Ian Floodgate: Audiences might be easing back into cinemas, but most of the films we’re anticipating this month appear to be restorations. The first of these, I think many cinephiles have been waiting for a long time, myself included, and that’s the box set release of the World of Wong Kar Wai. I watched Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love for the first time last year, and I was impressed with the latter because of Kar Wai’s use of colour and lighting. I immediately wondered if there will ever be a 4K release of it, and then I found out there was supposed to be a 4K screening of it at Cannes last year. Since then, I’ve read a few forums calling for a home media release, so I was pleased, like many others, when Criterion announced it would be released as part of a boxset. I know you’re more familiar with Kar Wai’s work than I, Eugene. Perhaps you can expand on why this collection of restorations would be a good investment for any cinephile.
Eugene Kang: Wong Kar Wai is a quintessential cinephile’s director. His imprint is all over his work, and his style is easily recognizable, especially in his earlier films. If you ask any cinephile, Wong will often be cited as a formative influence on their cinephilia. So it is really no wonder that there is considerable excitement about a boxset from Criterion, the widely-recognized benchmark of film quality and canonization. Chungking Express was my personal introduction to the work of Wong Kar Wai. I remember watching it on Quentin Tarantino‘s Rolling Thunder label, a short-lived series on VHS and DVD curated by Tarantino himself. The works he chose ranged from Switchblade Sisters to Chungking Express. I can see why Tarantino loved Chungking enough to include it in his collection. Like Tarantino, Wong uses the cinematic techniques of the French New Wave and then applys them to his view of Hong Kong night life. The resulting work is a sometimes frenetic, woozy, romantic film that glamorized characters that most would perceive as oddballs. It certainly made a great impression when I was young, but I have to say, I saw Fallen Angels recently, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with that film. It was made in conjunction with Chungking and it feels like deleted scenes rather than a film that could really stand on its own. It makes me anxious to revisit Chungking, which I haven’t seen in years.
In the Mood for Love, however, is my favorite Wong film, and I know from many rewatches that it holds up. The romantic tension that he is able to mine between the leads played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung is truly incredible, especially for characters who don’t even kiss. It is a claustrophobic work that sometimes plays like a thriller despite the stakes being ostensibly low. Yet for the two leads, it is essential to them that they do not act like their spouses who are cheating on them with each other, despite the real and palpable attraction between the two of them. In fact, Wong at one point wanted the cheating partners to be played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in dual roles, but the idea was later scrapped for being too confusing. In the Mood is the film that I am most interested in checking out the new restoration for, which was overseen by Wong Kar Wai himself, since this was probably the film that he he had the most control over. In fact, Christopher Doyle, Wong’s cinematographer and longtime collaborator, said that Wong essentially scrapped what Doyle had shot midway through filming and took a much firmer hand in shooting instead. So to see what Wong will do with the restoration would inevitably spark my interest.
Speaking of Criterion, it seems they will be dominating our conversation for this month. A few months ago, we discussed Jacques Rivette‘s Celine and Julie Go Boating for our Living Room Chat when it came out on the Criterion Channel, the streaming service. What is your experience with this film or Rivette, Ian? And are there any other Criterion releases that spark your interest this month?
Ian: Last year, I decided to watch a few more films from the Top 250 Narrative Feature Films on Letterboxd list. Both Kar Wai and Rivette had two films on the list at the time of viewing, Celine and Julie Go Boating being one of Rivette’s films listed. I wasn’t entirely captivated by the film, but I found some interesting aspects to it. Since one of the film’s themes is magic, I like that Rivette casts two friends, Juliet Berto (Celine) and Dominique Labourier (Julie), because not only is their playful relationship credible, but it strengthens the discourse between reality and illusion. Honestly, sometimes I didn’t know what was real life and what was an invention, but maybe that’s partly the purpose of the film, to ask the audience if there’s a line between reality and imagination. Whatever it is one gets from this film, it seems to have made an impression to many.
Eugene: Celine and Julie Go Boating is a bizarre, puzzling work, but I think it’s a compelling one that invites the viewer to find that line between reality and illusion and whether that matters at all. It is possibly Rivette’s most accessible work because of the friendship that you pointed out, Ian. It helps ground the movie and to not lose its sense of fun, no matter how bewildering the film gets. I honestly think it’s a perfect candidate to get on physical media because it demands and rewards rewatching.
The last Criterion coming this month I wanted to talk about is Mike Leigh‘s Secrets & Lies. Leigh’s work is no stranger to Criterion, with four of his films already included in the collection. Secrets & Lies was my personal introduction to Mike Leigh, and I found it to be a devastating work. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a successful optometrist who goes searching for her birth mother, only to find out that her birth mother is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a working-class woman. The greater shock is that Cynthia is White while Hortense is Black. However, the film doesn’t go into a predictable narrative about racism but rather becomes an intimate study of the tentative, fraught relationship and eventual friendship that gradually grows between Hortense and Cynthia as well as the effects it has on the people around them. Leigh’s famous approach of having his actors rehearse and workshop characters and story for months before filming a single frame richly pays off here with the natural, but powerful performances from the whole cast. I will definitely be checking this out when it releases towards the end of March, and I might even revisit some of Mike Leigh’s work that I haven’t seen in years.
Ian: I think Mike Leigh’s approach to doing workshops with his cast long before production on a film begins aids his realistic style. The cast members are given time to become familiar with each other and develop their characters. I know Sally Hawkins, who starred in Happy-Go-Lucky, has spoken of her admiration for Mike Leigh. I find Hawkins’s performances are often credible, particularly in that film, and you can see how relaxed and comfortable she is in the role of Poppy onscreen. I haven’t seen Secrets and Lies, but it is on the ‘1001 Movies to See Before You Die’ list, which I have slowly been working my way through, and this seems the perfect time to watch it.
We now come to a couple of theatrical releases that we are anticipating this month, and both are documentaries. The first of which I’d like to discuss is The Truffle Hunters (dir. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw). It follows a group of elderly men living in rural Italy who hunt for a rare and expensive truffle. It might seem a strange subject for a film to focus on, but I’m intrigued by it. I enjoy watching films about small international communities. I like learning about a new culture and way of life that can often be an uncomplicated way of living.
Eugene: Just from the trailer for Truffle Hunters, I can tell that this documentary could be something really special. As you said Ian, Truffle Hunters seems to be very interested in the community itself rather than the phenomenon of truffles and their exorbitant prices. I was struck by the beautiful images of not just nature but of the people themselves. The directors seemed to be concerned with trying to make a visually arresting movie, one that can make us appreciate the uniqueness of these men and the people that appreciate truffles and hunt for them. I am reminded a little of Honeyland, about a Macedonian beekeeper woman, in terms of the beauty of the images in that film and how literally years of experience and footage were compressed into a coherent, almost too tidy narrative. It will be interesting to see if Truffle Hunters manages to strike that same balance between authenticity and storytelling mastery.
Another notable documentary will be gracing screens this month is Stray (dir. Elizabeth Lo). It is a film about the stray dog community in Istanbul, Turkey. The whole city has a no-kill, no-capture policy to all stray animals. I can’t help being reminded of the film Kedi, which has almost the exact same conceit, except with the stray cats of Istanbul. I enjoyed that doc simply for its patience in recording its many different feline subjects and seeing how they function within the communities that adopt them. Ian, I believe you have seen Stray. What are your impressions? And if you have seen Kedi, do you think the comparison I am drawing is reasonable?
Ian: I saw Stray at the London Film Festival 2020, where it screened on the opening day. I thought it had a very cathartic feel to it. Often we hear about the abuse of animals, and it’s refreshing to see a film where a community embraces stray animals. I haven’t seen Kedi, but from what I have seen of it, the Turks seem to have a similar philosophy of how they regard stray cats as they do with dogs. Stray is also endearing in that it features people who governments often sideline, and how they treat the dogs how they would like to be treated, with love and affection. Many quotations from the Diogenes of Sinope appear throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, there is one in particular, which I think signifies the intentions of Stray: ‘Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog’.
Overall, whether you’re staying at home or cannot wait to get to the cinema, there appears to be some great films to keep cinephiles entertained this month.