As Bill, who had met me at the airport with the Festival sign, is driving me to the hotel, I learn much about him. He’s a retired law professor. In his youth, he lived in the US, and had been close to the ONCE group, an Ann Arbor-based avant-garde collective that included visual artists and architects, composers Bob Ashley, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, Pauline Oliveiros, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, as well as filmmakers such as the legendary George Manupelli (1931-2014), the author of the experimental “Doctor Chicago” trilogy and the founder of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, who had just died a couple of weeks before the VIFF started. (1) Bill is one of the 750 volunteers that make the VIFF work – most of them as interesting, literate and engaging. The Festival’s reliance on such an extraordinary body of volunteers is evidence of how much the local audience is invested in it, and why it can only thrive and remain excellent in spite of dark economic clouds. So the VIFF is this rare event – a festival for a public of cinephiles that treats its foreign visitors with the greatest amount of care. This year, handicapped by a badly twisted ankle, I had been worried about my ability to attend the screenings, but, with the help of the fleet of volunteers, I could go everywhere I wanted, and, in a crunch, Vancouver cab drivers are among the most courteous in the world, even for short rides. Try to beat this!
Encounters in a Posh Restaurant
Looking at the schedule after getting my credentials, I found a gap, and Bill told me he was planning to attend a film that hadn’t been on my radar – so I went there as well. Lone Scherfig, a female “member” of Dogme 95 with impressive credentials (such as Italian for Beginners, 2000; Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, 2002; or An Education, 2009), brings the point of view of a double outsider (Danish and female) to depict the horrifying behaviour of young males of the British upper classes (Oxford students to boot) and their out-of-bound sense of entitlement. An adaptation of Posh, by British playwright Laura Wade, that had been successfully performed in all the right places in London, the film was depicted as a fictional description of The Bullington Club, to which the likes of John Cameron had belonged in their student days – which had initially made me suspicious (under the cover of denouncing the wicked mores of the ruling class, wasn’t the film going to be just a complacent display of said mores?) And indeed, starring la crème de la crème of this other privileged caste, successful young actors (Max Irons as the main protagonist, Miles; Sam Clafin as his friend/antagonist, Alistair; Douglas Booth as decadently aristocratic Harry; Holliday Grainger as Lauren, a middle-class student who enters into a relationship with Miles; Natalie Dormer as an escort hired by Harry for the club’s dinner; Jessica Brown Findlay as, Rachel, the daughter of the restaurant owner who works as a waitress), The Riot Club is a commercial film, in which, however, female degradation (a keystone, alas, for so many all-men clubs and fraternity houses) is never turned into a spectacle. The escort takes a stand, refuses to kneel under the table and walks out with dignity. Thinner-skinned, but no less brave, Lauren, unexpectedly summoned as a bad prank against Miles, manages to extricate herself from the rowdy gathering, deeply hurt, but with her sense of self intact. Rachel, potentially threatened, is not molested. Horny and vexed, drunk, their bellies filled to the brim and their egos satiated with the idea that the less privileged “love [them] and want to be [them],” the pack turn to trashing the place and then displace their anger onto the body of another man, the restaurant owner who had refused the cash contemptuously offered to pay for the damage.Scherfig’s critical stance on dominant masculinity informs her mise en scène – which makes The Riot Club stand apart as a courageous work.
The major change in this year’s VIFF was the stepping down of Alan Franey, who had been its director for 26 years. He remains as Director of Programming (with Jacqueline Dupuis as Executive Director) and seems very happy about it. The one thing to regret is the catalogue; produced as collectible books since 1993, they contained accurate and sharp descriptions of the program that made them an invaluable resource for film scholars. They occupy a whole shelf in my house. Even though they were sold for a (modest) price, I was told they were losing money; this year a glossy but slim program, with an inconvenient format (it won’t fit neatly on a bookshelf) and extremely short blurbs, has been made available for free. The much-talked about shifting of venues – due to the closure of the main festival hub, Empire Granville 7 Cinemas, two years ago, and, more recently, of the Ridge Theater – while mildly disorienting for the out-of-towners, tapped onto the wealth of Vancouver resources, as screenings were organised at the glamorous Center for the Performing Arts (with 1,850 seats), a multiplex in a shopping mall (Cineplex Odeon International Village), the prestigious Simon Frazier University etc… in addition to the traditional Vancity Theater (the Festival’s headquarters) and the Pacific Cinematheque. The number of screenings was only infinitesimally reduced, and only, comments Franey, because some commercial venues were not available on certain days.
The second most noted change, however is the revamping of one of the VIFF’s most beloved offerings: after 20 years of introducing the first or second features of promising young Asian filmmakers to international attention (among the award winners one finds Koreeda Hirokazu’s Maborosi, 1995; Hong Sang-soo’s The Day a Pig Fell to the Well, 1996; Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu, 1997; or Diao Yinan’s Uniform, 2003), the Dragons and Tigers Competition is no longer taking place. “It had run its course,” said Franey. In its stead, a “Best New Director Award” (in which some Asian films were competing) has been instituted, and its main award was shared by a French film, Axelle Ropert’s Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (Miss and the Doctors, 2013) and a Filipino film, Mikhail Red’s Rekorder (2013). Curated by Tony Rayns since 1994, with the collaboration of Shelly Kraicer (for Chinese movies) since 2007, the Dragons and Tigers section remains a highlight the VIFF, without a specific competition attached to it, but with a couple of high-profile “Special Presentations.”
A Meeting in a Street Stall
The first one was a single screening of Ann Hui’s latest work, Huangjin Shidai (The Golden Era), a shimmering variation on the life of the female writer Xiao Hong that has made ripples since its world premiere at the Closing Night of the latest Venice Film Festival. By ripples I mean that it has divided audiences, both internationally and in its domestic market (the Best Director Award received at the Golden Horse is a sign that the film’s fans are gaining ground…) By choosing Li Qiang (with whom she had already worked for Yima de houxiandai shenghuo [The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt, 2006]) as her screenwriter, Hui knew she would invite controversy, because the man wasn’t going to deliver a linear biopic. He had attracted much attention through the ellipses, unrepresented moments and fractured structure of Gu Changwei’s Kong que (Peacock, 2006). Misunderstood at first (and rejected by a couple of major festivals), Peacock went to win a Silver Bear in Berlin (launching the career of two exciting young mainland actors, Zhang Jingchu as the sister and Lu Yulai as the younger brother) and is now recognized as one of the major films of its decade. Among Li’s strength is his capability for capturing the ambiguities and opacities of human interaction, and for crafting complex female characters. One of his weaknesses, at least from a conventional point of view, would be the sheer accumulation of details, which creates contradictions, forked paths, unexpected transitions, and requires a robust editing strategy.
Hong Kong cinema is itself on a forking path. On the one hand, intimate stories with local flavour are enjoying a revival – as in Hui’s own Tin shui wai dik yat yu ye (The Way We Are, 2008) and Tou ze (A Simple Life, 2011) or, showcased at the VIFF this year, Jessey Tsang Tsui Shan’s seductively personal Ho Sheung Bin Chuen (Flowing Stories). On the other hand, the lure of the Chinese market is just too strong to resist, as may be the desire to explore one’s Chineseness through the prism of what is happening on the mainland. Even before 1997, Hui has been at the forefront of this double fascination/contradiction (maybe because she was born in Manchuria, maybe because of her aesthetic generosity); she was one of the first Hong Kong filmmakers to collaborate with mainland Chinese production companies (such as Sil-Metropole) and shoot on the continent, starting with Shu jian en chou lu(Romance of Book and Sword, 1987). In addition, she has demonstrated a passionate interest for the fate of women during the Republican era (1911-49… a time when the “new woman” was hotly discussed in artistic circles), through her adaptation of two novels by Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang, 1920-95), Qing cheng zhi lian (Love in a Fallen City, 1984) and Ban sheng yuan (Eighteen Springs, 1997). She links Zhang and her Xiao Hong, by entrusting the part to Tang Wei, who had played a classical Zhang heroine in Ang Lee’s Se, jie (Lust, Caution, 2007).
Born in 1911 – the year of the founding of the Chinese Republic – Xiao Hong came sooner, left much sooner, at 31, and led a harder life than Zhang Ailing: she eloped from an arranged marriage, was almost sold to a brothel to pay the debts of an insolvent lover, knew abject poverty, and gave birth to two children she never saw grow up. After wandering through China from Harbin to Beijing, from Qingdao to Shanghai, from Wuhan to Xi’an, she sought refuge in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong where she died of tuberculosis in 1942. Recognition eluded her while she was alive: greatly admired by the modernist writer Lu Xun, her work was too lyrical, poetic and personal to be truly appreciated by the left-wing Northeast Authors Group she and her well-known lover, the writer Xiao Jun, were part of. The zeitgeist of the time was to put art and writing at the service of the anti-Japanese struggle and the Communist ideals as they were being coined in Yan’an. (She was eventually “rediscovered” in the 1980s). How to tell the story of such a contradictory character, whose material conditions of existence were so tied up to the turbulent destiny of the short-lived Republican era? (Whether or not it was a “golden era” is left open. Xiao Hong had another idea of what her “golden era” could be: away from Xiao Jun).
Hui explores micro forms in the centre of the maelstrom. A gaze, a gesture, an incomplete sentence, the glittering surface of the sea when a boat is about to depart. Having come up with a bit of money, starving Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun go to a street stall to get some treats. They look at each other and at the food with an equally devouring passion. Eating well, with gusto, yet eating quickly when one has been hungry for so long, it’s art meeting life, lust encountering wisdom, the happiness of getting satiated subsuming the fever of the quest. The film abounds with such scenes, suggesting the ineffable quality of the present moment, fleeting as soon as it is perceived, dragging the heroine along with her, lost in time, lost to death. What is left but traces – footprints in the snow or scars in the witnesses’ memories. In its splendid complexity, The Golden Era outlines a poetics of the trace – conveying the type of emotion that overcomes us when we look at the remnants of a meal or an unmade bed.
Scenes from a Stolen History
Also in Special Screenings (and winning the audience award) was Vancouver no Asahi (The Vancouver Asahi), a fine example not of life imitating art but of film production inspired by a film festival. Tony Rayns had followed Japanese director Ishii Yuya’s career (from his early Mukidashi Nippon [Bare-Assed Japan] in 2007 to his award-winning Fune wo Amu [The Great Passage, 2013]). In turn Ishii discovered Vancouver and the layers of Japanese history hidden in its spectacular waterfront. Japanese citizens had emigrated to British Columbia after 1877 and, by the 1930s, there were about 20,000 of them, subject to racism, confined to menial jobs and concentrating in small enclaves, such as Japantown in downtown Vancouver. In 1914, a group of young men working on the docks, in the sawmills or the fishing boats, formed their own baseball team, the Asahi. Effortlessly, repeatedly, mercilessly beaten by heftier Caucasian opponents, they were a recurring joke until they decided to put brain over muscle, and design a strategy; in the 1930s they became the stuff baseball legend is made of. Their string of victories came to a halt, though, after Pearl Harbour, when Canadian citizens of Japanese origins were deported into internment camps (they were not allowed to move freely until 1949). (2) Shooting in a Japanese studio, but inspired by books of photographs from the era, Ishii reconstructs the wharves, smoky sports bar and working-class kitchens of Japantown, not overdoing the appropriate patina that signifies “the 1930s,” but expressing a palpable emotion of having been in Vancouver and sensed the echoes of this still-largely-repressed history. Playing the game of commercial cinema (to the delight of screaming young Japanese girls who flooded the auditorium), he cast bankable teen idols in the main parts – but chose actors/singers, who have a particular physical relationship to their own bodies, for the main parts. Satoshi Tsumabuki (award-winning actor as well as bassist and lead singer for the band Basking Life) plays Reiji Kasahara (who westernises his name as “Reggie”), the leader and core of the team, while the role of the pitcher, Roy Naganishi is entrusted to 28 year-old Kazuya Kamenashi, a member of the popular Japanese boy band KAT-TUN (founded in 2001). As Reggie’s hardened immigrant father, Keiji, who refuses to learn English or change his ways as a traditional Japanese man but is slowly touched by his son’s efforts, one recognises the great veteran actor Kôichi Satô. The Vancouver Asahi is a story of male bodies. How a bigger-than-life stature like Keiji’s got subjugated, humiliated, exploited in the production lines of the West, reducing the man to a few silent grunts and explosions as a domestic tyrant. How young workers acutely felt the “inferiority” of their own size when faced with bullying Caucasians and then found their inner strength. How the bodies of thousand of Japanese immigrants were deported and reduced to invisibility. And in the end, Ishii offers us the image of another body, a brief encounter with a very old man, the last survivor of the team.
Chance Encounters in Kindergartens
It is also the secrets encoded in a male body that makes Haihil (Man on High Heels) by South Korean theatre and film auteur Jang Jin such an exciting movie, while successfully operating within the sometimes predictable tropes of genre. It is a violent cop-gangster film as Korean cinema has been adept at producing them, as well as an Asian melodrama, with soapy flashbacks and the ploy to be given “one chance only” at happiness… or gender reassignment surgery. This does muddy the ending, or rather the “coda” (post-ending), a bit, while the film is spectacularly sandwiched in-between two exhilarating fight scenes. In the opening sequence, Yoo (Jang’s fetish actor Cha Seungwon) manages to arrest and handcuff a gang boss surrounded by a team of eager bodyguards (and screaming bar hostesses) in the private room of a karaoke club, with the sole power of his martial arts skills. Yoo, a macho man among cops, is known for fighting without weapons. At the end, he comes to rescue a damsel-in-distress in a gloomy warehouse where he fights a couple of dozens opponents, wearing a stylist women’s outfit. The secret behind Yoo’s machismo is his homosexual longings and his desire to become a woman and be at peace with himself. But what is a woman exactly? While neither Jang nor his protagonist have an answer for this (does Yoo forgo surgery not because he has missed his flight but because his male body is “too good” at fighting the baddies?) but the representation of Yoo’s relationships with his fellow cops or his gangster foes, always on the borderline between homophobia and homoeroticism, as well as his gradual involvement with the transgender community, offers an engaging deconstruction of masculinity.
“A tough guy with a weakness for children,” Sheng Li (TV star Huang Haibo), the eponymous protagonist of Sheng Li (Uncle Victory) is another paradoxical figure of masculinity. A former kindergarten-owner-cum-gangster, he crippled another tough guy in a dispute about money and is just released from prison after a ten-year stretch. China has changed, so have its women (as our hero discovers when the taxi dancer he tries to pick up, Sun Xiaomen (Zhang Xinyi) turns out to be a hard-as-nail professional nurse), its (post)industrial landscapes (fields of ruins alternating with zones of “urban renewal”), its cops and its gangsters. Intent on reopening a kindergarten, Sheng Li does not think twice about beating up the members of an opera troupe whose performance interferes with his musical choices for the children.
Born in Liaoning Province, and inspired by the story of his uncle, Zhang returned to an area he knows very well, the cold, simultaneously austere and chaotic expanses of the Northeast, already the setting of his previous film, the international darling Gang de qin (The Piano in a Factory, 2010). Precious oddities in the midst of current Chinese production, both films were shot in 35mm by Taiwanese-born DP Chou Shu, known in particular for lensing visual artist Yang Fudong’s 35mm black and white installations. While seductive, the film’s structure, with unexpected flashbacks and a few surprising temporal ellipses (in particular in the unfolding of the unusual love affair between Sheng Li and Sun Xiaomen), is not as immediately legible as that of The Piano (the latter film, however, still cultivated the art of digression to a certain extent), but conveys a similar emotion for the plight of a working-class anti-hero out of sorts with his surroundings and faced with the ineluctable passing of time. Having gone through censorship at minimal cost (the original title of Tattoo was discarded) and hailed by the powers-that-be as the “best Chinese movie of the year,” Uncle Victory was invited in competition at the latest Shanghai International Film Festival… only to have all presentations to the press and public cancelled after Huang Haibo’s highly publicised arrest for being caught with a prostitute. Headed by Gong Li, the Shanghai jury showed its independence by awarding it the Grand Jury Prize, but, ineligible to be showcased in another “A” category film festival, suspected of bringing trouble, Uncle Victory remained an orphan until its international premiere in Vancouver. (3)
Encounters in Motion
It’s a no less intriguing vision of the changes affecting contemporary China, as they unfold against a landscape that still resists interpretation, that is offered in Harvard Sensory Lab-trained J.P. Sniadecki’s latest work, Tie dao (The Iron Ministry). Over a period of several years, Sniadecki criss-crossed China by train, taking a digital camera with him. In addition to his status as outsider (both privileged and at a disadvantage), what differentiates Sniadecki’s approach from previous “train documentaries” made by Chinese filmmakers (the most famous being Ning Ying’s Xi wang zhi lu [Railroad of Hope, 2002], about peasant women going to work in the Xinjian Autonomous Region, but I also remember a black and white film by maverick filmmaker Wu Haohao with fondness) is that the latter are what Thom Andersen calls “literal filmmakers”. They follow a linear journey, respecting the geography of the landscape. Sniadecki works from a Cubist-style form of accumulation, splicing together sequences taken at different times while a train is rushing through different parts of China. As in his previous Yumen, he twists the documentary genre toward the edge of surrealism, with palatable effects and endearing instances of black humour (sassy societal comments by a teenager; blasé outlook from members of ethnic minorities; a butcher cutting meat in the back of car…): China as a train heading to an unknown destination. So The Iron Ministry’s most accurate mirror image may be Fruit Chan’s horror comedy, Na ye ling san ngor jor seung liu wongkok hoi wong daibo dik hung van (The Midnight After), also shown at the VIFF after its Berlin premiere and a successful domestic release in Hong Kong, in which a minibus, reluctantly driven by Lam Suet (the charismatic “fat man” of so many Johnny To movies) and going from Mongkok to Taipo, enters a twilight zone, in which the macabre vignettes enacted are actually not-so-subtle allegories for Hong Kong’s political future.
Encounters on the Edge
There was room in the Dragons and Tigers section for films exploring avant-garde strategies, for artistic and/or political reasons. The most daring was Dang’an (The Dossier) in which independent producer/filmmaker (and former director of the Beijing Independent Film Festival) Zhu Rikun adopts a method à la Straub-Huillet to film Tibetan writer/dissident/blogger Tsering Woeser as she reads from the secret dossier compiled by Chinese authorities about her – and talks at length about her relationship to this material. The first part ends on a chilly tone: discussing how many documents are missing (“they destroyed the parts that concerned them”), Woeser concludes “and then the dossier ended. You are still alive physically, but your life within the system is over.” In the second part, Zhu goes on to film Woeser vérité-style, as she drives back to Tibet, still the subject of minute surveillance; her physical presence within the cinematic field is, in itself, an act of resistance (gone from the system, but still here) as was Zhu’s own body when a hidden camera was filming him talking back to the police in his first short film, Cha Fang (The Questioning, 2013).
Tsai Ming-liang’s Xi you (Journey to the West) is a luminous response to the question of whether there is still room in the world for the cinema he makes. Tsai had announced that Jiao you (Stray Dogs, 2013) would be his last movie, and that he would from now on devote himself to art installations. There is much to rejoice that he may not consider Journey to the West (which after all, is only 56 minute long) as “a movie” and that FIDMarseille had the good idea of producing it. It is the spin-off of another precious gem by Tsai, Walker (2012), produced by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in which Lee Kang-sheng, dressed as a Buddhist monk, walks through the busy streets of Hong Kong with excruciating slowness.
Journey to the West borrows its title from the famous 16th century Chinese classical novel that recounts the legendary pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang into the Indian subcontinent to procure sacred sutras. Modern commentators have reinterpreted the journey as a metaphor for the way China has sought inspiration, modernisation and democracy from Western countries. Here Tsai, a peripatetic filmmaker himself, takes his peripatetic actor/hero into Marseille, the city that once held the keys to France’s colonial endeavour, then became a centre for all sort of traffics and criminal activities, a hotbed for post-colonial racial tensions, while retaining a healthy working class ethics. (This is also the city where I was born, and yes, Tsai does capture some of its mystique…) Great films often rest on a simple idea – in this case, a surrealist concept (courtesy of Lautréamont): (4) as beautiful as the encounter, in a French southern metropolis, of Tsai’s Lee Kang-sheng and Leos Carax’s Denis Lavant.
Like Uncle Victory, Rakhshan Banietemad’s Ghesse-Ha (Tales), arguably the best Iranian feature of late, reached the VIFF through a chequered path. The film was completed two years ago, but couldn’t be shown in Iran. The 2013 election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president seemed promising, and Tales was shown in the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran to sold-out audiences in February 2014. Later, it received its international premiere in Venice where it won the Best Screenplay Award. (5) The tenth dramatic feature completed by “the first lady of Iranian cinema” since 1989, (6) it is an intelligent, reflexive venture, a construction en abyme subsuming the work done, both in documentary and fiction, in the last 20-odd years. Protagonists from previous films and previous epochs reappear, graced or burdened with new experiences. In the opening sequence, a filmmaker boards a taxi and shoots the streets of Tehran through the car window. The driver starts talking to him: “I can slow down, to make shooting easier.” Then he adds that he has a story to tell, worth recording. From what he narrates – after convincing his mother to sell her house to buy a visa to go and work in Japan, he got swindled and got briefly involved in drug trafficking to make up for his financial loss – we recognise, slightly aged, Abbas, Mrs Tuba’s older son from Zir-e poost-e shahr(Under the Skin of the City, 2001).
After dropping the filmmaker, Abbas is hailed by a woman (Mehraveh Sharifinia) carrying a child, apparently a prostitute. Off-screen, we can guess she makes him a proposal he violently rejects: “Get out!” “The child won’t be a problem,” she says. He looks at her in the rear view mirror, has a glimmer of recognition and, in a technique inspired by the 1001 Nights, (re)presents her own story to her, at the third person. There was this girl, Masoum, our neighbour; she was my sister’s best friend. One day her asshole junkie brother beat her up and cut her hair. She disappeared. The woman silently cries. When Abbas stops at a pharmacy to get fever medicine and a toy for the kid, she slips out. His mother, Mrs Tuba (Golan Adineh) appears in three of the tales, first at the end of the first sequence, then in two attempts to get payment for the workers of her factory. Documenting Mrs Tuba’s struggle, the unnamed videomaker films a violent scuffle between the workers and the security guards who block his viewfinder.
In another segment the once-young bride (Atefeh Razavi), so cruelly misled in Nargess (1992), is now the victim of violent domestic abuse, seeking refuge in a women’s shelter, like the one documented by Banietemad in Angels of the House of the Sun (2009). Working in the same shelter, the doctor (Shahrokh Foroutanian) who, in Gilane (2005), couldn’t helpthe heroine’s son, a bed-ridden veteran of the Iran-Iraq, hears a voice from the past on his phone line. Even an anti-hero like the petty bureaucrat from Kharej az Mahdoudeh (Off-Limits, 1989) has a complex cameo, both comical and touching. The reoccurrence of these characters creates a cinematic world of its own, like a reverse image in a mirror gliding over the ever-changing realities of Iranian society, with narrative figures echoing each other, triggering memories, inviting us to compare trajectories and gauge the impact of social difference.
Banietemad has a particular gift to capture the mysterious interdependence uniting men and women in Iranian society, in spite of (and maybe because) the intimate misunderstanding that separates them. After being temporary wife to Rasul, the rich widower of Rusari Abi(The Blue-Veiled, 1995), Nobar (Fatemeh Motamed Arya) is now married to a working-class man, involved with Mrs Tuba in the fight to get back wages. He is a good man, cooking and taking care of the kids while his wife is at work, yet self-conscious about his lack of formal education. When Nobar receives an unexpected letter from Rasul’s lawyer, she needs to muster treasures of energy and tenderness to soothe her husband’s jealousy and his feelings of inadequacy.
In the last sequence, Sara (Baran Kosari), the drug-addicted daughter of Khoon bazi (Mainline, 2006), having now kicked the habit, rides on the back of a van driven by Hamed (Peyman Moaadi). She works for the women’s shelter and is rescuing an HIV-positive girl, Samira, who has just attempted suicide by cutting her wrists. While the van dashes through the city at night, Sara and Hamed, catching only glances of each other on the rear-view mirror (an echo to the first tale), exchange sassy remarks throughout a masterfully choreographed sequence that conveys the emotional and spatial complexity of their interaction. He questions her motivations for doing this kind of social work; she criticises the turn taken by his life after he was expelled from the university for student activism. As the tension grows, we gradually understand that, under the sarcasm, deeper layers of feelings are at stake, as Sara, eventually, puts it bluntly: “Are you attracted to me?” In fact, he is – but there is something in the back of his mind. And she is probably attracted to him too, but, for reasons that become painfully transparent, she believes that her only ethical choice is to deny it.
This last tale reaches unexpected emotional resonance, leaving the spectator on a melancholy cliffhanger. No happy ending seems possible – at least not that night. Maybe the protagonists will continue this conversation in another film. In the coda, the videomaker gets his camera back…
A film that took me by surprise was Razredni sovražnik (Class Enemy), the debut feature of the Slovenian director Rok Bicek (winner of the Best Film Award at Venice Critics Week in 2013). The title itself, coming from a former communist country, is ripe with irony. Class struggle is not depicted in Marxist terms, but as the battle of wills between a group of high-school students and their new teacher, the “enemy” of the title. Gradually, though, it is the entire school system that is viewed in a hostile manner by the students.
When the beloved Nusa (Masa Derganc) goes on a maternity leave, her much less congenial replacement, Robert (Igor Samobor), tries to change the work habits of the class. What follows is a series of fractured lines filled with misunderstandings and the possibility of violence. It culminates with the ill-fated encounter between Robert and Sabina (Dasa Cupevski), a gifted but vulnerable pianist. From the point of view of some students, Robert and Sabina were alone in a room, and something quite improper may have happened. What the spectator sees is Robert humiliating Sabina by depreciating her artistic abilities. Shortly afterwards, Sabina commits suicide. The students revolt against Robert, come to class wearing masks in the image of Sabina, occupy the school’s radio etc…
However, the complexity of the situation increases. Depending on their opinion on the issue, and their involvement in various forms of protest or activism, students draw new alliances among each other, friendships are tested, loyalties shift, couples break up. Sabina’s parents do not believe that Robert is to blame, and it is revealed that Sabina was in fact adopted, and that an insensitive remark by another student may have unsettled her. Interestingly enough, when Nusa comes back, the unrest does not die down. What is definitely shifting is the balance of power between the students and the institution. As a school official aptly puts it, “before they used to be afraid of us; now we are afraid of them.”
When Evil Encounters Popular Culture
One of the festival’s highlights was without question the presentation of the four episodes of Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin (Li’l Quinquin), originally produced for television. The title points at the desire to plunge into some of the questionable aspects of French popular culture. The eponymous lullaby was written in the 19th century in the Picard language, called chti or chtimi (a slightly altered and heavily accented version of French, a patois spoken in the Northeast of the country and in the neighbouring Wallonia part of Belgium), and it became a nationalist anthem in the 1870 war against Prussia, as well as a source of local cultural pride. The words chti or chtimi are also used to designate the inhabitants of the area, while French mainstream comedies, such as Dany Boon’s box-office success Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks, 2008) have celebrated their no-nonsense, lower working class and solid values. Ch’ti culture implicitly believes in a racially homogeneous society, is highly suspicious of anybody who comes from “down south” and hostile to dark-skinned foreigners. This is Dumont’s territory, as explored in La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus, 1997), here on a mode that is novel for him, the burlesque. Calling his main protagonist “P’tit Quinquin” is tapping onto the folklore of la France profonde (the deep-seated fantasies of the average French people) and our hero – a tough, manly, pragmatic, mischievous yet serious pre-teen boy (Alane Delhaye) – quite fits the bill. A David facing up to the Goliaths of the police and the adult world (or, as the French would rather say, quoting a popular cartoon, “Astérix the Gaul challenging the Roman Empire”), he is in love with the youngest daughter of the farmers next door, Eve (Lucy Caron) – the only romantic moments of the film take place between these two kids – and with his buddies goes to beat up local foreign boys to protect “our girls” from their dirty gazes.
Two bumbling cops, tic-faced Commandant Van der Weyden (played by Bernard Pruvost, a professional gardener in real life), who may think of himself as a reincarnation of Louis de Funès, (7) Inspector Clouseau, (8) or even Colombo (even though he can’t find the culprit) (9) and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) who believes he’s acting in an American TV series, are called onto the splendid landscapes (framed in Scope) of the Boulonnais area to investigate a series of gruesome murders: the bodies of interracial lovers are discovered stuffed in the insides of mad cows… The farmer husband of the first victim drowns in a manure pit. The naked body of his (married) mistress is found on the beach. It seems that an invisible avenger has taken the local peasants to task for their sexual misbehaviour, bringing to mind memories of H.G. Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) – much admired now but quite controversial as having been made under German occupation and depicting the inhabitants of the French countryside as spineless, mean and ready to inform against their neighbours. The murderer’s agenda may have to do with enforcing racial purity (if the farmer hadn’t cheated on his wife, maybe she wouldn’t have thrown herself in the arms of a black man)… that is, until Aurélie Terrier (Lisa Hartmann), Eve’s older sister, is killed.
When Aurélie enters the diegesis, something is clearly off. At the funeral of the first victim, a conventionally pretty teenager – long hair, fresh face, bland expression, mini-skirt – sings a pop song in English, a rather silly, repeated address to an unspecified youououououou…. (We can surmise that Aurélie does not speak English well enough to understand the lyrics, and, due to her faulty delivery and out-of-tune singing, neither can we). That the song is totally inappropriate for the occasion does not faze the teen, who delivers the musical number till its last note. Ensconced in the mediocrity of her dreams, Aurélie is a one-trick-filly, a broken record repeating the same tune ad nauseam, an echo of the jolie môme (pretty chick) of Léo Ferré’s hugely popular song:
You know only one rhyme
You have to make it rhyme
Or shed tears… (10)
Dumont is quite sympathetic to her plight – as Ferré was for his jolie môme, this forgotten female that never mattered in the world, “only a dot on the ‘i’ of life’s sorrows, only one of these things that you water and then forget” (11) – making us aware that this silly song is her signature, the mark of her presence, her chance to be singled out of the anonymous peasant crowd. And singled out she is. The priests can’t help giggling at her performance at the funeral; local kids clap loudly when she sings in the talent show; and Mohammed (Baptiste Anquez), the son of the second victim, is so turned on that he attempts to flirt with her. Aurélie didn’t expect that by exhibiting demure sexiness on stage she would catch the eye of a black teen. So when he awkwardly courts her, she’s numb, she has no reaction, she’s not even there. It is her girlfriend, Jennifer, who comes to the rescue, insults Mohammed, calls him a “nigger” and a “monkey” and urges him to return where he came from.
When, crazed with rage and frustration, Mohammed locks himself on the top floor of his parents’ house, screaming “Allah Abkar”, “Shame on France”, and shooting at the crowd, Van der Weyden accurately contends that Aurélie humiliated him. Not Jennifer (by insulting him, at least she recognised him as a subject). Aurélie reduced him to invisibility. Mohammed wasn’t even a speck in the eyes of the girl who was only “a dot on the “i’ of life’s sorrows.” She remained silent – when Mohammed was speaking to her, and when Jennifer was insulting him. This, to Dumont, is a figure of evil. “Evil is committed,” said Hannah Arendt, “by people who don’t know the difference between good and evil….” And so after Mohammed’s suicide, Aurélie ponders, vaguely worried. Did she do anything wrong? Dusk is falling. Around her, pigs are gathering, grunting.
Aurélie’s fate has been described as a “Pasolinian monstrosity”, (12) but it also resonates with the lyrics of some French popular tunes, one of the most arresting being Rachel, the vengeful song of a jealous man finding himself in love with a whore, written by another anarchist singer/composer, François Béranger:
If the little pigs don’t eat you.
There may be some left over for me. (13)
If the invisible avenger is now punishing Aurélie’s implicit act of racism, then our interpretations of the first murders is all wrong… Yet, as Béranger’s song suggests, her death could reveal something even uglier: the rage against a woman who fails to recognise the passion her body may trigger in any man, whatever his creed or race. We are, indeed, deep in Dumont’s territory at its most suffocating (let’s think of Flanders, for example), but the looser structure of the TV serial allows for other forms of free association. As in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), we scrutinise every corner of the image in the vain search of a clue. The husband of a victim crosses the screen on a motorbike, his face hidden by a helmet. Li’l Quinquin’s idiot uncle (15) takes on a threatening pose or laugh without reason. Does this mean anything? Who is/what is the “human beast” that committed these outlandish crimes?
By creating a palimpsest in which multiple references to popular and cinematic culture are interwoven with philosophical concerns about the nature of evil, P’tit Quinquin is a cornerstone in Dumont’s oeuvre, delocalising the question, opening up multiple grids of understanding. The last words of dialogue, uttered by a defeated Van der Weyden are “I am laughing out loud” (Je rigole). Dark humour as the last word? Surrealism as a way to decode the enigma? As beautiful as the chance encounter, in Li’l Quinquin’s cradle, of Beauty and The Three Little Pigs…
Vancouver International Film Festival
25 September – 10 October 2014
Festival website: http://www.viff.org/festival
accessed November 14, 2014.
2. By contrast, in the US, the exclusion order striking Japanese Americans was rescinded in 1945.
3. As I am writing this, the film still cannot be screened publicly in China. The filmmakers hope that keeping a low international profile will help the case in the long run. So every foreign screening of Uncle Victory is both a precious opportunity for the audience as well as an act of courage.
4. Lautréamont’s original line, “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” became the inspiration for the Surrealists’ “exquisite corpse” strategy.
5. Tales, however, has still not been theatrically released in Iran.
6. In addition, Banietemad has completed a dozen documentaries.
7. French comedian Louis de Funès starred in a series of highly successful comedies about a manic “gendarme” (country policeman) directed by Jean Girault between 1964 and 1982.
8. Inspector Clouseau movies were produced with Peter Sellars in the role from 1963 to 1978, and then with Alan Arkin, Roger Moore and Steve Martin in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s respectively. Needless to say, they were widely distributed in France.
9. Produced in the US between 1971 and 1983, the series was largely broadcast in France.
10. T’as qu’un’ rime
Faut qu’ça rime
Ou qu’ça pleure
(translation mine). Released by the anarchist composer/songwriter/singer Léo Ferré in 1960, Jolie Môme was his most famous song, and later became an essential part of Juliette Gréco’s repertoire, especially after 1972, the year Dumont was 14.
11. T’ es qu’un point
Sur les ” i ”
De la vie
Et qu’un’ chose
De la vie the
12. See Carole Desbarat, “P’tit Quinquin, la dernière oeuvre de Bruno Dumont,” Esprit, October 2014, p. 130. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile (Pigsty, 1969) Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the son of a German industrialist who enjoys sex with pigs, and ends up being devoured by them – as Sebastian in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer (1959) was devoured by the Third World thugs he had seduced.
13. Si les p’tits cochons te mangent pas
Il en restera p’t-être pour moi
The phrase “if the little pigs don’t eat you” is vernacular and means “if nothing happens on the way, you’ll have a brilliant future.” In Rachel (1973) Béranger twists the meaning by inserting a reference to the sailors (“the pigs”) who are feasting on Rachel’s body, and, in the coda, hopes to become a pig himself and devour his beloved.
14. I am using the word “idiot” instead of the politically correct term because in the French countryside people still talk about “the village idiot”, but also as a reference to Dostoyevsky, whose novel poses he question of what it meant to be the witness of evil.