From the canvas to the cinema.
David Liu | 2 June 2013
Ascending and Descending (M.C. Escher, 1960; detail; lithograph)
Study for Head of George Dyer (Francis Bacon, 1967; oil on canvas)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Nolan’s blockbuster blend of philosophy and mathematical dream logic often recalls the works of 20th century innovators like Escher and Bacon — from Arthur and Ariadne navigating the Penrose stairs to a shot of Mal observing a tortured memento of romantic demons.
Xie Jin’s The Herdsman (牧马人)
David Liu | 29 May 2013
Working against the backdrop of the newly established People’s Republic of China beginning in the 1950s, Third Generation director Xie Jin crafted a vision to call his own — a blend of Hollywood melodrama and traditional Chinese opera with elements of Soviet Realism dominating the nation’s aesthetic consciousness during Mao’s rule.
Xie’s The Herdsman (1982) opens on snapshots of China in a state of flux — bird’s eye cityscapes of early 1980s Beijing juxtaposed with long shots of wild horses grazing on the plains. The film’s plot centers on a meeting between a son and his estranged father, the latter whose patrician background and departure to America led to his son’s suffering in the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s. Despite their common bloodline, the ideological divide between them becomes readily apparent as the Westernized father makes a futile appeal to his herdsman son to depart for greener pastures.
In a key flashback sequence, a village sits entranced by a screening of Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in 1918. In another, a lively Beijing discotheque blares “it’s a rich man’s world” before segueing into Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube. In quintessential Xie fashion, dichotomies emerge and converge in The Herdsman: poor and rich, rural and urban, patriot and expatriate, all poignantly woven into the tapestry of sociopolitical uncertainty that defined mainland China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love
David Liu | 5 April 2013
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest picture suggests a grand illusion. Like any superlative cine-essay, the film’s opening shot doubles as its thesis: A young woman talks on the phone in a Tokyo nightclub, but we do not see her, only what she sees. Men and women shift in and out of the frame, punctuating the disconnect between sound and image.
By way of a long-awaited cut, Kiarostami introduces us to Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college student who works a night job as an escort. Stranded between a cellular standoff with her fiancé and a chance to reunite briefly with her grandmother, Akiko embarks on a taxi for her latest patron saddled with more than a little dose of guilt. Through her eyes, we see flashes of Tokyo as the capital of modern alienation as envisioned by natives and foreigners alike — Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Sofia Coppola.
But of course Like Somewhere in Love is not about what it seems to be about. Unlike his contemporaries, Kiarostami seems less interested in making a sad treatise about a modern city than a playful ode to the possibilities that exist within. When Akiko arrives at her destination, her confusion mirrors ours. Her client presents himself as Watanabe Takashi (veteran television actor Tadashi Okuno), an elderly widower who only wants to chat and drink wine. After an awkward interval, they bond in quintessential Kiarostami fashion, discussing a Japanese painting that hangs on Takashi’s wall — Chiyoji Yazaki’s 1900 “Training a Parrot.” One of the film’s most thrilling shots occurs when Akiko walks up to the painting, turns her head and unwittingly (or willingly?) frames herself parallel to it. As a child, she was convinced the woman in the painting was actually her, she jokes. Only in Kiarostami’s world.
Themes of reproduction — echoes of the director’s last film, 2010’s remarkable Certified Copy — resurface here, first in the painting and again in the form of a lewd advertisement that Akiko’s jealous fiancé Noriaki (Ryo Kase) brings up later in the picture. Noriaki not only refuses to believe that his girlfriend moonlights as a call girl, but also confuses the well-meaning Takashi for Akiko’s grandfather when they meet the next day. The latter’s response to Noriaki’s question about family relations drives home the film’s inside joke: “Do I have to answer that?” Conversations follow, identities subtly shift and emotions eventually flare. As the narrative takes an unexpected twist for the macabre, Kiarostami’s use of off-screen space grows increasingly organic.
From the close-ups of women watching an off-screen film in 2008’s Shirin to the deceptive romantic intrigue of Certified Copy, the visual and aural interplay between obscurity and relevance has played a central role in Kiarostami’s recent efforts. Like Someone in Love both preserves and expands on this freely associative approach to time and narrative. By inviting us to absorb everything we see and hear, Kiarostami challenges us to do just the opposite. After 109 minutes, the effect is quietly exhilarating.
Dedicated to Roger Ebert, who taught us all how to look and what to look for.