Sunday, September 23, 2007

Some Notes on The Brave One

Last night, on a kind of reviewer's holiday, I paid $13.25 to see a digitally projected screening of Neil Jordan's loathsome new film The Brave One at my local neighborhood theater (UA Kaufman Astoria). According to the blurb on Fandango, the DLS process results in "maximum fidelity: a picture with impressive clarity, brilliance and color and a lack of scratches, fading and flutter," but, to the untrained eye, the screen image looked scarcely any different than in a corresponding analog projection. In addition, the theater's heavy promotion of the new technique and their cynical insistence on having the audience foot the bill forced the viewer to consider the necessity of an innovation designed to make more visible a series of hopelessly bland images that have no business being projected on a movie screen in the first place, let alone through a technology calculated to make these images clearer and more immediate. Perhaps "maximum fidelity" is not to the advantage of Jordan's film. If the aesthetics of mainstream films keep degenerating, it does little good to cover this deficiency with ever "improving" technical developments. What is needed is better images, not more advanced technologies.

The film concerns a radio host, Erica Bain (Jodie Foster), whose show serves as a lament for the old, "gritty" New York, a conception of the city the film suggests still exists just under the anesthetized surface. First Erica and her fiancé are viciously attacked in Central Park, with her fiancé dying from his wounds. Then she becomes a vigilante, turning up the sleaziest imaginable characters in every corner of the city, characters who she unhesitatingly shoots dead. Along the way she befriends Detective Mercer (Terence Howard), the man in charge of the police investigation, with whom she debates the efficacy of the legal approach to justice. At the film's conclusion she tracks down her fiancé's killers and, just as she is about to confront one of them, Mercer arrives, shoots the man himself and (despite having finally unmasked Erica as the vigilante) prepares to blame all her murders on the dead criminals, thus neatly excusing her from her crimes.

Neil Jordan, the man responsible for such lushly imagistic films as The Company of Wolves and Interview with a Vampire seems to have completely forgotten how to craft a film's visual aesthetic. His strategy is to keep the camera constantly moving, an approach that quickly leads to a visual monotony, since the effect is to capture a series of drab, unrevealing images that disappear just before the viewer can register their banality. This strategy may find its justification as an expressionistic device designed to reflect Erica's mental state after the attack, but in order for such an approach to be successful, the images themselves must be clear and expressive, a requirement which Jordan falls far short of fufilling. In addition, he insists on positioning his camera at a forty-five degree tilt for long stretches of time to further suggest the mental imbalance of his heroine, but these sorts of amateurish tricks can't disguise the drabness of what the camera actually captures. On her radio show Erica describes New York as simultaneously menacing and beautiful, but in Jordan's visual conception, the city seems to fit neither description. In addition, his handling of the violent encounters is especially inept. The scene in which Erica and her fiancé are attacked is marred by too much rapidly executed editing and ill-advised cut aways to a series of crude video images being filmed through the handheld camera of one of the assailants, devices designed to mitigate the viciousness of the attack, but resulting (both here and in the later scenes of vigilantism) in an aesthetics of violence which is neither exhilarating nor horrifying (neither justifying nor denying the moral claims of vigilante justice), but like the rest of the film's visual conception, simply bland.

As objectionable as the film is on aesthetic grounds, it is perhaps even more objectionable on intellectual and moral grounds. Intellectually, the film is insultingly vapid. The film's screenplay, despite quoting Emily Dickinson and D. H. Lawrence in a desperate attempt to add intellectual heft to the flimsy proceedings, features dialogue riddled with platitudes and an unhealthy reliance on ridiculous narrative contrivances. Shortly after the attack, Erica enters a local bodega to purchase a soda. No sooner does she enter the store than a man comes in and shoots the cashier, his estranged wife, to death, a situation which provides Erica with the opportunity to commit her first act of vigilantism. The scene explicitly references Taxi Driver, but where the equivalent sequence in Scorsese's film seemed like an appropriate extension of the violent, nightmare world he created, in Jordan's film, a film that hasn't successfully established a corresponding milieu, it just feels like weak plotting. In addition, Jordan too often favors a cheap sentimentality that should be far beneath his talents. When Erica returns to her apartment after the attack, he intercuts a flashback of her kissing her fiancé to the accompaniment of a dreadfully saccharine folk song, a scene which aims at eliciting the viewer's lowest emotional response. Later, in an equally appalling sequence, Erica returns to her apartment to find the wedding invitations she had ordered waiting for her. As she tearfully looks them over, Jordan has his camera linger over the proceedings, milking the situation for every last unearned sentiment, and letting the viewer know at what level he values his intelligence.

Like all vigilante films, The Brave One treads shaky moral ground. The very nature of the genre demands the identification with an individual, often driven by a personal tragedy, who opts to circumvent the inefficiencies of the law and deliver his own illegal brand of justice, a justice that many would define as simply another act of murder. The two archetypal entries in the genre, Dirty Harry and Deathwish definitively established this moral uncertainty and the many films that followed their example have had to take up these same issues. In The Brave One, the question assumes the form of a gentle dialectic that runs between Erica and Mercer with Erica claiming that the vigilante is "doing the police's job for them" and Mercer stubbornly espousing the cause of law and order. But the film is content to reduce the debate to its simplest possible formulation and then smooth over any contradictions with an ending that can only be described as a moral failure. Granted, all vigilante films are morally problematic, but what is disturbing in The Brave One is how untroubled the film seems by its resolution, a resolution that neatly eliminates the law and order side of the debate and supports a whole-hearted acceptance of vigilantism. It is telling that Mercer's decision to shoot rather than arrest the suspect and then blame him for all of Erica's killings resulted in a hearty round of applause from the audience, since the scene is presented with such authority that it is easy for an unreflective viewer to accept the ending as an unequivocal (and entirely satisfying) solution to the dialectic. Rather than establishing a new synthesis, the argument's antithesis (vigilantism) is allowed to carry the day with only the most cursory resistance.

Rarely has a film matched such an uninspired visual framework and inane conceptual foundation to such a disturbing moral program. Aesthetically, intellectual and morally, The Brave One is a complete failure.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Eastern Promises

The dialogue's unconvincing, the plot's full of ludicrous contrivances and the lead character (the midwife played by Naomi Watts) is almost completely superfluous. And yet, David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, a thriller set among the brutal underworld of the Russian mafia in London, achieves a kind of greatness. Perhaps a question of strong direction overcoming a mediocre screenplay, the film's greatness is everywhere manifest, yet somewhat difficult to define. Its essence lies not in the performances (although Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassell turn in memorable characterizations) nor in the film's sure pacing (and Cronenberg keeps the picture moving along at a decisive clip), but precisely in the film's treatment of violence, or rather its entire attitude towards the very notion of screen violence, a concept of which the film offers a simultaneous elevation and deconstruction, resulting in a remarkably satisfying proposition that subsumes any contradictions into a thrilling, unified conception.

In the majority of contemporary movies, violence plays a comforting role. Having lost much of its power to shock, the uses of screen violence have had to be radically altered and filmmakers have attempted to compensate for their diminished power through a relentless ubiquity of usage. Watching a picture like The Departed (to pick a celebrated example of the contemporary crime film), we easily become not merely inured to the violence, which after all is quite continuous (and often quite gruesome), but strangely comforted. The fear of death, the fear of bodily harm that the viewer potentially feels are easily deflected when the means of bringing about these conditions are presented in such aesthetically bland, and yet such unremitting, fashion that we feel we no longer have to fear such a dull and powerless threat. At the same time, we give into it entirely, as if in a trance. Everything about the violence in Eastern Promises, which is sporadic rather than continuous (although the potential is always present), is designed to negate this easy comfort level surrounding the depiction of screen violence and return it to its prior immediacy while simultaneously calling into question the very propriety of such stimuli which, under Cronenberg's analysis, come to take on a questionable necessity.

The film's centerpiece, a scene in which a nude Viggo Mortensen kills two suited mobsters sent to rub him out in a Russian bathhouse, does much of the work in articulating this dual approach towards screen violence. The very fact of Mortensen's nudity immediately upsets the audience's comfort level. The fact that a man is so wholly and matter-of-factly naked may register as somewhat of a shock in itself (especially given the penchant of many films to allow only for female nudity - and always partial at that), but to see him engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat in such a state marks the sequence as so unsettling that the audience is completely disorientated and is forced to reevaluate its reaction to on-screen violence since the usual guideposts that ease them into complacency are almost entirely absent. The fight itself, so thrilling where such sequences are generally so bland, is expertly staged and stands as a worthy bookend to a similarly bracing scene in the director's previous film, A History of Violence, in which Mortensen kills two would-be assailants at a middle-American coffee shop. How Cronenberg achieves such startling, visceral violence is not immediately clear, but it seems to be part skillful choreography, part well-timed cutting and partly a generous dose of gore. Either way, the film's sudden elevation of violence after a first act in which it is largely absent from the screen (though frequently implied) restores the immediacy of the killing act after so many insipid, falsely comforting depictions of the same actions in a score of wholly dispensable films.

But Cronenberg is not finished yet. After Mortensen has seemingly dispensed with his attackers, he starts making his way haltingly out of the bathouse (he has been stabbed twice in the encounter), but trips over one of the mobsters on the way. The mobster, still alive, attempts to stab Mortensen a third time, but Mortensen quickly disarms him and stabs him in the eye. As Cronenberg cuts to a close-up of the stabbing, the tone of the scene switches from rousing seriousness to comic absurdity. The sheer exaggeration of the gruesome evisceration of the eye (recalling two equally gory throat slits earlier in the film) deconstructs the concept of screen violence by taking its depiction to new levels of grotesquerie, a reductio ad absurdum of the very notion of the violent showdown. It is telling that these scenes resulted in a rousing dose of audience laughter, since that seems the most obvious response in the face of the absurd. And yet, Cronenberg implicates the audience in the violent act by manipulating its response to such barbarity, a manipulation that results in the seemingly inappropriate act of laughing. The audience is forced to step back and evaluate its ostensibly incongruous reaction to the act of brutality being committed on-screen. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill diptych attempted a similarly exaggerated grotesquerie of violence (c.f. the crushing underfoot of Darryl Hannah's eyeball), but was content to play its savagery for unreflective mirth. Cronenberg forces viewers (as he did in A History of Violence) to meditate on the very nature of screen violence, calling its appositeness into question by taking it to absurdly exaggerated levels. This dual conception of screen violence that Cronenberg presents, this simultaneous elevation and deconstruction, both of which serve to distance the viewer from the comforting non-questioning presence it normally assumes in mainstream film (and Stephen Knight's screenplay would seem to mark Eastern Promises as exactly that) is ultimately what accounts for much of the film's greatness and marks it as one of the more arresting screen efforts to emerge so far this year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the Continued Misguided Critical Priorities of Nathan Lee

Béla Tarr may be the most important filmmaker working today, but you'd never know it from the flip dismissal given to even the possibility of seeing his new film by Village Voice critic Nathan Lee in his recent report from the Toronto Film Festival. Not content to merely skip a screening of the Hungarian master's latest work, The Man from London, Lee turns his unfortunate oversight into a virtue, gleefully describing how he ate hotel room service in his pyjamas while his colleagues were busy "contemplating" Tarr's film. In fact, Lee begins his piece with a shameful admission which pretty well undercuts any authority he might have had with the reader and makes a mockery of his prestigious position at the Voice. "It's pretty much a toss-up which I love more," he writes, "gorging on cinema or getting up at noon." Yet, when we consider that Lee has been sent to Toronto specifically to "gorge on cinema," a task he supposedly loves, and not to sleep late, an activity he presumably has plenty of time to indulge in in New York, this admission completely misses the jocular tone it shoots for and expresses instead a loathsome contempt for Lee's readers who, after all, are not given the chance to see all the films that he has access to and may have wished for their supposed representative to deliver on his side of the bargain.

Still, Lee certainly knows his audience and, since the Voice now seems content to aim its product at a new constituency of twenty-something pseudo-intellectuals (many of whom would also prefer sleeping until noon to doing anything productive), his report would presumably go over smoothly with its target demographic, especially since he makes sure to discuss the latest films from overrated hipster favorites Dario Argento and the Coen Brothers. Still, his discussion of Ang Lee's latest film Lust, Caution (or as he flippantly calls it, Lust, Comatose and, worse, "Chinese people fucking") is especially distressing. Those two alternate titles pretty much sum up Lee's analysis of the film: it's boring, but there's a lot of sex. Lee gleefully indulges in descriptions of "nipples, pubes, a pair of low hangers, and one or two insinuated inches of [Tony] Leung's mighty dong," while limiting any further comments about the film to the alleged yawns it induced in the Toronto audience (or at least in Lee who, we can assume, had just roused himself from bed before attending the screening). This is all bad enough, but to suggest that the awarding of Lust, Caution the top prize at the Venice Film Festival was the result of jury president Zhang Yimou being "stirred by... a boob" reveals Lee's unfortunate belief that everyone is as motivated by questions of cheap sexuality as he is.

All this is a shame since Lee, on occasion, has shown himself to be capable of surprising insight conveyed in a delightfully eloquent prose (c.f. his review of In Between Days). But, as in his Toronto Film Festival piece, he usually shows a much greater willingness to forgo any useful analysis in favor of puerile, supposedly humorous indulgences. Granted, a quick survey of a festival is not the place to offer a detailed reading of any single film, but the fact that Lee finds space for a catalogue of Lust, Caution's exposed body parts and Mother of Tears' oddball elements is illustrative of his critical priorities, priorities that become obvious if one follows his writing in the Voice with any regularity. That such misguided critical discourse has become an integral part of a once respectable publication is perhaps symptomatic of a general trend in American criticism or perhaps simply reflects a momentary taste for flippancy that may disappear with Lee's tenure at the newsweekly. Either way, his indulgences have become mighty tiresome. If Lee can somehow re-assess his priorities and devote himself to the intelligent, purposive criticism he seems capable of without resorting to the unnecessary witticisms which have unfortunately become his trademark, maybe he can help restore the Voice's declining reputation. Béla Tarr's The Man from London comes to the New York Film Festival on September 30th. Perhaps, if Lee can drag himself out of bed, catching up on the brilliant Hungarian's work would be a good place to start.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Deep Water

If film existed for no other purpose than to provide a good story, then Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's documentary Deep Water (now playing at the Angelika Film Center) would certainly fulfill its mandate. But, even if we were to (rightly) demand more from the cinematic medium, the sheer force of the film's extraordinary narrative would still prove utterly compelling. Despite the picture's dearth of psychological insight into its primary subjects (the one sequence where a mental probing of the lead character is attempted is more muddled than revealing) and its rather indifferent visual conception (much of the film is devoted to archival footage shot on grainy 16mm by people more concerned with historical documentation than aesthetics), the briskly paced narrative of a British solo yacht race around the world makes for such good storytelling as to render the film's deficiencies largely dispensable.

In 1967, following the first solo aquatic circumnavigation of the globe by Francis Chichester, The Sunday Times sponsored a race hoping to produce the first solo non-stop voyage (Chicester's voyage was not continuous) around the world. Of the nine contestants who registered, only Donald Crowhurst lacked significant sailing experience, but he was so determined to compete that he staked his house on his ability to complete the race in order to secure the necessary financing. But, off the coast of Brazil, making terrible time, and with his boat taking on water, a state that would make sailing around the approaching Cape of Good Hope impossible, he was forced to develop a new strategy. If he turned back, he would be financially ruined but, if he continued, his boat would certainly sink. So, while resting comfortably off the South American coast, he began to report false coordinates, suggesting an impressive progress, and fraudulently positioned himself as a leading contender in the race. Meanwhile, all he had to do was wait for his competition to approach his actual position on their return trip, and then turn around himself and complete the race.

The film makes periodic attempts to understand Crowhurst's psychological positioning but, since the filmmakers' source materials are confined to his log book and interviews with the other principals involved (all of whom stayed on land), a multi-layered understanding of the picture's subject proves to be beyond the directors' capabilities. Still, even if it cannot offer us any true insight into Crowhurst's mental states (no one will mistake the film for a Herzogian portrait of monomania), the picture's psychological speculation adds an appealing spice to the narrative. For example, when Crowhurst hovers off the Brazilian coast waiting for his moment to rejoin the race, the filmmakers fill the screen with a seascape designed to suggest the infinity of the oceanic expanse, while a voice on the soundtrack muses on the hopelessness one would inevitably experience in a setting of such utter isolation. The narration suggests that for the other contestants, the challenges of the race provided an ample measure of distraction but, for the immobile Crowhurst, the calm he experienced led him on to madness. This description of the calm, coupled with a somewhat indifferent visual correlative, may lack the power of Herman Melville's far more evocative (and thorough) description of the same phenomenon in his novel Mardi (where he describes it as "a state of existence where existence itself seems suspended"), but it provides the viewer with some feeling for the subject's potential mentality under the anomalous conditions.

Crowhurst's madness is expressed most explicitly in a late sequence where he nears the end of the race, seemingly in easy reach of victory but, driven mad by the sea and unwilling to face the inevitable official scrutiny that would certainly unmask his fraud, abandons his ship and commits suicide. Osmond and Rothwell are forced here to rely heavily on Crowhurst's journal entries, the only resource available to them in documenting this segment of the narrative. As the narrator excerpts passages from the journal, the filmmakers alternate manipulated footage of Crowhurst's handwriting highlighted, colored and projected onto the screen's foreground with footage of stormy seas and reversed (negative) images of Crowhurst, both attempts to introduce visual interest to a segment where the only narrative resource is the written word and to find a visual approximation of their subject's madness. While these visual gimmicks ultimately add nothing to our understanding of Crowhurst's precarious mental state, the actual words of the journal prove at least somewhat more illuminating. They show a man obsessed with his place in the universe (he refers to himself as a "cosmic being"), the struggle between god and the devil and the nature of truth. Although a picture (however superficial) emerges of a man forced by his isolation in the most despairing of natural surroundings to confront his own precarious place in existence and ultimately finding himself unequal to the task, we are given little more than this hint at his inaccessible mental world. Certainly, this is not the fault of the filmmakers, who make effective use of all the materials available to them to produce as comprehensive a portrait of Crowhurst as possible under the circumstances. That they were unable to offer any real insights into their subject may be the result of a dearth of available resources, but, in the end, it leaves them with an enthralling, well told narrative and, ultimately, little else besides.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


A film with a great blur at its center, the position occupied by its inscrutable title character, Richard Lester's Petulia, a picture otherwise notable for its sure conception of place (in this case late '60s San Fransisco), ultimately fails on Julie Christie's misguided characterization. Of course, one might argue that the exposition of her "whimsical" (always a dicey characteristic for a screen figure) free-wheeling socialite is not important in itself, that Petulia matters only for the effect she produces on the film's main character, the far more cohesively defined Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), a straight-laced soon-to-be divorcé who becomes her occasional lover and seems to benefit greatly from the connection. But, despite the disappearance of Christie's character for large stretches of screen time, she is too central to the film to allow us to overlook her incoherent characterization.

Which is a shame since the rest of the film succeeds quite conclusively. The picture's first sequence establishes the antic, satirical tone that defines the work's treatment of its specific milieu, the fringes of the '60s counterculture, as well as the lightning-fast cutting that stands as the most salient feature of the picture's visual aesthetic. The film's first images are marked by quick alternations between two seemingly unrelated scenes. As guests mingle in a lavish ballroom, a series of elderly ladies in wheel chairs and neck braces incongruously dressed in evening wear are photographed and led up a freight elevator. The cuts between the two sequences become less frequent until, finally, the fragments merge together. The women are wheeled into the ballroom and we learn that the gala is a benefit for traffic safety and the elderly women are (or are posing as) traffic victims. By isolating and then gradually integrating the two disparate images, Lester emphasizes the absurdity of the event by stressing the seeming incompatibility of its constituent visual elements before forcefully mashing them together. Milking the setting for all its satirical potential, the director then introduces a raffle in which a new car (photographed to emphasize the light reflecting off its shiny hubcaps) is given away as a prize, a decision which seemingly undermines the purpose of the benefit, but offers the organizers a chance to promote the latest in consumer goods.

Cut into this sequence is a series of seemingly unrelated scenes, including an image of a young boy trapped under a car's wheels, an image which offers an ironic commentary on the primary setting (the traffic safety benefit) and is only later assimilated into the film's narrative structure. In fact, the film is rife with incongruous visual elements intercut into the primary sequences. The intercut footage often contains flashbacks (the boy under the car), but flashbacks that only assume relevance later in the work when we are given enough information to accurately read their place in the film's overall conception. This deliberate fragmentation of the narrative may occasionally prove off-putting, but it mirrors the confusion of the film's characters and provides an apt aesthetic correlative to the splintered society that forms the picture's subject. The film also employs this free-associative editing to introduce a distinct strain of social commentary into the work's organizational conception. For example, in one scene Archie and his family attend a roller-derby, one of the numerous distinctive cultural phenomena that the film catalogues. Although offered as a wholesome entertainment, the event is notable for its undercurrent of violence, a violence that Lester wishes to suggest is endemic to the whole of society. To this end, he employs an Eisensteinian montage, intercutting a shot of Petulia's bloodied face (she has just been badly beaten, presumably by her husband) with the roller-derby action, suggesting an essential link between the violence being sold as family entertainment and the domestic violence visited on Petulia.

The occasional incoherence brought about by all this (at times overwhelming) intercutting, however, is nothing compared to that of Petulia herself. Looking unnaturally tan, Christie seems perpetually unsure of which direction to take her performance. Petulia is hardly the first misguided screen characterization to have an effect on the film's leading men out of all proportion to her actual merits (c.f. Jeanne Moreau's equally flighty Catherine in Jules et Jim), but she is probably the most off-puttingly "quirky". Picking up Archie at the highway safety benefit in front of her husband, she leads him to a nearby motel, prodding him with the suggestion that they are about to become lovers. When he asks her if they really are about to, she says, "no", quickly putting an end to their initial tryst. "Ah, these young swinging marrieds," laments Archie, suggesting that Petulia is representative of a new generation of quixotic, but ultimately too variable, women, different from his pretty, but dull ex-wife who he left not because of any marital difficulties, but simply because he got bored. Petulia may not be boring, but Lester and Christie define her character with such capriciousness that she threatens to disappear altogether. There is simply nothing to hold her together. When we next see her she shows up at Archie's house late at night carrying a tuba and complaining of a broken rib. Later, she allows a young boy to accompany her back from Mexico. She has a greenhouse installed in Archie's apartment while he's at work. In short, she is defined strictly by her ludicrous whims, a definition which prevents her from having any real existence, even as a caricature. Granted, her characterization can hardly be expected to assume a sense of reality that transcends her mere presence on the screen (a feat almost never achieved in film), but a minimal amount of existence within that cinematic context should at least be required for a figure so central to the film's overall conception.

In Petulia, Richard Lester skillfully presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of late '60s San Fransisco, a portrait that takes in psychedelic concerts (featuring Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead), automated love motels, tract housing and wealthy conservatives. Lester also captures the fragmentation of the culture by filtering his material through a series of quick cuts that displace the film's temporal grounding and disorient the viewer. But he continually undercuts his achievement by placing Petulia at the film's center. For a character who looms so large over the proceedings and is supposedly representative of the coutercultural world (or at least its free-spirited mentality), it is not enough to define her through a series of lunatic actions. She may be slippery, but she must exist. Unfortunately, Petulia is wispy to the point of evaporation and this evanescence makes a mockery of Archie's transformation and finally undermines Lester's project.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Blissfully Yours

Blissfully Yours is a film decidedly not built for analysis. Composed of long tracking shots of the Thai countryside and long fixed shots of offices and jungles, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film is a compendium of evocative images, often held long enough to test the viewer's patience, but almost always rewarding his attention. But what do all these images add up to, or must they add up to anything at all? In the end, it all amounts to little more than the staging of a rather lovely picnic, but that seems just fine. The film's formal beauty and its shimmering evocation of its jungle milieu (here portrayed as an inviting alternative to city life, unaccompanied by any of the more menacing aspects which usually characterize cinematic depictions of that environment) contribute enough sensual delight to offset the film's lack of concrete content.

The film, which divides, like most of the director's work, into two differing but related halves, is by no means a totally disengaged work. The picture addresses the difficulties of Min (Min Oo), a Burmese immigrant, in obtaining working papers and employment and takes place largely on the Thai-Burmese border, an area hotly contested by the two countries, but these are clearly not the primary concern. The film's first half, built from a series of mostly static long shots, introduces the central figures: Min, the Burmese with an unidentified skin-disease who remains mute during the picture's initial section only to suddenly begin speaking in the second act; his lover, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), who paints figurines in a factory; and her older friend Orn (Jenjira Jansuda). The scenes of the first half take place in a doctor's office, a government bureau, a factory, locations fixed in their place by Weerasethakul's motionless camera as the characters are fixed in their place by these institutions which dictate the unvarying patterns of their lives.

The film transitions to its second half through a long sequence in which the characters drive out to the jungle for a picnic: Min and Roong in a car and Orn and an unnamed lover on motorcycle. This sequence, which frees the camera from its previous immobility (although it remains mounted) consists of a long series of tracking shots taken from the car, shots set up both from the vehicle's front, revealing the road ahead, and back (the road behind). The long sequence provides a generous view of the countryside, a landscape that becomes increasingly rural as it gives way to the oncoming approach of the jungle. Weerasethakul devotes no less than ten minutes to this evocation of rural Thailand, a contemplative segment which removes the characters (and viewer) quite firmly from the rigid demands of city life, making a clean break with the film's first half and preparing the way for the idyll that comprises the picture's second act.

That sequence, largely wordless, immediately assumes the visual aesthetic of the transition scenes. As Min and Roong (who separate from Orn before later re-uniting) wend their way through the thick brush, Weerasethakul follows them in another tracking sequence, this time with a handheld camera. When they reach their destination, a lovely spot overlooking a gorge, where they eat their picnic (despite the occasional interruption from ants) and later engage in sexual activity, the director again fixes his camera, returning an order to the characters' lives, but a new order, an idyllic order only made possible in the hot sun and thick leaves of the jungle. The lush cinematography, which emphasizes the green of the trees and the blue of the skies, creates a surreal ambiance suggesting an alternative (if only temporarily) to a world where people struggle to obtain the lowest levels of employment.

The film ultimately suggests an uneasy interaction between its characters, with Min using the women primarily for work papers and the relationship between the women, while rather thinly defined, suggestive of a certain amount of jealous competition. Rather than develop these conflicts, the film is content to merely hint at them, use them as the barest suggestion of a narrative framework that is ultimately made irrelevant by the director's memorable evocation of Thailand's countryside and jungle. At the film's conclusion, a printed title informs us that Min returned to Burma while Roong took up with another man, but what matters is that for the duration of a single afternoon they enjoyed a blissful moment in the sun. Weerasethakul's long fixed shots, his long tracking shots and his lush location photography capture this unique afternoon away from the often merciless demands of working-class urban life. That it offers little else need not concern us. Most films don't give us nearly so much.