Sunday, August 13, 2017

Edward Yang's "Taipei Story" at SIFF Cinema: Aug 18 - 20

In an environment brought about by the decline of the commercial and propagandistic cinema of the previous epoque, with the lifting of martial law and the growing popularity of home video, film watching became a widespread activity for the Taiwanese. In this more open, incrementally democratizing environment, the domestic Taiwanese film industry faced the new challenge of the entry of Hong Kong films into the Taiwanese marked. In response to the influx of both black market product of western and Asian cinema from without, the Central Motion Picture Company began an initiative to support several young directors, fresh out of film school and academia. The "In Our Time" anthology, which featured four new developing talents; Te-Chen Tao, I-Chen Ko, Yi Chang, and Edward Yang, was the groundwork for what would come to be known as the first New Wave within Taiwanese cinema. Along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, celebrated author Chu Tien-wen, Chen Kunhou and the great talent of Edward Yang, this New Wave grew largely unbridled by censorship and political interference. By contrast to the commercial melodramas and martial arts films issuing from Hong Kong, (see Shaw Brothers Studio for reference), the films of the New Wave portrayed the passing of time through the everyday lives of the citizens of urban and rural Taiwan. Sharing an emphasis on duration, long shots and a focus on narrative and stylistic simplicity with the films of the Italian Neorealism, this New Wave intimately chronicled Taiwan's socio-economic and political transformation in the 1980s. The second New Taiwanese Cinema movement of the 1990s produced a generational doublet of young directors who picked up the torch left behind in the wake of the New Wave of the decade before. With an eye to the International Festival Circuit, this second generation of non-commercial arthouse cinema built upon the foundation of the movement that proceeded them. In a filmmography of beguiling, often time-distended works, no other Taiwanese director has advanced the art to the extent of Tsai Ming-Liang. Roger Clarke's "The Incomplete Tsai Ming-liang" for The Guardian, and Senses of Cinema's Great Directors feature detail the subjects of longing, time, connectivity and estrangement explored this singular body of work. Crediting the trailblazing work of the New Wave's first generation, the director spoke in 2010, "On the Uses and Misuses of Cinema" for an audience at Taiwan's National Central University.

Yet despite the international acclaim and festival recognition given to the leading directors of the New Taiwan Cinema, their films have rarely been shown outside of occasional festival screenings. This has remained the case until the major, and quite recent, exception of Edward Yang's "Yi Yi: A One & A Two". Winning the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2000, the film was an important testament to the movement’s collective, collaborative spirit. Edward Yang's extraordinary and unanimously praised masterpiece also marked the end of a chapter for the major talents in the movement, with Yang's passing in less than a decade after it's completion. As detailed in Kent Jones, "Yi Yi: Time & Space" for Criterion, in many ways Yi Yi summarizes Yang's lasting contribution to World Cinema. The film showcases the dystopian imbalance and accelerated growth towards modernization that are central themes of both Senses of Cinema's Great Directors feature Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent, "Exiles in Modernity: The Films of Edward Yang". Guided by his acute sensitivity to the familial and spacial structures that enclose and trap the lives of his characters, Yang depicts their inner and outward struggles that often erupt through lives of frustrated creativity. The deeply restless searching of the struggling creators and ethically conflicted entrepreneurs that recur through Yang’s films, personify the longings, humor and earned wisdom of the generation who witnessed the profound socio-cultural transformation brought on by Taiwan's economic boom. While retroactively earning Films of the Decade selection by the British Film Institute as well as the BBC's global poll of 177 film critics and Film Comment's End of the Decade Critics' Poll, only in recent years has it been the case that cinema culture has, "(Re)Discovered the Elusive Master Edward Yang". Crowned by the recently restored tale of "Coming of Age in Taipei" that is the magnum opus, "A Brighter Summer Day", these recent retrospectives showcasing the strength of his seven ambitious feature films. Most notably, Film Society at Lincoln Center's, "A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang" and Harvard Film Archive's, "The Taiwan Stories of Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen", have presented the totality of Yang's feature works, including that of the urban struggles of "Modern Planning" depicted in 1985's "Taipei Story". Bridging two pivotal life points of the "Displaced, Disaffected and Desperate to Connect" in a single generation,  these two works chronicle the development of this arthouse master, particularly in the case of his intimately biographical portrait of, "One Couple’s Promising ‘Taipei Story,’ Slowly Undermined".

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lav Diaz's "The Woman Who Left" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 9 - 10

Much was said at the time concerning 2014's epic re-imagining of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" by the director at the forefront of Filipino cinema. Not least of which it ranking on notable Films of the Year lists, cited as a highlight of Cannes, and with it's theatrical distribution the following year, as Film of the Week for both Sight & Sound and Film Comment. Unlike the larger body of Lav Diaz's work, this four hour color feature diverged from what's come to be called Slow Cinema in that "Norte, the End of History" is as much a dynamic personal fiction with the ebb and flow of a narrative drama, set within the duration and structural expanses of Slow Cinema's spacial ambiance. This vantage from the perspective of the interpersonal is the force that moves the viewer through the film's inner and outer landscapes, guided by "Rays of Humanity in a Vile World: ‘Norte, the End of History,’ a Dostoyevskian Fable". More than any other work, it can be seen as a culmination of Diaz’s long engagement with the Russian novelist, as the most fully realized of his "Dostoevsky Variations". What the director most shares with the Russian novelist is is in the tone, attitude, and sensibility of his films; the gravitas, unrestrained philosophical questioning, cryptic humor and brief outcroppings of melodramatic tendencies all manifest in similar fashion. Where "Norte, the End of History" differs most in regard to the great Russian novel, is that Dostoevsky's relentless manhunt is replaced with an existential quest through massive, unpopulated landscapes and dark city streets of the Filipino island of Luzon.Returning to Russian literature for inspiration and the general structure of its social and ethical concerns, "The Woman Who Left" is another of Diaz's addressing of the operations of poverty, postcolonial malaise, corruption, social injustice and failing rural communities in his home country. Loosely based on a resetting of Leo Tolstoy's “God Sees the Truth, but Waits", this winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival was among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2016, operating as both a closely tied personal tale, and a larger social narrative as an "Epic, Intimate Tale of Injustice".

In interview with The Guardian, and Cinema-Scope, Diaz has asserted that much of his work is the exploration of historic epochs, whether the years under Ferdinand Marcos, or colonization under Spain, acting as a contextualization and critique, he hopes to depict the effects of the country's vicious cycle with power through the lives of its populace. Among a small body of directors found across this archipelago nation working independently, Diaz is without the backing of any studio, often relying on outside international festival funds to tell their stories of modern life in their developing country. Working in a neorealist style, often in long takes and extended duration, he and compatriot Brillante Mendoza have made their life's work documenting a time rife with conflict and change. In the face of the ascension of Duterte to the presidency, "Filipino Filmmakers Continue to Shed Light on the Forgotten", yet there is some question whether as to how long they will will have the freedom to document and explore such subjects. Here for a brief two day run at Northwest Film Forum, this Guardian and Film Comment Film of the Week pick finds itself in an environment abundantly receptive to the director's challenging duration, political content and technical form. This past year saw the Film Society at Lincoln Center host "Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz" as the first American retrospective of the director's work, and in another first, an online retrospective hosted by "Mubi: A Streaming Service with a Ticking Clock". Included in this cinephile streaming event of the year, "It's About Time: The Cinema of Lav Diaz", Mubi has programmed the ten hour "Evolution of a Filipino Family", the eight hour "Heremias" from 2006, the documentary "Storm Children: Book One", 2011's "Century of Birthing", 2008's award winning "Melancholia" and contender for masterpiece among the director's durational narrative works, the 2014 Locarno Film Festival winner, "From What is Before".

Saturday, August 5, 2017

João Pedro Rodrigues' "The Ornithologist" & Koji Fukada's "Harmonium" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 2 - 6 & Aug 23 - 24

Returning after it's screening in the Seattle International Film Festival, João Pedro Rodrigues newest stood as a highlight of the festival, evoking the best of classic surrealism in the vein of Luis Buñuel and contemporaries like Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The protagonist's journey through this "Portuguese Filmmaker’s Erotic Phantasmagorias" that is, "The Ornithologist" forces him into intimacy with a pervasive incoherence, the unconscious and the metaphysical. "Cast Adrift on a Surreal Journey", the titular ornithologist finds his quest to document the avian populations of a mountainous jungle region in northern Portugal confounded by a series of events that waylay his progress. Swept away by dangerous rapids while traversing the course of the film's central river, he finds himself the captor of two lesbian religious pilgrims. Stripping his body of clothes and roping him to a tree, their recreation of the martyrdom of San Sebastian marks just the beginnings of his troubles. These encounters repeatedly heighten the gulf between man and beast, by turns more alienating in it's description of the mysterious ways in which man and nature communicate across the gulf of understanding. Couched in an overpowering sense of serenity, a tone that prevails amid a proliferation of bewildering Christian and pagan allusions, his journey comes to echo that of the Portugal-born Anthony of Padua. Eventually these metaphysical scenarios develop into an inescapable setting, entrapping the film's "Super-Ornithologist: João Pedro Rodrigues’ Birdman", in a darkly troubling metamorphosis.

Nearly two decades have elapsed since the Japanese cinema explosion of the 1990s. The directors who led this wave; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike, are still among the industry's most high profile faces on the international festival circuit. Concurrently, a new generation of filmmakers from Japan are starting to make themselves heard. This year saw the domestic release of Shunji Iwai's disorienting urban drama, "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 5-hour domestic tranquility stunner, "Happy Hour", rising indie animation figure, Makoto Shinkai obliterating the box-office competition with “Your Name", and Koji Fukada taking home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes for “Harmonium”. In many regards, this "New Wave of Japanese Filmmakers Matches the Old", yet "Fukada’s Filmmaking is a Breath of Fresh Air", in part due to the groundwork laid down by fellow producers, festival programmers and film distributors with the 2012 establishment of the Independent Cinema Guild. It's in this funding and distribution market that Fukada has been able to produce his darkly pessimistic take on the concerns that comprise modern Japanese life. As is the case with earlier films in the director's filmography, "Harmonium" pivots on the arrival of an unexpected guest who is curiously welcomed and given a job in the home and workshop of his former friend. Stoic yet seductive, the guest ingratiates himself with the household's apprehensive wife and their pre-adolescent daughter. It is not long before it becomes clear that, "In ‘Harmonium,’ a Family has Let the Wrong One In", and in a dramatic turn of events their lives are revealed to have held secrets that are irreconcilable with the home and marriage they deceptively once led.