It was a vintage year in Vancouver, as the organisers had secured a series of programming “coups”. Two “special events” introduced audiences to epic-length narrative films, Raúl Ruiz’s Os Mistérios de Lisboa (The Mysteries of Lisbon, 272 minutes) and Olivier Assayas’ “long version” of Carlos (330 minutes).

Notably, the selection paid homage to prizes received at Cannes, featuring, in addition to the Palme d’Or, the Best Screenplay Award winner, Lee Chang-dong’s Shi (Poetry, reviewed with other distinguished Korean films in Vera Brunner-Sung’s report on Pusan) and the Camera d’Or, Michael Rowe’s Año bisiesto (Leap Year) – which treads an uneasy boundary – a man’s gaze on a woman’s body and desires, an Australian expat’s vision of Mexico – and courts a difficult balance – female masochism as a form of empowerment and a symptom of social malaise. The film transcends these possible pitfalls by rigorously anchoring itself in the body of its main performer, the extraordinary Mónica del Carmen, who projects a muted interiority, as well as a credible lower-class persona. Three winners from Locarno graced different sections: Li Hongqi’s Hanjia (Winter Vacation; Golden Leopard) in the Dragons and Tigers; Véréna Paravel and JP Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (Best First Film and Jury Prize, Filmmakers of the Present) in the Nonfiction Features Program and Denis Côté’s Curling (Best Director and Best Actor) in Canadian Images.

These curatorial choices come at a time when the economic crisis had heightened the contradictions between “mainstream” and “auteur” cinema. Non-A category, without-a-film-market festivals such as Vancouver, BAFICI or Vienna are heavily dependent on the ever-evolving concept of high cinephilia, while forced, by the trivial constraints of economic survival, to feature more “popular” fares. Yet, maybe because it feels endangered, cinephilia has taken a series of oppositional stands, with juries bestowing prizes on non-commercial features – as was the case in Cannes this year. Maybe the awarding of the Palme d’Or to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) bewildered some, but I have rarely seen anything as quintessentially cinematic as the film’s opening sequence: black on black, with sound, movement and light gradually emerging from the darkness. The muffled sound of grass being trampled upon is heard over an evocative quote printed on a black screen (“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise before me.”). (1) The outline of a majestic black-skin swamp buffalo (Thailand’s pride, now a species threatened with extinction) appears in the first image; around him, all is dark, but the remnants of a fire cast a faint glow, revealing that the animal is tied up to one of three trees grouped together. Birds are chirping – the day is about to break. A series of shots go from a close-up of the animal’s face, to a view of three people sitting on the ground. The buffalo breaks the rope, walks decidedly around the clump of trees, then runs across the screen in an empty field, over which a still-invisible sun casts a dim light. He enters a dense forest, plunged into almost-total darkness. He gleefully eats leaves in a close-up. A half-naked man wearing a turban walks through the jungle forest. He calls the buffalo, catches him and then brings him back with him, crossing the screen in the opposite direction, from right to left. The jungle remains empty. A dark silhouette with red eyes appears. This is the first touch of colour; before, the film could as well have been in black and white; the effect is uncanny. Four minutes have elapsed, and the only human utterance we have heard has been of the peasant calling his buffalo. The title and beginning credits roll.

The film is about a man close to death, a man for whom light will disappear forever, and this opening parallels the scene of Uncle Boonmee’s passing, in a womb-like cave. The intricate lay-out of the cave is also a way to (re)orient the path of light, making it scarce, problematic, precious. In its dark corners, creatures with red eyes huddle. Throughout the film, as his physical condition is declining, Uncle Boonmee has been able to see shapes materialising out of the jungle – the ghost of his beloved wife; the body of his missing son now turned into a hairy ape with red eyes; a mythical princess prisoner of her loneliness and the sexual magic of the water; young men trapped and “disappeared” in an improbable dream/time-machine. Haunted by the intoxicating seductions of the Thai jungle, Uncle Boonmee is ultimately about the nature of light itself – the light that will fail us at the end of our days, the light captured by cinema, its textures, hues, modulations, shades, shapes, mysteries, the power it has to create and recreate reality, dreams, memories, and everything in-between.

The case of the missing rabbit

By its very title, L’Illusioniste (The Illusionist), Sylvain Chomet’s long awaited second feature (winner of the Best Animated Feature Film at the European Film Awards) is another reflection on the power of cinema. Combining large scale and small form, the project is as impressive and ambitious (180 animators from several European countries and South Korea worked on it for more than five years) as it is meticulous, delicate and subtle. Artistically, Chomet is a modest man, placing his inspiration under the shadow of the giants that preceded him. Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003) was a conscious visual homage to the French illustrator Dubout (in its almost Brueghelian saturation of the screen). (2) L’Illusioniste is the adaptation of an unrealised screenplay written by Jacques Tati between 1956 and 1959 as a love letter to his young daughter, Sophie (born 1946). (3)

In the 1950s, a French magician (elegantly drawn with the features and the gait of Mr Hulot), to survive an ever-dwindling audience, has to accept gigs in remote parts the countryside, such as an isolated Scottish village barely discovering electricity. There, a waif of a young girl, who does not have a good pair of shoes to her name and sweeps the floor in a tavern, is so enraptured by what she perceives as real magic, that she secretly follows the man to his next gig in Edinburgh… Until meeting her, the magician had a sole companion, the white rabbit used in his top hat tricks. And yes… the girl is called Alice – but she does not get to talk to the rabbit, because, like in a classic Tati film, there is no dialogue in The Illusionist, just onomatopoeias and ambient noises, plus some puzzled, half-audible comments in French (Non Monsieur, ça suffit!) uttered to non-comprehending Scots (and non-subtitled). Like Bruno-the-dog in Les Triplettes de Belleville, the rabbit has a strong personality of his own. He is rebellious, hates to be put into a hat, escapes and hides when needed, scratches, bites and groans… In time, he becomes more and more like a cat: eating stolen sausages behind the couch or lounging contentedly on his sleeping master’s belly. (4) He is only remotely pleased at Alice’s intrusion in their lives – especially since she seems to have a fondness for rabbit stew…

The trio finds dwelling (a bedroom for the girl, a couch in the anteroom for the others) in a picturesque boarding house for travelling entertainers – including a soon-redundant ventriloquist who has to pawn his puppet. The Illusionist is the simple story of a man discovering fatherhood with a young girl about to become a woman – at this exciting and cruel moment when she still needs him but will soon leave him for another man, a man her age. She believes in him, he goes along, and produces, as if by magic, the objects that make her dream: two pairs of shoes, an elegant coat she had gazed at in the window of a store. In fact, he has to work the graveyard shift to buy things for her: first in a garage, where a hilarious sequence – vintage-Tati – tests his total lack of mechanical skills against the resistance of a luxury car and various mechanical contraptions; other times as a sort of magician-sandwich-man for a department store.

This is the time of rock’n’roll, of the beginning of youth culture. Invited to perform in a London music hall, the magician shares the bill with a rock group and has to wait patiently (not so patiently in the case of the rabbit) for the encores requested by crowds of hysterical teenagers. When it’s his turn, the auditorium is almost empty: the fans are outside, trying to grab their idol’s underwear or autographs. Alice is young enough, naïve enough to become the “groupie” of an aging magician, but she’s growing up fast.

Tati and Chomet cast a melancholy and tender gaze at what it means to be a father in a changing world where older men struggle to make a living and magicians are outdated. Is there a future for the illusion? Tati never shot the film and Chomet insisted on an artistic practice on the verge of being displaced by computers and CGI: hand-drawn, 2D animation, a technique, he says, that “gives a more ethereal charm to the art, ensuring the story is always a pleasure to behold, even during moments of inaction. 2D animation vibrates and it’s not perfect… Imperfections are important when you are dealing with a story about human characters”. (5) It would have been impossible, however, to compose the entire film in 2D, due to the complex interaction between protagonists and decors, protagonists and props: cars, trolleys and boats, as well as the lovingly recreated architecture of Edinburgh in the 1950s, were done in 3D, with sophisticated processes of adjustment between the two techniques during compositing. Another major way in which Chomet departs from mainstream animation – and in which he is faithful to Tati’s cinematic universe – is by eschewing non-stop camera movements and framing the action mostly in wide shots.

The parting between Alice and the Illusionist is noble, elegant, understated, almost conceptual – a hand-written note on the table: “Magicians do not exist.” On the other hand, Chomet’s animators have outdone themselves for the emotional impact of the separation between man and rabbit, carefully rendering every minute detail of the animal’s body language, the slightest movement of his ears, hair, paws, arched back – when he realises his master is releasing him into the wild. While the Illusionist retains Monsieur Hulot’s poise, the drama of separation and loss is entirely expressed in the tiny furry body – a feat that could only be realised through animation (in Tati’s own films, the protagonist’s emotions are expressed through his relationship to objects; having an animated rabbit allows this process to be carried one step further). At a formal/spatial level, Tati/Chomet take a stance, insuring that The White Rabbit and Alice now live in totally separate universes – an improbable republic of wild rabbits for one; the city, its department stores and attractive young men for the other – for little girls shouldn’t be confined to the state of arrested development in which Lewis Carroll fantasised them. The cat is out of the bag, the rabbit out of the hat and Alice in the cities…

Something to be afraid of

The magician wanted to free his surrogate daughter, but elsewhere children and teenagers grow under the shadow of powerful illusions, created by fathers who won’t move on. Emerging out of a struggling Vietnamese film industry (with the help of French co-production), first-time feature director Phan Dang Qi stages Bi, Dung So! (Don’t Be Afraid, Bi!) in the moist atmosphere of post-socialist Hanoi, during the rainy season. The weight of an unspoken history lies heavily on the crumbling family house where 6 year-old Bi lives with his alcoholic, always-absent father, his mother who puts up a brave front, a beautiful unmarried aunt, Thuy, and an old female cook. The sensuous, elegant, mysterious texture of the film espouses the blocked vision of the different members of the family. In his naïve curiosity about life and everything sexual, Bi tries to peek in the bathroom when Thuy takes a shower, and likes to hang out in the ice factory, where the workers enact strange rites of bonding masculinity. The father spends hours of repressed longing with his favourite masseuse. One night after he returns, the mother seduces her reluctant husband in the conjugal bed, hoping against hope that lovemaking will repair their damaged marriage. A school teacher, Thuy catches the attention of a teenage student in the bus and develops a secret crush on him. Meanwhile, she accepts an arranged meeting with a middle-age man and has perfunctory sex with him on the beach. One afternoon, hidden in the weeds, she sights the object of her love playing in the football field with boys his age (one of them exposes a young dick while peeing a few steps away from her hiding place) – and understands that they don’t belong to the same diegetic field. The rain falls, she hides in the mud, in her own abjection, punishing herself for having looked, for having desired.

During this time, after years abroad, the grandfather had returned home, sick, maybe dying. Bi’s father won’t talk to him but spends more and more time outside, drowning a secret wound in alcohol and in the masseuse’s room. Phan Dang Qi’s long takes and painterly compositions capture a time made still by unrequited desires, the enervating heat, the cohabitation of people who want different things, death that comes too soon for some and too late for others, the regrets of what never was, the sense of being trapped in a stagnating society. The failings of the fathers have washed over the sons, and they’re making the women and the children pay.

In Winter Vacation, Li Hongqi is more straightforward about the weight of an outdated yet persistent ideology on his young protagonists. Prisoners of the New Year’s vacation boredom (6) in a small Inner Mongolia town, his slackers utter fragments that seem detached, like splinters, from a larger discourse. Once isolated and treated like found objects, these fragments become frankly comical, as is the deadpan tone in which they are delivered: “Teenage love will affect my studies,” says a young girl, Zhu Xiaoling, to explain her decision to break up with her boyfriend, Laowu. Later, one of their friends, Laobo, explains his decision not to return to school the next day. What will you do? asks Laowu. “Contribute to the struggle to build socialism with Chinese characteristics,” replies Laobo. Entangled in this ideological miasma, the kids are not fooled, and reproducing the slogans verbatim becomes a postmodern stance of the quote-as-resistance, a cadavre exquis, a poetry of the absurd (let’s not forget Li Hongqi’s background as a published poet). Laowu is not taken in by Laobo’s “plan,” nor by his girlfriend’s resolution: “My Xiaoling is a master of humour”, he says. The adults seem more prone to be deceived, but, once in a while, one of them cracks at the seams. A school teacher (who “has forgotten his medicine again”, explains his son) drops his notes on the floor, and, instead of giving a lesson about molluscs, starts insulting his class of 30-odd bored students: “You own nothing except your selfishness, your arrogance, your stupidity and your greed. You will end in nothing”.

The hero of the fable is a stubborn little boy, Zhou Zhonxing, who, constantly threatened by the monotonous sentence “[if you do this…] your uncle will kick your butt”, decides that when he’s a grown-up he wants “to be an orphan”, and sets on a journey to “find a place” where he can be one. For his third feature, (7) Li composes one-shot sequences filmed frontally and in scope – with the occasional interruption of a close-up and a reverse angle (as in the conversation between Zhou Zhongxing and his grandfather in front of the television). The houses, all alike, are low, elongated structures distributed like logs of wood in a field of hard snow. There is no sky, no depth, and Li uses the same crisp imagery (no shadow, no fuzziness, no chiaroscuro) when filming the drab interiors, which creates a disturbing theatricality (with alienation effect), intensified by a skillful use of a sometimes-synch, sometimes-off soundtrack, and a precise choreography in the placement of the figures against the background.

In the opening sequence, the repetitive sound of an announcement (not subtitled, but it does not seem that the text has a meaning for the people in the town either) becomes annoying, almost threatening. At other moments, Li inserts the intimate, whispering sounds of some avant-garde band over long shots of the town at night… Some offscreen sounds that the diegesis makes us expect are missing, others are heard unexpectedly. As the protagonists are mostly seen from afar, they are treated like ciphers, but also performers in a perverse, almost inadvertently funny, ballet. Li alternates wordless, rigorously composed scenes with instances of sparse dialogue, a Beckett-like hollowing of everyday platitudes. To prevent Zhu Xiaoling from breaking up with him, Laowu has a trump card: “Honestly, you’re average-looking and stupid. It’s impossible that anyone beside me could ever like you…” then, having convinced her, returns sitting idly with his buddies who exchange profundities such as “What on earth is going on? One day after another, it seems as if life never ends.” It’s not quite true – after all this captivating minimalist aesthetics, after the muted terror of the aborted classroom scenes, the film ends on the exhilarating dissonances of underground Chinese rocker Zuoxiao Zhuzhou. And the little boy is gone…

A River runs through it

Zhu Wen’s Xiao dongxi (Thomas Mao) is another scintillating example of neo-Chinese wit. After working five years as an engineer, Zhu became one of the figureheads of the rebellious, post-socialist Chinese fiction (or “newly-born generation” [xinshengdai] movement) with his first novella, Wo Ai Meiyuan (I Love Dollars, 1996), (8) then started to get involved in film. One of his short stories was adapted by Zhang Ming for his feature Wushan Yunyu (In Expectation, 1995), that ran afoul with government censorship for being shown abroad without an export visa. A couple of years later, Zhang Yuan invited him to collaborate to the screenplay of Guo Nian Hui Jia (Seventeen Years, 1999), his first officially-sanctioned film. Then Zhu wrote and directed Haixian (Seafood, 2001), the first narrative digital feature produced in China, a cynical and salacious tale of the encounter between a suicidal prostitute and a corrupt cop. This was followed by the more elegiac Yun de Nanfang (South of the Clouds, 2003), in which a retiree tries to reinvent himself in a small Yunnan town and explores the path that could have been his if he had made a different decision forty years before.

I have noticed, in recent contemporary Chinese films, the discrete reoccurrence of a certain narrative form, the two-part structure: the story seems to be unfolding in one direction, and then a rupture occurs, followed by a change of tone, locale, even diegesis; the second part, much shorter, is a sort of coda, an inverted mirror, playful or sinister, a reshuffling en abyme of what we have seen so far, casting a doubt on its meaning or reality. Zhu seems to be fond of such a narrative form (see the bawdy structural shift in Seafood), and rarely has it been as brilliantly implemented as in Thomas Mao, in which the double structure functions as a metaphor for a series of fault lines that traverse the diegesis. The first reproduces the well-documented dichotomy city/countryside, or big city/small town. A chronicler of urban discontent, Zhu is, however, not immune to the lure of the Chinese landscape – aware that something akin to the soul of the culture is encapsulated there, something that the representation of nature in classical scroll paintings was attempting to capture. He is also aware of the role played by the spectacle of the Chinese landscape in the reification and commodification of China for the Western gaze – as demonstrated by his acerbic view of 5th Generation directors, who cashed in on such exoticism. Yet Zhu does not partake of the “gritty realism” that became the staple of some 6th Generation directors – as it is another way of playing up to the Western gaze. For the second fault line on which Thomas Mao is simply the Great Divide between East and West, with its miscommunications, bodies moving out of sync with each other, mutual deception as well as mutual fascination.

2008, the year of the Olympics. A smug European artist, Thomas (Thomas Rohdewald), backpacks through the remote grasslands of Inner Mongolia, in search of picturesque things to paint. He has made a deal of some sort with a peasant (Mao Yan), who lives alone with a beloved female German Shepherd, his ducks and his goats, and runs a little “inn” in the wilderness. Thomas is tall, a bit awkward, supercilious, uptight about cleanliness; Mao is short, scruffy-looking, fond of the bottle and probably unwashed. Thomas speaks English, Mao a Hunan dialect, both men talk to each other, responding to what they thought they understood. Zhu subtitles everything, and the result is hilarious, as is the cohabitation of such different bodies, with their different needs and rhythms.

As Thomas reluctantly settles in a bedroom once occupied by ducks, shares the food cooked by Mao, drinks with him, then makes him pose for him for hours, strange things occur on the grasslands. A spatial vessel descends on earth. Two martial artists in dynastic costumes, a male and a female, engage in a combat that seems lifted out of some Shaw Brothers classic of the 1970s, with a touch of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946). Meanwhile, life goes on, with Thomas making a mean (and unsuccessful) attempt to thwart Mao’s efforts to protect the German shepherd against the amorous advances of a mongrel, a posse of local policemen bringing back a lost goat, and Mao getting drunk to celebrate China’s triumphs in the Olympics. When Thomas leaves, to compensate Mao, he gives him a ridiculously low sum of money; Mao, outraged, refuses; Thomas believes that Mao, out of friendship, wants to offer his hospitality for free, so he keeps pushing the money in his hand, thinking of himself as a cool and generous man; meanwhile Mao realises how little he matters in Thomas’s value system…

Thomas Mao is placed under the sign of a famous Chinese parable – that of the philosopher Zhuangzi who dreamt that he was a butterfly – but then wondered if he was not, after all, a butterfly who dreamt he was Zhuangzi. In real life – and this could give an idea of what the coda (which I am not going to describe) could be – Thomas Rohdewald is a press attaché of the Luxembourg Embassy in Beijing who was appointed head of the Luxembourg Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo and Mao Yan (born in Hunan, hence his command of the dialect) is one of the most famous contemporary Chinese painters, now based in Nanjing. The two men are friends, and, since 1999, Mao has drawn and painted more than 100 portraits of Rohdewald, striving to reproduce the shape of his long body, the contours of his face, the texture of his skin and eyelashes. (9) Eerily beautiful, the paintings express an obsessive desire to capture the reality or unveil the mystery of a Caucasian body. The tables are turned indeed, and it is now the West that has become an exotic spectacle for China. Zhu intelligently, humorously, posits himself at the junction, marking out what is both a fool’s bargain and a pas-de-deux. Both men look at each other, but, in the face of the Other, do they only catch a reflection of themselves? And if they dream together, what do they see?

In Hai shang chuan qi (I Wish I Knew, 2010), Jia Zhangke also turns the tables in his favour by subverting the tropes of what was originally a commission for the Chinese Pavilion at the World Expo. Asked to make a documentary about Shanghai, he directed his usual DP, Yu Likwai, to amorously shoot images of nowadays Shanghai, often with his muse, Zhao Tao, wandering in the streets or by the water. Yet the film was really built in the editing room, in another form of mise en abyme in which contemporary footage and found footage, architectural landmarks and cinematic fictions, modern architecture and memories of a bygone era, historical facts and youthful amnesia are used as mirrors, comments and counterpoints of each other.

After being forced to open foreign concessions in 1842, Shanghai became a cosmopolitan city – but also cinema city, sin city, a paradise for gangsters, enterprisers and movie stars. In the 1920s and 1930s, it witnessed brutal struggles between the Kuomintang and Left-wingers. In 1937 it fell to the Japanese. In 1949, it came under Communist control. Jia finds survivors of these heroic times, such as Wang Peimin, the daughter of a Communist militant executed by the KMT, or Du Meiru, daughter of Du Yue Sheng, the legendary “boss” of the Green Gang – gradually focusing on people involved in cinema: Zhu Qiansheng, who was jailed for having crewed on Antonioni’s Chung Kuo – Cina (1972); Huang Baomei, the model textile worker who came to play her own part in Xie Jin’s eponymous film (1958); Wei Ran, son of the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu (10) who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution…

Unfolding on two planes, the film systematically intercuts the contemporary footage with excerpts of astutely chosen films. Jia compares the waterfront as it appeared in Lou Ye’s Suzhou He (Suzhou River, 2000), or a teahouse from Antonioni’s film, with shots of Shanghai in 2010. Films also provide sweeping transitions. A scene from Wang Bing’s propaganda movie, Zhan Shang Hai (The Battle of Shanghai, 1959), is montaged with sequences showing a KMT family escaping to Taiwan, from Wang Tong’s autobiographic film, Hong shizi (Red Persimmons, 1996) – and the next interviews, starting with Wang Tong himself and ending with Hou Hsiao-hsien who talks about Hai shang hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998), take place in Taiwan. Later, Jia conducts an interview with Wei Wei, the star of Fei Mu’s last masterpiece, Xiao cheng zhi chun (Spring in a Small Town, 1948), an insightful reflection on the powerlessness of the Chinese middle class at the end of the short-lived Republican era (1911-49). Wei Wei now lives in Hong Kong, and her stories of exile are echoed by those of Fei Mu’s daughter, Barbara, and the singer Rebecca Pan (Pan Di Hua) who plays Leslie Cheung’s adoptive mother in Wong Kar-wai’s A Fei Zheng Zhuan (Days of Being Wild, 1990), Maggie Cheung’s landlady in Huayang nianhua (In The Mood for Love, 2000), as well as Auntie Huang, one of the madams in Flowers of Shanghai. Yu Likwai shoots Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour like a visual counterpoint to Shanghai’s waterfront; cities become evanescent, transmuted by memories of loss, sublimated by the nostalgic tinge of the films. Old Shanghai is disappearing in the wake of unprecedented urban destruction (a lot of it caused by the World Expo itself); I Wish I Knew captures it as a dream, a memory, a flow of cinematic images that are as fluid and immaterial as the two rivers that run through it.

The texture of everyday life

Visceral, off-colour, generous to a fault, Hao Jie’s Guanggun (Single Man) is one of the most exciting filmmaking debuts in years. A graduate from Beijing Film Academy, Hao (born in 1981) had the brilliant idea to base his first feature on the stories of people he knew and loved – his relatives and neighbours from his home village of Gujiagou, Hebei province. The narrative evolved from a collaboration with the villagers, who agreed to play a fictionalised version of their own selves. And what Hao foregrounds is their buoyancy. Yes, these people are poor, illiterate, but they are endowed with an indestructible quality – the capacity to desire. As in many Chinese rural communities, in Gujiagou men outnumber women. Some men buy wives from Sichuan, while other remain bachelors all their lives – which does not necessarily imply (and this where the film becomes wickedly original) a total lack of sex life. Our four anti-heroes, Lao Yang (Yang Zhenjun), Bighead Liang (Liang Youzhong), Gu Lin (Du Tianguang) and Liu Ruan (Liang Chunying) like to meet, kvetch, complain and gossip. During the Cultural Revolution, Bighead Liang lost a hand while flirting with a girl dangerously close to a threshing machine. In 1945, Gu Lin was kicked out of his house for trying to seduce his sister-in-law. In 1942, Liu Ruan, then a mere boy of 12, was forced into an arranged marriage with an older girl determined to have sex with him while he was only longing for his mother. As for Lao Yang, he is still in love with Eryatou, the girl he was forbidden to marry as a young man; she is now the middle-aged wife of the village head, but they sneak out for secret trysts. Eryatou (Wang Suzhen) exudes an easy-going, fun-loving sensuality, but she is also a practical woman. Her frolicking is sanctioned by financial gifts from her lover, and she saves the money toward her son’s college tuition.

Trouble in paradise. Lao Yang wants more than a roll in the hay from time to time, and, when human traffickers go through the village with yet another girl for sale (Hang Zhipeng), he offers them all his life savings (5000 RMB), which mightily pisses off Eryatou. Another original point: Single Man offers a very matter-of-fact point of view on the issue of bride trafficking in rural communities, miles apart from its melodramatic treatment in films like Li Yang’s Mang shan (Blind Mountain, 2007). Here the victim is given agency. The girl, clearly enough, does not like her husband; not only does she refuse to perform any sort of conjugal duties, but a young man, Qiaosan, catches her eye, and she decides he is the one she wants to marry.

Nothing can stand in the way of young love, as Quiosan, himself interested, convinces his parents to buy the bride for him. Having his 5000 RMB refunded, but left high and dry (as Eryatou is still mad at him), Lao Yang has no choice but try to spend his money in the city, only to be rebuked by the callousness of the working girls there. “This is not what I call making love,” protests Lao Yang, who may be a hick but certainly no fool in sexual matters. In his production notes, Hao Jie expresses a genuine concern for the “unrecorded lives” of these peasant bachelors, “their perseverance… their misery and happiness… their moments of harmony and conflicts…” (11) His shoot-as-you go, instinctual mode of filming give these once-forgotten bodies the space they need to ignite the screen – and, in so doing, break quite a few clichés and taboos about the sexual mores of the Chinese peasantry. And think twice before assuming that moments of tender homosexual longing between two senior citizens are unheard of in the Hebei mountains.

With Xunhuan zuole (The High Life), Zhao Dayong crafts another hybrid of documentary and fiction. Noticed with his first documentary, Nanjing Lu (Street Life, 2006 – about vagrants living in Shanghai’s Nanjing Street, the heartland of luxury shopping), Zhao Dayong confirmed his talent with Fei Cheng (Ghost Town, 2008), shot over a period of six years in Zhiziluo, near the Myanmar border in Yunnan, an area mostly populated by the Nu and Lisu minorities – now scrambling for economic survival. The piece follows a sweeping trajectory from the general (the past persecution and current difficulties faced by the local church) to the intimate (the disintegration of the family of an alcoholic man; a fragile and troubled love affair) and the small form (the wanderings of a 12 year-old boy living alone) – injecting snippets of narrative within the bigger picture. The High Life (shot in Guangzhou/Canton), starts with humble, minute dramatic arcs that end up drawing an unconventional portrait of the great southern metropolis (the title is ironical, as the protagonists are rather low-life themselves… but have dreams of living big.) A young con artist, Jian Ming, exploits the unemployed people seeking his help by charging them 100 RMBs to find a job. He pockets the money and buys custom jewelry for his girlfriend, Ah Fang, an acerbic small-time courtesan, who lives off a sugar daddy she can’t stand. One day, unexpectedly moved by the innocence of Xiao Ya, a lovely country girl, Jian Ming manages to really find a job for her… in a hair salon – while, in China, most of these establishments are fronts for occasional prostitution. He then gets angry when the pimp comes to the salon to reap the new sexual bounty. Unexpectedly, it’s not Jiang Ming’s botched murder attempt on the gangster that lands him in jail, but his involvement in an illegal get-rich-quick pyramid scheme.

The High Life is another film with a double structure: as Jian Ming goes to jail, a shift in perspective refocuses on an usual prison guard, Dian Qiu, who forces the inmates to read aloud the poetry he writes in his idle hours, and has a chaste romance with a jailed prostitute. Within this complex structure, Zhao plays with our narrative expectations, blurring the lines between fiction and self-representation. He works with non-professionals who have inspired the story – Dian Qiu, for example, is a real folk poet, very proud of his work. Some may find his writings naïve, bombastic or funny – they are actually rebellious, witty and disturbing. Yet, it is in the non-verbal communication of his intimate moments with the female inmate that he reaches pure poetry…

In Suan Ming (Fortune Teller), Xu Tong’s second documentary, narration comes from following the life of an itinerant fortune teller, Li Baicheng, and his mentally handicapped wife, Little Pearl. With the government cracking on his profession, Li is further pushed into marginalisation. A number of his customers are sex workers with plenty of stories to tell – stories of greed and financial success for the madams, of thwarted romantic expectations for most of them, of self-sacrificing conjugal love for others (“I will turn tricks to get my husband out of jail.”). Following Li and Little Pearl on the back alleys and dusty roads of rural China, Xu – whose first film, Mai shou (Wheat Harvest, 2008) was the controversial portrait of a lower class prostitute leading a double life – casts an unsentimental gaze at these humble lives that the “new and harmonious society” would like to keep under the rug.

What Hao, Zhao and Xu have in common, beyond their widely different styles, is their senses of the fundamental ambiguity of “the real” – its resistance to representation. Their films cannot easily be analysed as simple symptoms of a societal malaise. The pugnacity, stubbornness, physicality, garrulousness of their protagonists, their cunning to get round regulations, their tussles with the police, their idiosyncrasies or madness, their religious beliefs or superstitions, their greed or selfishness even – all of these are signs of resilience, of an implicit resistance to any order imposed from above. During the Mao years, conformity was the norm. Now the powers-that-be want to transform the citizens into quiet, obedient consumers. Films such as Single Man, High Life or Fortune Teller outline the gap between these grand plans and the way people live, point out the heightened contradictions of modernisation. Whether they resort to fictionalisation or experimental techniques, they manage to capture something of this reality that Lacan perceived as left over between the symbolic (the laws) and the imaginary (the utopias of socialism or free market).

Television – Part I – tempus fugit

I know the outline of despair… It is a chore of trees that will again add up to a forest, it is a chore of stars that will again add up to one fewer day, it is a chore of fewer days that will again add up to my life.

– André Breton, 1932 (12)

None of these Chinese films have much of a chance of ever been shown on the television screens of their country, but, for Western cinephiles, the relationship between cinema and television is experiencing a profound change. Purist film lovers who, just a few years ago, would not have been caught dead admitting they watched a made-for-TV movie now exchange blog entries or dinner table conversations about the precision of mise en scène, the accuracy of the performances or the quality of the writing in The Sopranos, The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and, in Europe, programs financed by ARTE. In some cases, the curve has come in full circle.

Raúl Ruiz’s enchanting Mysteries of Lisbon, while sprung from his fascination for Latin American telenovelas, owes much to the initiative of his long-time producer, Portuguese-born, Paris-based Paulo Branco, who suggested Os Mistérios de Lisboa (1854), an early novel by the great Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-90). (13)

A colourful character, hated by some as much as he is admired by others (or by the same), Branco may be the last of a dying breed, these audacious and rogue European producers – Pierre Braunberger (1905-90), Anatole Dauman (1925-98), Humbert Balsam (1954-2005) – constantly on the verge of bankruptcy (probably the cause of Balsam’s suicide (14); financing, in the case of Dauman, Bresson’s career with a string of second-rate soft-porn films; borrowing money they may not be able return just to keep afloat; meanwhile moving along the cause of auteur cinema.

Since 1975, Branco has produced more than 230 features, a few shorts and TV series. In 1978, at the age of 28, he got involved in the production of a six-episode Portuguese TV series, Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1979), turned into a 262 minutes theatrical film. This sumptuous – and radical – literary adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s eponymous novel was the work of a 72-year old director, Manoel de Oliveira, whose career was somewhat stalled at the time; since 1963, he had directed only a few shorts and two features, and was no longer in the zeitgeist of the Portuguese film industry. Doomed Love was shown at New Directors/New Films in New York (in spite of the irony created by the director’s age – but that was only the beginning….); Serge Daney was among the first to note the importance of the film in Cahiers du cinéma (15) and thereafter the magazine became a staunch supporter of Oliveira’s work. To everyone’s surprise, helped by Branco’s dazzling producing skills, Oliveira was to embark in the second, most prolific phase of his career, directing almost 40 titles since then… and still counting, since, at the ripe age of 102, he does not seem to be wanting to stop (Branco produced more than half of these films…)

This amazing output is matched only by the second most important filmmaker in Branco’s “stable” of talents, Raúl Ruiz, who has directed more than 100 films and TV series since Tres tristes tigres (1968), that had put him at the forefront of the Chilean cinematic modernity (and won him a Golden Leopoard in Locarno). Ruiz and his wife, the editor and filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, fled Chile after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973, and settled in Paris. Instead of inhabiting the nostalgic space of “the Latin American filmmaker in exile,” Ruiz set to explore new cinematic forms, and combine his obsessions about filmic space, reality versus illusion, the infinite sliding of signifiers, with the cultural and political concerns of his new home, from la politique des auteurs to the writings of Pierre Klossovski (16) – the latter inspiring La Vocation Suspendue (The Suspended Vocation, 1978) as well as Ruiz’s first post-1973 success, L’Hypothèse du tableau volé (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, 1979).

Branco started to work with Ruiz with Le Territoire in 1981 – shot on the same location and with partially the same crew/talent as Wim Wenders’s Der Stand der Dinge (The State of Things, 1982), in a scheme that will become familiar in Branco’s unorthodox modus operandi – and roughly produced one third of his films since, as well as three of the features directed by Valeria Sarmiento. It is ludicrous to speculate whether or not Oliveira and Ruiz would have had the same career had they not met Branco. Let’s say that they shared an apparenty untoppable artistic “bulimia”. Not content to work with these giants, Branco single-handedly revived the Portuguese film industry, producing the work of young directors – a number of films by João Botelho and João Mário Grilo, Pedro Costa’s first two features, a bevy of emerging filmmakers, including a high proportion of women like Teresa Villaverde – as well as supporting the definitely uncommercial oeuvre of the genial and misanthropic João César Monteiro (1939-2003). In France he made it possible for former Cahiers du cinéma writers such as Jean-Claude Biette or Danièle Dubroux to make films; gave their first or, more importantly, their second chance, to young directors such as Laurence Ferreira Barbosa (Les Gens normaux n’ont rien d’exceptionnel, 1993), Lucas Belvaux (Pour rire!, 1996), Cédric Kahn (L’ennui, 1998), Catherine Corsini (La Nouvelle Eve, 1998), Mathieu Amalric (Le Stade de Wimbledon, 2001), Claire Simon (Mimi, 2003), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Il est plus facile pour un chameau…, 2003) or Christophe Honoré (Ma mère, 2004)… He allowed Sophie Calle to extend her activities into filmmaking (No Sex Last Night, 1996); financed Robert Kramer’s Doc’s Kingdom (1986); worked with recognised authors when they needed a little push: Barbet Schroeder (Les Tricheurs, 1984), Benoît Jacquot (Les Mendiants, 1988), Olivier Assayas (L’Enfant de l’hiver, 1989), Philippe Garrel (Le coeur fantôme, 1996), Chantal Akerman (La Captive, 2000), Luc Moullet (Les Naufragés de la D17, 2002), André Téchiné (Les Temps qui changent, 2004), Jacques Doillon (Le Mariage à Trois, 2010). Add to this that that he’s also worked with Wim Wenders, Alain Tanner, Werner Schroeter, Paul Auster and Jerzy Skolimowski: the titles he’s produced read like the table of contents of the last 30 years of Cahiers du cinéma. So when he suggested Ruiz a combo-six-episode-TV-series-cum-ultra-long-theatrical-film based on Os Mistérios, sparks started to fly.

Ruiz is no stranger to TV. Upon his arrival in Paris, he managed to work with French television to make exactly the movies he wanted. Here again, with the flexibility of a trapeze artist and the smoothness of a crossword-puzzle champion, Ruiz, who has shot in an extraordinary number of locations, countries and languages, and with all sizes of budget, effortlessly slips into the aesthetic landscape of another, and transforms it into his – as a true auteur, in the original sense of the word. (17) Moreover, in this case, Ruiz took the TV component part of the assignment seriously enough to further serialise Castelo Branco’s original novel (something resembling Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, but in Lisbon) in the shape of the telenovelas he loved as a young man, while instilling a dose of the fantastic, surreal and dark humour that defines his cinema. The (mis)recognitions abounding in the original novel have now become figures of the uncanny…

In an obscurely provincial town of the Portuguese 19th century, young João (later he will be called Pedro: don’t ask why, as least not too seriously) pines in the loneliness of a catholic boarding school; the other boys taunt him as being “the son of Father Dinis”, the principal. A fight, a blow, the boy loses consciousness. In fever’s heavy vapours, he sees that a beautiful woman has come to visit him. It’s his long-lost mother, the Countess of Santa Bárbara (Maria João Bastos)… In his subsequent quest for meaning or a place in the world, João/Pedro (Alfonso Pimentel) will traverse several countries, mingle with the aristocratic demi-monde, always a bit out of sync in the games of society as well as those of love (the sequence of a duel he was supposed to fight to win a lady’s affection shows him as nothing much than a ghostly appearance… was he even there?) While his first-person narration brackets the diegesis, Pedro ends up somewhat eradicating himself, or turning into a small speck, a vanishing point, in the general scheme of things. Even the voice expressing his point of view turns out, in the last sequence, to be that of an anonymous black man reading the memoirs he’s left behind after his death in Brazil. Yet, Ruiz maintains an ambiguity about the time this death may have occurred… maybe João never became Pedro, and the blow received in the boarding school was fatal…

Keeping Pedro as an unresolved enigma – or at least a narrative trope in quest of a real existence – Ruiz refocuses his storytelling skills on two protagonists whose appetite for life couldn’t be confined to a single identity: Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), a man who has buried his shady past under his cassock, while remaining the confidante of titled ladies in distress; and Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira), a former hired assassin, who reinvents himself (probably in the slave trade) to become the darling of high society. Backed by lavish set and costume design (the entire film is shot in studio), Ruiz has a lot of fun fashioning Magalhães’s colourful persona, down to his extravagant pale leather boots, to his mania for art collection (“put the cat here!”), to his fondness for the weaker sex. Rejected by him, a French aristocrat, Elisa de Monfort (Clotilde Hesme) is obsessed by her desire to seek revenge. Pedro falls in love with her… but discovers, alas, that the flamboyant adventurer is his benefactor. Meanwhile Magalhães lives in marital bliss with Eugénia (Joana de Verona), former maid/mistress once part of the plan designed by the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo) to torment his hapless wife (of course…)

Ruiz stages all these coincidences with exquisite one-shot sequences unfolding like tableaux vivants. The visual choices of the mise en scène (frontal shooting, painterly framing and composition, relationship between the human figure and the architecture or a trompe l’oeil décor) suggest, as they already did in The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, that a non-human gaze is looking upon the travails of these protagonists, their change of identity and their change of setting. As Lacan had lectured in his 1964 seminar (by a coincidence? the book was published in 1973, the year Ruiz arrived in Paris), “I see only from one point, but, in my existence I am looked at from all sides… We are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world. That which makes us consciousness institutes us by the same token as speculum mundi.” (18) Ruiz assigns a locus to this non-human gaze cast upon his cunning or unconscious protagonists: it is nothing but Time itself – the master puppeteer that manipulates and distorts anything resembling an “identity”.

As proven by his adaptation of Proust, Ruiz is a master at finding cinematic solution to translate “the passing time, the stalled time, the time that repeats itself”. (19) Resorting to multiple narrations and interlocking flashbacks, he builds an expansive labyrinth and weaves a shimmering texture, “in which the identification [of the spectator] slips from one character to the next”. (20) Each piece of the puzzle matches another one, opening up an unsuspected perspective, orchestrating a new mechanism, a garden of delights in which the protagonists are simultaneously tortured and enchanted. And this where, in his vision of on how the erosion of time shapes fluid identities while obstructing our perception of the present moment – that he meets Olivier Assayas.

Part II – We were there, but we only saw it on television

Os Mistérios and Carlos have already been written about as “the best work” of Ruiz and Assayas respectively. Both films result from a fruitful exchange between an ambitious producer (Daniel Leconte brought the project of Carlos to Assayas) and a gifted filmmaker, and both, due to their length and serial structure, entertain a relationship with television, albeit a contradictory one. They reach an elegant compromise between high-quality, yet “popular” television, and art cinema aimed at cinephiles willing to devote time to see the piece in one go. (21)

Both films render the mechanism of identification problematic. Slippery and serendipitous for Ruiz, identification in Assayas’ work rests on a position of contiguity. Ruiz and Assayas are skillful at (re)creating the fabric of an era, because they conceive the protagonist (and the spectator) as a lonely island slightly outside the unfolding of time. Time vanishes like cold water, because we were never in the water, but casting a side-long glance at it, from the bank of the river. (22) Ruiz stages this alienation of the subject from the fabric of time by remaining on the surface of intricately composed tableaux; Assayas by jumping in the middle of the action – but in an oblique, tangential way. You were there, as a witness, as a sometime participant, but the reality of what happened escaped you.

Eschewing the trappings of the biopic – psychology, cult of the hero – Assayas catches Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) mid-stream, between the fated year 1973 (Four Concepts of Psychoanalysis, coup in Chile), when Waddie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) makes him number two in the European network of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); and 1994, when he is snatched in a Khartoum hospital by the French Secret Services who promptly brought him to stand trial in Paris: no cute or sinister growing-up tales, no face-to-face with oneself within the four walls of a cell. He reinserts Carlos, in his hyper-visibility and cocky media profile, in the texture of the times he traversed – and that we traversed with him.

I am of the same generation as Assayas – none of us knew Carlos, but we must have known people who did. These were the dog years of the post-1968 era, with their failures, their regrets, their repression. The 1973 Chile coup was another blow to our dreams; the Palestinian cause was popular in left-wing circles; dissidents, political refugees from all over the world were flocking to Paris; many of us embraced the ideology of “ThirdWorldism” (the Revolution will be made in the Third World first, not in industrialised nations); others sought models from the “revolution of everyday life” taking place in the communes of California (sexual freedom, experiments with drugs). We would live in these shared apartments enlivened which hashish-and-music parties, where courageous or silly girls were putting up and bedding strange men without fixed addresses, where, in a corner, guys were having a hushed conversation in a language you didn’t understand. You could have been hanging out in rue Toullier (the site of Carlos’s first highly publicised murders in 1975), it was only a few blocks from the Sorbonne…

For some Anglo-Saxon spectators who only discovered Assayas with Irma Vep (1996), a worn-out cliché reigns supreme – that there would be “two Olivier Assayas”: one exquisitely crafting intimate family or relationship dramas, such as Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September, 1998) or L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008); and one coining genre fictions sweeping several countries and dealing head-on with globalisation: demonlover (2002) or Boarding Gate (2007). Paradoxically, considering its event-packed structure, Carlos proves that this facile categorisation misses the point. In both “types” of movies, Assayas displays the same gaze: the camera always glides over people, never letting you believe that you can get “inside” them, what they think, what they feel; and, whether big (the kidnapping of the OPEC delegates in Carlos) or small (the decision of which heirloom to give to a deceased mother’s old retainer in Summer Hours), “events” are shot in the same way, as an accretion of minute, yet complex decisions; of out-of-sync bodies competing for leg room in a claustrophobic space. It’s through this attention to detail that Carlos leaves you with an almost-intimate impression of a terrorist life-style. The crash-pads of Paris’ Latin Quarter, the unmade beds in which to steal a few hours of sleep and a few moments of sex, the caches to pack and hide weapons, the grey East German apartments, the posh hotel rooms, the coffee-shops, the parking structures, the airfield tarmacs, the little cars, the back exits, the streets with their swallowing anonymity…

Unlike the media that Carlos knew so well how to play up to, Assayas does not use a magnifying glass to depict his subject. Under his gaze, and in Carlos’s hands, terrorism becomes a family affair, and this is what makes it so disturbing. In the protracted mess that followed the taking of hostages in the OPEC Conference in Vienna, Hans-Joachim Klein (Christoph Bach), whom Carlos had convinced to join the operation, suffers a severe bullet wound, and Carlos goes through extreme demands to make sure that he is treated, put on the plane with him, and eventually saves his life. There is nothing heroic about this, and Assayas does not imply any homoerotic bond between the two men. It’s just the thing you do to protect the people in your extended family. You could be in love with your wife, the alluring and free-spirited Magdalena Kopp (Nora Von Waldtätten) and oppress her like any two-bit Latin macho; dote on your little daughter and get blow jobs from STASI agents posing as East German hookers; sleep with other women, kill people for a fee after having killed for ideological reasons, and then kill people again because your wife is in jail and you want to use terror to negotiate her release with the French authorities.

Assayas’ cinema creates the illusion that you are experiencing, from inside, the atmosphere of a lost time – the era of pre-September 11 terrorism in Carlos, or, in his first feature, Désordre (1986), the moment a bunch of high-school musicians were still friends. He does this through a series of oblique touches, while paying attention to the details that make the ever-slippery dynamic of a group or extended family. The film that Carlos echoes is not Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008), in which the complex portrait of the Argentine revolutionary still partakes of the cult of the hero, but L’Avocat de la terreur (Terror’s Advocate, 2007) by Barbet Schroeder, a fascinating documentary about the trial lawyer Jacques Vergès. Carlos’ and Vergès’ lives intersected in more than one way. After being an idealist left-wing lawyer defending one of the icons of the Algerian Revolution, Djamila Bouhired (whom he later married), Vergès disappeared for 8 years. Reappearing in 1978, he became a publicity-seeking lawyer-for-hire for defendants the public loved to hate, including Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Anis Naccache (the second-in-command of the hostage-taking operation, played by Rodney El-Haddad in the film) Magdalena Kopp… and Carlos himself. At the heart of both men’s persona, there is a black hole, an alchemical still turning gold into lead. I disagree with those who think that “Carlos had no ideology”. He was a believer, once. So was Vergès, and a lot of people we knew. History, however, slowly erases many things in its wake, creating a terrain of shifting values. Freedom fighters turned into nationalists, the cause of the revolution became harder to pinpoint and the new nations-states had money to spend. The Berlin Wall came down, and, as Carlos says in the film, “the war is over, and we lost it”. A well-oiled machine of terror can survive itself, for while, running on empty. And that’s why, taking another stance against the mainstream critical reception of the film, the part in which I find the most accurate representation of our times is the last episode, when Carlos is on his way to becoming obsolescent. After the adrenaline-fuelled ride of the first two volets, you get a troubling glimpse at a hollowed structure – the past of an illusion.

Vancouver International Film Festival
30 September – 15 October 2010
Festival website: http://www.viff.org/festival/


  1. The film is loosely inspired by the book of the same title written by the Buddhist Abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti, and from which this quote is excerpted.
  2. Albert Dubout (1905–76), one of the most famous French illustrators and cartoonists, published more than 80 volumes of drawings during his lifetime. He also illustrated Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy” (Marius, Fanny, César) and Frédéric Dard’s San Antonio saga. He is famous for his scenes of crowd (including a famous drawing on the Liberation of Paris), his “fat-ladies-married-to-little-men”, his satire of the tourism industry, and his loving and humorous portraits of cats – animals he was markedly fond of.
  3. Sophie Tatischeff (1946-2001) became an editor and worked on her father’s Play Time (1967), Trafic (Traffic, 1971) and Parade (1974), as well as on films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Tony Gatliff, François Weyergans and Coline Serreau. She directed a short, Dégustation Maison (1976) and a feature Le Comptoir (1988). She produced a colour version of Jour de fête (1949), using colour footage shot at the same time as the monochrome stock. In the 1970s, she was also involved in running the historical movie theatre L’Arlequin, in Paris’s 6th quarter (founded in 1934, it had been bought by Tati in 1962).
  4. The feline overtones given the White Rabbit would be another proof that Chomet’s inspiration is closer to Dubout (see note 1) than Lewis Carroll.
  5. Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist Press Kit http://www.sonyclassics.com/theillusionist/presskit.pdf
  6. Chinese New Year takes place in February, ie in the dead of winter.
  7. Li Hongqi (born 1976), a graduate from the painting department of Beijing’s China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) became involved with the Nanjing-based group of “Tamen” poets. He published a poetry anthology, Lin Chuang Jing Yan (Cure) and a novel, Xingyun’r (Lucky Bastard, 2004) before directing Hao duo da mi (So Much Rice, 2005) and Huangjin zhou (Routine Holiday, 2008).
  8. The novella has been translated into English by Julia Lowell in the collection I Love Dollars and Other Stories from China, Columbia U Press, New York, 2007.
  9. Information on Mao Yan and his “Thomas Series” can be found in Peng Lai, “Being Colorless: A Special Interview with Mao Yan” in ArtZine, A Chinese Contemporary Art Portal, 2008, http://new.artzinechina.com/display.php?a=813, retrieved December 13, 2010 (even though I disagree with some of the author’s conclusions)
  10. Shangguan Yunzhu acted in landmark leftist films before 1949, such as Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli’s Yi jiang chunshui xiang dong liu (Spring River Flows East, 1947) and Zheng Junli’s Wuya yu maque (Crows and Sparrows, 1949). But her last two films, Xie Tieli’s Zaochun eryue (Early Spring in February, 1963) and Xie Jin’s Wutai jiemei (Stage Sisters, 1965) were branded “venomous flowers” during the Cultural Revolution.
  11. Hao Jie, “Director’s Statement”, e-mail sent August 12, 2010.
  12. André Breton, “Le Verbe Être” in Clair de Terre (lit: “Earthlight” or “Under the Light of the Earth”), Gallimard, Paris, 1966, p. 120 (originally published in Le Révolver à cheveux blancs/The White-Haired Revolver, 1932). Automatic writing poetry, translation mine.
  13. Born out of wedlock (like the protagonist of Os Mistérios) and having studied on and off for the priesthood (in a way that somewhat parallels Father Dinis’ chequered career in the same novel), Camilo Castelo Branco was the most prolific of Portuguese writers, and also the first one who had been able to make a living through his writing. He published more than 260 novels, plays and essays. He wrote Amor de Perdição (1862 – later adapted by Manoel de Oliveira, see below) during a stint in jail. Oliveira continued to express his fascination for the writer by recounting one of his doomed love affairs in Francisca (1981) and directing a film inspired by his suicide, O Dia do Desespero (Day of Despair, 1992).
  14. Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, Le Père de mes enfants (The Father of my Children, 2009), a drama loosely inspired by the last weeks of Balsam’s life, give an accurate idea of the travails of an independent French producer.
  15. Issue 303, June 1979, p. 71.
  16. Pierre Klossowski (1905—2001), older brother of the painter Balthus (1908-2001). Main publications: Sade mon prochain (1947), La Vocation suspendue (1950, Roberte ce soir (1954), Le Bain de Diane (1956), Le Baphomet (1965), Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux (1969). Ruiz’s The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting draws influence from several of Klossowski’s books, including Le Bain de Diane and Le Baphomet.
  17. Transformed in translation (by the US critic Andrew Sarris in the 1960s) into “author theory”, la politique des auteurs was originally a critical tool designed to uncover the original vision of the world expressed through their mise en scène by directors working within the studio system; the mistranslation allowed for an unfortunate slip to designate “idiosyncratic” filmmakers working independently. In many a public pronouncement, Serge Daney rephrased the original meaning by defining an auteur someone who sait tirer son épingle du jeu (“play one’s game well” – literally it means: “to draw one’s ante out the game”) to benefit (often playfully) from the “system” imposed upon him/her.
  18. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, Livre XI – Les Quatre concepts de la psychanalyse, Le Seuil, Paris, 1973, p. 95. Translated by Alan Sheridan in Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Norton, New York, 1978, p. 72 and p. 75.
  19. Raul Ruiz, interview with Elisabeth Lequeret, Radio France Internationale http://www.rfi.fr/france/20101029-raul-ruiz-mysteres-lisbonne-sont-une-novela-bresilienne, retrieved December 4, 2010. Translation mine.
  20. Ibid.
  21. There is a difference. Carlos exists as a 330-minute TV mini-series of three episodes (broadcast in May 2010 on Canal Plus in France and October on the Sundance Channel in the US) and a theatrical version of 140 minutes. Cannes and a number of film festivals such as Vancouver have organised theatrical screenings of the “long version: and in countries where the film has been released theatrically in its shorter cut, “special screenings” of the 330 min. version have also taken place. The 272 min. cut of Os Mistérios is the theatrical version of the film. The mini-series of six one-hour episodes has not been shown theatrically. According to Ruiz (San Sebastian Film Festival press conference) it would shed light on the mysterious relationship of Father Dinis and the woman he introduces as his sister, a nun in a cloistered convent… among other fascinating details.
  22. Here I am alluding to the title and the theme of Assayas’s L’eau froide (Cold Water, 1994).

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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