The Sandwich Man (1983)

June 30, 2016

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Director(s): Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Zeng Zhuangxiang, Wan Ren.

Country: Taiwan (Republic of China).

Year: 1983.

Duration: 105 mins.

Context: Early film of the Taiwanese New Wave.

Themes: Taiwanese identity; Colonialist influences over Taiwan.

Form: Three-part omnibus film, each part directed by one of three different directors.

Review:

During the 1960s and ’70s, Taiwan enjoyed the fastest economic growth in the world. In just two decades, it underwent a vertiginous modernisation from a largely agricultural society to an industrialised, high-tech one, with metropolitan centres like Taipei. This radical transition brought a sea-change in lifestyle, traditional culture and value systems; the economic miracle, built as it was on economic and political support from the US, and on free-market export of consumer products, came hand-in-hand with westernisation. Thus into the complex melting pot of Taiwan’s hybrid identity (it had already been ruled by five different regimes in the past, including European settlers, the Qing Empire, the Japanese, and the Chinese Nationalists) was thrown the implicit cultural colonial power of outside influences, especially the US and Japan.

Ironically, the modernisation process caused friction with the official traditionalist stances of Taiwan’s conservative regime and its discourse of regaining an idealised Chinese mainland from the claws of the Communists. The children of the mainlanders who’d flocked to Taiwan, in order to flee Mao’s China in the late ’40s, knew of no other home but the island. Yet they were taught to cherish the never-seen mainland as some hallowed promised land they’d one day return to. No wonder Taiwan has so long harboured crises of cultural identity, homelessness, and instability. In reaction to this, certain writers and artists in the 1960s and ’70s attempted to found a distinctly Taiwanese culture, embracing the local language over the officially decreed Mandarin (forcefully imposed as the national language) and the everyday stories of working-class life in Taiwan as opposed to the grandiose narratives of winning back China spouted in political rhetoric.

One such ‘nativist’ writer was Huang Chunming, whose literature, initially stifled by the regime, was deeply influential in creating a cultural and artistic sense of roots for Taiwan. For The Sandwich Man, the second omnibus film commissioned by the state-owned CMPC studio to give a rejuvenating boost to the Taiwan film industry (the first, In Our Time, I already wrote about here including a bit more background on Taiwanese Cinema), three of Huang’s short stories provided the source material, all set in the 1960s.


 

 

 

 

 

The first of the film’s three episodes, and the one which gives it its overall title, was directed by the filmmaker who’d go on to be the most acclaimed of all the Taiwanese directors, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. After his early romantic comedies for CMPC, this was a major shift, into more serious filmmaking and the first step towards his status as the artistic driving force behind the Taiwanese new wave.

Almost entirely in Taiwanese dialect, Hou’s episode shines a light on those left behind by the economic boom. The titular character is an unemployed father and husband, desperately trying to drag his young family out of poverty and hunger. He begs for a job at the local cinema as a sandwich man, a human advertisement with boards straddled over his shoulders to draw the punters in, which he’s read works well in Japan (a subtle hint at the theme of external cultural colonialism to be further developed in the next two segments).

Thus this man effectively humiliates himself, walking around in absurd clown make-up and (in a society where this matters a great deal) literally losing face, all while ineffectively trying to entice people to the local movie theatre. In the end, his boss at least recognises his determination and hires him to work on-site at the cinema, but by then, comic irony strikes, his toddler son no longer recognises him without the clown outfit and cries until he dons it again.

Despite this seemingly sweet ending, there’s a lot of darker stuff at play in this short. Something irreversible has occurred by the end, with the father permanently scarred. His predicament functions as perfect metaphor for, as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, “the problem that arises from pretending to be someone else temporarily and then finding that this temporary identity had become one’s main social identity”, i.e. the identity crisis faced by Taiwan itself. Taboo issues like abortion crop up, when the father questions the family’s financial ability to raise the second child the wife is pregnant with. In one brief, chilling moment when things are particularly grim, subtly downplayed by Hou’s minimalist observational style, we even see the father perhaps contemplating killing his son because things are so bad. If this sounds dramatic, it is but Hou doesn’t let it play as such. His episode is the simplest and the most beautiful. For the first time in Taiwanese cinema, a film said to local audiences, look this is also what being Taiwanese is.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zeng Zhuangxiang’s second episode is the least subtle of the three and probably the weakest, but its tonal shifts still make it an interesting oddity as well as a piquant social commentary. ‘Vicki’s Hat’ is about two bumbling travelling salesmen with Japanese pressure cookers to flog in a rural town.  The younger of the two takes a keen interest in the locale and in particular strikes a friendship with a local schoolgirl who never takes off her hat. This brief premise suffices to announce all the main themes here: the rise of consumer goods, the influence exerted by Japan, the relation between rural and city folk.

What makes this short film stand out though, and eventually fall down too, is its precarious tonal balancing-act. Part comic satire (technology goes amok when the salesmen attempt to demonstrate their cookers to bemused elderly villagers), part unlikely-friendship story with a hint of drama (the salesman becomes obsessed with finding out why the schoolgirl never removes her hat), it finally veers into anti-capitalist diatribe with a slightly over-the-top but still shocking ending, in which the elder salesman is brutally maimed by his own pressure cooker. Consumerism, advertising, sales slogans are revealed as shallow but alluring artifice, hiding a grittier reality, just like the schoolgirl’s hat. So much for the progress of the ‘economic miracle’, have a look at how things still are under the surface, Zeng’s episode says to us.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, this mix-tape of Taiwanese tales ends with Wan Ren’s segment. ‘The Taste of Apples’, the funniest and most satirical, directly confronting the previously hinted-at topic of neo-colonialism. When an ordinary working-class Taiwanese labourer is injured by an American car, the US embassy is so eager to avoid any diplomatic tension with the island securing its Cold War strategic position in the Pacific, that everything is done to keep the victim happy. Initially baffled, he and his family are whisked to a hospital, promised compensation, offered a place in a US high school for their disabled daughter, and even given apples, a rare imported delicacy which they stare at in awe before daring to eat them.

Even if it has less darkness than the first two parts, both mood-wise and literally (most of it being set in an immaculate hospital with walls glaring in their overexposed whiteness), Wan Ren’s episode abounds with black humour, bittersweet pokes at Taiwanese backwardness in relation to their American ‘saviours’, and diplomatic machinations and fears raging in the background. But in the end this is a very obvious, and even angry, indictment of the forced hierarchical relationship with a dominant foreign power.


In a way The Sandwich Man is a bit like its title character, literally an advertisement for cinema, a showcase for a new breed of Taiwanese film, calling onto audiences to come see an authentically local type of cinema. This was cinema as a tool for national and local self-affirmation, in the face of cultural hegemony from the US (of course since then Hollywood has won the day but that’s another story) and backward-looking (or West-looking, obsessively towards the mainland), oppressive ideology. It won a landmark victory, which helped usher in the liberalisation and democratisation of Taiwan in the 1980s. The CMPC bosses were unhappy with certain parts deemed ideologically suspect and wanted cuts to the film, especially to Wan Ren’s satire. This enraged the directors, as well as the younger more forward-minded elements working within the studio, who mobilised the sympathetic members of the press to launch a full-on attack against the conservative censorship of the state studio. Embarrassed by all the negative coverage, the studio backed down and let the film be shown to the public without cuts.

The film was a surprise box-office success, perhaps partly due to the censorship furore, but more down to the fresh appeal of seeing on-screen the realities of life in Taiwan, with linguistic accuracy and previously taboo themes, for the local audience. Huang Chunming’s realist chronicling of the Taiwanese transition from rural to urban, old to new, had proved germane to this younger generation’s attitude in seeking a freshly Taiwanese perspective on cinema and in using the medium to deal with the conflicting identities and forces at play on the island.

Films in Dialogue: Full Metal Jacket vs. The Human Condition

May 9, 2016

 

 

Following on from my previous video juxtaposing a Kubrick classic with a potential,  and unexpected, Japanese influence, here is another… besides the obvious narrative similarities between Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Part II of Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition Trilogy (both being about the dehumanising effects of military training, the bullying of a slightly weaker recruit, and the defiance of a slightly stronger one), several scenes and settings seem to echo each other directly, most notably the suicides which both occur in lavatories… was Kubrick more of a Japanese cinema buff than we might have assumed? You decide!

In Our Time (1982)

May 2, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director(s): Tao Te-Chen, Edward Yang, Ko I-Chen, Chang-Yi.

Country: Taiwan (Republic of China).

Year: 1982.

Duration: 106 mins.

Context: The first film of the Taiwanese New Wave.

Themes: Coming-of-age; Taiwanese identity.

Form: Four-part omnibus film, each part directed by one of four different directors.

Review:

Film industries have always taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to innovation. Is a certain formula bringing in audiences and profits? Then commission a dozen more similar films. Understandable from a financial perspective perhaps, but somewhat uninspired artistically, and what happens when things really are ‘broke’, when the studios and producers are forced to seek a novel approach to rekindle audience interest? This is the kind of situation the Taiwan film industry found itself in, circa 1980.

The steady diet of romantic melodramas and epic martial-arts tales, directed by the same old veterans, was no longer cutting it for the dwindling, jaded Taiwanese audiences. And when they did go to the movies, it was more often than not to see the more appealing imports from Hong Kong, much smaller island than Taiwan but booming in film production and riding the crest of its ‘new wave’. There were no two ways about it, Taiwanese film needed a rejuvenation and the Hong Kong model, of letting loose young filmmakers to try something new, was the one to follow. Luckily the heads of the state-sponsored film studio CMPC had enough foresight at the helm to come up with a cunning plan. First-time directors would be offered opportunities working on multi-part omnibus films, each making individual segments (20-30 minutes long) to be released as one anthology film. This maximised the number of debutants gaining experience per film made, while spreading the costs and risks. First result of this initiative: the four-story film In Our Time, released in 1982.

Four stories, filmed by four different directors, all newcomers and mostly trained in film schools abroad where they picked up new ideas about cinema quite divergent from those of their Taiwanese elders. Each story is set in a different decade, moving forward chronologically (1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s) and with protagonists of increasing ages as time goes on (a boy of about 8, a young teenage girl, a university student, a married couple moving into their own flat for the first time). Thus goes the basic premise of In Our Time, but as with all omnibus films, not all parts are as strong as the others. In this case, the first two episodes are the most impressive and satisfying.


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The opener is ‘Little Dragonhead’, directed by Tao Te-chen, and centred around young Hsiao-mien, a loner kid, neglected by uncaring parents who seemingly prefer his brother, picked on at school, and whose only friend (and comfort blanket) is his beloved toy dinosaur. Essentially all the stakes are stacked in his favour to make us root for this boy, all the more so as the perspective is limited to his point-of-view and we, unlike the uncomprehending adults, get a glimpse into his inner world, which he’s often forced to escape to. We’re also in the privileged position of being able to recognise his artistic talent, whereas the adults around him mistakenly attribute his crayon portrait of his dinosaur to another child, and in any case they’ve had it up to here with his dinosaur obsession.

Things finally look up when he strikes a sweet friendship with the daughter of a neighbour, until irony strikes and adult matters get in the way: these neighbours are moving abroad permanently the next day and Hsiao-mien only realises at the very end that this was a farewell visit. True to its logic of being told from a boy’s viewpoint, we only find out when he does, setting the limits of what a child can know in an adult’s world.

What impresses most, alongside the intelligent performances induced from the children, is the nostalgic atmosphere conjured up by Tao. The 1950s setting is important, just like the 1960s one shall be in Yang’s segment, for both directors were making films about children set in the period of their own childhood. Wistful memories thus colour the mood, the dreamy dissolve-laden editing, and especially the music. All along Hsiao-mien’s tale is a period soundtrack, of 1950s pop, both Chinese and Western, most catchily the twangy guitar of Santo & Johnny’s instrumental 1959 classic Sleep Walk. It’s the kind of sound which would be at home in a Wong Kar-wai soundtrack, casting young Hsiao-mien as one of Wong’s romantic jilted-loner protagonists, before they even existed.


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No less atmospheric or languid is ‘Expectations’, Edward Yang’s section. Even more dissolves, fades-to-black punctuating scenes, soft hazy lighting, classical music on the soundtrack, the Beatles and the Vietnam war on TV, once again the sense of dreamy nostalgia is created through editing, image and sound. So often in coming-of-age stories it is young boys facing their rites of passage, so Yang’s exquisitely delicate treatment of teenage girl Hsiao-fen’s adolescent amorous awakenings is particularly refreshing.

It all kicks off when a new tenant, handsome, young, and male, moves into the spare room of the home Hsiao-fen lives in with her mother and older sister. Shortly, the lodger becomes the target of our protagonist’s secretly blossoming crush, and an ocean of previously unknown feelings is opened up to Hsiao-fen. She no longer has time to go play with her best school-friend, a short bespectacled boy. The internal reveries she loses herself in are rendered with sensitive economy by Yang through both sound and purely visual film-making.

One inconspicuous pan, from Hsiao-fen to her sister at the dinner table, sets up a later, far more crucial, identical camera movement. It occurs at the end of one of the most striking sequences in this short, a dissolve-montage of Hsiao-fen eyeing up the young male tenant topless on the front porch, his athletic body fetishised by the camera’s female gaze (uncommon in a medium which has so often personified the male viewer) which blends every slow shot of the boy into the next, only interrupting this stream to cut-in to a shot of a rapt, wide-eyed Hsiao-fen. But the final shot, in one brief pan, reveals that all along Hsiao-Fen’s sister was there too, sharing the view and she, being older, is far more likely to have a shot with the handsome tenant. What we thought was purely Hsiao-fen’s fantasy daydream, has been partially usurped by her own sister, setting up a triangular relationship that defines Hsiao-fen’s learning curve in this film. She’ll realise how mean she was to her little school-friend and make amends, but nonetheless something within her can never be the same again.


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The third story, Ko I-Cheng’s ‘Leapfrog’, ushers in a sharp change of mood. The dreamy atmosphere is replaced by comic chattiness from the get-go, when our student protagonist, ‘Fatty’, playfully introduces himself to us narrating over shots of he and his university cohorts. No, he’s not the slightly chubby one in the middle as his nickname might lead us to assume, he chimes, but the skinny one on the edge of the frame, that’s him. Because Fatty is now a dedicated member of the college biathlon team (hence the amphibian reference of the title) and has shed all traces of his former overweightness.

This is a young man with more than a passing resemblance to Benjamin in The Graduate. He has a restless sense of energy but no clear outlet for it, other than the upcoming biathlon race. He’s alienated from his businessman father who doesn’t quite understand him or why he wants to change his major to literature. He’s awkward, especially, and to his great frustration, around the opposite sex, but his inner monologues (while shyly glimpsing a pretty girl in a lift) reveal he’s a wannabe poet, reciting romantic lines in his head which he’d never have the audacity to actually utter. The dreamy dissolves and fades of the first two parts are replaced with a more conventional editing rhythm, their nostalgic mood into a rather odd allegory culminating with the biathlon race, where Fatty challenges a team of foreign students from the US… is this a commentary on Taiwan seeking to break free from its status as satellite? On its national pride? On a narrative level this is the most confused of the four, but plenty of scenes getting us to know Fatty reveal assured film-making touches.


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Part four, the least introspective and least concerned with romantic impulses, enters into even broader comedy territory, with a healthy dose of satire. Chang Yi’s ‘Say Your Name’ now has a young married couple as its central characters. They’ve just moved into a new apartment in the city and their first day reserves madcap situations aplenty; the wife forgets her name badge on her first day at work and is refused entry into her building (a literal identity crisis) while the husband, who stayed home. gets locked out when trying to retrieve his newspaper from the letterbox, wearing nothing more than a towel. Efforts to seek help from bemused, suspicious neighbours, or uncaring commuters in the street, leave him as frustrated as his wife is by locking horns against a bureaucratic wall. Adulthood and city living have their own shares of problems, life doesn’t get any simpler after the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence we witnessed in the previous parts, but if the film’s increasingly comic structure is anything to go by, maybe we become better at laughing it off.

In Our Time and its chronological coming-of-age structure (of its characters, of Taiwan growing into the urbanised island of the final episode, and of Taiwanese cinema itself) did win back Taiwanese audiences, at least momentarily, thanks to its novelty factor; an on-screen reflection so close to their own lives and experiences was a first for Taiwanese cinema. The Taiwanese New Wave, which it nudged into life, would go on to bigger, better things, pairing its earthy realist concerns with a radical long-take, long-shot aesthetic. From our vantage point, naturally, this film seems most noteworthy for announcing Edward Yang’s talent to the world, but as a whole, despite its unevenness, it is rich with promise and more than a little charm in its four different slices of Taiwanese eras. The highlights, ‘Expectations’ and ‘Little Dragonhead’, certainly belong alongside the best films about children 1980s world cinema had to offer.

Martin (George A. Romero, 1977)

March 20, 2016

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George Romero remains best known for single-handedly inventing the modern zombie genre, but this underrated, New Hollywood-era, teenage-angst movie with a serious twist saw him try his hand at a vampire film. Well, a vampire film of sorts shall we say, because we’re never entirely sure whether Martin (John Amplas), is indeed a blood-sucking pest or just a mentally-deranged young man whose subjectivity is vampirising the film’s. What’s fascinating about this ambiguity is how it positions this film among the newly self-conscious brand of ‘70s Hollywood cinema, made by a new generation of film-buff directors fully aware of the legacy of classical genre film, but equally wishing to bring it up to date. The opposition within young Martin stands in for the opposition between classical horror films and Romero’s necessary update – because much as some studio producers might like it, films and genres cannot keep regurgitating the same material ad nauseam, they must evolve as entertainment and as art.

What, besides ambiguity, makes Martin a more modern and less classical horror film? For a start, greater realism. Romero, like he did in Night of the Living Dead (1969), employs a documentary-style aesthetic, complete with handheld camera which back in 1977 was still synonymous with on-the-cuff immediacy, rather than the overused trope it is today. And Romero uses this aesthetic to plunge us right into the deep end. We begin the film with Martin’s attack on a young woman in a train carriage, complete with careful attention to detail again (a sedative-laden syringe and a razorblade are highlighted as part of Martin’s meticulous routine) for increased realism. This isn’t Bela Lugosi mystique, but a gritty what-if-vampires-were-real scenario.

His thirst for blood quenched, Martin and the train arrive in Pittsburgh, where he is due to move in with his uncle (Lincoln Maazel). This old Catholic curmudgeon clearly thinks something is fiendishly wrong with his nephew, if the garlic and crucifix, hung up outside the guest bedroom by way of a welcome, are anything to go by. But Romero doesn’t feed us any exposition until later into the film, so we watch on puzzled, intrigued and uncertain about the backstories of these two characters. This uneasy structure is reinforced by the fragmentary editing, already another sign that we’re no longer in the self-enclosed world of the classical cinema – things are literally seeping in from beyond the frame and from off-screen.

Case in point, the most remarkable of Romero’s artistic gambles in Martin, the black-and-white inserts of Martin in a more familiar representation of a 19th century vampire, gallivanting in period costume. They deliberately invoke mainstays of classic horror like Dracula or the angry village mob from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Are these flashbacks from his past, since after all, if he is indeed a vampire, he is supposedly over 80 years old? Are they an insight into his state of mind? Is this how he sees himself and the attacks he commits? Is it merely his self-image as vampire because it is the accustomed cinematic image of the vampire? It is as if the old and the new Hollywood, and the old and new horror genre, are in dialogue with each other through the interplay of these black-and-white shots typifying old horror films with the less conventional scenes making up the rest of the movie.

Interestingly, with his rigid dogmatism the uncle is the least sympathetic character, clearly the one Romero has the least time for, and even though Martin, whether deranged or vampire, is stealing blood and lives, Romero still forces us to empathise with him. This is a vampire character as troubled young man, almost a metaphor for the highs, lows and emotional turbulence of adolescence and young adulthood.


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