VIFF 2016: Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro, 2016)

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Like his previous features Viola and The Princess of France, Matías Piñeiro’s latest takes a Shakespeare play as its jumping off point, in this case A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it’s seemingly less invested in the play at its heart than those others (at least at first glance, more research may reveal structural similarities I didn’t pick up this time, it’s been awhile since I read the play), instead it’s a kind of a coming of age film, but jumbled such that it feels like a wholly fresh take on that well-worn genre. Agustina Muñoz plays a young theatre student who moves from Buenos Aires to New York on fellowship to translate the Shakespeare play (her notebooks, with page after page of the play pasted into them, are one of the film’s many small pleasures). While there she visits her father, a man she’d never met, played by critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt, is visited by a friend of a friend (actress and director Mati Diop, from Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum), and carries on a tentative romance or two, but not in that order. Piñeiro also mixes in scenes in Argentina before her departure, and in New York before her arrival, when one of her friends (María Villar, who played Viola in Viola) lived in the same apartment as part of the same program and dated the same man. The tone throughout is light and playful, even the meeting with the father, though painful and awkward, is suffused with good-humor and warmth. Aside from the jumbled timeline, there’s little of the formal daring of Viola, with its oblique narrative and repeated lines of Shakespeare, or of the brilliantly goofy opening shot of Princess of France. As such, it’s Piñeiro’s most accessible, most easily digestible film.

Taken in quick succession, as I saw them at VIFF, these films Hermia & HelenaThings to Come and After the Storm come to encompass an entire lifespan: the boy from the Koreeda growing into the students of Hermia and Things to Come, who in turn grow into the adult parents of Storm and Things, leading inevitably to the loneliness of late middle age, as marriages dissolve and the younger generation moves away, finally resting on the weary good humor of the elderly Kirin Kiki. These are three filmmakers of different ages from three disparate corners of the world, yet the spirit of these movies is the same: warm and bittersweet and a little bit absurd. Of course, then Paul Verhoeven came along to shatter this globalized humanist dream with Elle, which isn’t exactly a satire and isn’t exactly a nightmare, but creates a world in which the happy existentialism of wistful contentment has no home, where life isn’t about abstraction but the brutal physicality of emotion and the hideous, desperate struggle to achieve and maintain power and control.

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VIFF 2016: After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2016)

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Beginning with a shot out of the canon, a small Japanese kitchen, mother and daughter at work, receding into the distance on the left side of the screen are a series of rectangular spaces, the right angles of doorways leading to doorways, director Kore-eda Hirozaku states his intention to work in the mines first exploited by Yasujiro Ozu in a series of domestic comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. This seems to be Kore-eda’s increasingly preferred mode of work, it’s been a long time since the minimalist fantasy of Afterlife, or even the bizarre Doona Bae vehicle Air Doll (in which the one of the great actresses working today plays a sentient sex doll who learns what it means to be human, and to kill). Since that film, Kore-eda has been following the vein of his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, with a handful of films about families told in a patient, superficially Ozuvian style (no director has ever made a film completely in Ozu’s style: his editing and framing system is simply too idiosyncratic, most, like Kore-eda, recall the shapes of his sets and seek to recreate the pace of his movies with longer shot lengths). If this period of his work is as strong as After the Storm, I for one am content to let Kore-eda keep churning out these movies indefinitely.

Hiroshi Abe plays an acclaimed writer who, blocked in the creation of his second novel and succumbing to his gambling addiction, is working as a shady private investigator. He’s recently divorced and trying to keep the affection of his young son and win his wife back as she moves on to another man. The old woman in the opening scene is his mother, played by Kirin Kiki, who was exceptional as the matriarch in Still Walking and just as good here, the woman was his sister, like him a mooch and a bit of a failure. Hanging over everything is their recently deceased father, a compulsive gambler, an unliterary man who nonetheless took great pride in his penmanship. The various threads weave together during the eponymous storm, the latest in an unusually large number of typhoons (I write in the midst of a typhoon here in Tacoma) to hit Japan that year. After the storm, things aren’t resolved, as they can’t ever be in movies like this, where the recognition of irresolvability is always the resolution, but the air is a little cleaner.

VIFF 2016: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

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The first of two remarkable performances from Isabelle Huppert this year comes as a teacher of philosophy who in late middle-age finds herself with a remarkable amount of freedom and not much idea of what to do with it. Saddled at the beginning of the film with a husband, adult children, friendly former students, an overbearing mother, and a book contract, she loses each one in turn. The husband admits he’s having an affair (“why tell me?” is her gloriously French deadpan response), the kids are off to school, the maddening publicity representatives of her publisher pelt her with inane ideas and finally cut her loose, the mother even dies, leaving her a cat. She takes the cat (Pandora, naturally) to the mountains, a remote writer’s commune, at the invitation of one of her former students. She hangs out with the idealistic twenty-somethings and listens to their deeply-felt internecine lefty squabbles and feels no connection to any of it: these passions are her past. Where Hansen-Løve’s last film, Eden (which played here at SIFF last year) was the life story of a man whose life never really got going, trapped in a perpetual loop of the early 20s, always on the verge but never quite becoming anything, until one day he’s middle-aged and never made it, Things to Come tackles what accomplishment means in life from the other end of the age spectrum. By any conventional standard, Huppert had it all: friends, family, fulfilling employment, but strip all that away and she finds she’s not much different from Eden‘s hero. We are, in most ways, defined by what we do and who we interact with on a daily basis, our role in life is too often conflated with our life itself. Hansen-Løve is after something else though, searching for an irreducible core to our humanity. If anyone can find it, Isabelle Huppert can.

VIFF 2016: Index

Today is the closing day of the Vancouver International Film Festival, and while we’ve been home for awhile now, our coverage continues. Here is an index of what we’ve reviewed, listed alphabetically by title:

After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2016)
Aquarius 
(Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
Beautiful 2016 (Jia Zhangke, Stanley Kwan, et al, 2016)
Crosscurrent (Yang Chao, 2016)
Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro, 2016)

The Intestine (Lev Lewis, 2016)
Last Poems Trilogy (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)
The Lockpicker (Randall Okita, 2016)
Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016)
Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)
A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016)
Ta’ang (Wang Bing, 2016)
Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2016)
Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)
Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016)
Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)

VIFF 2016: Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016)

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As a documentary about the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which thousands of young Hong Kongers gathered to Occupy districts throughout the city in protest of the PRC’s decision to not allow the former colony to directly choose its candidates for high office, Yellowing is something remarkable in our time: an honest direct cinema film, with nary a hint of meta-commentary about film theory or storytelling. Not that there’s anything wrong with the doc/fiction hybrids that have become so ubiquitous lately, there’s just something refreshing about the open earnestness of the filmmaking here, mirroring a little bit the idealism of the young people at its center. Shortly after the Hong Kong police attacked protesters with tear gas on September 27, 2014, Chan began filming the students as they set-up in and occupied the Admiralty and Mongkok neighborhoods. He focuses on a few young people through the run of the 67 day occupation: a man nicknamed Lucky Egg who gives impromptu lectures in English and political philosophy; a young man who works in construction who wanders in and out of the protests–something big always seems to happen when he’s there; a law and literature student named Rachel who makes announcements in three languages and provides the film’s eloquent final statement, an open letter to a professor who had infuriatingly denounced the students’ idealism.

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In focusing on the details of the occupation, recording the quotidian requirements of activism (building rain-proof shelters, finding a mattress to sleep on, distributing water, masks and umbrellas to counter gas attacks), as well as the ideological arguments the protestors are making (they want to be able to vote for their leaders, this is anathema to a paranoid one-party state), Chan’s film resembles no less than Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), one of the great films of this century. The similarities between the protestors then and now is striking, but Watkins’s film, being nearly six hours long, takes a couple of meta-fictional turns in its historical reenactments (for instance: the film’s actors discuss the issues the Communards raised in character, and also as themselves, expressing how the process of playing 150 year old activists affected the way they see politics in their own time). Chan has no need of such artifice: his movie isn’t a reenactment, and we see the impact the process has on his subjects unfolding as it actually happened. Beyond that, we get a feel for both the city itself and the young people not leading, but forming the heart of the movement. Whether discussing the nuts and bolts of activism and its limits (most of them know very well they cannot succeed, but they’re there anyway; Rachel distributes yellow wristbands sporting the slogan “They Can’t Kill Us All”), or just hanging around trying (and failing) to meet girls (“you need guts and brains to get a girl”). In its ground-floor, first-person perspective, it finds more honesty and wisdom and life than a hundred Hollywood issue-advocacy films.

VIFF 2016: Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)

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It’s already too late for someone. A rope is pulled down from a tree and strung back up again. Two shots, and a cloud of suicidal despair rolls in over the coming proceedings. The film stops briefly to introduce itself—the title appears as if clawed across the screen—and just as quickly director Ashley McKenzie plunges back into the lives of two lovers and recovering drug addicts living on the fringes of society.

Werewolf is an addiction movie. And like many films in the genre, its drama orbits around the twin poles of drugs and romance. The compulsive behavior brought on by both intoxicants proves an irresistible symmetry for filmmakers interested in that sort of thing. Narcotics as l’amour fou, or vice versa. The more clinical term is, I believe, co-dependency, and although Werewolf plays freely with the established image of the addict lovers, it distinguishes itself by honing in on the pharmacological ties that bind this relationship. Methadone treatment isn’t just a metaphor here, but a very real medical regime with rules, regulations, lockboxes, and psych evals, all of which are administered and enforced by the faceless social workers who hover around the edges of the rigid frame, abstracted as benignly indifferent voices or anonymous limbs. Snatches of poetry do enter this antiseptic world through McKenzie’s eye, and her Denis-like fascination with skin— real skin, not the finely polished alabaster of most movie actors—keeps things pulsing with humanity. Human moments, however, give way always to the exhausting task of navigating the social order of recovery, and the film remains steadfastly committed to depicting the same degrading ritual time and again: hauling yourself up to the pharmacist’s counter to guzzle down one more dose, the humiliation nearly unbearable save for the fact that it’s shared.

The tragedy, as the opening shots warn us, is that this life can’t be shared forever, and so Werewolf is finally a diverged path, a fork leading two places, one deathly definitive and the other indeterminate, lonely, but not entirely without hope.

VIFF 2016: Crosscurrent (Yang Chao, 2016)

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Poetry is the subject of the moment for 2016. Like Volcanos and Asteroids and Mars before it, we’ve been blessed this year with a plethora of films about writers of verse. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda have all the headlines, and as great as those are (and the first two are without a doubt, great films, while the third, well, isn’t really about poetry and I’m not sure how much it’s about its poet either), the best film about Poetry here at VIFF might just be Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent. Like last year’s Kaili Blues and 2013’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, it’s an independent, somewhat obscure Chinese film where the lines between past and present, myth and reality, documentary and fiction are difficult to grasp. Reversing the direction of Jean Vigo’s great river film L’Atalante, Yang follows a boat on its journey up the Yangtze from Shanghai to its source high on the Tibetan plateau. The captain, whose father has recently died, sees a woman in the Shanghai harbor but fails to meet her. The next night, the boat’s engine stops working and the captain finds, hidden in the machinery, an old and dusty book, filled with poems chronicling another man’s journey on the river (dated 1989), a different poem for every stop on the way along the third longest river in the world. The engine restarts (machines always work better when you take the poetry out of them) and the journey begins in earnest.

On-screen titles give us the locations of each stop, along with how many days the boat has been running, as well as the corresponding poem, composed by Yang himself. At each stop, the captain sees the woman again, always looking for him on the shore. They fall in love, have sex, make food, steal vegetables, but always he goes back to his boat and always she reappears further down the line on land. Ace DP Mark Lee Ping-bin shot the film on 35mm: back in 2012 (when it was filmed) digital technology was incapable of capturing his images, from the fog and steam of the harbors, to the depths of night on the river (a beam of light tracing the movements of the woman high on a cliff-face), to the pairing of the woman’s face, in close-up with a ball of fire: first a lamp, then a candle flame (the floating balls of light Lee found in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin appear briefly here as well). Two-thirds of the way up the river, the Three Gorges Dam severs their connection, its locks taking over the movement of the boat with a ear-shattering, inhumane shriek, throwing the vehicle out into an artificial landscape, through the drowned villages of Still Life and past towering limestone cliffs. The Dam is the definitive break with nature, with the past: modernity cannot recapture what went before, and the captain and the woman can no longer meet. The central mystery of the film is ungraspable in all the best ways. The woman at times seems the soul of the river, or an apparition from the past, doomed to repeat her tragedy Marienbad-style. She could be a manifestation of grief, of longing, of loneliness. She’s all of that and more, and the captain, lost in his dream, can only follow her to the river’s end.

VIFF 2016: Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016) and Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)

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The loudest film of the Future // Present series thus far is Karl Lemieux’s film about a drummer in a noisy band (I’m at least 20 years out of date on music genres) trying to make up for the fact that he and his bandmates, in an off-screen act of stupidity, stole a bunch of pot from local gangsters and now owe several thousand dollars they don’t have and can’t raise. The drummer, Vincent, walks and drives around, drinks beer, works at his job in a factory and tries to get his brother, a meth addict with connections to the mob, to help him out. It’s all shot in black and white, with long sequences scored only by music, recalling the hallucinatory interstitial passages of Jim Jarmsuch’s Dead Man, or the desperate final third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Jean-Simon Leduc, as Vincent, dominates the film, but he’s an incongruous presence in this world. Looking a bit like George Clooney and a lot like Jordan Catalano-era Jared Leto, he’s far too pretty to be a drummer, let alone to be trapped in this dead-end life.

Paired with the feature is one of the best films of the festival so far this year, a three minute short Pop Song (a perfect title), directed by Matthew Taylor Blais. Completely silent, it’s a visual experiment wherein images are layered such that they cancel each other out, creating black spaces in the frame, and then misaligned by a frame, creating a spatial and temporal discontinuity which, with the movement of the image, reveals flashes of gorgeous bright color. Documenting a few quotidian locations: a street sign, trees in a park, a woman, we see their beauty in an entirely new way. It reminded me of Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance and the nature footage from Godard’s Adieu au langage.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

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Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

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The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.