Last week we talked about The Witch, a decidedly strange and mostly effective film that inhabits that wonderful horror subgenre known as “everything’s a metaphor.” But as much as that film defied analysis by modern standards, against all odds demanding to be taken by its own internal logic, its best feature was undoubtedly its skill in creating tension from the mundane.
So, taking The Witch (and its stand-alone essay) as our fifth number, let’s take a look at some other films that effectively captured that elusive quality: a bubble of existence whose logic is its own, a careful structure waiting to fall apart; or a time capsule that, whether we know its context or not, demands that we invest fully in the stakes at hand.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
A tragedy of quiet desperation. I’m convinced no one is capable of ripping out a viewer’s heart with such utter beauty as Wong Kar-wai. He shoots the quiet, confining rooms and narrow staircases of Hong Kong and his protagonists’ lives with breathtaking, searing color and quiet intensity, demanding your attention even as, in truth, very little happens.
A married man and woman, Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen, become neighbors and eventually friends. While each one’s spouse is often gone, emotionally and physically, both are determined to remain faithful despite their clear growing feelings for one another. And even then, their platonic relationship is considered highly inappropriate by the social structure around them. The film’s original title translates roughly to “The Age of Blossoms,” and it couldn’t be more fitting. For 100 minutes, we watch something beautiful flower briefly and then die away, stung by the unrealized potential and yet touched by the poignancy of what was allowed to exist at all. It’s a delicate, unassuming film, and an absolute must-watch of a love story.
Whispering Corridors (1998)
One of the earliest films of South Korea’s New Wave, an era of filmmaking hugely influenced by the national lightening of censorship and content restrictions. The Whispering Corridor series is rather famous for tackling big issues, like brutality in the Korean school system, suicide, and queer relationships; and while the second film is definitely more polished and better known than this first outing (think, comparatively, Evil Dead vs Evil Dead 2), it’s still a worthwhile watch as an undeniably raw piece of filmmaking.
The plot is a basic ghost-student story: a teacher discovers that a student who died nine years ago has continued attending school, but is killed in an apparent suicide before she can tell anyone her discovery. From there the plot follows the deepening relationship between senior students Ji-Oh, a talented artist who’s been discouraged because of her mediocre test scores and reputation as a psychic, and Jae-Yi, a shy girl who offers Ji-Oh a place to paint in the old haunted storage shed; and new teacher Eun-young, who was very close with our supposed ghost.
While the film flies off the rails in the third act, becoming something of a plotting mess and falling down on the horror front due to fairly amateur (even in the 90s) editing techniques (the ghost is made to “move” down the hallway via a very obvious succession of cuts, and so on), the social commentary parts of the film end up being the harrowing bits – the ghost is almost an excuse for these raw, angry bits of subversive filmmaking, determined to show light on something the filmmakers clearly believed in. And while the plot might fall apart, the sincerity of the final confrontation is hard to throw stones at. As admirable as comparable indie offerings Blair Witch or Clerks, and the setup for a true classic to follow.
Millennium Actress (2001)
This might be Satoshi Kon’s least-remembered film, which is a shame because it might also be his best. Certainly it’s his simplest: to commemorate the tearing-down of a movie studio, interviewer Genya Tachibana tracks down the studio’s biggest star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, for an interview. Through that interview we learn about how Chiyoko became an actress, and how she met and kept nearly missing the man of her dreams. But while the plot is ostensibly a biography, it’s far more interested in being a love letter to film. Chiyoko’s stories often become blended with her film roles, with the design and even animation style of a sequence becoming swept up in whatever drama, genre flick, or period piece is going on at the time. And when it quickly becomes clear that Genya is a huge fan of Chiyoko’s work, there’s nothing to stop the interview from falling completely into its flights of fancy (Kon would use this concept later for the interrogation episode of Paranoia Agent).
It’s never quite clear what the truth of Chiyoko’s life story is and what’s faulty memory and fiction, and it doesn’t really matter much. Instead, it’s a meditation of how we define ourselves through our stories and the false familiarity we assume with actors we may never meet – and at the same time, what a thrill it is to fall into exuberant discussion with someone who was as moved by a movie (or etc.) as you were. Chiyoko’s life is, ostensibly, sad: she lives alone, and has been a recluse for the past 30 years. But she’s not sad, and the film isn’t sad for her. It’s too busy gasping over the vibrancy of her inner life, and rewarding us for taking a second look.
The Haunting (1963)
Most Americans have a familiarity with Shirley Jackson – it’s damn near impossible to escape from public education without having read “The Lottery,” the favorite object lesson of twist endings and unreliable narration of English textbooks everywhere. But that tends to be where it stops, meaning that a lot of people probably missed out on The Haunting of Hill House, the excellent novel on which this film is based. All this is partly just because I’m intrigued by certain cultural literacy related-works that become, in effect, authorless by being boiled down to the plot points as they’re taught, but also because the connection might tell at least some of you what a masterful writer of social psychology is at the core of this one.
Dr. John Markway is conducting an experiment on psychic phenomena, because this was the 60s and believing ESP was real was a bit of a fad. Markway invites three people who’ve ostensibly had documented psychic experiments to spend a few days at Hill House, which has a nasty history of supposedly killing everyone whose ever stayed there or owned the house long term. Luke has recently inherited the place and is looking to turn a profit off it, never mind all this ghost stuff. Theo is a supposed clairvoyant and about as gay as the film can loudly imply under the restrictions of the time. And then there’s Eleanor, the closest thing to our protagonist: an anxious woman who until recently was responsible for the care of her ailing mother, who by all accounts was an awful human being toward the end. This trip to Hill House is Eleanor’s first real outing as an independent adult despite being in her 30s, and she’s determined to find the whole thing romantic. Which is hard when there are poundings on the wall and mysterious cold spots that seem to be calling her.
The Haunting falls under the same broad umbrella of horror as The Witch: we’re watching one person speed toward a breakdown, and the realness of the supernatural events matter far less than the effect their having on the protagonist’s stability. While the movie couldn’t be called scary by modern estimation, it still succeeds in creating a sense of oppression and dread that never really lifts, and a pervasive sense of sorrow and sympathy for Eleanor even when her mind begins to take agitated leaps that we, as the audience, can’t follow. Julie Harris’ performance is key to the whole film, though the whole ensemble is strong. And the smartly sparing use of visual effects in the name of gloomy gothic lighting and a reliance on character means that the film has aged impeccably. It’s still a fantastic psychological drama fifty years after its initial release.
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Excellent picks. If I ever want to make myself sad, all I need to do is think about Julie Harris’s line reading of why Eleanor always sleeps on her left side.
Are you familiar with the post-war Japanese cinema Millennium Actress is playing with? Along with the fun references (hey, that’s Throne of Blood! And that film was definitely directed by Ozu!), I appreciate how it captures the feminine world of these films. Nearly all the major works of the period (Akira Kurosawa’s are very much an exception) are deeply concerned with the lives of women, played by some of the greatest actresses in screen history. Chiyoko is based on one of them, the radiant Setsuko Hara, who was a major star before she retired from acting in the sixties and led a very private life until her death last year.
My experience with Live Action Japanese film is tragically limited (mostly to a few Kurosawa films – MY GOD Ran is a fine work of art), so that’s clearly something to add to the to-do list.
I loooooooove Millennium Actress so much! Thank you for including it on this list. Although, is it really that forgotten among Kon’s work? I always thought of Paprika as the forgotten/undervalued Kon film.
Almost to a person, I find that folks are most likely to have seen either Perfect Blue or Paprika – since Paprika was Kon’s last film it’s the most modern looking, and it’s also one of the only ones still in print, making it the easiest to find.