VIFF 2019: The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019)

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One of the most anticipated Chinese titles of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival is Diao Yinan’s follow-up to his Berlin winning 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice. Like that film, The Wild Goose Lake is a moody Chinese noir, full of morose characters trapped in a world of violence they cannot understand. It’s also significantly more interesting to look at than the majority of Chinese noirs that have afflicted the festival circuit in the wake of Black Coal‘s triumph. Sure, it has more than its share of torrential downpours and black nights of the soul, but Diao mixes the morose setting with yellows, greens, and reds (along with some delightfully sickly neon pinks) more reminiscent of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the first third of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White than the dull grayness of movies like The Looming Storm or Savage or Lush Reeds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his characters, who are nowhere near as vibrant as the film’s images.

Hu Ge, who had a small role in Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter, stars as an ex-con and gangster who finds himself the target of a manhunt after he accidentally shoots a cop. The setup to this is extremely promising, with Diao melding the highbrow style of Bi and Jia with a classic Triad-type story, involving gang rivalries and a motorcycle-stealing contest that ends in a shocking bit of violence. But it quickly shifts into a different kind of film entirely, with Liao Fan as the cop in charge of hunting him down and Gwei Lun-mei as the prostitute with a heart of gold who tries to help him escape (both Gwei and Liao starred as well in Black Coal).

Liao and the cops come off much better, as the blankness of their personalities matches the just-the-facts proceduralism of their pursuit, Liao himself bringing a necessary weight and professional authority to the role. But Gwei and Hu are blank slates, almost entirely affectless, with nary a hint of personality to mitigate their mopey sadness. Gwei is usually an actress of considerable charm, but there’s nary a hint here of the performer who stole scenes left and right in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate a decade ago. Instead she walks determinedly, if directionlessly, around the frame, face pinched in a perpetual scowl, while Hu (hobbled as his character is by multiple gunshot wounds) merely looks depressed. The motivations and actions mostly make sense, but it’s hard to care anything about them when they aren’t the least bit interesting. Compare them to the wit and will Zhao Tao showed in Ash, or Liao Fan’s weaselly over-confidence in that same film, or the mystery and passion of Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang in Long Day’s Journey, and you’ll see what Wild Goose Lake is missing most.

But for all that, at moments the film is wonderful. There are at least three expert showdowns, built slowly and without dialogue, actors carefully arranging themselves in a well-defined space, communicating only with looks (or just as much: by not looking at all). Diao heightens one by having one group wearing shoes that have neon lights around their soles, such that our hero (such as he is) is seemingly hunted by circles of eerie pale green light, stark against the blackness of night. Another is set in a dilapidated concrete apartment complex, reminiscent of so many such structures in Hong Kong films, with their tangled hallways and noisy neighbors. In scenes like this, The Wild Goose Lake approaches the best of Johnnie To (the showdowns are nothing if not a nod to The Mission). If only the rest of the movie were so free.

SIFF 2017: Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The second feature from director Liu Jian is an animated network-noir that in its amoral glee at the interconnected machinations of crooks and losers recalls early Tarantino, or at least his Korean imitators. A bag of money is stolen and passes through many vicious hands in dingy, bleak sections of a city at night (the pale, grimy animation recalls a hungover Duckman), a world away from the glitzy capitalist paradises of recent Chinese urban rom-coms.

Lost Highway ( David Lynch, 1997)

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The following is adapted from a review I wrote back in 2007 for a David Lynch Blog-athon.

Bill Pullman plays a saxophonist who kills his wife (Patricia Arquette) because she was apparently cheating on him, and is so guilty over the murder that while in prison he goes insane and creates another reality for himself, one in which he’s a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Pullman’s fantasy world is something out of the 50s or early 60s of American Graffiti, with its car obsessions, pleasant suburban family, and the cute girl next door (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Unfortunately for Pullman, his subconscious won’t quite let him forget his crime, and soon Getty’s hanging around with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his femme fatale girl (Arquette again). As in a typical film noir, Getty falls for the bad girl, conspires with her to commit some crimes (including a murder or two) and comes to a bad end.

Continue reading Lost Highway ( David Lynch, 1997)”

VIFF 2016: The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2016)

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The architecture of the thriller suits the Dardennes more comfortably than it might first appear. In spite of their naturalism, the Belgian brothers construct intricate scaffolding for their films to rival many of their more outwardly formalist peers, and The Unknown Girl is perhaps more open about the structural blueprint than anything they’ve produced recently. A generic—in every sense of the word—tale of bad conscience gets the trademark handheld treatment in the dreary world of Liège, but it could just as well emerge from the wet streets of a 40s noir.

Guilt comes knocking, as it must, at the door of Dr. Jenny Davin. An unidentified African girl running from something sinister pleads entry into the safety of Davin’s clinic, though the young doctor is too busy lecturing her intern on the finer points of the profession to bother with the noise down the hall. The girl’s body is found nearby, and distraught at the consequences of her indifference, Davin hits the detective beat, searching for the girl’s name in an effort to offer her a modicum of dignity in death that the final moments of her life denied. Ratiocination unveils a web of guilt ensnaring everything in the doctor’s orbit, as if all of Liège harbors some complicity in this original sin, which, given the ethnic lines that divide here, suggests a reckoning with Belgium’s colonial past and present woes, though the capital ‘C’ Catholic Dardennes make it clear that no one escapes the fearful symmetry of guilt’s trap.

Trapped, certainly, but not unmovable. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may be clandestine formalists, but they’re also heart-on-the-sleeve humanists. The maze-like geometry of The Unknown Girl points towards noirish cynicism only to refute it. An embrace—with responsibility, with other people—is enough to open up a way out.

SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond

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The Seattle International Film Festival races into it’s third week (has it really only been fifteen days? With only a mere ten to go?) and here we have some titles you won’t want to miss. We’ll link to our reviews of the titles listed here as we write them, as we’ve been doing with our Week One and Week Two Previews. We previewed the festival back on Frances Farmer Show #6 and discussed it at its midway point on Frances Farmer #7. We’ll have a complete wrap-up of the SIFF just as soon as it ends.

Continue reading “SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond”

Episode 4: Youth of the Beast and Sonatine

This week, to mark the on-going Seijun Suzuki retrospective at the Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum, we discuss the idiosyncratic Japanese director’s career and one of his more famous and influential gangster films, 1963’s Youth of the Beast. We also talk about the Yakuza film in general, and all the crazy things Suzuki did to it, and take a look at actor/director Takeshi Kitano’s own take on the yakuza film in his 1993 film Sonatine. All that plus more goings on around town, including an upcoming tribute to a great director at the Film Forum and the novelty of the Cinema showing something on film.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.