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.

In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2012)

In Another Country.mkv_snapshot_00.07.53_[2012.12.10_00.45.00]

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.

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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.

VIFF 2012: Reconversão

This is the third documentary I’ve seen by Thom Andersen, and the first not about the architecture of his hometown Los Angeles.  The last one I saw was here at VIFF a couple years ago, a shortish look at billboards around town with a spinning radio dial soundtrack called Get Out of the Car, the first was the magisterial Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the depictions of the city through the years in Hollywood films, a slyly witty examination of how film transforms, misrepresents, ignores, violates and masks the city he loves.  But this year, Andersen has traveled halfway around the world to examine the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto Moura, who mainly works in the north of the country, in and around the city of Porto.

Unlike Andersen’s other films, this is structured more like a traditional documentary, as he looks at various buildings, one after the other and describes what he thinks is interesting about them, the theory behind them and the artistry that went into their construction or conception.  More than once the project never manages to get built as planned: architectural art, though it is necessarily the largest, most monumental art form, may be more ephemeral than any other: more difficult to make than a movie, easier to compromise and harder to maintain in its original state.  It’s this last sense that interests Souto Moura and Andersen most: Souto Moura’s most distinctive trait as an architect has to do with his attitude toward ruins: he likes to “reconvert” them into functional spaces (walls especially, Andersen and Souto Moura both lavishly praise the granite walls of Northern Portugal).  The film is full of their ruminations on the meaning of ruins, I noted a few quotes, forgive me if the wordings aren’t exact:

“The ruin ceases to be architecture and becomes nature.”

“The city is functional when its objects survive to take on functions beyond that which they were designed for.”

“Ruins are like animals: they move, they resist.”

This is explicitly a rejection of the Romantic idealization of ruins: it’s not about reveling in the glory of the past, or the beautiful decay of all things, Souto Moura finds this attitude itself decadent.  His art is about making the past a fundamental, functional part of the present.  It’s not hard to see why an Angeleno, a man from a city the most notorious trait of which is that it is almost utterly without a visible past, would be fascinated by the idea.

The most unusual element of the film is its photographic technique, frequently using a series of still frames, shot once or twice per second and then animated, looking like film projected at a single frame per second (or two seconds) rather than the normal film speed of 24 frames per second.  According to the VIFF program notes, this results in a higher resolution image.  I don’t really know how that’s supposed to work, I mostly just found the technique distracting.

VIFF 2012: Beautiful 2012

This terribly-titled omnibus film collects four shorts from directors from four East Asian countries commissioned by the Hong Kong Film Festival.  The films are much longer than the ones in the other collection I’ve seen here, 10 + 10, running about 20-30 minutes each.  Also unlike that film, there doesn’t seem to be a real unifying theme behind the works (“Beautiful” is not a theme, and even if it was, it’s a stretch to apply it to a couple of these). The first film, You are More than Beautiful comes from South Korean director Kim Tae-Young.  A variation on the plot of Buffalo 66, it’s about a guy who picks up a girl (a hooker?) to pass off to his father as his fiancée.  Unlike Vincent Gallo’s film, however, the father is dying and when the couple arrive at his hospital he’s in a coma.  The guy pays the manic pixie girl off, but she sneaks back into the father’s hospital room, packed to the gills with similarly dying old men, and starts talking to him.  Then she bursts into an impromptu aria from a Korean opera.  It’s silly, but it totally worked for me.  I’m a sucker for these kooky girls that break into song.  Kim’s direction is crisp and unassuming.  I’m curious to see one of his features.

The second short in the film is easily the highest profile, Walker by Tsai Ming-liang, his first film since Visage, which I saw back at VIFF 2009 (and which my wife almost walked out of).  It’s been awhile since then and I don’t quite remember how it ends, but apparently Lee Kang-sheng, the star and main character of all Tsai’s films, is now a monk, and this film is the chronicle of his walking, very, very, verrrrrry slowly through the city.  It starts with him exiting, one minute movement at a time from a stone staircase, out of the past, into the bustling sidewalk.  There follows a series of still shots (Tsai of course doesn’t move the camera) with Lee seemingly in slow motion while the city moves on around him.  It’s like the shot in Chungking Express where Tony Leung and Faye Wong are in slow motion at the lunch counter while the passersby move in blurs around them.  At first, people don’t seem to be paying much attention to the monk, there’s a scene in a square with a woman pounding something and chanting while passersby take her photograph and ignore the monk in their midst.  Later though, there’s a long shot of the monk moving down the street while crowds gather and watch him and, more interestingly to them apparently, photograph Tsai’s camera crew.  The space around the monk is open, the crowds keeping their distance as he forms an oasis of stillness in the middle of the city.  Later an ice cream truck plays a tinkly version of a Strauss waltz as the monk walks by, decidedly out of time with the tune.  One overhead shot includes an apartment window filled with an aquarium, much like the one in Lee’s parents’ apartment in Tsai’s other movies.  He’s glimpsed in the space between buses; he moves out of focus past a giant crystal clear advertisement.  Occasionally it can be hard to pick him out of a long shot until you realize that he’s the thing that’s not moving.  It is, perversely enough, Tsai’s fastest-paced film, the editing more rapid than anything I’ve seen from him before (though the shots are still much longer than the typical film).  Eventually, Lee comes to a stop, his path has lead him to a door that prominently declares “No Entry”.  Finally he slowly raises his head and slowly takes a bite of the egg mcmuffin he’s been slowly carrying for a day a night and another day.  Looks like it tasted great.

The third film is by Chinese director Gu Changwei and I can’t say I liked it much at all. Seemed to me like a compendium of the worst art house clichés.  There’s even a slow motion shot of a cat meowing, like something out of an SNL parody video.  Maybe it just had too much going on after Tsai’s sublime minimalism.  But the fourth film, My Way, by Hong Kong director Ann Hui, is very sweet. Francis Ng plays a transgender woman about to go in for her operation.  We see her going out to the movies, hanging out with her friends and arguing with her ex-wife.  There’s a brief flashback to their fight after she figures out her situation, and so a very real sense of relief and joy when she shows up after her operation to wish her well.  The subject is an under-discussed one in the Chinese-speaking world, even more so than it is here.  But Hui manages to tell this simple, humane story with warmth and, well, beauty.

VIFF 2012: Mother & Mekong Hotel

These two shortish films (about an hour long each) from Thailand were paired together here at VIFF, though they don’t have a whole lot in common other than a sensibility that mixes fiction and documentary, reality and mythology into a more or less seamlessly whole vision of the world as a place where anything is possible at any time.

Mother is an experimental film directed by Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul (Billy) and is part documentary about his own mother’s various health problems (mental and physical), part dramatization of some events that happened, part fiction and part fantasy.  The most striking bit is a long dream sequence, shot in black and white and scored with a harshly droning kind of minimalist music mixed with a chorus chanting by Thai composer Phil_WC, it sounded to me like some of the György Ligeti music Kubrick used in 2001.  Another sequence finds the mother in a grocery store grabbing things off the shelves apparently at random, the camera mounted on the shopping cart looking back at her, in the style of Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee.  Throughout the film there are hyper-extreme closeups of a person’s face, so close that they cease to be recognizable as human but instead become alien landscapes.  The documentary sequences are less successful, though certainly emotionally wrenching, they’re shot in a first-person shaky cam that mostly just made me dizzy.  Perhaps I’m just getting old.

Mekong Hotel was one of my most anticipated films coming into the festival, the first feature by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe) since his Cannes-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which I saw here at VIFF 2010).  It’s partly bits of a story Weerasethakul had written years ago about a young couple who are haunted by a pob ghost throughout their lives (pob ghosts are spirits that eat the entrails of animals and humans, like a Thai chupacabra I guess), but most of the film is simply Joe and his actors and composer hanging out at the titular hotel overlooking the Mekong River, the border between Thailand and Laos, chatting about politics and how high the water will rise in this year’s floods.  The composer, Chai Dhatana, noodles his score on a guitar throughout the movie, an ambling, aimless tune with hints of Southern blues that evokes not only the endless flow of the Mekong, but the Mississippi as well, both rivers oft-flooded borderlands conducive to lazy afternoon conversations and where the line between myth and reality is a little more porous than it probably should be.  I have written down in my notes the line “device to allow your spirit to wander”.  I don’t remember the context, who said it or what the device is, but it seems to me that that describes Joe’s movies pretty perfectly.