– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
“It is Finished,” he said –
MATCH CUTS: In looking back at the past decade, I think it’s both ironic and somewhat amazing my favorite film came out in the very first year, and was the only film by its director to be released in this time span. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi just represents everything I love about the movies. It’s subtle, complex, astute to human interactions and shifts in personality, and complete adept at capturing moments of transition, something Western films don’t always pay attention to.
THE FILMIST: I first saw Yi Yi a couple of weeks ago, after hearing quite a lot about it. It’s certainly something to consider, I think – a three hour familial epic that does something that very films have done before on such a scale, and that is: it makes an effort to represent to the full the true nature of family in a modern context, with a great emphasis on sound. It’s very much the type of film that Sam Mendes has always tried to make, but could never quite grasp.
M: For sure. It all begins in the opening moments at the wedding when the ambient sounds of laughter, birds in the park, children at play, and also the ex-girlfriend screaming at the bride’s family. I think you point about the sound design really speaks to the multiple layers that Yang is working with, the way he overlaps dialogue with the sounds of the street traffic, also how he shoots scenes from afar. This is what I respect most about Yang as a filmmaker, the space he gives his characters to interact. Sometimes all we are left with is the soft sound of their dialogue, and their bodies in the distance.
F: That opening sequence is great – the kids sneaking out the wedding with their father to go to McDonalds. It’s a subtle, humorous sequence that really hints at some of the universality of the story – even in China, kids who prefer McDonalds to formally prepared food aren’t unique. Which is one of the great things about the film – Yang gives these characters room to move, something you hinted at up above, with his lingering long shots, that really allow the other parts of the film to come to light, in the moments where they’re not acting in lieu of the forward motion of the plot.
M: Yes, this is a film about patience, both something the characters learn a great deal about and something inherent to Yang’s filmmaking style. It’s very rewarding watching Yi Yi develop as a film, slowly, gracefully moving forward, not because of plot points but because of character action. It’s a film that doesn’t rely on overt style or flash, but the deep seeded impression that you are watching the brilliant drama of everyday life.
F: It’s a film that has a very sociological air about it, filtered through the eye of a filmmaker. One of the things I noticed as I was watching it was that the long shots of the characters constantly have some form of interference between us and them – either they’re inside a coffee shop or somewhere similar, and we’re looking in on them, or their reflection is obscured in the glass of a window by the city outside. Close-ups are rare in the film, but when they occur, they have a real impact.
M: Or that scene between the daughter and her potential boyfriend that takes place under the freeway overpass in complete shadow, and the camera is across the street. Yes, The close-up is only used when necessary to the character’s realization that something will never be the same, like when NJ (the father) truly understands that his high school flame will never be his again. The close-up really becomes the final emphasis that life is full of moments of disappointment, but we must continue on.
F: Yes – and you know, I have to wonder if Yang Yang was supposed to be representative of the director, in some form or another. I mean, outside of the obviously shared surname. The young boy, fascinated by photography. He’s not really doing it for any artistic reasons, at first – but, he seems interested in the fact that people don’t know what the back of their heads look like. And, the close-up on NJ really seems to cap off the train of thought that’s been nagging at us about him, throughout the course of the film, that he’s not really living a life of his own measure. The wedding is the first time he’s questioned what it is he really wants in life, and it’s a bit too late for that.
M: Going back to Yang Yang, he really is the heart of the film. It’s his conflict that begins and ends the film, and his curiosity provides the brilliant improvisation involved in filmmaking and artistic endeavor. The ending of the film proves your point that he’s a fill in for the director, because for the first time a character is addressing the elephant in the room, that life inevitably leads to death and sometimes we can’t address it until we are ready. And when Yang Yang does finally talk to his grandma, he tells her why he waited, so he could figure out the importance of her death in his life. It’s one of my favorite endings in film history.
F: It’s a great ending, to be sure – it’s a shame Yang passed away before he had the chance to try and one up himself.
M: Even worse, most of his films are still unavailable in the West. Someone needs to fix this for sure.
F: Well, at the moment. But, I have an inkling that the Criterion Collection is going to be releasing most of them pretty soon, in a big box set. Don’t ask me how I know these things, because even I can’t explain it.
M: It’s a gigantic omission in the DVD world. Luckily I was able to see Yang’s four hour director’s cut of A Brighter Summer Day, and I can tell you it’s just as amazing a film, if not more ambitious.
F: I keep meaning to see that, but I’ve never been able to find a copy, outside of imports and those are a big hassle.
M: I had to travel up to Los Angeles at the LACMA. Pretty much the only way you’re going to see it. But this also adds to Yang’s mystique as a unique master. Yi Yi in particular proves the man is up there with Ozu, Hou, and Mizoguchi in terms of Asian filmmakers dealing with the everyday moments of life.
F: I agree – Yi Yi is very much his masterpiece, I think. It’s just such an honest film, both formally and thematically, that it really takes one up by the roots, after having seen it for the first time.
M: The main gripe against realist films is that who needs to watch real life when you can get that for free, but this film is about as exciting as films get, but in different ways that your typical action film. it’s brilliant at creating the emotional roller coaster of living through tragedy, happiness, and everything in between.
F: That’s always been a little silly, to me – film is such a wide medium, for both verisimilitude and the fantastical. In a lot of films, it’s by contrasting the two of those that some realization is struck upon, but they’re both important to the form. And, I have to wonder – would you place Yang in with Bahrani and Reichardt, as part of the new Neo-Realist aesthetic, or what?
M: I think he rests somewhere closer to Hou Hsiao-hsien. He’s dealing with universal themes as well as distinctly Asian themes, but that’s another discussion altogether.
F: For sure. So – and this is going to be a sloppy transition BUT – if Yi Yi is about family on an intimate, modern scale, then Children of Men is about the concept of family projected forward twenty years, into a post-apocalyptic context, where it has become an almost alien sort of thing. I first saw it the year of its release, down at the Angelika – and, it really is one of those films that leaves you dazed upon exit of the theater.
M: Yes, I remember leaving the theater stunned, not just by the virtuoso filmmaking, but the scope of the message. Cuaron seemed to have tapped into a revelatory way of approaching the apocalypse, by subverting the conventional tropes of Sci Fi and reassessing the themes of the genre, the distrust of authority, but also the distrust of the rebels on the flip side of the coin, equally responsible for the collective terror.
F: The treatment of the rebels is something that really got to me – in a way, it draws on a comparison I’ve always made when talking about the film, that of Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta.” That is, the graphic novel, not the film. I’ve always said that this should’ve been the model they used for that film. There’s a strong ambiguity to both sides, because on the one hand you have the authoritarian government trying to enforce some kind of order, however harsh, on a microcosmic world slowly dying, and on the other, there’s the rebels – who’ve lost their claim to the moral high ground, and become constantly distrustful. It’s from out of this chaos that the new world emerges in Kee and The Human Project – breaking that chain of self-destruction. It may not seem like it ostensibly, but Children of Men is one of the most purely hopeful films that’s come around in a long time. And, in really sums up the theme of my ‘best of’ list, save for one or two films – of social revolution, something that is here represented on a personal and sacrificial level.
M: I think it speaks to Cuaron’s desire to paint the individual motivation for survival trumping the collective will for power and control. When you look at Kee’s situation, and Theo’s arc, it’s really all about the concise movement forward, the necessity of momentum. The plot is always driving forward because of the importance of action, the push to reach a point where the world has a hope of surviving. The character development, the incredible cinematography, it all feeds into reaching a certain locale, an emotional place as well as a physical one.
F: Exactly – it’s very much a road movie, like Cuaron’s other films, although it’s a bit less cynical than Y Tu Mama Tambien.
M: BUt unlike Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men is a genre film, multi genre at that, with a distinct outlook on the global perspective. The detail Cuaron creates in this world is nothing short of amazing, as his camera slyly picks up on signs, cars, advertisements, and soldiers resting on the fringes. It creates the world in a very dynamic way. It combines our current climate with a nightmare scenario of the future, but there is still a sense of everyday life marching on toward the end. A very interesting dichotomy at work here.
F: This is very true – one of the amazing things about the film is the world it creates, every bit as immersive as the one found in James Cameron’s newest cash-cow, and it didn’t cost three hundred and fifty million. There is literally something happening everywhere, in every corner of the eye – new forms of advertisement, a new model of car here and there. But, it’s so subtly applied throughout the whole of the film that it really does feel like something strange and real, which is disconcerting when the more obvious signs of its future world begin to pop up. The politics, the science, those kinds of things – all contrasted slightly with a street-level world that hasn’t really made any sort of progression. If anything, it’s gone backward.
M: If not backward, it’s gone underground. I also wanted to mention the way Cuaron handles violence, how he also keeps death on the fringes or through quick movement. You get rapid glances at bullet wounds, limbs blown off, and it really feels like a war zone. The tension these sequences create is more palpable than any other film of the past decade. Like a bullet or rocket could penetrate any character at any time. Cuaron isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, making this cinematic world a very dangerous place.
F: Yes – and, it’s through Cuaron’s use of the Extreme Long Shot that gives it this sudden and visceral quality, I think. Following the characters through smoke and haze, chaos and fire – shots and shouts, seemingly without blinking. When something does penetrate the sides of the frame, the reactions it provokes come usually out of nowhere, even when we can see the shooter, as in the case of Julianne Moore’s death sequence.
M: That sequence in the car really is something, I know it’s been talked about endlessly, but to this day, it’s one of my favorite moments in a film. Just the way it goes from so playful to complete terror in a second. Really sums up Cuaron’s world in one moment.
F: Yes – it’s one of those film sequences that’s going to be talked about and studied for years when talking about the action genre and shooting techniques in general, right along with the first use of Steadicams in chase sequences and so on. It’s in the way that the camera just won’t cut away, won’t break the tension once its been raised up as high as it can go – and then, it ends quietly, on that shot of the two dead police officers lying in the road.
M: Yes, it’s the first sequence that sets the rules of the movie, what these people are capable of. The Cuaron holds on those dead officers, their brains spewed out on the ground, it’s letting the audience know what to expect going further. I always tell my students that you have to introduce the rules of the cinematic world, and this is the moment Cuaron does just that.
F: It’s also one of the first moments that hints at the coming ambiguity of Luke’s character, I think. That hold on two dead men –
M: It definitely shows Luke’s dark side, what he is capable of when pressed into violent action. I also wanted to talk about Clive Owens’ performance, it often gets ignored in favor of the film’s brilliant aesthetics, but it reminds me of what the classic Hollywood actors were able to create with a stunning script and under calculated direction. His torment resides in the way his face retreats into uncertainty. This evolves throughout the film, until finally in the boat at the end, he seems completely at peace. Just a brilliant turn by Owen.
F: I concur (sips wine glass) – it ‘s a performance that seems steeped in remaining stony-faced, and unphased to all that might occur. But, everything starts to wear on him, as the film goes on, and he starts responding, finding himself startled out of his dead surroundings.
M: Absolutely, I think this film is indisputably one of the best in the past decade (on my HM’s list), and like Happy Feet, and 25th Hour, will only get more pertinent as the years pass.
This discussion appears a far bit shorter than our previous back and forths, to be sure – but, there’s a huge chunk that I’ve cut out that comes right after Glenn’s last word, where we played lots of Tom Waits and talked about all kinds of things, from tap-dancing to the invention of the flying car – it’s all really very interesting stuff. You’d all like it, I’m certain. I’m Henry, he’s Glenn. And, these have been our favorite films of the past decade.
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“His torment resides in the way his face retreats into uncertainty. This evolves throughout the film, until finally in the boat at the end, he seems completely at peace.”
Fantastic observation. I will be watching for this on my next viewing.