In eternally youth-obsessed and -targeting Hollywood, directors have long complained of being “aged out” of the business, judged too old to serve modern audiences’ (or perhaps just studio executives’) tastes despite all willingness to work. Yet outside the commercial mainstream, this seems to be a pretty good era to be a veteran filmmaker. While it used to be that the octogenarian or even septuagenarian behind the camera was a rarity, these days there’s an increasingly large field of talents around the globe who aren’t calling it quits despite advancing well past standard retirement age.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that Zhang Yimou created an unprecedented international splash for mainstream Chinese cinema with his early films Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern. But that was, in fact, three decades ago. Since then he’s generally retreated from those lushly stylized melodramas, most starring Gong Li and many temporarily banned at home, moving towards more neorealist-style inspirational proletariat stories. He’s alternated those with lavish action epics including the West-leaning Flowers of War and The Great Wall (which respectively starred Christian Bale and Matt Damon).
Today, on the brink of age 70, he seems something of an official state director, undertaking impressively scaled if somewhat impersonal projects—a description that applies as much to the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening/closing ceremonies he devised as new big-screen thriller opus Cliff Walkers. That latest, which opens in theaters this Fri/30, is Yimou’s first spy movie, if hardly his first intrigue. (No narrative could be more about plotting and duplicity than Lantern, about internecine power struggles between the cloistered multiple wives of a wealthy man a century ago.)
Taking place in 1931, it follows four USSR-trained Communist Party special agents who parachute into the puppet state of Manchukuo (i.e. Manchuria) in northeastern China, hoping to undermine the occupying Japanese forces who’ve set up secret camps to interrogate and “disappear” political prisoners. They’re almost immediately betrayed, splitting up to make their way to the city of Harbin and carry out the mission as best they can, with the enemy in constant pursuit. A whole lot of narrow escapes, some graphic torture, a showy car chase, and umpteen bullets ensue.
Cliff Walkers has a retro feel in more ways than one, its noirish accouterments extending to everyone skulking around in trenchcoats and fedoras, casting meaningful side-glances at each other. But the old-fashioned air isn’t entirely a good thing. Too often this feels like an espionage movie from the 1940s, at once convoluted and hokey, everything writ a size or three too implausibly large. it doesn’t help that as the younger of the two female agent (Qin Hailu plays the authoritative older one), wide-eyed, childlike Liu Haocun is arguably the silliest movie spy since a similarly helium-voiced Melanie Griffith infiltrated Third Reich high command in Shining Through.
The entire narrative is set during heavy winter months, giving the handsome film an often lovely snow-globe feel. All its production values are plush, and the action sequences (except that torture stuff—in mainland Chinese cinema you can’t have a sex scene, but you can show a man being electroshocked via nipple clamps) are enjoyable if over-the-top. Needless to say, there is plenty of the propaganda content that keeps limiting these mega-productions’ international commercial prospects, with our heroes big on fearless noble sacrifices, while the Japanese are introduced loutishly glugging hootch from hip flasks as they carry out brutal executions.
Cliff Walkers is entertaining, at times muscular (if also hamfisted) in the manner of current commercial action directors half Yimou’s age. Still, I’d probably trade his entire last decade of work for 10 minutes of Ju Dou, which felt anything but conceived or directed “by committee.” Cliff Walkers opens Fri/30 at area theaters including the AMC Metreon (SF), Bay Street (Emeryville), Shattuck (Berkeley) and Century 20 (Redwood City).
If Zhang Yimou is no longer making personal movies, moving in the opposite direction is 78-year-old Ulrike Ottinger—not that her films have ever been anything but personal. The German filmmaker spent nearly two decades making uniquely fanciful, extravagant yet low-budget avant-garde features of a fictive (but not terribly “narrative”) gist, culminating in the remarkable 1989 Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia. She then turned primarily to globe-trotting documentaries. But her new Paris Calligrammes looks back to the days before she took up a camera, when she was a young provincial aspiring painter and graphic artist bold enough to land in Paris (by thumb, when the car she was driving died en route) at age 20, in 1962. She stayed until 1969, at which point she returned to Germany and began pursuing a film career in earnest.
She probably wouldn’t have arrived at that change of expressive medium at another time or place, or without having first marinated in everything Paris had to offer culturally during an extraordinary period. Like many before and after her, she found the city personally liberating. But then she had the good fortune of arriving when the Nouvelle Vague, pop art, radical politics (bookended by Algerian War protests and May ’68 chaos) and everything else was exploding.
Calligrammes is a pleasing, rambling reminiscence that encompasses a great deal of archival footage, as well as latterday visits to cafes, museums, libraries et al. she’d discovered then. It’s rather like some chatty old lady walking you through the photo album of her youth—except your grandma probably didn’t rub shoulders with half the then-current/future artistic and intellectual giants of the City of Light at a particular peak in its luminescence. The film is currently screening in the virtual cinema of BAMPFA, which has been hosting an Ottinger retrospective for months, and will continue to do so through July 18.
Two black comedies from notable Scandinavian directors also arrive this week, both somewhat mixed bags but worth a look. About Endlessness will probably best be enjoyed if it’s your first movie by Roy Andersson, the likewise nearly 80-year-old Swedish director who after a quarter-century layoff from features (triggered by a stinging flop in 1975) returned from the land of acclaimed TV-commercial work with 2000’s extraordinary Songs from the Second Floor. It, and the three features he’d made since, have all been cut from exactly the same unique cloth: They’re near-indescribable gizmos stringing together absurdist tableaux of parodic existential miserabilism in queasy pastels, to oddly ingratiating, sometimes even hilarious effect. Sort of like Jacques Tati doing Samuel Beckett, if you will.
He’s a treasure, but even a priceless objet d’art can grow less precious when you realize you’ve been handed the same one yet again. About Endlessness (which opens Fri/30 in the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual cinema programs) is the first Andersson movie in which his shtick feels like, well, shtick, the sense that he’s repeating himself outweighing the by-now-familiar delight of his ideas and aesthetic. Of course, he’s far from a household name in the US, so to many this latest will still come as a revelation—or at least a piquant cinematic flavor they’ve never quite tasted before. If you’ve already been to this particular banquet, however, you may lament that the director has finally let you down. There’s a certain “What, caviar again?!” guilt to go with that territory, but then, we all know there’s no good thing it’s impossible to get too much of.
In Grimur Hakonarson’s comparatively straightforward new Icelandic The County, middle-aged Inga (Arndis Hronn Egilsdottir) operates a dairy farm with spouse Reynir (Hinrik Olafsson). It’s work so exhausting they barely have the energy to speak to one another at night—let alone take the vacation they haven’t had in years. Despite all that, the farm has been in his family for generations, and seems a stable thing. Thus it is much to Inga’s dismayed surprise when, upon her husband’s sudden demise, she discovers they’re “drowning in debt,” financially hogtied by the local agricultural co-op which is supposed to be operating in their best interests.
When she realizes the extent of that organization’s corruption, Inga gets mad—and the worse their pushback tactics grow, the more expansive her revenge on hitherto trusted neighbors becomes. This kicking-against-the-pricks seriocomedy from the writer-director of 2015’s similarly livestock-centric Rams (which got an English-language remake from Australia last year) isn’t quite as compelling as that film, with a more familiar overall story arc. But it’s still satisfying, sporting a characteristically Icelandic black-comedy dourness to the humor en route to an underdog’s triumph. The County opens Fri/30 at theaters and virtual cinemas including Rafael Film Center’s Rafael@Home.