The special effect of Tsui Hark

Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (Tsui Hark, 2016)

It took me a while to understand and finally appreciate Tsui Hark’s output since 2010. Up until 2008’s All About Women I had always come to grips with his cinema, in one way or another. However, I still remember leaving the screening of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame at Venice Film Festival with more concerns for his career than excitement for what I had just seen. Somehow I wasn’t able to buy his love for CGI and 3-D.

Hindsight wisely taught me I was blatantly wrong. Tsui has always been fascinated by special effects. Just think about both Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Legend of Zu. And what is Green Snake if not his overtly personal exploration of the White Snake folk tale by means of graphic aids?

Tsui Hark loves his visuals. He loves portraying stories and characters with vibrant images and careful design. No wonder CGI has always interested him. It enables him to stretch his skills further and devise new styles.

Admittedly, his first takes on 3-D weren’t enough for him to convince me he was on the right path. The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate felt like an endless trick and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon just didn’t work. Then came The Taking of Tiger Mountain which showed Tsui was still capable behind the camera despite 3-D moves of little interest to my eyes.

Sword Master

Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)

It’s only with Sword Master and Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back that Tsui eventually unveils his unequivocal mastery of visual effects. Sword Master looks like a series of paintings where charming wuxia plots unfold. Derek Yee is supposed to be the director, but it is clearly a Tsui Hark work with his themes, his penchant for swords and blades and those villains that reminded me of Seven Swords at every fight.

The second chapter of Stephen Chow’s own retelling of Journey to the West goes so far and above Chow’s first effort in terms of visual exaggeration that it is impossible to describe. Tsui transforms the regular Chinese blockbuster in an avant-garde fantasy where aesthetic drives the action. Stephen Chow has always avoid CGI as a tool for mimicking realism. Tsui embraces this philosophy and lets the special effects build a vivid world out of the fervid pages of the Chinese classic text.

It’s hard to tell what Tsui Hark next move is going to be. He trespassed and reinvented the limits of cinema times and times again in his long career. He is
cinema’s most special effect.

My 2016 in films

Instead of a list of the best films I saw this year, I would like to take a different approach. I keep track of every film I watch, so it is easy to highlight what really matters. Be it a classic from the 40s or a lost gem of the 90s, cinema is always much more than a mere round up.

Belle de Jour and 8 1/2

The first two films I watched in 2016 have lasted in my heart throughout the whole year: Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Fellini’s . Enough has already been written about these masterpieces, and I do not feel up to the task of exploring them critically. If I had to pick a word to describe the powerful feelings both of them left me with I would use “contemporary”.

I filled January and early February with other classics: Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Apartment, All About Eve, Bonnie and Clyde, Bride of Frankenstein, City Lights, Modern Times, Beauty and the Beast, On the Waterfront. For one reason or another, I had always put these masterpieces aside until the beginning of 2016. Shame on me.

Alongside these viewings, I caught the good Straight Outta Compton, the great White God and the interesting Anomalisa. 2016 has been a year of many deaths, so I mourned the loss of Alan Rickman with tears over Truly Madly Deeply and sad laughs with one of my all-time favourite Galaxy Quest.

Office and The Mermaid

During the first months of 2016, I discovered the works of Gina Prince-Bythewood, with Beyond the Lights heading the lot, before Hong Kong cinema nostalgia kicked back hard. Thus Peter Chan, Ching Siu-Tung, Wilson Yip, Johnny Wang, Patrick Leung, Wong Jing, Jeff Lau, Ringo Lam, Soi Cheang, Ann Hui, Kirk Wong and Tsui Hark sneaked in right before I watched both the fantastic Johnnie To’s Office and Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid. Johnnie To came back later in the year with another hit: Three.

I did not manage to see them when they were out in 2015, but Listen to Me Marlon and Shaun the Sheep Movie deserve a mention. The former is one of the most fascinating documentaries I have seen, while the latter can easily make anyone laugh without uttering a word.

Following Citizenfour, I tracked down the other works of Laura Poitras. The director is investigating on our political and economical world with an eye of her own.

Bajirao Mastani and The Pearl Button

While Miles Ahead, Midnight Special and Snowden did not strike me as something I will remember, Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani is everything The Jungle Book is not, and Guzman’s The Pearl Button is what I hoped Fire at Sea could be.

I will soon return to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, because it puzzled me more than any other film this year. South Korea and Japan delivered a couple of entries for the zombie horror genre that surprised me in lots of good ways: Train to Busan and I Am a Hero. Japan also left a mark on the monster genre with the outstanding Shin Gojira. Only Verhoeven’s Elle matched the same high expectations that drove me up to the screen before the viewing.

2016 saw Jia Zhangke once again stealing my heart with his mesmerizing Mountains May Depart. Why it is not near the top of all the best-of lists out there is beyond my comprehension.

Miss Okusai showed Japan animation is still one or two steps ahead the rest of the world, but it would not be fair to leave the beautiful Kubo and the Two Strings out of this recap.

Wild Card and The Shallows

A year in films is not properly summed up unless I mention my guilty pleasures. Wild Card is Statham like he has never been, and The Shallows overtook my doubts about another shark-attack film within ten minutes I was in.

I have not seen many critic’s favourites yet, but I cannot complain. 2016 proved to be a great year to be a cinema lover.

Usefulnessless

Snowden (Oliver Stone, USA)

Snowden (Oliver Stone, USA)

Unexpectedly, it took me more than usual to process Oliver Stone’s Snowden. It is not a convoluted film nor its craft stroke me as the more rewarding JFK. It is its inexplicable usefulnessless that kept tormenting my brain days after the viewing.

On various occasions, Edward Snowden referred to himself as being just a piece of the bigger picture, the least significant detail of an ongoing narrative. It is, and always has been, the bigger picture what we have to care about.

In this respect, Stone did surprisingly well. Snowden dodges the misleading trailer and carefully balances the man and the story. It delivers an on point drama not that much concerned with Edward Snowden’s private life. And for once, cinema treats computer culture with decency.

However, the same question I asked myself at the end of the film still resonates with me. Put it bluntly: what is the point of Snowden?

The vital importance of Edward Snowden’s actions should never be underestimated, nonetheless Laura Poitras’s outstanding Citizenfour is out there for everyone to watch and learn from. Edward Snowden himself is streaming talks and interviews from Russia regularly and looks alive and well on Twitter. Following the consequences of its disclosures is just a click away. This easily rules out my first thought: Stone is not aiming to spread the message, unless he thinks awfully low of his viewers.

Snowden fictionalizes many scenes from Citizenfour, staying as close as possible to the source material. Together these scenes turn out to be a fictional documentary that relies heavily upon an actual documentary, resulting in a trite exercise of style. It might serves the narration well, but it runs the risk of hiding the real work from the ones who have not seen it yet.

Then again, if Citizenfour already tells it the way it has to be told, what was Stone hoping to achieve? Of all the things we could have done after watching Snowden, speculating about its objective is the most trivial one.

Prince on Film

Graffiti Bridge image

Graffiti Bridge (Prince, USA)

I refrained from writing about Prince right after his recent death. Not only because I did not want to put myself in the same position shared by most commentators, but mainly because I felt in no position at all.

What sets me apart is the nature of my affection. I have come to love Prince’s music late in my life as an avid music listener. Rock’n’roll took over my teen days and Jazz filled my ears up to my thirtieth birthday. Of course I knew who Prince was. However, just like it happened with Brian Wilson, I barely noticed the depth of his genius. He did not have a special place in my coming of age, nor his music meant something to me.

There is some beauty in this late discovery, though. Had it not been for Jazz and how it opened my mind to complex and different sounds, I would have not dared to listen and understand Brian Wilson. Had it not been for Brian Wilson, I would never have put a Prince record on. I still do not know where Prince is going to lead me, and this uncertainty is poetry.

Moving on to Prince digression in cinema was just a matter of time.

If you leave the non-music bits out, Purple Rain is a fantastic video clip. As great as the music is, the story becomes interesting only when The Kid faces the family tragedy. When Prince and the Revolution play the title track in front of an astonished crowd, you wonder whether the power of the scene comes from the music alone.

Under the Cherry Moon is delicate and funny, a musical melodrama with more than one charm. This is where Prince really shines when performing as an actor. He twists his gigolo mask, bathing it all in a soft black and white palette. More character-driven than music-driven, Under the Cherry Moon captures the tenderness of a romance with the naivety of a first-time director.

Prince directed his own live concert before going back to the camera for another feature length film. With Sign O the Times he made one of the best live concerts I have ever seen, summing up both the quality of his musicians and the madness of his showmanship.

In his last directional effort, Prince puts himself behind the script in a film that really wants to take Purple Rain on another level of style and amusement. It fails in coherence, but Graffiti Bridge succeeds in its more outlandish dance sequences with a personal and unforgettable touch.

Even though his film works are not beautiful as his music, Prince was capable to interact with a different art. Displaying some of his many faces and masks, Prince distinguished himself from pretty much any popular music artist out there.

Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism image

Better Living Through Criticism (A. O. Scott, USA)

Anthony Oliver Scott – A. O. Scott as it is spelled on his Better Living Through Criticism – wrote a book that on almost every page seems to be pointing its finger at me. Incredibly, more often than not Better Living Through Criticism aims precisely at my cultural background, filling all the gaps my IT curriculum has left me with when I approach cinema and film criticism.

This is quite obvious from the very first pages. Scott opens quoting the same Oscar Wilde’s words that more than 15 years ago pushed me to go beyond simple matters of “taste”. I cannot think of a better call to arms, and from there on I devoured the book in a couple of days.

Which is probably the wrong thing to do, especially if you – just as myself – know little about the history of arts and criticism. However, I can easily justify my rush. Scott has the rare ability to guide you through centuries of knowledge with the delicacy of an intimate friend. He appears to understand why you are trembling in front of the vast ocean of culture he is about to unveil. So he chooses his words carefully, delivering his thoughts at a quiet, reasonable pace for you not to get lost.

Furthermore, Scott manages to be always on your side. I must admit I was partly put off by the title. Better living through criticism, seriously? Are you going to tell me what to do with my mind just because you think you can? If I had not read Scott’s film reviews before, yes, I might not have been here today writing my comments on his work. But I did read his film reviews, and I still do. I do not agree with him sometimes, but – as he explains – this is the difference between a casual critic and a great critic. Scott has his own voice, and all its idiosyncrasies are what make me go back to his writings again and again.

Better Living Through Criticism traces the path from art to criticism and from criticism to art. This back and forth relationship drives consensus and objections, argument and coffee break talks. Through the likes of Henry James, Samuel Johnson, Susan Sontag and Yvor Winters, Scott wanders in the land of the love and hate paradox that is criticism. There may be no end to his journey, albeit over and over an end of criticism has been declared and somehow hoped for.

Scott states that there is much demand for criticism today, even more than in the past. Our epoch of consumerism, digital abundance and readily available tools for crafting a piece of art has a desperate need for someone who can judge and value. Provided this someone cares about the object of her analysis, because lack of empathy is one of the most horrible sins a critic can commit.

There is some advice for the next critic-wannabe in this book, but more importantly there is a fresh and perceptive look at what is going on in the mind of the next person who lays her eyes on the latest work of art.

On dubbing

 

Mountains May Depart image

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, CN)

I grew up with dubbed films. Up until I was 23 years old, I had never watched a film in its original language. Even when I started collecting DVDs and the original audio track was presently available to me, I preferred relying upon the Italian dubbing.

It took my better half and a great stretch of my mind to finally abandon myself to the beauty of the language the film actually uses. I was afraid to let my eyes be distracted by the subtitles, because I was firmly convinced I would lose some important details.

Nonsense. Soon I discovered Italy misses so many films every year, and the only legal manner to watch them is buying DVDs from other countries. However, more important than my struggle is the preciousness of other languages.

Accents, dialects, entire cultural heritage enabled me to appreciate films and series on another level. Luckily enough, I missed The Wire when it was distributed in Italy, so when I eventually watched it I could lose myself in the peculiarities of Baltimore English.

Dubbing transplants a film right into my country soil, reducing foreign languages and cultures to a surrogate performance. Why should Toshiro Mifune speak perfectly Italian? This is a basic question I will never forget myself for not asking before.

Dubbing also impedes proper film criticism. It is hard to believe an Italian film critic who judges an actress or an actor performance without hearing her or his own true voice. There is a whole spectrum of emotions and signs that only voice can convey, and the best actresses and actors work on and with their voices precisely to make their characters alive.

The perfect example of this is Robin Williams. Despite the best efforts of Carlo Valli, watching Dead Poets Society dubbed in Italian is a miserable experience. Williams’s deep and warm voice is just as unique as the way he accompanies it with the calculated movements of his body.

Neither a powerful television nor superb speakers can replace the joy of watching a film in a movie theatre. Unfortunately, Italy is so proud of its dubbing, I can only dream of seeing more films screened in their original language.

**

Links

Film preservation and nostalgia

Bullets Over Summer image

Bullets Over Summer (Wilson Yip Chi-Sum, HK)

A while ago, I had an interesting conversation on Twitter with film scholar and critic Rowena Santos Aquino. It all started from her pointing out a beautiful article by Grady Hendrix on, among other things, the lack of film preservation efforts in Hong Kong. Some days later, Rowena linked this article to me, in which Paul Fonoroff talks about a newly restored version of Clifton Ko Chi-Sum’s All’s Well, Ends Well.

The conversation immediately fired up my never-ending love for Hong Kong cinema. So I went through my DVD collection and pulled out my copy of Bullets Over Summer. I couldn’t help but thinking of Grady Hendrix’s words while the closing credits where crawling bottom-to-top.

Bullets Over Summer probably doesn’t have the power of Fruit Chan’s best works when it comes to dealing with post-handover tensions. Nonetheless, Wilson Yip relates to the loss of Hong Kong’s identity in his own peculiar way.

The director explores time and its passing, focusing on relationships between people of different age and generations. It is really illuminating to notice how these relationships change day after day. They are never destined to last forever, but what they offer is precious moments of joy and playfulness. They can be relentlessly caring, tender and romantic, and they can also turn out to be something entirely unexpected.

However beautiful these interactions are, time moves on and slowly the characters lose everything: a friend, a lover, money, a purpose, a family. The old Granny exemplifies the inevitability of time and its consequences at best. Memory doesn’t serve her well anymore, presumably due to some sort of Alzheimer’s disease. She seems to find a peace of mind in her motherly role, desperately believing that her surrogate reality is the only thing left to live by. Just as much as Mike believes until the very end he can provide for his new-found loved ones.

Bullets Over Summer acts like a lesson on the fragility of our dreams and has left me with a warning. There is a little bit of Granny’s reality in every Hong Kong cinema lover out there, including me. I remember back in 2014 at Far East Film Festival a whole weekend dedicated to Hong Kong, with talks and writings devoted to an industry that had necessarily transformed itself. Somehow, the naive nostalgia felt bigger than the actual certainty that Hong Kong will never be the same again.

**

Links