Two important figures of the cinephilic landscape left Los Angeles in 2010. One was Rose Kuo, who since 2007 had assumed the direction of the AFI Film Festival; the other was Scott Foundas, film editor of The LA Weekly. Both are now working for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York – one as its executive director, the other as its associate director of programming. Some were wondering if Foundas’s departure was a sign that the profession of film critic was in crisis. More specifically, a beloved US institution, the flurry of locally-based “alternative” weeklies that graced the country is under threat. One after one, they have fallen into the corporate trap: The LA Weekly now belongs to The Village Voice Media, which owns 17 alternative weeklies from New York City (The Village Voice) to San Francisco.

During the last couple of years of his tenure, Foundas had to devote more time and editorial space to review mainstream cinema, but he always managed to support indie and experimental screenings. In his last piece, he (in)famously wrote “relatively speaking, the aesthetic, technological and ideological leaps taken by avant-garde filmmaker James Benning — from his final work on 16mm celluloid, 2007’s elegiac railroad travelogue RR, to his debut in the digital realm, 2009’s Ruhr — are no less dramatic than those made by James Cameron from Titanic to Avatar.” (1) We’ll see if, under its new film editor, Karina Longworth (the founder of the blog Cinematical and the former editor of BlogSpout), the Weekly will continue to make such bold conceptual leaps between the micro and the macro, between personal, one-man-crew avant-garde cinema and multi-million dollars Hollywood blockbusters. Change within continuity was also the motto of the AFI’s new director, Jacqueline Lyanga – a long-term programmer of the Festival as well as a graduate from the AFI Conservatory – as her team have maintained what will remain Kuo’s most enduring contribution. Since 2009, thanks to the Festival’s major sponsor (officially, AFI is called “AFI FEST, presented by Audi”), access to screening is free. As publicist John Wildman stated, “believe it or not, it is actually very difficult to give out free tickets in Los Angeles!” (2) Patrons rushed to warehouse the tickets available on the internet. Screenings were posted as sold-out, long queues waited in front of the theatres. It all turned all right, and, joy of joys, in the City of Angels, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives played in front of a sold-out crowd.

Free Radicals and Loose Cannons

AFI FEST also continued to invite various presenting organizations throughout Los Angeles to host special screenings as “Community and Cultural Supporters”. (3) The Los Angeles Filmforum, the city’s longest running membership organisation dedicated to the presentation of experimental and avant-garde work, was “sponsoring” a screening of Free Radicals, directed by US-expat- in-Paris, Pip Chodorov. The grandson of playwright/screenwriter/producer Jerome Chodorov, who was blacklisted in 1953 for failure to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he started to make films as a child with an amateur camera. He got involved in distribution while continuing to make experimental films. This led him to Light Cone, a Paris-based cooperative founded in 1982 by filmmakers Yann Beauvais and Miles McKane for the distribution of 16mm and super-8 print of avant-garde films – from Peggy Ahwesh, Patrick Bokanowski and Stan Brakhage to Trinh T. Minh-ha, Peter Tscherkassky and John Whitney. (4) In 1994, he founded Re:Voir, dedicated to the video distribution of the same films. (5) Free Radicals is both an autobiography and a documentary of the ground-breaking contributions made by luminaries of the avant-garde to an idea of artistic utopia born after the war. The most precious moments occur when Chodorov reproduces – sometimes in extenso – some gems of the masters, such as Len Lye’s early experiments with colours, shapes, textures and dyes when he was working for the General Post Office (Chodorov’s Free Radicals is named after Len Lye’s 1958 short film, a symphony of carefully designed scratches on a black-and-white emulsion, which was added to the US National Film Registry in 2008).

Chodorov’s Free Radicals is both exhilarating and infuriating. For those who are interested in the cinematic avant-garde and want to know more about it, it’s a wonderful, entertaining introduction. Those of us who have spent hours on the seats of Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives in New York or attended avant-garde film series feel at home in this serendipitous stroll through places and with people we love, catching a glimpse of well-known curators and filmmakers chatting in a Viennese café, watching one of Brakhage’s last interviews, absorbing or discovering treasured masterpieces… Well, but some of us, also, are women – women who shared the utopia that avant-garde cinema was going to change, if not the world-at-large, at least something in the culture. And, apart from the voice of critic/historian Cecile Starr, (6) from a few shots of MM Serra (in her role as Director of the New York’s Filmmakers Coop, without mentioning she is also a curator and filmmaker), (7) and a subliminal image from Jackie Raynal’s maverick masterpiece, Deux Fois, (8) women aren’t mentioned (which, in the case of Raynal is doubly paradoxical, since she worked on the editing of the film…), as the film discusses, instead, the lives, aesthetics and achievements of grand old men such as Hans Richter, Peter Kubelka, Michael Snow or Jonas Mekas. Questioned about this point during the Q & A session, Chodorov had very good reasons (if I remember correctly, it has to do with Maya Deren and Marie Menken being dead, and the focus of his research being on filmmakers who had started to work before the late 1960s) – but don’t they always have good reasons to eliminate women from history – especially from the history of the avant-garde?

Talking from the point of view of the margin (such as avant-garde practices), however, opens up different issues – we are no longer dealing with History with a capital H, but with history with a minor case, or histories in the plural. As experimental cinema has been trying to do away with the vanishing point and the master gaze, maybe we shouldn’t expect from these “minor histories” to have a “vanishing point” either; they are a rough-edged patchwork of conflicting points of view, tales recounted by those who went through the experience, do-it-yourself history by those who lived it, always with a subjective tinge.

Through an interesting effect of montage, the screening following Free Radicals in the section Alt Art was Blank City by French newcomer Céline Dahnier. Born too late for a first-hand experience of the heydays of the “blank generation”, Dahnier became fascinated by what she knew about it, and spent a couple of years of research and interviews. The history of the No-Wave/punk art/film/music scene in the 1970s eschews the teleological trappings in which the chronicling of “the avant-garde” often falls. For one, it is an interrupted history, the memories of a trenches war recounted from the point of view of the survivors. There is no immediate continuity. A number of artists died – AIDS, drug overdose, freak accidents; those who are still alive have either stopped making films or doing completely different work – Jim Jarmusch, whose first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), partook of the same sensibility, being a notable exception. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of art school graduates or drop-outs, and foreigners, attracted by the mystique of New York, started making films that were in direct reaction against minimalist or conceptual art. They were narratives, haunted by Hollywood B-movies, thriving on bad acting and provocative lines delivered by catatonic divas or freaks on speed. They sprung out of the broken up streets of the East Village, the blighted neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, the red-light district of 42nd street at its seediest; they were quickly and cheaply made, with thrift-store costumes and garish colours; they were funny, raw, nihilist, sexual, increasingly violent. And you could dance to them – they were screened in clubs as often as in galleries, revamped storefronts or off-beat art venues.

These punk kids felt they had missed the train, that the future was blank. They worshiped Warhol, Jack Smith and William Burroughs, but the Golden Sixties were over. Warhol was filthy rich, hanging out with socialites in Studio 54 and snubbing them. So they opened Club 57 and the Pyramid in the East Village. Soho had become too expensive; they rented former working-class apartments in cockroach-infested buildings of the Lower East Side. Their paintings became small, they discovered super-8, that could be edited in a small kitchen. They hung out at CBGB on the Bowery, with Patti Smith, the Voidoids or William Burroughs.

It was a world in which the margin and the centre were perpetually reshuffled, where women, drag queens, foreigners and minorities had their fifteen minutes of fame. Vivienne Dick (She Got Her Gun All Ready, 1978; Liberty’s Booty, 1980) came from Dublin; Eric Mitchell (Red Italy, 1979; Underground USA, 1980) from France; Amos Poe (The Blank Generation, 1976; The Foreigner, 1978) from Israel; Michael Oblowitz (King Blank, 1983) from South Africa; Anders Grafstrom (The Long Island Four, 1980) from Sweden; while counter-tenor Klaus Nomi (1944-1983), the diva of many a queer night and the star of The Long Island Four, was a Bavarian import. Others expanded their racial and cultural horizons within New York itself, going as far as the South Bronx: Charlie Ahearn set The Deadly Art of Survival (1979) in a martial arts club for black kids, and his 1982 film, Wild Style, was the first to give a voice to the subculture of Chicano graffiti artists (Lee Quinones) and rap pioneers (Grand Master Flash, Fab Five Freddy, etc.); Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) explored black dyke night-clubs in Brooklyn, and other motley feminist groups in Lower Manhattan.

Dahnier mixes excerpts of these ephemeral films (shot in super-8, those that have not been transferred to tape have disappeared) with interviews of the people who made “the scene”, such as the (now-separated) couple of Beth and Scott B, who together directed a series of cult flicks: The Black Box (1979), Vortex (1983) or the 1979-89 “serial” The Offenders – with one episode shot, edited and screened every week. At almost every twist and turn, one encounters the formidable presence of singer/writer/performer extraordinaire Lydia Lunch, who made her first film with Vivienne Dick in 1978, and then worked with almost every No Wave filmmaker: James Nares, the Bs, Amos Poe. Through her collaboration with Nick Zedd and Richard Kern, she becomes our guide in a descent into darkness: Zedd’s The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983) and Kern’s Submit to Me (1985) and Fingered (1986) launched the trend of violently sexual, up-in-your-face tasteless films that eventually unravelled the movement. What has started as tongue-and-cheek rebellion and campy fun became grating and sinister, maybe because the people you were hanging out or making films with were losing their lives to heroin or to a disease nobody understood at the time. (9) Sometimes history is made in the footnotes, in a flush of creative energy, in the misspent hours of boredom and despair; Dahnier captures the hits and misses of this party that ended too soon, this utopia that almost never was.

David Lynch’s career also began, para-punk fashion, in the 1970s. Invited to curate a slate of six films as the Festival Guest Artistic Director, he started the series with a scrumptious double bill, in which he paired his first feature, Eraserhead (1976) with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Correspondences? A mutant baby in one film, a dead monkey in the other with Norma Desmond’s face turning into a grimacing vision, the real fear being that the pictures may become small – a fear that Lynch has somewhat addressed in his oeuvre. In Eraserhead, the black-and-white, chosen for its cheapness at the time, embodies an aesthetic choice as well – horror is born in the passage between light and darkness, heightened and made more dramatic by the quality of the stock. What the four other films programmed by Lynch – more exploration of black-and-white with Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1972); explosions of colour in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) – have in common is the problematisation of the gaze. Be careful about what you wish to see; it may happen…

Silent screams

Beyond the cinephilic treat organised by Lynch, beyond the red-carpet presentation of soon-to-be-Oscarised films (Tom Hooper’s The King Speech, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan), AFI FEST brings to Los Angeles snippets of world cinema that may otherwise not be screened there. Coming out of a little-known country, Chad (so far from the sea that it’s sometimes called the “desert heart of Africa”), haunted by a forgotten civil war (that has been lingering since 1965), Un Homme qui crie (A Screaming Man) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (10) – the winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes – masterfully questions and reformulates what we thought we knew about African cinema. Colonialism has come and gone, after destroying the traditional structures of kinship and belief. Africa is alone, less and less involved in world trade, and, except for South Africa, its cinematic output seems to have decreased, or be less present in international circuits. The scream alluded to in Haroun’s title is muted, internal, no less devastating – echoing Langston’s Hughes’s poem of a “dream deferred” (“does it explode?”) or the title of Chester Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). The post-liberation African dream is imploding, and the protagonist is silently hollering at himself.

Chad is privatising its economy, the hotel where Adam (Youssouf Djaoro,) a former swimming champion, works as a swimming instructor, is now owned by Madame Wang, the representative of a Chinese corporation. Adam is a man proud of his job; he has trained his son, Abdel (Diouc Koma), the apple in his eye, to work with him by the pool. Abdel is handsome, women can’t take their eyes off him, his muscles ripple under his clean shirts, he effortlessly wins mock endurance competitions with his father. The economy is bad, there are talks of streamlining. After 30 years of service, the cook is the first to go; then the security guard. In a distant echo of Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), Adam is demoted from swimming instructor to guarding the gate, under a sun, in an ill-fitted uniform. Abdel will fulfil his duties by the pool…

In traditional patriarchal societies, a man must provide for his family members, but he also, horrifyingly, has the right to dispose of theirs lives. Adam had honestly tried to play the game of modernity; when the new structures fail him, he resorts, maybe unconsciously, to an antiquated mode of behaviour, made more hideous by the presence of the civil war. Men are asked to sacrifice their sons, to send them to the army, under the half-believed promise of quick promotion. Does Adam succumb to the pressure of the recruiting official? Does he want to enact vengeance on his own son for having taken his job? Or is he sacrificing Abdel as an almost sacred offering, in exchange of for masculine pride? Only he knows. And maybe he does not. Maybe the decision was made for him, by the war, by the economy, by Africa’s blighted destiny…

War kills, wounds, maims the many sons sent to fight. While setting the stage for a solitary journey in which, in the last third of the film, a man drives an inadequate motorbike through dangerous territories to find his lost son, Haroun does not fall into the trap of the heroic rescue or the happy ending. The film ends how it started – with the bodies of father and son in water, but, instead of the hotel pool under a radiant sun, it’s the loneliness of Lake Chad at night, the darkness engulfing the story. Haroun prevents the spectator from seeing Adam’s last steps – and the only cries we hear are those of passing birds, way up in the sky. No scream. Because, if we are to take seriously Aimé Césaire’s poem that appears before the credits, it would be obscene to stage this scream: Life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a screaming man is not a dancing bear.

In each of his films I have seen, Haroun weaves an elliptical mise en scène that embraces, sometimes within the framework of one shot, minute details and larger issues. In the dry poetry of the Chadian landscape, a man can both hallucinate, lose his soul, and face the mystery of the universe; man is insignificant against the desert vastness, yet he is a universe in himself. While retaining its acute specificity, the doomed love story between Adam and Abdel becomes a metaphor for the division of Chad; and this little-known country metonymically stands for Africa; the continent itself is uneasily swept in the wind of globalisation… There were a few other films in the program that suggested a historical/sociological context while focusing on small issues, without ever turning them into mere symptoms. Pablo Trapero’s gripping neo-noir drama, Carancho, is one of such films. With his second feature, El Bonaerense (2002, the story of a small-town locksmith getting a job in one of the toughest – and most corrupt – police stations in Buenos Aires), Trapero became an important new voice in Argentine cinema. Also shot in Buenos Aires, Carancho draws its argument from the large number of people who get killed in car accidents in the capital – and the seedy milieu of middlemen, insurance brokers, lawyers, complacent medical staff, policemen on the take, money-laundering gangsters and the likes that take advantage of the situation. Lost in the middle are the Buenos Aires poor – salarymen, housewives or unemployed – who get conned out of their compensation money.

Even more lost are our two protagonists: the beautiful Luján (Martina Gusman, already noticed as a young mother behind bars in Trapero’s La Leonera/The Lion’s Den, 2008), an overworked emergency room doctor from the provinces who shoots speed to stay awake; and Sosa (Ricardo Darín), an ex-lawyer whose license has been suspended, who has fallen in with a shady crowd and shoots to dull a pain that seems buried in his handsome, craggy face. They meet over the stretcher of an accident victim; they meet again; she is (justly) suspicious; yet they fall in love; she falls into his world of dirty deals, double-crossings and back-room bloody roughing up; she falls asleep in his arms and he watches over her. The evil that lurks in the streets of Buenos Aires is no less frightening than the demons each of these flawed lovers harbour in themselves. Where did it all start? In a society that is falling apart? Who is mirroring whom? For an instant of grace, before the ultimate fall, Luján and Sosa just look in each other’s eyes.

In The Human Resources Manager (Shlichuto Shel HaMemune Al Mashabei Enosh) by veteran Israeli director Eran Riklis, (11) the characters don’t have a name: in the story, they are identified by their function in society, in their family. When Yulia enters the diegesis, she has already been in the morgue for a few days, the victim of a suicide bomber; the naming process takes place for reasons of legal identification. A sad, but routine fact, barely worth a few lines in a newspaper. As it happens, an obnoxious journalist (Guri Alfi) tracks down the young woman – a Romanian immigrant – to the industrial bakery where the HR manager (Mark Ivanir) works, and smells a rat. Turns out that the bakery owners were unaware that one of their former employees had died, and an accusatory article is written. To ward off the scandal, the HR manager is sent to escort the coffin back to Romania, and, little by little, fragments of Yulia’s life and dreams come floating to the surface. The second half of the film unfolds as a picaresque road movie in the almost surreal landscape of post-socialist Romania – until, in a dirt-poor village, Yulia’s mother (Irina Petrescu) finally speaks… and utters a few sad and suprising words. A small death, a small story, a grain of sand in the mechanism of Israeli progressive modernity – “how could we not know?” – that opens the protagonist’s eyes (and ours) to the hidden world of migrant workers that our industrialised societies rely on.

The art of the small form

It is also a small story that Mike Ott (12) has chosen for his second feature, Little Rock, co-written with the female star, Atsuko Okatsuka. The car of a couple of Japanese siblings, Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) and his sister Atsuko, breaks down in the small California town of Little Rock, that seems to be mostly populated by slow-slacking, high-partying disaffected youths. A few female figures appear here and there, raising the body count at parties, or glimpsed at through a bedroom window, but the characters pitted against Atsuko’s enigmatic persona are all male. Stuck in a cheap motel for a few days, Atsuko and Rinturo stumble into a party. Rinturo speaks enough English to understand that these are not people that, in his proper Japanese upbringing, he would like to become friends with. Protected by her non-knowledge of the language, Atsuko finds them absolutely fascinating.

This is a story of the male gaze. All the boys find Atsuko exotic and try to make her, some awkwardly like the forever tumbling Cory (Cory Zacharia), who nonetheless becomes her “best friend”, another by playing the game – a date, good music, looking cool – and reaping the benefits. This is also a story of female desire. Atsuko may not be able to make herself understood, but she no longer has to listen to what the males around her are saying. She obviously likes the boy who beds her, and, speaking her mind, tells her brother he can go to San Francisco by himself, while she stays in Little Rock. Meanwhile, she sends elaborate email messages to her father, in which she lies about being in San Francisco and “getting closer to Rinturo.” In these linguistic interstices, Atsuko finds a new freedom – which includes the freedom of sleeping with the wrong man.

Atsuko’s body is constantly framed by the camera, the obvious stares, the furtive glimpses. Co-written by the actress (who, like most of the protagonists, has the same name as her character), the film is nonetheless improvised, which creates a tension between the way she inhabits the space and how the other performers circle around her, as if to compete for screen time. Little Rock eventually, ever so slightly, opens up toward a problematic of the Other. Atsuko discovers racism – tension between whites and blacks, exploitation of the Mexican restaurant worker (Roberto “Sanz” Sanchez). Another layer is discretely brought in a brief exchange between Rinturo and his sister: after San Francisco, they had planned to go to Manzanar. At this point, most US spectators won’t have a clue; later, when Atsuko leaves Little Rock to follow her brother and goes to Manzanar with him, they understand that it is the first internment camp where Japanese Americans were imprisoned after World War II (a total of 120,000 people were interned as “enemy aliens” more than 11,000 in Manzanar alone). Atsuko’s and Rinturo’s grandfather was one of the inmates; their father hates America; Atsuko wonders what her life would have been if she had been born there…

Ott acknowledged that Manzanar came late in the conception of the film, almost as an afterthought, and, to some, the introduction of this additional level of alienation, going from the small form to a larger History, is not entirely mastered. It does not need to be. Ott knows his limitations, and gracefully points at them rather than eradicating them. Manzanar constitutes a vanishing point, a gaping into the unknown. Wisely he does not subtitle Atsuko’s lines once she splits with Rinturo (it will be interesting to see how Little Rock plays to a Japanese audience), so she is both transparent and opaque, open and close, a part of her forever escaping the mise en scène.

On the other hand, for his second feature after the award-winning J’ai tué ma mère, (13) 21 year-old French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan polishes the small form, focusing on the minute, yet formidable, vagaries of desire. In Les Amours imaginaires (Heartbeats – a more accurate translation would be “imaginary loves), classy Marie (Monia Chokri), with a taste for fifties vintage clothing and high-heel shoes, is best friends with Francis (Nolan himself). Together, they meet handsome Nicolas (Neils Schneider), who befriends them. They both fall in love with him, obsessively, and wage a ferocious yet affectionate duel of wits, bitchiness and seduction to “have” him against the other. Nolan has a knack for drawing exquisite performances out of his actors (and himself) and the fortitude to keeps the diegesis strictly within this alluring love triangle. An “obscure object of desire” par excellence, Nicolas is just too much of everything – elegant, cultivated, rich, open-minded – but mostly silent about his own feelings or non-feelings until the end – a bit like André Dussolier in Rohmer’s Le Beau Mariage (1982).

Dolan’s approach is classical; his protagonists are Racinian heroes, delicately, yet violently, absorbed in their feelings and nothing else – pulled out of 17th century French tragedies of the boudoir (Andromaque or Bérénice) into 21st century Montréal – and still graced with a Greek chorus commenting on the action, under the guise of a theory of fake witnesses, who, shot frontally, expound their own stories of obsessive love and subsequent heartbreaks. And well-chosen popular love songs provides an echo chamber for Marie and Francis’s erotic daydreaming. What is more beautiful than a young girl, clad in a tight purple dress, shot in slow-mo as she yields to the ecstasy of walking toward the object of her desire, while Dalida sings “Bang Bang” in Italian?

Wind from the east: two heroines

Scheduled to coincide with the Festival, the AFM brought about 7,000 film professionals to Santa Monica, and boasted of having more than US$800 millions in deals concluded during its eight-day run. The AFM is also a good place to watch films, if you don’t mind solitude – as everybody is busy wheeling and dealing, you can have an entire theatre almost to yourself. In the last few years, Asian cinema, and especially Chinese films, had steadily increased their foray into the Market. 14 Hong Kong companies (including the multi-national Fortissimo, with headquarters in both Amsterdam and Hong Kong) had pooled resources in the Atrium around the booth of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), which also produces the FilmArt market and the Hong Kong Art Film Financing Forum (HAF) every spring at the time of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. In the industry screenings, Mega-Vision Pictures Limited presented De xian chao fan (All About Love), Ann Hui’s first comedy in years, and certainly her first lesbian romance, an enjoyable faux-fluff variation on the psychosexual mores of contemporary Hongkies, that is ironical (poking gentle fun at the fear of commitment that seems to be plaguing the best minds of our generation), sympathetic and elegant. Hui is no stranger to comedy, a genre she masterfully illustrated as early as in her second feature, Zhuang dao zheng (The Spooky Bunch, 1980). In 1994, for what is often considered her most beautiful film, Nu ren si shi (Summer Snow), she tapped again onto the fabulous comedic talents of Josephine Siao Fong Fong. In the exhilarating Yima de houxiandai shenghuo (The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt, 2006), she allowed Chow Yun-fat to reconnect with the comedian he could have been (and was in his early films, up and including John Woo’s Zong heng si hai/Once a Thief, 1991) and paired him against two actresses better known for their “serious” dramatic roles, Siqin Gaowa and Lisa Lu, in an exhilarating satire of taboo issues – from the sexuality of older women and May-September (or rather, in this case, July-September) romances to the cost of modernity.

Opening on a “Tuesday night discussion group” that sardonically dissects the contempt in which some PC lesbian women hold bisexuality, All About Love is even more gutsy, its humour gentler, more muted. Hui intelligently uses the codes of the romantic comedy and the constraints of commercial cinema (the use of well-known female stars) to subvert them and cast a very witty gaze at the romantic and familial expectations of the majority of the population (“you… and me… and baby makes three…”). The unorthodox domestic arrangement that concludes it brings to mind the risqué ending of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) – in which, after sleeping with each other in separate pairs, one gal and two guys set house together. In the 1930s Lubitsch had to confine himself to heterosexuality, as well as keeping babies out of the pictures. In 1999, with Splendor, Gregg Araki toyed with an idiosyncratic remake of Design for Living in which he tried to integrate the baby question, with mixed results.

Ann Hui is bolder: she intersects the parallel story lines of two bisexual women, feminist lawyer Macy (Sandra Ng) and office girl Anita (former pop diva Vivian Chow), who, for very different reasons, have each a perfunctory one-night stand with a man (during which they accidentally get impregnated). The plot thickens when the two women bump into each other – oooops, 12 years ago, they were lovers; it didn’t work then, but they tentatively rekindle the affair. Jilted, furious and surprised at first, Mike (Anita’s teenage lover) and Robert (Macy’s former client and repentant wife-beater), eventually lend their support. Hui sweetly suggests that the arrangement is much to the advantage of our romeos: they can have their cake — fatherhood — and eat it too — they are cool guys who have slept with a lesbian. Macy has an ex, with whom she’s remained close, and who is now dating another woman – which makes four Mums and two Dads to take care of the babies (conveniently born at roughly the same time, which, I agree, is a fairy-tale-ending-commercial convention, but I have seen worse, and certainly less charming).

A director with a well-honed, elegant, recognisable style, Hui resorts to her signature flash-back- flash-forward structure, its flow lovingly interrupted with small moments of life in Hong Kong: a man silently looks at a woman across a public square; two Filipino maids have a conversation over the head of a Chinese man eating a sandwich…. The non-linear structure renders the characters’ doubts, contradictions and vulnerabilty in a subtle and very effective way – the emotions remaining close to the surface but never crowding the viewer. Sandra Ng reprises a role echoing the one that brought her initially to fame – the butch bisexual triad boss in Wai Man Yip’s Goo waak chai ching yee pin ji hung hing sap saam mooi (Portland Street Blues, 1998), a cinematic figure that was instrumental in bringing greater visibility to queer issues and queer characters on the Hong Kong screens. By casting Sandra Ng, Ann Hui pays homage to a landmark in queer representation, at the same time she does it with an ever so slight hand, a serendipitous touch, while delving into important issues (such as the harassment of women in the work place, or domestic violence, or sex between an older woman and a younger man) without being preachy.

Winds from the east: two heroes

Mei Ah Entertainment was screening Herman Yau’s Ip Man Chin Chuen (The Legend is Born – Ip Man, 2010) – a prequel to the very successful 2008 Wilson Yip’s film, Ip Man, about the life of Bruce Lee’s martial arts sifu (master). Yet… what a difference a director makes! Herman Yau is quintessential Hong Kong: an intellectual who makes genre flicks; a gore auteur who has directed critiques of the judicial system (Deng hou dong jian hua fa la/From the Queen to the Chief Executive, 2001) or sensitive portraits of sex workers (Wo bu mai shen wo mai zi gong/True Women for Sale, 2008); the man who designed the role of cannibalistic killer in Ba xian fan dian zhi ren rou cha shao (The Untold Story, 1993) that made Anthony Wong a star; a workaholic who has turned out more than 50 features since 1987, and doubles up as a cinematographer or bit actor in the works of his colleagues (such as Tsui Hark). While Yip fell flat on his face with the sequel, Ip Man 2, Yau’s prequel is a delight.

One of Yau’s directorial strengths lies in his handling of actors; wisely, he avoided casting Donny Yen in the title role, replacing him with the younger Dennis To. A superb martial artist with a dry, efficient style, Yen had elegantly played second fiddle in a number of martial art films, steadfastly working up his way toward stardom. Ip Man became his consecration, but also the moment when his style started to congeal, to turn itself into a marketable commodity – as proven by another film presented at the market by Media Asia, Jing mo fung wan: Chen Zhen (Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, 2010) by Andrew Law. Law cashed onto a double legend (a fictional Chinese nationalist hero, and Bruce Lee who first played the role in Lo Wei’s Jing wu men/Fist of Fury, 1972), (14) and inserted itself in the disastrous vein of recent kitsch/retro/nationalist films taking place in Japanese-occupied Shanghai: alluring art deco settings, vintage cars, fancy night clubs, arch villains, beautiful and treacherous women, sexual perversion, torture etc… Hampered by a ridiculous, confusing script, Yen struts about in an improbable black leather masked avenger costume in the streets of the French concession, or exhibits his naked body and well-toned muscles in the Japanese torture chambers.

Herman Yau – who probably got much less money to make his film – skillfully avoids both the retro trap, the ugliest aspects of Chinese nationalism that seems to feed so many films these days, and the collision between mise en scène and the ego of a star who takes himself too seriously. There are indeed flaws in Erica Lee’s screenplay but they are not grandiose like those of Legend of the Fist: some anachronisms, some inconsistencies – the kind of cute details that we used to love when Hong Kong cinema was still local enough to be endearing – and Lee represents well this tradition: she penned, among others, a precious little film about the liberation of middle-aged housewives in working-class projects, Lee Kung-Lok’s Seelai ng yi cho (My Mother is a Belly Dancer, 2006).

By casting Dennis To, a not-yet-famous martial artist born in 1981, Yau tracks the birth of the legend in the body, the gestures, the persona of his protagonist. He captures Ip Man before he was Ip Man, his doubts, his insecurities, his youthful energy, the genesis of his style. The conflict with History takes place in the context of occupied Shanghai, when the Chinese population were oppressed both by the Western colonial powers and by the Japanese – but also during the hero-in-the-making’s years of studies in Hong Kong. There he encounters different facets of colonialism, and, after a brawl in which he effortlessly defeated a boorish Britton who insulted Chinese, enters a shop to buy medicine to treat his enemy’s wounds. For this engaging scene, Yau secured the collaboration of martial artist Ip Chun (born 1924!), Ip Man’s oldest son, as a cantankerous senior who teaches our budding hero the new, unorthodox style of Wing Chun that will make him a legend.

Lost in the ruins

It is also this attention to detail, this warm collaboration with performers, this filmmaking at a human scale that makes every film directed by mainland director Feng Xiaogang so watchable – no matter how big or how small his budget is. Produced by the Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, one of China’s wealthiest production companies, Tangshan dadizhen (Aftershock, 2010) is Feng’s most expensive and commercially successful film so far. With more than a dozen features and two TV series under his belt since 1993, Feng is no less of a modest workaholic than Yau – he just works in a different system. A friend of the “hooligan” writer Wang Chao, he started making small comedies in the Beijing dialect slated for Chinese New Year release. They hit a chord with his audience, and gradually Feng moved to more complex films, such as Tianxia wu zei (A World Without Thieves, 2004) or Feicheng wurao (If You’re the One , 2008) and bigger and bigger productions: a martial arts adaptation of Hamlet (Ye yan/The Banquet, 2006), a war movie (Ji jie hao/Assembly, 2007).

Aftershock has been credited for offering the Chinese people a welcome catharsis to a double trauma: the 1976 Tangshan earthquake (with a death toll of a quarter of a million) and the more recent 2008 Sichuan disaster. Feng is neither a genre director, nor a deconstructionist, nor a rebel – he seems to follow the codes, and then gently subverts them: The Banquet was a faux martial arts/costume drama, as Assembly was a faux war film, penetrating deeply into the madness of one survivor’s obsession (when his unit was massacred, did the bugle blow – or not?) while making the necessary concessions in his portrayal of “heroism” to avoid censorship. Aftershock does not lack spectacular scenes of buildings collapsing and crowds of survivors trying to escape (Feng is a good craftsman; he knows what is expected of him and he delivers) but it’s a faux catastrophe movie. What interests Feng is the unfolding of a family drama spanning 32 years, especially how it is inscribed in the bodies of his two female protagonists. The film, after all, was inspired by the (semi-autobiographic?) novel of a female Canadian-Chinese writer, Zhang Li.

Physical love is what triggers the story: against his family’s wishes, truck driver Fang Daqiang has married out-of-towner Yuan’ni (Xu Fan), and, even after the birth of their twins, the couple still desire each other. Due to the exiguity of Chinese apartments, on the night of the quake, they were passionately making out in the truck. Daqiang is killed on the spot, the twins in danger of being crushed by a slab of concrete, and the volunteer rescuers, believing that they can only save one child, ask Yuan’ni to make a choice. Seven-year old Deng hears her beloved mother ask for her brother, Da, to be saved.

As it turns out, she survives, traumatised to the point of being mute, and is adopted by a well-meaning army couple – in fact a bed of neuroses, due to the new mother’s compulsive desire to be loved. Yet Deng is neither mute nor amnesiac; she plays a disappearing act, punishing her mother by pretending to be dead. Meanwhile, living alone with a now-crippled Da (he lost an arm during the rescue operation), Yuan’ni does a very good job of punishing herself – refusing to move to a better apartment so the ghosts of her husband and daughter can find her if they feel like it, refusing any prospect of romance. Growing up, Deng (Zhang Jingchu), (15) trapped in repetition, plays a second disappearing act. In college she finds romance with a well-to-do classmate who, at a crucial moment, declares to be not ready for commitment or fatherhood. To the distress of her now widowed adoptive father (Chen Daoming), Deng does the only thing she knows – and exits the scene.

For all its state-of-the arts special effects, Aftershock addresses a simple, age-old question: how women have striven to turn their bodies into signifiers. In the wake of unprecedented destruction, thousands and thousands of dead or missing bodies, the subject’s powerlessness is even more poignant. One survivor more or less, what does it matter? It would matter if somebody wanted you. Twice Deng felt rejected, and her only weapon, instead of loudly imposing her presence, was to create a negative space, to double her absence en abyme. You didn’t want me, I am gone, and now you are going to miss me – for the rest of your life. Deng, however, misses her target. She punishes a mother who only made a choice under duress, she punishes a dotting adoptive father for the sins of her boyfriend. The shifting of the earth under your feet during a tremor becomes a metaphor for this mis-placement of desiring strategies. For what matters in a catastrophe of this magnitude is not the number of dead or survivors, but the minute details of each life that was affected (or cut short) by it. This is what is so hard to comprehend. It’s all a question of scale.

AFI Fest
4 – 11 November 2010
AFI Fest website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/

American Film Market
3-10 November 2009
AFM website: http://www.AmericanFilmMarket.com/


  1. Scott Foundas “The Ruhr World According to James Benning”, The LA Weekly, Thursday, Jan 7 2010 http://www.laweekly.com/2010-01-07/film-tv/the-ruhr-world/ (retrieved Jan 1, 2011)
  2. John Wildman, email to the author, November 2, 2010.
  3. For the record: Film at REDCAT, where I co-curate the Film/Video program, was a “Community and Cultural Supporter” for the screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at the latest edition of the AFI.
  4. Light Cone, 157, rue de Crimée, Atelier 105, 75019, Paris, France. +33 (0)1 46 59 01 53 – www.lightcone.org
  5. Re:Voir Video, 47 rue du Couedic, 75014, Paris, France. +33(0) – www.re-voir.com
  6. Born 1921, Cécile Starr is one of the important voices about experimental, independent and avant-garde cinema, as well as an archivist and restorer. In 1976, with Robert Russett, she co-authored the classic book (now out of print), Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Inc., 1976.)
  7. On MM Serra, see her website, http://www.mmserra.com/
  8. Jackie Raynal recently contributed to Senses of Cinema about her work with Eric Rohmer http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/when-rohmer-was-making-‘silent-films’/ About Deux Fois, see Camera Obscura Collective, “An Interrogation of the Cinematic Sign: Woman as Sexual Signifier in Jackie Raynal’s Deux Fois” and “Deux Fois: shot commentary, shot chart, and photogrammes,” Camera Obscura – A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, No 1, 1976, 11-26 and 27-51. See also, Adrian Martin, “The Experimental Night: Jackie Raynal’s Deux Fois: http://jackieraynal.com/files/2Fois-AdrianMartin.pdf, retrieved Jan 15, 2011
  9. In 1989, photographer Nan Goldin, whose Ballad of Sexual Dependency acutely portrayed the no-wave punk scene, organised an exhibition, “Witnessing: Against Our Disappearance” to commemorate the East Village artists who had died of AIDS or overdose.
  10. Filmography: Bye Bye Africa (2008), Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006), Sexe, gombo et beurre salé (2008).
  11. Riklis attracted international attention with his second feature, Cup Final (Gmar Gavi’a, 1992). Since then, his best-known films have been Zohar (1993), Volcano Junction (Tzomet volkan, 1999), The Syrian Bride (2004) and Lemon Tree (Etz Limon, 2008).
  12. For the record: Mike Ott is a recent graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach.
  13. See Senses of Cinéma http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/troubled-landscape-international-cinephilia-the-2009-afi-festamerican-film-market%E2%80%A8/
  14. The story of Chen Zhen inspired a number of Hong Kong films, most notably Gordon Chan’s Jing Wu Yingxiong (Fist of Legend, 1994), starring Jet Li, as well as a flurry of television series, the most famous one, aired in 1995, being a vehicle for Donnie Yen who has since often been identified with this role.
  15. Zhang Jingchu has made a career playing women whose stubbornness verges on masochism, and who are at the same time independent, forceful and elegant: she was revealed as the younger sister in Gu Changwei’s Kong Que (Peacock, 2005), and appeared in Tsui Hark’s Qi Jian (Seven Swords, 2005), Dante Lam’s Zhengren (Beast Stalker, 2008) and Ann Hui’s Tin shui wai dik ye yu mo (Night and Fog, 2009).