In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
Globalization is a clunky word, the offspring of a three-way of business, politics, and academia. It’s also one of those rare words—like pentasyllabic or noun—that can be used as an example of the thing it refers to. It entered the mainstream at the end of the last century, spread all over while remaining more or less the same (globalización in Spanish, gurobarizeshon in Japanese, etc.), and rapidly evolved from a buzzword into a banal reality. French—which has made an art out of resisting loanwords—calls it mondialisation, which is prettier, but for the most part, globalization sounds dull in every language, including English, where it originated. It spread in usage along the same channels of business it was meant to describe. Like so many global products, it sucks and is uninspiring, but has no local alternatives, and is least likely to be used by the people most affected by it.
In the 1980s, when globalization usage was still mostly confined to the pages of Harvard Business Review, a generation of hip writers and filmmakers started trying to picture life in a more globalized world, and hit upon the idea that its defining existential problem would be dislocation. I’m talking about cyberpunk novels, Wim Wenders movies—basically anything that thought that the new now was going to mean more people waking up in strange places than ever before. But the ugly truth about globalization is that it isn’t cosmopolitan. It’s an empire of sameness—factories, corporate campuses, luxury items—that uses capitalism as its lingua franca. It has the aesthetics and values of an airport duty-free shop. Instead of eclecticism, what we got, for better or worse, was a planet where fewer and fewer things could be called local. So those hip writers and filmmakers were right about dislocation, but just didn’t guess that it would happen at home.
Which brings us to Away With Words, a film that is unique to its moment in recent history. This is the little-known directorial debut of Christopher Doyle, one of the most celebrated cinematographers of the 1990s and a bona fide global figure. He was born in Australia, but left in his teens to spend two years on a Norwegian merchant ship. Thereafter, he lived in Amsterdam; worked on a kibbutz in Israel; studied art in Baltimore; dug wells in India; was deported to Hong Kong, where he became a language student; and then fell in with the avant-garde theater and dance scene in Taiwan. He shot his first film at the age of 31 (Edward Yang’s debut, That Day, On The Beach), abruptly split for Paris, and then came to Hong Kong again, where he’s lived ever since. To the best of my knowledge, Doyle has never appeared sober in public. He has a high-top broccoli haircut, dresses like he’s in a production of Waiting For Godot, and cultivates a persona halfway between crazy uncle and crazy bum.
He is also one of the great living directors of photography, best known for his 14-year partnership with director Wong Kar-Wai. Away With Words premiered at Cannes in 1999, while Wong was still filming what would become his most famous film, In The Mood For Love, partly shot by Doyle. Perhaps it’s too perfect that this same festival also saw the premiere of Love Will Tear Us Apart, the directorial debut of Yu Lik-Wai; Yu is the longtime cinematographer to Chinese director of Jia Zhangke, poet of the dispiriting realities of globalization. Neither movie made much of a splash, though one could easily pit them against each other as competing artistic reactions to an increasingly globalized world: one from the guy who shoots drawn-out pans of post-industrial landscapes, the other steeped in the eclecticism of street photography.
Doyle’s shooting style is unorthodox: freely mixed color temperatures, space-bending wide-angle lenses, lots and lots of filters. He goes for smears, blots, and the sort of things professional cinematographers are taught to avoid, because they’re hard to repeat or keep consistent. Away With Words is a compendium of stuff no cinematographer could ever get away with—creatively manic, often beautiful, full of flash frames and shots that are deliberately under- or over-exposed. Some parts of it are ponderous, even pretentious. Others are just plain silly, suggesting early Richard Lester on a dangerous cocktail of booze and speed. It’s all over the place. Among other things, it touches on: synesthesia; the sea and shore as metaphors; unconventional connections; Hong Kong as a haven for drifters; the relationship between language, memory, and self. It features an old lady rapping Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s “The Message,” more shots of characters slumping over than I can count, and a random sequence in a water park, shot on video and set to Cibo Matto’s very of-its-time “Sugar Water.”
The main setting is a Hong Kong dive bar called Dive Bar, run by gay British expat Kevin Sherlock, a friend of Doyle’s who appears to be playing himself. He spends much of his time on screen making mischief, running around, and fucking with the local cops. His personality is harnessed as a form of alternative star power; he imbues the film with the anarchic camp of classic underground film, while also serving as its human face. (Meanwhile, the two actual stars in the film, Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and Singaporean singer Mavis Xu, are directed like models in a fashion shoot.) It’s one of my favorite one-off performances—up there with Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues—though I’m not even sure that Sherlock is acting. The only information I could find about him was a 2008 conviction for grabbing a Hong Kong police officer’s breasts, successfully appealed on the grounds that he was very drunk and needed something to hold on to.
Asano plays an itinerant Japanese man with a powerful memory, also named Asano, who ends up living in Dive Bar, sleeping in its plush blue booths and washing his clothes in a plastic tub by the jukebox. Xu plays Susie, an aspiring fashion designer, often seen in neon faux fur and other club-kid fashions of the era. Together with Sherlock, they form a triad of unconventional connections and language barriers. It’s not difficult to see Away With Words as both a product of the flashpoint period of globalization, and an act of resistance against it. In lieu of railing, it offers a radical alternative, wrapped in word games, goofy detours, and the scuzziness of nightlife in Hong Kong’s gay bars and go-go joints. The dialogue is in three languages (English, Japanese, Cantonese), and the title is completely different in each: the Cantonese version translates as Three People; the Japanese, as Peacock.
Each one frames the movie a different way and suggests different untranslatable qualities. Doyle, who shot the film himself and co-wrote the script with critic Tony Rayns, lists Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria—best known for the very neat and fascinating The Mind Of A Mnemonist—as influences in the end credits. In a screwy, hyperactive way, the movie’s jumbled chronologies and word games evoke a paradox: language, which is supposed to be a basic to communication, is also very personal, triggering memories and meanings that can’t be communicated. The camera pivots around the interior of Dive Bar—lush textures, multilingual signage, kitsch knickknacks on the walls—as though it were crawling through a labyrinth. Flashes of text, hand-written on transparency sheets, present word lists. The score, by Japanese jazz pianist Fumio Itabashi, keeps pumping forward as the characters keep falling into heaps on the floor. Here, everyone is always getting kicked or kicked out, and people seem to walk in spirals, even down straight corridors.
This isn’t the kind of movie that poses a problem to neatly resolve it; it doesn’t have the patience. Instead, the whole point of this mess of ideas and offbeat compositions is that a true interchange doesn’t erase difference—though, to be honest, the position seems more aesthetic than political. Per Away With Words, a world of strangers and crossed wires is a more beautiful world, and the movie sets out to support its point by simply being eclectically beautiful. It’s dated, but datedness isn’t always a negative value; it can mean dumb fads, but also ideals and hopes that have been made obsolete, but which still have a powerful allure.
Next guest: Canon City, an artistically accomplished 1948 prison-break noir by Crane Wilbur, a neglected writer-director fascinated with life behind bars.