Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Amid the Very Important Films tackling Very Important Subjects in Very Important Styles at this year’s festival, there is, as there always is here in Vancouver, a place as well for more generically-oriented fare. I’m not speaking of the always-fecund indie-horror/thriller genre, which too is well-represented and well-attended, despite my almost total absence, but rather that most-reviled of all contemporary genres: the romantic comedy. Burdened by 15, 20, 40, 70? years of spunky professional heroines cursed with the twin scourges of awkwardness and beauty-concealing eyewear; bland, square-jawed leading men with suspiciously nice hair; meets cute, stirring declarations and string-swelling finales; the romantic comedy remains among the most formulaic, irritating, disreputable and wildly popular of all film genres. But as these things always go, along with the successful trash there are every year great gems to be found, too special for the mainstream, their denominators not low enough for wide release in America’s multiplexes. Films that persist despite all the odds in exploring the promise of this ancient and enduring form.
At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo, an annual denizen of the VIFF schedule (this is the 7th of his films I’ve seen here in Vancouver) and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters and questionable life choices. One of Hong’s funniest films, my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve. It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Moving from one of our most-established auteurs to one of our newest, the most-underrated film of the festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry). In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” pronouces the wife). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while remembering her previous relationship with the man, her boyfriends after the original break up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest boyfriend. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.

Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever (I’m still stunned she found a way to make the very familiar Hong Kong airport seem completely fresh in Ex), with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good TV, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.

French director Axelle Ropert’s second feature, the hideously named Miss and the Doctors (everyone agrees the original title, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (or, Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss) is vastly superior), tackles the equally complicated subject of the love lives of the middle-aged. The doctors are brothers, general practitioners in Paris. They each fall in love with a younger woman, the mother of one of their child patients. The woman, a beautiful bartendress (Louise Bourgoin), is estranged from the girl’s father, and at first resists the advances of both brothers. The older, taller brother, gruff and blunt, is played by Cédric Kahn, the younger, a blond recovering alcoholic who looks a bit like a Gallic Michael J. Fox, is played by Laurent Stocker (billed as being “from the Comédie-Française”). It’s a sweetly patient, funny and melancholy story. One of those movies where everyone has their reasons.

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is as self-lacerating a tale of artistic ego and male self-importance as I’ve seen in quite awhile. Trapped for the first third in the insufferable mind of young author Jason Schwartzman, the eponymous Philip, as his hilarious misanthropy turns increasingly cruel, we’re given a reprieve in the film’s middle section, as Philip’s now ex-girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) reconstructs her life in fits and starts after their breakup. The last section of the film finds us back with Philip and his mentor, legendary author Ike, played with gruff arrogance by Jonathan Pryce. Like his previous feature, The Color Wheel, Perry delights in the us-against-the-world egotism of his protagonists, drawing pleasure in the absurdity of the difference between how they see themselves and how the world sees them. It would be unbearable if he didn’t care just enough about these terrible people to laugh a little bit with them, and give them an ever-so-slight chance of happiness, however perverted the manifestation of that happiness might be. Unlike The Color Wheel‘s gorgeously grainy black and white, the new film is in color, vibrant and warm. However, also unlike the previous film, it’s shot in a nauseatingly close-up hand-held style. The choice makes more sense here than in something like, say, Humpday, thanks to a voice-over narration (delivered by no less than Eric Bogosian) that frames the film as a quasi-documentary. I’ll readily admit my distaste for this style has as much to do with my own middle-age and tendency toward motion sickness. Suffice it to say I’d prefer it if Perry and his accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams would take a step or two back from the characters. But whatever, there’s lots of ways to make movies.

VIFF 2014 Index

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

Previews:

Introduction and Proposed Schedule – Sep 11, 2014

Reviews:

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

Podcast:

The George Sanders Show #46 – Oct 18, 2014

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)

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I saw my first Hong Sangsoo movie at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It was Like You Know It All and it was my second favorite of the 18 movies I saw there that year. Shortly after I sought out a couple earlier Hong films (The Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man) and was underwhelmed. The familiar tropes were there (blocked director on vacation, crimes of the heart, drinking, bifurcated narrative structures reflecting in on themselves) but the moves just didn’t seem as much fun. I chalked it up to the particular circumstances of that first viewing: seeing a film at a film festival that pokes fun at the insular and more than a little absurd festival experience. Perhaps he just wasn’t as great as I thought he was.

But Hong redeemed himself in my eyes at the 2010 festival, where his Oki’s Movie and Hahaha were again two of my favorites, each film taking his formal playfulness in bold new directions while retaining the self-effacing comic spirit that initially won me over. Since then I’ve managed to see almost all of Hong’s films (including In Another Country, the most charming film of VIFF 2012 and Romance Joe, another VIFF 2012 favorite by Hong’s longtime assistant director Lee Kwangkuk). These films, along with 2008’s comparatively epic Night and Day and 2011’s Marienbad-esque The Day He Arrives amount to as remarkable an on-going streak of greatness as any director working today (Oki’s Movie remains my favorite of the dozen I’ve seen so far). Since he took 2007 off after Woman on the Beach, Hong’s made eight features in six years, counting 2013’s Our Sunhi (one of my most anticipated films of VIFF 2013) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which premiered at festivals earlier this year. Hong has yet to see his festival popularity translate into proper theatrical distribution in the US. Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country all played in New York in 2012, but only the last one saw a wider release, most likely due to the art house popularity of its (French) star, Isabelle Huppert. Several of his films are available on the various streaming platforms, but he doesn’t even have his own Director’s Section at Scarecrow Video. Maybe this will be the year he finally breaks through to attain arthouse star status. My fingers remain crossed.

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Continuing a recent trend, one that denotes a sharp break with his pre-2008 work, the film focuses on a female protagonist, though one who isn’t any more heroic than Hong’s usual cast of drunken, lecherous filmmaker/professors. Haewon is a pretty girl who is constantly told how pretty she is and seems to have become dependent on that flattery, no matter how poisonous it ultimately becomes to herself and the people around her. In each of the film’s sections, she conjures a man that adores her, and the film’s mysterious final line (“Waking up, I realized he was the nice old man from before”) recalls the profound final rumination from Oki’s Movie (“Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand”) a line that has come to epitomize so much of Hong’s work for me. One of the great pleasures of diving into the Hong universe is that each movie gains in relation to the others. No other director I know of more obsessively explores the same basic elements in film after film: a film director/student/professor who has an affair he shouldn’t have (with a friend’s wife/girlfriend, with a student, or both) while wandering cold, unglamorous Korean cities and/or vacation spots; studies of venal, hypocritical drunks that critique without judgement, the foibles of Hong’s people being ours and his rather than cruelly displayed objects for scorn, scolding and ridicule. With these basic characters and settings, and his deadpan minimalist visual style (marked most distinctively by the utterly atypical use of zooms), Hong conjures seemingly endless variations.

Haewon finds its closest companion in Oki’s Movie, which focuses on a student who had an affair with her professor and takes a couple of hikes up a mountain. Haewon’s affair occurred at some point in the past, though she considers rekindling it. She also takes two trips up a mountain, the location of an old fort-turned-tourist spot. Like In Another Country, Haewon features a lackadaisical to the point of abstraction framing device: three days that begin with Haewon describing them in her journal (public table, cup of coffee, handwriting in a notebook, voiceover narration) where the earlier film had the narrator writing three versions of a film she wanted to make about a French woman on vacation in Korea. On each day, the narrative is abruptly interrupted as she wakes from a dream, erasing and resetting the story as we’d known it (this also happens in the middle section of In Another Country, as well as in Night and Day). With these films, along with the four-short film structure of Oki’s Movie, the endless repetitions of The Day He Arrives, the self-delusions of Hong’s heroes have taken a metaphysical turn: not only are they not honest with themselves and each other in their romantic lives, but the very nature of their world has become unstable, liable to be rearranged or erased with the stroke of a pen or a sharp cut in the film. Where the earlier films (and also Hahaha) were built around coincidence and repetition, the later films have become Duck Amuck with horny, drunken film school denizens.

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I find myself pondering the title as much as anything else. Hong usually favors straightforward titles, ones whose meaning is immediately apparent (at least lately, his early titles are beguiling in their lingering prose: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). The first section explains quite clearly that Haewon is somebody’s daughter, as it involves her spending a day with her mother on the eve of the latter’s move to Canada (Vancouver, I assume, for the film festival). The film itself begins with Haewon meeting Jane Birkin (unnamed in the film) and telling her how much she admires her daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, also unnamed). The title then has, at least, two possible meanings: given the relative fame of Birkin, Haewon’s mother is a “nobody” and perhaps this is what is keeping Haewon from becoming the successful actress she wants to be (she says she’d give her soul to have Gainsbourg’s career). Or, being sad and abandoned by her mother’s move, Haewon is forced to become an adult: she is no longer simply somebody’s daughter and must take care of herself, become an individual in her own right. She then spends the next two thirds of the film pursuing relationships with a couple of older men (both professors and therefore father-type figures) while brushing off men her own age in some kind of Freudian irony. Parent-child relationships have largely been absent in Hong’s work thus far (most of the kids have been little and mostly off-screen, as the director’s child is in Haewon). Though a mother-daughter conversation does open In Another Country. Perhaps these are the first-steps in the integration of another trope into the Hong universe, another fraught relationship with which to play and poke and have fun.

 

VIFF 2013 Index

This is an index of my posts relating to the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Previews:

Proposed Schedule – Sep 21, 2013
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong, 13) – Sep 23, 2013
Blind Detective (To, 13) – Sep 26, 2013

Reviews:

The Great Passage (Ishii, 13) & Good Vibrations (Barros D’Sa & Leyburn, 12) – Sep 29, 2013
Gebo and the Shadow (Oliveira, 12) – Sep 30, 2013
Bends (Lau, 13) – Oct 01, 2013
Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible (Kim, 13) – Oct 01, 2013
Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai, 12) – Oct 02, 2013
Dragons and Tigers Awards – Oct 04, 2013
Stray Dogs (Tsai, 13) – Oct 04, 2013
Yumen (Sniadecki, Xu & Huang, 13) – Oct 23, 2013
La última película (Martin & Peranson, 13) – Feb 28, 2014

Podcasts:

They Shot Pictures Ep #21: Festival Recaps Part One – Oct 17, 2013
They Shot Pictures Ep #22: Festival Recaps Part Two – Oct 30, 2013

Ranking:

1. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson)
2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
3. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
4. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada)
5. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo)
6. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)
7. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
8. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya)
9. Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao, & Huang Xiang)
10. The Great Passage (Yuya Ishii)
11. Trap Street (Vivian Qu)
12. New World (Park Hoonjung)
13. Distant (Yang Zhengfan)
14. Mahjong (João Rui Guerra da Mata & João Pedro Rodrigues)
15. Anatomy of a Paperclip (Ikeda Akira)
16. Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)
17. 9 Muses of Star Empire (Lee Harkjoon)
18. Burn Release Explode The Invincible (Kim Soohyun)
19. Redemption (Miguel Gomes)
20. Bends (Flora Lau)
21. 3x3D (Peter Greenaway, Edgar Pera, Jean-Luc Godard)
22. My First Love (Keiko Tsuruoka)
23. Grigris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
24. Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn)
25. Longing for the Rain (Yang Lina)
26. The King’s Body (João Pedro Rodrigues)
27. The Spider’s Lair (Jason Paul Laxamana)
28. Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)
(links are to letterboxd comments)

VIFF 2012 Ranking and Links

Here’s a preliminary ranking of the 31 movies I saw this year at the Vancouver International Film Festival, with links to the write-ups I’ve done for them so far.  I’ll be writing about the rest of these over the next few weeks; the pace has slowed lately due to first a cold then parental responsibilities. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish these by the end of the year.
6. Walker
8. Tabu
17. Mystery
18. A Fish
19. The Unlikely Girl
20. East Meets West
21. People’s Park
22. Amour
23. In Search of Haydn
24. 10 + 10
25. Mother
26. Antiviral
27. The Angels’ Share
28. A Mere Life
29. Everybody in Our Family
30. Beautiful 2012
31. Moksha: the World, or I, How Does that Work?Updated Feb. 1, 2013: Rankings updated. Obviously I didn’t finish by the end of the year, but with only six movies left to write about, I hope to finish soon.

Updated July 18, 2015: Only one left. I will finish it someday.

In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2012)

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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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Romance Joe (Lee Kwangkuk, 2012)

My two favorite discoveries in four years of festival going are the films of Hong Sangsoo and the team of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai.  I surely would have encountered these guys eventually in the regular world, but it was in seeing their films here at VIFF (Like You Know it All and Sparrow, in 2009 and 2008, respectively) that I fell in love with them.  Subsequently, with each new festival I’ve looked forward to another trip into their worlds and this year is no exception.  While I’ll be seeing the latest Hong film, In Another Country, this evening, I was a bit disappointed to find there would be no new To and/or Wai film here this year.  Fortunately, the gap of narrative playfulness that so joyously marks their work (Wai’s especially, see for example, Written By, from VIFF 2009) I found in abundance in Romance Joe, by first-time director Lee Kwangkuk.

Lee is a former assistant director for Hong Sangsoo, and the film begins very much as a kind of mishmash of various Hong situations (a director has writer’s block, gets drunk, goes to a hotel in the countryside).  However, Lee takes Hong’s narrational games, usually limited to a bifurcated story structure with later parts serving as variations on earlier ones, in a wholly original direction, piling story upon story in a complicated flashback structure.  I counted at least six different time levels in the narration (topping Passage to Marseille‘s mere four), with “real” memories and made-up stories featuring the same characters and actors colliding in unpredictable ways.  I’m going to attempt to roughly chart it out.

The film starts with the parents of a director talking to his friend about how the director has gone missing (1).  The friend tells them he was just drinking with the director, and he was sad because he had writer’s block (2).  We then see the director being abandoned by his agent in a rural hotel in an attempt to force him to get to work (3).  The director in his hotel calls a local prostitute, who tells him the story of the time she met another director, who she calls Romance Joe (4).  When she met him, Joe was thinking about killing himself, remembering a time when he was a teenager that he saved a girl, Cho-hee, from killing herself. (5)  Then, we cut back to the first story, and the friend starts telling the parents about his idea for a new screenplay, about a boy who tries to track down his mother, a prostitute, but instead ends up hanging around another call girl instead (6).

At this point, Lee begins to intercut between the various narrative layers, with fictional and real characters showing up in the “wrong” stories, and no one ever quite remembering if they’ve known each other before (there’s more than half a dozen stories, but apparently(?) only one woman), all governed by an explicit Alice in Wonderland reference.  But that’s not to say there isn’t an emotional core to the film.  In particular the budding romance between Joe and Cho-hee is lovely and touching, though it ends drenched in the neon sadness of Seoul.  As the director’s mother sighs “All these fine young lives wasted on film and whatnot.”

VIFF ’10: Wrap-up

Well, we’re back home after our best film festival experience yet.  23 features in nine days is also a new record, as was the fact that there was only one day when the wife questioned why she agrees to go to these things with me.  I’m sure this is going to change several times as I get some distance from the craziness of the festival environment and all these movies to settle in a separate themselves in my brain, but here’s an initial ranking of what we saw, including four of the best and most distinctive shorts.

1
. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
2. Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
5. 607 (Liu Jianyin, 2010)
6. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010)
7. Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen, 2010)
8. Hahaha (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
9. The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010)
10. Get Out of the Car (Thom Anderson, 2010)
11. The Drunkard (Freddie Wong, 2010)
12. Poetry (Lee Changdong, 2010)
13. Gallants (Clement Cheng & Derek Kwok, 2010)
14. Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt & The Magnetic Fields (Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara, 2010)
15. Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, 2009)
16. The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira, 2010)
17. Merry-Go-Round (Clement Cheng & Yan Yan Mak, 2010)
18. Crossing the Mountain (Yang Rui, 2010)
19. My Film and My Story (Kim Taeho et al, 2010)
20. Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010)
21. The Fourth Portrait (Chung Mong-hong, 2010)
22. Inhalation (Edmund Yeo, 2010)
23. Of Love and Other Demons (Hilda Hidalgo, 2009)
24. The Indian Boundary Line (Thomas Comerford, 2010)
25. The Tiger Factory (Woo Ming Jin, 2010)
26. Icarus Under the Sun (Abe Saori & Takahashi Nazuki, 2010)
27. Rumination (Xu Ruotao, 2010)


And here’s index of my posts:
Day One: Made in Dagenham and My Film and My Story
Day Two: Of Love and Other Demons, Get Out of the Car & The Indian Boundary Line, Poetry and Icarus Under the Sun
Day Three: The Drunkard, Thomas Mao and Crossing the Mountain
Day Four: 607, Hahaha, The Fourth Portrait, I Wish I Knew
Day Five: The Sleeping Beauty, Rumination, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Day Six: Around A Small Mountain and Oki’s Movie
Day Seven: The Strange Case of Angélica, The Tiger Factory & Inhalation and Gallants
Day Eight: Carlos and Certified Copy
Day Nine: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields and Merry-Go-Round


For more on VIFF, I can’t recommend highly enough the website of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.  Today’s dispatch from them points out that Rumination, which I saw a few days ago and didn’t particularly like, actually runs in reverse chronological order, something that went complete over my head.  I don’t know if I like the movie better knowing that, but it certainly makes it more interesting.

VIFF 2010: Day Four


607 – Before getting to Day Four’s films, I wanted to mention this short by Liu Jiayin that played before Day Three’s showing of Thomas Mao. Liu made my favorite film from last year’s festival, Oxhide II, which also happens to be the highest rated film directed by a woman on my recent Top 600 Films of All-Time list. This 17 minute short consists mostly of one shot of a bathtub in a hotel room (the hotel apparently commissioned the film). A plastic fish, manipulated by Liu’s father, with only his hands visible, swims in the water and encounters some mushrooms, a cloudy sky and a fish hook. The mushrooms are played by Liu’s mother and Liu herself is the sky and hook. It’s a marvelous bit of silliness that conveys all the warmth of a family at play.

Hahaha – The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.

The Fourth Portrait – This Taiwanese film is about a precocious young boy named Xiang whose father dies, sending him first into the helpful hands of the school janitor, and then back to his mom, a prostitute (naturally) and step-father (who’s pretty much pure evil). Director Chung Mong-hong keeps this dire material much lighter than one would expect.  Though the kid’s situation is rough and potentially terrifying, there’s enough humor and visual style (there are traces of both the Taiwanese New Wave and Wong Kar-wai, the latter especially in the scenes at the mom’s “lounge”) that things never get as horribly depressing as they might in a lesser film. There’s even a musical bit that sounds like a Chinese version of the Carl Orff song used in Badlands and True Romance). Xiang is surrounded by helpful adults, from the elderly janitor to a small time hustler to a concerned teacher. Even his mom is a decent sort. We never get the sense that Xiang’s situation is hopeless, instead, we can be sure that he’ll survive and thrive. The title comes from a series of drawings Xiang makes throughout the film: the first is his father, the second his friend the hustler, the third his older brother who may be haunting him and the fourth, more than a little cheesily, is the film itself.

I Wish I Knew – After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chaing Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. Wei Wei appears, which marks two days in a row that we saw a film featuring this 88 year old actress, after The Drunkard. Also interviewed are Hou Hsiao-hsein (who’s actually the only person who doesn’t share a personal anecdote, he just talks about his film Flowers of Shanghai, though like many people in the film, his parents came to Taiwan from Shanghai ahead of the Communist victory). The film is very loosely structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where frequent Jia star Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a straight documentary can be.

Short Celebrity Addendum: Jia was there last night for a Q & A (he’s serving on the jury at the festival this year for the award for new Asian filmmakers that they’ve given out for 17 years or so, having previously won the award for his own first film Xiao Wu). I don’t know that I’ve ever been so giddy in a movie theatre. And then this morning, waiting in line for Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, I’m pretty sure we were standing behind a very confused Wallace Shawn (the screening was delayed for projection reasons and the staff were giving confusing directions to the old people). I attempted to help the maybe-Shawn through the line, but he either couldn’t hear me or was too confused to pay attention to a much taller man.

VIFF ’10: Day Three

The DrunkardFreddie Wong’s debut film is an adaptation of one of the most famous modern Chinese novels, written by Liu Yichang.  In early 60s Hong Kong, a struggling writer juggles his declining career prospects (he goes from Hemingway ambitions through martial arts novels and screenplays to pornography), various women (a landlord’s 17 year old daughter, a couple of prostitutes, old and young, an elderly landlady played by Wei Wei, the star of the 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town) and copious amounts of alcohol.  Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 are somewhat based on similar characters, though his films are so infused with his own obsessions that it’d be a stretch to call them adaptations.  That the film was made for a mere $500,000 is remarkable, though it does explain the intimacy of the cinematography: almost always medium to close shots of small interiors.  The nightclub scenes have the Christmas tree red glow you’d expect, but there’s nothing glamorous about the writer’s alcoholism.  Neither is it ever reduced to any kind of social problem picture preachiness: he drinks and he writes, but not necessarily in that order.  John Chang (the father of Chang Chen, star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is terrific in the lead role, nowhere near as debonair as Tony Leung in the Wong films, he brings a weary reality to every scene.

Thomas Mao – Inspired by the unusual friendship between his friends Mao Yan and Thomas Rohdewald (Mao is a famous oil painter who has used Thomas as a subject dozens of times, the paintings, which appear at the end of the film, are very interesting and very creepy) Zhu Wen’s film is a whimsical exploration of what Mao and Thomas might have been like had they met in other lives.  In the main story, Thomas is a traveling painter who spends a few days at Mao’s inn.  Thomas doesn’t speak Chinese and Mao doesn’t speak English, and the two find various funny ways of miscommunicating.  Appearing to each of them are also what appear to be ghosts of medieval warriors, a woman in black and a man in white.  There’s a stunningly choreographed fight/dance sequence between these two, that’s the visual highlight of a very beautiful film.  Eventually, there’s aliens and some snow.  But the most surprising part of the film is a coda set in an art gallery, where Thomas and Mao hang out and various elements from the main story recur in unexpected ways.  It works like a funhouse mirror, folding the narrative back on itself.

Crossing the Mountain – Vancouver may not have gotten Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, but we’re not wholly bereft of intentionally partially-subtitled avant-grade narrative films.  Yang Rui’s opaque film, photographed in sharply focused, long-take HD, is set in Yunnan, along the Burmese border, the people here speak a local language, and she has chosen to only subtitle the “important” parts of the dialogue, even for the Chinese-speaking audience.  Mostly a set of discrete, seemingly plotless episodes that are nonetheless pregnant with possibly meaningful images and juxtapositions, with more or less the same set of characters for most of the film who inexplicably disappear in the later sections (though we may have some clues at to their fate).  It might be about the dangers of unexploded ordinance in Southeast Asia (still a problem, even in areas where the wars have been over for 30 years), but more than that it’s about living in a collision between past and present.  The film is set in land that once belonged to a people that until quite recently practiced human sacrifice as agricultural aid (where these people are now, we can’t say, but assume they have merged with the general population), where kids try to watch TV and play karaoke video games (though the technology never seems to work properly) and old people pass the time with folk dances that look not unlike the Hokey-Pokey.  Basically, it’s an impossible film to describe, and apparently quite difficult to sit through.  Despite a warning from programmer Shelly Kraicer about the film’s difficulty and the need for patience with it, about the third of the audience walked out.  I was glad to stay through the end.  While it wasn’t the best thing I’ve seen at the festival thus far, I certainly haven’t seen anything quite like it.