What to Watch on the Small Screen: May 2019

In the film world, May has always been a big month, seeing as it’s when the Cannes Film Festival takes place. If you’re like most people, however, such an event is well above your budget – so here are some good films you can inexpensively stream at home instead:

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort features three Frenchwomen as protagonists: a middle-aged café owner named Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) and her two artistically inclined daughters, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac). Set over the course of one weekend, the film follows these women as they each meet their “true love,” whether in the form of a music store owner (Michel Piccoli), an American pianist (Gene Kelly), or a painter (Jacques Perrin).

Any evaluation of The Young Girls of Rochefort has to start by mentioning just how much of a treat it is to watch. Everything about it – the liberal use of colors, the catchy numbers, the infectiously animated dancing – still feels fresh, invigorating, and joyful. And thanks to the wonderful acting, particularly from Kelly and Deneuve, the film’s message of true love remains both poignant and authentic.

Part of the reason The Young Girls of Rochefort is so powerful, moreover, has to do with what it’s up against. Released just a year before the events of “Mai 1968,” the film is characterized by an undercurrent of sadness and frustration. To wit, we’re regularly shown newspaper headlines of events – the Cold War space race, the murder of a local woman – that testify to the fraught social climate of the era.

When it comes down to it, this is the context in which the main narrative of The Young Girls of Rochefort should be interpreted. Although he acknowledges them, Demy isn’t interested in delving into the sociopolitical problems of 1960s France. Rather, in response to his era’s sobering realities, he presents us with an unabashedly idealized story of love, a sentimentalist tale that oozes optimism and hope. Ultimately, that makes The Young Girls of Rochefort just about the most beautiful form of “escape” that you could possibly ask for.

Where to Watch: Amazon, Vudu, iTunes

The Assassin (2015)

Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The titular character of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s most recent film is Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a young woman who lives in China during the Tang Dynasty. As a child, Yinniang was engaged to be married to her cousin, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen): as a result of various political shenanigans, however, she was eventually shunted aside and sent to live with a nun named Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu). Now, Jiaxin has trained Yinniang to be a ruthless killer – and as a test of Yinniang’s resolve, she orders Yinniang to travel to Ji’an’s palace and kill him.

In terms of its presentation, The Assassin is the complete opposite of everything you’d expect a wuxia film to be. Far from being the main attraction, the fight scenes turn out to be anomalies, bursts of action in a film that’s otherwise characterized by long takes of landscapes and people sitting in silence. The result might test your patience. But in comparison to its genre predecessors, it nevertheless offers a very subversive take on its genre, countering traditional wuxia’s image of a China that brims with adventure, epic battles, and colorful personages.

Its contributions to the wuxia genre aside, The Assassin is distinguished by its view of history as well. Similarly to how long takes operated in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Hou’s long takes help us see just how much of an anarchy ancient China was. You wouldn’t know this from listening to the Chinese Communist Party’s propagandistic talk of China’s “5,000-year history.” But as Hou reminds us in The Assassin, Chinese history is characterized less by a single, sustained “civilization” than by a series of unstable regimes, in which “might makes right” tended to be the big rule of the game.

In keeping with this theme of anarchy, moreover, The Assassin also stands out for its psychological insights. By eschewing point-of-view shots, the film depicts ancient Chinese as afflicted by feelings of helplessness, as though they always felt vulnerable to attack or manipulation. And as we see, such feelings prove particularly strong among the narrative’s female characters: Yinniang may be physically invincible, but for most of the film, she struggles to make herself into something greater than a political pawn. In this and many other ways, then, The Assassin testifies to Hou’s remarkable sensitivity to the intimate details of historical experience.

Where to Watch: YouTube (free), Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, Google Play

Death by Hanging (1968)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging is a film whose premise offers a textbook definition of “absurdist.” At the film’s start, an ethnic Korean named R (Do-yun Yu) is sentenced in postwar Japan to the titular form of capital punishment. Inexplicably, however, the execution leaves him unconscious instead of dead – and when he reawakens soon thereafter, he no longer has any idea who he is.

What follows from this opening is a film that’s funny, dark, and nakedly provocative. As you might have guessed from the protagonist’s one-letter name – an allusion to Franz Kafka’s Josef K – the film falls squarely into the tradition of existentialism, tackling questions related to identity, the folly of traditional morality, and the classical dualism between mind and body. Additionally, if you’re a Freudian, the film also showcases the power of the id, highlighting how even the most dignified among us are guided by an “inner animal.”

Death by Hanging’s philosophical dimension, moreover, is complemented by its passionate commentary on politics and history. With Japan’s actions during World War II as his backdrop, Oshima offers a blistering denunciation of Japanese society. Even though the Empire of Japan was long gone by the time of this film’s release, Japan is still depicted as a country where orders are unquestioningly executed, racism towards other Asians is treated as scientifically justifiable, and nationalism blinds even the educated to reality. In this way, then, Death by Hanging not only stands as an acerbic social critique, but it also illustrates just how hard it can be for a country to overcome the legacy of authoritarianism.

Where to Watch: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

Poetry (2010)

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry follows an elderly caregiver named Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee) whose life is full of problems. The man she looks after wants to have sex with her. Although she’d like to write poetry, she can’t find the necessary “inspiration” to do so. Midway through the film, she learns that she has early-stage Alzheimer’s. And to top it all off, she also discovers that her grandson and his friends gang-raped a female classmate.

Like Lee’s most recent film, Burning, Poetry depicts a South Korea that’s beset by a deep-rooted spiritual crisis. Specifically, Lee interests himself in three particular themes. First, he examines the patriarchal aspects of traditional Korean culture, a system of values in which rape is bad because it “damages our boys’ futures.” Second, Lee also spotlights the elderly, depicting the condescension they receive from a society that’d rather not think about mortality. And third, the film also highlights the gaping divide that exists between rural and urban South Korea.

Beyond his analysis of South Korean society, however, the thing that really sets Lee apart from other filmmakers is the respect he shows for his characters. By virtue of being both the director and screenwriter of Poetry, Lee has “control” over how we perceive and understand Mi-ja. As such, he easily could’ve fallen into the trap of presuming that he can tell us everything about her, even though she’s a woman and he a man.

Fortunately, Lee ends up doing the exact opposite of this in practice. With its ambiguous conclusion, Poetry implicitly acknowledges that it can’t predict how Mi-ja will behave. And by generally steering clear of point-of-view shots, Lee recognizes the limitations of his perspective, as though he were admitting that there’s no way a man like him can fully “speak for” a woman like Mi-ja. In this #MeToo moment, Lee’s intellectual humility is something that all male filmmakers would do well to heed.

Where to Watch: Amazon, Tubi, Vudu

The Blue Angel (1930)

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel recounts the decline of Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a professor at a prestigious preparatory school in interwar Germany. Known for his stern personality and love of discipline, Rath is viewed by his students and fellow townspeople with a mixture of fear and respect. But all of that changes after Rath suddenly, unexpectedly falls for Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), a showgirl who works at the local cabaret.

On the surface, The Blue Angel might sound like a hopelessly cliché story about the “dangers” of female sexuality. In reality, however, the film is more accurately described as a critique of European civilization and said civilization’s obsession with concepts like order, reason, and logic. Moreover, like The Last Laugh, another German interwar film, The Blue Angel also examines the dangerous attachment that early-20th-century Germans had to strong-looking figures of authority.

In the end, what strikes you the most about The Blue Angel is the quality of the acting. In the history books, this is known as the film that launched Dietrich’s career, allowing her to secure a contract with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Seen from today, it’s not hard to see why: although her role hardly qualifies as revolutionary, her energy and compatibility with the camera are readily apparent.

Personally, however, I’d say that the real stand-out in this film is Jannings. A successful actor whose career was torpedoed by the advent of sound, Jannings puts his training as a silent film actor to good use. Without ever coming off as histrionic, he uses facial expressions and gestures to eloquently convey his character’s inner agony and shame. Even now, his performance offers a powerful testament to the perils of emotional repression, and without him, the overall film simply wouldn’t be as moving as it actually is.

Where to Watch: Amazon, Kanopy, Fandor