Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky | 1hr 42min

As monstrous as drug addiction is in Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky does not simply confine the film’s horror to the violent psychological, physical, and emotion effects substance abuse wreaks on human minds and bodies. For each of our four interconnected main characters, there is a sharp, sudden decline they all experience in the final act, turning them from barely functioning members of society to broken victims dismissed as junkies, whores, delinquents, and lunatics. The drug trade of this cinematic fever dream is simply one arm of a rigid class system used to placate those who grow too restless in their station, ensuring that any ‘cheating’ attempts at upwards social mobility only push them further in the opposite direction. In this downward spiral, Aronofsky’s kinetic style alternates between short, jerky rhythms and languid, groggy movements, absorbing us into a nightmare of purely disorientating maximalism that degrades every facet of its characters’ humanity.

It is a skilful hand that Aronofsky wields over his four threads of steadily diverging plotlines, locating them all in a web of social relationships destined to be ripped apart. At the point that we meet these characters, the deterioration has already been set in motion, with split screens dividing widowed Sara Goldfarb from her drug-addicted son, Harry, who has taken to pawning her possessions for money. Between him, his girlfriend Marion, and his friend Tyrone, the three earn a small profit through dealing heroin, looking to fulfil their grand ambitions, or in the case of Tyrone, simply escaping from the ghetto. For Sara, success manifests not as financial wealth, but in the glamour of fame and beauty, and an invitation to appear on her favourite, mind-numbingly tacky game show ‘Juice by Tappy’ is the shove she needs to start losing weight with help of prescribed amphetamines.

Split screens serve to divide characters and our focus, creating a chaotic sort of energy that makes each character feel totally alone.

Aronofsky is economical with his social commentary, rejecting the sort of didactic expositing that a weaker filmmaker might have opted for, and instead embodying his critiques of the American Dream within the very fabric of characters who operate on either sides of the legal fence, and who are variably disadvantaged by some intersection of class, gender, age, and race. More than being some anthropological or ethical lecture, Requiem from a Dream is a panic-inducing trip, clouding our long-term vision of these characters’ arcs by over-sensitising us to the immediate impacts of each high. Every time heroin is injected, cocaine is snorted, or pills are swallowed, short, rhythmic montages deliver swift barrages of disturbing close-ups against black backgrounds, manifesting as a dark precursor to the rapid editing style Edgar Wright would trademark a few years later with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Paired with these fleeting images are equally brief sound effects that amplify the volume of every movement a hundredfold, turning dilating pupils into rising electronic tones and rushing bloodstreams into intimate sighs, intoxicating us with pulsing, sensory overloads.

These rapid-fire montages are a great kinetic strength of Requiem for a Dream, breaking up scenes with sudden bursts of adrenaline set against dark backgrounds.

These mini-montages rarely last for more than a few seconds each, and yet they are ridden all through Requiem for a Dream, at times landing like punctuation marks in the middle of scenes. Each of these are imbued with great power, pivoting entire emotional journeys on the cathartic relief they provide. Harry’s emotional breakdown in the back of a taxi is easily forgotten in one scene when a quick flash of an injection wipes the anguish from his face in the very next shot, and Aronofsky goes on to extend this editing motif to the compulsive rush that Sara gets while watching her favourite television show. These fixes bring about feelings of elation for each character in their own way, turning jittery camera movements into dreamy glides circling dazed characters in overhead shots, divorced from any gravitational orientation.

The camera circles above its characters in a daze, with both the staging and movements divorcing us from any spatial orientation.
Punctuating a scene with a mini-montage, wiping Leto’s face clean of pain and misery.

As the hallucinations of Aronofsky’s characters intensify, so too does his agitated visual style, slapping us with fish-eye lenses, time-lapse footage, reverse point-of-view tracking shots, and even one sequence that sees Sara experience the world in fast-motion while she can only speak in slow-motion. Time moves irregularly around these characters, and each member of the cast does remarkably well to keep up with Aronofsky’s deliberate erratic pacing, though it is especially in Ellen Burstyn’s upsetting descent into insanity that we pitifully regret the debasement of something innocent. The doctor who prescribes her medication is little more than a state-sanctioned drug dealer, caring so little for her that he doesn’t even make eye contact with his patients, and resolving to simply give pills to whoever asks for them. As the oldest of the four characters, Sara is the one who lives deepest in a pit of fragile insecurity, and it is hard not to feel an ache of sorrow for Burstyn as she delivers a monologue on the cheap, shallow joy these new drugs have brought her.

“I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right.”

A Gilliam style close-up with the fish-eye lens distorting Burstyn’s face. Ahile she moves in groggy slow-motion, everything else moves in fast-motion.
Reverse POV tracking shots attaching to these characters as they wander around in shame and confusion.
Time-lapse photography blended with clocks, distorting time to raise these characters up to great highs and then bring them crashing down.

As despairingly delusional as Aronofsky’s characters have been up to this point, it isn’t until the final act that Requiem for a Dream fully sweeps us away on waves of surreal hopelessness, aggressively intercutting between each narrative thread driving towards what might as well be their graves. When Sara isn’t imagining television stars in her house or a monstrous fridge lurching towards her, she performs to her own mirror, with long dissolves melding several close-ups into a single deranged fantasy. Out in public, she draws pity and disdain from strangers as she raves maddeningly to herself, while elsewhere her son repulsively shoots up into an infected hole on his arm. When he and Tyrone are arrested, it is no surprise that it is the latter who is met with the full force of the law, being from a Black ghetto in New York, leaving Marion to fend for herself as a prostitute.

Long dissolves consuming Sara in her hazy dream.
The editing in the last act is just incredible – match cuts and parallel editing moving us between each storyline by drawing comparisons in the visuals.

In a psychiatric ward, Sara undergoes agonising electroconvulsive therapy, and the hallucination of winning the television game show no longer seems to be just a side effect of her mental illness, as it also becomes an escape from her ugly reality. While she pictures the future she always wanted for her and Harry, she remains unaware that he is lying in a hospital elsewhere, getting his gangrenous arm amputated. Match cuts aggressively flow from one character to the next, with a close-up of a feeding tube being shoved into Sara’s mouth leading into Marion applying lipstick, and the torches that shine brightly on her vulnerable body at a sex party becoming hospital pen lights beaming invasively into the camera’s lens.

Loud, daring filmmaking, as Aronofsky’s camera vibrates like static along with Tyrone’s scream.
Four fates tugging this small ensemble apart even as they all engaged in similar activities, and Aronofsky keeps up the devastating energy in cutting between these close-ups.

As each addict grows further apart, their stories intertwine even closer, and Aronofsky orchestrates his parallel editing to the agitated pulse of the titular requiem, with its strings and vocal chanting moving in circular rhythms like an angry, endless nightmare. Unlike traditional requiems which peacefully commemorate the souls of the deceased though, Clint Mansell’s score intensely evokes that mortal terror that immediately precedes death – or at least, the end of a life worth living. Within a mental health facility, a prison, a hospital, and a brothel, each character curls up into lonely fetal positions, lying in their final resting places. As Requiem for a Dream approaches its devastating climax in the final seconds, Aronofsky pessimistically conjures up a set of tragic fates worse than physical death, obliterating the souls of people who could see no other path to success in America than by transcending their biological limitations through destructive, mind and body altering substances.

The final shots of the film, each character curling up in beds as if in their graves, never to return to society.

Requiem for a Dream is currently streaming on Netflix and Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang | 2hr 53min

While three generations of the Jian family live in a comfortable home in Taipei, each dealing with personal issues that vary in relative significance, Edward Yang never condescends to any of them so much that they are made to appear less serious than others. They are bound by all the big events that any middle-class Taiwanese family goes through – weddings, christenings, funerals – but while these occasions lay the foundation of Yang’s formal structure, much of Yi Yi is spent chasing the stories that lie between them, separating husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters into their own lonely worlds. Whether these characters are wandering a pier on a business trip or gazing out windows through reflections of city lights, we remain fully engrossed in those long, static takes that let them move at their own pace, contemplating decisions that could mean the difference between life and death, or maybe just love and loneliness.

Shots of aching loneliness, most frequently portrayed in static long shots, though occasionally letting characters approach the camera in mid-shots, separating them from their backgrounds.

It is more in the scope of Yi Yi than its scale that Yang builds it out into a stirring domestic epic, drawing on the dominant influence of Yasujiro Ozu in both his thematic focus on familial relations and his painstakingly detailed mise-en-scène, shooting through doorways and windows to create the sort of framed compositions so reminiscent of the Japanese auteur. When the elderly matriarch of the family falls into a coma early on, a mournful gloom settles over the entire household, but it seems to be the women who are most affected. Her grown daughter, Min-Min, begins to wrestle with her faith, leaving for a Buddhist retreat to heal alone.

Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Ting-Ting, bears the weight of her heavy conscience – she was the one who was meant to take out the trash that her grandmother ultimately took care of when she unexpectedly collapsed. The side angle with which Yang shoots the entry into her bedroom where she lies unconscious drastically narrows the opening to a mere sliver, so that whenever Ting-Ting or any other character goes to visit their ailing loved one, they are visually squeezed out of the composition by the masses of negative space that lie on either side. There are many frames to be found in Yi Yi that purposefully isolate characters within their stifling environments, but few so suffocatingly oppressive as this.

A razor-thin frame slicing right through the centre of the shot, opening up into the grandmother’s room where she lays comatose.
Seclusion and despondency felt across all generation in Yi Yi, and depicted affectingly here overwhelming a classroom of children, visually split between frames in the mise-en-scène.
Interior walls and architecture captured like Antonioni here, dominating the middle of shot with negative space while characters are blocked off to the side in the background.

This isn’t to say that Min Min’s husband, NJ, or their son, Yang-Yang, aren’t grieving in their own way though. Unlike his sister, the young boy does not find comfort in speaking to his comatose grandmother, and instead turns to a camera he has received as gift. In it lies the potential to capture a range of perspectives beyond his own, which becomes a source of intrigue for him. In a delightfully amusing conversation between him and his father, he enigmatically asks “Can we only know half the truth?” When prodded further, he explains.

“I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half the truth, right?”

The photos he later snaps of the back of people’s heads are justified by a similar line of reasoning. It is a point of view that everyone else in the world can have of us, except ourselves, and expanding the boundaries of our horizon in such a way is a mission that is quite unique to visual arts, whether through photography or, in the case of Yang, cinema. When the communication barrier is finally broken between grandson and grandmother, he confesses his own belief in her wisdom, which inspired him to chase this ability he has so passionately sought after.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you. I think all the stuff I could tell you… you must already know.”

Old and young generations sharing a wisdom that others lack.

Like the rest of his family, NJ also feels a crushing loneliness that seeps beyond his home life and into his professional work. His chance reunion with his first love, Sherry, leads to another meeting further down the line. As she follows him on a business trip to Tokyo, Yang’s camera drifts down the busy streets where city lights and office buildings glow an unnatural green colour, distinguished from the deep reds and soft pinks associated with the scenes in Taipei. What the two cities do have in common is Yang’s ever-present use of city lights bouncing off windows, whether we are looking in at corporate desks obscured by the reflections of car headlights, or gazing out at busy urban streets that clash with the mirrored glare of bright offices. Behind these harsh illuminations, members of the Jian family look like ghosts, only semi-present in images that blend interior and exterior worlds together in impressionistic renderings of an alienated modern world.

Green lights of Tokyo, far removed from the warm palette of Taipei.
City lights surround characters high up in office buildings and apartments, imprinted over their faces through the glass windows.

In scenes that see past betrayals and romances between NJ and Sherry brought to the surface in private, Yang cleverly intercuts the film with the blossoming romance of Ting-Ting and Fatty, the boyfriend of her neighbour, Lili. Between both couples we compare imperfect, incomplete affairs, both unable to fully commit to the socially transgressive nature of their relationships. Sherry’s suggestion that she leaves her American husband for NJ is less of a seduction and more a desperate deliberation, contemplating a life that might be better than the one she has, while Ting-Ting can’t quite shake off the guilt of knowing the heartache she will cause down the line should she submit to her impulsive feelings. Perhaps this is for the best though. Later in the film, we will discover a devastating culmination of twisted affairs that lie just outside Ting-Ting’s immediate view, and which she may have been embroiled in had she followed through on her attraction to Fatty. As it is, the segments that Yang keeps his main characters enclosed within are isolating but protective, holding them back from fully understanding the parallel trials of their neighbours and family members.

The lighting can’t be downplayed in immaculate compositions like these, letting the loneliness sink in.
Yang possesses real talent for shooting on location and drawing out the beauty of the urban scenery – the traffic post segmenting Ting-Ting from the rest of the shot, and the white umbrella that simultaneously draws our eye in her direction.

Despite the cold remoteness that draws dividing lines between characters and narrative threads, there is a warmth in Yang’s mise-en-scène drawn deeply through his production design in rich shades of red and pink. It emerges most prominently in the opening scene at the wedding of A-Di, Min-Min’s brother, where the family congregates in a function room draped in cherry curtains and lined with clusters of pink balloons. These colours continue to weave through the patterned carpets, tablecloths, and walls, where distinctly East Asian stylings ground these characters within specific cultural traditions and at a pivotal point in time before their experiences begin to branch out. Even when that separation does take place though, Yang’s distinguished red hues never fade, carrying through in the beautifully curated décor of the Jian family’s apartment building, bedrooms, and even in A-Di’s own home.

The Ozu comparisons are well earned, but Yang also has his own distinguished sense of warm colour palettes that defines Yi Yi.
Red is a dominant choice in Yi Yi, it is hard not to draw comparisons to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s own gorgeous work on Three Colours: Red.

Because even while these characters never quite come to fully grasp each other’s struggles, Yang does not see reason why this should keep them from holding back their desires and expressions of meaningful love. In a single, transcendent moment that breaks from reality and disappears into Ting-Ting’s fantasy, her grandmother awakens from her coma, and a scene of cathartic forgiveness takes place that releases the young woman from her guilt. Within one of Yang’s tightly framed compositions that forces his characters into the space of a single doorway, we which a family reunion unfold, though where this shot had previously served to segregate individuals, it now connects them under the mournful shadow of their grandmother’s death. Within the sound design, conversations and stories overlap in an Altmanesque manner, bridging the gaps in this tiny community.

One of many frames caught through a doorway in Yi Yi, though here the effect is unifying rather than isolating.

Yi Yi never quite settles on either side of that taut line dividing loneliness and company that it is drawn along though. Even in the final minutes as the Jian family grieves their loved one at her funeral, Yang ones again frames them as separate units, with the open windows visually splitting them up. On a broader level though, this oscillation is simply part of life’s cycles, just as much as the births, marriages, and deaths that the children, adolescents, and adults of Taiwan each experience through different lenses. Yang playfully suggests that the ability to adopt the perspectives of others is only limited to the youngest and oldest of this clan, but it is also evident in the very structure of Yi Yi’s multi-linear narrative threads that such tender open-mindedness is inherent within the film itself.

The funeral bringing the Jian family gatherings full circle, uniting and dividing them.

Yi Yi is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Steven Soderbergh | 2hr 10min

It takes more than a good actor to command the screen the way Julia Roberts does as Erin Brockovich’s titular beauty queen turned lawyer. This role could have only ever been pulled off by someone with the presence, charisma, and confidence of a true movie star, delivering whip-smart takedowns and monologues that simultaneously stretch credulity and inspire cheers. Steven Soderbergh may assert his own stylistic freedom every now and again, but there is no doubt that this biopic is primarily a showcase for Roberts, who is as profusely articulate as ever in her Oscar-winning role.

Brockovich herself is a cunning, self-aware character, fully understanding the ways in which her presentation can be used either against her or to her advantage. That she so effortlessly works her way into a job at a law firm with no prior experience already sets her up as a woman with a powerful authority, but as she follows a trail of real estate files and medical records, it is her shrewd mind which becomes her most admirable quality. In low-cut tops and heels, she drives out to the rural community of Hinkley where she puts on the act of a naïve secretary and charms local administrators into providing access to documents. Enemies are made along the way though, and even within her own firm she butts horns with co-workers who condemn her manipulative methods and abrasive personality.

Sparse as it is, Soderbergh does on occasion let through traces of his Alan J. Pakula influence, particularly in those low angles that captures rows upon rows of fluorescent lights lining the ceilings of offices and courtrooms, shedding a murky glow over his mustard yellow production design. The impact of these visuals is subtle but significant, casting Erin’s pursuit of truth in a dangerous light while remaining true to the era-specific décor, especially when she heads out to bars and city streets at night where green neon signs dimly illuminate her environment.

For the most part though, the menacing threat of Erin’s legal adversaries merely linger in the background. As a strong-willed woman in a profession that emphasises gender roles, she predominantly faces accusations within her own office of being emotional and erratic, as well making her work personal. From her perspective, she has every right to do so. Her holistic investment in her pursuit of truth and justice is both her greatest strength and flaw, and makes her passion all the more infectious and fascinating to watch. Together, Soderbergh and Roberts keep us in Erin Brockovich’s tight grip, and energetically drive the narrative towards its stirring, rewarding conclusion.

Erin Brockovich is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe | 2hr 2min

Almost Famous rolls along with all the thrust and exhilaration of a rock concert, as steeped in 70s pop culture as Cameron Crowe himself. Fifteen-year-old William Miller is his surrogate, and in his naïve, coming-of-age ventures following famous band Stillwater as a wannabe music journalist, we see traces of the director’s own origins. With such an autobiographical approach to the subject matter, a loosely structured flow between nostalgic hangouts, and hints of an existential, ever-encroaching adulthood, there is a great deal of Richard Linklater’s influence milling around this screenplay. In the examinations of fame and celebrity ridden through Almost Famous though there is a star power that Linklater has always rejected, and which Crowe fully embraces in drawing lines between past and present representations of pop culture.

Patrick Fugit as William may be the biggest unknown here, and even as the lead there is little he can do to stand up against the big names listed alongside his in the opening credits. Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman steal scenes in their supporting roles, and in smaller parts Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Baruchel, and Fairuza Balk also make memorable appearances, each putting a charismatic shine on the glamourous lifestyle that lies far beyond William’s home. Carrying him through on a swell of sincere compassion and love though is a radiant Kate Hudson, playing a fictional take on socialite Pennie Lane – a self-proclaimed “band aid” who follows bands for the music, thus differentiating herself from groupies who are there for the sex.

William’s loneliness seeping through the imagery, though often paired with a whole-hearted dedication to his work.

About as prolific as Crowe’s cast is his boisterous rock soundtrack featuring virtually every 70s pop icon under the sun from The Who to Simon & Garfunkel, and additionally becoming the cornerstone of scenes that let the cast become part of the playlist. One joyous bus ride takes off with a singalong to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and even beyond those instantly recognisable classics, Nancy Wilson contributes original tracks ‘Fever Dog’ and ‘Lucky Trumble’ to further carve out this fictional corner of the culture inhabited by Stillwater and their fans. Crowe’s pacing surfs along on these songs like waves, only ever pausing long enough to contemplate the disappointment, heartbreak, and danger of the industry before wholeheartedly leaping back in.

A bus singalong to ‘Tiny Dancer’ a musical highlight of the film, and realising what he’s got Crowe brings the song back at the end of the film.

This seems to be the cycle experienced by musicians and fans alike, and despite the warnings from older journalists not to consider these people friends, William still finds himself by Stillwater’s side, riding their highs and lows. The way this lifestyle is depicted almost seems like a drug addiction at times – right from the moment he first drops the needle on a record his sister gave him when he was 11, Crowe fades the scene into a series of long dissolves of the vinyl, the cover, and his ecstatic face, looking as if he has been transported into an entirely new world.

Music records sweeping a young William away, self-discovery rendered via long dissolves.

With such potency in Crowe’s characterisations and soundtrack, it is not hard to understand the concerns of Elaine, William’s mother, played by McDormand as a sympathetic hard-ass. This is the time of her son’s life that he is most impressionable, and the worry lines that crease her brow appear permanently etched into her face. When she overhears a girl on the other end of the phone talking about hydroponic pot and later asking if William wants to see her feed a mouse to her snake, we can easily forgive those times that she comes off as unreasonable. The comedy lands brilliantly in this screenplay, but beneath it all Crowe maintains a layer of drama, rooting his adolescent protagonist to his unshakable core relationships.

A sympathetic performance from Frances McDormand, crushed by her worry for her son.
City hopping all through the film, from San Francisco to New York City.

At times, this light brush of comedy only barely conceals the industry’s deeply entrenched misogyny and objectification of women, consistently drawing out the tragic undercurrent to Pennie’s character in scenes that see her gambled off or overdosing on quaaludes. Elsewhere, the repressed darkness of these characters is played for laughs when a cascade of grim secrets and confessions tumble out into the open on a plane that briefly appears to be crashing, before stabilising and forcing its passengers to sit in a painfully awkward silence. For Crowe, it is a skilful tonal balance that he conducts all through Almost Famous, propelling this narrative through its tensions, trials, and trans-American travels, and tying each set piece together into a nostalgic reflection on a musical era as joyfully uninhibited as it was potentially soul-destroying.

Almost Famous isn’t a highly stylised film, but Crowe does relish the natural light in these shots of the band bus travelling across the country.

Almost Famous is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.

The Headless Woman (2008)

Lucrecia Martel | 1hr 27min

Guilt and paranoia haunt every second of Vero’s waking life. From the moment she hits something with her car on a rural road in Argentina, her mental state starts to slip away. As she drives off, we see a dog lying dead, and we might be sure that is all there is to it. For her, it’s not. Her suspicion that it was in fact a person who she killed is only exacerbated by the recovery of a young boy’s body from a nearby canal, while all around her friends and family try to soothe her concerns. Soon enough, we start to doubt what we saw as well. Lucrecia Martel’s uneasy atmosphere doesn’t let up all through The Headless Woman, purposefully disorientating us from any firm understanding of Vero’s true actions, and leaving in its place a façade of bourgeoisie privilege that one can either expose and risk losing, or accept at face value.

Were this narrative to move in more conventional directions, it might have been a densely plotted mystery leading towards some grand reveal towards its conclusion. But here, no one present is properly invested in understanding the truth of Vero’s accident, and as such the answers we naturally gravitate towards seem impossible to grasp. There is something of Michael Haneke’s cold, detached style of open-ended storytelling here, especially when considering Martel’s social critique of those wealthy European citizens who wilfully ignore the presence of lower-class troubles which they are largely responsible for. It is as if two entirely different worlds live side-by-side in Vero’s everyday life, divided by economic disparity, social status, and skin colour, and invisible to each other on every level.

It isn’t very often that Martel reveals a setting in great detail, instead choosing to obstruct shots like these to keep us disorientated.

Even if it was simply a dog that Vero ran over and even if the boy did die under unrelated circumstances, there still lies a cold horror in the way her husband appears to cover her tracks. Martel is sure to deliver these narrative progressions as sly understatements, almost like passing thoughts that one must not dwell on for too long. They often go unchallenged by Vero too, who is largely unable to communicate her thoughts beyond bewildered silences and short, uncertain responses. Maria Onetto often feels barely present in this role, moving like a wispy ghost afraid to affect the world more than she already has. All it takes are some hands over her eyes and a whispered “Guess who?” to trigger an extreme panic, and in that instant she seems as if she is ready to face her own death.

Martel using her mise-en-scène to frequently cut Vero’s head and face out of the frame, as if hiding in shame and removing her mind from her immediate surroundings.

Martel rarely pulls her camera back far enough to remove us from the immediate vicinity of Onetto’s face, but when she does it is notable the number of times that she frames a shot to obscure the actress’ head from the composition, as the film’s title suggests. Elsewhere, we are held back from easy readings of facial expressions that are kept out of focus, turned at slight angles, or otherwise silhouetted against rain-glazed car windows, diminishing Vero’s presence within her surroundings. In choosing to shoot so frequently in close-ups while keeping us detached from faces, there is a tension woven into the film’s formal construction. Where the director is trying to push her camera in closer, her subject is actively hiding from its view, suffocating behind visual obstructions that keep us from fully grasping her mental state or the details of specific settings.

Keeping Vero’s face partially concealed is a strong formal choice from Martel, whether through the lighting or blocking. She catches a sly reflection in the bottom image as well, shooting Onetto like a ghost barely leaving a mark on its surroundings.

Despite the abundance of close-ups seeming distant from Haneke’s own characteristic wide shots, there is still something distinctly reminiscent of his icy style seeping through in Martel’s long, static takes, dispassionately observing the tortured subject upon whom her camera is fixed. Perhaps the most memorable is that which sits in Vero’s passenger seat when she first crashes her car, letting her shock and fear settle in real time across the scene. Just as memorable though is the final shot of the film, which very subtly tracks Vero’s movements through a crowded party. It remains unwavering in its intent, refusing to cut until she entirely disappears, absorbed back into the mass of middle class of men and women with whom she mingles.

With no resolution to her questions of guilt, there are few other options other than to live with the same blind privilege that upholds an entire class system built to preserve its own ignorance and wealth. The guilt that carries through The Headless Woman is as fleeting as the film itself, evaporating before it gets a chance to justify itself, but for the time that it does hang around in Vero’s life, it remains an exhausting, mortifying force of self-loathing.

A final shot that slowly pans around this party, following Vero as she disappears into the crowd of wealthy men and women.

The Headless Woman is not currently streaming in Australia.

The Yards (2000)

James Gray | 1hr 55min

Recently paroled gangster Leo Handler finds himself at a similar turning point in The Yards as the one which Michael Corleone faced many years before in The Godfather. The decision to either follow in the footsteps of the family business or turn against its patriarch is absolutely pivotal to both journeys, and one that James Gray chooses to examine even closer than his predecessor, Francis Ford Coppola. In placing the dilemma under intensive moral examination, a pervasive unpredictability underscores Gray’s dramatic tensions, constantly ready to tip over these family dynamics into full-blown antagonism. Even if The Yards is not a wholly original crime drama, it still retains a freshness in moving its study of classical corruption and redemption arcs in inverse yet complementary directions.

Perhaps in 2000, three years out from Boogie Nights, it might have seemed that Mark Wahlberg was destined for a career trajectory that would place him among the best actors of his generation. He is by no means weak here as the morally conflicted Leo, but within this well-rounded cast of established and newer talents, he is not afforded a lot of chances to dominate the screen. It is his young co-stars, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix, who often carry greater urgency in their performances, and Phoenix especially whose disintegrating integrity as Willie sets in motion some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.

An exciting early performance from a young Joaquin Phoenix, who would go on to collaborate with Gray several more times.

On the older end of the spectrum, it is surely no coincidence that Gray calls in James Caan from The Godfather to play the equivalent Marlon Brando role, bearing more than a striking resemblance to the Don with his thin moustache and slicked back hair. Frank Olchin heads this shady crime family from the dim light of his office which itself looks modelled off Vito Corleone’s, and in his close circle of confidantes Gray pulls in the talents of veteran actors Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn. It is almost as if Coppola acolyte himself is setting in motion a passing of the torch between older and younger generations of Hollywood stars, lending an even greater weight to the ensuing havoc wreaked upon cultural traditions.

Frank’s office and character very much styled off Vito Corleone from The Godfather, and played by none other than James Caan, Sonny Corleone.

It is fitting that we first meet Leo leaving prison on the same railway that his family exerts corrupt control over, heading towards a welcome home party where each key player is introduced one by one amid joyous celebrations. Gray lights this world with murky yellow and green lighting, not unlike that which David Fincher was innovating at the time with Seven and Fight Club, and the visual impact is tangible. Through hospitals, houses, and train yards, moral ambiguity dominates our characters’ journeys, wrapping them in an uneasy atmosphere crafted by their elders as if to test their loyalty and fortitude.

The train yard is a gorgeous set piece in its staging, lighting, and narrative power – the inciting incident upon which this story hinges.
Much like The Godfather, an attempted assassination taking place in a hospital, though here it is our protagonist setting out to kill.

As Leo and Willie travel along divergent paths from the inciting incident that sees them accidentally hospitalise one man and kill another while out on a vandalising job, The Yards grows progressively gloomier in its lighting, accompanying them with an ever-encroaching visual darkness. Guilt weighs heavy on both their consciences, and yet most of the blame lands squarely Leo. Perhaps this is partially what motivates him to seek some sort of redemption, while a relatively unscathed Willie submits to his angriest, most jealous impulses.

Superb dim lighting concealing pieces of the mise-en-scène, or otherwise forcing us to pick out key pieces of information. Visual comparisons can be drawn to the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness, on The Godfather, as well as David Fincher.

Ultimately, it is not just the actions of one man speaking the truth that brings down this crime family. It is just as much the reckless impulsivity of its own loyal children that sees them fall from glory. If Leo is who Michael could have been had he turned against the family, then The Yards might as well be an alternate proposition to The Godfather’s statement of generational decline. Whether it is by corrupting old traditions or bringing them down through the force of justice, the ties of family are not destined to last long in these modern worlds. At least in The Yards, the youth who survive retain some dignity.

Much like Coppola before him, Gray loves his long dissolves of faces over wide shots, making for slow, thoughtful scene transitions.

The Yards is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Reprise (2006)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 45min

To reprise a creative expression of some sort is to recreate it with the expectation of a similarly rapturous reception, though the reclaiming act that best friends Erik and Phillip attempt to carry out is merely based on some fantasy of success that exists in their minds. As the two aspiring writers sit on the precipice of submitting their manuscripts to publishers, their possible futures play out like novels, with an omniscient narrator framing them as protagonists in stories where personal struggles eventually give way to great literary achievements. Both lives rapidly flit by in a black-and-white collage of freeze frames, magazine articles, book covers, and maps, all while our narrator provides steady reassurance that everything will eventually work out for the two young men.

Reprise’s energy is built on its editing, opening with this playful black-and-white montage of Erik and Phillip’s hopeful futures. Split screens, moving photos, freeze frames – Trier is pulling out all the stops.

And yet, these dreams all rest on a conditional tense – they “would have” come true were it not for some vague, unspecified turn of fate. For Phillip, success is attained but short-lived, sending him to the top of the Norwegian literary scene before he comes crashing down in a psychotic episode. For Erik, failure is the motivation to keep revising his novel over and over until lightning hopefully strikes. Though their paths diverge, a mutual emotional support remains, lifting each other up through personal struggles so that their sparks of creativity may one day be recognised.

It is those energetic sparks which fizzle all through Reprise, tantalising us with vivacious editing that expresses a distinctly Truffautian sensibility, constantly leaping beyond the boundaries of the immediate narrative with playful cutaways and montages. One could even line the film up next to Jules and Jim and draw connections between both studies of bohemian male friendship, as well as the pair of women who dramatically shift their tight dynamics. Time moves fast for Erik and Phillip, but it also seems to fall away all together, distancing them from any arbitrary deadlines and allowing them instead to sit in the lively momentum of their youth.

Kari comes into Erik and Phillip’s friendship like Catherine does in Jules and Jim, inadvertently setting in motion Phillip’s breakdown.

These characters do not simply exist independent of Joachim Trier’s experimental stylings but are rather closely intertwined in formal unity. As one of Erik’s friends encourages him to break up with his girlfriend, Trier intercuts the scene with the leadup to the conversation itself, anxiously anticipating whatever emotional breakdown is about to take place. And then, just as Erik arrives at her door, we are suddenly sent flying into a shameful childhood flashback of a time he was mean to one of his school peers. Later, a side character returning home claims he is heading upstairs to read the Heidegger book he just bought, while a sneaky cutaway reveals the porn magazine in his bag. Such is the nature of Trier’s omniscient perspective that he is free to wander across this timeline at free will and poke into secret corners, examining his characters not as independent beings, but as subjects of their own stories.

The photography isn’t among the film’s strengths, but Trier takes the time to deliver these isolating character compositions.

Through this Brechtian lens, Trier pushes narrative developments which don’t so much unfold organically as they do by strokes of both good and bad fortune. It could very well be the same luck which saw Phillip initially succeed over Erik that also sees the latter unassumingly insult a disabled writer on a talk show, just one of many incidents stringing him along to failure. The comedy here is bitingly dry, though not without catharsis. Hope comes in the form of a miracle that would have almost been entirely unbelievable were it not for the sequence of mishaps which led to that point.

True to the form of the piece, Trier ends Reprise with another idealistic dream of the future, conjuring similarly happy prospects for both Erik and Phillip as those from the start. The subjectivity and elusiveness of success makes any real conclusivity difficult for men like these, who constantly strive for some idea of greatness that never stops changing. Trier empathises with them all too well, even with the distance he keeps. The novelistic qualities he embeds into Reprise seek not to ostracise the young creatives, but rather to understand them in the way they might ultimately one day write about themselves – with sensible hindsight, compassion, imagination, and a good, healthy dose of self-deprecating humour.

Conversations about love, literature, and success – a strong screenplay from Trier.

Reprise is currently streaming on Mubi.

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min

Even after we see the true violent colours of diner owner Tom Stall, we still might struggle to believe the truth. Gangster Joey Cusack is buried so deep in his consciousness that even he might consider it a dream of a past life, surfacing only when he finds himself in high pressure situations. But even when he isn’t taking lives, that viciousness is there. It explodes when Tom engages in violent sex with his wife, when he slaps his son, Jack, in a moment of anger, and then when Jack goes to school and savagely beats up his bully. A History of Violence does not aim for the same visceral disgust as previous David Cronenberg films, and yet in its psychological interrogations of humanity’s ravenous craving for self-destruction we still find traces of the director known for his body horror.

Visiting the sins of the father onto his children, passing on violence from one generation to the next.

It opens with a four-minute tracking shot along the outside of a motel where two thugs, Leland and William, eliminate its owners with chilling nonchalance. Thanks to Cronenberg’s reserved, distant camera, we barely even register it happening at first. Our discovery of the blood-streaked office plays out with equal detachment, treating the bodies as if they are simply part of the furniture. For Cronenberg, they might as well be. The title A History of Violence may refer to Tom’s hidden past, but it also holds implications regarding the merciless foundations of our very society, its brutal inclinations being passed from one generation to next like DNA. That is certainly the case when we see how easily Jack embraces force as means to solve his problems after seeing his father use it, but in the contentious relationship between Tom and his estranged brother, Richie, Cronenberg also calls back to the very first instance of violence record in the Bible – the murder of Abel by his own brother, Cain.

Opening with a four minute tracking shot along the outside of this motel. One of Cronenberg’s finest moments as a director.

Through this approach to allegorical storytelling, Cronenberg imbues his fascination with carnal flesh with spiritual significance. Joey describes his transformation into Tom as a process which took several years of his life, almost like Christ’s own self-exile into the desert. Later when he must make that change again, he kneels in front of a lake and washes himself in the water, as if performing a ritualistic baptism that will see him reborn again as meek, mild-mannered Tom.

Cronenberg keeping his camera detached from the violence in this frame.

Capturing these contradictory facets of a single man’s identity is no easy feat of acting, and yet watching Viggo Mortensen shift between both modes is like seeing a switch flip on and off, instinctually moving from passivity into fierce action. It is a duality that Cronenberg deftly builds into the form of his narrative as well, playing out submissive scenes of harassment, sex, and family time, before turning them on their head later by revealing the violent versions of each that Joey is far more familiar with.

Though the character of Richie Cusack has been built towards through the film, it isn’t until we meet him in the final act and witness William Hurt’s menacingly courteous portrayal that we fully understand the dark past that Joey has been trying to suppress. This is a man who represents every sin Joey has ever committed and tried to forget. Though Richie casually nicknames his brother “Bro-ham” he also delivers his dialogue with an unblinking, penetrating gaze, bringing to light Joey’s violence which, whether he likes it or not, has afforded him his own survival.

A pair of excellent performances – both Mortensen and Hurt are absolutely chilling as these brothers reuniting after many years.

The foundation of violence upon which Tom’s American Dream is built is not one that can easily be shied away from once it is exposed. Cronenberg skilfully stages A History of Violence’s final scene within a terse silence, bringing Tom back home to a wordless family dinner right after killing his brother. Whatever return to ordinary life he was hoping for seems preposterous now given its jarring contrast with what came immediately before. Life may return to some semblance of normality, but the shadow of violence is there to stay, hanging over a family that will very likely continue to keep visiting the sins of its father upon his children.

A masterful piece of direction to end the film, this silence stretching for several minutes as Tom reintegrates back into family life.

A History of Violence is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch | 2hr 27min

“No hay banda,” warns the emcee at Club Silencio. “There is no band.” Everything we hear there is an illusion, played as a tape recording while musicians and singers move their hands and mouths. It doesn’t really matter how many times we are told this, or in how many languages. Every time a new piece of music begins, we find ourselves entranced by the haunting melodies reverberating across the theatre, then equally caught off guard when the sounds persist even after their apparent sources are gone.

Most affecting of all in this scene is the heartrending cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish by one club performer, sung entirely acapella. In the audience, our two leading women, Betty and Rita, cling to each other with tears in their eyes, unable to look away. Though it is Rita whose amnesia has kept her character at a distance from us, Betty is just as much of an enigma in her façade of superficial idealism. Here though, there seems to be a break in their reality. What it is exactly we aren’t too sure, but there is a profound sorrow in both the music and their reactions to it, as if they are mourning the impending expiration of something beautiful and fleeting.

Rebekah del Rio singing “Llorando” at Club Silencio. This may be the emotional lynchpin of the film, and yet at this point we may not even fully understand the context yet.

It is a skilful layering of illusions on top of illusions that David Lynch conducts in Mulholland Drive, removing us from reality by several levels until all we are left with is some primal, psychological rendition. This is the true power of cinema, according to him. It is only by studying the worlds that exist inside our minds that we can get close to understanding those feelings we bury deep into our subconscious, including the guilt, hope, love, and anger which aspiring Hollywood actress Diane Selwyn has let fester into putrid resentment. Mulholland Drive can be explained quite simply as a dark and occasionally whimsical nightmare conjured up in the final minutes before her suicide, but to seek hard logic in Lynch’s reason and plotting would be to defeat its purpose. It excels simply as a surreal melting pot of impressionistic images that translate the literal to the symbolic, asserting that such figurative representations are no less “real” than the places they come from.

Lynch smothering Diane in a heavy fog in this foreboding composition as she dreams.

More specifically, Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s own interrogation of the Hollywood dream as an empty, corrupt promise, drawing heavy parallels to Billy Wilder’s similarly street-titled film Sunset Boulevard. In Diane Selwyn and Norma Desmond, we see two women drawn in by the glamour of the movie industry, only to be left devastated when they are thoughtlessly discarded in favour of other more desirable women, forcing them to retreat into dream worlds of fame and glory. There are two key differences between these films though. Firstly, Diane has never had a taste of what it is like to be riding high on praise and adoration, unlike Norma. Secondly, we are not looking in at Diane’s dream from the outside. Instead, Lynch sinks us deep into this absurd labyrinth for two hours before he pulls back the curtain to reveal its source in the final act.

When we do eventually reach that point, we may at first barely even realise that this is what he is doing. But then tiny formal connections begin to arise. In the Winkies diner we have seen several times before, Diane singles in on the waitresses’ nametag, “Betty”, in an almost identical shot to one earlier in the film when Betty notices the name “Diane”. A hitman who amusingly bungled a murder in a standalone dream episode appears once again, meeting with Diane. He carries the blue key that Rita mysteriously kept in her purse, and tells Diane that when the job is done he will pass it on to her as a secret indicator. At that moment, she makes eye contact with another man in the diner. We have seen him before too in an isolated nightmare, confronting a horrific monster that lives behind Winkies. “I hope to never see that face outside a dream,” he fearfully expresses. Those iniquitous thoughts which linger beneath the surface of our consciousness are better kept out of sight, though this is a luxury that Diane can no longer afford.

A jump scare for the ages – fully earned, and not overdone. The appearance of the creature behind Winkies is terrifying, both on a visceral level and for what it represents.

Such an intricate web of parallels across dreamscapes and waking life makes for a wonderful piece of abstract formalism in Mulholland Drive, and one that only lulls us deeper into its soporific grip through hazy, wistful editing that slyly bridges one idea to the next. Long dissolves erode any sense of clear definition between scene transitions, blending them together to find striking collages in those indistinct, liminal spaces. Arguably the most iconic use of this technique in film history can be found here, imprinting a shot of Betty reclining backwards against a low angle of palm trees reaching up to the sky, delivering an illusion of idyllic serenity. Elsewhere, Lynch’s match cuts land on action beats, momentarily dispensing with the dreamy ambience to sharply leap through a broken timeline of incomplete memories.

Jaw-dropping imagery crafted in these long dissolves, dreamily passing from one scene to the next.

The lack of defining boundaries in Mulholland Drive even extends to Lynch’s characterisations of all four main women – or at least, the two women whose identities are as malleable as anything else in Diane’s dream. In the material world, she and Camilla are a pair of ex-lovers looking for fame in Hollywood. Where Diane is struggling to be noticed, Camilla’s star is on the rise, thanks to her winning a role that she may or may not have rightfully deserved.

The construct that Diane builds in her mind from guilt and idealism might as well be some sort of regret-driven wish fulfillment, playing out a fantasy where both women can start afresh under new circumstances, though with a considerable power imbalance in her favour. Diane thus becomes Betty, a bright-eyed actress with genuine talent, and Camilla becomes Rita, an amnesiac taking her name from Golden Age Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. To muddy the waters even further, other characters named Diane and Camilla exist in this intangible nightmare, though only as vague representations – one as a corpse foreshadowing Diane’s eventual suicide, the other taking the appearance of Camilla’s current girlfriend, and stealing movie roles she never earned. With identity-swapping as purposefully confounding as this, drawing parallels to Persona is inevitable, especially when Lynch lines up the faces of both women to appear as two halves of a whole in a Bergman-esque composition.

Very much influenced by Bergman in the identity swapping, beautifully depicted in this blocking of faces.
Multiple mirrors creating the sense of layered illusions as Rita picks out a name for herself.
Secondary to Bergman are the Hitchcock parallels, with Betty modelling Rita into a blonde just as James Stewart does to Kim Novak in Vertigo.

It is a complex pair of performances that Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring put in here, as the pair of them come to represent both the glossy artifice and insidious darkness that underlies the American entertainment industry. The cheesy dubbing of their overdone line readings borders on unsettling, with both acting as if they are being forced into some conventional mystery movie about two girl detectives tracking down hidden truths about their pasts. Watts particularly shines as the duplicate versions of Diane, constantly breaking her identity up into pieces and choosing to play each as if they were individual characters. This also means that we are frequently taken unaware by sudden shifts in her performance, as we witness in the audition scene that sees her read badly written dialogue as a whispery, sensual seduction – an extreme contrast to the overwrought anger with she had previously rehearsed it.

A landmark performance for Naomi Watts playing several different versions of one woman, ranging from artificial to fully realistic.

Given the way Lynch often shoots Los Angeles like some sort of bizarre, alien environment crowded by towering palm trees, it isn’t hard to see why an outsider like Diane might psychologically disintegrate so easily. Though she imagines rooms cloaked with red curtains where nefarious men eavesdrop and pull strings, this is merely something to fill in the blank space of the unknown. In the grand scheme of things, they are nothing more than catalysts. The awful truth of Mulholland Drive’s existentialism rather comes from within, where Diane introspectively carves out new realities from the fragments of old ones, only to find herself arriving back at the same shame and self-loathing that she has tried so fruitlessly to escape.

Fog fills Lynch’s night-time exteriors, turning Los Angeles into an alien landscape of imposing palm trees and empty lots.

Mulholland Drive is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Hero (2002)

Yimou Zhang | 1hr 39min

There is a scene early on in Hero in which our Nameless swordsman confronts the first of three assassins, Long Sky, at a chess house. As the two square up, prepared to fight to the death, an elderly man sits in the background with his violin, restrung with the silk strings of a traditional Chinese sanxian. Through the following combat, he plucks and strums it with as careful a precision as those graceful manoeuvres the warriors in front of him so elegantly perform. Nameless’ reasoning for playing the combat out in such a manner is simple.

“Martial arts and music share the same principles. Both wrestle with complex chords and rare melodies.”

A black chess house sets the scene for the first martial arts sequence of the film, lightly imbued with the texture of dripping water from every roof.

These two schools of art are intertwined all through Hero in Tan Dun’s gorgeous score and Yimou Zhang’s deft choreography, but such refined virtuosity does not end there. Later we enter a calligraphy school where the two other assassins, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, have taken refuge, and where Sword in particular has spent many years of his life refining his craft in the sophisticated writing of Chinese characters. The undercurrent which runs beneath each of these skills is precision, grace, and beauty – the same ideals which Zhang infuses into the very fabric of Hero’s cinematic construction. After all, what is filmmaking if not an extension of those rich, artistic expressions of human achievement?

There is no overstatement in calling Hero one of the most breathtakingly handsome films of this century. Through Zhang’s meticulously detailed production design and staging, he crafts a legend of epic historical proportions framed entirely within one ancient Chinese swordsman’s meeting with the king of Qin. This is his reward for having killed three assassins who had previously made attempts on the monarch’s life, and within the palace’s cavernous great hall several stories unfold to explain how he accomplished this.

Symmetry in production design, camera angles, and quite impressively, the staging of thousands of extras. The definition of artistic perfectionism.

In recounting different variations of a single tale in Hero, Zhang adopts a Rashomon-like structure, keeping the truth of the matter elusive in favour of a more emotional appreciation of history. He also calls in Wong Kar-wai’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle, to bring his own expressive sensibilities to the cinematography, curating dark shades of grey and black within the king’s great hall and notably emphasising the keen symmetry of the magnificent set piece. Even more impressive though is his skilful use of specific colours schemes to define each narrative strand that unfolds here, saturating every inch of Hero’s painstaking mise-en-scène with vibrant visual expressions. It is through these that he also clues us into the specific brand of subjectivity that each unreliable narrator adopts.

Red defines our first flashback to the calligraphy house. In some of these shots, it is often harder to identify any piece of decor that doesn’t conform to this aesthetic.

Red is the chosen colour for the calligraphy house where Sword and Snow are hiding out in the first version, and where Nameless sets in motion a plan to turn them against each other. Both being past lovers, this tale burns with a fierce anger and passion, and in a later conflict between Snow and Sword’s pupil, Moon, their deep scarlet robes make sharp imprints against the yellow and orange leaves of the forest.

It is said that Zhang hand graded the colour of every leaf in this forest fight scene. The red against the yellow makes for a striking contrast, and the colour change at the end to let red take over the whole mise-en-scène is superb.

When the king realises the lie in Nameless’ story, he puts forth his own hypothetical, considering a circular room flooded with a soothing blue palette which sees Nameless working with, rather than against, the three assassins. Even as the swordsmen venture out into the desert, Zhang tints the sand and sky with a pale indigo, letting the mournful heartache of this story reach out across gorgeous Chinese landscapes.

Blue hues flooding the colours and sets, but even in these exterior landscapes Zhang tints the sand and dust with a pale indigo.

The complex politics in this version still sees Nameless go up against Sword in duel, though the conflict is driven far more by sorrow than it is by anger, as the two dance lightly across the top of a still blue lake, disturbed only by the ripples of their swords and feet skimming lightly across the surface of the water. Where other combat scenes in Hero are tightly edited, here Zhang luxuriates in long dissolves of Nameless and Sword’s faces lingering over picturesque wide shots of the scenery, savouring each second with gorgeous slow-motion photography.

One of the great stylistic set pieces in a film already full of them. The fight between Nameless and Sword atop a still, quiet lake luxuriates in long dissolves and picturesque scenery.

Finally, the truth comes out as Nameless takes hold of the story again, delivering a take as pure and honest as the white palette which permeates its aesthetic. The blue room we previously saw in the king’s tale is now a pale, bleached hue, and so too are the sands and sky, untainted by embellishments of subjectivity. And yet even within this flashback emotional bias cannot be escaped entirely as we hear one more historical account, this one from Sword. It was years ago that he faced up against the king in the same great hall Nameless is in now, though in his memory it is lined with large, billowing sheets, rippling a pale green around their duel. So too do we find the once-red calligraphy house cloaked in the same verdant colour that dominates the rest of his recount, within which we discover his turn to pacificism and reluctant support of the king as a means to achieve peace.

An almost identical shot to the one above, though here the set is entirely white – we are getting the honest, unbiased truth.
In this flashback contained within a flashback, we see a bit of Sword’s perspective, cloaked in green hues representing his desire for peace.

Rashomon is evidently not the only Akira Kurosawa influence at play in Hero though, as colour continues to play a part in Zhang’s staging of thousands of extras within magnificent battle scenes, evoking similarly epic sequences from Ran. It isn’t hard for any of our main characters to stand out among the military forces of Qin, whose black armour and red feather crests serve better to identify them as a single cohesive unit moving in tight formations than as individuals. Even as the king’s followers persuade him to execute against Nameless towards the end, they speak as a single chorus under the unified vision of China he is dedicated to advancing.

Establishing shots of colourful armies staged in tight formations echoes similar scenes in Ran.

As Zhang’s narrative winds towards its conclusion, questions around the ideals of a warrior begin to arise in Nameless’ quest. Determining what makes a hero is integral to the martial arts traditions he is so dedicated to honing, and as such, so too is it crucial to the formation of a culture that can thrive. Hero is dedicated to all those interpretations of history that have sought an answer to such questions, and through Zhang’s vibrantly colourful expressions we find the majestic value in each of them.

Hero is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.