Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film
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The piece brought friendly correspondence from Sarah Weinman , editor of a new anthology from Penguin: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. She has assembled a fine collection, boasting pieces by Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. These stories will whet your appetite for the excellent novels written by these still under-appreciated authors.
The essay is based on the keynote talk that Larry gave at the Screenwriting Research Network conference here in Madison. From Doddle. Back in May, I provided an update on the progress of the digital conversion of motion-picture exhibition. I wish I could say the Great Big Digital Conversion was at last over and done with, but we know that we live in an age of ephemera, in which every technology is transitional.
The first involved higher frame rates. One rationale for going beyond the standard 24 fps was the prospect of greater brightness to compensate for the dimming resulting from 3D. Peter Jackson presented the first installment of his Hobbit film in 48 fps in some venues, and James Cameron claimed that Avatar 2 and its successor would utilize either 48 fps or 60 fps. And in January of this year some studio executives predicted that 48 fps would become standard.
Not soon, though. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will play in 48 fps on fewer than a thousand screens. Bryan Singer, who praised the process, has pulled back from handling the next X-Men movie at that frame rate. The problem is partly cost, with 48fps demanding more rendering and vast amounts of data storage. As far as I can tell, no one but Jackson and Cameron are planning big releases in the format. The other innovation I mentioned in Pandora was laser projection.
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It too will brighten the screen, and according to its proponents it will also lower costs. Manufacturers are racing to build the machines. How to justify the costs?
Theatres are equipped with satellite dishes, fiberoptic cable, and other hardware. The new practice will render the current system of shipping out hard drives obsolete, although the drives will probably continue for a time as backups. Sometimes things move in spirals, not straight lines.
Speaking of the Conversion, an earlier entry pointed out the creative strategy used by the Lyric Theatre in Faulkton, South Dakota to finance its digital changeover. Top prize was planned to be a set of three weapons: an AR rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol.
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This is not what I signed up for. I came into this for film. Spirals again. Who: The Day of the Doctor in 3D. It was shown on screens in seventy-five countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe , while also being broadcast on BBC TV both flat and stereoscopic. Netflix in particular is expanding its reach, growing its subscriber base, creating original series, and enhancing its stock value, despite some ups and downs.
The theatrical window was traditionally the first, followed by second-run theatrical, airline and hotel viewings, pay cable, and so on down the line. Now that households have fast web connections, streaming disrupts that tidy business model. Exhibitors howled. Sarandos quickly recanted , saying only that he wanted people to rethink the current intervals between theatrical and ancillary release. Some observers speculated that his October remarks were staking out an extreme position he intended to moderate in negotiations down the line—possibly to suggest that mid-budgeted pictures would be good ones to experiment with on day-and-date.
In the same session, Lucas predicted that brain implants would allow people to enjoy private movies, like dreams. In any event, windows are already shrinking. With about 40, screens in the US, films play off faster than ever before. Video piracy, which makes new pictures available well before legal DVD and VOD release, puts pressure on studios to shorten windows.
It seems likely that the windows and the intervals between them will shrink, perhaps allowing films to go to all video formats as quickly as days after the theatrical release ends. Studios have incentives to shorten the windows, if only because a single promotional campaign can be kept going long enough for both theatrical and home release. In addition, buying or renting a movie with a couple of clicks encourages impulse purchasing, and the cost feels invisible until the credit-card bill comes. Nonetheless, commitment to day-and-date home delivery would be risky for the studios.
Hollywood is more than ever before playing to the global audience. According to IHS Media and Technology Digest , theatrical ticket sales, purchase and rental of physical media DVD, Blu-ray add up to nearly 12 billion transactions, while Pay Per View, streaming, and downloads come to only about a billion or so. These categories omit subscription services like cable television and basic VOD on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the like. Thank you, Russia and China. And despite the decline of disc purchases and rentals, Loeffler estimates that physical media will still comprise about thirty per cent of worldwide movie transactions through to Theatrical releases continue to offer studios the best deal.
Because the prices of streaming and downloaded films are low, there is less to be gained from them. But consumers used to cheap movies on demand could balk at premium pricing. Add in Imax and 3D upcharges, and things are proceeding well for the moment. Like the rest of us, moguls pay their mortgages in dollars, not percentages or transactions.
As long as some hits keep coming, we should expect that studios will maintain an exclusive multiplex run for major releases, as the most currently reliable return on investment. Another note on exhibition relates to the last commercial picture palace in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. In fall of the building seemed slated for foreclosure, but then maybe not. Last month Gus Paras, a hero of my initial post, stepped forward and bought the old place. Plaster is crumbling off sections of the ceiling, the result of years of water damage from a leaky roof. The walls are littered with scratches and marks, in bad need of a paint job.
A plastic garbage can sits in the theater, collecting water leaking from an upstairs urinal. Paras even found dried-up vomit in two spots on the carpet. So what is it like to devote your lives and careers to creating images that you know exist only momentarily in their absolute best state, that may never be seen by most people the way you would like them to be seen?
All you can do is hope that people will see an approximation of that. That was beautiful. Well done! My envoi comes from a revealing conversation among cinematographers at The Hollywood Reporter. A catchup blog chronicling earlier phases of these developments is here. He deserves a big thank-you for all his work in making these extraordinary films available to us. Kristin and I also want to pay tribute to one of the biggest moving forces behind the event. Among other goals, film festivals aim to provide a safe space for nonconformist filmmaking. Programmers need to find the next new thing—art cinema is as driven by novelty as Hollywood is—and they encourage films that push boundaries.
Part of this is probably age and maturity; part of it reflects the fact that apart from daring novelties, festivals also showcase works that might cross over to wider audiences. Some sectors of the audience want to see the latest Hou or Kiarostami or Assayas. Koreeda Hirokazu was thirty-three when Mabarosi won a prize at Venice.
Once the action shifts to a seacoast village, distant shots render slowly-changing illumination playing over landscapes, while the tension between husband and wife is built out of small gestures. For example, we learn that the forlorn wife is waiting in the bus stop only when a little bit of her comes to light.
Lest this seem just fancy playing around, Koreeda occasionally used his long takes to build suspense. The second husband returns unexpectedly, and drunkenly collapses on the table beside her.
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But when she lifts her hands out of her lap, she inadvertently lets the bell tinkle a little. Eventually he will shift woozily to the other side of the table and notice what has been sitting quietly in the frame all along: the still-open drawer on the far right. The images have become less demanding, and more extroverted narrative lines carry stronger sentiment. That commitment is firmly in place in Like Father, Like Son. Koreeda, now fifty-one, dares almost nothing stylistically or narratively.
Yet every scene leaves a discernible tang of emotion, and his light touch assures that things never lapse into histrionics. The plot has a fairy-tale premise: Babies switched at birth. Our viewpoint is aligned with the well-to-do parents and particularly the ambitious executive Ryota. In exchange, Ryota and his wife take in the boy that Saikis have raised as their own.
Koreeda is faultless in measuring the reactions of all involved. Saiki is an affable father with a childish streak, but he also looks forward to suing the hospital. As in a Renoir film, everyone has his reasons, and the drama depends on a process of adjustment stretching across many months. Climaxes become muted, though no less powerful for that. A smile and a tear: the Shochiku studio formula, enunciated by Kido Shiro back in the s, remains in force here.
Steven Spielberg, jury president, has acquired remake rights for DreamWorks. His documentaries, like the remarkable In Public, were somewhat different. Jia proceeded to breach the boundary between documentary and fiction in Still Life , Useless , and 24 City We start with a villager who fumes at the corruption in his town and carries out a vendetta against its rulers. Another story centers on a receptionist who is taken for a prostitute and abused by massage-parlor customers. A third protagonist is an uneducated young man floating among factory jobs who turns his frustration inward.
Threading through these is a drifter who shoots muggers from his motorcycle and later takes up purse-snatching. The sense of inequity and exploitation that ripples through Still Life and 24 City now explodes into rage. Rich men one played by Jia puff cigars while strutting through a brothel, businessmen casually exploit their mistresses and buy off politicians, and injustices are settled with fists, knives, pistols and shotguns. Like Koreeda, Jia has had recourse to some of the casual long-lens coverage we find in many contemporary movies, but certain shots gather weight through his signature long takes—especially shots holding on brooding characters.
In all, we get a dread-filled panorama, with bursts of violence staged and filmed with an impact that reminds you how sanitized contemporary action scenes are. His work with Wai Ka-fai at their Milkyway company has always alternated unforgiving crime films of rarefied tenor with sweet and wacko romantic comedies that assure solid returns. But seldom have they combined the two tendencies into something as screechingly peculiar as The Blind Detective. But since Johnston is blind, somebody else must tumble down stairs, get whacked on the head, and generally suffer severe pain in the name of the law.
Johnston and Ho are trying to find what happened to a schoolgirl who went missing ten years before. But this account makes the movie seem more linear than it is. So the search for Minnie is constantly deflected. This episodic plot, or rather two plots, stretched to minutes making this the longest Milkyway release, I believe , yields something like a Hong Kong comedy of the s, where slapstick, gore, and non-sequitur scenes are stitched together by the flimsiest of pretexts. The tone careens from farce not often very funny to Westerners to grim salaciousness.
Characters are ever on the verge of exploding in anger or aggression, and between the big scenes Ho and Johnston dance tangos and gnaw their way through steaks, fish, and other delicacies. Once more, the congenitally fabulous Andy Lau Tak-wah is accompanied by Sammi Cheng as his love interest, and the two ham it up as gleefully as in Love on a Diet They were more subdued in my favorite of the cycle, Needing You… , This is, in short, a real Hong Kong popular movie.
If it keeps Milkyway in business, how can I object? Kristin found the Greenaway episode—sort of his version of Russian Ark , taking the camera through the labyrinth of a ducal palace and showing off elaborate digital effects—fairly appealing. At one level, The Three Disasters reverts to his characteristic collage of found footage, film stills, scrawled overwriting, and insistent voice-over. The montage is sometimes over-explicit, as when Charlie Chaplin is juxtaposed with Hitler.
But this is the Godard of Histoire s du cinema , piling up impressions that beg for acolytes to identify the images and find associations among them. But in 3D his dispersive poetic musings take on a new vitality. Instead he superimposes them, making one cloudy plane drift over another. He can also, more forcefully, present his signature numerals and intertitles in a new way—by having them pound out of the screen and hang rigidly in front of the image. There are also some 3D shots made specifically for the film, most consisting of handheld shots that shift around a park, a medical complex, and, of course, a media studio.
As usual, Godard has fun with simple equipment. By shooting them in a mirror and shifting focus, he manages to make each lens pop and recede disconcertingly, as if Escher had gone 3D. This shot alone should inspire DIY filmmakers everywhere. So too should the one-slate credits. Trailer here. Brian Clark has an informative review of The Three Disasters at twitchfilm.
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In nineteenth-century Portugal, the elderly Gebo ekes out a living as a company accountant. For decades Manoel de Oliveira has explored avenues of theatrical adaptation that have led us to some daring destinations. On stage, we can imagine the table at the center and the major characters assembling around it but leaving one side clear, facing the audience—in effect, accepting the convention of the invisible fourth wall that gives us access to the space.
As the still above suggests, it seems initially that Oliveira is playing up this convention, putting us into the stage space and setting the fourth wall behind us.
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For the most part, the first stretch of conversations and soliloquys among Gebo, Doroteia, and Sofia are played out in this planimetric, clothesline layout. As often happens, the start of a film sets up an internal norm; it teaches us how to watch it. This movie starts with a lesson in optical geometry. As the shot develops, we can see Doroteia lighting a lamp and reflected in the window against the distant doorway.
This film about a shadow starts with an image of a spectre. Constructive editing often relies on a glance offscreen, so here he can play with minute differences of eye direction. Occasionally the actors look directly out at us. But when the table is halved, as above, the eyelines get very oblique, with opposite characters looking in the same direction. In the third act, the frontal and planimetric grouping around the table returns.
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His version leaves the family suspended in a freeze-frame, haunted by the ghostly son who has betrayed their trust. Perhaps more than the other films in this entry, Jebo and the Shadow shows why we need film festivals. For twenty-six years Alan has led the process of making the festival one of the best in North America. He has helped give it a unique identity as home to Canadian cinema, documentaries on the arts and the environment, and outstanding current Asian cinema.
For Kristin and me, he has been a wonderful friend and good-humored company. Fortunately for the festival, he will remain as a programmer. He deserves our lasting thanks. Shot in wintry Jinhai, a northern port city, and in the central city of Erzhou, it presents stretches of industrial wasteland and bleak superhighways. Drug War , though, gives us no glimpse of the cops off-duty. The result presents our officers as strictly business: no wives, kids, or civilian pals distract them from their mission.
True, there are brief moments of comradeship, as when Yang offers money to help the cops from Erzhou, and her colleagues chip in. Yet the result humanizes the crooks more than the cops. It may be that To, Wai, and their screenwriting team were cautious about integrating personal lives into their plot. And of course in the emphasis on selfless officers sacrificing their personal lives sends a positive ideological message. Beneath its drab, almost generic surface and its apparently prosaic account of police procedure, Drug War offers a typically engrossing, off-center Milkyway experience.
After a prologue in which a vomiting Timmy Choi Tin-ming crashes his car into a restaurant, we see several lines of action converging at a highway tollbooth. A truck driven by two drug-addled men pulls through, followed by two more men in a muddy red sedan. Soon an overheating bus pulls up. The mules are taken to a hospital—the second convergence point—and there Captain Zhang notices that Timmy, borne by on a gurney, has burns typical of a drug explosion. Its mysterious call queue launches their investigation.
The tollbooth confrontation, it turns out, is a sting operation by which Zhang can nab the traffickers he has infiltrated. His lab has exploded, killing his wife and her brothers. He escaped but suffered the burns and nausea we saw at the outset. To escape the death penalty Timmy offers to turn snitch. There is the laughing Jinhai smuggler HaHa and his wife, who are trying to become drug distributors by means of the port they control. Timmy, who knows them all, is positioned as go-between.
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Through it all, the question persists: Can Zhang trust Timmy to stay bought? The meetings are timed so that Zhang can impersonate Li in the first meeting and then play HaHa in the second. His source is another of his factories, this one staffed by a family of deaf-mutes a typically perverse Milkyway genre tweak. This section culminates in two intercut police raids: one, a painless seizure of HaHa and his wife, the other a bloody shootout in the factory.
Now we learn that the gang has its own technology. Hidden microphones and wireless recorders allow gang members to listen to conversations. In their final rendezvous at a nightclub, Zhang discovers the ruse and uses it as an excuse to finalize the deal. But when the Hong Kongers demand a night out just for themselves, Captain Zhang must let Timmy go off with them and trust him to deliver them to him the next day. Timmy betrays everyone. At the climax all the forces in play converge once more, this time outside a primary school. Cars bearing police surround the vehicles carrying the gang.
Even the truckers are summoned by Timmy, and eventually the deaf-mutes show up too. While cops and crooks blast each other, Timmy slips into a school bus to hide from the barrage. The gang is cut down, but so too are the police, including Yang. Even our protagonist Zhang is fatally wounded. Hong Kong aficionados will find here echoes of the pitiless climax of another Milkyway policier I probably should not specify.
He fails. Within this broad movement toward giving Timmy his punishment, at horrendous cost to the forces of law, To and Wai have built fine-grained scenes that swerve the conventions of cop movies in typical Milkway directions. During the first section, Zhang goes undercover, pretending to be a gang member. Once more a Milkyway film finds tricky drama in symmetry and doubling. The first impersonation goes more easily, but it gets a healthy dose of suspense. Zhang plays Li Suchang as a cold, impassive negotiator. He barely speaks in response to HaHa, who lives up to his name by supplying a stream of chatter and guffaws.
His intervention reinforces our sense, in this stretch of the film, that he is cooperating smoothly with the police sting. The second encounter ratchets up the tension. But Li insists, so the policeman must snort a line. This induces a good deal of uneasiness, which is upped when Li insists he take another hit.
When Li demands that he snort a third line, Timmy again intervenes and asks that they proceed with the deal. Li relents and they make an appointment with Uncle Bill. After Li Suchang leaves, there follows a chilling scene in which Zhang goes into drug shock, collapsing to the floor and twitching frantically. Timmy explains what the other cops must do to save him, and by following his commands they revive Zhang.
Five gunmen must unite to keep a triad boss alive. Two killers battle for supremacy in this comic-book montage of film tributes and pulp-novel conceits that makes Tarantino look like Bresson. Skip to main content. Read full description. Exiled, June Past Films. Mad Detective Friday, June 27 pm. Exiled Saturday, June 21 pm.
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