Every month, Establishing Shot brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Xiao Wu (1997)
Xiao Wu is a brilliant portrait of mid-twenties disaffection and a call to action for anyone who wants to make a movie. It brilliantly chronicles its protagonist’s troubles onscreen while the offscreen circumstances of its production can inspire young filmmakers. That contradiction between the laziness of its protagonist and the industriousness of the writer-director who created it makes this a memorable film.
This movie takes place in the Chinese city of Fenyang in 1997. The titular character Xiao Wu (Hongwei Wang) is an aimless pickpocket whose friends have moved into more legitimate businesses. Wu starts to realize that he needs a change in his life when his best friend refuses to invite him to his wedding because he is embarrassed by him. Wu begins a romance with a prostitute named Mei Mei (Hongjian Hao), which makes him happy, but it soon becomes clear that it will take a lot more than her to cure him of his sense of alienation.
Xiao Wu is rooted in its Chinese context — there are references to China regaining its sovereignty over Hong Kong and how its economy works — but it expertly tells a universal story. Wu’s sense of purposelessness is one to which a lot of people at his point in life, especially those who are fresh out of college, can relate. His aimlessness is brilliantly conveyed by many scenes of him doing little to nothing in real time, such as when he sits on a bed and has a long conversation with Mei Mei or sings alone in a public bath. The film’s portrait of Wu is one that will either make you feel seen if you’re at that point in your life or glad that it’s over if you’re older than him.
But Wu’s aimlessness onscreen is the opposite of the hard working nature of this film’s writer-director Jia Zhangke, who also makes a cameo as a friend who returns some money to Wu. Zhangke made this film on a low budget of $50,000. He shot it on 16mm in three weeks on location in Fenyang, which is his hometown. In addition, the whole cast was composed of no-professionals who were acting for the first time. All of these circumstances behind this film’s production give it a propulsive energy (as if Zhangke is willing it into being with every shot) and a homemade quality reminiscent of the work of John Casavettes or a young Martin Scorsese, who is a fan of Xiao Wu. This film’s imperfections — including but not limited to its shaky tracking shots or some of the more raw performances that its actors give — may be off-putting to a mainstream audience, but I find it to be downright inspiring. Its roughness is a reminder that anyone can make a movie, and that it is more important to have a story you are passionate about telling than a big budget or important actors. That quality helps put Xiao Wu in the class of a handful of Neorealist classics — including but not limited to Shadows (1959), Weekend (2011), and Tangerine (2015) — which can be very helpful for a young filmmaker to see.
Xiao Wu is an excellent film that perfectly captures what it is like to feel aimless in your twenties. At the same time, the story of its production and how Zhangke brought this film to life are a great reminder that cinema can be a democratic art form which is open to all who want to make something. It remains a brilliant work of art about someone who feels like he doesn’t have a purpose which will hopefully inspire people to pursue theirs.
Ed. note: Unfortunately, a trailer or decent clip for this film couldn’t be found.
Noni Ford, contributor | Emergency (2022)
Three college seniors, a night filled with a frat party itinerary, a research lab freezer sitting unlocked, and a drunk girl in the aforementioned seniors’ shared house. This is the setup in Carey Williams’s Emergency and as the story takes off, all of these social worlds, friend groups, and viewpoints collide. While the initial introduction of the film eases you into more of a straight comedy, it devolves into a drama about the fear of an accident ruining your future or costing you your life. Our two main protagonists, Kunle and Sean, couldn’t be more different when it comes to academics and worldviews. Kunle has a bright future ahead and believes that the police will help them get a handle on the situation as it pertains to Emma, the unconscious girl they discover who finds her way into their house. Sean on the other hand believes the police will only see that they are black men, with their third roommate, Carlos, being Latino, and they could end up in a lot of trouble before they can explain themselves. They wrestle with their decisions throughout the film as they attempt to get Emma to the hospital, their oppositional beliefs threatening to dissolve their friendship.
While they bumble their way through the situation, enlisting some friends at various points for help, Emma’s older sister and friends are not far behind. Tracking Emma through her phone location, they believe our leads are guilty of something more nefarious and a bit of a comedy of errors ensues as they misinterpret some of the odd things Kunle, Sean, and Carlos do as they cycle through solutions to the mess they’ve found themselves in. These scenes provide comedy breaks in between the tension in the other group as they begin to see how differently they react under pressure. It’s a film about being a person of color in America, college friendships, coming of age, and wild shenanigans on college campuses. It has a little bit of everything for any audience prepared to laugh in one scene and be horrified by the next.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Fanfan la Tulipe (1952)
When Gina Lollobrigida passed away earlier this month, I immediately had to honor the Italian film legend by watching my absolute favorite performance of hers in Come September, a terrific ’60s romantic comedy co-starring Rock Hudson, Bobby Darin, and Sandra Dee. Hudson is phenomenal in this movie, but Lollobrigida brings her own magic to it as well with her vivacious and hilarious turn as his girlfriend, making Come September one of my go-to pick-me-ups.
Realizing that I’ve only seen a handful of Lollobrigida’s films, I decided to dive a little deeper and check out Fanfan la Tulipe, a French swashbuckler I’ve always known as the prime example of “cinéma de qualité,” a mocking term used by New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut to describe the type of crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned filmmaking that had emerged in France during and after WWII. Which just reaffirms to me that the New Wave filmmakers would’ve hated me because I fell for Fanfan la Tulipe within minutes.
Boisterous, laugh-out-loud funny, subtly romantic, and unexpectedly anti-war, the film follows 18th-century ne’er-do-well Fanfan (Gérard Philipe), who is about to be forced into marriage by the father of a buxom blonde he was caught canoodling when he is duped into entering the army instead by the local recruiter’s daughter, Adeline (Lollobrigida, dubbed into French by Claire Guibert). After saving the king’s daughter from bandits on the way to the army base, Fanfan believes he is destined to marry the girl, much to the annoyance of Adeline, who herself is being pursued by a weaselly officer. Adventures abound as Fanfan and Adeline slowly come together against a backdrop of betrayals, phony fortunes, dueling swords, a lecherous king, and the end of the Seven Years’ War.
Lollobrigida is, of course, a delight as the feisty but also hopelessly romantic Adeline, her presence popping off the screen like it always did. But I have to admit I was swept away by leading man Gérard Philipe. Dashing, athletic, and oh so charming, Philipe is one of the icons of French cinema, his handsome youthfulness forever frozen in time due to his sudden death from cancer at the age of 36 in 1959. I’ve only just discovered Philipe, but watching him as Fanfan already tells me what a tremendous loss cinema suffered when he passed. We were beyond lucky to have him and Lollobrigida, and I can’t wait to see more of their respective careers.
Note: I could only find a trailer in French without subtitles, but it’s still a very fun video!
Jack Miller, contributor | Gentleman Jim (1942)
Though his films never enjoyed the distinction of winning an Academy Award, and though they’re seldom revived or discussed in film classes today, Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) is in many ways my ideal filmmaker. A restless innovator whose career — like those of his contemporaries John Ford, King Vidor, and Allan Dwan — began in the silent era and ended in the 1960s, Walsh directed over 100 films, many of which bear his unmistakably genial sensibility and comic spirit. Films like The Bowery (1933) and The Strawberry Blonde (1941) are loud, rowdy, a bit ribald, and, above all, possessed by an almost manic energy and a restless sense of movement.
Between 1941 and 1948, Walsh directed seven films starring the great action-adventure star Errol Flynn. The best known of these are probably They Died with Their Boots On (1941), a biographical film about Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and the war film Objective, Burma! (1945), both of which are masterpieces in my estimation. I think my favorite Walsh film, though, is Gentleman Jim, Walsh’s nostalgic look at real-life boxing star James J. Corbett set in the San Francisco of 1887. This deeply joyous film, which details Corbett’s rise from the working-class Frisco slums to stardom, powerfully recreates the America of the late nineteenth century through its amazing use of deep-focus space — a Walshian trademark. The seeds of Martin Scorsese’s flashy gangster pictures can be seen here in the cockiness and bravado of Walsh’s men and in the won’t-quit, seamless rhythm which the director sustains for the entirety of the piece. Walsh creates a vivid and vibrant storybook world here, amazing in its robust physicality and detail, with characters who one not only identifies with but loves without reservation. As the French critic Jacques Lourcelles once wrote, “With each new viewing [of Gentleman Jim], we remain amazed by the energy that emanates from it, by its vivacity and its miraculous youth.”