The Love Baby Spawned by Martin Scorsese’s Devotion to Film Preservation

11/10/2010 3:30 AM |

The love baby spawned by Martin Scorsese’s devotion to film preservation, the three-year-old World Cinema Foundation is focused, unlike the world’s other major preservationist archives, museums and organizations, on forgotten, “neglected” landmarks that would otherwise run the likelihood of being left behind in the nitrate dust. You can contribute the WFC at their website, or you can simply belly up to this traveling retro, comprised of movies from the four corners that you probably have had little or no opportunity to see in any other context.

For example, Ermak Shinarbaev’s Revenge (1989) is a pioneering Soviet-era Kazakh melodrama that, starting off in a Korean-lineage village in 1915, wastes no time dropping the first domino: an impatient Kazakh teacher holding class in a ramshackle barn loses his temper and kills a little boy (off-camera) with an iron axe. This single act galvanizes the countryside, and creates a web of interconnecting justices and injustices that haunt the child’s surviving family members for decades—up to the distant-thunder days following Hiroshima. The film is organized into seven chapters, each detailing a pathcrossing between the family and the murderer, and the dead serious contest between human folly and karmic currency is fierce as the quest for revenge becomes a family heirloom, passed on to new generations like a hope chest. The bulk of the story follows a son’s adult journey toward consummating the family’s vendetta, and along the way the young man becomes disassociated both from his assigned purpose and his environment, a veritable ghost. When vengeance is finally, ironically served, he’s oblivious.

Shinarbaev’s movie seems unself-consciously exotic, because it inhabits a society riven by and infused with racial tensions and cultural scrambling; the imagery stands halfway between the lushness of the Chinese Fifth Generation and the Georgian peasant hyperreality of Paradjanov. But the toughness of peasant life will out; even the film’s lyricism has a cruel edge, as in one digressive sequence where children dip a huge rat in kerosene and set it on fire. The film’s primal viewpoint is ambered in time, as the burning rodent skitters across the countryside and plummets into a hay-filled barn where a drunk is sleeping…

Mario Peixoto’s Limite (1931) is as rare, if also festooned with a cult aura, particularly among Brazilian cinephiles, who have on more than one occasion voted it the greatest Brazilian movie ever made. It’s also the only Brazilian avant-garde film from the salad days of the early-century avant-garde free-for-all, when silent film was being seized by bohemians and Dadaists and shaped into something much more like a DIY characterization of consciousness than a narrative record. Peixoto’s epic dream odyssey is rooted in the lost lives and mixed memories of three people in a drifting rowboat, but there’s virtually no large poetic idea it doesn’t embrace and intoxify; death, God, fate, love and the intransigence of nature are drowsily evoked in a ghostly two-hour montage scored with classical melancholia (particularly Satie), via beautiful pro-am photography and an imagistic naivete typical of the time and just as beguiling and haunting as the early films of Man Ray (whose photos reportedly inspired Peixoto), Bunuel/Dali, Dulac, Epstein and Deren. Languorous in the extreme, it is nevertheless a missing link, and it has a strange narcotic impact over the long run.

Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) has been available here on video from Kino, but not in its newly restored form, which will hopefully revive interest in this effervescent, jagged-edged Senegalese road-movie satire—really, the pan-African version of Pierrot le Fou. Godardianism is a pungent strategy for post-colonial Africa, and Diop Mambety’s hectic mix includes Josephine Baker tunes, corporate-logo irony, slaughterhouse visits, low crime, class war and doses of matter-of-fact sexiness, sutured together with a distinctively New Wavey slipperiness. But the WCF’s reconstitution of Kim Ki-young’s seminal 1960 mega psychodrama The Housemaid—a thrilling, beloved Korean-hyperbolic launch past Losey’s The Servant and toward Fatal Attraction—has been the bigger news, festival-circuit-wise, never having been imported to Western screens before, and having been just remade by Im Sang-soo. Likewise for several of the other entries, including the meditative Egyptian soul-searcher The Night of Counting the Years (1969), and Redes (1936), a long-forgotten Mexican-Marxist drama co-directed by Fred Zinnemann and shot by photog-god Paul Strand.

Still, the Foundation’s ripest cherry bomb might still be the act of thrusting Edward Yang’s A Bright Summer Day (1991) into the international limelight it’s always deserved. Still a film more talked about than seen to any degree in this country, it’s the pivotal generational anthem song of the Taiwanese “new wave,” a social-weave time capsule that stands in sharp contrast to the minimalist voices of Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsaio-hsien. The film is set in 1961 Taipei, conjured from Yang’s own youthful memories, at that point a city clogged with Chinese emigrants on the run by the millions from Mao’s oppressions and the devastation of the Great Leap Forward. Pressurized as well by the Kuomintang martial law that wasn’t lifted until 1987, Taipei life was a welter of marginalized nobodies, bureaucratic briutality and teenage gang firefighting, sometimes performed with samurai swords left behind by the Japanese after the war.

It’s a wide canvas packed with personae, but gradually a protagonist emerges—15-year-old Chen Chang’s Si’r, the son of a displaced Chinese family, increasingly subject to the gangs’ mayhem and smitten with a gangleader’s girl (Lisa Yang), who despite her infantile puss and perky schoolgirl uniforms is a figure of stormy sexual anxiety for many people, including her school doctor. Over almost four hours, during which Yang most often shoots the action at an epic distance, never commanding our reactions, the film slowly arrives at an inevitable but still disarming peak of costly violence. Nuanced and dignified like rebel-youth movies never are, Yang’s masterpiece may be its subgenre’s Rules of the Game, and may be its nation’s definitive piece of cinematic portraiture.