Ringo Lam’s “Wild City”

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Ringo Lam’s ultimate city symphony.

Although he has been absent for the past 12 years, there is only one fundamental aspect of Wild City that would indicate the long hiatus: it is an old man’s film, it is, once again, about the weight of time and changes in Hong Kong that essentially keep it the same, with faults that appear less and less circumstantial.

Nonetheless, Lam does not let the lost years transpire on the screen, neither does he attempt to justify his return, or ornate the project, with anything beyond the necessary. It is so confident of what it needs to be that Wild City could be taken as just another efficient exercise by an experienced director with nothing left to prove, though it brings valuable contributions to a career-long process of investigation of its nuclear issues.

It is a rare level of confidence (for any director) that allows him to interrupt a chase scene in the middle and give us short flashbacks with details lost in the more direct form it was initially presented. Three flashbacks, actually, different perspectives on a quite simple and linear action. It becomes chaotic. This kind of formal playfulness is constant throughout the film. Lam is quite fond of withholding small informations within a scene, often returning to the same flashback/flashforward device, purposely shambling expectations created by an impersonal take on its movement and character exchanges.

Wild City is first and foremost about perception. Louis Koo plays an ex-cop who lived through the same stuff that Lam’s other protagonists have, but is now retired. The film opens with Koo’s disillusioned monologue on the state of things, looking at that world from the same position of the director, from the outside, from the point-of-view of someone who once lost the capacity for understanding his means and surroundings and now tries to avoid it, but can’t, something greater will inevitably make him return to that state.

Wild City is not much different from Lam’s own Full Alert (which he calls the predecessor in a spiritual trilogy, alongside City on Fire), it is even more straightforward, storywise, but with a newfound identification with the character’s position, therefore, the constant deviations feel much more natural than before, approaching the exact same tropes – probably the reason to force a deceptive reading of specific scenes, to be cleared later on. There is always a desire to look from the outside when the situation does not concede that opportunity, but, unfortunately, that conscience does not make a difference.

The glimpses of the external, of the whole, of the incomprehensible mechanisms that have always led Lam’s characters to compulsive violence, are similar to the opening shot, establishing Hong Kong’s skyline by superimposing it on the lines of a 100 dollar bill. Again and again we will see free associations like this, revealing nothing of such mechanisms except those of the film, the little that can be understood by the experience of the characters, which appears more limited than ever before.

It is a fragile divide between the clarity of their actions and the chaotic schemes. The more we can see, more enigmatic the world becomes. The false stability given on the prologue starts oscillating between extreme artificiality and asperity. The sterility of the ambience and excessive digitality of the photography are suddenly broken by the blood of a stabbed man filling the frame (red was unseen before), or later, the crashes during a car chase are directed at the lens. Any sign of life (or death) in the image is disruptive, the scheme is imperative.

Even Lam’s conflictive and dynamic group shots seem absent most of the times, which captured signs of ever-shifting positions of power within them, for they are not shifting anymore, not even on a personal level. There is an overbearing power structure transpiring at every interaction, but instead of being synthesized or changed as we approach the ending, its means become increasingly mysterious. Even characters appearing to be in control of the situation are brought down and end up trapped in a larger, remote, inhumane system that no one comprehends. In Lam’s past films, politics was abstracted to the level of the characters, in Wild City it is beyond reach, the city’s workings are beyond understanding, but the hero acknowledges his condition, both he and the villain, whatever power their exercise lies in their capacity for observation.

Often an action is shown through fragmented perspectives, as mentioned before, cutting to surveillance footage, phone cameras, tracking devices, all kinds of digital mapping, “Hi-Def, crystal clear…” For whom? For themselves, for their illusion of control? In Looking for Mr. Perfect, Lam’s last Hong Kong production, the roles assumed in the caper imploded and, by the end, they didn’t know why they were still performing. The initial purpose of the set-ups and the surveillance devices were justified only in themselves, blurring the sight for the situation, for the developing relationships. Along with In Hell, pornographic in its images of abuse, the vicious pursuit of unattainable control was taken to an extreme. The next step is the aforementioned acknowledgment, obtained by a few in the past, even before the tragedy is announced.

Themis is blindfolded, the broken statue is not merely a symbol for absent justice, it is juxtaposed to the dying antagonist’s eyes wide open. The McGuffin here is nothing but gold, pure, changing hands. When the final confrontation comes, it has lost any of its persuasive power to those men, they refuse to let lives be reduced to their exchange value. They are able to perceive their position, but conscious they can’t change it. At some point, the hero utilizes such devices to stage the scene, to trick the enemy. The fleeting sensation of control culminates in the same violent confrontation that shatters Justice.

Being able to look means comprehending what has already past, because the real worth of things isn’t felt until they have been lost. Acting upon it inevitably leads to compulsion, therefore, compliance with the system, they can only look when they can’t act. There is also an arbitrary nature to the proof of value, like the ridiculously artificial composites for Tong Liya’s memories, achievements that stay in the image, with their shaping exposed. The real, small, miracles were details ignored to keep the plot going.

The consolation at the end is a “good citizen award”. The hero sees order being reestablished when it seemed impossible but, in the process, unknowingly, is again swallowed by the urban landscape. He does not succumb to the vile impulsiveness that characterized Lam’s past work and is granted a future, although, very much like Sam Peckinpah’s men, not being able to escape their surroundings, not consuming it all with death, being dissipated in the mysterious workings and all-encompassing corruption of the city is the actual consummation of the tragedy.

Christofer Pallú

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Al Adamson’s “The Naughty Stewardesses”

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I was not exactly expecting proto-Showgirls from an Al Adamson/Samuel Sherman production entitled The Naughty Stewardesses containing confessional monologues such as “See? Life to me is one big orgasm, getting stronger and stronger, I guess that’s why I eat so many men”. Only in intent, not result, of course. There isn’t a hint of Verhoeven’s elegance on display, or even decent craftsmanship, for the most part. This is Al Adamson, after all, and I would not dare call it a good film, but it transpires a general sense of discomfort with its own shaping that makes it somewhat fascinating.

It is self-conscious to a degree, but it comes mostly from the fact that writer, cameraman (Gary Graver, who worked as a DP for Orson Welles before becoming Robert McCallum, experienced director of pornography), editor and specially actors, most of the times, appear to be working on a movie completely different from the one Adamson set out to make. It is his shamelessness and incompetence in setting up a scene with any logical development that turns its most ridiculous moments, like the meeting between the protagonist and her old friend/lover, into something of value, in this case a set-piece about the other stewardess’ routine, simply because he can’t edit a gratuitous tracking shot into the more relevant action, therefore creating, accidentally (I guess), something completely disparate from their life as it was presented since the opening sequence, putting right upfront Adamson’s issues with what he should be fetishising, also giving some kind of justification to a character that, according to the script, doesn’t have any life outside of what that monologue told us.

Adamson was, like many prolific exploitation directors, just another raging conservative whose work was mostly a reflection of his nightmares of societal decay, although he never attempted to hide it behind the sleaziness, behind what made them money, and consequently, The Naughty Stewardesses, almost in its entirety, constantly lacks balance between what is demanded by this sort of market and the movie he would like to be shooting, which makes the result incredibly bizarre, with incomprehensible discourses and tonal shifts, since it is deadly serious about the generational conflict at the center of the story, or what resembles one. With that in mind, there is no other way that discomfort with changes and excesses of the era would come as sincerely as it does, because no great acting is capable of conveying Connie Hoffman’s utmost awkwardness on the screen, the feeble postures, frailing speeches and hesitant movements. Chaotic performances have always been the fundamental core amid the absurdity of Adamson’s pictures, the visceral truth he could not find anywhere else. When the camera isolates Hoffman in the frame, after being ordered to strip down, when neither character nor actress seem to understand the purpose of the dialogue and her reaction, it is when we can look beyond intriguing accidents.

Christofer Pallú

Mark Neveldine’s “The Vatican Tapes”

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The ugly and often unpleasant counterpart to Blackhat. If Michael Mann might have attempted to glimpse God by submerging recognizable tropes of his cinema into a world on the verge of indifference towards human perception, action, existence, if his characters eventually escaped their usual trappings getting lost inside a system fully defined by fleeting and blurry information materialized in digital imagery, Mark Neveldine goes the opposite path, certain there is nothing redeemable to be taken from it.

All kinds of information thrown at us, barely composing a plot for The Vatican Tapes, like any projection on endless screens permeating our sight, are incapable of substantiating the events we (or the characters) witness, to compose a convincing through line, to ground it in reality. I am not saying the director is running away from the schematic nature of exorcism movies or found-footage horror with this, quite the contrary, the force of Neveldine/Brian Taylor’s previous films depended completely on the adherence to a certain tradition that needed to be contested on its own terms, and I can’t see a different direction here.

Its strength as a genre piece is in the very same incoherence, lack of narrative and tonal control it was dismissed for, in its inability to make sense of a tradition that is hinted at very scene and deprived of a satisfactory, unifying, cathartic resolution. Questioning is not achieved by avoiding clichés but by visualizing them without concession to the audience’s easy digestion of the grotesque and depraved nature of a sort of spectatle that has come to define the genre. Each one of its shots is built to maximum individual impact, to collide with the whole and not to be supressed as part of a logical chain that allows superficial rationalization of things which could never be rationalized, not if we are supposed to look at its core themes with any seriousness. That is the moral issue.

We should be convinced, the whole time, by connections or distances artificially created by the found-footage device. They are constantly dismantled. The possibility of evidence, of disclosure to the observed horror, of any spirit in its images is doubted. But they bring some truth, anyway. One might call Neveldine a cynic for his lack of commitment to an entire filmic tradition, to common sense, to stylistic niceties that go well with critics, for a brutal refusal to deviate from what surfaces directly imply, in all their ugliness, and, most of all, for his over-the-top/mock aesthetics. But I could not do it, I can’t take it as cynicism. The Vatican Tapes is an opposing statement, in its own form, in the way it deals with expectations enforced on the film, enforced on us, as a manner of relating to what we watch, like we did with The Exorcist‘s blatant belief in the power of matter, in its own cinematographic theology. At first, Neveldine’s purpose seems to be, quite simply, deformation, not revelation, taking individuals and institutions with it. This is the counterpart to Blackhat‘s miracle through digital imagery, nothing here is left untouched, its only revealing shot should be the possessed girl’s twisted eyes, and after so much, the camera is still allowed to investigate the perversion of rituals, exactly like its aesthetic rituals. Discontinuous editing is also a question of morality.

Just the attempt to make us conscious of the bullshit, forcing to look through it, beyond it, is a sign of someone desperatly looking for truth, for real faith in a world that appears to define it with forms that desecrate by the same means and with the same ease that they sacralize.

Christofer Pallú