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Film still in which a person in a spacesuit walks through a cylindrical hallway inside a spacecraft. The walls are covered in identical series of white and black panels.

Hong Kong Film and Media Curator Li Cheuk-to takes a moment to celebrate the experience of seeing a film in a cinema environment.

Right now, most people are not going to the cinema. Due to the ongoing pandemic, many of us feel safer watching films at home (and, depending on where you are in the world, that may be your only option). Numerous 2020 film releases are eschewing the cinema and going straight to streaming.

But this won’t be the case forever. With the M+ cinemas opening next year alongside the finished museum building, we want to take a moment to both remember and celebrate the unique experience of seeing a film in a cinema environment. As we get more and more accustomed to watching films on laptops or even mobile phones, it’s important not to lose sight of the value of seeing them in a movie theatre. We look forward to welcoming you, in the near future, to once again experience a range of exciting films and moving image works at the size they’re intended to be seen.

Below, Li Cheuk-to (Curator, Hong Kong Film and Media) lists ten reasons to see a film on the big screen.

Film still in which two men stand in a desert under a blue sky. The man on the left wears a khaki shirt and pants, while the man on the right wears a robe and keffiyeh. They both look towards a person on horseback who appears on the horizon.

Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962). © All rights reserved; Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

1. Details can be lost on a small screen.

This is especially true for films with vast open space as the setting, such as the desert landscapes in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981).

In Lawrence of Arabia, the gradual appearance of a horseman on the horizon looks like a mere dot on a big screen, and can be completely lost on a small monitor. Similarly, in Mad Max 2, we can see a motorcycle coming from—and later disappearing to—the far end of a road that leads to nowhere under the wide open sky. The movements of several vehicles caught in a chase in the red desert, seen in a top shot from a long distance, are also harder to follow on a small screen.

Film still depicting three men standing in a row. All three hold swords that look similar to fencing swords. They all have blood on their faces.

Wheels on Meals (dir. Sammo Hung, 1984). © 2010 Fortune Star Media Limited

2. Too many things may be happening inside the frame simultaneously.

For example, the expertly choreographed fights involving multiple stuntmen in Project A (1983) or Wheels on Meals (1984) might be so reduced as to not be fully recognisable on a small screen. These Hong Kong classics star Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao—at the same time.

These three superstars had studied together under the same Peking Opera master, Master Yu Jim-yuen, in Hong Kong. When all three of them appeared in the same film, it heightened the appeal—but it also meant that they had to share the screen. If, for example, two of the actors are engaged in two separate fights within the same scene, that flurry of movement is easier to follow on a larger screen.

Monochrome film still in which a crowd of people walk up the stairs to the opening of a large structure. The structure is shaped like a creature with three eyes and hands stretched out in front of it. The entrance is through its fanged mouth.

Cabiria (dir. Giovanni Pastrone, 1914). © All Rights Reserved; Photo: Courtesy of Itala Film

3. Big screens enable viewers to take in spectacle on an epic scale.

This is especially the case with expensive historical epics from the silent film era. These films had thousands of extras, reflecting the scale of gigantic real-life sets. On smaller screens, this impact can be lost.

The recreation of Babylon in a Hollywood studio in Intolerance (1916), for example, is well known for its large sets and innumerable extras. The lesser-known Italian epic Cabiria (1914) was the pioneer in this genre and a great influence on D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Some memorable scenes from this precursor include the sacrifice of children in the Temple of Moloch and Hannibal’s march—complete with live elephants—over the Alpine mountains.

Film still in which a person in a spacesuit walks through a cylindrical hallway inside a spacecraft. The walls are covered in identical series of white and black panels.

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Photo: Movie Poster Image Art via Getty Images

4. A large screen creates an immersive experience.

This is perhaps best demonstrated in science fiction films about space travel, where the infinite openness of the cosmos is meant to completely envelop the viewer. Examples include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Gravity (2013), and Interstellar (2014).

2001: A Space Odyssey was originally intended to be shown in the Cinerama format, which, after 1962, meant 70mm film projected onto a very large, deeply curved screen. Director Stanley Kubrick and his collaborators kept this in mind when they were making the film, using the curvature to heighten the contrast between foreground and background.

Animated film still of a large iron robot sitting on the forest floor. It looks down on a small boy who sits in front of it.

The Iron Giant (dir. Brad Bird, 1999). © 1999 Warner Brothers; Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive via Alamy Stock Photo

5. The contrast between large and small is integral to the ‘Giant Monster’ genre.

Classics like King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954) aside, the standouts in recent years have benefited from increasingly sophisticated CGI effects. Pacific Rim (2013), for example, excels in not only its choreographed spectacle of giant robots fighting giant monsters but also dramatic scenes that pit a monster thirty stories tall against a lost child.

A similar play with contrast is found in The Iron Giant (1999), where an enormous amnesiac robot from outer space befriends a young boy in small-town America. The contrast works differently on a large screen—it’s hard to feel like an ant next to a television or laptop.

Monochrome film still in which a woman with a blonde bob stares ahead with a concerned expression. A man stands right behind her, his face partly hidden by her hair.

Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968). Photo: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

6. Large screens intensify the impact of close-ups.

Who can forget the impact of a close-up of a star’s face as seen on a big screen for the first time? When a face or object is magnified a thousand times, it’s not by chance that film is often said to be ‘larger than life’.

The most famous ‘close-up movie’ of all time, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), constantly focuses on close-ups of Joan of Arc and her judges. This amplifies the emotions and anguish she goes through and accentuates the alienating setting of the trial. John Cassavetes’s Faces (1968), similarly—as its title makes plain—combines long takes with close-ups of the actors’ faces, leaving us no escape from confronting the painful emotional struggles of the characters.

Monochrome film still in which a silhouetted figure holds up a knife, which is blurred with motion. The figure is blurred by the streams of water falling in front of it.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Photo: Paramount Pictures via Getty Images

7. Large screens heighten the sense of claustrophobia when horror strikes.

The big screen enhances the experience of being trapped inside the film’s world. This is especially effective in horror movies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), for example, plays with this when its victims are trapped inside the old farmhouse of a cannibalistic family at the climax.

In the classic murder scene in Psycho (1960), meanwhile, the famous shower montage —composed mainly of close-ups of faces, body parts, and a knife—plunges the audience more deeply into the confined bathroom space.

Film still in which three boys stand in an alleyway, all facing the camera. A red ball lies on the ground next to them. They all have the same white T shirts with Chinese characters, and khaki pants with matching jackets.

A Brighter Summer Day (dir. Edward Yang, 1991). © All rights reserved; Photo: Courtesy of Kailidoscope Pictures

8. There’s often too much darkness inside the frame for the action to be legible on a small screen.

As movies are now mainly shot with digital cameras rather than on film, the ability to create night-time scenes has improved. Digital cameras can now pick up images in almost pitch-black conditions. But long before the digital revolution and the obsolescence of the film format, dark scenes were often seen in the films of art house modern masters like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Abbas Kiarostami.

The shooting of the elder brother in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989), for example, is shrouded in darkness. Similarly, important scenes in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) are played out at night and shot from a long distance. Both of these movies were shot on 35mm film. In ABC Africa (2001), which was shot on digital video, an entire sequence plays out in darkness as Abbas Kiarostami and his crew stumble to navigate their way back to their hotel rooms after a surprise midnight blackout.

Video still showing seven well-dressed people standing or sitting on rocks and paths on a hill surrounded by trees.

Part I of Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (dir. Yang Fudong, 2003–2007). Photo: Courtesy of ShanghART Gallery

9. Some films may be too long to focus on at home.

It can be hard to pay undivided attention to long films when confronted with the multitude of distractions outside of the cinema. A film of over three or four hours can be challenging to sit through if you are not confined to a seat in a dark room and fully committed to the experience. Very long movies are also often split up into multiple parts, with intended breaks between specific sections. At home, you can pause before a certain part is over, interrupting the original arrangement of the filmmaker.

A Brighter Summer Day—which is four hours and has no intended breaks—is one example on the shorter end. Then there are films like Sátántangó (1994, 7 hrs 19 mins) and Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002, 9 hrs 11 mins), both divided into three parts with two scheduled breaks. Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–2007), which is five hours long and divided into five parts, is an excellent example from the M+ Collections.

Film still in which two people on horseback holding large bows and arrows ride across a grassy hill. A forest-filled landscape spreads out behind them.

Ran (dir. Kurosawa Akira, 1985). Photo: Kurita KAKU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

10. Cinematic painting on a grand scale is intended for a large canvas.

Kurosawa Akira famously intended to create ‘cinematic paintings’ in his late period of film-making, with the camera as his brush and the images displayed on a large screen like a fresco. This is especially true for Ran (1985), for which he did many sketches and drawings.

Monochrome film still of a man in a set of robes with hessian fabric around his shoulders. He sits on a wooden cart next to baskets of food. The cart is travelling along a dirt road in the countryside.

Soviet actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn on the set of Andrey Rublyov (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966). Photo: Mosfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Andrei Tarkovsky also had this vision in his early career. Andrei Rublev (1966), his second feature, rendered the spectacular scenes into an intimate reflection on oppression and freedom through long takes and grandiose mise en scène.

Film still in which a woman sits inside a small white space. The top of her blonde updo nudges the low ceiling. She wears a short dress with garters and high-heeled shoes. Her legs are splayed with her hands covering her genitals. Beads lie on the floor in front of her in the shape of a cross with a very thick vertical section and very thin horizontal section.

The Cremaster Cycle (dir. Matthew Barney, 1994-2002). © Matthew Barney; Photo: Courtesy of Glacier Field, LLC

11. Bonus point! Some directors—although not many—refuse to release their films to any form of home viewing.

This is the case, for example, with Yonfan’s Chinese opera film Breaking the Willow (2003) and Matthew Barney’s magnum opus The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002). While not very common, there are still definite cases in which you can only see the films in the cinema for the proper experience!

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Li Cheuk-to
Li Cheuk-to
Li Cheuk-to

Li Cheuk-to is currently Curator-at-large, Hong Kong Film and Media at M+.

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