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.

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Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)

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Cemetery of Splendour, the latest feature from acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, debuts this week exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. We’ll be talking about his work this weekend on The Frances Farmer Show, and if I can find the time I may actually review the new movie (short version: it’s pretty great, don’t miss it). But as a neat little bonus, the Film Forum is paring Cemetery of Splendour with Weerasethakul’s 2012 short feature Mekong Hotel, one of those movies that, at about 60 minutes in running time, was too long to be considered a short and too short to get a proper theatrical or home video release (see also Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which might have been his most popular film in North America if only it was 20 minutes longer). Mekong Hotel plays only twice, at 6:45 on Friday the 18th and again at 6:45 on Thursday the 24th. I caught it at the Vancouver International Film Festival back in 2012, and here is the brief review I wrote then:

Mekong Hotel was one of my most anticipated films coming into the festival, the first feature by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe) since his Cannes-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which I saw here at VIFF 2010). It’s partly bits of a story Weerasethakul had written years ago about a young couple who are haunted by a pob ghost throughout their lives (pob ghosts are spirits that eat the entrails of animals and humans, like a Thai chupacabra I guess), but most of the film is simply Joe and his actors and composer hanging out at the titular hotel overlooking the Mekong River, the border between Thailand and Laos, chatting about politics and how high the water will rise in this year’s floods. The composer, Chai Dhatana, noodles his score on a guitar throughout the movie, an ambling, aimless tune with hints of Southern blues that evokes not only the endless flow of the Mekong, but the Mississippi as well, both rivers oft-flooded borderlands conducive to lazy afternoon conversations and where the line between myth and reality is a little more porous than it probably should be. I have written down in my notes the line “device to allow your spirit to wander”. I don’t remember the context, who said it or what the device is, but it seems to me that that describes Joe’s movies pretty perfectly.

La Sapienza (Eugène Green, 2014)

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La Sapienza opens this week at the Northwest Film Forum. I caught the film last fall at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the following is adapted from  the dispatch I wrote last year.

Like director Eugène Green’s other films (I watched 2001’s Toutes les units and 2004’s Le Pont des Arts in preparation for the festival, having never seen any of Green’s other work), La Sapienza features an unusually declamatory acting style, with a Bressonian minimization of emotion (though notably not as extremely robotic). Also Bressonian is a penchant for introducing scenes and characters with close-ups of their feet, or rather, their shoes. Green apparently is a big fan of shoes (not that there’s anything wrong with that). He films his characters’ conversations at right angles, a two-shot with them facing each other, perpendicular to the camera, followed by medium close-ups of each actor as they face the camera directly and speak in turn, Green not cutting until they’ve finished what they have to say. This combination of effects reminds me very much of Manoel de Oliveira, though the artifice is apparently indebted as much to Baroque theatrical technique as any cinematic fore-bearer. Green is said to be an expert in this, and knowing absolutely nothing about the subject myself, I’m in no position to disagree.

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Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

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The latest from acclaimed Argentinian auteur Lisandro Alonso finds him working for the first time with a major international movie-star in a recognizable genre. Viggo Mortensen stars in a Western about a Danish cartographer attached to a military expedition in 19th Century Patagonia. When his 15 year old daughter runs off with a young soldier, he sets off on an increasingly weird quest across the desert wilderness, part Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, part William Blake in Dead Man. Like many so-called Slow Cinema films, the cinematic form that has become the dominant international style for festival films and the better art houses, Jauja is paced deliberately, with long takes and very little camera movement, the characters framed at a distance such that they are dwarfed by both the landscapes and, importantly, the sounds of their environment. It certainly isn’t among the slowest of such films (Pedro Costa’s equally impeccable Horse Money (hopefully coming soon to Seattle Screens?) is even more meditative, among great 2014 films), and seeing it a second time I actually found it quite brisk (it’s possible my speedometer has been miscalibrated after a month watching New Taiwanese Cinema films).

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Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)

millennium-mamboOne of the great things about a retrospective of a great director’s works such as the one we’re in the midst of enjoying with this Seattle Hou program is finding previously unsuspected connections between the films. Millennium Mambo, released in 2001 and Hou’s first to be theatrically distributed in the US, is his first film set entirely (well, almost) in the contemporary world since Daughter of the Nile, and like that film it tends to be passed over in favor of more ostensibly serious works (which also, perhaps not coincidentally, have male protagonists). A chronicle of a young woman in a bad relationship struggling to get by in the trancelike neon club haze of Taipei, the film is told in voiceover from ten years in the future, as Shu Qi’s Vicky looks back on her life in a tangled chronology of memories, impressions, dreams and failures. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive order of events, and how one chooses to place the film’s final scene in the timeline goes a long way toward determining if you see the film as ultimately hopeful or depressing.

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Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998)

flowers-of-shanghai-1With Flowers of Shanghai, the Seattle Hou Retrospective takes a big leap forward in time and makes a somewhat less drastic transformation in filmmaking style. When we left off, Hou had moved from his series of coming of age memoirs into an epic trilogy encapsulating much of the history of Taiwan in the 20th Century. I’ll be writing about those history films in a few days, after I see Good Men, Good Women on Friday (I missed the show on Sunday), and then as A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster play at Scarecrow at the end of the month. Hou followed up that trilogy with 1996’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, a languid film about scheming low-level gangsters trying to make a buck in contemporary Taiwan, it’s the closest Hou has ever come to making a Hong Kong-style triad movie. That one will be playing at Scarecrow Video on April 6th. Less concerned with history or memory than any film Hou had made since 1983 (excepting Daughter of the Nile), it represented a sharp turn into the next great series of films Hou would make, about young people in 21st Century urban centers, films inflected with a very peculiar kind of cinephilia. But before that train really got rolling, Hou would take a brief sidetrack into the 19th Century.

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Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

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The fourth in the series of coming-of-age films that marked Hou Hsiao-hsien’s transition from competent movie-maker to celebrated auteur, Dust in the Wind is based on the experiences of New Cinema multi-hyphenate Wu Nien-jen, most famous in the US for his starring role in Edward Yang’s Yi yiThe Boys from Fengkuei is generally not included in what has become known as Hou’s Coming of Age Trilogy, for some good reasons (it’s more fictionalized than the other three films and it is set in the present rather than the past) and some bad ones (film critics really like trilogies – quartets and quintets are confusing. Hou also has a Taiwan Trilogy and an Urban Female Youth Trilogy. And then there’s his 2005 film Three Times, which is like a trilogy all on its own). If we just take the last three in the series, we have one film each based on the memories of a single person (Chu Tien-wen for A Summer at Grandpa’s and Hou himself for The Time to Live, The Time to Die), with each focusing on the life of a young person in rural Taiwan in the 1950s-60s. The first film begins with a young girl and her brother moving from the city to the country, the third involves a young man and woman moving from the country to the city, while the middle film is set entirely in the country. The main characters age progressively as the series goes along, youngest in Summer, oldest in Dust. Taken as such, it can be seen as the history of a generation filtered through the life stories of three individuals, personal memory as cultural history.

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The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective

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My pick as one of the Top Three Greatest Living Motion Picture Directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, gets the retrospective treatment over the next ten days at a trio of terrific venues across Seattle. It’s a truncated version of the complete retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College), in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center, the Taiwan Film Institute, and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), that has been traveling the world for the past six months. The Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum have joined forces to present five of Hou’s very best films on 35mm (each movie plays one night at each theatre), while Scarecrow Video supplements the series with five additional movies, presented on video free of charge in its Screening Lounge. I’ll even be there introducing movies at each venue, covering six movies in total over the next nine days.

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