VIFF Day One: Antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature is a slick, darkly comic scifi/horror film that should not be seen by anyone with a fear of needles.  At some point, humanity’s obsession with celebrity has metastasized to the point that the world’s biochemists, seeing a market opportunity (as they always do) have begun selling people the real thing: viruses drawn from celebrity bodies so you can be infected with the same thing as the pretty girl in the tabloids; steaks grown from celebrity cell scrapings so you can make your dinner a literal communion.

One of the virus salesmen, played by Caleb Landry Jones, has a sideline in the black market, infecting himself with the celebrity bugs and selling them to disreputable folks.  But when he infects himself with a new virus that appears designed to kill its celebrity, the film becomes a modern version of the film noir classic DOA, will our hero figure out who poisoned him in-time?

Cronenberg films in static takes, in frames almost completely white but for some black highlights and the occasional splatter of blood (an effect of the virus).  Jones fits this scheme perfectly: gaunt, pale and freckled, with red-hair and glassy eyes, his body mirrors not only the effects of the virus but the world around him in the remarkably physical performance this remarkably physical film demands.

Unfortunately, the premise of the film totally misinterprets the nature of celebrity obsession.  While many celebrities are beautiful, it’s not their bodies that attract such attention: there’s something more ephemeral about fame, more transcendental.  The act of celebrity worship, like all worship, is less about the body than about the spirit, about moving beyond our own bodies into a higher, non-physical realm.  The film asserts instead that it’s the desire to touch physical perfection that drives the celebrity machine.  Such a materialistic view of fame misses its most important aspect, and thus the film doesn’t really work as satire because a world like this could never actually exist; satire requires grounding in a recognizable reality.  But if you ignore that and accept the crazy logic of its world, Cronenberg’s created a very twisted place that’s a lot of fun to get grossed-out by.

VIFF Day One: When Night Falls

Ying Liang’s When Night Falls begins as a documentary with a mother narrating what happened to her as she was detained after her son was accused of killing six police officers in Shanghai.  She was held in a mental hospital under a false name for months, and only released days before her son’s execution.  When she told a judge she had evidence to present, he told her to write it down and mail it in.  At this point, the film, which had been a series of stills of press coverage of the murders as well as of the hospital the mother, Wang Jingmei, was held, becomes a fictionalized version of real events (I guess you’d call it a docudrama?).

Nai An, a TV actress and independent film producer plays Weng, a quiet, determined woman who keeps working to free her son despite the entire universe apparently conspiring against her (she gets locked out of her apartment, her shoe breaks, even the local photocopier stops working when she needs to use it).  A group of activists and lawyers comes to her defense, but they’re as powerless in the face of the railroading bureaucracy as she is.  Famous artist Ai Weiwei blogs about her son’s case, she’s assured that many “netizens” support her, but it does no good.  Still, she goes on, trying to get the local tailor to replace the zippers on her son’s clothes with buttons so he can wear them in prison (like the government, the old tailor acknowledges her but doesn’t hear or understand what she’s saying).  The film’s slow pace and specificity of location (she repeats the name of her son’s prison like a mantra) drives home the horrible reality of the dramatized events: this place is real, this is happening, this happens.

The film is politically important to be sure, and its creation has gotten Ying banned from his homeland (it was made with funding from the Korean Jeonju Film Festival).  But what’s most compelling about it is this mother’s story, her struggle in the face of the PRC’s Kafkaesque justice system and the heartbreaking tragedy of her loss.  I saw Ying’s Good Cats at VIFF back in 2008 (I enjoyed its slow weirdness, a gangster story with a metal band Greek chorus), but this is a great film.

Ying Liang (with mike) Q & A with Shelly Kraicer and translator

VIFF Day One: Thursday Till Sunday

A lovely little film from Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, the first of what looks to be a strong contingent of films from Chile at this year’s festival (I’m looking forward to Raul Ruiz’s Night Across the Street and Pablo Larrain’s No as well).  The film presents a child’s eye view of a family roadtrip, dominated by Santi Ahumada as the preteen Lucia, a charming girl who plays games and sings with her little brother in the backseat, only occasionally wears shoes and catches bits and pieces of what appears to be her parents on the verge of breaking up.  Much of the film takes place in the car, a beat up old station wagon, and Sotomayor not only ingeniously finds new ways of looking at a familiar space, she manages to create some remarkably beautiful images.  One in particular, a profile shot from the passenger side of the father driving  in silhouette with the sun setting behind him manages to keep both driver and passengers in focus as the mother climbs from the front seat to the back and Lucia moves from back to front.  Sotomayor as well delicately balances conveying the parental drama just obliquely enough that our experience of it mirrors that of the young protagonist, in this sense, the film is quite reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s.  Instead of really understanding exactly what’s happening with the parents (the father is taking them all on a trip to a piece of land he’s inherited, but it may be a prelude to his moving out; the mother appears to be having an affair with a single father they (coincidentally?) meet along the way; some people have sex in a tent, followed by pigs invading their campsite (not exactly subtle); and so on) we feel Lucia’s sense of uneasiness and confusion.  She knows more than her parents think, but not enough to make narrative sense of it all: she just feels the wrongness.  Despite all that, the trip continues and after a harrowing night where the mother runs off after a fight with her husband and Lucia appears to lose her whole family in the desert wandering alone on the rocky alien landscape, the family is reunited and soon reaches their new land.  But will it last, or is the last time they’ll be together?

Unfortunately, I had to skip the Q & A with Sotomayor and Ahumada after the show (next movie was starting too soon), I would have loved to have heard them talk about their movie.  Great start to VIFF 2012.

VIFF Day One: Intro

After a year away, I’m back at the Vancouver International Film Festival.  This is my fourth time here and you can find links to short reviews of my previous trips in the sidebar.  I’ll be here until next Sunday, writing about all the 20-30 movies I see.  And I’ll also be tweeting about them, though wifi is spotty so the tweets may all show up at once late at night like they did yesterday.  You can follow me on Twitter @TheEndofCinema, or you can just click this link.

VIFF is pretty much all you could want from a film festival if you’re more interested in movies than hype.  It doesn’t have the Hollywood star power of Toronto, the self-righteousness of Sundance, or the Frenchness of Cannes.  It does have the greatest collection both in quantity and quality of Asian films you’ll find in North America, programmed by the excellent Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer, who ably lead a number of Q & As with stars and directors as well (I’ve rarely been more giddy than when I got to see Jia Zhangke in person two years ago).  It also conveniently locates all its venues within a few blocks of each other which makes it extremely pedestrian-friendly, unlike Seattle which sprawls all over the city (and all over a month too: apparently they’ll play anything.  Hey SIFF: play fewer, better movies!  No one cares if you’re the biggest).

Before diving into this year’s films, here’s a list of the top 20 movies I saw at VIFF in my first three trips:

1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
2. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
3. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin)
4. Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo)
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
6. Sparrow (Johnnie To)
7. Like You Know it All (Hong Sangsoo)
8. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
9. Written By (Wai Ka-fai)
10. Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
11. 607 (Liu Jiayin)
12. Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh)
13. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
14. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke)
15. Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen)
16. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
17. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
18. Rembrandt’s J’accuse (Peter Greenaway)
19. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
20. In Search of Beethoven (Phil Grabsky)

On Swordsman and Swordsman 2

Swordsman 2 is a film I’ve known for years, having first encountered it during the Jet Li boom of the late 90s (my theatre used to run HK double features all the time, this is where I first saw it, paired I think with Dr. Wai and the Scripture with No Words), but I’d never before seen the first film.  Not surprisingly, the sequel makes a lot more sense after seeing the first half of the story (well, first third, these are part of a trilogy with The East is Red, which I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen).

It’s based on a novel by Louis Cha, the popular wuxia novelist who also wrote the novel that the Stephen Chow Royal Tramp films are based on (The Deer and the Cauldron, I’ve read the first volume of it and it’s a lot of fun).  The films also reference some of the geopolitical turmoil of the late Ming Dynasty,  the context of which I’ve only now started to pick up on after read having read Charles Mann’s 1493 a couple weeks ago.  The films more or less chronicle the conflict between two ethnic groups: the Han or, as the bad subtitles call them, “Mainlanders” and the “Highlanders” over a stolen book, the “Sacred Volume” which promises super special powers to whoever masters its secrets.  As mann documents, in order to consolidate their power over the coastal areas of China that were freely engaging in trade (smuggling) with European powers (and not paying their taxes), the Ming basically deported the residents of the Chinese coasts to the interior of the country.  These people, who were ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from the Ming (who were Han, the dominant ethnic group in China for thousands of years), had to build their new communities in the hills and mountains as the fertile river valleys were already populated by Han (hence “Highlanders”).  Naturally enough, there was plenty of conflict between the newly transplanted and the already there.  (Both films work great as spectacle, but as always, knowing stuff makes things better.)  Getting mixed up in this conflict is a third group, an order of swordsmen/monks, the top student of which, Ling Wu Chung, is the protagonist of both films (played by Sam Hui in the first film and Jet Li in the second).

The first film follows the theft of the stolen book from the Ming library, and the efforts of evil Ming eunuch and his evil henchman (Jacky Cheung) to get it back while Sam Hui and his disciple “Kiddo” (the daughter of their leader, who is trying to be a swordsman herself, played by Cecilia Yip in the first film and Michelle Reis in the second) befriend members of the Sun Moon Sect, a group of highland revolutionaries resisting the Ming who are themselves after the book (they bond with two elder members of the sect as they sing the song “Hero of Heroes” that dominates the soundtrack of both films and summarizes their philosophical message, it’s one of the loveliest scenes in either films: two old warriors singing about the meaninglessness of their violent, power struggling lives).  Eventually, everyone in a position of power is corrupted by their desire for the book, and in a nice Buddhist message, only those that don’t want power (Ling, Kiddo and a couple ladies from the Sun Moon Sect: Blue Phoenix and her boss Ying) are revealed to be worthy of wielding it.  The film is credited to King Hu, a legendary martial arts director (his late 60s-early 70s films Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen and Come Drink with Me are all masterpieces) but he reportedly quit halfway through.  The film was taken over by producer Tsui Hark and action director Ching Siu-tung (who directed the sequel) and the finished work retains very little of Hu’s visual style, instead featuring Tsui’s brand of hyperkinetic moving camera and rapid editing that looks more like Michael Bay than Hu’s more restrained yet still muscular style that helped define classical Hong Kong filmmaking.  There are a few moments that seem exceptionally well-composed for a Ching or Tsui film, and the fact that Kiddo is a pretty strong and complex female character in the first film and a fawning, just wants to be a pretty girl bit of throw away comic relief in the second points to some Hu influence, as he’s notable for always featuring strong heroines.

The second film picks up a year later, the Sacred Volume now having fallen into the hands of Invincible Dawn, the younger brother of the leader of the Sun Moon Sect who has tapped into its powers and is fomenting a civil war between the Highlanders and the Ming (with the help of some refugees from Japan’s own recently-concluded civil war).  Dawn has also imprisoned his brother and taken control of the sect, murdering any sect members who dare oppose him, which leads to an attack on Ling’s pals Ying and Blue Phoenix.  The swordsmen, who after the events of the first film have decided to renounce worldly affairs and go live on a mountain are again ensnared in the ethnic conflict, this time literalized as a fratricidal war between Dawn and his brother, Zen (who is also Ying’s father).  The film is most famous for the character of Invincible Dawn, played by Brigitte Lin: it seems that in order to utilize the full power of the Sacred Volume, Dawn had to castrate himself.  The ultimate power turns him into a woman.  It’s a fascinating conceit and I really wonder what King Hu would have done with it had he been able to make the whole trilogy (or what Louis Cha does with it in the novel, if this is even in the novel).  As it is, though, despite the greatness of Lin, I’m left really dissatisfied.  There’s two ways you can go with this conceit: 1) ultimate power = woman because women are awesome so Jet Li’s gonna have his hands full defeating her, bet we get some badass fight scenes; or 2) ultimate power = woman but women are weak because they get all mushy and emotional and such and Jet Li’s oh so handsome so how can a poor girl resist him?  Knowing King Hu’s other films, I think he would have gone with option #1.  Unfortunately, Tsui and Ching went with #2 and the movie really suffers because of it.

Still, a little comic misogyny isn’t the end of the world, and the movie does star Jet Li, indisputably one of the two greatest kung fu stars of the last 30 years or so.  Given enough great action scenes I’m willing to forgive a lot.  Unfortunately, there’s hardly anything in the way of martial arts on display here.  This is the fantasy wuxia genre, where characters fly around and shoot energy out of their swords and hands and have all kinds of crazy magical powers and there’s nary a stunt that doesn’t involve wires or special effects.  There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, I like Tsui Hark’s brand of lunacy just fine, but it seems like a waste to have Li in your movie and not let him do what he does best.  It’d be like casting Gene Kelly in your musical but only allowing him to sing and not dance.  The best bit of martial arts in either film comes from the first one, when Sam Hui demonstrates his skills by lifting and juggling the flames of three candles around a room on the edge of his sword, and given how much I love Jet Li, that’s just a travesty.

Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and the last hour or so (from the introduction of Zen, who proves to be even more terrifying than his brother/sister) has as much crazy momentum as anything I’ve ever seen, much more so than the first film, and there’s some very real pathos to be found in the fates of Dawn’s girlfriend (though this is undercut by her first scene, where she appears to be a doped out crazy chick) and the heroic Blue Phoenix, and in Ling’s realization that he hasn’t done anything but drink and get laid for the whole movie and that lots of people have died as a result (how wild is it that the ostensible hero of the film, Jet Li, essentially does nothing for almost the whole running time?).  As much as he needs to withdraw from the world, the world needs heroes.

I do recommend both films, but obviously Tsui Hark isn’t for everyone.  He’s weird and silly and when he does bother with exposition it tends to fly by faster than a non-Chinese speaker like me can catch it.  What he is not is incompetent.  I’ve seen and enjoyed Swordsman 2 four or five times in the last 15 years though I’m only know starting to pick up on some of its wider historical issues.

So I’m torn.  I think Swordsman is probably the “better” film: a little more carefully composed, a little more complex in characterization.  But Swordsman 2 is the more audacious and I suspect it will ultimately prove to be the more memorable and while I’m unhappy with its approach to the two main female characters, it nonetheless gives Brigitte Lin one of her greatest roles and I love what it does with Jet Li’s character (though I’m very much dismayed that he never gets to show off is considerable athletic abilities).  Fortunately, there’s no need to choose.  See them both.

All Those Images

“Now all that is no more. Now those mountains and deserts are just things, information stocked in my memory. Now that I’m traveling this road through the past, I’m sorry I was that man, that narrow-minded Legionnaire. What did I see of wild camels, of shepherds appearing from nowhere, women in bright colors in fields of stone, all those images?”

               —Galoup, Beau Travail