A Smile

Lasting a solid two-week stretch (September 25 – October 10), the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) has come to play an increasingly complex role in the international exhibition of non-mainstream films. While most festivals are content to run their entire program and exhaust their spectators’ attention and their staff’s stamina within ten days, Vancouver’s atypical length puts it on the same league as its smaller, yet aesthetically ambitious, “cousin” from across the border, Seattle (May 22 – June 15), or the Hong Kong International Film Festival (April 8 – 23). These three festivals have more in common than the golden light of the Pacific. They were founded as cinephilic events for the local audience, as a forum to showcase foreign films ignored by distributors. The presence of international film critics came as an after-effect, and usually involves one aspect of their programming: the Asian section.

I have been covering Vancouver since 1991, and keep returning for the same reason – to catch during the months of September and October the Asian films not yet ready during my Asian trips in April through to July. I am a rather typical case. Vancouver’s program, covering 313 films, has much more to offer than merely its East Asian fares, yet these are the films that get reviewed in the international press. The organisers and curators of the Festival are acutely conscious that they are part and parcel of a global(ising) strategy that pertains to put Asian cinema on the map – a road trip that includes Rotterdam and Berlin in winter, Hong Kong in the spring, Locarno (at least until recently) in summer, Venice, Pusan and Yamagata in the fall. This year, the Asian selection was pushed back at the beginning of the Festival, to avoid competing with Pusan, whose dates had changed. Many filmmakers flew directly from Vancouver to South Korea.

The Curator as Auteur – Catching a Dragon by the Tail

Gozu

Renamed “Dragons and Tigers” for the 1992 edition, and endowed with its own competition for first- and second-time directors since 1994, the section devoted to the cinemas of East Asia is a small kingdom within the empire, and one of the pleasures it offers is an implicit dialogue with the taste, coups de coeur and enthusiastic endorsements of its sole curator, the British critic Tony Rayns, whose formidable, towering presence has contributed to shaping what the West understands by “Asian cinema”. I often think of him as “the honourable schoolboy”, the protagonist of John Le Carré’s novel that bears the same title – an intelligence agent who has spent most of his life in Asia, but remains endearingly (and awkwardly) British throughout his travels. When among aficionados, we sometimes exchange knowing smiles at a screening: “Oh, this is a Tony movie”. Meaning that, as a curator who knows his terrain, Rayns can’t help but project his vision of the world onto his selection of films– as a true auteur does. For us – captive critic audiences roped in the theatre through our curiosity – this has been immensely helpful. With Rayns, you have a sense of what you’re going to see, and, more importantly, why it was chosen. And, of course, you’re somewhat free to disagree, although doing it in print is probably easier than in person. For example, he can take the credit for having “discovered” Miike Takashi by presenting his first film, Shinjuku Triad Society (Shinjuku Kuro Shakai, 1996) – described as an “appallingly depraved film” in his program notes – in 1997 (1). In 1998, he devoted a mini-subsection to Miike’s films – therefore setting a trend that has now culminated in various forms of cult for the Japanese director. Try as I may, I have never become a fan, and am, instead, made uncomfortable and slightly furious by the bloody antics of a grown-up filmmaker with a sophomoric horror for the female body and taste for the baroque shock value of the various secretions of the human flesh. It is not this year’s Gozu (Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo: Gozu, 2003) that will make me change my mind, even though the film leans more toward a tongue-and-cheek carnivalesque mode than toward the gory. Miike’s talent is not what is at stake here – and in movies such as the mysterious The Bird People of China (Chugoku no Chofin, 1998) or Shangri-la (Togenkyo no Hitobito, 2002), he’s proven he can extend his thematic vocabulary – but rather what he does with it. However, Rayns’ commitment to showing Miike’s oeuvre stems from an attitude I find increasingly rare amongst film festival directors, who are all too ready to “ditch” a filmmaker whose work they have followed for years because they’ve failed to conform to their expectations of what the work should be. Rayns takes the politique des auteurs seriously: a lesser or flawed work by a director whose vision and mise en scène you respect is more interesting than the latest opus of a mediocre director who just happened to have made a good film.

Moreover, Rayns’ interest in Miike partakes of his love for stylised forms of violence, genre films that go beyond “good taste”, that betray echoes of surrealism à la Buñuel. And so, Rayns organised a tribute to Seijun Suzuki in 1991, brought Takeshi Kitano’s debut film as a director, Violent Cop (Sono Otoko, Kyobo Ni Tsuki, 1989, VIFF 1990), to the North American audiences for the first time, and regaled us with countless examples of yakuza films, some excellent, some forgettable, but all thoroughly enjoyable and starring sexy Japanese machos. So if the price is having Miike splatter more blood on the Vancouver screens for the years to come, so be it.

Rayns’ influence on the East Asian cinema scene has been multifarious. In particular, he has contributed to bringing attention to the nascent but rapidly expanding Asian queer media – which, I am sad to say, has prompted instances of borderline homophobic criticism among some fellow critics. Rayns’ vision of a queer world intersects with his passion for experimental cinema. While he has shown some conventional gay love stories, Rayns has also courted the obscure and the semi-unwatchable, unearthing in the process some exquisite gems, such as Oki Hiroyuki’s diary films, Swimming Prohibited (Yuei Kinshi, 1989, Japan, VIFF 1992), or, more recently, the underground experimental digital features of Andrew Cheng and Cui Zi’en. While not defining himself as queer, Cheng populates his cinema with marginal characters living on the fringe of sexual propriety. In his first feature, Shanghai Panic (Women hai Pa, Dragons and Tigers Award 2002), inspired by the banned writings of underground literary diva, Mian Mian, there are boys and girls who party too much with partners of both genders, take too many drugs and are prone to bouts of hysteria that hardly conceal a deep-seated societal malaise. Cheng’s second film, Welcome to Destination Shanghai (Mudidi Shanghai, 2003) dives further in the dark underbelly that lies beneath the glittering modernisation of Shanghai and shows a lonely collection of young male and female prostitutes, middle-aged Cultural Revolution survivors involved in shady deals, bitchy queens, sexually confused adolescents and clean-cut girls arriving from the countryside. Cheng’s films artfully merge improvised performances, real locations (such as the soon-to-be-demolished working-class river-front Suzhou Creek) and staged, abstract tableaux in artificial sets.

Last year, with Enter the Clowns (Choujue Dengchang, 2001), the VIFF was also the first North American venue to showcase the work of Cui Zi’en – who now enjoys significant cult following from Los Angeles to Chicago to Berlin, Paris and Rotterdam. A professor at the Beijing Film Academy, an outspoken gay activist (the two don’t quite go together: the Academy has taken away most of his classes), a self-published novelist and screenwriter (he penned Liu Bingjian’s Men Men Women Women [Nan nan nü nü, 1999]) (2) Cui turned to directing two years ago. His fierce commitment to DV production – as enabling independence and freedom but also as an avenue for formal experimentation – his use of long takes, real locations, multi-polar, fragmented narratives and the semi-improvised performances of a large circle of friends/performers, professional or not, has allowed Cui to shoot, for a minimal amount of money, no less than seven features in two years (3). Even though one may find allusions to the work of Fassbinder and Visconti (directors he admires) as well as Warhol (whom he has not discovered so far), Cui refuses to be compared to filmmakers working with much more money than he does, arguing that economics determine aesthetics, and that his commitment to arte povera is an aesthetic and political choice. Another idiosyncratic feature of his work is the recurrence of religious (Catholic) themes and images, which add an unexpected layer to some of the creatively perverse scenes he stages. “In China, Catholicism, like homosexuality, is an underground practice”, is his answer. The deeper connection between some forms of homosexual eroticism and certain aspects of Christianity – the ambivalence toward the flesh, both repressed and sublimated in representation; the relationship to a father-like authority figure who can love and punish; the fetishisation of parts or secretions of the body of Christ and saints; the cult of martyrdom – is a taboo subject in most societies (certainly the one I live in now) but Cui Zi’en embraces it in his serendipitous, almost nonchalant, affectionately humorous way, particularly in the film shown at Vancouver this year, Feeding Boys, Ayaya (Ayaya, Qu Buru, 2003, World Premiere). Inspired (like Andrew Cheng) by the growing number of young men selling their bodies in Chinese cities, Cui explores the motives of one of them; here the issue is not poverty (how refreshing!) but the desire for an unlimited number of sexual encounters and for fulfilling one’s destiny as a mammal: feeding other human beings with one’s “milk”. More tender than grotesque or silly, this is another instance of the utopian dream of treading both sides of the gender line that reoccurs throughout Cui’s work. The line between sin and redemption, thus, can also be read as a metaphor – as the Christian brother of our young “money-boy” tries to save him, and inexplicably dies in the process.

Invisible Light

Not surprisingly, Rayns’ vision of a queer world is male-centred – although he sometimes includes lesbian work in his selection, such as Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (Yu he Daxiang, 2001) or, this year, Yau Ching’s exhilarating dike sci-fi erotic fantasy, Hok Yuk: Let’s Love Hong Kong (Hao Yu, 2002) (4). More pertinent is the criticism that Rayns (like most male curators) shows only a small percentage of work directed by women. There has been brilliant exceptions, such as his commitment to the work of Wang Shaudi, one of the few female Taiwanese filmmakers, or his discovery of Bundled (Wo Jiao A-Ming la, Taiwan, 2000), the first feature shot independently by a young woman, Singing Chen. From this point of view, 2003 was a good year, and I especially commend Rayns for including Gina Kim’s Invisible Light (Geu Jip Ap, South Korea, 2003) in the “Dragons and Tigers Competition”. Kim attracted international attention with the various instalments of her video diaries (5) in which she obsessively documents her relationship to enclosed domestic spaces and her eating disorders. Kim’s narrative feature debut goes one step further in exploring her narcissistic/solipsistic relationship to the female body. There are hardly any strangers in the house that Gina built – her female protagonists, acutely aware of their physical desires and bodily functions are totally aloof. However, the sense of despair and loneliness is gradually replaced by an inner peace and strength. The film comprises two parts that complement each other, and are secretly connected: the absentee lover of the first woman, Gah-in, who lives in California, is the husband of the second woman, Do-Hee, who leaves and returns to the Korea of her childhood, where she knows virtually no-one. Prone to eating disorders, Gah-in can’t leave her apartment in the countryside, while Do-Hee, without a place to go, wanders from motel to motel, once with a strange man (sex takes place off-screen), mostly alone, unsure if she should take an abortion pill and striking an awkward friendship with an a-sexual bar-tender. Kim’s rigorous mise en scène matches the unflinching singularity of her vision and offers a compelling, albeit disturbing vista on what Lacanian psychoanalyst Michèle Montrelay describes as “the woman’s relationship to her body, a relationship simultaneously narcissistic and erotic. For the woman enjoys her body as she would the body of another” (6).

Another original debut feature by a female Korean director was Park Kyung-Hee’s A Smile (Miso, 2003). So-jung, a young photographer, discovers she’s losing her sight. After breaking off a long-standing affair with a loving boyfriend and visiting her troubled family, she goes on the road, alone, to a small flying school in the middle of nowhere operated by a former army man with a drinking problem. Before it’s too late, she wants to experience a bird’s eye view of the world. Making a film about the vicissitudes of vision is not a new topic in cinema, but then, watching Park’s film one realises that it has virtually not been done with a female subject (7). Other debuts include, from Japan, Nishikawa Miwa’s Wild Berries (Hebi Ichigo, 2002), a compelling blend of Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as a seductive but mysterious long-lost brother returns to a family whose members are tearing each other apart. Elegantly directed, the film is told from the point of view of the “good” sister, Tomoko, who has to make the ultimate ethical decision. Female subjectivity (and eating disorders) is also at the centre of Vibrator by veteran director Hiroki Ryuichi who took his cues from Akarasa Mari’s feminist novel. A slightly fucked-up magazine writer meets a sexy-looking truck driver in a convenience store one night and ends up hopping in the cockpit of his semi. Follows a weeklong of driving, eating, screwing, arguing, eating and opening up in the strangest, but also most tender ways. Stage actress Terashima Shinobu’s performance is particularly remarkable and should set a new standard for what we expect of the representation of the feminine on screen – capturing the particular rhythm of a woman’s emotions, the relationship to her own body, her ambivalence between truth and lie, and her swinging to and fro between moments of excess and moments of quietude. What passes for “acting” among hip Hollywood actresses these days is just window dressing in comparison.

Two of Rayns’ major contributions to Vancouver have been his commitment to unearthing the best post-1989 independent work from China – starting with Wu Wenguang’s video documentary Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – Zuihou De Mengxiangzhe, 1990, VIFF 1991) and Zhang Yuan’s ground breaking Mama (1990, VIFF 1992) – and sensing, before it had really happened, that South Korean cinema was going to become the next East Asian giant. There were two additional world premieres of Chinese independent cinema at the VIFF this year. The one that impressed me the most was Gan Xiao’er’s The Only Sons (Shan Qing Shui Xiu, 2003), a work that is almost as difficult to classify for the Western man as Feeding Boys, Ayaya. The filmmaker (who plays the main role himself, in spite of not speaking the same dialect as the other protagonists) uses formal experimentation to introduce a tension between the rigour of his method of shooting and the performances he exacts from local people. The camera is constantly fixed, except when it is put on a boat gliding on water, until the harrowing last shot – a combination of tracking out and panning – that leaves the empty shell of a house where a man had died and from which his wife and baby had just departed. As the shot ends, it is clear that the camera is, again, on a boat, and represents the point of view of the young woman, mourning the life she leaves behind. Another powerful tension is between the multiple elements of the narrative, offered to us in small increments that don’t always add up, foregrounding the permanent contradiction between what is shown, what remains off-screen, what is said and what will remain silent forever. The characters waver between passivity and revolt, religiosity and doubt; once again, Western spectators may have to reconsider everything they thought they knew about Christianity in China: like the social structure itself, it is an opaque reality. Gan plays Ah Shui, a young peasant from Southern China so poor that he has to sell first his blood then his sister (although he’s blindly unaware of what Mei is really doing until quite late in the film) then his wife and infant son. All of this in the vain hope of finding bail money for Chong, his no-good brother who faces execution for armed robbery (when Ah Shui fails to raise the money, he is visited by an hospital administrator who offers to buy Chong’s organs, and a prison official whose job is to collect the three yuan-execution fee). Gan’s directing style – somewhat echoing that of Hou Hsiao-hsien – and his use of long takes and empty shots also work in contradistinction with the potentially melodramatic narrative material, making The Only Sons one of the most exciting discoveries in Chinese cinema of the last few years.

Uniform

However, the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema went to Diao Yinan’s Uniform (Zhifu, 2003, World Premiere), an expertly, sensitively directed debut about a young man who finds it easier to deal with life after he steals a policeman’s uniform. Distant echoes of Jia Zhangke’s masterful Xiao Wu (Diao has denied the connection, yet Jia and his partner Yu Likwai are listed as creative advisers) prevented me from finding the film as original and as much of a breakthrough it was touted to be. I’ll definitely be curious to see Diao’s next work, though, and, in the meantime, had the pleasure to see him playing the main role in Yu Likwai’s second feature, All Tomorrow’s Parties (Mingri Tianya, Hong Kong/China/ France, 2002). Yu’s trajectory is original – he divides his time between Hong Kong, where he directed his first feature, Love Will Tear Us Apart (1999), and China, where he shot an award-winning documentary, Neon Goddesses (1996) and became Jia Zhangke’s DP and producing partner. All Tomorrow’s Parties was also shot in China, and can be seen as a strange narrative sci-fi complement to Wang Bing’s Tiexi District: West of the Tracks (Tiexi Qu, China/Netherlands, 2002) (8). Shot in disused, crumbling, nightmarish industrial spaces, All Tomorrow’s Parties is a terrifying commentary about a society leaping almost without transition from Third World repressive socialism to a chaotic post-industrial age. It is also a love story – of sorts – the tentative reconstruction of a family unit among the ruins, made even more poignant by the fact it does not work. Visually stunning with a zest for small details, yet awkward at moments, All Tomorrow’s Parties is an ambitious, original, ultimately melancholy work with unexpected resonances.

This year Rayns paid special tribute to Hong Kong indies – a good deed since most Western critics and curators (myself included) had avoided going to Hong Kong this spring because of the SARS epidemic. The most important entries were Doug Chan’s haunting and mysterious Love is Not a Sin (Zhongyi Wu Zui, 2002), shot in Macau with non-professional teenage actors (awarded Best Digital Feature at the latest HKIFF), and Wong Ching-Po and Lee Kung-lok’s Fu Bo (2003), one of the most original works of the Festival, also shot in Macau, but mostly in the morgue, the city jail and working class streets, dives and brothels, as it follows the lives (and melancholy loves) of morgue attendants. There are moments of wry humour (the city jail and its death row, of course, provide bodies to the morgue), but the film unfolds an atmosphere of unexpected delicacy and tenderness, as bodies are cared for, after death, as they may never have been during their difficult lives.

Also a candidate for the Dragons and Tigers award, Royston Tan’s 15 (Shivu, Singapore, 2003) is the psychedelic, syncopated exploration of the state of mind of lost (but cute) young males doing drugs and getting up to mischief in one of East Asia’s most repressive cities. Tan’s shooting style, like an expanded video game, is annoying at first, but then you get into its rhythm, its logic. Admitting no adults, except in a few peripheral scenes, the film makes us share the kids’ thwarted vision of the world. It is indeed exciting, sometimes fun, but often ugly, limited and frayed with unspeakable despair. The young men play themselves; they are indeed 15, and the filmmaker succeeds at communicating their inner vision, their hidden sadness.

As time goes by, Vancouver (which is not an A-category festival) is showing less and less world premieres. Yet it still offers a microcosm of what’s happening in East Asian cinema at the moment. Among the most visible films (already shown at Cannes, Venice or San Sebastian) were outstanding new works by Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn, Bu San, Taiwan, 2003) Wang Xiao-shuai (Drifters, Er di, 2003 – listed as a Hong Kong production it is actually a Chinese film)), Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder, South Korea, 2003) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, Ruand Rak Noi Nid Mahasan, Thailand, 2002).

Looking back at catalogues from the last 12 years it is clear that Rayns’ curatorial choices for Vancouver have become the standard through which we define our knowledge and appreciation of East Asian cinema. It is not a particularly comfortable position for the man – as new generations of critics, historians and curators, Asian and non-Asian, are now arriving, armed with their passion for such or such national cinema. In particular, one may wonder why the “centre” of Asian film culture still lies in the Western world – a situation made more poignant by the fact that some filmmakers have to rely on the international film scene to get their work shown, either because they work illegally (such as the Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers in the first stage of their career) or because they have a hard time finding producers and distributors in their own countries (such as Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang or even Hou Hsia-hsien in Taiwan). However, Hong Kong, Yamagata and more recently Pusan (to which Rayns is a significant contributor) have been creating powerful poles of diffusion for Asian cinema in Asia itself. Thanks to the new DV culture, more universities and media centres throughout the world may now assume some form of leadership in terms of East Asian film connoisseurship, and it is to hope that women, now occupying a limited number of curatorial positions at major film festivals, will play larger roles in the coining and disseminating of such culture. We live in a multi-polar, fragmented, de-centred culture where the notion of master discourse is becoming obsolete. It is one of these (necessary, in the Hegelian sense) paradoxes of contemporary culture that a free-lance, free-thinking, risk-taking, British writer came to embody such intellectual and curatorial authority. Rayns may represent a form of film scholarship doomed to disappear. But for the time being – it is immensely precious and I look forward to the next Tony movie.

The Curator as Critic – Los Angeles Reflects Upon Itself

Vancouver boasts many different sections, curated by a group of programmers such as its director Alan Franey, program manager PoChu AuYeung, and the head of the Canadian Images section, Diane Burgess. The “Spotlight on France” is a particularly sharp component of the program; the VIFF was among the first North American festivals to feature François Ozon’s work – A Little Death (La petite mort, 1995), See the Sea (Regarde la mer, 1997), A Summer Dress (1997) and Sitcom (1997) were all showcased in 1997. This year, No Rest for the Brave (Pas de Repos pour les Braves, 2003), the first feature by idiosyncratic auteur Alain Guiraudie was programmed. In 2000, Mark Peranson joined the programming team. A political science graduate, he founded the quarterly magazine Cinema Scope in 1999 to intervene directly on what he perceived as the lack of serious film criticism in Canada. He had lost his job writing reviews for an alternative weekly in Toronto because “they did not accurately reflect what the editor of the newspaper (not the film editor) thought was the opinions of their readers”, and felt that many writers like him did not have “a place to express their opinion and, more importantly hone their craft”. Quickly attracting Canadian and international contributors with a mixture of experienced critics and young writers, Cinema Scope became, in its first few issues, one of the three or four more exciting places to write or read film criticism.

Peranson is interested in creating an international, cross-cultural dialogue not only between cinema and writing but between different genres, styles and mise en scène of cinema and between cinema and other forms of cultural expression. A dialogue that often bypasses the concept of “national cinema” and definitely goes against the canon, the grain and conventionally accepted ideas – “He’s the only critic I know who’s writing about both versions of [Vincent Gallo’s] Brown Bunny”, an admiring (and European) colleague recently told me in Vienna. Hiring Peranson meant that the organisers of Vancouver wanted their Festival to become more clearly a site of cultural intervention. “The critic, like the programmer, has to be an activist; his/her role is to promote a certain kind of cinema. This is the only reason for film festivals to exist. My goal as a critic and programmer is to bring attention to and help people understand films that would not otherwise be seen”, comments Peranson.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

One of his initiatives this year was particularly remarkable. Upon receiving a preview cassette of Thom Andersen’s monumental and insightful essay film, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Peranson decided to organise a whole sub-section around the themes discussed in the film: the multiple layers, ideological underpinnings, and contradictions of the way the city is presented, represented and mis-represented in movies, whether they come from Hollywood, other countries or the local indie scene. A noted film scholar, Andersen started making movies about American culture as early as 1967 with his exhilarating “rock movie” <— ——-> recently “rediscovered” at the New York Film Festival, and about film history with Eadweard Muybridge Zoopraxographer (1974) that has remained the definitive document about the pre-history of cinema in North America, and, more recently, Red Hollywood (1995), a challenging reassessment of the work of film professionals blacklisted during the McCarthy era, co-directed with Noël Burch. Once fired from a Midwestern university (along with Burch and photographer Allan Sekula) for being a “Marxist”, Andersen does not shy from a materialistic view of history – as this is the “red thread” that informs his acutely personal, enormously well documented point of view, in which he quietly, humorously, debunks clichés. For example, a funky, low budget car-chase flick such as H. R. Hilicky’s Gone in 60 Seconds (the 1974 original, not Dominic Sena’s 2000 remake), a gay porn like Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself (1972), some film noirs – Andersen spends quality time with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – or even Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man (Un Homme est mort, 1972) embody a form of first-degree materialism about the representation of Los Angeles, which Andersen terms “literalism”. Real spaces are shown, filmmakers pay attention to details taken for granted or ignored by mainstream filmmakers, the exact topology is respected, so a car does not jump from Venice Beach to San Pedro, or the wrong vista not displayed through the windows of the protagonist. On the other hand, Andersen is much more critical of two legendary films usually written about as having captured “the essence” of Los Angeles: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997). He brilliantly demonstrates the elitist ideology underlying these fictions: if the development of Los Angeles is made of secret shady deals, then public participation is discouraged, and political cynicism takes its place. Contrary to a “conspiracy” version of history, the land and water deals, the expulsion of the residents of Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine, the corruption and violence of the police – all of this unfolded in front of the public eye.

Yet, the amount of information conveyed by the voice over (read by independent filmmaker Encke King) is never ponderous, pedantic or trivial. Andersen treads over the few hundred films he excerpts and dissects as elegantly and skilfully as a surfer, and the 169 minutes of the piece (spread over three parts) crackle with wit. He discusses the importance of car mobility in Los Angeles through the narrative effects of Jack Nicholson’s having his vintage vehicle shot at in Chinatown, then segues back in time to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), noting that it starts when Joe Gillis’ car, threatened with repossession, suffers a flat tire in front of Norma Desmond’s mansion. Cut to Gloria Swanson shooting William Holden. “He did not have a car”, comments Andersen dryly. “So he died”. Through another summersault, the film then takes us along the long walks, bus rides and pedestrian neighbourhoods of the people who live without a car: the Arizona Indians of Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), the African Americans of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1982) – three films he praises for their neo-realistic approach.

Peranson compares Los Angeles Plays Itself to Godard’s Histoires du cinéma – while Andersen acknowledges a more direct influence in Mark Rappaport’s Rock Huckson’s Home Movies (1992), From the Journal of Jean Seberg (1995) and Color Me Lavender (1998). The three filmmakers have produced analytical essay films (tinged with philosophical melancholia, parodic overtones, or this sense of consummate erudition in which Borges saw the essence of the modern fantastic) whose raw material is the history of cinema itself, conceived as an intricate dialectic between the history of forms, the ideological/historical context and the narrative content versus the “index of reality” that makes any film a documentary of sorts, no matter how flawed and twisted. These essay-films prove cinema as a mature art form, capable of reflecting upon itself, and of involving the spectator in such active reflection. The idea thus was to continue the dialogue within the context of Vancouver – as a city whose urban development was planned precisely to avoid the “mistakes” of Los Angeles (detailed in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz – another source of inspiration for Andersen along with Gilles Deleuze).

As a critic/curator, Peranson enacted this dialogue through a choice of films. Some were already referenced in Andersen’s piece, such as Kiss Me Deadly, The Exiles, Bless Their Little Hearts, The Outside Man, Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). Peranson added two experimental films Andersen had not included but is actually quite fond of, Pat O’Neill’s Water and Power (1989) and James Benning’s minimalist Los (2001), the second part of his trilogy on the Southland – that includes El Valley Centro (2000) and Sogobi (2002). Each film is composed of 35 fixed shots lasting two-and-a-half minutes, composed like photographic tableaux, with sync sound but without a commentary. At the end, a list of the locations is given, with the name of the corporation that owns them. The final effect, while understated, is brutal. Shot in and around Los Angeles proper, Los (Latino slang for the City of Angels) is probably the most urban of James Benning’s films since he left New York City in the late 1980s – yet, like the structure of the city itself, it is a “reluctant” urban mode that keeps encroaching upon and being encroached by remnants of increasingly polluted nature.

Twenty-Nine Palms

A more unexpected choice was Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-Nine Palms (France, 2003), which was received with surprise and sarcasm. At first, I hated the film. I know all-too-well (I was there once) the naive utopian fallacy that drives the French toward the California desert, and it irritates the hell out of me. On the other hand, I am quite impressed by Dumont’s work, especially his first film, The Life of Jesus (La Vie de Jésus, 1997), in which he combines a fine analysis of the dreary social forces at work in a small town in Northern France with an even darker subtext – the raw, unexplained power of sex. So I was saddened to see him waste his talent on what I thought was trivial material. A self-satisfied dude with a car fetish (most French men buy or rent cars too big for them when they arrive in Los Angeles) goes on a location shoot in the Joshua Tree area with his Eastern-European girlfriend. In true Eurotrash fashion they speak a combo of accented French and English, complain they don’t understand each other, get on each other’s nerves, eat pizza, and the only thing they have in common is sex, sex and then sex again. On the sand, in the swimming pool, in the car, on the bed. Finally, unexpected violence erupts from the utopian space of the desert, as if from the Gates of Hell, under the guise of brutish bad guys driving an ever bigger, more compact car, and sex turns into a nightmare.

After the late-night screening, a bunch of us critics were surrounding Mark, trying to understand why such a smart guy had chosen such a film (that’s true, he liked Brown Bunny…). And then one of us, who really did not like the film, said “but I was never bored”. Twenty-Nine Palms stayed with me and I spent the next few days thinking about it. In a way, it got under my skin the way Zabriskie Point (now redeemed by Andersen) used to. None of them are realistic films, but they try to articulate some of our (uncomfortable) feelings about Los Angeles, “the city that turned land into a desert”, says Davis. Like most of American history, that of Los Angeles can be read as a parable of “used innocence” (to borrow the title of one of Benning’s earlier films). Retreating into sex won’t save us. The horror genre was born in Germany, but it became downright American – and this is what Twenty-Nine Palms attempts to address.

As films echo films, and then echo critical discourses that eventually turn into films – my subjecthood being addressed by both Andersen’s and Peranson’s collages, I couldn’t help noticing a certain (structural?) absence. No films by women in the section. There must have been female directors who made films about Los Angeles (actually, I know a few). The case for Andersen is more complex – for he does include a few films by women, such as a scintillating excerpt of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and alludes to some of Amy Heckerling’s films before poking a healthy fun at Diane Keaton-the-director. Yet the most impressive female presences in Los Angeles Plays Itself are Double Indemnity‘s Phyllis Dietrichson and the incomparable Maya Deren, “mother” of American experimental cinema. Quite a pantheon of women indeed. And something to think about.

Endnotes

  1. In 1997, the English title of the film was listed as Shinjuku Black Society, but subsequent program notes about Miike Takashi change it to Shinjuku Triad Society.
  2. At the VIFF, the film was presented under the English title Men and Women. However, when Cheng-Sim Lim and I programmed it as part of the “New Chinese Cinema” series at the UCLA Film and Television Archives in December 1999, we opted for Men Men Women Women, a translation closer to the original Chinese title.
  3. The complete list (so far) of Cui Zi’en’s features is as follows: Enter the Clowns (Choujue Dengchang, 2001), The Old Testament (2002), Keep Cool and Don’t Blush (Lian Bu Bianshi Xin Butiao, 2002), Feeding Boys, Ayaya (Ayaya, Qu Buru, 2003), An Interior View of Death (Siwang de Neijing, 2003), The Narrow Path (Wu Yu, 2003), Night Scene (Ye Jing, 2003). In addition to appearing in his films and starring in Men Men Women Women, he also has a cameo in Ning Ying’s I Love Beijing ( Xiari Nuanyangyang, 2001) and a supporting part in Andrew Cheng’s Welcome to Destination Shanghai. In 2001, he organised the first gay and lesbian film festival in China. Maybe it’s not so bad to be suspended from teaching!
  4. I reviewed the film in Senses of Cinema, Issue 22 Sept-Oct 02: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/love_hk.html
  5. For reasons of fairness and accuracy, I have to mention here that Gina was my student and mentee a few years ago at the California Institute of the Arts – a time during which she made some of her diary films. However, Invisible Light was completed a couple of years after her graduation. I will add that three films I discuss in the later part of this article, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Los, and Bless Their Little Hearts were directed by some of my colleagues at CalArts.
  6. Montrelay continues: “Every occurrence of a sexual kind (puberty, erotic experiences, maternity, etc.) happens to her as if it came from another (woman): every occurrence is the fascinating actualisation of the femininity of all women, but, above all, of the mother… In the self-love she bears herself, the woman cannot differentiate her own body from that which was ‘the first object.” Michèle Montrelay, “Inquiry into Femininity” in French Femnist Thought: a Reader, Toril Moi, ed. Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford and London, 1987, p. 237.
  7. I am not talking about the films that recount the private lives or love affairs of female photographers, that are a dime a dozen, and about as interesting as films made about female corporate lawyers or fashion designers – the profession is there to endow the heroines with middle-class living, photogenic loft spaces, interesting places to go to and cool people to bed. Very few films take the female gaze (and what hinders, blocks, restricts or prevents it) as their subject. A Smile does.
  8. For a discussion of this film see my article, “Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary”, Senses of Cinema Issue 28 Nov-Dec 2003