Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Lou Ye is one of the most controversial filmmakers from mainland China.  His films deal with topics that are taboo to portray in Chinese films—homosexuality, political radicalism, and, most of all, the realistic portrayal of sex.  The latter two of these forbidden subject matters are covered in Lou Ye’s 2006 film Summer Palace, and the topic of same sex relationships is portrayed in Lou Ye’s 2009 film Spring Fever, which won the Prix du scenario award at the Cannes Film Festival.  As a result of Summer Palace’s politically tinged portrayal of the Tiananmen Square protests, Lou Ye was banned from filmmaking in China for five years.


Like Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lou Ye’s Summer’s Palace is an incisive and heartbreaking portrait of how the hopes and dreams of an entire generation were shattered by a major political event.  The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were a mass protest of Chinese college students against the government to advocate for democracy.  The protests ended with a military backed crackdown by the government, which led to the deaths of many students. 
Although it does deal with the events at Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace is more of a personal story about a woman’s growth in China from the late 1980s through the 1990s.  The story follows Yu Hong (played by Hao Lei), a troubled young woman who experiments with sexual and political liberation as a student at the prestigious Beijing University.  While in college, she meets and falls in love with Zhou Wei (played by Guo Xiaodong), who becomes her college boyfriend and lifelong love interest.  She also befriends Li Ti (played by Hu Lingling), a free thinking woman. 
There is a clear divide in Summer Palace between the college years, which are portrayed in a romantic, optimistic light, and the years after the Tiananmen Square protests, an event which seems to shatter Chinese society and also the lives of three central characters.  Many of the scenes during the college years are shot against the warm glow of the sun or filtered through a bright haze, symbolizing the idealism and promise of youth. 


These early scenes are all about Yu Hong liberating herself from societal boundaries.  Her friend Li Ti introduces her to the pleasures of smoking and drinking.  She talks politics with her friends, discussing the possibility of a democratic society free from government restraints.  She falls in love with and has a brief, but passionate sexual relationship with Zhou Wei. 
However, at the same time that Yu Hong is attempting to experience a fully liberated life, we discover through the many interior monologue scenes that she ultimately feels a deep sense of existential dread and isolation from the world at large. 
This inescapable sense of alienation culminates in Yu Hong dropping out of college, both as a result of her participation in the ill-fated Tiananmen Square protests, and her increased dissatisfaction with her relationship with Zhou Wei. 
After the Tiananmen Square protests, the scenes in Summer Palace are filmed in a colder, harsher light.  The three main characters drift apart and continuously struggle to find ways to connect with themselves and others.  Li Ti and Zhou Wei consummate a relationship with each other, and end up moving together to Germany, where their relationship starts to deteriorate.  Yu Hong has problems fitting in with the wider society, both at work and in her personal life.  The idealism of youth and the promise for a bright future have been shattered. 


Lou Ye is portraying an entire generation that feels lost and adrift, one which cannot satisfactorily fit into the expected roles of marriage, love, and career.  He seems to imply that this generational malaise was always inherent within Chinese society, but it didn’t take root until the disastrous Tiananmen Square protests.
Although Lou Ye did have a script for Summer Palace, he used it mostly as a reference point for most of the filming.  Like Jean Luc-Godard and his contemporaries during the French New Wave era, Lou Ye abandoned the traditional constraints of the written script, and gave his actors the freedom to improvise and come up with their own lines and interactions. 
As a result, the acting in Summer Palace feels naturalistic and authentic, free from the artificiality and theatricality of more method approaches to acting.  This filmmaking technique reflects the central theme of Summer Palace—that of the liberating power of a life lived away from restraints and constricting rules. 
Indeed, the only post-Tiananmen Square scene in the film in which any of the characters reveal contentment occurs when Li Ti and Zhou Wei are casually walking through a square in Berlin, watching street performers, vagabonds, and various other outcasts from society freely expressing themselves. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a sequel to his film In The Mood For Love.  It has the same central character of Chow Mo-Wan, played by Tony Leung, a melancholy writer who has a series of romantic entanglements with different women. 

2046 takes place after the events of In The Mood For Love, when Mo-Wan had a passionate affair with Su Li-Zhen, played by Maggie Cheung.  The narrative of 2046 moves backwards and forwards in time, ranging from the far future in the year 2046, when the world becomes connected by a vast train network that is headed for a mysterious destination known only as “2046,” to the past and present love affairs of Mo-Wan.  For much of the film, Mo-Wan lives in a hotel, and it is within the confines of this hotel that many of his affairs occur. 


Tony Leung, who has worked before with Wong Kar-wai, brilliantly portrays Mo Wan.  He is an actor who is able to express the utmost sadness and happiness with just his eyes.  Throughout much of 2046, Leung’s dialogue is kept to a minimum, and much of his acting is done through facial expressions.  With just a single glance, we can sense Leung’s deep longing as he tries to consummate a relationship with a character played by Faye Wong.  The other performances are all also commendable; indeed, the cast reads like a who’s who of Asian superstars—Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Takuya Kimura, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, and, of course, Tony Leung and Faye Wong. 

With its free flowing narrative structure, and its ruminations on the nature of time and how it effects the many characters of the story, 2046 is Wong Kar-wai’s most ambitious and experimental film to date.  While he has played with parallel story arcs before in films such as Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, 2046 is Wong Kar-wai’s first film to completely break apart from narrative convention to enter a realm of cinema based upon the true, fragmentary nature of time and memories. 

As we live in our present worlds, memories of past events often break into our minds at seemingly random times, disrupting the linear structure of our everyday lives.  As Mo-Wan isolates himself in his hotel room in 2046, his thoughts are haunted by memories of his past affairs, and Wong Kar-wai constantly interweaves these memories into the central narrative of 2046


The traditional three act structure of conflict and resolution is replaced by a more fragmented narrative structure.  This more disjointed narrative is not based upon audience manipulation to achieve a desired emotion, which is the traditional goal of Hollywood based films, but rather upon active audience participation to put together the seemingly disconnected pieces of the narrative. 

For Wong Kar-wai, this active engagement of the audience is an attempt to recreate the more free-flowing nature of memories.  In order to interpret the seemingly random nature of our memories, we must put in an effort to interpret them to discover why they are intruding into our minds.  Similarly, the viewer of 2046 must re-interpret the many free flowing scenes in order to see how they ultimately connect with the central story of the film—that of a writer who is haunted by a long lost love. 

However, this does not mean that watching 2046 is a chore that must be endured.  Rather, with its gorgeous cinematography and evocative use of operatic and classical music, 2046 is an all-encompassing, truly cinematic experience.  As we follow Mo Wan through his passionate love affairs, we yearn for him to find happiness and some sense of closure to the long lost love of his life.  However, like Mo Wan himself, the viewer is thrust into a world where true love is fleeting.


Wong Kar-wai’s explorations in time and narrative structure are similar to what European filmmakers in the 1960s were experimenting with.  Alain Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad also dealt with a central character whose story is filtered through the stream of consciousness nature of lost memories. 

Also, in the realm of literature, Marcel Proust’s seven part Remembrance of Things Past dealt with the fragmentary nature of time and memories.  Raul Ruiz’s 1999 film Time Regained was a bold cinematic adaptation of Proust’s tome, and an interesting cinematic parallel to the themes and structure of 2046.

Ultimately, 2046 is about the elusive nature of time, and how our actions in the present are inescapably tied to the past.  No matter how hard Mo Wan tries to free himself from memories of his long lost love, he sees her image in all the women that he meets.  Memory is a prison for Mo Wan, but for Wong Kar-wai, memory is a liberating force for breaking apart the limits of narrative film.  With its penetrating exploration of narrative structure and time, 2046 is a bold and haunting vision.


Note: In The Mood for Love is being released by The Criterion Collection in October with a great Blu-ray upgrade.

Monday, September 17, 2012


There are interesting differences between Asian horror films in terms of their countries of origin.  Korean horror films tend to be more realistic and straightforward in tone, and focus more on real life thrills, such as serial killer/detective plots (I Saw the Devil, Tell Me Something).  This can be attributed to Korean films being more mainstream in tone, as the Korean film industry is trying to establish a new Hollywood of sorts in the East, and want to make films that can compete with Hollywood on the global film market.


Southeast Asian horror films tend to focus on the supernatural realm, with films dealing with ghosts and hauntings (Shutter, Ghost of Mae Nak).  This focus on the more supernatural realm of horror films can be attributed to the highly spiritual nature of Southeast Asian society; in many parts of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Indonesia, the realm of ghosts and spirits is intricately linked with the mundane realm of the real world. 


Japanese horror films, on the other hand, are the most eccentric and original of all Asian horror films, as they frequently delve into the realm of the surreal and the absurd.  This may be attributed to the very strict and disciplined nature of Japanese society, in which life is based on a series of orderly and long-engrained traditions of rules and rituals.  Thus, the arts are a means of escaping from the rigid confines of Japanese society, and into a liberating realm of free-flowing creativity and taboo breaking, sometimes shocking displays of defiance.

The 2009 Japanese horror film The Shock Labyrinth is a perfect example of this rebellious, surreal aspect of Japanese arts.  Directed by the prolific and successful Takashi Shimizu, best known for the Ju-on series of horror films, The Shock Labyrinth is a bold and chilling film.  The Shock Labyrinth is reminiscent of the cult classic Japanese film Hausu, which was re-released by The Criterion Collection in 2010.  Like Hausu, The Shock Labyrinth is a genre bending film that takes the horror film trope about a group of youth who find themselves in a haunted house, and elevates it to a surreal and outrageous level. 


The Shock Labyrinth begins with a group of young friends who mysteriously encounter Yuki, a long lost friend who they thought had been dead for a long time.  As the friends begin to question the true identity of Yuki, and some start to question their own sanity, Yuki has an accident, and they are forced to drive her to a hospital.  The only hospital they find turns out to be deserted, and as they explore the hospital, dark, hidden secrets from the friends’ childhood start to emerge.


Like the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the hospital in The Shock Labyrinth starts to take on an identity by itself, as it taps into the subconscious of each of the friends to dig up repressed memories of a tragic event that occurred in their collective childhood experience.  As the title implies, the narrative of The Shock Labyrinth becomes labyrinthian in nature, as it weaves back and forth between violent and haunting memories of each of the main characters.  The dark and frightening rooms and tunnels in the hospital become direct reflections of the primal fears of each character, and as the true identity of Yuki gradually reveals itself, the characters one by one descend into madness.

Shimizu does a great job of throwing the audience into emotional turmoil, as his narrative gradually fragments into seemingly disconnected scenes of disturbing violence and bloodshed.  Upon repeated viewings, the fragmentary scenes of the narrative gradually reveal themselves to be intricately connected, like a giant puzzle which can only be solved by the more patient and discerning players.  What Shimizu is doing is cinematically portraying the true nature of a nightmare—how the seemingly random nature of our dreaming world has its own internal logic, one based upon the deeper matrix of the collective subconscious.

By gradually revealing more and more about the mystery of Yuki, Shimizu is also revealing the true nature of repressed memories.  Oftentimes when a traumatic event occurs, our mind tends to repress memories of this event.  These memories only come out when we are presented with a triggering mechanism to conjure them up.  The triggering mechanism in The Shock Labyrinth is the hospital itself, which becomes a living, breathing monster that threatens to swallow up all of the main characters. 

The Shock Labyrinth is a brilliant and frightening film that takes us on a wild ride into the realm of nightmares.  Its narrative structure is psychologically sophisticated, and by the end of the film, the viewer is stuck in the deepest, darkest realms of the character’s horrific memories.