My Left Eye Sees Creativity
by Wong Lung Hsiang
After experiencing the creativity height in 1999, Hong Kong directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai have failed to show any breakthrough in their subsequent films despite healthy box-office returns. When I saw their new film "My Left Eye Sees Ghosts" (2002) last week, I was suddenly reminded of some questions that someone threw to me some time ago: "In recent years, Japan and South Korea have produced quite a number of hit movies. What are their success factors? Is there anything that Chinese Cinema (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) can learn from?"
Citing his own film "I Not Stupid" (2002), Singapore director Jack Neo has been emphasizing the universal theme, "speaking the heart" as an important goal in filmmaking - that's why the highly localized "I Not Stupid" has been surprisingly well-received in Hong Kong. But could "speak the heart" alone movies always work?
Let's take the example of Iranian children's films that inspired Jack Neo to make "I Not Stupid". Since Abbas Kiarostami's "Where's the Friend's Home?" (1987) showed the potential of childrens films, Jafar Panahi's "The White Balloon"(1995) entered the international limelight, and Majid Majidi's "The Children of Heaven" (1997) hit the jackpot, Iranian children's films have been losing steam. Movies like "Naneh Lala and Her Children" (1997), "Willow and Wind" (1999), and "The Cart" (1999) have failed to repeat their better-known predecessors' artistic and box-office success despite their "speak the heart" nature. Distributors for Majid Majidi's next effort "The Children of Paradise" (1999) had been marketing it by emphasizing the director's name and reputation, but the film ended up being a pretentious and formulaic piece of work.
Apart from movies which "speak the heart", a movies creativity should also be examined. Certainly, it's impossible to request every "business-oriented director" to do what directors like Hou Hsiao Hsian, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming Liang, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have been doing - be the bold "vanguards" of the reformation of cinematic arts and "overturn" the general audience's lazy movie watching habit which can be characterized as "being negatively spoonfed information". Not everybody has the talent to make movies that are beyond our generation.
However, these "business-oriented directors" shouldn't just confine themselves within the boundaries of the same old genre formulae. Half a century ago, there was a group of brilliant Hollywood directors who managed to extend their understanding in cinematic arts in their films and push their individual pet genres to the limit without challenging the studio system and the audience's habit. Some of those directors were Douglas Sirk the Master of Melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock the Master of Suspense, and John Ford the Master of the Western. Early Japanese directors like Ozu Yasujiro (family melodrama), Kurosawa Akira (samurai action/war film), and Mizoguchi Kenji (women-themed film) could also fit into this category.
We have yet to see any directors of such quality from Japan and South Korea in recent years. However, they do produce movies with lesser, but no less audience-intriguing creativity. Besides "speaking the heart", their movies also had neat screenplays and earnest production, which made them stand out among genre films from Asia.
Japanese directors' common strength is their ability to extend their traditional culture into their movies. The classic example is the traditional Noh Theatre's slow motions that were the basis of Sadako's terrifying crawl scenes in "The Ring" (1998), and inspired the minimalist action films represented by Kitano Takeshi. If the all-time number one non-English box-office champion "Spirited Away" (2001), which beat "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) even before it was released in the US, didn't adopt the delicate and subtle Japanese culture and mindset to lead the creative process, it's nothing more than a typical Disney-style animation.
On the other hand, South Korean filmmakers have been developing refreshing elements in their films unlike the Hong Kong film industry which has the tradition of following short-term movie audience preferences blindly. In "Shiri" (1999) and "Joint Security Area" (2000), South Korean filmmakers managed to make international audience deeply sympathetic to their people's very own historical sadness. For example, "Il Mare" (2000) threw a poignant, ironical joke about memories vs. love into the seemingly familiar time travelling (although this is "letter travelling") story while "My Sassy Girl" (2001) offered a surprising twist that is deeply touching and brilliantly contrasts the comic tone of the early part of the film. These are all examples of movies that have succeeded in having creativity on top of "speaking the heart".
Perhaps Chinese Cinema should not overpraise Japanese and South Korean blockbuster directors, as they do have their own films which have imitated such accomplishments like "Shaolin Soccer" (2001), "Big Shot's Funeral" (2001) and "I Not Stupid", etc. To and Wai's series of works since 2000 have shown this similar quality as well, including the subtle treatment of the male middle age crisis in "Needing You" (2000), the anti-genre treatment of gambling films in "Fat Choi Spirits", and a twist in "My Left Eye Sees Ghosts". The last film has the similar effect of the twist in "My Sassy Girl" on the audience. It stirred them to look at an important character throughout the film in a totally different angle.
It is no doubt that part of the bodies of works by great living directors like Hou, Tsai, Wong, Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Kitano, Edward Yang, etc., will be written into the history of cinema. The movies mentioned above may not be able to achieve the same status, but they have certainly demonstrated that genre formulae do not necessarily restrain creativity.
Acknowledgement: Ms. Shirley Lee