Asian cinema in 1999

After Life (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda): Until now my only experience with Kore-eda had been seeing I Wish—a film of which I was not exactly fond—back in 2012.  So I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle grace of After Life, a fantasy set at a country house where the recently deceased spend a week choosing a single memory to take with them into eternity.  I knew the premise of this film going in (I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review when it first came out in 1999) but I wasn’t prepared for its quiet profundity.  The film’s vision of an afterlife in which we continue to endure waiting rooms, power outages, workplace quarrels and romantic longing is almost comic in its banality.  It’s about cinema, too: once the memories have been chosen, they are re-enacted and filmed.  Kore-eda suggests both that memory functions like cinematic spectatorship and that movies are themselves preserved objects of personal or cultural memory.  The most ingenious thing about After Life is that it takes a potentially grating “high concept” premise and grounds it in a gentle and touching naturalism.

The Hole (dir. Tsai Ming-liang): This was another pleasant surprise, though “pleasant” might be the wrong word for this film, which might be better described as insane, surreal, brilliant, outrageous.  It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Taiwan where, amid ceaseless rain, a lonely bachelor proceeds to torment his downstairs neighbor via the hole that connects his floor and her ceiling.  Tsai’s dark sense of humor recalls Jeunet and Gilliam and his comic use of spaces and objects suggests Jacques Tati.  The film is also a musical in which the action is periodically interrupted by song-and-dance numbers in which his lead actress, Yang Kuei-mei, lip-synchs to old Mandarin pop songs.  But Tsai brings an erotic absurdity to bear on these other genres in a way that feels entirely original.  The Hole is one big, wet, gaping sex joke.        

Taboo (dir. Nagisa Oshima): If The Hole was sexier and funnier than I had expected, Taboo turned out to be duller and blander, especially given Oshima’s track record for making truly audacious fare.  This historical drama set among a unit of samurai, nearly all of whom find themselves hot and bothered by the arrival of a beautiful new recruit, is bloodier than it is erotic, and ultimately is more concerned with intrigue than with sex.  It’s certainly not the “gorgeously filmed study of homosexual lust” described on the back of the DVD case; it does look beautiful, but it doesn’t have the intensity or the madness of a masterpiece like Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses—or, for that matter, The Hole.  The late nineties found old masters like Oshima in decline (Taboo would be his last film) and new masters like Tsai on the rise.

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