Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The other China

A Time to Live, A Time to Die
(Image: Central Motion Pictures Corporation and Lincoln Center)
"Taiwan Stories" might be the most unimaginative title ever for a film series (how about "Straits from the Heart"?  - I kid, I kid!).  But I was still excited about the Film Society of Lincoln Center's long-promised showcase of "classic and contemporary" selections from a cinema that's been pretty neglected in the West (it didn't help that the Taiwanese industry was brought to its knees by imported Hong Kong blockbusters in the early '90s, just as Western appreciation of Chinese-language film was really catching on).  Partly because the planet's oldest civilization spent the 20th century undergoing change at an ears-pinned-back, nose-squashed, eyelids-flapping rate, Chinese-language film is, for me, one of the most fascinating, so any chance to fill gaps a little is cherished.  Below, pontifications upon two of the movies I saw (comments on two older '60s classics to come later in the week).

The Peach Blossom Land (1992) - Here's one that really ought to be better known, especially considering the personnel involved.  You would think the film directing debut of a playwright and stage director, adapting his own play, and one set entirely inside a theater, would almost inevitably be stiffly stagey.  But Stan Lai knew at least enough about cinema to pick the right collaborators - the team of set and costume designer William Chang and cinematographer/mad genius Christopher Doyle, together best known for helping to make the films of Hong Kong maestro Wong Kar-wai some of the most visually fluid and beautiful of our time.  They don't let Lai down - Chang makes color combinations not just breath-catchingly pretty, but as expressive of emotion as notes of music or an actor's face; Doyle does uncanny things with light that make objects and people seem to glow from within.  (For good measure, Lai also tosses in one of Wong's favorite stars, Taiwanese diva Brigitte Lin, then only a couple years away from announcing her retirement at the height of her fame.)

(Image: Long Shong Productions, Performance Workshop Films & Lincoln Center)

The content is more or less up to level of the style - a droll, graceful, lite-Brechtian seriocomedy in which two theater troupes find that through some sort of scheduling mishap they're both trying to do their final dress rehearsals on the same rented stage.  One production is a somber, high-minded drama about the traumas of post-World War II Taiwanese history; the other a stylized, madcap period comedy about a hidden mountain utopia that gives the film its title.  We see the characters' backstage, "real" selves interspersed with extended excerpts from their productions, interrupted by delightful moments like the offstage sound-effects guy screwing up his queues cues to comically surreal effect.  As the competing troupes struggle over the space (at one point splitting the stage in half and rehearsing simultaneously), the two plays start to echo each other, and Lai's film becomes an unexpectedly moving portrayal of the disappointments and compromises of art and life, as well as their occasional compensations.
Two plays, one stage, in a moment from a production of Lai's play.  
(Image: Red Star Theatre of Hangzhou and, uh, European Backyard Wrestling Forum)

A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) -  If you sat on me and forced me to reluctantly name one favorite currently active director, I would probably choose Hou Hsiao-hsien.  If you asked me again how to say his name, I would tell you "Ho Shee-ow Shee-en."  Then after you got off me, I would call the police.  

Aside from the more recent examples (mostly the last decade), his work is hard to find in the U.S.  So Thor himself standing in the doorway of the theater couldn't have kept me from this rare screening of one of the first films to make his reputation internationally.  Like so many breakthrough films, it's a semi-autobiographical story: the protagonist grows from mischievous little boy to street-brawling, petty-crook teenager to the brink of responsible manhood in small-town 1950s Taiwan, in a family that has fled from the turmoil of mainland China and, like many such families, expects always, against all likelihood, to return one day.  It didn't give me any reason to change my mind regarding Taiwan's master of making drying paint dramatically compelling, and it probably won't change the mind of anyone who finds his movies boring.  If I slightly prefer his later work, it might simply be a weakness for the greater degree of aestheticized visual sheen he developed in the '90s - I challenge you to find a prettier movie than my favorite Hou, the swooning, aching Flowers of Shanghai (1998).

But he's totally, 100% Hou Hsiao-hsien already in Time to Live.  The camera hangs bashfully back in the middle distance, like an observant wallflower content to study the rituals of the dance, not even moving much lest he attract attention.  The script construction is stubbornly undramatic, drifting anecdotally, avoiding any sustained conflict, unafraid of repetition or perplexing unclarity, two things your writing workshop will always tell you to avoid.  The actors almost never seem like they're acting, just being - their unemphatic verisimilitude so complete I immediately take them as real people without ever thinking about it.  The only moments where the integrity is slightly broken are those relative few where a cookie-cutter sentimental music score intrudes, an element he would soon purge.  

Hou avoids almost all the standard ways the movies tell us what to feel and when to feel it, instead working to build a window at which we simply sit and observe.  If you can do it, you may feel your movie-watching brain opening up like a house unsealed in springtime, breezes and sunshine coming through the windows and doors, clearing away the dust and the cobwebs and the musty smell - leaving it ready to receive new inhabitants.  And the family of the film did take up residence in my brain, so that while rarely conscious of being moved or gripped, I missed them when it was over.

[For more and better on A Time to Live, A Time to Die, check out Kevin Lee's essay, so eloquent and fearlessly revealing that it makes me almost embarrassed to say anything on the movie at all.]

The quintessential Hou shot: peering at waist height through a doorway, figures and rooms layered from front to back.  (Image: Central Motion Pictures Corporation)

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