I. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Chinese director Zhang Yimou tells in his film, which is based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, the story of a beautiful nineteen-year-old ex-university student Songlian (Gong Li) who decides to become a concubine in the 1920s China. After her decision, Songlian finds herself in the palace of “red lanterns” which has “four houses” for her husband’s four mistresses. She soon gets acquainted with the elderly and indifferent first Mistress, with the friendly and seemingly happy second Mistress and with the still young and beautiful, but jealous third Mistress. All is well, or is it? The palace’s strange, centuries-old traditions and customs first bewilder Songlian and then force her most shameful qualities out, as her husband randomly shifts the power between the four houses. Songlian soon finds herself in a miniature society and under the patriarchal dominance which she has never imagined to exist, with her husband employing arbitrary and complex policies of rewards and punishments to keep the mistresses in line. In this dangerous game, Songlian realises that she must learn to handle not only the three previous jealous Mistresses, but also her hostile maid Yan’er and the realisation of a lifetime imprisonment. Raise the Red Lantern is a psychologically-intriguing film about one oppressive world where the competition for power, hopelessness, despair and the weight of guilt all mingle as the palace changes people and makes them into forms it desires and the master has planned in advance. With the exquisitely beautiful cinematography (by Zgao Fei), Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most important films of the 1990s. 10/10
II. Quiz Show (1994)
How many films are there that tell astonishingly true stories, have Robert Redford as a director, and Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson (director of Rain Man (1988)) as actors in minor roles? Only one. Based on an exceptional adapted screenplay by Paul Attanasio, Quiz Show, starring also John Turturro (Miller’s Crossing (1990)), Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield and Rob Morrow, among so many other amazing actors, tells of the Twenty One quiz show scandal of the 1950s in the US. It portrays the shocking discovery that one of the most famous American TV shows is rigged, as well as shows the steps taken to uncover the full extent of the fraud.
Twenty-One was an immensely popular TV show in the 1950s, and Robert Redford recreates the decade. Under his directional control, we step behind the scenes and saviour the hidden politics of the NBC TV shows of the 1950s. One attorney (Rob Morrow) is not indifferent to some of the inconsistencies in recently reported proceedings involving the show, and he starts to investigate. He does not even imagine where his curiosity will lead him. Meanwhile, the show Twenty-One has found a rising star in a seemingly unassuming university instructor that comes from a very prestigious American family – Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). It is truly amazing that John Turturro was not nominated by the Academy for his supporting role of Herbie Stempel, the previous contestant who “lost” to Charles Van Doren. He is one of the best in the film, giving a completely believable performance in a very difficult role. Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Charles Van Doren is not without its moments of brilliance, but he also hardly makes any effort to hide his so-very British accent.
Although the film rightly attracts some criticism because of certain artistic licences it took (in depicting real people) and today’s audiences may no longer be very shocked by a tale that shows the power and corruption in big media, Redford’s film is still a very good one: beautifully photographed and acted, with memorable camera-work, thrilling moments and beautiful scenes full of moral dilemma. There is a line in the film saying that a law degree almost sells itself and it is evident that this film, with such a shocking true story, also almost sells itself. Quiz Show is surprisingly engrossing, clever and nuanced. 8/10
III. Close-Up (1990)
This original film was severely criticised in Iran upon its release, but reached an almost iconic status in the west. It comes from an Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry (1997)) who based the film on true events that happed in Iran in the 1980s. Hossain Sabzian, alias Mohsen Makhmalbaf, plays himself in the film that details an allegation of impersonation. Sabzian made one family in Iran believe that he was a famous Iranian film director – Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian was promptly arrested and questioned. What were his true motives for committing this “crime”? It is not only the man who is soon on trial, but also his sense of morality and personality. Abbas Kiarostami got so curious about this incident that he decided to shoot a film depicting it. The result is an interesting docudrama that explores the nature of identity, the legal system in Iran, as well as the fine line between reality and fiction.
There is something both ludicrous and very tragic in the situation of one poor man in Iran impersonating a famous film director, and Abbas Kiarostami explores the absurdity and sweet pathos of the situation to the fullest, using various mock-documentary techniques and styles. We all want to be better than we are, but to what extent we are prepared to go and sink into a fantasy to do so? It is evident that the production here is very low-budget, but the film also tries to get as close to reality as possible, and, by using very rudimentary cinema techniques, it almost satirises film and the very nature of film-making itself. Kiarostami once again proves that in order to make something very simple well, one must think along very complicated lines. The film and the story may be very simple, but there is still a feeling of intense deliberation and thought behind each cinema frame. In Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami blends wonderfully fiction and nonfiction, truth and realty, real people and actors, presenting a very unusual story, unusually filmed. 8/10