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

881 (2007) by Royston Tan

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Chungking Express (1994) + In the Mood for Love (2000) by Wong Kar Wai, Dumplings (2004) by Fruit Chan

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

This review seeks to explore Christopher Doyle’s cinematography across three films he worked on. Most famed by his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai, Doyle also collaborated with other directors such as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Gus van Sant. Yet, his purposeful cinematography remains consistent in being expressed in the most artful, innovative fashion. The aims of comparing his works with Wong Kar Wai and Fruit Chan are meant to capture this consistency.

The Camera & Expression

The cinematography of Chungking Express is best expressed as restless. The use of handheld camera creates an unstable image that seems to not be at ease with itself. Much of this restlessness, while reflected in the characters, can also be attributed to Wong’s themes with isolation and identity. This is largely related to Hong Kong’s closeness with its motherland China and Western link a British colony. The sense of restlessness then, expresses a state of “neither here nor there”, a sense of in-between-ess that most Hong Kongers experienced due to its lack of specificity in geographical space and time. The restlessness of the camera also serves as an artful expression of how the society of Hong Kong is always in a state of transition until its handover in 1997.

The sense of isolation is best captured within the confined spaces that Wong captures through Doyle. In the opening scene, Cop 223 is seen a chase scene that is captured in a technique known as 抽片. Wong would film the chase sequence at ordinary frame rate, rhythmically remove a few frames within each shot and playback the scene at a slower frame rate. The slow-motion effect on the gaps created by the removal of frames create an ironically hastened sense of running. This further pushes the sense of restlessness mentioned earlier.

Cop 223 also brushes past the enigmatic Woman in Blonde Wig, paralleled again in this famous scene in In the Mood For Love. What is pertinent about these two scenes of “crossing paths” is its air of fragility and transience. There is emphasis on the moment, much like the click of a camera’s shutter, and how characters in both scene either meet briefly (as in Chungking Express), or completely miss each other (as in In The Mood for Love). While there are stylistic differences in its treatment of cinematography in both films (Chungking Express having a faster, restless approach while In The Mood for Love having a more elegant approach with the artful use of tracks and pull focus), its thematic intentions remain the same. I think Wong was trying to express the sense of dislocation that characters experienced from their environments. Despite the density of the modern rural Hong Kong city in Chungking Express or the tightly situated apartments in In The Mood for Love, characters are unable to initiate lasting relationships. Any human interaction is fleeting and momentary, and characters are forced to exist within the fringes of their environments in an attempt to reclaim whatever personal space they have left.

Comparatively, while Fruit Chan’s Dumplings does not express similar concerns to the same degree, Doyle’s cinematography is still purposefully employed. I think what is most distinctive about Doyle’s camera work is his preference for the “tighter” lenses, especially 50mm and beyond, giving a certain roundedness to his compositions. Doyle favoured the use of curves in his compositions, a stark contrast to say Ozu who favoured horizontal and vertical lines in his compositions instead. I think this is most pertinent in his MCU shots of objects, such as that of the clock in Chungking Express, and fans and mirrors in Dumplings and in the Mood for Love. This is even more pertinent when we consider how the nostalgic set design of In the Mood For Love bears an uncanny resemblance to the interior of Aunt Mei’s home/kitchen in Dumplings.

Flower in the Pocket (2007) by Liew Seng Tat

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Malaysian New Wave’s Flower in the Pocket (2007) is a subtle film that revolves around the relationship of a workaholic father and his two children. The film is calm and composed, and seeks to convey its warm message of parental love without appearing too didactic. It also bears significant influences from Italian neo-realism, especially in the use of non-professional actors and low-budget, on-location shooting.

Subtle Realism

The most striking aspect of Flower in the Pocket is its extreme subtlety. The flower mentioned in the film title shows up itself only once in the film as a little gift from his son. Alas, the workaholic father fails to notice this seemingly small and insignificant item as he returns from his daily grind. In retrospect, I think that this has got a lot to do with the way we overlook little things in life, and provides a minor but powerful metaphor for the father’s negligence in looking after his children.

In an even more subtle, somewhat comic fashion, the father’s change in attitudes towards his children manifests itself in a swimming lesson on a grass patch. Conventional treatments of such a major shift in attitude (from that of a workaholic father who neglects his children to a caring father who takes a concerted effort in caring for his children after their near-death incident) would play huge emphasis on this change. However, Liew chooses to use some of the smallest, simplest actions to convey this shift in attitude. Again, it is in the smallest things that the intentions resounds within itself.

It is also interesting how Liew constantly mutes the drama of his narrative through the use of ellipses. For instance, Liew does not show us the process of the father caring for his children during their recovery process. I had initially thought Liew would milk for it for its emotional potential, but Liew remains true to his salient, finely grained vision in subtlety. The entire way in which Liew elides the recovery process,  can be said to be partly disappointing to my emotions, but extremely faithful to the reality of our times. What I understood from this Ozu-ian treatment of Liew’s narrative, was that classical narratives that play up on emotional high peaks and troughs do not accurately reflect our reality, or the real state of things for that matter.

Other instances of this elliptical structure can be found in how the two children are first seen bullying the little kid they find waiting at the side of the road, only to have the process of them physically beating him up in the toilet elided over and “fast forwarded” to the scene of the trio stealing ice cream. The quick manner in how the victim (little kid) aligns with the two brothers is both absurd and humourous at the same time. There seems to be a celebration of childhood innocence, particularly the ability to forgive and forget within the spae-time continuum of a cut.

Mediations on the Malaysian New Wave Filmmaking

The lead role of the film is played by James Lee, himself one of the pioneers of the Malaysian New Wave filmmaking movement. What is evident here, as with other Malaysian New Wave works, is how filmmakers are actively collaborating with each other. In class, we discussed why there isn’t such a collaborative spirit in Singapore. While I don’t have a concrete answer for the question, it occurred to me that there probably hasn’t been a significant New Wave movement in Singapore particularly because there is no collaborative effort in part of independent filmmakers in Singapore. Even as I practice filmmaking in school, there is an inclination to compete, rather than collaborate with each other. Even within film crews, dissonance is prevalent because everyone seems to want to become a director figurehead. While a concrete direction is importantly, I still recognize filmmaking as a collaborative effort. Taking turns to direct, write and handle the camera can have significant contributions to our own unique cinema. We should learn from our Malaysian friends.

Children of Heaven (1999) by Majid Majidi + Homerun (2003) by Jack Neo + Ohayo (1959) by Yasujiro Ozu

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Simin has detailed an almost shot by shot, scene by scene comparison of both Children of Heaven (1999) and Homerun (2003), and the differences in both films lie largely in the context that they were made, and the audience they were made for. I chose to further compare Children of Heaven with Ohayo (1959) because I thought both films managed to capture the little gestures and gags (more for Ohayo) of children very accurately.

Differences and Similarities

In her blog, Simin painstakingly observes:

“Certain overt differences in the two films lie in the surrounding environment of the characters. In Children of Heaven, the girls cover their hair and wear long clothes that cover every bit of their skin, whereas such restrictions are not in existence in Homerun. Religion is a matter-of-fact in Children of Heaven, as the father and brother goes to the mosque and the father helps by chopping sugar, whereas religion is not a part of life in Homerun. The environment is different; in Children of Heaven the family lives in a one-room apartment in a compound where the neighbors share the same water point in the courtyard, whereas in Homerun the family lives in a wooden house in, what appears to be, the middle of a jungle. Poverty is clearly linked with the countryside in Homerun, but it’s harder to tell for me in Children of Heaven. The room in Children of Heaven is covered in rugs, and the family does everything on the floor – there are no beds, tables or chairs. In Homerun, on the other hand, most of the furniture is made of wood or cane. There is a great deal more silence in Children of Heaven than in Homerun, watching HR after I saw Children of Heaven, I was genuinely surprised at the amount of talking in Homerun that I found myself thinking, this movie (Homerun) is really chatty, so most of the story is explained in the narration, whereas the audience must be more perceptive and extrapolate in Children of Heaven. A little difference is the way the brother request permission to speak; in Children of Heaven the boy raises one finger, whereas in Homerun he raises an open palm. The boys in Homerun wear uniforms whereas in Children of Heaven they do not. I’m not quite sure why. One of the morning assemblies at the sister’s school has the teacher lecturing on different topics – duty to the State in Children of Heaven and hygiene in Homerun.”

I agree with most of her observations, but I thought her point about Homerun being considerably more “chatty” was an interesting one. I don’t wish to go into the whole art theft – Jack Neo ripped off Children of Heaven discussion (which can be fervently backed up by Simin’s observations about the similarities between both films), but watching Jack Neo’s “chattier” version of essentially the same film made me realize how context is sometimes, everything. We discussed in class that we can say all we want about Jack Neo but he seems to be the only director making money off box office sales in Singapore. True to the word, Homerun grossed $2.3million it its 9-week box office run. If box office sales were an indicator used to measure the “success” of a film, then certainly Homerun is considered, under these terms, a successful remake of the original. I personally feel that Jack Neo has a personal knack for knowing what Singaporean audiences want. In his “chattier” film with a definite ending (as opposed to Children of Heaven’s open ending), Jack Neo shows how he panders to the everyday Singaporean and their thirst for clarify and definite conclusions. It is, as Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Cultural Surveillance Department puts in response to the censorship of ‘Syndromes and A Century‘: “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh.”

On to happier stuff.

Between Children of Heaven and Ohayo, I found a constant theme of sibling love and solidarity that was expressed through the gestures of these children. One of the most memorable gestures in Ohayo for me was the three finger sign when the younger brother needed to ask for permission to speak amidst their silent strike. This particular scene has, I think, a gripping humour that endears me to no end. More importantly, the little brother’s resilience in carrying through the promise both brothers made in sustaining their silent strike showed me a certain solidarity in sibling relations.  I think that Edward Yang’s Yi Yi had a similar classroom scene with Yang Yang that was inspired by this particular scene in Ohayo too.

On a similar note, both Ali and Zahra exchange messages on an exercise book in the evening after Ali loses her shoes, and while Zahra threatens to rat on Ali to their father, the scene manages to captured a similar sense of childhood innocence and naivety reminiscent of the above mentioned scene in Ohayo, though the former is done with much less intended humour.

Another similarity I noticed between both Children of Heaven and Ohayo, is the portrayal of women. I border on a feminist reading of both films, but I thought that both films expressed a world seen through the eyes of children, that had similar circumstances revolving around the fear for an authoritative, patriarchal father figure. Women, on the other hand, played a more subservient role. The mother in Children of Heaven gets scolded for doing house chores by her husband early in the film, and the mother in Ohayo tells her elder son not to be rude to their father. As I mentioned earlier in my review of Tokyo Sonata, the same (mildly shocking) acts of the Japanese mother serving her husband as he returns from work were again seen in Ohayo. I think the point I’m trying to make here, is that like adults, some things about children, or siblings, remain unchanged even across geographical boundaries and cultures.