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Sunday, February 18, 2007

and the Oscar does not go to...

Every year we all have our choices for the best films and performances not nominated for an Oscar, but what's even worse is when the best films of the year don't even get released in one's home country. Those of us in New York are lucky to have film festivals throughout the year—NDNF, Tribeca, NYFF, others—and we are also treated to occasional film series with the explicit theme of presenting the best unreleased feature films of the year. Sometimes single screenings are our only opportunities to see the best films of the year on a big screen.

The two best unreleased films of 2006 both come from Taiwan, but that should not be surprising. Taiwan and Iran have continuously produced two of the most exciting national cinemas of the past twenty years, and Taiwanese films in particular often have too little narrative action and editing for the typical audience. So, without further ado, here are the two best films unreleased in the States in 2006.

2. Three Times, 2005, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan
NYFF, Alice Tully Hall, October 6, 2005

I don't think there has ever been a filmmaker who has used the long take and the open frame as expressively as Hou Hsiao-Hsien. In films like The Puppetmaster (1993), Hou has demonstrated how the rigorous interrogation of film form can lead to works not just of high æsthetic sophistication but also political and moral commitment. Not that æsthetics and morality have any necessary relationship to each other, but a film that explores both is satisfying on all levels.

Three Times is not an interrogation of national narrative like The Puppetmaster. It is instead three self-contained romance stories, each set in a different decade of the twentieth or twenty-first century. Shu Qi and Chang Chen play the young woman and young man across the century in 1966, 1911, and 2005. Each segment has its own film style and palette of colors, and each one shows a different generation's experience of courtship and romance: from sweet innocence in the 1960's, to the lop-sided balance of power between patron and flower girl in a brothel, to Hou's jaded take on our contemporary moment.

As always in Hou's work, the visuals do more of the work than his barely scripted plots. J. Hoberman, film critic of the Village Voice, has compared the stationary frame that dominates many of his films to cinema's earliest era. In the second segment of Three Times, Hou goes one better by adopting the look and limitations of the silent era. For a filmmaker whose style sometimes involves as much camera movement as a Lumière film, it's quite funny to see him using intertitles for dialogue. I'd urge you to see this film, but you probably can't.

1. The Wayward Cloud, 2005, Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan
BAM Cinema, April 15, 2006

What makes me rank Tsai's film higher than Hou's? It drew me in with humor and eroticism and gradually took me to lower and lower depths of discomfort and nausea. Like Hou and Edward Yang, Tsai typically relies on a style of static long takes and a paucity of event. But not this time.

The film begins with a sex scene involving a watermelon. And what does one do with a watermelon? You will have to see the film to find out, but it manages to be both sexy and funny. Or is it? The Wayward Cloud is a film about pornography, seen from both sides: the finished, polished product and the ugliness of industrialized sex. I don't say this often, but this is not an easy film to watch. And yet we're treated to riotous musical outbreaks with brightly-colored umbrellas and Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers. This film will draw you in and spit you out. Anyone interested in films of audience-complicity or films with two levels that operate at cross purposes needs to see this film, but sadly, you probably can't see this one either.

Why begin Oscar week with an entry about films not even considered for nomination? We need to be mindful of how narrow a sliver of cinema the Oscars comprehend.

And now that we've said that, we can be totally shameless for the rest of the week. Yay. Frankly, I can't wait to see what they're wearing this year.

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