All entries for September 2007

September 05, 2007

Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou, 1991)

Raise the Red Lantern is surely one of the finest films of its decade? It’s visually spellbinding, as expected, but unlike Yimou’s recent efforts Lantern’s style is less to do with our being blitzed with special effects and more to do with the director’s ability to exploit his setting’s potential to the max. Almost the entire film takes place in a palatial complex of enormous proportions. When we first arrive here along with our protagonist, Songlian, it’s difficult not to be overawed by the extravagance of a residence that apparently branches out in all directions. Nevertheless, it’s the banality of this sparsely-inhabited space that emerges as it’s most resounding feature, and the narrative’s direction ensures that what first seems magnificent later morphs into little more than a stifling human compound. The greys and browns that dominate the palette of Yimou’s exteriors contribute to this nullifying effect, forming a brazen contrast to the copious use of reds that paint internal space. That colour’s primary connotation here is a sexual one: the lighting of the red lantern indicates that the Master will spend the night, and the bathing of each wife’s apartment in the colour places further emphasis on the fact that these women’s rooms (and their roles) are conceived as purely eroticised areas.

The prevalence of red also works on another level, foreshadowing the inflamed passions that take centre stage later in the film. Lantern is, perhaps above all else, a brilliant melodrama rooted in the vindictive hearts of its central characters. The film plays out like an intricate web of power battles: Songlian vs. the other wives, Songlian vs. the Master, Meishan vs. Zhuoyan, Yan’er vs. Songlian etc. These people exist in an enclosed world dominated by mind-games that reach unrivalled heights of spitefulness. Initially, one can’t help but react with glee at some of the bitchiness that takes place – not to mention the wicked irony of each wife continually referring to the other as “sister” – but as the action progresses it becomes apparent that the women are toying with one anothers’ lives and the intrigues resultantly take on a far more threatening dimension. Yimou’s great achievement derives from his ability to utilise these already gripping dilemmas as a platform for a wider and more scathing commentary on various facets of the Chinese experience.

Women are at the heart of this film and accordingly it’s their plight that the director is primarily concerned with. Although they’re privileged to an extent, Lantern deftly shows us that wealth by no means equates to freedom – as previously stated, their opulent surroundings actually serve to entrap and even destroy them. Female roles are confined to the sexual spheres of their bedrooms where they are expected to satisfy their Master and provide male heirs to maintain the patriarchal lineage, or alternatively they’re limited to a domestic sphere that requires complete subservience. The vapidity of such expectations is incongruously validated by the male guardians of this realm, with the housekeeper telling Songlian: “The Chen family’s customs go back many generations. It is important that you obey them.” Clearly, an all-pervasive faith in the integrity of tradition is what motivates this code of conduct. How ironic then, that those very traditions should breed the friction that disrupts the fragile unity of the household. The repeated use of one specific ritual demonstrates this to agonizing effect: every evening, custom dictates that the four wives stand outside their gateways to anticipate whether or not the Master will spend the night with them. His decision is marked by the placing of a red lantern outside the chosen wife’s house, thereby divulging the titular object’s status as a power symbol alongside the aforementioned sexual intimations. The entire process serves only to degrade all concerned: the unsuccessful wives face humiliation whilst the ‘victor’ in the power struggle is forced to contend with the underlying resentment of her fellow concubines. This scenario is especially pitiful when one considers the chosen wife’s scant rewards: a foot massage, the ability to set the next day’s menu, and another chance at producing an all-important male heir. The fact that all of these women consider such meagre scraps worth fighting for speaks volumes about the extent to which their silent repression has permeated their mindsets.

That Songlian, an educated woman confident enough to frequently exert her authority over the Master, should resort to engaging in these games is disheartening – although only on a surface level. The character as Gong Li so magnificently plays her is obstinate, petty and as caustic as her rivals: in short, she’s far from the most likeable of heroines. Regardless, if one considers her hostile new environment and, perhaps more importantly her youth (the girl is only nineteen, after all) it’s possible to develop a basic understanding of the motivation behind her dubious actions. Certainly, her age and her education combine to beset the film with a lingering sense of squandered potential. Moreover, should we dare to see Songlian’s predicament as a figurative representation of the fate of Chinese women as a whole (in the film’s early 20th-century setting, if not the present day), then this wilful loss of female promise is lent much greater relevance. Bearing this in mind, certain other aspects of Yimou’s portrayal warrant further analysis: for example, what of the film’s ignorance towards the forces that led to Songlian’s degradation? Yimou shows us the downfall but, minor allusions aside, keeps us unaware of the background and thereby hints at its irrelevance in a domain where female oppression is simply another fact of life. Another important feature is the ‘reward’ of the foot massage which evokes an inevitable comparison with the more controversial act of foot binding. My knowledge of the procedure is somewhat limited, but it’s clear that Yimou’s use of the act is fundamental, for although the two practices seem polar opposites on paper the massage assumes the same problematic implications of its predecessor: binding has, rightly or wrongly, often been viewed as an instrument of patriarchal enslavement and this is reiterated in the film through the massage which is awarded to the wives solely for them to “better serve their man.” In other words, Yimou astoundingly parlays the intellectual negativity associated with the pain of foot binding into the deceptive comfort of the foot massage. Nonetheless, he also draws from the alternate viewpoint: binding has conversely been seen as a desirable yardstick for women due to its functioning as a status symbol and, of course, the massage in Lantern performs exactly the same role by affording one wife privilege over the others. It’s emblematic of the film’s trademark complexity that an event so seemingly insignificant could penetrate such depths of meaning.

Yimou’s directorial decisions, and their ability to illuminate his story, surely reach a daring peak with his refusal to grant us an unobstructed view of his film’s most powerful character. The ‘Master’ is central to the narrative, yet Yimou hides him behind painted veils, obscures him through long-shots and even denigrates him to the rank of a mere off-screen voice. The Master’s literal role in the film forms a stark contrast to his metaphorical role as the patriarchal head – and perhaps this is the point that Yimou is trying to make: the Master’s authority is omnipotent to the point where his presence is no longer necessary to enforce his will. He presides over a system where gender roles are strictly defined, as is class status – one recalls how the servant Yan’er is used as sexual fulfilment but is admonished for aspiring to be a mistress. The third wife Meishan’s affair with the doctor both threatens the Master’s sexual supremacy (extra-marital relations are reserved to the male realm) but more importantly it deviates from the prescribed norms, and is subsequently punished with brutal force. This incident in particular, and the categorical denials of Meishan’s fate that follow, induce memories of similar acts of brutality that have been quietly whitewashed by authorities in modern Chinese history. Little wonder then, that the film was banned upon release in Yimou’s homeland.

Raise the Red Lantern is as visually striking as it is intellectually invigorating, but one couldn’t truly love it unless it struck an emotional chord – and that it does, to haunting effect. Whilst the film brilliantly critiques the oppressor, it also finds fault in the oppressed as it’s the lack of empathy between the characters that affects us the most. The general inability to forge human connections of substance is almost countered by the mutual understanding between Songlian and Meishan – but Yimou repudiates even this faint glimmer of hope, by holding the former responsible for the latter’s tragic end. It’s as if the mechanical hand of the patriarchy not only subjugates the women, but additionally erodes their humanity thus rendering them incapable of uniting against it. It’s this lack of compassion in Lantern’s enclosed world that makes for such riveting yet painful viewing, and one can’t help but wonder: could Songlian’s descent into insanity be a refuge from all the madness of reality? The way in which the latter is presented suggests that such an idea may not be totally implausible, and surely that’s the most devastating indictment of all?

Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)

Has anyone else ever wanted to watch a film solely because of it’s DVD cover? This was the case pour moi when I came across the Criterion edition of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba:

Surely a front cover like that would tempt anyone, right? Well, it tempted me anyhowz.

Onibaba isn’t quite the terrifying frightfest that I expected. While it certainly has its fair share of unbridled horror moments, the film struck me more as an atmospheric mood piece characterised by its entrancing-but-unsettling imagery. The dominant forces are the primal concerns of survival, sex and death. To this end, Shindo situates the action in a bygone era of Japanese history where these simplistic interests can feasibly serve as the characters’ main focuses. He also makes us aware of the period’s discords, which he uses to weave in a critique of war and additionally, to justify the characters’ more repugnant qualities: the mother/daughter-in-law duo at the film’s core (referred to simply as ‘Woman’ and ‘Young Woman’) kill resting soldiers in order to sell their armour. In this way, they ironically live off death but the film makes the point that in such a turbulent environment their actions are necessary for plain survival. War has reduced them to this, although the unnerving willingness with which the characters execute their livelihoods suggests that they have allowed themselves to become totally consumed by a thirst for blood.

The primary ‘thirst’ here isn’t a homicidal one though, it’s completely sexual. Onibaba’s English-language title is “The Hole”, a reference to a gaping black hole in the earth where murdered soldiers meet their gruesome end. Surrounded by susuki grass, it’s difficult to miss the more carnal implications of this image, with the hole itself acting as a hybridisation of all the film’s aforementioned concerns thanks to its sexual connotations and its consumption of death. The film doesn’t just infer however, it also depicts sex with an explicitness that’s refreshing given it’s context, and it continues Shindo’s theme of stripping everything down to its basest, most naturalistic instincts. The sex here is ugly, sweaty and not in the least bit arousing. Moreover, it provides the main source of conflict within the plot: the arrival of the male character, Hachi, eventually triggers the friction between the two females – he awakens the sexuality in both, but especially the daughter-in-law whose carnal desires drive her to see him despite the presence of ‘demons’ later in the film. Her pleasure invokes competition with the mother-in-law that’s dependent on her: this feral and aged woman is spurned by Hachi in the film’s closest flirtation with poignance, and thus desperately pleads with him: “I can’t kill without her!”

In spite of the conflict, Hachi’s introduction also leads to a temporary stalemate within the narrative, as Shindo does overtime on the underdeveloped tensions resulting from his presence. Indeed, the story as a whole is prone to fluctuations, with the introduction of the film’s notorious ‘mask’ (and thus, the entire final act) coming across as particularly contrived. Fortunately, Shindo’s visual hand is enough to counter any lulls in his tale, and its brimming with great moments: the masked soldier falling into the death pit – as filmed from inside the hole; the frequent shots of the sharp susuki grass that pierce the landscape; deft plays with light and shadows, particularly during the night sequences; even shifting to negative film stock for heightened effect; and of course, the conception of that damned mask itself – certianly one of the most bizarre props that I’ve ever come across on film. Backed up by a terrifically shrill score that punctuates the high drama, and the absence of which results in the eeriest of silences, Shindo creates nothing less than a captivating experience. For someone whose experience of Japanese cinema to date has been limited to the Holy Trinity (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu) and second-rate horror movies, I found Onibaba a bold and exhilarating contrast to what I’m familiar with: an evocative and indelible work whose arresting images linger in the memory long after film’s end.

September 04, 2007

Under the Roofs of Paris (Clair, 1930)

René Clair’s Le Million may well be my favourite musical ever, although it doesn’t fit the mould in the traditional sense – either way, it’s also one of my favourite films full stop, so it was only a matter of time before I got to another of Clair’s fabled early 1930s trio. So here I sit, having given the first of those flicks a spin…

Under the Roofs of Paris [Criterion Collection]

Under the Roofs of Paris was Clair’s first venture into the world of sound, Much like Le Million, Paris forms something of a bridge between the silent film and the talkie, although it’s definitely rougher around the edges than that later masterwork. Paris’ greatest flaw is almost certainly its paper-thin excuse for a story, which sees a man (Albert) fall in love with a woman (Pola) only to go to prison and lose her to his best friend (Louis). It’s as simplistic as it sounds, and the plot mechanisms are all too evident: the robbery that leads to lead Albert’s imprisonment appears out of nowhere, and briskly propels the narrative forward by a month whereas previously it had focused on a 24hr period. Moreover, the explanation for Pola and Louis’ relationship is provided to us in that swift time slot – in other words, we don’t get much explanation at all and their so-called ‘love’ for one another comes across as distractingly undercooked. And then there’s the fact that all the characterisations bar Albert are similarly destitute: Louis is practically unknown to us; and Pola, the romantic interest of three characters in the film, is little more than a fickle whore. The intended ‘bittersweet’ ending is instead rendered purely sweet as a result of her irksome presence. Gaston Modot, the delightful actor who played a role in many of France’s greatest films of the 1930s (La Règle du jeu, L’Âge d’Or, La Grande illusion) makes a typically comical impression as the film’s ‘villain’ but is eventually sidelined in favour of the banal love story.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe Paris as a great film. This is primarily thanks to Clair, whose craftsmanship is on full display here. His experimentation with sound was still in its earliest stages (compare this to the smooth polish of Le Million) but already his creativity is more than apparent. One of the film’s earliest shots finds a camera panning across Clair’s artificial Parisian rooftops, before slowly descending towards ground level to uncover the source of the song that we hear on the soundtrack. With these opening minutes Clair already conveys his intent: to recall the greatness of the silent era whilst at once hinting towards the possibilities offered by sound. A number of bravura sequences bravely execute this objective: a bedroom sequence where Albert and Pola shout and bicker to hilarious effect despite being in the dark; a tussle between Albert and a pickpocket that takes place with appropriately-timed background music, thus playing like a Chaplinesque comedy sequence; or the climactic fight between Albert and Fred that takes place in darkness and without dialogue, but is accentuated by disorienting angles and the thunderous movements of a passing train.

Although the director’s mélange of mobile camerawork + song + slapstick + minimal dialogue succumbs to the occasional awkward moment, for the most part it’s a triumph that successfully creates the lyrical romanticism so absent in the screenplay. Clair’s envisioning of working-class Paris looks as if it’s ripped out from a picturebook, and this near-oneiric conception of the city – accordions, berets and all – does little in the way of providing substance to potentially serious concerns. This is not the most significant of hindrances however, because Paris functions best as another slice of that charming-yet-sophisticated brand of French confectionary that Clair seeks to recreate (Jean-Pierre Jeunet should take notes.) Taken as a whimsical romp through a working man’s daily affairs, one can see it as an early filmic embodiment of joie de vivre. Despite the setbacks, we’re informed at film’s end that life continues to plays on as if like a beautiful song. It’s an irresistible finale to a film that, despite its own setbacks, justifies its conclusions by enamouring us in its own world, if only for a brief moment in time.

September 2007

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