Birthday by Betrand Lee, Locust by Victric Thng & While You Sleep by Eva Tang – Three Singapore Shorts

December 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

So long,,,

I dedicate the closing of my 50 films project with three shorts of nostalgia from distinctively different styles and stories.

What Ifs

It came as quite an apt epiphany, but on my last 3 films I came to realize that many films functioned on the notion of ‘What If?’ What if this happened instead? What if things turned out differently? What if we could return to the past? What if we can’t? What do we do?

I came to realize that cinema, apart from existing to tell us about something very wrong (Pedro Costa), also serves as a medium of nostalgia. Because cinema is a medium largely shaped by the technological forces surrounding it, things in cinema come and go. I think a lot of this reflects back on the three shorts mentioned, and on life itself.

In Birthday, a young couple revisits old spots and hideouts they used to spend time together before they were shackled by the chains of work and family. The film is highly stylized in a Wong Kar Wai-ian aesthetic.

Similarly in Locust, the narrator makes a film with minimal WS of a crowded, public walkway as he reminisces about a love once found, but now lost.

Of the three, Eva Tang’s While You Sleep stood out as my favourite film in the entire Singapore Shorts collection, largely because of its disparate and sparse storytelling style and form. The influence from Ozu, largely in the film’s concern with the family and the use of ellipses, is profound.

Through the course of this project, I have come to appreciate the simple technique of narrative ellipses in ways more than one. While I was showering before writing this final entry, it occurred to me that ellipses were essential gaps, empty spaces. It reminded me of the horse galloping spool device you showed us in class, and it was a lesson on movement that I think I will remember for life. I thought about spaces and gaps persistently since then, because I can’t seem to grasp its meaning entirely. I seem to have been affected with the Haiku syndrome.

Thus, I fell back on my emotions and impressions, and asked myself about the effect that the ellipses in While You Sleep had in me. On my first viewing, I almost missed out the first major ellipses or jump separating the family’s move into their new home, and the scene at the hospital right after the mother comments about the nostalgia of the grandfather’s mirror. The effect, I realized, was that of emptiness. The ellipses had presented me with the consequence without showing me the process of how and why it arrived at the current state that it is now. There was profound emptiness in this gap.

While I was suspended in this gap, I found myself swimming in a pool of hypotheses that stemmed from the fundamental question: “What If?”The question exists I think, because humans are constantly yearning a return to their past. And the cinema and films that I have been exposed to in this project, expresses this certain nostalgia in all forms, shapes and sizes. There is nostalgia in the flashback sequences and allusions of Tears of the Black Tiger, and there is nostalgia in Wong Kar Wai’s classic, rustic old school film sets in In The Mood for Love. There is also nostalgia in a return to a past that probably never was in Like You Know it All, and there is also nostalgia in the memories and mental projections of Genjuro in Ugetsu.

What I’ve written so far about cinema so far revolves itself around nostalgia and emptiness, or gaps in the ellipses. What I’ve come to realize, is very simple. Yet, it has eluded me for such a long time. In this project, I have learnt that cinema can, with all its simplicity and honesty, bridge the gap between the present that is always so isolating and lonely, and the past that we can never seem to reach.

What if?

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Rashomon (1950) + Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

December 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

Overview

Kurosawa was a well known for his virtuosity in film craft, and propelled Japanese cinema into international prominence, most notably marked by Rashomon’s win of the Golden Lion award at the 1951 Venice film festival. Rashomon was a significant work because it marked the discovery of Asian cinema by the West and paved way for the sustenance of the concept of a “world cinema”.  Seven Samurai, on the other hand, represented one of Japanese cinema’s grandest epic works in the shomingeki genre. It represented Toho’s era of production adventurism that also gave birth to films like Gojira (1954). This review seeks to explain Kurosawa’s filmic techniques to show how he was just uniquely different, but also a master in executing them.

The Camera as the Actor

If Mizoguchi was well known for his long takes, then certainly Kurosawa would be known for his superb editing skills. I think this is best exemplified by the scene in Seven Samurai, where the samurais run out in a successive order through quick edits that could easily become jump cuts if not for a few technical experimentation by Kurosawa.

Typically, filmic conventions avoided placing two shots of too similar a shot size beside each other because they would result a jarring effect known as the jump cut, which ran contrary to the Hollywood’s invisible editing style. Kurosawa’s running sequence however, “worked” and avoided jump cutting because of the following reasons:

  1. Symmetrical compositions between each shot provided graphical continuity for each subsequent shot, functioning much like a mirroring effect reminiscent of Ozu’s style of shooting shot-reverse shots.
  2. The samurais were all running towards a similar direction against a similar foreground of tall grasses, and a cut-on-action or a match-on-action edit was applied to conceal the cut.

Of all these reasons, I think the cut-on-action was one of the longest lasting editing technique found in almost any film. While Kurosawa didn’t invent it per se, his imaginative use of the cut-on-action certainly highlighted the technique’s expansive longevity in film grammar. His obsession for editing manifested itself in how Kursawa was one of the few directors who would review each day’s rushes at the end of every day’s shoot and even got down to editing them sometimes.

Kurosawa was not only innovative with his editing techniques, but with his cinematography as well. Most notably, Kurosawa was fond of using the telephoto lens and multiple camera shooting (started in Seven Samurais) almost extensively in all of his films. The choice of a telephoto lens firstly gave his films the trademark “flattened” look. This particular lens choice was innovative because the other alternative to such “flattened” images was the use of the wide lens, small aperture, fast film stock combination to create the deep-focus effect most evident in Citizen Kane for example. More importantly, the choice of a telephoto lens gave Kurosawa’s films a sense of closeness that made viewers feel like they were right beside the character per se.

This can be seen in one of the earliest and famous scenes in Rashomon where the camera tracks along the woodcutter walking in the jungle. The use of the telephoto lens made the movement more apparent with the leaves appearing closer and larger on screen than if a wide or normal lens was used. I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking beside the woodcutter. Cinematic space tightened with the telephoto lens, and the experience very mysterious, almost dark and looming. It must be acknowledged however, that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavour and all of these wouldn’t have been possible without the fine mastery of Kurosawa’s Director of Photography, Kazuo Miyagawa, who was one of Japan’s best cinematographers with works such as Ugetsu under his belt.

Another one of Kurosawa’s technical innovations was in the use of flashbacks, a narrative technique that most of us are so accustomed to that we take for granted. Although signs of the flashback technique can be found as early as in the 1941 in Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane, it was Kurosawa who crystallized this technique with Rashomon.

Gut Feelings


Culturally, Rashomon, along with many other Kurosawa films represented a distinctive shift in Western conceptions about Japanese culture. Kurosawa’s films and characters were mostly visceral in nature (something I wasn’t so fond off), and that ran in contradiction to Western perceptions of the Japanese as a gentle and docile. In Rashomon, as with Seven Samurai, the performance of the Bandit was both exaggerated and animalistic.  Such unforeseen actions and behaviors by Japanese actors was most unexpected until Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and such contradictions were further amplified by mystical elements such as the medium in court.

Known to many as the most Western of all Japanese directors, Kurosawa was ironically steeped in Japanese culture and society. Kurosawa’s cinema tended towards a humanistic perspective, such as in Rashomon where he questions the notion of absolute morality and/or objectivity. More importantly, Kurosawa was undoubtedly a very culture specific director. That culture was Japanese, and despite all its Japanese specificity, there had always been a certain sense of universality to Kurosawa’s films. His filmic techniques, innovative in his days, are now being regarded not only as classic, but also fundamental. That I think, is the lasting impact of Akira Kurosawa.

Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) by Wisit Sasanatieng

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Nostalgia appears to dominate almost every aspect of this film, from its technical execution in color and art direction to its narrative richness with music and poetry. While being unabashedly Western, the dominance of flashbacks appear to signal a constant yearning to return to the past. As Wisit Sasanatieng puts it: “What I saw in them (old Thai films) was a way to stay true to the spirit of those old styles of Thai filmmaking, as well as a way to make them new again.”

Colors and Flashbacks

Much of the film’s polished style, carefully composed shots and over-the-top humour are very much reminiscent of Thai commercials. I think this has largely to do with the fact that Thai directors like Wisit Sasanatieng tend to hold day-time jobs as commercial directors as well, and their influences are distinctively noticeable.

I use the example of a series of Thai Health Promotion Foundation commercials to illustrate this point. Particularly noticeable is the use of over-the-top humour in illustrating a simple message. This brand of humour, I believe, appears to be a form of appeal to the Thai common man.

In fact, Wisit actually experimented with his set design and lighting for the film in a Wrangler Jeans commercial which featured the film’s leading man, Chartchai Ngamsan, as a boxer. Note the similarity in glossy-styled, all rounded glamororous lighting in both the commercial and the film. Also significant are the similar treatment in color tones, especially in the hues of cyan and green in the commercial (00:00:39).

Much of the film’s vintage, saturated color is also reminiscent of an experimental photography movement known as lomography. Photographers of this movement, who are largely teenagers and young adults, favored cross-processing their photographs in a bid to achieve more vivid and saturated colors. Cross-processing is achieved when traditional slide film is deliberately “wrongly” processed using C-41 chemicals that are meant for negative film. Traditional slide film is rightfully processed with E-6 chemicals. Here are some examples of cross-processed photographs:

Whether Oxide Pang, the colorist of the film, was consciously influenced by cross-processing or not, I think the similarities in the film were not entirely accidental. Cross-processing, once thought to be a cult method of processing photographs, were gradually sipping into the mainstream photography’s visual consciousness with the commercialization of the lomography movement. What was more important was that cross-processing brought about a return to traditional methods of photography that used film rather than digital cameras. This particular return to film canisters, I think, parallels itself in the nostalgia of the film, especially in how Wisit states how Rattana Pestonji’s Country Hotel and other old Thai films were a major influence on the film.

The dominance of flashbacks further illustrates my point. The main engine driving the narrative is the frequent use of the flashback, and this is most apparent in how the film almost abruptly shifts to the past, a year ago, as Dum’s stab wound is being treated. This is compounded by the prevalence of cross-dissolves in the film, creating a lingering impression of previous image on the present shot, much like a reluctance, or constant yearning to the past that I mentioned earlier in this review.

Ugetsu (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi

December 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

Overview

Just when I thought In the Mood for Love (2000) had beautiful camerawork, came Flowers of Shanghai (1998). And when I thought it couldn’t quite get any better than Flowers of Shanghai, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu flashed before my eyes, came and went. It really blew me away. To me, Mizoguchi is the best fit between Ozu’s sentimentality, and Kurosawa’s visceral treatments of his films. Because this is such a visually arresting film, I dedicate this review to some of my favourite scenes of the film, as well as to Kazuo Miyagawa, one of the finest directors of photography I’ve had the good fortunate of discovering.

Key Scenes

In this scene, Genjuro walks past a textile shop and his mental projections of Miyagi. The surrealistic and mysterious way in which Miyagi appears remains very elegant even though the speed at which it happens might across as slightly abrupt. However, the scene retains its elegance largely because of its simple treatment – the surrealistic projection is suggested by a single pan of the camera coupled with the use of the particular non-diegetic music that we will come to constantly associate with the nostalgia of Miyagi later.

If Ozu has his trains, Kurosawa his rain, then certainly Mizoguchi would have his fog. This scene captures the trademark motif in many of Mizoguchi’s films. I think this scene is not only beautiful cinematographically, but also strangely mysterious and foreboding. In retrospect, I think this was the scene where Genjuro faced ahead of him, the crossroads of whether he should ahead to the city to sell his pottery. When he impulsively, and eventually does make the trip to the city, the act is symbolic. The descend into fog bound darkness is to usher more impulsive decisions stemming from his weaknesses of greed and lust.

This particular shot is the result of a spectacular transition from the scene where Genjuro has his rendezvous with Lady Wasaka by the hot springs. Like the previous scene mentioned, the speed at which Mizoguchi switches from one space-time continuum to another is astonishingly fast. Together with the recurring fog motif in Ugetsu, I think Mizoguchi was trying to suggest how man can easily be tempted into the vortex of his own weaknesses. In this case, it is amazing how Genjuro can simply forget his family and wife when he is tempted into the offers of the beautiful Lady Wasaka. The speed at which all these events coincide with each other, might appear too fast but strangely, I think that Mizoguchi is right in saying that people can actually let go of everything at a moment of impulse.

This is the famous Miyagi ghost scene, and holds very poignant memories for me. The interplay of light and shadows using a single long take was not only a display of technical mastery, but also a summation of a man’s mental projections at his most desperate state. I think that as Japanese and Asian director, Mizoguchi has moved beyond portrayals of human relationships, and moved towards a cinematic expression of their inner psychological states. The scene also features the same music score as the one mentioned in the first scene of this review, and hearing it again really reverberates deeply in me, a heartwarming feel. The scene gains tragic proportions however, when we eventually realize that Miyagi had earlier died in the absence of Genjuro. The projection is false, and Genjuro’s dreams are dashed.

Experience

“It is not your the kimono, but your kindness that makes me happy.” How can anyone ever forget Miyagi?

My Neighbour Tororo (1988) + Princess Monoke (1997) by Hayao Miyazaki

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) was to bring Japanese anime to the forefront of international acclaim. This imaginative story heralded the acceptance of animation as a cinematic form, and as a genre that is distinctively different from its Disney counterpart. This review compares both films to draw similarities and differences in their expression of the anime film form.

Anime and Realism

The most striking aspect of both films, along with Spirited Away that I had earlier reviewed, was how, we as audiences readily accept the animation film form as real. It didn’t take me long to be absorbed into the film world that both films painted, and there was hardly a moment where I rejected what I saw as unreal or fake.

The power of both films I think, was in how Miyazaki was able to create a universe of fantastic, supernatural creatures that just fitted harmoniously into portraits of both contemporary and rural Japanese life (rural because Princess Monoke is largely a historical, rather than modern anime film). The effect created is both realistic and nostalgic.

Much of this realism is derived from Miyazaki’s characters. I think that Miyazaki’s characters, ironically, do not fit into the traditional mould of Japanese anime characters. Rather, his characters are always drawn to realistic proportions, and strangely feature more Western, rather than Japanese features. Conversely, traditional anime characters tend towards a more shouju (‘young girl’)  aesthetic with oversized heads and exaggerated features, particularly in the eyes.

Cinematographically, both films also feature realistic camera movements although they were hand-drawn.

Consider this scene from Princess Monoke, where the combination of various shot sizes (LS, MS, CU) and camera angles (high and low) are used to pictorially express various subjects in the film differently. Point of view shots are also employed in the scene, and all of these filmic techniques bear close resemblances to photographic cinema.

Contrast this with a clip from a Disney animation Donald Duck, and the effect is distinctively different, mostly in how Miayazaki’s films manages to convey a much more vast sense of depth and space. Although both mediums are two dimensional, the application of seemingly realistic camera movements in Miyazaki’s films do much to endear us to the realism of their film spaces.

Last Life in the Universe (2003) + Invisible Waves (2006) by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang & 4.30 (2005) by Royston Tan

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has a penchant for creating films that lend themselves an air of mystery and surrealism. Like the transnational nature of his productions (featuring Christopher Doyle as his Director of Photography for both films), Ratanaruang’s films tend to avoid conventional genre classification. All three films discussed in this review also features a cultural misfit manifesting itself in a Korean protagonist for Invisible Waves and 4.30, along with a Japanese protagonist in Last Life in the Universe.

Pan-Asian-ness

Much of the Pan-Asian-ness in Asian films of today have been largely attributed to the Korean Wave or fever, known as the Korean Hanryu. According to an article by Anne Cieko and Hunju Lee, “the casting of Korean actors can be viewed as a vehicle for “networking” in the international film festival circuit and international arthouse theaters. Such pan-Asian financing contributes to the creation of a cinema of dissociated and decontextualized Korean (and other Asian) characters.”

I think the choice of using Korean / Japanese actors within a film from a different culture or society (Thai and Singaporean) in this case, is both financial and personal. Films, even with its elevated status as an artistic medium of expression, are ultimately a commodity. Even arthouse films require funding for their realization. The 4.30 case study, which is my favourite film from him, is one such example. Apart from its funding from the Japanese Broadcasting Cooporation (NHK), Royston Tan also said in an interview that the decision to star a Korean actor was one of his ways of thanking the officials at the Pusan film festival for supporting his short films in his formative years as a filmmaker.

These films are also Pan-Asian largely due to their varied, cross-cultural influences. Royston Tan’s 4.30, which I feel was one of his films where he had some of the most creative control in, reflected much similar compositions and vibes from Tsai Ming Liang, who we all know to be a Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker. Royston Tan’s 4.30, like Tsai, is like the marginal man; an immigrant who belongs to neither Malaysia nor Taiwan, caught in between both cultures.

Invisible Waves, on the other hand, reminded me so much of the neo-noir film Brick (2005) by Rian Johnson that I thought the similarities in the sound design, eclectic casting and femme fatale figure was very uncanny. More importantly, both Brick and Invisible Waves gave me a similar trademark neo-noir vibe of never knowing what each character or item in the film until the close of the film.

The sense of dislocation can be said to be expressed by the neo-noir vibes of never knowing in Invisible Waves and further experienced by the characters of all three films that never seem to belong, most evident in Last Life in the Universe for example. The main question that kept recurring in my mind while watching it was, “Did what I just see really happen?”

The cinematography of well composed and planned shots contributes to an overall air of surrealism and mystery. One such example happens at beginning of the film where the juxtaposition of Kenji’s neat environment and a sudden placed shot of a stack of messy books quickly conveys to us a sense of dissonance. Even though we quickly find out that Kenji has committed suicide, such rapid shifts in time-space continuum creates a general sense of unease and disequilibrium for us. All of these, I think, has its roots in the Pan-Asian-ness of the film.

Red Sorghum (1987) by Zhang Yimou

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

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