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5 Gems (and then some) at MoMA’s Fortissimo Films Celebration

5 to Watch at MoMA's Fortissimo Films Retrospective

The latest tribute to Fortissimo Films this, its twentieth-anniversary year, runs at New York’s MOMA November 10 – 21.

For “In Focus: Fortissimo Films,” Curator Jytte Jensen has carefully culled 11 geographically concentrated features from the company’s extensive and diversified catalog. “The reason most of the selection is from Asia is to focus the ‘Focus,’ to establish a core,” she explains. “I see as Fortissimo’s biggest contribution the support and promotion of films from that area to the international stage.” I’ve divvied the selections up here by genre.


Jiang Wen’s powerful “Devils on the Doorstep” won second prize at Cannes in 2000, but came under fire from Chinese authorities for its depiction of the Japanese: The two countries had become economic partners, so history would have to be rewritten. This is not just another war-and-occupation film. With superb compositions, dramatic use of light and shadow (mostly in black and white), and occasional maniacal cutting, Jiang creates a unique vantage point from which to assess the brutal Japanese occupation of China in the ’30s and ’40s.

His protagonists are a peasant, Ma Dasan (Jiang himself), and his younger girlfriend. During the winter of ’44-’45 in a northern village, a Chinese resistance member who is referred with a wink from the director only as “me!” instructs them to hide a Japanese POW and his collaborating Chinese translator for a short while, but time drags on and no one comes for them. Ma Dasan and his lover, who are humorously inept at prisoner control (as are the other villagers, lovable but incompetent bumpkins), concoct a scheme wherein they will return the hostages to the Japanese army in exchange for grain.

There is no honor under occupation, however, and things go tragically wrong. Jiang has said that there have indeed been devils taunting China, but that on the flip side, the Chinese, who are by no means depicted as perfect, are quick to blame others for their problems. At any rate, Ma Dasan, for better or worse, can no longer remain a passive bystander.


“The Eye,” Oxide and Danny Pang’s spellbinding 2001 horror film, is not only frightening but also raises highbrow questions about genetics and the ethics of transplants. The Pang brothers know how to gradually build suspense by suggestion, like the use of superimposed phantoms and reaction shots, only to ultimately venture into the outer extremities of rapid-fire, technically masterful, in-your-face pyrotechnics for shock effect. David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s American remake with Jessica Alba did not hold a candle to the brothers’ carefully calculated structure and subtly shifting plot emphases.

The film begins when the twentysomething Mun (Lee Sin-Jie), blind since the age of two, has a corneal transplant. It is successful up to a point: She can see, but unfortunately her retina also displays images of people being led to their deaths by a shadowy presence. This is NOT “The Miracle Worker”: for her, sight is fearful. Once her handsome young psychologist, Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chow), accepts her story (and gains her affection), the two go to Thailand to learn about the “secret” donor whose own history of being bullied and hanging in limbo in suicide hell translates into terrifying images for Mun.

The film does not have the soft, happy ending you might expect. Even after a cathartic ritual, the visions persist. Then we have the coup de grace: a huge traffic pileup, in which Mun runs fruitlessly car to car to warn people we have gotten to know visually – brides, children, carousers – about an impending explosion she has previewed. Leaking gasoline causes a raging fire that turns these oblivious humans into charred cadavers, then ghosts marching to the beyond. What happens then to Mun is also unpredictable, and serves as an ingenuously ironic coda.

In Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s clever “Last Life in the Universe” (2003), with photography by Christopher Doyle, Kenji (Japanese star Asano Tadanobu) repeatedly attempts suicide, but fails every time. He is a maladroit: It’s as funny as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s inept attempts at doing himself in in Aki Kaurismaki’s “I Hired a Contract Killer.”

Kenji is a dull loner, a repressed, obsessive-compulsive Japanese library assistant living in Bangkok. Everything in his apartment is catalogued and stored in a precise place. While he is preparing to jump off a bridge, he sees a pretty young woman get thrown out of a car by her crass, uninhibited older sister, Noi (Sinita Boonyasak), a bar hostess. When the beautiful girl tries to prevent his demise, a car strikes and kills her.

After a yakuza murders his gangster brother in his apartment, Kenji, who had planned to shoot himself, ends up killing the assassin instead. To stay far from the site of the crime (and the annoyingly messy blood and bodies), he forges a strange bond with Noi, almost a superego-Id relationship. After all, they had both been somewhat complicit in the sister’s death. She drives him to her huge house in the countryside. The film takes a more positive turn as Kenji and Noi learn to know and understand, perhaps even love, each other.

Although Kenji’s failures at offing himself are played for gallows humor, the overall tone is dark and moody. No generic consistency here. “I am 42 now, and look at things differently,” Ratanaruang told me in a 2003 interview. “You have lost a few more loves, you become lonelier. So I do identify with something in Kenji. But in Thai culture, death is not a bad thing. In Buddhism, death is a part of life. You will continue anyway.”

It’s difficult to know the span of time in “Last Life in the Universe.” In terms of space, there are few establishing shots, and almost none that locate the film in Bangkok. “We want to see things that are happening inside the characters,” says the director. “All my other films have been plot-driven. I didn’t want to repeat what I’ve done. So I decided to see if the camera can photograph emotion. Can we take the camera inside the characters and film them from there? When that is the task, inevitably location and time disappear. You’ve not always sure when it’s night and when it’s day.”

Genre busters

Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together” (Hong Kong, 1997) and “Tears of the Black Tiger” (Thailand, 2000), by Wisit Sasanatieng, are very different films that not only burst the boundaries of conventional genre but also share some themes and formal devices. Both are ultra-postmodern. Wong’s abstractions of light and color, his unique deployment of jump cuts, his refusal to move the semblance of a plot linearly, his insistent music – these are well known to film lovers. Sasanatieng opts for outrageous pastels and blatant artifice, with “reality” only an occasional intruder. Campy, for sure. There is no distinction between daily life and the oneiric world.

Both are severely homoerotic. “Happy Together,” one of the most striking films of the ’90s, follows a pair of Chinese expat lovers (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, the late Leslie Cheung) barely eking out a living in Buenos Aires. In the first scene, the two superstars make love fairly explicitly. Most of the time they fight. Neither ever smiles. Misery has never been so textured. The only distractions are a third Chinese fellow who goes to work in the same kitchen as Leung’s character, and a latent attraction develops; and the structuring absence of Iguazu Falls, etched strongly in their minds. Why? Maybe for the same reason that the soundtrack consists of Argentinian tango music? This is inspired pastiche.

Leung was a bit wary of playing a gay man, Wong told me in an interview in 1997. “But my explanation worked,” he clarifies. “I told him if he can fall in love with a can of sardines, then why can’t he fall in love with a man?” Of course this is a reference to the earlier “Chungking Express.” Why shoot a Chinese story in Buenos Aires? “I’m very fond of South American novels, especially Manuel Puig’s. He changed my thinking about story lines. He’s a good example of form and content working very well together.

“And the content of his novels about life in South America seems so familiar to me,” he continues. “There must be some link between Chinese and South American people. The structure of the family is very close to Shanghainese. It is very dramatic. So I just wanted to use this title as a tribute to my favorite writer. I thought I knew South America well from his novel. But when I got to Buenos Aires, it’s totally different. So the film turned out to be nothing about Buenos Aires. It’s more like I’m remaking a Hong Kong in Buenos Aires.”

“Tears of the Black Tiger” is a Thai western, a homage to earlier incarnations of the genre. A decent man of peasant origins, in love from childhood with the governor’s daughter, becomes a gangster known as The Black Tiger, out of revenge against the men who killed his father. The governor promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to a high-ranking military official in whom she has no interest; she has eyes only for the bandit.

Simultaneously, The Black Tiger, in scenes designed with deliberate Old West fakery, engages in a woozy, erotically charged love-hate relationship with a fellow gunslinger, a dodgy man whose life he has saved. After several shootouts and acts of betrayal, the situation resolves itself, with no sunny ending.

“Tears of the Black Tiger” is a classic example of what can happen to a film once it is out of the hands of a nurturing sales company like Fortissimo. In 2001 they sold the movie to Miramax, which altered the ending, for U.S. distribution. Sasanatieng told the Los Angeles Times that he submitted a shortened version to Miramax, which rejected it. After screening at Sundance in 2002, it was shelved.

Commerce trumped art. Forget the filmmaker! The film’s cult status grew as it languished in the Miramax vaults. Six years on, Magnolia bought it, gave it a small theatrical release, and put it out on dvd a year later. Well-received critically, this exceptional film got its due back then, and, thanks to Fortissimo and MoMA, it’s getting it yet again.   


The following selections in the MoMA exhibition could well be up your alley, but I am not so personally drawn to such daring, but flawed movies as “Beijing Bastards” (Zhang Yuan, China, 1992) and “All About Lily Chou Chou” (Shunji Iwai, Japan, 2001); slight crowd-pleasers like “Shower” (Zhang Yang, China, 1999) and “Yes Nurse! No Nurse!” (Pieter Kramer, The Netherlands, 2002); and the less poignant remake by a usually seductive director of Fei Mu’s great 1948 postwar melodrama “Spring in a Small Town,” retitled “Springtime in a Small Town” (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China, 2002).

I long ago dismissed opening night films as indicative of the overall quality of an exhibition. Too many considerations: sponsors or diplomats, audiences who don’t want to be overly challenged. Taiwanese director Wei Ti-Sheng’s reedited (by producer John Woo, from the Venice and Toronto version) “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” is one of Fortissimo’s most recent acquisitions, and probably the most commercially viable movie in the show. (It is the most successful box-office hit in the history of Taiwan.) The place of honor is appropriate for a tribute to a sales company.

The film tells the story of a rebellion in 1930 against the Japanese occupiers of Formosa, now Taiwan, by the indigenous Seediq people. The Japanese had been beating them and their traditions down since a treaty in 1895 cedes them the island. I am all for documentation and public acknowledgment of the uprising, which united several Seediq clans, former headhunters who were in perpetual battle among themselves, to drop their passive acceptance of the subjugation and engage in a form of guerrilla warfare against their much better equipped rulers.

The execution is, however, pedestrian, amazingly old-fashioned (“The Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind), with the same kind of fighting scenes repeated over and over, deploying cliche after cliche and an unimaginative, sub-Hollywood action soundtrack. Non-professional Lin Ching-Tai has the perfect bearing of the heroic resistance leader Mouna Rudo, one of the only characters individuated to a satisfying degree, the other being Lin Yuan-Jie’s high-energy Pawan Nawi, a go-for-it teen who can’t scream out enough anti-Japanese epithets.

What the film lacks is something like the edge, the artful style, and the smartly comedic (as opposed to the unfunny depiction of the colonials as clumsy monsters) that “Devils on the Doorstep” put on the table. But the biz is all-encompassing, and the exhibition reflects that variety. For better or worse, this is the nature of the beast. 

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