Saturday, November 28, 2020

Days (Rizi)










Director Tsai Ming-liang

Actor Lee Kang-Shen

Actor Anong Houngheuangsy










DAYS (Rizi)    B+                                                                                                                       Taiwan  France  (127 mi)  2020  d:  Tsai Ming-liang 

It’s been 7-years since his last feature film, Stray Dogs (Jiao you) (2013), which at the time was announced as his last and final film, and in many ways it felt like a summation of his entire career.  Once again starring the wordless Lee Kang-Sheng, the picture of disaffected youth early in his career, now older, more world-weary, a non-actor who has been with this director from the beginning in 1989 when he was working in television, appearing in every feature since meeting by chance outside a Taipei arcade, making their partnership unique in the annals of cinema.  Never intending for Lee to appear in every film, their relationship evolved over time, with the director appreciating the actor’s complete independence from acting methods, declaring 20-years later, “Without this face, I don’t want to make films anymore” (Tsai Ming-Liang on Lee Kang-Sheng | Asia Society), actually working a decade longer than Jean-Pierre Léaud worked with François Truffaut (never appearing in every film), with both actors growing up onscreen right before our eyes, where it’s hard to think of one without the other.  Tsai’s early films played at the Chicago Film Festival where he made regular appearances, looking like a Buddhist monk, where his films are like fervent prayers, evoking a mysterious connection to otherworldly realms, where the glacial pace sets him apart, with near perfect cinematic compositions, including long extended takes where next to nothing happens, slowly allowing time to pass, establishing his own pace and rhythm, yet if it’s possible to connect on his wavelength, to fully identify with his lead character, his films are among the most personal expressions in the entire cinematic universe, as evidenced by Francesco Quario on Letterboxd.  Using no dialogue or subtitling, this film combines the cultures from three different cities, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, opening with a middle-aged Lee sitting in the living room of the director’s own home in Taipei, calmly looking out through a glass window as a storm rages outside, contrasting themes of tranquility with a combustible energy.  He also introduces a new character, the much younger Anong Houngheuangsy (aka: Non), a Laotian immigrant who works in Bangkok, met in a chance encounter selling noodles in a food court, seen following a meticulous cooking regimen that resembles the ritualized kitchen habits so fondly recorded by Chantal Akerman, thoroughly cleaning fish and vegetables on his apartment floor as he prepares a meal over a live indoor charcoal fire, which probably violates every known health and safety code, but this is Bangkok.  After the meal, he takes a shower using a bucket of water that he continually splashes over his body, using soap out of a bottle to thoroughly wash his face, seen later hanging around outdoor booths set up for nighttime food or shopping.  After the storm, a chronic neck ailment is associated with Lee’s character that recalls a similar reference in THE RIVER (1997), identifying a real-life medical issue following this actor, with Tsai including some radical acupuncture heat treatments with burning embers that he received in Hong Kong, filmed with near documentary style precision, looking painful and gruesome.  Afterwards he spills out into the busy city streets, with a hand-held camera following him through the hustle and bustle of street congestion, where at least part of the film mirrors Lee’s medical treatment plan, including walks to and from the doctor’s office.   

By the time Lee gets back to a hotel room, he sleeps alone in a chair next to a large picture window overlooking the towering city skyscrapers, where if you watch carefully a helicopter enters the picture near the beginning, fades into the distance before returning into the foreground, seen carefully landing on a hotel rooftop.  In much the same way, Tsai shoots a glass building exterior, with the camera peering into a row of brownish-tinged windows looking dilapidated, where many are cracked or broken, yet again if you look closely, the shadow of a black cat comes into view just under the top row near the right, stops as if to clean itself and lifts its head before continuing on a journey across the frame from right to left, occasionally moving out of sight, yet moving all the way across the screen.  Only a director like Tsai would have the patience to set up a Zen-like shot like that in a film, and only his viewers, trained to observe closely, would discover the hidden secrets contained within.  What follows is the centerpiece of the film, as the two characters meet wordlessly in a dimly lit hotel room, with Lee arriving first, making preparations, removing the comforter and sheet, then lying naked on his stomach awaiting the arrival of his guest.  Non, dressed only in Calvin Klein whities, initiates a massage, using oil from a bottle to thoroughly rub over his entire body, with Lee from time-to-time making audible moans.  In something close to real time, the massage continues with Lee turning over on his back, applying the exact same technique, this time accentuating sexual pleasure.  While below the waist remains offscreen, it becomes the focus of attention, graphically showing two men having gay sex, displayed with affection, ending with a flurry of kisses on the mouth.  In the aftermath, Lee showers with Non assisting, both getting dressed afterwards, with Lee handing over money, but also a gift that contains a small music box playing the theme to Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952, Eternally (Terry's Theme) ― Chaplin 『Limelight』 - YouTube (2:58), a beautiful reference to Silent film, yet also a film coming near the end of Chaplin’s career that served as a farewell to both movies, art, and America (exiled to England during the McCarthyist witch hunts under accusations of being a Communist, his visa revoked, banned from ever returning to America), among his most personally revealing films, with Non rewinding continually so the music never stops.  It’s a heartwarming moment, shown with tenderness and affection, revealing something more than a sexual liaison, offering a gesture of lasting value.  As the two men exit separately, Lee catches up to him and they’re seen walking down the street together, stopping at a noodle place to eat, shot from across the street, with all the cars and trucks passing by in the foreground, offering a moment in time, like a photo album snapshot, captured in the background as time literally passes them by.

The film may be a tone poem on isolation and distance, capturing with evocative spareness a feeling of alienation and human vulnerability, feeling at times like a meditation on profound human sorrow, where this film may touch upon the aging process as well, as our bodies that we once took for granted start breaking down with various maladies, yet told with grace and compassion, including intensely-observed close-ups, allowing us a glimpse into the personal lives of familiar friends, perhaps even a bit sentimental at this stage in their lives, yet also finding someone new, representative of the changing times, a young man migrating to a foreign country to live and work, sharing a historical connection with the director, who was born in Malaysia and moved to Taiwan in his 20’s.  Later we see Lee, living a spacious existence, tending to his fish in the backyard, as he has quite a collection of tropical fish, where it appears he is even filming them, while Non is back in his apartment preparing food, this time using a different assortment of larger pots.  Lee takes an evening stroll, which appears to be physically exhausting, before both are seen sleeping in their beds.  Separate and apart for the entire film, they are brought together in one climactic scene, but return back to their solitary lives, yet the camera finds their faces, each lost in thought, capturing years of loneliness etched onto Lee’s face, while Non is younger with a bright future still ahead of him.  It’s an interesting contrast in worlds, like a teacher and his apprentice, a master and his student, that also involves the nearly lifelong relationship between Tsai and Lee Kang-Sheng, sharing so many personal moments, yet also extremely aware that they are nearing the end of their run together, making it all that much more gratifying, where the film seems to be an open reflection on their work and personal relationship together, filled with tiny moments and shared memories, but also mutual feelings of endearment that make it seem more like their own love affair.  For Tsai, this isn’t just any film, but a culmination of his entire career, mirroring Chaplin at the same age, questioning one’s mortality, offering viewers a personal memento, much like the gift of the music box.  Later Non is seen sitting alone on a corner street bench, pulling the gift out of his backpack and playing it, where it can still be heard, but is drowned out by the street noise.  The emphasis, however, and the intent behind it, bathes the screen like a gentle rainstorm washing away our anguish and heartaches, with Non finally getting up and walking off into the night.  The film connects back to THE RIVER (1997), when actor Lee-Kang-Sheng was only 20-years old, now entering his early 50’s, still looking surprisingly fit, but struck by mysterious ailments that slow him down.  The film has a cathartic effect, acting as a salve for an aching soul, offering a medicinal tonic not just for weary times, but it feels more like a love letter to their ongoing screen relationship, openly sharing their uniquely gifted talents, offering one for the ages. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Striding Into the Wind (Ye Ma Fen Zong)


Director Wei Shujun


STRIDING INTO THE WIND (Ye Ma Fen Zong)              D                                                China  (130 mi)  2020 d:  Wei Shujun     original length 156 mi  

Film, especially auteur cinema, requires strong independent thought.                                   —Wei Shujun

One might think this is a stab at portraying the hopeless dreams of misguided youth, yet simply put, it’s a rambling, incoherent mess, a sardonic slacker satire suggesting the Farrelly Brothers’ DUMB AND DUMBER (1994) has finally made its way to China, featuring a couple of imbecile Beijing college students, our hero Kun (Zhou You) and his chubby incoherent sidekick Tong (Tong Lin Kai), both film students who are attempting to master the art of holding the sound boom, as it’s the easiest job they could find on a film set.  With few redeeming features, it would not be unfair to describe this as one long, exaggerated experiment gone wrong, where its inclusion on the festival circuit is puzzling.  Maker of the 15-minute short film ON THE BORDER (2018), which was awarded a Special Jury Distinction prize in the short film competition at Cannes, this is not really a comedy, not really a feature, and it’s certainly outside the norms of traditional Chinese filmmaking, or any other nation, for that matter, where this may stand out by being decidedly different, reflecting a rebellious outsider streak, but what’s sad is how the mocking attempt at satire only makes clear just how dysfunctional things are both on the movie set, yet it’s an equally painful expression of a hollow society at large, offering little hope for the future.  Part of the difficulty of the film is trying to make any sense out of it, as any attempt at narrative just seems missing, feeling instead like a collection of random occurrences, where these two screw-ups just don’t fit in anywhere, selling stolen test exams on the side, and are largely rejected by society as a whole, offering no real reason why anyone would want to pay attention to them, much less feature them in a movie.  This is the kind of film where, as a viewer, you’re fighting the urge to simply walk out or shut it off, because honestly, this is one prolonged headache that is mind-numbingly dull, feeling like a complete waste of time.  Having stuck through it, there is really nothing to be gained, as those are simply two hours of your life that you’ll never get back.  The film is as aimless as the featured character himself, likely a self-portrait, where even the coherence of these briefly written paragraphs are in stark contrast with the nebulous style of the movie.  

While this may be an attempt at hipsterism, like a couple of numbskulls appearing in a Kaurismäki movie, but it lacks the wit and dry humor that endears one to that director, where one continually questions the thought behind this project, as it may simply be one long, rambling autobiographical vanity project, like checking off the boxes of things that might have happened in his life, as if adhering to notes scribbled in a diary, but he utterly fails to string them together in any coherent fashion that would provide sense or meaning for others.  Kun, strangely enough, is the son of a policeman, yet he’s something of a misfit that defies authority, seen early on failing his driving test in his quest for a driver’s license, making a scene, exiting hopping mad even before the test is over, seen running away, leaving no doubt as to the results.  Nonetheless, the first thing he does afterwards is go shopping for a car, the cheapest option possible, which turns out to be a broken-down ’97 Jeep Cherokee that offers possibilities, with the salesman recognizing a free spirit, promising a purchase would not only guarantee access to the open road, but “You’ll have a fabulous life too.”  Dreaming of driving to Inner Mongolia (just under 800 miles from Beijing), this is just what the doctor ordered, so long as they don’t get stopped by the police, which of course, plagues him for as long as he owns the vehicle.  In his final year of studying sound recording with his goofy boom operator buddy Tong, they get called out in class for ignoring the professor and conducting their own nonstop conversation throughout his lecture, mostly spent tipping nude cam girls on their phones, forcing them to have to repeat the course with the same professor next term, yet both have also signed on to work on a student graduation film by the arrogant and overly pretentious Ming (Wang Xiaomu), invoking the names of Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Hong Sang-soo in every self-congratulatory shot, using that as an excuse not to write a script, evoking empty expressions, like ”The film will become alive on its own, once the camera rolls,” proclaiming it’s all about the “spirit of the grasslands,” featuring a Mongolian actress in a rambling work supposedly set in the Mongolian grasslands, shot entirely in Beijing, of course, but Kun dreams of making that long and arduous trek in his Jeep.   

Initially Kun is seen having a girlfriend, Zhi (Zheng Yingchen), a cute but fiery hostess working hospitality events, but she quickly loses patience with his colossally poor judgment, tired of hearing his broken promises, realizing his irresponsibility will never amount to anything, dumping him on the spot even before viewers understand their connection in the first place.  Perhaps most inexplicable, they meet a construction boss with dreams of becoming a rapper, calling himself High$eas, developing concept albums with galactic implications, where these two fools can’t even give away the promotional CD’s to students and end up using them for target practice along an isolated stretch of train tracks.  These guys just refuse to embrace the idea of work, and avoid it as much as possible, yet spend all their time trying to devise ways to make money, but are inevitably stymied by an overly restrictive society implementing authoritarian rules.  Living on the fringe, outside all laws, his only options are black market scam operations, like obtaining a fake driver’s license and then driving that Jeep just about everywhere, where he’s practically living in it, but it’s always breaking down, subject to endless repairs that continually drain them of money, taking Kun’s dreams along with it, while Tong’s startling revelation is paying all that money for four years at college just to learn how to press two buttons.  The exotic celebratory banquet after the film shoot is garishly opulent and excessive, spending money they don’t have, all meant to represent some grandiose success story that doesn’t exist.  Kun’s irreverence takes him off the beaten path but leads him nowhere, as his car breaks down, he gets arrested, and sent to a detention center where his father has to make things right.  He even has to sell his beloved Jeep for next to nothing, evaporating his elusive dreams of freedom on the road.  On the cab ride back, the radio plays the latest sensation, none other than High$eas, which feels ironically fitting, with all his dreams now up in smoke, where we’re left somewhere lost in his imagination, with final images of wild horses running free on the vast emptiness of the Mongolian plains, a symbol of infinite freedom, but blink and there’s nothing there.  Inexplicably, this film ends on a sublime grace note, with the same Bach piano chorale played at the end of Pawlikowski’s 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida, though it’s not Alfred Brendel playing, BWV639 'Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ' Brendel 1976 (3:39), feeling utterly out of place with the chaos that preceded it.