As a general stereotype, body types tend to fall within a particular range in most films, whether they be studio-crafted or independently made. Save for films dealing with a particular subject and milieu, it is rare to see on-screen characters with a significantly larger or significantly smaller physique than what is considered attractive at the time. Even so, the professional bodybuilders that make up the principal subjects of A Skin So Soft possess truly startling builds, their muscles not so much rippling as erupting from their bodies. Yet while the camera lingers over these almost alien protrusions, the documentary is less about the figures than the people beneath them; the ways they interact and present themselves in various states of training, parading, and existing.
The film – billed as a docufiction, though I didn’t spot any sections that seemed particularly staged – is structured around six Québécois bodybuilders of varying backgrounds, each training for a pageant competition in various methods. Much of the runtime is built on these training sections, on patiently observing these large men on their own personal missions to mold their bodies into desired outcomes. Director Denis Côté ensures that the pace never flags by jumping around between the men, but the most notable aspect of A Skin So Soft is its sense of humanity and compassion; though the bodybuilders are plainly unique and unusual, it is emphasized how ordinary and quotidian their existence is. One has a family to take care of, one juggles his bodybuilding with his wrestling career, the youngest of the athletes seems obsessed with VR – none of them are depicted with any hint of either deification or condescension. The documentary ends on an odd note, after the first time all six men have met on screen, but it scarcely seems to matter; it remains intently observant, almost loving, to the end.
It’s unclear if this film is actually a continuation of the SPL series or if it just started as one and then mutated into its own thing. I thought I saw the characters for “Sha Po Lang” on the title card of the movie though, so I’m just gonna go with it. Regardless, like the second film in the series, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, Paradox has only a tenuous thematic relation to its forbearers: all of the characters are new. Louis Koo plays a Hong Kong cop who travels to Pattaya, in Thailand, in search of his daughter, who has gone missing. He hooks up with a Thai cop (Wu Yue) as the two uncover an organ trafficking ring with connections all the way to the top of city government. Helping out in the investigation is another cop, a superstitious (possibly psychic) Tony Jaa, star of the last SPL and arguably the best martial arts star in the world today, in what amounts to little more than a guest-starring role. The final villain is played by Lam Ka-tung (Sparrow, Trivisa), which means that the two most important Thai characters in the film are played by Chinese actors. Such are the vagaries of international cinema.
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The Future//Present program at VIFF has quickly become one of the most dynamic and interesting streams the festival has to offer, adding to the festival’s longtime commitment to the cutting edge in Asian cinema an exploration of the burgeoning Canadian independent film scene, offering showcase opportunities to young filmmakers from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. This year’s program was even better than last year’s inaugural offering, and provided some of the festival’s most interesting, engaging and challenging films.
Last year’s program was lead by a feature and a trilogy of shorts from director Sofia Bohdanowicz, who returns this year with her documentary Maison du bonheur. Filmed on a Bolex over 30 days during a stay with a friend’s mother in Paris, the film is both the story of a woman and the way she does things (makes bread, gets her hair styled) and the story of a woman making a film about a woman she finds fascinating. While not as explicitly meta-cinematic as Never Eat Alone, Bohdanowicz continually leaves in her own attempts to erase herself from her movie (telling her subject how to answer questions when the questioner won’t be heard, or telling people not to look directly at the camera or acknowledge her presence), and at times simply can’t help but take it over, including snippets of her nightly audio journal entries, or taking a side trip to Deauville, the site of some unexplained unhappiness in her past, for which this trip, this film project, seems in some way designed to, if not exactly erase, then somehow compensate for: she wants new memories. It’s a warm, fascinating film from one of the best young filmmakers in the world today.
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Fresh off of wide acclaim both at film festivals across North America (the New York Asian Film Festival, Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal as well as here at VIFF) and at home, where it was just edged out as Thailand’s submission to the Academy Awards (in favor of SIFF favorite (and veteran of last year’s VIFF) By the Time It Gets Dark, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s cheating scandal/heist film is one of the most enjoyable, smartest genre films of the year. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn, the eponymous Bad Genius, who allows her pretty, but dumb, friend Grace and Grace’s pretty, but dumb and super-rich, boyfriend Pat to convince her to help them cheat on tests at their high school, an exclusive (ie expensive) private school. Lynn lives modestly with her father, a divorced teacher, and only attends the school on what she believes is a full-ride scholarship. When she learns the school is still charging her father money he really can’t afford, she decides to stick it to the system by snagging as much money from her wealthy classmates as she can. Eventually she ropes in the school’s other star scholarship student, Bank, who’s as smart as Lynn but even poorer. Years of cheating eventually lead them to try to cheat the STIC, the standardized test given to students all around the world who hope to study abroad.
The whole film, and especially the cheating sequences, are hyper-kinetic, with camera movement and on-screen graphics bringing life to what is essentially a group of kids filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil (there’s even a killer chase sequence, in a film about test-taking!). But Nattawut also deftly delineates the economic landscape of the school, with the rich kids pressured by their families to succeed at all costs: their exploitation of the poor, smart kids is merely following the logic of their parents’ ideology. And the poor kids, recognizing how the system is rigged against them, are motivated to sell their labor to the highest bidder, regardless of the ethical consequences. The ultimate moral crisis in the film is not so much the cheating, everyone knows that’s “wrong” and everyone does it anyway. Rather it’s in the differing ways Lynn and Bank chose to act within a society in which everyone cheats. Bank, fully internalizing the demon logic of capitalism, is never content, he’s constantly out to squeeze another million baht out of his marks, always in need of a new grift. For Lynn though, ultimately, enough is enough. She alone has the imagination both to create the scheme to cheat the system, and to see a way out of it.
120 Beats per Minute, inexplicably changed to Beats per Minute or simply BPM for its English language title, at least so far, we’ll see when it gets a regular theatrical release, is a heist film built around a social problem, a social problem film structured around a series of heists, a film about politics that sees action as not only possible, but necessary for life in the face of inexplicable tragedy. It’s the story of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the early 90s, protesting the Mitterrand government’s silence about the AIDS crisis and pushing drug companies to speed up the release of new drugs that promised to greatly ameliorate the effects of the deadly disease. The film alternates between fascinating group discussions in which the activists argue about and plan various tactics (with shades of Ken Loach’s masterpiece The Wind that Shakes the Barley) with highly suspenseful recreations of their guerrilla demonstrations. One invasion of a drug company office, for example, is as fraught with suspense as any sequence in any film this year. Running through it all is the love story between a young HIV+ activist and a new, negative member (regardless of their status, all ACT UP members would claim to the public to be positive). Each movement is punctuated by a dance party, the youth of the world luxuriating in a space where they’re free to express their sexuality with the kind of joyous release that comes from spending most of your life confronting your own imminent mortality. The film is an effective counterpoint to all of the nihilism of Nocturama, where a later generation of revolutionaries lacks the imagination or will power to carve out a place for themselves outside the system, where their aimless act of resistance is easily swallowed up by the world they stand against. If there’s a more vital piece of popular cinema this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.
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It seems oddly fitting to begin my VIFF coverage with a few shorts that hail from the country in which the festival is located. Though I saw many wonderful features, there is something congruous between these works and the low-key but still kinetic feel of the festival itself, a peculiar humble vitality that I haven’t truly seen elsewhere.
Kazik Radwanski’s “Scaffold,” which premiered at Locarno to large acclaim, exemplifies this mindset extremely well. Taking place over the course of a workday, it (narratively, not visually) depicts two Bosnian-Canadian laborers working on various jobs in and out of homes around Toronto. The shooting style takes many cues from Bresson in the almost exclusive focus on hands interacting with various objects, including the eponymous scaffold, and there is a quietly optimistic tone about the whole venture. There are small dramatic moments – a dropped phone and flower vase – and some themes of class and nationality hover around the edges, but on the whole the actions are extremely quotidian. The gestures are humble but always striking, and the short knows exactly when to end, which is always a pleasure in short-form works.
There are many films at this year’s VIFF, but I would wager a healthy sum of money that “Let Your Heart Be Light,” written, starring, and directed by Deragh Campbell and Sophy Romvari, is the only one to feature footage from a Vincente Minnelli movie. Said film is Meet Me in St. Louis, and as might be extrapolated the short deals with affairs of the heart during Christmastime. During the Q&A afterwards, Campbell mentioned that the use of the Minnelli, with its swooning, grand emotions, was meant to act as counterpoint, and much more influence can be found in terms of worldview, if not shooting style, in Akerman – who is visible on a coffee mug here. The principal character, Sophy (played by Campbell) is coming off of a recent breakup, the short invests much more interest in her simple desire to celebrate Christmas the best she can, listening to religious holiday songs and slowly decorating a tree. When Deragh (played by Romvari) arrives to comfort her friend, the short takes on additional resonance, emotion in a truly gentle and honest way; sometimes the most precious gift to have is a modest tree and a friend to hold, an idea which is executed with elegance and kindness. [Though I hadn’t seen the short before, it premiered last year as part of the omnibus film 🌲🌲🌲, and can be found here at 22:35.]
Most of the filmmakers associated with the Berlin School have rejected the label in some fashion, or at least questioned the label’s applicability to their work when placed in proximity to that of their peers, and given the individual ascendence of people like Petzold and Ade, who do have idiosyncratic interests that extend beyond the pre-defined set of Berlin School signifiers (a superficially televisual look, something something “the European Project,” etc.) it makes sense that artists increasingly want to claim a personal project rather than be lumped in with a brand. And critics have, from my vantage point at least, followed the filmmakers’ lead. There’s a sense that the Berlin Schoolers have graduated from new wave status, or have at least matriculated from Un Certain Regard to Competition, and ought to be taken more directly on their own terms. But then what to make of a filmmaker like Valeska Grisebach, and particularly Western, which emerged in Un Certain Regard over a decade after her last feature premiered during the height of Berlin School attention and which feels more wedded to the school than the likes of Toni Erdmann or Phoenix? To a greater extent than her more famous peers, Grisebach and her films fit right into the box: a markedly plain style of flat key lighting and un-showy set-ups, an unabashed concern about Germany’s place in 21st century Europe, and a fondness for discreet, almost imperceptible abstraction.
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Mysterious Object at Cannes
Claire’s Camera, barely over an hour long and shot in about a week at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, isn’t even the best Hong Sangsoo movie of the past year. That would be On the Beach at Night Alone. Nor is it likely to be the most popular, with The Day After, which like Claire’s Camera played at Cannes this year, more likely to attract an audience outside of Hong’s hardcore devotees, with a look and mood more in line with the masters of the European art film. But there isn’t a film this year that I’ve had more fun thinking about and rewatching than Claire’s Camera, with the possible exceptions of Baahubali 2 and the film Hong had at this year’s SIFF (and last year’s VIFF), Yourself and Yours. Every Hong film gets better the more times you watch it, his peculiarly fluid approach to reality and temporality make even the most basic elements of his scenarios matters for speculation, kaleidoscopic objects that shift not only meaning but cause and effect with every new viewing. But Claire’s Camera is exceptional in this regard. Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve had to invent a whole new theory of the film, none of which have so far managed to explain all the facts as they’re presented. Watching it is like trying to solve a puzzle in which several key pieces are missing. I’m going to try and work through it here, which will involve sorting through the plot in detail. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should, it’s delightful. But you should probably stop reading now if spoilers concern you.
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