Special Pages | Asian Women in Cinema II

Deepa Mehta (b. 1950)

Though born, raised and educated in India, Deepa Mehta’s film career took off only after a momentous move to Canada. The daughter of a film distributor, a post-collegiate Mehta worked on short documentaries before meeting, marrying and following filmmaker Paul Saltzman to his native Toronto. While she is revered and reviled in both countries where her films have come to be eagerly anticipated cultural events, her films have received polarized responses as they have tackled India’s struggles with arranged marriages, misogyny, homosexuality, rape culture and religious strife, among other issues.

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Catching Up with Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

By Victoria Large

It’s worth noting that David Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–a prequel to the legendary TV series that Lynch co-created with Mark Frost–was booed at Cannes. Writing about the film in the New York Times at the time of its release, Vincent Canby opined, “Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” The film was widely viewed as an incoherent disaster (to Canby, “an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations”), and it fed into a backlash against Lynch that began with the swift decline of Twin Peaks’ television popularity and continued for much of the ‘90s.

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Le Samourai

By Greg Mucci

Cigarette smoke hovers above him like the morning fog after an early battle. A light grey fedora rests atop a stone gaze that pierces the air around him, searching for warriors that aren’t there. A tan trench coat is the armor, protecting an exterior exuding the particular cool that has befallen the French New Wave for almost a decade, cutting through celluloid with samurai precision. It’s the kind of cool that Akira Kurosawa encapsulated since Drunken Angel (1948) had shown the world that he wasn’t just katana’s and kimono’s, or the cool that Seijun Suzuki fires with a single jazz-note using a loaded gun in Tokyo Drifter (1966) just one year earlier. Genre is not necessarily the common ground where these films meet, but the roles portrayed by the gangsters that disappear amidst the urban battlegrounds. These aren’t men imitating gangsters, but gangsters becoming samurais, their one hand resting on the hilt of a gun that slices through the night with a piercing definitude.

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Malcolm X and The Historical Epic

By Natalie Jones

Spike Lee’s films communicate through an emotional, empathetic connection established by his adept classification of complex characters. Lee recognizes that for the viewer to ultimately connect with the protagonist, the film must present this character with all of their conflicting motivations and occasionally uncomfortable characteristics. In many biographical films, the protagonist is depicted as a sort of virtuous specimen whom the audience should revere and automatically consider morally superior. With Malcolm X, Lee deconstructs these thematic undertones that are prevalent within historical biopics whose protagonists never struggle with internal contradictions or conflicts. With his unflinching and deliberate characterization of a controversial figure, Lee utilizes a more panoramic approach to explore the intricacies of the protagonist’s life from his childhood beginnings as Malcolm Little to his untimely death as the revolutionary Malcolm X. Through Lee’s sympathetic, revealing lens, the complexity of this important figure’s life is presented to the viewer with all defenses consciously broken down.

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Hard Boiled: Art in Violence

By Michael Roberson

John Woo’s 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled is spoken of by serious action movie fans in the awed, reverent tones usually reserved for films like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai. Like those films, Hard Boiled displays an exceptional director at the top of his game, telling an engaging story with all the technical wizardry available to him.

John Woo burst onto the international film scene in 1986 with the smash hit A Better Tomorrow. He had been working as something of a journeyman director for eighteen years, a productive span during which he directed roughly a movie a year in genres ranging from martial arts films to screwball comedies, to varying degrees of commercial success. A Better Tomorrow, his sixteenth film as a director, changed all that. This gritty, sensationalistic tale of two brothers – one a gangster and one a cop – introduced two major elements to Hong Kong cinema: frenetic, two-fisted gunfight set pieces, and Chow Yun-Fat. With his signature matchstick clenched in his teeth and a pistol in each hand, Yun-Fat was instantly iconic, even inspiring a fashion trend in Hong Kong of young men dressing like his character in the film.

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What Ivy Wants, Ivy Gets: Poison Ivy and the 90s Domestic Thriller

By Justin LaLiberty

If ever there were a year to cement the status of the oft-ignored yet highly profitable Domestic Thriller genre of the ‘90’s, that year would be 1992. The year kicked off with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle in January, and then had a solid summer slate with Poison Ivy in May, Unlawful Entry in June and Single White Female in August. All but Poison Ivy would become profitable in their initial theatrical runs, the most successful being the surprise blockbuster status of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle with an 88 million dollar gross, placing it above other, more high-profile, R-rated films like Patriot Games and Under Siege for the year. And this was only the beginning.

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Playtime and the beautiful comedy of pain

By Eli Boonin-Vail

It is a rare film indeed that achieves both massiveness and subtlety. Jacques Tati’s magnum opus Playtime (1967) is one such film: a painstakingly choreographed comedic jeremiad against the encroaching inhumanity of modern life. Set amidst and against a massive steel and glass backdrop of consumerism, compartmentalization, and sleek luxury which the set creators dubbed “Tativille,” Playtime has a cast of hundreds yet manages to feel intimate, personal, and even voyeuristic. What the film cost its director is immeasurable, not merely in the years or Francs it took to produce, but in the raw creative energy it required from him. Playtime is to French comedy what 8 ½ is to Italian modern cinema, an unbridled project of passion which presents us with a worldview so complete as to nearly perfectly mimic the auteur’s own. Though less jaded and slow than many of its counterparts, it deserves to be considered as one of the boldest and most beautiful products of a French cinematic visionary.

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Special Pages | Asian Women in Cinema I

Editor’s Notes: Speaking of women working in cinema, whom would you think of? Agnes Varda? Sofia Coppola? Chances are they probably come from the Western Hemisphere. Inspired by our Elements of Cinema screening of Autumn Moon (1992) by Hong Kong director Clara Law this month, we want to draw your attention to some Asian women in cinema. We have put together 18 names from 11 countries and regions, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. We are painfully aware of our own limitations, so if there are names you think we should know, please feel free to join the conversation and leave the names in the comments below.

Text by Juan Ramirez

Sylvia Chang
(b. 1953)

Dropping out of high school to become a radio DJ might have been the first step out of bounds taken by Sylvia Chang, but it would not be the last. At 63, the Taiwanese artist has added director, writer, actress, philanthropist, singer, producer and even stuntwoman to her impressive and ever-growing list of accomplishments. With over one hundred acting credits, Chang began work as a film actor before making her directorial debut on Once Upon a Time (1981), after the original director was killed in a car accident. Since then, she has enjoyed a decades-spanning, multifaceted career in film.

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Rosemary’s Baby

By Leo Racicot

In the summer of 1968, our mother, recently widowed, treated my sister and me to a week at the beach. After a few days, needing some time to herself, she asked a woman she had struck up a friendship with at the hotel if she would watch us so she could see the new hit horror movie playing at the little cinema on the boardwalk. When she got back, she could hardly contain her excitement and delight; it was “one of the best movies,” she said. She went to bed and tossed and turned all night long. “What kind of a movie,” I thought, “does THAT to you?!”

The answer, of course, is Roman Polanski’s twisted masterpiece, “Rosemary’s Baby,” a movie that, for almost 50 years, has been scaring the daylights out of people. Based on the Ira Levin bestseller of the same name, “Rosemary’s Baby” hit theaters like a tidal wave. A surefire “blockbuster” back before that term ever existed, it had moviegoers lined up for blocks, dying to see what they had heard was the most terrifying movie since “Psycho.” And they did not come out disappointed. Like all well-crafted movies, “Rosemary’s Baby” survives the test of time and is as scary now as it was in 1968. Scarier, even, maybe because its spiritually shattering story stands in such sharp contrast to our present day pragmatism and shock-resistant, “who gives a damn? ” nonchalant society. The movie shakes people on every level and still sends shivers up the spine.

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The Birds

By Eric Shoag

Coming at a unique moment in cinema history, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1962) is like nothing else on film: a mesmerizing mixture of suburban sheen, suspense and terror that all but abandons any notion of plot completely, made by an artist who had at that point risen to the very top of his profession and yet had to overcome multiple disappointments and obstacles to complete the project.

Having begun his lengthy, legendary career in England during the Silent Era almost four decades earlier, Hitchcock was riding high by the 1960s, enjoying a string of successes and, more importantly, unprecedented control over his work. In addition to supervising and contributing to his television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the filmmaker closed out the 1950s with the masterful, moody Vertigo (1958) and the comic thriller North By Northwest (1959), following them with a small-budget movie that went on to become one of the most famous, analyzed and imitated in history: Psycho (1960). Playfully and radically thwarting expectations and bringing a new level of intensity and violence to the silver screen, Psycho anticipated (some would say invented) an entire genre: the slasher film. Never one to rest on his laurels, Hitchcock’s next movie would again push the storytelling envelope and presage yet another genre that would soon come to dominate the cinematic world: the disaster film.

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