Monthly Archives: October 1993

Farewell My Concubine

Like Gone With the Wind, Chen Kaige’s blockbuster–half a century of contemporary Chinese history (1925-1977) seen through the lives of two Peking Opera actors and a former prostitute–is worth seeing largely for its pizzazz: riveting performances, epic sweep and story telling, a bold and melodramatic use of color, and a capacity to generalize suggestively about large historical events through a few interlocking individual stories. Needless to say, there are certain limitations as well as advantages to this approach. The rather gingerly treatment of the homosexuality of one of the lead characters, while somewhat taboo breaking for a big-budget Chinese production, founders on a determination to make most of his sex life inscrutable, and the emphasis on violence in the early opera-training sequences sometimes has the effect of inflated rhetoric. Nevertheless, this is entertaining filmmaking on a grand scale. As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Miramax, which has been vocal about the injustice of the censor’s cuts made in China, has induced the director to cut 14 minutes out of the U.S. prints, making the film even shorter here than it is there. With Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li, adapted by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei from the former’s best-selling novel. Read more

It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles

A two-part film. The first part is an exemplary, scrupulously researched documentary about the making and unmaking of Orson Welles’s 1942 Latin American documentary feature It’s All True — a project doomed by a change of studio heads at RKO, but also by its radical politics: Welles’s problack stance and his focus on the poorest sectors of Brazilian life upset RKO and the Brazilian dictatorship alike. (His career never fully recovered from the ensuing studio propaganda, and this film represents the first major effort after half a century of obfuscation to set the record straight.) The second part is a simple editing together of the rushes of “Four Men on a Raft,” the most ambitious (though least well-known) of the film’s projected three sections, and the only one whose footage has survived nearly in its entirety. It’s the true story of four courageous Fortaleza fishermen who sailed more than 1,600 miles to Rio to protest their economic exploitation by the men who owned their fishing rafts, beautifully shot in black and white by George Fanto. Welles had intended to narrate the section himself, but the writers and directors of this documentary — the late Richard Wilson, who worked on the original film, and critics Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel — have wisely opted not to second-guess Welles, simply presenting the material as it stands and adding music and sound effects. Read more

China, My Sorrow

The Chinese title of Dai Sijie’s semiautobiographical 1989 feature, filmed in the French Pyrenees with a nonprofessional cast of Chinese and Vietnamese emigres, means “bull sheds,” or rehabilitation centers. In a small town in China in 1966, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, a 13-year-old boy momentarily disrupts the local propaganda by playing a pop record–actually a love song from the classic 1937 Shanghai film Street Angels–as a way of flirting with a girl in the courtyard below, and as a consequence is sent to a remote labor camp in the Mountains of Eternal Life. Dai Sijie, trained as a filmmaker in France, makes the most of his spectacular settings and extracts from this story not so much a grim survival tale as a nostalgic and poetic idyll about childhood freedom–a sort of Chinese Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which a monk on the mountainside taking a vow of silence plays the nurturing and sacrificial role of Jim. Hampered at times by awkward performances and clumsy English subtitles, this is still a worthy companion to The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine as a contemporary reassessment of the Cultural Revolution, with an evocative and haunting lyricism all its own. Winner of the Prix Jean Vigo. Read more

Ticket of No Return

If you’re looking for an alternative to the Chicago Film Festival, here’s a neglected movie from the past that’s better than most of the current festival entries. Of the many films by Ulrike Ottinger I’ve seen, this lovely and deliciously “irresponsible” 1979 camp item has given me the most unbridled pleasure. A nameless heroine (Tabea Blumenschein) arrives in West Berlin on a one-way ticket intending to drink herself to death, and three prim ladies known as Social Question (Magdalena Montezuma), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika Von Cube) stand around and kibitz. Thanks to the heroine’s extravagant wardrobe, the diverse settings, the witty dialogue, the imaginative mise en scene, and the overall celebratory spirit, Ticket of No Return is a continuous string of delights, worth anybody’s time. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Ilene Goldman. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, October 19, 6:00, 443-3737. Read more

The Best is Yet to Come

As the 29th Chicago International Film Festival winds into its second week, a good many of its best offerings, including most of my own favorites either are still to come or will receive second screenings. My prime recommendations among those I’ve seen are Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague, Chantal Akerman’s From the East, Godard’s Helas pour moi, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, Jerry Schatzberg’s Reunion, Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Dusan Makavejev’s Gorilla Bathes at Noon, and Chen Kuo-fu’s Treasure Island. The first three qualify as “difficult” films, but who said festival films have to be easy? Treasure Island isn’t always easy to follow in terms of plot, but can be recommended for its beautifully shot, dreamlike evocation of contemporary Taipei.

Farewell, My Concubine, which I caught up with last week, can be described, for better and for worse, as the Gone With the Wind of Chinese cinema, except that its historical canvas, far from being restricted to a single cataclysmic event, covers half a century of upheaval and turmoil, from 1925 to 1977. The version being shown has been trimmed by 14 minutes by Kaige himself for U.S. distribution, apparently under the assumption that American audiences are more prone to fidget than the jury members at Cannes, who awarded the longer version top prize. Read more

The Age of Innocence

Those determined to avoid the Chicago Film Festival and Luis Buñuel‘s long-neglected The Young One (see Section One for more information on both) won’t go too far wrong with Martin Scorsese’s ambitious and sumptuous film version of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about New York society in the 1870s. It manages to be both personal and true to its source, though it never quite comes together. Incorporating chunks of Wharton’s socially knowing prose in the narration (regally spoken by Joanne Woodward), it tells the story of a young lawyer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who’s engaged to marry a debutante (Winona Ryder) but who falls in love with her married cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer), a somewhat disreputable countess, and never succeeds in doing very much about it. As beautifully mounted as this production is, Scorsese has a way of letting the decor take over, so that Wharton’s tale of societal constraints comes through only in fits and starts. It’s a noble failure, though, with plenty of compensations, including a fine secondary cast that includes Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Stuart Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, and Norman Lloyd. Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Golf Mill, 900 N. Michigan. Read more

The Shadow Of Angels

Daniel Schmid’s somewhat kitschy and decorative 1976 film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s controversial play, which some called anti-Semitic when it was first presented onstage because of its treatment of a Jewish businessman; another important character is a prostitute (Ingrid Caven) who serves as a mother-confessor to the businessman, among others. An interesting contrast to Fassbinder’s own films of this period, it eschews Hollywood melodrama as a model and tries for something more operatic; it’s probably one of Schmid’s best features. With Ulli Lommel and Irm Hermann. 108 min. (JR) Read more

The Young One

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1993). — J.R.


Luis Buñuel‘s two English-language films, this picture and the 1952 The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, are among the most neglected of his middle-period Mexican films — made between his early surrealist masterpieces (Un chien andalou, L’age d’or, Land Without Bread) and the late European features (Viridiana, That Obscure Object of Desire) that revived his world reputation. The Young One is a taut comedy-thriller from 1961, set on a game-preserve island off the Carolina coast, though shot, surprisingly, in Mexico. A northern black jazz musician (Bernie Hamilton), fleeing a trumped-up rape charge involving a white woman, arrives on the island and is briefly befriended by a young teenage orphan (Key Meersman), the granddaughter of a handyman who’s just died. An unfriendly game warden (Zachary Scott) who’s taken a shine to the girl tries to kill the musician; eventually a local preacher (Claudio Brook) and the game warden’s boatman (Crahan Denton) also turn up. A satiric look at both racism and sexual hypocrisy that refuses to take sides, this dark, sensual comedy of manners, adapted quite freely from a Peter Matthiessen story by the gifted blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler (under a pseudonym) along with Buñuel, is full of poetic asides and unexpected developments, revealing Buñuel‘s dark, philosophical wit at its most personal. Read more

Wild West

A disconcerting mix of gritty realism and blunt contrivance, this is an English picture about a Pakistani country-western band in Southall, Londonan odd enough subject to hold our interest even if the story never settles down into a consistent strategy. The movie keeps twitching restlessly as it takes us through violent gang confrontations, diverse rebellions that recall 50s and 60s rock movies, asides on racism, some pretty good country-western numbers, and a potential love story between the Pakistani hero (Naveen Andrews) and a battered Asian housewife (Sarita Choudhury) that never really develops. The film’s humor mainly remains undeveloped as well, but at least director David Attwood and writer Harwant Bains keep things moving. (JR) Read more

Time Indefinite

For better and for worse, Ross McElwee’s compulsively diaristic films and his persona in them are relatively lightweight, whether McElwee’s exploring the contemporary south while looking for a girlfriend in Sherman’s March (1986) or dealing with marriage, the death of his father, and the prospect of his own fatherhood, as he is in this 1993 feature. The laid-back charm of his method is undeniable, but it can also wear thin. When his old, life-affirming friend Charleen (a McElwee regular) turns up to regenerate this movie after a long patch of glum musings, one is more than grateful. (JR) Read more

Return Engagement

An entertaining 1983 documentary by Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, Mortal Thoughts) culled from more than 60 hours of footage chronicling debates between Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and LSD guru Timothy Leary at various campuses across the nation, as well as their personal exchanges during the tour. Part of the joke is how much they seem to have in common at certain points, despite their ostensible ideological and temperamental differences. (JR) Read more

The Remains Of The Day

Though I haven’t read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel that this James Ivory (director)-Ismail Merchant (producer)-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writer) feature adapts, informed sources suggest that the biting class commentary in the original is sacrificed here for a failed love story (1993). Certainly the two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, are adroit and compelling as the servants of James Fox’s befuddled lord and Nazi sympathizer, and Fox and Christopher Reeve (as the American who eventually purchases the lord’s estate) turn in fine performances as well. But Jhabvala’s tactics for revealing the lord’s Nazi sympathies are awkward and primitive, and the script’s violations of the butler’s viewpoint to show us more of Thompson’s life make for confusion. The actors keep this interesting, but as a story it drifts and rambles; with Peter Vaughan, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale, and Tim Pigott-Smith. (JR) Read more

Puzzle Of A Downfall Child

Very much a film of its period (1970), when Alain Resnais’ subjective and lyrical editing patterns were at the height of their influence, this is the first feature of former fashion photographer Jerry Schatzberg. It deals with the memories and imaginings of a fashion model (Faye Dunaway) who’s attempting to recover from a nervous breakdown in a beach cottage, and shares the fragmented, mosaic form as well as some of the melancholia of the 1968 Petuliathough not much of its saving humor. I didn’t warm to this film, but given the quality of some of Schatzberg’s subsequent work, especially Scarecrow and Reunion, and the claims made for this picture by Michel Ciment, Schatzberg’s biggest champion, it may deserve a second look. The script is by Five Easy Pieces’s Adrien Joyce, writing under the pseudonym Carol Eastman; the secondary cast includes Barry Primus, Viveca Lindfors, Barry Morse, and Roy Scheider. (JR) Read more

The Piano

Sweetie and An Angel at My Table have taught us to expect startling as well as beautiful things from Jane Campion, and this assured and provocative third feature (1993) offers yet another lush parablealbeit a bit more calculated and commercially mindedabout the perils and paradoxes of female self-expression. Set during the last century, this original story by Campionwhich evokes at times some of the romantic intensity of Emily Brontefocuses on a Scottish widow (Holly Hunter) who hasn’t spoken since her childhood, presumably by choice, and whose main form of self-expression is her piano playing. She arrives with her nine-year-old daughter in the New Zealand wilds to enter into an arranged marriage, which gets off to an unhappy start when her husband-to-be (Sam Neill) refuses to transport her piano. A local white man living with the Maori natives (Harvey Keitel) buys the piano from him and, fascinated by and attracted to the mute woman, agrees to sell it back to her a key at a time in exchange for lessons, with ultimately traumatic consequences. (JR) Read more

My Life

Bruce Joel Rubin, the writer of Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost, is both writer and director of another spiritual parablethis one about a prospective father (Michael Keaton) who discovers he has cancer and may not live to see the baby; he decides to make a video about his life to leave behind. Nicole Kidman plays the wife and mother, and she and Keaton both make the occasional longueurs of this sincere and sensible if fairly predictable story worth sitting through. Surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of comedy along the way, and far from being depressing the movie offers as sunny a prospect of coming to terms with death as one can imagine. Haing S. Ngor plays Keaton’s insightful Chinese doctor and spiritual guide, and the other costars include Bradley Whitford, Michael Constantine, and Rebecca Schull. (JR) Read more