The Way We Are (2008)

15 11 2008

Christian Petzold, I hope you’re taking notes, this is how you make a simple and effective multi-character drama. More importantly, Ann Hui has finally lived up to the promise she showed in the great July Rhapsody. The other two films of hers that I’ve seen, Goddess of Mercy and Visible Secret, certainly aren’t bad, but they are definitely going in the opposite direction of the extremely gentle and real sensibility of July Rhapsody and this film. If there’s any problem I can think of Hui’s two masterpieces, it’s that they are a bit too fragile, nice, and understated but that is exactly what makes both films so special.

I suppose comparisons to Ozu are inevitable seeing as this is slow, Asian, and a movie about family, but I don’t want to make it sound like I’m selling Hui short. She’s not nearly as formally rigorous after all, even though there are a few very nice “minimalistic” touches in this film. The strength of her film has little to do with the technical, though. It obviously has more to do with the characters, all of whom are incredibly easy to understand and equally easy to like. Calling the story “undramatic” seems like an empty gesture, the simple and non-contrived way in which the characters interact is so impressive that it can’t be explained by words.

Perhaps I should back up a little bit. The film concerns itself with three characters, Cheung, her son, and an elderly women that she befriends. The dynamic between all three is fresh, to say the least, but is also one that seems so random and odd that it builds another level of realism. There’s nothing dramatic hiding underneath their conversations, like there is in Wolfsburg, because they have no phony “psychology” to attempt to explain the way they are. It’s difficult to explain why the film works, but needless to say, it absolutely does.

I hate to continue describing the tone as undramatic, and unforced as it builds a slightly incorrect image of a film that is extremely slow and inaccessible, but this is anything but. I have a hard time believing anyone would be able to find this boring, even though it is so devoid of plot. There’s many elements that look like they could go the way of being a conventional dramatic device, such as Cheung’s mother being in the hospital, but nothing ever extends to the point of being considered a typical film conflict. Maybe this would all be a bit mundane, but the sense of intimacy that Hui creates is unlike any I’ve ever seen attempted. The film feels so achingly personal, as though it was it just a project that she intended to show to only friends and family.

On a much more pedestrian note, the HD cinematography looks absolutely gorgeous here. I may still prefer good ole’ celluloid, but this film along with Jia Zhang-Ke’s Still Life and Liew Seng Tat’s Flowers in the Pocket show just how great the potential is for this format. It certainly helps in this case to have that wonderful blue-heavy saturation that all modern Hong Kong “art” films seem to inherent. As far as form goes, Hui isn’t really all that strict. She seems to juggle close steadicam sequences with gorgeous Tsai-worthy static shots. No doubt, this is one of the best-looking films of 2008 as well as one of the best overall.

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