Archive for July, 2012
Sacrifice, Chen Kaige’s new movie, is now playing in San Francisco and while it’s a quality production, it seems a little dated, as well as being not quite up to the standard of past Chen flicks. But since Chen directed the epic masterpiece Farewell, My Concubine (1993), the bar for his films is pretty high. Sacrifice is certainly at least as worthwhile a watch as, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and most likely less insulting to your intelligence.But Sacrifice feels like a relic, caught between the old-timey expectations of international arthouse audiences and the contemporary realities of today’s Chinese film market.
My first encounter with Chen came back in the 80s when I saw Yellow Earth in New York City’s Chinatown. Chen, along with his fellow 5th generationist Zhang Yimou (who was also Yellow Earth’s cinematographer), had just busted out internationally and Yellow Earth was a huge departure from the social-realism of the Mao era. Beautiful and visually lush, with a cogent critique of China’s political and social climate, the movie was a worldwide arthouse hit and set the tone for Chinese films of the time. Chen went on to even more acclaim with Farewell, My Concubine, which famously combined Beijing Opera, 20th century Chinese history, and the divine histrionics of the immortal Leslie Cheung.
Since then Chen has directed a slew of films, though none as popular or critically beloved as FMC. Sacrifice follows in the footsteps of Chen’s most renowned flicks, but perhaps due to this it feels staid and outdated. It’s also to Chen’s disadvantage that his reputation precedes him as the director of the masterly FMC, since his films will be inevitably compared to that classic for the rest of his career.
Sacrifice is based on The Orphan of Zhao, the earliest Chinese play to be staged in Europe, and its storyline is an intricate hash of intrigue and revenge in feudal China. Set during the runup to the Warring States period, the movie follows Cheng Ying, a doctor who is caught up in court machinations. Ruthless warlord General Tu’an mercilessly slaughters his rival, General Zhao, and all 300 of Zhao’s close relatives save one, an infant son born during the chaos of the purge. Due to various byzantine plot twists, identity swaps, and other confusion, Cheng raises the surviving Zhao baby undetected in Tu’an’s court.
The first half of the movie gallops along pretty well, with court intrigue and carnage keeping things running at a brisk pace. But the film’s middle section is awfully slow and the film bogs down considerably at this point. By the end of the movie the pace picks up again, but it’s a long slog through the talky exposition in the middle section. Wang Xuiqi (who starred in Yellow Earth back in 1984) is awesome as the badass Tu’an and Ge You is also outstanding as Cheng, the doctor ground up in the court’s political gears. The secondary characters, however, are less interesting—pretty boy Huang Xiaoming (here with a decorative facial scar) is extraneous and a bit ridiculous and Fan Bing Bing adds another flower vase role to her resume. The final fight scene has some emotional heft since the characters’ relationship is well-established prior. Not so for the significant deaths earlier in the film, since those characters and their relationships are ciphers.
The costumes, art direction, and cinematography are top-notch, but throughout the film Chen makes some janky directing and editing decisions. The identity reveal of a key character is pretty botched, and Chen somewhat clumsily employs flashbacks, dissolves, and intercutting, as well as a repeated fade-to-black motif that’s more distracting than insightful.
Sacrifice is not a bad film per se but it seems a bit old-fashioned given the current state of Chinese cinema. Here in the U.S. audiences seem to think that Chinese movies are all about ponderous costumed historical allegories like Sacrifice, but in China itself the scene is pretty different, with this year’s most popular Chinese-language films to date being Wu Er-Shan’s big-budget fantasy Painted Skin 2, the WWII action comedy Guns N’ Roses, and Mission Incredible: Adventures On The Dragon’s Trail, an animated movie about a goat.
Personally, I’m much more intrigued with Caught In The Web, Chen’s latest film now playing in Asia, that looks at China’s exploding online culture, but it probably won’t see the light of day here in the U.S. for months, if at all. One of Chen’s few modern-day movies, Caught In The Web feels timely and of-the-moment and is probably way too contemporary and edgy for the staid international arthouse demographic that follows Chen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Sacrifice, and it’s the kind of stately historical Chinese costume drama that U.S. distributors love, but its aesthetic feels as stuffy as a Merchant-Ivory melodrama in the age of Cloverfield.
UPDATE: Looks like Caught In The Web will be playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which is great news. Here’s hoping it leads to more Stateside screenings—are you listening, SFIFF?
Starting this week and running from July 19-Aug. 11, the Pacific Film Archive plays host to The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a six-film series of classic Bollywood films by Raj Kapoor, the superstar actor and director whose career spanned six decades. Beginning in the 1930s Kapoor was involved in dozens of films and his popularity in India gained him the nickname “The Great Showman.” He’s probably best known for his lovable tramp persona, modeled in part on Charlie Chaplin’s famous screen character, and he made some of India’s most popular films of the 20th century.
Kapoor began his career in 1935 at the age of 11—his breakthrough film was Neel Kamai in 1947. Many other hit films followed and by the time of his death he was revered as one of the kings of Hindi-language cinema—he acted in as well as directed, produced, and marketed many of his films. Handsome and photogenic, with wavy dark hair and blue eyes, and with a nimble physical grace and keen comic timing, Kapoor was made for the silver screen. As is often the case in India, several of his family members are also members of the Bollywood pantheon including his father Prithviraj, brothers Shashi and Shammi, sons Rishi and Randhir, and grandchildren Karisma, Kareena, and Ranbir Kapoor.
The PFA series is a nice sampler of his work, with films ranging from Aag (1948) to the Kapoor-directed Bobby (starring his fresh-faced son Rishi) from 1974. The films are lovely fables about life, love, and humanity, with Kapoor as the everyman searching for meaning and beauty amidst the chaos of modern times.
Barsaat (1949) stars Kapoor and Premnath as friends who woo two country girls, with Kapoor’s violin-playing idealist looking for love while Premnath looks for recreation. Nargis (who later starred in Mother India) was Kapoor’s real-life extramarital squeeze and she appears in five of the six films in the PFA series. In Barsaat she plays Kapoor’s romantic muse and the chemistry between the two is palpable, reflecting their torrid offscreen relationship.
I watched a DVD screener of Barsaat and even in that degraded format the cinematography was pretty stunning. Despite the fact that it was clearly shot partially on location and partially on a soundstage, the film successfully blends the two visual styles, creating dreamlike mix of realism and artifice. The film also artfully alternates between diegetic and non-diegetic music, further enhancing its surreal, mythical feel.
In Shree 420 (1955), Kapoor in full-on tramp mode is charming and entirely watchable. His lovable rube, also named Raj, wanders the mean streets of Bombay, where, as one character states, “high buildings are made of cement, people have hearts of stone, and only one thing is sacred, that’s money. ” The number 420 in the film’s title refers to the section in the Indian penal code dealing with theft, and literally translates as “Mr. 420,” or respectable thief. Written by K.A. Abbas (a well-known figure in India’s “parallel,” or neo-realist, film community), the movie is an interesting critique of unbridled capitalism, portraying the wealthy as unethical, venal predators who ruthlessly exploit the poor.
Kapoor’s innocent character is seduced by the corruption of the big city, much to the dismay of his love interest, the right-minded and honorable Vidya, played by Nargis. Much like her similar character in Barsaat, Nargis’ Vidya is the film’s moral center, using her expressive eyes and virtuous bearing to great effect.
Despite the harsh realities of life in the big city, Raj finds small kindnesses from the other poor and working-class folks he encounters—a matronly fruit-seller gives him free bananas and, after a brief misunderstanding, his fellow street-dwellers welcome him into their midst. The film’s climax evokes Frank Capra at his populist best, as Kapoor rages against the machine and rallies the downtrodden.
Bobby (1974), directed by Kapoor, was the first Indian film to feature the now-familiar Bollywood premise of young protagonists defying tradition in the name of love. Baby-faced Rishi Kapoor, his character named Raja (Hindi for “prince”), and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia play out the classic rich boy/poor girl storyline, challenging the status quo with their caste-busting romance. The film reflects the youth rebellion sweeping the world at the time and at one point, astride a motorbike and dressed in leathers, Rishi Kapoor actually resembles Peter Fonda. Both of the filmic fathers (one played with great zest by Premnath from Barsaat, here with a middle-aged paunch) are tigers, loudly and insistently battling it out for top cat. As is fitting its 1970s release the costume design is amazing, with Rishi in red velour jumpsuits, long striped scarves, and turquoise bell-bottoms.
The film, which takes the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and filters it through a distinctively Bollywood lens, was the first Hindi-language film to focus on young love, and Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia ably fulfill their roles as the passionately yearning teen couple. Interestingly enough, many years later in his middle age Rishi Kapoor played a similar role in the 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, as a man who overcomes parental and societal pressure in order to pursue his true love.
The PFA series also includes Awaara (1951) another of Kapoor’s renderings of his famous little tramp character, Boot Polish (1954), and Aag (1948), Kapoor’s directorial debut. All three were available on preview DVDs but I instead decided to wait to see them on the big screen, as they should be. I’m sure I won’t regret it.
July 19-Aug. 11, 2012
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94720
I love a good film festival and this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival was one of the best. Held at the legendary Castro Theater, the festival showcased several brand new or recently restored prints of classic and obscure films from Germany, China, the U.S., Sweden, and beyond. Probably due to the popularity of The Artist, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar, the festival was packed morning, noon, and night.
In this age of DVDs and online streaming the SFSFF understands the need to offer a value-added film viewing experience. All of the shows at the fest had live accompaniment, ranging from glorious piano and Wurlitzer stylings to full-on ensemble performances from crack film orchestras. Wings, the opening night film, was screened not only with live music but with a live foley setup providing sound effects in the theater as the film unspooled. The screening of Georges Melies’ classic short, A Trip To The Moon (recently featured in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), included live narration by Paul McCann from the director’s notes on the film, adding a droll note to the whimsical film.
I started my long weekend o’ film viewing with Little Toys (1933), starring the legendary Chinese performer Ruan Lingyu, who died by her own hand at the tender age of 24. Between 1927 to her death in 1934 Ruan appeared in nearly 30 films during the golden age of Chinese filmmaking, famously playing lovelorn prostitutes, and other down-and-out characters. In Little Toys she’s a toymaker in rural China who is swept up by the events of the day, including the Sino-Japanese War, the advent of capitalism, and the urbanization of China. The film, by left-leaning director Sun Yu (who ironically was later denounced by Mao Zedong), is an interesting critique of the inhumanity of war and the ways in which ordinary people are harmed by violent political conflict.
The festival also included films featuring two very different silent era actresses. Mantrap (1926), starring the awesome Clara Bow, screened with impeccable live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, flute and accordion. I’d never seen Clara Bow in action before and, as directed by her then-inamorato Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz; Gone With The Wind) she’s fun and charismatic, with darting eyes and a sly, impish grin. The pre-code storyline of a notorious flirt who dazzles her husband and his friend, as well as most of the other men in the movie, is refreshingly non-judgmental—as Michael Sragow observes in the program notes, “the film doesn’t punish the character for her sexual independence, it salutes her for it.”
Saturday night’s centerpiece film featured another silent-screen goddess, the ever-stunning Louise Brooks starring in Pandora’s Box. The festival screened a gorgeous new restoration that confirmed director G.W. Pabst’s mastery of light and shadow, emphasizing the moody chiaroscuro that makes this film a classic. We’d meant to attend the 10pm show of The Overcoat immediately following Pandora’s Box, with music by the surprise-a-minute Alloy Orchestra, but delays in loading in the Mattie Bye Orchestra for the Pabst film pushed The Overcoat’s start time past 11pm. With plans to see the 10am show the next day we regretfully took a pass on the Russian expressionist movie and headed for home.
Sunday morning bright and early, less than ten hours after the late-night screening of The Overcoat, a full house turned out to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920), as the mild-mannered Don Diego who turns into the sexy crime-fighting Zorro. As noted by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, Zorro’s underground hideout, his dual identity, and his form-fitting all-black outfit, cape and mask were a clear influence on Batman creator Bob Kane. In Zorro, Fairbanks of course flaunts his toned booty, fencing chops and parkour skills—more surprising are his well-honed comic chops as the foppish Don Diego. The film isn’t very cinematically innovative but once Fairbanks gets going the movie picks up steam. The climatic chase scene, with Fairbanks running, jumping and climbing his way across the scenery, is a lot of fun.
Capping the weekend’s screenings was Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), his last great feature film and his first as an MGM contract player. As a UCLA undergrad I was crazy for Buster Keaton, seeing all of his independent features and several shorts. I even watched The Navigator on a flatbed at the UCLA film archives since, back then at the dawn of time, Keaton’s movies weren’t available on home video. I’d never seen The Cameraman, though, so I was happy to that it was part of this year’s festival. Although MGM’s dictatorial studio brass was already on its way to fatally hampering his career, Keaton turned out a near-perfect movie in The Cameraman, which follows a callow young photographer in his attempts to break into the newsreel business. Along the way he woos a pretty girl, shatters many windows, leaps effortlessly onto moving vehicles, and gets caught in the middle of a full-scale tong war. Unlike many movies from the era, the film’s portrayal of Chinatown and its habitués is fairly unsensational, though I wonder if the tongs really would have had several full-on machine guns to go with their machetes and six-shooters.
All in all the festival was quite fun and invigorating. It’s always a treat when vintage movies get the royal treatment, and the SFSFF displays the utmost care and sensitivity in presenting its programs. In an age when media is often made to be watched on a cell phone, it’s great to see films produced for and projected on the all-mighty big screen.