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Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…
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Review: The Docks of New York (1928)

Josef von Sternberg once jokingly proclaimed that his films should be viewed upside down to better appreciate the play of light and shade, which the director regarded as the dominant components of his film. As a consummate aesthetician, Sternberg was willing to sacrifice the care for scripts and storyline to that of pictorial logic, or, with Marlene Dietrich for example, who was the outsize star of his seven films, to a more pressing need to accentuate the lustrous appeal of the actors. For wordless visual has a story of its own, which frequently departs from, or contradicts, the story it is supposed to supplement. With silent films, the visual assumes a preponderant role in storytelling, though words, in the abstract form of ideas, or scraps of disparate thoughts, are the real driver behind the images.
Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) nonetheless offers a rare instance in which two stories, sometimes deceptively overlaid, are told respectively by the visual and the words, seem…

Review: Vivre sa vie (1962)

In Emile Zola’s Nana the heroine, a high-class courtesan of the Parisian demimonde, is likened to “those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons;” her beauty is poisonous, like “a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage;” always the victor, she remains “as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal,” reigning over a host of ruined men, who fall from her hands “like ripe fruits… lie rotting on the ground.”
Like her possible namesake, the heroine of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) is a victim of the society’s increasing commodification of feminine attributes. Wearing her hair in a sleek, Flapper bob, this Nana also recalls Louise Brooks’s character in Pandora’s Box (1929), whose lethal sexuality eventually blindfolds her to danger, and dies at the hand of Jack the Ripper. Nana, though a striking beauty, lacks the skill of coquetry and the air of conspiratorial knowingness peculiar to an archetypal femme fatale, and is thus portrayed in…

Review: Lola (1961)

Life consists of equal parts of choice and equal parts of chance. This is what those who subscribe to indeterminism, which argues against the notion that causation is invariably explainable by reason, would have us believe. Aristotle was one of the early thinkers to ponder on the wonders of what would be known as aetiology, the establishment of causes and origin for an event, and concluded that there were accidents in life that could be attributed to no other cause than chance, which stands outside the disciplines of activities developed out of necessity. But it is also this inexorableness of chance that subjects every rigorous system of thought to the threat of precariousness – every journey is liable to be suddenly swerved from its determined path, just as every traveller is warned never to take his arrival for granted. 
In theory, the elusive presence of chance defies the interference of man, or anything that is man-made. In other words, the attempt to manifest the notion in words, …

Review: Band of Outsiders (1964)

Whim and caprice dominated the ‘60s. It was a period of slow convalescence from the aftermath of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression; a period of unrest and revolt, resulted from a protracted hopelessness the people had felt towards the grim prospect of the immediate future, and a just indignation of their unrelieved squalor. It was also a period that saw a light to the problem of an identity crisis that seized the lost and the dispossessed, as the collective repugnance for tyranny and enforced servility necessitated a call for self-liberation. The naiveté of going against the conventional, as this self-liberation invariably took form, culminated in a radical iconoclasm that favoured a constitution of individuality that obstinately resisted any outward influence. The Theatre of the Absurd was, in a sense, a riposte to this pervasive “counterculture” that sought to disentangle from the past through an arbitrary myth-making. Often in a mock-parodic manner the mov…

Review: Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Every adversity in life is a test of one's fortitude, the occasion of which, as proved invariably in the past, man is capable of defying destiny, of reversing the inexorable course to which life is doomed to tend. Too often we sympathise with the travails of the dogged, indefatigable fighter, whose hard-on victory we shed tears of relief and admiration, and whose stories and examples we evoke when in need of a boost of morale or motivation, that our notion of heroism has come to be hallowed with a glow of divinity peculiar to those who triumph in their fights. Those who fail – the martyrs who labour for nothing, who die without fulfilling what they die for – they are regarded with no less sympathy, but to recount their stories we averse, refusing to be reminded of what ultimately makes us humans – our inherent and infinite capacity to fail.
To face up to one’s failures, especially with the forlorn hope that such failures can ever be remedied, requires a special kind of courage. Wil…

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.
The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of V…