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The Past — and the Great Hou Hsiao-hsien — Flourish at MOMI

The filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s entrancing Flowers of Shanghai (1998) unfolds in a revolving world. Its action
occurs inside a brothel in the British quarter of late-19th-century Shanghai, where a wealthy young man falls for a “flower girl” despite having spent over two years as the sole customer of another prostitute, who pleads with him to keep supporting her. The camera moves in continuous circles around them and their contemporaries as it absorbs the details of low-lit red-and-gold rooms and invites us to watch men gamble, women plot buying their freedom, and characters’ fates enlace each other’s. Tales of doomed love play out before us in a way that makes the past feel like part of an eternal present.

A new 35mm print of Flowers of Shanghai screens Friday to open the Museum
of the Moving Image’s month-long series spanning the career of the 67-year-old
Taiwanese filmmaker (whose name is
pronounced “Hoe Shauw-shen”). The comprehensive touring retrospective, organized by Richard I. Suchenski, includes celluloid presentations of Hou’s 17 completed fiction features, along with shorts by him, a documentary about him, and four films from other directors that involve him as actor, producer, and screenwriter. Only four of Hou’s directorial efforts have ever received commercial
distribution in the United States; the
series affords New York audiences a rare chance to absorb the work of one of the greatest living filmmakers.

Flowers of Shanghai might initially seem like atypical Hou (who is currently completing his long-considered martial arts epic, The Assassin). The film was made in mainland China by an artist who had spent almost his entire life in Taiwan, with actors speaking scripted period dialogue rather than the contemporary speech that Hou has often asked his performers to improvise. Yet Flowers also continues Hou’s career-long interest in displaying history for public use. He films people in extended shots held from a distance to emphasize our proximity to them. Regardless of the time and place they inhabit, Hou’s characters register as recognizably human, and equally weak, fragile, and flawed.

This retrospective is named after the puppeteer troupe run by the real-life late Taiwanese storyteller Lu Tien-lu in Hou’s film The Puppetmaster (1993, screening Saturday), who articulates a kind of metaphor for Hou’s cinema: “Puppets in performance are like people, so puppet plays are also like life.” Hou seeks to understand human behavior by both making and
observing representations of it; his lead characters are often actors, singers, and writers who transmute their troubles into art. Hou’s uniquely vivid film portrait of the then-85-year-old Lu takes us from the puppetmaster’s 1908 birth under the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (which began in 1895) through to the island’s handover to Chinese authorities at the end of World War II. The film mixes dramatic re-enactments of episodes from Lu’s past (including puppet plays) with present-day moments of the seated old man calmly
recounting the lessons he learned from his experiences, and wishing sympathy for all who took part in them.

Several Hou films assume multiple viewpoints to see the past with greater fairness and clarity. The Puppetmaster forms part of a trilogy of films that aim
to unearth Taiwan’s much-suppressed recent history. Good Men, Good Women (1995, screening September 20) shows a contemporary film actress playing a
Taiwanese woman whose husband was one of thousands murdered during the Nationalist-inflicted “White Terror” against suspected Communists; the older woman’s reality, offered to us in black-and-white scenes, gains immediacy as the actress brings to her role memories of
her own recently murdered beloved. A City of Sadness (1989, screening October 12) examines the years between Taiwan’s liberation from Japan and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s assumption of power in 1949. It does so from the vantage points of three adult Taiwanese brothers, including a deaf-mute photographer who snaps still-lifes of his splintering family.

Hou — himself one of four brothers — was born on the mainland during this period and moved to Taiwan with his family in his infancy. He jovially recalls in Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997, screening Saturday) how he lived as a petty good-for-nothing until military service brought him purpose — not with guns, but with chances to movie-binge during time off duty. He began his directorial
career with broad comedies in the dominant local style until discovering (in tandem with several other young Taiwanese filmmakers, most notably Edward Yang) that his work could grow richer if he brought his personal experiences and those of his screenwriting partners and actors to it.

Hou’s revelation led him to make carefully observed early wonders — including the perfectly formed slice-of-life short film Son’s Big Doll (1983, screening October 5) and the directly autobiographical masterwork A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985, October 3) — in which young people learn their shortcomings through witnessing those of other people. Throughout,
the camera stays at a dispassionate remove, as though studying them as well. Hou has maintained this approach, even when
following strangers in Tokyo (2003’s Café Lumière, screening September 26) and Paris (2007’s The Flight of the Red Balloon, screening September 28). Whether he’s home or abroad, Hou treats filmmaking as a field of discovery for himself and all his collaborators, including eventual viewers.

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SEEING DOUBLE

After showcasing a number of noir-flavored double features — including such satisfying pairings as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)/Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948)/Scarlet Street (1945) — Film Forum’s “Femmes Noirs” series culminates with this week-long release of Billy Wilder’s immortal Double Indemnity. In celebration of the movie’s 70th anniversary, Universal recently gave Wilder’s film a fresh digital restoration, which world-premiered earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Tonight’s screening comes with an added perk: Victoria Wilson, author of the massive A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, precedes the movie with a photo-driven presentation of Stanwyck’s life and stardom. Among the images on her docket are a batch of “rarer-than-rare nudes from the early 1920s,” taken straight out of Stanwyck’s personal collection.

Aug. 1-3, 12:40, 2:50, 5:10, 7:30 & 9:45 p.m.; Mon., Aug. 4, 12:40, 2:50, 5:10 & 7:35 p.m.; Aug. 5-7, 12:40, 2:50, 5:10, 7:30 & 9:45 p.m., 2014

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Radiant at BAM: “The Films of Dietrich and von Sternberg”

In Marlene Dietrich’s ABC, the actress’s marvelous book of bon mots and observations for any and every occasion, under the heading “Josef von Sternberg” you’ll find just one simple line: “The man I wanted to please most.” Among women who think for themselves, or even just claim to, the idea of wanting to please a man is highly unfashionable. But what if Dietrich hadn’t? There would be no Amy Jolly in a white tuxedo, wooing French foreign legionnaire Gary Cooper with a posy in Morocco; no Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express, counting — or losing count of — the number of men who helped her earn that nickname; no Agent X-27 in Dishonored, ever so glamorously clutching her black Persian cat as she readies herself for the journey to her next assignment, dressed in a dark leather pilot’s costume more fetching than any modern-day latex unitard could ever be.

The pictures Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich — seven in all, between 1930 and 1935 — are often cited as examples of von Sternberg’s obsessive, controlling nature, evidence of his need to wrest a real live woman into his version of an ideal. But the truth of the Dietrich–von Sternberg relationship is of course far more complicated. If she was his protégé, his canvas, the focus of his unapologetic objectification, she was also his muse, and the degree to which she allowed herself to be molded was tied directly to her own ambition and self-confidence. Even when Dietrich was wearing a gown, she always wore the pants.

You can see this remarkable partnership unfolding in all its glory in BAMcinématek’s “Blonde Venus: The Films of Dietrich and von Sternberg,” a retrospective of all seven collaborations between the two. Seven films is a manageable number — even if you’ve never beheld a Dietrich–von Sternberg joint before, you can quickly become expert. Or can you? These pictures, at times seemingly simple on the surface, reveal more depth, more secrets, each time you view them. The seed is planted with The Blue Angel (April 6; both the German-language and the more rarely seen English-language version will screen), the duo’s first film together, from 1930. Dietrich is the delectably fleshy cabaret performer Lola-Lola, whose flirtations lure a respectable if bumbling professor (Emil Jannings) into a life of failure and despair.

The setup is excessively melodramatic only until you see how easily it could come to pass. As of 1929, Dietrich’s career hadn’t taken off, though she’d already made nearly 20 films in Germany and had appeared frequently onstage. That’s how von Sternberg discovered her as he was scouring Berlin for the perfect — and, until Dietrich, elusive — Lola-Lola. In The Blue Angel, the chiseled-cheekbone Dietrich we would eventually come to know still looks to be swathed in tender layers of baby fat, even though she was nearly 30 at the time. The effect of this crooning, sultry nightclub cherub, serenading her paunchy professor while perched jauntily on a barrel onstage, is disarming and unsettling. She’s not childlike at all, but rather ageless, a kind of young-old (or is it old-young?) that defies time. You can see how her affections could breathe life, if only temporarily, into the dreams of this huffing, puffing, aging man.

In every von Sternberg film, Dietrich is a temptress. But she’s many different kinds of temptresses, a veritable forbidden garden of them. In The Scarlet Empress (April 10), from 1934, she plays a highly moviefied version of Catherine the Great, a Prussian-born minx who comes to be the most powerful leader of Russia. At first she’s a breathless schoolgirl, her hair a mass of bobbing golden curls. She would look ridiculous if she weren’t Dietrich. Later, Catherine overthrows her own husband, the simpleton Peter III (a creepy-as-hell Sam Jaffe, who would later go on to become a familiar TV character actor), wearing a girly soldier’s outfit that wouldn’t be out of place in a Busby Berkeley musical. On her, it’s sophisticated coup wear.

That’s because what Dietrich wears is never as important as how she wears it. In The Devil Is a Woman, (April 7 and 8), from 1935, she’s a Spanish temptress who wows Cesar Romero while wearing a mantilla of quivering black puffballs and a lace half-mask that barely hides her face. After all, why would you? In the crazy-wonderful Blonde Venus (April 9), from 1932, her Helen Faraday walks the fine line between being a devoted wife and mother and a kept woman, managing to do it all with dignity. This is the movie in which Dietrich, once again playing a nightclub performer, cavorts with a chorus line of scantily clad native cuties — while dressed in a gorilla costume. She removes the mask, tops her smoothed-back hair with an ethereal blonde Afro-wig, and steps out of her furry suit to finish up in a next-to-nothing number made of spangles and feathers. You wouldn’t call the sequence racially proper or sensitive by today’s standards, but there’s nothing else in cinema like it.

The 1932 Shanghai Express (April 4) is often considered the crown jewel of the Dietrich–von Sternberg years, and for good reason. If Dietrich’s performance was guided by von Sternberg, it also appears to spring, fully loaded, from her very soul — it’s stylized almost to the point of kabuki. In scene after scene, as “coaster” Shanghai Lily surveys the situation at hand — the dastardly machinations of shady merchant Warner Oland, the apparent indifference of her impassive ex-lover, Clive Brook — her eyes shift back and forth like a Kit-Cat Clock’s. She often appears to be aware, and perhaps ready to laugh, at some private joke unfolding inside her head. And perhaps because von Sternberg’s camera (manned by cinematographer god Lee Garmes) insists on adoring her every possible minute, she often declaims her lines to no one in particular — she speaks into space, but the effect is hypnotic and haunting rather than corny.

If she’s talking to no one, she may as well be talking directly to us, and the allure of that is irresistible. Even if von Sternberg tried to shape Dietrich, there’s never any doubt that she always knew what kind of woman she wanted to be. In her book, Dietrich writes this under the heading “Artist”: “The genuine ones are precious people with an unending stream of stimulation flowing toward you.” She knew one when she saw one.

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Pleased to Meet Xu

With works such as his statuesque, back-bending human installations in Just a Blink of an Eye (2005-07) and his fully-stocked grocery store of pristine empty food packages in ShanghArt Supermarket (2007), Xu Zhen has staked out his spot as the foremost artist on the Shanghai scene, working in video, performance, and photography as well. He’s also an entertaining one: In 8848 – 1.86 (2005) Zhen claimed to have decapitated Mount Everest, but only by 1.86 meters, a questionable chunk of rock he then deposited in a gallery. As the 2014 Armory Show’s chosen commission, we anticipate more of his artsy high jinks. Today you can see his new work first at a preview of the annual modern art fair, followed by the coveted Armory Party tonight. British composer Dev Hynes, now going by Blood Orange, performs alongside a DJ set by Jamie xx. Proceeds benefit MOMA. Preview at noon, Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River, Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, party at 9, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street.

Wed., March 5, 12 & 9 p.m., 2014

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Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai Returns to the Big Screen at Film Forum

The cinema of Orson Welles is defined by compromise — by funding lost, control wrested away, footage excised and eradicated.

With his debut film, Welles enjoyed unprecedented freedom and authority; his final one has languished uncompleted and unseen for nearly 40 years, embroiled to this day in legal controversy. History portrays his narrative as a strong man’s grip gradually loosening.

What ought to be remembered, and what’s so extraordinary, is that the greatness of his art has survived these concessions: His films endure even as fragments of their author’s original vision, from the incomplete historical sweep of The Magnificent Ambersons (a masterpiece undiminished by its studio-mandated elisions) to the maimed and malformed Touch of Evil (assembled posthumously, and imprecisely, under guidance of the director’s memoranda).

The Lady From Shanghai remains another unique case. The cuts and revisions to which it was unceremoniously subjected by Harry Cohn, then president of Columbia Pictures, are among the most extensive ever dealt to a Welles picture, and it is a tragedy of cinema that the material expunged will never be recovered.

And yet, for all the violations it suffered, The Lady From Shanghai seems strangely coherent in its extant form — or rather, coherently incoherent, and in a way that seems quite deliberate.

Central to the appeal of the film is the sensation of unease, of anxiety and dread, it so effortlessly conjures. Indeed, it suggests noir’s extreme: convolution pushed into abstraction, a plot so sinister it is impossible to comprehend.

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If You Play Your Cards Right, You Can Have a Great Meal at Full House

Vegetarian Mock Duck – Made of tofu skin tightly rolled up with minced mushrooms inside, the recipe associated with Buddhist monks resembles sliced duck breast more than a little, right?

Full House is one of the new generation of Shanghai restaurants gradually materializing around town, places that not only do the standards of the cuisine, but also throw in some Hong Kong, Sichuan, Mandarin, Thai, and American cooking on top of that. The quality is high, especially on the iconic pork-crab soup dumplings. Here are six recommended dishes.

Read the entire Counter Culture review of Full House here.

 

Spicy Baby Chicken – This Sichuan specialty, tender bone-in pieces of pullet strewn with several kinds of dry and fresh chiles, has rarely been so well made as by the Shanghaianese chefs on duty at Full House. Yes, you will break a sweat, and gladly gulp down glasses of water and thimbles of hot tea in an attempt to dispel the burn. No luck.

Minced Pork and Crab Meat Ball in Special Sauce – More commonly known as lion heads, these meatballs are soft and Teutonic, and bathe in a yellowish fluid that keeps them moist and provides an agreeable topping for your rice. As a bonus, transparent mung bean fettuccine lurk on the bottom of the bowl.

Pan Fried Noodle Shanghai Style – Basically, a Hong Kong recipe adapted for Shanghai tastes, with lots of mushrooms, Napa cabbage (yes, that refers to Napa, California), diverse slivers of meat, in a mellow gravy over fried noodles that slowly get softer as the minutes tick by, making for a nice crunch-squish gradient.

Steamed Pork and Crab Meat Juicy Dumplings – This is the last lonely dumpling left from a steamer of six – the fabled soup dumplings of Shanghai.

Spare Ribs Wu Xi Style – Shorty pork ribs red-braised in the style of Wu Xi, a town northwest of Shanghai. The wonderfully gelatinous meat melts off the bone, and the baby bok choi make a nice contrast.

And what will you have for dessert?

French Fries – Yes, the same spice-and-starch-coated french fries found in chain restaurants in the United States are now part of Shanghai cuisine – and are we ever proud! Makes a great after-main-course savory dessert.

Full House
97 Bowery
212-925-8083

Enjoying the ma po tofu at Full House

 

 

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Shanghai Newcomer Full House Brings Back Soup Dumplings

It was back in 1995 that a modest restaurant in Flushing drew the attention of the city’s proto-foodies to Shanghai cooking by astonishing them with a dumpling. But this was no ordinary lump of meat and noodle dough. Soon dubbed “soup dumplings,” these thin-skinned purses popularized by Joe’s Shanghai were puckered at the top and wobbled alarmingly as they were ferried to the table in a bamboo steamer. Many people’s first attempt to eat them resulted in disaster, because each dumpling concealed, in addition to a tiny pork meatball, a reservoir of blisteringly hot broth that squirted out when you poked it with a chopstick.

Most of those original restaurants have disappeared, but the dumplings have persisted, landing in inferior form on nearly every Chinese menu in town. But now—inspired by the newfound glitz of Shanghai, with its trade shows, high-rise towers, and own NYU branch—a fresh generation of Shanghai restaurants are appearing. Latest and best is Full House, with a menu that has evolved from that of the old places to incorporate both the cuisine’s standards and a cosmopolitan mix of Sichuan, Hong Kong, Mandarin, Thai, Taiwanese, and even some American cooking, too. And, yes, the place offers superior soup dumplings.

The downstairs is exhaustively disco-ized, with three rows of slinky, black-padded booths. Blue light streams upward from hidden fixtures, as if signaling spaceships bearing soup dumplings where to land. Giant flat-screen monitors are tuned to Chinese rap videos or Tom Cruise flicks. A stairway leads to a loft outfitted like a conventional Chinatown restaurant, with big round tables hosting extended families and not an ounce of glitz. Though bottles of European wine are displayed on racks, Thai beer is the beverage of choice.

Enfolded in a translucent skin with a thinness measured in micrometers, Full House’s soup dumplings are available with crab or without ($6.75 and $4.75). The former are highly recommended, featuring a nice wad of crab meat sticking out of the top, the liquid within smooth and tan. The proper way to eat them is to ease one onto a soup spoon after it cools slightly, nip off the pucker with your teeth, and suck out the soup before demolishing the noodle wrapper and solid filling. There’s a black-vinegar sauce for dipping, but I usually skip it, since it interferes with the dumpling’s delicate flavor.

Soup dumplings are still considered newfangled even in Shanghai, compared with the city’s old-fashioned dumplings, which are round, squat, and thick-skinned. Stuffed with pork and leeks and fried on the bottom, Full House’s rendition is irresistible. Other estimable starters, priced from $2.75 to $5.50, include vegetarian duck (a Buddhist invention of tofu skin wrapped around mushrooms to look like slices of duck breast); kao fu (big porous marshmallows of gluten drowned in sweet sauce); and scallion pancakes bigger and flakier than usual.

Another great starter is a shared soup: More commonly called West Lake beef soup, name-checking a resort two hours southwest of Shanghai, the minced beef with coriander soup ($6.95) is paradoxically light and pungent, tasting of leafy green foliage and the cool afternoons of an early summer by the lake. Skip the pumpkin soup attributed to Wensi, a municipality in western China: The orange squash imparts only a light tint to the broth, as if the pumpkin had been just briefly immersed.

This pair of potages with origins outside the city point up an essential aspect of Shanghai cooking—it’s really more of a regional cuisine, borrowing dishes from the countryside and returning them to the metropolis like an itinerant tax collector. In another Shanghai specialty, spare ribs Wu Xi–style—pointing to a town northwest of the city—the meat is braised in the “red cooking” style, leaving the ribs thickly glazed and pleasantly gelatinous. And yes, you can get decent versions of Sichuan standards at Full House, too, though the tongue-pummeling heat in its ma po tofu comes from chile oil and dried red peppers rather than Sichuan peppercorns.

Some dishes may even have originated outside China. The pork-and-crab meatballs ($12.95) better known as lion heads, which arrive in a thick yellow broth guaranteeing they’ll remain moist, seem positively German—the country established breweries in China during the 19th century. The international “Snacks” section of the menu goes much farther afield, presenting such Western icons as french fries and buffalo chicken wings. It makes you wonder: Are these two really the most appealing American dishes? Do they belong here? Shanghai thinks so! And it must be said that those wings have indeed been improved with a touch of soy sauce. Call it fair trade.

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!Vivan Las Antipodas! Soars, Flips, Dives, and Seems to Turn the Globe Itself

If you plant your feet on the ground and imagine burrowing straight down through crust and magma and then right through the Earth’s center and out the other side—well, you’d wind up wet, most likely, as only 4 percent of the planet’s land is diametrically opposite to land. (Also: Would you come out feet first, entirely upside down?) A gorgeous meditation on these questions that have long preoccupied kids and stoners, !Vivan Las Antipodas! opens with something like a still-life of a home, a bridge, and a river in Entre Rios, Argentina. But that home and the humps of hill surrounding it are inverted in a reflection on the water, a suggestion of what’s to come. Soon, after getting to know the silent life of a pair of toll-takers at a one-lane, rarely traveled Entre Rios bridge, director Victor Kossakovsky plunges to the perfect opposite point of the globe: a sleek Shanghai highway, all sinuous curves and video-game motion, the images upside down as if we’ve just been pneumatic-tubed from one hemisphere to the other. It’s dizzying, unnerving, touched with magic: the pastoral becomes science fiction. Other antipodal pairings (Botswana’s wildlife to Hawaii’s volcanic moonscape), are less head-spinning, sometimes illustrative of the globe’s huge sameness: A Patagonian sheep farm is on the other side of the world from a Russian one. The world might be the star, but Kossakovsky’s camera is the revelation: With the easy drift of your dream-self taking flight, it soars, flips, dives, and seems to turn the globe itself. You’ll tumble with it.

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Mass

Robert Honeywell’s new musical at The Brick just might give you a sympathetic earache. This new tuner, performed exclusively by women and set in present and future New York, Vancouver, and Shanghai, retells the anguished friendship between self-mutilator Vincent Van Gogh and syphilitic Paul Gaugin.

Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: April 13. Continues through April 30, 2013

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Shanghai Calling Stumbles Through Cutesy Melodrama Towards Preordained Love

He’s an ambitious Chinese-American lawyer who finds himself a fish out of water when sent to China to close a big deal. She’s a blond single mom, an American expat comfortable in her Shanghai surroundings. When Sam (Daniel Henney) and Amanda (Eliza Coupe) meet, love is preordained, though it takes lots of cluttered melodrama and jumbled cultural commentary before their happy ending can become a reality in Shanghai Calling, writer/director Daniel Hsia’s story about Sam’s attempts to salvage his career after trouble arises with a contract regarding new cell-phone technology. Between animated graphics, split screens, and framing narration, Hsia makes his material gratingly cutesy, and his attempts to confront issues regarding China’s transformation into a global powerhouse—and the culture-clash difficulties confronted by foreigners setting up shop in its metropolises—come off as glib afterthoughts amid the bicycle chases and corporate-espionage shenanigans. Shanghai Calling eventually reveals itself to be just another stale tale about the virtue of morality over ambition, with its only compelling idea that Shanghai is “the new land of opportunity”—a notion confirmed by this Chinese production’s ability to secure the participation of established American actors Bill Paxton and Alan Ruck.