4/8/03:

Another day of excellent films.

Films I saw today: David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, Come Drink With Me, Graveyard of Honor



David Hockney: Secret Knowledge

This film was a slight departure from many of the other movies on my schedule. It's a documentary (produced originally for a BBC series called "Omni Bus") about the techniques and technology used by the old masters to paint their incredibly detailed and realistic paintings. The guy in the title, in case you didn't know, is a rather famous British painter. He got the idea a little while ago that those paintings by Renaissance masters like van Dyck and van Eyck looked a bit too realistic. He looked closely at them and realized that some of the lines resembled the kinds of lines he'd seen in Warhol paintings--paintings that had been traced from photographs. He had the hunch that these painters might have been using some kind of equipment to help them create paintings that were far more realistic than had ever been possible before. His hunch was that this "equipment" might have been nothing more complex than a camera obscura, which means simply "dark room". Place a piece of glass in the wall of a dark room (like a tiny window) and shine light through it. Images from outside will show up (upside-down) on the opposite wall. Then you simply put your canvas in front of this image and start tracing.

Hockney was so fascinated by this idea that he decided to research it in great depth to see if it were true. In the film, he leads us through the steps of the journey of discovery he made. It's a totally involving and compelling odyssey through a small portion of the history of the process of painting. Hockney shows us the sudden change that took place in painting, somewhere around 1420, when things became suddenly more realistic. He points out that previous explanations for this sudden change (which he summarizes with the phrase "everyone could suddenly paint better") were never very satisfying. His explanation, that a technological advance consisting mainly of using glass to reflect an image onto the canvas, is quite convincing. Hockney has found a great deal of evidence to support his claim, evidence that appears in the paintings themselves, and is bolstered by testimony from experts in the fields of optics and computers.

Hockney comes at his subject with a wonderful sense of humor, and with great love and respect for these classical painters and their work. His point is not that the old masters "cheated," but that they obviously must have used the best technology at their disposal to create as realistic an image as they could. He supposes they probably started by using curved mirrors, and then switched to more flexible lenses when those became available. He points out clear evidence for the switch in technology in specific paintings--the lens, rather than turning an image upside-down, would have swapped the image from right to left, and Hockney notices the strange prevalence of left-handed people in paintings of this period. In fact, in one painting he finds three left-handed people and a left-handed monkey!

Hockney points out the similarity between the moving, color image produced by these lenses, and the moving color image produced by a movie. There's a clear line of evolution from ocular technology like mirrors and lenses to the camera and film itself. Some of the most interesting things Hockney has to say are about the effects of technology on art, and painting in particular. He speaks of "the tyranny of the lens," and points out that the development of chemical photography transformed realistic painting into something of a pointless exercise. Painters reacted by finding other ways of depicting reality--impressionism, cubism, etc. In a lot of ways, photography forced painting to return to its roots. He points out the similarities between pre-Renaissance paintings and modernist paintings--the striking example comparison he makes is between an iconic image of Christ and a van Gogh portrait. They have the same kinds of dramatic lines and shapes.

Hockney feels the camera took the control over point of view away from the artist, and made it a stationary thing. It pulled the artist out of the painting. Hockney is in fact attacking and subverting the very medium that he's working in--film. Photography was an end of things, but he feels now that new technologies like computer generated imagery have given the power back to the artist, and given us a new beginning. Some of his conclusions, like this one, seem a bit vague and questionable, and in fact I would be very curious to hear the arguments against his theories. The film is definitely one-sided, and Hockney has a tendency to put forward certain things as "proof" and "fact" which I have the feeling might not be quite so conclusive. But regardless of whether it's always totally convincing, the film is always fascinating, funny, and entertaining.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

Here I took a break to have some dinner and say good-bye to Sarah, who had accompanied me to my first film this night. I was afraid I'd have to wander the streets nearby to find some place that had food to eat, but luckily the International House had a fully equipped snack bar (with sandwiches and Mountain Dew), as well as a room full of vending machines. My next film was in the same venue, so I took a leisurely supper, and then strolled back into the theater.

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Come Drink with Me

One of the great things about the Philadelphia Film Festival is the incredible diversity in the types of films they show. I'd already seen an animated film, a couple of horror films, an action thriller, and a documentary when I went in to see Come Drink With Me. But so far I'd seen only contemporary films, and now here was a classic kung fu film from the '60s. Come Drink With Me is a film from the prolific Shaw Brothers studio, a Hong Kong production company that basically defined the look and sound of the '60s and '70s kung fu film. King Hu, who himself would become a recognized master in the realm of kung fu movie-making, directed this film. This is one of his earliest efforts in the genre, but is also considered one of his best. In fact, in a lot of ways it's a watershed film, the one that practically created the genre. Its influence is still felt in fighting films today; films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.

As with most films from this period and studio, Come Drink With Me is set in a mythical past when the Chinese and Japanese country sides were roamed by disguised kung fu masters, corrupt monks, and sly bandits. The story line, again as in most kung fu films, is not terribly important, but I'll try to summarize it anyway. The leader of a gang of thieves has been captured by the local governor. The thieves kidnap an official and claim they will kill him if their leader is not returned. Adding drama to the situation is the fact that the official they've kidnapped is the governor's own son. The governor sends the famous Golden Swallow, a kung fu master, to take care of the situation. But Golden Swallow isn't just anybody, either--she's the kidnapped official's sister, and the governor's daughter!

Although Swallow is a great fighter, she relies on her strength too much, and once a mysterious drunken beggar (known as Drunken Cat--yes, they all tend to have names like this in these movies; the two leaders of the bad guys are known as Smiling Tiger and Jade Tiger) once this mysterious beggar gives her a clue as to where her brother might be hidden, she just jumps in head first, thinking she can take on all the thieves by herself. But Jade Tiger poisons her and she escapes only with the help of Drunken Cat. Here we learn that Drunken Cat is actually a kung fu master in disguise, far stronger as a fighter even than Golden Swallow, and that the real leader of the thieves, an evil, corrupt monk, actually learned kung fu under the same master as Drunken Cat. In fact, it was this monk that convinced the master to take Drunken Cat in and teach him in the first place. Here's where the real story comes out, and not surprisingly, it's the prototypical kung fu plot. It's my theory that every kung fu movie actually has as its basic plot line the revenge story--the main character is betrayed, someone close to him is killed, and he must have vengeance. In this case, the monk betrayed Drunken Cat's master and killed him, and Drunken Cat must have vengeance. However, Drunken Cat has avoided the monk for years, because his desire for vengeance is clouded by the monk's one-time kindness to him in convincing the master to teach him. But now Drunken Cat can avoid him no more, and it's time for a showdown.

The film is littered with even more classic kung fu movie elements. When Golden Swallow first arrives, she is dressed like a man. It is obvious to the audience that she is a woman, but the characters in the film all act as if they are completely fooled. This is something that happens in a lot of kung fu films. Even though the gang of thieves has met Golden Swallow before, and been beaten by her, they have always assumed that she is a man. Jade Tiger, who was apparently not with the thieves when they fought Swallow before, makes the same assumption. When the thieves tell him about her, he says, "I'd like to meet him." The film challenges their assumptions and ours by presenting us with a woman who kicks butt. And kick butt she does; in another example of a classic recurring element in kung fu films, as soon as Golden Swallow arrives, she is surrounded by members of the gang, and she is forced to display her prowess by performing superhuman feats of strength and agility. In this case, as in many other fights in the film, she is helped a great deal by clever editing and the old trick of running the film backwards. (The Shaw Brothers didn't have a big special effects budget.)

The fighting in general is exciting and well choreographed, even if it is not always executed as well as might be (occasionally the stunt work is a bit clumsy, and the movie definitely looks dated in the face of computer-powered, special effects-laden, fighting extravaganzas like The Matrix, even if Come Drink With Me is really a kind of god- or grandfather to that film). Many times a single fighter is pitted against a gang of opponents and must perform amazing and skillful balletic feats to defeat them all. Although the film is bloody, and there's a high body count, it has that sense of humor and magic that infuses many kung fu films, and helps to wash away the realism, horror and brutality of the violence depicted. What helps add to this sense of humor is the dialogue, which is often quite entertaining. The film is subtitled, and the translation is quite good for a film of this type. One particular line that I remember is delivered by Drunken Cat as he faces off against a group of the evil thieves: "You must be tired of living."

Although it is mainly a fighting movie, Come Drink With Me is actually quite clever and philosophical in some ways. Its main theme is appearances are deceiving, and things aren't always as they seem. Take, for instance, Golden Swallow--a man who turns out to be a woman, and a woman who turns out to be a mighty fighter. And then there's the pair of kung fu students, Drunken Cat and the monk--you would assume that the monk was the pure, religious one who was to be respected, and that the drunken beggar was to be ignored and reviled. But the monk is actually a corrupt, violent killer who desires only power and prestige, and the drunken beggar is the truly holy one. Drunken Cat is content to live as a wandering singer, without possessions. He uses his kung fu only for defense and hesitates to take revenge on the monk because of a feeling of obligation for the kind act he performed. In fact, Drunken Cat may very well be an inspiration for the character of Yoda; he at first appears to be nothing but a comical, ugly little creature, but he actually carries hidden power. He helps Golden Swallow by hiding hints about the location of the thieves's hideout in a song he sings for her; later he saves her from her own folly and teaches her the right way to fight.

Come Drink With Me is a smart, rollicking, old-fashioned, fun-filled kung fu classic, and another great film entry in this great film festival.

Postscript: I read on this film's page on the IMDB that Jackie Chan has a small part as one of the young children. So this film is the beginning of modern kung fu films in more ways than one...

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

After Come Drink With Me, I had to make it across town to the Ritz East to take in Graveyard of Honor. Luckily I had plenty of time, and got there quite early. One difference I noticed between these two film venues was the price of bottled water--a bottle of water from a vending machine in the International House cost me a dollar, which is pretty reasonable, all things considered; at the Ritz East concession stand I paid $2.25 for a bottle that I suspect held less water!

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Graveyard of Honor

From a conventional, classic kung fu film, we turn to a contemporary film that subtly defies convention--the brutal, violent life story of a yakuza, or Japanese gangster, named Rikuo Ishimatsu. (As an interesting side note, I learned recently that the name yakuza actually comes from the names of the three lucky numbers in a particular gambling game--ya, ku, za.) The literal translation of the film's title is actually New Graveyard of Honor, since it is a remake of a 1975 film. But the reason I put this film on my list of movies to see as soon as I read about it is the director--Takashi Miike. I've seen a film by this man in each of my two previous visits to the Philadelphia Film Festival, and I enjoyed them both immensely. He's an incredibly prolific filmmaker, and a totally astounding one. You never know what you'll see when you sit down to watch a Miike film, except that it will be shocking and unexpected. He tends to work in the action/gangster genre (see Dead or Alive), but last year's festival film from Miike was a musical comedy (The Happiness of the Katakuris), and I've also seen a truly disturbing horror film by him called Audition. He tends to take the conventions of whatever genre he's working in and turn them on their heads--or, perhaps what he is really doing is tricking you into thinking you're watching one kind of movie, and then suddenly changing the movie into something completely different. The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical, but its subject (a string of unfortunate deaths at a family's new bed and breakfast) is not at all that of a conventional musical. Audition begins as a sweet, quiet, romantic film and then takes a sudden turn into violence, horror, and the surreal. And Dead or Alive seems like a straight action/gangster picture...at first. Miike sticks to the rules just long enough to lull you into a false sense of security, and then he breaks them all--the rules of propriety, of good taste, of genre, and other even more basic rules having to do with the nature of the film's reality itself. Sometimes he can be a bit more subtle, and rather than defy conventions altogether, he just adds a twist of irony to them. Graveyard of Honor is one of Miike's more subtle films, if you can call a film as violent and over-the-top as this one subtle (as Travis Crawford, the programmer of the series to which this film belongs, put it, "I don't want to say 'restrained,' since the film has gallons and gallons of blood, but...").

Like many another epic life story before it, this film begins at the end, with the suicide of our main character, and then flashes back to the beginning (his induction into the gangster lifestyle). The film also begins with a line of narration that will return later (I'm paraphrasing here, but I think I'm pretty close): "The godfather had a toothache and went to the dentist. In that time, one yakuza went to hell." (The subtitles always use the word "godfather" to describe the head boss of the yakuza; it's obviously a reference to the Italian Mafia and almost certainly not a literal translation.) The movie puts forward Ishimatsu as its hero--a tragic hero, in fact. This is an epic tragedy, in the literal sense of the Greek epic tragedies--it has all the characteristics (it's also epic in its length; the film is over two hours). The opening line of narration points out the moment at which Ishimatsu's tragic fall is supposed to have begun. The only problem is, our hero is completely despicable and awful from beginning to end. I suppose his tragic flaw (by which I mean the specific flaw that leads ultimately to his destruction) would be his tendency to mistrust the people that are actually the most loyal to him. But really the man is all flaw; one big walking flaw. He seems capable only of hurting and using other people, especially the people who (inexplicably) love him. Violence is his nature and his only gift. He hurts things as easily, as often, and as casually as breathing. He is an invincible machine for doing violence. He hurts everyone and no one can hurt him--except himself. Even when he is shot near the end of the film, it is only because he has allowed it to happen; he lets his own gun fall and accepts the bullet fired from the gun of his one-time friend because he is tired of life. And, of course, when he finally dies, it is by his own hand.

When we flashback from his suicide, we meet Ishimatsu when he is only a lowly dishwasher at a fancy restaurant. A group of yakuza are having dinner in the restaurant when a man comes in with a gun in each hand and opens fire. They are at his mercy, and he is about to shoot their godfather when Ishimatsu comes in from the kitchen and smashes the assassin over the head with a chair. "Keep it down," he says, and turns to walk away. He seems completely unaware that he has done anything noteworthy. There was just a guy annoying him, so he hit the guy. But the godfather stops him and calls him over. Soon after, Ishimatsu is being inducted into the yakuza, and as a rather high-ranking member.

There is immediately tension over Ishimatsu's sudden promotion. The other yakuza are understandably envious of this upstart newcomer. It doesn't help that he treats them like crap and pushes everyone around. But he is still the apple of the godfather's eye. One night he is out with the godfather and notices a girl working at the bar. He sends her a message that he'd like her to come meet him at a karaoke bar to sing with him. When she shows up, he brutally rapes her. He seems surprised to find blood on his hands afterwards, and wipes it on the wall as he's leaving. He's like some kind of caveman, confused at the way the world works, but not interested enough to try to figure it out. Clubbing the men that he doesn't like, raping the women he does. In search of little more than the moment's pleasure. He seems to understand the concepts of loyalty and honor, but only in terms of how they apply to other people--his friends should be loyal to him, that's all.

Ishimatsu is told that a gangster has been stirring up trouble and has pretty large gambling debts with the clan. Ishimatsu finds the man and viciously stabs him. He finds the girl he raped earlier that evening in her home and demands to be let in. She is clearly afraid, and obeys him. He eats some of the food she has out, and says that he's going to jail for a while, as if this explains what he is about to do. Then he rapes her again.

Ishimatsu is sent to prison, as he predicted (supposedly for "attempted murder," although it looked like the attempt succeeded to me). In prison, Ishimatsu meets a yakuza boss from another clan whose name is Imamura. We don't get to see how it happens, but somehow a great friendship develops between them. Imamura considers Ishimatsu his brother. He gets out of prison before Ishimatsu, but comes to meet him when his sentence is up. The girl Ishimatsu raped also arrives to greet him. For reasons that are hard to understand, she had visited him while he was in prison. She asked him what she was to him. "A wife," he replied, in all seriousness. And she accepts this. She becomes absolutely devoted to him. She makes him dinner the night of his release, and waits up all night for him to come home, while he celebrates with the other yakuza at a restaurant and rapes a random girl there. When he finally does come home, she waits on him, and submits to sex with him, as if she realizes this is something she will just have to get used to.

These are Ishimatsu's friends--his godfather, Imamura, and his "wife." And how does he repay their almost inexplicable loyalty to him? With violence. It is the only thing he knows how to give. Soon after he's out of prison, he asks the godfather for some money (he plans to use it to buy a bar that he and his wife can run together), and comes over to see him. When Ishimatsu gets there, the godfather is out. The other gangsters, who still envy and despise him, joke with him and say the godfather has gone to a spa. Ishimatsu flies instantly into a rage. He went to prison for the godfather, and now he asks for this one thing, and gets blown off? He lashes out viciously at the other gangsters, seriously injuring them, and storms off.

And here's where that opening line of narration is repeated. "The godfather had a toothache and went to the dentist. In that time, one yakuza went to hell." It turns out the godfather was just at the dentist. But now the clan is turned against Ishimatsu. The narration is suggesting that this is the moment when Ishimatsu's fall begins. But (and I suppose this is true of most tragedies), a moment like this was inevitable. Ishimatsu was bound to fall. In fact, it was his rise that was the strange, chance occurrence. It's not Ishimatsu's failure and destruction that is surprising, it is that he ever succeeded at all.

In a rage, and still convinced that the godfather wanted to slight him, he goes to see him in the middle of the night. The godfather tells him to wait and goes rummaging in a box in the next room. Thinking he's looking for a gun, Ishimatsu shoots him. But the godfather was just trying to get him the money. "Take it, take the money!" he says. And then: "Finish me off!" But Ishimatsu screams when he realizes what he's done, and runs out.

And now there's no helping him. Ishimatsu is out, and the clan has turned wholly against him. Even though the godfather survives the wound, Ishimatsu is still doomed. But this is the way Ishimatsu has always dealt with things. He fights and eats and fucks. He's little more than an animal. At one point in the film, a bit of narration describes the effects of the economic crash in Japan on the yakuza--they, too, are forced to "lay off" workers, which consists of pushing members of their gangs out. These clan-less yakuza wander the streets like "lone wolves," dangerous and master-less--assassins without targets, soldiers without orders. Ishimatsu has now become one of these, but really he has been an animal and a lone wolf all along. For a little while, he allowed someone to direct his violence, that's all.

However, although Ishimatsu has succeeded in alienating his most important friend (and, in the process, his entire clan), Imamura and his wife are still loyal to him. Imamura is prepared to fight Ishimatsu's entire clan to protect his brother. And Ishimatsu's wife will do anything for him, let him do anything to her. Occasionally, he shows a kind of tenderness towards her--tenderness for him, anyway. When he finds that she has been beaten at one point in the film (by other gangsters who were torturing her in an attempt to discover Ishimatsu's location), she tries to hide it, but he grabs her and pulls her hair until she tells him who did it. The irony of this act is lost on him. When she tells him who beat her, he finds them and savagely returns the favor. He then goes through their possessions and finds some heroin. He starts taking it, and eventually gets his wife hooked, as well. He administers it to her like a medicine. In one particular shot of him taking a hit, his face is pale, his mouth wide open and moaning, his eyes rolled up in his head--he looks like a noh mask. At one point in the film, someone compares him to a demon, and that is what he has become, if he was ever anything else.

Eventually, Ishimatsu kills his wife. It's not clear why exactly she dies (probably it's from the drugs), but it's pretty clear that he's responsible. And yet he is genuinely hurt when this woman dies. Perhaps because she is the only person who he feels has never betrayed him.

Because he does end up thinking that Imamura has betrayed him. Imamura does his best to hide and protect Ishimatsu, but it becomes difficult. Ishimatsu is a burden and a danger; if his former clan finds out Imamura is hiding him, there could be war. Finally Imamura's trusted second goes to the police and gives up Ishimatsu, just to get him out of their hair. Ishimatsu asks the cops who gave him up--"Was it Imamura?" "Well," the cop responds, "you're in the ballpark, anyway." Ishimatsu takes this as confirmation. He escapes jail by saving milk until it goes rancid, and then poisoning himself with it (a typical gross-out sequence from Miike). When the cops take him to the hospital, he fakes a suicide attempt, beats them, and steals a truck. He arrives at Imamura's house, still delirious and deeply ill from what he's done to himself, muttering curses. Despite the fact that Ishimatsu is now on the run from the cops and his former clan-members, Imamura takes his brother in and hides him again, nursing him back to health. And as soon as Ishimatsu can stand, he stabs Imamura and runs off. When he is well enough, he returns and shoots Imamura to death.

It's after this, and the death of his wife, that he lets himself be caught and shot by a former clan member. He's then arrested and, while in jail, he tricks a guard into letting him out long enough to do himself in. When the godfather hears that Ishimatsu has killed himself, his only response is, "bad kid." And perhaps that's the best and most concise description of Ishimatsu in the whole movie.

Strangely enough for a movie this violent, the audience often reacted with laughter. And indeed, Ishimatsu's antics are occasionally oddly funny. In general the audience seemed to have a positive attitude toward him. How did this happen? Is this a trick of Miike's? Has he made this hideous, violent man somehow into a hero? Or is the audience really that sadistic?

One particular moment underlined for me an interesting divide that had formed in the audience. When Ishimatsu finally gets shot at the end of the film, certain members of the audience clapped--applauding this punishment. When the narrator points out that Ishimatsu survives the gun shot wound, other members of the audience clapped--applauding...the man himself? His continued survival? Why?

But Miike's final trick on us, and the most disturbing part of the film for me (even after all the blood, guts, raping, vomit, and shit) is the very ending of the film. The fellow clan member who shot Ishimatsu has gone to jail for his deed; we see him taking a break in a prison workshop. He tells us in voice-over narration that he didn't learn until much later about Ishimatsu's suicide. As he says this, he is staring pensively at a lone rose that is growing on the stone wall of the workshop.

It's almost unavoidable here to make the connection between the rose and Ishimatsu. The film forces us to make this comparison. We are meant to feel sad for Ishimatsu, to see him as a tragic hero, a poor, fallen man. And perhaps, for at least a moment, we are tricked. Miike uses the tools of cinema to lead us along a certain path. We've seen this kind of scene before, we know how it works. This is where we feel sad for the dead hero.

Miike continues the trick. Now we cut to a kind of blurry home movie of Ishimatsu and some of his former clan members goofing off at the beach; just running around and laughing. Text comes up on the screen--"What a laugh. 30 years of raising hell." The End.

"What?!" I wanted to scream. There is no comparison here! Ishimatsu is no rose! He's a killing, fucking, devouring, raging, spitting demon! He is no hero; he was never a hero! There is no tragedy here! He was never good; there were never any good times with him! What laughs? "Raising hell?" Is that the right name for what he did?

As I walked out, I felt shaken, horrified. I didn't know what to think about the film. I was holding the ballot in my hands, moving my fingers left and right across it, completely unsure where to tear it. How do I rate a film that has done this, that has tried to make the most hideous of men into a hero to be mourned and wistfully remembered?

You'll see below what I settled on. The film was totally compelling, incredibly well-made and acted. And now I think I understand what Miike was trying to do, what he is always trying to do in all of his films. He wants to use conventions to break conventions. He wants to show the danger of becoming complacent when watching a film, the danger of being a passive viewer. You can be lulled and tricked by certain conventional uses of music, of editing, of acting, etc. He shows you what he can get away with so you will wake up and be horrified. Can he spend a whole movie showing you the worst man you can imagine, and then make you feel sad for him at the end?

That's what really shook me. The answer is yes.

My Poll Rating: Very Good (This is another rating that I would probably amend to Excellent if I could vote again now.)

Postscript: Another interesting casting note--the IMDB points out that our director, Takashi Miike, has a cameo as the gunman that Ishimatsu clocks over the head at the beginning of the film.

Epilogue

I got a little carried away there on my essay about Graveyard of Honor, but the movie really made me think. I had to work out how I felt about it, since it had shaken me so deeply. Anyway, another day of astounding movies. Doing the festival thoroughly like this is tiring, but exciting and rewarding. I look forward to tomorrow!

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Jim Genzano





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