Da hong deng long gao gao gua / Raise the Red Lantern
This is a gorgeous, gorgeous film. Just stunning. Not only is Zhang's shot composition exquisite, it always serves a purpose : mainly that of conveying a world with very strict rules (symmetry everywhere), in which these characters are trapped (recurring shots in which walls make the screen seem smaller, or characters framed in doors) and which they have to figure out how to best navigate. When they make choices that go against the "tradition", they often break the symmetry, leaving an empty seat at a dinner table for example. The titular lanterns ritual exemplifies Zhang's visual approach perfectly : it symoblizes power dynamics (quite literally) and the weight of tradition... and it also looks amazing.
The setting and framing are claustrophobic but grand, to the point that the house/manor/castle almost feels other-worldly. It plays somewhat like an allegory of life, and more specifically life in China : strict rules and arbitrary rulers, people turning on each other to get ahead, often resulting in tragedy. It's entirely possible I'm imposing this on the film, because I can only assume from the prestige this film exudes that it must have been approved by the authorities at least to some extent, but maybe they saw it as a contrast between aristocratic early-century China and what it is today. Zhang's choice to show as little as possible of the master might have been paying off ther : he's not cruel, he's simply insenstive and oblivious to the drama going on... and even if he were, one gets the sense he probably wouldn't care all that much.
Whatever the case may be, I do think the tone of the film lends itself to an allegorical reading, though it certainly works as character drama as well. Gong Li is great of course, though her character makes some truly infuriating choices... and I'm guessing so far this review reads like a rave, but this is a film I respect and admire more than I love. Part of it is that it feels nihilistic and deterministic : what happens in the third act is very clearly foreshadowed early on, and it sometimes feel like we're just watching these characters walk towards inevitable doom, like clockwork... which, if this is to be an allegory of life, makes it boldly pessimistic, and that's not really my thing. That's not a strike against the film per se and it still stands as a remarkable achievment, but not quite a favorite for me.
Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi / A Scene at the Sea
A Scene at the Sea is a very quiet movie. That might seem pretty obvious, since it's two main characters are deaf and mute, but even taking that into account, it's very quiet. Only being familiar with Kitano from his (awesome) role in Battle Royale and knowing his more famous films are centered on yakuzas, I was surprised by that. The film has a poetic quality to it, with its recurring shots of people walking along the sea carrying surfboard, watching other people surf, and surfing themselves.
I hate to call it boring then, but... it kind of is. I don't think the two main actors are good enough to completely carry the film without speaking, and the supporting characters are of varying effectiveness, though I like the comic relief subplot. I never really got a handle on their relationship, so when it came into a conflict that then seemed to resolve itself I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. And then there's the ending, which left me even more perplexed.
Overall it's a nice enough movie, served by a typical Joe Hisaishi score (typical in that it always seems very close to veer into insuferable cheesingess but somehow straddles the line and stays strong), with a strong sense of place and some nice shots... but with too little going on for my taste.
Verdict: Once again, no surprise. Raise the Red Lantern moves on. I'm glad it didn't have to face too strong competition actually, because it clearly deserves to be in the next round but it could have been in danger with me.