The Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema went to the first digital film of a young Tibetan director, Sonthar Gyal’s Dbus Lam Gyi Nyi Ma (The Sun-Beaten Path), that had already received a Special Mention in the Asian Digital Competition in Hong Kong in March; the winner of the Golden Digital Prize had been another Tibetan film, Pema Tseden’s Khyi rgan (Old Dog), shot by Gyal, and also shown in Vancouver – although, as this is the director’s third film,(1) not included in the Dragons and Tigers Competition. Both ethnic Tibetans and Chinese citizens, the two men have collaborated together for years – Gyal shooting Tseden’s last two films, and in turn the latter helping with the production of The Sun-Beaten Path (he is credited as “art director”).

The sun is so intense in Gyal’s film that it drains all colour out of the landscape. The sky is grey-white, the parched earth pale yellow. The 3,000 metre high Tibetan plateau extends its vastness in long shots, swept by a bitter wind. A train now runs from Lhasa in Tibet Autonomous Region to the Easter confines of the Chinese Province of Qinghai (populated by ethnic Tibetans), but the protagonist, Nyima (Yeshe Lhadruk) has no desire to go that fast. His face baked by the relentless sun, his hair dishevelled, he is on his way back from a pilgrimage in Lhasa, but is not sure of where to go next. So he walks on the lonely road, ignoring the offer of motorists to pick him up, “free of charge”, refusing to take the bus, rejecting the company of an old man (Lo Kyi), who still manages to tag along with him, at the expense of his own comfort. Gradually, flashbacks reveal that Nyima feels responsible for a road accident that killed his mother. He is back from a journey of atonement, but now so detached from life, so caught in his logic, that he can no longer return home, where a girl, a brother, a baby nephew may (or may not) wait for him. For all the vastness of its landscapes, The Sun Beaten Path is posited at a modest, matter-of-fact human scale, where the desire to live can be relearned through small gestures: boiling tea in the cold; looking at the reflection of one’s image, listening to an old man’s stories…

Pema Tseden uses the same actor as the main character for Old Dog, an old shepherd facing another troubled young man – this time his own son, Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), who mistreats his wife (Tamdrin Tso), gets drunk, gets in trouble and in gaol, and sells the family’s Tibetan mastiff to a dog trader. Such dogs are now the fad with Chinese businessmen, and could fetch a higher prize than what the family has seen in a long time. Yet – and this is where the film becomes subtly political – the patriarch won’t sell out to the Chinese market. The dog is bought back, then stolen, fights ensue, pressures are exerted, menaces uttered, more money is offered, the old man stubbornly refuses. It becomes clear, however, that this is a losing battle. The dog may be stolen again, and sold in China…

Tseden locates the film in an interstitial space, a one-street dirty town where modernity painfully encroaches on a vanishing traditional lifestyle: rickety motorbikes, low administrative buildings whose facades are peeling off, rusting industrial contraptions, construction sites filled with gravel, goats and pigs running around, long-haired young men at a pool table propped in a street littered with debris… It is in the surrounding grasslands that the old man finds his strength, his inspiration. Like Rosselini who sometimes directed an entire film for the benefit of a single scene – Pina’s death in Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), Edmund’s leap into the void in Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948) – Tseden has designed Old Dog with the final sequence in mind, that includes two breathtaking long shots, one lasting three and a half minutes, and the last one more than five minutes. <Spoiler alert!>

After saying, one last time, “I won’t sell” to the sleazy dog trader, the old shepherd, seen seating from the back, unties the dog from the fence that encloses the pasture, and starts walking with him toward the mountain at the horizon; bleating copiously, the dozens of sheep that are grazing the yellow herb follow them in clusters, until the man and the dog have disappeared at the end of the visual field; in the foreground, a lone ram tries to cross the fence to join the herd in the pasture, and finally succeeds. A reverse angle from faraway shows us the old man sitting, looking at the sky, the dog, still on a chain-leash, on the right. Interrupted by a brief POV shot of the blue sky where a couple of birds of prey are flying, the shot continues for another minute. The dog pants; the man lowers his gaze, looks at him, lights his pipe, looks again at the dog, then pensively at a point off-screen. Cut. The camera withdraws, and now frames them at a distance, from behind the fence; the sky, filled with white and greyish clouds, occupies almost one third of the screen. While the dog turns around him, the man puts away his pipe, puts his hat on and gets up. Pulling the dog, he approaches the fence, and passes the chain-leash over it. He then walks away, lifting the dog by the neck. The final shot starts on a close-up of the dog’s head, fighting while being strangled, and we hear his muffled sounds of agony; the camera pans to the right, following the chain-leash, till we see the old man pulling it with all his might; the sky fills nearly half the screen. The camera moves slightly forward, reframing the man to get a bit closer, his right hand, holding the chain, in the foreground; he has turned his head away; off screen, the harrowing sounds made by the dog. Finally the sounds stop; the man looks back, for a long time, and drops the chain. Then he turns away and starts walking, panting from the effort; the camera follows him; the man walks on and on. The screen turns dark…

The remains of a life, made in Hong Kong

Invited to sit on the Dragons and Tigers jury, Ann Hui was also presenting her latest film, Tao Jie (A Simple Life), whose main actress, Deannie Yip, had just won the Coppa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival.(2) “Tao Jie” means “Elder Sister Peach”, which was the nickname given to the protagonist, Ah Tao, and it’s poetic justice that Yip won awards in the title role of a film in which she is paired with Andy Lau and works with Ann Hui. In her recent work, Hui has returned to her New Wave roots through small, insightful, intelligent movies exploring Hong Kong society and the Hong Kong psyche.(3) For it is only on its surface that the film is “simple”, while unfolding complex layers of meanings and being a paean to the resilience of the Hong Kong film and entertainment industry.

A pop culture icon, Deannie Yip was a Cantopop star in the 1980s, and later, released two duet albums with Andy Lau (she also played Lau’s mother in a number of films and TV series, so the two actors have great chemistry). She has been an ever-present figure, mostly as a supporting actress, in Hong Kong cinema from 1978 on, gracing some of the early New Wave films, such as Patrick Tam’s Ai Sha (Love Massacre, 1981), getting involved in a flurry of action comedies produced by D&B and Golden Harvest throughout the 1980s (notably the “Pom Pom” cop series), working in a few Sammo Hung comedies (Xia ri fu xing/Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars, 1985), and receiving a Hong Kong Film Award for her supporting role in Angela Chan’s Fa gaai si doi (My Name Ain’t Suzie, 1985), a sassy rebuttal of the orientalist fantasies of Richard Quine’s The World of Suzie Wong (1960). She received another Hong Kong Film Award for Wong Jing’s Yu long gong wu (Dances with the Dragon, 1991) and a Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress in Wong Jing’s Ban siu haai (Crying Heart, 1999). In her younger roles, Yip had often appeared as a “tough broad”; here, as she is made up to look older, the toughness recedes, yet is present in her smiling resilience, her self-reliance, her way of bargaining for rebates at the market or of bossing around the people she loves: leaving her native Taishan in China, to enter a Hong Kong family and serve as their amah (domestic, nanny) at the age of 13, Ah Tao spent all her life caring for others, including Roger, the unmarried son, now a film producer.

Co-written by Roger Lee and Susan Chan, the screenplay evolved from Lee’s recollection of his relationship with his own amah – a sense of guilt, maybe, for not having paid more attention to this “simple life” that had accompanied his. Lee, a well-known independent producer in Hong Kong, had already worked with Ann Hui, most notably on her award-winning Nu ren si shi (Summer Snow, 1995), which presents discrete parallels with A Simple Life. The 1995 film was a love story of sorts between a heard-headed working class woman, May (Josephine Xiao Fong Fong), and her no-less-hard-headed father-in-law (Roy Chiao) who, suffering from Alzheimer, had to be put in a retirement home. The love story between Roger (the character played by Andy Lau is renamed Roger Leung) and Ah Tao, that started when the young amah was changing the baby’s diapers, shifts at the beginning of A Simple Life when Ah Tao has a stroke. Back from the hospital, she requests to be put in a retirement home, so as not to be “a burden” on others.

In Summer Snow, the character played by Roy Chiao (a former martial arts star) couldn’t wait to escape from the nursing home. Ah Tao defines another relationship to space, one of gentle acceptance and accommodation. After the first moments of puzzlement and sadness, she gracefully integrates herself in her new surroundings and connects with the other residents – from a young woman in need of regular dialysis to a feisty grandfather Kin (Paul Chun) who is constantly short of 300 HK$. (When Roger finds out that Kin uses the “borrowed” money to visit hookers, he is upset. “As long as he can still do it,” Ah Tao replies gently, “let him have his fun.”) Meanwhile, Roger tries to cope with life alone at home (and figure out how do household appliances work), takes Ah Tao out, in parks, in neighbourhood restaurants and even, in a bittersweet scene, at the premiere of a film he has produced (and that he knows to be an unsuccessful work) where Ah Tao scolds a young man (mainland director Ning Hao) for smoking.

The unexpected turn that A Simple Life takes is its generous, affectionate view of life in a nursing home, by shooting in an existing facility, in the working-class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, one of the oldest residential areas in Kowloon, with real residents working as extras. Hui’s skilful interweaving of documentary and fiction here gradually segues into a meditation on the passing of time and the imperfection of life. History is slowly eroding the social and cultural fabric of Hong Kong. Roger’s family is scattered about – his mother, sister, nephews live in the US; in earlier times, an amah would have died in the family she had been working for – now it’s no longer possible for bachelors like Roger to take care of the elders, and nursing homes become the only possible solution. Sham Pui Ho (known to tourists for its Golden Shopping Centre for cheap computer products) is the poorest area of Hong Kong – with the greatest degree of illiteracy, the largest number of senior citizens and new immigrants. In Hong Kong politics, this spells conflict between government-sponsored urban renewal projects and the interests of people living in public housing. The streets, parks and small businesses featured in A Simple Life are doomed to disappear in the long run – as is, probably, the nursing home itself. In a sarcastic sequence, Hui makes fun of the way local politicians try to take advantage of the senior residents.

The film’s highly comical opening sequence pays homage to the resilience of the local film industry, while acknowledging its increasing need for Chinese financing: two Hong Kong directors (played by Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung) and Roger put together an “act” to convince a mainland financier (Yu Dong, the Chinese co-producer of A Simple Life) to give them more money. Casting quintessential Hong Kong actors such as Anthony Wong and Paul Chun, or even bringing back mainland actress Qin Hailu to Hong Kong (where Liulian piao piao/Durian Durian gave her her first cinematic role in 2000) gives the film added local flavour, celebrating a golden moment in film history. Ah Tao’s benevolent survival in the nursing home becomes a figure of hope – that this moment in time may be preserved. As her state of health worsens, it becomes clear that what we see is not what we get – or at least is only the tip of an iceberg floating further and further away. No attempt is made to decipher the “background” or “psychology” of the people who appear, sometimes fleetingly; they only exist as fragments torn from the complex texture or an ever-vanishing present, and this is what makes them interesting. Even the personal life of people who know each other intimately remains a mystery to each other: Ah Tao’s and Roger’s sex lives stay off-screen, perfunctorily alluded to before one jumps to another, more important topic (what to eat, where to go next). Life never gives back what the passing of time took away. Maybe it was too late, from the beginning, from the moment this teenage girl arrived from her Chinese province into the alien territory of Hong Kong…

What remains of “a simple life?” I am reminded of a short story by Robert Musil, in which he tries to capture the existence of a poor maidservant, Tonka, as “something that [was] like a little line scratched on the tablets of history?”(4) – but also of Juanita Moore’s sad reply to Lana Turner “you never asked… [if I had friends outside your family]” in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Class differences were never eradicated between Ah Tao and Roger, and, like many children, even after they grow up, he was used to taking for granted the love lavished on him by the woman who raised him. If Lee’s original story is an act of contrition, Hui’s film and Yip’s performance are Ah Tao’s vindication. And yes, even in its imperfections, love shines through. I have no doubt that Ah Tao loved Roger and Roger loved Ah Tao – and, at the end of the day, this is really what matters.

Small form, big form

As usual, Vancouver presented a generous offering of Chinese independent films. In Lao Tang tou (Shattered), Xu Tong continues his trilogy dedicated to people living on the margins of Chinese society, that started with the portrait of a prostitute in Mai shou (Wheat Harvest, 2008) and continued with Suan Ming (Fortune Teller, 2009). Here he follows Tang Caifeng, one of the clients of the fortune teller, as she visits her 80 year-old father, Tang Xinxin, in the Northeastern province of Heilongjiang. An energetic, loud-mouthed 40 year-old with a small jewel encrusted on her left nostril, Caifeng is ready to do anything to make a buck, from running an illegal brothel (for which she did some gaol time) to investing in an illegal mine. Her relationship with her father is complex, both physically and emotionally, as well as with her siblings and their spouses, who seem to be constantly quarrelling with each other and with the cantankerous Tang Xinxin. Having buried his wife of 53 years, produced three sons and three daughters, and not adverse to buying aphrodisiacs from a kind brothel owner in a nearby town, Old Man Tang has many memories to recall and mementoes to share – from the Japanese occupation to the implementation of Communism. Having become a member of the Party in 1948, he quit ten years later, because “The Nationwide Steel Production Campaign was a joke.” Truth is multi-faceted and contradictory: later he says that he quit after being fired from his factory job for taking time off to bring his infant daughter to the hospital. Xu Tong’s handheld camera captures this domestic kaleidoscope of emotions, family quibbles and recollections, sharing the life of his subjects without judging them. Shattered is another piece of the puzzle of the “alternative archive”(5) that Chinese digital cinema has been constructing in the last decade, de facto rewriting Chinese history from the point of view of the people who have lived it.

The work of Yu Guangyi, a former lumberjack turned filmmaker, constitutes another piece of the puzzle. Since his first film, Mu Bang (Timber Gang, 2007), he has intimately explored the rough life of the people – mostly the men – making a living in the snow-bound Chanbai Mountains of Heilongjiang Province. The climate is rigorous, the province is poor, the work hard – but, most devastatingly, the forests from which the lumberjacks were making a living have been depleted by intensive logging and are now protected by environmental regulations. So unemployment runs rampant in the mountains; more mobile, women have fled to find jobs in urban areas; most of the remaining men survive on part-time seasonal jobs, and can’t find wives. Yu’s camera witnesses the travails of one San Liangzi, divorced and impoverished, his loneliness, and the “deep connection” he feels with the one single woman left in his community, 29 year-old Wang Meizi. A sharp, independent, seductive woman wearing casual sports clothes, her hair cropped short, Meizi willingly accepts his help for little jobs in her inn, but does not seem the least interested in him. Still living with her parents, she often disappears “on business” in the nearby town. What her business is we’ll never know for sure, but, as Liangzi’s buddies warn him, “you are never going to change her, because she loves women, not men.” “You don’t know her like I do,” stubbornly replies Langzi who, for fear of losing her respect, won’t even patronise prostitutes like the other bachelors in the mountain. Summer comes; Meizi opens an inn for tourists, and hires Liangzi long-term to help her… Shot vérité-style with a few interviews in which the unseen filmmaker probes his subject about his feelings, Bachelor Mountain ends on a night sequence in which, lost in the midst of a young crowd dancing to poppy love songs, Liangzi busies himself in the kitchen, picks up empty plates, performs various chores while ruminating on his alienation and frustration. Then, it’s the long trek to his miserable house, on the pitch-dark road. “Do you ever fucking know how I feel? I could kill you sometimes”, he mutters. Home, he undresses totally, gets under a dirty comforter, then pulls it off while sleeping, exposing his vulnerability with his imperfect body.

Shot by the young anthropologist He Yuan – a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography at the Yunnan Academy of Science – Apuda de shouhou (Apuda) was an exhilarating discovery. While Xu Tong and Yu Guangyi have shown their work internationally, Apuda had, to my knowledge, only been exhibited once before, at Yunnfest Documentary Film Festival – where it won the Grand Prize. Focusing on the lonely life of his subject, the mentally disabled peasant Apuda, He Yuan displays a keen cinematic sense of where to put the camera, how to choreograph reverse angles (or the absence thereof), how to structure the visual composition of the image, how to use the off-screen space as a dynamic element. Slowly paced and 145 minute long, Apuda is consistently fascinating. The first part unfolds the moving exchange between Apuda and his ailing father. The repetitive dialogue feels like poetry; it is the incantation of love: “is your tea warm enough, do you want me to re-heat your tea, are you comfortable, do you want another pillow?” After the father’s death, Apuda continues the dialogue, talking to himself, or in some communion with the splendid landscapes of Yunnan Province – maybe one of the most beautiful parts of China. He Yuan weaves a rare text – a rigorous ethnographic observation subsumed by a cinematic poetry as influenced by traditional Chinese scroll painting as it is by the alternation of light and darkness.

It is too early to know if the digital revolution China is currently undergoing will have long-standing effects on “the industry”, as an irksome system of censorship keeps it as a marginalised practice for the time being. Meanwhile, as DIY filmmakers emerge all around the world, national industries seek consolidation through gigantism – and China is no exception, getting involved in an increasing number of mega-productions. Long in trouble and stagnation, the Taiwanese film industry is also hoping for redemption through big budgets. Last year Bang-kah (Monga), a gangster film shot in a traditional Taipei neighbourhood by actor-turned-director Doze Niu, beat Avatar at the Taiwanese box-office. The road had been open in 2008 by the commercial success of Wei Te-Sheng’s second feature, Hai-kak chhit-ho (Cape No. 7) a relatively small-budget affair plunging into Taiwanese local mores and history. Cashing in on his success, Wei was able to get financing for his dream project, an epic recounting the revolt of the aborigine tribe Seediq against the Japanese occupation, known as “the Wushe incident”. Twenty five millions later (this is “the most expensive film in Taiwanese history”), with John Woo and Terence Chang as executive producers for good measure, an international version of Seediq Bale – 156 minutes only – was premiered in Venice. Vancouver showed the original, 270-minute version, that just opened last September (in two episodes) in Taiwan and is already a box-office hit.

There is no doubt Seediq Bale is a major cinematic event. It will contribute to further revitalising the Taiwanese industry – and it is a credible candidate for the foreign Oscar, so the sky’s the limit. It brings to the forefront a little-known history, that of the systematic repression of aborigine culture in Taiwan. One of the most engaging aspects of the film is the linguistic and musicological research done by the filmmaking team; the dialogue is in Seediq and Japanese, and the soundtrack is filled with remastered traditional Seediq songs. However, one may wonder how appropriate it is to use the tropes of the spectacular to reproduce what became an irreversible process of eradication – in other words, a genocide. The courageous, brilliant tactic and charisma of the Seediq chief, Mouna Rudao (played by Da Ching as a young man and Lin Ching-Tai as an elder) cannot hide the fact that the Seediq were defeated and decimated, that aborigine culture has been destroyed, except as an amusement for tourists. It’s the old question re-opened every time a Schindler’s List arrives on the silver screen. With little foray into psychology or ethical dilemmas, and little in-depth information imparted on the richness of Seediq culture and folklore, the film, shot in a lush CGI jungle populated by thousands of extras, is mostly a succession of combats, in a variety of locales and with a variety of weapons, between Japanese and aborigine, and among the aborigines themselves – as the different clans are constantly at war, a fact cashed on by the Japanese occupier.

At the beginning of the film, Mouna Rudao is a young hot-blood intent on collecting as many heads of his dead enemies as possible. Defeated by the Japanese, he is taken, along with a dozen other chieftains, to a trip to Japan, so he’ll understand (and be impressed by) the civilisation of the victors. Twenty years later, in 1930, he is the greying, powerless spiritual leader of a community slowly eroded by unemployment, low wages and alcoholism. We only learn about the trip to Japan when he recounts it in a conversation. This trip could have been the true subject of the film. Imagine: a delegation of noble Seediq arriving in the Tokyo harbour and looking at cargo ships, automobiles and the crowded streets of a major Asian metropolis. However, what interested Wei was the spectacle of the combats, not a clash of cultures, not the march of history. And for a while, we follow him; it’s exciting, it’s beautiful, it’s so well done. Then it becomes tedious. Finally, upon looking at a battle between two factions of Seediq, one allied with the rebels, the other fighting for the Japanese – about 300 young men, half-naked in their traditional costumes, ripping each other apart in a river – I started to think “This is pornography. I am enjoying this, enjoying the spectacles of these naked limbs, these powerful torsos, the water glistening over brown skin, the seductive faces of young men faking death…” Maybe it’s because I had recently rewatched Godard’s Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1974). The recreational spectacle of death – when indexed in history through a real extermination that took place not so long ago – is not something in which I want to find my pleasure.

The poetry of indetermination

A high point of the Asian selection was Hong Sangsoo’s latest comedy of (bad sexual) manners, Bookchon banghyang (The Day He Arrives), which is arguably his best work since Haebyeonui yeoin (Woman on the Beach, 2006). Moreover, Hong returns to the black and white and the sense of repetition that had served him so well in Oh! Soo-jung (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000). Eleven years have passed and Hong’s cinema has evolved away from the dazzling formalism of his beginning to an insightful foray into the foibles of the contemporary South Korean male. Here repetition does not produce the semi-cubist, fragmented point of view on the ultimate impossibility of a love affair as in Virgin, but the compulsion in which the protagonist, sometime filmmaker Yoo Seonjung (Yu Junsang) is locked, his fear of commitment being multiplied, as in a hall of mirrors, by the image sent back to him by every woman he meets. Two of the reviews written when the film was shown in Un Certain Regard,(6) compare the film to Groundhog Day (Bill Ramis, 1993), which is pretty accurate: The Day He Arrives is a fine example of Hong’s gift for absurdist humour.

Permanently displaced – in space, in his feelings, in his career – Seonjung, who has stopped making movies and teaches in a provincial university, arrives in Seoul to meet a friend, divorced film critic Youngho (Kim Sangjoong) but, having failed to call in advance, finds himself in the cold streets with nothing to do. The encounters that keep happening during his brief stay bear the marks of a private hell – twice he meets a group of film students who worship him for the wrong reasons; twice a young actress who pursues him so he’d give her a part; and then, when involved in situations of desire, he either faces women who look alike (ex girlfriend Kyungjin and bar owner Yejeon, both played by Kim Bokyung), or a fascinating cinema studies professor, Boram (Song Sunmi), who may or may not be involved with Youngho (here Hong quotes himself and reproduces a situation à la Woman on the Beach). To the dead ringers he feeds the same lines, and to Boram lines rehearsed with Youngho (and, in a very comic moment, they seem to have an effect) but when the time comes to make a real pass at her he finds himself making out with Yejeon. And then there is the bar, called “Roman” (“Novel”), in which Seonjung returns three times, in different configurations of social interaction, desire and drunkenness; every time, the owner, Yejeon, has to run out to get food or other supplies; every time Seonjung behaves as if he had never been in the place before. Time and space, memory and repetition become blurred, fractured, indeterminate; it is impossible to keep track of how much time has passed, how long Seonjung has been staying in Seoul. If it were not for these minute, beautifully rendered moments of social embarrassment, one could think that the film unfolds entirely in Seonjung’s head.

A palimpsest of small forms, small talk, small gestures and indeterminate spaces, The Day He Arrives treads a fine line between muted oneirism and psychological realism, eschewing interpretation, as Hong keeps planting wrong clues to throw us off-scent. The best example is his choice of the image that is used everywhere to represent the film, featuring the main actor Yu Junsang (who was one of the two protagonists in HaHaHa, 2010) in conversation with Go Hyun-jung (the star of Woman on the Beach and Jal aljido mothamyeonseo/Like You Know It All, 2009), so you’d expect that the bulk of the film is going to be made by the interaction between these two. In fact Go only appears at the end of the film, as the bearer of the gaze (she’s a photographer), a woman who neither pursues Seonjung nor is pursued by him – and then disappears after a few minutes. In Hong’s cinema Go represents the ever-receding line against which male narcissism and boorishness finds its limit, its reality check. Hong ever so lightly suggests the possibility this final encounter may open – breaking off the magic circle of repetition – but does not pursue it. Go remains, like Baudelaire’s belle passante, another snippet of masculine longing.

Tropical Malady

Vancouver also organised one of the first North American screenings of La Folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly), in which Chantal Akerman subjects Joseph Conrad’s first novel to a similar treatment to that of Proust’s La Prisonnière in La Captive (The Captive, 2000): a revisiting, a transubstantiation in time and space, a gentle implosion that reconfigures the original connections between the characters, allows new figures to emerge and the never-ending portrait of the filmmaker by herself to unfold through different bodies and novel narrative structures. In The Captive, Ariane (Sylvie Testud) deconstructed the gaze the original narrator, Marcel, had cast upon Albertine, by returning the gaze that Simon was casting upon her. Stanislas Merhar returns from playing Simon to playing Almayer – this time the object of his obsession is not an evasive, polysexual lover, but his mixed-blood daughter (Aurora Marion), her revolt, her budding sexuality.

The film’s DP is Raymond Fromont, who was a camera operator in Les Années 80 (1983), then worked on Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (Three Strophes on Sacher’s Name, 1989) and Le Déménagement (The Move, 1992), but, more importantly, shot D’Est (From the East, 1993), Portrait d’une Jeune Fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Young Girl at the end of the 60s in Brussels, 1993), Sud (South, 1999) and collaborated on the filming of De l’Autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002). In their previous films together, Akerman and Raymond have signed some of the most beautiful tracking shots in the history of cinema – gliding over natural or urban landscapes that the filmmakers, then the spectators, discovered at the same rhythm as the eye of the camera – in a lyrical, non-obtrusive way, letting the space, the bodies retain their secrets; they have also produced alluring combinations between mise en scène and documentary recording, in the scenes when the young girl of Portrait (budding actress Circé Lethem) was energetically wandering through the streets of contemporary Brussels. Their previous films explored a certain discomfort (malaise in French) experienced by the protagonists in relation to space; in Portrait this was subtly hinted at by the shift between the fictional 1960s of the plot and the 1990s cars and fashion of the setting.

Akerman follows a similar strategy of time-space displacement in Almayer – feeding on the experience of “literary adaptation” gained in La Captive. Conrad’s Almayer was a 19th century Dutchman running a miserable trading post in Borneo’s rainforest (in what will become the Malaysian state of Sarawak in 1963). She moves the action to an indeterminate time in the 1950s – years of her own childhood, years of unrest preceding Malaysian independence from the British Crown in 1957. She changes the character of Dain, who was a prince in Conrad’s novel, to a rebel pursued by the authorities. A suspenseful long shot stages Nina and Dain in conversation while, behind them, Dain’s men are walking across the screen, barely concealed by the luxuriant vegetation, carrying weapons and supplies. “You can’t stay here,” he says. “My men shouldn’t see you.” Nina, having her back turned to them, failed to see them. What you see, cannot see, shouldn’t see, is very much at the core of a film in which the protagonists are blindly pursuing their own desires.

Most of La Captive took place in Paris, but, Akerman warns us, “not Paris as it really was; much more a Paris I had reconstructed as if in a studio.”(7) The decision to shoot in Cambodia rather than Malaysia is of the same ilk. With its intoxicating moistness, monsoon rains and flooding rivers, sumptuously captured with sweeping one-shot sequences, the Cambodian rainforest stands in for the Borneo jungle. Practical reasons (budget, connections) are of no great importance here. What matters is what Akerman discovered when scouting East Asia. First, that Kuala Lumpur had become such an ultra-modern metropolis that it could no longer be the setting for Nina’s flight away from the boarding school.(8) On the other hand, parts of Phnom Penh still retains instances of older architecture and traditional street life, that wide-eyed and slightly frightened Nina determinedly walks through when escaping years of confinement. The tracking shots that follow her, the unexpected pauses (catching her when she has to pee crouched in a dark hallway), are not-so-distant echoes of other females on the move that haunt Akerman’s cinema – from Je Tu Il Elle (I, You, He, She, 1974) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978) to Portrait, the film which I find to be the closest in inspiration to Almayer. After setting herself free, Nina, the mixed-race girl who is permanently in-between, is shot frontally, occupying centre stage, claiming her right to speak (in remarkable one-shot-sequence monologues drawn from the filmmaker’s own experience), her right to remain stubbornly silent, even her right to sing (in Latin) Mozart’s Ave Maria, at the wrong time, in the wrong place – as in the stupefying opening scene.

The second discovery made by Akerman in Cambodia was how a recent cruel history invisibly permeated the space.(9) The survivors of one of the worst massacres in contemporary history(10) were smiling, generous, welcoming. But, as in the former Soviet Union, as in the American South, Akerman was sensitive to the subtle traces left by past tragedies. The lush tropical landscape, both seductive and menacing, is haunted by these unresolved memories. This in turn provided an ideal setting for Almayer’s slow slippage into madness. Working with local actors and asking them to speak in their own language, Akerman composes a semantic polyphony: Almayer, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé) and Nina speak French, sometimes English; Chen (Solida Chan), Almayer’s right-hand man, Chinese and French; Dain (Zac Andrianasolo), Bahasa language, English and sometimes French; and Nina’s mother, Zahira (played by a Cambodian theatre actress, Sakhna Oum) speaks Khmer… Yet, Almayer keeps talking about her as “The Malay woman” (la Malaise in French). He had let Lingard, her adoptive father, convince him to marry her – with the vague promise of (illusory) riches. Yet, forever nostalgic of the lilywhite Victorian beauty of his mother, Almayer only had contempt, then disgust, for this “native woman” forced upon him. “Her skin – I can’t even remember it,” he whispers in a terrible moment. In his alienation from the land where he lives, he may very well have been married to a Cambodian woman and still think she was Malay. It wouldn’t make any difference to him, he still wouldn’t understand her language, he still wouldn’t love her. And the words he uses, la Malaise, are telling; in French, le malaise means discomfort. In Lacanian geometry, woman is symptom to man, and Zahira is symptom’s to Almayer’s malaise. (Significantly, she becomes mad at losing Nina before he does, enacting in advance what will become his folly…)

La Captive was dedicated to the memory of Jacob Akerman, the filmmaker’s father who died when she was working on Un Divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996). The work of grief seems to have made his way through; the point of view of father and daughter, expressed as conflicting in Portrait, are now presented with equal sympathy: “Almayer and his daughter represent two characters and sides of me: the daughter who dares to leave home, as I did as a teenager; and the depressed father who, like me, is immersed in his own sense of loss.”(11) While Conrad’s novel delved into Almayer’s disgust and alienation from his surroundings, Akerman recounts that “there was one scene that struck me: the father is going to talk to his daughter so she’ll stay with him, so she’ll return. It moved me to the point of tears.”(12)

Refusing the traps of identity politics (and any concomitant “political correctness”) Akerman’s cinema is inhabited by the question of how to represent a female vision of desire in a territory chartered by male discourse. Reading Proust, or reading Conrad… or even reading the newspapers relating the atrocious murder of James Byrd Jr (in the hands of three white men) when scouting for South. The “colonial imaginary” is one of these male roadmaps over which female desire can only be perceived as “floating”, “irrelevant”, “unsubstantial” (and this may be why Akerman says this is not what interested her in the novel).(13) In the indeterminate space-time continuum created in Almayer’s Folly, colonialism itself is dissolved into the essential displacement created by desire. All the characters are focused on the wrong object. “I gave you Zahira to make a man out if you,” said Lingard to Almayer. But the latter had no desire for his wife; the love of his life is his daughter. Zahira wanted her husband to love her; later she finds the best way to love her daughter is to lose her a second time, forever. Nina gives herself to a man she does not love, to escape her father’s folly… The much-admired tracking shots take us on a journey into the splendour and darkness of desire; Almayer’s Folly plunges into the treacherous waters that swallowed Ariane in La Captive. This time, it’s the girl who emerges, and Stanislas Merhar who drowns…

Vancouver International Film Festival
28 September – 14 October 2011
website: http://www.viff.org/festival/


  1. On Pema Tseden’s award winning second film, Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (The Search, 2009), see in particular “Men Won’t Cry – Traces of a Repressive Past: The 28th Vancouver International Film Festival”, http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/men-won%E2%80%99t-cry-%E2%80%93-traces-of-a-repressive-past-the-28th-vancouver-international-film-festival/
  2. Moreover, on 26 November 2011, Ann Hui won the Best Director Award at the Golden Horse Ceremony in Taipei, while Deannie Yip won Best Actress and Andy Lau Best Actor. The Best Film Award was won, predictably, by Seediq Bale (see below).
  3. This is particularly clear in Hui’s previous three films: Tin shui wai dik yat yu ye (The Way We Are, 2008), Tin shui wai dik ye yu mo (Night and Fog, 2009) and Duk haan chau faan (All About Love, 2010).
  4. Robert Musil, Five Women, Godine Publisher, Boston & New York, 1986, p. 84.
  5. The concept of “alternative archive” in Chinese documentary was used by Ou Ning when he opened the organisation of the same name in 2004 in Guangzhou: www.alternativearchive.com/. It is elegantly discussed by Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel in their essay “Alternative Archive: China’s Independent Documentary Culture” in Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu and Lisa Rofel (eds), The New Chinese Documentary Movement – For the Public Record, Hong Kong U Press, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 135-154.
  6. www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/day-he-arrives-cannes-2011-190701; http://www.screendaily.com/reviews/latest-reviews/the-day-he-arrives/5027963.article
  7. Chantal Akerman, Skype conversation, October 30, 2011.
  8. Chantal Akerman, Skype conversation, October 31, 2011.
  9. Ibid.
  10. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, then the ruling party in Cambodia, exterminated almost ¼ of the population (between 1.7 to 2 million).
  11. Nicole Brenez, Chantal Akerman, The Pajama Interview, The Viennale, 2011, 48
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

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.

Related Posts