Friday, 25 January 2013



* * * * * *

2000 - Taiwan (Atom Films, Nemuru Otoko Seisaku Iinkai, Omega Project)

DIRECTOR: Edward Yang
SCRIPT: Edward Yang
MUSIC: Kai-Li Peng

      There is an old Polish poem based on folklore fairy tales about a noble man, Twardowski, who signs a pact with the devil. Wealth and all in exchange for the soul. Usual T&C's apply. The repossession of the soul was supposed to take place in Rome, which made it quite easy for Twardowski to wave his middle finger in front of the devil's face for long years simply by not travelling to Italy. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Of course, as it always happens in those kind of stories, all this fooling around wasn't meant to last. And so, one night, Twardowski found himself in an inn, where the devil jumped at him demanding the soul. Twardowski tried to shrug the devil off but it turned out that the name of the inn, which he didn't pay attention to, was... yes, you got it - Rome. Give yourself a biscuit. The story goes on a little bit more but we are going to stop here, because this is where the parallel between the story and my encounter with A ONE AND A TWO lies. You see, if I'm Twardowski and the film is the inn then... well, then the inn isn't called Rome, naturally, it's called New Wave Cinema.

Oh my.

Once again I need to start with my expectations (boy, don't you get bored of that yet?). But I was good this time, I thought 'Asian cinema, some exotic jewel again, fresh and surprising'. I had hopes. I had faith and I felt optimistic. For the whole first fifteen minutes, after which I made a note: 'you know you're in trouble when after fifteen minutes you still don't know who the protagonist is or if there is one at all in the first place'. Oh yes, you might say that for a three hours long film, those fifteen minutes are hardly a blink of an eye but I would only call it a blink of an eye if you put a handful of sand under your eyelid. The story is banal, the characters feel alien and somehow aloof not allowing the viewer to actually care about them, the hope for an artistic feast dwindles. And then, in many respects, it gets even worse.

I do admit, the New Wave language is a specific one, it has some intricacies that simply need being accepted  on 'as is' basis. Or, like me, you can dismiss it as an artistic dead end with no or very little merit (the language, not necessarily the whole New Wave wave). Depending on which side of the fence your feet are dangling, it will have a deciding impact on the perception of A ONE AND A TWO. With its long list of awards and critical recognition it certainly must have something, and it's just that the 'something' in question must be like a hue to which I'm completely colour-blind. So what was it that I COULD see then? Well, to cut straight to the chase, a lot of confusion and dissonance between two very different cinema traditions. There's West here and there's East and, unfortunately, they don't meet. When the film started, I was hoping for some of that magic that the Asian cinema has got to offer - the subtle take on spiritualism, a hint of Far East philosophies, the exotic taste of something different. What A ONE AND A TWO offers is Edward Yang's fascination with European cinema, a tribute in intentions I believe but an ugly impostor in the effect. It's a marriage that just doesn't work. It makes the film dull and boring on one hand and random and erratic on the other. I know that the intentions were to deliver a film that is artistic in its form while thought provoking and emotional story-wise and that majority of viewers will accept it as such but personally I'm not buying it. When I see long shots of sky for absolutely no reason whatsoever, I don't fall to my knees in admiration of the artistic talent and awestruck by how deep the scene is, I roll my eyes instead asking 'why?', 'what's the bloody purpose of that?!' When an eight year old boy, who hardly speaks at all throughout the film suddenly (in a moment artificially chosen to fit the director's intentions) asks pseudo-philosophical questions to make his father shake his head in wonder and ponder on complexity of life, I don't find it enlightening or crafty. I find it inapt, coarse and ludicrous. And also, when the dialogues fit the purpose, not the story, that is not art for me, that's ham-fisted shoehorning and simple lack of skill in storytelling. God knows, maybe my expectations are too high, but I've watched this film thinking that if it came from a debutant or a student then yes, I'd send him/her a proverbial pat on the back wishing the director a bright future and success in finding his/her own artistic style and language eventually. From a seasoned director who's been making films since the early eighties, well I can only describe it as mediocre, uninspiring and quite pretentious. I don't understand and I never will, why so many people consider the abundance of meaningless 'thoughtful' glances, artificial dialogue lines and pointless camera shots an accomplished art. It may (or may not) indicate that my own ignorance is to blame but I just can't see the point of that. It's like an exercise in using a hammer. At the end of it there is a piece of wood with a row of nails perfectly pummelled in, but no piece of furniture has been built. Yang knows very well how to write dialogue lines and how to tell the actors to start acting but it's more in terms of ability than the skill in my opinion.

So, all in all, another disappointment, I'm afraid. And let me make it clear, I'm not saying that because A ONE AND A TWO is culturally too distant and I just don't get it. I think its big problem is, that it is trying to be culturally close (to an European viewer) but by doing so it has not only failed in adapting the Western artistic language to the Eastern sensitivity and spirit, it also has lost the potential of being itself, which could have been so much better idea. There are enough contrasts, counterpoints, conflicts and collisions in the story and between the characters to actually make it into a deeply moving and enchanting picture, but when Yang adapts the means and tools characteristic for the European cinema, the effect is as if someone who's learned a foreign language at a business school decided to take into writing poetry in that language. There's just not enough vocabulary to convey the emotions, the mood, the wordplay. As a result the effect feels shallow, artificial and forced, just like N.J.'s dialogues with Ota, his incomprehensible musings or (even worse!) very crudely drawn similarities between N.J.'s story and his two children. I mean, we even get some parallel scenes to really hammer home the point being made. Being treated like an American audience, now that's just plain insulting. I've seen washing machine adverts more subtle than that.

So why did I still give it three stars? Well, it's not all doom and gloom, of course. Especially not visually, as even those pointless shots of scenery tend to be aesthetically pleasing. Also, thanks to that one film, I've learned more about Taiwan and Taipei then I've ever bothered to google (which was not all that difficult since there are still quite a few countries out there I didn't get around to studying them in detail). There also are scenes or ideas that do stand out in a positive sense. When N.J. and Sherry walk through the Tokyo looking a bit like two moody teenagers, with subway trains passing in the background, for a moment I felt like watching MYSTERY TRAIN again. Also, when N.J. receives a visit from a Buddhist retreat, where his wife is trying to deal with her mid-life anxiety, and after a long screed on spiritual enlightenment realises he is basically being asked for more money, Yang displays a potential for a finest quality feel for irony, which, if applied smartly and a little bit more generously throughout the film, could have added a lot more depth of flavour, which A ONE AND A TWO is otherwise sadly lacking. It is a mixed bag then but I do hope (desperately!) that this is not the best that Taiwanese cinema has got to offer. It would indicate an artistic environment that is derivative, confused about its cultural identity and just a little bit too boring to be recommended. So, too bad I don't think I'm going to be actively looking for other examples any time soon. The backlog's too big already.


Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: A Nous La Liberte - Rene Clair, 1931
Next on the list: Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), Alejandro Amenabar, 1997
And after that: An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) - Kon Ichikawa, 1963

No comments:

Post a Comment