Online Finds #2: The Goddess (1934)

July 29, 2015

Following on from my last recommendation, Salt for Svanetia, I want to gently guide people in the direction of another rare cinematic masterpiece, which is now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, waiting to be discovered at the mere expense of one click on youtube.

Made in 1934 and directed by Wu Yonggang, The Goddess (Shen-nu) hails from the golden age of Chinese cinema when Shanghai in particular was a vibrant hub for artistic and intellectual activity. It tells the story of a prostitute (in Chinese the word goddess is an informal slang term used to refer to prostitutes), played by legendary actress Ruan Lingyu, and the sacrifices she makes to pay for her young son’s education. A thuggish pimp claims ownership over her and forces her to cede her earnings to him. The film may not be particularly formally innovative (though there is the interesting touch here and there, like one shot framed between the legs of the pimp to emphasise his hold on Ruan Lingyu’s character), but the way it deals with its topic make it feel far ahead of its time. Scholar Tony Rayns called it the first film, anywhere in the world, to seriously address the issue of prostitution without judging it as a morally vile societal scourge.

But really the main thing making this an unmissable film is Ruan and her incandescent performance, subtle, controlled and impressive even by our standards. Despite the silent cinema’s proclivity for over-expressive histrionics, Ruan was not one to over-act. The determined force of her devotion of her son, and her anguished pain at being effectively imprisoned, are depicted through facial gestures and glances.

Ruan, often nicknamed the Chinese Greta Garbo, is still remembered today as a tragic figure, her brief life coming to an end after her suicide aged 24, and her funeral having a miles-long procession of weeping admirers. (Her life was notably dramatised into Stanley Kwan’s biopic Centre Stage, starring Maggie Cheung.) She too came from an underprivileged background, and her mother raised her alone, slaving away as a maid in order to afford a decent education for her daughter. Her suicide was partly the result of tireless gossip-mongers prying into her private life, often maliciously. She may have been a beloved actress, but in a culture where tradition still decreed that ‘keeping face’ is all-important, a profession in the entertainment business was looked down on as hardly any better than prostitution. Many feigned kindness to her face, but dragged her name in the mud behind her back. So Ruan certainly drew on personal experience for her empathetic performance, in which she completely becomes her character.

Anyway, the film’s mix of progressive social affinity and of understated subtlety for such melodramatic material, together with silent cinema, makes it fascinating. Chinese cinema, like many others, was late in welcoming sound and in 1934 silent films were still the norm (the first Chinese sound film was made in 1931 and it would be a couple of years before sound overtook silent as the predominant mode). The Goddess feels to me like an indication of what might have been, had the movies continued to progress as a silent artform beyond the twenties.

Two films by Chen Kaige: Life on a String (1991) & Temptress Moon (1996)

July 20, 2015

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Let’s talk a little about Chen Kaige, instrumental director for the advent of the Chinese New Wave, the so-called Fifth Generation which I previously wrote about here.

Two of his films are absolutely fundamental for this renaissance of Chinese art cinema out of the doldrums following the Mao era. First, Yellow Earth in 1984 was effectively the catalyst for the whole movement, focusing the attention of international critics with one infamous screening at the Hong Kong Film Festival that made the world take notice: innovative and interesting cinema was being made once again in Mainland China.

Then, with Farewell My Concubine (1993), came both the most widely feted film of the New Wave (it remains the only mainland Chinese film to have won the Palme at Cannes) and the indication that perhaps, with Post-Tiananmen censorship crackdowns and emerging Hollywood domination of Asian markets, the movement was no longer what it started out as. Quiet, unassumingly political films had given way to colourful, epic spectacles with more than a passing concern for the tastes of foreign film festivals.

Having worked my way through Chen’s filmography, I’d like to write a little about two of his other, perhaps less well-known, films that can help fill in the gaps between the two more renowned ones cited above.

Life on a String (Chen Kaige, 1991)

Chen Kaige’s fourth feature film takes place in some unspecified timeless past, somewhere on the vast deserts of Northern China. Its main characters, two itinerant lute players, one old master and his pupil, may both be blind but Chen’s epic is itself visually spectacular, carving some of the most stunning images he’s ever set to film out of the harsh but beautiful scenery. This makes it tempting to slot it as the missing link between his early, rural-set dramas of spare beauty with palettes of ochre and blue for the land and sky dominating the scenery (Yellow EarthKing of the Children), and the later big-budget spectacles relying on extravagant visuals and musicality (Farewell My Concubine, and many of his subsequent films).

Music is at the core of Life on a String and its central metaphor of life and fate as being like the master’s lute. The film gets under way with a flashback in a mysterious, blue-lit chamber where the old master as an already-blind young apprentice is being taught by his own master a lesson set to haunt him the remainder of his days. Legend has it that day if a lute player breaks one thousand strings during his playing life, the gods will restore his sight. Cut to many years, and 995 broken strings, later and the now elderly blind master still plays as often as he can, entirely seized by the prospect that capricious and unpredictable fate will sever one of his lute’s strings five more times so that his eyes could at last see the world. His life, literally, hangs on a string…

Meanwhile, he also now has a blind apprentice of his own, who falls in love with a young peasant girl during their travels. This leads to a tale forbidden love as the girl’s family is militantly opposed to any union between their daughter and a blind itinerant musician, with tragic consequences, a side-plot which you can take or leave to be frank. It does however feed the messages behind the old master’s musical numbers, which form the film’s main set-pieces, in which he sings for common understanding and acceptance. Your enjoyment of the film will depend a lot on how you respond to these scenes, like this one:

In another, even grander moment, the old master prevents an inter-village war, the cinematography incorporating long shots of hundreds of men from the two rival clans charging at each other, amid the mountainous landscapes (and no CGI here of course). Mileages will vary, but if you are struck with anywhere near the awe the perplexed villagers are by the power of the master’s song and playing, then this film is certain to work its magic onto you.

Although made when the Chinese New Wave seemed on the wane, after the trauma of Tiananmen and the ensuing crackdowns by a repressive regime suspicious of anything that might diverge from the party-line, Chen still seems to be innovating here, playing freely with his own art. The elliptical editing, the sudden abrupt cuts taking us from one scene to the next, the constant elemental crackling of wind, water or fire on the soundtrack, and this strange recurring half-way place, under a waterfall, where the old man’s own love resides and which may well be a gateway into the afterlife… all these things provide Life on a String with plenty enough mystery to match its visual beauty.

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Temptress Moon (Chen Kaige, 1996)

Chen Kaige’s sixth feature, and immediate follow-up to the huge success of his operatic historical epic Farewell My Concubine, is a continuation of the lavish spectacle that was increasingly becoming a staple of the Fifth Generation (Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad had shortly preceded it). here merged with Wong Kar-wai-esque stylistics via the visuals of cinematographer-extraordinaire Christopher Doyle. Doyle recaptures some of the feeling that had illuminated his recent Wong hits (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels), bringing his box of camera tricks to the 1920s Shanghai setting. A nimble camera that floats and dances with its filmed subject, wide-angle lens close-ups, soft bright lighting, a neon-lit Shanghai that at times rekindles the look of Storaro and Bertolucci’s The Conformist; Temptress is certainly not lacking aesthetically.

Narratively, however, to call it impressionistic might be more flattering than it deserves. The unnecessarily tortuous tale centres on a gigolo (Leslie Cheung, as ever worth watching for the emotional force of his performance but we may well call his character underwritten) employed by his mob boss to seduce and blackmail rich married women. His vacuous life is brought to a tormented crossroads when his next job entails returning to the household he ran away from as a 13-year-old servant, now headed by the little girl he once played with, Ruyi (Gong Li), and her fiercely loyal cousin Duanwu (Kevin Lin). Cue flashbacks, bitter memories, and heartbreaks, all outstaged by Doyle’s camerawork and undermined by weak characterisation, particularly Gong Li’s Ruyi. The whole thing plays out like a less engaging version of the love-triangle in Farewell My Concubine, though of course with talent like Doyle, Cheung and Gong Li on board it has its share of beautiful moments.

After the Chinese New Wave movement was slowly diluted in the early 1990s, this elegant mess was, sadly, just about concordant with the beginning of the end for the Fifth Generation as it had first come to be known in the eighties. Chen and Zhang Yimou alike now seemed to be falling back on spectacular versions of their own country, and what better, more glamorous, and more exotic than the neon hustle and bustle of Shanghai in its golden era, with its cosmopolitan nightlife and crime triads? The committed, brave films of the eighties were now firmly in the rear-view mirror.

Online Finds #1: Salt for Svanetia (M. Kalatozov, 1930)

July 17, 2015

The internet now provides the best means and tools for anyone wanting to expand their cinematic horizons. Hundreds and thousands of films even lacking any sort of DVD release are now just a click away on Youtube, often with the work of tireless committed amateurs benefiting us with subtitles, if required. So in the future I will post more of these, hoping to share my discoveries, beginning with a rare and unique gem of a Soviet documentary, Salt for Svanetia, from 1930, which Andrei Tarkovsky himself was a huge admirer of.

Made by the great Georgian director, Mikhail Kalatozov, later to be better known for The Cranes are FlyingLetter Never Sent and I Am Cuba, all showing off his virtuoso ability for astonishing visuals, this is a silent documentary about an isolated mountain people in Svanetia, a region in north-west Georgia. At times ethnographic in its chronicling of the daily toils of the Svan villagers, it is also of course propagandistic, as any Soviet film of that time was bound to be (thought it still ran into trouble with the Stalinist censor board). More importantly to me anyway, it is stunning in its cinematography, its editing rhythms, its unusual angles of framing, and the music which I found simply wonderful. All in all, a film that transcends both its age (few films from 1930 feel as fresh) and its political context, to become a unique oddity and treasure. Hopefully someone else enjoys it as much as I did!

The Houses are Full of Smoke (Allan Francovich, 1987)

July 16, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Houses are Full of Smoke (Allan Francovich, 1987)

It isn’t news to anyone anymore that US foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century consisted of the CIA implementing their Game Theory 101 textbooks across of the globe, trying to advance the USA’s perceived interests. The specific details behind this complex network of nefarious events can always do with more elucidation however, which is what makes Allen Francovich’s three-part expose of the tumultuous history of US intervention in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua an invaluable model of historical record and investigative filmmaking.

The events across each of the three episodes are symptomatic of the political instability afflicting Central America: revolutions, coups d’etat, mass poverty and injustice, guerilla groups, the political awakenings of the indigenous population and the campesinos, and their eventual brutal quelling at the hands of reactionary military juntas. All, more or less, with the covert backing of the US. What makes Francovich’s film a fascinating historical tapestry is his access to talking heads of all hues of the multi-faction spectrum. From victims candidly recalling the horrors of torture camps, to reformed contra assassins, via Sandinistas, CIA men and ex-ambassadors, they’re all here and Francovich somehow got them to open up. In one interview tinged with self-delusional irony, a Guatemalan statesman, irritated by the role of missionaries trying to better the lot of the peasants, attempts to spin the teachings of Christ in his favour – “The meek shall inherit the world he said, but not the lazy”.

The films go unnarrated; we’re thrown in at the deep end, forced to make sense of inevitably complex situations from varying accounts of political machinations, harrowing bloodshed, murder and torture. Francovich uses the sheer variety of testimonies he’s collected to create meaning with his editing strategy. Through juxtaposed cuts, opposing views are often contrasted, with the contradictions making us constantly doubt the veracity of what we hear, especially of the official versions. One example comes during footage from a Reagan press conference, essentially a PR exercise to convince hearts and minds of the horrors enacted by the guerrillas in Nicaragua, and hence of the necessity to back the military government and their contras in a fight for ‘freedom’. But the conflicting interviews with which Reagan’s words are inter-cut give a completely contradictory side of the same tale.

I’m not aware of  any home video release, but all three parts of this film, unmissable for anyone interested in 20th century history, can be found on youtube: part 1, part 2, and part 3.


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