Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Things Dan Watched: Possession & A Chinese Ghost Story

Sometimes I aspire to be a pretentious dick. Part of me sees myself (or would like to see myself) as a member of the cinematic literati, a man of impeccable taste who watches only the most austere, sophisticated films, while furrowing my brow in a manner indicative of my absolute seriousness and focus on critical analysis, possibly while wearing a smoking jacket and sipping on a glass of brandy. Yet despite my earnest forays, especially recently, into the cinema of revered auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (and a very real appreciation of those filmmakers), at the end of the day I'm a basic kind of guy. My interest in film is far more personal than academic, and though I have some interest in different branches of film theory, I tend to be biased towards films that work directly on my emotions, or those that go for bold stylistic gestures, rather than those that appeal to my intellect, or emphasize stylistic restrain and maturity, or are meant to be viewed through certain theoretical frameworks.

Which is my longwinded way of explaining why I enjoy weirdo cult movies so much despite my aspirations to serious cinephilia. I'm still hoping/planning to include some more serious-minded films in upcoming Something Dan Watched posts, but for right now it seems that it's turned into a forum for me to recommend bizarre, slightly obscure films that I enjoyed. And today I have two for you.

Possession stars Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill as a married couple on the skids; she's leaving him for another man, and he is not taking it well. Now, I'll try to step lightly here because I don't want to give too much away, although I'm not sure how much you can spoil a movie that doesn't make a lot of sense. The husband moves out, but discovers that the wife is neglecting their young son. The husband confronts her lover, a flamboyant European sex machine, but it devolves into an awkward fist fight. He confronts the wife and it devolves into... her trying to slice open her neck with an electric knife, and he matches her by slicing up his own arm. Then he meets his son's schoolteacher, who looks exactly like his wife with different hair, so naturally he starts an affair with her. And he keeps on having weird confrontations with his wife that culminate in things happening like her stepping in front of a tow truck, causing it to swerve and send the demolished cars it was hauling flying onto the sidewalk.

I'm just talking about the first 20 minutes or so, before the movie really gets weird. I'll stop talking specifics now and just say that the movie then rushes headlong into mystery, murder, grotesqueness, and some very, very transgressive sex, all with an unexpected supernatural bent (although nothing to do with demonic possession, as the title might lead you to expect). And it may culminate with the apocalypse. Or something.

The early scenes of Possession threw me; it seemed pitched at too high of an energy level, with a lot of overacting and melodramatic dialogue. What I first thought might have been bad acting and writing turned out to be a deliberate stylistic choice. Possession sustains a manic energy for its entire 2 hours, with nowhere to go but up: you think you're already at a 10, then you find out that this one goes to 11. It's main goal seems to be to do whatever it takes to get a reaction out of the audience, to put them on edge or confound them at every turn. Actors assume random ticks, spasming and flopping around during some scenes for no discernible reason. The camera work is just as intense and overly-stylized: for example, if a character sits down in a rocking chair, the camera will rock with them. The plot grows increasingly bizarre and audacious, veering frequently from broad comedy to melodrama to freakish horror. And when that's not enough, it'll throw everything at you at one, as in a scene where Adjani suddenly begins screaming and flailing around, before inexplicably secreting weird, viscous fluids.

I have to praise the acting, especially the lead roles. The behavior of the characters grows increasingly erratic and inexplicable during the film, yet Adjani and Neill ground it in a certain internal consistency while still relishing every exaggerated second of it. I was familiar with Adjani's work from Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H and Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, so I knew she could play madness and handle herself well amidst all the weirdness. Neill, on the other hand, I'm more used to see play buttoned-down straight men, so it's a real treat seeing him go for broke.

I have never seen another film by director Andrzej Zulawski, but I may have to seek one out. Possession is an inspired work of insanity, a seemingly endless treasure trove of horrific surrealism. It moves with the relentless pace of a nightmare, following its own twisted logic that doesn't make rational sense but is persuasive nonetheless. Lest I'm making this sound like a work of empty provocation (not that provocation doesn't have it's place), I suspect that the film is a genuine attempt to deal with the ugly emotions of a messy divorce, translated into visceral, horror movie terms.

The next movie I wanted to mention has little in common with Possession, despite also being a horror film (ish), except for a similar desire to cram as many ideas into each shot as humanely possible. I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about A Chinese Ghost Story, but I definitely give it a strong recommendation to fans of 80's horror/comedies. The best description I can give it is that it's like a kung-fu version of Evil Dead II. The plot concerns some silliness about a goofy ne'er-do-well who falls in love with a ghost and has to do battle with her evil ghost family, but that's all just an excuse to wow the audience with a bunch of exuberant, imaginative special effects.

You get stop-motion ghouls, a giant tongue monster, an army of the dead, a POV shot from a ghoul traveling down someone's throat, and lots of berserk supernaturally enhanced martial arts scenes. Any time the movie stops to focus on character or exposition the energy flags a little too much, but all the flipped out action makes up for the dull spots.

The reason I sought this film out, oddly enough, is because Renny Harlin mentioned it on the epic length Nightmare On Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again. Apparently it was a major influence on Harlin when he made part 4 (The Dream Master, my favorite of the series), and it clearly took inspiration from A Chinese Ghost Story's crazy, inventive special effects.

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