Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Romancing in Thin Air (Johnnie To, 2012)

By virtue of their outlandish style, Johnnie To’s films often broach the postmodern and Brechtian even at their most straightforward; think the opening gunfight of Exiled, in which the sight of a door being suspended and even pushed back and forth in midair is both a source of hilarious cognitive dissonance and the oddly logical climax of the sequence. Romancing in Thin Air, though, features the director at his most nuanced and subtle, stylistically grounding the film so that the many flourishes become not par for the course but formal means of breaking down distinctions between art and life.

If the film ultimately erodes such barriers, however, it opens with a clear delineation of reality from artifice. With HDTVs now offering a home cinema experience even for news shows, To pointedly uses analog, full-frame TVs to show actor Michael Lau (Louis Koo) winning Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and proposing to his actress girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Yuanyuan Gao), then being stood up on his wedding day when her first love (a coal miner) turns up out of the blue and wins her back. The farcical turn of events plays out in a constricted frame on old, standard-definition video quality, marking it as something false. But then, what To shows is gossip, the world of celebrity, which belongs neither to the real world outside privileged circles nor to the art that is corrupted by it. But even this aesthetically separated realm is complicated when Michael, driven to alcoholism and ruin, is expelled from the television into the world, the final indignity of the fallen star.

Michael stumbles into the back of a truck and comes to in Shangri-La. No, really. The driver of the truck, Sue (Sammi Cheng), watched Michael’s antics on TV before heading back to the countryside, and when she arrives back at the inn she owns, her co-workers, rabid fans of Michael’s who sob at what has become of him, turn apoplectic when they see her truck in the background of some tabloid footage of Michael. In a small way, the garishness of celebrity press claims a piece of the real world. Eventually, Michael gets out of the car and wanders into the hotel, where Sue catches him playing a piano. Her puzzling reaction, a cautious recognition not of the actor but of someone she knows, sets the film’s deeper explorations into motion.

As it happens, Michael’s piano playing reminded Sue of her husband, Tian, who went missing seven years ago. Flashbacks reveal that Tian was the original innkeeper, a shy man who fell in love with Sue when she would vacation there as a student. Heretofore the only person who treats Michael as the sad human being he has become rather than the heartthrob who sends the other women into frenzies, Sue is shown in the flashbacks to be just as giddily enthusiastic about Michael as her co-workers in the present, and is even a member of Michael’s fan club. To woo her, Tian apes elements of Michael’s films, from motorcycle riding to playing the piano theme Michael composed for a movie. Art adapts life to its purposes, but here, life reworks art to its own.

This makes a warped love triangle between the missing husband, his loyal wife and the star who unknowingly brought them together and now matters to the former superfan less for his own presence than the connection he provides back to the lover who mimicked him. This complicates melodramatic cliché across metaphysical levels, introducing a troubling element to Michael’s rehabilitation and growing relationship with Sue that is further compounded when the man who appropriated Michael’s art to communicate how he felt about Sue subsequently becomes fodder for a film Michael makes with the same intentions.

To fully explore the depths To wrings out of this material would divulge too much of the story and the way it constantly offers surprises despite following a broad genre formula. To’s capacity for visual storytelling is almost unmatched by any contemporary filmmaker, and various shots speak to the slow blending of realities as well as the larger arcs. To establishes Shangri-La with sweeping, naturalistic panoramas, but as Michael and Sue’s interactions become more cinematic, the mise-en-scène grows more stylized. When their nurse-patient relationship inverts in a scene of Michael toting a drunken and despondent Sue through the snow, the sadness of the moment is magnified by the way To and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keng dampen down the forest, removing the twinkle of light on snow that looks so dull and still that the deadness around the characters resembles nuclear winter rather than the seasonal kind. Later, Michael takes Sue to see a film that eerily parallels how Sue lost Tian and how she struggles to let go of him. In one of the film’s most striking shots, the pair sit in the foreground, their heads far enough apart for the space in-between to be filled by the shot on-screen in the film within the film, a close-up of the Sue-esque figure finally removing her wedding ring. The meaning is clear, but the beauty and anguish of the shot overpower its symbolic obviousness, the heady, metaphysical dimensions of the film linked by raw human emotions of grief, desire and coping.

The moment also captures the tonal midpoint Romancing in Thin Air achieves between its affectionate attitude toward how even the lightest piece of populist fluff can speak trigger real feelings and the darker manipulation, even exploitation inherent in art’s relationship to life. The cinema of 2012 has been obsessed with the supposed end of the world, or at least cinema. To's film sidesteps such hyperbolic terms and therefore can grapple with nuanced complexities. As such, Romancing in Thin Air manages to probe the tangible discomforts of its subject matter, wrap them in the dual obsolescences of the melodrama genre and the notion of the remote, rustic countryside as the ideal real world getaway, and emerge with something that proves the enduring vitality and richness of what is being mourned elsewhere this year.

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