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Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

PRINCIPLE, with interest

Sunday | October 9, 2011   open printable version open printable version

DB here, still at the Vancouver International Film Festival:

The Milkyway films of Johnnie To Kei-fung have resisted some of the fancier tactics of contemporary cinema, such as self-correcting flashbacks and forays into what-if universes. It’s true that he has played a little with disorienting subjectivity (The Mad Detective), and his intricate plotting in films like The Mission have something of the feel of converging-fates stories. But his chief devices, I tried to argue in Planet Hong Kong and occasionally on this site, have been laconicism and ellipsis.

Hollywood dramaturgy tells you something important three times, but To’s films often just mention a key story point in passing. If you miss it, you’ll have to try to recall it later, even after the film is over. Likewise, in Hollywood films, any time periods that are skipped over are assumed to be irrelevant to the plot. But  To’s films (like Lang’s) omit showing us intervals that later prove to be quite important. Taken together, the laconic and elliptical approaches to storytelling make The Mission, Running Out of Time, The Longest Nite, The Mad Detective, and the last episode of Triangle into narrative games–games of wits among the characters, but also between the filmic narration and the audience.

With Life without Principle, fresh from screenings at Venice and Toronto, To embarks on a full-blown network narrative. The film follows three clusters of characters across three days, with the last day showing the collapse in world stock markets caused by the Greek debt crisis. All the characters are tied to this macro-event. Police officer Cheung and his wife Connie are about to buy an apartment, the bank investment advisor Teresa sees her customers lose thousands, and the triad Panther partners with his old friend Lung just before Lung’s market maneuvers crash.

Each character has more personal concerns as well. Cheung has learned that his dying father has taken a Mainland mistress, and he and Connie must decide whether to adopt the woman’s child. Teresa’s sales record is poor, and she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t generate more business. Panther needs money to bail out an errant triad colleague. Tying together all three strands is the gloating moneylender Yuen, who scoffs at the stock market and points out that he offers better terms than credit-card companies.

Designing a network plot offers you essentially two options. You can intercut all the strands as the protagonists move through time together (as in Nashville) or you can segregate the plotlines into blocks, as in the “chapters” of Pulp Fiction or the character-tagged chunks of Go. In the block pattern, some chronological fiddling will be necessary. We follow one character or group through story events and then hop back to an earlier period in order to follow another strand.

Mild spoilers start here.

Life without Principle takes the block option. A prologue shows Cheung investigating a murder and Connie trying to buy an apartment for them. The bulk of the film starts by following Teresa through the days leading up to the financial crisis. The narration then glides back to the evening of the first day and we meet Panther, an obsequious but loyal triad working for a self-centered boss. Panther eventually joins his pal Lung in an internet stock swindle. The two plotlines converge at a murder in the bank’s parking ramp, involving HK $10 million in cash. In its final stretch the film starts crosscutting among Teresa, Panther, Lung, Cheung, and Connie. Each line of action comes to a distinct climax, only tangentially related to the others but still tied together by the fluctuations of the stock market.

Still, Johnnie To offers a network narrative on his own terms. Where a Hollywood film is careful to tell us when it skips back in time, usually by use of titles, To’s playfully laconic narration eliminates titles. Instead, the transitional marker is a rightward tracking shot of Hong Kong Island accompanied by jaunty a capella music in Swingle Singer style. More generally, To doesn’t mark the three days overtly within Teresa’s and Panther’s tales. To is more interested in creating a flow across each story rather than that sense of modular architecture we get with modern day-by-day plotting.

Moreover, the tonal shifts that we find in many Milkyway films help keep the stories distinct. Teresa’s and officer Cheung’s plots are straightforwardly dramatic and suspenseful, while Panther’s is grotesquely comic—a quality underscored by Lau Ching-wan’s blinking portrayal of a dense but compulsively earnest company man. The spaces are at variance too. Teresa is never seen outside the bank building (until the last shot), and so the action in her story is built around enclosure and small details, especially a crucial key. Panther’s story is expansive, roaming from a triad banquet to the streets and cafes of Kowloon.

The film relieson classic suspense techniques to an unusual degree , especially the passages in Teresa’s office. Moreover, we always like a drama that forces sympathetic characters to make bad decisions. Cheung, who impassively does his duty as a good cop, ponders disowning the half-sister he never knew he had. Panther, abused by his boss and his pals, remains naively loyal to them.

Our keenest investment, I think, is in Teresa’s situation. Rapacious bank policies make her sell chancy investments to people who can’t understand them. Her scenes with the aged Hi Kun, blindly buying into a high-risk fund, consume an agonizing ten minutes, and throughout you sense Teresa’s qualms about the scam she’s pulling. When she goes to fetch Hi Kun coffee, she pauses meditatively over the cup: laconic To again. Later, when Teresa is confronted by massive temptation, all our instincts urge her to succumb, even though it would be a crime.

Will these basically decent people come through the financial crisis unscathed? The Milkyway universe can be harsh and capricious. Expect the unexpected.

So Hang-shuen, Denise Ho, and Johnnie To on the set of Life without Principle.

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