Genre Troubles in Today's Cinema By Leo Soesanto
by Léo Soesanto
Several films from the Sofia IFF international competition brought back the same old topic of genre films, torn between stereotypes and the necessity of bringing novelty and playing with the déjà-vu. Love and Other Crimes, The Drummer (Jin. gwu) and Donovan Slacks try, with mixed results, to twist established film recipes, bringing genres to new territories. Simply stated, the genre films are as old as cinema, bound to the changing of production structures in industry and public tastes. Among many others, gangster movies, westerns, musicals, kung-fu, are genre films which can be subdivided, split into endless categories (Italian-American gangster film, spaghetti western, Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Philippines martial arts movies). Above all, they follow codes, obligatory scenes (gunfights, apprenticeship…). Strangely, they now have to play with these codes: genre films must be called nowadays ironic genre films, filled with quotes and intertextuality and, as a result, also allowing the audience to play with the film in an interactive way (intertextuality, and not video games turned into films, are from the beginning the only way for the audience to participate).
How (and do they) do The Drummer, Love and Other Crimes and Donovan Slacks succeed in reshaping codes? The Drummer first starts as the usual Hong Kong gangster film, shot with professionalism and all we can expect: the frantic atmosphere of a city always on fire at night or day, the rituals of the gangs led by usual suspects actors Kenneth Tsang and Tony Leung Ka Fai. Sid, drummer in a rock band and son of a crime boss, is forced to exile himself in the mountains after offending a rival gang. He meets there a group of Zen percussionists, falls in love with one of them and joins the group. The gangster film turns then into a mix between musical and old-style 1970s Shaw Brothers film, where the rebel — the restless apprentice — learns discipline and commitment not through kung-fu but drumming. Kung-fu films are almost musicals (both are about choreography): The Drummer wants to stretch that notion, switching dance and martial arts rhythm with the beat of a drum, which is of course a metaphor for speed of life (don’t rush, be a slave to the rhythm) and love (heartbeats). Starting with promises, the film finally fails to blend genres with harmony, going awkwardly from one mood to another and only conveys clichés, not twists. The scene where the short-haired, almost bald, Shaolin-like hero is to avenge a loved one in pure gangster style doesn’t work and almost shows that the director doesn’t know how to end the movie, adding another useless layer of plot. At the same time, it raises one interesting question we’ll discuss after: “Because I am a character of a gangster film, do I have to behave like in a gangster film?” One wonders how Johnnie To, whose recent and charming Sparrow blends beautifully pickpockets and musical, would have taken the challenge.
The Drummer and Love and Other Crimes share a common scene: a character is dying, lying on the ground, looking up the sky and feeling in peace. Where the scene is rather flat in The Drummer, Love succeeds to bring the required sadness, with an amount of poetry and absurdity. Set in a depressive district of high-rises in Belgrade, this debut feature film starts as a small-time gangster movie, showing a familiar gallery: a local crime godfather, his mistress, his young henchman, a cabaret singer. Around this humble plot (the mistress wants to steal money from the crime boss and escape to a new life), the film slowly but surely unravels clichés with a certain (bitter) sweetness, and drifts to romantic comedy. The crime boss seems to be stuck in his chair all day, his henchman practices magic tricks. The heist is delayed, sabotaged by a sense of ennui and the tenderness of the director for his characters. Like in early Fassbinder gangster films, they are all stuck, frozen into stereotypes. They don’t know what else to do. The genre film here becomes a dead end for doomed characters, where getting out can only happen with — literally — magic. In this sense, the film probably features the best plane tray-table scene ever seen on screen. It is also a clever reflection about modern Serbia, where escape seems to be the only option for young people, since 400,000 of them have left the country in the last fifteen years. Love triangles, racket scenes or cabaret numbers are handled with a twist, a modest but neat filmmaking, which is always close to its earthbound thugs but never afraid to look up beyond its concrete skyline.
Finally, Donovan Slacks is a very strangely flawed take on another genre: the political leader/messiah/martyr film, but with psychoanalytic garb and experimental temptations. The film starts as a 1920s silent movie, blurry, out of focus, rather in faded colors than black and white. Staying in a sea bath hospital, the title character believes his head is fragile, disconnected from life and changes. He becomes a mascot for the local English fishermen who are in conflict with the government. And of course, he has a dark secret. Until the second part, we found the film slightly charming, in a lazy Guy Maddin style. But when Donovan Slacks unravels his trauma and leads the fishermen’s uprising, when Super 8 switches to DV, we found ourselves in front of a courageous artistic suicide: the silent movie style hid all the flaws of the film, like very approximate acting and cheap design. The final scene looks like Potemkin Battleship shot with bad extras in a second-rate amusement park. What is striking is that change makes sense. The silent movie part lasts as long as the character is paralyzed by his trauma. It’s a veil of illusion, of fake comfort for him (and the director). Once stripped bare the illusion of delusion (like escaping the Matrix), he can lead his life. And once the illusion of cinema has gone, life is dull or like bad street theatre. It’s unknown to what extent the director consciously chose to make his film so awful-looking in its second part, whether (un)intentionally punk or an experience in error.
To sum up, Love and Other Crimes is the most successful reshaping of genre films among these three films: it doesn’t vainly blend codes (The Drummer) or turn to shambles (Donovan Slacks). It is just intertextuality with a little heart beating, which is sometimes rare nowadays.