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.

VIFF 2019: The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019)

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One of the most anticipated Chinese titles of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival is Diao Yinan’s follow-up to his Berlin winning 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice. Like that film, The Wild Goose Lake is a moody Chinese noir, full of morose characters trapped in a world of violence they cannot understand. It’s also significantly more interesting to look at than the majority of Chinese noirs that have afflicted the festival circuit in the wake of Black Coal‘s triumph. Sure, it has more than its share of torrential downpours and black nights of the soul, but Diao mixes the morose setting with yellows, greens, and reds (along with some delightfully sickly neon pinks) more reminiscent of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the first third of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White than the dull grayness of movies like The Looming Storm or Savage or Lush Reeds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his characters, who are nowhere near as vibrant as the film’s images.

Hu Ge, who had a small role in Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter, stars as an ex-con and gangster who finds himself the target of a manhunt after he accidentally shoots a cop. The setup to this is extremely promising, with Diao melding the highbrow style of Bi and Jia with a classic Triad-type story, involving gang rivalries and a motorcycle-stealing contest that ends in a shocking bit of violence. But it quickly shifts into a different kind of film entirely, with Liao Fan as the cop in charge of hunting him down and Gwei Lun-mei as the prostitute with a heart of gold who tries to help him escape (both Gwei and Liao starred as well in Black Coal).

Liao and the cops come off much better, as the blankness of their personalities matches the just-the-facts proceduralism of their pursuit, Liao himself bringing a necessary weight and professional authority to the role. But Gwei and Hu are blank slates, almost entirely affectless, with nary a hint of personality to mitigate their mopey sadness. Gwei is usually an actress of considerable charm, but there’s nary a hint here of the performer who stole scenes left and right in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate a decade ago. Instead she walks determinedly, if directionlessly, around the frame, face pinched in a perpetual scowl, while Hu (hobbled as his character is by multiple gunshot wounds) merely looks depressed. The motivations and actions mostly make sense, but it’s hard to care anything about them when they aren’t the least bit interesting. Compare them to the wit and will Zhao Tao showed in Ash, or Liao Fan’s weaselly over-confidence in that same film, or the mystery and passion of Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang in Long Day’s Journey, and you’ll see what Wild Goose Lake is missing most.

But for all that, at moments the film is wonderful. There are at least three expert showdowns, built slowly and without dialogue, actors carefully arranging themselves in a well-defined space, communicating only with looks (or just as much: by not looking at all). Diao heightens one by having one group wearing shoes that have neon lights around their soles, such that our hero (such as he is) is seemingly hunted by circles of eerie pale green light, stark against the blackness of night. Another is set in a dilapidated concrete apartment complex, reminiscent of so many such structures in Hong Kong films, with their tangled hallways and noisy neighbors. In scenes like this, The Wild Goose Lake approaches the best of Johnnie To (the showdowns are nothing if not a nod to The Mission). If only the rest of the movie were so free.

VIFF 2019 Preview

We here at Seattle Screen Scene are very much looking forward to once again covering the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. It’s shaping up to be a pretty strong festival, with a number of titles we can’t wait to catch. We’ve already seen a few of the movies playing this year, though, as we covered them at festivals earlier this year. Here is a compendium of links to our previously published reviews of VIFF films that played at the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival.

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Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby) – Evan in the Georgia Straight: “TIFF kicked off for me with the First Nations zombie movie Blood Quantum, but the moment that I walked out of the theater, I ejected it from my consciousness like a spent shotgun cartridge (though one dumbfounding line—delivered with perfect seriousness—will rent a room in my memory palace for eternity: “They look at me like my vagina is Pandora’s box!”)”

Hard-Core (Nobuhiro Yamashita) – The latest from the director of Linda Linda Linda, one of the great films of the century thus far, was a disappointment for Sean, who wrote at the Notebook that, “Hard-Core is simply lost in itself, its collection of losers as charmless and uninteresting as the film’s forced whimsicality.”

A Hidden Life – (Terrence Malick) – Lawrence at InReview Online notes that Malick’s latest is a “vision of breathtaking natural expanses and solid manmade enclosures [which] remains every bit as formally radical as any of his films this decade.” While Evan is very much looking forward to seeing it again, as he wrote for the Georgia Straight that while he was initially disappointed, he “sat down for the next film, the lights dimmed, and then, suddenly, they came back up. How long had I been here? Sometimes, at a festival, a movie gets sacrificed on the pyre when the film that precedes it sparks something in the soul. Turns out I spent two hours replaying A Hidden Life in my head—everything else passed by in a blur. Sorry Beanpole [also playing VIFF], Terrence Malick set my mind on fire.”

It Must Be Heaven(Elia Suleiman) – Evan was not a fan of Suleiman’s latest, noting at InReview Online that, “Suleiman possesses maybe two or three visual ideas, though he strongly prefers one: sometimes things over here look like things over there. Because warmed-over humanism is his chosen mode, his facile symmetries are meant to reinforce — as the press notes say — the “unexpected parallels” that he discovers while travelling the globe. They’re also meant to be funny. That they fail as comedy is perhaps forgivable. That they turn disparate places and people into easily readable mirror images, which provide us the comfort of the familiar only because they reflect back a portrait of ourselves, is more worthy of condemnation.”

Krabi, 2562 – (Anocha Suwichakornpong & Ben Rivers) – At Reverse Shot, Lawrence writes that Suwichakornpong & Rivers’s collaboration “present[s] the viewer with sundry moving parts buttressed by fulsome textural detail and all manner of disorienting edits. If the pieces don’t quite fit together by the end, linked somewhat arbitrarily by the film’s temporal flattening—the entirety of the Holocene is folded into the present, 2562 being the current year of the Thai Buddhist calendar—that irresolvability is at least part of the point”

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) – At InReview Online, Lawrence sees the risk-averse Baumbach attempting a bit more formal experimentation, such that his new movie “might eventually come to feel like a transitional work within his filmography.” As an example: “Baumbach sets up the formal template of the film, which introduces exaggerated, even caricatured types, then offers sundry details to modulate or even overturn the typification — which is also to say the opposite of what goes on during divorce proceedings, where small slippages are turned into deadly character flaws.”

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho) – In the Georgia Straight, Evan writes that Bong’s “images possess the graphic panache and pith of a comic book panel, and in Parasite, he tosses them off with characteristic ease. But as Bong bulks up his visual prowess with each new film, his characterological muscle only atrophies further. We’ve reached an unhealthy point: the internal and external stimuli that motivate his people are now second order concerns at best, always subordinate to the next punchy composition.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cèline Sciamma) – Writing in the Georgia Straight, Evan was not a fan of Sciamma’s “finicky attention to candlelight and 18th century domestic fripperies [which] can’t hide the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire actually takes place in the present. And like any ready-made facsimile, the historical varnish is merely a concession to bourgeois tastes, a decorative contrivance, and therefore entirely dishonest.”

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid) – Evan in the Georgia Straight: “Lapid sees a neat correlation between his behaviorist approach to character—which abstracts human behavior into a series of violent tics—and the unstable psychogeography of Israeli selfhood. It’s unclear, however, that his style alone is sufficient to explicate his subject, at least to anyone living outside the confines of Nadav Lapid’s skittish mind—which is to say, the rest of us.”

The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin) – At InReview Online, Lawrence notes that while “Comparisons to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin are inevitable, as both share an evident interest in lost and/or defunct film forms, artificial staging, and wild humor.” But, “the difference seems to be that the incongruous, borderline surreal turns of Maddin’s singularly fecund oeuvre feel touched by genuine madness, whereas Rankin’s film registers as merely mannered.”

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa) – Evan is conflicted on Costa’s latest, noting in the Georgia Straight that while “his images are as striking as any in contemporary cinema; they are incredible things to witness on a movie screen” but that “it also raises a question that both Costa and his fans are intent on avoiding. If Vitalina Varela truly belongs to the woman at its center, who lends the film her name and her life story, shouldn’t Costa bend his style around her?”

White Lie (Calvin Thomas & Yonah Lewis) – At InReview Online, Sean wrote that this Canadian indie from the team that brought Spice It Up to last year’s VIFF, about a woman pretending to have cancer is “like a straight version of a Seinfeld episode, with Katie (Kacey Rohl) as the Costanza at the center of it all, barely afloat atop a sea of deceit.”

White Snake (Amp Wong & Ji Zhao) – Reviewing this Chinese animated fantasy at the Mubi Notebook, Sean wrote that “aside from showing a bit too much skin and having a decided lack of songs, White Snake might as well be a Disney product.” But also, “it’s standard fairy tale romance stuff, but done with enough verve and belief that old clichés can be forgiven. It’s not Tsui Hark, but it might be a kids version of House of Flying Daggers.”

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan) – Evan was mixed on the latest from the director of Black Coal, Thin Ice, writing in the Georgia Straight that, “the eccentric mise-en-scène scrambles important plot information just as often as it transmits it with ingenuity. In other words, Diao is a less sophisticated storyteller than he is a stylist, and the narrative convolutions eventually throw a wrench in things. The film breaks down as it approaches its end, and the final beat, which should register with the emphatic force of a full stop, instead trails off like an ellipsis.”

Midnight Diner (Tony Leung Ka-fai, 2019)

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I am, as I suspect many people are, afflicted with an unquenchable fondness for movies about food. Close-ups of meat sizzling, the sound of tea being poured into a china cup, the crispy crunch of vegetables being chopped, it all triggers some kind of ASMR-like pleasure center deep in the back of my brain. Combine that with a rich environment filled with deep brown wood, dark stone tile, golden light and a tinkling piano score, and I’m sold. Midnight Diner has all of this and more–it’s only lack is any glimpse of the greatest food of them all. But fortunately there’s more than enough cheese in its screenplay to compensate.

Tony Leung Ka-fai is The Other Tony Leung. Not the one who starred in Hard-Boiled and Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, that’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai, but the one who starred in Prison on Fire and Centre Stage and Election. Chiu-wai starred in Bullet in the Head, Ka-fai starred in A Better Tomorrow III. They both starred in Ashes of Time and The Eagle-Shooting Heroes. Chiu-wai is “Little Tony”, Ka-fai is “Big Tony”. Chiu-wai starred a couple of years ago in a movie called See You Tomorrow, about a bartender who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. Ka-fai stars in a movie called Midnight Diner which opens this week and is about a chef who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. See You Tomorrow was directed by Zhang Jiajia, and was based on his own story, and is dizzyingly fast-paced, zooming forward and backward in time with egregiously orange images, like Speed Racer meets My Blueberry NightsMidnight Diner was directed by Ka-fai himself, and is based on a manga by Yarō Abe that has previously been adapted into a TV series in Japan, Korea and China, as well as two films directed by Joji Matsuoka. It’s as calm and conventional as See You Tomorrow is garish and unexpected.

Leung plays the chef at a diner in Shanghai that is only open from midnight until seven in the morning. It’s called, in the delightfully direct manner of Chinese movie restaurants, “Midnight Diner”. It’s frequented by a variety of more or less normal people, and Leung tells us their stories in narration. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but only barely so. There’s a boxer who fights with his mom (Elaine Jin) even though they both really love each other. The boxer falls for a nurse who has a daughter in a wheelchair, but his mother interferes (trying only to help, of course). A young executive (Joyce Cheng) panics about the impending arrival of the boy she was too afraid to pursue in high school. Leung’s brother, a local cop, loses his temper sometimes. A young couple from Hunan break up because he wants to make money and go home while she dreams of making it big as a model. A rock star falls in love with a young singer but loses her.

None of it is particularly moving and it’s certainly not original, but it is weirdly comforting to see something this old fashioned. That comfort is only amplified by the rich sensuousness of restaurant set and the cooking scenes. Leung himself very obviously is not doing the cooking (the only time we see a longshot of food preparation is a bit of him cracking an egg, all the other cooking images are close-ups that block the chef’s face), which is kind of funny. And the warmth and closeness of the restaurant are nicely contrasted with the vast neon darkness of the megalopolis at night. Other recent food movies have delivered the same kinds of pleasures, while also managing to tell an interesting story: Ramen Shop‘s exploration of the legacy of World War II in Singapore, for example, or a young woman’s reconciliation with her mother and her life in the city during a year on a farm in Little Forest (in both the two-part Japanese version and the single-feature Korean version). While Leung himself has been outspoken recently in support of the Hong Kong police and against the protestors there, there’s nothing the least bit controversial in Midnight Diner. It’s a conservative movie to be sure, but in the way of the kindly grandpa at the other end of the counter who dresses in tweed and doles out reassuring aphorisms and gently pours you a cup of tea when you’re sad. It’s a nice movie, and it made me very hungry.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018, Roberto Minervini)

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The opening gesture of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? consists of a move from the outward to the inward. A hard cut yields the first shot in the film, following an adolescent Mardi Gras Indian as he bounds down a suburban street, brandishing a sword and chanting along to a pounding drum beat. This restless image gives way to enclosure, as two young brothers cautiously make their way through a flickering haunted house, with the younger sibling clearly more frightened than the elder. This lateral move, from a figure who never reemerges to two of the film’s main characters, typifies the structural schema of this remarkable film: relations between scenes and characters are fluid and inexact, operating more on contrast and rhythm than thematic heft, and yet yielding tantalizing, often moving associations.

The director of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (a title derived from a traditional spiritual), the Italian-born, Houston-based Roberto Minervini, began in fiction filmmaking before moving to documentary, or at least a slippery hybrid that mines both the approximate formal and narratological approach of standard documentary and the performativity that comes with any human being placed in front of a camera. His two previous works in this vein, 2013’s Stop the Pounding Heart and his 2015 breakthrough The Other Side, both followed white outsiders; the former featuring religious goat farmers in Texas, the latter following amphetamine addicts and, in one of the most disquieting and prescient sequences of filmmaking of the decade, far-right nationalists in Louisiana.

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With What You Gonna Do…, Minervini shifts focus within the Bayou State to a different group of outsiders. Hewing exclusively to the black communities in Baton Rouge and its outskirts, he focuses mostly on three separate threads: a bar owner, Judy; the two brothers from the opening, Ronaldo and Titus; and the members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The film’s style is stripped of almost all adornment: no intertitles, chyrons, or dividing chapters; no clear delineation of dates — though the film begins and closes with the Mardi Gras Indians, who are otherwise not seen, and the New Black Panther Party’s protest surrounds the one-year anniversary of Alton Sterling’s murder by the police; and no direct interviews or voiceovers.

The approach, then, is almost akin to a hyperrealized — perhaps overly so — version of verite, shot entirely in black-and-white handheld and frequently in extended close-ups. Minervini, who is also one of the camera operators, observes from mere inches away as Judy commiserates with her friends about the ingrained nature of institutional discrimination as a modern form of slavery, or as the New Black Panther Party protests outside of the Baton Rouge City Hall, or as Ronaldo and Titus bike freely down the city streets. His aim here isn’t necessarily one of total sociopolitical equivalency — his sincere belief and support of the radicalism suggested and stated by his adult figures seems apparent — but the coherency and cohesion of this particular experience is paramount.

In the modern landscape, when racial oppression in America and elsewhere is very nearly as severe as it has ever been, What You Gonna Do… understands that the small moments of day-to-day living are just as vital as the outward protests. (Whiteness is the structuring absence in some ways: no white people are visible on screen until the New Black Panther Party’s final scene, in which multiple members are arrested at a protest by taser-wielding police officers.) The vitality that his fluid camera and editing afford these people only enhances their quiet but defiant resistance, achieving a sweeping quality because of, not in spite of, their individuality.

The Case of Hana and Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2015)

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What do you do if you want to make a prequel to one of your best movies, one built as much around the performances of two terrific young actresses more than anything else, but a decade has passed and the actresses are now much too old to be playing the same characters? Well, if you’re Shunji Iwai, you make it as an anime. That’s the case with The Case of Hana and Alice, the prequel to his 2004 film Hana and Alice. Anne Suzuki and Yū Aoi (respectively) reprise their roles in voice form with an origin story for the two slightly odd friends. In most respects, the film is of a piece with the original: both are slice of life films about teen girls, with meandering plots filled with small moments of wonder and mystery. That they could be so similar and yet be made in dramatically different media speaks to the paucity of Hollywood imagination, where “animated” is a genre unto itself (an almost exclusively kid-oriented one), rather than merely one method among many for telling a story.

Alice moves into a new house and starts a new school in the 9th grade. She’s immediately set upon by her classmates because her assigned desk belonged to a boy who is rumored to have died the year before, which the students have interpreted as some kind of occult phenomenon. She fights back (ably beating up one boy who tries to torment her) and sets out to solve the mystery of the former student’s disappearance, which leads her to her reclusive neighbor, Hana, who sat behind him in class the year before. The two eventually join forces, with Hana coming up with various schemes to track down the boy’s father and Alice lackadaisically playing along.

This leads to a remarkable yet entirely tangential sequence, as Alice, accidentally following and then befriending the wrong old man, finds herself in a miniature remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru. With several shots lifted straight out of the Kurosawa, she befriends her wistful elder, visiting a crowded restaurant and a swing set with him. It’s a completely inessential sidetrack, having literally nothing to do with furthering the plot, and it’s absolutely perfect. A film about the wonder and possibility of youth taking the time to meditate for a bit on what it means to be old and alone.

The Kurosawa thing makes me think about the connections between Japanese feature film and anime. One of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu’s more famous recurring stylistic features is the pillow shot, a short scene of nothing in particular, a sky, a city street, some power lines. They serve no narrative purpose whatsoever, but they help with the pacing of his films, allowing a momentary breath between scenes, giving the audience a space to think about what they’re seeing. Such shots are also a common feature of manga and anime, individual panels with no story-related content that simply serve to break-up the flow of the narrative, and they’re as anathema to traditional American comic book making as Ozu’s pillow shots are to standard Hollywood editing. In the American tradition, forward movement of the plot is everything, and anything else is a waste of time. This is on its face an absurdly limiting idea of narrative art, but it persists nonetheless (think of all the people out there complaining about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s leisurely pacing as a failure to properly edit).

I don’t know much about anime, but I’ve watched a few series and movies and have maintained subscriptions to both Crunchyroll and Funimation for awhile, despite not really using them as much as I should (as it is with all my streaming services). This summer the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation finally spurred me to watch some of their series: Sound! Euphonium, of which last year’s wonderful Liz and the Bluebird was a spin-off; and K-On!, an earlier series that is also about a high school musical group. They’re terrific, almost directionless shows (K-On! more so than the other: it has an episode that is literally about it being rainy outside, and another about how it’s too hot in the music room) that aren’t so much about growing up or coming of age as they are simply about being young. The Case of Hana and Alice is that kind of movie. And maybe it’s that I’m becoming more and more conscious of the fact that I’m nearer in age to the elderly businessman than I am to the kooky teen girls, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want to miss when it plays for two more shows this Sunday at the Grand Illusion.