Criterion Sunday 453: Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 429: Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958)

This was something of a cause célèbre of its time — ridiculously, it went as far as the Supreme Court to rule on whether it was, in fact, “obscene”, not something that anyone watching today (or surely, to those responding in good faith, then) would label it. In any case, it has Jeanne Moreau as a bored upper-middle-class bourgeois wife who finds herself tempted by the charms of a number of men who pass through her charmed life of villas and polo matches. Even a man who gives her a lift when her car breaks down (Jean-Marc Bory) turns out to be related to the bored rich people, and part of what makes him interesting to her is the way he turns his back on those people. Ultimately, though, it feels a bit mean, being about a woman with little internal life who finds herself unfulfilled by affairs, and by the end isn’t even committed to her affair because you get the sense that nothing in her life would make her happy. And wonderful as Jeanne Moreau is to watch, and as well shot as the film is generally, it’s difficult to really care about her or about any of these characters in a film that lacks the lightness of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who were getting started around the same time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Louise de Vilmorin (based on the novel Point de lendemain by Dominique Vivant); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 17 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)

I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.


I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).

My Wedding and Other Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

Given the current situation, I’ve certainly been very picky about what I go to see in a cinema, but I couldn’t resist this new romcom, not least because after Blockers, its star (Geraldine Viswanathan) is very clearly one to watch. Also, it’s nice to occasionally see a lighter film, given that a lot of what’s coming out is fairly ponderous (or stupid).


For all the flaws with the genre, I can’t help but go into every new romcom with a little bit of hope in my heart that it will be delightful, because that is all you look for in a romcom. (Though I do like them not to be actively hateful, that’s a big thing for me too.) And what do you know, Geraldine Viswanathan is an excellent romantic lead. She played teenage in Blockers of course (in which she was the stand-out star) but here she’s Lucy, a gallery assistant in her mid-20s, though she sort of infuses that role with the slight gawkiness she’s brought to her other (younger) characters, fetching without being pathetic. Of course, it always helps when the usual tics of a romcom — the way they tend to rely on one of the characters being almost pathological — have been transferred to the female character, because once again the guy is a sort of blandly attractive forgettable type (the actor’s name is Dacre Montgomery, the character Nick) and if he’d been the one with the weird quirky ideas, this would be a very different experience.

The premise seems to be based on the Museum of Broken Relationships, as far as I can tell, an exhibition of artefacts of, well, failed relationships which I remember visiting and loving when I passed through Zagreb in 2013. Here it becomes the gallery of the film’s title which, in what seems very NYC or even Brooklyn — the sort of thing that you can imagine in a film shot in the last few years but seems somehow unimaginable any earlier — finds its space in the upstairs of Nick’s boutique hotel concept that he’s trying to bring to reality, using the unpaid labour of his friends. Look, it’s not breaking any new ground — it has the quirky best friends on either side (Philippa Soo chopping a cucumber menacingly is a highlight), the love obstacles to happiness, a lot of aspirational set design — but it’s heart is in the right place. Plus, Geraldine Viswanathan is a star.

The Broken Hearts Gallery film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Natalie Krinsky; Cinematographer Alar Kivilo; Starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Dacre Montgomery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Molly Gordon, Phillipa Soo, Bernadette Peters; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Saturday 12 September 2020.

Two Short Reviews of 1970 Films by Czech Women: Fruit of Paradise and The Murder of Mr Devil

In my Czech film week, I’ve already covered one Věra Chytilová film, and I’ll have more to come, but the unifying person for these two films is the writer of both, Ester Krumbachová. Each is strange, perhaps comic (more broadly so in her own directorial effort), and probably have some deep coded meanings within the context they were made, but as you’ll see from my pretty short reviews (I wasn’t lying about that), they can be pretty difficult to decode. That said, I’d definitely want to watch both again.


Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1970) [Czechoslovakia/Belgium]

A boldly, rapturously incomprehensible film, presenting the Adam and Eve origin story overlaid with visual effects (the opening sequence), saturated yet bleached in its colour palette, with spirited performances. But as to what is actually happening, I couldn’t really say. That said, it was fascinating nonetheless.

Fruit of Paradise film posterCREDITS
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera; Starring Karel Novák, Jitka Nováková; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 9 November 2016.


Vražda ing. Čerta (The Murder of Mr Devil, 1970) [Czechoslovakia]

An enjoyable satire on romance and marriage by a director whose collaboration with Věra Chytilová I think helps to place her humour. Mr Devil (Vladimír Menšík) is, quite clearly, a terrible person, and his gluttony is quickly (and somewhat repetitively) established. In some ways there’s not a lot to the film but it doesn’t much care for your bourgeois hang-ups.

The Murder of Mr Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jiří Macák; Starring Jiřina Bohdalová, Vladimír Menšík; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 27 July 2019.

Extase (Ecstasy, 1933)

We’re starting to get back to having cinematic releases here in the UK which are separate from VOD online ones, though quite often they’re still released in both cinemas and online. One new release this coming Friday will be The Painted Bird, a Czech/Slovak film about World War II, and by all accounts a rather grim one at that. I haven’t seen it, and I am not entirely convinced I will go, but I am certainly intrigued. Therefore, this week! A week of Czech and Czechoslovak films, starting with this classic from 1933.


It seems somewhat unfair that this film is mainly known for its place in the history of sex/nudity in films, because it’s actually a very sensitively-made and beautifully-shot drama about a woman (the incomparable Hedy Lamarr) who is unhappy in her marriage. All of this is set up wordlessly, and although it’s not technically a silent film, there are only brief dialogue scenes and it is certainly very pleasingly parsimonious with its verbiage. We are introduced to her on her wedding day being carried across the threshold of their home by her husband (Zvonimir Rogoz), who is soon seen neatly arranging his items on the bedside table, and whose only apparent happiness is taking his shoes off. Little vignettes suggest her life with him, and there’s a recurring motif of insects being crushed (by him) or cared for (by the new love in her life, a manual labourer with fetching hair, played by Aribert Mog). As the central character, Hedy Lamarr is excellent (and yes, beautiful), and the cinematography closes in on little details to convey the emotions, as well as some nice use of double-exposure. This is top romantic melodrama, done well.

Ecstasy film posterCREDITS
Director Gustav Machatý; Writers František Horký, Machatý, Vítězslav Nezval and Jacques A. Koerpel (based on the story by Robert Horký); Cinematographers Hans Androschin and Jan Stallich; Starring Hedy Lamarr, Aribert Mog, Zvonimir Rogoz; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.