Taipei Story is the first film I’ve seen from Edward Yang. It’s also one of the ones I hear about least often. This is probably down to its lack of availability in America until very recently, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Discussion of Yang’s filmography is dominated by his meaty, massive epics: The four-hour A Brighter Summer Day and the three-hour Yi Yi, the latter of which was his first breakout hit in the West but was also his final work before his death in 2007. Taipei Story comes in at a more modest runtime, but that’s no reflection on its ambitions. Even early in his career (Taipei Story was his second feature) Yang had a confident enough command of his craft to aim conceptually high.
The film tells the twin stories of a couple with quite different personalities. Chin is a straight-laced businesswoman who is beset by a run of bad news. Her boyfriend Lung is an unfocused baseball-obsessive who seems a poor match for the hyper-driven Chin. Yang takes them places that deliberately twist one’s expectations of them, in a way that’s neither didactic nor punishingly playful. There’s a breezy naturalism to the script, and you see it as well as in the lead performances.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is how Yang’s formal ambitions almost oppose his more realistic screenplay. So much of the film is comprised of shots of two characters where the camera is pulled just slightly back, just enough to emphasize the walls around them. It makes things feel that much more like a set, or perhaps like a stage. The blocking, too, feels very theatrical at times. You get the sense you’re watching a blackbox production more than a film. I don’t mean that at all as a criticism. It’s an intriguingly contradictory approach.
I’m quite curious to see if it spills over into Yang’s later work, or if Taipei Story represents more of an early experimental period. I get the strong sense that he knew exactly what he was doing here, though. There’s little of the wild abandon one expects from a young filmmaker using all the tools at their disposal. This feels like the work of someone much more accomplished and experienced. That, more than anything, makes me want to see what his films looked like after he actually gained that accomplishment and experience. I hope to get the chance to check them out soon. For now, I’m quite pleased with Taipei Story.
This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.
Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.
So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.
This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.
The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.
A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”
So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.
The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.
At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.
That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?
This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.
And yet….there’s an “and yet.”
At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.
Perhaps my expectations were skewed, but I was sort of expecting more racing in this movie about a big race. For all the discussion I’d heard about Redline and its bold art style and its experimental animation, I found that its narrative plays things far too safe. So much of the film’s runtime is taken up by a plodding second act, where the characters do little except hang around and wait for the race to start. While the alien designs and bizarre sci-fi cultures are amusing and cool, it’s not quite enough to buoy such an extended section. I wanted a thrill ride that never stopped to breathe. I got something far more restrained than I was promised.
Even once the eponymous race begins, the film keeps cutting away to military war rooms and enemy soldiers, breaking up the tension of the competition so severely that it doesn’t even seem to matter until the final minutes. I know that this film was made in a pre-Mad Max: Fury Road world, but it’s disappointing that the filmmakers didn’t feel confident enough to just make a 90-minute race sequence. When the film does focus entirely on racing, it’s exhilarating. The way the animation bends and stretches around the incredible speed of the drivers, suggesting that even an entirely hand-made visual medium strains to depict them, is outstanding.
It does lack the specificity of expressionism in the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer, its most obvious contemporary. That film’s experiments feel more deliberate, an explicit attempt at something rather than Redline’s more freeform style. I prefer Speed Racer by a wide margin, but I can’t criticize Redline for thinking outside the box. I just wish they’d thought a little further.
Still, there’s so much to like about this film. I already mentioned the design work, and it’s probably my favorite aspect. The film’s imagination seems limitless, unshackled by any kind of consistent sci-fi aesthetic. Aliens in Redline can look like anything. I so admire the creative freedom on display in this film. While I’m not entirely in love with the art style, the designs are tremendous.
I so wish I could be fully on board with Redline. It’s a hair’s breadth away from being a movie I could unreservedly love. There are certainly bits and pieces that I feel that way about. As a whole, though, there’s too much dragging the film down, too much fat untrimmed. There’s much to admire in Redline. It’s a shame that the whole film isn’t one of those things.
While Satoshi Kon was best known as a director for his surreal, often abstract imagery, I find his debut film Perfect Blue more interesting as an editing exercise. There are plenty of striking images here, to be sure. What’s far more striking to me, though, is the way the film uses the cut to depict the typically Kon-ian theme of the blurred boundary between reality and fiction. He uses edits to fool the audience into thinking there’s a clear divide between the two, with main character Mima often snapping out of her disturbing fantasies with the abruptness of a smash cut. Here on one side of the cut is illusion, here on the other side is the real world. This is what the film leads us to understand.
Later on, this begins to break down, and it becomes less and less clear which side is which. In one extended sequence, Mima spends several days blacking out while shooting scenes for her TV show, each time waking up in her bed with no memory of the previous day. The nature of her role on the show becomes intermingled with her real-life paranoia over a stalker known only as Mr. Me-Mania. The edits in this sequence introduce and replace possibly imagined elements with such a matter-of-fact rhythm that it’s difficult to piece together if any of it is real or false. Kon would show off his penchant for visual stylization in later films like Paprika, but it’s here in his earliest feature that he shows off an equally profound talent for manipulating film grammar.
What I find just as compelling is the film’s take on the Japanese film industry, and how it thrives on depicting sexual violence against women. In order to make it as an actress, Mima is expected to film a horrific rape scene. She convinces herself that she’s happy to do it, that it’ll just be pretend, but it’s shooting this scene that directly precedes the first splinter in her psyche. It’s a deeply upsetting scene, both for the content of the show-within-a-film and the casual callousness of the mostly faceless cast and crew. The actor playing Mima’s rapist does whisper an apology in her ear, but there’s no indication that they’ve endeavored to make her feel comfortable or safe. Her humanity is of no concern. It’s no wonder she starts to feel depersonalized. No one in her life seems to care about her as a person more than they care about her as a commercial (and fetishized) object. Her sense of self is gradually drained away, until she’s left reading a fake online diary purportedly written by her to discover what she did the day before. I know a lot of trans people who have a trans reading of Perfect Blue, and I imagine it has something to do with Mima’s confused sense of identity in the film’s later sections. She’s not herself, she’s only pretending to be. It makes the film’s final shot, where she looks in a mirror and declares, “I’m real,” surprisingly triumphant.
I liked Perfect Blue quite a bit. It’s not my favorite Kon work (that would still be his TV series Paranoia Agent) but it’s got just enough of the touches I love from him. He’d only ramp up those touches later in his career, so it’s interesting to see a version of Kon that seems somewhat restrained, mostly for the better.
It always rankles a little when someone draws a direct comparison between film (particularly documentary film) and memory. Memory is by its nature mutable and fluid. It changes with time, reshaped by its attached emotional context. Film, on the other hand, is static. While it can never be fully objective, its images cannot change once captured. Your experience with a film may change over time, but the film itself never can. Memory, though, is never a solid thing.
On the other hand, I think about the phenomenon of false memories. Our brain can concoct recollections of things that never happened, but which may represent some greater emotional or historical truth. I have a distinct memory of my mother insisting that I could no longer drink soy milk because it contained estrogen. She now insists this never happened. Did she simply forget? Or did my brain create this event as a metaphor for my dysphoria, and the at-the-time terrifying prospect of transition? It doesn’t matter if the memory really happened, ultimately. What matters is what it represents about that point in my life. Memory is not a historical record, but it is useful in how it suggests historical truth. This, I think, is much closer to how cinema operates.
It’s something I thought about a lot while watching Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film introduces itself as a sort of memoir of Johnson’s life and career, made up of unused footage from nearly twenty documentary films on which she served as cinematographer. Johnson is a constant presence in these clips, far from the typically invisible DP role. Her physical presence in a scene is always felt. She reclaims her first-person perspective from the directors who would typically assume it, which feels especially radical in clips from films made by documentary titans like Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. These clips, removed from the directorial intents and political contexts with which they would have been presented, take on the shape of Johnson’s personal memory fragments.
I think of one lengthy tracking shot following a young boxer who has just lost a match. He furiously storms out of the ring and back to the locker room, swearing and punching every inanimate object in sight. Johnson follows him there, and then back out into the stadium, where he finds and embraces his mother. In a documentary about this athlete, Johnson’s presence would be totally anonymous. The camera would almost act as surveillance, an intangible object. Here, though, all we can think about is the way Johnson takes up space in those tight backstage corridors, how dangerously close she gets to the young man’s rampage. This is not an objective capture of this event, it is one person’s memory of it. We occupy the space behind her eyes.
The editing, too, is deliriously freeform. It’s a stream-of-consciousness film, with one bit recalling the next recalling the next, until you can’t remember where you started. Recollections of Johnson’s late mother give way to a scene about one of her friends going through the belongings of her own mother, who took her own life. Cameraperson calls itself a memoir, but it has none of the rigidity of the form. It really does feel like a 100-minute sequence of continual remembrance. To watch it is to feel like you’re remembering along with Johnson. Its flow is totally natural and unpretentious. It does feels less like a deliberate construction and more like it streamed directly out of Johnson’s brain. This is, of course, a testament to how brilliantly and deliberately Johnson did construct it. I’m in awe of her accomplishment here.
For some reason (the reason is that I’m stupid) I always thought The Third Man was directed by Orson Welles rather than just starring him. I think my brain mixed it up with Touch of Evil. This doesn’t really have any bearing on the review. Just wanted to establish context for me actually knowing very little about movies.
What I found most immediately striking about The Third Man, beyond the near-constant dutch angles and bizarrely uptempo score, is the similarity in the structure of its first two acts to Citizen Kane. Both films feature an unassuming writer picking up the pieces after the death of a titanic personality by interviewing many of the people whose lives he touched. There are even one or two direct references to Kane. It feels at times like a pulpier riff on Welles’ film, bringing the detective elements of the story more to the forefront. The circumstances surrounding Kane’s death were a mystery only inasmuch as they represented the general lack of public knowledge about the man’s life. Harry Lime, on the other hand, was quite well-known; it’s the actions that caused the death itself which are obscured. It’s not a perfect parallel by any means. It’s just something that jumped out at me.
While the film’s unswerving dedication to its tilting cinematography is certainly admirable for the time, it comes off to me now as a bit overcooked. I wish director Carol Reed had come up with some other ways to express the film’s disjointed tension. As it stands, it plays the exact same trick over and over and over again. It’s not a bad trick! It’s just wearying after a while. I know I’m going to come across as a jumped-up know-nothing youngster, and that’s fine. This is just my personal reaction.
Orson, of course, is killer. Without question he is the best thing about the movie. He brings so much light and life into the thing with just the briefest initial glance. It’s like the film is infused with tremendous electricity from the first frame we see his face. That sly, cocksure, uptilted grin instantly transforms the film. It’s his movie from that moment on, even when he’s not on-screen. I expect he conquers even the first two-thirds on repeat viewings, when you know exactly what he’s going to bring to the table. I could talk about Orson all day. I just love him so dearly.
That being said, I wish I had more to say about The Third Man. Besides Orson, it doesn’t really intersect with a lot of my cinematic interests, at least not in the current moment. It’s quite a good film, obviously. It’s just not one that strikes me in any particularly interesting way.
It’s hard to watch these kids keep losing. It’s hard to spend three hours watching these hopeful, nervous, talented kids keep trying and failing, hitting brick wall after brick wall. It’s hard to watch them toss and turn in the wind of adults’ expectations and desires. It’s hard to watch them subjected to obvious racism from people who are supposed to be on their side. It turns your stomach. And at three hours, there’s no respite. Hoop Dreams is a film whose pain must be endured, and whose small moments of triumph must be salvaged from the wreckage.
I’m far from an NBA expert, but I knew enough going into Hoop Dreams to know that neither of these kids achieved much at the professional level. Neither of them played there at all, in fact. No one could have known this at the time of the film’s release, but it gives the whole thing an extra air of tragedy today. All that these two children went through didn’t get them where they wanted to go. Their dreams stayed dreams.
In fact, the thing that changed their lives more than any of the hard work and anguish of their education was just the fact of their appearance in the film. They were both paid $200,000 in royalties, which helped them build more secure lives for themselves and their families. It forces us to ask the question that any documentary of this nature inspires, and a question I’m sure they’ve asked themselves: Why them? They were plucked at random from among thousands of kids in the same circumstances. They essentially won the lottery. Fifteen years after the film’s release, it was revealed that when the electricity was shut off in Arthur’s house, the filmmakers paid for it to be turned back on. Most documentarians can be precious about not interfering with the lives of their subjects. Steve James and his team took a much more humane approach. They cared more about the kids than their film. Still, we have to ask, would it have done more good to give money to a charity that helped their entire community? Would their effort have been better spent on broader causes?
The answer, I think, is to stop looking at Hoop Dreams as the story of two individual children. This is the story of all the hundreds of kids with the same stories, and the tens of thousands of kids who never even got the chances that William and Arthur did. Hoop Dreams forces us to think about them as we watch the two children who were chosen. We have to consider that they are not outliers, that their families’ suffering is not unusual, that their educational trials and tribulations are the norm for poor black families in America. William and Arthur become, perhaps unfortunately, representatives of their class and race.
But the film never plays them as merely that. It doesn’t lose sight of what makes them unique as individuals, of their personalities and character. Part of that humane documentary filmmaking style I mentioned is the depiction of the two as not just stand-ins for a broader point about social issues, but as actual people. James is a canny enough filmmaker to know when he’s getting too polemical. So Hoop Dreams never feels obnoxious in its explication of the racism and classism to which the kids are subjected. From a white filmmaker especially, this is quite the accomplishment. James never seems to be studying William and Arthur like zoo creatures, nor does he venerate them as martyrs. His documentation is simple, honest, unadorned. That is why Hoop Dreams endures so far past the point when those dreams seemed achievable. These issues still matter, and Williams and Arthurs still exist by the thousands. Hoop Dreams isn’t looking to solve the myriad problems afflicting them. It wants you to see how those problems affect real people, not statistics or research anecdotes. It makes social issues into human ones.
Uski Roti is something of an odd duck: Slow cinema and yet not, narrative-driven and yet not, a matter-of-fact film of expressionistic images, alternately enthralling and a tough sit. I don’t tend to have a lot of patience for films like this, but there’s plenty of interest in Uski Roti.
I was taken, more than anything else, with the black and white cinematography. It reminded me a little of Begotten in its blown-out white landscapes. The lighting is so harsh that it makes the characters’ surroundings seem almost alien in their harshness. It makes a film that is on paper practically realist seem almost abstract. Where is the film set, besides a horizon line of metaphor? The people seem realer than the places they inhabit. I find that really interesting, the notion of down-to-earth characters in self-consciously constructed settings.
The film was the first directed by Mani Kaur, and one of the first shot by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. You can feel their thrill for the possibilities of cinema throughout Uski Roti. This is, and I mean this as a compliment, very much a film made by people who are new to making them. There’s such excitement around the film’s disregard for traditional narrative or typical editing rhythms. (A bit of cutting taken straight from Breathless is a fun touch.) The shot excerpted above, which shoots out of the back window of a moving vehicle such that the window decal seems superimposed over the speeding image, was my personal favorite moment. It’s the sort of thing that can only come from a mind that’s been waiting to shoot their first feature since they were young, the kind of image that could only have been bouncing around in their brain for years.
The final shots, too, of the distraught Balo wandering a desolate, pitch-black landscape, seem like echoes from Kaur’s subconscious given form, the result less of decisive thought than of freeform train of consciousness. It’s a limber film, for all its potentially deadening pacing. Even the lengthy shot of flowing, muddy liquid has a painter’s grace. This is never a film bogged down by the literal.
I should also mention how it seems to prefigure Jeanne Dielman, to the point that I was mildly shocked to learn that Akerman’s better-known film came six years after this one. I think hers is the better work, but there are parallels to be drawn. Both are, shall we say, deliberately paced films about the tedium and misogynist dismissal endured by housewives. Uski Roti is more than a bit blunter than Jeanne Dielman, perhaps because it was directed by a man, who can only understand these issues as they are presented, rather than as they are lived. Still, Uski Roti is as close as a cishet man can get to truly compelling feminist cinema, in that it’s a little too tryhard for its own good.
She first sees herself in a shard of broken glass, laid so perfectly amid the rubble of a bombed-out concert hall that it might have been placed there for her, for this moment. She’s shocked, she jolts, she steps back, and then she stares. She stares at this face that isn’t hers, this person she can’t possibly be. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, the mute horror in her mind slowly beginning to clarify. She has to be this person now. Later, she insistently points at an old photograph of herself. “This is me,” she exclaims. And later still, defeated: “I no longer exist.”
In the late spring of 2015, the words “Am I trans?” first crossed my mind. My diary entries from that summer are frantic, terrified, furious. I wrote about how it couldn’t be true, how it had to be true, how much I wanted to kill myself, how sad it was that I never would, that I’d never do anything, or be anything, or be anyone. I was reckoning, for the first time, with the idea that I had a self. For years I stuck my self in a deep dark hole in my mind, never to be looked upon, certainly not to be examined. I didn’t live at the bottom of this pit. I lived up at the top. I lived in my performance.
I was good at performing. I was funny, likable, a good hang. I got good at saying what people wanted to hear. I could be whatever the people around me wanted me to be, without them having to tell me. I wouldn’t have called myself manipulative. After all, to whose benefit was it? They were happy, and I was safe. I thought I was safer outside of my own head than in it. And all the while, this gnawing sadness I couldn’t explain. I talked to so many therapists, but what was I supposed to say? I had no words for the real reason I felt the way I did.
In 2015 I realized I was trans. In 2016 I told myself I wasn’t. In 2019 I came out. In December of 2015, I saw Phoenix. I sat in my university library and looked into a reflective shard of glass.
Nelly Lenz (played in the decade’s best film performance by Nina Hoss) has barely survived the Holocaust. The severe disfigurement to her face requires plastic surgery to give her a new one. She is given a face that isn’t hers. She seeks out her gentile husband Johnny, despite her friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, he recognizes her, and doesn’t. She looks just like his dead wife, he says. Perhaps she could pretend to be her, so that he can collect her inheritance. He could teach her how to walk and talk and write and act like Nelly. She accepts, not just because she wants to be with him. More than that, she wants to be herself. She wants someone to tell her who she is, because she can’t see it in herself.
It’s what I was so desperate for. To be told I was trans by someone else, to be led by the hand into a new identity, a new self. I didn’t have a self before. I only had a performance. I needed someone to tell me who I was, because I didn’t have the fortitude to tell it to myself. What if I was wrong? What if this isn’t who I am? I needed to be recognized from the outside by someone who knew better. You can never see yourself except in pictures and reflections. And if I knew nothing else, I knew that the person I saw in the mirror wasn’t me.
Nelly smiles when Johnny compliments how well her handwriting matches up with his wife’s. When the whole world sees someone else, it’s nice to be seen for who you really are. She’s shocked when Johnny critiques the way she walks. “Nelly didn’t walk like that, it’s all wrong.” She second-guesses herself. She doesn’t think of the fact that her tentative stumbling comes from her continued recovery from the violence of the concentration camps. She thinks only of how he sees her, and how she can better be the version of herself that he remembers. She spares no thought to how she sees herself.
What Phoenix ends up saying, and what I was too scared to recognize at the time, is that you can’t let someone else dictate who you are. To open yourself up to that is to give yourself over to the whims of people who despise you. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly insists. Her friend Lene retorts, “You are, whether you like it or not.” The Nazis certainly marked her as one. She bears that mark on the inside of her forearm. I often think about how close I brushed against the rhetoric of TERFs and transphobes, people who would have looked at a suffering, closeted girl and told her she was just a confused, disgusting boy. I think about how narrowly I avoided buying into ideas created by people who would sooner see me dead than happy. It’s only when Nelly finally sees in Johnny that past betrayal, that desire for her to disappear, that she finds the courage to reveal herself to him. It takes her a matter of seconds to quite literally find her voice in the film’s final scene. It took me another four years.
We don’t see what happens to Nelly after she fades into a bright white blur, but I know. I know that for her, and for me, the performance never ends. She and I must spend the rest of our lives playing ourselves for people who do not recognize us by sight or sound. Nelly practices her walk, I learn to train my voice. Nelly wears old clothes, I buy new ones. I shave my legs and torso and arms and back and face, I painstakingly fight to be free of these little daggers poking out of every inch of my skin. Nelly points at the photograph. “That is me. That is me.” To be trans is to perform for the benefit of others, to know that even the most well-meaning people are only humoring you. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the self is the performance. Maybe who you are is what you show to other people. I don’t need to be recognized by other people anymore. That anxiety is behind me. If I’m performing, the only audience is myself. As Nelly sings in her true voice, she closes her eyes. No one else is there. It’s only me.
I’m not a big fan of the films of Nagisha Oshima. While I appreciate his Cruel Story of Youth, I find Empire of Passion utterly noxious and In the Realm of the Senses an inferior twin to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada. His explorations of straight sexuality are alternately insipid and offensive in their insistent edginess. I just don’t like what I’ve seen of his work.
Except Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remains incredible. It’s like it was made by a different filmmaker. It has none of the Oshima reflexes I find so off-putting. What it has to say about sexuality (homosexuality, in this case) it says non-explicitly, mostly through hard stares and fragile physical gestures. This film is not the work of a provocateur; it’s remarkably sensitive and gentle. How did this come from the man who made something as radioactive as Empire of Passion? Maybe auteurism is dead after all.
All joking aside, I love Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Oshima elides the themes typical of POW films — of endurance, bravery, and loyalty — and uses the setting to depict how intimate gestures reflect an individual’s inner desires as much as the political realities in which they live. Many Oshima movies are about sexual power relations, but Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn’t turn that idea into some sort of game. Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi aren’t playing some sort of sexy cat and mouse game, they’re just two men trying to survive their own worst impulses. When Yonoi takes out his repressed queerness in violence, it feels like the tragic consequence of emotion made illegal rather than the inevitable result of any and all sexual fixation.
What really sings about this film is the casting. Oshima made three brilliant and unusual choices here. The first is the casting of David Bowie, who had acted on-screen only a few times before this. Casting musicians as actors is always going to be a risk, but Bowie is a major talent in both fields. Speaking of, the film’s composer Ryuichi Sakamoto also stars as Captain Yonoi. Sakamoto had, to my knowledge, never acted before, making the casting of him in such a significant role a major leap of faith for Oshima. He made the right call, though; Sakamoto is revelatory. The way he plays Yonoi’s imposing yet trembling stature, a man whose inner turmoil is always on the verge of bursting forth, is astonishing. His performance expressions are so clear and vibrant. For a non-actor, it’s quite the work. (His score for the film is, for the record, also fantastic.) The final piece of this casting trifecta is the legendary Takeshi Kitano, in one of his first screen roles! Kitano was primarily known as a comedian and TV game show host at this point, so casting him in such a tender dramatic role is, yet again, a major risk that pays off tremendously. We could never repay Oshima for what he gave us by kickstarting Kitano’s career.
For all the guff I give Oshima, he’s very good at being what I think of as a “tableau director.” He’s so good at composing images of wide scale and intricate detail, where every little piece seems to be in just the right place. These shots can be complex or minimalist, but they’re always locked-off and still. Often the elements of the tableau arrange themselves within the shot itself, causing a commotion before eventually coming to rest in their proper positions. It’s like everyone on set is getting ready to take a group photo. Other times a shot will begin with the tableau and be interrupted and “ruined” by the chaotic movement of the actors. The film revolves around these still images, like an animated photo book. I have to laud Oshima for his technique here. Y’know, maybe he just shouldn’t have made films about women.