Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花

Country: Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Hsu An-An, Annie Yee, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb: 7.4 /10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1998 Kerala International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Art Director / Best Director

1998 Kerala International Film Festival: Golden Crow Pheasant (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

Based on the 1892 novel ‘Sing Song Girls of Shanghai’ by Han Bangqing, Flowers of Shanghai is set around 2 strands of narratives – one involving Wang, a rich gentleman caller caught between his long-term lover and new mistress and the other around Emerald, a pompous but popular prostitute who aims to buy her way out of the brothel to freedom. The setting is a brothel in 1880’s Shanghai. Overarching themes of the movie center around power struggles amongst the call girls, the dilemmas faced by the gentlemen callers and the powerful head mistress of the brothel.

Most of the film is shot in the dark with lighting coming from candlelight or oil lamps, casting warm hues of reds and golds. The use of such luminous, natural-light cinematography techniques is a very powerful visual impetus because it creates the type of feel one would get in a brothel back in the 1880’s – which are dark sleazy places that men go to for comfort. Most of the shots in the movie consists of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, taking in lengthy and whole conversations at once, making the overall pace of the movie very slow, ultimately drawing us into the world of 19th Century Shanghai. It creates a “fly-on-the-wall” effect, which allows us to observe small but privileged moments as well as the intricate details of the settings without interference or commentary (Anderson, 2000).

Even though the movie centers on brothels and call-girls, there is hardly any mention or show of sex or passion. Instead, what we get on-screen are shots of the call girls feeding their clients, stoking their ego and bringing them their opium pipes.

Augmenting the slow paced nature of the film is its tendency to repeat certain things. For example, a particular sound track is repeated several times throughout the film and the movie constantly returns to the main round table where the gentlemen callers wine and dine, while the girls stand behind or sit beside them. I’m not really sure what this represents but the use of such repetitive techniques seem to suggest a sort of circular causality – that these are events that took place because of something and will continue to do so unless something drastic happens. Another thing to add about the musical score is its dreamlike and almost timeless undertone, this combined with the slow narrative and visuals of the show creates an almost hypnotic effect that dulls our senses and draws us deeper into the scenes. Furthermore, every shot in this film is an interior shot; we almost never ever see the outdoors or the sky, not even through the windows.

Overall I must say that I found that Flowers of Shanghai could have been better had the plot and characters been more compelling. But the visuals i.e. colors and costumes are lavishly detailed and the cinematography creates a more than worthy mood for the film and its premise.

By mostly relying on the little schemes and problems between the courtesans and their clients, the movie focuses too much on petty elements which results in a minimal plot, ultimately that makes it hard for us as viewers to be engaged in what is happening on-screen. The fact that the story moves at an incredibly slow speed, combined with the dull dreamy visuals alleviates the pain of sitting through this film. Furthermore, the lack of close-up shots, and restrained physical expressions of the characters make it very hard for viewers to get any sense of their emotional states. It becomes hard to identify with and find any emotional connection with the characters on screen. The end result is an equivocal and distant one.

References

Anderson, J. M. (2000). Combustible Celluloid film review – Flowers of Shanghai. Retrieved on December 6, 2010, from http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/flowshang.shtml

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) / S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge

Country: Cambodia
Language: Khmer/Vietnamese
Theme: War
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Rithy Panh
Starring: Chum Mey, Vann Nath

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Toronto International Film Festival
2003 New York Film Festival
2003 Vancouver International Film Festival
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival

Awards:
2003 Cannes Film Festival: Prix François Chalais
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Best Documentary
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Jury Special Prize
2003 European Film Awards: Best Documentary
2003 Leipzig DOK Festival: FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Dove
2004 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema: Human Rights Award
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival: Humanitarian Award

Nominations:
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Golden Swan

A comparison between S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) by Rithy Panh and Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman seems pertinent here. Both films deal with wartime atrocities and massacre, with the former on the Khmer Rouge massacre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia of the 1970s, and the latter on the Palestine slaughter in Israel in the 1980s. Both films involve directors who were involved in, and who survived their respective ordeals. Yet both films cannot be more different in terms of their stylistic treatment and aesthetics.

Waltz with Bashir is a highly stylistic animation film full of lush colors, crisp lines and catchy music that draws attention right from the start, before presenting the reality with strong impact by a cutaway to actual news footage showing the grieving citizens of the time. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, however, is a very down-to-earth documentary that casts a spotlight into the Khmer Rouge regime that occurred in remote Kampuchea of the 1970s, a historical incident that is slowly fading into the international shadows of obscurity with the passing of time and tide. With little media attention and Cambodia being pretty much off the radar on the international scale, this is not surprising despite the Khmer Rouge regime being one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century that has left at least a quarter of Cambodians dead.

Waltz with Bashir creates impact largely through playing with contrast, but the straightforward approach taken by S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is in my opinion equally, if not, downright more chilling. Rithy Panh survived the regime, and the director, who presently resides in Paris (France appears to be the ideal country for these war-stricken directors to seek asylum), returns to his hometown to seek answers in a straightforward interview face-off that brought together two of only around a dozen survivors of the S21 prison against their captors. This is what makes the film so intense, the survivors confronting their captors who once engaged in incomprehensible evil and trying to seek answers out of them.

The difference is stark. Age has caught up with these alleged wartime criminals who are, today, old and into their golden years. Vanh Nath’s saving grace was his artistic talent and his ability to paint realistic portraits of the war generals, and today he looks jaded with his head full of white hair. The other survivor, Chum Mey, broke down at the mere sight of the building, restored as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today, and could not bear to face the violent history and the ghosts of his past (“We suffered so much. Don’t think about it. My wife, my children… I’ve lost everything” (12:46)). And it takes a lot to watch a grown man break down. Meanwhile, their former captors back then are all middle-aged today, being barely teenagers when they were recruited into the regime.

In a tour around the museum, the previous captors chillingly recounted scenarios of their routines in the past. They unflinchly re-enact scenes where they beat prisoners, give them food, deprive them of food, and send them for execution. They complain over having to clean up after these prisoners, how they stank and how the trucks that shipped them to the execution grounds usually end up reeking of poo and urine. Worst, they appear unrepentant, brainwashed by the regime of the past that sought to create a Communist agrarian utopia into thinking that this was for the best. They do not stop to consider the implications of their past actions, and when the angered Vanh Nath—veins literally popping out of his neck as he struggles to control his emotions—confront them on what they make of their past deeds, they shy away from owning up to them by saying that there wasn’t any choice. But one can’t help but feel that it runs deeper than that, their bonechilling re-enactments suggestive of the fact that such torture and torment have been inbred into the recesses of their dehumanized soul, and that they still think that it is legitimate and even normal. (“When the Party makes an arrest, it arrests an enemy of the Party. Even husbands, wifves, children. The Party, S21, never made arrests by mistake” (29:43)), with one showing apparent remorse (“I was arrogant, I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal. I didn’t think. My heart never checked my brain, never stopped my hands and feet from striking” (37:41) / “Today when I think about it, it was against the law” (1:29:44)) as the camera pans away from the interrogator and casts a harsh light upon the captor.

The camera switches between medium shots that capture the vastness of the larger rooms, with the prisoner numbering of the wall bearing an indication of how packed these rooms once were despite its size, and the close-ups of the smaller cells where prisoners deemed to be trouble were sent to “repent”, by which a sense of claustrophobia was evoked. Adding to that are the numerous scenes that are framed from outside the prison grilles (51:26). The camera zooms in on the detailed records of the prison, including photographs to jolt memories. Interviews are honest: “They were putting a rope around our necks and pulling us along, like cattle. We cannot hear anyone except our own footsteps. They’d kick anyone who fell. And we obeyed, they laughed. Just like blind men!” (08:46)

This film has won numerous international humanitarian prizes, and was the catalyst leading up to a confession about the Cambodian Civil War after years of public denial. A slight pity, though, that the short black & white grainy news footage shown at the beginning of the film (00:54) was in sufficient to create the context required to fully appreciate or understand the film, which cuts straight to the chase. But one takeaway from the film is without doubt the similarities of the incident with the Fascist propaganda of the Nazis that led to the Holocaust. A single influential person could possess enough power to yield control of the minds of key individuals in a population that could lead to a massacre against dissidents. And one might perhaps even draw parallels to the ongoing Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea, or even among the militant Islam extremist terrorists plaguing the world.

Black Rain (1989) 黒い雨

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa

Theme: War

Ratings:
IMDB: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1989 Cannes Film Festival
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1989 Ghent International Film Festival

Awards:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury / Technical Grand Prize
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Screenplay (Toshirô Ishidô)
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka) / Best Cinematography (Takashi Kawamata) / Best Director (Shôhei Imamura) / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Music Score / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress (Etsuko Ichihara)
1990 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka)
1989 Ghent International Film Festival: Georges Delerue Prize, Grand Prix
1989 Hochi Film Awards: Best Actress
1991 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

Nominated:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Art Direction / Best Sound

Black Rain (1989) is a film based on the aftermath of the nuclear bombings in World War II. It tells of life in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, with the film following the lives of survivors (hibakusha) who were contaminated by the radioactive fallout – also known as black rain. They struggle with social discrimination and suffer from isolation in psychological repercussions that may be much worse than the health damage they experienced. The film is based on Masuji Ibuse’s titular novel of 1965.

Essentially, the film focuses on Yasuko, a young girl who was not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, while returning to Hiroshima to find her uncle and aunt, she was exposed to the ‘black rain’ together with other survivors who were searching through the contaminated ruins. With the ebb of time, Yasuko and her fellow survivors begin to resemble time bombs, with certain telltale signs of their sickness and ultimate death.

First of all, to fully appreciate this film, we have to understand why director Shohei Imamura shot it in black and white, and that is because he felt that this was the best way to convey the magnitude of the atomic destruction. It wasn’t just the deaths or debris, but also the way people went about their lives. Life was bleak and stark. Furthermore, the use of black and white film played an important part in amplifying the horrific nature of the incident; it evoked an eerie resemblance to the archival photos of the victims after the bombing. The choice of black and white had artistic merits.

Imamura did not set out to create a film condemning anyone for the war or the incident that led to its end. America for example, was only mentioned once throughout the film. What he did really wanted to do through Black Rain was to make a statement against war in general. Furthermore, a deeper look into the film’s narrative and focus reveals that what Imamura really wanted to condemn his own country for the way they went about picking themselves up/recovering after the bombing.

Imamura interjects realism with the underlying horror of the whole post-bomb situation gripping the country and the peoples’ attempts to recover. He intersperses shocking scenes of “impressionistic horror” (Schenker, 2009) between calm mundane domesticated scenes. Some examples include the upping of lighting and sound for flashback scenes that dramatically change the mood in an instant, and the use of haunting images of unrest. A pertinent example would be the recurrent shots of the quintessential household clock, given exceptional prominence in these scenes through the shadows cast by the hands burnt during the nuclear meltdown.

Black Rain is an excellent cinematic portrayal that explores not only what the survivors experienced before, during and after the explosion of the bomb, but also addresses how the lingering effects of such a weapon can transpire throughout a survivors life. Throughout the film, the characters constantly refer to experiencing “pika-don” (English translation: pika refers to the flash of light and don refers to the thunderous blast)— and speculate its longstanding effects that appear out of nowhere and afflict those exposed to the explosion. The opening scene is a good example that brings out pikadon – where survivors aboard a train experience a sudden bright flash of light followed by an immense blast that pulverizes through the interior of the train. The entire scene is a visual spectacle that allows us, as viewers to understand and experience the impact and disorientation of the blast. It’s as if the entire world was torn apart in one blinding instant.

The imminent message is that macro worldly decisions can have potential repercussions on the micro-individual scale. One fateful decision, one fateful day, and one’s life course can be changed forever. The weaving of past and present further reinforces the uncertainty that existed then over the collateral damage that the bomb had afflicted on survivors.

References

Schenker, A. (2009, October 15) Movie review: Black Rain. Retrieved October 27, 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-rain/4509)