Monday, September 26, 2011

The Hole (1998)

The Hole (1998) is Tsai Ming-liang's beautiful little film about a small part of the world at the millennium, ending not with a bang but with a whimper. The Taiwanese filmmaker sets his film presumably in a Taipei apartment building in an area where the government has encouraged its residents to evacuate. There is an epidemic in the area which is only second to a water shortage. "People cannot live on rainwater, alone" says a radio voice, mildly, over the opening credits. Two residents, however, have chosen to remain in the area and in the apartment building. Upstairs neighbor, portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng, is visited one day by a plumber who tells him that the downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is experiencing a water leak. In order to discover if the leak is originating in the upstairs apartment, the plumber destroys part of the floor to expose the piping, creating a hole in the floor where the two neighbors are able to interact. Allegory is rare in Post-Modern art, because of its often transparent and focal nature. Fortunately, I rarely pay attention to it when its present in either film or fiction, for example, and surely, by reading the short plot set-up above, one can glean, at least superficially, some of the allegory within The Hole. As Tsai Ming-liang has emerged as one of cinema's finest filmmakers, it appears any allegory is wholly created by its viewer. The lithe film is deeper in its emotion and creative rendition, closer to Surrealism or Romanticism than any other school of art. The Hole is an apocalyptic film set in an alternative modern times which, save creative flourishes, looks exactly like our own. In one of the most humorous sequences, the upstairs neighbor goes to work at his stall in a market. The market, which one could presume is extraordinarily busy on any given day, is dead quiet. Kang-sheng's character is not deterred, and he resumes his routine: he opens his stall, prepares his wares, and before the customers hit the market, he feeds a stray cat that haunts the area. Littered around the empty stalls are myriad cans from previous days' feeding. The cat eats heartily. A customer arrives at Kang-sheng's stall and asks for a particular brand of bean sauce. Kang-sheng's character tells him that the brand has been discontinued for some time. The customer is disappointed and chooses to exit Kang-sheng's stall and find another vendor. For minutes, the customer wanders around the empty stalls, like a maze, before exiting the market area into the daylight.
This scene, like many in The Hole, reminds me of a celluloid painting and it makes sense only within its own context. Two later scenes in the market are more affecting as each builds on the other. Kang-sheng's character discovers another vendor within the market whose behavior involves not speaking and crawling on the floor like an animal. When Kang-sheng's character gives chase, the vendor retreats into a dark hole in the wall where Kang-sheng's character lets him stay. (The vendor's behavior is a symptom of the epidemic.) In the following market sequence, a hazmat crew arrives to fumigate the market, unaware or uncaring as to whether anyone is still present in the market. In a foreground, low-key composition, Kang-sheng appears in frame carrying the cat and like a cat, Kang-sheng is scurrying to leave the area. In a particularly sad touch, Kang-sheng loses hold of the cat and is forced to abandon it as the hazmat crew fills the stalls with its chemicals.
The downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is incensed by her upstairs neighbor. From the first frame from within her dwelling, Kuei-mei mops up the leaking water in her apartment with dirty rags. The wallpaper is soaked and peeling, and it is quite evident that her dwelling is nearing complete ruin. Yet she stays. In subsequent sequences, Ming-liang shows the two neighbors engaging in similar behavior simultaneously in separate dwellings. In a signature Tsai Ming-liang touch, there is little dialogue within The Hole. In an almost literary touch, Kuei-mei's consciousness is rendered through musical sequences, as Kuei-mei performs song and dances to the music of Grace Chang. Not surprisingly, Ming-liang is able to take the antique songs and their lyrics and wholly and effectively weave them into his narrative. Like many other scenes, these sequences make their sense in their own context. Like Grace Chang's musical style, The Hole is pure and a throwback to cinema before, yet it's firmly rooted in its Post-Modern era. The Hole is the type of film that makes me not think of cinema as a product and instills the belief in the me that there are still artists making films. The Hole, and Tsai Ming-liang cinema in general, shows the beauty of subjectivity. (At the time of this writing, subjectivity in cinema is my current obsession, and films which take subjectivity as its focus are the only ones really getting my attention). The Hole is a lithe, playful film with a very carefree sensibility yet amazingly affecting without ever seemingly intending to be so.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mad Max (1979)

It had been years since I have watched Mad Max (1979), and thanks to Netflix Instant Viewing, I was able to revisit it. I originally saw the film close to the North American VHS release of its sequel, The Road Warrior (1981), which would have made me a lad of six or seven years old. Needless to say, I missed quite a bit of the text of the film, as I was mostly enthralled with both films' kinetic action sequences. My parents never censored anything from me, and for that, I am grateful. In any case, seeing Mad Max, today, it is the quintessential Post-Modern film, before being Post-Modern was hip. It's clearly a fantastic exploitation picture, rooted firmly in its genre, and clearly a milestone in "Ozploitation Cinema," the unique brand of genre cinema from Australia, which is now enjoying a renaissance. Mad Max is also a brilliant science fiction film which owes a clear debt to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1973), for example, and provocative science fiction literature, such as the work by J.G. Ballard. In terms of visuals, director George Miller's seminal film was really only topped by Miller, himself, with the film's sequel.

Almost all science fiction, whether literature or film, needs a context. The viewer or reader needs to know what are the rules of the world: what is the year? how has technology advanced? And how has it affected the culture? In a brilliant subversive touch, Miller dispenses with the comforting science fiction exposition. "A few years later," as on-screen text, is all that is delivered. So what is shown? A suicidal, psychotic madman, known as the Nightrider (Vince Gil) is blazing through the countryside in his suped-up muscle car. Leather-clad men, who operate with methods a lot like the police, are bored. Over their walkie-talkies, they hear of the Nightrider's escapades. A leather-clad pair starts their vehicle. The vehicle is eerily similar to a modern NASCAR model. Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) interrupts his meal to hop on his motorcycle and join in on the action. One of their number remains silent in his vehicle, waiting for the Nightrider to pass his way on the road. If this leather-clad group is the police, one would intuitively think that they would attempt to subdue the Nightrider and end his reign of terror. Nope. They're going to kill him. The silent one, waiting in the shadows, is Mad Max (Mel Gibson), and he kills the Nightrider. The Nightrider's death becomes Mad Max's Pandora's Box: it invites the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his violent crew and their wrath. Whoops.

The first act of Mad Max is totally disorienting. If the action sequences weren't enough, that is. There is almost nothing for a contemporary audience to reference to their own world. In a humorous touch, the leather-clad crew of enforcers reside in a decrepit and littered building, titled "Hall of Justice." However, they act like a crew hanging around a motor pool. The local mechanic, in one scene, shows Goose and Max the car that he built piecemeal. It's called an Interceptor, and it's decked-out to the max. Like little kids, they just want to joyride. The small towns that litter the countryside look like old Western towns, with dusty streets, tumbleweeds, and saloon-doors swinging in the wind. The Toecutter and his motorcycle gang pull their bikes up to the building, like they are hitching their horses. Hospitals are like garbage dumps, and ambulances are like tow trucks. WTF?

The essential premise of Mad Max is that men are violent creatures, and they quite enjoy their violence. Chaos is the norm, and civilized behavior is precious and rare. In melodramatic scenes, with accompanying melodramatic music, perfectly appropriate for an exploitation picture, maternal Jessie (Joanne Samuel), Max's wife, shows Max nothing but love. She attempts to sway Max out of his lifestyle. She's very patient, and eventually, Max sees the grotesque end result of violence. When Jessie is out of his life, however, Max returns to the life to which is he familiar. With excellent exploitation results. The final twenty minutes of Mad Max are exhilarating and totally satisfying.

There are also myriad, beautiful surreal sequences in Mad Max. In one scene, Goose has a wince-inducing, high speed crash on his motorcycle. Clearly disoriented (I'm guessing serious head trauma), he calls for help on his CB, but it is not connected. Goose begins to wander on the road as if being on the road gives him comfort. He commandeers a pick-up truck from a local to haul his bike back into town. Is he all right? No. In a charming way, he's bent and crazy.

In a hundred-and-eighty degree turn, Miller can also be haunting. When the Toecutter and his crew hound a couple down the road and subdue their vehicle by force, Miller cuts away from the inevitable carnage. Max and Goose hear of the exploits and go to investigate. When they arrive at the accident scene, they see the male of the couple running in a wind-shook field, half-naked and full of fear. One of the Toecutter's crew, Johnny (Tim Burns) is still at the scene, completely inebriated. Johnny has lassoed the female of the couple with a long steel-link chain, like an animal. She's been traumatized beyond belief. Later a local remarks that the couple's car looks like "it's been chewed up and spit out." Miller's aftermath scenes rival in power most filmmakers' depiction scenes. These surreal, trippy sequences are the heart of Mad Max: they flow from their own logic and are their own chaos.

Mel Gibson, regardless of what one thinks of him today, was immediately captivating and charismatic from his first scene. The youthful Gibson is amazingly handsome and virile. He's a very credible badass as Mad Max. Gibson plays Max as youthful, playful, and innocent, especially in his scenes with Jessie, and when he's behind the wheel, he's like a man possessed. The rest of the cast deserves further praise, as all are quite good. Miller's action sequences are all about speed. The viewer really feels as if he/she is literally riding shotgun on the action. Cars are presented as powerful tools of breathtaking violence. Is Mad Max thought-provoking? Certainly. However, it's one of those films which takes center stage here at Quiet Cool: it's too playful to be taken seriously, yet it's too serious to be taken lightly. Mad Max has many allusions and influences, too many to name here. A definite must-see for all serious thrill-seekers of cinema.