Posts Tagged ‘quentin tarantino’

Chungking Express

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Chungking Express

Chungking Express
1994, 98 minutes
directed by:  Wong Kar-wai

Hong Kong is a small region that produces a disproportionately large share of movies. For the remaining two films of the The Future is Asian series, I’ve chosen to discuss two films by one Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai. This is a testament to either Wong Kar-wai’s importance and relevance as a director, or to my stubbornness and arrogance in selecting films that I believe are relevant.

Chungking Express

Wong Kar-wai is one of those consummate indie film auteurs: the kind black-skinny-pants-wearing hipster film majors love to love. Chungking Express was the first movie distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures movie company, and Wong has continued to produce highly anticipated and highly debated films—his latest, My Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz, made its American theatrical debut in 2007 (it received tepid reviews).

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

However, it’s not hard to see why Chungking Express made such a splash when it was first released in the US in 1994. It’s fast, stylishly oblique, cooly violent, and full of alienated beautiful people, the kind that have occupied hipster films since Antonioni. Though infused with a distinctively Asian vibe, it nonetheless effuses a thoroughly international sensibility. Wong Kar-Wai layered and mixed the music to compete with (and at times drown out) the dialogue–this was a fairly radical idea, and his use of music throughout his later films seems to have been a result of the success of that experiment in this film. As the theme song (in this case, “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas–see the clip below) weaves in and out or abruptly starts and stops throughout the film, it sets up a rhythm that organizes the narrative structure and establishes a spatial atmosphere.

But a funny thing happens when after you finish watching Chungking Express, or for that matter, other Wong Kar-Wai films: afterwards, you don’t necessarily remember the plot, or what happened, at least not in the traditional sense of who did what to whom, which then precipitated certain events, and so on and so on. In other words, you don’t exactly remember the chain of causal events that normally propel stories from beginning, middle, to end. This is not to say that Wong Kar-Wai’s films are forgettable—in fact, just the opposite. You distinctly remember the neon rush of the cosmopolitan streets of Hong Kong, the worn and tired texture of the old-city walls in that cramped, dark alley where two old friends said goodbye, the tight space of the lovers’ apartment, or the rhythm of the music that weaves its way through the images. Some images, like the food stall girl (the adorable Chinese pop-star Faye Wong) absent-mindedly bopping along to “California Dreaming” by the Mamas & the Papas (see the clip above), or the woman gently leaning her head on her lover in the back of a taxi, never leave you. Indeed, you are left with something else. We could try and call this something else visual impressions, or moods, or atmosphere, but I think it may be something which is the culmination of all of those things, yet somehow more: you are left with a sense of urbanity.

in-the-mood-for-love

Chungking Express takes its name from a bewildering, crowded mess of stores, shops, and eateries in one building in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong–it is essentially a vertical souq populated and staffed predominantly by immigrants and foreigners. To anyone who has ever been to this building/place/phenomenon, it is in and of itself an urban idea.

chungking-express1

Urbanity, as a broad concept, is inseparable from a conception of time. As our understanding and perception of time has changes, so does our understanding of cities. The most important urban theorists and architects all have differentiated themselves with a specific temporal conceptualization: from Alberti and Nolli all the way through Le Corbusier, Rossi, and Koolhaas. Wong Kar-Wai presents an essential understanding and documentation of contemporary urbanity due to his subtle, sophisticated, and irreducibly contemporary ability to play with time—most predominantly through his phrasing of visual sequences, his unique use of music, and to a lesser extent, his working method and the interconnectedness of his filmic oeuvre. Wong Kar-wai’s subject is exactly the relation between two things, time and urbanity, and in this way, proves that there are no more analogous artistic endeavors than film and architecture.

-    quang truong (originally written April 2008)

Oldboy

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

oldboy

Oldboy
2003, 120 minutes
directed by: Park Chan-wook

Oldboy, a film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, was a film powerful enough to generate two immense waves of infamy and notoriety. The first came when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where the jury, chaired by Quentin Tarantino, awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix, which led to a cavalcade of praise for the film as being the preeminent film in a new wave of significant South Korean films. South Korea, as anyone who owns a LG cellphone, Samsung television, or Hyundai car, or has looked around the graduate school studios lately, is well aware of South Korea’s burgeoning economic and cultural development. In a way, the critical reception to Oldboy as a significant film was essentially a ratification of the international importance of South Korea; for we know today that the most important exports of any country are not necessarily its economic products, but its cultural products. The ability of a country to successfully export its ideas and images is essentially what distinguishes First World countries from others.

From The New Yorker

From The New Yorker

The second wave of publicity for Oldboy came in the spring of 2007, when someone drew parallels between the violence in this South Korean film to the South Korean background of the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shooting. The idea that media is responsible for violence seemingly has its own specific historiography, from Mark David Chapman’s Catcher in the Rye, John Hinckley’s Taxi Driver, Charles Manson and the Beatles, to the Columbine killers and the music of Marilyn Manson. Nevertheless, Oldboy is certainly spectacularly violent, to a level literally unacceptable in America, as evidenced in one of the tamer scenes where the main actor, Choi Min-sik, eats a live octopus on camera.

old-boy-give-me-something-alive

There is one thing I wanted to note about this movie, and it relates to the previous post about Grand Theft Auto. In one scene, the way the camera and the actors move through space, as far as I’m aware,  is fairly original. Or, I should say, fairly original for a movie. A clip of the scene is embedded below, and as the scene unfolds, the camera scrolls across the space horizontally. This may feel uncanny to some of you, and if it does, it may be because this type of tracking shot and space is very distinctly the space of video games from the 1990s (Double Dragon for the NES is a good example of this type of side-scrolling video game space). Space is practically two-dimensional, and it was a result of the limitations of the computer science at the time. It was space as a result of a technological handicap. However, to create this kind of space cinematographically requires an incredible amount of planning, building, and executing. Imagine the set that was built for this scene!

There have been other movies since that used a similar style of ‘side scrolling’ cinematography, most notably Zack Snyder in 300. It’s odd, because in the past, video game designers have always imitated film directors. The first video games to attempt cinematographical space and movement stole directly from Akira Kurosawa’s films (I’m thinking of the Final Fantasy games here in particular). But as video games have expanded their abilities to describe and conceptualize space, it seems like film directors have started imitating video games.

For many reasons, Oldboy is a film that has generated a lot of dialogue, and serves as a great introduction to this film architecture series and the cinema of South Korea.

Fortune Favors the Bold

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As the film notes get more and more recent (I wrote this almost three years ago), the less I feel like I have to apologize for them. However, one thing that still strikes me about this film is how disastrous the casting choice of Colin Farrell was for Alexander. I mean, look at this publicity photo.

alexander

Alexander (2004), 175 minutes

I’ve often wondered about the relationship between arrogance and architecture (the Ego and the Architect); to what degree is a certain amount of stubbornness and self-aggrandizement necessary to successfully maneuver the complicated and messy business of building buildings and winning clients? When does confidence become arrogance? At the root of all of this speculation is the simple question: how does the architect see himself in relation to others?

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the role of architect is most closely related to the role of the film director. Both films and buildings are dependant on business, yet strive for artistic ambitions. Architects and directors are responsible for the coordination of people in multifarious fields and trades in which they are not experts. They are servants to a client. And films and buildings are both huge financial risks. In each field, there are the safe bets; hiring Ron Howard to direct your film would be like hiring SOM. The populist Frank Gehry to Steven Spielberg; the quiet craftsmanship of Renzo Piano to Michael Mann; the hip Koolhaas to Quentin Tarantino.

It may be said that no director today is more often accused of arrogance, yet lauded as brilliant, than Oliver Stone. In that way, maybe Oliver Stone is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of film. Alexander was Stone’s biggest project up to that point. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it, “There comes the moment in the career of many directors when they are compelled to tell the story of a great man in whose life they seem to see a glimmer of their own image.”

Oliver Stone, a Yale graduate (he shared the New Haven campus with John Kerry and George W. Bush), came to film directing late in life, at the age of 29 after two tours of duty in Vietnam. In this way he is similar to many successful architects who came to the profession after first careers in other fields: Le Corbusier and James Stirling from painting, Rem Koolhaas from journalism, Rick Joy from music, Tadao Ando from boxing, etc. He then set up the most impressive cinematic resume of anybody working today, directing a series of cultural milestone films including Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, but also writing Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Evita. Like Wright, Stone is responsible for some of the most recognizable works of his generation.

But most of you may remember that Alexander was Oliver Stone’s biggest box office flop. It was critically reviled. That, in itself, is revealing of the nature of Oliver Stone. If the biggest artistic successes are necessarily the product of the biggest risks, and if an artist is risking anything valuable at all, shouldn’t his or her career be littered with the detritus of failed experiments? But we should be able to see within those works a great ambition, and learn from where and why they fell short. As the tired old adage goes, you learn more from failure than from success—our attitude towards those failures, and our resilience from the inevitable stings of critics (hello jury system), may define our ability to continue working towards our own risky goals. But arrogance will make us blind, and you may end up arguing that Alexander was a flop only because America is homophobic (as Oliver Stone did publicly for quite a while). Arrogance closes doors—to people, perception, and opportunities—and arguably opens none that wouldn’t be otherwise.

And will somebody stop giving Colin Farrell work? He has presided as the lead over the biggest disappointments of the past several years, taking the mojo out of some of the most talented directors working today (most recently Michael Mann in Miami Vice); he is like a director’s succubus.

(originally written 9/26/2006)