Monday, June 27, 2011

My Festival Report for Nippon Connection 2011 Now Available at Senses of Cinema

Hello, all. A little earlier, I mentioned my recent return to Frankfurt, Germany, for the 11th Nippon Connection film festival, which focuses exclusively on Japanese cinema. Along with writing about specific films for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, I also produced a festival report that has now been published by Senses of Cinema in their 59th issue. You can go check it out here!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

As I mentioned in my previous review of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, the films that make up his Three Colors trilogy can be considered as responses to specific genres. While Blue is said to be an anti-tragedy and White an anti-comedy, Red is the anti-romance – and, I believe, the film that best fulfills its designation. It certainly addresses love, but does so in a curious, indirect way, circling questions and elements of romance without ever delivering the full emotional payoff one might expect. One of the film’s relationships, between a young man named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) who is studying to become a judge and his blonde girlfriend Karin (Frédérique Feder), is only presented in short, fleeting scenes mainly focused on him. Another is stretched thin across Europe, tying together Geneva-based model Valentine (the enchanting Irène Jacob) and Michel, a university student living in London, through increasingly fraught phone conversations. It feels like Kieslowski uses these two storylines to examine contemporary relationships – or, rather, how certain relationships were never meant to work.

But then, nestled between these ones, there is another that oddly does. This relationship is between Valentine and a retired judge marvelously portrayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant. One night, she hits a German Shepherd with her car and, after carrying the hurt animal to her backseat, brings her to the address written on her collar. At the house, Valentine has her first encounter with the judge, who reacts to her confession of the incident with indifference and lets her keep the dog. She leaves, but they will continue to meet throughout the film, usually at his home. She learns that he spends much of his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone calls using a special machine, observing their lives but never interfering. Valentine disapproves, yet she doesn’t betray his secret nor sever her contact with him. Instead, through their conversations they gradually learn more about one another and the circumstances that have shaped their lives.

This odd friendship makes up the core of Red and is never anything less than fascinating thanks to Jacob and Trintignant’s nuanced performances. Even though their characters have their share of differences (not least of all in age), they nonetheless discover and build a connection between themselves based upon curiosity, recognition and respect. This is where the much-noted theme of fraternity comes into the film: both Valentine and the judge are noticeably estranged from the people in their respective lives, thus identifying with one another as fellow outsiders and kindred spirits. There is a sense of closeness and trust in their shared words and gestures that come across as more sincere and believable than a great many full-blown love affairs one is likely to see onscreen.

Throughout Red, Kieslowski conducts a subtle study of actions and reactions, exploring how chance occurrences can have significant, far-reaching consequences. There are many such causal agents put forth, ranging from a book that falls open at just the right page to a malfunctioning car radio to the convergence of a number of strangers at a court hearing. Here more than anywhere else, the line between chance and fate is blurred by intriguing details put forth by Kieslowski – most significant of which being the uncanny resemblance between events from the judge’s past and ones playing out in the present in Auguste’s life, as if the latter character were a younger mirror version of the former. Another echo is presented in the form of the old lady who struggles to put an empty bottle in a recycling bin – an image included in all of the Three Colors films. The threads of interconnectivity are more deeply woven simply by the several occasions in which Valentine and Auguste cross paths without ever actually meeting, among other similar cases of different characters’ lives overlapping and touching one another. These dovetailing, beautifully orchestrated cases of coincidence, repetition and linkage make Red seem like a more patient, mature take on Magnolia; a film that is quite comfortable with the understated manner in which it presents its deep, potentially mind-blowing ideas. The true payoff arrives in the final scene, which will really get you pondering the crazy pinball patterns your own life can take based on seemingly small events and decisions – an effect made all the more rewarding if you watch the trilogy in order.

These last few words should be devoted to the stylistic features that make Red such a pleasure to take in. With his score, Zbigniew Preisner seems to return to the majesty of Blue, but with a more subdued, ethereal approach. Regarding the cinematography, production design and set decoration, Kieslowski and his creative team have really outdone themselves in making the most of their central color. Thankfully, the use of red here isn’t overwhelming – it doesn’t flood the screen, but is instead represented by several perfectly selected objects, pieces of clothing and features of the environments. Among the most surprising aspects of the film is the pure energy of the visual style, which often reaches thrilling heights. Fast, swooping crane shots; a speeding red bowling ball’s course down a lane; the opening, kaleidoscopic depiction of a long-distance phone call that pulls you head-first into the film – such moments and more all substantially add to the experience Red provides and demonstrate the generous, inventive spirit of its key engineer, Kieslowski, in spades.

In and of itself, the film is a wonderful achievement. As the third part of the Three Colors trilogy, it is the perfect finishing chapter to a film series that will only continue to enthrall viewers with its considerable scope, intricacy and empathy.

Also posted at Row Three.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My Guest Spot on the VCinema Podcast Discussion of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière

Hello all. Not too long ago, I made an appearance on the VCinema Podcast, which specializes in Asian cinema, to discuss Edward Yang's masterpiece, Yi Yi (2000). That episode, available here, was the first of three planned ones in which I'll be talking with hosts Coffin Jon, Josh and Rufus about Taiwanese cinema and some of its most esteemed directors - namely Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang. And now...the second episode is now available! This time around, we tackle the Japan-based Ozu tribute-of-sorts Café Lumière (2003). All in all, I think we wound up having a pretty good discussion that touches upon a number of interesting topics. To listen for yourself, click on the icon below to access the show, be it through iTunes or manual download. Thank you for listening and enjoy!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

Sandwiched between the opulent Blue and the more elusive Red, White suffers to a degree from the “middle film syndrome” found so often in film trilogies. There are numerous possible reasons behind this specific case: it is a comedy (of sorts) amid two more deeply serious films, its titular hue doesn’t promise as much visual splendor as blue or red does, and it possesses a more surprising and quirky quality than what one might initially expect before viewing it. That final point partially stems from certain promotional images for the film focusing mainly on actress Julie Delpy. It makes sense in the context of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy and the marketing for it as a whole: three colors, three films, three lovely leading ladies (with Delpy joined by Juliette Binoche and Irène Jacob).

But as ideal as Julie may be as the face of White, it isn’t her film. Her character, Dominique, is important to the story, but she only appears for a small fraction of its screen time. Instead, the film’s real hero (or anti-hero) is Karol Karol, portrayed by the superb Zbigniew Zamachowski. We first see the Polish immigrant making his way to a Paris courthouse to the divorce hearing where Dominique, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, plainly states her intent to leave him due to his inability to consummate their marriage. From there, Karol’s luck very rapidly slips away from him: shut out of his home, he seeks shelter for the night at the beauty salon he formerly co-owned with Dominique. In the morning, she confronts him and, after one last chance for reconciliation passes by, cruelly kicks him out and threatens to bring the police down upon him. Poor Karol retreats to the Paris Métro where he plays a comical, kazoo-like instrument fashioned out of a comb for change. It is there where he meets a fellow Pole named Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) with whom he quickly forms a bond of friendship and hatches a plan to transport himself back to Warsaw in a trunk. Despite an unplanned, uncomfortable detour, Karol triumphantly arrives back in his home country, reunites himself with his brother and finds work and a home in his hair salon. From there, Karol devotes himself almost single-mindedly to gaining money and power for himself, working with Mikolaj to form a campaign of revenge against Dominique.

As the above synopsis indicates, White is very much a narrative-driven film – certainly more so than Blue and Red. This can mainly be allotted to the twisty, constantly evolving nature of Karol’s trajectory. In this respect, the film could be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or any other story in which the hero hoists him or herself out of dire straits using luck, pluck and ambition – these kinds of tales by design usually turn out to be incredibly engrossing, if only because of pure curiosity about where the character will end up next. Plus, it certainly helps when the central character is as fascinating to watch as Karol is. Somewhat resembling Tim Robbins, Zamachowski does a great job of portraying a highly sympathetic character who does not always do sympathetic things. Karol seems to scrape by with a built-in survival instinct, and carries himself with an odd mixture of meekness, shamelessness and charm even when placed in some particularly troubling predicaments. Just as interesting is his relationship with Dominique, the woman he continues to love even after she purposely torments him, even as he goes about preparing his plan against her.

Thus, Kieslowski presents us with a tragicomedy in the purest sense, masterfully balancing humorous moments with serious ones. Composer Zbigniew Preisner departs from the symphonic heights of Blue’s score to provide music that is noticeably lighter and springier, propelling us through Karol’s journey with an upbeat energy. Along the way, there are numerous scenes that openly invite serious considerations of love, life and happiness. If nothing else, White serves as possibly the most outright entertaining entry in the Three Colors trilogy; a fun yet thoughtful yarn that ably continues Kieslowski’s exploration of morality and human connection.

Also posted at Row Three.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

Until recently, Krzysztof Kieslowski remained one of my biggest blind spots in the gallery of world cinema’s quintessential auteurs. One of those figures who continually lingered in my peripheral vision, the Polish filmmaker bears a reputation that ranks him among the likes of Bergman and Tarkovsky, Almodóvar and Haneke. But besides his prominence in the European arthouse scene, I was intrigued by the nature of his films – deep, mesmerizingly shot considerations of chance, fate and humanity. It wasn’t until after I read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy that I learned of the warmth and empathy he was capable of. Basically, he seemed like someone whose perspective I could readily appreciate and even grow fond of, and thus my appetite was properly whetted.

So I took it upon myself to pick up the trilogy and watch it over the course of a few nights. Consisting of Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994), they mark the end of Kieslowski’s directorial career. Shortly after completing Red, he announced his retirement from cinema. Sadly, approximately two years later, he passed away when he had a heart attack during an open-heart surgery operation in March of 1996. Yet he left behind an impressive body of work that concludes with a final run of films that any filmmaker would be proud to go out with.

Here, in order, I will provide my initial impressions of the Three Colors. While the films freely invite different interpretations, they are inspired by the colors that make up the flag of France and their corresponding themes: liberty (blue), equality (white) and fraternity (red). The films have also been referred to as, respectively, an anti-tragedy (Blue), an anti-comedy (White) and an anti-romance (Red). But as the films and various writings on them reveal, these themes aren’t rigidly applied or represented in any way, but rather subtly explored and touched upon through the characters’ experiences and Kieslowski’s playful, mysterious approach to them. The result is a fascinating, refreshingly open cinematic arena for interpretations and ideas that I imagine will vary for each viewer. For what they’re worth, here are some of mine.

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Long before I finally made my way to the Three Colors trilogy, I was aware of Blue’s status as an easy favorite among viewers. Out of the three films, it has earned possibly the most attention and can regularly be found at the top of most people’s personal rankings. This can easily be attributed to the many stand-out draw factors contained in the film: Juliette Binoche’s excellent lead performance, Slawomir Idziak’s sumptuous cinematography, Zbigniew Preisner’s grand score. Putting aside Binoche for a moment, Blue is indeed a film very much defined by its bold strokes of outright style. The opening sequence indicates as much in its visually and sonically intense depiction of a car ride, confronting the viewer with an up-close tire speeding over pavement, a distorted mosaic of lights as seen through a window, the roar of traffic engulfing the vehicle. The rest of the film comes laden with other beautifully executed flourishes, including the hazy, first-person perspective of Binoche’s recovery process following the car accident that kills her composer husband and their child; the odd flashes of blue light that appear at certain moments and the bursts of music that emanate, almost magically, from score pages.

Then, in the centre of it all, there is Binoche, giving what must be one of her most accomplished performances in her illustrious career. As Julie Vignon, sole survivor of the aforementioned crash, she steers her way through the difficult terrain of grief and depression. She first returns to her rural house, then moves into a Paris apartment, all the while carrying herself with a strong-willed and even reckless independence. Whether ridding herself of her family’s former possessions (including the home where they lived together), quietly contemplating the other characters around her or ending conversations with jarring abruptness, she constantly possesses an air of self-imposed distance from the world around her. She is dead-set on handling her own emotions and dealing with the lingering ties to her previous life on her own, and we as viewers are never quite sure which action she will take next. The result is not only a fantastic performance, but also a wonderfully complex and unpredictable character arc brimming with possibilities.

Much of that sense of narrative freedom comes from a large selection of supporting characters who interact with Julie through an almost episodic structure. Her husband’s friend and musical colleague, the young man who found her shortly after the crash, her spirited neighbor who works as a stripper, her husband’s mistress – they and more all occupy different areas of Julie’s life whilst facing their own dilemmas and experiences. That is one of Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s great gifts here and in the other two films: a completeness to the characters and their lives that extends far beyond the provided screen time. Throughout the trilogy, this quality is made clear in some particularly marvelous ways, but it comes through in Blue most notably in a stirring sequence near the end that will make you seriously wonder if Richard Kelly didn’t do a bit of shoplifting for an uncannily similar moment in Donnie Darko.

Blue is so cinematically rich that it can be a bit staggering to remember that Kieslowski followed it up with two more works. The film by itself is a clear masterpiece, possessing such artistry and depth that one could be perfectly content to revisit, savor and contemplate it for some time before even thinking of moving on to White. Along with the great acting and style, the world of intertwining stories and emotional trials Blue delves into gives viewers lots to think about in relation to their own lives, along the way presenting Kieslowski as an intriguing, one-of-a-kind philosopher whose lessons he preferred to illustrate through cinema.

Also posted at Row Three.