August 19, 2005


Directed by Wong Kar-Wai Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Wong Kar-Wai's films are the cinematic equivalent of formless jazz improvisations, harping on mood rather than substance. They are impossibly beautiful yet flatly vacuous. With 2046, he riffs off some of his previous efforts: it's the official sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it also recalls the director's Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express with a note or two from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It's somewhat startling that WKW has seemingly exhausted all of his ideas this early in the game. Apparently he did not have much to go on at the outset of 2046, which reportedly endured years of delays and extensive alterations during its production.

The title harkens to a hotel room number from In the Mood for Love, and is also coincidentally the final year in which Deng Xiaoping's "one nation, two systems" guarantee for the governance of Hong Kong would remain in effect. The sequel follows Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's newspaper sci-fi/soft-core pulp columnist Chow Mo-Wan in the late 1960s as the doomed affair in the previous film continues to haunt him and lead to his chauvinist womanizing. Each of his new conquests here represents a morsel of trivia that may fascinate hardcore WKW fans, although truthfully there's very little worthy of serious theorizing.

Leung’s longtime girlfriend Carina Lau plays a woman stabbed to death by her jealous boyfriend (Chang Chen of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a thankless silent role). Faye Wong’s character Wang Jingwen is actually named after the singer/actress’s own former stage name, and she has a Japanese fixation here that replaces her California obsession in Chungking Express. Gong Li’s Su Lizhen is the namesake of Maggie Cheung’s characters from Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Having teamed up with Leung in Hero, Zhang Ziyi once again plays someone with unrequited love for his character. And three of director Zhang Yimou’s muses (Gong, Zhang Ziyi and Jie Dong) make appearances here. Got it?

The most mind-boggling direction in 2046 is something subtitle-readers won't likely pick up on: The majority of the conversations in the film actually involve two characters speaking vastly different dialects or languages, so technically they shouldn't even understand each other. Wong possibly pioneered this scheme with Chungking Express (Shunji Iwai and Takashi Miike later borrowed it) to achieve a sense of pan-Pacific multiculturalism that in reality isn't truly prevalent in the mostly homogenized Asian cultures. Even though William Chang's retro-chic designs and Christopher Doyle's kaleidoscopic cinematography are always something to behold, their exoticness doesn't really elevate WKW's nonsensical Crayola-coloured films beyond pretentious stylistic exercises.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Last Days

Directed by Gus Van Sant Starring Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas and Asia Argento

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

From idiosyncratic portraits about fringe existences (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) to Hollywood pop thrillers (To Die For, Psycho) and coming-of-age weepies (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to a trilogy of inscrutable headline-news abstractions, Gus Van Sant's artistic evolution has seemingly come full circle: his latest brings to mind his sparse and remote feature debut Mala Noche. The technical proficiencies and auteurist staples showcased in the trilogy are undeniably significant, earning him serious critical attention along with the 2003 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Still, there's something disingenuous about these films that trivializes their artistic merits.

Just as Van Sant's Gerry drew its inspiration from a news item about two men getting lost in the wilderness and Elephant borrowed its from the Columbine High School massacre, the trilogy's final entry Last Days is a fictionalized account of events immediately leading up to the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. These films are hardly cautionary or meditative, and they also don't shed any new light on the real-life tragedies that comprise their bases. Van Sant obdurately sets out to effect the polar opposite of media sensationalism. He achieves detached and cryptic minimalism by deconstructing the very same facts and speculations that the media once beat into the ground.

Bleached-blonde Michael Pitt plays Cobain surrogate Blake. He aimlessly mumbles and crawls in a lethargic daze, barely interacting with the handful of groupies with whom he shares a run-down mansion. Except for the rare occasion when he's rocking out, Blake is practically a zombie in his final hours - he can't hold an intelligible conversation with a Yellow Pages salesman nor even follow simple instructions printed on a Kraft Dinner box. In fact, Pitt has only a few perceptible lines and even fewer close-ups throughout the entire film.

As with Elephant, Van Sant offers a slew of possible explanations for the tragedy, in this instance drugs, isolation and distaste for fame and scheming hangers-on. For all three films, the director stages each scene with an uneventful dread without striving for any character identification or passing any judgments. His takes certainly provide curious contrasts to the probing frenzy of news media, but he never offers any eloquent criticisms of such sensationalism. The insertions of a random gay subtext in both Elephant and Last Days raise the most alarming red flag about Van Sant's trilogy though. They expose the fact that these films are not meant as meditations, but rather they are merely soulless quasi-Warholian replicas of cultural icons passed off as art.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 12, 2005

Broken Flowers

Directed by Jim Jarmusch Starring Bill Murray, Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Master of inconspicuous deadpan and cultural pastiche, Jim Jarmusch has unwaveringly redefined off-centre quirkiness in cinema throughout the past quarter of a century. Heavily influenced by Aki Kaurismäki, he is one of the few filmmakers capable of simultaneously summoning up opaque bleakness and eccentric glee. Like most of Jarmusch's work, Broken Flowers is an episodic road movie about displacement. It follows a past-his-prime lothario as he tracks down some old flames in the heartland of America to find out about a son he inadvertently fathered some years ago.

With this, the duly understated Bill Murray extends his recent streak of films about midlife longings. His sluggish Don Johnston is scarcely convincing as a chick magnet, especially considering that over the years the character has attracted the company of women played by Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. Perfectly content vegging out on the couch all day, he is unexcited by the surprise arrival of an anonymous letter announcing his lost son. Only at the insistence of his detective-story enthusiast Jamaican neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) does Don reluctantly begin his inquiry and the quest that follows.

Jarmusch's new work often evokes films by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, especially their masterpiece About Schmidt. The two films obviously share the thematic common threads of post-retirement void and self-discovering journey, even if the dialogue in Flowers isn't as pointedly witty and brutally revealing as the Ndugu letters (it's okay, neither is anything in Sideways). Jarmusch's film likewise cheerfully derides the oddity that is Americana: NASCAR, Lolita, a designer home, a professional closet organizer, a pet therapist and a biker gang. As with Schmidt, Flowers culminates in haunting poignancy with its protagonist finally resigning himself to his life's regrets.

If this latest effort signals any maturity in Jarmusch's work, it's only for the sheer fact that it deals with midlife crisis. And for this fact alone, the prevalent boomer sentimentality among the critical masses already portends the overrating of the film. The low-key cinematography of gloomy suburbia by the formidable Frederick Elmes still somewhat pales in comparison to Robby Müller's and Tom DiCillo's luminous black-and-white photography in their respective Jarmusch collaborations. Devoted fans will know that the director isn't reaching an artistic plateau with this Cannes Grand Prix winner, and in fact it is hardly his personal best, but Broken Flowers is certainly another extremely worthy addition to a wonderful body of work.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 05, 2005

The Beautiful Country

Directed by Hans Petter Moland Starring Damien Nguyen, Tim Roth and Nick Nolte

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The escalating global phenomenon of illegal immigration is finally spawning some serious artistic responses as opposed to mere subplot treatments. With eye-opening and gut-wrenching depictions of brutal hardship and weathered idealism, cinematic pacesetters such as Michael Winterbottom's In This World, Ken Loach's Bread & Roses and the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse are simply unforgettable and compel viewers to rethink their positions on this complex issue. Following a man's trek in search of his Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father, Aberdeen director Hans Petter Moland's take on the theme with The Beautiful Country also brings to mind the family reunion premise of Three Seasons and the documentary Daughter from Danang.

No matter where he goes, half-breed Binh (Damien Nguyen) can't fit in. The family he dwells with in rural Vietnam doesn't allow him to eat at the dinner table and promptly kicks him out when the daughter's new husband moves into the house. Binh then heads to Saigon, locates his long-lost housekeeper mom (Chau Thi Kim Xuan) and takes a job working alongside her as a servant. A catastrophe soon sends him on the run, and he's off to the States to seek the dad he never knew. Along the way, he endures a Malaysian refugee camp, machine gun-toting smugglers, dead-end menial labour, decrepit human cargo carried by a creaking freighter and a devastating tragedy onboard.

The Piano and Lone Star cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh here creates some breathtaking images in epic Scope format. Perhaps taking cues from its producer Terrence Malick, The Beautiful Country features a few carefully studied, slightly slow-motioned montages concomitantly illustrating wide-eyed wonder and fish-out-of-water alienation. From quaint rural Vietnam and the bustling Saigon streets to the imposing Manhattan concrete jungle and the vast Texan plains, Dryburgh's lyrical vision turns the film into a languorous meditation. The immigrants' seaside arrival is such a magnificent sight that it will engrave itself in many viewers' memories.

Regrettably, Sabrina Murray's well-meaning screenplay has serious flaws, and the most discernible is its contrivance. More than a few plot elements are redolent of convenience and artificiality, and the story unfolds with a certain by-the-numbers predictability. Binh's reasons for leaving the small village and later Saigon are strained, and his no-repercussions emancipations from the refugee camp, smuggler's IOU contract and the sweatshop all ring totally false. It also doesn't help that Nguyen is thoroughly expressionless in his big-screen debut, and supporting players like Tim Roth (as the cargo-ship captain) effortlessly upstage him. The film is still memorable though, even if it never reaches the emotional devastation of its worthier predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Happy Endings

Directed by Don Roos Starring Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A casualty of the Ben-Gwyneth tabloid spectacle backlash in 2000, writer/director Don Roos's big-budget mainstream effort Bounce failed to earn him commercial viability. It's not surprising that with Happy Endings, he regresses to the thematic and structural preoccupations of his inexpensive debut The Opposite of Sex. Both films conjure up quirkiness through self-reflexive narration, an obnoxious device mostly associated with film-school neophytes desperate for critical attention. Immediately after the opening-scene car accident in Endings, title cards announce that "No one dies in this movie. It's a comedy ... sort of." Sex and Endings also share the plotline of women using pregnancies to get ahead at the expense of unwitting gay dads. The problem with Roos's latest is the fact that it has three occurrences of this phenomenon, and - just to make it truly contrived - somehow everyone in those parallel narratives is interconnected. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) fooled around with her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan) some years ago and became pregnant so she could get out of the house. Charley conjectures that his partner Gil (David Sutcliffe) has involuntarily fathered the artificially inseminated newborn of lesbian couple Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke). After touring the lavish home of her closeted bandmate Otis (Jason Ritter), the calculating Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) dares him to prove his heterosexuality to her so she can possibly move in with him.

If you think all the breeder-bashing tirades can't possibly get more absurd, think again. Claiming that he knows the whereabouts of her lost son, aspiring filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford) blackmails Mamie in hopes of making a documentary about their tentative reunion in order to qualify for a filmmaking scholarship. Instead, Mamie suggests as a subject the American-dream-come-true tale of illegal-immigrant masseur/sex worker Javier (Bobby Cannavale). The staged, subjective and exploitative qualities of Nicky's project reflect on the limitations of documentaries, but Todd Solondz has already written the bible on that with Storytelling.

A heavy-handed pro-life message emerges at the end of Roos's film, along with the titular happy endings you've been expecting. Surprisingly, the most conventional cliché actually turns out to be the most genuine item in this schematic drivel. As all but one character gather for the climactic semi-fantasy reunion, something thoughtful transpires in the warm, slow-mo, drunken bliss (set to Gyllenhaal's cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are"). With Mamie's hard-won smile, the film leaves an impression suggesting that even though life is messy, there are always silver linings that make everything worthwhile.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.