The Museum Must Be Decolonized: The First Monday in May (2016)

The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.

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Dialectics False and True: Captive State (2019) and A. I. Rising (Ederlezi ébredése 2018, aka Ederlezi Rising)

Look, most films are garbage; that’s just a fact. But sometimes when you go dumpster diving you find something that, when looked at from just the right angle, isn’t too garbage after all.

Captive State (2019) is ambitious and has no lack of “the vision thing.” Writers Rupert Wyatt (who directed) and Erica Beeney attempt to portray a Chicago succumbed to alien colonization by telling the story of Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) and the morally murky father figure he doesn’t want at all, collaborationist Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman), embedding them within a larger plot about an insurgent cell bent on hitting the aliens where it hurts. But—here’s the thing—the audience identification is whipped around from Gabriel, who’s the actual non-collaborationist here, to Mulligan, who’s the hinge of both plots, and back, once Mulligan starts to shake down Gabriel’s apartment building to look for him.

As Jordan Hoffman observes in his crusty review, “The disconnect is fascinating.” And it would’ve made for an entirely satisfying dialectical film, too, if it weren’t for those meddling writers and their need to shed moral clarity on Mulligan’s actions. I greatly admire stories and films that dig beneath the good vs. evil showdown to reveal the entirely understandable and sympathetic motivations of the ostensible villain, not moral ambiguity (either/or) but moral murkiness (both/and). Or in a similar vein, when the good guy and the bad guy penetrate through the other’s role in the morality play and actually see each other, like the diner scene in Heat (1995).

Here, though, there’s a big, long, musically over-scored reveal at the end that allows us to feel pretty good for caring about Mulligan the collaborationist. To paraphrase Harry Truman, “The dialectic stops here.”

Now the mention of “from just the right angle” in the first paragraph should’ve alerted you to the fact that neither of the films that this piece is about is straightforwardly dialectical. Captive State, aside from that cop out of an ending, separates the thesis from the antithesis according to its two plots. As for Lazar Bodrosa’s English-language Serbian film A. I. Rising (Ederlezi ébredése 2018, aka Ederlezi Rising), its banal story (by Dimitrije Vojnov, based on a 1980s short story by Zoran Nesković), unsalvaged by atmospheric cinematography (Kosta Glusica) and score (Nemanja Mosurovic), is elevated to dialectical heights by the genius casting of adult film star Stoya as the android, Nimani-1345.

In the far future, the Ederlezi Corporation is sending the antisocial Milutin (Sebastian Cavazza) to Alpha Centauri to install Juche, the authoritarian ideology. The Corporation’s social engineer (Marusa Majer, styled like a precog in clothes) has determined that he’ll need a companion on the journey, so they give him Nimani. The rest of the film essentially becomes a single-set two-hander, the classic setup for some dialectical fireworks.

On the face of it, said fireworks don’t really get off the ground; the plot, focused as it is on the question of “Is there a human inside the android?” is little more than Ex Machina (2014), followed by Solaris (let’s say the 2002 version), and then Passengers (2016) with a tragic ending. Not that this would necessarily kill a film—see Annihilation (2018), another strung-together film—but A. I. Rising spends too much time on the atmosphere to add meat to these bones, or even to give Milutin a decent enough characterization to save his actions from idiocy.

Not to knock the visual and aural presentation. The mesmerizing wonders of outer space and the industrial-electronic soundscape (which resonates with the neo-industrial production design) are hypnotic, and added to the Stoya-enhanced sex scenes the whole shebang makes you feel like you have a contact high. It’s almost worth rendering the plot schematic and unconvincing to free up running time for these audiovisual delights. (Fair warning: The film makes extensive use of strobe lighting at high contrast, which can be taxing on the eyes.)

But you, like me, were probably drawn to this film by Stoya. The less intense body anxiety of adult film actors can be exploited to fully explore the presence and affects of the body in human relationships, which is not what happens here unfortunately. The sex scenes are just “index-card signifiers, giving visual evidence of the fact that the characters have sex at a given point in the story,” as Richard Brody describes most sex scenes. Surprisingly, it’s the dialogue scenes that really captivate.

Nimani is operated by tablet, using which Milutin can choose from a menu of actions in various modes, with every menu ending in a big round button that says “SEX.” This means that, at least in the beginning, Stoya’s acting has to be modular instead of granular. Kind of like the acting in most porn. In porn, the acting is just an excuse for the sex; but what you may not have considered is that the erotic charge, the psychology that makes a porn scene more than just two bodies rubbing each other, derives from the acting and its premise. In a similar reversal, one could be excused for thinking that Stoya would deliver a stilted and modular performance, so the film cannily writes her character that way.

But just like the true connoisseur of adult film looks for and appreciates signs that the actors are drawing a genuine erotic connection from the campy realization of the premise, here the dialectical fireworks start going off when you pay attention to how Stoya shifts between modes. At one point Milutin changes Nimani’s role-playing characterization as she’s dancing erotically, and the shift is instant and emotionally palpable. At another point, as Milutin regrets having Nimani start an argument (which she promptly turns into a meta-argument about android constraints) and quickly hits the “SEX” button (with a sub-menu selection of “makeup sex”), Stoya freezes, closes her eyes, and opens them again from an entirely different emotional direction to deliver lines that build off of her mid-argument resentment.

Then the film shifts gears. Milutin, desperate to free the human he’s fallen for from inside the android’s operating software, erases that software through some mission-endangering chicanery, but when the “liberated” Nimani reboots, all that’s changed is that she’s no longer pliant. Freed from Milutin’s menu, she no longer has to pretend to care about him as more than an essential mission component—or is her aloofness in protest of Milutin’s violation of her psyche? As he spirals into depression either way, the dialectic rears its head again in Nimani’s subtle slide from obligated caring to actual caring. Without breaking from her new parameters as guardian of the mission, without doing anything that she wouldn’t’ve done anyway, Nimani lets us (and Milutin, if he’s still able) to feel her genuine feelings for him—feelings of friendship and camaraderie, but feelings nonetheless.

It’s a sign of the dialectical power of Nimani’s characterization and Stoya’s acting that the only time the character loses its beautifully fragmented coherence is when the film has Nimani descend into melodrama in the final shot. As they say on the internet, “Put her in everything!”

This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

The Interpretation of Dreams: On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자 2017)

There seems to a a trend of metafiction in South Korean arthouse. Before Burning (2018) there was On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자 2017), by Hong Sang-soo and starring his real-life mistress (now partner) Kim Min-hee as Young-hee, a former mistress of a great Director (Moon Sung-keun). It’s also a slow burn, with the central affair merely hinted at for most of its running time. But Kim gets two stupendous set-pieces, all facilitated by alcohol, and she burns it all down.

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Breaking Down Conceptual Binaries: Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光 1995)

Grief is a many-faceted thing. I’ve often felt that mainstream portrayals of grief treat it like an illness to be gotten over, rather than what it really is: a new state of being. It becomes an indelible part of one’s life, not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, just another thing. (The explosion of the good/bad experience binary is one of the groundbreaking aspects of Inside Out (2015).) It’s one of my biggest issues with First Man (2018) and, in retrospect, Manchester by the Sea (2016). Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光 1995), the Ozu-tinged fiction feature debut of current arthouse darling Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a detailed and deeply empathetic portrayal of one woman carried along by the passage of time, bringing her grief with her.

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Racism: Solved? Green Book (2018)

 

Okay, here we go. Green Book (2018)—directed by Peter Farrelly; written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the main character) based on his father’s letters and tape recordings and an interview with the other main character; shot by Sean Porter; edited by Patrick J. Don Vito; and with music by Kris Bowers—is a tonal, cinematographic, acting, and musical achievement, and a thematic disaster. The editing is acceptable. Based on the true story of Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) driving Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to his musical trio performances throughout the Deep South in 1962 by relying on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guide to the spaces and hours that are safe for a Black person to be at, the film features an entirely conventional and by-the-numbers mismatched buddies road movie plot that’s revitalized by the two leads’ performances. Mortensen plays Vallelonga as the trashiest kindhearted Italian man in the Bronx, while Ali’s Shirley is the epitome of tortured dignity and class. But the writing navigates deliberately into a racial minefield, careful to step on every single mine it can find.

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Cinema as Calligraphy: Shadow (Ying / 影 2018)

Centuries of Chinese literati have lost themselves in appreciative reveries when contemplating ink wash paintings of rivers and mountains. With Shadow (Ying / 影 2018)—shooting the black-and-white rain-soaked production design (Horace Ma) in bleached color—director Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding have allowed us the same experience. The staggering beauty of the film, only enhanced by the long takes, harmonious compositions, and subdued zither soundtrack, is impossible to convey in words, but Jessica Kiang at the trade publication Variety comes close:

Black ink drips from the tip of a brush and daggers into clear water, spiraling out like smoke; a Chinese zither sounds a ferocious, twanging note that warps and buckles in its sustain; rain mottles the sky to a heavy watercolor gray, forming pools on paving stones into which warriors bleed; whispery drafts from hidden palace chambers stir tendrils of hair and set the hems of luxuriant, patterned robes fluttering.

All this is impressive enough, but the film goes even further, presenting a plot in the grand wuxia tradition, written by Zhang and Li Wei (and adapted from a Three Kingdoms play by Zhu Sujin but leaving history behind), that is narratively and thematically complex but still flows like running water, thanks in no small part to Zhou Xiaolin’s superb editing. A surprise fourth act will leave you reeling, and then the film reveals its biggest shocker: It ends exactly where it begins.

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South Korea and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week: Default (Gukgabudo-ui Nal / 국가부도의 날 2018)

In the closing days of November 1997, South Korea discovered that it had one week before the Asian financial crisis depleted its foreign reserves. One woman at the Bank of Korea was determined to avoid an IMF bailout. This is her story.

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Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, Can human life be created in space? The answer is always no, because of irradiation—almost always.

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A Tale of One City: Widows (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and (with the rare exception) how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018) turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago.

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When God Gives You a Suicide Vest: First Reformed (2017)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring a subtly powerful Ethan Hawke as whiskey reverend Ernst Toller in a dark night of the environmental soul, may not succeed on all fronts (for example, I have issues with two scene transitions that cut away too early), but it works its magic where it counts: It’s a textbook case, literally, of Schrader’s concept of transcendental style. Schrader tries to portray a world in which supernatural grace can intervene at any moment. To do so, he uses static and flat compositions, understated acting, grayscale colors (cinematography by Alexander Dynan), and no music cues (to a certain extent substituting Toller’s quiet voiceover monologue) to craft a muted everyday existence—until it suddenly isn’t, at which point all these elements rush back in. The poster for the film conveys the same idea.

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