David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




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

Archive for the 'Festivals: Vancouver' Category

Vancouver envoi

A late night Thursday, and a snoozy day of traveling on Friday, kept me from posting ASAP. And now on Saturday morning—I can’t get on to my own blogsite! Apparently others can. So while our web czarina Meg fixes things, I try to wrap things up on my visit to the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Le Petit Lieutenant: A policeman’s lot is never a happy one. From Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, modern crime novels give an emotional resonance to police procedure by showing the psychological costs of being exposed to cruelty, chicanery, and death. American cop movies have gradually let more of this quality come through (Prince of the City, Heat, Dark Blue), and of course TV, from Hill Street Blues to The Wire, has turned the police procedural into urban melodrama. But the French got here first. For decades, their cop movies have been world-weary psychological dramas shot through with bitter realism. Think of Corneau’s Police Python 357, Pialat’s Police, Tavernier’s L.627, or any of Melville’s policiers.

Le Petit Lieutenant, which I saw on my last day, falls into that sturdy tradition. The premise—a string of attempted murders of bums and passersby—is played out with the usual clue-by-clue plotting, but we also witness the strained lives cops lead. Our two protagonists are the overeager recruit Antoine (Jalil Lespert) and his recovering alcoholic supervisor Carolina (Nathalie Baye in an utterly deglamorized performance). Xavier Beauvoi’s narration shuttles skillfully between their points of view, leading to a good deal of sympathy and suspense and a grim but plausible climax. One of several nice touches: the cops keep movie posters over their desks, and if I’m not mistaken, in some cases the posters serve as hints to the cops’ personalities. The ending leaves you as bereft of certainty as the protagonist.

Do Over (Taiwan): For a finale, I caught this extraordinarily ambitious movie by the twenty-eight-year-old Cheng Yu-chieh. Shot in anamorphic widescreen (very rare in Taiwan over the last twenty years), it belongs to the trend I’ve called “network narratives.” Across New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the lives of several people converge and diverge in the fashion of Short Cuts and Magnolia. Each character’s strand evokes a different genre: gangster movie, romantic drama, twentysomething “relationship” comedy, and the movie about moviemaking. Each strand is also set off by a distinctive photographic style, from misty blue to grainy, blown-out noir.

A network plot often exhibits an interesting mix of realism (in life, strangers’ lives do become tangled) and artifice (chaptering, repeated scenes, and other overt narrational devices). The artifice becomes flagrant at the film’s end, when Do Over‘s title gets literalized and the plot lines are revised to yield alternative endings. The cleverness doesn’t get the upper hand, however, and this remarkable debut leaves you both satisfied and looking forward to Cheng’s next film.

After two trips to Vancouver’s festival, I have yet to go to any tourist destination. I’ve lived within a few square blocks, dashing among hotel, DVD stores, and the Granville Multiplex, with forays to the Pacific Cinematheque and the Vancity Theatre and sushi restaurants and crepe cafes. I’ve lived a film-wonk holiday across eight days and dozens of movies. Thanks to Alan Franey, the Festival Director, for inviting me and extending me so much courtesy. I’m grateful to all the help of his colleagues PoChu Au-yeung, Mark Peranson, Eunhee Cha, Steve Martindale, and Jack Vermee. I wish we’d had more time to talk! Over the last two visits, I’ve made new friends from all over the world, and I’ve enjoyed just sitting among exuberant audiences.

Tony Rayns has been programming Asian films at Vancouver since 1988, and I have to note the melancholy news that he’s stepping down as coordinator of the Dragons and Tigers competition. I’m unhappy as well that I can’t be at Vancouver tonight (Saturday) to see the results of the competition and participate in what will surely be a string of tributes to Tony. So here’s a weak substitute—my own appreciation online.

Tony Rayns
Tony Rayns at VIFF, 2006

In Tony Rayns deep expertise is joined to an unmatched passion and curiosity. His Vancouver programming was crucial in introducing directors like Kitano and Hou to West. He has also made films happen: Without the acclaim of Vancouver audiences and the prestige of the Dragons and Tigers prize, how many distributors would have backed later work by young directors over the last twenty years?Most critics prefer to stroll into screenings to watch films that miraculously appear, thanks to the work of dozens laboring behind the scenes. From the start Tony got his hands dirty. Apart from writing discerning and literate film criticism, he worked for film festivals, wrote presskits and program notes, translated subtitles, and pushed for offbeat films to be available on video and cable. Above all, he programmed films, backing his tastes with an expanding network of allies in the film industry. He helped create a climate of opinion that welcomed the burst of creative accomplishment that Asian film has offered over the last three decades.

Tony’s been a friend since the mid-1970s, and his influence on my tastes and thinking has been immense. I wouldn’t know a lot of what I know without his tireless proselytizing for once-obscure films and filmmakers. He’s sensitive to all a film’s dimensions—its social and artistic implications, its relation to the director’s personality and life experience. A late-night conversation with him, preferably over Asian food, is like being in the liveliest seminar you ever took.

Many of Tony’s contemporaries—I know plenty—have given up on contemporary cinema. Who can blame them, after a trip to a multiplex? Too often, cinema seems over. But this has only made Tony dig deeper, watch more widely, and remind us that this art form is still frisky, unpredictable, and occasionally rapturous. The French have a word for it: animateur, the person who sends a jolt of energy into a culture. Like André Bazin and Henri Langlois, Tony is one of the animateurs of world cinema, and everyone who loves film is in his debt.

Mostly Asian, and why not?

David here:

A correspondent asks: Why am I spending so much time at the Vancouver Film Festival watching Asian movies?

Well, I have dabbled in other regions. Most recently, I enjoyed Eugène Greene’s short Signs, a metronome-and-protractor movie that nonetheless harbors a sharp sting of emotion. More straightforwardly entertaining was Aki Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk. You’ve seen the story’s premise before, both in film noir (femme fatale dooms hero) and in other Kaurismaki films (loser comes stubbornly back for more trouble, and gets it). But it’s as usual filmed in a laconic, Bressonian way, and we get another Kaurismaki protagonist who is blank-faced, obstinate, more than a bit thick, and, despite everything, quixotic.

Still, Asian films have come first for me, as for many others here. Why? The evidence is clear: Since the 1980s, movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Mainland China, South Korea, and more recently Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have offered an almost unrivaled range of accomplishment. (Want names? Tsui Hark, John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Kitano Takeshi, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Jia Zhang-ke, and on and on.) The energy hasn’t flagged, and Vancouver has been in the forefront of supporting this tidal wave of talent. Tony Rayns’ brilliant programming has set an international standard, and the festival’s Dragons and Tigers competition for first features have brought many young filmmakers to world attention.

So herewith some more outstanding Asian revelations from my final Vancouver days:

Hana: Kore-eda keeps surprising us; each film is quite different from the one before. In a downtrodden neighborhood of Edo (the old name for Tokyo), people live in mud and dung, struggling to get by. Some of the loyal 47 ronin wait impatiently to avenge their executed lord, while a young man hangs around trying to find his father’s killer. But the fact that the youth is a fairly inept warrior tips you off to the essentially comic vision underlying this warm movie. Add in a bully who isn’t actually a bad guy and a gallery of low-life neighborhood types, who pass the time rehearsing a play that unwittingly satirizes the samurai ethos. The result is a film that probes the righteousness of vengeance with tact and vulgar humor. Everybody I know wanted to see this again, right away.

My Scary Girl (Korea): The Trouble with Harry meets The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. Dae-Woo has never had a date, but he decides to start with his cute neighbor. He doesn’t know that she’s a Woman with a Past, not to mention a fairly worrisome Present and an ominous Future. Romantic comedy shifts to black comedy, and bowling pins mix with lopped-off fingers. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and Hollywood will probably rush to remake it. But will an American director have the guts to keep the very logical but not wholly happy ending?

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone: Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has provocative ideas and burnished imagery, but sometimes I’ve thought he’s too clever by half. This movie, his first in his native Malaysia, won me over because it seems to play to all his strengths. Four people intersect around, under, and on a mattress, with an extra character as a kind of comatose sentinel. Tsai’s gorgeous imagery isn’t just pretty for its own sake. Like Tati, he can design compositions which are actually funny, and his long takes give us time to probe the textures and crannies of staircases, a building site, and ordinary streets. The film’s last shot is alone worth the price of admission.

No Mercy for the Rude (Korea): This time the hitman is a mute (or is he?) vowing to kill only the really bad people, and hoping to accumulate enough pay to afford an operation on his “short tongue.” He falls in with a street kid and a hooker, and as the seriocimic plot unfolds we get the very Asian insistence that childhood innocence can be recovered even in the midst of carnage. The film indulges in some flights of fancy—a hitman’s picnic, a hitman who’s a ballet dancer—before coming to its satisfying end in, of all places, a bullring.

Faceless Things: Warnings about gay sadomasochism to the contrary, this doesn’t offer much you can’t see in Warhol or Waters. What it does provide is three shots. The first, nearly 45 minutes long, provides virtually a one-act play about a motel tryst between a businessman and his teenage lover. The second shot shifts us to an anonymous sexual encounter that is admittedly fairly off-putting, but handled with the mix of casual framing and off-kilter suspense we find in, again, Warhol. The very last shot is very brief and puts the other two into a new context. Director Kim Kyong-Mook is only in his early twenties, but his ambition and daring make him a filmmaker to watch.

My last night has come all too soon. So just to make sure that the Europeans are still at work, I’ll check on the French cop movie Le Petit Lieutenant. I’ll end with another Dragons and Tigers entry, the Taiwanese movie Do Over.

Maybe a Chinese dinner afterward. Film isn’t the only thing that Asians do well.

Movies that restore your faith in cinema, and audiences

David from Vancouver:

One of the pleasures of film festivals is the enthusiasm you pick up from the audiences. Queueing for a screening, you can talk with people about what they’ve seen or expect to see. This festival is so popular locally that some viewers take a week or two off work. Then sitting in the theatre and waiting for the show to start, you hear fascinating conversations. Last night, a young Taiwanese man (Frank) and a young Korean woman (Yuri) were sitting behind me and talked about what they were looking forward to, what they’d seen on DVD, how they came to Canada, and so on. Their love of cinema shone through plainly; somebody should make a movie about their lives.

People have every reason to be fired up about this festival. After five days here, I’m awash in fine movies. Besides the ones I’ve already noted, here are some standouts:

Opera Jawa: An ambitious reworking of an episode from the Ramayana, full of splendid imagery—everything from elaborate dance numbers to sudden appearances of shadow puppets. The soundtrack is equally lush, with gamelan mixing with more pop-flavored melodies, and the classic tale is intercut with current political struggles.

Monkey Warfare: A clear-eyed study of baby boomers stuck in late midlife, recalling their 1960s activism with both pride and guilt. It’s tough to make a movie with only three principal characters, but Reg Harkema pulls it off, blending comedy and drama and throwing in enough neo-Godardian flourishes to keep you off-balance. A very funny post-credits sequence. (But don’t Molotov cocktails also contain sand?)

The Magic Mirror: I tend to like about half of Manoel de Oliveira’s works, and I thought during the first forty-five minutes that this wouldn’t be one of them. Of course everything was filmed with his quiet majesty. (Advocates of the “clean image” furnished by HD should study what O’s films can squeeze out of Eastman stock: his etched, enameled images make every texture pop out at you.) But the early scenes feature rather repetitive dialogues about a wealthy woman who hopes to be granted a vision of the Virgin. I couldn’t see where all this was going and suspected that I was in the presence of what my friend J. J. Murphy, borrowing from Manny Farber, calls elephant art.

So I was squirming until a forger enters the scene with a plan to stage a vision for Mme Elfreda. Things get stranger and more elliptical, moving toward luminous glimpses of her final journey to Venice and Jerusalem. By the end I was completely won over by this grave, wise film. Now I have to go back and watch the beginning to see what I missed. You have to take these things on trust, especially from a director who’s lived nearly a hundred years.

Big Bang Love—Juvenile A: I’m not a big admirer of Miike Takeshi’s films, but I liked this better than most. Very stylized treatment of a young bully’s death in prison, with startling images and passages of brilliant cutting, and a landscape that haunts you. (Let’s just mention the pyramids and the rocket ship.)

Syndromes and a Century: A teasing, mesmerizing string of situations involving two doctors in a Thai hospital. Shot largely in long, distant takes, the film works out variations in its conversations among doctors, patients (including two Buddhist monks) and their lovers. Plot lines are sketched without being consummated, and the viewer is coaxed into imagining different futures for the people who drift into our ken. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, maker of Mysterious Object at Noon and Tropical Malady, has emerged as the major Thai director with his enigmatic and engrossing films. For those of you in the Midwest, take pride: He studied at the Film School of Chicago’s Art Institute.

Still Life: Jia Zhangke’s newest feature, crowned at Venice, has immediately become my favorite of his works. The city of Fengjie, being slowly demolished before it will be flooded by the immense Three Gorges Dam, becomes as vivid a presence as the theme park in The World. Day laborers take shelter in collapsing buildings, and prostitutes ply their trade in rooms with only three walls. One worker has come to town looking for his ex-wife; a woman has come from Shanghai seeking to divorce her husband.

The parallels aren’t forced, and the two stories are integrated by one of the most daring visual surprises I’ve seen in recent cinema. The stories are intimate, built out of small-scale encounters and daily routines, but they feel oddly epic too, as the hollowed-out city crumbles around the characters. In fewer than two hundred shots, many of them gliding along surfaces and faces, Jia presents a vision of humans obstinately seeking a better life. Shot on HD and projected on video, Still Life proves that digital filmmaking can evoke both thumping immediacy and poetic abstraction. (Keep your eye on the backgrounds.) It’s been acquired for Canada: What stateside distributor will pick it up?

How to make a good genre movie, and/or do something different

David from Vancouver:

Why doesn’t Hollywood just outsource its genres to Asia? Keep making The Da Vinci Code and Capote, the presold blockbusters and the prestige indies, but leave the rest to people who know what they’re doing. Give the urban action movie to Johnnie To, Kitano Takeshi, and others who haven’t forgotten the furious intensity of White Heat or the ominous solemnity of The Godfather. Let the Koreans and the Japanese take over romantic comedy and the weepies. And as for horror–well, Hollywood’s remake machine acknowledges that more or less everybody does horror better than America.

Maybe people are finally getting it. The most celebrated director in the US has to get his career back on track with The Departed, the first Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong film (Infernal Affairs). Although Scorsese evidently claims he never saw the original (must be the only film he hasn’t seen), the point is clear. With the exception of smarty-pants B films (Torque, Running Scared, Crank), which are all good dirty fun, Hollywood genres have been severely blandified. Asian filmmakers, from India to Malaysia, have understood our genres better than we have, and they have given them a new visceral force and emotional edge.

Two cases in point from yesterday’s Vancouver Film Festival. Nishikawa Miwa’s Sway centers on two brothers, both involved in a mysterious death in a picturesque gorge. But how did it happen, and what effect will it have on the men? The film moves suspensefully from investigation to confession to trial and punishment, but at every step each character’s motives are questioned. Superbly plotted, Sway creates an unforgettable character in the apparently cheerful gas-station attendant Minoru, a man who harbors unexpected depths of anger and self-abasement. No American movie would have dared to give him such a rich array of contradictory traits, and right up to the last shot we are left to question what he did, and what he will do next. Classic Hollywood directors understood that genres could be tools for probing personality (Ford in My Darling Clementine, Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings, Hitchcock in practically anything). Nishikawa’s thriller is on that path as well.

Or take Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, the monster movie that has jammed eager audiences into three screenings in Vancouver. It is, as Tony Rayns mentioned in his introduction to yesterday’s matinee, one of the most popular movies in the world right now. It achieves its strength from its sheer mastery of genre storytelling. Dysfunctional family–> monster attacks–> family fights back: No surprise at this level of plotting, but Bong displays his sure knowledge of classical construction throughout. We get a trim four-part structure, and everything that will pay off at the climax is carefully planted in the opening scenes. Pointed criticism of American indifference to people overseas and sly pokes at Korean bureacracy are smoothly integrated into the action.

Bong makes clever use of props as motifs (watch out for those beer cans), and characters are at once funny and sympathetic. The alternation of humor, even gross bits, and shock is finely timed. On top of all these pleasures we get a remarkable monster, endowed with an athletic grace and fluency far from the lumbering Godzilla. Most important, Bong dares to make us grieve. Without giving too much away: contrast his film’s climax with the end of Spielberg’s (admittedly, pretty good) War of the Worlds, in which even those whining children are allowed to survive. The Host deserves all the praise it’s earned, and it marks another landmark in Korean cinema.

It’s an odd experience to watch Sway and The Host with hundreds of people sitting in breathless attention–no cellphone buzzes, no chatter, just the power of compelling storytelling. Just as spellbinding, though in a different register, was Ho Yuhang’s Rain Dogs. A coming-of-age story about a young man’s difficult relations with his family in rural Malaysia, it was exquisitely filmed, in a sort of Bresson-meets-Hou style. Lyrical landscapes and details of village life are punctuated by bursts of violence, and Ho’s elliptical approach to storytelling (delaying information about what is actually going on in people’s minds) is no less engrossing than genre work. We get a psychology-based uncertainty akin to that in Sway, but without the mystery plot to pull us through.

Rain Dogs joins an international tradition, that of Satayajit Ray and the Neorealists and “art cinema” more generally, but it’s been rethought in very local terms. In all, it’s another, equally valid, approach to storytelling. Interestingly, Ho (admirer of The Asphalt Jungle, Jim Thompson, and Robert Aldrich) says that his next project will be a crime movie. Maybe Scorsese will remake it.

David Bordwell
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