Sunday, April 27, 2008

SFIFF '08: "Lady Jane"

A Dish Served Cold: Lady Jane (2007, Dir. Robert Guédiguian)

"He who seeks revenge is like the fly that bangs on the window without seeing that the door is open."
-- Armenian proverb

The above serves as the epitaph to Lady Jane, and if that doesn't spell it out enough for you, the film closes on the faces of four people, all of them consumed by revenge or disillusioned by it. One man gazes upon his sleeping daughter, a gun in hand and tears rolling down his face; another sits in a car with a bag of jewelry and a fatal bullet wound to the gut; another walks down a midnight street towards a dead-end life of tawdry strip clubs and slot machines; and a woman stands in the center of a rock concert, stock still and traumatized as young teens rave around her.

Yes, it's film noir, all right, and despite the heavy-handedness of its approach Lady Jane makes for a decent addition to the genre. It all begins in straightforward fashion when seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged Muriel Ariane Ascaride), the owner of a fashion shop in Marseilles, receives a message from her son Martin's cell phone: the image of Martin held at gunpoint by an unseen kidnapper. Muriel enlists the help of her grizzled buddies François (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and René (Gérard Meylan) to help pay the 200,000-euro ransom, but soon hints are dropped that not all is what it seems. For one thing, Muriel's left forearm sports a very noticeable "Lady Jane" tattoo, replete with an image of marijuana. Then there's the fact that Muriel hasn't been in touch with François and René for 15 years. And when the kidnapper taunts Muriel by texting her, "Why don't you rob a jewel store?" the trio's past misdeeds cast a shadow over their present predicament.

The kidnap plot is resolved soon enough, and its tragic outcome opens up further wounds. René, plump with dissolution and sleeping with a limber girl half his age, is a hard-boiled cynic wanting nothing to do with his criminal past even as he beats up local grifters who misuse his slot machines. François, still besotted with Muriel even though he has a respectable wife and two girls, isn't above ripping off local drug runners or deep-sixing a few hoods to help Muriel out of her jam. When Muriel and François visit an old "godfather" in the neighborhood and we see a poster of Angels with Dirty Faces on the wall, we know the inevitable outcome will be as happy as a bullet to the gut.

This is my first exposure to the director Robert Guédiguian, who is probably best known for his films The Last Mitterrand and Beneath the Rooftops of Paris. All three principal actors have appeared in most of his films, and Guédiguian's "stock company" serves him well here. Meylan is particularly good as the world-weary hustler -- one pictures a downtrodden Gérard Depardieu. Filming in matter-of-fact style, Guédiguian invests Marseilles with seedy elegance, and the movie's two central murder scenes are jarring in their real-time suddeness.

The film tries to give a humanist spin to the shenanigans as it concludes with the trio tracking down Martin's kidnapper. Even though Muriel turns out to be no Lady Jane, or even a lady, the climax opts for fatalism over catharsis. It all fits together neatly, perhaps a bit too neatly. Lady Jane wants to recapture the spirit of classic French noir films like Bob le Flambeur and Elevator to the Gallows, in which plot is driven (and even usurped) by character motivation, but when the curtains part and all is revealed, precious little sticks with you besides the magnificent ruin of Meylan's face. Favoring plot twists over fully fleshed-out characters, Lady Jane is a fun, nasty little movie with a feel-bad finish; just don't approach it as something as soul-searching as its epitaph suggests it is.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

SFIAAFF '08: "Option 3"

Better to Travel: Option 3 (Dir. Richard Wong, 2008)

"So have you thought about what I said?"
-- Jessica, Option 3

I seem to be one of the not-so-proud few who witnessed the world premiere of Richard Wong's latest film Option 3 without having seen his first indie feature, Colma: The Musical, which I am told is charming and inventive (it's already in the Netflix queue). Wong is clearly on the rise, with Colma's success and a recent collaboration with Wayne Wang on Princess of Nebraska, and from Option 3 it's easy to see why. He assured the audience before the film started that this latest project is nothing like the earlier one, although it does have a musical number in the middle, and that it is as far from a commercial, marketable project as one can get. Nevertheless it's a bracing work, and a good opportunity to see what San Francisco indie filmmaking is like circa 2008.

The film starts with the above quotation: we are at a restaurant, and Jessica (Theresa Navarro) has just popped a question in the face of Ken (Preston Connor), and after an uneasy silence, he excuses himself to go the bathroom. When he returns, Jessica has disappeared but her cell phone remains; a mysterious caller known as "Bison" orders him on a Quixotic quest for a McGuffin-like package if he wants to ever see her again.

From there the chase is on, through the nocturnal streets of San Francisco, and we hop across genres and moods: Wong clearly loves the kinetic energy of Run Lola Run and the nightmare-logic disorientation of David Lynch, as Ken dashes from location to location, seeking red and green keys that unlock doors and boxes. Rigorous in its geographic consistency, we follow him from the Mission through downtown SF, down the Broadway Tunnel, through the Pacific St. Playground and back to SOMA before a final chase through Golden Gate Park that climaxes on Ocean Beach. Highlights include a disorienting scene on a merry-go-round (and few things are as creepy as a merry-go-round at night), and a long, uninterrupted Scorcese-style take as Ken maneuvers himself around a ballroom where Chinese oldsters practice their ballroom dancing, leading to a shocking bit involving a stairway and a closed door. Seeping through it all is the sense that Ken has failed Jessica, that he has failed in the relationship somehow, as shards of memory (and a few choice Emily Dickinson quotes – "some say the word is dead") interrupt the narrative. Speaking of interruptions, the most memorable moment occurs when Ken stumbles upon a random acoustic guitar and launches into an (imagined) musical number with the homeless folks at the Transbay Terminal, a mournful plaint for his lost love.

Even as it cribs from a multitude of sources, it's clear that as a visual stylist (he is also the director of photography), Wong has talent to burn. Unerring in his close-ups and movements, his mix of light and shadow in stairways and alleyways, his ability to wring the most interesting image out of his budget-conscious cameras and setups, he transforms San Francisco into an urban wonderland, velvet-dark and dangerous (and as a long-time SF resident, I can say how difficult that can sometimes be – I don't think I've seen The City look this sinister since Fincher's The Game). For most of Option 3 we're carried along on this quest, as unspecific as it may be (nothing in the plot or character relationships is necessarily explained), purely because of the rush of images.

Wong does overplay his hand at the climax, when Ken faces down Bison's kung-fu-savvy right-hand man in a manic bicycle chase and fist fight that seems better suited for a more straightforward satire – coming on the heels of the feelings of loss and isolation that permeate the rest of the film, it does feel a bit "boys' own adventure," like something an 8-year old might come up with to conclude a film. Likewise, the finale on Ocean Beach is meant to be tragic but doesn't necessarily communicate much besides the idea of "taking it like a man" when you've screwed up a relationship. Director Wong and co-screenwriter H.P. Mendoza freely admitted after the screening that much of the story was made up as they went along, and that it was a response to Wong's own feelings of loss and responsibility after the break-up of a recent relationship. As such, perhaps Option 3 can be forgiven for its workbook-like quality, and its somewhat clunky approach to its main themes. As a process without a fully satisfying conclusion, Option 3 is fascinating; if Wong can get hold of a screenplay that allows him to utilize his cinematic talents unfettered, watch out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

SFIAAFF '08: "Memory Arcade" (Shorts)

I'm not sure who said or wrote it, but someone once said that if novels are love affairs, then short stories are kisses in the rain. I think of that whenever I see a shorts program at a festival. And like a kiss, shorts can be tantalizing, uninspiring, awkward, but even if you can't stand them, they're over and done with in a matter of moments.

Kiss-sized takes on "Memory Arcade," which the SFIAAFF program describes as "a poetic collection of shorts, a memory arcade of recollections, recordings and imagined realities bridges the distance between longing, dreams and reconciliations":

"Recollections" (Dir. David Oh, 12 min.)

Shot on digital video, within the confines of a single apartment (Director Oh mentioned it's set in southern Cali). A retired Korean man's health slowly fades, as the mundane facts of his existence (a spider crawling across the wall, infrequent visits by doctors and strangers looking to buy his furniture) break up the monotony. Juxtaposed with these slices of life are reminiscences of his younger days in Korea, delivered straight to the camera, along with glimpses of old photos and happier times. The remembrances (unscripted) have more power than the episodic moments, but the film is simply but effectively shot.

"Silence" (Allen Ho, 5 min.)

A young man recounts the language barriers between himself and his Mandarin-speaking, estranged parents -- something most Asian-Americans can relate to. Amusing and mournful, The story ends in suspension, the son confronting the father after a long absence. Cinematically it's gorgeous, with color-saturated, intimate camerawork (influenced by Wong Kar-Wai, the director said).

Pierre-Pierrot (Dir Nith Lacroix, 27 min.)

Probably the most involving entry in this shorts program, and the only true documentary. The film is split in half: in the first passage we (through the eyes of a first-person video camera) find ourselves in a Laotian town, visiting with the rotund, genial Pierrot. As we meander around, bearing witness to customs and daily rituals (a funeral ceremony, folk festival and church events, a walk down the street to greet the familiar faces of merchants, a folk song that speaks to the region's long-standing isolation and sad past) it becomes clear that this video is a "video postcard" to be sent to Pierre, who emigrated to France years ago and has not been back since. The second half of the film switches to France, where Pierre (who turns out to be Pierrot's twin brother --it's a delightfully startling reveal) lives the life of an expatriate, presiding in bemused fashion over a community of Laos emigrees who attempt to maintain the old traditions and customs against the backdrop of this strange Western world. With subject matter like this, one only needs to point the camera and shoot, and Lacroix does so. It's an elegy to a dying way of life, and a potent demonstration as to how the technical magic of film can cut through geographic and political boundaries.

The Nothing Pill (Dir. Yu Gu, 6 min.)

A student film project from USC, and it plays like one -- for good and ill. THX-1138 meets Buckaroo Banzai in a crazed future dystopia set in 2110, where a scientist must escape "individual termination" by coming up with a new drug that will cure isolation and loneliness. Reminders of the past and her parents come through as a hallucination in which Mom and Dad dress in China Red Guard costumes and dance to phonographs, all within a Kirk-era Star Trek milieu of red and blue lighting. Stuffed with zig-zag camera moves and elaborate sets, it certainly assaults the senses; harder to say if there's a heart beating underneath, though.

Cross Fader (Dir. Chihiro Wimbush, 5 min.)

Shot in stark black and white, this is a mood piece, as a woman finds her way into a radio station and listens to a tape left to her by her ex-boyfriend DJ -- a recollection of a day spent driving to the beach, accompanied by fractured images of that trip. Originally intended to be a mystery-thriller by the director, the piece has morphed into a collage of visuals and sound that resolves into the pure white noise of surf pounding on sand. Slight but atmospheric, with some nice visuals of night-time Portland (where the director is based).

Dan Carter (Dir. Alison Kobayashi, 15 min.)

At first inexplicable, then beguiling and an all-out hoot. A performance piece that has the rigor of Kabuki theater, the concept is simple: utilizing a soundtrack taken from a tape full of answering machine messages to the title character, Kobayashi proceeds to act (or mime) the parts of all the characters leaving messages. We have laconic girlfriends, a raging ex-wife, winsome sons and daughters getting dropped off for visitation, representatives of the local church seeking donations, lawyers attempting to clean up messes, harried employees at the welfare office. Filmed in trailer-trash hell interiors and exteriors (Kobayashi hails from Hamilton, Canada), it's a chintzy fuzz carpet of a skit, and an impressive piece of acting.

24 Frames Per Day (Dir. Sonali Gulati, 7 min.)

Visually this film is confined to a single shot: the front hallway of an apartment, captured over the course of many days and nights with time-lapse photography, figures and sunlight and shadows and night flitting by like flies. As we watch this kaleidoscope pass before us, we hear a conversation between an immigrant (the director) and her cab driver as he takes her home from the airport. Beneath it all seems to be a barbed statement of racial and national identities (the driver says at one point, "You're Indian? As in red dot Indian, or feather Indian?"), but the issue gets muddy when the driver brings up topics (like Hindus vs. Muslims in India) that no self-respecting American yokel would be familiar enough with to debate. What does it all mean? Damned if I know, but it's an interesting audiovisual collision.

Dream of Me (Dir. A Moon, 10 min.)

Whatever else one can say about this one, one can't dispute its intensity. A library newspaper reader ratchets away at whiplash speed, barely pausing on obituaries and seemingly random bits of news -- and this goes on for five minutes (potential epileptics, beware). Beneath it all is a jumble of voices, and slowly we begin to understand that a long-lost sister has died, and yet knowledge about her life is hard to come by, due to family estrangement and legal obstacles. Just as we arrive at the official obituary, the only available evidence of her life, the scene abruptly switches to home movies of a European woman who coincidentally has the same name as the dead sister, a woman who is the friend of the unseen narrator, and has taken her role as a surrogate sister. It's a lot of emotional and narrative content to pack in a short film, too much probably -- things only became clear when the director explained the background after the screening (all based on her real-life experiences), but there's certainly something obsessive and intriguing about this project, as incoherent as it may be.

The Chestnut Tree (Dir. Lee Hyun-min, 4 min.)

A touching childhood reminiscence, told fairy-tale style with airy, simple animation strokes, rotoscoped ballet moves, and a tinkling little piano waltz. This one would fit in nicely with any animation program, and is a winsome conclusion to the program, following the knottiness of the previous two shorts. Even an SFIAAFF shorts collection seems to understand the maxim of show biz: send 'em home with smiles on their faces.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

SFIAAFF '08: "The Terrorizer"

Hopscotch: The Terrorizer (1987, Edward Yang)

"Changes are merely rebirths of the past."
- The novelist, The Terrorizer

Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang have had their days in the sun, and yet somehow Edward Yang has been left in the shadows when it comes to appreciating Taiwan New Wave cinema, save the raves of a few critics (for an example, check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's overview). Browse Netflix and you'll find a healthy sampling of Hou and Tsai's work, but Yang (never the most prolific director – he completed seven feature-length films before his untimely death of cancer last year) is represented by a single film: Yi Yi, a family drama that is stubbornly art-house in its length (over three hours) and preoccupations (a middle-class Taiwan family comes to grips with its ordinariness).

Not as easily pigeonholed as Hou or Tsai (and certainly not as culturally specific as either of them), Yang is the most cosmopolitan of the Taiwan New Wave directors. Like Hou, he tends to gravitate between two modes: nervy evocations of Taiwan urban life (Taipei Story, Mahjong, Confucian Confusion) and grander-scaled yet intimate family epics (That Day on the Beach, A Brighter Summer's Day). What sets him apart from his compadres are French and Italian New Wave elements: plots with pinpoint symmetry, striking tableaus set amidst the easygoing flow of narrative, silences and omissions doing much of the work. While Hou lulls you into Ozu-like reveries and Tsai amps up the quirk, Yang's films are tiny depth charges, dramatic moments sneaking up on us unawares and reverberating long after the fact.

Fortunately, the SF International Asian American Film Festival included three Yang films in this year's program as a tribute to the master: the aforementioned Yi Yi as well as The Terrorizer and his masterpiece, A Brighter Summer's Day (more on that one in a separate review). The Terrorizer is a fine example of Yang in "urban alienation" mode, but it's more than that. Blending a noir set-up from Antonioni's Blow-Up with a familial crisis that wouldn't be out of place in Yi Yi, it's a bracing, playful little construction that is nonetheless deadly serious in its intent.

The film begins and ends with a gunshot. It is early morning, a shrieking police car criss-crosses Taipei, arousing the attention of random people. They all have names but are more easily identifiable by what they do: a callow young photographer, a middle-aged doctor (Li Liqun), and his novelist wife (Cora Miao). Trailing the police to a crime scene, the photographer snaps some shots of a dead gangster on the street, before espying his young Eurasian moll leap from a window and land awkwardly on the pavement.

From there we witness the fates of these principals unspool. Eager to provide for his wife, the doctor is angling for a promotion at the hospital where he works by ratting out one of his colleagues (as in all of Yang's movies, the hospital is a locus of inhumanity and incivility). The novelist wife, still mourning the loss of a stillborn child, is tempted to start an affair when an old flame returns to the scene. The photographer, smitten with his snapshots of the Eurasian girl, rents the apartment she escaped and pastes her image on the walls. The Eurasian girl, given to picking up businessmen and stealing their wallets, seeks refuge with her unforgiving mother, who locks down everything valuable in their house even as she continues to pine for the American servicemen who left their lives long ago. All of these characters are defined by some absence in their life, and their individual situations come to a boil when the Eurasian woman makes a random prank call to the novelist, pretending to be her doctor husband's mistress.

Like an Altman film or Paul Haggis's Crash, the film is an intersecting map of coincidences, chance meetings, and tragic consequences. Unlike those movies, however, The Terrorizer is less interested in histrionics than it is in the physical spaces between us, the private spaces in our heads, and what results when these spaces are yanked away. As the title suggests, each character is engaged in a form of terrorism on the other, yet we rarely see two characters in the same frame, let alone interact with one another. In this cold urban climate, revelation comes in the form of a disembodied phone call, or the faraway glimpse of a woman collapsing in the street, and our sum being is represented by the objects that surround us – the gear the photographer plays with, the white lab coat that grants the doctor husband authority even as it binds him to conformity, the books the novelist must constantly rearrange on her shelves, or the switchblade the Eurasian girl keeps hidden at her ankle.

The plot is constructed with precision, and Yang is deft at orchestrating it (if you're in the mood for some thick, juicy literary theory, check out Frederic Jameson's "Remapping Taipei" essay, which parses the urban geography of The Terrorizer to interesting effect). He also has a knack for striking compositions, such as when a pasted-together image of the Eurasian girl flaps in a morning breeze, like an illusion that cannot hold. Some might find the film chilly and distant, an exercise designed for film critics. But to take it that way is shortchanging Yang's dexterity as a director, and the core of emotion at the heart of his films. Take a memorable passage in which the Eurasian's mother, drunk and nostalgic, slips on an LP of the Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and stares at her wayward sleeping daughter with love and accusation in her eyes, followed by a startling cut to the photographer as he watches his jealous girlfriend tearing down his photographs of the Eurasian from the walls, the Platters song soaring to a heartbroken finish and linking them all in complicity. Or the final confrontation between the doctor and his wife, in which a sedate shot of an office conference room is broken up by a flailing of arms and shouts as the husband attempts to drag her away.

All the characters in the film have their illusions of love or prosperity shattered, and each receives a comeuppance or redemption of sorts, yet rising above it all is the novelist wife (Miao does nicely understated work). Yang clearly connects the most with her life of quiet desperation, and she is the only one given the opportunity to have an epiphany (in a quiet dinner table scene that foreshadows the down-to-earth frustrations of Yang's family heroes in his later films). The most overt victim of terror, she is also the only one granted a way out, as the novel based on her experiences ironically wins critical notice. As a creator of stories and whole worlds, she is also the fulcrum point for the story's conclusion, a fever climax of murder and revenge contained within a dream, which is possibly within another dream, like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in a city setting. The climax leaves the door open for debate – did what we see just happen? Events would suggest so, and yet the final image is of the novelist wife, now shacked up with her old flame, awakening in a fit of nausea, as if horrified by the events she has imagined, and throwing up, the pregnant artist enduring birth pains. Measured in its progress, an unsettling mix of cool technique and cutting drama, The Terrorizer is concerned with the spaces we create within ourselves, and suggests that even the most fugitive connections between us are simply figments of our imagination, the novelist in our heads reaching out to fill the void.