This year I was criminally absent from theaters, so my list of memorable motion picture experiences for 2017 is least of all things “comprehensive”. It is instead an anecdotal medley of contemporary films / repertory discoveries and cinema-quality television productions. I would be remiss to overlook the extent to which TV and Streaming Services have risen as cinematic platforms, nor can I deny the ever-so-slowly eroding distinction between “show” and “movie”. As such, the two preoccupying works at the top of my list (and at the forefront of my thoughts) were both produced for Television under the guise of a “Show” or “Limited-Series Event” but are implicitly epic length films.
1. I made a pact with myself to demolish any expectations about Twin Peaks : The Return and simply agreed to let it wash over me. Expectations are obstacles. Twin Peaks : The Return is – for all intents and purposes – an 18hr slice of abstract cinema that moves with glacial inertia. To the consternation and frustration of others, Lynch/Frost never deviate from their patient shadowy sprawl, rather they lean into a long-arcing process-oriented symbolical storytelling, avoiding entirely the trap of fan appeasement. They simply followed the ideas and crafted something so grittily delightful, so inventively linguistic, so full of space and silence, humanity and violence, darkness and illumination that I was rapt to near giddiness for every single second. TP was groundbreaking in the 90’s and it is again (and newly) groundbreaking in 2017. A major network produced and aired an 18 hour work of abstract film art and gave its makers full creative control. This is important. I would take a moment here to give credit to shows like Doctor Who, Stranger Things, and even Lost, who have helped shape an audience that is ready to receive information in challenging and unexpected ways, and an audience ready to participate WITH the show through analysis, dialogue and theory. This is the major contribution made by TP. It gives the audience a role.
2. The Vietnam War is probably among the more “important” works of cinema in the past decade. Why? Because we apparently didn’t learn our lessons from that “different kind of war” and someone finally had to peel back all the layers and show the bare shaking nerve of an incalculable travesty. Ken Burns and Lynn Novak have crafted a more incisive, thorough, analytical, diverse, sensory driven, cinematic and human exploration of the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam) as has ever been attempted. Most notable, over the stunning restoration of archival materials, transportive sound design and score, and even the psychological approach to editing (making this the most vital and living film by Burns), is the inclusion of North and South Vietnamese perspectives on the telling of this history. Burns and Novak refuse simplistic demonization through single-source narratives, and thus we have a document that collects from every angle and gives us corroborative and critical history with a poetic and tactile film language. It digs as deep or deeper in subsequent viewings, and the parallels to our current time and place are ever more blood curdling. Each feature length episode is masterful unto itself, and the sad history builds for over 15 hrs.
3. Rage had its US premier at the NY Asian Film Festival and is for all intents and purposes my favorite “Feature Film” of 2017. The following appeared in my NYAFF recap. With Rage, Sang-il Lee has bested himself and truly honed the potential of cinema to reflect the limitations of individual perception, and by extension generating palpable and honest drama. His 2011 film Villain is a highpoint of the past decade, and his recent work Rage has eclipsed it in scale. Lee explores three narrative threads with as much depth and fullness as would be afforded one. As the nationwide manhunt for a murderer reaches its anniversary, “three young men without a past appear in the lives of three very different people. In a Chiba fishing village, a young woman (Aoi Miyazaki in the performance of the year) strikes a relationship with a quiet day laborer to her father’s hesitation. A gay Tokyo businessman (Satoshi Tsumabuki) takes in a painfully introverted handsome stranger as a live-in boyfriend. A high school girl recently transplanted from Tokyo to Okinawa becomes fascinated by an emotionally wise wayward island recluse. Lee’s greatest skill is accretion, knowing how much to reveal and when in order to maximize emotional impact and understanding. At 2hrs20min Rage gathers exceptional mass, and when the dams burst, it sends deep vibrations. Rage is highly structural, leaps from thread to thread with sudden intuitions, sometimes sharp, sometimes elegant, sometimes sensory, sometimes emotional, keeping us in as much incremental darkness as each character is unto themselves. This brings us into the milieu of malaise, and expresses cinema as a machinery of empathy.
4. A Time To Swim, presented at PAAFF is so honest a documentary, so intimate in scope but so large in implication that the scale of it expands and contracts in my memory. ATTS follows Mutang, a stay-at-home dad living in Montreal with his wife and two children. Mutang’s history is as a voice of resistance for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Malaysia. After being exiled from his homeland in 1992, Mutang risks arrest and returns to his remote forest village, bringing his family into an immersive experience of his culture. The continued threat, now escalated by the pressures of predatory timber companies, is the loss of indigenous land rights…exactly what he was fighting for all those years ago. A Time to Swim explores these public issues from a personal scale of direct observation. As Mutang endeavors a re-mapping of his peoples’ indigenous lands, the fabric of his community begins to fray. Mutang seeks reconnection to his roots, and finds himself at the vanguard of its defense, though as an outsider returning, he also must grapple with degrees of powerlessness. ATTS is fantastically balanced, never prone to excesses. Through a simple verite approach we embed ourselves in a struggle and in a family. Watching Mutang’s daughter lean into this experience and be transformed is perhaps the most memorable arc of a moving family journey. I am ecstatic to learn that A Time To Swim is 2017 recipient of the Vijay Mohan Social Change Award!!
5. Among my favorite conceptual efforts in world cinema is Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno (Romantic Porn) Redux” series, a commission of 5 modern Japanese filmmakers to engage in the historically abrasive soft-core genre which that studio developed in the 1970’s as a response to the Television-age waning of theater attendance (something timed perfectly with the rising primacy of streaming content). These Neo Roman Pornos use the genre as a base material with which to explore modern ideas of human interaction, sexual psychology and permutations of emotional damage. Roman Porno unabashedly thrived on a particularly cruel male gaze, and so this revival (the latest of various and varied attempts) has sought to correct that orientation and other fundamental disproportions.
“The latest reboot project is particularly noteworthy for its many female staff members joining the production teams, and female producers taking part in all five films. Scenes that could disgust female moviegoers were effectively excluded from the latest works, and underage heroines firmly ruled out. With the Internet flooded with extremely sexual images, there is little chance of attracting moviegoers just by appealing to men’s sexual desires. Nikkatsu intends to continue producing Roman Porno movies and appoint female and non-Japanese directors. The reboot project that encourages filmmakers to produce movies based on original screenplays is a rare effort because the current film industry is rife with film adaptation plans relying on the popularity of existing works. However, Nikkatsu must attract audiences to continue with the initiative. It seems fair to say that winning support from women is a necessary requirement for success.” (Asahi News)
Shion Sono’s incendiary AntiPorno in particular is the ultimate self-aware self-reflexive takedown of the genre (from its content, to its production, to the very psychology behind its consumption) and the radiating destruction caused by the sexism that permeates Japanese society, the misogyny that permeates pornography and the unhealthy repression of sexual discourse that paralyzes growth. Sono delves into the schism that women are expected to be both virgins and sluts at the very same instant. It cuts into the frenetic mind of a bipolar artist, and rattles the audience with radical shifts in power dynamics. All the while we are awash in blindingly vibrant colors. There is no film more from 2017 more vivid and insistent than AntiPorno. I cannot and will not forget it.
6. Arrow Video did a magnificent, and I might argue necessary, thing in 2017. They have distributed the films of Kiju Yoshida in the North American market for the very first time!! You can read my full piece about Yoshida and the Arrow Academy release here. Among the three benchmark films of his oeuvre, presented by Arrow Academy under the title Love + Anarchism, is the elliptical and enigmatic psycho-politico poem Heroic Purgatory. Not even featured in HFA’s 2009 retrospective, Kiju Yoshida’s most abstract work refuses any and all grounding. His denial of a true-present and his cinematic manipulation of the rules of designed spaces (just you try to draw a layout of the apartment) is a hall of mirrors. Floating in the miasma of Japan’s late 60’s communist and student uprisings, Yoshida takes us on a journey that expresses, above all else, the palpable and systemic sense of distrust and confusion within a movement that subsequently never unifies. Layers of veils and secrets are reflected in a cinematic language that re-evaluates itself. Its not about the story here, its about the language.
7. Blade Runner 2049. I still see it when I shut my eyes. I feel it, I sense it like a memory.
8. I reviewed The Chinese Exclusion Act as part of the 2017 Phila Asian American Film Festival. In my mind this is required viewing, for reasons of its subject and the excellence of its making. An infuriating, sickening and enlightening excavation of America’s backbone of racism told as elegantly as possible while still boiling the blood. Directors Rick Burns and Li Shin Yu (his long-time editor who co-wrote) explore one of the least known and yet the most impactful narratives of American history, one which has shaped constitutional law and immigration to this day, and one that has been chillingly recalled by the current administration’s repeated and problematic attempts at immigration bans on Muslim Majority nations. The Chinese Exclusion Act is a progression of turn-of-the-century federal legislation that singled out a people (Chinese, but later subsumed other Asian origins) specifically by race and was used as a tool to scapegoat the Chinese as an economic scourge and, in an act of passive genocide, choke the extant population of Chinese in America until they shrank to nothing by denying the possibility of citizenship. The film explores the unique and concentrated vitriol visited upon the Chinese and the rhetoric that resonates to this very day when blame is unjustly thrust upon a minority people in falsehood, fear and hyperbole. If you were ever wondering why every major city has a Chinatown, if you were ever curious why the US has enshrined birthright citizenship, if you ever wanted to know why people think “all Asians are smart” watch this film and learn in part how your nation has been formed. In TCES cinematography plays a powerful role. Archival objects, historical documents etc are arranged in spaces and the camera explores them like intimate landscapes with warm firelight dancing. this mood lends undeniable weight to the material.
9. Sabu’s Happiness is another of my favorite films from NYAFF. It uses memory as an explicit narrative and identity-building tool wherein a majority of the film takes place in flashbacks. Happiness rises above its premise in unexpected ways. Kanzaki (played by an opaque and dour Masatoshi Nagase [The Hidden Blade]) carts a strange steampunk-esque helmet into a sleepy stagnant small town in Japan. We quickly learn that this helmet, when operated by Kanazaki, awakens long-buried memories of climactic bliss. This flood of feeling brings the somber townspeople back to life, one by one in a kind of theater of recollection. Kanzaki’ motivations are unclear, but Sabu eventually shifts the lens of the film (literally and figuratively) to scratch the tint off of his stonefaced characterization, revealing a painful history stitched from multiple perspectives. Happiness’s vivid and unflinching depiction of a violent and traumatic event in Kanazaki’s past is singularly affecting, and – for better or worse – cannot be unseen. Sabu shows a society that suppresses joy and sorrow alike, and that the consequence is the same…. just as the face of a person contorted in ecstasy or suffering can be identical.
10. Arrow Video gets another pat on the back for bringing maniacal maverick Takashi Miike’s Kuroshakai (Black Society) Trilogy to Blu and dvd. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999) constitute a thematically related series of films, including Miike’s commercial feature debut. BST converges Chinese Triads and the Yakuza, thus they are not for the faint of heart…in fact they overflow with objectionable behavior, brazen criminality, characteristic amorality and enough toxic masculinity/misogyny to leave you reeling. While presented in abundance, this cruel and degenerate swathe of society is thankfully never glorified as anything but. Rather it is a peerless, fully realized and trenchant depiction of an underworld from which you never come up for air. I was thrilled to see that Miike started his cinematic volume cranked to 11, and that his ability to make you feel filthy and provoked is not a new skill but one he refined from an already pronounced degree. With Miike’s Blade of the Immortal…his 100th film!? …hitting theaters this past year, Arrow’s release was well timed to recall the inception of that insane man’s prolific craft. If pressed, I would fall on the side Rainy Dog as a favorite of the three. It has a sense of patience and undertones of empathy that the others lack, and thus it stands out as a more dimensional work.