Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015)


(This review was originally published in 2015 as a part of the Vancouver Film Festival coverage.)

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared. Continue reading Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015)”

It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting, 2015)

Emily Ting’s romantic comedy opens this week at the Varsity Theatre, but we saw it last fall at the Vancouver International Film Festival (The title has inexplicably misplaced its “It’s” since then, which we are choosing to ignore). Here’s what we wrote about it back then:

Sean’s Review:

Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a different kind of fantasy, one of ex-patriates in Hong Kong and, more distressingly, of indie filmmakers weaned on Before Sunrise. Jamie Chung plays an American from Los Angeles (her grandparents emigrated from Hong Kong) lost in the city who runs into a fellow American named Josh. He’s the Joshiest Josh in film history, working in finance but really, an aspiring novelist. Actor Bryan Greenberg looks like the child of Michael Rappaport and John Krasczinski, but with even worse hair than that implies. He shows her around, lets slip way too late in the evening that he has a girlfriend and the couple splits. . . only to reunite a year later for another walk (once again hitting places best seen in Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To films) and faux-naturalistic conversation (and a trip to a bar to see a Hong Kong knock-off of Arcade Fire, which is exactly as appalling as that sounds). After a century of Parisian dominance, it’s clear to me that Hong Kong is the most cinematic city in the world, and it certainly doesn’t let Ting down. The film is gorgeous, the bright lights of Hong Kong providing enough inherent pleasure that one is able to overlook the constructed obviousness of the script and the bland nothingness that is Greenberg’s performance. Chung fares better, her lines are just as generic but she sells them with big eyes and a world-saving smile. Pretty as the city is, it’s a problem when during the romantic climax of your film, the most interesting thing on screen is the multi-layered play of lights on a taxi cab window. Not even a cameo from the great Richard Ng can bring it to life.

Mike’s Review:

White guy living in Hong Kong meets an American woman of Chinese descent. The two hit it off but complications ensue when it is discovered they have other attachments. As a travelogue for the gorgeous city of Hong Kong, this works well enough, with depictions of the majestic skyline and bustling streets. As a romance or a comedy or a showcase for the art of acting, it is a failure.

VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)

the assassin

Hou Hsiao-hsien structures his new film, The Assassin, as a sort of once upon a time tale. It begins with narration, a mix of the historical and the mythic, and I am at once immersed in a dream-like tale that will, indeed, haunt my memory, just as history and myth so often do, becoming reference points in my present, even when I am not consciously aware of their influence.

It is ninth century China, and political struggle infects the kingdom. The royal court fears a strong, militarized outer province, Weibo; too much delegated power is a threat to the court’s own strength. Weibo, with a century of nearly complete self-governance, fears a reduction in its autonomy. It is a struggle that absorbs everyone.

And yet within this kingdom, there is a mother who tells another story, the story of a single bird. Caged and alone, the bird sits silent, a small stranger in the human world around it, unable to sing to those so unlike itself. Its human keepers feel compassion for it and give it a mirror. Recognizing something like itself, it sings a song of sadness. It dances, and then it dies.

Continue reading “VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)”

VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Maria and MotherGeoff sitting with Kate

Human, and faced with a sea of things, images, stories, characters, all bobbing this way and that, slipping and sliding away from me, I seek some rope to grasp, a line that might form for me a connection between the things. And if I can only pull that line taut, I might be able to stay above the waves and see a pattern in the flotsam.

It isn’t really flotsam, of course, that wave of films I found my fest-inexperienced self submerged beneath at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.  Each film in itself is a unique, individual thing, only forced, by necessity into a mass. And we should be used, in any case, to consuming art in the mass, collective form – in a museum, in an anthology – curated and then presented to us as somehow related objects.  Even if we pick our way through an anthology or skip rather guiltily past the 13th century wing of the museum and make straight for the Impressionists, we are still aware of all of these disparate things gathered together under an umbrella of a particular Thing, and, invited to do so, the pattern seeking mind all the more eagerly links themes, ideas, modes, shapes, colors.

Artists, of course, do not live in a vacuum, and their works may be, certainly, drawing from other works, even without conscious intent. Still, it would be difficult to say 8th century Chinese landscapes were drawing any influence from Byzantine frescoes. And yet, place such a set of landscapes next to a few frescoes, I’d surely spot a pattern. I can’t help it; I put them together, and the one will converse with the other.

And so, while yet understanding the potential folly of such conjunctions and conversations, I can’t help but make them and hope that such a convergence will illuminate the individual objects themselves.

Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan film, Ixcanul, has very little in common with Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly British film, 45 Years, and yet, as the VIFF programming gods would have it, I saw them back to back on a Saturday afternoon early this October, and they nestle comfortably together in my mind, chapter 1 and chapter 2 in a little anthology of Domestic Intimacies.   Continue reading “VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)”

VIFF 2015: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, 2015)

RGB tiff image by MetisIP

 Part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. This review is by Vancouver-based critic Neil Bahadur.

The most ambitious film so far from the great director Jia Zhangke, working in a gorgeous, cyclical structure that it might make it too easy to disregard the film’s more provocative aspects. Jia has been obsessed with the globalization of China since day one, but what is different here is the syphoning of aspects of contemporary China into three broken segments, each of which purport to be a narrative-driven family melodrama. But what seems youthful naivete is rather the fading of a culture, what seems disillusionment of middle-age is the economic collapse of the world we live in today. . . so the earnestness of the film’s final third is the only response possible to the removal of culture entirely. Jia’s 2025 is a fairy-tale world, a complete fantasy wherein this (actually very conventional) three-act structure, surrealism is fully integrated into this narrative sense. And because of the disparity between this part and the first two, this approach disconcerts rather than shocks or provokes. The movie is a series of Brechtian devices which exhaust themselves, and so the only option left is to wear its heart on its sleeve.

Continue reading “VIFF 2015: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, 2015)”

VIFF 2015: The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

forbidden room faces

Guy Maddin made a music video for a Sparks song about asses starring a lobotomized Udo Kier and whip-wielding Geraldine Chaplin. He (along with co-writer/director Evan Johnson) also made a couple dozen more weird, wacky, wonderful films and smashed them together in the glorious, uproarious new feature, The Forbidden Room. It’s Maddin’s best feature to date and one of the essential cinema experiences of the year.

Continue reading “VIFF 2015: The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, 2015)”

VIFF Notes: Days 3 & 4

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Some brief thoughts on films I saw Sunday and Monday at the festival.


The Piper (Kim Gwangtae, 2015): Full review

three cities

A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 2015): Sweeping historical romance that hearkens back to the grand gestures of classical Hollywood. The film charts the courtship of Jackie Chan’s parents, played by Tang Wei and Sean Lau, as they are kept apart under the duress of war and an evolving 20th century China. It’s better than Doctor Zhivago.

forbidden room

The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, 2015): A madcap descent into the outer territories of cinema. The Forbidden Room is an audacious and hilarious collection of absurd vignettes, all nested in one another, dreams within hallucinations. Everyone is game to follow Maddin and Johnson through the kaleidoscopic kino-hole, including such greats as Mathieu Almaric, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier. The undisputed highlight of the festival so far.

port of call

Port of Call (Philip Yung, 2015): An unflinching dual examination of a teenager’s short life and that of the detective who desperately needs closure for her gruesome death. The film contains some of the most graphic imagery ever put onscreen. Acts as both a window into the struggles of contemporary China and a portrait of the unique and universal sadness of teenage girls. Felt at times like a cross between Zodiac and Fire Walk With Me but scarier than both.


It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting, 2015): White guy living in Hong Kong meets an American woman of Chinese descent. The two hit it off but complications ensue when it is discovered they have other attachments. As a travelogue for the gorgeous city of Hong Kong, this works well enough, with depictions of the majestic skyline and bustling streets. As a romance or a comedy or a showcase for the art of acting, it is a failure.

RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN_key still (3)

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015): Full review

VIFF 2015: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN_key still (1)

The new Hong Sangsoo film, Right Now, Wrong Then, is very much concerned with the famed director’s usual themes. He is again at work with a story involving a hard-drinking filmmaker and the nature of casual encounters. But the movie is less about its surface than with an inquiry into its structural narrative. As always, it’s the differences from the works that came before it that excite. The nice thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that it also affords the joys of differentiating it from itself.

Continue reading “VIFF 2015: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)”

Entertainment (Rick Alverson, 2015)

entertainment_0Part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. This review is by Vancouver-based critic Neil Bahadur.

Rick Alverson’s new film Entertainment, isn’t perfect. At first, I didn’t know if I’d even call it great. If not for Neil Hamburger’s humor, the first hour of the film would feel endlessly repetitive and banal, situations reiterating themselves with seeming meaninglessness, mimicking The Comedian’s situation which repeats itself in a series of dive-bars, where he is only greeted with disappointment and indifference. Not for nothing is the only place where Hamburger elicits a response a prison. Self-defeat rules this comedian’s life, and so too the film; it seems humor itself is the only defense mechanism left before falling into the void of cynicism and despair. Alverson’s distance is disconcerting at first: as Phil Coldiron alluded to in his review, Alverson has an Antonioni-esque spacial awareness. But perhaps this is necessary to make distinct the difference between Hamburger the performer, and Turkington the actor. Yet both are very similar: Turkington attempts twice to connect to his daughter and fails, Hamburger attempts several times to connect to an audience and fails. Hamburger doesn’t use these life-disappointments as fodder for material, he rather vomits out mad, belligerent nonsense (admittedly for me, often quite amusing) But for all these lapses of humor, I was ready to give up on the film. “OH great, another movie about like, alienation or something and some shitty guy being an asshole.” There’s even an impossibly obvious shot where our comedian walks around in circles. But then Turkington/Hamburger has to face repercussions for his actions, and suddenly the film takes a sharp, unexpected turn into something far more abstract, forcing me to re-evaluate something I was about to write-off. It became clear that Hamburger/Turkington is on a sort of pilgrimage, a hellish progression from self-consciousness to self-awareness.

Continue reading Entertainment (Rick Alverson, 2015)”

VIFF Notes: Days 1 & 2

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Some brief thoughts on the films I saw over the first 48 hours in Vancouver.


Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena, 2015): Iranian film about a young teacher in mourning over the death of her parents. The film follows her through daily life as she attempts to put in a work transfer at the school. Meanwhile two of the students have gone missing. The film was shot illegally with some of the participants not even aware that they were being filmed. While it pulls back a little more of the curtain on women’s lives in modern Iran, it never really finds an engaging entry point. Part of this is due to star Dorna Dibaj, whose depiction of depression comes off frequently as simple disaffection.

thoughts once we had

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen, 2015): Full review.

pearl button

The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzman, 2015): Eye-opening documentary that deftly weaves in the fading history of Chile’s indigenous culture with an examination of more recent genocidal atrocities and a rumination on the vitality of water. The coalescence of these elements is deeply satisfying. The Pearl Button is a beautifully shot documentary that at times plays like The Act of Killing mixed with Herzog’s oddity The Wild Blue Yonder.


Erbarme dich – Matthaus Passion Stories (Ramon Gieling, 2015): An artfully staged exploration into the power of Johan Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion”. Musicians, conductors, artists, and writers recount their personal relationship with the work. The film does this while charting rehearsals for a performance featuring a choir of homeless people. (Jesus is played by a shaggy, overweight tenor with Led Zeppelin shirt.)  The best parts of the documentary are the bits that stray from the conventions of the medium, in particular a series of bold intertitles of philosophical musical musings.


Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015): Full review.


Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc Jin, 2015): A woman works tirelessly to care for her deaf, fingerless husband in a coma when she finds out that redeveloping the neighborhood could be her ticket to financial stability. So she does what any normal person would do and ties a therapist to a chair and feeds her poisoned blowfish. It’s a self-consciously quirky mix of the macabre and the mundane that falls squarely in the latter category, despite the blood and explosions.