Thursday, April 24, 2014

Exploring the Transnational in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière

Key topics within transnational studies include immigration, mobility, temporary and permanent forms of displacement, and cultural flow. Within film studies the transnational approach may be used as a corrective to the national paradigm by calling into question singular national allegiances (linguistic, "common blood," language, race, soil...). It is an approach that might critique certain premises of globalization (that the "capitalist world-economy has no single political center", etc.) and its many guises (imperialism, hegemony, commodification, racialization, gender discrimination).

What happens when we view Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière through such a lens? It seems fitting to do so, for Café Lumière, in terms of capturing on film various flows of culture, is a transnational film: a Taiwan director "pays homage to one of the masters, Yaujiro Ozu, commemorating the centenary of Ozu's birth" (as stated on the DVD cover) by making a film in Japan with characters who are connected in interesting ways to Taiwan, Thailand, and China. During the course of the film, the main character Yoko, a young Japanese writer, researches the work of a Taiwanese composer named Jiang Wen-Ye who recorded music in Japan in the 1930s.

The slow pacing of the film, a celebration of the mundane at times, suggests that the film, in a Daoist sense is an attempt to describe The Way, or it is trying to find or depict "IT" as the Beat Poets might say -- or, perhaps this is too much of a stretch, but this quotation that David Bordwell cites in his blog post here seems to describe the style of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's film, especially when: "A moment comes when everything is exactly right, and you have an occurrence—it may be something exquisite or something unnameably gross; there is in it an ecstasy which sets it apart from everything else." -- Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924. Hou succeeds in capturing these moments "when everything is exactly right," moments when, as Roland Barthes wrote, there is a "presence" as both the signifier -- created by a previous system of knowledge -- and the signified overlap.

This overlapping of cultural signifiers occurs in multiple ways, but the one I am thinking about today are those moments in which there may be little difference between the two spaces in the film: the Japan of the film's imagery, and the potential that careful descriptions of these locations could at the same time serve as appropriate descriptions of a place or places that the film does not represent: Taiwan. Is Café Lumière a film -- like Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together (1997) which is set in Argentina yet might be taking place in Hong Kong -- a film which is set in Japan yet seems to be set in Taiwan? And if so, in what way/s could this dual set of meanings lead one to reflect on Taiwan's heritage of Japanese colonialism?

Café Lumière's final scene -- set in Japan, or is it Taiwan?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Grandmaster (Wong, 2013): Mini-Film Review

Wong Kar Wai's award winning film The Grandmaster reveals how much there is left to explore in the martial arts genre, even for those who enjoy everything from the 1976 Master of the Flying Guillotine, Jackie Chan's 1980s films, Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, and Donnie Yen's Ip Man, which -- like The Grandmaster -- recounts the life of Bruce Lee's martial arts master from a different perspective. Wong presents Ip Man in terms of motivation and desire. To do so, the director includes familiar techniques he has used past films such as In the Mood for Love, for example fragmented images of his characters through mirrors, and a strategic use of slowmo. While the use of intertitles in The Grandmaster creates a strange documentary feel, I find the film very much worth seeing -- the film's color palette alone is both visually overwhelming and appealing. Is a kung fu film with perfect lighting, classical music, and exquisite sets adorned with late-Qing opulence too much to ask for?