Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Kunming: The Spring City

I write this from the Camelia Youth Hostel, located in the heart of Kunming, Yunan Province, China. I've been here for just over 28 hours, and shortly my friends Jocelyn and Lisa and I will be catching a train for Dali, a reputed backpackers paradise (banana pancakes and Bob Marlet\y tunes, here we come!).

This is my first time in Kunming, and my first time back in China in almost five years. Some things are identifiable almost immediately: the smells of burning coal, the hazy dust of a sunshine afternoon, the thrilling joyride that is crossing an intersection amidst bicycles, scooters, cars and trucks, the leveling tension of the locals giving you the "foreigner stare," or the bureaucrats and passport takers at the local airport (I was given the third degree about my "purpose" in China, and my passport taken to an unseen office before I was given the go-ahead to enter. No doubt I am listed on some computer somewhere, ready to punched up the moment something suspicious takes place.)

But this is Kunming, Yunan Province, southwest China, which has a different flavor from the rest of the country. I'm sure I'll get more of a taste of it in the days ahead, but even in the short day I've been here, I've noticed the differences. People here are lighter, calmer, more mild than the ones in other parts of China. And then there are the little nuggets: the alleyways that spin off over tiny canals, the cypress trees and brilliant purple flowers, the hip night promenades with lights blazing, and knock-off items labelled affectionately "Garmani," the Muslim quarter and its dishes with questionable titles and impeccable tastes, the friendliness of most of the locals as they drive you or serve or simply watch you with bemused smiles on their faces. This is the China I remember, the one that always attracts me to this place, the one that helps me make it through the tough times, like when I'm given the stone face and the "stupid foreigner" look when I try to get directions from someone in my broken Chinese. Lisa and Jocelyn seem to have taken to the place, and today we hit the local temples, including the Bamboo Temple, with its overwhelming array of realistic stone sculptures, monks and Buddhas and sinners all, surfing down the walls, the Western Hills, which towers over Dian Qi Lake and a host of new condos and highways, and even a minority culture museum which served as a good overview of the dizzying number of minority tribes that call Yunnan home. Hopefully we'll see some in the days ahead. I've also had the chance to partake of some of the local delicacies, such as "herb-infused chicken" and "across-the-bridge" noodles, all of which have been excellent.

Even with all the positives, it'll be nice to get out of the big city over the next few days. Tonight it's an overnight train to Dali (8 hours), my first such trip since I made the 17-hour ride from Beijing to Shanghai 11 years ago. We'll see how much has changed. So tune in next time, wherein I'll relate what being in a backpackers' paradise really means, and detail the experience of riding a bicycle in China once again (The Bicycle Diaries?).

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Hong Kong Experience (Coming Soon to a Monitor Near You)

Greetings from Hong Kong, which despite government switch-ups, economic crises, SARS and avian flu, and other sundry challenges, remains what it is: a candy-coated, neon-lighted, steamy hive of humanity and energy. Got in yesterday around 7 a.m. local time, and am currently taking a brief respite at my friend Jolie's place. Temps are warm (around 85) and humid, although the typhoon that passed through the day before I got here has offered respite from the pollution. For pop culture geeks, I should note that the DaVinci Code movie and M:I:3 are already out in theaters, with X-Men 3 on their heels. Also, I should note that advertising is prolific in the former crown colony, with posters, billboards, and all manner of marketing crammed into every nook and cranny in sight. The latest trend in ads seems to be presenting pop stars in various forms of undress -- quite a change for what is still essentially a traditional society.

When you travel to a place more than once (and I've been in HK over a dozen times within the last decade), you find that it isn't the destination that changes so much as yourself -- and your relationship to it -- does. It's been 5 years since I was here last, and even though that's not much more than an eyeblink, relatively speaking, all the little accoutrements of your life change. Once upon a time Hong Kong was the place for me to soak up the latest HK movie extravaganza, or find that rare concert CD of a favorite artist, or pick up my latest replacement walkman at the AV Leading Centre in Causeway Bay. I've visited a few of the familar haunts already, and with these visits, I feel like a ghost, intruding on a life that no longer exists. Walkmans have given way to publicly available mp3s; Hong Kong movies have given way to the DaVinci codes. The stores here are the same, etched in granite, but the Ho Lin circa 1998 or 2001 has moved on.

Yet, some things have as powerful an effect on me now as they always have. The smells (and the smells here are indescribable--running from the fragrant tropial plants that line some of the roads at the mid-levels on HK Island, to the sweet pineapple of the outdoor markets, to the mothballed, almost herbal odors of some of the old stores and air-conditioned outlet malls, to the more fetid stuff emanating from the sewers). The explosions of lights and movement at night, taxis lined up in unrelenting queues. The towers that thrust up like phallic parodies. How sound and activity seems to die to stillness after midnight, unlike many U.S. urban centers where the noises and pounding music and shouting voices continue on and on.

I'm off to dive back into that Hong Kong, and attend my friends Bo and Janette's wedding ... my next report will be from Kunming China, the heart of Yunnan Province.


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Cruise Control: "Mission: Impossible: 3"

"There's a point where bold becomes stupid."
-- Ving Rhames, M:I:3

Nothing is a better barometer of American culture than the summer action blockbuster. Critics may decry the explosions, the plotless plots, the jackhammer music that echoes with perfect THX fidelity, but look past these conventions, dig into the nuances (scarce as they may be), and we get a whiff of the Zeitgeist, the public's current fears and desires, what's in circa now.

When it works, genre has the pull of myth as it takes the standard archetypes (valorous heroes, hissable villains, life-threatening crises) and uses them to pull us into worlds and stories that twist conventions into shocking new shapes. Nowhere is that more evident than in TV action dramas -- we may be living in the dark ages when it comes to sit-coms (Everybody Loves Raymond? Will and Grace? C'mon, now), but look at 24, Lost, The Shield or Battlestar Galactica -- stories that hurtle with momentum and purpose when they're firing on all cylinders, solid character work married with technical proficiency and the liberating sense that anything goes. These are entertainments for the post-9/11 age, where bad things can and indeed do happen; Presidents are assassinated, those who are near and dear to us lose their lives, no one is completely trustworthy, and action is played out not as an amusement park fantasy, but as spiritual and physical crucibles where the good guys get it as good as they dish it out -- sometimes more. Sure we're still in the realm of packaged entertainment and formula, but no one complains when the wrapping and the contents are well-executed.

So when the monolith that is Tom Cruise got around to hiring the latest director to navigate the latest edition of his Mission: Impossible franchise, he made what looked to be an inspired choice: J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind Alias and Lost. I have an appreciation for early Alias, and the way it luxuriated in the trappings of the spy genre while turning it inside out (spy family drama! How very American) and charging it with emotional resonance. After the bloodless shenanigans of the previous M:I movie (RIP, John Woo), an infusion of earnest yet playful energy seemed the perfect prescription.

But while the media has its field day with Cruise's, ahem, eccentricities, the ongoing saga of his Tom-ness obscures the real problem with M:I:3, and what undermines Abrams at every turn: the weight of by-the-numbers Hollywood filmmaking. (In contrast to the quotation that opens this essay, the big studios' idea of bold is making sure they don't look stupid, but this only results in risk-averse formula.) Series like Lost or 24 think nothing of killing off a major character, or providing drama and plot turns that test their actors, and even the audience's connections with them. Risk, in short. But a summer blockbuster has no time for these complications. Better to roll A to B, one action setpiece to the next, the dialogue and drama between the money shots serving only as plot advancers, characters reduced to straitjackets, product placements taking the place of details (watch for that DHL truck). And of course, a sunny happy ending. In Hollywood's world, 9/11 may have happened, but it's only a reference point, as opposed to serving as an emotional backdrop that might have a ring of truth about it. (In its way, 24, which features Kiefer Sutherland gritting his teeth and breaking laws and human rights for President and country, plugs into terrorist-age anxieties and assuages them by presenting a hero who does the dirty work better than the worst of them.)

And so what we have in M:I:3 is a summer action "dream" that plays out more like a migraine. Abrams wants to have his cake and eat it, too -- sketch out an intimate, harrowing emotional drama while providing the thrills and spills. This time out, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is the dedicated family man, ready to walk away from the spy gig and marry his longtime sweetheart (Michelle Monaghan in a thankless role), but the kidnapping of a former disciple (Keri Russell, trying to channel Jennifer Garner) by a ruthless arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) forces him back into the game, and into a sadistic no-win torture scenario with a microbomb planted inside his skull (migraine indeed), a gun pointed at his love's head, a countdown to death commencing. As the execs would say, "This time it's personal."

There is actually some grit in that scenario (and more than passing resemblance to the pilot of Alias), but instead of taking the premise to its logical, bracing conclusion, the film backs away, content to fall back on greatest hits -- situations cribbed from hallowed moneymakers (Schwarzenegger's True Lies should get some sort of copyright mention) or echoed from previous M:I films (how many different ways can you show Cruise rappelling down from a great height?), all presented in maximum nausea-inducing shakycam. Alias may have been limited by its TV budget (watch for the L.A. buses in Taipei!), but Abrams showed a deft ability to wring out glamour, suspense, and fluid action under those constraints. M:I:3 screams "big budget" in every frame (hey, that's really Shanghai!), and its very bigness all but overwhelms Abrams. A helicopter chase through a forest of windmills could have been gripping, but is filmed with the coherence of a car crash. A high dive between Shanghai towers looks good on paper, but comes off as an overload of CGI and green screen. In such a context, Abrams' emotional underpinnings are hopelessly outclassed. What sticks with us from Alias are the quiet character moments, rather than the sturm und drang of the missions; in M:I:3, these same moments have a perfunctory air, as if we're just killing time until the next missile blast. It doesn't help that Cruise is no longer capable of portraying convincing human behavior (more on this in a bit).

M:I:3's good moments, and there are a few, are like deserted isles in the ocean. A kidnapping operation set in the Vatican builds up a good bit of steam, and it's not a coincidence that it's the most team-oriented sequence in the film. (Abrams makes token gestures toward a teamwork ethic, but blink and you'll miss the names of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q's characters. When you have charismatic young performers like those two reduced to taking phone calls and looking pretty, you know it's that kind of movie.) Some of Abrams' snarky humor shows up in unexpected places, especially when Simon Pegg (essaying a geeky Brit variation on Kevin Wiseman's gadget master Marshall from Alias) gets into his "anti-God" theory. As the baddie, Hoffman takes what is essentially a nothing role -- note to filmmakers: best not to describe the major bad guy in the script as a "weed," it tends to deflate said bad guy's stature -- and invests it with far more personality than it deserves. Muttering and hissing his lines with curdled flatness, he ratchets up the film's tension every moment he's on-screen. Too bad he's in the film for 15 minutes, tops.

Whither King Tom? He's pretty insufferable, and the film languishes when it's all about him. But he isn't so much the problem as he is a symptom -- he's no different from any other preening superstar who wants to hog the best lines and camera angles. Lambasting the M:I movies because they're too Hunt-centric is beside the point; it's like saying the James Bond movies are too much about James Bond. Trouble only erupts when the film becomes the latest gleaming tribute to the icon that is TOM. M:I:1 was truer to the original TV series' notion of team-oriented espionage, and yet it was nigh-impossible to sit through due to Cruise's hammy, mugging performance. In contrast, while M:I:2 was all about Hunt, Woo actually coaxed a relaxed performance from his star. In M:I:3, though, the gloves are off, and Tom is dead-set on proving his acting chops throughout. Take the aforementioned torture sequence -- watch Tom as he runs the gamut of Actors Studio emotions, replete with a single tear running down his cheek! Or the tender proposal scene -- hold your breath as Tom takes a pregnant pause when his wife-to-be asks him about his secret life! Is he thinking of a possible answer? Counting the number of seconds in his head and equating them to dramatic significance? Or if dialogue ain't your bag, watch him as he long-jumps across a burning bridge, or runs headlong through the crowded canals of Shanghai, arms pumping, shouting in Chinese for people to "move aside!", resembling nothing so much as a deranged streaker just before he doffs his clothes. By the time the plot collapses into an anticlimatic showdown between the Cruisemeister and Hoffman, the inexperienced civilian Mrs. Hunt suddenly mowing down bad guys left and right, and then a finale of hugs, smiles, and feelgood laughter, you can be sure of one thing: missions and directors come and go, but Tom reigns supreme.

Or does he? Like a mission assignment that self-destructs in five seconds, the clock is ticking on Cruise's career as a convincing young leading-man type. His performances early in his career may have been callow, but they also contained pliability and promise. However, since Rain Man (his one great performance) and Born on the Fourth of July, which took a torch to his everyman American hero image, a stubborn masochistic streak has inhabited his work (no big surprise, as narcissism and masochism go hand-in-hand). It's not enough to be Tom Cruise, universally loved and envied; now he must be Tom Cruise, suffering for being who he is (hello there, Magnolia and Vanilla Sky). At this stage of his career, he's served best by a story or a director who can poke gentle fun at his image while still acknowledging his movie-star sparkle (i.e., Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire). In M:I:3, it's business as usual -- that is, it's all about Tom Cruise, the hardest working man in the movie business. But look closely at his face as he goes through his patented quirks, strains, and grins, and you can see the waxen features, the unearthly mix of wrinkles and babyish cheeks, as if he has become his own android. Perhaps years from now people will look back on this film, and its star, as a representation of a lost age -- a time when formulas determined movies rather than compelling stories, and the notion of a superstar actor huffing and puffing to prove he is a star actually seemed quaint.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Noise Pop: Shinji Aoyama's "Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?"

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?
- MATTHEW 27:46

"I choose the camera and actors' placement based on some idea of spatial distance; and that distance is really all I am thinking about."
- Shinji Aoyama

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani? (2005, Dir. Shinji Aoyama)

He may only be known in the West (and just barely, at that) for his nearly four-hour-long opus Eureka, but Shinji Aoyama deserves mention in the same breath with the New Wave of Japanese directors who have cornered the market on the Cinema of Unease. While other contemporaries such as Hideo Nakata (Ringu) and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge) express their views on paranoia and alienation through the tried-and-true horror genre, Aoyama, like his mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) chooses more amorphous routes -- his films, with their dreamy juxtapositions of genre, mood, and tone, generate an almost narcotic effect: it might not make complete rational sense, but it's impossible to stop watching. Eureka takes shocking, potentially exploitative incidents (a busjacking and serial murders) and refashions them into a quirky road trip that ends up being a head trip into the psyche of a battered family, and society. His latest film, Eli, Eli Sabachthani (Aramaic for Christ's penultimate words on the cross -- see quotation above) works a similar kind of magic, bringing a hushed, almost diffident intensity to nothing less than the end of the world.

The film opens with a shot of waves moving like molten lava; at an abandoned settlement on the seashore, noisepop musicians Mizui (the ubiquitous Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (real-life musician Masaya Nakahara) are scrounging for random items -- playing cards, vacuum tubes, empty shotguns. In the long, wordless passage that follows, moments where the two men experiment with the sounds of their newfound toys are juxtaposed with disturbing images of death: a glimpse of a lifeless leg in a doorway, a curtain with a bloody hole in its center flapping in the wind. From there the duo repair to their studio, where Mizui combines different lengths of tube with the skeleton of an umbrella to form an oscillating wave instrument. At this point, nearly twenty minutes into the film, no ostensible plot has been set in motion, and yet we are engrossed by the overall emotional effect, the bleak images of dead earth and abandoned shelters counterweighted by Mizui and Asuhara's matter-of-fact focus on their work, the process of making music holding the same power as a healing incantation.

And then the plot kicks in: It is October 2015, and a new virus with the rather incongruous title of "lemming syndrome" is decimating the world. Described as "God's own suicide bomber," the disease drives those who are infected with it to commit suicide. In scenes that seem lifted from another movie entirely, a harder-than-hard-boiled detective (Masahiro Toda) is searching for the two musicians, with a millionaire (Yasutaka Tsutsui) and his infected granddaughter Hana (Aoi Miyazaki) in tow. After an interview with a senile scientist who spouts German, it is revealed that the only potential cure to the disease is the sonic noisepop experiments conducted by Mizui and Asuhara under their band name of Stepin Fetchit. And so the trio hop in a van and head for the seaside, not suspecting that the band's music may prove to be more dangerous than a simple cure.

With just a tweak, the scenario could have tipped over into pure parody (see Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, wherein an annoying country ditty saves mankind). Kiyoshi Kurosawa would have attacked the horror angle, and invested the story with the crisp paranoia that permeates his movies. Aoyama prefers to play the scenario out as a particularly lucid dream, and as his essentially optimistic musicians interact with the suicidal girl and her grandfather, the digressions continue: Mizui creating a maelstorm with a single steel string connected to distortion and delay pedals, shots of Mizui and Asuhara ambling in a mini-car and bicycle through the empty countryside, and a flashback drenched in funereal blue hues in which Mizui's girlfriend falls prey to the disease. The fate of the planet isn't even part of the equation -- instead, the preoccupation is with individual human responses to the certainty of death, and how each of the players confronts the fact. In contrast to the Christian overtones suggested by the title, Aoyama posits a ministry of noise, in which instruments must be reduced to their guts and intestines (the vacuum tubes, a piano's innards), and the elegant tracking shots and piano interludes on the soundtrack are balanced by the liberating anarchy of Stepin Fetchit's sonic demolitions.

Aoyama and his cinematographer Masaki Tamura bring an elegant intensity to the proceedings, and despite what some have said about a confusing plot, Eli Eli actually contains a very simple throughline. More successful as a mood piece than a cogent assemblage of themes, the film is at its best when it's blissed out on noise, rather than engaging in story or characterization. None of the players are developed, and the film's ultimate message ("Just like music, you and I are but a dream") seems insubstantial compared to the musical and visual flights of fancy on display. Better to savor the film's climax, in which a blindfolded Hana, dressed in black, must find her "sweet spot" for sound in the midst of a lush green field, while Mizui, dressed in white, unleashes his final cure -- a guitar solo paroxysm that runs the gamut from speed shredding to reverb-drenched majesty, all rendered with every filmic trick Aoyama can pull out of his bag -- step frames, jitter cam, dreamy double exposures and dissolves. And even with these fireworks, Aoyama tops it with a fitting coda, a single shot of night descending on a seaside inn, Mizui settling down to sleep, the first few snowflakes of winter falling with the most genteel sound imaginable, the world fading into a midnight black of acceptance. Like most tone poems, Eli Eli's protracted rhythms won't appeal to all audiences, but if you're willing to invest in the swirl of noise that gives the film its fuel and meaning, you'll likely find it as emotionally satisfying as a well-executed symphony -- no wherefores and hows necessary, only the enjoyment of the now.

The Joshua Tree (no, not *that* band)

More substantive updates coming soon (including my take on films I caught at the San Francisco International Film Festival), but for now, a rough cut from some recording sessions I had with my old high school buddies Jason Lewis and Tim White a few weeks ago at Joshua Tree. It was a productive week, as we cut seven tracks of varying stripes and flavors. We're also taking preorders for the album. ;-)

For your consumption, the raw track for one of our tunes (currently untitled and awaiting lyrics):

this is an audio post - click to play