26 décembre 2005

The Wayward Cloud (1/4)

The Wayward Cloud / Tian bian yi duo yun (2005/Tsai Ming-liang/France/Taiwan) ++++


High angle stationary camera (wide angle lens) at the crossing of perpendicular underground tunnels. Dirty cement, artificial neon lights. Distant sound of heels resonates. Real-time crossing (90") of 2 women from opposite sides of the screen to the other. A long plan-sequence shot like a closed-circuit surveillance camera (repeated motif in the rest of the film). Faces are too small to be identified, although one wears a nurse uniform and carry a watermelon: the porn actress (Sumomo Yozakura) of the following sequence.

Cutaway to an actual erotic videotape involving nurse, doctor and watermelon, much more colorful, soft lit, activity cadenced by a faster editing.
Tsai clashes a slow paced impressionistic moment of wordless cinema (to the extant of boredom) with the most diverting excitment (porno) that provokes a reflective conflict to the audience's expectations. A dichotomy of form and content, suppression and debauchery (porn/musical) alternated throughout the film, escalating in degrees until they merge at once, an uncensored disillusioned crude reality.

Almost a satire of the classic vaudeville tragedy opposing "wife" and "mistress" rivals, legal love and physical satisfaction. In fact they represent the existential dilemma of the central character [HE] (Lee Kang-Sheng) between faltering platonic romance and oblivious hardcore activity, two ways out of an overbearing aloof routine. The sexual triangle at the heart of the story : the innocent love interest, museum guide [SHE] (Chen Shiang-Chyi), and the pornstar live nextdoor, unaware of eachother.
Although unmarried in this fable, the protagonists engage in a very tender but passionless, attentionate and indifferent, hide-and-seek juvenile flirtatious game, unable or unwilling to attach one-another. Surreal/discontinuous atmospherical romance like in 2046 (2004/Wong).

note: the 2 lead protagonists will be refered in my text as "HE" and "SHE" for clarity.


Repeating a gimmick used in The Hole (1998) both a tender homage and burelesque mockery of cheesy Hollywood/Asian musicals, Tsai collides his "boring contemplative style" with its total opposite, a deviant entertainment. Sentimental cover songs of the 50ies moraly-correct era are lip-synched by his actors disguised with ridiculous home-made costumes, no choreography, kitsch design and sexualized imagery to pervert their original meaning.
Five musical numbers, clash of cultures and times, substitute to the words unspoken in the film with dream sequences revealing a little more about their emotional load. They are more populated than the city, maybe to emphasize the sensation of isolation of these characters.
"There’s still some incredible imagery on display here from time to time, such as when shampoo seems to enclose Lee’s head in the titular cloud or when we see him sleeping suspended over a vertiginous stairwell, but these moments are just isolated moments. Throughout, the imposing landscape of the city makes the few people that move throughout it almost feel like afterthoughts, and Tsai’s decision to frame his leads so that even when they share a frame one’s usually leaving or sleeping pays off thematically, but not really emotionally."
Jeremy Heilman
Tsai says in an interview that people are only their true self (no pretention, no dissimulation) when they are on their own, without people observing/judging, or during sex. Like in his previous films, this one effectively focuses on the protagonists when they are alone, even after their romance has begun. And when they are in presence of someone else, they do not speak, or one of them is asleep, or isolated in side of the room.

They live in the same housing project (uniformized/anti-socialization) without ever crossing path. Only outdoor could they see eachother. The clever mise-en-scene of their meeting allows to observe each of them before the other has aknowledged their presence :
She recognizes HE sleeping on the swing. SHE falls asleep waiting for him to wake up. HE wakes up and doesn't recognize her. Then SHE wakes up : uncomfortable silence. Bad timing, their disposition to open up are not coordinated and makes the relationship impossible (just like the distance between Taipei and Paris materialized this ambiguous incompatible attraction). SHE asks if he still sells watches, refering in a one-liner to the two precedent episodes of the trilogy featuring these characters (What Time is it There? 2001/The Skywalk is Gone, 2002)
Tsai initiates the dissolution of the cinema illusion, the actors we recognized as Tsai's recurrant partners are not playing a new fictional character but they are in fact coming out of a previous story. The character of the new film is surprised to meet again a character of another film, so are we. First distanciation with the fiction, Tsai distracts the audience from the conventions that the actor is not himself but a character invented by the screenwriter.


The project was originally meant to study the double-life of South Asian foreign labor, abused and exploited like under-citizens without visa, lost in a stateless limbo, confined to a marginal existence, selling soul and body for survival. They belong nowhere, incapable to return home, unwelcomed to fit in. If later extrapolated to the milieu of pornography, deviant love and perversity, which suggests a caricature of society, Tsai's latest provocation immerses a seemingly superficial romance in a social environment with comparable issues. In the first script, an aunt uncovered her nephew was a porno actor. Changed to a girlfriend due to casting problems, the role commits to a more intimate humiliation, adding jealousy to shame. She must swallow her pride to forgive if she wants to save their relationship, but is it that simple?


In the near-abstracted social anticipation, an exceptionally dry season in Taiwan drained rivers and water supplies, the price of bottled water skyrocketed, and the population fell in an arrested languor. An idealized hot dry summer. Deserted streets instill a sense of suspended apocalypse. This sunshinier weather shows the wealthy areas of an idyllic Taipei in contrast with the usual trademarks of Tsai Ming-Liang's previous films: poor, overcrowded, dirty, polluted, and derelict city with non-stop pouring rain, water leaks or overflows.
We are invited to ponder over the effects of shortage (instead of affluence) on human behavior and vital nervous functions. Tsai internalizes the cycle of water. The various overwhelming watery phenomena that drenched the body in a damp macrocosm, now simmers inside the microcosm of the body itself, like a humanly cloud. Debilitating fluid exchanges with a depleted environment cause awkward, uneasy sensations and a craving to quench desirs. The vital needs of the body are out of control like the natural elements in the sky.
Surprisingly the cinematography does not show off hot colors, sweating skins, suffocating rooms and the sound design does not resort to the clichés of omnipresent ceiling fans, noisy insects or drying/melting material. Tsai prefers to insist on the amusing everyday activity/economy to find/keep water anyplace and the slowish pace of a thirsty person. Exausted people seek a rarefied liquid inside fruits, the precious watermelon juice is cherished.


The theme of essential substitution proves particularly metaphoric (and revelatory) in light of Tsai Ming Liang's own comments on the symbolism of water in his films (as transcribed in the Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsai Ming Liang): "...I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that's what they lack. What I'm trying to show is very symbolic, it's their need for love." acquarello
This clue helps greatly to decypher the symbolism and gives a whole new reading to the events in the film. Considering this equation (water = love) the body language that replaces verbalization in the film becomes more evident.
  • Thirst = desir: incarnation of an immaterial feeling into a vital physical need.
  • Water bottle = human body either filled with love or emptied, either topped with a cap or parted from a soul-mate.
  • Watermelon juice = romantism, love stream, fun, bodily fluids.
  • Full Watermelon (green, dry) = emotion, feeling, baby.
  • Cut open watermelon (red, wet) = vagina, sex.
  • Food = sex, sensuous appetite, sexual fantasy.
SHE picks up empty bottles in trash cans and steals water from the public toilet flush! She also finds a watermelon in a dirty canal. It tells about her desperate craving for love... She capitalizes/stockpiles water bottles in her fridge like in a safe/incubator.
Unlike HE who doesn't seem to worry about water conservation (love is not a concern to him).

"she forces glasses of watermelon juice on him, despite her overstock of bottled
water. " Adam Balz
This scene uses a faux "split-screen" mise-en-scene, showing the kitchen with SHE, delighted, making watermelon juice on one side and the living room with HE on the other side, trying to open the suitcase, indifferent. Again a clever way to show the protagonists on their own, while both on screen. Fed up with the watermelon overused in his porn movie, HE disposes of the juice through the window while SHE is not looking. An uncomfortable moment when HE cannot refuse the generous offer, he cannot tell why either.

In opposition to the wet orgasm of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001/Imamura), illustrated by an hyperbolic water leak from the woman's body, the porn actress from the same country plays here with an empty bottle striving to simulate a mechanical excitation. In this scene, the mislaid cap is separated from the bottle.
A metaphor of disconnectedness, unrequited love echoed in a later scene when HE hides away from SHE in the staircase. SHE goes down and sees an opened bottle full of water abandonned (by HE), then finds a cap on the stairs below. SHE comes back to put the cap back on the bottle but the bottle has disappeared in the meantime (retrieved by HE who didn't want to be seen near where he films porno). HE hides away upstairs again, and finally throws the bottle to cut short her curiosity. The bottle spills out its precious content. The symbolic meaning is all the more interesting since it was precedented by another scene when SHE pretended to deliver a child with a watermelon hidden under her shirt. Does it mean she asks for a baby and he's scared off? It's certainly one of the reasons that hinders their relationship to a stale.

The first porn scene overtly identifies the watermelon half with sexual symbolism. The foreplay in the flesh of the fruit triggers pleasure to the nurse. Directly paralleled by SHE watching TV in a lascivious position with an opened watermelon squeezed between her thighs too, scooping it up with a spoon. Thus before they even met, both on their own. The parallel montage suggests the two actions are simulatenous as if the fantasy of SHE was enacted by HE. They are in the mood for sex, each on their own way.
SHE later licks sensuously the full watermelon in the fridge. All this food fetishism is reminiscent of the infamous Kika (1993/Almodovar) where the man sexually attrated by her eats a mandarin orange off her genitalia.

In a memorable scene, HE and SHE eat crabs they cooked together, we do not see them but their shadows on the wall (like the ghost dance in Dreyer's Vampyr, 1932), illustrated by loud suction noises and laughters (echoes of the squishy noises of the first porn scene). Visually self-censored like in erotic scenes from the Hays code era. A strong symbol of sexual intercourse through voluptuous appetite, followed by the scene underneath the table, both lying sleepy smoking a cigarette (like after making love).

(s) ++ (w) +++ (m) ++++ (i) +++ (c) +++

Berlin 2005:
Silver Bear (Outstanding Artistic Achievement) + FIPRESCI Prize
Alfred Bauer Prize for Cinematographic inovation

Official Website (french, 2 musical clips, trailer, 3 scene clips)

Coming up next :

15 décembre 2005

2005 Top10

Year-end lists (acquarello, Girish, Darren Hughes) are a great opportunity to look back on the 2005 production and compare it to the 2005 distribution which seldom overlap. Also very useful to note down the gems that we might have missed or that we can still look forward to and build a wish list anticipating the future releases of 2006.
I realize I don't even write the reviews of my favorite films... probably because they are loaded with emotion and content hard to define, harder to explain, for me anyway. Expect updates before January.

Top10 of 2005 (ordered arbitrarily by personal taste) :

  1. Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July/USA) Sundance 2005
  2. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan) Cannes 2005
  3. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang/Taiwan) Berlin 2005
  4. Caché / Hidden (Haneke/France) Cannes 2005
  5. Battala en el Cielo / Battle in Heaven (Reygadas/Mexico) Cannes 2005
  6. Solntse / The Sun (Sokurov/Russia) Venice 2005
  7. The Forsaken Land (Jayasundara/SriLanka) Cannes 2005 - Un Certain Regard
  8. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu/Romania) Cannes 2005 - Un Certain Regard
  9. Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo/Korea) Cannes 2005
  10. Manderlay (Lars Von Trier/Denmark) Cannes 2005

Honorable mention : L'Enfant (Dardenne); Be With Me (Khoo); The Hand (Wong) in Eros; Les Amants Réguliers (Garrel); Les Yeux Clairs (Bonnell); Johanna (Mundruczo); Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars (Guédiguian);

Films that made my favorite list in the past: 2046; La Blessure; The World; Café Lumière; Comme une Image; 3-iron; The Holy Girl; Nobody Knows; L'esquive; Tropical Malady...

Documentaries (ordered by preference):

  1. Estamira (Marcos Prado/Brazil) Rio 2004
  2. Profils Paysans: Le Quotidien (Depardon/France)
  3. Un Silenzio Particulare (Stefano Rulli/Italy)
  4. Le Malentendu Colonial / The Colonial Misunderstanding (Téno/Cameroon) NY HRW 2005
  5. Les Artistes du Théatre Brûlé (Rithy Panh/Cambodia) Cannes 2005 - Off
  6. Grizzly Man (Herzog/USA) Sundance 2005
  7. El Cielo Gira (Mercedes Álvarez/Spain) Valladolid 2004
  8. La Peau Trouée (Samani/France) Nyon 2004
  9. Born into brothels (Briski/Kauffman/India/USA) Sundance 2004
  10. Avenge but one of my two eyes (Mograbi/France/Israel) Cannes 2005 - Off

I still need to see:

State of Fear (Yates); The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach); Seoul Train (Butterworth/Lubarsky); Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski); Un Couple parfait (Suwa); Pin Boy (Poliak); Something Like Happiness (Slama); Mary (Ferrara); Where the truth lies (Egoyan); Vers le sud (Cantet); Tony Takitani (J. Ichikawa); The Blue Younder (Herzog); Darwin's Nightmare (Sauper); Los Angeles PLays Itself (Andersen); Code 46 (Winterbottom); Who's Camus anyway (Yanagimachi); Le Filmeur (Cavalier);

What about you? Comments, questions, recommendations welcomed!

09 décembre 2005

Grizzly Man (2005/Herzog)

Grizzly Man (2005/Werner Herzog/USA) DOC +++

Herzog watches lovingly the footage filmed by this self-made actor-director, Timothy Treadwell, ecolo-activist who felt invested in the mission to protect Grizzly bears against the evil of civilisation in the remote wilderness of Alaska. A captivating posthumous biopic documentary put together with the video remains of a reckless solitary adventure.
Citing his diary and interviewing his relatives isn't as powerful as watching the video segments he himself directed and dramatized a few feets away from fierce animals on their very territory. Stitching together all the takes of his reportage, that were made for the editing table, is like assembling a puzzle with missing pieces. A one-man-made TV reality show.

The man is a frustrated actor showing off not a scientist, he's naive or maybe just nuts. The exploration of his upbringing and addiction background comfirms. Nobody could dispute however his passion for nature, his sincere interest and understanding of animals behavior, and most of all his confident bravery! I say this man is a hero, even if a reasonable society thinks he's out of his mind. He's one of these lunatic pioneers on the edge of charted maps who are always criticized for going too far. There are more stupid ways to die than that. And he knew exactly the risks. which he repeats on and on in his videos to educate children. The crude details of a violent death were endlessly running through his head as he spells out the words decapitation, disembowelment, slashes...
One could argue there is no obvious redeeming value to get in arm's way as such, unlike a war reporter for example, but that would be overlooking the existential dimension of this life lived fully to the limits as an art.

Herzog's narrator voiceover sounds a little judgemental, as he seeks to parallel with his relationship with Klaus Kinski on Aguirre. But he doesn't make the mistake to postpone the revelation of Treadwell's death for a final climax. He also makes obvious we're not going to ear the soundtrack of his death. At the same time he merely conceals the manipulation to get his interviewees to say what he wants: the travelling backward interrupting the coroner's speech, the staging of Timmy's watch handed out to Gizzly People president, the scene when Herzog appears on screen while listening to the death tape. This might be a conscious critique of how far TV/Cinema can exploit the desir of people to be filmed.

I didn't like when Herzog silence Timmy's curse words with a moralizing speech that misses the spark of truth revealed right there by this outburst of rage. Herzog wastes his time on the "what" instead of analyzing the "why". We don't care if Treadwell is right or not in insulting the National Park guards... What's taking place here is a genuine "moment" of symbolic pride.
This is the end of the summer, his expedition is over, he is unarmed and alive for the twelveth or thirteenth time in an everyday life-threatening journey. It's not a one-strike fluke, he challenged and proved it every year.This intensity of survival instinct drains a lot of energy to constantly prevent an imminent hazard. Imagine the level of controlled fear when he frequently glances back at the bear standing right behind him as he talks to the camera. His eyes and mind are always on watch. Thus when the season is done, and the danger is gone, the adrenaline rush falls dramatically, and lets out of his chest this puerile ressentment towards people who didn't believe in him and underestimated his challenge.
Treadwell acts out in front of his own camera, speaks to the world for the record, and shares his frightening promiscuity with death, be it clumsy or misplaced. In another take he say it out loud, nobody has ever faced human predators this close and for so long. I believe he has the right to brag about it.

Treadwell is not an isolated case. Dian Fossey with gorillas, Sigfried & Roy with tigers, people living with wolves, people who mingle with sharks or alligators, snake charmers... Wild life is a fascinating attraction to humans and some want to cross the safety fences.
There was this freaky video on the net where a guy jumped into the lions compound at the zoo to tell them to accept Jesus as a savior. The guy was clearly deranged, so totally fearless, he didn't even back off when the claws hit his leg. He kept an authoritative voice and a finger pointing dominant posture, just like Treadwell with his teasing bears. This is probably what made the lion think twice before eating him up.
So Treadwell was onto something with his "kind warrior" theory. The mind confidence replaces the physical superiority in a territorial face-off. That's how the little mongoose defy the mighty cobra. As long as there is no provocation fierce animals prefer to avoid contact especially if the opponent shows no fear to intimidative postures. Maybe animals sense the intellectual ascendant of humans even though they are no match to their jaws. But it takes serious guts to believe in this theory with a bear growling in your face.

In the light of his personal history, I see this reportage as a setup for an exit with panache.
He fancies himself a public enemy, victim of an fantasized manhunt, pursued by friendly tourists who leave smiley faces on his campsite. I wonder what was the detterence of his presence among the grizzlies if he hid away as soon as people came in and threw stones at his bears. He did nothing to stop them just to preserve the mystery of his legend. Real people afraid him more than bears! The clash of titans sequence between two males competing for a female and the aftermath debriefed by Timmy full of empathy for the defeated bear is quite telling.
He refused the mediocre death of an everyday-man, or to be caught and condemned by the justice of humans. The frustrated actor who almost passed out on O.D., and watched in the eye the criminals sentenced to death at the courthouse had a repressed ego-trip that couldn't express itself and found the most tragic way to claim his need for fame and grandeur. It's most unusual for a biologist to share intimate love-life issues during a field study. Maybe he was afraid to leave life, and truly enjoyed this sympathetic indifference of animals, for the liberty civilisation didn't allow him.

I think Timothy Treadwell wanted to stage his own death, to pick his executioner, an adversary of his stature. When the Ripper came to take him he made sure the camera was recording, and we know he met his expected fate with honor and courage like he always lived in this inhospitable environment. Meanwhile the secret role of his last girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who was crazy enough to follow him to the heart of danger, gives a truly romantic, passionate ending to this tragedy, almost creating a universal myth bigger than fiction.

(s) +++ (w) ++ (m) +++ (i) +++ (c) ++


08 décembre 2005

Il vento del cinema

The Wind of Cinema
website (italian)
Seminary of philosophy thought out by cinema
June 2005 - Procida (Italy) near Stromboli

Seminary of Jam Sessions with
  • Filmmakers : Alexandre Sokourov, Manoel de Oliveira, Abel Ferrara, Dario Argento, Herz Frank, Yervant Gianikiann, Philippe Garrel, Vincent Dieutre, Angela Ricchi Lucchi, Enrico Ghezzi, Mario Franco, Francesco Alliata, Nello Correale, Dino Mele...
  • Philosophers: Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derida, Peter Sloterdijk, Emanuele Severino, Massimo Donà...

Last week on french radio was 5 broadcasts of 1h30 recounting the lectures and discussions. L’île du docteur Plateau, ou la philosophie pensée par le cinéma (available online, in french)

The highlight of this festival was the projection of a 30h long footage of the lectures of Gilles Deleuze recorded on video at the Vincennes University masterclasses during the 4 years when he conceived his theory of Cinema (The Time-Image, The Mouvement-Image) in the 70ies. Deleuze even had edited out 5h of these images into a "film", also restored for the occasion.

Films Projected :

  • Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968/Alain Resnais/France)
  • Terrore nello spazio / Terror in Space (1965/Mario Bava/Italy)
  • Les Enfants désaccordés (1964/Philippe Garrel/France)
  • Les Hautes solitudes (1974/Philippe Garrel/France)
  • La naissance de l’amour (1993/Philippe Garrel/France)
  • Silent Running (1972/Douglas Trumbull)
  • Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004/Mamoru Oshii/Japan)
  • Il mare / The Sea (1963/Giuseppe Patroni Griffi/Italy)
  • Armageddon (1998/Michael Bay/USA)
  • I ragazzi della Panaria (2004/Nello Correale/Italy)
  • Il monologo de «l’altro sguardo» (1996/Rossella Ragazzi/Italy)
  • Napoli e il cinema, storia e prospettive (2005/Mario Franco/Italy)
  • Out of the present (1995/Andrei Ujica/Germany)
  • Venerdì Santo (2005/Herz Frank/Italy-Lettonia)
  • Diagnosi (1975)
  • Dieci minuti più vecchio (1978/USSR)
  • The Last Judgement (1987)
  • Il Cantico dei Cantici (1989/USSR)
  • Centauro (1973/USSR)
  • La gioia di essere (1974/USSR)
  • Arte (1975/USSR)
  • Risveglio (1979/Herz Frank/USSR)
  • Platone e l’opera dei pupi (2005/Nello Correale/Italy)

I wish I was there to listen.