VIFF 2019: A Short Film Survey

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 executive director Jacqueline Dupuis opening the festival’s centrepiece awards event (Credit: Stephen Morgan)

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.

A still from Theodore Ushev's The Physics of Sorrow. A painted image, of a figure in a hallway.
The Physics of Sorrow (Theodore Ushev)

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

A still from Madeline Terbasket's Q'sapi Times. A storyteller, arms in a gesturing pose, sits in front of a fireplace.
Q’sapi Times (Madeline Terbasket)

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.

Still from Eliot Galán's When the Tide Goes out. Drone shot of tidal flats at the edge of a forest.
When the Tide Goes Out (Eliot Galán)

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.

Still from Sandra Ignagni's Highway to Heaven. A room of religious devotees, arranged in even rows,  in prayer before a meal.
Highway to Heaven (Sandra Ignagni)

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. 

Still from Caroline So Jung Lee's At the Bottom of the Sea. A car, seen from head-on, drives down an alley, its headlights streaking across the frame in a vertical line.
At the Bottom of the Sea (Caroline So Jung Lee)

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

A still from Aaron Zeghers's Memoirs. A woman's image is illuminated, as in a holograph, while streaks of light overlay the entire frame.
Memoirs (Aaron Zeghers)

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. 

A still from Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora's Labour/Leisure. Labourers on a cherry orchard carry large white ladders to a worksite, viewed from within a large warehouse door.
Labour/Leisure (Jessica Johnson, Ryan Ermacora)

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.

A still from Christopher Auchter's Now Is the Time. Robert Davidson, as a young artist, works over his desk late at night, brushing an in-progress hand-size sculpture, the window open before him into the blue evening.
Now Is the Time (Christopher Auchter)

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.

A still from Christopher Auchter's Now Is the Time. Robert Davidson, present-day, in his studio, full of wood and completed works.
Now Is the Time (Christopher Auchter)

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

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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.

VIFF 2019: Amanda (Mikhaël Hers)

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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.

VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)

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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. 

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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)”

VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)

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Young Ahmed, the latest feature from the Belgian writer-director brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which took the Cannes prize for Best Director, is very much a Dardenne film. It features the style and approach of all of their films: handheld, intimate camerawork; an intense focus on a limited number of characters and the daily texture of their lives; an elliptical development of narrative that builds as much through a character’s body language and routine as their dialogue; an interest in how a particular individual is often at the mercy of a larger system; a payoff that resides more in the character’s psychology or emotions than in a plot resolution. 

It’s a style that aligns both in content and in form with what we might call social realism. At their best, the Dardennes present us with characters who do not seem to be living in a story at all but with real people who have somehow fallen into one, and the camera has just happened to catch them in it.  At their best, too, their films achieve an emotional and psychological richness and complexity, a sense of the depth of human heart and mind, and human pain and joy, without the grand gestures of an obvious plot structure. 

It becomes easier to see the bones and careful construction of a Dardenne plot, perhaps, the more of their films one watches, for, of course, there is one, and each character beat always does lead to a particular kind of emotional climax, a climax that often typically strips the pretenses and armor away from the central character.  

Seeing the plot and its rather typical Dardenne payoff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the brothers’ particular approach, so dependent on the minutiae of the daily life of a character, may feel wanting in some cases if an attempted hyper-realism of character falls flat. 

In the case of Young Ahmed, we are dropped into the life of a Belgian Muslim teen boy, after, under the influence of an imam, he has already become radicalized by the time we meet him. We then watch as, early on in the film, he carries out a plan — or attempts to carry out a plan — to kill his schoolteacher, a woman who the imam has told Ahmed is a dangerous corrupting influence, an affront to the Koran, because of her decision to teach modern Arabic to her students through pop songs. Ahmed’s clumsy attempt to stab his teacher fails, and he is sent to a sort of juvenile detention, where he lives with other boys, and, closely shadowed by a caregiver, eventually goes to a farm to work, helping the family with their daily tasks, a part of the system’s effort to reform him. He meets regularly with a psychologist, too, whose job it is to assess the level of his repentance and reform.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)”

The Captain (Andrew Lau, 2019)

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Andrew Lau Wai-keung is perhaps the most representative Hong Kong director in the post-Handover era. An accomplished cinematographer dating back to the late 80s (most famously he shot Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By and half of Chungking Express, and his first ever DP credit was for Ringo Lam’s City on Fire), he’s been directing for almost as long. His breakthrough hit was the Young & Dangerous series, which debuted right around the time of the Handover and almost single-handedly kept the Hong Kong industry afloat during the recession of the late 1990s (a time when many of the colony’s biggest stars had fled to Hollywood). A comic book and teen soap-inspired version of the Heroic Bloodshed sagas of John Woo and Ringo Lam, the Young & Dangerous movies featured young actors with elaborate hair going through the motions of generic plots scored with contemporary music and audiences ate them up (there are a dozen or so films and spin-offs in the series, which is excessive even by Hong Kong franchise standards). Then, in 2002, Lau teamed with Alan Mak and Felix Chong to make Infernal Affairs, the first Hong Kong movie to hit really big internationally since the Handover (depending on how you count In the Mood for Love, I guess), and the inspiration for a whole host of 21st century crime dramas, as well as the Best Picture winning Martin Scorsese movie The Departed.

Lau’s post-Infernal Affairs work has been somewhat spotty, however, with the highlight probably being the 2010 Donnie Yen vehicle Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, which, ghastly title aside, is a pretty good fusion of comic book movie-making with the traditional kung fu epic (it’s a remake of the Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury, itself remade with Jet Li in 1994 as Fist of Legend). The move to digital filmmaking suits Lau’s predilection for glossy, brightly colored surfaces and Shu Qi and Donnie Yen have never looked better. But he’s found diminishing returns with this approach, even has he’s moved beyond Hong Kong to America (the barely noticed gangster film Revenge of the Green Dragons) and Mainland China (the all-star propaganda flop The Founding of an Army).

The Captain is another propaganda film, albeit a more or less tolerable one given that it’s also a very good disaster film. Based on actual events from May of 2018, when a Sichuan Airlines flight from Chongqing to Lhasa had its windshield break away high over the Tibetan Plateau. remarkably, the pilot and crew were able to navigate the plane back to safety with no loss of life and minimal injuries. Lau takes a procedural approach to the story, joining the captain (played by The Taking of Tiger Mountain‘s Zhang Hanyu) from the time he wakes up in the morning through the crew’s various pre-flight rituals and inspections, to the incident itself, with their responses chronicled in detail. There are a few nods to melodramatic convention (an obnoxious first-class passenger harasses a flight attendant, the captain must return home for his daughter’s sixth birthday party, etc), but Lau is as great as ever at action and suspense, and the disaster sequences are gripping.

The obvious comparison is with Clint Eastwood’s Sully, and in comparison to that film, The Captain fails in just about every way. Where Eastwood took the disaster as an opportunity to explore the psychology of a man who behaved extraordinarily well in an extreme situation, along with side-long glances at the bureaucracy that can’t just immediately accept his heroism, Lau isn’t interested in examining anything too deeply. Sully is a movie full of contradictions, one that is uneasy about all its conclusions, including the very idea of heroism. The Captain isn’t the least bit complicated. It’s an ode to the wonders of bureaucracy, to the apparatuses of the state that we can be sure will always ensure our safety.

Because of the cabin depressurization and howling winds, for the entire course of the disaster we are unable to hear the pilots communicate among themselves or with various control towers (why they don’t have headsets is a conundrum for which I have no answer). As such, we spend most of the crisis in the cabin with the passengers and flight attendants, who find themselves at the mercy of a cockpit full of men who they simply have to trust know what they’re doing (the flight attendants, all women (Yuan Quan gives the best performance in the film as the flight attendant in charge), and the passengers, don’t get a vote in what the plane will do). We also visit various control towers, civilian and military, who track what the plane is doing and provide helpful bits of exposition (the plane needs to descend to a certain altitude for the pilots to breathe, but it can’t because there are a bunch of mountains in the way, for example). They cheer and congratulate themselves at the end (and we see lots of glossy and important seeming military technology), but they literally do nothing to help the plane but get out of the way. Taken as an exercise in pop disaster filmmaking, The Captain is pretty good. As long as you just don’t think too much about what the PRC is trying to tell you about itself.

VIFF 2019: The Shadow Play (Lou Ye, 2018)

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At this point the best advice I can give you, the prospective viewer of a Lou Ye movie, is this: don’t see it in a theatre, and if you must, sit as far away from the screen as possible. Possibly contemporary cinema’s most extreme abuser of the close-up, shallow-focus, quick-cutting shaky cam, Lou’s movies are nigh unwatchable under what should be ideal viewing conditions (that is, about a half dozen or so rows back from the screen, depending on auditorium shape and size). The incoherent swirl of blurs and occasional images are nauseating and headache-inducing at that distance. Never have I so longed for the ability to speak Chinese as I did watching The Shadow Play here at VIFF, wishing desperately to be able to just close my eyes and simply listen to the movie.

It’s a shame, because in most other respects, Lou is a fine filmmaker, deftly smuggling social critique within otherwise popular genre plots. The Shadow Play is a terrific example of this, with an outstanding opening sequence chronicling the street-by-street buildup of a riot in protest of developers who plan to bulldoze a dilapidated, but occupied, neighborhood, culminating in a brutal police crackdown. That it’s set in 2012 makes it no less resonant to events in Hong Kong (and beyond) that are occurring as I type. But The Shadow Play isn’t really a film about resistance to urban “renewal” (an evil anywhere in the world, as omnipresent as capitalism itself), so much as it uses the fact of corruption (illicit links between government and business and law enforcement and the family) as set dressing for a lurid and not especially interesting noir story about a cop (Jing Boran, star of Monster Hunt and Us and Them) having a very hard time trying to solve a not-very-difficult case.

Hyperactively cutting back and forth across twenty years of history in the life of a developer, a government official (who will be killed in the aftermath of the riot) and the woman they love, along with their daughter (whose daughter? it’s a mystery!) and a bar girl from Taiwan who became the developer’s top assistant several years before the 2012 riot/murder (where’d she go? another mystery!), Lou distracts from the weakness of his scenario by jumbling continuity, not exactly following any kind of logical or emotional through line, but rather simply trying to extend the suspense, such as it is, for as long as he can. Set piece follows set piece, with what looks like could be some fine acting (especially by the three women, Ma Sichun (from Soul Mate, playing the daughter, Song Jia (Shock Wave) as the mother, and Michelle Chen (Badges of Fury) as the assistant), except we can’t actually see any of it because most of every frame is blurred out and cut to pieces. Ultimately the mysteries prove to have solutions both obvious and not especially sensical, but that would all matter a lot less if the rest of the movie held up. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging the existence of corruption in a society and actually making a movie about it. It’s undeniable that Lou has been a leading figure of resistance against the PRC’s various censorship systems, suffering a filmmaking ban after Suzhou River (his best film), a five year distribution ban after Summer Palace, and waiting two years after shooting wrapped in 2016 to see The Shadow Play get released. But, in the same way Lou used Tiananmen Square as a backdrop for an uninteresting and poorly shot romantic melodrama in Summer Palace, so the politics of The Shadow Play, admirable though they are, can’t obscure the film’s deficiencies as cinema.

It’s not as if we haven’t seen plenty of recent films pull this same trick, of sneaking anti-PRC themes into a generic story. Ash is Purest White and Mountains May Depart track the same things: the corrosive effects of corruption and capitalism and their effects on the family over time. Mountains especially, with its love triangle and estranged child, especially seems relevant, but how much more human is Jia’s movie than Lou’s? Xin Yukun’s Wrath of Silence is a rock solid genre film that attacks corruption with all the subtlety of a mute coal miner bashing in the face of a corporate crook. Just here at VIFF, we have Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a not-so-subtle jab at the parallels and interconnections between criminals, law enforcement, and capital, told within a mostly generic noir plot, but with a visual acuity and precision that seems anathema to Lou. I guess here’s where I should say that of course Lou has adopted his style for reasons, he’s been doing it for years and years and show’s no signs of stopping. I’m sure his reasons are sound, and that compelling arguments can be made in favor of his cutting and camera work. He isn’t incompetent, he’s just made an aesthetic choice that I find, and perhaps the fault merely lies with my middle aged physiology, fucking unwatchable.

VIFF 2019: The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)

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Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?

Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

 

Robert Eggers is a maker of myths. Not in the interconnected serialized myth-making of Disney’s corporate franchises, the Marvels and Star Warses and other princesses. Rather in that with The Lighthouse, as with his last film, The Witch (The VVitch if you’re nasty), he exploits cinema’s love for grotesque ambiguity in tapping into the oldest, weirdest currents of New England culture, digging into the primal fears that lurked underneath the Puritan world. Quite literally with The Witch, set as it was in the 17th century among a family of too fundamentalist for the Puritan farmers. The Lighthouse is set some two hundred years later, give or take, but the fears and repressions of Protestant America are still deeply felt. With allusions to everything from Moby-Dick to Coleridge to the story of Prometheus, Eggers weaves an allegory of guilt and rebellion, of a man (Robert Pattinson) under the yoke of a tyrannical and loving God (Willem Dafoe) that he cannot hope to understand, and how that lack of understanding costs him his soul.

But just as importantly, The Lighthouse is a movie about a pair of our greatest actors trapped together for 110 minutes in a square, black and white frame, covered in beards and torrential rain, railing away at each other in impossibly ornate old-timey monologues of fire and damnation. As a pure horror film, it’s more successful than something like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which conversely has it beat in terms of religious allegory. The hamminess of the two stars’ performances is deeply pleasurable, especially Dafoe, who in a just world would finally win an Oscar for a role that might have just been talking like a pirate and acting drunk, but instead oscillates brilliantly between power and weakness, between an imposing, all-powerful god of the sea, and a frail, lost old mariner.

The comparison to Mother! is especially apt (thanks to my colleague Melissa for bringing it to my attention), as Eggers and Aronofsky appear to be on a similar track. Both Mother! and Aronofsky’s Noah dig into biblical stories in search of the more primal human fears and desires that gave birth to them. But while Aronofsky tells the stories relatively straight, following the familiar plot points more or less closely and using the tropes of horror cinema to flesh out the emotions, Eggers is treading newer ground, still after those same basic emotions, but building newish plots around them. He also, at least with The Lighthouse, finds pre-Christian parallels for his myths, as in the story of Prometheus (who stole the secret of fire from the gods and as punishment had his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity). The result is an even more elemental kind of fear and guilt, as old as the weather itself, but one that doesn’t parse nearly as coherently. The Lighthouse could be “about” a lot of things, which is a weakness as much as it is a strength, depending on your point of view. They aren’t fables, defined in the end by a clear moral statement–myths are necessarily more ambiguous, and more entertaining. At its best, The Lighthouse recalls the primal mythologies of great films like Conan the Barbarian (the closest we’ve ever come to a Gilgamesh movie) or Excalibur (which similarly freely mixes Christian and pre-Christian myth in the service of cinematic weirdness). 19th century New England had a nightmare, and it dreamt of Willem Dafoe.

First Love (Takashi Miike, 2019)

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Every time I watch a Takashi Miike movie, I end up asking myself why I ever watch movies that aren’t Takashi Miike movies. That’s certainly the case with First Love, his latest, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and opens next week (October 4) at the Uptown. It’s a familiar story, a one crazy night gangster movie mixed with just enough romance and humor to confound the tonal consistency police. But while the plot evokes faint memories of Johnnie To’s The Odd One Dies or Derek Yee’s One Night in Mongkok or Soi Cheang’s Love Battlefield, really it’s all Miike, suffused with his inimitable blend of pitch-black humor, razor-sharp filmmaking, and a surprising undercurrent of hope amid all the absurdist bloodshed and horror of a world that has almost completely lost its mooring.

A young boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor stumbles into a scheme wherein a low-level yakuza and a crooked cop are conspiring to steal a bag of drugs from the yakuza, while framing a prostitute and a Chinese Triad syndicate for the crime. The hope is to incite a gang war and have all the bad guys kill each other off, while the schemers get away with the drugs and can then take over. But the prostitute, a young drug addict who suffers from hallucinations, caused by years of abuse by her father and her handlers, runs away from the cop at a pivotal moment, and thinking she needs rescuing, the boxer clocks the cop. The young people run away and the scheme falls apart, thanks as well to a pair of nigh-indestructible women, one the girlfriend of the guy who the drugs are stolen from, the other a Chinese gangster lamenting the sad state of honor among today’s yakuza men. A host of other memorable baddies abound, including an old school yakuza who is fresh out of prison and terribly annoyed by everyone around him, and a one-armed Chinese gangster who has no lines but follows along the whole way, waiting for his opportunity to take revenge on the man who maimed him.

Miike unfolds the convoluted plot with expert precision, such that it’s pretty much always clear exactly who is double-crossing who, and why. And those double-crosses play out in and escalating series of violent encounters, as funny as they are original. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of the surprises the movie has in store, but I want to single out Miike’s editing in particular, cutting on motion with as much attention to the flow of action as, say, Steven Spielberg, but with a sublime sense of humor, as when a punch in the boxing ring becomes a beheading stroke of a katana in a dark alley. First Love is filled with these little touches. One imagines Miike chuckling away as he finds ever more demented ways to depict violence on-screen. I’ve said before that no one in contemporary cinema has as much fun making movies as Takashi Miike, and First Love is him working with complete freedom within otherwise well-worn genre terrain.

Even the romance is unusual. Given the circumstances, and their various medical and mental conditions, it’d be absurd, something that only happens in the movies, for our two innocents to fall madly in love right away (even with the help of a pop song, as they do in Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By). Instead, the First Love of the title can only grow after the trials of the one crazy night have been put behind them. Not just a lunatic cascade of gangster movie violence, the night instead becomes a stand-in for all the horrible things that have happened to them in their pasts, and only after they survive them and move on to a new day, is a first love even possible. The final shot doesn’t need a pop song, or even a close-up, to be the most hopeful, most romantic image of the movie year.

I should watch more Takashi Miike movies. The Grand Illusion this week is playing three of them, none of which I have seen, Shinjuku Triad SocietyRainy Dog, and Ley Lines. Like First Love, they all involve rivalries between Chinese Triads and Japanese yakuza, such that their grouped together as his “Black Society Trilogy”, though they are apparently unrelated in plot or character. If I was in town next week, that’s where I would be.