VIFF 2012: Neighboring Sounds

Kleber Mendonça Filho directs the fourth film in what turned out to be a surprisingly strong showing for the Portuguese language at this year’s festival, along with Reconversão, Tabu and The Last Time I Saw Macao.  Three of those focus on the remnants of the Portuguese colonial experience on other continents (Tabu in Mozambique, Macao in China and this one set in Recife, one of the largest cities in Brazil).  In many ways, this is the most conventional film of the bunch, a familiar-seeming network narrative of a few weeks in the lives of the residents of a particular street in a relatively affluent area of town.  As usual, there’s a multitude of tensions bubbling under the placid surface, along class and racial lines as well as the requisite secrets from the past haunting certain folks.  For most of the film’s running time, that tension remains constant but unrelieved, it’s only in the final scenes that some actual violence bursts forth, unfortunately in a bit of an anti-climax.

The most interesting thing about the film is explicitly stated right there in the title: the sound design.  Though the film is set in a few houses and an apartment building on what appears to be a single street, we never get a clear layout of the neighborhood.  It’s disorienting visually, but the sound design knits the space together.  Sounds from one area are constantly bleeding into another, kids playing, dogs parking, cars passing by, the on-screen space is always filled with off-screen sounds.  This is how the neighborhood is experienced: not as a community where everybody knows everybody (all the community gatherings end in disaster, first a hilariously petty condo board meeting, later a birthday party) but as an occupied space that is forever invaded by outsiders’ noise (this is literalized in a zombie-invasion like dream sequence).  The two characters we spend the most time with, a handsome, charming rich guy named João who lives in the high rise and a housewife who buys pot from the water delivery guy, has an affair with her washing machine’s spin cycle and is tormented by the barking dog next door never actually meet.  Their storylines merge somewhat at the end, but only aurally, never visually.

The individual characters do have storylines of their own, but they aren’t quite as conventional as in a network film like Magnolia or Short Cuts, which follow the series of short stories model.  João’s story is my favorite: he falls in love with a woman, they hang out together, they take a trip out of town (the only time we leave the neighborhood) and wander around his grandfather’s estate and its village, walking through the ruins and hearing the sounds of the past (people chattering, a movie-projector humming).  But Mendonça Filho even trips us up there, as the romance plot is resolved entirely off-screen, leaving João to briefly tell another character how it ended.  The film is full of these little bits of rug-pulling that keep the viewer perpetually off-balance.  If the film had left is in that state it would have been great.  Instead, the film wraps things up with a bang in a more or less neat bit of narrative balance.  I want it to end just slightly earlier, just before the crescendo peaks, leaving us forever on the edge of the crash.

VIFF 2012: Three Sisters

By nine o’clock on Tuesday, October 5th, my VIFF experience was four days and fifteen movies old.  I trepidatiously settled in for movie #16, a two and a half hour verite-style documentary about three poor kids in China by acclaimed director Wang Bing (his nine hour documentary West of the Tracks recently tied for 202nd place in the Sight & Sound poll with Manhattan, Cleo from 5 to 7, The Shop Around the Corner, WALL-E, Badlands and There Will Be Blood, among others), wondering if the onslaught of reality, old age and festival-induced sleep deprivation would knock me out.  I armed myself with a “litre” of Mountain Dew and a pack of gummi bears, and when Wang himself, there for a post-show Q & A that would push the night into the morning, wished us all luck in staying awake for his movie, I had a feeling things would work out alright.

The experience of watching the film is much the same as that of any other so-called “Asian minimalist” movie, like something by Tsai Ming-Liang or Jia Zhangke.  The pace is very slow, not a whole lot happens in the long, single-take scenes, and enjoyment of the film depends on one’s interest in watching other people do normal boring things (basic tasks like making soup or cleaning shoes) and also in the willingness to let one’s mind wander.  These types of films are meditative not because they make you think but because in their opiated snail’s pace, they allow you to think.

Various more or less coherent things I thought of while watching this film: what this country needs is a rural electrification project like the one that lifted much of America out of exactly this kind of poverty in the mid-20th Century, Mao’s mid-century reforms had exactly the opposite effect (later in the film, they do appear to have electricity and television, and I may be exaggerating the effects of the New Deal in the US, but still); How do you document the lives of the poor without being exploitative or dilettantish? Is that  just a First World Problem?; The best way to tell if a country is developing economically is if they start making documentaries about poor people; The village is situated high in the mountains near what appear to be run down and out-of-use terraces, I wonder if those terraces are ancient ones that were abandoned in misguided communist land reforms (that led to mass deforestation and erosion), or if they are themselves the misguided reforms.  Either way, they’re being used as sheep food on a wind-scorched landscape now; If this film were sub-titled The Shit Collectors of Yunnan, would that increase its box office?; Can a film be beyond criticism? Does talking about a film like this as a film trivialize its very serious subject, or is the act of making a film about such a subject necessarily trivializing?; Does Truffaut’s assertion that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film apply to anti-poverty films?  Does filmmaking in some ways glamorize poverty?

Three Sisters is about three very poor girls who live in a remote mountain village in Yunnan province.  The environment is perpetually damp and foggy, but the kids don’t seem to mind too much (when they’re gathered around a fire drying one of their mud-encrusted shoes, one of them cheerfully exclaims “today we’ll dry your shoes, tomorrow mine!”  Similarly, when checking each other for infestations in what appears to be a nightly ritual, we hear the joyous shout “I found more lice!”).  Their father is away, looking for work in the nearest city, the kids are staying with their grandfather in the village (the mother appears to have run off? I don’t really remember).  We follow them through their various rural tasks (one of them greets another working child in a pasture with a matter of fact “everyone’s out collecting dung today”).  They don’t seem especially miserable, but neither do they seem particularly happy.  They live in a half-modernized world: they have TV and locks on their doors, but little of the labor-saving comforts of the 21st century.  Missing from most of the film are the communal aspects of village life: festivals, religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, games, storytelling, all those things we lament as lost and celebrate in John Ford films.  Near the end there is an autumn feast at the girls’ uncle’s place in a neighboring village that packs dozens of people into a tiny house for tons of (delicious looking) food and an impromptu political meeting.  It’s not especially cheerful, but at least it looks warm.  

The oldest sister, ten-year old Ying Ying, comes across as a truly heroic figure.  She appears to do most of the farm work (sheep and pig herding, milking, dung-gathering, potato-planting, etc) and takes care of her younger sisters (cooking, cleaning, etc).  She simply does what she has to do.  On the rare occasions she gets to attend school she leans far forward over her desk, straining to take in all she can from her teacher, unable to prevent her desperation to learn from taking physical form.  Wang encourages us not to look at the film as a political statement (“oh isn’t poverty so awful“) but as a story of Ying Ying’s heroism (not that that will get his movie shown in China, but his point is a good one regardless).  She does it all but she doesn’t suffer, she inspires.

VIFF 2012: In Search of Haydn

The third of director Phil Grabsky’s biographical documentaries of famous composers is about as good a film about Joseph Haydn as you’re likely to see.  Unlike the subjects of his first two films in the series, Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn doesn’t have a particularly interesting biography, nor does his music have as ubiquitous a presence in modern life. In fact, his life can be downright dull at times: he seems like a basically decent guy, though not exceptionally so, who was well-employed for most of his life and achieved great success and renown for his work.  Basically the opposite of our ideal tortured artist.  Musically, he appears to be more respected by professionals than loved by the general populace; his name is probably more famous than any of his tunes.

The great strength of Grabsky’s Beethoven film (I haven’t seen the Mozart film yet) was its emphasis as much on the music as on the biography: he has a knack for getting inside the music and showing what is really unique, interesting and powerful about it.  To that end, Haydn presents a bit of a dilemma in that he just wrote so much music: over 100 symphonies and string quartets each, along with operas and keyboard music and more.  Trying to cover it all in the film’s less than two hour running time is next to impossible.  Still, Grabsky does get some fine commenters (Emmanuel Ax and Marc-Andre Hamelin in particular) to explain in lay terms just how experimental and unusual Haydn was, and why he was to be such a huge influence on every composer that followed him, Mozart and Beethoven first among them.

Words and phrases used in the film to describe Haydn’s music: sparkle, spirit, burst of life, surprise, humor, overt, modest, entertaining, great intelligence and seriousness, eloquent, rhetorical, inspirational, spirit, spiritual, exploring, pleasant, music for everybody, democratic, repetitive with long long phrases, not very difficult – but difficult to make beautiful.

The best parts of the movie are the performances.  Not just for the music itself (by the Orchestra of the 18th Century and the Endillion String Quartet, among others) but for the way the film captures them.  There are the standard, Great Performances-style long shots, of course, but Grabsky also frequently intercuts extreme close-ups of the musicians at work: say, the fingerboard of a cello or the strings of a violin.  The performance is broken down to its most basic elements, made physical and tactile.  Music can be so ephemeral, so abstract that grounding it in this way reminds us of its tangible reality, that it is created and performed by people on instruments.  To often music, classical music in particular, is treated as if it were an emanation from on high, divinely inspired by “genius” as a gift to all humanity.  Grabsky’s project is to fight that rarefying impulse, to root the music in the people who wrote it and, just as importantly, in the people who perform it.

VIFF 2012: The Last Time I Saw Macao

Directed by the Portuguese pair of João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao is an enveloping blend of essay film and film noir, of the film maudit Macao by Josef von Sternberg (who was fired and replaced by Nicholas Ray during shooting) and Chris Marker’s meditation on time and place Sans Soleil.  Guerra da Mata plays himself as the main character though we never actually see him, just a stray arm or hand.  It’s not shot in the first person, he just exists somewhere off-screen telling us the story in narration.  In fact, no one on screen ever actually speaks: all the voices we hear are either off-screen or lip-syncs.  The film begins with just such a performance, a drag queen performing a lip-sync to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” from Macao.  Later, we learn that this same performer is an old friend of Guerra da Mata’s, and he’s been summoned back to Macao, the former Portuguese colony in China where he was born and grew up and which he hasn’t been back to for many years, in order to help her out of some kind of jam: lives are in danger.

Much of the first half of the film follows Guerra da Mata as he revisits locations he remembered from childhood: his old school, a colonial government building, etc while he muses on the history of the city and its unique place between two countries (though governed by Portugal for hundreds of years, the two cultures never mixed, he doesn’t speak Chinese and can’t find anyone who speaks Portuguese).  The images the two directors capture of the city evoke this alien, “singular and bizarre” world, a city where even the TV is upside down, where a casino employs a Chinese gondolier who sings Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” while he works.  Slowly, the mystery plot reveals itself, but Guerra da Mata tends to get sidetracked in digressions about the city, just as every time he is supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time to meet someone, he ends up getting lost.

Like Godard’s Alphaville, this unsettling modern landscape forms an ideal backdrop for a noir tale, one involving an underworld gang, the Chinese Zodiac, and a birdcage recalling the Great Whats-it from Kiss Me Deadly that can turn people into animals that ends with a man running at night through the labyrinthine city while fireworks explode (a climax reminiscent of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, or the film it borrows from, The Bribe).  The next morning’s epilogue finds the city enveloped in an apocalyptic smog.  This intersection between silly city symphony and Hollywood hodgepodge, between travelogue and film noir, between essay and pastiche forms a liberating kind of cinematic world: one where anything is possible because everything is constructed: reality is fiction and vice versa.

One way to take this is as a story of Chinese Macao descending into a primitive, animalistic hellscape once the Europeans abandon the city.  A better way is as the story of a European explorer who keeps getting lost, leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him, creates an environmental apocalypse and then disappears, allowing the original, enduring culture to return to prominence.  Beneath the ephemerality of modernity, its casinos and showtunes and movies, lies an ancient, foundational, unknowable humanity.

VIFF 2012: Tabu

“She had a farm in Africa.  She had a farm in Africa.”  With that refrain echoing the opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, the second half of Miguel Gomes’s festival favorite Tabu begins, shattering the realism of the first half in favor of the kind of romanticism best found in the movies.  We’re not unprepared for this seismic stylistic shift, for the first section of the film is preceded by a brief prologue, shot and narrated like a late 20s-early 30s jungle adventure film, about a man who, in the wake of his wife’s death, sentences himself to “wander desolately over inhospitable plains” of Africa, only to be hounded everywhere he goes by his wife’s ghost.  In the end, after he dies throwing himself into croc-infested waters, the villagers will speak of a vision of the lady wandering the jungle accompanied by “a sad and melancholy crocodile.”

We experience this as though it were a movie being watched by the main character of the first half of the film, Pilar, a bit of a sad sack middle-aged woman.  Pilar has a old lady neighbor, Aurora, who appears quite senile, if not downright insane: she goes on gambling jags, accuses her maid of practicing witchcraft on her and so on.  Pilar is one of those nice ordinary people that everyone seems to rely on, at least a little, but that no one ever notices.  Even the Polish nun she’s agreed to host blows her off to hang out with cooler, more interesting people.  The only time she seems to feel a real emotional connection with anything is at the movies: we watch her as she watches, and cries, at an unnamed, unseen film that features a Portuguese cover of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.  When Aurora falls ill, Pilar is sent to fetch the mysterious Gian Luca Ventura, who appears to be some kind of elderly Indiana Jones-type (leather jacket, anachronistic fedora).  It is Ventura who tells the tale of the second half of the film, about his life with Aurora in Africa.

The plot for this section follows the general contours of many a romance film, Out of Africa among them.  Aurora is the beautiful, intelligent, spirited heroine trapped in a marriage to a man she likes but doesn’t really love who falls for the dashing young adventurer whose only fear is commitment.  The young Ventura is played by Carlotta Cotta, he kind of looks like what you’d imagine Johnny Depp playing Matthew McConaughey would look like, and when he’s not romancing Aurora, he’s playing in a rock band with her husband and a couple other friends: they prove to be quite popular in their little Portuguese community in Mozambique, they have a hit playing another Ronettes song “Baby, I Love You” (this time lip-synched to the version by The Ramones).  This half of the film, shot in 16mm unlike the first half’s standard 35 (both sections are black-and-white), is entirely narrated: there is no on-screen dialogue, though there are sound effects (if I remember correctly).  It is entirely an imagining of the story told by Ventura, presumably through the mind of cinephile Phil Spector fan Pilar.  Where the first half of the film is told in the kind of deadpan realist minimalism that’s become the standard form of contemporary art cinema, the second half is wildly emotional and florid (Ventura at one point finds himself with “a feral despair beneath a cloak of amiability”), where even the maps the explorers make of their previously uncharted colony are “very beautiful but, it turn(s) out, hardly scientific.”

It’s tempting to read the movie as a political metaphor, set as the second half of the film is in the last stages of the Portuguese Empire, with the natives eyeing hungrily the decadent parties and love affairs of their colonizers, colonizers destined to end up lonely old women in tiny apartments thousands of miles away.  But more so the film is about memories and stories, and the ways in which our love of cinema alters them, making them less real and yet connecting us to them more powerfully.  Perhaps that’s where the decadence lies: when fiction becomes more meaningful to us than reality.

VIFF 2012: In Another Country

It wouldn’t be a trip to VIFF without a Hong Sangsoo movie, though it’d be tough for him to top the double he pulled at VIFF ’10 with Oki’s Movie and Hahaha, two of his very best movies.  This one though is right up there, as Hong just keeps refining his quirky style, making it funnier, more elegant, and more subtly weird.  Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, Hong seems content to spend years creating endless variations of the same central subjects (in his case, vacations, infidelity, drinking, and lazy filmmakers) within the same self-mirroring narrative style (where is first films tended to have a dual structure, with the first half of the film varying the second, his later films have expanded that to threes, fours and more). And like Ozu and Rohmer, I never fail to find his films delightful.  This might be Hong’s gentlest film, warm and hilarious.  If there’s any justice, the Huppert name will finally get him the wider American art house audience he deserves.

A short prologue sets up the frame story for the film: a young woman and her mother are hiding out from creditors in a small seaside hotel.  The girl decides to pass the time by working on a screenplay, the main character of which she’s basing on a French woman she met at the Jeonju Film Festival.  (This woman appears to be the only Hong writer who actually goes to a hotel and works, perhaps because that’s not why she went there in the first place).  Through the film she’ll give us three stories about the French woman, all played by Isabelle Huppert and all set in the same small hotel.  In the first, Huppert is a director visiting a director friend, a Korean man with a very pregnant (and jealous) wife.  In the second, Huppert is the wife of a car executive meeting her Korean lover in the hotel, except he turns up very late and she keeps falling asleep.  In the third, Huppert is a divorcée who comes to the hotel with a professor friend to relax and see the sights.  In each story, Huppert is given a different color outfit (blue, red green, if I remember correctly) and certain story elements are repeated (she always looks for a lighthouse, interacts with a boisterous and somewhat dim lifeguard (played by Yoo Jun-sang, who damn near steals the picture) and always borrows an umbrella from and walks into town with the girl who works at the hotel) as well as certain shot setups and dialogue (Huppert and the girl with the umbrella leaving the hotel are an exact match in everything but their clothes in each story).

A more manic filmmaker would, given this scenario, try to up the ante by intercutting between stories, creating a kind of meta-meta fictional world.  Lee Kwangkuk (Hong’s former assistant making his first feature) did something similar with Romance Joe, an audacious film that I also greatly enjoyed here at VIFF.  But Hong is much more relaxed, at least not at this point in his career.  He’s content to tell his stories on their own, one after the other, rather than mix them up, counting on us to remember the rhymes ourselves rather than underline them for us.  To be sure, there is some bleeding between stories, but it’s of a very minor variety.  More like the screenwriter in the framing story simply forgetting where she left the umbrella in which version of the story than a postmodern wink and a nudge.

It’s that frame story that’s nags at me most about this film, that sticks out like an absent note in a familiar tune.  Only in Oki’s Movie has a Hong shown his film to be so explicitly constructed, with its four variations on a romance (or multiple romance) told in different perspectives under the auspices of a short film project.  But in In Another Country, we never return to the frame story.  The last Huppert Tale ends and so does the movie.  What happens with the girl and her mother?  What about their debts?  Is the screenplay she’s working on three ideas about a film, or a film made up of three short stories loosely connected by a frame, in other words, the film we just watched?  And if the film she wrote has that same unresolved frame, then that irresolution proceeds into infinity: the film she’s writing about a girl writing a film about a girl writing a film about a girl. . . story within story delicately threaded and never finished, never finishable.

VIFF 2012: A Fish

The second film I saw in the the Dragons & Tigers competition comes from South Korean director Park Hongmin, who used some homemade digital wizardry to make it in 3D, though unfortunately we were unable to see that version here (though we are assured it looks great).  It’s an off-beat story about a professor who tracks down his wife with the help of a disreputable detective.  Seems the wife has run off to Jindo, an island that is home to an ancient religious order: the wife is going to become a shaman.  The film opens with a nice long shot that sets the disorienting tone for what is to follow: first we see a quiet pastoral landscape that is shattered when a hand knocks on the frame revealing the scene to be a reflection in a car window.  As the window rolls down, a street scene is revealed, not only are the reflection and reality opposed, but so are nature and civilization.  Park will keep us on our toes for the course of the film, as reality will always be shifting under our feet.

The central metaphor of the film is a shamanic ritual wherein stuck souls are fished out of the sea so they can continue their way on through the afterlife.  There’s a series of funny interludes in the film focusing on two fishermen on a fog-enshrouded boat.  At first their conversation revolves around typical fishing topics: how to fish and the meaning of life (“Why do the fish take the bait?” “Some of them think the bait will take them to a new world.” Fish cultists believing in the Hook as the Rapture, apparently).  Eventually, after an encounter with a talking fish, they begin to question, like the main characters of Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, how exactly they got on the boat in the first place.  Unlike in Tom Stoppard’s play, however, the question isn’t a meta-fictional one but a spiritual allegory, enmeshed in Korean Buddhist and shamanistic traditions.

Eventually, as twists and realities pile onto one another, it becomes hard to follow the thread of causality.  Exactly who is dead and who is alive and how they got that way doesn’t exactly come together in a particularly explicit way (or if it did, I didn’t quite catch it).  But that’s not to say the film isn’t coherent.  On the contrary, it makes absolute emotional sense. The tragedy of death and the weird and wonderful ways we cope with it.