As We Like it
The idea of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, set in an ultra-modern Taipei with an all-female cast, certainly sounds appealing. As does the idea of transmuting Shakespeare’s Edenic Forest of Arden into an internet-free zone of play and gender non-conformity. Unfortunately, filmmakers Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei appear to have been satisfied with only the very cursory reading of this most sophisticated of comedies: at every turn, their adaptation takes what was special in Shakespeare and enacts the opposite. The heroine Rosalind, among the greatest female characters in all of literature, the epitome of poise, ingenuity, confidence, and creativity, is sidelined in her own story.
Rather than serving as author of the play’s action, its heart and soul and conscience, she becomes confused, passive, desperate to find her father, unsure of her feelings for Orlando or of his for her. In the play, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy in order to educate the man she loves in the ways of romance, in how to love her properly rather than in the childish doggerel he pins to every tree in Arden. In this film, there’s no clear reason why she does it, and the educative aspect of the interactions is replaced by a bizarre scavenger hunt to find her father that only serves to further undermine her independence — despite the film’s bird-flipping stance on “the patriarchy who would not allow female actors on the stage,” this is still a far more conservative story than Shakespeare’s. And indeed, the movie’s cutesy aesthetic, all candy colors and animated curlicues and hearts and stars and handicrafts, might as well be the kind of juvenilia the play-Rosalind rejects in Orlando.
The rest of the cast is served no better. Rosalind’s best friend Celia again falls for Orlando’s brother Oliver, but this time in the middle of the story, before he’s amended his villainous ways and proved himself worthy of love. Phebe is transformed into Angel, a psychic, and her story is more or less as it is in the play, while Touchstone, the fool, is hardly present, and when he is, his romance with Audrey (now Silver) is played for schmaltz, not acidic satire. But at least he exists — the play’s other philosophical foil for Rosalind, the melancholic Jaques (who gives the “All the world’s a stage” speech), is wholly absent, with only a couple of his most famous lines moved into a treacly pop tune that carries none of the weight or meaning of his cynical disquisition on the seven stages of life.
The play’s best line is likewise missing, Rosalind’s admonition to Orlando that “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” It’s the essence of the play, the key to Rosalind’s actions and the very heart of her character. It’s what makes her so compelling and fascinating a figure, but there’s no trace of that Rosalind here. As We Like It is mere pop confection, all icing and no cake. What it ultimately offers is a stomach ache.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Dead & Beautiful
In the metropolitan center of Taipei, five young men and women convene to celebrate their wealth; nestled in a private lounge amid the stratosphere, they discuss their engagements with culture, politics, and such topics of the times. One would be forgiven for harking back to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive as a reference point, for the casual flippancy with which these youth stage a prank — involving the alleged death of one member — intimates, alongside the ostensibly regular fashion in which these conventions are scheduled, an impression of unassailable immortality. The comparisons do not end there. The cabal’s members carry themselves with an outward maturity and confidence reserved for older, hardened tycoons; yet, billionaires as they are, none appears older than twenty-five. Of course, Dead & Beautiful will also venture into the vampiric realm, literally and metaphorically, if its title hasn’t already clued the viewer in.
Transposing a supernatural tale of modern capitalism’s bloodsucking parasites onto their natural urban habitat, David Verbeek’s satirical effort disappointingly draws less blood than its conceptual bite suggests. At once centered on class consciousness and millennial apathy, it initially performs a balancing act between the two with beguiling allure, before dropping the ball in its second half in favor of overworked plotlines and a frustrating lack of thematic focus. Opening with a lonely shot of ennui, Dead & Beautiful captures the city’s opalescent beauty within an expression of uncertain reverie in the face of its protagonist, Lulu, not unlike the violently pensive individuals beloved by Diao Yi’nan and Tsai Ming-liang. The difference lies in Lulu’s obscene wealth and that of her coterie; clad in designer apparel and flanked by Lamborghini doors, her brooding countenance foretells less her nervous uncertainty with the future than gnawing, restless boredom. Each one takes turns organizing an event or retreat to spice up their lives, but novelty and excitement are quickly running dry.
After a shamanistic encounter goes awry, the youngsters discover their newfound sets of fangs, and subsequently a rejuvenated lust for life — and blood. Verbeek follows their varied reactions and responses first with garish levity, then with leaden gravity (and not in a productive, philosophical way). The twofold metaphor of vampirism, as metonym for capital’s triumph over common labor and synecdoche of the mysterious nocturnal world inhabited by the super-rich, loses itself to a plodding narrative where the clarity of its characters’ motivations is exchanged for a chic synth-wave atmosphere. In so doing, Dead & Beautiful, like countless pastiches before it, succumbs to its own vacuous sheen; its cityscape forgoes reconstruction and resurrection in favor of a restful necropolitan veneer.
Writer: Morris Yang
The Edge of Daybreak
Eliding anything that could be considered a catalyzing event, Thai director Taiki Sakpisit’s feature debut The Edge of Daybreak is a film of buildups and aftermath, more concerned with the implicit effects engendered by instability, both personal and political. Opening with the whispered testimony of a former soldier being separated from his unit in the jungle while pursuing student protesters during the 1970s uprising, Sakpisit immediately establishes his film’s preoccupation with Thai history while otherwise maintaining a dramaturgy of muted obfuscation, always moving laterally — never vertically — within its formal parameters.
Punctuated by the spectral glow of flashlights and the occasional lamp, The Edge of Daybreak’s soft, digital black and white practically whirrs to life amongst a collection of subtly interrelated images: a dangled piece of jewelry; a column of heavily armed men moving through a field; a presumed torture victim’s supine body; a shared meal that’s rendered with enough painterly rigor to warrant biblical comparisons. Already the border between reality, dreams, and flashbacks is blurred, with characters frequently glimpsed suddenly waking from slumbers of indeterminate length, creating a layered network of mostly unnamed characters. What’s made clear in this prologue of decent length is that the central figure is a man awaiting safe passage out of the country, hence the pervasive tone of finality.
The jump from this hazily pieced-together first act to the comparatively linear second half is where the cracks in Sakpisit’s project begin to widen, and passages start to play as merely disjointed rather than intentionally incongruous. There’s no discernible change in writing or style to accommodate for what becomes a family drama, as brought forth by a daughter’s near-drowning, a mother’s infidelity with her husband’s brother, and that very husband’s glaring absence. Dialogue is bound exclusively to the paltry narrative, and the Tarkovsky-esque divergences into ominous intervals of smooth camerawork crawling through abstract compositions do little to complement what surrounds them.
Sakpisit has a penchant for visuals overburdened with foreboding, which only makes the purported repression all the more pummeling. When pushed to the margins, this sort of texturing can yield striking results, such as the dallying lovers being glimpsed through the gaps of some heavy barbed-wire, or the thrilling tracking shot following a bottle of liquor passed between the passengers of a crowded bus, before settling on the shotgun-toting man sitting alone in the rear. These kinds of gestures grow stultifying, however, when it becomes apparent The Edge of Daybreak is only housing them rather than threading them. By the time of the elaborate — and ultimately pointless — carving of a slaughtered pig, or the umpteenth appearance of an inky bloodstain, the film has entirely sapped itself of its potential potency, coasting along on the incidental beauty of its otherwise well-established aesthetic palette.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
The Year Before the War
The Year Before the War begins with an impressive sequence shot; in closeup, workers methodically cut huge blocks of ice out of a frozen lake. The camera pulls back to reveal a man whispering to frozen fish about death, before immediately plunging himself into the icy maw while the other workers look on, unfazed. The camera then tracks across the surface of the frozen lake to take in revelers cavorting in front of a sign that reads simply “1913” in burning numbers. With this, director Dāvis Sīmanis has declared that we are firmly in the realm of phantasmagoric allegory, like some absurdist mixture of Parajanov and Jancso rendered in luscious black and white. This is a film of cryptic symbols and slippery connections, legible in broad strokes but confounding in its pileup of early 20th Century signifiers. Set mostly in Riga, the capital of Latvia, with detours to Paris and Austria, the film plays like a kind of reverse Pilgrim’s Progress as it follows the tribulations of hapless hotel doorman, Hans (Petr Buchta). Seemingly content to his life as a simple, humble worker, Hans is soon mistaken for an anarchist terrorist named Petr Leton, and then proceeds, over the course of the film, to transform into his own doppelgänger.
Broken up into chapters, each delineated by the months of the year, Hans (or maybe Petr), crosses paths with a litany of historical giants; there’s Freud (Girts Kesteris), Lenin (Lauris Dzelzitis), and Trotsky (Gints Gravelis), as well as portrayals of Wittgenstein, Kafka, Proust, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Oswald Spengler, and others. There’s also a spy named Alma (Inga Silina), who Petr (or maybe Hans) falls in love with, their romance providing a kind of skeletal narrative that links together otherwise scattered vignettes. It’s worth noting that not every player of this extensive roster is immediately identifiable, nor is it clearly elucidated exactly how their political or artistic philosophies directly or indirectly shape this peculiar narrative. Hans is certainly a Josef K.-like figure, stumbling around in a secret world he doesn’t understand, full of rules and structures that elude him, perhaps suggesting that the lead up to the eve of WWI was unknowable and immutable. Both Lenin and Freud are portrayed as wide-eyed lunatics who cackle maniacally. Hoffman’s tales of automatons make an appearance at a nudist colony, while Sīmanis also sprinkles in references to Dostoyevsky and visual nods to Dali and Ingmar Bergman. It would all be maddening if it wasn’t so fascinating to look at, and frequently funny to boot. Sīmanis creates beautiful, claustrophobic compositions, trapping figures in architectural spaces and turning god’s eye views of cityscapes into inescapable mazes. It’s not entirely clear what this discursiveness all adds up to, beyond maybe a frustrated shrug, but it’s certainly symbolically meaningful that this cacophony of voices and conflicting beliefs led inexorably to worldwide warfare. Ultimately, there’s something universal about Hans, eventually transformed into a military leader overseeing tribunals and levying punishments to townspeople under the watchful eye of a giant Lenin portrait. War changes everything, and makes monsters of us all.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Sode Yukiko has no qualms with announcing her Aristocrats as a literary project, unveiling its status as an adaptation of the novel Ano Ko wa Kizoku by Mariko Yamauchi before any credits, and even the title card. Its novelistic sweep is modest, but still manages to follow different divergences, whether in the form of flashback or in its endless supply of secondary characters. Opening with a reliable contrast between romantic malaise and holiday cheer — Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) must confess to her family that she’s split with her fiancé when his absence at their New Year’s dinner is remarked upon — Sode probes the mannered methods in which personal desires are flouted by family as means of preserving an external decorum. Hanako must quietly weather pleas for a speedy arranged marriage at the behest of her parents, while still being chided by her otherwise more progressive siblings for holding out for what she calls “a normal guy.” The prosaic conversation is buoyed by cinematographer Yasayuki Sasaki’s precise framing, offering numerous instances of physical distance between Hanako and those around her.
The rush to find a suitable partner cycles through a handful of disastrous blind dates and meetups with prospective husbands, but mapping the contemporary playing field isn’t Aristocrats’ sole ambition. Hanako’s too-good-to-be-true, brisk slide into engagement with the well-off Koichiro (Kengo Kora) meets its inevitable compromising element in Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a former amorous classmate of the latter. Miki is no antagonist, but another facet of Sode’s surveying of class in contemporary Tokyo. The relationship between the two ex-students is chronicled through a flashback that also outlines the economic straits of Miki’s own family, forcing her to drop out of college and become a hostess in the city. An ostensible love-triangle is established, but Sode drifts from matters of the heart to focus on the platonic relationships that the two women develop with one another, also absorbing their respective friends into this portrait of tryingly resounding sympathy.
Too often, though, does Sode strand her characters amidst the didactic — at one point, at lunch with friends from school, Miki’s friend leans over to whisper, “they’re aristocrats,” in regards to their dining partners who are unfazed by the menu prices. Conversations mostly circle topics of upbringing, “the sticks” (as referred to by Miki), and the ways in which romantic possibility in Tokyo is now “compartmentalized” (according to a friend of Hanako’s). This, paired with a relative shapelessness — shifts in perspective that aren’t necessarily jarring, but unceremonious nonetheless — makes Aristocrats an unfortunately toothless endeavor. Required forays into the acerbic, which the material demands, are relegated to the occasionally witty subheading of a chapter card, such as “Chapter One: Tokyo (in particular, one class of people).” Sode herself appears to be perfectly content with Aristocrats’ noncommittal writing, which admittedly produces a fitfully lulling effect, although such an anodyne lilt isn’t what the film itself strives for.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
Mitra was a daughter and a revolutionary. In 1982, during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, she was among the thousands arrested by the authorities and executed. As erstwhile allies of the Ayatollah found their pro-democracy ideals divergent from and indeed diametrically-opposed to the regime’s theocratic establishment, they chose one of two paths: to stay and fight, or to flee abroad. Haleh, Mitra’s mother, forged a successful career in the Netherlands as an academic along with her grey-haired investor brother, Mohsen, who left for Germany. They are comfortably settled, away from the political turbulence of their home country and resistant to the global networking of “the Organisation” (likely the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, one of the remaining bastions of anti-clerical dissidence), until members of the latter turn up at Haleh’s doorstep one day to break the long-held silence: the woman responsible for her daughter’s death has surfaced in town.
The ghost of the past haunts Kaweh Modiri’s political thriller, concurrently voicing conviction and sowing doubt as to the veracity of the woman’s identity. Based on the director’s own life (his sister, also named Mitra, was executed before his birth) and straddling past and present, Mitra explicates themes of the personal within its broader contextual politics. Hence, the designation of political thriller; like the films of Christian Petzold, elements of ideological and historical conflict are embroiled in the lives of their characters who seek, but fail, to escape them. Modiri is no Petzold, however; Mitra, for all its musings on revenge and reconciliation, absents itself from the slippery ontologies and chimeric identities of The State I Am In and, more prominently, Phoenix. Yet, despite its comparatively rote and by-the-books nature, the film delivers an unassumingly candid examination of enduring tragedy.
As Haleh approaches and slowly befriends Sare, the woman she suspects of having betrayed her daughter some thirty-seven years prior, she and her brother contend with differing views as to their next move. Mohsen, effectively rendered impotent from the regime’s torture, resigns himself to an unquiet peace, whereas Haleh — a lifelong advocate for democratic reform in Iran — will not rest until justice has been served. The presence of Sare’s young daughter complicates their moral considerations in what promises to be a thematic parallel drawn between victim and aggressor, honor and complicity. While lacking in novelty, Modiri’s ambiguous conclusion at least admirably defers the wishful promises of catharsis and closure assured by many a film in the genre.
Writer: Morris Yang