Wednesday, December 31, 2008

125 Years Isn't That Old, Is It? (From Ibsen to BLIND SHAFT (2003))

I’m busy translating a bunch of business contracts. The work is tedious, but money’s money, even if it’s the Korean won, which has depreciated so much in recent months that I've actually started turning down some jobs after doing the money calculation. Still, it's a way to earn a little money that also allows me the flexible schedule and large blocks of free time needed to work on my novel and make films.

As for making the feature film, in search of ideas for a story, I’ve begun to do what I often do when I can’t come up with an original idea of my own for whatever reason. I’ve turned to works from the past that are in the public domain to see whether any of them can be updated to the contemporary Hong Kong setting. This is a very common practice. George Lucas’s STAR WARS series is basically a Japanese samurai film set in space. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) is a retelling of JANE EYRE.

Nearly all novels or plays that were published prior to 1923 is in the public domain. This doesn’t mean, however that filmmakers can have a field day. Many of these literary works that are in the public domain aren’t well-suited for modern audiences. And those that are (Jane Austen & some Shakespeare) have already been done over and over.

In addition, literary and dramatic conventions from the past are often very different from contemporary ones, which means they don’t always help the cause of providing fodder for a medium, narrative film, which requires accessible storytelling.

The last time I ventured into the fascinating world of the public domain, I ended up with a short film based on Sophocles’ ANTIGONE, which in its original is compelling even if its form is so unlike any that we modern audiences are used to. In my hands, it turned into a straightforward drama with added exposition scenes between Antigone and Creon. The outcome was disappointing at best and very much a strange baby that was neither here nor there.

That said, I’ve begun to seriously consider doing a contemporary version of Henrik Ibsen’s THE WILD DUCK set in Hong Kong as part of a series of feature films about Hong Kong. To do so requires some modification. As great a contribution to modern theater that Ibsen has made (which is absolutely in no doubt as any self-respecting Norwegian will happily tell you and many did during my two-day stint as a street book peddler near Columbia University before our move to HK (which is another story)), much of the original play, which was written in 1884 and is in five acts, now seems clunky and dull. A contemporary adaptation could benefit from slimming the story into 3 acts and losing many ancillary characters and some story elements.

I’ve begun doing a quick outline of this adaptation. It could serve as the basis of a somewhat talky but could-be-compelling-depending-on-execution film focused on two main characters : GREGERS and HJALMAR from the original. The story still has a lot to say about life everywhere, but could be tweaked to say volumes about life in Hong Kong.

It helps that the original play isn't that well known. Many people, even those who know who Ibsen is, aren't that familiar with this play. And for whatever reason, deserved or not, this play as well as many of Ibsens' other works, are now relegated to the category of literary and dramatic works that are thought to be amazing but read only because some teacher at school assigned it or as part of some acting class. I believe the same can be said of much of Chekhov. (This is just an observation. I don't have a strong opinion on whether this is good or bad.)

I'm mostly concerned with pragmatic aspects of doing such an adaptation. Another plus is that there haven't been many screen adaptations of this play. The most recent and famous one being by Henri Safran in 1983 starring Liv Ullmann and Jeremy Irons. (This is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad is that there are probably good reasons why there haven't been more screen adaptations of this play.)

On a different note, I've just seen BLIND SHAFT (2003) by Yang Li. I’d caught bits of this film earlier in NY, when it aired on a local public TV channel. I didn't know much about the film or the filmmaker then.

Having just seen this film in its entirety, I was startled that such a bleak and dark film about contemporary life made its way past the Chinese censors. In fact, I learned from a little research that the filmmaker is based in Germany and circumvented Chinese censors by making the film outside the established filmmaking procedures and conrols by registering it as a foreign production originating in Germany and Hong Kong.

It is, in fact, one of the best films to come out of China that I’ve ever seen. (*It's at least 20,000 times better than the tired loosely-historical epics with 20,000 PLA extras that have now become a major staple of Chinese cinema and which function as de facto propaganda for China's superpower greatness -- Yes, the same critique can be applied to vast spectacles from the U.S., only the U.S. government doesn't play such an overtly direct role in film production. But of course, those films suck just as much.)

Yang Li's ugly little lump of coal of a film is intense for its entire 85 minutes while delivering many little truths about the price of modern life.

My only quibble is that were I the producer, I would have strongly urged Yang Li to cut the first two minutes from the film so that the film would then start from a completely different place and deliver even more of a jolt than it already does. Once you see the film, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

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