Best of the Decade Derby: In the Mood (or not) and 13 ways of looking at Maggie Cheung

<3 = D (t+d)

I jotted down this formula while watching In the Mood for Love the other day, the first time I'd seen it since its theatrical release in New York 8 years ago.  The formula, which I conceived (mind you, physics was my least favorite subject in school) translates as "love = desire multiplied by the sum of time and space".  It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now, looking at it, it seems ridiculous.  Which, I'm sad to say, is kind of like the experience I had with re-watching In the Mood for Love. I'm still trying to make sense of it.

I didn't have terribly strong expectations for revisiting the film. It wasn't on my top ten for 2000, but I felt I owed it another look it due to its exceptional reputation and ranking - it is, after all, the top ranked film on the TSPDT poll of the best films of the 21st century. But starting into it, I could feel myself being gradually pulled in by the irresistible current of impeccable images flowing through time. Current feels like the right metaphor for the way that the film moves, initially in a tumultuous swirl: the opening sequence where the two potential lovers move into neighboring apartments, their furniture clashing and commingling with each other. The way that people move through narrow hallways and other tight spaces, lingering or hesitating at doorways: this push-pull between being physically close yet hanging on to personal spaces.  The famous slo-mo sequences set to tango emphasize the dance-like movements induced by this social setting, while also fetishizing them as objets d'art.  The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.

And that's where it started to pull the floor from under me: the wall to wall gorgeousness of this movie, where every frame feels like it could be part of a gallery photo exhibit -  Wong is consumed with coming up with new ways of framing and looking at things. One needs only look at thirteen different shots of Maggie Cheung taken over the course of the film to appreciate the visual variety and splendor on display:

and one of Tony Leung for good measure (anyone else think that he's an Asian dead ringer for Obama?)

Around the 25 minute mark (the third slo-mo tango interlude) is where the film's pervading sense of loneliness and longing sets in for me. It's such a seductive, melancholy feeling to be sucked into if you're receptive to it, and I was.  The anticipation of these two people on the cusp of engendering attraction is, a seductive enough premise, but Wong amplifies the effect by treating his mise-en-scene as an endless landscape to explore, where their looks, their feelings, get framed and reframed, like an anxious lover replaying every moment, squeezing out and soaking in every detail. In this light even the multiple outtakes, the alternate endings, can all be integrated into the totality of this film as a fitting representation of obsessive, unconsummated love: its constant revisitations, revisionings and what-ifs...

That plus the sumptuousness of the camerawork, where the threads of Tony Leung's hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak all exude a hyperdetailed texture that you just want to sink your eyes into.

And that's how it was a for a good hour of my rewatching, until I had to interrupt it to keep an appointment. But the feeling engendered by the film stayed for me the rest of the evening and into the night.

The following day I picked up where I left off with the film. And I was surprised to find the whole thing somewhat empty, even banal, in terms of what this was all for or about.  Back in the day I had a couple of heated arguments about way the last 25 minutes of the film play out - some of my friends just couldn't handle the abrupt, seemingly pointless Angkor Wat sequence, especially the use of piss-poor archival video footage which disrupts the visual splendor that precedes it.  My argument back then - which I still believe - was that this disruption is the point; it's an unspooling of the spell that the film has cast on its audience, mirroring the spell of love that the circumstances of life are in the ruthless process of dissipating. So on a formal level, the film is brilliant from start to finish.

But my problem with the last third of the film, which casts back on the film overall, can be summed up by Rick Blaine in Casablanca: "The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Something about re-entering the film 2/3 of the way through gave me a new, sober(?) context, an awareness of how much fetishizing Wong was lavishing on this narrative. It hints at a terminal state of self-absorption, an emotional wound that not only never heals, but that the film never wants to heal. There's something in me that finds this disturbing. And despite all I've said about the film as this seemingly endless visual and emotional landscape to explore and soak in, there's something about it that feels small and enclosed, in terms of its scope of the world, and of life.

In the end, I think we're left with a paradox of a movie, one that conveys and achieves so much intensity of cinema and emotion within an experience of love that's ephemeral, even extravagant, and leaves us wondering what it really was about. I suppose that the degree to which one finds this meaningful depends on one's convictions of cinema as an end in itself - or one's own valuation of fleeting love.

Best of the Decade Derby: Four English Language Films from 2000

I should mention the results of the poll conducted last week both on this blog and on the IMDb Classic Film Board, where I invited everyone to recommend one title that most deserved to belong on a top ten of the decade. Over 50 people contributed their opinions, a pretty healthy turnout for this modest exercise. The overall winner of the poll was: Almost Famous. Close behind was Wonder Boys, and tied for third were The House of Mirth and American Psycho. Dancer in the Dark and Traffic rounded out the top finishers. You Can Count on Me, which has the highest rank among any English-language 2000 release according to The Shoot Pictures' survey of the greatest films of the 21st century, placed a disappointing 7th. I was able to watch Almost Famous, The House of MIrth and Wonder Boys over the past few days, even as I travelled to Berlin where I am now situated for the Film Festival. Additionally, I revisited another title that I forgot was a 2000 release until a couple of folks on this blog kindly notified me: Esther Kahn. Sadly I don't have time to go as deep into each film as I did with Yi Yi and the Hou Hsiao Hsien films I've covered earlier. But let me offer some brief reflections and if anyone wants to take the conversation further, I'll push it along as far as I can...


Getting to the question that prompted all this re-watching in the first place: Do any of these films have a shot at my top ten?  Each film has a legitimate claim to greatness and if they were to show up on anyone's list I would applaud. I could spin rationalizations for each film's case into perpetuity, so to best resolve the issue I revert back to the old standby question: how much do I wish that I could have made this film?

Looking at these four films, the one whose concept and story I most wish I could have made would be Almost Famous. It's such an ambitious and personal story that manages to entertain, spin a rousing yarn, and also encompass multiple layers of meaning and reality: a mythical lifestyle that a generation aspires to enact, and the fierce struggle to uphold the spirit of the myth, a struggle that's embedded in Crowe's own romantic - and romanticizing - approach to filmmaking. The thing that bugs me now as much as when I first saw this film is its candy-coating that polishes everything in a warm, idealized hue; from one perspective it's kind of one-dimensional and misleading. The dialogue often relies too much on snappy sitcom timing that often threatens to compromise the authenticity of what's represented under a Hollywood veneer. The thing that bugs me most about this movie is Crowe's reliance on deadpan reaction shots to drive the comic punch line of a moment with sledgehammer subtlety.

BUT -- this time around I was able to accept all of this as the idiom Crowe uses to make his story accessible to a mainstream audience. Once you get past his characteristic cutesiness (which, as in all his films starts with the casting and characterizations; Hayao Miyazaki's creations have more dangerous than these Disney creations), the film has a tremendous amount of thought put into it, especially in acknowledging the roles that each member of this microcosm has to play in maintaining this mythical lifestyle. As with Jerry Maguire, Crowe starts out with social types (geek rock writer, mystical groupie, mysterious rock star) and works steadily towards bringing out their distinctly personal human characteristics, primarily by playing them off each other and having them discover themselves in the process. This leads to a tremendous payoff in the end after they've all fallen out with each other, and one character's attempt to reconnect with another gets craftily deflected towards the third party, but in a way that makes peace between all three of them.

Finally, I have to admit that 10 years of becoming increasingly immersed in the world of film criticism has given me shocks of recognition with certain moments in this film, namely the scenes with Lester Bangs, played lovably by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. the first encounter between Russell (Patrick Fugit) and Lester echoes with about half a dozen encounters I've had with my favorite filmmakers and critics over the past several years: people who are rock stars in the eyes of probably only a few dozen people in the world, including mine, which is all that matters. Hoffmann's portrayal of Bangs, in its own way, seems to tease at an even deeper, more intimate movie that could have been made around him, a life devoted mostly in self-directed isolation to the mad pursuit of an impossible ideal of art and life expressed with unyielding passion and conviction, one that 99% of the world can't possibly relate to. It's an uncompromising attitude towards one's object of affection that the terminally affable Crowe, despite his own astute passion for his subject, can't approach.


The virtues of Wonder Boys may lie chiefly in the source novel by Michael Chabon and the fulsome characterizations and dramatic situations issued from its pages, leading to a domino effect of excellence: a razor smart script by Steve Kloves, competent if unobstrusive helming by the elusive Curtis Hanson, and wonderful ensemble work by just about everyone in the cast. Whatever the case, this is a wonderful film, sort of an antecedent to the shaggy stoner comedies of Judd Apatow and company - and perhaps if the film centered around a harried 20-something charmingly unemployed pothead instead of a 50-something washed up campus author trying earnestly to save multiple aspects of his life at once, it wouldn't have been a commercial disappointment. But the way that the film steadily accumulates a hurricane of chaos around its beleagured protagonist is a work of ragged glory, held together by the sparks between its characters. Imagine John Wayne as a pothead professor and Rio Bravo a college town, and you get a sense of what this film accomplishes in weaving together a lively environment for its characters to give and take.  The only real disappointment lies in something Mike D'Angelo pointed out in his original review, that the film ultimately capitulates its delightful, deceptively disheveled state for the sake of a happy ending through rehabilitation. Maybe that makes for a better life for poor Michael Douglas, but probably a more boring one as well.


Thanks to Keith Uhlich, I was able to revisit The House of Mirth on a gorgeous Sony Pictures Classics DVD. Of the four films I rewatched, my opinion was raised highest with this one. Maybe I was burned out on costume dramas when this came out - this time around what I realized was that the real action in this film is in its use of light.  And a mastery of scene transitions few films can touch - most notably the opening of the Riviera vacation sequence, which lingers on the hollow interiors of vacated New York homes, fading into the abstract patterns formed by rain splashing against a pond outside one of the homes, which then fades into the glistening surface of a sunlight ocean upon which the immaculate white crest of a cruise ship sails towards an impossibly golden Mediterranean shore.  This is a great film about the surfaces of opulence, and the oceans of desperation and cruelty lying underneath them.

(Sequence starts at 5:00)

Gillian Anderson is a perfect mis-fit of perfectly pitched mis-acting. her pseudo-modern brazenness breaking through her best efforts to remain civil throughout a series of miscalculated social maneuvers and verbal sparrings with would be users and abusers.  This is perhaps the only film of the decade worthy of being compared to the great works of Mizoguchi; in fact, I prefer this film over The Life of Oharu, because unlike Mizoguchi, Davies doesn't turn his woman into a fetish object for the noble suffering of all womankind; she's a flesh-and-blood human who as often pisses one off for her lack of good judgment as she ultimately earns great empathy for her struggle to settle upon a set of personal rules for which she her conduct can finally be judged fairly. ------------ Another great period piece about a misfit woman's coming to self-realization, Esther Kahn may look historical but the way it moves through its environment gives it a live wire now-ness.  This is one weird movie, possibly my favorite Desplechin film, even though it hasn't received nearly as much acclaim as Kings and Queens or A Christmas Tale. This is mostly due to the problematic performance of Summer Phoenix in the title role, a performance that doesn't convey much of the charisma that one would expect of an ingenue actress who ultimately is given no less prestigious a role as that of Hedda Gabler (while nearly sabotaging the entire production with an extended fit of bad behavior).  I'm not sure I'm fully resolved with Desplechin's handling of the character by the end. At best I can say it serves to demonstrate the maxim offered by Ian Holm's two-bit actor to Esther about the secret to good acting: "Every step you take has to be more unbelievable than the one before... Each step has to stretch like a rope in the audience's mind until they can't bear it anymore and they want to cry out, 'Careful you're going to break it.'" That's what this film is - a journey in search of one's limits: for Esther as an actress, i.e. a collector and performer of emotions; for Desplechin, the limits to whatever in his art can hold together historical, dramatic and emotional credulity.

I don't know if I fully accept the climactic sequence, the way it elides Esther's acting on stage after the film has spent so much time on the issue of how Esther is trying to become a better actress; it seems perverse to spend so much time setting up the crisis only to withhold the payoff, instead resorting to copious voiceover to assure us that she's giving the performance of her life. Also, there are some moments when I feel the film owes more than a little to Truffaut's Two English Girls (some use of Novelle Vague devices - elaborate dissolves, direct addresses to the camera - to advance and compress the narrative), but the films couldn't be more different in their outcome. Truffaut embalms its characters in a sense of fate; Desplechin liberates his.  Taking an overall look at where this film takes me, I stand in awe. While Almost Famous is the movie I most wished I could have made in my own way, Esther Kahn is a film with a daring that I couldn't possibly conceive, perhaps not even now. Of these four films, it's the one most liberated from convention. It's a film that, despite its frustrations, perhaps even deep flaws, answers to no one other than its own inspired instincts.

Best of the Decade Derby: Can I Count on You Can Count on Me and other English language films from 2000?

I plan my next few screenings for the Best of the Decade Derby to revolve around releases from the year 2000. Looking at the films I'm most eager to revisit, there's a heavy representation from Asia: In the Mood for Love, Platform, A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors - and I've already revisited Yi Yi.  In stark contrast, there are virtually no English-language films that I have an interest in watching. I'm wondering if I'm being biased and need to check myself, or if there really are no English language films that are truly worthy of considering for the decade's top ten films. Take, for instance, the five top ranked English language films of the decade, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They? They are: Memento (#18), You Can Count on Me (#27), Dancer in the Dark (#39), Almost Famous (#62) and The House of Mirth (#65).  Nine years later, none of these films shouts at me for attention. Well, maybe Memento, if only because it inspired a very entertaining Bollywood musical remake that I saw recently. But at the time I found it gimmicky and ultimately slight. But I am open to be persuaded to re-watch it by anyone who wants to make a case for it (but only if you would personally put it on your own top ten of the decade).

But the film that kind of puzzles me is You Can Count on Me, which, to my surprise, I ranked at #7 on my 2000 list of films seen. What's more, this quiet little character study has a startlingly high ranking on the TSPDT best of the decade list. I do remember finding it a remarkably precise portrait of self-destructive, self-abusive behaviors within a wounded brother-sister dynamic. Maybe it didn't advance the cinematic artform in a significant way, but it was a powerfully acted and directed drama, and I'd probably put it on a list of the best films to come out of Sundance in this decade. But is it worth serious consideration for this project?  Again, anyone who would put it on their own list is welcome to step forward. Any other 2000 releases are also welcome to be nominated. Speak now, otherwise it's looking like I'm stuck with Asia (with a side trip to France, to finally check out a 345-minute pseudo-documentary I've heard very good things about)

Best of the Decade Derby: of cafes, balloons and camerawork

This post is dedicated to Chris Fujiwara, with whom I enjoyed a hotpot dinner and a morning double feature of Nikkatsu '60s New Wave porn at the CinemaVera arthouse in Shibuya during my recent stay in Tokyo. During our time together Chris expressed disdain over the preponderance of film writing in magazines and blogs these days that convey a "look how cool I am to be writing about this movie that I got to see" snobbishness to it. His complaint is that the tone of these pieces convey exclusivity and snobbish possessiveness over the works being discussed, which in the end does these films a great disservice, as these films need and deserve to be made understood to a wider audience. Chris' concerns are those I've had as I've spent many years trying to vindicate the virtues of Hou Hsiao Hsien to peers who would often reply with a dismissive "Who Hsiao Hsien?"  Now that Hou has unequivocably earned his day in the sun with American film critics, with Flight of the Red Balloon coming out at the top of the IndieWire critics poll (which seems to be missing from the new version of the IndieWire site), I find myself in a peculiar position of making a potentially snobbish argument questioning why Flight of the Red Balloon is so regarded while his earlier oeuvre remains fairly underappreciated. Perhaps I should just be grateful that the praise lavished on Hou's latest film may carry over into proper DVD releases of his earlier work, such as his hands-down greatest film City of Sadness, which to date is not available as an English-subtitled DVD.

It remains to be seen whether Flight's prominent poll position will translate to a slot on many critics end-of-decade top ten lists.  Thanks to its strong showing, it's the highest ranking 2008 release on the freshly updated (and, interestingly, Dark Knight-free) aggregate list of the decade's best films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, debuting at #30. In comparison, Cafe Lumiere is at #152, and Three Times at #199. I've been of the opinion that Cafe Lumiere is Hou's best film of the decade, the only one that comes close to being a masterpiece (in contrast, there are three Hou films from the 1990s that I consider masterpieces: The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai), and I've stated before that Flight of the Red Balloon, while remarkable in many ways, strikes me as a European reconfiguring of much that can already be found in Cafe Lumiere - which makes me regard Flight's commercial and critical success with some suspicion, especially when compared to the relative lack thereof wth Cafe Lumiere.

Maybe it's snarky of me to come up with commercial reasons for Hou's long-deferred success with Flight of the Red Balloon, but I'll just get them off my chest:

- The breakthrough success of Hou's Three Times (which, as accomplished as it was in many respects, could be seen as a high-concept, audience-friendly intro to his worldview recycling much of his previous films) set the stage for his subsequent release to continue his commercial success in the US. - The baguette factor:  Juliette Binoche + Paris. As J. Hoberman once said, if Hou were French he'd be selling out the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Turns out that J.Ho may have called this one right. - Lastly, for Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou adopts an arthouse-friendly color palette of warm reds and oranges, and employs some masterful long panning takes which situate his style squarely within the conventions of contemporary arthouse cinema more than any of his previous films.  Now, I don't suspect that Hou was as calculating as "let's shoot it this way so I can cash in on arthouse audience preferences." The panning takes of Flight of the Red Balloon are indeed masterful (more on that in a moment) and aesthetically they make sense, as they mimic the whimsical swinging trajectories of the balloon (and once I realized this, the balloon seemed much more than just a gimmicky link to French cinema history).

Having said all this, I rewatched Flight of the Red Balloon during my trip, and on a purely cinematic basis, I was floored. Hou's economy of filmmaking, the way he choreographs camerawork and staging to accomplish several things visually and dramatically in one take is astounding. The most brilliantly indisputable evidence of this comes at a dramatic highpoint in the film, when Juliette Binoche's character suffers something close to a nervous breakdown trying to find the legal paperwork that would allow her to finally separate materially from her ex-husband and allow her literally to get a new lease on life. Look at how this five minute scene plays out and guess how many shots are involved:

The answer: one. Hou and cinematographer Mark Li Ping Bing achieve in one camera setup what would require at least five unique setups by a conventional production. And the fact that it is just one camera setup gives the audience a real-time sense of how a scene unfolds, how figures move through it and around each other, how the space itself affects the mood of the scene. Respect.

The only thing I could possibly say against this (and it's not really against Flight of the Red Balloon, more against those who think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread) is that Hou's been doing this for at least a decade. Check out the final scene of Goodbye South Goodbye, in which two parties negotiate the release of the lead characters. Granted here he's working more with horizontal space than with the cool horizontal-vertical axis in the scene from Flight shown above, but it illustrates all the better how a space seems to continually unfold new manifestations, new wonders.

Notice how the two shots at the end of this one-take scene could be combined to form a master panorama view of the whole table - but dramatically the pan makes sense because the two shots depict the two sides of the negotiation taking place.

In Japan I also had hotpot with Shozo Ichiyama, the producer of so many of Hou's great films in the 1990s, including Goodbye South, Goodbye. Ichiyama-san told me that Hou is concentrating of producing his next project, which will be a martial arts film. These long takes may give one an idea of what Hou has in mind.

I also rescind the earlier assessment I made that Flight of the Red Balloon is essentially a European rehash of Cafe Lumiere, in that it takes the incidental, in-the-moment, contemporary life-in-the-making project of Cafe Lumiere's Tokyo and recontextualizes it in Paris (which, again, proved to be a commercially wise idea).  Having seen both in the past week, their differences are more striking than their similarities. Flight is shot voluptuously, with its rich warm hues, captivating panning shots, and busy interior scenes where anywhere between 2-5 characters will buzz around a space like bees.

When I think of Cafe Lumiere, the first word that comes to mind is "flat." The second is "impassive." The two words are closely linked, and I think have everything to do with not only how this movie looks, but what it thinks and feels about the world and about people, esp. its protagonist. In contrast the sequence shown above from Flight, where a single shot suggests many pockets of micro-spaces and dimensions within a scene, the shots of Cafe Lumiere are flat and direct. Part of this may have to do with the locations Hou shoots, such as the bookstore where Hajime (Tadanobu Asano - Japan's actor of the decade?) works:

Looking at these compositions, it's striking how Ozu-esque they are, shot at geometrically square angles - and maybe this has something to do with the resultant "flatness" of Cafe that I've described. But unlike Ozu, Hou doesn't do a lot of shot-reverse shot cutting or decoupage of a scene; he doesn't do much cutting at all, really. By my count, Cafe Lumiere has 49 scenes and 81 shots - that's an average of less than 2 shots per scene!

By my count, the number of shots in Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon is almost exactly the same. Flight has 80, Cafe has 81. But Cafe has 10 more scenes than Flight. I think this means that Cafe moves more from scene to scene than Flight, while Flight moves more within scenes (look at the sequence above for a clear example of what I mean). While Flight is fascinated with the bustle of activity within a given space,  Cafe follows one character on a mysterious journey of self-discovery that involves her friend's bookstore, her parent's house, various locations related to the Taiwanese composer she is researching, and any number of cafes and train stations in between.

Played by Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto, Yoko is a remarkable character in that she manages to be appealing and engaging despite having her back turned to us for half the movie. Hitoto is dressed plainly compared to Juliette Binoche's tussled blond dyejob and boho threads in Flight. Often times we don't even see her face clearly - the above close-up is pretty much the only one in the film, though it comes at a key moment of emotional candor (well, as candid as this film of intentions veiled by common courtesies ever gets).  One can see why this film would do poorly with audiences: not only does it lack the warm, charismatic presence of Shu Qi or Juliette Binoche, but it doesn't even give much in the way of flattering closeups to bring us closer to its lead. Again, the overall effect is "flat" - she's just there, on screen, living her life, her performance not giving much consideration to the audience watching her.

This intractability, I argue, is the gateway to understanding this movie.  The plot, what there is of one, concerns a girl's search for the historical remnants of a late Taiwanese composer who lived in Japan many decades before. The search may or may not be related to the girl's own recent developments: getting pregnant by a Taiwanese boyfriend now living in Thailand, but deciding to break up with him and stay in Tokyo to have the baby. It's quite a melodramatic situation when one thinks about it, though you wouldn't guess it by the relatively placid way that the girl goes about her business (the only distressful moment she has is when she suffers morning sickness on the subway). But this quiet impassivity forces the viewer to look more carefully for slight clues or cues to the drama - and is the key to what's truly special about this film.

Take this scene, where Yoko tells her stepmother over a late night snack that she's pregnant. Compare the stepmother's face and body language before the announcement:

with after:

These are the two most extreme stills, mind you - I tried to go for extremes because you have to watch the frames in motion to get a sense of the full scope of her body language, a series of slight movements backwards (once she hears the announcement) and then forwards (when she recovers from the internal shock to ask questions).  It's worth noting that the changing registers of people's facial expressions was Ozu's bread and butter - except that he would sandwich these two shots above around a reverse shot of Yoko making the announcement. Here we have the integrity of a moment preserved in real time, and we get to witness one second wash into the next, seeing how movements, feelings, registers of light unfold in a constant stream.

My favorite character in the movie is Yoko's father, who never says a single word in the film, and whose rigid, mountainlike presence betrays a well of micro-emotions. Compare this shot of him sitting in his living room, enjoying a beer in front of the TV, his daughter just returned home:

The next afternoon we see him in a reverse shot of the one above - he's sitting on the opposite side of the table, this time facing the pposite direction (the window instead of the TV), his eyes closed and anxious. You'd have to watch the movie to get a sense of how his emotional state has changed overnight - the difference is that this is the morning after his daughter told his stepmom that she's pregnant. We never get a scene of the daughter telling the father - in all likelihood it wasn't communicated directly - but the ever so slight change of the father's body language is enough to tell us what he knows and feels.

Several scenes later, it's the next day and the parents have come to visit Yoko's apartment to discuss the matter of her pregnancy further. Father and daughter eat silently at the table - but you get a quick moment of the father putting a potato on Yoko's plate. I didn't even notice this moment the first time I watched the film. But if you hone in on it, it's an emotionally tidal moment that means the world to both of them, given all that's happened.

The feeling of connection is short-lived however, as the lunch leads to a discussion of the pregnancy, with stepmom now crowding the frame - a subtle way for Hou to suggest tension and discord through deep staging:

It remains to be seen whether Flight of the Red Balloon or Cafe Lumiere are strong enough to make my top ten of the decade.  I'm not even sure which film I think is better - the question may be moot, as I've gone to lengths to show how different they are and unique in their own respects. But even though I've rewatched Cafe more than Flight, I'm still more inclined to revisit Cafe. It's the rarer treasure, its mysteries seem more tightly packed underneath a seemingly banal surface, operating under a cinematic logic that in its own, quiet way, radically defies category or convention, reflecting the modestly willful, quietly independent spirit of its protagonist. It makes Flight look more ingratiating, like an amusement park ride in comparison - though don't get me wrong, it's a hell of a ride. I've come to appreciate that much...

For further reference, here are links to my original reviews to Hou's films of the 2000s. Which one sounds like "best of the decade" material to you?

Millennium Mambo

Cafe Lumiere

Three Times

Flight of the Red Balloon

Best of the Decade Derby: Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang)

TSPDT all-time top 1000 rank #597TSPDT 21st Century rank #3

This is the first of a series of entries reviewing candidates for a list of best films of the decade.

Even though this is just the first entry of a year-long project that will consider dozens of other films for my end of decade top ten, I'll be damned if Yi Yi doesn't make the final cut. Watching it this time (my third viewing, first since I saw it twice in the theater back in 2000), it is still the proverbial Movie I Wish I Could Make, as it embodies so much of what I love about movies.  It's simple yet expansive, using the story of one family, the Jians, as the nucleus around which a world swarms, menacingly at times, in all its vast complexity. Not only is it a film about a world, but it's a film about having a worldview; literally, how to look at the world.  For that, it's a truly cinematic work, one of the few films of the past several years which, after watching it, you may find yourself looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

The cinematic tag is something worth fighting for with this film, as no less a film critic than J. Hoberman once gave it the backhanded compliment of amounting to "great television," a film that he claimed gained something from being watched on a small screen. Now I'm not one of those that considers television inferior to cinema, certainly not after experiencing the best of television dramas from this decade.  But there are qualities to Yi Yi that deserve, if not demand, a large screen to be truly savored.  What's very un-television about Yang's eye is its insistence on viewing action from a middle to wide distance:

Certainly these wide shot compositions are calling out to be admired in their own right, but they're more than just impeccable objects of admiration. They reflect a way of seeing that's practically Hitchcockian in its voyeuristic insistence on detachment, while remaining highly attentive to what's going on within the frame.

Yang achieves a distancing effect with shooting through windows, literally reflecting a world that's much bigger than a single direct gaze would otherwise suggest, while also drawing attention to our own everyday acts of voyeurism. With all respect to In the City of Sylvia, this film is a virtual lexicon in modes of people watching:

These filters and refractors do not so much eschew emotional involvement with the characters as complicate it by bringing a degree of awareness to our own act of witnessing their travails.  In other words, it gives us the space to reach out and embrace these characters of our own accord.

While much of these principles of looking at the world are implicit within the style of the film, the movie does locate these issues within the characters as well, especially with Ting Ting, the young daughter of the family who arguably experiences the most personal growth in the film due to her tumultuous experiences with family illness, friendship and romance. In one terrific sequence we get to share her worldview for a moment as she collects garbage from her apartment balcony.

She and we overhear her new neighbor on the phone --


then a cut to the neighbor's daughter and her estranged boyfriend walking down the street far below --

and then a cut back to Ting Ting, whose matching shot implies her gaze at the couple, intrigued by their mysterious liaisons, a romance she has yet to experience for herself.

This mastery of the middle-to-long distance is maintained through nearly all of the film's three hour length. There are barely a dozen close-ups, many of which involve (indirectly as well as directly) the Jian's frail grandmother, who never speaks a word. Her close-up, the film's first, provides the film with an elusive, fragile and soulful presence that haunts the rest of the film.

After grandmother suffers a debilitating stroke, rendering her unresponsive, the other family members are called upon to spend time talking to her in hopes of reviving her. These one-on-ones amount to revealing confessionals in which the characters basically offer a mirror glimpse into their hopes and fears.  It's also visually the closest glimpses we get at each of them:

The art of seeing people becomes something explicit with the son Yang Yang's fixation on capturing things that others can't see, leading him to take photos of the backs of people's heads:

One's appreciation of the film's visual ability to communicate meaning deepens when one realizes how much of the dialogue in the film amounts to the characters expressing despair or self-deception, barely able to connect with the words coming from others' mouths. Which makes my favorite sequence all the more magical, one of the great depictions of the formation of friendship in all of cinema.  NJ (Wu Nien-Jien) meets with a prospective Japanese partner Ota (Issei Ogata) on a business dinner. They only share rudimentary English conversation skills, yet somehow they hit the same wavelength, thanks in part to Ota's curious lack of inhibition mixed with a Zen-like wisdom (in a sense he's Taiwan's Japanese answer to the Magical Negro). They bond over a shared love of classical music, leading to a night at a karaoke bar whose anything goes mood, generated by Ota's impulsive song selections, from Japanese pop to Beethoven, is the possible inspiration for NJ to call his long-lost sweetheart. It's a sequence whose logic is subterranean yet intuitively on target, letting the mood of one moment wash into the next.

I haven't even begun talking about the other brilliant nuggets of design to be found in this film's script and editing, its dovetailing and doubling of character arcs and incidents along themes of art vs. commerce, individuality vs. conformity, and love lost, found and re-found.  There's an almost scientific precision and modularity to its construction: it begins with a wedding, ends with a funeral, and a birth is celebrated exactly at the midway point. In some ways it's one of the easiest films (for me at least) to admire and explicate its brilliance, like an ingeniously designed piece of programming code (I'm consciously invoking Yang's IT background): hone in on any ten minutes and marvel at how pieces are laid in one scene to set up the next, or the one after that. And yet this film's remarkable parts does not fully account for its overall effect, one of wonder, wisdom and the formation of personal values through hard experience and attentive engagement (visually, mentally, socially) with the world.

Obscure bonus trivia: I'm curious if anyone can name the scene in Yi Yi that has an audio reference to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (a film that Yang watched during production and loved). Impress me and I'll see what I can do to reward your erudition...