Wednesday, March 15, 2006

CHINESE CINEMA: Electric Shadows

Most commentary on Xiao Jiang's touching debut feature Electric Shadows likens it unto Cinema Paradiso. The comparison is apt. Like Cinema Paradiso, Electric Shadows is sensually photographed and plaintively scored. It's a sentimental, nostalgic piece that unabashedly forays into tearjerker melodrama. Still, its tears are sincere and accomplished. "[T]his movie is so passionately committed to the notion that favorite films from childhood and adolescence shape our imaginations," writes Stephen Holden for The New York Times, "that it unwittingly portrays an obsession with movies as a kind of pathology."

Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice describes Electric Shadows as "ripe and mushy as an October peach" (but neglects to mention the sensual thrill of juice dripping down the forearms). He likewise notes the movie's "intoxication" with movies, its cinematic reflectivity, and adds, "It's the kind of film in which the hand-rewinding of film reels is an act of courtship." I concur completely in his lavish praise of "the sensational performance of little Wang Zhengjia as a snot-nosed, delinquent abuse-magnet." This child has the most amazing face with his huge ears and gaptoothed grin! His flawless performance steals the screen.

The script is a bit too tidy and coincidental—characters run into each other in the most convenient places—though nowhere near as contrived or forced as the ensemble shenanigans of Crash. The coincidences here serve a poetic justice rather than a rhetorical ideology. In Jungian parlance, it's as if certain psyches are drawn to each other over time to help each other individuate just as certain movies serve as doorways through which we become ourselves. It has been known to happen.

Holden and Atkinson do a fine job of synopsizing the film so I've no need to do so here. And other than for being completely drawn in to the performance of Wang Zhengjia, as noted above, what struck me about Electric Shadows was this sense, as in Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, that a certain style of watching movies is disappearing throughout the world—in China as much as the United States—and that elements of that style are its shared communality and its larger-than-life projection. Without that we lose the social fabric that dreams are made of.

Interestingly enough, Electric Shadows—which is screening throughout the week at the Balboa along with When The Sea Rises—is a California premiere for Bay Area audiences. In fact, both are first-runs, Electric Shadows from China, and When The Sea Rises from France. It's wonderful that the Balboa is bringing these foreign treats to San Francisco, and yet neither was reviewed in last week's Chronicle. Gary Meyer has expressed his disconsolation regarding that sad practice:

"[W]hat did the Chronicle's critics think? We may never know since they chose not to review either film today. I wonder if they realize how frustrating it is to their readers when new movies aren't covered? The Balboa isn't the only theater whose films don't always get reviewed but with 2 new ones today, the Oscar nominated Documentary shorts, and several movies last year being ignored, it makes it tough for us to continue bringing adventurous premieres to San Francisco. I have some great titles lined up for spring and summer but am having second thoughts. They may never play San Francisco otherwise. I guess we need to start playing 'the worst movies ever made' to get more press coverage."

It was on the basis of that message from Meyer alone that I was determined to get out to the Balboa to watch Electric Shadows and to write about it on The Evening Class in hopes that it will provide even a little more exposure and induce even one more ticket. As my friend Michael Hawley expressed to me, he can understand that space requirements forbid the Chronicle from reviewing all new movies that come to town, but, some consideration should be given to the fact that larger chains like Landmark Theaters or the Metreon can afford to lose a review now and then, their runs are usually longer, but when a theater like the Balboa is shut-out so effectively from the press, the chance is we may lose even that much more of Bay Area cinema culture. I beseech Gary Meyer not to give up the good fight and will send The Chronicle a copy of this post in protest of a negligent and exclusive review policy that really needs to be more fair and conscious of our struggling art houses.