Monday, May 29, 2006

Simply Taiwan!

One Country, 3 directors, 6 movies! A diverse collection ranging from the colorful past to the murky present!!!

Hsiao-hsien Hou

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of this talented director. But after seeing three of his movies in quick succession, I can understand why he has such a huge following around the world! I first cracked the world of Hsiao-hsien Hou with his highly acclaimed beautiful 2005 flick Three Times which illustrated the director’s full control over every frame as every movement on screen was perfectly orchestrated. Yet, I felt unconvinced about the second (1911 segment) of the three shorts in that movie and felt that it could have been better if it had been shot in black and white as opposed to being rich in color. The first 1966 segment was in simple colors (not too bright) and the final 2005 segment was grayish. I could not understand the bright colors in the middle segment and thought having black and white would have been a better bridge between the two other segments. But all my doubts were banished when I saw the director’s earlier work – the visually scrumptious The Flowers of Shanghai . This is because the 1911 segment in Three Times is along the same lines of the colorful brothel love story shown in The Flowers of Shanghai . That same story was touched upon again in the 1911 segment and it had to be in color, otherwise the richness of the story would have been lost. And within the context of Three Times the 1911 segment had to be without dialogues and had to be with text cards. One of the connecting elements of the three stories in Three Times is the usage of text messages as a form of communication. All the characters use one form of the written word to express their feelings, be it via letters, scrolls or SMS text messages. The audience needed to be brought in the loop as well and the sure fire way to convey that was to let them read the messages itself. And in the case of the 1911 segment, the audience had to do precisely that, whereas in the other two segments, it is the characters doing the reading.

As far as the story of The Flowers of Shanghai is concerned, it centers around the brothels in 1880’s China. Food, drink, games and love is all that takes place. Games are played, the losers have to drink up, food is served and then after that, someone leaves with a girl of their choice. Problems arise when love comes into the equation. A man wants to buy a woman’s freedom but that does not go as per plan. Jealousy and doubts set in, and in the end, heartbreak follows. Sounds simple but it is much more complicated than that. And each emotion, each feeling is captured perfectly. What more can I say? Only that this is an absolutely stunning visual cinematic feast!

Goodbye South, Goodbye

Gangsters go through their complicated lives trying to etch out a better deal and a better future for themselves. At times the movie has shades of Hong Kong gangster/Japanese Yakutza movies but this one stands completely on its own. I quite liked it but not as much as the director’s other two movies. The film gives a glimpse into the lowest rungs of gangster business, a tier where negotiations are made over the kind of chickens to be traded, gambling rackets, family inheritances and other back-room deals. Slow, yet never dull. The camera just waits patiently and allows us to observe what the characters will do next, how they will react and how they will cope.

So overall ratings:

Three Times (now updated to 10/10), Flowers of Shanghai (10/10) and Goodbye South, Goodbye (8.5/10)

Tsai Ming-liang

What Time Is It there?

Tick tock. The clock slowly ticks away. Taipei. Paris. What time is it really? Does the time matter? Because what is there to do really? Sell Watches! Wait for things to get better! And wait for the love to return! These things take time, they don’t change overnight. But the expectation that the next hour will be better, that the next day will be different enable the characters to go on. They sit, they wait and they hope. And when they start losing hope, they cling onto something else, something which they feel is better, something which will give them a better chance of happiness. That something might not make sense to an outsider but for the main characters, their lives depend on it. On one side is the boy who sells watches. One day he meets a girl who insists on buying his watch. The girl is leaving for Paris the next day and wants his watch only. She eventually convinces him to sell it to her. After the boy’s father dies, his mother finds it difficult to let go. The boy is afraid of the dark and tries to stay locked up in his room. If he leaves his room, he encounters his mother trying to come up with schemes to welcome the dead father’s spirit back. Meanwhile the girl is lonely in Paris. She longs for home and is relieved when she meets another woman who can speak the same language as her. Meanwhile, the boy is feeling more detached with his life. So he longs for the girl who left for Paris. In hoping to establish a connection with her, he changes the times on all the watches he sells to show Parisian time. In fact, wherever he finds a clock (be it in a hallway or mounted on a building), he tries to switch the time to Paris time (hence the title). He then seeks French movies so as to be closer to her. And his introduction to French cinema starts with 400 Blows . Meanwhile, the girl meets the real life grown up version of the boy from 400 Blows. In a way, sitting on two separate sides of the planet, the two of them connect in a strange way. Different times, but same feeling. The movie moves extremely slowly with long uninterrupted shots of nothingness. But that is exactly the point the movie is trying to make. Nothing happens in these people lives yet they keep waiting for something to happen. The clock on the other hand keeps ticking away.

Rating: 9/10

The Wayward Cloud

A long empty corridor. A woman carries a watermelon across it. Next scene, we see that watermelon cut open in half lying in between a woman’s open legs. A man approaches the watermelon, licks it and ends up achieving penetration of a different kind. The main character is the same who used to sell watches in What Time Is It There but he now acts in porno movies. He meets the returned girl from Paris, who moves into the same apartment block as him. The two of them don’t hook up but continue to admire each other from a distance. Each of them is initially busy trying to beat the heat wave that has covered the city. Water is a scarce resource and the tv news informs the public that it is cheaper to drink watermelon juice as opposed to water because of the abundant supply of watermelons as opposed to water. And this also explains the watermelon motif that keeps reappearing throughout the movie, be it as a song prop or as a sexual tool. The film contains a handful of songs which are very well orchestrated with completely unique props (sexual triggers and even a watermelon beast). The same slow technique as the Ming-liang Tsai’s previous movie is used but the songs lend a different mood to the movie. A bit of comic relief in some cases and in others just a melancholy commentary on the state of things. Overall, I didn’t find this film as interesting as his previous effort but this is a completely unique endeavor with a truly ‘climatic’ ending.

Rating: 8/10

Leon Dai

Twenty Something Taipei

A different shade of Taiwan from all the other movies. On face value, the modern Taipei shown is not as lonely as the other director’s efforts. The capital city is shown to be a vibrant, fast moving metropolitan city complete with drinks, drugs, clubs and liberal sex. Someone hooks up with one person, then another, switches partners and continues. While the fast paced music continues to throb in the background. In between is a sweet budding romance. The characters aren’t unique to Taipei but could easily inhabit Mumbai, New York, London or another major city. And despite the differences this movie has with the above 5 movies, there is a tiny segment which overlaps with Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times . His 2005 segment has a lesbian love story which is clearly found in the middle of Twenty Something Taipei. Now, it may seem like a stretch to try to connect these two separate movies but it goes to show that both directors had a similar source which they worked off and both wanted to show a modern view of their city where a newer generation is growing up.

Rating: 7.5/10 . Not a bad movie. Cliched, yes! But entertaining nonetheless!!


Pacze Moj said...

Have you seen Ming-liang Tsai's Rebels of the Neon God?

Pacze Moj said...

Have you seen Ming-liang Tsai's Rebels of the Neon God?

Sachin G. said...

Hey Pacze,
No I have not see that movie. The movies that I have seen were my first introduction to both Tsai's and Hsiao-hsien Hou's works.

How does Rebels compare with What Time and Wayward Cloud?

Pacze Moj said...


Rebels is the only Tsai film I've seen; but I loved it. I stumbled upon it by accident -- without knowing anything about Tsai -- and spent its running time watching a hidden treasure unfold before my eyes.

Highly recommended.

Sachin G. said...

ok. Will check it out. Thanks for the recommendation. I can atleast be sure it will be different than anything else I have seen.