Friday, January 14, 2005

Chungking Express

Chungking Experess is a film by director Wong Kar-Wai, one of my personal favorite directors. Wong Kar-Wai is an auteur, and like David Lynch or Tim Burton, all of his films takes place in a similar universe, and touch on similar themes. With a WKW movie, it's not so much the story that's important, it's the characters and visual style. Almost all his movies have the same basic plot, lonely people yearning for love, but it's done in different ways.

Chungking Express was the first film I saw by Wong Kar-Wai, and while it is a lot like his other stuff, it's also something of an anomaly, in that it's by far the most upbeat of his films. The characters may be unhappy at times, but there's a sense of optimism throughout the film, accented perfectly by the music throughout.

The film has two parts. The first one is good, but it's a bit less engaging than what comes later. The best part about the first part is the shooting style. The fabled "Chungking shot" is used brilliantly, and it adds a great sense of atmosphere to things. I love the blonde woman and He Qiwu's meeting in the bar, and the scene with the pager at the end. However, after you watch the film, that's not what sticks with you, it's the second half where the true greatness lies.

The second half is about the interaction between Faye and Officer 633, a customer at the fast food stand where she works. There are two reasons that this sequence is so great. First is Faye Wong, who's amazing. There are certain people who might not even be great actors, but when they're on screen, they're just magnetic and you can't help but love the character. Spike from Buffy is a great example of this, as is Samuel L. Jackson in most of his roles, and even Mary-Louise Parker in Angels in America, and Faye is definitely one of these people. She's got such an infectious energy and optimism, almost single handedly she makes this sequence unique among Wong Kar-Wai's stuff. If you compare her to the female agent from Fallen Angels, they're in basically the same situation, but she handles things very differently. She sees the glass as half full.

Faye is complimented by great use of music. Some say that 'California Dreamin' is used too much in this movie, but I never get sick of it, and it says so much about Faye's state of mind. I love her dance with the ketchup and tongs to the song. It shows how she brings this joy to where she works. I also like the fact that the characters within the movie hear the song too, and it's used as a plot point. The other great musical moment is the montage to the Chinese version of 'Dreams,' where Faye hangs out in 633's house. It's just so full of life and joy, fitting the character and the movie.

Tony Leung is something of the straight man to Faye, but he gets some good material. I like the talking to inanimate objects in his house, notably the towel. I also love when he says, "I'm becoming more perceptive," despite not noticing all of the many changes that Faye has made to his house.

WKW does some of his best stylistic stuff here. I don't think it's as strong visually as Fallen Angels is, but some shots are just gorgeous, notably the two still people/fast motion around them shots, first with Faye looking at Tony, and second with Tony at the jukebox in the California restaurant. I also love the scene where Faye puts the fan on her face, self consciously trying to make herself look cooler.

I love the ending of the movie, it's the most unashamedly upbeat ending of any WKW film. Fallen Angels and Happy Together both have sort of reluctant happy endings, but this one is just completely upbeat.

Faye: "Where do you want to go"
Tony: "Wherever you want to take me."

And then 'Dreams' hits, it's great, and such a perfect ending. WKW knows how to end a movie, as evidenced by the brilliant closing shot of Fallen Angels, which rivals this. Is this his best movie? I'm not sure, Faye is definitely the best character, but Fallen Angels has a lot of great stuff too. Regardless, they're complimentary pieces and both equally great. See them.

Related Posts
Fallen Angels (12/10/2004)
Days of Being Wild (In Depth) (4/28/2005)
Wong Kar-Wai Day (8/3/2005)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Angels in America

Over the past couple of days, I watched the HBO miniseries Angels in America. It's a six hour thing, that aired earlier this year. The first notable thing about this is the cast, which includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and one of my favorite actresses, Mary-Louise Parker. Also, it's directed by Mike Nichols, who directed the recent film, Closer, and way back in 1966, he directed The Graduate. The man is 73 years old, and he directed a six hour miniseries and a two hour film in the same year, both of which are very much in touch with how young people today behave. They're both based on plays, so he probably didn't have a huge role in setting the story direction, but the fact is, he gets how people interact, and it feels natural. He's still in touch with what's happening with people today, unlike directors like Woody Allen or Martin Scorcese, who no longer attempt to do movies set in the present.

I really liked Closer, but it felt very theatrical, particularly at the beginning. There were a couple of scenes that were filmed in an interesting way, notably the beginning, and the scene with Alice and Larry in the private room, but it was really an actor's showcase. I thought the acting in the movie was phenomenal and it was a strong story, but it didn't feel very filmic.

However, with Angels in America, Nichols makes a very visual film that surpasses Closer, and is just a really impressive piece of filmmaking. The movie's about a bunch of people in 1985, and the way that AIDS affects their lives.

The most interesting character for me was Harper. She's the wife of a closested homosexual Mormon, and spends all her days alone at home taking pills. As a result of the pills, she has these bizarre hallucinations, accompanied by a "travel agent," a mysterious character who turns up to talk with her. She was a semi-crazy character, but she was always played as the sane one. We're present during her hallucinations, so her view of the world, and her frustrations are more relevant to us than Joe's remoteness. I love the sequence in Antarctica, which looks great, and says a lot about her character's state of mind.

Throughout the whole film, I love the mixture of supernatural elements with the mundane. We're never quite sure where the character's hallucinations end and the reaity of the world begin. In the beginning of the movie we see Pryor and Harper wander into each other's hallucinations, which is the first hint that there's some kind of actual supernatural activity going on in the world of the story. Later, when Pryor and Hannah both see the angel, we get the idea that there really is a higher purpose at work behind the scenes of the story. I like the fact that despite the presence of fantasy elements, the story remains emotionally real. Very few works are able to, or even attempt to balance reality and fantasy in the way that this one does. The angel is used symbolically, but without being so obviously symbolic as to make it ridiculous. There's both the literal level and the metaphorical level.

The miniseries reminded me of Preacher in a number of ways, most notably in the fact that the thing that throws everything into action is the fact that God has left heaven. When Pryor speaks before the angels at the end of the movie, and says that if God comes back, they should sue him, it's the equivalent of the saint of killers shooting God at the end of Preacher. Also, the idea that Pryor is imbued with this power, and has a mission to save humanity ties in with what happens in Preacher. Both series have essentially the same theme, which is, you can't rely on God to save you, you have to out and take control of your own life. This is notable in the characters of Hannah and Lewis. Lewis first abandons Pryor, but realizes, it's his duty to stand by him during his illness. For Hannah, it's the fact that morally, she's obligated to save Pryor, even if she disapproves of his lifestyle. Preacher has the same idea, that you must live by your own moral code, and alwyas uphold that.

I really liked the way that the story of Hannah and Pryor came together at the end, and the parallels between the two of them. Their dynamic was really interesting, and I like the theme the movie presents there, the idea that where normally people see only stereotypes, if you look a little deeper, you can find connections. Both Pryor and Hannah would in theory hate each other, but when they actually meet and talk, they realize they have a lot in common, and a lot to learn from each other. This is a counterpoint to Louis, who, even though he clearly has a connection with Joe, is unable to come to terms with the fact that he's dating a Republican and a Mormon. He sees people in terms of labels, rather than seeing the people as they actually are.

It's interesting that Louis is consistently presented as at least an annoying, if not outright dislikable character. He has a lot of liberal guilt, and an inability to see past his principles, to see the people themselves rather than the stereotype he has in his head. That's ultimately his failure, when he sees the disease in Pryor, rather than Pryor himself.

This series brought to mind my favorite TV series of all time, Twin Peaks, a number of times. The obvious way was in the interaction between quasi-mystical figures and ordinary people. The use of the angel and the travel agent recalls the Man from Another Place and the Giant. Also, the angel herself brought to mind the end of Fire Walk With Me. I don't think they pull off the use of the archetypal angel image as well as Lynch did there, but it works well. I love the black angel at the end of the movie.

Are there flaws in the movie? Yeah, I'd say that Roy Cohn isn't really necessary to the plot, and his story doesn't tie in that much with everything else that happens. I suppose thematically there's connections, but so much time is spent with him, and it just sort of ends on its own, when you expect to connect a bit more with the main story. I suppose the medicine is crucial, but was that worth the creation of an entire plot? Everything else seemed so tightly knit, I guess that made the Roy Cohn stuff seem unconnected in comparison. Also, I get that it's a movie about AIDS and the gay community, but it was a bit odd that every single character, with the exception of Harper was gay. There were a lot of hints that Hannah was a lesbian, and I'm glad that wasn't explored. I suppose that also might be connected to the fact that I wanted Harper to get a happy ending, and there was no one there for her to love.

But, I did love Harper's last speech, about the souls rising and filling the hole in the ozone layer. I also liked the way she delivered it directly to the camera. Also, the 1990 coda was really well done, and gave you a sense of hope after all the bad stuff that happened during the movie. There was such a sense of friendship and love, it showed that all the bad stuff really was worth it.

So, a great production, amazing acting, especially from Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk, top notch effects and direction. I think the best testament might be that unlike almost all other TV miniseries, nothing here seemed like filler, and if I could have, I'd have watched the six hours straight through. It was compulsively watchable, and I just kept wanting to go on.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

In the Mood for Deleted Scenes: The Coda to Wong Kar-Wai's 60s trilogy

Continuing the journey into blog obscurity, I'm going to take a look at the deleted scenes from a film that very few people saw, in relation to a film that hasn't even been released here in the States. However, it's a great film, and the deleted scens add a lot to the universe of the story, the 60s Wong Kar-Wai verse.

In the Mood For Love is all about the unrequited love between Chow and Su Li-Zhen. They are neighbors, each married, and their spouses are having an affair. This puts them in an awkward position. Clearly, both of their marriages lack passion, with everyone consumed in work and alienated from each other. Chow and Su Li-Zhen grow closer together, as they try to first solve the mystery of whether an affair is going on, and then acting out how they think the affair came about. In the second half of the film, they're brought together writing a martial arts serial, at Chow's secret apartment, apartment 2046. The thing I like about this section of the film is the ambiguity. We're not sure exactly what's up with the two of them, except for the fact that they're clearly in love, and belong with each other, except that neither of them can pull the trigger, which leads to the ending, where Chow goes off to Singapore, having missed SLZ's calls to him, saying that she'd like to go with him. Three years later, Chow is in Cambodia, speaking his secrets into a hole, unable to reconnect with SLZ.

For all I knew, the next chunk of their tale was in the film 2046. Here, we follow Chow, who is living an extreme bachelor lifestyle, a reaction to the opportunities he missed with SLZ. Chow has put SLZ on a pedestal, and can't see past her. He becomes involved with a number of women, but can't allow himself to love them. At the end of the film, we're led to believe that he'll continue on this path for the rest of his life, doomed to a life of unhappiness because he had the chance for love in the past and missed it. He'll forever be trying to get to 2046, where you can find lost memories, and nothing ever changes.

However, that was not the end of the story. I was going through the In the Mood for Love DVD bonus features and found some deleted scenes. Now, WKW shoots a ton of stuff for each of his films, so I was expecting some pretty crazy stuff in the deleted scenes section. What I was not expecting was a coda for the whole story, but that's what I got, about 15 minutes of footage that answers almost all the questions you have left after 2046. Now, is the footage canon in the world of the story? I'm not sure, but I feel like it fits in with what came before, and thematically it's right there with 2046.

The first deleted scene is "Postcards." In this scene, we hear a radio broadcast, in which Chow sends birthday greetings to SLZ. Later, SLZ gets tickets to Singapore from her boss, and goes there. While there, she seeks out Chow, but ends up having dinner with Ah Ping. It's pretty clear that she is still in love with him, and if he was there, she probably would have finally said how she felt, it's just he wasn't, so another moment passes.

The second scene, chronologically is "A Lost Encounter," which occurs directly before what is now the end of In the Mood For Love. While in Cambodia, Chow runs into SLZ, and asks her if she called him before he left for Singapore, which she did. She says she can't remember. Here, we see Chow reaching out to her, but she rejects him, and it probably leads to the lifestyle we see him leading in 2046.

The 70s is my favorite of the deleted scenes, and is a coda for both films. At the beginning, we see a woman looking to rent SLZ's apartment. SLZ has stayed alone in Hong Kong, while her husband and son have gone abroad. She'll stay there until she sells the house. When the woman leaves, we find out that the house has already been sold, but SLZ is staying there anyway. Then, we find out that the woman is actually Chow's current girlfriend, and she wants him to go to the apartment and confront SLZ, because she thinks that he is still obsessed with her. Lulu, the woman here, is the same as Bai Ling in 2046, someone who loves Chow, but he still can't commit to her. She is trying to make him confront the past, but he can't do it. He's too scared. However, eventually we end up back at the noodle bar, where SLZ and Chow first met. She sees him emerge from the smoke, and they stare at each other, but we never hear what they say to each other. The scene cuts, and we find out that SLZ is ready to move on now. She tells her husband she's coming to join him, however, she's clearly profoundly sad.

What happened when they met in the noodle bar? I'd imagine they both desperately wanted to say everything they felt, but ended up just making small talk, or possibly not even talking at all, and just staring at each other. It's clearly not something good, SLZ did not get closure, so much as give up her dream. It clearly still haunts her, and she is far from happy. Tony will continue in the same pattern until he's too old to get girls anymore, at which point, he'll spend the rest of his life alone. Bit of a downer ending, that.

I love these scenes because the one thing I felt 2046 was missing was Maggie Cheung. She's glimpsed, but I needed just a little bit more, and this gave me that, though I still desperately want to see the Maggie Cheung robot scene, which will hopefully turn up on a Criterion release of 2046. I'd love to get another coda, from the 2046 deleted scenes.

Another thing to love about the scenes is we get a glimpse of a new time period, the 70s. I love the look of Mood, but it's something WKW has covered a lot, so it's really cool to see the 70s, as seen by WKW. Tony Leung has some awesome glasses, and Maggie Cheung looks really cool, with an awesome coat. When you see them together, separated by the steam, it's beautiful. I'd love to have seen more 70s stuff, it feels much more now than the 60s stuff, which seemed very removed from today, style wise. Emotionally, it's all timeless stuff.

The other scenes tell you a lot as well. It's painful to watch these two people destroy themselves because they can't tell the truth, but their awkward attempts to broach the subject are all too real.

So, in an ideal world, you'd watch Days of Being Wild, then In the Mood for Love, the n 2046, then the In the Mood For Love deleted scenes, and hopefully one day, the 2046 deleted scenes.

Extra note, there's a deleted scene in which Chow and SLZ meet in 2046 and have sex. I think it was a wise choice not to show this in the film, because that wasn't what their relationship was about there. But, in the context of the whole tale, it makes a lot of sense. It would be logical that they get close enough to let their guard down, at least once, which makes all the more painful when they can't connect later. As Chow says at the end of 2046, in love, timing is everything, and they missed their time, so both of them are going to spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to the place they once were, trying to get back to 2046.

Related Posts
2046 (1/4/2005)
2046 Screening with Wong Kar-Wai (6/16/2005)
Wong Kar-Wai Day (8/3/2005)