Completing a loose trilogy that began with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou’s grim adaptation of a novel by Su Tong once again stars Gong Li as a young woman who marries a much older man, and once again tells a story that explicitly critiques Chinese feudalism and indirectly critiques contemporary China. This time, however, the style is quite different (despite another key use of the color red) and the vision is much bleaker. The heroine, a less sympathetic figure than her predecessors, is a university student in the 1920s who becomes the fourth and youngest wife of a powerful man in northern China after her stepmother can no longer afford to pay for her education. She quickly becomes involved in the various intrigues and rivalries between wives that rule her husband’s world and family tradition: each wife has her own house and courtyard, and whoever the husband chooses to sleep with on a given night receives a foot massage, several lighted red lanterns, and the right to select the menu for the following day. The film confines us throughout to this claustrophobic universe of boxes within boxes, where wives and female servants virtually devote their lives to scheming against one another; the action is filmed mainly in frontal long shots.… Read more »
Monthly Archives: March 1992
Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie made me laugh more and much harder than What’s Up, Doc? ever did, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed “Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines,” “Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach,” and “Props in Revolt in Cleveland”; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easier to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 20, 1992). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Clifton Ko
Written by Ko, Michael Hui, and Raymond Wong
With Hui, Wong, Olivia Cheng, Ricky Hui, Maria Cordero, and Joi Wong.
KING OF CHESS
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Yim Ho and Tsui Hark
Written by Yim and Tony Leung
With Leung, John Sham, Yong Lin, Yia Ho, King Shin Chien, and Chan Koon Cheung.
Past, present or future . . . China will always belong to the Chinese people. — opening title in King of Chess
In this country there is probably no important national cinema more neglected than the Chinese — actually a transnational entity, as I’m defining it here, including movies from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. And probably no programmer in this country is more dedicated to making Chinese cinema known than Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center.
I have to admit to a certain resistance to Chinese cinema in the past, and to Hong Kong movies in particular. It’s a bias shared by many of my colleagues, for reasons that are in part self-serving: if we were to suddenly acknowledge the importance of Hong Kong movies, we’d be forced to acknowledge many years of negligence on our part, and obliged to admit an embarrassing lack of knowledge and sophistication on the subject.… Read more »
The biggest hit of Hong Kong comedy star and director Michael Hui is also considered his best movie, or his next best (after Security Unlimited), by many fans and critics. Having seen an unsubtitled print of this episodic comedy, I can only say that I still laughed a lot at the frenetic slapstick and rapid-fire bursts of rhythmic invention. Hui plays the mean-spirited head of a private detective agency, and among his employees are Hui’s likable brothers Sam and Ricky (1977). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 21, 6:00, and Sunday, March 22, 2:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
Though writer-director Yim Ho (Homecoming) disowned this film after producer Tsui Hark took over the direction, it is still one of the most interesting and original Hong Kong pictures I’ve seen. Adapted from two different novels called King of Chess, by Chung Ah Shing and Cheung Hay Kwok, the story alternates between a rather bitter satire of capitalism centered on the Taipei TV industry and an equally critical look at the Cultural Revolution on the mainland many years earlier. Both stories involve the exploitation of chess masters–a boy with psychic powers in the Taiwanese story, a poor man in the mainland flashbacks–and they are connected in terms of plot by the memories a character from Hong Kong in the Taipei story has about visiting a cousin in a reeducation camp. The powerful and talented Yim directed the mainland sections with a highly emotional lyricism that reminds me at times of Bertolucci; the slicker and more action-oriented Tsui handled the brittle Taipei sections. The results may not be what Yim wanted, but it’s still a singular and fascinating work, with a great deal of intelligence and feeling (1991). (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, March 15, 6:00, 702-8575; also Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, March 19, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
The following essay was commissioned by Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in 1992 for the book-spinoff of his documentary Grass. I wrote this around the same time that I reviewed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai for the Chicago Reader, which helped to focus my conclusion; for more aspects of this argument, see “International Sampler”.—J.R.
What Dope Does to Movies
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
To the memory of Paul Schmidt
Consider how the camera cuts from Richie Havens’s face, guitar, and upper torso during his second number in Woodstock (1970) to a widening vista of thousands of clapping spectators, then to a much less populated view of the back of the bandstand, where there’s no clapping, watching, or listening — just a few figures milling about near the stage or on the hill behind it. What’s going on? This radical shift in orientation and perspective—a sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation — is immediately recognizable as part of being stoned, and Michael Wadleigh’s epic concert film, which significantly has about the same duration as a marijuana high, is one of the first studio releases to incorporate this experience into its style and vision.
Or think of the way that Blade Runner (1982) starts: a long, lingering aerial view of Los Angeles in the year 2019, , punctuated by dragon-like spurts of noxious yellow flames, with enormous close-ups of a blue eye whose iris reflects those sinister, muffled explosions.… Read more »
Josef von Sternberg’s first encounter with Emil Jannings, which led to their collaboration on The Blue Angel two years later, was in this late silent Hollywood masterpiece about a Russian general (Jannings) reduced to the status of a Hollywood extra in a film about the Russian Revolution. Lajos Biros wrote the story, Jannings’s performance here and in The Way of All Flesh won him an Oscar, and Sternberg’s direction makes this second only to The Docks of New York as the most accomplished of his silent films. With Evelyn Brent and William Powell (1928). A new score by Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Arnold Brostoff will be conducted by Brostoff and performed by members of the CSO at this special screening. (Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, Saturday, March 7, 8:00, 435-6666) … Read more »
One ironic footnote to the following article, which ran in the March 6, 1992 issue of the Chicago Reader, is that it was itself subjected to a kind of “soft censorship”. Specifically, my editors refused to allow me to allude to having known Chevy Chase personally as a classmate at Bard College during the mid-1960s, which I thought gave some additional weight to some of my reflections about the personal nature of Memoirs of an Invisible Man. (Since I no longer have access to my initial draft, I can’t spell this out here in any detail, except to note that Chase’s jazz piano now figures in the final draft only as a parenthetical detail.) Not only did Chevy and I share a course or two, but we also bonded in various ways through our mutual interest in jazz: in a few student jam sessions, I played piano while Chevy played drums (although he also played some piano even then), and we collaborated at one point with Blythe Danner (another Bard classmate, and a jazz vocalist at the time) on a successful project to bring Bill Evans and his trio to campus to give a concert. —J.R.
THE WAGES OF FEAR
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi
With Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck, and William Tubbs.… Read more »
Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)
Not even the talents of Dolly Parton and James Woods can save the shaky premise of this Disney comedy with a Chicago setting, directed by Barnet Kellman from a script by Craig Bolotin and Patricia Resnick. Fired from a dance instructor job, Parton leaves her fiance and her small town for Chicago, where she accidentally winds up on the radio as a talk-show psychologist dispensing advice to callers; her show is such a runaway hit that Chicago Sun- Times reporter James Wood decides to investigate her credentials. This starts off brightly enough, but the fatal mistake of the filmmakers is to assume that the profound common sense and populist appeal of the heroine can be inferred from Parton’s natural charms rather than actually demonstrated. The movie never manages to paper over this gaping hole, but some agreeable secondary performancesby Griffin Dunne, Michael Madsen, Deirdre O’Connell, John Sayles, Spalding Gray, Jerry Orbach, and Philip Bosco, among othersprovide partial compensation. (JR)… Read more »
Duane Clark’s independent feature (1990), shot in Chicagoa conventional buddy movie about a quartet of longtime (if dissimilar) chums, set at Christmas 1989 and sparked intermittently by decent acting. If you’ve nothing else to do, it goes down easily, but don’t expect much more. With Arye Gross, Gale Hansen, Doug Savant, Steven Wilde (who scripted the movie with Clark), and Courteney Cox. (JR)… Read more »
Now we all know what German expressionist is: extended chunks of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (recast with John Malkovich and Mia Farrow) and The Magician (recast with Kenneth Mars and Woody Allen), Nosferatu’s pointed ears, the dull center framing of any Woody Allen movie (no diagonals or tilted angles, please), lots of kvetching with New York accents, central-casting prostitutes played by guest stars (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates), reams of dialogue we’ve all heard before in countless other movies, a strangler lurking in dank cobblestone alleyways, the opening passage of Kafka’s The Trial (who needs to read any further?), music by Kurt Weill, and, to top it off, shadows, silhouettes, and fog filmed in black and white. In short, Woody Allen’s feeblest semicomedy and postmodernist pastiche since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, bravely forsaking the streets of Manhattan for the soundstages of Astoria, explores the dark night of the soul with lots of famous people. With Michael Kirby, Donald Pleasence, Philip Bosco, Kate Nelligan, Julie Kavner, John Cusack, Madonna (for a minute or two), and others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten. You’ll forget them, too. (JR)… Read more »
Michael Hui directs and stars with his brothers Ricky and Sam in a typically broad and frenetic but hilarious Hong Kong farce about the misadventures of three security guards. The plot is rather episodic, but some of the piecessuch as a bank robbery and an attempt to burglarize an exhibition of Chinese antiquitiesare classics of their kind. Hui’s exquisite sense of rhythm, often accompanied by short bursts of music, and his antiheroic sense of character keep this hopping (1981). (JR)… Read more »
It’s a toss-up between this 1989 essay film and Until the End of the World (in the abbreviated U.S. version) for Wim Wenders’s worst movie. Until the End of the World is silly and boring, but it has a few redeeming moments; this has a few moments too, but it’s ideologically much more offensive. Wenders interviews and philosophizes about chic fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, whose clothes he wears (in exchange for making this movie?), films female models, blithely decapitating them, and ruminates about the meaning of video, himself, life in generalthat sort of thing. A rich boy’s movie made by a talented artist whose view of the social world has shrunk to the dimensions of his hotel room. (JR)… Read more »