VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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How do we count the age of ghosts? That question, posed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s most recent short, is given a kind of answer in his newest feature, Asako I & II. Baku, the first of two Masahiro Higashide paramours, is not a phantom—at least not literally—when, after a heartbreaking departure early in the film, he makes a fated return; his reappearance subjects our eponymous heroine to a haunting nevertheless. Years of uncertain domestic contentment with Ryohei, the second Higashide steady, foretell a dangerous encounter with a lost lover. But more than a reignited old flame, it is the specter of youth that possesses Asako. The ghosts age only as much as you do.

That a reemergent lover confronts us with an earlier, not-quite-forgotten life is, in the realm of romantic comedies, a known insight. And Asako I & II, if it does nothing else well, plays the genre songbook with symphonic grace. Hamaguchi makes for a surprising conductor, though, at least if you take the tack favored by some Happy Hour partisans and read that earlier work as a Rivettian exercise in durational dramaturgy. If, like me, you see in Hamaguchi’s last film a classical woman’s picture played at half-time, his reinvention as pop impresario makes significantly more sense. This is a filmmaker devoted, without shame, to the most cliched beats offered by his scenario. As evidence, look no further than the initial meet-cute: honest-to-goodness sparks fly.

To dwell on the ways in which Asako I & II resembles run-of-the-mill manga (and there are many) is, however, to belie the rigor that Hamaguchi brings to bear, and the film resonates only because of the dissonances that arise from playing the script’s pop rhythms against the direction, which is sharp and socially specific. Mise-en-scène is inextricable from milieu: bourgie young Tokyoites live in a world of Muji-approved wood tones and cramped, but not tiny, apartments, and Hamaguchi’s visual schema responds in kind. I’m not sure that these environs count as anyone’s idea of paradise—heaven is still far away—but it takes a certain personal (and financial) stability to live the way Asako I & II looks, which makes those moments when the style suddenly breaks, either to indulge in romantic reverie, or, as happens more frequently in the second part of the film, during Baku’s extended disappearance, to embrace the outside world, all the more vertiginous. The guarded equilibriums of one’s late twenties are not yet immune to youth’s wobbly passions or, as the presence of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake suggests, safe from the infinite vagaries of chance and circumstance.

But instability is the wellspring of transformation, and it’s precisely Asako’s inconstancy that enables her final metamorphosis. When at last Baku reaches out his hand and beckons, he whisks Asako away from both dinner and domesticity, and yet he cannot pull her back in time. Face to face with her phantom desire, Asako no longer recognizes the youthful spirit conjured in it (“I will always return,” though a sweetheart’s vow, is also a ghost’s threat). A little housekeeping is necessary, following this aftershock, to put a new life in order. Luckily, an unlocked door awaits Asako. As does the promise held out by the English-language title, which, though awkward and surely hellish for prospective marketers, is, in its clumsy way, quite wise: We are our own sequels.

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VIFF 2018: Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, 2018)

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No one risks obsolescence quite like Olivier Assayas. Non-Fiction, née E-Book, finds him asking almost embarrassingly au courant questions about media consumption in the second decade of the 21st century: Is the written word dematerializing? Are tablets the new market leader? And who reads anymore, anyways? Pieces fretting over these issues likely pad your local Review of Books on the regular, and for a monthly publication, that’s to be expected: staying current is their currency. To craft a movie around such modish literary solipsism, on the other hand, is to flirt with, if not outright embrace, accelerated irrelevance; since the time pen hit paper for this review, the world has probably left Non-Fiction behind.

And Olivier Assayas is ok with that. The defining feature of his work, at least as far back as Irma Vep, and possibly before that, is a rare capacity for incarnating the spirit of sleek, globalized modernity—so corporate, and therefore resistant to corporeality—in specific places and people. Here it’s a cadre of bourgeois literary types: publishers, writers, journalists, the kind of people who casually recite poetry from memory or wring their hands over declining e-reader revenues. The comic roundelay that Assayas whips up for them is his generic response to the milieu: just as Anonymous Shinjuku Hotel, 2002 summons a thriller in the form of demonlover, these bed-hopping French intellectuals, with their book-lined homes and their seemingly inexhaustible fleet of iProducts, demand a mid-budget Juliette Binoche movie. Assayas obliges.

This fundamentally deliquescent approach to cinema (ambient particles are absorbed from the surrounding atmosphere and allowed to dissolve preconceived structures at willsomething in the air?) exposes Assayas’s films to accusations of vapidity and faddishness, two demerits that Non-Fiction proudly flaunts. And to those Assayas adds a third: the vulgarity of auto-fiction, which, as the title suggests, shapes the film’s relationship with reality. Assayas mines his own life for the first time since Après mai, though his proximity to the events on screen has changed: unlike his youth films, Assayas maintains very little distance, temporal or otherwise, from the digestif debates and barbed audience Q&As that make up the bulk of Non-Fiction.

The narrow space between art and life at times suggests an Assayas variation on a Mia Hansen-Løve joint, though he lacks his former partner’s ability to supercharge everyday banalities with supple emotional texture. His work has always relied more on coups de cinema to do the heavy lifting (think Cold Water’s extended party scene, or the spontaneous combustion that concludes Irma Vep, or the sudden vaporization of Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria) and he arguably miscalculates by shearing Non-Fiction of any such sequences. The first shot—an unremarkable office door, an abrupt entrance, and the opening volley of the film’s endless, extempore gabbing—is more or less what the film has to offer. The more generous critics among us might point out that by so resolutely avoiding go-for-broke moments Assayas is, in fact, performing a high-wire cinematic act: just how long can he walk the tightrope with these navel gazers and their insufferable palaver? But the visual and emotional flatness, no matter how rigorously conceived, opens up avenues for less charitable criticism—and the film’s detractors will, in all likelihood, have a point. Assayas overestimates his facility with Non-Fiction’s bedroom farce antics, or, in the very least, he’s selected a less than ideal host to act as a carrier for his pet concerns; liquid modernity doesn’t flow naturally through most dinner party conversations. Though perhaps that’s why the final moments bring us into contact with a more essential, more ancient human experience, and abandon contemporaneity in favor of a durable truth that lies beneath all these couplings and decouplings, beyond modern capital’s distortion effects, and, possibly, at the heart Assayas’s shapeshifting art. To quote a print-to-digital transition specialist quoting Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”

VIFF 2018: The Load (Ognjen Glavonić, 2018)

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Gunfire crackles beyond the horizon, the relationship between sound and image established at the outset: death will be heard, not seen. The Load envisions the Bosnian War as an on-the-ground abstraction, where violence is an echo, bombing raids hide behind a scrim of gray sky, and bodies are invisible. After delivering his cargo to its terminal destination, Vlada, our hangdog Odysseus, returns home to tell his son a story about a different war, “A real war, not this video game war,” as if in knowing response to the world Ognjen Glavonić crafts around him. The profondo foley track and the ashen palette make for art direction à la Call of Duty, an effect amplified by Glavonić’s three dimensional mise-en-scène. More than once the camera suddenly detours from the main road to track a peripheral character, suggesting explorable spaces beyond the confines of the truck’s cabin (and the film’s central narrative). These are, presumably, the same spaces occupied by those not-so-far off NATO bombs and the fly-ridden freight that Vlada hauls behind him, but which he never sees. Physical and moral dangers are intruding on Vlada’s craven sense of simulation—no matter how distant those explosions, this is not a video game war—and it is a slow refusal of alienation that emerges as Vlada’s eventual cause.

It’s Glavonić’s too: he’s obviously a filmmaker of considerable ethical and aesthetic intelligence, and The Load is nothing if not carefully constructed. Like the unobserved violence booming behind the hill, Glavonić keeps his anger at the periphery, as if to call it forth through deemphasis. Absence, of one kind or another, is both subject and structure. But The Load can get only so far by discreetly substituting, say, a full-frame image of decayed sheet metal for the scarred corpses that it so clearly connotes. Which is another way of saying that The Load is smarter than any number of like exercises in European historical reckoning, which are frequently eager to play circus showman to the continent’s worst atrocities, but also too smart by half. Glavonić’s abstractions expose him to the same alienation that he condemns, even if the closing moments tacitly acknowledge his film’s limitations: Vlada’s belated act of resistance is to photograph not the bodies that he transported—long since dumped into an anonymous construction pit—but the empty truck bed. To what end? The tangible consequences of war remain undocumented in visual terms, and yet the echoes keep thrumming in the distance, like a ringing in the ears that never quite fades away.

VIFF 2018: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Shorts

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“I found myself taking photos of things people left behind.” It sure is nice to be back in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s world of forgotten things. Maison du bonheur, her most recent feature, was, for me, the highlight of last year’s festival (on some days I feel like I’m still basking in its sun-kissed warmth) and this year we’ve been gifted no less than four new works. They’re shorts this time out, but as Bohdanowicz demonstrated with A Prayer, An Evening, and Another Prayer (her triplicate reckoning with a grandmother’s death and that grandmother’s many, multiform absences) she’s a master of the format. She knows precisely how to compress the expansive generosity and inquisitiveness of her cinema into a matter of minutes.

Veslemøy’s Song, the longest and most substantial of the shorts, is another Bohdanowicz excavation project. Like her first feature, Never Eat Alone, a dusted-off object prompts an inquiry into unremembered histories both personal and artistic. Here it’s a song dedicated to Kathleen Parlow, a music instructor who taught Bohdanowicz’s violinist grandfather his craft and a woman of some note during her time, now long since forgotten. The sole recording of the song resides in a basement of the New York Public Library system and is available only by appointment. Deragh Campbell, once again standing in for Bohdanowicz, hops on a plane to pay witness. But upon arriving, her efforts are frustrated by a form of institutional preservationism heretofore alien to Bohdanowicz’s cinema, despite the filmmaker’s own archivist instincts. A faceless technician, located six floors below, spins the warped old disk. Campbell hears nothing more than a 30 second snippet piped in through a computer, and the off-screen archivist, via a chat window, bureaucratically denies her requests for a more complete experience.

Bohdanowicz’s earlier films were, quite literally, home movies, and as such they benefitted from her subjects’ hospitality and their open-door policies. Institutional actors, even or especially those who share Bohdanowicz’s archaeological mission, are as accommodating as procedures allow and no more. As if in response to this frosty welcome, graphite tones replace Maison du bonheur‘s impressionist daubs of color and, with one particularly sepulchral close-up, the film takes on an almost Dreyerian spareness. Not every host—and not every film—greets you with open arms. Veslemøy’s Song serves to acknowledge the challenges that face Bohdanowicz’s project as it expands outward from her family unit. Nothing to despair about, and certainly not for an artist as intuitive as Bohdanowicz. Still, muted disappointment is the right final note: “Afterwards I ate an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat. It wasn’t very good.”

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Technology and personal history intersect again in Where, Bohdanowicz‘s bad romance as recounted by Google street view. Mapping software introduces uncanny digital movement to Bohdanowicz’s world and, by its very nature, erects a spatial and emotional distance between the film and its subject. Given the interpersonal cruelty described by the intertitles—the only form of narration here—the film’s remove from physical space registers as a kind of therapy, a means to inspect an old wound without touching it.

A physical, if faked, wound plays a central role in Roy Thomson. Bohdanowicz revisits the symphony hall where she once saw her grandfather play the violin and relates how, frustrated by his unwillingness to wave to her mid-performance, she patched together a false arm bandage to garner his attention. Seeing his granddaughter hurt, he waved back. As in Where, Bohdanowicz transforms still images through scratchy, sepia-toned 16mm—apparently processed with natural chemicals derived from flowers. The effect is, appropriately, like stumbling on some moldy, time-eaten artifact and holding it close to admire the beauty of its deformations. In other words, a memory.

The Soft Space is the outlier of the bunch: close-ups of a woman’s naked torso alternate with the adamantine geometry of the New York City subway system. The contrasting visual and aural textures are approached with an admirable lack of prejudice—pliable flesh and the hard metal girding of the MTA are equally appealing under Bohdanowicz’s eye—but fail to suffuse the film with anything like the personal charge that’s present in her other works. This might be Anywoman, Anycity. Still, every young filmmaker ought to be afforded the chance to strike out and claim new spaces, to test the boundaries of her world, and as Sofia Bohdanowicz moves farther from home, she paradoxically invites more of us in.

VIFF 2018: Fausto (Andrea Bussmann, 2018)

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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.

SIFF 2018: ★ (Johann Lurf, 2017)

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Science fiction with the boring bits left out. Johann Lurf reconstructs the universe by stripping Hollywood product of the generic narratives that propel mass consumption filmmaking to the heavens in order to focus on the stars themselves. In other words, a montage of voids: only moments of emptiness, of white specks against infinite dark remain. Though an avant-gardist himself, Lurf seems sincere in his desire to engage with popular cinema; he surely could have scrounged up a few more images from the likes of Jordan Belson or Stan Brakhage to include here, but he largely restricts himself to the kinds of movies that draw a crowd—or at least were intended to. He somehow mines wonder from Howard the Duck, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The trajectory from Man Ray to Marvel suggests a real traversal of aesthetic boundaries, and not just of cinematic time, and the final effect of seeing so much discarded matter bent, almost accidentally, into something beautiful is a little like watching light escape a black hole: the rational mind says it shouldn’t work, but it sure is a sight to behold.

SIFF 2018: Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis, 2017)

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Cinema’s seer of texture and touch swaps the pleasures of the eye for the vagaries of spoken language. Denis applies her halting, fragmentary style not to the images—which are atypically steady and clear—but to the words. Un beau soleil intérieur understands how people talk in fits and starts, how romantic (comedy) conversations slip into ellipses; it’s the gaps that matter. So, a Claire Denis film. Still, there’s a sense of perhaps too much light let in, of the genre bending Denis to its will, and not the other way around.

SIFF 2018: First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)

First Reformed possesses a gravestone’s beauty: cold and white like marble, angular, terminal. Paul Schrader learned his art in the pews; he relishes mounting the pulpit with his camera. And for better or worse, sermons don’t come much more sulphuric than this. Damnation is as American as apple pie (“it’s organic and local”). Hawke devoutly incorporates this chronicle of darkest hours, and Schrader remains, as ever, trapped in the garden.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.

I Was Born, But: Nobuhiko Obayashi and Japan’s Lost Children

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Nobuhiko Obayashi is most famous in this country for a film about a house that eats the young.

In Japan, Obayashi is known for his films that celebrate the laze and haze and promise of youth in its natural season, summer. These are his furusato—or hometown—movies, as he calls them: films conceived in close consultation with their locales, suffused with the particular light of a place or its singular air, where the action is as much determined by the ungainly curve of an ancient street as it is by the generic demands of the youth film. Familiar adolescent conflicts are there, and occasionally inflected with a touch of the supernatural—as in his great body swap comedy Exchange Students—but they are always enveloped and nurtured by the real communities in which these young people live. Summer is, then, Obayashi’s natural season too: when the heat ticks up childhood spills out into the streets, all the better for detailing the public spaces where communities educate their children through performance, ritual, and, importantly for Obayashi, festivals. In His Motorbike, Her Island a young man falls in love on summer vacation, with an island first, a young woman second. When she takes him home, the joyous dancing at a local festival puzzles him. Isn’t this festival to honor the dead? Yes, she tells him. They dance for the people who were born, lived, and died on this island.

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