Hotel by the River (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Sean Gilman: You and I both saw Hotel by the River not long after it premiered late last summer at the Locarno Film Festival. But while in recent years we’ve found it difficult to stop talking and writing about Hong Sangsoo, as far as I know, neither of us has had much to say about this one. I mean, you once wrote a review of just the trailer for Yourself and Yours, I was crazy enough to watch, and write about, all of Hong’s movies in chronological order last year, and we’ve talked about him in every single episode of our podcast for the past two years. So what is it about Hotel by the River that we’ve gone six months without having anything to say about it, and why is it so hard, even now after rewatching it, for us to discuss it?

On its surface, it’s of a piece with Hong’s most recent films. It stars Kim Minhee and, like The Day After and Grass, it’s shot in an icy black and white. One of his winter films, it is also, like Grass, a movie haunted by death. An aged poet has been living in a hotel for the past two weeks. His sons come to visit him. Next door are a pair of women (sisters we assume but I don’t think it’s confirmed). The whole action takes place over about 24 hours. Everybody naps, a lot. All the Hong/Kim films, but one, have flaunted their narrative experiments: the short story construction of Grass with Kim as observer/writer; the temporal confusion of Claire’s Camera; the dreams and allusion to Hong and Kim’s own life in On the Beach at Night Alone; the duplications of Yourself and Yours; the mirror structure of Right Now, Wrong Then. The one that plays things basically straight is The Day After, which we also, at least initially, were somewhat underwhelmed by. That film grew on me in retrospect and with rewatching, as I found a precision in the filmmaking and earnestness in the performances that is often missing in Hong’s work.

But revisiting Hotel by the River, I remain as nonplussed as I was the first time. More than anything else, the movie is a mood, of loneliness, of regret, of resignation. It’s maybe the least funny movie he’s ever made. And I guess that’s probably it: it just doesn’t feel like my idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie. Despite the familiar character types and situations, conversations about love and failure, over-drinking and social awkwardness, it seems like something else entirely. This is the persistent danger of fandom, or auteurism, which is not the same thing but is in the same ballpark: our reaction to the film is intricately entwined with what we have come to believe about the filmmaker. And so when Hong Sangsoo makes a movie that doesn’t fit our idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie, we don’t know what to do with it.

Years from now, Hotel by the River could mark a step in an evolution of Hong’s work that we’ve come to recognize and understand. He’s had many different periods along the way, with certain films sticking out as transition points (Virgin Stripped Bare; Woman on the Beach; Right Now, Wrong Then), the effects of which are occasionally not felt until another two or three films down the line—Night and Day and Like You Know It All feel more like pre-Woman on the Beach films, with Woman pointing the way instead to the Jung Yumi movies (Oki’s MovieIn Another CountryOur Sunhi). Perhaps Hotel will improve when we’re able to see it in the broad context of the next phase in Hong’s career.

Grass and Hotel seem of a piece in that they present a more sober, austere Hong. One increasingly less concerned with the agony of finding love than with the dread of what comes after life. I had a theory about Grass that the characters in it were in a kind of purgatory, trapped in an in-between state after death. I’m tempted to read some kind of similar twist into the overtly simple narrative of Hotel, that Kim and her sister are (literally) angels, weeping over the folly of men; or that they are figments of the old man’s poetic imagination; or that he dreams them while they dream him; or something like that. I don’t know I can support this kind of wild speculation though. At least not as much as I can the time travel theory of Claire’s Camera. It just doesn’t seem complicated. It’s a cold film and I’m having trouble breaking through all the ice.

Evan Morgan: I’m glad you brought up the difficulty of writing about this film; I’m in the same boat. Words usually flow like so much soju when it comes to Hong, but this time around, my enthusiasms seem exhausted. You’ve hit on a number of possible explanations: the air of guilt and reproach that hangs over the film, which, though not alien to Hong’s world (the otherwise utopian Grass evinces an unnerving fixation on suicide, for example), refuses to abate, like a fog that won’t lift; the deadened comic sensibility, a key contributor to the oppressive tone; and the relative lack of narrative play. At the moment, it’s the last point that’s bugging me the most: I wonder if the fatigue I’m feeling is in fact attributable to a certain enervation on Hong’s part, an exhaustion with his current working method. For the first time since he abandoned pre-planned scripts and started writing his movies on the fly, I suspect that Hong conceived the final moments first and then worked backwards to lay the groundwork to get us there. That would account for the sorely missed spontaneity—so often a source of humor—and for the doomed tone. Do any other Hong films telegraph their final purpose like this does? Or, to put a finer point on it: Having a character state “I feel like I’m going to die” and then having the plot deliver on the premonition is beneath Hong, or so I thought.

But it’s little perverse to start here, at the ending, so let me backtrack a bit. Not long after the opening shot, which introduces Hotel’s handled camera and its correspondingly destabilized world, Younghwan, the poet at the film’s center, muses to himself that he’s “done something foolish again.” The nature of this foolish act is, I think, key to unlocking Hotel by the River’s meaning, if not its cold heart. Younghwan has made the mistake of allowing his two adult sons—played, pointedly, by Hong regulars Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang—to intrude on his (presumably) solitary existence, and their presence is a haunting as literal as your “angels of death” theory is figurative; these are not Nobody’s Sons. The old poet clearly deserves some blame for his offspring’s unfulfilled lives, and though Hong keeps Younghwan’s specific fatherly crimes cloaked in ambiguity, his ex-wife’s assessment of his character (“A total monster without any redeeming human value”) ought to give us some clues about life in his household. And so the hotel, which under other circumstances might promise a reunion and a reconstitution of the family unit—it’s named, not incidentally, after the German word for “home”—acts instead as an anteroom for one man’s sins, a kind of purgatory, to borrow your apt description. Though I might disagree with you in one respect: perhaps it’s not the dread of what comes after but the terror of living with what we’ve wrought in this life that is Hong’s recent obsession.

That would make Hotel less of an aberration in Hong’s career, I think, given his cinema’s myriad reckonings with male failure, though the focus on familial bonds, rather than romantic relationships, robs the film of a certain generative ambivalence. A son’s bond with his father is, it seems to me, necessarily more solidified than that same man’s relationship to a prospective lover. Hence the two women: they hang around the edge of the movie as if to promise the malleability, even the mystery, that we’ve come to expect from Hong’s cinema, but they’re so far removed from the drama that their effect on it can only be countenanced in metaphorical terms, as you imply. The ease with which one could boot Kim Minhee and Song Seonmi from Hotel and be left with more or less the same movie makes me dubious about their diegetic utility. Still, their presence provides the film with its single best image: when Hong drapes them in charcoal overcoats and frames them against a snowy landscape, it’s a genuinely painterly moment, all that frosty negative space suggesting untouched silk parchment, the dark figures of the women seeming to stand in for the spare strokes of an ink wash master—not a brush wasted. The severe beauty that Hong is seeking finds an expression there, if nowhere else.

Sean: It’s important that you highlight that image, it’s by far the best thing about the movie. In fact, I wonder if that idea, an old man overwhelmed by the beauty of two women clad in black surrounded by white, was Hong’s starting point for the film, rather than the ending. It’s certainly more hopeful than the ending, and more in keeping with Hong heroes of the past, men struck stupid by what the perceive as an all-powerful beauty, one that redefines, or at least makes irrelevant, all traditional ideas of fidelity. Repeatedly Hong’s men conflate beauty and morality, usually to comic effect. The poet does the same, I think, but Hong never really undercuts that belief. I guess it depends on how you read the poem he eventually writes, which he claims was inspired by the two women. I don’t think it particularly resembles them, but that too is nothing new for Hong–the idea of art failing to match the reality that inspired it. But like a lot of ideas that seem to float around the movie, I don’t think any of this ever really goes anywhere.

That’s probably what I find most frustrating about it: the decided lack of forward movement. As you say, the two women literally do nothing for the entire film–they sleep, they talk around whatever issue Kim is having (a breakup probably and a burn of some kind), they observe the men, they sleep again. Kim in Grass was in the observer role as well, but actively so, such that you could reasonably imagine her not just watching but creating all the little dramas around her. And those dramas progress, in the nature of short stories, little slices of life that, when combined together in the whole of the film, create myriad rhymes and resonances, all united by a mysterious central figure. There are a lot of rhymes in Hotel, between Kim and the poet (we can hear each of their thoughts, their stories begin with them alone in their rooms), and contrasts (the differences in their reaction to their guests bringing coffee), but they don’t really amount to anything. Why are these characters linked? What do they have in common aside from the fact that they’re characters in a Hong Sangsoo movie?

Writing all this out, I’m almost certain I’m taking the wrong approach to this film. I do think it’s Hong stretching himself out, trying something new. A movie unified not so much by cause and effect, or by the collision of infinite possible worlds, or even one driven by the basest cruelties of men and women in love, but simply, as I said earlier, by mood. It’s a movie about the feeling of being old, of being out of touch with youth, even the younger people who should, theoretically, be closest to you (your children). The feeling you get when you’re old and alone and miserable and you see two beautiful young people, glimpses of warmth and heat and vitality, and know that your world is now a much colder place.

Evan: I like the way you emphasize Younghwan’s response to the women, his genuine appreciation of their beauty in aesthetic rather than sexual terms. Is the poet exempt from the boorishness that typically afflicts Hong’s men? His rapture reads to me as honest, almost achingly so, rather than predatory or pathetic. And if that’s the case, does Hotel introduce the possibility of a new kind of happiness in Hong’s world, the contemplative repose of old age? Despite the pervasive loneliness and the untended wounds of family history, I do think the movie gestures in this direction, for a time anyways.

But really, there’s no escaping the predestined end. Hong doubles down on the entrapped atmosphere that we both sensed in Grass, nowhere more so than in Younghwan’s last poem, a bizarre tale that describes a secret society that raises a young gas station attendant in seclusion from the rest of the world. Although we both seem to prefer the moments where Hotel yearns for warmth and communion, I’ll admit to being sort of fascinated by this sequence, the premise of which is supremely Mabusian. Lang is not an obvious touchstone for Hong, but he is for me, and in some ways this scene has prompted me to measure Hong’s cruelties, which I find increasingly dull, against Lang’s, which are consistently exhilarating. The difference, I think, is where each locates pleasure: for Lang, the geometry of death, its axiomatic certainty, is itself a wondrous thing to behold. It will crush us, no doubt, but its movements produce a thrilling whir. Hong, on the other hand, seems not to enjoy the narrative and visual stratagems necessary to bring his work into confrontation with death. That is his prerogative, I suppose, but it means that whatever pleasure there is to be had in Hotel exists only in its detours from the terminal path, and not on it. That’s why so much of the film feels like a slog and the reason, I think, that Hong hesitates when depicting Younghwan’s demise, why he holds on the empty hallway outside the bedroom instead of bolting inside with the sons. The image is among the ugliest in his career and inarguably the most evasive. If Hotel is, finally, a trap, it’s one that springs only half-heartedly. Which is to say: all the pain, none of the thrill.

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Outer Limits: A Conversation on Claire Denis’s High Life

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EVAN MORGAN: Recently, I found myself thinking about Claire Denis and failure thanks to—what else?—a Film Twitter thread asking for cinematic recommendations on the subject. I offered up Bastards (2013) as a representative example, a film as enamored with ruin as any I know, but now having seen High Life, I’m thinking I may have spoken too soon. In the very least, I’ve been left wondering if Denis’s oeuvre isn’t uniquely crowded with contenders for this sad prize: Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001) for their bleak assessment of desire as something caught perpetually in the throat, White Material (2009) and No Fear, No Die (1990) for their entropic politics; even something like Let the Sunshine In (2017), despite that exhortative title, is mostly a series of frustrations, no one of which is a true catastrophe on the merits, but as they pile up over a lifetime, they manage to block forward progress nonetheless. I’d like to nominate High Life too, though for different reasons and, it must be said, with some reluctance: for the first time, I suspect that Denis has been defeated by her own material. Unable to bend it to her will, she’s left with a film that only fitfully achieves her idiosyncratic vision. I’m willing to grant that the results might prove productive upon further reflection, but only in the way that mutations are productive: the variations introduce as much waste as they do benefit. As a Claire Denis Project, I think we have to speak of High Life in terms of failure. To emphasize the film’s continuity with Denis’s other work, as most of its admirers have done, is to fall into an auteurist trap. The film’s signal virtue, it seems to me, is bound up in its failures: it ought to frustrate easy auteurist readings.

For one thing, High Life is significantly less elliptical than the descriptions I’m reading: there are no lacunae to rival the narrative and structural gaps of a L’intrus, for example, and an honest attempt to outline the film’s trajectory should produce a fairly straightforward summary. For another, I think the approach to the images here (and in Let the Sunshine In, to an extent) is different from the approach in her mid-2000s films; again, people seem to be describing memories of L’intrus (2004) or something when talking about the way this looks. In all fairness, I haven’t fully articulated to myself the precise distinction between this late style and her mid-career style, but I feel it and I haven’t seen anyone grapple with it in a sustained way. In his interview with Denis at Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman gestures at this, but doesn’t probe further:

She never forces her images, which are striking without exceeding their narrative function, nor does she get lost in an elliptical thicket à la L’intrus, which is probably her most unsettled film. In terms of content and implication, High Life is anything but easy, and yet its craft gives an impression of effortlessness, as if its various complex, interlocking elements simply floated into place, zero-gravity style.

LAWRENCE GARCIA: Thematically, there’s no question that the film is of a piece with the rest of Denis’s filmography: the story alone charts the dual human failures of society (death row inmates sent on a perverse experimental voyage) and technology (the mission to harness the rotational energy of a black hole). In his mammoth appraisal of her career, Darren Hughes delineates the critical meta-narrative surrounding her work, and astutely describes High Life as “classic speculative fiction in that all of the narrative mechanisms—cosmology, astrophysics, violence, reproduction, the ethics of crime and punishment—are interlocking pieces of an ontological/theological puzzle box.” Indeed, the cube-like shape of the prison-cum-spacecraft seems explicitly designed around that notion. But the “unsettled” quality that Nayman suggests of L’intrus is what seems to be missing from High Life. Whereas, say, Trouble Every Day fuses its various oppositions—horror and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, drives of sex and death—into an experience of visceral, brutal beauty, High Life comes across as more monomaniacal in both intention and effect; the extremity of its gestures feels beholden to an external design, so the film registers mainly as an authorial expression of worldview. The moment-to-moment rhythmic, tactile, and sensuous incitements that I’ve come to expect from Denis’s cinema are, if not entirely absent, then severely diminished. To put it even more simply, High Life is less confounding or bewildering than any film of hers I’ve seen before.

As you suggest, the narrative is fairly easily pieced together, and what ellipses are present seem to remove ambiguity rather than inject it, which renders much of the character/action strictly symbolic/conceptual. Ewan Mitchell’s glowering convict, for instance, is so stringently defined in terms of his sexual frustration that his actions take on a lugubrious sense of portent. One might lament his eventual demise—a result of his rape of a female inmate, expected from the moment he’s introduced—but only in the sense of youth wasted by an oppressive order. So overall, High Life does seem to present a marked formal difference, one that goes beyond a shift in genre and a different set of collaborators. But what’s to account for it?

EM: It’s easy to see thematic consistency from a 1000-foot view, so yes, I’m thinking primarily in terms of style, but also the way style ought to shift our understanding of the thematic interests. Bastards, as I’ve already implied, is the baseline from which I’m trying to track the deviations: it’s also digital, similarly mythic, equally in erotic thrall to death, but hyper-specific in a way that makes High Life seem free-floating, anonymous even. There’s nothing here that comes close to the stuff with Vincent Lindon’s shirt in Bastards, for example, which is perfectly designed to explicate his character and string together a number of otherwise disparate sequences. The conceptual rigor represented by that shirt has no corollary in High Life.

LG: Part of me wonders whether or not this overall lack is a direct result of production constraints. The imagery of speculative fiction and sci-fi is so freighted by genre iconography; by her own admission the long shadows of Tarkovsky and Kubrick were inescapable in this. So perhaps in evoking the bare minimum of engagement from the viewer (i.e. the belief that this is “a space movie”) and then attempting to put her individual stamp on the narrative trajectory, Denis wasn’t quite able to make the ground-level experience specific enough to really connect.

EM: I think it goes deeper than the production constraints: As was the case with Sunshine, she pokes fewer holes in the generic template than one might expect, which suggests either a greater fealty to the genre than I would have thought possible given her earlier films or a thin conception of the genre’s possibilities. But I’m also curious whether that’s a feature and not a bug: in more ways than one, the film is about the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the edges where her style breaks down, where intimate touch—both physical and cinematographic—is no longer possible, and so there’s a way in which the lack at the heart of the film is the text. Again, I think the auteurist reading that this is a self-evidently successful elaboration of her pet ideas and images, rather than an attempt to map out the points where they fail, seems flawed to me. Though in a way, I welcome High Life’s failures.

LG: That approach seems like the most compelling avenue for considering the film’s (mutated) success. Throughout the film, there’s an intense preoccupation with ritual: specifically, what occurs when one is removed or irrevocably cut off from it. Denis seems interested in the (im)possibility of continued existence apart from the human rites and observances that require deep codification—only possible across lengthy spans of time, which is precisely what the convicts don’t have—to truly take hold. This is, in part, the appeal of funeral ceremony, which consoles precisely because it places the individual at a kind of remove; the impersonal nature of its rituals and movements is part of its power. The sequence leading into the title card shot, then, during which Pattinson’s Monte disposes of the crew’s bodies, is an unequivocal rejection of that possibility—and the toll of its lack becomes increasingly evident. As we see throughout the film, there’s an attempt to build up a new set of ceremonial forms: Monte’s own diurnal rituals (in particular, the scene where he collects his hair); and, most obviously, his daughter Willow’s attempt to pray, mimicking some of the glitchy “transmissions” that the ship receives from Earth. But cut off from all else, these are bound to fail.

Along these lines, there’s a way to view High Life as an attempt to work through history—including film history—through such transmissions; to recapture a lost existence through glitchy snatches of it. Early on, Monte’s toddler daughter is faced with a pair of monitors: one showing Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), the other showing a surveillance video of Monte outside the ship. There are also seductive flashbacks to what feels very much like a previous life, as well as home-video footage of a child playing by the sea. There’s a sense that Denis is practically reconstructing her style within this black box, or at least probing its limits by removing certain tactile pleasures. (In this, it’s salient that the Earth scenes are shot in 16mm, the space scenes in digital, and the finale in 35mm.) So if there’s an overall feeling of lack, it stems from an attempt to, as you say, map out points of failure. It seems no coincidence that the film’s most compelling sequences are all departures from the main spacecraft location: the overhead shot of a train, which leads into the most bewildering, and thus engaging expository bit; and Mia Goth’s descent, all strobing lights and warped space-time. (Though I’d also like to mention the Beau Travail-like sequence of the inmates exercising on the craft, which reminded me of Jeremy Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy, specifically Liminals.) Still, I’m not sure that I can ever fully embrace a film that, however intentionally, sparks so little in-the-moment engagement.

EM: The earth scenes are crucial, especially given their texture: a means for the film to establish all that’s being left behind, as you suggest. And if the move to space is in fact an abandonment of tactility, then I think the film’s trajectory makes a strong case for jettisoning the received wisdom regarding Denis’s aesthetic proclivities and finding ways to start over. Though I sense that, at this point in her career, Denis is herself too conscious of the expectations that burden her work to begin anew, no matter the narrative’s invocation of a new Eden. I’m thinking, primarily, of the approach to sex, which she touches on in an interview at The A.V. Club:

A.V. Club: You see beauty in High Life? There’s horror in it, too.

Claire Denis: Yes, but also beauty. The horror is not in the rape scene. It’s in having to throw the crew into the void because they’re dead. This for me is the horror. I don’t think the sex scenes are horror, honestly.

I might expect her to say something like this about Trouble Every Day which, as you said earlier, more convincingly melds horror and beauty, but she’s simply failing to describe High Life’s effect here. Not her job to do so, perhaps, and she possesses the author’s absolute right to her own intentions. On the other hand, it’s not the critic’s job simply to parrot those expressed intentions when the images on screen induce a contrary experience in the viewer; Denis may conceive of the Binoche/Pattinson rape scene as throbbing with some kind of repressed pleasure, but given its narrative purpose and the chilly blue light that pervades it, it reads to me as clinical or, to borrow Nayman’s word, functional. When compared to Beatrice Dalle’s bite, Binoche’s touch is more or less gentle. So in a way I agree with Denis: the scene doesn’t register as horrifying, but that’s also why no real pleasure registers either, and therefore even less beauty.

If for Denis thanatos is a precondition of eros, and we accept that High Life fails to generate much that’s erotic, then I suspect that the problem lies with thanatos. Boundless, incorporeal voids aren’t capable of firing up the limbic system quite like an embodied threat; fear of a thing that touches and fear of a thing that fatally withholds touch are quite different beasts indeed. Which is why High Life only really palpitates when Binoche steps into the fuckbox and outer space is swapped for inner space. The sequence comes close to replicating the mise-en-scène of Trouble Every Day, with its dried blood palette and its very New French Extremity taste for shadow (Daniel Kasman rightly cited Philippe Grandrieux), and so it temporarily promises to revive the old Denis pleasures. But the film’s pessimism, its systematic denial of pleasure (contra Denis), is also located here: somatic experience in High Life is so degraded that a machine is necessary to arouse something, anything.

LG: In a 2015 interview, Denis pushed back on the general (critical) notion that her cinema is uniquely focused on the body: “I’m filming characters, you know?… I don’t see why I do more bodies than other directors.” In High Life at least, it’s more difficult to countenance that assessment, particularly given the film’s self-consciously horrific presentation of various bodily fluids (semen, blood, breast milk) and functions decoupled from the individual person; if anything, the film is defined by such demarcations of character/body. Trapped into self-evidently Sisyphean 24-hour-cycles of pointless activity, the inmates’s pursuit of touch becomes stripped of intimacy and eroticism and love: understandable, when faced with a yawning void—for after all, a thanatropic drive doesn’t indicate a fundamental desire for death, but a compulsion so overwhelming that it overrides one’s fear of it. That “systematic denial of pleasure,” as you put it, seems to be the crux of the matter: images and sensations pushed to a point where all that registers is numbing indifference. But on that note, I’d like to throw in Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017)—a film that itself owes a fair debt to Denis, specifically Beau Travail—as an oblique, but perhaps relevant point of comparison. The chief achievement of Grisebach’s feature is the precise distance she locates from the material: the film’s studied withholding of conventional pleasures and confounding of viewer expectations creates, well, its own kind of pleasure; in the process, the film renders ostensibly familiar territory alien and new. To my eyes, High Life doesn’t offer a similar substitute, though perhaps that’s also an indication that my appreciation of Denis’s films has always been of a narrower, though still enthusiastic sort.

As the film heads towards its finale, there’s a disorienting cut to a teenaged Willow crawling into bed with Monte—an ellipsis that recalled the thrilling moment-out-of-time transition of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018), another work concerned with a desire to continue living in the face of overwhelming odds. (The trajectory of High Life could be seen as a distorted fulfillment of Armin’s desire to bring a child into his post-apocalyptic earth.) For as long as it took for Willow to reach this point, Monte found a desire to live—though not for much longer, as the film’s conclusion sees father and daughter, that familiar unit of Denis’s cinema, now descending into a black hole. But it’s to High Life’s credit that despite its overwhelming pessimism up to that point, this scene still feels as much a leap of faith as it is an affirmation of nihilism: the blinding final shot fulfills, with terrifying clarity, Let the Sunshine In’s ambiguous closing exhortation to “be open.” If we have indeed reached the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the question now is: where will she go from here?

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.

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.