Love Massacre- -
Set in a surprisingly minimalist San Francisco, Patrick Tam’s stylish slasher movie manages to evoke both Antonioni and Mario Bava in this tale of a ravishing young co-ed (Brigitte Lin) whose studly boyfriend (Chang Kuo-chu) turns into a demented stalker after the suicide of his sister.
After starring in countless commercial romances, Brigitte Lin explored the darker side of love in the appropriately titled Love Massacre.
“Set in San Francisco, the film relentlessly shifts genres – from drama to romance to thriller to slasher – as it follows Ivy (Lin), a beautiful student who has an affair with a married man, only to discover that he isn’t who he seems. Patrick Tam channels European art films and American thrillers for his unsettling and visually-striking New Wave gem.” [hkiff]
Among Hong Kong’s New Wave filmmakers, Patrick Tam is perhaps the most vivid example of the tensions and contradictions between artistic ambitions and commercial considerations.
His movies equally refer to European art-house cinema and Classical Hollywood cinema traditions, auteur and genre filmmaking, and in the process undermine the borderline between high-culture and low-culture. The same may be true for the careers of other filmmakers (e.g. Lau Shing-hon’s genre films mixing action with sometimes sarcastic social commentary). Yet, there’s no other director whose oeuvre – especially his first four feature films from The Sword (1980) to Cherie (1984) – illustrates this culture clash so clearly. Tam’s second film Love Massacre (1981) is a case in point. Both concerning form and content, Love Massacre can be read as a site where a number of complex intertextual and intermedia negotiations take place.
On the visual level, there are obvious influences by the European art-house cinema of the 60s and 70s – particularly Jean-Luc Godard’s work of the later 60s including films like Pierrot le fou (1965), Made in U.S.A., Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (both 1966), La Chinoise or Le week-end (both 1967). The formalistic use of miseen-scène, framing of the shots and, above all, the use of colour is reminiscent of some of Godard’s aesthetic strategies in these films. This is already on view in the credit sequence of the film: red and blue titles in front of a black background.
The film’s colour palette is reduced to a few dominant colours, mainly strong primary colours like red, blue, yellow and violet with black and white used as contrast. The shot compositions, mostly medium and medium-long shots, are static with only little camera movement: they consist mostly of panning and tilting, with only a few tracking shots. There’s a flatness to most of the shots achieved through the use of telephoto lenses. Experimenting with the depth of field, there are instances where the characters seem to be completely detached from their back- and foregrounds. In this context, it might be useful to recall David Bordwell’s notes on the “planimetric” shot.
The term coined by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin describes a type of composition which arranges figures on a plane parallel to the rear surface. As a cinematic strategy of staging and shooting, Bordwell traces it back to 60s, namely Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (1964), and which include shots composed with a combination of what he calls mug-shot framing (a form of portraiture with the camera standing perpendicular to the surface) and effects obtained through the use of long focal lengths. Perhaps even more important than these intertextual influences is the evocation of modern expressionist painting.
The work of two artists seems to have been especially important to Tam: Piet Mondrian’s geometric abstract painting and Mark Rothko’s colour field painting. Two of their paintings are hanging in the room of one of the main protagonists, and there’s also a dialogue scene in a modern art gallery. While featuring other paintings by Rothko and one copying/referring to Malevich’s suprematist “Black Square”, in certain shots the characters become part of the surrounding paintings and sculptures. Apart from that, there are a couple of scenes where Tam seems to recreate some of their paintings – the final sequence for example ostensibly recalls Mondrian’s “Compositions” of the 1920s.
Following the general demands of abstract art and especially the ideas of Mondrian and his De Stijl group, Tam’s main objective is to free the colours and to return to them their own value. As William Cheung puts it, “Tam has transformed the function of the colors and image composition of the entire film from merely expressing qualities of the object/persona to being a significant subject.” As fleshed out in his own essay on colour, Tam stresses the separation and positioning of colours in order to achieve the ideal compositional balance.
Unlike Tam’s famous Seven Women TV episode Miu Kam-fung (1977) or his third feature Nomad (1982), Love Massacre eschews any social or political implications and agitprop elements so typical for Godard. Instead, Tam opts for a mixture of melodrama and psychological thriller featuring a rather straightforward genre plot. With the melodrama turning into a thriller in the latter half of the film (as signaled in both the English and Chinese title of the film: Love Massacre or Aisha/Ngo sat respectively, the latter meaning “to love, to kill”), Love Massacre encompasses two different notions of the melodrama as a genre (as per Michael Walker): the melodrama of passion and the melodrama of action. Narratively speaking, the film adheres to the genre conventions even enhanced by a soundtrack which in parts might have been directly lifted from a Hitchcock film. Tam, however, doesn’t seem to be interested in genre, plot, dialogue or characters.
Therefore, he employs a number of stylistic and narrative devices to undermine the audience’s expectations.As Fung Lai-chi points out, “all the characters behave like zombies, staged and expressionless” Cheung adds that the “dialogues among characters are [as] uncoordinated as sleep-talk.” There’s a telling shot of actress Brigitte Lin lying in the grass with a book by Antonin Artaud right beside her. In his concept of the so-called Théâtre de la cruauté (theatre of cruelty), Artaud has advocated a new “language” of theatre including a new performance style as one of its basic premises.
Artaud’s broad understanding of speech does not prefer words, but articulation, inflection, pronunciation, in short, sound. This can be applied to the dialogue and its unusual delivery in Love Massacre as well. So, rather than being simply a literary reference like those found in Godard’s Pierrot le fou, it might be read as a direct reference to a very special usage of a Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect). This kind of approach is true for the casting as well. The choice of both Brigitte Lin and Charlie Chin in the film is noteworthy in this context. Being one half of the so-called “two Lins and two Chins”, Taiwan’s most famous screen couples of the 70s, they have starred in countless melodramas.
Fung notes that “audiences watching the movie will have the perception of watching the usual love dramas that Brigitte Lin and Charlie Chin normally make. But then when the story evolves into the second half with cold bloody killings, audiences are shocked more easily.” What may also be shocking is in fact first and foremost highly alienating. Adding to this effect is the fact that Lin’s and Chin’s characters are not lovers in the film (even as good friend, it’s not Chin who rescues Lin at the end of the film). So, through all these strategies and Tam’s emphasis on expressive film style, Love Massacre illustrates perfectly the core elements of the théâtre de la cruauté: Artaud’s suggestion to abandon the over-reliance on the dramatic text and, instead, to bring all the non-textual facets to the fore. With one exception, it’s even possible to describe the plot of Love Massacre with the subjects most important to Artaud: love, crime, war, and madness.
Examining the English-language literature on the Hong Kong New Wave, there’s often an underlying sense of regret and excuse. Here, the main focus doesn’t seem to lie on what the New Wave was (like), but rather what it was not and what it should have been. Note for example the often-made claim that Hong Kong’s New Wave is different from other (western) New Wave movements like the French Nouvelle Vague. Perhaps it’s time to overcome these normative positions for a true re-evaluation. This means not only giving attention to the quasi-canonical works of Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, and Allen Fong, but also to other films of less well-known filmmakers and their intertextual, intermedia, and intercultural contexts, re-defining in the process the frame of reference. Tam’s work in general and Love Massacre, in particular, are certainly a good starting point.
Thanks to Far East Film Festival