VIFF ’10: Day Seven

The Strange Case of AngelicaEccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl was one of my favorites at last year’s festival, and while this year’s Manoel de Oliveira film isn’t as gemlike as that one, it’s still pretty good.  A young man who dabbles in photography is called upon to take the picture of the recently deceased Angelica, who has the unfortunate habit of smiling at him when she’s supposed to be dead.  Both her corpse and later her image appear to move, and when she takes a ghostlike form (taking Isaac on a flight more than a little reminiscent of Superman and Lois Lane), Isaac falls in crazy obsessive love with her.  In the middle of the film, there’s what appears to be an attempt to explain all of this with quantum physics and antimatter, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But then again, neither do the religious explanations (Isaac keeps repeating some lines about angels before and after meeting Angelica).  While Eccentricities was a perfect little anecdote about love gone wrong, this is a much more mysterious, weird and even goofy film.  The best part about it is also one of the best things about Eccentricities: both films seem to exist in technology, environment and social habits in a world that isn’t quite the present, nor is it the past.  They’re not so much outside of time, but take place across the span of the whole of the 20th Century at once.

The Tiger Factory – We saw director Woo Ming Jin’s Woman on Fire Looks for Water earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and I thought it was promising, a quirky minimalist film with some nice camerawork and a good sense of place.  So I was looking forward to this, Woo’s next film.  I wasn’t prepared, however, for it to be so totally unlike that other film, with a deadly serious verite-realist style instead of long takes and quasi-mystical goofiness.  About all they have in common is the Malaysian setting and long sequences of people at work (catching, sorting and cleaning fish and shellfish in the first, inseminating pigs in this one).  Lai Fooi Mun plays Ping, who wants to quit her three jobs (pig farm, restaurant and surrogate mom for her aunt’s baby factory) and get herself smuggling into Japan, apparently so she can advance to the world of foreign prostitution.  Her aunt keeps her poor and pregnant, steals her kid and her money and is pretty much the most evil person ever.  Ping has a friend and roommate at the beginning of the film, but by the end the friend has made it to Japan and is, for some reason, no longer returning Ping’s phone calls.  The girl’s life sucks and there’s no possible way out of it.  This would be more moving if Ping had any kind of personality or spark.  But by the time the film has begun, her horrible life has already beaten her done to the point of near-mute passivity (when her various money-making plans go awry, she mopes and comes up with even dumber schemes).  Basically, it’s like Chop Shop without the charm, energy or hope.  The film was paired with a short called Inhalation featuring some of the same actors in a slight variation on the same story by Edmund Yeo, the co-writer and producer of The Tiger Factory.  I liked the short a lot better, both for its style (there’s a cool long pan that doubles as a 38 day time jump) and its tone (Ping has a friend, and they talk like real people!).  It’d go better at the end of the feature than the beginning (the way it was programmed).

Gallants – A comical kung fu film from the directing team of Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok that unites some elderly Shaw Brothers stars in a funny and moving elegy to old age and the martial arts classics of the 1970s.  Skinny and clumsy real estate agent Cheung is sent to a small town to facilitate the sale of a local teahouse that happens also to be a former kung fu gym.  The two owners (Dragon and Tiger) are the last surviving disciples of their coma-striken master.  Bad guys (who want to buy the teahouse at a deflated price) attack, the master wakes up and everyone learns kung fu for the big local tournament.  Dragon is played by Chen Kuan-tai (Crippled Avengers, Executioners from Shaolin) and Tiger by Leung Siu-lung (Legend of the Condor Heroes, Kung Fu Hustle) and both are still outstanding in the action sequences, if not the greatest actors in the world.  Teddy Robin, a Hong Kong rock star in the 60s, plays their master as a mix of Yoda and Tracy Morgan, he’s by far the best part of the film (and even did the music as well).  The film isn’t nearly as polished as the later Stephen Chow films, though it’s often just as funny and shares the same anarchic spirit.  The quickie vibe (if I remember the Q & A correctly, they shot the whole thing in only 18 days, which is ridiculous) only makes it more fun.

VIFF ’10: Day Six

Around a  Small Mountain – The latest from Jacques Rivette (and somehow only the second film of his that I’ve seen) feels more like an Eric Rohmer film than anything else I’ve seen in awhile.  A traveling Italian meets Jane Birkin, who’s recently returned to her family circus.  Sensing emotional turmoil, the Italian hangs out with the circus people solving problems left and right, Quantum Leap style.  What elevates it above that kind of Bakulaesque slightness is Rivette’s fluid visual style and focus on performance: some of the best sequences in the film are of the circus people at work.  Particular focus is paid to a clown routine, which we see three or four times, going a little bit further into the routine each time, which pays off hilariously at the film’s climax.  Birkin’s pretty good as a middle-aged woman with an undealt with trauma in her past, but Julie-Marie Parmentier as her cute redheaded niece pretty much steals every scene she’s in.
Oki’s Movie – If Hahaha (seen here a couple days ago) was the most conventional Hong Sangsoo film I’ve seen to date, with his traditionally split narratives smoothly intercut into one integrated story, this might be his least cohesive.  The story isn’t bifurcated: it’s quad-furcated.  Four movies (complete with a different title credit sequence for each section of the film, though all four use “Pomp and Circumstance” (of all things) as title music) tell the story of a love triangle involving a film professor and two of his students.  Or two professors and four students.  Or two professors, one of whom was one of the students in an earlier love triangle (this is my interpretation, I think it makes the most sense).  Hong never explicitly spells out what’s happening when, or which stories are “fiction” and which are “fact” (that each of the principals in each story is a filmmaker only makes everything that much more ambiguous).  I’d never really thought of Hong as having been influenced by the French New Wave before, but the bulk of the third film is made up of a single-take Q & A between professor and the two students that could have come right out of mid-60s Godard: gnomic and hilarious.  It might be my favorite Hong film thus far, in fact, I’m pretty sure I’d rank his films in reverse chronological order.  I guess he just keeps getting better and better.

VIFF ’10: Day Five

The Sleeping Beauty – A kind of companion piece to the wife’s favorite film from last year’s festival, Blue Beard, Catherine Brelliat again adapts a Charles Perrault fairy tale, giving it a distinctively modern kink.  Unlike last year’s film, which had a framing story in which two girls read the fairy tale that provided both the best and worst parts of the film, this one plays the tale straight through.  The difference from the familiar Disney version of the story is mainly that instead of falling asleep at 16 and waking 100 years later, the good fairies (who are also much hotter in this version) fix things such that the princess falls asleep at age 6 and wakes up 100 years later at 16, having experienced a wild dream adventure in the interim.  This dream takes up the bulk of the film, as the princess embarks on a quirky quest (a boil-covered ogre, a handsome pubescent prince, a snow queen, a lesbian gypsy queen and a few, but less than seven, dwarfs).  When she wakes up, she meets her prince and learns that the fantasies we have in childhood don’t quite work out the way we thought they would.  It’s not an especially profound message, but it’s a fun ride getting us there.
Rumination – Part of the new filmmakers competition this year is this story of the Cultural Revolution, split into ten sections, one for each year from 1966-1976.  The early years move by pretty quickly, as a group of young Red Guards talk about how great Mao is and what have you.  In later years they attempt to march to Beijing, but end up apparently living in a seemingly abandoned town where they torment both the local crazy homeless guy and their own boss, who demonstrates a counter-revolutionary attraction to a picture of a Hollywood starlet (couldn’t tell if it was Joan Fontaine or Ingrid Bergman or someone else entirely, regardless that makes it certainly not a revolution I’d ever want to be part of).  The film has some striking imagery, notably repeated sequences in a kind of confessional, where people recite odes to Mao and the proletariat and that change color with the years.  These sequences have the kind of artificial frontally of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates.  Most of the film though, with its almost total lack of character, plot or dialogue can be extremely frustrating.  It tries so hard to keep the audience at a distance that all it really ends up saying is “hey, the Cultural Revolution sure sucked!”  Which is certainly true, but don’t we already know that?
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme D’Or winner from this year is probably his most conventional film yet, though you can be sure it’s plenty weird enough.  Boonmee’s dying of kidney disease and his sister-in-law and nephew come to visit him.  Arriving shortly thereafter are the ghost of his dead wife and their Sasquatchian son, who disappeared years before when he married a Monkey Ghost and became one himself (“Son, why have you let your hair grow so long?” is the ghost mom’s deadpan question).  Boonmee tries to prepare himself and his family for his impending death, which leads to some creepy spelunking (a sequence reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock as well as, musically if nothing else, Kubrick).  Somewhere in there as well as a period story about an ugly princess and her memorable encounter with a catfish that may be one of the past lives of the title.  Most of Weerasethakul’s films have a dual structure, and there’s a narrative split here as well, but it’s more of a coda than a second half.  Like both Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, but even more like Thomas Mao, which we saw a couple days earlier here at VIFF, the second part both undermines and expands the world of the first half, making us question everything that came before in a warmly constructive, humanist way (as opposed to the aggressively cynical deconstruction of many other puzzle films).  It’s ultimately not as mysterious or audacious as Tropical Malady, but it might be his best film yet.

VIFF 2010: Day Four

607 – Before getting to Day Four’s films, I wanted to mention this short by Liu Jiayin that played before Day Three’s showing of Thomas Mao. Liu made my favorite film from last year’s festival, Oxhide II, which also happens to be the highest rated film directed by a woman on my recent Top 600 Films of All-Time list. This 17 minute short consists mostly of one shot of a bathtub in a hotel room (the hotel apparently commissioned the film). A plastic fish, manipulated by Liu’s father, with only his hands visible, swims in the water and encounters some mushrooms, a cloudy sky and a fish hook. The mushrooms are played by Liu’s mother and Liu herself is the sky and hook. It’s a marvelous bit of silliness that conveys all the warmth of a family at play.

Hahaha – The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.

The Fourth Portrait – This Taiwanese film is about a precocious young boy named Xiang whose father dies, sending him first into the helpful hands of the school janitor, and then back to his mom, a prostitute (naturally) and step-father (who’s pretty much pure evil). Director Chung Mong-hong keeps this dire material much lighter than one would expect.  Though the kid’s situation is rough and potentially terrifying, there’s enough humor and visual style (there are traces of both the Taiwanese New Wave and Wong Kar-wai, the latter especially in the scenes at the mom’s “lounge”) that things never get as horribly depressing as they might in a lesser film. There’s even a musical bit that sounds like a Chinese version of the Carl Orff song used in Badlands and True Romance). Xiang is surrounded by helpful adults, from the elderly janitor to a small time hustler to a concerned teacher. Even his mom is a decent sort. We never get the sense that Xiang’s situation is hopeless, instead, we can be sure that he’ll survive and thrive. The title comes from a series of drawings Xiang makes throughout the film: the first is his father, the second his friend the hustler, the third his older brother who may be haunting him and the fourth, more than a little cheesily, is the film itself.

I Wish I Knew – After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chaing Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. Wei Wei appears, which marks two days in a row that we saw a film featuring this 88 year old actress, after The Drunkard. Also interviewed are Hou Hsiao-hsein (who’s actually the only person who doesn’t share a personal anecdote, he just talks about his film Flowers of Shanghai, though like many people in the film, his parents came to Taiwan from Shanghai ahead of the Communist victory). The film is very loosely structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where frequent Jia star Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a straight documentary can be.

Short Celebrity Addendum: Jia was there last night for a Q & A (he’s serving on the jury at the festival this year for the award for new Asian filmmakers that they’ve given out for 17 years or so, having previously won the award for his own first film Xiao Wu). I don’t know that I’ve ever been so giddy in a movie theatre. And then this morning, waiting in line for Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, I’m pretty sure we were standing behind a very confused Wallace Shawn (the screening was delayed for projection reasons and the staff were giving confusing directions to the old people). I attempted to help the maybe-Shawn through the line, but he either couldn’t hear me or was too confused to pay attention to a much taller man.

VIFF ’10: Day Three

The DrunkardFreddie Wong’s debut film is an adaptation of one of the most famous modern Chinese novels, written by Liu Yichang.  In early 60s Hong Kong, a struggling writer juggles his declining career prospects (he goes from Hemingway ambitions through martial arts novels and screenplays to pornography), various women (a landlord’s 17 year old daughter, a couple of prostitutes, old and young, an elderly landlady played by Wei Wei, the star of the 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town) and copious amounts of alcohol.  Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 are somewhat based on similar characters, though his films are so infused with his own obsessions that it’d be a stretch to call them adaptations.  That the film was made for a mere $500,000 is remarkable, though it does explain the intimacy of the cinematography: almost always medium to close shots of small interiors.  The nightclub scenes have the Christmas tree red glow you’d expect, but there’s nothing glamorous about the writer’s alcoholism.  Neither is it ever reduced to any kind of social problem picture preachiness: he drinks and he writes, but not necessarily in that order.  John Chang (the father of Chang Chen, star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is terrific in the lead role, nowhere near as debonair as Tony Leung in the Wong films, he brings a weary reality to every scene.

Thomas Mao – Inspired by the unusual friendship between his friends Mao Yan and Thomas Rohdewald (Mao is a famous oil painter who has used Thomas as a subject dozens of times, the paintings, which appear at the end of the film, are very interesting and very creepy) Zhu Wen’s film is a whimsical exploration of what Mao and Thomas might have been like had they met in other lives.  In the main story, Thomas is a traveling painter who spends a few days at Mao’s inn.  Thomas doesn’t speak Chinese and Mao doesn’t speak English, and the two find various funny ways of miscommunicating.  Appearing to each of them are also what appear to be ghosts of medieval warriors, a woman in black and a man in white.  There’s a stunningly choreographed fight/dance sequence between these two, that’s the visual highlight of a very beautiful film.  Eventually, there’s aliens and some snow.  But the most surprising part of the film is a coda set in an art gallery, where Thomas and Mao hang out and various elements from the main story recur in unexpected ways.  It works like a funhouse mirror, folding the narrative back on itself.

Crossing the Mountain – Vancouver may not have gotten Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, but we’re not wholly bereft of intentionally partially-subtitled avant-grade narrative films.  Yang Rui’s opaque film, photographed in sharply focused, long-take HD, is set in Yunnan, along the Burmese border, the people here speak a local language, and she has chosen to only subtitle the “important” parts of the dialogue, even for the Chinese-speaking audience.  Mostly a set of discrete, seemingly plotless episodes that are nonetheless pregnant with possibly meaningful images and juxtapositions, with more or less the same set of characters for most of the film who inexplicably disappear in the later sections (though we may have some clues at to their fate).  It might be about the dangers of unexploded ordinance in Southeast Asia (still a problem, even in areas where the wars have been over for 30 years), but more than that it’s about living in a collision between past and present.  The film is set in land that once belonged to a people that until quite recently practiced human sacrifice as agricultural aid (where these people are now, we can’t say, but assume they have merged with the general population), where kids try to watch TV and play karaoke video games (though the technology never seems to work properly) and old people pass the time with folk dances that look not unlike the Hokey-Pokey.  Basically, it’s an impossible film to describe, and apparently quite difficult to sit through.  Despite a warning from programmer Shelly Kraicer about the film’s difficulty and the need for patience with it, about the third of the audience walked out.  I was glad to stay through the end.  While it wasn’t the best thing I’ve seen at the festival thus far, I certainly haven’t seen anything quite like it.

VIFF ’10: Day Two

Of Love and Other Demons – An adaptation of a Gabriel García Márquez story that I haven’t read, Hilda Hidalgo’s first film is about a teenaged girl in 19th Century Cartagena, the daughter of a Marquis, who gets bit by a rabid dog.  Despite the Marquis’ disbelief, he is unable to prevent the local Catholic authorities from imprisoning her under suspicion of demonic possession (apparently the Devil works through rabies).  The priest assigned to examine her of course falls in love with her (she’s not a stunning beauty, but has a fabulous head of red hair, three feet long and shockingly clean for the 18th century) to the detriment of his ecclesiastical career.  More straightforward than I would expect from García Márquez, the film is essentially an ecofeminist parable about the evils of patriarchy, imperialism and the Church and its destructive effects on the environment (the girl is frequently seen communing with insects, and one of the reasons she’s suspected of being possessed is that she can speak the African languages of her family’s servants).  It does leave open the much more interesting possibility that the girl actually is possessed, with the devil using her to wreak havoc with the nobility and Catholic hierarchy in the later stages of the Spanish Empire.

Get Out of the Car/The Indian Boundary Line – A pair of shortish features, both exploring hidden elements in everyday geography.  Thomas Comerford’s The Indian Boundary Line is about a treaty line  running through what is now Chicago.  The line was supposed to establish the Northwestern limit of American expansion, leaving much of Western Illinois and Southeastern Wisconsin for the Indians.  The film is split into separate sections, each showing a part of the line as it is now (three parks, an intersection, a normal urban street) with accompanying voiceover (personal reminiscences, treaty language, bits of Little House on the Prairie).  For the most part it’s pretty interesting, though there’s a central section where the voiceover is a list of GPS coordinates that goes on interminably.  More fun is Thom Anderson’s Get Out of the Car, a tour of visual oddities in Los Angeles, with a particular focus on out of use billboards and giant murals of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  The soundtrack is mostly older recordings that were made in LA, though occasionally we hear what appear to be passersby heckling Anderson as he films, which can be pretty funny.  Where The Indian Boundary Line shows the history that surrounds our everyday world, Get Out of the Car tries to highlight the beauty in the urban decay and ugliness we walk past every day.  I haven’t yet had the chance to see Anderson’s acclaimed Los Angeles Play Itself, but this only makes me want to that much more.

Poetry – This is the first Lee Changdong film I’ve seen, and I’m kind of mixed in my response to it.  On the one hand, it’s a wonderful character study of a 66 year old woman, raising her grandson and working part-time as the caretaker for an elderly man who takes a poetry class on a whim and struggles to find poetic inspiration in the world around her.  On the other hand, it’s the story of a grandmother who learns that her son is part of a group of kids who gang-raped a classmate until she killed herself, and is being pressured by the other boys father’s to come up with hush money for the girl’s parents.  I really like that first movie, the second seem unnecessarily exploitive, as if Lee thought audiences wouldn’t be interested enough in the grandmother’s story if there wasn’t some horribly hyperbolical sexual violence mixed in somewhere.  The unreality of that part of the film (not just in its setup but also its coincidence-driven plot mechanics) doesn’t necessarily undermine the rest of the film, but it is fairly distasteful.  The performance by Yun Junghee as the old woman is magnificent.

Icarus Under the Sun – A very low-budget film made by two Japanese women (one wrote and directed and stars, the other shot, directed and plays a supporting role) that’s a grungy, realist account of a young woman trying to find her way in Tokyo.  She gets a job at a mahjong parlor and befriends the eccentrics who work and hang out there: the blind ex-thief owner, the slightly crippled boy named after Alain Delon, the crazy woman who loves the blind owner, etc.  Of all the young adult coming of age films we’ve seen at the several festivals we’ve been to, this is bar far the most serious and probably also the most DIY.  The dreariness of the girl’s life (always in darkness, the various characters dislike of sunshine is a key motif) is almost oppressive.  In the end, she manages to escape into the daytime, but I don’t know that the catharsis is enough to compensate for the misery of the first 75 minutes of the film.  I needed some air.

VIFF ’10: Day One

We’re back at the Vancouver Film festival for the third year in a year and unlike the 08 and 09 festivals I’m going to not only try and write about the films we see before six months have passed, but day by day as we watch them. We’ll see how it goes. Anyway, we arrived in town this afternoon and made it to two films tonight.

Made in Dagenham – Sally Hawkins is already getting some Oscar buzz for her performance in this crowd-pleasing dramatization of a strike at a Ford plant in the UK in 1968.  The workers are the 187 women (out of 55,000 in the country) who sew the interiors of the cars together, and are classed as unskilled labor and make far less than comparable male workers.  The strike quickly becomes about equal pay for equal work, annoying every man in the country (except Bob Hoskins, ho helps the striking women out).  Hawkins is excellent as the leader of the strike, she manages to be both shy and fiery at the same time (and she deserved the Oscar a couple years ago for Happy-Go-Lucky, so even if this performance isn’t as singular as that one, I wouldn’t begrudge her any hardware she gets for it).   Miranda Richardson does a lot of funny yelling as the government minister who follows the strike from a distance, and Richard Schiff (from The West Wing) is appropriately menacing as Ford’s American representative.  Rosamund Pike, as the wife of one of the Ford execs his is nonetheless sympathetic to the cause gets the best speech in a film chock full of speeches, when she explains to Hawkins who her advanced degree from Cambridge somehow doesn’t keep her husband from treating her like she’s an idiot.  Cinematically, the film isn’t much to look at.  The draw here are the big performances and lefty reassurances.

My Film and My Story – At the opposite end of the budget and profile level is this student group project from Korea.  Seven different kids at Konkuk University each directed one segment of this film about workers at a single-screen movie theatre on campus.  The theatre is in the final stages of renovation before reopening (assuming they can win the support of the government), and the newly hired staff and strange customers have a series of mostly comical adventures.  Two guys watch Happy Together and start to question their sexuality, a girl vehemently rebuffs the advances of a kid who talks about Lacan, another girl collects ticket stubs and nitpicks the temperature, but sleeps through the film and so on.  It all looks quite polished (with only one sequence standing out narratively and visually from the whole, its placement at the film’s midpoint is certainly intentional), though the sound is a little rough at times.  Best of all the sequences is one involving the manager of the theatre as she talks to her bartender about the cinema and why she loves it.  It’s not as ambitious as Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, but it is more grounded in reality and the day-to-day life of the people who actually work in theatres, which doesn’t make for a transcendent film-going experience, but certainly a pleasant one.