Tag Archives: B+

THE SOUVENIR

Producer: Luke Schiller and Joanna Hogg
Director: Joanna Hogg
Writer: Joanna Hogg
Stars: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Ariane Labed, Jaygann Ayeh, Janet Etuk, Hannah Ashby Ward, Chyna Terrelonge-Vaughan and Jack W. Gregory
Studio: A24 Films

B+

How many times have you thought, when hearing about a woman whose boyfriend had harmed her (or her children): Whatever did she see in him? That’s the question you might be asking as you watch “The Souvenir,” Joanna Hogg’s film about Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a film student in eighties England who takes up with Anthony (Tom Burke), a smug know-it-all who’s obviously a phony, and remains devoted to him despite behavior that’s increasingly erratic and dangerous.

Hogg doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to the question, but the picture is nonetheless fascinating simply because it is so rigorously autobiographical. (Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker profile of the writer-director shows that in remarkable detail.) The grounding in fact, or at least in Hogg’s perspective on her own past and almost oppressive need to examine and share it, gives the film a peculiar but compelling subtext. Of course, it helps that “The Souvenir” is not just an engrossing memory-play, but a powerful drama about a modern Svengali.

Julie is introduced as a well-to-do film student who proposes for her graduation project a painfully earnest drama set in the crumbling working-class city of Sunderland. Her teachers—who seem to have doubts about her as well as the idea—are fairly dismissive, but allow that as she seems to have the necessary resources, she might as well proceed.

So she does, but not before meeting Anthony at a party. Presenting himself as a Foreign Office officer, he appears impressive in his fitted suit with a cigarette held casually in his fingers as he opines disdainfully on all sorts of issues. Suddenly, inevitably, they are a couple, and he has moved into her nicely-appointed flat. And despite the fact that she is apparently paying for everything—including the meals we see them share in posh restaurants—her parents are accepting of him.

For the most part her friends are as well, though one of them (Richard Ayoade) is blunt enough to express bewilderment about their relationship over dinner one night.

Yet they remain together, despite the fact that it becomes obvious that Anthony isn’t merely a parasite, but an addict who will resort to stealing from Julie to meet his needs. Even after he stages a burglary of the apartment, she goes off with him on a vacation to Venice. And she remains committed even when he falls completely apart and her mother (Tilda Swinton) must comfort her as they await word of what’s happened to him.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Hogg makes us understand the need that Anthony fulfills for Julie; it would be more correct to say that in making the film, she is grappling with her own past, and inviting us along to observe her struggle. What’s clear is that she has been successful in persuading her colleagues to join her search. She uses Swinton-Byrne’s natural unsteadiness to mirror her own youthful vulnerability, and elicits a performance from Burke that is a model of smarmy duplicity masked by utter self-confidence. Swinton seconds her own daughter beautifully, eschewing the artificiality that makes so many of her turns so engagingly odd to capture the sense of clueless support that characterizes the buttoned-up, dithering Rosalind. The supporting cast members show themselves committed to Hogg’s vision as well.

So do the craft contributors, from production designer Stephane Collonge and costumer Grace Snell, who worked to recreate not merely a convincing 1980s look but the particulars of Hogg’s environment, to cinematographer David Raedeker, whose visuals cunningly mix clarity with the haziness of recollection. One must also note the cunning selection of background songs, each of which is chosen to comment on the action quite directly,

The title of Hogg’s film comes from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, to which Anthony introduces Julie. It encapsulates the themes of skewered mentorship and painful memory that the writer-director is attempting to convey, and largely succeeds in doing.

SHADOW (YING)

Producer: Ellen Eliasoph, Zhang Zhao, Pang Liwei, Liu Jun and Wang Xiaozhu
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Li Wei and Zhang Yimou
Stars: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Quianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong and Leo Wu
Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment

B+

After more than a decade Chinese master Zhang Yimou returns to the wuxia genre in which he excelled with “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” and scores a third triumph. “Shadow” is a luminously gorgeous visual experience, and though parts of it are talky and theatrical, at its best it’s a remarkable accomplishment.

The narrative, loosely based on a part of the Three Kingdoms epic. is one of court intrigue in the third century A.D.. The fortress city of Jingzhou has been lost to General Yang (Hu Jun) as the result of a one-on-one combat with Commander Yu (Deng Chao) of the Kingdom of Pei. Yu was so terribly wounded in the fight that back home he retreated into seclusion in caverns hidden in the palace complex.

But his machinations did not cease; he has replaced himself at court with a double, Jing (also played by Deng Chao), whom he continues to train in martial combat. Only Yu’s wife Xiao (Sun Li) is complicit in the substitution.

All of this is revealed gradually: the film begins with Jing, in the guise of Yu, announcing to King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) that he has challenged Yang to a rematch to decide the city’s fate. The monarch, ostensibly a cowardly, frightened young man, is aghast: his policy has been to maintain an alliance with the seemingly invincible general. So he sends his chief minister Lu Yan (Wang Jingchun) to Jingzhou to propose the marriage of his beautiful but independent-minded sister Quingping (Guan Xiaotong) to Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu). When the general responds by suggesting that she become his son’s concubine instead, it infuriates her.

Meanwhile the real Yu has been plotting with Captain Tian (Wang Qianyuan), who sees his king’s policies as misguided, to stage a backdoor assault on Jingzhou while the fight between Jing/Yu and Yang serves as a distraction. The dangerous assault will, it’s been decided at Xiao’s suggestion, utilize a new combat technique combining masculine and feminine elements, in which the soldiers will employ umbrellas outfitted with iron blades, which require some decidedly womanly moves when wielded but, as is shown in one especially astonishing scene, can also be used as virtual sleds to speed down a slick mountain street.

That sequence is physically possible, however improbable it appears in narrative terms, because of one of the film’s constants: the rain, which is unremitting, and gives everything a sheen. The visual side of “Shadow” is almost incredibly beautiful: unlike many of Zhang’s films—“Hero” a prime example—it uses bright colors barely at all, instead mimicking, in shimmering shades of whites, blacks and grays, traditional Chinese ink-and-brush painting. Ma Kwong Wing’s production design also makes ample use of the yin-yang symbol which, for example, fills the floor of the cavern where Yu trains Jing, as well as that of the bamboo tower high above a gorge on which Jing and Yang do battle. (The masculine-feminine motif is emphasized in the simultaneous one-on-one fight between Ping and Quingping.) Of equal symbolic significance is another motif—the zither duets of Yu and Xiao, which possess both a collaborative and an adversarial aspect.

Complementing the ravishing work of Ma Kwong Wing are the flamboyant costumes of Chen Minzheng, especially the court gowns that swirl luminously in the glistening widescreen cinematography of Zhao Xiaoding. When one combines all the technical contribution with Zhang’s operatic direction (complemented by the superb action choreography of Dee Dee, to which Zhou Xiaolin’s editing adds panache), the result is a film that can take one’s breath away.

In narrative terms, one must admit, “Shadow” will require some effort for western audiences, who are unlikely to be aware of the tale from the Three Kingdoms epic. The opening sequences, which take place before the Yu/Zing imposture is revealed, may confuse viewers, especially when it comes to the reluctance of “Yu” and Xiao to perform their music at the king’s request—something explained only later on. They may also be bewildered by the twists in the final act, in which characters who had seem fixed now become very different people.

The highly theatrical ambience naturally necessities a broad performance style from the cast. That’s especially evident in the dual work of Deng, whose subdued turn as Jing is in radical contrast to his hysterical one as Yu. He’s almost outdone in that respect by Zheng, whose king is wildly emotional. The other actors are less ostentatiously histrionic, but could hardly be called subtle; that’s not the approach Zhang has taken to the material.

Zhang’s treatment of the ancient Chinese legend may be narratively complicated and unbelievably florid, but it’s a completely ravishing visual experience.