On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

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First, what On the Beach at Night Alone is not. And because Hong often, though not always, makes films in pairs that profit from their proximity, let’s take Yourself and Yours as the template from which to trace the variations. The newest of his new works is not a particularly labyrinthine construct. Yourself and Yours arguably employed Hong’s loopiest structure in some time, with no intradiegetic scaffolding—a la Hill of Freedom—to guide the narrative’s many double helixes and lacking the log-line neatness of Right Now, Wrong Then’s rewind to be kind backpedaling. Yes, On the Beach at Night Alone redeploys the bifurcation that defined Hong’s biggest hit, but it hardly counted as innovation when he used it there either; Hong has long displayed an affinity for warped mirror halves. And anyways, the chapters that split On the Beach at Night Alone in two are, if taken at face value, drawn more sharply on geographical and temporal lines than metaphysical or meta-fictional divisions (though more on that later).

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Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

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Kelly Reichardt’s films speak with a particular and rather outmoded cadence, a sort of clenched-jaw Western laconism. American movies and American culture writ large no longer appear interested in such restraint; heroic pauciloquy died with Gary Cooper, or something like that. Our present heroes—and orange skinned villains—fill the air with unceasing clamor, armed with the gift of gab and hair-trigger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se. A mythic America of tight-lipped fortitude probably never existed anyways, but it did form a national pop mythos as recently as a half century ago. As it fell out of vogue, cinema’s true believers largely retreated from multiplex screens and into the avant garde, though Clint Eastwood’s Sully was rightly hailed as a recent norm-deviating revival. Non-narrative cinema continues to offer modes of production and consumption amendable to restraint as an aesthetic and moral principle. The problem is that Peter Hutton’s or James Benning’s American landscapes probably aren’t coming to a theater near you (unless you live in Seattle, where the Northwest Film Forum is presenting a one-night-only, attendance-required selection of Hutton’s films next month). Their respective corpuses could not exist without the trail first blazed in Hollywood by someone like John Ford, himself an artist with a tendency to careen between laconism and good old Irish loquaciousness, but neither Hutton nor Benning possesses a conventional interest in storytelling that allowed Ford to thrive in a commercial industry. Enough with those pretty pictures, the people demand characters! Where is our Wyatt Earp? Where have all the strong, silent types gone? Kelly Reichardt knows.

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VIFF 2016: Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)

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In the span of just two features (I can’t speak for the shorts) Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has developed a truly indelible mise-en-scène. Architecture’s contour and form take center stage in front of Filho’s camera, his eye ever attuned to man’s geometric impositions on the world. Cavernous widescreen images locate everything within environmental context; it’s not enough to say that Filho’s characters are defined by the spaces they occupy. The spaces occupy them.

Filho’s dynamics of power concern primarily the dominance of hearth and home. In Neighboring Sounds, one familial clan holds sway over an entire city block, the ill-begotten gain of an unexplained original sin. There the family’s grip on their petty empire comes under attack from within by infiltrators lurking in the compound. Dona Clara, the materfamilias of Aquarius, is under siege from without. Greedy real estate developers have their eye on the eponymous apartment complex where she remains the last holdout. Clara’s life is housed in the walls of the Aquarius and Filho imbues every nook and every piece of furniture—including a particularly memorable dresser—with one woman’s personal history. Clara’s commitment to this place gets sketched out by Filho’s cartographic camera, but equal credit goes to the fire burning in Sonia Braga’s eyes. The legendary Brazilian actress almost seems to fight against Filho’s architectural sensibilities. Her hair alone is capable of commanding the screen, enveloping the widescreen frame in swaths of undulating black. It even demands its own chapter. Braga’s place in the mise-en-scène nurtures a productive friction between actor and director. But Filho occasionally opts for a smoother course elsewhere. To call Aquarius safe seems patently false: it caused some notable controversy in its home country after its premiere, though that’s possibly a result of the cast and crew’s public politics at Cannes more than the overt announcements of the film itself. But Filho doesn’t hide his aims either, and trying to cleave a wedge between the red carpet protest and what’s on screen is a fool’s errand. The struggle to control one old flat speaks volumes for Filho. If anything Aquarius‘s premise plays too neatly as metaphor—less, uh, termite, more white elephant. Not every film needs clandestine subtext, however, and Filho certainly isn’t the first auteur to use his second at-bat as a pretext for stylistic and thematic clarification, though I wonder if expansion rather than distillation might’ve made for a knottier movie. Still, methinks Filho has a masterpiece in him, so, thanks in large part to Braga’s ferocious performance, we’ll just have to settle for Aquarius being merely very good.

VIFF 2016: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)


A comedy of remarriage as only Hong Sang-soo could imagine it, Yourself and Yours rearranges the familiar building blocks of social anxiety, sex, and—most of all—soju to tell the story of one couple’s breakup and reunion. Or, given that this is Hong’s protean world, perhaps it’s not a reunion at all but a new couple, newly formed. Key to this Hongian puzzlebox is Minjung, a young woman with a well-known love of drink recently sworn off the sauce at the behest of her boyfriend. Rumors of soju recitivism split the couple up and Minjung encounters two different men who profess to know her from the past. Minjung, for her part, claims no memory of them, offering up a suspicious twin sister look-a-like story or blank stares in response. The exact nature of these  misidentifications forms the film’s core mystery. It’s certainly possible that Minjung’s penchant for drink has obliterated these men from her mind, though it’s equally plausible that the self is an infinitely branching set of traits, often repeated and therefore identifiable, but always shifting emphasis, shape, and order, so also essentially unstable. Sounds like Hong’s movies.

Unlike his other recent features, Yourself and Yours offers no structural blueprint at the outset. Hill of Freedom‘s jumbled letters explain that film’s disorganized narration and Right Now, Wrong Then‘s initial title card (the inverted Wrong Then, Right Now) clues the attentive Hong viewer into the game being played. The dissipated dreaminess that governs Nobody’s Daughter Haewon comes closest, but with a crucial difference: Minjung does not appear to be dreaming. None of the strange happenings emanate from her consciousness. If anything, the unblinking earnestness of actress You-Young Lee’s performance ensures that Minjung remains a fixed point, no matter the cognitive dissonance she inflicts on the men around her. She is a mystery to others but never to herself.

That self-assurance allows Minjung to act the Hongian sage, the one character with sufficient wisdom to proffer extra-filmic advice: “Knowing is not as important as we think.” Perhaps that’s the only explanation for this hall of mirrors, though if this is a Stanley Cavellian comedy, as the final moments suggest, it’s one that takes his idea of transformation literally: “I am changed before your eyes, different so to speak from myself, hence not different. To see this you will have to correspondingly suffer metamorphosis.” Is Minjung’s mutable personhood just a screwball game to win back her lover, to make him transform? He can’t deny his partner’s true self (I drink therefore I am) and expect to keep her. So she wins. Is her victory a consequence of drunken forgetfulness, a spatiotemporal rupture, farcical roleplay? The beauty of Hong’s cinema lies in never having to choose.

American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

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American Honey finds British filmmaker Andrea Arnold roughing it with the impoverished class of 21st century America, imagining life at the lower-rungs as a procession of scams and brutal poetry, strip malls and butterflies, and insisting with all of her not inconsiderable filmmaking power that this world and its inhabitants are worth taking seriously. Or, to summon up a different vision of American poverty: “Attention must be paid.” An admirable goal to be sure, but urgency and good intentions do not a movie make. Arnold bets the house on the compassion borne from her closely-hewn style, which locks into the perspective of Star, a young woman running from a broken home and towards her meager dreams, via a tight Academy ratio frame and shallow-focus close ups. This closeness ensures that no matter how flagrantly grating the behavior gets—and whoo-boy does it grate—our complicity with the events on screen remains intact. It’s shorthand for empathy; a stylistic shortcut particularly common to the aesthetic Arnold adopts, which she employs unceasingly over the film’s extended running time. Realism shouts and spits in your face, apparently. And with so many moments constructed to put the audience in a confrontational position (either step up or step out), it’s worth asking: when does a repeated plea for empathy become a form of condescension? Tell us over and over again that these caricatures are worth taking seriously as people and I might wonder if you yourself have some doubts.

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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.

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.

VIFF 2016: The Intestine (Lev Lewis, 2016)

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Dark digital grain and hard lines of white light divide Lev Lewis’s The Intestine in two, separating the poor from the economically ascendant, the city from the suburb, night from day. But make no mistake, though these contrasts form roughly equal parts of the film’s ungainly shape, Lewis’s debut is haunted by the shadowier half; the ethos of night rules all things, even when the sun streams in through the windows.

Lewis’s heroine Maya, a twenty-something reject of late capitalism, steps out from her dingy surroundings one night and awakens the next day in an abandoned modernist money-pit somewhere in the ‘burbs. The cut that bridges the space between Maya’s evening on the town and her sudden emergence amidst bright bourgeois sterility suggests, initially, a particularly bewildering morning-after and nothing more. But things progress into stranger territory as Lewis conjures up some dreamy images—a refrigerator stocked solely with a boar’s head stands out, both for its strangeness and as a barb pointed at the foodie pretensions of the 21st century’s finer-living set. The hard-lit morning-after starts to look like a portal to another reality, a rabbit hole which unearths the phantasmagoric pleasures of the moneyed class. It’s no wonder that Maya grows increasingly unwilling to vacate her new digs.

This shapeshifting debut insists—a bit precociously—on inscrutability, but what finally emerges is a vision of contemporary young adulthood as life lived in envy of other people’s spaces. Eventually unemployed but always unradicalized, a single brush with prosperity is enough to spark Maya’s exurban aspirations (“I can’t go back to my apartment”). Maya finally makes the place her own, but as she sits on her bed repeating her name through the phone to a listener who cannot hear it, she appears to be drifting back towards the void. The light is fading, and a gleaming new home can only ward off the darkness for so long.

VIFF 2016: Beautiful 2016 (Hideo Nakata; Alec Su; Stanley Kwan; Jia Zhangke, 2016)

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There are always one or two duds in these omnibus things, so let’s get those out of the way. Beautiful 2016’s first short is an embarrassing Ozu homage that repurposes his hometown (Kamakura) and his one-time actress (Kyoko Kagawa), though if you’re going to steal from the master, at least do us the favor of making off with some of his good humor. A dull banality best left forgotten. Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue is quite possibly already forgotten. An indistinct void focused on a spritely, well-coiffed older woman jazzercising her way through Shangahi, Alec Su’s debut short is mercifully, well, short.

A real sense of artistry kicks in with One Day in Our Lives of…Director Stanley Kwan crafts some lovely images of nocturnal Hong Kong, his sense of texture undiminished even after a decade or so out in the wilderness. Distorted Wongian clocks, vertiginous tilts, and a weirdly haunting pop song provide the primary pleasures, though the Day for Night behind-the-scenes antics feel a bit stale. Kwan, once an inheritor of Hong Kong’s art-film tradition, seems to have lost opportunities as the industry shifted production modes this century, though it’s perhaps equally plausible that Kwan’s open life as a gay man curtailed his early promise. Whatever the case, One Day in Our Lives of… should prod those who’ve ignored Kwan for a decade or more (guilty as charged!) to give films like Everlasting Regret a belated look.

Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, is at the apex of his career. He comes swinging into Beautiful 2016—and I do mean swinging—with the swagger of a filmmaker who recognizes his own mid-career mastery. That self-knowledge is not, however, a straight-jacket for Jia. If anything, he’s discovered a more elastic vision of himself as an artist, willing to let in a kind of looseness that he kept at bay with the more static, calling-card early films. Last year’s Mountains May Depart proved that definitively, so it’s not coincidental that The Hedonists begins with a snatch of melancholic score from the prior feature. The presence of Jing Dong Liang as Liangzi, the poor miner destined for destruction in Mountains May Depart, also reiterates that we’re in a pre-established world. But without wasting time, Jia reconfigures the melodrama of his 2015 masterpiece into a buddy comedy. The transition plays subtly at first, until an uproarious cameo from the director himself, equipped with cigar and sunglasses and shouty bravado, brings down the house. Jia’s sense of play extends to the camera too, which he mounts on a newly acquired drone. Given that Jia helped reorient the Chinese film industry around digital technology, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he employs the newest tech better than just about anyone else. But when a standard tracking shot suddenly achieves lift off and ascends to the heavens, a genuine sense of wonder sets in. At this point in Jia’s career, you can only marvel at the corporeal and artistic weightlessness.

VIFF 2016: The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2016)

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The architecture of the thriller suits the Dardennes more comfortably than it might first appear. In spite of their naturalism, the Belgian brothers construct intricate scaffolding for their films to rival many of their more outwardly formalist peers, and The Unknown Girl is perhaps more open about the structural blueprint than anything they’ve produced recently. A generic—in every sense of the word—tale of bad conscience gets the trademark handheld treatment in the dreary world of Liège, but it could just as well emerge from the wet streets of a 40s noir.

Guilt comes knocking, as it must, at the door of Dr. Jenny Davin. An unidentified African girl running from something sinister pleads entry into the safety of Davin’s clinic, though the young doctor is too busy lecturing her intern on the finer points of the profession to bother with the noise down the hall. The girl’s body is found nearby, and distraught at the consequences of her indifference, Davin hits the detective beat, searching for the girl’s name in an effort to offer her a modicum of dignity in death that the final moments of her life denied. Ratiocination unveils a web of guilt ensnaring everything in the doctor’s orbit, as if all of Liège harbors some complicity in this original sin, which, given the ethnic lines that divide here, suggests a reckoning with Belgium’s colonial past and present woes, though the capital ‘C’ Catholic Dardennes make it clear that no one escapes the fearful symmetry of guilt’s trap.

Trapped, certainly, but not unmovable. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may be clandestine formalists, but they’re also heart-on-the-sleeve humanists. The maze-like geometry of The Unknown Girl points towards noirish cynicism only to refute it. An embrace—with responsibility, with other people—is enough to open up a way out.