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Shanghai Triad was a nice movie, though I wouldn't say it was a good movie. Partially on principle in fact, because I find Zhang Yimou's movies to be ridiculously overrated in the west. I think Gong Li is horribly miscast (her role should have been played by someone a bit more lithe), and on the whole I think the film has some messy storytelling, but it does some really nice work with the conventions of the gangster genre.

Two things in particular stand out in the film, one is the use of the theme of the conspiracy that the intended victim is using to his advantage, the second is some of the mother/son themes the work their way into this an other gangster films.

There is not much to be said about the scheme that is used against you plot, other than its a rather charming plot that is used most effectively in gangster films. The point of the plot being somewhere between "you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," and "you can't fight the wrath of God." If one takes the religious dimension of this plot at full face value (which I'm not suggesting that you do, but I have the impression that Borges was playing with it in the several detective stories he wrote around this plot structure) then the gangster form of the plot would have something of a devilish turn to it.

I have a deep sympathy for damned if you do damned if you don't plots, a sympathy that I never quite understood the reason for. The fatalistic plot is as old as Greek tragedy, and there is a seemingly insensible turn of logic in these stories that makes the glory of man his struggle to overcome his own insignificance. People in these gangster plots are going to their death as a moral imperative, which is a strangely beautiful concept. (This might be worth comparing to Blade Runner).

The kind of Public Enemyesque oedipal story I find rather interesting in this film. The boy's "father" is of course evil, and willing to kill him. His "mother" is a risque woman, which is nice. Whats good about that bit of the story is that the morality of both the man and the woman's position are outside of consideration. The reason why the boy sympathizes with the "mother" as opposed to the "father" is that he sees her out of context (or in the context of her actual life, as opposed to her active life), whereas the father is always rather shadowy. So the value judgment here is that the woman is a living thing whereas the gangster is a force. Action, forces that push you forward, always seem to push the boy a little closer to the grave.

Dreams is, I believe, my favorite Kurosawa film, though I should note that on the whole I don't particularly like Kurosawa films. The more I think about it though, the more affectionate I become towards compilations of short films. About half of these films are great, half are rather plain, the few that are great are good enough to make up for all the rest.

The film is composed of a series of dreams that Kurosawa had in his life, progressing from several childhood dreams to dreams in his old age. The childhood dreams are quite amazing, especially the first. In this early dream, a young boy is told by his mother to leave his house because he saw the fox marriage which brought bad luck upon the house (foxes are a common demon in Japanese mythology), he goes in to the wood and sees a progression of people, he watches them move slowly, and then they all turn and face him with fox masks on.

Besides just being a stunning piece of camera work (no matter how much I find Kurosawa dull, I have to admit he knows how to use a camera), the film is positively eerie, and I think gets a much stronger point across than the overtly environmentalist pieces later in the film.

A point I try to make often in this blog (which comes from a rather outdated discussion in film theory), is that there are two modes of discourse in cinema, there is the allegorical and the ontological. The allegorical is where the filmmaker sets up a set, a story, a piece of editing, in order to say something, whether it be that Sally is going to kiss Joe, Sally loves Joe, or that we need to save the world from the destruction of the earth. In order ot make these points the filmmaker uses techniques slightly more sophisticated than a novelist, but the end goal is roughly the same.

The ontological level of discourse has to do with the disconnect between the intended meaning created through film language, and the physical presence of a human being on the camera.

The most interesting pieces of film use the allegorical level of discourse to denote the ontological level of discourse, but in doing play with the human experience of being. Godard is the ideal example of someone not narrativizing an experience but narrativizing experience in general (Wong Kar Wai does this as well), Tarkovsky and Sokurov turn being as such into narrative.

In this first piece in Dreams we are not being told a story, because there is no story as such to tell, there is no point to the story. We are being shown a dream, but it is not a dream, in the dream the foxes would most likely be either real foxes, humans, or both humans and foxes at the same time (dreams can do that), it is rather unlikely that the foxes would be people wearing a mask. The people are wearing a fox mask not because that is the content of the narrative (since the whole narrative is to tell us a dream), but because the dream has become theater... without a stage. The dream has become a real version of an unconscious moment (real in a way), without ever becoming real.

Reality and dreams are never as far apart as one would make them seem. That is all this piece is trying to say, and both can be so beautiful they are frightening. Or perhaps so frightening they are beautiful.

Worth watching, despite the fact that Scorcese should never ever try to pretend that he's Van Gogh.