SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Abstracted images of abs and biceps open Beach Rats, appearing to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. The body is Frankie’s, a closeted teenager whose father dies outside his bedroom while his attraction to virile middle-aged men awakens. Director Eliza Hittman mingles thanatos and eros, ethnography and moralism unproductively, aiming for balance but arriving at regressive parallelism. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

SIFF 2017: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Boundaries are under attack in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thailand. The 1976 Thammasat University massacre infiltrates past and present, people and personhood, eating away at the tissue that divides. What’s left over is anyone’s guess: By the Time It Gets Dark shape-shifts into a unclassifiable design, the root contagion ultimately wreaking havoc beyond Suwichakornpong’s control. A kaleidoscopic final shot throws acid, though it seems that the film might spore on, finding forms both banal and beautiful forever.

SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

SIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

Outsider status in gymnI long for the land that isn’t
For all that is I’m tired of wanting

Sami Blood, Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice: “Mom?” More knocking. The same voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice. It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman, turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

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In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and even shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, away from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin. Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Zuebo, 2016)

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What does it mean to program a film like Knife in the Clear Water in 2017? And lest there be any confusion, Wang Xuebo’s film is not, as the title suggests, a Polanskian exercise in triangulated sexual tension. There aren’t even enough points here to form a triangle; the only relationship of note is between man and cow. I’ll resist the flippant impulse to label the movie itself as bovine, but suffice it to say that if you’ve been to a film festival in the last 30 years, you’ve encountered Wang’s chosen mode: the lumbering, slow, dull art movie, the kind of cinema constructed around underrepresented peasant classes, devoid of incident save the barest whisper of conflict, composed exclusively in long take, and, bonus points, in 4:3.

The film follows a farmer who resists sacrificing his beloved beast of burden in order to fulfill the burial rites initiated by his wife’s death. Shot in China’s harsh mountain region Ningxia, Knife in the Clear Water understands itself to be a hard-eyed glimpse into the lives of the Hui people who call this place their home. At least in terms of texture, the film does manage to capture something: the way that atmosphere, earth, and skin mingle together as if cut from the same ashen cloth suggests the bond shared between the landscape and its inhabitants. On the other hand, I wonder the extent to which any of the filmmaking choices here emerge from lived experience. I cannot presume to know how the Hui community in the film would choose to depict themselves, either collectively or through the peculiar eye of a homegrown artist, and for all I know what’s on display here is that vision, but the fealty with which Knife in the Clear Water adheres to every stylistic cliche of the festival circuit, its total alignment with the demands of the market (and let’s be clear, it is a market), raises some doubts. Hou Hsiao-hsien and co.—inarguably the progenitors of the style—can count many sons and daughters among the filmmakers most favored by programmers worldwide, which must be considered a coup given the initial modesty of their project, and yet by transforming an economic limitation into an aesthetic they bequeathed to a generation of cash-strapped artists a safe, bankable blueprint. The blame for slow cinema’s status as a lazy generic default can’t be laid at their feet or even Wang’s, really. But après Hou, le déluge; year after year the market is flooded.

A film like Knife in the Clear Water exists because filmmakers and festivals lack a vision of the future. Both ran the numbers, looked at what got slotted before, and traded in the danger of artistic risk for the well-worn laws of supply and demand. There’s a reasonable hope that, like any economy, the glut of product might be cut short if we stopped consuming it. But alas: to program Knife in the Clear Water in 2017 means programming it, under a different and presumably less tantalizing title, again and again and again.

Baahubali: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

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S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (dutifully reviewed here at SSS) was a work of grand spectacle, visual wonder and narrative simplicity. It found Rajamouli delivering a shot across the bow, if you will, announcing his intent to deliver a film worthy of the epics which drive the mechanics of the plot, and could stand side by side with Hollywood. But it is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which truly delivers on that promise.

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Dash Shaw, 2016)

The debut feature of comic book artist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, begins by firmly zeroing in on the concerns of young adult fiction: the new school year, the character’s social status, and all the insecurities that are inherent in being a teenager. But these early moments soon take backseat to what is basically a disaster film in miniature, inserting small nuggets of character detail and humor into what is a tired narrative. However, the stock scenario does nothing to derail from the wondrous sensibility of the animation, which is relentlessly inventive.

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

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

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The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

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“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

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The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.)