Round Five MatchupVive L'Amour
(Tsai Ming-liang, 1994)Won over Suicide Bus (verdict by edgar00)Won over Adrenaline Drive (verdict by BlueVoid)Won over Made in Hong Kong (verdict by Jared)Won over Woman Sesame Oil Maker (verdict by PeacefulAnarchy)
A full decade ago
, I excitedly hit play on Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn
. By the half hour mark, my excitement had turned to a resentful disappointment that only worsened as the film slogged along. I was in no rush to watch another Tsai film after that (despite the glimmer of hope I saw in The Skywalk Is Gone
on that same day). Once this bracket started up a few months later, I was content to wait until the resurrection process prodded me to give Tsai another go. I missed my one chance in the first round when time constraints forced me to resurrect The River
sight-unseen. After that, Tsai's other three films went undefeated for the next ten years.
That backstory factors into why it's taken me so long to get to this verdict; despite my undying love for this bracket, I never found myself in the right mood to risk another Goodbye, Dragon Inn
experience. There were at least a half dozen times I stared at Vive L'Amour
on my Amazon Prime playilst, realized my trepidation was far too great, and watched something else instead. This all seems like a prelude to my saying that Vive L'Amour
turned out to be my new favorite film of all time; or even more of a trial than my previous Tsai feature. Not quite.
Through the film's first five minutes, I was ready to put it in my Top 100 — which was perhaps just an over-correction for my low expectations for the movie. It is a fantastic opening, though, especially the shot captured above, which is part of the best fourth-wall break I've seen in a very long time. The camera shows us the security mirror in the grocery store as Lee Kang-sheng's character (Hsiao-Kang) approaches that corner. By the time he stops to look at his own reflection, the frame of the mirror is no longer visible, and it's as if he's caught us watching him. He's shown in the previous scene to be somewhat of a shifty character (having cautiously stolen a key left in an apartment door), so there's context to his being nervous about being watched — not by us but by store security. Before we can fully appreciate that ambiguity, Hsiao-Kang starts styling his hair, an action which completely shifts the meaning of his gaze: he's actually looking at himself. Tsai, who's good at veering in these unexpected directions, encourages us return to our normal cinematic voyeurism. A second after we drop our guard, however, Hsiao-Kang's stare hardens, seeming perhaps more accusatory, and the effect is properly unsettling. It's a wonderful bit of self-reflexive playfulness, which, in another twist, is later revealed to be rooted in the character's deep self-loathing.
After that scene, the movie introduces its two other main characters, and things go a bit off the rails. PeacefulAnarchy was kind enough to pre-plagiarize me in his verdict: "It grabbed me at the start, but then throughout the film kept letting me go before grabbing me again." That might even undersell just how drastically the movie veers between moments of (comedic and dramatic) brilliance and long stretches of nothingness. (The first twenty or so minutes don't even have dialogue, but that's not what makes them feel so empty.) It's almost as if Tsai's strategy is to starve the audience of any sort engagement and then slip them a delicious morsel that will seem all the more sweet following the deprivation. And, damn him, it kind of works.Call Me by Your Name
echoes two very memorable moments from Tsai's film, and I'm not sure if that's a mere coincidence. In fact, were it not anachronistic, you might think Vive L'Amour
was parodying the other film in both cases. When Hsiao-Kang starts carving a hole in a piece of fruit, you're like, "Heh, I know where this is going!" But, again, Tsai has a knack for comedic misdirection and reversals, and that one is particularly priceless. The final shot contains the other echo, though Vive L'Amour
's is more harsh and more of a trial than Call Me by Your Name
's, featuring an ebb-and-flow of viewer reaction reminiscent of the earlier shot with the security mirror.
I haven't yet mentioned the film's best scene (two adjacent scenes, really), partly because I've droned on long enough already and partly because I want to avoid even the slightest hint of spoilers in a film that relies on a small handful of surprises to enliven the tedium of the urban alienation it embodies. But for those who've seen the film, I'm of course talking about the scene from this spoiler-ish screenshot
along with the scene it immediately follows. The mix of comedy and tragedy in that culmination of underlying emotional pain and desperation is pretty special.
(Kitano Takeshi, 1997)Won over Labyrinth of Dreams (verdict by Gobman)Won over God of Gamblers 2 (verdict by tinyholidays)Won over Peppermint Candy (verdict by Bondo)Won over Eagle Shooting Heroes (verdict by BlueVoid)
My history with Kitano is somewhat the opposite of with Tsai. Sonatine
proved a very favorable introduction long ago (I don't remember it at all) and left me anxious to see more — with Hani-bi
at the top of the list. But I just never got around to seeing any more of his films, not until they started falling into the resurrection queue. Kikujiro
was in the very first batch of films I watched for this bracket, and it was a disaster
. Kids Return
proved slightly better in the third round but still not quite good
, and then last round A Scene at the Sea
got Kitano back into thumbs-up
territory, if only barely.
None of those other bracket experiences diminished my excitement to at long last watch Hani-bi
(which apparently we agreed to stop calling Fireworks
at some point), especially since it seemed like it'd be more in the Sonatine
mold (whatever that is) than those other movies. That was a poor assumption on my part because Hana-bi
reflects all four of those other movies in equal measure: the whimsical yakuza cool of Sonatine
; the familiar melancholy of Kids Return
; the meditation on beauty of A Scene at the Sea
; and the tone-deaf mawkishness of Kikujiro
I amused myself during Hani-bi
's first act with the notion that Kitano directed like a director who hated his screenwriter, which is of course funny since he filled both roles. Some of the early exposition is so poorly handled that I can imagine his saying, "I know this sucks; let's just get through it as fast as we can." The elliptical editing — which bothered most brackets viewers of the film, me included — also seemed like a flailing attempt to distract from the script's shortcomings.
When the film settles down for its second act, it's somewhat shocking to discover that Hana-bi
is neither a cop film nor a yakuza film but rather another in a series of films Japan made in the 90s (Artists in Wonderland
, The Last Dance
, Suicide Bus
) about how the sick, elderly, and disabled are not, in fact, worthless and need not necessarily kill themselves. I'm exaggerating a bit, but Artists in Wonderland
really would have been the perfect third round opponent for Kitano's film — for the shared thematic material, haphazard editing, and even the similar screenshots
. Kitano's film likely would have breezed through that matchup, but the two movies could really have informed each other in the process.
If Kitano, as a director, seems to show disdain for his screenwriter, he shows nothing less than adoration for the artist who did the paintings for the film, allowing his camera to linger over each canvas in full appreciation. Of course, he again filled both roles, so there's some enjoyable narcissism inherent in those choices. In his defense, though, the paintings are cool and fit the film well, so he's right to be proud of them.
My favorite comment from the previous verdicts comes from tinyholidays, who remarked on Joe Hisaishi's score, "The soundtrack suggests a 'very special episode' vibe." So true. Occasionally it works to good effect, with the earnestness of the music acting as counterpoint to the narrative's mix of whimsicality and melancholia; but more often it's just too much.
There's suspense here for me because, as I write this, I still have yet to read the masked text in Teproc's verdict
. I suspect we're in agreement, because I nodded my head in agreement at most everything in his reviews. I didn't sense any remarkable homoeroticism in the violence of Kitano's film; it seemed rather par for the course in this kind of male-centric film where the few female characters are kept largely mute; and I wasn't bothered as much by the film's ending. But I, too, liked Kitano's screen presence (though I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't just Harvey Keitel doing a bit); and I had a similar thought about how Hisaishi's music seems somehow better suited for animated films; and I found myself fighting boredom with Tsai's film, which is truly "both immersive and hard to focus on" (great description!); and I laughed out loud when an arm emerged from under the bed. So as I hit Post, I'm going to assume we both voted for Taiwan but deny myself that certainty until I can get the results thread fully up-to-date.
Fun fact: Ten years and 168 films later, this matchup represents the first time I got to watch consecutive bracket films in high definition!