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

Ten Old, Ten New, One Awful, Ten for the Decade, and Modest Pinprick for a Red Balloon

I'm heading to Asia for ten days tomorrow, so I thought I'd tie up some loose ends and set a couple things on the table going forward... We're a week into the new year and neck deep in top ten lists cluttering the blogosphere, but I'd might as well put on record on this site that my top ten list for films released in 2008 can be found on IndieWire as part of their annual poll of critics.  I'd also like to mention how proud I am to take part in this annual poll, given the caliber of critics participating, some of the finest voices covering mainstream and specialty cinema in the alternative press and the blogosphere.  I've followed this poll ever since it kicked off in 1999 when it was run by Dennis Lim at the Village Voice. Sadly, the first several editions of the poll are no longer online. Too bad since I was counting on referring to those poll results for another project I have warming up for this year - more on that further below.

In addition to the ballot I submitted to IndieWire, here's an alternative list covering the ten best films I saw in 2008, regardless of their distribution status. Again the criteria I stick to is "how much do I wish I had made this film?"

1 - Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) - If this world were fair, this movie would be getting the distribution and box office of any given Judd Apatow flick.  It's as funny and funky as anything Apatow has done, but a heck of a lot smarter and genuinely thought-provoking about the role that happiness plays in one's life and its impact on one's social interactions, sometimes as much for the worse as for the better.  And it has a female character and a performance that should shame Hollywood for not coming up with anything as smart, funny,  and loveable for its own immense pool of actresses starving for a good role. 2 - The Class (Laurent Cantet) - I'm disappointed that this film hasn't been getting more attention in the US - I think Sony Pictures Classics is screwing up the campaign for the film, despite it being the French submission to this year's Foreign Film Oscar competition. It's really one of the smartest, most immersive depictions of the process of institutional education. It's funny, it's dynamic, it's amazingly naturalistic, and it has an equanimity towards all of its characters unique beauties and frustrating flaws that would make Jean Renoir proud.  With all due respect, it makes Half Nelson look half-baked. 3 - Wall-E (Andrew Stanton) - I've heard the backlash towards the film: how it supposedly "celebrates the end of culture" (Armond White) and its dumbed down, feel good take on an environmental apocalypse that is very much at risk of becoming reality.  People can be as demanding or implacable as they want, but as far as I'm concerned this film is a breakthrough in terms of articulating a social crisis and a moral ethos in a language that is eloquent, meaningful and yes, simple enough that an 8 year old can understand it.  And a big part of that has to do with how cinematic it is.  One day when I was comparing top ten lists with Richard Brody he commented that our appreciation of cinema shouldn't be confined to films in their whole form, but in moments that sear themselves into our mind forever, which occur in any number of films, not just masterpieces.  Well my favorite movie moment of 2008 is from a masterpiece, and it's the scene where Wall-E and Eva dance among the stars, a breathtaking expression of the lyrical in what's probably the most musically constructed film of the year. 4 - Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza) - Give me this funky, lively, lived-in redefinition of the "flophouse" movie over the airless formalism of Goodbye Dragon Inn anyday. My original review at Slant 5 - The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat) - Breillat's enters into a "mature" phase, and I think she's the better for it. As I wrote in my original review, "Breillat brings her indelible mix of braininess and rawness; mixing verbal and physical sexual exchanges, she aims both high and low where other films settle for a tastefully soft-core middle" 6 - Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) - Can't believe this still doesn't have a distributor.  Wickedly smart and uncompromising, it takes the Dardennes Brothers' aesthetic to slap them in the face for everything they pretty much stand for, which at this point in their career, they kind of deserve. 7 - Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) - Despite its jaw-droppingly choreographed long takes, this one kind of crept up on me in terms of its overall impact, but I simply cannot deny its lasting power. I guess if it weren't for Wall-E this film would get my vote for Moment(s) of the Year. 8 - Taking Father Home (Ying Liang) - full disclosure: my company dGenerate Films is the non-theatrical distributor of Taking Father Home. I can't think of a better film to come out of China to describe the spiritual dysfunction afflicting so many of that country's people in the wake of go-go capitalism. One of the decade's best debut films, it's scorchingly raw yet beautifully composed. 9 - Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) - "It romanticizes poverty and makes it seem fun" the critics say.  Bollywood has been turning poverty into joyous cinema for over 60 years, so you know what, get a clue. This film honors that tradition, taking Bollywood's penchant for fabulous, borderline credible narrative incident as an occasion to hit audience's aching wish fulfillment smack between the eyes, and does as good a job at it as any of the classics.  And frankly it's amazing to have a film that so blatantly depicts the injustices and suffering of an entire people in such wide distribution. For that, those tears of joy at the end are very much earned. 10 - Trouble the Water (Carl Deal, Tia Lessin) - The best doc released in the US this year, the audience-pleasing but fairly pointless Man on Wire be damned. Though I did see at least a couple of even better documentaries from China, as part of my duties as programmer for dGenerate, but I can't disclose what they are at this time. It sucks because I feel that I'm in a position to advocate for their release, and yet due to my position I have to keep mum until my company has resolved its interest in these titles.  Hopefully this year, you'll be hearing a lot about these films, and soon.

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I should also mention that I was tapped this week to select my least favorite film of 2008 by the New York Magazine Vulture blog. And so I obliged - the resulting paragraph was quite cathartic to write, I must say.

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Next, to celebrate the conclusion of another year of the Shooting Down Pictures project, I'd like to highlight my ten favorite films out of the 48 that I watched for the project in 2008.

Wild River - the last Shooting Down Pictures film that I saw in 2008 may very well have been my favorite. Night of the Demon - with an amazing video essay contribution by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: a Cinema of Nightfall The Art of Vision Murder by Contract El Verdugo Days and Nights in the Forest - with two video essays by filmmaker Preston Miller Two English Girls - with video essay by C. Mason Wells of IFC La Region centrale Grey Gardens - with video essay by Vadim Rizov, the Kevin Durant of film critics The Outlaw Josey Wales - with video essay by the one and only Matt Zoller Seitz

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Finally, I want to announce (somewhat tentatively) that, in anticipation of the inevitable onslaught of "best of the decade" lists towards the end of this year, I'm planning to watch several dozen films from the '00s as I prepare my own list. It will be a combination of catching up with highly lauded titles I haven't seen, revisiting favorites of each year to reassess their value, and reassessing films that were highly lauded but that somehow didn't do it for me (i.e. Inland Empire).

First up are a few films by Taiwanese directors, in commemoration of my upcoming trip to Taiwan.  One is Edward Yang's Yi Yi (which last time I checked was my favorite film of 2000), and then a couple by Hou Hsiao Hsien: Cafe Lumiere, which is probably my favorite Hou film of the decade, and Flight of the Red Balloon, which, as good as it is, feels like a European variant with more expressive acting, but essentially seems to overlap a good deal with its predecessor. That didn't stop the IndieWire critics from voting it the best film of 2008 - and I would wonder if those elements had everything to do the film - Hou's first shot in the West - being the first of his films to claim top prize in a critics poll.  I don't begrudge the film or its supporters (of which I am one - indeed, I was quite shocked when I listed 10 films I liked more than Flight of the Red Balloon; not a bad year for movies at all) anything; the film deserves the praise it's received. I just wonder why an earlier, and to my mind better film of his didn't fare as well.

Maybe it's just the accumulation of Hou's reputation over recent years, vaunted especially by the Hou 101 primer known as Three Times that gave people what I consider to be easy gateway into understanding his aesthetic.   The "problem" - for me at least, is that all this praise lavished on Hou's recent work seems to overshadow his earlier work, which to me is more unique and challenging in terms of how it constructed a new dialect of cinema not found elsewhere, not even in the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, to which he is often compared.  The recent stuff, especially from Millennium Mambo onward, is still uniformly great, but it strikes me that Hou has taken his aesthetic in a direction that feels more in line with a global art festival aesthetic of masterful choreographed long takes helmed by the virtuoso Mark Li Ping-Bin.  It wasn't always like this - one could argue that the most amazing thing about early Hou wasn't his use of long takes, as beautiful as they were, but his astounding and at times even confounding editing schemes, where the sequence and emphasis of narrative events would be distorted to create a wholly new approach to storytelling that mimcked and shed light on how the human mind constructs memory (and without resorting to the easy tricks found in Christopher Nolan's Memento).  So I hope that in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding Flight of the Red Balloon, viewers might dig back a little and check out films like A Time to Live and a Time to Die, City of Sadness, or The Puppetmaster, which as a trilogy offers many times more depth and genuine sense of time, place and cinema than Three Times.

Despite these protestations, I'm not opposed to reconsidering my position. And so I'll be watching Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon back to back in the next week or so, helping to kick off what I hope will be a year-long rundown of the decade's best (and supposedly) best films.