Friday, March 19, 2004

Notes on movies seen in Taiwan in December

Like a lot of what I write for this blog, my travel journals from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan from December 2003 were never completed. I figured I might as well tack on some quick notes on some of the films I caught in Taiwan while the iron's still kinda warm.

As luck would have it, the complete Ozu series came to Taiwan with much help from Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose movie house/noodle joint The Spot is probably my favorite place in Taipei. I was able to catch three films in the series. An Inn in Tokyo (1935) is my first Ozu silent. Ozu's style of quiet devastation hasn't been fully formed yet, so's this well-acted neo-realist melodrama never reached the level of the sublime, like the later Ozus. On a lark, I also caught Tokyo Twilight (1957), a late Ozu with almost no rep to speak of. Allegedly overly dark and melodramatic, I found the Sirkian story compelling from beginning to end. And of course Setsuko Hara is a goddess.

Lastly, there was Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds (1955), which my slothful pal Sally made me miss when it played in LA. This time, playing as part of the Ozu (and associates) retrospective, it was sold out. As I rued my bad luck a kind usher snuck me into the theater so I got my chance to watch this near-masterpiece sitting on the floor. Phillip Lopate wrote the definitive Naruse piece, to which I don't have much to add except that his films feel like Japanese versions of Fassbinder melodramas as directed by Rohmer. Utterly unsentimental and materialist, this sad tale about a lilly-livered, selfish man indifferent to his headstrong but emotionally dependent mistress leaves the viewer no room for catharsis.

The other movie I saw was the godawful Purple Butterfly (Lou) C. In Toronto, some of my movie pals warned me of this Zhang Ziyi spy picture of utter vapidity. My response? Continue to proclaim it a masterpiece even as I did my best to avoid actually watching it. My obnoxious shtick was only half-serious, but hey, here's a lavishly mounted spy movie set in decadent 30s Shanghai. How can it go wrong? Nearly everything, as it turned out. (Sorry for doubting, buds.) Purple Butterfly is the flipside to another Chinese debacle, the wildly overrated Platform (2000). That interminable film consisted entirely of ugly Chinamen standing around while framed in carefully composed mastershots (full of rectangular frame-within-frames for that cineaste-approved "rigor"). Purple Butterfly consists entirely of tight close-ups of pretty Asians brooding impassively. It's more fun to look at, I suppose, but ultimately the formal rigor felt just as empty and impenetrable as Platform's. Lou's fatal error is to ask Zhang, a limited actress, to convey 15 different emotions with her face; she's able to do about three (determination, anxiety, sadness). So there's no emotional throughline to carry this otherwise trite double agent tale. Maybe the "exotic" setting and period carries some weight, but as someone who grew up watching anti-Japanese soap operas set in 20s/30s Shanghai, this was barely passable as TV dreck.

I should've known not to expect too much. This was, after all, made by the same guy who brought us "Vertigo as made by Wong Kar-wai". And if anything ever sounded awesome on paper, it was that one.