The only US festival to have bothered with a FIAPF accreditation, AFI FEST presented by Audi joyously continues to assert its presence in the heart of Hollywood and in the midst of a chaos of overflowing lines. Since tickets are free (courtesy of Audi), it is expected that people are going to sign up online for as many tickets as they lust for, even if they don’t really have time to watch all of this. Calculating that, even if a screening is technically sold out, not all the “hard tickets” will be claimed, the organisers allow potential spectators to reserve tickets over capacity. Result: lines throughout the shopping mall nesting the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres and around the block leading to the Egyptian Theatre on the other side of Hollywood Boulevard. And, more often than once, ticket holders, after patiently waiting with their hopeful little piece of cardboard on hand, are told that the screening is sold out. But, hey, it’s free, you can complain but you can’t ask for your money back. (1)

A few weeks before the end of the year, AFI FEST is strategically posited at the right time for Oscar decisions, which allow the Festival to bring exceptional movies from the world over. FIAPF regulations only concern competitive sections – so only the films presented in the New Auteurs or the Short Program line-up have to be international premieres. Most international films presented at AFI FEST had already shown in other festivals and many secured US distribution – including a couple of Foreign Language Oscar prospects, such as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (Leviafan, Russia), Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina) andAbderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (Timbuktu, Le Chagrin des oiseaux, France/Mauritania).

The Birds’ Sorrow



The presence of Timbuktu in the World Cinema line-up, along with Sissako’s visit to Los Angeles, would be enough to justify the existence of the entire festival. With only four features (including the 67 min La Vie sur terre/Life On Earth, 1998), following a few shorts and videos between his last year as a student in Moscow and his 1997 contribution to Documenta X (Rostov-Luanda), Sissako has consistently asserted the breadth, originality and urgency of his cinematic vision. Yet, the American market is not very welcoming for Arab or African cinema, so we had cause to rejoice for the limelight enjoyed by Timbuktu, which elegantly, poignantly, addresses a painful subject: the encroachment of Muslim fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa. In March 2012, Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the leaders of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion, taking advantage of Mali’s political destabilisation through a coup in January, invaded the Northern regions of the country, eventually joining forces with another rebel group, the MNLA, to take control of the cities of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. During their short-lived occupation of the region, in the small village of Aguelhok, an unmarried couple was stoned to death as an application of the sharia law. The episode is briefly featured in Timbuktu (we see the face of a woman buried till her neck, next to her lover, softly crying at her impending death), but it’s hardly the centre of the film. Instead Sissako weaves a texture of micro-situations involving frayed interactions between locals and occupants, a polyphony of languages – Tamasheq (Tuareg), Bambara, Songhay, Arabic, French and English – speech tonalities, music, voices and postures that unfold against long shots of landscapes – a departure from Sissako’s habit of shooting his previous films in medium shots. Switching DPs (after having worked with Jacques Besse for his last 3 features), (2) he decided, to “expand his visual vocabulary” (3) to work with the Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani (who has, in particular, shot all of Abdellatif Kechiche’s features since Games of Love and Chance/L’Esquive, 2003). (4)

The film is framed by two shots of a gazelle running away in breathtaking sandy landscapes. The threat is first kept off-screen, and the film unfolds like a scroll painting that would gradually tear, a dark reality emerging from the jagged edges. The Jihadists make their entrance in a four-wheeler, shooting at the fleeing gazelle. Later a pregnant cow called GPS, the pride and joy of a nomadic Tuareg family, escapes the teenage shepherd Issan(Mehdi AG Mohamed), entangles itself in the nets set by the local fisherman Amadou and destroys them. Angrily, Amadou throws a spear at GPS. The owner of the herd, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) packs a gun and confronts Amadou. In an extreme long shot that embraces the lake and its bank, we witness the tragic outcome. An exchange of acrimonious words lead to a scuffle; the two men roll together in the water; a gunshot is heard; after pregnant moments of silence and stillness, a figure slowly emerges from the water: Kidane has become a murderer.

Sissako stages this event, those surrounding it and their consequences as a series of visual and aural discordances anchored in the various ethnicities of his performers. The way they move, dress, speak, the sound of their voices, the music they play (or censor), the technology they resort to – all of this is rooted in a specific history, which they bring with them. The casting follows the fractured routes of the African diaspora. Ibrahim Ahmed (AKA Pino Desperado) is a Malian-born actor, singer and bass player living in Madrid; he has been involved, in particular, with the politically committed Tuareg bands, Tamikrest (5) and Terakaft (6). Kidane’s wife, Satima, is played by a Tuareg singer of Nigerian origin, Toulou Kiki (AKA Telawt Walet Bilal), who lives in Paris and performs with Kel Assouf, a band of exiled Tuareg musicians.

In the village, a local singer, Fatou, is caught by the Jihadists while rehearsing with her musicians. Sentenced to forty lashes for singing, and more lashes for having been in a room with a man not her husband, she turns her cries of pain into a song. The performer, Fatoumata Diawara (born in Côte d’Ivoire to Malian parents), is well known to lovers of African cinema and African music. In 1999, she acted in Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s Genesis (La Genèse) and in 2001 was the star of Dani Kouyaté’s Sia, The Dream of the Python (Sia, le rêve du python). She then turned to music (guitar and voice), wrote her own songs (inspired by the Wassoulou tradition of women’s music in Southern Mali) and has performed and recorded internationally, both with giants of Afro-Cuban music (fellow Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré, the AfroCubism band, the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou) and the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Paul McCartney.

In the street, Zabou, a tall woman in flamboyant costumes and elaborate hairstyle, contemptuously passes by the Jihadists, calls them “pauvres cons” (“stupid jerks”) in such a haughty way that they dare not stop her. She is the madwoman of the village, a sort of sorceress who can face up to the invaders, a sacred character that reappears in African folklore and cinema. To embody her, Sissako called upon the award-winning Haitian dancer/choreographer Kettly Noël, who, after having studied and performed in Paris, moved to Benin, then to Mali, where she opened a performing arts centre and a dance festival – to reconnect with her African roots.

As forLayla Walet Mohamed, who plays Toya, Kidane and Satima’s 12 year-old daughter, Sissako found her in the Mauritanian refugee camp of Mbera, that shelters more than 50,000 Malians, including many Tuaregs. (7)

The Jihadists were cast among the North African diaspora in France: Tunisian-born Abel Jafri, for example, has acted in a number of films by the Algerian-born director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche; he plays Abdelkharim, a contradictory emir, who does not know how to drive, hides behind a dune to steal a smoke, averts his gaze when his henchmen flog Fatou, and is sweet on Satima. (8) Salem Dendou, the chief jihadist, is an Algerian actor living in Paris. The Tunisian actor Hichem Yacoubi (who had appeared in particular in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet/Un Prophète, 2009) is another Jihadist.

The French subtitle of Timbuktu means “the birds’ sorrow” and it’s not because, under occupation, the caged birds sing, but because they cannot, they have been silenced. As soccer, like music, is forbidden, kids enact a game without a ball, like the tennis match that concludes Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Girls are thrust into “marriage” with the Jihadists without their consent. Bodies alternatively yield and resist. A madwoman walks proudly, a young fish seller refuses to wear gloves to hide her hands, a cry turns into a song, a woman in love rushes toward her husband before his execution, a little girl runs away among the dunes.

Timbuktu reinterprets the clash of cultures in a musical and choreographic way. The people giving orders and those receiving them neither speak nor move the same way. At the level of artistic sublimation, another voice, “a second line of discourse”, was added, a music specially crafted for the film (a first for Sissako) by Tunisian composer Amine Bouhafa, who became “involved in the writing (écriture) of the film itself”, (9) at the moment of editing. The first scene he was shown was the long shot of the lake after Amadou’s inadvertent murder, which is the moral centre of the film. Staying away from a purely “African music”, Bouhafa produced a combination of symphonic and more intimate tunes, recorded both in the Czech Republic (with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) and his studio, accompanied by a few musicians on traditional instruments such as percussion and oud (10) while he himself played the clarinet and the duduk. (11)

So the music is in conversation with the performances; it is, said the composer, what “breaks the boundaries” and expresses the moments when “the characters sing in their heads”. While Bouhafa received one of the seven Cesars (the French Oscars) garnered by the film, the actors were not singled out. It is tempting to see this as another aspect of the unconscious prejudice that prevented David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King’s in Ava du Vernay’s Selma) from being nominated for an Oscar, but what is really at stake here is how Sissako’s unconventional approach to casting breaks new ground. The “stars” come from the music world, the others are either seasoned “minority” actors or non-professionals. The spectator’s involvement in the film comes from a sensual contiguity with its aural/visual/social fabric rather than on a conventional mode of identification.

This is an equation shared by Lisandro Alonso’s first films (from La Libertad, 2001, to Liverpool, 2008); in addition to capturing the dialectics between the minute sorrows of the birds and their environment, they relied on non-traditional acting. His decision, after several years of retreat/silence (caused in part by the difficulty of securing funding for his projects) to cast Viggo Mortensen as the Danish engineer Gunnar Dinesen (12) desperately searching for his teenage daughter in a remote Patagonian area, breaks the mould in an exhilarating manner. The arresting unbalance between two kinds of cinema is what creates the fiction, and, ultimately, allows time to bifurcate in a Borgesian way. Even though Mortensen spent his primary school years in Buenos Aires and speaks fluent Spanish, he is the splinter sticking out of a texture where he does not belong, a symptom/emanation of the violent encroachment of 19th century European imperialism in Latin America.



Imploding this duality, Jauja is a complex, impure (in the Bazinian sense) text, borrowing its cinematic references from the Western to Glauber Rocha’s early films (the moments suggesting, off-screen, the exactions of a cross-dressing rebel, Zuluaga, seem a distant echo of Black God, White Devil/Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, 1964) – without the pre-Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964) robust exuberance of the former, and the baroque excesses of the latter. An unmistakable sadness pervades this doomed quest for an Eldorado (the meaning of “Jauja”), the more Dinesen penetrates into the harsh landscape, the more minimal the image (and the action) becomes, until a subtle, yet major, narrative shift happens, an initiatory moment in a cave, when he meets an older woman who could be his daughter decades from now. This turning point signifies Dinesen/Mortensen’s removal from the diegesis, the futility of his quest in the grand historical scheme of things, leading to a vengeful (and, to some, jarring) assertion of our modernity in the guise of a lightly clad teenage body.

Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers’ casting of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) is more predictable, as they had already toyed with the Franco-Belgian star system by giving the part of Samantha to Cécile de France in The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Vélo, 2011). Then, their mise en scène foregrounded the implications of this choice as a collision (the physical violence of the first encounter between Samantha and Cyril). By contrast, Cotillard’s presence as a working-class woman recovering from an episode of depression and fighting to be reinstated in her job is not problematised, the star seamlessly slipping into the role of Sandra, surrounded by a collection of lesser-known actors (Christelle Cornil, Catherine Salée, Alain Eloy, Hassiba Halabi; Dardenne habitués Fabrizio Rongione, Batiste Sornin, Lara Persain, Myriem Akeddiou,Hicham Slaoui) and non-professionals or newcomers (Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Soufiane Jilal and Serge Koto who plays Alphonse). What is remarkable is that the film exploits this duality in a structural way: built in an episodic manner, Two Days is a series of vignettes in which Sandra confronts one (sometimes several) of her co-workers trying to convince them to give up their bonuses so she can get her job back. Like a choreography unfolding musical variations, most of the episodes involve Sandra entering the space (the comfort zone) of her interlocutors, talking to them, receiving a negative reply (either a helpless sympathy tinged with guilt, or outright rebuke), then leaving, until a voice calls her back: “Sandra.” This to-and-fro may symbolise the acceptation/rejection of the star system into the texture of the film, yet the question of ambivalence toward the Other is at the core of the Dardenne’s cinema, and, through the apparent stasis of the vignette’s set up, at least two of the characters evolve. One of Sandra’s co-workers decide to leave her husband, and Sandra herself, like the protagonist of La Promesse (1996), discovers the plight of temporary workers of African origin through her interaction with Alphonse, triggering an unexpected (ethical) ending.

Moreover, Two Days is built on a suspense that – a first for the directors – winks at genre cinema. Comes to mind the Cornell Woolrich-inspired Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946), an existential noir that gives its protagonists a precisely limited amount of time to solve a murder (and isn’t losing one’s job a form of death? Sandra believes so…). Clurman and his screenwriter Clifford Odets had secured Susan Hayward in the role of the feisty dance hall girl who drives the search forward – a year before she was nominated as best actress for Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947). Hayward was still on the cusp of fame in Clurman’s film, while Cotillard is already an international star in Two Days – yet, she manages to make us forget it, forgive her, and forgive ourselves.

I have a son who refuses to watch the films I want to watch!”

Since bursting onto Director’s Fortnight at age 19 with I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère, 2009), which he wrote, directed and starred in, Xavier Dolan has irritated many proper cinephilic souls – how good a filmmaker is he really? Indeed Dolan’s work is uneven, bloated, self-absorbed, sometimes clumsy, sometimes even tacky – and his most “minimalist” work (the film of his I happen to love the most) Heartbeats/Les Amours Imaginaires, 2010), has received some harsh criticism, in spite of a standing ovation at its Un Certain Regard screening. To top it all, after sharing the Cannes Jury Prize with Godard, Dolan publicly declared to be more influenced by Jane Campion (who had handed him the trophy on stage), Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and (horror!) Claude Sautet than by the recluse of Rolle, Switzerland, which must not have endeared him to some. (13) Whether this is provocation, cojones or naiveté, I find Dolan’s attitude more appealing than the derivative passion of some people of his generation, who adopt, copy and co-opt the cinephilia of their elders, share and reproduce their language and manias, with the hope of being admitted in the band of big brothers, and the fear of being mercilessly rejected as “not belonging”. Dolan acknowledges the indelible marks the films we saw when we were very young left on us. When Chantal Akerman was 15, the spark that lit the plain came from Pierrot le fou. When Dolan was 8 and 10, he was watching Titanic and Magnolia on DVD.

I am among those who believe that modern cinema is unthinkable without Godard, so I should be upset by Dolan’s admission that he “somewhat does not give a fuck” about the man (who, btw, does not about Dolan either) yet I am not. In the 1990s, the apex of Godard’s work was JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December (JLG/JLG – Autoportrait en décembre, 1994). For somebody born in the 1950s like Akerman, Godard’s work represented, in addition to a project of cinema, unbridled youth. Dolan couldn’t find it in a “December portrait” (that may not have been readily available on DVD, anyhow), so it had to be somewhere else. Furthermore, one would be hard-pressed to find a living filmmaker with a more heterosexual rhetoric than Godard, and queer culture has rarely been in a dialogue with his work. Hollywood, for all its “tackiness”, and while generally reproducing the tropes of mainstream homophobia, has suffused its products with unconscious-but-blatant homoeroticism and inadvertent camp, thus being a fertile inspirational ground for a young queer filmmaker.



Yes, Dolan’s work is always a bit “too much”, its excesses spilling at the seams, and in Mommy he addresses the issues headfirst. The semi-autobiographical dysfunctional mother-son relationship exposed in his first film has turned much darker. Not only because the mother is slightly dopey, but the son is sick. Clinically so. Some of the film’s harshest criticisms fail to address this simple issue, which has reached a singular urgency in the early 21st century, when so many young adults receive psychotropic drugs, with terrible consequences when they stop taking them or the effect wears off. In 2012, the film world was shaken by the news that Karyn Kay, who had rediscovered Dorothy Arzner in 1974 and co-authored one of the first books of feminist film criticism, (14) had been beaten to death by her 19 year-old son Henry during an epileptic feat. I am not ruling out that Dolan knew about it, especially since Henry had acted in a short about alienated youth in Manhattan, Tatianna Kantorowicz’s Our Time that was shown in Cannes Short Corner in 2011. (15) The mother-son relationship described as “volatile” by the neighbours (furniture flying, objects being broken up, screaming matches) was very similar to the one between Diane (Anne Dorval) and Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon); so the real-life tragedy was very much on my mind when watching the scenes in which the young man, losing control, yields to his rage and physically threatens his mother. He could kill her, he could have killed her, and they both know it. Yet, as Diane says, “love is what we do best,” yes, they are also terribly in love with each other, and it cannot end well.

Exploding the tropes of melodrama into uncomfortable territories (mental illness, voices that are too loud, overflowing coarse language – this colourful Quebecois slang!) –Dolan distantly echoes the dissonances created by filmmakers who died before he was born (1989 for Cassavetes; 1982 for Fassbinder) and had stepped into a zone of spectatorial discomfort. They explored the jagged nerves of protagonists who understood how ill-equipped we are for love; how our own failings take centre stage, misguide us into looking for love in the wrong places, and hinder our attempts of bonding with those who may love us back; how awkward, sad and infuriating this all is. Dolan is not there yet, but aiming toward this vanishing point.

Even Dolan’s detractors acknowledge that he is an astute finder/director of actresses, and Mommy adds an unexpected layer of joy and complexity with the arrival of Suzanne Clément as neighbour Kyla, on the scene. While Steve remains the object of the two women’s gaze (the position every infant dreams of), the balance of power shifts and a silent love story – devoid of noise and fury – emerges between the two women. In contrast with the immediate, physical, brutal evidence of the bond between mother and son, this new passion creeps on them, almost by accident, as they are busy within heterosexual entanglements (an unseen yet demanding family for Kyra, passing flirts for Diane), culminating in a morceau de bravoure good bye scene in which the semantic power of a double denial is wittingly unmasked. Dorval was (superbly) playing Dolan’s Mom in his first film, and Suzanne Clément won our hearts as “Fred,” the stubborn and courageous spouse of “Laurence Anyways” (2012). Here Dolan, who had already cast a stand-in for his antics, elegantly tiptoes out of the scene, and allows his favourite actresses to have a moment all for themselves, and we are enjoying every minute of it.

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

Magnolia is one of the ten-odd films from which Dolan seeks inspiration, and, of course (generational drift), it is my least favourite of P.T. Anderson’s films, which probably means that we don’t like the work for the same reasons. Some of Anderson’s excesses intersect with Dolan’s territory (in addition to the frogs falling from the sky and the incest in Magnolia, I can think of Mark Wahlberg’s faux dick in Boogie Nights, 1997, or Paul Dano’s double whammy turn as a psychopathic nerd in There Will Be Blood, 2007, and, at a deeper level, an aching sense of frustrated desire in Punch-Drunk Love, 2002). With The Master (2012) in which he masterfully addressed the 70mm format and triggered a collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, he’s reached an artistic maturity that, possibly, a wunderkind can only reach once he turns 42. A much-expected gala evening at the AFI, Inherent Vice is both a joyful demonstration of what the adaptation of a novel should be and a feast of talented actors galore in various states of (70s vintage) dress and undress and enacting duplicitous layers of altered consciousness.

When bringing a work by Thomas Pynchon to the screen (which the famously recluse author had never authorised before), even a supposedly “lite” one, (16) don’t be cute, just go with the flow: the words are leaping from the page (as frogs from the sky) with alluringly cinematic descriptions. And indeed, Anderson “adapted the entire 384-page novel sentence by sentence… basically just transcrib[ing] it so [he] could look at it like it was a script,” which made it easier for him to cut down. (17) Inherent Vice (the novel) does not try to be more intelligent than its protagonists, and neither does the precisely adapted film; some of them are doing, at times, really dumb things, but with nonchalant cunning, for good (Renoirian) reasons, and, provided that the music has the right beat, the sex is consensual and the weed high-grade, they simply enjoy the ride under the eternal California sun. Besides, if they don’t understand where they are going, what they are doing and what is happening to them, we don’t either; it’s this kind of a plot: a neo-noir maze for doped hipsters and the company they keep.

In addition to a superb art direction (courtesy of long-time Anderson collaborator Ruth de Jong and David Crank) and exuberant costume design (Mark Bridges), it’s the acting that makes Inherent Vice such a joy to behold, as the pleasure the thespians took in working with Anderson and inhabiting their characters is contagious. In order to maintain “a freewheeling mood on the set”, Anderson reportedly created a form of “organized chaos” that worked quite well with the material. (18) In the opening sequence, Joaquin Phoenix (stoner private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello) receives the visit of Katherine Waterston (as his former girlfriend Sasha, for whom he still carries a torch), who tries to involve him in a scheme involving her rich asshole real estate mogul boyfriend (a Jew who befriends Neo-Nazi gangs while expropriating entire black neighbourhoods), his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her fitness instructor boyfriend (Andrew Simpson). The sexual tension between a curly-haired, side-whiskered Doc and the former prom queen-turned aspiring hippie starlet-turned kept woman is palatable, and fuels the fiction, yet, as any respectable PI, Doc meets a lot of available ladies throughout, whether he beds them or not: Jena Malone (a classic California blonde with a sordid heroin past), Reese Witherspoon (a hard-as-nail but o so classy deputy D.A.), Maya Rudolph (too sexy to be “just a receptionist”), Hong Chau (an employee of the “Chick Planet” massage parlour, who warns him about the Golden Fang gang), newcomer Sasha Fenway (as Japonica Fenway, a poor little rich girl who can’t find enough mischief to commit), Yvette Yates (as the hot Chicana maid who thrusts her butt in Doc’s direction while serving drinks to her mistress), Joanne Newsom (as the elusive Sortilège) and the fabulous Jeannie Berlin as Doc’s I-know-it-all formidable auntie. The boys aren’t bad either, and, in addition to Phoenix, it’s exhilarating to recognise, in various disguises, hairdos and toupees, actors that have shaped both American independent cinema, Hollywood and/or cable television (The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) for the last twenty years: Owen Wilson offers an understated performance as a former saxophone player who has to fake his death; the always impeccable Martin Donovan is a lawyer for the Golden Fang (he’s also, by the way, Japonica’s father, which serves him right); Benicio del Toro shines as the man passing as “Doc’s lawyer”; Josh Brolin drew a lot of kudos for his performance as Doc’s nemesis, an LAPD detective nicknamed Bigfoot with the bad habit of kicking people’s door and dreams of making it to the big screen; Martin Short; Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams etc…

As soon as Sasha walks back into Doc’s life (to put up another disappearing act right away), guess what, a member of the Black Guerilla Family hires him to find a guy he met in jail and owes him money, but now works as one of the Aryan Brothers bodyguards to Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts), Sasha’s sugar daddy. From then on, things spiral down really fast…

AFM: Scenes by the Sea

In contrast with the irritating yet sympathetic chaos of the AFI FEST, there was a palpable lull at the AFM. It was business as usual, deals were made, films sold, territories acquired, transactions officially registered a 3% increase from last year, yet with a muted sense that Los Angeles is no longer the centre of the world film market – being displaced by new film events around the globe. This is indisputably due to a reshuffling of the cards – at a time when an accurate compliment that could be made about an independent venture such as Selma is that it was “not done with the Chinese market in sight.” Yet it may also be because the AFM does not take place in Los Angeles, but in Santa Monica – which could mean two solid hour drive to Hollywood during rush hour. A plan to move the AFM to a new location in downtown Los Angeles a couple of years ago failed – due in part to the attachment many exhibitors have for the current set-up of the market: offices are in cosy hotel rooms, not in cubicles on a noisy convention floor, at a ten minute walk from either the beach or the Promenade with its cute coffee-shops and high-end boutiques. Stuck without a car in this Pacific Coast retreat, Asian exhibitors, in particular, have no chance to rub shoulders with American audiences interested in “specialty films”, and get a sense of what makes them tick.

The Great Hypnotist

The Great Hypnotist

Among the 432 films screened, there were plenty of opportunities to catch up with films you may have missed in other film festivals, or that are still awaiting discovery in Western territories. Among them was The Great Hypnotist (Cui mian da shi) shot in Tianjin (with Chinese money: Wanda Media taking the lead) by Taiwanese filmmaker Leste Chen, (19) and starring the scintillating yet recently underused Hong Kong actress Karen Mok (20) – that had been scheduled as a gala evening at the latest Hong Kong Film Festival but cancelled for “technical reasons”. Since then, after being the closing night of the Beijing Film Festival and being showcased at the Cannes Film Market, the film has become a major box-office success in China, but, in spite of screenings in Stockholm, Hawaii and Montréal, has yet to make a dent on the Western market. The Great Hypnotist ambitions to usher the genre of psychological/supernatural thriller into a commercial cinematic landscape not known for its subtlety (as fans of “Asian horror film” will tell you) and indeed the cat-and-mouse game played by the male psychiatrist (Xu Zheng) and his troubled patient (Mok), is fascinating. Both mise en scene and camerawork create a suffocating, moody urban surrounding, a non-place where sense of reality is lost and the balance of power between two minds shifts – begging the question: which of the two is the real hypnotist?

Unfortunately, by trying to tie up the multiple perspectives opened up by a gradually changing POV, the ending is both too pat and borderline ridiculous. This “weakness” in the screenplay may be a leftover from the melodramatic roots of the Asian genre film – more specifically films made in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Theories of the melodrama have depicted it as a closed, even “paralysed” system, resisting “change or any form of external development”, which means that its “excesses” have to be resolved (even if it is through madness or highly improbable coincidences) within the system itself. (21) So there is never, as in the Western, a true stranger coming to town: the “solution” is to be found in the (limited) sum of relationships woven around the subject in the near or distant past. One can see how the melodrama is particularly suited to cultures experiencing a certain form of “enclosure” (Mainland China in both her Imperial and post-1949 isolationism; Hong Hong as a colonial territory cut off the mainland; Taiwan in its diplomatic post-1979 isolation…) – yet, even on the cusp of globalisation, true-and-tried melodramatic tropes are hard to shake. Let’s face it: this is what made Hong Kong genre films so appealing to Western fans in the ‘80s and ‘90s – they were both alluringly physical, sharp and funny, and “corny” to the point that no US or European film would dare. They beautifully expressed the not-so-secret childhood dream of resolving every problem by altering the family romance. However, while Asian audiences are still seduced by outright sentimentality, it now appears dated or awkward to Westerners hence a cooler reaction to Chinese-language films in international festivals in the last few years.



Superficially, James Leong’s promising first feature, Camera (Ngaan Gei) that came to AFM after its world premiere at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PIFAN), displays a similar issue in its plot development (the ending biting its own tail, so to speak). I find it, however, a much more intriguing work than The Great Hypnotist. Maybe because Chen only uses Chinese cities as a backdrop for his fiction, while Leong, who comes from an independent social documentary background (22) has something urgent to say about Hong Kong. The reviewer of Variety didn’t get it when he wrote that “no mention is made of how this vision of Hong Kong evolved in relation to the 50-year ‘one country, two systems’ transitional period currently under way.” (23) From the get-go, Leong positions his fiction at the junction of two major traumas recently inflicted to the city. The opening title reads “Hong Kong. The near future. More than 1.2 million CCTV cameras watch over the city.” CCTV being Mainland China’s official TV station, this is a clear allusion to the “Big Brother is watching you” policy that has been exerted both against Hong Kong citizens and, in China itself, dissidents such as Ai Wei Wei (as cameras are constantly pointed at his studio). Then the camera drifts over blighted urban landscapes at night, small empty streets with modest storefronts, their iron gate lowered down, and derelict shacks, while a loudspeaker broadcasts a female voice: “This area has been marked for redevelopment. Please vacate all buildings within 60 days”. The question of the fate of the “Old City”, who used to inhabit it, which secrets may be buried there, and who is going to benefit from this real estate coup is pervasive throughout the film, and the way Leong shoots these first images is a visual reminder of a cleaning operation ordered as a result of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Kowloon’s Walled City, an unruly compound that had been home to many immigrants from the mainland, was demolished between 1994 and 1995, after facing steadfast resistance from the residents. Many Hong Kongers still feel the loss of the Walled City, as an example of the city’s ingenuity and original culture, which the PRC intends to erase.

As many a sci-fi hero, Ming does not know who he really is, whom he works for, who manipulates him. He is also a sort of cyborg, part man, part machine, one of his eyes replaced by a super-sophisticated camera. But to whom does this camera really belong? Never being given a choice, Ming loves what he has become – a surveillance expert, a voyeur. Leong, whose own relationship to Hong Kong is complex (the son of British-born Chinese director Leong Po-chih (24), he has lived in Hong Kong, England and Singapore), has significantly entrusted the part of Ming to Sean Li, first revealed as a young gay man struggling with various levels of sexual and national identity in Scud’s iconic Permanent Residence (Yong jiu ju liu, 2009). (25) Li subtly allows the stoic mask his character has crafted for himself to crack and reveal an endearing vulnerability. In rooms and landscapes drowned in darkness, he is slowly overcome, in spite of himself, by a mixture of desire and sympathy for another victim of the omnipresent surveillance – a girl his age, Clare (Venus Wong), the daughter of a corrupt and probably incestuous real-estate tycoon.

Camera was completed before the onset of the Umbrella movement – which, not coincidentally, Leong and his collaborator Lynn Lee documented in a two-part report, Hong Kong: Occupy Central, broadcast on Aljazeera in October, shortly before the AFM – but it is pregnant with similar themes such as the sense of betrayal experienced by a new generation for the father figures, ensconced in their power, who intend to run their lives. Leong throws subtle hints, such as allusions to the Hong Kong New Wave that for a couple of decades, seemed to promise a new dawn. Casting his own father in the fleeting cameo of the man who is both saviour and destructor to Ming reflects such ambivalence, and it’s all to the credit of Leong Po-chi that he accepted this reinsertion in the film’s larger narrative. Not coincidentally, Leong concludes Camera on a tableau that echoes one of Tsui Hark’s most beloved works: a scene at sea, a woman bleeding in the arms of the mutant hero who loves her. This was The East is Red (Dong Fang Bu Bai: Feng yun zai qi), it was 1993 – a time when mainstream Hong Kong filmmakers still playfully used cinema to comment on their society. The close-up of a face channels long-forgotten memories, not so much, in fact, as a melodramatic twist than as a figure of the “eternal return”.

Coming straight from its world premiere in Toronto, Ned Rifle is yet another of Hal Hartley’s sassy distortion of the “family saga” initiated with Henri Fool (1997) and continued with Fay Grim (2006) and what happens when the kids are growing up and you introduce a stranger in the family circle. This could constitute a metaphor for Hartley’s entire approach to filmmaking, in which a group of core actors – some of them owing their career to him – are given a chance to gracefully age in front of the camera and brush their performance skills against thespians coming from different horizons. Henri Fool “discovered” Thomas Jay Ryan as the title character, a bigger-than-life, caustic, lustful, immoral, iconoclastic, hard-drinking would-be writer who triggers a successful literary vocation in a garbage man, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak, also a Hal Hartley “creature”) while knocking up his sister Fay. In that role, Parker Posey brought the aura of “it girl” of US independent cinema acquired through her much-written about performance in Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl (1995) – even though her first screen appearances were in small parts in two Hartley shorts prior to this. Her dalliance with the unassimilable Henry earned Fay a son, Ned (played three consecutive times by Liam Aiken, who was only seven year old at the time of Henry Fool), as well as a life sentence for high treason.

At the beginning of the third film, Ned has just turned 18 and has lived with the family of a pastor and his wife (regular Hartley cronies Martin Donovan and Karen Silias) under a “witness protection program” which he is free to leave now. Chaste, and deeply religious, he goes to visit his mother in jail, then his uncle Simon, but with the hope of discovering the whereabouts of his father, in order to kill him, for having ruined his mother’s life. (“How Oedipally boring”, Henry will say a bit later.)

The unexpected part of the narration, the grain that derails Ned’s plans while testing his chastity, is the encounter with the comic actress Aubrey Plaza – of Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth (2014), where she plays a cumbersome zombie. With a too-short mini-skirt and running make-up (“Do I look like a slut?”), she plays Susan, a disturbed college graduate, who has written her thesis on Simon Grim’s poetry. Like Ned, she actually uses Simon as a conduit to get at Henry, with whom she shares a troubled past – but, in her verbal feud with the two older leads of the film, she gets some of the best lines of dialogue.

As always, Hartley reveals an impeccable stylist, and a formidable director/discoverer of actors. Ned Rifle is also an act of resistance, expressing Hartley’s desire to continue his oeuvre even though it may appear as having slightly fallen off the zeitgeist. Henry’s memoirs remain unpublished, and Simon has given up poetry for stand-up comedy, yet is still convinced that one should make work outside of the mainstream. “I had to endure the world until my friend Henry showed me otherwise.” The open question is how the sons and the daughters will experience this legacy. Susan embraces it, and is even more virulent against “the mainstream” but Ned is basically caught in a similar predicament as Ming in Camera: the “bad father” holds the keys – and the girl too. It could only have a violent ending.
6-13 November 2014
Festival website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/

American Film Market
5-12 November 2014
Market website: http://www.americanfilmmarket.com/


  1. Disclaimer: being part of a team of curators that collaborated with the AFI FEST to Los Angeles premiere a Chinese film – not discussed in the text below – I could secure an “industry pass” and was therefore very well treated and able to attend any screening I wanted. I am grateful to the people who made this possible, but am sad at having witnessed the disappointment of some fellow film lovers.
  2. A French DP having worked on a number of African and Middle Eastern films such as Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Little Girl That Sold the Sun (La petite vendeuse de soleil, 1996) and Rachid Masharawi’s Waiting (L’Attente, 2005), he has shot Abderrahmane Sissako’s La Vie sur terre (Life on Earth, 1998), Waiting for Happiness (En attendant le bonheur, 2002) and Bamako (2006).
  3. Conversation with students at the California Institute of the Arts, November 6, 2014.
  4. They include: The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le mulet, 2007), Black Venus (2010) and the Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle, 2013).
  5. See Andy Morgan, “Tamikrest: this music was founded on a very precise cause: the Tuareg’s.” The Guardian, Oct 13, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/14/tamikrest-music-tuareg-mali, accessed Jan 15, 2015.
  6. See Jeremy D. Goodwin, “Terakaft’s desert blues find a place away from home,” The Boston Globe, Oct 17, 2013, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2013/10/17/terakaft-desert-blues-find-place-away-from-home/f6Px1YzCGUv3DrPWugP91J/story.html, accessed Jan 15, 2015.
  7. Rena Silverman, “Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Timbuktu’ Found A Star In A Refugee Camp”, February 22, 2015 http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/02/22/387554468/director-of-oscar-nommed-timbuktu-found-a-star-in-a-refugee-camp accessed February 22, 2015.
  8. Sabine Cessou, “Abel Jafri dans Timbuktu, un émir d’Aqmi tout en nuances.” http://www.rfi.fr/hebdo/20141212-cinema-france-mauritanie-mali-abel-jafri-timbuktu-emir-aqmi-abderrahmane-sissako/, accessed February 22, 2015.
  9. Terence Baelen, “Amine Bouhafa, compositeur de la bande-originale de Timbuktu”, Les Temps Critiques, December 8, 2014 http://lestempscritiques.com/2014/12/08/interview-amine-bouhafa-compositeur-de-la-bande-originale-de-timbuktu/, accessed Jan 20, 2015.
  10. A pear-shaped string instrument, comparable to the European lute, and largely used in Middle Eastern, Eastern European and North African music.
  11. A reed instrument of Armenian origin.
  12. It is probably no accident that he bears the same surname as the writer Isak Dinesen (AKA Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke), the explorer of Danish colonial imaginary.
  13. Romain Blondeau, “Xavier Dolan: ‘Je fais des films pour me venger’,” Les Inrocks, Oct 1, 2014 http://www.lesinrocks.com/2014/10/01/cinema/xavier-dolan-fais-films-venger-11520012/, accessed Jan 18, 2015.
    “If you ask me what are my fetish films, I will never mention one by Godard. On the other hand, I could talk to you for hours of my fondness for The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), A Heart in Hiver (Un coeur en hiver, Claude Sautet, 1992), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)… I have no problem saying I am more impressed by Lord of the Rings than by Godard… [In Jackson’s film] the actors are all excellent, all totally invested in this story between a very small curly-haired boy and an old bearded gentleman. Taken out of context, you could think of a sort of gerontophilic porn, but here everything works, for the simple reason that Peter Jackson believes in it… [italics mine] For Mommy, half of the scenes, of the lighting, are inspired by [the photographer] Nan Goldin’s work… There are also about ten film, completely heterogeneous, that come from my childhood and that are my true cinematic inspiration: Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), The Piano, Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999), Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), Jumanji (Joe Johnston, 1995)… These films accompany me on each project, at every instant. I am always going to direct a scene as if it were in Titanic.” [Translation mine]
  14. See Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, “Interview with Dorothy Arzner,” http://agnesfilms.com/interviews/interview-with-dorothy-arzner/ accessed January 18 2015. The contributor’s profile for this web entry includes a self-description posted by Kay in 2011: “I have a son who refuses to watch the films I want to watch!” See also Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology, New York: Dutton, 1977.
  15. See Gina Bellafante, “A Killing, and Queries About a Life,” The New York Times, April 13, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/nyregion/in-henry-wachtel-tragedy-asking-where-fiction-and-reality-diverge.html accessed January 18 2015.
  16. In her article, “Another Doorway to the Paranoid Pynchon Dimension” Michiko Kakutani calls the book “Pynchon Lite”, New York Times, August 3, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/04/books/04kaku.html?_r=0, accessed February 10, 2015.
  17. Logan Hill, “Pynchon’s Cameo, and Other Surrealities,” The New York Times, Sept 26, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/movies/paul-thomas-anderson-films-inherent-vice.html?_r=0, accessed February 10, 2015.
  18. Ethan Alter, “NYFF Report: Joaquin Phoenix and Cast Helped Make Inherent Vice a Noir-Nonsense Affair”, https://www.yahoo.com/movies/inherent-vice-new-york-film-festival-99160736987.html, accessed February 10, 2015.
  19. After directing the ghost story The Heirloom (Zhai bian, 2005), Leste made Eternal Summer (Sheng xia guang nian, 2006), a sensitive, queer-friendly coming-of-age romance between two boys and one girl. He started switching between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese productions with two rom-com shot in China, Love on Credit (Xing fu e du, 2011) and 101 Proposals AKA Say Yes! (101 ci qiu hun, 2013) – a genre he is revisiting with the film he completed after The Great Hypnotist, a Hong-Kong remake (courtesy of Media Asia) of the Korean hit Miss Granny (Su-sang-han geu-nyeo, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2014), retitled 20 Once Again (Chongfan 20 Sui, 2015) that was released last January in China, the US and Australia.
  20. Of mixed Chinese, Welsh, Iranian and German ancestry, Karen Mok, AKA Karen Joy Morris (her “Western” name) and Mok Man-wai (her “Hong Kong” name), has been active as an actress and a canto-pop singer since she was 23, first in supporting parts (including a brief stint in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (Do lok tin si, 1995) due to her “unusual” physique, before her comic timing was tapped onto by Stephen Chow in The God of Cookery (Sik san, 1996) and her charisma awarded her major roles in episodes of the series Young and Dangerous (Gu huo zi: Ren zai jiang hu, 1996 and 97), Corey Yuen’s So Close (2002) etc…
  21. See in particular “the melodramatic text is balanced on the edge oftwo extremes, one of which is inertial (the paralysis of the system, its resistance to change or any form of external development) and the other of which is entropic (where action is expressed only as an irrational and undirected surplus energy)… In summary, even though the incorporation of the Oedipal scenario enable the domestic melodrama to establish a concrete form of narrative organisation, this scenario still reproduced, within its own structural relations, the central contradiction of the genre – the impossibility of an individual reconciliation of the law and desire.  This structure could thus resolve itself either on the symbolic level (acceptance of authority) or on the hermeneutic level (which accepted madness and usually self-destruction), but not on both.”  (David. N. Rodowick, “Madness, Authority and Ideology: The Domestic Melodrama of the 1950s.” in Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987, 273.)
  22. In collaboration with Lynn Lee, James Leong has completed a number of acclaimed documentaries about the effects of war on a village in East Timor (Passabe, 2006), homeless men in Hong Kong (Homeless FC, 2007), victims of landmines in Cambodia (Aki Ra’s Boys, 2007), and democratic battles in a Chinese village (Wukan, the Flame of Democracy/Wukan: Minzu zhi guang, 2013.)
  23. http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/film-review-camera-1201275486/, accessed January 19, 2015. On the other hand, Clarence Tsui’s review for The Hollywood Reporter is much more insightful: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/camera-ngaan-gei-pifan-review-724129, accessed January 19, 2015.
  24. Born in England in 1939, Leong Po-chih moved to Hong Kong to work on television in the 1960s. In 1976, in collaboration with Josephine Xiao Fong Fong, he directed Jumping Ash, considered the forerunner of the Hong Kong New Wave. He has directed films in Hong Kong, the UK and the US.
  25. Scud is the “stage name” of IT entrepreneur Danny Cheng Wan-Cheung who has directed a flurry of unabashedly gay films made in Hong Kong.

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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