The Canary Islander has the mind in Europe, the feet on Africa and the heart in America.
– anonymous popular saying
Spread upon five centuries of history Las Palmas is a cosmopolitan and integrated city. Conquered by the Spaniards and attacked by pirates, it bore witness to Christopher Columbus’ departure to discover the New World, as it was the last piece of ground he set foot on before leaving for America. It is no wonder that one of its trademarks is its welcoming nature towards visitors, given its evolution as a transit space in-between maritime routes.
So it seems logical for the Las Palmas International Film Festival to be a meeting point of impressive debuts and established auteurs, whether in the Official Competition or within its remarkable retrospectives, this year dedicated to the Berlinale-awarded Romanian Radu Jude after last year’s celebration of the impressive work of the Georgian director Otar Iosseliani. The other retrospective was a diverse cycle built around May ’68, which aligned perfectly with the festival’s critical discourse, which ponders radicalism and its meaning throughout the history of cinema. By casting its eye towards the past, the festival links the two eras represented in these programs and their reflections upon transitions. For example, the May ‘68 films’ spoke of class differences, proletarian revolution, equal rights for people of colour and women; the contemporary films similarly spoke to precariousness and transitions from the old to the new world. In this regard, apart from the evident focus on French cinema from this era, the festival reframed other international works related to revolution, class struggle and freedom of expression such as Jirí Menzel’s censored Larks on a String (1969), Peter Watkins’ iconic mockumentary drama Punishment Park (1971), and Dušan Makavejev’s surreal hybrid about sexual liberation in communist Yugoslavia, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Celebrating fifty years since the events of May ’68 took place, Las Palmas brought that cinema alive by connecting its social change context with the works of the Official Competition.
Now in its 18th edition, the festival has established itself within Spain as a stage for independent and alternative cinema. In the context of the Canary Islands, isolated as much as it is connected with the rest of the world, the festival makes a risky, yet justified choice by prioritising peripheral film industries with productions from Asia, Eastern European countries, Latin America or Africa. Along its young history, the festival has awarded and dedicated special retrospectives to many great Asian auteurs not so well-known in Spain, including Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hong Sang-soo and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Many Asian films from the Official Competition featured as a connecting theme matters of conscience in a somewhat life of burdon and the impact of fate upon individuals’ welfare. There seemed to be a general preference for strong questioning of behavioural codes, given that contemporary precariousness has the potential to challenge the moral grounds on which society is based.
A film that has been making waves since its premiere (winning the Hivos Tiger Award at Rotterdam in February) is Cai Chengjie’s Xiao gua fu cheng xian ji (The Widowed Witch). Being a woman in China is from birth a setback that condemns girls to a burdensome existence. As the country’s infamous birth policy system resulted in massive infanticide and abandonment in favour of baby boys, stigmatising is amplified in the rural areas, a matter addressed in this debut feature. Erhao, a third-time widow, is portrayed as such, vulnerable and physically impotent after her fireworks factory exploded. The village micro-society shows little support for the scourged woman, instead taking advantage of her situation, spreading rumours and building a witchcraft legend around her misfortune. Living in her van with her husband’s deaf brother, Erhao embarks on a journey from one village to the other in an allegorical road-movie. After a series of fortunate and comical coincidences, her destiny shifts from being a persona non grata to someone who uses the occult for people’s welfare, a shaman.
Popular wisdom, superstition and the connection with the spiritual is common in rural China and has been recently portrayed in works such as Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Xuebo, 2016), yet The Widowed Witch stands apart with an unprecedented feminist approach. Comparably framed in classical 4:3 ratio and slowly reflecting endless rural landscapes in long, fixed camera shots, it furthers the cinematography exploration by alternating colour with black and white images. While the formal inconsistency and the pursuit of adjacent topics work against it as it demonstrates a desire to tell too much, Cai shows talent for composition. Erhao’s encounter with the local mayor asking for help is portrayed as a two-shot in which she is naturally looking ghost-like – wrapped up in steam coming from a nearby boiler – highlighting both the woman’s frailty in relation to a powerful man and her magical occult nature alike. The film juggles contrasting undertones, shifting easily from deadpan comedy to drama. The strength of belief trumps the mundane mechanisms of power, the only way of stopping an abusive husband to beat up his wife and daughters being to convince him that divinity won’t grant him the desired son unless he starts treating his family nicer. Above the mysticism, the protagonist refuses to be a victim and fights the opportunism with its own weapons. Ironically, the community welcomes a higher spirit as long as it serves their avaricious purposes.
The festival also featured an interesting independent Indian film, following the recent wave of films set in its Southern rural regions such as the Golden Leopard winner Thithi (Raam Reddy, 2015) and the Rotterdam Hivos Tiger awarded Sexy Durga (Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2017), that have had international festival buzz. Shot in a village from Karnataka with non-professional actors and directed by Thithi’s co-writer Ere Gowda, comes Balekempa (The Bangle Seller). Like the tranquil countryside passage of time, the narrative of the film develops slowly. In a traditional agrarian community a bangle seller and his wife are unable to conceive, their situation providing gossip fodder for the entire village. Surrounded by women, Kampana shows little interest in his intriguing clientele nor the needs of his wife, yet he is quick to help his childhood friend with his field labours. Where in The Widowed Witch sexist views were manifested towards a woman struggling to become independent, in The Bangle Seller this behaviour prevails as the conventional one in a couple. While having his wife Soubhagya take care of his sick mother seems to be the only purpose of their marriage, both partners have their own repressed desires and double lives to hide. In a similar fashion to Cai’s debut, Gowda captures his country’s rural society’s slow progress in tolerance.
Less elaborate than the Chinese and very discreet in addressing taboos, The Bangle Seller offers a profound insight that captures an India in transition, in between archaic customs and development. Throughout, a couple of forbidden relations are depicted with such subtlety that a lesser engaged audience could fail to notice, only to be surprised by the misleading resolution that the characters have found in order to shut down gossip. Differently from Gowda’s previous Thithi, whose vibrant atmosphere and careless attitude towards the vicissitudes of life prevailed, The Bangle Seller relies on the significance of the small gestures and stolen glances. The focus on what happens out of the public view is justified partly because India has a tradition of prudery censorship and also because Gowda’s proposal is an affront to the traditional moral grounds of a conservative society. In this case restrictions work in his favour as the minimalist approach and repetitive scenes work to express the frustration of inhibited feelings and the introversion that comes with social pressure.
Also shining a light on familial relationships is Van Pao-te (Father to Son). One of the strongest at Las Palmas, Hsiao Ya-chuan’s film examines the emotional distance between parent and child through three generations of men. With a multilayered plot, the main focus is on Van Pao-te, an amateur inventor who owns a hardware shop where his teenage son Dy-Chi helps out part-time before leaving for his studies. News of a life-threatening disease sets the father and son couple on a trip to Japan to look out for Van’s father who abandoned him when he was ten. In the tradition of masters Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien (who is also the producer of Father to Son), the plot follows an intimate journey through Taiwan’s tumultuous history, whose politics forced alienation from family in favour of searching for material success. A recurring theme in Asian cinema, often addressed in Ozu’s works, is the decline of the patriarch and intergenerational gap issues. Due to the pressure to secure wealth, the father figure often loses dignity and authority. Against this backdrop, Van Pao-te tries his best to retain his function as a provider, but impeding death and the emotional disappointment from himself being abandoned make him reflect upon being an honourable model. Hsiao portrays the father’s unique way to pass on to his son a strong character with much tenderness. More than a coming-of-age journey, Father to Son describes another type of development, different from that of a boy turning into a man, but instead one of a man becoming a father. Such evolution is shown by merging scenes from different times and perspectives, Van Pao-te’s youth portrayed in black and white versus the coloured present and the even earlier years of his father in Japan. The direct cuts from monochromatic shots to strong coloured hues ignore chronologic order and in a similar fashion to the way Ozu used music, a voiceover from one scene overlaps with the new sequence. Furthermore, the confusing transitions, the duplicated storylines and the younger versions of the characters are effective devices to show how one inherits not only values from one’s upbringing, but also the burden of the past. Moving and complex, the film reflects on fate and an individual’s (in)ability to change. The country’s uncertain postcolonial identity is suggested as a parallel to the father’s struggle to redefine himself as a parent, as he discovers the only valuable legacy is responsibility and integrity.
Another Chinese film dealing with principles is Zhui Zhong (Ash), Li Xiaofeng’s subdued arthouse thriller that links two destinies in unexpected ways. The film opens with a body found in a theatre, killed with surgical precision. At first, detective Chen’s investigations point to the victim’s stepson, Xu Feng, a young steelworker who doesn’t shy away from displaying his loathing of his brutal stepfather. Although vengeance is a strong motive and Xu Feng reinforces the detective’s suspicions by openly declaring he wished the victim’s death, there is not enough evidence to charge anybody with this crime. Ten years later, the sight of the prestigious surgeon Wang Dong wearing a surgical mask (recalling the unresolved crime), determines investigator Chan to reopen the case. The plot intertwines an enigmatic connection between the powerful doctor and Xu Feng’s background with their present reencounter.
Chinese films such as Black Coal, Thin Ice or A Touch of Sin have strongly combined violence and materialism before, yet Ash excels in its simplicity. Shot in bold primary colours, striking red and green for the present versus yellow and blue for the past, Ash is more of a neo-noir than a whodunit work, revealing the yawning class gaps in modern China and the different degrees of compromise these societal fractures can lead to. Li carefully inserts thriller tropes to maintain interest by interpolating the stories of the two protagonists. The two couldn’t be more contrasting, one man representing the hard work manual labour, while the other holding power derived from hierarchic authority. The friendship between the rather reticent Xu Feng and the empowered Wang Dong is founded on a shared appreciation of Leo Tostoy’s novel Resurrection. Complementing the quoted novel, Ash prioritises the psychological process that drives a person to kill and the different types of personal discontent. There are a couple of symbolic images representative of the film’s quest for redemption such as the detective’s silhouette on a moonlit hill overlooking Xu Feng’s boat leaving town and his defiant gaze in response or the cathartic club scene that actor Xin Peng pulls off with remarkable body language. Like Resurrection’s central character conclusion that iniquity is the result of people considering there are moments when they could treat their fellows mercilessly if it serves their interests, Li reveals a compelling examination of the depravity in obtaining success.
Also in the Official Competition was The Bottomless Bag (Yakhonty. Ubiystvo) which marked the return of veteran Soviet director Rustam Khamdamov after the Venice premiere of his short film Diamonds. Theft (Brillianty. Vorovstvo, 2011). Born in Tashkent in 1944, Khamdamov is a director with an illusory aura as his career had a sinuous fate. His movies were seized destroyed, leaving behind a legendary figure of a director with obscure works that were little-seen on the festival circuit. The Bottomless Bag is set during the reign of the Emperor Alexander II, although the narrative has little to do with historical reconstruction. It is based on the short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, In a Grove, which also served as the source text for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), a narrative that famously presents different perspectives on the murder of a samurai and the disappearance of his wife in the forest. The Russian director replaces the samurai with a prince, yet maintains a similar narrative structure with his source of inspiration.
There is a clear fairytale influence, although The Bottomless Bag is neither innocent nor simple, as the tales about the assassination are framed within another narration. A lady-in-waiting resembling an aging Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) arrives at the Court of the Tsar in order to entertain him by telling him stories. While entering the fictional milieu, the lady pretends to have visionary abilities and access to other worlds. Khamdamov does an excellent job in creating a fairytale mood, packing his work with surreal elements. He stays faithful to elements from his previous films, such as UFO-like black balloons chasing the princess (a similar balloon chased the protagonist of his short film Diamonds. Theft), impressive jewelry and Byzantine church embroidered brocade, connecting his compact work. Scenes such as the robber drawing away the princess from the prince with the help of reflecting mirrors or the duplicated image of the princess in a lake recall Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his magical worlds. Khamdamov blends humanised props such as mushroom-shaped hats worn by people with elements from Russian folk tales. Shot in black and white, there is no coding for the transitions from the palace shots to the stories representation. As a uniting element, the whites are overexposed, with jewelry emanating an otherworldly radiance. Based on visual parallels, form merges with content as the film is anchored in a retro aesthetic that combines old Hollywood decadence with iconography resembling Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian. One by one, each character confesses to the murder, yet the particularity of Khamdamov’s surreal world is that although words tell one story, the images accompanying the confessions depict something else. The plot reclaims storytelling as a deceiving truth and irrational articulation of our imagination. Featuring stories within stories, Khamdamov has achieved a neo-baroque allegory. Similarly to the work of another surrealist auteur, Raúl Ruiz, The Bottomless Bag is a palimpsestic work that transcends the representation of reality and looks for meaning within the reinterpretation of its layers.
Still in the Official Competition, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog and Christian Petzold’s Transit couldn’t be more different, yet an alternative filmic language proved to be the uniting thread. Built as a San Francisco oeuvre, The Green Fog is a montage film composed of fragments from around 100 movies and TV shows set in the iconic city. Together with his Forbidden Room collaborators, brothers Evan and Galen Johnson, Maddin composes a cinephilic dream, a puzzle of clips from Greed, The Lady from Shanghai, Basic Instinct, Sister Act, meant to create a meta-fiction roughly based on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Genre-defying, The Green Fog squeezes elements from film noir, romance, suspense and detective movies infused with absurdist motifs such as surveillance and apocalyptic menaces. The editing transitions are rather abrupt, even if tremendous care has been given to look out for similar shot composition from different movies to secure continuity. Alluding to the humour of silent cinema and probably as a clever solution to copyright rules, the characters have been silenced, cutting out the dialogues and leaving them in a fishlike incongruent, but expressive movement of lips. The intention of this remarkable postmodern pastiche resembles Khamdamov’s purpose to question reality and representation, although the use of the same characters has been replaced in Guy Maddin’s work by the clever interpretation of the doppelgänger theme through the multiple use of actors. The green fog, a CGI effect linking the different clips, conveys an eerie feeling and plays as a linking device coincidently well with another film from Las Palmas, Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappe (1967), programmed within the May ’68 section. Like Vertigo, also raising issues about obsession, looks and representation, this correspondence throughout the history of cinema serves as a proof that The Green Fog is cinema itself, a copy of a copy infused with personal style.
Christian Petzold’s most recent film, Transit, is also obliquely concerned with unconventional narrative techniques. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel Transit Visa, which explores a refugee’s escape from a Nazi concentration camp to France, the film is neither set in the WWII era, nor completely in the present, but exists in limbo in an in-between time. After escaping a violent raid in Germany and having reached France, the protagonist Georg assumes the identity of a dead writer named Weidel in order to secure his visa and implicitly increase his chances of survival. While killing time before his planned departure, Georg grows fond of the little boy of a North African woman and in love with a mysterious woman who proves to be Weidel’s wife Marie. Played as a refugee movie, Transit explores few of the survival tropes, nor exhibits much of the violence and compassion duality seen in films such as Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015) or Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011). Petzold instead attempts to instigate empathy through an intentional temporal discrepancy meant to show how the refugees’ situation hasn’t changed much in time. He parallels and merges the contemporary with the past with the help of costume design oscillating from 1940s outfits to modern clothing. The ingenious narrative approach transitions from objectivity to subjectivity, thus an omniscient narrator who betrays his implication and subjectivity and reveals himself as an intra-diegetic instance who may see or hear things that didn’t actually happen. Dystopia is a formal gamble meant to generate identification and illustrate the universality of a situation and it does so within the Bafta awarded short Home (Daniel Mulloy, 2016). In Transit, the imminence of danger is rather too dissipated to generate such emotions. While Petzold shares the unadorned perspective with Michel Haneke’s Le Temps du Loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003) – also depicting an unnamed civilisation – he doesn’t achieve the same impactful analysis of mankind’s desperation and reprehensible nature under pressure. However, Petzold underlines the feeling of guilt versus survival instinct as contradictory feelings that affect the protagonist in waves, making from his escape a moral decision. More convincingly played as a love story in purgatory, with lovers deciding on moving on versus giving up on their feelings, the transition is alienating as it treats the instability of living, the precariousness as a holdup from someone’s life.
Las Palmas International Film Festival
6-15 April 2018
Festival website: http://www.lpafilmfestival.com