Catching Up With: Chungking Express – 1994

It’s a shame to live in a large, constantly moving city and not take advantage of it by closing yourself off and dealing with your own loneliness and self-loathing; especially when you live in a city as expansive and vibrant as Hong Kong. That is the central conceit of “Chungking Express,” a beautiful, stylish testament to loneliness and re-connection from the renowned filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai.

“Chungking Express” consists of two unconnected stories that both deal with the same themes. The first one is about young cop named Quiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, May. His grief over this expired relationship consumes him, and he channels his obsession with reconciling with her into buying  her favorite canned pineapples, specifically ones that expire on April 30th, the day before Quiwu’s birthday so he can tell himself that if May doesn’t get back together with him by May 1st, the pineapples will expire along with their relationship. One night at a bar he meets a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who we learn is a drug-runner dealing with the aftermath of a botched deal in which she was double-crossed. He strikes up a conversation with her that she is totally disinterested in, until she asks for a place to spend the night.

In the second story, another cop, who remains unnamed and is a few years older than Quiwu (Tony Leung) is dealing with his own break-up with a flight attendant. This cop spends all of his time at an all-night snack bar where he meets Faye (Faye Wong), the young, eccentric waitress who dreams of travelling to California, which is why she blares the Mamas and the Papas classic “California Dreaming” over and over again, all day long. After the cop’s ex gives Faye a letter for him containing her key to his apartment, Faye uses this opportunity to break into the cop’s apartment and subtly re-arrange it, which in turn re-arranges his life.

As I was watching these two stories play out, I was worried Wong would throw some idiotic contrivance into the mix to bring these two stories together, a mistake that movies like “Crash” constantly make. But since he’s a writer and director with some actual storytelling sense, he doesn’t do that. Apart from quick cameos by some of the characters and the shared setting of Hong Kong, these stories are self-contained. Wong is using them to explore greater themes of love and loss, and how human beings connect to one another. People drift toward and away from each other for a variety of reasons. It could be boredom, a lack of ambition, a double-cross, feeling trapped by your surroundings, etc. “Chungking Express” is hard to pin down in terms of genre; it’s part romantic comedy, part crime drama, part breakup requiem. The film, like the crowded, colorful streets of Hong Kong (gorgeously shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle), is bursting with life, which makes the isolation of these characters stick out all the more. What also sticks out is how much style Wong Kar-Wai throws into this whirlwind. Like Martin Scorsese did with “Goodfellas,” Wong throws every technique at this disposal into the story; slow-motion, freeze frames, pop music, a camera so restless it is literally careening off the walls, Wong effortlessly builds his own cinematic landscape.

All of the acting explores the ways loneliness gets to people. Li is an aloof femme-fatale who refuses to let her icy veneer break even though she was abandoned by her American partner-in-crime. The only time she opens up is when she sends Quiwu (Kaneshiro is funny and charming without being too twee about it) the smallest gesture of goodwill that changes his whole outlook. But the movie’s standout is Faye Wong as Faye, an almost cat-like waif who blares the ghostly jangle of “California Dreaming” to get away from the monotonous doldrums of the real world; her relationship with the unnamed cop (Leung is excellent, bringing the right dose of vulnerability) brings some excitement to her life; her subtle re-arrangement of his apartment boosts the cop’s self-esteem. Since he spends most of the day having conversations with inanimate objects, he really needs it.

“Chungking Express” is a movie about contrast; exemplified by amazing shots of the characters moving in slow-motion while Hong Kong blurs around them. But this contrast is not merely technical, it’s about how separation affects us all, and how we find something to latch onto once again. It’s a beguiling film that, like the cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” that Faye sings toward the end, shimmers with romantic yearning.

Grade: A


New Arrivals: Argo

Deception can be a bitch to pull off, especially if its elaborate and consisting of a lot of unpredictable, moving parts. Take “Argo,” the new political thriller directed and starring Ben Affleck, which is the story of a wild CIA operation where the agency had to extract six American diplomats working in Iran who were in hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador  after they escaped from the American embassy there in 1979, right when a band of irate acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the place. These six Americans, Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), his wife Cora (Clea Duvall), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe) know that if the Iranian revolutionaries realize they escaped, they’ll be hunted like dogs and likely subject to a public execution.

The CIA, represented by “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his associate Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) scrambled to find a way to get these people out of the increasingly hostile Iran, until Mendez comes up with an insane, complicated plan: have him and the 6 workers pose as a Canadian film crew doing a location scout for a Hollywood film. To borrow a cliche that’s old enough to file for Social Security, it’s a story so crazy it must be true.

Ben Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio are fully aware of how crazy this mission, which wasn’t declassified until 1997, was. That energy is what makes “Argo” such an electric piece of mainstream entertainment, one where Affleck puts his blossoming filmmaking skills to work to do something highly unusual: lacing a political thriller with some sharply observed satirical comedy.

It would’ve been a mistake to remove the levity from the ludicrous conceit of the movie; the movie knows how ridiculous its central conceit is. So does Mendez at first (who Affleck ably plays as an understated, quiet anchor), desperate to get these six diplomats home, even though the CIA has found every other possible option unfeasible, as the situation with Iran grows more unstable and dire by the day. So Mendez comes up with the idea to have the six diplomats pretend to be screenwriters, producers, etc. and under this guise take a plane out of Tehran to Switzerland, safe and sound. For this plan to work, Mendez has to go through the actual process of getting this fake movie made. With the help of legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), they find a script for a cheap “Star Wars” knockoff called “Argo,” and they go through the process of securing the rights, making up story boards, setting up table reads and press junkets, all for a movie that will never exist.

Meanwhile the six diplomats are trapped inside the Canadian ambassador’s house, which has become a nesting ground of frazzled nerves and forgotten hope, trapped in a country consumed by upheaval. These two threads are so disparate, and so different in tone until they meet, which makes “Argo” even more impressive in that it walks the tightrope between satire and thriller with uncommon dexterity. Mendez’s trip to Hollywood to put “Argo” together is a wonderfully funny attack on the vapidness of the Hollywood process. Goodman and Arkin are both excellent here, representing the hurdles of what Siegel calls the “bullshit business.”

The reason why the comedy and drama mesh so well is because the CIA is in the “bullshit business” as well. Mendez has to teach the diplomats on the fly how to act and behave like Canadian filmmakers. They have to know their individual manufactured histories like the backs of their hands. “Argo” is a fake movie, the selling it was all to real. By using two different tones, Affleck and Terrio (who’s water-tight script is a model of economic storytelling) are painting the same picture, but with two different brushes. They also make satirical jabs at the Iranian situation itself; the opening prologue explains the whole history involving Khomeini and the Shah as a comic book, not afraid to quietly point out that the whole situation is partially America’s fault. It’s political history done with a smirk, not a glower.

“Argo,” which is masterfully paced throughout, builds to a wellspring of suspense, when Mendez has to lead the diplomats through a public market on a “location scout,” with hostile revolutionaries literally surrounding them, and then later at the airport, making the minutia of the boarding process even more agonizing than one would ever imagine. Affleck’s camera, given a burnished glow by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, is right in the actor’s faces, capturing every sweat-soaked moment, and darting through the crowded streets of Tehran and the offices at Langley with unobtrusive skill. There isn’t an unnecessary line or shot in the film’s two hours; in an era where movies are getting more and more bloated, that kind of economy is a saving grace.

Affleck knows to use an ensemble of actors, a skill on display in all three of his films. While “Argo” doesn’t have a galvanizing supporting performance like Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” or Jeremy Renner in “The Town,” there isn’t a weak spot either. Cranston, so brilliant week after week on “Breaking Bad,” emits an implosive  authority as O’Donnell. Affleck is at his best when he isn’t trying to do to much, giving Mendez a quiet but ever-present confidence. McNairy is also strong as Stafford, the Embassy worker who has trouble buying the insanity that Mendez is selling to them.

“Argo” does briefly stumble into Ron Howard territory in the last 10 minutes, when Alexandre Desplat’s score, which had been simmering in the background, erupts into a saccharine boil and we get a lot flag-waving corn, but that’s a minor complaint. “Argo” is an exhilarating throwback to 70’s-era filmmaking, when thoughtful storytelling and subtle thematic inquiry reigned supreme. Affleck scores his third straight victory as a director, bringing to mind the work of Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet and putting him in the company of America’s most vital contemporary filmmakers. Without dipping too much into nostalgia of an era gone by, “Argo” is a special kind of a great film: heavy on real-world importance, but still light on its feet.

Grade: A-

Catching Up With: The Wages of Fear – 1953

Alfred Hitchcock, meet Frederick Nietzsche.

Cinema can demonstrate all that is good and bad about humanity. Unfortunately, the past couple decades have seen directors bathe films in the suds of easy sentimentality, with only a handful of outliers willing to dive into the abyss of the nihilistic, selfish tendencies that us human beings are always guilty of. The last movie I saw that accomplished this in a masterful way was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” where oil tycoon Daniel Plainview uses the black stuff to fill the hole where his heart should be, his love of commerce matching his contempt for everyone else.

But in 1953, the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made a film that was a clear inspiration for Anderson’s opus: “The Wages of Fear.” And let’s just say that Clouzot isn’t exactly a people-person either. What do you get when you have four men drive two trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin through the most treacherous of conditions? The answer: a bruising tour-de-force in the cinematic art of suspense; a film so simple in its construction yet such an unflinching slow burn that without overt judgment, brings to the forefront all of man’s hubris and temptation, in the guise of the odd job from Hell.

In a sun-baked, decrepit village in South America, we are introduced to a small group of men who obviously don’t belong there. First there’s the easy-going Mario (Yves Montand), a Frenchman who is in this God-forsaken land for some unknown reason, but yearns to escape and return home. He shares a one-room shack with Luigi (Folco Lulli), a boisterous Italian man who mixes cement for the Southern Oil Company, unaware that this work is slowly killing him. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) is an Aryan-looking refugee from the war, who does not fear death, and feels that this world has nothing left for him, and then there is Jo (Charles Vanel) the aging, selfish wastrel who develops a relationship with Mario.

The fates of these four men are transformed and linked by a job opportunity from Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), an oafish, soulless American representative of SOC. O’Brien needs four drivers to drive two trucks packed with nitro 300 miles to the end of the nearby oil pipeline to blow out a refinery that recently collapsed. Why does he look for locals? “No unions and no families,” he says. Each man will be paid $2,000 to make their way across rickety roads, hairpin turns and rocky mountainside passages.

The first thing someone used to modern movies may notice when watching this film is how much time it takes to get to its central premise. It isn’t until minute 45 of this 148-minute movie that the job, the main premise of the story, is even mentioned. This opening section is slow, but good God does Clouzot reward your patience later on. The first act of “Wages of Fear” is in place to do two things: establish who these characters are and what they want, and to establish the philosophical themes that Clouzot is using this somewhat pulpy conceit to explore, and how those two elements bleed into each other.

Mario is a fascinating protagonist because underneath his charismatic and funny veneer, he’s kind of despicable. He’s selfish and is only out for himself; these traits are deepened further as the film progresses, but at the beginning, we know that he only cares about his own wants and desires, and has no patience for anyone else, especially women. The only woman in this movie is a waitress at the local bar named Linda (Vera Clouzot), who is a nagging, mindless and only exists to provide company to the other men. When Mario calls her over, she crawls to him on all fours and allows him to pat her on the head; later on he insults the dress she made for a date they were supposed to go on and Mario doesn’t care about hurting her feelings. Linda is not only treated like a dog, she actively acts like one. Montand is extraordinary, blending these elements together to create an indelible portrait of the modern male under siege.

Jo is similar to Mario. He is someone who will do anything to get what he wants. When he isn’t chosen by O’Brien to be one of the four drivers, he disposes of the man who was picked ahead of him under mysterious circumstances. His hubris blinds him to his own limitations, as he spends the entire journey to the refinery complaining and dealing with the physical toll the journey takes on his weakened body. Bimba isn’t developed as much, but Luigi is a man who is so desperate to get paid for this job, even though it is from SOC, the same company that destroyed his lungs leaving him with 6 months to live. It’s all about the quick fix with these guys.

That’s how Clouzot pretty much sees all of society. This film was heavily edited when it was first released in America due to allegations of “anti-Americanism.” It is true that all of the Americans in this film are boorish and ignorant, only invested in corporate interest. But Americans are only part of the problem, in Clouzot’s mind. “Wages of Fear” finds fault with everyone: sexist, selfish men, Western imperialism, the marginalization of native people from their homeland, etc. This film touches on topics that would send more humanist filmmakers like John Ford, Ron Howard, Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg running for the hills, retreating to the notions of family values and good always triumphing over evil that they sometimes cling to like golden idols.

This setup may sound like a dull, ponderous lecture from a mad Frenchman on how human royally suck at the dominant species business. I was worried about that at the start, to be honest. But once those explosive-packed trucks, sorely lacking in any safety equipment, start inching their way along this winding nightmare of a pipeline, “Wages of Fear” becomes an agonizing and brilliant work of suspense. No movie I’ve ever seen has ever tortured an audience with such slow, painful suspense with such casual finesse. As anyone who has played “Crash Bandicoot” knows, nitro can blow up real good with just the slightest touch. So the stakes are already sky high. But watching these trucks slowly go down this road, with the slightest bump bringing the possibility of instant death, is utterly gut-wrenching. The obstacles they face on this path become increasingly cruel and bleak. A hairpin turn forces the drivers to turn the trucks using a bridge of rotting wood, loosely hanging off the edge of a steep hill. They use the nitro itself to blast a boulder out of the road. A wide oil pond looms and is getting deeper by the second. A section of road known as “the washboard” is so bumpy it can only be approached extremely slowly or dangerously fast.  It’s hard to breathe while watching Clouzot put the entire process of these potential breakdowns on-screen with nothing to distract us. There’s no pounding music, no fancy editing. Just simple, composed shots of wheels going over stones, snagged cables being pulled until they snap, etc. This is cinematic suspense in its most raw form.

But the exploration into the souls of the men in “Wages of Fear” are Clouzot’s other concern. The nitro isn’t the only unstable force along for the ride; it’s the misplaced, warped notion of manhood. Mario and Jo’s relationship is fascinating, especially to modern eyes. There is a hint of romantic learning in their interactions with each other. Are they gay? Do they even have the capability to love another person outright? Vanel’s work as Jo is the counterpoint to Mario. He cheats his way into this job, yet he tries to run off at every possible opportunity. He has no problem leaving Mario behind when he is stuck on the bridge, yet Mario doesn’t hesitate when Jo becomes horrifically injured. Their relationship is a symbiotic twist on the nature of the “bromance.”

After Clouzot spends 100 minutes tightening the proverbial screws, he continues his war against convention and bliss with an denouement that is a sick mockery of a happy ending, a fever dream that turns into a culminating nightmare. Fifty years before Cormac McCarthy declared there was “No Country for Old Men,” Henri-Georges Clouzot determined there was no country for men period. Jo says about a nitro explosion that the victims “probably didn’t even know it happened.” From the incomparable demonstration of suspense to the film’s wicked parting shot, “The Wages of Fear” wants you to feel every moment of man’s slow damnation.

Grade: A+