Talk to Her (2002)

Pedro Almodóvar | 1hr 52min

In the first scene of Talk to Her, two men sit side-by-side watching a dance performance in a theatre. Up on stage, two women glide through the space like blind sleepwalkers, while another man hurriedly moves furniture out of their way so as not to disturb their chaotic paths. As the spectator on the right begins to weep, the one on the left silently glances over. At this point in their lives Marco and Benigno are strangers, though this is not the last time their paths will cross. After suffering two strikingly similar twists of fate, twin storylines begin to emerge and intertwine in reflections of the dance that first brought them together, and a friendship takes form over a commonality in their unusual expressions of love.

An opening mirrored in the ending, two lives tangentially crossing over.

There is no doubt something creepy about the way these men dote upon the two comatose women for whom they profess their love. But at times it is also endearingly sweet, as well as self-serving, and at one point morally repugnant – a mix of feelings as complex as the men themselves. Most interestingly, the emotionally expressive dynamics which Pedro Almodóvar typically reserves for his female characters take masculine form in Marco and Benigno, who continue to talk with and care for the targets of their affection. Marco is the more sympathetic figure between the two for several reasons, chief of all being the time Almodóvar spends in drawing out his relationship with his sweetheart, Lydia. Benigno is also prone to emotional sensitivity, but dangerously so, as his delusions around the love of an unconscious Alicia gradually consume his reality. Between the two, there is a thin line dividing love and obsession, and Almodóvar relishes every tiny formal parallel that binds them together.

This Spanish auteur is not one known for his subtlety, and indeed Talk to Her swells with broad strokes of saturated colours, like a Douglas Sirk melodrama with distinctly more flamboyantly transgressive sensibilities. Notions of rape, still birth, prison, and death play significant parts in this narrative, and although Almodóvar isn’t exactly undercutting the seriousness of his subject matter, these plot points always tend to be in service of the film’s expressions of sorrow and grief. Conversely, his bright décor builds out a world where life is still largely worth living in spite of it all, defined by its bold primary colours piercing through sumptuous, often symmetrical compositions. Even within the unusually green and yellow walls of the hospital, there is still a visual exuberance to be found that both complements these characters’ wild emotional journeys and effectively offsets the bleakness of their pain.

Such vivid inner lives spilling out into these beautifully expressive interiors.
It is not just Almodóvar’s colours that lift up this film, but the perfectly curated mise-en-scène in framing, dividing, and providing backdrops to characters. Every piece of decor is arranged with such purpose.

The unpredictable swings of these characters continue to emerge in the narrative’s numerous leaps through time, with titles letting us know we have flashed back “Four years earlier” or forwards “A month later.” The form of the piece is pushed even further in one section that seems to play out a metaphor of Benigno’s story writ large on silent film, though even this pastiche sequence still bears Almodóvar’s gaudy irreverence – a shrunken man crawling across the landscape of his lover’s naked body before slipping into her v****a, like a surreal, Bunuelian dream.

A silent film interlude allegorising Benigno’s emotional journey and undoing.

Almodóvar swings wildly across emotional extremes all through Talk to Her, but being the master of melodrama that he is, each moment remains under his careful control in its complex progression, right up until the final scene. There, we return the theatre from the opening with Marco, though this time it is a recovered Alicia he encounters rather than Benigno. Once again the interaction is tangential, though with both their counterparts missing, there is finally room for a sweet correspondence between them – a man and a woman with renewed abilities to respond to others, who are open to real connection, and are now ready to move on with their lives.

One of the film’s most gorgeous compositions, permanently dividing these characters in small, glass boxes, yet merging them into one with Marco’s faded reflection over Benigno.

Talk to Her is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher | 2hr 37min

While political cartoonist Robert Graysmith spends years digging into the details of the Zodiac murders across the west coast of 1960s and 70s America, we find David Fincher using Graysmith himself to conduct his own intensive examination of human obsession. How curious it is that the author of these accounts upon which this film is based becomes Fincher’s subject of scrutiny, his characteristic nuances and flaws often foregrounded over his book’s thrilling subject matter. While this true crime procedural moves at a steady, purposeful pace through all two and a half hours of its run time, leaving us to piece together loose tiles of an enigmatic puzzle with no fixed resolution, Graysmith is the real source of fascination at its centre, enslaved by his own compulsive desire for truth even as the world around him loses interest.

This fastidiousness is a trait echoed across both character and director, as Fincher similarly fixates on the details of the Zodiac killer investigation as a means to understand the mentality of Graysmith. The ambidexterity of one key suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, is hammered home as a potentially significant piece of evidence, as is his Zodiac branded wristwatch, and even when many of these details amount to little more than circumstantial, Fincher continues to remain glued to each new revelation. Just as Graysmith remains patient and willing to accept that such obsessiveness may not herald the answers or justice he desires, so too does Fincher revel in the journey of speculation and discovery, drawing narrative comparisons with All the President’s Men in his paranoid, fussy handling of this historical journalistic investigation.

Beyond his perfect plotting and pacing, Fincher finds these small moments to showcase some flourishes of editing, here transposing the words of the Zodiac killer over a montage as the murders dominate national news.

Patience and deep concentration are qualities built into the very fabric of this narrative, carrying us along in Graysmith’s compulsive drive while keeping us at enough of a remove to recognise how these same traits are echoed in the criminal he is so doggedly pursuing. Each time we hear the Zodiac killer speak, it is from a different voice so as to throw us off any distinct identity, though his personality emerges clearly in his eerie letters and phone calls speaking of a haunted, troubled mind, plagued by urges he cannot escape. Remarkable form in characterisation is thus drawn between hero and villain, two men who fall victim to their own psychological impulses, and at least one of whom loses everything because of it. Though Graysmith’s passion may have attracted his future wife on their first date, it also becomes the cause for the disintegration of their marriage. While his associates are driven to exhaustion and substance abuse over the investigation, he remains persistently focused. Over the years his apartment turns into a cluttered study of boxes and papers, and Fincher sends a haggard Jake Gyllenhaal running through rainy streets at night in desperation, tying Graysmith’s physicality and environment to his own restless, obstinate mentality.

Rows upon rows of fluorescent lights captured from low angles – a Wellesian influence in this otherwise Pakula-inspired procedural.
It isn’t just the newsroom. Fincher’s gorgeous yellow lighting is present all through Zodiac, particularly in Graysmith’s cluttered apartment-turned-study, forming a portrait of paranoia and obsession.

Such visual prowess continues to reveal itself in Fincher’s magnificent depth of field all throughout Zodiac, keeping every detail of this mustard-yellow period setting in crisp, sharp focus. Within the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, slightly lowered camera angles turn the rows of yellow fluorescent lights into distinctive backgrounds against which the mysteries of the Zodiac letters unfold, while the journalists themselves are blocked across layers of the frame. Fincher’s trademark yellow lighting makes an especially atmospheric impact here in its bright, clean radiance through corporate interiors, while shady homes, streets, and restaurants are dimly illuminated with soft amber glows, allowing an uncanny darkness to overtake scenes of paranoia and doubt.

Some of Fincher’s best direction of his a career is captured in this thrillingly tense sequence. One of the few scenes that uses shallow rather than deep focus, effectively isolating Graysmith. Also simply a perfect marriage of lighting, mise-en-scéne, editing, writing, and acting.

Calling Fincher a master of crafting tension may imply parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s own sadistic fascinations, and yet there is something a little more ethereal about the suspense present here in Zodiac. Without an identifiable figure to pin these crimes to, Fincher’s evil is far more impressionistic than it is tangible, emerging just as much through his dingy, uncertain atmosphere is it does through its narrative. Such obscurity is made all the more frustrating by the pinpoint precision with which he attacks his plotting, cinematography, and characterisation, leaving us to question the productivity of such relentless obsession over impossible mysteries – and whether turning that intense focus inwards to our own humanity might bear a more fruitful life.

A consistent aesthetic captured all throughout – this is Fincher’s specialty and he has rarely been stronger than he is here.

Zodiac is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 52min

Jia Zhangke almost completely crosses the boundary from neorealism into real life with 24 City, and then stops just before he commits entirely. For all intents and purposes, this is still indeed a documentary, as he draws on authentic stories and voices from those who once worked and lived at Factory 420, an airplane engine manufacturing facility that was also essentially its own self-contained city. But sprinkled in among his real subjects are actors playing scripted parts, which have been adapted and condensed from over 130 authentic interviews. It isn’t easy to tell who or what is completely real, but this experimental blend suggests a shift away from objectivity of the past, and into an uncertain, postmodern future, where luxurious, high-rise apartments displace tight-knit working communities.

Authentic interviews mixed in with scripted, blurring boundaries of what constitutes absolute truth.

Our proclivity to assume that much of what we hear is true is challenged by Jia’s clearly staged interludes, such as one security guard wandering around the abandoned premises and finding an exam registration paper of an earlier interview subject. These scenes are no less poignant for their lack of verisimilitude, as they rather feel like extensions of the stories that have already been presented. And besides, beyond all of these individual perspectives, the truth of the main narrative – the destruction of an entire lifestyle and city – is evident simply in the changes we witness in Jia’s shooting location. 

Clouds of dust form beneath collapsing structures, labourers who might have worked at this factory had they been born a generation earlier pull it apart, and yet Jia never stops finding the poetry in this derelict architecture. After we spend time wandering around the piles of rubble, wooden planks, and crumbling walls, Jia ruptures the peace with a stone smashing through a window. Several more then follow, this act of violence from unseen perpetrators sounding like rain coming to wash this historical artefact away.

Jia doesn’t skimp on the visuals even with this foray into documentary filmmaking.

Meanwhile, in recurring shots of the factory’s entrance gradually transformation over time, Jia grounds the form of 24 City in something identifiable from the public’s perspective. Though this development will have its own major impact on the future of Chengdu, it is still just a product of a larger culture moving in the same direction. As our final interview subject, a child of workers from Factory 420, breaks down in tears about her family’s displacement, she reveals that it has only driven her to pursue one important goal – to own a bit of the apartment block that will replace the factory. 

 “The thing I want most now is to make a lot of money. Lots and lots of money. I want to buy an apartment in 24 City for my parents.” 

No matter how much China moves forward with the times, there will always be people mourning something that was lost in the past. For younger generations, it may be their parents’ prospects, or perhaps their own. For Jia, it is tied to the land itself – something tangible that his ancestors proudly built, and yet which is now razed to the ground in the name of progress.

Solid form in these recurring shots of the factory’s transformation.

24 City is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon | 1hr 27min

While Hayao Miyazaki was leading the animation industry in the 1980s with his pantheistic, surrealist films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbour Totoro, Satoshi Kon was watching and learning, formulating his own style of surrealism that would soon place him among the great auteurs of animation. His visionary style of dreamlike absurdity is on brilliant display in Millennium Actress, though in his journey towards developing his own voice separate from Miyazaki’s, we witness him here picking at more existential questions regarding reality, fiction, and human purpose.

The documentary interview conceit of the film is simply a springboard for a magnificently collaged narrative that runs across several genres of Japanese cinema, as its subject, the elderly actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, recounts the story of her life. Or is it the story of the characters she has played? Such distinctions aren’t so easy to draw here, as these threads of truth and fiction interweave in a tapestry of history, touching on real events such as the Sino-Japanese war, and then forcing us to question the authenticity of this account as we follow her pursuit of an enigmatic artist through samurai stories, monster movies, period pieces, and science-fiction settings. Meanwhile, our documentarians – the fanatical interviewer Genya Tachibana and the confounded cameraman Kyoji Ida – remain present in the background, and although their slightly saturated colouring stands out in otherwise washed out flashbacks, their interactions with other characters inside these realms only further tests our belief in her objectivity.

Long dissolves used to create gorgeous imagery, as well as to bridge gaps between past and present, fiction and reality.

It is this demolishment of barriers between disparate historical accounts which Kon so joyously relishes in his narrative structure, particularly as it smoothly flows through time in match cuts dissolving between graphically corresponding shots, and edits in the action disguising crafty shifts in environments. In one scene we watch Chiyoko trip over as a samurai, but then as Kon cuts to the ground where she falls she suddenly becomes a geisha, this subtle transition taking place without so much as a pause for us to catch up. She has clearly lived many lives, as each role she plays ingrains itself in her own identity and drive to pursue a singular goal – to find the artist who gave her a mysterious key all those years ago, and who inspired her to become an actress. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain makes for a suitable comparison here in the deft weaving together of separate realities, especially as Millennium Actress approaches its finale and disintegrates Chiyoko’s reality around her in a skilfully orchestrated montage that sees her run through each setting she has vicariously lived in, obsessively searching across all time and space for the missing man.

Smooth, inspired match cuts between strikingly similar compositions.

And yet even as her memories and imagination expand across all human history, she still remains under the sway of a reality far beyond her control. The collapse of her internal worlds mirrors an earthquake taking place in real time, and just as she departs life having made peace with her lack of resolution in her quest, so too does she blast off in a rocket from a planet somewhere deep in space, confessing her gratefulness for the life she led.

“What I really loved was the pursuit of him.”

Even on her death bed, Chiyoko continues to live in her imagination.

Such is the nature of celebrity that hordes of fans will pursue a seemingly unattainable figure, but even within this idealised icon of fame, that yearning desire still exists. All throughout Millennium Actress there remains an endless craving for more love, more life, more answers, or at least something greater than oneself, and Kon never fails to match that ambition in his own audaciously experimental narrative structure, blending together eras, genres, and settings in a loving dedication to humanity’s never-ending striving for greatness, even as that goal remains beyond the reach of both reality and imagination.

Fading from this dark highway into a hospital corridor with another inspired match cut.
Kon proving he doesn’t need his editing to deliver some truly arresting compositions.

Millennium Actress is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

Still Life (2006)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 51min

An expansive concrete dam, a mossy green river, and a crumbling grey city – this is the setting for Jia Zhangke’s greatest cinematic experiment in neorealism since Platform, and its three-pronged geographic metaphor is absolutely devastating. At the start of Still Life, the village of Fengjie is already half-submerged in water, as the flow from the soon-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam has partially flooded the valley. But this project isn’t done yet, and in order to finish it off, everything else in its path must be torn down as well. 
 
The tension between China’s fading history and the nation’s relentless pursuit of economic development has always been a critical target for Jia, but his use of architecture to reflect that has rarely been so stirring and visceral as it is here. Unlike Platform, we aren’t just watching a gradual decay, but rather the violent actions of an ancient village’s own inhabitants bringing about an apocalyptic vision of modernity. The layering of shots is especially important here, as Jia will often foreground quiet interactions against magnificent backgrounds of vast, hollow structures, and then aggressively rupture that tranquillity by collapsing those buildings before our eyes. It is arresting imagery, if not a little terrifying, and the impact is only intensified when we move in closer to montages of the deconstruction crews fiercely hammering away, taking the city apart brick by brick.

Jia’s architecture has never been so impactful in its rapid disintegration, a city literally collapsing around our characters in gorgeous frames like this.

Just as impressive is Jia’s attention to the symmetrical, trifurcated narrative structure of Still Life, splitting the story of one man’s return to Fengjie to search for his long-lost wife into the first and third acts, and then paralleling that journey with a middle act which follows a woman’s search for her husband. Just like Wong Kar-wai’s mirrored narratives of Chungking Express, neither of these plotlines meet directly and yet they share crucial similarities – Han Sanming and Shen Hong are both coming from the Shanxi province, are confronted by the destruction of a city that their memories are intertwined with, and must grapple with uncertain relationships being repressed by social changes. Even more remarkably, both bear witness to the most bizarre breaking of realism that Jia has attempted in any of his films thus far, as he transitions from Han’s story to Shen’s through their silent observation of a flying saucer flying above the city. As Jia himself puts it:

“Such a quick destruction of a 2000-year-old town is simply unimaginable. It’s as if there was an alien invasion.” 

A sci-fi intrusion into this narrative acting as a formal link between our two main characters who never directly meet even as they travel parallel journeys.
Beyond Antonioni, there are traces of Yasujirō Ozu in compositions like these.

Perhaps it’s all the same to the locals who witness this destruction every day, but to these two outsiders, it is an absurd sight to behold. Jia digs even further into this metaphor in continually returning to a shot of a building that looks a little out of place in its uneven design, and then, the final time we visit it, suddenly blasting it off into space. Elsewhere, workers in hazmat suits comb through the city’s ruins, looking uncannily like extra-terrestrial visitors, while droning, futuristic synths underscore it all. The Antonioni influence goes far beyond Jia’s extraordinary use of architecture to define his characters and their relationships – his overt blending of science-fiction tones with an otherwise realistic narrative and visuals strongly evokes a similar atmosphere captured in the final scene of L’Eclisse, where another ghost town vacated of its humanity is filled with an eerie, otherworldly emptiness.  

Men in hazmat suits looking like unearthly aliens as they comb through the debris of this city – almost apocalyptic.
Truly Antonioni-inspired in the angles of these structures, as labourers erode its foundations like termites.

Of course, it is important to remember that much of this ancient village has already been well and truly forgotten by its own citizens. When Han goes looking for his old house where he hopes to find his wife, he instead finds that it is submerged beneath the lake that ferries now lightly skim over, unmindful of the lost history that lies beneath the surface. Beyond its metaphorical implications, this flooding also practically complicates Han’s quest to reconnect to his own past, as he finds it has also erased many of the links that might have helped him find his way back. The motif of China burying its humanity is reflected in one especially cruel instance where a worker is crushed beneath a falling pile of rubble, and is nearly forgotten and lost completely until his colleagues hear his ringing phone. And as Jia reminds us by framing the Three Gorges Dam construction site in the background of Shen’s eventual breakup with her cheating, greedy husband, all of this cultural and personal devastation is wreaked by China’s inexorable economic ambitions.

A flooded city symbolising a repressed, forgotten past, rendered in ethereal, otherworldly greens.

Much of Han and Shen’s wandering through this dying city is permeated by a sickly, green haze that seems to cling to the river and forested mountains, simultaneously suffocating its remaining residents while bringing an ethereal beauty to its scenes of rapid decay. Nestled in a peaceful valley, geographically cut off from the rest of the world, this setting might have once been a quiet retreat from the industrial progress of modern China. But now, with the violent, aberrant influence of globalisation invading the far corners of the nation’s most sacred regions, the Fengjie of Still Life is a ghost town both utterly disconnected from its cultural identity and actively destructive of its own history.

Oppressive architecture wrapping around and towering over our characters, most significantly the Three Gorges Dam responsible for the flooding of the city.

Still Life is available to stream on Stan, Binge, Foxtel Now, and The Criterion Channel.

The World (2004)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 23min

Despite scepticism that cooperating with the Chinese Film Bureau would compromise his creative processes and incisive cultural commentary, Jia Zhangke remains as sharp as ever in his fourth feature film, The World. With greater recognition comes greater funding, and this evidently reveals itself in his masterful choice of shooting location – Beijing World Park, a theme park which showcases miniature replicas of famous international landmarks. Though this imagery it isn’t quite as whimsical as that which would appear later in his career, there is a beautiful surrealism to the use of such diverse, recognisable architecture. With a single pan Jia shifts from a view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to the Parthenon, to Rome’s Mouth of Truth, these clean, pristine edifices existing in stark contrast to the dirtied interiors where the onsite staff live and interact with each other.

Jia’s panning camera has been present through all his previous films, and is put to particularly good use here as he captures a multitude of miniature landmarks without cutting.
These pristine exteriors are presented in stark contrast to the dirtied interiors that tourists never see, representing the truth of the matter.

At this point in his career, Jia is fully embracing the Michelangelo Antonioni influence in his framing of lonely, wandering souls against such visually impressive architecture. If his previous film, Unknown Pleasures, felt like a sequential extension of Platform, then he only pushes that notion further here in The World, where he examines the new Chinese society born out of the 1980s era of economic reform and opening up to foreign investments. The results are plain to see – western and Chinese identities have meshed into a globalised amalgamation of cultural influences, and both are cheapened in the process. “The Twin Towers were bombed on September 11. We still have them,” boasts one park worker overlooking a replica of the Manhattan cityscape, simultaneously brushing over this integral part of New York’s history while taking ownership of its untarnished aesthetic.
 
Rather than building themselves up through their own ambitious creations, this corner of modern China has shrunk the rest of the world down to its level, and the effect is twofold. On one hand these people look like giants roaming around a park where everything they could want to see is condensed into a single place; on the other, they look pitifully small, opting for cheap imitations devoid of the artistic craft and culture attached to the original monuments. China certainly has its own historical landmarks to be proud of, but the nation that Jia is reflecting in The World has grown uninspired with time, trying to own everything and yet ending up with nothing.

It isn’t just about the miniatures. We also get some stunning shots framing characters against these gorgeous backgrounds elsewhere.
The Antonioni influence is real – Jia keeps his camera peering through these metal beams as the elevator rises up the faux Eiffel Tower, much like the industrial opening to La Notte where the camera descends skyscrapers.

Outside these imitations of architectural achievements, there is dedication on Jia’s behalf to the even the most ordinary infrastructure of Beijing’s Fengtai District. Much like Antonioni, his concrete and metallic divisions in the mise-en-scène are layered all through the foreground and background, separating our disaffected heroine, Tao, from those around her. Her boyfriend’s push for them to have sex drives them further apart, her one real friend speaks an entirely different language, and when she tries to make conversation with Chen, a new worker, their hopeful connection persists at odds with their harsh surroundings, adjacent to a construction site. Tall, concrete blocks with metallic spokes line up neatly in rows across an open plain of cement, and though the practical function of these formations is unclear, the emotional impact is alienating as they visually split this interaction right down the middle. As the two converse, a plane flies overhead, and Tao wistfully recognises that she doesn’t know anyone who has travelled by air.

A shooting location so minimalistic and gorgeous that Jia returns here again later.

Perhaps that is why she is so drawn to the Eiffel Tower replica which stands tall over the rest of the park, even while being a mere third the size of the real one. Jia recognises the power of its imagery, using the same stunning landscape shot of the monument overlooking a small lake as a formal motif to mark the passage of time, but Tao’s attraction to it has more to do with her own dissatisfaction with being grounded. Each time she returns to the site we watch her ride up the elevator, gazing out at the highest views she ever expects to see in her life.

Formal markers in this powerfully recurring shot.

Bit by bit over his career, Jia has been stepping further outside the realm of pure neorealism by introducing artificial elements to his narratives, and he pulls it off here with mixed results. The animated interludes simply don’t gel aesthetically with everything around them, lacking the beauty, meaning, and finesse with which Jia frames so many of his live-action images. Where it works much better is in the surreal, haunting ending in which two characters do finally find a melancholy connection with each other, their final words asserting in a dreamlike voiceover that “This is just the beginning.” Tao, like so many others, has been told to be satisfied with the shrunken husk of a world she has been handed, but her discovery of something which transcends the worldly structures and barriers of modern-day China makes for an especially stirring payoff to her discontent, restless wandering.

A haunting closing shot as these characters’ voiceovers are layered over the top.

The World is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 53min

In some ways, Unknown Pleasures is Jia Zhangke’s spiritual sequel to Platform, immersing us in the materialistic, hybridised culture of Eastern and Western influences that emerged within China’s cultural landscape at the end of his sophomore film. The rallies we observed marching in support of the one-child policy have finally taken root, so much so that those babies born in the wake of the program have now grown up into the “birth control generation”, and become our focus here in Unknown Pleasures. They are isolated, passive teenagers, whose limited attention spans are dominated by television sets detaching them from reality. 
 
Jia has previously demonstrated his ability to work resourcefully on tight budgets, but as his first film shot on digital rather than film, there are moments here where the footage looks more like a home video in some clumsy movements and over-exposed images. That said, this switch to handheld digital also allows for more lightness and spontaneity in his unbroken tracking shots, and especially allows for more freedom in his panning camera, which still remains one of his best tools. He smoothly shifts between mid and long shots of his characters, letting our attention wander to an arrest taking place elsewhere on the street, or to one of many TV sets they silently watch together. Most importantly, the Rossellini-inspired neorealism seeps through in the derelict, industrial architecture, towering over the bleak landscapes through which these lonely teenagers wander. 

Using architecture as character has always been one of Jia’s strengths, and here he lets the derelict buildings of the Shangxi province dominate the rundown landscape.
There is no faking the natural, blue wash lighting in this attractive shot.

It isn’t until about forty minutes in that we witness the first major disruption to the lives of our three main characters. As Xiao Ji sits at home, drinking his soda while the news plays in the background the next room over, an explosive sound pierces the monotony. Not long after, we discover that a local textile mill has been destroyed, and the object of Xiao Ji’s desire, Qiao Qiao, is in need of his assistance to get her injured father to the hospital. Through this crisis, the two grow a little bit closer, and as they celebrate afterwards Jia draws parallels to the boisterous couples of Pulp Fiction. Xiao Ji first imagines themselves as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny holding up the diner, and then in an uncharacteristically energetic whip pan, Jia cuts to a discotheque where the two perform the famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance. 

A great motif here – even when televisions aren’t the primary focus, they are often there in the background, playing out news bulletins and reality shows.

While Jia grounds Unknown Pleasures in real historical events such as the announcement of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xiao Ji and his friend, Bin Bin, seem to act in sharp opposition through their emulations of movies, even as their attempts fall humorously short. There is no fighting against the messiness of reality, which constantly forces them back into the helpless passivity they are so familiar with. While these young adults find some comfort in Zhuangzi’s philosophy to “do what feels good,” these ancient words ultimately become little more than a despairing assertion of what little agency they really have in the face of this constrained, globalised Chinese culture.

A moving ending, as Jia takes several minutes to slowly pan his camera almost the full way around the room to follow his characters. Then finally he rests on this final frame, with Bin Bin singing a poignant song about spiritual freedom, all while handcuffed.

Unknown Pleasures is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

A Prophet (2009)

Jacques Audiard | 2hr 35min

In the lineage of epic gangster films stretching from the original 1932 Scarface, through the genre’s resurgence in the 70s, and all the way to the present day, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet slots in neatly as a drama just as rich in character development and narrative power as any of its predecessors. The traditional rags-to-riches story arc finds new life in Algerian teen Malik El Djebena, whose six-year prison sentence lands him in the midst of a gang war between Muslim and Corsican inmates. Malik, being neither, is taken under the wing of the Corsican mob after carrying out an assassination on a Muslim prisoner, Reyeb, then later earns the trust of the Muslims as well after learning more about his own heritage.

The prison courtyard often caught from these gorgeous high-angle shots.

Audiard’s stylistic approach to the raw grittiness of the piece emerges in his handheld camera and cool, blue wash all through the penitentiary, within which his detailed accounts of the gangs’ complex power structures unfold and root this narrative in a modern-day, multicultural France. The contained scope is captured in high-angle wide shots of the prison courtyard where the rival factions congregate on either side, the disdain hanging thick in the open, empty space between them. Though all the inmates speak French, the language divide of Arabic and Corsican serves to isolate them from each other, and it is Malik’s resolve to defeat his illiteracy and master all three languages that provides him the key to great power, becoming “the eyes and ears” of the prison. In playing both fields he gradually finds himself rising up the ranks of the mob hierarchy, this upwards trajectory bookmarked by chapter titles imprinted over freeze frames and slow-motion shots that temporarily remove us from the immediate action.

One of many chapter breaks, slowing down time and dubbing Malik the eyes and ears of the prison.

These formal breaks are further justified by the bursts of magical realism which make their way into Malik’s otherwise grounded journey, endowing him with a divine clairvoyancy. On a practical level, it is a reflection of his ability to reach further than his usual grasp through his learned multilingualism and sharp wit, and yet within his own mind it manifests as ghostly visions of Reyeb, acting as his spiritual guide. In this ethereal form, holy fire follows Reyeb whenever he appears, sometimes wreathing and burning his body, and at other times burning atop his finger as a flame. Through all of Malik’s loneliest moments, Reyeb is there offering wisdom and companionship, but also silently reminding him of the sinful act that set him on this path.

Reyeb acting as Malik’s spiritual guide, bringing with him a holy fire.

If we were to doubt the reality of such hallucinatory visions, then Audiard brings Malik’s two worlds together at just the right moment during a tricky business dealing, when his prophecy of a car colliding with a wild deer comes to manifest. At this point, as the deer is flung high up into the air, Audiard returns to the slow-motion photography we have witnessed in his chapter breaks, emphasising this manifestation of Malik’s spiritual gift. Just as he wins the astonished respect of those present to witness his prophecy, he similarly goes on to earn the esteem of high-level mafia operators with his insight and diplomacy, leaping over those who he once served. The model of reformation that Malik embodies might superficially point to the success of the justice system, as he does indeed come out from behind bars with an education, refreshed spirituality, and a new lease on life. And yet there is a distinct irony to the fact that in achieving these goals, prison has also incidentally turned a petty criminal into a drug kingpin. As Malik finally reaches the end of his six-year sentence and suavely leaves with a leather jacket and neat haircut, Audiard’s powerful final shot reveals an entourage of black cars silently trailing behind them. Now with a mass of allies and associates, endless opportunities await the Algerian prophet and crime lord as he continues to expand his empire into the society that once despised him.

A fantastic final shot from Audiard, cementing Malik’s future on the outside as a major figure in the crime underworld.

A Prophet is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Casino Royale (2006)

Martin Campbell | 2hr 24min

With a new era of James Bond came a re-invention of not just the character himself, but an entire sub-genre of action espionage films. Here is an actor throwing his body into a role like a Buster Keaton-type stuntman, building a full identity out of that visceral recklessness, and carrying it off with all the class we would expect from a character so notorious for his charm and seduction. When asked if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred after losing a round of high-stakes poker, his response is a sharp “Do I look like I give a damn?”, marking an abrupt departure from his cool, aloof predecessors.

This is the image of 007 that has become inextricably tied to Daniel Craig, and yet the success of Casino Royale goes beyond his central performance, oozing stylish elegance in Martin Campbell’s sleek camera movements that avoid harsh cuts where a simple pan, tilt, or rack focus would suffice. The latter in particular efficiently guides our attention between Bond and the subjects of his scrutiny, letting visual information emerge organically without the need to move away from his face.

An elegant rack focus moving our attention around the scene.

Building up this character even further are Campbell’s spectacular set pieces, each one revealing different aspects of Bond’s identity. The first one, a chase across cranes, scaffolding, and construction sites in Madagascar, sees Bond pursue a bomb-maker with a knack for free running. While the target is sliding through tight spaces and leaping fences with ease, Daniel Craig’s Bond simply can’t keep up. Luckily his devil-may-care attitude and resourcefulness is more than enough compensation. He runs through drywall as a short cut, and he takes possession of a bulldozer to wipe out any obstacles in his way. The denouement in which Bond assassinates his target against official orders pays off on his established rebelliousness with a final stinger, uncovering a dangerous ego which lies beneath his otherwise quiet allure. And all throughout, Campbell’s camera never stops moving in agile, controlled motions, imbuing the scene with the same energy and momentum that makes James Bond such a dynamic character.

Ambitious, practical set pieces like these making Daniel Craig a daring action star for a new generation.

Facing off against Bond in this instalment is Mads Mikkelsen’s sumptuously wicked banker, Le Chiffre, a truly reprehensible villain to behold. A “derangement of the tear duct” causes him to weep blood, and with a scar slashing across a clouded eye, he is set apart as an inhumanly damaged force of malevolence. The scenes of Texas hold ‘em poker distils his conflict with 007 down to a game of wits, in which both foes are fairly evenly matched. Even then, Bond’s smarts aren’t enough for Le Chiffre’s dishonesty, who, after losing all his money, kidnaps, strips, and beats the MI6 agent. As superhuman as Bond seems to be at times, Daniel Craig’s vulnerability here reveals an exposed man with nothing to rely on but a smart-ass attitude. Though his fortitude remains, his elegant style isn’t inherent in his being. At his core he is a reckless, egocentric asshole, always wanting to get in the final word.

Mads Mikkelsen’s devious Le Chiffre is an appropriately extravagant adversary for this new Bond.

In the striking final set piece of a large building sinking into Venice’s Grand Canal, Bond displays his first true bit of selflessness in trying to rescue his associate and love interest, Vesper, from her doom. As they say goodbye beneath the water, he reaches through the bars of the elevator that she is trapped within, watching the life drain from the only woman he was ever willing to give up everything for. As much as James Bond is typically considered a standard action hero archetype, Martin Campbell’s masterfully efficient set pieces paired with Daniel Craig’s complex performance of a man fighting with his ego thrillingly rejuvenates this classic mainstay of British film, and together hold Casino Royale up as a remarkable piece of character-driven, action cinema.

Casino Royale is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Platform (2000)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 34min

Unsatisfied with the escapist, expressionist Fifth Wave of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke burst onto the scene in the 1990s leading the more grounded Sixth Wave, and with his second film, the neorealist epic, Platform, he turned to China’s recent history to bring in the new millennium. This “epic” descriptor is only really applicable in the way it might be for a film like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – not much “happens” in any individual moment, but the sheer span of time which we spend with the same characters reveals an accumulation of small changes set in motion by an increasingly globalising culture, pressing in on their lives and pushing them in separate directions.

Jia’s long shots are always impressive in their minimalist beauty, formal power, and attention to cultural detail.

As the 1980s dawn upon the young performers of the state-funded Peasant Cultural Group, they collectively ruminate on what sort of future lies ahead for their country in the year 2000. “The four modernisations: industry, agriculture, defence, science,” one of them conjectures, and he’s not wrong, though clearly they are unprepared for the sort of social and artistic shifts which will impact them in a far more personal manner than anything else. Three years after chairman Mao Zedong’s death, his likeness still adorns the walls of their homes, but in the coming years it is the new Paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose influence and embrace of consumerist policies will come to dominate their lives.
 
Even when we first meet these characters though, many of these changes are already in motion. There are no pivotal turning points in Platform for Jia’s characters, but their lives are rather made up of miniscule shifts in cultural behaviours towards western trends. Foreign films and fashion fads are considered bad influences, and as early on as the ten-minute mark we see one of the group’s central performers, Cui Minliang, being scolded by his parents for wearing bell-bottomed jeans – an attitude he simply puts down to “the generation gap.” 

Recurring generational conflict, set against a backdrop of social and cultural decay.

In choosing to shoot on location in China’s Shanxi province, Jia makes the most of the region’s dilapidated architecture, dwarfing his characters beneath these towering, crumbling buildings in an abundance of wide and mid-shots. The lack of structural maintenance is evident, as we return twice to the same set of half-constructed stairs which turn this part of the city into an obstacle course for Jia’s characters to navigate, leap across, and climb. Much like Cuarón would do in Roma 18 years later, Jia often pans his camera around his scenes, soaking in the detail of the dirtied interiors and streets of 1980s China. Early on, a trivial conversation between two performers, Zhang and Zhong, is set right next to a political rally for the newly-imposed one-child policy, and although the two affairs don’t directly collide in this moment, it paints out a politically-charged landscape of cultural turmoil that is slowly seeping into the everyday lives of its citizens.

Jia always plays out scenes of personal drama in wide and mid shots, and never close ups, often using his architecture to divide characters just like Michelangelo Antonioni did before him.

Later, Cui and Yin, a performer with whom he shares a mutual attraction, meet on the ramparts of a grey brick fortress to discuss their relationship. With the camera planted just halfway around a protruding corner, we are only ever privy to one side of the conversation at a time, as both characters alternate positions into our scope of vision to deliver their own perspective. In doing so Jia effectively creates the same isolating effect that cutting to either side of the conversation might have, and yet through his patient, static camera, he instead uses the imposing architecture of the city to come between his characters. 

Splitting his frame right down the middle during this breakup scene, and then only ever letting us watch one side of the conversation at a time as both actors alternate positions.

Eventually Yin finds herself slowly dragged away from her friends and passion to enter a planned marriage. “Everything’s arranged for me,” she quietly laments, and yet even in falling into this traditional custom, she too finds herself swept along a separate strand of consumerism which dominates China’s workplaces and private homes. Though she is bound to her stable, middle-class station in life, even she still can’t help bursting out into a small dance when she finds herself alone in her office, reminiscing on her nostalgic past.

Constructing a composition from architectural lines and shadows, painting a picture of isolation and hardship even as Cui and Lin stand right in front of each other.

The inevitable privatisation of the Peasant Cultural Group plays out in such understated moments, we might almost hope along with the characters that it won’t affect things too much. There is a brief reflection from one performer on how putting them up for sale effectively cheapens their livelihoods, but it is quickly cut short by the leader’s reassurance that he is making as much of a sacrifice as them. Regardless, we do witness a drastic evolution taking place in Jia’s sprinkling of their performances all throughout. While touring into an urban area, they are requested to “play concerts of light music” as opposed to their more traditional fare, in a bid to appeal to the more worldly city types. Later, Zhang returns home from an overseas trip with some new cassette tapes featuring euro disco music, and the song “Dschinghis Khan” quickly becomes a hit within his social circle. 
 
Bit by bit, the Peasant Cultural Group’s repertoire of Chinese folk music shifts to pop and rock, their muted outfits are replaced by colourful spandex and double denim, and they are eventually renamed the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. They have spent their careers spreading the state-approved message that a bright future awaits their generation, and yet by the end these promises are revealed to be utterly empty. 

“Young friends, this spring will be yours. Yours and mine. The new generation of the 1980s!” 

Musical performances all throughout Platform, the shifting culture evident in the song choices, energy, costumes, audiences, and locations.
A huge difference between these two performances, one from the start of the film and the other towards the end.

When it comes to the source of these promises, we turn to the older generations who, while not a significant focus of Platform, do find representation in the form of Cui’s troubled parents. Despite all their moral and ideological reprimands, they are far from sinless, as Cui’s father’s affair is only briefly confronted before it becomes a natural part of life, slowly fragmenting the family over the years. 
 
This is the way relationships come to an end in this new modernised culture – not with a farewell and a hug, but a silent tapering off, disappearing before anyone realises it. This set pattern pays off in an especially weighty scene towards the end, as Cui and Lin run into each other again after years of unresolved separation. Though they ruminate over the old days, the interaction remains morose. The closure they find in this moment together is special, but they also recognise it is not a privilege that they were granted with their other friends, recalling the last times they were together. 

“Leaving without a word. And since then, no news.” 

These losses and adjustments are incremental yet irreversible, and it is in this slow, gradual development over ten years that Jia’s melancholy reflections on China’s modernisation comes into focus. He isn’t exactly full of praise for the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s either, as he exposes the superficiality which lay beneath its nationalism and deification of Mao, but he rather expresses a nostalgia for the blissful hope and ignorance of youth that seeps away with time. Though we can appreciate the immediate impact of Jia’s stark, minimalistic aesthetics giving visual context to these characters’ struggles along the road to modernity, it is only by the end when we look back at his formally ambitious construction of China over a ten-year span that we realise the full extent of the loss that has taken place.

An image of loneliness, loss, and nostalgia – there isn’t a lot of non-diegetic scoring in Platform, but a poignant strings motif plays a few times, and returns here to underscore this tender moment.

Platform is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.