This is the second half of the list.
46. STILL LIFE. From Iran, Tabiate bijan, by Sohrab Shahid Saless, is a minimalist study of lonely, isolated existence. Mohamad Sardari has spent thirty years at a remote outpost raising and lowering a gate to keep road traffic from crossing tracks when a train passes. He lives with his wife in an unadorned shack; a few bare trees dot the threadbare landscape.
The railroad brings the son, who’s in the army, in for a night’s visit. His mother asks why he hasn’t written; he insists he has—once.
Father, mother, son assume stilted poses; when the three eat, each on the floor is isolated in a separate shot. The son, who takes over the one bed, his father’s, is almost too big for it. He tells his mother a button has come off his coat, takes off the coat and hands it to his mother as she, a beat behind, says, “Give it to me to sew.” He has already done this. The timing discloses the son’s male presumption and prerogative, to be sure, but also an all-round awkwardness that undercuts the idea of family as bulwark against a formidable outside world.
An official, dropping by, buys a rug that the woman has woven—one adornment in the shack. Mohamad, given ridiculously little money, is told, “You don’t have to sell it if you’re not satisfied”; but the rug has already been rolled up and is headed out the door. “I’ve been dismissed,” Mohamad says over and over again, as if trying his best to adjust to the shocking news, once he is informed of the fact. His last act before vacating the shack and heading for nowhere in a horse-drawn cart is to remove the shack’s other adornment: a small wall mirror that reflects back at him a disposable existence.
47. THE PHARMACY. In the years just before Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, which signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, Joris Ivens and wife Marceline Loridan took their cameras into Pharmacy No. 3 in Shanghai, which in addition to dispensing drugs manages an outreach program of medical services (after attending to peasants, pharmacists work in the fields alongside them), an extension of the pharmacy’s in-house medical care center.
The employees have developed five rules for themselves: to show the same concern for both steady customers and transients, for those who buy and those who simply want information, and for those who buy a lot and those who buy a little; to be equally attentive to customers no matter how busy the pharmacy or whether it is day or night. Their goal is to wholeheartedly serve the public.
There is a fascinating discussion of the competing motives of profit and service; at a weekly employee meeting, one of the participants reconfirms, “We should be concerned [above all else] with people’s needs.” This has nothing to do with dictate (“The customer is always right”) and everything to do with what the workers themselves feel should be motivating them.
La pharmacie Nº 3: Shanghai keeps widening, eventually integrating the employees and patrons into the bustling life of the port city. The opening shot at dawn evokes a Turner painting; the closing one, a long-shot of Shanghai citizens under umbrellas in the rain, Ivens’s Regen (1929), to “de-exoticize” the Chinese.
This documentary is more relaxed and fluent than other brilliant documentaries by Holland’s Ivens; the difference may be Loridan, born Rosenberg, a teenaged survivor of a Nazi death camp. There are no tirades against capitalism, only a warm embrace of Chinese humanity.
48. THE MIDDLEMAN. The final part of his Calcutta trilogy (the first two parts being The Adversary, 1970, and Company Limited, 1971), The Middleman is Satyajit Ray’s bleakest film, its satire on capitalism ending in tragedy.
On a year-end college exam, many students cheat. Honest, ethical, bright, well-prepared, Somnath Banerjee does not. Somnath passes, but without honors, because the grader, needing stronger eyeglasses, cannot read his small writing. What’s the point then? The boy quits school to enter the workforce. He has no luck despite countless interviews—the result of the pointless questions he is asked. (“What is the weight of the moon?”) A friend, though, offers him work as a “middleman”—someone who fills orders for business clients at a markup while also fulfilling other expectations. It’s corrupting work. Somnath’s cultured father feels disgraced by his son’s wallow in the muck of business. Meanwhile, Somnath’s friend Sukumar, struggling against poverty, has finally found a job as a cab driver, but the income is insufficient to keep Kauna, his sister, from becoming a prostitute. Somnath delivers Kauna, prepaid, to a potential client—a violation of his closest friendship that gets him a big contract.
I have read that Jana Aranya drew upon Ray’s despair over the corruption and anti-civil libertarianism of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s administration. The long passage during which Somnath reluctantly moves from brothel to brothel in search of the right girl for the client he is courting suggests his gradual collapse into shame, compromise and moral equivocation. He tells Kauna she does not have to go through with the meeting, but Kauna’s insistence on an alternative work identity—Juthika—to dissociate herself from her sordid secret life is irreconcilable with any failure to service a client. The closing image is of Somnath’s father feigning happiness at his son’s “success.”
49. THE SEALED SOIL. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #83.
50. EMPIRE OF PASSION. A companion-piece to the swooning, painfully immediate Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), Ai no borei (In the Realm of Passion) again involves a passionate illicit couple, but is distanced and lacks the oversaturated colors of its predecessor, not to mention the slicing off of an erect penis.
Again, Nagisa Oshima (brilliantly) directs. In a rural village in the late 1800s, a young man convinces his mistress that they should murder her spouse, a rickshaw driver. They dump the body down a well and continue their clandestine affair. But the husband comes back in two ways: as a communal memory, as the villagers wonder how he could stay away in Tokyo year after year; as a ghost, haunting the killers. The latter might be a guilty projection; or it could be a ghost.
The former possibility is in keeping with the film’s understanding of human behavior. Oshima’s ghost story relates individual acts to communal justice. This “justice” suppresses its own real motives, sublimating these, much as the ghost may be a sublimated form of the couple’s guilty regret. Oshima already explored the possibility that capital punishment echoes ancient barbarism in Death by Hanging (see above). Empire of Passion, in this instance ironically referring to society as it metes out what it has convinced itself is justice, involves a painfully protracted punishment for the offending pair. Oshima goes further, suggesting (compellingly) that society desires, even requires, hideous crime for the sake of both the cathartic release and the reassuring sense of its own justice that the brutal punishment of wrongdoers provides.
But, above all, it is the form of this burrowing work that captivates: dark, mysterious, eerily beautiful color images exquisitely lensed by Yoshio Miyajima, the cinematographer of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (see above).
51. THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA. The opening shot of Shohei Imamura’s Narayama bushiko is cunning. Accompanying a caption that sets the action in nineteenth-century northern Japan, the camera reveals vast terrain: miles of snow-covered trees. It’s a helicopter shot!—and the visual implication of this modern contraption draws our attention to something else that might otherwise have remained “invisible”: the camera it is transporting. All this has the effect of wittily collapsing the distance in time of about a hundred years. Imamura’s study of greed, the sex impulse and the survival instinct in a remote, wintry, primitive community thus will be, in reality, a reflection on how these elements still structure human behavior and activity.
Orin is 69. At 70, elders in this village trek to Mount Narayama to die, thereby relieving the impoverished community of their burden. It is time for Orin to put her hut in order. Son Tatsuhei must get a wife!
The hard work of farming, as well as other aspects of life in this community (such as Tatsuhei’s sexual encounters), are interrupted by inserted closeups of Nature: bugs and snakes copulating; a snake, later an owl, devouring a rodent. The villagers are always one bad harvest away from disaster, but winter keeps some of them warmer than others. Food, scarce, is precious, and when one of them steals crops the village comes together as an avenging mob, burying alive the offender and his entire family. Otherwise, “we will get no sleep,” “he will steal again.”
The film’s last movement enchants. Orin has turned 70, and Tatsuhei carries her, piggyback, to her last end. She accepts this, as she must; wild animals cross their silent path. Spirits animate a tree, bringing it to sparkling life. It is the spirit of Orin. It is the ballad of Narayama.
52. THE HOME AND THE WORLD. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #85.
53. A SUMMER AT GRANDPA’S. Based on co-scenarist Chu Tien-wen’s childhood, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dongdong de jiaqi revolves around Tung-Tung, an eleven-year-old boy who, along with Ting-Ting, his four-year-old sister, spends a summer in the country with maternal grandparents and his teenaged uncle, while Mother is in hospital. This is the first part of Hou’s Coming-of-Age trilogy.
The Taiwanese film admits a wealth of incidents, and only the scarcest amount of plot, as Hou patiently, unhurriedly reflects on how children often feel lost amongst adults in the adult world, where they are rarely listened to and largely inhabit a shared world of their own. We watch a turtle race they conduct. They set loose wild birds a neighbor has caught and caged. They swim in the river. A boy tells Ting-Ting, who is watching, to go away: “Your eyes will grow germs!” Left out (again, is the sense of it), Ting-Ting retaliates by silently gathering up the boys’ clothes bank side and tossing these to the current—this, after observing the motion of a train.
Dim-ma, “madwoman” with a tattered umbrella, is mentally slow. She is introduced in a high overhead shot from the perspective of boys in a giant, leafy tree: a projection of Hou’s wish to protect her even as one of the boys scorns her. Dim-ma snatches Ting-Ting in the nick of time from railroad tracks, carrying her piggyback to safety. Dim-ma has been raped and is pregnant. Adults discuss what needs to be done.
Uncle, once he is tossed out by Grandpa, lives with the girl he has impregnated. The couple marry. Respect in marriage, the one officiating explains, is a building block of society.
Numerous themes come together in this complex, beautiful film. One is this: for Chu and Hou, the birth of their feminist consciousness.
54. YELLOW EARTH. “Of all us poor folk, girls are the saddest.”
Reputedly the first work of the “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Huang tu di is gorgeous—Zhang Yimou is the color cinematographer—and poetic. Chen Kaige captures a dream of national unity under the threat that the Japanese pose in the late 1930s. Qing Gu is a young revolutionary soldier who visits the northern wilderness in order to collect folk songs to inspire comrades and bind them to the common folk. Staying with a peasant farmer, he discovers that the songs, all sad, wed haunting melodies to lyrics such as “Suffering is forever, sweetness is short.” Gu inspires Cuiqiao, the widower’s 13-year-old daughter, who wants to join the Communist army to experience the equality with men that “Brother Gu” from the south has told her about. In the world with which she is familiar, marriages are arranged for girls, whose singing gives them their only voice of freedom—the “freedom” of lament.
Chen combines captivating lyricism and a documentary-style attention to the harsh conditions of the peasants’ lives. (Stunning: amidst drought, the communal prayer for rain.) The flowing Yellow River interrupts the mostly static shots of daunting terrain. In one radiant shot, Cuiqiao’s carrying buckets of water from the river appears to extend the river’s motion. Nature is arrayed against the people, but they are also a part of it.
Qing must rejoin his outfit. “Take me with you,” Cuiqiao pleads. It is against “the rules.” “Can’t the rules be changed?” she asks. “We depend on rules for our cause.” But Qing does promise to return. “I’m afraid I shall not see you again,” Cuiqiao sings out as he leaves, a pair of reverse long shots recording the vast distance now between them. She is right, of course.
55. A TIME TO LIVE, A TIME TO DIE. The second part of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Coming-of-Age trilogy is based on Hou’s own childhood. Tong nien wang shi begins with Hou’s voiceover recalling that his father relocated from Mei County, Kwangtung Province, in mainland China to Taiwan shortly after his birth, with him and the rest of the family following a year after. Hou, in effect, knew only the new country; his difficult adjustment, therefore, was to his family, whose difficulty adjusting to Taiwan exceeded his—although, because of his connection to them, he also experienced an acute sense of loss of homeland.
Tong nien wang shi comprises incidents—recollections, to which Hou has added imagination, especially regarding his mother, who is seen explaining things to the family that goes beyond what she must have said at the time. One infers from this Hou’s greatest need for reconciliation with the memory of the woman who spunkily spanked him and kept the family together. However, it is Grandma whose wanderings keep her searching for Mekong Bridge and the way home. Eventually Grandma returns to the mainland.
We know the name of Hou’s father from her cries at hospital at his death. Fen-ming! A laterally moving shot records the children’s faces of grief. Ah-hsiao, or Ah-ha, as his peers teasingly put it, is bathing in an adjacent room when he hears his mother’s piercing lament.
We watch the boy and other children at play and getting into more serious trouble. It is the portrait of a great artist as not yet a young man.
Tong nien wang shi is a gently melancholy work, full of a sense of lost cultural moorings that Hou now can grasp as an adult. The film is his brilliant attempt to fill in the blanks of his aching heart.
56. HORSE THIEF. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #86.
57. DUST IN THE WIND. The conclusion of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Coming-of-Age trilogy, Lianlian fengchen draws upon (with Chu Tien-wen) co-scenarist Wu Nien-jen’s youth. It follows the fate of two highschoolers in love in a small mining town.
The film opens with a fleck of white in cavernous darkness and appears to be in black and white. It turns out that the growing speck is the exit of a tunnel through which (from a train’s-eye view) a passenger train moves into light that’s banked by leafy trees, in rich color, and into another tunnel. Cut to a car, which Wen-yuan and Huen, standing, alone occupy, their forms captured by dark as the train enters a tunnel. The two are silent until Huen confesses difficulty with a math assignment. Wen-yuan asks why she didn’t tell him sooner and ask for help. Wen-yuan is an excellent student; but the train forcefully conveys that life isn’t in his control. Train movements in and out of tunnels become a motif. Delicate guitar strains pluck the heart.
Wen-yuan quits school—his father, a miner, tells him, “If you want to be an ox, there will always be a plow for you”—and moves to Tapei, where he works for two years in a printing shop and attends night school, with Huen, having followed, working as a seamstress. At first, Wen-yuan recalls, homesickness had made him “cry out of [his] pants.” In the city, the pair are cast adrift. Wen-yuan enters military service. Huen marries someone else. “It’s fate,” Wen-yuan’s Grandpa says.
Trains; transience; tears: Lianlian fengchen may be the most achingly sad, wistfully contemplative of all Hou’s works. Its characters seem to be flickering in memory, renewing their haunting grip. The memories of youth are a tunnel there is only the illusion of coming out of.
58. THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON. Based on an idea by mentor Shohei Imamura, Kazuo Hara’s Yuki Yukite shingun is a confrontational documentary. Haunted by Japanese military behavior in New Guinea, where he himself served in his youth during the Second World War, Kenzo Okuzai is on a mission. Okuzai has spent time in prison for various offenses, including slingshooting Emperor Hirohito (known as Shōwa, since his death, in Japan) with pinballs for war crimes. Okuzai’s attempts to redeem both his nation from the wrappings of historical lies and his own reputation coincide. Given Okuzai’s search for truth and ongoing anger, Hara’s procedure combines cinéma-vérité with a more sensationalist aspect that had previously been applied only to exploitative documentaries. This befits the film’s grotesque revelations of Japanese wartime murder and cannibalism in the New Guinea jungle. Japanese officers leveled against select soldiers false charges in order to justify having them executed to provide meat for the rest of them to eat. In Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (see above), cannibalism is a metaphor for war; here, it is grislier: an aspect of war that represents the whole of war—a kind of synecdoche.
Hara’s camera follows Okuzai, who, his car equipped with a loudspeaker, rides around visiting relatives of those who were cannibalized and confronting responsible officers. In a way, Hara is recording an historical-archaeological “dig.” It may be that the camera’s presence now affects some of Okuzai’s behavior, which can be seen as being self-aggrandizing at times; but it is far more important to the film’s implied argument that the absence of cameras at the wartime scenes in New Guinea may have contributed to the ruthless outcome. Perhaps it is hyperbole, but Hara’s bracing film resonates with the idea of the camera as a guardian of civilized behavior.
59. WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST? The title is a koan—a Zen riddle whose refusal to yield a material solution helps move the seeker along the path to Enlightenment. Bodhi-Dharma is the South Indian or, possibly, Persian monk who introduced Zen Buddhism to eastern Asia in the fifth century. Bae Yong-Kyun wrote, directed, cinematographed and edited Dharmaga tongjoguro kan kkadalgun, South Korea’s greatest film.
The opening shot projects the distracting nature of the contemporary urban world. Most of the balance of the film unfolds at a secluded monastery amidst gorgeous Nature. An elderly Zen Master instructs two disciples: an orphaned boy; a young monk, Yong Nan, whom the Master calls Kibong. The child asks Kibong why they have left the world. No peace or freedom is there, the monk answers after a pause so long we feel it will not be filled. The Master comes up behind them and immediately adds that the world is too full of Self. Another day, the monk continues the lesson: the world is a place of passions and possessions—enslaving ties; pain. We glean that the monk is recalling personal history. He is betwixt the Master, who has transcended such, and the child, who is bereft of ties and memory of ties.
On the other hand, while the monk has much to learn, the child has much more to learn. Inquisitiveness stirs the child. Yearning—to leave the past behind; to achieve Enlightenment—stirs the impatient monk. He must learn “the roots of the Way.” Toward this end the Master gives him koans upon which to meditate. As he counsels the monk, a shot sets the back of the Master’s head against the freely flowing river.
In turmoil, against a tracking shot of desolate woods, the monk asks, “Isn’t Enlightenment a dream?”
60. BERLIN-JERUSALEM. Amos Gitaï is Israel’s premier filmmaker. His Berlin-Yerushalaim follows two actual Jewish women who meet in Berlin and separately emigrate to Palestine in the 1940s: German Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler (Lisa Kreuzer, magnificent); Russian revolutionary Mania Shochat, who helped found Israel’s Kibbutz and Labor Movements. The film cautions that these lives “inspired” the film; both women are represented as being much younger than they were at the time.
The film opens with a screen-leftward traveling shot of the future nation of modern Israel: a sweeping expanse of rocky desert—an aching vision of possibility crying out to people as the Holocaust coalesces in Europe. Gitaï crosscuts between this place and Berlin, with Shochat’s uprooting preceding Lasker-Schuler’s, the death of whose young son seals her decision to move. An upwardly tilted, screen-leftward traveling shot through bony, bleak trees accompanies her voiceover: “There is a lamentation in the world/ As though G_d himself were dead.” In the new land, Shochat suffers a tragic loss to regional violence; Lasker-Schuler’s adjustment is worse. Hers is a cosmopolitan soul. What will be Israel is more hospitable to laborers and laborites—nation builders—than to artists.
But Lasker-Schuler tries to unite her son’s memory with the future of her new homeland by envisioning a place where children can play in peace. Dressed heavily in black, she is walking outdoors, and the camera keeps apace with her as she walks, walks screen-leftward amidst sounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the streets. Cain is killing Abel again, she thinks. Buildings, traffic, radio reports—all these, circa 1989, surround her. No longer do we see her. The camera that has been following her now is completing her long, long walk across 45 years: a stalking spirit of national disappointment. Here is the single greatest shot in Israeli cinema.
61. BLACK RAIN. This day will live in infamy.
August 6, 1945. As people congregate in interiors, there is a sudden flash of eerie light and ferocious explosion. A wall clock, indicating 8:15, is blown to bits. In the streets, black rain is falling. A tattered boy begs an older boy to recognize him as his brother. The older boy, dubious, quizzes the child. When he asks the child his name, the child draws a blank; but then the child remembers his by-rote identification from school, part of which is his name. “You are Kyuzo!” the older boy cries, embracing his brother. A woman, seated outdoors, attempts to nurse her dead, charred baby. A man leans out his upstairs window. Viewing the devastation, he asks aloud, “Where is Hiroshima?” before falling to his death. The first movement of Shohei Imamura’s black-and-white Kuroi ame is among the most gripping openings in cinema.
Two things unify this passage with what comes after. One is the film’s focus on Yasuko, who witnesses the mushroom cloud at a distance but returns to Hiroshima, making her way through the streets with her guardians, her aunt and uncle. Indeed, the film opens with her voiceover, which is engaged in calm reportage. Five years later, she is living with her aunt and uncle in a rural village in which many Hiroshima survivors now reside. A medical checkup in Fukuyama signals the other unifying factor: fallout—the fallout from the fallout. Will Yasuko’s health hold? Already she has quit school; can she marry? Like so many others, Yasuko enforces a semblance of normality on her upended life; but we grasp that this constitutes the repression of a traumatic event of seismographic proportions. The upshot of the bomb is a lifetime of uncertainty—if you will, a ticking time bomb.
62. DREAMS. Yume, by Akira Kurosawa and Ishirô Honda, may be the most gorgeous film in creation. Laying out a panorama of concerns pertaining to responsibility, war, the environment, art’s irreplaceable value, its segments are best understood as waking dreams, poetic visions. One protagonist proceeds across them from early boyhood to adulthood.
In one segment, spirits of a felled peach tree orchard appear to the boy, who shares their sorrow at this assault on Nature. Magical: the stationary spirits come into motion in slow, stylized dance to show their appreciation. To the boy’s poetic eye, the dance culminates in the orchard’s full restoration; but when he rushes up the hill, again there are only stumps—except for a single branch of blossoms: hope. A freeze frame captures the budding environmentalist’s troubled look. Two segments address war, while two more enjoin the antiwar and environmental themes by summoning holocaustic visions of nuclear radiation.
One of the war segments is brilliant. Learning that his entire platoon, except for him, was wiped out, a soldier confronts his comrades, explains their fate, and orders them to march through a dark tunnel to the Land of the Dead. When he attempts to leave, he, too, is confronted—by a dog, with grenades strapped around its radioactive torso, eyes like burning coals, barks aggressive, ferocious: the Beast of War.
The last segment is sublime. Chishu Ryu beautifully plays the Old Man of the Village of the Watermills, who lives in harmony with Nature. There is a ritualistic funeral march, in which all the villagers participate, led by the Old Man, that exemplifies acceptance of death as part of the life cycle. With stunning clarity, Yume suggests that war—competitiveness in extremis—is grounded in the quarrel that too many of us have with Nature and with death.
63. RAISE THE RED LANTERN. “Isn’t it the fate of women to become concubines?” Songlian more tells than asks her mother, in 1920 China, when yielding to her mother’s pressure to marry a rich man in order to alleviate their poverty. Thus the educated girl becomes Fourth Mistress to Chen Zuoqian, a Lear-aged lord who encourages competition among his wives suited to his choice each night of one over the others for his sexual pleasure. The symbol for this is the lit red lantern that is placed outside the separate home of the chosen one. From Su Tong’s novel Wives and Concubines, Da hong deng long gao gao gua has remained Zhang Yimou’s most outstanding film.
Two things distinguish Zhang’s feminist howl. One is Gong Li’s powerful performance as the rebellious Songlian, who descends into madness over her lack of autonomy. The other is the mise-en-scène. Shots of the courtyard banked by parallel buildings in the complex, as well as meticulously symmetrical interior shots, generate an increasing sense of claustrophobia and oppression. It is as though Songlian’s mind and spirit have been consigned to a vise.
Curiously, while lighting and use of color are exquisitely restrained, there is a sense of psychological glare that helps define Songlian’s disaffection. Her first night with Chen, she complains of the profusion of lit lanterns in her boudoir—this, celebratory of her arrival. But she will not be permitted to hide from her arduous circumstance under cover of nighttime darkness. Chen responds, “I like to keep things formal and bright.” And that’s that. In everything, Chen is the one who has the final say. Even the ceremonial foot massage that Songlian is given isn’t for her pleasure. Chen explains to her, “When a woman’s feet feel healthy, she is better able to serve her master.”
64. LIFE AND NOTHING MORE. In 1990 northern Iran experienced a devastating earthquake. The warm, humane comedy of Abbas Kiarostami’s film precludes condescending rhetoric of noble suffering. His surrogate, an unnamed filmmaker, accompanied by his young son, Puya, tries to drive to Koker; the main road is backed-up with traffic, and another road is impassable because of landslides. Their mission: to locate two young boys who appeared in the director’s Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?, in which one fails to find the house of a school friend in a neighboring village. Will the director have more luck now? Did the Ahmadpour brothers survive? The director comes armed with a poster for the earlier film prominently featuring the starring Ahmadpour boy’s face. En route, father and son learn that the earthquake razed every home in Koker.
Kiarostami is documenting his own attempt to find the boys. A camera strapped to the side of his surrogate’s vehicle records the devastation. In addition, beautiful extreme long shots of the vehicle’s upward trek through mountainous terrain suggest the struggle of mortally aware humanity to push onward, to keep afloat—what Tennyson described as “ever climbing up the climbing wave.”
A woman on the road relates she has lost home and family—eighteen persons. She declines a ride, as though too much mitigation of hardship would break faith with the dead. But elderly Mr. Ruhi, from Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?, gets in. He tells Puya that if the dead could return they would appreciate life more. He was made to look “older and uglier” for the 1987 film. “That’s not art,” he humorously opines. “If you make an old man young and handsome, that’s art.”
Puya is receiving an education of the heart. The film stops mid-journey.
Zendegi edame darad: And life goes on . . . .
65. THE PUPPETMASTER. Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895 under the Manchu treaty; the end of World War II, fifty years later, brought liberation. Parallel to this, Li Tienlu is required to address his biological parents as “aunt” and “uncle,” and to adopt his mother’s name. He becomes a renowned puppeteer. In his eighties, the actual Li, on-screen and off-, narrates his life story, while Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Hsimeng jensheng—In the Hand of a Puppet Master—re-enacts episodes from Li’s life. The title refers to both Li’s profession and Taiwanese history under the Japanese, who appropriated Taiwanese puppetry for their own propagandistic purposes and who otherwise impressed their own culture on the Taiwanese, making puppets of them. It refers also to Hou, vis-à-vis us.
Sometimes Hou’s history of Li doesn’t match Li’s own account. It is impossible to tell at these points which, if either version, is accurate. Memory falters; history is revisionism. Ironically, it is Hou’s images—brilliantly color cinematographed by Lee Ping-bing—that create their own reality, while Li functions as “storyteller”—artist, that is, like a puppeteer. But Hou also is artist. Sharp and clear, his images sift reality, becoming shifting sands. Extreme long-shots, in which people appear as dots amidst vast landscapes or seascapes, further tweak the notion of absolute substantiality.
Hou’s film, both majestic and intimate, expansive, humane, shows reality/human history resisting being pinned down in another way. Throughout, our comprehension of what occurs lags behind the film’s sights and sounds; subsequent shots provide the basis for our understanding of what we have already witnessed, placing us in the position of historian as well as audience.
The exquisitely formal, decorated puppet shows exert great fascination—and some discomfort, as we gradually accept that we ourselves are puppets. Puppets of nations, puppets of war, puppets of Time.
66. THE BLUE KITE. Beijing, China, 1953. Comrade Stalin’s death postpones Lin Shaolong and Chen Juajan’s marriage. Their son’s voiceover notes the delay. Like David Copperfield, he refers to time even prior to his birth. At the ceremony, his future parents first pay respect to the wall portrait of Mao Zedong. Mao’s image, actually, falls between them—the iconography of pervasive political power. A year later, the narrator is born. First he is called Lin Dayu—“Big Rain”—because of the weather that day; thereafter, Tietou—“Iron Head”—for the strength it indicates by way of compensation for that weather. This is normal stuff regarding parental names for children. But everything, including this, takes on a different meaning when symbolical power must be drawn to compensate for the everyday autonomy one isn’t allowed. In this context, I differ with most commentators as to the (gorgeous) visual punctuation that Tian Zhuangzhuang, the filmmaker, provides with shots of the blue kite sailing in the open sky. Freedom and hope, others say. I say: compensation for the lack thereof, and implicit defeat and resignation. Of course, I and everyone else are both right.
This is a narrative film—hence, one that is highly reliant on Mao Xiao’s script. This is a family and community saga, but one in which Tian’s patient, incisive filmmaking counts most heavily. Politics determine everyone’s life, including the lives of those who deny the importance of politics.
Nothing inherent in communism as political ideology helps explain the constraint under which ordinary people’s lives are put. This isn’t a negative film, only a particular, sharply observant one. The boy grows up and passes on the kite.
Critic Andrew Sarris has called Lan feng zheng “[t]he most amazing act of political courage and defiance I have seen in the cinema.”
67. THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES. For Where Is the Friend’s House? Abbas Kiarostami recruited locals from the rural northern Iranian village of Koker, among them, the Ahmadpour brothers. In Life and Nothing More (see above), an earthquake has razed Koker, prompting the director—Kiarostami’s stand-in—to return to Koker to see if the boys are alive. The film ends without resolving the matter. In Zire darakhatan zeyton, a different actor is playing the director, who has returned to Koker to make—well, Through the Olive Trees. One of the most joyous moments in cinema occurs when whose faces should pop into the car window: the Ahmadpour brothers, on their way to school. This is handled offhandedly, but how momentous in terms of life and death.
The film opens with Kiarostami’s surrogate conducting a casting call outdoors to find among the young female villagers the right girl to play a leading role in the new film. The one selected is named Tahereh; she will play the bride, Tahereh. The wedding is supposed to have occurred right after the earthquake. The first actor chosen, who stutters, proves impossible. A local bricklayer is the next boy chosen for the part; but Tahereh won’t speak to him, because Hossein really has been proposing to her, and her parents won’t give their consent. Faced with her obdurate silence, Hossein hopes to glean a sign from Tahereh that he has her heart despite his disqualifications: being poor and unschooled, however hardworking; having no home to provide for whomever he marries. The making of the film, then, is a comedy covering the tragedy of life—“covering,” as in concealing, documenting, however “inadvertently,” and building upon: this, a metaphor for Koker’s year-after renewal in the wake of the quake.
Will there be a wedding? Will there be a film?
68. RICE PEOPLE. Rithy Panh’s beautiful and rhythmic Neak sre revolves around a family, Poeuv and Om (Peng Phan, phenomenal) and their seven daughters, and the Cambodian village community on the Mekong Delta to which they belong. These are “rice people”—people whose subsistent lives derive from planting, growing, harvesting rice.
Poeuv’s death leaves Om and their eldest daughter, Sakha, hardest hit. Om, in fact, goes insane under the burden of having to provide for her family. Sakha takes her mother’s place in the paddies while Om unsuccessfully undergoes treatment in an urban hospital. When Om returns, the magnitude of her concern for her children’s survival means there can never be enough rice now. From her naturally poetic soul comes this utterance: “The sun has taken our rice field into its grave.” She also says: “I worked and worked. I plowed with all my strength. I sowed. I replanted, I harvested. But it’s all the same: I don’t see anything. Where’s my rice?”
There are sacks and sacks, but Sakha had to give some away to help repay the loan that paid for Om’s hospital stay. Now she is mother to six sisters and her own mother.
Documentary realism is folded into the fiction. We see a family’s reconfiguration after the double jolt of one parent’s death and the other’s mental illness; and we also see how the community tends to the stricken family that is a part of it. The closing long-shot shows Om running back and forth across her patch of land, perhaps shooing away sparrows. Feeling useful now and again is as much as she can hope for.
Panh, who dedicated the film to his own family, ends by quoting Rilke: “We dare not see through pain and distance . . . .”
We dare not do otherwise, either.
69. GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN. Three time-lines span more than a half-century of Taiwanese history in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Hao nan hao nu. Liang Ching is an actress playing Chiang Bi-yu in a film-within-the-film titled Hao nan hao nu. Chiang Bi-yu and her husband, Chung Hao-tung, and three others were among Taiwan’s “good men, good women,” who contributed to the mainland Resistance movement against Japanese invaders-occupiers. Ching, through the experience of playing the politically committed Bi-yu (Annie Shizuka Inoh, searing, plays both parts), gropes for a surer sense of herself and her nation’s identity. The actual Bi-yu, hospitalized, also participates in the film, but offscreen, only through Ching, who sadly informs us of Bi-yu’s death prior to the film’s premiere.
Music or voiceover may slide from a bit of one time-line to a bit of another.
The film opens in the past. In long-shot the five idealistic young patriots move across a field to join the anti-Japanese cause. The image is monochromatic, like all the images in the film-within-the-film, whose camera remains invisible. The film ends with the same image, but in color, like the other present-day and relatively recent material. The past has been brought to the present that it helped shape. Static camera recording walking (and singing) souls who at the last pass out of the frame: stillness; transience; recollection; loss.
Ching is haunted by her past as a drug-addicted bar hostess, a gangster’s mistress, his death—a mirroring of Taiwan’s tragic history.
Postwar, in the 1950s, Bi-yu and other reformers opposed to the continuation of feudalism were arrested; many, including her husband, were executed as Communists. If you have forgotten how evil Chiang Kai-shek was, or the role that the U.S. played in his reign of terror, this film will remind you.
Rigorous, complex, poignant, haunting.
70. NUN VA GOLDOON. Called Bread and Flower or A Moment of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film, like Kiarostami’s films, revels in self-reflexivity. Makhmalbaf plays himself.
Twenty years earlier, in Shah Pahlavi’s repressive dictatorship that incited the Islamic Revolution, Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old activist who was imprisoned for stabbing a 20-year-old police officer, Mirhadi Tayebi, whose pistol he tried to steal. Now he has reunited with the former officer to film the incident, since which time Tayebi has had an unlucky life. That long-ago day, he had been trying to work up the courage to present a flower to a girl who was in the habit of passing by during his street watch. There she was, asking him for the time; then the attack. Now, after years of pining for her, he learns that that girl is in fact Makhmalbaf’s cousin and was part of the plot!
Both men advise the boys who are playing them. Tayebi, bitter, instructs his surrogate to shoot the girl before he is stabbed. But the boy playing Makhmalbaf breaks down; how can he stab anybody? There must be a better way of “saving the world.” Makhmalbaf gets the boy back on track. As one boy approaches to commit the assault, the other boy fails to shoot the girl peremptorily. At the point of decision, two things suddenly, unexpectedly, happen involving the bread (under which the gun is hidden) and the flower—a new moment of innocence that perhaps, just perhaps, redeems the past.
Thus the puppetmaster-filmmaker discovers he cannot control his puppets—although it is deliciously impossible to determine just what Makhmalbaf has predetermined as the author of the (brilliant) script. The original event slips into a new reality, affecting the young actors as profoundly as the original event affected its actors on Iran’s political stage.
71. SOMERSAULT IN A COFFIN. Dervis Zaim’s Tabutta rövasata, a humane comedy, follows Mahsun, an impoverished Turk living on Istanbul’s streets. To survive emotionally and spiritually, as well as materially, he does what he can—which, always illegal, gets him repeatedly beaten by the police. No defeatist, Mahsun creatively holds onto life. This requires awesome effort. Mahsun is a down-on-his-luck Everyman whose humanity we instantly recognize. By contrast, Mahsun’s official tormentors seem robotic.
Working on a fishing boat, Mahsun makes almost no money. He feels trapped. He is trapped. So, in his way a gentleman, Mahsun borrows parked cars, neatly returning them when he is done going wild behind the wheel. Thus he is able to steal self-validating moments of self-determination and freedom. Mahsun’s girlfriend uses heroin; Mahsun’s joyrides are his fix. They’re what keep him going.
When Sari, Mahsun’s closest friend, dies on the streets, the precariousness of Mahsun’s situation is brought home to him. Early on, Zaim applies an impressionistic style, consisting of stark, short scenes, to jolt us into the harsh immediacy of homelessness. Also, Zaim inserts sharp closeups—for instance, of the fire that people light to warm their hands. Zaim discards this tack before it can drift into mannerism, adopting a more naturalistic style (punctuated by fleeting moments of expressionism) while retaining the previous edginess.
While street folk scramble to find what cover they can, gorgeous Iranian peacocks roam an ancient castle—the city’s well tended anachronism. These birds, though, speak to Mahsun’s heart; he somehow draws a line of kinship between their pampered confinement and his comfortless plight. Nearly starving, he makes a meal of one of the birds—a self-assault; an act of utter desperation. The crime’s oddness attracts television reportage; but Mahsun’s pointless celebrity is unlikely to alleviate the poverty that’s killing him.
72. THE SALTMEN OF TIBET. See explanation for inclusion at outset of this list, and see 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #91.
73. THE EEL. In Shohei Imamura’s Unagi, mild-mannered Takuro, suspecting infidelity, catches wife and lover in bed together and stabs her to death. Blood sprays the camera. Thereafter, red periodically indicates Takuro’s persistent guilt.
In prison, an eel becomes Takuro’s pet. Robotic from his regimen of incarceration, Takuro can yet find an image of his submerged humanity in his sleek, slithering companion. Released, Takuro rescues Keiko after she attempts suicide. Keiko’s people skills make a success of Takuro’s barber shop, which his shyness was prepping for failure. Keiko falls in love with Takuro. Incensed that Keiko has retrieved money that he appropriated from her insane mother, her former mobster boyfriend is hell-bent on revenge. A young man who has befriended Takuro, genially obsessed with UFOs, has constructed in their remote outpost an elaborate display to attract aliens. When the mobster is about to savage Keiko and Takuro at the shop, this friend realizes that aliens have landed, and they’re unfriendly, and he gets help. The result: an hilarious barber shop frenzy out of the Keystone Kops. Before Takuro is returned to prison for violating parole, Keiko tells him she will wait for him. Takuro is mum.
Keiko is a dead ringer for Takuro’s wife. (Misa Shimuzu splendidly plays both women.) This is why Takuro was attracted to her; it is his wife whom he still loves. By now having twice brought Keiko back to life, Takuro has resolved his crisis of guilt. He will not return to her.
Or do the women look alike? Perhaps we see this resemblance because of the connection that Takuro has subjectively drawn between them. We are seeing what he sees, regardless of what is objectively the case.
Imamura: “Above and beyond anything else, working as an artist means having a limitless curiosity about human beings.”
74. A TASTE OF CHERRY. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ta’m e guilass applies to an engrossing instance of life and death cinema’s mediation between documentary and fiction.
Having decided to end his life that night, Badii spends the day driving around, trying to find someone who (for money) will assist him in this task by burying him the next morning. Thus Badii picks up stranger after stranger, interviewing each. Someone finally agrees.
Kiarostami’s distancing continually reminds us we’re watching a film, not reality—for instance, the consenting stranger isn’t shown entering Badii’s Range Rover; popping into the frame, he is just suddenly there. We witness Badii’s pill-taking and, just before sound vanishes and the screen goes black, we see him lying on the ground. On the basis of other, conventional films, we may expect to learn in the next image Badii’s fate; instead, a sequence purporting to show the shooting of the film we have been watching follows. The debased quality of the images jolts us. We see the actor who plays Badii; for a moment, we mistake him for Badii, thinking, “Oh, Badii is alive; the suicide attempt failed.” Then we realize that no words or images are coming to resolve the matter of Badii’s outcome, leaving us to gauge our dependence on cozy, pedestrian narrative.
Most of the film, hypnotic, records Badii’s journeying through stretches and turns of barren vacancy—between somewhere and nowhere, life and death. In their back-and-forth exchanges inside the vehicle, the more-fictional interviewer is nudged in the direction of documentary and the more-documentary interviewee is nudged in the direction of fiction. Kiarostami has found a way to humanize and dramatize cinema’s fluid nature as it fluctuates between its two signature modes of expression.
Incorporating these crossroads of documentary and fiction is the cherry tree—thing and symbol.
75. FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #93.
76. THE WIND WILL CARRY US. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #94.
77. THRONE OF DEATH. One of the most brilliant satirical films in recent memory, Marana Simhasanam, from Kerala, India, in the Malayalam language, is Murali Nair’s first feature. It won Nair the Caméra d’Or at Cannes.
Along with his wife, Krishnan has one more day of seasonal low-caste/subsistent-pay employment to go. The film opens with him in the throes of hard physical labor; when he takes a cigarette break, no one will doubt he has earned it—and thus he ekes out the extra day. Years of hard work and deprivation have made the couple look prematurely old, and the introduction of a young boy as their son comes as a shock.
“How long can we starve?” his wife asks Krishnan. That night, Krishnan attempts to divest the landowner’s tree of some coconuts, but his timing couldn’t be worse. Somehow, miraculously, perhaps by dint of higher caste, the landowner knows what Krishnan is up to beforehand; as he reaches for a coconut, there comes the posse already, by water, to apprehend Krishnan. Also, it is election season, and poor Krishnan becomes everyone’s pawn as candidates and supporters eke out what electoral advantage they can. The party in power adds an unsolved murder to Krishnan’s criminal résumé, while a Communist opponent goes on a hunger strike on Krishnan’s behalf so that Krishnan, rather than being hanged, can experience the “blissful death” delivered by the U.S.-invented “electronic chair” whose widespread distribution the World Bank is planning to underwrite! The end of the hunger strike and Krishnan’s execution each prompts a public event, with fanfare and grandstanding speeches. At the former, amongst a flurry of faux-documentary interviews, a villager says: “While I’m sorry he is going to die, I am happy that Krishnan’s death will be blissful.”
78. THE ROAD HOME. Gorgeous, lyrical, poignant, Wo de fu qin mu qin is framed by the fierce, wintry, somber black-and-white present, with the past, in between, in lush, vivid color. (Hou Yong cinematographed.) A cosmopolitan businessman visits his northern rural home, where his father, Changyu, who has just died, was the beloved village schoolteacher. Although he is certified to teach, Yusheng has never taught and has never married (the film implies the sterility of an increasingly capitalistic China); his parents, by contrast, were mutually devoted for forty years. Their romance occupies the film’s middle, as an old family photograph shifts Yusheng’s mind to his parents’ meeting and falling in love, as Yusheng has come to “travel” these events. Yusheng’s steady, solemn voiceover enters a domain of love and sweeping feeling; some trouble Changyu experienced with authorities—offscreen, because this wasn’t discussed—led to his “restriction” and temporarily separated the pair. (The life he has lived vicariously may have become more vivid to Yusheng than his own.) Bound in love to his mother, Di, and his father’s memory, Yusheng helps arrange for the traditional funeral march that his mother insists on despite its disfavor since the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang Ziyi and Zhao Yulian are superb as the young and older Di. Working from a fine, haunting script by Shi Bao based on his own novel, director Zhang Yimou applies tracking shots to 18-year-old Di’s dashes through landscape to capture glimpses of the boy she is in love with, wringing from the moving camera powerful emotional mileage. Di’s meticulous decoration of Changyu’s schoolroom, her sitting alone inside the empty classroom: these suggest intense sexual sublimations. The final color coda freezes a long-shot of young Di on the road home; in its stasis we experience the heart-aching rush of time.
79. CLOUDS OF MAY. From Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Mayis sikintisi suggests Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s Closeup (1990) and Through the Olive Trees (see above), it is a film about the making of a film. Ceylan’s surrogate, Muzaffer, has returned from Istanbul to recruit his cast from family members. Meanwhile, Muzaffer’s father (played by Ceylan’s father, Emin) is trying to save his land from state appropriation; in particular, he doesn’t want trees to be clear-cut. Despite Muzaffer’s contrary efforts, his film bends to his actors’ concerns, including his father’s wish to protect some of the natural beauty whose enrichment Muzaffer, who remains fixated on his film, seems to have forgotten.
There is a Chekhovian density of family relations, the tension between family cohesion and the concerns and aspirations of individual members. Ceylan evokes in the country landscape the stilling of time that discloses, ironically, time’s rush that the stillness tries holding back. Muzaffer’s father’s endeavor to save the trees is also an attempt to hold back time.
Muzaffer’s blindness to Nature’s beauty makes him like his little cousin, whose aunt, Muzaffer’s mother, promises him any present he wants if he keeps an egg in his pocket for forty days. On his way home from school, the diligent boy is handed a basket of tomatoes to deliver to someone. The woman warns him not to rock or crush the tomatoes. En route, though, a tomato falls out of the basket, and when the boy bends over to retrieve it, we hear crack. The egg! He drops the basket; the tomatoes go tumbling down a hill towards the camera—sheer beauty, to which the boy, fixated on his anticipated gift, is oblivious. He is rewarded anyhow, with a musical watch: time rendered delightful.
Both boy and uncle learn and grow.
80. JOURNEY TO THE SUN. Yesim Ustaoglu’s Günese yolculuk addresses Turkey’s mistreatment of Kurds. While not Kurdish, Ustaoglu comes from a largely Kurdish area of Turkey near the Armenian border. Former spouse Tayfun Pirselimoglu’s story revolves around the friendship that develops between two young men who have relocated in Istanbul from western Turkey. “Dark-skinned,” Mehmet becomes a police target. Berzan is a Kurd; the village massacre that killed his father has radicalized him. When Mehmet loses lodgings and employment after being mistakenly jailed and tortured as a Kurdish rebel, Berzan takes him in. After Berzan is clubbed to death by police during a Kurdish street demonstration, Mehmet takes his friend’s body, in a cumbersome coffin, on a long, difficult journey home, to Zorduc: a watery wasteland now. Mehmet commends his friend’s coffin to the deep. The film’s timely release followed the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, who had led Turkey’s Kurdish armed rebellion.
A former architect, Ustaoglu has a clear eye for the dim details of Istanbul’s slums. She impressively films spontaneous group street dance as a defense by Istanbul’s young against the crushing monotony of urban existence. Nothing short of devastating, though, is the related scene of Mehmet alone in their apartment after Berzan has been killed. (A brain hemorrhage is the official finding.) The boy begins tossing himself around the room, hitting this, banging that, until his moves coalesce into a discernible dance—a dance aiming to relieve the pressure of his anger and grief.
But the film’s crowning achievement is Mehmet’s “journey to the sun,” which completes the emotional and spiritual identification as a Kurd that began when the police mistook Mehmet for one and therefore mistreated him. Every fleeting glimpse of vacancy in land and sky and abandoned impoverished homes resonates as metaphor for the devastated Kurdish population.
81. DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP. In stark black and white (until the blood-red finish), Wen Jiang’s Guizi lai le (The Nips Are Here) may be the most staggering vision ever devised of the absurdity of war. The Japanese occupy China during the last gasps of the Second World War. In a northern village near the Great Wall, peasants Ma Dasan and his mistress suffer coitus interruptus when a knock at the door dumps two sacks on their doorstep. Filling one is a Japanese prisoner, who eventually moderates as a result of Chinese humanity; the other is his Chinese interpreter, who will do anything to survive, including mistranslating the prisoner’s more bellicose remarks. Jiang’s black comedy suggests a fusion of Ichikawa’s Nobi (see above), Imamura’s Pornographers (see above) and Emir Kusturíca’s Underground (1996)—anything but something Chinese! With various communal pressures making their mark on him, Dasan must decide whether to pickle or preserve his “guests.” In war, it seems, the trick is to keep from killing while managing to stay alive. A plan emerges to exchange the hostages for grain. This leads to a feast, which in turn leads to an event with ancient mythological and literary echoes: the failed feast: here, a bloodbath that the Japanese commander commandeers (he even burns the grain), during which the news of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender arrives. War is constant interruption.
One might think that the restoration of Chinese authority in the village would be beneficent. But the pressure that Dasan has endured takes its toll; he implodes, goes on a rampage, killing Japanese. He is beheaded by a Japanese at Chinese instruction. His head descends through space, observing the “civilized” aftermath of war’s carnage; it lands upright on the ground, eyes still alert, taking too much in. Past is prologue.
Jiang himself plays Dasan.
82. BLACKBOARDS. Samira Makhmalbaf’s stunning Takhté siah, made when she was 19, follows her achingly humane debut, The Apple (Sib, 1997), in which a real-life situation is reenacted by the very persons who very recently were actually involved in it, including two 11-year-old girls, who, locked up in their home by their parents, are released by social services into an adventure of new freedom. Both films were written by Makhmalbaf and her father, Mohsen.
The human landscape of war, in the landmine-booby trapped mountains near the Iran-Iraq border: Blackboards is about itinerant Kurdish schoolteachers searching for pupils—children as dispossessed as they—in order to ply their trade. It is a desperate, futile attempt to enforce a semblance of normalcy on an abnormal situation. Right now, survival overwhelms other considerations such as education. The would-be-again teachers are burdened by the reality they are trying to accommodate and modify; each carries his huge slate on his back—images of which recall the door-toting in “The Door,” a short film that Mohsen Makhmalbaf contributed to Ghessé hayé kish (1999).
The film follows two of the teachers, Saïd and Reeboir, whose boards rarely get used for the intended purpose. Along the way, the children and adults they meet require other uses for the slates. One of the boards becomes a cot for carrying a dying old man, whose daughter Saïd marries, who ends up with Saïd’s board when they divorce and she crosses the border; the other is hacked apart altogether, to provide a splint for an injured child. We watch uprooted, nomadic lives.
The film’s haunting visual beauty is painfully ironic: a metaphor for all the good things in life—love; safety; comfort; food and shelter—that these refugees from inescapable conflict, amidst fire on the ground and from above, must do without.
83. THE CIRCLE. Jafar Panahi’s Dayereh is about the oppression of women in patriarchic Iran. It begins by showing one female character, then, leaving her behind, jumps to a pair of other female characters, then follows one of these, then jumps to another woman entirely, then another, and so on. Each character reveals something more about the social, economic and political state of women in the Islamic Republic. As the circle closes and the theme becomes more firmly set, the formerly hand-held camera settles into a fixed state, by which time we ourselves have interiorized the anxiety of the camera’s earlier incarnation.
But at the very start the camera is fixed. Not in Kambuzia Partovi’s inspired script; the scene is of Panahi’s own devising: “[t]he rest of the film,” Panahi has said, “explains that first shot”—a long take. In a hospital waiting room, a woman is informed through a small window that her daughter has given birth to a girl. In the head-to-toe black outer garment prescribed by hejab (the Iranian dress code for females), the woman has her back to us. (In Dayereh, women often are shot from behind. This visually underscores both the oppression to which women are subject and their constant fear of legal retribution.) The window is slid shut; the woman doesn’t budge, instead knocking at the window, to speak to the nurse again, in hope that the just-born infant is actually a boy. The new grandmother mutters, “My poor daughter,” and the nurse slides the window shut again with alarming finality. Distressed, the woman lies to the in-laws; and, as one of them approaches the window to inquire, she takes off down a narrow, circular stairway to the street. Again: “My poor daughter!” The camera, at her back, erupts into agitation during this black-robed descent.
84. KIPPUR. Amos Gitaï, Israel’s premier filmmaker, based Kippur on his own combat experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur War that reshaped the Israeli mindset.
In the film’s opening movement, a town is deserted. None of the few parked cars are in motion to interrupt the eerie silence. Weinraub, in his mid-twenties, is walking the street towards the camera, unhurried in a seeming stoppage of time. Indoors, a white sheet appears. It becomes a canvas for smeared paint: blue, green, prussian blue, red, yellow. Weinraub and his girlfriend make love on the sheet, their bodies tattooed by the paint: the essential beauty of sexual intimacy—the in-the-momentness of love and of existential life. When at the film’s conclusion the pair again have their passion amidst the paints, after Weinraub has barely held onto his life at the Syrian front to which he will soon have to return, the creativity of love, buttressing the soul against war’s uncreating—killing—nature, will release a piercing store of poignancy. Kippur ends where it began, but in a different Israel, a different world.
In one passage, Lt. Ruso’s unit, to which Sergeant Weinraub belongs, attempts to carry a badly wounded soldier to the evacuating helicopter. The rescuers are trudging through mud that’s like quicksand. Several times during this agonizingly slow ordeal the men lose their footing, stumble, drop the wounded boy’s body and struggle to replace him on the stretcher. After all that effort, he turns out to be dead. Some of the soldiers are reluctant to leave the corpse behind, as they must do with the dead, unable to grasp, it seems, that he is dead. They have exhausted themselves in hopes of a redeeming conclusion that war’s reality has thwarted at the last moment.
At home, Weinraub’s hands ooze with red paint.
85. SHADOW KILL. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #98.
86. Final Segment, 11’09”01. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #99.
87. ALEXEI AND THE SPRING. Motohashi Seiichi’s incandescent documentary Alexei to izumi is set in Budische, in Belarus, a rural farm village emptied of nearly all its 600-some residents by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Fewer than sixty stayed, all older, except for Alexei, who lives with elderly parents. Other young people (including Alexei’s older brother and younger sister) return periodically to help parents and grandparents with planting and harvest. Spiritually sustaining villagers is the local spring, whose waters, inexplicably, remain uncontaminated. Ultimately the film becomes an elegy—a delayed elegy waiting upon the demise of Budische—for the Soviet Union.
Static wintry long shots introduce the village, a wasteland of trees and abandoned huts. There is a sad, haunting overhead shot of the percolating spring, all white with snow, into which fresh snow falls: an epiphany of the mystery of Nature and existence.
The film principally shows villagers at work inside and outside their homes, farming, buying and selling, washing laundry, weaving baskets, hauling logs, and so forth.
Carrying two buckets of water from the spring toward the house, Alexei appears. Indoors, a closeup of the virulent fire in the fireplace introduces the first vivid patch of color. “In this village,” Alexei explains, “to work is to eat.” He says at planting time, “When you are planting potatoes, you dig with your whole body”—a remark to whose accuracy the accompanying images of people at work attest.
Throughout, Seiichi implies Soviet shortcomings. Alexei notes how Soviet tractors and other equipment, purchased from communes, are continually breaking down, frustrating the determination of people to get on with their work.
Why Alexei remained in Budische is a mystery even to him. Perhaps the spring kept him there—that, and all the mysterious familial and communal connections it embodies.
88. TEN. Abbas Kiarostami’s experiment, in ten parts, consists of conversations between the driver of an automobile in Tehran—a taxi driver, I presume—and her front-seat passenger, recorded by two digital video cameras attached to the dashboard, one facing the driver, the other facing the passenger. In nearly every shot, therefore, we see either person, not both. (We also see an empty seat.)
The driver, divorced, has remarried. Her first conversation is with Amin, her ten-year-old son. He lives with her. Obstreperous, he berates her for being a bad mother—one who cares more for her work than for him. He calls her selfish, “a stupid cow,” and alternates between throwing temper tantrums and lecturing her condescendingly in a dismissively calm manner. Amin’s mother is an independent woman contending with a child who chauvinistically sides with his father. (Because of Iran’s strict divorce laws, she tries to explain to her son, she had to lie at trial, accusing his father of taking drugs, in order to be granted the divorce.) In the second segment, the driver discusses the situation with her more traditional sister, with whom she is evidently close. They recall how as children they scolded their mother for working day and night.
Five other women are among her other passengers. These include an older Islamic fundamentalist, an abandoned wife, a prostitute. Ten, then, is a docudrama in motion, for which Kiarostami wrote a script outlining the encounters, but for which the nonprofessional cast members improvised their own dialogue. It is a captivating study, on wheels, of Iranian gender politics, and of ways in which the country is changing and ways in which it has dug in its heels. It is also cumulative, in which the initially defensive driver is gradually driven to exposing and perhaps realizing her vulnerability.
89. WAR AND PEACE. Jang Aur Aman, from India, studies the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. Documentarian Anand Patwardhan is a Gandhian pacifist.
Against black-and-white archival material illustrating atomic tests and destruction, Patwardhan notes the nuclear advances that neutered each vestige of pacifism on the world stage: “Paranoia that the atom bomb [the United States] had dropped on . . . [Japan] would someday come back to strike home ensured a permanent quest for nuclear superiority.” The Soviet Union, Britain, France and China “joined the nuclear club.” By the 1980s, “there were enough bombs to destroy the world fifty times,” and “[r]adioactive waste from mining and processing, along with thousands of atmospheric and underground tests, polluted sections of the globe for eternity.” In 1974, India joined the club; “[t]he Soviet Union eventually collapsed under the weight of the arms race, but America, hostage to a privatized defense industry, refused to disarm. In India, the collapse of socialism saw a revival of bigotry. . . . Nuclear nationalism was in the air”—like radioactive fallout.
India’s nuclear test triggered a nuclear arms race with Pakistan. Patwardhan examines India’s domestic campaign of deception to manipulate the electorate. In a Pakistani schoolroom, girls present speeches, some in favor of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, some opposed. One pupil: “Our atomic tests brought honor and relief . . . to Pakistan . . . [and] other Muslim nations.” Afterwards, she calls senseless the killing on both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict. Patwardhan therefore asks about her contrary speech. The student replies, “We chose the stand that will . . . [inflame] passions and make [our side in the debate] win.” “Our politicians think the same way,” Patwardhan tells her. “They advocate positions that instigate passions so that they can win [elections].”
And the people lose.
90. FIVE LONG TAKES DEDICATED TO YASUJIRO OZU. Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami’s tribute to Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu engages such Ozuvian themes as separation, longing and acceptance while arranging Nature, behind the guise of purely objective documentary videography, the better for us to perceive it with fresh eyes, fresh ears.
The film consists of five shoreside segments, ostensibly shot in the course a darkening day. A piece of driftwood is on the beach. Under a cloudy sky, waves advancing and withdrawing provide the only sound. Each advance towards the camera seems another attempt by the sea to gather up the piece of driftwood and carry it off. Eventually the sea’s force breaks off a fragment and carries off the main piece. All the sea’s attempts to gather up the fragment, however, fail.
In the second segment, people walk in either direction on a railed boardwalk, oblivious to the sea just beyond. In the third, distinctions between hazy sky and sea disappear and the image becomes progressively more abstract. There is a whiting out, although a remnant of the motion of waves remains. The third segment is hilarious, as a stream of ducks make their way screen-right before reversing course and stampeding screen-left. It is dusk.
The final segment, perhaps black-and-white, brings the film to dark, mysterious fruition. It’s nighttime, and we hear a storm brewing. A full moon becomes visible—not in the sky, though; rather, we see its wavering reflection on the water’s surface. Amidst a cacophony of animal sounds, the reflected moon vanishes behind clouds and reappears. The image grows abstract and segmented—another image of separation. Flashes of lightning; the screen bursts with a thousand flickers of rain. Darkness yields to dawn. Reflections of birds fly across the reflected sky—trains of transience. The Spirit of Ozu is everywhere.
91. CAFE LUMIERE. Marking the occasion of the centennial of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s calm, quiet Café Lumière shows Yoko’s back as she hangs wash inside her small Tokyo apartment. A part-time journalist, Yoko wanders the city taking photographs and riding trains, drops in on her friend Hajime in his used bookstore, drinks coffee in cafés—this, a sign of her contemporaneity. Most of the film, plotless, is taken up by her wanderings—and Hajime’s, as he goes from one train to another recording their sounds.
Yoko is nonchalant about being pregnant, determined not to marry the father (her boyfriend in Taiwan), and disinclined to have her settled life interrupted in any way by her condition. Easier said than done. When she visits her father and stepmother (Nenji Kobayashi and Kimiko Yo, wonderful), why does her father keep mum about the disclosure? For one thing, we have Ozu as a reference for the postwar displacement of fathers from a confident position of authority in the family unit. Moreover, the father’s greeting upon Yoko’s arrival at the train depot personalizes this generalization: “Thank you for coming.” This man doesn’t quite know what place he occupies in his daughter’s life and heart—this, a reflection of family history. (When she was abandoned by her mother at an early age, Yoko was raised by an uncle.) Later, in a superlative shot in Yoko’s apartment, with father and daughter seated on mats, both mise-en-scène and lighting emphasize the father, providing a stunning portrait of his silent agony over the matter of Yoko’s pregnancy outside of marriage, including his sense of her rejecting him and his traditional values.
The unsteady nature of Yoko’s girlfriend-boyfriend relationship joins with the moving trains, Hajime’s used bookstore, and assorted cafés to convey flux and impermanence. Updated, Ozu’s world continues.
92. HERE AND PERHAPS ELSEWHERE. Born in Beirut, Lamia Joreige returned there from France, where she has lived for twenty years, for her documentary inquiry Houna wa roubbama hounak, which takes its title from a 1976 Godard film, but which draws inspiration also from Chris Marker’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which Parisian passers-by are asked “Are you happy?” Joreige’s question refers to Lebanon’s civil war (roughly, 1975-90), challenging her birth nation’s official amnesia on the topic (despite a loss of 150,000 lives, its history isn’t taught in Lebanese schools): “Do you know of anyone who was kidnapped from around here during the war?” Joreige travels the old line of demarcation between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut, prodding memories with her question. At each crossing or checkpoint, a freeze frame implies a residual impasse, war’s ongoing legacy. Late in the film Joreige reveals her own family’s stake in her inquiry into wartime disappearances at the hands of militias.
About faces, fears and the heartache of survivors, hers is one of the most intensely moving films I have seen. Some interviewees recall the abduction and disappearance of neighbors; others, of loved ones. Some open up, responding with a torrent of recollection; others, wary, hesitate or even stonewall the question, some defiantly, others apologetically. The psychological scars of war achieve a heartrending metaphor when a man reveals the scar from his open-heart surgery following a medical condition that he attributes to the loss of a son in the war.
Occasionally from the periphery of the gaze of Joreige’s hand-held video camera we see young children. François Truffaut once wrote that children should appear in films only if love is expressed for them. Never have I experienced a film that shows a deeper love for children than Here and Perhaps Elsewhere.
93. SUD PRALAD. The film called in the States Tropical Malady is divided into two parts. The first depicts the romance between two boys, Keng, an army reservist stationed in Thailand’s rural north, and Tong, a local worker. Prior to this, we see Keng cheesily posing with troop members around the dead body of a civilian who was mauled by a tiger—a marriage of machismo and the jaunty disregard of life and death. (Whistling in the dark?) This in turn is preceded by a quotation from novelist Ton Nakajima: “All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our human duty is to keep our animal in check and even teach it to perform tasks alien to its bestiality.” The soldiers, George W. Bush might say, are doing a heckuva job.
Nakajima’s words govern the second part, which otherwise might seem to belong to another movie, leaving the first one brusquely abandoned. Now Keng, toting his weapon, is alone in the forest, proceeding stealthily through a lush landscape rife with danger. A tiger embodies this danger. But this is no ordinary tiger. It is a legendary shadow-creature that shifts shape, like the beast in Predator (John McTiernan, 1987). The stuff of a shaman legend (the first part touches on other mythical material), the tiger that Keng hunts is also a transformed version of Tong. Sud pralad takes us through the looking-glass of a man’s soul.
Writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul relates romantic love to issues of self-mastery and cultural identity, traditional myth and in-the-momentness. When it may seem to have turned from the subjectivity of romance to the objectivity of a soldier’s jungle mission, his film, in fact, draws us ever more deeply into his protagonist and into ourselves. It is a journey into the heart of darkness and many kinds of light.
94. THE FORSAKEN LAND. Recurrent civil war since 1983 in Sri Lanka has had a devastating effect on the land and its people. Writer-director Vimukthi Jayasundara was both rewarded and censured for his Kiarostaminian Sulanga Enu Pinisa, winning the Caméra d’Or (for best first feature) at Cannes and being warned by his government to make films praising the national military rather than criticizing it. In 2009, another film by Jayasundara, Ahasin Wetei, was released.
Embedded in the opening credits is a long-shot of an armed soldier at night in a vast barren landscape. In a bravura long-shot the next day, a woman and a girl both aim to board a bus. The woman is walking leisurely across a field to the bus stop; the girl is on the road, running fast to reach the stop and not be left behind. She makes it; the woman gives her a lift up. Like most of Jayasundara’s images, this one is poetic, ambiguous and emotionally sweeping. We see the shared experience of two anonymous characters and something more elusive: the possibility that both are the same character, at different stages of her life, doubly inhabiting the same haunted frame. We eventually learn that the two are aunt and niece. In another long-shot a stripped-naked man is tossed into the river by fellow soldiers; a solitary bird perches on the branch of a bare, solitary tree. The bird flies off, but either another bird or the same one lands on the tree. Odd-man-out; two birds or one: both aspects of the mise-en-scène strangely connect. Both niece and aunt, the soldier’s daughter and sister, are subsequently referred to as “Little Bird.”
Episodic, elliptical, minimalist, powerful, Jayasundara’s near-speechless film includes marital infidelity, unwanted sexual attentions, two suicides, a graphic scene of torture, a grotesque military murder.
95. TIMES AND WINDS. Five times a day, from the minaret of the mosque in this poor Turkish village, the imam delivers the call to prayer, combinately a daily summation of the essential beliefs of Islam as given in the Quran. This structures the everyday life of the village but also breaks the monotony of labor, giving the prayerful faithful a taste of heaven in the midst of their encounter with a largely intransigent earth. Ömer, who is perhaps 12, knows the call to prayer by heart. He has learned it by listening to his imam father. Only, now, his father is sick; he asks Ömer, his elder son, to fetch the neighbor who substitutes for him on these occasions. Perhaps Ömer wishes that his father would ask him to deliver the call.
Ömer hates his father, who treats him cruelly and openly favors Ömer’s younger brother. One night, Ömer passes by his brother’s bed and leans over. Is he going to harm his brother? To protect him from the cold, Ömer pulls up the child’s blanket carefully, so as not to wake him, sneaks into his parents’ bedroom and opens the window above his sleeping father, whose doctor has warned him to keep his chest warm.
Much later, Ömer loosens his hand from his father’s dying grip, ascends a cliff, sits, breaks into tears of shame, love, regret.
Writer-director Reha Erdem’s powerful, unsentimental, beauteous Beş vakit follows Ömer and two classmates, Yakup and Yildiz, each of whom is embedded in a hard life. (Yildiz, for instance, is her mother’s slave.) Erdem often positions the camera at a child’s invisibly burdened back and follows and follows him or her, straight or windingly, on some paced or rushed task: the boundless motion of young life headed into parental shadow.
96. ASSEMBLY. Written by Liu Heng, Feng Xiaogang’s Ji jie hao opens with a shot of a bugle in official repose. Its silence here couldn’t be more apt. During the Chinese Civil War, Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu, tremendous), leading Ninth Company, 139th Regiment, 3rd Battalion of the Liberation Army, is charged with defending a mine against the enemy, the Nationalist Kuomintang, until the blow of the bugle instructs retreat to assembly. Gu persists in the suicide mission although others in the company believe that the bugle sounded; Gu, it turns out, is the sole survivor. Yet instead of his soldiers being regarded as heroes, they are officially declared “missing in action.” After the war, and the Korean War as well in which he enlists, Gu assumes a peacetime mission: to locate the bodies of his fallen brethren and have the 46 soldiers declared heroes.
It is an insult to this brilliant film from China to compare it to Steven Spielberg’s silly, sentimental Saving Private Ryan (1998), except in that its first part is unusually gripping in its grim, bloody portrait of combat. Rather, Feng’s film reminds me much more of the great Polish film Eroica (1957). Like that film, which was written by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński and directed by Andrzej Munk, Feng’s Ji jie hao pricks the whole notion of war heroism, and it does so on two fronts: in order for the Forty-Six to be heroic, it becomes necessary for Gu to have them officially declared so—an indication that heroism isn’t bound up in actions or behavior but in official acknowledgement and political advertising; moreover, the driving force behind Gu’s allegiance to this cause of his is not what the Forty-Six did, or how they behaved, but rather his own enormous guilt over their deaths.
97. 24 CITY. Once the industrial centerpiece in Chengdu, a munitions plant is being dismantled to make room for a hotel as well as residential and commercial space. Jia Zhang-Ke interviewed more than a hundred workers, some of whom appear as themselves while the experiences of others are combined for roles played by actors. The result is a blend of documentary and quasi-documentary, a national epic about China’s journey from a planned economy, with all the dislocations and sacrifices that letting in private enterprise has inflicted, and a vision of aging, mortality. Er shi si cheng ji, Jia’s most ambitious work, includes text from Chinese and other poems (including two by Yeats) as well as songs (including “The Internationale,” sung by zombies of the past). It is at once caustic about factories and celebratory about those who worked in them. The final interview is of a young woman who recounts entering the plant for the first time to see her mother and having to search soul by soul because all the workers were dressed in the same blue uniform. For the first time she saw the backbreaking work her mother did to put food on the table. Now she wants to make a lot of money—this is all she thinks about—to give her parents a comfortable home.
Scenes of factory labor yield to the hauntingly abandoned, then demolished, structure.
Joan Chen plays someone who (she has been told) resembles Joan Chen. Indoors, she faces her offscreen interviewer, presumably Jia, with an angled mirror behind her having her reflection face an open door to the outside. Within the same frame she speaks both of the past and to it—truly inspired mise-en-scène.
The final high wide-angle shot of the overdeveloped gray city—a graveyard—is embittered, powerful.
98. SHIRIN. Powerful, mesmerizing, intermittently electrifying, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin shows us, another audience, an audience watching another film, one that we only hear—like a radio drama, with dialogue, human and animal sounds, sound effects, music—from start to finish. We see more than a hundred audience members reacting to it—reactions that projectively become our own.
We watch one woman after another, all but one played by an Iranian actress, sound and image combining so that eventually, unless we resist, we imaginatively experience both films as one, the film we are watching and the film that we hear. It seeps in and takes over. Men, also, in the audience; remain in the background, their faces invisible. We see only the faces of heavily head-covered women, each enrobed in the theater’s darkness, her face spotlit, with waves of light rhythmically crossing that face.
Kiarostami creates this illusion. In actuality, he filmed each actress alone in his living room as she faced a blank sheet of white paper, next to his camera, that she filled with personal memories, stirred feelings. Kiarostami told none of his actresses what the nonexistent movie they were supposed to be watching was about.
The film-within-the-film, about the “manly game” of violence, oppression, cruelty, is based on an ancient, pre-Islamic tale, historically rooted, by way of a 12th-century epic poem, The Story of Khosrow and Shirin, by Hakim Nezami Ganjavi. Khosrow is the King of Persia; Shirin, the Armenian princess he desires; Farhad, the sculptor who also loves her. Khosrow banishes Farhad, ordering him to hammer out steps in distant mountains: a practical reduction of an artist’s gifts suited to his breaking heart. We hear this.
Kiarostami thus anticipates what is at stake in Iran’s upcoming presidential election.
He and Arash Sadhegi edited brilliantly.
99. TULPAN. All films exist on a continuum whose opposite poles are documentary and fiction, and former documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan is closer to the documentary pole than any other fictional film I can think of. It is set in the windy, sandy, frigid steppes of Kazakhstan; Dvortsevoy himself was born in Kazakhstan. In Kazakh and Russian, this brilliant tragicomedy is like no other movie I’ve seen (best film, Tokyo, Montréal, International Film Festival of India).
After a stint in the Russian navy, Asa wants to realize his dream: a flock of sheep to tend, his own yurt (with solar panels, for electricity!), and a wife to share it with. Because she is the only unmarried girl around, Asa convinces himself he is in love with Tulpan (Dvortsevoy implies this mental process by keeping Tulpan always from our view, thus making her the void that Asa accordingly fills); but she turns him down, ostensibly because his ears are too big. (They aren’t, but like Clark Gable’s they protrude.) In reality, Tulpan has no desire to stick around; she has her sights on an urban college education.
Young Asa finds himself in a rut: without a wife, he will be given no flock. Asa’s resultant stasis, along with the absence of almost any narrative advancement, is formally embodied in Asa’s continual return to Tulpan, to plead his marital case, no matter how often she rejects him. Eventually Asa earns his flock, by delivering a living lamb amidst a rash of stillborns. One last time, now, he petitions the girl of his dreams. But she is in pursuit of her own dream.
The final image, of the flock materializing from the kicked-up dust, haunts, moves and astounds. Jolanta Dylewska’s contribution here (best cinematography, Asian Film Awards), as elsewhere, is essential.
100. THE WAY WE ARE. Hong Kong writer-director Ann Hui’s Tin shui wai dik yat yu ye—literally, Days and Nights of Tin Shui Wai, but called in the U.S. The Way We Are—opens with a series of archæological black-and-white images. The first two photographs are of a butterfly, Nature’s flitting soul of evanescence. But here the butterfly is without motion, and the circumstance is incongruous, unsettling. Another snapshot, of a marsh or swamp, dissolves into a color shot of a field. A train introduces motion. The camera crosses the field to enter an apartment: part of the urban present that has replaced the past. On this summer morning, a woman leaves the apartment. We see a closeup of a sleeping teenager: an exquisitely pretty girl, an earring sparkling in her visible ear. This is On. She is not the woman’s daughter; he, it turns out, is the woman’s son. The woman, Kwai, is a widow (Paw Hee Ching, magnificent); On refers to himself by his full name, Cheung Ka On, as a way of holding onto his father’s memory.
On, loving and amiably helpful to family, is in a holding pattern. He has just graduated high school and is awaiting his final exam grade, which will determine whether he proceeds to higher education or a job. Meanwhile, Kwai works in the produce department of a supermarket. She supports herself and On and has helped pay for the education abroad of her brothers. She also does what she can to alleviate the hardship and poverty of an older co-worker, “Granny.”
With documentary detail, Hui’s film seems to observe human lives and make emotional disclosures patiently, gradually. Hui’s characters in the City of Sadness are kind, decent, caring.
Best film, director and actress from the Hong Kong critics.
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