Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Al Folman

November 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

Couldn’t help but see the uncanning similarity between the transition techniques of Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Ugetsu (1953)

 

Overview

A memory film given shape by the formal characteristics of a documentary, Waltz with Bashir is one man’s journey to recover his memories against the context of the 1982 Lebanon War. The experience is almost dreamlike and much of this owes to the use of cutout animation, Hebrew language and seamless blending of interviews and reenactments.

Animation?

Waltz with Bashir is certainly not the first animated documentary to be made, but it certainly brings the animated film grammar to different heights. The first animated documentary is largely recognized to be a 12 minute long film entitled The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

One of the first things that hit me really quickly was how the use of animated blurred the lines between the present reality (or interviews) and flashbacks/memories/past (or reenactments) – both of which form the basic structure of a conventional documentary. In fact, if I wasn’t told that Waltz with Bashir was a documentary, or at least meant to be that way, I wouldn’t have noticed it.

This is best evidenced in one of the earlier scenes in the film where Folman’s is seen in a taxi mediating about his memories (22:40). As we watch the reflections on the side panels, they first appear to be trees and roads, and then quickly transit to that of soldiers in army tanks – a very clever yet surrealistic transition from present to his memories.  Such transitions will characterize much of the way the film shifts from interviews to reenactments or memories.

I think this is one aspect of animation that transcends “real-life” documentaries. With the latter, boundaries are clearly drawn. Reenactments are always obvious to the audiences, with the use of modern-day actors dressed in appropriate costumes acting out the particular scene in history. Some higher budget productions, such as those of National Geographic, always carry that distinguishing sleek feel, clean and well shot feel in their reenactments. The experience of these “real-life” documentaries, is thus places more emphasis on facts.

Waltz with Bashir on the other hand, blurs these boundaries that conventional documentaries set up. In doing so, I think the film makes clear that its focus is more on the individual subjective experience more than as a representative, generalizable whole.

Context

I think this is also further backed up by the fact that controversial fact that Waltz with Bashir does not properly situate Folman and his interviewees firmly against the context of the 1982 Lebanon War. Instead, it presents the historical context of the war in vignettes.

Some critics have attacked the film’s historical context, saying that Folman deliberately decontextualized the film and shifted the blame game away from the Israelis through its sympathetic portrayal of the Israeli soldiers. While valid to a certain degree, I feel that this perspective fails to recognize that Folman’s focus was always based on the individual subjective experience. Even though the film left out crucial gaps and questions such as why were the Palestinians being killed, and how much did the Israelis contribute to the massacre, I felt that these were more accidental in the process of tracing Folman’s forgotten memories.

The Last Scene

The last minute of this 83min film is told through real-life footage. It was almost as if Folman intended had intended the first 82 minutes of the film to be geared towards this one singular shocking, graphic scene of the massacre. The effect created by this jarring juxtaposition was very, very disturbing.

Contextually, Folman had also said in his commentary on the film that one of the reasons for using animation in the telling of Waltz with Bashir was to attract the younger crowd through its aesthetics. But at the same time, he did not want audiences to leave the theatre thinking, “That was a nice film with pretty graphics and lovely soundtracks.” He wanted audiences to take home the very grave message that he had intended for from the start.

Folman couldn’t be more right. I don’t think I can ever quite forget the gravity of the last scene.

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Housemaid (1960) by Kim-Ki Young

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

The Housemaid (1960) chronicles the unrelenting disintegration of a traditional Korean family as a femme fatale figure joins the household as a domestic helper or housemaid. The equally unreleting cinematography paints swiftly, a melodramatic story that never breaks free of its hold on you, gripping you tighter each time you expect it to resolve itself.

Mise en Scene

The most distinctive thing about The Housemaid is its amazing flawless cinematography, expressed through a camera that never seems to stop tracking in and out, crabbing left and right. The camera, I think, is best described as an over eager entity, as if a beast on a leash that the viewer, and indeed the characters find hard to control.

The camera movements are not only continuous, but are also equally fast. This is consistent even with the speed of fade to blacks transitions, which are markedly shorter than most films who employ them. Both of these markedly unique aspects of the film’s form firstly furthers the sensation of over eagerness and inability of control – as if calamity, and calamity indeed, is to fall upon the family and drive them to shambles.

This is best evidenced by the repeated shots of the protagonist playing the piano for the factory choir ladies. The scene always opens with a LS of the protagonist at the left side of the room, with the camera tracking in quickly and crabbing left slightly to recompose the shot to a MS of his profile.  There is a certain sensation of sinister eagerness here, and this continues throughout a large part of the film.

The mise en scene of the film is also largely structured in indoor scenes, and this reminds me a bit of an Ozu film, except with largely different treatment of subject matter. In particular, the film set of the family’s home is firstly introduced as strangely messy and filled with unexplained clutter all around, although one can attribute it to the fact that the family has moved to their new home. Nonetheless, the visual impact leaves an ominous aftertaste in our mouths. Whether they provide a foreshadowing for the conflict that is to ensue, it is undeniable we can’t quite forget the sinister vibes they give us. Rewatching the scene a second time somewhat reminded strangely me briefly, of German Expressionistic film sets.

Narrative

I think fast camera tracks, crabs and transitions also drive the narrative forward in a speed I’ve never quite witnessed before. This is my second viewing of The Housemaid, and again I am astonished at how fast narratives had the potential to move forward without them being belonging in the action, horror or thriller genre. It was almost Kim was trying to tell us that the introduction of the housemaid will seal the fate of the family in living hell. And indeed it does.

The narrative flow of the second part of the film preceding the climax of the protaganist and the maid poisoning themselves is extremely unsettling. Kim creates the expectation of a resolution, first with the abortion of the baby, and then with the death of the protagonist’s son. Each time a major conflict occurs, we are fooled to imagine that the film is about to resolve itself but Kim pushes on further, using it as another point for a sick cycle carousel of causes and effects. One apparent resolution only serves to effect another conflict in the narrative, and this I think, is what I was trying to explain as unrelenting at the beginning of the review.

Yi Yi (2000) by Edward Yang

November 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

Couldn’t help but feel this looked like the classroom scene in Ohayo (1959).

Overview

Yi Yi (2000) is a film about the cards that life deal to you. The treatment is deceptively simple, but leaves one mediating about the way we look at our lives. The prime question of the film I think is how much do we really understand about the things that occur right before our eyes, and how limiting our perspectives can be.

Distance

Much of the film is made up of long shots framed with a wide lens in deep focus. Yang avoids cutting into the action of his characters and the situations they find themselves in, suspending us instead into the perspective of the scene as seen from a distance. The result is that of contemplative distance.

As we scan around the frame, we decide what we want to focus on, because multiple minor events are happening within the main event framed in the long shot. The intention, I think, is active participation from part of the viewers. My favourite example of this effect, is the scene towards the end of the wedding dinner where Ah Di and his wife stands on a table facing the onslaught of friends insisting that he drinks.

In this single shot, Yang never cuts into specific points of action. Instead, he presents the scene as it is, as we would see it from a distance, with simultaneous events occurring within the frame. There is the drunken man at the bottom left of the frame, sound asleep. Then there is the main bulk of action with Ah Di’s colleague shouting away towards Ah Di who is furiously downing jugs of beer in the center. And then there are two waiters at the right side of the frame, seemingly bored, as if wanting everything to end quickly so they may clear up and get off work. There is a very powerful charged stillness in this split focus effect.

Perhaps it’s due to my being a wedding photographer, and perhaps I really love black and white street photography, but photography of this nature reminds me a lot of the works of Henri Cartier Bresson, where simultaneous events are captured within a single frame. There is a certain elegance in capturing life in all its ebb and flows this way. And I love it.

There is yet another example – one of my favourites in the film as well – that exemplifies this contemplative distance. In the scene where NJ’s wife returns home in the morning, the camera pans left within the house as his wife traces the space of their apartment, trying to find NJ.

The scene has massive potential for melodrama, but Yang chooses to hold the shot at the television set and their wedding portrait at the left of the frame, placing the main bulk of action offscreen. While there effect here is less of a simultaneous nature like the wedding scene, the mood is equally contemplative. I couldn’t help staring at their wedding portrait because that single item in the mise en scene had so much evocative power. It reminded me of the tragic figure of Ah Di, who, in all his superstitions, chose to allow his wife get grossly pregnant because he wanted to get married on the luckiest day of the calendar. There is also poignant juxtaposition between the joy of getting married, and the impending suicide attempt (or not) at the point of the film.

Reflections & Perspectives

Yang’s key concern in Yi Yi is expressed most deceptively through Yang Yang’s inquisitive conversation with his father in the car. There is a certain level of wisdom in those seemingly naive words as he tells his father how, since we can only know half of the truth because we cannot see what’s going on behind our heads.

Much of the film is also cleverly shot with reflective surfaces in its mise en scene. My favourite use of this is in the scene where Ah Di’s neighbours are seen and heard quarreling from the perspective of Ah Di’s room.

As Ah Di slowly turns down the light, the faint reflection of the highway slowly gains visual presence – a very simple, subtle yet incredibly beautiful shot. What the previous shot of the neighbours arguing tells us I think, is how we often miss the little things in life. Like much of Hollywood narratives, we are often fixated with the main bulk of action, the most melodramatic, the most overt conflicts, that we forget about the little subtle things in life.

On a broader perspective, the shot also establishes how such problems are not only limited to a single family, or within the single space of the film, but also throughout Taiwanese society. Yang appears to be seemingly mediating about the nature of the film medium itself, asking us to rethink about how limiting films themselves can be. At the same time, Yi Yi shows how at the same time, films can also expand our ways of seeing the world.

Yang spares no effort in creating an equally telling film title that captures his ideas on perspectives too. Yi Yi can both be seen as two words (one and one), but when put together, creates a dual meaning of the number two (er). Whichever perspective we take up, the meanings differ. There is a certain magnanimous quality in this treatment, as if to tell us to remain open and broaden our perspectives, lending empathy even in situations we have no prior stake in.

Ending Notes

I’ve watched Yi Yi thrice, but yet I still discover new things about the film with each viewing. I think Edward Yang made a film that seeks to express his ideas even through the most minute of details. For instance, the little gag that Yang Yang’s cousin plays on him during the taking of the family portrait draws parallels  to Yang Yang’s words about how we can only know half the truth, or even of him taking pictures of the back of his father’s head. Such details can go easily ignored, but revisiting these little things through memory or repeated viewings make for a very enriching filmic experience.

Late Spring (1949) by Yasujiro Ozu

November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment


Overview

Late Spring is about as gentle a film can get. The opening music score sets the tone for tenderness and understanding of a simple story of an unbreakable bond between a daughter unwilling to marry and her caring, patrichal father. Despite the emotional potential latent in the screenplay that Ozu and Noda writes, Late Spring shows how Ozu’s terse direction never allows himself, his characters and his films fall into an overtly sentimental, sappy mood. The result is a subdued sense of emotion that broods as an ebbed flow throughout the film, seeking empathy from the audience through objectivity.

Mise en Scene

This review picks up from the earlier review on Ozu’s Tokyo Story, where the use of narrative ellipses was explained against the backdrop of Tokyo Story. For Late Spring, I have chosen to discuss about the distinctive way in which Ozu shoots his symmetrical shot-reverse-shots during conversations and breaks the 180 degree rule. Through that, I feel that Ozu articulates off-screen space elegantly as we peer into the private lives of these ordinary Japanese characters.

In Late Spring, as in Tokyo Story, shot-reverse-shots are almost never filmed in the traditional over the shoulder fashion that is typical of Hollywood films. In fact, safe to say, non-Hollywood films are also fond of shooting conversations using over the shoulder shots that cut across characters in a conversation following the 180 degree rule because it is part of a foundation film grammar that helps ground films in traditional continuity. Audiences will thus not be confused with the screen direction (ie. Character A, who first appeared screen right, does not “jump” to screen left)

I feel that over the shoulder shots give a particular sense of voyeurism, where we as viewers, are “peering” into the lives of the characters without their knowledge. The most apparent effect of symmetrically composed shot reverse shots that do away with placing the receiver of the conversation in the foreground is that of immediacy.

Rewatching Late Spring again, I noticed several occasions where a character deliberately breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly into the camera rather than ahead of it (which Ozu usually does). While I cannot say for sure that Ozu intentionally has his characters break the fourth wall (because he seems to do it almost capriciously rather than at certain high points in dialogue), I think it has the effect of placing viewers in the center of the conversation. It was almost as if we, as viewers, are sitting in the center of two characters conversing about very personal details of their lives (ie. Noriko’s final conversation or plea with her father not to let her marry in their last evening of their last trip together). Most heartwarming of all, was that it felt like the characters didn’t mind us ‘being there’, sitting beside, or rather in the middle of them, witnessing them at their most private moments. Rather than secretive voyeurism, Ozu was almost saying to us: “This is a slice of their life, as it were. We have nothing to hide.”

Another effect of Ozu’s shot-reverse-shots was that it sometimes felt like one character’s face or indeed fate was written over that of the other, vice versa. While most directors would possibly employ the use of cross dissolves from one shot to the next to express this particular relationship between two characters, Ozu uses the straight cut, consistent throughout Late Spring, as in Tokyo Story. I think this is consistent with how Ozu’s concern is primarily with the relationship between his characters, rather than their inner, subjective psychological landscapes. Ozu appears to be expressing the notion that his characters are intrinsically bound together in a symbiotic, unbreakable relationship. Life then, is not only “disappointing” as Noriko puts it in Tokyo Story, but also inevitable. In later reviews, I intend to explore this notion of inevitability and unbreakable bonds against the context of Zen Buddhism.

In I lived, But… (1983), a documentary of Ozu’s life and work, it was shown that Ozu’s symmetrically framed shot reverse shots also reflect the director’s almost obsessive attitude towards graphical continuity and geometry. Because Ozu did away with the 180 degree system, graphical continuity maintains the smooth flow of the film from cut to cut, most apparent of which seen in his shot-reverse-shots. It has to be acknowledged that Ozu was often playful even with the most severe of his films. Some of the things he did, such as the symmetrically centered shot reverse shots, probably had no particular intentions on the effects that I experienced and tried to explain in the last two paragraphs. But it has to be acknowledged that Ozu was an artist that kept his style and expressions of the film grammar consistent through the oeuvre of his films. In fact, one can see how Late Spring is a beautiful culmination of Ozu’s style that evolved and grew from its roots in his early silent comedies.

While others have argued that Ozu’s camera is undisputedly self-conscious, almost possessing a mind of its own (often stating the example of I Was Born… But tracking shots of students and bored office workers), I still feel that Ozu’s intention, especially in both Tokyo Story and Late Spring, was objectivity. This is not to say that Ozu’s camerawork in Late Spring and Tokyo Story wasn’t self-conscious. As a matter of fact, I think that there was plenty of self-consciousness in the camerawork; in keeping the camera static and low,  and then framing shot reverse shots symmetrically centered.

Experience

If I had to sum up the entire film in a word, it would be ‘tender’. The experience was beautiful, and the telling of a story, so refined, elegant and graceful it sometimes felt like the screen directions of Noriko was that of a dancer, floating in and out of screen space. At times though, Noriko’s relationship with her father felt like it had Electra undertones, though the extreme care and gentleness that Ozu took in his direction quickly steered me away from a Freudian reading of the film. I just couldn’t bear to think of such an untainted, beautiful relationship between father and daughter in any other Western way of thought.

Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Tokyo Story is regarded by many to be one of a finest telling of a simple story in the gendai-geki genre, the Ozu way. It is a poignant, subtle film that meanders around the lives two children and in-laws when their elderly parents from the rural Onomichi come to visit. Ozu crafts an elegantly unrelenting film with its strictly objective, sometimes playful narrative. Against the backdrop of picturesque geometrical compositions and a trademark low, static camera angle, Ozu invites viewers to actively participate in the lives of the Hirayama family as we experience and explore, recall and reminisce their relationships among, between and against each other.

Mise en Scene

In this section I attempt to discuss the most striking aspects of the film in relation to its mise en scene, specifically its use of ellipses. I feel that Tokyo Story is a good starting point to explore certain aspects of the cinematic grammar that Ozu unrelentlessly holds onto, while at the same time discarding rules, techniques and stylistics (eg. cross dissolves, fade to blacks, 180 degree rule etc) that most filmmakers cannot possibly imagine themselves without. In my next few reviews of Ozu’s films, I will explore different parts of Ozu’s mise en scene that make his films so characteristically his and some argue, Japanese.

Narrative ellipses through the use of straight cuts
One of the qualities of Tokyo Story that struck me at the close of the film was the use of straight cuts throughout the entire film. There were no cross-dissolves, nor were there fade to blacks. While Ozu himself is said to have done so to preserve the quality or “cleaniness” of each image, I personally see it as an extremely effective way in creating ellipses or gaps in the narrative structure.

Through ellipses, Ozu playfully withholds crucial information about the narrative flow. Drama and events are thus given ability by Ozu to occur off-screen, rather than on-screen. For instance, at the start of the film, Shukichi and Tomi are seen talking about visiting their son in Osaka en route Tokyo as they pack their bags. The film then cuts to a shot of tall, burning furnaces, next to a shot of a railway station, next to shot of two ladies talking by the station, and then to a sign that says Dr Hiramaya – Internal Medicine & Children’s Disease. Although we do not, at this point of the film know that Dr Hiramaya is the son of Shukichi & Tomi, the main point here is that Ozu cuts across time and space with 4 shots of “still life” and transports the viewers from Onomichi to Tokyo, completely obliterating the eldery’s visit to their son in Osaka. It is only later in the scene that we learn that Shukichi and Tomi, did indeed visit their son Keizo in Osaka.

An early exemplification of the ellipses has the most immediate effect of driving the story forward and not have it sink into the trap of being “too flat”. Next, because Ozu constantly (or playfully, as Bordwell argues) jumps forward spatially and temporally, audiences have to constantly reorientate themselves within the time and space of the film.

Through the use of ellipses, Ozu also obliterates important points of drama in the story. The best example of this is the manner in which we find out that Tomi has fell ill en route her journey back to Onomichi. From the last shot of the clock at the scene in the train station where their two children send Shukichi and Tomi off, the film cuts to a shot of a temple, then to overhead railway lines, and then to a shot of the railway tracks where Keizo runs into the office. Through his conversation with his colleague, we find out that his mother fell ill along her train journey and had to get off at Osaka.

In doing so, Ozu avoids overt sentimentality and creates a muffled sense of drama. Just as how Ozu never cuts to the perspective or point of view of his characters save for two shots in the film (one of Keizo looking at the tombs and another of Kyoko looking outof the window and at the train tracks), Ozu preserves his unrelenting mode of objectivity. Compounded with Ozu’s use of a static camera, these have the effect of allowing us to first take a third person perspective and judge for ourselves the entire nature and scheme of things, rather than to fall into conventional sentimentality and take the sides of characters.

Experience

Tokyo Story was for me, a fleeting experience never experienced before. I was initially afraid of being disappointed by the massive hype that surrounded the film, but there was so much in the articulation and simplicity of film space that changed the way I looked at various parts of the film grammar. After rewatching the film, it suddenly struck me that Ozu was very fond of filming within the confines of a Japanese home, and his masterful craft was the way he imbued the sense of ‘being there’, very much like Flowers of Shanghai, the film I wrote about before this.

It is perhaps why at the close of the film, I thought about two scenes: one at the open terrace where Tomi asked her grandson about his future ambitions, and the other at the Atami beachfront where Tomi had a faint dizzy spell. Both of these scenes were shot outdoors, and both scenes came back to me like faint memories that felt very, very nostalgic. It was truly amazing how Ozu was so subtly hinting at the imminent death of Tomi (although Donald Richie explains that such foreshadowing is uncommon in Ozu’s films).

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