Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Notes on Iwashigumo (Summer Clouds) by Mikio Naruse, Japan. 1958




It is said that Mikio Naruse never really liked using Cinema Scope. There might have been a commercial pressure to use this format from up to the late 1950s. Nevertheless, I can´t agree with him, one of his first films in Cinema Scope proofs that this spectacular format can be also used for these family dramas which are only existent in Japanese Cinema. One of the main characters (as far as we can speak in a shomingeki film about a main character at all) is a young war widow who has a son. At the beginning she is interviewed by a journalist who is interested in the life of farmers. Very soon she begins a love  affair with him. This affair is rather subtle indicated but how so much masters of Japanese cinema, there is no need for more. Her elder brother wants to marry off his children. But most of them resist and insisting to live their own life. Marriages in the films by Naruse or Ozu are always affecting the economical structure the families are living in. The seeming event less stories of a film by Naruse or Ozu enfold itself scene by scene. The intensity of these films seem to come from Nowhere. As a matter of fact, the Japanese colour films from the 1950s and especially the films by Naruse and Ozu are some of the most beautiful ever made. The very Japanese obsession to create cinematic images about every day life with all its small and big events goes with a strange chemistry with the magic beauty cinema can as well evoke. Surely I will probably never be able to give a  proper synopsis of this film with all the details of the family structure, but my memory is full of moments which follow me into my dreams. There is for example a mesmerizing moment when the young widow walks with the journalist on the beach of the sea. The landscape the persons are moving in becomes an eternal big screen, almost an image for the long oppressed longing of a young widow. Both is present, the effort to give an idea about the dry self-determination working life the widowed farmer´s wife leads but also the beauty of Naruse´s magic cinema scope images. The Japanese definition of realism and cinema was never an abstract ideological one. It was always materialized with the whole apparatus, cinema can offer. Especially Ozu and Naruse were always put in context with the cinema of the 1960s, among them directors like Antonioni. Both, Ozu and Naruse were already modernists in the 1930s. Of course a film like Iwashigumo can be very moving - yes-  even let me use the word entertaining but never in a contradiction to its strange analytical character.
There are scenes when the characters are interacting with each other, sometimes arguing. But there is always the freedom that our eyes can escape through a small door or a window which leads to the eternity of the world. And if Iwashigumo is also a film about, the unique concept of cinema, Ozu, Naruse and in another kind Shimazu or Shimizu have created is always as well a cinema of the self-determination of the audience how and how much it will be engaged with the film. Ironically the films by Ozu and Naruse deal mostly with social constraints, to watch them is for me always a sense of freedom.

As prosaic this seeming event less life of the protagonists are in Iwashigumo, there are some accesses to a deeper understanding. For example the classmate of the young widow who runs a restaurant: if they meet, only a few hints are enough to give an idea of a life time of these characters which exists far beyond the 125 minutes long running time of this film. These so-called eventless moments, I could watch for hours with the same joy I watch a Hitchcock film again and again.

Once when the widow and the journalist walk again through the landscape, we see in the far background a passing rail bus. It is one of this small connections between the fiction of this film with the whole universe. And Iwashigumo is full of these small connections. And if he liked it or not, it was probably Naruse who opened the shomingeki film up for the use of the more opulent cinema scope format.
As this film is also about agriculture, it reminds me in an idea I had long time ago about this specific kind of Japanese cinema. The fiction is literally planted on the soil of reality beyond film. Therefore the film´s fiction is always traceable to the reality outside the screen. Very early in the 1930s Naruse´s friend Ozu recognized that it was a big mistake that his company Shochiku considered Naruse only as an unnecessary “second Ozu”. That was as well an underestimation of the many different facets this movement around Ozu, Shimizu, Shimazu and Naruse offered not only to Japanese but also to world cinema.

Even though Naruse and Ozu earned relatively early in their careers the reputation as artists, most of their films were as well very popular and it is very likely that the audience of their films recognized themselves a lot during the time these films were released.

One reason, I consider Iwashigumo as one of my favorite films by Naruse is the final scene: The young widow finally accepts that her short love affair with the reporter was only a short illusion very likely to the memory of her late husband with whom she spent only a few years. At the end we see her stubbornly working on the rice field. It is a tiring physical work to earn her living. In the background the wonderful summer clouds like a far shadow of a fading idea of happiness. This female character we followed through more than 2 hours film is now almost as anonymous as most of the audience who must have watched this film in the late 1950s. And I can only guess how this film will look on a huge curved screen as one of the finest coloured cinema scope films in Japanese film history.

Rüdiger Tomczak




Sunday, July 10, 2016

Belated obituary: Setsuko Hara 17. June 1920 – 5. September 2015






Setsuko Hara (whose real name was Aida Masae) was not only one of the most famous actresses in Japanese film history but also one of the few Japanese film stars who got international fame. And this international fame actually began long after she retired surprisingly from acting at the age of 43 right after the death of Yasujiro Ozu. And with the late discovery of Ozu in the western world, people began to be interested in Hara. There were a lot of speculations about her sudden return to privacy. She refused any interviews. The public person Setsuko Hara ceased to exist. She worked not only with Ozu but as well with Mikio Naruse, Akira Kurosawa and a lot of other more or less wellknown directors. She got her first role at the age of 15 in  tamerafu nakare wakōdo yo (Don´t hesistate Young Folks), 1935 and her breakthrough was in a German-Japanese Co-production called Die Tochter des Samurai (The Daughter Of the Samurai) by Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami. Even though a star before World war 2, it was her collaboration with Yasujiro Ozu, most of her admirers, myself included connected her. Might her Noriko in Tokyo Monogatari be her most famous performance, for my side her finest performance was the Noriko in Bakushu from 1951. Just her 6 roles in films by Ozu from which have seen most of them around 20 times enables me to the conclusion I have never spent more time with an actress than Setsuko Hara. It is not that Hara was the only great actress neither from Japan nor from the Asian continent. But I can name hardly any perfect chemistry between actress and director than Hara´s roles in Ozus films.

And she was by far more than a muse of Ozu. One of the typical mistakes in the reception of Ozu´s film is the interpretation of the roles by Chishu Ryu as Ozu´s “Alter Ego”. While Chishu Ryu and especially in the post war films was in Ozu´s films mostly a liberal father from the middle class. Most of his appearances in Ozu´s films are an idealized father figure. It was Setsuko Hara´s Noriko in these three masterpieces Banshun, Bakushu and Tokyo Monogatari. as the absolute family woman, the sister, the daughter, the widowed sister or mother and once in Ozu´s darkest film Tokyo Boshoku the wife who leaves her violent husband. Especially the daughter who does not want to get married in Banshun is probably the perfect female pendant to Ozu himself. The chemistry between Ozu and Hara is best described with the wonderful Da Ponte operas by Mozart which should be enjoyed with the best possible vocalists.
Another for my side stupid cliche about Setsuko Hara is that some people called her the “The Eternal Virgin of Japan”. About her love life we know not much more than about the love life of her Norikos in Ozu´s films. What we do not know does not mean that it does not exist. Especially in the context to her collaboration with Ozu whose films were often labelled as asexual lead to fatal errors as well in the reception of Ozu´s films as in Setsuko Hara´s roles in some of them. In fact Setsuko hara´s characters are a bit like Albertine on Proust´s “Search for the lost Times” and with androgynous, Ozu and Setsuko Hara´s performances are much better described than asexual.


What is so special in a lot of Asian and especially Japanese film stars if male or female is their characters are not really bigger than life but just like life. That goes especially for the Japanese shomingeki-film and Setsuko Hara is an excellent example for an actress who got famous by playing every day like characters. The list just among Japanese actors would be very very long. Even the Italian Neorealism had still its stereotypes in the relationship between the genders, the Asian and especially the Japanese cinema was probably in its sensitivity in this relation the most advanced on this planet. Like the legendary Chinese film star Ruan Ling Yu (1910-1936) Setsulo Hara, Hideo Takamine, Chikage Awashima and a lot more had first of all a strong screen presence. They played unforgettable characters, every day like but very complex. They are less objects of male desires like the films made much later by the so-called Japanese New Wave and despite the patriarchic Asian or Japanese Society at the time of the 1930s and 1950s these female presence and for example the presence of Setsuko Hara´s characters are by nature nearly subversive. Setsuko Hara´s retreat from acting goes with a historic caesura, the decline of the second Golden Era of Japanese Cinema.

The most complex character in the films by Ozu ever played by Setsuko Hara, was probably the Noriko in Bakushu from 1951. This Noriko can be rebellious , can even mock about the subordinate role expectation in women, but this Noriko has as well a very strong will to go her own way.. The famous scene with her sister in law on the beach of the ocean is probably one of the most beautiful moments in Setsulo Hara´s career. When she put of her shoes and walks on the beach, her more conservative sister in law follows after hesitating a moment her example and for these seconds these women seem to be free.

And at all it is again a very wrong simplification to think Setsuko Hara played subordinate women. The truth is her characters were moving on the very edge between traditional women and the rising of a new self confidence to walk her own path.
Her retirement from acting must have been a kind of prevision that the era of cinema in which she grew was close to its end, a few years after her retirement. After Ozu two other masters of Japanese every day dramas passed away, Mikio Naruse and Hiroshi Shimizu. Once established directors like Masaki Kobayashi or Akira Kurosawa had their most difficult time to realize their projects.

But there still traces of the glory of these Japanese every day like heroines like Setsuko Hara, there is for example Chieko Baisho, a kind of working class heroine mostly in the films by Yoji Yamada, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s. If there is an actress today in contemporary world cinema who has this magic of a strong presence but without implying a “bigger than life-character”, it is probably the Bengali Actress Konkona Sen Sharma.

Setsuko Hara died on September 5, 2015 of pneumonia. Her death was reported more than two months later, on Novermber 25. There were speculations about her life like for example a possible romantic involvement with Yasujiro Ozu. If there were any secrets about the life of Setsuko Hara, she who kept her privacy as consistent like Greta Garbo did or like Terrence Malick still does, Setsuko Hara passed away like one of the anonymous every day-like characters she embodied so often and whom she gave in so much films for some hours a bright presence.

Rüdiger Tomczak




Sunday, May 29, 2016

Notes on Oncle Bernard – l’anti-leçon d’économie (Oncle Bernard A Counter- Lesson in Economics) by Richard Brouillette, Canada: 2015)



They want to have us dead or in their lies” (Sean Penn in The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick)





The footage was recorded in 2000. It is a long interview with the economist and journalist Bernard Maris (famous for his sharp and profound criticism of Neo-liberalism) at the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo, 15 years before his assassination on January 7, 2015. Maris was one of many victims during the attack of the terror organization Islamic State. The first thing which comes to my mind is the memory in Brouillette´s masterpiece L´Éncerclement from 2008, probably the most comprehensive film essay on Neo-liberalism in the history of cinema. Like Oncle Bernard..., L´Encerclement does not only reveal what the protagonist are thinking, we literally see them thinking. Even though we see in both films almost nothing than talking people, both films offer a brilliant balance between a nearly minimalistic approach of film and at the same time a stirring intensity. Recorded in Black and White on a 16 mm-camera, the film is always interrupted by reel changes, the recorded sound continues while the screen remains black for a short while.
It is noisy in the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo which sometimes distract the film team and Maris but for the audience it is almost a more intense experience. Different than in L´Encerclement, Oncle Bernard... seems more like a memory, a legacy and finally a homage to Maris. The shadow of Maris´assassination is to big to ignore it.




The fatal ideology and the consequences of the Neo-liberal policies on each aspect of public and social life in nearly all contemporary societies is explained by Maris in an impressive clarity of thought: From the privatizations of state owned enterprises like Post, public transport or health care and from the shady policies of the capital economics. But the neo-liberal virus goes even further. The freedom of press the so-called information society is (very few marginal exceptions included) more or less just a part of the ideology of the economic power. The statements of Maris are traceable and we do not have to dig very deeply in our every day experiences. And it does not mind in which part of the world we live in. I myself have still in my memory the last strike of the post worker in Germany, the French worker will face just now the most aggressive attacks on worker rights in France after World War 2 like the Germans did with the so-called Agenda 2010. Both attacks are organized by so-called socialistic or social democratic governments which are following the ruling ideology of Neo-Liberalism.
Like L´Encerclement, Oncle Bernard... is as disturbing like a dystopic science fiction or horror film but the night mare is too real and one can not escape it.
A film is not always just what it is but as well what it evokes. No wonder that this minimalistic approach of Brouillette´s two last films has nevertheless this intensity which is hard to describe.
When Maris talks, in this film we do not only understand what he says but we got as well an idea how. There is often an anger in his voice and in his gestures. And yes the face of Bernard Maris is burnt into my memory. That is what I would call “Cinéma pur." Richard Brouillette made both, a political essay film but at the same time he draws a portrait of Bernard Maris.

What this film distinguishes from L´Encirclement is that Oncle Bernard... evokes in me more the character of the memory of an encounter. The interruptions always when the film reels had to be changed, these short moments of darkness even when the soundtrack continues gives the film (originally recorded on 16 millimeter) the fragile character of a human memory which works organic.
There is one small beautiful moment when Maris talks with his colleague Jean Cabut, another one among the 12 victims of the terror attack in 2015. A small confidential every day talk of people who know each other for a long time and the power of it´s collision with my knowledge of their assassination 15 years after these images were recorded is nearly unbearable for me.

Oncle Bernard – L’anti-leçon d’économie by Richard Brouillette is like L´Encerclement both: a sharp political essay film but as well pure cinema – and even more important – it is authentic to the bones.

Rüdiger Tomczak






















Sunday, April 10, 2016

First Notes on Arshinagar by Aparna Sen, India: 2015





Ranajit/Romeo and Julekha/Julia have their first encounter their first kisses in a rest room. He, dressed like a woman, she dressed and masked like a man even with a false mustache. A masquerading play between a Muslim Girl and a Hindu boy. For a moment the man-defined border between religion and gender are suspended. When they meet for the last time Julekha is already shot by Muslim fanatics who confuse her (again dressed and masked like a man) for a Hindu man. After a last kiss and after he removed her false mustache, Ranajit, (this time dressed again as a Muslim woman) will be shot by Hindu fanatics.. Tow short moments which correspond with each other in a film of 152 minutes length. It is only one of the many facets in the narrative network of Aparna Sen´s second epic film after Goynar Baksho and here in an adaption from Shakespeare´s Romeo and Julia. If one wants to stuck with these two short moments there is already enough stuff for getting an idea about the enormous richness of Aparna Sen´s work as a film director.

In the cinematic landscape created by Aparna Sen one often has to find the own perspective. All she demands is a certain level of attention. A film by Aparna Sen is (like a lot of good films) like a house. If you want to inhabit this “house”, you have to walk on through all the rooms and niches this “house” offers. Rooms can change depending from what angle it is regarded. And you will get an idea of the architecture of this "house".The “Boy meets Girl”-aspect in Mr. And Mrs Iyer for example can easily be broken by the third perspective the one of the child which is easily free of predetermined gender ideology. In this “house” you sometimes looking for doors which literally open you up for new perspectives. If you never have tried, it can happen that the whole magic of a film by Aparna Sen goes undetected through you like neutrinos through the matter of your body.

It is said that Arshinagar was not a commercial success. Who is to blame for this I do not know. The lack of perception of the audience, a wrong promotion? But I am very suspicious about an impatient multiplex-oriented cinema culture where films after a few weeks are taking off the program. Aparna Sen shares this fate not only with other fine directors of her generation like for example Hou Hsiao hsien or Terrence Malick. Under the conditions of a  hasty greedy film market, a lot of classics would fail today without even the chance to get a re-release. A film like 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the most interpreted film in the last 50 years would not become the classic which it is today but the commercial disaster which gleeful people forecasted in 1968 just after the release of this film. (1)

Arshinagar is one of Aparna Sen´s angriest films. She has translated Shakespeare into modern India and finally into the modern world. The Hindu-Muslim conflict is only the surface of a power game between two rich families and the quick greed for money is the actual religion, the Hindu-Muslim conflict only the excuse for it. The heads of this two families might be separated by religion but they are almost exchangeable These clans move between dubious dealings with real estate and drug money which has to be cleaned. The line between cold hearted speculator and gangster is nearly invisible. A shopping mall is supposed to be built in the ghetto of the town. To get rid of the people who live there anything is possible: bribery, murder, threatening. If that does not work a riot between Muslims and Hindus will be incited. More homeless people for a shopping mall just for the profit. It is a sharp image about the modern world and it does not mind if you live in any Indian big city, Berlin or anywhere else.

Arshinagar is a love story, a musical and a gangster film and finally a mirror of the modern world at the same time. It is not just the simple dogma of cinema as a mirror of the real world, but the mirror as a window or a magnifying glass to the many facets of this world. The English title “Mirror Town” is a very poetic title and as well a wonderful word for the silver screen itself. But this mirror will be splittered. We see that already in the opening titles which are written on these splitters and at the end credits. After Yugant, Arshinagar is another film by Aparna Sen with a nearly apocalyptic finale. The end of the world includes as well the end of cinema as an example of the collective memory of the human civilization.


I remember long time ago, I saw a TV essay on Erich von Stroheim by German film critic Helmut Färber. In the commentary on Stroheim I remember the sentence, I think it was related to Greed : “Before the people destroying themselves, they destroy their memories.” In Arshinagar, the Romeo and Julia Story is mirrored in a memory of a likely love story by Ranajit´s mother and Julekha´s father. Julekha´s father has already “destroyed his memory”. He is not only the biggest obstacle for the young lovers but he is as well one of the administrators of the destruction of the slums and finally for the dead of the young couple.

The film is introduced by a woman who owns a puppet theatre. She introduces for now Romeo and Julia as a puppet play and some of the leading characters as puppets at the beginning while the film introduces the real characters. Just this opening is for me characteristic for Aparna Sen´s narrative virtuosity. It is as well only another facet in her cinematic world. Side by side with this virtuosity we see the hand of the puppeteer which is a good image that her films always give an idea how they are made. We see art and at the same time an artist at work. The films by Aparna Sen have often an analytical aspect, a hint how it is made. And this is not in competition with the magic her films can evoke. That is what I meant when I wrote on Mr. And Mrs. Iyer that “Aparna Sen is analytical and poetic at the same time.”

The universe in the films by Aparna Sen is not always an isolated one. 15 Park Avenue end literally in another universe. In the farewell scene of Mr. And Mrs. Iyer  Rahul Bose seems to leave into another dimension which is at the beginning a blurred and than we see people waiting for him. In Goynar Baksho the ghost is only visible for Konkona Sen Sharma´s character (later for her daughter) and the audience. And at all there are often things the audience sees, the characters are blind for. In Arshinagar appears in two scenes a Baul singer and at least in her second appearance I am sure she is like a ghost only visible for the audience. Her song and her dance happens out of the gravitation field of the narration established by the puppeteer at the beginning. Her movements evoke a kind of centrifugal force. Her first song as I understood through the subtitles could be a paraphrase of the beginning love story of Ranajat and Julekha. But at the second time she appears more ghostly, more isolated in of the ghetto where the angry mob of Hindus and Muslims are killing each other and destroying the whole quarter.
She sings:
All you say is me.
Who is this I, tell me
The one deep within me
you forgot to see.
Her movements make me almost dizzy. Her desperate effort to be heard fails. It is only the audience which can see her, all characters in the film are blind for her heartbreaking performance. We are alone with her. This moment hunts me since I saw the film the first time. It is as moving and mysterious like the Baul scene in Ritwik Ghatak´s masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara. Even though she remains untouched by the riot around her, she appears like a vulnerable and desperate soul. (2)

In my imagination I see Aparna Sen in this film between the introducing puppeteer and the performance of the Baul singer. The artist, the artist´s relationship to world like it is and the vulnerability of the Baul performance, for some reasons Arshinagar is one of Aparna Sen´s most disturbing films since Yugant.

Every new film by Aparna Sen is another lesson about what cinema is what cinema can be. If an excellent and rich film like Arshinagar has no place in film theatres all over the world we should be very very worried about the future of cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Remarks.

  1. In most of my texts on films by Aparna Sen, I mention a lot of films through the history of cinema. I tried to be clear to label it as my personal associations. What Aparna Sen distinguishes from a lot of other directors of her generation is that I hardly can detect any obvious quotations from film history like we often see in Peter Bogdanovich´s films which are often full of hints to John Ford, Howard Hawks or Orson Welles. The love for cinema is often obvious in films by Wim Wenders and Peter Bogdanovich. Aparna Sen also grew up in a very cinephile environment. But Aparna Sen belongs to the few masters of her generation like Martin Scorsese, Hou Hsiao Hsien or Terrence Malick, who do not just administrate their love and knowledge of cinema, they live it. Would be interesting to look further to her historical placement in athis certain generation which represent a certain time of film history.
  2.  Would be interesting to learn more about the Baul movement (mystic minstrels) in West Bengal and Bangladesh who are part of a religious and musical tradition. Even though a minority which doesn´t belong to a certain religious denomination hey are famous for their influence on Ranbindranath Tagore and the Bengali culture. Here a Link to the English Wikipedia site on Baul singer




Monday, February 29, 2016

Notes on Nie Yin Niang (The Assassin), by Hou hsiao Hsien, Taiwan/China: 2015





The film is not only a journey into the past (the ninth. Century of China) but it is also for me a kind of travelling back in time. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Hou hsiao Hsien was among the living my favorite film director. I remember the screening of Beiqing Chengshi (A City Of Sadness) 1990 at the Berlinale-Forum, the traumatic screening of Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet master) 1993 at the Montreal World Film festival with the most horrible audience you can imagine for a film where some shots last up to 6 minutes which didn´t detain me from giving the most hysteric applause I ever gave to a film during a festival. I remember also a retrospective of Taiwanese cinema 1996 in a Berlin cinema called Filmkunst 66. The credits of Haonan, Haonu (Good Men, Good Women) were just rolling and the owner of the film theater switched the light on. Even though still with tears in my eyes (because this is for me the most emotional film by Hou) I shouted at him something like: “Let the light out you idiot!” The last film by Hou I was enthusiastic about was Kohi Jikou (Cafe Lumiere) this wonderful homage to Yasujiro Ozu. His Zui Hao de shi guang (Three Times) left me cold even though the first two episodes belong to the finest things Hou ever did and this film is an excellent introduction to the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien. Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge from 2007 was really the only film by Hou Hsiao Hsien which disappointed me and it was for 8 years the last long feature by Hou. Since 2006 my cinephile life turned from a Hou dominated era to a Malick-dominated era and just recently I saw Nie Yin Niang, a period film with Martial arts elements, Hou´s most expensive film with a long and difficult time of production. Interestingly Hou´s studies on Taiwanese history in his great trilogy, his autobiographical masterpiece Tong Nien Wang shi (A Time To Live and time to die) or in Hai Shang Hua (The Flowers Of Shanghai) went always with a search for his own definition of cinema and finally with the cultivation of his unique style.
A period film is in fact nothing which should surprise us if it comes from Hou Hsiao Hsien, because most of his finest films were period films even though much less engrossed through time.
What Hsimeng Rensheng (which begins almost with the the time when cinema was born) already foreclosed especially with a remarkable lightning of interiors, what he continued in the second episode of Zui Hao de shi guang, a silent film leads finally to the lightning in Nie Yin Niang. In the cinema of the West, we learned from Stanley Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon and Terrence Malick´s The New World that the light can be a key to approach a cinematic reconstruction of a far distant epoch of history and it is astonishing that more than 25 years after this daring and experiment with light John Ford did with She Wore A Yellow Ribbon this brave approach was not continued before Barry Lyndon.

Even though Nie Yin Niang begins with sequences in Black and White (most of the film is shot in a format very close to the Academy format excerpt one single scene appears in the 1,85 Format), the film is first of all an excellent colour film with Red, Yellow and Gold tones I haven´t seen for quite a while.
One of the many currents which can be seen in Hou´s work is the dynamic between people who are suffering under history but who are also observing and analyzing what history has made of them. The chronicler in Beiqing Chengshi, Haonan, Haonu, Nilzohe Nuer (Daughter Of The Nile) are women, the real puppetmaster Li Tien Lu in Hsimeng Rensheng appears in documentary moments side by side with Hou´s staged scenes from the pippeteer´s biography. Annie Shizuka-Inoh in her double role in Haonan, Haonu plays Chiang Bi-yu, a resistance fighter against the Japanese who invaded China but also an actress from the present who prepares herself for playing in a mysterious film this very Chiang Bi-yu.
Nie Yinniang in Nie Yin Niang is a full skilled assassin, exiled as a child and trained by nuns as a martial arts fighter is one of these protagonists in Hou´s work who suffer under history but who also begins to analyze it and who finally makes decisions against the direction of her so-called predestined fate. At the beginning we see her fulfilling an order to kill a man. There is hardly any expression on the face of Shu Qi, this actress who worked with Hou Hsiao Hsien since 2001. At the beginning she appears in a black robe as the perfect killer machine and there is no sign of any emotion on her face. Much later when she learns from the nuns more about her history she cries. That will be the only time when we see an emotional reaction from her. What she finally thinks and feels, the film offers only very small hints for that. It is a bit like a historian who knows a lot about historical events but naturally very few about individual biographies. Even though Hou prefers extremely long shots, his narration became since Beiqing Chengshi more and more fragmental. Often he isolates one scene from the other through slow fading outs. He stresses the attention of the audience but finally rewards them with a certain kind of beauty which made him to a singularity in contemporary Chinese cinema. No reason to panic if you feel a bit or even very disoriented at the beginning. Piece by piece a comprehensive understanding will follow. The beauty of this film is encrypted and you have to do a lot to find your orientation and finally you realize that it was worth it. Yin Niang gets a final order, to kill a man she once loved as a young girl, the reason for this assassination is political and for fulfilling this order she has to be this functional perfect killer. First she observes her victim and we, the audience with her. There are incredible long shots where we see the man she is supposed to kill behind thin and almost transparent curtains in the diffuse light of candles and oil lamps. A lot of the scenes, especially when we see powerful people spin their intrigues take place in closed interiors. The open air scenes always are like a release from these muggy interiors.
Like always in Hou´s films there is an exciting dynamic between movement and statics. The few but very precise dosed martial art scenes, a well choreographed dance in the palace or people who are walking through the landscape and than sometimes extremely slow moments where almost nothing moves, people who are almost frozen in their movements, landscapes where you have to look twice to recognize the movement of the water. Sometimes only the wind which goes through the trees is the only evidence of movement.

To watch a film by Hou Hsiao Hsien is very often like watching the elements of which cinema consists are coming together. We can be sure that Hou like Kubrick for Barry Lyndon studied a lot of paintings from or about the epoch the film is dealing with. But it goes far beyond just reproducing old paintings, it gives for moments the uncanny hint of visual culture of a far distant time centuries before you could get an image about nearly everything, if in cinema, television or Internet. In these films like Nie Yin Niang, Barry Lyndon and of course The New World, the cinematic apparatus is first of all an artificial time machine. The time revealed in front of our eyes might be strange and very engrossed but for some moments and especially in this strangeness we have a key to an epoch lost in time.

What we learn about the protagonists and especially about this female assassin remains fragmental. Moments of rising empathy will disappear at the end. We get glimpses of things and people which do not exist anymore.

At the end, Yin Niang finally decides not to kill the man she once loved and leaves for a new chapter in her life, the perfect functioning killer who is discovering her own humanity goes her own way.
As a matter of fact, some of Hou´s final shots are in themselves pure cinematic masterpieces, the ending scene of Beiqing Chengshi, Hsimeng Rensheng, Haonan, Haonu and now in Nie Yin Niang. Hou has an extraordinary sense how to leave a film, a sense for the transition of the things he reveals in his films and our reality outside the screening his films. In Nie Yin Niang we see a group of people on their departure, including Ying Niang. We hear already a mesmerizing music and the picture lasts for a small eternity until the landscape is totally deserted by any person, than the first credits and finally the and the black of the final credits. appears. The last moments of a film by Hou Hsiao Hsien are probably some of the most ceremonially moments cinema has to offer. These moments when the fiction totally disappears, we are alone with the monstrous beauty of this film and paradoxically and despite we often like to categorize Hou as a minimalist these last moments have always an uncanny impact on me. One thing for sure, Hou Hsiao Hsien is back with his finest film since Kohi Jikou.

Rüdiger Tomczak



Friday, February 19, 2016

Notes on Fantastic by Offer Egozy, USA: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival 2016 VIIII.-Forum




The only comment I read on this film which I can remember is; collegiate (in the sense of amateurish) up to the costume design”, a short note from a critic whose opinions I do not appreciate at all but who is very reliable in not appreciating the films I like or which find at least worth to see.
Fantastic evokes an important question in me: How to move freely through this high complex phenomenon called cinema with its huge variation of forms, genres and sub genres? There is no quick answer I can offer but I think this question is a good study for a study of this film which goes more into depth than my modest notes.
Whenever I use the term “playfulness”, I do it only as an expression of appreciation. Egozy calls his film “a pastel noir”. The plot offers elements of film noir and mystic thriller and there  are probably a lot of citations from the history of cinema. 

The film takes place in rooms especially designed for this film and open real locations. The costume design is interesting. It is very colourful and the kind of design has mostly a tendency to traditional East and Southeast Asian clothes. If I am not mistaken there was also a moment with Indian music but I am not sure anymore
A wise young Indian friend of mine once wrote in a note, I think it was on Edward Yang´s A Brighter Summer Day that” there is the film we just see and the film that is kept in our memory”  Fantastic was one of the films I saw very early in a close press screening and all I have is the memory of a film I saw more than a week ago. I might have forgotten details but I still remember this strange dreamlike mood. It evokes in me the two different kind of “extending” an experience with a film. The first kind goes back to my childhood when I had seen a film which left a strong impression on me. As a child I used to play what we call today “spin-offs” with my brothers, sisters or with friends. The second kind is to have a very long chat with friends after such a film experience. As we are seldom or never dressed like the characters in a film, the striking costume design and it´s seeming  discrepancy with the plot offers a special inspiration. When we the talking with friends about a certain experience with a film - which can include citations or imitations of certain gestures and dialogues from a film - that  has is s own magic. A film with the inevitable limit of it´s length becomes suddenly a nearly infinite field of imagination.
Just alone the title Fantastic evokes in me this special feeling. The film is not just a collection of citations from a genre but rather a fantasy about a certain kind of cinema and herewith very close to what I told before about this two variations of extending the experience we made with a film.
I remember a very good statement from Martin Scorsese in Stanley Kubrick - A Life in Pictures by Jan Harlan. Scorsese is defending in an interview Kubrick´s against accusations  that the New York how it is presented in his last film Eyes Wide Shut is phony. He says: Yes, it is not the real New York but it is the New York how you can dream it.” Scorsese´s words are as well a good help for me to find a kind of orientation in my memories of this film. Offer Egozy´s Fantastic, shot in 35 millimetre and in cinema scope reminds me in the reasons why I love cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Screenings
Sat Feb 20 Akademie der Künste 14.00



Notes on Avant Les Rues (Before the Streets) by Chloé Leriche, Canada: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival VIII.-Generation



This is a film from Quebec, entirely about a Native family, a native community and recorded almost entirely in the Atikamekw language. The first scene presents two young natives: Brother and sister are singing, accompanied by a drum in front of an old cabin near a river. They sing in their language. I did not understand a single word, but the beauty of this moment blew me away. They are in harmony with each other, with themselves and finally in this first seconds of the film with the world. These moments are rare in Avant Les Rues  because the world these characters are live in is usually permanent changing and often very confusing. But whenever the young Shawanouk sings together with his sister there are moments of pure cinema - or in other words - the film itself comes very close to one of the big meanings of cinema to define one´s own place in the universe.

The environment of this native community is desolate it looks rather like a provisional camp than what we call a home. There is a cross over between the problems of this native community and any other communities in the world, the lostness. Often the characters are straying around like homeless phantoms in underexposed images. Sometimes you can hardly recognize anything. The images changes from graphic to abstract and the other way around and the images changes also often between darkness and light.

Shawnouk is involved in a robbery and by accident, a man is killed. The feeling of guilt becomes a burden to heavy for this young man. Once we hear him saying “I am lost” This feeling has an adequate visual analogy. Literally the characters disappear often into the darkness like in bad preserved film material which is in the process of decay. Visually two forces are evident in this film, the separation of the characters from their environment  - and even more - from each other and the force to return to themselves, to the persons they love and to the world. The self (re) discovery of a young native his (re) definition of his place in the world can be retraced visually in moments of pure cinema.

There is a total justice between the physical and the mental life how it is presented in this film. The physical presence is something cinema can reveal directly, about mental conditions cinema can only give an idea. When the young man can´t deal anymore with his feeling of guilt he tries to attempt suicide. His family saves him in the last moment. From this situation, Leriche creates a moment of an memorable heartbreaking moment: Kwena, Shawnouks beloved sister embraces her brother and the mother embraces her daughter.  There is a fourth person in the room, the boyfriend of the mother, a policeman and the outsider of the family. He is placed in this image on the very right side and he touches the arm of his girlfriend. The cinema scope frame shows four human bodies who are connected with each other. This four bodies fill the whole frame of the cinema scope format. It is an effort to live against the abyss of death and it is also in its physical traceable intensity a moment of a Malick-like beauty. It is again an underexposed image and this moment is like an affront to the darkness which is threatening to swallow the remains of light. 

After a process of healing, Shawnouk sings a song. It is a very long shot. He sings, stops and sings again. The words I do not understand. What the film reveals is the sound of his voice and the expression on his face – but there is also an idea about about it means a voice comes from the depth of the soul. There is nothing didactic in this film and there is not even a trace of exotic but a convincing work with the materiality cinema can offers- or like the great French film critic André Bazin once said “the things must reveal themselves.”

There is also a very sophisticated use the cinema scope format Like I suggested in my notes on Delisle´s superb Chorus this format was once invented by the industry against the threatening danger of the rising Television but very soon used by the auteur-cinema, from Ophüls to Godard or Antonioni. Like Delisle, Leriche uses this format in its dynamic between opulence and to reveal our lostness in  this world.
At the end Shawnouk and his sister Kwena are singing again. The problems they have to define their place in the world might not have been solved completely but they make an effort to find their way. There are no words how much I love these moments when Kwena and Shawnour are singing together. They literally assert themselves a world which  is always in danger to go apart and cinema at all becomes a painful unbearable yearning for a world we might have already lost. Avant Les Rues, the first long feature film by Chloé Leriche is quite an exciting  discovery.  


Rüdiger Tomczak

Screenings
Fri,  Feb 19 Cinemaxx 3   14.00
Sat, Feb 20 Zoo Palast 1  15.30