REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 2009
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
-Cape No. 7 (Wei Te-sheng, Taiwan)
[SPOILERS] Some international hits are perfectly passable entertainments, which, paradoxically, seems to hurt their chances when it comes to finding a place in the North American market. Either they aren't "arty" enough to draw in the cinephiles (who, truth be told, are far more openminded than distributors give them credit for), or their fundamentally mainstream, down-the-middle pitch is presumed to be a waste, since U.S. audiences in particular are subtitle-averse (which has been proven somewhat false, given the right film). A case in point is Cape No. 7, a film which is no great shakes in the grand scheme of world cinema, but is a thoroughly enjoyable crowdpleaser in the Full Monty vein. The film's lack of U.S. distribution is mystifying. Granted, it is the highest grossing Taiwanese film ever in the domestic market, and has acquitted itself quite well across Asia, so it's very likely that its sales agent has slapped it with a fairly high price tag. Nevertheless, it's a film with broad enough appeal that Sony Classics would easily make back twice whatever they paid.
The basic plot: Japanese rock superstar Atari Kosuke is coming to a small coastal resort town to play a concert, and a local politician known as Mr. Representative (Ma Ju-lung) won't let the show go on unless local talent is showcased. It's a matter of civic pride, of course, but it also speaks to longtime tensions between the Taiwanese and the Japanese that have simmered since World War II. Part of the plan of getting a makeshift band together centers on pulling Aga (Taiwanese musician Van Fan) out of retirement. The coordination of both the Japanese concert promotion and the formation of the local band of misfits has befallen Tomoko (Chie Tanaka), a former model and tightly wound career woman who butts heads with the arrogant Aga, but of course, following formula, this is all just a prelude to a kiss. Aga, meanwhile, has been working as a mail carrier and has discovered a parcel of unsent WW2-era love letters written by a Taiwanese soldier to his Japanese lover, a relationship he was too cowardly to continue in the face of prevailing prejudice. The letters, naturally, mirror the Aga / Tomoko romance, but also generate a secondary mandate for Aga to grow up and put others ahead of himself.
The wrap-around WW2 story, clumsy though it is, provides one of the only elements in Cape No. 7 that departs from stock movie formulas. The concert, of course, is a triumph, not in spite of but eventually because of the ragtag collection of local characters who comprise the band. There's the lovelorn cop (Min Hsuing), the obnoxious salesman (Ma Nien-hsien), the young girl who plays keyboards in church (billed only as Joanne), and the crying-on-the-inside goofball (Ying Wei-min). Like the little leaguers of The Bad News Bears or the multi-caste cricketers of Lagaan, they've got heart. Likewise, Cape No. 7 eventually wins out by sheer force of goodwill and manic energy, leavening the broad comedy with the appropriate dollop of schmaltz as if it were following a time-honored recipe. Considering how conventional it all is, it's odd to learn that first-time director Wei served as an assistant director to Taiwanese master Edward Yang on the very different Yi Yi. And Cape No. 7's radical departure from that strain of art film that has come to define Taiwanese cinema over the past twenty-plus years is obviously calculated. In Cape's second shot, Wei practically provides a statement of purpose to this effect. We see Aga leaving a rock club at night after a failed gig. The street glistens with neon, the camera slowly pans right-to-left, framing the man from the torso down as he and his motorcycle accumulate beads of rain. This shot, in its framing and pace, could be an excerpt from the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Tsai Ming-liang. But, in an instant, Aga (and Wei), reject this tasteful master-shot aestheticism. "Fuck Taipei!" he shouts, smashes his guitar against a lamppost, and we cut immediately to blaring music, rapid editing, and the true kickoff of Cape No. 7's total pop assault. Not just fuck Taipei, but fuck the art-ghetto as well. Wei's got his eye on a new world order.
Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
With filmmakers like Mann, one tends to think that the most pressing danger is that they'd start believing the hype their work generates, and then lose their footing as they play directly to the peanut gallery. That's so not the case with Mann, who, judging from the evidence onscreen in Public Enemies, has virtually no idea what people are saying about him. Granted, I know that isn't true. Mann is well aware that he is infusing genre conventions with a distinctive poetics of digital video, resulting in a kind of high / low culture mash-up. But Public Enemies evinces few of the trappings of his installation-art-of-the-streets approach, and in fact, most of the time Mann appears to be trying to defeat the aesthetics of video, a first. There are two excellent set-pieces that demonstrate the road not taken. What makes this all the more frustrating is that one of them is the opening Michigan City jailbreak sequence, an exquisite piece of formalism that writes a check that Mann's Hollywood ass can't cash. With its unobtrusively exacting period detail offset by handheld camerawork that often looked like a camcorder being passed down the messhall table, Mann seemed to be generating a thrilling paradox. Was Public Enemies going to thwart the soggy old American historical picture by shooting it in a manner that screamed contemporaneity? You could count the whiskers on the inmates' chins. The outer facade of the prison, framed low against the sky, employed a gorgeous painterly flatness, replacing the usual Ash Can School palette with a David Hockney color splash. But soon, the cinematography and the color scheme becomes exactly what you'd expect from any run-of-the-mill gangster picture, with the exception that Mann's low light scenarios, such as the trysts between Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie (Marion Cotillard) look blotchier than usual. The other sequence where Mann gives his video sense a workout is in the nighttime shoot-out in the woods, where the combination of kineticism and stark lighting served to complicate the image. Composing for video allows Man to make the space between trees both deep and ambiguous, or to use the single-frame flares of gunshots to produce retina-wiping bleeds, rather than the pure, bounded flash of the film frame. Sadly, nothing in Public Enemies compares to the lavish attention it gives to Dillinger's crimes. Everything else is wan, second-hand, cliché-ridden, and deeply self-conscious. Only Cotillard seems genuinely committed to the project, taking the time to construct an actual character rather than a set of appropriated movie-gestures. Depp in particular has seldom been this hopelessly detached from his onscreen role. Yes, it must be said: he's dead as Dillinger.