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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Friday, October 23, 2009

11:53:35 pm , 2278 words, 3385 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.


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