Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren , China-France-Japan, 2015)

SF melodrama

To an extent most films are melodrama because they rely upon a narrative that, by its nature, is contrived and try to engage emotions through exaggeration. That said, melodramas – and there are many different types – do form a distinct genre; in them the emphasis is on relationships, often using a particular time and place for context. Jia Zhang-ke’s films, however, although melodrama (A Touch of Sin may be an exception), emphasise the time and place as much as the characters. Mountains May Depart has an epic scope, it covers 26 years of Tao Shen’s life; at the start she is a young woman having to choose between two male friends.  Strikingly the years cover 1999-2025, so the final section of the film can be defined as science fiction! There aren’t many films that move from the past to the future, unless it’s a time travel narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1968) is one. Whether the final segment is strictly SF is debatable, although there is some futuristic technology, but as writer-director Jia is clearly making a comment about the China of 2015, like most SF it is a film that is about the now.

Somewhat bizarrelyit can be argued the film is based on The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘Go West’. It frames the  narrative which is about the lure of western capitalist values: just like the song, there are scenes on a beach; friends depart; the west (Australia in the final segment) is seen as a kind of utopia. The protagonist, Tao Shen (played brilliantly by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), is seen dancing exuberantly at the start. One of her friends, Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), is a successful businessman; the other, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing), is alienated from the go-getting world that China had become at the end of the 20th century. The film is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province of Northern China; as are a number of his other movies. Fenyang, we see, has an amazing pagoda which sticks out in contrast to the rundown nature of the town. There are some typical Jia almost-surreal shots: blasting dynamite in the ice floes on the river; an aeroplane crashes at the roadside. From a western perspective, China is an unusual place but Jia accentuates this weirdness as a melodramatic emblem of how capitalism is making China a place where no one belongs – Still Life is a great example of this. Jingsheng even names his child ‘Dollar’, such is his love of money.

Whilst the ‘loser’ character somewhat peremptorily drops out of the narrative, the focus is undoubtedly on Tao Shen who struggles to reconcile a life of wealth with a soulless existence. In the final scene, she achieves some kind of redemption though it obviously can only be temporary.

Joker (US-Canada, 2019)

It’s not funny

Superhero films no longer interest me but, fortunately, this isn’t a superhero film. I saw the teaser trailer about six months ago and couldn’t place what type of cinema it was. The grim mise en scene, and disturbing characterisation, suggested arthouse-indie so it was a major surprise to see it was a Warner Bros. film. It’s done superhero level box office, despite its tangential relationship to the Batman franchise; in fact Joker‘s at its weakest when it hints at it being a Joker origin story. Of course, it is set in Gotham City but the film is successful because it focuses on Arthur Fleck’s mental illness. One of the conditions he suffers from is uncontrollable inappropriate laughter; if only for the way Joaquin Phoenix performs that, his is a great performance.

Phoenix doesn’t have to carry the whole film because the production design (Mark Friedberg), cinematography (Lawrence Sher) and direction (Todd Phillips) are all excellent. That Phillips has managed to make, for him, such an uncharacteristic film is surprising as he’s known for comedy (principally the Hangover series, 2009-13); Dave Holmes summarised the reasons behind the genre switch in Esquire:

In a new Vanity Fair cover profile of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he left comedy to direct his new dark comic book drama Joker: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” And then, having said those words out loud in a room where other people could hear him, I swear to God he kept talking: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?”

I’m surprised that anyone stupid enough to use the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument could then make (he also co-scripted) such an intelligent film. It is one of the highest grossing R-rated movies in North America but the gross-out violence is restricted to one scene and there’s an interesting under-current that maybe tapping into the growing realisation that billionaires are a problem and not role models. Phillips wisely channels Scorsese; when watching I assumed the setting was representative of New York in the 1970s but apparently it is 1981. Regardless, there’s no doubt that we are seeing the ‘mean streets’ of Taxi Driver (1976) and celebrity culture is skewered in the same way as Scorsese did in The King of Comedy (1982). Joker shares the latter’s of casting of Robert De Niro and whilst such homages don’t normally work for me, here the combination was perfect: De Niro now playing the Jerry Lewis role.

Beyond the bravura of performance and mise en scene, the focus on mental illness humanises the film. Fleck scrawls notes in his book including ‘the problem is normal people expect the mentally ill to act normal’ (I paraphrase). Phoenix brings pathos to the role of a ‘loser’ who never had a chance; though I think the idea that he  represents ‘incels’ is wide of the mark. While he clearly is a lonely single male who fancies and fantasises about his beautiful neighbour (Zazie Beetz), that isn’t shown to be the cause of his inability to function in society. Obviously it depends on how you read the film and I guess wingnuts on the right might think that Fleck is a role model rather than someone who needs serious help (budget cuts curtail his social worker support).

And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is brilliant; it has sufficient bombast for the chase sequences but it is its use of plangent strings, channeling bleak Icelandic folk, that elevates it out of the routine. Its otherworldliness is a perfect emblem of Fleck’s disordered mind.

A Holllywood blockbuster likely to be one of my film’s of the year; who’d’ve thought it?