Lurking in the periphery of prestige at Cannes along with other ignominiously mainstream studio films like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is Peter Chan’s Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro starring Wu xia. Unlike so many of the pared down, modest art films showing around the festival, Chan’s new work is a glut, casting a wide, glossy net in a martial arts - detective story - period film - parental-domestic drama - philosophical inquiry mash-up, and it is exactly this wide range that gives cinematic berth for divergent, contradictory sidetracks, references and flourishes—in short, a filmmaker's interpretations, showing with pleasure how mainstream auteur films can have a place on the Croisette.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the film starts with criminals being accidentally killed by a peasant paper miller (Yen). The town and local officials sing the miller's praise, but imaginative investigating detective Kaneshiro—apparently a schizophrenic, talking to and taking advice from a mental doppleganger—sees a variety of China's most wanted killers on the loose in the slack peasant visage of Yen. The opening, bumbling fight scene is restaged in Kineshiro’s mind as a work of martial arts mastery, and as the nebulous evidence grows (in his head), the film draws in Yen's wandering past, his violent family history, and a local gang of some ethnic minority who turned into blood thirsty outlaws after being decimated in a massacre.
The film has a wonderful attitude towards exposition that instead of developing proceeds by introducing new left-field information, deductions and consequences, which Chan's versatile style matches well, if with erratic success. The film can be as dull as placid, television style shot/reverse-shot confrontations between the two leads and suddenly diverge to animation of Qi accupuncture points, the visualization of a blood clot created by a perfectly thrown punch, two unexpected musical sequences, a self-delivered amputation, etc. and so on. The first level of the plot is usual wuxia stuff of revealing hidden identity, outting a master, challenge and fight, but the script and filmmaking decide to choke the easy route not with asides but with anxious, densely styled complicating contexts. A character from Yen's family shows up in the film's final minutes and practically steals the show even though no suggestion of him existed in the previous footage. Like the film's many explanations of how the body works, what violence and medicine does to it, and how to deduce information or effect the world through it, in a sense what Wu xia does is start with the skeleton of convention and then proceed to peer into and prod the recesses—mental, spiritual, ethnic, familial, martial—of what one thought was a corpse but is instead transformed into a beautiful, ungainly thing.
As Terence Malick’s productions increase in frequency they are likewise expanding in scope—from spanning continents he is now spanning time itself. But the imaginative world of the filmmaker has not changed; The Tree of Life is a flowing symphony of images finding patterns between the bubbles in a bubble bath and the roiling physics of the creation of the universe. All is of a part: no character experiences a different world in a Malick film, all—from Brad Pitt’s father and Jessica Chastain’s mother to Hunter McCracken’s son and Sean Pean as the son grown up—are like alien observers dropped into a stranger’s memory. The film is made up almost entirely of images of them touching the world around them, staring at once at this world and at the same time in complete, pleading abstraction at the unreal sensations of a dream, a memory, a lost or chased consciousness. (Alain Resnais presides again over the Croissette.)
Most of The Tree of Life is not scenes—dramatic dialog between characters acted out in melodrama—but movements in the musical sense. Indeed the film is a musical, scored by Alexandre Desplat and vividly complimented with a calvalcade of classical music both joyous and mournful, but even without the music the film would remain musical, with its motifs and variations, discreet themes, duets and solos, and shots nearly as notes in an improvised, endless rhythm able to move in time, space, and perspective as the melody comes to mind.
But for whom are these images, these hushed, mourning, questioning words? They are certainly not of reality—for all his love of light and nature, Malick’s films are not realistc or naturalistic. Someone touching someone else’s hand in an Eric Rohmer film is a hand touching a hand. In The Tree of Life it is something greater than a hand, A Hand—Malick’s imagery speaks in the mode of silent cinema, partially abstracting the real things in front of the camera to another space, iconic and of heightened sensation. It makes one wonder, then, whose recollections these are, so sensational but so unreal; Malick is never thought of as a filmmaker of memory but perhaps he should be. Or perhaps the better word came earlier, a filmmaker of consciousness.
The film is a sublime rush of consciousness in these sensations, images, each as arbitrary and often awkward in its own special way as the last, calling up equally, instantly, the Big Bang and paint bucket stilts, asteroids and sci-fi-like Houston skyscrapers. Malick’s decoupage and editing technique is a philosophy in and of itself, both drawn tight as well as freely loosened by the filmmaker’s needs from the light, the motion, and the emotion. The Tree of Life often has an ungainliness, a lurching failing, corny unsupported leaps forward or back, or even, in jump cuts within a scene, leaps aside. But this lurching, this sometimes-failing of the montage is the casualty of extreme cinematic risks that Malick and his team succeed—and fly—with so much—and so high—that one cannot but marvel at, be moved by, alight on the faith in the form on display.
Despite its cascading, freely circulating quality, structure is needed to reign the film’s movements in, and the story allegorizes Malick’s filmmaking technique by evoking the raising of a child (McCraken) between two poles of parenthood, a freeing, joyous and translucent mother and a strict, corporeal, structured father (the script delinates these perspectives as “grace” and “nature,” respectively). This would be schematic if within this structure Malick’s images didn’t roam free, free to travel in time from the present (the 1950s), to the future (Penn’s sections, enunciated in the film first through a time travel strip of moving, colored light), to the past (dinosaurs!), to the very beginnings of the universe—is it any guess which side of the parental split the film itself is on?
Yet the film must end, must contain an organization, control some things even with its radical freedom—undoubtably as experimental a film as last year’s Boonmee and including an entire section on the beginning of the universe formed in abstract, bleeding and flowing images of light and color, paint dynamics. As with the mix of cultures in The New World and the encoaching of modern man on the island in The Thin Red Line, the untouched and the civilized must meet, and that meeting point spawns a Malick film as much as the inevitable corruption of the meeting must end it. Yet the irony is that each ending is a hopeful one, not an end point for his wandering consciousness or a punctuation point marking a finale, but rather a release from the pressures of that control, that corruption. The creation necessitates a control which necessitates a harmony, one not of or in the meeting of the two sides, but rather of the acceptance of the end that is produced by their meeting.