East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~! Amateur sociology [festival note]

Water (Deepa Mehta)

Filming was shut down by Hindu fundamentalists in 2001; Mehta finally finished it by shifting production to Columbo. It's about a 7-year old widow (Sarala) sent to a widows' village by the Ganges in 1938; things get worse still for her, but she's allowed a few precious moments of joy as the story progresses. It's made with warmth and some elegance, so why don't I like it more? Possibly because setting a social problem film in the past undermines its purpose, no matter how many widows there are in India today. Possibly because when the beautiful prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch) shows up, I asked myself: "What the hell is that white girl doing in the movie?" (It turns out she's half-Polish.) But if the film's too glossy to be first-rate neo-realism, the downhome acting carries it through its conventional moments: notable is Manorma as the leader of the widows, whose buffoonish deportment conceals her noxiousness.

Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

(Spoilers, not that they matter.) Hitoyo Yo is a writer researching the career of a Taiwanese composer; Asano Tadanobu, when he's not running a bookstore, records train sounds. Since this is a tribute to Ozu, neither of them ever talk about how they feel. For all his formal innovation, I still think Hou seems like a man out of time when dealing with the contemporary world, which is probably why the historically set Flowers of Shanghai is my favourite. But he knows the world has changed since Ozu's time: Hitoyo is pregnant and isn't getting back with the father no matter what her parents say.

Mark Lee Pin-Bing (again) doesn't give Café Lumière a scene as visually breathtaking as the opening of Millennium Mambo (the techno-set lights blipping out of frame), but the shot with Asano on one train unnoticed by Hitoyo on another comes close. Since this is a tribute to Ozu, there are a ton of low angles, though Hou is more generous in allowing camera movement. He lets us see how the world has changed: aping Ozu's setups, we see the spare, graceful interiors valued by previous generations of middle-class Japanese have been replaced by decor more messy and piecemeal. The movie becomes about light and sound: what is the sensory difference between one train and another? If such distinctions were an implicit part of Ozu's art, they were only a small part of it: unlike Jia Zhangke, Hou could never remake Tokyo Story, because he lacks Ozu's fascination for sociology; Hou doesn't get very deep into the relationships within and between generations. But he has captured the significance of the everyday as well as the master, which is no small achievement.


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