Archive for the 'Film' Category

Figures in the Earth

A little girl watches her grandmother walk off into the distance, returning home to die in the town where she grew up. As the silhouette of the old woman disappears behind the crown of a road, it’s as if the sky has swallowed her up.

Maborosi is filled with such images. Still haunted by dreams of her grandmother’s departure, Yumiko (played by Makiko Esumi) moves to a small seaside community where she tries to rebuild her life, filled with doubt after the death of her husband. Close ups become less frequent, profiles form half moons of light in rooms steeped in darkness and figures become insignificant specks against the coastal landscape.
Wide angle shots define a new emotional space for Yumiko’s world. Gone is the intimacy of a cramped apartment, the neighbor’s radio blaring through thin walls. Children at play become lost in a snowy hillside’s spotted hide and race across an inverted sky. They emerge from a drainage tunnel into a blotch of light that looks abstract and unnatural.
The scenes tantalize at meaning inherent in the imposing nature of the coast that somehow reflects the inner anguish of Yumiko’s search for answers. “…The sea is awesome,” she observes at one point. “Perhaps too much so,” her companion replies.

Loop the Loop

In the spirit of the 4 Star, the best movie house on Earth, I thought I’d combine two reviews into one ass-kicking double feature. You’ll have to provide your own shrimp chips and popcorn yeast of course.

Let’s get this out of the way, right off: Yo-Yo Girl Cop has the best opening credit sequence ever made (Saul Bass fans clam up).
Out of the public eye, a select number of teens are tapped to go undercover to infiltrate schools where domestic terrorist threats are suspected to be hiding. Other than their wits, empathy for their peers, and whatever fighting skills they might have accrued in their past lives (the girls seem by nature or nurture to be a pretty brutal bunch), their weapon and sole identifier as a member of the elite group is their yo-yo.

It’s always fun to see what other countries can do with what is largely an American concept: super heroes. It was British writers who added much of the polish and depth that we expect nowadays from characters who for decades were content with looking colorful and engaging in what amounted to schoolyard brawls that tore up city blocks. The Philippines gave us Gagamboy, which while often funny, came off more as a parody than a serious contender. Cutie Honey from Japan cranked up the humor still more, which unfortunately made the outing seem to sag a bit when the character had to get down to the business of saving the world (yet, still a favorite all things considered).
Yo Yo Girl Cop plays it with a straight face. Sort of. If there is one thing in common I love about so many Japanese films, it’s the sincerity. Faced with the alarming number of suicides among teens or the disaffection of the hikikomori, for a country that often identifies restraint as part of the national character their cinema displays an outpouring of sympathy for adolescents and the trials they face. The film is honest enough to admit that adults for the most part don’t have a clue how their kids are feeling. So we get quite a bit of Aya Matsuura as Saki Asamiya simply dealing with the problems of both bullying and suicide chat rooms while investigating the school.

Where Gagamboy never missed a chance to wink at the audience, Yo Yo Girl Cop rarely does, but although Saki Asamiya’s initiation into the life of an undercover operative takes a page right out of La Femme Nikita, there is nothing nearly that sublime here. It skews closer to Spider-man where things are deathly serious, but there’s time out now and again for a few laughs from J. Jonah Jameson. Here we get Riki Ishikawa as her minder, pulling faces every chance he gets, and I like him more and more with every sneer. There are certainly plenty of over-the-top performances to go around, perhaps all the more endearing since everyone seems so earnest you can’t help but feel that they’re all quietly dancing around the silliness of the central conceit of the main character’s arsenal. It’s important to remember that super heroes as a concept are inherently pretty ridiculous to begin with. You’re going to have to wait ’til the very end for the yo-yo fight. It’s brief, but believe me it’s worth it.


Madam City Hunter, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a prolonged title sequence. Before you can say in media res the bullets are flying and our heroine is on the scene. This is the kind of lean and mean storytelling that Hong Kong brought to action films decades ago that made American films taste like weak tea by comparison. Alas, some of us had to play catch up, and it’s clear that by the Nineties when this film was released, the formula had been refined to perfection. Thankfully, Hong Kong directors, perhaps because of the huge numbers of films released each year and anticipating their audiences ever sharpening appetites were never willing to rest on their laurels. There was still a lot of experimentation going on, seeing just how much you could alter the ratio of comedy to drama for example, or just how you could do a shoot-out sequence a little differently.
In the case of Hunter, we get an increase to the humor quotient, which if graphed would look like a continual ascent with brief dips appearing for the occasional action set piece. Although martial arts films frequently mix comic elements during frantic fight sequences, Hunter is constantly deflating suspenseful set-ups with a humorous denouement. It’s as though the main characters just can’t take the situations they’ve been placed in seriously. So when an assassin slips into an apartment, turns on the gas and plants his bomb, the protagonists tweak to it pretty quickly, but spend most of the time bickering over who is going to deal with the problem. It’s almost as if they’ve disarmed the set-up rather than the bomb.

So who is Madam City Hunter? She’s Cynthia Khan, playing Yang Ching, the toughest cop on the force. Yes, like every cop in film since time immemorial she falls under scrutiny and is nearly pulled from the case, but in a refreshing HK twist, her superior begs her to cross the line and do things her way (it may have something to do with the fact that he’s developed something of a crush on his subordinate).
Joining her as partner is a private investigator played by Anthony Wong. If I’m not completely mistaken his character is actually named Charlie Chan. He provides a little approximation of a broken English stereotyped Chinese character at one point for laughs, which was so unexpected and daring that I think I yelped. I’m so used to seeing this guy in hard boiled roles like in Beast Cops and Infernal Affairs that it’s nice to see him making mince meat out of a comic role. He also sports a shaggy mane of scraggly hair in this one, which means some terrible looking wigs on the stunt men.

Shelia Chan plays Charlie’s love interest Blackie, who from the moment she appears pretty much steals the show. If IMDB is to be believed it’s unconscionable that she doesn’t have a filmography as extensive as Wong’s. Along with the police chief, they together form a kind of Love Quadrangle, everyone suspicious of the other’s affections. The brilliance behind it is that it’s all just Charlie jerking everyone else around to amuse himself. One scene in a restaurant finds all of the characters speaking in voice-over wondering about the others’ intentions while reading all kinds of meanings into every move of a chopstick. Blackie, worried that Charlie is falling for Yang Ching, gets progressively drunker, punctuating every exchange between him and the chief with yet another toast, with predictable results.
So what do you get for your rental price? You get a battle on bamboo scaffolding. A cool set piece fight on a dam. There is the dreaded “Wonder Strike,” mentioned more often than performed. There’s a car wash seduction scene, a dinner seduction scene, a haircut seduction scene, all of them played thankfully for laughs. There is the fun that only decades-old movies can provide of revealing what filmmakers thought would be a cool apartment (red brick wallpaper), a cool club (neon sign of a music stave with blinking notes), or a bad-ass gang hideout (lots of graffiti in day glo colors of big Rolling Stonesesque lips, skulls and peace signs). It’s unconscionable that this didn’t go into sequel mode á la the Mad Mission series. Some people aren’t fond of the admixture of comic, romance, drama and action but Hong Kong cinema does it oh so well, so if you’re game, here’s an antidote for those deathly serious action films that do none of the above well at all.

Reckless With Other People’s Hearts

I’ve been dreading writing up a review of a doc that I wasn’t really crazy about to begin with. Instead, I thought I’d point you to this work by David OReilly that I recently stumbled upon that’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.
Please Say Something has more interesting ideas and comments on life than films twelve times its length. I’m usually way behind the curve on stuff like this, which is why I rarely post them, but according to the creator’s blog, the short recently won a Special Distinction award at the Festival International du Film d’Animation d’Annecy. So if you’re already hip to this, consider a celebratory re-viewing.

Six Guns and Sinta

As this blog is rapidly approaching its terminal point, this will likely be the final update about films that I put on my must see list last year (the previous capsule reviews can be found here). Didn’t manage to see very many, but I place the blame squarely on distributors not knowing a good thing when they see it. Hopefully more will find their way to Region 1 DVD release soon.

Sukiyaki Western Django

sukiyakiIn the shadow of Mount Fuji, a drifter spins a tale about a hidden cache of gold left behind in a town that was once the battleground between two warring clans. That town just happens to be in Nevada, and the drifter is a sharp shooter played by none other than Quentin Tarrantino, so you know right off the bat that you’ve entered Takashi Miike territory.

With his usual daring, the director up and plunks down the American Old West squarely within Japan’s borders, working within the framework of the Spaghetti Western. Since the genre itself blossomed into glorious excess at the hands of Italian directors re-imagining Andalusia as the American Southwest, and many a Japanese chanbara inspired American knock offs set at High Noon in a dusty street, Miike is not so much completing the loop as giving the wheel another spin.

It’s as over-the-top as its forebears and everything you’ve come to expect from a Miike film (that is, you never know just what to expect). When one of the clan bosses begins instruction on catching a falling katana with your bare hands, you can tell something is up, and simply have to wait to see how Miike will spin it. Shakespeare, otaku references, critiques on the sweetness of sukiyaki (reminding me of another fav, Tampopo) and quick draw goddesses in human form: it’s always better to be disappointed by a director’s daring misfire than settling for reheated seconds, and for me anyway, Western Django didn’t disappoint.

Opera Jawa

operajawaIt was fortuitous that recently I was able to enjoy a taste of Balinese wayang kulit as performed by ShadowLight as well as finally getting around to watching Sita Sings the Blues online. You get a brief glimpse of the clashing puppets here, as well as the gender wayang instruments employed during the Yerba Buena Gardens show. In truth, Opera Jawa incorporates a bewildering number of artistic performance and presentation types, from wayang orang dance to contemporary styles, traditional tembang sunda song and sets dressed like a Matthew Barney exhibit. Nina Paley’s animated marvel proved a great primer for the myth of Sita (here referred to by her Indonesian name Sinta), the abducted wife of Rama who is accused by her husband of infidelity with the demon Rahwana (check out blogger Engineer’s Daughter’s impressions here).

Just like in Sita Sings the Blues, the mythological tale looms large over events in a contemporary story. Jealousy begins to stir in Setyo (Martinus Miroto), a potter, when faced with the attention that a local thug named Ludiro (Eko Spruyanto) is paying to his wife, a former dancer named Siti (Artika Sari Devi). The fact that Siti was famed for her portrayal of the role of Sinta gives the ensuing events the air of tragedy replaying itself.

While no doubt the production must have had a lavish budget, it is amazing to see the small improvisations that are made with relatively common materials. During a contentious scene in their bedroom, Setyo resisting the entreaties of Siti wraps his t-shirt around his head as he dances, making implicit in action his attempts to shut out his wife emotionally. After he spies her returning from an encounter with Ludiro, lump of clay resting in his hands, Setyo imagines Siti sitting atop his potting wheel as if he could mold her desires to his wishes. Woven cones for scooping and covering steamed rice are converted into any number of things from scene to scene: the head and tail of a caterpillar-like beast, a mask, the larger versions even becoming tent-like blinds from which Ludiro’s gang members spring out to startle Siti.

It’s shocking actually that the three elements of song, dance and set design work in concert so well considering how dream-like and memorable is the visual element. I was reminded of Gummo director Harmony Korine’s stated intention in the DVD extras of that film to create images he’d never seen before, but wanted to see. Ludiro dancing in a room of silver heads next to a suspended slaughtered carcass, a servant reverently laying flower petals on a sculpture of a television set next to an ancient temple, mannequins with candle heads that bleed wax down their length: in the hands of an individual artist any could be a work unto themselves, but here each is seamlessly interwoven into the whole.

Words are a Deceit

I generally hold with the Nabokovian school of thought when it comes to novels. The biography of the author is unimportant in interpreting their books, in fact it can be downright misleading. But Paul Schrader makes a pretty convincing case in his film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters that the seeds of the real life tragedy to come are there, implicit in the Japanese novelist’s work.
The film deftly cuts back and forth between scenes adapted from three of Mishima’s books, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, and dramatized scenes from the author’s life. Youth and beauty were two concepts that clearly troubled and enervated him. He muses, disgustedly, of how ugly heaven must look, peopled with those who have died in old age rather than cut down in their prime by the edge of a sword as in ages past. Over time, he clearly grew more and more dissatisfied with simply exploring such themes in his work: his well-known obsession with body-building in adulthood is but one example that such concerns were deep rooted in his character.

During one bravura scene in which Ken Ogata as Mishima practices swordplay garbed in the traditional dress of the samurai, the voice over makes it seem as if he is battling against his self doubt, sparring with the circumstances that obstruct the relationship of his ideas to his life. “Can art and action still be united?” he asks, noting that “…action is never deceitful.” The exaltation of youth and beauty metamorphose into a desire for purity and he becomes convinced that the reconciliation of art and action could only be achieved by death. Total purity could be found “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”

It is this cumulative effect of the carefully chosen scenes from the author’s works and the observations from the writer himself that makes Schrader’s film so interesting. The illusion is cast that you are following Mishima’s train of thought from his earliest days to its bitter end. Schrader of course, takes no chances that the audience might feel bogged down by all the alternating internal monologues and adapted scenes by offering tantalizing glimpses of what would prove the most dramatic and bewildering chapter in the author’s life. Bit by bit, he reveals the details of the fateful day in 1970 when Mishima and a group of young men from what was essentially his private army set out in uniform for the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. This aspect gives the film the air of a thriller, even if you are aware of what transpired next. Which is not to say that Schrader glamorizes the events. Despite their careful planning and rehearsals, Mishima and his men arrive fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, and so have to circle around the block. It’s the kind of detail that only happens in real life, or in the writings of the most observant and unromantic of novelists.

Choke Hold

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is the bleakest of film noirs. Usually the genre is marked by its claustrophobic relationships: domestic betrayals, love triangles, tight-knit criminal cells that eventually implode. But in Dassin’s film, the fallout from the grandiose schemes of a small time hustler threaten to make casualties out of everyone he comes into contact with. Misfortune radiates outward from him, taking friend and foe alike.

Harry Fabian, played to sleazy perfection by Richard Widmark, thinks he’s hit on a sure thing after winning the confidence of an aging professional wrestler. He is determined to set up his own gym and dreams of dominating the wrestling circuit in London. But his reputation has preceded him and soon past colleagues and new enemies alike are conspiring to put him out of the picture once and for all.
Things come to a head during a wrestling match near the end of the picture, usually the point where I begin to zone out. But this is no brawl for its own sake. The stakes are so high that I found myself grinding my teeth in expectation over the outcome. Even though Fabian has been revealed to be fairly cretinous, the agonized look on his face as he sees his world about to unravel can’t help but elicit sympathy. In fact the scene made me rethink everything that had happened up until that moment and I realized that in his way, Fabian reacted to every situation like a wrestler. He never thought too far ahead, and when finding himself in a tough spot he would merely maneuver himself enough to be free momentarily, only to be seized and squeezed again: every new assault threatening to be the one that proves his undoing.

The Body Electric

A boy climbing the steel lattice of a power transmission tower gets a jolt of 80,000 volts of electricity and plummets to the ground below. Rather than killing him, the juice continues to flow through his veins, feeding his aggression. Something primal within his brain unlocked, he attempts to channel the bellicosity into a career in boxing upon becoming an adult, before finally discovering the release of an electric guitar.
I have to admit I put off viewing Electric Dragon 80.000 V for a good long while based on its notorious reputation. Reading the reviews online you’d think your eyeballs would explode upon gazing on Sogo Ishii’s 50-minute labor of love. Comparisons with Shinya Tskukamoto’s Tetsuo, are inevitable and for the most part apt. It shares the “do-it-yourself on a budget but still show up the big money productions” ethos, a narrative subordinate to the exploration of the visual element and an impatience with conventions while still displaying an affinity for genre logic. In fact, both directors prove that a lot of quite early film techniques can still infuse a film with a vitality that makes it ground breaking. While we’ll be seeing the “Matrix effect” for years to come with ever diminishing returns, Electric Dragon’s director goes back to the montage to give the work a stylistic unity that draws the many thematic currents of the film together.

Cutting between images of reptiles (the main character’s accident is said to have stimulated a dormant part of our brain inherited from our cold-blooded forebears) and metal objects (conductors of electricity), Isii quickly piles up the tactile relationships until they come to seem one and the same. The scales on the neck of an iguana, the grooves in a tattooist’s electric needle, the patterns on a corrugated metal floor: the character of Dragon Eye Morrison (played by Tadabobu Asano) is built out of this visual procession. Just as in Woman in the Dunes, where the camera lens zooms in ever closer to the grains of sand, attention to the visual characteristics provide the substance for the story. Speed the film up in your mind’s eye, it seems to urge, compare and contrast their natures along with their coarseness or grain, and you’ll see the relationships are more than surface ones.

The most important element is of course electricity. Japanese filmmakers, live action and anime alike, have clearly paid particular attention to the fact that the modern world in all its particulars is an electric age, their chosen mediums unthinkable without it. The eyes of storyboard artists and background painters always drift upward, to the spirograph of cables tucked under the projecting roof, the cat’s cradle of wires stretching over the intersection of even the sleepiest village. In the anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character is an awareness evolved from the accumulated discharge and ever-expanding network of circuits. Morrison eventually manages to hold down a proper job as a reptile investigator, spending his days skulking through alleyways or ducking into a crouch to explore drainage tunnels, hunting for lost pets. But by night, he must shackle himself to a slab to ground himself due to the build-up of electricity within his body. When that’s not enough, he turns to his electric guitar which provides the pressure valve for both the voltage and the attendant aggression.
This anger management brings him some measure of stability, until the arrival of a nemesis, half his face covered in a metal Buddha mask whose body also seems a conduit for vast amounts of electricity. Like in Tetsuo, a confrontation is inevitable, but it remains to be seen what kind: both movies defy expectations in so many ways that the viewer is ready for anything. Even if the resulting scene borrows from the typical comic book playbook, the context couldn’t be more different: a super hero and super villain indifferent to those around them, demigods ignored by the general public, brought together to annihilate one another solely on the basis of recognition of a kindred soul.


Parting a curtain, a landscape is revealed seen from an incredible height. It’s a city built on water where classical architecture mingles with the most fantastic: sky needles and skyscrapers, a hollow cube that looks like an ode to the toy models of molecular structures. It’s a World Fair built to last, viewed seemingly with approval and a sense of ownership from the man at the window. All this can too be yours is the unspoken pitch from a broker no doubt waiting nearby for the vista to work its magic.
The inverse of Wizard of Oz revelation, in the prints from Liu Gang’s Paper Dream (2008) series, what lies behind the curtain, or off in the distance, is betrayed by the surface details which proclaim the artifice. Streaks of light mar the figure of the man at the high window, tell-tale crinkles of the glossy advertisements which form the source material for the prints. A bank of what looks like a rolled up carpet that the man stands astride is a bunched up fold of paper testifying to the essential two-dimensionality of the urban dreamscape.

In other works, rows of gilt edged books redolent of the library of the well-read and well-bred sag as if an unfaithful tack has come loose, exposing them as nothing more than an image painted on a tarp or tapestry. In a print where a jockey poses atop his horse in the foreground, the eye strays toward an impressive array of multi-story buildings of concrete and glass peeking above the tree line. A second glance confirms that the same buildings appear more than once and in the same sequence.

My favorite of the lot was a racetrack receding into the distance, to one side the spectator stands filled with party confetti-colored motes and on the other, a row of wobbly looking apartments. It’s so packed with empty promises that it’s embarrassing how giddy it makes you feel staring at the image. Not only is the future waiting for you if you can close the distance, you’ll be racing toward it as the crowds cheer you on (the expressways in Heaven are all forty lanes across and empty of traffic). The pavement, blown up from the original is a mass of scattered halftone the color of red clay. But although the lines of the road converge at the horizon, we know that parallel lines will never meet. And the towering apartment buildings to your right will pass by lap after lap, always out of reach.
Curator David Spalding has paired Paper Dream with Living Elsewhere, (1997-1999) a video projection by Wang Jianwei (together they make up the complete billing of the SF Camerawork show, dubbed Even in Arcadia…). The documentary follows the plight of a group of people in Sichuan Province who have taken up residence in deserted buildings that were or were intended to be upscale housing complexes. Where manicured front yards would have stood, they carve holes in the crumbly dirt in the hopes of bringing forth a subsistence crop. Inside the villas, wall-sized holes are open to the air, convenient for emptying foul water from a pot, but also indicative that they would have required mammoth sheets of window glass to cover the space. Doors propped with bricks form makeshift tables. No narrative is forced upon the residents: the director is content with following them and letting them tell their story, or watching them trying to eke out a living in a setting built for opulence but repurposed by necessity.

Life on The Installment Plan

Watching Synecdoche, New York, I was reminded of a short story I read in college. Collected in The Best American Short Stories 1989, Harriet Doerr’s Edie: A Life compresses the eponymous character’s fictional existence into a mere fifteen pages. Margaret Atwood, the editor of the collection summed it up as “…an entire life, in miniature as it were, complete and rounded and unexplained as an apple.”

In Synecdoche, writer and director Charlie Kaufman achieves the same effect by putting the main character’s perception of reality on fast forward. After a household accident, theater director Caden Cotard played by Philip Seymour Hoffman develops an unnamed mental dysfunction and as a result his grasp on the flow of passing time comes in fits and starts.

I have to admit that I wasn’t crazy about Adaptation. It seemed to be full of recycled postmodern tricks that I had already gorged myself on reading literature. In Synechdoche, Kaufman really makes the most of his chosen medium. Filmgoers are accustomed to seeing a life pass by in the span of two hours, of years excised with a single cut without so much as a dimming of lights or drawing of the curtains. So when Cotard crosses the Atlantic to track down his daughter, a child only minutes ago, to find her an adult woman performing in a peepshow, we’re reminded of just how strange are the conventions of cinema that we take for granted. True, in the film, this is due to the quirk of his illness, but all of us to some extend become Caden Cotards for the two hours in which we’re wrapped up in a film. Somewhere I read some sharp blogger’s observation that the main character’s last name Cotard is the name of a strange medical condition in which the sufferer believes themselves dead, despite any evidence to the contrary. In the film a more precise diagnosis might be to describe his predicament as “Near Death Syndrome.” As we watch, the high points of Cotard’s life are literally flashing before his eyes.
Even as time rushes by him faster than he can grasp it, Cotard is engaged on a theater production of enormous scale, his guiding credo and criticism of every detail that it must be more “real.” What this amounts to is a recreation of New York crammed into the space of an Olympian warehouse, peopled with stand-ins for everyone he knows. These are the kinds of springboards that Kaufman employs so well, because he always lets a wild idea run as far as he can take it. Cotard employs an actor to take on the role of himself in the production, which of course requires still another actor to direct the stand-in and so on ad absurdum. Synecdoche is similar to Being John Malkovich in that each could easily be bookended neatly at the point of weird revelation like an episode of The Twilight Zone. For Kaufman, the point where say, Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses after becoming entombed in a library surrounded by his beloved books, would comprise Act One.

Cotard, goaded by the criticism of his ex-wife, misses sight of the fact that part of an artist’s job is distillation (indeed, like a rebuke we find that his wife’s paintings over the course of the film seem to be shrinking in inverse proportion to his stage production’s scope). His appetite is too big. He dutifully recreates confrontations he has had with the people in his life, only to find that his actors are carrying on relationships of their own, which in turn should be represented. Whereas the literary meaning of synecdoche is that a part is employed to represent the whole, for Cotard, the whole must represent the whole.

Kaufman of course can contain within his own work everything Cotard is attempting and more. There are jokes within jokes just as there are layers of artifice built one atop the other in the quest to create replicas of replicas, which will somehow, eventually, loop back upon themselves to arrive at the genuine article.

Calling the film a “puzzle box” is sort of appropriate, given the level of detail in the work, elements adhering to the strict definition of a synecdoche. You could spend multiple viewings noting how a single scene or action resonates with the entirety of the film’s structure. But it misses the fact that at times it can be quite heart wrenching. This is not a cold blooded film despite the fact that it explores the quixotic implications of many an artistic pet principle. The humorously colossal extent of Cotard’s undertaking doesn’t diminish the fact that it radiates outward from the relationships in his life, most of which are painful ones. Nevertheless, the intriguing set-up will leave you exploring the ramifications of Kaufman’s ideas long after the film is over. Just as Kaufman’s film can easily accommodate Cotard’s impossible ambition, there are likewise hints that it holds even more than what shows up on screen. I found myself wondering about that warehouse with the scaled down version of New York, which itself must contain a smaller representation of the same, inside of which is surely a doll house-size model filled with figures pantomiming the act of planning an ambitious toy drama.

The Downward Spiral, Now With Handrails

I suffer from a rare condition that compels me to see any movie in which Maggie Cheung appears. Thankfully I still retain full possession of my faculties: I’m aware that they can’t all be In the Mood For Love or The Heroic Trio. Taking also into account that Clean is yet another offering in a relatively joyless genre, the junky rehabilitation paean, I wasn’t hoping for much. Just like the movie itself, I’m afraid there will be no surprise twists forthcoming.
Emily Wang, we are told by nearly everyone, is a mess. Her habit is sinking her husband’s last chance to make his mark as a musician and in addition, or because of it, she’s nearly universally loathed by everyone who knows her. When I say we are told this, I mean it literally. The impression that she is a train wreck of a human being is voiced again and again by one character after another. The problem is that when we watch her finally carrying through on a resolution to go straight, she doesn’t come off as nearly as monstrous as we were led to expect. Doped up and attempting to make a go as a waitress, she goes face down in the middle of the restaurant. When confronted by the management, there are no histrionics or tantrums. She merely argues until she sees there’s no chance she’ll retain her job and hits the road.

Indeed Olivier Assayas seems to have some deep aversion to drama. Scenes end just at the moment when they seem to be getting interesting, as when Emily passes out in the bathroom of a woman who has been aggressively flirting with her. What happens next? The next scene happens (and on a side note, what’s with the director’s representation of lesbians as something akin to naughty vampires? Is it really necessary to present the same scenario from Irma Vep yet again, with the same school boy reaction to the implications, replete in Vep with the participants giggling at the idea?). Clean is just that, incurious about the realities inherent in its premise. What about this woman she barely knows finding Emily unconscious, possibly from an overdose, in her bathroom surrounded by pills rifled from her medicine cabinet? The stomach churning discovery is skipped over.

One thing Assayas does love is the glamor of performance, and he trains the camera lovingly on Tricky during a show, zooming in to catch every anguished expression as the artist twists the microphone in his fists. You might think that Assayas would exploit this to show just how alluring the world is that Emily is trying to leave behind. But actually, she longs to return to it: she has no intention of living life as (gasp!) a common retail worker. She even gambles the one thing that is claimed to be her sole reason for going clean, access to her son, by attempting to skip town and attend a recording session. She does not have a story arc so much as she simply has a schedule to keep, and we get to tag along with her like a day with Tyra Banks.
I’ll give him this, Assayas introduces us to the most likable junky that I’ve ever met on screen or in person. Without the testimonials of other characters about Emily’s destructive nature, it would be impossible to believe that everyone who met her wouldn’t be instantly charmed by her. Perhaps Assayas should have filmed a prequel and thrown away this script, which would have been much more interesting to watch and would have really displayed the actress’ abilities to the full. The sole bright spot in the film is Nick Nolte’s part as Emily’s father-in-law. The word “nuanced” gets thrown around at times like these because it’s so hard to articulate greatness, but the character as written and as embodied by Nolte is so fascinating to watch, that like Heath Ledger’s Joker, you’ll miss him whenever he’s not onscreen. Each time he prepares to speak, his face gets a world weary look as though he’s both summoning up every ounce of patience and understanding he can muster, and calculating the potential response of Emily like a chess player thinking two or three moves ahead. Although struggling with a crushing amount of personal tragedy, betrayals and multiplying responsibility, he tries to do right by everyone, somehow. He takes chances, even on the happiness of those most dear to him, despite having no reason to believe his trust will be rewarded. And yet he is fiercely protective and when we first see him he makes an irrational gesture that is frightening in its implications. Reward your viewing of the film by convincing yourself that this is his story.


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