Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reviews in Brief - Asian Cinema

Early Summer
As fine a film as any ever created, Yasujiro Ozu's mid-period masterpiece Early Summer (1951) details the full scope of family life in post-war Tokyo. Taking in three generations of a middle-class family, as well as an assortment of friends, the film's primary focus is unmarried 28-year old Noriko. As played by the brilliant Setsuko Hara, Noriko hides behind her omnipresent laughter as she rebuffs continual efforts to find her a husband. When she does pick a husband, a childhood friend who has just taken a job in the provinces, she meets with the family's temporary disapproval and precipitates the breakup of the large family unit, reflecting modern living arrangements in an increasingly Westernizing country. The film's moderate pacing, while maintaining total interest throughout, gives weight to all aspects of family life, from the young boys and their train sets to the grandparents, whose time alone provide the film with some of its most beautiful images, as when the elderly couple sit on a park bench and watch a stray balloon disappear into the sky. Ozu's films are noted for their static camera work and precisely composed scenes. Here, the cinematography achieves a rare perfection, whether framing familial scenes or capturing the surrounding landscapes. The film itself, in its breadth, the level of detail of its observations and its unmatched artistry is one of the treasures of the world cinema. Not as celebrated as the director's Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds, it is nonetheless worthy of inclusion in that select company and demands to be seen by anyone interested in the capabilities of the cinematic medium.

Rebels of the Neon God
One of the more auspicious debuts of the 1990s, Tsai Ming-Liang's 1992 film Rebels of the Neon God, while not reaching the heights of his later works, establishes his milieu of alienated youth in modern Taipei and brings into play several of the director's recurring motifs. The opening scene sets the tone as a couple of petty criminals break into a payphone and steal money on a rain-drenched street, while nearby Hsiao-Keng (Lee Kang-Sheng) studies at his desk, continually distracted by various insects. The film is about the drift of lives. The characters ride around on motorcycles, half-heartedly pursue romantic interests, and above all play video games at the local arcade. Hsiao-Keng, enrolled in a local cram school, drops out and uses the refund money to continue his aimless drift. He barely speaks and only shows any propensity to action when he vandalizes the motorcycle of one of the two petty thieves. The film's final scene finds Hsiao-Keng at a dingy phone dating center, where he enters a booth and receives phone calls from various women, the first of many Tsai protagonists to search for consummation in licentious possibilities. Unable even to take the step of picking up the telephone, he finishes his drink and leaves, to continue his endless search for fulfillment in modern Taipei, a search that will be picked up and continued in the director's subsequent films.

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