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 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

12:54:21 pm , 366 words, 5189 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator

Charles Huettner short film yay

Cool beans. Charles Huettner, the guy who made a fan-made music video for Animal Collective's awesome song Water Curses that knocks the stuffing out of the boring official music video (and a great official one for DM Stith to another awesome song - he always animates awesome songs, which is better than making an awesome video to a song that sucks), says he's working on his first ever full-fledged Animated Short. Looking forward to that. He says he's got no schooling or much experience in 2D animation. And I friggin love his two music videos. How messed up is that? So I'm looking forward to it all the more. Some of the most refreshing animation I've seen has been from the unschooled. I think schooling can be good and bad. Charles talks about the process for making his great music videos on his blog too. Worth a read. And I love all the random crazy experimentation and stuff on his Vimeo account.

I watched the second episode of Trapeze and it was way better than the first one in my opinion, or at least better. They did a great job of focusing on the guy this time and digging deep into the root causes of his problem. Very funny and psychologically probing. Original script is really funny with its suggestive phrases, and kudos to translators of fansub for doing a good job conveying those in English. Though it's interesting how the whole basis of the story - his getting a permanent hard-on supposedly as some kind of post-traumatic reaction to his wife leaving him - seems undermined by the way the real-life doctor dude felt the need to interject to point out that such a thing in fact never has psychological roots. But whatever. At least they're honest! And you know what I'm warming to the use of real-life actors. They do it much more copiously here than in Kemonozume, so it feels like a different strategy, and I find that in this case it actually serves to make you relate to the character more. Who can relate to a drawing? I like that they're doing animation that kind of rejects itself at the same time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

04:08:31 pm , 650 words, 1786 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Trapeze

I haven't watched anything from the new season for once. The only show I've checked out is Trapeze. Anything I missed? I had kind of high expectations for Trapeze going in, and honestly they weren't really met. I think I have a pretty good idea from the first episode what they're going to be doing stylistically for the rest of the show, and while I'm sure I'm going to enjoy the directing and the stories, I'm disappointed there's nothing that strikes me as really new in Kenji Nakamura's new show the way Bakeneko and its continuation Mononoke did. It felt like I was watching Kemonozume or Mind Game with the way the live-action was integrated, mostly in close-ups of the face, just like how Yuasa did it. Yuasa's film and shows each felt like they were exploring their own unique stylistic universe, whereas Trapeze doesn't really feel anchored to any strong visual concept. If anything, it just feels like a free-for-all. It's certainly fun, but I can't say I was too convinced by the first episode. I felt it was a little too ditzy and over-the-top with all the colors and the random strangeness without any of the things they were doing having any impact or actually meaning anything other than being there just to look weird. That, and the whole story was kind of boring. The next episode is about a guy with a permanent erection - killer-sounding material. I really like the concept overall of exploring a new person's mental or physical complexes or illnesses in each episode, which is what I'm guessing this is going to be, but I kind of feel like there needs to be more actual exploration of the psychology of the person and less random strangeness for it to really work. That was the real problem, more than style - that we didn't come away feeling like we knew the inner workings of this guy's psyche very deeply.

Yuasa's shows similarly were very daring with the mixing of media in the animation and the vivid and bold use of colors, but the combination actually felt balanced and harmonious in his hands, whereas in Trapeze the gaudy colors and random mixing of media just feels a little gimmicky and even tacky. I'm sure part of that is deliberate, though, so I don't want to dismiss it out of hand. Nakamura is a sophisticated director, and I'm sure that part of the syrupy synthetic feeling of this episode is intentional. At the very least, the show has a unique tone like nothing I've ever seen before.

And I was really not too impressed by the characters by Takashi Hashimoto this time around. The characters worked fairly well in Mononoke and its predecessor, but I didn't much like the designs here. It's not even about the animation so much as just the designs of the faces, which just don't do anything for me.

Anyway, it's still entertaining and definitely strange and like nothing else out there at the moment, and that can only be a good thing. Part of why I haven't watched anything this season is that I've been too busy. But that's the surface excuse. Mostly I just don't have the patience to wade through the ocean of same old same old anymore. At least this show is refreshing and unpredictable. It's quite amazing how literally dozens of shows are made every season and usually only one or two max actually attempt to do something that doesn't look and feel like everything else that has come before.

The subject of the next episode reminds me of something I overheard while I was in a coffee shop one day: "It's a problem when you can't get it up, but it's even worse when you can't get it down". It was raining outside, and the person was apparently having trouble with the latch on their umbrella.

Friday, October 23, 2009

11:53:35 pm , 2278 words, 3378 views     Categories: Live-action

Final VIFF 2009 thoughts

Nothing blew me away at the VIFF this year like Tropical Manila did in 2008 and Secret Sunshine did in 2007, but I did see some good films this time around, as always. And as always, there were a ton of films that I wanted to see but just couldn't get around to seeing, either because I was pooped from watching so many films, or from scheduling overlaps. It's fun for two weeks to cram films, but after a while you get burnout. It's gotta be a special thing watching a good film, and not homework, otherwise the magic's gone.

Films I really wanted to see and hope to get a chance to see sometime include Eighteen, a film from South Korea that won the Dragons and Tigers award this year (Bakal Boys got honorable mention), Dirty Paradise (French Guiana film about natives fighting for their land rights), Extraordinary Stories (Argentinan 4-hour drama inspired by Borges), Petropolis (Canadian film about the unfolding tar sands disaster next door in Alberta), The Sound of Insects (weird/cool-sounding Swiss film featuring narration inspired by one of my favorite Japanese authors, Masahiko Shimada), Autumn (Turkish film likened to Chekhov via Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Crude, American Casino, Petition, H2Oil, North, and The Age of Stupid.

Films I'm disappointed weren't shown include the new film by the director of Tropical Manila (maybe it's not done?), the chiptune documentary Reformat the Planet and Priit Parn's new film Life without Gabriella Ferri. (For any of my readers in Rio de Janeiro, Parn's new film will be playing on November 11 at the No Taboo 4th annual Festival of Animation and Sex Education)

Adrift was a gorgeously shot and technically very well directed Vietnamese film that somehow didn't sit well with me despite its technical proficiency. The scenario deals with a gorgeous woman who, just wed to a nice young man she discovers quickly to be quite immature sexually, becomes predictably sexually frustrated and succumbs to the wiles of a sexy male model (I'm guessing he's a male model; he's not in the film). The whole seemed to strive for a kind of literary atmosphere, with its velvety tone of languorous yet understated sensuality and the exploration of the psychology of sexual awakening, but it just rubbed me the wrong way and came across as disturbingly artificial and shallow with its Barbie and Ken protagonists and the wife's eye-rolling 'dilemma'. The elder sister who thrusts her innocent younger sister into the situation with a mixture of detachment, love and nihilistic cruelty, was not surprisingly a writer, and the way the directing strove to paint with this world-weary and sophisticated demeanor felt forced and cliche. I'm kind of biased because as a general thing I find films in which a supposedly 'ordinary person' is played by a gorgeous actress or actor to be hopelessly flawed and unbelievable from the outset (Wong Kar-Wai's films being a notable exception), so my bullshit radar was on whenever the wife or her suitor were on the screen, which was basically the whole film. It felt like porn without nudity - sexually frustrating. Actually, maybe now I understand what the director was trying to do with the film.

At the End of Daybreak was a Malaysian film I hated within the first minute, in which the protagonist boils a rat in a cage to death. I can't respect a director whose poverty of imagination requires him to kill a defenseless animal on-screen to shock the audience. After this delightful opener, the film proceeds to be boring for an hour as the protagonist whines to his mother that he doesn't want to go to jail for the statutory rape of his 15-year-old girlfriend before serving up a completely absurd and laughable climactic twist in which the boy and his friends kill the girl and her friends.

Indepencia from the Philippines was conceptually daring but in the final count just not particularly memorable or interesting. The concept is interesting: It's shot in the style of a 30s film from the Philippines, which is to say in black and white, with the set consisting of painted backdrops and a few potted plants to simulate the jungle setting, and interrupted mid-way by a propaganda newsreel by the occupying Americans. The story tells of a mother and her son who flee into the jungle to escape the fighting that erupted with the United States around 1899 (read the Wiki entry in the Philippine-American War). It depicts their daily life in a makeshift hut, evokes their constant fear of discovery, and hints at the atrocities committed by the Americans, which included deliberately killing children. All of this sounds very interesting on paper, but it's unfortunately tedious watching. The history leading to Philippine independence in 1946 is complex and multi-faceted and it would have been nice to see something that helped understand this little-known chapter in the history of American imperialism.

Home is a great documentary that everyone should see - a comprehensive examination of the problems facing our planet today that is powerful and almost overwhelming but with a poetic rather than dry style. It feels like a personal summation of all those environmental issues that have been hovering in the collective consciousness for the last decade. It consists entirely of shots of various locales on the earth shot from above, presumably mostly in a helicopter, accompanied by free-ranging poetic narration that ticks off the countdown to our collective demise and has to struggle fiercely to end optimistically. For its images alone this is a film of staggering beauty, but combined with the poetic narration it makes for a new type of ecological disaster documentary like none we've seen before. It's deeply informed about the various issues at play but personal in tone, like a video essay. This is one of the films that will probably receive widespread distribution, or at least more widespread than many of the obscure films I've seen at the VIFF. I strive to see the obscure ones and miss out the ones likely to get a later screening like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But this one I'm glad I saw. I'm glad I didn't miss this sucker-punch of a documentary.

Agrarian Utopia is a really interesting film and one of my favorites from the festival. It's interesting because I thought it was a documentary for the whole running length, and only just discovered that it's actually scripted and uses actors (albeit nonprofessional ones)! One of the things I like about many of the films being made today in Asia is how they see a filmmaker go into a local situation, assess the issues that its people face, and create a drama that in style and in content feels like a documentary exploring those issues, but doing it within the framework of a fictional narrative. Bakal Boys was an excellent example of this approach. So is Agrarian Utopia. The film depicts the daily struggle of two farming families who work the soil of borrowed land in northern Thailand. At the beginning we see them enter the land, and the film ends with the landowner kicking them out because he has been forced to sell the land ("because I'm late on my car payments" he states). In-between we are essentially seeing a documentary on the life of the poor rural Thai farmer, from the planting of the crop to its harvest. We see them capture rats and shoot stray dogs to get protein in their diet, which is painful to see but feels natural and normal in their situation. A contrast with these families who are forced by circumstance to live as farmers is provided by a hippy-like retired teacher who lives alone on a small farm and lives off of his organically farmed vegetables. His choice is intellectual; he lives in the fictional ideal of the agrarian utopia, rejecting the wasteful consumption of consumerism that is in fact at the root of many aspects of the global ecological crisis. The farmers live in the real world, in which the masses of poor are forced to wear their bodies out in indentured servitude in the brutish circumstances of farm life. It's a subtly presented but potent contrast, and visually is a very honest examination of the life of the Thai farmer, which in many ways telescopes to the life of farmers elsewhere. An excellent film that resides at the borderline between fiction and documentary.

Sweetgrass is a film on a similar note - an actual documentary about rural life, this time a raw and unmediated documentation of the livelihood of Montana sheep farmers. The bulk of the film is occupied by the dramatic driving of the sheep to pasture in the Rockies and their eventual return. This is an example of rawest form of documentary. Editing is very spare, there is no narration, characters are not interviewed. The whole film consists of long shots of the farmers and their sheep that by the nature of the material are weighty and dramatic and hold the viewer's attention. It's in a way the truest form of documentary: the shot communicates rather than the cut; the subject rather than the director. The film shows us a rough and ready type of cowboy who seems to come right out of another era before the west was won. In a way, you feel for them in the same way you would for Thai farmers. The journey is no Sunday picnic, and you've got to respect their fortitude for doing such unforgiving work in this day and age. The hardest part of the journey comes at the destination in the mountains, which in their brute majesty wear out sheep dog, horse and owner alike. In one memorable sequence, after the sheep have strayed one too many times, one of the cowboys breaks down in a torrent of shockingly colorful language that seems both typical of the stereotype and yet pathetically human and frail. The mountains and the sheep have him on the verge of physical and mental breakdown. The cinematography is also quite daring in its spareness and the length of the shots. The unforgettable moments of the film are the moments of quiet observation when camera and documentary are forgotten, as when the camera follows an old-timer seated on his horse in the twilight of dusk as it slowly walks up the mountain, the man mumbling and singing to himself quite naturally. You feel as if you've glimpsed the ghost of the eternal cowboy of imagination, happy in the heroic loneliness of the untamed wilds.

Today is Better than Two Tomorrows was a story from Laos about two young boys who are sent by their family to a monastery to become monks for a few years. The film was shot entirely by the director, Anna Rodgers from Ireland, and provides a good look into life in Laos, a place I wasn't very familiar with. The length of time the director spent with the kids before shooting to accustom them to her presence makes for some uncannily candid and unforced shots of everyday life, as they have clearly forgotten they have a filmmaker in their midst. I recall hearing a similar story from the director of a superb Chinese docu-drama from a previous VIFF, Ma Wu Jia, which had flawlessly natural acting from its child cast. Today is in fact a documentary, but it has the pacing of a good drama. The excellent editing keeps things developing at all times while taking plenty of time to display the beauties of the locale and its people and how the days flow by. As we follow the young protagonists on their journey, we're privy to all of their emotions and the complex societal fabric that envelops them, and it makes for emotionally rewarding viewing, unlike some of the other documentaries I've seen, which can be rather dry and distant. One thing that was not explained in the film is exactly why the boys have to go to the monastery, so I asked the director after the screening. It turns out that it's not a case of poor families sending their children to become monks to have one less mouth to feed, which is what I had assumed. Laos, together with Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism, which says that Buddha was just a man, as opposed to the Mahayana sect in most other countries where Buddhism is practiced, which has deified Buddha. The upshot is that, in Laos, as we see in this film, the onus of reducing your burden of karma lies with yourself (whereas in Mahayana Buddhism you just have to pray occasionally to a diety), and hence a large part of the population apparently spends time in their youth at the monastery, later re-integrating with society at large and living a normal life. I happen to just be reading Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles, which talks a bit about this. Today is Better than Two Tomorrows is a great film that provides a colorful look into a culture most of us probably know little about. It's too bad this film and most of the other good films I've seen probably won't be shown in many places after this. So many good films are made each year, and so few people get to see them.

My big catch from this year's VIFF was perhaps less a single film that the collective work being done by unsung but superb filmmakers with small teams in poor countries documenting real life through various hybrids of drama and documentary - films like Today is Better than Two Tomorrows, Bakal Boys and The Wind and the Water.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

07:21:05 pm , 591 words, 2148 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Naruto #351

Yasuhiro Aoki, Kenji Nakamura and Akitoshi Yokoyama are my three favorite directors to emerge in the last few years. Yokoyama had done any number of great episodes before Kaiba in 2008, but it was his work on Kaiba that made me really sit up and take notice. He storyboard and directed episode 3, episode 7 and episode 9. Ever since the great work he did on these episodes I've been looking forward to whatever he might do next. That next thing has come in a surprising place - he did episode #351 of Naruto (#131 of Shippuuden). It's the next deluxe action episode. I enjoyed the directing of this one much more than I did the previous one directed by Toshiyuki Tsuru, #123 of Shippuuden.

In his Kaiba episodes I felt that Yokoyama showed himself to be good at effectively utilizing space to choreograph action, and this Naruto shows off that side of his directing skills really well, especially during the fight at the beginning, where the characters are jumping around and running through the maze-like city. He's also very detail oriented in the processing of the screen, and every shot has a feeling of perfect timing and pacing. Even the visual texture has a great feeling, with the particular colors in each shot and the timing and drawings of the animation always feeling exciting and serving the action without being flashy the way a lot of action animation is these days to distract from the fact that it's not that well choreographed. He just has the instincts of a seasoned director. I frankly hope that in the future his talent will be put to use on more ambitious and worthwhile projects that allow his true talent as a storyteller to shine, but I really like that he's a director who is able to jump between dramatically different content and do the content justice on its own terms, rather than being a director who's tied to a particular style and who bends the arm of whatever he's doing into that particular style. Such directors to me often come across as somewhat mannered and inflexible. I won't say it was a mind-blowing episode. It's limited by the material (it drags in the second half). But the action was nicely choreographed in the first half, with a nice tightness to the pacing that you want of action sequences.

Animators probably responsible for the action were that young firebrand Hiroki Tanaka, who seems to turn up with some crazy action in a new episode every week, and who was here also the sakkan; Nozomu Abe, an animator I know nothing about but whom I've heard is good; Hiroyuki Yamashita, one of the main Naruto regulars (he's listed first in the credits for the opening sequence of this episode); Taiki Harada; and Takayuki Hamada, the awesome animator from Kaiba etc. who was obviously brought on-board by Yokoyama. Kenichi Yoshida and Tatsuo Yamada are co-sakkans. The latter probably was brought on by Hiroki Tanaka, as they were two of the main crazy action guys on Precure in the old days (i.e. a few months back), but how the heck Kenichi Yoshida (Eureka 7) got involved I don't know.

Speaking of the opening, it also featured animation by Matsumoto (as usual) and the new regular op animators Shingo Yamashita and Kenichi Kutsuna, the gif animators from Birdy. I think for once I could identify their work. Matsumoto followed by Kutsuna at the beginning? Yamashita (if it's him doing those two shots where some unidentified character transforms into a beast) is sure doing crazy stuff.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

08:03:41 pm , 1178 words, 11116 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie, Foreign

Gwen et le Livre de Sable

France has given the world a number of groundbreaking animated feature films over the decades, most notably Le Roi et l'Oiseau (The King and the Bird, 1948-1980) by Paul Grimault and La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet, 1973) by René Laloux. One that has probably slipped through the cracks over here is a 60-minute feature released in 1984 directed by Jean-Fran?ois Laguionie, who is perhaps best known for his short film La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la Rame (Rowing across the Atlantic, 1978). I just had the chance to see Gwen et le Livre du Sable (Gwen and the Book of Sand) last night, and for me personally it instantly ranks near the top of the heap.

Gwen is a film of beauty and purity like few I've ever seen. It should be seen by all connoisseurs of good animated cinema. With its poetic tone, enigmatic imagery and narrative evanescence, it's animated filmmaking for adults in the true sense of the term. More than 20 years have passed since its release, but I find that it still works brilliantly. It's clearly an important but underappreciated achievement in the annals of feature-length animated filmmaking.

Like My Dog Tulip, this film stands as a beacon of how a small team of animation craftsmen can create a feature-length film of great beauty through perseverance and dedication. This wonderful film was made by a team of six people over the span of four years, and cost only 6 1/2 million Francs to make (about a million dollars back then I guess - pocket change compared to today's big feature budgets).

The film itself feels to me like a poem more than a typical animated feature. It's image-based as opposed to narrative-driven. But that's not to say it doesn't have a narrative. Despite being so languid and meditative and full of bewilderingly poetic imagery, it has a very clear narrative and the story is in the classic quest format. It also has a very clear story that makes perfect sense when it's explained by Laguionie (as it is in the superb 40-minute interview included on the French DVD I bought - though I fear there are no subs of any kind on the DVD), although while watching the story is not so clear, and it comes across as a somewhat surrealistic and baffling unfurling of events - delightfully so. However, if so desired, it parses. It's not random for the sake of being random.

What we are presented with in the film is a future world decimated by some unknown apocalypse in which the peoples of the world are split into two - people living in the desert who bear a vague resemblance to the desert peoples of north Africa, and urban refugees living in the ruins of their city. Without revealing anything, the film makes some very obvious and profound comments on the nature of our consumer society, without being didactic or even spelling it out. Although there is dialogue, for the most part Laguionie communicates the nature of the situation through images depicting the ravaged world in which these characters are now forced to eke out a living, rather than narration. And even the images leave much to the imagination, and never stoop to pure literalism. Every image is bewildering and destabilizing. The film boasts any number of incredible shots, both still and in motion, that work as beautiful painterly images. Some of the shots have an ingenious trompe-l'oeil quality about them, like an Escher painting, or something out of The Thief and the Cobbler, and the city has a vertiginous and overgrown feeling like the city in Le Roi et l'Oiseau by Grimault, Laguionie's mentor. The image of the characters dashing across the desert on stilts is one of the film's most unforgettable.

The visuals for this world inhabited by the characters is truly astonishing to behold, while yet remaining very familiar and normal in appearances. They're very painterly, both in texture and in content and layout. They remind of Matisse and Rousseau. Although 'surreal' is a term that is often misused, the images feel deliberately surreal - the way a character will be wandering in the desert only to suddenly encounter an area completely covered by bed frames, pillows, mattresses and sheets billowing in the wind. Or a giant tea kettle in the middle of nowhere. The wonderful thing about the surreal imagery is that it works on two levels - it creates a surreal atmosphere that transforms a quest into a visual feast not to be taken literally but rather to be appreciated on a poetic level; and it works as a narrative in which the strange images are in fact explainable props in a science-fiction story that turns out to be a powerful dystopian vision of one possible future for our consumer society.

Laguionie made many interesting comments in the interview that reveal his unique nature as a creator. He noted that during the conceptual development stage, which was handled entirely by himself, he greatly enjoyed the process of testing out different ideas and fleshing out the characters, but that once the character was chosen, the rest of the work - the rote work of drawing the character consistently, over and over again - was much less appealing to him. Regarding the music, he made the interesting comment that he doesn't like it when music describes an action literally - running gets fast music, for example. He prefers the music to describe the state of mind of the characters, and for it to be tied to the emotion of the scene. And of technical note is the fact that Laguionie built a multi-plane camera from scratch for this film in order to achieve the feeling of depth in the desert. What can now be achieved ever so simply on computers was back then a huge labor. We might see the effect today and not realize how much effort was expended to achieve it.

One of the defining traits of the film is that the screen is unified - the characters are drawn not using the typical outlines and flat colors of typical cartoons, but using gouache to give them the texture of a painting, like the background art. I can only imagine how much this must have compounded the labor of animating these characters, as they actually had to animate the gradations of color changing dynamically around the curves of the figures with each new drawing. Laguionie's two more recent films look more like your typical 'dessin anime' adaptation of a 'bande dessinee', whereas this film comes across as 'animation'. The visuals are painterly, like an artistic short, completely at odds with the traditions of feature-length animated filmmaking, which for labor-saving purposes demanded certain techniques - paint on cels, flat colors - in order to be able to achieve the feat of drawing a character anew 12 times per second. I really like this film because it's another great example that shatters the illusion that that's the only way of doing things. It's one of the great achievements in feature-length indie animated filmmaking.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

05:36:46 pm , 2936 words, 1557 views     Categories: Animation, Live-action

More VIFF 2009 thoughts

Some more thoughts on films I've seen at the VIFF. I'll start with the ones of more relevance to this blog.

I saw the fourth installment in the McDull series, Kung-Fu Kindergarten. I never saw the third one, but I'd seen the first two at the VIFF in prior years. The second had disappointed me, being a rehash of the first in style and tone, and seeming to show the seams of the material, which seems like nothing more than a series of gags in retrospect. I was astounded that the fourth film felt pretty much exactly like the previous entries. It's something of an amazing feat to be able to make so little progress after four films. I assume it's intentional, because the formula seems to work with audiences. The audience at the screening I saw was roaring with laughter at the tiniest little movement of a character. It seems like the film couldn't go wrong. The mere appearance of a cute anthropomorphic animal on the screen was enough to elicit a wave of "awws". I think I laughed honestly at the joke where the guy breaks a toothpick and throws it in his tea to perform an augury, and McDull goes, "Um, I used that to pick my teeth." But the rest as pretty slim pickins. Like the previous films, the style of the film is hand-drawn characters and CGI or paintings for the backgrounds and everything else. The backgrounds were actually quite nice in and of themselves in many spots, but the animation of the characters was just as lifeless and uninteresting as any of the previous films. I think part of what ruined it for me is people roaring with laughter at jokes that to me seemed like they might support at best a knowing smirk. Humanity depressed me in that theater. If I were watching it at home, I think it might have come across as a harmless little witty 70-minute entertainment, and an example of an internationally successful mainland Asian animation franchise, and I would probably have liked it better. I think it's fair to be demanding, though, and to ask: If it's possible for a franchise like this to be successful, where are the other mainland Asian projects trying to do something more ambitious? That's what I'd like to see. I thought the first McDull was ambitious and a laudable film. Making a series of it ruined it for me.

My Dog Tulip by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger is one of the best animated films of the last few years, no hesitation. It certainly renewed my faith in the possibilities of small-scale animated filmmaking after my viewing of the former film. This is indie feature filmmaking done right - a true work of love, handmade throughout without unnecessary polish, extremely creative with limited means, deeply felt, and with intelligent humor that elicits genuine laughter. I've been waiting for this one for years, and it exceeded my expectations, probably because I was not familiar with the source material. The source material, about the experiences of an English writer from the first half of the last century, is a masterpiece of dry English wit that serves up one of the most candid portraits of our relationships with our animal companions that has ever been put to paper (at least, judging by the film). The film largely consists of narrated reminiscences by the author about his experiences with his dog that are brought alive into visuals by the animation, much as was the case with the last film by the Fierlingers that I saw a few years back - A Room Nearby. The animation is very crude, with even buildings being drawn in a couple of askew scribbles, and took some getting used to. But this is animation at its most honest and real. Every movement of a character, every idea for what to portray on the screen and when in relation to the narrative, comes across as believable and funny, as the work of a master artist who isn't worrying about surface prettiness, but rather about creating animation that is truthful at every moment, whether it's in the realistic portrayal of the dog's behavior or the many flights of fancy in which the dog dons a dress and prances about. The humor of this film comes from wry and unflinchingly frank observations about the icky facts of life, whether it be describing the sanitary habits of one's canine, or going into an extremely uncomfortable level of detail about matters of reproduction (I now know more about dog vulvas than I wish I did).

Legendary Russian animator Andrey Krzhanovsky, who will be turning 70 next month, was represented at the festival with his debut live-action film, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Homeland, released after 6 years of work. The film depicts the life of exiled poet Joseph Brodsky, and feels excessively languid and uninteresting in the sequences depicting his youth, but it works tremendously well in the various animated sequences that litter the film and bring alive the world of Brodsky's imagination and poetry. Together they make for a good balance in depicting a poet's life, and the film serves as a good example of how to use animation to heighten live-action filmmaking. I just wish the film were shorter and more tightly edited.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is a documentary about the outsider musician/inventor who goes by the name of Trimpin and currently resides in Seattle. I wish I had known about him when I lived there briefly, as the man has no cell phone, no web site, and there is basically no way to know where his work is being displayed short of contacting him directly. Which is a tremendous shame, because this wonderfully directed and edited documentary brings to us a picture of a true genius who is creating art that comes directly from within his soul. As the documentarist himself noted in the Q&A after the screening (at which a genial Trimpin was also present to kindly explain his take on things), his work comes across as a big up yours to the art establishment. Whether or not his art commands high prices, he will go on creating his extravagant sound sculptures, like a boy so endlessly fascinated by the magic of machinery that he must constantly take things apart to see how they're made, and put them back together in ingenious new configurations that bring dead and decaying technology humorously to life. Although Trimpin's sister was inclined to discount the suggestion that his genius is entirely the product of his upbringing in Germany, with its tradition of musical mechanical contraptions, I can see how Trimpin's playful art seems influenced by the whimsical sensibility of those mechanical novelty toys. This is the kind of art whose delightful ingenuity makes everyone, young or old, happy and puts a smile on people's faces, and I have nothing but respect for him for continuing to do what comes naturally to him, irrespective of whether fame follows or not.

The Hong Kong film Written By was the only film I walked out of this year. I haven't seen a film so excruciatingly artless, manipulative and ham-handed in a good long time. The acting was horrible, the directing was tasteless, and most of all the story was pretentious and ludicrous. It attempts to be sophisticated with its hilariously bad imitation of every Charlie Kaufman cliche ever mimicked by a talentless film school student of a scenario, but it falls flat on its face, as does every attempt at humor and emotion. It's been a long time since I've seen a film that so rubbed me the wrong way.

Toad's Oil by actor-turned-director Koji Yakusho left me with a good feeling inside. Although the film is very wobbly if judged critically, and there are a lot of things you could criticize about it, and I'm not even sure it's a good film, I liked it and I appreciate what Yakusho tried to do with it. I liked his acting to begin with. Despite having the world at his feet, I got the feeling that Yakusho was an honest actor and person. I can't think of a more honest and emotionally raw performance than his performance in Eureka. This film benefits of that same kind of unfeigned, instinctive emotional honesty. It deals with a dark subject, but none of the characters betray any emotion throughout what's going on, which comes across as laudably unmanipulative of the audience as well as an interesting examination of how people deal with tragedy, keeping things bottled inside and putting a happy face on grief.

The Wind and the Water was one of the most deeply satisfying films I saw at the festival this year. The film's production style is innovative, being a collective effort at the opposite end of the idea of auteurism that dominates art movies, and its exploration of its characters is richly nuanced and thought-provoking. Ostensibly the first film to be produced entirely in Panama, it tells the story of a native boy from one of the islands inhabited by the aboriginals who comes to Panama for the first time, and an aboriginal girl raised entirely in Panama who visits the islands for the first time, and how their lives intersect. Structurally very elegant, the film is full of little details about the two characters' lives that makes their experience very believable as well as shedding light on the dynamics of life on both sides of the divide. From the girl's perspective we see the ambition to become something in the new society, to leave behind the old culture tied to outdated norms of social behavior and illogical rules, as well as the racist pressure that looks down on who she is deep down, and would never accept her no matter how hard she tries to become something she's not. In our position we see things naturally from her perspective and feel sorry for the ignorance, darkness and poverty in which the natives enclose themselves, and understand her wariness at the world of the elders. The boy's perspective rooted in the island culture is equally believable. He's shocked at the hollowness and institutionalized interpersonal dishonesty of life in town when he goes there. The film is admirable because it isn't necessarily a naive praising of all that is cultural tradition and rejection of everything that is new and modern; it's an even-handed examination of the complex interplay of both sides. The film was made by a collective, with native youth from all walks of life contributing their own life experiences during pre-production to make the experiences of the two characters true to life in that area. (I found this very reminiscent of how Masaaki Yuasa filled out the back stories of the characters in Mind Game with experiences of his staff) In short, this is a magnificent achievement of a film.

Jermal is an austere film from Indonesia that makes for difficult but rewarding viewing. The story is about a boy whose mother just died who goes off in search of his father, whom he finds on a fishing pier in the middle of the ocean. The father had fled society years ago on a murder charge, and now lives a beastly and mute life as a brutal overseer of his fishing operation's child labor. The entire film takes place on the jermal, and it's testament to the quality of the directing that the film holds up during its full length and doesn't become boring or tiresome. It is, however, difficult to endure the banal violence of the torments to which the boy is subjected throughout the first half by the dozen other boys on the jermal, not to mention his own father. As he bonds with the boys and eventually begins to get close to his father in the second half, the film takes on a more straightforward drama trajectory that is a little easier to stomach and even has a moving emotional impact. In retrospect, though, I'm very skeptical about the concept of the film at a basic level. The father's rejection and meanness towards his son seems believable thematically as a psychological corollary to the very obvious physical metaphor of the jermal as a cocoon in which the father shuts himself off from the world - accepting his son breaks down the mental wall he'd built up, and leads to his rehabilitation with society, even if it means heading back to land to face jail time. The transition from brute beast to loving father is just a little much to accept.

I'm very drawn to the ferment occurring in Chinese cinema these days. Some of the best films and the worst films I've seen from Asia lately have been from China, but even in the case of the bad films there's always at least some kind of visceral thrill at what they tried to do and failed. There's real experimentation going on with young filmmakers over there. Kun 1: Action is unfortunately one of the prime examples of the bad side. I find it hard to criticize it, because it's essentially film student wankery, and it's kind of redundant to criticize film students for making pretentious films in homage to Jean-Luc Godard as if they were the first to discover him. That's just what they do. I just can't fathom why it was included in this festival.

Cow is the diametric opposite of the latter - a big artificial wonderful studio extravaganza with superb acting from a huge cast of talented actors, magnificent cinematography, spot-on directing and a satisfying and rich story and characters. This is a shining example of the sort of intelligent films they're making in China aimed at wide audiences. It's not an art film - it's too riotously entertaining and exciting for that - but it's very artistic in both theme and execution. Set in the 1930s in Shandong province in the midst of an attack by the Japanese army on a small Chinese village, the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of the army, but admirably makes a point to depict the naive young soldiers of the Japanese army as being coerced, like the Japanese people, into fighting a war at the behest of a brutal imperialist government. Probably the most striking thing about the film is its cinematography. It's like they shot the film, and then put it all through Photoshop with the contrast set to 100. Every single solitary object on the screen looks so sharp it'll slice off your finger if you touch it. It's quite beautiful in its elegiac sepia mood, especially in evoking the bomb-blasted colorless deadness of the countryside, but I thought maybe it was a little overdone. Most of all, though, the interaction between the main actor and the cow is quite extraordinary. They manage to create a real feeling of there being a relationship between the two, and to make it seem as if the cow had human feelings and reacted like a human to what was going on around it. It's very artificial, but also very entertaining, and it's admirable in that it makes audiences invest so much emotionally in a cow, something I doubt has ever been done before, or at least to this extent.

Nomad's Land is a simple video travelogue by a Swiss guy retracing the footsteps of a Swiss writer who had taken a trip across the middle east and central Asia by motorcar several decades ago and written an evocative account of his journeys. At first I found the narrator an insufferable prig who could do nothing but talk about his own angsty emotions like an inward-turned adolescent while he's traveling through eastern Europe and the near east, without making a single comment that was enlightening or informative about the culture of the lands through which he travelled. While this criticism remained to an extent thereafter, the sheer beauty of the people and landscapes he photographed once he entered the borderland of Afghanistan and Pakistan inhabited by nomads of old who lived a life apart from the dominant mulsim culture won me over and made the rest of the journey mesmerising and unforgettable. The hale beauty of the people, with their colorful clothing and ornaments and uncovered heads and open and inviting smiles, serves as a shocking contrast with the cultural and religious closedmindedness and fanaticism that encroaches upon them. It comes across as a miracle that they should be able to continue to exist in such an environment without having been annihilated by the monolith of monoculturalism and religious extremism. It was with a feeling of awe and deep reverence and that I observed the unfolding of their traditional winter solstice ritual, in which they must go sacrifice a goat up on the mountain lest the gods be angered and spring be forever withheld. After continuing eastward, the narrator finds himself in dire straits on a number of occasions, and it was more embarrassing than anything and you felt like the narrator was getting what he deserved for dealing the people of these regions the insult of looking at them through the rose-colored glasses of western pastoral idealization. For the imagery and the tone of the latter half of the film alone, though, with its continuously changing patchwork of central Asian cultural richness, it's worth the price of admission. It's an exciting travelogue that will make you feel like dropping everything and striking out on the journey of a lifetime, possibly never to return.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

10:54:37 pm , 1353 words, 3029 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Vampire Wars & Toei Video

Another obscurity from the post-Akira period that I just discovered is Vampire Wars from 1990. I sought it out because it features Hideki Hamasu as animation director. It didn't disappoint in terms of the animation, and even as a film it's a fun romp with entertaining directing and good action. It's a nice little OVA from this period that's worth rediscovering, especially if you're a fan of Hamasu's work elsewhere, be it as character designer/animation director of Perfect Blue or as the brilliant animator of various scenes from the last two decades. This is one of Hamasu's early stepping stones. This film comes from a period of Hamasu's work with which people over here will be less familiar: his Toei period.

Hamasu actually adapted an original design by Hiroyuki Kitazume, and it does feel very much like you're watching Kitazume characters. It's not as extreme as what Koichi Arai did with his adaptation of 3x3 Eyes, in which case it feels more like you're watching Arai's characters. But Hamasu brings the characters alive well, and there's a nice feeling of reality in the rendering of the drawings throughout, just as there was in Arai's work on 3x3 Eyes. Kitazume was himself one of the main expats from Studio Bebow, the studio that pioneered an early vein of realism in the 80s prior the resurgence of realism in the 90s. As it turns out, Toei itself had a vein of realism developing throughout this period at the hands of a number of animators, so Vampire Wars acts as in interesting intersection between these two veins. Hideki Hamasu, Koichi Arai and Takaaki Yamashita seem to be among the three most important animator figures in the realistic vein at Toei during the period from 1988 to the early 90s, and they left behind a lot of good work during this period on video releases of anime produced by Toei in the years immediately before and after Vampire Wars, mostly on Toei's in-house "Toei V Anime" label.

Ever since Ken the Wolf Boy, Toei Doga has always been a company that was quick to exploit new markets, and they jumped into the OVA market fairly soon after it took off. They had a number of series being released over the years on a continuous basis, and many of the more talented animators at the studio in the late 80s/early 90s, such as Kochi Arai, Hideki Hamasu and Takaaki Yamashita, worked on these OVAs. Just as Toei proper had long produced yakuza live-action movies, much of Toei Animation's anime output in the 80s seems to have been to create versions of the same kind of content aimed at younger audiences. They did this by adapting manga about juvenile delinquents such as 'yankee' high school kids and biker gangs.

One of the earliest, and the longest-lived, was Shonan Bakusozoku, a series about biker gangs that ran for 12 episodes, each about an hour long, released semi-yearly between 1986 and 1999. Crying Freeman, a story this time about full-fledged gangster warfare, was released yearly (except 1993) in 6 episodes between 1988 and 1994, also about an hour long each. I've long meant to write about this series in particular, as it's perhaps the most impressive in terms of the animation and the densest summation of this Toei realistic vein. Two more series about juvenile delinquents, or 'yankees' as they're known in Japan, followed: Yankee Reppuutai ran for 6 episodes from 1989 to 1996, and Be-Bop High School ran for 7 episodes from 1990 to 1995.

With the exception of Crying Freeman, none of these are very well known over here. I haven't seen any of Be-Bop High School or Yankee Reppuutai, but I've had the chance to look at a number of episodes of Shonan Bakusozoku, and it appears to have been a surprisingly solidly produced series throughout, both in terms of the directing and the animation. Good animators appear throughout, including Koichi Arai, Hideki Hamasu and Junichi Hayama.

Prior to doing Vampire Wars, Hideki Hamasu acted as assistant sakkan and drew animation for the first two episodes of Crying Freeman (1988 & 1989), which featured some superb sakkan work by Koichi Arai. Arai, meanwhile, had been given the opportunity to design and sakkan an OVA with Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu in 1988 (Hamasu was co-sakkan). In 1990, around the same time as Vampire Wars (which features Arai as an animator), both Arai and Hamasu did an episode each in an OVA series adapting fairy tales entitled Hanaichi Monme. In 1991, Hamasu was an animator in every episode of Arai's 3x3 Eyes, and then for the next few years was heavily involved with Be-Bop High School and Yankee Reppuutai while Arai gradually moved away from Toei productions. It's not long after this that these two great ex-Toei realistic animators begin to be credited alongside the great realistic animators from the rest of the industry in the classic realistic productions of the 90s like Ghost in the Shell and Perfect Blue.

As this reveals, there is a lot of overlap in their work at this period. In fact, Hamasu is reported to have even worked on Akira, although he's not credited. (Arai worked on the baby room scene) So the new vein of realism coming from Takashi Nakamura et al. in Akira was undoubtedly an influence on these two animators, although the influence of in-house Toei animators such as Junichi Hayama, who had developed their own vein of quasi-realism in the rendering of the face and body on shows like Fist of the North Star and Sakigake! Otoko Juku from 1984 to 1988, can't be discounted.

Episode 5 of Shonan Bakusozoku, released in 1989 smack in the heart of this period, is a good place to start to get a sense for what makes the Toei video releases of this period appealing. It's easily the most exciting in the series. It features a good scene animated by newer animator Koichi Arai, and a climactic sequence animated by older animator Junichi Hayama, and overall it's among the more salient in subject matter (many of the episodes are kind of non-sequiturs about a character's first love or whatever - this one's about GANGS FIGHTING) and the most excitingly directed in the series. Aside from having done great work throughout these Toei video releases and on the earlier 80s Toei TV shows, Hayama was apparently a big influence on the Toei animators of this period. He mentored at the very least Yoshihiko Umakoshi, and he was the designer/sakkan on the great JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA series released 1993-1994 & 2000-2002, which featured much great animation work from a smattering of the best animators of the day, including Hamasu and Arai. He's more obscure than the people who came after him, but he's got an interesting style and I'd like to see more from him.

Immediately after Vampire Wars Toei released another Toei V Anime video entitled Psychic Wars featuring designs/sakkan by Masami Suda, the person behind Fist of the North Star and many of the Toei V Anime series. It's a major step down in both directing and animation and not worth revisiting. Vampire Wars has genuinely decent directing that makes the film watchable. Psychic Wars is stunningly boring. The animation is also consistently uninteresting despite featuring both Hamasu and Hayama as animators. It looks like a relic from a bygone age, with weak, directionless, rote drawings, when younger animators like Hamasu had already pushed the style in newer and better directions.

The drawings in Vampire Wars, in contrast, are tight and edgy, and every drawing and layout feels deliberate and visually compelling. The emphasis of Vampire Wars isn't so much raw realism as more the rich drawings of its characters, each line of whose faces are rendered in exacting detail that vividly brings alive their every emotion. Posing and layouts are also dynamic and stylish. The movements are rich and fluid, with less of the feeling of off-the-cuff, sparely applied raw, realistic poses that you get from Koichi Arai's work, whom in retrospect appears to have been the more innovative in his approach to character animation. The work here is rather of solid craftsmanship with a realistic hue, rather than being boldly realistic.

Friday, October 9, 2009

12:51:24 pm , 464 words, 1772 views     Categories: Animation, Music Video

Music vid picks

To commemorate the first 200 vids posted on my Animated Music Videos blog in the first month, here's a pick of some of my favorite discoveries.

I'm particularly impressed by what's being done with digital imagery by artists like Lucio Arese, Aubo Lessi and Alex Rutterford. Aubo Lessi's video for Thomas Feiner & Anywhen's Siren Songs creates a beautiful blur of digital dots and blends the abstract with the human figure in a gorgeous way. It's familiar in technique but the end result is like nothing I've quite seen before. All of his other videos are extremely inventive visually, showing a mind constantly devising new visual schemes. Lucio Arese on the other hand uses digital environments to send you on an exciting roller-coaster ride brilliantly matched to the complex rhythms of the IDM, as in his video for Autechre's PlyPhon. Lucio Arese also did a video for a section of Bach's Goldberg Variations that is an effective use of animation to translate the various lines of polyphony at play in the score into the visual dimension. Alex Rutterford's video for Autechre's Gantz Graf, a bracing song of mind-blowing programming complexity and sonic richness, comes quite close to doing the song justice, and is interesting from a technical point of view, as he created the video partly by feeding an image of the sound file for the song into the animation program, so that the video stands at the intersection between animation in the conventional sense of each frame or movement being devised by the animator, and computer-derived animation. These videos all explode the music video genre and are consummate audiovisual creations.

Otherwise, the rest of the pieces I picked are all wildly varied in style, but are all creations that IMO exhibit the highest level of craftsmanship and creativity. Or to put it more simply: These are the ones that really wowed me, or I just found to be delightful creations. That's not to put down the quality of the other films in there. It's all worth going through, as honestly everything is interesting regardless of its caliber, and there are plenty of other videos of very high artistic caliber. Special Problems' video for Tame Impala is quite nice, for example, as is Marc Reisbig & Hanne Berkaak's video for Of Montreal, Josh Logue's delightful video for Architecture in Helsinki made entirely of animated stitchings, all of Sean Pecknold's videos, Yanni Kronenberg and Lucinda Schreiber's chalk animation video for Firekites, Pharrell Williams' video for Santogold et al, Laurent Gillot's video for Amadou et Mariam, and plenty of other videos that are great but probably more familiar because they've been publicized pretty widely on the internet lately, like the video for Oren Lavie's Her Morning Elegance, or the amazing new Shynola vid for Coldplay, etc etc....

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

11:17:44 pm , 2172 words, 1788 views     Categories: Live-action

VIFF 2009 thoughts

I'm set to break my own record this year for films viewed at the VIFF - day seven and I've seen 15 so far. Such are the fruits of anomie.

Apart from finding myself more annoyed than usual at the various irritating theatregoer archetypes - the guy sitting next to you who does a little 'heh' for some cosmically unfathomable reason every thirty seconds, the dozens of people laughing hysterically at shit that ain't even meant to be funny, and ain't - I find a demographics issue really bothers me. You go to an Iranian film, it's largely Iranians in the audience. French film, French people. Korean film, Koreans. It's common sense. Obviously people want to go see new films from their homeland when they're alone across the ocean and homesick. But it's an international film festival. It's about celebrating and experiencing other cultures and directing styles by seeing films from lots of countries that you didn't even know were making films. So far I've seen films from Chile, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Tibet and South Africa. I'm excited about seeing the first ever film from Panama. It bothers me that in spite of the bounty of cultural richness being offered to our great city at this festival, and in spite of the illusion of cultural diversity in attendance, it feels like the same type of person who'd never go see a film with subtitles. Of course It's a sloppy generalization with I'm sure plenty of exceptions, since I didn't interview every audience member or anything, but it's something I noticed and wondered about anyway.

As for the films, maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man, but I'm mostly disappointed so far. Mostly just so-so films and a few out-and-out bad films. Nothing mind-blowing. Keeping my fingers crossed something will excite this year.

One of the recurring problems I found with the films was that they were too long. I've never liked it before when people say a film should have cut off thirty minutes or whatever, but that's exactly what I found myself feeling at the festival for several films. I find that I'm more critical about wanting a film to know what it's trying to do, do it, and get out. It almost seems like filmmakers feel constrained to fill up the two-hour time slot even if they don't have enough material to do so and make it work. Time after time I would be sitting there saying to myself, "Great film! Hope it ends soon." And then thirty minutes later it's still going on, and I'm starting to dislike the film as a result. It's admirable when a film can pull off a 2+ hour length, but I think it's even more admirable when a film can have the restraint to pull in at under 90 minutes. I'm beginning to realize that most films can't justify their playtime.

Sea Point Days, a documentary about the process of re-integration in a seaside neighborhood in South Africa, was probably my favorite film so far - a perfectly edited and paced documentary that interweaves various threads to suggest connections and contrasts and unexpected interpretations, and does it all almost purely through the visuals, rather than relying on narration to establish meaning. This is filmmaking at its purest and most moving. The characters are all interesting and offer valid insights, and the film's central metaphor of the public pool on the promenade as a place of healing - national, cultural, physical - is convincing and moving. It's remarkable the degree to which the filmmaker makes us think about the various issues at play in the area at this moment in time exclusively by judicious presentation of simple, unostentatious shots of life on the street. The music was also in excellent taste, subtle and not manipulative. So it's disappointing that even this great film seems to suffer from excessive length. The film is broken up into 5 parts, and the film felt like it said most of what it needed to say in the first three acts.

I'm very interested in seeing documentaries on the subject of globalization and neo-liberalism, so Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy seemed poised to be the perfect film for me. But it's a good contrast with Sea Point Days in many ways. Just because it's a documentary doesn't mean all films are made alike. This film was the diametric opposite of Sea Point Days - a series of interviews stringed together with no cuts. Period. No editing, no fanfare. The figures interviewed were luminaries who provided great insights into the subject at hand, but the film was way too long (I started falling asleep two and a half hours into the film), and there was no unity or organization to the material, so the barrage of talking heads just left you with a jumble of unorganized strands. Rather than illuminating the subject, I found myself more confused than ever. The approach has its merit, but the audiovisual element contributes absolutely nothing to this film, and hence makes the film somewhat superfluous. The interviews might as well simply have been transcribed and published online.

Around the World With Joseph Stiglitz: Perlis and Promises of Globalization similarly promised to be informative, but disappointed. The famed economist is filmed wandering through the abandoned buildings of his hometown whilst discussing the negative impact of globalization on various parts of the world. This is again a case of a film about a fascinating subject that has at its center a great figure who knows his stuff, but it's a slipshod film. The images of Joseph wandering around entire neighborhoods left abandoned are quite powerful - shocking images enough when they're from some third-world country, even moreso coming from the world's economic powerhouse - but no mention whatsoever is made of what happened in his hometown. It feels underexplained. More importantly, the film is weakly argued and fails to achieve a strong, cohesive thread. Instead, we drift vaguely between subjects and shots of Joseph Stiglitz standing in ruins. Informative, but feels like it could have been better.

Moon at the Bottom of the Well was my second favorite film so far. A delicate, natural and convincing drama about a couple in Vietnam that presents a sensitive and nuanced metaphor for the evolution of social mores regarding love and relationships in that country over the last few decades (as I interpret it), it might have been my favorite but again was plagued by that same nagging specter - not ending when it should have. I've seen any number of films that take that slow, quiet approach to the directing that seems to dominate filmmaking in many parts of Eurasia these days - long shots, minimal dialogue and little or no camera movement - but this is one of the better executed that I've seen. Often that styles comes across as a tired stylistic ploy, but here the directing didn't feel meandering or pointless. It didn't feel like stylistic affect. The film meanders lovingly over the details of the couple's every day life. It feels directionless, but very subtly the directing is building up a portrait of the wife's decadent doting of her husband that leads her to tragedy. What felt like a spot-on drama in the first three quarters, unfortunately, abruptly shifted to melodrama following the husband's departure. Everything subsequent to that, I felt, cheapened a wonderful film. It would have been far better off leaving things up in the air at that point and cutting the last thirty minutes. Sometimes mystery is better.

Be Calm and Count to Ten, though from a very different country - Iran - also partakes of something of the same visual/directing ethos of minimal dialogue and minimal narrative of Moon at the Bottom of the Well. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is kind of the figure at the origin of this style, or at least is its unsurpassed master (Taste of Cherry and Close-up among his crowning achievements). He clearly influenced many filmmakers the world over, and the methods his films suggested to filmmakers for how to enter a real situation and film it and create fiction out of something real, mixing documentary and drama, have resulted in some gems from far-flung corners of the globe, and freed filmmakers from the chains of conventional narrative forms. At the same time, it's resulted in some just plain tedious filmmaking. Be Calm and Count to Ten is a fairly good film that injects a welcome vein of lightheartedness and absurd humor into a style that feels detached and documentary in spirit. The boy actor at the center of the film is convincing and vivacious in his role, and a good rhythm drives the film between speedy and exciting scenes of smuggling activities and quiet scenes of the protagonists wandering around the barren environs - no feeling of excessive length here. In contrast with Moon at the Bottom of the Well, the satisfyingly inconclusive conclusion leaves it up in the air what has happened to the protagonist.

Bakal Boys from the Philippines also features a cast of amateur boys at its center. The film was shot entirely in one of the country's big slums, and the director auditioned 100 local boys for the actors of the film, finally choosing a dozen or so. In the film, the boys are metal divers who imitate their fathers in diving to the bottom of the bay to bring up scraps of metal to sell to buy food to eat. The film is a half-documentary, half-drama fictional depiction of these boys' lives. This is exactly how they live, so you are in essence seeing real life, but invested with the meaning of a narrative about the search for one of the boys who goes missing on one of the gang's diving trips. The boy at the center of the film, young Meljun Ginto, is nothing less than a dynamo of energy and charisma, a true born star, and he steals every scene he's in. The scenes of interaction are all natural and candid and splendidly achieved, considering all the difficulties the director must have encountered wrangling a whole herd distractable boys to act out their lines on camera. Shooting apparently only took three days, if I recall correctly, which was shocking to hear. Even more shocking is to hear that this is Ralston G. Jover's directing debut. The VIFF hosts a 'Dragons and Tigers' competition each year for directors who have yet to receive widespread recognition. I've seen three or four of the others in competition, and Bakal Boys annihilates the competition. It also felt like it might have used a bit of tightening near the conclusion, but it's a minor quibble. This is a splendid achievement - at times devastatingly sad, but ultimately uplifting and deeply honest.

The Search, apparently only the second film ever to be shot entirely in Tibet that actually went through the proper authorization and censorship channels and will consequently be receiving legitimate distribution inside of the PRC, was the most obviously Kiarostami-influenced film of the lot, with its setup about filmmakers wandering around the countryside in a car (Through the Olive Trees), and long shots of conversation in a car and of the car driving across the countryside (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us). Filmmakers are driving across the countryside to find a renowned singer of traditional Tibetan opera/theater to perform in a play that they wish to film. The bulk of the film consists of the sponsor, in the car, over the length of the drive, telling a story about his first love, interspersed with auditions of villagers in various places. After the thirtieth minute of his story, it became a bit tedious. But the scenery was gorgeous, the situations were marvelously staged, the persons photographed (not 'actors') were all wonderfully ingenuous and real. It's an excellent example of filmmaking at the crossroads of narrative and documentary. The way various vectors of motivation intertwined in the film was satisfying - the filmmakers trying to make a film, and the girl singer they are forced to drive to meet her ex boyfriend (the singer), who we at first believe to be trying to get back together with him, but we find out at the end is made of tougher stuff than that. The scenes of various people they encounter along the way singing the traditional Tibetan opera were beautiful. There's no narrative other than this, yet there's a rich sense of purpose throughout. It's a quietly beautiful film that deliberately avoids emotionalism and drama yet manages to resonate. One particularly memorable scene in the film shows some young acolytes at a temple shyly fidgeting and zooming through a recitation of the sutras they've memorized. Boys will be boys, no matter the cultural context. The simple act of going around and connecting with people through art shows our common ground and breaks down barriers in a way that more direct political confrontation can't.

I'll stop here and continue with the rest later.