Long Day’s Journey Into Night


The more that things change, the more that they decay.

(2018) Mystery (Kino-Lorber) Wei Tang, Jue Huang, Sylvia Chang, Hong-Chi Lee, Yongzhong Chen, Feiyang Luo, Meihuaizi Zeng, Chun-hao Tuan, Yanmin Bi, Lixun Xie, Xi Qi, Ming Dow, Zezhi Long, Jian Jun Ding, Kailong Jiang, Kai Liang, Chuanren Lin, Xizhen Liu, Tongfu Long, Zhonglan Luo, Zhengfu Meng, Hongyue Pan. Directed by Gan Bi

 

Funny thing about dreams; they’re often more real to us than what we perceive as reality. Dreams reveal our true selves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Dreams can be beautiful, but dreams reveal the lives we wish we had led.

Luo Hongwu (Huang) is returning to the Southwestern China town of Kaili which he had lived in much earlier days of his life. He has returned there after the death of his father, the ne’er-do-well gambler nicknamed Wildcat (Lee). Luo finds a photo of a woman (Tang) hidden in a broken clock and vaguely remembers a relationship with someone who looked like her – and her name might have been Wan Qiwen. He goes in search of the woman.

Along the way he interacts with a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters from a crusty hairdresser (Chang), a precocious 12-year-old boy who lives in an abandoned mine, and assorted pimps, thieves, hookers, thugs and cops. Luo finds himself in a movie theater and sits back to watch the movie in 3D, putting on his 3D glasses. That’s when dreams become reality, and vice versa.

If you think I’m being deliberately vague about the plot, you’re not wrong. The thing is that this is something of a stream-of-consciousness film which has a kind of dream logic to it in which the laws of physics might just be suggestions. Director Gan Bi hit the critical radar in 2015 with his debut feature Kaili Blues which contained a single 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes himself here with one that lasts close to an hour – in 3D yet – that takes up the entire second half of the film. It is a magnificent technical achievement but in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm (as spoken by the equally immortal Jeff Goldblum) he was so busy figuring out if he could he didn’t stop to think whether he should.

Bi is a visual wizard and the shots are so thoughtfully framed, so beautifully lit and the production design so exquisite that you realize that he’s heavily influenced by the great Chinese director Kar-Wei Wong. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and if you’re tempted to avoid reading the subtitles altogether and just let yourself float among the images, I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think that’s a good way to approach this movie because the dialogue is absolutely superfluous.

Movies in many respects are dreams given form and I don’t know about you but some of my dreams would make shitty movies. This is a long (nearly two and a half hours), slowly paced and often confusing film that, like a dog trying to settle down in its bed for a nap often turns round and round on itself before settling down, only to get up again and do the same thing all over again. In that respect this isn’t a movie for everybody except the most esoteric and avant garde of filmgoers. Mainstream audiences aren’t going to like this very much.

There is a very Noir tone to the film which is welcome; it is set in a city where the rainfall is constant, like Seattle on steroids. As a result, there is a sense of decay and entropy to the surroundings where water is wont to break through walls and create nifty little waterfalls. Most of the characters smoke like chimneys and not just because everyone in China seems to be a chain-smoker but because smoke and water go together as motifs. Incidentally, despite the title there is no connection here that I could see with the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

This should be approached as fine art; very subject to interpretation. The story isn’t the important thing which is something that will have most mainstream moviegoers headed for the exits. What matters here is the tone, the vision, the feeling and the thoughts provoked, but don’t say we didn’t war you about the whole art thing.

For readers in Miami the movie is currently playing this week at the Cinematheque before taking up residence at the AMC Sunset Place. Keep an eye for the visual cues as to when to put on your 3D glasses; there’s a brief graphic informing the audience to put on their glasses when you see the main character put on his.

REASONS TO SEE: The shot composition is outstanding. There is a definite Noir feel to the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog, figuratively and literally.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality and a crazy amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chinese moviegoers felt misled by the marketing campaign which billed the film as a Noir mystery and less as an art house experience leading to a good deal of Internet backlash.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Void
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Postal (2019)

The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Upside Down


Beyond topsy turvy.

Beyond topsy turvy.

(2012) Science Fiction (Millennium) Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana, Kate Trotter, Holly O’Brien, Elliott Larson, Maurane Arcand, Janine Theriault, Vincent Messina, Cole K. Mickenzie, Paul Ahmarani, Carolyn Guillet, Pablo Veron, Don Jordan, Edward Langham, Holden Wong, Jayne Heitmeier. Directed by Juan Solanas

Sci-Fi Spectacle

Most science fiction stories begin with the idea of “what if?” while the best ones end with the viewer shrugging their shoulders and accepting “why not?!”

For example, consider this; two planets that orbit one another and have dual gravity; on one world, gravity works normally but on the other it repels rather than attracts. The two worlds nearly touch on their highest mountain peaks and one corporation, Transworld, has built a skyscraper that connects the two planets permanently.

Both worlds are inhabited and are essentially products of their gravities. Those who live on one world will be untethered to the ground on the other and vice versa. On the middle floor of the skyscraper, there is one group of cubicles on the floor and another on the ceiling. There are a few other buildings with similar situations.

Adam lives on the lower world which some call Down Below. This is a world that has been ruthlessly exploited by the people of Up Above, who live in luxury and comfort. Down Below seems to exist in perpetual rainfall and gloom and its inhabitants eke out meager existences on the scraps of what they can acquire from up above.

As a child (Larson), Adam had met Eden (Arcand), a young girl from Up Above. The two click immediately but police from Up Above are not allowing any sort of interplanetary romance. In trying to return Eden to her home world, Adam watches in horror as she falls, apparently to her death.

Years later, Adam sees an adult woman (Dunst) from Up Above on TV and realizes that it’s Eden and she’s still alive. His love for her hasn’t undimmed over the years so he figures out a plan to use a beauty cream he’s invented to get him into Transworld, then pursue her and make her his. The problem is that Eden has a rather inconvenient amnesia and can’t remember anything before the fall. Secondly, in order to stay “grounded” as it were on Up Above Adam has to use a rare metal that tends to burst into flame after an hour’s use. Thirdly the authorities on both worlds are none too keen about having the interplanetary romance referred to earlier. It seems that Adam’s love is destined to be on another planet.

The concept here is truly interesting which is one of the movie’s grand advantages. It also is one of its biggest obstacles; the concept itself tends to paint the filmmaker into a corner. Solanas, an Argentinean filmmaker currently living and working in France, sets up the movie in an extended voice-over at the beginning of the film but I think he essentially tries to explain too much rather than just letting the audience go with it. That sets up the expectation that the movie is going to have a kind of rulebook that it will follow.

In fact, there are lots of holes in the theoretical aspects; for example, why don’t the people themselves combust when on opposing planets instead of just the metal? Wouldn’t the upward falls kill you just as dead as a regular downward fall? How can there be a sunrise or sunset when the two planets are both perpetually in each other’s shadow?

Truthfully, I’d be fine not requiring an explanation for any of those things but Solanas himself creates the expectation you’re going to receive one with the over-technical voice-over. A simple line could have done it – “I don’t know all the physics. It just works.” End of explanation and the show can go on, plot holes and all. Michel Gondry never bothers to explain himself; neither should Solanas.

Still even given that this is one of the most jaw-dropping imaginative visual stories you’re likely to find. The visuals of one group of Up Abovers dancing the graceful tango in a ballroom while on the ground Down Belowers dance in a seedy nightclub is striking, and much of the visual look recalls the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Certainly the have and have-not societies seem to be a nod towards the original Metropolis, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but Solanas doesn’t really pursue that aspect of the story. Instead, he’s looking to make a love story and this is indeed more of a romance than it is a science fiction film although the visuals are probably what you’re going to remember.

I don’t know if I would have used an idea for this kind of society to illustrate a kind of West Side Story thing; it’s a story that’s been done a lot of different times in a lot of different ways. Why create this amazing environment and then tell a story you could tell anywhere? However, that environment makes this movie worth seeking out. With attractive actors like Sturgess and Dunst delivering decent performances (and Spall in a supporting role actually standing out) this makes for a really good movie. I think it could have been a great one though.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty concept. Nice performances by the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More of a romance with sci-fi overtones. Too many plot holes. Somewhat oversaturated cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence but not enough to be troublesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Floor Zero scenes were two sets constructed side-by-side as if the screen had been sliced down the middle and folded open. When characters interact from both worlds, the scenes were shot on both sides of the set simultaneously and then inserted into the frame digitally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a surfeit of storyboards and how-they-did-it featurettes.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD), Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!