Thursday, January 18, 2018

Four distinctive games from 2017

There are a few games that came out in 2017 that were notable to me because they helped me think more flexibly about the function of video games. A lot of games I played in 2017 that didn't come out in 2017 were similarly impressive. Interestingly, some of these games illuminated things for me that apply more to games in other genres. Also, some of them were "games" only nominally - that is, they were heavily linear, and treated the player mainly as an audience for a story; nevertheless, I always found that whatever small role the player does have in those games bears significantly on their experience of that story.

Regarding controls:
What Remains of Edith Finch
Super Mario Odyssey

I mention these games together because the first taught me something about what conditions the way it feels to play a game, and the latter applies that in a number of impressive ways. 

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch (with a controller, at least) is like holding an object that keeps changing its properties. Slow vs. fast, free vs. restricted, smooth vs. angular, fluid vs. staccato. The instruments of the controller, the rhythms and patterns with which you operate them, and the way the animations correspond with your actions all define the way the game feels. The variety of the Finch house and the characters' lives registers because it gives you a direct experience of different objects and locations therein. 

This shifting of texture is less sustained in Super Mario Odyssey, but it's still there every time you control a new enemy. Unlike Edith Finch, which is trying to augment its narrative force, Super Mario Odyssey is trying to stimulate the player's creativity. To that end, it gives you a wide move set that changes depending on the level you're in, presents you with problems whose solutions range from free-form to highly specific. It encourages you to learn the full scope of what you can do, and then sets you loose to apply them as you please. And in the same way Edith Finch's sensory variety makes it rewarding to explore the Finch house, Super Mario Odyssey makes it rewarding to act on your curiosity. It's also relentlessly positive, from obvious touches like the punchy music and animation whenever you get a moon to smaller ones like applause that plays whenever you collect a lot of coins in a row. 

Regarding consequence:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Night in the Woods

These games could scarcely be more different. They have less in common than Edith Finch and Super Mario Odyssey do, and those games only resemble each other in one very specific respect. Breath of the Wild is an open-world RPG that gives the player so much freedom they could run away from the final boss. Night in the Woods does give the player a measure of control over the story they see, but that story is composed of vignettes that always go the same way. Breath of the Wild's Link has no memories, and the personality traits he displays in dialogue options and animations are childlike and utilitarian. He's primarily a blank slate whose will is defined by the player's will. Night in the Woods, meanwhile, is defined by the strength of the main character Mae's personality: the story's conflict, and the limits of what can happen in it, are all set by her. I group these games together because they were by far my two favorite games to come out last year, and they both appealed to me because of how they handle the concept of the player's choices having consequence. 

Breath of the Wild makes you feel like your actions have genuine consequence, which means it doesn't begin to feel inert and empty as quickly as similarly massive open-world games. I've played Grand Theft Auto 4, Saints Row 2, and The Elder Scrolls, and while I appreciated them for a while, they eventually became unpalatable. Their worlds can be satisfying to explore, but the activities available therein cease to be rewarding after a while. 

Breath of the Wild gets repetitive but remains rewarding because you're always in need. Your weapons break, so you always need to pick up more; Link is rather fragile, so you use up healing items quickly. Whatever you find when you go to a new place is, more often than not, going to be something you have a genuine use for. The difficulty scales such that whatever weapons you might be able to pick up in a given location will be appropriately strong for that location, giving you some room to improvise in combat and conserve your stronger weapons you might need for other parts of the game. 

The purpose of games like this isn't to end, but to be exhausted by the player. I wouldn't say it's a weakness of GTA or similar games that they're exhausted more quickly than Breath of the Wild, though I would say it's a strength of Breath of the Wild that it can sustain itself for so long. 

Moreover, Breath of the Wild excels in ways that a lot of other open-world games I've played severely fall short. Most of the shrines exhibit good level design, and both the shrines and many other parts of the game are very good at letting the player figure out how to do things from subtle clues. There are a lot of mechanics, each with a variety of uses, and the game rewards you for experimenting without forcing you to adopt only one solution to a given problem. 

Contrast this with something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in which most mechanics have limited or situational utility, and many of them become redundant when the player gains access to a different mechanic. Skyrim wants to give the player freedom to explore, but also freedom to customize their character in a variety of ways, which makes redundancies necessary. Breath of the Wild doesn't have this problem because it doesn't have character customization, but it compensates by including a lot of variety into the different kinds of weapons and strategies available to you.

Breath of the Wild works so well as an open-world game because the world contains things to do, and those things feel like they're worth doing. Night in the Woods works as a restricted narrative game because it makes you feel like you should have control at points where you don't.

Mae does a lot of awkward, cruel, and self-destructive things in Night in the Woods, and it feels like the player should be able to get around them by choosing the right dialogue options, or simply not doing them. But you have to: like NieR, the game refuses to allow you progress unless you do things that feel wrong.

The story of What Remains of Edith Finch is enhanced by giving you a direct sensory experience of the Finch house; the story of Night in the Woods is enhanced by giving you a cognitive experience of being unable to do what you think would be good for you, or what you think would make the world better than it is.

Every character in Night in the Woods - Mae's parents; her friends Bea, Gregg, Angus, and Selma; the town pastor Karen; and even the game's villains - struggles with being restricted by the postindustrial town where the game is set. They have family ties, moral convictions, or still haven't saved enough money to move somewhere else, or are adjusting to a new job after abruptly losing their previous one.

What about Mae herself? She often struggles to say the right thing, tells unwelcome jokes, hesitates to talk about her problems or own up to her mistakes, and constantly does reckless things. What restricts her is internal. To some degree it's just a matter of failing to do a good job dealing with the stress of life; but by the end of the game we realize it's also a matter of mental illness. It's a topic Night in the Woods treats on only briefly, but still with more insight and sensitivity than most things do, within and outside the realm of video games.

One thing that surprised me about Night in the Woods was that Bea saw more good in Mae than I did. I don't mean to sound judgmental towards Mae, but part the reason I liked her was because of the distance the game puts between her and the player by refusing to allow you to avert her destructive impulses. But Bea appreciated Mae's efforts to do the right thing, the character traits those efforts reflected, and some of her other qualities more than she disdained the problems she causes.

Night in the Woods shows that both persistence and change can hurt people, and we can't always control when one or the other comes about in our lives. The feeling of being restricted and the feeling of life slipping away can both cause anxiety and disdain. These things will always be around, for everyone, but you can build faculties and relationships that help you get past them reliably when they arise. There are things you can do to enjoy life. They're all imperfect and none of them last forever, but Night in the Woods reminds us that they're not nothing.

Hopefully you can see why I think there's some vague resemblance between the reason I liked Breath of the Wild and the reason I liked Night in the Woods, even though the two games have almost nothing in common. I think it's easier to justify the claim that What Remains of Edith Finch and Super Mario Odyssey have something in common, because there the resemblance is more tangible than introspective. These aren't necessarily the best games I played from 2017 (though Night in the Woods, Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey were my three favorites, in order of precendence), but they did all make me think about what there is to appreciate about video games.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


The combat in Bloodborne is a little easier to learn than the very similar combat in the Souls games, but still not quite intuitive enough to pick up without some effort. Fortunately, the game is strong enough to get that effort from you without giving away that it's doing that. Bloodborne's initial areas have you following a fairly straightforward path to where you eventually find the Cleric Beast. By then, you've hopefully gained a good enough sense of timing to fight it. You know how long it takes to pull of certain attacks, to cross certain distances, and to heal yourself. 

It feels quite different to fight the Cleric Beast than the other initial enemies, but the game's combat is simple enough that learning it in one context enables you to adapt to many. That said, I wouldn't want to sell short the depth of Bloodborne's combat system: it may have fewer weapons than Dark Souls, but each weapon has a variety of moves with noticeably different effects, and with some experimentation, you can make even the slowest moves a major part of your arsenal.

The biggest example of this in my experience of the game was with the Kirkhammer. In the Forbidden Woods, the most common enemies are small knots of snakes. They aren't especially threatening, but I did find myself expending a lot of time getting rid of them. Naturally, I started trying different attacks with the hammer, finding that a charged power attack with the Kirkhammer in its hammer mode could kill them in one hit. That's a very, very slow attack, but the window to get the timing right against these enemies is large enough that it doesn't matter. After using this attack to dispose of so many of these basic enemies, it became easy to use it in fights against more menacing ones; I knew exactly where I had to be and when I had to begin the attack for it to be successful.
Some enemies weren't killed in one hit by the attack. When facing such enemies, since the attack's animation doesn't cancel if you press another button after it's started, it was intuitive to begin trying to perform smaller attacks before the larger attack had ended. This intuition led me to discover another one of the Kirkhammer's moves, a very powerful sweeping attack used by pressing the normal attack button in succession after using a charged attack.

My knowledge of the Kirkhammer's moveset made the combat much more engaging. Not only was I aware of the timing of attacks, but the way I fought involved making split-second judgments about which move to go into next. Would it be better to use the sweeping attack after a charged attack, or to dodge out of the enemy's range? Would it be better to use a two-step or a three-step transformation attack? 

It's all very material, in a way that builds on complements the gothic horror of the first half of the game. The architecture is sharp, towering, and complicated, and a lot of exploration is spent on ascending and descending. It feels like a labyrinth in three dimensions, especially when you're confronted with stuff like the hunter in Old Yharnam who shoots a gatling gun at you or when you hear the shrieks of monsters you can't see. It's a distinctly interactive twist on the atmosphere and mystery of gothic fiction.

Its materiality also makes for another, even more interesting, twist on genre when the game shifts from gothic to Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Lovecraft's horror involved not only the fear of the unknown, but fear of the impossibility of knowing because of human powerlessness and finitude. His stories suggest that when you peel away the world's veneer of order, you find chaos, and anything you ever had confidence in collapses. 

Bloodborne, however, peels away the veneer of its world's nature and finds something arguably worse than chaos: malevolent order. When you enter Yahar'gul, Unseen Village, you encounter enemies from the first areas of the game again, but they regenerate after you kill them. You can always hear a bell before they regenerate, and eventually you realize they're being created and controlled by a new kind of enemy: Bell Ringers. Bell Ringers are often tucked away out of sight, a hidden manipulation underlying the material distress of Bloodborne's combat. 

That's also when you realize that otherworldly creatures exist all over Bloodborne's world, but have been invisible up to that point. The first part of the game throws you into a stressful situation, but one that seems to be because of a naturally arbitrary material chaos. The second part of the game reveals deceit, exploitation, and cruelty.

When you enter the Nightmare of Mensis, it's impossible not to recognize its opposition to the Hunter's Dream. It's a place where people have come to avoid the confusion and horror of the game's waking world a separation from materiality. But unlike you, the Nightmare's inhabitants, the Choir, aren't using their advantage to fight against the confusion: they're trying to capitalize on the forces that caused it, throwing everyone else under the bus in the process. Again: in Lovecraft, you look underneath a world of order and find chaos; in Bloodborne, you look underneath a world of distress and find deliberate violence. The true villains of the game are not monsters who have only arbitrary direction, but rational figures exercising purposeful cruelty.

Regarding the notion of distress, there is one thing that can disrupt the flow of playing through Bloodborne's impeccably designed levels: losing all your Blood Vials. When you run out, you need to halt your progress to do something tedious. Some people don't like this, but I appreciate it from a narrative perspective. It doesn't come across as clearly or neatly as the twist that the true villains of the game are exploiters, but the tedium of collecting Blood Vials suggests that your character is not exempt from the stress Bloodborne's world brings about.

Hidetaka Miyazaki suggested that the health meter in his games is not a measure of your character's physical condition, but of their will to fight. In Bloodborne, this is more straightforward in the item descriptions, loading screens, and other bits of narrative text than it is in the Souls games. It's also more straightforward in the mechanics: the system of restoring your health by retaliating against enemy attacks can be conceived of as regaining your confidence. 

The game describes Blood Vials as addictive, and suggests that the reason they restore your health is because they're "invigorating." Your character has to rely on a psychotropic stimulant to stave off demoralization so they can keep proceeding through Bloodborne's world. Your character is addicted to blood, and the player feels the cost of that addiction when they run out of Blood Vials and have to farm for more. Whether this system was executed as well as it could have been is debatable, but I still maintain that the Blood Vial system is an appropriate element of the bizarre and terrible situation your character is supposed to be in.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Please stop making superhero movies like this

I appreciate science fiction and fantasy films, and other broadly unrealistic action films like Dragon Inn or John Wick. There's no essential reason superhero films can't have a similar appeal, but as of late, they've almost invariably left me cold. They've become too self-important, too aware of the notion that superhero stories are the modern equivalent of Greek mythology. The result is a slew of films that take this increasingly literally. 

The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War are both examples of this: they pontificate about the responsibilities of people saddled with preternatural power, and they draw viewers in with the spectacle of titans clashing. The incipient DC Cinematic Universe takes this even further: Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Wonder Woman all portray their heroes with religious imagery, and their most interesting formal quirks are ones that emphasize their alien, superhuman nature.

The problem with this is twofold. The first part of it is that alien heroes are divorced from the rest of the world. They stand above human politics and material weaknesses. The second is that by exploiting the spectacle of their power, these films are ultimately completely credulous toward their heroes. Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman might warn against Superman's potential to cause mass upheaval, but at the end of the day, no one else can fight Zod or Doomsday. Age of Ultron might chastise Tony Stark for his hubris, but at the end of the day, no one can stand up to cosmic threats other than the Avengers. 

Ignorance and credulity are common, but not necessary components of these films. Watchmen, for instance, shows us a superhuman alienated by his own power, seemingly trapped in a state of emotional stasis and expressing doubt in the worth of humanity. What's more, his power bears a direct relation to nuclear power, the existence of which exerts a similar effect on the world at large. And though I have a fair number of problems with The Dark Knight, it at least tries to engage with how the exercise of power affects people who lack power, aside from protecting them from the supernatural. 

It's also worth noting that the escape from the problems that plague current superhero films doesn't have to be thematic. They don't have to question power or reveal some truth about the world to be better. It would be just as well that they give up their pretensions and instead aim for a more unique, more intuitive experience. The DC movies do deserve some credit here, both for the aforementioned way they evoke alien presences and for the way Batman v. Superman so often resembles some kind of nightmare more than reality. 

Still, they're ultimately unsatisfying, and it goes back to their attempts at thematic inquiry, which in turn goes back to their self-important posturing as "myth." Maybe this is criticizing the films for what they aren't more than what they are, but I've never really bought that. If I had to say what I thought these films are, I would say they're facile and complacent. I'm only judging them according to what they aren't in terms of how they relate to the countless other things that exist in the world beyond the screen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

NieR: Automata (2017)

This is going to be rambling, full of substantial spoilers, and comprehensible only to people who have already played both NieR games. Fair warning.

The biggest problem with NieR: Automata is, unfortunately, one that's difficult to divorce from the game's strengths: namely, that the stories of routes C and D are structured such that terrible things happen at every possible turn. Overall, I would say the game works primarily because of its willingness to take both personal and global loss to an apocalyptic extent; but the specific bad things that happen aren't all great for the game.

It kills off many characters too soon, some of whom offered side quests that are among the most satisfying in the game but feel like only seeds of larger stories that could have been illuminating. It also requires you to spend most of the game playing as 9S, the least interesting character narratively and most repetitive character mechanically. This is not only problematic because it's unsatisfying, but also because it seems the game assumes the player will relate to him over the other main characters, 2B and A2.

And all things considered, I would say 2B and A2 are both interesting characters whose stories ultimately do far more for the game than 9S's. I wish they had at least been represented more straightforwardly, especially in 2B's case. In fact, I'm tempted to speculate the prominence of 9S's story compared to those of 2B, A2, Anemone, Adam, Eve, and Pascal has led some players to read the game in ways that are, to put it bluntly, boring. The game overtly ponders mortality, nihilism, existentialism, and various other themes that pertain to the search for "meaning" in life, so naturally the player is drawn to consider how the game's story develops them.

But if you ask me, the game doesn't develop these themes, at least not in a way that's especially coherent. To the extent that it does, it does so hardly any better than the recent live-action production of Ghost in the Shell developed its theme. Just as the final line of that film is a mostly-empty platitude, so too is the final line of NieR: Automata's ending E. As far as statements about life's "meaning" go, the game fails to do more than reiterate the concepts of the many philosophers it references - if it even does that much.

However, as I've already said, NieR: Automata does work - in fact, I think it's an excellent game. A big part of that is its dramatic flair, which is attuned to the player's presence and role in the game. There's a reason most people who play it single out the first battle against Adam in the desert as one of the game's highlights, and I think other parts of the game work in similar ways. It shows you things you don't expect, at moments during which you need to immediately prepare yourself to respond to them. 

When you encounter Adam for the first time, it comes just after seeing something uncanny which calls the machines' true motives into question; also, the music (machine voices chanting "this cannot continue" in unison) carries the implication that Adam is several times more powerful than any of the enemies you faced up to that point. The boss battle is not actually that difficult, but you do feel threatened with increasing difficulty when you realize how quickly Adam's level is rising during it. Even if that threat is an illusion, it's still effective. Other parts of the game are dramatically effective for at least some of the same reasons. To name a few: the first glimpse of the Amusement Park, the Copied City, facing off with other YorHa units (especially flight units), and the replication of locations from the 2010 NieR; they all present you with some unexpected image or suggested threat, and consequently put you on guard as a player.

It's a little strange that it feels important to be on guard in NieR: Automata when the game ultimately doesn't give you much agency aside from choosing to complete side quests or not. Then again, you could argue that a player doesn't need agency to be responsible for what happens in a game. Mother 3, for example, goes so far as to emphasize the player's lack of agency in the story: you can't lose the rock-paper-scissors game to get Duster in your party, even if you try, and the game jokes about it. But it still directly addresses the player at the end of the game to thank them for their input. Mother 3's antagonist, Porky, is a character who experienced loss and comes to shut himself off completely from the world. You don't alter the events of the game's story, but your interest in it (and hopefully your concern for the characters) pushes it forward; you become the opposite of Porky, who denies the world because of his inability to control it.

There's also the 2010 NieR, in which you can't stop fighting even though you might want to. The point of that game is to be frustrated with your lack of agency, to bear knowledge that could spare the characters their profoundly depressing fates and be unable to do anything about it

On this front, NieR: Automata is subtler and less extensive than either of those games. Still, you can see some similarities to both. Parts of 9S's story in routes C and D are as frustrating as the 2010 NieR. A perhaps more interesting example is the boss battle with Hegel at the beginning of A2's story: Hegel is one of the longest boss fights in the game, and probably the biggest spectacle; but there's really no reason for you to be fighting it. You're only fighting it because A2 has devoted herself to destroying as many machines as she can. A2 is living the sentiment expressed by Popola at the end of NieR: "no one stops." These are characters who fight, who put themselves in harm's way, because doing anything less than that would give them too much room to think the unthinkable.

But if there's one place where NieR: Automata's treatment of agency more closely resembles Mother 3 than NieR, it's ending D. In ending D, you find that the game's villains, after witnessing everything every character went through up to the very end of the game, decided to abandon violence: they repurpose the gigantic weapon they built into a device that launches an ark into space, allowing the machine lifeforms to leave Earth in peace and search for a new home with new companionship. 

This is why I love the game, and I think it makes a far more interesting point than that articulated in the final line of ending E. Both NieR games are founded on problems caused by misunderstanding; but they're careful to demonstrate that these misunderstanding's aren't totally arbitrary, nor are they easy to avoid.

Two prominent themes in both games are the influences of innate tendencies and the emergence of consciousness among lifeforms that need highly complex behaviors to survive. The replicants are necessarily similar to the humans they were based on, but develop unique consciousnesses. The machine lifeforms were designed to serve the aliens, but gained consciousness and killed their own masters. Popola and Devola were meant to oversee Project Gestalt, but after its failure adapted their skills for other purposes.

The reason replicants and shades fight, or androids and machines, is because they're different species. They have different needs, some of which are incompatible, and that's one reason they fight. But another reason is that their different needs led them to different ways of thinking and communicating, which prevent them from figuring out which of their conflicts are substantial and which are arbitrary, and which prevent them from seeing each other as worthy of such consideration to begin with.

The idea that conflict is caused by misunderstanding is frankly immature taken by itself. People can genuinely have incompatible yet vital impulses, and if it ever felt as though either NieR game ignored this, their sections that expose what your enemies are thinking wouldn't work at all. But the prominence of innate influences in the series changes the meaning of those sections: misunderstanding arises from more basic conflicts before it starts exacerbating arbitrary ones. 

I like ending D so much because it recognizes and responds to this. It says the Red Girls saw what Adam, Eve, and all the androids went through, and decided they no longer had any reason to fight. Not only did they move past their programming, they moved past Adam's mistake of assuming conflict was the essence of life after he started to think for himself. What the Red Girls really express in ending D is productive curiosity, a drive to experience more and go beyond oneself. We see the same tendency in Pascal, for whom it manifests as unconditional compassion, until it becomes untenable. (The game notes that for the Red Girls, nothing is untenable.) We can even see it in 2B and eventually A2 in their feelings toward 9S. 2B has aspirations beyond the cycle of life and death she describes at the beginning of the game and beyond her assigned identity as an executioner. A2 aspires to live for anything after losing anything, and willingly takes on the mantle of protecting 9S from 2B. It's a very simple place for NieR to arrive at, but it's extremely hard-won, and it's hard to imagine what else could possibly provide a line of flight away from the conflicts depicted in the NieR series.

If Automata's overt philosophical pursuits are reducible to platitudes, it's because they're expressed by misguided characters, and the game is interested in getting away from that. Many of the villains - Adam, Eve, Kierkegaard, and even 9S - have one thing in common: they're all obsessed with death, and anything they do that resembles philosophy (or in Kierkegaard's case, theology) is corrupted by that. (Incidentally, this is why I don't take Kierkegaard's machine lifeform cult to be an indictment of religion itself, but of religion with an inadequate theology. The machines are failing to grasp it.)

There are two characters in the game besides the Red Girls who manage to get away from this: Pascal and Anemone. (2B and A2 are between the two ends of the spectrum.) Anemone in particular has suffered as heavily as any character, but her concern is with community and the future rather than death. She accepts Pascal's help, which is a considerable change from how paranoid we see she once was. Pascal is a pacifist, and remains so until pushed to the very end of his rope. Anemone and Pascal cooperate when no other character in the game expects them to. Neither of them can be totally compassionate because they lack the limitless power of the Red Girls - Anemone still wages war and Pascal nearly gets himself killed a number of times before his downfall - but they make an effort to keep it mind as a priority. The last glimmer of hope in the game's extremely bleak conclusion lies in the community Anemone cares for. This is true even in ending E. 

And this is why it's important that the game be as dark as it is, even though it resulted in some choices that were detrimental to the story (not that these were necessary results). The game takes the concepts of productive curiosity and unconditional compassion to be important, but refuses to be naive about it. It knows its characters are fallible and finite and that "unconditional" anything is too much to ask of them. It pits them against brutality so extreme that it leaves Pascal asking to die. But the goal still seems worthy in the end. The characters still have something to aim for, something other than war to organize their efforts. 

2B and A2 are valuable characters because they're part of the game's effort to seriously test its own conclusions: 2B isn't obsessed with death, but continually suffers loss; A2 suffered avoidable loss due to exploitation in the past, and has been left in an ambiguous position because of it. Through their eyes, death and violence might have value as instruments of rebellion - the destruction of YorHa benefits them. This is part of the reason I wish they'd been more prominent in the game, but I still think they play an interesting role. And, I still think Pascal holds up as the game's most admirable and important figures (with Anemone deserving a similar distinction).

NieR: Automata's playing with existentialism is most interesting when it asks where philosophical quibbling becomes obsession with death, and raises other questions about how to ethically respond to and recover from tyranny and disaster (even if it didn't put as much emphasis on this as it could've). And I appreciate its willingness to challenge itself with extreme circumstances. I do wish that at several points it had made different choices. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Touch of Zen (1971)

Director: King Hu
Writer: King Hu
DP: Hua Hui-Ying
Editor: King Hu, Wing Chin-chen
Score: Wu Ta-chiang, Lo Ming-tao
Producer: Hsia Wu Ling-fung
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, Bai Ying, Roy Chiao, Tien Peng, Zhang Bing-yu, Wang Rui
Distribution: The Criterion Collection
Length: 2 hrs. 59 min.

(I originally posted a somewhat longer version of this here.)

In King Hu's notes on A Touch of Zen for the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, he mentions a conversation he had with an old Zen Buddhist. The man told Hu that Zen can only be understood through an enlightening experience, and not through any kind of explanation. Hu was not a Buddhist (nor was he a martial artist), but he believed that if he could capture such an experience, it would make for a strong film.

Obviously, a filmmaker's intentions don't necessarily tell you anything of substance about their film. Even so, I think Hu's stated goals speak to what it's like to watch A Touch of Zen. The characters are caught up in political intrigue and mostly don't speak of Zen. Despite this, it always feels as though the politics take a backseat to a grand, essential ideal served consciously or unconsciously – by the characters' actions.

It takes several minutes before we see or hear a human being in A Touch of Zen. It opens with spiders on their webs, followed by majestic, almost sanctimonious shots of mountainous landscapes. Then, the ruins of an abandoned war fortress. Humans aren't dwarfed or rendered insignificant in A Touch of Zen's world, but they do have a limited, determined place therein. They have to share space with inky black shadows and shafts of light passing through mist; non-human presences hold their positions throughout the film, sometimes at the expense of intruding humans. The characters struggle to abide this as they navigate sloping topography and contrasting planes of action, gravitating to where they can be at ease.

The characters spend the first hour making self-conscious attempts to be unobtrusive. They struggle against heavy vegetation, worry about intruding on the territory of angry ghosts, and speak in deferential terms when they talk to people from outside their own families. Meanwhile, one of the villains walks into people's homes uninvited; he represents a corrupt human authority that leaves some unbound by social mores but capable of enforcing them on others. The villains are cosmic criminals, imposing structure onto the world which opposes the grand order of things.

When we see the fighters gracefully jump about and yield to the flow of the action as if dancing, we can see how their mastery makes them freer. When the protagonists face off with government officials in a bamboo forest, they gain the upper hand by utilizing the environment while their enemies try to cut it down. The strongest fighters' discipline allows them to tap into immense power.

A Touch of Zen's rich colors and incidental portrayals of natural beauty evoke the spiritual fulfillment that arises from attaining balance in one's own natural state. The film's most breathtaking imagery is precipitated by the appearance of Buddhist monks in the final act, the wisest and most powerful of all the characters. Their leader, Abbot Hui, has an almost supernatural influence over others. The film sets him against the sun, and when he exercises his power, he steps aside to let rays of sunlight shine past him. His power comes from his awareness of the environment and his understanding of the position he holds within it.

Hu's notes also explain that he intended for the film to be critical of the use of secret police forces. Even though A Touch of Zen floats above politics, they still feel like a vitally pressing issue because of how much they threaten to get in the way of its heroes' paths to peace and enlightenment.

What's more, the film condemns not only the actions of corrupt public officials and secret police forces but also the blind respect they receive based on societal expectations. The main character, Gu Sheng-Tsai, is a scholar who only wishes to be a school teacher. However, much to his vexation, people won't stop pestering him to take the public service exam (an exam required for those who wanted to become public officials in China until the 20th Century). Gu’s mother insists that becoming a public official is the highest honor a man can achieve. Part of the reason it’s easy for the authorities to abuse their power is that people accept such beliefs as a matter of course.

This concern with the public service exam in particular perhaps unsurprising: the film is based on a story by 17th Century Chinese scholar Pu Song-ling, whose writing was critical of corruption he saw in society, and of the imperial civil service exam. The exam becomes a burden on Gu Sheng-Tsai, one of A Touch of Zen‘s main characters.

The film's climax and the result of the final face-off isn’t as conclusive as you might expect; A Touch of Zen has a strangely open ending. I won’t go into too much detail, but it leaves a lot unsaid and unsolved – or perhaps more accurately, it leaves behind the world it inhabits, suggesting that the only solution is for the characters to accept a major paradigm shift.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Faat Kiné (2001)

Director: Ousmane Sembene
Writer: Ousmane Sembene
DP: Dominique Gentil
Editor: Kahéna Attia
Score: Yandé Codou Sène
Starring: Venus Seye, Mame Ndoumbé, Ndiagne Dia, Mariama Balde, Awa Sene Sarr, Tabata Ndiaye
Distribution: New Yorker Films
Length: 1 hr. 57 min.

You can also read (a slightly longer version) of this post here.

The opening sequence of Faat Kiné shows us the complexity of urban motion in a place where modernity and traditionalism are still somewhat at odds. We see groups of women in traditional Senegalese dress walking through the city of Dakar. Then, the camera pulls further and further away from them until we can see can see a whole city block. We can see not only the women but also cars and other pedestrians, all moving in different directions. Some of the other people walking about are dressed like the women are; some are dressed in a more European style.

This sets the stage for the variety of different beliefs, lifestyles, and destinations that exist between the characters in Faat Kiné. By giving us such an understanding of its setting, the film also influences our perception of Kiné N’diaye Diop, its titular character. She frequently finds herself obstructed by archaic values, but thrives in modernity. It’s through her that the film renders an entertaining and thought-provoking slice of modern life in urban Senegal.

Even after the opening scene, Faat Kiné emphasizes human movement through populated spaces. After confrontations occur between characters, the camera will often follow the people involved as they move away from where the confrontation took place. Alternatively, it’ll hold on compositions whose focal points shift as characters move in and out of the frame, contrasting different directions of movement. There are also many scenes similar to the opening, which showcase the grandiose network of movement that exists on the scale of the whole city.

Interactions between characters also involve a form of movement: the actors’ body language.Venus Seye, who plays Kiné, carries herself with upright confidence, and in scenes between Kiné and other characters, her body language tends to be more conspicuous: she gestures with her hands when she speaks, and expressively shifts her whole body.

The only characters who match Kiné in this regard are people close to her, other women who commiserate with her on problems of finance and traditional marriage. Moreover, when Kiné gets into disagreements with other characters, she often tells them where to move or otherwise influences their movements.

Another key element that makes Kiné stand out is her costuming. While most other characters exclusively wear either traditional Senegalese clothing or European clothing, Kiné changes her outfit periodically. Sometimes, she wears traditional clothes; other times, she combines traditional and European styles. This is perhaps appropriate, because the film situates her between generations, and one of her concerns in this film is balancing her past with her family’s future prospects: she hopes to secure a better future for her children while also ensuring that they understand the burdens placed on her in the past by traditionalist and exploitative men.

In one scene, the camera pans over Dakar’s skyline while two sounds spread over the city: one is the Muslim call to prayer; the other is the ringing of Christian church bells. Muslims and Christians share the city, and while the tension between them never becomes one of the characters’ major problems, the film sometimes drops hints reminding us of its existence. Kiné, for instance, is a Muslim, and consequently is apprehensive about marrying a Christian man. It doesn’t favor one side over the other, rather, it just exposes their coexistence and briefly notes some of the issues involved with it.

In fact, the film rarely seems to favor any one thing over others. Consider one of the most extreme scenes: that in which Kiné pepper sprays another woman for insulting her. The film has such a loose, slice-of-life story that this moment slips by without much resonating significance. There’s no music, and camera remains somewhere between the characters, capturing them more-or-less independently of their surroundings or of each other. 

Instead of insisting that Kiné’s action here was righteous or unrighteous, the film leaves us to observe that it fits in with her other behavior: it’s aggressive, competitive, and unyielding. The film portrays these qualities as inherent to modern life, and tracks Kiné as she works out a place for herself as a modern person. The characters frequently compete and argue over which of them will get their way, and the outcome of any such conflict manifests in the characters’ movements.

That said, it’s worth noting that the act of competition itself does not play out in terms of movement, but in terms of words. The characters compete by impugning each other’s motives, coming up with justification their own actions, and hurling crude insults at one another. They quibble over names and the meanings of certain words, all while alternating between languages. 

The relationship between people’s words – especially women’s words – and their freedom of bodily movement is a theme that also occurs in Sembene's first feature, the 1966 film Black Girl, which derives remarkable tension from the dissonance between its main character’s aggrieved narration and the tedium of her labor. You can also see it in his final film, 2004’s Moolaadé, when a group of cruel traditionalists attempt – unsuccessfully – to control a woman’s words by controlling her body.

Of course, the focus on women in Faat Kiné is equally significant, and is another thing it shares with many of . His films often have feminist aims, and he held the belief that “when women progress, society progresses.” Films like Moolaadé or his 1971 Emitaï show women taking up causes that others won’t or can’t, and working to build a better future for their communities.
Kiné is not quite as influential on the world at large as the women of those films; after all, she works to position herself securely in modernity, rather than to promote a larger cause. Nevertheless, she does stand up to gendered oppression, and in doing so challenges the traditionalists’ notions of family and marriage.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
DP: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Lee Smith
Score: Hans Zimmer
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Lynda Obst
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 49 min.

There's a scene in Interstellar in which Matt Damon says "you have literally raised me from the dead," and the film cuts to McConaughey who just says "Lazarus."

One scene is often not indicative of anything, and I don't even think it is here. This isn't a bad movie on the whole. I read people who combed the film over for details or described its thematic pursuits. I read the opinions of parents, who found value in the relationship between Coop and Murph, both in the film's efficient characterization and in the strength of McConaughey's and Chastain's performances. Looking at the movie itself, the parallel editing is more effective here than elsewhere in Nolan's filmography, and the sheer spectacle of the action sequences engenders wonder and fear for survival simultaneously. The characters' ability to support each other across generations preserves them into the distant future. There are good reasons to favor this film.

But I remain unconvinced. I don't appreciate how the film employs documentary-style interviews and setups and then lets it be subsumed into science fantasy - a realm it enters after spending interminable minutes explaining information we don't actually need to know. Yes, it's tired by this point to complain about the exposition in any Nolan film (and it's usually not that big of a problem anyway), but here it's used to lay claim to realism before descending into total fantasy. Maybe I wouldn't have a problem with this if love ever manifested in this movie as an actual emotion shared between people outside of that scene between Coop and the video messages from his family. Mostly, the film's notion of love manifests as magical realism. It sets love in opposition to Dr. Mann, who falsifies scientific data to attract Coop and his companions; scientific data turns out to be untrustworthy (though the characters had every reason to believe it was sound), while love validates sheer intuition. (That's just weird.) You'd think the wonder of magical realism would complement the premise of adventure, but not like this. Instead of deepening it, the mysticism declaws the unknown; you can only take self-aggrandizing optimism so far before it becomes a most uncomfortable kind of pessimism. Before you lose any sense of the unknown. There's really no fear or wonder here besides the immediate adrenaline of the action sequences.

I understand the affective potential of claiming cosmic, universal significance for familiar human problems, but Interstellar is all too literal. Interstellar is not just using metaphor or synecdoche, it's creating a universe whose physical laws insist on the significance of its characters while also pursuing realism and a sense of adventure or discovery. It's Manifest Destiny. (Consider also the depiction of "humanity" that it so inflates, which is built almost exclusively on images of Americana.) For me, the way it literally, tangibly claims human dominion over the deepest reaches of space doesn't engender an overwhelming magnitude of emotion. Rather, its universe feels awfully small with how it bends reality into a manageable, non-threatening facsimile; the pathos of distance between family members doesn't resonate.

I've also seen this film defended on the grounds of its passion and sincerity, but I should hope that any filmmaker approaches their film with such zeal. If anything, that's the bare minimum.

I don't think alternate, more generous takes on this film are invalid, because we don't watch films in a vacuum. But whatever my background and circumstances are, they don't allow me to see this as a successful film. But even as I'm equivocating here about my own subjectivity, I think it's hard to deny that this is a self-consciously "important" movie, which leaves an even worse taste in my mouth than it did before now that Nolan wants to crash an actual antique plane for his new movie (which is probably unfair to Nolan).