Saturday, February 28, 2009

WONDERCON 2009—Watchmen

"Saturday afternoon at the movies" takes on a distinct slant when you're in the Esplanade Ballroom of San Francisco's Moscone Center, where WonderCon hosts its annual Hollywood blockbuster preview extravaganza. This year a capacity audience of 5,000 fans hooted and hollered at their first in-depth glimpses of Watchmen, Knowing, Astro Boy, Pandorum, Alien Trespass, Star Trek, 9, Up, and Terminator Salvation.

Scheduled to open nationwide Friday, March 6, Zack Snyder's long-awaited, long-debated
Watchmen seems like the best place for me to begin coverage, even though said coverage might prove superfluous since Joseph Perez already taped the ComicCon Watchmen panel and offered it up to Twitch. There have likewise been several entries at Twitch regarding the legal battle over distribution rights, which a search on the site will readily access.

As the official synopsis states it: "A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, the film is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the 'Doomsday Clock'—which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union—is set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed-up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion—a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers—Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity … but who is watching the Watchmen?"

Snyder's film is, of course, based upon the graphic novel Watchmen created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins and originally published by DC Comics as a 12-comic book series between 1986 and 1987, before subsequently being collected into a trade paperback. It is the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award or to be named among Time magazine's "100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present."

Geoff Boucher of the L.A. Times blog Hero Complex expertly moderated a panel comprised of Watchmen creator Dave Gibbons, director Zack Snyder, and the film's core group of "masks", including Malin Akerman (as Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre 2); Billy Crudup (as Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan); Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as Edward Blake, aka the Comedian); Oscar® nominee Jackie Earle Haley (as Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach); and Patrick Wilson (as Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl 2).

Boucher's description of Snyder as "affable" proved more than apt. Snyder's enthusiasm about the film's release was contagious. He's psyched to monitor how the film will be received. Straightaway, he made certain creative decisions to insure the film's strength. Though Tom Cruise had initially expressed interest in the project ("and when Tom Cruise calls you, you have to go"), that dissipated when Cruise became involved in Valkyrie. Besides, Snyder wanted actors not movie stars. His first true casting choice was Patrick Wilson.

The snafus holding up production and the film's theatrical release have been well-documented, not the least of which was the studio's complaint about the film's length. Currently clocking in at approximately 162 minutes—which involved cutting key scenes to satisfy the studio—Snyder promised that the DVD director's cut will be the original 3 hours and 10 minutes. The studios were also concerned about the amount of violence in the film and Dr. Manhattan's "blue nudity", necessitating compromises that Snyder made specifically for the film's theatrical release. Come the DVD, however, Snyder promised that no one would be cheated of their full quota of faux violence and blue nudity.

Snyder then showed a clip of the film's opening sequence of the murder of Edward Blake (in apartment 300, no less)—with its inclusive back story montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin' "—and boasted that his son Eli, one of six children, played the Young Rorschach, following suit of Eli's portrayal of the young Leonidas in Snyder's 300. In fact, Snyder quipped, if he ever does Watchmen Babies, he'll cast all his kids in it.

Asked if there would ever be a sequel to Watchmen, Snyder responded with a weary grin that he would have nothing to do with it if there was. He'd just flown in from Europe where he was repeatedly asked that question by about 40 reporters a day and—though he wouldn't discount the powers-that-be in creating such a sequel—the surprising concept still strikes him as impossible; it would be like writing a sequel to Moby Dick. To the studio's credit, they let Snyder make Watchmen like he wanted; but, suspiciously, they had conceived it as a franchise and initially when they pitched it at Snyder it was a PG-13 treatment with a completely different ending than the graphic novel. They had Dan Dreiberg killing off one of the characters by remote controlling the Owl Ship and crashing it into him. "What is this?" Snyder protested, "This is crazy." The studios backed off and let Snyder adhere more faithfully to the Moore/Gibbons story.

With regard to the stunning opening montage, Snyder admitted he shot even more footage that he couldn't include because Dylan's song was already too long. Some of that edited footage included Blake single-handedly raising the flag at Iwo Jima and Nixon's inauguration. Again, some of that iteration will undoubtedly show up as DVD/Blu-Ray extras. The shoot lasted approximately 104-106 days ("who's counting?"), which was relatively grueling, but some of the first stuff they shot was for the title sequence. Another of the first things they shot was the Christmas scene with Billy Crudup and Janey Slater, even though that was admittedly a strange scene to shoot first. But Billy was a trouper. Dr. Manhattan was "abstract enough" without having to step right into the middle of his characterization. "Oh yeah," Snyder directed Crudup, "it's Christmas, 1967, you're giving your girlfriend Dr. Manhattan-shaped earrings and she's worried that you're too much like a god, so, go ahead!"

Regarding Watchmen's story within a story—the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter featured in issues three, five, eight, nine, ten, and eleven—Snyder was approached about doing something else in conjunction with Watchmen's premiere. Snyder thought it was the perfect opportunity to "trick" those interested into producing Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated film. So around the time Watchmen comes out, there will be a DVD that has "an under-the-hood mock documentary" as well as the animated film of Tales of the Black Freighter (with Gerard Butler as voice talent). Further, an ultimate version of Watchmen—scheduled for a Fall release—will have the whole movie intercut with Tales of the Black Freighter as it is in the graphic novel.

Addressing Dave Gibbons, Boucher stated he couldn't imagine what it would be like for him to see his graphic novel converted to the screen. "Are you getting adjusted to it yet or is it still jolting every time you see it?" Gibbons affirmed the experience was "still completely surreal." When he read Moore's script, he would stop and imagine a movie in his head from which he would draw what he had imagined. Zack's film is the movie Gibbons saw in his head.

Asked where he found the voice for Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley joked he was scrounging around in a dumpster behind his house and there it was. Seriously, however, when he read the graphic novel, that was the voice he heard in his head. There was something about how the speech bubbles were drawn that engendered that. He used that voice on his audition tape for Zack and—though they tried some other things—they returned to Haley's original conception. For a while before every shot he had to scream his voice out to make it appropriately raspy and hoarse.

Boucher asked Malin Akerman about her costume; whether she found strength in wearing it? "I don't ordinarily wear latex or extremely high heels when I fight," Akerman offered, quipping as an aside, "which is constantly … on the streets." The heels proved the hugest challenge. And though the costume was not comfortable, she had to admit it looked fierce. One audience member—ironically costumed as Gotham's Caped Crusader—praised the film's costumes but wondered if the inspiration for Ozymandias's costume wasn't Batman and Robin, what with all the nipple action going on? Snyder responded, "The truth is we worked on a lot of different outfits for Ozy. Ozy was the hardest out there because Dave drew him in gold leotards with a purple tunic and—though that is awesome—you gotta be a helluva native to pull that off." Though they butched him up "just a teeney bit", the nipples kept the spirit.

Being primarily a fine comedic actress, Akerman was asked if it was difficult to prove herself in a serious role? "I was scared shitless," Akerman admitted. "I'm just so glad that Zack had faith in me." Laurie was definitely a woman who was finding herself and figuring out her life, finding true love, experiences all humans have in life. "The only hard part was learning how to fight."

Billy Crudup's challenge was to appear less human as the film wore on. "No problem there," Crudup asserted and added that—more than anything—Dr. Manhattan was distracted. "So I spent a lot of my time thinking about other things like walking on the surface of the sun."

Boucher was curious how difficult it was for Jeffrey Dean Morgan to play such an unsympathetic character such as Edward Blake. "I didn't dislike the guy," Morgan admitted, "who I certainly should dislike. I sympathized with him in a way. And in talking to Zack before and during shooting, what I found to be fascinating and important was to make Blake somehow human in the midst of killing, raping, and pillaging throughout the world." On a related line of questioning, a woman in the audience asked if there was any scene in the movie he looked forward to shooting or dreaded shooting? "I loved the rape scene," Morgan smiled. "I certainly couldn't get to that fast enough. [You're probably thinking,] 'He seemed so nice on Grey's Anatomy.' " Suddenly suspecting he was being taken seriously, Morgan assured us he was being sarcastic. Another audience member asked if he would ever do a role where he didn't die? "I'm not entirely sure," he grinned. "This whole death thing's been pretty good to me."

Noting that Patrick Wilson's character was probably the one that audiences most identified with and through whose eyes the story was seen, Boucher wondered if Wilson felt that way himself? Wilson replied that—if he could put everyone else down—his character had the most heart. The audience pulls for Dan the whole time, whether it's to get his damn suit back on, or to get it up. "It doesn't really get any more basic than that. That's what's so cool about Dan: his identity through his suit and what that means to him in every aspect." Rarely does an actor get a character so fully developed. "And any question that you ever had was informed by the words and the pictures. I've never done a comic book picture before; but—when you have such dynamic drawings like Dave had and the words that Alan had written and then the script [co-written by David Hayter and Alex Tse] which was an amalgamation of that—it's the most inspiring template you can have to create a character because any question you have is answered in the graphic novel. We all felt that we had to do what they wrote and the characters took care of themselves."

One aspiring filmmaker expressed amazement at the last few years of Zack Snyder's career—coming up through Dawn of the Dead, through 300, to Watchmen—and wondered if Snyder had any advice on how he could break into the business? "This is going to sound a little bit dorky," Snyder cautioned, "but, I think it's true. If you're going to make a movie or you want to make a movie, I always say that you just have to do it your way. That's the way to do it. If you find a piece of material that you like or you write something that you like, and people are like, 'Well, you need to shoot this so that it looks like Blade Runner…', you need to find what your point of view is." Snyder's favorite movies are those that—when he watches them—he's watching them from the perspective of the filmmaker. "You can make a movie in a board room and it feels like some homogenized thing; but, do it the way you think."

Audiences will soon enough get to see exactly how Snyder thinks Watchmen was to be filmed. Twitch teammate Mack has already offered
four great YouTube clips to drool over and Rodney Perkins has dissected the first 22 minutes.

Cross-published on

Thursday, February 26, 2009

CHANTAL AKERMAN: JE TU IL ELLE (1972)—A Critical Overview

As the SFMOMA retrospective of the films of Chantal Akerman winds to a close this coming weekend, my anticipation has been somewhat—though not thoroughly—sated. I wasn't able to catch every film in the series; but, I caught several. Thus, I can claim to having at least a working grasp of Akerman's oeuvre and—much like Jonathan Rosenbaum's evolving commentary—shift my anticipation from being introduced to Akerman's films to appreciating them more fully over time. Several warrant re-viewing and I, of course, must catch up with those I missed. Hopefully, such opportunity will not be too rare and far between.

When it proves daunting to reinvent the wheel, it's perhaps best to contemplate existing spokes. Thus, rather than venture an original review for a film that has been extensively analyzed for over 30 years, I sift through existing criticism on Je tu il elle in an effort to be not only more exact in my own understanding of the film but cognizant of varying critical styles of description.

As SFMOMA succinctly encapsulates: "Akerman directs and stars in this film, which focuses on two days in a woman's life. The story centers around the lonely woman's creative struggles and her emotional distance from most people she encounters. The je (I) refers to the protagonist [Julie], played by Akerman; the tu (you) is we, the viewers; the il (he) is a truck driver she hitchhikes with; and elle (she) is her estranged female lover."

What was of prime import and interest to me in my first viewing of Je tu il elle was my dawning awareness of what has come to be recognized as Akerman's signature usage of "detached, non sequitur soundtracks to underscore the 'action' "
(Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide). Voiceover descriptions of actions depicted in the film are provided both before and after said actions, trumping expectations of narrative temporality and sequentiality. As Acquarello phrases it at Strictly Film School: "Akerman incorporates dissociated aural cues that illustrate the heroine's innate pattern of alienation and estrangement: non-diegetic narration that either precedes, follows, or does not at all correlate with Julie's on-screen actions." I found this aural device of Akerman's fascinating.

Equally compelling was the film's minimalist triptych structure rendered in different color tonalities: shades of gray, then black, and then white, which in
PFA's capsule they suggest forms "a process and a journey" exploring "the heroine's desires in three different sets of circumstances" (Dennis Schwartz).

Like most reviewers, I feel compelled to finesse the grammatics of the film's title. The "je" of Akerman's title references Akerman herself, who is shown in the film's opening sequence attempting to express her desire in compulsive-obsessive fashion, bingeing on sugar spooned straight out of the bag, struggling to overcome writer's block, distracting herself by rearranging the furniture and painting the walls in her small apartment (a different color each day). As Jonathan Rosenbaum has referenced elsewhere, the film's protagonist, Julie, is like many of Akerman's characters who seem at odds with the rooms (i.e., the interiorities) they inhabit. These interior spaces are both protective and imprisoning. This tension is skillfully presaged by the film's opening statement, "...And I left", which Julie accomplishes by escaping the confines of her apartment to more fully experience her inchoate desire in the outside world. L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas determines that Akerman's "unnerving, darkly comic panorama" sets the stage for such recent female auto-portraits as Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva, Marina De Van's In My Skin and the video diaries of Gina Kim. And Bérénice Reynaud recognizes that Julie's decision to hitchhike conforms to the frequent tendency among the female protagonists in Akerman's films to "run away" from an obsession with an unspoken past "too big to be contained."

Although the "tu" of the film's title can be interpreted as the audience to whom Julie is reading her diary entries outloud, I'm not convinced this is wholly how the audience is implicated. Julie is reading her diary entries to herself but the audience—as spectator—is, in essence, interpreting what they hear or—as Fernando Croce explains it—the audience has been "pulled in by the Warholian use of viewer perception to shape what transpires before the lenses." In her director's commentary to the DVD release of La Captive, Akerman clearly defines the spectatorial position of her audiences and their direct—in contrast to voyeuristic—relationship to her films.

Julie meets "il"—attractive butch truck driver (Niels Arestrup)—when she finally leaves her apartment to begin hitchhiking. Her relationship to him is intriguingly opaque. She accepts his lift, accepts a beer, listens politely to his monologue on wife, children and the ignobility of work and—just as politely—yanks him off while he drives down the highway. Considering that the film's third segment "elle" concerns Julie's estranged lesbian lover Claire with whom she has ambivalent (albeit athletic) sex, her encounter with the truck driver is all the more disorienting. In his ArtForum essay, Malcolm Turvey defines the motivational opacity of Akerman's characters as "objectivity without omniscience." He writes: "These films impart an almost tactile sense of what it is like to observe, from a respectful distance, the people and places they record and the concrete sights and sounds one would experience in doing so. Yet most other information is withheld, underscoring the limits of what one can discover through perception alone."

In this sense Je tu il elle is not so much a story told or shown as it is an experience shared in all its sensory details. PFA will be sceening
Je tu il elle on Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 7:30PM as part of their ongoing "Essay in Cinema" series.

Friday, February 20, 2009

2009 SAN DIEGO LATINO FILM FESTIVAL—Sergio de la Mora pays tribute to Julián Hernández

The 16th edition of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which runs from March 12-22, is hosting the U.S. premiere of noted queer auteur Julián Hernández's third feature film Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo (Raging Sun, Raging Sky, 2009). Hernández will be in attendance.

Julián Hernández (born Mexico City, 1972) is a writer and director who possesses one of the most unique and uncompromising visions in contemporary cinema, a reputation he consolidated with his second feature film,
El cielo dividido (Broken Sky, 2006), as well as a score of short and medium length films made since 1993. His highly anticipated new magnum opus Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo (Raging Sun, Raging Sky, 2009), with a running time of approximately three hours, is confirming his reputation. Rabioso sol is already reaping prizes at prestigious film festivals, winning the Teddy Award for queer cinema at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, where its world premiere was celebrated February 11 of this year. In 2003, Hernández's debut feature, Mil nubes de paz cercan el cielo, amor, jamás acabarás de ser amor (A Thousand Clouds of Peace Fence the Sky, Love; Your Being Love Will Never End, 2003), was also awarded a Teddy. Since I have not yet seen Rabioso cielo, we will see if bigger is better, which certainly is debatable with the nearly two and a half hour El cielo dividido.

Made in collaboration with the film collective Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos, his body of work expands and challenges the limits of film language and genres. Hernández founded the Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos while studying at the Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos of the Universidad Autónoma de México, 1989-1994. In addition to Hernández, the core members of the film collective are producer Roberto Fiesco, who is also an exceptional director; sound designer Aurora Ojeda; and cinematographer Diego Arizmendi, who left the collective after the completion of Mil nubes de paz, and was replaced by the equally talented Alejandro Cantú. The Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos has made over 25 fiction films in less than 20 years. Their continuity is unusual in Mexican film history, not only for their longevity as a collective, but also for the quality of their films and the consistent level of narrative and formal experimentation.

Hernández's feature films tend to incite sharp polemics, usually torn equally between those spectators who appreciate his highly aestheticized, hopelessly romantic and often meandering love stories, and those who find his work pretentious, narcissistic and boring. I fall into the first category, having followed the work of the Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos since the mid-1990s when I saw the sexy and disturbing Actos impuros (Roberto Fiesco, 1993), loosely based on the life of the notorious 1942 Mexico City serial killer Gregorio Cárdenas, nicknamed in the press "el estrangulador de Tacuba" (the strangler of the Tacuba district). Hernández's films are not for everybody. They are not narrative driven but rather are mood pieces that capture the textures of affective states and urban spaces, notably Mexico City's ancient Centro Histórico.

Hernández's full-length films contribute to a recent trend in world cinema of films that are contemplative, slowly paced and often focused on the quotidian, almost causing one to drift to sleep. San Francisco Bay Guardian critic Johnny Ray Huston calls these types of films "somnambucinema" and argues "there should be no shame in shifting states of consciousness and drifting into dreams during this panic-stricken age." In Huston's intriguing category we would also find the films of radically different auteurs such as Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Taiwans's Tsai Ming-liang, Portugal's João Pedro Rodrigues and Argentina's Lisandro Alonso. Indeed, the languorous rhythm of somnambucinema is a welcome departure from our frantic lifestyles and the fast paced, music video-like language of so much of contemporary cinema.

Hernández's films are visual poems that continually explore cinematic language. They narrate simple stories—sometimes bordering on the banal—through carefully composed and startling beautiful images that are characterized by long takes of between four to five minutes, alternating between distance (long shots) and proximity (close-ups) that—to paraphrase Hernández—eliminate medium shots and thus encourage viewer identification. [See Catlett, Juan Mora. 2004. "Julián Hernández: 'un plano es una elección ética'." Estudios Cinematográficos 9.25 (March-July): 17-18.] The camera is expressively used both stationary and moving, frequently in 180 or 360 degree circles. He makes use of lyrical voice-over narration and minimal amounts of dialogue, or sometimes none at all, as is the case with the groundbreaking short porno Bramadero (2007) and—from what I've read and heard—most remarkably in Rabioso sol. Hernández's interest in telling stories primarily through images is clearly evident in his early work, notably the medium length film, Hubo un tiempo en que los sueños dieron paso a largas noches de insomnio: 17 apuntes para una película (1998). Another of his stylistic markers is the choreography of camera and actors as if they were partners in a dance, evident not only in the puppy love story El cielo dividido but also in shorts such as Vivir (2003), an homage to Claire Denis's sublime homoerotic military drama Beau travail (1999), and the melancholic Vago rumor de mares en zozobra (2008), a love song about a young working-class married woman's unfulfilled longing and the promise of romance that makes great use of the now classic contemporary cumbia by Los Ángeles Azules, "Cómo te voy a olvidar." Also a theater and opera director, Hernández's choice of music plays as important a role as the image. He obsessively uses a single leit-motif: a young man's search for a male partner who will complement and make him whole again. This somewhat romantic notion of incompleteness leads his doomed young men through ecstatic and tortuous encounters and missed encounters.

Until Hernández, no filmmakers since Sergei Eisenstein and Emilio Fernández had photographed mestizo male bodies with such palpable sensuality. Hernández and the cinematographers Diego Arizmendi and Alejandro Cantú, do for the brown bodies of Mexican men what Robert Mapplethorpe's photography did for the African American male nude, but without the problematic racial fetishism of the later. Suffused with homoeroticism, his films break from a long tradition in Mexican cinema of stereotyping gay males as comic relief and as tragic cross-dressers, as in the 1960s comedies starring Maurico Garcés and fichera sexploitation movies from the 1970s, or the grotesque gay characters in Arturo Ripstein's films, including El lugar sin límites (Hell Has No Limits, 1977).

Hernández contributes in very significant ways to queer Mexican cinema with films that are complex and often not politically correct. Most of his films are not uplifting nor do they follow a linear narrative of progress and triumph over homophobia; in fact, they often end with the tragic death of a gay man. Bramadero ends with a murder while Mil nubes de paz closes with the death of the lead character. Anchored in the familiar gay male trope of the sad young man, Hernández elevates the wounded and brokenhearted to luminescent, heavenly heights. In what could be interpreted as a director's statement, Hernández notes, "I have a slightly romantic idea of cinema. I've always believed that film enables me to communicate with other kindred spirits with whom I can share my sorrow and happiness. Yet, what's most melodramatic is that I make films because I've always felt incapable of telling the people who have shared their lives with me how much I've loved them. In a nutshell, I want my films to move audiences and make them cry. That has always been my objective. Even today, that is what I strive for in my work." [Catlett, 2004:17.]

Sergio de la Mora is Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film (University of Texas Press, 2006). He recently published a chapter titled, "Sus leyes me las paso por los huevos: Isela Vega and Mexican Dirty Movies" in Latsploitation, Latin America, and Exploitation Cinema (Victoria Ruétalo & Dolores Tierney, editors. London & New York: Routledge, 2009).

Cross-published on the
San Diego Latino Film Festival website and Twitch. Of related interest, take a look at Luis Bernardo Jaime Vázquez's essay "Hernández and the prison of desire."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SFIAAFF 2009: KIYOSHI KUROSAWA—Serpent's Path (Hebi no michi) & Eyes of the Spider (Kumo No Hitomi)

Brian Darr's and Michael Hawley's recent previews of the 27th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF") posted, respectively, at Hell on Frisco Bay and film-415, enumerate many reasons to be pleased with this year's line-up; not the least of which is the seven-film tribute to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It will be no surprise to readers of The Evening Class to know how excited I am by this tribute, recalling the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blogathon of last Summer, wherein I included my write-ups on Cure and Bright Future along with hosting essays from welcome contributors. Likewise—anticipating the opportunity to interview Kurosawa at Tokyo Sonata's TIFF08 North American premiere—I provided an overview of interviews conducted with Kurosawa. My dream to conduct my own interview with Kurosawa came true at the Toronto International and it now appears I will have a chance to follow-up when he attends this year's edition of SFIAAFF. Suh-weet!!

Along with the San Francisco premiere of Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa's J-horror phase is represented by what many consider to be one of his creepiest ventures: Pulse (Kairo, 2001). Eschewing a facile equation of Kurosawa with J-horror, however, for the bulk of their retrospective SFIAAFF has spotlighted Kurosawa's nominally-yakuza revenge diptychs of the late '90s. Straight off, there is one particularly striking association between Kurosawa's early V-cinema—specifically Serpent's Path (Hebi no michi, 1998)—and his most recent Tokyo Sonata. Teruyuki Kagawa—who portrayed the unhinged yakuza Miyashita in Serpent's Path—returned to work with Kurosawa a decade later as Ryûhei Sasaki, the father in Tokyo Sonata. Curiously, even the neighborhoods where both films are set seem amazingly similar. This is a decade's fascinating career arc for both artists, pronounced between the premiere of Tokyo Sonata and the retrospective spotlight on Kurosawa's V-cinema.

The true through line by way of performance, however, is that of Sho Aikawa, who appears in all four revenge films featured in SFIAAFF's spotlight. Kelly Vance at East Bay Express describes Aikawa as "a stoic tough guy with a face like an Easter Island monolith—if the monolith wore black shades." Though I'll be catching The Revenge double-feature—A Visit From Fate and The Scar That Never Fades—at their Pacific Film Archive screenings, I've had an opportunity to watch Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider (Kumo No Hitomi) and offer a response, as well as an encouraging recommendation.

Each film can, perhaps, be appreciated on its own merits; however, in combination they resonate beyond the sum of their parts. This is a synergy undoubtedly intended. As Tom Mes has indicated in his invaluable
Midnight Eye review of Serpent's Path, Kurosawa does the unprecedented by exploring the same story "in two decidedly different ways"; the story's premise being that of a father avenging the murder of his eight-year-old daughter. This shared premise is "the jumping-off point for the two films rather than their definition, resulting in a pair of works which are not so much occupied with revenge, but with the mental processes of human beings in situations that have placed them outside everyday life." Hiroshi Takahashi—famous for writing Ringu—contributes authorial credit to both films.

At Variety, Derek Elley informs that these companion films were "shot, incredibly, back to-back, two weeks each." Both films were shot in 1998, two months after Cure but before Charisma and License to Live (which is also in SFIAAFF's spotlight). Jonathan Crow at All Movie Guide claims Kurosawa "received an eccentric offer to make two films in two weeks, on a low budget and using the same cast" with the result being "the cinematic equivalent of fraternal twins … freakishly interlocked in ways that defy the conventionally linear relationship of a sequel, as each of these enigmatic, absorbing films elucidates our understanding of the other."

It's perhaps Jerry White's study The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear (Stone Bridge Press, 2007:104-120) that most cogently grasps the challenge Kurosawa sets himself (and his audiences) by taking on such a complicated cinematic experiment; an experiment which White conjectures is not just about thematic variances in revenge and culpability; but, about the essence of film itself. "His work," White writes, "is often challenging because it needs to be; he is like a scientist, attempting to solve a difficult problem through a series of complicated experiments." (Supra, p. 104; emphasis added.) Much like the chalkboard puzzles that preoccupy Serpent's astrophysicist Nijima (Sho Aikawa) and his young mathematically-gifted (and suspiciously spectral) protégé. In Kurosawa's ongoing attempt to explore the nature of film, White continues, "he's answering a question (What is film?) with another question (the films themselves). The journey is the answer." (Ibid.)

And what a profoundly confounding journey, devoid of the narrative signposts that ordinarily govern such genre pieces; but, of course—as has long been noted—Kurosawa is the master of subverting genres for his own artistic ends. As Derek Elley states it, Serpent's Path is "a provocative examination of human psychology built on a generic genre entertainment base." Ever heedful of Kurosawa's alterities, of the slight adjustments he makes to consensual realities—often effected through elision and subtraction—White nails it when he suggests that the variable Kurosawa has removed from these twin films is story itself, "leaving only pure film behind. Just like any scientifically sound experiment, major elements are kept purposefully consistent: the lead actor (Sho Aikawa, in both films), genre (yakuza film), locations (a plethora of abandoned warehouses and fields), and filming time (two weeks). By controlling these variables, Kurosawa hopes to render them inconsequential in a comparison between the two films, leaving the viewer with an unaffected glimpse into the true nature of film." (2007:104-105.)

That's why—in my humble opinion—a synopsis of either film seems beside the point, though if it's synopses and narrative recitation that help ground you in a film, I recommend those proffered by Greencine ("a grim foray into the heart of darkness … Kurosawa spins a chilling web of cold ellipses as loneliness, betrayal and the inability to ever know someone's true motives take center stage"); Jonathan Crow's capsule for All Movie Guide, Derek Elley's Variety review, and the essay by Tom Mes for Midnight Eye (all cited above); Kevin Pyrtle's thorough rundown for ("Do you get it?"); Kelly Vance's review for East Bay Express ("film-school quotes and odd grace notes run through both films … dark meditations on culpability"); and George O. Singleton's observations on Eyes of the Spider for Reel Movie ("a film about dealing with unimaginable pain and how one manages to live with it—or not").

As for themes, Kurosawa grapples with several while structuring his sibling experiment. Kevin Pyrtle lists Kurosawa's familiar focus on the "true" nature of identity and the tension struck between what civilization and society pose as an individual's identity and the dark personas (doppelgangers?) that individuals summon from within themselves, from behind the façades, from beneath the surface. One might say that Kurosawa exalts a slackened tolerance with social façade. "Literal and metaphoric dualities run rampant through both films," writes Jerry White (2007:110), "symbolizing their twin-like nature. …These self-reflexive dualities are meant to remove the audience from the narrative experience and remind them that they are watching a film, for only through this realization can they hope to answer the question: 'What is film?' Godard would approve."

Pyrtle is especially astute in spotlighting the atmospheric contribution of Kurosawa's frequent musical collaborator Makio Ika (Ika has worked with Kurosawa on at least seven other films), whose unsettling and spare score "dominated by a sort of low industrial heartbeat" is key to Serpent's success.

Another theme picked up on by several reviewers is that of human adaptability to violence and degradation. In Serpent's Path, especially, the initially-kidnapped suspect Otsuki provides a prime (and often comic) example.

Speaking of comedy, let me not fail to emphasize just how entertaining these films are, especially Serpent's Path whose dark profundities are riddled through and through with absurdist humor. Tom Mes didn't know "whether to laugh out loud or gape in astonishment" at the scene where a second victim is snatched from a golf course under the noses of his colleagues. "They run across immaculately green hills, dragging the unconscious yakuza behind them in a body bag while the bullets fly past their heads," Mes writes incredulously. Even the breaking of one of the captive yakuzas by denying him toilet privileges "is portrayed in a darkly funny light," Pyrtle adds.

Though I can recommend both films for the synergy they create in speaking across to each other, I concede with most reviewers that Serpent's Path is the most satisfying of the two and, perhaps, even Kurosawa's first true masterpiece. Admitting that Eyes of the Spider has a less dense script and less complexity than Serpent's Path, Derek Elley nonetheless asserts "it's still very watchable." Notwithstanding, when it comes to twins it's never wise to favor one over the other. That's a recipe for revenge.

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SFIAAFF 2009—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

With a multiracial, Hawaii/Indonesia-raised president in the White House, it's fortuitous that the issue of mixed race is also at the core of many films in the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF"). That's the observation with which Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Assistant Director Vicci Ho kicked off last week's press conference announcing this year's line-up. Additionally, they noted a marked emphasis on films from South Asia, South Korea and Japan this year. I think the program is an even stronger one than usual, at least in terms of containing many of the films I've been hoping to see. Here's a look at some highlights.

The big event is undoubtedly the seven-film spotlight on Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese auteur best known for his metaphysical thrillers Cure and Pulse. Kurosawa was last here in 2004 for the SF International Film Festival's screenings of Doppelganger, and I've been assured that he will appear at all SFIAAFF screenings before leaving Sunday, the 15th. The series includes his most recent film, the critically acclaimed, Cannes jury prize-winning Tokyo Sonata, as well as four rare, older films which all deal with the theme of revenge. Those are 1997's The Revenge: A Visit From Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades, which screen back-to-back at the Pacific Film Archive; and 1998's Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider, which are being shown as a late-night, Friday the 13th double-bill at the Castro Theater. A third little-known film directed by Kurosawa in 1998, License to Live is described as a "Tokyo slacker merger of Rip Van Winkle, family melodramas and Samuel Becket-like surrealism." And finally, for those who missed its brief run at the 4-Star Theater in the summer of 2005, the J-horror classic Pulse will screen once only at the PFA on Sunday, March 25—presenting a real conundrum for those loathe to miss SFIAAFF's annual Bollywood night at the Castro. I'm a big fan of Kurosawa and there are five films in the series I've never seen—bravo to SFIAAFF for finally bringing them our way. It's interesting to note, however, the absence of 2005's Loft and 2006's Retribution, neither of which have screened in the Bay Area.

In addition to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, two other international filmmakers of note will be making appearances at this year's SFIAAFF. Following a screening of 2007's Lust/Caution, Ang Lee will appear in conversation with UC Berkeley Film Studies professor Linda Williams at the campus' Wheeler Auditorium. Then in a festival Special Presentation, Canadian director Deepa Mehta will present her new film, Heaven On Earth at the Castro Theater. You might remember that Mehta was at the festival in 2006 with her Oscar-nominated feature Water. Heaven On Earth is supposed to represent a new direction for her, as she uses fantasy and allegory to tell the tale of an immigrant Toronto bride (played by Bollywood star Preity Zinta) who's stuck in a miserable arranged marriage.

A pair of South Korean films occupy both the opening and closing night slots of this year's festival. Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy, which Festival Director Yang described as "almost a perfect film," is an urban road trip/city symphony flick in which two ex-lovers drive around the streets of Seoul from dawn till dusk. Happily, the couple are played by Jeon Do-yeon, winner of the 2007 Cannes Best Actress prize for Secret Sunshine, and Ha Jung-woo, the hunk hired to impregnate Vera Farmiga's character in Never Forever. The Closing Night feature is Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim's highly anticipated follow-up to In Between Days. The film has won unanimous raves since its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and is the story of two girls fending for themselves after being put in the care of an alcoholic aunt.

SFIAAFF's annual International Showcase section is where I tend to spend most of my time, and this year will be no exception. First and foremost, I'm anxious to see 24 City, the latest film from Jia Zheng-ke—arguably China's most important contemporary director. Like his previous film Still Life, this is another fiction/documentary hybrid about a nation in transition and people displaced by "progress." The setting this time out is a huge Chengdu munitions factory that's being disassembled to make way for luxury apartments. There are three other International Showcase films I'm highly anticipating. Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is supposed to be a stylish, balls-to-the-wall thriller about an ex-cop-turned-pimp who goes up against a serial-killer and stars the aforementioned Ha Jung-woo. You'll never find a more unlikely combination of directors than Leos Carax (Pola X), Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep), but amazingly, all three contribute segments to the omnibus film Tokyo!. Veteran Filipina actress Anita Linda (who has appeared in 176 films according to IMdb) is supposed to give the performance of a lifetime in Adela, which follows a day in the life of a poor woman preparing for her 80th birthday celebration.

There's a pair of LGBT-themed films in International Showcase which sound worth checking out: Chookiat Sakveerakul's The Love of Siam and Peng Lei's The Panda Candy. The former is a 160-minute gay teen romance whose popularity has allegedly brought it cultural phenomenon status in Thailand. It was also that country's 2008 Oscar submission. Peng Lei is the lead singer for the Chinese band New Pants, and his directorial debut The Pandy Candy is about two young women who've been looking for love in wrong places—and may have finally found it with each other.

Bollywood night at the Castro Theater is a consistent highlight of this festival because SFIAAFF audiences can't get enough of Shahrukh Khan on the big screen. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, King Khan plays a nerdy office worker who creates a motorcycle-riding macho man alter-ego. When the woman he loves starts to fall for his other persona, he finds himself competing against himself (on a dancing reality TV show no less). Another Indian International Showcase film playing the Castro the same day is Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession, described as combining "Bollywood flair, social commitment and film-noir grit to follow one man's political awakening among India's exploited silk weavers." Elsewhere in International Showcase, I'm curious about All Around Us, by Hush director Ryosuke Hashiguchi; Hong Kong juvenile delinquent drama High Noon from first-time, 24-year-old director Heiward Mak; and Cao Baoping's The Equation of Love and Death, starring Zhou Xun (Beijing Bicycle, Suzhou River) as a lady taxi driver on the lookout for her elusive ex.

Bringing things closer to home are three festival programs of considerable local interest. Fans of 2006's Colma: The Musical will be thrilled to know that the film's composer and co-star H.P. Mendoza, has written and directed (and edited and composed the songs for) his own movie. Centerpiece Film Fruit Fly will have its world premiere at the Castro on Sunday, March 15 and I predict this will be THE high energy, fun event of the festival. Described as a "loud and proud, indie-Asian/gay hijacking of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," Fruit Fly stars Colma's L.A. Renigen as a young performance artist who comes to San Francisco in search of her birth mother. Colma director Richard Wong is once again behind the camera.

From Sucker Free City to Watchmen: An Afternoon with Screenwriter Alex Tse will find the 32-year-old San Francisco native in conversation with friend and filmmaker Spencer Nakasako (AKA Don Bonus). Tse's original screenplay for the SF-set Sucker Free City was directed by Spike Lee for Showtime and his adaptation of DC Comics' Watchmen is one of the most anticipated Hollywood films of 2009. The third program of local interest is the world premiere of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, directed by Jeff Adachi (also known as San Francisco's Public Defender). In 2006, Adachi directed The Slanted Screen, an excellent documentary about the history of Asian American actors in Hollywood. This time he narrows his focus to one particular actor, Oakland-born Goro Suzuki, who would find fame on stage and screen (Flower Drum Song) and television (Barney Miller) as Jack Soo.

You Don't Know Jack is just one of six feature documentaries screening in competition, and they all sound equally interesting. Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority profiles the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress. One woman's fight for the right to pray alongside men in a West Virginia mosque is the subject of The Mosque of Morgantown. Whatever It Takes follows one year in the life of Edward Tom, an Asian-American principal at a rough South Bronx high school. Two friends seek to understand a bloody, 50-year conflict on the Pakistan/India border in Project Kashmir. And in Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, we're offered a warts-and-all portrait of artistic extremism. And although it's not screening in competition, Deepa Mehta's brother Dilip makes his directorial debut with The Forgotten Woman, a documentary about the marginalization of widows in India.

This year's Out of the Vaults selection is Diamond Head, a 1962 miscegenation melodrama in which a racist pineapple plantation owner and U.S. Senate candidate (Charlton Heston) with a pregnant Chinese mistress (France Nuyen), freaks when his kid sister (Yvette Mimieux) hooks up with a no-good native Hawaiian boyfriend (James Darren), despite his having a noble doctor brother (George Chakiris). This screens in 35mm at the Castro on a Sunday afternoon and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

What else? There are six films in competition for the
Best Narrative Award, seven programs of shorts, a tribute to Japanese experimental media artist Takahiko Iimura (co-presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque), the launch of HAPAS.US (a social net-working website for multiracial Asian Americans), and Directions in Sound (an evening of underground Asian American club music). Follow the links to find out more.

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film-415 and Twitch.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Blonde Venus (1932)—Josef von Sternberg's preposterously mesmerizing tale of mother love—runs the gamut from the glamorous heights of fame and success to the dilapidated depths of despair and ruin. Yet another melodramatic narrative of what Juliet Clark calls "the woman's way" of upholding honor through dishonor, Magdalenian inferences still apply. One could even caption the portrait above as "Marlene as Magdalen"; it so resembles the saint's penitence in the wilderness. This would be a great double bill with Emilio Fernández's Víctimas del pecado (1951). What a mother won't do for her child, including another john. Again, I have to wonder how influenced "El Indio" was by Sternberg's melodramatics?

As Judy Bloch nails it in her capsule for PFA's ongoing Sternberg retrospective: "It's not surprising that the French Surrealists gave themselves over to Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich, who for them embodied the disruptive force. Marlene singing 'Hot Voodoo' in a gorilla suit brings the exotic home in Sternberg's only Dietrich film set in America. And when she peels off her gorilla hands (not to mention her head), she is Gilda gilded with a delicious element of the absurd. Strip off the animal, and what's underneath? More animal. Dietrich plays a cabaret performer with an ill husband (Herbert Marshall) and a very healthy protector (Cary Grant). She sets out with her son on a journey across Sternbergian America, leading an increasingly tattered existence as they move south to the Mexican border. Sternberg's picture of family life is one of looming depression, even while his forests, bordellos, and flophouses have an uncanny incandescence."

Uncanny is the film's far-fetched redemption. I mean, c'mon. Why in even God's good Heaven should Helen Faraday aka Helen Jones aka "Blonde Venus" (Dietrich) give up millionaire Nick Townsend (the dashing and dapper Cary Grant) for sulking down-and-out husband Ed aka Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall)? Marshall's Faraday, along with Clive Brook's Doc in Shanghai Express, should team up as 1932's sourpuss team. Don't they recognize the beauty of a diva's sacrifice when they see it? Would they set aside their dignity to put on a gorilla suit for the one they love? Would they give up overnight Parisian success to settle for a five-floor walk-up? Unlikely. But, as Bloch observes, Dietrich can make even the domestic and plebian seem downright incandescent.

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