This fortnight at the Wellington Film Society: Wong Kar-wai; Sergei Parajanov.
Wong Kar-wai makes films that are so sexy, you forget they are about thwarted love, the failure of communication, and the end of the world. In time to come, his films may end up being the visual representation of the 1990s, a decade which may go down as one of the most transformative decades politically, socially, and technologically in human history. Wong’s films are all about the senses, and of time passing, and his hitman thriller/romance Fallen Angels fits in nicely with the feel of Wong’s best work.
The film features two main narratives: Wong Chi-Min (Leon Lai) a hitman, decides to tell his business partner (Michele Reis) that he’s done with the killing. However, she’s secretly in love with him, even though they have rarely met. A secondary storyline involves He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who is a businessman involved in running other people’s shops when they’re closed for the night. He falls in love in typical Wong fashion. The film maintains a frenetic pace (even if it does lag a bit in the lead-up to the conclusion), and is probably one of Wong’s more humorous pieces. It’s also evocative of a Godard, with its focus on street-life, film homages, and queasy romantic take on everyday-ness.
Fallen Angels bears a strong likeness to Wong’s previous hit, Chungking Express. Comparisons can be made between the two films’ intersecting storylines, narrative similarities (all-night diners, the cleaning of apartments, moody romantics, character references, Wong’s depiction of a changing world), and thematic preoccupations. And while Wong’s “music video” aesthetic is frequently accused of being superficial, his stories achieve resonance for the way they portray contemporary alienation, technological changes, relationships which just don’t intersect at the right time in the characters’ lives, and urban living in an East-meets-West world. Human relationships are mediated through technology (e.g. video cameras), or through multinational corporations.
Long-time collaborator Christopher Doyle adds his usual superlative camerawork to the film, and some startling shots—in particular, one involving the apartment on the left sign of the frame, and a train on the right side. Wong’s fascination with high/low spatial aesthetics is unabated—the film frequently moves from the top of apartments, to the underground/street-level and in this way feels almost like science fiction. He also constantly references ‘time’, whether it’s the stretch printing which literally slows time down on film, or the reoccurring images of clocks. (References are constantly made to 1997, the year Hong Kong was to be handed over to the Chinese by Britain—hence the use of expiry dates and deadlines in both the visuals and narrative.) Perhaps the film doesn’t achieve the same thematic resonance with these preoccupations as they do in his masterworks Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. But while Fallen Angels doesn’t have the same impact, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and moving piece of work by one of contemporary cinema’s most hopelessly romantic cynics.
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It’s almost misleading to call Sergei Parajanov’s extraordinary film a Soviet one. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more political statement made in the history of cinema, and given the personal consequences faced by Parajanov, let alone the film’s political intent, the film is as anti-Soviet as you can get. But then The Colour of Pomegranates couldn’t have been made anywhere but in the Soviet Union, where Parajanov channeled unashamedly nationalistic and Christian motifs in direct opposition to those championed by the Soviet authorities. In other words, this film couldn’t have been made without the repressive conditions Parajanov was screaming against. The film’s sealed Armenian nationalism has led to its marginalisation by film critics, however. As it requires an intimate knowledge of its subjects, any reviewer not in-tune with the symbolic significance of its tableaux cannot do much beyond give a loose overview of its themes or talk about its aesthetic qualities—but that shouldn’t put off viewers. It’s undeniably one of the greatest films ever made.
The Colour of Pomegranates is about Armenian poet/singer Harutyun Sahakyan (more commonly known as Sayat Nova which means the King of Songs), an 18th century artist who would be credited as a Romantic poet if Romanticism wasn’t erroneously considered a Western art innovation. But the film refuses to tell Nova’s life story literally, instead constructing his life through a series of collages, symbols, and subjective imagery (the film’s opening mentions very little is known about Nova). Each image looks like an icon painting, the link to medieval Christian art explicit. Similar to Parajanov’s other ’60s masterpiece, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Pomegranates is a film you feel. The images carry a sort of magnetic charge—you hear, taste, and smell the film, rather than simply see it. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was a remarkably free film, with almost unfettered camerawork and moods. This is much more rigorous in its shot construction and style—flat two-dimensional images which are breathtaking in their beauty and hypnotic power.
But the film is also about the artist Parajanov. Parajanov’s first wife was murdered by relatives soon after marrying Parajanov (for converting to Christianity), and this element of loss forms part of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’ narrative. The Colour of Pomegranates was immediately banned by Soviet authorities, and released in 1971 in the Soviet Union in a version cut by a hack director. Parajanov was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for five years for trumped up charges of homosexuality. (He had previously spent time in jail for homosexuality in the late 1940s.) His early death in 1990 was attributed to the conditions of his times in labour camps. Parajanov is no doubt influenced by his good friend Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), whose film used a tortured observer of yesteryear to critique contemporary Soviet society (and whose character could only achieve spiritual transcendence through art). Like Tarkovsky, Parajanov examines the solitude of an artist. Casting himself as Nova, Parajanov expresses his personal suffering through the poet and his words, his conflicts with his sexuality (Nova, for instance, is portrayed as both male and female), and his role as an artist.
Further, the film also expresses the solitude of his home country, Armenia, whose national character was subsumed by the Soviet machinery. Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity, so its religious roots run deep (and clearly conflict with the atheistic Soviet state). Armenia has also been a country trapped in-between conflict, and suffered considerably in the 20th century, so the images of repression, suffering, and transcendence would have had considerable resonance. It also has distinctive Armenian dance, architecture, carpets, costumes, language, and food. (For example, nshkhar, the bread used for Holy Communion, and matagh, the meat of sacrificed animals—a synthesis of Armenia’s ‘pagan’ and Christian pasts that carries religious significance—appear as key motifs). The film emphasises this uniqueness. Pomegranates’s non-20th century setting also draws attention to the ‘Armenian-ness’ of the film, a setting removed from the Turkish and Soviet influences on Armenia. Its English title refers to the pomegranate, which is Armenia’s national fruit. The opening image is a pomegranate bleeding in the pattern of the old kingdom of Armenia. It is also symbolic of fertility, and Parajanov’s daring opening image is a fierce ‘reminder’ of latent Armenian nationalism. But the final images, of Nova’s songs ringing and echoing through the space, highlight Parajanov’s view of the transcendence of suffering through art and culture—and in the process Parajanov gives voice to an artist and a country which had suffered for long enough.