FILM / History with a touch of soap

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 18 September 2011 10:01

CHEN KAIGE'S co-winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or, Farewell My Concubine (15), has the melodrama of a soap and the colours of a parade, billowing and swirling like a silk scarf in a breeze. Blowing it along are the winds of change gusting through 20th-century China. The film spans 52 years (1925-77) in the lives of two Peking Opera actors. In each act they're under a different tyranny: the warlords in the 1920s; the Japanese from 1937; Chiang Kai- shek's Kuomintang after the war; followed by the communists and, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution. The actors' personal relationship is equally turbulent. Only their stage act stays steady.

Ironically, given the treachery at the film's every turn, the opera they perform is about the constancy of love: a concubine kills herself rather than see her king vanquished. The singers have played their parts since childhood. We first see them at the inaptly named All Luck and Happiness Academy. It's presided over by the ferocious thrasher, Master Guan (Lu Qi), who resembles Wackford Squeers on mescalin (when he drops dead in mid-harangue, it seems the right way for him to go). Guan beats the boys into their roles, which are assigned according to looks: the Concubine for the delicate Douzi and the King for the powerful Shitou. Shitou shields Douzi from his bullying peers, and so fires a life- long infatuation.

In these bleakly beautiful first scenes, we watch the boys standing in rank, stripped to their chests, singing against the driving snow, and feel the unnaturalness of their discipline. And when Douzi and Shitou, now grown into the celebrated actors Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), are on stage in front of a cheering audience, they have a regal severity, as if all the enjoyment has been beaten out of them. Their commitment to their art is total, so that Duan's breaking from it to woo the prostitute Juxian (Gong Li), is shattering to the besotted Cheng. From here

on their lives are a ping-pong match of betrayal and counter-betrayal: Cheng saves Duan from imprisonment by the Japanese, only to be chided for collaboration; Duan hatches a plan to rescue Cheng from a Kuomintang trial, and has his help flouted in court.

There's a contrast between the film's look and its content. It's shot in a gauzy, soft light, which mutes its bold colours - the blazing reds, greens and golds of the stage costumes - producing the vivid haze of a dream. But its subject is starker. Chen Kaige is arguing the impossibility of faith - in any sphere. His motto might be from Conrad: 'I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.' The film's trek through history shows us that every commitment, political or personal, is doomed.

Even at 155 minutes, the film has problems covering so much ground. Though it rarely strays from one or other of the points of its romantic triangle, the characters can seem dwarfed by history. That may be why Chen chooses not to make them age physically: arresting the ravages of time allows him to concentrate on character. He's superbly served by his actors. Leslie Cheung, as Cheng, has not only the perfect hermaphrodite features, thin and feline, with teased-out arching eyebrows, but the unrequited lover's permanent look of fear, of imminent bereavement. As the object of desire, Zhang Fengyi, his hair shaved into a skin-head version of a pudding basin, is solid and a touch dull, as such objects tend to be. And then there is the great Gong Li. When we first see her, in the beguiling red glow of the House of Blossoms brothel, she lights up the screen. But she can be sluttish as well as radiant - as if seen through Cheng's envious eyes.

The film has wearying patches. It's most stirring in the school section, as Cheng agonisingly struggles with his sexual identity, and in the Cultural Revolution, when the State cruelly connives in the actors' mutual betrayal (the scene verges on the hysterical, may be driven by Chen's guilt at betraying his own father in similar circumstances). You wonder if Chen might have dug deeper by sticking to these two periods. For all its spectacle and drama, the film can feel more like tourism than tragedy.

When was the last great film noir? Maybe as long as 20 years ago, with Chinatown: noir is difficult - especially in this technicolour age - and not very popular. Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (18) is a decent stab in the dark, relocating the genre in Puerto Rican New York, in 1975. We open on Al Pacino's Carlito, almost dead on arrival, moaning on a stretcher: the film, and his street-

poetic narration, will tell us how he got there. From this gravely beautiful scene - a virtuoso sequence of gliding, angled shots, in a blue half- light, set to an eerie score by British composer Patrick Doyle - we cut to Pacino's release from a drugs sentence on a technicality. He's resolved to turn over a new leaf, to make enough money to fly off with his woman, Gail (Penelope Anne Miller), into the sun. Like all noir heroes, he's yearning for freedom.

What's new is the Spanish Harlem setting, with its jiving, hectic streets, cafes under flyovers, and seedy backroom bars where men play pool and women dance topless. 'Now everything is platforms, cocaine and dances I can't do,' rues Carlito. He buys a chromium hell

of a nightclub and tries to keep a

step ahead of the game. He seeks out his old flame, Gail, and in a crazily beautiful scene, watches her dance class from outside in the rain, with

a dustbin lid for an umbrella. When he finally meets her, Pacino makes the words 'Hello, Gail' ring with emotion - warmth, and longing, and a kind of surrender - as only a great actor can.

You expect a fine performance from Pacino, and, with hopeless, hollowed-out eyes, he gives it. You expect the worst from Sean Penn. But, here, he's a hit, playing the sleazeball lawyer to whom Carlito stays loyal. Snorting coke and (much more dangerous) snubbing gangsters, he's the picture of the smart kid who's slipped into the mire and started to wallow there. (The designer Richard Sylbert should win an Oscar for Tackiest Set for the opulent kitsch of Penn's apartment - I wanted to make a bid for it.) Penn and Pacino keep the film fizzing for most of its two and a quarter hours, but there's not enough originality to lift it from the enjoyable to the memorable. The film wends its Way to a climax, and De Palma pulls off another startling station shoot-out. But we're left with wistfulness instead of a killer punch to turn the lights out.

Menace II Society (18), directed by 20-year-old twins, Allen and Albert Hughes, is the latest addition to the cinema of black rage, which is starting to show that anger alone is not enough to fuel art. The pain and hopelessness of black life in the LA hoods are again brought out, but they're left unexplored. Tyrin Turner plays Caine, the sort of promising youth that is doomed in this genre. Raising Caine have been his Christian grandparents, who sit him in front of It's a Wonderful Life on TV, to his evident boredom and alienation. He slips into the life of crime that is his only birthright - he's been watching people kill since he was a boy. The gang life, with its

guns and crack, casual obscenity and misogyny, is expertly caught, but

the Hugheses don't impose their own vision. We're left with the same old cliches and carnage.

There can't have been much aforethought to Malice (15), Harold Becker's preposterous new thriller. Set in a university town, it opens with a girl cycling home: a scream, dangling legs, and an ambulance, and we know we have a serial killer on our hands. Could it be mild-mannered college dean Bill Pullman (an actor sentenced to playing squares), who seems uptight under his V-necked sweater? Or his wife, Nicole Kidman, who suffers from abdominal pains? And what about their lodger from hell, Alec Baldwin, a top surgeon who behaves like a medical student? And is anybody taking this seriously? Sadly, everybody but Baldwin, who gives the material the hammy send-up it deserves. It's worth waiting to hear him pull off the

line: 'I am God.'

At the press screening of the first of Three Films by Hal Hartley, only the sound was at first working. It says something about Hartley's mannered, deliberately alienating style that it took a minute or two for anyone to realise. These early Hartleys inhabit a world at an ironic remove from the real world. In the two shorter films it seems arch and empty. But in Surviving Desire, the 53- minute tale of a literature lecturer's affair with his student (more Dostoyevskian than Platonic), it makes a poignant commentary on the arbitrariness and lunacy of passion.

'Three Films': ICA (071-930 3647) daily 5pm, 7pm, 9pm; mats Sat & Sun 3pm. Other cinema times: Review, page 74.

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