A Day on the Planet

It is recorded in an article titled “La vie utile des vues cinématographiques” in La Nature in 1897 that the effective life-span of a frame of film, if it is to perform its due function – that is, to be exhibited – is no more than one-and-one-third seconds. This luminous frame is more ephemeral in its existence than, say, fireworks, which last several seconds (1). So it is that when we sit engulfed in the sweet darkness of the theatre watching a film, we are in effect actively participating in its decay. Perhaps the organisers of the 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival have a solemn understanding of this ritual of death, and as a gesture of respect, before each screening (there are no advertisements on screen and no announcements of any sort), the house lights and all light sources are turned off completely. In this interval, we see only the darkness – we see ourselves seeing nothing – and the audience hushes itself. Thirty seconds later, the screen in front of our eyes is illuminated.

Arriving two days after opening night, I couldn’t have chosen better films as my own “opening films”: Yukisada Isao’s A Day on the Planet (2003) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), two very different films that nonetheless share an interest in the lives of a certain generation. It is on the verge of adulthood that one finds oneself landed in the precocious and the beguiling years of university; of quick friendships and the enchantment of being quietly acquainted with a feeling of newness all around. Both films convey this spellbinding enchantment beautifully.

The small slips of stories (recalling Kafka’s fragmentary diary, “Conversation Slips”, kept towards the end of his life) that make up A Day on the Planet are centred around the stranding of a whale on a deserted beach. An incident that is no more than a two- or three-minute news item for a group of university students in their Kyoto house is a life-changing experience for a young girl, who had come to the beach to end her life. These fragmentary stories are told in an achronological manner from different perspectives, so that the audience’s sense of the connections between characters, places and events grow as the film progresses. This independent film has received a fair amount of attention back home in Japan and has made its way around the festival circuit in Asia. There are some amusing moments in this otherwise unassuming film: the change in the demeanour of the boys as they band together (as if by sacred vow) in front of a Playstation II; or the haloed light of a bus-sized bill-poster which had three of the characters drive for miles, just to eat the huge plate of crabs on offer.

Director Yukisada Isao was present at the screening with one of the stars of the film, Tanaka Rena, who is gorgeous and was dressed in the hippest gear I’d seen since arriving in Hong Kong. A teen idol back in Japan, Rena spoke demurely of her delight in making the film, and hoped that we would take as much pleasure in viewing it. Her slight speech received thunderous applause from a full house at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre auditorium – her reception was nothing short of stellar. Isao was more serious in describing his art, stating that he liked to focus on the inconsequential, things that people wouldn’t normally even notice, and how these small things ultimately comprise the entire universe. And indeed, in many of the film’s images, the macro and the micro are juxtaposed. In one scene, Rena’s character has just woken up from her drunken sleep in the car and sees her boyfriend standing outside, quietly talking to her girlfriend. They are at her boyfriend’s old school – the quiet building is like a giant standing solemnly in the dark, full of secrets kept in its long winding corridors and wide stark schoolrooms. As if sensing this interior history, Rena slips out and asks her boyfriend about his childhood. In another scene, a young schoolgirl arrives at a beach in the middle of winter. She sits on the sand for a long time, looking at the ocean, then starts to take off her shoes, socks and jumper, but as she walks towards the tumbling waves, a whale screams as it is stranded helpless on the beach. She reaches out to it, her hand tiny against the whale’s enormous head. She turns and runs for help. This day on the planet is one where she finds salvation – not a time for suicide, but a time for understanding the preciousness of life.

The Dreamers

The Dreamers is an abandonment of real life, to live instead in “reel” life, within the confines of twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo’s (Louis Garrel) Parisian apartment. The Dreamers is Bertolucci’s love-letter to cinema; not so much in the sense of “what film is this?” – as in the charades-like game played by the twins and their willing captive, an American exchange student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), and a game that I am sure had audiences guessing as well. No, the film is not so much a wink at the film buff who knows all the answers to the game, but a nod of respect towards the cinephile, a motion towards keeping films alive, by quoting from them – a line, a gesture, how to wear one’s hair, or the way to hold a cigarette. As she walks along the deserted streets at night with Theo and Matthew, Isabelle announces “I entered this world on the Champs Élysées in 1959 and my first words were ‘New York Herald Tribune’.” The frame cuts to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959), where we see the tree-lined Champs and a call-to-call exchange between Isabelle and Jean Seberg ensues with the swell of the film’s jazzy soundtrack – and in a flash another world appears to me: Anna Karina, Alphaville (Godard, 1965), Vivre sa vie (Godard, 1962), Lulu, Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Wong Kar-wai, Tony Leung, Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), Tsai Ming-liang, Jean-Pierre Léaud, the Cinémathèque Française – like Proust’s madeleines. It is moments like these that cinema becomes more alive than ever.

The film commences in February 1968 (Matthew meets the twins at a protest calling for Henri Langlois’ reinstatement after his sacking from the Cinémathèque) and is largely set in the months leading up to and into the riots of May ’68. Although history largely has it that this “revolution” was a failed one, Bertolucci’s film offers a different kind of revolution – one that ultimately never ends. This type of revolution exists not so much as an act, but one that endures in the freedom of the individual, in intellect and passion; “a poem is a petition, a petition a poem”, as Theo and Isabelle’s poet father says. The poetry of cinema lies in the way it can change the way we look at the world, as with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) or Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983); or experience percepts differently, as our experience of time is different in the films of Alain Resnais to those of Bela Tarr or different again with Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) or India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975). In an interview with Bertolucci about how he came to select the films he had inserted into The Dreamers, he recalls a particular time in his youth when his life was irreversibly changed by cinema. At the time, he was writing poetry and intending to follow the footsteps of his father, a much-loved poet in Italy. Then, he saw Breathless, and later, La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). He thought Fellini’s film was extraordinary. These two films connected with him in such a powerful way that they made him realise his life’s passion was for the cinematic arts (2).

As with previous years, this year’s festival was an absolute tribute to the love of cinema. Two full-scale retrospectives, Ernst Lubitsch: A Touch of Paradise and Shimizu Hiroshi: 101st Anniversary, were presented, as were smaller tributes to Hong Kong actors Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, both of whom we lost in the past year, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and Hong Kong art director William Chang. There were two directors in focus, contemporary Korean director Kim Ki-duk and Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka. The films represented in the “Asian DV Competition” and the “Firebirds Awards for Young Cinema” looked excellent, although I am sad to say I didn’t get to sample any. The Golden DV was awarded to Incense (Ning Hao, 2003) and the Golden Firebird to South of the Clouds (Zhu Wen, 2004), which also took the FIPRESCI Prize.

My Hong Kong cinema focus began with Wong Kar-wai: five of his films were represented in the retrospectives of Leslie Cheung and William Chang. Seeing some of his earlier works such as As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1991) and Ashes of Time on 35mm was a rare treat. Reaffirming my long-held belief, Ashes of Time proved again to be one of the great works of cinema; its fragmentary nature, the long periods of inaction and the blurred but beautifully shot and step-printed (3) action sequences all come to displace the narrative of Jin Yong’s serial novel, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, on which it was based. Wong took to inventing not so much a prologue or an epilogue for the serial, but rather a new history for the characters, which alters our relationship with and memory of the original story. Happy Together (1997) is a beautiful, melancholic meditation on Hong Kong’s future: it looked to Hong Kong post-1997 and was filmed in Argentina, the part of the world that is directly opposite Hong Kong when you extend an imaginary line through the globe. Here, the cinematographic art of Christopher Doyle and the art direction of William Chang work together exquisitely to create a feeling of love-lost and the need to “start over”, to quote the motto of Leslie’s character in the film. In the Mood for Love (2000) was as sumptuous as ever, especially seen in context with Wong’s other films. The panel for “Works of William Chang” comprised veteran film critic Li Cheuk-to (who chaired the session), Yank Wong and Bryan Chang, with Jimmy Ngai and Keeto Lam, who both have had the experience of collaborating with Wong and Chang, and were able to give much “inside information” on Chang’s working methods. In this informative seminar Chang was described as a very detailed and meticulous artist, often creating haute couture rather than drama costumes. He creates an image, such as Brigitte Lin’s character in Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983) or Maggie Cheung’s character in In the Mood for Love, rather than simply dressing an actress for a film. Most of the special pieces that he makes are hand-sewn, taking care that the weight and texture of the fabric can be seen on film.

Having missed Ann Hui’s opening night film Goddess of Mercy (2003), I was delighted to catch her July Rhapsody (2001), marking Anita Mui’s last screen appearance. Mui’s presence in this muted film was striking. Her composure, which on the surface seemed to be slight and unassuming, was given over to those heavy-lidded eyes and full lips of hers, weighed down by melancholy – of an unfinished business, an unresolved past. The palette of the film is certainly rhapsodic, all cool, haunting greys. Hui’s direction of Jacky Cheung and Karena Lam, as a potential history that flirts at repeating its cycle, is remarkable in its bittersweet simplicity.

It is possible to see how the Infernal Affairs trilogy (directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) was said to have rescued the flagging Hong Kong film industry, with an urban stylishness that marks a return of the Hong Kong noir. Infernal Affairs (2002) is my favourite, now having seen the other two. The casting is superb; Tony Leung’s face in this film is so supple and malleable that it is like plasticine, which is in stark contrast to Andy Lau’s features, which in recent years have become more and more chiselled and defined, all sharp jaw-line and jutting cheekbones. They are two very handsome and fine actors and I’m sure were cast not only because of their star-quality, but also because of the impact of their facial contrast on a big screen. It is the palpable quality that the stars bring to the film, coupled with some of the most beautiful panoramic images of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, rather than the script or direction – respectively too many holes and too much explaining – that make this film a hit. Infernal Affairs II (2003), voted film of the year by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, is a prequel to the first film, and returns the triad to the Mongkok backdrop – a wise move, considering that many of us are nostalgic about John Woo action flicks and this film was obviously made in the wake of the hype of the first installment. Infernal Affairs III (2003) sees the return of Tony Leung and Andy Lau, but this time I guess I was too jaded about the film’s (understandable) need for a good box-office run to put up with its potboiler direction and plot.

In the “Indie Power” section, Vincent Chui’s Fear of Intimacy (2004) is much more successful in espousing noir qualities than the large-scale and heavy-handed Infernal Affairs III. I haven’t seen Tony Leung Kar-fai act for a long time and, in fact, not since his exceptional performance in Ashes of Time have I seen him act this well. Leung is a great supporter of independent cinema in Hong Kong and although the session I attended was far from a full house, I hope his presence in this film will make a difference to its reception when it hits the theatres. The direction reminds me of Claude Sautet: evenly paced and without huge revelations. It reads like a thriller, but is actually a look into relationships and how they affect us – the stuff that we carry around inside of us that we may not necessarily reveal to the world, but which nonetheless continues to haunt us. The film brilliantly captures this inner anxiety and builds upon it, spilling over into the mise en scène, which dominates the film with its atmosphere of gloominess. It was good to see a non-Chinese face in a lead role – Michelle Saram is excellent starring opposite Leung.

The Missing (2003) works well viewed alongside Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003, the closing film of this year’s HKIFF). Although I didn’t see the latter at the festival, I feel that these two films had a dialogue with each other, as indicated by their Chinese titles – Bu Jian and Bu San respectively – meaning “to not see each other [but] not to part”. The Missing is the first feature by Lee Kang-sheng, the actor who has worked with Tsai in almost every one of his films. I don’t think the Hong Kong audience had much patience for Lee’s filmmaking style (people coughed and shuffled in their seats throughout the whole film), in which, like Tsai’s, the dimension of real time is agonising when rendered as cinematic time, especially for the more fast-paced Hong Kong people. And even with Australia’s more laid-back lifestyle, audiences at the Sydney Film Festival this year didn’t take much to Goodbye, Dragon Inn‘s absence of plot. Tsai opted instead for a camera consciousness, which opens up an “invisible” world of cinematic image. For example, in the film’s opening shot, the frame is obscured by the billowing curtains that marks the entrance to the theatre where King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) is screening. The curtains become the frame itself as the slit sometimes open up a bit more to reveal a glimpse of the film on screen. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a beautiful elegy to a cinema that once was so cherished.

In the Face of Demolition

In the past few years, The Hong Kong Film Archive has been restoring, and collecting data on, films made in the early periods of Hong Kong cinema history. They are now charting the ’60s and showcasing a number of films from the ’50s, under the title “Novel. Drama. Melodrama”. I caught Lee Tit’s In the Face of Demolition (1953) just to relive the familiar faces of Cheung Ying and Ng Chor-fan. Faces that are buried deep in my childhood memory, and the idea of seeing a Cantonese drama, affectionately called “Yuit yu charn pian” (literally meaning “a tattered old ruined piece of film”) was very pleasing to me at the time (4). But what I found was a lineage that belongs to such directors as Wong Kar-wai, whose In the Mood for Love is more textured when seen as a palimpsest over this film: the over-crowded apartment with its partitioned rooms and nosey neighbours, the noodle-stall at the end of the street, and even the love between the two main characters that must be suppressed rather than expressed – distance in proximity.

Stan Brakhage’s experimental films interested me as an undergrad, but failed to captivate me the same way this time round. “Stan Brakhage Programme 2” contained the 75 minute Dog Star Man (1961–64) and the three minute short, Mothlight (1963), which was immensely more interesting and makes evident in such a short time the materiality of the film strip, its durability and also its fragile nature. Perhaps it didn’t help that the first instalment (of four) of Dog Star Man was played twice, consecutively, as the wrong reel was sent to the festival. Brakhage expert Fred Camper’s apology did little to revive my interest.

My renewal of interest in the avant-garde came with Mike Hoolboom’s Imitation of Life (2003). Not knowing anything about this Canadian experimental filmmaker, I found his film to be as thought-provoking as Marker’s essay-films. Beautifully written, his prose was a mosaic of thoughts, of memories that threaten at any time to slip into oblivion. The first episode was titled “Jack”, a framing of his nephew from six months to four years, but in the end, I found myself unable to distinguish between the images I was seeing and the reality of the story I was being told. I am still unsure of what I was seeing, it was difficult to tell as the images were distorted by jolting camera movements and special digital effects, but the last few minutes of this episode were of what looked like a heavily-bandaged child, lying motionless on a hospital bed. The line of narrative created by Holboom’s usual soothing voice was silenced and replaced by what sounded like very faint echoes of heartbeats, and these too fell silent. The line between reality and fiction was blurred and I remained distressed to the end. Like the killing of the giraffe in Marker’s Sunless, it is an image that is difficult to grasp, oddly because of its nature – reality. “Peter Kubelka’s Metaphoric Films” (part of his “Cucina of Avant-Garde Cinema”) contained four of his films, which span his career: Mosaik im Vertrauen (1955), Unsere Afrikareise (1966), Pause (1977) and Dichtung und Wahrheit (2003). It is almost impossible to describe the complex differences that come into play in these films, except to say they, for me, extend the limits of the medium of cinema as image, or even cinema as technology, as Kubelka’s cinema, in these four films, is certainly not cinema as can be described by the word “movie”, or even “film”. Pause is, I think, an exceptional achievement; it disassociates the viewer from their normal viewing perception. I don’t know how else to describe it, except in the words of the filmmaker himself, “films can be made without the use of a camera.”

In the “Reality Bites” documentary section, but in the context of experimental art movements, Evans Chan’s film about avant-garde pianist Margaret Leng Tan, Sorceress of the New Piano (2004), offers rare insight into a world of music performance that is challenging as well as poignantly funny. Tan’s performances of avant-garde pianist/performance artist John Cage’s work have made her world famous. But in Chan’s film, her affinity with the “musicality” of an instrument, and her approach in her search for this potential, is revealed to be a mental as well as a performative (thus physical) state, much like the art of Tai Chi. Throughout the film, I remember wondering about the current performance (“performing” would be the more appropriate word) of John Cage’s Organ 2/ASLSP. This “as slow as possible” performing on a specially-constructed organ built into an old church of St Burchardi, will conclude 639 years after it began at midnight 5 September 2001. In comparison, Tan’s gamelan-sounding toy piano performances paled in scope, but not in her solemn quest for extending the boundaries set by use-value of an instrument.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003) was a more traditional affair, although its material is controversial, as the father (a teacher) and the youngest son were charged with sexually abusing young kids who visited their house for group and private tuitions. I think what adds to Andrew Jarecki’s documentary is the presence of the home-video footage taken by one of the sons, which captures at crucial junctures – the day before the verdict, and then, the day before his father is to serve his life sentence – the surreal calmness and placid smile on his father’s face. These moments seem to be all the more strange when the viewer considers that all the members of this family’s lives are about to be shattered, and yet there they were, having breakfast and talking about what clothes they’re going to wear.

In the “Gala Presentation” section, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) deserves all the praise it has been receiving. Its meandering-time beautifully and hauntingly circles around the climax, as something that is just out of sight but inevitable. Its photography is incredible; you don’t really get disoriented from its detours in time or of the school grounds, and yet you never get bored with what is happening on screen. The film captivated and astonished in the way its narrative unfolds, as if without any effort on anyone’s part. Van Sant’s decision to use POV shots to depict the killings, or his choice to simply cut away when a gun is about to be fired – rather than using long-shots which would show the action and thereby dramatise the event – really impresses upon the audience the almost mechanical nature and the absence of force on the part of the killers. In most of the shots, students are not depicted as a hysterical and terrified bunch, but are seen silently (except for the screech of rubber-soles against polished floors) and desperately running for their lives. The casting of non-professional actors added so much to the reality of the piece; each character is beautifully drawn and openly draws the audience in.

The unashamedly auteurist “Master Class” section, despite its rich pickings, was sorely disappointing, or, rather, I was disappointed with the films I had chosen to see. Jacques Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien (2003) undermines the audience’s intelligence. The repetitive unfolding of the story, told from each character’s perspective and finally together as “their story”, is a process that reveals more with each re-telling. This process is, unlike Elephant, a clumsy and somewhat boring endeavour. There is no need for us to be treated in this manner; the ghosts that haunt this film (unlike the ghosts who do not want to leave Goodbye, Dragon Inn) threatened to drive us out of the theatre. Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son (2003) threatened to do the same. Shot in a claustrophobic manner, with the camera caressing the faces of the father and son, with soft filters and an intimate opening scene, this film was, strangely, able to intrigue and bore me at the same time. Although I haven’t seen its companion piece Mother and Son (1997), I was quite taken with his monumental work Russian Ark (2002), once I had the good sense to tell myself that I shouldn’t be thinking about its technical achievements, a preoccupation which could have ruined the film for me. No amount of good judgement prepared me for Peter Greenaway’s disappointing and almost unwatchable The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (2003). For those who like the work of Lars von Trier, this film would perhaps be more acceptable viewing. But here I found the usually multi-layered and densely textured direction of Greenaway to be gratuitous rather than innovative (as in The Pillow Book [1996]). The collage of trinkets, found objects and memorabilia, which are contained in each suitcase, would make exquisite installations at an art museum and in these segments the image is as rich and luscious as his other films. But other than these moments – which are few and far between – the viewer is subject to an uninteresting protagonist and with that, his story failed to capture me. This film has been described as Greenaway’s ur-cinema, which has spawned television shows, websites and a host of DVDs; but not for this viewer. Raul Ruiz’s That Day (2003) was moderately better than the other offerings. But knowing what Ruiz is capable of – Time Regained (1999), Three Crowns of a Sailor (1983) – this piece is lightweight in comparison. Although you can read it as a political allegory, commenting on capitalism and monopoly, the images and narrative are not challenging the aesthetic or intellectual spheres of cinema. The narrative is quirky rather than metaphoric, its satirical nature is infused by doses of black humour, with some images that are really quite menacingly dark and funny – like the gathering of dead bodies around the dinner table (where they have been “forced” to sit and dine, as guests) and one by one, their twisted faces (a reflection of their ideals) come to “live” from the onset of rigor mortis. Perhaps I have missed something, but this film makes for comfortable viewing, whilst I expected something more extraordinary from this usually astounding director.

Time of the Wolf

Which brings me to the last film for this report, Time of the Wolf (2003) by Austrian director Michael Haneke. From the moment the film opens a menace saturates the frame. The film – and the ominous mood – begins with a shot of a car, a mid-shot that follows it through the winding lane shaded by trees. Perhaps it is the silence in this scene, maybe it’s because it isn’t your usual establishing shot – the screen seems too wide for the viewer to take in what he/she needs to; the car can be anywhere really, you don’t get to see the people inside, just the car heading somewhere – but the way the frame stalks the car makes one uneasy, much like in Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), a very difficult film to watch. Time of the Wolf surpasses the fear that Funny Games initiated. An unexpected scene confronts the family of four at their destination (their holiday home? – this information was never revealed), where they find the house besieged by another family. Without further warning, the father is shot dead and Anna (Isabelle Huppert), her daughter and young son track back through the roads from which they had come, without their car, clothes, food, husband/father, or any explanation or further dialogue. The viewer experiences the same mysterious dread that they themselves must have been experiencing; the uncertainty of what is to come. The cinematography is astounding; Jürgen Jürges filmed in utmost darkness in one of the scenes, punctuated with the fleeting glow of lit clumps of straw pulled from hay-bales. We are sensory-deprived as well as not being able to make any sense of what is in effect happening to this family. This is not a good place to be and it is a frightening experience. When Anna’s young son Ben (Lucas Biscombe), disappears, there is no explanation, and as a viewer witnessing this, I felt a sheer sense of panic – a humbling exercise in my book. And when “help” finally comes, it is not relief, but more game playing. There is a real sense of fighting for one’s survival, but against what? An evil which is everywhere but nowhere? Or the unseen but ephemeral nature of our own presence?

Endnotes

  1. Cited in Paolo Cherchi Usai’s The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age, BFI, London, 2001, p. 5.
  2. In Colin McCabe’s excellent biography of Godard, he writes of the first time that Bertolucci met Godard. The young Italian director was so overcome with emotion, because of his reverence for Godard and his work, that he promptly and unceremoniously vomited at Godard’s feet. Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of an Artist at 70, Bloomsbury, London, 2003.
  3. Step-printing is a technique used in post-production, where certain frames are edited out of a sequence, whilst others are repeated. This sequence is usually shot at double the speed, at 48 frames per second and then projected at the usual speed of 24 frames per second. This combination produces a “smudge-motion” effect – where details that would normally come into view from slow-motion sequences (usually used in films to explicitly show action sequences like explosions of buildings etc), become smudged or blurred. As a result, the viewer’s perception of the on-screen action is compromised (we can’t see what is going on) and altered (we are seeing something entirely new, not slow-motion, not freeze-frame, but somewhere in-between the two).
  4. These are my own phonetical translations of the names of the actors and the phrase that is used and are not standardised translations or pinyin equivalents.

About The Author

Janice Tong is completing her PhD in Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney. Her thesis is a study on love, time and memory in the films of Wong Kar-wai. She has recently published a paper on the director in the anthology Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes and has a piece on Georges Bataille and Pier-Paolo Pasolini in the philosophy journal Contretemps.