Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Johnnie To’s Drug War and its Depiction of the Chinese Police

As I watched Johnnie To’s technically excellent police thriller Drug War, about a courageous mainland police unit and their efforts to bust a gathering of Hong Kong drug lords, I kept thinking of the plight of Chen Yongzhou.  Chen, a journalist for Guangzhou’s New Express, was arrested on October 19th of this year after writing a series of controversial articles about Zoomlion, a Chinese manufacturer of sanitation and construction equipment.  According to the BBC, Chen had accused Zoomlion of “improperly account[ing] for sales;” this report led to a dip in Zoomlion’s stock value on the Hong Kong stock exchange, which prompted the police in Hunan—and Zoomlion is partially owned by the Hunan provincial government—to arrest Chen for “damage to business reputation.” In response to Chen’s arrest (or detention, the exact circumstances are not clear), The New Express published a front page headline calling for his release, a rare and bold move in a country where the press is still generally forced to toe the government line.  In fact, according to the BBC, the government of Xi Jinping is currently engaged in a crackdown on bloggers and reporters deemed to have gone too far in their criticisms of the Chinese authorities (or, in the case of Chen Yongzhou, of a company in which the authorities have an interest).
Ok, now what does all of this have to do with To’s Drug War, his first Mainland production and an engrossing thriller?  The problem here—and it’s a problem with cinematic depictions of the police elsewhere, including in the U.S., for that matter—is that the heroic cops in Drug War are theoretically the same cops who arrested Chen Yongzhou; the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought asylum in the US in dramatic fashion last year; and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned after calling on the Chinese government to recognize the human rights enshrined in its own constitution. 

The Chinese police do a lot of awful things, but you wouldn’t know it from Drug War.  This is a far cry from South Korean cinema, where the police are almost without exception depicted as sadistic and incompetent.  It’s even different from the cinema of Hong Kong, where To himself has depicted the police in a far more nuanced light, sometimes as pragmatists willing to broker deals with gangsters (as in the Election films) or as dangerously corrupt (as in Mad Detective, which To co-directed with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai).  One is forced to raise the question, “Has To sacrificed some of the moral integrity of his art, or at least compromised it, in making a film on the Chinese Mainland?” Or has he perhaps done the best he could under the circumstances? Or is this not a relevant question to ask, given the kind of story that To was seeking to tell in Drug War? I’m trying to think of other examples that I’ve seen of police in Mainland films: there’s Lu Chuan’s The Missing Gun, which focuses on the struggles of one individual cop who’s very much enmeshed in the life of his small town.  One could also consider two of Jia Zhangke’s movies, Xiao Wu (also known as Pickpocket) and Unknown Pleasures, where the task of the police is to keep in line a motley assortment of dumb, small-town hoodlums.

I don’t have a solid answer to the questions raised here.  It will be interesting to see how the issues of freedom of expression and criticism of the authorities play out as Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese film continue the fruitful exchange that has in recent years produced some of the greatest films of either of their cinemas.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Deliberately Unpleasant “Bleak Chic” Cinema: Lino Brocka’s Insiang

There are some movies (and books) that are so relentlessly bleak, depressing, and unpleasant, that I can’t imagine why someone would want to make them.  Surely they couldn’t have derived any enjoyment from making them, anymore than someone would derive enjoyment from watching (or reading) them.  Now, usually, I like to discuss the things I like on this blog—you’ll notice that most of my reviews are “positive” because I’m deliberately not discussing the things I don’t like.  But I just watched a movie so sadistically ugly that I feel the need to bitch about it.

The movie in question is the late Filipino director Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976).  This grimy, poorly composed piece of miserablism depicts a young woman (the Insiang of the title) who lives in squalid poverty with her abusive mother and her mother’s violent and sexually predatory boyfriend.  The boyfriend rapes Insiang, and when she reports it to her mother, the boyfriend alleges that Insiang goes about the house naked (which she does not) so how could he not be seduced and, you know, rape her?  The mother is persuaded by this line of reasoning.  So Insiang turns to her boyfriend, Babeto, and asks him to elope with her.  They go to a seedy motel, where they have sex, and then he abandons her.  Everyone gossips about her and thinks she’s a slut.  Even her mother can’t bear her “promiscuity” despite openly fooling around with her own boyfriend right in front of her daughter. 
In many ways, this film could have been like Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Mouchette (1968), which follows the similar persecutions and sufferings of a young girl surrounded by perverts and hypocrites and assholes in general.  But even at his cruelest, Bresson still made sure his films looked good.  If only Insiang had been in black-and-white like Mouchette, it would have served to aestheticize the proceedings.  But instead Brocka shot his film in the hideous, grimy color of seventies cinema (like we see in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, for instance, or hell, the later color films of Bresson, which look awful).  Furthermore, Bresson’s black-and-white films are simply but elegantly composed and possessed of a spare, icy beauty.  Insiang, by contrast, plays out more like a Filipino Precious (or at least I assume it does; I have no interest in seeing Precious, it looks tasteless and racist in the sort of way that would appeal to white liberals who voted for Obama and don’t understand how a movie like Precious could be racist).

Now, let me say that I don’t object to sad subject matter in general.  I’m a pessimist and I don’t mind seeing that reflected in art.  But the art needs to be artful.  Just because your movie is sad doesn’t excuse it from the responsibility of all great art, which is to be beautiful.  And Insiang isn’t beautiful.  And it’s not just the poor production values: Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki is cheap; so are most of the films of Abbas Kiarostami.  But they don’t indulge in miserablism and they don’t ignore the aesthetic necessities that bind all art, no matter its subject matter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kafka (and Hrabal) in Italy: Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto

Let me say right from the get-go that the kid in Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (played by Sandro Panseri) looks like a young Franz Kafka.  Whether or not this is by design, I can’t say, but it was impossible to watch the movie without seeing him as Kafka.  Having said that, there are a number of ways in which this 1961 film feels Kafkaesque specifically and Czech in general.

Olmi’s hero is a not particularly bright young man named Domenico who is seeking a position at a big company in Milan (the name and nature of which are never mentioned).  We follow him through the application process, as a bunch of awkward would-be job applicants are weeded out, we follow his abortive romance with fellow applicant Antonietta, and then we see him settle into the actual job, which turns out to be assistant messenger (he was trying to be a clerk, but they apparently didn’t actually need new clerks).  All the while, as he gets pushed around, he utters not a peep of complaint (even Kafka’s heroes could complain from time to time); to a certain extent, he is like an Italian(er) Michael Cera (I’m assuming “Cera” is Italian), passive and hoping for nothing more than to disappear unnoticed into the background.

The Czech New Wave, which kicked off a few years after the release of Il Posto, produced a number of movies about the absurdity of work that all seem to hearken back to Olmi’s film.  One is reminded especially of Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), about a young nitwit not unlike Domenico who gets a job at a train station and reveals his naïveté at every term.  There is also Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967), in which the titular ball plays out with the absurdity and laughable self-seriousness that we see in the New Year’s party with which Il Posto reaches its climax (if a movie like this can really be said to possess a climax).
The heroes of Czech New Wave cinema are small people pursuing small-scale ambitions.  Like young Domenico, they’re merely trying to find a foothold, however miniscule, within the system.  Their positions are far too tentative and insignificant for the notion of challenging the system to ever rear its head.  In this respect, these are cruel cautionary tales for the young people of my generation.  I am reminded of a short poem by the late Harold Pinter: “Warning / The pricks are out and they’re fucking everything in sight / Watch your back.”