Single-take camera move (always on the move) through a crowded park in Chengdu, China – further into the center of the country than Katy will travel this month (while I watched this, she was some 900 miles east, in Shanghai). There’s dancing and games and crafts and napping and work and food and commercial demonstrations and so much music – I don’t think there’s a moment where you can’t hear live or recorded music playing.

The camera seems to be waist-high (I later learned that Cohen held the camera while Sniadecki pusher her in a wheelchair), and it’s not hidden – people stare back all the time, and most of my interest in the movie (since the park itself isn’t historically/architecturally fascinating) comes from watching the people, and seeing their reactions as they watch back. I wouldn’t say there’s enough people-watching interest to justify its full 75-minute length though, and roaming a park from my couch kept making me wanna get up and go outside. Funny how far removed this felt from last week’s people-watching doc Austerlitz. The ending is good, the camera circling around a crowd watching a dance routine then breaking through into the center, ending on a great image.

Dennis Lim got the press kit:

Over three weeks they shot 23 takes ranging from 45 to 100 minutes, with many more aborted because of mishaps like miscommunication with each other or children running into their path. The final film… uses a 75-minute segment from the 19th try.

F. Furtado:

In a film with such an evident voyeuristic aspect as this, one usually expects to see the shot at eyes height; but, instead, the vantage point in People’s Park is lower, an unexpected perspective which sometimes breaks with the more repetitive patterns of some of its moments and procedures … There is undoubtedly an element of intrusion in these images: people often look straight at the camera suggesting curiosity and, other times, irritation (the film never allows us to forget that the filmmakers are not an element that belong to that landscape; this is literally a foreign look).

Glimpsed through the crowd – man with rooster on a stick:

Vadim:

Bursts into musical numbers via karaoke fiends co-existing with refreshing indifference to each other, mass dances and sing-alongs to Cultural Revolution standards, the state otherwise conspicuous by its absence … Few people stand out in memory, the point being the democratic proliferation of things to watch.

Produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan). Codirector Sniadecki made earlier HSEL movie Foreign Parts, and later The Iron Ministry, and both were thanked in the Manakamana credits.

Great hook for a film – small town poet with cerebral palsy becomes famous online, her fame and newfound self-confidence shaking up her home life. We booked our True/False schedule based mostly on subject matter of the documentaries (Katy is going to Hubei, where this movie is set), not watching trailers or knowing anything about their formal presentations, so we were bowled over by the cinematic beauty in Strong Island, LoveTrue, Manifesto and this one. It’s an amazing story on its own, but the filmmaker also finds ways to visualize Xiuhua’s poetry, showing text onscreen and filming the natural environment around the house where she wrote the words.

The poetry and the film are extremely bittersweet. She uses her fame and money to get a divorce from the husband she’s never loved while her mother is dying of cancer. The husband is open on-camera about his contempt for her and has a girlfriend in Beijing, though he seems to love Xiuhua’s parents and their child. She’s invited to academic conferences, press events and even reality TV, and her media people are concerned that the divorce will hurt her fame. She finally pays off the husband and after the divorce they ride home together, with him grinning like mad. She seems very independent, giving confident answers to press and fan questions, flirting with the filmmaker and a conference panelist, but she’s deeply vulnerable in the poetry, and says her life has been a failure if she hasn’t found love.

First-person movie with barely-seen narrator/protagonist. It’s kind of an essay film about revisiting the city where he grew up after being gone thirty years, noting the changes. But it’s also an interesting new thing – a noirish murder/mystery played out mostly in audio, with the visuals in the same style as the essay-documentary sections, almost as if the footage was shot and then the filmmakers belatedly decided to make a completely different kind of movie.

Guerra da Mata:

We do have several references, like from Josef von Sternberg’s film Macao … One of the first shots of our film is a travelling shot by boat, like in the beginning of the Sternberg film. We liked the idea of having documentary images introducing a plot that was actually shot in a Hollywood studio.

Rodrigues: “And we decided to do the opposite: inventing a plot mostly shot with documentary images.”

A couple of lipsync musical performances (one in the opening, presumably performed by noir-figure Candy, another in the middle by a canal boater) help tie the threads together. Unexpectedly, the noir story ends up involving a bird cage containing a Kiss Me Deadly-style glowing secret (it turns people into animals). So I followed the movie with pleasure, though after the fact I think I admire it more than love it.

Things I didn’t get because I don’t know my film history: Candy was performing Jane Russell’s song from the movie Macao in the introduction. This gets discussed in the film itself for us clueless types, as does some Macao history – it was occupied by the Portuguese for centuries then handed over to China in 1999.

Second appearance of Astro Boy today, after spotting him in Yi Yi. First movie I’ve seen by either of these Joãos, who also made To Die Like a Man and The Ornithologist together.

Great interview in Cinema Scope. They got funding for a Macao documentary then decided to make something else based on Guerra da Mata’s memories of living there, but they still only had the budget of a documentary.

Rodrigues:
“We wanted our film to be playful, and I think that this is a really wide range: Chris Marker, James Bond, film noir … sci-fi.”


Alvorada Vermelha / Red Dawn (2011)

I think the directors mentioned that making this short led to Macao, so I had the bright idea of watching them together. No spoken words, opens with a shot of a high-heeled shoe on the road, which could easily be from the other film (which also opens with a shoe close-up), and both movies share a glimpsed mermaid character… but for the most part, this is a documentary set inside a slaughterhouse where lots of fishes and chickens are killed and cut up, thus it’s kinda no fun to watch.

So soon after Moonlight and Certain Women, another movie in three parts. In 1999, Zhao Tao (I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin) is friends with sharp-chinned coal miner Liangzi (Jingdong Liang, Tao’s Platform costar) and petulant boss Jinsheng. When the boss decides he wants to marry her, he pulls strings to stay close to her and gets his former friend fired.

2014: Liangzi has health problems and a family in another town, moves back to the city and sees Tao again. Her father dies, and her son Daole visits from Australia for the funeral but barely knows her.

2025: Daole enlists his university English teacher (Sylvia Chang, the boss in Office) to translate conversations with his dad, now a gun dealer, then to Katy’s chagrin, Daole starts sleeping with the teacher. He thinks about visiting his mom, decides not to. Back in China, Mom dances alone in the snow.

N. Bahadur:

Neither man is willing to let Zhao make her own decision, both only desire to possess her. So in this sense Zhao’s sporadic weaving in and out of the narrative reveal both tradition and capitalism stifling femininity.

Functional doc following pre-planning through opening night of a Spring 2015 China-inspired fashion show at the Met in NYC. 95% of the interest comes from the fantastic costumes on display and in archive footage and clothing worn by celebrities to the opening ball. 4% comes from watching Wong Kar-Wai as the only Chinese participant on the board (and realizing he does other things with his time besides making movies), and the rest is from anything that anyone has to say.

Maybe I’m just in a mood, but this seems like one of the greatest documentaries ever. In filming eight locations (four sets of antipodes – places on land directly opposite the globe from each other), much fun is had with lenses and camera orientation. The music and sound design is terrific as well as the cinematography, and the movie’s gimmick and structure aside, he is filming absolute magic and wonder. In fact, the antipode concept is only mentioned in some opening titles, and from there it’s just observation of the chosen locations, left to viewer’s imagination and his excellent visual transitions between locales to draw geographic connections.

Won an award at the 2012 True/False Fest. We hope to attend next year, so we’re catching up on some docs we missed.

Filming locations:

Argentina/Shanghai:

I looked up a little about Kossakovsky. He teaches a documentary class – among the rules he presents to students:

– Don’t film if you can live without filming.

– Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.

– Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.

– You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.

– Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.

– Documentary is the only art where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.

Hawaii:

New Zealand/Spain:

Two motorbike rebels meet at the site of a tomato-truck accident: Dahai (seen on the movie poster with a shotgun) and Fuzzy Hat San’er, who kills a few illegal toll-takers a few minutes prior. First let’s follow Dahai (Jiang Wu of Shower and To Live), who is openly contemptuous of his corrupt bosses at the coal mine, finally confronting the big boss himself, at which point Dahai gets his ass whupped on an airport runway. Doesn’t take long for Dahai to heal up, collect himself, and take brutal shotgun-revenge on his bosses plus anyone who gets in his way. It’s about the most blunt anti-corruption half-hour screed I’ve seen, showing the problem then proposing a swift solution – and coming from arthouse slowpoke Jia it’s pretty shocking.

It’s an episodic movie, but more interconnected through characters, locations and themes than something like Wild Tales. In a larger city, Fuzzy Hat (Wang Baoqiang of Blind Shaft and Romancing in Thin Air) has money troubles, and a solution: purse-snatching and murder. Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, just seen in I Wish I Knew) can’t get her boyfriend to leave his wife, goes to work as a receptionist at a masseuse parlor and when some drunken dudes assume they can buy her, she cuts them up. Young Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) has shitty luck in the workplace and jumps out his window.

Zhao Tao, never more badass:

A. Cook:

The film paints a bleak picture of modern China for the people in a position of powerlessness. Setting each story in a different region of the country further illustrates this sense of widespread exploitation … Each act of violence is a tragic climax in the lives of the characters who can take no more of the injustices that surround them.

R. Koehler in Cinema Scope:

Jia is sending out an early signal that his film is directed from and for a cathartic response, and as we observe his four characters across four segments — roughly traversing a geographic line across the Mainland from north to south and through the seasons — they operate out of gut instinct and momentary impulse. The contemplative young intellectual artists of Platform are long gone — or likely, by now in the new China, have sold out — and in their place are desperate people doing what they need to do to survive.

Fuzzy Hat and his neglected son:

Marie-Pierre Duhamel:

The last two shots of the film show Zhao Tao’s Xiaoyu watching an ancient representation of her destiny, and the audience of the opera looking into camera. The audience is looking at the audience. This is what consistency is about in Jia’s world: to lyrically recreate reality as a folk singer improvises a ballad, so that the untold stories come to light, and that everyone hopefully remembers them and sings along.

Her essay at Mubi puts the movie in essential context. It seems the most obvious of Jia’s films – I don’t mean that as an insult, since I felt the others all went over my stupid head – but even so, there’s so much depth I missed. And of course the film looks as splendid as Jia’s others, which is what keeps me watching them even when I don’t know what they’re about. Won best screenplay at Cannes, the year of Blue is the Warmest Color, Only Lovers Left Alive and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we? And what better place to start than with a Kino collection called The Movies Begin?


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin Porter)

Stunts, explosions, color, brutal murders, thievery, daring escapes – and dancing! Bandits rob the train of its lockbox loot and all its passengers of their wallets, then escape on horseback. Local bunch of ruffians is alerted to the crime and rides off to kill the perpetrators. All this in ten minutes – more economical than the Sean Connery remake.

One of the more famous shots (haha “shots”) in cinema:

Fire in a Burlesque Theater (1904)

Either this was ineptly framed or I’m seeing a cropped version, because there aren’t nearly enough burlesque dancers with smoke inhalation on display here.

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905)

Hefty Jeffy helps her out… then faints. Was this a comedy?

Spoiler alert:

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

A woman removes her costume – but the good part is done behind a screen. The title was better than the feature, making this the A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence of its time.

Troubles of a Manager of a Burlesque Show (1904)

Troubles because the women are angry at the crappy clothes he expects them to wear, and they flee and throw things when he tries to molest them.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905, Edwin Porter)

So many lost films in history, and this dam thing survives. Hilarious title for a movie without any jokes in it, making this The Ridiculous Six of its time.

The Golden Beetle (1907, Segundo de Chomón)

Ornate, hand-colored, dangerous-looking Meliesian disappearing act. I think a man tries throwing a golden beetle in the fire, and she torments him with showers of sparks before burning him to death. This is great.

Rough Sea at Dover (1895, Birt Acres)

Two shots of the rough sea. Were any other 1895 movies more than one shot long?

Come Along Do! (1898, RW Paul)

Supposedly the first film to feature action carried over from one shot to the next. But I watched it twice, and it appears to be only one shot. Is there an invisible Birdman-like cut in there somewhere? Or did I get the descriptions of the previous two films mixed up? Anyway, two drinkers on a bench outside some mysterious establishment with an “Art Section” and “Refreshments” opt for the art section.

Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903, RW Paul)

Cabs being horse-drawn at the time, a guy stumbles into the street, is trampled to death, then mysteriously recovers and runs off. I’ve seen guys transformed via editing into scarecrow dummies then thrown off trains in The Great Train Robbery, but this one does a good job transforming the dummy back into a guy.

A Chess Dispute (1903, RW Paul)

There is a violent dispute over a game of chess. Mostly this dispute is waged just under the camera’s view, thrown punches and bottles and clothing flying up into frame.

Buy Your Own Cherries (1904, RW Paul)

Awful brute man causes a drunken scene at a bar, then another at his home, then after a quick visit to church he’s wonderful and generous. Extra long at four minutes. Paul also produced the great The ? Motorist, which I had credited to director Walter Booth.

The Miller and the Sweep (1898, GA Smith)

Just a silly half-minute fight/chase in front of an operating windmill. But it’s a really nice shot of the windmill.

Let Me Dream Again (1900, GA Smith)

Happy couple at a party wake up as grumpy old couple in bed… so the movie’s title is the punchline. Smith invented the pull out-of-focus to indicate shift from dream to reality.

Sick Kitten (1903, GA Smith)

Kino says Smith invented the POV shot, and the idea of breaking a scene down into shots from different angles, which he does here. Kids dressed as grownups feed a kitty from a spoon. As is true today, cat films were incredibly popular back then, so this is a remake of his 1901 cat film which had worn out from overduplication.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, GA Smith)

Train goes into tunnel, GA Smith and wife have a quick smooth, train back out of tunnel.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, Bamforth & Co)

A remake! Two different people kiss in a different tunnel (the train shot from different angles than Smith used), in a cabin with worse production design.

A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903, Frank Mottershaw)

Action thriller with multiple shots and locations, reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery. Kino says some plot action in the silent doesn’t make sense because the showman was supposed to provide benshi narration during the screening.

A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903, William Haggar)

Men with guns chase men with nets. Oh damn wait, the poachers have guns too, and blast at least three of the pursuers. Poaching was deadly serious business. Just a big chase scene, really.

Attack on a China Mission (1901, James Williamson)

A man’s house is attacked, he defends with rifle, then more groups keep arriving and I’m not sure what side they’re on. Kino says it’s a reenactment of the Boxer Uprising, which must have been a confusing uprising. Kino says JW was famous for moving action across multiple shots, mainly during chase films, which sounds like what everyone was famous for in 1901.

An Interesting Story (1905, James Williamson)

Mustache man pours coffee in his hat, injures the maid, wrecks some children’s fun, and keeps running into things because he won’t put down his book (just like kids today with their cellular telephones). Satisfying conclusion as he gets run over by a steamroller, but some passing bicyclists inflate him, using the ol’ dummy-replacement trick last seen in Extraordinary Cab Accident.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903, Thomas Edison & Edwin S. Porter)

Never forget, no matter what his achievements in human history, Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant for fun and profit.

Interview film, Shanghai stories, people talking about their parents and their own childhoods. Many stories end in death or disappearance. Very stylish looking doc, with some non-doc segments, including a recurring ghost woman (Zhao Tao of Still Life, Platform, The World).

Clips from a 1959 film by a different Wang Bing (the Coal Money director was born in ’67), from Red Persimmon, Two Stage Sisters, Spring in a Small Town, Flowers of Shanghai, Days of Being Wild, Antonioni’s China, and interviews with filmmakers and participants.

Wei Wei, star of Spring in a Small Town:

Tony Rayns:

Jia was invited to make a film “about Shanghai” to mark the opening of the Shanghai World Expo … his idea was to focus mainly on émigrés from Shanghai – politicians, soldiers, artists, gangsters – and to follow some of those émigrés to their subsequent bolt-holes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. … No film made anywhere has previously attempted a pan-Chinese view of the fall-out from the conflicts in China’s civil war.

I don’t have the context Tony Rayns has, have missed a lot in Jia’s films, but at least this one was fully narrated (and quite beautiful).

S. Kraicer:

[The interviewees] are mostly famous, and predominantly from the arts world: this is a top-down historical chronicle, unlike the bottom-up small-town tales that made Jia’s name 10 years ago … Many of the stories come from Shanghai’s two brief “golden ages.” The swinging cosmopolitan (and colonially controlled, gangster-ridden, Japanese-threatened) jazz age of the 1930s is the first. The second revival followed the Second World War during the civil war that culminated in the Communist Party victory in 1949 and the dispersal of many of the film’s interviewees to Hong Kong and Taiwan.