VIFF 2015: The Last Five Days

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival


I’ve been home from Vancouver for almost a week now, still suffering from the cold I catch there every year (something unhealthy about not eating properly, drinking copious amounts of caffeine and sharing breathing space with hundreds of other people ten hours a day for a week). Since my report on a few films from the First Four Days of the festival, we covered a number of movies on a second episode of The George Sanders Show, namely Right Now Wrong Then, The Assassin, Taxi, A Matter of Interpretation, Landfill Harmonic, The Dream of Shahrazad and Arabian Nights. Of the 29 features and 4 shorts I saw during my nine days in Vancouver, there are a few more standouts I want to mention.

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is one of the more polarizing films of the year. It marks a radical shift in Jia’s formal technique, abandoning the long-shot/long-take aesthetic that has made him one of the preeminent examples of 21st Century Asian Minimalism. Instead, working with his longtime cinematographer, the artist Yu Lik-wai, Jia films in a conventional mainstream style: the camera moves, he edits within a scene and we get close-ups of the actors. This is in keeping with the broad melodrama of the story’s construction. A schematic story of a love triangle told in three different time periods, Mountains is the most baldly emotional movie Jia has yet made. His first use of close-ups reveals what we long-suspected but that the old long shots tended to obscure, namely that Zhao Tao is one of the great actors of her generation. Her performance here is nothing less than phenomenal. In the first story, set in 1999, she’s the pivot point of a love triangle with two men, one a poor coal miner, the other an aspiring capitalist. She ultimately chooses the rich man, which leads to the shattering heartbreaks of the second chapter, set in 2014, a story itself split in two halves, first about the miner (and his wife), then about Zhao and her now-estranged son, who is sent home to attend his grandfather’s funeral. The third story, set in 2025, follows the son, now emigrated to Australia where he has forgotten his Chinese past, the language, and even his mother. He connects with another Chinese immigrant, his much older teacher (played by Sylvia Chang), and the Oedipal nature of their relationship is no less subtle than the boy’s name (he was aspirationally christened “Dollar” by his ludicrous father).

This third section has come under fire (usually under the vaguely racist rubric of “Jia can’t direct in English”) for its obvious schematicism and the artificiality of Dong Zijian’s performance as Dollar. I suspect this is largely a category error, that we’re used to Jia making withdrawn, somewhat obscure films like Platform and Still Life, films whose equally schematic melodrama is hidden behind long takes and a lack of emotionally direct dialogue. The issues Jia is addresses are not new, no one has more obsessively followed the dislocations and disruptions of the Chinese family in the wake of the imperatives of modern capitalism than he has over the past 20 years. But as with his previous film, A Touch of Sin, a series of violent short stories loosely related to the Chinese action film tradition (though not really wuxia in particular), he’s now addressing those issues in a more conventionally generic mode. The mix of reality and surreality has long been a part of Jia’s work, from the flash animation and theme park environment of The World to the alien craft and bridge light romanticism of Still Life, resting uneasily alongside documentary footage of China’s changing landscapes (see also his actual documentaries 24 City and I Wish I Knew, which audaciously mix actorly performances into their real life accounts), it’s only now that the surrealism has overtaken an entire narrative. And there is no filmic form more surreal than the classical melodrama. And, if you’re paying attention to the world today and where it’s headed, it only seems logical that the absurd is the only true way to capture it. This is Jia’s lunatic masterpiece.

Sylvia Chang is terrific, as usual in Mountains May Depart, even better than she is in Johnnie To’s Office, which she co-adapted from her own play. But that’s not all she’s had for us in 2015, she also directed Murmur of the Hearts, like Mountains a family melodrama taking place across multiple time periods. It stars Isabella Leong, making a long-awaited return to the screen after several years in retirement following her marriage in 2008 (don’t miss her in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Isabella from 2006). She plays a young woman dating an aspiring boxer. The boxer has vision problems, and Isabella, an artist, is haunted by memories of her parents, who split up when she was a child, which also separated her from her brother. We also meet the brother, now a tour guide on the small island off the coast of Taiwan where they grew up. Chang deftly weaves together the characters’ present lives and memories of their parents with a splash of magic realism in the form of a mermaid and a quite fashionable ghost/bartender. It’s a more conventional art house movie than Mountains, in that it’s the kind of Taiwanese film that seems rather inexplicable for the first 40 minutes or so and, as everything becomes clear and all the various connections are resolved, becomes deeply moving as the story comes together with a satisfying click. It isn’t as meta-cinematic as the other Chang-directed films I’ve seen (the very good Tempting Heart and 20 30 40), but it’s warm and sweet and quite lovely, a nice flipside to the acidic Office.


Yet another Chinese film blurring the boundaries between past and present is Kaili Blues, from first-time director Bi Gan.  A middle aged man, a doctor, helps watch over his nephew while his brother, the boy’s father, gambles and gets himself in trouble. When he learns that his brother may have sold the boy in another town, he heads out to bring him home. But what he finds there is an inexplicable kind of temporal loop, chronicled in a breath-taking 40+ minute single-shot, as the man, his driver, the driver’s girlfriend, a local band, and various other characters wander around a river spanning village.  The doctor’s past, and that of his fellow doctor, now an elderly woman, seemingly come to life in the village, along with his nephew’s future. There’s no apparent rationale for the loop, it’s simply a world where the past, present and future exist together, an endless cycle repeating itself, or the infinite possibilities of an unknowable universe. It was the most satisfyingly confounding film of the festival and an audacious debut, one that in past years would have earned its director a Dragons & Tigers award.

Moving away from China but sticking with the experimental, I lastly want to mention a trio of films. Portuguese director Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance is a semi-narrative short about smugglers waiting in the Galician borderland while cops lie in wait for them. Patiño films the whole thing in negative, but not black and white, rather mind-blowingly colored. Purples and yellows dominate the inverted landscape, with gorgeous drops of rain bursting from a stream, while the people stand still, haunting the otherworldly spaces. It’s a documentary vision of our Earth as filmed from the land of ghosts. I’ve never seen anything like it. Paired with it was Topophilia, by director Peter Bo Rappmund. Painstakingly assembled out of thousands of still images covering the length of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, it’s a fascinating rumination of the effect of technology on environment, and the way the two seem to meld together. With an eerily assaultive soundtrack largely built out of the sounds of the pipeline itself, the impact of the machinery on the natural world is undeniable, and yet, the natural world goes on all around it, taking no notice. Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead is another film about machinery, chronicling the life of a massive transport ship as it traverses the Mediterranean. Here gives us the kind of otherworldly closeups familiar from Leviathan, while putting more emphasis on the ways the ship technology dwarfs the humans that work within it. A long final section echoes with recordings of the workers as they call home, leaving messages, talking to distant wives, mothers, children, living ghosts in the machine.

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