Tuesday, September 29, 2015

VIFF 2015: The First Four Days

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival

Things at the Vancouver International Film Festival have gotten off to a leg-numbing pace, as there's been hardly a moment since I was freed from Customs on Friday afternoon when I've had enough time to write in combination with a working internet connection. Here it is Tuesday already and I've seen eighteen movies and I haven't written more than a tweet about a single one of them. Mike's been writing a bunch over at Seattle Screen Scene, you should definitely check out his stuff over there. We've also got a few reviews from local critic Neil Bahadur and Melissa will be adding some stuff sometime as well. We also managed to record an episode of The George Sanders Show last night wherein we discussed several of the films we’ve been watching, including Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake, Lee Kwangkuk’s A Matter of Interpretation and Philip Yung’s Port of Call. I might write about some of those here as well, but for now I’m just going to attempt to cover some of the films we didn’t get to on the show.

Unbelievably, despite having just finished watching it a mere 90 minutes before we began recording, both of us neglected to talk about Hong Sangsoo’s latest release, one of our most-anticipated films of the festival. The Hong film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedom here over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film,  while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features. Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation, and as wistful melancholy in the second, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

We talked a bit about Port of Call on the podcast, but I didn’t mention one idea I had about the film, which is that it’s a kind of update/companion to Peter Chan’s 1996 masterpiece Comrades, Almost a Love Story. In that film, Maggie Cheung plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a number of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Leon Lai) with whom she bonds over a shared love of another pop star, Teresa Teng, and falls in with a big guy, a man of violence who loves her and takes care of her. In Port of Call, Jessie Li plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a variety of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Aaron Kwok – though the two characters never meet, of course, their relationship, or rather, his with her, is the defining element of the film), and is obsessed with another pop star (Sammi Cheng). She too falls in with a bad crowd, and her relationship with a large man capable of violence leads to her doom. Chan’s film is one of nostalgia, with Hong Kong as an aspirational place of freedom and opportunity, where one can move, work hard and eventually make it big (and then, prior to the Handover, make it to America). Its characters look backwards to their home villages, with Teng’s music as the aching symbol of the world they left behind. Yung’s is a film of horror, based on true events that occurred in the 2008-2010 period, the Hong Kong it finds is no longer one of hope, but of desperation, with the poor set upon each other in twisted games of manipulation and violence, where even a glimmer of a true connection (facilitated by an internet chat) can lead to disaster.  Cheng’s music is the aspiration, it’s what Li and her sister listened to when they were trying to learn Cantonese, it’s the music of hope amid failure. Yung set the film in the recent past, as much because that’s the time when the actual events occurred as because given the pace of change in China, the situation has already shifted dramatically. In his Q & A, he suggested that economic conditions have balanced so much between Hong Kong and the Mainland’s urban centers, that such aspirational immigration is far less common (in fact, he points out that even in 2008, the dream of moving to Hong Kong was Li’s mother’s dream, the younger generation doesn’t look at the former colony in the same way). But there’s nothing particularly unique about the idealization of Hong Kong. If the Mainland is catching up with or even surpassing it in the realm of fantasy-creation, there will always be a disconnection between that dream, say the candy-colored consumer paradise of Go Away Mr. Tumor, and the gruesome reality of the poor folks who fall into nightmare.

Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a different kind of fantasy, one of ex-patriates in Hong Kong and, more distressingly, of indie filmmakers weaned on Before Sunrise. Jamie Chung plays an American from Los Angeles (her grandparents emigrated from Hong Kong) lost in the city who runs into a fellow American named Josh. He’s the Joshiest Josh in film history, working in finance but really, an aspiring novelist. Actor Bryan Greenberg looks like the child of Michael Rappaport and John Krasczinski, but with even worse hair than that implies. He shows her around, lets slip way too late in the evening that he has a girlfriend and the couple splits. . . only to reunite a year later for another walk (once again hitting places best seen in Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To films) and faux-naturalistic conversation (and a trip to a bar to see a Hong Kong knock-off of Arcade Fire, which is exactly as appalling as that sounds). After a century of Parisian dominance, it’s clear to me that Hong Kong is the most cinematic city in the world, and it certainly doesn’t let Ting down. The film is gorgeous, the bright lights of Hong Kong providing enough inherent pleasure that one is able to overlook the constructed obviousness of the script and the bland nothingness that is Greenberg’s performance. Chung fares better, her lines are just as generic but she sells them with big eyes and a world-saving smile. Pretty as the city is, it’s a problem when during the romantic climax of your film, the most interesting thing on screen is the multi-layered play of lights on a taxi cab window. Not even a cameo from the great Richard Ng can bring it to life.

A vastly more successful Hong Kong romance comes from the team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law (she directs, he produces, they both write). Based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents (though the story ends long before he was born) A Tale of Three Cities stars Tang Wei and Lau Ching-wan (weirdly billed as “Sean Lau”, which I haven’t seen him marketed as in years, a sign perhaps that the film is trying for a North American release) as a couple kept desperately apart by war (first against the Japanese, then against the Communists). In a Brady Bunch-like set-up, Tang has two young daughters and a husband she didn’t care for who gets killed by a clock during an air raid, while Lau has two sons and a wife dying of some unknown disease. They meet when, in the course of his duty as a Nationalist soldier, he catches her smuggling opium and lets her go. It turns out she’s his wife’s cousin and they meet up again when the war forces them from Shanghai to the smaller town of Anhui. He’s loud, illiterate and usually drunk, she’s quiet, refined and very smart. Of course they fall in love, but first the war (Lau is captured by the Japanese) and then family keep them apart (Tang’s mother doesn’t think he’s classy enough for her girl). The performances of the two leads are exceptional, Lau playing a typical role for him: a hard man with soft eyes. Tang though, is proving herself to simply be one of the best actors in the world right now. Last year at VIFF she carried Ann Hui’s biopic The Golden Era (set during the same period, but much more experimental in style and tone) with a finely modulating performance as a psychologically unstable writer. Already in 2015 she’s been brilliant in a nearly a wordless performance in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as the emotionally explosive center of Johnnie To’s musical Office. Her performance here is halfway between those two, with simple eye movements and precise gestures, she is curiosity and determination in the interior scenes, and in the many scenes of disaster she is broad and heart-wrenching, an expressive anguish that goes beyond melodrama. The film is a series of brief unions and long separations, as the two find themselves apart from each other and their children for increasingly long periods of time, mirroring the coming together and tearing apart of the nation itself. Cheung expertly keeps things focused, despite the leaps in time and location, and the film is a masterpiece of classical storytelling, the kind of lush historical romantic epic that Hollywood hasn’t managed to make in almost 20 years (Titanic is the last good one I can think of). Along with another such epic, 2014’s The Crossing Part One, directed by John Woo, it’s clear that these veterans of the Hong Kong film industry have once again bested Hollywood at its own game.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

VIFF 2015 Preview Part Three: The Mirror and Weekend

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival

Every year before heading over to the festival, I try to familiarize myself with some of the directors whose films are playing there that I haven't yet seen. Last year I watched films by Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Imtiaz Ali and Heiward Mak, all of which I liked a lot and all of whom had films at VIFF I ended up enjoying a great deal. This year I haven't been able to see as much as I would have liked. There was the discussion of Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective on The George Sanders Show I linked to a couple of days ago, but other than that there's just these two movies, Jafar Panahi's The Mirror and Andrew Haigh's Weekend.

Panahi is mostly famous these days for continuing to smuggle films out of Iran despite having been officially banned from doing so in 2010. His This is Not a Film won wide-spread acclaim the following year, and his Closed Curtain was a film I was hoping to see at VIFF 2013 but for scheduling reasons didn't make it. (I have hard luck with Iranian films in general at the festival, a number of interesting ones have played there over the years, but other than the two Abbas Kiarostami films Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, I haven't managed to get to a single one.) His new film is called Taxi (well, it's called been retitled Jafar Panahi's Taxi for North American release, apparently so people don't confuse it with the 2004 Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah movie). My experience with Iranian cinema in general is woefully inadequate, I only caught up with Asghar Farhadi and A Separation earlier this year, for example, so rather than simply go with Panahi's recent work, I decided to watch one of his earliest films, the 1997 feature The Mirror, which won the Locarno Film Festival that year.

It's an idea for a film so simple in its provocation that I'd be surprised if it'd never been done before. There's something elemental about it, like an idea that's always been there in cinema but never quite been expressed so well or so effectively before (John Cage's 4'33" came to mind). A young girl, six or seven years old, has to make her way home from school after her mom fails to pick her up on time. She doesn't quite know the way, and maneuvers in and out of buses, cabs and crosswalks with the mostly ineffectual help of strangers. Along the way we see a cross-section of the city in its particular time and place (Teheran in the mid-90s), a kind of neo-realist city-symphony. But then, after 40 minutes, the girl looks at the camera and decides she doesn't want to be in the movie anymore and storms off. The film stock abruptly shifts and we see Panahi and his crew debating what to do next, a pseudo-documentary of a film production in a panicked moment. They let her go, while leaving her microphone on and follow her home, surreptitiously filming the girl's journey now in reverse as she in "real" life must accomplish the same tasks her character did in fiction.

It's a nifty gimmick and anchored beautifully by the performance of Mina Mohammad Khani as the girl. But that's just a MacGuffin for the film's true interest, which is the portrait of Teheran in all its cacophony and chaos. A dozen little stories spin around the girl (the young couple separated by the enforced gender divide on the public bus; the man who just wants his poor relations to dress nicely at his daughter's wedding) but mostly in the first half, the constructed narrative section. The people in the second half are more incoherent, their plotlines less clear, their characters not so cleanly delineated with cinematic shorthand. Some characters recur, including an old woman that throws a monkey wrench into even that distinction. We heard her talking in the narrative section, complaining about the lack of respect she gets from her children. When the girl meets her again in the second, she explains that she wasn't acting in the earlier scenes, they just paid her to show up and she made up her lines out of her own life. Fiction, reality: it's all the same. The important thing is to invest in traffic lights and make your kids memorize their home addresses.

From an inauspicious beginning as an assistant editor on Gladiator, British director Andrew Haigh burst on the scene with his 2011 romantic drama Weekend, about a brief but intense relationship between two men in Nottingham. Played by Tom Cullen and Chris New, the two bond over long naturalistic conversations about life, family, friends, sexual histories and the difficulties of being gay in a predominantly straight world. It's firmly in the tradition of the romantic drama, with shades of Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise, Waterloo Bridge, Morocco and Lost in Translation (among others), a talky film about two people trying to figure out their place in the world and if that place has room for anyone else. As such it's expertly done, but Haigh brings to it something special with a unique contrast of styles. The interiors, the dialogue and party scenes, are shot intimately, with a fuzzy off-handedness that is the signal for realism in contemporary cinema. We skip forward in time catching only glimpses of much longer conversations, many of which are mumbled or lost in a cacophony background (this is entirely realistic: I loved how in the party and bar scenes I couldn't understand any of what anyone was saying, just like I can't in such real-life situations).

This isn't in itself remarkable, but what separates those scenes is. All the exterior shots are carefully framed, with long straight lines forming sharp corners and diagonals. These usually (but not always) function as pillow shots, popularized by Yasujiro Ozu as the institial spaces for contemplation between scenes of plot. As in Ozu, Haigh's are precisely framed, but where in Ozu's films they are brightly scored with jaunty music that often belies the serious dramatics at work in his characters lives, in Weekend the shots are oppressive and constricting, a constructed world of boundaries imposing public limits on the expression of the relationship possibilities that thrive behind apartment tower windows. My favorite are the three shots with the setup pictured above. In each shot, Cullen watches New walk away from his apartment. In each shot New is wearing a different colored jacket (yellow, black, red: the three colors are unified in the outfit New wears in his final scene). Each time, New hesitates a bit as he walks away, his motion, and Cullen's shadow, depicting the emotional course of their relationship in minute gestures. If the film depicted of just these three shots, that would be enough to make it something special. Like with The Mirror, Weekend is at its heart a fairly simple cinematic and thematic idea, but one that is likewise all the more powerful for the purity of its expression. Haigh's new film 45 Years won wide acclaim at the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival, I can't wait to see it at VIFF.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

VIFF 2015 Preview Part Two: A Big List of VIFF Movies

I went to my first Vancouver International Film Festival in 2008 and have attended every year since but one (2011, when a kid was born two weeks before the festival started). As I look forward to this year's edition, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at some of my favorite films from previous festivals. Here are my Top 50 VIFF Movies, which given the current exchange rate, yields 66 titles.

1. Oki's Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)

2. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

3. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

5. Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)

6. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson, 2013)

7. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 2014)

8. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)

9. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo, 2014)

10. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)

11. Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz, 2012)

12. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

14. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada, 2012)

15. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

16. Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

17. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)

18. Romance Joe (Lee Kwangkuk, 2012)

19. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)

20. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

21. In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2011)

22. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

23. Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)

24. Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen, 2010)

25. Written By (Wai Ka-fai, 2009)

26. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo, 2012)

27. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, 2013)

28. The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata, 2012)

29. When Night Falls (Ying Liang, 2012)

30. Hahaha (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)

31. 607 (Liu Jiayin, 2010)

32. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009)

33. Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao & Xiang Huang, 2013)

34. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard. 2014)

35. La Sapienza (Eugène Green, 2014)

36. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang, 2012)

37. Three Sisters (Wang Bing, 2012)

38. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, 2009)

39. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

40. Hard to Say (Lee Kwangkuk, 2011)

41. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014)

42. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012)

43. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya, 2012)

44. Heaven Knows What (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2014)

45. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)

46. People's Park (JP Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn, 2012)

47. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

48. Highway (Imtiaz Ali, 2014)

49. Like You Know it All (Hong Sangsoo, 2009)

50. The Great Passage (Yûya Ishii, 2013)

51. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)

52. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)

53. Emperor Visits the Hell (Luo Li, 2012)

54. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010)

55. The Golden Era (Ann Hui, 2014)
56. Mahjong (João Rui Guerra da Mata, 2013)

57. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)

58. Thursday Till Sunday (Dominga Sotomayor, 2012)

59. Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak, 2014)

60. The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010)

61. Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)

62. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

63. Gallants (Clement Cheng & Derek Kwok, 2010)

64. Rembrandt's J'Accuse (Peter Greenaway, 2008)

65. Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)

66. East Meets West (Jeffrey Lau, 2011)