Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974) is probably the most twisted film I’ve seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do to the viewer’s vicarious identification. From an artistic perspective, it’s a pity the film doesn’t follow through.

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On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018), among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

Continue reading “On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)”

Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Literature Film Festival.

The German fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don’t have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the US doesn’t want you), but with no flights, you’ll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

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L’art pour l’humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival, and it benefits from two post-screening Q&As, and a subsequent panel discussion of which I was a part.

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of its vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

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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.

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

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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