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To Each His Own

December 9, 2010

Below are two shorts from two of my favorite directors who never fail to stir. Taken from “Chacun son cinéma” (2007), an anthology film commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

Wong Kar-Wai – I travelled 9000 km to give it to you

Two gun shots. A darkened cinema. A juicy orange splits into half sensually at the urge of well-manicured, feminine hands. Within pulses of shadow and light, under the blood red spell of Godard, desire bursts open like mist of summer, sticky and enticing, and passes from one to another.

That Year, I met her.

She places the open fruit in his palm, her band of commitment visible. He slips his unadorned hand along her skin, full of bare promises. They are both taken. With each other. Not with each other.

A rare desire seized me,
Stormy, intense, bittersweet.

Doomed and intimate, Bach’s cello suite no. 1 prelude rips into the air, and suddenly the moment is crystalized. With each deep riff, the red shoes and red seats tremble, summer dress swishes and summer fruit crushes, and forever is narrowly but urgently etched within those strings of the heart, coming and going not a moment too soon.


Red seats. Yellow dress. Blue strings.

That August… the long, hot summer afternoon.

*(Note: The italic bold sentences are my translations of the Chinese narrative sentences in the short. Shown inverted, they are mirror images of the original sentences, rendering them unreadable at first glance… such a WKW thing to do)

Hou Hsiao-hsien – The Electric Princess Picture House

Underneath faded sky and vintage billboards, people mill around in front of an elegantly aged theater. Familiar faces of street vendors smile while bright-eyed children hover about. Ladies in kitten heels and demure dresses float through. A tricycle with blue seats and washed-out teal umbrella passes by. A car pulls up. A family of four gets out. The father in his tailored military uniform. The mother in a gentle gray dress with floral hem. Two little girls excited chatter over hot corn. This is a day at the movies.

As the happy family steps through the door and melts into the red curtains, time and dates seem to shuffle. We follow them into an abandoned theater, spoken of a lost time and a tradition long gone. Bresson’s great “Mouchette” comes to life on a lonely screen, the bumper carts seem to swirl of a joy that can only be remembered, but never touched again.

Nostalgia and Narrative. How does one invoke the other? It is fascinating for me to discover the tremendous emotional impact these two shorts exert in these brief minutes, comparable in depth but drastically different in style.

For me, Wong Kar-Wai films come down to moments: ephemeral, hypnotic, ecstatic moments that both compose and distill of his oeuvre. They are also full of contradictions, simultaneously fleeting and eternal, urgent and longing, ambiguous and sure, unspoken and absolute, drenched with emotions and forever thirsty for more. Note the contrast between left hands here: his and hers. The first time they touch, we only see the status of one, and ambiguity hangs in the air. By the second time, the status of both are revealed in full, and the heavy Bach strings kick in to mark both the promise and doom of such brief contact. Note the unspoken and spoken words here. Note the layers of cinematic beauty unfolding: onscreen, offscreen, and finally…onscreen? Note the primary colors: red, yellow, and blues that are unpainted but looming in the air. Note the close-ups of the eyes, the feet, what is seen, what is felt. Note the shadows and the lights, the flickering and the flourishing. For me, it is physically and emotionally impossible to not fall in love with a Wong Kar-Wai film, because everything is noted with an undertone of such nostalgia and restrained desire. With saturated lens and passionate frames, Wong paints a world of possibilities that is too hard to say no to when invited.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work, on the other hand, holds a patient, subtle, almost delicate sensibility. What’s happening on screen may not always be pretty, but will be interesting and infinitely revealing. Here, the vintage amber tint bathes everything in a nostalgic light. There is no sense of urgency as the camera holds the frame, and zooms in slowly on a typical day of a favorite family past-time in a passed decade. The mood is calm. The feeling one of hope. The little details of life passing reveal themselves: a bicycle, a hot corn, an apron, a ribbon in a little girl’s hair…each miniscule, but together they build up to a feeling of life lived with care and joy. And then as the music seamlessly fade away with the characters as the red curtain lifts, we realize the fragility of those lives lived, and their inevitable passing. A melancholy naturally seeps into the frame as it pushes forward steadily through the dilapidated theater…and comes to a stop. Black and white footage of a young girl’s tragic coming-of-age tale flashes on the screen, playing for all the ghosts in audience. Luckily, those are some of her better days, and perhaps, the same can be said for us.

Aptly named “To Each His Own Cinema,” these commissioned shorts are indicative of the filmmakers’ own taste of nostalgia. If Wong Kar-Wai is a lake of mysterious depth and legendary creatures, Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a gentle stream of ever-flowing currents that, at the right angles, is reflective of the many hues of clear, brilliant sunlight. The difference in narrative and style, though evident at first, almost disappears upon repeated viewings. Both Wong and Hou build a mood of nostalgia through particular uses of colors, music, and tributes to cinematic legends. There is a richness in the layering of both shorts, a sense of unveiling — Wong does so by revealing, almost to the rhythm of baited breath, the nature of desire between his two faceless leads, where as Hou literally and figuratively unveils a cinematic curtain between two times in the same place by taking us on a journey through the eyes of a family. Both are ambiguous: Wong in the mix between cinema and reality, and Hou in the separation between past and present. However, both surprise their audiences by absorbing them into the space within the frames, setting them into a mood, and beautifully leaving them there.

What is nostalgia but a mood for something that we want, but are restrained from having? In a way it is definitive of all human melodrama. In a way it plays a memorable part in the narrative of most human experiences: happiness, sadness, loneliness, joy. You have probably encountered it some time in your life, and if not, count yourself lucky (or not). Our lives are entangled in experiences of the present and memories of the past, and we can’t help but constantly compare the two while in anticipation of the future. Given that you can’t stop the flow of time, nostalgia will eventually come to you.

Some people are born young at heart. I, I was born an old lady. Perhaps that is why I am fond of things aged and forgotten, for they remind me of a time that I for all physical purposes, can not have had, but long to return to so desperately.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 9:33 AM

    i think it’s 洶湧 – gushing?

    • Grace permalink*
      December 9, 2010 10:17 PM

      That’s it! Big thanks. I’d go for stormy or turbulent…have made the change accordingly.

  2. December 9, 2010 1:04 PM

    I read this review in an email and found myself wondering about the phenomenon of comparing the experiences of the present and memories of the past. Those words so perfectly described what I’ve been doing since entering my ninth decade of life that I was immediately curious about how two film directors from a culture different than mine managed to so move you. Your words were deeply impressive. Then I saw the two shorts and found myself transported, experiencing and participating in a way that was very familiar to me. The empty theaters. two lovers enjoying the solitude, Bach’s Cello Suite stirring my soul, the bumper cars that I loved so much as a youngster were all arousing wonderful memories. I thank you for this Grace. I feel so privileged to be able to read your writings.

  3. January 10, 2011 11:26 PM

    I also have a fondness for things past. The flip-side is that I have trouble letting go of the past, especially if my memories of those times are good. And yet, if I cannot let go of them, they threaten to overwhelm my present, and prevent my future.

    There’s a quote from Requiem for a Nun by Faulkner that’s appropriate here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    These short films, and the memories it stirs in you (and me), prove that.

    P.S. I consider myself an old soul with a young heart. I feel one can be both.

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