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If movie reviews are supposed to inform the reader about whether to watch a certain film, then this review is absolutely useless. That's because when APA saw Cheng Yu-chieh's Do Over in San Francisco, the movie burned up about two-third through. Maybe.
Movie reviewing is for many reasons an impossible task. Reviewers talk about "the film" as if it were a unified experience that can be replicated from person to person, theater to theater. But as any seasoned moviegoer can attest, who you see a film with, where you see it, what time of day, what mood you see it in, all make the experience of "the film" highly variable and unpredictable. Yet we as reviewers persist, imagining what archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai calls the "model image" -- that uninterrupted, unadulterated, ideal experience that doesn't actually exist -- so that we can communicate to our readers the pleasures or implications of an assumed, common text. After all, there is still value in talking about "the film" even though there are differences between seeing a film among peers at a press screening and seeing it with a swarm of teenagers at the multiplex.
But sometimes the context overwhelms the text. In my case, it literally engulfed it. When I attended Cheng Yu-chieh's debut feature Do Over at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I watched the celluloid print melt before my very eyes about two-thirds of the way into the film. A small circle appeared in the middle of the frame, then began to eat away at the image as it expanded to the edges, leaving little charred pieces dangling on to the fringes of the frame. The audience sat in silence, and then the house lights came on and we were informed that it would take 10 minutes to be repaired.
For a moment there as I watched the disappearing image -- and I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking this -- I wondered if it was just an effect of the film. After all, stylistically, the conflagration of the celluloid would be totally consistent with its themes and style. Do Over jumps around in time, capturing the life-changing 24 hours of five characters during New Year's Eve. Memories are evoked, interpreted, or reminded through video images: one character is a filmmaker who confronts his past demons by re-enacting a crucial scene in his latest film. Another set of characters, after awakening from a night of partying and drug-induced blackout, find themselves re-watching curious events of themselves on a short video captured by a cameraphone. Film's ability to recreate, remember, or append the past comes into question.
There's nothing particularly novel about questioning the apparatus of film within the film itself. The difference here is that suddenly, as the director within the film sits down to climactically divulge a key moment from his past, the film burns up -- the image disappears and silence envelops the theater. Stylistically, it's consistent with the rest of the film, which plays liberally with light and darkness, sound and silence. (Special props go to cinematographer Jake Pollock, musician Lim Giong, and sound designers Tu Du-chih, Kuo Li-chih, and Tang Hsiang-chu for their spectacular contributions.)
The ability to use film to access the past is denied. A certain fatality of image-making and surrendering to time's irreversibility is acknowledged by the dissolving picture. Coincidence -- and Do Over is full of them -- rules our ability to control our destinies.
Is there no better coincidence then than the film actually breaking at the precise moment when the past is interrogated? Does this coincidence undermine the film or confirm its fears? As I sat waiting for the film to resume, I thought, given how perfect this coincidence was, do I really want the film to continue?
But curiosity took over and I stayed to the finish. I'm glad I did, because just when I thought the coincidences couldn't get more maddeningly eerie, they did. [spoiler ahead, although chances are Do Over is not coming to a theater near you] About 15 minutes back into the film, the director within the movie is overcome with hope for the future and decides to throw out his re-enactment of his past. He sets a fire and throws his reels atop the flames. Snickers could be heard in the theater at the uncanniness of his actions. Seconds later, a small circle appeared in the middle of the frame, then began to eat away at the image as it expanded to the edges. The film was burning up again! A gasp could be heard in the theater at the profound sense of déjà vu. But then the movie continued; the fire was an effect within the film, shocking us into seeing film's inherent volatility, as well as affirming man's ability to manipulate memory and destiny. The same image of burning now signifies something different altogether: control, artistry, the future.
When the film ended, a weird supposition came over me: did the first fire really happen? Was it simply a performative act meant to set up one of the most transcendent experiences of déjà vu in film history? I tracked down the theater manager to get to the bottom of what happened. He had seen the movie before and knew that the film indeed would burn up in the middle, à la Bergman's Persona. In the middle of the film, when the projectionist called him to say the film was burning, he responded, "No, that's part of the movie. It's supposed to happen." To which the projectionist responded: "No, there's smoke coming out of the projector. It's actually burning."
But a part of me still wanted to believe that the first fire was a part of the performance -- the ultimate realization of the film's themes of chance, death, and time. I can't really comment on the film itself since the fire so broke up the pacing of the film that there's no way for me to get a feel for what the director intended. That is, unless the director indeed intended the "fire." In either case, seeing Do Over at the 2007 SFIAAFF and pondering the mystery of the experience was one of the greatest filmgoing experiences I've ever had, and one that in all practicality can probably never be repeated again.
More insights can be found in APA's 2006 interview with director Cheng Yu-chieh, but alas, no references are made to the fire.
For a "legitimate" review of the film, see APA's coverage of Do Over from the 2006 Taipei International Film Festival.
Date Posted: 3/30/2007