‘Smoke’: the movie that blazed a trail for indies

by

Special To The Japan Times

Just in time for Christmas, Yebisu Garden Cinema is reviving a film that was one of the cinema’s biggest hits in the 1990s, director Wayne Wang’s “Smoke,” in a crisp new digital remastered version. Watching it again after all these years, it’s hard not to feel a little pang, for in many ways it recalls days gone by.

Based on a short fiction piece by Paul Auster that appeared in The New York Times (“Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story”), 1995’s “Smoke” was very much a collaboration between the novelist and Wang, the Hong Kong-born, San Francisco-based indie filmmaker who had graduated from no-budget indies such as “Chan Is Missing” (1982) to outright commercial success with “The Joy Luck Club” (1993).

Auster set his screenplay in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, where he had lived since the ’60s, and tried to sketch the bonds of community that emerge from the essential isolation of urban life, using a handful of characters centered around an old cigar shop. Auster didn’t know it, but this would wind up being an epitaph to his old ‘hood, the rough-edged, ethnic Brooklyn where you could still smoke indoors and drive-by shootings were, like, “a thing.” Over the next decade the area morphed into hipster central, the gentrified playground of warehouse raves and artisinal cupcakes reflected in HBO’s “Girls.”

Harvey Keitel, Mr. White himself, got the rare chance to show some real warmth beneath his gruff exterior as tobacconist Auggie Wren, while William Hurt had a comeback performance, after years of palimony suits and alcoholism, as a grieving writer whose creative juices had dried up. Harold Perrineau and Forest Whitaker — following up on “The Crying Game” — were equally sharp as a young runaway and a bitter, crippled mechanic. The mix of black and white lead characters in a story that barely touches on racial issues seems impossibly hopeful when viewed through the prism of 2016.

Rounding out the cast were Stockard Channing as Auggie’s one-eyed ex, who barrels in like a refugee from some old John Cassavetes film, with Jared Harris and Ashley Judd turning up in smaller roles. “Smoke” was definitely an actors’ film, and as Hurt later put it (in an interview with The Morning Call), “One of the best things about the film is that it’s raw, and you can see that it’s raw.”

With all the big events — a car crash, a robbery, and a murder — left off-screen and Wang’s laid-back pace, the film feels slight and scattershot until … it doesn’t. Critic David Denby put it best when he wrote, “Material that at first seems loose and meandering is actually densely woven thematically; stories the characters tell one another begin to ‘rhyme’ in complex ways.”

The interwoven style Auster perfected here was in some sense a continuation of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” — and Altman actually gave some free advice on the script — but its influence would become apparent with the next generation of indies: films like “Crash,” “Amores Perros” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

Ironically, although “Smoke” was Wang’s first film not to feature an Asian cast, he largely got it made thanks to Asian money, as it was Satoru Iseki — a production manager on Kurosawa’s “Ran” — and the Nippon Film Finance and Development Co. (NDF) that bankrolled development until international partners could be found.

Iseki had dreams of establishing Japan in the ranks of international art-house cinema, but after witnessing director Mitsuo Yanagimachi bomb with the John Lone thriller “Shadow of China,” he concluded there were no bankable directors in Japan able to compete on that level yet. His attention turned to Wang, an “American” director with an Asian aesthetic, who often spoke of his admiration for Yasujiro Ozu (long before it was de rigueur to do so).

Although “Smoke” is seen as a quintessentially American indie, it would eventually open in the States under the banner of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein’s upstart studio that had scored big the year before with “Pulp Fiction.” It was Iseki and the NDF that kept the project afloat when their first American partner, Zoetrope, bailed on it. Later, it would be the international market, especially Japan, that made “Smoke” a hit. Produced on a budget of $7 million, “Smoke” just barely made its money back in the States, but it went on to take in $30 million overseas, with the tiny Tokyo arthouse Yebisu Garden Cinema alone selling 90,000 tickets.

It was the kind of crossover independent hit, the mid-budget film, that has since become an endangered species. Wang has said he has doubts whether he could even make a film like “The Joy Luck Club” today, noting that nobody wants to make a film under $10 million anymore.

The reasons for this are many, including the loss of DVD revenue to piracy, the increased cost of promotion and an accelerated marketplace where films don’t have the time to find audiences. The big studios co-opted independents with their specialty divisions, but downsized massively after the economic meltdown of 2007. Horror and comedy still thrive on low budgets, but for drama most of the action seems to have moved to TV, where series like “Mad Men” “Fargo,” and “The Knick” absorb much of the talent and appeal to what used to be arthouse cinema’s demographic.

Digital online release has potential, but despite the hype it has yet to devise a sustainable model; Wang’s 2007 film “Princess of Nebraska” debuted on YouTube, where it got plenty of viewers but little in the way of revenue.

Wang soldiers on in cinema, with the plus-side being that his Japan connections remain strong. Producer Yukie Kito has backed three of his recent films, including 2016’s Izu-shot “While The Women Are Sleeping.” Yet rather typically, that film played a few festivals, opened hardly anywhere and left behind barely a ripple. The days of the runaway indie hit have largely gone up in smoke.

“Smoke” opens nationwide on Dec. 17.