Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Item: Flowers of Shanghai better than Mad Max: Fury Road!

Hey I didn't plan to watch Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998) mere moments before I believed the hype and took in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Blame the exigencies of teaching Flowers today for clouding my reception of Mad Max last night. But even if I hadn't bathed in Hou's masterpiece yet again, Miller's reboot still would've left me pondering Kracauer's "Boredom" (pdf here) and this terrific IMDb comment by one amirdash1 on Hou's Café Lumière (which I've pumped before but since learned permalink):

"You know how sometimes you see a film so big and full and immersing that by the time it ends you feel kinda empty (for most people it's the Lord of the rings or Matrix or Star wars type of films)? well, [Café Lumière] is so empty that in the end, it makes you you feel full. I remember feeling more refreshed and alive after this film, than any other film i had ever seen."

Mad Max is certainly so big and full and immersing. Devoting barely any time to explaining when and where (and why) we are, Miller dunks us into the freezing bathwater of his narrative with all the patience of a Centurions cartoon. In the opening sequence, the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) seems to be conveying key story points to some sort of slave class. But he does so via microphone over a huge canyon, insuring that his speech becomes lost in the echoes. Max (Tom Hardy), a characterization of brilliant perversity, contributes little towards pushing the narrative forward. With five pages max of dialogue, much of it garbled, Max makes Ethan Edwards sound like Woody Allen. It shall join Warren Beatty's McCabe and Ralph Fiennes' Dennis Cleg (in Cronenberg's Spider) in the ranks of great mumble performances. And all the better to set off  Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a narrative agent with desire, a history, and a band of sisters who have no trouble beating down Joe's pack of pasty, perfectly chiseled goons (what, no carbs in this time/space continuum?).

But now that it's over, I'm at a loss for something to discuss. Well...that happened. More to the point, I'm left with no desire to find a way for it to resonate beyond its running time. I could praise Miller's expertise in directing action sequences. Like John Woo, he lays out the space in question before the action kicks in so we know what's at stake in all that velocity. And I could suggest that the film could've used more preposterous touches like the pasty goon dangling in front of a wall of amplifiers and playing a fire-breathing guitar in battle, a hilarious attempt to give a source to Junkie XL's chest-heaving score. But if I didn't get all that down now, I'm not sure I'd remember to tell the world about it a year from now.

In many ways, Flowers of Shanghai mangles storytelling even more, at least on initial viewing (it took Robin Wood six screenings to figure out Hou's scheme). Titles situate us in various late 19th-century brothels in the English Concession of Shanghai. But Hou does little to differentiate one Sternbergian hothouse interior from another. Important events are told not shown, sure to get lost in the endless roundelays of gossiping courtesans and their patrons. There are no cuts, only fades which fail to convey how much time has passed. Characters are difficult to tell apart. There's one point-of-view shot and one brief voice-over. The camera floats at a distance in long shots and long takes, never suturing us into the space. Our frustration at gaining any sense of firm narrative ground quickly turns into boredom. Nothing...happens.

But as Kracauer so perceptively pointed out nearly 90 years ago, boredom preserves the possibility that something genuinely new might still happen instead of a conveyor belt of new pummeling us at every corner of our lives. Watching Flowers of Shanghai may be an empty experience. But it continues to haunt. You can't shake it as you start to ponder how a Taiwanese viewer would receive this film set in China by the premier Taiwanese filmmaker. Or how a Chinese viewer would receive a film set in the English Concession of Shanghai. When Mad Max: Fury Road is over, it's over. You've had your fill and now the next new awaits.

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