Monday, June 23, 2008

Even More Surfaces!!! - "Mad Detective" at the New York Asian Film Festival

Remember how hard it was for me to find a pairing for Flight of the Red Balloon (if not see my last post)?? Well I have now a possible candidate for a TRIPLE FEATURE!! Add Johnny To's Mad Detective to the mix:

First off, Johnny To just keeps getting better and better.  Often with Asian directors such as the oft praised Wong Kar Wai, you have to make allowances for overly shmaltzy sequences or unrealistic action scenes as merely the fault of lower production value or loss during translation.  To requires no such excuses.  His genre smashing films are slick, beautiful and most of all, smart (I also find them hilariously funny, but am often alone here).   My favorite is still the 2006 film Exiled (even though it is set in Macau and centered around a group of aging gangsters, it is one of the best Westerns I have seen in a while, if not ever).  

Mad Detective's cinematic craftsmanship is perhaps To's best. The last shot, a birds eye view of a room full of broken mirrors, is a masterpiece*.  It is one of those last shots that manages in one shot to encapsulate the entire conflict/point of the whole film.  In the film, Lau Ching Wan plays Bun, a schizophrenic detective (he has the schizo walk down to a science) who is able to see someone's inner personalities. While the villain appears to Ho, the regular detective, to be just one man, Bun sees that he is in fact seven different people: the glutton (perfect casting of To regular Suet Lam), the violent maniac, the calm controlling female executive etc.

So why add this film to an already complete double feature?? Answer: Another cinematic surface to consider.  In the climactic last scene (no worries, no spoilers here) the audience sees the inner personalities of characters reflected in a wall of mirrors. While in Kung Fu Panda and Flight of the Red Balloon, reflections directly reflected back "reality," in Mad Detective the surface reflects what is hidden.  Here the surfaces drastically changes what is seen.  So is the mirror distorting like a carnival crazy mirror or is the mirror showing what is "real", the inner self??

P.S.  If you are not feeling the triple feature another possible pairing for this film would be the Hal Hartley 2001 film No Such Thing (ok actually spoilers this time). In Hartley's film (also known as Monster), the monster is only destroyed by convincing him that he does not exist. This is done through a series of small mirrors and lenses that reflect light and his image (or lack of?) back towards him.  Here the surface's reflection actually destroys a character.

* Double Feature of films with Amazing last shots: Mad Detective and Tom Tykwer's Heaven (2002)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Kung Fu Panda" & "Flight of the Red Balloon"

I have wanted to write about Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon for some time.  I knew the idea that I wanted to use to connect the film to its pair (see below) but I could not think of a film that shared this idea (if you have better suggestions I would be glad to hear them!).  In Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou brings his ever steady gaze to a small family in Paris made up of Puppet theater artist Juliet Binoche, her son and the Chinese nanny who takes care of him.  The film is worth seeing if only for Binoche, whose performance as a loving and creative single mother verging on a mental breakdown is real and nuanced.  

The criticism of Hou's work has often been that his films don't go anywhere and are boring. That too often, his camera merely documents.  His cinema is the cinema of flies on walls and therefore not worth watching.  While it is true that conventional plots and three act structure do not appear in Hou's Work, I thoroughly reject this criticism.  

Yes, Hou does not often pass judgement on his characters or inject his own opinions into their lives.   Yet it is clear in Flight of the Red Balloon, that Hou is aware of the fact that the director and camera is a lens through which we see the world that is presented and that watching a film of a family is not the same as being a literal fly on the wall.  Shot after shot involve action that is seen reflected in mirrors, or through glass.  Whether that be a mirror, a car window or the window of a restaurant.  The action occurs through the filtering of different surfaces, leaving the audience with the question of how the filtering has affected what we see.  How does the surface change our perception?  

So while the film is still quiet like his earlier works (check out Millennium Mambo, my personal fave), it is almost as if he is addressing this constant criticism of his work and presenting many different lenses.  However, these lenses do not necessarily create different opinions.  Ultimately it is as if Hou is saying, no matter how much the camera moves and how much is reflected and filtered, the action does not change and it is the audience who should interpret what occurs.

So how in the world does Hou Hsiao Hsien, darling of the independent international cinema world connect to Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and the 60 Million $$ opening weekend film that is Kung Fu Panda?  In many ways, it doesn't at all.  I can't even say that Kung Fu Panda is a particularly good film.  Certain scenes, especially one in which Po the Panda, voiced by Jack Black, and Master Sifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, fight over one last dumpling, are whimsical and well drawn, but for the most part the film is just a nice way to spend a hot summer afternoon.  Seeing films like Kung Fu Panda make you realize just how amazing Pixar is (I am really looking forward to WALL-e later this month).

I had pretty much shelved writing about Flight of the Red Balloon by the time I went in to see Kung Fu Panda so imagine my surprise to find a meditation (well sort of, in a kids movie big lesson kind of way) on the idea of surface and perception!!  (SPOILERS AHEAD!!)  In one crucial scene Po opens the infamous dragon scroll only to find it blank(!!!).  The magical secrets of kung fu are in reality only a piece of shiny paper.  This is of course, a disappointment, but not unpredictably, Po realizes by seeing his reflection in the shiny paper that he already has all the skills he needs to succeed.  The message here is simple and heartwarming: you are what you are and that is all you need to be.

Here, the crucial surface produces a simple reflection.  The reflection does not lie or distort. And yet, this simple reflection is the key to the message of the film.   The exact and undistorted reflection of the reality Po already knows is what changes everything.  So the surface even though it changes nothing, changes everything (so in Flight of the Red Balloon, is there in fact a change in our perception after viewing he undistorted reflection?). 

I sincerely doubt that the directors of Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson) were thinking about the effects of cinematic surfaces when creating Kung Fu Panda, but the wonderful thing about film is the ability of two completely different films to unconsciously inform the other.  So when you walk out of Kung Fu Panda, don' be too disappointed, I'm sure you were just watching it to compare it to Fight of the Red Balloon later. :P