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Monday, 17 December 2018

Digitisation and Preservation - Prime Ministers digitised - Australia's Film Heritage Stands Waiting

National Archives of Australia
In the Mid-Year Economic Forecasts issued by the Treasurer and Prime Minister, on the same day as an Assistant Minister was outed by New Idea for some online indiscretions, some information was supplied about  new money for digitisation of records.

Digitisation of Prime Ministers' Records
Expense ($m) 2017-18 
National Archives of Australia 


“The Government will provide $3.0 million over two years from 2018-19 to support the digitisation of the records of former Prime Ministers. Digitising these records will improve access to these historical records from the time they are released to the public under the Archives Act 1983”

All the other  demands for money for digitisation of the nation's film and audio-visual heritage and all other national collections remain on hold. Maybe Scott Morrison will make it the centrepiece of his re-election strategy. 

The National Gallery has been allocated $14m too new money to maintain the building and for art preservation.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Talkie Talk # 42 - Adam Bowen notes the appearance of COLETTE at the movies and classics THE MALTESE FALCON, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (original) and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS on TV


Colette– Pretty biopic in which music-hall actress, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) divorces her exploitative husband (Dominic West), and becomes one of France’s greatest literary talents. Charlton Heston once impersonated Michelangelo, so why not?

Bumblebee –  In this Transformers spinoff (aided by a lack of Michael Bay), a troubled teenager, Charlie, (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers Bumblebee, a battle-scarred Volkswagen, in a junkyard. CGI-enhanced adventures ensue.

Enai Noki Paayum Tota (2017) Bollywood thriller, Tamil-language, written, directed and produced by Gautham Vasudev Menon.


10.45pm Tuesday & 1.40pm Wednesday on Fox Classics:The Maltese Falcon (1941) – John Huston’s directorial debut is an excellent noir, in which detective Humphrey Bogart tussles with a fascinating collection of villains (Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre), who are backstabbing each other over a priceless sculpture. Wordy, but rich in sub-text and character complexity.

8.30pm Friday SBS: The Pianist (2002) – Roman Polanski (a former Warsaw ghetto inmate) directs this haunting, factual story of a Polish pianist (Adrien Brody), who escapes from the Warsaw ghetto. The absence of emotional manipulation in the storytelling makes its impact all the more powerful.

10.30pm Friday & 1.40pm Saturday on Fox Classics: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers(1956) – a small town is taken over by aliens. Creepy, well directed (Don Siegel) thriller in Superscope. Not to be confused with the 1978 re-make.

12.45am Sunday Fox Classics: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Aussie tragedienne, (Dame) Judith Anderson, doesn’t last long in this film noir,Barbara Stanwyck (at her best) sees to that. Complicit in the crime is Stanwyck’s hubby, whining Kirk Douglas. Then Van Heflin turns up. The triangular melodrama is underscored by composer, Miklos Rozsa, at his most purple.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Kieslowski Posters - New Badger Books catalogue


This is not usually on the beat but friend Simon Taaffe from Badger Books has just published two catalogues of rare items of literature, memorabilia (including a Frank and Nancy Sinatra autograph from 1955) and much more. Badger Books, is Sydney's best kept secret bookshop deep in the heart of Woollahra. Visits by appointment only. Go to the website if you want to visit. Its the size of a tennis court and packed with remarkable stuff.

Included in the new catalogues are these two remarkable Czech posters for Kryzstof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, the two feature length extensions of his Decalogue series.

Click here for the Christmas Catalogue and Click here for the Christmas sets

Friday, 14 December 2018

Defending Cinephilia (7) - Much travelled Michael Campi digs deep, casts wide.

In 2018, my usual travels to film festivals in Hong Kong, Sydney, Bologna and Tokyo were extended to two months in Northern Europe from three cities in Poland to Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Without withdrawals developing in a physiological way, I saw only one film through this journey and that was right at the beginning in Kracow where a boutique series of cinemas included Kirill Serebrennikov's LETO (SUMMER) showing with English subtitles. Peter Hourigan has described the film with enthusiasm  here recently during its Australian appearance in a Russian Film Festival. Meanwhile, between visits to ancient castles, long and spectacular railway journeys and very many magnificent gallery explorations, I was impressed by the enthusiasm for film exhibition in specialised centres in several cities.  Unfortunately, some similar institutions were not able to be included in Poland and Sweden.

1. Imaginative film screenings in Scandinavia.  

Tromsø is a city of about 70,000 people in the very northern part of Norway, way past the Arctic Circle. The main part of town and the cultural hub is on an island connected by bridge to the mainland at the point where the beautiful 1965 Arctic Cathedral is a popular attraction by day and for midnight concerts at night.  Although some parts of the year offer 24 hour darkness in winter or total sunlight in the summer, clinical depression in Tromsø seems less a community problem than in other parts of the world with such extreme variations of illumination. 
One would like to think that contributing factors might be a lovely mustard-coloured intimate cinema, the 1915 Kinematograf (left, click on the image for enlargement and a slideshow) and a most impressive glass-walled library with adjoining multiplex cinemas constructed under the curved roof of a former downtown theatre of fifty years ago.  In addition there are opera and ballet performances in a cultural complex as well as music of other genres, some performances of which are in the century-old cinema, said to be the northernmost continuously operating movie-house in the world. Programmed under the banner of Verdensteatret Cinematic (see program guide below), the programming range is diverse from contemporary arthouse to important films of the past for example by Resnais, Bergman, De Palma, or John Ford.

Sometimes there are 35mm prints and English subtitled versions may be included as well. L'Herbier's  L'Inhumaine might follow a screening of Leave No Trace.

The single cinema auditorium seats just over 200 with murals added by local artist Sverre Mack a few years after the opening. In addition to regular film screenings, the theatre provides a community hub, especially on those long and longer winter's nights, with a coffee shop and bar, music provided coming from records on the wall of LPs. Film festivals play from time to time including an international one shared with the multiplex nearby. 

In Oslo, the Norwegian Film Institute building, Filmens Hus, includes two cinemas and the only film museum in Norway along with its important national collection of film-related items. Contemporary arthouse films are interspersed with important films of the past arranged in seasons. The thick quarterly Cinemateket programme guide (left) runs to over sixty pages. Sometimes films are imported for exclusive screenings in these venues.  Recently Last Flag Flying, An Elephant Sitting Still, and Burning were intermingled with seasons devoted to major silent films, Agnes Varda, Marlene Dumas and Edvard Munch in associated with the Munch Museum, Romanian cinema and cycles of older Norwegian classics. 

The Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen is in a beautiful location opposite the King's Garden and Rosenborg Castle. There's an excellent film programme at the Cinemateket (right) along with a book and DVD shop, cafe, library and Videotheque in a building that houses offices for the institute's administration. Their significant bi-monthly programme recently included music films, Syrian documentaries, new Danish films with English subtitles, Ingmar Bergman reaches 100, films of Brian De Palma, Golden Days of B-films from the 40s to 70s, films from Chile and a tribute to the Marx Brothers.  

A day's film programme might include works by Martel, Pasolini, Malmos and Spike Lee or titles like The RiderDjango Unchained and Time Regained. During my visit to the city an annual international film festival was about to begin and promised a screening of the much-anticipated Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey into Night but again it was just out of reach, happening two days after my departure. Finally, I caught up with this film of the year at Tokyo FILMeX. 

2.      Japan
The National Film Archive of Japan (2018, exterior left) is a new cultural institution. It was created following the separation of the National Film Center from the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and occupies the building of the former Film Center. Over several levels the Archive has two cinemas and both permanent and temporary exhibitions related to Japanese cinema.  A more permanent display moves through the history of the national cinema displaying equipment, film clips, posters and written documents. These are annotated helpfully in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English. During my November visit, there was a temporary exhibition devoted to the work of art director Kimura Takeo at his centenary. His last credit was at the age of 90. Kimura (1918-2010) was most renowned as an art director, particularly with some Suzuki Seijun films at Nikkatsu such as Tokyo Drifter. He was also a writer and filmmaker. 

3.      The Stormy Night
Earlier in the year, during the Hong Kong International Film Festival, an unrelated miracle occurred. A campus screening of The Stormy Night, (right) a Chinese silent film introduced by Professor Shi Chuan from Shanghai Theatre Academy, an event hosted by Hong Kong Film Critics Society. 

The Stormy Night is a 1925 Chinese silent film written and directed by Zhu Shouju in Shanghai. Zhu was a writer, editor of Movie Magazine, film producer and director of over a dozen films. Of the films he directed himself, only this almost complete copy of The Stormy Night has been found. Among the missing films are several featuring the legendary actress Ruan Lingyu, tragic star in real life and subject of Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage in1991. 

The Stormy Night itself was among the missing as well until a magnificent discovery in 2006 when descendants of film maker Kinugasa Teinosuke (A Page of Madness, Gate of Hell) donated his personal collection to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Sometime later, staff discovered reels of a film with Chinese intertitles but as the opening credits were missing, it was assumed one 35mm reel had been lost and it took some time to ascertain that the remaining reels were the precious only surviving footage of Zhu's directorial work. Shelley Kraicer has written, and other authorities on Chinese cinema of this period have told me, that they find the film a revelation and something by which the history of late Chinese silent cinema must be re-assessed.  

The surviving eight 35mm reels commence during a scene in which a middle-class husband is told by his doctor that he must take a break from his busy life in Shanghai. He's recommended to rest and seek recreation in a quiet small town.  We were told that the scenes in the provincial town were shot in the director's own home town. The trip develops into a journey of moral distractions and spiritual discoveries unfolding in the style of a Lubitsch comedy. 

It seems no coincidence that Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle was released in early 1924 and The Stormy Night at the end of 1925. The film is also an important example of the "Mandarin Duck and Butterfly" school of Chinese literature in the early 20th Century. We were told that the video copy screened was from that print found in Japan on 16mm. Just the same the exquisitely detailed and illuminated images suggested a close approximation of 35mm. 

4.      John Turner's Epic History 

Finally, a publication that is a work of much research, long gestation, enormous rigor and more fortitude than I can imagine. John Turner's The History of Australian Film Societies and their Contribution to Australian Social and Cultural Life was published this year by the Australian Council of Film Societies, an organization to which the author has devoted much of his life and enthusiasm. In over
500 pages, the book details the long history of this movement starting from its evolution in the years between the two World Wars. Significant figures along the way are divided into Innovators, The Second Wave, Long Distance Runners and Modern Times. There are profiles of some of the most active, long-running or unique film societies across Australia and their associations with significant other bodies like Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmanian, Hobart and Adelaide Film Festivals, the Australian Film Institute, the much lamented National Film Theatre of Australia, the National Library of Australia and the State Film Centre of Victoria. The list continues.  

The final chapters cover various causes such as importation costs on prints, censorship, submissions to government inquiries, DVD rights for film society screenings and a look at today's scene and its future prospects.  There are various appendices and a good index which must have been a work in itself. 

Work on the book has taken the best part of two decades after the author, on retirement, decided to "interview all the living legends who had been involved with film societies since the early days."  It's a significant addition to the history of film culture in Australia and mandatory reading for anyone researching not only the genesis of non-commercial film exhibition but also the fascinating trail of where some prominent organisations today found their roots and inspiration.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA (Don Weis, USA, 1954)

The scrumptious John Derek and equally scrumptious Elaine Stewart (above, click on either picture for an enlarged slideshow) in Don Weis' 1954 Scope adventure for Fox, The Adventures of Hajji Baba. 
The disc is from a stunning new Twilight Time Blu-ray disc with a doozy of a 2K transfer by Fox's Schawn Belston. 
Fox's proprietary version of Eastmancolor, DeLuxe is given a gigantic boost here by Cukor favorites, Production Designer Gene Evans and Color Consultant, George Hoyningen-Huene. As you can see from the screens (above, and more clearly below) only a master of color design could stage a major scene like the prelude to the last act in black and white wardrobe with a single gash of scarlet against the blue desert sky. 
You know you're in for something extra special, when the opening credits finally roll after several minutes of a harem of female slaves awaiting auction, laid out in long lateral tracks for the Scope frame, sharing space with a bevy of mostly topless hairy chested men getting haircuts and oil rubs from the likes of John Derek, the humble barber's son . 
Walter Wanger, probably the most interesting independent Hollywood producer from the "golden years", takes producer credit, with a seductively persuasive "Arabian" score, here in the original 1954 four track audio from Dimitri Tiomkin which carries the movie with grace and excitement. 
The movie unleashes such a visual and musical assault on the senses, you simply take for granted such elements as dressing the entire female cast with startingly modern 50s Dior style makeup and coiffures (Edward Polo), and post Dior Islamic chic wardrobe (Renié). 
So at one level the movie plays it straight as an exotic period adventure, suitable for the kids, which it does much more convincingly than Minnelli's knowingly camp Kismet from 1955, but the absence of camp here or any other "grown up" savvy in Don Weis' approach to the material basically commits itself to an endless display of beautiful women, playing the game of the ages against an extremely good looking hero, (with the opening possibility of equally beautiful men) all given the ripe visual sensuality only such a spectacle could command. 
This and I Love Melvin must be my top Don Weis movies.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Archaeology of the Cinema - Max Berghouse ponders the life and career of Erich von Stroheim

Erich Von Stroheis
I first became aware of Erich von Stroheim as a pre-teen. He first captured my attention as an actor in Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, Paramount, 1943). I saw it about 20 years after the film was released. 

What struck me then were two things. First there was the lightness of touch, indeed semi-comedy, which could only come from Billy Wilder.  In 1943 that lightness of touch was unusual. It was by no means clear then that the war was won. 
The second was the performance of von Stroheim as Field Marshal Rommel, a performance that has remained deeply rooted in my mind for all these years, as the quintessential interpretation of that German soldier. In fact, von Stroheim was nothing like Field Marshal Rommel, neither in appearance, nor behaviour. Von Stroheim could have had no knowledge of the real Rommel because he, Rommel, really leaped from comparative obscurity only at the beginning of the Second World War. Still, it remains for me THE characterisation of that soldier and my memory of the film strikes home to me every time I watch "Foxtel History" (otherwise known as the German Military Uniforms Programme!)

Von Stroheim as Rommel, Five Graves to Cairo
It is one of those performances so powerful that in the face of history, one chooses the fiction of interpretation. It is similar in this regard to the performance by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane which was based on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was not in fact the tortured protagonist as portrayed by Welles: he was a very optimistic and happy man but filmic interpretation is the one EVERYONE relies on. I might also say just incidentally that the performance of Fortunio Bonanova as the pompous Italian general, Sebastiano, in Five Graves also remains emblematic of the perfect characterisation of the apparently weak and cowardly Italian soldier.

A final dimension to this film was the commentary I recall from adults, nearly all of whom had seen Sunset Boulevard on its first release, some 15 or so years earlier. The consistent commentary of von Stroheim playing himself as a former film director was compounded by rather older people who lamented that von Stroheim was simply unable to keep his job as a director. One ought to remember that in those distant times, many, many more people saw films regularly and many more people felt competent to discuss them. As a young person growing up, I have to say, fairly haphazardly, it quite terrified me to think of a person like von Stroheim, with all his apparent talent, being unable to work.

This article is not intended as either a review of Von' s (the name by which he was known in Hollywood and which I shall use subsequently) films, or of his biography. Rather it is how his life and work has affected my judgement of film. I also don't intend to rehash what is known of Von's life. Wikipedia is entirely accessible for that. I shall try however to illuminate gaps in that biography and how they may have affected his career.

Arriving in America as an immigrant in 1909, already with an assumed aristocratic heritage, it could be no accident that he gravitated to the centre of make-believe and re -creation: Hollywood. He appears to have arrived there in 1914 and began working as a bit player. What he did, crossing from east to west of the country from 1909 to 1914, God knows. Apparently working as a consultant on "German culture" he came to the attention of DW Griffith. This story does not, however, ring true. There were many dozens of immigrant Central European Jews, and others, with quite an intimate knowledge of German culture, so why Von was able to make a living as a consultant, seems strange to me. UNLESS his act of re-creation was so mesmerisingly powerful, with all the Teutonic arrogance he subsequently displayed as both director and actor, that the overwhelmingly immigrant and Jewish bosses of the movies, just deferred to him – just like the old country.

D. W. Griffith
A well repeated story is that Von came to Griffith indicating that the orders and decorations of some of the actors in a film were not correct. He instead showed what was correct. This film must have been Old Heidelberg (Fine Arts Film Company, 1915). Why particular colours of Germanic military orders would be important in a black-and-white film, I can't say. I think the story reveals much more about Griffith (who was the producer of this film) in that he suffered a lifelong sense of inferiority as not coming from quite the right "aristocratic" background as he liked to fairly unconvincingly convey. 

Griffith consistently tried to portray his father as a gentleman soldier and an heroic colonel in the Confederacy. In fact, his father was a lazy drunk and the family relied upon his overly hard-working mother. Perhaps Griffith saw in Von a person who more successfully recreated an imaginary life about himself.

Thereafter he seems to have had a relatively involved acting career although not one that was super busy by the standards of the day. 

His first film as director was Blind Husbands (1919). I have not seen this film but I'm not sure that it has anything to offer in the main thrust of my next argument about Von. Instead I shall commence with the production of Foolish Wives (Universal and Jewel Films, 1922). 

Foolish Wives
Von has the reputation of being demanding in terms of authenticity which reflected in obsessive attention to (historic) detail, accuracy in the recreation of sets, great demands on actors in terms of veracity and truthfulness and the like. From my perspective this seems to have been a justification for his arrogance and dictatorial nature while on set. In this film enormous sums were lavished on the re-creation of very historically accurate sets, most notably the casino at Monte Carlo. While very interesting to look at, including the orchestration of large crowd scenes, much of this work is dramatically unnecessary. It could not be said that when this film was made (1919 and being set in the same period at the moment of the Armistice) that the audience was really totally unfamiliar with the Europe of the day.

The Everyman of this film is Von who is director and star, playing Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, a former captain in the Czar's cavalry. To my knowledge all Russians have a forename, a patrinomial and a surname, like Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. The name that the Count uses is perhaps Polish. Parts of Poland were certainly parts of the Czarist Empire but in the immediate post-war period Poland had re-established itself as an independent country and I very much doubt that as a matter of reality anyone would pretend to be a displaced Russian Count from a country where all the aristocratic estates had already been expropriated and there were, in Paris, several members of the Imperial family working as taxi drivers! 

The Count (above) is to be found boulevardering along the main streets of Monte Carlo wearing his Imperial uniform of white jacket with black pants. He sports a monocle. Going about in uniform but not on duty was referred to as "walking out". Officers carried canes (as does the Count) but they did not additionally wear swords. I doubt they wore their decorations for daywear.

So maybe, in this respect at least, Von's reputation for accuracy does not stand up at all well. I chose the above example as one of many not only in this film but throughout his oeuvre. I also think it's one of the reasons for his incredibly lengthy and complex production schedules, for which he was roundly criticised, ultimately to the point that he was simply unable to make further films as a director. In short I think he struggled to get the sort of accuracy he wanted because it did not come naturally to him. I concede that this is merely a guess.

With the exception of Greed (MGM 1924) which I think ought to be looked at separately, Von's subsequent films are really all concerned with some sort of distant memory and imagination of the recently passed Austro-Hungarian Empire: The Merry Widow (MGM, 1925) and The Wedding March (Paramount, 1928).

I am also excluding Queen Kelly(United Artists, 1932) as it is a sound film and quite a long time removed from the last Von picture that he effectively controlled, the 1928 production of Wedding March. The films were reasonably successful, the most successful being The Merry Widow based on the ever popular operetta by Franz Lehar. 

The Merry Widow
One of the most popular musicals ever written, it's hard to imagine this production being other than a success. But everything went over budget, over time and the pressures on the crew, both in front of and behind the camera intensified. Why was he able to get away with behaviour that simply would not have been, and indeed was not, tolerated by any other director in the business. Most of the moguls in the business at the time were of Jewish background, most from fairly humble backgrounds where extreme diffidence to the aristocratic classes was a means of survival. Von' s complete identification with his role as aristocrat, I think made it relatively easy for him to bend others to his will, and not the other way around. Of course he ultimately wore out his welcome and then resumed a middling career as an actor.

Vienna, and to a lesser extent Budapest, were beacons of hope for peasants and non-Germanic peoples throughout the Empire, until the First World War. Chancers of all descriptions made their way to the capital, some to live in abject poverty and some to make it big time. In this period of economic liberalisation, previously disenfranchised Jews could remake themselves into genuine "German-speaking subjects of the Empire".

Similarly, in Hungary, as Jewish people entered the traditional middle class professions like law and medicine, they very frequently enlisted into the army as militia officers, this being a badge of success. Had the Empire survived, and indeed had these militia officers survived (and many, many did not), they would have ultimately reached the ranks of the aristocracy. It's a well-known phenomenon of central European writing in the post-First World War period to observe a deep nostalgia for the Empire which for all its prewar racketiness, could be viewed subsequently as quite benign. 

This sense of nostalgia is very much captured by the "Viennese" films of Von. They are essentially films by an outsider. I might make one mention of one scene in The Wedding March of the celebrations for Palm Sunday (below)
 in Vienna's Cathedral, attended by the Emperor and court officials. The Austrian Empire was a publicly proclaimed Catholic Empire and the co-mingling of church and court is brought out perfectly in this scene. It is hand-tinted (below) and is simply a stunning portrayal of history which I can't imagine Von had any knowledge of directly. It makes me ponder the way in which his recreational self happened. This scene just mentioned really looks like the work of an insider, not the outsider we know Von to be.

At the same time, and I think this can be observed in post second world-war Australia, that striving immigrants from Central Europe, often extremely successful in business, adopted the behaviour of "the class above them, the generation before". That is, they behaved like arrogant and intemperate aristocrats, or at least as they were perceived by these striving immigrants. I think this is a fundamental key to understanding how Von was able to maintain himself as a director or as a creator, in Hollywood.

As for Greed  I am unable to make a positive judgement. Of course the film is so incredibly truncated. Pretty much universally, the loss of most of the footage of this quite epic film is viewed as a tragedy. Yet one has to judge the film as it stands. Anything like Von's conception of the film as ultimately a two-parter played over separate nights, each of multiple hour length, was never going to be even remotely possible nor commercial. But it does seem to me that it is one of the best film "translations" of a novel, in this case Frank Norris' "McTeague" (1895), a naturalist/realist novel owing a great deal to Emile Zola. Presumably the very determinist views of the author in which the good and the best survive, while the rest perish and/or suffer, appealed to an adventurer like Von. 

Given Von's apparently complete identification as a Catholic nobleman from Austria, he was able to overlook the obvious anti-Semitism in Norris' writing. But the downfall of the film to me is that (like the novel) it is so emotionally cold. There is simply no one with whom one can identify and the fate of each actor is largely a matter of indifference. 

Subsequent to his "expulsion" from Hollywood, as a director, Von turned to acting and he was a fair to middling character actor, not with much range and generally playing "the man you love to hate". He effectively played himself, the dictatorial film director in The Lost Squadron (RKO, 1932), incidentally looking sartorially splendid and more famously as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950). I think that pretty much by this time Von was a practising Catholic and subsequently while living in France, appeared to be genuinely devout. I don't think Billy Wilder, the director of Sunset Boulevard was especially Jewish in practice, but I'm quite sure he was disdainful both of Von's assumption of a new identity, and hiding his original one. It seems to me that Wilder extracted maximum punishment from the man behind the role, for his behaviour.

Mary Astor, von Stroheim, The Lost Squadron
When I became interested in Von, I was really quite besotted by the late work of DW Griffith: Battle of the Sexes (1928), Drums of Love(1928) and Lady of the Pavements(1929) – all United Artists distribution. I remain fascinated by these films, mostly not particularly highly regarded but in which Griffith had perfected a silent filmic "vocabulary" in which sound is really not necessary. 

It was difficult for me to come to terms with the opulence and exaggeration of Von. Notwithstanding, his oeuvre absolutely demands attention and deep study. He seems to be the absolutely classic case, far more than Griffith of an artist who really needed the discipline and controls of the studio system to thrive.
Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison enjoys a new Chinese film A COOL FISH (Xiaozhi Rao)

Livelier and better crafted than most of the recent Asian films that make their way to us, Xiaozhi Rao’s second film, the Chinese Wu ming zhi bei/A Cool Fish  seems to have connected with audiences here and on its own turf. After a month it was still drawing a respectable turn out in George Street. That's unusual for one of these.

The action begins with a loan shark's demo on the site of the building complex, which has stalled leaving buyers homeless. A web of subplots prove to be connected. Would-be gang heavies “Bra” (Zhang Yu), short for “Cobra”, and “Big Head” (Pan Binlong) stuff up a bank robbery which ends with their escape motor bike in the telegraph lines above the street. 

Their flight lands them in the flat of paralysed Suxi Ren (particularly good) who is harassed by a lecherous neighbor. Her ex-cop brother Jianbin Chen (Yi ge shao zi/A Fool 2014) sees the recovery of the gun used in the robbery as a way of re-instating himself with the force but ends up in a round-up at the La Parisienne massage parlor and his daughter seeing him being hustled into the station with the rest of the personnel.

This all climaxes at the mock funeral of the fugitive developer, played by Yanhui Wang, where the police come to grab the armed robbers but instead find themselves keeping students and gangsters from injuring themselves in a metal pipes against tennis racquets confrontation.

The basic gag has the characters' heroic ambitions contrasted with incompetent reality. It works pretty well, running to comical suicide and the no-hoper criminals gaining surprising status and dignity as events play out. 

Nobody likes the ending which, as with Hong Kong films of the eighties, seems to have been tacked on to placate viewers - or censors - after the logical conclusion, literally a shotgun wedding.

This expertly made film has a different look to the Chinese productions that normally reach us. I can’t identify the city where it’s set.