OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online‘s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. Issue #5 collects our takes on May theatrical releases, including holdover fall festival splashes from Olivier Assayas, Zhang Yimou, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi; new films from all-timers Werner Herzog and Raúl Ruiz; our thoughts on Brian De Palma’s production-cursed Domino; and others.
The Souvenir is that rare kind of great film, one that teaches you how to watch it as it goes on. There’s a constant tension between precise, careful framing and offhand, casual observation. Small details and gestures accumulate gradually, inviting you to sink into the film, luxuriate in it. Writer-director Joanna Hogg and cinematographer David Raedeker have given the film a ghostly, overcast look, all concrete grays and shimmering blacks, with colors receding into the background. The film is a mixture of digital, 16mm, and Super 8, all of which contributes to its old, slightly faded aesthetic, with a shallow depth of field that resembles portrait photography. Loosely autobiographical, The Souvenir follows young Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, mesmerizing in a difficult role) as she begins film school and starts dating an older man, the rakish and disarmingly charming Anthony (Tom Burke). Julie, like many young artists, is desperate to live outside her comfortable, upper class existence and find some sense of authenticity, however nebulous the concept might be. Anthony is a kind of window to that world, and he wields that allure as a weapon, using Julie and her family’s money to fuel his drug habit.
Hogg charts the ups and downs of this relationship, as her film frequently jumps forward in time, eliding weeks or even months with a single cut. It’s destabilizing, reflecting Julie’s own disorientation with the wily Anthony (Hogg has learned a lot from Bresson, excising everything that is unnecessary in a certain scene or shot). Anthony is not without his merits, of course, otherwise his manipulations wouldn’t work. For her part, Swinton Byrne has a difficult tight rope to walk, making Julie naïve but not stupid, fragile but not weak, intelligent but not always articulate. It’s a realistic, if sometimes unflattering, portrait of a doomed coupling, one that most people can probably relate to in the abstract, if not in its specifics. Ultimately, we are to take the title of the film literally. The heightened emotions, the lies, the heartache, the lust and romance, all these things we will take with us into the future, looking back occasionally with the benefit of age and, hopefully, some wisdom. Time does not heal all wounds, but it does recontexualize them, transforming them into something else. Daniel Gorman
Asako I & II
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s intimate epic of friendship between women, Happy Hour, was my favorite film of 2016, so needless to say Asako I & II, which premiered in competition at Cannes last May, was eagerly anticipated. Adapting an acclaimed novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Hamaguchi initially seems to scale back the formal ambitions and narrative breadth of Happy Hour, retreating to a more recognizable mode of wistful romantic drama. But even in the context of a more conventional two-hour runtime, his temporal interests remain unique. Ellipses and surreal elements intertwine in a charmingly low-key, deeply felt evocation of a young woman’s first love — a man who manifests as if by fate before suddenly disappearing, only to reappear years later, in a different form. Hamaguchi’s intuitive direction of actors (owing to his theater background) flourishes in Asako, particularly in the case of Masahiro Higashide, who’s given the difficult task of playing both the shaggy, itinerant Baku and the clean-cut salaryman Ryohei. That Higashide is not inescapably recognizable as Baku when he reappears as Ryohei (except to Asako, of course) is a credit to the actor’s physical work, his stiff-backed posture a striking contrast to Baku’s slouchy, shuffling gait. Erika Karata’s Asako is restrained almost to a fault, but the actress’ steady, assured performance is its own kind of feat; her transformation occurs beneath the surface, drawing out the character’s quiet determination. Hamaguchi also continues to demonstrate a wonderful feel for the mundane, with this love story developing in the spaces of modest apartments, small cafes, and unremarkable business places. But there is also room for dreamy flights of feeling, as when Asako and Baku’s first moment of eye-contact plays-out in slow motion, firecrackers going off between them. It’s seemingly meant as nothing more than happenstance that the two meet right where some kids are messing around with explosives, but Hamaguchi lets the experience of the moment carry him away from his naturalism. Throughout Asako I & II, Hamaguchi alters his form in subtle ways, lending credibility to his shifts into subjectivity, and in so doing proves himself a true romantic of the cinema. Alex Engquist
More generationally distinctive than his recent output, Olivier Assayas’s latest, Non-Fiction, engages with a specific vein of cultural discourse regarding technology: e-books as a corruption of literature. Of course, this is a synecdochical take on a far broader conversation, the particulars of which are often fleshed-out in café-set debates and workplace dialogues, the film populated by characters at the cross-section of middle class and middle age. Gradations of ethical behavior clearly inspired by the Karl Ove Knausgård controversy serve as gyroscopic explorations of these characters, while a gentle class critique emerges in the perceived yuppie resistance to technological change and its levelling effects. The tenor of inquiry and general languidness of approach here feels more akin to early-aughts Assayas (think Late August, Early September), but with his preferred explorations of ennui transplanted from arrested early adulthood to that peculiar limbo of middle age, where evolutions of society and personhood are in conflict and where individuals either choose change or suffer it. Non-Fiction largely manages to balance this contemplativeness with a certain playful buoyancy, but loses cogency when it skews broad in its final stretch (a winking, meta-referential Juliette Binoche joke feels particularly miscalculated despite engendering a chuckle), resulting in a film that feels familiar but less assured than Assayas’s other recent work. Luke Gorham
The Third Wife
“Sensuous,” “gorgeous, “evocative” — such descriptors are perhaps too easily applied to Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, a film that, from its opening frames, seems expressly designed to elicit such praise. A ceremonial canoe bears 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), the bride of the title, to her new home in a cloistered rural estate somewhere in 19th century Vietnam. Soon, we are introduced to her husband, Hung (Le Vu Long), and his first two wives: Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê), the mistress of the house, who alone has given birth to a son, and the younger Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya). Given its premise, The Third Wife thus recalls melodramas like Zhang Yimou’s 1992 film Raise the Red Lantern — though for a while, Mayfair’s script underplays the expected power games, placing as much emphasis on the wives’ easy camaraderie as on their unspoken struggles to bear their husband a son and thus gain his favor. In and of itself, this is a promising choice — and it’s one of many that the film is comprised of. But what The Third Wife lacks is a cohesive, governing sensibility; it has a committee-approved feel that renders individual choices more or less serviceable, but makes the entire affair feel sanded down. (It’s no surprise to learn that the film went through both NYU’s Purple List and Spike Lee’s Production Fund.) The film’s shallow-focus visuals and its general emphasis on physical sensuality should make for a discomfitingly tactile affair. But Mayfair’s images have no heft because they feel so beholden to an external, authorially imposed design — leaving even the film’s most tragic turns unable to draw blood. Though it’s a film built on multiple, emancipatory, anti-patriarchal gestures, The Third Wife gives the impression of a director simply going through the calculated motions. Lawrence Garcia
‘Batman of the barrio’ makes for an enticing logline, and Ben Hernandez Bray’s El Chicano presents itself as “the first Latino superhero movie.” But good intentions can’t save a script co-written by fratboy-fave Joe Carnahan, whose career vacillates wildly between gritty realism (Narc, The Grey) and action idiocy (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team). El Chicano attempts to split the difference, to narcotizing effect. Raul Castillo (We the Animals) stars as Diego Hernandez, an L.A. detective investigating a mass killing linked to a drug cartel, who begins to discover his deceased brother’s ties to the murders. As the system continues to fail Hernandez in his attempt to seek the truth, the detective picks up the mantle of the titular urban legend, a superhero who serves up his own brand of justice. Thoughtful ruminations on ethnic and ancestral pride uneasily co-mingle with darkly-lit, atrociously-edited action sequences, while an ace supporting cast—including Marco Rodriguez and David Castaneda—try their hardest to enliven the proceedings. Castillo, meanwhile, is at a complete loss, trying for tragic Shakespearean figure even as dialogue like “The Fed have a major erection over this case, and they’re looking for someone to fuck!” is well beneath the Bard. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give this misfire is that, even at its worst, the viewer is still pulling for El Chicano to succeed. But the Latin community deserves better than well-meaning dud. We all do. Steven Warner
In the year 2019 we have ourselves an honest-to-goodness, totally authentic film maudit, Brian De Palma’s new whatsit Domino. Barely completed, abandoned by its producers and distributor, shorn of an hour or so of plot, and indifferently handled in post-production (apparently color timing never happened, and the opening title fonts are an affront to common decency), it would require the most slavish auterist to claim this as one of De Palma’s finer achievements. And yet, much like Hawks’s Red Line 7000, so much of the director shines through that the film becomes, somehow, miraculously, genuinely personal. Domino is a thriller without any real thrills, and its virtues are all formal, but what virtues! From the split diopter shots (now annoyingly ubiquitous thanks to a generation of imitators), god’s-eye view surveillance shots, creeping POV sequences, and of course the ever present Hitchcock nod (here a Vertigo-esque rooftop chase) this is pure De Palma virtuosity, writ small. The plot is simultaneously overly simple and totally nonsensical, as cop-on-the-edge Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) hunts down the man who killed his partner, Lars (Soren Malling). Meanwhile, CIA spook Joe Martin (Guy Pearce, never worse) has kidnapped said killer, Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney, fiercely giving the one committed performance in the whole film). Joe wants Ezra to hunt down and kill some terrorist targets and is using Ezra’s family as leverage. Christian teams up with Alex (Carice van Houten), who was having an affair with Lars, and the hunt is on.
It’s hard to say what the film would look if it weren’t for whatever nonsense was happening behind the scenes, but as it stands the characters are just moving statues designed to get from one set piece to another. De Palma films so many scenes with such verve, though, using computer monitors and phones and tablets to stack images within images, creating an escalating sense of paranoid enclosure. In one bravura sequence, a terrorist attacks a red carpet premiere during a film festival, using a machine gun with two digital cameras mounted on it, pointing backwards and forwards in tandem. The audience sees both image streams simultaneously, the carnage being wrought by the gun fire and the increasingly frantic face of the woman doing the shooting. It’s a profound metaphor for the 21st Century – the gun as violent spectator, the terrorist as filmmaker, and all of it implicating us, the viewer. And of course, everything gets edited together and put up on YouTube. This is image-making in our digital age, and De Palma seems terrified of it. Daniel Gorman
There’s something of a red flag that should warn viewers just moments into Meeting Gorbachev of the documentary’s relative lack of cinematic austerity: the shimmering golden logo of the History Channel (one of the film’s distributors) signals the made-for-TV approach that Werner Herzog has taken here. When he’s not making a mad-dash through several decades of Russian history — which involves monotonously narrating events like the comedically short tenures of the previous three General Secretary’s, before Gorbachev was elected as Konstantin Chernenko’s successor in 1985. Herzog speaks directly with the former (and only) President of the Soviet Union, tossing him softball questions like how he got along with Margaret Thatcher and asking why nuclear weapons continue to exist. It doesn’t help that there’s usually a ten-second delay from Herzog’s questions and Gorbachev’s answers, as a result from each man speaking a different language and needing to be translated, intensifying the general lack of urgency. The titular ‘meeting’ (more accurately, meetings — three in total) is presented in shot-reverse-shot, with occasional archival footage spliced in and other historical talking heads rounded up to blindly praise the eventual fall of the Soviet Union — so basically, the lowest common denominator filmmaking one could expect from someone of Herzog’s caliber. We’re given two important figures in the twilight years of their lives, both genially chumming it up for a fluff-piece that’s practically begging to be indifferently shown in middle school history classes. Paul Attard
Ostensibly a return to the populist wuxia films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou‘s mid-2000s hayday, Shadow instead feels more like an exercise in extended foreplay. In his most broadly Shakespearean film (hidden identities, cave-dwelling eccentrics, elaborate orchestrations of revenge), Zhang spends nearly two-thirds of the runtime reveling in courtly pretense and strategem, punctuated only briefly by scenes of lightly-stylized sparring. So when the spectacle of the climax arrives, it’s tenor so distinctly Zhang, it feels a bit short shrift to move so immediately into the denouement, where the general theme of human corruptibility, and a barely-there love story, aren’t really enough to hold interest. Clearly, Shadow was conceived as a visual exercise; shot in gorgeous black-and-white (by his own admission, a response to his typically bold coloring, though this is equally as ostentatious), it’s best appreciated aesthetically, with any metaphorical readings generally too simplistic to take that seriously. Shadow may not be nearly as accomplished as its clear precedents — and it falls somewhere between Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of its plot-to-pomp ratio — but Zhang proves that, operating in this vibrant, superficial mode, he’s still capable of generating the requisite thrills. Luke Gorham
Too Late to Die Young
The primary appeal of Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young is its seductive portrayal of a liminal state. Set in a bohemian commune in the Chilean countryside, a year after the downfall of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the film (which won the Golden Leopard for Best Director at the 2018 Locarno Festival) revels in that familiar sensation of being on the cusp of a transformative encounter that, as yet, remains frustratingly out of reach, so one searches elsewhere—destructively, impulsively. Sotomayor’s main subject, here, is Sofia (Demian Hernández), a young woman who longs to leave her rural confines and the hold of her luthier father for the peripatetic urban wanderings of her absentee, musician mother. Like the films of Lucrecia Martel (particularly La Ciénaga), Too Late to Die Young ebbs and flows with a particular attention to sensorial pleasures. Sotomayor has a similar talent for composing frames and deploying narrative elisions that pull the viewer in; her rhythms, though, are far more languid, better to conceal the characters’ rumblings of discontent. Despite its various formalist pleasures, Too Late to Die Young ultimately offers little genuine insight. But its finale is a stunner: one way of life going up in flames to make room for another. Lawrence Garcia
The Wandering Soap Opera
The Wandering Soap Opera manages to create the perfect portrait of a nation without culture, without guidance, lost in a post-dictatorial haze. Filmed in 1990 in the context of a workshop that Raúl Ruiz held with actors and technicians who knew about him, but hadn’t had a chance to work with him due to the military dictatorship that had just ended, the film constantly references “the returned,” those who came back from exile with big ideas about how the future of Chile would continue. But Chile had changed; it was like living inside a soap opera, and Ruiz’s characters jump from one to the next, address each other, or simply watch other soap operas. All of this is done through humorous vignettes that get slightly darker with each cut, ending in a nightmarish sequence that speaks of the absolute disaster that Chile will live under the so-called democracy: three men get together in a ghost house, to speak to each other, but they instead turn to their own pets, listening to what they have to say instead. Eventually completed in 2017 by Ruiz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento, The Wandering Soap Opera is a complex object, but an essential one. There’s been a severe lack of understanding coming from most of North American reviewers and critics when confronted with it, which maybe stems from the implicit obscurity of the style or the fragmented nature of the film. But the resources are there, Ruiz almost spells things out when it comes to not trusting “the returned.” Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Adapted from Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson’s long form poem of the same name, Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara skews largely sensationalist — to its detriment. The film’s logline remains faithful to its science-fiction source material: a massive, Mars-bound spaceship packed with colonists finds itself expelled from the solar system after a nearly catastrophic accident. The microsocial consequences likewise remain faithful – the masses seek out their opiate, first in the form of Mima, a science-fantasy machine that allows users to experience comforting calm in the form of temporary augmented realities, and then in the consumption of religion, sex, entertainment, routine, control, and other false manifestations of purpose. But where the verse novel revels in the interplay between science and poetry – “now we have fathomed what our space-ship is – a tiny bubble in a glass of God” – and the ways in which that relationship between the experiential and empirical inform existential concerns of humanity, the film trades instead in cheap, catchpenny luridness. There exists a clear intent here to explore the corruption of people in crisis, but a commitment to incorporating all of dark excesses of the book results in little more than a checklist of tropes. On the page, Martinson’s language lends a moral opacity, its intentional artfulness blunting these more familiar genre inquiries into something altogether more abstracted; though short in length, its transitions blur and complicate and elongate its probings. But on screen, the tension between the literal cosmic void outside the ship and the metaphorical one infecting this isolated society is not felt, its narrative pivots only realized as rushed horror film machinations. The novel asks, in the absence of future’s surety, whether we are living for something or toward something. As a film, such philosophical ruminations prove incongruous with its baser ambitions. Luke Gorham
Diamantino, the brainchild of directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, comes out guns-a’-blazin’, with frenetic, intertwining, impossible-to-link story threads listed-out via voice-over and referencing (in the manner that a press kit might) subjects including “giant puppies,” “the refugee crisis,” and “neofascism.” Diamantino Matamorous (Carloto Cotta) is introduced as the “world’s most famous” soccer star, and thus the opening shots creep around a CGI-rendered Earth, as Cotta breathlessly intones a self-important monologue rife for parody. The camera works its way down through the atmosphere until the giant net of a soccer stadium comes into view — then, eventually, Diamantino himself, who reveals that his secret to ‘being the best’ has been to imagine the field filled with giant puppies instead of players. And there it is, what we’ve waited six long minutes to arrive at: some mildly humorous, random-ass punchline. That voiceover gimmick wasn’t just for the opening, either — it extends through the entire 96-minute runtime. Diamantino, as a character, is a fop — very sincere, but extremely stupid and childish. The film’s structure runs this naif through various sketches that are tied together with the loosest of threads: his sisters use him for an evil plot involving Portuguese nationalists’ efforts to clone his likeness, and make an unstoppable soccer team, while also making him a puppet PR representative for the cause of Portugal leaving the EU. This can all sound like fun on paper (maybe in a press kit!), but these ridiculous story ideas (here’s another: a Portuguese government operative (Cleo Tavares) disguises herself as a Mozambican refugee boy to spy on Diamantino’s estate) get tiring, and generally don’t even try to complicate or challenge expectations. Diamantino is the emotional fulcrum but he remains an idiot throughout; his ignorance is assumed comedic, his mere presence in a scene the joke. Cotta is clearly the highlight here, his commitment to the ruse making the film slightly bearable. And yet, the filmmakers continually handicap the actor with lifeless monologuing, which just reiterates events we’ve already seen. The dramatic irony of a character being unaware of the zany plots occurring around him loses its punch quickly. And for all the nuances brought to these specific, wacky ideas, there’s little of that imagination found in Abrantes’ and Schmidt’s direction. The strange sexual politics of a bisexual woman disguised as a boy sharing a mansion with a hot-yet-dimwitted adopted father, for example, are rife with possibility. But, like the worst Sundance-film fodder, literally nothing beyond the paint-by-numbers “she investigates and he doesn’t know” plot reoccurs until the shoehorned resolution — they fall in love. Despite the good intentions of the film, and the hot-button talking points it brings up, Diamantino never seems to have much to say. Joe Biglin
Ensconced in the forest, enfolded by lush, verdant foliage, a spider’s web glints, caught in the halation of the sun; the glistening, intricate pattern is one of the myriad beauties crafted by nature, but it is also a deadly trap set by a formidable predator. Ensnared in the web is an unfortunate slew of insects, writhing, swaddled, helpless. Nature plays a prominent role in King Hu’s films, especially A Touch of Zen — which is often considered the apogee of the wuxia genre. Though the film is remembered for the deft acrobatics of its fight scenes, wiry bodies leaping and flipping with impossible dexterity, the film opens languidly, and spends an entire hour building up to the eventual fighting. Whorls of clouds linger over mountains, reeds and branches undulate in the breeze. Imbued inextricably with Buddhist imagery and ideas, the film, which takes place in the 14th Century, during the Ming Dynasty, spends an unusual amount of time luxuriating in the natural world. (Compare this languor, this fascination with gentle sounds, to the more chaotic work of, say, Lau Kar-Leung, or Hu acolyte Tsui Hark.) The methodical pacing belies the hasty, sometimes messy nature of most mainstream wuxia films from the time, which dispensed with narratives and logic in favor of uncanny brannigans and spectacular choreography.
A Touch of Zen, as much a spiritual film as it is a wuxia, culminates in a beguiling sequence, a psychedelic rapture of Buddhist imagery that recalls David’s final journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The bamboo forests transmogrify into an empyrean plane as the holy man himself seems to appear. Of course, one comes to a wuxia not just for phantasmagoric Buddhism (even if Hu’s higher purpose is Buddha), but for those histrionic fight sequences, which here unfold in long takes (one could argue that the John Wick films even draw inspiration from Hu’s mastershots). To liken the film’s fighting to ballet, as so many have done, seems the only way to convey the grace, the fluidity, the beauty of these skirmishes. Without eschewing the mysticism entirely, Hu emphasized the physicality of his performers rather than relying on the supernatural. Hu could suture a close-up of a pair of feet leaping from the earth to a series of medium- and wide-shots to augment the feeling of sublimity and make you think people can really fly. What defines a King Hu film is a sense of buoyancy, that sensation that transcends the simply somatic, the intangible permeating the screen, the soul. Greg Cwik