Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review Archive: Christopher Nolan's "Memento"

On the occasion of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Night shattering box-office records left and right, and earning across-the-board rapturous critical notices (although there are some dissenters, and it seems the backlash has begun), I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at one of his earlier films, Memento. Below is a review I wrote at the time of the film's release in 2000.

Memento. 2000. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan. Produced by Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Edited by Dody Dorn. Music by David Julyan. Production design by Patti Podesta. Costume design by Cindy Evans.

Cast: Guy Pearce (Leonard), Carrie-Anne Moss (Natalie), Joe Pantoliano (Teddy), Mark Boone Jr. (Burt), Jorja Fox (Leonard's Wife), Stephen Tobolowsky (Sammy), Callum Keith Rennie (Dodd).

"Now, where was I?" These are the last spoken words (or are they the first?) of Christopher Nolan's Moebius strip of a film, Memento. The speaker of these words, Lennie (Guy Pearce), is obsessed with finding the man who raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). Nolan's film is yet another entry in the well-worn neo-noir genre, much like his first film, Following, in which a man who decides to follow random strangers on the street eventually becomes sucked into the lives of the people he follows. The two films share a more significant similarity: they enliven their rather standard neo-noir scenarios by playing with structure and chronology. Following chops up its narrative by presenting scenes from the beginning, middle, and ending of the story, forcing us to reassemble the plot in our own mind. Memento rearranges its sequences by using a Betrayal-like backward chronology, which is, however, complicated by linear black-and-white inserts between scenes that show us Lennie talking on the phone to an unknown person.

Memento represents a major leap forward from Nolan's first effort in that it continually questions its own method of storytelling, casting serious doubt about whether a "proper" order to this story, or any other, can even exist. "Do you realize what a metaphysical can of worms this opens up?" John Cusack's character asks in Being John Malkovich, another film dealing with the question of what constitutes identity. We could very well ask this question of the central situation depicted in Memento.

So in the spirit of Lennie's character, let us consider the known facts. Fact one: insurance investigator Lennie's wife was raped and murdered. Fact two: during the attack, as he attempted to defend his wife, Lennie suffered a blow to the head, causing the mental condition that provides the plot's impetus -- he has lost his short term memory, allowing him to retain information for only about a few minutes at a time. As he constantly explains, he does not suffer from amnesia; he remembers who he is, and his life up until his wife's murder, but he is unable to create new memories. Fact three: the perpetrator was a man named John G. These are the only things that are known for sure. Armed with this information, all the while struggling to function with his handicap, Lennie sets out to find his wife's killer.

Lennie's condition is handled throughout the film in various ways. Beyond the obvious distress and confusion Lennie suffers, it also occasions many instances of humor that occur throughout the story. Lennie befriends a man who calls himself Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who often expresses exasperation at how Lennie explains his condition and other events over and over. "But I can keep telling the same jokes," Teddy says. However, his condition also allows people to take advantage of him, for example, perhaps, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the bartender he meets during his investigation.

To aid himself and simply to cope with his handicap, Lennie writes notes to himself, and carries a Polaroid to snap photos of the people he meets, jotting down their names and relevant information on the photos. Of Teddy, he writes, "Don't believe his lies." Of Natalie, he writes, "She has lost someone also. She will help you out of pity." As he explains to the caller during the black-and-white insert scenes, it is important to have a logical system in order to function. Since handwritten notes can be lost or hopelessly mixed up, he tattoos directly onto his skin the most important information, such as "John G. raped and murdered your wife."

Memento's structure throws us for a loop in two senses. It replicates Lennie's condition in its backward structure, forcing us to rely on our own memory of earlier (that is, later) scenes in order to make sense of later (that is, earlier) scenes. But, more importantly, it calls into question, and indeed even mocks, the value of the act of detection. In the film's first scene, which begins with a Polaroid of a murdered man fading into white, we see Lennie killing his "friend," Teddy. Why? Once we understand that the story will be told backwards, we are somewhat reassured that all answers will be revealed at the "end" of the film. But by the end, the rug is pulled out from under us and it becomes impossible to know for sure what to think, most significantly since the film's last scenes strongly suggest that Lennie may not in fact be quite the helpless victim we have assumed him to be all along.

Memento excels in posing its philosophical and metaphysical queries through the direct action of the plot, never allowing the pace to flag by taking its own conceit too seriously. Lennie, much as he did in his former life as an insurance investigator, relies on careful records of fact and observation in order to solve his own mystery. He depends on mechanical methods of observation, most notably his trusty Polaroid. He even extols his methods as superior to memory, noting to Teddy that memories can distort, using as his example the perennial unreliability of eyewitness testimony. However, there are significant instances where his system fails him. One example concerns Natalie, whom we have been fooled into thinking of as someone who is there to help Lennie in the film's early scenes. Later, however, she bitterly mocks his condition, calling him a "retard," telling him she can even call his dead wife a whore, and it won't matter since he will soon forget it anyway. She manages to goad Lennie into hitting her in the face. She leaves, while Lennie frantically searches for a pen to write down what has just happened. But he loses the memory, and Natalie is able to explain he bruises by telling him a drug dealer she works for, and wants Lennie to get rid of, beat her.

In fact, Lennie's condition makes his quest an exercise in futility and absurdity. As Teddy says late in the film, what good is getting revenge if it will only be forgotten moments later? However, Lennie rejects, or professes to reject, this assessment of his situation. "I must believe there is a world outside myself," he says. "If I close my eyes, the world does not disppear." Justice done will still be justice done, whether or not he remembers it.

Lennie's condition not only allows Memento to pose serious questions about identity, but also allows the film to function as a brilliant parody of the neo-noir genre. There are many instances where Nolan punctures the hallmarks of this type of film. In one scene Lennie finds himself running, and asks himself why he is running. He looks around and sees another man near him also running and thinks, "Oh, I'm chasing this guy." But as the man begins shooting at him, he realizes, "Wait, he's chasing me!" The desk clerk at the hotel where Lennie is staying rents two rooms for Lennie, explaining, "We're a little slow this month." Natalie, skeptical about the truth of Lennie's condition, conducts an experiments. She has a bar patron, herself, and Lennie all spit into a mug of beer, after which she successfully serves it to him.

Christopher Nolan, with both Following and this film, proves himself to be a director well worth close attention. Nolan's crisp, precise script (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) moves at a swift clip, capturing the loops of double-crosses, lies, betrayals, and "explanations" which prove to be anything but. Memento is also anchored by excellent performances all around by actors who acquit themselves with letter-perfect precision in keeping the audience guessing as to their true motives and affiliations. Especially fine is Joe Pantoliano, who proves once again, as he has in such films as Midnight Run and The Matrix, that he is one of the best character actors currently working. Guy Pearce is also impressive, effectively and poignantly conveying the confusion and uncertainty of Lennie's struggle to cling to a sense of who he is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Children's Crusade

Flower in the Pocket. 2007. Written, directed and edited by Liew Seng Tat. Produced by Michelle Lo. Cinematography by Albert Hue. Production design by Gan Siong King.

Cast: Wong Zi Jiang (Ma Li Ohm), Lim Ming Wei (Ma Li Ahh), Amira Nashua Binti Shahiran (Atan/Ayu), James Lee (Ah Sui), Azman Bin Md. Hasan (Mamat), Lo Kah Loong (Ah Fatt), Mislina Mustaffa (Atan's Mother), Mak Inom (Atan's Grandma), Farah Binti Abdul Rani (Malay Tudung Teacher).

Think of it as a Malaysian 400 Blows. Liew Seng Tat’s debut feature Flower in the Pocket, which screened this past Sunday at the Asian-American International Film Festival '08, is yet another great example of the fecundity of cinematic talent currently coming out of Malaysia. Some of the most impressive films from this nation have emerged from the Da Huang Pictures production stable, which, besides Liew, also includes fellow directors and collaborators James Lee (director of Before We Fall in Love Again, and who plays the father of the two young boys the film follows), Tan Chui Mui (director of Love Conquers All, and who used her festival prize money to help fund this film), and Amir Muhammad (The Big Durian, The Last Communist, Tokyo Magic Hour). Flower in the Pocket is this production house’s latest offering, and it shares many affinities with their other films: digitally shot, elliptical in its structure, littered with curious and seemingly inexplicable scenes, and suffused with a weird sense of humor that clashes with more somber elements. But Liew injects a wilder, more rambunctious sensibility, embodied by his two young protagonists, Chinese brothers Ma Li Ahh (Lim Ming Wei) and Ma Li Ohm (Wong Zi Jiang). They live with their single father Ah Sui (James Lee), who designs and repairs mannequins. Ah Sui, depressed and bitter over his failed relationship with the boys’ mother, has mostly abdicated his role as father, leaving his sons more or less to their own devices. The absence of the boys’ mother is very subtly referenced in the film’s title. As Liew explained in an interview he gave to the film site Twitch, the title is inspired by a Japanese Mother’s Day tradition, in which people wear flowers that represent one’s mother. A red flower means one’s mother is still living; a white flower means one’s mother is deceased. For the two brothers, Liew says: “That is why it's ‘Flower in the Pocket,’ because … the mother character doesn't appear at all… That's why their flower is pretty much in their pocket. It's unseen, you don’t know what color it is. You don't even know whether there IS a flower.” The brothers live very much in isolation; we don’t see them together with their father until relatively late in the film and they seem to live completely separate lives from their father. Also isolating them is their poor understanding of the Malay language; at school, they must have their Mandarin speech translated for them into Malay, usually by a rather bratty and haughty girl schoolmate. The film opens with Ma Li Ahh, the younger and more mischievous brother, being berated by his teacher for not doing his homework. This scene also makes use of a verbal pun concerning his name and its mispronounced similarity to “Maria.” “That’s a girl’s name!” his teacher (Farah Binti Abdul Rani) says. “What kind of name is that for a boy?”

The boys are befriended by Atan, aka Ayu (Amira Nasuha Binti Shahiran), a tomboyish girl who, when she first meets them, renames them for her own convenience. Her home life is in sharp contrast to boys’; even though Atan’s father isn’t in the picture, she is doted on by both her mother (Mislina Mustaffa) and grandmother (Mak Inom), even though Atan often regards their close attention as a nuisance. Much like Abbas Kiarostami’s films which focus on children such as Where is the Friend’s House?, Flower in the Pocket derives much of its considerable charm and warmth from its close, humorous observation of these kids’ activities, such as an early scene with the brothers savoring KFC ketchup packets, which pays off in a later scene when they use these packets to cook up a unique culinary concoction of ketchup, boiled rice, raw eggs, and hot water.

The film’s first half is freewheeling and nearly plot-free, following its characters in a laconic fashion. In contrast to the generally cheerful boys, their father Ah Sui walks around in a distracted daze, engrossed in working on his mannequins, seemingly more comfortable around these lifeless, disembodied figures than actual human beings. He has some odd exchanges with the Indian man he sells the mannequins to; at one point he admonishes Ah Sui for making the breasts on the female mannequins too realistic. This connects to a strange medical condition he suffers from: he complains to his doctor that his heart literally hurts, and water mysteriously leaks from his nipple. This mixture of minimalist aesthetics and broad, almost slapstick humor (much of which, I suspect, would resonate more with a local audience) is what makes Flower in the Pocket a singular, and faintly unsettling, work. More somber elements are introduced in the film’s latter half, as the father’s benign neglect of his sons very nearly leads to tragedy. However, things end on a more optimistic note, revolving around a unique approach to learning to swim, which provides a way for Ah Sui to bond at long last with his sons.

Flower in the Pocket won the Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival and the New Currents Award at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival. Despite its often naughty sense of humor, its minimal digital aesthetics and its unusual approach to storytelling may make this film a bit too rarified for general audiences (which was borne out by the sparse attendance at Sunday night’s screening). Still, if it happens to show up at your local film festival, it is more than worth your time.

Flower in the Pocket is available on DVD from Da Huang Pictures’ online shop.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Review Archive: Takashi Miike's "Dead or Alive"

Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django will receive its New York premiere tomorrow at Japan Society as a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film. You can read my review of that film here. Miike has a vast and varied filmography, and one of the highlights of his incredibly eclectic oeuvre is his 1999 film Dead or Alive, the first installment of one of the most bizarre trilogies ever created. Below is a review I wrote at the time of the film's U.S. theatrical release.

Dead or Alive (Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha). 1999. Directed by Takashi Miike. Written by Ichiro Ryu. Produced by Katsumi Ono, Makoto Okada, and Toshiki Kimura. Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto. Edited by Taiji Shimamura. Music by Kouji Endou. Art direction by Akira Ishige.

Cast: Riki Takeuchi (Ryuichi), Sho Aikawa (Detective Jojima), Renji Ishibashi (Aoki), Hitoshi Ozawa (Satake), Shingo Tsurumi (Chen), Kaoru Sugita (Mrs. Jojima), Ren Osugi (Yan), Susumu Terajima (Inoue).

This yakuza thriller by Japanese cult director Takashi Miike, above all else, is a letter-perfect illustration of the saying, "Nothing succeeds like excess," which could also serve as Miike's credo. We are thrown immediately into the whirring blender of the film's action in the opening scene, which is cut like a self-contained trailer for the film itself. We become privy to such sights as: in the very first minute, a naked body falling from the top of a building; a black leather-clad stripper writhing on a stage; a man doing what looks like a mile-long line of coke; a blond-haired man vigorously fucking another man against a urinal; the aforementioned coke enthusiast shot to death through the roof of his limousine; and a yakuza gang on a rampage through the club, shooting everyone in sight, and eventually killing the two men having sex in the bathroom.

Things eventually slow down enough for us to discern the plot and main characters. What reveals itself here is a trope that will be immediately familiar to crime film aficionados: the parallel cop and gangster story motif which is a hallmark of such films as John Woo's The Killer and Michael Mann's Heat, which Dead or Alive, at least superficially, most resembles. Much like Al Pacino's character in Heat, Detective Jojima (Sho Aikawa) has allowed his obsession with crushing the yakuzas' operations to wreck his home life. He no longer sleeps with his wife, preferring the couch. His wife (Kaoru Sugita) constantly reminds him of the importance of saving money for their daughter's operation, offering to get a job herself. He dismissively waves her away, promising to take care of it.

The yakuza Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), who could be an analogue to Robert De Niro in Heat, while as ruthless and violent as can be imagined (illustrated by a scene where he coolly disposes of one of his men caught trying to run off with money from a heist), is not without his admirable qualities. Ryuichi uses the money from his criminal exploits to fund his younger brother's studies in the U.S. Ryuichi is no mere mindless killer, but wishes in his own way to do right, at least by his own family. In one scene, he ruefully hints that his dissatisfaction over his lack of opportunities in Japanese society has led him down the criminal road. It is Ryuichi who reminds the detective during an interrogation that he also has obligations toward his family.

So far, nothing here veers too far from the well-established tropes of the yakuza genre. But the difference lies in Miike's approach to his material, which gains its considerable verve and style from his gleeful disregard for convention and general good taste. Miike uses such stylistic tics as extreme slo-mo and endless shootouts to beautifully parodic effect. Miike's patented eye for the absurd comes through in such scenes as: Jojima's pornographer informer, introduced filming a bestiality scene using his pet dog; a birthday party shootout featuring a man in a chicken suit riddled with bullets; and most outrageous of all, the final showdown between the gangster and the detective.

It is in this final scene that Miike's penchant for excess is most extravagantly, and hilariously, revealed. The scene begins with a wickedly funny bit of meta-commentary by Ryuichi, who mutters, "Here comes the final scene," when he sees Jojima coming toward him. For those who haven't seen the film, it would be criminal of me to reveal more, but suffice it to say that Miike then proceeds to shatter any lingering sense of plausibility or, indeed, reality in this scenario.

Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive Trilogy can be purchased from