Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, my favorite film (or should that be “films?”) of the year so far, is now out on Blu-ray via Kino/Lorber. The review I wrote for Time Out Chicago at the time of its local premiere was severely truncated. Here’s the full version:
Arabian Nights, a new series of three two-hour movies by Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes (Tabu), kicks off this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the major cinematic events in Chicago this year. Subtitled The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One, this ambitious political trilogy borrows the structure of the ancient collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales from which the series gets its title but is set in the present day. The result is an expansive portrait of modern-day Portugal that shows how the austerity measures enacted by the current government have negatively impacted society. Gomes’ progressive/liberal point-of-view is clear but never didactic; his chief interest would appear to be in creating set pieces of intense cinematic poetry (an aim in which he’s aided immeasurably by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom).
Each of the three films are at times disturbing, other times hilarious, and occasionally venture into full-blown surrealism. The delightful vignettes, many of which feature animals, include: the story of Dixie, an adorable dog who passes from one owner to another in a housing project; a murderer who becomes a folk hero as he successfully evades police; unemployed men preparing for a polar-bear swim; the denizens of a working-class neighborhood training their pet finches for a singing competition; a beached whale that explodes; and a rooster that’s put on trial for making too much noise. The extended trial sequence at the center of the second volume (The Desolate One) has come in for criticism for being too long-winded but I think it’s the heart and soul of the entire enterprise – containing stories within stories, combining documentary technique with stylized theatricality, and underlining the theme of the “interconnectedness” of all things. Personally, I could have watched these shaggy-dog stories spiral onward indefinitely.
I have a review of Tsai Ming-Liang’s great JOURNEY TO THE WEST in this week’s Cine-File. It receives its Chicago premiere at Chicago Filmmakers tonight and has an encore screening at Columbia College on Tuesday. Here’s my review in its entirety:
Tsai Ming-Liang’s JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Contemporary Taiwanese)
Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Saturday, 8pm; Repeats at Columbia College (Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave.) on Tuesday at 6:30pm
JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2014), the second and most recent installment in director Tsai Ming-Liang’s ongoing “Walker” series, receives its belated local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this weekend thanks to the enterprising efforts of Beguiled Cinema (the programming endeavor of Cine-File critics Ben and Kat Sachs). This fascinating series, which began with 2012’s WALKER, was inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk who became famous for making a 17-year pilgrimage from China to India by foot. Dispensing with narrative and dialogue altogether, the aptly titled JOURNEY TO THE WEST consists of just a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) walking about as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of contemporary Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Denis Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Tsai has worked in France before–most notably in 2001’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?–but the pairing here of his inevitable leading man Lee with Leos Carax’s favorite leading man Lavant was a genuine masterstroke; they are arguably the two best physical actors working today, known for the kind of expressive body language reminiscent of silent-film acting rather than the traditional facial/vocal emoting that has been popular in cinema since the early sound era. Different viewers will likely take away different things from this experiment; I personally see it as a complex statement about how ancient Eastern religions seem “out of step” with the fast pace of modern Western life, and how there are elements of contemporary Western civilization that, for this very reason, feel irresistibly drawn towards Eastern philosophy. Regardless of how one interprets it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor. (2014, 56 min, Blu-ray Projection) MGS
More info at http://www.chicagofilmmakers.org.