Thursday, October 02, 2014

Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

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 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 Schwarzman, 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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Four Films From VIFF 2014 Thus Far

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Films covered: La Sapienza (Eugène Green); The Golden Era (Ann Hui); National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman); Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

We're now a few days into the festival and there's definitely a different vibe at VIFF this year. The familiar faces are all here, though I've yet to see Tony Rayns or Bérénice Reynaud. Professors Bordwell and Thompson are here of course, along with a special guest. Also here are the eclectic mix of Asian films, hits from the international festival circuit and local Canadian products. Crowds are very strong, almost every auditorium I've been in thus far has been packed, something I haven't seen since the 2010 festival -- even in the remarkable 2012 year, masterpiece attendance was hit and miss. But the schedule is oddly lumpy, with evenings like the first Friday night stacked with half a dozen want-to-see films while other times (Sunday night, pretty much all of Tuesday) filled with films of the "yeah, I guess I could go see that, but maybe I should take a nap. Or, better yet, drink a mojito in a boot instead" variety. Some big films (the Godard, the Costa) get three shows, while others have only one (the Takahata, which had its sole screening at 11:30 am Saturday morning, as if they assumed the only people who'd be interested in seeing it were children that spoke fluent Japanese (the "print" was subtitled)). The new Hong Sangsoo movie plays twice, but only at the odd time of 5:15 for both shows, which effectively prevents one from seeing sows in the 3-4 and 6-7 block surrounding it. Weird problems of overlap abound. For example: the most appealing of Sunday afternoon's shows, Listen Up Philip, didn't get out until 6:25, yet all but one of the next set of shows started at 6:30 (this is why I missed out on the interesting-looking Hong Kong documentary Flowing Stories - it was simply impossible to make it across town in time to catch it). These scheduling issues are inevitable, of course. It's exceedingly difficult to put together a multi-screen movie schedule (I speak from experience), especially in a festival environment with four or five movies playing a single auditorium every day. And a schedule that's proven to be a pain for me may very well work great for someone else, or even the majority of festival attendees. One of the great things about film festivals is that everyone makes it their own. But this is the most trouble I've had in six years here. Perhaps the remarkable thing is that those other years went so well.

Some highlights from my festival thus far:

The week kicked off for me with disappointment. I knew I was going to miss Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, one of my most-anticipated films of the year, because my train wasn't set to arrive until 11:45 Saturday. I did hope to make the second half of the de facto Princess double feature, however, with Matías Piñeiro's The Princess of France, playing at 1:45. Unfortunately, my train was delayed, and long lines at the station meant I didn't even make it to downtown until five minutes before showtime. Undaunted, I proceeded to the next film on the schedule, Eugène Green's La Sapienza. Like Green's other films (I watched Toutes les units and Le Pont des Arts in preparation for the fest), it features an unusually declamatory acting style, with a Bressonian minimization of emotion (though notably not as extremely robotic). Also Bressonian is a penchant for introducing scenes and characters with close-ups of their feet, or rather, their shoes. Green apparently is a big fan of shoes (not that there's anything wrong with that). He films his characters' conversations at right angles, a two-shot with them facing each other, perpendicular to the camera, followed by medium close-ups of each actor as they face the camera directly and speak in turn, Green not cutting until they've finished what they have to say. This combination of effects reminds me very much of Manoel de Oliveira, though the artifice is apparently indebted as much to Baroque theatrical technique as any cinematic fore-bearer. Green is said to be an expert in this, and knowing absolutely nothing about the subject myself, I'm in no position to disagree.

La Sapienza concerns itself with a married couple, an architect and a social worker, who seem very depressed and go on vacation in Switzerland. They meet a young brother and sister and become attached to them. The girl has fainting spells ("wasting sickness" perhaps, which should have died out in 1914, we're told), the boy is an aspiring architect. The wife sends the boy with her husband on a tour of Baroque churches, while the two women stay behind and have frequent talks. The man is obsessed with the story of Borromini, a dreamer of an architect who had a more rational-minded rival and came to a bad end. As the film progresses, he tells us their story as he explains it to the young man, while Green lovingly points out the marvels they constructed, gorgeous pans and tilts following the lines of their churches as the reach toward the heavens. Like Voyage to Italy, the film's most obvious reference point, the touch with the past transforms and reinvigorates the middle-aged.

The remarkable thing about the film, aside from the fact that I saw it on a Saturday afternoon, in a sold out auditorium that was 100% into it, laughing at all the right places and genuinely moved, is that it, and Green himself, even exist at all. How wonderful a world is it that provides a space for a weird expatriate-American Francophile, obsessed with Baroque theatre, to make odd little romances about the persistence and continuing relevance of ancient arts and archaic words? Green himself has a role in the film, bigger than the cameos in the other films of his I've seen, where he plays an old man the wife meets on a park bench at night. He explains that he is a refugee, a Chaldean from the Ninevah plain, an ethnic group she believed to be extinct. But no, they are still very much around, though in diminished numbers. A more fitting role for M. Green I cannot imagine.

The Golden Era capped my first day at the festival. Ann Hui's bio-epic about 1930s writer Xiao Hong is long, beautiful and not quite exactly what you'd expect. The only sign of Hui's usual twisting of expectations is in the film's narration, with witness interviews in the style of Reds, except the witnesses are played by the same actors portraying those characters in the film proper. Unlike Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (a film to which this has been compared, not entirely without reason), the actors never comment about the events as themselves (as also, for example, in Peter Watkins's La Commune (Paris 1871)), but always remaining in character. It's an ingenious solution to the difficulty in recreating the life of someone who died young, leaving little in the way of personal history. It effectively captures the ways in which Xiao Hong the person is as much a memory in the lives of the people she met as she has been for the later generations who have discovered her only through her writings (which appear to be exceptionally beautiful tales of misery). But Hui pretty much plays it straight. Only once do the narrational accounts differ, and while Tang Wei's performance does have some notable shifts in tone, there wasn't a pattern to the changes that I was able to discern (with one narrator remembering her as happy and jubilant, another as morose, all at the same time, for example). Rather than foreground her experiments, Hui seems content to let her above-average prestige picture play itself out in heart-wrenching yet familiar terms.

Each of my next two days in Vancouver began with a documentary. Sunday was the latest from Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, about the British art museum of the same name. In a brisk three hours, Wiseman takes us on a tour of the place, following his now well-established structure: alternating long sequences of people at work, both "on-stage" (the tour guides, the restorers) and off (the frame-makers, the construction workers and janitorial crew) and administrative meetings where the war between commerce and art is fought, with breaks in-between made of "pillow shots", in this case usually close-ups of people looking at the art interspersed with close-ups of the faces in the art itself. He even manages to weasel in a couple of "interviews" wherein he films a person being interviewed, rather than having to break his cinematic code and interview them on-camera himself. It's great of course. I've watched a lot of Wiseman in the last month and I simply can't get enough of his films, the ones about art especially. It's beautiful and fascinating and that structure is so entrenched because it works so well to make a very long movie seem much shorter than it really is. But one thing is for sure: next time I go to a museum, I'm going to join a tour. Those guides are terrific. The less I say about the dance scene at the end, however, the better.

Ballet 422, which opened my Monday, owes a very great debt to Wiseman, especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). Director Jody Lee Lipes follows the Wiseman template (albeit with a very few explanatory title cards, kind of necessary in the beginning to set the story, less so to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero's deadline. The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet's 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie proceeds from early rehearsal footage through the final performance, with shots of the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) interspersed and pillow shots (prominently close-ups of shoes, again) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. Again as in Wiseman there are no interviews, the cinematic apparatus remaining invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes his shot). The rehearsal footage is great, as is Peck's production itself, brisk and lively and charmingly danced by the company, particularly the three leads (Tiler Peck, Stirling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar). The company appears to have a warm and friendly camaraderie: it's much funnier than the Wiseman films (at one point one of the dancers in the chorus is worried about her outfit. A wardrobe woman tells her: "Girl, you got nothing to worry about: if it comes out, it's cute.") The best revelation comes at the end, though, when we see Peck make his way backstage, down an empty hall to his dressing room. He changes clothes and begins putting his makeup on. He's performing in the third performance of the night, as part of the chorus. Like the generic title indicates: despite all the artistry and inspiration and fun and music and dance, the ballet is, as much as anything else, work.