Tuesday, 27 March 2012

#33 Mali — Yeelen (1967)

Yeelen marks the second African film I have seen and reviewed, after Moolaadé. In my review for Moolaadé, I wrote about how far removed it was from Western culture and film-making styles. If anything, Yeelen is even further away from the comfort zone of your average Westerner; its focus on Malinese sorcery and mysticism makes a lot of the more subtle aspects of the story go right over most of our heads.

Niankoro is on the run from his sorcerer father for stealing fetishes from his tribe. He journeys to his uncle to try and get help to fight whatever his father throws at him. His journey takes him through troubled villages and vast wastelands where he must use his hereditary magical powers to survive.

The film is a great example of the story and presentation strengthening each other through common ground. The mystical nature of the plot is reflected in the rife use of symbolism (a lot of which, I'll admit, I didn't understand), the eccentric but beautiful cinematography and the sparse tribal/electric jazz soundtrack. These elements together create a strong cohesion, where separately they would jarringly disregard standard cinematic technique.

Aesthetically, the film is spot on. The images really capture the beauty and magic of the plains where the action takes place, and a Tarkovsky-esque appreciation of water is displayed as a counterpoint to those dry, sun-licked frames. The editing style is very loose, which helps strengthen the otherworldly feel of the film.

The symbolism in Yeelen is very dense, but any viewer who pays attention should be able to get the basics. Much of it relies on the framing of the images and by bringing attention to the editing to relate the characters to animals and celestial bodies, make sweeping humanistic statements and most likely give more cultural context to proceedings which would require a greater knowledge of the world the film exists in to understand. As such, far more is implied than is explicitly shown, which would make multiple viewings very rewarding.

The very slow pace of the film, coupled with the dense content means that a great deal of patience and attention is required to fully appreciate all of its aspects. It isn't as glacial as, say, Sátántangó or Jeanne Dielman, so even if you disliked films of their ilk, I'd still suggest giving this a try.

Yeelen is a very interesting and incredibly "different" film. I think I'd need to see it again to gain a better appreciation of its intricacies, but I believe it can be thoroughly enjoyed for its beautiful imagery, mystical atmosphere and representation of a far-away land and culture. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

#32 China — Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Sorry for the delay, I had to take a whole day out to travel to Ipswich and back for an Undergraduate of the Year assessment. Should be back on schedule from now.

Although more famous for his recent wuxia films such as The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, Yimou made some rather excellent dramas earlier in his career — and boy are they pretty. Raise the Red Lantern is one of the latter and perhaps his best, alongside his 1994 epic To Live.

Polygamy in films is something that I have found interesting since watching a few African films. The interplay between the wives is completely alien to my Western mind and is ofter fascinating. Raise the Red Lantern is no different and is a particularly great example of this. The four wives of a rich and powerful lord in 1920s China are the focus of the film. They are constantly vying for his love and attention whilst attempting to maintain tenuous friendships. When I say "focus", I mean focus. We never even see the lord's face because his character isn't important to the proceedings, only what his character represents.

The cinematography is fantastic, coupling a very naturally beautiful lighting style and a more emotionless ultra-symmetric and thoughtfully composed framing method. This style emphasises the properness expected of the wives and the near mathematical ways in which they live. The framing also shows how trapped the fourth wife (Gong Li) is in this world by only showing the sky a number of times you could count on one hand. Colour filters are put to very good use (anyone who has read my Red Desert review will know that it is very rare for me to say that) and go together with the rich colour palate to create a fairly dense symbolic language which often says more than the characters do.

Culturally, the film may pose a challenge for some viewers. The aforementioned polygamy, coupled with the completely Eastern opera singing present a very different view of the world and make it more difficult to pick up on some of the subtleties which a greater understanding of the environment would give. If you are like me, however, you will find this a fascinating window into what seems like another world.

The acting is fantastic all round. Characters are played with equal measures of restraint and subtle expressivity. This compliments the soft lighting and measured pace very well, creating a fairly relaxed but involving atmosphere.

Although the slow development and lack of particularly relatable characters sometimes causes the narrative to drag slightly, the other aspects more than make up for it. Those interested in different cultures, or viewers who just enjoy a well crafted film will definitely appreciate Raise the Red Lantern. Even if synopses you find don't seem particularly engaging, I'd still recommend giving this film a watch.

Also recommended from China:
Other films by Zhang Yimou (Hero, To Live, The House of Flying Daggers)
Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle)
Spring in a Small Town
Song at Midnight