A master of mise-en-scene, Tsai Ming-liang delivers one of his most visually arresting films to-date with his latest film, Days. A slow-paced excavation of alienation which never slips into ennui, Days is a masterclass in visual aesthetics which invokes a bleak examination of loneliness in the modern world, one in which the longing for emotional connection and corporeal desire is exhibited through two characters of different social status whose lives intersect, only for a moment, before the strictures of day-to-day monotony take root once again. For Tsai, connection isn't tied to or defined by any form of temporality, and in a sense, this film is a rejection of such normative, romantic notions. Days is a bleak experience of alienation yet in that one ephemeral moment, there is a semblance of reciprocity and hope. Another stunning work from the master filmmaker.
Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple is a story of the cognitive subjugation intrinsic to any act of maximalist devotion, a biting character study full of pain, perseverance, and repetition, that reveals the intrinsic complexities of unbridled artistic pursuits. Through the course of its narrative, The Disciple details the corrosive effects which mythmaking and idolization can have on setting realistic expectations while simultaneously acknowledging how such pursuits themselves simply don't conform to any moralistic binary between right and wrong given the fact that they are manifested first-and-foremost out of individualist ideas of passion and advocacy. The trials and tribulations of an artist who has dedicated his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist is the perfect playground for inquiry into a host of topics related to legacy, culture, consumerism, and tradition, as the filmmaker constructs a vivid and pensive study of a character who slowly begins to question everything that has come to define his identity. Tamhane's formal constructions - the use of open space and slow, dread-inducing camera movements - create an effective atmosphere that enunciates the internal consciousness of this character whose vocation is deeply-rooted in solitude which eventually leads to reassessment. Unlike Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, which shares some similar themes, Tamhane is far wearier of simplistic assertions related to the pursuit of perfection, using the plight of its central protagonist to illustrate the complexities of artistic creation in a time in which the mastery of craft is determined just as much by consumerism as technical mastery. Thus the film's denouement is one open to interpretation, it stings of sadness in one regard but also of potential salvation, with our main protagonist choosing another path, one which isn't so beholden to asceticism but still attached to his personal advocacies
The zombie motif is employed with perverse precision in David Cronenberg's early work Shivers, a film which titillates both intellectually and emotionally, as the filmmaker delivers a subtextual repudiation of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, a theory in which suppression of individualistic carnal pleasures is a necessity in order for collective progress. A very economically made film, Cronenberg doesn't let financial restrictions get in the way of his unique, erotic spin of the zombie film, showing a penchant for the grotesque which he would become known for with this explicit juxtaposition between sex and violence. It has been a long time since I'd seen this film and what struck me as I revisited it is that in a sense, Cronenberg seems to be unsure if he should be hopeful or concerned about the state of humanity, subtextually exhibiting how sexual liberation, while anarchic in a sense, can also save humanity from norms of puritanical society.
An extensive departure for Sono - a filmmaker whose oeuvre tends to exude formalist dynamism - The Whispering Star if a quiet tableau of somberness, loneliness, and longing which sees the filmmaker elicit a humanist portrait, which through a quiet aura of stillness, expresses the fundamental differences between man and machine. Relatively plotless and largely free from the tenets of narrative filmmaking, The Wandering Star aims to elicit this feeling if isolation through cold sepia aesthetics and visual constructions that elucidate how spatiality affects human consciousness. Calling the film esoteric feels misguided, as Sono's intentions feel relatively precise, The Wandering Star being more like an exercise or experiment in which Sono attempts to use the cinematic medium to encapsulate what it means to be human through a film grammar built on repetition, restriction, and stillness. Startling in the somberness and loneliness it creates largely through abstraction.
Formalistically ascribes the visual comedy reminiscent of Tati, Elia Suleiman's It Must Be Heaven is a cunning portrait of a globally-connected world, one which simultaneously embraces and subverts cultural stereotypes in an attempt to express and normalize our shared humanity which supersedes such differences. The director himself is the principal character and the de factor vessel across this exploration; A Palestinian man, the film provokes an evocation of identity and diaspora related to home which doesn't always work, yet it features a host of enticing visual comedy constructions which titillate regardless if they don't always achieve the director's introspective ambitions. The urban spaces of New York and Paris in particular are viewed through a foreign lens, which in itself offers some juicy comedic moments, but the film's more intellectual aims don't entirely work due to much of its quasi-vignette formal structure feeling a bit too facile to elicit the film's intended intellectual aims. It's almost as if Suleiman himself realizes this, as the film becomes less nuanced and more didactic in its philosophical underpinnings in its last few scenes of the film.
Arguably Kaufman's most inaccessible work, I'm Thinking of Ending Things doesn't always work, but it offers substantive moments, both emotionally and intellectually, as the filmmaker attempts to purvey the complexities of memory and perception, delivering an evocation on living in which the interiority of the human consciousness is displayed through a cold, constricting cinematic grammar that elucidates the underlying pain, sadness, and isolation of its central protagonist. For Kaufman, life here is depicted as a somewhat grueling ordeal, one in which we as sentient beings are prisoners in a sense to our own consciousness and the perceptions and memories which warp objective temporality - Life can both feel short and far too long, depending on one's experiences across the temporal plane. Formally off-putting, the relationship drama is warped into a visual tapestry of unbridled consciousness in which doubts, regrets, highs, lows, etc all manifest and infect what the viewer witnesses on screen.
As emotionally resonant as it is intellectually rigorous, Gu Xiaogang's Dwelling in the Suchun Mountains is a stunning work of slow cinema, one which transcends its familial narrative to deliver a powerful exploration of the sociological and psychological effects which personal and societal change can place on the human psyche. A film which is relatively plotless, outside of its inciting incident in which the matriarch of a large family suffers a debilitating stroke, Dwelling in the Suchun Mountains feels largely free-flowing in that the events feel naturalistic, placing the various characters at the fulcrum of its story as they navigate the seas of change. Featuring a ravishing assembly of carefully calculated images, the visual constructions in Dwelling in the Suchun Mountains enunciate the natural world, elucidating the omnidirectional exploration of modern China in which generational and class divides caused by China's societal transformation into modernity effect this sprawling family in different and distinctive ways. It's a rich tapestry of emotional resonance and intellectual purveyance, one which expounds no easy solutions to this tumultuous yet normalized relationship which modernity places between the social and economic conditions of society. The clash between tradition and modernity is not simplistic nor easily deconstructed, and through its panoply of characters Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains saliently encaptures these complexities in which each character brings their own lived-in experiences - defined by their temporal and spatial environments - as they attempt to navigate their environment and their connections to others whom they share the commonality of family. A story which effectively rejections crude dichotomies between Nature vs. Nurture, Modernity vs. Tradition, Dwelling in the Suchun Mountains is a sprawling family drama that is particularly astute when it comes to detailing the litany of forces - both social and economical - which sculpt and cultivate whom we are as individuals and what it means to be family.
While perhaps too insular or withholding for its own good, Song Fang's The Calming remains a meditative study of self. Unwilling to associate solitude or self-reflexive personal stasis as a de factor pejorative, The Calming instead offers a far more complex character piece, one in which affect - both positive and negative - is perceived not through a binary way of thinking but as a synthesis of the spirit or soul which is largely incalculable, unquantifiable, and fleeting, Through the film's largely plotless construction which is more predicated on a simple conceit than a formal narrative story structure, The Calming excavates the spiritual significance of self-reflection and solitude, showing how happiness or at least being content in life must first-and-foremost come from within. External relationships are often what send this character into a place of grief or uncertainty and yet in solitude - often which also takes place in the natural world - she eventually begins to find a sense of calm, an inner peace from the chaotic nature of modernity and the normalized notions of life which often can create unfair pressures on an individual whose life hasn't congealed with the typical path. While many films detail with loneliness, The Calming simultaneously finds utility and subverts the aesthetics in cinema often used to elicit such emotions, using them instead to touch on the importance of self-reflection and recognition that through pain and introspection often comes peace.
Far more deterministic than Come Drink With Me in its philosophical underpinnings, Chang Cheh's Golden Swallow exchanges the elegance of Hu's formal style for a more rugged, tortured display of the warrior ethos, featuring action set-pieces that are equally dynamic but more coarse in their physics - the weight of the violence exhibited with consistent clarity. Featuring a narrative framework revolving around a mysterious, vengeful warrior from Golden Swallow's past in Silver Roc, whose actions are rooted punitive justice, Cheh's film's schematic construction is one that looks to the past with less romanticism and more stone-cold resolve, elucidating the film's themes related to the tenets of the warrior ethos, deconstructing how the warrior's code is one completely devoid of individualist attainment or affect - the Nobel warrior must obfuscate their own desires to serve the warriors code. Notions of justice become less palpable or normalized, the dichotomous nature of good vs. evil is eschewed, and yet it's only through sacrifice and righting the perceived wrongs of injustice which Silver Rock, a flawed by ambiguously-just character, finds a Nobel end to hits tortured soul in which he himself does not survive. For Chang Cheh, the nobility of the system and its institutions is meaningless if justice is not served
Inspired heavily by the Vaudeville tradition of American comedy yet wholly infused with Hong Kong modernity, Michael Hui's The Contract is a pejorative yet playful farce, one in which a TV Network serves as the perfect playground for Hui's sly critique of the Mandarian studio model. A Frankenstein-Esque creation of Network meets Harold Lloyd, The Contract is one of the quintessential Hong Kong comedies and one of the most important films - along with Hui's other work - at paving the way for the re-birth of the Cantonese tradition and the Hong Kong New Wave. Comedic set-piece after comedic set-piece the film is an endearing and maximalist comedy in the way it uses space to evince the ethos of physical comedy in the cinematic forum. The story of a struggling actor who attempts to escape the vice-grip of his 8-year exclusivity contract at a Network after being offered a chance elsewhere, The Contract has a rich subtext of the era in Hong Kong, one in which Mandarin-language films, led by the Shaw Brothers, dominated Hong Kong cinema thru the 70s, leaving Cantonese-language cinema and its traditions on the edge of existence. A film which could be read as a commentary on the lack of opportunities for Cantonese youth filmmakers at a time when the rigid structuralism of the Mandarian-language industry systemically created barriers, Hui's film is a not only a highly effective and endearing comedy but also one worthy of a healthy discourse about its subtext.
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