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Blinded by the Light
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Nostalghia is my favourite Tarkovsky film. There is something magical about its slowed-down memory and dream sequences, its moments of epiphany, reflection and beauty and its overriding sense of loss and detachment.
Andrei Gorchakov travels to Italy to research the life of Pavel Sosnovsky, an exiled composer who studied in Bologna before returning to Russia and hanging himself. Gorbachev, himself an exile, meets Domenico, a former inmate of a lunatic asylum who locked up his family for 7 years in order to avoid the apocalypse. Domenico believes that if he is able to cross the St Catharine Pool with a lighted candle, he will save the world. He gives the candle to Andrey who agrees to carry out the task on his behalf. Domenico later sets fire to himself in Rome to the 4th movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony. Andrey returns to the pool which has now been drained of water.
There follows one of the greatest moments in cinema. In a single unbroken take lasting over ten minutes, Andrey climbs into the now dry pool, lights the candle and starts to cross from one side to the other, shielding the candle from the wind. Twice the candle blows out and Andrey is forced to return to the beginning. At the third attempt he reaches the other side with the candle still alight and promptly collapses. It is impossible to do justice to this scene simply by recounting what happens. It is unbelievably beautiful. Just thinking about it makes me shudder with awe.
Uncle Boonmee, a farmer and beekeeper, dying of kidney disease is visited by the ghost of his dead wife who leads him to a cave that is the passage between life and death. His dead son appears transformed into an ape-like creature with eyes like burning red coals. He is guided through past incarnations in a succession of phantasmagorical scenes. A princess enters a pool where she has sex with a catfish. Souls routinely transmigrate between humans and animals. The real world of Thai politics is alluded to but it is not fully specified and never interferes with the magical enigma of Boonmee's life and the film's languorous tropical surrealism. Trance-like, oblique and baffling: this is a film built on surprising, beautiful images rather than being constrained by a narrow linear construct. The visual impact and the sense of wonder that it generates is stunning. It is a film that I could watch again and again.
At over 7 1/2 hours Melancholia is Lav Diaz's longest film. It is also his most complex and inconclusive. The film concerns three characters: Alberta, Julian and Rina. Initially they appear as a prostitute, a pimp and a nun but they are not what they seem. As the identities and roles of the characters change, the film penetrates the sadness and loss that each of them suffers and the masks that they wear to conceal their suffering. Dreams, illusion and reality flow into eachother as the horror which the characters have experienced is brought into sharp focus. Bizarre, surreal episodes that are only barely explained such as the therapy session performed by Julian sit alongside the scenes in the forest where Alberta's husband Renato who has joined the communist rebels is hunted down by the military. Lav Diaz has made some very beautiful, challenging films but Melancholia is a particularly wonderful piece of cinema.
Unlike most of Zhang-ke's films, 'Ash is purest White' comprises a single story. Bin The boss of Jianghu, an old-fashioned criminal brotherhood, is viciously attacked by a group of young thugs (the new mob on the block). Bin's girlfriend, Qiao, intervenes to save him for which she is sentenced to five years in prison. On her release she discovers that Bin has left her for another woman. Qiao returns to the mining town where she is reunited with those members of the Jianghu who have not moved on. She is later joined by Bin who has become an invalid. The film charts both Qiao's internal journey and her actual journey through the demolition and rebuilding of modern day China. It is a world of desolate industrialisation made up of dying towns, displaced people and grandiose projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. This is the familiar Zhang-ke territory of 'Still Life' and 'Mountains May Depart'. Although 'Ash is Purest White' does not have the depressive emotional power of these earlier works, it is a wonderfully reflective, insightful and beautifully photographed film.