Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/
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A central film in the history of New Taiwanese Cinema. A portmanteu film, like The Sandwich Man, composed of films by four different directors :Dinosaur/ Little Dragon Head, d: Tao Te Chen; Expectations/ Desires, d: Edward Yang; Leapfrog, d: Ko I-chen; Say Your Name/ Show Your ID, d: Yi Chang. The films are structured in chronological order, each film set in a different decade from the 50s to the 80s.
In the podcast we discuss the figure of the Child in Taiwanese cinema, which seems to be a recurring pattern.
We’re thrilled by the extraordinary depiction of the female gaze in Edward Yang’s episode and the beautiful and complex way it’s visually conveyed. What Yang can do with a pan is quite extraordinary. You can get a flavour of this from the little trailer I made below:
We talk about how this new wave comes across as a ‘boy’s club’ and discuss the context of the last episode in relation to Sylvia Chang. We also wonder whether Sylvia Chang might be overlooked more by Western critics than Taiwanese ones and the effect that that might have on our perception and accounts of this cinema in the West and whether this is an effect of overvaluing auteurism at the expense of social and industrial contexts.
We note the use of music and discuss how those choices might have affected the international circulation of this film. We talk about the many common elements these short films have with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early commercial work. After evaluating each of the works in some detail, we conclude by highly recommending the film.
What began twenty years ago as a series of car chases and races has since spiralled out of control into an action behemoth encompassing ten films, a TV series, videogames, and theme park attractions. But for the spinoff film Hobbs & Shaw, Fast and Furious 9 is Mike’s introduction to the Fast & Furious series, with José having seen some of the previous instalments, but not all.
We discuss the soap opera storytelling, the way it expresses humour – what it thinks are jokes are really just aggressive, macho posturing – and what it thinks of intelligence, José contending that it represents the worst of American culture in privileging stupidity and making it victorious, with Mike offering a complementary drop of nuance, arguing that it does at least believe that its heroes are smart… but it’s a stupid person’s idea of what being smart is. Core to the film’s failings is its almost complete lack of irony, only the car-turned-space shuttle indicating that the film has any understanding of comedy and how absurd it all is.
There’s no recommending Fast and Furious 9, its shortcomings exposed by the competence of almost every other action blockbuster (even Hobbs & Shaw, which had its own problems, but was a pleasant surprise). On the basis of this, Mike’s curiosity has been sated, and he’s happy to continue avoiding this godforsaken series for the rest of his life.
Marvel’s triumphant return to our cinemas is… a film that fills in a plot hole nobody cared about for a character who not only should have had a standalone film long before now but who has since been killed off. To say that Black Widow feels like a kick in the teeth is an understatement, but still, the MCU is back with us and we see what it has to offer.
And what it presents us with is something much more earthbound than the spacefaring antics in which Marvel has increasingly indulged: a good old-fashioned Russian spy story, and a family reunion of sorts, Natasha Romanoff driven to reconnect with the other undercover Russian agents who formed her surrogate family as a child. We ask whether the theme of family is done justice here, especially David Harbour’s – the father’s – part in its expression. And, among others, we ask questions of the action filmmaking, the lack of humour in heroes, Romanoff’s conceptualisation, how the women are filmed, and whether it’s necessary to eschew edginess in order to pursue a progressive politics.
Black Widow is a film we enjoyed, though on reflection, picking out the reasons why is harder than picking at its flaws – but it certainly hasn’t dampened our willingness to continue following Marvel’s movies.
Edward Yang depicts a gaze on a male body that would not become prevalent in American Cinema until at least a decade later, one originating in female desire. The re-edit is from his episode in the omnibus film, In Our Time (1982)
We thank the Cineteca di Bologna for the 2021 digital offerings and return for the third year in a row to discuss their programme. This year we reflect on the digital absence of major strands such as the Romy Schneider or George Stevens films which were only shown in situ. We discuss difficulties with translation and sub-titling, note how the digital offerings were quite US and Eurocentric, atypical for this festival, and discuss some of the highlights of Richard’s viewing: silent cinema, Wolfgang Staudte films, the only film on the Algerian War made as it was happening (Les oliviers de la justice, 1961), André Dalvaux’ Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965), Lionel Rogosin’s Arab Israeli Dialogue (1974), Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty (1979) and classics such as I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941), Esa pareja feliz (Berlanga/Bardem ,1959) and Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947).
An offbeat, gentle, surreal, intriguing and slightly camp comic drama, French Exit is a pleasant surprise for us both. Michelle Pfeiffer’s widowed heiress, reduced to selling her late husband’s property, takes what’s left of her life – her cat, adult son, and attitude – to an apartment in Paris, where she resolves to spend her remaining money before ending her life. Sounds hilarious.
And indeed it is, its director, Azazel Jabocs, demonstrating a mastery of tone. We discuss what makes the film work, its visual design, its relationship with and attitude towards money, how that campness José perceives is kept subdued, and more. French Exit isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it is a good one, and a charming way to spend a couple of hours.
A discussion of OUR TIME, OUR STORY, a more traditional documentary than FLOWERS OF TAIPEI but all the better for it. A film that offers various kinds of contexts (production, distribution, exhibition, reception), historicises well, finds extraordinary archival footage, interviews many of the leading people involved in Taiwan’s New Cinema and really enhances our knowledge of the period, the movement, and the films themselves. The film boasts many clips often in a lamentably degraded state but one that really make us appreciate the value of the new restorations . The video may be listened to below:
After all our contextualising, we return to Hou Hsiao-hsien films proper, focussing on the masterpiece that is a City of Sadness. We are able now to discuss not only what the film feels like to watch or what it is about in formal terms but can now add various kinds of contexts: historical, political, social, aesthetic, industrial, and even how our own personal histories find echo in the film and how those echoes add a layer of insight and understanding into the film and perhaps also into ourselves. It makes for a rich but still — as is proper with all great works — initial and tentative discussion.
The sequel to one of the first films we discussed on Eavesdropping at the Movies, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard reunites Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman, Ryan Reynolds’ bodyguard, and Salma Hayek’s hitman’s wife – whose role is significantly expanded from the first film’s bit part. The vaguely sketched plot – Antonio Banderas wants to blow up Europe or something, and that’s enough detail – is the wire hanger upon which jokes and comic character interplay are draped, but, crucially, is the comedy successful?
Whether it is or isn’t, and what we read into the audience response, is up for discussion, as is the deployment of the stars’ personas and cinematic histories, what renders Ryan Reynolds’ schtick endearing here where it’s normally irritating, and whether the film’s sexual dimension is overly vulgar or too one-sided.
José has seen The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard twice now, and is no less in thrall to Hayek’s aggressive, wild performance the second time, loudly and enthusiastically responding to it. Mike is much less impressed with the film, but does admit to warming up to it in the second half, after a particularly mad joke that we won’t spoil here (but do in the podcast). If there are more Hitman’s Bodyguard films to come, hopefully with increasingly deliberately clunky titles, we’re up for them.
We continue with our discussion of Edward Yang films in relation to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work. We discuss the film in relation to Postmodernism, Existentialism, contingency, nausea, chance. We note that Fredric Jameson wrote on Sartre, Postmodernism, and this film. We discuss, Yang’s characteristic visuals, his distinctive way of filming, narrating, and style of characterisation; a kind of mosaic sights, sounds, scenes which the viewer is left to piece together. We continue to be entranced.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda shot to fame in the mid-2010s with Hamilton, he had already enjoyed success with his 2005 musical, In the Heights, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, winning four Tonys for its Broadway production in 2008. Set in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, it now comes to cinemas, following the lives, struggles and dreams of its inhabitants, who simply cannot stop singing.
Well, singing and rapping – and it’s the rapping that shines, Miranda’s lyrics as witty and intricate as those in Hamilton, while the singing is less impressive, and the domain of the film’s women, who Mike wishes had been given the opportunity to rap. We discuss our disappointment in the direction – the film is full of visual ideas that aren’t executed to their fullest potential – and its relationship to the cultures and peoples it portrays.
In the Heights has its flaws, but despite them, it’s an immensely likeable portrait of life in its locale, José in particular, an immigrant to North America himself, recognising a lot of what it depicts and loving the way it shows off the cultures around which it’s based. We pick fault with it, because that’s what we do, but don’t let that stop you from seeing and enjoying it.
We explore Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film whose reputation precedes it – it’s regarded as one of the greatest war films of all time. In 1943 Belarus, a young teenager, Flyora, joins the resistance, but as he travels from village to village across Nazi-occupied Belarus, experiencing worsening horrors and atrocities brought upon the locals, the extent to which he is out of his depth gradually becomes clearer and clearer.
Part of Come and See‘s reputation is of being hard to watch, something we both take issue with – it goes to some deeply unpleasant places, but it’s a gradual descent rather than an onslaught. That the film is regarded as such a trial has likely caused some filmgoers to unnecessarily avoid an experience that they would value. While it depicts shocking imagery and events, it’s shot with an ethical eye – everything that’s shown has a purpose, and that which would be excessively prurient is often avoided.
We also consider the use of supernatural and fairytale aesthetics to place us in the mind of an innocent teenager, and the repeated portrait photography that shows the deepening scars the film’s events leave upon him. We also discuss the film’s view of Hitler and how it espouses a kind of great man theory in placing him as an icon at the centre of the Nazis’ crimes, and the explosion of audiovisual imagination that is the final scene.
Come and See is a beautifully made expression of the hideous costs of war on the innocent, and on our humanity. It’s imaginative, intelligent, moving and shocking, and, we might add, beautifully restored. If you’ve avoided it on the basis of its notoriety, we urge you to reconsider. It’s truly great.
Richard and I discuss our admiration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. It’s connection to Hou Hsiao-hsien, who stars and co-wrote the screenplay. It’s a mosaic of a film in which a relationship between two people, childhood sweethearts who care for each other, falls apart and as it does so we get to see stories of a people and of a city in transition in a country situated within two imperial cultures, Japanese and American, with mainland China always hovering on the background. It’s a beautiful film, with really striking, original and beautiful imagery: Yang’s flat face-on camera, uses of screens, reflections, the city always ever present in what is ultimately a chamber piece focussing on a couple and their immediate relations, the couple caught between a longed for past (on his part) and an uncertain future in hers. A truly great film.
Reflected on screens. Also see other images below:
clip of Pepsi imagery:
Yang & Hockney
Richard also recommends this article:
This is a great article although it ignores the Hokkien-language films! This artistic conservatism was partly the result of the Kuomintang government’s thirty-eight-year imposition of martial law, and while the New Taiwan Cinema did not become explicitly political until the late eighties, when the law was lifted, Yang’s and Hou’s early films were among the first to depict Taiwan as a place with a burgeoning sense of its own social and historical integrity, independent of a mainland China that had long considered it a mere repository.