Daily Projections, 6-9-2019: Spring In A Small Town (1948)

Title: Spring In A Small Town
Director: Fei Mu
Country of Origin: China
Year: 1948
Screening format: DVD
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Considered by many to be the masterpiece of the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, if not the greatest Chinese film of all time. A young wife trapped in a passionless marriage (I won’t say loveless, because I believe there is some love there) with an ailing husband becomes reacquainted with a long lost love who shows up on her doorstep one day after 10 years away because he also happens to be very close friends with her husband. She, of course, is forced to choose between her family and the one who got away. From the plot description alone, it sounds like a Satyajit Ray film (or at least a Tagore story). Some sensitive portrayals here, especially by Yu Shi and Wei Wei as the husband and wife, respectively. Spring In A Small Town often feels like it owes a great deal to the self-contained family dramas of Ozu and to Italian neorealism. Indeed, it is well situated within the general ethos of post-War drama. Though, at other times, certain editorial choices (cuts and transitions within an unchanging wide shot) seem to denote the passage of time and almost evoke the spirit of French New Wave a full decade ahead of Truffaut and Godard, even if they were, in fact, necessary quirks rather than stylistic choices. Lovely low-light scenes produce some beautifully shaded and shadowed images, particularly in the last half hour.

Daily Projections: The Clock (1945)

Title: The Clock
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1945
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? no

Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.

Daily Projections, 2-12-2019: Cold War (2018)

Title: Cold War
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Country of Origin: Poland
Year: 2018
Screening format: DCP
Setting: Belcourt Theatre
First viewing? Yes

Notes: I’ve barely made a sound since this one finished. No one in the theater did, either. Everyone left the room in silence. It seems wrong to behave any other way. Going in, I had my doubts that Cold War could ever live up to the impossible standard set by Pawlikowski’s last film, Ida. They are, certainly, distinct from each other, but are propelled by the same icy poetry that buoyed Bergman’s best films of the ’50s and ’60s (the same era in which Cold War—and Ida—take place). Cold War is the story of a single romance told through vignettes against the backdrop of the Cold War. Each character lives a separate life that happens entirely offscreen. It could easily seem that Pawlikowski is taking the easy way out, ditching exposition altogether in favor fleeting vignettes. But that is the point. At one point, Wiktor refers to Zula as “the woman of my life”. Those moments are everything. They are the only thing. In some sense, I suppose Cold War is a road movie about two people traveling in separate vehicles whose journeys sync up only when fate (and traffic) allow. The music (brilliantly chosen throughout) makes for a wonderfully evocative third character. It’s also pleasant to note that Lukasz Zal’s perfect cinematography in Ida was no fluke.

Daily Projections, 1-11-2019: Winter Woman (1977)

Title: Winter Woman
Director: KIM Ho-sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 1977
Screening format: Streaming (YouTube)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Winter Woman was, apparently, the best selling Korean film of the 1970s, based on a popular novel with a rather leftist message (at least for 1970s South Korea). I haven’t read the novel and I won’t pretend to be an expert on that period of Korean history. All I can say for sure is that Winter Woman, especially the first hour, tends to err on the side of confusing. I had to pause the film multiple times to consult a synopsis of the novel in order to understand what was happening on the screen only to find out come the end that Winter Woman the film is only kinda like the novel to the point that, if you changed the title and the character names, someone familiar with both could easily write off any similarities as coincidence. Anyway, the film made Chang Mi-hee a star in Korea, but so much of her performance is overshadowed by an overindulgence in non-diegetic sound (far too much reverb on all narrated segments and a soundtrack alternating between Bach and cheesy 1970s synthesizers). I know the point of the film is, ostensibly, the sexual autonomy of Korean women, which is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that I-hwa’s naïveté sets her up for trouble early on. Twice, she tells a man (different men) “I’ll go anywhere with you”. Not a good idea.

Daily Projections, 1-3-2019: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Title: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul
Director: Evgeni Bauer
Country of Origin: Russia
Year: 1913
Screening format: DVD
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema. It’s interesting to note the stark difference between this and the groundbreaking work of the likes of Eisenstein and Vertov only a decade later. Not that Evgeni Bauer is without his merits. Surely, he is one of the first true masters of cinema. Those familiar with films of this era will note the difference in Bauer’s framing and composition, even in this very early example of his work. Vera is a wealthy but lonely aristocrat who has decided to dedicate her life to helping the poor. On one particular outing, she is raped by an “injured” man who she, in turn, kills. Later, when her new husband learns of these events (on their honeymoon, no less) he leaves her. At least, I think he leaves her. It’s possible she leaves him. The lack of intertitles makes it a little difficult to tell if she is kicked out or decides to leave willingly. What is not unclear is the surprising emphasis everyone seems to place on the sex part of the rape (rather than the crime of it) and the fact that the subsequent murder is, practically, an afterthought. Overall, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a film about guilt: Vera’s guilt over her past experiences and her husband’s guilt over treating her with undue harshness. The only ones who appear to experience no guilt are the poor, who are not painted in a good light at all.

Daily Projections, 1-3-2019: Your Name* (2016)

Title: Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Country of Origin: Japan
Year: 2016
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? yes

*This review is for the Japanese language version with English subtitles. I have not seen the English dub yet.

Where do I even start with Your Name. Makoto Shinkai returns to some of his favorite subjects, the flexibility of time, the meaning of memory, and the boundlessness of human connection. Is it really true that these two are communicating with each other through time and space? It’s no use asking what is and isn’t real in Makoto Shinkai film. Maybe none of it is real, but it is, nevertheless true. It’s hard to make any sort of analytical comment about the story structure of this or any of the Shinkai films I’ve seen. It would seem to do them a disservice to reduce it to a simple story when their most distinct characteristic is a nebulous ineffability. Even now, two hours after watching this for the first time, I almost feel as if I haven’t watched anything at all and yet I already feel a longing to be immersed in it again. Which is, in a way, precisely the world in which Your Name takes place: a world that isn’t there and yet is, a present that has not yet happen yet is already in the past. That’s time, I guess. And, of course, the animation, as always, is superb. There is a texture to the drawings in this that other animation lacks. The whole picture seems to glow almost, like a Rembrandt. Not since The Tale of Princess Kaguya have I been so awestruck by the look of animation.

Daily Projections, 12-29-2018: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Director: Robert Bresson
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1966
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Another Bresson. A lot to unpack here. It’s tempting to look for a one-to-one correlation (“[Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” – and who embodies the very nature of a servant better than Balthazar, a donkey battered, beaten, and dragged around with no will of his own). But watching Au Hasard Balthazar, my thoughts continue to fall on Old Testament figures, namely Job and Hosea. After all, not all Biblical symbolism is Christological. And Balthazar is far from the only such figure. Gérard, perhaps a bit of Beelzebub in him, though I tend to look at him as Vice or Sin in general who has the run of the town and to whom the Prodigal Marie always comes when called, even if she puts up a brief, feeble fight at first. Marie, all of mankind, in possession of her own free will who twice rejects an offer of marriage from the only real Christ figure I see in Balthazar (the landowner’s son, Jacques—the landowner is God, by the way), first citing her inability to truly love him then her own checkered past as reasons not to choose him. Au Hasard Balthazar is not so much allegory, perhaps, as it is parable. But it is all masterpiece. And who (but perhaps Bresson) knew a donkey’s face could be so beautiful?