Johnnie To and Andrea Arnold Fulfill Their Promise

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Pierre Pageau

The Official Competition of the 68th edition of the Mostra in Venice was a very good one. It had many movies by well-renowned auteurs like: Garrel, Sokourov, Andrea Arnold, Polanski, Cronenberg, and Johnnie To. Of the many movies that would need a better recognition Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold and Life Without Principle (Dyut meng gam) by Johnnie To) were very well staged, and contained a high level of cinematographic virtuosity.

Wuthering Heights is another adaptation of the famous novel by Emily Bronte; one other great version is the masterpiece by William Wyler of 1939. Andrea Arnold as managed with her own special interpretation of the great classic to create something new, a new masterpiece. The storyline is still the same: a Yorkshire farmer brings home a homeless boy, Heathcliff, hoping he will blend in with his family. There he develops a quite obsessive, and violent sometimes, relation to the farmer’s daughter Cathy. Both movies clearly portray the isolated house in the setting of the Yorkshire Moors as a place of madness. To emphasize the bleak, haunting Yorkshire Moors, and the house in particular, Arnold uses a great number of close-up images of insects, plants, small objects, to make us feel the disturbing strangeness (Freud would have probably said) of the house. The style of Arnold reminds me of the gaze of the Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase; both use many close-ups. Visual details are very important, but the sound is also in ‘close-up’, so that we can feel also the grain (bead) of the nature in particular.

Arnold made her first two feature films (Red Road and Fish Tank) with her own scripts. This time she decided to try a new experience by making an adaptation, and of a very important and difficult novel. In Fish Tank the mother brought home a ‘new’ man, and the young daughter had to adapt to this situation. In Wuthering Heights, Arnold decides that the ‘new’ boy coming to the house would be black, thus creating another level of strangeness. We now have two children that will be forced to grow together in a very isolated world. This will create a love story full of destructive obsessions. And it ends as a tragedy.

Life Without Principle is like watching a new Johnnie To. The master of Hong-Kong film-noir cinema uses less violence this time. He concentrates more on the international money crisis that has struck the world since 2008. The killers are still there, but they don’t occupy the central role. Here, the most important character is a simple bank seller who tries to become a good financial analyst. In parallel to her story we have the one of a small detective trying to solve murders and save his marriage by buying a house for his wife. Then there is also a thief who needs to pay his due to the gang lord and will have to find money from somewhere.  

These three parallel stories make for a slow start in the movie. Johnnie To tries to link the three stories because they are all the expression of people in need of money. The background of the economic crisis serves him to make links between individual trajectories and a more universal problem. We can identify with such people in need of money. Everybody has had to see a financial analyst to know how to invest and make profits. But the overall story still remains a thriller. In each of the three stories complications occur, thus ensuring there is action at every corner. Johnnie To fans won’t be disappointed by this new work from their maestro, but they may be surprised. Happily surprised I would say.