Whenever News Editor Hubert Vigilla and I see a film together, we follow it up with a discussion about what we just saw, what we thought, what it means, whatever. Sometimes, those discussions play out in miniature with our system of reviews and second opinions, as each of us attempts to identify our own feelings with the added context of the other’s.
But for Double Xposure, Hubert and I agreed that it was time to bring back what was a nearly two-year-old concept: the discussion review. When Samuel Jamier, the co-director of NYAFF and programmer for Japan Cuts, came out and introduced the film, he told us that about halfway through it would dramatically change. It would be like watching two movies in one.
He was right, so it’s only fitting that we review the film this way: It’s like getting two reviews in one.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Double Xposure (Erci puguang | 二次曝光)
Director: Li Yu
Alec: I know that we were warned that the film would pull a pretty major reversal, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. In fact, knowing it mislead me a bit. I thought that the murder early on was the narrative turning point, because it definitely was a shift, but it worked within the context of the narrative. Then when things got weird, I thought that was the big third act reveal that would be followed by a wrap up with some sort of weird, uncomfortable ending (it’s an arthouse film, after all). Instead, the movie kept going and going and going, and it went from really compelling to pretty compelling and weird to just weird.
Hubert: That’s pretty much why I had such a violent negative reaction to Double Xposure. It sets up a compelling story of a woman who questions her boyfriend’s fidelity and her best friend’s trustworthiness, and this cocktail of jealousy and insecurity turn her into a madwoman on the run. Extreme breakdowns could go to many interesting places, and Double Xposure does for a while, but then you get the narrative shift that tosses it all away. The first half of the movie no longer matters in a traditional sense — without saying too much, it turns some real life-and-death drama into something psychological. There are no longer consequences to the events in the first half of the film once the shift takes place. Stakes are traded in for a contrived and illogical mystery. Movie #1 is over and incomplete and doesn’t matter; welcome to movie #2. Sure, you were going somewhere interesting with movie #1, but now you’re going to the wastelands of baffling pretentiousness. Worse, the way the film reframes the events from the first half makes no narrative sense. It felt cheap and it felt sloppy and it felt like there wasn’t any kind of emotional or thematic throughline between the two halves. At least Fan Bingbing was good throughout the bad movie.
Alec: Yeah, I thought her performance was pretty spectacular. I don’t know that having no consequences is inherently problematic, but it was presented in such an odd way because it seems like the stakes are really high. That being said, the bizarre way people acted around her from the beginning made that first twist not surprise me quite as much as it could have (at least in retrospect). That’s not to say it actually made much sense (it didn’t, especially if those things that appeared to be security cameras were security cameras), but it was telegraphed at least somewhat, especially with the way some of the “evidence” was so openly ignored. That she could have gotten away with it at all, when she was so stupidly popular, seemed suspect from the beginning.
Hubert: There’s something in my brain that just doesn’t like twists like this, though usually they come at the end of the movie rather than the middle. I immediately start to ask questions rather than go with it — less like I’m watching a magic trick, more like I’ve realized I’ve just been conned. How long has this behavior been going on for? What triggered it other than lazy screenwriters? Why does x-event untrigger it other than lazy screenwriters? (And yet I’m sometimes okay with people curing amnesia by getting hit in the head really hard. Go figure.) These are things that may be telegraphed, but they just don’t make sense if you think about them for two seconds. The same thing happened when I watched High Tension, and Secret Window, and even A Beautiful Mind. Rather than think, “Oh, that’s clever,” I thought, “Are you freakin’ kidding me? That’s fucking stupid.” It’s a switcheroo and reveal that feels like hackery.
Alec: Hmm… interesting. I’m a lot more willing to accept twists like this, if I think they’re done well. I just don’t know that I think this one was done well. The fact that it came halfway through is just so… strange. I feel like I’d be giving it way too much credit to say that the second half is like some bizarre-o fever dream where we go into the mind of the character, but in a way it does feel like that. Things just make less and less sense for us and for her. But that is only legitimate if you don’t think about the fact that she seems relatively content with whatever revelations she’s had by the end while the audience is just left confused with no real hope for answers.
Hubert: You hit the core of it, Alec. I can accept twists if they’re done well because then they don’t feel like twists or gimmicks but a natural part of the story. In Double Xposure, it’s a twist and a klutzy one. Going into this character’s mind could be great if there were some real stakes that carried forward from the first half, but it’s such an abrupt transition and basically the first half of the movie evaporates. I was wondering how I’d feel about both of these halves if they were their own films that saw their own stories through to the end. I think I’d have liked them both, but they’re sutured together haphazardly here.
Alec: That’s true enough. I get the feeling that this is where we start to disagree a bit, but I want to bring up Upstream Color. Double Xposure‘s final act took on a lot of the bizarreness that Upstream Color has, both audiovisually and conceptually. Honestly, if someone had told me it was Shane Carruth’s Chinese debut, I probably would have believed them. During that final act, I kept thinking, “Does this make more or less sense than Upstream Color” And, in fact, that was the first thing I asked you after the screening, because I still don’t understand Upstream Color and you took 8500 words to prove that you do. Your Grumpy Cat expression answered my question, but I don’t know. Even though Double Xposure goes in weird places, there was more sanity to latch onto (kind of ironic, don’t you think?) because prior to that final act, I felt like I had some kind of a grasp of what was going on. Even if the twist is klutzy, it’s something I can understand. I never had that with Upstream Color.
Hubert: I actually think the most Upstream Color-like bits of Double Xposure are in the first half before the twist and just as Fan Bingbing’s character is spiraling into madness. You have the music coming in to emphasize the emotional core of scenes, you have segments that are edited in an off-kilter way but maintain an emotional continuity, and even the unmoored camera feels like it could have come from Upstream Color. (Lots of people are going Malick-y in approach since The Tree of Life; hell, even Zack Snyder did it for parts of Man of Steel. This is another conversation.) I feel the opposite of what you feel about Double Xposure and Upstream Color, but that may be based on how I perceived the approaches of the two films. For me, Upstream Color has a logical, straighforward plot (at least for the world of that movie), but it feels inaccessible because it’s thematically cluttered and presented in an opaque way. I feel like Double Xposure has a straightforward plot until the twist midway through, which then undermines its own logic and suggests a haziness to all of the storytelling; none of the opaqueness comes from attempts at philosophical heavy lifting or even psychological heavy lifting, at least to me. I’m curious about what you found you could latch onto in the two halves of Double Xposure.
Alec: I can see what you mean. Both of them are really pretty movies with really weird/effective soundtracks with discontinuous editing. Because Upstream Color was so impenetrable for me, that was most of what I had to connect with. In Double Xposure, I could connect with the plot, at least in the first half. In retrospect, I understand how Upstream Color‘s is in its own world, but I didn’t get it. With Double Xposure, I felt like things stayed surprisingly consistent, at least stylistically, and that’s why it never completely lost me… at least until the last five minutes. When she did that stuff with her hair, it was just all over for me (although the main girl in Upstream Color had short hair too…). This might be because after the initital shock of the twist, I think it devolves pretty slowly, so even though I lost my investment over time, there wasn’t a single moment that made me give up. At least until that ending. That ending was dumb, and undid a lot of the goodwill that I had built up for it. It didn’t undo all of it, though. I’ve still got some Double Xposure love in there… somewhere.
Hubert: I like how we both lost goodwill for this movie, just at different times, and for me it just came immediately with the twist because it felt like the movie revealed its contempt for the audience’s intelligence. I posted this on Facebook, but this was basically my thought process while watching Double Xposure: “Okay. Okay. Cool. That’s fascinating. All right! Wow. Gosh. This is a daring bit of execution. Hmm. Holy crap! That reminds me of early Wong Kar Wai by way of Shane Carruth. This is awesome. Fan Bingbing is really, really good in this. Oh my god! Where’s this going to go next! … What? … No! … You’ve got to be kidding me! Seriously!? What?! Oh, you fucking jerks! … OH COME ON! Was this written by a first-year creative writing student?! Damn you! End already! … This friggin’ train wreck is taking forever! Oh, hey, a llama. … Hope the store’s open when this screening gets out. Hope my facial expression doesn’t stay this way forever. Good thing that’s over. IT’S NOT OVER?! I hate you.” If I were to score this, I’d give it an angry 33 (Bad), with Fan Bingbing and the good first half saving it from going lower. How about you?
Alec: Haha, I can definitely see that. I feel like that’s the way the guy sitting in between us felt too, except he fell asleep for a while also. But I’m willing to give it more credit than you are. I’m curious if a second viewing would actually help or not. I feel like it wouldn’t. As a first go around, though, I’ll be much more forgiving than you. In fact, I’ll double your score. For a while, I was thinking I would go higher (I’ve given some really high scores to films that have lost me in the third act), but a score is also in part a recommendation, and it’s kinda hard to recommend this film, certainly in the blanket sort of way that a 70+ implies. But because I get the last impression, I’ll give you the last word.
Hubert: It’s definitely a niche film, though apparently it grossed ¥108,720,000 at the Chinese box office (approx. $17.7 million). For perspective, that’s roughly what Resident Evil: Retribution made in China. That’s great business for what in the West would be a pretentious pseudo-arthouse movie, albeit a pretentious pseudo-arthouse movie starring one of the country’s biggest actresses. But even though I hate Double Xposure, I’m interested to find out how others feel about the film. Do they sour on the plot twist? What does the movie do for them as a whole (or as two discrete halves)? The oddest thing is that I really want to read positive reviews for the film so I can figure out if I’m just missing something in my viewing experience that would alter the way I perceived the film. I may not like this movie, but I’d love to find out what other people like about it.