Archive for the Spike’s Classics Category

Spike’s Classics: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Spike's Classics with tags , on April 29, 2008 by Spike Marshall

DVD Cover

Link To Excerpts from the Beautiful Soundtrack

All About Lily Chou-Chou is an interesting piece of filmmaking, partially due to its roots. Director Shunji Iwai would launch an online novel in early 2000, creating a fictional website and posting in the forum section as several different characters. For half a year the site would be regularly updated with members of the public allowed to become part of the ongoing narrative. He would close down the site in late 2000 and start work on the film version, using previously untested Digital Cameras to quickly and concisely film his product before it was released to critical and surprising box office acclaim in 2001. The film would take the constantly evolving narrative of the website and adapt it into a surprisingly bleak and yet elegantly beautiful look at life for modern Japanese schoolchildren.

For anyone who had to deal with bullying, or knew a victim of bullying, All About Lily Chou-Chou will probably be an ordeal. Its lucid, vivid and repellently uncompromising look at social isolation and bullying would probably cut a little too close to the bone. Not that Lily Chou-Chou is the first film to deal with such issues (bullying is after all a fairly generic cinematic trope), but it is rare that the issue is dealt with in a way that is both lyrical and incredibly visceral. Whilst most other films offer a buffer zone of detachment Lily Chou-Chou forces the viewers to feel and relate to its young stars through its near documentary style of film making.

Yuichi

Despite this documentary stylisation film is stunning to look at, its colour palette and design ethos giving vibrancy to an altogether rather bleak film. Shot entirely on DV cameras the film has a sort of ethereal quality, a point reinforced by the hazy and often dreamlike narrative. If anything Lily Chou-Chou feels like a film which is suffering from post traumatic stress, its recollection of scenes hazy and confused, events cutting off and merging haphazardly. As such we are largely only offered glimpses of the story; key events delivered without context which all build up to create the central arc of the film. A contributing factor to this haphazardness is the way the chronology in the film works, or to be more honest doesn’t.

All About Lily Chou-Chou follows two Japanese schoolboys as they leave Junior School, go on a summer vacation and attend the first year of High School. Yuichi is something of an introvert, devoting his time to the running of his fansite and listening to the music of Lily Chou-Chou. He has a few friends at school which is more than can be said for Hoshino, the academic star of his year whose success has ostracised him from the rest of his peers. The film opens in high school with Hoshino having already turned on all around him and set himself up as a vicious and brutal bully. His relationship with Yuichi is never fully explained until about thirty minutes into the film when the narrative doubles back on itself to examine the previous year’s events.

HoshinoIn a lot of other films the boys bonding and eventual trip to a sunny locale (in this case Okinawa) would be handled with a light and breezy touch, the slight of hand to prepare you for the sucker punch of the next two acts. What Lily Chou-Chou does is cast a shadow over these moments of exuberance; we know that Hoshino is going to turn out bad. But by looking at these happier times with foreknowledge of his present situation everything becomes a little darker, a pall is cast over every event and the viewer finds themselves searching for links as to Hoshino’s change in behaviour.

Our first encounter with Yuichi is as a miscreant and then as a victim, our first encounter with Hoshino is as a victim and then a miscreant. The establishing moment for Hoshino is a speech he is forced to read on behalf of his classmates explaining their hopes and aspirations for high school. You can see the duality immediately, the pride at being chosen for this honour conflicting with his persistent knowledge of his classmate’s hatred.

This trip to Okinawa during the school holidays is funded by the aftermath of a petty theft, the boys descending on a robbery and sprinting away with the loot they find. It is Hoshino who makes the first move and invariably secures the money for the boys and it is another layer added to the character. He is already acting out by this point, but without the context of the schoolyard or his later violence. It is only during the trip to Okinawa and a series of near fatal accidents that Hoshino truly withdraws from the group. His near Shakespearean fall into isolation and near madness is juxtaposed against the stories of those whom he abuses and allows to be abused. Indeed, the last hour of the film is so shocking because of the fact that Hoshino is so calculating. His actions are carried out with a cool, detached, malice and his crimes become more and more unspeakable.

A film which started off as an average treatise on school life suddenly descending into a brutal, nihilistic, vision of a schoolboy kingpin who blackmails his schoolmates into prostitution, organises a brutal gang rape and ritually humiliates one of his closest friends. Indeed Hoshino’s first two acts aren’t particularly violent but demonstrate a cruelty and malice that is utterly disturbing. We first see him betray Yuichi (setting his gang on his former friend and destroying his prized CD and CD player) and then we see him assert dominance over the school bully by stripping him of his pride. He doesn’t particularly harm the bully, he just makes a mockery of him in a detached and sociopathic way.

His snapping of Yuichi’s copy of the new Lily Chou-Chou CD is perhaps far more significant than any other action in the film. It’s a severance of ties between him and his old friend and also a pollution of the ‘ether’ a spiritual energy which Yuichi and Hoshino talk about on their website. The major indication of the extent of this action is the fact that the near continuous soundtrack is ominously missing for a few minutes after this action. In fact it doesn’t return until the film goes back into itself for the flashback. Music plays such a large and vital part of the film that its sudden absence feels almost like an assault and its conspicuous absence suggests the destruction of purity far better than anything else in the film.

At its core All About Lily Chou-Chou plays broadly with the corruption of innocence idea. The corruption of the Ether (a term used several times in the film) a pretty apt metaphor for the corruption of innocence taking place within the children’s lives. Music is the only escape Yuichi has from his tormentors and the only way he can truly connect with his fellow victims. The text message excerpts from his website explain how easily people fall into the lure and escape of the Ether and the final scenes go a long way to corrupting even this last bastion. Indeed Yuichi is not really a victim in a traditional sense, only suffering one physical abuse at the hands of Hoshino’s gang. More than anything else the damage is done by how he is forced to intergrate into Hoshino’s ever expanding gang, given the menial task of watching over the schoolgirl Hoshino has turned into a prostitute.

The film offers no real answers to the problems of bullying and to expect it to would be rather moronic. What it does is paint a real picture of what it is like to be a victim of a bully and how innocuous and random their dislike can be. The overall message is rather distressing; the film seems to revel in unilateral action as the only way to fight against bullying. As such suicide, self sacrifice, and murder are the only solutions the victims are left with. Whilst the film seems to drift toward melodrama at points, the rape scene and the fate of a girl doomed to be a child escort both feel perhaps a little detached from the general narrative, the effect of the Digital Photography always grounds it at least in a facsimile of reality.

That is the odd dichotomy at work in All About Lily Chou-Chou its ethereal elegance matched with material that is indicting in its reality. It is a tale that is both supremely stylised and at times hyper real. It is a film that is utterly shocking and morally depressing but that is also lyrically beautiful and bursting with colour and vitality. Every technical aspect is remarkably polished even the fictional score by Lily Chou-Chou is the kind of music that is enrapturing and alluring and it all works to make the impact of the film even more brutal.

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Spike’s Classics: In The Mood For Love

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Review, Spike's Classics with tags , , on March 24, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Poster for In The Mood for LoveExcerpts from the Score

In the Mood for Love was the western breakthrough for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. While his earlier works had enjoyed some success, In The Mood for Love managed to break through into mainstream, a rare task indeed for a film that was both foreign and dealt with themes and ideas that were not particularly mainstream material.

What is even more surprising about the film’s success is that aside from its stunning design there is nothing that could be classed as a hook, nothing that on paper would interest a western audience. The fact of the matter is that despite the very alien setting and culture the story of two hurt people seeking solace from each other is a universal tale.

chan.jpgWhat makes the film so compelling is the chemistry between the two leads. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, both Kar-Wai regulars, playing Chow and Chan deliver beautifully restrained yet emotive performances. These central performances serve as an anchor for the film that at times does drift into being overly ponderous.

However these ponderous moments help showcase Kar-Wai’s skill as a director and Christopher Doyle’s extraordinary talent as a cinematographer. Every shot of the film is beautiful, the lens telling us everything that Chan and Chow cannot admit to each other.

chow.jpgIt is easy to see why many people view In The Mood for Love as Kar-Wai’s strongest film. It is a film of regal majesty, beautifully judged and shot with the tenderness and care only a director with a definitive vision could. Dialogue and plot are largely thrown away to instead focus on composition and overall mood. The characters speak to each other a lot but they never truly communicate on a verbal level.

The film is simply astonishing to look at and taken as stills each frame could be seen as a work of art. But it is only when the still image coalesces with other elements that the sheer magic of the film is allowed to flourish.

The use of slow motion is perhaps the more memorable element of the film, long thoughtful takes with the haunting string based score providing the only sound as the characters go about their daily routine.

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It is the mastery of these elements that makes the film so successful. On its own the cinematography would be great, but when combined with the wondrously emotive score, inspired costume design, use of space, and breathtaking set design In The Mood for Love becomes a modern masterpiece.

In a lot of ways In The Mood for Love plays like a modern fairytale. It mixes realistic themes and notions with an almost dreamlike production sense. Everything that the characters do feels real, but the world they inhabit is like a stylised painting. From the swirls of luxurious smoke that emerge from Chow’s cigarettes, to the delicate dresses that Chan wears everything in the film has a hint of unreality to it. They exist in a place that is designed down to the smallest detail, a meticulously crafted stage to showcase the characters.

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Wong Kar-Wai trusts his audience to make links and figure out plot points with minimal guidance and the general ambiguity of the end scenes is perhaps the greatest indication of this. In the Mood for Love is a difficult film in a lot of ways because it does require active participation by the audience. They have to work out what is going on largely for themselves and a lot of the emotional payoff comes from having a general investment in the characters.

Kar-Wai creates this audience participation right from the start with the moving scenes. We are shown Chan’s meeting with the landlady and agreement to move in, we are then introduced to Chow who asks for the same room, he is denied but told a room is going next door, we see him knock at the door and then the scene shifts to the moving stage with no interaction between Chow and his landlady. Then after the moving scene we are shown the couples happily moved in. It is this collection of scenes that prepares the audience for Kar-Wai’s shorthand storytelling technique and also forces the audience to pay attention to what is going on.

partners.jpgThe camera tells the story more than the characters themselves, this is especially true of scenes involving the spouses of Chow and Chan. Both partners do appear on screen but you only ever see their backs. You hear their voices and there is interaction between the two couples but the errant partners are for the most part ciphers which allows for the audience to easily make a connection between Chow and Chan.

In one early scene we see Chan get taken away from her husband’s side by Chow’s wife, leaving the room closely followed by Chow himself. It is also worth noting that this is the first of the slow motion scenes that take place throughout the film. It could be argued that the specific use of music and filming style could indicate a certain displacement for both characters as the technique is used again when they both make their jaunts down to the rice sellers. While the music itself is pretty and the cinematography stunning the scenes are in a way almost tragic, people accepting their fate and just getting on with what they have to do.

It is also interesting to note that the internal geography of the sets is used to reinforce another key element of the movie. Chow and Chan can never be together, they are still too tied to their partners and too meek to leave. In the first half of the movie, before the discovery of infidelity, the two characters are separated at all times by shot composition. They rarely appear in the same shot together until the restaurants scene and a lot of communication is done while focused on one character, with the other off screen. This same use of geography is put to use again, and rather more obviously, during the last act where the two characters are sat back to back against a wall, both listening to the same thing but both worlds apart.

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The two characters also do not start off in love with each other. Both characters are very much in love with their spouses and as such the conversations between Chow and Chan are very genial. In fact in one early scene Chan is walking up a flight of stairs and turns past Chow, neither character seemingly interested or aware of each others presence. When both characters start to realise the truth they become more interested each other, the scene on the stairs is repeated but this time with both characters exchanging glances.

In the Mood for Love does not start out as a love story it evolves into one. The primary focus of the second act, after the infidelity is discovered, is about the burgeoning friendship between Chow and Chan. They don’t bond because they are in love they bond because they are both displaced by their partner’s adultery. They both just want to know what happened and how it happened, how their partners were lured by someone else.

li-zhen-rests.jpgThey become allies not in a bid for vengeance but in a quest for understanding. They are never overtly angry at their partners, they just accept that their own actions drove them apart. Chow and Chan’s relationship is mutually supportive despite the wildly different courses of actions they both take. Chow feels tied down by marriage and takes the infidelity as a chance for freedom he pursues his dream of writing and moves away from the apartment, Chan however still has feelings for her husband and uses Chow as a way to understand what happened and a way to rehearse her inevitable reconciliation. Even when they are trapped together there is a gulf between them, Chow and Chan seemingly occupying wildly different sections of the same room.

It is only after spending time together that Chow starts to feel something for Chan and he knows that he cannot separate her from her husband. Because he can never have her he instead flees from the situation ending up in Singapore and later Cambodia. When he travels back to Hong Kong he is presented with an opportunity to see Chan again but turns it down. In the end he knows that their moments of friendship and gentle love can never be revisited and as such he buries his feelings away, never to be known again.

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In the Mood for Love like many of Kar-Wai’s movies explores the many facets of love that exist. It is not a story about a passionate romance, that is more the partner’s story, but instead a look at reconciliation and the sacrifices people make for each other.

Spike’s Classics: Candyman

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review, Spike's Classics with tags , on March 19, 2008 by Spike Marshall

candyman-poster.jpegWhat do you get when you combine the talents of a director now known for his fondness of Russian Literature, a composer best known for his minimalist and ethereal scoring, a cast of unknowns and source material from professional horror weirdo Clive Barker?

The answer is one of the great Horror films of the 1990s. Between Freddy and Jason’s last hurrah and Wes Craven’s ironic revitalisation of the genre Horror cinema was in an odd place. The Franchises which had made the genre such a juggernaut in the 1980s had all reached their nadir and nothing was coming to fill their place. There would be some truly great films made in this Horror hinterland, but none of them would really impact the market in the way that the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Streets film had.

Candyman is one such film; produced in 1992 the movie would garner good reviews and would have moderate success at the box office earning close to twenty five million at the box office. It is easy to see why Candyman would become such a popular character, even when divorced from the context of his own film. Barker has always been a master of regal, intelligent and hideously beautiful villains. Pinhead, Candyman and even Nightbreed’s Dr. Decker are all villains who mix a conceptually simple and striking design with an intelligence and maleficent theatricality. Candyman is an archetypal Barker villain spouting well rehearsed prose and combining a sense of the horrific and the sensual.

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However despite the first film tripling its production budget the series would only be revisited twice. In a horror market currently dominated by remakes and reimaginings it is hard to understand why a character with such innate market appeal would be given such short shrift.

Candyman’s box office success but lack of exploitation may come from the very nature of the film itself which uses the iconography of a traditional slasher film to mask something a little more complex.

helen-2.pngThe film is based off of Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden and is focused on an ambitious graduate student named Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen) who is conducting research for her thesis on Urban Legends. As she interviews Freshmen at her college she comes across the legend of the Candyman, a supernatural hook handed killer dispensing bloody retribution to whoever speaks his name five times whilst looking at a mirror. As Helen investigates the legend further she finds out about Candyman’s roots in the Cabrini Green housing project and about a rash of murders attributed to the mythological figure.

It is this last point that is of the most importance to the movie, the notion of an entire community generating folklore to explain away the escalating gang violence they see around them. Dozens of people have been killed with a hook in the housing project, leading to an almost cult of the Candyman being created. When Helen and her friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) investigate Cabrini Green, and specifically an abandoned apartment where the last Candyman killing took place, they find the housing project daubed with the iconography of the hook handed killer. The residents of Cabrini Green have become so terrified of this mythological character that a gangster has taken up the mantle of the killer dispensing his own form of brutal justice in Candyman’s name.

candyman.pngThis is the point where the film starts to play with audience expectations. As viewers we go into films with certain expectations, we subconsciously arm ourselves with information whether garnered from reviews, publicity information or word of mouth. With a movie like Candyman we approach the film already knowing about the hook handed killer, already having seen images of Candyman in promotional material and as such we make the intellectual choice to accept that within the reality of the film there exists a supernatural killer who is murdering people for the mundane crime of reciting his name.

This complicity makes us approach the film in the same way that the residents of Cabrini Green approach their daily lives. Every crime and act of villainy in the film is attributable to this killer and as we see Helen look through newspaper killings detailing the serial murders in the housing project we assume that they are all the work of the supernatural Candyman, a character who can appear at will, can murder without question and who at the start of the film even offers his own introduction.

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They will say that I have shed innocent blood.
What’s blood for, if not for shedding?
With my hook for a hand…
I’ll split you from your groin to your gullet.
I came…
… for you.

As such when we are offered the person responsible for the serial killings halfway through the film we are forced to evaluate our own notions of how the world works. The titular killer has been revealed to be a person of flesh and blood, a gruff gang enforcer who maintains order in Cabrini Green through sheer terror.

We are shown his motives and methods, Helen discovering that the different apartments in the housing project are connected by a crawl space behind medicine cabinets. The initial supernatural elements of the film are quashed and subsequently introduce a second supernatural element, something far more interesting than an otherworldly serial killer.

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Candyman’s initial appearance comes late in the movie, long after we have heard his legend and seen his imagined handiwork. With Helen having succeeded in getting the ‘real’ Candyman put into prison the residents of Cabrini Green have abandoned their faith in the hook handed killer, realising the murders were perpetuated by man and not avenging ghost. This lack of faith threatens the Candyman who is a being who exists and relies upon his legend. Without faith in his existence he will fade into nothingness and as such he meets his destroyed head on and makes her a part of his legend.

I am the writing on the wall,
The whisper in the classroom!
Without these things

I am nothing.

Whereas the first half of the film deconstructs the notions of urban legends and mythology (the first scene in the film parodying the aesthetic of slasher films in general) the second half showcases the urban legends making their fight for survival. The Candyman draws Helen into his own mythology by carrying out gruesome murders and abductions and marking Helen as the prime suspect. The film takes a few interesting choices in this half, chief amongst them being the nagging sense that Helen herself is responsible for the crimes.

Bernie’s CorpseThere is an ambiguity to the murders generated largely by the deconstructive elements of the first half. Whilst a traditional horror film would have the audience understand that Helen is being framed by the murderous ghost of a 19th Century artist with a hook for a hand and passion for bees, Candyman has already sown the seeds of doubt about such things and as such it is impossible to discount that Helen is going slightly insane.

The ending of the film, in which Helen becomes a legend herself and enacts a brutal vengeance on her husband, suggests that the filmmakers expect us to believe that conceptually it is possible for the Candyman to exist as a wraith. The residents of Cabrini Green have killed the Candyman, burning him alive in a pyre and as such he stops existing, but Helen now legendary for her obsession with the Candyman and the murders of several people takes his place as a mythological spectre. This probably buggered up any plans for continuing the series.

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This intellectual pondering on the nature of folklore and myth is just one example of a product which just operates on another level to most horror. From the opening aerial shots of Chicago scored to Philip Glass’s ghostly main theme the film just exudes a sense of high minded beauty. Bernard Rose who takes credit as both writer and director would showcase a prodigious talent for horror which would sadly never be showcased again. He would have previous experience with fantasy due to his earlier work on the fantastic Paperhouse but his resume wouldn’t suggest him capable of such a great piece of cinema as the gothically regal Candyman.

candyman-helen-fire.pngWhat bolsters Rose’s vision is a cast of actors who are exceptionally comfortable in their respective roles. Tony Todd is simply fantastic as the lyrical and sinister Candyman; he has a physicality and presence which allows him to dominate the film despite his dearth of actual screentime. Virgina Madsen is probably the standout performance in the film, giving depth and humanity to a character who could be aloof and cold if not handled correctly. She takes the dual role of being the emotional and intellectual core of the film and carries it off effortlessly.

candyman-mural.pngThat is the strange thing about Candyman, the only proven element of quality in the film is Philip Glass who provides the haunting if a little magisterial soundtrack. Bernard Rose despite Paperhouse was coming off of two truly terrible films, Virgina Madsen had hardly proven herself as an actress, Tony Todd was better known for TV work than film acting his only notable work being in the remake of Night of the Living Dead and a small role in Platoon, and Barker adaptations had generated one box office smash and one well intentioned disaster.

Yet somehow these disparate performers were able to pool their talents and create something that was truly fantastic. A lyrical, beautiful, bloody, intelligent and horrifying film about a 19th Century ghost with a hook for a hand.