Friday, October 04, 2013

VIFF 2013: Stray Dogs

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

The latest film from Tsai Ming-liang finds his hero, played as always by the axiomatic Lee Kang-sheng, in precarious circumstances. When last we saw him (not counting last VIFF's terrific short Walker, in which Lee was a slow-moving monk just trying to get a McMuffin) was in Visage, where is was directing a vampire movie in the Louvre with Laetitia Casta and Jean-Pierre Leaud. It's been since that year's VIFF since I've seen that one, but if I remember correctly, his film shoot was interrupted by the death of his mother and a flood of sadness. Stray Dogs is the story of Lee's life after the flood (at least as far as I understand it after only sitting with it for a few days).

Unfolding in 76 shots over two and a half hours (at least by my count), the film is nonetheless not quite as rigidly minimalistic as Tsai's other work. At times the camera moves and there's even a short sequence with some shot/reverse shot editing (an action sequence near the end of the film). But most of the film is made up of very long takes, often featuring very little in the way of action, most notably the final two shots (which echo one from the center of the film) of people looking at an image. (There's something spirallingly funny about us as an audience staring seemingly endlessly at an image of people staring at an image.) I cannot possibly do justice to how gorgeous the film looks, stunning blues and blacks and white and sparks of color and light and rain and mud and trees and rivers. I haven't seen all of Tsai's work, and only a couple in a theatre as opposed to mediocre DVD copies, but this is the prettiest I've seen so far.

The plot of the film, such as it is, revolves around Lee and his two children, a boy and a girl, as they live homelessly in the industrial rubble of Taipai. The kids spend their days wandering around a supermarket, which Tsai seems to take as a challenge to shoot in the weirdest ways possible (inside freezers and milk displays, from the points of view of the objects on display, frames distorted by reflections and refractions from glass and chrome). Lee makes a meager living as a human billboard, standing in the middle of a busy intersection holding a sign for hours at a time, buffeted by the wind and rain, barely noticed by passing motorists (at one point, a highlight, Lee breaks into song, a stirring anthem about crushing one's enemies).

Not long after adopting a cabbage as a doll (a cabbage patch kid, get it?), the girl meets a woman (Lu Yi-ching) who works at the market and takes an interest in her, or at least an interest in cleaning her hair. Lu feeds stray dogs at night, wandering through abandoned buildings with freshly expired food products. One night she stands for a long time before a mural, a black and white landscape, and it's after seeing the mural that she begins to help out the kids, eventually finding where they live. It seems pretty clear that they'd be better off with her, especially after Lee gets drunk and murders the cabbage.

The other woman in the film, Chen Shiang-shyi, opens and closes it. The first shot has her brushing her hair on the bed while the kids are sleeping. The last section of the film takes place in this same house, streaked black and white with flood damage, where Chen and Lee appear to be married with kids. She's a doting mother, helping with homework, while Lee seems a drone, taking a long bath, sitting in a fancy massage chair, barely acknowledging the birthday celebration they've made for him. One night, Lee and Chen go for a walk to feed the stray dogs in the ruin. They look at the mural for a long time and she walks away, leaving Lee, and us, alone in the dark.

So my reading, as of now at least, is that the bookend scenes depict the dissolution of Lee's marriage. Engulfed in sadness over his mother's death, Lee has turned their home into a moldy ruin. The wife leaves and takes the kids or does not take them. Either way, they end up desperately needing a mother figure, as Lee proves himself wholly incapable of properly caring for them. Though the kids seem reasonably happy, they live, barely hygienically, in a literal hole in a wall. So being a single dad only teaches Lee how important having a mother is, which in turn only deepens his depression at the loss of his own. Perhaps the middle section of the film is only imagined, Lee working out what would happen if his wife did leave him as he soaks in the tub. Perhaps he still has time to save his family, to move them out of the blackness to the big, airy, white modernist mansion just down the way. We all just want Lee Kang-sheng to be happy.

VIFF 2013: Dragons and Tigers Awards

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

Last night at the festival, the annual Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, awarded to a distinctive film made early in a filmmaker's career which has not yet won international recognition, was handed out. For the first time, I not only managed to see all of the competing films, but I attended the awards ceremony as well. The jury, composed of critic/programmers Adam Cook, Tom Charity and Geoff Gardener chose to recognize two films in addition to the overall winner: a special mention for Chai Chunya and Four Ways to Die in My Hometown and a first runner-up for Vivian Qu and Trap Street. The winner was Ikeda Akira, for his Anatomy of a Paperclip. These were my three favorites in the competition as well, all very good and well-deserving their recognition, though I probably would have reversed the order with Four Ways winning and Paperclip third. It was a great series of films and a fun competition, I'm already looking forward to next year.

I managed to snap some pictures with my phone from my seat ten rows back:

Professor Bordwell taking a picture of the jury and Dragons and Tigers programmer Tony Rayns.

A picture of the VIFF camera guy recording video of Tony Rayns giving his introductory speech.

Chai Chunya getting his award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.

Vivian Qu getting her award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.

Winner Ikeda Akira getting his award from Tom Charity and Tony Rayns.

I've managed to write about only two of the competition films thus far, Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible and Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, but I'll get to the others eventually, along with the film that followed the awards presentation, A Touch of Sin, by former D&T award winner Jia Zhangke. About that film, suffice it to say for now: whoa.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

VIFF 2013: Four Ways to Die in My Hometown

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

In the early 20th century, a number of intrepid researchers delved deep into rural America, looking to record the last vestiges of our-preindustrial past - folk songs, Scotch-Irish ballads, itinerant blues musicians, backwoods gospel preachers and singers. One collection of these recordings, compiled by Harry Smith and released in 1952, The Anthology of American Folk Music, served as a key inspiration for much of the popular music that dominated the latter half of the century - country and western, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. Its 84 tracks form an essential record of what Griel Marcus dubbed "The Old, Weird America" in his definitive study of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, a series of samizdat recordings designed explicitly to evoke that lost world, a project Dylan has returned to again and again throughout his career, most notably in his early 90s folk albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and in his late masterpiece Love and Theft. The recordings are old, passed from generation to generation, and literate or not, they carry their history with them. The recordings are weird: a volatile clash of cultures, the sound of the pot melting as cultural traditions from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean work to forge the unruly mess that is America.

Chai Chunya's Dragons and Tigers entry Four Ways to Die in My Hometown might just as well be called The Old, Weird China. Set as the title says in his hometown, located in the Gansu province, a borderland between Han China, Tibet and Muslim Central Asia, its stories and rituals are an amalgam of these disparate cultural and religious influences. The plot of the film is both allegorically mystical and semi-documentary in approach - the 'four ways' of the title, four deaths provide the spine for the stories of his fellow townspeople. Mostly centered on two young girls whose father is in hiding (he has lived in a coffin in a locked room for seven years) because humans are evil. The older girl explores the nearby river and has an affinity for animals (she sets a chicken free, floats with baby birds and plays with the family camel). The younger encounters a madman who lives in a cave and preaches about the beginning of the world (in darkness - the people need light) and later hangs around with a woman who, since an accident at a young age, can see dead people.

Less an attempt at making a kind of logical of even symbolic sense, the film is instead an evocation of the particular myths and mysteries of a specific geography, one that is rapidly disappearing as China modernizes and the children move away, into the far away, globally-connected metropolises. Some of the most memorable characters in the film are three aged shadow puppeteers, men who learned their trade out of necessity (always economic rather than artistic, as they tell it) in the middle of the most radically disruptive century in China's multi-millenial history. They haven't performed in years, but they put on a show for the film (One of a few performances in the film, each of which is interrupted: a Chinese opera, kids dancing before a bonfire (and wearing modern sunglasses). It's magical, but there's no audience. The last shot we see of their world is their carefully prepared screen, engulfed in flames.

The film opens with a song, a young man sitting by the riverside, playing his acoustic guitar and singing a catchy tune, a modern one obviously influenced by American music. Each chapter, each death, ends with a recurring rhythmic tune, a kind of chanting, driving hum, meant, as Chai said in the Q & A, to give the sense of continuity, a sense that someone or some force is watching over these people. Of course it would be musical.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

VIFF 2013: Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

This year at VIFF I'm going to attempt to see all the films in competition for the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, an award previously won by such future luminaries as Jia Zhangke, Hong Sangsoo, Koreeda Hirokazu, Lee Changdong, Liu Jiayin and Wisit Sasanatieng. The first film up is this one by Korean director Kim Soohyun, a portrait of actress Kim Sanghyun (who gives a remarkable performance, one that fully earns every word of the title), famous throughout Korea for her video game voiceover work. Opening in a swirl of inexplicable action, Kim stealing a drink from a coffee stand, muttering incoherently and wandering crazily throughout the city, the film quickly settles into a documentary-style rhythm as she talks about her work, her difficulty dealing with her employers and conducts a long audition interview with a director, Park Heeson, who wants her to star in an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play The Good Person of Szechuan. The play becomes the structuring metaphor for the film we're watching. In it, Shan Te, a kind-hearted woman that everyone in town takes advantage of, invents a split, evil personality for herself but is then betrayed by the man she can't help but love. Intercut through the interview is a production of the play (perhaps a memory of the version Kim herself starred in while in college), actors performing on a black stage, often just Kim and a Greek-style chorus. Shan Te's experience is directly correlated to the experience of the actress ("when I started getting recognized, people started bothering me, as if they wanted to live their lives through me") and Park describes this as a kind of prostitution and compares it to Kim's own work, where she must act as the director demands, changing her natural voice (more gender-neutral and authoritative than the stereotypical woman's voice, neither "warm and nurturing" or "sexy and girlish") to suit the whims of her boss/client.

The scene then shifts to a production, where Park is directing Kim in voiceover and acts in exactly the callous exploitive manner they discussed (eventually even the lines are the same). This then cuts to a continuation of the story that opened the film, Kim as madwoman, wandering the streets unable to communicate and settling on a bridge, where she apparently contemplates jumping. But then, a coffee shop worker comes along and begins playing a drum. he's quickly joined by other boys playing percussion in a joyous take-off on a kind of exorcism ceremony (based on an actual folk ceremony, the real one would not be performed by men, according to Tony Rayns at the Q & A), inciting Kim to dance and twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom. The final shot is a close up of Kim's face on a beach, waves crashing behind her. Calm and indomitable, alone above a raging sea.

VIFF 2013: Bends

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

Veteran Hong Kong actress Carina Lau in a starring role (she's outstanding in supporting performances in movie like Days of Being Wild or He's a Woman She's a Man) was the main reason I chose to see this film, and on that front at least, it did not disappoint. In an otherwise solidly unspectacular film, Lau gives a queitly nuanced performance, full of humor, cheer and creeping anxiety. She plays a wealthy housewife, charity events, expensive feng shui consultations, the works (she also wears what is easily the chunkiest necklace I have ever seen). Lucille Bluth without all the evil. Her husband appears to be a financier of some type, he seems to engage in some shading dealings near the beginning of the film. But suddenly, Lau's credit cards no longer work and her world begins to slowly crumble. No explanation is given for these events: piece by piece her things are simply taken away from her. The husband has disappeared and won't answer her phone calls, but he does put their luxurious home up for sale. Lau's daughter won't answer her calls either, though that is unrelated: she will call once her money supply dries up.

The story is given an Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic with the adventures of Lau's chauffeur, Fai, played by Chen Kun. He's a Hong Kong citizen, but his wife is a mainlander and they live just across the border in Shenzhen. The border is seen multiple times throughout the film, and is given a helpful title at the beginning. It's seen both as a winding river and a curved road, a thing to cross and the means of crossing it, both of which "bend". Fai's wife is pregnant with their second child, and they can't afford the fine for violating the one-child policy if she gives birth in China, or the cost of a bribe to get his wife a stay in a Hong Kong maternity ward. The bulk of the film is made up of Fai's various attempts to call in favors or raise money (notably selling off parts of Lau's Mercedes without her noticing, another piecemeal dismantling of her wealth)*, while hiding his wife and calling on neighbors to help watch over their daughter.

As melodrama, the film is calm and understated, and first-time feature director Flora Lau shows an assured and almost too-tasteful hand, ably assisted by superstar DP Christopher Doyle's crisp and bright images. As a tale of a borderland, the film is not without interest: the shimmer of Hong Kong, capitalism and wealth standing as a beacon to the Mainland, while itself precariously perched on quicksand, ready to dissolve into nothingness at any moment. In a repeated visual motif, Carina Lau places various objets d'art on a low table in front of one of the windows of her apartment, obscuring her view of a tall, green, solid mountain, a blocking out of reality with things. In the end, faced with an actual crisis, she does the right thing.

*"Mercedes-Benz" = "Mercedes-Bends" I just got that.

Monday, September 30, 2013

VIFF 2013: Gebo and the Shadow

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

It's almost too tempting to compare Manoel de Oliveira's latest to Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film Gertrud. Both are resolutely odd, theatrical in a way that would seem anti-cinematic in the hands of a lesser director. Both films consist almost entirely of actors talking, exquisitely framed in extremely long takes. But where Dreyer's camera moves with the actors and eschews editing, Oliveira's never moves, holding his perfectly composed shots and only occasionally (and with striking effect) breaking for an insert - a POV look at a window or doorway, or a reverse shot of the other participants in a conversation.

The story, set in the same indeterminate (at least too me) past as the other two Oliveira's I've seen (The Strange Case of Angélica and Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, at VIFFs 2010 and 2009, respectively), revolves around the household of Gebo (soft 'G') an elderly debt collector played by Michael Lonsdale. He lives with his wife (Claudia Cardinale) and daughter-in-law (Leonor Silveira) in a modest four room row house, though we only ever see the apparently tiny central room (I say apparently because Oliveira's lens choice seems to dramatically flatten the space in his 1.66 frame, so as to make it appear all the more painting-like). It seems Gebo's son has been missing for eight years, but he and the daughter-in-law have convinced the wife that he's still in communication. The first third of the film takes place in a single evening as each of the women has a conversation with Gebo, mostly about how miserable and unhappy their lives are. Then the son returns.

The next long scene, taking place a day or a few later, is given a much-need jolt of levity by Jeanne Moreau, playing a neighbor who comes over for coffee and a chat. With the addition of a friend of Gebo's (who will carry on a cute flirtation with Moreau, he explains how in his youth he wooed women with his flute playing), Oliveira gets to indulge in some shot/reverse shot cutting. Gebo and friend are seen in much the same setup as the previous scene, center frame, nicely balanced with a bunch of herbs hanging on the wall in the top left corner, while the two women (Cardinale and Moreau) are seen from the opposite side of the table in a shot just as painstakingly symmetrical, the candle lamp close in the foreground perfectly splitting the frame in half with the actresses on either side. This long middle section concludes with the son, returned and baffled by his family's resignation and boring complacency railing against them for being 'buried alive' while he alone has truly lived and experienced life. That his life appears to largely revolve around being a criminal, a cold starving thief in the night, is immaterial.

The film seems to me a dialogue between two kinds of awful: the black evil of the son's amoral soul and the mundane hypocrisy and cowardice of Gebo - forever asserting his  honesty (all his peers became rich but only he had the integrity to remain risk-free and poor) while creating a fantasy world for his wife, a lie for which he honors himself as a sacrifice. His son may be a thief, but at least he's honest about it. In the end, Gebo will sacrifice himself again. To protect his son, to preserve his wife's illusions, as his own way out of a trap. He lies about being a thief, a man chasing his shadow.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

VIFF 2013: The Great Passage and Good Vibrations

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I'm sitting in the Grade "A" Chinese/Canadian Restaurant (two different menus, I opted for the ham, cheese and mushroom omelette with hash browns, toast and coffee) across from my hotel, reflecting on my first, not entirely unsuccessful, day at VIFF 2013. I woke up at the ungodly 5 AM to catch the train from Seattle to Vancouver, a train occupied by an unsurprising assortment of ridiculous old white people and quietly polite Koreans. The train was late in arriving, and customs delays gave me my first long line of the day. The second quickly followed, as dozens of people queued up for a cab on this rainy Saturday morning at the station. After a traffic delay (variously ascribed to the weather, a soccer game and road construction by my driver), I finally arrived at the hotel, just in time to miss the first movie I'd hoped to see (The Missing Picture, I'll be able to catch it later in the week, fortunately). So I had plenty of time to charge my phone, eat my first meal of the day (clam chowder, Cesar salad and sourdough toast at Earl's) before heading over to the Pacific Cinematheque for my first film of the festival.

The Great Passage

Japan's submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, director Ishii Yuya's quietly sweet comic drama chronicles the creation of a dictionary and the lives of the unusual people who devote 15 years of their lives to it. The central character is Mitsuya Majime, a reserved and book-obsessed young man who gets hired to help edit a new kind of dictionary in the fall of 1995. It's to be a living dictionary, incorporating slang and modern usage while still reflecting the traditional language ("we'll have notes about how the words are being misused" says the project's leader, an aged and kindly curious professor). The dictionary is conceived as a boat that people can use to cross the vast, mysterious sea of words that inhibits people's ability to communicate with each other. The metaphor is literalized throughout the film, with non-diegetic wave-lapping sounds and a recurring dream of an ocean in which Majime finds himself drowning. Majime, who in life finds communication with other humans almost impossible, proves a perfect fit for the job, and as he dives into the project begins to open up slightly, inching along the Asperger's spectrum towards love and fulfillment. It's these personal interactions, as Majime makes friends, falls in love and loses a father figure, warmly underplayed by all involved, that are the film's strength. Ishii films with a relaxed dignity and the generous pacing gives his remarkable cast of actors time to develop their unassuming and often very funny characters. The biggest emotional beats in the film are barely indicated: a slight nod, a melt of the eyes and a barely perceptible smile makes as moving a declaration of love as I'm likely to see at the festival this year. That cast is uniformly excellent, featuring veterans like Go Kato (Samurai Rebellion) and Misake Watanabe (Kwaidan) alongside newer stars like Aoi Miyzaki (Eureka), Joe Odagiri (Princess Raccoon, Air Doll) and Ryuhei Matsuda (Gohatto). Matsuda as Majime and Miyazaki as his love interest, the aspiring chef (another job exacting in its dedication to detail) Kaguya, in particular stand out, both in their tenderly tentative courtship and in their later life, admiring and adoring each other still. "You're so interesting."

My next film required a bit of a hike. VIFF is without longtime headquarters the Granville 7, a multiplex that served as an ideal central location for the festival. Forced to adapt in the wake of that theatre's closing, the festival is now spread across downtown Vancouver. It was a long, damp 20 minute walk from the Cinematheque to the International Village for my second film, where I arrived just in time to join another line. Technical delays made that wait much longer, and made me wish I'd taken a more relaxed pace on my walk, or at least taken the time to grab some real food. Instead, devouring a much-too-large bag of mediocre popcorn, I settled in for film #2.

Good Vibrations

No less sentimental in theme, but wildly different in style is this biopic about Terri Hooley, a record shop owner instrumental in the late 70s Belfast punk scene. As loud and abrasive as The Great Passage is subdued, directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn use every trick in the playbook to throw their hectic comic drama in your face: hyperactive narration, rapidly cut stock footage, a peripatetic soundtrack, quick swings from farce to melodrama and back again. The obvious comparison is to Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, set in a similar milieu at the same time (it's set in Manchester), but where that film had a simple rise and fall structure, cocaine-fueled and anchored by an increasingly manic Steve Coogan, Good Vibrations doesn't follow a clear progression, instead lurching from high to low and back again as Hooley repeatedly finds himself on the precipice of success but never quite breaks through. The film's peaks are a lot of fun: Terri's first discovery of punk (hearing Rudi's "Big Time"), the joy of hearing legendary DJ John Peel unprecedentedly playing one of his band's singles twice in a row (The Undertones's "Teenage Kicks"), a final singalong to Sonny Bono. But the film's infectious charm is ham-handedly leavened by strained dramatic moments (Terri gets beat up by Nazi IRA youths, Terri inexplicably abandons his wife (Broadchurch's Jodie Whittacker) and newborn daughter to sorrowfully drink in dingy bars). Richard Dormer is ingratiatingly scampy as Wooley, I totally failed to recognize him from Game of Thrones (he's apparently not related to Natalie Dormer, who also appears on that show). Thickly-accented crowd-pleasers from the UK are a bit of a tradition here at VIFF, and this film ably joins The Angels' Share and Made in Dagenham trailing well-behind Mike Liegh's Happy-Go-Lucky. In the end, it's the second-best Good Vibrations, well-behind the Beach Boys' pop masterpiece but well-ahead of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.