The Future//Present program at VIFF has quickly become one of the most dynamic and interesting streams the festival has to offer, adding to the festival’s longtime commitment to the cutting edge in Asian cinema an exploration of the burgeoning Canadian independent film scene, offering showcase opportunities to young filmmakers from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. This year’s program was even better than last year’s inaugural offering, and provided some of the festival’s most interesting, engaging and challenging films.
Last year’s program was lead by a feature and a trilogy of shorts from director Sofia Bohdanowicz, who returns this year with her documentary Maison du bonheur. Filmed on a Bolex over 30 days during a stay with a friend’s mother in Paris, the film is both the story of a woman and the way she does things (makes bread, gets her hair styled) and the story of a woman making a film about a woman she finds fascinating. While not as explicitly meta-cinematic as Never Eat Alone, Bohdanowicz continually leaves in her own attempts to erase herself from her movie (telling her subject how to answer questions when the questioner won’t be heard, or telling people not to look directly at the camera or acknowledge her presence), and at times simply can’t help but take it over, including snippets of her nightly audio journal entries, or taking a side trip to Deauville, the site of some unexplained unhappiness in her past, for which this trip, this film project, seems in some way designed to, if not exactly erase, then somehow compensate for: she wants new memories. It’s a warm, fascinating film from one of the best young filmmakers in the world today.
Fresh off of wide acclaim both at film festivals across North America (the New York Asian Film Festival, Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal as well as here at VIFF) and at home, where it was just edged out as Thailand’s submission to the Academy Awards (in favor of SIFF favorite (and veteran of last year’s VIFF) By the Time It Gets Dark, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s cheating scandal/heist film is one of the most enjoyable, smartest genre films of the year. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn, the eponymous Bad Genius, who allows her pretty, but dumb, friend Grace and Grace’s pretty, but dumb and super-rich, boyfriend Pat to convince her to help them cheat on tests at their high school, an exclusive (ie expensive) private school. Lynn lives modestly with her father, a divorced teacher, and only attends the school on what she believes is a full-ride scholarship. When she learns the school is still charging her father money he really can’t afford, she decides to stick it to the system by snagging as much money from her wealthy classmates as she can. Eventually she ropes in the school’s other star scholarship student, Bank, who’s as smart as Lynn but even poorer. Years of cheating eventually lead them to try to cheat the STIC, the standardized test given to students all around the world who hope to study abroad.
The whole film, and especially the cheating sequences, are hyper-kinetic, with camera movement and on-screen graphics bringing life to what is essentially a group of kids filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil (there’s even a killer chase sequence, in a film about test-taking!). But Nattawut also deftly delineates the economic landscape of the school, with the rich kids pressured by their families to succeed at all costs: their exploitation of the poor, smart kids is merely following the logic of their parents’ ideology. And the poor kids, recognizing how the system is rigged against them, are motivated to sell their labor to the highest bidder, regardless of the ethical consequences. The ultimate moral crisis in the film is not so much the cheating, everyone knows that’s “wrong” and everyone does it anyway. Rather it’s in the differing ways Lynn and Bank chose to act within a society in which everyone cheats. Bank, fully internalizing the demon logic of capitalism, is never content, he’s constantly out to squeeze another million baht out of his marks, always in need of a new grift. For Lynn though, ultimately, enough is enough. She alone has the imagination both to create the scheme to cheat the system, and to see a way out of it.
120 Beats per Minute, inexplicably changed to Beats per Minute or simply BPM for its English language title, at least so far, we’ll see when it gets a regular theatrical release, is a heist film built around a social problem, a social problem film structured around a series of heists, a film about politics that sees action as not only possible, but necessary for life in the face of inexplicable tragedy. It’s the story of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the early 90s, protesting the Mitterrand government’s silence about the AIDS crisis and pushing drug companies to speed up the release of new drugs that promised to greatly ameliorate the effects of the deadly disease. The film alternates between fascinating group discussions in which the activists argue about and plan various tactics (with shades of Ken Loach’s masterpiece The Wind that Shakes the Barley) with highly suspenseful recreations of their guerrilla demonstrations. One invasion of a drug company office, for example, is as fraught with suspense as any sequence in any film this year. Running through it all is the love story between a young HIV+ activist and a new, negative member (regardless of their status, all ACT UP members would claim to the public to be positive). Each movement is punctuated by a dance party, the youth of the world luxuriating in a space where they’re free to express their sexuality with the kind of joyous release that comes from spending most of your life confronting your own imminent mortality. The film is an effective counterpoint to all of the nihilism of Nocturama, where a later generation of revolutionaries lacks the imagination or will power to carve out a place for themselves outside the system, where their aimless act of resistance is easily swallowed up by the world they stand against. If there’s a more vital piece of popular cinema this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.