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More Misses, Near and Far

September 18th, 2005 (05:10 pm)

Immortel Addendum: so I got a copy of the North American DVD of Immortel to take a look at the extras. The two "making of" pieces were moderately interesting, although I would have preferred as discussion with Bilal to the interviews with the graphic designers about the technical challenges. There was one section, however, that brought it all home for me. Immortel took three years to make, during which the technology behind the CGI advanced in the quantum leaps and bounds that you'd expect. Sometime during 2001, the first year of production, there were some clips done of Jill as an animated character. They show up in the extras, and they scream animated graphic novel. This implies (to me, anyway) that somewhere after that point Bilal and the animators decided to take things a step further step and embed live actors in their fantasy world (perhaps driven by difficulties: I read somewhere that he couldn't see how to animate a couple making love in bed). For me, any resulting disappointments are more failed experiments than sloppy work. Kudos to them for making the effort.

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I also watched Goodbye, Dragon Inn (aka Bu San), the first movie in the Nicheflix subscription that I've been spacing about. And now I see why I've been spacing.

I can get into art movies. I can get into movies where nothing really happens and the characters take over from the story. I can't get into a movie where the camera goes on and on, long after the actors have left the set, until the film's about to run out.

The movie itself is about the last day of a run-down Taiwanese movie palace. The movie playing is Dragon Inn, a circa-1960s kung fu movie that looks a lot like a King Hu film. (And, in fact, it is a 1966 King Hu film.) There are a few souls wandering the cavernous theater - the manager, a lame woman who spends her time checking the different hallways, the bathrooms, the leaks in the ceiling; limping up five flights of stairs, stopping by the projection booth to leave the projectionist a treat. The projectionist, meanwhile, doesn't seem to spend any time in the booth; he's off somewhere, we're not sure, seemingly in an attempt to keep from getting bored. (And who's going to fire him? The theater's closing down.) The theater itself has become a cruising spot; men sit next to each other for a few minutes, spend a lot of time in the restrooms at the urinals. There is, of course, an annoying moviegoer, who proceeds to make sure everyone in her area knows she's eating nuts, then drops her wooden shoe off the foot draped over the seat in front of her, then digs around that row to find the shoe. And in the middle of all this an older gentleman sits down front with his grandson and actually watches the movie.

This is a quiet movie. In eighty minutes, there are maybe three stretches of dialogue, and the first starts about 40 minutes in. Everything else is conveyed by actions, looks, and characters walking down very long halls until they've disappeared. And that's where the movie falls short. Ming-liang Tsai has some heft to his name (he directed What Time Is It There?). It seems his heft has gone to his head, making anything he's put on film a great statement. Having the manager go through the rows cleaning up after the patrons leave, then moving off camera so we can see the theater in its last moments (and pay proper homage) is fine. What isn't fine is keeping the camera trained on that shot for literally 3-4 minutes. Then it becomes an exercise in vanity (and not very original vanity, either). We feel the weight on the theater's death in every step the manager takes down the halls and up the stairs. Do we have to see every step that she takes to get that? (Answer: no.)

There are all sorts of messages in the movie: the end of an icon, the end of a cultural style, the end of a way of life. That kind of a story can be told with a light touch and a lot of grace; we don't need to be clubbed over the head with it and left out of breath with the sheer tedium of it all. Ming-liang Tsai needs to lighten up on his touch - or get a new editor.