Author: Ezekiel Yu

Ezekiel Yu is a writer based in North Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in Literary Studies. His main focuses are in literature, cinema and culture. He may be contacted at ezekielyu11@gmail.com.
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A stylized still image of James Baldwin (author of Giovanni's Room) being interviewed late in his life.

Blown Back On Me: Analyzing James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

The discovery of my own body might best be characterized as a long string of small traumas that, in some significant ways, runs on even well into my twenties, where, as a full-fledged man (ostensibly, legally, deludedly, etc.), it can be difficult to account for what was not properly understood as a boy.

Cloistered square in the middle of a flock of five children, sequestered by a Third World Evangelicalism pent-up with ideas of physical impurity and its largely punitive opposite in divine nature, it didn’t take long for me to build an antagonistic, even harried, relationship with the mirror and its contents. What the reflection contained was both myself and an Other, an un-asked-for future that kept slipping into my arms and legs and chest in prickly hair and heaps where they hadn’t been before. I was always a chubby child, and I became accustomed to maintaining the weight. I despised exercise and over-ate. I lazed about and constantly read or watched TV and avoided anything that might wrest my body from relaxation towards events that could attract scrutiny to its obvious weaknesses. […]

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A stylized shot of Werner Herzog, filmmaker of "Aguirre: Wrath of God", "Fitzcarraldo", "My Best Fiend", and author of Of "Walking in Ice" (1978) and "The Twilight World" (2022).

Dream’s Fever: On Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking In Ice” (1978) and “The Twilight World” (2022)

Two men are alone. One walks through ice and the other through jungle heat. Despite the presence of others, they are singular in their company, and are compelled by a sense of immense duty that further extricates them from those present.

One man is Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese military officer (in)famous for his continued service to the Empire decades after its formal surrender in World War II, inhabiting his island post in the Philippines with stolid zeal – or, at least, the Onoda conjured up by Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, who in the preface to his novel The Twilight World remarks how he (to the shock of his Japanese hosts) gave up an opportunity to meet the Emperor so that he could meet and speak with Onoda, instead. […]

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A stylized black and white portrait of Mina Loy, author of "Ephemerid". It was taken by Stephen Haweis around 1905.

CITY WONDERING: On Mina Loy’s “Ephemerid”

If you live in a city and are, at all times, subjected to its latticework of avenues, alleyways, sidewalks and streets, it becomes easy to take for granted moments which offer insight. These can be rare, and are rarely gained through conscious search. Perhaps you find something meaningful in the face of the old woman sitting across from you. Or perhaps, sitting with friends, an errant breeze distracts from your conversation, and you detect some esoteric code in the swirl of leaf and trash. Here the city is attempting to communicate. Though the words are not sought, they are taken in. This is before the dire front page news, puddle-soiled, slams itself on the glass, its messaging now perfectly explicit.

Such occurrences are the vagaries of life, and the uncertain particles of art. Living in a big city is no requirement, of course, but having spent a few days wandering through one (Chicago, specifically) quite recently, the experience of having your senses press-ganged into engagement by any number of clonking mechanisms or jammed junctures seems to be one unique to the modern metropolis. […]

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A stylized shot of the mother in Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" (2017) lying around, smoking a joint.

Still Growing: On Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017)

There is an anxiety, among Left Wing cineastes particularly, for a “proper” artistic depiction of the poor. Realism, of course, is key – but how grueling is too grueling? You can’t slip into so-called poverty porn, because to do that would be to rob the class you’re portraying of their dignity. However, conversely, to be too light or fanciful, winsome, even, would be to rob them of their hardships, which uniquely distinguishes them from the higher classes. This is not to even mention the deeper anxiety that interrogates the point of art at all in one’s political project(s), especially when it comes to fictional portrayals of the subaltern and such. “It’s all make-believe, at bottom,” the worry might be. “Does this aid us? And would even the most nuanced portrait of the dispossessed do anything to alleviate their lack?”

Maybe this is caricature, but I’ve noticed this anxiety slip into many of the reviews I’ve read for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Many are positive (in that Baker avoids a misstep in either of the directions mentioned above) while some bemoan the lack of interiority in these characters’ lives, and even slam Baker for not making the mother, Halley, more empathetic. Others nitpick at its length, without elaboration, as well as its meandering, told-in-vignettes quality. And, of course, despite healthy acclaim, and a generous smattering of various festival/critic’s awards, the film still passed mostly under the radar – earning only a single nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe’s Bobby) at that season’s Academy Awards. […]

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A shot of the female lead entering her train car in Juho Kuosmanen's "Compartment No. 6".

Longing’s Transit: On Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” (2021)

In Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, Laura is an introverted, soft-spoken Finnish national studying the Russian language in Moscow. Ljoha (or Lyokha, depending on how you want to Anglicize the name) is the sort of crass, bull-headed man that another character later on in the film remarks “is pumped out of a factory.” Both are on their way to Murmansk, in the northern wastes of Russia, and have found themselves partnered in the same cramped train compartment. Laura wants to inspect the Kanozero Petroglyphs, in order to discern humanity’s future from its past. Ljoha is heading there for work at a mining facility, so that he can build up funds for his own business ventures. That they are both searching for something more than their stated purposes is clear, although Laura is the more befuddled of the two, too vexed by her own romantic agonies to realize that she likely couldn’t give less of a damn about some old stone carvings in the Arctic cold.

Juho Kuosmanen’s adaptation of a novel by Rosa Liksom is a kind of love story, and bluntly states itself as such by the end, but there is no saccharine meet-cute, and the setting is less than quaint – instead, there is a pervading sense of melancholy, as Laura is a stranger in a strange land, and her journey away from Moscow’s ivory tower as well as an ephemeral relationship (the opening party scene deftly portrays the cutesy pretensions of the academic types that Laura’s girlfriend, Irina, pals around with), into wilder regions are punctuated by shots of the train’s slow passage through rainfall, icy winds, and barely-lit nights. The discomfort of human smells and unwanted company are only briefly alleviated by a cracked-open window or the precious gentility of a dining car. Kuosmanen and cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi ably maneuver their camera through the train’s confined interiors, following its characters like a particularly nosy companion in order to adequately capture their reactions. Such transit allows for very little privacy, and, outside of complete stonewalling, one is almost forced to associate with fellow travelers in order to pass the time more easily. While the connection between Laura and Ljoha is undeniable, all these elements make us ask: how much does sheer convenience (with chance contriving a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for both parties) play into their growing bond? They are, after all, very different people, as Ljoha is mystified by Laura’s wannabe intellectualism and cannot accept her canned reasoning for wanting to see the petroglyphs. […]

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A stylized shot of the main characters in Carlos Saura's "Cria Cuervos".

The Girls, the Garden, the Pictures: On Carlos Saura’s “Cría Cuervos” (1976)

A solemn piano piece plays over sentimental family photos; young Ana, whose wide-eyed face is lingered over in the images (and will come to dominate the screen), moves about in the shadows of a great house. All is sealed off, every space shuttered and the house’s stately surfaces only barely defined by what visible light there is, so that Ana, in a nightgown, appears luminous and strange. She seems to be homing in on a room where a man and woman make furtive and intimate congress; suddenly, the man is seized by some attack, and as the woman rushes out of the room in a disheveled state, the look she gives Ana (and her hurried exit from the darkened manse) tells the viewer just enough about their relationship, or lack thereof. Ana, throughout all of this, is impassive, and when she sees the man lying, slackened by death, in the sheets, she seemingly does not understand why the man cannot respond to her quiet inquiry. This is her father, some distinguished military figure if the pictures offer any clue, and his face now is as opaque as the gloomy interiors of his home.

There is a mostly finished glass of milk on a nearby desk. Its significance, for now, is unknown to us save for Ana’s curious attention towards it in the midst of her father’s death. She takes it and cleans it and in the kitchen (brilliantly lit, the very picture of purity, now) her mother finds her and teasingly chides her – but not all is as it seems. […]

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A shot of the female lead in Steven McQueen's "Widows"

Why Steve McQueen’s “Widows” (2018) Disappoints

British director Steve McQueen’s first three feature films – Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave – can’t quite be called a trilogy, but there’s enough common thematic resonance in all of them that it wouldn’t be totally foolish to bind them together in a sort of loose trilogy, or perhaps the beginnings of a cycle of sorts. If Antonioni had his Alienation trilogy, then McQueen’s might be called Mortification, since some kind of physical denial/suppression takes centerstage in each.

In Hunger, Bobby Sands fatally denies himself sustenance in retaliation against British suppression; in Shame, the audience is left to wonder if Brandon can rein in his obsession with sex/masturbation and forge meaningful human connections; in 12 Years a Slave, the abduction of Solomon Northup into slavery forces him to repress his full humanity in order to survive. […]

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A still of the lead actress in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Asako I & II"

Beauty’s Filth: On Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II” (2018)

Stillness, aesthetic rest, relaxed pacing, static, almost banal, framing – these are all hallmarks of the great Japanese classics of Kurosawa, Ozu, and co., and even contemporary directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda. Yes, other directors from other countries deploy these techniques, but it was Japanese cinema (particularly in the early part of the prior century) that engraved them into custom and international renown. Think of the great shots in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, of characters doing nothing yet exemplifying everything within the interplay of objects in the frame: the pairs of shoes in the bathhouse, an old couple by the sea, or the father sitting alone as the ship in the distance drifts past.

Stillness, aesthetic rest, relaxed pacing, static, almost banal, framing – these are all words you can use to describe Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2018 film Asako I & II. It is a solidly built thing, in terms of its structure (you are never lost or confused as to what is happening), but composure can be deceiving. What might be construed as elegance, an aesthetic serenity, is really just detached posing, a pretty exterior that mirrors the elfin perfection of the film’s protagonist, Asako – and just as empty, within. […]