A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.
Center Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.
Before the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.
Lady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.
The Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…
Ghostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.
The Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837