Favorite Films: Part 2

We continue our introduction/re-introduction to influential films. As noted earlier, it’s difficult to pick and choose one film over another in terms of their excellence or originality, for art is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but here are a few more. These are foreign titles:

Ran (directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Akira Kurosawa is clearly one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century. With films like The Seven Samurai, Ikuru, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low, and Kagemusha, his work, like Hitchcock’s, is mandatory viewing for every aspiring filmmaker. Ran, produced when the director was 75, is my favorite of his. The reason lies not only in the stunning imagery and powerful acting (Tatsuya Nakadai is absolutely amazing as the manic emperor), but in the maturity of the film-making. Kurosawa’s creative choices in his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, show a depth to it that is almost unexplainable — it feels like a movie created by a man who has actually lived life thoroughly and not just conjured it out of one’s imagination. As I age, the film itself seems to come with newer meaning and empathy every time that I view it. Beautifully balanced between moments of deep family drama and stunning battle sequences (no one does a battle sequence better than Kurosawa), Ran pulls you right inside the world of feudal Japan with its gorgeous costumes, make up and sets. The story maybe Shakespeare, but the film is definitively Japanese.

To Live (directed by Zhang Yimou)

What a film To Live is. Zhang Yimou’s penetrating movie about the history of the 20th century Chinese experience is one of those films that covers a massive amount of living. Portraying life in post WWII China, it’s a film that follows the hardships of a strong yet very real woman in Jiazhen, played with immeasurable depth and beauty by Gong Li. In the journey, we witness both her’s and her husband’s battle for survival during immense cultural and social change, as they experience the transfer of power from the Nationalist Party of China to that of a Communist regime. In their travails, there are a moments of hope and sadness, advancements and setbacks — all played out with dutiful honestly. Even as it avoids political statements, it demonstrates the director’s high level of sophistication and respect for the life of the ordinary citizen during the rule of the Red Guards. Still, Zhang Yimou was banned from directing for two years after the film’s release, even as it triumphed in international festivals. I believe To Live is a film that young people today, both in China and around the world, need to see or revisit. History has been captured here, and captured with dignity, sincerity and frankness.

Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring (directed by Kim Ki Duk)

Kim Ki Duk’s simple yet profound movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring is one I return to seasonally. Buddhist in theme but universal in application, it captures the cyclical and karmic wonder of life as we follow the journey of a young boy who lives with a Buddhist monk on a floating temple in the middle of a remote lake. It’s a film that tells a tale of discovery, innocence, and suffering. We witness the coming of age of a young man, how he turns away from simplicity to complication, from peace to desire (for lust and passion), and how this ultimately pulls him away from a life of harmony. It’s too hard for any young man to understand the peace and wisdom that surrounds him, and hence we witness the inevitable display of karma and the lessons that the universe is here to tell (or in this case show) us. The film is light and almost ethereal in nature — it captures nature’s innate healing power. The sets, costumes and the atmosphere feel handmade; you can almost touch and even smell it. This beautiful yet philosophical movie moves me deeply each time I see it.

Cinema Paradiso (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore)

Giuseppe Tornatore made two very beautiful films, Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Malena (1990), both of which are paired to the perfect music of Ennio Morricone. Malena is richer (and sadder), and possibly more beautiful with its throwback to Fellini. But it’s Tornatore’s earlier film that has that enigmatic quality to it that holds onto you more deeply. It’s a nostalgic film that captures the innocence and curiosity of boyhood better than a lot of films that have come before and after it. Everything is simple and small scale but like childhood, everything that happens while you’re living it feels so grand and dramatic. Both the main characters’ (Salvatore and Alfredo) and the townspeople’s joys and frustrations revolves around the love of movies, and more specifically the tiny village theater. Watching it is like experiencing the past all over again, revisiting a time and place that no longer exists. Along the way, we find deep friendship and romance — the two things that matter more than anything else in the world for its protagonist and, by default, the viewer. Cinema Paradiso expresses itself as a simple story carried by beautiful imagery and music but at heart it’s a film about love and a film for people who love movies.

Fireworks (directed by Takeshi Kitano)

As writer, director, editor and actor of most of his movies, there’s little that Takeshi Kitano doesn’t understand about the film-making process. He’s internationally famous for his flock of Yakuza stories and facial twitch as a performer. His films, which are characterized by long sustained moments of silence and brief bursts of intense violence, signal an assured directing hand that controls every element of the pacing and energy. In Fireworks (Hana-bi), the creator is at his best — the movie explodes with emotion across the screen. Playing a character Nishi, who’s faced with the paralysis of his best friend and the impending death of his wife, Kitano carries a quiet but brutal power. His scenes with Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) are tender and balanced with delicate humor. Each sequence has a fresh feel completely unique in the world of cinema — they hold you, make you wait and then stun you. Afterwards, you find yourself releasing that slow breath that echos the gravity of situation just experienced. The creative mix of cutting and imagery also make the film visually tactile, even as it reveals a deep undercurrent of pain and pending violence throughout. The winner of the  Gold Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, Fireworks is bound to leave an impression on anyone who sees it.

In the Mood For Love (directed by Wong Kar-Wai)

Auteur Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is famous for his eclectic manner of movie-making. Like a Miesner actor, who reacts to the immediacy of the opposing actor, Wong seems to direct on instinct, working his magic with the sets and actors almost unscripted. Perhaps that is why his films have such a dreamy, free-flowing quality to them, yet at the same time what results is a product that couldn’t be more perfectly melded together in sight and sound. In The Mood For Love is Wong at his best. Paired with the hypnotic music of Shigeru Umebayashi, the viewer succumbs to the director’s spell as he travels along with the camera, peeking inside hidden worlds and carefully constructed images containing intimately guarded secrets. Acted with flawless subtlety by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung with few words spoken, it’s a film that expresses very loudly our longing for love and connection even as we all live with loneliness and do so mostly in secrecy. While the film displays no overt physical intimacy, the love that emerges between the two characters is rich, stirring and unforced even as it feels prohibited. In The Mood For Love, like its stars, is hypnotically beautiful and the emotions that run through you as you watch can only be described as a deep sort of aching that can’t be fulfilled, much like the romance between its characters.

Old Boy (directed by Chan Woo Park)

Chan Woo Park’s mind-blowing film about a man who appears wrongfully imprisoned for reasons beyond his or the audience’s understanding is truly original in both theme and execution. From the opening scene to the last, the viewer is powerlessly sucked into a ride that is non-stop, hypnotic and terrifying. In Park’s Old Boy, it’s near impossible to predict what may come next. In each scene, we frenetically yet methodically wander along with its protragonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) to find out what this story — his story — is about, and, along the way, we empathize with his confusion, his anger, his hope and his tragedy. Buoyed by an astounding physical and emotional performance by Choi Min-Sik, and fantastic scene after fantastic scene, Park has made an incredible film so unique and so creative, that it makes you ponder hard about it as soon as it’s over even as you feel drained from your viewing experience. The film is in many ways absurd, masochistic and gory. But it’s also a wildly entertaining ride that’s perfectly bound together by its kinetic score and eclectic visual imagery. Old Boy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and deservedly so — it’s a stunner. It’s the kind of film being made today (although more and more so in the East than in the West) that gives me hope as a lover of cinema in the midst of the standard fare of Hollywood remakes and superhero sequels.