The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.
The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.
The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?
The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.
It’s been a bad year for movies of course, and an even worse one for superhero movies. The genre that has come to dominate the Hollywood blockbuster market, devouring its competitors like Orson Welles’s planet-devouring Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, or like his equally grotesque chili-devouring Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, has spent most of the year in frozen hibernation, waiting out the plague-induced shut-down of the nation’s multiplexes. But here at the tail-end of 2020, we have a Christmas miracle of sorts: Warners, in an apparent bid to burn down its theatrical arm in order to boost the subscription rate of its nascent streaming platform, and thus inflate the corporation’s stock value in the eyes of investors blinded by shiny things, is releasing its follow-up to 2017’s warmly-received Wonder Woman straight to HBO Max. At the same time, Sony has rolled out a hybrid theatrical/VOD release for its much-delayed adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game*, directed by the equally lauded and reviled Paul WS Anderson. Taken together, the two provide a convenient contrast of the different strains in the superhero genre: the white elephants of the MCU, Star Wars, and DC versus the termitic team of Anderson and his star/wife Milla Jovovich.
Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a solid entry in the MCU/DC wars, a reasonably deft origin-story movie that was helped enormously by the charm and absurd beauty of its two stars, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. The sequel picks up 65 years later, with Diana Prince now working in the Smithsonian and Steve Trevor long dead. Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal show up, along with a magic rock that grants wishes. Everyone makes a wish: Wiig for Diana’s powers, which turn her into the amoral crazy cat lady Cheetah; Diana for Steve to come back, which he does in some guy’s body (Diana alone sees him as Pine); Pascal to become the stone himself, which gives him the power to grant everyone’s wishes, but also maybe drives him crazy and makes him bleed out of his nose, ears and eyes, for some reason. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, as the characters explain to us, several times, stretched out for an unconscionable two and a half hours. The film has only a few action sequences, including a prologue that feels like an afterthought, like a studio note to include a scene back in the land of the Amazons, and a chase down a desert highway that neatly encapsulates the film’s wrong-headed approach to both action and color.
It’s baffling that a film set in the 1980s, fueled as they were by cocaine and Day-Glo synthetics, should take as its dominant tone the color beige. Color and shadow are drained out of nearly every scene leaving a bland, flat wasteland of boring dialogue and little emotion (though Pascal does his best to chew up all the scenery left untouched by Gadot, who never appears to be occupying the same space as the other actors). Clearly this color-scheme is intentional: a labored and unfunny montage of Pine in different 80s outfits ends in him dressed in light earth tones, while Pascal has his hair dyed dirty blonde and wears a beige suit throughout. It’s like going to the beach and staring at the sand. The highway chase, set in a Middle Eastern desert (maybe simply to remind people of Gadot’s IDF past?) is so monochrome it makes the dishwater gray finale of Endgame look vibrant. But even worse is the action itself, which feels absolutely weightless and frictionless: the stunts don’t thrill because nothing tangible actually touches anything else. Diana runs around, over, and through things with no substance, her lasso expands to whatever length the effect requires, a gold line on a computer screen, at one point contracting around a lightning bolt, the impossible physics of which would be cool if it didn’t so well epitomize the flashy nothingness of the movie’s stunts. It’s just all so boring.
And then there’s the film’s subtext, which at the end of this dreadful year of politics is hard to read as anything other than liberal left-punching. Wonder Woman 1984 is about abandoning hope, about the dangers of wishing for things to be better than the way they are. Charitably, it could be read as a paean to Obamaist pragmatism, that there are no shortcuts in life and that change takes hard work which manifests itself in facing hard truths and choosing to do very little about them. It’s hard to make a superhero fantasy movie about how better things aren’t possible, so I guess this is some kind of an accomplishment (and maybe in more subversive hands this idea would in some way connect to the year chosen for the film’s title: the story of a liberal totalitarianism in which the illusion of freedom is granted in exchange for the elimination of imagination). In a way, I kind of admire the perversity of making an 80s throwback movie without using any 80s music and the audacity of making a superhero movie that only Amy Klobuchar could love.
Monster Hunter, on the other hand, has very little in the way of political subtext outside of a vague ideal of people from different worlds uniting together to, well, hunt monsters. Milla Jovovich leads a team of Army Rangers on a search and rescue mission for some other lost soldiers in a desert specified only by longitude and latitude (PWSA does love his maps) but filmed in South Africa. They get lost in a weird sand and lightning storm and end up transported to some new world filled with giant monsters, which attack them almost immediately and eventually wipe-out everyone but Milla. She’s rescued/captured by Tony Jaa, apparently a native of this world, and the two work together to get past the giant beasts blocking their way to a mysterious tower that might send Milla home and unite Tony with his friends and family.
Like all of Anderson’s work, Monster Hunter is neatly structured and rife with cinematic homages. The opening scenes of army-bonding could come out of any war movie made over the past 70 years, gentle ribbing and gun-loading meant to establish character and camaraderie in anticipation of the loss of life to come. It’s here that the corniness of PWSA’s dialogue really shines, though for once his terrible sense of humor has had real consequences as one of his lame puns was taken as a racist insult by seemingly the entire nation of China, killing the film’s box office in that country and, as a result, probably any hope of a sequel in what could have been a promising franchise (the offending joke has been cut from the movie and was not in the screener I watched). The genericness of this opening is, for PWSA fans, part of its charm: he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood today who really believes in the power of cliche. It’s what makes his films feel so refreshing: not a hint of hypocrisy in PWSA’s pumpkin patch, nor cynicism nor smirking contempt for his subject or audience.
The army scenes are followed by a terrifying underground sequence (another PWSA hallmark: he’s suggested that his fear of/attraction to confined spaces has something to do with his youth in coal-mining country) that recalls Aliens at its best. Then the movie settles down for a long middle section that reminded me of nothing less than a remake of John Boorman’s great 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, but with Jovovich and Jaa in the Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune roles. The two start out as enemies, capturing and recapturing each other between fist fights, before finally deciding to work together toward their common goal, which, true to the source material, involves killing one monster to get parts to make a weapon to kill another, bigger monster.
It’s all a great deal of fun, and despite the artificiality of it all (the monsters are of course computer-generated) the action always looks coherent and real. Jovovich and Jaa are both marvelous physical actors and they have an uncanny ability to make the audience feel every kick, punch, stab, and tail-swipe, whether it comes from stunt performers or pixels. Anderson has long been noted for the coherence of his action scenes, a skill he has not lost as he and his editor Doobie White have adopted a faster-cutting aesthetic, which began with their last film, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It’s important to note that Anderson’s use of quick cuts is wholly different from what I’ll call the R. Scott/Greengrass/Nolan school of editing, which uses speed and shakiness to cover up deficiencies in performers, choreographers, and computers, using chaos to convey a dizziness that’s somewhat akin to the experience of watching action on film. Anderson though is working from what I’ll call the Ching Siu-tung tradition, which uses quick editing for that vertiginous effect while also staying spatially coherent and thus additionally providing the vicarious thrill of a performed stunt (physical or virtual or some combination thereof). When done well, as in Ching’s Swordsman movies, Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Neveldine/Taylor’s 2000s romps (where Doobie White got his start as an editor), and PWSA’s recent films, quick-cut action can be just as thrilling as the master-shot aesthetic of more athletically gifted directors and performers.
As the superhero film has taken over American blockbuster cinema, there’s been a lot of speculation over where this cycle fits with generic cycles of the past, for example the Westerns, musicals and noirs of the late studio era. The question is: are there superhero films that can be made in contrast to the dominant mode of the genre, thus revealing the personality of the person making them? In other words, where are the auteurist superhero films? Is it even possible, given the extent to which the monopolist conglomerates that produce them product-test and focus-group and micromanage their material, for a filmmaker to make the equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, or John Ford’s Wagon Master or Two Rode Together, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or, to bring us full circle, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? I think Anderson’s work is the clearest example that such a thing is possible. Monster Hunter should be, I think, like the Resident Evil series before it, considered a part of the same sci-fi/fantasy genre as Wonder Woman, the MCU films and Disney’s Star Wars films. And in addition to its palpable strengths in production and execution, it certainly reveals the personality of its director in a way none of the elephantine superhero pictures do, embracing the structures and conceits of the genre while tuning them to his own idiosyncratic interests (maps, caves, helping Milla Jovovich look really cool, etc). Years ago, I wrote about Anderson and concluded that he was Lightly Likable, the George Sidney or Busby Berkeley of his time. Since then he’s made two of his finest films, Pompeii and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and made this promising beginning to a new cycle, one which I very much hope he’ll get the chance to continue. He’s moved himself into the expressively esoteric. “Less than meets the eye” doesn’t quite seem right for the WW84s of this cycle though, if only because in them what meets the eye is already so meagre.
*I guess the VOD part of the release hasn’t actually happened. There were rumors that it would be out at the time I wrote this, but I don’t know what the deal was.
Liz and the Blue Bird was one of the great films of 2018. A spin-off of the slice of life anime series Sound! Euphonium, it focused exclusively on two of the show’s supporting characters, digging into their psychology and relationship as the band prepared the eponymous performance piece for a competition. It’s the strongest work yet by Yamada Naoko, one of the guiding directorial voices of the Kyoto Animation studio that was devastated last year by a deadly arson attack. This new movie, originally released here for one single show last summer but now playing at the Grand Illusion as one of their virtual cinema offerings, is not like Liz and the Blue Bird at all. Instead it is a direct extension of the series, picking up right where it left off, following the same primary characters over the next school year, but squeezed into a hundred minutes rather than patiently unfolding over the course of two dozen episodes.
It’s a curious decision, one that skims over the things that made the show so great, the small moments of human connection realized through the playing of music, in favor of a whole lot of teen melodrama plotting, mostly among new characters that we don’t much care about. The Sound! Euphonium series, like any slice of life story, anime or otherwise, is about detail, the accumulation of small, everyday moments that in the aggregate coalesce into a kind of epiphany or catharsis that can be overwhelmingly emotional. This effect isn’t unique to anime or dependent on the extended length of a TV series, by the way, two of my favorite films from last year’s VIFF, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen (which will be getting a virtual release in the next few weeks) achieve the same kind of epiphanies in much the same way, in running times of less than two hours. A Brand New Day picks up where Sound! Euphonium left off, with the show’s main character Kumiko, a euphonium player in her high school’s concert band, moving to her onto second year. The movie follows the whole year, from the initial meeting with the incoming freshman, several of whom will have interpersonal problems which Kumiko will end up helping to solve (in keeping with the structure of the series), and culminating in the band’s performance at the regional finals, where they hope to earn a spot at the national competition.
Everything about the movie is consistent with the original series. The show’s director, Ishihara Tatsuya, is in charge, and he keeps the visual style exactly the same, where in Liz and the Blue Bird, Yamada had slightly altered it, elongating the characters and muting the color palette to give the film a somewhat less cartoonishly anime appearance. The show is structured around a series of little interpersonal mysteries where Kumiko finds herself in the position of needing to figure out why Girl A is upset at Girl B so that they can both play better and the band can improve. This works in the series not because of the stories (which are mostly generic and not all that interesting) but because they merely form the structure around which hang smaller moments of beauty and because each little story ends up illuminating some aspect of Kumiko, a character who is revealed (to herself as much as to us) only through her interactions with other people and, perhaps more so, through the music she plays. A Brand New Day still does that, but because the stories are all so compressed, they have no weight. Moments that would have been incredibly powerful in the series (Kumiko’s tentative relationship with the trombone-playing boy next door Shuichi, and her much more romantic one with star trumpeter Reina are the highlights) move by too quickly, and would be all but incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the series. By the end of the movie, Kumiko doesn’t seem to be all that different from when it began.
The film’s highlight, in fact, is the final concert, which is also its only extended musical sequence. And its power comes not through any of the characters we’ve focused on for the previous hour and a half, but rather in the oboe solo that was the primary focus of Liz and the Blue Bird. Liz takes place somewhere in the middle of the school year depicted in A Brand New Day, and while we see the shy but brilliant oboist Mizore in the background a few times, she doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have a single line (just as Kumiko and the series’ other primary characters were sidelined in Liz). The concert in fact doesn’t feel like the accumulation of Kumiko’s story at all, or any of the other primary characters from the movie. It’s the epilogue to Mizore’s story, the only one from this school year that really seems to matter.
The German director Angela Schanelec has had, with the exception of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the most circuitous path to arthouse prominence of any director in the past decade. As part of the loose collective known as the Berlin School, which has produced some of the most interesting and skilled directors working today (Maren Ade, Christian Petzold, Ulrich Köhler), Schanelec has struck her own path, pursuing a more elliptical and rigorous approach to narrative and filmmaking than her peers. Correspondingly, she has had a low profile for a director of her stature, making six features before her breakout in 2016 with The Dreamed Path, perhaps her most narratively complex and productively opaque work yet.
Her follow-up, I Was at Home, But… takes a more “conventional” and discernible approach, but in doing so accesses both the emotional and the inexplicable, taking detours and narrative strands while burrowing deep into its central character. That person is Astrid, a single mother, played by regular Schanelec actor Maren Eggert, living in Berlin; the film begins just after her teenage son has returned from running away for undisclosed reasons. In essence, the film deals more or less solely with her, her son’s, and her young daughter’s daily lives after this brief rupture, and yet all attempts at simplification are nigh pointless. For one, there are significant corollary threads: a teacher (the ascendant Franz Rogowski) at the son’s school embarking on a tentative romance with one of his colleagues; Astrid’s relationship with her lover; the ongoing, particularly uninflected rehearsal of a translation of Hamlet. Overshadowing all of this is the death of Astrid’s partner some years before, a crucial piece of narrative information that, like most else in the film, is only parceled out slowly, communicated strongest in the loveliest detour: a brief montage of dance and nature scored to an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
One of the most peculiar and gratifying qualities of Schanelec’s film is her ability to draw these disparate moments into an ever-shifting whole, capturing the unsettled but quietly fortified existence of these characters. It’s difficult, for instance, to exactly settle on the tone of many scenes: the petulance of Astrid as she tries to hash out the status of the bike she bought from a man who speaks via a tinny electro-larynx is both maddening and truthful, just as the acting of the schoolchildren is both stilted and affecting. This applies in the interweaving of scenes as well: there are as many “random” moments introduced and dropped as there are narrative throughlines, and the viewer is left to determine the relative import of each for themselves in the course of the film, extending to the bookends, which feature a donkey, a dog, and a rabbit in the forest.
Of course, none of these are ultimately random or tossed-off; I Was at Home, But… is too intelligent for deliberate sabotage, something evident in the visual scheme, which typically foregoes the Bressonian close-ups of The Dreamed Path for long shots and long takes, the better to capture the full range of motion that the actors possess. This is captured in the film’s signal scene, a ten-minute tracking shot that follows Astrid and a filmmaker friend of hers (played by filmmaker Dane Komljen) as she lambasts his film for featuring an actor and a real sick person alongside each other. Where Schanelec ultimately falls on this spectrum is unresolved, but one of the lines that the filmmaker feels pertinent: “When you’re working on a film with other people, then it does become important how the work affects those people. What it means to them.” Affect and meaning go hand in hand, mysterious processes that nevertheless carry a personal truth that, in the right hands, can be overwhelming.
Things have been tough in Hong Kong lately. Months of protests over the lack of democracy and transparency in the Special Administrative Region sparked violent reprisals by police, with fears of the coronavirus outbreak on the Mainland only making things worse. The protests have split the entertainment community, with many stars and other figures, who thanks to the integration of the Hong Kong film industry with the Mainland market are pressured to literally toe the party line, coming out as pro-cop and anti-protestor. Even as likable a figure as Donnie Yen is not immune from the controversy, as some recent pro-Beijing comments inspired HK protestors to boycott his Christmas film, Ip Man 4. I don’t know if anyone is planning to boycott Enter the Fat Dragon as well, its Mainland release was cancelled because of the virus, though apparently it was a hit in Singapore over Lunar New Year. But those hoping for Yen to pivot to a more Hong Kong specific message, as opposed to the PRC-friendly pan-Chineseness of Ip Man 4 are going to be disappointed. Not really for any political reason, outside of a generic “all Japanese people are yakuza” vibe, there isn’t a political message to be found in it, but nor is there any distinct Hong Kongness that you’d find in Donnie Yen and Wong Jing movies of old.
Bearing absolutely no relation to the 1978 Sammo Hung classic of the same name, Donnie stars as a hero cop who is constantly breaking stuff with his badassery. He smashes cars, buses, people, a police headquarters, etc, and misses a photography appointment with his finacée, all because he’s so darn dedicated to stopping crimes. So the girlfriend dumps him and he gets transferred to the evidence room, where he eats for six months and doubles his weight (though this appears to cause him no other physical difficulties). Then he gets sent to Japan escorting a witness and gets involved with a ring of yakuza smuggling cocaine inside of fish, leading to more action scenes. It’s Donnie Yen, so these scenes are pretty entertaining, but the whole reason for the movie to exist seems to be that Donnie and Wong think it’d be hilarious to see Donnie in a prosthetic fat suit. Spoiler: it is not.
That’s not to say that the fat suit movie can’t be good. Johnnie To’s Love on a Diet, for example, has the prospect of icons Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in fat suits as its primary draw, but ends up being an actually pretty moving comedy about friendship and depression. Sammo Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon too relies for many of its jokes on Sammo’s rotundity, and the incongruity between his size and his speed and agility, but it’s also, as its title indicates, a showcase for Sammo’s uncanny Bruce Lee impression, as well as being the kind of low-budget, independent street-level contemporary genre film that would be a hallmark of the Hong Kong New Wave. That Enter the Fat Dragon was grimy; it had the feel of a bunch of people coming together to make a movie just for the hell of it, to show off what they could do. There’s a similar anarchic quality in Wong Jing’s best work: the freest man in 1980s and 90s Hong Kong, he would throw together movie stars and special effects and lowest common denominator slapstick and puns and highly dangerous action sequences all without the slightest regard for plot coherence or moral sensibility. At its best, it was glorious.
But that was all a long time ago. In recent years Wong has been cashing checks with Chow Yun-fat in the From Vegas to Macau series (a pale reminder of the greatness that was his God of Gamblers films) and making silly, overblown gangster pictures like the Chasing the Dragon movies. Enter the Fat Dragon, one would think, would be an opportunity for Wong to indulge his crude side, maybe even out-joking the occasionally funny Fat Buddies, a modest hit from 2018. But alas, it seems that in his advanced age, Wong had no chance of withstanding the sheer, wholesome niceness of Donnie Yen.
In this movie whose entire premise is “Donnie Yen in a fat-suit” there’s nary a fat joke. Hardly a moment of crudeness or poor taste. Instead we get a story about how Donnie is just so great that he drives everyone around him nuts. Not because he’s actually annoying or anything, but because everyone else is too selfish to realize just how unselfish Donnie really is. It makes the Razor’s Edge-lite can-do optimism of his Big Brother seem downright edgy by comparison. The supporting cast is occasionally fun, with Wong himself playing the even fatter sidekick Donnie finds in Japan, and flashbacks to earlier Yen pictures Flash Point and SPL are almost inspired, though the jokes don’t really land. But the fights are the only thing memorable about it: leaps around a Japanese street set recall last years’ Master Z and a finale in a tall tower is a fun fight marred by a nonsensical bit with a helicopter (why is the charmingly silly police translator played by Jessica Jann piloting the helicopter? Who knows, it’s Wong Jing!). Wong as the sidekick doesn’t get to do much, and his one set-piece, when his character accidentally ingests a bunch of cocaine and drives a forklift around like a maniac doesn’t make any sense. He doesn’t act at all like a person high on coke. Now, I can believe that Donnie Yen has never done a drug in his life, but there’s no way Wong Jing isn’t intimately familiar with the physiological effects of cocaine on the human mind and body.
Because of the coronavirus, Lunar New Year movie season, traditionally the biggest and most crowd-pleasing time of year in the Chinese cinema calendar got cancelled. I’m not sure if Enter the Fat Dragon counts as a New Year movie (as best as I can tell it was originally scheduled for a Valentine’s Day release in China, but that may have simply been an earlier rescheduling), but so far in the US at least, it’s all we’ve got. Hopefully there are better times and movies ahead.
Usually, short film coverage for a festival is about recommendations: see this, it’s the only time it’ll play in a theatre, probably. (The only holdover from last year’s VIFF I’m aware of was Norm Li’s Under the Viaduct, which screened in front of Sébastien Pilote’s La disparition des lucioles at The Cinematheque way back in January.) But this comes too late for that. So, where does this all go? VIFF’s programming has come to Seattle before, and, I suppose, there’s always Vimeo, but this is the flipside to festival going: there’s this idea in film writing that a work is good if it does something “memorable,” but it’s very often the once-and-never-again live aspect of a film screening, or the act of searching and waiting and writing about a film that creates and allows us to retain our film-memories. A handful of these, I know for certain, will go online for viewing within the next year. For the rest, an uncertain fate to be, as Souvankham Thammavongsa puts it, stories “wide and lost and ever changing.” Before they change any further in memory then, a survey of what things looked like this year.
VIFF doesn’t do curation for its short films — it provides a roof. When the festival boasts of 300+ films each year, over 100 of those are shorts. It can look like equal footing then, except that there are disparities all over the place. I want to say that this was a good year for the shorts selection, as far as anything can be summarized about a selection so broad and unpredictable, but it’s more fair to say that anything qualitative has to do with the grouped filmmaking traditions that are represented each year.
Like in the Canadian features landscape, short films from Quebec arrive with larger budgets, lengthier runtimes, and distribution deals already set up. In general, the longer films are the ones that garner awards and drive interest in their makers — one can see this kind of angling from the intense 20-minute familial disruptions of Chubby (from Ontario) or The Cut. The same goes for last year’s Academy Award-nominated Fauve. Perhaps the most interesting case in this year’s lineup is Theodore Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow.
If Ushev’s film wasn’t narrated by Rossif Sutherland, its images would seem to lend itself to a polyphonic consciousness. “I have always been born,” its train and time-traversing opening declares, before tracing a mythology of existence, from before the dinosaurs to after the apocalypse. Without exaggeration, this comes across as a masterpiece of animation (and it seems to know it, too), a work of deep interiority and a reminder that while short films are often structured like twist-ending short stories, there are other traditions to pull from.
In this case, Ushev, the only filmmaker with ties to Bulgaria to be nominated for an Academy Award, is drawing from one of the country’s foremost literary talents — the film is titled after Georgi Gospodinov’s novel, published earlier this decade. So there’s a lot of weight here, but Ushev tries to keep the pace of things light, in a modernist stream-of-consciousness kind of way. The NFB is marketing this as the first film entirely animated via encaustic painting (an impasto method involving beeswax) — one imagines, as the narrator strains to cover the experience of migration across eons (or minutes), the labour of the single animator, the cost of all that time, the dedication of building up a practice for a relatively obscure tradition, to the point of being able to reach toward the sublime. This isn’t really experimenting — Ushev is full-force applying himself, layering beauty upon beauty. Someone I know called it “undeniable.” Even as its memory monologue unspools, this is a film that charges forward, with no interest in looking back.
It isn’t a surprise that there’s a film like Ushev’s in the short film competition (it earned a runner-up Special Mention): there’s a Canadian entry in the Academy nominees every other year or so. If you’re looking for change, the main one this year had to do with VIFF’s first visible attempt to address its shorts programming’s lack of diversity. Amanda Strong, a Vancouver-based Michif filmmaker, was brought on as a programmer, and two programs of shorts from indigenous filmmakers were added to the usual five. This add-on approach is often, deservedly, criticized as a way for institutions to avoid real, lasting change; it keeps the films in question separate from the established programs.
Without knowing what this first effort will lead to, for now it’s worth saying that the films that benefited from this expansion were consistent with what a lot of indigenous communities are trying to do in the broader art world. They’re carving out space, restoring the visibility of ceremonial practices, and passing on knowledge to the next generation. While this educational context means these films are rarely of interest to cinephiles, there was variety within the programs: a couple of the fiction highlights were Kelly Roulette’s Sometimes She Smiles, a haunted spirit story with a structure not dissimilar to a Méliès short, and Madeline Terbasket’s Q’sapi Times.
Film, with its institutional gatekeeping, high cost of entry, and need for technical training, tends to lag behind writing when it comes to who is telling the story. Terbasket’s film in particular seems to be accessing the sense of narrative play and wit characteristic of many indigenous writers who have gained prominence in the publishing world over the past two decades. This is a coyote story, with Terbasket playing two trickster roles and using every formal and theatrical disruption they can get their hands on. Terbasket, who has previously collaborated with David Diamond, isn’t above low-brow jokes and narrative impatience; like any good oral storyteller, they keep things close to their audience: not the targeted imaginary one of buyers and “movie-lovers,” but the real, physical one they’re connected to by the communities in which they’re known.
The closer one ties a festival to a community, the more it can bring up the question of what is meant by the filmmaking spotlights at major festivals, which tend to organize along national, rather than regional concerns. And, sure, that’s how the funding is split up. But when it comes to what is meant by local, the insistence of borders looks pretty arbitrary. As a speaker in When the Tide Goes Out puts it, “What society teaches us is to be disconnected.” Directed by Eliot Galán, this mid-length documentary shows a group from the Tsleil-Watuth nation re-enacting a clam harvest in Burrard Inlet, where pollution and municipal bylaws have made the actual practice impossible. “We’re up against over a century of industrial development,” says one interviewee — this isn’t a film of conflict, however; it’s about capturing the small increments of possible action in a community not far outside the doors of the theatre where the film would’ve screened. Taking place in the Salish Sea, Galán drew on records from around the whole region, including ones from Tacoma’s public library — it’s easy to imagine a similar portrait for Commencement Bay, or Elliott Bay, that would have just as much to dig into.
Sandra Ignagni’s Highway to Heaven doesn’t go investigative, but it’s notable among the entire class of shorts this year for a couple reasons. With the distinction between screens collapsing, filmmakers are, much like they did at the dawn of television, going for extremes in aspect ratio: you’re seeing more squares and snake-ready rectangles than usual. Ignagni’s film, an observational cross-section of Richmond’s No. 5 Road, is possibly the only short in the program that justifies its ‘scope framing (Andrew Coppin is the cinematographer). There’s a close dialogue between what Ignagni is doing here and Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights — with less access (all of the spots Ignagni visits have a religious affiliation) the focus has less to do with Wiseman’s insistence on public speech, more with images that put the lie to the idea of both the easy myths of cultural homogeneity and simple multiculturalism. In either case charting, without presumption, the sparks and complements of difference is still the aim. (And the name-director relations aren’t just theoretical: J.P. Sniadecki and Brett Story are credited as development mentors.)
That’s the thing about films, even the ones with incredibly small crews: the closer you zoom in, the more people there are; if it were possible to truly document every moment of a film’s production — the uncredited names, the undocumented set dynamics, the long hidden hours of editing and promotion and submission processes and travel after production wraps — you might never run out of material. This is true even of the handmade film, which made something of a comeback at VIFF this year.
At the Bottom of the Sea, Caroline So Jung Lee’s abstract reckoning with the ripple effect of the Korean Women’s Movement social protests of 2018 (audio extracts from Gwanghwamun Square’s “Courage to Be Uncomfortable” gathering echo under the images), won the biggest short program prize of the festival. Its solarized film sections and bromide-streaked midnight photography came about from a close relation with Cineworks, the foremost film-maker collective in Vancouver. Other examples included Yen-Chao Lin’s The Spirit Keepers of Makuta’ay, Cameron Mackenzie and Suzanne Friesen’s Venusian, and Sheridan Tamayo-Henderson’s In Which Life Continues Without Time. It’s one year, and it’s a tiny fraction of the films here, but you wouldn’t be wrong for finding VIFF averse to the practice in recent history (these are the first I’ve seen in four years of covering the program) — it’s a small enough shift to be possibly unintentional, but if it were to stick, it’d be a welcome one. Of course, this hasn’t yet extended much to the digital side of things — I spoke to a critic who argued the two most significant Canadian shorts of the year weren’t anywhere to be found at the festival (Michael Snow’s Cityscape and Blake Williams’s 2008).
Family histories are never far from a young filmmaker’s reservoir of material — they’re often the ellipsis that demands explication, or the blind spot that dooms a sense of drama. “Dramatists,” Hilton Als writes, “it seems, are always cursed and blessed with a family member who is a hysteric, and who cannot not make drama.” The methods of the filmmaker often take a different tact: the camera tends to be more concerned with a generationally distant family member’s lack of presence, the mystery they leave behind, the filmable objects and relatives and, of course, the shadows and ghosts and ceremonies that cover up all that mystery. You can see this in the forced on-camera confessions of Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, and the forthright concision of Sophy Romvari’s Grandma’s House.
But perhaps the single most moving and demystifying work of the lot was Aaron Zeghers’s Memoirs. It didn’t win an award (and neither did Zeghers’s Danny, a mid-length that screened elsewhere in the festival lineup, though it deserves some kind of recognition). But find me a work that more intelligently mixes together the aphorisms of elders, the footnotes of fiction, and brilliant, awe-inspiring special effects. Zeghers is pushing the oral history interview past its realistic limit, and finds something more artful and weightier on the other side. You can also tell he has a skill for listening, and for knowing when he has a good quote. “People who plot their lives are just horrible people,” says one voice, in a film that slips out of plot any chance it gets, voices washing over one another, formats switching from Super-8 to digital to 16mm. To offer an alternative, another quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a truly great generational work of another kind, one that describes in a similar key how the stuff that accumulates into a life rapidly does so outside of intention, and is far harder to reckon with and more beautiful, in a hard-to-approach way, for it.
The world isn’t lacking for documentation — or documentaries, which increasingly organize around single figures; there’s a CELEBRITY: WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR profile coming to a cinema near you, right now — nor is it lacking people who say they can sift through all those documents. What sticks out, in Memoirs, say, is a mix of liveliness and gentleness, a generosity of intelligence that has no interest in didacticism or overblown appraisement. Two more to single out in this vein: Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora’s Labour/Leisure and Christopher Auchter’s Now Is the Time(full disclosure: Ermacora also works as a projectionist at the same theatre where I work). Johnson and Ermacora, having earned in the past year retrospectives and a sizable grant to shoot their first feature (titled Anyox, after the northern BC ghost town), are only growing in stature, career-wise.
Their latest, set in the Okanagan, is a portrait of workers, in the fields and processing facilities of Kelowna’s cherry orchards. The bookending shots, of precipitous divisions (a golf course, a mansion), make their political point clear, but what comes through most in their images is their directness: they establish a personal point of contact (the credits start their roll with, presumably, everyone they came to know over the shoot, a list of scores of names), then step back, and let the cycle tell its story. As the critic Jaclyn Bruneau has written of their work, “They don’t educate, but instead provide a reflexive space for information already possessed.” We already know BC’s agricultural industries are more unfair, complex, and fundamentally different from the version that rests on the edge of the usual message about buying local and “growing the province’s wealth.” So Johnson and Ermacora give us a brief but generative look that resembles none of our assumptions, and doesn’t make sport of our emotions. You could say that what their film really provides is a space to see a world where we meet people, rather than consume their stories.
Auchter’s film, on the other hand, could be called inspirational. A re-framing of the early work of artist Robert Davidson, Auchter’s work responds to an earlier profile of Davidson (Eugene Boyko’s This Was the Time) in the manner of a lively, animated essay film. Not only does Auchter return to Davidson in the present to contextualize his work in the first person, he dislocates the quasi-propagandist tone (“This boy may be one of the last…”) of Boyko’s “well-intentioned” film. This is a rare encounter of two artists meeting as equals, each illuminating the others’ work, as in Claire Denis’s Vers Mathilde or Bruce Conner’s The White Rose. Auchter had the original footage restored, and so we see Davidson’s work returned to its contemporary prime: the autumnal reds and oranges and wallpaper as melodramatically brilliant as the communal environs of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
Out of this, Davidson emerges in quite a different way from the other profile of his work at this year’s VIFF — Charles Wilkinson’s Haida Modern. That film got all the press, but seeks mostly to explain and make easily understandable an artist’s completed works; Auchter creates a work of art in and of itself. Just as the totem pole Davidson makes (he says it was the first work of his on that large a scale) eventually called on the efforts of an entire community to see realized, Auchter collaborated with names seen elsewhere in this year’s shorts lineup: Asia Youngman (This Ink Runs Deep) is the director of photography, Alicia Eisen (Deady Freddy) contributed stop-motion animation. Wilkinson, operating from a settler perspective, can’t approach Davidson’s work as Auchter does: rather than an encapsulation, this is a true, overflowing encounter — he finds life in the past; he, in a warm, explosive, way, connects with it. Which is sometimes all that art needs to do to make a single encounter life-giving.
There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.
It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.
The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.
Within a film festival circuit increasingly torn between the poles of bombastic monumentality and tasteful subtlety, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda might present something of a odd proposition. Evincing hushed directorial observation and bearing sundry half-toned developments, the film would seem to fall squarely in the latter category. But just when a viewer might think they have it pegged down, it shifts unexpectedly towards the lines of a straightforward tearjerker. And yet Hers still demonstrates a commitment to deflecting emotional cliché, the film’s moment-to-moment movements (not to mention its overall shape) frequently recalling Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children (2009), a Parisian drama that likewise serves up a whirl of frenetic activity, before arresting that motion with an abrupt traumatic turn. It’s a testament to Hers’s film that such assessments feel incomplete.
Amanda’s central figure is David (Vincent Lacoste), a sweet, if unremarkable twenty-something who holds a number of odd jobs—though mainly, he manages an apartment complex for a Parisian property magnate. When first introduced, he’s already missed an appointment to pick up his seven-year-old niece Amanda (Isaure Multrier) from school, which he’s later berated for by his elder sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), the girl’s loving, harried single mom. The two are the only family he sees regularly, his father having passed away, and his mother having left for her native London when he was a child. Indeed, apart from Lena (Stacy Martin), a young pianist newly arrived in Paris, with whom he starts a budding romance, the mother-daughter pair seem to be the only people he has any steady attachment to. But it’s not until about thirty minutes in that his feckless behavior has any sort of implications. Up to this point, the film is so languid, so bewilderingly normal that one might wonder what, precisely, it is meant to be. We soon find out.
Characteristically late for a mid-afternoon picnic with his sister and some friends, David arrives to the bloody aftermath of a terrorist attack conveyed in a quick succession of startling cuts, and then a static wide shot that slowly fades to black. A halting interaction with two survivors outside a hospital soon follows, but when we next see David, he’s pacing his sister’s apartment as Amanda slumbers in the back room. When she wakes, he will have to tell her that she no longer has a mother. As to what will happen after, he does not yet know.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Hers has laid the groundwork for this decisive pivot. We learn early on that Sandrine has bought tickets for the three to go to Wimbledon, with the ancillary goal of reconnecting with her and David’s estranged mother, establishing the film’s concerns with parental absence and filial grief. But it’s a mark of Hers’s deceptively casual direction that the involving specifics of the first half-hour don’t at all feel predictive. We might wonder, for a time, why the film is even titled Amanda, but the chaos of the present—its occasional pleasures and near-constant frustrations—pushes such questions from the mind. Only in retrospect do we think of the November 2015 Paris attacks. Only in retrospect are we able to perceive what we have been watching as a mere prologue.
As David’s newfound parental responsibilities become enfolded into a study of coping, Hers observes all manner of intriguing details: the vacation rules of the institution that he considers sending Amanda to; his disposal of Sandrine’s toothbrush, quickly undone when his niece protests; and even his abortive meeting with a journalist looking to write a story on the victims, a scene that’s more astute for being all but detached from the overall story. And though Hers’s camera isn’t quite as nimble as Hansen-Løve’s, he shares her talent for disarming elisions. (A particularly sharp cut takes us from a hesitant kiss between David and Lena at nighttime, to the bleary-eyed morning after, with the latter nowhere in sight, and Amanda now curled up next to her uncle, having evidently been plagued by nightmares that we’ve seen him deal with before.) Much more so than Hansen-Løve, though, Hers demonstrates a willingness to amplify his story’s sentimentality, which means that Amanda might leave a viewer somewhat suspicious at times. But it also manages to locate moments that are all the more potent and astonishing for being so emotionally direct. In that respect, the final scene, set at the Wimbledon game so long in coming, is both instructive and emblematic. As Amanda watches a player being beaten, she becomes distraught out of all proportion to the events on-screen; but then he rallies, and her pure delight is something to behold. A too-simple structural equation of grief and resilience, perhaps—but in the case of a child, does it not cut to the heart of the matter? It takes a certain confidence to tether the emotional crescendo of one’s film to the outcome of a tennis match—and Hers pulls it off beautifully.
Bong Joonho’s 2019 film, Parasite, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opens on a row of tired-looking socks, dangling in a little circle from a ceiling on a hanging clothes rack*. (*Update 1/09/2020: See note at the bottom of this entry.) From inside this basement apartment, we look through the socks, through a smudged window, onto a street outside, a ground-space that is right at eye-level. The apartment floor, then, is below the street, and the dwelling is a space where the damp moulds the bread and where the toilet must be up on a raised platform, so the plumbing can run downwards. The family–father, mother, young adult son, and young adult daughter–lives so low that even the toilet lives above them. It’s the sump of the city, where drunk men come to piss and where pest control sends billowing clouds of poisonous fumes, covering people and pests alike. The family shrugs and just breathes it in. What else is there to do?
And high above this family lives another family, in a tightly secured space that seems to be at the very shining top of the city. It’s a modern, walled-in garden, shutting out pests and drunks, and maintaining glossy glass surfaces and pristine green grass and foliage. It’s a world away from the refuse and grime, which, for this rich family, does not even exist. The lights that flicker on and off sometimes that might indicate to those inside the garden that another world is signaling, asking for recognition and help, go ignored; the flickerings are received only as further sign that lights turn on and off in a kind of obeisance to their owners’ presence. Even the young son of the family, who might read the code of the lights, sees a game for his own amusement.
Bottom of the world poverty, top of the world wealth: the Parasite spaces. That’s the set-up.
“This is so metaphorical,” says Kim Kiwoo (Choi Woosik), the adult son, and of course, it is. As with Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong has returned, here, to his interest in the haves and have nots, to the boundaries constructed between them, and the incursions and smells that cross those boundaries, the violence inherent in those boundaries and the violence that results from their existence, and his work reminds us that the world is never as tidy as above and below, up and down, front and back. Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)”→