Beyond the Great (Digital) Divide

Posited at both ends of the aesthetic spectrum (French auteur cinema versus Sundance alum), Doubles Vies (Non-Fiction) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? engage in a conversation about the problematic trajectory followed by literature and literary endeavours (writing, publishing, writing-about-writing) in the age of reproduction (mechanical, chemical or electronic). Haunting the imperfect, desiring, slippery bodies of the protagonists (who lie, cheat, hide or expose themselves in disarming bouts of mauvaise foi) is the question of the object of literature: not what literature is about, but what is its material support. The sheet of paper – printed, typed or hand-written on – or the iPhone screen?

The sixteenth dramatic feature by Olivier Assayas since Désordre (1986), Double Vies treads the fragile equilibrium of the current French literary scene, in a country where la rentrée littéraire (autumn literary season) is a national event – alluring potential readers with candidates for a flurry of literary awards. Ebullient, talented and sophisticated as it is, the milieu littéraire is portrayed at a moment of vulnerability. The director of a prestigious collection, Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) confesses a friend that his company has to publish “colouring books for adults”. Afraid to be left behind, he reluctantly considers digital publishing, having hired for this purpose a young ace, the beautiful (and, as it turns out, bisexual) Laure (Christa Théret), with whom he starts a fleeting relationship, while married to TV actress Selena (Juliette Binoche). Do people still care about books (the objects)? Do they want fiction, or something closer to blog confessions or reality TV? In the country of Proust (whose work we cannot think of without remembering Marcel’s handwriting, reproduced on the cover of so many editions), the intermittences du coeur1 are the complex, witty and shifting emotional terrain where Assayas charts this core question. “Non-fiction” because the novelist Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) keeps turning novels based on his personal experience, especially sex with easily recognisable celebrities, and Alain is considering no longer publishing him. “Double lives” not only because each character has something to hide, often a secret love affair – and even Léonard’s novel involves deception, one supposedly bedded celebrity standing for another – but because each character is stepped in several worlds, professionally, intellectually, emotionally. This is the age of post-truth – brilliant sarcasm, sour-sweet witticism, indulgent or passionate disbelief, studied scepticism. As so often in Assayas’s work the kernel of authenticity that remains is the constancy of the passing of time, and the way we blindly yield to our private emotions even as they are fluid, malleable, transitory. Desire – not its object, not its transcription in book form, not its electronic rendering – is the window opening toward an ever-receding “reality.”

The protagonists of Will You Ever Forgive Me? don’t have relationships. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a plump, fifty-something queer writer, past her prime and her fifteen minutes of fame, a dedicated misanthropist with a blunt personality made more difficult by alcoholism, who prefers cats to humans and won’t see the possibility of romance if it ever turns up. Her partner-in-crime, Jack (Richard E. Grant) is a self-described middle-aged “slut” who “fucked his way through Manhattan” and got several bad beatings from hustlers he had neither the cash nor the inclination to pay after sex. They hang out in a New York that no longer exists, an attractive mixture of long-time upper-class residents and impoverished bohemians that were taking advantage of rent control in the 1990s Upper West Side. A world of Jewish delis, wood-panelled stores with muted lighting where you can discover – or sell – archival treasures, well attended public libraries where people read books in silence, of watering holes where the locals elbow with the literati in the lull of a wasted afternoon, of cocktail parties at the top of narrow stairs – a world where you can still buy vintage typewriters and get by without a telephone.

Once a best-selling author of biographies (Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead) whose career plummeted in the mid-‘80s, reduced to near-poverty, Israel survives at the margins of a New York-centric literary scene knitted together by the belief that Noel Coward (1899-1973), Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) and Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) were among the most important writers of the 20th century. And, as much as their literary output, what mattered was their wit, style, charm, their circle of prestigious friends, the anecdotes they related privately, their connections to Broadway and Hollywood. Yet, this was definitely a pre-Instagram, pre-internet world, already quaint in the ‘90s – for it was based on faith. Belief in the value of literature had migrated from the content of the books to the physical traces left by the writers: letters typed and then signed on custom-made stationery paper. And this is why Israel was successful. Being a liar, a forger, only makes sense if there is something to lie about – something to forge. The “real” we believe in is what sustains the existence of the fake.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller’s second feature, is also her second adaptation of a (printed) book written by a woman about her own experience. Her Sundance hit, Diary of a Teenage Girl2 was inspired by Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, which recounted growing up in the Bay area in the 1970s and her fascination for other women illustrating themselves in the very masculine world of comics.3 The film was inhabited by the material aspects of producing a work on paper, as the heroine spends a fair amount of her time drawing. Rewriting Lee Israel’s slim and piquant  “memoirs”4 in collaboration with filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, Heller meticulously documents the process used by the unapologetic protagonist in her forgery of hundreds of letters attributed to celebrities – sneaking the originals out of libraries, artificially aging and yellowing the paper, using an old television as a light table to painstakingly copy the flourish of a signature.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)

If Doubles Vies or Can You Ever say anything about literature – in print or in digital form – it is as a remnant. Trivial or precious moments of our private lives, always out of sync with the primacy of a now-lost experience, always truncated, falsified. Léonard lies when he presents his novel to the very man whose wife he is bedding. Israel is never a better writer as when she forges these fake memorabilia. Yet cinema reaches another kind of truth: words, written or spoken, are working through bodies, and both films deliver arresting performances that also represent a shift in our spectatorial expectations. Juliette Binoche, who has had a fruitful collaboration with Assayas,5 is, at the pinnacle of her career, effortlessly luminous, seductive and subtly ironical. Yet the unexpected pay-off was the casting of the young comedienne Nora Hamzawi as Léonard’s wife. Working as a left-wing politician assistant, she belongs neither to the art world nor to the literary scene, and starts at the margins on the “non-fiction”. She is too busy to care about her husband’s indiscretions, especially as she has to fix the mess created by her boss’s own indiscretions. The narrative arc of the film is a slow reshuffling of the characters’ weight. Those who speak a lot about themselves, who share their anxieties or brag about their prowess gradually yield centre stage to those who were listening, working hard, and said nothing. Here is Hamzawi’s winning stance, crossing over the comic line to embody a more complex emotional facet. Her physical appearance, her body language, also bring an interesting otherness in Assayas’s constellation of characters. Partially of Syrian descent, Hamzawi grew up in France and got her first one-woman show in 2009 at the age of 24. A television personality and a radio columnist she belongs to this generation of young French people with hybrid ethnic/cultural identity, and to this cluster of young women who have made a name in the entertainment industry for their insolent outlook on current news, issues of sexism, social justice, and daily life.

Another happy crossover took place when Heller asked Melissa McCarthy to play Lee Israel. This seemed at first an odd pairing, as the two-time Emmy winner had (successfully) starred in mainstream fare, both in film and on television. Embodying a misanthropic, truculent and marginalised Jewish writer was the kind of stretch that could bring her career to new heights – or be a flop. Heller and McCarthy met the challenge, proving once again that comedians can bring an added twist of self-deprecatory pain in a dramatic part.

Three Women

Presented at Cannes in his absence – as his three previous films – Jafar Panahi’s Se rokh (Three Faces) unfolds a multi-layered structure that leads to a vanishing point of invisibility. One woman (famous actress Behnaz Jafari, playing herself) leads to another, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) – who may or many not be dead, as she has sent a video of her committing suicide by hanging, in despair at her family’s refusal to let her study acting in the Tehran Conservatory. Panahi drives Jafari to Marziyeh’s village, in the mountains of Iranian Azerbaijian, where they meet Marziyeh’s mother (Narges Del Aram), as well as her cousin Maedeh (Maedeh Erteghaei) – and then, at the end of the quest, discover the existence of yet another woman, Sharzad.

This may be Panahi’s most personal film, in which he reveals his ethno-linguistic identity. While Marziyeh, in her ardent desire to become an actress, reaches out to Jafari, her video is sent to the director’s phone, because they “speak the same language”, Azeri Turkish (simply referred to in the subtitles as “Turkish”), which he uses in his contacts with the villagers when trying to figure out what happened to the girl. “I don’t speak Persian, say it in [Azeri] Turkish”, says one old man met on a one-way dirt road on the edge of a steep mountain “… you don’t forget your mother tongue”, while another, who invites them for tea in the village, notices “You don’t speak Turkish very well. You can talk to me in Persian”. The language divide also deepens the rift between Panahi and Jafari, as the former’s interlocutors enquire whether “the lady speaks Turkish” before confiding the feats of one stud bull “with golden balls”, for example. It also subtly changes the overtone of the phone conversation between the director and his mother – for Panahi, when talking to her, was on his way to shoot in her native village, as well as that of his father and his grandparents.6

The largest minority in Iran, Azeris have a keen sense of their cultural identity, stepped in a traditional, patriarchal understanding of Shia Islam.7 While intimately rooted in their mountainous surroundings, their mores and the conduct they expect from girls and women are a sort of exaggeration of what is imposed by the clerics onto mainstream Iranian society. Even in cities, young women who want to pursue an acting career often face brutal opposition in traditional milieus. In the small village of Saran, Marziyeh didn’t stand a chance.

At some point, she had sought refuge in the house of a woman called Sharzad – whose story elliptically comes to light. First as a former actress, who now lives in isolation. Then we understand that she is ostracised by the community; Marziyeh’s violent and sexist brother even threatens to burn her home. An hour into the film, Jafari walks in the direction of Sharzad’s house; not invited to join her, Panahi stays in the car. As night falls, from afar, he watches the figures of three women against the windowpane – while listening to a CD of poetry Jafari gave him. The end credits identify the voice of the woman reading the poems: Kobra Saeedi, the birth name of the actress known as Sharzad.

While they are playing characters similar to what they are in real life, Marziyeh and her cousin Maedeh are Panahi’s fictional constructions; Jafari and Sharzad are real people. A popular actress, dancer and singer, sometimes compared to Rita Hayworth for her beauty, sexiness and revealing outfits, Sharzad had appeared in more than 50 features before the Islamic revolution broke her career as she was in her late 20s.8 She continued to write poetry and paint, but, in 2015, was homeless in Tehran.9

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

In the myth of Scheherazade, the figure of the mother is eclipsed. The heroine recounts and splices together tales to survive in a world of men: her Grand Vizier father; the jealous, bloodthirsty Sultan she married. The presence of the little sister Dinarzad is an ingenious ploy10 a story”, thus triggering the narration that will keep the Sultan enthralled for nearly three years.] and a lovely footnote about female bonding, but Scheherazade’s femininity, her desires, her inner self, remain a cypher. As Panahi keeps his camera at a distance and does not show Kobra Saeedi, taking up the challenge of filmmaking often means to assume the opacity of the female character. The eponymous heroine of Jean-Bernard Marlin’s first narrative feature, Shéhérazade (winner of the Jean Vigo Prize), does not have a backstory, a family, and only mentions her (unseen) mother once. Still a child (she may be sixteen or seventeen), Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas) weaves tales to the motorists that cruise the streets of downtown Marseille, offering them “a blow job for 30 euros, love for 50”. (Later, emboldened by her relationship to Zach, she’ll slightly hike her prices.) Love. Even in the debased surroundings of the street, this is still the word that is used, as part of an elusive romance, an illusion for sale to the man who “thinks that his luck has changed, and who pays to screw… a love that dies as soon as it is done… one thousand years of happiness in a quick kiss”.11  It is the same illusion that the original Persian princess was selling the Sultan. In-between her tales she was having sex with him, and nobody wondered how she felt about it. She sold herself well, and survived, and so does the modern Shéhérazade, with her classically beautiful face and large soulful eyes.

Zach (Dylan Robert, seventeen) meets her as he has just been released from a juvenile detention centre. Soraya, his caseworker, is there to welcome him, but not his mother – a defection that deeply upsets him. Instead, Soraya takes him to a foyer – a halfway house for homeless and delinquent youth. Easily jumping over he wall, Zach reconnects with his buddies, and one of them, Ryad (Idir Azoughi), takes him to visit four teen streetwalkers. His choice falls on Shéhérazade, whom he recognises as a former schoolmate. She is reluctant; once in the room she refuses to undress at his “command” and scolds him for not respecting women. “I don’t respect whores”, replies Zach, who gives her a brick of hashish in lieu of cash. Going into the bathroom to get a condom, she escapes with his stash.

After a devastating encounter with his mother, who, being unemployed and living with a younger man, refuses to take him in, Zach seeks Shéhérazade again, looking for a place to sleep. She takes him to the hotel room she shares with the transgender prostitute Zelda (Sofia Bent). Zelda resents the intrusion, and ostensibly starts inhaling hard drugs. Shéhérazade explains that when she was in the streets, also thrown out by her mother and also escaping foyers, Zelda had taken her in. And it is in this sordid little room that the two let their guards down, hold hands, kiss softly and become lovers. This is the first miracle of the film. Marlin captures the innocence and the naiveté (Zach is afraid of the dark, Shéhérazade sucks her thumb) of these two little birds fallen from the nest.

The second miracle is how he builds the character of Shéhérazade. She welcomes Zach in her room, her bed, her arms – although slightly younger than him, she makes up for his mother’s failing and rejection; she is always one or two steps ahead of him; she educates him about the reality of prostitution – that you can be a streetwalker and yet a woman to respect. She teaches him how to be a man – even though, in her world, this eventually means to be a pimp. It starts very organically: Shéhérazade asks Zach to accompany her as she is doing three guys in succession in a doorway. After the first moment of anger and frustration, he gradually slips into the role, enlisting his buddies’ help to fight for his territory against a gang of brutal Bulgarian pimps. Things skid out of control, into a cycle of violence in which Shéhérazade becomes a victim.

And the third miracle happens when Zach takes the floor. In court, in front of the adult world, in front of the society that judges him and has the power to send him back to jail, against his buddies, his mother and their ties to the criminal underworld, facing the possibility of retaliation, he says to all what he had never told her in private: that she is his woman, and he loves her.

Shéhérazade (Bernard Marlin)

Marlin does not romanticise teenage prostitution in Marseille, the multi-cultural city where he grew up. Like Panahi, he bases his fiction on a real event, and, like him, he painstakingly interviewed non-professional actors. He struck gold with Robert (half Tunisian, half Iraqi) and Fortas (whose name denotes a North African origin), who knew each other in high school and had the experience of jail (for Robert) and foyers (for Fortas). Having immersed himself for months in the milieu of teenage prostitutes, Marlin starts with a montage of archival documents showing the arrival of different communities in the port of Marseille: families on a gangplank, carrying bundles and small children, their papers examined by the police; hundreds of people cooped in transit camps; unattended children playing in working-class streets; shantytowns, their refuse, their loneliness, and toddlers lost in the trash; the footage turns to colour to show the projects built on the northern edge of the Mediterranean metropolis to take the immigrants in: kids play in a waste land. Inhabited by the unescapable weight of reality, the film, however, does not indulge in this pedestrian realism that all-too-often “hides the real”12; instead it opens up vistas toward emotional and mythological truths. While performing their cool poise for our benefit, the protagonists are castaway romantic dreamers, beggar princes in exile. Shéhérazade keeps her mystery.

This opaque kernel around which femininity is constructed does not elude male filmmakers only. In her brief but intriguing career, Yang Mingming has presented female characters that do things they don’t completely comprehend themselves. In her thesis featurette, Nü daoyan (Female Directors, 2012), she collaborated with a former classmate from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Guo Yue, to sassily ponder the fate of unemployed art school graduates. Frank and irreverent when talking about sex, the two women played their own parts, and passed the camera back and forth. As they are sleeping (off-screen) with the same (married, older, reasonably well-off) man they call “short stuff”, they honestly pose the question of whether it is sluttish or just plain realistic to trade “pussy” for financial gain or professional advantages. They don’t really find the answer, their friendship is tested, but they keep on energetically sailing toward an uncertain future.

Rouqing shi
 (Girls Always Happy, Yang Mingming)

Flash forward a few years later. Yang Mingming, now in her late twenties, just directed her first feature, Rouqing shi
 (Girls Always Happy) in which she acts the role of a young writer called Xiao Wu (“Little Wu”) – so, like Female Directors, the film elegantly hovers between documentary and fiction – and leaves the spectator wondering how “autobiographical” this all is.

Yang is a storyteller. She is a filmmaker, an editor, and the character she plays in the film tries to sell screenplays (particularly of the “anti-Japanese war genre” a sort of action-propaganda very appreciated by Chinese mainstream audiences) to pay her rent and make a living. She lives in the Beijing hutongs – this maze of traditional lower-class courtyard houses now mostly slated for demolition or “renovated” at high expenses for luxurious living – and glides through the meandering alleys on a scooter. With her tall stature and large shoulders (from her father she belongs to the Hui minority), her long flowing hair, her insolent and regal mien, her flower-patterned short dresses, her mixture of sullenness and engaging physicality, she looks like an ancient goddess – but also like a cute girl-next-door. To those looking at her, dealing with her, living with her, as well as to herself – she is an often-annoying enigma.

Like Panahi, Yang is one of these directors who stages herself, often ironically, at the core of fictions bordering on the documental13 – with major differences of style as well as of gender. Officially reduced to non-existence as a filmmaker, Panahi has crafted the persona of a bemused, often powerless observer of human travails, keeping his camera at a distance – in a fine balancing act between control and surrender. Managing to be present but at the periphery, he lets the object of his camera command the organisation of the space. Yang bursts into the scene (with, one may say, the energy of those whose voice has long been suppressed),14 occupies centre stage, orders the space around her even when it is as chaotic as her cluttered apartment, as the twists and turns of the hutongs, or as her changes of mood. It is no accident if the film ends on a long sequence in which the two protagonists are helplessly lost in a neighbourhood they thought they knew pretty well, and have to resort to a long bus ride into the night.

She still has not figured out how to deal with men, but do her best to “play” them – a phrase coined by her mother. For – and this is the film’s greatest originality – Girls Always Happy finally gives Scheherazade a mother. And… what a mother! By entrusting the part to Nai An, Yang reclaims a significant filiation within Chinese independent cinema. Having (co)produced most of Lou Ye’s films since his debut feature Zhou mo qing ren (Weekend Lover, 1995), Nai has also worked as an actress15. In Lou Ye’s breakthrough film, Suzhou He (Suzhou River, 2000), she appeared as the bar owner with mob connections who may have been the courier Mardar’s lover and derails his love story with the teenage Moudan by hatching a kidnapping plot. Honing her skills on television, Nai reappeared in a few significant independent projects, such as Wo hai you hua yao shou (When Night Falls, 2012), in which Ying Liang tells the story of a young man, Yang Jia, accused of killing several policemen and sentenced to death, from the point of view of his mother, Wang Jingmei, played by Nai. To prevent her from organizing her son’s defence, the police had her kidnapped and hidden under a false name in a psychiatric hospital; she was finally released and brought to Shanghai to attend Yang’s execution. Nai won The Best Actress Award in Locarno. Ying Liang gave her another role as a mother, in the remarkable, semi-autobiographical Ziyou xing (A Family Tour 2018) – also shown in Vancouver – : a filmmaker exiled in Hong Kong (Ying changed the gender of the protagonist and turned her into a female) manages to meet her mother still living in China by booking her in a tour of Taiwan and stealing a few moments together while the Chinese tour operator is turning a blind eye. While Ying’s mothers are dignified characters16,Yang Mingming taps onto a more whimsical aspect of Nai’s talent, and the latter delivers the goods with uncanny precision and a total lack of restraint. She is not afraid of looking ridiculous, of screaming and crying with food in her mouth, of being unfair, selfish, greedy, coquettish at times, cynical, moody, hypercritical. She utters the film’s weightiest line: “mother’s love is the only debt that can’t be repaid”. How true! Yet, how terrible! It does not make it easier that Xiao Wu accuses her mother of being responsible for her car accident and her cancer. The two are constantly at each other’s throat. Mom is ever watchful of Xiao Wu’s career, professional ambition and love life. Trying to be a writer herself (Xiao suspects that it’s to “imitate” her), she worries about her daughter not having a proper job, not selling her screenplays, and scolds her for taking money from men.

At the beginning of the film, our protagonist seems to have narrowed down her choices to an older, respected academic, Zhang Xian, played by Beijing Academy Professor Zhang Xianmin, a well-known, courageous advocate and producer of Chinese independent cinema.17 “You have talent… you have to find a way to protect it”, says Wu’s best girlfriend – and so it is tempting to play the “protector/father’s game”, accepting presents, hoping to tap on established connections.

Yet, as in Female Directors, Yang breaks the mould – is charming but rude, unpredictable, defies the conventions and the rules of politeness, pisses people off… and is frankly a total pest to her older lover. In this narrative, men are of little consequence when facing the subterranean bond that connects mother and daughter. Behind the screaming matches lies a complex, troubling relationship that could be described as “co-dependent” but for which I prefer to coin the term “addictive”. Addictive as love itself, addictive as story-telling or as the food they lustfully share, savouring duck’s tongues, sucking on lamb bone-marrow, sharing the ripe and colourful slices of a watermelon. Zhang Xian, who had offered the duck tongues to Xiao Wu, knew the connection between food and eroticism, yet finds himself helpless. “You are never happy”, he comments as Wu munches on an apple while encased in the portable sauna he has bought for her. Yet, behind the irony of the title, it is only with another “girl” that Xiao Wu can find happiness. Scheherazade (who finally sells one of her screenplays on the anti-Japanese war) had a mother, and without her there wouldn’t be any story to tell the Sultan.

Two Small Towns in Japan

Girls Always Happy was part of the combined Dragons and Tigers/Gateway selection, whose Chinese component Shelly Kraicer had assumed since 2009 (his job was restructured as “Programming Consultant” in 2016). Tony Rayns was responsible for the other national cinemas of East Asia. After his departure in 2017, Maggie Lee, a Hong Kong critic/curator with ties in Vancouver, known for her insightful articles for Variety, has taken up the challenge. Among the gems she discovered, Yoshida Daihachi’s Hitsuji no Ki (The Scythian Lamb, 2017, winner of the Kim Jiseok Award in Pusan). As in Girls, the sharing of food plays an important part in the narrative (a trademark of many Asian movies). Here, “the people are friendly and the seafood is delicious”, keeps repeating the young town hall employee Tsukisue (pop idol Nishikido Ryô, excellent against the grain of his persona) to the people he brings to the small coastal town of Uobuka. This upbeat introduction wears thin on his interlocutors, who really couldn’t care less – except for one gentle young man, Miyakoshi (heartthrob Matsuda Ryûhei). As Uobuka faces depopulation, Tsukisue is in charge of applying a program designed by the mayor: to facilitate the integration of six ex-convicts (four men and two women) into the town. (Only later will he discover that the six are convicted murderers, and that he has to keep the inhabitants from discovering the truth). One is a tattooed-over and scar-faced older yakuza, Ono (Tanaka Min) who has decided to go straight, in spite of an intimidating “welcoming committee” in a limo with young men packing heat. A former barber, who killed his mean boss in a feat of anger, cannot stop gulping food (fish or not) and swallowing beer. The two women are polar opposites. The waif-like Kurimoto (Ichikawa Mikako) is a severely traumatised victim of domestic violence. The ebullient Rieko (Yûka) got in trouble for starring in her own version of Ai no korida (In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima, 1976): as her beloved husband was turned on when she pretended to strangle him, one day she pressed too hard.

Yoshida is no stranger to adapting mangas, and thus is the case for The Scythian Lamb, inspired by a five-volume work published between 2011 and 2014, written by veteran manga artist-turned novelist Yamagani Tatsuhiko and illustrated by another manga veteran, Igarashi Mikio. Witty cultural references are no accident – starting with the 16th century legend of “the Vegetable lamb of Tartary” in the title (describing an impossible being that makes you wonder how people in other cultures live, the staple of orientalist imagination). Similarly, the reference to Oshima is to be taken with a grain of salt: do we really believe Rieko’s story? For all we know, she may be – not a serial killer (this will be somebody else in the film) – but a serial seductress, as proven by the way she makes a play for Tsukisue’s father. In addition to filming the consumption of food very well, this is one thing Japanese cinema is very good at: crafting believable characters with bizarre yet endearing sexual fixations.

Hitsuji no Ki (The Scythian Lamb, Yoshida Daihachi)

That things are not what they seem is alluded for when we see kids “playing Nororo” – whose name makes you think of a cartoon character. Actually, like the god of Bora Bora in Tabu (1931), King Kong (1933) on Skull Island, Moloch in Metropolis (1927), or the Minotaur in Crete, Nororo is Uobuka’s indigenous monster, requiring human sacrifice. It’s been a long time, though, and the beast, present as an ugly statue by the seashore, is commemorated every year by a good-natured pageantry involving costuming, dancing, music-playing, eating and quite a lot of drinking – which Yoshida films in a semi-ethnographic way, like the survival of an antic ritual. Rain falls on the parade, and scatters the revellers, but a tangible sense of menace keeps growing, and from then on, the film becomes a thriller of murder and revenge, with a spice of the supernatural.

The ultimate joke is on the spectator, as the situation is grafted onto a touching, yet banal, love triangle. In high school Tsukisue was sweet on a girl, Aya (Kimura Fumino), who left for Tokyo, where she may or may not have gotten married. Then she returns to Uobuka, and resumes jamming in a three-person band in which Tsukisue plays the guitar. Having befriended Miyakoshi, he offers to teach him the instrument, bringing him in contact with Aya. So, two of the most charismatic young Japanese actors need no less than the intervention of an archaic monster from the sea to find out which one of them will get the girl!

It’s also in a small town that unfolds Koko wa taikutsu mukae ni kite (It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up, World Premiere), which is more or less the fiftieth feature directed by the indefatigable Hiroki Ryuichi, with the return of a local girl from Tokyo. While The Scythian Lamb was posited on the side if its male heroes, killers and monsters, Hiroki, with the irreverent energy of a former pink-eiga (“pink cinema”) director18 who knows one thing or two about female desire, adopts the viewpoint of a bifurcated female identity: one (called “I” and played by superstar Hashimoto Ai) left, the other (“Me”, Kadowaki Mugi) didn’t. Now a freelance writer, 27-year old “I” passes through the town in an assignment with her photographer; she reconnects with her former classmate “Me” and the two women share memories, regrets, substandard food and the seeping boredom of the place. Weaving a seductively arcane spider’s web that interweaves tightly choreographed long shots, Hiroki leaps back and forth from 2004 (when the protagonists were in high school) to 2018, stopping by, in no particular order, in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013… I and Me both had a crush on the then-charismatic Shiina. Me dated him, I didn’t. It does not matter so much now, as the golden boy has disappeared, and what they find instead are traces and witnesses of their emotional past. One of the few local boys to have made it to the university, former shy sissy nerd Shinpo, now self-assured and sporting a flamboyant hair-dye (Watanabe Daichi) still recalls the humiliating moment inflicted by Shiina who smilingly left him out in the cold while he was trying to open up to him. Teen beauty Satsuki (Yanagi Yurina) wasted more than a few tears by going out with a middle-aged insurance salesman who dumped her to contract an arranged marriage (to please his mother, one surmises).

There’s no good food to offset the small town’s boredom. Globalised high school kids ingest hamburgers and coke; teenage mistresses are treated with orders of pizza and soft drinks in a dingy hotel room. Inspired by the first published novel of Yamauchi Mariko, the cult chronicler of young Japanese femininity (who also wrote the screenplay), Hiroki, whose films have shown in more than one edition of the VIFF – Ma-O Gai (Sadistic City, 1993, Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival), Futai no Kisetsu (I Am an S+M Writer, 2000) and the widely acclaimed Vibrator (2003, Best Film and Best Director at the Yokohama Film Festival) – is turning another “genre project into [a] small but highly polished gem”19, digging into the everyday melancholia of our post-everything age.

Since Alan Franey, after 26 years at the helm, resigned as festival director after the 2013 edition (while remaining as Director of Programming and – since 2016 – Director of International Programming, still in close collaboration with long-time Program Manager/Senior Programmer PoChu AuYeung), the VIFF has indeed changed – including, for example, high-profile musical events. Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA was invited to reproduce the live score he had created for the screening of Lau Kar-leung’s classic wuxia film, Shaolin Sanshiliu Fang (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1978) for LA Beyond Fest in 2016 (and taken on an extensive North American tour since). Canadian DJ Kid Koala and his Satellite Turntable Concert offered six interactive performances. Following its concept of “expanding the image” the festival has been developing a Sustainable Production Forum (launched in 2015) addressing issues pertaining to sustainability in the film industry and within environmental practices. Yet it has maintained a core of cinephilic pleasures, allowing the spectators to make discoveries, reflect on the current trends of world cinema, and “montage” their own viewing experience by finding secret or not so-secret correspondences between films.

Vancouver International Film Festival
27 September – 12 October 2018
Festival website: https://viff.org/

Endnotes:

  1. Or “the vagaries of the heart.” This was the title that Proust originally wanted to give to the fourth volume of A la Recherche du temps perdu, now titled “Sodome et Gomorrhe.”
  2. See http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/festival-reports/sundancepaff-2015-vintage-years/
  3. Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, Frog Press, 2002.
  4. Lee Israel, Can You Even Forgive Me – Memoirs of a Literary Forger, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  5. One of Binoche’s first major roles was in Rendez-vous (1985), by André Téchiné, who co-wrote the screenplay with Assayas (this was the first feature he signed with his own name). She later appeared in two films he directed: L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008) and Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014).
  6. See “Trois Visages” 09d44e9114c99d493b3df577105aa991830e0db9.pdf, accessed 23 November, 2018. According to the press kit, the shooting took place in the three different villages. (Most of the notes in the press kit were written by former Cahiers du cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon.)
  7. The mainstream religion in Iran – as opposed to Sunni Islam, mostly represented in the Kurdish minority.
  8. See Setrag Manoukian: “Poetry, or the Power of Existence: Shahin Parhami’s Shahrzaad’s Tale”. https://ajammc.com/2017/08/02/shahrzaads-tale-poetry/, accessed 23 November, 2018.
  9. See Women’s News: “Renowned Iranian singer-actress now sleeping on the streets” Created: 15 December 2015. Accessed 23 November, 2018.
  10. At the dawn of the First Night, Dinarzad asks Scheherazade to “tell [her
  11. This is a free-wheeling translation of the lyrics of French anarchist singer/poet Léo Ferré’s song, La Nuit (The Night, 1969): “Qui croit qu’c’est arrivé/Et qui paie pour monter…/C’est un amour qui meurt/Aussitôt qu’il se fait/C’est mille ans de bonheur/Dans un baiser vite fait”.
  12. Tony McKibbin: “La Captive and the power of love,” in Studies in French Cinema, 2003, Vol. 3 Issue 2 p. 98
  13. To allude to the title of one of Chantal Akerman’s installations, Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est”, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995.
  14. Female directors are still too few and far-between in China.
  15. She debuted in the last film directed by Zhang Junzhao (1952-2018), Hua zi mei feng liu zhai (Three Daring Daughters, 1993), had a small part in Week-end Lover and stars in Lou Ye’s second feature, a co-production between China and Hong Kong, Wei qing shao nu (Don’t Be Young, 1994)
  16. This may reflect Ying’s respect not only for his own mother, but for Lou Ye, whose talent and uncompromising stance has made him a hero in Chinese independent cinema circles.
  17. In casting Zhang Xianmin, Yang inserts herself within another powerful filiation. As her choice of Nai An, this is not without subtle political overtones.
  18. Hiroki worked in the “pink cinema” industry (soft-core pornography) from his debut in 1982 until the late 1980s. He started to get recognition as an auteur with Ma-O Gai (Sadistic City, 1993).
  19. Tony Rayns, Notes on I am an S+M Writer, Vancouver International Film Festival catalogue, 2000, p. 56

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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