Monthly Archives: May 2012

An Intriguing Trend in Contemporary Film Distribution

This past Monday afternoon I went to the AMC River East theater in downtown Chicago to catch a matinee screening of A Simple Life, the latest film from veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui. This low-key, naturalistic drama features Chinese superstar Andy Lau in an impressively de-glammed and un-showy turn as a movie producer who takes care of his elderly maid after she’s had a stroke. Hui, a terrific director of actors, has a long track record of taking charismatic actors known for flashy performances and guiding them into subtler and more nuanced territory. (See for instance the brilliant performances of Anthony Wong as a kindly priest in Ordinary Heroes or Jackie Cheung as a high school teacher going through a mid-life crisis in July Rhapsody.) But A Simple Life ultimately belongs to Deannie Yip who plays the maid, a performance for which she deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Unfortunately, I do not have time to write a proper review (I’m in the middle of finals for all seven classes I’m teaching and the other posts that will appear here in the next couple weeks have already been written in advance) but I can heartily recommend the film, especially to lovers of Chinese cinema; it is a movie about compassion made with compassion, qualities that are always refreshingly welcome. I would however like to note a few things about the movie’s incredibly odd theatrical distribution, which I think are emblematic of our times but which should also be oddly encouraging for cinephiles.

A Simple Life‘s distributor, an outfit named “China Lion,” booked the film at the River East, one of the Loop’s most popular multiplex theaters, without bothering to place print advertisements nor hold press screenings (call it the “anti-Avengers“). It appears they didn’t even have any movie posters created for the engagement. There certainly weren’t any on display inside or outside of the theater when I was there. The only advertising the film has received that I am aware of is through China Lion’s facebook page. Further, the film was projected digitally, probably from a blu-ray disc, which means the company was also spared the expense of striking prints. In other words, virtually no money was spent to distribute and promote A Simple Life in Chicago. This strikes me as an unprecedented instance of movie exhibition where the traditional duties of a “distributor” have essentially been eliminated from the process. China Lion’s thinking appears to be that they will simply book the movie in North American cities with “large Asian populations” and then rely solely on social media and word of mouth to draw in audiences. I myself would have never become aware of the release had it not been for Ben Sachs’ recent blog post about it at the website of the Chicago Reader. This entire phenomenon fascinates me because it could have only occurred in the 21st century, after the rise in popularity of both social media and digital projection.

What I find most intriguing about the unusual distribution of A Simple Life in Chicago however isn’t so much the lack of traditional promotion but the fact that it’s playing at the River East (China Lion apparently has an exclusive deal with the AMC chain.) I feel this speaks to the by-now familiar notion that we are living in a world where “mass culture” is rapidly being replaced, for better or for worse, by countless niche markets. Instead of having to go to a “niche theater” to see a “niche movie” (as was always the case in the past), it now looks like the option of seeing a deeply obscure movie in a state-of-the-art multiplex may be the wave of the future. Several of my students at suburban colleges have informed me that it is common for new Bollywood and South Korean films to play suburban mutliplexes in areas where the immigrant populations from those countries is high. I’m assuming that film reviews and paid advertisements for those movies is likewise absent from the mainstream suburban press.

I hasten to add that if China Lion were to distribute certain movies in this under-the-radar fashion (like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s highly anticipated The Grandmasters), I would feel outraged because I would know that those films deserve a higher-profile release. But A Simple Life is the kind of quiet, small movie that was never going to get picked up for U.S. distribution otherwise and therefore I’m exceedingly grateful to China Lion for allowing me the chance to see it on the big screen. By contrast, keep in mind that Johnnie To’s masterpiece Life Without Principle, a film ostensibly more accessible than A Simple Life, was picked up by a U.S. distributor last September who still have no plans to release it and will probably end up dumping it straight to DVD. The moral to all of this is that if you consider yourself an adventurous filmgoer (and if you’re reading this blog post then you probably are), it may no longer be enough to rely on reviews or advertisements if you want to know what good cinema fare might be playing at a theater near you. You may want to closely scan the titles of the films playing at your local theater and then be prepared to do a little research to figure out exactly what the hell they are. And, of course, you should keep reading this blog.

You can visit the English-language version of China Lion’s website here:

A Classic French Cinema Primer, pt. 1: Beyond the “Tradition of Quality”

The pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema remains unjustly neglected in a lot of critical and cinephile quarters today, in part due to the contempt shown for it by the Nouvelle Vague directors when they were still critics for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Francois Truffaut’s famous dismissal of the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which he contrasted with the more ostensibly personal and cinematic films coming out of Hollywood during the same period, has given an unfortunate and lasting impression that French cinema in the early sound era was a barren field. I would argue that, since the birth of the movies, France has consistently been one of the three greatest film producing nations – along with the United States and Japan. This list, which encompasses the early sound era through the birth of the New Wave (a separate silent French cinema primer will be posted in the future) is meant to spotlight just a few of the most essential and exciting French movies made during this period.

The list will be broken into two parts. Today’s post encompasses the years 1930 – 1945. Part two, to be published later this week, encompasses 1946 – 1959. As a self-imposed, arbitrary rule, each half of the list will contain no more than two films by the same director.

L’age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is this hilarious Surrealist portrait of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famously bizarre images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

Marius (Korda, 1931)

The first and best installment of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny Trilogy” (followed by Cesar and Fanny) is a sweet comedy/melodrama about the goings on in a Marseilles port-side bar. Marius is a young man who manages the bar owned by his father Cesar. He has an affair with local girl Fanny who, holding out hope for a marriage proposal, turns down the hand of the older, wealthier Monsieur Panisse. But, alas, like the song says, Marius’ life, love and lady is the sea. Hungarian born director Alexander Korda does a wonderful job of “opening up” Pagnol’s play, making a deft use of real Marseilles locations. Charges that the movie is “filmed theater” are misguided; Pagnol and Korda’s very subject is the theatricality inherent in human nature.

A Nous la Liberte (Clair, 1931)

Mostly known today as the inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times, Rene Clair’s classic comedy follows the exploits of two escaped cons, one of whom becomes a factory owner and one of whom becomes a worker in the same factory. Is there any real difference, Clair asks, between a prisoner and a lowly factory worker? The equation between capitalism and criminality is a bit heavy handed but this is never less than a total visual delight, from the slapstick humor to Lazare Meerson’s stunning Expressionist-influenced art direction (which, atypical for a “foreign film” of the time, received an Oscar nomination).

Zero de Conduite (Vigo, 1933)

Jean Vigo’s penultimate film, an unforgettable tribute to the anarchic spirt of youth, documents the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students and is based on the director’s own childhood memories. Vigo was way ahead of his time in blending experimental filmmaking techniques with narrative storytelling (check out the poetic use of slow motion during the pillow fight scene) and the end result is beautiful, strange, beguiling and unmissable.

L’atalante (Vigo, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo delivery trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. Vigo’s final film is one of the cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)

Grand Illusion is a comedy and a drama, a war movie and a prison break film and, finally, thanks to an 11th hour appearance by the lovely Dita Parlo, a very touching love story. There is also a healthy dose of social criticism in the story of an aristocratic German Captain (memorably played by Erich von Stroheim) who shows favoritism to an upper class French captive, indicating that the bonds of class can sometimes be tighter than those of nationality. But this is just one of many examples of Renoir explicating the “arbitrary borders” made by man in one of the few films that deserves to be called a true anti-war movie.

The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)

In this witty, innovative, trilingual take on the history film, three narrators – an Italian, an Englishman and a Frenchman – each tell the story of how four pear-shaped pearls ended up in the British crown. Writer/director Sacha Guitry manages, in a head-spinning hour and forty one minutes, to trace the pearls from one owner to the next over five hundred years of European history, allowing hilarious cameos by famous figures like Pope Clement VII, Catherine de Medici, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, Napolean and Queen Victoria. But in a movie whose real subjects are language and storytelling the pearls themselves are nothing more than a MacGuffin. Guitry himself plays the French narrator as well as three other characters in the flashback sequences; as he wryly notes, “We always lend our faces to the heroes of the story.”

Pepe le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)

One reason why French film critics were so quick to identify and appreciate American film noir in the 1940s is because it distinctly resembled, tonally and visually, many of the great French crime films of the late 1930s. One such film is Julien Duvivier’s fatalistic Pepe le Moko, the story of a charismatic Parisian gangster (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) hiding out in the Algiers’ Casbah, and the police inspector who attempts to reel him in. Algiers, an equally interesting Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, followed just one year later.

Le Jour se Leve (Carne, 1939)

One of the high water marks of the movement known as Poetic Realism (under which many of the titles immediately preceding and following it on this list also fall), Le Jour se Leve has it all: working class characters – with Jean Gabin as the doomed hero and Arletty as his love interest, atmospheric locations, a tragic crime plot, poetic dialogue by Jacques Prevert, and taut direction by Marcel Carne. Also like a ton of great French films of the era, this was soon banned by the Vichy government on the grounds that it was “demoralizing.” Maybe so but sometimes hopelessness can be romantic too.

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and couples getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943)

A series of anonymously written poison-pen letters are sent to various prominent citizens of a small French village. Chief among the targets of “The Raven,” the mysterious author’s pseudonym, is a doctor who is accused of adultery and performing illegal abortions. Both rumors and hidden secrets are brought to light by the letters, which threaten to tear the fabric of the community apart. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made this for a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France. Sensing that the movie in some way allegorized them, the Nazis promptly fired Clouzot and banned the film. When the occupation ended, Clouzot was prohibited from making movies for an additional two years by the French government because he had collaborated with the Nazis! The director would go on to achieve much greater fame for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in the 1950s but this refreshingly dark and bitter thriller, a film far nastier than its Hollywood counterparts of the time, remains my personal favorite.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945)

Robert Bresson’s second film features star performances (most notably a ferocious turn by Maria Cesares), an original diegetic musical score and relatively ornate dialogue written by none other than Jean Cocteau – all elements the director would soon eschew in the major movies for which he became best known. But Les Dames du Bois de Bolougne is still a terrific and very Bressonian film about a woman who hatches a revenge plot against her ex-lover that involves arranging a marriage between him and a prostitute. The timeless, dream-like atmosphere is alluring (the story takes place in the present but feels as if it could be taking place in the 19th century) and the ambiguously redemptive ending packs a wallop precisely because of Bresson’s de-dramatized treatment.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne, 1945)

The pinnacle of the Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert collaborations is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi)
2. Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi)
3. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
4. The Player (Altman)
5. Vampires (Carpenter)
6. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay)
7. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
8. The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard)
9. The Man I Love (Walsh)
10. Alphaville (Godard)

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