4/12/03:

My brother called me unexpectedly this morning to tell me that he and his wife were going to try to come down and see a film or two at the festival. (They chose to come see The Man Who Laughs with Sarah and I, but weren't able to fit any other movies into their schedule.) They had wanted to join me at the festival before, but it's difficult for them to get down to Philly and back, since they live in North Jersey and have jobs and other such things that take up a lot of their time. But today they happened to be coming into the city to see a concert, anyway, so it made sense.

Anyway, today was a very interesting day of movies: a real-life horror movie/detective thriller/documentary, an old silent horror film, and the last of the Shaw Brothers kung fu films that I'll be seeing in the festival.

Films I saw today: Missing Allen: The Man Who Became a Camera, The Man Who Laughs, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Missing Allen: The Man Who Became a Camera

Missing Allen is the second documentary I've seen so far in the festival. It was made by a German documentary filmmaker named Christian Bauer. This is not a German film, however. In fact, it is the story of Bauer's journey across America in search of his close friend of many years, Allen Ross. Ross was a cameraman, originally from Chicago, who worked on many of Bauer's films, but after one of their shoots, he just disappeared. His father and friends tried in vain to get in touch with him. The police were alerted, but their perfunctory investigation yielded no leads. Bauer, like Ross himself, is a man whose life revolves around film and cameras. So when Allen went missing, Bauer's natural reaction was to make a film about it. The result is this documentary--an examination of the lack of a man. It is at times a detective film, at other times a horror film, and at still others it is a eulogy. It is a look back, with much love and humor, on the life of a man. It is a movie full of the love of movies (and in that way--and that way alone--it is similar to the film I saw last night: The Good Thief). But its joy in its own medium is tempered by the anguish of the reality it uncovers. It is a film full of mourning and anger. It is also possibly the most disturbing and frightening film I've ever seen.

This is not what I expected from a documentary. After reading the description of Missing Allen in the festival booklet, I had the feeling this might be a rather unsettling and depressing film. But I hadn't imagined anything close to the reality. Regardless, I decided I didn't want to see it. But my girlfriend Sarah wanted to go, so I bought us both a ticket. I'm very glad I did. Yes, it is a disturbing film, but it is also a very moving and thought-provoking film. And it is completely engrossing, from the very first frame to the very last. Perhaps part of the absorbing nature of the film comes from the fact that Bauer, like myself, had not imagined where this film would go. He didn't know the story he was going to tell when he started. Missing Allen turns out to be a real-life detective movie/suspense thriller; in fact, Bauer himself makes this comparison in his narration. At one point he says (and I'm paraphrasing), "This is the part in the detective story where something amazing would happen and the case would be broken. But I was totally unprepared for what would happen next."

In case you ever see this film, I want you, too, to be unprepared, so I will provide very little plot summary. Seeing the film without knowing the outcome of Bauer's investigations made it, I think, even more powerful than it would otherwise have been. The suspense and tension that I felt while watching this film were almost unbearable. These feelings were heightened by the fact that this is no fictional film--these things actually happened. This idea struck me constantly during the screening, especially when a particular scene reminded me (visually and in terms of story) of The Blair Witch Project. I find that film frightening because it manages to make horrific events seem real, but how much more frightening this film is, since its horrific events are real. In his search for Allen, Bauer takes us into recently deserted houses that look barely livable; he takes us into basement rooms where terrible violence occurred. He discovers that Allen was part of a cult, that his wife Linda was the leader of that cult. When he shows us an old building where the cult members used to meet, he says it's one of the saddest places he's ever been, and it's easy to see why he feels that way. Bauer discovers that Linda condemned one of her cult members to die for violating their strange religious codes. The woman later killed herself by walking in front of a train. Bauer tells us what the engineer saw that night: a woman revealed in the light of the oncoming train, smiling and holding a dog. This, for me, was one of the most striking and disturbing images in the film, and it is not even a visual one.

The film festival booklet, as well as the woman who introduced the film at our screening, claim that the major theme of Missing Allen is the idea that no matter how close you get to someone, no matter how good a friend you think that person is, you never really know him (or her). And certainly that idea can be found in this film. In his search for his friend, Bauer learns things about him that he would not have believed possible. But Bauer never gives up on Allen, and neither do any of his friends, no matter what strange things they learn about him. They are sometimes shocked and saddened by what Allen did, but the film does not leave you with the feeling that Allen was a stranger to them. Their love for him is palpable. The movie is called Missing Allen, after all. And they do miss him. So much so that it hurts us, the viewers. Sarah told me that by the end of the film, she had the sense that she knew this man, and I think I felt that, too. Allen was a man who loved film, who lived film. And we see him here only through film; we see photographs of him, home movies of him, and we see the movies he made. He was a man who loved to experiment. He was curious about the world and the way it worked. His curiosity took him away from his friends, to strange and ultimately terrifying places. But his friends never left him.

Bauer interviews one of Allen's friends on the rooftop of Allen's old apartment building in Chicago. The man is festooned with cameras as Bauer talks to him; he is another devotee of photography. When Bauer asks him, "Do you miss Allen?" the man is speechless. He is overcome by emotion. The only thing he can think of to do is pick up one of the cameras that are hanging from around his neck and snap pictures. It is his way of dealing with things. It's Bauer's way, too; he says at one point that he is hiding behind his camera. And it was Allen's way. After all, the film has a subtitle, as well, and it, too, is meaningful. Strangely enough, much of that meaning comes from the film's most odd and frightening character, and the closest thing there is here to a villain--Linda. A few times during his travels, Bauer actually gets a chance to speak to Linda on the phone. Most of what she says is pure insanity, but sometimes she hits on what might be a bit of truth. She says Allen was afraid of becoming a camera. That Allen's eyes were becoming like cameras.

In the first scene of this film, in what is seemingly the first step of Bauer's investigation, the film crew has come to the house of a woman who was a former neighbor of Allen's. It turns out that Linda left Allens' camera with this woman. She told the neighbor to get rid of it, but for one reason or another, the woman never did. Bauer and his team examine the camera carefully, full of hope, fear, sadness, and love. In a strange way, it seems to be all that is left of Allen.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

I felt like I'd been through an ordeal after I got out of this movie. The world outside seemed false, but also bright and comforting, after what I'd seen. I was glad I'd seen the film, but it was nice to walk away from it. Sarah and I went to Subway and grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then it was over to the Prince Music Theater to meet my brother and his wife, and to see the next movie.

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The Man Who Laughs

Last year, the festival showed the classic silent comedy Speedy, starring the third and least known of the great silent comedians, Harold Lloyd. I and a great number of my friends went to the screening and had a wonderful time. What made the movie even more entertaining was that it was accompanied by live music, performed on stage by a very small orchestra. The Prince Music Theater, which shows both film and theater, was the perfect venue for this special performance. The show was a big hit with the crowd, so this year the festival did it again, but this time with a horror film (The Man Who Laughs), and an even smaller orchestra (composed of only one man--local keyboardist, Don Kinnier).

The Man Who Laughs is a relatively forgotten movie made in 1928 for Universal Pictures by German director Paul Leni. It's based on the novel by Victor Hugo--unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have no idea how faithful it is to the original, as I haven't read it. The title character is played by the great Conrad Veidt, who had already become a star in the German expressionist horror masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and who would later go on to appear in such sound film classics as The Thief of Bagdad and Casablanca. He played the villain in both of those latter films, as he did throughout most of his acting career, but in this earlier film he plays the hero--the sad but laughing Gwynplaine. Gwynplaine's father, Lord Clancharlie, rebelled against the King of England, and successfully escaped the country. However, he was forced to leave his young son behind, and returns in an attempt to rescue him. Unfortunately, the King has already found the boy and sold him to a group of gypsies who carve permanent smiles on children and sell them as jesters (for a movie that ostensibly is teaching us not to stereotype people or judge them by their appearance, it has a rather harsh view of gypsies). The King is a cruel man indeed; when he captures Lord Clancharlie, he cannot even remember what punishment he sentenced the boy to, and his jester, the evil and conniving Barkilphedro, must remind him by pushing up the corners of his mouth into an unnatural grin. In fact, the first time we see Barkilphedro, he is smiling in at the king from behind a curtain; practically all we see is his gigantic, sinister smile. Barkilphedro is in many ways Gwynplaine's mirror image, and opposite. He is the villain; Gwynplaine is the hero. He is old; Gwynplaine is young. He smiles all the time on purpose to conceal his evil and his desire for power; Gwynplaine is forced to smile eternally, which conceals his goodness and his sadness.

After the King has tortured Clancharlie by telling him what has become of his son, he has the man thrown into the Iron Maiden. Meanwhile, the gypsies have been ordered out of the country. Clancharlie's son is with them, but even they are disgusted by what they have done to him, and kick him off the ship. Dr. Hardquanonne, their surgeon, objects--the boy is his work, and is worth good money--but the other gypsies shout him down, and the ship leaves Gwynplaine on the shore, abandoned now even by his tormentors, alone and friendless in a snowy wasteland. He wanders off and finds, sitting in a snowdrift, a woman and her baby. The woman is dead, frozen to death with the baby still in her arms. But the baby is still alive, and crying lustily. Gwynplaine, a kind-hearted boy from the first, takes the baby with him--it may be more his desire to save this poor, beautiful baby than any desire to save himself that drives him on. He plods through the snowy wastes until finally he comes upon the small wagon of a travelling "philosopher" named Ursus. At first it looks like Gwynplaine still hasn't found shelter, as the wagon is guarded by a wolf (who is unfortunately named Homo--more on that later), and Ursus sounds pretty gruff as he shouts through the door. But eventually Ursus lets Gwynplaine in, thinking that one small boy shouldn't be too much trouble. It's only then that Gwynplaine reveals he also has a baby with him. And when his scarf falls down from his face, something more is revealed--Gwynplaine's awful disfigurement. At first Ursus berates Gwynplaine for laughing at a time like this, but then he realizes what has happened--he's heard of the gypsies and their surgical practices before. Feeling sorry for both children, Ursus takes them in and raises them as his own.

As you can tell already, the film is full of silly names that are just a bit too meaningful. Some of them are trickier to figure out than others (the baby grows up into a woman named Dea; I'm not sure what that refers to--goddess, perhaps?), but some are a little too obvious (Hardquanonne = hard qua none; Gwynplaine = grin plain). The worst by far is Homo the wolf, but unlike the other names, this one is objectionable only because of the meaning that it has accrued over time. Originally, the name merely meant "man," as in the species of human, and the joke was the fact that such a name would be applied to a wolf. But now it has other connotations which distract quite a bit from the movie; every time the name was mentioned in the film the audience erupted with laughter.

Another thing this film is full of is pathos. I mean, this thing is loaded to bursting with pathos. What helps make it so effective emotionally is the incredible black and white photography. Sometimes there's just something about the quality of black and white film that is far more effective and beautiful than color, especially in old Universal horror films like this one.

Anyway, flash forward to the future, and now Dea and Gwynplaine are grown. Dea is blind from the snowstorm she went through when she was a baby. And Gwynplaine still has his horrible grin. Dea and Gwynplaine are clearly in love, but each time she reaches out for his face, or speaks of marriage, he turns away. He doesn't feel worthy of her, and besides, he is afraid she will be horrified when she learns the truth about his face. Gwynplaine and Dea are now part of a kind of traveling circus. Ursus has written a play wherein Gwynplaine is the hero who must save Dea from horrible monsters. They go about performing it at local fairs. But everyone really comes to laugh at Gwynplaine and his face.

There are a lot of things about this part of the film that bother me. First of all, the story is rather unbelievable. Gwynplaine has somehow kept the truth about his face from Dea all these years, even though it is his face that everyone comes to see. How can she possibly not have overheard something, or at some point brushed his face with her hand? Another thing that bothers me is the absolute hilarity that erupts whenever an audience sees Gwynplaine's face. His face (which is quite realistic, and must have been created only after painstaking work by the make-up artists) evokes many emotions in me, including pity and horror, but never laughter. It looks like the face of the Joker (and, indeed, it was supposedly an inspiration for that character)--a disfigured mask of horror, not a funny grimace. And another thing that bothers me a bit is Ursus. He's a kindly old man who is really interested in the welfare of Gwynplaine and Dea. And yet he's also exploiting them in what is basically a freak show. He's making his living off of displaying Gwynplaine's unfortunate disfigurement.

But then again, this is really a kind of fairy tale, and people back then were not exactly politically correct, so perhaps I'm being unfair. We have to accept Dea's ignorance for the story to work; she has to be blind in more ways than one for the plot to progress. And as for Gwynplaine's face...well, some people think clowns are funny. And Ursus and his young charges have to make a living somehow. Plus, once again, it's important for the plot that Gwynplaine be publicly on display. After all, it's at one of these fairs that the old doctor, Hardquanonne (who is now running a little freak show of his own) sees Gwynplaine and recognizes him. He knows that Gwynplaine is the son of Lord Clancharlie, and rightful heir to Clancharlie's lands and title. Currently the lady Josiana holds the post, so Hardquanonne sends her a blackmail letter, saying he won't reveal Gwynplaine's true identity for a price. But Barkilphedro, the old jester, intercepts the letter and decides he can turn the situation to his own advantage. The ruler of England is now Queen Anne and she does not think well of lady Josiana. She and Barkilphedro decide to bring Gwynplaine in and force him into his inheritance. Thus they will force lady Josiana into a terrible choice: destitution and the loss of all of her comforts, or keep it all at the price of marrying a freak.

This part of the film is really quite cleverly and subtly done, especially for a silent film. The two-faced back stabbing nature of royal court politics is beautifully rendered, especially in the wonderfully ironic concert sequence--it's a concert where no one is listening to the music; everyone is really there to court favor with the Queen.

And I've really got to stop summarizing the plot here before I give away the whole movie. It's really quite an exciting and involving story, and easy to get swept up in. After all, The Man Who Laughs is, among many other things, an adventure film. It ends with an exciting chase and a sword fight, like many silent films before it and many sound films after it. Also like many other silent films, The Man Who Laughs is full of really strong emotion and rather obvious symbolism. But even melodramas with messages (of the after-school special type) can be done well, and this one is. Though it can sometimes go a bit too far, as in Gwynplaine's impassioned speech to the peers of England near the end of the movie, it is most of the time an undeniably effective film--not only as a work of visual art, but also as a piece of entertainment. The crowd hissed and booed at Barkilphedro, and clapped and cheered for Homo (who turns out to be the real hero of the picture by the end).

Of course, there wasn't only a visual element here--there was also the sound, which I have yet to talk about. Live musical accompaniment is always a wonderful addition to any silent film, and Kinnier's work was no exception. I have to admit, I would have preferred something with more varied sound, like the tiny orchestra that played along with Speedy last year, but Kinnier's keyboard did the job well enough. And really he has to be commended just for playing live for 110 minutes straight. I don't think he let up for one moment from the opening credits to the closing credits.

The Man Who Laughs is billed as a horror film, but really it is not. It certainly has elements of horror in it (terrifying images, awful events), but those elements also appear in other genres, one of which, as I mentioned above, The Man Who Laughs has much more in common with--the fairy tale. After all, this movie has a cruel king, an evil jester, an ugly prince who is handsome on the inside, a beautiful blind "princess," and a number of unlikely events--brought about by fate, coincidence, or perhaps some kind of magic. And, like any fairy tale, The Man Who Laughs also has a very clear message to impart--don't judge by appearances. People aren't necessarily what they seem.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

After this film, my brother, his wife, Sarah, and I all went out to dinner. We discussed the film for a little bit--we had all enjoyed it. After dinner we split up; the three of them went off to have coffee and talk some more, and I jumped on the trolley to head west for my next film. Before the movie, I picked up another festival T-shirt--this one big enough for me to wear. :)

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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

This is the last of the Shaw Brothers kung fu films that I'll be seeing in the festival, and I bid an especially fond farewell to them, as I was lucky enough to have accidentally saved the best for last. In fact, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (also known as Shaolin Master Killer, for reasons that will become obvious) is probably my new favorite kung fu film of all time. It has pretty much everything you could ask for in a kung fu film--an involving story, great characters, plenty of adventure, comedy, drama, and wisdom, and, most importantly, lots of really impressive fighting sequences. Actually, I left the film feeling like it had been loaded with almost non-stop fighting, but when I thought about it I realized that I'd been considering the amazing training sequences in the film as part of the "fighting." And although these sequences are perhaps not technically fight scenes, they are certainly action-packed and highly entertaining, and they are also in many ways the heart of the film.

I know very little about Chinese history, but apparently this film makes use of actual historical figures and events. Anyway, the story goes like this: the repressive Manchu government is cracking down on the Hans. Lau Kar-fai is a young Han student who wants to do anything he can to support the rebellion against the Manchu. His school teacher is part of the rebellion, and gives Lau Kar-fai and his fellow students small tasks to do, like helping to smuggle important messages through regular shipments of goods. Unfortunately, the local Manchus find out what is going on and come down hard on the whole town, killing anybody who was even remotely involved, including Lau Kar-fai's fellow students, his teacher, and even his family. Lau Kar-fai manages to escape, but realizes that he and his fellow Hans must learn martial arts in order to exact their righteous revenge on the murderous Manchu (there's that revenge story again). He knows he must seek out the Shaolin monks and plead with them to teach him their secret fighting style.

Shaolin monks tend to show up a lot in kung fu films. According to the very small amount of research I've just done on the Internet, the Shaolin order of fighting monks actually did, and apparently still does, exist. However, all I know about them is from the movies I've seen, and according to the movies, these monks are extremely wise and are practically unbeatable in a fight--they have such amazing physical and mental abilities that they seem almost magical. So basically, they're like a bunch of Yodas. It's to these men that Lau Kar-fai finally makes his way, after a journey that almost kills him. And after some convincing, they agree to take him in and train him the martial arts.

Before the screening of this film, Travis Crawford, the programmer, pointed out that most kung fu movies start with their heroes already at an almost superhuman skill level in the martial arts. This movie shows you how they got there. When the movie starts, Lau Kar-fai is a normal, every-day guy. He wants to avenge his loved ones, and help free his people from oppression, but he doesn't have the strength, knowledge, or skill to do it. During the training sequences, we see him earn those things, bit by painful bit. Training in the temple is split up into a number of different "chambers." Each chamber is meant to hone a different skill. The first challenge is just getting to the cafeteria--all students must cross over a small moat by jumping on the logs that are floating on top. You're not allowed to enter the lunch room wet, and if you show up late, you probably won't get to eat--in other words, if you fall in, you're screwed. Lau Kar-fai notices that the instructors are all taking another path into the cafeteria, and tries multiple times to sneak in that way, but, in one of the funnier sequences of the film, he is caught and put in his place. The Shaolin monks believe in a very strict, painful and rigorous training process--the temple is basically like a boot camp for kung fu masters. After Lau Kar-fai falls into the moat a few times, and goes without food for a few days, he realizes that he's got to figure this out, and starts to train himself at night using rolling buckets as stand-ins for the logs floating in the moat. He becomes so obsessed with doing this right that he even practices in his sleep--we see him twitching on his pallet, his feet moving back and forth. When he finally triumphed, the crowd cheered for him, and we really felt his victory. But then the monks just make it harder by splitting the logs into smaller pieces. This is the basic structure of the training sequences--each time Lau Kar-fai masters one chamber, he moves on to one that's even more challenging, or challenging in a completely different way. And each time, we feel a part of his struggle. We groan at the painful tasks he must perform, and thrill when he masters them. And all the time we watch him become steadily stronger.

And I think this is a large part of what makes The 36th Chamber of Shaolin one of my favorite kung fu films ever. By depicting this arduous training process, the film really made me believe in, and appreciate, the incredible physical and mental skill of the kung fu master, more than I ever had before in any other kung fu movie. By the time Lau Kar-fai gets through all 35 chambers, you thoroughly believe that he is just about the coolest guy ever. And yet the film manages to one-up itself yet again. Because at this point, when Lau Kar-fai has been made a monk (he has even been renamed San De, which means "Three Virtues") and seems to have nothing else to master, he is put in his place again by one of the senior monks. The head of the temple is ready to make San De the instructor of any chamber he chooses, but the sort of second-in-command of the temple doesn't believe San De is ready for the position (San De got through the 35 chambers in record time--I forget how many years--and is young for the job), and demands that he defeat him in a fight first. After seeing what San De has been through, I for one was expecting him to lay this guy out flat in no time. Instead, he is easily defeated by his opponent's twin sword fighting style. Puzzled and disappointed, San De must work things out for himself once again, just as he did in the very first chamber. He trains himself at night, remembering his opponent's moves and trying to develop a strategy to counter them. Ultimately he is forced to design a new weapon (a three-part staff) to defeat the twin swords of the other monk. When he finally wins, he seems to have become an almost invincible warrior. He is quick on his feet, and quick-witted; strong and smart. He is even religious, in his own way; the 35th chamber taught him the tenets of Buddhism.

But even after all this, San De has not forgotten his original purpose. After he defeats the other monk, and is once again offered the opportunity to take charge of any of the 35 chambers, San De requests the opportunity to instead create a 36th chamber, where he will be able to train worthy members of the public in the mysteries of Shaolin kung fu. After all, it was San De's mission all along to arm the Han populace against the Manchu oppressors, and he knows this is the way to do it. However, the Shaolin order doesn't believe in letting just anybody learn their fighting style, so the head of the temple rejects San De's idea. When San De pushes the issue, the temple head gets angry and decides to punish San De--he is ordered to leave the temple and go begging for offerings. San De, recognizing this as the very opportunity he needs, smiles and says thank you. In fact, I suspect the temple head was quietly saying "yes" to San De's idea here, even as he was saying "no" aloud. The Shaolin monks often seem to work in this fashion--hiding compliments in insults and rewards in punishments. For example, in an earlier scene, San De has become so skilled at the task to be performed in a particular chamber, that he is not only doing it without any trouble, he is also helping the other students. The instructor in the chamber stops San De and tells him, "You're not supposed to help the other students. Leave here immediately." When San De starts to object, the instructor adds, "...and go to the next chamber." San De understands, and gratefully moves on.

In the concluding section of the film, San De gets a chance to show off what he's learned in a series of fighting scenes (and recruiting scenes). His first move after leaving the temple is to pay his respects at the grave of his dead parents, but along the way he runs into some people who seem ripe to be recruited into his new fighting school, and he quickly talks them into joining up (although sometimes it requires some convincing, including demonstrations of his skill). Also along the way, he runs into various agents of the Manchu government, and helps dispatch them. In the final and most impressive fighting sequence, he goes up against a whole group of Manchu soldiers, as well as the man who caused the death of his teacher, his fellow students, and his parents.

These fighting scenes are pretty much just as spectacular as the training scenes that have preceded them--the movie is of the highest quality throughout. There's very little of the over-the-top melodrama and unintentional humor of the previous Shaw Brothers films I've seen. There's even a fair amount of really entertaining, totally intentional humor in the training and recruiting sequences of this film. I find that many modern Hong Kong films have a very goofy, almost childish sense of humor that I don't really enjoy (and, in fact, it often ruins the movie for me, as it did in Shaolin Soccer), but this film isn't like that. It's clever, fun, and involving. It even succeeds in making the stock, magical kung fu abilities seem not only believable, but achievable by normal human beings. And that very attractive idea is perhaps one of the main reasons why I love the film so much. Not that I'll be enrolling at the nearest Shaolin temple anytime soon, but still--it's a neat idea.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

As I was leaving the theater, there were some girls in the lobby handing out free samples of Red Bull. I had never tried it before, so I decided to take one (even though I absolutely despise their TV commercials--one of which was screened in front of a number of the movies at the festival, unfortunately). As I was drinking this and walking back to the trolley station, I thought back to a particular sequence in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: one of the chambers at the Shaolin temple trained San De's eyesight to such an incredible sharpness and accuracy that his eyes actually glowed (a glowing which was accompanied by a wonderful sound effect, I might add). I started to think, sipping the incredibly sugary energy drink, that maybe my eyes might start to glow, too, with Red Bull power...

It was quite a mix of films today--a disturbing, contemporary documentary made by a German director; an old American black and white, silent horror film; and a Hong Kong kung fu film from the '70s--but they were all excellent, each in their own way. As always, I look forward to tomorrow!

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Jim Genzano





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