Viimne reliikvia/ The Last Relic (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Grigori Kromanov

September 5, 2008 at 6:50 am

The Last Relic is seen by many as the best Estonian film. It is, undoubtedly, the most popular Estonian film as well, a prime example of the attempts of the Soviet Union to produce appealing mass entertainment (other classical illustrations of this endeavor were films like Neulovymie mstiteli, a truly entertaining gem from 1966). The film has all elements of a good romantic adventure: love affair between two extremely good looking protagonists, who manage to be together against all odds and by overcoming all sorts of difficulties that an assortment of disguised enemies (clergy, ambitious suitors, envious rivals) put on their way. There are gorgeous horses, chases through lovely forests, exciting river passages, night scenes at burning castles, treacherous cloister underground corridors, funny jokes, and memorable songs.

The film is based on a classical Estonian book for children, which was substantially changed in the process of adaptation. One of the important new aspects was the introduction of dynamic songs which are still popular today (and which are performed by different singers and in different musical arrangements for the Estonian and the Russian versions of the film). In the documentary that is appended to the DVD, the makers of the film openly acknowledge that they were influenced directly by films like the French Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and the classical version of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). But they also indicate they had in mind many other adventure films of the time as well. The cameraman spoke of being influenced by Antonioni, but it seems to me there were influences also from the East European school of filmmaking with their long shots (mostly Miklos Jancso) — one scene that is reminiscent of a Pieter Bruegel painting includes a two-minute long uninterrupted take including over 200 extras in a complexly choreographed traveling shot.

The Last Relic was made for about one million roubles, a truly sizable budget for the time. At the time of its release it was seen by nearly 45 million people within the Soviet Union alone, and it was exported to 63 countries. Most of these countries, notably, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe — a glance at the list of these gives a very interesting outline of the geopolitical distribution of the cultural sphere of influence of the Second World at the time. These also happen to be precisely those territories that we know very little about in terms of cinematc exposure.

One of the remarkable features of The Last Relic is that it puts the love affair in the center of the plot, and tackles it quite openly, by including erotic scenes of a type that has not normally been seen in Soviet cinema; in one instance Ingrid Andrina, the lead actress, is shown naked — the scene looks like out of a Scandinavian film of that time. The role of the nun Ursula, a young woman permanently attracted to men, is played by the well-known Eve Kivi (who enjoyed somewhat of a similar reputation in real life). Even though for an outsider like me Ursula’s presence appears to be a minor supporting role without any particular significance, it seems that due to the actrress’ special reputation the character acquires a much bigger importance, is given tremendous attention in the discussions of the film that I have come across and is credited as nearly key personage in the context of the film.

Even though billed as Estonian (as it is made in Estonia and based on Estonian material), the film is a true example of the Soviet dimension in filmmaking. Alongside beautiful Ingrid Andrina (as Agnes) and feisty Eve Kivi (as Ursula), several of the most important roles are played by Russian actors – Aleksandr Goloborodko (Gabriel) and famous Rolan Bykov (as Brother Johannes)*. Elza Radzina (best known from her roles in Grigoriy Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations, here as the Abtiss of the Monastery), also has an important role. The role of Ivo Schenkenberg, a real historical personality, was initially planned for Lithuanian star Juozas Budraitis (but then went to Estonian Peeter Jacobi, who delivers a fully competent performance).

Here is one of the musical numbers, a song about fighting for one’s freedom. In the ‘making of’ documentary, the author of the lyrics said he worked on these precisely at the time when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, thus he truly embraced the chance to create a song about liberty and rebellion.

The entire film is available to view on YouTube , cut into ten minute-long segments, but these are only in an Estonian version. It is interesting that from over twenty videos that have been posted here, none has subtitles nor any explanation in English. Evidently, those who posted did not imagine that anyone beyond Estonians would be interested in it.

The Last Relic was restored with the assistance of Finnish collaborators and re-released in 2002, 33 years after its original premiere. It is available to purchase on DVD with English, German, Russian, Finnish, Latvian and Estonian subtitles.

* At the time of the shooting Bykov was simultaneously working on his own directorial Vnimanie, cherepakha!/Attention, turtle!, a great childrens’ movie of the time released in 1970.

© Dina Iordanova
5 September 2008

Hero/Ying xiong (2002), Zhang Yimou

July 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

During the third century B.C., before becoming a united Empire, China is split into a number of warring feudal kingdoms. Jet Li, the ‘Hero’, is an ordinary peasant of extraordinary fighting skill. He comes to the service of Qin, the ruler, and puts his amazing skills to work for his protection against various assailants, played respectively by Asian stars such as Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi.

Here I am interested in looking into the film’s distribution and reception history, as I believe it shows important patterns of the changing dynamics in world cinema. With Hero we have a situation where a non-Western film gains reputable and even superior standing in comparison with more traditional products of global Hollywood without necessarily becoming fully dependent on the exposure granted by Hollywood’s global distribution machine.

Made for an estimated 30 million US dollars and thus being the most expensive Chinese film to date, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is often referred to as China’s ‘frank attempt to surpass Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Roger Ebert). Other reviews usually develop an argument about the potential of foreign film, frame it through the success of John Woo and Crouching Tiger, and cover it as a Hong Kong film. The article in Time magazine, is representative in that it summarizes Hero as ‘the most ambitious martial-arts epic since Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2001 and broke the box-office mold by becoming the most successful foreign film to hit the U.S.’

Confronted with the question as to what extent his work on Hero is triggered by the success of Ang Lee’s film (which at its time had the best box-office for non-English language film), director Zhang Yimou responds:

I don’t know much about the West. I’m not Ang Lee who knows so much about western market and the taste of western audiences. My English is not as good as his. In the past, am I just a farmer director? (laugh) But I think we need the international market. The budget is high. To make sure the boss (investor) make money, only focusing on the domestic market is not enough. Piracy has destroyed the domestic market. Now a movie with 30 million returns would be something very incredible and the producer can only get 10 to 15 million. This is only 100 thousands US dollars. This is not enough!

Hero‘s distribution history in the US seems to be the most interesting aspect in the film’s life, as it is reveals patterns that may be more significant that they seem. The film was released in 2002 across Asia, and rapidly became a blockbuster hit; it was one of the nominations for a foreign Oscar in 2002. Miramax had originally acquired U.S. and some international distribution rights in 2002 after the film’s great success in Asia but, as it has often been the case with other films acquired by Miramax*, a significant period of time passed before before the release of the official U.S. version. Meanwhile, the film gained a cult following in the States via copies of the DVD imported from other countries, a completely legal practice given the absence of a US-labeled product. In newsgroup reviews, Homer Yen remarks that because of the delay, by the time of its theatrical release the members of the sizable Chinese community in the US had already seen the film on DVD, either pirated or imported from HK. Another newsgroup review claims that Miramax have been dragging their feet with Hero‘s release as they apparently did not expect to be able to garner a significant income from another ‘wuxia’ film so soon after Crouching Tiger. They were evidently wrong, as Hero quickly ended up among the highest grossing foreign films in the US. Here is J. Hoberman’s account on the story behind the release, from the Village Voice:

Hero’s backstory is also action-packed. Having acquired the most costly movie ever made in China back in 2002, Miramax sat on its U.S. release, diddling with the running time, until other forces came into play. Quentin Tarantino persuaded his padrone Harvey Weinstein to restore the movie to its original length. Then, Weinstein’s estranged padrone Michael Eisner released some extra bucks to facilitate the movie’s release, acting to placate the Chinese officials whose help he needs for his Sino Disney World.

On release in the U.S., Hero had Tarantino’s names attached as a ‘producer’, clearly revealing the insecurity of the distributors who evidently did not believe the film could have a life of its own, without the endorsement of an American cult icon.

During the opening weekend at the end of August 2004, however, Hero made $18,004,319 (playing at 2,031 theaters with a $8,864 per screen average, and soon reaching its widest U.S. release at 2,175 screens). According to the IMDb, the opening weekend grosses were, respectively, for the UK £1,005,571 (26 September 2004; 254 screens), Australia AUD 2,258,748 (6 November 2004), for Italy €1,689,089 (10 October 2004; 313 screens) and for Spain €461,720 (16 November 2003; 91 screens). For more detail, see the good overview of the box office and reception of film at the Wikipedia entry.

According to Box Office Mojo Hero‘s worldwide gross came to $177,394,432, of which the international box office accounts for 69.7% ($123,684,413) and the domestic U.S. market, for 30.3% ($53,710,019). There are several observations that need to be made here: a) The distribution of Hero‘s revenues pretty much replicates the revenue balance of a typical Hollywood epic distributed internationally, with about one-third coming from the domestic US market, and roughly two thirds — from international markets. b) In the case of Hero, however, this is achieved by a combination of over ten distributors who handled the film in various countries and not one distributor that handles the film across multiple territories, as is typically the case of a Hollywood (even though one should also note that some major Hollywood players have been involved with the film internationally). c) Box Office Mojo’s data cannot be complete as there is no full reporting in the context in which they operate, nor do they include reliable DVD figures. It is likely that the film’s revenues could be thus, significantly bigger, especially as it is clear that nobody is keeping track on the piracy that plagues non-American releases. d) There have not been attempts to estimate if and what Miramax have lost by delaying the film’s release. Still, it is important to speak of this situation as economically important as it is about losses incurred (or potential profits not realised).

By way of comparison, again according to Box Office Mojo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made for an estimated 15 million dollars, made about 60% of its revenues from the domestic US market ($61,231,307) and only about 40% from international territories (circa 40 million dollars), totaling slightly over 100 million dollars in 2001.

Hero is a co-production between China and Hong-Kong (even though these are officially ‘one country’ today, they still co-produce between/within themselves). The realization of the film is largely a Chinese effort, with a line-up of Chinese and Hong Kong actors, led by diasporic legend Jet Li. When it comes down to visual effects, however, the credits list includes Hollywood specialists who have also been involved with films such as Moulin Rouge or The Matrix. Thus, the film is also partially representative of the trend to internationalization in special special effects, which I am discussing elsewhere.

Maybe because it cross-referenced two popular genres, the ‘wuxia’ martial arts film and the lavish costume drama, the response to Hero and the film’s media coverage was massive, including scores of interviews with the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who received numerous awards for his work (alongside the scores awards and nominations for the film, among which were nominations at the Oscars, the Golden Globe awards, and so on). A breathtaking number of user comments on the IMDb (790) is suitably matched by the number of external reviews linked here (245), indicative of the number of printed reviews that are not linked. (It is interesting to note that participants in the on-line exchanges are mostly based in the US, UK and Canada, thus one cannot say that much of cross-cultural discussion is taking place). The critical receptions, however, vary. On the World Socialist’s web-site the film is deplored for compromising with the status quo of cinema dictated by pragmatic box-office interests, while on the imdb message board a user interprets the film as an overt communist propaganda (with its low class protagonist-freedom fighter and its values of patriotic self-sacrifice). And while most reactions to Hero are in the ‘Wow!’ range, acknowledging it as a visually stunning poetic masterpiece, featuring jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts, there are reactions like the one of a newsgroup reviewer who complains over misleading marketing which made him expect a Tarantino-type film and which put him off due to the subtitling.

Besides Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000), in the context of various discussions Hero has been cross-referenced to films ranging from Leni Riefehstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), through Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985), coming to present-day texts such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Other references include Tsui Hark’s Jet Li classic Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China, 1991), The Last Samurai (2003), Alexander (2004) and Beowulf (2007).

* See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent classical essay, The World According to Harvey and Bob, also Peter Biskind’s book on Miramax.

© Dina Iordanova
18 July 2008

‘Gitano’ plagiarism?

June 25, 2008 at 12:33 am

Spain, a few years ago. Well-known Spanish writer Juan Madrid made a plagiarism complaint against Spain’s highest-paid novelist, Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

According to Madrid, Pérez-Reverte’s screenplay for Gitano (Gypsy, Spain, 2000, dir. Manuel Palacios), starring French model Laetitia Casta, had been lifted from a script for a project he had planned with an Argentinean partner but never materialized, a film that was to be called Gitana: Corazones de púrpura (Gypsy Woman: Hearts of Purple). The resemblance between the two scripts, the claimant insisted, was simply too close, suggesting that one was based, at least in part, on the other. Both films were tales of crime and passion set in the murky Gitano underworld; in each story the protagonist would be involved in vendettas after his release from jail, he would then clash with resentful police, and would have his troubles finally resolved through the idiosyncratic yet just Roma patriarch-ruled kriss tribunal. In addition, the protagonist would recover from the betrayal of a treacherous lover by falling in love with a fervent flamenco dancer, suitably called Lola in either case.

The plagiarism complaint was soon dismissed. ‘The only common feature which makes the two scripts comparable’ a statement read, ‘is their interest in the Gypsy world,’ the court concluded. The excessive similarities were explained away as having been of ‘genre’ nature.

The plagiarism showdown is yet another episode illustrating the tenacity of those basic elements that have survived obstinately over the years as key tropes of the ‘Gypsy’ film. Both writers had, once again, applied the stereotypes of the ‘Gypsy genre’ – passionate love, hot blood, trouble with the law, and so on. Both scripts were telling stories of poor, passionate and freedom-loving Gypsies who end up in self-destruction. In the context of this overarching narrative, most of the traditional romanticised ‘Gypsy’ representations reproduce one another anyhow.

Whatever the plot details, the typical ‘Gypsy’ narrative revolves around presumptions about what ‘true’ Gypsies are like. They live an exciting lifestyle, infatuated by all-consuming passions and inhabiting a microcosm populated by freewheeling sensual women and men who make love in open-air, thus turning even the most miserable environment into a setting full of high-spirited splendor.

The ‘Gitano’ plagiarism story suggests that nothing much has changed in recent representational patterns related to the Roma; they still move within the age-old stereotypes from the pre-romantic era and remain as exploitative as all those older literary and cinematic texts analyzed so well in the work of Katie Trumpener (‘The Time of the Gypsies: A ‘People without History’ in the Narratives of the West.’ In: Identities, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, pp 338-380).

© Dina Iordanova
25 June 2008