Lights & Sound


Reading Boing Boing earlier in the week, or weeks ago maybe, I came across a brief article about the National Archives. All of those government commissioned movies from bygone eras, Why We Fight, CIA reports on China’s development, documentaries on Patton, are languishing in some musty closet. You can watch previews from them on the National Archive site but the feds suggest you purchase the films on DVD from Amazon.

These are citizen funded movies and the government, not wanting to deal with it, sent them over to be produced and distributed by a private company. In practical terms this makes obvious sense– the market is so small for this sort of nostalgia you may as well let private enterprise take the risk on repackaging and selling the flicks. But we don’t care about what’s practical, right? We care about what’s right. So does Carl Malamud, who bought the DVD set and then posted them all on the Internet Archives. Not all, as many as he’s been able to. He’s encouraging people to watch them so he can use the number of viewers in testimony before Congress to convince people that these films should be widely available to the public.

As I’m isolated from culture that I understand I’ve been digging through them. Tonight I learned about mosquitoes and malaria courtesy of Disney and seven dwarves. Did you know you could run around pouring oil into ponds, drain them, and bury cans? Spray toxins everywhere? That was official government education back in the days before color.

Okay, they’re also on youtube but I prefer the Internet Archives for no particular reason.

Been meaning to post this short film for a while after reading about it on Shadow and Act. African Booty Scratcher was written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu, an Atlanta-born daughter of Sierra Leonean immigrants. It’s a very strong short which leaves you wanting more. In fact I feel it would be great as a feature length movie as Jusu touching on so many things with no time to explore them. HBO picked up the film for rotation and Jusu is continuing her education while working on other projects. Enjoy.

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Azumi (2003)
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Starring Aya Ueto, Yoshiro Harada, Jo Odagiri

A bloated epic of assassins against war mongers in feudal Japan, this movie shores its walls of straightforward plot against its staggering two-and-a-half hours duration with embarrassing diversions. We are all crushed underneath when the girl-bonding, first love and slapstick pillars yield, left to claw at our eyes in the vein hope of erasing the travesty witnessed. It remains unclear to me whether Azumi would have been more enjoyable as a simple action flick sprinting from sword fight to sword fight, but between the flying ninjas and modern score I think that the end result would remain the same: another wasted night.

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There is a little girl and her name is Azumi (Aya Ueto). Scooped from the corpse of her mother by a traveling ronin named Gessai (Yoshiro Harada) and raised amongst a motley collection of Lost Boys in a mountain retreat she excels at the art of mortal combat. The crisp days of laughter and sparring eventually end in a final test when the time of their mission comes– pair off with your best friend. Now kill them. The Koreans have created an entire genre of paranoia about their less friendly neighbors to the north with this exact same concept.

So we’ve learned that being an assassin is no joke, that it requires not only the skill but the mentality of a hardened killer. The graduates descend into the valleys where war is being waged between competing clans, driven by a higher ethos to end the violence by removing the various heads of state. The lesson of politics is taught by being forced to stand down and watch a massacre perpetrated by roving bandits.

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After one warlord is easily dispatched things get complicated. Their next target is a cunning old man who knows which way the wind is blowing and decides to engage his adversaries directly. Meanwhile the young assassins meet a traveling theater group which sparks love at first sight, then the ranks are divided when an injured comrade is left behind to die. Azumi, struggling to determine the righteous path, soon finds herself alone while pursued by a new terror, the sociopathic murderer Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri) who has been released from prison to hunt her group down one by one.

This all predictably builds to an epic battle pitting a handful of people against an entire army. There’s special-effects induced acrobatics, explosions, torrents of blood and the peculiar inability of people to coordinate their attacks on a lone swordsman to better kill them. Matters of pride, morality, loyalty and destiny are used like caulk to seal the cracks between scenes of absurd combat resulting in the world’s most expensive prefabricated motel shower stall. (more…)

The Method (2005)
Directed by Marcelo Pineyro
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Najwa Nimri, Eduard Fernández, Pablo Echarri, Ernesto Alterio, Natalia Verbeke, Adriana Ozores, Carmelo Gómez

Savage instinct to survive has not been conquered by modern man, it just takes a new guise as we accelerate into the 21st century. The Spanish film The Method introduces several contenders vying for a position in a top ranked corporation, locks the doors, and observes how deeply people will plunge the depths of self-interest in order to best their competition. Perils of the veldt have been replaced by the sterile confines of the office but the kill or be killed mentality thrives in business as much as it has over centuries of humanity.

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The applicants come from different walks of life: there’s a couple women, there’s younger idealists and embittered cynics, higher ranking professionals and hot talent hoping for a big break. Broken down to equals by having to repeat the paperwork and seated around a table amongst one another, they make light of the situation and joke amongst themselves. Two happen to know one another. Then the process begins, conducted by computer with no management or HR representatives in the room. Instruction one is to unanimously select a team-leader. After some acrimonious grandstanding the votes are tallied and instruction two is revealed. A newspaper clipping appears, the story of a whistle-blower who turned his executives in to prevent a dangerous environmental catastrophe. If you were conducting the interview would you hire this person?

Let the games begin. Suspicions that one of the applicants is a mole, and the certainty that they are all being observed pit everyone against their counterparts. A pack of desperate scavengers, they quickly ascertain the weakest of the pack and fragile, unspoken alliances are built round by round. Self-preservation brings out bared teeth, quick thinking and rationalizations. At the same time resentment over being treated like a social experiment begins to percolate, with each applicant attempting to suppress their indignation along with their empathy.

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Strange Circus (2005)
Written & Directed by Sion Sono

Starring: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahasi, Hiroshi Ohguchi

Since barreling into the international eye with 2002’s Suicide Club Japanese auteur Sion Sono has walked a fine line between exploitation and serious studies of human darkness. His films have generated controversy for attacking social decay with over-the-top, horror movie style and twisted acid-trip narratives, and movies such as Strange Circus inspire debate that finds half the room offended by the other half’s declarations of “genius”.

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There is no safe way to approach the subject of incest. No attempt to explore domestic abuse will be free from criticism. These are risks every filmmaker takes when traveling into the dangerous corners of the human mind and Sono’s response to the challenge is garish settings, incomprehensible events and an almost celebratory fetishization of degradation. What Strange Circus achieves is calling attention to the viewer’s enjoyment of a movie that only the most jaded fan of cinema could dismiss as less than shocking.

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Mitsuko’s (the older is played by Mai Takahasi, the younger by Rie Kuwana) life ends when her father Gozo’s (Hiroshi Oguchi) voracious sexuality begins to consume her, first by being hidden in a cello case to watch her parents in bed, then inevitably by direct violence. She responds to these violations by reshaping her identity into a dual existence with her mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) who, upon discovering what’s going on, reverts to an animalistic and brutal competition with Mitsuko. There’s no escape for either the victim or her failed protector– school provides no solace as Gozo is the principal who addresses the classes every morning via closed circuit broadcasts. The situation finds bleak resolution when mother and daughter struggle at the top of the stairs.

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Resolution might be the wrong word. Taeko (also Miyazaki) is a writer notorious for her pornographic and violent novels. Her publisher is eagerly anticipating the latest money-maker, another book about the suffering of a young girl. She’s difficult to work with, but takes an interest in a new assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) who has long been enthralled by her work. Taeko is a mystery: are her novels based on life experiences or the product of a sick but fertile imagination; are rumours of her sexual appetite true? Yuji makes a brothel lobby deal to investigate the woman behind the pen as the novel nears completion.

Although these two fragments are stylistically distant they will eventually converge. This is not to say that questions will be answered so much as you will find the questions you had are replaced by more pressing matters of identity, reality, the fragility of the mind and the scope of inhumanity. This is not a passive viewing experience but a thrown gauntlet, which is Sono’s saving grace. Without forcing the viewer’s complicity and, ultimately, confrontation with the film it may as well be porn.

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Quinceanera (2006)
Written & Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia and Chalo Gonzalez

Prejudice is an ugly but powerful force and one which we all must strive to overcome. Here we’re confronted with a movie which examines the lives of a couple Hispanics living in Echo Park, written and directed by two white guys gentrifying the neighborhood. That simple knowledge colors every aspect of the viewing experience, provoking a critical thread through ninety minutes most movies would escape. In the wake I’m left pondering whether the movie succeeds as a simple story about normal people or as a cunning example of how to bleach out a community in order to find common ground.

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If you’ve ever walked through the Mission and stumbled across a group of kids dressed as if they were getting married, it’s probably a Quinceanera, a fusion of religious and social customs, similar to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, proudly celebrated when a girl turns fifteen. Magdalena (Emily Rios) is steadily approaching this special day with a mixture of embarrassment and hope. Her cousin had a Hummer Limo and extravagant party but she is facing the prospect of an altered dress and whatever her humble preacher/security-guard father can afford. These petty questions and days of gossiping with friends or grappling with her first boyfriend are about to suddenly end, with the coming-of-age ceremony looks less like a party and more a bleak reality.

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She’s pregnant, but she’s a virgin. No one, least of all her staunchly religious father, can believe these incredible claims so after a screaming fight she slips out to seek refuge with her Great-Uncle Thomas (Chalo Gonzalez) who is already harboring Magdalena’s outcast cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), in his small home. Dreams of Hummer Limos take a back seat to more pressing concerns, like convincing her boyfriend that he needs to tell his mother about their child, and getting accustomed to the looks and whispers following her around school.

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The Wayward Cloud (2004)
Written and Directed by Ming-Liang Tsai
Starring Kang-sheng Lee and Shiang-chyi Chen

Alienation, longing, an inability to communicate or recognize one’s feelings are all hallmarks of Ming-Liang Tsai’s oeuvre. If his work reached the apex of emotional despair in Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) than this is his most violent lashing out. In The Wayward Cloud Tsai crystallizes his various stylistic motifs to frame and fully expose his most blatant treatise on the human condition in a modern society. However, the quirky embellishments have become the emphasis, the dry humour has become a rasping cackle, and the emotional depths have been drained dry. This is a movie which finds the auteur pushing for a masterpiece and shooting through the other side, exemplifying the need for restraint even when you’re completely in control.

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The story begins three years prior with What Time Is It There?, where itinerant watch peddler Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) becomes obsessed with a girl who is leaving for Paris. Between the uncontrolled longing for an imagined ideal and the religious hysterics of his newly widowed mother Hsiao-Kang teeters on the bring of psychological collapse, strewn across the Taipei concrete like a bloodless corpse. Halfway around the world Shiang-chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen) confronts herself by losing herself in a foreign land. A short film, The Skywalk is Gone (which was a bonus on the Goodbye Dragon Inn DVD), functions as a coda, seeing Siang-chyi seeking Hsiao-Kang but finding the skywalk he used to work on destroyed; Hsiao-Kang meanwhile finds a new career doing porn.

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Both characters are back in Taipei but, without ever re-connecting. Shiang-Chyi spends her days alone, not speaking with anyone, collecting the remnants of discarded water bottles to survive a terrible drought. Hsiao-Kang’s producer has taken the government’s message of replacing water with watermelon, casting one lucky fruit in a sensual and sticky scene. They crawl through the motions of their lives: he mechanically thrusts in front of the camera while she scurries through the sun-baked streets like a desperate rodent. The only vehicle for expression come as colorful explosions, musical numbers set to syrupy Chinese pop ballads ruminating on love.

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Then they meet, and without any need to catch up or even explain themselves, they fall into line as a couple. One with a very big secret which is never discussed, that Hsiao-Kang works in porn and Shiang-chyi (this is my assumption) is a sexually confused virgin. It begins with all smiles, campy romantic comedy moments and nearly setting the kitchen on fire while cooking the most amazing noodle dish I’ve ever seen. But cracks in the veneer find one dealing with a sudden onset of impotence and the other exploring the back room of the local video store. The course is clearly set for collision, but even I was hardly expecting the final sequence where Tsai destroys the concept of intimacy, love, sex and humanity with one vicious scene of rote sex work run amok. (more…)

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