Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: October 2007, 11

Thursday, October 11, 2007

07:45:07 pm , 1853 words, 3016 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie, Live-action

Persepolis & the VIFF

Persepolis is the best film I've seen in animation in a while. I missed the chance to have a look at District and Renaissance last year and the year before at the VIFF, so I don't know how they compare, but this year I caught the festival's only full-length animated feature, after some dithering. I'm thankful I did. It's a splendid film, one that doesn't just speak to children/animation fans, but to audiences of all stripes with a deeply heartfelt and human story of life in the real world. Like McDull, it's an eminently local film, without being self-servingly so. It's a film that feels of today's age like few other animated films I've seen, for one because it is steeped in actual history as experienced by a discrete individual, but moreso because it is magnificently eloquent on the emotional and physical turbulence of the experience of growing up in such an environment. If an animated film is made for adults, there seems to be a conception that it has to pander to the lower instincts of adult viewers. It's refreshing to see a film that is adult in a real sense of the term, in that it speaks in a language that is nuanced and subtle, informed and literate without being pretentious or snobbish.

From an animation standpoint I found the spare visuals very refreshing and appealing. Watching the film, I was appalled by how anime in contrast seems utterly devoid of sincere expression of the sort I felt in every simple composition in each shot of this film. They weren't simply running frantically in a hamster wheel to catch up with a card-deck of pre-chewed expressive symbols and predictable dramatic cliches. They had a very interesting story to tell that created its own arc, and a very unusual but appealing and original design ethos to do so with that was throughout visually compelling and helped the story speak what it needed to say, without being bogged down in pointless photorealism or allowing things to get distracted by stylistic handstands. On a technical note, perhaps it was just my imagination, but I wondered why the characters seemed to suddenly move with much more richness and nuance during the scenes in which they where in silhouette.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I'll have seen 18 films by the time this year's festival winds down tomorrow. Impressively, most of them were good. I was surprised to find myself disliking the ones I was expecting to like, and vice-versa. The human creature craves change. I walked out of The Man From London, partly because I was feeling irritated and impatient that morning for reasons that had nothing to do with the film, and partly because the film's excruciatingly slow pace and long shots were not enough to make the film interesting, even purely on a visual plane, in the way that films by Tarkovsky or Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-Hsien are. They felt merely pedantic and trying. I was surprised to find myself wanting to walk out on the big romantic historical set-piece Lust, Caution after merely the first five minutes, considering how much I enjoy watching Tony Leung, but the film's artifice and predictability were unbearable, and nothing in the subsequent two and a half hours changed that initial impression.

Taiwan's Island Etude easily left the best aftertaste and was the most inspiring and invigorating, a feel-good movie in the good sense, with a deft, warm undercurrent of hope and humor throughout and lots of fun and believable characters. The Chinese Ma Wu Jia was stunning for a first feature. It's a simple story of life in the countryside for a widowed mother and her two boys, but the director explained after the screening that the extraordinary realism and naturalness of the on-screen interaction was the result of having had everyone live together first for a few months prior to beginning shooting, with many of the scenes having been improvised. It was one of the most immediate of the films I saw, and gets my vote for the best debut. Another debut from China was Mid-Afternoon Barks, which was more novel in structure and refreshingly elliptical and deliberate in its refusal to make sense, consisting as it does of a mere assemblage of character comings and goings tied by the ephemeral thread of mysterious metaphorical white poles going up everywhere for some unknown reason, with any notion of story left entirely up to the viewer to piece together. Two people were snoring throughout the film. Loudly. As a bravado piece of daring by a new face it was admirable, but I wasn't convinced that it was a compelling piece of cinema. Yet I would rather see a film like this made by someone who really wants to create something new than lifeless pulp like Lust, Caution.

China was the most prolific country apart from Canada at the festival. Useless was one of the most structurally and conceptually stimulating and daring, with its tripartite meditation on the role of garments in society and the workers who create the garments in a globalized age. It inventively appropriated documentary strategies to approach a pre-meditated concept and a not-quite-there narrative, in the best tradition of Kiarostami. Going Home was a warm and humorous story with a very sad heart, and was thoroughly delightful and uplifting viewing. A road movie like Island Etude, but telling of a character on a very different kind of journey, the one that comes at the end of life. God Man Dog from Taiwan was a very different sort of story, one where various distinct characters' lives eventually intersect in the end. Even without any grandiose goings on or grand epiphanies it was a joy to watch and surprisingly did not feel artificial or old hat despite the familiar scenario.

Iran's Those Three told the story of deserters in the midst of the Iranian winter, and was, not surprisingly, by far the most aesthetically severe and uncompromising of any of the films I saw. The conclusion has a stoic inevitability to it, and the cinematography was unadorned in typical Iranian fashion yet somehow almost painfully gripping. A film in color yet in black and white. Dead Time was one of the most fascinating films I saw at the festival for its meaningful blending and updating of conventional film genres like mystery, film noir, horror and political thriller, telling a noirish convoluted story of supernatural murder that eventually climaxes in a scene that is as surprising for its political overtones as for its comic-book tone and imagery. Hong Kong's The Mad Detective was another entertaining genre-bender with an interesting though somewhat forced concept and execution, but seemed to paddle in more conventional and shallower waters without quite seeming to use the interesting concept to its full potential, while conversely sometimes striving too hard for effect.

The Mongolian Khadak was a story in microcosm of the wholesale destruction of the traditional lifestyle of sheep-herders on the steppes that had as an asset real emotional conviction, but whose message became fogged in a haze of poetic images at the end that diluted that message. The French/Belgian- produced, African-set Sounds of Sand was a depressing story of a family of goatherds forced into a doomed exile in a search for the ever scarcer resource of water. It seemed diminished for being a message film whose goals were clear from the outset, but those goals are irrefutable, and the film was a potent wake-up call as a painful reminder of the sort of unbearable truths unfolding all around us as we obliviously fly above people like this in our silver cannisters. That image from the film was the simplest and most powerful - a lone jet passing in the sky as a girl and her father die of hunger in the desert.

Faro: Goddess of the Waters was a slightly more benign and human exploration of the impact of water on the lives of people in Africa, pitting a western-educated engineer against uneducated villagers as he tries to get a dam constructed. The film artfully interweaves the story of the man's struggle to unearth the identity of his father, all the while fighting the villagers' irrational beliefs and discrimination, against a backdrop of the story of progress vs. traditional beliefs in Africa. Finally, in a sharp left turn, Echoes of Home, the only pure documentary I saw this time around, was a fascinating and delightful exploration of the phenomenon of yodeling in the Swiss Alps, which, this documentary reveals, runs the gamut from traditional Heidi-yelping to experimental sounds by younger proponents of the form that are of tremendous beauty and musical quality. There were too many fiction features from Asia this year that I had to see, so I was unable to see more documentaries - which is a shame, because there were other very interesting documentaries at the festival that I would have liked to see, like Dust, an epic about the ubiquitous invisible substance and its role in our lives, Losers and Winners, about the workers in the globalized world, Kabul Transit, Manda Bala, Nanking, Forbidden Lies...

Actually, I was forgetting what is probably my favorite film from the festival, the Korean film Secret Sunshine. It features a bravado performance of searing emotional intensity by the lead female actor, and is one of the most incisive psychological portraits I've ever seen committed to film. The film conscientiously and patiently examines the process by which emotional damage can lead people to seek refuge in organized religion, without intellectualizing the issue or taking a taunting stance on the subject, and the film benefits immensely for the way in which it allows the emotional journey of the heroine to unfold naturally and honestly and thereby lucidly illustrate the process, in all its twists and turns, without anyone on the other side of the fourth wall weighing in on the issue. The film is admirably poker-faced, totally intent on honestly showing things from the protagonist's perspective, so much so that it can have you fooled for a while. This is a film I think Luis Bunuel would have liked. Surprising and intriguing, then, to find that the director just came from a stint as Korea's Minister of Culture. He was apparently a filmmaker before taking on the post, so his incredible directing skills on display in this film are less of a surprise, but knowing this makes me curious to look at the film through the lens of what influence his experience in that post might have exerted on the film, how the film might represent his diagnosis of Korean society. Not one minute of the film's more than two-and-a-half-hour length grew tiresome for an instant, and, ending the experience on a perfect note, the film ended just on the shot I was hoping it would. It was a rich viewing experience that reminds me that what I most want to see is insight into the human mind - in filmmaking, but animation can also do that. The vitality and variety of many of the films I saw here is inspiring.