Criterion Corner #11: A Travel Guide for Cinephiles

Criterion Corner #11: A Travel Guide for Cinephiles

Nov 09, 2011

Well, it’s that time of year again, you know, when the impending holidays have many of us masochistically entertaining fantasies that we have the time and / or money to drop everything and head off to someplace far, far away. You know how it goes: “Oh, I’ll just take a hot sec to Google ‘Rural France.’ I’m sure nothing painful could possibly come from that.” It’s the time of year when the most vile torture in Salo isn’t the fancy feast of feces, but that all these folks are spending 120 days in this coastal paradise and almost never going outside to enjoy it. I mean, when you’re watching Salo and your most pressing thought is “Gee, I really want to visit,” it’s probably time for a vacation. 

Of course, one of the things I enjoy most about The Criterion Collection and the films to which they’ve provided us access is that - together - they form both a passport and a wormhole, a comparatively inexpensive window into foreign lands and forgotten times. In the mood for a guided tour of Sweden’s Faro Island? Ingmar Bergman would be happy to oblige. Jonesing for the rush of Rio’s Carnival? Black Orpheus will take you there in 1080p. Curious as to what it might be like to stroll through the disintegrating Lisbon slum of Fontainhas? Well, the films of Pedro Costa are likely going to be your only means of getting there. Having such films at our immediate disposal makes the world feel smaller than ever, while simultaneously reaffirming the wistful truth that there are far too many sights to see in one lifetime. 

Or are there!?!?

...Yes, yes there are. But Criterion films offer a pretty solid compass as to where you might want to go should the opportunity ever present itself. So I present to you Criterion Corner’s Travel Guide for Cinephiles, which can be used either for dreaming and planning, alike. Just remember, it’s all fun and games until someone clicks “Purchase Tickets” on that Priceline page, and the next thing you know you're wandering around the Scottish Hebrides, screaming "I Know Where I'm Going!" into the deaf ears of the wind. But you don't know where you're going. Because it turns out the title of that movie was kind of a metaphor, and the film makes for a charming light drama but a horrible map.  Anyway, here are my favorite global locales to which Criterion films have transported me at least half of the way, eight great places where you can go stick your wanderlust.


Miryang, South Korea

As Seen In: SECRET SUNSHINE (dir. Lee Chang-dong) 2007

I promise you that summer happens in Korea. The last time I was there it was approximately 912 degrees (Kelvin), and the wasps were so fat and long they seemed ripped directly from the B-roll of a SyFy Channel movie. And yet, if you were to judge by contemporary Korean dramas, it would be a fair assumption that the place is something of a frozen tundra, the kind of country where Kurt Russell is required to submit to a blood test at the airport just to make sure. If Hong Sang-soo or Lee Chang-dong films are any indication, Korean actors probably wear thick jackets and bright puffy vests while getting their headshots taken. Prominent exceptions include Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, but most of the Korean films deemed fit for export since the national cinema's boom began some 15 years ago have been cold and wet, the wavering intonations of the language rolling off the actors' tongues like shivers as they roll around on the balls of their feet. The brittle Korean winter is a perfect expression of the naked pathos on which those films have carved their niche, and the best of them make the environmental conditions feel like an extension of the action rather than just a venue for it.

Miryang (or Milyang), a city of 112,000 tucked inside South Korea's Gyeongsangnam-do Province, isn't actually all that cold. Its mean temperature in November is 46 degrees, but Secret Sunshine makes it look a lot meaner than that. Lee Chang-dong's masterpiece -- which takes place entirely inside this lumpy and severe little city -- actually begins in summer, and despite the obvious autumnal pall the rivers still flow and people bobble about the streets with their skin exposed. And -- at least off the top of my head -- it never really plunges into the perpetual chill of Hong Sang-soo. But it feels cold. Bitingly so. The shaft of warmth with which the film ends feeling like a life raft from on high. But the stripped terrain, for all of its portent and pathos, is just so beautiful and honest, its desolate melancholy the kind of thing one might need to plunge their head into once the sad music stops working. 


Honfleur, France

As Seen In: THE 400 BLOWS (dir. Francois Truffaut) 1959. LE HAVRE (dir. Aki Kaurismaki) 2011

So here's a fun way to spend an afternoon, especially if you happen to be / wish you were one of the main characters of 500 Days of Summer (I refuse to submit to that film's parenthetical agenda... damn it). Or obscenely rich. Or a Jumper. Or an obscenely rich Jumper (if you're a Jumper and you're not obscenely rich, you're doing it wrong). Anyway, head out to a beach in Honfleur, France -- a picaresque Normandy town across the bay from Le Havre -- and run along the beach while your adorable signficant other records you through some black & white video app on your iPhone. Add in a freeze-frame later and voila, you're Antoine Doinel.

Honfleur, you may have gathered, is where Francois Truffaut shot the iconic final scene of The 400 Blows. It's unspeakably gorgeous, from most accounts, and poking around the place might have you reconsidering the ambiguity ending of the film that made the town such a key part of cinema lore -- how could any story that winds up in a place like this not be considered to have a happy ending? Well-funded readers should note that residents of the Gallic hamlet are called Honfleurais, not Honfleurians, and such an ignorant slip of the tongue supposedly leads to a death as grisly as it is certain. Actually, with that in mind you might be better off staying put at the port town of Le Havre, which is right across the bay, and provides both the title and setting for Aki Kaurismaki's latest laconic fairy-tale, which suggests that Le Havre is a town in which every adorable resident knows your name, and is willing to house and feed you while aiding in your escape from the local authorities. Look out for Le Havre to be released by Criterion before this time next year.       


Lindisfarne, England

As Seen In: CUL-DE-SAC (dir. Roman Polanski) 1966

Say what you will about Roman Polanski (or better yet, don't), but the man has always had an insane eye for locations. His supremely rare understanding of cinematic space certainly helps things along -- from Knife in the Water to Carnage he weaponizes the geometry of even the most confined spaces to flay his characters -- but more often than not he gifts himself with amazing and psychologically rich canvas against which to weave his darkness. Opening with a broken car on a vast strip of highway at the northern end of the world, Cul-de-sac might illustrate Polanski's talent for cinematic venues more immediately than any of his other films. Then again, with the English island of Lindisfarne at his disposal (a.k.a. Holy Island), Brett Ratner could take an iPhone and make himself look like David Lean (unless, of course, jaw-dropping cinematography is for f*gs). The island -- which is big enough to host a population of a whopping 162 people -- is almost entirely dominated by the  castle in and around which Cul-de-sac transpires, an unreal and majestically crumbling heap of stone that sticks out of the Earth like an illustration popping out of a fairy tale. I'm not nearly cool or exciting enough to have actually been there, myself, but Wikipedia tells me that it's all rolling tides and crab sandwiches, the upturned sheds and the sticks in the ground along Pilgrim's Way virtually identical today as they appear in Polanski's film. One of the neat things about visiting Lindisfarne today that Wikipedia inexplicably omits is that Donald Pleasence is much less likely to be there than he was in the 1960s. Because he's dead. Although I guess if Donald Pleasence is there it's going to be a much more terrifying encounter than it used to be. Anyway, if you're up for taking that chance, here's how to get there.


Faro Island, Sweden

As Seen In: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1961. SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1972

(screenshot from Hour of the Wolf)

Sure, Scorsese might be a New York director and someone like Lars von Trier isn't straying too far from home to make a movie any time soon, but few filmmakers of such renown share a connection to a particular place like Ingmar Bergman does with his adopted home of Faro Island. Bergman moved to the somewhat remote Swedish island in the early 1960s and immediately made it into his base of operations, spending the brunt of his time there until a tax evasion charge exiled him to Munich in the late 70s. His first major stint on the island saw the production of classics like Through a Glass Darkly and Persona, films that rely on the craggy isolation of the surrounding environs to explode and / or suffocate the psychology of their characters. Huge sheets of rock jut from the sea with a primal arrogance and inevitability, and the sea constantly thrasing around it underscores the place with a violent drone that Bergman was able to shape around his deepest fixations. 

Faro is home to fewer than 600 people, free of all police officers, medical facilities, and banks -- sounds like a great place for the 99% to couchsurf (and then get away with murder). Given the island's size, it's no surprise that Bergman's legacy has completely consumed the place, and a film festival in his honor is held there every June.


Kowloon, Hong Kong

As Seen In: CHUNGKING EXPRESS (dir. Wong Kar-Wai) 1994. THE KILLER (dir. John Woo) 1989

Despite the frenetic, frame-skipping romance with which Wong Kar-Wai depicts the Chungking Mansions, he never makes the key location of his breakthrough film feel particularly inviting. I mean, sure, Maggie Cheung is barking around the place in a blonde wig and over-sized sunglasses in a blaze of untouchable sex, but for all of Christopher Doyle's feverish cinematography, Wong never lets the grime and the sleaze of Kowloon's most famous tenement slip out of sight. As he hurtles his camera down the labyrinthine hallways of the cheapest digs in Hong Kong -- a simmering melting pot of shops and vendors and cramped apartments, a 17-story sardine can for the world's motliest crew of refugees -- Wong isn't trying to sell the place, he's trying to capture its vibrancy. And sure, people remember Faye Wong's puckish pixie ways and that dry voiceover about expired pineapple cans, but it's the energy and flavors of Chungking Express that most transport you half-way across the world. The small minion of men staring into the lens as Maggie Cheung upends their lives -- the rows of open doors that the film leaves unexplored.

The Chungking Mansions sit right at the foot of Nathan Road, that iconic stretch of layered neon that might feel like the globe's sweltering crotch if it didn't open up into that impossibly beautiful harbor. A modest emerald sign marks the entrance, and if you take a nervous step inside you're likely to feel as if you're in the wrong place. Apartments are slammed up against the backs of shops (some apartments actually are shops), and the more people who hit you up for business, the more you feel like you're trespassing. But this amazing place -- which The Economist supposedly (and accurately) once compared to Spaceport Cantina from Star Wars -- demands to be explored, as it's teeming with life, activity, and possibility in a way unlike anything I've seen in the Western world. 


Mt. Diogenes (a.k.a. “Hanging Rock”), Australia

As Seen In: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (dir. Peter Weir) 1975

Am I the only one who always thinks back on Picnic at Hanging Rock as if it were a true story? 

The perfect place to take someone you're hoping will conveniently disappear without a trace, the mamelon which provided Peter Weir's breakthrough film with its title is an ideal destination for the more rugged travelers amongst you. Formerly known as Mt. Diogenes (the success of the film and the novel from which it was adapted seem to have overwhelmed the place of its previous designation), Hanging Rock can be found about 70 km northwest of Melbourne, right smack in the middle of Walkabout territory (don't quote me on that). It's a glorious rock formation that's as well-suited for climbing as it is for picnicking (or perhaps better suited, now that I think aobut it), and it's a great base from which to visit several other pivotal locations from the film, such as nearby Martindale Hall, the precise stone fortress that played the girls' school. Do keep in mind that, at least according to Google, "70 km northwest of Melbourne" seems to equal about 10 hours (!?) of driving through a desert made out of things that want to kill you.


Kita-Kamakura. Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

As Seen In: LATE SPRING (dir. Yasujiro Ozu) 1949. EARLY SUMMER (dir. Yasujiro Ozu) 1951. STILL WALKING (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda) 2008

Tokyo is my favorite metropolis on the face of the Earth, and I'd move there in a heartbeat if the city would ever man up and land itself an NHL team. Anyway, one of the chief reasons I love Tokyo so much is that the Starbucks there used to sell these delightful red bean frappuccino things that they sadistically discontinued as some sort of sick revenge for our remakes of their post-millennial horror movies. But one of the other chief reasons that I love Tokyo so much is that it's probably the world's closest major city to the areas immediately outside of Tokyo (and I've done my research). Kita-Kamakura (a.k.a. North Kamakura) is just a quick train-ride from downtown, the ethereal northern end of a verdant and hill-flanked former capital of Japan that's also rich in cinematic history.

Yasujiro Ozu, that "most Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers (pro tip: never call Ozu that without air quotes), relocated there mid-way through his tragically brief life, guzzling gallons of beer, caring for his mother, and cranking out the most enduring masterpieces of his brilliant career. Tokyo Story is graced with its own uniquely wistful energy, but several of his other films are dense with the woodsy charm of Kita-Kamakura, the irrepressible nature of the area (the sweet wail of cicadas, the billowing trees and the train tracks sifting through them) incessantly informing the gentle heartbreak of Ozu's dramas with a reminder of their fleeting place in the world. He loved the city, often inserting little nods as to his adopted part of the country whenever possible (there's a particularly prominent shout-out in the first act of Late Spring).

The last time I was there I stopped for lunch in a quiet, woodsy cemetery near the train station (it's not as morbid as it sounds, the cemeteries there are stunning in the summer). I snapped a few photos of my friend and eventually we headed back to Tokyo. Later that night, motivated by a thought that must have been kicking around the basement of my memory, I Googled Ozu's grave, remembering that his resting place was somewhere in the region. The pictures Google offered up were eerily familiar: earlier that day I had taken pictures that looked a lot like them. Yeah, it turns out that I had obliviously snacked on rice triangles and Pocari Sweat just a few feet away from Ozu's grave in Engaku-ji, my friend right next to the gray slab of rock that marks his resting place (a stone blank save for the symbol for Mu -- "nothingness" -- and the scattered offerings of beer cans that mourners always leave nearby). For whatever reason I decided that it was too vulgur for me to turn around and head back there, but for anyone who wants to visit, here's a great little road-map. And while you're there, if you could stop by the Starbucks below the Kamakura station and demand that they bring the Azuki frappuccino back, that'd be greatly appreciated.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Ozu tribute Still Walking was also filmed in the Kanagawa region, which is a great place to be hungry.


Iquitos, Peru

As Seen In: BURDEN OF DREAMS (dir. Les Blank) 1982


So maybe Burden of Dreams isn't the best salespitch for a vacation in Peru, but if you watch Les Blank's documentary closely (as it chronicles the disastrous -- but ultimately fruitful -- production of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo), if you look between the actors with dyssentary and the natives offering to murder star Klaus Kinski, the merciless river that crushed sets and dreams alike, Iquitos looks like a pretty sweet place to visit. Actually, it might ultimately be a better place to hide. The largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, Iquitos is inaccessible by car, requiring a plane or boat to reach. For those of you with Fitzcarraldo's pluck and zeal, Iquitos could also prove a great base of operations for travels deeper into the Amazon, as it's as rich with high culture, huge sport, and fine cuisine as anything within a thousand miles of the dense jungle. Why not spend your holiday sailing down the trecherous Pongo de Mainique, wearing your whitest suit and blasting your favorite Caruso opera record? That's not a rhetorical question, and the answer is: Because death. Death is why not. Anyway, I may not reccomend choosing Iquitos as the location of your next student film (if you do, bring a documentarian), but for anyone who wants to walk Herzog's longest mile, grab a copy of his production diary Conquest of the Uselessand head on down. And don't forget to climb to the top of Iglesia Matriz and obnoxiously scream at the townsfolk about whatever it is you want for a few minutes, it's practically tradition. Yikes, I'm reminded that the only thing Herzog does better than casting is re-casting. 

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