Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Living For The City

Er shi si cheng ji(24 City)(2008)Directed By Jia Zhang Ke
Zhang Ke Jai has(at least to me) grown substantially since "The World", able to leave some of the melodrama behind and let his characters and the landscapes speak for themselves. “24 City” is a beautiful film, both relevant and moving in the ways "Up In The Air" wishes it were. A factory in Chengdu, China that has been in operation for generations is being closed down to make room for a upscale high rise apartment building called “24 City” ironically named after a poem about harmony. We follow a series of interviews with former factory workers about their lives in and around the factory.Some of the interviews could have been shortened or illustrated visually instead of having us just watching talking heads speaking over silence, but that is my personal preference. It could be argued, by not re-creating their lives Jai gives his subjects a sense of dignity, and creates an intimacy between them and the viewer that would be otherwise lost. For the most part I would agree, though in honesty, I did get anxious more than a few times during some of these discussions. Jai's subjects at first seemed to be almost rambling inconsequentially, but as the film goes on, their statements become enmeshed in each other and the film as a whole, and intricately articulate how the factory for generations was their entire world, romantically, socially, philosophically, and culturally. Some of the workers had their first fights there, their first loves, some moved their whole families on the promise of work, while others left their families behind, and suddenly this community which has sustained them all this time has disappeared, moved by forces beyond their control. Part of the film is documentary, but some of the interviews are “fictional” and feature actors.
I had trouble telling the difference between those who were actors and who were actual workers, but the mixture between the authentic and the dramatic only serves to highlight the contrast between the promise of worker's solidarity and justice and the realities of changing economic priorities. Jai’s “The World” offered us the best metaphor for the globalized melancholic that I’ve yet to see, that of an amusement park masquerading as the greatest architectural achievements of humanity, while those who toil in it are increasingly alienated from any sense of “authentic” culture, themselves, and each other. That film itself, however was not as compelling as it’s ideas.
In many ways “24 City” and so I am told Jai's similar, “Still Life” continue this series on the changing face of China, and the “real” people caught up in this global gentrification. What made me look at “24 City” as something other than just a clever polemic was a baffling scene of a girl skating to a soft, bubbly, trance like electronic song. The girl skates in circles, and the music plays and we just observe her, and the song continues, as the camera floats off looking across the city and the mammoth building rising up into the skyline. I don’t know what if any purpose this scene had to the rest of the film, but it was lovely. Equally startling were the huge crowds of workers, by the hundreds in the film's first scenes, that are as overwhelming as the CG throngs of countless soldiers and orcs from “The Lord Of The Rings” epic battle-scapes. In those moments Zhang makes his cinematic eye, rival and better his(at least for me)binding interest in social realism. Realism especially of the socially progressive variety is not my cup of tea (to put a borderline pathological aversion mildly), but “24 City” made, if not a believer, than a fascinated viewer out of me. If globalization has to be “hot button” of contemporary art, if there must be sad-sack post-modernist which stylistically bite the hands that feed them, if the classical Marxist themes of alienation, class, and gentrification must persist on into the next decade, we could all do worse than to see them filtered through Zhang’s warm humanism (another term I would usually avoid). It’s not a thrill a minute, and there is no George Clooney smirking to enjoy, but “24 City” is rewarding, intimate, and oddly sensual, which few politicized movies, and even fewer documentaries, seem capable of doing these days. This is the first Jai I enjoyed, and makes me interested to visit the rest of the oeuvre.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Love Me Tender

Help Me Eros(2007)Directed By Kang Sheng-Lee
I was just expecting more of Tsai Ming Liang's super-freaky alienation porn, full of campy soul music interjections, but this was surprisingly emotional and ethereal. Unlike Antonini and even Tsai (who mentored Kang Lee Shang actor turned director here in "Help Me Eros") understands expressing alienation doesn’t mean every environment must be cold, dreary, and colorless. The world of "Help Me Eros" is neon lit from start to finish like a minimalist version of Coppola's "One From The Heart" with every frame worthy of being hung in a museum.Showing an ugly de-humanized world occupied by cold de-humanzied characters has been done to death as one of the tradtional strains of the "art film" especially in Europe, and had that been this films only motive and aesthic I wouldn't have bothered. Today's problem is how to try to see through the de-humanized beauty of our wonderous world, and to the frail people caught in it's dazzle like startled deer. The bright colors of Lee's world are seductive and engaging, but they cast a false rainbow, like the manufactured brightness of a red-light district. "Help Me Eros" is about a stockbroker who has lost all of his money for reasons that are never disclosed, sitting in his apartment "Leaving Los Vegas" style, watching and waiting for his world to fall apart one trip to the pawn shop at a time. He smokes joints constantly and tends his marijuana crops growing his closet, which are perhaps the only living things in his apartment. He calls a suicide hot line frequently, where he has feelings and fantasies for a specific operator and the two begin communicating via email. His screen name is "Divine Marijuana" and hers is "Pastry", both of them named after their respective poisons of choice. This woman and her life with her chef husband, who feeds her exotic animals like Ostrich and Eel, to distract her from their non-existent sex life, are featured as contrast to our hero's lone wolf/sad motherfucker desolation. Her story forms the main sub-plot as these two lonely souls seek connection, accept she is not what he imagines her to look like, and he is not the the salvation she needs him to be. Neither is a wiser, and watching I got the sense that despite their alienation, they might be better off with a surrogate digital interaction than the inevitable disappointment of actually meeting. She is overweight from her husband's excessive cooking, and middle aged, and they know nothing of each other but words and the sounds of one antother's voices, but this is the way he imagines her... In between this our hero falls in lust with several girls who sell some kind of nuts outside of his building wearing enticing outfits to attract repeat clients/johns. There are several sex scenes (5 if memory serves), but none as graphic or as numerous as "Wayward Cloud's" or "Nine Song's" or your average porn, and they arise from within a context of the story, not as just a rhythmic "device" or stylistic detour. Even if that context is only loneliness and lust. The music far from being inorganic to the script, is pulsating electronic rhythms usually absorbed from the sounds of the city at night. Or otherwise soothingly acoustic and vulnerable folk rock, each underscoring the specific emotions of longing, regret, exhilaration, and emptiness that the rest of the film echoes. Shots of standing in a moving car through the sun roof as the city flood by in a blur, of beautiful girls lounging around a neon lobby like cat's on a hot day, and a disturbing but tasteful bathtub full of eels, linger and don’t dislodge themselves from memory easily. Kang-sheng Lee's themes are not original, but his delivery is immaculate, his fantasies genuinely erotic (something Tsai's stilted humping though more naturalistic rarely achieves, or intends to be for that matter), and his art design courteousy of Tsai himself, is a joy for the eyes. Searching for affection and finding only sex, waiting for the sun and seeing only halogen and strobe, sitting in a cafe facing a river that roughly translated is called "Love River" (according to an observant IMDB writer from Indonesia) and trying not to appear lonely, have rarely seemed so convincing or heartfelt. Like "Movern Callar", the film is not the plot, but the sensual accumulations of sights and sounds, that drown the viewer like a warm bath. Dryly deadpan, minimal dialog, glowing with life, and cinematic daring, "Help Me Eros", would along with "Wayward Cloud" serve as perfect introductions to Taiwan's burgeoning avant garde aesthetics, which if you are not familiar with you need to see for yourself to believe or even comprehend. Maybe I smoke too much when I'm feeling blue, or maybe I'm just a moth to neon lights, but this resonated with me in ways, that are best not expressed in words, or at least not the type you write down. Maybe words which ought to be sung or read like poetry to fully experience.