Four Films From VIFF 2014 Thus Far

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Films covered: La Sapienza (Eugène Green); The Golden Era (Ann Hui); National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman); Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

We’re now a few days into the festival and there’s definitely a different vibe at VIFF this year. The familiar faces are all here, though I’ve yet to see Tony Rayns or Bérénice Reynaud. Professors Bordwell and Thompson are here of course, along with a special guest. Also here are the eclectic mix of Asian films, hits from the international festival circuit and local Canadian products. Crowds are very strong, almost every auditorium I’ve been in thus far has been packed, something I haven’t seen since the 2010 festival — even in the remarkable 2012 year, masterpiece attendance was hit and miss. But the schedule is oddly lumpy, with evenings like the first Friday night stacked with half a dozen want-to-see films while other times (Sunday night, pretty much all of Tuesday) filled with films of the “yeah, I guess I could go see that, but maybe I should take a nap. Or, better yet, drink a mojito in a boot instead” variety. Some big films (the Godard, the Costa) get three shows, while others have only one (the Takahata, which had its sole screening at 11:30 am Saturday morning, as if they assumed the only people who’d be interested in seeing it were children that spoke fluent Japanese (the “print” was subtitled)). The new Hong Sangsoo movie plays twice, but only at the odd time of 5:15 for both shows, which effectively prevents one from seeing sows in the 3-4 and 6-7 block surrounding it. Weird problems of overlap abound. For example: the most appealing of Sunday afternoon’s shows, Listen Up Philip, didn’t get out until 6:25, yet all but one of the next set of shows started at 6:30 (this is why I missed out on the interesting-looking Hong Kong documentary Flowing Stories – it was simply impossible to make it across town in time to catch it). These scheduling issues are inevitable, of course. It’s exceedingly difficult to put together a multi-screen movie schedule (I speak from experience), especially in a festival environment with four or five movies playing a single auditorium every day. And a schedule that’s proven to be a pain for me may very well work great for someone else, or even the majority of festival attendees. One of the great things about film festivals is that everyone makes it their own. But this is the most trouble I’ve had in six years here. Perhaps the remarkable thing is that those other years went so well.

Some highlights from my festival thus far:

The week kicked off for me with disappointment. I knew I was going to miss Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, one of my most-anticipated films of the year, because my train wasn’t set to arrive until 11:45 Saturday. I did hope to make the second half of the de facto Princess double feature, however, with Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France, playing at 1:45. Unfortunately, my train was delayed, and long lines at the station meant I didn’t even make it to downtown until five minutes before showtime. Undaunted, I proceeded to the next film on the schedule, Eugène Green’s La Sapienza. Like Green’s other films (I watched Toutes les units and Le Pont des Arts in preparation for the fest), it features an unusually declamatory acting style, with a Bressonian minimization of emotion (though notably not as extremely robotic). Also Bressonian is a penchant for introducing scenes and characters with close-ups of their feet, or rather, their shoes. Green apparently is a big fan of shoes (not that there’s anything wrong with that). He films his characters’ conversations at right angles, a two-shot with them facing each other, perpendicular to the camera, followed by medium close-ups of each actor as they face the camera directly and speak in turn, Green not cutting until they’ve finished what they have to say. This combination of effects reminds me very much of Manoel de Oliveira, though the artifice is apparently indebted as much to Baroque theatrical technique as any cinematic fore-bearer. Green is said to be an expert in this, and knowing absolutely nothing about the subject myself, I’m in no position to disagree.

La Sapienza concerns itself with a married couple, an architect and a social worker, who seem very depressed and go on vacation in Switzerland. They meet a young brother and sister and become attached to them. The girl has fainting spells (“wasting sickness” perhaps, which should have died out in 1914, we’re told), the boy is an aspiring architect. The wife sends the boy with her husband on a tour of Baroque churches, while the two women stay behind and have frequent talks. The man is obsessed with the story of Borromini, a dreamer of an architect who had a more rational-minded rival and came to a bad end. As the film progresses, he tells us their story as he explains it to the young man, while Green lovingly points out the marvels they constructed, gorgeous pans and tilts following the lines of their churches as the reach toward the heavens. Like Voyage to Italy, the film’s most obvious reference point, the touch with the past transforms and reinvigorates the middle-aged.

The remarkable thing about the film, aside from the fact that I saw it on a Saturday afternoon, in a sold out auditorium that was 100% into it, laughing at all the right places and genuinely moved, is that it, and Green himself, even exist at all. How wonderful a world is it that provides a space for a weird expatriate-American Francophile, obsessed with Baroque theatre, to make odd little romances about the persistence and continuing relevance of ancient arts and archaic words? Green himself has a role in the film, bigger than the cameos in the other films of his I’ve seen, where he plays an old man the wife meets on a park bench at night. He explains that he is a refugee, a Chaldean from the Ninevah plain, an ethnic group she believed to be extinct. But no, they are still very much around, though in diminished numbers. A more fitting role for M. Green I cannot imagine.

The Golden Era capped my first day at the festival. Ann Hui’s bio-epic about 1930s writer Xiao Hong is long, beautiful and not quite exactly what you’d expect. The only sign of Hui’s usual twisting of expectations is in the film’s narration, with witness interviews in the style of Reds, except the witnesses are played by the same actors portraying those characters in the film proper. Unlike Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage (a film to which this has been compared, not entirely without reason), the actors never comment about the events as themselves (as also, for example, in Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871)), but always remaining in character. It’s an ingenious solution to the difficulty in recreating the life of someone who died young, leaving little in the way of personal history. It effectively captures the ways in which Xiao Hong the person is as much a memory in the lives of the people she met as she has been for the later generations who have discovered her only through her writings (which appear to be exceptionally beautiful tales of misery). But Hui pretty much plays it straight. Only once do the narrational accounts differ, and while Tang Wei’s performance does have some notable shifts in tone, there wasn’t a pattern to the changes that I was able to discern (with one narrator remembering her as happy and jubilant, another as morose, all at the same time, for example). Rather than foreground her experiments, Hui seems content to let her above-average prestige picture play itself out in heart-wrenching yet familiar terms.

Each of my next two days in Vancouver began with a documentary. Sunday was the latest from Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, about the British art museum of the same name. In a brisk three hours, Wiseman takes us on a tour of the place, following his now well-established structure: alternating long sequences of people at work, both “on-stage” (the tour guides, the restorers) and off (the frame-makers, the construction workers and janitorial crew) and administrative meetings where the war between commerce and art is fought, with breaks in-between made of “pillow shots”, in this case usually close-ups of people looking at the art interspersed with close-ups of the faces in the art itself. He even manages to weasel in a couple of “interviews” wherein he films a person being interviewed, rather than having to break his cinematic code and interview them on-camera himself. It’s great of course. I’ve watched a lot of Wiseman in the last month and I simply can’t get enough of his films, the ones about art especially. It’s beautiful and fascinating and that structure is so entrenched because it works so well to make a very long movie seem much shorter than it really is. But one thing is for sure: next time I go to a museum, I’m going to join a tour. Those guides are terrific. The less I say about the dance scene at the end, however, the better.

Ballet 422, which opened my Monday, owes a very great debt to Wiseman, especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). Director Jody Lee Lipes follows the Wiseman template (albeit with a very few explanatory title cards, kind of necessary in the beginning to set the story, less so to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero’s deadline. The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet’s 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie proceeds from early rehearsal footage through the final performance, with shots of the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) interspersed and pillow shots (prominently close-ups of shoes, again) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. Again as in Wiseman there are no interviews, the cinematic apparatus remaining invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes his shot). The rehearsal footage is great, as is Peck’s production itself, brisk and lively and charmingly danced by the company, particularly the three leads (Tiler Peck, Stirling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar). The company appears to have a warm and friendly camaraderie: it’s much funnier than the Wiseman films (at one point one of the dancers in the chorus is worried about her outfit. A wardrobe woman tells her: “Girl, you got nothing to worry about: if it comes out, it’s cute.”) The best revelation comes at the end, though, when we see Peck make his way backstage, down an empty hall to his dressing room. He changes clothes and begins putting his makeup on. He’s performing in the third performance of the night, as part of the chorus. Like the generic title indicates: despite all the artistry and inspiration and fun and music and dance, the ballet is, as much as anything else, work.

VIFF 2014: Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. This is a revised version of my review from the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.

The end of the world, maybe. A late-night minibus, packed with commuters traveling from (if my geography is correct) the center of the city to one of its satellite neighborhoods, seems to drive instead into the Twilight Zone: everyone else in Hong Kong seemingly disappears, and then the passengers themselves begin dying in unusual ways. Lam Suet drives the bus, Simon Yam (sporting perhaps his most incredible haircut yet) grabs a leadership role being the oldest and loudest, Kara Hui spouts metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about the Photon Belt and their impeding transportation (over 1000 years) to their new home near Sirius, while the younger generation (soccer fans, punk kids and college students) have no theories as to what’s going on and no direction (the girl Yuki and boy Chi withhold possibly relevant information at every turn, a married couple apparently sees the world through soccer metaphors, a computer programmer has some tools but no idea what to do with them).

As it becomes clear that director Fruit Chan won’t give us, or them, a clear explanation of what has happened, he offers a handful of possibilities, based on the insecurities and anxieties of contemporary Hong Kongers both primal and political: is it a Fukushima-type disaster, from a nuclear plant on the Mainland? A plot by the North Koreans (who claim to be the source of all Chinese culture)? A SARS-style epidemic? Is it somehow related to the fact that Hong Kongers are soon to be allowed to vote for their own Chief Executive? Is it ghosts? Aliens? Are they ghosts? What does David Bowie have to do with it all?

Based on a serialized web novel called Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo by PIZZA (a pseudonym, one assumes), the film is as hilarious as it is horrifying. It’s full of beautiful grotesqueries, primally disturbing imagery (a man in a gas mask, a woman with unnaturally flowing hair, a red red rain) but the eeriest of all are the empty streets of Hong Kong. One of the most densely populated places on Earth (even at 2:30 in the morning, when the film begins, it should be bustling with human activity) suddenly emptied of people and vehicles and noise. But what it isn’t is a concise and coherent narrative. On-screen titles give us the exact time and location of every event (like in Psycho) but that information only gives us a false sense of security, of order. Knowing the time and place is nice, but that doesn’t free you from the random whims of the universe (like in Psycho). Images and events are left unexplained: mysterious phone calls, vanished memories, flashbacks to pasts both sad and happy. Members decline to share possibly important (and bizarre) facts with the other members of the group. An impromptu justice system is established and an execution agonizingly botched. A prime mover of the first half of the story mostly disappears from the back half, his mysteries left unresolved. All of this dangling and inexplicability and incongruence is not a failure, of course, it is The Point. The film is the horror of death as Unanswered Question, and as the end of the possibility of Answering Questions.

VIFF 2014: Tsai Ming-Liang’s Journey to the West

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

When I was young, in the first half of the 1980s, whenever I committed some minor childhood infraction, my punishment (this being before the adoption of the “timeout” lingo) was to stand facing a wall for some indeterminate amount of time, usually around ten minutes, which of course feels like an hour or two to the temporally expansive pre-adolescent mind. I committed a lot of infractions, so I became quite used to this, and eventually even learned to enjoy it. I’d stare at the wood-paneling (again, 1980s), count the small nail holes, follow the flow and swirl of the knots and the minute contours of the wood, the various shades of beige and brown swirling in an alien, pre-historic landscape. Forced to stare at an apparently empty, action-less space, I learned that if you look at it long enough, anything can become interesting. I learned that boredom is a state of mind, not a state of being.

Little did I know this experience was training me to watch Tsai Ming-liang films. This hour-long short, a continuation of his even shorter film Walker (which I reviewed at VIFF 2012), observes Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng as he walks, dressed as a monk in flowing red robes, through a city. In Walker he walked through Taipei, carrying a mysterious parcel through streets and crowds, finally reaching his destination, whereupon he unwrapped and took a bite out of a sandwich, made all the more delicious by the very long time it took to take it home. This time the monk is in Marseille, and there appears to be a plot, and a co-star, none other than French cinema icon Denis Levant. The story is hinted at in the title and somewhat clarified in an accompanying note from Tsai:

“His walking, so special and so slow, in all the four corners of the world recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures. In the classical Chinese novel “The Journey to the West”, Xuanzang frees the Monkey King from his prison at the foot of a mountain. In Marseille, there is a rock that resembles the face of a monkey: in the bay of monkeys. Fashioned by the effects of time, Denis Lavant’s face is like these rocky shapes and I am irresistibly attracted to it. That was how I started to think of Lee Kang-sheng walking on his face…”

The film opens with its longest shot, an extreme closeup of Levant’s face, lying on a diagonal, half in shadow. As Tsai forces us to stare at it at seemingly interminable length, the face becomes something else, an alien landscape of valleys and mountains and rivers and crevasses; every pore, every grey hair a story, every fold of Levant’s now 50+ year old face containing multitudes. We’ll revisit this face at the seaside, I assume at the Bay of Monkeys Tsai refers to, making literal the transformation from face to landscape.

Most of the film though chronicles the monk’s journey through the city in a series of long shots, the camera even more static than the monk. These shots inspire a fun, Where’s Waldo-esque challenge where you try to pick the monk out of the crowd (hint: he’s the thing that’s not moving). But they also seem to be allegories for Xuanzang’s journey. A pungent red wall becomes perhaps the scene of a mighty battle the monk witnesses, a long staircase a descent into the underworld. The monk begins to appear in reflections, the mirror in a man’s apartment, a glossy wall overlooking a plaza packed with travelers and people at play (a crowd gathers around a man playing the piano, another man sets adrift giant bubbles). Are the mirrors indicative of his journey to “the other side”? In one of the film’s final shots, the monk is being followed by what looks to me like Denis Levant, also walking very slowly past a sidewalk cafe, following a patch of sunlight. The Monkey King, freed at last, being led back to the East?

It’s a fact about the way I watch movies, some might call it a defect, that I tend to narrativize everything I see, to try to build a story out of the images on-screen, whether any particular story is necessarily intended. Even in the most abstract of experimental films I find myself creating theories and explanations for what I’m seeing, a background and a future. I think Tsai invites this kind of theorizing, and one of my favorite films from VIFF 2013, his Stray Dogs, provides a great example of this kind of filmmaking, wherein a movie can be about any number of things and the viewer finds themselves with the choice of actively fitting all the pieces together to tell a coherent story or not, of letting it work simply as image and sound, mood and emotion. Tsai gives us hints of possible avenues to walk down, but he never tells us exactly what he thinks is going on in his movies. I choose to take the title literally and see this as an adaptation of Journey to the West, as much or maybe even more so than the similarly-titled (and just as good) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons directed by Stephen Chow that was also released this year. The two films would make a great, if whiplash-inducing, double feature.

In the end, Tsai leaves us with this postscript, some famous lines from the Diamond Sutra, one of the Sanskrit texts translated by Xuanzang into Chinese:

All composed things are like a dream,
A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning,
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them.

Running Out of Karma: Soi Cheang’s Accident

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Essentially a Milkyway Image version of The Conversation, a internalized paranoia thriller with metaphysical implications and a visual style that lodge it firmly in the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai universe even though they (probably) had relatively little to do with the production. Louis Koo plays The Brain, the leader of a group of hired killers who specialize in making their hits look like (wildly improbable) accidents, Rube Goldberg assassinations. Implicit in their work is the belief that because they create “random” events, nothing in the world is a matter of chance. As Koo explains, they are not the only ones in this business and in killing certain folks, they likely have created powerful enemies. Koo, driven by the film’s opening image (a woman dying in a car accident, his wife) sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. When a hit goes wrong, it must be a work of a rival, or a betrayal by his team. The universe is not random, it is actively trying to destroy him.

Images of chaos abound: balloons, bouncing balls, a broken watch, falling leaves. As Koo becomes obsessed with his suspect, he spies on him, first with a small monocular, tunneling his vision of the man at work to a small iris. We later see a wide shot of his office building (the suspect in an insurance agent, a man who makes his living betting against chance), a massive grid of circles, like a Connect Four board infinitely multiplying Koo’s vision: potential suspects are everywhere. Koo eventually installs himself in the apartment below the suspect, where he listens to his every move Lives of Others-style, mapping its layout on his ceiling, a desperate attempt not at imposing order on chaos, but at solving the conspiratorial order that must lie behind everything that he sees.

This was Soi Cheang’s first film for Milkyway. (He would make another with Motorway in 2012,  a getaway car heist movie in which the car chases rely on stasis, specifically a 90-degree turn performed from a dead stop. An audacious move for a genre that has for 40+ years hinged on more and more reckless uses of speed). The screenplay is credited to the team of Szeto Kam-yuen and Nicholl Tang, who previously worked on Cheang’s The Death Curse and Home Sweet Home (Szeto as well had been with Milkyway since 1997, having worked on Wai’s Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, three 1998 films and Exiled, as well as the non Milkyway Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films SPL and Flash Point. He died in 2012 at the age of 48 due to lung cancer.). It’s also credited to the “Milkyway Creative Team” a catch-all sometimes used by the studio to indicate its committee process at work, wherein the various screenwriters and producers working for the company have some input on the final film, but not so much to earn an individual writing credit. Like Motorway, Accident fits snugly within the visual style Johnnie To has established as the Milkyway norm: crisp images with vibrant color, deep black shadows shot through with unexpected shafts of bright white light and elegance in composition that allows for spatial clarity in the editing of suspense and action sequences. These are the only two of Cheang’s films I’ve seen so far, though I hear and very much believe that his earlier stuff is well-worth watching.

It’s the thematic interactions with To and Wai’s previous work that strike me as most interesting about Accident. One of the running theories of the Running Out of Karma series (if I ever get back to actually writing about To, as opposed to the dozens of other Chinese-language cinema tangents I find myself getting lost within) is that the governing interaction (conflict isn’t the right word at all) in To’s films is that between fate and chance, between the complex web of forces that rule our lives (fate, karma, traditional moral and filial imperatives, even government itself) and the seemingly random ways in which those forces manifest themselves. Encounters (or the lack thereof) between lovers and enemies, coincidences, and luck routinely form the basis of the plots of the Milkyway films, which are in turn populated by doomed characters, fated to play out a pre-ordained role with little free will to be found. The Election films are the darkest, while the slapstick romantic comedies are the lightest, but the underlying metaphysics remain remarkably consistent in film after film. Life is a game and the degree to which the game is rigged marks the line between comedy and drama, between violence and farce.

So Accident, then, takes this vision of a universe governed by fate and administered through chance and turns in into paranoid fantasy. Louis Koo, The Brain, convinces himself that sinister forces are controlling his life (much as they indeed did for Koo’s gangster in Election 2) because he, like To and his writers, has devoted his life and career to creating elaborate illusions of chance. The set pieces in Accident are as cunningly designed as the culminating randomness of PTU or Expect the Unexpected. But where To’s heroes are constantly striving outwards, struggling against the system despite the hopelessness of the task (even if they don’t even know anymore why they’re doing it, as in Vengeance), The Brain retreats ever further inward, lost in his delusion (think of the mirrors which Koo carefully positions around his apartment, allowing him to see all the angles at once so that no one may sneak up on him with the fracturing of identity in the mirror-shattering climaxes of The Longest Nite and Mad Detective), his universe collapsing in on itself until even it too is erased by the inevitable consequence of an accident.

VIFF 2014 Index

This is an index of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.


Introduction and Proposed Schedule – Sep 11, 2014


Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, 14) – Sep 25, 2014
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 14) – Sep 26, 2014
La Sapienza (Eugène Green, 14) – Sep 30, 2014
The Golden Era (Ann Hui, 14) – Sep 30, 2014
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 14) – Sep 30, 2014
Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 14) – Sep 30, 2014
Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo, 14) – Oct 02, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak, 14) – Oct 02, 2014
Miss and the Doctors (Axelle Ropert, 14) – Oct 02, 2014
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry, 14) – Oct 02, 2014
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 14) – Oct 07, 2014
Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 14) – Oct 07, 2014


The George Sanders Show #46 – Oct 18, 2014

This Week in Rankings

Since my last rankings update, I went on a fake-movie-award-giving binge, handing out new Endy Awards and revising old ones for the last 14 years. Johnnie To, naturally enough, is the big winner of the century thus far. I’m going to attempt to update these every time I do one of these rankings posts as well, but we’ll see how that goes. I also wrote about a pair of Frederick Wiseman films (Ballet and Crazy Horse) and revisited Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues. And, as Labor Day passed, I put together a new Top 100 Films of All-Time list (and a special George Sanders Show Top Ten Episode as well). As always, I continue to make lists and write short reviews and comments over at letterboxd.

Looking ahead, next weekend I make my way north once again to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I’ve got a potential schedule posted already, and am looking to get some preview reviews up sometime soon.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last several weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Strike (Sergei Eisenstein) – 6, 1925
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg) – 5, 1931
Viva Las Vegas – (George Sidney) – 21, 1964
Come Drink with Me (King Hu) – 9, 1966
Wavelength (Michael Snow) – 9, 1967

High School (Frederick Wiseman) – 9, 1968
No Way to Treat a Lady (Jack Smight) – 26, 1968
The Valiant Ones (King Hu) – 12, 1975
Piranha (Joe Dante) – 20, 1978

Raining in the Mountain (King Hu) – 10, 1979
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush) – 13, 1979
Mad Max (George Miller) – 22, 1979
Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark) – 3, 1984
Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme) – 6, 1984

Matewan (John Sayles) – 24, 1987
Orlando (Sally Potter) – 9, 1992
Ballet (Frederick Wiseman) – 5, 1995
Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa) – 10, 1995
La Comédie-Française (Frederick Wiseman) – 19, 1996

Tempting Heart (Sylvia Chang) – 25, 1999
Belfast, Maine (Frederick Wiseman) – 29, 1999
Mission to Mars (Brian DePalma) – 21, 2000
Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter) – 16, 2001
Jade Goddess of Mercy (Ann Hui) – 22, 2003

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow) – 5, 2004
Le Pont des Arts (Eugène Green) – 10, 2004
20 30 40 (Sylvia Chang) – 15, 2004
The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Ann Hui) – 22, 2006
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) – 31, 2008

Accident (Soi Cheang) – 7, 2009
Love Aaj Kal (Imtiaz Ali) – 16, 2009
Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman) – 21, 2011
Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore) – 15, 2012
Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman) – 83, 2012

VIFF 2014: Introduction and Proposed Schedule

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

In just over two weeks, I’ll be heading to the Vancouver International Film Festival for the sixth time in the past seven years (a streak only interrupted by the birth of child #1 in 2011). As always, I plan to review as many of the films I see there as possible. In 2012 I managed to cover 30 out of 31 (I still plan to get to that last one someday), and last year I had eleven long reviews, a whole lot of letterboxd capsules and one two-part podcast. As with last year, I’m planning on some preview coverage this year, as I’d like to watch some films from directors who will feature at this year’s festival, mostly people from whom I’ve never seen anything before.

The festival looks to be much the same as in previous years, with a wide selection of world cinema, with a special focus on East Asian film in the Dragons & Tigers series programmed by Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer. Unfortunately, this year there will be no Dragons & Tigers competition, the award for young filmmakers that I had a lot of fun following along with the last couple of years. It leant a predictable structure to the festival, two films showing per night at one venue, followed by repeat performances during the day at another venue on the opposite end of downtown, with the whole competition viewable in only four days, followed by the gala awards ceremony. Instead there’s now a more general award for new directors, and the competition includes a slate of eleven films. Their showings are spread apparently at random throughout the first week, as if the award were a late addition and the competitors cobbled together from elements of the already-programmed festival as a whole. I might be able to make it to five of the competition films (marked with an * in the schedule below). Making it to all of them will probably be impossible as there are just too many other things to see during the eight days I’ll be in town.

This is a rough draft of the schedule I’m looking to follow at the 2014 Festival. Shows that conflict with each other are listed without a space in-between, with the filming I’m currently leaning towards attending listed first.

Saturday, Sept. 27:

The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro)

La Sapienza (Eugène Green)

The Golden Era (Ann Hui)

Sunday, Sept. 28:

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)

Exit (Chenn Hsiang)*

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)

Flowing Stories (Tsang Tsui Shan)

The Owners (Adilkhan Yerzhanov)

Monday, Sept. 29:

Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch)

Horse Money (Pedro Costa)

Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
The Vancouver Asahi (Yuya Ishii)

The Furthest End Awaits (Chiang Hsiu-Chiung)
Mommy (Xavier Dolan)

Tuesday, Sept. 30:

Miss and the Doctors (Axelle Ropert)*
Revivre (Im Kwontaek)

Free Fall (György Pálfi)

Heaven Knows What (Benny & Joshua Safdie)

Rekorder (Mikhail Red)*

Güeros (Alonso Ruíz Palacios)

Wednesday, Oct. 1:

Uncle Victory (Zheng Meng)

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo)

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Thursday, Oct. 2:

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)

Violent (Andrew Huculiak)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
An Eye for Beauty (Denys Arcand)

The Boy and the World (Alê Abreu)
Welcome to Me (Shira Piven)

The Iron Ministry (JP Sniadecki)
The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

Friday, Oct. 3:

Ow (Yohei Suzuki)*

Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard)

August Winds (Gabriel Mascaro)*

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

Saturday, Oct 4:

Blind Massage (Lou Ye)

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
Life of Riley (Alain Resnais)

Highway (Imtiaz Ali)

The Midnight After (Fruit Chan)
The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini)

Sunday, Oct. 5:

Queen and Country (John Boorman)

Above Us All (Eugenie Jansen)

My biggest regrets are going to be missing The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) which plays only once, just as I arrive in town and The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) which overlaps with a pair of films I’m unlikely to be able to see anywhere else. The Takahata is opening in Seattle in October, so that won’t be too bad, but it looks like the Assayas won’t have a US release until 2015. The biggest regret of all, of course, is that Johnnie To’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 isn’t playing the festival at all, though it is playing at Toronto. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to catch that one.

Here is a list of my planned preview coverage.

Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa)
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
Ex (Heiward Mak)
Hahaha (Hong Sangsoo)
Jab We Met (Imtiaz Ali)
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)
Love Aaj Kal (Imtiaz Ali)
Les Pont des Arts (Eugène Green)
Viola (Matías Piñeiro)

A Top 100 Films of All-Time

It is time once again for a Top 100 Films of All-Time list. As I’ve done for the last couple of years, the first ten spots are a hypothetical Sight & Sound-style ballot, which we discuss on this week’s episode of The George Sanders Show. They’re ordered here reverse-chronologically. The remaining 90 films were randomly selected from a consideration set of 858 films, which excluded films that made my Top Tens in 2012 and 2013.
1. Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
2. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
3. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

4. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
5. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 1978)
6. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

8. Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953)

9. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
10. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
11. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
12. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993)
13. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
14. Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013)
15. Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
16. Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)
17. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951)
18. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
19. The Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
20. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
21. 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)
22. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
23. Fantômas (Louis Feuillade, 1913)
24. Body Double (Brian DePalma, 1984)
25. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)
26. Mahanagar (Satyajit Ray, 1963)
27. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
28. The Play House (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline, 1921)
29. Claire’s Knee (Eric Rohmer, 1970)
30. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

31. Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)

32. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

33. Obsession (Brian DePalma, 1976)

34. LA Story (Mick Jackson, 1991)

35. The Saga of Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg, 1953)

36. The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

37. Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)

38. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)

39. Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

40. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, 2007)

41. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

42. The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000)

43. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)

44. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944)

45. The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

46. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (Don Weis, 1953)

47. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

48. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)

49. The Lineup (Don Siegel, 1958)

50. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

51. Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

52. Cops (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline, 1922)

53. The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

54. Running Out of Time 2 (Johnnie To & Law Wing-cheong, 2001)

55. Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987)

56. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

57. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

58. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

59. As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, 1988)

60. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

61. Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)

62. Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967)

63. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

64. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)

65. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

66. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973)

67. Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

68. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

69. The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)

70. Leaves from Satan’s Book (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1920)

71. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

72. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

73. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

74. The Victim (Sammo Hung, 1980)

75. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

76. I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1945)

77. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

78. Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

79. Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991)

80. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)

81. Orphans of the Storm (DW Griffith, 1921)

82. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

83. My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

84. Kid Auto Races at Venice (Henry Lehrman, 1914)

85. Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933)

86. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)

87. Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

88. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, 2013)

89. Love and Death (Woody Allen, 1975)

90. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

91. The Love Eterne (Li Han-hsiang, 1963)

92. Limelight (Charles Chaplin, 1952)

93. El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966)

94. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)

95. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

96. Bye Bye Birdie (George Sidney, 1963)

97. Wee Willie Winkie (John Ford, 1937)

98. The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

99. Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney, 1951)

100. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

On Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse

Unlike his other recent dance films Ballet and La danse, Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, a look at a venerable Parisian burlesque club released in 2011, starts not with rehearsals, but the performance itself. With a bang we’re shown the naked bodies at work, as if to explain, “Yes, there are boobs here. Get over it.” The other two films showed us the process of creation, all the little things, all the effort and hard work that go into creating a stage performance. They alternate footage of the dancers being coached with their painstaking preparations, slowly building a performance and culminating with the final stage version. Crazy Horse gives us plenty of that same backstage detail: costumes, makeup, wigs, contentious management meetings, slyly filmed interviews, but mixes in fully-staged performances at regular intervals. This is by necessity: one of the main difficulties the director, Philippe Decouflé, is having is that he must design a whole new show while at the same time being open for business every night. But it breaks up the flow of the work, instead of organized creation we get musical numbers breaking up a documentary narrative. Like a vérité Cabaret with significantly fewer Nazis.

The shows are apparently the pinnacle of their style, “nude chic”. This is apparently a thing that fashionable people do: go to a club and drink champagne and watch naked women dance to mediocre pop music. I’m reminded of Jean Renoir’s dramatization of exactly the same activity in French Cancan, set 100 years earlier. The Renoir is a joyous celebration of vice, of sex and dance and music as life itself. In our more explicit age, where there is very little left that is concealed, the moral question remains of whether that licentiousness is a good thing, although it is framed from a much different side than were the puritanical mores of the past. Namely the question is: is the burlesque good for women? The artistic director, Ali, filmed by Wiseman giving a couple of third-party interviews, is very insistent on the empowering nature of the performances. As he says, he’s fascinated by the ways in which women can project the ideal versions of themselves on the stage. One has to question though how ideal is an art form that developed out of the brothel, one that literally depends upon the objectification of the female form. One dance has the women in scant military outfits, marching and saluting, a display of domination. Another has a woman tied up and suspended in the air. She does some great rope tricks, acrobatic and lovely, but she’s still a woman tied up, on a stage, displayed for an audience.

It’s the objectification that seems to fascinate Wiseman the most. The bodies are often shown in silhouette, or if not, with a dazzling light display: colored polka dots, myriad stars, horizontal lines, or even simply with parts of the bodies lit while the other remain in shadow. The effect is one of slicing up the body into individual parts. Less than parts even: curves, lines. Not the female form (and it’s impossible not to notice that all the women have the exact same form: no natural variety to be found here), but form itself. The effect is at once beautiful and completely anti-erotic (at least as far as I’m concerned, your mileage may vary, I make no judgements). I am, however, perplexed at how the segmentation of a woman’s body into its constituent shapes and shadows is supposed to be empowering, even if it does serve an artistic purpose beyond mere titillation.

There’s a short but telling scene of the dancers backstage, watching what appears to be a youtube compilation of on-stage errors by Russian ballet dancers. A blooper reel where dancers collide, fall down, struggle to lift each other and trip as they collapse off-stage. The women snicker at the, admittedly hilarious, disasters. But there’s a nasty edge to it, as there is in all such laughing at others’ misfortune. The burlesque of the Crazy Horse is a vulgar version of the ballet, the dancers work in an artistic netherworld that isn’t quite “art” and isn’t quite stripping. Both forms of dance prize form and shape over natural human anatomy, though the ballet features slightly more clothing and a whole lot more technique and athleticism, as well as, pointedly, male dancers every bit as much on display as the women. Is their laughing at the ballet an act of aggression, of bringing the snobs down to their level? Or is it the laughter of identification, of equivalence? A recognition that even the stars of the Russian ballet too can fall on their shapely asses. Wiseman doesn’t answer these questions, of course. At least not explicitly. And nor should he.

On Frederick Wiseman’s Ballet

Venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet from 2009 is one of my favorite films of the century so far, so you can imagine my surprise when I happened upon this film while accidentally finding myself in the Wiseman section of Scarecrow Video last week. Released in 1995 and covering parts of 1992 and 1993 in the operation of the American Ballet Theater, in structure and content it is essentially identical to the later film, running about ten minutes longer (just shy of three hours).

Both films are cinéma vérité chronicles of the rehearsals and backstage preparations that make up the day to day routines of the company. There are practices, classes, physical therapy, costuming and makeup sessions and eventually fully staged performances. Wiseman punctuates the passage of time occasionally with outside shots of the home city (New York in the case of Ballet, Paris, of course, for the other film), as if to give us a nudge: as we walk down the street the buildings we pass by and pay no attention to may contain artists at work. More frequently transitions between the various milieux of the company are made with shots of the dancers lounging or stretching, reading a book, listening to music, checking a call sheet, going over routines in their memories, looking nervous and scared and bored. In Ballet there is less of an emphasis on the monetary side of things, with only a couple of phone calls where company director Jane Hermann (hilariously) yells at the Met for screwing them over serving as a reminder that this, too, is a business.

More poignant are a couple of scenes of applying dancers, one being advised that they’d like her to join, another being told that now is not the right time for him. In both instances, the man doing the explaining uses the same gentle tone of voice, and the prospective dancers sport the same expression of doom. As well, a lengthy scene of a dancer being instructed by a teacher (who, if I understand correctly, was herself a world-famous dancer in her youth) is followed by the student dancer taking a break and walking to the side of a woman where a father and his maybe nine year old daughter are waiting for the woman to autograph a pair of shoes for her. This dancer maybe a star, a leading ballerina in one of the top company’s in the world and an idol to aspiring dancers, but backstage she’s just another student, needing to practice and work and improve. Maybe it’s just the difference in setting between New York and Paris, between a largely American cast and a largely European one, but the ABT shown here feels lighter, looser, more fun than the Paris Ballet did. Or maybe its just that Wiseman finds some time in the second half of the film, between touring performances, to send us out with the dancers as they act as tourists: to the beach, to a funky nightclub, to an amusement park in Copenhagen.

The real gem of Ballet, though, is Agnes DeMille, in the last year of her life, choreographing (from a wheelchair) what would end up being her final work (The Other, with Amanda McKerrow). We get to sit in on an interview with DeMille (a sneaky way for Wiseman to get his subjects to talk like they would in a less strictly vérité documentary is to show them being interviewed by someone else, a newspaper or magazine reporter), as she talks about dance and getting older and the integration of dance into a narrative whole (you can’t just perform a dance in isolation because it might not make sense out of context. Of course, this is exactly what Wiseman does throughout the film). But better yet is watching her work, the way she and McKerrow and their assistants work to bring one short, gorgeous scene to life, the way she coaxes McKerrow to flap her arms in just the right way so she looks like like a chicken and more “like something that’s absolutely broken and stuck up in the wind.” This is one of the rehearsed dances we don’t get a full stage version of in the second half of the film, where it and DeMille are sadly missing. But after seeing this one stretch of movement come together over the first half of the film, the final, almost finished version is heart-breaking.

The performances at the end of the film are pretty spectacular. They were performed and filmed the next year in Athens and Copenhagen after a rough patch for the company (not at all discussed in the film: the New York Times notes that the company underwent a change of director and had serious financial trouble, and also that Wiseman couldn’t include any of the New York season because he couldn’t get permission to film at the Met). They include more well-known and recognizable ballets than the ones featured in La danse. We see a bit of The Rite of Spring (suitably audacious in costumes and earthy sexuality) and a bit of Romeo and Juliet (passionate and lovely). It’s what you’d expect from a ballet company that was trying desperately to draw an audience. Obvious works to be sure, but to my knowing-nothing-about-dancing eye, pretty inventive and shockingly emotional nonetheless. Most striking might be the sounds Wiseman captures, not just of the music, hardly at all of the music (there isn’t even an orchestra at the Athens performance: Wiseman gives us a close-up of the giant tape recorder filling in for the band), but rather the grunts and thuds and squeaks of the dancers’ shoes on the surface of the stage. The sound of gravity in an artform that aspires to weightlessness.

Still though, the rehearsals remain the most compelling part of the film, even more so than they were in La danse, and I wonder why that is. Is it just the novelty of it? The footage reminds us that dance, that performance, is tremendously hard work, something we may forget when we only see the finished product, and so getting a glimpse, however brief or free of context, of everything that goes into a finished work is something new, something we haven’t seen before. Or is it the sheer joy of deconstruction, of taking a performance a part to see how it is put together, like an eight-year-old with a mechanical clock? Or is it a reaction against the slickness of our modern entertainment, that in the sweep of CGI and production values, we’ve lost the chaotic frustration of effort, the little imperfections that serve as reminders of our own humanity and what wonders other humans, with enough effort and inspiration, can achieve? Probably.