VIFF 2016: Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016)

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As a documentary about the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which thousands of young Hong Kongers gathered to Occupy districts throughout the city in protest of the PRC’s decision to not allow the former colony to directly choose its candidates for high office, Yellowing is something remarkable in our time: an honest direct cinema film, with nary a hint of meta-commentary about film theory or storytelling. Not that there’s anything wrong with the doc/fiction hybrids that have become so ubiquitous lately, there’s just something refreshing about the open earnestness of the filmmaking here, mirroring a little bit the idealism of the young people at its center. Shortly after the Hong Kong police attacked protesters with tear gas on September 27, 2014, Chan began filming the students as they set-up in and occupied the Admiralty and Mongkok neighborhoods. He focuses on a few young people through the run of the 67 day occupation: a man nicknamed Lucky Egg who gives impromptu lectures in English and political philosophy; a young man who works in construction who wanders in and out of the protests–something big always seems to happen when he’s there; a law and literature student named Rachel who makes announcements in three languages and provides the film’s eloquent final statement, an open letter to a professor who had infuriatingly denounced the students’ idealism.

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In focusing on the details of the occupation, recording the quotidian requirements of activism (building rain-proof shelters, finding a mattress to sleep on, distributing water, masks and umbrellas to counter gas attacks), as well as the ideological arguments the protestors are making (they want to be able to vote for their leaders, this is anathema to a paranoid one-party state), Chan’s film resembles no less than Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), one of the great films of this century. The similarities between the protestors then and now is striking, but Watkins’s film, being nearly six hours long, takes a couple of meta-fictional turns in its historical reenactments (for instance: the film’s actors discuss the issues the Communards raised in character, and also as themselves, expressing how the process of playing 150 year old activists affected the way they see politics in their own time). Chan has no need of such artifice: his movie isn’t a reenactment, and we see the impact the process has on his subjects unfolding as it actually happened. Beyond that, we get a feel for both the city itself and the young people not leading, but forming the heart of the movement. Whether discussing the nuts and bolts of activism and its limits (most of them know very well they cannot succeed, but they’re there anyway; Rachel distributes yellow wristbands sporting the slogan “They Can’t Kill Us All”), or just hanging around trying (and failing) to meet girls (“you need guts and brains to get a girl”). In its ground-floor, first-person perspective, it finds more honesty and wisdom and life than a hundred Hollywood issue-advocacy films.

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VIFF 2016: A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016)

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If Sunset Song, Terence Davies’s other recent feature, is a film of the enduring earth, than A Quiet Passion is a film of the withering body, the mortal coil that wheezes and shakes and is finally shuffled off. Human fragility, of both the corporeal and spiritual variety, haunts Emily Dickinson from the opening moments, in which a puritanical interrogator questions the young poet about her relationship with God and the promise of hell. Religion’s frightening specter shadows even the warmest moments in Davies’s cinema—the terror is a scar, an old spur in his bones—though here it takes on a specifically American character. Quoth New England theologian Jonathan Edwards: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” A gossamer-thin suspension is all that holds Emily Dickinson above the eternal flames.

The signal achievement of A Quiet Passion is to render the world of Dickinson’s New England with burnished clarity, to conjure the specifics of time, place, and ideology from which her art emerges. The intellectual foment of 19th century New England arguably represents the earliest maturity of American thought, a spiritual founding to echo the political founding a half century earlier. Dickinson’s poetry claims a clear piece of this lineage. Less clear are the narrative possibilities offered by her life’s story. Dickinson rarely left the house and Davies’s eye does not violate this cloister. A swirling camera and symphonic music are the director’s instruments, which can elevate even the hard-scrabble existence of a young Liverpudlian to heights of poetry, and here they transfigure the space of the Dickinson estate into a expanse of wallpaper and candlelight, and most importantly, they give remarkable sonorousness to an otherwise hushed life. The spirit of the age lives alone in a room upstairs.

On paper this sounds theoretical—more The American Scholar than “Tell all the truth and tell it slant”—but Davies is constitutionally incapable of making something so dry, and in addition to his trademark romanticism, A Quiet Passion also possess more wit than any other movie this year, save perhaps for Love and Friendship. Early passages provide Ms. Dickinson, and actress Cynthia Nixon, with a roundelay of able sparring partners. The barbs that fly in these scenes occasionally best Whit Stillman at his own game. But if we’re sticking with cinematic references, George Cukor might be more apropos. The classical auteur’s ability to reveal depth of character beneath each perfectly-timed quip gets taken up by Davies here, who understands that Emily Dickinson’s inner life is profoundly rich, though just out of reach for those around her. Humor opens up a window into the poet’s soul, and the fear and trembling that finally beset her are all the more tragic for the spirit they trample out.

A Quiet Passion’s parade of exits (“they all go” is the poet’s summation of solitude) rounds out with Dickinson’s own. The biopic ends where it must, at the grave’s hard, eternal earth, though it should be clear as we arrive at this final resting place that A Quiet Passion is as personal as anything in Davies’s career. Even a cursory knowledge of his life reveals the connection to Dickinson’s: his struggles with his sexuality, his trembling before the void, and the necessary—though always inadequate—consolation provided by his art. “You have your posterity,” Emily’s sister says to comfort her. “And you have your life,” she responds. Dickinson seems willing to trade all the glories of her poetry for a few hours of certain joy and one wonders if Davies, in his old age, might do the same. The world is richer for their abiding beauties, but in the face of mortality the afterlife of art is cold comfort for all their departed, unhappy days.