27 June, 2010

Interview: Ang Lee

Angry love

Ang Lee, who was nominated for European Film Awards Screen International Award For a Non-European Film for Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)(2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) here talks with James Drew about pushing emotional boundaries for art in his challenging Se, jie (Lust, Caution) (2007), which courted controversy with its graphic depiction of a forbidden affair in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The battle-lines are clearly drawn in World War II Japanese-occupied Shanghai – and young Chinese woman Wong Chia Chi (a startling performance from Wei Tang) is still undercover behind them. Her involvement with a group of drama-society students some years previously has led to her involvement in an ambitious plan to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whose trust she has gained by posing as Mrs Mak, befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then drawing him into an affair.

But the emotional transformation that Wong has had to undergo is set to bring terrible consequences...

Taiwanese director Ang Lee, 53, is no stranger to depicting the chains forged by emotion – his previous film, Brokeback Mountain (2005), had won him an Academy Award for Best Director, with its portrayal of two 1960s cowboys, torn by their love for each other that dared not speak its name.

Here, Lee once again took a short story as his inspiration – author Eileen Chang speaks of the man/woman relationship in her story as being about 'the occupier and the occupied' and 'hunter and prey' and this forms the thrust of Lee’s perspective: “I thought the short story was written like a movie, like a detective movie, and I think we’re relatively loyal to her writing.”

As far as the sex scenes were concerned, angry, confrontational congress that takes no prisoners, Lee had his vision clearly defined: “They were really why I wanted to film the story – what wong Chia Chi chooses to do for pariotism, the idea aroused my curiosity, stirred up my demons, if you like.”

But what did the director find the hardest to handle emotionally, the sex or the politics ? “The actual shooting of the sex was very difficult for me, psychologically – the shyness comes in trying to verbalise what I wanted to shoot, particularly when it deals with really deep, disturbed emotion, as is the case in this film.”

After the 12 days that it took to film the sex scenes (“twelve and a half”, Lee interjects), weren’t the actors emotionally drained? “I don’t know about the actors, but I’m talking about me, and yes, definitely,” he chuckles. “At a human level, it was very hard to withstand – I really don’t know where the actors went to find what they did, but it was my responsibility to ensure that there was no emotional damage. There are other directors who might be OK with it, take it easy, but I can’t.”

Lee has quickly established himself as one of the world’s best directors – his back-catalogue includes The Ice Storm (1997), but it was his Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000) that is still considered as one of his greatest works, a sprawling period film and martial-arts epic that, not unlike Lust, Caution deals with love, loyalty and loss.

Lee seems attracted to self-destructive characters trying to escape the confines of a given society or mental state, be it latent homosexuals in Brokeback Mountain or even an obsessive scientist in Hulk (2003). Why?

“I think for my next film, I’m going to try and break away from that pattern, but, yes, I’ve been using that since my first movie. I believe it reflects my own life – I’m a Libra, so always looking for what I think is absolutely the right thing to do, or maybe it’s because I’m a scared fellow. I have a tendency to want to please and confirm people, but maybe I have a tendency inside to go against that…I don’t know.

“Setting up obstacles is a good way to examine, cinematically, how characters overcome obstacles, and you see some truth of humanity – maybe that’s just the way that I want to do it. I wish that I had a better way to do it – I’ll keep searching.”

We have no doubt that he will - Ang is currently hard at work on bringing Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize winner Life of Pi to the screen, which is due for release in 2011.

Originally published in Together Magazine.

20 June, 2010

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Damn hot!

Billy Wilder was honoured with the EFA Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1992 - here then, an appreciation of what is perhaps his finest work.

A critic knows a masterpiece when it drives him or her to distraction in shovelling out a new angle with each new appraisal. With an auteur like Billy Wilder at the helm, one’s pencil is going to be bitten and licked to the quick.

The hook for the studio here was, firstly, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two rising young male leads, and also Marilyn Monroe to add jiggle factor and to offset the cross-dressing that, although it may be central to the plotting of this rambunctious black farce, might have resulted in it not playing too well in Peoria. Wilder, ever the master, and with his trusted sidekick I.A.L Diamond, is one jump ahead, with a screenplay to elevate an otherwise one-ply plot – two loser jazz musicians unwittingly witness the St Valentine’s Day massacre and flee in drag to Miami to escape mob retribution where they fetch up with an all-girl jazz-band, dominated by singing uke-player Sugar Kane (Monroe), where the Mafiosi are foiled and true love blooms.

That it should between Curtis and Monroe is a given; but in a peculiarly Jewish fatal twist, that Lemmon is left with ultra-camp millionaire Joe E Brown is less predictable. But then again, the dialogue is so full of electricity that this hardly matters. The film’s last exchange, where Lemmon rips off his wig and yells at Brown’s vacant visage, "I’m a man!", to which Brown responds "Well, nobody’s perfect!" is a perfect summation. Ditto Monroe as Sugar, husking "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." And Curtis’s anachronistic assumption of Cary Grant’s vocal mannerisms to seduce Sugar, to which Lemmon expostulates: "Nobody talks like that!" And Lemmon, in drag, as Monroe makes her entrance: "Look how she moves! It’s like Jello on springs! I’m telling you, it’s a whole different sex."

The characterization and casting is also to die for; Monroe was never more beguiling, Lemmon was the twitchy neurotic, Curtis all laid-back street sensuality. Let’s look at it another way – place Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the leads, and shudder.

Wilder’s gifts as a natural cineaste are paraded with pride; the watchmakerly timing of the chases’ tension, the sometimes startling and contrasting immediacy of the brutal machine-gunning (Peckinpah without the ketchup), the lingering interpolations of the approaching consummation of Monroe’s and Curtis’s first kiss (which, given Curtis’s judgement of Marilyn as a kisser, must have been a thankless chore). The classic scene of Sugar leading a charmingly innocent and low-key Runnin’ Wild on the train as her bandmates join in, is executed with precision and real swing. Wilder even manages to elicit fine performances from a good actor (Lemmon) and a bad one (Curtis) playing to type and imbuing them from a narcoleptic tool-through.

This – unbelievably by today’s standards – was a mass-market movie, a multiplex multi-million-dollar baby. Reading between the lines, what else could it have been? The year (1959) was the age of the jet, the railroad streamliners with their club cars and observation coaches, of multi-fin gas-guzzlers, of holidays in licentious Florida, of the swellness of the US. The Roaring 20s are seen as something akin. The Miami interiors are sumptuous, often dazzling, as though made of fondant icing. Digs at the hypocrisy of Prohibition apart, there is no anti-US subversion here. Elia Kazan this ain’t.

That this movie raked it in at the box-office is testified by the publicity for Wilder’s 1960 classic, The Apartment, where he is credited as Billy ‘Some Like It Hot’ Wilder. There, Wilder and Diamond disparage US conformism and plasticity in an age of supposed consumer choice, and here they seem to suggest that the real golden age – guns and all – had gone forever.

This is as glorious and ravishing a monument to classic Hollywood as the cake that the mob machine-gunners emerge from in one of the movie’s climactic shoot-outs. And it’s guffaw-a-minute stuff.

As Brown says, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. But here, Wilder, as a director, comes pretty damn close.

Awards: Click here for details.

Paul Stump
120 mins.

13 June, 2010

The Pianist (2002)

Playing for his life

Nominated for European Film, European Director (Roman Polanski), Audience Award European Actor (Adrien Brody), and winner of European Cinematographer (Pawel Edelman), European Film Awards 2002.

One that I have been meaning to do for some time - without doubt, one of the finest films ever made about the Holocaust, and one that, unlike the also truly excellent Schindler's List (1993), manages to convey the unique horrors of those anti-human times in a way that is peculiarly intimate and personal.

Based in no small part on director Roman Polanski's own experiences as a Polish Jew during World War II, The Pianist (2002) tells the story of virtuoso musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who, while not oblivious to the ever-decreasing circles of Nazi tyranny that are overwhelming Warsaw, nevertheless finds solace and escape from the increasing horrors of daily life in the Jewish ghetto via his music, as he is still very much in demand as a pianist in 'polite' Nazi society.

But, when the time comes for Szpilman and his mother (Maureen Lipman), father (Frank Finlay) brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and sister Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) to be herded onto the cattle trains and sent away to their deaths, Szpilman manages to escape. From then on, his life becomes dependent on his own wits, his ability to survive for long periods without food, and the kindness of strangers - in particular, one Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), of the SS...

Wladyslaw Szpilman: It's a funny time to say this, but...
[trailing off]
Halina: What?
Wladyslaw Szpilman: I wish I knew you better.

Spielberg's Schindler's List allowed for the director's customary use of awe in cinema to convey the the extermination of the Jews that took place across Europe from Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) to Germany's surrender on 9 May 1945, while Polanski's film, with a superb central performance from Brody, communicates the smaller but no less moving personal tragedies that pervaded the lives of millions during the Second World War. Polanski's direction has the real courage of his convictions and, in a way, his unflinching portrayal is even more difficult to watch than Spielberg's film.

A key scene proves this point perfectly - the Szpilman family, becoming aware that Nazi soldiers are storming the tenemant block opposite, turn their house lights off and watch as the soldiers storm into a family's dining room, demanding that all stand. When an obviously disabled man in a wheelchair does not rise, he is taken from the room still in his chair, and dropped from the balcony, six floors up.

The worst of which our species is capable, then? Very much so but, in the pivotal scene involving the starving, freezing Szpilman being asked to play piano by Captain Hosenfeld, who has discovered him hiding near the very end of the war, the quality of mercy is not strained. If you do not cry here, you perhaps never will.

Simply wonderful, but whether you will ever want to watch the film again is another matter entirely.

Awards: Click here for details.

150 mins. In English, German and Russian.

10 June, 2010

Politist, adjectiv (Police, Adjective) (2009)

Let’s take a look in the dictionary…

European Film Awards Selection, 2009

Police, Adjective (2009) is an already well-acclaimed movie from director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)) – it was officially selected at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals 2009 and was a double prize winner (Jury and Critics Prize) at Cannes 2009.

Dragos Bucur takes the role of Cristi, a policeman who is surveying three high-school students – he has to gather evidence against one of them, Victor (Radu Costin), the dealer who smokes hashish and who has been turned in by his ‘best friend’, Alex (Alexandru Sabadac).

As the measured action continues, we patiently follow Cristi’s daily detective duties on the streets of the post-Communist city of Vaslui. We watch him walking, waiting, eating, writing his report, talking to his wife about the grammatical errors therein, then walking, waiting and writing once more. Nothing is happening, apparently, in his routine but, then again, look deeper, beyond the layers of silence, and you’ll see that a great deal is occuring.

The more time he spends on the mission, the more vocal his ‘I-don’t-want-to-be-responsible-for-jailing-an-innocent-teenager’ conscience becomes, all of which makes one wonder whether Porumboiu was inspired by Sartre’s concept of ‘reflective consciousness’.

Will Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov), his superior, understand Cristi’s moral drama? Or will he oblige him, via humiliation, to “do his duty”, according to the Romanian Explanatory Dictionary?

One not-to-be-missed scene involves the three policemen, Cristi, Captain Anghelache and Nelu, Cristi’s colleague (Ion Stoica), who are searching for words in the dictionary, trying to figure out the meanings of ‘police’ and ‘justice’ in Romanian – meanings which, however, are not the same for Cristi. Duty or conscience? Wait a minute, let’s check…

Police, Adjective is in fact a witty critique of the Romanian judicial system and the country’s contemporary social situation – with many Romanian stereotypes, much dry humour, language dissection, power and moral crisis in a rich, existentialistic satire, Porumboiu film is further proof that Romanian cinema is pushing forward strongly. Three cheers for Porumboiu!

Awards: Click here for details.

Otilia Ilie
113 mins. In Romanian.

09 June, 2010

EFA Welcomes Jafar Panahi Bail Release

Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker, was freed on bail of $200,000 from Tehran's Evin prison on 25 May - Panahi, 49, was released one week after he had begun a hunger strike that made the headlines at the Cannes film festival, where the director was set to be on the jury.

Upon receiving her award for Best Actress, Juliette Binoche used her speech to denounce Iran's imprisonment of the filmmaker.

Panahi was arrested in March at his Tehran home with his wife and daughter, who were later freed. The Board of the the European Film Academy (EFA) strongly protested against his arrest, and has welcomed the decision to release him on bail.