Archive for September, 2010

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A Night in the Dark with Maggie Cheung

September 27, 2010

Last week I attended the Melbourne Cinematheque’s second week of its Maggie Cheung cycle, which I had been greatly anticipating for months. Not only would I get to see In the Mood for Love (2000) on the big screen for the first time, but it would be followed by Clara Law’s Farewell, China (1990), a particularly hard-to-find title. I skipped the first week because I’d seen both films (Stanley Kwan’s extraordinary Centre Stage, and Olivier Assayas’ admirable Irma Vep), though now I regret doing so. This was perhaps my most complete viewing of In the Mood, and I’ve seen it several times. Was it the size of the screen, the clarity of the soundtrack? I just know that after Tony prepares his goodbye, that slow motion shot of Maggie’s hand crawling delicately up her own arm attempting to retain his final touch is the most overwhelmingly beautiful moment in a film of almost nothing but. Tears well up. And the first time Yumeji’s Theme swoons in sends a shiver down my spine. Is there a more exquisite piece of music in any film?

This is a movie I’ve always felt slips away from me immediately after watching it. The closing quote comes to mind; each moment passes and is vanished forever. And since the film’s form already resembles memories (however linear) with its Bressonian collection of specific body parts committing precise actions, the claustrophobic sense of space and offscreen action/sound, the culture fetishism, the prolonged Yumeji sequences zeroing in on the briefest of encounters, we too can only ever recount and replay. 2046 was the inevitable progression for an artist whose work is borne out of an evolving stream of preoccupations and obsessions, now reflecting back on itself. Hence why My Blueberry Nights feels like an aberration, an attempt to recreate (“Wong doing Wong”, as they say) the tone of his ’90s work, a moment passed in time.

Wong contemporary Chinese filmmaker Clara Law’s oeuvre also evolves quite naturally in theme and form, though I must admit I have yet to watch any of her pictures set in ancient China. If the Cinematheque coupled last week’s choices together for the shared discourse on performance, identity, and film production, In the Mood for Love and Farewell, China can both be seen to detail a modern world where the possibility of global travel can destroy relationships, and both feature a series of near-misses, a “chase” to reunite. For Law, and this is the principle motive of her work, it is an account of diaspora. I’d say Chinese diaspora specifically, but her proceeding films have acknowledged the plight of other nations’ citizens, essentially “building a house” on the topic (to riff on Fassbinder). But unlike Law’s efforts immediately following this, Farewell, China suffers from heavy-handedness and a cynicism of outcome that seems unrepresentative of the general real-life diasporic experience and, as this article astutely puts it, argues an Either/Or logic that ignores ambivalence and any chance of hope. Despite this, the allegorical device used (in which Cheung’s immigrant Hung has developed split personality since coming to America) is very interesting.

As Hung’s husband Nansan (played by the other Tony Leung) desperately retraces her steps in New York in order to find her, he encounters those who briefly knew her, and we are given flashbacks of her troubled experiences. The first account of her given is startlingly different to the delicate Hung we’d followed earlier in China -she now a shrill, Americanised, and superficially cultured monster. We are as puzzled as Nansan. Every proceeding account tells of the loving wife and mother anxious to reunite with her family except for one instance of maniacal violence. Law and long-time partner/writer Eddie Fong rather bravely commit to this final act in which Nansan and Hung’s tender reunion is jump-started the next morning by a turn for the worse. The idea is that immigrants either adopt wholly American culture to survive, or remain fearfully and depressingly the Other in an uninviting land. Hung literally destroys her past, and the camera pans up to an American flag, the least subtle moment in a film full of them. So yes, I’m torn; the “point” itself rings false but the metaphorical telling of it is inspired. Read without subtext, however, it would be hysterical melodrama.

Getting back to the unsubtlety -and I find this an irksome feature of most of her films- Law is prone to grotesquery and caricature that often cheapens the picture to an extent. Certainly it may have seemed more bothersome directly after viewing Wong’s melancholy masterpiece, and also considering the first part of Farewell that takes place in China is not at all the After Hours-esque farce of what follows. Particularly tiresome are the moments where Nansan inexplicably seems to forget how to walk and manoeuvre now that he’s in the US, so he stumbles about idiotically. I guess it’s comedy, but it’s not good comedy. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Law and Fong had actually been inspired by the Scorsese film, even the cinematography reminded me of it at times. Though it’s surely a bit Jim Jarmusch as well, with its flat side pans over buildings. In fact, as with Law’s other movies, it’s gorgeously shot. There’s almost never a dull shot in terms of lighting and composition. The film has other qualities I’ve failed to mention too. For instance, there is much tenderness throughout to balance the unpleasantness (basically all of the China scenes, a dream of the couple sharing food, the many sympathisers throughout, the reunion), and Cheung and Leung are both very good. I’m so glad the Cinematheque screened this, as a Clara Law and Maggie Cheung fan, and also as an admirer of not watching movies of poor transfer quality on DVD’s I’d have to blind-buy from Asia. Bring on this week’s Ashes of Time Redux and Song of the Exile.

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