Lost Memories. Movies Reviewed: New Women, Free the Mind, Before Midnight

Posted in 1920s, Cultural Mining, Denmark, Mental Illness, Movies, Mysticism, Romance, Shanghai, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2013

June 5 2013_Yang Fudong_New Women credit SONIA RECCHIA, WireImage for TIFF_mediumHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Lost memories – should they be buried, and forgotten? Or is it better to preserve them… or even recreate versions of them? Do you find yourself unconsciously repeating half-forgotten conversations? Will bringing old memories to the surface help us purge them and get on with our lives?

This week I’m looking at these questions in three movies that treat memories in very different ways. One is a film/art installation that recreates titillating images of women in pre-war Shanghai; one’s a documentary about ex-soldiers who confront and purge past memories through breathing exercises; and a drama about a couple on vacation in Greece, and the memories the trip brings up.

June 5 2013_Yang Fudong_New Women 2 credit SONIA RECCHIA, WireImage for TIFF_medium_New Women

Dir: Yang Fudong

New Women is an art/film installation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with five large movie screens in a darkened chamber. Black and white video projections show languorous women, wandering around in recreated scenes of old Shanghai. Or, rather, not Shanghai locations but the false photo sets and backgrounds that were popular in that era. The models seem to be trapped in a seductive opium-haze, and they lounge around, draping themselves over art deco New Women_ CREDIT Courtesy the Artist and ShanghART_mediumfurniture, sprays of cherry blossoms, immaculate Roman ruins and feather boas. Shanghai glamour girls were idolized in the 1920s and 30s, their images selling cigarettes, alcohol and candy. But these models, save for their elaborate make-up, hairstyles and jewelry,  are completely nude in these unusual soft-core porn projections.

Each scene is reflected and echoed across the chamber, not synchronized, but staggered and varied, giving the whole exhibition a drifting, dream-like quality. You should check out this show.

Free the Mind 1_Main_still_Rich_with_electrodesFree The Mind

Dir: Phie Ambo

Will is a 3-year-old foster child who is terrified of elevators. He feels trapped there if the doors closed and doesn’t know how to press the buttons. It makes him feel bad in his belly. He also gets into fights easily and doesn’t get along with the other kids. Doctors say he has ADHD and should be medicated.

One ex-soldier is plagued by constant guilt and uneasiness for the cruelty he showed. And another veteran’s marriage is collapsing — he can’t shake the memory of the deaths he feels responsible for in Iraq. They both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Should they drown their lives in activities? Or start on a program of prescription drugs? Free the Mind 9_Will_listeningOr self-medicate themselves to oblivion – masking their troubles with alcohol or pot? Or is there another way to free the brain and body from the worries that plague them?

This documentary suggests that breathing and meditation exercises, constantly repeated, can actually reform the thought patterns in the brain. While the movie doesn’t make a strictly scientific argument, it’s still too early to offer proof, it does show the results of a test case at the University of Wisconsin: the session seems to change moods and sleep patterns. In word-association tests the patients shifted from negative, doom-and-gloom responses to a much more positive mindset. And it’s heart-warming to see the little boy Will gradually adjusting.

This is a fairly conventional documentary in form (plus a bit of animation and some psychedelic scenes) but its topic is fascinating.

Before Midnight 8 Delpy HawkeBefore Midnight

Dir: Richard Linklater

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) are on vacation in Greece. Jesse is a successful American novelist with a son from a previous marriage. He’s seeing him off at the airport after spending some time with him on their vacation. Celine is from Paris and her career is finally taking off. And their beautiful blonde daughters are there, too.

Their Greek friends have booked them a hotel room to spend an evening alone, awayBefore Midnight 5 Delpy Hawke from their kids, their friends, their work and their responsibilities – just the two of them, alone.

But it doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to. Their harshest thoughts and their biggest worries resurface, and the arguments about a potential break-up looms large. Do they still find one another attractive? Can an American man and a French woman with ties on two different continents actually stay together? Do two people with different views on religion, truth, and jealousy, on men and women have enough in common to keep the spark of love alive? And will they still be together after another twenty years?

Before Midnight Delpy HawkeMy bare-bones outline does not do this film justice. Although it’s really just an extended conversation (in beautiful settings) it’s still a really good, totally engrossing movie about relationships.

Before Midnight is the third film in a series by Linklater that started twenty years ago, with Jesse and Celine meeting for the first time at random on a train to Vienna. The second film was shot ten years later, and this third one after another decade. All the hints brought up in the first film – about their imagined future, about how people in a time machine would look back at these times — are revisited in Before Midnight.

Before Midnight has a lot of oblique references and in-jokes which I appreciated and liked but didn’t quite get… until I saw the films that led up to it. (I watched the series in reverse order.) But I really liked it without having seen the previous films, and once I saw them – whoa! Great series, great film.

Before Midnight and Free the Mind open today, and the art exhibit New Women, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s __ are now open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – free admission. And coming soon, NXNE.ca starts next week – don’t miss its fantastic selection of bands and performances allaround the downtown, with added art shows and stand-up comics this year, and of course… movies! Also starting next week is the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. And rounding off the month is Italian Contemporary Film Festival with lots of great films by and about Italy its people and culture.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

History, Geography, Language TJFF 2011 Films Reviewed Acne, Jewish Girl in Shanghai, Names of Love, Between Two Worlds,Little Rose PLUS Meek’s Cutoff, Modra

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, is on now and continues through the weekend. This is the first year I’ve attended their movies, my curiosity sparked by the fact they programmed Fritz the Cat last year.

This year, the festival is featuring an extensive series of films and documentaries about the three Lennies: composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Montreal musician and writer Leonard Cohen, and comedian Lenny Bruce. But what I find really interesting were the rest of the movies programmed. There is a diversity to them – in geography, history, language and politics – that’s refreshing.

So today I’m going to talk about a few of the fascinating and very good films at this year’s festival. Plus I’ll review a western like no other.

Little Rosa (Rózyczka)
Dir: Jan Kidawa-Blonski

Rozek (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a hardboiled intelligence agent working for the Polish government in 1967. He’s always up for a hard drink or a fistfight. But he’s spotted having a passionate sexual liaison with a beautiful young woman. Word is sent to his department that there is to be a purge of crackdown on Jews or suspected Jews throughout Poland, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. He’s assigned to bring down a mark, Adam, a prominent writer and intellectual in his 60’s. Although his name is Polish sounding, they suspect his father had a Jewish-sounding name.

Rozek assigns his naïve lover, Kamila (Magdalena Boczarska), now with the code name “Rozsczka” (Little Rose), to get close to Adam and report back anything that could be taken as Jewish, anti-governmental, conspiratorial, or Zionist. But even as she writes the reports, her feelings for Adam grow, as does her anger at Rozek for pimping her out.

As she grows even closer to Adam (Andrzej Seweryn), the three sides of the unwitting love triangle in this historical dramatic thriller come to an inevitable explosion during a time of European unrest, youth demonstrations, nationalist sentiment, and a government crackdown. This is an intriguing, visually sophisticated, story full of surprising secrets, chronicaling unexpected changes in Poland in the sixties.

Dir: Federico Veiroj

In this cute, low budget film from Montevideo, Rafael (Alejandro Tocar), a 13 year old, pimple-faced boy has a crush on a girl. But he has yet to approach her, tell her what he feels, never mind kiss her. And he’s totally at a loss of what to do, sexually with a girl – he’s 13, remember. This is where it gets… interesting. Apparently, in this insular Uruguayan -Jewish community, it is customary to introduce boys to manhood by hiring a tutor – a prostitute – to initiate him into the adult world. Will he ever talk to the girl of his dreams? And where will he go now? Acne gives a fascinating glimpse of everyday urban life in a world I’d never even heard of before this movie.

Next, an animated film – from another distinctly different area; this time — China!

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai
Dir: Wang Genfa

Ah Gen, a boy who works for a street vendor who fries big pancakes meets a starving and pennyless, red-haired girl with almond-shaped eyes, Rina, on the streets of Shanghai. Rina’s a refugee from Nazi Germany, but is living in Shanghai with just her little brother. She doesn’t know what happened to her parents, but remembers them by playing a song her violinist mother wrote.

The movie shows the two friends’ adventures set in wartime Shanghai, when Europeans – including a sizeable Jewish community – a very large Japanese population, and local Chinese people all lived together in that cosmopolitan city. Tough Ah Gen has to deal with Japanese street thugs and soldiers, and corrupt Chinese collaborators and his own family difficulties; while pretty Rina must survive, play her violin, reunite her family and find out what became of her parents.

This is a fully animated film, similar to Japanese anime, aimed mainly at kids and teenagers and lovers of anime. It’s very interesting to see a Chinese view of the Jews of Shanghai and references to the holocaust. So Rina’s European memories resemble Heidi in the alps, Japanese bullies wear kimono and speak broken Chinese, and an erhu player finds common ground with a violinist. Violence is portrayed very differently than in western animated cartoons, sometimes as broad slapstick.

This movie is the first Chinese depiction I’ve ever seen of European kids interacting with Chinese kids in pre-1949 Shanghai. It gives a whole new perspective to Tintin’s The Blue Lotus, and JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

This movie is in Chinese with subtitles, and is suitable for children.

Names of Love (Le Nom des Gens)
Dir: Michel Leclerc

Bahia (Sara Forestier) is a beautiful young, brash and lively, left-wing feminist, who enjoys using her sexuality to bring right-wingers to her side of the fence. She says she always goes to bed on the first date. But she meets her opposite in the dry-as-toast Arthur Martin (who shares his name with a ubiquitous, mundane line of cookware), a vet who only deals with dead birds. He is as bland and reserved as she is open, but, somehow, they end up together.

They are both assimilated French people of mixed background – she has a Muslim Algerian father, and a radical leftist, while his mother, who never talks about her past — was a Jewish girl hidden in a convent during the war, and with an extremely uptight father. My description of the characters in this romantic comedy don’t do justice to the humour and subtlety of this very charming movie. It’s clever use of memory has Arthur’s teenage self, as well as his imagined grandparents whom he’d never met appearing on the screen beside him to offer coments on what he’s doing wrong. While Bahia’s overt sexuality and indifference to her own nudity (with breasts casually falling out, here or there) is sometimes taken to an extreme degree – this is a French comedy after all – the home of gratuitous nudity only for it’s female roles — her character is very sweet and interesting and transcends the usual gags and situations.

Will the two of them ever find common ground? Are their politics really opposed? And can their families approve?

This is a great movie –the  Canadian premier – and you should try to see it.

Between Two Worlds
Dir: Debora Kaufman and Alan Snitow
(World Premier)

The founders of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are pleased that they have inspired similar festivals across the continent, and says Kaufman, many people consider ot “one of their favourite Jewish holidays”. But in recent years, due to some controversial programming, the festival itself was embroiled in extremely divisive and politically mired fights, between left and right-wing Jewish groups and individuals.

To address this, they have made a personal documentary, about these issues and  the seemingly intractable divisions within their own families. The issues discussed in the film — including the positioning of the Holocaust in present-day issues; religious identity, right and left wing viewpoints, censorship, lobbying, and boycotts from both sides; and the Israel/Palestine issue – give air time to advocates and activists from the various viewpoints, even when the differences seem unbridgeable.

They also bring in some fascinating personal details from the filmmakers’ own lives, including a religious divide within a family where somehow a secular, rightwing Jewish patriarch ended up with religious, Muslim grandchildren.

This is being shown on Sunday followed by a panel discussion moderated by the CBC’s Michael Enright. It should be very interesting.

Meek’s Cutoff
Dir: Kelly Reichardt

This is a western set in 1845, when a group of families head west in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. But when they reach an anknown area, they hire a grizzled guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), to take them through a shortcut in Indian territory. With nothing to read but a bible, or listen to Meek’s stories, this diverse eastern group moving west falls into disarray as things start to go wrong. On the way, they capture a native man who speaks no English, whom they tie up and take with them. They eventually reach an agreement – without water they’ll die of thirst, and Meek doesn’t seem to be any help. The men are old, sick, or unstable, so it’s up to the women – especially Emily (excellently played by Michelle Williams) to do all the work and make all the crucial decisions.

Like the movie Days of Heaven, it’s a beautiful spare movie showing realistic daily life, rather than the dramatic hollywood-style glamorous
depiction of life in the old west. Nothing glamorous here. But it’s a very good western-slash-art film with a new perspective on the west. Great movie.

Also playing this weekend for one show only at the Royal is

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

a touching, light, hyper-realist drama, starring non-actors, about a girl who travels from Toronto to Slovakia to visit her relatives there, with a classmate pretending to her boyfriend. I enjoyed this Canadian movie at last year’s TIFF.

Most of the movies I reviewed will be playing this weekend, so be sure to come see some unusually good movies. The Toronto Jewish Flm Festival runs until May 15th, downtown, and up north in North York, and in Richmond Hill. Check on line at tjff.ca . And Meek’s Cutoff is showing once only this weekend at the Light Box – you should try to see them on the big screen while you can.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining.com.

Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Movies reviewed: Aftershock, The Ditch, All About Love, I Wish I Knew PLUS Rendezvous with Madness & Scott Pilgrim

This week I’m looking at four movies from China (and Hong Kong) that explore its history, and in some cases, break the boundaries as to what is allowed in Chinese film.

Aftershock (唐山大地震)
Dir: Feng Xiaogang

In 1976, right at the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, there was a huge earthquake in northeastern China, Tangshan, Hebei Province, that killed a quarter of a million people. But this movie isn’t really about the earthquake or the aftershocks that followed – it’s a drama about what happens to a family that was living there.

Mom and Dad are a young couple with twin kids, a boy and a girl named Feng Da and Feng Deng. Mom favours the boy a little but loves them both. The parents sneak out to a truck to have sex in the hot air, just when the earthquake hits, with buildings collapsing all around them. Kids are trapped inside and when the building comes down, they’re both still alive but stuck in the rubble under a concrete slab. The men helping move the cement say mom has to choose one kid only – if they lift it, one will be crushed, the other will live. The twins can hear everything. And in a panic, Mom says “save the boy”. But the girl gets out too, and is adopted up by a childless couple from the People’s Liberation Army, (who are there to help in the aftermath of the quake.)

That’s the set-up for the movie – what happens to the lost daughter, her amputee brother, and their always grieving mother, is a 30-year-long melodrama about the paths their lives took as China (like the city of Tangshan) rebuilds, modernizes, and gets richer. Both of the twins end up in Hangzhou… why? I guess because it’s a prettier city to have in a movie than Tangshan.

This movie is a blockbuster in China. It’s a good tearjerker – though not the thrilling disaster movie I thought I’d be seeing. It gets a bit schmaltzy at times, and more than that, all the scenes involving the PLA are a bit over the top; the 1976 scenes with the rosy cheeked girls in pigtails, and the windswept red flags looked like they were modeled on Cultural Revolution posters. With lots of nostalgia, but not a hint of irony. Similar scenes, set in present day China, were also rather propagandistic. Still, it’s not a bad movie; you feel for the feelings of the mom, the son, and the daughter. The acting was generally good – especially the twins (Zhang Jingchu and Chen Li) and the girl’s stepfather (Chen Daoming, whom you might recognize as the Emperor in the movie Hero). Though other scenes, with the mother screeching or weeping at the camera were a bit much. And it gives a nice outline of the changes in China over the past three decades, while steering completely away from any political issues. (Jia Zhangke’s fantastic movie Platform, that took place over the same 30-year period, seems to have inspired the much more mainstream Aftershock.)

The Ditch
Dir: Wang Bing

A very different take on Chinese history is a new movie called The Ditch, that takes place around the time of the anti-rightist campaign and the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It paints a much grimmer portrait. And grim it is.

This is a period of Chinese history that isn’t written about much, and rarely (if ever) portrayed in movies. A bit of historical context: In 1956, there was a movement in China in which the government encouraged artists, intellectuals and students to speak out, and to freely voice their differences and opinions. “Let a hundred flowers bloom” they said. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” And that’s what eventually happened. But right after that, there was a huge crackdown on anyone who had voiced criticism of censorship, poor living conditions, or of the Communist Party itself.

And they ended up cracking down on half a million people. The movie, The Ditch, deals with what happened to the ones sent to a particularly heinous labour camp in the Gobi desert. It’s an isolated, deathly poor camp without actual buildings. The inmates literally live in a hole in the ground, a sort of a tunnel, where they slept when they aren’t being worked to death digging a ditch in the middle of nowhere. Life is miserable for them, they can barely stand up, and they survive on the watery gruel they’re given to eat (while the party members are shown happily gorging on plump white noodles and meat.) Then, at some point, the prisoners are told, sorry, no more food at all. Ask your relatives to mail you some or else, you can find food outside. So they start eating any desert gerbils they can catch, and whatever seeds they can find in the dirt.

You get to know the beleaguered inmates – like an engineer who in the Hundred Flowers movement questioned whether “the dictatorship of the proletariat was the right way” (oops!); a man branded as being from the “landlord” class, even though he’s never had enough money to taste braised pork belly; and the various other professors, writers, scientists and former Party members. The most moving part is about the fate of one man whose wife comes in from the big city to see him.

This is an extremely harsh portrayal of life in the prison camps, (sort of a gulag archipelago for the Chinese), showing their cruelty, the degradation of the prisoners, the desecration of the dead, and even the rumours of cannibalism among the starving men. I have a feeling this movie (which played at the Toronto Film Festival), might not be widely shown in China, if at all. It was allowed to be made there, though, on locations very near to the actual camps. The Ditch is a very hard movie to watch, but a moving one nonetheless, and one of great historical significance. And it’s a credit to the sophistication of Chinese cinema that movies like this are being made at all.

All About Love (得閒炒飯)
Dir: Ann Hui

…is a Hong Kong romantic comedy drama about another topic rarely dealt with in Chinese films – a love story between women.

Macy and Anita, who were once a couple, get back together again at a pregnancy group.

But they also have to deal with the earnest and caring sperm donors who got them both pregnant. Do they stay together as a couple? Macy is holding on to a pair of dancing shoes, to return, like Cinderella, to her true love, so that they may someday dance a tango together again.

Do they keep the babies? And what role will the men (well, one’s actually a very young man) play in their lives? One still has a crush, and the other thinks he’s been tricked. There’s also the question of their lives as feminists in Hong Kong, and whether Anita can keep her job after facing sexual harassment in her conservative workplace – she becomes a virtual prisoner there, confined to a conference room.

All about love is a very light romantic farce, but one that deals with an important topic. I found the movie kind of corny (like many romantic comedies), and a bit muddled. I like Ann Hui’s previous movies better than this one, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

I Wish I Knew (海上传奇)
Dir: Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is one of the best Chinese directors of his generation, and I think it’s even safe to say he’s one of the best directors… period.

I Wish I Knew, is a documentary that shows Shanghai, warts and all. Before 1949, and expecially in its heyday in the 1930’s, Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East, but also as Sin City, replete with filthy-rich bankers and entrepreneurs, gamblers, mahjong players, drunkards, opium-addicts, gangsters, prostitutes and foreigners. Post revolution, the government went to great pains to declare Shanghai “all cleaned up”, but Jia Zhangke has reclaimed the sordid past (and present) as part of what gives Shanghai its mystique.

Using a beautiful silent model, I wish I knew takes you on a city tour, interviewing the very people (like a son of a gangster, an entertainer, and an MSG mogul) that used to be taboo.

He only deals with professions that are in some way international, glamorous, edgy, artistic or in some way both interesting, and specific to Shanghai. And, for the most part, the people he interviews speak in Shanghainese, not in standard Chinese. Interspersed with the talking heads are clips from great movies — by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wang Kar-wai, and others — that give recreations of periods in the city’s past.

While not one of Jia Zhang-ke’s best films, this is a great documentary view of China — and the city of Shanghai — in a way you rarely get to see it.

Also opening tonight is a very interesting film festival, Rendezvous With Madness, which looks at how mental health and drug addiction are portrayed at the movies. Interesting screenings are followed by Q&A discussions with the filmmakers and people in the field of addiction and mental health. I’ll be talking more about this next year: Check out rendezvouswithmadness.com .

Also playing, tonight only, is Scott Pilgrim vs the World. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a fun movie, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, set in downtown Toronto. Since the movie features local landmarks like Lee’s Palace, Honest Ed’s, and the Beguiling, it makes sense it’s playing at the Bloor. And guess what? Bryan will be there at the screening… and it’s completely free! So show up early if you want a seat.

Just to review, today I talked about four Chinese movies, Aftershock, now playing, check your local listings; All about Love and The Ditch, which played at the Toronto Film Festival this year, and I Wish I Knew, which opens next week, Nov.11, at the TIFF Lightbox. (Check times at tiff.net)

%d bloggers like this: