Articles by

<Michael Atkinson>

05/13/11 11:23am


The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series of classic and contemporary films from Taiwan presents King Hu’s A Touch of Zen tonight at 8:10, this Sunday at 7pm, and next Thursday at 1:30pm.

Indisputably the Sentimental Education of Mao-era wuxia epics, King Hu’s never-forgotten 1971 landmark was the first wallop of Chinese genre mayhem many Westerners ever saw, and it won a prize at Cannes. Made in Taiwan, not Hong Kong, before Mao’s ban of all fun on the mainland was lifted, this three-hour-plus intrigue-athon begins when a supremely hot and impossibly cool mystery woman (Hsu Feng) moves into a haunted fort (really, a seductive, ramshackle theme park simulacrum of ancient China), attracting the interest of a local artist/buffoon (Shih Jun) but also bringing in her wake a torrent of internecine conflict, masquerading blindmen, warrior badasses, and a powerful eunuch’s sword-flashing minions.

Hu didn’t invent wuxia hijinks here (he did that earlier with Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn), but the trampolining brio at work was the hi-test in the engine of the Hong Kong assault of the ‘80s and ‘90s, not to mention Crouching Tiger and its digitally-assisted bamboo-grove battle. Surprisingly, for all of its magical cartwheels and matinee silliness, the film and its bug-eyed naif hero (a wuxia oddity right there) gain tragic stature and resonance in the third hour and beyond, and a stirring case is made for Buddhist purity of heart. Still, it’s not a breathless or economical film; the old-school yarn and serene action editing can be, at such length, almost meditative. Settle in, feel your breathing, and get saturated.

05/06/11 2:35pm


On Saturday evening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s wide-ranging series on “Classic and Contemporary Film from Taiwan” continues with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live, a Time to Die, from 1986. (It screens again next Sunday, too.)

You truck along through your life, stepping over the wounded and cold-shouldering the crystalline, and then you happened upon a Hou, and it all comes into focus, alive and hypnotic. This 1986 memoir-film, his first widely beloved masterpiece, is a recreation of childhood memories, from when Hou’s family relocated from China to the wild, ramshackle outskirts of Taipei in the late 40s, never to return, as the children ran wild in the dusty streets, Communist-battling troops and tanks always seem to be passing in the near-distance, and the clan’s grandma keeps looking for a bridge back home that doesn’t exist.

Deaths accumulate, dreams get dashed, and Hou’s observational style locks into place, crafting more of a place-and-time portrait that a story, but one also subject to uncured time-leaping cuts and details you must hunt for, every man for himself. In Hou, every shot is a real-time habitation experiment, to see how actions and reactions and space will play off each other, and often enough the upshot freezes you—when the world halts on its axis for as long as it takes a girl walk down a sun-dappled street, or when the children discover their neglected grandmother dead, and tend to her rigor-mortised corpse, its folded hands sticking up in the air, in a poignant non-gesture, as she’s rolled over. A cathedral built out of haiku tiles, the movie is rivaled only by Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes as a retrospective auto-biopic that dares to be artful and even chilling in its sentimentality.

04/22/11 12:26pm


Tomorrow night at 92YTribeca, the fine folks at Not Coming to a Theater Near You present Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949).

How to characterize this underseen, historical-espionage demi-noir except as the bad seed baby borne from an unholy alliance, after sharp-eyed noiriste Anthony Mann, Satanic-pact cinematographer John P. Alton and crazy arch-modernist designer William Cameron Menzies got together to reinvent the French Revolution and the Great Terror and ended up with something like a mutant Welles movie? Or think of them as the Robespierre, Saint-Just and Marat of B-movies in extremis after WWII, treating history like a guillotinable royal, and restoring noir reflexes to their forgotten Gothic roots.

The internecine machinations swirling around Robert Cummings’s undercover Lafayette spy are too abstruse to parse, and in the melee of ghoulish closeups, painted shadows, dark alleys and brooding deceit even the most familiar actors are almost unrecognizable. (Richard Basehart’s Robespierre does an icy Olivier imitation, while Arnold Moss’s scarecrow-ish assassin suggests a syphilitic Adrien Brody After the Fall, and thieves the movie right out from under Arlene Dahl’s preposterous deliciousness.) Sure, the screenplay (by Mann buddy and script machine Philip Yordan) seems to be counter-revolutionary, or perhaps merely anti-autocracy, if you can untangle the allegiances and backstabbings amid the stressed—out gloom. Long lost in public domain and accessible only in TV prints that have been to hell and back, the movie is showing up at the behest of The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, in a fresh print, for the sake of its fraught, semi-sublimated parallels to the HUAC thunderhead and its sweaty concern over a lost list of named names.

[NB: Hoberman, will introduce the film and then sign copies of his new book An Army of Phantoms, in which he discusses the film.]

12/13/10 11:07am


Caterpillar, from the ever-intractable Koji Wakamatsu, played this past weekend at Japan Society’s “Shadows of the Rising Sun” series; a US release is forthcoming in 2011.

Koji Wakamatsu’s seething United Red Army did not tempt a stateside distributor to nut up, but his new film, Caterpillar, has—coming in ‘11 from Kino Lorber, this WWII-homefront psychodrama comes front-loaded with more softcore quadriplegic bump-ugly than any movie so far in history. For that, and for being much simpler politically, it’s an easier swallow—so to speak.

Shinobu Terajima—the unforgettable heart at the center of Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator and It’s Only Talk, and possibly the greatest Japanese actress of her generation—is a nondescript wife living in a rural village confronted with the return of her husband (Keijo Kasuya), sans limbs, speech and half of his face, Johnny Got His Gun-style, wounds he received after he’d ravaged and raped his way through the Sino-Japanese War. Unfortunately for her, his sex drive and erectile function is intact, and as she struggles to maintain face in the small community where her husband is an official “war god,” she tries to hold onto her sanity as her husband must be fed and fucked (in multiple positions that get you thinking) and carted around like an infant. The movie is narrowly focused and arrives at a forgone sermonic yowl, but the bludgeoning critique of Japanese nationalism is as righteous as it is monosyllabic, and Terajima delivers another heart-render, a semi-bright woman lost in the fields of imperialistic hypocrisy, an ordeal she endures with every part of her body. Kasuya’s Gump-ified subtractions make their own statement, at length and in coitus, and if it’s a gimmick it’s a gimmick that sings.

12/10/10 10:27am


Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep screens this Sunday at Japan Society as part of a four-film weekend series on “Cinema and Empire.”

This week’s underseen bone-rattling giga-movie, Jiang Wen’s epic Devils on the Doorstep (2000) had a spare release here in 2002, and a NYFF appearance, but stateside audiences didn’t know quite how to digest this hairball, and few have bothered to try since. Shot in a propulsive panic and in stark black-&-white, the film feels awfully Japanese New Wavey—the sweaty ghosts of Oshima, Imamura, Koboyashi & Co. are deliberately ouijaed—but it’s Chinese, and sets up a crazed no-exit scenario in an occupied northern village in 1945: a splenetic Japanese soldier and his ass-covering translator are mysteriously dumped on the town reprobate, with menacing instructions to hold and not fold—and not let the news leak to the local J-forces.

Any knowledge you bring about Japanese atrocities on Chinese soil just keeps the voltage up, as the gaggle of villagers must decide what to do with the prisoners—keep them secret under the enemy’s noses, or simply execute them, and if so, who’s badass enough to do it? Jiang, a busy actor recognizable as the lead in Red Sorghum, plays the harried protagonist on the edge of stress collapse, but the movie itself blasts along like a Road Runner comedy; from Gatling gun wordplay (the translator reverses everybody’s meaning in virtually every conversation) to the last grinning severed head, it’s the Japanese anti-war equivalent to Kusturica and the Coens. Oddly banned in China (and condemned by the censors as “vulgar,” in counterpoint, we can assume, to Zhang Yimou’s lanterns and silk), the film could hardly be more vociferous in its spitting hatred for all things Japanese. So of course The Japan Society is showing it—albeit alongside the far more gentle Euro-mix of Oshima’s late game-changer Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

11/30/10 9:47am


Tonight at BAM, Light Industry continues their “couchsurfing” tour of like-minded venues (they’re in the process of moving) with a screening of the late-Yeltsin-era classic Khrustaliov, My Car!, introduced by the redoubtable Kent Jones, of the World Cinema Foundation.

Packed like a cannon with all manner of satiric shrapnel, hubbub, terror, brio and Surrealist invention, Alexei German Sr.’s fabled, never-released-here 1998 monstrosity Khrustaliov, My Car! was only the fifth film the neglected Russian master made in 40 years, but if you were to distill out his films into character threads, narrative secrets and visual energy, you’d have the equivalent of a busy Soderbergh-sized oeuvre. Absurdist to the point of derangement and inhabited like a madhouse, the film touches down, like all of German’s, as a Soviet memory, of 1953 on the eve of Stalin’s death, and a bustling snow-covered village where the anti-Jewish purges are ongoing, and where a livin’-large Red Army general (Yuri Tsurilo) becomes targeted for inevitable Gulag exile.

That barely covers a fraction of this furious cataract, which attracts comparisons to everyone from Fellini to Goya to Kusturica to Tati, all at once in a pig pile, but is in fact a pressurized Rubicon of German’s characteristic voice and style, which loves chaos and density and exploding life more than story per se. Nobody has ever evoked crowded interior spaces as lustily or conjured a world outside the frame as vividly, and his capture of winter-time (gorgeously shot on, it seems, black-&-white stock left out in the snow for 40 years) is unrivaled. This is not a film where merely two or three things are happening at once. But almost any description lets Khrustaliov down—it’s a decidedly unsober masterpiece, tough to follow, riven with Dadaist dialogue, fuming with elan, and although it’s unmistakably a slashing portrait of life in the asylum of Stalin’s USSR, it’s also a torrential experience with its own codes and overwhelming sense of unseen catastrophe.

11/10/10 3:30am

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.

10/22/10 11:59am


On Saturday night, MoMA’s To Save and Project series presents its centerpiece, a restored, rediscovered version of the previously partially lost Japanese silent whatsit A Page of Madness.

By this time, authentic, mutant-DNA Holy Shit moments are rare in the reexamined history of silent film, but A Page of Madness (1926) is surely a freak among freaks. Watching it, notions you’ve nurtured about what the recent and distant past look like in our matinee memories crumble like ash. It’s not merely the most psychotic Japanese silent film ever made (or seen outside of Japan, anyway); Teinosuke Kinugasa’s pioneer-work is the Asian wild card in the avant-garde explosion happening everywhere in the 20s.

Set in a mental institution amid flailing, dancing lunatics, and offering only a web-thin story about a janitor and his inmate wife (you could miss it, since Kinugasa provides zero intertitles), the movie is really a clotted stream of uneasy images, and with its montage seizures, free-associative mashups and abstracted compositions, it echoes or presages everybody from Dreyer to Picabia to Deren to Lewton to Fuller to Godard. The fact that Kinugasa was etching his supremely strange fever-dream (with the help of an avant-garde theater company) at more or less the same exact time as the Surrealists and the Soviet mad scientists were creating theirs, and with no cross-pollination, scans something like evidence for a conspiracy theory. The panicky roving camera seems equal to Murnau’s corpus as of ‘26, but look again at the natural lighting and verite grit, and it’s like you’re looking at celluloid exposed three decades later—it’s a film out of time.

For all of those tendrils, though, A Page of Madness exudes a distinctly chilling affect. It is self-consciously berserk, and its actors “act,” but the spooky thrust feels organic, as if the thing were spawned spontaneously from a sulphur pit. And it’s only an hour long. For its brief appearance at MoMA, a new score will be performed live by Ensemble N_JP, alongside a fresh-text stream of benshi narration, which given the movie is more than a little difficult to imagine.

10/12/10 10:44am

Jesus thats a narrow poster.

  • Jesus that’s a narrow poster.

Tonight, Film Forum’s Heist Movie series continues with Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall, double-featured with The Necklace (with Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield). We here reviewed when Film Forum revived it for a week early this summer:

Will we ever tire of noir? Unlikely—it’s their time-and-place particularity, rising like mushrooms from the decaying roots of postwar culture, that makes them sing even today. Though you’d think by now that has-been is definitely the new never-was, the noirs live on in iconic resonance, because, ironically, they’re a nostalgist’s hot-coffee-in-the-face reality check, reminding us in no uncertain terms that the past we often idealize and dismiss was just as beset by misery and ruin as today. Maybe more so. Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall is a near-forgotten, fast-cheap-&-out-of-control sweat session, in which the hulking yet quivering Aldo Ray hits the Big City on the run from something very very bad, and crosses paths in a bar with Anne Bancroft, a used-abused waif with the defensive posture of squirrel among dogs. Soon enough Brian Keith, as a bloodspilling bank robbing anti-Aldo (they were both thick-necked Pacific-theater vets and look it), emerges and pushes the action back to the great wide open of Wyoming, where an oil rig becomes an impromptu torture appliance. Little of the David Goodis-based film is actually very dark; it’s the lawless, wintry mountain wilderness that generates more anxiety, and the forecast the film delivers of the Coen bros’ Fargo has been duly noted. Sans the Orphic torque of Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the movie still radiates a fight-or-flight inquietude that itself could serve as a mid-century axiom, a kind of feel-bad story America couldn’t stop telling itself.

10/08/10 3:48pm


Tomorrow, BAM’s complete Olivier Assayas series (!!!) opens with his marvelous Summer Hours. It continues on Sunday with Irma Vep.

Olivier Assayas likes to ping-pong between high-nicotine grunge and family tapestries, with erratic results, but his trippily unique Irma Vep (1996) remains a perfect, hilarious, hand-held torrent of rock-n-roll movie-ness, satirizing the chaotic life of “art film” production even as it embodies it, with Maggie Cheung as herself, wading into a post-post-nouvelle vague landscape where classical cinephilia is openly sixty-nining with The New. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays an unstable Godard figure looking to remake Feuillade’s age-old serial without sound and in black-&-white, casting a bewildered Cheung as France’s iconic arch-villainess Vep after only seeing her in the chintzy Hong Kong actioner The Heroic Trio. (He’s bedazzled, but she meekly objects: “That’s not me, that’s a stuntperson.”) Eventually he’s replaced by Leo Castel’s meta-Chabrol, and throughout the Paris-as-mysterious-playground spirit of Feuillade clashes with hyperreal improv film-set entropy. Escaping one nutso film arena for another, Cheung is a blessing, and her midnight stalk through the hotel corridors and across the rooftops dressed in the titular arch-villainess’s skintight black leather is pure movie love.