Thursday, February 17, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Lives of Others (2006)

On Wednesday 2 March at 18:01, the Phnom Penh Film Club stretches out for the ambitious, riveting, astonishingly perfect cold-war suspense thriller, *The Lives of Others* (2006), directed by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck.

To say that this is a film about a power-intoxicated love triangle behind the iron curtain barely hints at the subtle complexity of this enthralling story about the men of the dreaded "Stasi," the East German secret police -- and about the 'lives' of all those 'others' they were tasked with monitoring. It is this, of course, but it is so very, very, *very* much more.

It is East Berlin in 1984 and, as the opening placard explains, "Glasnost is nowhere in sight." Deep in the shadowy clockwork of the Stasi lurks rising-star Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muehe), cool-headed interrogator extraordinaire to whom we are introduced at the very apotheosis of his chilling craft: The two opening scenes are intercut between his deadpan interrogation of a suspect, and his explication of best practices to a classroom full of college students. At the conclusion of the class, Weisler's friend and superior Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) invites him to see the work of "the republic's only non-subversive artist," Georg Dryeman (Sebastian Koch), writer-director of a play to be premiered that very evening. For reasons of his own, Grubitz anticipates that the show will be attended by his own superior, Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), and doesn't want to be seen there without company.

At the play Grubitz takes turns congratulating himself to Weisler for his good judgment about Dryeman's self-evident loyalty, and panning back down to the VIP seats to watch Hempf -- who seems restless and fidgety during the performance, except when the stage is held by the leading actress, Dreyman's girlfriend Christa-Maria Seiland (Martina Gedeck). Weisler, meanwhile, is content to stare-down Dreyman himself, waiting for even the slightest hint of odd behavior. "I'd have him monitored," Weisler says to Grubitz in an affectless monotone as the play is ending.

Of course he has no idea what he's letting himself in for, or how the granting of his wish to install a listening station in the attic above Dreyman's apartment will change the lives of all the aforementioned parties, forever. By the time it's all over, this improbably complex and subtle narrative will manage to shift our sympathies for the main characters not once but several times -- even without the benefit of knowing, until the end, exactly what's been going on.

The skill with which this film patiently assembles its intricately woven characters, the subtle changes in perspective and allegiances, the quiet desperation, the blind alleys of possible twist-of-plot that must come to nothing if we are to find the eventual resolution genuinely surprising, are unto themselves a thorough justification for this film's placement in the pantheon of genuinely superlative motion pictures. But beyond the "simple" fact of the tight formation in which all these disparate plot elements must fly, there is the added consideration that each of the other cinematic ingredients under Donnersmarck's control are surmounted with equally unforced aplomb: from the subtle use of color schemes to convey different characters' visions of their situation and its terrifyingly fluid nature, to the brilliant deployment of Gabriel Yared's versatile and haunting soundtrack, to the unlikely authenticity of the listening equipment with which Weisler is shown, up in that attic, finding out so much more than he bargained for about the people on whom he has volunteered to spy.

Acclaim for this marvel was instant and worldwide. At the Deutsche Filmpreis -- Germany's Oscars -- The Lives of Others smashed all previous records by garnering eleven (!!!) nominations, eventually taking seven of those awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score and Best Production Design. All three of the BAFTA Awards, The Academy, and The Golden Globes recognized it as the Best Foreign-Language Film, and it was named as one of the overall ten-best films of 2007 by critics from Austin to Baltimore, from Moscow to the New York Times. In 2011 the venerable Europe List recognized The Lives of Others as one of The Top Three Films of European Culture, together with Benigni's *Life is Beautiful* and Jeunet's *Amelie*. Shot and finished for barely $2 Million USD, the film had earned over $77 Million by the end of its first full year in print.

I sincerely urge everyone who has supported the club in any capacity and to any degree to seriously consider attending our 02-March screening of this literal masterpiece at our new start time of 18:01. There are thrillingly entertaining movies on our calendar, and deeply affecting movies, and movies exquisitely made, and there are critically important movies on our radar, too. But very few of our selections are so much of all these things at once.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Baraka (1992)

On Wednesday, 26 April at 18:31, Film Club Phnom Penh will share its first-ever encore performance: the momentous cinematic tone-poem of life and beauty on a planet under stress, Ron Fricke’s *Baraka* (1992). 

In 1980, then twenty-seven-year-old Ron Fricke found himself approached by a college buddy named Godfrey Reggio and asked to lunch. Fricke says he had no clear sense of what topics the lunch date might cover, but he must have had an inkling: For years Reggio had harboured a desire to shoot a non-narrative, dialogue-free cinematic comment on the ambitious and deeply flamed relationships that humankind has cultivated with its surroundings. 

The film he imagined would challenge comfortable audience sensibilities with pensive takes, jarring cutaways, thrillingly experimental deployments of time lapse photography, and an almost indigestibly minimalist score by ultra-avant-garde composer Philip Glass. Above all, the project would advance its unspoken agenda through a series of arresting, nay heart-rending tableaux of environmental ruin and technology run amok. The film would be called *Koyaanisqatsi*. Reggio, it developed, was ready to proceed, and wanted Fricke to handle the challenging and no-doubt career-bending job of principal photography. 

Fricke agreed, of course, and the result is one of the most boundary-defying achievements in the history of motion pictures. Koyaanisqatsi literally stunned the theater-going public in 1982. From Berlin to Tokyo, the picture garnered awards and gob-smacking praise in equal volume—but for Fricke the satisfaction of the achievement always felt asterisked, maybe even left-handed. “Life is bleak, and what the human experiment has done to our planet is bleak,” he explained to one filmographer. “But life is also kind, and chaotic, and fascinating, and absurd, and beautiful. That’s why we call it life.” 

Clearly a follow-up—with Fricke at the helm—was in order. 

Not one to bite the hand that fed him, he began devising a “pure-cinema” project of his own, at once a direct engagement of Reggio’s themes while at the same time eluding any cubby-hole appellations as a “response.” His film would be richer without suggesting that Reggio’s was lean. It would be visually immersive without implying that Reggio’s was too astringent. It would advance similar themes and agendas, but in far more integrated tapestries and without so much as hinting that Reggio’s effort had been heavy-handed. Fricke’s film would celebrate the fact that two smart friends may see the same half-empty glass, yet end up talking about it very, very, *very* differently. It would be lush; it would be musical; it would be stirring yet non-manipulative, evocative without mimicry. It would be called Baraka. 

Filmed over eleven months in twenty-five countries on six continents, Baraka eschews the linear progression of Reggio’s technology apostasy, opting to fight the fire laterally rather than frontally. Gorgeous vistas of natural (and human-designed) aesthetic rapture don’t so much give way to rubbish-strewn dystopias, as pirouette around the madness—reminding us that gardens left unappreciated will languish just as quickly as those surrendered to the weeds and rodents of our lesser selves. The human form is rash, spiritual, violent, dirty, romantic, sometimes cruel: but more than these, so much more than these, he is beautiful to watch and supremely lucky to be here.         

Released in the early nineties when aesthetic calls-to-action made a poor fit against the convulsive public consciousness, Baraka was never as widely seen or loudly celebrated as Reggio’s bolt-from-the-blue had been, ten years earlier. In a way it seems Fricke’s attention to a more stylized visual aesthetic may ironically have rendered Baraka as *less* impactful, suggesting to some that packaging and back-of-the-house wizardry had been preferred at the expense of something closer to Reggio’s more compelling narrative. 

Still, Baraka is beloved by those who know it. Writing for Sight and Sound, Roger Ebert called it “quite literally reason enough to own a BluRay Player, all by itself.” Not feeling like this had done the matter justice, he then added, “If ever we launch another deep-space probe with a message for distant alien civilizations, let that message be this film.” 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Wednesday evening at 18:31 for this immersive, challenging, and exquisite delicacy of globe-trotting cinematic excellence. Few movies we have shared are as likely to forever be remembered after they’ve been seen. 
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Saturday, February 5, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

On Wednesday, 9 February at 18:31, the Phnom Penh Film Club treats itself to by far the most outstanding member-requested title we have considered to this point, Ang Lee’s sweeping and incomparable epic of Chinese folklore from 2000, *Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon*.  

I was planning to start this entry by saying something sympathetic about the Academy’s challenge to pick the Best Picture of 2000, with all the astonishingly superlative movies that came out in that single, charmed year. And then I remembered that the film they did pick was *Gladiator*, and suddenly I didn't feel so sorry for them anymore. Meanwhile, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will always be remembered in certain circles as the first “foreign” film to seriously contend for the main Best Picture category: the film that laid down over the barbed wire of Hollywood parochialism to permit Bong Joon-Ho’s *Parasite* to run across in 2019, and win. At least Crouching Tiger is getting remembered, and watched, two decades after its release upended everything we thought we knew about Chinese films, martial arts folklore, and maybe even the most basic precepts of cinematic narrative. And make no mistake: Even now this picture has a *lot* of friends. It deserves them. 
Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, lifelong colleagues near the end of their useful careers as sword-wielding protectors of Governor Yu, administrator to one of the Qing Dynasty's largest and western-most districts, and himself the proud keeper of the "Green Destiny," a sword of unusual prowess and almost mythical cachet in the eyes of his subjects. When the sword is stolen and Li Mu Bai's kung fu master is killed by minions of the infamous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), Li and Yu must strike out into the breathtaking west-China landscape to avenge the murder and recover the sword.

Okay, yes: Explained that way, this could be just about any martial arts picture of the past thirty-five years—let's say, for the sake of argument, about half of Quentin Tarrantino's beta-tape collection altogether. But the thrillingly remarkable thing about Crouching Tiger is that these tried-and-true elements of Asian martial arts cinema form the mere jumping-off point (literally?) for a plot so much richer in both complexity and empathy as to leave the unsuspecting viewer feeling all but intentionally misled.

The beating heart of the film (and of the book from which it was adapted) is the cleverly inventive conflict faced by Yu and Li in their dealings with the young and impetuous would-be courtesan, Jen Yu: a comely young aspirant who serves variously as their protege, their sweetly adored proto-daughter, their quarry in a high-stakes pursuit for truth and justice, their mortal enemy, and their only real vessel for confessing the honesty of their feelings for each other, and who yet eludes any and all of these nice neat boxes into which they repeatedly try to fit her and her exasperating exploits. 

Jen Yu, it happens, may or may not actually have stolen the sword herself, and may or may not be intending its possession as her calling-card to throw off the oppressively malevolent tutelage of Jade Fox, under whom she's been secretly and semi-willingly a pupil ever since her forced separation from a Mongol lover who'd stolen her heart after taking her hostage as a teenager. Over the next two hours the three kung fu warriors, Yu Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai, and Jen Yu, will pause between sessions of the breathtaking swordsmanship and (physically impossible but somehow instantly credible nonetheless) aerial martial arts displays, to ruminate over a galaxy of complex moral and existential dilemmas, from the consequences of admitting a forbidden love to the perils of choosing the wrong mentor, to the very nature and point of close, unconditional friendship. Ultimately these existential dilemmas disarm even the most cynically dis-believing martial arts rejectionist among us, in favor of a simple immersion in the universally enthralling characters and their could-happen-to-anybody problems.

Ang Lee's direction is typically conscious of tone and composition, inspiring his actors to explore the depths of their own capacities for subtle turns of attitude over a more clamped-down, this-happened-then-this-happened interpretation of the somewhat different-feeling book. The cinematography is lush and epic without seeming turgid, the high-China triptick is worth the price of admission all by itself, the wire-work is instantly (if unexpectedly) believable, and the mostly cello-led score, composed by Tan Dun and played with just the sort of arresting virtuosity one might expect from Yo Yo Ma, fills every spare corner of its own space in the picture without intruding on anyone else's.

It's been said that there are really only a small handful of "stories" in the world: The getting-home story (Das Boot, O Brother Where Art Thou, Apollo-13, Saving Private Ryan), the learn-to-love-before-you-miss-it story (Good Will Hunting, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Amelie, Punch Drunk Love), the proving-one's-self-to-one's-self story (Rocky, The Verdict, Scent of a Woman, gosh, even Silence of the Lambs). But frankly I know of no other single picture that dares to tackle this at-once ubiquitous and yet so prickly question of what, exactly, one does when one's affection for a young and roguish colleague is placed in direct conflict with one's duty to serve the larger good. Many of us have been there, our unflinching desire to see the younger colleague prosper as we have before them—an impulse perhaps reflective of a certain measure of ego-tainted superiority on our own parts but sincere and well-intentioned nonetheless—brought into such swift collision with that young colleague's impetuous insistence on his or her own set of rules and principles. Crouching Tiger is about *this* story, more than any others, and that makes it little short of unique as far as I know. And this is to say nothing of the exquisitely delicate and understated portrait of Li Mu Bai's and Yu Shu Lien's exquisitely delicate and understated love, for each other.

The kung fu, the sword wielding, and the impeccably choreographed many-against-one set pieces are, of course, vastly superior both in ambition and polish to anything that's ever been attempted in a martial arts picture before, and it does the movie no disservice to comment on these elements for the peerless standard-bearers that they are. But the shame of the thing is the expectation that so many of my friends have brought to the picture: that all they'll be watching is a bunch of people in flowing white robes floating impossibly amid a high stand of bamboo and kicking each other. For this reason it's been a tough sell, to get friends and family to sit still for this one. The loss is theirs.

About ten years ago I set out to blog a 100-title countdown of my own selections for the greatest movies ever made. There were many recurring visualizations of how folks might react, but the very first exchange that I heard inside my head, before I’d uploaded the first installment, was of someone logging-in to say, "How could you possibly have put Crouching Tiger in any position on your list other than number one?" Other films would eventually command the same thought exercise (Coppola’s *The Conversation*, Sam Mendes’ *American Beauty*, Bergman’s *Scenes From a Marriage*), but this one was the first title that sprang to mind as a difficult movie to explain into a slot any lower than my choice for overall greatest.  Tough question to answer, in the end. It may well be the single greatest motion picture ever made.

I hope everyone will plan to join us on Wednesday evening at 18:31 for this extraordinary cinematic tour de force of career-zenith performances and a thrillingly compelling and unexpected tale. I can utterly promise that first-time viewers will not soon forget the moment that they joined the ranks of those who’ve seen this film. 

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Film Club Featurette: The Station Agent (2003)

On Sunday at 2:30PM the Phnom Penh film club launches its matinee program with the gloriously understated and instantly memorable indie-underground darling from 2003, *The Station Agent*, directed by first-timer Thomas McCarthy and starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale. A rare Sundance triple prize-winner, this short and breezy picture tells a simple and unfailingly heartwarming tale about finding one's footing in social circumstances outside of one's control. 
Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a self-alienated trainspotter born with dwarfism who, upon the death of his only friend and benefactor at a railway hobby store in Hoboken, finds himself totally alone -- and also the sole inheritor of a railway station in rural New Jersey. Fin moves to the station, whereupon he is befriended against his will by a wide assortment of appropriately flawed and eclectic characters, including accident-prone Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), loquacious lunch-truck drivin' Joe (Bobby Cannavale), and the consciously innocent schoolgirl Cleo (Raven Goodwin). 
For the first three reels the film is content to dish-up a steady diet of inoffensive humor at the expense of the lead character, whose desire "just to be left alone" keeps somehow getting harder and harder for him to realize. When the movie takes its obligatory turn in the direction of just how it would feel for Fin to get his wish, our hearts melt in spite of our best efforts to dismiss the whole thing as too predictable. 
McCarthy’s bit-part acting career and abortive stabs at screenwriting could hardly have done a less effective job of telegraphing the adroit directorial hand that he brought to this widely lauded directorial debut. Having met his cast in assorted Broadway theater projects, McCarthy wrote each part for the specific actor or actress he subsequently cast—and it shows. Where austere filming budgets and crazy-short shooting schedules would have left a lesser talent sitting in the corner with twigs in his hair, McCarthy pivots to those limitations as his creative impetus to tell a story much more subtle and nuanced than a less hampered production would have crafted through bigger moments splashed across the screen.  
Over and above the aforementioned triple-prize at Sundance, The Station Agent was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, two Writers’ Guild prizes, and won the 2003 BAFTA for best original screenplay. Writing for NPR’s Morning Edition, Ken Turan observed, “The film’s strength is that it makes its optimistic point about community without falling back on cheap plot devices that force us to see the matter any certain way. Instead a trio of unlikely characters much more gracefully show us how we are drawn to each other (almost in spite of ourselves) through each of our own messy and unresolved narratives.”
Tom McArdle’s maestro editing and a letter-perfect score by soundtrack newcomer Stephen Trask only serve to fortify the relaxed, quiet-til-it-isn’t triptick of flawed and limping human specimens, doing what they can for each other and, along the way, themselves. The cherry on top is McCarthy's down-to-the-microsecond awareness of precisely the right moment to end his movie and roll the credits. (You'll have to watch it to see what I mean.)
I hope everyone can join us for our inaugural matinee on Sunday at 2:30pm for this improbably effervescent little bonbon of hope and realism and a shared future that, if not exactly chosen, might just manage to fortify our heroes for the siege that we call life.

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