PEKING OPERA BLUES (Tsui Hark, 1986).
The ultimate Hong Kong action comedy, animated by a spirit of freewheeling
childlike exuberance, combines suspense, cartoon kung fu violence, slapstick,
dynamic visual technique, and several varieties of kitsch into an astounding
piece of escapist entertainment. The outlandish plot, set in 1913, concerns
a warlord's daughter (the androgynous looking Brigitte Lin) who is a
secret revolutionary. She teams up with a freedom fighter (Mark Cheng)
in a plan to steal vital documents, but things are complicated by the
unwitting intrusion of a gold-digging singer (Cherie Chung) chasing
a lost box of jewels, and a hapless soldier on the lam (Paul Chu). Somehow
they get mixed up with the opera troupe of the title, and they are joined
in their escapades by the opera director's daughter (Sally Yeh) who
dreams of performing on stage, although this is forbidden to women.
It is one of the pleasures of this film that the true action heroes
are the three women, and that romance with the men takes a back seat
to female friendship.
Speed is the essence of Tsui's method. Scenes rush by in rapid succession.
The camera swoops through the sets like a hawk. Every few minutes there
is a stunt or gag, some of them as old as the cinema, but pulled off
with such energy that I laughed out loud. The production doesn't have
the high-gloss finish you see in American films - but that actually
works to its advantage. With a budget considerably smaller than the
average Hollywood film, Tsui manages to create the illusion of lavish
spectacle and richness, while the telltale naive qualities only make
the picture seem more endearing.
Aware of its own silliness, confident in its power to amaze, Peking
Opera Blues kept me on my toes just trying to follow the action
and catch all the jokes. The director's only real misstep is a too-intense
sequence involving torture - the idea of actual violence in the midst
of all this fantasy is a spell-breaker, but it still doesn't break the
movie, which is delicious, delirious fun.
A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE
(Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
Tomik (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko), a painfully insecure young postal worker,
has been peeping through a telescope at a woman who lives in a high
rise apartment across the way. At first it is just sexual voyeurism,
but then he finds himself falling in love with her. He sends her false
notices of money orders in the mail so that he can see her when she
comes to the post office, and then takes a milk delivery job that takes
him to her door. Circumstances cause him to eventually reveal himself,
and his love, to her. As it turns out, the woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska),
is an embittered person who has a cynical reaction to his feelings -
taunting him because of his voyeurism and then trying to prove to him
that love is only a biological urge.
Kieslowski, a poet of inwardness, maintains a characteristically quiet
tone, focusing on the delicate self-consciousness of the young man as
thematic contrast to his behavior's transgressive nature. It was one
of the Polish director's great strengths that he consistently chose
to reveal the humanity of people whom we usually reject or demonize.
Here we see the furtive behavior of Tomik as a desperate need to connect,
and even, given his repression, as an understandable misdirection of
desire. The lost male is stranded between the protective maternal figure
(he lives in the apartment of his best friend's mother) and the romantic
object. He must break free somehow.
Kieslowski has a deeper purpose here as well. He seeks to recast the
voyeuristic impulse into terms of love rather than violation. Now, the
cinema itself has something of a voyeuristic nature - obvious comparisons
with Hitchcock's Rear Window were made by critics, and even as
a selling point on the video box. But Kieslowski wants this aspect of
film to exemplify compassion, not mere sensation. Just as his lonely
protagonist bridges the gap between the apartments, so the director's
vision sought to bridge the gap between viewer and film with empathy
and identification. A Short Film About Love not only illustrates
by its story this essential idea of a great director, it is itself an
example of its realization.
The picture is one of the episodes of Kieslowski's renowned television
production The Decalogue, expanded for theatrical release. It
is much softer and less dramatic than A Short Film About Killing,
the other segment that was released in longer form. But in its own way,
it is just as pertinent to our time.
THE EARLY YEARS, VOLUME ONE
A collection of three shorts from the highly productive period with
the Mutual Corporation that marked Chaplin's transition from a popular
screen comedian to a world famous one. At this point, of course, he
had already been writing and directing his own films for some time.
The Immigrant (1917) opens, after establishing shots of a ship
and huddled passengers, with the Tramp's rear end shaking as he bends
over the ship's side. We're meant to think he's vomiting - he pulls
up and we see that he has caught a fish. (Chaplin would continue to
use comic misdirection of this sort over the years, to good effect.)
The entire shipboard sequence, with the passengers being thrown here
and there by the vessel's lurching motion, is a tour de force of comic
timing. At one point, a single bowl of soup slides back and forth across
a bench, with the Tramp downing a spoonful followed by the person sitting
opposite. A game of craps is even more inventive. Once they reach America,
the film settles down into a simple story of the Tramp's pursuit of
a girl he met on the boat (Edna Purviance) and his struggle with a big
brute of a head waiter (Eric Campbell). While some of the gags are less
effective than others, Chaplin has by this point clearly developed his
persona and style. A scene where the Tramp kicks an immigration officer
actually caused a bit of controversy at the time - since Chaplin was
not a citizen, some humorless souls took this as an affront to America.
The Count (1916) is a mistaken identity farce that is only intermittently
funny, although it has its moments. The Tramp is an assistant to a tailor
(Eric Campbell) who gets fired for burning a count's trousers. The tailor
finds a ticket to a ball in the trousers, and goes to it, pretending
to be the count. The Tramp, meanwhile, visits the same house to flirt
with the cook, and ends up at the ball, also impersonating the count,
and wooing a young heiress (Edna Purviance). It's all rather labored
and hard to follow, but it does end nicely when the real count arrives
and Chaplin goes into one of his acrobatic chase sequences.
Churning out at least a movie a month, Chaplin always relied on the
same troupe of players. Easy Street (1917) features the hulk
Eric Campbell again, as a bully with superhuman strength who terrorizes
his poverty- stricken neighborhood. The scenes in which Campbell is
at the center of a storm of punching, kicking, lunging, and generally
riotous street people, mixed in with policemen getting the tar beat
out of them, are unbelievably bizarre. The Tramp gets drafted into the
job of neighborhood cop, and he has a serious of hilarious encounters
with the bully, involving some very clever stunts. Purviance is on hand
as a mission reformer. The picture, with each laugh topping the one
before it, and imbued with a strong feeling for the wretched lives of
the poor, is one of Chaplin's undisputed masterpieces.
The folks at Republic Home Video, the publisher of this particular
collection, seem to have thought it necessary to add "amusing" sound
effects to the video soundtrack. Thus, instead of just hearing music,
we are treated to a "bonk" sound when someone gets knocked down, or
a whistling sound when Chaplin skitters along the floor in a chase scene.
I found it very annoying to be treated like an idiot in this way, and
I finally had to turn the volume way down in order to concentrate on
Chaplin's pure visual comedy, which has never needed such assistance
in order to work. The video was released in 1989. Since then, I think
(at least I hope) that video and DVD companies have realized that there
is an intelligent home viewing audience out here, perfectly able to
appreciate silent films without this sort of condescension.
THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, 1991).
Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a woman living in L.A. and stuck in a boring
job with the telephone company, gets her kicks at night by going out
with her swinger friend (Patrick Bauchau) and swapping sex partners
with other couples. One day she overhears some co-workers talking about
apocalyptic dreams that they've had involving a pearl. Other odd occurrences
pique her interest, and then, tired of her empty lifestyle, she fails
in a suicide attempt, after which a dream convinces her that Jesus is
returning soon to judge the world. She becomes a member of a cult-like
group of believers centered around a boy prophet.
It's not often that an ostensibly commercial film has the nerve to
take a satiric swipe at Christianity. Usually when one does, the result
is too broad and self-satisfied - caricatures of hypocritical preacher
types and so forth. But in this film, writer/director Tolkin offers
a challenging mixture of social observation, dry comedy, and metafictional
symbolism - grappling with Christian eschatology instead of just dismissing
it. In short, it is that rarity - a film of ideas. And in following
certain ideas to their limits, it changes in form - from a familiar,
somewhat plausible realistic framework into a purely metaphoric realm.
It's an audacious piece of work, even if all the elements don't quite
Rogers is quite convincing in both of her character's aspects - jaded
thrill seeker and true believer. A pre-X-files David Duchovny
is on hand as the unbelieving lover who becomes her husband. I wish,
however, that the little girl playing Sharon's daughter (a very important
character, as it turns out) had a less grating presence. Overall, though,
the performances are fine, and the picture is fascinating even if its
oddness tends to give the impression of pastiche. The script is good
at conveying the elements of truth that are attractive to Sharon, and
the peacefulness that can result from belief. Tolkin then takes the
story into an extremely painful place, in which Sharon's beliefs push
her beyond her own limits.
The basic idea - the logic behind the movie's weird final third (an
ending that has inspired puzzlement in more than one reviewer) - is
"What if it were true?" By actually showing us this "what if" scenario,
Tolkin reveals not only the absurdity, but the inhumanity of blind belief.
Even if it were true, The Rapture is saying, the consequences
are insupportable. It's a brilliant, funny, disturbing movie - certainly
one of the more intelligent criticisms of religion on film - especially
since it doesn't trumpet a message, but hides its significance behind
the opaque surface of late 20th century urban anomie.
LES CARABINIERS (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963).
Simone Weil once remarked that evil is attractive in literature, but
ugly and stupid in real life. In his fifth feature, Godard succeeds
in portraying this truth, but without abstracting the idea of "evil."
It is an antiwar film that, instead of evoking indignation - a feeling
that creates a safe zone for the audience by erasing any sense of complicity
- relies on absurdist dramatic methods and sardonic humor to shove the
idiocy of war into the viewer's face. In this regard, the film's debt
to Bertolt Brecht is evident.
Two soldiers arrive at an isolated shack in the middle of nowhere and
assault the inhabitants, two men and two women (the exact relationships
of the four are never quite clear). When they surrender, the soldiers
offer the men a proposition, presented formally in a "letter from the
King." They can join the army and fight for the King, with permission
to do whatever they want. (Burn down villages? Yes. Stab people in the
back? Yes. Leave a restaurant without paying? Of course. And so forth.)
In return they will receive all the treasures of the world. The men
agree and the women send them off - one of them asks that they bring
her back a bikini.
The two recruits (played by Marino Masé and Albert Juross) go
off to war. Godard shows them shooting guns, intercut with stock footage
from World War II of bombs dropping, dead bodies, etc., and incessant
gunfire on the soundtrack. The grainy newsreel-style photography matches
the stock footage exactly, but of course the film's meager budget produces
an anti-realist effect, which is very funny and effective. The supposed
war film is actually a critique of the aesthetics of war films.
Occasional intertitles contain quotes from letters that the boys send
home. Examples: "Our dedication to the King is such that we are willing
to not only shed our own blood, but that of others." "We leave traces
of blood and corpses behind us. We kiss you tenderly." The mock-heroic
style of the intertitles contrasts well with the banal visuals.
The chubby-faced Juross plays a perfect imbecile. At one point he attends
the cinema for the first time and ends up destroying the screen trying
to peek over the edge of a bathtub in the movie to get a better view
of the woman bathing in it. This ties in with one of Godard's major
concerns - image merging with reality. (In a long sequence towards the
end, in which the boys bring home picture postcards as "deeds" of the
spoils of war coming to them, he also contrasts the image with the ideas
of property and ownership.)
The actors perform in a casual, make-believe manner, and in fact the
film calls attention to itself as "only a movie" as part of its distancing
technique. The narrative, such at is, tends to break apart, so that
what we're watching is not so much a story but a series of performed
comments on war. On the down side, Godard sometimes drags a sequence
out too far, and his agit-prop tendencies (a female revolutionary reciting
a poem by Mayakovsky before being executed) clash with the film's deadpan
tone. Still, it's a remarkably intelligent film, disposing of imperialism,
war, jingoism, mindless obedience, and the dishonesty of the social
order, with an efficiency that is never didactic or overbearing. It
is also one of Godard's funniest works.
The outcry when it was originally released was so intense - audiences
and critics seem to have felt personally insulted by the picture - that
it was withdrawn from theaters and not shown again until 1967, when
the political situation had caught up with it. It's still rarely seen
or discussed today. Watch it on the recent WinStar DVD edition if you
©2002 Chris Dashiell