IN THE FIVE YEARS PRIOR TO 1900, average life expectancy in the US increased from thirty-nine to forty-seven years; cities were gradually wired for electricity, which replaced gas illumination; the x-ray was invented and also the motion-picture projector. This transformative moment in all the sciences is the setting for The Knick, a ten-part hospital series currently on Cinemax.
What makes The Knick (short for a fictionalized version of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital) the latest instance of auteur TV is that it is directed, photographed, and edited in its entirety by Steven Soderbergh, a continuation of the hands-on practice that has distinguished his movie career. Not to labor the obvious, the director is as much a workaholic and control freak as is The Knick’s central character, the hospital’s audacious, driven, ruthlessly competitive chief surgeon, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). Soderbergh is a chilly director—that’s a description, not a criticism—but his empathy with Thackery, whose mind is on fire even as the rest of him is a mess, turns The Knick into a hot show, or at least a constantly simmering one that boils over at least once or twice in every episode.
The writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, handed Soderbergh a B-picture melodrama with familiar network TV tropes—Grey’s Anatomy, House, and ER crossed with bits from every show David Milch created. The dialogue is mostly wooden, but there are snatches of insight and wit, as when the liberal head of the hospital’s board, August Robinson, gives a lesson to its louche, bumbling financial manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). In the nineteenth century, Robinson explains, men amassed wealth through material resources, but in the twentieth, people will get rich by controlling the immaterial, including the aforementioned electricity and X-ray technology, which he has generously provided to The Knick. Strings attached.
Thackery’s foil—first an adversary, later an uneasy ally—is a “negro” surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), son of the Robinson family’s housekeeper and childhood playmate of Cornelia Robinson (Juliet Rylance), who has assumed most of her father’s duties on the board. Edwards is as impeccably groomed and controlled in his demeanor as Thackery is disheveled, sweaty, and, by the way, drug-addicted—cocaine by day and opium by night. Thackery’s character is based on an actual surgeon, William Halsted, as famous for his cocaine and morphine habits as for the radical surgeries he performed. Having presided over the first season coked to the max, perhaps Thackery will spend the second (Soderbergh has already committed to another ten episodes for 2015) nodding out.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School who trained in Paris and London, where surgical procedures were in advance of those in the U.S., Edwards has a lot to offer the Knick, but Thackery, reflexively racist, resents being told who to hire and also doesn’t want to deal with losing patients and staff because the Robinsons want to create an integrated hospital. Edwards, however, not only digs in his heels, he creates a secret clinic and surgery in the basement where he treats the black patients the Knick turns away. It’s next to the room where they store cadavers and the pen where they keep the pigs that the surgeons practice on, when there’s no money to buy human remains. The Knick is an upstairs/downstairs series as well as an uptown/downtown one. Regardless of the hospital’s mission to treat immigrant poor of the Lower East Side, the board wants the Knick to move uptown, where “Mount Sinai Jew Hospital” is, so it can serve a more moneyed class of patients.
The Knick doesn’t trade in nostalgia. The New York of 1900 was filthy, corrupt, and lawless; almost anyone could be bought, and money ruled. Racism, sexism, and classism were undisguised, and the gap between rich and poor was taken for granted. In a particularly telling, beautifully underplayed moment, Cornelia is at the bedside of an Eastern European woman, perhaps in her late twenties, who is dying of tuberculosis. Hearing the woman implore her twelve-year-old daughter to leave so she won’t be late for work, Cornelia arranges for her carriage to drive the girl to the sweatshop.
While Thackery and Edwards are the central characters, Cornelia and two other female characters grow in importance throughout the season, their presence having less to do with the scripts than the exceptionally strong and subtle actresses Soderbergh chose for the roles and his propensity for focusing his camera on characters when they are not speaking. (As usual, it’s the men who do most of the talking.) The great Cara Seymour plays Sister Harriet, a dark-humored, chain-smoking nun. The hospital’s resident midwife, she’s seen too many women suffer and die giving birth or from botched attempts at abortion to turn her back on desperation, even at the cost of her immortal soul. Newly come from Kentucky to the big city, the capable though inexperienced nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson, who recalls the young Andie MacDowell of sex, lies, and videotape ) gradually becomes our eyes and something of the series’ moral compass. Since this is a hospital show, she and Cornelia will do their part in fulfilling the genre by being drawn into unsuitable, torrid affairs. Bodices removed from glowingly lit breasts balance operating room butchery. The Knick is nothing if not a show about the body, and Soderbergh seems to have been liberated to make both the most sensuous and erotic and also the most nauseatingly visceral images of his career.
Television has always been more an aural than a visual medium. But as movie directors have turned to making series TV, the priorities have occasionally been reversed. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013) was thrilling for its images of primeval New Zealand. Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective (2014) and some episodes of Breaking Bad (depending on who was directing) were great rural landscape movies. There are gorgeous images in The Knick, but more exciting, they are composed and edited to keep the mind as well as the senses alive. Shot on multiple locations in New York, the period detail is not simply decorative but speaks to basic issues of power, money, science, the body and its mortality. Soderbergh shot almost the entire series hand-holding the RED Dragon, currently the most low-light-sensitive high-end digital movie camera. (The military has cameras that can see in so-called total darkness.) The handheld camerawork is almost never obvious, but it keeps the image alive and contingent; darkness and shadows are everywhere—even in the bleached-out winter exteriors, the notable exception being on the stage of the operating theater where the whiteness is blinding until the blood pours.
Most TV dramas, even those that are photographed in so-called film style, light the actors’ faces so intensely that they seem to exist in a separate dimension from the background. Soderbergh favors natural light for exteriors and a minimum of practical lights for interiors, which allows him to play with focus as well as shadowing for expressive purposes. But what makes Soderbergh a great filmmaker (albeit one who seldom has had scripts commensurate with his talent, The Knick not excepted) is his juxtaposing of image and sound (words, effects, and music). There is a sequence late in the series where Thackery, in the throes of cocaine withdrawal, is forced to sit through a hospital board meeting. The camera holds tight on his face, as sweat drips from his forehead and the muscles around his eyes and mouth twitch and contort. Throughout the shot, we hear the voices of the board members but the sound—if one can say this about sound—is out of focus, the words hardly intelligible. It’s a common enough device (sweaty face, distorted sound), used to indicate that someone is about to pass out, but it’s the length of time that Soderbergh holds the shot—minutes rather than seconds—that causes us to experience it kinetically, as a sensory experience in our own body.
Or take the sensational ten-minute opening of the first episode: sex, drugs, and The Knick’s equivalent of rock ’n’ roll—graphically depicted high-risk surgery. In the red-gold haze of an opium den, a young Asian woman, naked except for a thin robe that floats behind her, gives a wakeup call to a client named Johnny. The client, Dr. John Thackery, now dressed for work, climbs into a carriage for hire, where he prepares for the morning by shooting up with liquid opium, readily available from the hospital dispensary. As the carriage drives through the muck-covered streets and Thackery readies his morning pick-me-up, we are introduced to The Knick’s signature musical score—repetitively looped, throbbing, skidding, minimalist electronica by Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator, Cliff Martinez. Here, the quickening pulse and screeching upward glissando is precisely synced to the seconds before the needle finds the vein, evoking the anticipation of the orgasmic rush of the drug itself. As a cocaine-saturated movie experience, The Knick has the edge on Goodfellas (1990).
The longest scene in this ten-minute introduction is a surgery so bloody that even this hardened viewer turned away the first time she saw it. Never mind, you can do what you want without embarrassment in your living room, and if you rewatch the episode, you probably won’t be as nauseated. A woman is being given a Caesarean section. From the first incision, made with the equivalent of a box cutter, it’s clear that her uterus has ruptured and she’s going to bleed out. Nevertheless, the surgeons and nurses give it their all, turning the handle of the primitive siphoning apparatus (it’s the only sound we hear), filling bottle after bottle with gushing blood, trying to get the baby out and the artery sewed shut. But to no avail. Soderbergh moves his camera in, its lens as close as the surgeons’ eyes and hands. The gory spectacle is not gratuitous; this is where the series lives and its reason for being—to depict the dark ages of medicine and what it took to bring it into modern times.
The remainder of the first episode is overly cluttered with the introduction of characters and setups for various plot strands. And the second episode suffers in the same way. Don’t give up. By the time you are midway through Episode 3, I suspect you’ll be addicted.
The Knick plays Fridays at 10 PM on Cinemax with repeats during the week. Episode One is currently available for free on YouTube.
Chris Marker, Level Five, 1996, Betacam SP, color, sound, 106 minutes.
CHRIS MARKER, the French multimedia artist who more than any other individual has been identified with creating the essay film, was always an outlier, an anomaly, and this exceptionalism continued even after his death in 2012 at age ninety-one. Marker was remarkable, if not unique among artists of his generation, in having designed a digital monument to his own body of work, an online footprint that would remain once he himself was gone. This was Le Musée de Marker, an archive and gallery located on the island of Ouvroir, in the online virtual world of Second Life, which since 2003 has provided a canvas on which users can create their own domains. In the weeks and months following Marker’s death, mourners pilgrimaged to this shrine in droves, there to find Marker’s nimble mind still freely at play.
That Marker clearly foresaw the age of Internet afterlife while most of the world was still learning to check e-mail is evident in his 1997 film Level Five, which begins a seven-day run at BAMcinématek on Friday, August 15. This, the film’s North American theatrical premiere, will run concurrent to the beginning of BAM’s two-week Marker retrospective, which spans from his early boots-on-the-ground travelogues like Sunday in Peking (1955) and A Letter from Siberia (1957) to the twenty-first century and an engagement with the new digital unrealities of the fin de millennium.
Level Five comprises two primary narrative strands which twine around each other. The first concerns a woman named Laura, who appears to direct-address the viewer from a cluttered, windowless office. (The part is played by artist-actress-director Catherine Belkhodja, a polymath like Marker.) As it comes out, Laura is in fact speaking to a lover who has logged off of this mortal coil under mysterious circumstances. She has been attempting to complete his final project, a virtual replay of the Battle of Okinawa, the last real engagement of World War II, which was accompanied by catastrophic civilian casualties when islanders instructed by Imperial Japan not to allow themselves to be captured alive committed suicide en masse. Laura hopes to “rectify malignant fate” by undoing the tragedy of the event, but she finds that the virtual world that her lover has left behind is not so pliable, stubbornly resisting her attempts to alter the physical facts of history. The film’s other strand consists of images from Japan and Okinawa, purportedly footage taken by Laura and her partner and given to Marker for editing. Included in this is archival footage and interviews with the likes of filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and, most affectingly, Shigeaki Kinjo, a proselytizing Christian who, as a teenager, helped to massacre his family according to the nihilistic, scorched-earth dictates of the Japanese army.
This is devastating stuff, but part of Marker’s brilliance lies in realizing that groaning solemnity alone does not properly denote meaning or understanding. He personally narrates much of the film, and his particular authorial voice is everywhere, its defining note combining the heft of authority with sheer lightness, the feeling of being borne along by a mind that skips across centuries and national boundaries without the slightest evidence of strain. Around every corner there are unexpected digressions—to Napoleon’s reported contempt on hearing of the gentleness of the Okinawans, to John Huston’s pioneering PTSD study Let There Be Light (1946), or to the history of the David Raksin–penned theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura, a work whose relationship to Level Five is as crucial that between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). In combining Laura’s story with that of the Okinawans, Marker examines the memory of tragedy on both the individual and historical scales. The unifying element is loss: Laura’s lost love, the Okinawan loss of identity…and a loss that is still to come, which Marker already sees clearly. Says Laura: “If some future ethnologist sees these images, he’ll ponder the funeral rites of the strange tribes of the late twentieth century. I’ll be pleased to give details. Yes, it was customary for such tribes to address a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer. They’d consult it on everything. It kept their memory. In fact it was their memory.”
This is more than prescient, and miraculously so when we consider what a tough time cinema has had with the Internet—think of the wave of Web-novelty movies roughly contemporary to Level Five, titles like The Net and Hackers (both 1995), which today are punch lines unto themselves, or of Michael Haneke’s recent announcement of a forthcoming film to be called Flashmob, which warrants a tidal wave of preemptive eye-rolls. Level Five manages to buck this trend, in large part because it puts no premium on trying to seem cutting-edge. Laura accesses a social network called O.W.L. (Optional World Link) using V.R. goggles that resemble nothing so much as the top of a popcorn popper, while the hypermedia effects are fuzzy and homemade, the results of Marker’s self-taught dabbling in HyperStudio. Level Five is lo-fi sci-fi, a mode that Marker’s time-trotting La Jetée (1962) might be said to have invented—while in using deliberate obsolescence as a tool to interrogate the new digital realm, the artist’s aesthetic is Tumblr-wave Web 1.0 retro avant la lettre.
Marker shunned the festival spotlight while puckishly cultivating an air of mystery about himself. In his separation of private individual and public avatar—in his case, a cartoon cat alter ego named Guillaume—as in his leapfrogging rhetoric, he was distinctly proto-Internet. We can say that Marker was almost certainly not born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, as he insisted he was, but the truth of his life is no less strange and improbable. He came into a world where the Russian Civil War and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial were making headlines, and exited in the era of military drones and social networking. In his passage through, he never ceased in his efforts to understand the whole mad world, to comprehensively synthesize the sum total of knowledge to date. Now gone from the earth but floating in “a Sargasso sea full of binary algae,” he is a sane, compassionate, and humorous guide, one to be returned to time and again.
THE HOLLYWOOD TEN: The sobriquet given to a group of “unfriendly witnesses” (eight screenwriters, one director, and one producer) still stands as shorthand for an ignominious era of red-baiting, stirring outrage nearly seventy years after they were jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about alleged communist ties before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Less enshrined, however, are the films made by this notorious decad—not to mention those by the hundreds of other blacklistees who followed in their wake—prior to their banishment from the movie industry. An act of passionate, assiduous scholarship, Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s video essay Red Hollywood (1996, though reedited and remastered last year) argues for the politically progressive salience of this often neglected corpus.
An expansion of Andersen’s 1985 essay of the same name, Red Hollywood braids excerpts from fifty-three films from multiple genres, spanning the 1930s through the early ’50s; interviews with blacklistees Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner Jr., Alfred Levitt, and Abraham Polonsky; and a shrewd, occasionally wry text coolly read by Billy Woodberry. (One of the LA Rebellion filmmakers, Woodberry and his neo-Neorealist Bless Their Little Hearts from 1984 feature prominently in Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, an equally astute, fervent work of cine-archaeology from 2003.) At issue in Red Hollywood is the claim, made at the time by both the supporters and detractors of the HUAC-branded pariahs, that the blacklistees’ influence on popular cinema was “insignificant at best.” Through a series of chapters—“War,” “Class,” “Sexes,” “Hate,” to name a few—Andersen and Burch’s treatise cogently advances the idea that these films, in fact, evince unmistakably leftist ideas.
Some of the titles highlighted in Red Hollywood will be familiar to those with only a cursory knowledge of the HUAC era, namely Body and Soul (1947; scripted by Polonsky) and Force of Evil (1948; directed and cowritten by Polonsky), both of which star John Garfield. The proto-Method actor—hailed in Woodberry’s narration as “an axiom of left-wing film of the ’30s and ’40s”—and his Body and Soul costar Canada Lee, a civil rights activist, are the most tragic cases in Red Hollywood’s necrology. Both men, who refused to name names or denounce colleagues, died of heart attacks—Lee at age forty-five, Garfield at thirty-nine—within twelve days of each other in 1952; for them, as for many others, the blacklist and its unfathomable pressures became a “literal death sentence.”
Yet several titles in Andersen and Burch’s seamless compilation are much more obscure. Exhumed and recontextualized by the filmmakers, two vehicles starring Ginger Rogers particularly stand out. Tom Dick and Harry (1941), written by Jarrico, includes a lengthy dream sequence that sends up the horrors of middle-class aspirations; Tender Comrade (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, two of the Tenners, champions communal living for four female airplane-factory workers whose husbands are overseas fighting in World War II. Though not mentioned in Red Hollywood, the political leanings of the lead actress heighten the subversiveness of both movies: Rogers was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a rabidly right-wing organization cofounded by her mother, Lela, in 1944. “We could run the joint like a democracy,” Rogers says to her three roommates-to-be in Tender Comrade—a lofty goal horribly corrupted by elected officials and studio executives offscreen.
Red Hollywood plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center August 15–21 in conjunction with “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” a series, selected by Thom Andersen, of nine movies directed or written by blacklistees.
SMACK IN THE MIDST of the usual summer glut of digital behemoths and bulging muscles, Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy—his latest, bittersweet semiautobiographical homage to the French New Wave—comes as a relief. With nary a special effect in sight, the film revels in ravishing black-and-white ’Scope, the stunning limpidity of which makes one wonder why it’s been used so infrequently since the heyday of Kurosawa and Imamura. Given the simplicity of the story and settings of Jealousy, the wide screen might seem a luxury, but the format is friendly to the film’s semi-improvisational style and allows the emotional distances between characters to echo throughout each frame. Even the uncluttered vistas of a park are overcast with a sense of melancholy.
Except for the presence of a cell phone in one scene, the film could easily be set in the mid-1960s, when Garrel had just begun his career and his declared mentors—Bresson, Godard, and Truffaut—were in vogue. There are even hints of Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in the befuddled look of the main character Louis (played by Garrel’s son Louis) when he is ditched by his new girlfriend Claudia (a wonderfully brooding Anna Mouglalis). Yet the film seems less an act of nostalgia than a jaundiced reaction to the current state of cinema. Its physical look alone can be read as a critique of the visual banality of so many French imports over the past few decades.
As always, Garrel is preoccupied with the labile nature of romantic love. But he’s the flip side of Éric Rohmer, whose amorous chronicles, however unresolved, are more ebullient than doleful. Rohmer’s characters talk incessantly about their feelings, while Garrel’s rarely elaborate beyond flat, invariably controverted declarations. Garrel’s father Maurice cautions his son in Emergency Kisses (1989) that “cinema is not just pictures,” yet the dialogue in Jealousy reveals little about the whys and wherefores of character behavior. No one talks about what bothers them; they just act out, a dynamic that makes their wide-screen interaction all the more pitiable. As Marianne, one of love’s casualties in Garrel’s I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), sums it up, we were happy, and then we were not.
Louis and Claudia are both stage actors, an ironic commentary on the paucity of meaningful speech in their lives, in which things just unfold and then come to a halt. When Claudia, depressed over the impasse in her career, picks up random men, we know that another sudden, unexplained split is imminent. Yet when she walks out, Louis seems completely perplexed. How deeply he feels the loss is mitigated by those sardonic Doinel-like touches. If these characters seem incapable of thinking deeply and learning from what happens to them, it may be because Garrel believes that psychological probing is futile, or out of fashion, or just too hard.
But if romantic attachments are notoriously fragile in Garrel’s work, blood relations endure, apparently on and off the screen. In Emergency Kisses, Garrel, Sr. plays himself as devoted father to his five-year-old son, Louis. But as he told an interviewer, he is represented in Jealousy not by the adult Louis but by Charlotte, the fictional daughter of Louis and Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), whose breakup is the catalyst for the narrative. This child, played by Olga Milshtein, a spunky ingénue with indelible presence and charm to spare, is, like the young girl in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, a pivotal figure who must navigate the fallout of her parents’ separation. Her role is established in the second shot, following one of Clothilde crying in the kitchen, her loneliness complemented by the expansive emptiness around her: Charlotte, hearing her mother pleading with Louis not to leave, gets up to peek into the other room. Like Maisie, Charlotte is instinctively inquisitive, although she belongs to a decidedly different class, and so is freer to sympathize with her mother while remaining devoted to her father and friendly with his new girlfriend.
In one scene, Louis and Charlotte snuggle and tussle so spontaneously that you would think, given the peculiar dynamics of this tribe, that they are actually father and daughter. But the truth is more affecting and ironic: The scene is a replay of one in Emergency Kisses in which director Philippe as a younger man wrestles lovingly with his real son, the same Louis whose playful reenactment with Charlotte feels like déjà vu, a ritual by which he gets to father his real father in the guise of this five-year-old surrogate.
In the final scene, recovered from a botched suicide attempt, Louis sits in the park with Charlotte and his sister Esther, two attachments presumably above the fray and miseries of male/female relationships. In the spirit of the cross-references and overlaps of Garrel’s work, we might recall that only at the last moment in Regular Lovers (2004) do we learn through a narrator that François (also played by Louis Garrel) has killed himself. But if the revelation comes as a shock, it is surely because the lonely interior of that character has been no more accessible to the viewer than it was to the woman he loved. The virtual inevitability of this tragic divide between lovers, in which neither can fully open to the other, may be the strongest and most heartbreaking theme of Garrel’s work.
Esther is played by the actor’s real sister, the director’s daughter, and so in the last scene of Jealousy, autobiographical tension persists. It would seem then, as one of the film’s intertitles suggests, that when most of our hopes and illusions collapse, we get to “keep the angels,” i.e., our children. However disillusioned its view of romance, Garrel’s new film manifests genuine love for these lost characters and for the wonderfully engaging people who impersonate them.
Jealousy opens Friday, August 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and Friday, August 22 at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles. It will be available on iTunes beginning Tuesday, August 19, and on Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Google Play on Tuesday, August 26.
Patrick Lung Kong, Teddy Girls, 1969, color, sound, 107 minutes.
LAST SUMMER, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens hosted a complete retrospective of the films of Wong Kar-wai, with Wong in person, impossible to miss in his famous shades. Very few of his fans, however, recognized the beetle-browed, seventysomething man with jutting cheekbones whom Wong bowed before upon meeting, as a pupil bows before a master. This is a matter that MoMI intends to address with a retrospective of that very same figure: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” running August 15 to 24.
Patrick Lung Kong was born Kin-yui Lung in 1934 to a family that had relocated to Hong Kong from Anhui Province, China. The boy was raised by his grandmother, though spent the war years touring with a Cantonese opera troupe—his father was a hua dan, that is, one who plays female parts. Preparing for a career in business at the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, Lung was introduced to Catholicism by a classmate and subsequently converted. This led to his first screen acting, in a church-produced film, and then to a role in something called Crime of Passion in the Hotel for the Shaw Brothers’ Cantonese-language unit; he was rechristened “Lung Kong” and played one of the villainous roles that his sharp features assured he would be typecast in.
Cantonese was the principal spoken language in Hong Kong at the time that Lung Kong was coming up through the system, but Cantonese films were consigned to a second-class role, increasingly marginalized as the 1960s progressed, with big budgets allocated to Mandarin productions. Lung Kong’s dedicated outsider status was reflected in his self-identification with Cantonese cinema—he turned down a lucrative deal to direct in Mandarin for the Shaws, instead signing up with Singapore-based Sun Ngee, and with his second film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner, which opens MoMI’s retro, made his mark definitively. Cheuk-hong Lee (Patrick Tse), nabbed after a botched break-in, comes out of a fifteen-year prison stint determined to go straight, though his old triad boss (Sek Kin) and a meddling police inspector (Lung Kong) have other plans for him. The film is shot in black and white, with a punchy camera style both emphatic and empathetic. It is self-consciously “modern” in its brisk cutting, use of limber handheld camera, and hands-on grasp of burning social issues, its contemporary slang and location shooting on city streets, among the ramshackle squats of Kwun Tong, and at Stanley Prison. This was Hong Kong New Wave, 1967.
The year 1967 has a particular significance to the Hong Kongese, marked as it was by almost daily bombings and violent demonstrations, in which leftists protesting British colonial rule clashed with police. While Story of a Discharged Prisoner expressed something of the period’s political discontent, Lung Kong was not a joiner, and his independence and singularity of vision earned him the admiration of a generation of ambitious young movie buffs. Among the number who visited the set of Discharged Prisoner at Wader Studio was John Woo, who would use the basic elements of the film’s plot for his 1986 A Better Tomorrow, which appeared at a moment when the Cantonese cinema, and the boots-on-the-ground production methods innovated by Lung Kong, had prevailed. A Better Tomorrow’s producer, Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), will appear alongside Lung Kong at the museum on Saturday the 16th for a screening of the film, whose Chinese title is the same as that of Lung Kong’s, much as the title of his 1969 girl delinquent drama, called Teddy Girls in English, contains the same character (“To fly,” 飛) that appears in the title of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), essentially creating the “Youth in flight” genre which Wong would later mine.
Patrick Lung Kong, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner, 1967, black-and-white, sound, 119 minutes.
Like Discharged Prisoner, Teddy Girls starts off with a careening blast of go-go energy. Some mashers in a discotheque decide to pick on the wrong chick, Yu-ching Hsu (Josephine Siao). She gives them bottles to the skull for their trouble and winds up fighting for pole position inside a girl’s reformatory before bonding with her fellow inmates and busting out to bring revenge to her loathsome stepfather (Lung Kong, again). The film may be the purest expression of Lung Kong’s balance of exploitation’s vulgar vitality—it could be a distant relation of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975)—with a compassion founded in the Catholic tradition of social responsibility and charity. The latter quality occasionally announces itself in outright didacticism, as in the moralizing coda voiced by Kenneth Tsang’s reformatory head in Teddy Girls. In such moments Lung Kong may seem preachy, although, as critic and screenwriter Shu Kei has observed, no one is successfully saved by the social-service organizations that play such a prominent role in Lung Kong’s early films: the halfway house in Discharged Prisoner, the reformatory in Teddy Girls, or the school for the blind in The Window (1968), which has Tse as a feckless hood, introduced in Rebel Without a Cause red, forming an unlikely bond with the sightless daughter of one of his victims, played by Siao. (This relationship dynamic was an inspiration for Woo’s 1989 The Killer, while I’d bet that Rebel director Nicholas Ray’s wounded outsiders are a point of reference for Lung Kong.)
Lung Kong’s own disillusion and estrangement deepened as he found himself increasingly at odds with the Hong Kong film industry and society in general. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970), a free adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague, was shorn of at least a half hour and effectively mutilated before release. What remained was still sufficiently inflammatory to make Lung Kong a target for blowback from the leftist press, thanks to his alleged metaphoric linkage of the pestilence and the Communist dissent of ’67—hard to see what all the fuss was about now, but the film’s panorama of a city gripped by panic remains impressive. To this, accusations of oversympathy with former Imperial conquerors were added with Hiroshima 28 (1976), a reunion with Siao that has her playing a tour guide in the ruined postwar city. By this point, this most Hong Kongese of Hong Kong directors had begun to drift into the position of artist-in-exile: Hiroshima 28 was shot on location, and Mitra (1978), Lung Kong’s last film to play theatrically, was filmed during a trip to Iran to premiere his Japan-set film at the Tehran Film Festival. For Love Massacre (1981), chronologically the last directly Lung Kong–affiliated film to play MoMI, he headed for California to play producer for director Patrick Tam. The film synopsizes as a rote slasher, but it’s elevated by a cast and crew loaded with future HK New Wave luminaries—Tam will go on to direct his watershed film Nomad the following year, Brigitte Lin stars, and production designer William Chang, later responsible for the sumptuous textures of Wong Kar-wai’s films, created the film’s Pop art–besotted look. Love Massacre is a direct bridge between pioneer Lung Kong and the new revolution in Cantonese cinema then underway, as well as a bridge to his new home.
Lung Kong left Hong Kong for good in 1982, immigrating to New York, where he lives today in Staten Island. He has spent his retirement years studying calligraphy and the erhu (two-string), has remained active in charitable organizations, and has not directed a single film for public consumption. (He has, however, worked periodically as an actor, most prominently in Jet Li’s Black Mask.) The final numbers that summarize his truncated directorial career—eleven years, a dozen films—belie his importance to Hong Kong, and therefore world, cinema. In keeping the light burning for Cantonese cinema in Hong Kong during dark days, in his devotion to the milieu of lower-class characters and petty gangsters, Lung Kong’s films paved the way for those of Woo, Wong Kar-wai, and Hark—the old saw about the Velvet Underground is applicable here. Lung Kong’s films are not merely transitional, however, but compose an integral body of work unto themselves, made with a verve born of purpose, passionately engaged with the city that they emerged from, attentive to the textures of both everyday and political life. Lung Kong’s films arrived right on time for a generation of Hong Kong cinephiles, but too soon to afford him a long and prosperous career. Luckily, it isn’t too late for New York moviegoers to discover what Hong Kong has known for a long time.
FRENHOFER, C’EST MOI, Paul Cézanne was said to have said about the principal character in “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece), a short story by Honoré de Balzac from the year 1831. In the little-known tale, two younger artists, Nicolas Poussin and the more established Porbus, spend time with Frenhofer, an aging master. As the three drink wine and eat smoked ham, they exchange thrilling ideas about art and originality, finally settling on the question of Frenhofer’s unrealized masterpiece, a painting that has been vexing him for years. When Frenhofer finally completes the work, the two ingénues are deeply disappointed by its manifestation—able only to make out a series of strange lines and an obscured foot. Frustrated by their response, in a fit of frenzy and madness, Frenhofer dies in the night after having burned his canvas first.
Balzac’s tale, however arch and exaggerated it might be as a neat parable for all kinds of things—among them neglected genius and painting as a tortuous and torturous journey—has a great deal in common with Fifi Howls from Happiness, a documentary of beauty, intelligence, and wit about the late artist Bahman Mohasses. Like The Unknown Masterpiece, Fifi, too, is about art and iconoclasm. It also features two young artist-pilgrims who come to bask in a mad master’s glory at the end of his life. And yet, in Fifi, there is a fourth, crucial, personage: in the form of the filmmaker, Mitra Farahani, a temptress who hovers on screen and off, coaxing our hero into life in his twilight years.
As the film opens we are led to wonder: Whatever happened to Bahman Mohasses? A beloved rebel of the modern art scene of 1950s–70s Tehran, he made distinctive sculptures and paintings that featured surreal animal-like forms and figures—contorted, missing hands and feet, exaggerated, lustful. Hard-smoking, foul-mouthed, and full of soulful pessimism, Mohasses had no illusions about the nasty world he lived in; any democracy was as bankrupt as any dictatorship, and all rulers were crooks. “But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert. It will make no difference,” he declares at one point, surrounded by works inspired by war and pestilence. It is one of many acid statements to come.
Colorful stories ensue. During the ’60s, Mohasses was commissioned to produce a sculptural likeness of the royal family, but the Shah rejected it, complaining that it was unflattering. At the time of the 1979 revolution, another sculptural commission, The Flute Player, had some of its bulging parts (private and otherwise) removed by agents of the nascent Islamic Republic. (Sweetly, they deny this, and say that the pieces in question simply broke off.) Mohasses left Tehran during the revolution that would oust the Shah and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and his life swiftly became the stuff of rumor and, finally, fabulous myth: They say the last time he was in Iran he destroyed all of his work; he is living in Rome, surrounded by young boys; he is solitary, working in his native city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea.
He is, it turns out, in Rome. But before turning to the room in the Hotel Sacconi in which he lives, Fifi cuts to an archival film from the year 1967, a pithy feature about the young Mohasses made by Iranian state television in which he is shown to be a frolicking bon vivant engaging in café life, painting feverishly in his studio as if enacting a parody of being an artist (“It is a need for me exactly like taking a piss”), declaring himself of historic significance, and so on. It is a whole film within a film, and even then, rendered in grainy black and white, the subject burns bright.
In Rome, now in his 80s and no longer making work, Mohasses is bewildered by the petite female filmmaker before him. Farahani, whose syrupy voice serves as siren-like narration, clearly wants something from the legendary figure, but like anyone on a treasure hunt, she is probably aiming for the stars. And yet, this is not a standard encounter between the journalist and the murderer, for the artist-murderer pushes back. Mohasses the subject probably directs the director as much as she directs him: Put this in, say this, shoot this…end with this. “I will tell you my life story so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says.
Death is the specter that hovers in and around this work. More than a knowing film about filmmaking, Fifi is profoundly about what remains. Worrying about posterity, Mohasses announces, is for losers. By now, we’ve learned that the rumors about the artist destroying his own work are true. Among the few works that remain is the Fifi Howls from Happiness of the title, a faceless, handless grotesque of abundant breast that hangs on his wall. “I can’t sell her,” he confides, as if she encapsulates all the truth he knows.
But before he leaves this earth, Mohasses receives one last commission by the two younger artists with whom we began—Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh—both in evident thrall to their iconoclast-hero. One night, they all sit watching Visconti’s The Leopard with its poofy baroque costumery and intrigue, and Mohasses sheds tears. Not unlike Visconti’s fading prince, the aging artist is a distinguished leopard—elegant, knowing, out of place. And yet, his fate, like poor Don Fabrizio’s, will be to leave this earth cruelly, eaten by jackals.
The end of Fifi—which is difficult to watch and inspires equal parts sadness and agitation (for is the film apparatus itself part jackal?)—comes soon after. As the artist chokes on his own blood and declares, matter-of-factly, “I am dying,” the filmmaker, Farahani, who is right there, summons up his voice as if he were addressing her: “This is the most real image I could have given you.”
Fifi Howls from Happiness is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, August 15.