Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Dust in the Wind

It was an elegy to the pastoral life that was largely a sentimental memory for scores of Taiwan’s poor urban-migrators. Yet, it counter-intuitively gave hope to many who saw themselves in the young underdog couple and quickly became a touchstone film of the Taiwanese New Wave. Although internationally recognized as an auteurist masterwork, it would not be the same film without its cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-Bing. It would be conspicuous in its absence, so Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (trailer here) duly screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to Lee.

Everyone in their village knows Wan and his girlfriend Huen are meant to be together, so they feel safe temporarily focusing on earning money to send home from their menial jobs in Taipei. At least, their lives are not as grim as those we regularly see in the sort of documentaries that once screened in the currently exiled Beijing Independent Film Festival. Wan even has a network of hipsterish (by 1980s provincial Taiwanese standards) cronies. Nevertheless, the big city remains a predatory environment. Co-screenwriters and regular Hou collaborators Chu T’ien-wen and Wu Nien-jen even take a page out of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief when the motorcycle Wan relies on for work is stolen. As if life were not challenging enough, he also has his mandatory military service looming.

And yet everyone endures. They make do and live with significant mistakes, but they carry on. It is all quite naturalistic, both in terms of aesthetics and content, but there were a considerable number of young, striving Taiwanese who could relate. Like Hou’s Millennium Mambo, the opening sequence of the train from the nearby city winding its way towards the mountain village of Jio-fen has become iconic. Fittingly, it features prominently Hsieh Chin-lin’s documentary survey of Taiwanese cinema, Flowers of Taipei, and Let the Wind Carry Me, a profile of Lee himself, also screening at MoMA. However, unlike typical cinematic imagery of trains penetrating tunnels, this tracking shot really is symbolic of mobility and modernization.

Deceptively quiet, Hsin Shu-fen eerily suggests all manner of emotions roiling beneath Huen’s shy reserve. Opposite her, Wang Ching-wen resembles a young Lee Kang-sheng, but his relentless sullenness is taxing. However, Li Tien-lu adds real heft and dimension as Wan’s difficult but beloved grandfather.

Throughout Dust, Lee deliberately uses a muted color palate, but that makes the verdant green foothills of Wan’s village pop like an impressionist painting (in fact, Lee also shot Gilles Bourdos’s sun-dappled Renoir screening later during Luminosity). It is a lovely and influential film every serious cinema patron should catch up with. Recommended for those who like their bittersweet movies more bitter than sweet, Dust in the Wind screens this Saturday (6/18) and next Saturday (6/25) as part of Luminosity at MoMA.