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Best Films of 1989

The Big Red One
The Shining
'Breaker' Morant

After Hours
Full Metal Jacket
Dead Ringers
Monsieur Hire


BEST FILMS OF 1989 - List in Progress
by Mike Lorefice

A City of Sadness
Hsiao-hsien Hou

With restrictions on discussing certain historical topics lifted in 1987, Hsiao-hsien Hou took a break from his autobiographical works to craft a family saga that's filtered through the events leading up to the birth of the new Taiwan in 1949 with the KMT shifting their headquarters after losing the civil war in China to the communists. China immediately took over in 1945, as Japan's surrender to the Allies ended their half century reign. The reunion was welcomed, but strife quickly arose with the realization the new government was corrupt, inefficient, and nepotistic, giving monopolies to the government, which natives where prohibited from participating in, and soon silenced the press and persecuting intellectuals. A major difference from his films of the last ten years, from Flowers of Shanghai to Three Times, is Hou's early works deal predominantly with males. A City of Sadness depicts the lives of a father and his four grown sons, one of which is believed to have been killed fighting in the Philippines. Through brother #2 Wen-Leung (Jack Gao) we see that an influx of gangsters shifted the behavior of the local gangsters to survivalist methods. The mute brother Wen-Ching, wonderfully portrayed by Tony Leung, represents the lack of communication in a country where the official language has been shifted from Japanese to Mandarin and a handful of languages and dialects are now spoken. Hou's film isn't specifically political, the major event called the 228 incident where the Nationalist Party declares martial law and massacres at least 18,000 is depicted only through a horde of incoming patients at the hospital nurse Hinome (Xin Shufen) works at. Since this isn't a Hollywood film the environment effects everyone whether they like it or not though, as the conflicts and decisions from above involve all the citizens somehow. Hou's interest lies in portraying the indirect consequences. His social realism is a record of life. There are no heroes and he makes no plays on are emotions or sentiments. Hou's use of long, distanced deep focus photography and refusal to appeal to the audience allow big and small events to be treated equally. He understands all the grand emotions can be found in small, fleeting, forgettable moments, and perhaps that they've even the pleasures of day to day life. The film is far more talkative than Hou's recent works, but that's necessary given massive scope with a plethora of characters involved in his elliptical narrative of the nation. The best scenes involve Leung's photographer, as Hou tells the story through gesture, sign language, intertitles of Wen-Ching's words scrawled on paper, and stills. These scenes counterpoint the importance of sound in the others, and link to the diaries of his lover Hinome, who in a sense says all she cannot speak to him. A restrained work that's very successful in achieving its goal of depicting the impact of family decay on the individual and, to a lesser extent, the importance of communication. Hou's following works The Puppet Master & Good Men, Good Women complete his trilogy on 20th century Taiwan. [5/14/07] ***


The Icicle Thief
Maurizio Nichetti

Maurizio Nichetti achieves a rare accomplishment here, basing a comedy on a starkly realistic masterpiece without lessening the classic in any way. A very perceptive farce about contemporary TV culture that is extremely funny while siding with the audience as well as the best of vintage bleak drama. The film within the film starts with a talk show designed to promote the night's lineup of films, which Nichetti appears in to promote his latest. The host, who has prepared for other "more worthy" works thinks Nichetti is garbage, but of course is forced to pretend Nichetti is amazing (though his contempt isn't masked as well as usual given he doesn't let him get a word in). Providing another perspective, we see the average family attempting to watch this on TV (only one member actually pays some attention). When the station begins to air Nichetti's film it switches to black and white in what appears to be a version of the De Sica's legendary downbeat neo-realist work The Bicycle Thief though it actually stars Nichetti without his trademark mustache and frayed hair (the English title of Nichetti's film is perhaps a joke on the fact that TV hacks out part of the film). The film of real life trials and tribulations is soon and regularly interrupted by ridiculous color fantasy world commercials with scantily clad English speaking women, which disrespects the work and more importantly takes the audience out of the setting and mood. As the film progresses the characters from the film, TV commercials, and audience blend until they are mixed beyond recognition, severely altering the desires of the director and audience and creating new films and commercials. Nichetti the director winds up a character trying to save his own film from the butchery of the TV station, but the characters he created don't know him; he's no longer the director and his scenario constantly backfires on him allowing for his superb silent and early sound era comedy. Commercials entering the neo-realist world put more pressure on the poor parents, who can't even afford potatoes much less the junk food their child now wants. But this will for escapism works in every direction, due to TV every person or character wants a life that's simply different than their own. The point of this transcendent work is we can no longer tell the entertainment from the advertisements, and thus we can no longer tell our desires from what they want us to desire. [7/16/06] ***1/2

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