February 21–28, 2002
Murder by Numbers
(Fri., Feb. 22, 10 p.m. & 1 a.m.; Sun., Feb. 24, 9:45 p.m. & 2:15 a.m.; Thu., Feb. 28, 4:45 a.m., IFC-TV)
The only thing more tedious than serial killer movies is people talking about serial killer movies — bad enough to sit through From Hell once without having to relive the experience (shudder). But Mike Hodges (Croupier, Get Carter ) actually manages to make something of his overview of the genre, mainly by avoiding psychobabble about the pathology of serial murder and focusing on the pathology of transforming said murder into entertainment. Spanning the years from M to Hannibal and interviewing everyone from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton to novelist Gary Indiana and Village Voice critic Amy Taubin (who unfortunately succumbed to the Psycho-inspired idea of being interviewed in a bathtub — cute, until you realize the tiled acoustics make her almost incomprehensible), Murder by Numbers plucks out similarities both conscious and subterranean. Of course, if you’re in love with the genre, you probably won’t want to see it run down, and if you aren’t, an examination thereof may not tempt your palate either. But if you’re alternately fascinated and repulsed, Murder might have your number.
East Asian Film Festival
(Thu., Feb. 21 – Sun., Feb. 24, free, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6562, www.ihousephilly.org/arts/film.html)
It seems somewhat absurd to try and generalize about a region the size of that represented by the films in International House’s East Asian series, which not only includes China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan, but Southern California as well. From the restrained lyricism of Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien to the the souped-up gore of South Korea’s Chang Youn-hyun, the films in the series (including Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less, which screened Wednesday, and Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, which screens Thursday at 8) attest most forcefully to the diversity and vibrancy of Asian cinema, and to filmmakers that, like good filmmakers anywhere, resist easy generalities.
The festival’s highlight is without doubt the rare Philadelphia screening of a film by Taiwanese grand master Hou Hsiao-hsien, who may own the distinction of being the most venerated filmmaker never to receive proper distribution in the United States. Released in 1996, Goodbye South, Goodbye (Sun., Feb. 24, 7 p.m.) shows off Hou’s "master shot" style, similar to that of countrymen Edward Yang (Yi Yi ) and Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?, which will finally get its Philadelphia release next month) to great, if sometimes excessive, effect. Eschewing close-ups and cut-ins altogether, Hou practices long-take cinema in extremis, allowing characters to interact (or not) at length. His films (for more on which see below) force audiences to reset their clocks and plunge themselves into the world on screen. In the case of Goodbye South, Goodbye, that means cozying up to small-time gangsters Kao (Jack Kao) and Flat Head (Lim Giong), whose succession of hopeless money-making schemes does little to distract from the ongoing monotony and frustration of their lives. The most challenging of Hou’s recent films, Goodbye South spends minutes at a time merely following the two as they travel from city to city, aestheticizing their journeys in uninterrupted shots that unwind in a kind of restless poetry. Mark Lee Ping-Bin’s haunting cinematography, with its washes of mood-altering color, adds yet another note of poignancy to the story of two men who are so busy moving they can’t see where they’re going. Hou’s is a cinema which depends on transporting its audience, which makes it doubly a shame that it’s almost impossible to see on the big screen. Don’t pass this one up.
The series’ other films are a mixed bag. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s A Tale of Love (Fri., Feb 22, 8 p.m.) finds the Berkeley-based, Hanoi-born experimental filmmaker using the beloved Vietnamese poem "The Tale of Kieu" as the backdrop for the story of a modern-day Vietnamese-American struggling to balance her writing career, her work as a nude model, and her own shifting definitions of love and eroticism. Trinh, whose work normally verges closer to documentary, doesn’t always find the right balance between the film’s theoretical passages and its narrative stretches, which rather than playing like Godardian deconstruction merely come off as a tutorial in impassive acting. Tell Me Something (Sat., Feb. 23, 8 p.m.), by South Korea’s Chang Youn-hyun, is a bloody policier about a cop trying to track down a serial killer who has a nasty habits of leaving trash bags full of severed parts in public places, where they’re inevitably bumped into causing their contents to spill towards the camera lens. A depressing rehash of cliches that’s only made worse by its pretentious obtuseness, it manages to draw the worst from both worlds.
Goodbye South, Goodbye; The Puppet Master; The Flowers of Shanghai; Good Men, Good Women
($24.98 DVD each)
Given the unlikelihood of a retrospective like the one mounted at Lincoln Center a while back ever finding its way to Philadelphia, Winstar’s recently issued DVDs are a boon to anyone looking to investigate Hou Hsiao-hsien’s oeuvre further. The Puppet Master (1993), the most expansive of the four, is saddled with a non-letterboxed transfer drawn from a worn-out print, which takes some of the steam out of Hou’s epic historical tale. Mixing dramatic scenes with documentary reminiscences by the real Li Tien-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer (an art, incidentally, closer to classical theater than the Punch and Judy shows it might call to the minds of Western audiences), the film spans the first half of the 20th century, from Li’s birth in 1909 to the end of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Like Hou’s other films, The Puppet Master plays out at a leisurely pace, and even in full-frame, the lack of close-ups can make the rapidly shifting cast of characters hard to distinguish. But in addition to its visual beauty, the film has a sweep that more conventionally overstuffed epics (The Last Emperor and what-have-you) can’t touch. Hou leaves out as much information as he provides, but the naturalistically paced scenes create something akin to time travel.
The Flowers of Shanghai (1998) thankfully suffers no indignities when it comes to the DVD treatment. Set towards the close of the 19th century in the high-class brothels of Shanghai, the film positively glows with the light of oil lanterns filtered through air heavy with opium smoke. The "flowers" are the brothel’s mistresses, who both exert their holds on their wealthy clients and suffer the whims of their changing affections. Particularly callous in that regard is Master Wang (Tony Leung of In the Mood for Love and The Lover), who over the course of the movie shifts his support from one flower girl to another without even bothering to inform the former, despite her total financial dependence on him. Of all Hou’s ’90s films, Flowers makes the best emotional use of the long-take style, as the camera’s distance conveys the sense of disassociation and longing that persists despite the opulently erotic surroundings.
The only disappointment in the bunch is the 1995 Good Men, Good Women, a confused exercise in pomo lit wank which jumps forwards and backwards in time between the present-day situation of an actress whose gangster lover was killed several years previously and her imaginations of the historical film she is about to make. Ponderous rather than evocative, Good Men feels so arbitrary that its closing-title dedication — to the victims of the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s — is almost shocking; it’s hard to believe the director could take a subject that seriously and make a film this self-indulgent.