Monday, October 22, 2012
Kleber Mendonça Filho directs the fourth film in what turned out to be a surprisingly strong showing for the Portuguese language at this year's festival, along with Reconversão, Tabu and The Last Time I Saw Macao. Three of those focus on the remnants of the Portuguese colonial experience on other continents (Tabu in Mozambique, Macao in China and this one set in Recife, one of the largest cities in Brazil). In many ways, this is the most conventional film of the bunch, a familiar-seeming network narrative of a few weeks in the lives of the residents of a particular street in a relatively affluent area of town. As usual, there's a multitude of tensions bubbling under the placid surface, along class and racial lines as well as the requisite secrets from the past haunting certain folks. For most of the film's running time, that tension remains constant but unrelieved, it's only in the final scenes that some actual violence bursts forth, unfortunately in a bit of an anti-climax.
The most interesting thing about the film is explicitly stated right there in the title: the sound design. Though the film is set in a few houses and an apartment building on what appears to be a single street, we never get a clear layout of the neighborhood. It's disorienting visually, but the sound design knits the space together. Sounds from one area are constantly bleeding into another, kids playing, dogs parking, cars passing by, the on-screen space is always filled with off-screen sounds. This is how the neighborhood is experienced: not as a community where everybody knows everybody (all the community gatherings end in disaster, first a hilariously petty condo board meeting, later a birthday party) but as an occupied space that is forever invaded by outsiders' noise (this is literalized in a zombie-invasion like dream sequence). The two characters we spend the most time with, a handsome, charming rich guy named João who lives in the high rise and a housewife who buys pot from the water delivery guy, has an affair with her washing machine's spin cycle and is tormented by the barking dog next door never actually meet. Their storylines merge somewhat at the end, but only aurally, never visually.
The individual characters do have storylines of their own, but they aren't quite as conventional as in a network film like Magnolia or Short Cuts, which follow the series of short stories model. João's story is my favorite: he falls in love with a woman, they hang out together, they take a trip out of town (the only time we leave the neighborhood) and wander around his grandfather's estate and its village, walking through the ruins and hearing the sounds of the past (people chattering, a movie-projector humming). But Mendonça Filho even trips us up there, as the romance plot is resolved entirely off-screen, leaving João to briefly tell another character how it ended. The film is full of these little bits of rug-pulling that keep the viewer perpetually off-balance. If the film had left is in that state it would have been great. Instead, the film wraps things up with a bang in a more or less neat bit of narrative balance. I want it to end just slightly earlier, just before the crescendo peaks, leaving us forever on the edge of the crash.
By nine o'clock on Tuesday, October 5th, my VIFF experience was four days and fifteen movies old. I trepidatiously settled in for movie #16, a two and a half hour verite-style documentary about three poor kids in China by acclaimed director Wang Bing (his nine hour documentary West of the Tracks recently tied for 202nd place in the Sight & Sound poll with Manhattan, Cleo from 5 to 7, The Shop Around the Corner, WALL-E, Badlands and There Will Be Blood, among others), wondering if the onslaught of reality, old age and festival-induced sleep deprivation would knock me out. I armed myself with a "litre" of Mountain Dew and a pack of gummi bears, and when Wang himself, there for a post-show Q & A that would push the night into the morning, wished us all luck in staying awake for his movie, I had a feeling things would work out alright.
The experience of watching the film is much the same as that of any other so-called "Asian minimalist" movie, like something by Tsai Ming-Liang or Jia Zhangke. The pace is very slow, not a whole lot happens in the long, single-take scenes, and enjoyment of the film depends on one's interest in watching other people do normal boring things (basic tasks like making soup or cleaning shoes) and also in the willingness to let one's mind wander. These types of films are meditative not because they make you think but because in their opiated snail's pace, they allow you to think.
Various more or less coherent things I thought of while watching this film: what this country needs is a rural electrification project like the one that lifted much of America out of exactly this kind of poverty in the mid-20th Century, Mao's mid-century reforms had exactly the opposite effect (later in the film, they do appear to have electricity and television, and I may be exaggerating the effects of the New Deal in the US, but still); How do you document the lives of the poor without being exploitative or dilettantish? Is that just a First World Problem?; The best way to tell if a country is developing economically is if they start making documentaries about poor people; The village is situated high in the mountains near what appear to be run down and out-of-use terraces, I wonder if those terraces are ancient ones that were abandoned in misguided communist land reforms (that led to mass deforestation and erosion), or if they are themselves the misguided reforms. Either way, they're being used as sheep food on a wind-scorched landscape now; If this film were sub-titled The Shit Collectors of Yunnan, would that increase its box office?; Can a film be beyond criticism? Does talking about a film like this as a film trivialize its very serious subject, or is the act of making a film about such a subject necessarily trivializing?; Does Truffaut's assertion that it's impossible to make an anti-war film apply to anti-poverty films? Does filmmaking in some ways glamorize poverty?
Three Sisters is about three very poor girls who live in a remote mountain village in Yunnan province. The environment is perpetually damp and foggy, but the kids don't seem to mind too much (when they're gathered around a fire drying one of their mud-encrusted shoes, one of them cheerfully exclaims "today we'll dry your shoes, tomorrow mine!" Similarly, when checking each other for infestations in what appears to be a nightly ritual, we hear the joyous shout "I found more lice!"). Their father is away, looking for work in the nearest city, the kids are staying with their grandfather in the village (the mother appears to have run off? I don't really remember). We follow them through their various rural tasks (one of them greets another working child in a pasture with a matter of fact "everyone's out collecting dung today"). They don't seem especially miserable, but neither do they seem particularly happy. They live in a half-modernized world: they have TV and locks on their doors, but little of the labor-saving comforts of the 21st century. Missing from most of the film are the communal aspects of village life: festivals, religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, games, storytelling, all those things we lament as lost and celebrate in John Ford films. Near the end there is an autumn feast at the girls' uncle's place in a neighboring village that packs dozens of people into a tiny house for tons of (delicious looking) food and an impromptu political meeting. It's not especially cheerful, but at least it looks warm.
The oldest sister, ten-year old Ying Ying, comes across as a truly heroic figure. She appears to do most of the farm work (sheep and pig herding, milking, dung-gathering, potato-planting, etc) and takes care of her younger sisters (cooking, cleaning, etc). She simply does what she has to do. On the rare occasions she gets to attend school she leans far forward over her desk, straining to take in all she can from her teacher, unable to prevent her desperation to learn from taking physical form. Wang encourages us not to look at the film as a political statement ("oh isn't poverty so awful") but as a story of Ying Ying's heroism (not that that will get his movie shown in China, but his point is a good one regardless). She does it all but she doesn't suffer, she inspires.