Movie #1 of my Hors Money Assasatan Crisis Trilogy, where I watched critically-acclaimed art films that I was absolutely guaranteed to love, and loved none of them, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me anymore. This was #3 on Cinema Scope’s year-end list, and it’s ceaselessly beautiful, with interesting framing, characters seen through grasses and curtains and beams of light. Was worried that I wouldn’t figure out the story – well, I got most of it even if some character relationships stayed fuzzy (who were they trying to protect from being buried alive at the end, and why, and why is secretly-pregnant mistress Huji important?), but the drama felt so dead, everything standing so still between the rare, short action scenes, I felt myself pondering switching to The Grandmaster instead.

In the Weibo province in the 9th century, Yinniang is sent away with her aunt Princess Jiaxin, where she trains to become an unparalleled assassin, and is later sent back to kill her noble cousin Tian Ji’an – but she decides to protect him instead, for claimed political (but probably personal) reasons.

J. Cronk:

As the narrative moves away from the cloistered confines of Tian’s estate in the film’s second half, following the banished aide-de-camp Xia Ling (Juan Ching-tian) as he’s escorted to the border and out of harm’s way after speaking out of order, the irreconcilable nature of Yinniang’s mission grows ever more pronounced, as she dutifully continues to do away with rivals — at one point even interceding in battle on behalf of Tian’s garrison — while hesitating to fulfill her ultimate duty.

Not everyone loved it, I guess… concurring here with M. D’Angelo, who may also have been dreaming of The Grandmaster:

I should have realized that Hou would always rather make a stillness movie than an action movie … My favorite thing Hou has ever done, by far, is the first segment of Three Times, mostly because it feels more like Wong Kar-wai than like Hou.

A rare widescreen shot:

Speaking of The Grandmaster, The Razor Chen Chang played the governor/cousin. Yinniang was Three Times star Qi Shu. This won best director awards at Cannes and the Golden Horse festival in Taiwan.

Sometimes called In The Hands of a Puppetmaster, presumably to distinguish it from the terrible Donald Sutherland movie The Puppet Masters and Full Moon’s Puppet Master series. Another Taiwanese-occupation historical drama, the center part of a trilogy with City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. City of Sadness seems more memorable than this one did since I had ol’ Tony Leung to latch onto. This one is more detached from the action, which is broken up over a longer timeline.

A true-ish story narrated by the film’s real-life subject, who appeared as an actor in previous Hou films. We don’t see him on-screen for the first third of the movie. His appearance brought to mind American Splendor, only with less humor and no cartoons. Wiki: “Based on the memoirs of Li Tian-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer, this story covers the years from Li’s birth in 1909 to the end of Japan’s fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in 1945.”

Real Mr. Li:

from V. Canby’s original Times review:

His story is revealed in a succession of short, often oblique but vivid vignettes. These begin with a dramatization of a family row about whether the baby is to bear the name of his mother’s or father’s family, a tale cut short by the real Mr. Li’s terse soundtrack interjection: “That’s how I was born.”

There are harrowing tales about his mother’s death, his unloved stepmother, his disinterested father and his rebellion as an adolescent, when he was apprenticed to a traveling puppet-theater troupe. From time to time, the audience is given long, wonderful chunks of Mr. Li, as a boy and as a young man, working his delicately fashioned hand puppets during performance.

A synopsis can’t convey the particular quality of “The Puppetmaster”; that is, the seductive way Mr. Hou takes the audience into a world of arcane rituals and rites. The director’s fondness for the meditative, stationary camera, which was favored by the Japanese film master Ozu, no longer looks borrowed but reimagined. The lack of camera movement and the long takes, in which an entire scene is shot without a cut, reflect the searching manner of an old man as he tries to make sense of the past.

The camera occasionally simply stares at a room or into a series of rooms that open one out of another before a character has entered or after a character has departed. It’s as if the mind of this singularly alert survivor were dealing with Proustian associations, memories uncovered by a kind of afternoon sunlight, or a cooking smell or the touch of someone long gone.

Young Fake Mr. Li:

I had trouble keeping up from the very start, when the old man narrates his own birth and explains why he’s got his mother’s last name. Obviously a movie that rewards a second viewing, once you’ve got a basic grasp on the plot. Neither am I sure which actors played what parts – usually I can use the IMDB cast to help figure out which characters were which, but not today.

Older Fake Mr. Li:

N. Schager:

That Li ascribes his origins to a set of legal provisions immediately connects him to his occupied homeland—a disempowered territory now defined by the rules and regulations of a foreign party—just as his age-old profession ties him to the ancestral traditions of Taiwanese culture. Such associations run throughout Hou’s biographical tale, with Li’s rebellion against his abusive father and stepmother, his exile from puppeteering after the Japanese forbade public performances, his compulsory work for a Japanese propaganda puppet troupe (part of the government’s “Japanization movement”), and his ultimate triumphant rebirth as a celebrated artist all designed to reflect the upheaval of a country in which the indigenous population was forced to accept that, as one drunken Imperial Army soldier tells Li, “You can never escape the fact that you are a colonized islander. A third-class citizen.”

By having Li relate altered versions of things we’ve already witnessed, Hou strikingly points out how the act of remembering invariably sparks a metamorphosis of what’s come before. Yet just as importantly, such a device allows the filmmaker to express the passage of time by asking viewers to experience the film’s occurrences in both real-time and, through our own reliving of certain scenes more than once via Li’s delayed annotations, the past. This process of experiential repetition is the film’s most arresting and vital structural component, linking now with then, the real with the semi-real, in a web of era-intertwined symbiosis.

I wish our gov’t would put on propaganda puppet shows:

When he’s eight, his grandmother gets sick, but as she’s recovering his mother dies instead. His girlfriend Big Eyes is sent away. Grandfather dies and little Li is beaten by his stepmom. But he gets his dad to let him join a puppet troupe, after which he’s traded away to other troupes for years and finally founds his own (called Also Like Life – so that’s where Shooting Down Pictures got their domain name from).

Japan starts interfering, prevents all outdoor performances in Taiwan, killing puppetry dead. Li moves in with an opera group, meets a prostitute named Leitzu. “I had told her before that I was married with children. But what about us? We are travelers that meet on a path.” Back into puppetry (and back with his family), he joins a couple of Japanese propaganda puppet theater groups, gets into a scuffle with an occupying officer, but gets away with it because of his fame and regard.

At the end of the war he has a terrible evacuation from Taipei. The whole family catches malaria and his youngest son and father-in-law both die. He joins a new theater group – the final shot is of the townspeople disassembling Japanese planes, after he’s told that the money to pay him comes from selling scrap metal.

Grunes: “The title refers to both Li’s profession and Taiwanese history under the Japanese, who appropriated Taiwanese puppetry for their own propagandistic purposes and who otherwise impressed their own culture on the Taiwanese, making puppets of them.”

T.M. Hoover:

It’s long but not big, complex but not epic, morally committed but not given to proselytizing, and offers no grand spittle in the face of the cruelty of colonization. Instead, it gives us the story of a man who had to organize his life around circumstances he did not want and, through the juxtaposition with the source of those trials (some of which had nothing to do with politics or other alterable conditions), talks of what one has to do when the gods throw thunderbolts at inconvenient times.

After false-starts with Flowers of Shanghai and Goodbye South, Goodbye, I figured out how to get on Hou’s wavelength with his Red Balloon and Three Times, so now trying something from his acclaimed 1980’s period. I liked it, and could follow reasonably well despite 90% of my knowledge of Taiwan’s post-Japanese-occupation history coming from a blurry bootleg of A Brighter Summer Day. Wikipedia, help us out with context here:

It tells the story of a family embroiled in the tragic “White Terror” that was wrought on the Taiwanese people by the Kuomintang government (KMT) after their arrival from mainland China in the late 1940s, during which thousands of Taiwanese were rounded up, shot, and/or sent to prison. The film was the first to deal openly with the KMT’s authoritarian misdeeds after its 1945 turnover of Taiwan from Japan, and the first to depict the 228 Incident of 1947, in which thousands of people were massacred.

“On August 15, 1945 Japan announced its unconditional surrender. Taiwan was liberated following 51 years of Japanese occupation. The wife of older brother Lin Wen-heung gave birth to a son. They named him Kang-ming, which means Light.” Brief introductions (Wen-heung is a stocky fellow) and a photo shoot, then suddenly a woman is narrating from the mountains, introducing W-H’s brother Wen-ching as a friend of her brother. W-C (Tony Leung 1 of 2046) is deaf/dumb (this was supposedly added to the script because Leung couldn’t speak the dialect convincingly, heh), a professional photographer who communicates to customers with gestures and to our new narrator (Hinomi) with pen/paper. W-C has other brothers besides stocky eldest Wen-heung – one disappeared in the war, and the other, Wen-leung (Jack Kao of a bunch of Hou’s films), came back mad.

W-C: happy, deaf

W-L: mad

But Wen-leung gets over his condition, joins organized crime, gets himself arrested and gets the straight Wen-heung in trouble. Eventually, W-H is killed and W-L terribly beaten, other characters disappear or escape to the mountains, and W-C ends up with Hinomi – but in the epilogue, after showing him with new wife and baby, even he is arrested again, and the titles tell us “December 1949. Mainland China is lost,” when the ROC moved to Taiwan (maintaining martial law, torture and execution for 40 years) and communist PRC formed in mainland China. So the movie takes place over four years, during which it doesn’t always seem like such sadness, but it sure turns out that way in the end.

IMDB:

As revealed in scriptwriter Chu Tien-Wen’s book, the original premise of this film is the reunion of an ex-gangster (which Hou Hsiao-Hsien intended to cast Chow Yun-fat for the role) and his former lover (supposedly played by Yang Li-Hua, the top Taiwanese Opera actress in real-life) in the 1970’s. Hou and Chu then extended the story to involve substantial flashbacks of the calamity of the woman’s family in late 1940’s (where the woman was the teenage daughter of Chen Song-Yong’s character). They then abandoned the former premise and instead focused on the 1940s’ story.

from an excellent essay by K. Lee for Reverse Shot:

Any given scene in City of Sadness has its own internal history informing the logic of its characters’ behaviors. Hou’s sense of dramatic conflict—one that’s unique in cinema—arises when the recurring presence of the past collides against an unfolding present unknown to both the characters and the viewer. …

City of Sadness envisions a massive shift in a tiny island’s social fabric caused by forces well beyond the scope of any person, or even a community. Everyone is overwhelmed. No less than five languages are spoken in the film: Japanese and four forms of Chinese. Even Chinese viewers require subtitles when watching this film. … Perhaps due to being the first movie to deal openly with the “2-28 Incident,” or perhaps because of the Golden Lion it won at Venice, City of Sadness was the top grossing domestic film of its year. Nonetheless, there was public dismay at the oblique nature of Hou’s storytelling and the fact that the atrocities of the “2-28 Incident” are never depicted directly onscreen (despite that there are more fight scenes and onscreen killings in City of Sadness than in all of Hou’s other films combined). …

Scenes pass like clouds, loosely connected, the overall story arc not clearly in sight, and only in retrospect, with a final shot of an empty room that once held scores of family and friends, does the sum total of the film materialize, narrative, historical, emotional. Hou’s aim is nothing less than to enact how people live history—not as something happening right in front of them, but around them and beyond them, the same way then as now. In City of Sadness the horrors of the world occur almost always out of view, but it makes their presence all the more unsettlingly palpable.

Three love stories with the same actors in different eras. Can’t think of an apt comparison to another film (haven’t seen Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking) but it’s sort of the opposite of Hal Hartley’s Flirt). I’d avoided this despite the acclaim because I thought it’d be long and boring (flashback to two Hou movies I didn’t enjoy/understand, Flowers of Shanghai and Goodbye South, Goodbye) but lately I’ve decided that those two required more attention than I gave them, so I watched this one twice (err, six times).


1966: A Time for Love

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A perfect mini-movie, and it ends so simply and beautifully. He meets her by accident at a pool hall, looking for a different girl. Writes her letters while on his military duty, returns one day and finds her gone. This time, instead of just writing to the next girl, he tracks her down, spends his last few hours of leave with her. Repeated settings, actions and songs (“smoke gets in your eyes” and “rain and tears”) along with the period setting and romantic atmosphere unavoidable evoke Wong Kar-Wai.

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Girish draws connections:

The original Chinese title of the film is Best Of Times. Hou, like a popular musician, is drawing from his “discography” of films for these three stories. The first reminds me in look and mood of A Time To Live And A Time To Die or Dust In The Wind; the second is set in a brothel like Flowers Of Shanghai; and the third clearly recalls the modern neon-smeared interior spaces of Millennium Mambo. So, Hou has created a sort of compilation album, only he has “remade” the ideas and memories behind his previous films into new stories.

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1911: A Time for Freedom

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Silent with piano music and intertitles for dialogue most of the time, traditional twangy vocal music a couple of times (performed, it turns out, by our woman). She is a geisha and apparently in love with her man, though he seems to pay her little mind, focusing on poetry, national politics and the fate of another geisha. He pays for the other girl to be freed when she becomes pregnant, leaving his own girl stuck and alone when he leaves town for Shanghai. Such slow, fluid, measured movements I am sometimes not sure if Hou’s movies are in slow-motion.

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Stylus:

Of course, the principal subject of both “A Time for Freedom” and Flowers of Shanghai is liberation—from a life of service for the long-suffering geishas, and from foreign rule for Hou’s homeland. Examining the dichotomous relationship between a wealthy activist (Chang) protesting the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and a geisha (Shu) longing desperately for a life outside the brothel, this is Hou’s most explicitly political work since his trilogy on 20th Century Taiwanese history (City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, Good Men, Good Women) and, arguably, his most resonant feminist statement to date.

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2005: A Time for Youth

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A confusing one – multiple girls with multiple problems, little explicit story but more detail information than ever. He’s a motorcycle-driving photographer and she’s a throat-tattooed, epileptic lounge singer with a scary website. Seemed to me the usual commentary on modern disconnection through overload of technology, not adding much besides superior cinematography, but the second time through I enjoyed it more (and figured out more, like the fact that He and She both have other girlfriends). Her girl says she’s committing suicide from neglect (touchy) towards the end. Still doesn’t have the emotional impact of the first two – I might’ve switched the order of the segments.

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Senses of Cinema:

Hou represents this state of freedom by a narrative near-chaos transmitted with a calm and almost casual-looking inscrutability that makes the story impossible to comprehend to any satisfactory degree in just one viewing. It is ironic, though, that while an initial impression might well have been that many of the scenes are presented in a chronologically rather random order, careful examination seems to establish that the story is actually told in a scrupulously linear way.

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Qi Shu (The Eye 2, Transporter and Sex & Zen 2) has got nothing on the career of costar Chen Chang (Red Cliff, Breath, Crouching Tiger, Happy Together and A Brighter Summer Day), but they’re both wonderful here. Story and characterizations are pretty minimal, movie gets by on weight of emotion, similar to Friday Night and In the Mood for Love – and it shares ITMFL’s co-cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, a Hou regular who also shot Air Doll and Norwegian Wood. Would look even more lovely, I’ll bet, if the DVD wasn’t all interlaced and non-anamorphic.

Won all the Taiwanese film awards. Played at Cannes with A History of Violence and Cache, Battle In Heaven and Broken Flowers, all unfairly beaten by that Dardenne movie.

My third feature by the celebrated Hou. I only half enjoyed/understood the other two, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai, both seen on video, but I appreciated his short The Electric Princess Picture House. So I didn’t know what to think going into this, and neither did anyone, probably, seeing how it’s in French and a semi-remake of a 30-minute children’s classic. Hou’s pacing seems more suited to the big screen than home viewing, so I’m glad it played the Landmark, and Jimmy and I (who saw The Red Balloon together in the same theater earlier this year) both enjoyed it.

Juliette Binoche is a harried puppeteer mother, Simon Iteanu is her son, Hippolyte Girardot (Lady Chatterley, La Moustache) is the downstairs neighbor, and Fang Song is the kid’s new nanny. Song is an aspiring filmmaker with a handicam who loves the film The Red Balloon. Bleach-haired Binoche once worked as an au pair, feels abandoned by her husband, wants to kick out her downstairs neighbor so her older daughter can visit this summer (but can’t find the lease contract), and does marvelous voices for the Chinese puppet show she is directing. Simon seems like a happy kid, takes piano lessons, plays pinball, has a loving relationship with his absent older sister (seen in flashback, she cancels her annual summer trip to Paris late in the movie).

Then there’s the balloon. Simon sees it at the beginning and it follows him on the subway, then to his home and on a class field trip. Song sees it at one point, also… but neither of them ever touches it. It may just be a symbol of imagination, and not a real balloon at all. The camera moves slowly, fluidly, always seeming to hover balloon-like instead of resting, and blobs of red (clothing hanging to dry, a lamp) are often hanging in the frame when the balloon itself is absent.

Just as I was noticing the long length of the shots, a bus with a large Children of Men advertisement drove by – nice. Shot by the cinematographer of most Hou films, Pin Bing Lee, who also did In The Mood For Love with Chris Doyle. Score is light piano music (all staticky on our print), and it closes with the Bobby McFerrin-sounding song from the trailer.

None of these descriptions do justice to the film, which I’m starting to think is one of the few great films I’ve seen this year. Peaceful and calming to watch despite being set mostly in a cluttered, loud, claustrophobic apartment, there’s just enough story/character/action to play upon every emotion in the book without leaning too hard on any of them, leaving me feeling like I’ve experienced & felt so much within such a minimal framework. The characters aren’t desperate, but they don’t have an easy time either. One review described Binoche as a mother under siege, and with all that’s going on around him, Simon’s childhood is under siege too. But even while portraying conflict, the movie manages to ooze joy – so much joy that it’s put a major dent in my plans to watch all the commerce-driven Hollywood product out this summer. How could The Incredible Hulk compare?

A program of shorts that played at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to mark its 60th anniversary. Pretty terrific bunch of 3-5 minute shorts by possibly the best group of directors ever assembled… worth watching more than once. Each is about the cinema in some way or another, with a few recurring themes (blind people and darkness, flashbacks and personal stories). Katy watched/liked it too!

First half of shorts (second half is here):

Open-Air Cinema by Raymond Depardon
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One Fine Day by Takeshi Kitano, continuing his self-referential streak.
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Three Minutes by Theo Angelopolous is a Marcello Mastroianni tribute starring the great Jeanne Moreau.
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In The Dark by Andrei Konchalovsky
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Diary of a Moviegoer by Nanni Moretti
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The Electric Princess Picture House by Hou Hsiao-hsien
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Darkness by the bros. Dardenne
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Anna by Alejandro González Iñárritu
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Movie Night, the first of two gorgeously-shot outdoor movie starring chinese children, by Zhang Yimou.
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Dibbouk de Haifa, annoying business by Amos Gitai.
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The Lady Bug by Jane Campion.
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Artaud Double Bill by Atom Egoyan.
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The Foundry, comic greatness by Aki Kaurismäki.
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Recrudescence, stolen cell-phone bit by Olivier Assayas.
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47 Years Later very self-indulgent by Youssef Chahine.
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