VIFF 2018: Fausto (Andrea Bussmann, 2018)


Sea shanty cinema: we might plot coordinates from Griffith’s one-reeler The Unchanging Sea through The Immortal Story and on to a constellation of Raul Ruiz works. In its purest form this a marauder’s cinema, possessed by a desire to horde half-heard tales and rum barrel laments (all that narrative jetsam that floats into port when sea dogs hit the shore) and cobble them into something resembling a coherent shape. Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto participates in a number of trends currently in vogue for the self-consciously modest festival film (a fetish for 16mm stock, self-reflexive exoticism, and what we might call neo-ethnography) but it distinguishes itself—initially, anyways—by seeming to revive this raconteur’s tradition. More movies that raid sailors’ bars for inspiration, please.

The odd thing, though, is that Bussmann maintains a cautious distance from the snatches of Oaxacan myth that she picks up in beachside booze shacks. The film leaves these stories unillustrated (deserted landscapes dominate the day and abstract, Costa-esque shadows rule the night) and unquestioned (aphorisms abound but lack insight or explication: “All animals are to a degree telepathic. They even retain their telepathic abilities when stuffed.” If you say so…). Animism at least operates as a key motif, though a mid-film trip to a natural history exhibit, stocked with a variety of taxidermied specimen, too neatly reveals Fausto’s hand: we are to understand that the local fauna have been poached for our amusement and ponder the ways in which the film’s narratology replicates this pilferage. In other words, Bussmann foregrounds her discomfort with her own project and its elected storytelling mode, which by its very nature borders on theft. This is a gesture of thoughtful self-critique by some standards, or a rusty escape hatch by mine. And so, Fausto offers us another soft-grained interrogation of a young filmmaker’s anthropological anxieties. We’re not exactly lacking for those. A more, well, Faustian bargain was in order: piracy is a dirty business, but not without its pleasures.

VIFF 2018 Preview: Grass, People’s Republic of Desire, Girls Always Happy, Microhabitat, Matangi/Maya/MIA


I’m actually already here in Vancouver, three excellent movies into my time at this year’s Film Festival. But as a kind of a preview, I want to highlight some of our previously published coverage of films that will be playing here over the next couple of weeks.

Hong Sangsoo is of course the headliner. His Grass, which premiered earlier this year, will be playing in the second week of the festival, after I leave town. Fortunately, Evan and I had a chance to see and talk about it earlier this year. Like The Day After and Hotel by the River (which isn’t playing VIFF but will be at the New York Film Festival this week), it’s a black and white film starring Kim Minhee. All three films are melancholy,  meditations on death and suicide informed by a Christian spirituality. I think Grass, the Purgatorio of Hong’s Divine Comedy, is the best of them.

Evan and I were split on the documentary People’s Republic of Desire when it played SIFF earlier this year. He found it too formally boring to really get anything out of its subject, the online celebrity culture of contemporary China, while I thought that was kind of the point, that despite the apparent newness of the world, all the old evils will reassert themselves.

Yang Mingming was the most adventurous of the several solid titles in SIFF’s Chinese film program this year, and I’m glad to see it pop up again here at VIFF. The director herself stars as a young woman with a hot and cold relationship with her mother (played by Nai An, who also stars here at VIFF in Ying Liang’s A Family Tour).  Yang “mixes tones cavalierly, one minute wrenching personal drama told in close-ups of anguished, sweaty, tear-stained faces, the next a jaunty scooter trip through Beijing’s warren of hutong alleys, the next those same alleys turned to the scene of unnamable, invisible dread. The result is a highly unstable film, lurching from lyricism to (self-)excoriation, coming dangerously close to resembling life itself.”

Also in VIFF’s Gateway stream is Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat, which I wrote about this summer when it played the New York Asian Film Festival. It’s a polished, warm film about a young woman who “chooses homelessness when price increases make sustaining her budget of cigarettes, whiskey and rent unsustainable. She couches surfs from one former college bandmate to another, all miserable in their own way while she remains pure, the only one of her peers not to compromise her independence and joy in life’s most basic consumptive pleasures.”

Finally, I was mixed on the documentary Matangi/Maya/MIA when it played at SIFF. Made up almost entirely of footage the star shot herself, long before she became famous or even., apparently had any idea of becoming a musician, it’s a fascinating look inside the mind of a creative person who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants to create. It kind of falls apart once she becomes famous, skipping from controversy to controversy, but I imagine that happens to all of us when we get old.