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A Hong Kong action film that has nothing to do with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan—and not much more connection to John Woo—The Ashes of Time is beautiful, epic, and (to be frank) confounding. Though adapted by writer/director Wong Kar-Wai from Jin Yong’s The Eagle-Shooting Hero, a sweeping martial-arts novel that has inspired other HK period flicks, the film charts a distinctively ecstatic course. Narratively, Ashes may be mysterious, but visually it’s incontrovertible.
The movie was made, with some difficulty, in the deserts of western China, which have provided dramatic locations to so many recent filmmakers (notably Zhang Yimou). During unavoidable breaks in production, Wong wrote, directed, and edited the playful Chungking Express, and the two films have a thematic link: Both are about melancholy warriors haunted by lost love. Where Express’ contemporary heroes are ordinary beat cops, however, Ashes’ legendary ones are larger-than-life adventurers, assassins, and mercenaries. Express gleams with neon and rain-slick streets, while its costume-picture counterpart features delirious sword battles rendered in smeary, abstracted slo-mo by Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot both films.
There are some spectacular clashes here, including one in which a swordsman spits fire at his opponents. Still, the impact of these audaciously stylized contests relies more on visual delirium than ultraviolent action. Through Wong’s lens, the movement of light and water is every bit as dramatic as the arc of a menacing sword; the blood that occasionally spurts is no more visceral than the undulating or crashing waves that punctuate several scenes. (One of Ashes’ most dazzling sequences simply features two people talking, their faces swirling with the light refracted through a spinning wicker birdcage.) With its vast landscapes and scenes of edgy anticipation, the film strongly suggests a psychedelic Chinese version of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West; the kinship is heightened by Frankie Chan’s score, which updates Ennio Morricone’s eclecticism with Asian and electronic timbres.
Both oblique and circular, Ashes is the sort of overloaded, elliptical film that needs to be seen once simply as preparation for seeing it. Short of reading the four-volume Eagle-Shooting Hero, perhaps, nothing else will fully prepare viewers for this cast of brooding, mythic characters: Ouyang (Leslie Cheung) chose adventure over love, and now runs a small desert inn, where he regrets his choice and serves as an agent for fledgling mercenaries. Ouyang’s friend Huang (Tony Leung Kar-fai), who visits the inn annually, laments an unrequited romance with a married woman. Huang once jokingly promised to marry Yin, the sister of Yang (both siblings are played by Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia); while Yang seeks the death of Huang, for failing to marry his sister, Yin tries to hire someone to kill Yang, for keeping her from Huang. An unnamed swordsman with weakening eyesight (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) arrives at Ouyang’s, shattered by his wife’s love for another man (who happens to be Huang). He successfully challenges a gang of horse thieves, only to lose the battle when his eyes fail him. Hong (Jacky Cheung), a poor young fighter, defeats the gang and then continues his wanderings, unswayed by Ouyang’s answer to his question about what lies beyond the desert. (“Another desert,” says the older, disillusioned man.)
Memory, not mayhem, is the subject of Ashes, which has more in common with the time-hopping films of French new-waver Alain Resnais than with even the most elegiac of Hong Kong action movies. The film both begins and ends with Ouyang and Huang considering a bottle of “magic wine” sent to Ouyang by his former love (Maggie Cheung); the wine is supposed to relieve the mind of painful memories, but its effect turns out to be limited. That’s just as well for this director, who’d be lost without such reminiscences. Whether yesterday’s romance in Express or a lost romantic era in Ashes, Wong rapturously contemplates the lost.
A quietly potent tale of grown-up sibling strife, Ma Saison Préférée (My Favorite Season) arrives logically after The Wild Reeds, the account of adolescent turmoil that was director André Téchiné’s American breakthrough film; both less schematic and more sophisticated than Reeds, Saison seems a natural progression. In fact, Saison was made a year earlier, in 1993, and is showing up now only due to the vagaries of foreign-film distribution. Nonetheless, the two films make sense seen in the order they’re been released here, and may even be more powerful this way.
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Like Reeds, Saison has at its center a man and woman who don’t (or who aren’t supposed to) have sexual feelings for each other. Emilie (Catherine Deneuve) is a stolid middle-aged notary who hasn’t spoken to her younger bother, eccentric neurologist Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), for three years. Emilie goes to visit Antoine casually after a prologue that has already revealed to the viewer what she wants to discuss: Their mother Berthe (Marthe Villalonga) has had a stroke, has left the farm house where she’s spent most of her life, and now lives with Emilie and her distant husband, Bruno (Jean-Pierre Bouvier). Everyone involved is unhappy with the arrangement, and Emilie is hoping that Antoine will provide a new home for their mother.
Having been re-acknowledged as a member of the family, Antoine arrives for a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner, where the family conflicts are sufficiently showcased. The sharp-tongued Berthe complains to Antoine about Emilie and Bruno (“you know they’re no fun,” she confides), and dismisses her grandchildren, Lucien (Anthony Prada) and Anne (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s daughter by Marcello Mastroianni). While Emilie and Bruno’s relationship has become iced-over, Anne and Lucien’s is warming up. With a young French-Moroccan woman nicknamed Radish (Carmen Chaplin) as the erotic go-between, the siblings are engaging in flirtations that parallel the incestuous tension between Emilie and Antoine. The evening ends with Bruno and Antoine exchanging insults and blows.
High-strung brother and buttoned-up sister are both overdramatic in their ways, but they’re ways that are entirely believable. “I’m not like you. I wasn’t made to be happy,” deadpans Emilie, who separates from her husband and doesn’t bother to inform Antoine. (When he finds out, he’s inordinately thrilled.) Later, stung by Emilie’s charge that he’s paid too little attention to their mother’s deteriorating health, Antoine throws himself out a window, only to decide a moment too late that he doesn’t want to take the fall.
That’s the sort of awkward situation from which there is no entirely successful extrication, and Saison is full of such moments. At first it appears the family can successfully be realigned. Anne, who is skeptical of her parents, seems a natural ally for Antoine. Freed from Bruno, Emilie and Antoine might restore the rapport they had as children. Perhaps Berthe’s truth-telling will shame her children and grandchildren into a better understanding of their bickering.
None of these things happen, however. The film’s final conversation—in which most of the central characters respond to Anne’s banal request that they name their favorite season—fails to bring reconciliation. Indeed, it’s as unresolved as so many strained family discussions. Téchiné was once known for his elaborate formal designs, but Saison is intimate, unforced, and partially improvised. (Though Téchiné devised the basic scenario, the film’s credits don’t list a screenwriter.) Shot with natural light and documentary-style camera placement in mostly prosaic locations, the film is bracingly ordinary.
That doesn’t mean it’s routine, something that is never true of films containing Auteuil performances. Auteuil has brought depth and empathy to oddballs from Jean de Florette to Un Couer en Hiver, and his Antoine is fully formed (if not fully explained). Even more striking, however, is Deneuve, who finally moves beyond the sort of iconic role she’s affectlessly played for more than 30 years. Rather than a mannequin in the garishly antiquated display window that is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve here finally seems human.
Set principally during the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom takes director Ken Loach as far from lower-class Britain as he’s ever traveled—which turns out not to be very far. Indeed, this battlefield drama is something of a valentine to the working-class British radicals of the ’30s; it’s as much a homage to that era’s spirit as Billy Bragg’s performances of venerable labor and revolution ditties. Still, where the last Loach film to screen in Washington, Raining Stones, was an underclass fairy tale that ended with everything turning out for the best, Land is more in the spirit of the subsequent Ladybird, Ladybird, which never got a local run: It’s as messy and confused as real life.
There are only a handful of heroes in Land, and the principal one is David Carr, a Liverpool revolutionary who heads south after being stirred by a film about the left’s war to prevent Spain from being conquered by Franco. (David is played by Ian Hart, who in both The Hours and Times and Backbeat was John Lennon, a working-class Liverpool upstart of the next generation.) David means well, but he’s not entirely sure where he stands amid the bewildering array of leftist factions. He falls in with the POUM (the Spanish acronym for the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification), a Communist splinter group that takes a democratic, open-enrollment approach. David’s squad, led by an Irishman, votes on all matters of policy, and includes German, Italian, French—and female—fighters. (English, conveniently for the film’s Anglo-American viewers, is the squad’s universal language.)
The squad is ill-equipped, and its alliance with other anti-fascist groups is shaky. The soldiers train with sticks rather than rifles, and resist being absorbed by the orthodox Communist forces. Wounded when an old, defective rifle blows up in his face, David is sent to Barcelona to recuperate. There he’s visited by fellow fighter Blanca (Rosana Pastor), and they begin a romance—a relationship that ends quickly, when David reveals that he’s joined the Communists’ International Brigade. (Blanca walks out, presciently denouncing him as a “Stalinist.”) Despite witnessing the intramural struggle between the Communists and the POUM in Barcelona, David tries to accept the official line. As the leftist infighting becomes more destructive, however, he returns to his original unit.
Though Loach (and scripter Jim Allen, who also wrote Stones) clearly sympathize with David and his colleagues, Land is not a glamorizing film. It depicts war as a muddle in which people screw up more often than they commit heroism. High-minded but undisciplined, David’s squad makes the error (political, if not humanitarian) of executing a small-town fascist-sympathizer priest and then burning the church’s sacred objects. Verbal clashes clearly interest the filmmakers more than military ones, though. The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy discussion among the village’s newly liberated peasants on the subject of collectivization. (This scene is as talky as any from a downscale drama where the camera never leaves the kitchen.) The militia members offer their advice, sometimes heatedly, but the final decision is left to a vote of the villagers.
That small-town priest is one of the few fascists actually glimpsed during the film, which is not at all an account of the righteous left versus the loathsome right. Land begins as a salute to Britain’s forgotten leftist warriors, with David’s granddaughter discovering his papers, photos, and letters after his death and piecing together his life over the course of the film, which is almost all flashback. (The granddaughter, who knew nothing about this chapter in her family’s history, is a surrogate for the viewer, who probably doesn’t knows much about the war either.) Yet the film evolves into something more complicated, and affecting: an account of how leftist ideologues sacrificed Spain to their own rigid, competing agendas. At moments like the burial of one of their own, when an orchestra swells to accompany the fighters’ rendition of “The Internationale,” Land can be simple-mindedly stirring. By its end, however, the film has become richly, painfully ambivalent.CP