25 September – 10 October 2008
“Radishes are genius…”
Such are the first words, uttered by a vivacious grandmother reigning over the kitchen at a family reunion, in Aruitemo, Aruitemo (Still Walking), Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, surprising domestic drama. Simply stated, offhanded, the comment nonetheless consolidates the film’s abiding concerns of generational conflict and familial dependence with an Ozu-like affirmation of the obvious and immutable. It also doubles as an involuntary ethos of a certain style of filmmaking that – in the more gratifying films at least – found broader expression by way of the 27th Vancouver International Film Festival, by now a compulsory survey of the international state of cinema (with its provisional map as ever positing Asia as the capital). Frustrated projectionists or print traffic coordinators may scoff, but maybe the host committee of the 2010 Olympic games should take a cue from VIFF on how to run a tight show, without irrevocably ruining the neighbourhood.
The festival is unimaginable without its program Dragons & Tigers: The Cinemas of East Asia, now in its fifteenth year running with the juried competition of “Young Cinema”. To all but the uninitiated (i.e. few, like the number of those who turned up for a Portuguese film the festival dubbed “freaky”, as a compliment no less [Aquele querido mês de agosto / Our Beloved Month of August, Miguel Gomes]), Dragons and Tigers is a given: plenty of ink has been deservedly spilled extolling the virtues of the program’s scope, vision and influence as shepherded by the estimable Tony Rayns (joined now by the Beijing-based scholar and curator Shelley Kraicer). Indeed, it is the festival within the festival which, come awards time, releases its captive audience to both regret its negligence (note to self: the Abel Ferrara doc about the Chelsea Hotel can wait) and pursue other exotic destinations outside of Asia – such as reliable, Italian (dis)organised crime (Matteo Garrone’s Gommorrah) or the Proustian power of dormant objets d’art (Olivier Assayas’ L’heure d’été / Summer Hours), and worlds way, way beyond. The point is, once you pluck the Asian heart out of VIFF, even guillotine its Cannes-leaning head, the thing still has legs – mostly muscle and little fat, fit for more than simply ambling in the film forest.
The bad news: attendance was down, credited to a recessing global economy and the fact that people – in spite of Hollywood’s proven track record of spitting out bold! fantastic! inspiring! films – don’t go to the movies in theatres anymore. The good news: it was in VIFF’s very theatres that one could find the most convincing evidence of and responses to such an enervating climate. Say what you may about Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, about how not so much happens, or about how the film updates an Italian neo-realist impulse with American regional vernacular; how can anyone who has ever lived as marginally, or anyone who may soon have to imagine thus, afford to ignore it? Seldom has six dollars in a shaky fist seemed at once like a sad pittance and a gift of immeasurable kindness, an instance which Reichardt’s resourceful little film is keen to register. Call it humblecore.
The marginal landscape that Michelle Williams’ Wendy inhabits – empty parking lots, railway yards, waiting rooms, i.e. America today – is eerily not too far removed from the collective spectral township chronicled in Lee Anne Schmitt’s film essay California Company Town. Employing a static camera style and downbeat narration, Schmitt etches a portrait of forlorn California towns that once prospered with industry, only to be abandoned when the industries dried up. The company giveth, so the company taketh away; what remains is an archaeology of American economic idealism, a skeleton in the desert. “History is always marked upon the land” says Schmitt (also a writer, performer and photographer as well as professor at CalArts) in her artist’s statement, “the world we live in…a construction neither organic nor inevitable.” Formal/polemical kin of Gianvito, Benning and Andersen, Schmitt employs a systematically detached style – favouring architectural absence to, say, union testimonials – that cuts cumulatively deeper in her subject (one shot delivers an historical blow by linking the site of a former internment camp to an apple orchard).
The notion that the good film is often that which is most faithful to place – attentive to both the sentient and the material – was in effect. Fictions can be seen to emanate from location rather than be imposed upon them, and documentary reflexes are better suited to capture these stories as they unfold, in contrast to willing implausible scenarios into theatrical life. Is there a more preternatural practitioner of this (admittedly ill-defined) aesthetic than Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso? (Well, probably: Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul springs to mind, albeit in an altogether more surreal sense).
Still, Liverpool is beguiling in its causal construction: no sooner does the film dispense with plot and succumb to the seemingly aimless drift of its protagonist, and the credits roll (no, credits never roll in an Alonso, they are smacked up on the screen to some punk tunes)… when the retroactive weight of loss and failed connection floods the screen’s vacant spaces. And in Tierra del Fuego, this means pretty much everywhere. Even in the tiny quarters aboard the freighter where man-at-sea Farrel dwells, a sense of solitude prevails – visually broken but underscored by the nude pin-ups adorning the walls. Just as one of the most memorable features of Los Muertos was, banal as it seems, the recurring gesture of an ex-con running his hands through his thick mane of silvering hair (which tempered his aura of brutishness), here too Alonso fixes from a respectful remove on the sheer physicality of its enigmatically homesick wanderer, a slender, midleaged shipworker (sailor doesn’t seem the appropriate title) who appears to see little light of day working in the bowels of a Patagonia freighter. His mates entertain themselves with video games. He dozes off in the boiler room, a narcoleptic symptom or a factor of the Stolichnaya that seems perpetually at arm’s length (forgivably so: Liverpool is cold just to look at). The vague sense of mystery, a feeling of latent portent, follows Farrel offshore as he shuffles his way, snow underfoot, duffel bag slung over shoulder, toward the tiny village where his mother is eking out her last days. He seems none too welcome, an impression gleaned from the silent meals he partakes of (Farrel breaks bread in the world’s loneliest canteen) under the gaze of the locals. That he has a daughter whom he’s never met is the film’s hook, which Alonso divulges with unforced stride; she’s both a mystery to him as well to us, and the camera never lets us close to her. In their only exchange, he offers her a loaf of bread while she draws at the kitchen table. Does she ask for money as some kind of belated compensation? Does she know who he is? Lisandro leaves these questions unanswered, and offers the damnest parting shot, just a little bit closer now: a key chain dangling from her palm that lends the film its name as well as its undeniable pathos.
Some have seen Liverpool as impersonally ironic, and after its Cannes reception the question of artistic sincerity emerged on the site La lectora provisoria: Cartas de Cannes. One particularly interesting post, (1) while praising the film, questioned whether Alonso’s film was, to reduce the argument, an act of abstract humanism. Was it possible that auteurs held a kind of deep faith in their wounded protagonists yet had little regard for their more immediate brethren? Could Liverpool’s story be told without the majestic loneliness of the landscape, and rather take place in Alonso’s own neighbourhood, its attentions extended to those more immediately present? There is a key shot in Liverpool that I think is telling of Alonso’s earnestness as well as his gift for incredibly discreet storytelling, wherever the location. Trudging across a snowy field, Farrel happens upon the frozen goal post of a buried football field. Ice hangs from the goal’s frame, which Farrel pauses to inspect, scraping away ice with a knife he’s drawn from his duffel bag. No insert shot, but one gets the sense that he’s looking for his own mark, initials possibly carved in childhood while playing there, inscribed and still surviving, even if he seems now something of a ghost.
Little attention is called to the gesture, and the moment only faintly registers. But like much of Liverpool and Alonso’s oeuvre in general, so much returns in hindsight that one is compelled to truly watch his films with increasing curiosity in the ever-unfolding moment. Was there something about recurring reds in Liverpool, or was it just a Liverpudlian joke? Farrel’s jumpsuit on the ship; the paint; his duffelbag; the vodka bottle; his mother’s room; the keychain. Never steeped in the overtly symbolic, the bruised blue world of Liverpool is nonetheless pricked by flashes of red – title shot included. Either way, this one slowly smolders in the mind.
Similarly foregrounded in space, time and the body, but to fully different effect, Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells (Birdsong) is a rare species indeed. Serra’s follow-up to his lugubriously transcendent take on Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho (Honor de cavalleria, 2006) sees him in similarly anachronistic mode, loosely following the Three Wise Men as they traverse unforgiving deserts and cloud-capped mountains in search of a very special child. Where its predecessor has been perceived as a nature film in disguise, El cants dels ocells can likewise be viewed as a kind of pastoral, though Serra has deliberately denuded his milieu further still. Shot in the volcanic Canary Islands, in black and white, the film is radically elemental in both location and execution. The coarse topography leaves out the possibility of shifting grass to envelop these not so wise men’s digressions, and the absence of any discernible path puts them at the mercy of terra firma in very impractical espadrilles. The purpose, in the very least, is anathema to most cinema and yet obvious to the point of transparency: Watch these men move. Through space. Over time. Bundled in white robes, donning crooked crowns, they seem no more or less divine than your grandfather in pajamas preparing a sandwich in the kitchen. Is there much of a difference? There’s an essence to all things, Serra seems to be intimating, by very material means.
The subjugation of these galoots to the elements is at once comically absurd and, in an era when movie characters are conveniently impervious, all too real. If dramatically or psychologically they offer little to relate to, in a movie-wise way, their sense of gentle vulnerability becomes the film’s prime point of empathy. Bathing, dozing off in the shrub, shaking sand from their shoes: given the circumstances, is there any other way they might carry out these tasks? (And one could say that El cant dels Ocells’ narrative is nothing more than natural circumstances). Voila: the notion of performance is called into question. Removed so far from any familiar context – these Catalan men (all bearing the name Lluis) and the audience as well – we’re all left equally to stand in judgement of the profane moment, the protracted silence, the beauty and banality of what’s before us. “At times, we’re awestruck with the beauty of things”, says one of the wise men, and it seems as if it’s a bit of a joke. But the sunlight breaks through the clouds and threatens to bypass the biblical posse and imprint itself upon the very screen, even pierce Serra’s conceit altogether. Which is part of Serra’s scheme, right? And it’s not a joke.
Does one need Warhol, Pasolini and Straub to get Serra? No more I suppose than one needs the bible to be a good Christian. It’s facile to perceive Serra’s work as a provocation – an intentional affront by inertia on the audience. Surely it’s langorous, but there is a deceptive generosity evident: among the play of his actors, his faith in a hands-off approach (there is no recourse to monitors when shooting), and for extending to the audience (those who haven’t fled the theatre) a radical freedom. When I bring this up with the director in an informal chat after a screening, his implacable image recedes. “Freedom, yes,” he concurs, “but nobody seems to want it.”
Waiting for Sancho, then, goes against the odds for being an improbable “making-of” documentary of Serra’s already rarified film. Its director, Mark Peranson (VIFF programmer, notable critic, publisher of Cinema Scope – to which I am contributor) was solicited by Serra to act in El cant dels ocells, in spite of having no knowledge of Catalan (no problem, he will speak Hebrew) and no known acting experience (the better to cast). Peranson obliged, and not only took on the role of Joseph with iconic stoicism, but dragged along an HD camera and shot Serra, cast and crew in the act of creation. Considering that Peranson seems sympathetic to Serra’s unconventional methodology, and that Waiting for Sancho is his tribute to “not necessarily knowing what you’re doing”, the result is rather stately. While the Three Wise Men limber up with sips of wine, Peranson’s camera, pace Serra, remains steadfast to the contingencies of a remarkably controlled but non-intervening directorial process. What would seem to demystify Serra’s comic iconography only serves to paradoxically expand upon it. The colour images and source sound effervesce Serra’s nominal material, but the feeling of reduction becomes more acute. What is in the original film a scene of the men idly bathing in a shallow pool, filmed so naturally as to appear as “pure” documentary, now becomes confused by the realisation of Peranson’s purely objective record. Does the notion of an unmotivated shot exist in film? The two films together act as a unique play on the fiction/documentary dialectic, how they impinge upon each other at random.
Serra, like Bresson, is effectively willing an unforced style. A more august variation on transparency arrives, like the travelling road shots that grace his La Vie moderne (Modern Life), by way of inveterate French documentarian Raymond Depardon. Aesthetic heir to Cartier-Bresson but not necessarily the decisive moment, he is also among the world’s greatest living photographers. As I write, a copy of Depardon’s book Voyages sits tableside. He writes:
Je photographie tout simplement,
ce n’est pas un travail!
Il faut être discret. (2)
And so it is with unhurried discretion that Depardon, in the third installation of his Profils Paysans, winds down into a sun-dappled valley in the Cevennes where rural roads end at family farms. Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson, who came by donkey over a century before to marvel at the lay of the land, Depardon comes by car to lament the end of agrarian life among the farmers. There a pair of octogenerian brothers in coveralls swear in ancient Occitan and tend their flock of sheep and herd of cow. Depardon mounts a camera, typically in his subjects’ kitchens, sometimes their stables, and inquires plaintively: qu’est-ce qui se passe? The title is both ironic and critically literal: an older way of life prevails on these farms, devoid of the miracles of technology, that keeps one firmly in the present, while the wages of modern life threaten to extinguish this livelihood. The milk truck no longer passes this way.
Curiously, in the 1920s, a state initiative sent filmmakers to the country to educate French farmers. Perhaps Depardon, a lone hunter of a documentarian, is compelled nearly a century later to reciprocate the gesture. Raised on a farm himself before setting out fearlessly upon the world as a photojournalist, Depardon might well be asking if we have something to learn from these humble farmers. La Vie moderne offers an implicit critique of globalisation, though the film is scarcely polemical about what governs the extinction of agrarian life, beyond the mere passage of time and generational disparity. Other than a farmer’s wife who eagerly offers Depardon coffee and cookies, the film’s subjects appear none too forthcoming toward the director. At times Depardon may seem, however sympathetically, to unnecessarily age his hosts with his line of inquiry; “Do you miss walking in the mountains?” he asks. Whereupon a Monsieur Privat, turning to the camera, tells the veteran director that he too, one day, will have to stop. “I don’t wish it upon you,” he relents, “but it will happen.” A bovine death during filming raises the spectre of mortality sadly but mildly, consistent with Depardon’s approach. But as the director takes leave of his rugged, taciturn amis, and an unforgettable light bathes the countryside, it becomes clear that La Vie moderne is a radically personal statement, and vision such as Depardon’s is a vanishing breed as well.
One need look to the Kazakh steppe for something as raw and unfettered. Documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy, recently honored with a retrospective at the Telluride Film Festival, ventures into narrative fiction with Tulpan, though it’s his patiently observational style that ultimately buoys a willfully naïve story of a young sailor returning to the yurt in hopes of marrying the eponymous neighbour and becoming a shepherd. However gratifying, Tulpan doesn’t improve upon the director’s ability to wrench something heartbreaking from the mundane, as evidenced by the story of a blind Russian elder and his cat in a cramped Moscow apartment in In the Dark (2004). Of course it’s the animals who put in the least affected performances, and any director willing to cede to the force of nature is better for it. Witness the onscreen birth of a lamb, delivered with a clumsy but affectionate assist from wide-eyed Asa (and its subsequent ride, wrapped in a blanket, aboard a nomadic taxi). Come to think of it, the little lamb attended by Mary and Joseph in El cant des ocells is less dramatically charged but equally unpredictable, eventually peeing on an indignant Mary. As for Wendy’s dog Lucy in the Reichardt film, she’s no lamb, nor Balthazar, but her presence/absence is an index for the frailty of human emotion. Should Wendy have a dog if she can’t afford to feed her? Reichardt’s considered reply takes time to sink in, but takes on a political dimension at a time when class disparity is at the heart of an American election.
As emotionally arid as Tulpan is physically, fellow Kazakh Darezhan Omirbaev’s Shuga (Chouga) sees the unflinching director updating (or downsizing) Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Typically paired back in Omirbaev’s fashion, Chouga may be more decompressed yet, i.e. he won’t be winning any new admirers, only incensing detractors (The New York Times coverage of the NYFF dismissed it outright). I dont understan how it got invite to the festival (sic), read one anonymous post of the film, which I find funny because it sounds like it could have come from one of Omirbaev’s characters. Tléguen, bouquet in hand, attempts to woo a girl after class, but she’s easily taken by the flashier Ablai, who comes to fetch her in his BMW. Small talk fills in the awkward moment, and novice cinematographer Tléguen brings film into the fray: “We’ve had enough of Hollywood.” As everything in Omirbaev is flattened to the level of drone, the pronouncement seems as innocuous as Chouga’s criticisms. Indeed, everything in Chouga seems blank to the point of evaporation, which is kind of the point. For Omirbaev, film can no better access human interiority than it can the importance of a chandelier, so they exist on an empirically equal plane. Chouga-as-Anna K. arrives by train in Almaty and catches the attention of Ablai, and soon they are, in so much as we can tell, and in spite of her being a married mother, falling in love. Her pretty face is inscrutable, like much of the film’s surface, but her actions are not; these Omirbaev systematically lays out before our eyes. Abandoning her family for Ablai, who seems seduced by his own material success, Chouga yields to the inevitable wisdom that one “must pay for everything in life” with the plaintive question: “Even in love?”. Omirbaev’s rejoinder is manifest in the stark reality of a world in which tragedy has no purchase, and consolations are illusory. Moral consequence has never looked so utterly blank, which should, if Omirbaev succeeds, make us (or hopefully Nuri Bilge Ceylan) take notice.
Earthbound, time driven, patient, elegiac, immutable, transparent: what conceptual feature isn’t ultimately subsumed by James Benning’s RR? One is familiar by now with the set-up: Benning fixes his static camera toward the landscape and holds it there, determinedly. One, however, is not necessarily familiar with the results: Benning shoots a host of trains passing through the American frontiers, witnessing their arrival into the frame and, as the speed and length of each train dictates, its exit. What you see therein depends largely on what you wish to see. Compositionally transfixing, RR’s frames take Benning’s already exacting eye and avail them to new dimensions carved out by pure locomotive movement, invoking that primal Lumière moment. Stasis is pronounced. Time is given material form. Space becomes liable. The trains come and go, depopulated machines shuffling between unseen civilisations; a hymn of metal. Will Benning’s film play out in some future era as black comedy, pastoral nostalgia, even science fiction? At the least RR’s final frame offers a conceivable portrait of things to come: a train, bisecting the frame, comes to rest in the California desert, and strewn before it are spent automobile tires, beyond it the rhyming white blades of a turbine field. RR is a monumental achievement.
History and industry are likewise yoked by China’s poet laureate of social rupture in the wake of urbanisation in Er Shi si cheng ji (24 City), Jia Zhang-ke’s sumptuous chronicle of the imminent demolition of a factory in Chengdu, to be replaced by an expensive apartment complex bearing the film’s title. Jia has an uncanny ability to use the camera as a means of revealing space, and here he summons a former aeronautics plant as a stage to the intimate lives, both literal and fictional, of its displaced labourers. Jia accesses history from the personal perspectives on display, conceptually shuffling interviews of actual employees with actor-plenished simulacra. It’s a beguiling device, not least for Joan Chen’s mesmerising turn recounting her days as the factory’s “flower”, but it flirts with coyness that defines Jia’s tendency, since The World (2004), to embalm his beloved characters with formal mastery. Still, Jia captures more in single takes than many films in their entirety: the removal of the factory sign, itself a protracted act of labour, signifies the obsolescence of outmoded work and the arrival of its new century replacement. And the posh new Volkswagen, plonked amid the surviving landscape, is a harbinger of the city’s newest, upward inhabitants, around which rake-wielding farmers trudge toward their soon-to-be usurped destinations.
Jia’s more succinctly realised short Cry Me a River has less ostensible arc but builds beautifully on its premise, in which a quartet of former classmates reunites for a professor’s birthday. A mood of nostalgia yields to mournful regret, as it dawns that two of them were once lovers, the irrevocability of their separation ambiently channelled during a scene in which they float by Venetian styled gondola down a moody canal, their gentle drift a surrogate for a certain ineffability. The play of minutely detailed environment foregrounding an oblique narrative scheme is something Jia inherited and then, through protean activity, made his own. Now Jia’s influence can be felt in the work of the Chinese independent sector he helped define, exemplified in Emily Tang’s sophomore effort Wanmei Shenghuo (Perfect Life), which took the Dragons and Tigers award (according to the jury, “for the way it captures the harshness of Chinese reality through its fictional protagonist”).
The tale of two parallel lives that intersect quite ephemerally, Perfect Life propels its mysterious plot through accumulation of incident. The young Li Yueying is an enigma: the daughter of a broken marriage (dad is absentee, literally excised from a family photograph), she works in a prosthetics factory and lives in a cramped apartment with her student brother. Tang presents as much as self-evident: back story is elided in favour of small signals that emit from the artfully despoiled environment. Her brother wants money to buy some Nike trainers (which he’ll eventually sell off at school); a radio broadcast tells of Chinese entrepreneurs making millions. Soon, inexplicably, Li is working as a hotel maid and being wooed by an older Mongolian artist who stays in the hotel. Cut to another woman, a mother of two named Jenny, living in Hong Kong, who seeks alimony in a messy divorce. The move contrasts Li’s spent habitat with this more aseptic one, and Tang merely hints at a tangential connection between the two women’s lives, estrangement being their shared condition. That their paths should eventually cross – in a market in booming Shenzen – without tangible consequence lends the film a speculative, existential air. Tang is obviously a talent, and the award certainly deserved, but there are moments of self-conscious direction that undermine a hard-earned naturalism. As the shady artist Wang Honglin trims his moustache in a washroom mirror, it’s only a matter of seconds before the optimal angle reveals a gang of thugs pouncing through the door. Li’s donning of a hotel guest’s uniform feels like a depressed reprise of Wongian tropes, and indeed Fa yeung nin wa, (In the Mood For Love, 2000) can be seen flickering from a television (perhaps Wong is now relegated to cultural detritus in China’s inexorable thrust toward free enterprise). In any case, Perfect Life’s most improbably poignant image is afforded by the simple view from a moving bus: the scene of street life perhaps speaks more about modern China than any character’s machinations.
This might explain the appeal of Li Yifan’s documentary of rural life in a poor farming village in Xiang cun dang an (The Longwang Chronicles). Jia would likely approve of such a direct bulletin (or at least the poignant/parodic daily renderings from the Chinese almanac) whereby Li’s objective camera turns up a host of personal/collective schisms. The on-screen castration of a pig is not assigned any symbolic meaning, but the poor animal limps away like a forsaken metaphor for the threat of dispossession. Then there’s the Christian pastor who seeks to demolish a Daoist shrine, only to discover the devil itself in the form of a tiny snake, which he promptly drubs to death. The maintenance and repair of a local road, involving the breaking and moving of large stones, is a marvel of human labour.
Mei Shi Cun (Sweet Food City, d. Gao Wendong), in competition, could be Longwang Chronicles’ urban, fictional analogue; both are premised on a heightened observational style, the Gao film detached where the Li is engaged. Technically grubby, perhaps in keeping with its setting, Gao’s film nonetheless evinces a savvy grasp of mise en scène. Nearly every shot maximises narrative possibilities, though his characters aren’t exactly going anywhere, trapped in the titular housing/shopping complex that, according to the program notes, quickly devolved into a slum since its conception in the not too distant ’90s (the dirty white slab of a housing estate is second only to Gommorah’s tiered monolith of iniquity). The film’s opening sequence includes a purse snatching, and things don’t look much brighter thereafter. A somewhat tender relationship develops between the purse’s owner, a wig-headed teenaged hooker, and a jobless denizen: the two hole up in his tiny flat and idle away, playing cat’s cradle, smoking, watching movies (curiously, an Edward Yang film can be heard but not seen). A cockroach, writhing on its back, is summarily crushed underfoot – lest anyone think Gao was holding out for a happy ending.
Kids today. Smoothie, Sticky Dick, Soy Sauce…Yes, these are actual characters in Heiward Mak’s shamelessly pop, fearlessly elastic Hong Kong high school ensemble comedy/drama. Tipped by more than one critic as the most auspicious HK debut since…oh I forget, Lie ri dang kong (High Noon) marks its 24 year-old director as, so the saying goes, a talent to watch. A posse of merry pranksters forge their way irreverently through their final year of class and, as befits the genre, male adolescent humour is ratcheted up to a numbingly insular level. Mak adapts accordingly, employing a range of styles that reflect the fervour and idleness of youth, at once gleefully cartoonish and broodingly impressionistic. It’s easy to feel too old to appreciate, but High Noon’s saturated buzz is ultimately more symptomatic than self-indulgent.
Numbingly insular might easily describe the forlorn chronic masturbator in South Korean Seo-Wan-tae’s wordless Synching Blue, a San Franscisco-set (a first for a D & T film?), cinemascopic tableau of one man’s tentative steps beyond the onanistic cycle, which entail visits to a communal pool and practice site for the local synchronised swimming team. Intimacy, too, may be an issue for the charmingly disaffected Makato, the baby-faced protagonist of Sode Yukiko’s mime-mime, but at least she’s getting some. She comes up for air after performing a rote blow-job (on her former teacher, who’s married) in the film’s first frame, looking perilously child-like but wise beyond her years. So it is: Makato is pragmatic to a fault among her conventional family and former classmates – giving head, but not face, her attitude seems to say. Her nonchalant defiance – typified by her willful rejection of a life goal, other than killing time – is a defense against Japanese social mores and a means of staving off intimacy. Of course she meets a boy who’s her absolute opposite, and they become strangely inseparable even at arm’s length. In an odd embrace of opposing tendencies, the two pitch a tent on her apartment rooftop, a little dwelling that’s both cozily insular and exposed to the elements. A deceptively cute film with a perverse sense of humour, mime-mime is easily underrated.
Had I seen German + Ame (German + Rain, d. Yokohama Satoko), recipient of special mention by the D & T jury (both it and Flame and Citron were victims of my peculiar title bias – when will I ever learn?), I might be better positioned to make some pronouncement about a small Japanese renaissance, or to bolster the recognition of a strong female presence within the Asian sector in general. Indeed much could be made of either thread, but I scarcely exhausted the extant possibilities suggested by both. Could one take passes on both Kitano (Achilles to Kame / Achilles and the Tortoise) and Miike (Kamisama no Puzzle / God’s Puzzle), but miss at their peril the Wakamatsu (Jitsoruku: Rengo Sekigun – Asama Sanso e no michi / United Red Army)? Festivals are always a case of hedging bets and managing time, and even the committed viewer may walk away with a case of incredulous negligence (not to mention head-bobbing fatigue): how did I miss that? Needless to say, better to leave Tokyo to the Japanese: I’d gladly give every minute spent in Leo Carax’s shitty Merde from the omnibus film Tokyo! (Gondry and Bong, you’re only slightly off the hook) for a mere glimpse of new films by Hashiguchi Ryosuke (Guriri No Koto / All Around Us) and Nagasaki Shunichi (Nishi no Majo ga Shinda /The Witch of the West is Dead), both of whom have impressed in past VIFF editions.
Gutsy Indonesian Garin Nugruho follows his enchanted Opera Jawa (2006) with a Bali-set, mystic/realist tale of three women with distinctly different fates, woven with the director’s unmatched finesse of ritual performance and design. In Di Bawah Pohon (Under the Tree – A Bali Story) he taps the more sordid underbelly of the present, loosed from tradition. Nugruho’s cross-pollinating style yields an almost narcotic beauty, but is eventually sobered by a melodramatic streak. Still, this is work never lacking in ambition, and the attention to ancient mixed-media within the frame takes the film to a space that feels coolly adjacent to current cinema.
“Bunch of rich people trying to get rid of their expensive shit!” exclaimed a distinguished critic, after comparing thoughts on Assayas’ somewhat precious Summer Hours. I see the point, but Assayas’ virtue is his ability – abetted no end by DP Eric Gautier – to venture pretty much anywhere and extract small epiphanies from the material at hand. In this case, it’s the country estate bequeathed to the heirs of a discerning, recalcitrant widow. While the film’s first half spends time in adoration of armoires and rare paintings, it later shades into a consideration of memory, how it is distilled and released by material objects. Within this minor evolution, Assayas transfigures perception by letting the objects become prisms unto the lives of those who lived by proxy. The most charged thing turns out to be not an exquisite vase but a plastic telephone still in its box, once given as a gift to the stubbornly proud family matriarch, now deceased. No, it’s not being auctioned to the Musée d’Orsay; it’s been left behind after the estate has been vacated, and the sons and daughter have gone their ways. Summer Hours may be dulled by its bourgeois milieu, but its sensibility is a continuation of what was titillatingly raised, in Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September, 1999), by the inheritance of a Joseph Beuys in the hands of its deceased owner’s former lover, a girl half his age, to whom it may or may not hold any meaning. Likewise, Summer Hours’ coda evokes the chateau party of Cold Water (L’Eau froide, 1994), in the way a teenage granddaughter and friends take over the empty estate for an epic party. Pot, and a decent sound system, will trump any thoughts on Corot, but emotional legacies are survived by the young. There’s no telling what they’ll do with them. (An aside: would have been nice to see Assayas’ Eldorado / Preljocaj, a documentary of dancer Angelin Preljocaj’s performance to a Stockhausen piece, included in the Arts and Letters program).
No time or space left to consider Steve McQueen, artfully pushing the piss in Hunger, or Hong Sang–Soo, who expatriates to Paris in Bam gua Nat (Night and Day) with dolefully hilarious results. Or why new films by Claire Denis or Lucrecia Martel were conspicuously absent? Which leaves us, I suppose, back at Kore-eda. There’s a yellow butterfly that flits through Still Walking and acts as an all too easy reminder of the wages of time, of our inevitable stops along the road of life (here the elders contend repeatedly with a bank of stairs), of….whatever. Me, I’m sticking with the radish. The granny who so generously cooks for the family is, in the end, not always so typically kind, which gives the inevitably bittersweet taste of family life a little sting. Perhaps better still, as metaphors go, is the sumo wrestler whose name the mother and son can’t mutually recall, until it’s too late. Could be a case of missed opportunities, but what other figure so effectively embodies the obvious and immutable?
Vancouver International Film Festival website: http://www.viff.org/home.html
- “Here’s a question: how many filmmakers construct their aesthetic approaches around their discomfort with people? That is, human beings in the flesh. That is, one to one contact. As opposed to “people” in the abstract. [Of] certain artists…. we might ask the question: are they hiding beneath the cloak of this ’abstract humanism,’ or is it a real point of view? And if they are hiding, what are they hiding?” – Kent Jones, 23-05, La lectora provisoria: Cartas de Cannes.
- Raymond Depardon, Voyages, Editions Hazan, Paris, 2004.