WHITE ELEPHANTS. Kenneth Anger chose to open his Hollywood Babylon with these two words; Manny Farber’s grandiose polemic endures; Damien Chazelle, we can assume, knows what he’s doing when he opens his own Babylon with the Sisyphean act of pulling one up a Santa Monica hill. (Later, he repeats the image, only with a crew of handlers relaying a nearly unconscious leading man to an epic summit.) For Anger, it’s an incantation preceding a conspiratorial monologue; for Farber, a symbol that allows him to riff on everything he disliked about Antonioni, Truffaut, and Tony Richardson; and for Chazelle it’s a way to show he’s done his research, to prove that he can assume, albeit in a rather anxious pose, the seat of authority required to make a capital-S statement film about the whole business of making massively public art.
The milieu is attention-grabbing: pre-code Hollywood, with enough creative license so that the historical record shadows, rather than defines, the plot. There are, roughly, five protagonists, all of them stars whether entering (Margot Robbie), exiting (Brad Pitt), merely admiring (Diego Calva), or grasping a brief after-hours aspect of the spotlight (Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li). It would be possible to psychoanalyze these players, to trace them to the names, many of them lining Anger’s book, that influence their characterizations. It would also be possible to make a big deal out of the second-hand electricity Chazelle bottles from other films, most notably those by Paul Thomas Anderson. But what’s most striking about Babylon is its attempt to grapple with insignificance.
Chazelle’s prior successes have earned him the title of a virtuoso, someone within shouting distance of the achievements Pitt’s Jack Conrad might be referring to when he pontificates that musical form is the summation of all the arts. But in practice, Chazelle’s films tend to be limited rather than defined by their musical sequences, which work uphill to redeem the curiously leaden drama and deadpan theatrics of scenes so alien from one another they approach, on the larger canvas of Babylon, an anthology film. Yet, seams and all, the film is compulsively watchable.
As in his previous film, the largely unsuccessful First Man, Babylon a work about the difference between reaching the top of a profession and finding nirvana. It is obsessed, not with history or sex, but art — the one role of any significance with a real-life name is Irving Thalberg, a figure whose imprint is visible on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Perhaps the whole movie hinges on a scene where Conway meets a hack writer-critic (Jean Smart) who might, on the one hand, be an industry rag career-maker, but for a moment takes on the movie-breaking transcendent role of something like The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect. The important thing to know, she says, is that the roles that both of them are playing are essentially archetypal, and are doomed, or destined, to recur in eternal fashion.
Taken one way, Chazelle’s boom-bust narrative resembles any criminal line-up of star cash-in biopics. But in the way he would have it, this fantasy, which reaches warp speed in an early sequence that takes place on a kind of Hollywood backlot-of-the-mind, and terminates in an Irma Vep-derived triumph over the aging of cinema, is one that equivocates, or bridges, the enchantments of golden-age industry and the cynicism that, as Bogdanovich said in Targets, all the good movies have already been made.
It’s a project that, for all its sharp elbows thrown at anticipated criticisms, is most apparently nervous at the thought of being thought too high-minded. Its vulgar sense of humour, concerned with nervous reactions (sweat, vomit, shit) and baseness as a form of truth-telling, finds its appropriate climax in a sequence that dovetails with the philosophy of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Unlike what the poison pens of Alfred Hayes or Nathanael West wrote, the fatalistic quest here isn’t one out of Hollywood. No, the crystallizing moment is when one of our protagonists, instead of lurking by the exits to take a quick poll of audience ecstasy, sits with the masses and gets lost in his own reaction.
Yet Chazelle tries to twist his way into something even more resonant: collapsing the history of Los Angeles’s most lucrative successes into a minute, he presents something like a continuation of Gloria Swanson’s identification with the screen in Sunset Blvd. There, she is assured of her towering stature, no matter what plane of reality she’s on. Accordingly, what Chazelle offers as the pinnacle of moviemaking is images designed to make their witnesses feel pathetically small.
It’s hard to imagine how long I’ve been talking about the film that would eventually become Septet: The Story of Hong Kong. The first time I tweeted about it appears to have been August of 2017, although that tweet is phrased as a reminder, which means I must have retweeted something about it some time before that point. It’s possible the rumors go as far back as the summer of 2016, shortly after the release of Johnnie To’s feature Three. The story was that To was producing an omnibus film called 8 1/2, with contributions from a who’s who of Hong Kong film legends: Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and To himself. Somewhere along the way, Woo dropped out (it’s unclear why, I think I heard there may have been health reasons, but Ringo Lam died in December of 2018 and still managed to finish his section, so I don’t know) and the title was changed to Septet. The film was finally set to premiere at Cannes in 2020, when COVID delayed those plans. It eventually did begin making the festival rounds in the fall of that year (Busan in 2020, then the Hong Kong and Fantasia Film Festivals in 2021). It received a theatrical release in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong earlier this summer, and is now set to play at the Vancouver Film Festival.
The setup is simple enough: each director is given a decade and the films are separated by title cards and arranged chronologically. Together they tell not just the “Story of Hong Kong” but a story of Hong Kong film and the story of themselves, an irreplaceable generation of filmmakers looking back on the place they’ve lived and worked and come to define as much and for as long as any group of filmmakers ever has anywhere in the world. Each of these directors was born between 1945 and 1955. Tsui, Hui, and Lam were key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave; Hung and Yuen revolutionized the period martial arts film, modernizing the tropes established by the Shaw Brothers studio and melding slapstick comedy and outrageous stunt-work into some of the greatest spectacles in movie history; and Lam and To (and of course the absent Woo) were leading exponents of the Heroic Bloodshed genre that did as much as anything to establish Hong Kong cinema as a force in world film culture. Together, these filmmakers have produced some of the most vital art works of the last fifty years.
Watching Septet, I decided to see if I could guess which director was responsible for which segment (the director credits don’t pop up until the end of their short). I’m happy to say that I was right on all seven, which means that perhaps this whole The Chinese Cinema project and the last decade of my film critic life have not been entirely in vain. Some of them were much easier to guess than others, starting with the first one, which begins with the line, “I’m Sammo Hung.” It also stars Hung’s son Timmy, who looks exactly like a skinny version of his father. The short starts us off in the 1950s, at the Peking Opera school where Sammo was a student (along with many other future stars). Timmy plays the teacher, Yu Jim-yuen, a role Sammo himself played in Alex Law and Mabel Cheung’s excellent 1988 film Painted Faces. The genial story of childhood disobedience (whenever their teacher’s back is turned, the kids slack off on their exercises), concludes with Sammo’s punishment (as the eldest student, he’s expected to set an example). Forced to do a handstand for a couple of hours, he finally collapses and cuts his head. Then we cut to the present and a close-up of the scar on Sammo’s head, as he directly addresses the camera to say, “Time flies like an arrow, it only moves forward. The past is but a memory.” Statements which will set the tone for the remainder of the film.
All but one of the shorts to come will feature some kind of a leap in time. The film is of course an exercise in nostalgia, but one which nonetheless unfolds in an eternal present (that’s what film necessarily is: we always experience it now) where past and past-past mingle freely in the memory. Film is a place where a director can make a film where he recreates a moment from his past in which he is scolded by his teacher, and have that teacher be played by his son, such that the son is scolding his own father, who is a child.
Ann Hui’s story begins in the 1960s, following a couple of teachers at a more traditional kind of school, a kind yet ascetic headmaster and a thoughtful and lovely young woman. Then it leaps thirty years into the future (though still thirty years in our past) where we see a class reunion (very Ozuvian this) with the students from the first half now all grown up (in the blink of an edit). The headmaster is still alive, and wistfully recalls the teacher, who has since died. Unrequited emotions surface and may be resolved with a visit to a memorial, where a photo of the teacher lives — she still looks the same as she did 30 years earlier, while everyone else has grown old.
After two tales of school and the relations between students and teachers, Patrick Tam takes us into the 80s (the 70s are skipped, possibly this was Woo’s assignment?), for the first of two stories about late adolescence and the Handover of Hong Kong from the UK to the PRC. Two young people are in love with each other and poetry, but she and her family are emigrating to England sometime after the Joint Declaration, while his is staying behind. Our temporal perspective comes from sometime in the future, in a narration by an older version of the young man (this narration, plus a shot of an airplane flying over the Hong Kong sky, clues us in that this is Tam’s film, being extremely reminiscent of the work of his most accomplished protegé, Wong Kar-wai). The young couple spend one last day together, fighting through their desperate feelings of loss and abandonment and young love, and in the end, our perspective shifts such that it’s the young woman who narrates the conclusion. A joint memory for the time of the Joint Declaration.
The 90s brings us Yuen Woo-ping and the story of an elderly man (played by Yuen Wah, Sammo’s old classmate, now grown old, but not as old as the kids in the first film would have been in the 90s, rather as old as they are now, in the 2020s) and his granddaughter. Her family is moving away too (to Canada), just before the Handover, but she has to stick around with gramps for a few weeks to finish her exams. It’s a sweet story of a generation finding common ground (she helps him learn English and appreciate hamburgers; he teaches her how to defend herself with kung fu). Then she leaves, but returns three years later. He’s become more older, but more Westernized; she’s grown older and more patient, and tells him their family is back to stay. The short’s title is Homecoming, presenting a rather idealized vision of the Handover: people were afraid everything about Hong Kong was going to end. But it didn’t, and many of those who left (including directors like Woo, Lam, Tsui, and Yuen who went to work in Hollywood) came back.
The short for the 2000s, I will admit, was initially the toughest for me to place. But I finally got it and it in retrospect seemed blindingly obvious that it was the work of Johnnie To (a reference to Chasing Dream late in the film didn’t hurt). It’s set almost entirely in a restaurant over the course of a few key moments in the decade. Three young people are debating whether or not to invest in a tech stock. The price keeps going up while they argue, and it seems they’ve missed their opportunity, when all of a sudden it begins to plummet: the beginnings of the dot-com crash. A couple of years later, they have the opportunity to buy an apartment at a discount price, thanks to it being located at one of the centers of the SARS epidemic. They’re ultimately scared off, which an image of a 2000s era Windows screen informs us cost them dearly given the rapid inflation of the value of Hong Kong real estate. Finally, they have a chance to invest in some stocks around the time of the US mortgage crisis. But they accidentally switch the numbers of the stocks they want with the ones for the dishes they want to order (a classic bit of Johnnie To restaurant table-related comic mayhem), only to make money anyway. It turns out that buying stocks at random is just as effective, or more, than researching and debating them. Once again, in a Johnnie To film, chance and fate work in mysterious ways.
Ringo Lam’s film brings us into the present, or at least the present as of when the film was conceived and finished. It’s also the most heart-breaking, made almost unbearably poignant by our knowledge (from the future, which is our present) of the director’s death, which happened almost three years ago now. Simon Yam plays an elderly man who has come back to Hong Kong to visit his son (played by Lam’s own son). He’s lost in contemporary Hong Kong: all the landmarks he remembers (pointedly a movie theatre is as vital as a major industrial pier) have been transformed by time into something more glassy, less real. He holds old pictures up to the present reality; they can’t compare. His past bleeds into his present, reimagining time spent in these spaces with his own father, when he was the younger man, or with his wife. Inevitably, rushing to his family, he encounters an unexpected bus and disappears. Only his phone remains. But we move a while into the future, to see his family giving him a goodbye, scattering his ashes in the sea. His advice — don’t work so much, focus instead on your family and the people you love — reminds us that Lam himself spent more than a decade away from his work in order to spend time with his family, only returning to directing in 2015, once his son was grown. We didn’t get as many great films from him as we might have, but it definitely wasn’t time wasted.
Finally we have Tsui Hark’s contribution, which might be set in our now (2022) which would be the future from the film’s 2020 premiere, or possibly some as yet undefined future of our own as well as the film’s. It’s the funniest and weirdest and boldest of the shorts, as it should be considering Tsui is all of those things and more. Two men are arguing in what appears to be some kind of mental institution. The doctor asks the patient who he is, and he replies “Ann Hui”. When pressed on this (the gender congruity alone seems to belie the factuality of his assertion) he resorts first to “Ringo Lam” and then “Johnnie To” and then back to Ann Hui. After a few minutes of this farce, we pullback behind a mirror to find two doctors observing (played by director Lawrence Ah Mon and icon Lam Suet). They suggest that who we think is who is exactly backwards, part of a kind of therapy for a man who believes he’s a doctor. Then another shift reveals a big crowd behind another window, this one including Tsui himself along with Ann Hui and several other film figures. The tangle of identity: who is watching who, who is the director, who the audience, who exactly is calling the shots here, becomes impossible to sort. It’s the plight of the Hongkonger under the watchful eye of the PRC, as well as of the Hong Kong filmmaker who, like Tsui, strives to work within the censorship codes and regulations of the Mainland government, ostensibly giving them the propaganda they require, while struggling to remain their own, independent (Hongkonger) self. The struggle is real, the silliness, the joy in the jumble of it all, is the wisdom of perspective, of age, of a life lived in a Hong Kong that has changed so much, so wildly, in the span of these seven single lifetimes.
Joining the ever-expanding pantheon of great Chinese filmmakers given the full-length documentary treatment is King Hu, the man behind many of the most accomplished and influential action films of all-time. But while Johnnie To, Ann Hui, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Jia Zhangke are still very much alive and working, and thus the films about them all feature extensive interviews with them and footage of them at work (and of course scenes of them drinking and/or singing karaoke), King Hu has been dead for 25 years. Director Lin Jing-jie thus takes an unusual approach: rather than using an interview as the spine of his story, having the director talk us through their life film by film, or big event by big event, he splits King of Wuxia into two parts. The first half, subtitled The Prophet Was Once Here, looks at the run of films Hu made from Come Drink with Me in 1966 through the pair of Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979. This is the core of Hu’s career, the masterpieces on which his reputation has been built. The second half, called The Heartbroken Man on the Horizon, takes a more biographical approach, covering Hu’s first days as a 17 year old refugee in Hong Kong in 1949 through his work as an actor in the mid-1950s, then skipping his successful years as a director ahead to the last 15 years or so of his life, marked by emigration to the United States and a series of professional disappointments.
The first section runs just over two hours and features a remarkable cast of talking heads: big directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, and Ann Hui are to be expected, as are appearances from frequent Hu actors Shih Chun, Cheng Pei-pei, and Hsu Feng. But Lin gives just as much attention to less famous names who nonetheless provide some of the most interesting insights to Hu’s work. A pair of Peking Opera actors recreate certain stunts to demonstrate the connection between Hu’s approach to screen fighting and the stage tradition, while two traditional musicians explain the link between Hu’s editing and music. Production designer Huang Mei-ching explains Hu’s exacting and painstaking approach to set decoration and costume design and color and the ways he’d use framing and editing to discover all kind of new and unusual spaces within his sets. Renowned critics like Shu Kei and Peggy Chiao explain all kinds of interesting things about his work, who he was influenced by and what made his films so influential. Everyone talks about how much he loved to fill his shots with smoke. Extensive clips from the movies are studied and used as examples, and also intercut with present-day scenes set in the same locations Hu shot at, with actor Shih Chun wandering around the landscapes, pointing out where they filmed, why Hu chose the locations he did, and how they’ve changed over the past 50 years.
All through the first half of the film, we only ever see Hu himself in still images. But early on in the second there are clips of him speaking about his early life. He was from a wealthy family in Beijing, though as the son of a concubine, he had a lower status than his many half-siblings. Arriving in Hong Kong as the Civil War drew to a close, he worked a variety of odd jobs before finding himself acting in several dozen films from the mid-1950s through early 60s. Most of these are difficult if not impossible to find in the West, so getting to see him act is one of the many pleasures of King of Wuxia. Just before he transitions into directing, however, the film skips ahead to the 1980s, and finds Hu living in Los Angeles, again working odd jobs (writing a magazine column, lecturing at universities) while trying and failing to scrape together film projects. The talking heads include most of the big names from the first half, but the emphasis is more on his circle of friends, including Chung Ling, Hu’s wife at the time (she had written Legend of the Mountain). We get some new insights into how Hu came to leave and/or be fired from the production of Tsui Hark’s The Swordsman in 1990, which is basically the story of the second half of his career in microcosm: his painstaking approach led to extremely long shooting periods for Hong Kong cinema of the time, and he refused to compromise on that, to the displeasure of the money people in charge of the production (how much Tsui did or did not agree with said money people remains an open question).
The final stages of the documentary are heartbreaking, as Hu finally seems to be able to put his dream project, an epic about Chinese laborers in California, into production, with financiers on board, John Woo producing, Sammo Hung choreographing, and Chow Yun-fat starring, only for him to die due to complications during an angioplasty mere weeks before shooting was set to begin. It’s devastating, as are his friends’ and colleagues’ reminiscences of him, clearly still pained by their loss though it’s been 25 years. The most crushing scene, for me at least, comes somewhat earlier, as critic Shu Kei is discussing the commercial failure of Legend of the Mountain, a film that he now understands to be one of Hu’s greatest achievements. The money people pulled the three hour long Legend out of theatres and demanded Hu recut it to mangable length. Shu recalls Hu calling him in, helplessly asking how to do it. He can’t remember what he said (though he does say Tony Rayns cheerfully suggested “you need to cut here and here and here and you don’t need this or that, etc etc”), but he’s overcome with guilt over the fact that he even thought he should be cut at all, to the point that he breaks down in tears. They aren’t the only tears shed in King of Wuxia, but they are the only ones that aren’t necessarily about the person who’s life was cut short, but about the art that we all lost because we weren’t able, or willing, to support it in the way it could and should have been supported.
Part of the deal as an auteurist is that we will follow the director from film to film, keeping an open mind The relationship is the point. The director reaches out to us, and we hope to reach back and embrace their new film. Will it make us understand something new? Will it deepen a certain aspect of their art? Will it set off in new directions? Will it disappoint us? Each film is a new encounter. And so we take out our notebooks and begin to revise our notes, our ideas.
There is currently a video on Youtube titled “Naoko Ogigami: Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker.” It’s around 25 minutes long and goes in-depth into Ogigami’s career and background, combing through her interviews to provide insight into her process and her films. It’s worth watching. But this title of “Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker” cannot be ignored. At first blush, it is understandable. But it’s also somewhat insidious. Ogigami’s films are undeniably gentle and whimsical. Their surfaces are placid and calm. More than anything else, her cinema is welcoming. But this only describes her cinema up to a point. And it doesn’t quite work to describe the achievement of her latest films, 2017’s Close-Knit and 2021’s Riverside Mukolitta. In these two films, she is pushing her art further and further – her films will always be gentle and inviting, but now these same surfaces are used to invite you to wade into darker and darker undercurrents.
How do you live? Riverside Mukolitta is a work steeped in death. All the major characters are touched by it, ruined by it. But Ogigami does not film dourly She does not film to wallow in her character’s misery. Her cinema provides an alternative. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Yamada, a young man recently released from prison. He finds a job slicing up squid at a small factory; repetitive work that his boss says has driven people to quit after a day or two. But Yamada has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. His boss helps him find a room at an old apartment building where he soon meets his colorful neighbors.
Part of Ogigami’s universe will always be, on some level, filled with quirkiness and whimsy. But whereas in previous films, like Kamome Diner, this revealed itself as a way to celebrate the oddity of all its characters, in Riverside Mukolitta, tries to marry the oddball nature of her characters to their desperate struggle to find a way to live. Ogigami always makes community pictures. So Yamada’s neighbor invites himself into his apartment, over and over, first to use his bath, and then to eat his food – anything to stave off the loneliness. Another of Yamada’s neighbors takes his young son to sell tombstones door to door, both of them wearing identical suits, which at first registers like a too-cute joke, but soon makes sense as another aspect of the film’s relationship to death. Once Yamada is able to afford some food and finds a fan in the garbage heap, life begins to be somewhat bearable.
How is community built? How is it formed? Ogigami’s cinema is built of small gestures, mundane domestic rituals. Characters share meals with each other, they help tend to each other’s gardens, they walk to the local temple to cool down. One of the film’s funniest scenes occurs as more and more neighbors invite themselves to a meal, popping up by the door, as they prepare their sukiyaki. Perhaps they complain, but deep down it is nice to have company. Each interaction builds on the last, and soon an unmistakable fond is formed, impossible to ignore.
All of Ogigami’s films are essentially manuals on how to go about life. Her early films such as Kamome Diner and Glasses built up small little communities, they preach tolerance, inclusiveness, relaxation, rest. In Rent-a-cat, the main character lets people rent her cats so they can find healing and comfort. Perhaps, on some level, they deal with issues of self-care. But in her last two films, she has left behind these characters who don’t have too many conflicts to show characters who genuinely struggle through life. Ogigami’s search in how to deal with these characters lends the films a lot of their interest. How do you live becomes how do you film.
Eat your bones When writing about Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I wrote that the camera was always at right distance, every time. Due to the nature of the film’s subject, she had to confront intolerance and at points approached melodrama. But in Mukolitta, her staging is a little unclear. The film registers as a reformulation of her approach to character, to drama. Everything is more internal, a little more abstract. Sometimes she falls back to her wide shots, letting the action play out from a distance. But then the camera moves in for a medium shot, hand-held for some reason, and the staging feels a little haphazard, like it has not been blocked out all the way, which is not something I would’ve ever felt about Ogigami’s cinema before.
The question becomes how to integrate death into her cinema, how to represent it. Perhaps adapting her own novel has forced her to dig deeper into metaphor. Giving images to her words is already something difficult, but to make them feel alive, new… All the characters are surrounded by death. Early on, Yamada is told that his father has died, all alone, in a nearby apartment. He goes to pick up his remains and is told that his father’s Adam’s apple survived cremation intact. But now what does he do with these remains? What kind of relationship does he hope to have with his father now that he’s dead? His neighbor reveals that he had a son and then lost him. He then asks him to forget he said that. His landlord, Hikari Matsushima, lost her husband a few years ago. He sees a ghost, tending to the garden, and everyone agrees that, yes, that was the old lady who used to live at the apartments.
Death is not abstract. Ogigami makes the experience of it literal. The death of a body is not the end. The living must deal with what remains, a body, bones. For Matsushima’s landlord, she visits the grave of her husband, buried by a tree. While on the way back, the taxi driver remarks that he took the remains of his wife, ground them up, and put them in a firework, shooting her up in the sky. And this leads to the most striking sequence of the film, and Ogigami’s cinema so far. Matsushima, alone in her room, takes out the remains of her husband, proceeds to nibble at the bones, take a few hesitant bites, and then uses it to fondle herself. Ogigami has never quite filmed something like this. She’s not really a director that places a premium on sensuality. But in here she takes a fairly big swing, connecting the desire to commune spiritually with the dead to a somewhat erotic exploration, hesitant, awkward, a moment that’s mystifying, even to the character.
Watching Riverside Mukolitta, we witness a director test the boundaries of what her cinema will allow. Ogigami makes hangout films, she does not film complex scenarios. So she must look for new images and often this can a beautiful and awkward struggle. She does not forget her quirky touches, such as that garbage dump in between the train tracks, where the characters congregate. It’s here where that little boy in the suit fiddles with a melodica while Yamada watches, or where he gathers all the rotary phones he can find while he waits for a call from an alien. It’s precious, it’s twee. But this is important to understand, it is not naïve. The image of the alien in the sky in a lesser film would be joyful. Ogigami immediately complicates it but showing by showing the despair it triggers.
Part of the evolution in Ogigami’s cinema has necessitated an engagement with melodrama. At first, her films resisted outbursts of emotion. But now her films seem to demand it. Part of the journey of the film is from Matsuyama’s early reticence to show any display of emotion to the overwhelming breakdown at film’s end. Ogigami’s films are ultimately healing. Her gaze seeks to shelter and protect her characters. She films her characters to heal them. But the process has become more complicated, more fraught. As Yamada’s tears fall and mix with his father’s bones, Ogigami makes clear that both are necessary to move forward. The final images perfectly express this sentiment. Death is now all around them, in the air, in their room, in their clothes. But also the joy of being able to move forward, to smile, to live another day. In this new encounter with Ogigami’s cinema, we register the joy of seeing the boundaries of her cinema, reaching its limits, and then pushing forward with new images and new approaches.
Yuasa Masaaki continues his winning streak: he’s probably been the best director in the world over the past five years, or at the very least the most productive great director. Since 2017, he has produced three acclaimed TV series (Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks 2020, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) along with four feature films: the definitive One Crazy Night romance Night is Short, Walk on Girl, the off-beat Little Mermaid variation Lu Over the Wall, the heart-breaking post-romance Ride Your Wave and now Inu-oh, a medieval rock opera about the power of rock and roll to connect us to our past, find our true selves, and help us overcome our terrible fathers.
Inu-oh begins with the story of Tomo (they’ll be, at various times, “Tomona”, “Tomoichi”, and “Tomoari” throughout the story). As a child, Tomona works with his father diving for treasure lost at sea 600 years ago during the definitive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans, passed down through history in the Tale of the Heike, a collection of stories about the war that plays a somewhat similar role in Japanese literary history as The Iliad or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1371 by Kakuichi, part of a band of traveling blind monks that recited the various tales accompanied by music on the biwa, a lute-like stringed instrument, pretty much just as the Greek bards would have done (and, if he was an actual person, the blind poet Homer himself). What Yuasa’s film, written by Nogi Akiko, asserts is that there were other tales of the Heike, tales which were so powerful in their truth that they were able to magically transform their tellers into the greatest versions of their selves.
Tomona is blinded by buried treasure in an accident which also kills his father. Wandering the countryside, he takes up with the blind monks and over the next decade or so learns the biwa and all the various tales. One day he meets a malformed young masked man (legs too short, one arm way too long, scales for skin, and eyes in the wrong places) who loves music and dance. He’d grown up all but disowned by his father, a dancer of Heike tales in an early form of Noh theatre called sarugaku, made to live and eat with the family dogs. One day, overcome with the spirit of music, he dances and his legs are transformed into normal human limbs. Tomoichi (name changed to reflect his status as a member of the blind monk troupe) deduces that the spirits of the lost Heike soldiers are rewarding the as yet unnamed man for dancing and singing their story. The two then do what comes naturally: form a rhythm and blues band to spread the untold tales of the Heike (whispered to them by the spirits of the dead) far and wide.
The second half of the film is dominated by their music, as Tomoari (a third name, adopted to show their new-found indepence, along with a fluid expression of gender) incants lengthy rock introductions to three spectacular performances by the newly self-christened Inu-Oh, songs and dances which heal his limbs and skin and face. But they run afoul of the shogun, who doesn’t have time for new stories, and especially Inu-oh’s father, who turns out to have been a villain all along, like so many rock and roll dads. It all ends tragically, as a rock opera should. Rock star revolutionaries don’t tend to last long, at least not in that form. They shine bright and either burn out or become something less spectacular (think Ziggy Stardust morphing into the Thin White Duke, or the Wild Mercury Dylan turning into a Regular Dad). Music can keep stories alive, or bring them back from the dead, and it can change people’s lives for better and for worse, but is it enough to sustain them? For that, the maker of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Inu-oh would seem to suggest we need animated cinema. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.
Last night I picked up and started reading the first Jack Reacher book. I saw the first Tom Cruise movie years ago, and liked it well enough, and really enjoyed the Amazon series that premiered on Amazon earlier this year. My edition of the book includes an introduction by author Lee Child, where he describes how he came to be a writer in mid-life and how he designed his project deliberately to run counter to prevailing trends in suspense literature. Specifically, he wanted to make Reacher not a flawed protagonist, haunted by addiction or trauma or moral grayness, not a guy who loses over and over again until he somehow, barely, wins in the end, but rather the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable person in every situation. He figured that audiences would grow tired of relatable heroes, that we’d much more enjoy seeing the forces of evil get what’s coming to them by a larger than life (literally), hero. I thought about that a lot while watching The Killer, the latest action thriller from Korean star Jang Hyuk.
Jang plays a retired professional assassin (the eponymous killer) who is tasked by his lovely wife with babysitting her friend’s teenage daughter while the two of them (wife and friend) go hang out at a beachside resort for three weeks. Because he’s a pushover, he accepts the job, only for the unfortunate teen to almost immediately fall into the hands of murderous sex traffickers. So he does what he does best: employ his fists, feet, knives, guns, automobiles, sticks, or whatever in tracking down the girl and killing all the bad guys in the way. Many many action scenes follow, a highly competent example of the dominant contemporary mode of action filmmaking outside the Hollywood blockbuster machine: flowing digital cameras in artificial sequence shots; bright colors (golds, neon pinks and greens) contrasting with deep blacks (the hero wears all-black, John Wick-style); reasonably creative choreography emphasizing physical impacts and speed but lacking the inspiration of the Hong Kong filmmakers at their best (no opera acrobatics or ingenious appropriations of found objects and natural environments) performed by competent stunt-people (with Jang apparently doing much of his own stunt-work). Above all the fights emphasize a forward momentum, paralleling Jang’s dogged pursuit of his quest. And, most interestingly, he never appears to get hurt.
For Jang’s killer is very much in the Reacher mold: he is quite obviously better (physically, intellectually, morally) than any of his opponents. This isn’t a crumbling kind of hero, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s Kate, taking an unreal amount of abuse but staying the course until her enemy is defeated. Instead, we never believe Jang is in any real peril—our enjoyment of the action scenes comes not from suspense, but from the thrill of watching evil get punished. The only suspense there is in the film is the mystery of why the girl was kidnapped, but we can rest assured Jang will kill his way to a satisfactory answer. It’s not an enlightened approach to moral dilemmas to be sure, and the pacifist in me knows very well that it is not a good thing for individuals to run around murdering people, even if they are for an undoubted fact terrible human beings. But we’ve been living with gray areas in our action fiction for so long: anti-heroes and heroes who can’t win because the system is corrupt, and heroes who cling to a code of honor no longer relevant in our corrupted modern age, and heroes who sacrifice themselves for an infinitesimally small chance at a better tomorrow. Is it so bad to make believe ourselves into an excessively violent yet morally clear world for a little while? Yeah, probably. But it’s fun while it lasts.
In 1984, a B level martial arts actor from Taiwan named John Liu, who had starred in a handful of movies in the late 70s for Ng See-yuen, working with choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen, directed and starred in a no-budget action film called New York Ninja. The film was never finished: the production company went bankrupt and the film sat in storage for decades without a finished cut, script, or soundtrack. And then the video label Vinegar Syndrome, specialists in the misbegotten genre films of yesteryear, got their hands on the material and commissioned a reconstruction. Kurtis M. Spieler handled the “re-direction” along with the editing, while a cast of 80s luminaries (including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Ginger Lynn, and Cynthia Rothrock) recorded all new dialogue. The result is a loving recreation of a bit of 1980s ephemera, though not a good movie by any means.
Liu plays the sound tech guy on the three person remote news team (a cameraman and a woman reporter round out the crew) who disguises himself as a ninja to beat up the masked gangs who terrorize New York after one of them murders his pregnant wife. The gangs (or gang, it’s unclear if they’re all connected or a bunch of different groups) kidnap women on behalf of a mysterious guy in dark glasses known as the Plutonium Killer, who for some reason tortures some of the women and sells the others to an English guy who may or may not be an undercover Interpol agent. The basic pattern is: gang wanders through the streets terrorizing people (often with the reporters looking on a filming while saying “why that’s just awful, someone should do something!”); Ninja shows up all dressed in white (the color of death); each gang member attacks him one at a time while he kicks them or stabs them or throws something at them; then the Ninja runs away.
None of this makes the least bit of sense, but in a more or less fun kind of way. I’m always wary of this kind of manufactured cult classic, there’s a tone of condescension to a lot of “so bad it’s good” discourse that I simply find distasteful. But New York Ninja avoids a lot of that simply by the sheer effort involved in its recreation. I can’t imagine anyone would put so much work into a project like this if there wasn’t a lot of sincere love for the genuine “putting on a show” indie spirit of making a DIY martial arts movie. At it’s best, the movie is a time capsule of a lost age: the shots of the pre-gentrified Broadway area (including the heart of the grindhouse movie district where so many movies like this (and many many significantly better ones) got their own theatrical releases in the US), as well as old fashions and hairstyles and cars (including the beautiful destruction of a what appears to be a 1970 Buick LeSabre, the first car I ever owned), all shot on film, which even in this debased form still has more life and character than most every digital production today. It’s not the avant-garde semi-masterpiece that is the just as no-budget 1984 karate film Furious, but it is still a genuinely weird movie.
I only wish the action was better. Liu was supposedly one of the great movie kickers of the late 70s, and you can see hints of that here. But the fight scenes are so deathly slow. None of the movements are connected: Liu kicks someone and they stand there, one beat, two beats, and then they punch him, pause pause, he kicks them again. I haven’t watched many American martial arts movies–I had an uncle who was into Chuck Norris so I watched some of his Vietnam POW movies, but I missed the whole 80s ninja craze–but I can’t imagine they were this slow. And I know for a fact action like this would never have seen the light of day in even in the cheapest Taiwanese or Hong Kong kung fu film of the era. So I wonder if this is a by-product of the (re-)editing process, that Liu had intended more cutting (to close-ups or different angles or just jump cuts within the same shots) to make the fights seem faster and more dynamic than they are, but either the materials weren’t available or they weren’t ever shot or the reconstruction team for some reason just didn’t use them. My fear is that they left them this way because they think it’s funnier, but I hope that’s not the case.
Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle is incredibly corny, and I kind of loved it. I think you could probably say that about any number of the slice-of-life animes I’ve adored in recent years, like the Kyoto Animation productions K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Liz and the Blue Bird, and A Silent Voice, but while Belle shares with most of those works a focus on the emotional life of a musically-gifted teenage girl, it also reaches outward to make a statement about The Way Things Are Now in a way anathema to the KyoAni hyper-specific approach. Hosoda goes big: it’s not enough for his moment of epiphany to simply be one damaged person connecting with another, it has to be witnessed by the entire world.
The entire virtual world, that is. Belle is about a young woman, Suzu, played by singer Nakamura Kaho, painfully shy and still suffering from the loss of her mother years before, who joins U, some kind of futuristic virtual reality world that scans your mind and body and creates as your avatar an idealized version of yourself, amplifying your strengths and weaknesses. She, in her virtual form as “Belle”, quickly becomes a singing sensation, charming millions with plangent pop ballads about loneliness. Her (fake) world is disrupted by a rampaging monster known as “Dragon” to whom she becomes weirdly drawn. This becomes more and more obviously the Beauty and the Beast story, until even I picked up on the connection. Suzu tries to find out who Dragon is in real-life, and what’s pained him so much to cause his destructive acting out, before the VR police (led by a fascist blond named Justin) can dox him into nothingness.
It’s all ridiculous of course, and the rules of the virtual world make absolutely no sense. But I’m not sure that matters, and Hosoda plays it all so emotionally straight that when it builds to the big climactic song, for awhile you actually kind of believe that music can bring the world together, can make us all better people, and that bullies can actually be defeated with nothing but the power of innocent moral righteousness. Hosoda loves big climaxes like this, and while Wolf Children, his masterpiece, does this while still staying believably small (it’s about one mother’s love for her child), he seems more at home in big mind-exploding climactic sequences, real emotions collapsing or blowing up virtual or imaginary worlds (Mirai and Summer Wars take this approach, if I remember correctly).
One of my favorite bits in all of the Hosoda films I’ve seen though is the scene right before the big climax, when a couple of romantic plot threads involving side characters get resolved at a train station. He holds a long shot: Suzu and her friend Ruka on the right side of the screen, and Ruka’s crush Kamishin on the lower left corner. As her two friends realize the other has a crush on them, they turn red and awkward, Suzu silent in the middle. Ruka does not move, Kamishin runs back and forth out of the frame. Hosoda holds the shot for an extraordinarily long time, only cutting to a close-up of Suzu when one of them mentions her crush. It’s a very funny scene, the more so because Hosoda underplays it, never overplaying the cartoonish surreality (I shudder to think how such a scene would play out in Demon Slayer, for example) or even the standard shot-reverse shot formula one would get in a typical live-action film. The restraint takes a scene that could have been merely comic into something as beautiful as it is silly. It’s slice-of-life filmmaking at its best.
After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.
Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.
Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.
There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.
*It’s been explained to me that the historical context here is essential. In 1995, police attacked a village called Kodiyankulam, which was populated by people of the Dalit caste. It was the flash point of a series of conflicts between the villagers and more dominant members within that same caste. The conflict in the film is similar to the actual events, though fictionalized. My mistake was in not noting the centrality of caste to the conflict between the two villages in the film, a vitally important issue that I, in my ignorance, failed to pick up on. It’s also the case that in my desire to read the film through my own (limited, American) lens, by seeing it as a film about revolution in general, I delegitimized the specific concerns of the caste struggle itself, of which this film is certainly very much about. My apologies and thanks to those who took the time to explain what I’d missed.
Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the San Fernando Valley of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: it’s about California in the early 20th century. The Master is another prequel, about mid-century Californian metaphysics. Magnolia moved the timeline into the 90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former is more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love, at least for now.
Alana Haim plays a rudderless 25 year old named Alana who, when working for a company that shoots high school yearbook photos, is spotted by 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, looking eerily like his father), a precocious go-getter who has just about grown out of being a cute child actor. He falls for her instantly and walks right up and tells her so, beginning the first of several lengthy walk and talk camera movements that form the spine of Anderson’s approach to the film. Alana and Gary are always moving laterally, sometimes walking, often running. All the kids in the movie love to run—they have to, they’re in a hurry. Alana, sensibly, rebuffs Gary’s romantic advances, but the two have an obvious connection and the two strike up a friendship.
The rest of the film follows their various career schemes while deftly negotiating the fact that these two characters are obviously in love but really should not be. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have gone on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the 70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. Alana and Gary meet vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allow to discuss openly.
There’s Bradley Cooper’s gross John Peters, who hits on every woman he sees and is the definition of an entitled Hollywood hanger-on (a hairdresser and a producer, the real John Peters was a child actor as well). There’s Sean Penn’s aging star actor who reads with the starstruck Alana during an audition, takes her out for drinks (at Gary’s favorite restaurant “The Tail of the Cock”), then loses interest as he and an old director buddy (Tom Waits) recreate a scene from one of their Korean War movies (Penn’s character is named Jack Holden, and is apparently based on William Holden). There’s John Michael Higgins, who plays a the owner of Gary’s other favorite restaurant, who hires Gary’s mother’s PR firm to advertise the place, a Japanese place called The Mikado. Higgins and his Japanese wife listen to the proposed ad (which does everything it can to downplay the food and up the Orientalist appeal), and Higgins “translates” to his wife by adopting a grotesque caricature of a Japanese accent (think Mickey Rooney’s ghastly Breakfast at Tiffany’s performance). He does the same thing in a later scene, now with a different wife (they’re apparently interchangeable for him) and admits that he doesn’t speak Japanese. The performance is too absurd to be based in anything but reality. Finally there’s Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs, a city council member whose campaign for mayor Alana joins as a volunteer. Wachs is a closeted gay man (he came out in 1999, after decades of accomplished service). It’s Alana’s realization of Wachs’s sexuality, and the pain having to hide it causes him and his partner, that sends her back to Gary. Because theirs is a world when all the cultural norms are completely wrong: men as debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man has to call in a beard to a restaurant because his political enemies might find out who he’s really dining with and why. Because in such a world, when you find a true friend, you really have to stick with them.
Or, taken another way, you can see it as a story of integration. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish (one agent keeps coming back to Alana’s “Jewish nose”, a potential boyfriend is kicked out of the house for refusing to give the blessing at dinner because he’s an atheist) and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds (inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s father) or pinball machines or making campaign commercials. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything (contrast with failed boyfriend Lance, the atheist). Most of all he believes in Alana. This differentiates him from Higgins’s racist restauranteur. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it (like that rich asshole John Peters). He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, the movie ends while there’s still hope.