Moolaadé, 2004 (Ousmane Sembene). An early establishing sequence in Moolaadé captures the intrinsic character of the unnamed rural village through its peculiar, indigenous architecture, as the camera lingers on the voluptuous image of the local mosque that has been fashioned in the tactile and simple organic forms of a traditional African mudhut and curiously topped with an ostrich egg. The eccentric, deeply entrenched (and seemingly inextricable) fusion of religion and primitive tribal custom provides an incisive introduction to the film’s examination of cultural isolation, obsolete (and often inhuman) customs, fostered ignorance, and repressive social conformity as four frightened young girls appointed for the traditional ceremony of “cutting” (female circumcision) seek refuge in the home of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second (and favorite) wife of a tribal council elder (Rasmane Ouedraogo). Years earlier, Collé had defied tribal custom by refusing to have her only surviving child (her other children having died during complicated births undoubtedly related to irreparable physical injuries sustained during her own “cutting”) undergo the ceremonial procedure and remain a bilakoro. Attempting to induce Collé to truncate her imposed moolaadé (harbored protection) in time for the girls to still be included in the ceremony, the council reinforces its solidarity on the stigma of defying the procedure by decreeing that village men not be allowed to marry a bilakoro, compelling Collé’s husband to demand their own daughter’s excision before her proposed upcoming marriage to a recently returned French immigrant. Novelist and filmmaker Sembene forgoes the heavy-handed metaphors and absurd surreality of his earlier to films to create a distilled and understated, yet equally complex, trenchant, keenly observed, deeply humanist, and profoundly relevant portrait of rural Africa at the crossroads of globalism and modernization.
Café Lumière, 2004 (Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Hou’s latest film continues in a similar vein of hermetic environment and translucently slight narrative that have come to define his later, apolitical (and largely transitional) works (beginning with The Flowers of Shanghai). Opening with the reassuringly familiar sight of the Mount Fuji Shochiku logo that can be seen at the beginning of many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films as well as a train traversing a horizon demarcated by power lines at dusk, Café Lumière then sharply diverges from Ozu’s familiar camerawork and images of Japan in the film’s inherent asymmetry, aesthetically irregular compositions, awkward angles (during the parents’ visit in Yoko’s apartment, Hou seemingly attempts an Ozu-like low angle then, faced with a troublesome, truncated image of the stepmother standing in the foreground, inexplicably pans up to reveal her face before resuming the low angle), and opaque and unengaging characters (except for Yoko’s stepmother, played by Kimiko Yo). Ostensibly centered on a struggling young writer (and impending single mother) named Yoko (Yo Hitoto) and her distanced relationships with the people around her (including an introverted bookstore owner named Hajime (Tadanobu Asano)), Hou resorts to familiar devices of expounding minimal narrative through telephone conversations, overdistilled ellipses (to the point of incoherence), and distended temps morts. By transposing his recurring themes of rootlessness and fractured families from Taiwan to Japan, Hou forgoes the entrenched historical mooring of his earlier films to create a more abstract – and personally less compelling, familiarly coded (if not formulaic) – image of contemporary urban alienation.
Saraband, 2004 (Ingmar Bergman). Revisiting the irreparably splintered middle-aged couple Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) of Scenes from a Marriage as they reunite 30 years later, Saraband represents a continuation as well as a culmination of Ingmar Bergman’s spare, late period films, most notably in the purgative confessions and emotionally resigned acceptance of Autumn Sonata. Opening with a bookend monologue shot of Marianne sifting through a series of scattered photographs on a large table in her home as she introduces the people in her life (and invariably illustrate her isolation from them): a married daughter in Australia, a second daughter, Martha (Gunnel Fred) whose consuming mental illness has worsened to the point of institutional admission, a reclusive ex-husband Johan who discourages her plans for an upcoming visit, and a troubled, former son-in-law whose life has turned into upheaval since the death of his wife Anna after a long consuming illness (recalling the emotional crisis of Cries and Whispers) and whose very existence has been obsessively refocused to their daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), an aspiring cellist who seems inevitably – but reluctantly – destined for an international career as a musician away from her adrift, desperately clinging father. Similarly structured in episodic numerical chapters, Saraband retains the penetrating, distilled intensity of Bergman’s late period masterworks but infused with the unsentimental, but gentle humor of distanced perspective and thoughtful reflection. Rather than a nostalgic swan song, Bergman has created another provocative chapter in his enduring expositions into the most fundamental human need for connection.
Keane, 2004 (Lodge Kerrigan). The film opens with a disorienting, verite-like shot of desperate urgency as William Keane (Damian Lewis) walks up to a ticketing booth and insists on speaking with a specific agent before shoving a frayed, newspaper clipping into the narrow glass opening as the agent steps forward and asking him if remembers the girl in the picture after selling two tickets to him several months earlier on a fateful day in September when, en route to returning his seven-year-old daughter to his ex-wife after an appointed custodial visit, he momentary lost track of her in the crowd and she was abducted near the maze of commuter terminal gates. Obsessively returning to the terminal each afternoon in order to look for clues, it is soon evident that Keane has been slowly losing grasp of reality as he recklessly walks onto a busy street to call out to his daughter, channels her thoughts while performing surveillance in order to guide him to the perpetrator, shopping for clothes that would be suitable for her at a department store, and even taking a disability retirement in order to devote all of his time to her search and safe return. It is a tenuous existence that is soon perturbated from its predictable (albeit irrational) routine when he comes to the aid of a financially strapped woman named Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her young daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin). Recalling the raw emotionality and unembellished immediacy of Pierre and Jean-Luc Dardenne, particularly in the surrogate parent-child relationship and integral mystery of The Son, Keane is a haunting and provocative effort from Lodge Kerrigan. Like Kerrigan’s fearlessly uncompromising early feature film, Clean, Shaven, the film provides a harrowing and deeply disturbing, but also humane and thoughtful glimpse of psychological instability, despair, alienation, and compassion.
The World, 2004 (Jia Zhang-ke). Marking Jia’s first state-approved film, The World immediately bears the visual imprint of its “official”, non-underground status in its highly polished mise-en-scène: the elaborate pageantry of a flamboyant stage spectacle, ornate costuming, original electronica background compositions, and whimsical, interstitial animation sequences. Following the lives of a group of young adults working at an Epcot Center-like international theme park known as World Park (whose slogan proudly boasts of seeing the world without ever leaving Beijing), the film presents the inherent contradiction between China’s state-sponsored campaign towards globalization and the nation’s continued international isolation due to vestigial Cold War politics and continuing pattern of humanitarian abuses stemming from repressive domestic policies. Through recurring imagery of kitschy World Park attractions and counterfeit designer goods, as well as dancer Tao (Zhao Tao) and her security guard boyfriend Taisheng’s (Chen Taisheng) culturally ambivalent and transient existence – as the couple meet in inexpensive hostels or “travel” to a different, exotic international destination each day in their job assignments through simulated long-range modes of transportation (trains, planes, and even magic carpets) – Jia illustrates not only the illusion of economic prosperity through globalization, but also the loss of indigenous identity in an increasingly metropolitan society (where local dialects are abandoned in favor of communicating in the official language and national character is defined by immediately identifiable tourist landmarks). Although less compelling and immediate than Jia’s earlier independent features, particularly Platform and Unknown Pleasures, the film serves as a thoughtful reflection of dislocated humanity’s resigned acceptance of a surrogate, delusive reality in the dispiriting realization of the elusive and untenable.
The Rolling Family, 2004 (Pablo Trapero). The Rolling Family is characteristic of the recent wave of Argentinean novo cinema to have hit international shores in the past few years: decentralized and organic narrative, ensemble hybrid casting of professional and non-professional actors that lends itself to muted expressivity (albeit with occasionally spirited outbursts) and contextually immersed, overlapping dialogue, and deliberately paced observations of (and finding humor in) the quotidian. Based on a ten year old screenplay written by Trapero and featuring the filmmaker’s own grandmother, Graciana Chironi as the family matriarch Emilia, the film opens to a shot of the sprightly octogenarian as she coddlingly feeds a large assortment of cats according to their individual dietary preferences before sitting at a dinner table for a family get-together with her middle-aged daughters and their families. Receiving an invitation call from her long separated sister from the province to serve as the matron of honor for an upcoming family wedding, the overjoyed Emilia impulsively promises that she will bring her entire family for the celebration. Chronicling the family’s (mis)adventures on their reluctant road trip to the remote, underdeveloped pueblos near the outskirts of the Argentinian-Brazilian border in an old, broken down caravan loaded with bickering parents and siblings, amorous teenagers, and bemused children, the film is occasionally amusing and well shot, but unfocused and meandering, leading to an experience that is as mildly entertaining as it is tedious…not unlike the family road trip.
Bad Education, 2004 (Pedro Almodóvar). From the Saul Bass-inspired opening credit sequence Bad Educationof peeling, layered billboard posters, Almodóvar evokes the densely layered cinema of Alfred Hitchchock to create a reverent, yet continuously inventive, exquisitely realized, and brilliantly modulated comic melodrama in Bad Education. Ostensibly a story about a filmmaker (Fele Martinez) suffering from a creative block (who, as the film begins has resorted to pinching potential ideas from salacious tabloid news articles) who is visited by a former schoolmate and choirboy – now a struggling actor and occasional hustler who now goes by the stage name Angel (Gael García Bernal) (and whose only experience is from an obscure, third rate acting troupe called The Bumblebees) – with a disturbingly sensational, semi-autobiographical story of his abuse in the hands of the schoolmaster Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), the film soon evolves into a deeply entangled tale of deception, closely guarded secrets, dubious allegiances, inscrutable motivation, and revenge. Richly (and ingeniously) told in intertwining realities of flashbacks, present day, and filmed re-enactments of Ignacio’s deeply troubled life, the film achieves a delicate balance of tension, mystery, deception, and ambiguity (Zahara’s introduction is through her performance of the song, Quizás, Quizás, Quizás). Recalling the decadence, creative process, and ambiguous and confused sexuality of Law of Desire, the film features Almodóvar’s quintessentially bold, but elegant visual refinement, lush construction, tongue-in-cheek double entendres, surreal humor, and complex pulp narrative that have come to define his exhilarating, idiosyncratic cinema.
The Holy Girl, 2004 (Lucrecia Martel). In the film’s understatedly realized catalytic encounter, an adolescent named Amalia (Maria Alché) stands in front of a musical instrument shop window in order to watch a musician perform on a theremin, as an inscrutable physician named Dr. Jeno (Carlos Belloso), visiting from out of town for a medical convention, casually places his hands in his pockets, stands directly (and uncomfortably close) behind the oblivious girl, and begins to repeatedly brush up against her before furtively walking away when she turns around to face the molester. Continuing in the similar vein of the filmmaker’s debut film La Cienaga in the dedramatized and surreal, but intrinsically disturbing mundane observations of everyday life, The Holy Girl is a darkly humorous and seductively elliptical, but maddeningly organic dysfunctional tale of awakening, violation, and devotion. Although Martel clearly has an eye for natural composition and admirably seeks to redefine the bounds of traditional storytelling, the resulting narrative is unfocused and meandering, obscuring intriguing ideas and intelligent moral arguments in a mire of superficially constructed, tangential episodes. It is interesting to note that while the title itself is contextually ambiguous with respect to Amalia’s religion classes (except perhaps for vague notions about what a calling truly is), the allusion is perhaps more thematically relevant within the context of the idea of virgin birth, a distancing theme that is reinforced with the repeated image of the theremin: an instrument that is not touched, but is played (and manipulated) by disturbing the air molecules in its periphery.
House of Flying Daggers, 2004 (Zhang Yimou). In an age of lawlessness and impotent (and corrupt) central authority, a member of the notorious, underground alliance of righteous, altruistic warriors known as the House of Flying Daggers is believed to be operating among the pleasure workers of the Peony Brothel. Police officers Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) attempt to root out the assassin by infiltrating the brothel and come upon the brothel’s new star entertainer, a captivating blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who immediately demonstrates a skill and agility that may perhaps reveal her true identity. As in Zhang’s recent epic fantasy Hero, House of Flying Daggers is a visually stunning, elegantly composed, and intricately choreographed presentation of (what is now) all too familiar period martial arts elements of suspended disbelief, revenge, mysterious identity, treachery, and seduction. Beautifully photographed in tonal and saturated compositions and featuring a series of entertaining, impressively staged acrobatics, the film is nevertheless a slight (if not inexplicably underformed in the appearance of a brief, but narratively integral cutaway shot that is never developed) and ultimately unsubstantive tale of deception, tested faith, and sacrificed love.
The Tenth District Court: Moments of Trial, 2004 (Raymond Depardon). Perhaps better known for his early career in photojournalism or his austere, yet sublime ethnographic portraitures of the Sahara desert in such docufiction films as Captive of the Desert and Un Homme sans l’occident, Raymond Depardon continues in a similar vein as his earlier exposition into the domestic justice system of Délits flagrants in The Tenth District Court: Moments of Trial. Having been given the rare privilege to film (and use in excerpts) the proceedings of a Paris courtroom presided by an experienced and no-nonsense judge named Michèle Bernard-Requin, Depardon’s engaging, animated collage of drunk drivers, harassing ex-lovers, pickpockets, public nuisances, and marijuana dealers is a thoughtful and unprejudiced glimpse into the swift, cursory, and often frustrating prosecution of throwaway petty offenses: defiant motorists who refuse to acknowledge their transgression and realize the potential for tragedy in their reckless, willful actions; mentally ill offenders whose poor, often undereducated immigrant families are unable to seek proper help; undocumented aliens who continue to amass meaningless ten year immigration bans into the country. In the end, what emerges from Depardon’s unobtrusive, yet incisive gaze is not merely a lighthearted and salaciously humorous snapshot of nuisance crimes, but a complex and intelligently observed portrait of human frailty, self-righteousness, ignorance, marginalization, and disenfranchisement.
Vera Drake, 2004 (Mike Leigh). The opening sequence of the film shows the titular heroine Vera Drake (in an exquisitely complex performance by Imelda Staunton), a cheerful and diligent middle-aged woman working as a maid for several affluent homes in postwar London, visiting an invalid man at a tenement complex in order to help with household chores, reposition his feet onto his wheelchair in order to make him more comfortable, and fix him a cup of tea before going to one of her employer’s homes for her daily housekeeping. It is a compassionate, nurturing image that is later reinforced in her gentle, soothing voice as she tries to reassure an anxious woman who has sought her out through an intermediary (and blackmarketeer) in order to help her terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The episode is (often humorously) juxtaposed against the efforts of her employer’s daughter to terminate her own pregnancy after a forced sexual encounter with a family friend as she is put in touch with a psychiatrist who coldly – but procedurally – interviews her before (not surprisingly) accommodating her determined request and transferring her to a private hospital for the operation, presumably under the interventional prescription of protecting her mental health. By contrasting the circumstances of the privileged young woman with those of Vera’s impoverished, but equally desperate clientele, Mike Leigh creates an incisive, compelling, and uncompromising, examination of conscience, moral law, humanism, and the disparity of social class.
Kings and Queen, 2004 (Arnaud Desplechin). In a subtly revealing scene that occurs in the first hour in Desplechin’s intelligently conceived, incisive, and immensely engaging film Kings and Queen, a woman in her late thirties named Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) stops to visit a powder room after a frantic all-night drive from Grenoble to Paris in order to check her appearance, fix her hair, and slap her cheeks in order induce color before visiting her ex-lover Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), an affable, but neurotic musician who has been involuntary committed to a psychiatric institution. Having discovered that her father is terminally ill, Nora has decided to ask Ismaël if he would legally adopt her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) in order for him to have a legal guardian in case of her own death. The seemingly cursory episode encapsulates the carefully constructed myth of Nora – a woman whose public persona is that of self-sacrifice and figurative martyrdom – a young widow who fought the courts in order for her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) to bear his late father’s name, the devoted daughter who carefully and thoughtfully selected a fine lithograph from a private gallery that correlated to her father’s recent work as a birthday present for him, and a pragmatic mother who has seemingly embarked on a loveless, convenient relationship with a wealthy businessman in order to have stability in her life after a series of tempestuous and volatile relationships. Desplechin creates what is perhaps his most accomplished and haunting film to date, a brilliantly modulated tragicomedy that remarkably sustains his idiosyncratic, but thoughtful and vital amalgam of organic, infectious energy, humane observation, trenchant lucidity, and liberating, uninhibited vision.
Elegance, Passion, and Cold Hard Steel: A Tribute to Shaw Brothers Studios
The House of 72 Tenants, 1973 (Chu Yuan). Adapted from a stage play, Chu Yuan’s enormously popular peasant comedy The House of 72 Tenants is a delirious, unabashedly old-fashioned lowbrow ensemble confection that features immediately recognizable film stars from the decade, over-the-top caricatured performances, preposterously convoluted schemes, and a requisite – and justly deserved – comeuppance of the powerful, self-indulgent, and corrupt evil doers. Treading in a similar territory of escapist nostalgia and burlesque comedy that Alain Resnais would subsequently inhabit in his late phase works such as Mélo and Not on the Lips, the film nevertheless presents a meticulously constructed and incisive snapshot of early 1970s Hong Kong as the then-British colony struggled though a period of economic recession (in a running premise of tenants coping with an overnight 100% inflation), while espousing egalitarian ideals of community, self-reliance, and collective strength.
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, 1972 (Chu Yuan). From the opening (recurring) sequence of a highly stylized nighttime image of snowflakes trickling through the saturated illumination of a roof opening in a feudal era estate and onto the lifeless body of an assassinated aristocrat, Chu Yuan illustrates his elegant command of composition and atmosphere in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The film centers on a willful and defiant young maiden named Ainu (Lily Ho) who, kidnapped and sold into prostitution in an exclusive brothel run by a seemingly emotionally frigid Madame Chun (Betty Pei Ti), vows to exact retribution on the people responsible for her traumatic deflowering. Recalling the subversive eroticism and overt Sapphic intimacy of the lead heroines in Yasuzo Masumura’s Manji, the film is an elegantly crafted, boldly inventive, and irreverently dystopic epic set in the sumptuously decorated brothels and decadent private bondage rooms of the rich and privileged. Chu’s facile command of ornately structured mise-en-scene, elaborately choreographed martial arts sequences, and penchant for freeze-frame ellipses results in a visually sumptuous, timeless, fantastic, and idiosyncratic tale of love, loyalty, and revenge
Acquarello, 2004 [reprinted]