Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

Yang Tidak Dibicarakan Ketika Membicarakan Cinta [2013)

By the grace of God I bring you this film review tonight.

Last night I was not feeling well enough to write.

And so I am happy to give you my first review of an Indonesian film.

It is a wonderful piece of cinema and is available on Netflix in the U.S. currently as¬†What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love.

I will just say this.

Any film which includes a character sneezing his glass eye out of his head is ok by me.

Which is to say, this is a pretty strange film.

But it is not strange in an uptight, contrived, David Lynch sort of way.

Perhaps it is the basic situation which makes this film quixotic.

The bulk of the “action” takes place at a “special” school (as it is called in the subtitles).

The beautiful young people at this school all struggle with visual impairment.

There is, however, one very important character who is sighted yet cannot hear.

[We will get to him in due time]

When I tried to watch this film last night, I was not feeling very well (as mentioned previously).

And so in my debilitating moments of bubbling, dull panic I was trying to first situate this film culturally.

There was some blurb about a Dutch film fund.

And the real bit of text at the head of the film which threw me off the scent:  a reference to the Busan film fund.

Knowing Busan, I figured, “Great! ¬†I am watching a South Korean film.”

I felt somewhat comfortable marginally knowing the cinema tradition in which I had just entered.

But as I saw women and young girls in Muslim garb, I began to question.

Indeed, even on tonight’s complete viewing, it was only 3/4 of the way through the film that I realized I was watching an Indonesian production.

Call me stupid.

Fine.

But this is not a cinema (nor a language) with which I have any experience.

It was only when I saw Jakarta on the side of a bus that I felt fairly confident where the story had been set.

So yes, this is an Indonesian film in Indonesian (or dare I say Malay).

The scope and breadth of this language is not altogether clear to me, but it seems that Indonesian is a “register” (in linguistic terms) of Malay.

Being the dunce that I am, “register” seems an awful lot like “dialect”, but I’m sure most linguists would roundly dismiss this generalization.

Perhaps “jargon” is a better synonym for “register”.

In any case, Malay (of one type or another) is spoken by about 290 million people worldwide.

But we will stick to the term Indonesian (as per the language).

Our whole film is in that language (except for one line in Javanese).

Javanese, unlike Indonesian, is not a form of Malay.

It is quite distinct.

But on to the movie!

First we must pay our respects to the highly-talented director:  Mouly Surya.

Based on a cursory search, this would be Mr. Surya (Mouly being far more common as a male name).

Ah…but thank God for research!

Our director, in fact, is MS. Surya.

She is a 36-year-old native of Jakarta.

But really, male or female, this is an obvious work of cinematic art.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love¬†isn’t perfect, but it’s frighteningly close.

Which isn’t to say it’s frightening.

It’s not.

But it’s a film which sneaks up on you.

Cineastes may be familiar with the term “slow cinema” which has been bandied about here and there especially in recent years.

There may be some of that here…like when the character Diana combs her hair exactly 100 times.

[I was sure she was going to stop at 88…that number being good luck in Southeast Asian cultures]

Indeed, we are with the character for a seemingly interminable session of hair-brushing at her “boudoir”.

However, that is one of the few times where the “slow cinema” idea has our film run astray temporarily.

Other uses of the technique (an extreme of Deleuze’s “time-image”?) are quite effective and evoke the loneliness of sightless life.

Granted, no two lives are the same.

But the Indonesia pictured in our film is not an economic wonderland.

Quite the opposite.

It is a rather humble school in which students have very basic accommodations.

And as is so often the case, economic struggles exacerbate and compound coexisting problems.

But don’t get me wrong: ¬†it appears that the students portrayed actually have it very lucky in the context of their nation (all things considered).

Arguably the star of the film is Karina Salim.

Her situation is one of ballet lessons…and a doting mother.

That said, her roommate has a family which is struggling economically.

It is a strange juxtaposition.

But let’s focus on Ms. Salim.

Her acting is really fantastic.

Whether she is blind in real life, I know not.

But her portrayal of the character Diana is in the great tradition of pathos which touched on the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The French adjective pathétique.

In English, we (if I may speak for us English speakers) tend to regard pathétique as descriptive of poetic pathos.

Deep expression.

And that is exactly what Karina Salim exhibits in her delicate acting throughout this film.

Her character, Diana, is right on the cusp of womanhood.

And in a very moving set of sequences, we see her quietly preparing her underwear for the week.

The moment of her first menstruation is a cause for secret celebration.

Indeed, she shares this ascent to adulthood with only her mother…on a joyous little phone call which we overhear.

Which brings us to culture.

We almost feel embarrassed knowing this intimate detail of character Diana’s life.

But American films are so much more explicit in so many ways.

Perhaps we are shocked because the reality of womanhood is rarely addressed in Hollywood movies.

And so we see that Hollywood still has taboos.

In this age in which anything goes, honest depiction of mundane-yet-visceral life realities (such as menstruation) are all but absent (save from a film like Carrie [1976]).

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this particular kind of honesty about femininity onscreen.

But what the hell do I know? ¬†I’m a dude.

So let’s back to the film.

While Ayushita is very good as Diana’s roommate, it is really Nicholas Saputra who is the other star of this film.

His character is a deaf punk rocker.

[Let that one sink in for a second]

Every day he has a different shirt.

The Sex Pistols.  Led Zeppelin (?!?).  The Clash.  Joan Jett.

He definitely has the best hairstyle in the film.

[A strange zig-zag bleach job which I’ve never seen previously]

His character Edo is a social engineer par excellence.

Yes, there is some trickery in this film.

But it is not malicious.

Or if it begins as malicious, it is transformed into something quite beautiful.

[think Amélie]

But here’s where things get really strange.

There is really no decorous way of putting this, but there are a few characters in this film which pop up from time to time…AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE!

There is a rather tasteless meme going back generations that all Chinese people look the same to a Westerner.

[And, perhaps, all Brits (for instance) look the same to a Chinese person]

But, again, there are some characters in this film which seem to be playing out some subplot which escaped me completely.

Indeed, I have so rarely seen anything like it that I can only associate my confusion with that felt by so many in relation to the surreal Howard Hawks narrative in The Big Sleep.

Granted, in our film this is a very minor element.

But it is still disorienting.

Was there some series of edits which mangled this film?

Can I really not tell one Indonesian person from another?

I don’t know.

You’ll have to see it for yourself.

And explain to me exactly what is going on.

For instance, does the blind character Andhika somehow learn how to drive a Vespa around town?

And is he cheating on Diana?

Or is Diana cheating on herself?

Are there two Dianas?

Again, a few scenes completely lost me.

But they do not ruin the general continuity of this film.

If anything, they add a mercurial charm to the whole affair.

And so I wholeheartedly recommend this film which portrays a side of life on which many of us are completely uninformed.

Visual impairment. ¬†Braille. ¬†Hearing impairment. ¬†The difficulty of asking a clerk at 7-Eleven, “what kind of cigarettes do girls buy” in sign language.

And there is beauty in this world.

The appreciation for just a glimmer of sight (however blurry).

And yet, the difficulty of EVERY SINGLE TASK.

Most of all, this is a love story.

Two love stories (at least).

[not counting the extraneous players which pop up here and there]

But it is a very, VERY unique love story.

For me, it is an incredibly moving film because of the acting of Karina Salim and also Anggun Priambodo (who plays Andhika).

So take an adventure to Jakarta. ¬†Capital of Indonesia. ¬†World’s fourth-most-populous country.

While Indonesia is approximately 87% Muslim, this film portrays a diversity of religious devotion.

Indeed, while one student prays, another listens to a radio play (as one would have heard in the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [1939-1946]).

Indeed, this scene of overlap…with religion in the background (the praying student) and learning in the foreground (listening to a lesson? ¬†or just a bit of entertainment for the girls who live at this school?) is one of the most fascinating from a visual and cultural perspective.

I cannot pretend to know what is going on in all of the footage.

And so an expert on education for the visually impaired in Indonesia would perhaps be able to elucidate some of the more esoteric aspects of this film.

In the meantime, enjoy!

-PD

ťĚíśė•śģčťÖ∑ÁČ©Ť™ě [1960)

[CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH, (1960)]

Today was a bad day.

You would be shocked (dear readers) if I asserted the opposite.

No, there is no sugarcoating it.

But that’s ok. [Ah!]

Such anxiety.  Such fear.  Such trepidation.

Ah!¬† That wasn’t so bad.

But don’t breathe relief too soon.¬† [Sigh…]

We’re surrounded by morons.¬† Condescending illiterates.

A fistful of assholes.

Yes, that Japanese up there indeed does not read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Things fall apart.  Shit happens.  Sometimes, the shit hits the fan.

That is the story of Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth.

Seishun Zankoku Monogatari…that’s what it says.

Kinda like Ugetsu Mongatari (which I reviewed some time back).

ÁČ©Ť™ě

Epic.

And it is.  More or less.

The story of Mako and Kiyoshi.

No magical powers here.  This is like the Japanese version of À bout de souffle.

If we don’t understand French (and we don’t), then we really shouldn’t be fooling around with Japanese.

That is my 2 cents…me, and the royal we.

Inseparable.

Mako and Kiyoshi.

Will they survive this cruel world?

Perhaps they must be cruel themselves to survive it?

And perhaps only Kiyoshi (cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo) is cruel?

Mako is no Jean Seberg.

She might be a coquette, but she’s not une d√©gueulasse.

Our film followed on the heels of Godard’s Breathless by a mere four months.

And what about Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless”?

It preceded Godard’s film by two years (1958).

Any one else out of breath???

How about those Japanese protestors?

They weren’t keen on the Anpo treaty.

[Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan]

Yeah, a mere 15 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki…and Japan was a beaten nation.

Doubly beaten.

Because they joined hands with their brethren (us) who had so recently vaporized them.

And so no wonder people were protesting.

But we don’t see protests in movies.

Not real protests.  Not anymore.

In fact, Japan does not even exist for the U.S. anymore.

Japan is like a house cat.

Domesticated.

Japan protests nothing.

Their economy slides with ours.

They are between a rock and a hard place.

Seemingly forever.

It is a geopolitical fault-line.

In the film we see South Koreans protesting.

This ended long ago (for us brainwashed viewers in the West).

Only the Chinese protest.

Tiananmen Square.  1989.

And CNN had a bird’s-eye view of tank man.

A bit too perfect.

But yes:  every nation protests.

Except the well-behaved Japanese and South Koreans.

But what about these recent tremors?

Okinawa.

As recently as February of this year.

Just what is going on?

Anpo is that famously robust treaty…in effect longer than anything since the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

I am reminded of my most erudite friend’s knowing focus on the war which these treaties (a series in 1648) ended.

Thirty years.

It was a bad day for Mako.  Rape.

The valiant rapist.

What?

It is like Dostoyevsky.

Stick around and the plot thickens.

Buked and scorned by Yuki (the sister).

Youth…how cruel it is to be taken.

And then our lovers reenact The Kid with no windows (but plenty of stones).

But I’m most sad for Horio.

It’s the old man in me.

Finally the reification gets to be too much for Mako.

And a tear rolls down her cheek.  In her sleep.

Busy signal.¬† Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Twenty years.

A cement mixer.

Is she?¬† No.¬† It can’t end like that!

“This ain’t prostitution…IT’S EXTORTION! (tortion)! (torsion)!”

They call them the diamond dogs.

Oshima with a shadow play.

Kiyoshi holds Mako in the foreground.

Aki implores Yuki in the background.

[And for subtitlers everywhere, please think before you use the phrase “for old time’s sake” in a Japanese film.]

In her polka dot dress with the leeks peeking from the grocery sack.

Blammo!

The futility of youth.

The grimy uncertainty…the shifting sands.

The idealism made to lick the city sidewalk.

The valiant rapist saint.

INRI.

Ecce homo.

And Mako, fragile, with a bloody cheek.

 

-PD