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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dao Ma Zei - The Horse Thief

A Tibetan village living in its universe of traditions since ever. Harsh mountains, harsh storms and winds, flocks of vultures in the high among scarring clouds, or pretty close over herds. Villagers find their answers in rituals. Norbu is a horse thief, while a devout Buddhist. He robs from the shrine offerings, while giving most of his loot to the shrine. Banished from the community, he repents and seeks readmission. His first son dies, a second son is born, again he needs to steal horses.

Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief), made by Tian Zhuang-Zhuang in 1986, tells us a story of such an elemental power that words are almost unnecessary. Chinese censors insisted that the first image of the movie should indicate a year, 1923, meaning that the story was long time before Communist era. Actually the story is timeless.

It is, on my knowledge, only one other film director who spoke so forcefully about a universe of rituals and traditions: Parajanov. About the importance of the rituals, as a fundamental dimension of our system of values.

Like Parajanov, Tian has a profound respect for traditional cultures. Both of them, Parajanov and Tian, leave rituals freely in their movies. No explanation is needed, the ritual speaks for itself.

But it is more than that. Life is not only ritual. Life is destiny in the same time. You live within rituals, you live also within sin. This paradox of human condition, to live far from godhead, while within godhead. Norbu is a horse thief, a highwayman. He is also a devout Buddhist. Is here destiny? Or maybe is it that sin is also necessary in the divine order, together with rituals?

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)


Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Romeo and Juliet of the Far East

I found on youTube this morning a video dedicated to a famous Hong Kong actress of the fifties and sixties, and to a famous movie of that period. Both of them came as a surprise: till this morning, the name of the movie (梁山伯與祝英台 - Liang Shan Bo yu Zhu Ying Tai in Pinyin transliteration, The Love Eterne, as it is known internationally), as well as the name of the actress (Betty Loh Ti - 樂蒂 in traditional hieroglyphs, 乐蒂 in simplified hieroglyphs, Lè Di in Pinyin transliteration), were complete strangers to me.

The video was wonderfully made (unfortunately it cannot be embedded here), which pushed me to find more information. All comments of the video were in Chinese, so I had to work a little with babelfish to have an English translation, then I looked on imdb and wiki, till I got the sense of it.

First of all about the actress: this Betty Loh Ti was really a person of incredible beauty. She had been born in Shanghai in 1937. In 1949 she moved to Hong Kong and started to play in movies in 1952: she was only fifteen by then. Her career summed 44 films, and the role in The Love Eternal was among her greatest successes.

Betty Loh Ti died very young, in 1968 (she was only 31). As it happens, her life passed in legend and her death remained veiled in mystery; rumor is that it was suicide, but this is debatable.

As for the movie, it had quite a story, beside the story within it. Made in Hong Kong in 1963 it had an astonishing success in Taiwan, Taipei becoming a crazy city with lots of people watching the movie over hundred times. It was considered the Romeo and Juliet of the Far East, the Gone with the Wind of the Mandarin World, people were humming its songs on the streets, it got all possible awards (best film, best director, best actress, best music, etc) and it remained in Taiwan collective memory as a legendary blockbuster.

The movie was telling a Chinese classical folk tale, The Butterfly Lovers: a girl (played by Betty Loh Ti) took the guise of a boy to be able to study at college. There she met a real boy and felt in love, only the boy was too naive to realize that she was a girl. Eventually he understood but it was already too late: meanwhile her parents had arranged a marriage. The boy died of sorrows, the girl followed him in death, from their tomb two butterflies emerged and flied towards heavens.

What is interesting, that the male role was played also in travesty! Here are two videos where actress Ivy Ling Po (who played the boy) is telling about the making of the movie:

Making of The Love Eterne: 1/2
(video by magicpoe)

Making of The Love Eterne: 2/2
(video by magicpoe)

(Chinese Cinema)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Art of Yakov Chernikhov

A 7 minute cinematic poem about the art of Constructivist architect and graphic designer Yakov Chernikhov.

(Suprematism and Constructivism)

Tian Zhuang-Zhuang

I already wrote about Tian Zhuang-Zhuang on my blog; I had watched by that time Springtime in a Small Town, which is a masterpiece. I found the movie on youTube, recently, and I intend to post the videos here, along with Fei Mu's movie from 1948, Spring in a Small Town.

I watched meanwhile The Horse Thief, and I found it on youTube, too. I will post the videos here. I found also The Blue Kite on youTube and I would like to watch in near future and to write here about it.

What I would like to see and I cannot find is one of his first movies, Lie Chang Zha Sha (On the Hunting Ground), a documentary about a primitive tribe of hunters from Inner Mongolia , and of course his newer movies (The Go Master, for instance). He is one of the greatest directors nowadays.

(Chinese Cinema)


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Chungking Express (1994)

1994: work on Ashes of Time was extremely demanding, kind of never-ending doing and re-doing of scenes, on the verge of breakdown. A two-months hiatus appeared (they had to wait for some new equipment) and Wong Kar-Wai suddenly decided to make quickly a totally different movie, just to follow his instincts (as he would later say in an interview). No screenplay, dialogs and situations were decided each day on the spot. The result was one of the most important movies of our time: Chung Hing Sam Lam (Chungking Express), so innovative in the use of camera and soundtrack that it leaves you speechless. Cinematographer Chris Doyle simply revolutionized here the art of filming. The name of Jean-Luc Godard is always reminded when people talk about Chungking Express; I would say that this movie is as innovative as only Man with a Camera was.

Is it possible for a cop to get in love? Of course it is, and when the cop is young it is even nice. Well, the movie comprises two unrelated stories, with young cops in love. Undercover cop 223 was left by his girlfriend, and he falls for a mysterious woman with a blond wig. It happens that she is a drug smuggler. Does it matter? As for the second half of the film, uniformed cop 633 was left by his girlfriend and now a girl working at Midnight Express falls for him. As I am a nice guy, I wouldn't deconspire more of the plot.

Lan Kwai Fong

The title comes from the name of two places in Hong Kong: Midnight Express is a fast-food in Lan Kwai Fong (kind of Hong Kong version of SoHo); Chungking Mansions (where most of the first half of the movie takes place) is a mall-cum-flophouse, noisy, dingy, down-market place incredibly located right in the midst of Tsim Sha Tsui, a very chic Hong Kong area. I hadn't (yet?) the opportunity to be there. but I was once at Chelsea Market in Manhattan and I thought immediately at the movie of Wong Kar-Wai.

Chungking Mansions

Don't look for a logic in this movie, because any logic would be fake; Wong doesn't try to arrange the moments in some succession, because each moment exists on its own, carries its own truth and doesn't care about the rest. Instead of a synthesis the movie offers non-related glimpses; instead of an ultimate truth it offers contradictory slices of truth. It's not life as we think it should be: it's life as it is.

It's soaked in neon lights. It's fun, it's noisy, it's fast. And, above all, it's filled with incredible, hypnotic poetry.

The right word for this movie would be mesmerizing. Enjoy!

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)

(Michael Galasso)

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vlog of Mattie: Spring in a Small Town

A video made by Mattie: he is a young British video artist, with an amazing cinematic culture, a great sense of image and a deep knowledge of the masters of movie history. The title of this video calls in mind one of the greatest movies ever: Spring in a Small Town, made in 1948 (and with a great remake, in 2002)

- A Hong Kong Village -
(video by Mat)

I am very excited: I found both movies (the one from 1948 and the remake) on the web and I will put them on the blog!

(Vlog of Mattie)

(Chinese Cinema)

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Eros (2004)

Eros brings together three very different filmmakers, who are telling us, each in his own way, stories about love/lust/desire/dreams.

The first segment (The Hand) is made by Wong Kar -Wai, with Christopher Doyle as cinematographer. It's a pure gem, gorgeous and intoxicating. Two very good actors: Gong Li and Chen Chang (the bandit from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It's the Weltanschaung of Wong Kar-Wai, where eros is actually a mean to meditate about time: time that heals everything while not solving anything; time that's as illusory as happiness is; time that breaks any hope in the end, while showing you that it doesn't matter.

I found the segment on youTube; unfortunately it has no subtitles, so if you aren't familiar with Chinese you are kind of lost, so I will try to summarize the plot: a tailor sends an apprentice to one of his rich customers, who is a high-class courtesane in her prime; she has the sadistic impulse to humiliate sexually the boy. This creates a strange dependence of unrequited lust, that grows through the years, while the courtesane is gradually loosing her status. The rich patrons leave her, the means to keep her style are vanishing and she eventually becomes a prostitute of the lowest kind. The apprentice remains attached to her down to the end and puts all his erotic desire in creating a dress that substitutes for him the woman.

Eros, The Hand: Part 1/5
(video by taxidermisst)

Eros, The Hand: Part 2/5
(video by taxidermisst)

Eros, The Hand: Part 3/5
(video by taxidermisst)

Eros, The Hand: Part 4/5
(video by taxidermisst)

Eros, The Hand: Part 5/5
(video by taxidermisst)

Let's pass now to the second segment (Equilibrium), created by Steven Soderbergh. It's a different kind of an animal: a voyeuristic puzzle based on circular references. A guy (wonderfully played by Robert Downey Jr.) comes to the shrink to complain about an obsessive recurrence: a splendid woman appears naked in his dreams, bathing and dressing in front of him. The shrink puts the patient on the coach and makes him tell all details, while trying to live the dream by himself ! Eventually the patient falls asleep on the coach and the shrink leaves the room. The patient wakes up in front of the woman of his dreams: she's actually his wife and the dream was the visit to the doctor! Or the other way around :)

Eros, Equilibrium (the segment of Soderbergh)
Introductory Scene
(video by AtticusFinch71)

(scene from Equilibrium)

(scene from Equilibrium)

As for the third segment (Il filo pericoloso delle cose - The Dangerous Thread of Things), made by Michelangelo Antonioni, it was considered by many reviewers as the weakest part of the movie. Actually the segment of Antonioni is exquisite: an erotic fantasy subtly suggesting the sagesse of women in these matters. And you cannot compare the three segments in any way; each one follows a totally different approach.

Eros, The Dangerous Thread of Things (the segment of Antonioni)
Introductory Scene
(video by AtticusFinch71)

(Scene from The Dangerous Thread of Things)

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In the Mood for Love

Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love, 2000) represents a moment that separates two distinct periods in the artistic creation of Wong Kar-Wai.

The movies made before In the Mood for Love offer kaleidoscopic images of today's urban life (with a notable exception, Ashes of Time); all of them (Ashes of Time included) are splendid post-modern works.

With In the Mood for Love the focus is passing on a single dimension of life, eros. It's not the mechanic of sex, it's the mechanic of desire and dream: reality and imagination blur their borders, feelings burn everything and move the compass back and forth between what it is and what it should be.

I think In the Mood for Love should be watched together with 2046: they are somehow symmetric. The feelings burn everything up to explosion in 2046, and time is no more, there is not a succession of love stories, because each love story in 2046 exists on its own and doesn't care about the rest. In the Mood for Love offers another outcome: feelings burn everything down to implosion, the whole becomes so dense that it vanishes in a black hole.

And maybe it's not only about eros in these movies. Maybe it's about time as an illusion; or maybe it's more than that, about reality (our reality as we feel it) as an illusion. And, at this level of understanding, the two periods in Wong Kar-Wai creation are only apparently distinct.

And coming back to In the Mood for Love, when does the action take place? In the sixties, or later in the seventies, when the personages remember their past (or just imagine a past that wasn't)? Or is 2046 already present?


I found some time ago the whole movie on youTube, along with some extras (deleted scenes, alternate ending). Unfortunately those videos are no longer available. I will post here instead two videos:  Yumanji's theme (which is sort of trailer, with music composed by Shigeru Umebayashi), and Angkor Vat finale (with music composed by Michael Galasso)

Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love): Angkor Wat Finale
(music by Michael Galasso)
(video by semektet)


Speaking about the finale (Angkor Vat), I meditated on it a lot. At the beginning it seemed without connection with the rest of the movie. Actually, it offers a resolution to a story of love that proved impossible. Only this resolution is on a superior plan. The image of the ancient temples is telling us that our dramas have always happened and will always happen, while not having the importance we think. Life transcends our dramas. The Angkor Vat finale called the movies of Ozu in my mind.

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)

(Michael Galasso)

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Hua Yang De Nian Hua

Hua Yang De Nian Hua was made by Wong Kar-Wai in 2000. It is a 3 minutes collage of scenes from very old Chinese movies, considered long lost, till a few nitrate prints were discovered in a Californian warehouse, some time in the nineties.

Wong Kar-Wai put them together and gave us this jewel. For him it was the inspiration to start the work for In the Mood for Love.

The score (that would be used also in In the Mood for Love) is a golden oldie, a gramophone record of Zhou Xuan, a famous film actress from the forties, nicknamed Golden Voice.

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)


Marina Tsvetaeva, There's Only One Sun

Солнце - одно, а шагает по всем городам.
Солнце - мое. Я его никому не отдам.
Ни на час, ни на луч, ни на взгляд. - Никому. - Никогда!
Пусть погибают в бессменной ночи города!
В руки возьму! Чтоб не смело вертеться в кругу!
Пусть себе руки, и губы, и сердце сожгу!
В вечную ночь пропадет - погонюсь по следам...
Солнце мое! Я тебя никому не отдам!

There’s only one sun - but it travels the world everyday.
This sun is all mine and I won’t ever give it away!
I will share not an hour of warmth, not a beam of its light!
I’ll let cities perish in the constant, unchangeable night!
I will hold it up with my hands, till it ceases to turn!
I don’t care if my hands, lips and heart must get burned!
Let it vanish in darkness and rushing, I’ll follow its way!
My darling, my sunlight! I won’t ever give you away!

Wong Kar Wai gave a cinematic replica, in 2007. Putting the beauty in new dresses (a suggestion of thriller Sci-Fi). Keeping the essence: longing for love.

Let the feelings burn you, up to explosion. Let them blind you. Then stay close, feel their heat, touch them.

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)

(Жизнь в Kнигах)


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Tribute to Christopher Doyle

Almost all images are from movies of Wong Kar-Wai. Almost, not all. Chris Doyle worked also with guys like Gus Van Sant. And he made also some movies on his own.

You see the world, you end up in jail three or four times, you accumulate experience. And it gives you something to say. If you don't have anything to say then you shouldn't be making films. It's nothing to do with what lens you're using.

(Wong Kar-Way & Chris Doyle)

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Wong Kar Wai & Chris Doyle

It is impossible to talk about one of them without mentioning the other. Wong Kar Wai created a new cinematic language, or a new way to tell stories. This new language, this new way, have as a fundamental dimension the manner in which Chris Doyle understands the image.

There is also another great contemporary contemporary cinematographer working often with Wong Kar Wai: it is Lee Pin-Bing.

(Hong Kong Cinema)

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Kiarostami: 10 on Ten (2004)

It seems to me that Kiarostami has always the impulse to follow up his movies. Once the work is done he feels some irrepressible need to come back to the place, to look at the people there, to meditate on the verisimilitude of what he has done; to compare the reality with his image; and to understand how people there feel about the way they came into picture.

Actually his movies are meditations about the extent to which cinematic art expresses reality, also meditations about how reality reacts to its cinematic representation: movies meditating on themselves.

It is natural for Kiarostami to follow up this process through a new cinematic story about the movie and the reality it tried to represent. And the process goes on: Where is the Friend's Home was followed by And Life Goes On, which in turn was followed by Through the Olive Trees. As his movies always blur fiction and documentary, I would say that to a certain extent a new work of Kiarostami is also a documentary about a previous one. Sometimes the documentary is obvious, some other times it is much more discreet, but always a new movie of Kiarostami echoes a previous one.

And so, after Ten came (not immediately) 10 on Ten, which is the Mother of all Kiarostami's Documentaries: the master takes his whole world of cinema, decomposes this world in its primary components and puts each component before us. Imagine the Master of the Space teaching us about Length, about Width, about Height, and about Time!

(I'm in the Mood for Kiarostami)

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Monday, April 05, 2010

Kon Satoshi

Kon Satoshi, born in 1963, is a Manga creator and a director of Animé movies. He is a founding member of JAniCA (Japan Animation Creators Association).

I think the most appropriate presentation of Kon Satoshi would be this video, that mixes images from some of his movies. It could seem crazy for some of my readers, no doubt about it :) My advice would be, just enjoy! His Millennium Actress is a great movie. And I'm wondering what his artistic obsession could be. I think he's obsessed with time and memory. But I need to see more movies of him.

(Japanese Cinema)


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Millennium Actress

no copyright infringement intended

Maybe the greatest movie actress of Japan - some considered her the Century Actress - born at the beginning at the twenties, starting to play in her teens, spanning a prodigious career over three decades of movie history, to vanish at her peak! She gave weak reasons (or no reasons at all) for her decision to leave the public life; her anonymity has been total ever since.

Decades have passed, new generations of public came and little by little the great actress was forgotten. Of course, film critics are still mentioning her name when analyzing the movies of the forties and fifties; but they are talking at the past, as of a person who lived in a bygone era.

Has everybody forgotten her? No, of course not, there will be always people passionate for her movies and fascinated by her personality: people dreaming to find her and to tell her their fascination.

And here is the place where Sennen joyû (Millennium Actress) starts: a devoted fan succeeds to find her and she accepts to be interviewed by him. As they start talking, the past comes back in force and overwhelms the present. Scenes from all her movies, and what happened behind the scenes: she was playing the lead role, he was just a young assistant by then. The present is no more, their memories join in a unique flow. The old star and her fan live again the past, this time the meaning of those moments comes enriched: she is now aware of his presence on the plateau. Actually the past is not repeated: the force of their memories makes the past a continuous moment, time looses any significance. There is no more a succession of moments; there are only moments charged with emotional value, that remain forever.

Kon Satoshi is an Animé film director,which was fortunate for this movie, as he kept this way total control over the story and was able to blur past and present, life on the plateau and life outside it; more than that, he was able this way to change completely the image style of each reenacted scene in accordance to the specific period; Jidaigeki movies from the twenties and early thirties, propaganda movies from the period of Manchurian occupation, dramas from late forties and fifties, Sci-Fi movies from the sixties on. What resulted was a fascinating history of Japanese cinema in its most significant moments!

Is the feminine personage in the movie an allusion to Setusko Hara? The director did not confirm this suggestion. Nevertheless I would say yes, for many reasons, the main reason being that for me it is only Setsuko Hara who deserves to be named the Millennium Actress.

I would like to dedicate this post to Yoko Shibata. She is a young Japanese video artist, passionate of the movies with Setsuko Hara, and of all great Japanese cinema.

(Kon Satoshi)

(The Thousand faces of HANAFUBUKI)

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Strada Tudor Ion

A very small street in Bucharest, hidden behind some apartment buildings and keeping some old households. There is one house that's completely run-down: at twilight the moon comes over it and bathes the ruins in surreal colors.

(Musical Background: Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Andantino Moderato)


Pitfalls in Kandahar

David IgnatiusDavid Ignatius in W. Post:

The coming battle for control of this ancient crossroads city will be the toughest challenge of the war in Afghanistan -- not because it will be bloody, necessarily, but because it will require the hardest item for U.S. commanders to deliver, which is an improvement in governance.
Kandahar is the heartland of the Pashtun people -- a place of competing tribes and clans, of hidden wealth accumulated from drug trafficking and smuggling, and of notorious power brokers symbolized in the public mind by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the leader of the provincial council and brother of Afghanistan's president.
Reforming the local government is like disassembling a pyramid of pick-up sticks. One wrong move and the whole pile collapses. Yet if the United States accommodates the existing power structure, it will appear to be condoning corruption here -- a bad message for the public in Afghanistan and America alike.
Talking with U.S. officials about the coming campaign, I heard a range of good ideas but not a clear strategy. The American officials know they can't deliver on their counterinsurgency promise of protecting the population without breaking the hold of the local chieftains. Yet they are wary of toppling the system and opening the way for what might be even worse chaos -- and new resentment at American meddling.
The Kandahar campaign will have a military component as U.S. troops clear Taliban strongholds surrounding the city, such as Zhari, Panjwai and Arghandab. But in Kandahar, the problem isn't the enemy so much as our nominal friends such as Ahmed Karzai. The battle for the city will be political more than military -- and it will require skills and expertise that are in short supply.
It's amazing what we don't know about Kandahar, says one of the top U.S. military commanders. He just supervised a special push to gather intelligence about power brokers, tribal leaders and their grievances and, as he put it, "who's who in the Kandahar zoo.Unfortunately, the United States is starting from a low base after years of intelligence collection that was only marginally relevant to the overall strategy, according to a report in January by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Recognizing the severe gaps in their knowledge, U.S. commanders have adopted what might be described as operational humility. They know they can make big mistakes if they aren't careful. Shaking up the power structure might put the United States on the side of the Pashtun man in the street, but it would open a power vacuum that could be exploited by the Taliban. Given the planned July 2011 start for withdrawal of U.S. troops, there isn't time for risky experiments in Kandahar. American officials worry, quite sensibly, about the law of unintended consequences.
So commanders are opting instead for an approach that one calls re-balancing the Kandahar power elite. The idea is to open up political space to tribes and clans that have been left out of the spoils system. The basic problem in Kandahar is that you have a disenfranchised population, says Frank Ruggiero, a State Department official who is the top U.S. civilian representative in southern Afghanistan.
The tool that U.S. strategists hope to use to broaden the political base in Kandahar is the traditional Afghan forum known as the shura. Officials are encouraging these gatherings regularly in the city and the surrounding districts, and urging local Afghan officials to make them more inclusive and a better forum for redressing grievances. They want to combine the shuras with better policing, aided by embedded U.S. trainers, and with new economic development projects.
Traveling here with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I attended a shura hosted by Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province. This was not exactly a gathering of the dispossessed. The most emphatic speakers around the table warned that the United States shouldn't go after Ahmed Karzai. If he's not here, the balance will be unbalanced, Wesa said after the meeting.
Curbing corruption in Kandahar may be mission impossible. But it's the task that the United States has set for itself, by promising through its counterinsurgency campaign that it is working for a better and more just Afghanistan than what the Taliban offers.
It's this dissonance between ends and means that worries a visitor here this week. The hardest part of this war, paradoxically, isn't the fighting on the ground, which the U.S. military conducts brilliantly, but the struggle in the Afghan political sphere, where we know precious little.

(Please send your comments at davidignatius@washpost.com)

(Zoon Politikon)