Movie Roundup: VIFF ’09 Edition

About six months ago, I started this roundup of my trip to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I didn’t make it very far then, but since I actually didn’t watch any movies at all this week, I figure now’s as good a time as any to finish it. Plus, It’d be nice to have it done before I go the the San Francisco International Film Festival in a few weeks. Here’s a ranked account of what I saw:

1. Oxhide II – The best film I saw at the festival is this realtime chronicle of the director Liu Jiayin and her parents preparing, cooking and eating dumplings. It consists of only nine shots, with each setup spaced 45 degrees clockwise from the last. This structure doesn’t make the film feel quite as rigid as it sounds, as Liu varies the position of the camera vertically: table height, over the shoulder, on the floor, etc. It’s a film about a process, sure, but one that elevates everyday activities to the level of ritual and tradition. Not a documentary, or an exercise in verité “realism”, but a wholly scripted, formalized film that nevertheless feels as relaxed and effervescent as anything I’ve ever seen.

2. Like You Know It All – Hong Sang-soo’s films, at least the three I’ve seen (this along with Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man, are what would happen if Apichatpong Weerasethakul decided to make a series of Woody Allen movies. Like Allen, Hong’s films follow the romantic misadventures of a neurotic film director; like Apichatpong, his films have a bifurcated structure, wherein the first half sets up characters, situations and themes with the second half consisting of variations on those characters, situations and themes. In this one, Hong’s director first travels to a film festival, where he’s to serve on the jury. He’s rather indifferent to that task, however, preferring to drink with the staff and nurture a grudge against the younger director being honored with a festival retrospective. In the second, he travels to his old school to lecture, and finds the students are largely indifferent to him and his films. In both halves, the director attempts to hook up with the wife of one of his old friends. It’s lighter and funnier than Hong’s other films, and largely because of that, it’s my favorite.

3. Written By – For the second year in a row, Kelly Lin starred in one of the most entertaining films of the festival. Last year it was in Johnnie To’s Sparrow, this year it’s this film written by frequent To collaborators Wai Ka-fai and Au Kin-Yee, and directed by Wai. It’s a kind of post-modern family dramedy, where the father dies in a car accident and his wife and daughter bring him back to life by writing a novel wherein they die in the accident and he lives. But then, the father in the novel decides to write his own novel where he dies and his wife and daughter live, and realities begin to merge and fall apart, and it gets crazier from there. What makes it great, though, is the very real human emotion that underlies it all: a deep sense of grief and sadness balancing out those narrative games. It’s the kind of balance Charlie Kaufmann strives for and never quite achieves.

4. Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl – This was my first film by Manoel de Oliveira, the 101 year old Portuguese filmmaker who’s the only director still working who started in silent films. It’s a remarkably elegant little film, one that feels like a perfect short story. It starts with an odd framing device, as a man recounts the tale to the woman next to him on the train (who strangely looks at us the whole time), setting up that this is most definitely a story being told. It’s about a man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, defies his family to marry her, and comes to regret his decision in a more or less surprising way. The film has a relaxed style that’s totally charming and increasingly rare, and at a mere 65 minutes, it’s refreshingly short in a world where the most mediocre romantic comedy manages to be two hours long.

5. Bluebeard – Another first time experiencing a director for me is this film by Catherine Breillat, the descriptions of whose other films don’t sound appealing to me at all. But I really enjoyed this telling of the classic fairy tale about a rich giant who is rumored to kill his young wives. Like Eccentricities it’s a recited narrative, with the framing device being two young girls reading the story in their attic and occasionally (often hilariously) commenting upon it. The performances are uniformly terrific, with Marilou Lopes-Benites as the youngest, cruelest girl stealing the show. The medieval setting is wonderfully realized, especially considering the low budget the film had to have had. The ending though, I didn’t really care for: I thought it was cheap and unnecessarily mean, but my wife didn’t have a problem with it, so maybe I’m being too sensitive.

6. Rembrandt’s J’accuse – Peter Greenaway’s essay film about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch” uses elements of his film Nightwatching as historical recreations to tell the story of the making of the painting and the hidden stories that lie within and behind it, which mainly amount to Rembrandt’s critique of the guys who commissioned the painting, accusing them of murder. The film doubles as a call for increasing public literacy of images, of teaching people how stories can be told without words, a concept that has obvious implications for cinema. Greenaway himself breathlessly narrates the film, and his angry, excitable delivery keeps things exciting, even when it amounts to little more than a history lesson in the politics of medieval Amsterdam. Like de Oliveira and Breillat, this was my first Greenaway film, and I really should see some more.

7. In Search of Beethoven – This documentary about the life of the great composer wouldn’t be anything special, a good story told well, were it not for its insistent focus on the music. So many documentaries focus on personal anecdotes and scandals as if that was what made their subjects great. This film is both smart and humble enough to know that Beethoven is interesting because of the music he wrote first and foremost, the rest (the early struggles, the deafness, his love life) is secondary. All the stories are there too, of course, but we not only get to hear the greatest hits (the Moonlight Sonata, the glorious 9th, etc) but also the less Baby Einsteinish material (like the demented late String Quartets) and director Phil Grabsky not only gives us extended performances of the works, he has his talking heads explain exactly what made them innovative and great. It’s almost certain that a person who knows more about classical music than I do wouldn’t be as excited by this, but as someone who’s both interested and ignorant, I thought it was fascinating.

8. The Headless Woman – Lucrecia Martel’s film has been making the festival rounds since 2008, and my feeling about it in the six months since I saw it has changed more than any other film on this list. María Onetto plays a wealthy woman who may or may not have hit and killed a child with her car. We never see it for sure, and she doesn’t seem to know either. How much of that is caused by the bump on her head and how much a coverup orchestrated by her well-connected family is unclear as well. The film raises a ton of fascinating possible allegorical meanings: the guilt of rich white people, the powerlessness of bourgeois women, the history of people being “disappeared” in Martel’s native Argentina, and so on. The problem is that while those ideas are lots of fun to talk about and bat around, the actual experience of watching the movie is kind of boring. I go back and forth with which aspect to emphasize.

9. Air Doll – Like Bluebeard, a fine film that takes an unpleasant turn at the end. Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, it’s about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. The story is a muted Pinocchio with the doll wandering the streets and learning about human life (including getting a job at a video store, which seems natural enough). The relaxed pace is nice, helped along by a cute score and some very pretty lyrical imagery and the makeup effects on Bae Doona, who plays the doll, are quite good. The ending more or less destroys the film’s mood of cock-eyed innocence and wonder, which is nice if you’re going for pointed satire or dark comedy, but I just found the tonal shift jarring.

10. Unmade Beds – This film by Alexis Dos Santos comes dangerously close to obnoxiousness, following as it does a pair of hipster immigrant kids as they try to sort out and get going with their lives. But the characters, and the young actors who play them (Fernando Tielve and Déborah François), are charming and heart-felt enough to overcome their generational stereotypeness. François in particular is quite adorable. It’s a touching movie that captures the kids of its moment in the way few mainstream films have managed to thus far.

11. Face – The craziest Tsai Ming-liang film I’ve yet seen. Recurring star Lee Kang-sheng is off directing a movie in Paris, but is having idea and cast problems. It’s basically Tsai’s homage to Truffaut’s Day for Night, with a little 8 1/2 surreality thrown in for good measure. There’s even an amazing Wellesian Hall of Mirrors sequence in a snowy forest. One’s enjoyment of it is entirely dependent on your tolerance for watching Laetitia Casta slowly black out a window with electrical tape or writhe around as a vampire Salome. Me, I’d watch her do anything. The wife though, she hated this movie.

12. Pelléas and Mélisande: The Song of the Blind – A documentary about the staging of the Impressionist opera by Claude Debussy that manages to convey both the demented beauty of the music, the weird and rather confusing staging of the opera and the love the performers have for the music and their profession. It’s a cool insight to a world we don’t see much of, but doesn’t really do anything new with the form, certainly not compared to Greenaway’s Rembrandt doc, nor does it explore the music, or Debussy, as comprehensively as the Beethoven doc.

13. The Young Victoria – The only film we saw at the festival to get any kind of real theatrical release, which is unfortunate because while it’s a fine film for what it is, obviously I liked a lot of other movies a lot more. Emily Blunt is pretty terrific as the Queen-to-be, even if she’s way too pretty for the part. The film works well for the most part, focusing on Victoria’s romance with Albert and her learning how to wield what power she has, and there’s relatively little melodramatization of history (though a late sequence with Albert getting shot in an assassination stands out as particularly ridiculous). Still, pretty costumes, pretty sets, pretty people with pretty accents. Whee!

14. ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction – This low-budget horror film takes a scattershot approach to social commentary that tends toward the funny and entertaining, if not particularly mind-blowing side. A small town in the Pacific Northwest is overrun with zombies, which the locals alternately assume is God’s punishment for tolerating gay people or a plot by Islamic terrorists. This creates a few problems for our heros: a gay couple in town to visit one of their mothers and the local Iranian-American family. Humor both broad and gory ensues. It’s a fun movie that tries a bit too hard to be a cult classic.

15. Way of Nature – This near-wordless documentary chronicles a year in the life of a Swedish farm. It’s kind of cool, but really not as interesting as it sounds. Nor is it particularly pretty to look at. It’s just a process film that is only fitfully fascinating. The nice moments it does have are pretty cool (yet another film showing sheep giving birth, must be some kind of zeitgeist thing).

16. Kamui – A sweeping ninja epic that somehow manages to feel about five hours long. It’s not that it’s slow or anything, on the contrary the cutting is as fast as any Hollywood actioner, but rather it packs so much plot, and changes setting so many times that it feels less like one story than a five-part serial jammed together. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of character to hold one’s interest. In tone and look it’s somewhat similar to Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak 2, but without the great stunt work, intensity or commitment to true thematic darkness. But, you know, it’s got ninjas.

17. Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China – A documentary about LGBT folks in China that shines a light on an important subject, but does so in the cheapest way possible, filmically speaking. Really, it looks like a public access show, which gives it a certain samizdat charm but makes it really hard to look at. Which is too bad, because some of the stories are really interesting.

18. Moroccan Labyrinth – Normally, with any kind of film, fiction or non-, I like when the filmmakers refuse to pander to the audience by explaining every little detail of their story. However, this documentary about the history of Morocco’s relationship with its across-the-Strait neighbor Spain assumes way too much about its audiences familiarity with the subject, such that a term will be used for 30 minutes of the film before someone explains what it means, and then only obliquely and in another context. What I did get out of the film, though, was that it’s mainly a call for elderly Moroccans to get full military pensions from Spain because they fought for and helped win the Civil War for Franco and the Fascists. Well, sign me up for that cause. Ugh.

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