November 1-12, 2006
The American Film Institute Festival (AFI), now with its twin shadow, the American Film Market (AFM), is a double-entry affair. On the one hand, it serves as a testing ground for soon-to-be-released US films or foreign film bought by major US distributors; on the other hand it constitutes an open window to the world (as well as to a few independent US productions) that Angelenos, living in the most self-absorbed and narcissistic film city in the world, have much to be grateful for – even if some of the curatorial choices are disappointing.
So – first, AFI 2006 was the year the three hours of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (world premiered last September in Venice to somewhat stunned audiences) entered our lives. We knew (alas) that the film wouldn’t be much a box-office success, but we could intensely rejoice at seeing Lynch at the top of his artistic form. Inland Empire deserves a much longer analysis, but, for the time being, I’ll just drop a few notes.
There has been a tension in Lynch’s oeuvre between his blissfully non-narrative approach and the necessity in which he often found himself to produce fiction. Eraserhead (1977), parts of Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001) belong to the first vein – while The Elephant Man (1980) – which I like – and Lost Highway (1997) – which I don’t – belong to the second. In-between lie the works initially conceived for serial television, such as the ever-brilliant Twin Peaks (1990-91), in which narrative tropes fit into each other like Chinese boxes, opening up toward a vanishing point leading to the next box, and annihilating each other under the sheer accumulation of clues, false leads, red herrings, manufactured suspense and other usurpation of identity. Mulholland Drive had originally been conceived as the pilot for a series, which is why its first half is so exhilarating, but the second gets stuck in painstaking narrative “resolutions” that the genre of a feature film seemed to demand. Even Blue Velvet, usually considered one of Lynch’s best works, has an awkward ending, from that point of view, as if Lynch felt he had to respond to the narrative expectations he had created, and yet was reluctant to do so.
Inland Empire represents a triumphant liberation – or, to borrow the words of producer Mary Sweeney, “a return to the obsessive experimentation of Eraserhead”; shooting in digital video, without a script, at his own pace, with limited pressure (the film took two and a half-years to complete), Lynch has constructed a fascinating labyrinth based on a free-floating association not of ideas or narrative structures, but of images (from what I learnt, the image that triggered the flow of the film was that of the bunny-rabbit – a Lewis Carrollian figure lost in a post-modern universe). Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire is also an (affectionate) critique of Hollywood – but, as the title indicates, from a much more distant point of view. The street called “Mulholland Drive” is very much in the heart of the extension of Hollywood toward the West of Los Angeles – while “Inland Empire” is a mixed area (bedroom communities and industries) regrouping a couple of counties North of Los Angeles proper (anyhow, Lynch was apparently denied permit to shoot in the Inland Empire cities – at some point, a secondary character mentions going there, that’s all!).
Towards the end, the splendid Laura Dern, stabbed in the guts by a screwdriver, bleeds to death on the Hollywood wall of fame, surrounded by street hookers, homeless drug addicts and a waif-like Japanese girl that delivers one of the most surreal monologues heard in recent cinema. In between, she will have been shuttled between her pristine mansion in Beverley Hills, to the Raleigh Studios soundstage, and, through the door of one of the decors, into a maelstrom of actions shot (apparently) in Lódz, Poland, in which her reality collides and is mirrored by an altogether different narrative involving a “lost girl” who may or may not be a prostitute – or a wife looking for her husband – crying silently at a TV screen in which actors wearing rabbit heads perform a series of mundane actions to a pre-recorded laugh tracks. Talent include the ever-surprising Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks‘ Log Lady) in an uncanny version of the lady-next-door, Jeremy Irons as a film director, Harry Dean Stanton as his wise-cracking assistant, Justin Theroux as a movie star – performers from a Polish circus – and a retinue of Lynch habitués or well-known figures of the independent film world (Nastassja Kinski, Diane Ladd, William H. Macy, Naomi Watts) – some of them not quite visible on-screen, because, as you learn, after peeling your eyes trying to find them, they were the rabbits voices!
Gala screenings of major films soon-to-be-released included two films by seasoned filmmakers – Pedro Almodovar’s luminous Volver, and Bong Joon-ho’s terrific Gwoemul (The Host) – but also Zhang Yimou’s Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower), Emilio Estevez’s Bobby and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Special mention should be made of Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) by first-time Egyptian director Marwan Hamed that was shown last year at the AFM (see my report in Senses), was selected by Berlin, London and Tribeca and enjoyed a nice commercial run in the spring/summer in France. This was the first time the production company, Good News Group (currently at work on a few other titles), was investing in a presence at the AFM, and hopefully it paid off. On the other hand, AFI 2006 was the year Glue (Historia Adolescente en Medio de la Nada) by Alexis Dos Santos – a fine example of the renaissance currently experienced by Argentine cinema – finally reached American shores (albeit to uncertain commercial future) after a triumphant run in the international festival circuit (Buenos Aires, Rotterdam, Toronto, London, San Sebastian, Vienna). A number of films from the Arab or African Diaspora also received their Los Angeles premiere at the AFI and resurfaced in February at the PanAfrican Film Festival in the African-American neighbourhood of Crenshaw. One of them, the Moroccan/Algerian/Belgian/French co-production of Rachid Bouchared’s Indigènes (Days of Glory), had been picked up by the Weinstein Brothers – who may have been responsible for the inappropriately triumphant English title and the careful excision of the word “Allah” in the subtitles (an illiterate Berber peasant is repeatedly heard saying “there is no other deity than God!” – while the accurate translation, all over the Islamic world, is “there is no other God than Allah!”). Indigènes had played an important political role in France by forcing the government to make an about-turn about its official position on the payment of pensions to WWII veterans of coming from the West and North African colonies – and by reclaiming the role played by the African units in the French army. Yet, without this context (that was inadequately perceived by US critics and audiences, maybe because of the stupid title), it is just another banal war movie – with beautiful young men fighting, killing and dying – except they are called Saïd, Yassir, Messaoud or Abdelkader, have brown skins and dark eyes and are facing French colonialist racism as well as German bullets.
From Tunisia came the sumptuous Bab’Aziz by veteran filmmaker Nacer Khamir, an expensive co-production with France, Switzerland and Iran, in which the tropes of the Arabian Nights (dovetailing story telling and wandering throughout the Middle East) are adapted to the genre of the mystical quest (the avowed goal is a reunion of dervishes) perceived through the eyes of a little girl, Ishtar. From London, Ngozi Onwurah’s The Messenger is an acerbic satire of Black British middle-class life – marred by a television aesthetics. The “African Voices” section also included two films from South Africa, John Barker’s Bunny Chow: Know Thyself and Norman Maake’s Homecoming – but, to discover Abderrhamane Sissoko’s Bamako – definitely the best African movie of the year – Angelinos has to wait for the Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAAF), or for the commercial release by New Yorker Films.
A similar absence structured the “Asian New Classics” Section: Jia Zhang-ke’s films were nowhere to be seen. Yet the AFI, as well as the AFM, allowed for some Chinese films that may never get distribution in the US, to be seen and talked about. The most significant was Jiang Cheng Xia Ri (Luxury Car), Wang Chao’s third feature after Anyang De Guer (The Orphan of Anyang, 2001) and Ri Ri Ye Ye (Night and Day, 2004). Directed in long, static shots, Orphan clearly announced a new voice in Chinese cinema. The protagonist, a laid-off factory worker, picks up extra cash by caring for the child of a prostitute – then strikes an uneasy relationship with the mother, while she continues turning tricks and tries to escape the mafia boss who fathered her baby. In the less successful Day and Night a mine worker betrays a father figure by sleeping with his boss’s wife – but ends up endorsing the dead man’s identity and completing his work, eradicating his own desires in the process. Wang returns to the problematic, hollowed out function of the father in post-socialist, post-Tiananmen China in Luxury Car as well. Like his previous protagonists, Li Qi Ming (Wu You Cai) is an ineffectual father, who knows nothing and dreams of impossible filiation – he’s also a victim of history, a former “sent down youth” exiled from urban centres during the Cultural Revolution. Now a schoolteacher nearing retirement in a small village, he has seen his son, and then his daughter, leave in search of urban excitements. His son has stopped writing home, and, as his wife is ill with terminal cancer, she would like to see him once more before dying. The last place he was heard of was the industrial city of Wuhan (Hubei Province), where Li’s second child, his daughter Yan Hong (pop singer Tian Yuan, a native of Wuhan), now lives. At the beginning of the film they meet at the station – and while it’s clear to both of them that she’s not the one he has come to visit, she puts him up in the dingy apartment she shares with a girlfriend.
At first, father and daughter live in separate universes that only intersect in rare moments of shared time and mis-recognition. Li engages in a thorough search for his son, finding and loosing leads, interviewing previous co-workers, and eventually enlisting the help of a friendly policeman (Li Yi Qing). Meanwhile Yan Hong is orchestrating an energetic mise en scène to hide the fact that she works in one of these giant “girlie palaces” that have sprout around China with the opening of the market economy, complete with catwalk show and private karaoke rooms. Getting in trouble with one of her customers because “The Boss” (Wang Hong) requires her company while she’s entertaining in a karaoke room, she negotiates the situation by convincing the man to pass for her regular boyfriend and take her father to dinner.
Obsessed by his quest for his son, Li is blind to some of the telltales signs of her daughter’s life: the sexy lingerie drying in the kitchen, a customer of the roommate leaving the apartment. Until, looking for her at her place of employment one day, he is taken by one of the girls to a karaoke room. When the woman realises her mistake, the two world collides. The young bar girl might be turning tricks, but she’s ashamed of having mistaken the father of a colleague for one. And Li understands what his daughter has been up to – and that she may be the one he risks to lose, the one worth taking back home.
I will not spoil the complex, multi-layered resolution of the plot – except to say that the protagonists do not get what they thought they were looking for – but something else. And the “luxury car”? More than a MacGuffin, it is the evil vector of modernity that is destroying so many people’s lives. It is the car driven by the thug/pimp – a car used to impress Li when he is taken by his “future son-in-law” in an outing – a car connected to the death of two men. It will be the gangster’s downfall, while, ironically, allowing Li father and daughter to be liberated from the past. Wang resumes the themes he had so powerfully explored in Orphan – the plight of Chinese people uprooted by a violent industrial revolution who can only sell their bodies or plunge into delinquency to survive; the good girl/bad girl pregnant with a pimp; the uncertain future represented by the infant – but he anchors them in a richer context – such as the clash between the generation who experienced the Cultural Revolution and this new brand of “children of Mao and Coca-Cola” who grew up within a new market economy. More importantly, he structures the mise en scène around two axes: the desire to hide (the daughter wants to conceal her life from her father, the gangster his from the policeman) and the desire not to see (Li’s paradoxical situation during the first half of the film). Luxury Car is a film about the serendipity of the gaze in contemporary China, and the fancy vehicle is its flashy symbol.
Also from mainland China, Yehan (The Banquet) was the first attempt at a period film by the beloved commercial director Feng Xiaogang. To be honest, even though the film had premiered in Venice, I was a bit suspicious – but ended up quite seduced. Contrary to some “Fifth Generation directors” who have become international stars, churn out expensive multi-productions while claiming high and low they are true artists – Feng has never thought of himself as anything else than a good commercial director – and this endearing trait permeates every aspect of his work. Loosely inspired by the story of Hamlet, The Banquet follows the evil deeds of the Gertrude character (wittily played by Zhang Ziyi, who does what she’s really good at: playing shallow bitches) as she falls for the erotic talents of the brother-in-law (an impeccable Ge You) who has killed her husband. Meanwhile her stepson (this way the implication of incest can be safely removed – and Zhang play a young woman rather than a matron: she was the King’s second wife!), played by the heartthrob Daniel Wu, leads the melancholy life of an artist far away, until summoned back to the palace where an Ophelia figure (the always delightful Zhou Xun) pines for him. The Banquet has everything: sex, murder, seduction, suspense, alluring theatrical performances, beautiful décors and costumes – a minor film maybe but a treat nonetheless.
Similarly, in Hong Kong, Johnny To does not think of himself as a genius; like Feng Xiaogang, his output has been multifarious and unequal – but he has become one of the pillars of film production in post-1997 Hong Kong and directed or produced some of the most interesting gangster movies in the territory. Maybe the most ambitious of them, the diptych formed by Hak se wui (Election (2005) and Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Election 2, 2006) – retitled Election and Triad Election at the AFI – plunges into the dark waters of political strife and rivalry within the venerable Wo Sing Triad. Elections for the Chairman have been organised every two years for the last 100 years, and the coveted power symbol is a Baton kept somewhere in Guangdong Province. Each episode follows a different election, and shows the different factions routing for their bosses and committing spectacular acts of violence along the way – including nailing an adversary into a wooden box or coffin, or feeding his flesh to dogs in front of his horrified colleagues. While the “Uncles” of past generations try to keep the tradition and a sense of honour among the Triad, changes are forced by the encroachment of modern management style, and, increasingly, the shadow of mainland China, as the need to negotiate territories and network into this formidable market is felt by any entrepreneur – be he a gangster or a legitimate businessman (and the lines between the two has never been so thin). To’s directorial hand effortlessly reigns over a stellar cast of more than 20 seasoned performers – from Tony Leung Ka-fai, Simon Yam and Louis Koo, to veteran actor Wang Tian-lin as a venerable and forceful “Uncle”, to Zhang Cheh alumnus David Chiang as the police superintendent: as much as a fantastic ensemble piece, a muscular action film, Election is also a crash course in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
In Santa Monica, exhibitors at the AFM had organised a multiplicity of screenings. Fortissimo was showing Wu Qingyuan (The Go Master). A non-traditional biopic of the 90-something Chinese Go Master Wu Qingyuan – who appears in person with his wife in the prologue – the film easily confirms maverick director Tian Zhuangzhuang as the best filmmaker of the Chinese Fifth Generation. Born in China but soon orphaned, Wu proved himself a Go prodigy at the age of seven and moved as a teenager to Japan, where he won tournaments against the most famous masters of the game, and became the protégé of one of them, Segoe Kensaku (Emoto Akira). The increasing tension, then the war between Japan and China in the 1930s puts him in an extremely difficult position – yet Wu marries a young Japanese woman (Itou Ayumi), decides to stay in Japan, and, thanks to a TB infection, finds himself mercifully exempt from military service. Later he and his wife join the Akamanji sect – then leave it in distress after some misdeeds by the Sect leader.
I was profoundly moved by Tian’s elegant mise en scène – the frontal composition of the shots, the way light is sculpted or diffused (in particular, the moment Wu arrives in the fog – or some interior shots that make you think of a marriage between Japanese and Flemish painting). It is no mystery that Yasujiro Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien are two major influences on Tian, but he has adapted the tropes of his masters, the subdued emotion produced by their films, to his own filmic vocabulary. As in his landmark film Horse Thief, or his most recent documentary Delamu, what interests him is a quest for spirituality, for purity, as it is constantly undermined by the ironies of History and society’s imperfections. Here a poor young Chinese man is condemned by his immense mastery of the noble art of Go (that contains a powerful spiritual element) to spend his entire life in a militarised Japan that becomes increasingly hostile – and lives a great love story with a young Japanese woman. Almost unrecognisable (at least in regards to his roles in Happy Together and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Taiwanese actor Chang Chen gives a soulful performance, mixing spiritual detachment with the contained, incandescent anger that may remind viewers the role that had revealed him, when he was still a teenager, in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (interestingly enough, the true protagonist of the news item that had inspired the film, after a long jail term for killing his girlfriend, became a Buddhist monk – and Chang Chen’s performance already suggested this hidden spiritual dimension.)
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong company Focus Film had a screening of the much expected Fu Zi (After This Our Exile) by Patrick Tam. One of the luminaries of the short-lived Hong Kong New Wave, Tam had started his career with a series of ground-breaking television films – before directing eight features, including the epoch-making Nomad (1982). After My Heart is That Eternal Rose (1989), Tam withdrew from filmmaking and took a teaching job in Malaysia, coming back to the territory to edit Days of Being Wild (1991) and Ashes of Time (1994) by Wong Kar-wai – who had written the script for Tam’s Final Victory (1987), and as well as Johnnie To’s Election. Shot entirely in Malaysia (by award-winning Taiwanese DP Mark Lee), After This Our Exile stars Aaron Kwok as Shing, a has-been gambler now covered in debts and working as a cook in a local greasy spoon, taking it out on Lin, the young woman he eloped with years ago (Charlie Young), under the gaze of their 9 year-old son, Boy (Gouw Ian Iskandar). As the Chinese title (“Father/Son”) suggests, we are treated to an unconventional love story between father and son – Boy being so fond of his father that he is willing to take all sorts of abuse from him, while the latter is too self-absorbed to realise the extent of the damage he’s causing.
First, Boy tries to stop his mother from leaving the house to join her lover – but, after one beating too many, Lin finally escapes. Father and son are devastated, but Lin’s friend – her boss in the club where she used to waitress (the fantastic Qin Hailu, of Durian Durian and Chicken Poets fame) – refuses to divulge her whereabouts. Shortly afterwards, Shing is threatened by Mafia thugs to whom he owes gambling money, and the pair has to flee, ending up in a seedy hotel in a small town. There, Shing befriends a prostitute, seduces her, and eventually pimps her. Fleeing the mob again, they are reduced to stealing, and Shing teaches a terrified Boy how to enter people’s houses and seize their valuables, while he stays outside on the look-out. At a turning point of his career, Kwok (who won Best Actor at the last Golden Horse Awards, while Gouw Ian Iskandar received Best Supporting Actor) accurately conveys the mixture of charisma and confusion that defines his character – still capable of seducing his woman as the moment she wants to leave him, yet beating her up a moment later – crying and collapsing when she’s gone – selfish and untrustworthy, yet a hero in the eyes of his son. That is – until it is too late, and the time of our emotional exile starts.