A Programmer's Chronicles March 2007

A Programmer's Chronicles, March 2007

Yella by Christian Petzold (Germany, 2007)
Still from 'Yella' van Christian Petzold, Duitsland 2007

by Gertjan Zuilhof

In Berlin, I spent 90 minutes queuing up for it but still didn’t get to see it. The last seats were grabbed by people just in front of me, that’s the way it goes. Christian Petzold had nodded to me amiably only the day before. “Yes”, I had said, “of course I’m going to see your latest film”. Films are after all most attractive when they’re completely new. Virginal. Not yet adorned and besmirched with guiding opinions.

I was going to have to wait until I reached Hong Kong before I saw Yella by Petzold. In are virtually empty cinema for visitors to the so-called HAF (the forum for Asian film projects in development). I had even hesitated before going inside. You don’t fly 12 hours to Asia to see a German film. A German film that will also be an old German film by the time the next Rotterdam Festival takes place. But I had promised Petzold and anyway I was curious.

For several years in a row, Petzold has been making exciting, intriguing, restrained and ingenious films. Films that radiate some kind of cinematographic engineering art. Technically impeccable and coolly wrapped, they always hide a sultry secret. Yella was no disappointment. The film took me from the hectic and overzealous Hong Kong to a melancholy and washed out (former East) German provincial town. Petzold soon introduced the secret of his latest film: Yella is driven by her aggressive suicidal ex-husband off a bridge in her car and seems to drown. Or seems just to escape death by drowning. Or seems to have a near-death experience. It’s all possible, because below the surface of the meticulous hyperrealism of Petzold, ghosts are always sheltering. That makes it possible for the protagonist to live on after her death and even to have predicting dreams.

In Yella, Petzold shows something that is fairly rare in film. He gets wrapped up in the details of today’s venture capitalist businesses in which debts can be attractive and bankruptcy offers personal advantage. The dialogues that take place in this mood are strikingly detailed and confirm the fact that many languages (as here in the back rooms of business, but it could also have been science or politics) are not really spoken in film. It’s characteristic of film that you can see the land of origin outside its context. And any context film still had, as in this case the national German cinema, is disappearing rapidly.

I saw several new Asian films in Berlin and that felt fairly normal. Apparently I didn’t miss the context. For instance from the School of Johnnie To I saw the entertaining Eye in the Sky, a debut by To’s scriptwriter Yau Nai-hoi. Supple and sound genre cinema that they seem to have patented in Hong Kong and of which they have been extra proud since The Departed, Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs. Even though this form of cinema has never lacked self-confidence.

Eye in the Sky by Yau Nai-hoi (Hong Kong, 2007)
Still from 'Eye in the Sky' by Yau Nai-hoi (Hong Kong, 2007)

The story of Eye in the Sky is simple. A special police unit led by an experienced chief with the nickname Dog Head (Simon Yam) observes a gang of jewel thieves led by Shan (Tony Leung). A young female cop gets the nickname Piggy (Kate Tsui) and is ruthlessly put on the track of the seasoned criminals. A clever game of cat and mouse follows in which all the clichés of the genre are carefully avoided or subject to creative variation.
That’s that, you would think. If you like this kind of film, you’ll go and see it, if not you’ll give it a miss.

But not much later, in the week of Yella, I was walking around Kowloon, the part of Hong Kong where Eye in the Sky is set, and realised that the film is more than a genre story. It provides a very realistic picture of the hectic bustle of life in this traditional and chaotic part of Hong Kong. In their meticulous observations, the makers match the detail with which Petzold looks at the new Germany on both sides of the River Elbe.

The question is: does film have a context or not. Does it matter where you see a film? Does it really matter whether you know the surroundings in which the film is set? Is the Kowloon of Eye in the Sky only couleur locale? Can the drab grey Germany of Petzold be exotic?
Now film is being screened in a wider variety of venues. Now film can be seen any time any place. From aircraft to waiting rooms. To basically anywhere you can take your mobile player. Does the context then become irrelevant? Or does a moment return when the context of the viewer and the context of the film can come together?