“Times sure have changed.”
Part II: Limite, Law of the Border, Taipei Story
In his introduction to Limite, Martin Scorsese remarks that the film’s director, then twenty-two-year-old Mário Peixoto, “remade the art of cinema according to his own poetic imagination, his own dream logic, shot by shot.” That’s quite the declaration regarding this 1931 feature, the first and last from Peixoto. But the remarkable thing is, he’s right. This spellbinding film is an evocative, hypnotic picture, and it is probably the greatest discovery to be found in the Criterion Collection’s six-film package, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2.
Insiang, Mysterious Object at Noon, and Revenge have already been covered, and Law of the Border (1966) and Taipei Story (1985) round out this Criterion set, but this little-known and seldom-seen Brazilian title is a singular inclusion. Inspired by an André Kertész photograph depicting two handcuffed hands inclosing a woman’s neck, a recreation of which begins the film, Peixoto takes this conspicuous image and develops an overarching account that becomes, again in Scorsese’s words, “not so much a story as a kind of succession of moods, states of being that flow together.” There are three primary characters, a man and two women—credited only as Man #1, Woman #1, and Woman #2, played by Raul Schnoor, Olga Breno, and Tatiana Rey. For whatever reason, they are adrift on a small boat, their clothes in tatters. Flashbacks (or dreams, fantasies, perhaps even flashforwards) hint at romance, death, and the day-to-day occurrences in a village along the Mangaratiba coast. Aside from that, there is little in the way of a substantiated narrative framework. Furthermore, it is nearly 30 minutes into the film before Peixoto places the camera beyond a medium shot, subsequently allowing, for the first time, any clear spatial understanding of where the characters are situated.
Apparently, Peixoto intended to play the lead part himself and proposed the film be directed by others, Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga among them, but both declined, feeling only Peixoto would be able to transfer his written text to a successful cinematic vision. Charting the variable course of this forlorn trio, Peixoto arranges sequences that aren’t necessarily surreal, as the individual elements within a given scene are not in themselves so unusual, but are notable for the peculiar bridges that link the disparate glimpses. Working with director of photography Edgar Brasil, who, unlike the director, went on to have a prolific film career, Peixoto formulates a torrent of curious compositions and rapid camera movements—swift pans, sudden and repeated surges forward, images turned upside down or on their side—all of which lend the picture its dreamlike quality. It is both haunting and romantic, sensations intensified by a balance of rich black and white shading. But what are we to make of the seemingly random close-ups or the unerring lighting that accentuates an inexplicable yet precise point of focus? Why does Peixoto put the camera where he does? “In Limite,” writes Fábio Andrade in his Criterion essay, “no shot seems to mean only one thing, and no event is completely detached from the others.” As Walter Salles notes when discussing the film, even with its non-narrative form and ambiguous detail, Limite is profoundly gripping, in large part due to this unceasing, visually-arresting speculation.
Peixoto lived until 1992, passing away at the age of 83. Though he left behind a wealth of written work, Limite is his sole cinematic statement. Andrade, who does point out that a fragment of Peixoto’s second feature was never finished and was mostly lost in a fire, also argues that Limite is “both poetry and prose,” its structure, “both narrative and digressive, linear and circular.” Call it poetic, call it musical; Limite, no matter how one attempts to align it along other artistic parallels, is a distinctive film first and foremost.
Lütfi Ö. Akad’s Law of the Border, from 1966, is a far more straightforward film than Limite. In fact, so much of this Turkish feature appears almost conventional in terms of plot that by its conclusion, it resembles a genre picture as much as it does a work of international social significance. Written by the celebrated actor/director/iconoclast Yılmaz Güney, a rebellious figure who penned and even completed production on some of his films while in prison or on the run (most famously his 1982 masterpiece Yol), Law of the Border stars Güney as the quintessential strong and silent-type antihero, Hidir. The film’s producer, Mevlüt Akkaya, compares Güney to Marlon Brando and James Dean, and his performance here does evoke a similarly insubordinate appeal. It was this quality that was most prominent in Güney’s initial screenplay. According to Bilge Ebiri, in his insightful Criterion essay, Akad said the draft was “violent, juvenile, and abnormally long. ‘My first instinct upon reading it was to fling it across the room,’ he said. Instead, the director suggested to Güney a complete rewrite, one that foregrounded the setting and the socioeconomic status of the characters.” And that he did, and with Akad’s groundbreaking on-the-spot location shooting, Law of the Border evolved into a work of gritty realism and unflinching authenticity, so much so that, as Ebiri also notes, the resultant picture was reportedly “blocked from being submitted to the Berlin and Venice film festivals by the Turkish censors.”
Law of the Border follows a band of smugglers along the Syria-Turkey border, centrally revolving around a remote village outpost and hub for illicit activity. These men bask in their prohibited behavior, the result of the region’s poor economy as well as their individual voracity. At times resembling a Western, the stark landscape is vital and treacherous, and it scenically outlines and underscores nearly everything that transpires. With land mines littering the unfertile fields, the lack of agricultural work seems to breed the criminal alternative. And like any good Western, the threat of civilization (in this case an education board’s desire to establish a school), signals an era of change.
On opposing sides are Hidir, who is essentially the ring leader of one felonious crew, and Lieutenant Zeki (Atilla Ergün), a decent, representative authority figure who knows the area and its populace and acts as a compassionate governmental liaison. Though they are on conflicting ends of the law, neither man is manifestly good or evil, but are equally competent compliments (think of it as a fifty-year-old Turkish precursor to Heat). Both know this life cannot continue; for Hidir, who has a young son to consider, his future—and the future of his kind—is fading. Later veering into the realm of a gangster film, Law of the Border climaxes in a side street-alleyway shootout between competing criminal factions and the police. It’s a rowdy, rousing encounter that ultimately makes its way out into the vast wasteland and settles with a moving final touch.
The sixth film included in this Criterion set is Taipei Story, a 1985 release from Taiwanese director Edward Yang, his second of just seven features. The film was co-written by Hou Hsiao-hsien (an extraordinary filmmaker in his own right), who also plays Lung, a disillusioned former baseball player. He stars alongside pop singer Chin Tsai, as Chin, Lung’s estranged girlfriend and an ambitious working professional making her way through the real estate ranks. Though each of their respective interests are central to certain parts of the film, particularly hers, Taipei Story essentially incorporates these two individuals as emblematic examples of the title city’s modern malaise and its cultural and commercial instability. Set within the dazzling lights of Taiwan’s capital, the film takes a contemplative look at people like Lung and Chin, those seeking to carve out their individuality in a contemporary setting heaving with blandly similar corporate architecture and the commotion and congestion of urban development.
With Hou and Chin assuming their archetypal roles, Yang narrows this focus to the expectations placed on young people in particular: a career, a spouse, home ownership, etc. On one hand, there are older individuals like Chin’s antiquated father or Lung’s old coach, individuals who struggle to accept the youth of today; on the other, there are those like this exemplary couple, those who begin to question the tried and true, arguing that hitherto momentous life-changes, such as marriage or a move, are but fleeting illusions that one can start over. There are many levels to Taipei Story, and insomuch as it concerns the disparity between generations coexisting in a time that is itself in transition, the film remains patently prescient. “Though Yang was already approaching his forties when he made Taipei Story,” writes Andrew Chan for Criterion, “the film registers as the muffled howl of an angry young man resigned neither to the reassurances of tradition nor to the enticements of modernity….” On the surface, Taipei Story is about changing streets, changing cities, and changing countries, but most significantly, as the impetus for this transformation, are the changing people. This revolution is reflected by their surroundings and in Yang’s plaintive style. Taipei Story is a resonant, subdued film (though there are two surprising bursts of violence), and Yang’s ability to look at his country as if from the outside, to peer objectively and with great care, is what Hou chalks up to his “penetrating vision.”
As Yang takes a subtle and poignant look at mistakes and lessons learned, at past loves and past ambitions, Taipei Story becomes emotionally universal. The milieu can be Taipei, it can be Los Angeles, or it can be Tokyo; the same personal crises exist no matter the backdrop. This same sense of universality is what partially makes the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 set so valuable. These movies are as important for their unique characteristics as they are for their resounding commonalities. Like its six-film Criterion forerunner, this collection is not just an assembly of great cinema; it is a compendium of cultural artifacts, celluloid expressions from diverse societies. It’s all part of a global film heritage. But, as Scorsese remarks when discussing Law of the Border, these films demand restoration and renewed recognition—whatever it takes to prevent them from becoming lost to that same history.