Saturday, March 30, 2019

Foreign Affairs: Ash Is Purest White & Climax

If the Boston Underground Film Festival hadn't been going on last weekend, I might have been tempted to perform an experiment by seeing Ash Is Purest White in both Boston Common and the Kendall, to see if they had different sorts of audiences - one the art-house crowd and one the folks coming in from Chinatown - and which was more into the movie if one group is appreciating it while the other is enjoying it. Doesn't look like that would have revealed much, though - Ash came out in the People's Republic of China last fall, so it's probably been good and pirated by those with interest in it, so the crowd at the Common was probably not that far off the one at the Kendall.

Still, kind of great, although there was a fair chunk of the audience that didn't enjoy it as much as I did and was going in and out.

The next night was one of the last Climax was playing anywhere in the area and it was kind of an uncharacteristically good time, easy enough to just get right off the train and drop into the Somerville at 6:30pm. Only a couple of us there, and I don't know if the other fellow was having the same sort of "really fun until it kind of becomes too much in the exact way you might expect. I might have thought different with a loud crowd, but I don't know if you're going to get that crowd for a Gaspar Noé film in general release. I think the biggest crowd I've ever seen for one was Irreversible at the Harvard Film Archive on Super Bowl Sunday, and that had a bunch of walk-outs from the folks who were looking to enjoy the new edgy French movie but didn't expect quite so much. It makes you wonder, sometimes, just exactly what target he's looking to hit.

Jiang hu er nü (Ash Is Purest White)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2019 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Someone in my screening of Ash Is Purest White was repeating "oh my gawwwwwd" through the end credits and beyond, and while it was probably from the exact note the filmmaker opted to end on, it's not entirely unreasonable to presume that he was just that taken with the film as a whole. It is kind of terrific, the sort of prestige import that may wind up surprising people with just how playful it can sometimes be.

It opens in 2001, with So Qiao (Zhao Tao) working in a mah-jongg hall in Datong City. She's dated manager Bin Luo (Liao Fan) for three years or so and they're doing well enough to support her father in the mining town where she grew up, and maybe the villas Bin's boss is building are a sign that Datong is ready to expand. Or maybe not; the "jianghu underworld" that Bin describes himself as part of doesn't seem to be the most organized of organized crime scenes. Even the bloody violence is often sloppy and apparently misdirected, landing the pair in prison. When Qiao is released five years later, she goes to Chaozhou to find Bin, who has already been out for some time.

The story that filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke tells is intimate; even the supporting characters who send things bouncing off in another direction don't seem particularly important, and other people in Qiao's life pop up and disappear without being given actual names. There are no children or business entanglements to force this pair's relationship down a certain path or create external pressure, and that allows Jia to make this a sort of pure examination of what this relationship means to these people. They can walk away, and if there's some transformative moment in their love's origins, the audience doesn't see it. Even the moments of great personal sacrifice are made without a whole lot of fuss - Qiao makes a decision she know will likely put her in jail because she wants to do it for Bin, and makes other decisions later because she values him, not because she has no other choice.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

Gaspar Noé just can't resist pushing it too far, can he? He's just got to looking for the edge of a movie being sexy and thrilling and dangerous and horrific to the point where some failsafe in the brain kicks in and the viewer disengages, so the thing that should have been seared into the viewer's brain is set aside as bad-boy posturing. Ah, well, Climax is a heck of a thing until that happens.

Noé dumps a lot on the audience at first, introducing it to a couple dozen characters via videotaped testimonials. They're a dance troupe, about to go on a tour of France and America, and as the scene jumps to a party, they've certainly got the moves. They've also got just as much drama going on as you might expect, horny as only a group of people in their twenties with the bodies of top athletes who have spent every waking hour the past few months demonstrating their physicality and artistic ambitions to each other can be. That's before it becomes clear that someone has dosed the sangria with LSD and the drive to discover who did it (focusing on the two who haven't been drinking and/or hitting the harder stuff all night) only adds to the rest of their emotions going into overdrive.

There are two or three extended sequence that are just this group dancing as their DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) lays down some beats and you could pull a lot of people into this movie under false pretenses by cutting a trailer that mostly draws from that. They're energetic stretches where Noé is playful, such as when he has cinematographer Benoît Debie shoot one entirely from above, highlighting the extended limbs and whipping hair of one dancer surrounded by a scrum rather than the precise synchronization of the Busby Berkeley numbers that shot is usually associated with. The opener is a long take that not only shows everyone off but eventually is kind of intriguing for being a long shot and for the way it presents the dancers, with moments where someone will hit the ground and the viewer can't be quite sure whether that's choreography or the cast being really good at recovery and Noé just accepting that as the price of not cutting.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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