Category Archives: Foreign

Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


RELATED

Advertisements

Icarus XB 1 (1963, Jindrich Polák)

It’s very difficult, even when an effects shot fails, to not be impressed with director Polák’s practical ambitions with Icarus XB 1. The film needs effects shot-it’s about a starship on twenty-eight month voyage from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The first starship to take that trip. So there’s general establishing shot stuff in space but there’s also an exploratory thing going on. Both for the audience and the characters. There’s an enthusiasm in the effects and sets, which the film chucks in the clunky third act when Icarus stops being a rumination on the human condition in starship and instead becomes a thriller.

The film opens with Otto Lackovic starring into the camera and talking about how Earth is dead. Future movie, last survivor, Earth is dead, got it. Then it turns out he’s looking into a security camera and people are watching him and so not last survivor. Then there are the awesome opening titles, which come up during a tour of the ship. Polák shoots Panavision and he composes well for that wide frame but it does mean sometimes it’s more obvious than not the effects aren’t great. Set design effects. And Jan Kalis’s photography is intentionally unforgiving. It’s like Icarus has amazing production design-from Karel Lukas and Jan Zázvorka-but not ability to fully implement it.

But then instead of being about Lackovic, the film is about the ship’s crew in general. First manned mission to Alpha Centuari, sometime in 2300s. Earth has become a lot more peaceful we’ll learn as the crew talks to one another about it. And besides a birthday party with dancing and some of the romance between Ruzena Urbanova and Jozef Adamovic, everything dramatic in Icarus is muted. Marcela Martínková is going to have the first space baby-which husband Jaroslav Mares doesn’t know about and then just turns into him occasionally checking on her. It’s not like they had anything big to do before that subplot. Guys flirt with Irena Kacírková for a while, until the party scene. Not really a subplot. But it does establish Kacírková for later scenes, which is nice, since the film-despite having almost an equal split between men and women-is all about the men. It gets around the men doing things instead of the women by the future just being so chill everyone gets along.

There’s the occasional scene with captain Zdenek Stepánek (who’s fine but narratively immaterial), quirky old guy scientist Frantisek Smolík, alpha male Radovan Lukavský, and crew sociologist and single woman in a leadership role Dana Medrická. Medrická gets the last word on everything, but only because everyone’s always in agreement. It’s kind of sneaky, especially when you notice how Kacírková’s character development stops in the script but Kacírková keeps going with it.

On the trip, there’s some external drama-they discover an alien spacecraft-then get into this trouble with a “Dark Star.” Its radiation is causing chronic fatigue. The film employs an iffy, eratic narration device (presumably Stepánek) and so it’s clear the danger isn’t total. Plus we still haven’t caught up with the first scene, which-it becomes clear pretty quick-is a framing device.

A pointless one too. Effective in the moment, but once the film’s in thriller gear for the last act… kind of a weird diversion. Icarus spends its first hour (running eighty-some minutes) sticking with the cast no matter what. Polák adjusting the narrative distance to do the thriller stuff crowds the cast out of the picture, even when one of the cast actually gets to play lead for a while, in a film otherwise without one.

The acting’s solid. Polák has good impulses and instincts; he definitely facilitates his cast and they’re able to get the future people on a starship but still relatable thing down. Smolík is never as cute as he’s supposed to be. He drags his old robot on the starship with them-even though modern robots are much better and never seen-and the robot is this big clunky thing with a fish bowl head (with electronics in it) and very little personality.

The joke seems to be about the lack of personality but it’s not like Smolík-despite exposition to the contrary-sells an affection for the robot. Similarly the avoidance of the Martínková and Mares pregnancy subplot, particularly of Martínková, who doesn’t even get to have her own scenes, she’s support in Mares’s. Again, the weird presence and avoidance of the women.

Lukavský’s good. Medrická’s good. Kacírková’s good. The interchangeable male bridge crew members are all fine.

Technically, besides the film looking a little dodgy (budgetarily speaking), Icarus is more than solid. Kalis’s photography, Josef Dobrichovský’s editing. Polák’s just a tad impatient of a director. Again, budget thing.

The script-from Polák and Pavel Juráček-is more literate than thorough, more precise than thoughtful. Icarus’s got a good idea, with some strong technical aspects and performances, but the overall execution is just too shaky.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jindrich Polák; screenplay by Polák and Pavel Jurácek; director of photography, Jan Kalis; edited by Josef Dobrichovský; music by Zdenek Liska; produced by Rudolf Wolf for Filmové studio Barrandov.

Starring Zdenek Stepánek (Captain Vladimir Abajev), Frantisek Smolík (Anthony Hopkins), Dana Medrická (Nina Kirova), Radovan Lukavský (Commander MacDonald), Irena Kacírková (Brigitta), Otto Lackovic (Michal), Jozef Adamovic (Zdenek Lorenc), Ruzena Urbanova (Eva), Jaroslav Mares (Milek Wertbowsky), Marcela Martínková (Steffa Wertbowsky), Miroslav Machácek (Marcel Bernard), Jirí Vrstála (Erik Svenson), Rudolf Deyl (Ervin Herold), Martin Tapák (Petr Kubes), and Svatava Hubenáková (MacDonald’s wife).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ROBOTS IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY QUIGGY OF THE MIDNITE DRIVE-IN AND HAMLETTE OF HAMLETTE'S SOLILOQUY.


RELATED

Jour de fête (1949, Jacques Tati)

It’s about fifteen minutes before lead (and director) Jacques Tati appears in Jour de fête. The film opens with a travelling fair arriving at its destination and starting to set up. Paul Frankeur and Guy Decomble are the two main fair workers–actually they’re the only fair workers with anything to do except Santa Relli as Decomble’s wife. Besides starting to set up the merry-go-round, Decomble has time to make eyes at local girl Maine Vallée. Delcassan plays another resident, an old woman who narrates the goings on for the benefit of the audience–and, presumably, the goat she’s always got with her. The device is rather charming. Tati usually employs long shots, letting the action play out gradually, individual elements building until they intersect–for example, Tati, as actor, gets introduced in dialogue when Relli sends Decomble to mail a letter instead of making eyes at Vallée.

Jean Yatove’s music perfectly accompanies the gentle action.

Tati–as actor–arrives as some men are trying to put up a pole for the fair. Decomble and Frankeur are on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary, then draft Tati into action. He’s a bicycle postman, he gets around, he should know how to put up a pole. For most of the film, Jour is a series of intricately connected vingettes. Tati and cowriters Henri Marquet and René Wheeler occasionally pause one vignette to move on to another–Tati’s postman is easily distracted, whether by putting up a pole or getting blasted at the café, making the movements organic.

There’s a lot of physical comedy and callbacks to previous gags. Tati introduces himself biking into town and battling a bee. As he moves, in the distance, across the frame, the bee jumps forward to pester the farmer who’s in the foreground of the shot, before returning to Tati as the bicycle moves past the farmer. There’s a lot of subtle, inventive shots. There are also some obvious sight gags, which usually work–and manage to be charming thanks to the filmmaking and, particularly, the music–but are still kind of cheap.

After introducing Tati’s postman and getting the fair setup on track, the film jumps ahead a bit–with Delcassan offering some more commentary–as the townspeople head to square for the fair, which includes a cinema. The cinema becomes important later. Before it does, however, there’s a lot more with Tati. He can’t refuse the multiple invitations to drink at the café, culminating in Decomble and Frankeur–in a genial malice–getting him incredibly drunk. Sober, Tati’s postman is scatterbrained. Blasted, he’s wholly incompetent.

In between some of the drinking, Tati sees a short film in the cinema showing the U.S. postal service, which implements all the latest technology to deliver the mail. Latest technology like helicopters and skydivers and stunt motorcycles. How can the French compete. Especially since Tati spends the rest of the day in the bar before heading out at night to finish his deliveries. The townspeople have gone to bed, leading to multiple complications, before Tati just passes out drunk.

The next day, however, he’s invigorated and ready to show off how fast he can deliver the post. No surprise, Decomble and Frankeur have given him multiple bad ideas on how he can increase his efficiency.

Tati’s wild ride–which includes some incredible physical comedy and elaborate action direction–happens about an hour into the film’s ninety minute runtime. It doesn’t take the whole last third, but most of it. It’s always inventive, always amusing (or better), but somewhat detached from the rest of the film. Jour’s no longer about the townspeople or the fair, now it’s all Tati and the hyper-speed mail delivery.

Tati, as director, brings it all together for the finish but far less organically than anything else in the picture. The long sequence works–Tati’s hitting familiar places populated by now familiar faces–but it doesn’t fit with the rest. The wrap-up is well-executed, effective, closes all the open threads, but is far from seamless. It treats Tati’s wild ride as a tangent, while the rest of the film built up to the wild ride as though it were the intended result.

So a disjointed–while still more than adequate–finish.

Wonderful direction from Tati throughout. Great composition, great pacing, whether he’s setting up for comedy or narrative–though, really, it’s always both. Mostly excellent cinematography from Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot. The day-for-night is somewhat lacking but the content makes up for it. Similarly, Marcel Morreau’s editing only has any hiccups when they’re trying to get goats and chickens to behave.

Jour de fête is superb. Sure, the last third has its problems, but they’re masterfully, sublimely executed problems.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and René Wheeler; directors of photography, Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot; edited by Marcel Morreau; music by Jean Yatove; produced by Fred Orain and André Paulvé; released by DisCina.

Starring Jacques Tati (François), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Jacques Beauvais (Bondu), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), and Delcassan (Old biddy).


RELATED

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

Somewhat recently I read an observation along the following lines–Ingmar Bergman created great roles for actresses by giving them absolutely awful emotions to essay. Whoever said it (I’ve tried, without success to properly credit her) said it a lot better. But at around the hour mark of Autumn Sonata, I couldn’t think of much else. The film just over ninety minutes. An hour into it, everything is forecast.

The film opens with village pastor Halvar Björk introducing his wife, Liv Ullmann. He loves her, a lot, but doesn’t really know how to express it in a way she can process it. She’s writing a letter to her mother, happily inviting her for a visit. The village is rural, their house is tranquil, the colors are soft, warm browns and reds (Autumn).

When mother–Ingrid Bergman–arrives, she and Ullmann have a nice reuniting. It’s been over seven years. Bergman hasn’t been good about staying in touch. She’s managed to miss Ullmann is taking care of her sister (Lena Nyman) now. Nyman is disabled; partially paralyzed and with limited speech. It’s an unidentified (by the dialogue) illness and, the film later reveals, a degenerative one.

Bergman isn’t happy to see Nyman, which is the first hint maybe Bergman isn’t such a great mother. Or person.

There are some more character revelations in the first third–Ullmann and Björk had a son who died, tragically, as a toddler. Bergman apparently never even met her grandson. She’s a famous concert pianist. She was busy.

She wakes that first night from a terrible dream–which is a fantastically done nightmare sequence (easily the best bit of editing in the film)–and goes downstairs to shake it off. Ullmann comes to check on her. That checking on her soon turns into daughter telling mother exactly what she thinks of her.

Their conversation, with occasional flashbacks, takes most of the rest of the film. It’s that night, the two women in the same room. Ullmann hating Bergman, Bergman either begging forgiveness or making excuses.

At that one hour mark I mentioned earlier, as Ullmann’s revealing the laundry list of Bergman’s bad parenting, that observation came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. But not only is Bergman–Ingmar–giving his two stars all this awful emotion to play, it’s not even particularly good awful emotion. It’s affecting and seeing Ullmann stare thin daggers at a collapsing Bergman–Ingrid–is powerful, but… dead toddler? Nyman’s illness? Ullmann being surprised she and mom aren’t having a good visit even though the only reason Ullmann invited her, deep down (but not even particularly deep down), is to rend her? It’s all pretty slight.

The filmmaking slows to a halt too. During the day, there are those beautiful colors from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in the perfectly designed house (Anna Asp’s production design). Night time? It’s nowhere near as effective. And, even though the colors are great and then there’s the interesting way Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist do flashbacks–long shots with muted color so Bergman (Ingrid) always gets to play mom, Ullmann usually gets to play herself, Nyman gets to play herself–for some reason lots of the (albeit occasional) camera movements are jerky and distracting. The camera moves for emphasis on Ullmann or Bergman and instead of informing their performance, it jerks and draws attention away from the performance. You’re wondering how they messed up a simple pan and tilt, when there’s clearly so much professional competence (and excellence) on display.

Like when Bergman has her scene listening to Ullmann play the piano. It’s beautiful. Truly magical acting from Bergman; it’s silent, she’s just watching, reacting to Ullmann playing, her thoughts across her face. A very complicated affection. The two argue for forty-five minutes at least and there’s never anything approaching that complication again in Sonata. Though once Ullmann starts in on Bergman, even when Bergman gets a monologue–the film’s a sequence of them–it’s nowhere near as good as anything she has earlier. Once Ullmann goes into simple hatred mode too… her character becomes a whole lot less interesting. Meanwhile Björk is occasionally around, usually silent. The way Bergman (Ingmar) used Björk as a fourth-wall breaking narrator was cool and all, but utterly pointless as the film progresses. It’s a misdirect to position Ullmann from a particularly angle.

The finale is particularly lackluster, both narratively and visually. Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist can’t do a simple composition shot. Ullmann gets a bunch of contrary penultimate character development, which would’ve been a lot better if it had come at the beginning, but then the finale resets it all back to the start anyway.

Somehow, Autumn Sonata–maybe due to the somewhat obvious production constraints–manages to be too misanthropic to be manipulative. It’s exceptionally disappointing, since–until it becomes obvious Bergman (Ingmar) doesn’t have the emotional fodder for Ullmann and Bergman (Ingrid)’s erstwhile showdown, it seems like Sonata is going to be fantastic. The acting is good, the filmmaking is exquisite (save the pans and tilts)… it’s got all the right pieces.

It just doesn’t have the story for it. It’s a shame, given how good Bergman (Ingrid) and Ullmann are when the material’s there.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; production designer, Anna Asp; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva), Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Halvar Björk (Viktor), and Lena Nyman (Helena).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL INGRID BERGMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


RELATED