By Diana Cheng
AAP film and arts writer
Summer is the best time to catch up on classic films, or re-watch them. As for films from Asian directors, there’s a variety to pick from. Take a respite from blockbuster spectacles and enjoy some lazy, hazy moments.
“A Brighter Summer Day” (1991) directed by Edward Yang
A breezy summer movie it is not, but experience it and you’d know what a master Edward Yang was and that four hours could slip away without your noticing. The title – taken from the lyrics of Elvis’s famous song “Are You Lonesome Tonight”– is chillingly ironic. The coming-of-age drama is about souls yearning to belong and hearts misplaced. Set in 1960’s Taipei, it follows 14-year-old Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen) who is caught in the web of street gang rumbles and rival teenage passions. Si’r represents a new generation of youths growing up in Taiwan where their parents evacuated to in the aftermath of WWII when the communist took over China. An earlier version of the migrant story that’s ubiquitous in our world today, the film sorely depicts parents struggling to re-establish a home and their sons and daughters finding a place to belong. Yang’s story captivates us to care for a common teenaged boy in a foreign setting of time and place, a boy innocent and apathetic at the start, who could have grown up to enjoy many bright summer days, yet stumbles to a tragic end.
When Chang Chen was selected as a juror of Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, he had come a long way from his breakout role as Si’r. Although he is known in award-winning films such as Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin”, I’ll always remember him as teenaged Si’r and lament the early passing of Taiwanese director Edward Yang. Thanks to Criterion Collections, Yang’s legacy has been preserved.
“Poetry” (2010) by Lee Chang-dong
On the heels of Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s win at Cannes this year with his newest feature “Burning”, it’s time to savour his previous works. It has been eight years since his last Cannes win with “Poetry” (2010), which garnered Best Screenplay and the Special Mention in the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. A 66-year-old grandmother, Mija, at the onset of Alzheimer’s, gains a new perspective in looking at things, and life, from attending a poetry-writing class in a local community center. Not that everything is rosy under this new light. Far from it. The challenge for Mija and for viewers is a hard one: how do we reconcile beauty with the tragedy and sadness we see in our world? Director Lee has thrown us into a torrent of contradictions. The beginning title sequence of the film sets the stage for a stark contrast. As the camera closes in on the dead body of a girl floating down the river, the title ‘Poetry’ slowly appears right beside it. Look it up in DVD format.
“Like Someone in Love” (2012) by Abbas Kiarostami
The last feature by the iconic Iranian director Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”, 2010), another untimely death and a loss for the world of film and the arts in 2016. This piece of legacy is of particular significance as Kiarostami directed a cast of Japanese actors and shot the film in Japan, a collaboration that crosses national and cultural boundaries.
“Like Someone in Love” could easily slip into the short story collection of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s “Men without Women”, stories that depict the intricate and often intriguing relationships between male and female in the Japanese society, or any society for that matter. Akiko, a university student who moonlights as a call girl at night is sent to a retired university professor Takashi Watanabe. She soon finds the old gentleman may just be looking for companionship, or to re-kindle some kind of father/daughter intimacy. Conflicts arise the next day as Akiko’s jealous and outraged fiancé finds out about her night work and his perceived love rival in the old man.
The film is a 2012 production, so not that far gone, but the nostalgia rests on a time passed. Kiarostami’s date of death is July 4th, 2016, ironically, a day that represented a relatively freer time where Iranian directors could travel to the U.S to attend awards ceremonies, and even to make movies if they’d wanted to. Kiarostami had pointed us to the possibility of cross-cultural collaboration which seems to be harder today, and we continue to hold on to a utopian future of a borderless world. “Like Someone in Love” is a selection in the streaming service Kanopy.
“Flight of the Red Balloon” (2007) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Another example of natural and seamless border-crossing in filmmaking. This 2007 feature was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to mark its 20th anniversary, a unique piece of film art gently crafted by the legendary Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, his homage to Albert Lamorisee’s Oscar winning short Le Ballon Rouge (1956).
Follow a red balloon floating above the Parisian skyline and savor the intimate performance of Juliette Binoche and a small cast, with an Erik Satie-like original piano composition as accompaniment, what a soothing way to spend a lazy summer afternoon? Binoche plays Suzanne, a frantically busy mother and puppeteering artist whose rushed daily life is incomprehensible to her young son Simon and his serene carer Song, an overseas Chinese film student.
The red balloon forms the focal point of Hou’s signature long takes. The almost God-like omnipresence hovering over buildings in the Paris skyline is a symbol of childhood; only Simon pays attention to it. Its silent drifting is as elusive as the fleeting memories of happiness. Even little Simon achingly remembers the pleasant days he’d shared with his much older sister, who is now living in Brussel. No doubt, there is a lack of plot, suspense, or climax, but there are character contrasts, cinematic offerings in sights and sounds, and naturalistic performance. And no, you’re not watching paint dry; you’re watching life unplugged.
“The Arch” (1968) by Tong Shu-Shuen
Recently included in the streaming platform Kanopy, which carries this synopsis: “When The Arch opened in Paris, it received the most consistently positive reviews of any film to ever play in the “city of light”. Set in 17th Century China, this film is considered the first art film in the Chinese language.” Particularly nostalgic for me as I watched it on the big screen in a theatre as a middle schooler in Hong Kong, a rare school outing just because the film garnered such high praises when it came out. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinematic expressions revealing thoughts and feelings, an intro to art films for me. Seems like this feature by a Hong Kong female director had gone unnoticed all these decades and I’d given up hope of ever watching it again until just recently when it became a selection in Kanopy.
Sacrificing passion and personal freedom for conforming to community norms and socially defined virtues, widow Madam Tung (That’s the original Chinese title) faces more than just the task of restraining her feelings for the Captain of the soldiers passing through her village. The complication is that her daughter is falling for the same man, leading Madam Tung to fulfill a mother’s duty. It’s a classic not only for the aesthetic beauty but the depiction of conflicts and dilemmas that transcend their historical and geographical context. This version of the film is in black-and-white and not very well preserved. I remember originally it was in a classy, nostalgic sepia colour. Nonetheless, this is one film that deserves to be noticed.