20 March – 4 April 2007
Much of what I saw at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival gave new relevance to Paul Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. (1) Schrader focused on the work of three canonical directors: Robert Bresson, Yazujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer; but the 2007 Hong Kong fest showed that this filmmaking style is newly au courant. Considering the rise of religious fervour across the globe in recent years, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the cutting edge directors whose work was on display in Hong Kong are invoking themes of redemption and the sacred.
Schrader’s discussion focused on what he called “moments of decisive action” in which the austere, laconic style that ordinarily prevails in the films he analyses unexpectedly gives way at the story’s end to a flamboyant rhetorical mode in which “blasts of music, an overt symbol, and an open call for emotion” take over. (2) In the last scene of Bresson’s 1959 production Pickpocket, for example, a lost soul suddenly reaches out to kiss a fellow sufferer through prison bars. So many of the final scenes of the films I saw in Hong Kong touched on the idea of the transcendental and in particular on the motif of decisive action that I am going to perform my own act of transcendence (albeit a less exalted one) by violating one of the cardinal prohibitions of reviewing – not to reveal the ends of movies – in order to focus on some of these final images.
I was most forcefully reminded of Schrader’s notion of the transcendent by the final scene of Bruno Dumont’s Flandres (Flanders), one of the highlights of the Hong Kong fest and the recipient of the jury prize at Cannes in 2006. Many commentators have seen Dumont, a former philosophy teacher, as Bresson’s heir; and, though Dumont denies believing in God, he confesses to being “obsessed by the sacred, by spirituality.” (3) “Cinema is for the body, for the emotions,” Dumont has stated. “It needs to be restored among the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of joy, emotion, suffering, sympathy in death.” (4) The people whose stories are told in Flanders are farmers whose lives aren’t far removed from those of the animals they husband. The loutish protagonist of Flanders, called Demester, is played by an untrained, inexpressive actor (Samuel Boidin), as are all the other characters. Inarticulate and emotionally closed, Demester nonetheless goes through some wrenching experiences during the course of the story. With a few of his friends, he signs up for a tour in the military, fighting a war that takes place in an unspecified desert locale. While in the desert he commits some horrifying atrocities.
When Demester returns to Flanders, his sometime lover Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), who has remained at home, confronts him with his war crimes, insisting, “I know. I saw you.” How can one read this statement – which comes out of the blue – except as Barbe’s declaration that she has had a vision that has allowed her to witness events happening in a distant land? The couple’s rhapsodic declarations of love following this abrupt plunge into the realm of the miraculous conform closely to Schrader’s conception of decisive action.
The transcendental climax of Flanders certainly resembles similar moments in Bresson’s oeuvre, but the route Dumont takes to reach this payoff is quite different. While Bresson cultivates a look of the everyday in his mise en scène, Dumont favours settings steeped in allegory. In Flanders Yves Cape’s widescreen vistas create an experience that’s as much about the landscape as about the people who inhabit it. The characters themselves are often captured in medium profile shots that present them looking out over the land. “I need the land to film human beings,” Dumont has stated. (5)
The very title of the film, Flanders, conjures up associations with the prolonged bloodbath that occurred in this region during World War I. And war is at the forefront of the filmmaker’s intention. “My cinema…limit[s] itself to very immediate things like desire, rivalry, jealousy and envy,” Dumont has explained. “War is a modern expression of rivalry, for the same land, the same woman.” (6) But for this filmmaker, not all scenes of war are equal. “I was interested in the rapport between Flanders and the desert,” Dumont has said, “on the one hand a very green, rich and dense land, and on the other a sort of mineral no-man’s-land, a nothingness.” (7) In other words, fertile Flanders, unlike the arid desert, offers the possibility of renewal. One of the film’s earliest shots focuses close-up on a plow turning the soil, preparing for planting and growth. Demester and Barbe’s final embrace amidst the mire recapitulates this theme.
A scene of beatific reconciliation similar to the one that ends Flanders concludes Aki Kaurismäki’s Laitakaupungin valot (Lights in the Dusk). Like Dumont, Kaurismäki leans toward settings that carry symbolic weight. Timo Salminen’s elegant compositions for Lights in the Dusk, which took the cinematography prize at the European Film Awards, deliberately call attention to their own artfulness, evoking both the stillness of a Hopper painting and the cold modernity of Helsinki’s newly developed Ruoholahti neighbourhood, where the production was shot. Large blocs of primary colours often lend the images a graphic, two-dimensional quality, giving the story the air of a fable rather than a slice of life.
The plot is pitched at a similar level of abstraction, invoking elements of film noir (the femme fatale, night in the city, a daring heist) in an almost ritualistic manner. The concluding part of Kaurismäki’s trilogy about society’s losers, Lights in the Dusk, according to the director, is about loneliness. (8) A psychologically undeveloped everyman figure stands at the centre of this study of isolation. Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a night watchman, is entirely alone in the world, ridiculed by his co-workers and bereft of friends or family. His blundering attempts to achieve goals that his culture has led him to believe are worthy – a better job, a glamorous girlfriend – result first in cruel rebuffs and finally in disaster. Gulled into becoming the fall guy for a robbery, he ends up in prison. After he gets out, he endures a vicious beating.
When Koistinen has lost everything and is all but dead, the ministrations of Aile (Maria Heiskanen), a nurturing woman who has repeatedly tried to befriend him throughout his tribulations, finally pierce his defenses. In the movie’s final image Koistinen reaches out to her in a gesture of trust that is also a gesture of redemption. “The initial idea for the film was a modern, exceptionally bleak suburban milieu and a battered individual, whom I’d have liked to batter and bully to death,” Kaurismäki has cheerfully confessed, “but my soft side got the better of me.” (9) For a filmmaker of such wry sensibility, this decision to provide a happy ending for the story, however tentative, may speak more of humanism than of grace. Yet the abruptness of Koistinen’s ultimate breakthrough into meaningful human connectedness coupled with the parable-like tone of the film as a whole casts a gloss of spirituality over what might otherwise appear to be a conventional boy-gets-girl conclusion.
A more emphatically secular agenda drives Australian director Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne; yet ultimately mystical overtones seep in even to Lawrence’s film. Beatrix Christian’s script, adapted from a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver, adds multiculturalism to the gender politics of the original to good effect (though Christian crams in a few too many subplots in the process of opening the story out). The plot concerns a group of male sportsmen who find the body of a murdered Aboriginal woman floating in the lake where they’ve gone to fish. The group’s leader, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-race car driver turned garage mechanic, encourages the others to ignore the girl and enjoy the rest of their vacation. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is deeply shocked when she learns of his behaviour, as is the town as a whole. More psychologically rounded than Dumont’s lumpen peasants or Kaurismäki’s stick figures, the characters in Jindabyne are designed to showcase bravura performances; Byrne and Linney, both gifted professionals, make the most of the opportunity.
Australian cinema has a proud tradition of drawing on its awe-inspiring scenery. Cinematographer David Williamson’s striking widescreen images in Jindabyne especially bring to mind the 1982 Australian classic The Man From Snowy River, a film set in the same majestic locale and equally (though less ironically) obsessed with masculine roles. “There are so many meanings in this landscape that I was always tense about whether I could capture it,” Lawrence has said. (10) But he has. Especially noteworthy are two sinister scenes of terrorised women which unfold against threatening natural backgrounds. The first of these takes place in the midst of a rolling semi-arid desert. Not a single human habitation is visible; there is no sympathetic soul to come to the aid of the young Aboriginal girl who has been targeted to be raped and killed. The second stalking scene occurs in a similarly desolate space where Claire, the story’s heroine, is surrounded on all sides by dark old-growth forest. But here it appears barely possible that help could emerge from the shadows. And eventually it does. The scene of reconciliation that follows is admittedly more political than spiritual. Jindabyne nonetheless hints at the transcendental, not least because it grants a privileged status to corpses, both in its respect for Aboriginal death rituals and its preoccupation with a ghost town of European immigrants that lies under a lake next to the actual town after which the movie is named.
The titles of both Jindabyne and Flanders suggest that the spaces in which communities are situated can be haunted by history. Grbavica, which won the Golden Bear at 2006 Berlinale, takes its title from a place that similarly calls up ghosts of the past. During the Bosnian War Grbavica, a neighbourhood in Sarajevo, housed a prison camp in which many inmates were raped and tortured. Director Jasmila Zbanic describes the ambience of the district as follows: “When you walk through Grbavica today you can see common buildings from the socialist regime, people who live there, shops, children, dogs…but at the same time you can feel the presence of something unspoken and invisible, this strange feeling that you have when you are in a place that was marked by big human suffering.” (11) The ominous presence of the past is not emphasised in Zbanic’s film by symbolically charged wide-screen panoramas as in Jindabyne and Flanders, but it comes to light through the struggles of its characters.
Grbavica’s central figure, Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), is a survivor of the camp. The film’s sometimes heavily melodramatic story chronicles the process by which Esma is cornered into revealing a shameful secret to her rebellious teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). In the film’s final image Sara looks at her mother from the back seat of a bus as she presses her palm against the window. This simple gesture absolves Esma from the guilt she has harboured for many years. The moment is a purely human one that speaks of reconciliation and forgiveness, but the form it takes borrows from Schrader’s litany of transcendental motifs.
For Schrader Asian culture stands as a model for transcendental art, and he singles out Ozu’s work in particular for special praise. In Hong Kong, as one might expect, Asian cinema made up a significant portion of the program; and one of the Asian films I saw, Fu sheng (Bliss), was helmed by Sheng Zhimin, a filmmaker who once named Ozu as a formative influence. (12) Bliss ends with a scene of reconciliation that once again reminded me of Schrader’s thesis. In this final image Xiaolei (Xu Tao), a young man who has been teetering on the brink of juvenile delinquency, runs in circles around Qian Xue (He Qin), a girl he has just bought out of prostitution, as the camera sympathetically eddies about them. As I watched this scene, I was reminded of a similar moment at the end of Rosetta, a film by the Dardenne brothers, who, along with Bruno Dumont, are often seen as Bresson’s heirs. For the Dardennes, the circling figure takes on the guise of a guardian angel. In Sheng’s fim, Xiaolei is a more compromised presence, but the swirling camerawork conveys the heady sensation associated with states of spiritual transport.
Like Dumont and Kaurismäki, Sheng is sensitive to the way in which settings can reverberate in tune with the activities of the people who inhabit them. Fu sheng (literally Floating Lives) takes place in Chongging, a city famous for its fog. “The misty atmosphere finally becomes one of the main themes of the movie,” Sheng has stated. (13) The story’s final moments are enacted on a mist-shrouded river embankment, a setting that brings to mind Xiaolei’s no-good father, the first mate of a riverboat, and the young man’s misguided admiration for him. Xiaolei himself works aboard a cable car that crosses this river, and we often see him suspended in mid-air over its enticing depths. The film’s other main characters are older and therefore more grounded – but still navigating their way around life’s whirlpools, still floating in the mist. Xiaolei’s stepbrother Jianjun (Liao Zhong) spends his days driving a cab around the city, while his stepfather Lao Li (He Xing-quan) traverses Chongging looking for a burial plot for the ashes of his first wife, one which can ultimately serve as a final resting place in the earth for himself and the rest of his family.
For all its metaphoric overlays, Sheng’s delicate study of an ordinary Chinese family comes across as an unpretentious view of life in mainland China today. Seeing it reminded me of scenes I had witnessed in Guizhou province, which I had visited a week earlier. But coming out of the theatre after the screening of Bliss to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong I was presented with a wholly different perspective on the Chinese. China’s “one country, two systems” policy aptly characterises the chasm that separates the gentle earnestness of the mainland from the globalised capitalist wonderland that is Hong Kong. Over the years, the Hong Kong fest has sometimes run into difficult negotiations in relation to this divide most recently centered on mainland censoring of Chinese films. But the fest, now in its 31st year, resolved this difficulty and now freely shows a wide array of titles from its mother country.
The 2007 Hong Kong program as a whole was intelligent and admirably even-handed, with retrospectives devoted to the work of Chinese auteurs Herman Yau and Li Han-hsiang balanced by tributes to Italian master Luchino Visconti, Italian avant-gardist Paolo Gioli, and Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa. In surveying and presenting the best of the last 12 months of international cinema, the Hong Kong programmers have wisely focused their attention on world premieres of important Asian films, filling out the rest of their international programming with some of the highlights of other fests rather than settling for premieres of third-rate fare rejected by Cannes, Berlin and other heavyweight events.
Discriminating programming, helpful notes on films and directors, cheap tickets and short lines make the experience of attending the annual Hong Kong celebration of cinema among the most rewarding of any of the major world festivals. Screenings take place in immaculate venues all over the city, and the ease and attractiveness of Hong Kong’s subway system makes getting around stress-free. At first I found it odd to be impressed by the spiritual aspect of movies encountered in a setting so resolutely geared toward the consumerist pleasures of this life – theatrical shopping malls and elegant restaurants. But even such a resolutely secular sensibility as mine can be moved by evocations of the transcendent – not just in movie theatres but also outside of them. Looking out at the Hong Kong skyline during its evening light show can easily persuade you that you have died and gone to heaven.
- Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972.
- Schrader, p. 79.
- Daniel Trilling, “The Last Auteur”, The New Statesman, 9 April 2007. Accessed 7 May 2007.
- David Walsh, “Interview with Bruno Dumont, Director of The Life of Jesus”, World Socialist Web Site, 20 October 1997. Accessed 7 May 2007.
- Bruno Dumont, Statement on Flandres, 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival Program Book, p. 82.
- Charles Masters, “Q&A: Bruno Dumont”, The Hollywood Reporter, 23 May 2006. Accessed 7 May 2007.
- Aki Kaurismäki, Statement on Lights in the Dusk, 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival Program Book, p. 218.
- Hannu Marttila, “Aki Kaurismäki: Where Have all Those Years Gone?”, Helsingin Sanomat, International Edition, Culture, 29 January 2006. Accessed 10 May 2007.
- Emanuel Levy, “Interview: Jindabyne’s Ray Lawrence”, Emanuel Levy Website. Accessed 11 May 2007.
- Interview with Jasmila Zbanic, 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival Program Book, p. 175.
- “Toronto ’06 Discovery Interview: Sheng Zhimin”, IndieWire People. Accessed 28 May 2007.
- Interview with Sheng Zhimin, 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival Program Book, p. 123.