Archive for the 'National cinemas: China' Category
Drug War (2012).
At first glance, Drug War (2012) seems an unusual film for Johnnie To Kei-fung and his Milkyway Image company to make. For one thing, this Mainland production lacks the surface sheen of To’s Hong Kong projects. Shot in wintry Jinhai, a northern port city, and in the central city of Erzhou, it presents stretches of industrial wasteland and bleak superhighways. As a result, To’s characteristic audacious stylization gives way to a bare-bones look. The saturated palette of The Longest Nite (1998) and A Hero Never Dies (1998) is gone, replaced by metallic grays and frosty blues. Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo, rapidly becoming To’s jeune premier, is bluntly deglamorized—first glimpsed spewing foam as he tries to steer his car, then moving through the film with a blistered face and a bandaged nose. The noir-flavored Exiled (2006) made its steamy Macau locales seem exquisitely somber and menacing, but Drug War’s early scenes in a hospital have a mundane, documentary quality. Little in To’s earlier work prepares us for the grubby scene of drug mules groaning as they shit out plastic pods of dope.
Of course it’s a crime story, the genre in which To and his writer-producer collaborator Wai Ka-fai have gained most acclaim. More specifically, it’s a police procedural, a mode they have worked skillfully with Expect the Unexpected (1999) and Mad Detective (2007). Those, like most cop movies, thread the personal lives of the investigators into the cases they’re running. Drug War, though, gives us no glimpse of the cops off-duty. The result presents our officers as strictly business: no wives, kids, or civilian pals distract them from their mission. In this respect, the film’s closest analogue is probably PTU (2003), but even that showed its patrolling cops in more camaraderie and clashes than we get here.
True, there are brief moments of comradeship, as when Yang offers money to help the cops from Erzhou, and her colleagues chip in. A marvelous shot juxtaposes one cop’s cash with the video stream of the burning bills in the ceremony honoring Timmy’s dead wife and her brothers.
Yet the result humanizes the crooks more than the cops. Timmy mourns his family; we don’t know if Captain Zhang has one.
The concentration on routine and tactics is due partly to the action’s compressed time frame: the seventy-two hour pursuit of the drug gang permits no rest. In addition, made chiefly for the Mainland audience (with Mainland funding), Drug War was subject to censorship that’s more stringent than that in Hong Kong. It may be that To, Wai, and their screenwriting team were cautious about integrating personal lives into their plot. Exploring the officers’ off-duty frailties and failures might have made censors fret. And of course in the emphasis on selfless officers sacrificing their personal lives sends a positive ideological message.
I think that the film benefits in other ways from skipping what Ross Chen calls “cop soap opera” and focusing relentlessly on the central cat-and-mouse game. Zhang’s investigation becomes engaging for us thanks to well-honed Milkyway narrative maneuvers: a focus on suspenseful strategies and unexpected countermeasures, the weaving together of various destinies, a fascination with doubling and mirroring, surprising genre tweaks, and unusually laconic signaling of story information. Beneath its drab, almost generic surface and its apparently prosaic account of police procedure, Drug War offers a typically engrossing, off-center Milkyway experience.
And yes, gunfights are involved. But even those are not quite business as usual.
Live or die, I’ll be with you
After a prologue in which a vomiting Timmy Choi Tin-ming crashes his car into a restaurant, we see several lines of action converging at a highway tollbooth. A truck driven by two drug-addled men pulls through, followed by two more men in a muddy red sedan. Soon an overheating bus pulls up. Panicking, the drug traffickers inside make a run for it before they’re brought down by highway officers and Captain Zhang Lei, who has been working undercover on the bus. The mules are taken to a hospital—the second convergence point—and there Captain Zhang notices that Timmy, borne by on a gurney, has burns typical of a drug explosion. Zhang and female officer Yang Xiaobei visit the site of Timmy’s crash, where they find his cellphone. Its mysterious call queue launches their investigation.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, I hope that the preceding has whetted your interest. From now on, I’m afraid I must indulge in what we in the trade call spoilers.
The tollbooth confrontation, it turns out, is a sting operation by which Zhang can nab the traffickers he has infiltrated. The truckers who pass through at the same time are bringing ingredients for Timmy Choi’s local meth factory, and the red sedan is carrying cops who’ve been tracking them. When Zhang and Yang find Timmy’s cellphone, they find dozens of missed calls from the truck drivers, and this enables them to connect Timmy with the shipment. His lab has exploded, killing his wife and her brothers. He escaped but suffered the burns and nausea we saw at the outset.
To escape the death penalty Timmy offers to turn snitch. The rest of the film will intercut among various lines of action: the truckers and their pursuers, the cops using CCTV cameras to track the crooks, and Zhang’s efforts to use Timmy to infiltrate the ring. Zhang’s strategy takes him up the chain of command. There is the laughing Jinhai smuggler HaHa and his wife, who are trying to become drug distributors by means of the port they control. They are wooing the cokehead Li Suchang, his superior Uncle Bill Li, and the real bosses, a Hong Kong gang headed by Fatso (Milkyway regular Lam Suet). Timmy, who knows them all, is positioned as go-between. As with many Hong Kong films, a hierarchy of villains permits a cascade of meetings, showdowns, chases, and chance encounters. Through it all, the question persists: Can Zhang trust Timmy to stay bought?
The first third of the film centers on Zhang’s daring scheme to penetrate the gang. Since HaHa and Li Suchang (called Chang in the English subtitles) have never seen one another, he forces Timmy to set up two meetings. The meetings are timed so that Zhang can impersonate Li in the first meeting and then play HaHa in the second. The result is a pair of virtuoso scenes I’ll go into shortly.
The central chunk of the film follows Timmy’s efforts to get a fresh load of dope for Zhang’s deal. His source is another of his factories, this one staffed by a family of deaf-mutes (a typically perverse Milkyway genre tweak). This section culminates in two intercut police raids: one, a painless seizure of HaHa and his wife, the other a bloody shootout in the factory. The two mutes in charge escape through a hidden passageway, a ploy that renews Zhang’s distrust of Timmy. Timmy vows that he didn’t know about the escape hatch.
The film’s final third introduces the Hong Kong gang directing Uncle Bill from behind the scenes. The film’s first two sections have emphasized the cops’ ability to track the gang with public surveillance cameras and minicams secreted in hotel suites and in the meth warehouse. Now we learn that the gang has its own technology. Hidden microphones and wireless recorders allow gang members to listen to conversations. Fatso feeds dialogue to Uncle Bill in his negotations with Zhang/HaHa. In their final rendezvous at a nightclub, Zhang discovers the ruse and uses it as an excuse to finalize the deal. But when the Hong Kongers demand a night out just for themselves, Captain Zhang must let Timmy go off with them and trust him to deliver them to him the next day.
Timmy betrays everyone. At the climax all the forces in play converge once more, this time outside a primary school. Cars bearing police surround the vehicles carrying the gang. Even the truckers are summoned by Timmy, and eventually the deaf-mutes show up too. Timmy tears off the wire he’s wearing, tells the gang that it’s an ambush, and launches an all-out firefight. While cops and crooks blast each other, Timmy slips into a school bus to hide from the barrage.
The gang is cut down, but so too are the police, including Yang. Even our protagonist Zhang is fatally wounded. Hong Kong aficionados will find here echoes of the pitiless climax of another Milkyway policier I probably should not specify.
The film’s epilogue, like the prologue, centers on Timmy in extremis. In prison he’s strapped down for lethal injection and babbling the name of every dealer he knows, hoping somehow to save himself from execution. He fails.
Perhaps the most memorable image in the film’s final moments comes a bit earlier, at the end of the gun battle. Timmy brutally finishes off Captain Zhang, only to discover that Zhang has handcuffed his wrist to Timmy’s ankle. Timmy is captured frantically dragging Zhang’s corpse around the street, fulfilling Zhang’s warning after the ill-fated factory raid: “Live or die, I’ll be with you.”
Within this broad movement toward giving Timmy his punishment, at horrendous cost to the forces of law, To and Wai have built fine-grained scenes that swerve the conventions of cop movies in typical Milkway directions. The chief example involves large-scale repetition. During the first section, Zhang goes undercover, pretending to be a gang member. The subterfuge is given a twist: Zhang impersonates Li Suchang in his meeting with HaHa, then he impersonates HaHa in his meeting with Suchang. Once more a Milkyway film finds tricky drama in symmetry and doubling.
The first impersonation goes more easily, but it gets a healthy dose of suspense. Zhang plays Li Suchang as a cold, impassive negotiator. He barely speaks in response to HaHa, who lives up to his name by supplying a stream of chatter and guffaws. He’s not as dense as he might appear, but Zhang has little trouble intimidating him. The problem is that the mini video camera hidden in Zhang/Li’s cigar case is first blocked by food on the table and then arouses the curiosity of HaHa. The tension rises as HaHa examines the case, but Timmy nonchalantly rescues it. His intervention reinforces our sense, in this stretch of the film, that he is cooperating smoothly with the police sting.
Once the charade is over, the film’s narration increases the suspense by the tight timing of the next meeting, which takes place only minutes after the first. Zhang and Yang, who will be playing HaHa’s wife, must change clothes swiftly and prepare cameras to record the deal. The real Li Suchang goes upstairs with Zhang and Timmy just as the real HaHa and wife saunter out of the other elevator: The shot sums up the charade Zhang has engineered, as well as the plot’s mirror structure.
The second encounter ratchets up the tension. Zhang and Yang imitate HaHa and his wife, whom they’ve watched moments earlier; they even repeat lines spoken by the real couple in the previous scene. But Li Suchang is a more aggressive bargainer than HaHa and offers Zhang/HaHa some cocaine. The real HaHa claimed never to have touched the drug, so Zhang/HaHa declines. But Li insists, so the policeman must snort a line. This induces a good deal of uneasiness, which is upped when Li insists he take another hit. Zhang/HaHa obliges and becomes woozy. When Li demands that he snort a third line, Timmy again intervenes and asks that they proceed with the deal. Li relents and they make an appointment with Uncle Bill.
After Li Suchang leaves, there follows a chilling scene in which Zhang goes into drug shock, collapsing to the floor and twitching frantically. Timmy explains what the other cops must do to save him, and by following his commands they revive Zhang. Again Timmy seems firmly on the side of the police. But Zhang still wonders: Did Timmy secretly signal to Li? His mistrust will expand when the deaf-mute factory workers elude the police through an exit that Timmy didn’t mention.
The motif of doubling, a To/Wai staple, runs through the movie: two truckers, two cops tailing them, two deaf-mute killers, two raids, two traffic encounters with the gang, two times that Zhang must trust Tommy and release him. Even the climax consists of not one but two gun battles, the first in front of the school, the second in a nearby street. But the scenes in which Zhang plays both parties in a drug deal is the most audacious instance, and a fine example of Milkyway’s gift for reimagining basic conventions of the crime film.
Milkyway’s rule of one
In Planet Hong Kong 2.0, as well as in my discussion of Mad Detective on this site, I suggest that despite all this obsessive doubling, Milkyway films tend to refuse the redundancy that crime movies usually demand.
One instance is the gradual revelation that in the opening, the bus overheating at the toll booth is part of a police trap. Not only is Zhang aboard (sporting a Stetson), but the ticket taker is Officer Yang and the driver (merely glimpsed) is one of Zhang’s men. Since the incident isn’t referred to as a sting afterward, we must realize on our own that this sequence furnishes an abrupt introduciton to the police unit’s efficiency and farsightedness.
Another instance is a little less cryptic but has longer-term consequences. The police are preparing for the double masquerade, and Zhang lets Timmy pick out appropriate outfits for them to wear. In a scene lasting only forty-five seconds and ten shots, the emphasis is on Timmy’s careful selection of suits—presented, as we might expect, in imagery of pairing.
While this preparation is going forward, To inserts a shot of hands crushing aspirin tablets into powder.
Later we see that Officer Yang is filling a flask with the powdered aspirin.
What’s going on here? Another sort of film would have inserted dialogue something like this: HaHa hasn’t met Li Suchang, but he’s probably heard that he’s a druggie. He’ll expect me to use coke. If he offers, I’ll tell him that I use only my own. We’ll prepare some fake stuff for me to bring in a flask. And this would have been a clear setup for what will in fact happen in the first meeting. But we don’t get such a setup. Moreover, at this point Yang’s action is even more cryptic because we don’t yet know about Suchang’s addiction, which Zhang is planning to mimic. Yang is preparing a protective measure against a threat we will only learn of later.
The Milkyway writing team often treats story points in this peremptory way. If the Hollywood rule is “Tell the audience every major point three times,” To and Wai often assume that one mention is enough, and even that can come before we’re in a position to appreciate it. Indeed, Zhang’s scam depends completely on the fact that HaHa and Suchang have never met, but that premise is told us on only one occasion, and it’s not given much emphasis.
Again, we could play Hollywood scriptwriters and let Zhang and Yang huddle to explain how they will exploit the fact that the two gangsters can’t recognize each other. But the Milkyway team skips all that. The plan is devised offscreen. We next see Zhang and Timmy picking their wardrobe and Yang preparing the phony cocaine.
In the prologue, we have gotten another roundabout piece of foreshadowing. As Timmy’s car careens down the street, a single shot is presented as the view of a surveillance camera.
A more orthodox film would then cut to a Network Operations Center where concerned officials are watching traffic. But To simply cuts back to the car, where Timmy’s cellphone falls to the floor. Only after Timmy becomes a person of interest to the police do we see investigators re-running CCTV footage of the car. The one video shot has been a hint about how the police will build up their knowledge of Timmy. More broadly, it prefigures the importance of police video surveillance of the gang throughout the film.
Most laconic of all, I think, is the rather complicated scene taking place at a traffic light. The transfer of an important valise, containing money or drugs, is one of the most hoary conventions of the cop thriller. Director To makes it the occasion of a crisscrossing geometry and barely noticeable hints about Timmy’s ultimate aims.
Waiting at the light on the way to a meeting, Zhang as HaHa gets a call from Suchang and Uncle Bill, in a Mercedes sedan waiting behind them. There’ll be no meeting; a deal will be done right here. Zhang’s team is spread out in other vehicles backed up at the light.
But when Zhang as HaHa picks up a parcel to deliver to a white van further along the line of cars, To’s camera coasts rightward to show a dark van waiting in the next lane. We aren’t shown who’s in it. Soon, as Zhang transfers the bag to the van, we see yet another vehicle at the front of the line, and over his shoulder we see a woman inside.
Cut to inside that vehicle, where the woman, the driver, and a fat man in the back seat sit impassively.
Within the plot, the scene functions as Bill Li’s effort to determine whether he’s being set up. The transfer turns out to be a fake, aiming to confirm that Timmy has not turned snitch. If his associates are undercover cops, they are likely to reveal themselves here in order to make a bust. That would fail, because the bag Zhang ends up with carries only imported cigars.
Beyond its function as a test, the traffic stop plays a crucial narrational role. Through mere glimpses and without anything being prepared for, we’re introduced to the Hong Kong gang that will play a commanding role in the last third of the film. The subterfuge is that we haven’t yet been told that there is such a gang; at this point, they are simply oddly emphasized passengers in adjacent vehicles. A more traditional plot would have included an earlier scene in which the police identify the Hong Kong suspects and provide their backstory. Then, seeing them at the intersection would satisfy us that we were putting the story together. Instead, working with almost no dialogue, using the traffic backup as another convergence point, To and Wai have evoked a strange uneasiness. Who are these people, and why are we seeing them?
Immediately after these shots of adjacent vehicles, another dark van opens and a passenger sets a carrying case on the street. Yang in her guise of HaHa’s wife fetches that case. Then, in a slippery set of POV shots, Timmy turns and looks back at other men in vehicles, and then at Uncle Bill and Li Suchang, who seem to evade his stare.
Why dwell on Timmy at the height of the scene? For the first time we can study his reactions when his captors aren’t watching him. His calculating stare suggests that he knows, well before the police do, that the deal is a sham. He realizes that if the cops do take the bait and reveal themselves, only he will pay the price. Now he knows that he can’t count on the gang and that he’s on his own. At the climax he’ll take his revenge on both sides by halting the motorcade before it reaches the port, where cops are poised to arrest the gang. That will provoke the final shootout—which, like this scene, involves all the principals confronting one another in vehicles on the street.
This is a lot to load onto a brief, silent exchange of looks, but it’s typical of To and Wai’s glancing exposition. Another director would have provided stronger clues to what’s going on in Timmy’s mind, perhaps through flashbacks or voice-over. Yet that tactic would depend on our knowing who the people in the other cars are. Only later, before the meeting at HaHa’s port, will Timmy identify them. He will spill this information very quickly. And just once.
Since its founding in 1996, Milkyway Image has responded adroitly to changes in the regional film industry. For their local audience, To and Wai have created popular comedies, off-kilter thrillers, and unclassifiable items like Running on Karma (2003) and Throw Down (2004). They have occasionally completed coproductions with Europe (Vengeance, 2009) and an Asian branch of Hollywood (Turn Left, Turn Right, 2003). They have adjusted to the soaring Mainland market, even revising Breaking News (2004) to suit the censors. Just as a string of Milkyway romantic comedies yielded some financial stability in the 2000s Hong Kong market, more recent efforts like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) and Romancing in Thin Air (2012) have given the company a foothold in the PRC.
Yet Milkyway takes chances too. Election 2 (2006) surprised everyone with its bold acknowledgement of Triad networks on the Mainland; neither it nor its predecessor was shown theatrically there. Drug War has attracted notice among international critics for its frank treatment of the PRC underworld. To and Wai seem to find unusual opportunities in every project. Here, making Hong Kong gangsters the ultimate villains suggests that the pestilence comes primarily from elsewhere. At the same time, giving Timmy and the Hong Kong gang such prominence permits casting some of the Milkyway repertory company, familiar actors not only in Hong Kong and the Mainland but also in the international market.
Johnnie To, it seems, can zigzag his way to creative achievement in different circumstances. He and Wai are keeping Hong Kong cinema alive in unpromising times and finding new narrative resources in a genre that often seems played out. Their latest, Blind Detective (2013), is receiving pretty unfavorable notices, but this long, preposterous semi-comedy is, I expect, another symptom of the sidewinding strategy that characterizes their work.
With Milkyway, adventurous exploration of cinema is also a business plan. Catch them if you can.
Thanks to Geoff Gardner, Athena Tsui, Li Cheuk-to, To Kei-chi of Milkyway Image, and Crystal Decker of Well Go USA for their assistance in preparing this entry.
For a sensitive discussion of the film’s treatment of China, see Kozo’s review at LoveHKFilm.
Drug War performed sturdily at the Hong Kong box office (over US $600,000) but did really well in China, garnering upward of $23 million during its April release. Well Go and Variance open Drug War on 26 July for a US theatrical run. Before that it’s playing several festivals, including the mammoth TIFF Chinese series on 14 July. Mr. To will introduce the TIFF screening. The day before, 13 July, he will be present for a conversation.
Milkyway plots often rely on converging destinies, of character trajectories intersecting through chance. This principle is less pronounced in Drug War, except for the moments when the two truckers and the two deaf-mutes unexpectedly hook into the main plotline. Accidental convergence, often pointing up parallels among the characters, is clearer in A Hero Never Dies (1998) and Life without Principle (2011). I discuss the first film in Planet Hong Kong 2.0, the other in this entry.
P.S. later 8 June: Today you get double value. Grady Hendrix, Hong Kong film expert and one force behind Subway Cinema, writes with this thoughtful interpretation of Drug War–which makes it seem as daring thematically as it is in its narrative strategies.
For me, the most interesting element is the long game that I think To and Wai are playing and what I see as the secret heart of the movie. I think that the meaning of the film isn’t conveyed so much by the narrative as by the tools used to create the narrative: the actors. All of the cops are Mainland actors, most of the drug dealers are Hong Kong actors. What are drug dealers besides capitalism run amuck, completely unregulated? What are cops but authoritarian impulses, completely unregulated? The two groups have similar goals: make money at all costs; catch the criminals at all costs.
The cops in the film are China personified: they have unlimited resources, massive numbers, infinite organization, but they are heartless towards outsiders, unforgiving, and they don’t trust anyone. The criminals are all the stereotypes of Hong Kong-ers: they are family, they are stylish and chic, they eat meals together (Hong Kong people love to eat, after all) but they are only interested in money. They will save themselves and leave their wives to die, they will betray anyone (including their uncle and godfather), to make a buck. Both groups use the same tools, but they are opposites: unregulated capitalism vs. unregulated authoritarianism; the unstoppable object and the immovable force.
The fact that when put into conflict these two forces destroy each other is, I think, a critique of both Hong Kong and the Mainland, and I think To and Wai want to show how each has gone too far and both have become merciless and inhuman. Of course, in the end, China wins out and Hong Kong’s biggest pop star is on a table whimpering as China slips in the needle (which is weird, since I don’t think China uses lethal injection to execute people, but then again it’s an instance of Chinese drugs beating Hong Kong’s drugs).
Drug War, with Sun Honglei as Captain Zhang Lei.
It’s the editor’s job to think about coverage, and mistakes at this stage can have a very high price. Without that shot of the murderous feet walking slowly down the stairs, it’s impossible to build suspense. Inexperienced directors are often drawn to shooting important dramatic scenes in a single take—a “macho” style that leaves no way of changing pacing or helping unsteady performances.
Go to any ambitious film festival, such as the Vancouver one Kristin and I are attending at the moment, and you’ll see several films made up of unusually sustained shots. Some Asian and European films may even be made entirely of long takes; in a few instances, none of the scenes may employ any editing at all. Movies made wholly of one-take scenes, or sequence-shots (plans-séquences) are probably more common today than they have been since 1920.
Why so many long takes? In the 1990s, when Vachon was writing, imitation and competition probably did come into play. The Movie Brats were sometimes up-front about their boy-on-boy rivalry. Here’s De Palma after seeing the shots following Jake into the ring in Raging Bull:
I thought I was pretty good at doing those kind of shots, but when I saw that I said, “Whoa!” And that’s when I started using those very complicated shots with the Steadicam.
Something similar may have been going on in earlier times. It seems to me that in 1940s Hollywood, directors came to a new consciousness of the long take. Preminger, Ophuls, Sturges, and Welles became famous for their sustained shots, and even Hitchcock, a long-time proponent of editing, switched sides, making some of the longest-take films of the era. Sometimes an action scene might be played out in one flamboyant take, as in The Killers and Gun Crazy. It does seem that these big boys appearing to compete to see how long they could hold their shots and how complicated they could make them. One scene in Welles’ Macbeth runs a full camera reel, or about ten minutes; Hitchcock’s Rope contains only eleven shots.
Yet I don’t think that macho showoffishness or competition can completely explain the urge to shoot long takes. Watching the Vancouver Dragons and Tigers series leads me to consider some other options.
Long view of the long take
Naniwa Elegy (1936).
Of course there were single-take movies at the beginning of cinema, as in Lumière’s documentary shorts. And in the period 1908-1920, as I’ve argued in many entries on this site, some great films were made relying on single-shot scenes. They operated with a staging-driven aesthetic that’s come to be known as the “tableau” style.
But with the rise of American cinema to international prominence, and worldwide directors’ willingness to create scenes in the process of editing, the long take became relatively uncommon. In the 1920s, a rapidly-cut film might make occasional use of a long take, often as a fairly intricate traveling shot, as in Murnau’s Sunrise and Vidor’s The Crowd. Early talkies sometimes began with a long tracking shot (e.g., Sunny Side Up, Scarface) before settling into a more editing-driven style. And a few directors in Western cinema, like Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, and John Stahl, handled extended dialogue passages in a single shot. A long-take approach was somewhat more common in Japanese cinema, with of course Mizoguchi Kenji being a prime exponent in films like Naniwa Elegy, Sisters of Gion, and Genroku Chushingura.
Citizen Kane probably helped popularize the long take in the 1940s, but so did the development of new camera supports. Dollies that could move through a set in tight turns encouraged directors to try out more sustained shots. For such reasons, most long takes of the period involved camera movement. Although Welles had his share of flashy tracking shots, he was one of the few directors who also let the camera stay fixed in place throughout a scene, in both Citizen Kane (Toland emphasized its “single, non-dollying” shots) and the extraordinary kitchen scene of The Magnificent Ambersons.
Occasional long-take shots have been with us ever since, some of them highlighting balletic camera-actor staging, as in Antonioni’s bridge encounter in Story of a Love Affair and many interior shots of Le amiche. By the 1960s, and 1970s, some directors became identified with long takes and even single-shot sequences: Tarkovsky most famously, but also Straub and Huillet, Miklós Jancsó, and Theo Angelopoulos. Fassbinder tried it out occasionally (Katzelmacher) as did Wenders (Kings of the Road). And of course in the avant-garde, devastating half-hour shots marked some works by Andy Warhol, not your most macho filmmaker.
There are still long-take films being made in the mainstream—not only those motivated as scavenged recordings like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, but also ambitious experiments like Children of Men. On the whole, however, long-take technique has become a hallmark of festival cinema. As commercial directors (not just in Hollywood) has embraced ever-faster cutting, other filmmakers have pushed toward ever-longer takes. It’s as if the rise of what I’ve called intensified continuity has provoked filmmakers to go to the other extreme. This impulse is thrown into still sharper relief by the fact that many of these festival films use little camera movement. And today’s shooting on video lets you hold shots a lot longer than shooting on camera reels.
But what does long-take cinema buy you?
Dragons, tigers, and stillness
A Mere Life (2012).
This year’s Dragons and Tigers series, the festival’s panorama of recent Asian cinema, had its usual quota of young people’s films about young people, not unlike America’s Mumblecore. The kids hang out, smoke, drink, flirt, berate each other, sometimes humiliate one another, occasionally come to a crisis in their lives. Other films were a bit more unusual. Several of all types, though, pointed up the virtues and limitations of current approaches to long-take shooting.
Most low-budget directors employing long takes don’t do so out of bravado or competitiveness. The reasons are more mundane: the tactic saves time and money. If you have rehearsed your actors, or if you want spontaneity and improvisation, you can get through a lot of your film more efficiently if you simply record the action. Editing in post-production comes down to choosing your best takes and finding the best arrangement of them.
For instance, Ninomiya Ryutaro’s The Charm of Others has about fifty shots in its eight-five minutes. Most scenes consist of only one or two shots. One seven-minute shot shows a young layabout Sakata trying to jolly his girlfriend out of dumping him. She’s seen him with another girl and tells him, “Eat first, then we’re through.” Instead, he pokes and tickles her, makes faces and jokes about liking to eat hair, and eventually wins her back. It’s a nice little examination of how men turn boyish, even babyish, when they’re trying to avoid a woman’s wrath.
Ninomiya, who plays Sakata, explains that although he had each scene’s core action fully scripted, he let actors improvise a fair amount during shooting. (Some specific words, however, had to be used.) The girlfriend scene was shot four times, the first three developing one approach to the action and the fourth take trying a totally different approach. Ninomiya wound up using the third take.
The Charm of Others is shot in a loose handheld style, with panning and tracking to follow its characters. This “free camera” technique is probably the most common way off-Hollywood directors employ the long take. The approach was on display as well in Mine Goichi’s The Kumamoto Dormitory. The plot follows a pair of slackers who want to work in films but lack ambition and anything approaching realistic expectations. More editing-driven, and somewhat more slickly made than The Charm of Others, it still averaged about eleven seconds per shot, a far cry from contemporary Hollywood’s average of five seconds or less.
For the most part, The Kumamoto Dormitory uses long takes in traditional ways–to record a scene’s interactions, and sometimes to create parallel story situations. In the beginning a lengthy shot drifts along dorm corridors as kids are moving in. One later in the semester shows boys in each room masturbating, playing mahjongg or computer games, and otherwise goofing off. Near the end another traveling shot shows the boys packing to leave as we hear an admistrator’s public speech describing how dorm life brings beginning students and graduating ones closer together. His inspiring line, “You were brought into the world because you were needed,” becomes ironic in the light of the dead-end hopes of a would-be movie director and his pal, an aspiring stunt man.
More rarely, the camera can be locked off during the long take, creating a static setup that may be refreshed by slight pans and reframings. Two of the films I’ve discussed earlier, Romance Joe and In Another Country, exemplify this approach; the former has fewer than 200 shots, the latter fewer than seventy. A similar approach, with a little more emphasis on dramatic compositions, is taken in Park Sanghun’s A Mere Life, a movie not about twentysomething crises but about the failure of a man to provide security for his wife and child. In a somewhat Mizoguchian tale of misery, most scenes are covered in only one or two fixed shots. There’s a striking scene in a café which obliges us to scan the background when a con artist bilks the husband and flees with his money. At another point, the camera’s refusal to budge and the director’s refusal to cut create considerable tension. Soon after the husband has lost the family’s savings, walls block our view of his desperate attempt to kill his wife and child.
The static long take is used in a more transparent way in Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell, the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition. The curious premise is that characters in present-day China are reenacting an episode in the classic saga Journey to the West. The reenactment, moreover, isn’t an affair of costumes or combat. It’s more abstract. For instance, the Dragon King is decapitated in the original story, but the Triadish character playing him in this film strolls around with his head firmly in place.
There are few single-take scenes, but the starkness of the décor and the fact that characters tend to be planted in a single spot give the film a sense of ceremonial gravity enhanced by the precise choices of camera position. Only in an epilogue, during the production’s wrap party in a restaurant, do the cast and crew assume their everyday identities. Then the camera goes handheld and roams bumpily around the table.
By the end Emperor Visits the Hell becomes a collection of contemporary long-take options: fixed versus moving, rock-solid framing versus shakycam.
Time on our hands
The long take has, we’re often told, another purpose: to capture real duration. Editing, it’s said, fragments not only space but also time. Whenever you cut, you have the opportunity to skip over dead moments. With a long take, especially a static one, the filmmaker is in effect asking us to register all the dead time between more important gestures, expressions, or lines of dialogue. This happens again and again in The Charm of Others, The Kumamoto Dormitory, and most of the movies I’ve already mentioned.
But the assumption of that “real time” flows through the shot can be questioned. The most common counterexample is slow- or fast-motion, which doesn’t respect the actual duration of the action the camera records. A rarer instance is offered by Tsai Ming-liang’s episode Walker in the portmanteau project Beautiful 2012, sponsored by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.
The action is bare-bones: A Buddhist monk walks through Hong Kong bearing a crinkly plastic bag in one hand and a sweet bun in the other. Across twenty-four minutes, twenty-one shots trace his progress through the city. In most the camera never movies, capturing the monk’s movement in static, sometimes abstract compositions. The catch is that the monk, played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng, is advancing with preternatural slowness.
Sometimes we have to play a sort of Where’s-Waldo game with the compositions, searching for his stooped head or brilliant red robe or bare feet in a crowded shot. Most often, the emphasis falls simply on the monk’s movement. Hands lifted, head bent, he makes his way as if walking underwater. We watch each foot lift, shift weight, and descend in excruciatingly small changes of position. The movement proceeds not from camera trickery or CGI gimmicks; Lee’s performance presents a “temporal close-up” of humble, unstoppable walking. Meanwhile traffic, passersby, and other parts of his surroundings bustle along as usual. This is really stretching the shot–making the long take seem even longer.
One effect of these shots is to unroll an image of pure spiritual discipline, a sort of Zen exercise showing how microscopically an adept can control his body. Pedestrian yoga, you might say. Another effect Tsai creates is to summon up two times in one shot: that of normal activity and that of a spiritual tempo nestled within, but also opposed to, ordinary life. Eventually, when the monk bites into the bun, even that is rendered with the clarity of stop-motion photography. Here the long take exercises an almost scientific force, letting us see a simple act pulverized, as if a Muybridge image were translated into live action.
At the opposite extreme is the action-packed long take, running about seventy-five minutes, that comprises J. P. Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn’s People’s Park. The filmmakers had the good idea of taking us through a day’s pleasure in the city park of Chengdu, China, by means of a single traveling shot. A modern version of People on Sunday, the film unrolls a pageant of the everyday. People snack, trot past, make cellphone calls, rest on benches, sketch calligraphy on the paving stones, and above all make music. We see band concerts, karaoke performances, traditional opera, and spontaneous dancing to pop beats. The film starts with couples dancing and ends with an exuberant display of bouncy soloists who, we learned from Libbie Cohn after the screening, come often to perform for the sheer fun of it.
Just as important, instead of shooting at eye level, Sniadecki and Cohn filmed from a wheelchair. The lower-than-normal framing emphasizes kids, fills the frame with torsos, and yields unexpected revelations of figures in depth. We also get to watch a choreography of politeness as people subtly adjust to the camera as it squeezes through crowds or sidles among couples on a dance floor. Far from being the weightless, invisible camera of most Hollywood films, this camera and its carriage occupy actual space as the whole unit carves a sinuous path through the park. How, we sometimes wonder, will it get through here?
Many of the most famous long takes in film history are, we might say, teleological: They build toward a climax. Think of the tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil, beginning with a bomb set ticking and ending with an explosion. In a quieter way, the tableau aesthetic of the 1910s often gave the shot a distinct curve of interest, building to an expressive peak. (See here and here.)
And occasionally in today’s cinema, a shot that seems casual will subtly prepare us for a payoff. In The Charm of Others, a drinking game allows Sakata to tell others around the table what they must do. He orders two boys to kiss, and the girls join him in chanting, “Kiss! Kiss!” Those boys have already been present from the start of the shot, but now they become more than a pair of framing shoulders. Their obeying the order close to us furnishes an enjoyable topper for the take.
One problem facing the makers of People’s Park was the need to provide such a climax. As in Russian Ark, a single-shot feature film can’t simply stop; it needs to draw to a close, preferably on a striking note. In my view, Sniadecki and Cohn manage it. It would be unfair to tip you off–can there be such a thing as a stylistic spoiler?–but let’s just say it’s a moment of abrupt change within what is otherwise continuous, evenly-paced unfolding. Yes, dancing is involved.
In certain contexts, a long-take trend can, as Vachon mentions, exude a certain bragadoccio. Competition among artists, though, even with some bravado, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as 1940s and 1980s Hollywood suggests. Sometimes as well the long take is an exigency demanded by time and money. It can yield artistic advantages, too, by building suspense (as in A Mere Life) or surprise (as in The Charm of Others) or both (as in People’s Park). It can also be a mark of virtuosity, a quality prized in most artistic traditions. A well-done long take can be like a sustained aria in an opera; its confident audacity can make you smile.
The epigraph quotation is from Christine Vachon’s Shooting to Kill (Morrow, 1998); the passage is available here. My quotation from Brian De Palma comes from ”Emotion Pictures: Quentin Tarantino Talks to Brian De Palma,” in Brian De Palma Interviews, ed. Lawrence F. Knapp (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 148. I discuss stylistic competition in contemporary American film in The Way Hollywood Tells It.
I consider Mizoguchi’s use of the long take in Chapter 3 of Figures Traced in Light. Some elaboration of that chapter is on this site.
Toland’s explanation for avoiding cutting is explained in his essay “Realism for Citizen Kane,” available here. For more on his decision-making, see our book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, as well as this blog entry. For more on 1940s “fluid camera” technique, go here.
The segments of the film Beautiful 2012 began life as online videos. They are linked at Hong Kong Cinemagic. They play rather jerkily on my laptop, but the motion in projection is completely smooth.
My thanks to Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer, programmers of the Dragons and Tigers series, for their acumen and assistance.
People’s Park (2012).
Audiences gather for screenings at the Bell Lightbox, hub of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Around midnight tonight, the crowds packing the Toronto International Film Festival will disperse, leaving the city full of memories of another extraordinary year. I’ve been back in Madison for this last week, but my few days at TIFF remain on my mind. This is partly because along with the films came a lot of ideas, opinions, and information. At any festival, fraternizing with audiences, critics, and programmers is one fine way to get that stimulation. It happened after some of the Wavelengths section’s short-film programs. Here are Raymond Phatanavirangoon and Bob Koehler outside the Art Gallery of Toronto, where their Devo retro-stylings raised our conversation to a new level.
More structured sessions delivered too. Out of my 4-plus days at the Toronto International Film Festival, I set aside about one and a half for industry panels and filmmaker Q & A’s. Let me tell you a little of what I learned.
From Assayas to Asia
TIFF: Where programmers meet stardom.
The talkfests I attended shed light on both film artistry and film business-making. Central to the first area was the master class with Olivier Assayas, hosted by Brad Deane.
Assayas, a charming fellow, talked fluently about how Something in the Air (discussed here) bears traces of his youth. During the 1970s, high-school kids were “footsoldiers of the cultural war of the time.” He recalled his affinities with the artistic side of the counterculture, as opposed to the extremes of the political activists, some of whom, being aligned with Maoism, refused to recognize the Cultural Revolution as “disaster on a demented level.” Yet this shouldn’t be taken as apolitical aestheticism; Assayas has been a vigorous advocate for the work of Situationist Guy Debord.
Assayas was refreshingly detailed about his working methods. He writes only one draft of his screenplay, partly because he wants to protect the “digressive” aspects of his story. (This tendency is apparent, and enjoyable, in Something in the Air.) Since his films are difficult to classify within standard genres, he needs to cobble together creative financing for each project. But the script becomes obsolete when he casts the film and visits locations. By embodying the characters, the actors create beings “more powerful than what I’ve written.” Working with them, he refuses to supply background on the characters’ psychology. “I look to them to understand the characters.” This hands-off approach yields striking results in the new film, where nearly all the cast is non-professional.
Assayas doesn’t undertake elaborate rehearsals, instead coming to the set each morning and describing the shots they’ll make. He wants to take account of the evolution of the film as it’s been developing. He doesn’t fully block the shots. He sketches each one in longish takes that, as the actors expand on the action, “add layers” to what he’d initially planned. Alternatively, he cuts up the long takes and combines pieces of them. For Something in the Air, he relied on stable and wide framings, partly in reaction to trends toward handheld shots and close-ups, partly because he used the crane to create a “floating,” more lyrical circulation through the space.
Artistry, mixed with business sense, was apparent in one of the panels at the Asian Film Summit’s day of meetings. Colin Geddes hosted a session on Asian genre cinema, and several producers and directors shared thoughts on action cinema as an international genre. Fanboy blood pulsed high.
Eli Roth (left), another kid who grew up with Kung-Fu Theatre on TV, was bowled over years later by Korean and Japanese thrillers like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Now Roth is producer and co-writer of The Man with the Iron Fist, directed by RZA–who is, according to Roth, letter-perfect on his kung-fu film knowledge. “We wanted to do a movie like we saw as kids on Saturday afternoon.” But production values in the genre have swollen since the old days. The project is using the Hengtian studio’s vast replica of the Forbidden City. RZA, Roth says, expected The Last Emperor to be a kung-fu movie, so this is his attempt to make things right.
Tom Quinn, Co-President of the Weinstein Company’s RADiUS division, had similar affinities. As he pointed out, East Asian countries have strong local markets and so can build a base in genre cinema. With quantity comes quality. While working at Goldwyn and Magnolia, Quinn handled US distribution for The Host, Pulse, Tears of the Black Tiger, and most recently 13 Assassins, along with many other titles. Ong-Bak, on view at TIFF in 2004, was a particular triumph for him, yielding over a million dollars in its first weekend of release and eventually garnering $4.5 million in the US. Even the heavy piracy of Ong-Bak Quinn takes as a positive sign, “a validation of the film’s value.”
Bill Kong, a legendary Hong Kong producer and a force behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, along with Stephen Fung, director of Tai Chi 0 (above), filled out the panel. Overall, the discussion ranged widely, but one question kept cropping up. Why is it that Western films are widely popular in Asia, but Asian cinema is almost completely a niche market in the West? I didn’t hear a clear answer (though I’d start an answer with Western racial prejudice).
Kong noted that Asian filmmakers don’t have high expectations about penetrating the US market, but other panelists were more hopeful about crossover projects. Quinn pointed out that the festival circuit built an audience, and Roth thinks that Tarantino has been a major player in making Asian film more popular, especially with the Kill Bill duet. The fact that Russell Crowe plays a major part in The Man with the Iron Fist suggests that things may be changing.
Bigger than Bollywood
The East/West dynamic was also the focus of two other panels. “India: Lessons from Bollywood and the Independents” brought together a nearly all-female group of experts to discuss local financing and wider distribution. All were agreed that it was necessary to convince the world that Indian cinema was bigger than Bollywood. As director Dibakar Banarjee put it: “We need to open the third eye.”
The local industry has a certain comfortable inertia. A film might cost only $150,000, but it can collect 90% of its production costs upon its opening run, said Shailja Gupta, who has been both a director and production executive. Foreign distribution is a major risk at this budget level. So how does a project, particularly an independent film, get international traction?
Coproductions are an obvious path, and while they are still rare, the trend is emerging. The Indian government’s National Film Development Corporation Ltd. has helped with coproductions since 2006, says Nina Lath Gupta, NDFC Managing Director. Such enterprises are rare and mostly involve France or Germany. By establishing the Film Bazaar in 2007, the NDFC acknowledged the importance of marketing as well as financing, and this is getting local filmmakers acquainted with the need to think more globally.
Another path to the overseas market was suggested by Guneet Monga (right). She is a producer on the network narrative Peddlers and the two-part gangster saga Gangs of Wasseypur; both earned very good buzz at TIFF. Monga pointed out that sales agents can help shape projects for international distribution.Working with Elle Driver, she was able to generate three versions of Gangs, targeted for different regions. Moreover, sales agents can help a film by avoiding the old practice of selling it as a single package. Instead, the agent can pre-sell it with a minimum guarantee and negotiate territorial rights further down the line.
Mira Nair, distinguished director of Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, has long enjoyed worldwide exposure, of course. She shared her thoughts on how filmmakers could follow their visions and still, as she put it, “put bums on seats.” That’s accomplished by not worrying about distribution but devoting energies to creative choices–such as she undertook in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her first foray into the thriller genre.
During the India panel, moderator Meenakshi Shedde asked if China might become a coproduction partner for local films. This is currently not happening, but the question reflects the significance of the People’s Republic on the global film scene. Earlier in the day, a panel on “Financing Between Asia and the West,” moderated by Patrick Frater, concentrated mostly on China as the leading edge of the region. Once more, the question of coproductions was central.
“Coproduction is a reality now for global filmmaking,” declared Peter Shiao, CEO of Orb Media Group. But the power of China in the new media landscape has created a false optimism among Western entrepreneurs. Shiao warned newcomers that coproductions can’t be fulfilled in good faith with perfunctory gestures, such as including a Chinese actor in a secondary role. (The Expendables 2 was mentioned in this connection.) Aspiring filmmakers need to grasp and follow the China Coproduction Film Office regulations straightforwardly.
Solid coproductions are rare, agreed Bruno Wu, founder and chair of many top Chinese media groups. He pointed out that what works in China won’t necessarily work in the rest of the world, but what works in the rest of the world is likely to work in China. So the Chinese investor needs to look at projects that will play internationally. He gave as examples his firms’ deals with Justin Lin and John Woo, who have reliably won global audiences. Along similar lines, Stuart Ford, founder and CEO of IM Global, suggested that a good alternative to coproduction involves soliciting equity investment from China for Western films. For example, Chinese investors in Paranoia, a $40 million production, acquired mainland distribution rights as part of the deal.
The soundness of investing in Western films seems borne out by local box-office figures. Seventy percent of China’s market receipts come from English-language imports; the several hundred domestic films produced earn only twenty percent. And theatrical receipts provide, according to Peter Shiao, ninety percent of a film’s earnings. Windows in the Western sense don’t exist, and there’s no legitimate home video market. Gradually local filmmakers are experimenting with Western ancillary tactics; Painted Skin: The Resurrection recently tried out apps and games.
China-based Video on Demand is more promising. In a few years, Wu expects there to be several million addressable HD cable homes, and providing entertainment on demand might provide a way around the national quota system for film import. There is no quota restraining VOD distribution, and as it takes hold, it might reduce piracy.
A killer app? (as in killing off business?)
Jonathan Sehring and Winnie Lau at the VOD panel at TIFF, 9 September 2012.
Speaking of VOD, in early September I signed up. I did it partly because there was one title I needed to see immediately: Keanu Reeves’ Side by Side, the documentary about the digital vs. film controversy. More abstractly, I had been learning a little about VOD when I recast and expanded my blogs on digital exhibition for Pandora’s Digital Box, and I was curious about how VOD worked in practice.
After a period of turmoil, the US film industry has integrated VOD into its system of non-theatrical ancillaries. Before, we had DVD and Blu-ray, both rental and retail, along with movie channels like HBO and Sundance available on subscription cable. Eventually movies would show up on basic-cable channels. There was also “pay per view” via cable, a one-off transaction now known as Pay TV VOD.
Now, the internet has expanded the options.
*Electronic Sell-Through (EST) allows the consumer to download a film and own it. This service is available through iTunes, Amazon, and other outlets.
*iVOD (internet VOD) is a one-off rental, to be run immediately or within a specified time period. To check the 1.77 aspect ratio on Dial M for Murder, I rented it for 24 hours on iTunes.
*Subscription VOD (SVOD), which you get with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other providers. This option provides a library of titles available at any time for a monthly fee. SVOD is comparable to cable-television subscriptions, and it’s becoming very popular, as all-you-can-eat options tend to be.
In addition, another option hovers over the business:
*Premium VOD (PVOD) consists of a one-off rental available sooner than the traditional home-video window. The transmission would be via cable or satellite, not the Net, and the price point has typically been $30 for one viewing. The studios tried out PVOD with DirecTV in 2011, with apparently unencouraging results. Worse, last year’s Tower Heist fracas, during which Universal planned to put the film on PVOD 30 days after theatrical release, triggered threats of boycotts from exhibitors. PVOD, however, is likely to reappear at some point because it can offset losses from the declining DVD market.
No surprise, then, that one industry panel was called “VOD Killed the DVD Star.” The session assembled major players in that domain to discuss the present situation and the prospects for the future.
Much of the panel’s time was devoted to explaining why filmmakers needed to be flexible about accepting VOD as a legitimate complement to or substitute for theatrical release. VOD, they insisted, shouldn’t be seen as a dumping ground for weak or narrow-interest films. The reason: The consumer is king, and consumers want everything on demand.
Winnie Lau, Executive Vice-President for Sales and Acquisitions at Fortissimo, said that companies now recognized that consumers should be able to see a film on whatever platform they want. Given the high costs of a theatrical release, that option isn’t justifiable for many films. Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon Artificial Eye, put the case more strongly, declaring that with the consumer in control, notions like windows and “on demand” are losing their usefulness. His view suits a company that, like IFC, has integrated video and theatrical distribution with theatre ownership and HD delivery. There are, he suggested, only home cinema and public cinema, and everyone in the film value chain should be aiming to reach millions of screens.
Tom Quinn of RADiUS was working for Magnolia when in 2005 Mark Cuban experimented with a multiple-platform release of Bubble. “His vision,” Quinn recalled, “was to make films available whenever people liked.” The Bubble experiment was problematic because it came out on film and on DVD simultaneously, but Quinn said that “the hotel VOD numbers were through the roof.” This summer, after twelve months of preparation, RADiUS has issued its first VOD titles, and Bachelorette, released earlier in September, won notice for earning about half a million dollars in its first weekend.
The prototype of longer-term VOD success is the later career of Edward Burns. Burns, who had his first success with the breakout indie movie The Brothers McMullen (1995), was lively and articulate. “VOD helped me stay in business.” He knew firsthand the slow rollout that characterized 35mm platform release in the 1990s, along with the months of press tours. In the years that followed, he realized that his movies–basically, as he put it, people bullshitting with one another around a kitchen table–had shrinking theatrical prospects. In 2007, he offered Purple Violets exclusively on iTunes. This came around the time that IFC and Magnolia were experimenting with day-and-date releasing on different platforms.
Burns was satisfied with the results and built a production model around VOD. The cast and crew work for free and collectively own the film. Budgets can be low; he claimed last year that Newlyweds cost only $100,000. Payments are deferred, and if a film breaks through, everyone makes money. His last three films, he reported, did. He compared the business model to that of an indie band. VOD gets his work to the people who watch HBO, Showtime, AMC. “That’s our audience.”
Burns is an unusual instance, since as one panelist pointed out, he has established his own brand. Still, other VOD releases can break out. The most widely publicized example is Margin Call, with about $4.5 million on VOD. Jonathan Sehring, President of IFC and Sundance Selects, was a pioneer of alternative platforms, and he remarked that 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days did better on VOD than in theatrical release (where it grossed $1.2 million). In a recent interview, Sehring indicates that the recent IFC release About Cherry as doing as well as Bachelorette on VOD and other revenue streams.
It seems, then, that these and other industry decision-makers see VOD as offering two avenues, depending on the film. VOD can provide a new window, to be added before or after or during theatrical release. Alternatively, VOD can replace theatrical, as it has done for Burns (who will still occasionally give a film like the upcoming Fitzgerald Family Christmas brief theatrical play). With this option, many films, both domestic and imported, will never see a theatrical release but they might make money on the less costly VOD platform.
The problem for the second strategy is finding a way to make the film stand out from the thousands of titles available in cable and VOD libraries. A theatrical release provides the “shop window,” as Knatchbull called it, but without that, the film needs other salient features–big stars or cult buzz–to attract the home viewer.
Despite the panel’s title, the guests didn’t predict that VOD would displace discs. In fact a couple of panelists agreed that DVD and Blu-ray would be around quite a while. Quinn (left) confessed that as someone who grew up with VHS he would always be collecting his favorite films on physical media.
There’s something else to consider: some dramatic disparities between VOD and DVD consumption. The differences are spelled out in a recent IHS Screen Digest report.
On one hand, the VOD audience has grown rapidly. The report counted transactions–buying a movie in any form–and came up with striking figures for the world’s top five regions.
2007: DVD retail and rental: 2.7 billion transactions; online VOD in all forms: 14.8 million transactions.
2011: DVD retail and rental: 2.58 billion transactions; online VOD in all forms: 1.4 billion transactions (nearly all SVOD).
The Screen Digest team estimates that 2012 will see an even bigger burst in online VOD, totaling 3.4 billion transactions, with nearly all that via subscription. (I’m in there somewhere.) By contrast, physical media sales and rentals are predicted to fall further, to 2.4 billion transactions.
The disparity lies in “monetization.” We have some access to weekend box office grosses, but almost none to income from DVD and VOD, so comparison is difficult. Still, everyone knows that DVD purchase and rental, along with pay TV licensing, yield the bulk of film revenues. In another research report, Screen Digest estimates that in the US the 2012 surge in VOD will yield only $1.72 billion. DVD will yield $11.1 billion, nearly ten times the VOD transactions. Even with the declining retail and rental prices of discs, VOD yields much less per transaction than DVD does, especially with subscription services leveling out the cost to consumers.
So did VOD kill, or at least wound, the DVD star? When measured in transactions, yes. In revenues, no. Moguls pay off their Ferraris in dollars, not transactions, so it seems that VOD would have to expand colossally, or raise prices, or both, to come close to achieving the returns of DVD.
It’s conceivable that VOD will cannibalize other windows, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. DVD transactions were going downhill before the rise of VOD, but perhaps VOD will accelerate that plunge. iTunes already charges up to $20 for EST downloads of a new release. As consumers become used to storing their movie and TV collections digitally, the convenience of EST could hurt DVD sales.
Moreover, VOD has always threatened the theatrical market. That’s why exhibitors cried foul when Premium VOD was tried. But box-office grosses overall remain robust because ticket prices are constantly rising and 3D and Imax rely on upcharges. These revenues offer studios a good reason to maintain strict windows, at least for their most successful releases. Still, studios are very likely to continue to press for PVOD. And indie distributors have embraced VOD release exuberantly. Foreign and indie titles released on VOD before or during the theatrical run may steal business from art houses.
In sum, VOD might shake up the other platforms quite a bit. If your analogy is the music business, theatrical and DVD formats stand in for albums, while VOD is the online force that lowers consumers’ sense of a fair price point. There’s some discussion of raising prices for some iVOD and Pay TV VOD offerings to parity with theatrical ticket prices. I wonder if consumers will sit still for that. As a novice VOD’er who likes going out to see movies big, I probably wouldn’t. Unless Hulu’s Criterion library discovered a lost Mizoguchi.
Assayas’ autobiography A Post-May Adolescence has just been published in English translation. It includes two essays on Debord. At the same time, an anthology of critical essays on Assayas, edited by Kent Jones, has appeared in the sterling Austrian Film Museum series.
Patrick Frater reports on the TIFF Asian Film Summit at Film Business Asia.
My statistics on the progress of VOD come from “Movie Consumption Stabilizes,” IHS Screen Digest (April 2012): 95-98, and “Online Movie Consumption in the US,” IHS Screen Digest (May 2012): 116. See also Andrew Wallenstein’s Variety story, where we learn that Netflix’s subscription model is beating the pants off the competition. Thanks to David Hancock of IHS Screen Digest for further information.
As before, thanks to my Toronto hosts Cameron Bailey, Brad Deane, Christoph Straub, Andrew McIntosh, Andrea Picard, and all their colleagues.
TIFF leaves an indelible mark: The ankle of Crystal Decker, Marketing Manager of Well Go USA Entertainment, US distributor of Tai Chi 0.
P.S. 17 September: Thanks to Anuj Mehta for correction of a misspelled name.
Luther Price, Sorry Horns (handmade glass slide, 2012).
DB here, just back from the Toronto International Film Festival:
It’s commonly said that any substantial-sized film festival is really many festivals. Each viewer carves her way through a large mass of movies, and often no two viewers see any of the same films. But things scale up dramatically when you get to the big boys: Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. I’ve never been to the first three, but my first visit to TIFF was like wading into pounding surf and letting the current carry me off.
This is the combinatorial explosion of film festivals: A hefty 450-page catalog listing over 300 films from 60 countries. Moreover, because it’s both an audience festival and an industry festival where movies are bought, sold, and launched, you observe a range of viewing strategies. Although I sit too close to be much bothered, my friends tell me of mavens darting in and out of shows or checking their cellphones during slow stretches of what’s onscreen. The crowds add to the air of electric excitement, as of course do the visits of glamorous celebs.
So I was inundated. How to choose what to see in 3 ½ days for viewing? (I reserved time for industry panels.) I knew that some of the prime titles, such as Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love or the remarkable-looking Leviathan, would be available for Kristin and me at Vancouver later in the month. And I saw no reason to stand in queues for Looper, Argo, and other movies that I could see in empty Madison, Wisconsin multiplexes during off-peak hours.
I still missed many, many things I wanted to catch. For much wider assessment of major movies, you should go to the coverage offered by the tireless scouts of Cinema Scope and the no less tireless scouts of MUBI. Here I’ll talk just about a few films that made me think about—no surprise—digital vs. analog moviemaking.
Fragments and figments
Stephen Tung Wai’s Tai Chi 0 (0 as in zero) represents everything we think of when we say that digital production and postproduction have transformed cinema. This kung-fu fantasy from the Chinese mainland (but using Hong Kong talent, including the director) retrofits the genre for the video-game generation. CGI rules. The result is, predictably, monstrous fantasy—a globular iron behemoth, a sort of Steampunk locomotive version of the Death Star—but also screens within screens, GPS swoops, tagged images, Pop-Up bubbles identifying the cast, and other scribbling that turns the movie screen into a multi-windowed computer monitor. One more thing Scott Pilgrim must answer for.
Jang Sun-woo played with similar possibilities in his 2002 Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, inserting character dossiers and creating digital effects mimicking gamescapes. But he sometimes paused to give these images a dreamlike langor. Tai Chi 0 never lingers on anything and instead carries the level of busyness to crazier heights. In a panel at the Asian Film Summit, Fung explained that one scene of the film was inspired by a particular online game. Sammo Hung was playing Fruit Ninja or something similar and Fung decided to include a scene of villagers turning away invading soldiers with a barrage of produce.
Fung said as well that fantasy martial arts remains a blockbuster genre in the PRC (viz. the success of Painted Skin: The Resurrection). Tai Chi 0 ends on a cliff-hanger, the end titles (rolled too fast to read) provide a trailer for part 2, and apparently a third part is in the works. Now China has franchise fever.
The stop-and-start plot is familiar from Hong Kong films of the 70s onward (including over-made-up gwailo villains), but its execution wrecks nearly everything I like about classic kung-fu movies. Clearly though, I’m not in the audience the movie is aimed at. My friend Li Cheuk-to, artistic director of the Hong Kong International Festival, opined that this digital froth could be very appealing to China’s online generation.
Tai Chi 0 exemplifies what academics writing on digital have talked about as the “loss of the real.” As Tom Gunning pointed out back in 2004, though, things aren’t so simple. Digital photography, after all, remains photography. The lens intercepts a sheaf of light rays and fastens their array on a medium. The fact that a shot can be reworked in postproduction doesn’t mean that every digital image must surrender the tangible things of this world.
At TIFF, the power of digital cinema to bear witness was on display in Sion Sono’s Land of Hope. Sono has already documented Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Himizu, which I haven’t seen, but in that and Land of Hope, he abandons the wacko bad taste that made Love Exposure and Cold Fish so memorable. This is a sober, traditional drama presented with straightforward economy. It takes place in a fictitious district, Nagashima, but the fact that the name combines “Nagasaki” and “Hiroshima” suggests the gravity of Sono’s approach.
Three couples’ lives are torn apart by the quake, the tsunami, and the collapse of the nearby nuclear power plant. (All of these catastrophes are kept offscreen, glimpsed in TV reportage.) The oldest couple refuses to evacuate, clinging to their farm. Their son and his wife move to a nearby city where they succumb to the fear of radiation affecting their unborn child. And an unmarried couple wander the ruins looking for the girl’s father.
Sono intercuts the three lines of action. The old farmer adroitly manages his wife’s dementia and lets her indulge her fantasy of dancing in a village festival. In a critique of Japanese conformity, the young couple is shown being mocked for their worries about radiation poisoning. (The wife seals their apartment and, in a touch recalling the grotesque side of Sono, takes to wearing a Hazmat suit.) Less sharply developed are the fairly aimless ramblings of the youngest couple, though Sono injects some suspense when they dodge police blockades. At intervals, plaintive Mahler (a Sono weakness) surges up to underscore the futility of their search.
Throughout, government reassurances and the media’s insistence on putting on a happy face are treated with robust skepticism. Instead, Sono celebrates a dogged persistence to get through each day. The young couple’s mantra of “one step, one step” supplies the upbeat tone of the last scenes. As affecting as you’d expect is the footage of areas around the plant, seen as a wintry wasteland. Like Rossellini filming in bombed Berlin in Germany Year Zero, Sono has shot precious footage of ruins that testify to a calamity in which nature conspired with human blunders. And he did it digitally.
You can’t expect something so conventionally dramatic from Apichatpang Weerasethakul, and Mekong Hotel doesn’t supply it. It’s as relaxed as Tai Chi 0 is frenetic, and its central conceit makes it another pendant to Uncle Boonmee. The boy Tong and the girl Phon meet from time to time on the terrace of the hotel overlooking the river. They talk about folk traditions and the flood then besieging Thailand. They also encounter spirits that are as tangible, even mundane as they are; Phon’s dead mother appears in her room occasionally knitting. More shocking are the ghosts called Pobs who seem to possess the characters and make them hunch over and gobble intestines, sometimes in situations that suggest the organs have been torn from another character. All these scenes are handled with the usual Weerasethakul tact: long-take long shots, usually one per scene, that push the everyday and the extraordinary to the same unruffled level.
Mekong Hotel seems to operate on two planes of time. On the image track and in the dialogue, we witness Tong and Phon on the terrace or walking along the river. But the music, snatches of repetitive guitar tunes, seems to come from another time frame. At the start we see a guitarist practicing, and his noodlings run almost constantly under the drama we see. Another motif, fixed and lustrous shots of the Mekong River, yields a visual if not dramatic climax: a slowly paced choreography of Jet-skis crisscrossing the water. Here the digital medium may work to Weerasethakul’s advantage, with the clouds and landscape hanging unmoving over the racing watercraft, as a single, slow ship wades into the middle of their oscillating geometry.
The analog alternative
I suspect that Olivier Assayas filmed Something in the Air (originally Après Mai) on film, but even if he didn’t, the movie is a tribute to analog reproduction–mimeograph machines, LPs and turntables, and cinema in its different guises, from exploitation films to agitprop and experimental lyrics. We all know that the 1960s continued well into the 1970s, and here Assayas shows the uneasy carryover with a mixture of sympathy and critical detachment. The film starts with our high-school protagonist Gilles carving a peace symbol into his desk, flagrantly ignoring the teacher’s lecture. The shot encapsulates the film’s tension between political activism and image-making, and Gilles will oscillate between them in the course of the plot.
The poles come to be represented by two young women—the wealthy and ethereal Laure for whom he makes his paintings and the more hardheaded leftist rebel Christine, who goes out with him and others on nightly graffiti raids. When Laure leaves for London, Gilles continues his painting while leafleting and splashing slogans on walls, with the occasional Molotov cocktail to spice things up. The copains’ rebellion leads to some harm, but they cling to their ideals.
When summer comes, Gilles joins a film collective headed to document workers’ struggles in Italy. He encounters the arguments that made me smile in nostalgia: Shouldn’t revolutionary content have a revolutionary form? But how shall we reach the working class if our films are opaque? Assayas, who grew in this period and was repelled by the Maoist dogmatism of Cahiers du cinéma and Cinéthique, evokes these debates to remind us that the counterculture was about art and political change at one and the same time. Something in the Air chronicles a few years when imagination mattered.
After an early, shocking clash of students pounded down in a police riot, the film adopts a more circumspect rhythm, salting its scenes with books, magazines, record albums, and songs of the time. The plot keeps our interest by delaying exposition about the characters’ family lives until rather late. When we learn that Gilles’ father writes scripts for the celebrated Maigret TV series, we’re invited to see his forays into abstract painting as his form of teen rebellion. The plot doesn’t mind straying a bit from Gilles, as when his friend Alain, another aspiring artist, gets caught up in the fervor and pursues a wispy red-haired American dancer.
Characters meet, work or play together, drift apart, re-converge, and eventually settle into something like grown-up life. But at the end, when Gilles has apparently been absorbed into commercial filmmaking in London, he is granted one last vision of one of his Muses, who reaches out for him from the screen of the Electric Cinema.
Analog triumphs as well in The Master. Sitting in the front row of Screen 1 at the TIFF Lightbox (see below), I was astonished at the 70mm image before me. Not a scratch, not a speck of dust, not a streak of chemicals, and no grain. So did it have that cold, gleaming purity that digital is supposed to buy us? Not to my eye. The opening shot of a boat’s wake, which will pop up elsewhere in the movie, was of a sonorous blue and creamy white that seemed utterly filmic. Now we know the way to make movies look fabulous: Shoot them on 65.
The Master, as everybody now knows, centers on Freddie Quell, an explosive WWII vet, and his absoption into a spiritual cult run by the flamboyant Lancaster Dodd. Followers of The Cause are encouraged, through gentle but mind-numbingly repetitious exercises, to probe their minds and reveal their pasts. With the air of a charming rogue in the young Orson Welles mold, Dodd seems the soul of sympathy. But like Freddie he’s capable of bursts of rage, especially when his methods are questioned. Freddie becomes a sidekick because of Dodd’s fondness for his moonshine, while he also serves as a test case for the efficacity of The Cause’s “processing” therapies. If you can get this hard-bitten, borderline-sociopath in touch with his spiritual side, you can help, or fleece, anybody.
Like There Will Be Blood, this movie is primarily a character study. That film gained plot propulsion from Daniel Plainview’s oil projects, but many situations worked primarily to reveal facets of his dazzling self-presentation, his repertoire of strategies for dominating others. Something similar happens with Dodd and the ways he charms his congregation. But here the action is more episodic and the point-of-view attachment is dispersed across two characters. Dodd’s counterbalancing figure, the clenched Freddie, is so difficult to grasp psychologically (at least for me) that the film didn’t seem to build to the sort of dramatic, even grotesque peaks we find in other Anderson projects.
This is also a story about an institution, a quasi-church with a pecking order, rules, and roles. I wanted to know more about how The Cause worked, how it recruited people, and how it garnered money. Laura Dern plays a wealthy patron who lets the group stay in her home, and at one point Dodd is arrested for embezzling from the foundation, but the details of his crime aren’t explained. I also wanted to know more about the group’s doctrine, which seems so vague that Scientology need not worry about being targeted. The rapid-fire catechisms between Dodd and his acolytes are gripping enough, as Q & A dialogue usually is, but what system of beliefs lies behind them? The film seems to fall back on the familiar surrogate father/son dynamics at the center of most Anderson movies, but here filled in less concretely.
In short, after one screening I was left thinking the film was somewhat diffuse and flat. But I need to see it again. I thought better of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love after re-viewing them, so I look forward to trying to sync up with The Master on another occasion. Alas, in Madison, Wisconsin, I won’t have a 70mm image to entice me.
A bit of each, and both
Luther Price, No. 9 (handmade glass slide, 2012).
Analog imagery came into its own on other occasions, notably during the two programs of experimental films gathered under the heading “Wavelengths.” (At one I spotted Michael Snow in the audience.) Expertly curated by Andréa Picard, these programs assembled some strong, provocative films by several young filmmakers. I won’t review each one here–Michael Sicinski provides very useful commentary on nearly all those I saw—but I must mention the striking slide show that served as an overture one evening. The images didn’t move, exactly, but they might as well have.
Luther Price has been making remarkable films on 8mm and 16mm for several years, and one Wavelength program featured his Sorry Horns, a three-minute mix of abstraction and found footage. The same mix was evident in the procession of stunning handmade glass slides. Many, like the one surmounting today’s entry, evoke early cinema, decay, and clichéd Christian imagery: the wounds of film deterioration become cinema’s stigmata. Even the sprocket holes and soundtracks are invaded by festering particles. Arp-like blobs, pockmarked faces, and spliced and sliced movie frames lie under grids as irregular as medieval leaded windows. This is all gloriously analog.
No less captivating is the new, 100% digital work of an even older master of American avant-garde cinema. In one Wavelengths program Ernie Gehr offered us Departure (2012), a train trip playing on optical illusions in the spirit of Structural Film. We all know what it’s like to sit on a stationary train but then feel, when another train passes, as if we’ve started to move. Gehr translates this kinesthetic illusion into optical terms by filming, first upside down and then in judicious framings, several railbeds rushing by, faster and faster.
These layered ribbons sometimes unfurl right, sometimes left, and sometimes simply hover there as fixed, pulsating strips, all but losing the details of rail and tie and spike. Sometimes the one on top moves right, the grass verge beside it moves left, and the bottom track moves right (or left). This creation of flip-flop movement harks back to Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991) and to Gehr’s 1974 exercise in traffic abstraction Shift, which filmed patterns of commuter traffic from a very high angle.
Accompanying Departure was one of nineteen pieces in Gehr’s Auto-Collider series. Most of them contain some recognizable imagery, Gehr explains, but not number XV, the one we saw. In a sense the distilled essence of Departure, that film’s whooshing planes become vibrant, and vibrating, stacks of bold color, a bit like Daniel Buren in a joyous mood.
How did Gehr create the gorgeous Auto-Collider images? He declined to explain. Kristin suggested a plausible means to me, but I’m keeping quiet. In the analog age, when new methods of abstraction required a lot of sweat equity, filmmakers freely explained their painstaking work with lenses, light, and optical printers. But digital video practice flattens the learning curve. Powerful discoveries like Gehr’s or Phil Solomon’s are very easily replicated without much time, toil, or talent. Hell, somebody would make an app for them.
These artists are right to have trade secrets, just as magicians do. We should be satisfied merely to look. What we see reminds us that both analog and digital media harbor possibilities that go beyond the ability to replicate phenomenal reality. Both media can also dazzle us with things we’ve never seen, or imagined.
Digital projection seems to be taking over the festival scene, if TIFF is any indication. Cameron Bailey reports in a tweet that of the 362 films screened, 232 (64%) were in the Digital Cinema Package format and another 79 (21%) were in HDCam. The remainining 51 (15%) were in 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm.
Are the digital items still films? Robert Koehler suggested that maybe we will start calling everything movies. Interestingly, at the Wavelengths screenings, the artists called their artworks (whether on film or on digital video) “pieces.” Me, I still vote for calling films films, even if they’re on video, just as we have books in digital formats (such as, oh, I don’t know, this one). For me, at least these days, a film is a moving-image display big or small, whether it’s on film or some other medium. For some purposes we may want to specify further: Just as e-book and graphic novel indicate a platform or a publishing format, TV movie or video clip tells us more about what kind of film we have.
See also my January entry on festival problems with digital projection.
Thanks to Cameron Bailey, Andréa Picard, and their colleagues for enabling my visit to TIFF.
The industry screening of The Master at TIFF. Photo by M. Dargis.