VIFF 2016: Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)

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It’s already too late for someone. A rope is pulled down from a tree and strung back up again. Two shots, and a cloud of suicidal despair rolls in over the coming proceedings. The film stops briefly to introduce itself—the title appears as if clawed across the screen—and just as quickly director Ashley McKenzie plunges back into the lives of two lovers and recovering drug addicts living on the fringes of society.

Werewolf is an addiction movie. And like many films in the genre, its drama orbits around the twin poles of drugs and romance. The compulsive behavior brought on by both intoxicants proves an irresistible symmetry for filmmakers interested in that sort of thing. Narcotics as l’amour fou, or vice versa. The more clinical term is, I believe, co-dependency, and although Werewolf plays freely with the established image of the addict lovers, it distinguishes itself by honing in on the pharmacological ties that bind this relationship. Methadone treatment isn’t just a metaphor here, but a very real medical regime with rules, regulations, lockboxes, and psych evals, all of which are administered and enforced by the faceless social workers who hover around the edges of the rigid frame, abstracted as benignly indifferent voices or anonymous limbs. Snatches of poetry do enter this antiseptic world through McKenzie’s eye, and her Denis-like fascination with skin— real skin, not the finely polished alabaster of most movie actors—keeps things pulsing with humanity. Human moments, however, give way always to the exhausting task of navigating the social order of recovery, and the film remains steadfastly committed to depicting the same degrading ritual time and again: hauling yourself up to the pharmacist’s counter to guzzle down one more dose, the humiliation nearly unbearable save for the fact that it’s shared.

The tragedy, as the opening shots warn us, is that this life can’t be shared forever, and so Werewolf is finally a diverged path, a fork leading two places, one deathly definitive and the other indeterminate, lonely, but not entirely without hope.

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VIFF 2016: Crosscurrent (Yang Chao, 2016)

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Poetry is the subject of the moment for 2016. Like Volcanos and Asteroids and Mars before it, we’ve been blessed this year with a plethora of films about writers of verse. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda have all the headlines, and as great as those are (and the first two are without a doubt, great films, while the third, well, isn’t really about poetry and I’m not sure how much it’s about its poet either), the best film about Poetry here at VIFF might just be Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent. Like last year’s Kaili Blues and 2013’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, it’s an independent, somewhat obscure Chinese film where the lines between past and present, myth and reality, documentary and fiction are difficult to grasp. Reversing the direction of Jean Vigo’s great river film L’Atalante, Yang follows a boat on its journey up the Yangtze from Shanghai to its source high on the Tibetan plateau. The captain, whose father has recently died, sees a woman in the Shanghai harbor but fails to meet her. The next night, the boat’s engine stops working and the captain finds, hidden in the machinery, an old and dusty book, filled with poems chronicling another man’s journey on the river (dated 1989), a different poem for every stop on the way along the third longest river in the world. The engine restarts (machines always work better when you take the poetry out of them) and the journey begins in earnest.

On-screen titles give us the locations of each stop, along with how many days the boat has been running, as well as the corresponding poem, composed by Yang himself. At each stop, the captain sees the woman again, always looking for him on the shore. They fall in love, have sex, make food, steal vegetables, but always he goes back to his boat and always she reappears further down the line on land. Ace DP Mark Lee Ping-bin shot the film on 35mm: back in 2012 (when it was filmed) digital technology was incapable of capturing his images, from the fog and steam of the harbors, to the depths of night on the river (a beam of light tracing the movements of the woman high on a cliff-face), to the pairing of the woman’s face, in close-up with a ball of fire: first a lamp, then a candle flame (the floating balls of light Lee found in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin appear briefly here as well). Two-thirds of the way up the river, the Three Gorges Dam severs their connection, its locks taking over the movement of the boat with a ear-shattering, inhumane shriek, throwing the vehicle out into an artificial landscape, through the drowned villages of Still Life and past towering limestone cliffs. The Dam is the definitive break with nature, with the past: modernity cannot recapture what went before, and the captain and the woman can no longer meet. The central mystery of the film is ungraspable in all the best ways. The woman at times seems the soul of the river, or an apparition from the past, doomed to repeat her tragedy Marienbad-style. She could be a manifestation of grief, of longing, of loneliness. She’s all of that and more, and the captain, lost in his dream, can only follow her to the river’s end.

VIFF 2016: Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016) and Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)

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The loudest film of the Future // Present series thus far is Karl Lemieux’s film about a drummer in a noisy band (I’m at least 20 years out of date on music genres) trying to make up for the fact that he and his bandmates, in an off-screen act of stupidity, stole a bunch of pot from local gangsters and now owe several thousand dollars they don’t have and can’t raise. The drummer, Vincent, walks and drives around, drinks beer, works at his job in a factory and tries to get his brother, a meth addict with connections to the mob, to help him out. It’s all shot in black and white, with long sequences scored only by music, recalling the hallucinatory interstitial passages of Jim Jarmsuch’s Dead Man, or the desperate final third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Jean-Simon Leduc, as Vincent, dominates the film, but he’s an incongruous presence in this world. Looking a bit like George Clooney and a lot like Jordan Catalano-era Jared Leto, he’s far too pretty to be a drummer, let alone to be trapped in this dead-end life.

Paired with the feature is one of the best films of the festival so far this year, a three minute short Pop Song (a perfect title), directed by Matthew Taylor Blais. Completely silent, it’s a visual experiment wherein images are layered such that they cancel each other out, creating black spaces in the frame, and then misaligned by a frame, creating a spatial and temporal discontinuity which, with the movement of the image, reveals flashes of gorgeous bright color. Documenting a few quotidian locations: a street sign, trees in a park, a woman, we see their beauty in an entirely new way. It reminded me of Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance and the nature footage from Godard’s Adieu au langage.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

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Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

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The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.