Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tsai Ming-liang Plays Himself

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Hope all of you had a relaxing and stomach-filling Thanksgiving weekend! Despite the fact that I worked on Thursday (but eh, no big deal, I'm used to it by now, and at least we got fed something Thanksgiving-like in nature), my holiday weekend was quite fine. On Friday evening, I celebrated a good friend's birthday at a Japanese restaurant in midtown (the damage my dinner did my wallet, though, made my eyes pop out at the end of the evening; I definitely went overbudget, though I suppose it was worth it, in the end). And on Saturday, I saw two good-to-possibly-great films yesterday: An Education at an indie theater about half an hour away from my house, and Afterschool via IFC On Demand. I aim to say a few words about one or both of them soon enough.

For now, however, my film-review catch-up continues with a contrasting pair of films...

The Hole (1998; Dir.: Tsai Ming-liang)

After being puzzled and exhilarated by Tsai's Face six days earlier, I decided last weekend to take in another film by the fanciful Taiwanese auteur shown at the Asia Society (part of a rather incomplete retrospective programmed there): his sci-fi/musical fantasy The Hole. This wondrous film by no means dims my newfound fascination with this director.

Based on the three films of his I've seen—Face, The Hole and his 2006 Malaysia-set I Don't Want to Sleep Aloneit seems to me that Tsai is, at least in part, interested in articulating the wide-open gap between hidden and expressed desires. All three of those films have long stretches with barely any dialogue passing between characters, simply an intense sense of longing that both of them, for one reason or another, are only too careful about expressing too loudly. Tsai utilizes the kind of long-take aesthetic made popular by compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, which might suggest that he's aiming for Hou's brand of patient realism. But Tsai alternates stretches of slow-burning realism with surreal, fourth-wall-breaking flights of fancy, boldly pointing up the vast differences between brightly colored fantasy and glum reality, and in the process suggesting, through such juxtapositions, the depths of his characters' wants and needs.

All of this can be seen in The Hole, in which Tsai turns a sci-fi premise—a deadly plague that strikes Taipei in the last days before the year 2000—into a romantic two-character pas de deux between Tsai's usual protagonist, Hsiao-Kang (played by Tsai's usual leading man, Lee Kang-sheng) and a woman downstairs (Yang Kuei-mei). The characters never quite fully articulate their thirst to connect with each other amidst the dreary, apocalyptic madness (it never stops raining in this world); perhaps they are too fearful of getting infected by the "Taiwan fever" to risk forming a human connection. But Tsai intervenes to articulate their desires for them: every once in a while, he throws in elaborately dreamlike song-and-dance numbers, music supplied by 1950s Chinese pop hits sung by Grace Chang, all cleverly connected to a certain physical and emotional moment.    

When they do finally connect, after a moment in which they both fear they have lost the opportunity to do so forever, the sense of joy—quietly expressed by a simple image in which one almost literally lifts the other from the depths into the light—is overwhelming; only another song-and-dance number can do it justice. I hope I have come close to doing some justice to just how wonderful a film is The Hole, in which Tsai Ming-liang—as seems to be his directorial métier—is willing to follow his instincts and risk absurdity in pursuit of deep emotional truths and sublime visionary beauty.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003; Dir.: Thom Andersen)

The splendors, such as they are, of Los Angeles Plays Itself are, by their very nature, cerebral rather than visceral; nevertheless, it must be said that Thom Andersen's 169-minute video essay on the depiction of the many facets of Los Angeles throughout cinema history does offer the immediate pleasures of epic ambition, a dizzying wealth of information and film clips, and assorted moments of revelatory critical insight. Alas, my interest in this oft-celebrated, rarely screened documentary more or less ends there.

Look, it's not that I find Andersen's aims totally unworthy. Fundamentally, he's trying to dig underneath what he sees as Hollywood cinema's misrepresentations of his beloved city geographically, historically, sociologically, or otherwise—in other words, trying to find the realities behind distortions about the city that we perhaps have accepted as close to the truth because they have been seen in popular and independent American cinema for so many decades. That's certainly the kind of goal I instinctively find valuable as a wannabe film critic—and yet, even so, it's one that I ultimately find myself less than wholly sympathetic with here. I mean, we're dealing with movies here; I would like to think that most of us recognize from the outset that what we see flickering on movie screens, even after all these years, through films like Chinatown, Blade Runner, Short Cuts, and even that trashy 1986 Sylvester Stallone flick Cobra, isn't necessarily true to reality. In seeming to prize more accurate depictions of Los Angeles in films like The Exiles and Killer of Sheep (certainly great films, both) over those of more blatantly fictional constructs like the ones mentioned above, it almost seems to me like he's going rather self-defeatingly against the grain of what is possible in cinema.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: I'm sympathetic to Andersen's interest in exposing the many truths about Los Angeles behind the cinematic fictions, and one could insightfully apply his methods to other major cities commonly represented in film over the years (Woody Allen's upper-class fantasy conception of New York versus the real New York, for instance). I suppose I just don't get as upset about those fictions as Andersen apparently does—certainly not enough to make, or sit through, a nearly three-hour documentary essay methodically (and rather dryly) subverting them. I'm not against truth; I just take the fictions in stride more than he does.

All that said, Los Angeles Plays Itself is admittedly still worth seeing and arguing over—especially in its third section, titled "The City as Subject," in which Andersen gets makes some fascinating political points about how fictions about Los Angeles class and race relations are created, and who has the power to create them (he suggests that it's the artists with money who create these alternate cinematic representations). Whatever you may think about whether what he's ultimately doing is actually worth doing or not, the film as a whole will offer new ways of looking at individual films and of cinema in general. In that sense, it succeeds as the kind of provocative film criticism that imbues genuine life into the field. And considering the way that the film-criticism field seems to be going these days—with high-profile critics jumping into film-festival programming, for instance—I suppose I shouldn't be too picky about deeply intelligent and well-researched works like this one. Maybe one day I'll be able to fully embrace it.

(Los Angeles Plays Itself was screened on Nov. 21 at 92YTribeca; there's another screening scheduled at New York University on Dec. 2. It's not available on DVD, but it's freely available as a torrent, if you're not a stickler about such things.)

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