Oct 25, 2007

Exiled: The Blood and the Beauty

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The visual poetry of Johnnie To's gangster films counters their nihilism.

By Fred Camper

Most moviegoers consider Johnnie To’s gangster films efficiently made shoot-’em-ups; some owe a significant debt to the spaghetti western. And they are made with consummate skill: the action’s conveyed in carefully composed scenes, not an instant wasted. Exiled (2006), in which two gangsters try to kill former colleague Wo (Nick Cheung) in retaliation for his botched assassination attempt against their leader, Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has its share of entertaining twists and gripping action. But like many great filmmakers—Howard Hawks, John Ford, Raoul Walsh—Hong Kong-based To makes movies that are both commercially viable and animated by a powerful artistic vision. In fact To’s worldview can take precedence over the narrative. His characters (mostly male) seem oddly interchangeable despite having distinct personalities and appearances; they’re often melded by To’s constantly moving camera. In the film’s many shoot-outs, sight lines and shooting lines shift violently in the frame. Characters also make alliances or turn on one another in unexpected ways.

These qualities set To’s work apart from the classic Hollywood westerns and gangster films his movies otherwise resemble. In those earlier works, the main characters are not only easily recognizable, they’re the focal points of scenes. Medium shots and close-ups and the way the characters’ movements are tracked by the camera or edited tend to give the protagonists heroic status. But To constantly moves his camera even when his subjects are still, creating a space that’s much larger than that surrounding an individual: one camera movement connects to the next and the next, and to the occasional static shot for contrast, creating a matrix or labyrinth. After the gangsters come to Wo’s apartment to ask his wife (Josie Ho) where he is, then leave, we see her observing them on the street. Next the camera moves around her baby in its crib as she picks it up in medium shot, then To cuts to a longer shot of her, seated with the infant, seen through an ornate piece of furniture. This quiet moment of togetherness is interrupted as the camera begins circling them, the out-of-focus foreground emphasizing the movement. The effect is to disrupt the silence and return the mother to her place in the narrative—and in fact after the shot ends there’s a knock at her door and a different gangster confronts her.

The almost balletic motions of To’s camera reflect a different view of the relationship of individuals to society than is common in the United States. Here we think of loners as able to make, or remake, worlds. In Hawks’s Red River (1948), Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) founds a great ranch, forges a new cattle trail, and creates much of the action through the force of his will. The more spatially constrained worlds of the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macao—where Exiled is set, just before this Portuguese territory came under Chinese rule—lack a physical frontier, and gangsters have long histories with one another they can’t escape.

The characters’ shifting relationships in Exiled create an almost absurdist tone. Of the four gangsters trailing Wo, two have orders to kill him and two hope to save him. After a shoot-out in Wo’s apartment in which no one is killed, all five sit down to dinner together. The two assassins tell Wo they’ll have to do their job eventually, and when Wo talks about his wish to leave his wife and child cared for, the five of them begin discussing crimes that might earn them big money, from contract hits to the theft of a ton of gold. That robbery becomes part of the plot, leading to one of the shoot-outs—and in another turnaround, the guard who survives helps the gangsters. All these shifting allegiances contribute to the sense that there’s no real right or wrong, especially since the film’s cop is a laughable fraidy cat interested only in his impending retirement.

Critic Andrew Grossman, writing about To’s earlier films, talks about To’s characteristic “nihilistic skeleton.” But like most of the critics I’ve read, Grossman neglects the other side of To’s work: his subtle visual poetry, which is found throughout Exiled. The cinematography values some moments over others: Exiled includes intensely lyrical candlelit images of Wo’s wife, close-ups of gangsters showing genuine emotion, and sentimental final still photos in which the gangsters are seen in happier times. The climactic shoot-out registers the nihilism of the gangsters’ lives, but To distances himself from it, staging it in the time it takes a soda can to fall to the floor in slow motion; the viewer is encouraged to step back from the bloodshed and reflect on how rapidly everything can change.

To articulates the emotional dimension of Exiled cinematically, through his compositions, camera movements, and use of light. His images are sensuous to a fault, and the beauty he finds in faces and objects and surfaces argues for a strong attachment to, not nihilistic distance from, the film’s world. He also sees that world as susceptible to destruction at any instant, which adds a melancholy note to everything we see. Perhaps the single most important moment in the film is its opening: a one-second static shot of a door, rendered quiet and nuanced by the light gently cast over it. This instant of meditative silence is almost immediately interrupted by a loudly knocking hand (as happens several times later), which takes us out of stasis and into history—a history of shifting allegiances, revenge, and bloodletting. The film’s fleeting beauties are counterposed against this reality. Lives are always caught in society’s traps, but what can be seen by the short-lived flicker of a candle flame is what makes them worth living.

Source: www.chicagoreader.com

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Flying: The Freed Woman

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Jennifer Fox's audacious autobiographical miniseries

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

There’s something nervy about the way Jennifer Fox, in her new autobiographical six-part, six-hour miniseries, showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, tries to combine her life, her art, and her politics. Made with funding from the Danish Film Institute over a four-year period ending in late 2006, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman recounts the privileges, confusions, and self-examinations of Fox, a Manhattan-based filmmaker in her mid-40s who grew up associating her freedom with being like a boy, feeling much closer to her permissive father than to her disapproving mother, and never having the slightest interest in getting married or (until recently) having kids.


Known for such PBS documentaries as Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1987) and An American Love Story (1999), a miniseries about the everyday life of an interracial couple, Fox does a fair amount of globe-trotting, and during the time frame of Flying she’s juggling two lovers on separate continents who know about each other. The less serious relationship is with Patrick, a Swiss-German cinematographer she sees more often, mainly in New York (he’s credited as the film’s “technical supervisor”). Kye is a South African poet she sees infrequently in South Africa, where she sometimes teaches. (Kye’s married with kids and keeping his affair a secret; he remains almost completely off-camera.)

More than a simple diary film, Flying is also a kind of essay about what freedom for a contemporary woman consists of. On her travels and in New York, Fox records many conversations she has with other women about this topic. The women vary in age, nationality, ethnicity, and class and include Fox’s ancient grandmother, a 54-year-old Somalian exile in London fighting to end female genital mutilation, a married 43-year-old Egyptian journalist in France who combines work and parenting, a 32-year-old Pakistani villager and activist who’s chosen not to marry, and a 22-year-old single mother in Soweto sharing a house with her unemployed relatives.

Fox’s immediate personal issues provide most of the connecting threads of the series, with many unexpected plot turns along the way. But her connection with so many women points to the transition she makes from identifying with men to identifying with women, even while recognizing that sometimes women, herself included, can unwittingly collude in their own oppression.

There were times when I wished Fox had more of a sense of humor about herself and her project, if only because her poker-faced seriousness gets monotonous. But the most problematic part of the enterprise is that she has to fictionalize certain aspects of her life to create an easy-to-follow narrative. That is, she has to give her material—and therefore the representation of her life—a coherent shape without calling too much attention to the process. Camera placement and editing are essential tools in this endeavor, but it works against her purposes for the audience to think about them too much.

A simple, prosaic example of what I mean is the occasional unacknowledged presence of another camera operator. Fox records most of her dialogues by passing the camera back and forth with her interlocutor, allowing us to view both sides of the exchanges. And there are other times, such as when she’s seen riding on a plane alone, when we presume that’s she managed to position her own small camera without assistance. But there are some sequences that encourage us to conclude that she’s alone when she couldn’t possibly be—such as when we see her pensively walking her dog in Manhattan. I guess we’re supposed to ignore the trickery and concentrate on more important matters, but I found it distracting, and even after I adjusted, the artificiality undermined the authenticity of what I was watching.

The problem is, when you’re doing so many different things at once—struggling with your values, filming your struggle, and trying to make it compelling while remaining honest—something ultimately has to give. No one’s life qualifies as an absorbing soap opera all the time, and clearly special solutions are required for those junctures when it doesn’t. So it’s the moments when the narrative of her life appears to be most artfully arranged and told that Fox’s undertaking starts to seem most questionable. (Her elliptical ways of representing Kye—showing just enough of him, or of a stand-in, to reveal that he’s black, but without making a big deal of the fact that theirs is an interracial romance—create some related ambiguities.)

She’s pretty fearless about revealing her own self-absorption and allowing herself to be irritating. She also raises the question of whether the project is actually affecting her life and her decisions about it—not just upping the ante but goading her into a kind of ongoing self-definition. It’s certainly having an effect on some of the others we see. Patrick in particular, who seems unusually accepting about many aspects of her life, adamantly refuses to be filmed at times—and considering that he’s collaborating on the filmmaking more than the dialogue seems to acknowledge, we start to realize that his decisions about her film automatically become decisions about his life and her life as well. Our not being allowed access to certain parts of the filmmaking process—especially the editing, which is obviously a central stage—eventually suggests that what we’re really watching is more a construction than a discovery, of a life as well as a film.

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