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GRAVITY, Part 2: Thinking inside the Box

Kristin here:

In my previous entry, I described Gravity as an experimental film. I had thought of it that way ever since seeing trailers for it online back in mid-September. I described it as reminding me “of Michael Snow’s brilliant Central Region, but with narrative.”

Last time I developed that notion in more detail and analyzed the narrative structure of the film. Now I’ll analyze the experimental aspects of the film’s style and the dazzling means by which they were created. I don’t have the technical expertise to explain the inventions and ingenuity that went into creating Gravity, so I have sought to pluck out the best quotations from the many interviews and articles on the film and organize them into a coherent layout of how its most striking aspects were achieved.

As in that entry, SPOILER ALERT. This is not a review but an analysis of the film. Gravity does depend crucially upon suspense and surprise, and I would suggest not reading further without having seen the film.

 

Screaming on the set

I’ve written about Cuarón’s use of long takes, a stylistic device that has drawn a huge amount of attention in the press. Here the editing is so subtly done that even someone like me, who typically notices every cut, missed a lot of them during early viewings. There are bursts of rapid editing, as when the ISS is struck by debris and is destroyed, or more conventional cutting, as when the camera follows the Chinese pod and surrounding remnants of the station as they heat up in the atmosphere.

The long takes go beyond what Cuarón has done before. In Variety, Justin Chang describes one major difference: “As the movie continues, the filmmakers even add a new wrinkle, which Lubezki calls ‘elastic shots’: Takes that go from very wide shots to medium closeups, then segue seamlessly into a point-of-view shot, so the viewer is seeing the action through the character’s eyes, right down to the glare and reflections on a helmet visor.” Such moments are rare in Gravity, but one occurs in the “drifting” portion, shortly after the segment laid out above:

As Cuarón has pointed out, his long takes eliminate the need to cut in to closer views: “The language I have been working on with Chivo in these recent films is not one based on close-ups. We include close-ups as part of a longer continuous shot. So this all becomes choreography.” Another point he makes in this and other interviews is the influence of Imax documentaries on Gravity: “My process of exploring long takes fits in with that IMAX documentary notion, because when they capture nature it isn’t like they can go back and pick up the close-up afterward. There isn’t that luxury in space either. So then it falls to us to find a way to deliver that objective view, but then transform it into a more subjective experience.” Hence the “elastic shots.”

The long takes often dictate a refusal to cut in to reveal significant action. There is the moment in the epic opening shot, for example, when Shariff is suddenly killed in the background while in the foreground Kowalski tries to help Stone detach from her mechnical arm and into the shuttle. Did you see the flying piece of debris that struck his head? I didn’t, not until the fourth time I watched the film, knowing that it was coming and determined to spot it. It’s there, a little white dot that flashes through the frame in a split second. Shariff’s abrupt movement to the side, stopped with a jerk by his tether, is what we spot, since his bright white suit moves so suddenly and quickly, ending up against the pitch black of space:

A great deal happens in such moments of action, and we are left to spot what we can.

If these long takes are dazzling on the screen, think what they must have been like to witness being made. Lubezki has suggested how complicated the long takes in Gravity and earlier films were to shoot:

There are very few director/cinematographer teams working today as well known for a certain aspect of filmmaking as you and Alfonso are, which is that long extended take, or the seamlessly edited take. What it is like actually shooting those scenes?

I’m going to tell you something, the reality is that the movie was so new that when we finished a shot we would get so excited people would scream on set—probably me before anybody else.  There were moments when we were shooting and Alfonso said ‘cut’ we would all just jump and scream out of happiness because we’d achieved something that we knew was very special.

In Children of Men, we also had moments like that. When we finished the first shot inside that car [the aforementioned ambush scene], the focus puller started crying. There was so much pressure that, when he realized he had done a great job, he just started crying.

There is something breathtaking about the achievement of complex long takes that seems not to arise from any other cinematic technique. I have seen Russian Ark three times now, and each time I feel an inexplicable tension, wondering whether the camera team will make it through the entire one-shot film without a mistake. I’ve already seen it happen, and yet it still seems unbelievable that they did.

In Gravity, of course, the “long takes” were not actual lengthy runs of the camera. Nor were they, as in Children of Men, several camera takes stitched together digitally to create length single shots. Rather, they were created in the special-effects animation, with the faces of the actors being jigsawed into them through a complex combination of rotoscoping and geometry builds. (See this Creative Cow article for an example.)

The choice to present the action in long takes was crucial to the look of the film. Most films set in space rely heavily on editing, since for decades the special effects needed to convey space walking were best handled in a series of shots. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk flies through space toward a spaceship breaking up and surrounded by debris, a situation somewhat comparable to that in Gravity. The sequence is built up of many short shots of Kirk against shots of dark space, point-of-view shots through his helmet, and cutaways to characters inside the Enterprise conversing with him via radio. Here’s a brief sample of four contiguous shots:

    

    

The sequence conveys little sense of weightlessness, partly because the actor adopts a  traditional superhero-style flying pose. With no air in space, there would be no need to compact oneself into a streamlined shape. The fast cutting keeps repeating similar compositions, as with frames 2 and 4 above, with the fast editing presumably intended to generate excitement. (Star Trek Into Darkness has at least 2200 shots in a little over two hours, while Gravity has about 200 in 83 minutes.) Gravity‘s success in creating a realistic environment in space is dramatically evident when contrasted with this film’s more traditional outer-space conventions.

But it turns out that the commitment to the long take led Cuarón toward less common choices about editing, staging, and lighting.

 

Follow the bouncing axis

For much of the film, there is minimal spatial stability for the characters or for our viewpoint into the diegetic world. There is no ground, so we cannot imagine the camera resting on anything. When outside the space vehicles, the camera moves nearly all the time. In an interview with ICG Magazine, director Alfonso Cuarón was asked, “So with the camera and characters in constant motion and changing perspective, how did you figure up from down?” He replied:

There is no point of departure because there is no up or down; nobody is sitting in a chair to orient your eye. It took the animators three months to learn how to think this way. They have been taught to draw based on horizon and weight, and here we stripped them of both.

Undoubtedly many scenes contain an axis of action running between the characters, but it is not of a traditional kind. Unlike in a classically edited film, in Gravity‘s action scenes in space, the axis is in constant, fleeting motion, and any given center line between two characters must in quick succession run not only left and right but also up and down, diagonally, in almost any direction. Any given screen direction set up by the axis is ephemeral and offers little to help orient us spatially. Eyeline directions mean very little, since there are few cuts to things that the characters have seen offscreen. (True, when characters look offscreen, they establish eyelines, and the camera sometimes pans from Stone or Kowalski to some object they have been looking at. But a pan from a person to an object automatically establishes the spatial relations between them, whether or not the character is looking at the object.)

As a result, the spatial cues used in continuity editing system are not so much eliminated as made irrelevant for long stretches. That system is meant, after all, to guide our understanding of the story space across cuts. There are exceptions, such as a brief shot/reverse-shot exchange: Stone, loosely attached to the International Space Station (ISS) by ropes, pleads with Kowalski not to untether himself from her and float away to die in space, and he insists that it is the only way to allow her to live. When Kowalski and Stone, tethered together, travel toward the ISS, he is always at screen left, she at screen right, with the strap joining them stretched out as a sort of visible axis of action; straight cut-ins to close views of each character, and even at one point Kowalski’s point of view, obey the 180-degree rule and create an almost conventional scene. Actions inside the spacecrafts are more oriented as well. In the ISS Stone moves weightlessly through a series of pods, all the while maintaining screen direction. Similarly, inside the vehicles, especially late in the film when Stone is strapped into seats, she is usually upright, her head oriented toward the top of the frame. Some sustained actions in space also keep her right-side up, as when she removes the bolts holding the parachute cords to the Soyuz landing vehicle.

In part because of such orienting devices, we are seldom seriously confused about where the characters are, or at least not for long. Otherwise we would not be able to comprehend the story action. Still, compared to typical classical films, Gravity conveys little sense of spatial stability. The disorienting simulation of weightlessness for characters and camera dominates the scenes outside the vehicles and creates a style that can truly be called experimental.

Take the brief segment (about 14 seconds) below, from the 13-minute opening shot. Stone has been standing at the end of a large mechanical arm which gets knocked off the space shuttle by a piece of hurtling debris. It spins rapidly, with the camera framing it from long-shot distance. The camera is not entirely static, reframing slightly, but we can see the earth in the background fairly clearly. Stark sunlight comes from offscreen left, and as Stone’s body whips through space, the shadows move accordingly around her, with the back of her body in deep shadow in the first frame and then her front shadowed in the second:

    

The fact that the light source, the sun, is offscreen left during this spinning segment suggests that the camera and hence our viewpoint are in a stable position. Yet that position is maintained for only a short time. At this point in the shot, the camera is essentially waiting for her to draw near in order for it to execute a change that will govern the penultimate part of the lengthy shot.

That happens when, after she has spun wildly toward and away from us several times, the camera “attaches” to her, so that we are now seeing her in medium shot and spinning with her. Instead of seeing the earth clearly, we see her while the blurred surface of the earth and the blackness of space alternate rapidly. This was the technique that led me, when I first saw the film’s trailers, to compare Gravity to Michael Snow’s Central Region:

    

Being closer to Stone, we can see more clearly the shadows coming and going; her face is sometimes illuminated brightly by the sun and sometimes in near darkness:

    

    

The function of the attachment to Stone, apart from allowing us to see her fear and confusion, is to show us that her hands are working to detach her from the arm, as a tilt down reveals:

    

As she soars off the arm and tumbles into the black depths of space, the camera  leaves its “attachment” to her, and she spins away from it:

    

Cuarón’s commitment to the long take thus made him rely more than usual on events taking place within the frame–camera movement and figure movement in particular. Yet these movements had to occur in a microgravity environment radically different from the earthbound surroundings of Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This new constraint led to some technological innovations of remarkable originality.

 

The LED Light Box

Early on it became clear that moving the actors through space on wires would not create the desired realism of weightlessness, and clearly they could not be whipped about and tumbled in ways that the film ultimately achieved. The actors would have to be relatively static, with the illusion of movement created through other means. One of the main challenges was to have the lighting on their stationery faces support that illusion. And it would have to be done perfectly in order to achieve the photorealistic depiction of space that the filmmakers were after.

Usually in watching a film heavily dependent on CGI, one notices elements that have been assembled into a single composition but don’t quite match each other. A matte painting that isn’t lit from precisely the same angle as all the other components stands out from the rest (as, it has to be admitted, happens in the best of CGI scenes, including those in The Lord of the Rings). The problem was solved for Gravity using the LED Light Box, a device frequently mentioned in the press coverage of the film but seldom explained. (See image at the top.) The concept is truly revolutionary, although I am not sure to what extent it would work for other films that did not present such peculiar challenges.

In American Cinematographer‘s article on Gravity, “Facing the Void,” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explains why consistency of lighting is crucial and how he came up with his solution:

Lubezki emphasizes that Gravity‘s blending of real faces with virtual environments posed a tremendous challenge. “The biggest conundrum in trying to integrate live action with animation has always been the lighting,” he says. “The actors are often lit differently than the animation, and if the lighting is not right, the composite doesn’t work. It can look eerie and take you to a place animators call ‘the uncanny valley,’ that place where everything is very close to real, but your subconscious knows something is wrong. That takes you out of the movie. The only way to avoid the uncanny valley was to use a naturalistic light on the faces, and to find a way to match the light between the faces and surroundings as closely as possible.”

This challenge led Lubezki to imagine a unique lighting space that was ultimately dubbed the “LED Box.” He recalls, “It was like a revelation. I had the idea to build a set out of LED panels and to light the actors’ faces inside it with the previs animation.” Lubezki conducted extensive LED tests and then turned to [special effects head Tim] Webber and his team to build the 20′ cube and generate footage of the virtual environments, as seen from the actor’s viewpoint, to display inside it. While constructing the LED Box, the crew also solved problems involving LED flicker and inconsistencies.

Inside the LED Box, the CG environment played across the walls and ceiling, simulating the bounce light from Earth on the faces of Clooney or Bullock, and providing the actors with visual references as they pretended to float through space. This elegant solution enabled the real faces to be lit by the very environments into which they would be inserted, ensuring a match between the real and virtual elements in the frame.

This ingenious approach largely did away with traditional three-point lighting in the exteriors. As Lubezki explains in the AC article,

When you put a gel on a 20K or an HMI [Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide], you’re working with one tone, one color. Because they LEDs were showing our animation, we were projecting light onto the actors’ faces that could have darkness on one side, light on another, a hot spot in the middle and different colors. It was always complex, and that was the reason to have the Box.

The crucial point here is that the lighting was being created by playing the previs animation of the earth, space, the moon, and the large reflecting objects like the space shuttle on the sides of this 20′ by 10′ box. In other words, the moving images from the nearly finished special effects were used to light the faces of the actors, and those faces were later joined to those very same special effects, in a more polished form, to create the final images.

Lubezki gives an excellent description of the Box in his interview with Bryan Abrams, a series of responses which is worth quoting at length. Note that Lubezki refers to the Box as an LED monitor–essentially a giant television screen turned inside out and surrounding the actor:

Can you touch upon some of the pieces of technology and equipment that were created to make Gravity possible?

To make this movie we used many different methodologies. For one of them, we invented this LED box that you’ve probably read about, which is basically this very large LED monitor that is folded into a cube. So all the information and images that you input into this monitor lights the actors, and you can input all of the scenes that were pre-visualized to create the movie—all the environments that we had created—and you can input them into this large cube so space itself is moving around the actors.

So it’s not Sandra Bullock spinning around like crazy, it’s your cameras.

Yes, instead of having Sandra turning in 360s and hanging from cables, what’s happening is she’s standing in the middle of this cube and the environment and the lighting is moving around her. The lighting on the movie is very complex—it’s changing all the time from day to night, all the color temperatures are changing and the contrast is changing. There were a lot of subtleties that you can capture with the box, subtleties that make the integration of the virtual cinematography and the live-action much better than ever before.

The effects of the LED projections are visible in the changes on Stone’s face in the extended example above. Here’s a brief example of changes on Kowalski’s face in the opening shot:

    

The harsh light in the right frame above is a real lamp. The LEDs could not produce a local, hard light intense enough to simulate the sun. The team placed “a small dolly and jib arm alongside the actors” with a lightweight spotlight. This was moved “according to the progression of the virtual sun.” Such harsh light was necessary because outside the atmosphere there is nothing to filter bright sunlight. Several moments where the actors’ faces and suits are severely overexposed reflect this technique:

    

    

The Box also contained a large video monitor, visible to the actor, which displayed the previs animation. Lubezki explains: “This was wonderful in a couple of different ways. The actor sees the environment and how objects are moving in that environment, and at the same time we can see the interaction of that light on the actor. We capture true reflections of the environment in the actor’s eyes, which makes the face sit that much better within the animation.”

 

Previs as environment

The fact that almost everything in the film was created digitally–including the space suits in which the actors bob and spin in the exteriors–necessitated an extraordinary amount of planning and pre-production. “Pretty much we had to finish post-production before we could even start pre-production, because of all the programming,” Cuarón says. This was one reason why there was such a long gap between Children of Men (2006) and Gravity. Four and a half years were spent in developing the new technology and preparing to shoot.

The team started with geography:

The filmmakers began their prep by charting a precise global trajectory for the characters over the story’s time-frame, so that Webber and his team could start creating the corresponding Earth imagery. Cuarón chose to begin the story with the astronauts above his native Mexico. From there, the precise orbit provided Lubezki with specific lighting and coloring cues. The cinematographer recalls, “I would say, ‘In this scene, Stone is going to be above the African desert when the sun comes out, so the Earth is going to be warm, and the bounce on her face is going to be warm light.’ We were able to use our map to keep changing the lighting.”

Next, the filmmakers defined the camera and character positions throughout the story so that animators at Framestore could create a simple previs animation of the entire movie. ["Facing the Void"]

Lubezki was completely involved in planning the digital lighting. He recalls, “I would wake up at 4 a.m., turn on my computer, I’d say good morning to my gaffer and start working on a scene. I would say, ‘Move the sun 60,000 kilometers to the north.’ That way I could put the lighting anywhere I wanted.”

The reference material for the earth imagery came in part from NASA reference footage and photos. You can get a sense of these from the NASA films posted online, although these are mostly done in fast motion, unlike the ones the filmmakers would have used. One good example is “Earth HD.” There, at 2:25 and again at 2:41, one of the most recognizable locations on earth, the Nile Valley and Delta, are visible:

A similar image of the Nile appears on earth as Kowalski and Stone slowly make their way from the space shuttle to the ISS, with him asking her about her hometown and any family she might have waiting for her. (I was also happy to see the area of the site where I work in Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, which lies about midway between the Delta at the upper left and the large bend in the river.)

This geographical plotting included some ellipses. Although commentators have suggested that the film takes place in real time, or nearly so, there are temporal gaps. Shortly after the first pass of the speeding debris field, Kowalski tells Stone to set her watch’s timer for 90 minutes, since he calculates that is when they will encounter the orbiting debris again. That happens when she exits the Soyuz vehicle to detach its parachute. She again sets her timer for 90 minutes, and the debris field shows up at the Chinese station, battering it to the point where it sinks into the atmosphere and breaks up into chunks melting from the friction of reentry. Thus a little over three hours should be passing in the 83 minutes of screen duration.

Cuarón more or less confirms this timetable when he describes the creation of the previs: “The screenplay describes a journey that takes place mostly in real time, with only a couple of time transitions. We travel around Earth three times, so in previs we planned out visuals with specific knowledge of where we’d be in orbit at any given point in the story, whether it was in sunlight or darkness.”

In the film there are very few places where we can assume a significant ellipsis occurs. After Stone enters the ISS, sheds her helmet and suit, and drifts in a fœtal position, there is a gap. It’s probably not long, since she still holds some hope of going to rescue Kowalski, but she pauses to recover after her trying experience. Later, there is a cut from her inside the landing module, not in the suit, to her emerging from the hatch fully suited up–a gap we might assume to be ten minutes or so. Most notably, the cut from the nighttime shot of the earth that includes the aurora borealis at the right to the extreme close-up of frost on the window ellides a longer stretch of time. Stone has become hoarse in the interval as she tries to send a mayday message via radio. In other cases, such as Stone and Kowalski’s slow journey toward the ISS, time seems to be somewhat compressed though not ellided.

 

Staging without a stage

A lack of depth cues hampered the animators charged with creating the previs. The absence of one major depth cue, aerial perspective (the tendency of layers of space in the distance to turn successively bluer and blurrier due to the filtering quality of the atmosphere), caused problems. Visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, of the effects house Framestore, remarks:

You can’t rely on aerial perspective because without atmosphere there is no attenuation of image due to distance. And the lack of reference points [in space] can get you into trouble, like not being able to tell if the character is coming toward you or the camera is moving toward him. Even though we played it straight with respect to science and realism, we did put in more stars than you’d be able to see in daylight, just so there’d be some frame of reference to gauge movement.

Presumably Webber is referring here to the movement of the characters and objects through space, not the camera movement. (The lack of any “frame of reference” against which to sense movement is part of what makes the Star Trek scene illustrated above seem so unsophisticated.)

Naturally, since the actors were not standing on a floor or solid ground, the blocking was difficult, but it also had to be planned completely in advance:

Cuarón laughs as he recalls the surprises inherent in blocking characters in a zero-gravity environment. “The complications are really something because you have characters that are spinning. Say you want o start your shot with George’s face and move the camera to Sandra, who is spinning at a different rate. You start moving around her, and then you start to go back to George, only to realize that if you go back to George at that moment, you will be shooting his feet! So then you have to start from scratch. Sometimes you find amazing things accidentally, but sometimes you have to reconceive the whole scene.” ["Facing the Void"]

Finally, after all the planning, the previs animations were made. These had to be refined considerably so that they could adequately serve in the Light Box to illuminate the actors’ faces. According to Bill Desowitz, “The previs was so good, in fact, that the daughter of cinematographer Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki thought it was the real movie.”

The previs became so sophisticated because it evolved during preproduction. Cuarón recalled that Lubezki’s inspiration to create the LED Light Box changed the planning tactics:

Then that kind of had a ripple effect back into the previz, because originally they were going to just be a model that we could look back at, but we realized that the previz was more than that. That was something that [James] Cameron kept on talking about. He would say “I don’t use previz anymore, I use it as if it is the first painting on a canvas.” In other words it was the stuff that you kept on painting on top of and the thing with that is that it became very clear that in order to use these technologies, we needed to program stuff and the previz was going to have to be precise in terms of camera movements, choreography, timing and light.

As a result, the movie changed very little during principal photography. Senior visual-effects producer Charles Howell told American Cinematographer: “I think there were only about 200 cuts in the previs animation, [whereas] an average film has about 2,000 cuts. Because these shots had to be mapped out from day one, many of the lengthy shots didn’t really change in the three years of shot production. Because we did a virtual prelight of the entire film with, the whole film was essentially locked before we even started shooting.” ["Facing the Void"]

David counted 206 shots in Gravity, not including the two opening titles about life in space being impossible. This suggests that Howell is right, and that the film underwent little revision after the planning phase.

Several years ago I suggested on this blog that animated films, notably those of Pixar and Aardman, were on average better than mainstream live-action films because they had to be planned so carefully and thoughtfully. Gravity, being very close to an animated film, provides more evidence for that claim. Not that thought, time, and money can guarantee quality, but they certainly narrow the odds.

 

Iris in

The Light Box technology is astonishing enough, but within its confined space there also had to be a way to photograph the actors. In Lubezki’s interview with Bryan Abrams, he explains:

So we built the box, but that wasn’t it.  To be able to shoot inside the box, we had to build a special rig that holds the camera and moves with motion control. So we had people build a very narrow, lightweight but sturdy rig to control the camera. If you imagine the big box of LEDs, it has a gap that is almost a foot and a half or two feet wide, and the camera has to go into the box and make all these moves to make the audience believe that Sandra is turning and turning, but it’s really the camera and the environment in the box that is moving. So we built the box, the rig, and then used a company called Bot & Dolly. These guys are from San Francisco, and they use robots from the automotive industry.  They redid all the software for us, so we were able to use these robots to move the cameras and the lights around the actors. It was just a big ballet of gadgets and new technology for the film.

Bot & Dolly is a San Francisco company specializing in robots for the automobile industry. It built or perhaps modified an elaborate rolling, multiply-jointed camera mount called Iris especially for Gravity. It has been used in other features and in ads since then. (See image at the bottom.) An impressive demo film shows the Iris gracefully writhing about, quickly pointing the camera in many directions. (The camera in the film is a Red, though Gravity used an Alexa.) According to ICG Magazine, “The firm devised a Maya-based series of commands that allowed Framestore animators to direct the robots in ways that matched previs action in precise detail.” (Maya is the industry standard computer animation program.)

Typically this camera was inserted through an opening in the Light Box and swooped around the actor, who stood in a gyroscopic basket, seen in the production photo below. The photo shows one side of the Box open, though this would not be the case during shooting:

The combination of the Light Box and Iris made it possible to blend the special-effects shots and the live-action photography of the actors so smoothly that there is no “uncanny valley” effect, no sense of an obvious matte painting stuck into the middle of an image. The shots in Gravity are all photorealistic to a degree that is rare, if not unique, in recent effects-heavy films.

Iris brings us back to the comparison with Central Region. Snow built a special camera mount (below) designed to allow his images to rotate freely in almost any direction. During the three-hour film the camera never repeated any of its trajectories. Some images were close views of the pebbles on the ground; others were upside views of the bleak Canadian mountains in the distance. A nighttime segment was completely black except when the moon occasionally swept through the frame. The one area that the camera didn’t survey was the camera support itself, the “central region” of the title.

The vital difference between Snow’s machine and Iris is that the new system has no fixed anchor. Not only does it slide on a track, but everything it photographs can be digitally altered to erase any traces of the machine. It moves with entire freedom through a constructed space that has no central region, no fixed point around which everything else revolves.

 

Puppeteers and eyes

Gravity‘s utterly spherical space, beyond anything we normally find in commercial cinema, placed unusual demands not only on camera movement but also upon the actors’ blocking and performances. Our first entry on Gravity begins with a quotation from Sandra Bullock, which included the statement, “No character was like Stone, no film set was ever like these sets, not one member of this crew had ever done this before.” That may seem an exaggeration until one grasps how Bullock and Cuarón’s team built her character.

We all know from infotainment coverage that Bullock was isolated in the Light Box through entire days and that it was a trying experience. What doesn’t come through in such accounts is that she was often enclosed in the gyroscopic basket, visible in the photo of the Iris rig and Light Box above, as well as in the same setup visible behind Cuarón in this photo:

That was only the start of it. Anne Thompson’s interview with Cuarón and producer David Heyman reveals some of the details of blocking a character who is unrestricted by gravity:

AC: The physical aspect, not anybody can do what she did. On the one hand the physical discipline she went through to make this film, the training and the workouts. She also has an amazing capability for abstraction. Those emotional performances, it was as if they were an exercise in abstraction, like she was bonded to very precise cues. And physically that was very difficult: she trained and practiced like crazy, together with the stunt people and special effects. And the puppeteers from “War Horse” were helping her, supporting a leg or an arm, all the floating elements, they were creating approaching objects toward her in perfect timing. Then after she practiced so much her whole concern was only about emotions and performance.

Imagine a ballet dancer with really strict physical discipline in terms of what a body has to do, positions and precise choreography, who goes through months of training for one choreography so when they are performing they have expressiveness and emotion.

What was the most challenging scene to realize?

David Heyman: When Sandy comes into the ISS for the first time. She takes off her suit, then goes into fetal position, all in one shot. It was the most difficult. All the objects, getting the suit off, and into fetal position in such a way that it felt effortless, not as it was–she was sitting on a bicycle with one leg tied down leaning back in a 12-wire rig, with puppeteers. One of the things you forget about Sandy’s performance, which seems so truthful, is all the effort and physical exertion that went into making it, the precision of the technical aspects. She had to move her hands at a third of speed — zero G –while talking. Each shot connects with the next at very precise points where her head began and end and begin and end. She’s on a bicycle stringing uncomfortable with people moving around on 12 wires, through it all, with no gravity. Physically the body must not show the tension, so it looks effortless. What I loved about it is the performance behind the visor shines through, her eyes. You can’t slouch your shoulders to show sadness or weight, it’s just the eyes.

Bullock did all this with four 10′ by 20′ walls of LEDs projecting moving images of the earth and of exploding space stations around her. I think it is safe to say that this was a unique kind of performance.

 

The sounds of silence

As the film’s ominous opening titles point out, there is no sound in space. In keeping with the overall attempt to duplicate the effects of weightlessness immersively, Cuarón’s team limited the track to two types of sound: diegetic sounds heard by the characters and a non-diegetic, modernist musical track. In an interview with Cuarón, Wired‘s Caitlin Roper pointed out that there was an explosion in one of the trailers. Cuarón replied:

Yes, but that’s just the trailer. I honor silence. The only sound you hear in space in the film is if, say, one of the characters is using a drill. Sandra’s character would hear the drill through the vibrations through her hand. But vibration itself doesn’t transmit in space—you can only hear what our characters are interacting with. I thought about keeping everything in absolute silence. And then I realized I was just going to annoy the audience. I knew we needed music to convey a certain energy, and while I’m sure there would be five people that would love nothingness, I want the film to be enjoyed by the entire audience.

As in other areas of the film, we see the compromise between an experimental technique–an attempt to suggest the silence of space–and the desire to provide something more familiar for the broad audience. In this case, music acquires an expanded role, substituting for sound effects and conveying the rapidly shifting emotions of the scenes.

Sound effects are not entirely eliminated. Many sounds that the astronauts would hear via vibrations of things they come into contact with are included. In some cases these are fairly clear, as with the voices heard within their helmets–their own voices or others’ via radio. Other effects are heard in a distorted fashion. Glenn Freemantle, the supervising sound designer and editor, describes the process:

“When [Bullock] is in the suit, you hear her voice and her breathing, and you hear through her suit when she is in contact with things,” he explains. His team captured sounds by recording with contact mics at car plants and hospitals. “We even recorded through water with a [submerged] guitar,” he recalls.

One obvious example of distortion comes in the opening scene, when Stone is unscrewing bolts and sliding a panel out of the transmitting device she is working on. The sounds of the bolts and the sliding metal are audible but muffled, as though they were recorded under water or electronically manipulated.

Yet other sound effects not heard by the characters were relegated to musical expression. As Angela Watercutter put it in a Wired article based on interviews with Cuarón and composer Steven Price,

Every time there’s a collision in the movie the audience doesn’t hear a bang – they hear a sonic boom. The same goes for the characters’ — and, by extension, the audience’s — feelings of anxiety, claustrophobia, and agoraphobia. Much of what is seen in Gravity is terrifying, and when the audience can’t hear the horror of a space shuttle breaking apart or an airlock flying open, Price had to fill the void with his nerve-wracking score.

Cuarón dictated that one of the rules for the film’s score was the eliminating of percussion, to avoid the “cliché of action scoring.” Watercutter continues:

As a result the score for Gravity serves as more than just musical accompaniment – it also provides the movie’s sound effects. There are some non-music sounds that would be space audible, like the ones transmitted by vibrations characters feel in their spacesuits, but for the most part everything that happens in open space is accompanied only by Price’s music and the voices of Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), which “freed up the rest of the frequency spectrum for me,” Price noted.

Price used a mix of organic and electronic sounds to meld the natural world of space with the mechanical world one of the space exploration. There are also moments where he took an analog instrument – a cello, for example, or even a human voice – and ran its notes through a synthesizer or processor in order to create a whole new sound. And for the opening song on the score, “Above Earth,” Price took a track he was already working on and slowed it to about 1/60th its original speed. “Basically,” Price said, “what you’re hearing is the space between the notes.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Price discussed some of the aesthetic principles and functions he aimed for with his score:

Really it was all very much led by the character of Ryan. I tried to be with her all the time. The idea was that the music was up there in space and we made it very immersive and used a lot of elements and a lot of layering so that things would move around you all the time. The writing of those elements and what they were, were always influenced by what Ryan was feeling and where she was emotionally in the whole thing. And also where the camera was, where things were moving and what point of view the camera was facing, whether it was looking at them or kind of looking through their eyes. Some of it was melodic and some of it was intended to underscore a kind of emotional journey, and then there were a lot of sounds that were there to express real terror. It was those two extremes, really, expressing the beautiful nature of where they were but also absolutely a massively terrifying situation.

This notion of using experimental techniques, in this case modernist music, to express extremes of the characters’ emotions has been a traditional way to motivating the presence of nonclassical style. Again we see the comfortable blend of the daring and the familiar that allowed the film to resonate with a broad audience.
Price on the re-entry scene at the end as a development of an earlier theme:
The melodies in that cue, in that re-entry sequence, are really here melodically in the score; they’re kind of stretched out and ambient. It only becomes itself as she gets closer to Earth, really.
As this statement suggests, the music rapidly becomes more melodic and triumphant in tone as the climax progresses and Stone exuberantly accepts the do-or-die attempt to return to earth. By the end credits the score has become far closer to conventional movie music.
Price on the basic contrasts between types of music:
It was those two extremes, really, expressing the beautiful nature of where they were but also absolutely a massively terrifying situation.
The resulting score is difficult to characterize. It is definitely avant-garde and will seem strange to many people who watch Gravity. Despite being so lacking in melody and so full of abrupt transitions, it is surprisingly effective as a stand-alone listening experience. You can try out the soundtrack, which is included in its entirety in Watercutter’s article. (I suspect this is copy-guarded and will eventually be removed from the site, where it serves as a link to buy the CD.)

With little expertise in musical analysis, I can simply say that I hear the score as a combination of traditional instrumental music and electronically synthesized instrumental music. Under this, typically in tense passages, there are abrupt or charging percussive emphases, not using percussion instruments but, in some cases, deep string chords. Scenes of damage or tension are sometimes accompanied by sounds like stressed, grinding metal. Other sounds like distorted, high-pitched radio waves (in the “ISS” and “Fire” tracks) are included, reminiscent of electronic music of the 1960s.

Other critics have offered suggestive descriptions. Justin Chang’s review refers to “Steven Price’s richly ominous score, playing like an extension of the jolts and tremors that accompany the action onscreen.” David S. Cohen and Dave McNary’s Venice festival coverage characterizes the track: “Much of the action, even the debris storms, plays out against eerie silence, broken only by the score. The silence is more startling after the score builds to deafening crescendos, then stops abruptly. But during the interior scenes, the rumbles and groans of failing space gear are as frightening as the roars of any classic movie monster — even more so because their source is unseen.”

The disorienting, immersive effect of the visuals is enhanced by the spatialized soundtrack. The recording of the music seems to have been done in such a way as to emphasize those qualities. Cuarón describes the recording process in his interview with Anne Thompson:
On an immersive stage, something interesting we did with the film, is the whole score is composed for Surround Sound. In conventional music, it’s to the right and left of the screen, here we did music that comes from different places in the room, moving from place to place, just to help aid disorientation, like it’s spinning around you. Our composer [Steven Price] used pieces from German composer Stockhausen, with the orchestra sitting in the hall but not on stage, they were scattered around the room. When the music started the players were walking and moving around. You have an amazing dynamic sense of space and motion.
I was not fortunate enough to see the film with an Atmos system, but I am told that the effect is more pronounced in Atmos-equipped theaters.

Price has contributed a remarkable score, one which is highly original and yet completely motivated by the story situation it accompanies.

 

The space between

The immersive, 360-degree surrounding and sound fields made Gravity a natural for 3D exhibition, but they also posed unique problems. Given the long takes, the need for complex camera movements, the demands of the LED Box, and the complicated acting conditions, it would have been very difficult to shoot the film in 3D. In most scenes, of course, there were no real objects juxtaposed in different layers of depth in front of the camera. Even the actors’ placements in long shots would have be created digitally. So the project had to be converted to 3D. But this forced choice actually yielded strong results.

The press coverage of popular cinema has come to treat films shot in 3D (“native” 3D) as pure and admirable and films converted to 3D after shooting as crass and compromised. But is there all that much difference? Even Avatar, the film made with an intention of promoting the universal use of 3D, had some converted footage. With conversion technology improving, the notion of waiting until after filming to create a movie’s 3D is becoming less onerous. As Variety‘s David S. Cohen pointed out earlier this year, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek into Darkness, and Pacific Rim have been post-converted with little objection from the public or press.

That conversion techniques for generating 3D images are not inferior became much more evident during the early decision-making process for shooting Gravity. Nikki Penny, the film’s executive producer, took some test footage shot by in 3D to Prime Focus World, a conversion house that ended up doing 27 minutes of Gravity. The filmmakers were trying to decide whether to shoot the live action portions in 3D or use conversion. In an article on Creative Cow, Debra Kaufman explains what happened:

The production had done a test shoot in 3D, which involved placing the cumbersome 3D rigs inside the cramped space capsule. When Penny brought the 3D live action footage to Prime Focus World, she asked that they test 3D conversion by utilizing a single eye from the same footage. The results convinced Cuarón and producer David Heyman that conversion would not only look as good as shooting in native 3D, and would be much easier and more efficient to accomplish.

That is, the footage shot by one of the two lenses in the 3D setup was separated out. It was then treated as if it were native 2D footage and put through a conversion process to create a 3D image. The result resulted in 3D that was not inferior to the original native-shot 3D. The lesson, I think, is that the question is not usually whether a film is shot in 2D and converted; it’s whether it was planned to be completed as a 3D film (and has sufficient budgets and skills invested in it) .

Gravity couldn’t be shot in native 3D, since in most scenes there were not real objects juxtaposed in different layers of depth in front of the camera. Also, the camera was too cumbersome to fit into the space-capsule sets. With so much of the characters’ surroundings done as CGI, however, the conversion to 3D could be done concurrently with the filming. Kaufman describes the process at Prime Focus World, one of the firms that handled the conversion:

Unlike the more typical post-production 3D conversion, Gravity involved PFW working on the 3D conversion during production. The work on 3D conversion began with six months of pre-production, during which the production’s Stereo Supervisor Chris Parks worked closely with the PFW team to explain his carefully plotted depth map, which contrasted the vast emptiness of space with the tight, nearly claustrophobic quarters of the space capsules.

From the beginning, the challenge for Prime Focus World would be to make sure that the 3D converted footage integrated seamlessly with the extensive 3D CGI. Both the live action footage and CGI would be 3D, but 3D from two different worlds, conversion and visual effects – and they would both be active or “live” during the production process. At the same time, the PFW team wanted to retain the creative flexibility of its View-D conversion process, while integrating the stereo VFX universe. What made it trickier was that, unlike a completed film, Prime Focus would be working with work-in-progress shots and an open edit.

For more on the technical aspects of the integration of converted footage and CGI, along with an example of the stages that went into creating a single shot, see the Kaufman article.

In an essay on ICG Magazine, Vision3 stereo supervisor Chris Parks describes some of the narrative functions of the film’s 3D:

We had a virtual camera at Framestore that let us control depth functions. When Sandra floated off in space, we separated her slightly from the starfield, using 3D to make her feel very small. At another point we went very deep, when we see her POV as her hands reach out to those of another astronaut coming to camera. At the point when they make contact, we increased the interaxial to five times normal, then scaled it back down as they separate and drift apart.

Parks also comments on the scene where Stone and Kowalski look through the shattered windows of the space shuttle and a crew member’s dead body suddenly falls into the shot:

Alfonso asked how the 3D could make this more powerful, but without just throwing something out into the audience to make them duck. We decided to float a little Marvin the Martian doll out into the audience, which is a kind of fun, lighthearted tension-breaker, and then we whip-pan right off that to the dead astronaut, which makes the emotional revelation more jarring.

In fact the Marvin doll (derived from Chuck Jones’s Warner Bros. cartoons) comes diagonally forward from the depths of the shuttle interior, and the camera pans with it as it moves out of the ship past Stone, who watches it and then turns back to look inside again. The corpse falls into the shot from above left, but not out toward the audience. It bumps Stone’s helmet, and the camera pans to reveal it more fully and continue almost nonchalantly onward to show another dead astronaut further back in the shuttle interior.

Finally, Parks points out an expressionist distortion of space for subjective purposes in the dream sequence where Kowalski joins Stone in the Soyuz landing vehicle:

It’s a dream sequence that doesn’t reveal itself as such right away. To give a subconscious impression that something different was happening, we pushed the top right corner into the set while pulling the bottom left corner ahead, skewing the whole view. That sense of unease represents, to me, how 3D can be expanded beyond just giant VFX movies. It’s a tool that can be most effective in very small spaces, as this one shot reveals.

Outside the dream scene, we see the wall panel of instrument controls at an angle to the camera, with Stone in her seat at the left. During the dream, the panel is suddenly turned so that it is almost straight into depth, so that we are pressed up obliquely against it. Stone’s seat at the left is further away from it. The result is that the space is strangely skewed during the dream.

 

In all, shooting in long takes, building each shot with CGI yet including complex camera and figure movement, canceling the sense of horizons and ground planes, and enhancing all these choices through 3D, has resulted in a film in which stylistic patterning becomes an object of fascination in its own right.

Despite the occasional joke about a Gravity sequel, it seems unlikely that Cuarón will tackle similar subject matter and formal strategies in his next film. Dealing with space without horizons and characters without weight was a formidable task. At the end of his Wired interview, asked what his next film will be, he replied, “Any movie in which the characters walk on the floor.” Welcome back, axis of action.


Most of the frames used here and in Part 1 were taken from a New York Times article containing a clip from the opening shot with commentary by Cuarón.

Thanks to Stewart Fyfe, who shared links to some of the sources cited in this entry.

GRAVITY, Part 1: Two characters adrift in an experimental film

There was no way to rely on anything we knew before this film. No character was like Stone, no film set was ever like these sets, not one member of this crew had ever done this before. We all were doing something that had never been done before.

                                                                                                     Sandra Bullock

Kristin here:

Back in mid-September, on the verge of leaving Madison to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival, I mentioned that I had watched one of the trailers for Gravity and thought it looked like “the most exciting new piece of filmmaking this year.” I added that the trailer “called ‘Drifting’ reminded me of Michael Snow’s brilliant Central Region, but with narrative, with the earth and stars spinning past a close-up of Sandra Bullock as the marooned, panicky astronaut protagonist.”

At that point, I wondered whether the film as a whole could keep up that experimental feeling, with vertiginously wheeling actors combined with an untethered camera swooping around them. Or would the narrative gradually lead us into a more conventional style later in the film? It turns out that, to a remarkable extent, the highly unconventional treatment of unanchored space, where up, down, and sideways characters and background change with a breathless rapidity, extends through much of Gravity‘s length. For brief intervals Ryan enters space capsules and sits, right-side up, and the action calms down briefly. Yet these lead to further scenes in space with the same swooping camera. In short, the film turned out to be as remarkable a formal and stylistic achievement as I had hoped.

SPOILER ALERT. This is not a review but an analysis of the film. Gravity does depend crucially upon suspense and surprise, and I would suggest not reading further without having seen the film.

An experimental blockbuster

I am not the only one who was struck by Gravity‘s resemblance to an experimental film. After the film’s opening weekend in the USA, Variety‘s Scott Foundas published an article on the subject: “Why ‘Gravity’ Could Be the World’s Biggest Avant-Garde Movie.” He references the influence of Jordan Belson’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and speculates that the final shot of The Shining echoes the ending of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. More specifically he links Gravity to Central Region, shot in 1971 at in a Canadian mountain range; Foundas describes the robotic arm used to shoot the film and how it was controlled by instructions on magnetic tape. (I’ll have an illustration of the robotic arm in Part 2.) To Foundas, the avant-garde aspects of Gravity outweigh its narrative: “‘Gravity’ has more of a plot than ‘La Region Centrale,’ but only barely, and surely no one is telling their friends to see Cuaron’s film because of its great story. Rather, it’s the very absence of a dense narrative line that gives ‘Gravity’ its majesty.”

I think that to say Gravity has “only barely” more narrative than Snow’s purely abstract film is a considerable exaggeration. The film’s story is certainly simpler and more unconventional than other mainstream Hollywood films, but as we shall see, it contains goals, motifs, character traits, careful setups of upcoming action, and other traits of classical narratives.

In an October 11 blog entry, J. Hoberman also stresses the film’s modernism:

Depth and volume are illusory. Mass has no weight. In this 3-D spectacle, best seen on the outsized IMAX screen, Cuarón promotes sensory disorientation–or better, reorientation. [...] Gravity is something quite rare–a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.

(Actually I’d say Gravity is better than some of these, notably Napoléon and 2001.)

Hoberman sees more of a balance between style and narrative than does Foundas. In fact, he considers that the film contains “a distracting surplus of backstory.” Presumably he would prefer to do without the references to the death of Stone’s daughter and her subsequent aimless car rides after work, listening to the radio. The space voyage does become an overly obvious extension of that drifting and listening, coming close to turning the film into a maternal melodrama. Presumably the filmmakers felt that simply sending Stone on a mission and having her struggle to return to earth was not enough. In interviews, the co-scriptwriters, Alfonso and his son Jonás Cuarón, emphasized that their basic idea was to create a character arc of her “rebirth” after despair. To some, this arc, with its religious overtones, will seem a bit, as Hoberman says, distracting and even contrived. To others it may be inspiring. At least it is not allowed to come forward very often.

Hoberman stresses the balance of plot and radical style. The film, “premised on the absence of up or down, is naturally abstract although it also has a streamlined and suspenseful narrative that, save for one or two ellipses, might almost be happening in real time.” In Variety, Justin Chang’s review highlights the same balance: “at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.”

David and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. (This assumption is central to our e-book on Christopher Nolan.)  Gravity has such a story, though Cuarón is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film’s construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.

That construction derives partly from techniques unique to this project. The weightless dance of characters and camera almost entirely does away with such widely applied spatial premises as the axis of action, eyeline directions, and the establishing of stable spatial relationships. And, as Cuarón pointed out in an interview for Wired, “After all, you learn how to draw based on two main elements: horizons and weight.” Those two factors are virtually gone as well.

The weightlessness and the long takes in the film have been given much attention in the press. Reports refer less often to the “Light Box, one of the film’s most extraordinary innovations. It is a giant inside-out LED monitor that allows the film’s own previs special effects to light the faces and bodies of the actors inside the box, making it possible for those shots to be integrated seamless into the effects shots. Basically, apart from the scenes inside space vehicles, traditional three-point lighting is jettisoned along with spatial relations.

Other technical aspects of the film are innovative. A bold new camera mount, the Isis, was devised to allow the camera to twist and whirl around the actors. The silence of space was respected by the filmmaker, leading them to substitute a eerie musical score to replace sound effects and convey emotions. The blocking and acting, of course, had to be vastly different from methods used in conventional films where the actors have the luxury of walking on a ground plane.

In short, it is hard to think of another mass-audience film in recent years that has so thoroughly departed from the current technological and stylistic conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, to be sure; perhaps Avatar. Publications devoted to the techniques of cinema have recognized this. The Cinefex issue dealing with Gravity is not yet out, but on the journal’s blog, Don Shay’s remark is quoted: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Debra Kaufman, writing about the film’s 3D for Creative Cow, agrees: “Anyone who’s seen Gravity 3D will agree that the 3D was a game changer.” And unlike those earlier game-changers, Gravity has a strong experimental component to it that audiences gladly accept, since it is so well motivated by the story and situation.

In the next blog entry, I’ll survey the innovative aspects of Gravity‘s style and technique. Today, though, I’ll concentrate on the plot–in some ways conventional and in some ways quite strange–that holds it all together.

Who needs psychological depth in a crisis?

Arguably Cuarón had constructed nearly the most sparse narrative that can sustain the experimental style and motivate that style enough to hold the attention of a popular audience. Three characters, then two, then one, all with minimal backstories and simple goals.

Most Hollywood films have two parallel plotlines, usually one involving a romance. Here there is only one, and it primarily concerns an immediate situation, a cycle of deadly threats alternating with stages of Ryan’s progress toward safety. On balance, the focus is more on the suspense and terror of the situation than on the characters. Although there is a little mild flirtation between Stone and Kowalski, it’s more to generate humor and defuse the tension than to suggest any real possibility of mutual attraction.

One indication of the film’s minimal characterization is that fact that we never learn the nature of Stone’s experiment. That would be a logical initial goal for her character. Why has she set herself this particular task, which obviously involved not only scientific expertise in  a complex field but also elaborate training to become an astronaut? Where does she work? What might her test achieve? Some reviews have referred to her as a medical expert. As far as I can tell, this is based on one line when she and Kowalski are working together to activate the communications device that is her focus of attention in the opening scene. During the calm before the debris collision, she remarks, “I’m used to a basement lab in a hospital where trays fall to the floor.”  She also says that “It’s designed for hospital use.” That’s it. Normally a Hollywood film would redundantly give us information about her job. Here we don’t even get a sketch of it. And why is a medical experiment attached to the Hubble Space Telescope?

Incidentally, the Hubble is detached from the shuttle just before the debris cluster reaches it. We never learn whether it, too, is destroyed in the disaster. Might it have survived, with Stone’s experiment, perhaps activated during her brief delay before obeying the mission-abort command? Might she return to earth to find her experiment a success, with her initial goal miraculously achieved despite the tragic events in space. So little is the narrative concerned with the experiment as a significant goal that such questions are unlikely to occur to a spectator. They came to me only after three viewings.

Stone’s casual reference to working in a hospital lab typifies the limited sort of backstory we’ll get for the most part. Aside from Stone’s recollections of her daughter’s death and her aimless evenings of driving as her form of mourning, the moments of backstory are mere hints. In the opening we learn that Matt’s wife left him when he was in space on a mission. Might he be so obsessed with the beauties of space travel because he, too, is seeking to escape loneliness? We can’t know, since he treats the mention humorously, as if he has managed to shrug off his wife’s betrayal. Of the third character present on the spacewalk, Shariff, we learn that he has a wife and son, something revealed by a photo only after his death. This knowledge serves less to characterize him than to contrast this cheerful fellow with the wifeless Kowalski and childless, unattached Stone.

Stone’s mention of her home in Lake Zurich, Illinois and of her daughter’s death is the last piece of backstory that we get, and it comes slightly under half an hour into the film, during the calm interlude when she and Kowalski are slowly traveling toward the International Space Station (ISS). After this, I believe the only scrap of information from her past that we get is that Stone’s daughter had worried about a lost red shoe.

This lack of information about the characters is probably what led Foundas to say that the film has “barely” more of a plot than Central Region. In the same piece, he speculates, did the executives at Warner Bros. “wonder if they’d just gambled away $100 million on the most expensive avant-garde art movie ever made?”

Kevin Jagernauth reports on indiewire that the studio pushed for a more conventionally constructed film. Cuarón told him about some of the feedback he got from WB:

But at first, the studio suggested that [the Mission Control] team in Houston should get more face time. “…there area lot of ideas. People start suggesting other stuff. ‘You need to cut to House and see how the rescue mission goes.’”

And that’s not all. Part of the emotional journey of “Gravity” rests on Stone’s backstory, which includes a daughter she lost, but this is all effectively communicated without breaking the single location concept. However, Cuarón was advised to perhaps include some flashbacks in the film and even more. “A whole thing with … a romantic relationship with the Mission Control Commander, who is in love with her. All that kind of stuff. What else? To finish with a whole rescue helicopter, that would come and rescue her. Stuff like that,” he explained of some of the ideas that were floated his way.

There’s that conventional second romantic plotline, which in the wake of the film’s success seems such a ludicrous suggestion. The studio’s attitude demonstrates how very much Cuarón was able to get away with and how much of a struggle it must have been. Audience and critical enthusiasm suggests that he and his team managed to include just enough classical storytelling to make spectators identify with the characters even while knowing very little about them.

Why would a film need to establish psychological depth for characters when most of what they’re going to be doing is struggling frantically for their lives, cast adrift in space and bombarded by hurtling space debris? They must summon what skills and psychological strength they have and get on with it. Thoughtful conversations and subtle complexities are irrelevant for the most part. We need to care about these people to be engaged by the film, but that is part of the point of having Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the leads, playing to the likeable personal qualities that we already associate with these stars.

Challenges and goals

There’s no question that the characters do have goals, but these are largely based on circumstances thrust upon them rather than on character traits. Before disaster strikes, the characters have short-term goals: Stone to solve the glitch with her equipment (and to avoid allowing nausea to cut short her attempt) and Kowalski to enjoy his final space walk and ideally break the record for duration of space walks. Both goals are cut short by the news of approaching debris and the mission-abort order. As we’ve seen, whether Stone achieves her original goal concerning her experiment is never revealed, nor are we encouraged to wonder even briefly as to whether the Hubble might carry it away from the destruction of the shuttle. Kowalski achieves his goal of breaking the record, in a sense, as he comments ironically while detached and drifting in space and awaiting his death. His space walk will last forever, but records are hardly intended to include corpses.

Once Stone spins off into space, alone, her goal is to re-establish contact with Mission Control and Kowalski. His is to rescue her. Once he finds her and tethers them together, their mutual goal is to get to the shuttle, with Kowalski adding the goal of retrieving Shariff’s body. Very quickly these goals are shattered, since the shuttle has been extensively damaged and its other crew members killed. A new short-term goal arises: reaching the relatively nearby ISS.

Kowalski fails to achieve this goal, since the fuel in his jetpack and his inability to grab anything on the ISS’s exterior send him floating off into space. Stone’s goal is now to get inside before she passes out from lack of oxygen. Once inside, her goal is to detach the remaining semi-functional Suyuz landing vehicle and use it to get as far as the Chinese space station, in turn using its landing pod to return to earth.

Discovering that the deployed parachute has become tangled in the ISS, she takes another space walk to detach it from the Soyuz. Another short-term goal that is soon accomplished. As she starts to remove the bolts anchoring the parachute, she states the short-term and long-term goals: “OK, we detach this, and we go home.”

Her purpose, however, seems to be thwarted when the fuel tank of the Soyuz vehicle proves to be empty. Here Stone loses hope, drifting into despair. She decides to turn off the oxygen supply and allow herself to die. Suddenly Kowalski appears and enters the pod, giving her a pep talk and telling her to use the soft-landing function of the Soyuz rather than its take-off capabilities. He disappears, and Stone, reinvigorated and determined, follows the instructions for landing the craft.

In traditional classical films, shifting goals often mark the turning point between large-scale sections of the plot, generally referred to as acts. Despite its unconventional aspects, Gravity’s plot does stick fairly closely to the well-balanced four-part structure that I have claimed is typical of Hollywood narrative conventions. Not counting titles or credits, the story runs approximately 83 minutes. Thus on average the acts would run about twenty-one minutes each.

At about 22 minutes in, Stone and Kowalski achieve their goal by reaching the shuttle, only to discover that it has been destroyed. At 23 minutes, Kowalski declares them the last survivors of the mission. I take this to be the first turning point, ending the setup and beginning the complicating action. Essential premises are reversed as the pair realize that they are stranded in space and they shift their goal, striving next to reach the ISS. Stone’s failed attempt to contact Kowalski by radio once she enters the ISS–she initially hopes to rescue him–and declaration of herself as the mission’s sole survivor happens at roughly 43 minutes. The third act, the development, begins, with Stone meeting numerous obstacles that threaten her new goal of getting back to earth in the Chinese landing vehicle. The last turning point, launching the climax, comes when Stone awakens from her dream about Kowalski and turns the oxygen flow back on, signaling her return to hope and determination to reach earth. That happens at about 66 minutes in, leaving seventeen minutes for her landing, including the brief epilogue of her floating, swimming ashore, and shakily standing up.

Motifs and causal motivation

As I mentioned, strongly innovative films in the Hollywood tradition need the support of classical conventions to keep the narrative clear and appealing. Two of Gravity‘s most traditional techniques are its motifs and its motivations. Motifs can quickly make the characters more vivid, even if they are not particularly rounded or complex. Motivations often involve planting an object or event in advance. In this film, several motifs trace the relationship between Stone and Kowalski.

In the opening, the motif of Kowalski’s wanting to break the space-walking record is introduced early on, stressing that this is his last mission and hinting that he loves his time in space. Similarly, his anecdotes, introduced with the “I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission” running gag, create irony but also suggest how Kowalski inspires Stone. Before setting out on her re-entry flight in the Chinese landing pod, she repeats this line with the same good humor that Kowalski had displayed. Another parallel is set up between the two when Stone detaches the clasp tethering her to the wildly spinning support in the opening scene, and later Kowalski does the same to separate himself from Stone when they are precariously suspended from the ISS (below). She comes back; he doesn’t.

In the early scene where the pair work to activate Stone’s equipment, he refers to her “beautiful blue eyes,” though she points out that hers are brown. Later, when Kowalski has set himself adrift in space, their radio conversation mentions his “beautiful blue eyes,” which are also brown. Though we see nothing of their earlier relationship, such motifs lend it depth, because we sense that the two have already developed a customary way of bantering with each other.

Similarly, in the opening scene, Kowalski tells an anecdote about how, during a previous mission, he had imagined his wife looking up into space and thinking about him, when in fact she had run off with another man. Later, as Kowalski moves toward the ISS dragging Stone tethered behind him, he asks her if anyone is looking up and thinking about her. This elicits her most intimate revelation, that she had had a daughter who died in a freak accident. There is also no Mr. Stone waiting at home for her. Thus although the two characters have different personalities, both are escaping loneliness by a retreat to the beauty and peace of space.

Finally, there is the last shot, with Stone seen from behind against the sky, covered by light clouds. It reverses the opening, when we were in the opposite position, looking down at the earth from space, with the clouds of a huge hurricane prominently visible. There Stone drifted in space, held in place by a large mechanical arm; here she struggles to regain her sense of balance after prolonged weightlessness and succeeds in walking a few steps, thanks to gravity.

Like motifs, careful motivation of action helps us navigate through the plot. Given the rapidity with which new information is thrown at us as the narrative progresses, the screenwriters are careful to set up major premises in advance so that we will quickly understand them when they arrive. In the opening scene, as Kowalski swoops cheerfully around the shuttle, Houston asks about the supply of fuel in his jetpack. He reports that it’s 30% down. Not a lot, but enough that we are prepared for the moment after the disaster when he says he’s running “on the fumes.”

During the opening, the messages from Mission Control thoroughly forewarn us of the rapidly approaching hail of space debris. After it passes, Kowalski has Stone set her watch for 90 minutes, since that is when they can expect the same debris to return–as it does at regular intervals to destroy the ISS and the Chinese station. Stone reminds us of this danger when she exits the Soyuz vehicle to detach its parachute, muttering, “Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris.” The presence of the deployed parachute also sets up the moment when the chutes of the Chinese pod deploy as it nears its splashdown in the final sequence.

As Stone struggles to get aboard the ISS, Kowalski converses with her via radio. They mention her training with landing vehicles. Her only experience has been with simulators, and in every case she crashed them. Still, as Kowalski points out, she knows something about them–a point which proves vital in the dream scene discussed above, where Stone’s mind summons up a memory about how launching and landing space vehicles are not all that different.

Apart from creating a brief scene of suspense, the fire in the ISS introduces the fire extinguisher and demonstrates how, in a situation of weightlessness, the extinguisher propels Stone through space. This prepares us for the crucial scene in which she uses it as Kowalski had used the jetpack, allowing her to reach the Chinese station despite being untethered in space.

Character motivation, fortuitous events, and religion

Throughout the film the cause-effect chain remains fairly straightforward, with one major exception that I’ll get to shortly. But because the characters are reacting to rapidly changing circumstances almost entirely beyond their control, the outcomes are often fortuitous rather than the result of character traits. This is not to say the film uses numerous coincidences. It is not coincidence that Stone manages time and again at the last possible moment to grab a pipe or handle on the outside of a space vehicle. She’s aiming to do that, so she manages it not by coincidence but by luck.

Some of the most crucial events in the film are partly a matter of character motivation, but the outcomes of Stone’s and Kowalski’s actions are fortuitous. Stone apologizes to Kowalski for not having immediately obeyed his order to stop trying to repair her equipment and head for the space shuttle. She presumably continued with the rebooting because she is a dedicated researcher, reluctant to abandon her important work even when in physical danger. Yet as it turns out, reaching the space shuttle interior would have been fatal. When Kowalski and Stone do reach the shuttle, they find it split open, its crew dead–just as the pair would be had they retreated inside immediately. Stone’s delay actually saved the pair, though neither character could know this at the time.

Less obviously, Kowalski accidentally dooms himself. We see him in the opening minutes, cheerfully circling the shuttle and Hubble, playing music, telling anecdotes, and apparently hoping to stay outside the shuttle long enough to set a record. Presumably he has already accomplished his task in the space walk, or perhaps as the most experienced member of the team, he is watching over the other two. He is also, however, wasting fuel–fuel that he doesn’t realize he may need. Later, when forced to travel through space to rescue Stone and then to make it from the shuttle to the ISS, his tank becomes empty just before they reach it. His inability to maneuver without endangering Stone leads to him detaching his tether and stranding himself in space forever.

There are other fortuitous events. Stone is lucky that her Chinese pod lands in a body of water but close enough to shore that she can survive the impact and get onto land easily. It is probably by chance that in entering the Soyuz craft, the weightless fire extinguisher blocks the door and that she pulls it into the craft rather than pushing it out. Later the extinguisher enables her to propel herself to the Chinese station. There are also obstacles fortuitously created, as when Stone discovers that the Soyuz vehicle has no fuel–presumably because its supply tank has been ruptured by flying debris.

There may be one major exception to this dependence on accidental causes and effects: the religious motif. This is a strange motif, since it doesn’t become significant to the plot until fairly late. Early in the complicating action, as Kowalski and Stone journey toward the ISS and he asks her about her life on earth, he’s playing a country song, “Angels Are Hard to Find.” It’s playing when Stone mentions her daughter’s death; Kowalski soon turns it off to pay more serious attention to her story. At the time, the song doesn’t seem relevant. About seventy-two minutes in, the religious motif returns and becomes more prominent. Stone discovers that the Soyuz fuel tank is empty. The vehicle drifts as sunset settles on the earth below. We see vast snow fields and fjords below, and frost forms on the window. (The cut to the frosty window is one of the film’s few apparent ellipses.) There is a brief shot of a Russian icon inside the Soyuz (Christ as a child carried by John the Baptist, I think).

Immediately after this, Stone makes contact with someone on earth. She tries to communicate her mayday call. Gradually she loses hope and begins woofing in echo of dogs she hears on the radio. She says she’s going to die. During this scene she talks of how there is no one on earth who will mourn or pray for her soul. She asks the man to “Say a prayer for me.” She adds, “I’ve never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.” A baby is heard on the radio, and the man apparently sings a lullaby to it. Stone sadly comments, “I used to sing to my baby. I hope I see her soon.” At that point she dials down the oxygen inflow and says, “Sing me to sleep, and I’ll sleep.”

As she falls asleep, a knock on the door is heard off, and Kowalski enters the Soyuz. He drinks some of the hidden vodka, chats, and tells her to use the soft-landing device. Although he sympathizes with her desire to surrender to the eternal peace of space, he encourages her to save herself rather than giving up: “Ryan, it’s time to go home.” After his disappearance, Stone once again strives to save herself.

Once she has reached the Chinese landing pod, she struggles to cope with its instrument control-panel. As the countdown clock starts running, there is a tilt up to a little Budda figure, roughly in the spot where the icon had been on the Soyuz. As Stone works, she talks to Kowalski, asking him to find her daughter: “Tell her that she is my angel.”

Finally, back on earth, in the final shot Stone struggles to rise, muttering “Thank you,” before walking away from the camera, which tilts up to a low angle of her against the sky.

Though this motif appears late in the film, the narrative stresses it. Something is going on here, but what?

Most obviously, Stone seems to become somewhat religious, despite never having prayed before. Perhaps this is simply an emotional change that allows her to reconcile somewhat to her daughter’s death, to feel hope and enthusiasm for carrying on with her attempts to reach earth, and to accept her survival as a gift to her from some sort of deity.

Given that the startling visit of Kowalski, whom we assume to be dead, to the Soyuz and also his providing Stone with the one bit of information she needs in order to carry on, we might assume that this scene presents a sort of miracle. Kowalski’s visit makes him a quasi-angelic figure bringing divine intervention to Stone, perhaps, or simply a vision inspired by a divine power.

Yet his return is cued as a dream, with Stone falling into a sleep that she assumes will end in death. We all have had some sort of experience with a dream providing inspiration or the solution to a nagging problem. As Kowalski points out, Stone should know that taking off and landing are essentially the same thing; it was part of her training. The dream does not give her the knowledge but rather reminds her of it. Indeed, after she wakes up, she still has to struggle to remember what she learned about soft landings and also consults the manual.

Everything in the dream reflects things we already know about the two characters. Kowalski mentioned knowing where the vodka is kept. Earlier he had reminded her of things she knows about landing from her training with simulators. His words to her about the sorrow of losing her daughter and the temptation to surrender to the eternal peace of space recall her own line from the beginning when he asked her what she likes about space: “The silence. I could get used to it.” (Cuarón, in an interview with Anne Thompson, refers to Kowalski’s return as “a projection of herself in a dream.”)

Seemingly Stone gains some sort of religious belief or spiritual consolation. While working on the Chinese pod’s controls, she talks animatedly to the absent Kowalski, whom she apparently envisions meeting her daughter in an unspecified afterlife. The “Thank you” at the end I take to be the conclusion of this monologue in the pod, thanking Kowalski. In a truly classical film, a character mentioning never having learned to pray would surely say a prayer later in the film. Stone never does. I interpret the religious motif as signaling a transformation of her attitudes rather than implying some sort of divine intervention to rescue her. Either way, some viewers might take this motif to be heavy-handed or saccharine, but its ambiguities could prevent others from having such reactions.

 It all worked

The combination of narrative techniques that I have just analyzed obviously appealed to many of the the people who have seen the film.

On November 1, Box Office Mojo summed up the film’s career since its October 4 release:

Through four weeks in theaters, Gravity earned $206.1 million, which accounted for just under a third of total domestic box office earnings in October. It’s already the highest-grossing movie ever to be released during the Fall (September or October) and will earn at least another $50 million before the end of its run.

Gravity‘s remarkable success can be attributed in part to Warner Bros.’s great marketing campaign, which helped the movie set an October opening weekend record ($55.8 million). From there, the movie had an unprecedented second weekend hold thanks to world-of-mouth that asserted the movie needed to be seen on the biggest screen possible (and preferably in 3D). Speaking of 3D–Gravity‘s box office has been pumped up by the fact that most people (around 80 percent) are choosing to pay an extra few bucks to see the movie in that premium-priced format.

According to Variety, “Imax contributed 21% of the opening-weekend domestic cume for the film.”

(Even I, no fan of 3D, have seen it in that format at two of my three viewings so far and would do so again.)

Abroad, the film has also done well. As of November 6, its foreign box-office gross is about $207 million, with the film still to open in several major markets, and its domestic take has risen to almost $220 million, expected to top out at $260 million.

[Nov. 10: Box Office Mojo is now estimating that Gravity will ultimately gross about $660 million worldwide. It opened this weekend in the United Kingdom, where 89% of its ticket sales were for 3D screenings.]

This is also one of those rare films people see in theaters repeatedly within a short period. By the end of its opening weekend, three percent of audience members said they had already seen it more than once. On October 21, the film’s official FaceBook page asked fans, “How many times have you seen the film in theaters?” One, two, or three times were common, but even by that date, two and a half weeks into its run, there were a few who had seen it four or five times. Many single and repeat viewers mentioned plans to see it again. Quite a few also specified which formats they saw it in at the different screenings. Dan Fellman, head of Warner Bros.’s domestic distribution, remarked, “This is a phenomenon where people are asking friends and family not only if they’ve seen the film, but where.”

Some moviegoers (and critics) have found the film boring. But those who love it really love it.


Our next entry will deal with the film’s style and how it was achieved.

Coincidences can play many roles in a film’s plot, as we discuss in this entry. You could take Gravity’s ambivalent gestures toward Stone’s spiritual redemption as another example of Hollywood’s strategic ambiguity about controversial themes.

Jason Mittell has written an essay, “Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits,” which nicely complements my analysis. He concentrates on the film’s relation to traditional genres, discussing how it departs from familiar conventions of science-fiction and survival narratives.

P. S. 9 November: After I linked to this entry on my Facebook page, Meraj Dhir commented that the song Shariff sings as he does his little weightless dance is from a famous number in Raj Kapoor’s 1955 musical Shree 420. Not exactly relevant to my analysis, but fun to know, so thanks, Meraj! You can see the number here.

NOTE: On November 8, after watching the film a fourth time, I revised this post, correcting a few errors and quoting some brief passages of dialogue that I was able to record on this go-through. I have not noted the changes with the usual strike-through lines, since it seemed too complicated and distracting to do so in this case.

THE GRANDMASTER: Moving forward, turning back

DB here:

The summer has brought us two major films by the two leading Hong Kong directors. I’ve discussed Johnnie To’s fine Drug War earlier. Now it’s time for some ideas about The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai’s film displays, in fairly straightforward ways, some of his typical artistic and commercial strategies. Here he adapts his characteristic approach to style and form to a classic genre—and to the demands of the marketplace.

 

On kung-fu considered as one of the fine arts

Wing Chun is the best-known and most influential Chinese martial art in the world. It owes its renown to two women and two men. In the 1700s the Buddhist nun Ng Mui developed a style called Plum Flower Fist, and a young woman named Yim Wing Chun adapted it into something requiring less strength. Bruce Lee trained in the style, revised it according to his interests, and popularized it in films that reached millions of viewers. Lee’s teacher was Ip Man, a master who settled in Hong Kong after World War II and set up a school. Ip made public a Southern fighting technique that had previously been shared among families and friends.

As both a mainlander and a Hong Konger, Ip is a good symbol of the union of two Chinas. Given the stunning rise of China’s economic and cultural power since the 1980s, it’s not surprising that someone would come up with the idea of a film about him.

Wong Kar-wai claims to have had that idea in the late 1990s. In 2002, he announced that a film about Ip was on his agenda. After finishing 2046 (2004) and an episode for the portmanteau film Eros (2004), he seemed to move forward, slating Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the star and bringing Ip’s family aboard as consultants. But other activities intervened, notably an ill-fated three-picture deal with Fox Searchlight. Wong continued to occupy himself with his other businesses, including his lucrative talent-management firm and his advertising unit, which made commercials for Dior, Lacote, Motorola, and other companies. He also directed My Blueberry Nights (2007) and recast Ashes of Time (1994) as Ashes of Time Redux (2008).

In 2009 he got to work on the Ip Man film, eventually bringing in funding from many sources, including mainland Chinese companies, Fortissimo, The Weinstein Company, and Annapurna Pictures. Scheduled for a premiere in late 2010, then late 2012, it didn’t appear until January of 2013. It seems that he was still doing postproduction in Thailand hours before its first press screening in Beijing.

During the ten years that The Grandmaster took to reach the screen, other filmmakers had seized on the great man’s life. Two popular Donnie Yen vehicles, Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), were followed by a prequel The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), and this year, after Wong’s film was released, Ip Man: The Final Fight.

However much Wong fiddles with his movies, in this case he kept the title fixed: Yi Dai Zong Shi. It literally means “The Grandmaster of That Era,” or—since Chinese doesn’t mark plurals in the noun—“The Grandmasters of That Era.” It’s significant that in early publicity, the project was known as The Grandmasters. Wong says his son talked him out of that title. Now, in non-Chinese-speaking countries, it’s The Grandmaster.

The ambiguity about the title takes on special relevance because we have several Grandmasters. After the Beijing premiere, The Grandmaster was released throughout China and in Hong Kong. It did good business, earning over US $47 million in those territories. Wong made a shorter version for the European market, and that was apparently the one premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. A still shorter version was prepared for the U.S., with The Weinstein Company as distributor. It opened in August, to mostly good reviews, and it has currently reaped about $6 million at the American box office. So far, the film’s worldwide gross is nearly $63 million, making it by far Wong’s most commercially successful theatrical release.

 

Will the real Grandmaster please…?

The three versions tell variants of a core story that starts in southern China in the 1930s. A curtain-raiser shows Ip defeating a rambunctious gang who attack him in a downpour. Although the scene’s place in the plot seems not to be specified, in part it serves as a flamboyant demonstration of Wing Chun’s ability to defeat the powerful leg-fighting techniques characteristic of Northern styles. We then get a prologue in which Ip, the son of a wealthy family, recounts his lifelong dedication to kung-fu. Comfortable with his wife and children in Foshan, he says that he lives in an eternal spring, harking back to the meaning of the name Wing Chun (“celebrate springtime in song and poetry”).

A Northeastern master, Gong Yutian, comes to Foshan looking for a major bout with a talented newcomer before he retires. Ip is picked to fight him, and after some testing by local experts who practice Gong’s signature styles, the match takes place. It’s a waltzing, sidling encounter that Ip wins through nuance, not brute force. Gong retires gracefully, but his daughter Gong Er considers her father disgraced and demands a match with Ip. She applies her father’s tough Bagua technique, with its dazzling handwork and spinning evasions, and defeats Ip. In the course of the match, he becomes fascinated with her. When Japan takes over China in 1937, their rematch is postponed, and they pursue their lives separately for several years.

Ip struggles to survive. He refuses to collaborate with the occupiers and feeds his family on what he can scrounge. Gong Er’s problem revolves around the renegade disciple Ma San, who kills her father in a duel and takes over the school and compound. Ip’s two daughters die, and after the war he migrates to Hong Kong, hoping his wife can join him. But after the Chinese revolution, the border is sealed and he never sees his wife again. Gong Er also winds up in Hong Kong; she managed to reclaim her father’s estate by defeating Ma San, but she has vowed never to marry or to teach kung-fu. She has become a doctor instead. When Ip meets her again, she is already in poor health, partly because of the fight with Ma, but also because of her opium addiction.

Other characters wind their way through the story, most notably Gong Yutian’s brother and Razor, a partisan during the Japanese occupation who quits the Kuomintang to become a barber in Hong Kong. By the end, Ip is the last of the era. As Gong passed the torch of martial arts to him, so he will pass it to many others. Apparently a passive character, especially compared with Gong Er, Ip illustrates the “horizontal/vertical” maxim he starts with: “Stay standing and you win.”

     

Without counting the credit sequences, the three versions have running times as follows: 124:26 for the China/Hong Kong release; 114:24 for the European release; and 100:52 for the U.S. release. Some American critics have objected to the third version’s radical compression, and indeed much of interest has been lost. Yet many of the changes we encounter in the U. S. version were already present in the European one. To complicate matters, versions two and three aren’t simple cutdowns of the long one. Some shots and sequences are rearranged, and both the second and third versions contain footage, indeed entire scenes, not present in the “original.”

In other words, the usual Wong drill. He is famous for showing up at a film festival just in time, the print moist from the lab, and then recutting it after its premiere. Sometimes the changes result from external pressures: the international cut of Ashes of Time begins and ends with staggering fight scenes added at the behest of its Taiwanese producers. But often Wong tinkers with his footage on his own. He trimmed 2046 by fifteen minutes after its Cannes bow. There are at least two versions of Chungking Express, and at least three of My Blueberry Nights. There are two versions of Days of Being Wild, one with a game-changing prologue. (I talk about that here.) And of course Wong redid Ashes of Time fourteen years after its initial appearance. (I consider the results here.) At one point he talked about issuing a vast DVD set including all the variants of all his films. The constant fiddling that drives him to make his films in postproduction doesn’t end with the premiere.

So I think we ought not to assume without more evidence that Wong was forced to change what was a definitive version. For him, I think, a film may never assume a final shape. This is the man who considered putting all the footage shot for Happy Together on the Internet for fans to cut together however they liked. It may have been a publicity ploy or a passing fancy, but the very fact he voiced it suggests an openness to endless revision.

According to a valuable piece by Justin Chang in Variety, Wong worked with Harvey Weinstein on both the European and the American versions. I don’t know the full story of this collaboration. But if Weinstein insisted on a still shorter version for America, Wong’s simplest course would have been to take the European cut and pare it down, adding even more expository titles to plug the gaps. The fact that he rearranged footage and added new material suggests that he took the new constraints as something of a challenge. He once suggested:

Why does Godard come up with the jump cut? He made the films too long, so he had to take out some of the shots randomly. So you have to be flexible. And sometimes those restrictions become your source of inspiration.

Told to make a movie shorter, Wong seems to seize the excuse to rework his footage one more time—to create reorderings, connections, and emphases that bring out different facets of the material. “Instead of doing a short version,” Wong has claimed. ”I wanted to do a new version. I wanted to tell the story in a different way.”

Not incidentally, coming of age as a director in the era of home video, Wong is also aware of some commercial benefits. There are plenty of people who will happily buy all three cuts of The Grandmaster on disc. They’ll enjoy picking out different scenes and juxtapositions while still hoping for a full cut in the years to come. A part of Wong’s fanbase has come to expect, and enjoy, his makeovers.

 

A Chinese kaleidoscope

Wong doesn’t finalize a script, overshoots vastly, and may return for more footage years after the crew and cast thought the scene was done. Once he gets a new idea he can scrap months of expensive work. A big set built for the future world of 2046 went unused. “Thank God,” sighs his former DP Christopher Doyle, “there is no one else in the world who works this way.”

All these tactics give him great flexibility in creating different versions, and so does his characteristic style. Wong’s techniques and his stories facilitate fleshing out parts, snipping out other parts, and recombining still others. This sort of reworking can’t be done so freely when narratives are more linear and the visuals and sounds are more tightly tied to the action. Since Wong makes his movies out of pieces that can be recombined in many ways, each film is like a kaleidoscope. Shake it, and the pieces reconfigure.

At the level of the action, he can achieve this fluency through flashbacks and, in particular, his strategy of multiple-protagonist plots. Most filmmakers are content to focus on one central character, or possibly two, such as a romantic couple or a pair of police investigators. Other characters are definitely subsidiary, and they get identified in relation to the causal actions driving our prime movers.

As Tears Go By, Wong’s first film, centers on one protagonist, while Happy Together concentrates on a couple. Other Wong films, though, exhibit more complicated narrative maneuvers. In the Mood for Love takes the familiar form of two romantic triangles (as in Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle). The husband of one couple is having an affair with the wife of the other. The innovation is that we almost never see their liaisons; in fact, we don’t see either of the adulterous spouses directly. The plot’s focus is entirely on the two wronged partners, who fall in love with each other. This is a good example of how restricted narration can reshape our sense of plot structure.

Sometimes we have parallel protagonists: two characters who aren’t embarked on the same enterprise (they may not even know each other) but who claim our interest equally. In Chungking Express, each of two policemen has broken up with one girlfriend and is in the process, vaguely, of finding a new one. Here Wong’s bold stroke is to avoid interweaving the two men’s stories. Instead, he simply spliced the end of one cop’s story to the beginning of the next, with a shared space, the Midnight Express fast-food joint, linking the two. Something similar happens in 2046, in which one protagonist is a novelist and the other dwells inside the writer’s fiction.

More drastic is the strategy of creating a central character as a point of intersection of other fates. Days of Being Wild puts the pouting, selfish Yuddy at its center, and other characters are his friends, relatives, and lovers. But Wong goes on to create significant plots around those characters too, giving us a sort of network narrative. The policeman Tide, for instance, is pulled into the action by meeting Li-Zhen, after she has been discarded by Yuddy. Tide will, by coincidence, eventually meet Yuddy in the Philippines. Even further away is the mysterious man played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who appears in an epilogue grooming himself to go out. This last-minute walk-on of a character with no apparent connection to the action remains a daring innovation. But one version of the film sets up a prologue in which the man is seen starting to dress up while his voice-over reflects on a man he knew—presumably Yuddy.

In similar fashion, the bounty-hunter agent Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time is at the center of a web of relationships. His friend Huang Yaoshi not only courts the woman Ouyang yearns for but also tries to seduce Peach Blossom, the wife of a blind swordsman who comes to Ouyang looking for work. A brother and sister, named Yin and Yang and played by the same actress, complicate the plot still further. Like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, Ouyang Feng connects several characters and becomes for the most part the central consciousness of the film—the first among equals, we might say.

These patterns are, famously, not scripted in detail. They emerge from Wong carving into masses of footage and building his plots in postproduction. But this can lead to brutal surgery. An entire plotline involving pop diva Shirley Kwan was cut from Happy Together, and Maggie Cheung was startled to discover she barely appeared in 2046.

There’s some evidence that The Grandmaster was once planned to be something of a multiple-protagonist film, with Ip Man serving as the point of intersection in the manner of Yuddy and Ouyang Feng. Part of that evidence is internal to the film, chiefly involving the brusque introduction and departure of Razor in all versions. In addition, Wong has talked in an interview about modeling the four-hour version of his film on a traditional Chinese novel format, the zhanghui xiaoshuo.

What appeals to Wong in this “chaptered novel” genre is that it offers a set of linked, fairly developed stories concentrating first on one character, then on another. Major characters in one section could reappear as minor ones later.

A novel like this never follows any particular character. A main character in one chapter may just hurry away in another chapter. The author will continue by telling another story. I think that this structure is unique to the Chinese novel. Such is life. Suppose you meet a very good friend. Next time you meet him, he has moved to Chengdu. And five years later you meet him again. That’s the structure of the four-hour version.

However, this structure is too free for contemporary audiences to follow. Therefore, in the two-hour version, I chose to tell the story in a chronological way, from 1936 to the end of the story.

We have to remember that in interviews, Wong often tries to tie his films to the traditions of the culture he’s addressing. In the west he called his films with Chris Doyle “jam sessions,” and he compares their structure to the novels of Puig and Garcia Marquez. This isn’t bad faith, I think; it’s just that Wong is looking everywhere for analogies to the sort of decentered organization he favors. And his evocation of traditional novels like The Water Margin (ca. 1368) does capture some of the centrifugal organization of Days and Ashes.

In any case, it seems likely that that what was once called The Grandmasters might have become a panoramic survey in the manner Wong indicates, with Ip Man as a connecting thread. In the course of filming he doubtless expanded the roles of figures who became marginal. Perhaps the 130-minute version was already something of a compromise with this more sprawling structure.

 

Splits and mergers

Wong has carved somewhat different films out of his mass of material. For one thing, he has shifted some big blocks.

The Chinese and European versions of The Grandmaster follow Ip Man’s life up through the Japanese invasion. Then the plot follows Gong Er for about twenty minutes. On a train, she helps the wounded Razor (our first sight of him) as he avoids the Japanese. After the collaborator Ma kills her father, he installs himself in the household and blocks Gong Er from her rightful place. She consults with her father’s disciples and confronts Ma in the compound. There she warns him that she will take back the Gong legacy. She slips off her engagement ring and returns it to her fiancé. In a temple, where she seeks out permission from her father’s spirit, she vows chastity. She snips off a strand of hair, burns it in a candle flame, and encloses the ashes in a box. (In the European version, we see her cut it; in the Hong Kong version, we simply see her close the box, while a late flashback shows her cutting the hair.) At that point we leave Gong Er’s storyline unfinished. We move to 1950 Hong Kong, where Ip starts to establish himself as a teacher.

Only after we have followed Ip’s Hong Kong stay for some time do we learn the outcome of Gong Er’s struggle with Ma San. In a flashback apparently prompted by her encounter with Ip, we see her climactic meeting with Ma at the railway terminal in 1940. In that duel, she defeats him and takes back the Gong school, at the cost of serious injuries. Somewhat later we have Ip’s reflection that in Hong Kong Gong Er stopped seeing her patients and started smoking opium. Their final meeting takes place in a teahouse, followed by her drugged reverie recalling her happiest days, training in the snowy north. After their last encounter, a servant brings Ip the box bearing the ashes of her hair.

In these two versions Wong has followed the idea of chopping up his tale novelistically. Gong Er’s wartime experiences are split into two parts, creating some suspense through the middle portion of the film: Will she reclaim her legacy, and what made her come to Hong Kong? Moreover, the Chinese and European versions don’t give us a smooth pairing-up of Ip and Gong Er. Their meetings are broken up by other pieces of action. After Ip visits her, but before her flashback, we get a scene of Ip meeting Master Gong’s brother reminiscing about their lost world and the dark side of the kung-fu tradition. “Forget 64 Hands,” he warns Ip. Then, without any lead-in, we get Gong Er’s flashback to the fight with Ma. After that, instead of moving directly back to Ip’s story, we get a 1952 scene showing Razor in his barbershop thrashing a man seeking money for his mother’s funeral.

He’s so impressive that the victim wants to be his disciple, and Ip’s voice-over tells us that Razor founded his own school, bringing Baji boxing to Hong Kong. Only then do we return to Ip’s report on Gong Er’s decline.

A cynic would argue that some of these comparatively unrelated sequences had to be retained because Razor, played by Chang Chen, is a significant Taiwanese star and cutting him out would be bad for business. But we know from the U. S. version that Wong did have footage bringing Razor more firmly into Ip’s line of action. So Wong has kept to his model of digressive interruptions, wedging these “chapters” in among larger story arcs.

For the American version, Wong has ironed out some of the bumps. In that cut, we are with Ip Man from the start and mostly throughout. After the confrontation in the Gold Pavilion brothel and the exchange of letters, the narration doesn’t adhere to Gong Er until Ip meets her again in Hong Kong. In a longer version of their encounter, after he leaves her apartment she drifts onto the roof, musing in voice-over, “Mr. Ip, it was ten years ago….” Then we get in one long chunk Ma San’s takeover of the household and her eventual victory over him. The scene of Er’s meeting Razor on the train is gone, as is his barbershop fight in Hong Kong. Overall, the scenes bearing on the Ip/Gong Er phantom romance are joined in a smooth flow that ends with a version of her opium reverie. It’s as if Wong thinks that Americans want a more continuous plot than the zhanghui form provides.

Before we condemn this as dumbing down, we should consider that Wong has done something like it before. The embedded stories of Ashes of Time are treated as lengthy, mostly uninterrupted blocks centered on this or that character, flashbacks included. In several of his films, Wong follows a Hong Kong industry practice of organizing the overall plot reel by reel, with one or two reels devoted to each character’s embedded story. The effect of gathering the Hong Kong kung-fu scenes in one batch and the romance scenes in another keeps the focus on Ip. Even when Gong Er’s voice-over introduces the flashback his voice-over takes over after the end. Did she tell him this tale that we overhear as an inner monologue, or did he know by lovers’ telepathy?

In all, the U.S. version keeps the focus firmly on Ip, while building the film toward revelation of the love he might have shared with Gong Er. Here we get a line that comes at the start of the Chinese and European version:

I lived through dynastic times, the early republic, warlords, Japanese invasion, and civil war. Finally I came to Hong Kong. What kept me going was the martial arts code of honor.

Arriving at the end of the film, the line takes on a summarizing resonance. It places the episodes we’ve seen in that larger view Ip urges others to take. It comes as a lesson learned rather than a given truth that the film will illustrate.

 

A martial arts mosaic

Here’s another analogy. At the level of style, Wong is assembling each film out of bits that can be reconfigured on another occasion. Looked at shot by shot, The Grandmaster becomes a sort of mosaic.

By now everyone is familiar with Wong’s late decorative look: out-of-focus foregrounds partially blocking the action, trembling reflections in mirrors and water, wisps and curls of smoke, luxuriant costumes and sets, ripe chiaroscuro lighting. After experimenting with casual handheld shooting in Chungking Express and grotesque wide angles in Fallen Angels, he settled on something more traditionally sumptuous in Happy Together and subsequent films.

He could be our von Sternberg, were it not for his nervous pace, his habit of teasingly chopping off his pretty shots. Despite his mood-drenched frames, he betrays almost no interest in staging conversations in complex ways. Wong is, in sum, a very cutting-centered director.

The Grandmaster is virtually a textbook in constructive editing. Many scenes simply omit establishing shots and give us a volley of close-ups of characters speaking or looking from fixed positions.

     

The Golden Pavilion brothel is a warren of windows, which lets various characters peer out at the action from undefined areas. In the Hong Kong version, after Ip has defeated Master Gong, he looks to frame right. Cut to Gong Er, who has been watching the match from some unspecified point. She bolts out frame right, and then we cut to Jiang, her guardian. Initially he seems to be watching Ip, but he seems then to see Er leave, because he turns right to rush out. Then we cut back to Ip, who apparently follows their progression by shifting his glance.

     

     

At no point do we get shots that include all these characters, or even two of them, in the same frame.

Not only do we get lots of close-ups, but they’re frequently filmed from a slightly high angle. This gives the style a consistency across scenes; the fragmentation might be more jarring if people were shot from many different angles.

     

The intimate high-angle is given special poignancy when we see Gong Er upside down, drifting in her opium reverie and gradually covered by a dissolve to the snowy Northeast country of her childhood.

When we do get establishing shots, they are few and not always consistent, as in the scenes taking place in the Golden Pavilion brothel. Here scenes melt into one another, with little demarcation of separate points of time and often little sense that the fights are taking place in front of witnesses. Longer shots are so rare that Wong can save their impact for frozen tableaux, as in the ceremonial moments when Ip faces Master Gong (below) and, as a parallel, Gong Er (at top). And even these aren’t really establishing the place of all the onlookers.

Sometimes the establishing shots don’t establish. You have to look quick to see the “master” framing below as telling us much about the confrontation of Jiang and Gong Er after she has fled from her father’s bout with Ip.

     

Wong’s cutting pace has picked up as well. In the Mood for Love has fewer than 500 shots, but 2046 has nearly 900 and the U.S. theatrical cut of My Blueberry Nights has over 1200. The Grandmaster goes far beyond its predecessors, offering over 2500 shots in the long version and about 2000 in the U.S. release. This puts his average shot length into the 3-4 second range. Lest we think that the speedup is due to the action sequences, the swordplay-filled Ashes of Time Redux contains only about 850 shots.

The fragmentation of Wong’s visual style partly reflects his production methods. Complicated camera movements and ensemble staging would demand that he prepare scenes in detail and work out the staging. But the actors never see a script and don’t rehearse. Better, Wong evidently thinks, to position actors standing or sitting, grab lots of shots, and fit it all together after you’ve figured out a story line.

Given this approach, the transition between one shot and another doesn’t have to be very precise. Instead of “continuity” between shots, many Wong scenes have what you might call concealed discontinuity. He will cut from a momentarily blocked image (as the camera coasts around the set) to another part of the scene. He will insert a prop, or a shot that tilts up from an actor’s waist or hips. Snippets of shots can be dropped into a scene, and even if their exact story position is uncertain, we get the point on the fly. We become used to laconic storytelling: little scene-setting, brief sequences, and ellipses within the scenes.

Once scenes feature many skipped-over actions, Wong doesn’t need to shoot linking shots. To put it in fancy terms, we come to accept elliptical cutting as an intrinsic norm, not just between scenes but within them. It would be hard to tell if something is missing—especially if the soundtrack creates some cohesion. You can always use voice-over or music to stitch together a fairly disjointed stretch of shots.

More weirdly, a cutaway that is used in one scene can be recycled in a later one in the same set. For example, the old master Rui who tests Ip’s ability to handle Xangyi technique is seen peering through a window in the brothel when Ip confronts Master Gong. A very similar shot, though with different lighting, appears when he watches the revenge match between Ip and Gong Er.

     

The effect isn’t unlike that in some Soviet silent films, in which shots seen earlier are recruited for fresh duties in a new scene.

Again, an intrinsic norm kicks in, and we take pretty much what we’re given. For the same reason, I think, Wong doesn’t give us many over-the-shoulder shots, as they specify spatial relations a little more than he wants. Likewise, his decentered close-ups, which don’t let an actor’s glance fill the empty area of the frame, may enhance our sense of a loosely defined story space. Wong had experimented with this in his earlier films, but the wider anamorphic ratio of 2046 and My Blueberry Nights (below) seems to have made it more attractive to him. I think that the absence of master shots makes this off-balance framing especially prominent in The Grandmaster.

      

This mosaic patterning gives Wong’s films a distinctive texture, and it provides storytelling advantages. The laconic cutting can permit crisp, rapid narration; no need to waste time with establishing shots and images of people entering or leaving buildings. Scenes can be astonishingly short. Even in the “full” version of The Grandmaster, many scenes last less than a minute. At the same time, the fragmentation leads naturally to the lyrical music montages that Wong is fond of. A moment can be expanded through a string of shots, enhanced by slow motion or ramping.

What gives Wong flexibility in assembly also permits him to build different versions for different markets. Because every shot can be connected to others in a variety of ways, he has plenty of leeway for trimming or adding, throwing shots out or adding some in. This is indeed what we find in the various versions, where some scenes are reduced in their duration and others are extended. For example, in the U. S. version, Gong Er’s recollection of her challenge to Ma is introduced with several shots of her drifting across her apartment and onto the building’s flat rooftop. These aren’t in the other versions, but they are easy to add to a scene that already contains fairly vague spatial continuity. In all, Wong’s patchwork coverage of scenes gives him more freedom in reworking the film than conventional continuity would.

 

Those who can, teach

I argue in Planet Hong Kong that despite his references to intellectual topics, Wong is a filmmaker rooted in popular culture. He exploits star images, pop songs, and especially Hong Kong movie genres. He has appropriated the romantic comedy, the crime movie, the tragic-Triad gangster saga, the swordplay film, and above all the melodrama. Of course he revises the conventions he seizes upon, but his crossover inclinations make his films enjoyable to people who wouldn’t sit through Antonioni or Tarr. This is no less true of The Grandmaster, at once kung-fu movie, historical biopic, and muted love triangle.

Wong eagerly embraces the staples of the martial arts picture. The variations of speed, from slow-motion to ramping and jittery movement, were there in his earlier work, but now they join the great tradition of kinetic action. The variety of angles, the dust billowing when someone is whacked, the rapid track-ins to poised combat stances, the magnified whooshes and smacks, the fighters hurled through windows, the kicks that bash brick walls and loosen iron bolts, the fights in rain and snow recalling Kurosawa—we’ve been here before.

Admittedly, Wong rubs his characteristic gloss into the visuals. Classic kung-fu films of the 1970s were fast-cut, but they usually featured long shots from many angles, with occasional cut-ins to close views to accentuate certain moments. 1980s directors like Yuen Kwai broke down the action still further, but the inserts of hands, faces, feet, and props were instantly legible and spatially continuous. These fast shots disassembled the fight into crisp details. (Examples are here and here.)

In The Grandmaster, Wong steers a course between precise articulation of certain moments and a loose, sketchy piling up of gestures. Shallow-focus close-ups of hammering fists and pivoting bodies offer a fusillade of sensuous appeals. Some passages have a nearly abstract flow, but impressionistic blurs and smears are halted with a snap by a highly readable establishing shot, abrupt moments of stasis, or hypersharp slowed motion. To scrutinize the film’s distinctive style properly, we’d have to work with a 35mm print (the gauge in which most of it was shot) and go frame by frame.

Despite the polished surface, Wong’s core drama respects basic conventions. The plot rests upon the rivalry among schools, the demand to synthesize and reconcile warring combat styles, the calmness of true masters versus the heedless arrogance of street fighters, and the secret techniques that settle a fight. In the moment that Master Wong throws out Ma San as a renegade, his use of his supreme move, “The Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge,” is barely glimpsed in the film’s most impressionistic fight. The power of this family legacy is reaffirmed when Gong Er applies it to win the fight with Ma San at the railway station.

     

As in classic kung-fu movies, combats are characterizing. The crushing-fist technique of Xingyi deployed by Ma San fits his personality, while Gong Er employs the graceful but deadly Bagua (usually transliterated as Pa Kua). Their styles encapsulate the two sides of old Gong’s legacy, for he was able to merge the two styles (as indeed they were merged by many practitioners). Wing Chun, by contrast, is chiefly a self-defense school. It favors deflecting an onslaught of blows with palm, fist, leg, and forearm movements that are also attacks; the fighter keeps blocking until a space opens up for a decisive punch or kick. The simplicity, resourcefulness, and modesty of Wing Chun defines Ip as a man.

More broadly, the combats contrast the sadistic fury of Ma San and Razor with the relaxed confidence of old Gong and Ip. The first two grandmasters are arrogant bullies, while Gong and Ip maintain the tradition of kung-fu as a repository of decency, dignity, and wisdom.

Gong Er is caught in the middle. She is from the start characterized as willful (part of Zhang Ziyi’s star persona since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and too conscious of the martial-arts hierarchy. Old Gong considers Ip’s victory over him an inevitable passing of authority to the young, but Gong Er is bent on regaining the clan’s status. Defeating Ip with the 64 Hands technique of Bagua confirms her in her narrow sense of tradition and honor. But when a skirmish with Ma San kills her father and he usurps her place in the household, she refuses to follow the path old Gong marked out for her: marriage, children, and medical career.

The drive for revenge and justice fueling many classic martial arts films is here focused around Gong Er’s tragic dilemma. To uphold the family’s repute, she must destroy the tradition that her father created. Her plot line, unusually for a Wong film, actually thrusts forward dynamically. Her desires and goals sharpen into a conflict between two forms of duty: to her father’s wishes and to his historic legacy. Had she been born a boy, she reflects, all would have been easier, presumably because she would have inherited the tradition that Ma seizes by force. As it is, they split the heritage: Ma San knows Xingyi, she knows Bagua. The battle on the train platform presents a clash of the two techniques that Master Gong so proudly synthesized. They will never be reunited.

There’s a satisfaction in seeing Gong Er use her father’s decisive strike to vanquish Ma San, and she keeps part of her pledge by fulfilling his request that she become a doctor. Yet it’s a hollow victory. Her decision to disobey her father in the name of righteousness eventually comes to nothing. History intervenes and she winds up fleeing to Hong Kong as Ip has. Sworn never to marry or teach kung-fu, Gong Er dies, and her father’s beautiful variant of the 64 Hands technique dies with her.

But not the tradition of honor and teaching her father represented. In a crucial passage early on, old Gong announces his pride in uniting Bagua and Xinyi, and he wishes he were able to bring Southern martial arts to China. Ip, however, reminds him that the world is bigger; why stop with China? When Gong Er’s Bagua defeats Ip’s Wing Chun, she upbraids him in similar terms: he needs to widen his vision to encompass what the 64 Hands can do.

Fleeing the civil war, Ip carries his experience to a martial arts culture quite different from Foshan’s. From the luxurious brothel where martial artists gather to spar and honor their elders, Ip is brought to Tai Nan Street in Hong Kong. There rows of schools beg for customers, lion dancers brawl, and ruffians splash out money for some quick lessons. Ip’s resolute purity of spirit sets him apart from this shabby milieu. By the end of the film, having encountered other schools and styles and incorporating some into his repertoire, Ip carries the entire tradition of Chinese kung-fu to the world. His grinning young pupil would be known as Bruce Lee.

 

The button and the box

“I was lucky to meet you in my prime,” Gong Er tells Ip during their last meeting in Hong Kong. Her remark points two ways, toward their trials in combat but also toward the love that might have been. To the kung-fu genre Wong brings his characteristic register of languorous melodrama with its missed opportunities and lingering reflection on what might have been.

As sometimes happens in Wong’s films, love tokens are on display. When the Japanese invasion prevents Ip from visiting Gong Er, he sells his heavy coat to get money to feed his family, but he tears off one button to keep as a reminder. In Hong Kong he obliges Er to take it. At their last meeting, she returns the button to him, but after her death she reciprocates his gift by giving him the gilded box that holds the ashes of her hair.

Significantly, the Chinese version ends not with Ip’s success as a teacher but with images of the Buddhist temple where Gong Er made her pledge. This epilogue is at once a recollection of her tragic choice and an echo of her father. Throughout the film, the martial arts tradition is identified with fire: Gong’s brother’s cookstove, his balletic offering of a match for Ip’s cigarette, Gong Er’s burning of her lock of hair (above). The motif becomes crucial when Gong Er takes the lamp flickering beneath the Buddha to be a sign of her father’s permission to pursue Ma San. Now, in the shots that conclude the film, many lamps and candles burn under many Buddhas. We’re reminded of the monastic source of Shaolin kung-fu and the fact that Ip is the man who, as old Gong urged, will “keep the light burning.”

     

The final temple shots aren’t in the later versions, and the U. S. cut drastically compresses the scene of her first visit to the temple, omitting the crucial details of the lamp as a sign. Other differences play up the romance element more strongly. In the Chinese version, Ip’s childhood is covered in the summary montage at the start, and Gong Er’s isn’t shown at all. The European and American versions build a stronger link between the two through parallels. In her opium flashback, Gong Er is shown learning the Bagua technique by spying on her father; soon he is training her. These glimpses of girlhood are intercut with her doing sets in the snow. Soon afterward, we get Ip’s flashback to his boyhood when he was accepted as a student by Master Chan Wah-shun. The two sequences create a sort of secret bond between the quasi-lovers.

More generally, the American version highlights the muffled romance between Ip and Gong Er. Their exchange of letters now includes fantasy inserts of him visiting her father’s compound and the two practicing in a parlor. It’s suggested that his wife is aware of his attraction to Er and gives him permission to embark on the visit that is blocked by the war. After the war and a string of scenes showing Ip and other martial artists marooned in Hong Kong, the romance returns. Ip visits Gong Er and catches up on her doings during last decade.

A new romance seems even likelier because of the way Wong has repositioned Ip’s realization that he and his wife won’t be reunited. In the Chinese and European releases, this comes very late, after Gong Er’s death. It marks his admission that he has no chance to return home, that he can only press forward. But the U.S. version slots in this sequence earlier, holding out the possibility of a romantic liaison between Ip and Er. This prospect is consonant with the version’s more prolonged lead-in to her flashback to 1940, which includes her bodyguard Jiang telling her that her father would approve of her marriage to Ip. She then goes out onto the terrace, clasping the button, and, as we see shots of Ip intercut with shots of her, we hear her narration: “Mr. Ip, it was ten years ago….” Is it a displaced passage of dialogue, shifted from her telling him the story earlier? Or is it an internal monologue addressed to him, as if by telepathy? This poetic ambivalence isn’t there in the earlier versions.

What is there in all versions is the reiterated parallel between martial artistry and affairs of the heart. After their bout in the brothel, seeing the 64 Hands again becomes Ip’s shorthand for seeing Gong Er again. Their quietly flirtatious exchange of letters sets up a rematch that’s also a rendezvous. Another link between love and kung-fu comes with Master Gong’s advice. “Better to go forward than stay in place” becomes Gong Er’s watchword in fighting for her patrimony and vowing to stay celibate. But she also recalls the admonition her father addressed to Ma San: “Kung fu isn’t just charging forward. Look behind you as well.” Ma San, who says he collaborated with the Japanese because good warriors adjust to the moment, failed to look back to Master Gong’s precepts of modesty and upright conduct. In Hong Kong, Gong Er discovers the emotional dimension of her father’s lesson. Having gone on as far as she can (“a road I won’t see to the end”), she can only look back at what might have been—her love for Ip Man.

In a fulfillment of her father’s advice to look beyond the mountains, she has “seen the world. Sadly, I can’t pass on what I know.” Ip can. As a teacher like old Gong, he advances resolutely into the future. Yet he still longs to see the 64 Hands technique one more time. The Old Monkey move, Master Gong says, involves “looking back in reflection.” Only Wong Kar-wai would turn advice about combat tactics into an admonition to preserve the memory of unconsummated love.


Thanks to Li Cheuk-to, Tony Rayns, Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs, and Kristin for information and ideas about The Grandmaster. A special thanks to Zhang Junyi for his enthusiastic help with Chinese-language sources.

Both the European and American versions of The Grandmaster feature a credit cookie lasting about a minute in which Ip, on a stylized staircase, leads us through a flurry of fights and then cocks an eye at the camera: “What’s your style?” It’s probably too knowing a parallel between style-conscious Wong and Ip, but its break with the noble and poignant tone of the main ending is pretty typical of Hong Kong cinema’s insouciant storytelling.

A revealing glimpse into Wong’s working methods is provided by his cinematographerJustin Chang’s Variety interview with Wong is likewise informative. Wong talks about shooting on film here, remarking that he knew it was time to wrap when Fuji couldn’t supply any more 35mm stock. There are many sharp reviews of the film, but the one by Kozo here is one of the most nuanced. He sees the film as opening up new paths in Wong’s development.

Arguing that the U. S. cut ruins the film, David Ehrlich provides a very helpful and detailed list of the differences between the Hong Kong Grandmaster and the U. S. release. The Chinese version (all-region, with good English subtitles) may be ordered from yesasia in either Blu-ray or standard DVD. The European version I worked from is the French one, available here as a typically flashy Wong package.

The other Ip Man films are quite different and heavily fictionalized, but at least the first three are worth watching as updates of long-standing martial-arts genre conventions. They include stirring sequences of GOFRBSKF (Good Old-Fashioned Righteous Butt-Stomping Kung-Fu). Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Legend Is Born (2010) has a nifty secene in which an old man instructively thrashes the young Ip in a cramped pharmacy. The pharmacist is played by Ip Chun, son of the real Ip Man and president of the Hong Kong Wing Chun association. Yau’s film also contains a brief passage of sparring between legends Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. According to this story, the Ip Man cycle has led to booming enrollment in Wing Chun schools.

Back to Wong Kar-wai: The Hong Kong International Film Festival always runs a retrospective on one director or star, and this year the attention fell on Andrew Lau Wai-Kung. Known principally as the director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, he began his career as a cinematographer. The long interview in the program’s book, Filmmaker in Focus: Andrew Lau, reveals a lot of material about Hong Kong industry practices from the 1980s onward. Wong fans will be especially interested in what he has to say about filming As Tears Go By. (It’s not usually mentioned that Lau also shot a great deal of Chungking Express before Chris Doyle replaced him.) Filmmaker in Focus: Andrew Lau is available from the publications page of HKIFF. Thanks to Li Cheuk-to for his assistance–and for his correction of a translation!

Some of the ideas I float in this entry are developed at greater length in the revised edition of Planet Hong Kong.

P.S. 23 September 2013, later: Today it was announced that The Grandmaster will be Hong Kong’s submission for the Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film. But which version?

P.P.S. 23 September 2013, still later: Li Cheuk-to writes to tell me that the version submitted for the Oscars is the U.S. version, which has played seven times in Hong Kong in order to qualify.

P.P.P.S 18 October: Harvey Weinstein talks about the changes in the US version. “At the end of the day, who gives a shit?”

Mixing business with pleasure: Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR

Drug War (2012).

DB here:

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.”

 

Playing parts

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). 

Thanks to Grady for opening up this aspect of the film! And I’m sure the packed house that greeted Drug War during its screening at the New York Asian Film Festival thank him and his colleagues too.

Drug War, with Sun Honglei as Captain Zhang Lei.

David Bordwell
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