Monday, March 16, 2015

Barking Dogs Never Bite

In many ways this is the kind of formally flashy film first time directors often make. Every other cut in Barking Dogs Never Bite is a match cut and on one of the occasions that it's not it's a rather goofy demonstration of the Kuleshov effect that appears to have been used for no readily apparent reason. (Aside from linking the two main characters I guess? But they are already pretty firmly linked by that point...)

That's not to say that Bong Joon-ho is all about empty tricks here - far from it. For example he employs a rather low key variation of the "people mover" shot to make an ethically dubious discussion suitably queasy. One might argue that he's over-egging it - the scene is already shot in an overlit restroom - but given the outsized goofiness of the film as a whole it fits right in.

That outsized goofiness never gets in the way of its overwhelming sincerity. This is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of scrabbling suburbanites. While the characters suffer every indignation and reversal possible and many give in to their canine instincts in order to pursue their place in the sun they all ultimately transcend both their suffering and their human nature. Even the typically overbearing wife is revealed to have been straitjacketed into her role by the patriarchy and even the cruelest fate suffered is revealed to have a silver lining.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet's characters constantly remark on just how strange the world is but in case someone in the audience mishears them there's always the regular human ear made alien by close-up, the lip syncing mobster or the non-stop perspective distortion to set them straight. It's all the more ironic then that Blue Velvet's world is not very strange at all.

I suppose it's darker than the idealised catalogs of suburbia, with capital E Evil lurking inside even the most straight-laced college boy, but it's less surprising or unusual than many a 40s noir. Everything is exactly as it's described less than 40 minutes into the movie - the rest is just wheel spinning. Perhaps more damningly the cynicism with which it views pristine colourful surfaces is so diffuse and toothless that it doesn't even break the skin. Ultimately Blue Velvet feels less like an earnest weirdo and more like an awkward teenage boy cultivating a series of studied poses.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Neon Lights

Shanghai Triad takes the familiar approach to 1930s Shanghai as a place of wealth, opportunity and corrupting vices that sits in stark contrast to a simple virtuous countryside. The truth is considerably more nuanced: most of Shanghai's residents worked as pedicab drivers, factory labours, taxi dancers and the like while living in hovels or in cramped, sublet houses. In many cases they were actually worse off than "country bumpkins". The "money and sin" approach does mirror the contemporary, popular perception of the place though. I suppose in that sense it's truer than a broader representation of the city would be.

•The cinematography and sets support this duality. In the Shanghai half of the movie there are a lot conspicuously studio bound sets which are fussily lit - the beams of light in an early scene in a warehouse fall just so. When the action moves to a rural island there is considerably more on location shooting and while the lighting of scenes is far from relaxed (this is Zhang Yimou we're talking about*) it is less luridly colourful - there are no bright blues present.

Shanghai Triad uses a protagonist with limited knowledge (it's a young boy, it's always a young boy). Like a lot of similar movies it more or less has its cake while eating it too. While Shuisheng may not have perfect information the audience sees everything they need to in order to fully understand the story. That's not to say that Shanghai Triad wastes this device - far from it. There are a number of effective scenes - often shot in pov - in which a crisis' impact is heightened because the audiences' perspective has briefly been limited to that of Shuisheng. While the film does eventually explain itself these brief moments of confusion and uncertainty are genuinely thrilling.

*Yeah, I know he did Not One Less but it's fair to call that a departure, right?