? Guess not.

In the present, the old Eero says, “I could never believe what you said. I thought you’d disappear at any moment. I felt I could lose everything at any moment. This,” he shows her the letter he caused to be sent back, “Signe had always wanted to give me. She’d always hoped I’d get them. Or we. They came with the funeral invitation.” His mother has never known that Signe’s letter existed, or that Signe had never shown her (Kirsti’s) letter to Eero.

Now he’s back weeping in the Skåne graveyard. and he reads the two letters. (As I mentioned above, presumably one letter is in Finnish and the other in Swedish. How did that work? We get glimpses of the pages but I couldn’t tell if this was so. Signe didn’t speak Finnish and I don’t imagine she read it either. Did Kirsti have her letters translated before sending? Ditto Signe? Just wondering.) The director is cutting around here to mask the simplicity of his plotting.

Bear with me now as Härö makes his final, climatic run at our hearts. He’s locked in to the final cuts, forced to spin out the reveal. The cuts are dictated to him by his initial lack of confidence in the power of his basic story idea. To repeat myself: wanting to make his point that the trauma of relocation can have, and did have, a lifelong negative effect on many of the children “saved,” he’s got to pay for earlier turning to the shopworn and fundamentally dishonest device of denying his protagonist necessary knowledge, not once but many times throughout the movie, instead of relying on truth in life and film, to propel the narrative forward. So that, the true climatic moments of “Mother of Mine” having been passed by, their power unrealized, moments used as no more than plot highlights, Härö is constrained to juggle the elements of what is really just coda material as he winds up the clockwork that he hopes, unrealistically, will trigger that release of powerful emotion in our breasts that he… How many metaphors have I mixed here? Sorry, I lost control there for a second.

Or, even worse, he had these cuts in mind from the beginning – this is the payoff that he wants – and he employed his gimmicks specifically to get us here.


Eero stands weeping in the Skåne graveyard and reads Signe’s letter, as we see her standing, looking like she did back when she wrote it, staring out to sea, and as she tells his mom to show him her (Kirsti’s) letter, and that she (Signe) was wrong not to show it to him when it came (although actually he probably heard Signe and Hjalmar arguing about it, but pretended that he didn’t), but that she loved him and didn’t hink that Kirsti did, although later she came to her senses about that, after Eero was gone, and wrote this letter. Signe faces the camera. “Please, Kirsti, let him read your letter so he’ll know.” (We presume that she’s sent the letter back with her own.) “And give up any hope of an Oscar.”

In the graveyard Eero puts the letter away and reads his mother’s. “Dear Signe. There is peace now in Finland, which is a huge relief to us all. Hans-Jurgen returned to Germany without me.”

The elderly mother Kirsti, who wrote the all-important returned unshared letter, is now shown continuing to read it aloud as Eero listens. “The German loves me more than anything and I love him, but I have to ask myself whom I love the most?”

Cut to Eero a week earlier, back in Skåne, staring out to sea after having just read this himself. Kirsti continues, voice-over, “I must’ve been blind and insane. How could I even consider leaving my own child? I may have to carry this guilt for the rest of my life.”

Now she’s young again, looking out at us. “But I ask of you, thankful for all that you’ve done, to send me my beloved son as soon as possible. And you’re right. This sort of thing blasts any Oscar hopes for us both.”

Back to the old Kirsti, reading. She and Eero eye each other. “60 years. a lifetime.” “It sounds ridiculous, but somehow it feels that a part of us has been left there in Skåne. That’s where I decided never to miss you,” Eero says.

I’m sitting on the couch regretting that last toke as I try to keep all this straight.

“But you did,” Kirsti says. “I did, Mother,” Eero says. “Now I understand it.” Huh? Understands what? That as a child he had known the part about the German and Kirsti asking Signe to take care of him, but not the part about Kirsti asking Signe to please send him back, after which Signe made him go home even, as he thought, Kirsti didn’t want him? Kirsti, Signe, and Eero are all just culpable enough, in just the right order, to replace a world war’s blame with their own.

Onscreen, mother and son touch. They’re reconciled after fifty empty years, but I’m not. I’m still reeling from the sequence of rapid cuts, back then and now, images of the pensive trio, all perhaps wondering, like I was on the couch, HOW THEY AVOIDED TALKING ABOUT THIS FOR HALF A CENTURY. He never went back to Skåne? He never asked his mother why Signe sent him back if she, his mother, wanted to go with the German? But there is no point in asking questions like this because the whole narrative is artifice.

These is a deep irony in this movie. Two mothers, one blood and one surrogate, love Eero. As a consequence of their own weaknesses, their actions taken together rob him of the ability to trust either of them. Only at the age of 60 does he come to fully understand this. Thus love, rather than hate or indifference, wounds him worst in the war. Love and a clunky script. See, if THIS – the letters – caused the problem, then it’s no wonder all the other kids ran to their parents when they got off the boat in Finland. All this talk in Finland about alienated children – never happened – because the chain of events that we watch causing the problems is so unlikely. Perhaps the director did not trust himself to tell the basic story, with it’s raw simplicity. Perhaps he made up his mind early on that the boy, in later life, would finally come to terms with the traumas that he suffered as a child. Whatever the reason, to tell his story, he fell back on, or was made to use through lack of imagination, a number of tricks of the melodramatic trade that perforce weakened the movie – its narrative and its impact. So wrong. The point of the movie is to demonstrate why the strategy of moving kids from their homes and relocating them in a foreign country did as much harm as good, and here, this is why? Because a Desperate Housewife/Hollywood Romantic Comedy sidetracked a boy’s affections for his mother for fifty years? The obvious conclusion to be drawn by the viewer, then, is that it was a good idea to ship Eero out, if only Signe and Kristi had stepped up to their responsibilities as in real life they would have (or wouldn’t have, but for more quotidian reasons).

Eero leaves his mother now. Outside in the night, he looks up. He sees the stars. He smiles. Smile if you wish, oh Eero, but you’re sixty, your mother is in her eighties, and Signe has moved on to make another movie.

Segue fade to the young boy staring up at the night sky at the beginning of the movie. Back at the beginning. And this time, Härö, just tell the truth.

A Peck on the Cheek (2002)

Spoilers: This review contains spoilers.

I like movies that immerse me in a foreign culture. I’m a stay-at home vicarious traveler and I depend upon cinema to transport me from my couch to unfamiliar lands and introduce me to new cultures. “A Peck On the Cheek” fills the screen with 136 minutes of scenery, music, culture, drama, and life in southern India and Sri Lanka. I returned from my trip well satisfied.

The film tells the story of nine-year-old T. Amudha and her search for her real mother. On her ninth birthday her father tells her that she is adopted. Shocked, upset, disbelieving, she decides on the spot to find her birth mother, no matter what. When her adoptive parents are slow to cooperate, she runs away from home to search on her own. Then does it again. With this, her parents relent and agree to go with her and help her on her quest. Their search takes the three of them from their home in Chennai (the former Madras) south to Rameswaram, a coastal town in southern India just across the straights from Sri Lanka, and thence over to Sri Lanka and the Tamil provinces of the island itself.

“A Peck On the Cheek” is a regional film made in the Tamil language, but it is replete with Bollywood characteristics. That is, it’s completely melodramatic, romantic, and sentimental, without containing a hint of irony. As a Western viewer, I needed to keep checking that last fact, to confirm that everything I was seeing was as straight-ahead as it appeared to be; it was. The acting is solid, the visuals are arresting, and if you wear your heart on your sleeve, the movie should work for you. In the same way that you don’t go to a Marx Brothers movie expecting subtle humor, you don’t watch a Bollywood movie if you crave an exercise in understated angst. These characters do not spend much time staring off into space.

The film’s title comes from a line by the nationalist Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar (d 1921). I found the poem, but not in English, so I can only surmise whose cheek is referenced and who is doing the pecking.

And just to note here that Tamils are a Dravidian racial group located in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in northern Sri Lanka. Because a civil war has been fought between the majority Sinhalise and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka for the past 25 years, and is still being fought, many Tamils have been displaced and fled the country. There are Tamil expatriot communities in countries around the world, including Malaysia, South Africa, and Singapore. In addition, a diaspora of 77 million Tamils to every continent has been caused by the socio-economic pressures typical in many third-world societies in modern times.

The Tamils occupied and controlled areas of southern India before the Aryan invasions from the north that occurred millenia ago. The desire of some Tamils in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in India to form a separate state has something in common with the current situation of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

During the movie’s opening credits, I was surprised that all of the actors used a single name. The adoptive father and mother, named G. Thiruchelvan and T. Indra in the movie, are played by Madhaven and Simran respectively. Is Madhaven the only Indian actor with that name? My friends tell me that he’s a big star who has made more than 1,200 TV episodes and 10 films, and no other “Madhaven” actors come up in IMDB, but still, with an Indian population of one billion, I didn’t expect single names to be common, but so it is. In any event, the Tamil naming convention is to use a single name with one or two initials prepended as necessary for further identification. The initials can represent town or region of origin, or father’s name, or other indentifier. So that, as Amudha searches for her mother, she asks for “Shyama” and then “M.D. Shyama.” (In the movie, her birth mother is known to be from Mankulam.)

The movie begins with an arranged marriage. The bride and groom meet for the first time at the wedding ceremony. I have four or five friends whose marriages were arranged and the marriages have all worked out nicely so far. “When eyes meet, words are not needed” goes an ancient saying. The usual explanation for the high success rate is that the parents of the prospective husband and wife know their children well and so are able to make a good choice for them. In “A Peck on the Cheek,” the arrangement is accomplished by Shyama’s brother.

In the bedroom on the wedding night, the groom teases the bride about her skin color, darker than his own. He tells her that he could rub her cheek and use the color that came off as kohl for her eyeshadow, and that her name means “black.” She replies that she’s as light-skinned as he is. I wondered, first, whether this signaled that the groom was to be an abusive husband, and second, what role skin color plays in Indian cultural life. Turns out that the groom wasn’t being abusive; he was just doing a little light courtship teasing. In the end, he says “Well, a dark skin hides a pure heart.” (There are no bad guys in the movie.)

The complete range of Indian skin color is present in the movie: ebony black, tawny brown, olive, honey gold, wheat, pale tan, golden copper, almost-white. Polling ten or twenty Indian acquaintances here, I am told that lighter is considered more attractive than darker, but that there are no racial overtones involved with skin color. Color consciousness, yes, but racism, no. For example, kids may nickname the darkest in their group “blackie,” regardless of his standing otherwise. “I had to come to the U.S. to learn about the racial significance of skin color,” one friend told me. In the U.S. we have tanning salons and creams; in India it’s “fair and lovely” soaps and “return to whiteness” skin-lightening creams. “If the skin is white, it is love at first sight” as another old saying has it. Someone did tell me that light color symbolizes status and success. One Indian man told me that most of the personal ads in the newspapers and online in India specify a requirement for a “fair” or “wheatish” woman.

A Tamil friend did disagree about the racism, saying that the matter was not so cut-and-dried. He pointed out that in this movie, for example, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are depicted as much darker than those of southern India, and that some viewers take this as a negative statement about the Tamil insurgent movement.

Anyway, at some point following the wedding, M.D. Shyama tells her husband that she wants seven or eight children. He replies seriously that he doesn’t want any children at all until peace comes. Of course, anyone watching the movie in India would understand this sentiment immediately, being well familiar with the relentless suicide bombings, assassinations, and massacres of the past several decades. In a night scene with thunder and lightning foreshadowing the bomb blasts to come, the husband hears or imagines troops marching past. But since no conflict has been shown yet onscreen, his feelings caught me a little by surprise, even though I knew about the civil war in an abstract way. In the event, his resolve notwithstanding, Shyama becomes pregnant. It is while a refugee, separated from her husband, following a sea crossing in a storm that’s staged at the highest possible pitch of visual drama, that Shyama gives birth and loses the baby to adoption – exactly why, I don’t know.

With this, Amudha is introduced in Chennai on her ninth birthday. She tells us that she wants to be a dancer when she grows up, or a famous space scientist. We meet her family: her father, a mechanical engineer and well-known writer with a short temper; her mother, a TV broadcaster who does the morning news in Chennai; two younger brothers whom she teases; her grandfather; and her father’s sister and the sister’s husband. A happy, modern, extended family.

Amudha is quickly established as an independent, spunky young woman and, at fifteen minutes into the movie, I experience my first Indian-movie musical segment. Just minutes before, Shyama has been carried into a decrepit building, screaming in pain, to deliver her baby. Cut to the introduction of Amudha and her family a few years later, followed immediately by what seemed to me to be an MTV song-and-scenery montage, dropped into the movie from some other movie universe. (A.M.Rahman has done the music for all of director Mani Ratnam’s movies.) One reviewer suggests that the musical segments in the movie (there are three of them) are Amudha’s fantasies. Since she’s featured in all of them, this could be so. More likely, the first is point-of-view for Amudha, the second point of view for her mother, and the third for her father.

The first segment runs eight minutes and features a bright and perky song about Amudha and what she is like. As the song is sung, we see her at school with her chums. The school appears to be Catholic parochial, like the Sacred Heart schools around the world, with the children in a uniform of red-checked shirt and gray short pants or skirt. The kids run, wrestle, march, and play in quick scenes as Amudha is described:

Can you drive a nail into a cloud?
Can you shut Amudha up in a bottle?
Sundari, my little twin-tailed beauty!
Naughty Sparrow.
Waterfall on wings.
She can melt a stare and make it laugh.
She plans impish little acts.
She wipes away your anger with a smile.
She tucks sorrow deep into her dimples.
She traps the sky in her hair.
She is the peak of happiness and of trouble too.
She is a breeze with nails tearing into you.
Cah you catch a wave and bind it with a rope?
Isn’t she a wave born only to dance?
A butterfly with teeth, she bites your cheek and then kisses it.
She’s a mother to me and a mother-in-law too, in a daughter’s guise.
She’s the villain of the classroom.
A heroine at studies.
She’ll ask 1000 questions that only she can answer.
She’ll take classes for the teacher.
The poor fool who marries her, what won’t he endure?
He’ll have to cook in the water she washes her foot in.

So that’s Amudha in a nutshell. To reiterate, emotion is not hidden or buried in this film. It’s up there on the screen for all to see. If there is subtlety present, it does not involve the characters keeping their own counsel. They say what they think, in short scenes. The bright, upbeat musical segments, juxtaposed with issues of adoption and war, set up a certain dissonance, which, for me at least, heightened the feeling and impact of both the music and the scenes of conflict and violence.

During the Amudha song/montage, my head was still in narrative mode, back with the storm at sea and the screaming woman. By the time I started to pay attention to the music, the segment was over. I made a note to pay better attention when the next such segment arrived.

And now it is Amudha’s birthday. Her mother Indra applies a red mark to her forehead between the eyebrows. I asked my Indian friends if the ninth birthday has any particular significance, but was told no. I’m thinking, though, that her mother applying the mark was meant to be symbolic of her growing up, because at the same time her father decided to tell her the truth about her birth. In southern India, unmarried women choose to wear the mark (called a vermillion, or pinjar) between the eyebrows. In other areas, it’s the prerogative of married women to do so. In the south, married women wear the mark up near the hairline. It has been a tradition over the ages for Indian women to wear this dot. However, its actual meaning has been lost. One explanation is that it was a symbol indicating that the woman was married. Now, though, unmarried girls also wear the mark. In some cases, it’s treated as a fashion mark and anything goes. Widows don’t wear it. One interesting explanation of the mark is that in the past, women were not allowed to be in the presence of the elders of the house or to participate in anything that the men did. As an Indian woman says, “This led to tension in the minds of these women and application of pressure at the point between the eyes to relieve the tension. The use of saffron before applying the colourful kumkum would have been for its antiseptic effect.”

The mark is also sometimes used in religious observance. In the U.S., the woman might wear the mark in the household, but remove it in public. A male Tamil friend of mine had such a mark the other day made of ashes, applied in the course of a Hindu religious ceremony earlier that day.

Although her father has determined that Amudha is old enough to know that she was adopted at birth, his wife and her father don’t agree. He tells her anyway. When Amudha learns the truth, naughty sparrow that she is, she runs away from home and her father must retrieve her from the train station. This incident is the occasion for a great deal of brow-knitting by all concerned.

Next Amudha enlists a friend, borrows money from her grandfather, and catches a bus with her friend to the port city of Rameswaram, where she was born and where she hopes to find her mother. Scenery galore but no luck in Rameswaram. Her parents retrieve her again. Madhaven, playing the father, has the strong, charismatic screen presence of a major star, and Simran (Indra) and P.S. Keerthana (Amudha) stand up to him admirably throughout the film. (Or perhaps I’ve got this backwards:

Aumdha is struggling here with her confused feelings about Indra. Does this woman who is not her true mother even love her? Does Indra love her as much as she loves her two real sons? Deeply upset, Amudha notes that her skin is darker than her mother’s. “Did you find me in a dust bin?” she asks unhappily.

Indra’s feelings are expressed in the second musical montage:

There is a throbbing in my chest
and a thudding in my ears
when you kiss me so tenderly.
Oh flower that God gave me
What are you looking for in my eyes?
You are the spot where our life begins.
You are the spot where the sky ends.
You came like the gentlest of breezes
…then stayed on as my breath.
You’re the life that takes its source in my heart.
You are the one that is close to me.
You are my foe as well.
You are the flower of love.
You are the thorn in my womb.
You are the beloved rain.
You are the small burst of thunder.
You are the newborn and the life that departs.
You are the birth that is born in death.

The song is accompanied by upbeat images of mother and daughter together on a vast beach of white sand, with the wooden bones of an ancient shipwreck, the couple splashing in shallow water, and much more, all in white and blue with vivid color in the clothing of mother and daughter. Not something that you’ll see and hear in a Hollywood film.

In spite of these strong maternal feelings that Indra has for her, Amudha remains concerned. From time to time, she stops talking to Indra entirely, as if she were fourteen or fifteen, not nine.

Here we get some extended backstory about how Thiruchelvan and Indra met and married and how they came to adopt Amudha. Back in the present, Amudha’s father realizes that she will not give up until she finds her mother. He promises her that he will help her do so and the movie breaks for an intermission at the one hour and fifteen minute mark.


The movie was made by Mani Ratnam, credited as the man who revolutionized Tamil-language cinema. Ratnam (54), has made many hit movies and is arguably the most important director in south India, with 22 films to his credit. He is known for making movies with style but also substance, movies that deal with personal and political issues of the day, both in north and south India, and in Tamil, Hindi, and other languages. “A Peck on the Cheek” is a product of the “Madras Talkies” studio.

After the intermission, mother, father, and daughter fly to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where a friend takes them in hand. This half of the movie is filled with a mix of the ancient and the modern, sacred ruins and new buildings that were run-down before they were finished. Jungle and town. The poor and the very poor. Birdsong and birds, insects, green vegetation, running water, elephants. Black children with guns. War and armed conflict.

Part of the fun of watching this movie, by the way, is listening to the language. Tamil is designed to run very fast over the tongue and out of the mouth. No glottals or plosives to slow things down (I don’t know what I’m talking about, but one does wonder how the syllables can flow so quickly). Tamil is pre-Indo European, spoken by the Dravidians who inhabited India before the Aryans showed up. It’s one of the world’s ancient languages. It’s agglutinative, meaning that it starts with a root and adds bits in front of and after the root to designate noun class, number, and case, verb tense, and other grammatical categories. English does a little of this, such as adding an s for a plural; an extreme example in English would be “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Words like this are the norm in Tamil. Listening to the dialog is like listening to a brook in the forest – a rapid dahdtity dahdtity dahdtity candence that seems almost impossible to articulate or understand, like a continuous string of tongue-twisters. Amudha notices a difference in the Sri Lankan Tamil and comments on it immediately.

English words like “sorry,” “happy birthday,” “selfish,” “OK,” “intentions,” “conditions,” “honorable,” “please,” and “promise” have been absorbed into Tamil, so that the flow of dialog is punctuated by little dots of English.

While in the northern, principally Tamil, capitol of Jaffna, Amudha’s father Thiruchelvan gives a speech on writing to a hall full of appreciative listeners. Outside, Amudha wanders across to a park and chats with a man in a wheelchair. Shortly thereafter, a scene of violence occurs that truly surprised and shocked me. If I had been watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster aimed at the teenage male demographic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I’ve seen much, much worse. But here it happened after an hour and twenty minutes of mother-daughter conflict, father-daughter discussions, music, color, and birdsong. Before I had quite recovered from it, a third musical segment presented itself.

One sense of the foreign in this movie comes from the film’s lack of conformance with any single Western plot template, as with this sudden, unexpected act of extreme violence followed by a pleasant musical interlude. The power of the music is multiplied by its position just after the explosive moment. Of course, Hollywood makes frequent use of soft following loud, quiet following violent and vice versa, and the principle is the same here, I suppose. But I don’t recall a Hollywood film in which, for example, Bruce Willis blows up a building and then Doris Day comes out and warbles.

The third musical segment, the most visually arresting of the three, features Amudha and her father. He sings to her but to my great annoyance the song isn’t subtitled. Father and daughter are happy and the screen is full of waterfalls, mist, steep rock cliffs, statues of the Buddha, monks, elephants, white flags, and innumerable picturesquevistas. I assume that the song and montage are to take some of the sting out of the preceding violence, and to provide a respite before continuing into the civil war while describing the father’s feelings and hopes for his daughter. Or something similar. Perhaps the father is waxing philosophical. By now I was able to sit back and enjoy the music and visuals without pondering the meaning of it all.

And now, as the trio makes contact with the insurgents, they are warned that the army is nearby, and wherever the army is congregating, they should avoid. Amudha refuses to stop her search. The tension builds, because we know that the trio is not going to make it out of harm’s way. A firefight suddenly erupts between insurgents and the army, with flying bodies, a flaming helmet, and death all around as parents and daughter hide behind a bench. As my friend mentioned, the insurgents were noticeably darker than the soldiers.

Then on to the birth mother’s town, Mankulam, and more army activity. The townspeople are evacuating, explosions are heard. During the evacuation scene in the countryside, I had the thought “cast of thousands” because it approached spectacle class. And at the conclusion of quite a battle scene, in a clunky twist, the searchers learn that there is a second Mankulam, to which they must now make their way.

The civil war is taken to have started in Sri Lanka in 1983. A group named LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) had been assassinating moderate Tamils up to then and then attacked in the north and killed 13 soldiers from the majority Sinhalese army. In the resulting riots, up to 300 Tamils were killed in Sinhalese areas. The LTTE gradually absorbed or eliminated all the other rebel (or freedom-fighting) Tamil groups, or drove them over to the other side. So that in additional to the largely Sinhalese army, there have been Tamil paramilitaries and political groups opposing the LTTE as well. Over the years, the insurgents and army have been involved in various offensives and massacres against each other, with civilians in the crossfire or used as targets. The LTTE carried out its first suicide bombing in 1987. (Anyone who somehow has the idea that suicide bombing is peculiar to Muslims, can note the fact here that it is a prominent tool of the Tamil Hindu insurgents as well.)

For more on the war, refer to, for example,

I wondered if the movie was making a statement about the civil war – whether it was taking sides. After all, Mani Ratnam is Tamil and the war has been going on for half his life. To me, the uninformed viewer, it seemed that the Sri Lankan army was portrayed as sinister, in the sense that it wasn’t wise to stick around anytime they were seen to be arriving in force, whereas the LTTE rebels were made more sympathetic, struggling in the jungle and prey to the army, with Shyama caring for lots of little kids. On the other hand, the first violent act in the movie was a rebel blowing himself up along with numerous members of the military. A Tamil friend of mine from Chennai who saw the movie felt that the conflict was simply meant to be a backdrop for Amudha’s personal struggle, and that Ratnam did not take sides. I asked my friend if he, himself, personally leaned one way or the other and he said that after the Tigers assassinated Rajiv Ghandi, the Indian Prime Minister, the popularity of the LTTE and its struggle dropped precipitously in southern India. For my friend, the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka seem culturally very similar, although the Tamils are Hindu and the Sinhalese Buddhist with some Muslims and Christians. As in Northern Ireland and Iraq, cultural brothers or cousins can fight each other as brutally as strangers ever could.

The movie dialog, at any rate, simply asks why peace can’t come, when it might come, or if it ever will come. “When will we live in peace?” “It’s the commercial interest of the weapons makers,” comes the reply, “to try out their weapons in undeveloped countries.”

Reading the history of the last 25 years – each massacre remembered, each bombing detailed, the maneuvering between and within sides, the deals with India and, according to most Indians I talked to, with the CIA, displaced population all over the island and the world, the compounding of misery caused by the tsunami and subsequent conflict over the administration of tsunami aid, the seesaw over decades of military force, conquest, loss, always accompanied by and causing the death and suffering of the innocent – Iraq at its worst, but stretched over decades, intractable, with only the total exhaustion of the people able to stem the tide of violence even for a little while – the questions raised – when peace, how, if – are in themselves a cry against war.

In the end, Shyama (Nandita Das, another famous actress) and Amudha – birth mother and her daughter – come face to face, as the adopted parents look on. The scene, the climax of the movie, does not disappoint. The situation itself, mother and daughter reunited in a war-torn country, two good actresses, the embrace of pure unironic melodrama, and the mother’s need to choose between her daughter and her cause, is a combination, after two hours of spectacle and histrionics, that is bound to jerk some tears from you if you’ve got any to be jerked.

Amudha and her adoptive parents can go home to a normal, productive life, but Shyama is caught in an unending conflict that she can’t hope to escape, one of the many wars around the world that grind on, unstoppable and remorseless, with the outside world doing nothing to intervene.

This film won nine awards, including the Silver Lotus at the National Film Awards, India.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement ( “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

IMDB rating – 8.2.

Clean (2004)

Dedicated to reviewers who recognize and appreciate a real star when they see one. Now back off!

At the outset, Maggie Cheung is clean but she’s not “clean.” A friend of mine saw the movie and all he could talk about was Maggie. This is a guy who’ll watch a flick with Michelle Yeoh in it, or Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu or Gong Li or ZiYi Zhang, no matter what it’s about, him just sitting there taking in the sight of Maggie or Michelle or Ziyi onscreen in all her Asian-ness, Sandra in “Last Night” living up in Canada and working in indies long before becoming a doctor on TV, or Lucy slicing and dicing in “Kill Bill” with that Siamese-cat crossed-eyes thing she does, or Michelle the quiet, reserved, classy force in “Crouching Tiger” as opposed to her glamorized American persona when she does those interviews on DVD. Or Margaret Cho, if that’s your thing, popping up for a quick turn in “Lost Room,” strapped. And then my friend will say, oh, she was soooo wonderful, she’s soooo beautiful, blah, blah, got her up on a pedestal, the guy’s yellow fever running wild irregardless of the woman. What’s wrong with these men? Are they afraid to commit?

When Angelina Jolie (not interested!) starred in A Mighty Heart, the question that arose was whether she could disappear into her role in spite of her celebrity. With Maggie in Clean, it’s can she wrap up the role into her own selfness and walk through the movie without my friend jumping off the couch shouting That’s not you Maggie get ahold of yourself for the love of God! Because he’s used to all those Hong Kong action flicks she’s made, and then Kar Wai Wang. Now in Clean she has to be a 2nd-rate faded rock star junkie. Anybody who’s watched “Behind the Music” on VH1 knows what that’s all about. In other words, can we stay with her at least till she gets to her epiphany at 52 minutes into the film where she lowers a window in the subway train (which right there is why we should all move to Paris) and throws all her methadone and her methadone prescription out onto the tracks because she’s just tired of waitressing, arguing with her father, getting stood up at job interviews, working in a department store, and what else, oh yeah, her partner OD’ing on the stuff she brought him and then some other guy OD’ing shortly thereafter? And by the way, is it so wrong for her to look so good even if she’s supposedly using, because for a 43-year-old singer with a bad habit, she looks better than most ladies do on their best days, not like Courtney or a young kid like Lindsay Lohan, at 21 already showing major signs of wear and tear. More like Jennifer Connelly in “Requiem,” who even at the bottom of the barrel, hard used and I do mean hard used, is still looking pretty sharp. Let the Burstyns of this world take their parts over the edge using the Method or whatever. Maggie, getting out of a car in Canada at sunrise, down from a high: lookin good. Then out on the street after six months in prison, still heavily on methadone, with the hair intact just begging you to run your fingers through it: lookin good. But I will say, her so imposing onscreen, it’s shocking to see her standing next to Nolte and her ex in a publicity shot, looking as small as she does. But that’s good too. She’s delicate. They’re all delicate. Delicate fighting machines. Except Margaret. So anyway, just to have Maggie up there onscreen with that low, breathy, English accent, talkin oh so low, or easin along in Frenchy, or rating her papa in Cantonese. That’s what I’m talking about. Commit to a woman! Throw Nolte up next to her for the contrast. He’s the big dog in this production. Assayas and Maggie both were shy and in awe when he showed up. He’s got that Smoking-Gun mugshot look down pat, but he’ll always be Thomas Jefferson to me, scoring with Gwyneth and Thandie (not interested!) in Paris. (That’s Thandie before the eating disorder.) Btw, Maggie claims to do everything, be everything, make every sacrifice, all for Hong Kong, just for the Hong Kong fans. She says that. You could look it up. Not for Hollywood. Not for Europe or anyplace else in the world. Just Hong Kong. And me taking Cantonese classes like mad for her. And THEN she goes and marries a Frenchy.

Olivier Assayas, namely. That lout. Get a shave, Skinny! Are Asian women all attracted to hairy white males? Give some love to the man of color! Ass-ayas makes a couple of movies and thinks he’s God’s gift to women. Maggie’s well off without him. I don’t see that he’s remarried or has any children. Is he still carrying a torch for Maggie? Pray God he’s not. He treats her like a queen in this movie, even as she was signing the final divorce papers. The camera moons over her. He said that he just wants to allow her to be herself, show herself on screen. I’m not complaining! She dropped him; he didn’t drop her. I don’t know that for a fact but I hope it. I surmise it. “In the few years that we were together,” she says, not sadly. I definitely don’t think about the time they spent together, if you know what I mean. That’s water under the bridge, the time they spent together. He says he’s imagining her as a widow in this movie. You wish! Feel sorry for yourself, Olivier! In the movie, she doesn’t like any of the guys that much. You know she’s hanging out on the set with Emily Haine and the rest of Metric, and Tricky (who blows her off in the movie but as soon as the cameras stop, he’s back there, I guarantee), and David Roback, who wrote her songs for the movie, and James Johnson, who plays her partner. Johnson’s not even a real actor; it’s his first movie. He has a band and also sings with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Maggie argues with him in the movie and I didn’t buy that for a minute. It wasn’t bad acting on her part! She just doesn’t really care about the guy. I’m definitely not threatened by the Indie rock scene of the 80s; it’s extinct. The kids in Metric enthusing about staying in a nice hotel for a change during the shoot, and riding in a van that doesn’t smoke, whereas they’re used to rolling up to the gym to play for 40 minutes at a dance in Indiana. And btw, in their interviews, neither Metric nor Tricky nor Nolte ever MENTIONS Maggie. Why? Because Assayas cut it out. Jealous.

Just to say about Assayas: Maggie’s not goofy or all existential or mailing it in in Clean. Assayas lets her be herself, WANTS her to be herself, not some crazy sidekick to Jackie Chan or moonbat for Kar Kai Wong. That’s how I know Maggie dropped him, not the other way around. If you were in love with her but you could only, you know, film her, then you’d want it to be HER you were filming, right? In the same way, if you were in love with her but could only WATCH her movies, not really be with her live in person but only vicariously? Well, she’s been in more than 800 movies, believe it or not, so if you just ran two movies a day, that would be 730 movies a year, so you could spread out her other 70 or 100 movies over the year, maybe one extra movie every third or fourth day. Would that be enough to sustain your romance? No, but you’d also have her 358 YouTube entries. And you could go Google Maggie Cheung images. And you could also read reviews of her movies, but every clown out there has an opinion, knuckleheads trying to suck up to her and soreheads ragging on her. Speaking of YouTube, you can see the tribute clip I put together with shots of her and me getting together. It took me weeks to make it, especially using a handheld to get those shots of myself in action. [Rats they took it down.]

Maggie doesn’t get to interact with her son until we’re 60+ minutes into the movie. And by the way, if you’re the president of the oldest, most exclusive Maggie Cheung fan club in the U.S., shouldn’t you be entitled to at least a personal interview with her? Dinner together while we discuss her life and her work? She’s got this child in the movie whom she apparently doesn’t see much for his first seven or eight years, and then when she does, she’s pretty remote, like you’d expect, but does she have any children of her own? I’m trying to imagine her pregnant. Forget I said that. I think she’d be a good mother. I can imagine her being my mother. I’d run home and fly into her arms and bury my face… Aw what’s the use? And by the way, how seriously should we take the lesbian/bisexual aspects of this movie with reference to Maggie’s aspirations toward motherhood? What’s the cultural take on an individual’s casual liaisons with beautiful people of both sexes in the context of family values these days? I’m sensitive to any untoward discoveries that I might make if she and I would actually form a relationship. She’s used the name “Man-Yuk Cheung” in some of her billings. Not a good sign? But what if her “special friend” were Michelle or Lucy or Sandra? Man. Not much to go on in the film, though – she just admits it; it’s actually just a little distraction, but you know why Assayas put it in, the dog. Anyway, she’s an addict, she’s bisexual in a somewhat uncommitted way, she drinks and smokes a lot, but she looks great. A Maggie quote: “Because I’ve done so many different roles, I don’t want to repeat myself. It’s getting harder and harder to find something interesting.” This after only the first movie where she plays a normal human being? She says she’s not a lonely woman, which means she is. She should try hanging out with one of her greatest fans ha ha. Same as with her son, we don’t get her dealing with Nolte much till 60+ minutes into the movie. I’m like Nolte, sort of, under the skin, all wise and practical and whiskey-voiced. If she liked him, she’ll love me. If she does have kids, they could visit every once in a while. I could handle that. But I would tell her one thing: no singing. She wants to sing. She says so. But no. Talk, Maggie, in any of your various lingos. Just don’t sing.

Is it really so wrong to stalk a movie star? Folks are watching them all the time anyway. As long as you don’t bother her or do something inappropriate, why not? Join the paparazzi! Assayas is practically stalking her with his camera in Clean anyway. It’s a Vogue shoot. He’s not over her, is why. In the movie she’s running around Canada and Paris like she owns the place, just at home anywhere in the world. (What about those Canadian police, eh?) Assayas says it’s because she was born and raised in London, spent so many years in Hong Kong, and now in France. She doesn’t know where her roots are, so she takes them with her whereever she goes. One little stalker like me isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference.

My interview with Maggie: Finally caught up with Maggie last night at Mr. Chow on North Camden just off Wilshire in Beverly Hills. She was eating rabbit. A glass of red wine, high-gloss lipstick (she doesn’t need it), and a B. Romanek Crocodile Rockstar Clutch on the table next to her plate. Those dark, dark eyes, my God. I only had a second to ask her some questions about Clean, so I went with that scene in Paris: How do you lock somebody INTO a bathroom – is that a French thing? And how come Nolte’s son in the movie had such a thick English accent? And that final shot in the movie – Is that taken from Marin? Reversed? Doesn’t seem right to me. They were on location in S.F., but is it a Vancouver shot stuck in there? Anyway, Maggie answered me in Cantonese. I should have worked harder in that Chinese language class! The only word I caught before I had to leave was “rabid.” Must ask her to use English next time.

Be With Me (2005)

Directed by Eric Khoo.
Starring Theresa Chan, Ng Sway Ah, Seet King Yew, Exann Lee
93 minutes. Unrated.

In English, Cantonese, Hakkim, and Mandarin, with English subtitles.

“Be With Me” weaves three fictional romances around the true story of Theresa Chan, a deaf and blind woman living in Singapore.

Sometime during the first half of this film, I decided that director Eric Khoo must be a talented novice, in need of guidance but possessed of real film-making skill. I reined in some of my negative critical reactions because of this. However, I have since learned that Khoo was credited with reviving the Singapore movie industry ten years ago with “Mee Pok Man” (1995), and that after a silence of 7 years, he has recently directed three new films, one of them “Be With Me.” Which means that everything I saw onscreen, Khoo put there on purpose. What market and/or financial pressures and/or cultural perspectives caused him to make the peculiar choices he made, I can’t say, so I’ll simply report my viewing experience without feathers.

In the film, an old man loses his wife and learns to live without her; a social misfit stalks a beautiful woman and writes her a love letter; a teenager falls in love with a girl she meets on the internet, and then is jilted by her. Khoo cuts between these stories quickly, taking time out periodically to insert documentary-style film and exposition about Theresa Chan, who lost her hearing and then her sight when she was fourteen, to diseases that remain nameless in the film (meningitis, in fact).

The stalking and teen-love stories, although beautifully shot, are dramatically appropriate for no more than after-school TV; they don’t belong anywhere near Theresa Chan. There is a place for schoolgirls in bed together, don’t get me wrong, with urgent soapy music welling up in the background, and a place as well for failed suicide, and for death via getting hit on the noggin by a falling body, but these matters do not comport well with footage of an energetic sixty-year-old deaf and blind woman teaching eight-year-olds to knit. At least, not where I come from.

The third fictional segment of the movie is another matter. In long, composed, static shots with an an ambient soundtrack and subdued colors, an old man (Ng Sway Ah) is followed by the camera and studied as he closes his small shop in the city, shops for food, cooks at home, and lies in bed alone. The years of his long life are etched into his face and we’re given plenty of time to contemplate the rhythms of his day and the ravages of time on his body, and to compare him and his daily life with ourselves, with all the attendant intimations of mortality that this kind of mediation triggers in us. Rare opportunity, and a blessing.

In the film, the old man’s wife appears in many scenes with him, sitting or standing wordlessly by. I thought that she had some plot-driven, Alzheimer-like malady that caused her to behave this way. Turns out that she was a ghost. Don’t know why I didn’t get that, but in the end, as she faded away, it didn’t make any difference one way or the other. Similarly, I had trouble keeping track of which teenage girl was which, and whether either was related to the stalker, so forth. Again, in the end it didn’t matter.

And speaking of ambient sound, by muting the movie I could differentiate the cricket chirps in my backyard from those on the sound track. Counting chirps per minute, dividing by 4, and adding 40, I deduced that I was watching the movie at 75F, while in Singapore it was 88F while the night scenes were being shot.

Which brings us to Theresa Chan. Director/writer Khoo would have done well to toss out all of the film I’ve described so far, regardless of any poetry contained in it, and replace the lot with more footage of Chan. After a period of complete isolation within herself, sight and hearing gone, by a series of lucky chances Chan found herself enrolled in the Perkins School in Boston. She lived in the U.S. for ten years, learning to knit, ride horses, understand and speak English, and otherwise engage life and the world directly. We watch her type, cook, teach, and talk while we read her written words, expository and philosophical, in subtitles.

But how did she learn, starting alone, with only her sense of touch? Not to lower the tenor of this review, but I’m reminded of a recent podcast by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. These two knuckleheads spent thirty minutes debating the proposition that the Helen Keller story was an elaborate hoax, since in Smith’s estimation it would have been impossible for her to learn 90% of what she claimed to know, given her condition. (“SMODCAST” is available on Itunes. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.) Smith and Mosier had seen both versions of “The Miracle Worker,” but perhaps because they make movies themselves, they didn’t believe anything in either movie, Anne Bancroft or no Anne Bancroft. Anyway, the point is, Khoo would have been well advised to skip the three fictional tales and invest his production money in a ticket to Boston, for a visit and some interviews at Perkins.

Again, how was Theresa Chan able to maintain the lively spirit she exhibits? We want to learn more. It isn’t all good news. She lost her one true love and we read parts of her letters to him. She isn’t interviewed because the conceit of the movie is that hers is the fourth story, and that the old man’s eventual connection to her helps him to overcome his own loss and move on.

In the event, “Be With Me” is the film that got made. It’s message – and it definitely has one – is… well, Theresa Chan’s written words in the subtitles are about the importance of love. The three fictional stories are all about the rough edges of love. So perhaps the message is that love is important. (Theresa’s one true love died of cancer on Christmas Day, just before their wedding.) Love…is…important…

On the other hand, there is virtually no dialog in the film – ironic since four languages, plus braille, plus a sort of sign language on the hand, plus cell phone texting and internet email, are all employed – so maybe there is a message here about communication. As in, a deaf and blind woman can communicate better than all these other folks, and maybe better than YOU, so… communication…is…important…

Khoo’s artistic enterprise, then, is to cause me to cogitate on love and the importance thereof, or find inspiration in love, or just learn to communicate better with those I do love, or, wait, perhaps just to keep hope alive. There was something in there about how there is always hope. Never give up. So forth.

So, put aside for now my questions about how a person can learn when deaf and blind. Put aside my resonance with the everyday rhythms of an old man’s life.

Come to think of it, I did learn one thing from this movie: Teresa Chan is not a cynic, and neither is Eric Khoo. There is no cynicism or irony in this quiet, graceful movie. After watching it, I was, in fact, briefly, not cynical myself.

This film won five international film festival awards and was nominated for three others.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement ( – “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

Summer Palace (2008)

Spoiler Alert: If you want the ending of Summer Palace to be a surprise, read no further.

After watching two hours and twenty minutes of cigarette smoking in yet another Asian movie (see also my comments on the subject in my review of Drifters), I finally bestirred myself long enough to fish up the following news bites:

“Guiyang, China — Here’s some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health. Cigarettes, according to China’s tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers. They also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.”

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today. Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them. Even in China’s medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.”

“There is no market more important to the tobacco industry and no nation posing more challenges to tobacco control than China. With 350 million smokers and 1 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, China is the biggest challenge in international tobacco control.”

Summer Palace begins with its heroine Yu Hong (Lei Huo) at home in her village. Her boyfriend doesn’t have much to say to her, but he does urge her to try his imported cigarettes. Now I know why; he’s concerned about her health.


As much as I admire and respect Pauline Kael’s reviews, which appeared in the New Yorker for years, nevertheless, I began to take some of them with a grain of salt as she approached the end of her career, because I had the feeling that by then she had simply seen too many movies. She began to dismiss the familiar too quickly, or so it seemed to me, and began taking an interest in the unusual instead, whether the unusual in question merited her interest or not. I was thinking about this while watching Summer Palace because the film is a staring-off-into-space-athon and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m in the same boat as Pauline – seen too many – at least as far as this type of dialog-eschewing personal-interaction film is concerned. Have I seen too many anguished protagonists gazing moodily into the middle distance to react to the heroine Yu Hong as director Ye Lou would have me react? What is Yu Hong thinking, up there on the screen? Which way will she jump?

Why the pain? Is that the thousand-yard stare of a stunned brain I’m seeing, or a portal into her seething emotions? Can I apprehend and empathize with and finally appreciate her internal struggles or will I just shrug them off, always assuming that I can figure out what they are in the first place?

In American movies these days, the strong silent type is typically a man with limited acting skills who ends up pulling and using a gun or otherwise kicking major ass after being pushed too far. The problem with the silent stare in a movie with intellectual pretensions like Summer Palace is that as the film wears on, the protagonist can literally do or say anything and we’re obliged to take it and like it. Consistency cannot be an issue, since we can’t know for sure what the character has been thinking. The consequent action is the result of deep thought, we presume, or mental instability, or, as they say, whatnot. Or perchance the character will do nothing in the end, just continue to stare.

I watched an episode of The Wire just before watching Summer Palace.
Dense dialog, dense narrative. Corruption in a city where in the final analysis nothing is going to change. Meanwhile, in Summer Palace, one billion people undergo a decade of profound and radical change as the regime gradually opens into an authoritarian economic system. Scant dialog, scant narrative. Ironic.

And speaking of not talking to each other – during sex, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), Yu Hong’s main squeeze in the movie, wears earphones. Call me old-fashioned!

Non-dialog reaches new heights in a scene where the lovers are floating on a lake in a rowboat. This is one of those couples-in-a-boat-wordless-montage scenes, only this time, after stretching out interminably, the scene goes no-dialog time-lapse into the night with a full moon rising. Yu Hong will probably tell her diary that she
and Zhou Wei were talking into the night, after watching Zhou Wei rest on his oars for eight hours, smoking.

And then, back at the hotel after languishing in the boat, sex. And then, “Zhou Wei? I think we should break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” This is the signal to us that whenever things seem to be going well in the movie, Yu Hong will turn away and step off the curb into traffic, metaphorically speaking. An example of the viewer not knowing what is coming, not being a mind reader.

I believe that Yu Hong was still a frosh at this point. When I was a frosh, I had a couple of painful wordless dates but they didn’t end with me wearing headphones. Or not wearing them, either.

Waiting for the dialog in a film like Summer Palace is like reading a Henry James novel. He doles out the spoken words most sparingly – dialog was the crest of the wave, I think he said – but most of the time I was deep under water, longing for any sign of a set of quotation marks, on pages of solid print often missing even a paragraph break. I’m speaking of his late novels.

If director Ye Lou were making Casablanca here instead of Summer Palace, Ingrid Bergman would step into Rick’s Cafe with her husband, sit down at a table, and smoke and drink beer without speaking to Paul Henreid or anybody else, while Bogart stood at the back of the room, alternately staring at her and looking away, smoking, wordless. Their eyes would meet once. Later, at the end of the movie, after a clinch, Bogart would stare into her eyes and say “What next?” and Bergman would drag on her cigarette and look away, and he’d look away, and she’d look back but he wouldn’t, and she’d reply, “What next?” Then she’d look at him looking away some more and then one or both of them would turn and walk away. Lights up.

Lei Huo does a nice French inhale or two (or Irish waterfall, if you prefer) in the movie, while not talking, I’ll give her that. And there is a scene in a car where she and Zhou Wei drive, with lots of staring. He stares ahead. She stares ahead. Then she stares at him while he stares ahead, and that was good, her staring at him. That scene had some juice, wordless or not. Plus, they were filmed dead-on from in front of the windshield with the car vibrating from its motion, the most realistic such scene that I can remember seeing.

Director Ye Lou, a 43-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors (the Fifth Generation, growing up during the Cultural
Revolution, was more familiar with the rural than the urban), which also includes, for example, Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000), Xiaoshuai Wang (Drifters, 2003), and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). There is a definite trend in many Chinese Sixth Generation movies to skate over narrative and dialog (see, for example, The Wayward Cloud). Obviously, I need to be in the mood for this.

In Ye Lou’s case, the lack of dialog seems to grow out of his philosophy of film.

“I want Lei Huo to be the character, not pretend to be the character. If she’s just pretending, even if she’s a very competent actor, she’ll still harm the character, because the audience will just see her as a very good actor.”

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

This reminds me of Olivier’s reply to Hoffman, who was using The Method in Marathon Man to get into character and asked Olivier about the technique that he used to do the same. “Dear boy,” Sir Lawrence replied. “It’s called acting.”

Because to ensure that Lei Huo will “be the character,” Ye Lou provides her with virtually no dialog – he can’t presume, you see – and, unlike in a Mike Leigh film, she doesn’t trouble herself to develop any herself. Which
leaves us to divine what’s going on in her noggin by the expression on her purposely expressionless face. Lei Huo says “the character is like me in real life. She’s going to break my heart” but this doesn’t help me, since
I don’t happen to know Lei Huo personally. She’s a force though, with her nose often a little red.

But. Having said all that. It’s true that throughout the movie, once she gets to university, Yu Hong tells us what she is thinking by reading excerpts from her diary in voice-over. However, her thoughts as verbalized do
not illuminate; they merely reiterate the non-look on her face. Viz, after meeting her one true love for the
first time and dancing with him to “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” (neither of them speaking, needless to say):

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable. That’s how I saw things when we met. You came into my life. You are my most refined friend. It’s very simple. I knew the
moment I saw you that we were standing on the same side of the world. And then we talked the whole night long. For all that, there are troubling aspects to our relationship which can’t be reduced simply to pleasure or lack of it. I want to live more and more intensely. It’s clear to me, nowhere more so than in our relationship, because there are times when I’m clearly imposing my will on you. If one takes desire lightly, action will be
constricted. It was through love that I understood this. There’s no getting around it. There are only illusions. Illusions. Those lethal things.”

This load is dropped on us at one go, intercut with tracking shots of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), her new university lover, walking and gazing but not speaking. Perhaps they talked the night away and we never saw it, but more likely all the talking is being done directly into the diary. The message: the course of love never did run smooth. I think I can say with assurance that I never dated and danced and talked the night away
with a girl who had these thoughts running through her mind.

The dictum is “Show, don’t tell.” Here we have the opposite. The silence doesn’t show and the voice-over diary reading tells constantly.

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

“As soon as love touches you, life is knocked off balance.”

“True love can only appear at the most intense moments of anguish and suffering.”

Later one of Yu Hong’s lovers says, “You’re so simple. You’re different from other women. You’re simple and straightforward.” He obviously did not get his hands on the diary.

Of course, there are language and cultural issues here. In the absence of a gloss for the subtitles, this is where you pause the movie and turn to your spouse or significant other, if he or she happens to be from China,
to solicit some cultural and linguistic input that might help you pick up on the nuances in those diary entries and in the dialog and action in general. Because these are our fundamental hints about what is going on in the
minds of the characters and the hints are just enough but not more than enough to mute any surprise we might feel when, at the apparent height of their happiness, as they lie full-frontal (a Chinese first. Fifteen years
ago, kissing was hardly allowed), staring up at the ceiling with the camera aimed down at them, Yu Hong suggests that Xhou Wei get circumcised. Why? he asks. (Xiaodong Guo speaks as quietly throughout this movie as
anyone I can remember speaking on film without actually whispering.) Yu Hong replies, Because it would be less painful. Who told you that? he asks. My professor, she says. Why did he tell you that? Because, she says, we were making love. This puts an immediate damper on the couple’s romantic outing. Yu Hong follows an old romantic convention and walks away from happiness whenever she chances to encounter it.

Another quick scene that might benefit from a little cultural interpretation: Yu Hong is sitting in a public park next to a basketball court, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He’s late. She’s watching some young men play a pickup game. Her boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, hops off, and apologizes for being late. Suddenly, an outcry. He’s parked on the court or on a part of the street serving as the court. Immediately there is a struggle and he gets a shiner and scraped cheeks. The young woman joins in the fracas. The problem is, the conflict is instantaneous and obliquely shot, so that it is impossible to tell what’s happening, exactly. The scene feels clunky and staged, which is strange considering that it follows several quiet and evocative scenes that open the movie. Surely this doesn’t mean that Ye Lou doesn’t have the chops to handle a little action, action as majorly simple as this? He obviously isn’t a fan of Hong Kong movie brawls, but I’m thinking that I’ve missed some cultural nuance in the scene that might help account for its amateur feeling.

And one more word about taciturn actors: we don’t even get diary entries from Zhou Wei. He drives away from Yu Hong at the end of the movie without a word but with, we presume, extreme regret (though his face doesn’t show it). Who knows why?

Earlier, hanging out in Berlin because that is what the director did after he got out of school, separated now from Yu Hong, his true love, Zhou Wei sits next to a young Polish woman. The two are gazing out at a Berlin
wasteland. One presumes, on the evidence of the movie so far, that they are casually intimate, perhaps lovers.

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

Pause for some gazing and brow-wrinkling by the girl.

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

Gazing in tandem. I like it that the man from China and the woman from Poland are conversing quietly in German. Xiaodong Guo continues to speaks in a too-cool quiet voice.

“It’s ok,” he says.

I figured that that was going to be it for the scene but after another bit of gazing, she asks him if he has a girlfriend. He says that he does. We feel the painful significance of this terse reply. Where is she? the girl asks. Somber piano notes.

“Very far away,” he says in German with a Beijing accent.

“In China?”


“Where are we right now?” the girl asks. Zhou Wei exhales cigarette smoke. She says, “In Berlin?”

What she means by this, I have no idea. The first time I watched the scene I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time I was liking it. At least they were saying something to each other, even if it didn’t make any sense.

The director wanted to make an organic movie that grew, as if alive, and that involved the actors. What are the implications of this for the movie’s story? Is “organic” code here for “no plot,” or “no narrative,” or
“juryrigged narrative arc”? The makers of Manda Bala, which I just reviewed, went on a five-year hunt for a story with limited success. Ye Lou didn’t take that long, unless you count the fact that he’s been thinking about this film since his graduation from film school in 1989. His struggle is evident, though, in the same way that Jason Kohn’s was in Manda Bala – nurturing a hope that something will crop up. A failure of ability or imagination or no failure, but simply the constrictions on storytelling imposed by the original vision. The suicide in Summer Palace (wordless), and its wordless aftermath (serious staring off), and the abortion (wordless), and Yu Hong getting hit by a car, and some of the sex, and most of the rest of the staring-off-into-space in this film could have been eliminated, to the film’s benefit, by replacing it all with a little sharp dialog. Having said that, the movie never dragged for me; the two hours and twenty minutes it ran felt like less.

“I don’t want a construction, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says the director. In his opinion, the story would naturally end with the events in Tiananmen Square in ’89, which occur halfway through, but he must
show the consequences of Chinese economic and political development with respect to the students during the ten years that follow. He wants his film to live and it appears that in his view, forcing it into the straightjacket of a story would kill it. “One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn’t possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.” I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m oblivious to
metaphor in film. To the extent that the lives of the students in the decade after Tiananmen stand in for the economic and political developments in the country, the film doesn’t work for me. The director says that it’s a
melodrama, not a political statement; some commentators think that Western viewers will take the movie as a melodrama while Chinese viewers will react to the representation of China ten years ago. I got the melodrama and not so much the mood of that country in the 90s.

Regardless of my issues about dialog and narrative, I have nothing but respect for Ye Lou as a maker of movies. He made Weekend Lover in 1995 and then Suzhou River without permission, in 2002. Suzhou River won prizes and was praised as “exhibiting the most eloquent and
effortless command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom yet.” The Chinese government then put him out of business for two years. Ye Lou takes his movies seriously. After making Purple Butterfly in 2003, he did Summer Palace and was hit with another suspension by the government in 2006, for five years this time, because he entered the movie at Cannes
without permission. A sacrifice like that requires us to take second and third looks at his filmmaking philosophy. As does the praise for Summer Palace from the likes of A.O. Scott and David Denby.

“I’m just a director. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to get into boring politics in my films. Many Chinese directors practice self-censorship because of the tight controls. But I think this is fatal. Directors must be free. So I say to everyone when we are working, ‘Let’s forget censorship.’ That’s why there are always so many troubles after the film. But while I am shooting, I am very happy… In my opinion, in its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn’t free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can’t express your opinions freely, you can’t accurately judge the value of other people’s words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.” Summer Palace was withdrawn by the producers at Cannes after the Chinese government’s reaction to its release.

The movie had more film-making resources available to it than most Chinese films. Scenes were shot in six different cities, through four seasons, with rain, wind, and summer heat. (Do Asian movies do rain best? It can come down in buckets. Rashomon – now that was rain.) To make this romance about the youth of his generation, Ye Lou returned to the same dorm rooms he had lived in at university. If I returned to the dorm rooms that I lived in at Occidental and Tufts and dressed them to match the time that I was there, and then filmed moments of political, cultural, and physical awakening in them that matched my own, I expect that the results would resonate powerfully with me. Wow. But probably not with anybody else. Would this cloud my judgment around the dramatic and esthetic issues that arise while making a film? I know nothing about Beijing University and the Summer Palace next door to it, other than that the school’s interior looks a lot like a hard-used middle school I used to know in the toughest neighborhood in Detroit.

Similarly, after college the peregrinations of the students reflect the director’s own post-graduate travels. Zhou Wei hies off to Germany (Ye Lou met his wife in Berlin), Dong Dong to the U.S., the others to large cities in south China. We see the wall in Berlin coming down, Gorby, Hong Kong reverting to china. But there are two hundred cities in China with a population over one million and I can’t name three of them; the director’s
scheme of moving south city by city to indicate, metaphorically, the opening of Chinese economic policy in the 90s (it having always been easier to operate in China the farther south you went) was lost on me. Perhaps if these students had started in Detroit and headed down to St. Louis, and then Nashville, Texarkana, Santa Fe, and Venice Beach, and Italy instead of Germany, I might have registered more fully the zeitgeist presented in the movie. I was talking to a couple of young people the other day who are working in online data acquisition in Boston. They’ve been having the feeling lately, after a couple of years in private industry following a lifetime in school, of “This is it? This is what it means to finally be an adult?” Questions which anyone in this movie would understand. At university in Beijing in ’89, everything seemed possible. The world could be changed. In the second half of Summer Palace, the former students learn that this feeling was an illusion, something that Yu Hong realized much sooner.

The ’90s were a time of confusion for many twenty-somethings in China. The characters in Summer Palace spend a lot of time acting confused. I take the point. There is old China here but there is also Coca Cola in the big red bottle on the ferry, and this is the first time I recall seeing a mainland China gas station. It wasn’t self-serve. Just off the freeway. Had a mini-mart. The thing about character confusion is that, in the absence
of dialog, it can edge into boredom, aimlessness, and ennui, which can then translate into boredom for the viewer, especially if the viewer doesn’t knit. It occurred to me to wonder at one point about the difference, if any, between the boredom of childhood, the boredom of adolescence, that of young adults, of parents, of the middle-aged, of seniors, and of pet dogs. And whether the boredom engendered by a bad action flick is the same as or different than the boredom caused by an art movie with a bad case of the longeures. These are questions to pursue in a later review, when a truly boring movie comes along.

Mick LaSalle in his podcast the other day said that the key to an effective romantic sex scene (as opposed to the other types of sex scene) is to make sure that longing precedes it. This is a forte of current Chinese
filmmakers. They tell love stories, with all the difficulties so often attendant to them, and they seem to specialize in longing. Consider the movies I’ve mentioned above, or any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. Summer Palace begins with an entry in Yu Hong’s diary:

“There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I can only call it love.” Love blows in like a wind, and it’s an ill wind that blows no good. With fifteen minutes left in the movie, Zhou Wei learns that Yu Hong is married. The longing on his part takes a final, major step up.

You’ve got to look long and hard to find this kind of movie in the West. Romantic comedies, sexual-attraction movies, historical romances like The Age of Innocence from time to time, but modern longing and romance? Not so much. This is not to say that most of Yu Hong’s sexual activity is meant to be romantic. Instead, she says in her diary, “It’s only when we’re making love that you
realize that I’m gentle.” She teaches a number of men that she’s gentle by using this direct method. She has tried countless other ways but has chosen this special direct method as the most efficacious. I have a feeling
that the word “gentle” does not do justice to Yu Hong’s original conception, but one way or another, it’s all about her trying to be accepted as good and tender. Thinking back, I’m wondering if any of those women I knew
were just trying to show me that they were gentle. Question: Does longing for one person make sex scenes with someone else work? Yu Hong, for example, while longing for Zhou Wei, finds love with Wu Gang (at least until “material poverty can only lead to resentment”). Hmm, now that I think of it, most of the sex in the movie involves longing for someone absent.

Li Ti (the suicide) wouldn’t allow anyone to love her for fear of hurting them. “Love is like a wound in the heart. When it heals, love disappears. Or never existed.”

Ye Lou calls Summer Palace a melodrama, not a historical study. Most of its two-and-a-half hours is spent examining love, watching young men and women in love, trying to explain love.

Ye Lou: “Then love is like a leaf in the universe. if the universe were a tree, love would be a leaf on the tree. And we can glimpse at the shape of the universe by looking at just one leaf. So I can just depict the love. Once I’ve protrayed the love, I’ve portrayed the universe.”

Well, if I see an elm leaf, I can’t tell you what the trunk of the tree looks like. Does Ye Lou succeed in explaining love, or are we simply peppered with notions?

“Why was it that nothing he had said to me or done to me could prevent my heart from going out to him,” Yu Hongs says. I never spotted Zhou Wei actually saying or doing anything in particular to her, so I take the
question to actually be a statement. The director has said that love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond events, that it can’t be restrained, that we can’t demand anything of it. We can’t expect it to bring happiness, or marriage, or a long and happy life together. He says that emotional torment takes time, a lot of time, to resolve. For Ye Hong and Zhou Wei to come back together and stay together, the director says, would have taken them another decade of longing and would have taken him another hour of screen time. Now I don’t feel so bad that they didn’t get back together.

So, a movie about love. What do I take away from it? If you’re in love and you have sex repeatedly, it doesn’t lead to boredom, as in real life, but to unhappy longing for your absent partner. Or vice versa. I hope the director has had better luck with love than his characters in Summer Place, because, in this movie, not to lower the tenor of the review, if love strikes, you’re f**ked.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

I’m a film gourmand, not a film gourmet. If it’s not The Matrix or Smokin’ Aces, somebody needs to take me by the hand and lead me through the movie. Otherwise I’m lighting up and watching something that I can understand. I watched a movie last month, Mon Oncle Antoine, about a boy in a small town out in the woods. It was an allegory. “Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.” See what I mean? The boy in Mon Oncle had to help somebody pick up a dead body and put it in a coffin: the boy is the populace of Quebec; the dead body is the old repressive government; the coffin is the history books. It’s like… it’s like… Obama picking up a squirrel carcass in the street and burying it by the flagpole in the back yard.

So as soon as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (aka Wild Horses of Fire (WHOF)) started, I knew that I was going to require guidance of some sort. Because the Janus Films logo came up and I know from long experience that that logo of yesteryear, as with Criterion today, signifies some sort of heavy load in the offing. And also, a subtitle said that the movie would take place in the hoary Carpathians (the Carpathians are shaped like a sickle, with the middle of the blade, the eastern part, being the Ukranian, or hoary, part). And because the movie then starts with a jew’s harp orchestra and a mother with an ax and a man saying “There is no devil in church… only in man.” And mustaches right out of Karl’s House of Fun (“Jokes, Gags, and the Perfect Bong”). And a man is killed, and then another. Who’s who here? What’s going on? Ear-piercing folk music rattles me. So I hit the Pause button and consulted my series of pipes. “The tall, thin trees create an exaggerated linearity, a sense of continuity, that provides a paradox to the brevity of their existence, and also symbolizes the eternity of true love…..the pervasive religious images are transfigurations of the purity of love… The color composition suggests emotional incongruence… the film is a testament to the inexorable power of destiny.” Does this mean it’s an allegory? I checked in with my artisically- and politically-aware friends Ivan (Ukranian) and Igor (Russian). They told me that the director, Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1993), was a trusted regionalist moviemaker (Georgian/Armenian) who quietly praised the glories of the Soviet Union and burlap underwear, but then suddenly unleased WHOF on an unsuspecting Russian Empire in 1964, to the horror of the apparatchiks in the Kremlin, and was lucky that he didn’t earn himself an immediate trip to the Gulag on the first string of cattle cars pulling out of the trainyard adjacent to his editing studio. In the years to come, he was accused of incitement to suicide, trafficing in art objects leading to homosexuality, and much more, and did spend fifteen years unable to work and five years in the Gulag. In the end he made three more major films (available boxed by Kino) – The Color of Pomegranates, The Legend of Suram Fortress, and Ashik Kerib. There is a documentary about him, Paradjanov: The Last Spring (1992).

So I can give a guy a chance, allegory or no allegory, when he’s paid a price like that. Such as Ye Lou, who made Suzhou River and got sent off by the Chinese government for two years, came back and made Purple Butterfly and then said, oh what the hell and made “Summer Palace” and shipped it to Cannes without permission, earning another five years of punishment. So watching Summer Palace, I got my head in a benign place. Same with WHOF.

And the thing about WHOF is that Paradjanov in filming those forgotten ancestors up there in the mountains, decided to go for the wild-fire-horse esthetic. He throws striking image after striking image onto the screen to the accompaniment of that crazed background mountainfolk caterwauling, plus the harps, fifteen-foot shepherdhorns,and bagpipes with their bags evidently taken from the Russian version of an 1850s Hoover. If you don’t like what you’re looking at, wait a minute because there’ll be something else completely different on the screen a minute later and I must say, some of my favorite movie scenes of all time are to be found in WHOF, scenes that I can loop back over again and again – I’m thinking here, for those of you familiar with the movie, of the barge passing in the river, the rain, wind, snow, fire, and big ball of white cheese in the barn, and Palagna starting to unmount from her horse in order to be mounted, but slipping to the ground completely overcome by passion – and that’s wearing five layers of wool. Word of advice: don’t marry a woman like this unless you’re in that top percentile when the wool comes off.

I should mention that I found a mouldering VHS copy of WHOF at a local library, back behind three Smokey and the Bandits. Strangely, this respected film is hard to find on the DVD shelves, at least where I live. One missing copy is “Claimed Returned,” another is just absent from its little box. But several years ago, the spouse at my request picked up a VCR player at Costco, dirt cheap and at least as obscure and forgotten in the big-box store as WHOF seems to be at the library, for just such an occasion as this. The film, squeaking on its reels, white bands of tape static cutting through it like lightening, might have been produced in the very Carpathians that it features. The primitive here isn’t just the story depicted, but the film style itself. Made not in the 60s, it almost seems, but back in the past that it is recording, with a camera made out of wood and rock. Why so rough? Paradjanov’s movies don’t all present this way. So it occured to me that in WHOF he decided to go stylisticly rustic and having so decided, adopted a type of method directing. That is, he went native behind the camera. Suppose, for example, that you (I’m talking to you. Thanks for reading this far.) decided to make a film about a mentally challenged person, and you included in your directorial esthetic the feeling that you yourself, behind the camera, were somehow in fact mentally challenged. Or suppose that you’re making a western and you let fly a stream of tobacco juice from your director’s perch, into the frame, every so often. Paradjanov acts like a filmmaker hired by the tribe to record its weddings and funerals and herding techniques (which he does), while hiding his camera in a sheep blind.

And speaking of passion, this is the one with Tatyana Bestayeva nude in the great outdoors, who, when she’s approached by a local herdsman stunned by what he is seeing, rather than shrinking away from him, says “Never seen a woman?” “Not like you,” he replies, and I believe him. When she hooks up with the local sorcerer, a tree bursts into flame. That’s sex!

When I watched “10 Canoes,” I happened to know something in advance about the Tiwi culture of Northern Australia; this made all the difference in understanding and appreciating the movie. On the other hand, with “Summer Palace” and “Drifters,” I had the distinct feeling that many subtleties of Chinese culture were eluding me completely. Such was undoubtedly also the case with WHOF. One sees but perhaps does not understand. No matter. There are the images. I thought northern Canada was cold, but now this. Christmas costume frolics with the hero dressed as Death. Snap-brim fedoras in households with a calf under the dinner table. Rain that appears to come down on the heroine’s head from a hose. YouTube provides various clips. The online 5.5GB version features brilliant color and extras that include a documentary about Paradjanov’s friendship with Tarkovsky. And just once, when we get the firing into the air with rifles, I’d like to see chunks of lead fall back and conk somebody on the noggin.