Thursday 30 April 2020

The Wild Goose Lake [2019]

On the surface, The Wild Goose Tale, Diao Yinan’s follow-up to the excellent police procedural Black Coal, Thin Ice, followed a similar pattern in that both were neo-noirs set against dreary, alienating backdrops; however, it couldn’t have been a more dramatic departure formally. While it did have an intriguing, albeit skeletal, narrative arc and noir tropes a dime a dozen, the film basks and even revels in hyperstylized self-indulgence (mash-up of the self-conscious aesthetics of Wong Kar-wai meets Luc Bresson / John Woo meets Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder). It couldn’t have had a more enticing opening gambit either – a terse, mysterious man with a hunted look, waiting for someone in a desolate rain-washed night, is casually approached by an enigmatic woman asking for a light, and then being informed that his wife couldn’t make it to the rendezvous and hence she’s come instead. A couple of elaborate flashbacks, in turn, set up their backstories – Zhou (Hu Ge) is a criminal on the run on account of having a killed a cop post a turf allocation process that goes awry and escalates into gang violence; Liu (Gwei Lun-mei) is a sex worker who was given the job of finding Zhou’s estranged wife for collecting the bounty on his head. The third segment covers the massive manhunt led by a dogged cop (Liao Fan) and their futile flee across the town. The alternately captivating and exasperating film is visually striking with its bleak, neon-lit images of grungy urban spaces, while the languorous pacing and existential tone were interspersed with moments of dazzling action sequences – a brawl in a hotel basement, a motorcycle race, using umbrella as a lethal weapon, etc.

Director: Diao Yinan
Genre: Crime Drama/Neo-Noir
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Tuesday 28 April 2020

I Wish I Knew [2010]

Commissioned by Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo – a flummoxing irony given the disquieting portrayals of China in his films – Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew was a sweeping, layered and ambitious portrayal of the complex, dynamic and fascinating city of Shanghai, covering, over an expansive time frame, its tumultuous past, evolving fortunes, diverse facets and variegated shades. In a way, therefore, it was a companion piece to his magisterial quasi-documentary 24 City – in that, both provided broader sociopolitical commentaries using microcosmic approaches and talking head interviews. The docu obliquely covered large swathes of Shanghai’s history – from the 1982 Nanjing Treaty which established it as a throbbing port city to the the epoch-making Cultural Revolution, from the erstwhile dominance of gangster classes to massive wealth readjustments, from purges by the Kuomintang nationalists in the pre-Communist era to the exodus to Hong Kong and Taiwan post the advent of Communism, and, of course, the spectacular skyscraper filled metropolis of today with a heady underbelly. Suffice it to say, it’s a demanding watch, and necessitates historical and geopolitical awareness. The compellingly narrated interviews ranged from political to personal, dramatic to banal, and dispassionate to emotional, and were filled with amused chuckles, humour, nostalgic evocations, bitterness, pathos and resignation. They were juxtaposed with stunning (albeit, desolate) vistas of the city, including shots of Zhao Tao silently observing the life around her with searching glances, and were accompanied by an elegiac score. Cinema, interestingly, constituted a stirring element with extensive references (and excerpts) ranging from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai to Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, and from Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town to Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, China and a lot more.

Director: Jia Zhangke
Genre: Documentary/Political History
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Sunday 26 April 2020

Black Coal, Thin Ice [2014]

Diao Yinan’s expertly crafted neo-noir police procedural Black Coal, Thin Ice – exquisitely moody, dripping with atmosphere and deliciously slow-burning – evoked impressions of the likes of Bong’s darkly funny Memories of Murder and Fincher’s gripping Zodiac, in that the films’ elaborately constructed plots were hinged upon grisly crimes which occur over many years; hence, along with the winding investigations that ensue, psychological and existential effects of the time-frames on the protagonist(s) formed key aspects. It begins in 1999 when, shortly after a painful marital separation – the post-divorce coitus couldn’t help but remind me of the discomfiting opening chapter in Ozon’s 5x2 – Detective Zhang (Liao Fan) is assigned to investigate a gruesome murder, wherein the victim’s dismembered body parts are found in coal plants across multiple cities in China’s grungy north-east industrial belt; the investigation, however, ends in disaster, and sends Zhang on a downward spiral. Fast forward 5 years later – achieved using a blazing POV tracking shot – as the disgraced and alcoholic Zhang, working in a security job, has a chance meeting with his former partner, and is informed that the case might not be dead yet. And, the connecting thread to these murders might just be an enigmatic femme fatale (Gwei Lun-Mei) who had romantic ties to the various victims, and who Zhang can’t help but get drawn to. The film’s extraordinary visual palette brilliantly captured the urban desolation and alienation; that, combined with the quirky use of background score – ranging from Straus’ waltz to disco tracks – and deliberately off-kilter moments that regularly punctuated the narrative, made it a deceptively radical work that succeeded as a solid genre film, a compelling mood piece and a bleak sociopolitical commentary.

Director: Diao Yinan
Genre: Crime Drama/Neo-Noir/Police Procedural
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Friday 24 April 2020

Toni Erdmann [2016]

The wry, subversive and exhilarating Tony Erdmann – written, produced and directed by Maren Ade – is a bitingly funny work despite the bleak and poignant underlying layers. And, its disarming deadpan humour and satirical jabs at the widespread malaise, banality and existential torpor at the heart of corporate bombast, can make one laugh and wince in equal measures. At the center of this delightful film – set in Bucharest which is patronized as “up and coming”, in a globalized, borderless Europe – lies an absorbing and idiosyncratic father-daughter relationship that was as absurdly dysfunctional as it was strangely affecting. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a senior consultant in a management consultancy firm; she’s heavily betting on a high value assignment where the strategy is to propose heavy outsourcing which is bound to cause significant job cuts; she leads an emotionally divested life marked by highfalutin presentations, professional grandstanding, pleasing clients at the cost of one’s self-respect, vacuous affairs, and tolerating systemic sexism on account of being a careerist woman in an exclusive white man’s world, as aptly reflected by her coldly elegant apartment and the need to always appear sizzling despite the severe stress within. Her dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) – natural-born anarchist, incorrigible prankster, outlandish in his choice of attires and appearances, oblivious of phony etiquettes, and possessing a sense of old-world empathy – couldn’t be more antithetical to her. Hence, when this divorced music teacher decides to make a surprise visit to meet her daughter, the results are spectacularly disruptive – more so when he dons an absurdly farcical alter-ego, presenting himself as a freelance lifestyle coach. Both Hüller and Simonischek were terrific in capturing their uproarious contrasts and their subtly evolving seriocomic chemistry.

Director: Maren Ade
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Social Satire
Language: German
Country: Germany

Thursday 23 April 2020

Drug War [2012]

In Drug War, his first movie made fully in mainland China, Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To came all guns blazing with a taut, kinetic and entertaining action crime thriller. As a reviewer aptly observed, “there’s no room… for pretense or grandstanding, for any narrative bombast or subtextual curlicues that don’t immediately propel us toward the unusually bleak conclusion’, in this sleek, no-nonsense genre exercise packed with a string twists, deceptions and revelations. At its most elemental this is a tale of frenetic one-upmanships between its stoic protagonist and crafty antagonist (unsurprisingly, both male) – Zhang (Sun Honglei), a laconic and relentlessly driven cop, and Choi (Louis Koo), a drug dealer whose motives and allegiances are never clear. The film starts with a dramatic and compelling opening sequence that doesn’t waste a moment in grabbing one’s attention and setting up rest of the narrative, viz. Choi, a high-level drug dealer, agreeing to act as a snitch for Zhang and his squad, to bust a huge narcotics trafficking operation, in order to avoid the death penalty that he’s otherwise sure to get in China. Over the course of the next couple of sleepless days and nights, Zhang must stay a step ahead of Choi through constantly outguessing and outmaneuvering his imminently unreliable ally, as he goes deep into the organized narcotics ring. What follows, therefore, is one tension-filled setpiece after another – Zhang first enacting a powerful supplier and then as a wealthy distributor; facing the wrath of two mute operators who unleash hellfire with their submachine guns; outfoxing the kingpins into coming to the forefront from the shadows; and finally, an elaborate, no-holds-barred climax that this was always building up to.

Director: Johnnie To
Genre: Crime Thriller/Action
Language: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: China