Tag Archives: Buddhism

CAPSULE: KAILI BLUES (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi

FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen

PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.

Still Kaili Blues (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.

COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.

Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s like with less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).

Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ID (2005)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kimihiko Hasegawa, Kei Fujiwara

PLOT: A man awakens in a woods and wanders into an urban pig farm where he observes examples of human cruelty and perversion.

Still from Id (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The confusing presentation and slapstick black comedy undercuts Id‘s serious spiritual themes. Id goes totally nutso at the end, even by its own loose standards of sanity, and the movie doesn’t hang together even by the forgiving parameters of its own weirdness.

COMMENTS: Id‘s confusing, fractured storyline may take more than one viewing to work out (and you’ll probably never be 100% satisfied). On the other hand, the movie seems to have a clear thematic purpose, though it’s developed in a sloppy fashion. The movie’s theme is stated up front and seems simple and noble: “Amida Buddha’s sacred vow is that all be granted salvation… not only the good and wise but even those most depraved by sin and lust will be shown compassion.” There is a complication, however; to take advantage of Amida Buddha’s offer, you must invoke his name. Beasts, being dumb and mute, can’t do this; and neither can our protagonist, a nameless and (initially) mute man we meet see waking up in a forest, listening to dueling voiceovers. This man grabs a harmonica and wanders onto a nearby urban pig farm where he observes absurd examples of “most depraved sin and lust.”

So far, so good; it seems like a clean enough setup for a story of sin and salvation, a meditation on the thin line between the human and the bestial. Of course, things get far more confused than that. Soon enough we are introduced to another, similarly lost, character, a raggedy detective searching for the “master of murder” who may be responsible for local serial killings. The pig farm and its nearby environs supply plenty of subplots, including three slapstick farmhands who jerk about the farm like Keystone Kops, a bullied nine-year-old boy (played by an adult), and a cult proselytizer who miraculously survived a family massacre. The already odd vignettes are further peppered with hallucinations, including some very crude stop-motion animation and shots of a papier-mache pig’s head spouting blood. Somehow, by the end we descend into a hellish slaughterhouse hung with bloody plastic sheeting for a long and gory confrontation with a transformed “humanhog.” And what are we to make of the frequent references to the “id well,” an idea seemingly taken from Freudian psychology that has only a strained connection to the film’s Buddhist ideology?

The idea that “those most depraved by sin and lust will be shown compassion” provides an excuse to show graphic examples of sin and lust, which test our capacity for compassion to its fullest. Among other immoral sights, we get an entire chapter devoted to Peeping Toms (who pull on metallic springs in the place of genitals) and a “comic” transvestite rape. The absurdist elements of the salacious scenes seem to work against the movie’s main theme, however; if Amida Buddha forgives the worst human transgressions, then why the need to make them funny? If he would forgive real Peeping Toms, why does Id feel compelled to make their crimes look silly? It’s symptomatic of the movie’s unsure tone. Id won’t commit to being a black comedy, a serious psycho-spiritual rumination, or a surreal nightmare, but keeps changing its strategy every few minutes, hoping something will stick. It’s a shame, because there seems to be the seed of a promising idea buried somewhere in this film, if only the director could decide how to cultivate it.

Writer/director Kei Fujiwara collaborated with on 1989’s Certified Weird classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, where she played the female lead as well as providing the costume design and assisting in the camerawork. Id is her second feature in a proposed trilogy; the first, Organ, appeared in 1996, so the third installment is due about now, if it’s ever going to be made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A lot of viewers might not even finish it, let alone desire a second (or third) serving of the outrageously weird, spicy dish.”–Dejan Ognjanovic, Temple of Ghoul (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Radu.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)

AKA Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Zhang Wen, Qi Shu, Bo Huang

PLOT: A pacifist Buddhist demon hunter who tries to redeem rather than kill evil spirits clashes with a powerful mercenary huntress, who falls in love with him despite his vow of chastity; together they seek the Monkey King’s help to defeat a powerful boar demon.

Still from Journey to the West (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We have a crazy Stephen Chow movie on the ListKung Fu Hustle—and while Journey to the West is wild, it doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the 2004 classic to justify including two such similar films.

COMMENTS: Journey to the West contains the hallmarks Stephen Chow fans love: a delirious mix of wacky wire fu, cartoonish comedy, outlandish visuals, and a massive dose of heart. Chow’s spectacles recall great Hollywood storytelling traditions—you could easily imagine Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas tackling similar material—while remaining distinctively Chinese. Although Chow’s presence in front of the camera is missed in this outing, mop-headed Zhang Wen makes for an excellent stand-in. He is totally beleaguered and outclassed by demons and demon hunters alike at the film’s opening, but perseveres to find the spiritual strength to face down evil by the conclusion. Qi Shu is delightful as the tomboy mercenary smitten by the pacifist cutie, and constantly scheming to get under his robes, while Bo Huang makes an impressively impish Monkey King with groovy dance moves and insidious cunning. A trio of rival demon hunters—including a nameless shapeshifter, the ancient Foot, and the sickly Prince Important—fill out the roster of kooky characters. Every element of the film is top notch except for the CGI, which lacks necessary detail and realism and isn’t up to Hollywood standards, often looking like bad, 90% finished renderings of animatronic puppets. The monster designs themselves, however, are very good—check out the catfish/tiger/dragon hybrid—and the level of creativity is so impressive that only the most parochial and unimaginative American effects snob would complain about the sub-par technology. Journey to the West constantly surprises with its twists and turns, highlighted by a battle with a fish demon in the harbor of a ramshackle riverside village, a deserted inn that’s been turned into a ghostly pork palace, and a comic sketch involving an “obedience charm” that turns hilariously homophobic. Topping it all off is an outrageous fifteen minute final battle scene with grotesquely oversized body parts, an armada of heat-seeking swords, and (naturally, this being a Chow movie) a giant glowing space Buddha with magma palms. A lot of the Chinese tropes, both mythological and comedic, will seem unfamiliar and strange, but that only enhances the experience for the adventurous viewer. Westerners, journey to the East to see Journey to the West; you won’t regret the trip.

Journey to the West is based on a 16th century Chinese novel that has been loosely adapted for film many times (including 1995’s A Chinese Odyssey, where Stephen Chow himself played a reincarnated hero version of the Monkey King). The final scene suggests sequels to come, and as long as Chow remains involved, we should look forward to the further travels of Xuan Zang as he makes his way westward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s during this cartoony, anything-goes climax that Conquering The Demons truly hits its stride; part highly stylized wuxia, part Looney Tunes, the sequence showcases Chow at his weirdest and most entertaining.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

81. ENTER THE VOID (2009)

“Q: How would you define the film’s genre?
A: Psychedelic Melodrama.”–Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void Cannes pressbook

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gaspar Noé

FEATURING: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta

PLOT: Oscar is a drug-dealer living in Tokyo with his stripper sister.  One day he is shot and killed during a deal inside a bar called “The Void.”  He spends the rest of the movie as a silent ghost, floating around Tokyo and observing his sister and friends, while simultaneously hallucinating and remembering the details of his life.

Still from Enter the Void

BACKGROUND:

  • Noé wrote preliminary scripts for Enter the Void as early as 1994; the screenplay was consider to expensive to produce until the director’s 2002 success with Irréversible made it appear commercially viable.
  • Star Nathaniel Brown, a non-actor, was chosen because of his physical resemblance to lead Paz de la Huerta and because he was interested in directing.  As someone with no acting ambitions, Noé presumed Brown would not be upset by the fact that his face is only seen once in the film, briefly in a mirror.
  • Visual perfectionist Marc Caro supervised the set designs.
  • The 100 page script indicated the action and described the visual effects, but very little dialogue was scripted; the actors improvised most of their lines.
  • The paintings Alex is shown working on in the film were actually painted by Luis Felipe Noé, the director’s father.
  • The original run time of the film at its Cannes debut was 163 minutes.  Post production and editing continued after this debut, and, as completed in 2010, the final run time of the film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2010) as screened in the U.S. is about 140 minutes.  There is a longer version of the film, however, including a 17 minute sequence where Oscar believes he has woken up in the morgue; this segment occupies reel 7 of 9 reels, and for American screenings the film was simply shown with reel 7 omitted.  The extended cut is available on French DVD releases.
  • Noe instructed theaters that the film should be run at 25 frames per second rather than the usual 24 frames (this fact accounts for some of the discrepancies in listed running times).
  • At the Cannes premier there were no opening or closing credits.  The film began on a closeup of the none sign reading “enter” and ended with the words “the void.”
  • Noé got the idea for the film form watching Robert Montgomery’s noir The Lady in the Lake while on a magic mushroom trip.  Like Enter the Void, Lady in the Lake is filmed entirely from a first-person point of view (actually, in Void the POV is usually from about a foot behind Oscar’s head, though at other times we see events through his eyes).
  • Tokyo was chosen as the location of the film partly because Japan’s strong ant-drug laws would make the actions of the police more believable, partly because Noé believed the city, with its abundance of neon, had a “druggy mood.”
  • Pioneering acid guru Timothy Leary used to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to voyagers undergoing LSD trips in an attempt to steer the experience in a spiritual direction.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening DMT trip, with it’s multicolored mandalas, floating planetoids, and neon tentacles seems hard to top, but it merely sets the mood.  It’s the pornographic “Love Hotel” scene, with its parade of rutting couples with mystically glowing genitalia, that really impresses itself on the mind’s eye.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As the most impressive and eye-splintering acid trip movie of the decade (by a wide margin), Enter the Void gets an automatic pass onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. The fact that the protagonist is dead throughout most of the movie doesn’t hurt its chances one bit.  But the clincher, the sure sign that the movie is weird, is the walkouts.  Less than halfway through the screening I saw, the sexagenarian couple who had stumbled into the film by accident (probably thanks to ad copy suggesting the movie was a sentimental ghost story about brotherly love that transcends death) walked out of the theater, leaving me alone with two same-sex couples with facial piercings and hair that glowed in the dark.


Original trailer for Enter the Void

COMMENTSEnter the Void is an exploitation piece masquerading as an art installation, Continue reading 81. ENTER THE VOID (2009)

GUEST REVIEW: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’  Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.

Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand.  The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my.  The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.

Still from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.

In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.

61. KWAIDAN (1964)

AKA Kaidan; Ghost Stories

“A hundred thoughts suggested by the book might be written down, but most of them would begin and end with this fact of strangeness… many of the stories are about women and children,–the lovely materials from which the best fairy tales of the world have been woven. They too are strange, these Japanese maidens and wives and keen-eyed, dark-haired girls and boys; they are like us and yet not like us; and the sky and the hills and the flowers are all different from ours… in these delicate, transparent, ghostly sketches of a world unreal to us, there is a haunting sense of spiritual reality.”–from the original introduction to the folk tale collection “Kwaidan”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Masaki Kobayashi

FEATURING: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, , , Kan’emon Nakamura

PLOT: An anthology film telling four Japanese folk tales centered around ghosts or nature spirits.  An ambitious samurai leaves his faithful but poor wife for a rich new one, and finds himself haunted by regret over his desertion.  A winter spirit spares the life of a young woodcutter, on one condition.  A clan of ghosts demand a blind minstrel play the tale of their tragedy for them night after night.  The final story tells of a guard who sees an apparition in a bowl of water.

Still from Kwaidan (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The four episodes were adapted from Lafciado Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales (the two middle pieces are from his 1903 volume entitled “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”).  Hearn was born Greek, educated in Ireland, and spent time as a journalist in the United States (causing a scandal by marrying a black woman in Cincinnati, which was a crime at the time).  He later became a foreign correspondent in Japan and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.
  • Hearn offered “Weird Tales” as one possible translation of the Japanese word Kwaidan.
  • Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (at that time, the second most prestigious prize after the Palme D’Or).  It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but lost to the Czech war drama The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze].
  • The episode “The Woman of the Snow” was (unwisely) trimmed from the original American theatrical release in order to cut the runtime from three hours to just over two hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s hard to top the image of the minstrel Hoichi covered (almost) from head to toe in holy Buddhist characters or the ghostly court of samurai, it’s the expressionistic set of “The Woman in the Snow”—with it’s constellations of warped watching eyeballs set in a deep blue sky—that makes the eeriest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kwaidan illustrates the rule that, the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to make the List. Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.


Original Trailer for Kwaidan

COMMENTS: In Kwaidan‘s opening credits black, blue, red and purple inks swirl around in Continue reading 61. KWAIDAN (1964)