“The Fish Fall in Love” - Ali Rafie (2006)

Sometimes a significant aspect of a narrative, besides the telling of events in the "present", is the slow disclosure of the backstory.  A stranger or long-absent colleague shows up in a community, and there is something about that person’s background that represents a puzzle that must be disclosed – both to us and to some of the members of that community.  This is the driving force behind The Fish Fall in Love (aka When Fish Fall in Love, Mahiha Ashegh Mishavand, 2006).  In fact the puzzlement around the film’s backstory is pushed to an extreme that perhaps represents the film’s weakness as well as its fascination.

Because the backstory is so much the focus in The Fish Fall in Love, and the viewer spends much of his or her time trying to unravel it in order to uncover the motivations of the main character, it can also help to be mindful of the backstory behind the film’s creator, the distinguished Iranian playwright and stage director, Ali Rafie.  Rafie originally studied sociology and theater in France, graduating from the Sorbonne with a PhD in 1974.  When he returned to Iran, he was soon jailed because of his criticisms of state censorship, but he eventually went on to establish himself as both a practitioner and academic, – achieving distinction as a stage director, stage designer, costume designer, and playwright.  Finally at the age of sixty-eight, he undertook his first venture into filmmaking with The Fish Fall in Love.

In this story, the most significant actions occur outside of the events depicted.  Either they took place before the film started – the backstory I have been telling you about.  Or they take place offscreen.  Or perhaps more significantly, they take place after the last frame has been shown.  The plot concerns a middle-aged man, Aziz, who returns to his hometown after a long absence and wishes to settle some affairs.  We want to know why he was absent and what he plans to do now that he’s back.  The fate of several people in the story will depend on what he chooses to do.  Although there are numerous scenes involving a number of related characters, the focalization is centered around three main figures:
  • Aziz (played by Reza Kianan), who is returning to his hometown after twenty-two years
  • Atieh (Roya Nonahali), the former girlfriend of Aziz
  • Touka (Golshifteh Farahani), who is Atieh’s daughter
With the many little scenes, the story meanders along, offering slivers of information that one might piece together in order to guess what Aziz is up to.  But I partition these scenes into four main sections.
1.  Prologue
Aziz is traveling in a hired car from Tehran to an Iranian port town on the Caspian sea.  At a roadside café along the way, Aziz chats with a young man, Reza, who is traveling in the same car.  Reza's job at a local fish farm qualifies him to be an expert on fish.  So Aziz asks him the difference between farmed fish and fish caught in the wild, and Reza explains that farmed fish are flabby and tasteless, because of their confinement.  On the other hand, wild fish are more adventurous and fearlessly swim upstream in order to spawn – hence they are sometimes called “lovers”.  This will be a metaphor for the entire film, because Aziz, who has spent time in prison, is inhibited and suffers from self-doubt – he is not a wild fish.
A little later on up the road to the Caspian, their car is stopped at a police checkpoint, and Reza is arrested and handcuffed, for some undisclosed charge.

2.  Aziz arrives in the seapor
When Aziz arrives in town, he visits a restaurant run by a woman who silently recognizes him through a small window.  It is Aziz’s former fiancé, Atieh.  Although it takes awhile, we eventually learn that this restaurant is actually a house that belongs to Aziz’s family, and he has returned to this town to reclaim it.  Atieh, along with her daughter, her sister, and an adopted lady friend, has been using this building to host her restaurant for the past ten or so years.  Now they are all terrified that Aziz is going to reclaim his old home and leave the women destitute and without a home or a place for their business.
Aziz goes on to meet old friends, Rahmat and Younes, who relate to him what has happened in the town during his long absence.  They are interested to know whether Aziz is going to meet up with Atieh, but Aziz shrinks from the idea – “I’m scared she’ll tell me to get lost,” he says.  We eventually learn that Aziz’s absence from the town is associated with his having been jailed more than twenty-two years earlier (they refer to him as having been a “revolutionary”, so he was presumably jailed for political reasons after the revolution).  His well-to-do father had managed to buy his son’s liberty and get him out of the country by selling the family factory to Rahmat.  Also at the time of Aziz’s arrest, Atieh’s father, in order to stifle “gossip” about his daughter and Aziz, had  forced her to marry the first available suitor. 
This is the first mention of “gossip”, which is referenced several times in the film. I take this referent to be a veiled codeword for the oppressive conservative social forces and attendant pervasive surveillance that one must always be mindful of in Iran ever since the revolution.

We also learn that after several years of a loveless marriage, Atieh’s abusive husband had disappeared in his fishing boat, leaving her alone with her six-year-old daughter, Touka.  Afterwards, Atieh had then opened her restaurant in order to make ends meet.

It further turns out that the Reza we already saw and who was arrested in the early Prologue section is Touka’s fiancé.  Aziz knows that Reza is in jail, but noone else seems to know about Reza’s whereabouts.

The scenes with Aziz in this section are interspersed with scenes of the four women merrily bustling about in the kitchen of their popular restaurant and enthusiastically serving their customers.  When Aziz shows up at the restaurant, though, Atieh, defensive about having used his home for more than a decade, assures him that they will all soon clear out of his house and that he can immediately occupy an upstairs bedroom.
So the stage is set, and issues must be resolved.  Are Aziz and Atieh going to renew their old love affair?  Or is Aziz going to go through with his plans to reclaim his old house and force the women out?  What will be the fate of Touka and her jailed fiancé, Reza?

3.  Plans and Preparations
This section of the film indicates that further steps are being taken, but it is unclear what will happen.  Aziz has decided to stay awhile in the town, and the main motivation for this is his concern about Reza’s fate, which reminds him of his own arrest some twenty years earlier.  Aziz secures the services of a lawyer, but his legal intentions are unclear (although the women assume that it is associated with Aziz’s reclamation of his house).  Aziz also discovers, thanks to his friend Younes, that he still owns a hillside cabin outside of town, which he had years ago  promised to his fiancé Atieh to be their married home.
Nevertheless, under the sway of Touka’s romantic optimism, the four women do what they can to comfort the shy and taciturn Aziz by serving him delicious meals every day. But when Aziz visits the restaurant for a serious discussion about the house, the over-stressed Atieh faints and has to be taken to the hospital.

4. Going Home
With Atieh away in the hospital, Touka and the ladies continue to serve delicious meals to Aziz, and they gradually get to know each other better.  When Atieh comes home from the hospital, the four women and Aziz begin dining together and the social ice has been broken.  Aziz seems to be such a genial gentleman; he couldn’t really be intending to turn the women out of his house, could he? 

But when Aziz’s lawyer shows up at the restaurant while Aziz is away, Atieh fears the worst.  She tells Aziz off when she sees him and accuses him of once again letting her down and leaving her miserable.  Stung and silenced by her vituperation, Aziz returns to his room and prepares to leave.

In the final scene, Reza is seen to have been released from prison, and he arrives at the Restaurant and rings the doorbell. Meanwhile Atieh goes to Aziz’s upstairs room the next day and sees that he has departed.  Then in the final shots she is seen driving her truck, with considerable doubt and trepidation, towards Aziz’s family cabin.
The story of The Fish Fall in Love is really about the fear of expressing love in the face of possible rejection. Aziz, once confined in prison (as was Rafie), is no longer the “revolutionary” that he was in his youth.  Life’s disappointments have apparently worn him down.  He is now like the farmed fish, not the fearless “lover” fish who swims upstream.  There is a telling conversation that he has with Touka in the third section of the film.  Touka, grieving about the disappearance of Reza, says that she is crying a bellyful of tears.
"You know the luckiest people are those who know how to sob a bellyful of tears”.
“Can I ask a question?”

“If it’s an easy one.”

“Why didn’t you come home after you got out of prison?”

“I did come back, but noone was waiting for me.   I wanted to forget everything.”

“And did you forget?”

“What would you have done in my position?”

“That depends on how much I loved her.”

“Or how much she loves you.”
Aziz here reveals his own vulnerability and focus on his own losses – he felt rejected when he return for the town years ago and discovered that Atieh was married.  He realizes that Atieh will probably never forgive him for abandoning her – even if he had been forced to leave the country by circumstances outside of his control.  Atieh, too, is fearful of expressing her true feelings to Aziz.  She feels that in the male-dominated society with which she has had to struggle to survive, Aziz is just another male ready to reclaim what belongs to him.  She has managed to survive over the years by her own hard work and expressing herself in the best way that she could.  In Iran, as in many countries around the world, the preparation of food can serve as a significant form of personal expression for women, whose wider self-expression is curtailed in other dimensions (for a further example of such culinary self-expression, see Dariush Mehrjui's 1992 film, Sara).

The young people in the film, Touka and Reza, are much less timid.  This is particularly true of Touka, who sustains the film’s narrative energy and who is effectively portrayed by the beautiful and spirited Golfshifteh Farahani.  Touka is the fearless fish, daringly dashing about the town and into customary male-oriented environments in search Reza’s whereabouts.  It is she who counsels her mother at one point when the two of them are observing Aziz and the other women from a distance, “Aziz needs love, Mother”.

The fear of expressing one’s love is confounded by the further fear of expressing oneself in the face of an oppressive social climate.  In such a climate one often only knows little pieces of the truth, and one must guess the rest.  As viewers of the film, we are placed in the same situation of making guesses.  There are clearly cultural limits to what Rafie is able express in his story, so we have to make some further guesses.  It is quite possible Aziz and Atieh may have had premarital sex back in those old days and that Atieh had been pregnant at the time of Aziz's banishment.  This would explain why Atieh’s father had to marry his daughter off immediately. It would also mean that Touka is actually Aziz’s daughter.

As for what Aziz actually did with his lawyer, we can at least guess that Aziz sold his house to buy Reza’s freedom from jail, just as his father had done for him many years earlier. Speculating further and from the point of view of practical likelihoods, you might make the guess that Aziz, seeing that Atieh has no love for him, has headed back to Tehran alone.

But if you are more romantically fired, like Touka, you will see it another way.  Aziz, not having the fortitude to make a passionate expression of love, has left it up to Atieh to decide whether she truly wants him.  He has left the house (which he has just sold) and gone to the cabin to see if Atieh will come to him.  And, indeed, Atieh does come.  So it turns out that Atieh, more than Aziz, is the passionate fish that swims upstream.

For my taste, this film is a bit too roundabout and dispassionate.  What passion there is comes not from Aziz, but from the women, like Atieh and Touka.  This is not the only Iranian film I have seen in which the women have more emotional fortitude than the men.  They are the often the fearless lovers willing to take the risks of swimming against the current.

“The Dark Knight” - Christopher Nolan (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008) has been both a huge critical success and enormously popular at the box office, having earned more than $1 billion worldwide.  Directed and co-scripted by the still relatively youthful Christopher Nolan (Memento, 2000; The Prestige, 2006; and Inception, 2010), it is the second part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which began with Batman Begins (2005) and will conclude with the upcoming The Dark Knights Rises.  Normally a film with such a level of popularity, such as many of the films by Alfred Hitchcock, has a more or less universally compelling narrative that grips its breathless audience to see just how the story will unfold.  However, I don’t believe this is the case with The Dark Knight, so the secrets of its success must lie in other domains.

The Batman mythology has been continuously popular in the United States since its 1939 introduction in the comic book medium, and there have been numerous films and television series in the intervening years, notably Tim Burton’s noirish film Batman (1989) and the artistically crafted TV series Batman, the Animated Series (1992).  Part of this lasting popularity arises from the colorful villains that have been Batman’s nemeses – a set of twisted underworld characters with bizarre appearances and habits. This and the generally nocturnal underworld settings conjure up some elements of film noir, a brooding, existentialist genre where the principal characters have troubled, questionable backgrounds and no discernible futures.  Indeed both the 1989 Batman and Batman, the Animated Series were successful precisely because of their exaggerated exploitation of film noir atmospherics.  But The Dark Knight doesn’t have that kind of evocation, and I would not classify this film as a film noir. 

Returning to the subject of the Batman story’s characteristically colorful villains, I would say that one of the most disturbing (and hence fascinating) depictions in this realm was Jack Nicholson’s characterization of “The Joker” in the 1989 Batman – disturbing because although one would expect the The Joker to be absurdly ludicrous, one wouldn’t expect this villain to be so threatening.  Nicholson’s characterization of The Joker, though, evoked something very dark, almost apocalyptic behind that freakish smile.  In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, The Joker is again the malefactor, and I suspect that Nolan was inspired or influenced by that earlier work and intended to summon up similar shudders of horror that Nicholson had evoked.  But I don’t think he succeeded in that particular area of characterization, either.

Anyway, let’s consider the story of The Dark Knight, and what if has to offer.   Even though this is the second installment of a trilogy, the film should stand on its own as a narrative and not require the viewer to know everything about the previous Batman Begins.  There are five principal characters in this story.
  • Batman, who in everyday life is Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale).  Although we are basically familiar with this character from popular culture, the character of Bruce Wayne doesn’t have much definition in this film.  And when he is dressed up as Batman, he seems to be someone else altogether.
  • Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckart).  He is the Gotham City district attorney and Batman’s ally, although a romantic rival for the attentions of Rachel Dawes.  Dent is an idealistic type, but again, we have a comic-book level of depth to the characterization.  When a horrific event turns Dent into Two-Face, there seems to be no connection with his previous character. 
  • Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Wayne’s childhood friend and now an assistant district attorney, Dawes represents the feminine pole of romantic attraction.  But in this film she doesn’t have much to do other than to dither for awhile between choosing Dent or Wayne.
  • The Joker (Heath Ledger).  Here is the dark force of chaos, but Nolan errs by giving The Joker too much screen time.  All that we can get out of this character is that he is sadistic and bent on nonstop destruction.  But the more we see of the slavering Heath Ledger, the more mundane and merely contemptible (as opposed to other-worldly demonic) he becomes.
  • Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).  He is the good cop, and the only human and believable character in the story, thus making him, from my perspective, the real hero of this film instead of Batman. 
Although the story plays out primarily as an extended series of violent encounters between Batman and his enemies, one might partition these encounters into five general headings.
1. The Setup – some establishing sequences outlining the power balance that will dominate the rest of the film.
  • The Joker and his gang of thugs rob a bank.  Along the way, The Joker casually kills off all of his gang so that he doesn’t have to split up the loot.
  • Police lieutenant Jim Gordon and Batman decided to include new District Attorney Harvey Dent into their schemes to thwart the crime Mob of Gotham City, which is dominated by three gangsters: Gambol, Maroni, and The Chechen.
  • At a meeting of the Mob leaders, a Chinese Mob accountant, Lau, informs them that he had securely hidden their ill-gotten funds offshore in Hong Kong.  The Joker breaks into the meeting and offers to bump off Batman, but he is rebuffed. 
  • The Joker then kills Gambol and takes over his gang. 
  • Batman later captures Lau overseas and delivers him back to Gotham City.
Lau will soon be of no consequence, and one wonders why there was much interest in him in the first place.
2. The Joker’s Assault on the City 
The Joker wants the identity of Batman to be revealed and begins assassinating city officials.  First the police commissioner and an anti-crime judge are killed, with DA Dent the next named target. When The Joker tries to kill the mayor, Lt. Gordon saves him and pretends to be killed in the process.  Dent is whisked away in a police van, but with The Joker and his thugs in hot pursuit, there is a lengthy, violent gun battle on the city streets which eventuates in The Joker’s capture.

3. The Joker’s Assault on Batman’s Team
Even with The Joker in jail, he manages to have Dent and Rachel captured and scheduled to be blown up simultaneously in separate locations.   Batman makes an effort at rescuing, them, but Rachel is killed in the explosion at her location, and Dent has half of his face burned off, turning him into the psychopath, Two-Face.  Then The Joker uses more bombs to escape from the police jail.
4. The Joker Wild
With The Joker now loose, he unleashes further mayhem on the city by threatening to bomb a hospital.  The Joker goes on to visit the mutilated Dent/Two-Face in the city hospital and convinces him to go out and become a vengeful killer.  As The Joker departs the hospital he has it blown to pieces. 
Then The Joker has two city ferries rigged with radio-wired explosives such that each ferry can trigger the destruction of the other.  He instructs the passengers that unless one of the ferries chooses to annihilate its pair by midnight, he will have them both blown up.  However, Batman, aided by a massive sonar-fed supercomputer, finds The Joker and captures him in the nick of time.
5. Finale
Dent/Two-Face lures Gordon into a building and threatens to kill him and his family, depending on the outcome of coin tosses.  Batman arrives, and Dent shoots him; but Batman is protected by his high-tech suit and kills Dent.  Batman then decides to protect Dent’s clean public image by taking responsibility for Dent’s vengeful murders.  The film closes with a massive manhunt launched to capture the newly proclaimed public enemy: Batman
So The Dark Knight just consists of an extensive sequence of hyper-violent encounters between Batman and a sadistic maniac, The Joker.  But though there is lots of action,  there is little dramatic progression to this sequence.  Admittedly the violent sequences are staged with top-level special effects and are visually kinetic to the highest degree.  But the dramatic tension and buildup to these scenes is missing; so it’s more like a theme-park roller coaster ride than a drama. 

Looking further at the dramatic elements, there are additional problems.  The character dual between Batman and The Joker is less interesting than one might expect. 
  • Batman, at least when he has donned his Batman suit, appears to be a mindless growling brute.  He relies on high-tech equipment that has been supplied to him by Wayne Enterprises, but he himself seems to have no plan, no strategy.  He relies on brute force, and much of the time he just uses his fists to beat up the various villains that he encounters.
  • The Joker, in contrast, though he claims to have no plan and perhaps no overall strategy, certainly has detailed tactics.  He seems to be mentally one step ahead of Batman at every turn. 
As a moral tale, The Dark Knight is equally benighted.  It is true that Batman refuses to kill, but he is essentially an angry, emotional thug.  His adversary, The Joker, is also uninteresting, because his character is completely opaque and therefore unmotivated.  Too much screen time is wasted showing his slavering grimaces, which merely make him mundane.

In this vein, it interesting to compare and contrast two other films: Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s narratively inferior Aliens (1986).  In Alien, the invasive monster is a rarely seen shape-shifter, which renders it all the more fearful.  As we watch Alien, our imaginations struggle to fathom the compass and scope of this monster, and therefore we become effectively paralyzed in fear.  In Cameron’s Aliens, however, the monster is a huge, noisy brute, but it lacks the mysterious cosmic dimensions of Scott’s monster.  Nolan makes the same mistake in The Dark Knight by showing too much of The Joker’s talking and whining and thereby trivializing him.

Indeed one might compare Christopher Nolan to both James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.  All of them are cinematic architects – they tend to craft vast, awe-inspiring cinematic environments that overwhelm the viewer with their oppressive intensity.  But these same directors often fail to craft the compelling narratives that are needed to operate inside those atmospheric environments and that can fire our imaginations.

Christopher Nolan

Films of Christopher Nolan:

"Where Is the Friend's Home?" - Abbas Kiarostami (1987)

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami began writing and directing films, both features and documentaries, in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until his seventh feature, Where Is The Friend’s Home (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?, 1987) that he established his reputation outside of Iran.  Like many modestly budgeted Iranian films of those days, including Kiarostami’s earlier works, this film is a child’s story, presumably for the reason that such subjects are less likely to involve social restrictions than would stories about more mature men and women. 

Since then Kiarostami’s reputation soared, and he has gone on to receive considerable international acclaim for a string of uniquely stylized successes, including Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990), Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Zeyton, 1994), Taste of Cherry (Ta'am-e-Gilās, 1997 and winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival), The Wind Will Carry Us (Bād Mā-rā Khāhad Bord, 1999), and 10 (Ten, 2002).  All these films have been characterized by his signature self-reflexive and long-take cinematography, along with overt invocations of Iranian poetry and mystical philosophy – the summation of which give his films a distinctly intellectual air and which has drawn the admiration of intellectual critics the world over. Indeed, in the fashion of many well-educated Iranians, Kiarostami has multiple cultural inclinations that include poetry composition, painting, and graphical design, and these interests are reflected in those later works.  In contrast with those subsequent films, the present film under examination, Where Is My Friend’s Home?, is a more modest and straightforward movie.  Nevertheless, I think it is Kiarostami’s most entertainingly satisfying cinematic experience for the viewer.

In some ways one might compare Kiarostami to Luis Bunuel.  Both of them were obliged to work in conventional commercial formats (in Bunuel’s case, as an expatriate in Mexico), and then both subsequently received accolades that gave them the latitude to try more intellectually adventuresome and personally expressive works.  And yet, for both, those early constraining production circumstances may have somehow contributed to their producing their best work.  In the case of Where Is the Friend’s Home?, what we have is a deceptively simple little story that seems trivial: an eight-year-old schoolboy has mistakenly taken his friend’s schoolbook and has to return it to him.  But this film benefits from not straying far from its straightforward goal that everyone can understand; and that is what carries the narrative along.  As the film progresses, though, we gradually detect a deeper theme: this boy’s sense of “doing the right thing” is almost continually in conflict with the confusing world of rules and duties that are imposed on him by the adult world.

The film narrative proceeds in five parts.
1.  The problem
In the small northern village of Koker (Kiarostami would later situate some other films in this village), Ahmed Ahmadpoor and Mohamad Reza Nematzadeh are two boys sitting in the local schoolroom (not surprisingly, boys only) and listening to the stern admonitions of their strict schoolteacher.  Mohamad Reza again hasn’t written his homework into his school workbook and is warned that one more such violation and he will be expelled from the school.  When the school bell rings and the boys run outside, Mohamad Reza drops his workbook, and in the ensuing commotion, Ahmed mistakenly goes home with both his and his friend’s workbook.

At home Ahmed’s mother, busy with housework, continually gives her boy menial jobs and refuses to let him go outside and return Mohamad Reza’s schoolbook.  Among the chores, though, is to go fetch some bread from the local bakery, and Ahmed seizes this opportunity to rush outside with the schoolbook in search of his friend’s home, whose location he only knows to be in the neighbouring village of Poshteh.
2.  1st trip to Poshteh
Poshteh seems to be a couple of kilometres away from Koker, and Ahmed runs all the way there to look for his friend’s house.  As Ahmed runs across the countryside, the viewer gets a feeling for the pastoral life in this locale.  Once in Poshteh, Ahmed asks around, and we see that the adults have little time to pay attention to the questions of an 8-year-old boy.  But by luck Ahmed happens onto a classmate who lives there but who only knows where Mohamad Reza’s cousin Hemmati lives.  When Ahmed finally finds that house, though, he learns that Hemmati has just gone off to Koker.  So now Ahmed has to run all the way back to Koker.

3.  Return to Koker
As he runs past a storefront in Koker, Ahmed passes by his grandfather, who sternly questions why the boy has gone outside the village. Afterwards, when Ahmed is out of earshot, the grandfather tells an elderly friend that all young people need to be continually disciplined in order to grow up properly.  In fact, he says, it is generally good for a boy to be beaten every two weeks, come what may, whether he has misbehaved or not.

A tradesman shows up at the storefront, and during a bit of rural local color as the man tries to hawk his iron doors, Ahmed overhears the surname Nematzadeh mentioned and tries to speak to the man.  But here, as elsewhere, the adults pay no attention to the boy other than to give orders and recommend punishments.  The tradesman brusquely gets on his donkey and heads off to Poshteh, with Ahmed, thinking that he may have found Mohamad Reza’s father, in hot pursuit.

4.  2nd trip to Poshteh
Back in Poshteh, Ahmed finally finds the tradesman’s son, but it is not Mohamad Reza.  By this time it has become dusk, but Ahmed does manage finally to find a man who will talk to him and who promises to show him his friend’s house.  But it turns out that this is an old man who just seems to be looking for anyone to listen to his tales about the virtues of his former craft, making traditional wooden doors, which, he complains, are now everywhere being foolishly replaced by the more “modern” iron doors, even though the traditional wooden doors (a symbol for the traditional Iranian ways that are being replaced by imported modernity) are more beautifully crafted.  Although this old man is friendly, Ahmed begins to suspect that the man just wants a listener and doesn’t really know where his friend lives.  He finally discontinues his quest and runs all the way back to Koker in the dark.
5.  Back in Koker again

Back at home, Ahmed’s parents are occupied with their own routines and again pay no attention to him, and he still hasn’t done his own homework or managed to do the right thing by his friend Mohamad Reza.  But a schoolboy who has spent the whole day trying to solve a problem is not just going to give up just like that.  You can see the film, yourself, to find out how things turn out the next day in school.
Kiarostami’s cinematography is straightforward and intuitive in the film.  The focalization is almost entirely that of the boy, Ahmed, and we see everything from his anxious perspective, where things that may seem trivial for adults can have considerable magnitude.  To maintain this sense of immediate involvement, Kiarostami doesn’t employ the long, fixed-camera takes that characterize his later films.   Here instead,  the visual continuity is well motivated, and even the many shots of Ahmed running across the countryside are smoothly and naturally executed.

There are some interesting moral issues in Where Is The Friend’s Home?.  Ahmed is always utterly sincere and instinctively honest towards everyone.  But sometimes there are higher principles than literal honesty. His ultimate goal is one of compassion: to help his friend, Mohamad Reza, and this is manifested in Part 1 when he helps his friend after he has fallen down and dropped his schoolbook.  In so doing, though, he accidentally walked away with his friend’s schoolbook, and now his primary goal is to return the book.  This is not just to expunge his own guilt, but represents a continuation of his sincere concern for his friend’s vulnerability of expulsion from school.  Adherence to this higher goal trumps more mundane rules that one follows.  So although he is instinctively honest, Ahmed, in pursuit of the higher good, does hesitantly make compromises with literal truth at several turns.  In Part 1 he is supposed to get bread and pretends to do so, but instead rushes off to Poshteh with his friend’s schoolbook.  Later in part 4 he effectively lies to the old man by implying that he has found his friend’s house and returned the book.  And there is still one further lie to come.

"Fallen Angels" - Wong Kar Wai (1995)

Of all the Wong Kar Wai films, this is my favorite: Fallen Angels (1995).  This film is a further exploration of the unique, lush, inscrutable, yet intuitively sensuous, cinematic aesthetic of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi). To some extent, in fact, this film represents a further step in Wong’s aesthetic progression that was in evidence in his earlier films, As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), and Chungking Express (1993). 

Again we are witness not so much to an outward, external narrative that depicts a progression of significant events, but to an internal narrative of subjective yearning for love.  Throughout Wong’s films one senses that his characters are cut off from real, meaningful engagement with others.  Much of the time we witness the non-events of missed opportunities and lost connections, as his principal characters try to come to the grips with their endless search for an authentic and satisfying connection with another person.  The lives of Wong’s people are primarily taking place in their own dreamworlds, which are sometimes radically mismatched with and disconnected from reality.  Wong, the Master of the Broken Heart, highlights this sense of frustrated isolation with several memorable scenes of sexual self-gratification.  In addition, the moody ambience of loneliness is ironically accentuated by the crowded environs and atmosphere of Hong Kong, a cramped and intensely claustrophobic urban jungle.  Wong achieves this pervasive sense of existential longing by means of his expressionistic visual and temporal stylistics that make his films less like traditional stories and more like extended riffs of beat poetry.  

Fallen Angels (Duo Luo Tian Shi) is closely connected with its predecessor, Chungking Express, since the themes in this film were originally planned to be additional parts of the multithreaded Chungking Express but were ultimately cut out from that story.  The setting here is still in the colourful Chungking Mansions locale of Hong Kong, and there are somewhat jocular allusions, or perhaps homages, to the earlier film at various points.  For example, Tekeshi Kaneshiro, plays lovelorn principal characters in both films, and his Fallen Angels character has some explicit connections with his Chungking Express character. In the earlier film he was cop #223, while in Fallen Angels he is (an escaped) prisoner #223.  Moreover, his earlier character honored his former girlfriend by eating daily doses of her favorite food, pineapple; while in this film we are told that it was his childhood consumption of a tainted dose of pineapple that made him permanently mute.

Like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels has two narrative threads that are only loosely and occasionally connected with each other.  While Chungking Express expressed its two threads serially, Fallen Angels, interleaves their presentation, as we switch back and forth between the two.  This switching back and forth perhaps creates the unfulfilled expectation that their parallel actions are more closely connected than they turn out to be, but never mind – the connection is more associated with the internal, psychic canvass than with what is going on in the external world.

The first narrative thread involves three principal characters:
  • Wong Chi-Ming (played by Leon Lai) – a cold-blooded and alienated contract killer for the Hong Kong gangster community.  He can get into an amiable conversation on a bus with an old schoolmate just after having killed a roomful of people.
  • The Agent (Michelle Reis) – a gorgeous gangster “manager” who makes specific arrangements for the killings.  She and Wong are strictly business partners, but she secretly yearns for an amorous involvement with Wong.
  • Blondie (Karen Mok) – a pretty and vivacious punky girl with died hair who falls in love with Wong.
The second narrative also features three main characters:
  • He Zhiwu (Tekeshi Kaneshiro) – a mute eccentric who has escaped from some institution (perhaps a mental institution) in which he had been confined.  He makes his living by breaking into shops after they have closed for the night and making passers-by pay him money in order not to be his customers.
  • He’s father (Chen Wanlei) – he is an assistant manager of the Chungking Mansions hotel.
  • Cherry (Charlie Young) – a beautiful girl that He Zhiwu occasionally meets on the streets and with whom he falls in love.
Although throughout the film there are various spectacular and bloody gangland shootouts, as well as laughably absurd nocturnal street encounters involving He Zhiwu, this film is really about the disappointments of the sought-after love affairs involving the main characters.  Like its counterpart, Chungking Express, the narrative presentation follows the inner monologue voiceovers of the two principal main characters, Wong and He Zhiwu (although he is mute, we still hear his voice in voiceover).  But there is a distinct difference in perspective.  While in Chungking Express we followed the internal sufferings of the two principal males who had been dumped by their girlfriends, here the ones who suffer unrequited love are primarily the women.   But we see these suffering women from the outside – basically from the man’s perspective, not from an internal perspective.  There are some inner voiceovers from two of the female characters, but they are brief and don’t seem to represent their authentic feelings.  Instead those few voiceover moments seem to be showing the girls trying to cover their feelings, both to the unseen witness and to themselves, in an effort to save face.  And the two male perspectives here are extreme opposites.  Wong is alienated from human feelings and avoids meaningful relationships.  Perhaps partly on account of this attitude, the women he meets are strongly attracted to him.  He Zhiwu, Wong’s opposite, desperately wants to make human contact, but be cannot express himself and noone wants him around.

The two stories of Fallen Angels go through four phases.
1.  Establishing the base relationships
  • 1st thread.  Wong lives in a tiny, cramped apartment next to the subway, which is cleaned every day by his “agent”, who has been his business partner for three years.  She “cases” the intended hit scenes and then faxes a drawing to Wong so that he can know how to attack and plan his escape routes.  The agent lives in the hotel managed by He Zhiwu’s father.
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu, escaped prisoner #223, hides in the gangster agent’s apartment while fleeing the cops.  He spends his time at night hassling people to pay him money so that he will stop annoying them.  This segment also establishes the one meaningful relationship that He Zhiwu has, that with his father.
2.  New relationships
  • 1st thread.  Wong meets Blondie at a McDonald’s.  Like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, Wong is self-obsessed and likes to admire himself in the mirror.  Meanwhile Wong’s agent seethes with lust for Wong back in her own apartment.
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu meets and befriends Cherry, whose boyfriend has just dumped her for another “Blondie”.  He Zhiwu helps Cherry look around for her old boyfriend and in the process falls in love with her.
3.  Lost Opportunities
  • 1st thread.  Blondie anguishes over the ephemerality of her one-night stand with Wong, who says good-bye to her and then proceeds to dissolve his business relationship with his manager – an act that has disastrous consequences. 
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu loses track of Cherry, but later discovers that she has become an airline stewardess (another homage to Chungking Express), has a new boyfriend, and has forgotten even what the heartbroken He looks like.
4.  Finale 
There is a final merger of the two threads, when Wong’s agent happens onto He Zhiwu during one of her gangster operations.
What makes this film so appealing?  As usual with Wong, the expressionistic cinematography of Chris Doyle plays a big part.  There is incessant use of wide-angle camera shots that bizarrely distort and enhance the sense of separation on the part of the perceiver.  This is sometimes alternated with long-lens shots, in the fashion of Antonioni, where the depth of field is so short that only the subject of interest is in focus and the background is entirely blurred.   There are relentless moving camera shots, sometimes closely tracking faces as people walk through a scene.  The occasional shifts to black-and-white color renderings accentuate a lovesick character’s bleak feelings of unfeeling dismissal by his or her beloved.  Additionally, there are odd glances, like memory fragments, that momentarily focus on a piece of clothing, a curve of a leg, a torso – all memorabilia that persist in the mind.  

It has the same nocturnal, brooding flavor as Chungking Express, only perhaps a little better.  This may be due to the magnetic performances of the three women, particularly Karen Mok, who energize the screen with emotion.  Although everyone in Hong Kong, it seems, is trying to mask his or her true feelings, the women are inevitably more emotional and compelling than the more stoical men.  It’s all a dream, and yet this is the real world in which most of us live.  It is the realm of consciousness – longing after moments and fragments that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and which in retrospect were thrilling, but which then quickly disappear and are lost forever.  Particularly memorable are the haunting shots of He Zhiwu riding on his motorcycle through a dark tunnel that seems to lead straight into the unknown darkness of the future.  Fallen Angels ends on one of those shots.