|Away With Words
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival
Dire reviews in the French press notwithstanding, Away With Words was much more fun than I had feared it would be. Master cinematographer Christopher Doyle's first feature is, I think, best thought of as a lesson in exactly where his genius lies (and where it doesn't).
Ostensibly, the film is a story about a beer-soaked gay Austrailian (amateur actor Kevin Sherlock) who owns a bar in Hong Kong, a wandering synesthetic Japanese urban victim (Japanese film star Asano Tadanobu), who crashes there and relives flashbacks of his Okanawan youth, and a cute'n'perky Chinese fashion designer (Singapore singing star Mavis Hsu) who seems to spend most of her time cleaning up after the other two.
But Doyle's strong point is neither plot nor characterization (in fact, the film's weakest scene is the penultimate matched set of voice overs which finally lets each of the characters unburden themselves of their inner feelings). It is rather -- no surprise here -- his sense of visual invention. Doyle has a genius for abstract film, I suspect. He manages to mobilize what seems like every possible way to manipulate filters, lighting, exposure, film speed, lenses, and framing, often all in a single sequence. We've seen much of these techniques before, in Doyle's work with Wong Kar-wai in particular, but here, the sense of utter anarchy he allows himself induces at its best a wild sort of euphoria, a sustained willing submission by the audience to the glorious play of images that flicker by.
Two examples: there is a startling shot of a giant red toy roller-coaster (or perhaps it's a miniature real rollercoaster?), somehow soaring over a field of daffodils, the city crowding in on every side. And shots of movement instantaneously and artificially accelerating and decelerating, to match either the shape of a melody on the soundtrack, or the chirping of a doorbell. I've seen plenty of altered speed shots, with stuttering motion effects in other films, but never, to such effect, anyone deploy in a sustained way a play of speed changes (acceleration), a sense of giddy ecstasy the way Doyle does in Away With Words.
These scenes occur mostly in Asano's memories/flashbacks: it's interesting that Doyle finds the greatest freedom in his art when he explores the pure subjectivity of the character not based on himself (most commentators take Sherlock to be a sort of stand-in for the filmmaker). A kind of distancing seems to set the movie free.
But this is symptomatic of a larger point I want to make. This kind of free-floating invention doesn't work as a sustained piece, on its own (with the exception of the two music video-within-a-film sequences, the gorgeous Cibo Matto song Sugar Water, and the outrageously bizarre granny-rap (by Georgina Dobson) to Grand Master Flash's The Message, in the epilogue). Doyle's genius takes fire when it is brought into contact with, or rather channeled through, a tighter structure, or at least a different kind of more structured sensibility, like that of Wong Kar-wai, or Stan Lai, or Stanley Kwan. It is precisely the character of the tension between Doyle's utterly free, essentially abstract visual style, and the concrete narrative innovations of Wong Kar-wai that accounts for the particular kind of beauty of their collaborations. I'm not sure that this would have been so clear without having seen Away With Words, for which I'm grateful to the TIFF.
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