Copie Conforme (2010) (Certified Copy)
Abbas Kiarostami
French/Italian/English

 

Certified CopyA possible manifesto for postmodernism, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) reminds one of a million other pictures – from the director’s own early films, through Godard, Rossellini, and Hitchcock, to Scorsese, Hou and Jarmusch – in both its major and minor strokes. This actually goes well with the film’s central argument of there being no originals in art as well as life. It asserts, as does Jarmusch’s latest, that meaning and authenticity exist in one’s gaze of objects rather than the objects themselves (Like the director’s previous film, this one reverses the artist-audience relationship and suggests that the viewer is the original author of works of art), that the question of authenticity is obviated if a (relative) truth could be arrived at through artifice, that no art can be inherently original given that it is feeds on and reshapes reality and that all aspects of human existence – appearance, language, behaviour, relationships and gestures – are reproductions of existing templates. Building upon the latter argument, the film examines the importance and inevitability of role-playing in our lives through the lead characters/actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel), who bear an original-copy relationship themselves. Through them, the film proposes that there is no absolute ‘self’ and that it is only within context and within a relationship that each ‘role’ we play obtains a meaning. It is not that these two characters are faking it during one half of the film, but just that – like Sartre’s waiter – these inauthentic people segue from one level of role-playing to another (On one level, Certified Copy is a film where actors play characters playing characters playing characters). Akin to Shutter Island (2010), Certified Copy is divided into two realities, with the verity of each half being valid only in relation to that of the other. However, there’s much more to Kiarostami’s film than such straightforward illustration of philosophical ideas. (Like Scorsese’s movie, this one wears its themes on its sleeve, thereby undermining them.) Throughout, it probes where the essence and authenticity of a film rests: in its grand, ethereal ideas or in its banal, concrete physicality. Does the spirit of Certified Copy lie in its precise, recursive structure and its intricate mise en scène or is it in the minute, magical gestures of Binoche’s visage and the gentle eroticism of her loose-fitting gown?

(Continued from part 1/2)

Hao Nan Hao Nu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995)

Good Men, Good WomenGood Men, Good Women (1995), the final part in Hou’s trilogy on Taiwanese history, could well be considered as the first in a series of highly experimental films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Dividing the film into two time lines – one set in the Chiang Kai-Shek era of White Terror and the other in contemporary Taiwan – Hou investigates both the unifying spirit and the chasms that exist between the nation’s past, present and future. A lonesome actress Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) is to play the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, a Taiwanese resistance fighter from the 1940’s. Ching’s confrontation with the painful history of her nation coincides with a confrontation with her own dark past, where we learn about her stint as a bar host and her affair with a man named Ah-Wei (Jack Kao), whose murder she becomes an accomplice to, for three million bucks. The betrayal of a group of loyal partisans by the very side it wished to fight for serves as an agonizing reminder of her betrayal of a man who loved and trusted her. Hou’s highly stylized direction cuts back and forth between the scenes from the past that use soft, black and white footage and those from the present, shot in a bland colour stock, both of which mingle at one point, pointedly suggesting the marriage of collective and personal histories that gives a not-so-rosy picture of the future. Good Men, Good Women is a transitional film for Hou in the way it acts as a bridge between the idea of inseparability of past and present indicated by The Puppetmaster (1993) and that of absolute isolation of the two from each other that characterizes Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).

Nan Guo Zai Jian, Nan Guo (Goodbye South, Goodbye, 1996)

Goodbye South, GoodbyeWith Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou seems to have bid farewell to narrative cinema for good. It is safe to declare that absolutely nothing happens in the film, for right from the first shot of the film, where we witness a bunch of blasé youngsters sitting in a train and one of them losing signal on his cellular phone, to the last one where a car carrying those people crashes to a standstill, there is simply no indication that the vicious circle that the characters are treading on will break some day. Neither their choices nor their actions seem to make any difference to the drug-addicted, gamble-driven, aimless and nihilistic lives they seem to be leading. They live for the moment, without a shred of consideration for the consequences or causes of their present actions (They open a restaurant where they end up telling the customers what they should eat!). With an absurdly exaggerated colour scheme, consisting mostly of primary colours, Hou builds the film as a string of moments, each rife with dark, brutal humour (“Did she slit her wrists again?”), that gradually reveal how a whole generation is living with neither an apparent memory of the past nor a hope for the future. Alternating between scenes of motion – trains, motorbikes and automobiles – and transit, whose destination is never once clear, and utter motionlessness, shot in dimly lit, cramped interiors, Goodbye South, Goodbye is a stark and affecting portrait of a stalemated generation whose loss of identity seems to mirror that of the nation they are living in.

Hai Shang Hua (The Flowers Of Shanghai, 1998)

The Flowers of ShanghaiCould there be a more baffling and contrasting follow up to the apparent frivolity and irresponsibility of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) than The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou’s only film to be set entirely in the pre-WW2 era? Slightly redolent of Zhang Yimou’s magnificent Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Flowers of Shanghai, set during the turn of the nineteenth century in the brothels of Shanghai, presents us a series of seemingly endless conversations and bouts presided by men, presumably belonging to the officer class of the ruling government, who indulge themselves by patronizing the courtesans and playing drinking games on the table. Hou’s most relentless and most rigorous film till date, The Flowers of Shanghai is shot completely indoors, with carefully orchestrated actor choreography, consisting almost entirely of medium shots and with a intensely reddish lighting scheme throughout that evoke a high degree of claustrophobia and suffocation, which perhaps mirror the experience of the flower girls themselves (the exact feeling that is induced when one watches Ten (2002)). It is hard not to think of the film as a political allegory given the fact that the whole film plays out within a single, enclosed structure and the intricate way in which relationships are reduced to ideas of ownership, subscriptions and contracts. However, even if the case for political abstraction is dismissed, The Flowers of Shanghai still remains a scathing examination of power and freedom of a highly marginalized section of people living under a decidedly patriarchal structure – an exploration that remains as potent even in the most modern of times.

Qian Xi Man Po (Millennium Mambo, 2001)

Millennium MamboMillennium Mambo (2001) arrives, at the turn of the century, as a timely reboot to Hou’s Daughter of the Nile (1987). Like the protagonist of the latter film, Ah-Sang (Fan Yang), Vicky (Qi Shu) finds herself in a stalemate of sorts, with no relationship to really hold on to, and wishes to escape into the past as a means of overcoming the abyss called future. She seems haunted by the idea of beginning anew in a new place and a new time and is fascinated by the antiquity of Hokkaido, Japan, the old people who live there and the old cinema posters that adorn its slow-clad streets. However, unlike Ah-Sang, she seems numbed by her condition so as to not show any signs of desperation for escape. There are echoes of both Tsai Ming-Liang and Wong Kar Wai in this film in its existential overtones and (yet) brimming optimism. In stark contrast to the medium-shot rigor of his previous film, Hou’s aesthetics are freewheeling and he shoots in cinema vérité format, employing a mildly accentuated colour palette and a large number of loosely focused, handheld shots and close ups that was hitherto uncharacteristic of the director. Like some of his previous films, Hou seems to be interested more in capturing the rhythm of life during a specific time period in Taiwanese history than anything else. Consequently, Hou employs a highly evocative techno soundtrack and punctuating slow motion shots that gives one the affecting feeling that these are moments of utmost transience to be cherished for eternity, much like the evanescent face imprint that Vicky leaves on snow.

Kôhî Jikô (Café Lumiére, 2003)

Cafe LumiereCafé Lumiére (2003) is the kind of film that I would have expected from Jarmusch, given his preoccupation with Japan and, specifically, Ozu (No wonder he cites Hou as one of his idols). However, in retrospect, it looks like that no other director deserves making this film as much as Hou does. That is because Café Lumiére serves both as the updation of Ozu’s themes for the new century and as the next logical step in Hou’s body of work. Most minimal in terms of plot in all of Hou, Café Lumiére continues Hou’s exploration of the new generation that has been cut off from its past and that seemingly unbridgeable generation gap that exists between the members of two generations – a characteristic Ozu theme that had its cultural roots in Post-war Japan – in this post-globalization world. However, Hou examines this chasm from an outsider’s point of view, as and through a person straddling the cultures of Japan and Taiwan – a stance that permeates the whole film, tying what is quintessentially Hou to that which is quintessentially Ozu. Hou’s stylistics, too, become inseparable from the Japanese director’s as he concocts similar ground level compositions, with meticulous actor choreography filmed in long shots and  separated, at times, by major ellipses. Like Jarmusch’s latest, Hou’s film is also one about transition – one without any particular destination – and he adorns the film with images of trains and railway stations. In fact, Hou’s film is the cinematic equivalent of the painting that Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) creates in the film, indicating a generation that rests within the womb of a dense network of trains, slowly bleeding.

Zui Hao De Shi Guang (Three Times, 2005)

Three TimesHou Hsiao-hsien’s most acclaimed film, Three Times (2005), brings him back to overtly political filmmaking after a hiatus of, arguably, four films. Divided into three segments – set in 1911, 1966 and 2005 in Kaohsiung, Dadaocheng and Taipei respectively – Three Times seems like a distillation of three of the director’s earlier films. Hou’s aesthetics change with the time period the film deals with (in a highly cinematic sense too). He uses a green filter, a mixture of outdoor and indoor shots and a soundtrack composed of romantic songs for the first segment, a red filter, largely medium shots filmed indoors with a static camera and a classical soundtrack for the second and a blue tinge and fluid camerawork with a number of close-ups for the third, reflecting the spirit of each age. But Hou’s film is far from a simple comparison of lives in three distinct time periods. Hou is more interested in the underlying similarities and ironies more than the apparent and inevitable differences. Like many of the director’s previous films, Three Times is an exploration of the distance between individuals, the communication gap that separates them and the ways those distances and gaps are bridged. In the bittersweet, first segment, letters and boats serve the purpose of bringing people together, with words complementing when stretches of silence aren’t enough. In the second segment, voices are entirely muted as intertitles replace conversations. In the final one, despite the infinite means of communication and commutation available, characters don’t seem to be able to connect either with each other or with their past, as they ride off in their contraptions to nowhere.

Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge (The Flight Of The Red Balloon, 2007)

The Flight of the Red BalloonThe Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) might just be Hou’s greatest accomplishment to date.  Hou’s second film on foreign soil is aptly set in Paris, France – the city of arts – and takes off from Lamorisse’s childlike short The Red Balloon (1956). The latter trivia is very important and provides thematic context to Hou’s film. The balloon in Lamorisse’s film becomes a symbol of beauty and of art, abandoning a cruel world that rejects it and embracing and protecting those who recognize beauty in the mundane. Likewise, in Hou’s film, Simon (Simon Iteanu) is surrounded by a number of art forms – music, literature, photography, puppetry, cinema and painting – and mother figures – his actual mother, his nanny, his piano teacher, his “pretend sister” and, of course, the all-mysterious red balloon. Hou, evidently inspired by the city, creates a fractal of art forms around these wonderful people in the film who seem to be striving to capture instantaneous reality and achieve peace and perfection through the art forms they practice. Hou uses semi-transparent, partially reflecting surfaces and has melodious music pieces accompany the most quotidian of images to underscore both the impossibility of life to attain the utopia of art and the presence of art in everyday life, all around us (The dense, final scene of the film employs Félix Vallotton’s painting, The Ball, to highlight how art is created out of the ordinary and how it embodies a desire to overcome the imperfection of reality). When Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) asks the blind tuner if he can tune the piano back to normal, she might well have been taking about her life.

Shirin  (2008) (aka My Sweet Shirin)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“I fear that this embrace may turn out to be a dream. Like all the dreams we had throughout the years which, on waking, would turn into horrible nightmares.


ShirinIt’s been long since Abbas Kiarostami started trying to eliminate the role of the director in making films. His works bear witness to the fact that, with him, the function of a director is closer to that of a concept artist than a logistic manager. His latest, Shirin (2008), is the next logical step in this process of progressive non-intervention of director. An extrapolation of his segment Where is My Romeo? (which seems like a experimental doodle in comparison) in To Each His Own Cinema (2007), Shirin presents us an audience in a movie theatre, made up mostly of women, played wonderfully by over a hundred professional actresses, watching a period melodrama based on the love triangle between king Khosrow, princess Shirin of Armenia and Farhad, the ace mathematician and sculptor. No, we do not get to watch one frame of the film that is playing in the theatre. Instead, what we get is a film whose imagery is constructed entirely using close-ups of the audience’s reaction to the movie they’re watching while the soundtrack is that of the movie being seen. Emotions run the gamut – empathy, sympathy and apathy – as Kiarostami’s mildly differential and subtly accentuated lighting lovingly captures each contour of these beautiful women’s faces.

One familiar with the works of Kiarostami would know how the director uses the film screen as a kind of mirror for introspection. Be the mirror pointed towards the society at large, as in Homework (1989) and Ten (2002), or towards cinema, like in Close-Up (1990) and Five (2003), or towards the director himself, as in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) and Life, And Nothing More… (1991), Kiarostami’s cinema has always flourished on this dialectic between reality and its reflection on screen. Here, in Shirin, he turns the mirror towards us – the viewers in the theatre – as we become our own audience. As a result, our reactions get tied to those of the audience on screen. We smile when they laugh and we are moved when they break down. We are surprised at every small twitch of their eyebrows, every casual gaze away from the screen, every mild shudder of theirs, and every tear that reaches their lips. Shirin make us privy not only to all our gestures and emotions which we are usually oblivious to, when sitting disarmed in the darkness of the cinema hall, but also to the taken-for-granted social experience shared by the collective of strangers wherein we all seem to concur emotionally and, yet, differ vastly in the vehemence of our responses.

ShirinShirin takes place in real time. The 90 minutes of the film coincide with the runtime of the film within the film. In some ways, I guess Shirin could be considered a companion film to Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), which took off from the fact that women, in Iran, are not allowed to enter football stadiums and which, too, unfolds in real time – 90 minutes again – alongside an international soccer match. While, in Panahi’s film, we are presented with a model of rebellion against existing norms, Shirin hints at conformism. Offside showed us an attempt to change existing reality whereas Kiarostami’s film presets to us a longing to enter an alternate one. There is a glint in all these women’s eyes that betrays their celebration of the film, which seems to perfectly acknowledge and express their own plight, and, consequently, a yearning to enter it forever. They seem to understand that this freedom is going to be short-lived and they would have to return to their oppressive lives soon (One woman has a plaster on her nose. We are tempted to ascribe it to domestic violence). Even though none of the men in the cinema hall get a close-up from Kiarostami, they do have a constant, ghostlike presence in the background. Whenever the scarves on their head slip off, the women snap back to reality to adjust it. One woman even winces when sunlight falls on her face as the door nearby is opened suddenly.

Of course, the first movie (not considering too much the hilarious opening scene of Ross Herbert’s Play It Again, Sam (1972), which too explored the possibility of life merging with art) that comes to mind watching Shirin is Godard’s My Life to Live (1962), in which Godard provides a close up of Nana (Anna Karina) weeping while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a movie theatre. Like Godard, Kiarostami links the life of Shirin to that of the audience in the film by making the “story” of the film highly reflexive (Kiarostami might even be referring to Dreyer’s film, given the French connection of the film in the form of Juliette Binoche). Following Khosrow’s death, the princess asks her friends: “Are you shedding these tears for me, Shirin? or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?”. This is as overt as Kiarostami’s film gets. The world in the film, too, is highly patriarchal, with the fate of Shirin being decided by power games played by men – kings, sons and lovers – alone (“Damn this game of men that we call love!”). By impartially cutting from one face to another, instead of dwelling on a single face, Kiarostami might just be making a statement of generalization and pinning the film down to the situation in present-day Iran. This notion becomes even more plausible given that the love triangle between Khosrow, Farhad and Shirin is essentially a contest between the government, an artist and a woman.

ShirinDespite its avant-garde and nonconformist nature, surprisingly, Shirin works well as an experiment in popular genre cinema – the one zone that the director has been reluctant to get into. Shirin proves, at least as far as modern day genre cinema is concerned, that sound is more important than the visuals if instant gratification is aimed for. It is certainly easier to keep track of and engage ourselves in a film when we look away from the screen than when we close our ears while watching the images. In Shirin, not once are we given visuals from the film within the film, but we are clearly able to understand its structure and chronology. There are flashbacks in the film that we never miss. Action scenes play out in our minds vividly (with reduced ASL, of course!) and voices are immediately matched with stereotypes that have been given to us through the ages. In a humourous moment, we see a mildly tearful woman break down completely when the orchestral music swells. This is genre cinema being taken apart to reveal its manipulation, folks. Kiarostami removes the redundant video track, so to speak, and adds a new one to counterpoint the soundtrack instead of reinforcing it. So, in a sense, Kiarostami moves both towards and away from genre cinema simultaneously. In the director’s own words: “It is a combination of both freedom and restriction.

Kiarostami once said the following in an interview which sums up so effectively his whole body of work and especially Shirin:

“A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason… I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves“

Kiarostami’s idea of cinema is one that requires the physical presence of an audience for the completion of the enterprise that the filmmaker has set off (“There is no such thing as a movie before the projector is switched on and after the theatre’s lights are turned off.” he says in another interview). Shirin is yet another half movie in the director’s filmography not only in the sense that it provides us with only one half of the melodrama – the soundtrack – being played, but also because it leaves it to us to decide the connotations of this bizarre marriage between an expressionistic soundtrack and a realistic imagery. In fact, Shirin is made of numerous such interactions between the prime elements of Kiarostami’s cinema. Throughout the film, there are rich conversations between sound and image (by direct opposition between generic and non-generic forms), the past and the present (The women seem to be able to identify themselves with a fictional character living in a distant past), fiction and reality (As always with Kiarostami, one isn’t able to separate what was scripted and what was spontaneous), the women and the film they are watching and Kiarostami’s film and us. And that is one of the reasons why Shirin is best watched in a theatre (It’s kind of like watching the last chapter of that Tarantino movie!), where, for once, we would be tempted to take a look around.

[Where is My Romeo (2007)]