Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)

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Of all of the various American filmmakers who have emerged this century, one of the most fascinating, talented, and enormously polarizing is Alex Ross Perry. He first emerged a decade ago with Impolex (2009), a riff on Gravity’s Rainbow, which operated in a vein of surrealism and absurdism — featuring miniature V2 rockets, charmingly low-budget military uniforms, and a talking octopus — almost fully absent from the rest of his oeuvre. His next two films established his reputation for better and for worse: The Color Wheel (2011) is perhaps the most intensely unpleasant of his films, in some ways acting as an American cousin of Hong’s The Day He Arrives of the same year. Shot in a haze of 16mm black-and-white, it stars Perry himself and Carlen Altman (who also co-wrote) as siblings on a road trip to salvage the latter’s belongings from a nasty breakup with her former professor, and along the way skillfully excavates numerous hangups and issues. Perry’s finest film to date was his next work, Listen Up Philip (2014), which featured Jason Schwartzman as the eponymous moody author, who finds a mentor in an aging but intermittently brilliant writer played by Jonathan Pryce. Of all his films, it is perhaps the most covertly dynamic, in no small part due to a crucial interlude involving Philip’s girlfriend, radiantly played by Elisabeth Moss, and its trajectory is at once inevitable yet utterly surprising. From there, Perry’s career path has taken him to strange but often fruitful pathways, including the explicitly psychological framework of Queen of Earth (2015), which featured Moss and Katherine Waterston in a Persona-esque two-hander, and the gentler city film environs of Golden Exits (2017), a true ensemble cast featuring, among others, Emily Browning, Schwartzman, and Chloë Sevigny.

All of this has led to Her Smell, his most daring and expansive work yet, and easily his most impressive on a directorial level. Once again, it stars Moss, this time as Becky Something, the mercurial and explosive bandleader of the riot grrl band Something She, which enjoyed enormous success sometime in the early-’90s (becoming the first all-female band to score a platinum record) and which by the start of the film is playing to crowds half their previous capacity. What follows is a gloriously theatrical five-act narrative, moving relentlessly through two hours and fifteen minutes that span the better part of a decade, as Becky undergoes a severe, harrowing mental and professional decline and, ultimately, a genuine form of redemption.

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Savage (Cui Siwei, 2019)

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Cui Siwei’s directorial debut is not, unfortunately, a remake of the classic blaxploitation film Savage (tagline: “On the streets, or in the sheets, he’s. . . SAVAGE!”). Instead, it’s another moody Chinese noir, this one headed by two excellent actors and set in a snowy mountain wilderness. Chang Chen plays a cop who stumbles across escaping gold thieves, led by Liao Fan. The bad guys shoot Chang and kill his partner. Chang suffers angst for a year, which even his friendship/romance with the pretty local doctor cannot cure. Then, he and another partner, in the course of chasing after some poachers hours before the biggest blizzard of the year, run into the very same gang of thieves who have returned for their stash of gold. Everyone shoots everyone with a seemingly endless supply of bullets and cartridges, until all the brilliant whites are stained with blood.

Given that Cui’s last credit was for the screenplay of The Island, a film which played here last year that I thought was quite well-constructed and clever, it’s a bit of a shock that Savage is so shoddy. Action thriller clichés abound: the dead partner, the pretty woman in peril, the double-crosses, the double deadlines of impending storm and the doctor leaving town. There’s a scene where the doctor watches Chang beat the hell out of three men in a restaurant and responds by making out with him, fully clothed, under a running shower. The plot collapses amidst a blizzard of coincidence, and very little in the final half hour or so makes much sense.

Chang and Liao are two of modern cinema’s finest serious face actors, they’re great at being sad and angry at the same time. But those are the only emotions they’re allowed. Still, Cui has a terrific eye, and in some alternate universe this could have been a solid elemental thriller along the lines of Track of the Cat, or at least Shoot to Kill. One stand-off takes place outdoors, in a field of tall grass covered by blinding snow, the score hinting at Morricone without the least bit of subtlety. And yes indeed two men do slide down a mountainside, firing rifles at each other as they go. Near the climax, someone drives a sno-cat into a building for no apparent reason other than it lets Cui backlight snow falling inside a room for the final showdown. But it does look pretty cool.

Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng, 2018)

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The Northwest Film Forum’s commitment to rethinking the movie release calendar continues this week, and part of last week, with the oddball Wednesday-Tuesday run of Suburban Birds, the feature debut of director Qiu Sheng. That the film should play here at all is somewhat remarkable, contemporary Chinese cinema releases being almost entirely limited to the small runs of pop genre films that we like to highlight here at Seattle Screen Scene. Sure, festival blockbusters like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night play too, but it’s exceedingly rare that a film by an unknown Chinese director gets an art house release. The film has been well-received at Locarno and the New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival, and has the backing of a solid distributor in Cinema Guild. That is likely because, like Bi Gan, who also had his debut feature released in one the art house circuit, Suburban Birds is heavily influenced by the works of established and well-known East Asian star directors. Audiences familiar with Jia and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang will have no trouble relating to this beautiful, dreamy, yet precise tour through the contradictions of modern China.

Set in an unnamed Chinese city, one of those meticulous and vast urban spaces that has cropped up over the past twenty years, where a surveying crew is attempting to account for the subsidence of various buildings. The new city is literally sinking into the ground. Exploring an abandoned elementary school, one of the crew, Xia Hao, discovers an old diary and the next hour or so of the film is an extended flashback, or dream, of his childhood, complete with title cards for the date and day of the week (but not the year), as if we too are reading the lost diary. There’s little forward momentum here: the middle school kids, almost entirely without adult presence, wander their town, in between forest and construction zones, exploring the city as the old is being demolished to make way for the new. The two timelines, past and future Xia Hao, intersect in minor ways, recalling more the temporal contradictions of Hong Sangsoo’s In Another Country than anything more serious (Bi Gan’s scrambling of time in Kaili Blues, for example). The middle section is less coming of age than slice of life, what plot direction it has is more toward a falling away than growing up, entropic rather than progressive.

Back in the present (or the future), Xia Hao is increasingly convinced that the whole city is resting on a groundwater leak, that its unstable foundations will eventually, possibly quite soon, lead the whole thing to collapse. The metaphor here is not the least bit subtle, but Qiu underplays it, relying on image and landscape and cityscape, captured in crystal clear and brightly colored 1.33 images, to build a mood of societal unease, of inevitable collapse. In this it recalls another recent Chinese film to have been released here (in the US, not Seattle, as far as I can tell), Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary Behemoth, which ended its exploration of China’s coal industry in a vast, freshly-constructed ghost town, a space of cutting edge modernity that was nonetheless wholly empty of human habitation. The streets of Suburban Birds are similarly empty, we really only see Xia Hao and his companions, past and present, though the sounds of others are omnipresent. Birds chirp constantly in the past, but there’s only construction and traffic in the present, and the drip drip drip of the new city’s impending watery doom.

Hotel by the River (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Sean Gilman: You and I both saw Hotel by the River not long after it premiered late last summer at the Locarno Film Festival. But while in recent years we’ve found it difficult to stop talking and writing about Hong Sangsoo, as far as I know, neither of us has had much to say about this one. I mean, you once wrote a review of just the trailer for Yourself and Yours, I was crazy enough to watch, and write about, all of Hong’s movies in chronological order last year, and we’ve talked about him in every single episode of our podcast for the past two years. So what is it about Hotel by the River that we’ve gone six months without having anything to say about it, and why is it so hard, even now after rewatching it, for us to discuss it?

On its surface, it’s of a piece with Hong’s most recent films. It stars Kim Minhee and, like The Day After and Grass, it’s shot in an icy black and white. One of his winter films, it is also, like Grass, a movie haunted by death. An aged poet has been living in a hotel for the past two weeks. His sons come to visit him. Next door are a pair of women (sisters we assume but I don’t think it’s confirmed). The whole action takes place over about 24 hours. Everybody naps, a lot. All the Hong/Kim films, but one, have flaunted their narrative experiments: the short story construction of Grass with Kim as observer/writer; the temporal confusion of Claire’s Camera; the dreams and allusion to Hong and Kim’s own life in On the Beach at Night Alone; the duplications of Yourself and Yours; the mirror structure of Right Now, Wrong Then. The one that plays things basically straight is The Day After, which we also, at least initially, were somewhat underwhelmed by. That film grew on me in retrospect and with rewatching, as I found a precision in the filmmaking and earnestness in the performances that is often missing in Hong’s work.

But revisiting Hotel by the River, I remain as nonplussed as I was the first time. More than anything else, the movie is a mood, of loneliness, of regret, of resignation. It’s maybe the least funny movie he’s ever made. And I guess that’s probably it: it just doesn’t feel like my idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie. Despite the familiar character types and situations, conversations about love and failure, over-drinking and social awkwardness, it seems like something else entirely. This is the persistent danger of fandom, or auteurism, which is not the same thing but is in the same ballpark: our reaction to the film is intricately entwined with what we have come to believe about the filmmaker. And so when Hong Sangsoo makes a movie that doesn’t fit our idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie, we don’t know what to do with it.

Years from now, Hotel by the River could mark a step in an evolution of Hong’s work that we’ve come to recognize and understand. He’s had many different periods along the way, with certain films sticking out as transition points (Virgin Stripped Bare; Woman on the Beach; Right Now, Wrong Then), the effects of which are occasionally not felt until another two or three films down the line—Night and Day and Like You Know It All feel more like pre-Woman on the Beach films, with Woman pointing the way instead to the Jung Yumi movies (Oki’s MovieIn Another CountryOur Sunhi). Perhaps Hotel will improve when we’re able to see it in the broad context of the next phase in Hong’s career.

Grass and Hotel seem of a piece in that they present a more sober, austere Hong. One increasingly less concerned with the agony of finding love than with the dread of what comes after life. I had a theory about Grass that the characters in it were in a kind of purgatory, trapped in an in-between state after death. I’m tempted to read some kind of similar twist into the overtly simple narrative of Hotel, that Kim and her sister are (literally) angels, weeping over the folly of men; or that they are figments of the old man’s poetic imagination; or that he dreams them while they dream him; or something like that. I don’t know I can support this kind of wild speculation though. At least not as much as I can the time travel theory of Claire’s Camera. It just doesn’t seem complicated. It’s a cold film and I’m having trouble breaking through all the ice.

Evan Morgan: I’m glad you brought up the difficulty of writing about this film; I’m in the same boat. Words usually flow like so much soju when it comes to Hong, but this time around, my enthusiasms seem exhausted. You’ve hit on a number of possible explanations: the air of guilt and reproach that hangs over the film, which, though not alien to Hong’s world (the otherwise utopian Grass evinces an unnerving fixation on suicide, for example), refuses to abate, like a fog that won’t lift; the deadened comic sensibility, a key contributor to the oppressive tone; and the relative lack of narrative play. At the moment, it’s the last point that’s bugging me the most: I wonder if the fatigue I’m feeling is in fact attributable to a certain enervation on Hong’s part, an exhaustion with his current working method. For the first time since he abandoned pre-planned scripts and started writing his movies on the fly, I suspect that Hong conceived the final moments first and then worked backwards to lay the groundwork to get us there. That would account for the sorely missed spontaneity—so often a source of humor—and for the doomed tone. Do any other Hong films telegraph their final purpose like this does? Or, to put a finer point on it: Having a character state “I feel like I’m going to die” and then having the plot deliver on the premonition is beneath Hong, or so I thought.

But it’s little perverse to start here, at the ending, so let me backtrack a bit. Not long after the opening shot, which introduces Hotel’s handled camera and its correspondingly destabilized world, Younghwan, the poet at the film’s center, muses to himself that he’s “done something foolish again.” The nature of this foolish act is, I think, key to unlocking Hotel by the River’s meaning, if not its cold heart. Younghwan has made the mistake of allowing his two adult sons—played, pointedly, by Hong regulars Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang—to intrude on his (presumably) solitary existence, and their presence is a haunting as literal as your “angels of death” theory is figurative; these are not Nobody’s Sons. The old poet clearly deserves some blame for his offspring’s unfulfilled lives, and though Hong keeps Younghwan’s specific fatherly crimes cloaked in ambiguity, his ex-wife’s assessment of his character (“A total monster without any redeeming human value”) ought to give us some clues about life in his household. And so the hotel, which under other circumstances might promise a reunion and a reconstitution of the family unit—it’s named, not incidentally, after the German word for “home”—acts instead as an anteroom for one man’s sins, a kind of purgatory, to borrow your apt description. Though I might disagree with you in one respect: perhaps it’s not the dread of what comes after but the terror of living with what we’ve wrought in this life that is Hong’s recent obsession.

That would make Hotel less of an aberration in Hong’s career, I think, given his cinema’s myriad reckonings with male failure, though the focus on familial bonds, rather than romantic relationships, robs the film of a certain generative ambivalence. A son’s bond with his father is, it seems to me, necessarily more solidified than that same man’s relationship to a prospective lover. Hence the two women: they hang around the edge of the movie as if to promise the malleability, even the mystery, that we’ve come to expect from Hong’s cinema, but they’re so far removed from the drama that their effect on it can only be countenanced in metaphorical terms, as you imply. The ease with which one could boot Kim Minhee and Song Seonmi from Hotel and be left with more or less the same movie makes me dubious about their diegetic utility. Still, their presence provides the film with its single best image: when Hong drapes them in charcoal overcoats and frames them against a snowy landscape, it’s a genuinely painterly moment, all that frosty negative space suggesting untouched silk parchment, the dark figures of the women seeming to stand in for the spare strokes of an ink wash master—not a brush wasted. The severe beauty that Hong is seeking finds an expression there, if nowhere else.

Sean: It’s important that you highlight that image, it’s by far the best thing about the movie. In fact, I wonder if that idea, an old man overwhelmed by the beauty of two women clad in black surrounded by white, was Hong’s starting point for the film, rather than the ending. It’s certainly more hopeful than the ending, and more in keeping with Hong heroes of the past, men struck stupid by what the perceive as an all-powerful beauty, one that redefines, or at least makes irrelevant, all traditional ideas of fidelity. Repeatedly Hong’s men conflate beauty and morality, usually to comic effect. The poet does the same, I think, but Hong never really undercuts that belief. I guess it depends on how you read the poem he eventually writes, which he claims was inspired by the two women. I don’t think it particularly resembles them, but that too is nothing new for Hong–the idea of art failing to match the reality that inspired it. But like a lot of ideas that seem to float around the movie, I don’t think any of this ever really goes anywhere.

That’s probably what I find most frustrating about it: the decided lack of forward movement. As you say, the two women literally do nothing for the entire film–they sleep, they talk around whatever issue Kim is having (a breakup probably and a burn of some kind), they observe the men, they sleep again. Kim in Grass was in the observer role as well, but actively so, such that you could reasonably imagine her not just watching but creating all the little dramas around her. And those dramas progress, in the nature of short stories, little slices of life that, when combined together in the whole of the film, create myriad rhymes and resonances, all united by a mysterious central figure. There are a lot of rhymes in Hotel, between Kim and the poet (we can hear each of their thoughts, their stories begin with them alone in their rooms), and contrasts (the differences in their reaction to their guests bringing coffee), but they don’t really amount to anything. Why are these characters linked? What do they have in common aside from the fact that they’re characters in a Hong Sangsoo movie?

Writing all this out, I’m almost certain I’m taking the wrong approach to this film. I do think it’s Hong stretching himself out, trying something new. A movie unified not so much by cause and effect, or by the collision of infinite possible worlds, or even one driven by the basest cruelties of men and women in love, but simply, as I said earlier, by mood. It’s a movie about the feeling of being old, of being out of touch with youth, even the younger people who should, theoretically, be closest to you (your children). The feeling you get when you’re old and alone and miserable and you see two beautiful young people, glimpses of warmth and heat and vitality, and know that your world is now a much colder place.

Evan: I like the way you emphasize Younghwan’s response to the women, his genuine appreciation of their beauty in aesthetic rather than sexual terms. Is the poet exempt from the boorishness that typically afflicts Hong’s men? His rapture reads to me as honest, almost achingly so, rather than predatory or pathetic. And if that’s the case, does Hotel introduce the possibility of a new kind of happiness in Hong’s world, the contemplative repose of old age? Despite the pervasive loneliness and the untended wounds of family history, I do think the movie gestures in this direction, for a time anyways.

But really, there’s no escaping the predestined end. Hong doubles down on the entrapped atmosphere that we both sensed in Grass, nowhere more so than in Younghwan’s last poem, a bizarre tale that describes a secret society that raises a young gas station attendant in seclusion from the rest of the world. Although we both seem to prefer the moments where Hotel yearns for warmth and communion, I’ll admit to being sort of fascinated by this sequence, the premise of which is supremely Mabusian. Lang is not an obvious touchstone for Hong, but he is for me, and in some ways this scene has prompted me to measure Hong’s cruelties, which I find increasingly dull, against Lang’s, which are consistently exhilarating. The difference, I think, is where each locates pleasure: for Lang, the geometry of death, its axiomatic certainty, is itself a wondrous thing to behold. It will crush us, no doubt, but its movements produce a thrilling whir. Hong, on the other hand, seems not to enjoy the narrative and visual stratagems necessary to bring his work into confrontation with death. That is his prerogative, I suppose, but it means that whatever pleasure there is to be had in Hotel exists only in its detours from the terminal path, and not on it. That’s why so much of the film feels like a slog and the reason, I think, that Hong hesitates when depicting Younghwan’s demise, why he holds on the empty hallway outside the bedroom instead of bolting inside with the sons. The image is among the ugliest in his career and inarguably the most evasive. If Hotel is, finally, a trap, it’s one that springs only half-heartedly. Which is to say: all the pain, none of the thrill.

Outer Limits: A Conversation on Claire Denis’s High Life

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EVAN MORGAN: Recently, I found myself thinking about Claire Denis and failure thanks to—what else?—a Film Twitter thread asking for cinematic recommendations on the subject. I offered up Bastards (2013) as a representative example, a film as enamored with ruin as any I know, but now having seen High Life, I’m thinking I may have spoken too soon. In the very least, I’ve been left wondering if Denis’s oeuvre isn’t uniquely crowded with contenders for this sad prize: Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001) for their bleak assessment of desire as something caught perpetually in the throat, White Material (2009) and No Fear, No Die (1990) for their entropic politics; even something like Let the Sunshine In (2017), despite that exhortative title, is mostly a series of frustrations, no one of which is a true catastrophe on the merits, but as they pile up over a lifetime, they manage to block forward progress nonetheless. I’d like to nominate High Life too, though for different reasons and, it must be said, with some reluctance: for the first time, I suspect that Denis has been defeated by her own material. Unable to bend it to her will, she’s left with a film that only fitfully achieves her idiosyncratic vision. I’m willing to grant that the results might prove productive upon further reflection, but only in the way that mutations are productive: the variations introduce as much waste as they do benefit. As a Claire Denis Project, I think we have to speak of High Life in terms of failure. To emphasize the film’s continuity with Denis’s other work, as most of its admirers have done, is to fall into an auteurist trap. The film’s signal virtue, it seems to me, is bound up in its failures: it ought to frustrate easy auteurist readings.

For one thing, High Life is significantly less elliptical than the descriptions I’m reading: there are no lacunae to rival the narrative and structural gaps of a L’intrus, for example, and an honest attempt to outline the film’s trajectory should produce a fairly straightforward summary. For another, I think the approach to the images here (and in Let the Sunshine In, to an extent) is different from the approach in her mid-2000s films; again, people seem to be describing memories of L’intrus (2004) or something when talking about the way this looks. In all fairness, I haven’t fully articulated to myself the precise distinction between this late style and her mid-career style, but I feel it and I haven’t seen anyone grapple with it in a sustained way. In his interview with Denis at Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman gestures at this, but doesn’t probe further:

She never forces her images, which are striking without exceeding their narrative function, nor does she get lost in an elliptical thicket à la L’intrus, which is probably her most unsettled film. In terms of content and implication, High Life is anything but easy, and yet its craft gives an impression of effortlessness, as if its various complex, interlocking elements simply floated into place, zero-gravity style.

LAWRENCE GARCIA: Thematically, there’s no question that the film is of a piece with the rest of Denis’s filmography: the story alone charts the dual human failures of society (death row inmates sent on a perverse experimental voyage) and technology (the mission to harness the rotational energy of a black hole). In his mammoth appraisal of her career, Darren Hughes delineates the critical meta-narrative surrounding her work, and astutely describes High Life as “classic speculative fiction in that all of the narrative mechanisms—cosmology, astrophysics, violence, reproduction, the ethics of crime and punishment—are interlocking pieces of an ontological/theological puzzle box.” Indeed, the cube-like shape of the prison-cum-spacecraft seems explicitly designed around that notion. But the “unsettled” quality that Nayman suggests of L’intrus is what seems to be missing from High Life. Whereas, say, Trouble Every Day fuses its various oppositions—horror and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, drives of sex and death—into an experience of visceral, brutal beauty, High Life comes across as more monomaniacal in both intention and effect; the extremity of its gestures feels beholden to an external design, so the film registers mainly as an authorial expression of worldview. The moment-to-moment rhythmic, tactile, and sensuous incitements that I’ve come to expect from Denis’s cinema are, if not entirely absent, then severely diminished. To put it even more simply, High Life is less confounding or bewildering than any film of hers I’ve seen before.

As you suggest, the narrative is fairly easily pieced together, and what ellipses are present seem to remove ambiguity rather than inject it, which renders much of the character/action strictly symbolic/conceptual. Ewan Mitchell’s glowering convict, for instance, is so stringently defined in terms of his sexual frustration that his actions take on a lugubrious sense of portent. One might lament his eventual demise—a result of his rape of a female inmate, expected from the moment he’s introduced—but only in the sense of youth wasted by an oppressive order. So overall, High Life does seem to present a marked formal difference, one that goes beyond a shift in genre and a different set of collaborators. But what’s to account for it?

EM: It’s easy to see thematic consistency from a 1000-foot view, so yes, I’m thinking primarily in terms of style, but also the way style ought to shift our understanding of the thematic interests. Bastards, as I’ve already implied, is the baseline from which I’m trying to track the deviations: it’s also digital, similarly mythic, equally in erotic thrall to death, but hyper-specific in a way that makes High Life seem free-floating, anonymous even. There’s nothing here that comes close to the stuff with Vincent Lindon’s shirt in Bastards, for example, which is perfectly designed to explicate his character and string together a number of otherwise disparate sequences. The conceptual rigor represented by that shirt has no corollary in High Life.

LG: Part of me wonders whether or not this overall lack is a direct result of production constraints. The imagery of speculative fiction and sci-fi is so freighted by genre iconography; by her own admission the long shadows of Tarkovsky and Kubrick were inescapable in this. So perhaps in evoking the bare minimum of engagement from the viewer (i.e. the belief that this is “a space movie”) and then attempting to put her individual stamp on the narrative trajectory, Denis wasn’t quite able to make the ground-level experience specific enough to really connect.

EM: I think it goes deeper than the production constraints: As was the case with Sunshine, she pokes fewer holes in the generic template than one might expect, which suggests either a greater fealty to the genre than I would have thought possible given her earlier films or a thin conception of the genre’s possibilities. But I’m also curious whether that’s a feature and not a bug: in more ways than one, the film is about the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the edges where her style breaks down, where intimate touch—both physical and cinematographic—is no longer possible, and so there’s a way in which the lack at the heart of the film is the text. Again, I think the auteurist reading that this is a self-evidently successful elaboration of her pet ideas and images, rather than an attempt to map out the points where they fail, seems flawed to me. Though in a way, I welcome High Life’s failures.

LG: That approach seems like the most compelling avenue for considering the film’s (mutated) success. Throughout the film, there’s an intense preoccupation with ritual: specifically, what occurs when one is removed or irrevocably cut off from it. Denis seems interested in the (im)possibility of continued existence apart from the human rites and observances that require deep codification—only possible across lengthy spans of time, which is precisely what the convicts don’t have—to truly take hold. This is, in part, the appeal of funeral ceremony, which consoles precisely because it places the individual at a kind of remove; the impersonal nature of its rituals and movements is part of its power. The sequence leading into the title card shot, then, during which Pattinson’s Monte disposes of the crew’s bodies, is an unequivocal rejection of that possibility—and the toll of its lack becomes increasingly evident. As we see throughout the film, there’s an attempt to build up a new set of ceremonial forms: Monte’s own diurnal rituals (in particular, the scene where he collects his hair); and, most obviously, his daughter Willow’s attempt to pray, mimicking some of the glitchy “transmissions” that the ship receives from Earth. But cut off from all else, these are bound to fail.

Along these lines, there’s a way to view High Life as an attempt to work through history—including film history—through such transmissions; to recapture a lost existence through glitchy snatches of it. Early on, Monte’s toddler daughter is faced with a pair of monitors: one showing Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), the other showing a surveillance video of Monte outside the ship. There are also seductive flashbacks to what feels very much like a previous life, as well as home-video footage of a child playing by the sea. There’s a sense that Denis is practically reconstructing her style within this black box, or at least probing its limits by removing certain tactile pleasures. (In this, it’s salient that the Earth scenes are shot in 16mm, the space scenes in digital, and the finale in 35mm.) So if there’s an overall feeling of lack, it stems from an attempt to, as you say, map out points of failure. It seems no coincidence that the film’s most compelling sequences are all departures from the main spacecraft location: the overhead shot of a train, which leads into the most bewildering, and thus engaging expository bit; and Mia Goth’s descent, all strobing lights and warped space-time. (Though I’d also like to mention the Beau Travail-like sequence of the inmates exercising on the craft, which reminded me of Jeremy Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy, specifically Liminals.) Still, I’m not sure that I can ever fully embrace a film that, however intentionally, sparks so little in-the-moment engagement.

EM: The earth scenes are crucial, especially given their texture: a means for the film to establish all that’s being left behind, as you suggest. And if the move to space is in fact an abandonment of tactility, then I think the film’s trajectory makes a strong case for jettisoning the received wisdom regarding Denis’s aesthetic proclivities and finding ways to start over. Though I sense that, at this point in her career, Denis is herself too conscious of the expectations that burden her work to begin anew, no matter the narrative’s invocation of a new Eden. I’m thinking, primarily, of the approach to sex, which she touches on in an interview at The A.V. Club:

A.V. Club: You see beauty in High Life? There’s horror in it, too.

Claire Denis: Yes, but also beauty. The horror is not in the rape scene. It’s in having to throw the crew into the void because they’re dead. This for me is the horror. I don’t think the sex scenes are horror, honestly.

I might expect her to say something like this about Trouble Every Day which, as you said earlier, more convincingly melds horror and beauty, but she’s simply failing to describe High Life’s effect here. Not her job to do so, perhaps, and she possesses the author’s absolute right to her own intentions. On the other hand, it’s not the critic’s job simply to parrot those expressed intentions when the images on screen induce a contrary experience in the viewer; Denis may conceive of the Binoche/Pattinson rape scene as throbbing with some kind of repressed pleasure, but given its narrative purpose and the chilly blue light that pervades it, it reads to me as clinical or, to borrow Nayman’s word, functional. When compared to Beatrice Dalle’s bite, Binoche’s touch is more or less gentle. So in a way I agree with Denis: the scene doesn’t register as horrifying, but that’s also why no real pleasure registers either, and therefore even less beauty.

If for Denis thanatos is a precondition of eros, and we accept that High Life fails to generate much that’s erotic, then I suspect that the problem lies with thanatos. Boundless, incorporeal voids aren’t capable of firing up the limbic system quite like an embodied threat; fear of a thing that touches and fear of a thing that fatally withholds touch are quite different beasts indeed. Which is why High Life only really palpitates when Binoche steps into the fuckbox and outer space is swapped for inner space. The sequence comes close to replicating the mise-en-scène of Trouble Every Day, with its dried blood palette and its very New French Extremity taste for shadow (Daniel Kasman rightly cited Philippe Grandrieux), and so it temporarily promises to revive the old Denis pleasures. But the film’s pessimism, its systematic denial of pleasure (contra Denis), is also located here: somatic experience in High Life is so degraded that a machine is necessary to arouse something, anything.

LG: In a 2015 interview, Denis pushed back on the general (critical) notion that her cinema is uniquely focused on the body: “I’m filming characters, you know?… I don’t see why I do more bodies than other directors.” In High Life at least, it’s more difficult to countenance that assessment, particularly given the film’s self-consciously horrific presentation of various bodily fluids (semen, blood, breast milk) and functions decoupled from the individual person; if anything, the film is defined by such demarcations of character/body. Trapped into self-evidently Sisyphean 24-hour-cycles of pointless activity, the inmates’s pursuit of touch becomes stripped of intimacy and eroticism and love: understandable, when faced with a yawning void—for after all, a thanatropic drive doesn’t indicate a fundamental desire for death, but a compulsion so overwhelming that it overrides one’s fear of it. That “systematic denial of pleasure,” as you put it, seems to be the crux of the matter: images and sensations pushed to a point where all that registers is numbing indifference. But on that note, I’d like to throw in Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017)—a film that itself owes a fair debt to Denis, specifically Beau Travail—as an oblique, but perhaps relevant point of comparison. The chief achievement of Grisebach’s feature is the precise distance she locates from the material: the film’s studied withholding of conventional pleasures and confounding of viewer expectations creates, well, its own kind of pleasure; in the process, the film renders ostensibly familiar territory alien and new. To my eyes, High Life doesn’t offer a similar substitute, though perhaps that’s also an indication that my appreciation of Denis’s films has always been of a narrower, though still enthusiastic sort.

As the film heads towards its finale, there’s a disorienting cut to a teenaged Willow crawling into bed with Monte—an ellipsis that recalled the thrilling moment-out-of-time transition of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018), another work concerned with a desire to continue living in the face of overwhelming odds. (The trajectory of High Life could be seen as a distorted fulfillment of Armin’s desire to bring a child into his post-apocalyptic earth.) For as long as it took for Willow to reach this point, Monte found a desire to live—though not for much longer, as the film’s conclusion sees father and daughter, that familiar unit of Denis’s cinema, now descending into a black hole. But it’s to High Life’s credit that despite its overwhelming pessimism up to that point, this scene still feels as much a leap of faith as it is an affirmation of nihilism: the blinding final shot fulfills, with terrifying clarity, Let the Sunshine In’s ambiguous closing exhortation to “be open.” If we have indeed reached the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the question now is: where will she go from here?

Ramen Shop (Eric Khoo, 2018)

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Opening this weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is this perfectly fine food drama by one of Singapore’s leading directors. After his father, a successful ramen chef, dies, a young man heads to Singapore in search of his mother’s family. Gauzy flashbacks fill in his parents’ back story in-between meetings with his estranged uncle and grandmother. His father, Japanese, and his mother, Chinese, married against her mother’s wishes, her hostility a result of lingering hatred of the Japanese following their occupation of the city-state during World War II. But as resentments and hatred are passed down through the generations, so too are recipes, taught from parent to child, adding personal touches learned from their own life experience. The cuisine of Singapore, with its influences from throughout East and South Asia as well as Europe is the blunt instrument of metaphor in Eric Khoo’s quiet, yet maudlin melodrama. The young man’s journey is as much about learning the recipes of his mother’s family as it is reconciling himself to the past atrocities of his father’s homeland. English serves as the lingua franca, bridging the gap between ancient hatreds, facilitating the fusion of Japanese ramen (itself a combination of Japanese flavors with Chinese noodles) with Singaporean pork rib soup (a combination of Chinese soup with Southeast Asian flavors).

As a vision of transnational solidarity dramatized by a Japanese person’s trip to Singapore, it’s vastly more conventional and less interesting than Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism, which also played at last year’s Japan Cuts festival but which is not getting, as far as I know, even a very limited North American release. Probably because the food, at least, looks much better. Though even that pales in comparison to the food in the quiet Korean drama Little Forest (a second adaptation of a manga, the first of which, a Japanese version, played in two parts at SIFF a few years ago), which likewise won’t see American theatres, but you can stream it on Amazon.

Regardless, I too hope to one day pass down to my grandchildren my own ramen recipe, which I’ll also share with you here:

1. In a small pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add noodles, breaking up if desired. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Stir in seasoning from soup base packet.
3. Try adding an egg, vegetables, or meat as desired.

Black Mother (Khalik Allah, 2018)

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In Khalik Allah’s debut documentary, Field Niggas, the focus was precise. He returned again and again to a single street corner – the power of the film derived from his commitment to capturing this environment, the specific light, and the people who roamed about. His camera was up close to his subjects, his gaze meeting them head-on. His follow-up, Black Mother, is in every sense a much more expansive, diffuse experience. Instead of a single street corner, he aims to capture an entire country.

The approach is the same – the images and sound are not synchronized, allowing for a certain abstraction, where the viewer can make associations and connections for themselves. But Black Mother is a much more challenging project, and this is because of a crucial difference. In his first film, Allah was able to focus on his gifts for portraiture and his background in photography. His subjects became his organizing principle, and their presence sustained the film’s logic and atmosphere for over its running time. It never felt forced. Its scope felt right. Faced with the whole of Jamaica to try and make sense of, Allah strains in organizing his material. The film is divided into four sections – three trimesters and a birth. Searching, he forces poetic motifs and associations in order to guide him. His subjects hold books to point to the island’s colonized past. School girls are juxtaposed with prostitutes. Water imagery abounds. There is death, and there is birth. Essentially, the design feels less intuitive, a solution to a problem.

But Black Mother does not feel programmatic or calculated, even if Allah’s structure is somewhat labored. This is because his approach remains open, allowing for dissonance. Think of the Chinese store-owners brought up early on in the film. The voiceover speaks to Chinese people buying up hotels and taking over Jamaica, a new colonization. To illustrate this Allah shows us some Chinese store-owners at work, frustrated, tired, reacting to his camera, and finally giving him the peace sign. The montage is conflicted, and it reminds one of his previous film and its treatment of the police. In that film, Allah voiced his opinion of the police, filming them with as much as respect as his other subjects, but his voice became one of many, and all throughout the film his subjects violently disagreed and said so. With the Chinese store-owners, he strives to complicate and elucidate this subjects’ voiceover through the imagery, finally arriving at a point where it simply remains inconclusive – how should one feel about this? There is contradiction and the note is left unresolved.

In Field Niggas, Allah was frequently on the soundtrack, asking questions, his reflection was seen on bodega storefronts; he became a part of the night, a member of the cast, his voice a part of the film’s choral patchwork. While his latest film incorporates footage from his own family, and part of the impetus for filming Jamaica is his own connection to it, aside from a few stray bits of dialogue and an image here or there, he has more or less removed himself from the film’s universe. This allows for an analytical distance toward his subject, submerging the images of his family in a grand design, just another people of the island, allowing him to develop the thematic framework he feels is necessary to do justice to what he feels is important. He no longer needs to be seen or heard for his presence to be felt, letting his camera distance carry the moral weight of his gaze. The montage becomes his tool – the structure allows him to search and understand, maybe even flail about a little bit.

We return to the structure, the trimesters and the birth. In the first three trimesters, he has given us a societal and spiritual context, returning again and again to Jamaican Woman. His metaphor is undoubtedly a male one, he frames himself as Son to Mother, his return to Jamaica an attempt to understand his roots, but it registers as respectful and his gaze is never compromised. Finally, Allah films the mother give birth to a son, images of running water flowing everlasting, while the mother cries in pain, making literal the struggles of all the women he has filmed so far, the prayers heard on the soundtrack earlier signaling a spiritual rebirth, not only for himself but for all of those on the island. It’s in moments like this where the structure pays off and Allah’s desire to capture it all almost feel possible.

Black Mother is currently playing at the Northwest Film Forum

Love in the Time of Upheaval [ASH IS PUREST WHITE and TRANSIT]

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The release year of 2019 has already been a bountiful one for Seattle theaters, with such important films as The Image Book, Us, and a long-awaited run of Police Story arriving in the first three months. And by one of the quirks that comes with rolling limited releases, two of the best films of the year — and of the last three years — by two of the preeminent directors in world cinema are making their debut this week at SIFF Uptown: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White and Christian Petzold’s Transit.

The two auteurs make for a fascinating comparison in terms of their relative profile in the arthouse film realm. Jia has created for himself a deserved reputation as the foremost chronicler of the unprecedented change — economically, socially, topographically — that has taken place in 21st-century China, and received consistent play in festivals and U.S. distribution. Petzold, by contrast, is an almost unknown quantity in America; though his films have had distribution from around 2008 and gotten some festival play, they have been little seen…except for his previous film Phoenix (2014), which upon its release in 2015 became the art-house version of a box-office smash, receiving more American viewers than probably any German film this side of The Lives of Others, and, significantly, possibly more than any of Jia’s films.

I should note here that I am far more familiar with Jia’s work than Petzold’s — I’ve seen all of the former’s features and only the latter’s two most recent films — but from my general understanding of their careers, the two share a particular thematic interest that links the two, and proves to be a essential asset to both films (in sometimes oblique ways): that of genre filmmaking. Since A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia has taken a sharp turn towards films explicitly emphasized and built around specific genres, from wuxia and action (Touch) to melodrama (Mountains May Depart, 2015) to the gangster genre that forms the base of Ash Is Purest White. Petzold has had this preoccupation from the beginning of his career: his second feature Cuba Libre (1996) was a remake of the great film noir Detour, and his explorations of genre have only developed since then.

What binds these two directors together even more is their particular methods of deploying these generic conventions; both are heavily invested in exploring their respective national societies, dissecting — in mostly pleasurable and sometimes sensual ways — the various means of oppression, resistance, and living within and outside systems impacts flesh-and-blood people. This is not to say that more traditional genre fare does not accomplish this, but Jia and Petzold are even more direct and acute in these respects. Certain other similarities can be drawn — continuous collaborations with muses (Jia with his wife Zhao Tao, Petzold until this latest film with Nina Hoss), a command of composition and editing stronger than almost any living filmmaker — but what makes them so vital is the particularities of their films.

Continue reading “Love in the Time of Upheaval [ASH IS PUREST WHITE and TRANSIT]”

War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)

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Sure to be among the longest, if not the best, movies to play on Seattle Screens this year is Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s longest novel. Running just over seven hours, and split conveniently into four parts, the film captures something of the essence of the book, while leaving out just enough to infuriate partisans of literature in its war against cinema. Being that this is the rare adaptation of a book I have actually read, I can happily carp on the minimization of some of the best characters, the wholesale elimination of favorite scenes, and the rejection of Tolstoy’s more bizarre musings on the movements of history. But I won’t, because taken as it is, War and Peace is majestic, the missing link between the silent epics of Griffith, Ganceand Eisenstein and the historical films of Terrence Malick.

Of the four parts, three are named after the film’s three primary characters, the fourth reserved for that monumental year 1812. It begins with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an earnest and reserved man who heads off to war only to lose both his delusions about martial honor in the battle of Austerlitz and his sickly young wife in childbirth. His story forms the spine of Part One, the longest of the sections, with the rest of the time taken up with stage-setting and character introductions, especially the two other main characters: Natasha Rostova, namesake of Part Two, and Pierre Bezhukov (Part Four). Key episodes from the book are rushed through (Pierre’s drunken revelry and disastrous marriage, Natasha’s brother Nikolai’s experience at Austerlitz, etc) but the focus remains primarily on Andrei and his view of the world. Multiple voice-overs compete for our attention, internal monologues for many, many characters, along with a narrator who at times might be Pierre but at others matches more closely Tolstoy’s own voice. These voices, with their philosophical musings, mixed with gorgeous images of the Russian countryside, make it obvious that this is a film Malick certainly saw before making The Thin Red Line or The New World. Bondarchuk goes just about as far in the direction of romantic transcendentalism as one could expect from a Soviet-era production.

The second part, Natasha’s story, is probably the best. Lyudmila Savelyeva has something of the charm Audrey Hepburn brought to the role in King Vidor’s fine 1956 version of the book, growing believably from effervescent pixie to hollowed-out saint through the course of the the story’s seven years. Her debut ball is a magnificent bit of filmmaking, dare I say Minnellian in the shear joy of her first dance with Andrei. Her fall from grace is filmed just as impressionistically, as Bondarchuk abandons the tedious recounting of dialogue and plot in favor of the mad rush of excitement and temptation that leads the poor girl into an deliriously ill-considered romance with Pierre’s dastardly brother-in-law.

The third part is mostly concerned with the Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army fought the French to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow before ultimately retreating, setting the stage for the Bonaparte’s disastrous winter withdrawal. The battle scenes are as spectacular as everything else in the movie, with reportedly more than ten thousand extras populating vast scenes of movement and death, which Bondarchuk films in every way imaginable: split screens and wipes, helicopters and cranes and tracks and handheld cameras, POV shots and long arcing movements. It’s as glorious as it is horrific.

The final section, after these spectacular middle parts, is a bit of a let down. The focus centers on Pierre, the brains of the film (such as he is with all his deluded ideas, barely hinted at in the film), where Andrei is its heart and Natasha its soul. Various plot threads are rushed to their conclusion, new characters sent on their tragic ways almost as soon as they are introduced. Rather than building in cumulative power over the course of its massive run time (as Hu Bo’s upcoming An Elephant Sitting Still does), or capping the proceedings with an unexpected change in tone and direction (as does Satantango, that other great behemoth of Eastern European cinema), War and Peace just kind of fizzles out. It’s been more than a decade since I read the book, but if I remember correctly it kind of does the same thing. A novel that big, in length and scope and ambition, can’t ever really end though, it goes on long after you’ve put it down. Despite its length, the film doesn’t approach the all-embracing nature of the book and its failure to do so is a good argument for the claim that no film can really express the totality of a great massive novel. The movie is at its worst when it tries to stick to the novel’s plot. But at its best, it captures the same great heights of Tolstoy’s most stirring sequences.

Triple Threat (Jesse V. Johnson, 2019)

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The second very fine action flick released by WellGo in two weeks, alongside the Vietnamese film FurieTriple Threat for some reason played but one night only in theatres before making its way to VOD. That’s somewhat understandable, given its straight-to-video pedigree, with both director Jesse V. Johnson and star Scott Adkins being major SVOD stars. But one would hope the ridiculous stack of martial arts movie talent would have earned the film a broader release, or at least the chance not to get buried in the hype around Netflix’s similarly-titled Triple Frontier. As it is, Triple Threat is a major event for afficianados of filmic fisticuffs, featuring several of the greatest screen fighters of our time. Joining Adkins are Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais and Tiger Chen, along with Michael Jai White, Celina Jade and, just for kicks, none other than Michael Wong. It’s a blunt instrument of a movie, eschewing anything approaching character or theme in favor of simply throwing its stars into a generic plot and sitting back to watch them do their thing. The best thing you can say about Johnson’s direction is that he doesn’t get in the way.

Uwais, the Indonesian star of the Raid movies who had his talent memorably wasted in The Force Awakens, is the victim of a terrorist jailbreak in the Burmese jungle, where White and his band of mercenaries free Adkins from imprisonment. He tracks down Jaa and Chen, who had unwittingly aided the bad guys in navigating the jungle (their laughable but earnest excuse is that they thought they were on a humanitarian mission, apparently the most heavily-armed one in history), and the three join forces to take revenge. Meanwhile the bad guys try to kidnap Celina Jade (the woman in distress in Wolf Warrior 2), but Jaa and Chen rescue her. The dividing line between Asian good guys and Euro-American bad guys is obvious but thoroughly unexplored.

The fights are in keeping with the dominant 21st Century style, pioneered by Jaa in his Ong-Bak movies and in Donnie Yen’s MMA-influenced films like SPL and Flash Point, fast and hard, with lots of flying elbows and knees. Adkins and White and the other beefy white guys are much bigger and stronger than their Asian foes, making every fight essentially about the little guy out-thinking the bigger one. This is where the choreography shines: it’s honestly the only creative thing in the entire movie. Chen comes off particularly well in this respect, as you’d expect from a protegé of Yuen Woo-ping. Uwais seems somewhat underused in the fights, though his character is nursing an injured arm through the whole movie, but he does get the coolest outfit. Adkins seems a natural fight as the bad guy, though he isn’t nearly as much fun as White is, or Frank Grillo was in Wolf Warrior 2 for that matter. As is usually the case, Tony Jaa outclasses everyone around him, not just in the fight scenes, but with his ever improving acting, briefly even showing a flair for comedy that was too-often absent in his Thai films.

In many ways, Triple Threat hearkens back to Wheels on Meals, that mid-80s highpoint of martial arts cinema, starring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. That film too featured a trio of Asian stars uniting to defend a pretty girl from gangs of evil Europeans. But Johnson doesn’t have Sammo’s interest in film form or in comic set-piece construction, and his film has no emotional or intellectual resonance outside the visceral thrill of its fights (this is the reason why Furie, though just as generic in plot and filled with lesser stars, is more affecting). I suppose every generation gets the Wheels on Meals it deserves, and Triple Threat as such is a fine match for our dumb, brutal, meaninglessly efficient age.