Established by Martin Scorsese in 2007, the World Cinema Project expands the horizons of moviegoers everywhere. The mission of the WCP is to preserve and present marginalized and infrequently screened films from regions generally ill equipped to preserve their own cinema history.
Themes of alienation and disenchantment are not constrained by borders or nationalities. Existential angst knows no bounds when it comes to age, race or any other individual identification. Accordingly, the cinematic depiction of related anxiety has canvased a wide range of characters, narratives and formal designs, locating these concerns in sundry regions of analogous integration. In lands of rustic farmers and modest laborers or in realms of modern capitalist consumption, the same unfulfilled yearning afflicts the young and old alike. As seen in works as diverse as Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a Senegalese film released in 1973, and Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, a Taiwanese drama released in 1985, the issues habitually plaguing so many are shared regardless of generation or occupation, economic foundation or cultural milieu. In these two World Cinema Project films, the stories and their personified points of focus become emblematic of wider cultural desperations, providing a stark social commentary as much as they elicit an engaging emotional response.
In the World Cinema Project movie Touki Bouki, which has also gone by the English language title Journey of the Hyena, the animate association with the untamed, the wild and free and unsettled, takes the embodied forms of Mory, a cowherd played by Magaye Niang, and Anta, a student played by Mareme Niang. In Mambéty’s film, his debut feature, scenic disparities emerge as an outgrowth of this natural correlation. Immediately prominent, these distinct locations shape Touki Bouki’s representational backdrop and inform the lives of its two college-aged couriers. In a striking — and strikingly graphic — visualization of contrast, the picture progresses from bucolic fields to a slaughterhouse coated in gushing blood, from the slums surrounding Dakar to the region’s municipal center. Making the illustrative connection through his traversal of spatial divergence is Mory. Aboard his motorcycle emblazoned with a mounted zebu skull, the horns jutting over its handlebars, the young man’s trek through a fringe settlement garners the attention of clamoring children drawn to the sight and sound of his idiosyncratic bike. But from there, in an arresting dichotomy, paved roads suddenly appear, leading to a freeway destined for the city on the horizon. A bumbling mailman also acts as something of a guide through this early passage of Touki Bouki, ambling amongst the cluttered, remote shantytown, honing in on a land of poverty that nevertheless remains one of tremendous energy. To better apprise his characters and to situate their plight in areas of symbolic variance, Mambéty’s incorporation of documentary, day-to-day endeavor is devoted to the hardships of ordinary citizenry, revealing an arduous existence. Yet in a notable stylistic juxtaposition, to complement this scenic disparity, he simultaneously unearths a rich cultural tapestry, bursting with vibrant color and song.
Written by Yang, Chu T’ien-wen, and the now-acclaimed director Hou Hsiao-hsien, the World Cinema Project’s Taipei Story is comparatively resolved to its singular evocative setting. Urban and advanced, the capital city of Taiwan befits the telling first words spoken in the picture, a conversation pertaining to material goods and electronics, possessions that will soon occupy a new apartment and that are, in a fashion largely absent from Touki Bouki, trappings of prosperity and relative affluence. While employment, as a bare necessity of one’s livelihood, receives fleeting mention in Mambéty’s film, occupation is a defining feature of Yang’s picture. Its surroundings are punctuated by office buildings and signposts of corporate industry and development. The primary characters making their rounds in this environment, often dwarfed by the overwhelming architecture and dismayed by the bland similarity of the buildings, are Chin (pop star Tsai Chin), an administrative assistant on the verge of losing her job, and Lung (Hou), a former baseball player and currently an unhappy operative in the fabric business. Lost in the crushing flow of people, vehicles and commerce, at once on the move and, as in a traffic jam, inevitably stagnant, Chin and Lung are beleaguered by moments of vanquished loneliness countered by the diversionary respite of night clubs, sporting events and karaoke bars.
While Mory, Anta, Chin and Lung are characteristic of their particular age group, and as such convey each film’s central strain in relation to that degree of maturity, the World Cinema Project’s Touki Bouki and Taipei Story also incorporate the related affairs of those belonging to contrary generations, which is something both Mambéty and Yang would explore throughout their work. “I don’t understand what you young people are thinking anymore,” says Lung’s former coach, seeming to distinguish his peers from the younger crowd. Yet he also acknowledges the enduring similarities, following up with, “But I felt the same back then too.” In a film preoccupied by uneasy retrospection and hesitant anticipation, looking back and reflecting on the past while also struggling with present inertia and frustration, Yang’s characters find themselves in a world that is, just as Lung’s ex suggests, slowly but surely drifting away.” Though Yang was already approaching his forties when he made Taipei Story,” writes Andrew Chan for the Criterion Collection, “the film registers as the muffled howl of an angry young man resigned neither to the reassurances of tradition nor to the enticements of modernity.” Taipei Story may confront the expectations often assigned to young people, those relating to property, family or career, but it also makes clear that older residents are no less burdened by these unstable times; Chin’s father, for example, is perpetually in debt. (Yang’s final film, 2000’s Yi Yi, expands his panorama of cross-generational conflict.)
In this regard, while Mambéty’s work would later deal with the frivolities and self-indulgences of older individuals (see his film Hyènes, from 1992), Touki Bouki is primarily placed on the side of the young, particularly as viewed from the vantage of the old. Anta’s skeptical mother chides the girl’s brother for being away in France and condemns her daughter for her modern ways, arguing she’ll “never make it in those weird pants” and considering the girl’s university to be “like a freak show.” Although it receives relatively minor attention, both films likewise examine established social mores relating to gender. Anta is shrewd and adamantly independent, earning the chagrin of not only her elders but even the unjust repudiation of fellow (male) students, who submit her sexual liberation as an indication of impurity (sexual inequity starts even earlier in Mambéty’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun , with its preteen newspaper vendor facing opposition from competing boys in the same field). Chin is similarly making her way through a male-dominated society, where she and other women are hampered by the tenets of feminine placement in the workplace, appearance (her sister, unable to afford nail polish, opts for colored marker instead) and domestic obligation.
Large-scale influences also abound in the films of Mambéty and Yang, contributing to the embitterment. Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), his epic portrayal of young men and their misdirected hostilities, results in the treacherous formation of enemy street gangs, mostly in an effort to affirm some sort of solidarity amidst the era’s (early 1960s) political upheaval and the resulting identity/national confusion. Certainly, what arises in that film — and what is seen or at least resourcefully implied in Touki Bouki as well as Taipei Story — are the political repercussions of prior colonial rule and imposing foreign forces, directly or indirectly influencing individual contemplation. Prompting part of his pronounced resentment, Lung has recently returned from the United States, where he visited his prosperous brother-in-law in Los Angeles, hoping to establish better professional prospects. Yang had also spent time in America prior to his filmmaking career, and according to those who worked with him on Taipei Story, he too returned with a different perspective on his native country. While deeply embedded in their specific national representation, both Taipei Story and Touki Bouki adopt a somewhat disconnected view of what accounts for the shifting nature of their homeland. There is surely an American influence, witnessed in everything from baseball’s popularity to pop music, but a broader westernization also contributes to the destabilizing forces relating to economic fluctuation, gender inequity and invasive, omnipresent commercial influence: Mobil oil tanks, a gaudy red, white and blue Citroën, effusive neon billboards. There, too, are the remnants of an elite ruling class and the discord between those who remain entrenched in a progressively dissipating culture and those who are adapting to a new way of life, as in the mansion-bound Charlie in the World Cinema Project’s Touki Bouki, with his pool-side cocktails and designer clothes, or the French citizens who disparage Senegal in the same film, doing so with a privileged tourist’s detachment.
Shot on just a $30,000 budget, Touki Bouki is like a “cinematic poem,” according to Martin Scorsese, whose preservation efforts through the World Cinema Project were instrumental in the revaluation of the film (the same being the case for Taipei Story). In harmony with Mambéty’s spirited direction, the cinematography by Pap Samba Sow and editing by Siro Asteni coalesce in a hybrid of fragmentary styles, evoking the formal freedom of the French New Wave with its figurative, expressive and sometimes surreal inserts and actions. The son of a Muslim cleric, Mambéty had no formal training when he made his first short, Badou Boy, in 1970, and although he directed only seven films of varying length, Touki Bouki stands firm as not only his greatest achievement but one of the truly exceptional features in the history of African cinema. The picaresque feature won the International Federation of Film Critics Prize at Cannes and the FIPRESCI prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, and its jaunty tone and incorporation of fractured, associative editing perfectly submit the agitation of disaffected youth and, beyond that, anyone on the margins of society: the outcasts and loners. Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako states Mambéty’s work was continually in a “constant state of flight,” and a film like the World Cinema Project’s Touki Bouki is indicative of this liberating expression, reflected in the movie’s permissive narration and in the adoption of Mory and Anta as exemplary figures of impatience.
By comparison, Yang’s Taipei Story, his second of just seven features, moves at a stately pace. Its melancholic disquiet is most emphatic in instances of discreet downtime and brief scenes of inaction or ostensible irrelevancy, accentuating the mundane moments of everyday existence. The film’s conversations are more grounded and more meditative than those in Touki Bouki, its humor is subtler, its tone leisurely though no less penetrating. The correspondingly muted colors (cinematography by Yang Wei-han) enrich a visual lull broken only by sporadic fits of spontaneity, dances and fights for instance — physical demonstrations of inner tension shot with the same passivity and restraint; Lung’s screaming, cathartic outburst as he chases after a taxi feels like something quite more than anger at missing a ride. Although Touki Bouki has ephemeral occasion for tenderness and intimacy, Taipei Story is fundamentally concentrated in its interpretation of amorous estrangement, and Yang’s 1986 follow-up, The Terrorizers, amplifies the interconnected examination of such despondency. He implies a bleak foreboding with his film, a plaintive look at modern malaise underscored by Lung’s contention that even eventful incidents like marriage and a move to America merely propose “the illusion you can start over.”
Perhaps this is the definitive argument of Touki Bouki as well, though what precedes its finale suggests a more optimistic approach. Seeking the cash necessary to travel to Europe, illegally if needed be, Mory and Anta dream of escape and one day returning home — like a “big shot,” in Mory’s words. They fantasize about parades and songs in their honor and Joséphine Baker’s whimsical ode to Paris on the soundtrack serves as both inspiration and a mocking overset against the image of their reality. While there is surely an acute aimlessness to their actions, their lives are nonetheless defined by great bursts of enthusiasm. But even when they’ve managed to steal the requisites for their getaway (the money and the opulent attire), Mory still falters at the port of Dakar. It would seem there is little appeal in staying where they are, yet there remains an inescapable cultural connection, the ingrained impact of one’s native standard. As Mory and Anta have shown, however, and someone like Lung may want to take heed, there is rarely any harm in hoping for more, no matter what ultimately happens. For those suffering from the same dissatisfactions depicted in the World Cinema Project’s Touki Bouki and Taipei Story — be they based on economics, vocation, familial and romantic relations or a broad national uncertainty — hope may be all there is. And that, at least, is something.
Watch Touki Bouki and Taipei Story at the World Cinema Project on the Criterion Channel.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.