starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer
screenplay by David Mackenzie, based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi
directed by David Mackenzie
Qian xi man po
starring Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Tuan Chun-hao, Chen Yi-Hsuan
screenplay by Chu T'ien-wen
directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
starring Coralie Revel, Sabrina Seyvecou, Roger Mirmont, Fabrice Deville
written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau
by Walter Chaw David Mackenzie's Young Adam opens with a shot from below of a duck paddling placidly along the surface of a lake that's replaced by a woman's corpse, then replaced by a filthy barge-worker and his mate fishing the cadaver out with a gaffing hook. Young Adam is a beautiful picture, really, its interiors sepia-tinged like a cameo photograph and its exteriors bleached and desperate, and as a film about surfaces, it marches to its own logic with the dyspeptic malaise, if not the consistent nihilistic poetry, of a Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Surfaces include skin, of course, and a scene where tattooed Les (Peter Mullan) washes his hired help Joe (Ewan McGregor) is as blandly erotic as a scene where Joe performs cunnilingus on Les's wife Ella (Tilda Swinton), an act that wins him the fried egg he was denied at breakfast. Consumption suggesting sustenance seeps into a scene where Joe covers his girlfriend, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), with custard, ketchup, and mustard before caning and raping her. Joe's furnace is unquenchable: as Biblical doppelganger, his carnal curiosity is constantly stoked by the invitation of moribund English housewives and widows--and his ire is only aroused when an appropriate mate choice threatens to free him from his fleshy fixations. Young Adam is about being trapped and listless, about the lost generation afflicted by a plague of ennui--paddling in a circle, floating between updrafts in the widening gyre.
And at its black heart, Young Adam is about how cowardice is the mother of bad choices, as well as how communication is impossible when the communicators are isolated each from themselves. The problem of identity, the riddle of purpose in our unravelling post-modern mindscape, finds its expression in the picture in the liminal space occupied by the barge, forever suspended above and between like Joe from the consequences of his actions, amorous or otherwise. That mania for experience is undermined a bit by director Mackenzie's affection for narrative device: he constantly attempts to fashion a twist or a mystery from Alexander Trocchi's first person "beat" exposition to the point of a courtroom denouement that introduces an altogether unnecessary element of legal curiosity in what is otherwise a rhythm piece reliant on tone and implication. Young Adam festers when it relies on McGregor's frightening emptiness, Swinton's erotic resolve, and McKenzie's noir eye--and falters when it makes concessions to thriller convention.
No such equivocation mars Hou Hsiao-hsien's devouring Millennium Mambo, a tone poem in the purest sense of an overused term and a ravishing time capsule of the lyricism of listlessness that has infused Asian cinema for the past sixty years (and American cinema for the past three). Told from a perspective ten years past New Year's Eve of the new millennium, Hou's anti-heroine set adrift is a delicate beauty named Vicky (Shu Qi) who's vacillating without much sense of purpose between the bad choice of an abusive boyfriend (Chun-hao Tuan) and the bad choice of a gangster (Jack Kao). Told from the future tense in a haunted framing image of Vicky dancing along a walkway to be swallowed by the dark at the bottom of the stairs, we know that she hasn't been destroyed by her bad choices, and that the film is a recollection of being lost in a storm of moments. It is the perspective of the narrator of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and the picture betrays its debt to both the seductive romance and existential ennui of Mann in scenes paced with Hou's painterly patience and decorated by the breathtaking movement and melancholy palette of long-time cinematographer Pin Bing Lee (co-DP on Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love and a favourite of the amazing Zhuangzhuang Tian).
Its title suggests a dance with time, and indeed, Millennium Mambo is a deceptively complicated series of steps that, like a dance, finds grace in its circularity and the perfection of its stylized, repetitive progress--in the alchemy of its complimentary parts. Acting, direction, score, cinematography: the film is a precise versification ruled by the unbearable beauty of youth at its terminus and decisions for a lifetime made at the trembling moment of crisis. A film, very much like Young Adam, about surfaces (not so much the difficulty as the pointlessness of even attempting to plumb deeper communication), Millennium Mambo is an ode to languor in an orphaned millennium that finds its epiphany in a snowy Hokkaido, the only stark landscape in a film skimming along underwater and reminding a great deal of the climax of Beat Takeshi's astonishing Hana-Bi. It is sensual where Young Adam is merely sexual--soul sick, not diseased.
The two films find their juncture and their opposite in Jean-Claude Brisseau's hot and pointed Secret Things (Choses secrètes). Repressed Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou (this film's "Joe")) is a barkeep at a strip club harbouring a secret sexual/non-sexual crush on serpentine star Nathalie (Coralie Revel (this film's "Vicky") who stands up for Sandrine's virtue one night and lands both of them on the dole. Determined to help Sandrine divorce herself from the sticky moral and societal complications of female promiscuity, Nathalie becomes the instrument for both of them to infiltrate a male-dominated financial corporation, targeting the most professionally-advantageous sexual conquests and enlisting the pair on a quest that resembles first the erotic gamesmanship of Dangerous Liaisons, then the carnal impact of Fight Club, and finally the literal stratified ascent of Matthew Barney's Entered Apprentice (Cremaster 3).
In fact, there's nothing that isn't literal about Secret Things, from the genuinely transgressive sex scenes to the frankness of Brisseau's monologues about gender politics, the inequities and indignities visited upon the working class, and the reptilian calculus separating what's taken and what's given. Deadly accurate performances make Sandrine's transformation from bookish to kittenish to ferocious--and Nathalie's devolution exactly in the reverse--convincing, while Brisseau's decision to block out the picture in broad, obvious allegory in billboard pronouncements combine in a piece that challenges without being difficult and explains itself without being condescending. It's the extraordinarily rare artist who can pull such a delicate dance off without falling to hilarity on the one side or grim nihilism to the other. Part sexual odyssey (more a sexual inferno), part trenchant sociological exposé, Secret Things is another film about surfaces and the skin of things, pulling all its subtext bristling into its text in a hedonistic finale on the arm of a demonic antihero (the well-named Fabrice Deville), slinking into the heart of the sort of seething, Bosch-ian orgy that makes the subversive point Kubrick just misses in Eyes Wide Shut. A film that challenges the jaded, Secret Things, complementary to if essentially different from Young Adam and Millennium Mambo, illustrates the shape of ambition in an epoch defined by the lack of it. When taken with these other two films, it's the constant, levelling fury of sex whether wielded as nepenthe, narcotic, or weapon. Originally published: April 23, 2004.
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