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Rag dolls, roots, plastic bags and clumps of string come alive and go on a journey of the imagination in Jan Svěrák's wonderful new fantasy film Kooky (2010). Not animated by stop-motion in the traditional way, the film is rather a combination of live-action and puppetry. Technically, it's not animation at all. But it belongs firmly within the great tradition of Czech stop-motion filmmaking, from Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream (1959) to Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988) to Jiří Barta's In the Attic (2009).
The story concerns a little boy whose old, unsanitary pink plush doll gets thrown away by his hygienically obsessive mother. The boy dreams of the little pink doll's adventures as it journeys trying to get back home to him.
Kooky, as he's named, travels through the forest that borders the landfill on the outskirts of town, where he meets an assortment of the gods who inhabit the forest, some good and some not so good. What ensues combines action movie thrills with the intrigue of a power struggle as the elder of the forest helps Kooky evade his pursuers while also struggling to maintain power. For a puppet film, the production values are high. The puppets are finely crafted, the pacing is tightly controlled, and the scenes are precisely lighted, staged and shot. And the whole is balanced by a tone of easy, lighthearted humor that never strives too hard for laughs.
The heart of the film is in the wonderful variety of creatures that they come up with to inhabit the forest. In this pantheistic world, each of these fabulous creatures is a little god representing one of the living materials of the forest - conks, roots, mushrooms, acorns, antlers, etc. They're the pantheistic representatives of the forest ecosystem. The puppets are each different from one another and lovingly crafted from found material. Each comes across as having its own unique personality. Just like Jiří Barta's In the Attic, much of the delight of the film comes in just sitting back and enjoying the parade of strange creatures made of bits and pieces of of inanimate objects.
Each character's mode of existence is tied to its substrate. Kooky knows he's a teddy, and knows that he can't get wet because it takes three days for him to dry. When he does get wet, he takes his own stuffing out to allow himself to dry. With his fake pink fur, he's out of place in the forest and coveted by a rapacious burnt plastic bag and crumpled soda bottle who scavenge the forest for man-made materials to bring back to their rightful home in the dump.
The forest elder who takes Kooky under his wing looks like nothing so much as a wizened old tuber, replete with rhizomes as a wirebrush and taproots as limbs. He's nicknamed Godam because of his foul mouth. Another creature is made of an amalgamation of tangled ropes and strings. He stands between the natural world and the world of man: he's neither purely natural nor purely man made, and hence his personality is neutral chaotic. He's scheming but craven, siding with whomever will permit him to act out his natural compulsion to entangle hapless victims in his web.
Intertwined into the simple narrative about Kooky trying to get home are various themes that give the narrative heft and depth and that make the film more than merely 'kooky' kids fare. It's also about struggling with corruption, group identity, nature vs man, and the importance of imagination. Kooky is a prime example of how to make a children's film. The story and struggle are simple and mythical like a children's book. But at the same time, it's subtly witty, its visuals are gritty and unprettified, its themes are complex and ambiguous, and its tone is grounded and realistic. No cute characters, crude jokes, lazy pratfalls, and pop culture references in a desperate attempt to maintain children's attention.
The beauty of the film is how it's all based on existing reality. You have a metropolitan area bordered by a forest, and beyond that you have the dump where we deposit the detritus of civilization. Those are the basic terms of the deal most developed countries have struck with nature in this day and age. Nature acts like a buffer to guard us from the horrors of our excess consumption, all while the detritus continues to infiltrate and destroy nature in the form of pollution and development. This film merely brings the existing tension between nature and man into tangible form by way of a story and characters that embody the various facets of that tension. And it does so elegantly and implicitly, masquerading as a children's story, rather than trumpet it aloud. It appears simple at first sight, but has a deceptive thematic complexity if you choose to pull it apart.
At first when I saw the pink doll come alive at the beginning of the movie, my heart sank. It felt cheap; a lame gimmick. But very soon you forget that you're watching puppets. Your mind adapts to the surreality of the situation, and it's then that the puppets truly come alive. Deep down, animation is about the suspension of disbelief. Kooky is no different from Grave of the Fireflies in the sense that both films work their magic on our emotions because their art invests dead matter with life. It's just that we rarely experience a moment of dislocation in anime because we're not reminded of its artificiality the way we are in Kooky or in other recent films in the Czech tradition. Perhaps the intent was precisely to create a moment of dislocation that would make us aware of the fact that suspension of disbelief is an implicit part of creativity and imagination, and to remind us of what comes naturally to children, but most adults have lost.
It's only when Kooky switches back to reality and the little boy that we're reminded of the unreality of the situation. The fact that there are no scenes combining live actors and puppetry is telling of the fact that the puppets are creatures of the boy's imagination. And we might not have truly believed in these creatures had there been humans right next to them. Combining the two would have wrecked the fantasy. It would have turned into a cheap Muppets movie. Which Kooky emphatically is not. With its dark overtones and grimy, gritty visuals that never shy away from the inherent ugliness of life, this is a unique type of deeply satisfying children's film that could only have been made in the Czech Republic.
Piercing 1 is a new indie feature film from China that has been making the rounds of the world's festivals over the last year. A lot has already been written about the film's relevance and importance as an indie feature produced completely independently without any government support, so to avoid repeating what's already been said, I'll just write my thoughts about the film, which I saw in LA two weeks ago. Refer to this interview with director Liu Jian to learn about the film's background and visit the film's web site for more information.
The circumstances surrounding the making of the film have justifiably garnered as much, if not more, interest as the film itself. All made by one man, over the span of several years, on the funds earned by selling his home - truly putting his livelihood on the line. Risking everything to make the animated film of his dreams. And this without any kind of support whatsoever. Anywhere else, this might have justly inspired admiration. Doing so in China, where there's the added pressure of possible censorship and reprisal, is unprecedented and clearly brave. And Liu Jian isn't drawing funny animals. He's depicting the hard reality of life in China today without softening the edges. The whole endeavor is downright gutsy.
The first thing that popped into my head when I heard he'd sold his home to finance the film is simply that it was reckless. Short of being picked up for international distribution and becoming a cause celebre overseas, he'd wind up without anything, much less the means to make two more such films. Was such a drastic step really necessary to make the film? Obviously, it must have been. The very making of the film seems to be part of the story - a newsworthy act of self-immolation shedding light on what it takes to be an indie animator in China.
Obviously, I think the film is important and Liu Jian has achieved something incredible even if Piercing 1 isn't completely successful as a film, which I think it's not. I liked the film. But judged objectively, a lot nagged me about it. Considering the mitigating circumstances, I think most of the things that nagged me about it are eminently trivial and don't change the fact that this film a must-see to connoisseurs of Serious Animated Filmmaking. But I'm still going to put them out there, just to express my honest opinion.
You can see that it's a one-man film in a lot of ways. First of all, the animation is spare. The drawings are awkward. Even before I knew the story behind the film, the drawings immediately attracted me to the film. They're realistic and caricatural, capturing the look of Chinese nationals in a convincing way. The look reminds me slightly of what Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa did in Hamaji's Resurrection. Having seen the film, I still like the basic approach to the drawings. I'd like to see more films like this that actually draw people they way they are in reality. That's not to say I'd like to see rotoscoped animation. Liu Jian has done a good job of drawing the faces in a way that is interesting as a drawing and suited to animation. It's a much more interesting style than 'merely' rotoscoping a human face. There's thought put into how to express the defining features of each face, while at the same time it's not over-stylized the way much animation is. The problem is that a lot of the drawings don't quite work. Sometimes a chin will be foreshortened, or a pose feels a little off. It's partly because he had to do it all himself, and his skills aren't quite up to the task of drawing the bodies the right way.
I came away feeling I wish he'd had the backup of someone like Masaaki Yuasa, the way Shinya Ohira did in Hamaji. It's thanks largely to Yuasa that that Ohira was successful in that film in creating characters who felt real and yet were animated in a way that was exhilirating and groundbreaking as animation. Without those drawings and animation, Hamaji wouldn't have half its impact. I liked the realism of the drawings in Piercing 1 and their tactile, hand-drawn rendering of realistic human bodies and faces, but felt they needed to be a little better technically to achieve the right impact. They don't need to be Jin-Roh perfect or anything - I hope this doesn't come across as being anal. It's just that some of the awkward drawings threw me out of the 'zone' and made the drawings stick out in a way that I felt hindered their successfully bringing alive the characters and hence communicating the story.
Another part of me thinks the drawings are fine the way they are - rough around the edges and obviously the product of one man slaving away for a few years, doing the best he could, and doing a damn good job for the most part, considering. Involve someone else and kiss the one-man mystique goodbye. So it's a bit of a trade-off.
All of this is technical - stuff most people probably won't even think of when they see the film. What about the film itself? The story? It's essentially the story of a disaffected youth who loses his job due to the economic downturn, gets dragged into some shady business, and finds himself in over his head. The story focuses on a handful of different characters - the poor youth, a successful but unscrupulous and shady businessman, and some brutal and corrupt police officers. Their stories unfold separately until they converge in the climax to hilarious and darkly tragic effect. It's a convincing depiction of modern-day China as today's youth experience it, and at the same time it's a witty and ironic tragicomedy about the darkness and apathy and greed that animate people in China. It's a fascinating conundrum - an animated film that's a hard-hitting depiction of modern-day China. It's not an express criticism of China, but it's an uncompromising vision from a creator with a harsh view of the world he lives in. It's also an entertaining indie film in the spirit of Blood Simple. A bunch of losers with nothing to lose become embroiled in a bungled caper, and in the end, things spiral way out of their control, with bloody consequences.
The characters were each individuals. That's one area where the film excelled. They each felt like real, fully-developed people with back stories and personalities, not animation characters. The voice-acting was superb and went a long way towards bringing the characters alive as well as making the atmosphere of the film realistic and convincing. It was impressive feeling like I was seeing the real Chinese youth of today in this film - the way they talk amongst each other, the way they behave when they're just hanging out, the way the streets feel, the very specific interpersonal rules that govern social life in mainland China. The film was admirably convincing in its specific social grounding.
I usually hate it when people watch an animated film like Jin-Roh or Grave of the Fireflies and say "It would have been better as live-action". Saying this seems, if anything, to prove the high level of artistry of the film and vindicate the film's achievement. With Piercing 1, though, for once, I'm the one who felt that way. That's never occurred to me before. Not with Waking Life, not with American Pop, and certainly not with Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday.
I guess I felt the animated aspect didn't contribute enough to Piercing 1 to make it absolutely crucial to its effect. Sure, the unique drawing style devised by the director, combined with the realistic backgrounds, is genuinely interesting and does contribute considerably to the film's success. It's just that the layouts, pacing and narrative style seemed somewhat based on the style of live-action indie filmmaking. There's nothing like Taeko running up an invisible staircase to express her elation in Only Yesterday or the superb, horrific detail of the gunfights in Jin-Roh, both of which could only have been done in animation and are crucial to the success of these films - animated artistry put to the task of depicting reality, and achieving an effect that couldn't be duplicated in a live-action analogue.
Piercing 1 felt essentially like an indie Chinese film that happened to be animated. Which isn't necessarily a liability, I suppose. It's certainly an interesting new kind of animated film the likes of which I've never seen, and that's a good thing. The spare, raw, realistic tone and slow pace reminded me of many indie Chinese films I've seen like Parking and Platform. The good thing about the film is that you can appreciate it as a film and don't have to lower your standards the way you usually do with Disney films or anime films. You don't have to stoop to saying, "It's a good animated film." It's a bold, fascinating creation from a fearless animator. We've already seen the emerging talent of Chinese indie animator Lei Lei. This is a great new addition to the vanguard of Chinese indie animation. Hopefully Piercing 1 is just the start of a wave of new new indie animation from China, although the odds seem stacked against animators over there more than they are in other parts of the world. That only makes the achievement of the film all the more impressive.
Fortune Teller (China, 2009, 157 min, Xu Tong)
One of the best documentaries I saw this year was this raw, unfiltered, unsettling look at the lives of a pair of outsiders eking out an existence on the streets against all odds in a modern China that doesn't want the likes of them anymore.
The film's main subject is a crippled but fleet-minded and street-wise fortune teller who struggles in the face of police crackdowns to go on making a living telling the fortune of the desperate people who come to visit him hoping for an augury of a better future. What harm he's doing for the police to waste so much money and effort on bullying a cripple is a point implicit in the film, a finger pointed at an opaque and unthinking bureaucracy that makes a facade of taking care of its citizens while actually treading the unfortunate into the ground.
The fortune teller is a relic of a pre-modern past when fortune tellers like him were common and were part of the social fabric, a link in the chain of philosophy and religion underlying a civilization. He recites arcane chants and mathematical formulae like a character out of a Tang epic. His erudition in the vast body of literature and techniques of his profession is remarkable and moving and makes him feel like a living treasure, the last torchbearer of a tradition seemingly doomed to extinction by the government's arbitrary decision that it is a relic of feudal times to be eradicated.
Crippled and unable to do anything else to make a living, he's forced to work in the shadows, living in fear that the next police raid will land him in jail, throwing his mentally retarded spouse onto the street. His situation is heartbreaking to the point of making you angry. The scene in which he visits the government center for the disabled only to be screamed and yelled at by the unfeeling functionary who refuses to listen to his pleas for help made me livid like nothing I've seen in a long time.
The real depth of the film comes not in some kind of facile finger-pointing at the government, but in the resilient and deeply humane character of the protagonist. You begin to see in him something of a living bodhisattva walking through a hellish life while seeking only to help others. He took in a mentally retarded woman as his wife both to save her from the cruelty of her treatment at home (when he found her, she was living in a doghouse-like shed outside of the family home) and to have a companion. He cares equally for the stray cats around his home, and goes on regular rounds to visit the people of the streets, with many of whom he's on a first-name basis. Through the fortune teller we get to speak with these hobos and beggars and learn that they, too, are people with personalities. Through him you begin to realize the true meaning of compassion.
The film also follows another marginal figure, a lady of the streets who runs her own establishment. She's had to move from one province to another to escape the scrutiny of the police, and before we're even halfway into the film we visit her establishment one day only to find that it has closed and she has mysteriously vanished - thrown in jail, killed, or fled to another province? Nobody will ever know. Such is the fate of the people living on the margins of society in China. Like most people in her situation, she has a heartbreaking back-story, sending almost all of her earnings to her kid in another province. She and all of the people depicted in this film come across as economic victims, people who fell through the cracks of the great leap forward to consumerism.
My only criticism of the film would be that the last thirty-minute segment felt unnecessary and made the film feel too long. It would be perfect at 2 hours. Otherwise, everything prior to that was immediate, candid, and gripping. This was a remarkable piece of work - both a cry for social justice, a look at street life in China, and an intimate portrait of a fascinating person.
Chantrapas (Georgia/France, 2010, 122 min, Otar Iosseliani)
This was my least favorite film from the festival, even though there were films that were probably technically worse. It's a slow, monotone drama about a film director in the midst of a film shoot who finds that he's oppressed in his native Georgia, where the authorities are constantly meddling with the editing process. So he flees to France, where he finds he's oppressed by the studio system, because he has to hob nob, which he doesn't like, and the studio is constantly meddling with the editing process. In the end, he returns to Georgia and gives up on the whole process to go fishing with his friends.
I found the film disappointing. It seemed to be striving for a kind of wry, deadpan irony about the whole situation, but it missed the mark by a wide margin. The story and characters mostly seemed to wander aimlessly, listessly in world-weary atmosphere of dread and boredom. I wasn't sure whether the film was trying to be funny, serious, or both at the same time. It felt muddled and incoherent and lazy. If it was trying to be witty and funny, it failed. If it was trying to be a wry commentary on the act of filmmaking, it failed.
My biggest problem was that the director who is the subject of the film came across as fairly unsympathetic. Unsympathetic isn't the right word - insufferable is better. At every step of the way he acts like a spoiled brat whose first course of action when confronted with any kind of adversity is to either go hide in a corner and sulk or to simply pack up and run away. I'm sure that censorship and government coercion were/are serious issues in the country, and that aspect of the film feels like one of the few ways in which the film succeeds at communicating something meaningful about the very real tragedy of artistic censorship that was a given in in the Soviet states. Even in the west, though, the film seems to say, freedom is a relative thing. You still have to deal with the whims of the studio and the executives, financiers, etc - it's a different kind of artistic oppression. In this respect, Chantrapas makes a good point.
But the film fails at making this point sufficiently clearly or with any kind of conviction, because the director acts like such a self-absorbed dick that you don't feel sympathy for his plight. It almost feels like the film ridicules people in his situation who do genuinely feel that they are artistically oppressed and must flee for freedom. The director is portrayed not as a suffering artist but as a spoiled brat. Everywhere he goes, people fawn over him and adulate him and treat him as some god in their presence. The only moment we see people having a believable reaction to him is when, in France, he acts like a jerk to a bunch of film producers who invited him to their dinner table, and they perplexedly note the fact that, actually, he's kind of rude, isn't he.
I found that all the film succeeds at doing is perpetuating all the negative stereotypes of foreign films - boring, pretentious, dreary and incomprehensible. I asked a girl after the film what she thought, and she told me that she's Russian and "It's very Russian" and you have to be Russian to understand it. Maybe the real problem was that I'm not Russian.
Himalaya, A Path to the Sky (France, 2010, 65 min, Marianne Chaud)
This documentary was rapturously beautiful eye-candy. It follows the daily life of a little boy who, it seems, himself made the decision to join a Buddhist monastery in Pukthal, India (in other words, he wasn't coerced into it by his parents). The scenery is stunning. The monastery is perched high in the mountain on some insanely dangerous precipice. The sight of the rooms of the monastery peeking out from the mountainside like a colony of swallows' nests peeking out from a cliff, or like the cliff dwelling in Montezuma, is nothing short of breathtaking. As the little boy heads home to the monestary after visiting his onetime home and parents, breath-catching are the moments when we follow the little boy and the scared French director and cinematographer as they scamper along paths high in the mountains just a foot away from a fall that would mean certain death. "Just tell yourself you won't fall," the little boy reassures the lady old enough to be his mother. In that moment, and in many other moments, his wisdom and serenity seemed to tower over that of the director and all others around him.
The little boy is a real character, wise and mature for his age, spouting pearls of wisdom as if he'd learned them in a previous life. He claims with a toothy grin to be an old monk. You sense something otherworldly about the boy. Even his instructors are in awe. The question is asked whether he's happy there in the monastery, whether he wants to see the rest of the world. It's the question most of us must ask ourselves when we see this boy, who obviously has such promise. I know I found it heartbreaking to think that this little genius was holed away in a monastery learning religious texts, never to go to university to discover his full potential. But he's happy, he responds. His response is more succinct and more convincing than his father's to the effect that they're happier in their remote village high in the mountains than people in the west, who are so busy that they don't have time to be happy. WE don't need watches, the father concludes triumphantly, apparently having forgotten that he's wearing a digital watch.
In a rarity, I actually felt disappointed that the film finished so soon. I wanted it to go on and on. At least 20 minutes more. But I'd honestly rather have a documentary that goes in and does what it needs to do and gets out, rather than dragging things out aimlessly.
The Dreamer (Indonesia, 2009, 120 min, Riri Riza)
A highly enjoyable drama with a literary bent about boys growing up in Indonesia. The film's roots in literature becomes obvious right from the start with a somewhat cliche theatrical device we've all seen many times in films. An older version of the protagonist wanders around his old haunts on the island, pondering the good old days in voiceover, before we launch into the actual story of what led him to say what he did.
The tidy structure of the film and the predictable sequence of dramatic events betrays the fact that it's based on a book. It's not as successful a literary adaptation as The Drunkard. But that isn't enough to detract from making it an enjoyable, if obviously not completely realistic, look into life growing up on the island during that period of time. It's kind of a cross between an audience-friendly feel-good growing up drama like My Life as a Dog or Stand By Me and the more believable pared-down style of a true masterpiece made using non-actor children like The Traveler.
It's this look into the lives of the protagonist boys growing up that makes the film rewarding. The film pushes all of the buttons you're used to seeing in these films. There's the chubby, slow, stuttering friend, there's the scene where they all sneak into the adult movie theater, there's the scene where the two boys are humiliated by the mean headmaster in front of the entire school, and the obligatory doomed love interest between the charismatic lead boy and the pretty girl. And yet it's all quite enjoyable and believable enough. One of the two lead boys is the smart and ambitious one, the dreamer of the title who leads the other down the path of aspirations to escape their poverty. The other is the poor boy who becomes entranced by his friend's gallantry and intelligence. The two vow to work hard at various part-time jobs inbetween school so that they can eventually make their way to study in Europe and then become successful and rich. It's inspiring to watch them working towards this goal, even though deep down you know that it won't work out.
Predictably, misfortune hits, throwing a wrench in these aspirations. The poor boy's father works in a coal mine, and when the mine goes out of business, the boy must sacrifice everything he's worked towards in order to save his family. This aspect of the story does a good job of showing the dilemma faced by people in his situation - it seems at first as if you could just work your way out of poverty if you worked hard enough, but the precariousness of life in that situation renders it effectively impossible for most. Just as it seems as if you've climbed your way out of the hole, the slightest jolt is enough to make you slip all the way back to the bottom.
Rumination (China, 2010, 109 min, Xu Ruotao)
One of the most ambitious films I saw at the festival was this experimental film from China. It's hard to describe - not documentary and not drama and not purely experimental. It's essentially an experimental historical drama, a kind of video essay on the meaning of the cultural revolution from a person born in 1968, at the beginning of the years of madness. He is thus too young to have understood what was going on at the time, nor to have been complicit, and so this film is his attempt to look back on that history and understand it, from a personal standpoint.
The film is broken down into segments for each of the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Each segment features something different going on. One shows a bunch of red guards running around in what looks like a sort of ghost town trying to find the 'counter-revolutionary' (actually just a naughty kid) who scrawled graffiti on the wall saying "Down with Mao!". Another shows red guards harassing a poet figure who they find living alone in an abandoned building surrounded by strange poems, while he responds to their queries in riddles. Yet another shows a fat girl garbed in Communist uniform provocatively spreading apart the lapels of her vest to another man in uniform. There's no obvious narrative or even any apparent linear connection between the parts. It's obviously not meant to be taken at face value.
It's a very low budget film, the visuals shaky and not very well shot. It's not about creating images of beauty or about creating a well acted and well shot period drama recreating the way things were in those years. That's been done to death, and this film couldn't be further from that. It's obviously more of a personal experiment, a crazy dreamlike re-imagining of an event that scarred the national memory, and that has surely been talked about over and over in China without it being possible to hear the true story behind what happened. I came away wondering if the very opaque and cynical image the film leaves in your mind is a reaction to the way this generation views the official story with newfound skepticism and cynicism.
The mere fact of attempting to come to grips with this important event in Chinese history, rather than relying on the various shades of bias on either side of the divide, makes this film compelling. In execution, however, the film is excessively ambiguous and convoluted. Every scene is metaphorical and cryptic, refusing any obvious interpretation. It's an admirably opaque work of art, but it makes for rather trying viewing, especially for people like me who do not have an adequate understanding of the historical background of the events.
For example, it completely flew over my head that the film in fact depicted the events in reverse. (Why? Who knows.) After a comparatively understandable first shot in which we see a dozen youths dressed in Red Guard costumes running about frantically in an abandoned building shouting slogans and destroying everything in sight, the film then depicts the Tangshan earthquake, which occurred in 1976, and proceeds in reverse chronological order. Why this was done isn't entirely clear, and it only succeeds at completely obscuring the already tenuous grip on meaning the viewer might have had. Many of the scenes are successful at conveying something subconscious without overt meaning, while other scenes are tedious and seem to go on forever for no reason. The film feels like an ambitious experiment by a young filmmaker rather than an assured and convincing work of art.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, 2010, 113 min, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
On the vanguard of the Asian art house renaissance is the director of this film, who won the Palme D'Or recently for the longest and most unpronouncable name ever. Narrative is virtually nonexistent in his films, which flow slowly from scene to scene of people sitting around quietly doing not very much save exchanging surprisingly witty and sexual banter. I'm generally all for this sort of thing, but I find his films slightly too languid for even my tastes. This film continues in this vein.
We are introduced to an uncle who can apparently recall his past lives, although we never witness the remarkable feat in flagrante delicto. Instead we find that he has a kidney problem that is slowly killing him. He runs a farm on which he employs an illegal alien from Laos. His sister is concerned for him, fearing that the alien might kill him and run off. We see them all sitting at dinner one night and witness a strange ghostly sight: The uncle's dead wife appears and tells everyone how things are going on the other side of eternity. Not long thereafter the night becomes even more spooky. We see a pair of glowing eyes coming closer. Soon the creature speaks and introduces itself as his long-lost son, who had sex with a monkey and was transformed into Chewbacca as punishment. The moment is a mixture of deliberately comical and transcendent. Suddenly in the midst of scenes of every day life we find the supernatural intruding. Nobody seems too surprised.
Then suddenly, without warning, the film shifts to something completely different: An aged princess walking through the jungle with her attendants peers into the waters of a pond and sees in her reflection a younger and more beautiful woman. A fish begins to speak to her, offering to give her the beautiful face she saw in the water if she would become his bride. It's a strange and sudden diversion, and we're offered no explanation or apology. Make of it what you will - an example of one of the Uncle's past lives? An homage to Thai folklore? Not making it clear does actually enrich the resonance of the film somewhat, although the randomness is can be a bit maddening.
The film could be criticized as a pointless exercise in atmosphere that relies entirely on your willingness to suspend your attention span, but where it succeeds is in creating an interesting atmosphere bridging the world of Thai folklore and spirits and the real world in a fairly satisfying and not cheesy way. This is something I recall from one of the director's previous films, in which a young man traveling through the Jungle becomes transformed into a tiger. The director has created an idiom that is entirely his own and that satisfyingly incorporates the spirit and ethos of his native country.
Single Man (China, 2010, 95 min, Hao Jie)
This movie was a highly entertaining bawdy comedy of manners set in rural China. Simultaneously realistic, hilarious and hard-hitting, it examines the life of people in a rural village, with an unabashed and bold emphasis on the sexual that is usually elided over in depictions of country life, or portrayed more romantically. Look no further to learn in intimate detail about the sex life of the elderly in rural China. Shocking, yes, but in a very entertaining and insightful way about the everyday nature of sexuality. It feels like a new and more honest and probing examination of village life in China.
The story pivots around the story of an old man who takes a wife way too young for himself, and the woes that ensue. Along the way it weaves in the stories of various of the other 'single men' in the village, and how it came to pass that they are single men in their 60s and 70s.
The film is great in just about every way. The dramatic arc is believable and natural while still being satisfying and providing a clear sense of purpose and arrival at the end. The acting is natural yet incredibly vivacious, to the point that it feels like a documentary at many moments, and all of the people in the film are very well fleshed out as individuals with their own unique personalities and back-stories. The actors feel like non-actors, and their performances thus have tremendous vitality. It's not the overacting of a big studio film. The cinematography is unobtrusive and naturalistic yet beautiful and candid, capturing equally well the beautiful dusty earth hues of the village and the ruffled features of its oversexed denizens.
The film begins by introducing the various characters of the village and how they're interrelated. We witness trysts of all sorts occurring on a daily basis. We learn of the back story of one of the trysting couples - they fell in love when young, but after an accident they could no longer get married, but remained in love, and after decades, well into their 60s, the woman now with several children, the flame of love still burns strong. Or so we think at first, until we see her visiting other gentlemen. In a situation where she doesn't know whether she'll be able to put her son through school, she plays a cunning game of love and lust to ensure that she will have the support of her 'friends' in times of need.
When the old man in question goes and spends his entire life savings to buy a young bride from a distant province, she's angry and jealous. Is it jealous love, or is she just afraid she'll lose a potential donor of university tuition for her son? We don't know. Probably a combination of the two. The film does a great job of depicting both the very tangled web of relationships in the village as well as the complex feelings that motivate every party involved.
And the old man himself, who at first seemed like an innocent victim of love, becomes something a little more sinister when we see him greedily buy a young bride many decades younger. The film shifts into a potent examination of this tragic practice that's all too common in China. Girls are persuaded to leave home to work in the city only to be deceived and sold into virtual slavery by being sold as a wife in the countryside, where women are a precious commodity, with little hope of ever seeing their family again. We see the desperation and loneliness that drives him, a single man in his old age, to this practice; we see the despicable crime being committed against the poor young girl; we see the chaos the practice causes in the village when a young man in the village falls in love with the girl and demands that she be his.
We come to understand and sympathize with the various villagers, and realize that sex isn't just sex; it's multifarious, it's ubiquitous, it's tragic, it's ecstatic, it's humdrum, and it's one of the elements of the fabric that binds us together in society.
Chassis (Philippines, 2010, 75 min, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)
This is another instance of the trend in recent independent Asian cinema to adopt cinema verite/documentary style and to diffuse the narrative. This film was overall disappointing, but was redeemed by offering a glimpse into a way of life that I never knew existed. Apparently there are entire families of poor in the Philippines who because they can't afford housing, but do own their own semi tractor, live by the dockyards under their trucks between shifts, struggling to make ends meet in terrible conditions, right there in the middle of all the trucks in the parking lot. It's as shocking to watch as it sounds. This film follows the travails of one such family, consisting of a mother and child and the husband, who operates the rig.
Philippines is the home of Smokey Mountain, the euphemistically titled garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila that was once one of the largest slums in Asia. After it was closed down by the government in 1995, many of the thousands of families who lived there moved to another nearby dump in Quezon called Smokey Valley, which is where Hiroshi Shinomiya shot the 2002 film God's Children, which follows the life of several of the families who live in the dump in the aftermath of a storm that caused garbage avalanches that killed hundreds of the inhabitants. Even in a nightmare you couldn't conjure up the sort of images that these people experience on a daily basis. Even today some 50% of the 11 million inhabitants of Manila inhabit the slum areas.
Chassis thus continues in the tradition of God's Children by casting light on the vast poor population of the Philippines. The film does not provide much background material, leaving you wondering, is this based on fact, how many people in the Philippines live like this, where, etc. It's furthermore shot in a very low-budget way. Many of the scenes are shot at night and it is actually hard to see anything. The pacing is languid to the point of being tedious sometimes. The story is rudimentary, following the wife around as she does her best to make life for her daughter bearable, which includes prostituting herself to the corrupt lot guardsmen. In the shadow of all the horror, she spends much of the film creating an angel costume for her child, so that the little girl can participate in the school play she's so excited about. This leads to a tragic conclusion that in retrospect you can see coming from a mile away. The climax in particular is blunt and gory and sudden, the ending abrupt and dissatisfying. Too little thought obviously went into the planning of the film. The situation is inherently tragic enough, I felt, that facile manipulation of this kind was not necessary to achieve its impact. But it's true that the conclusion packs a certain painful irony, because the very livelihood that keeps the family alive winds up tearing it apart.
That said, whatever flaws the film may have, as unpolished and imperfect as it may be, it's impossible to dismiss it outright. Its documentary gaze on the life of these people is compelling and obviously truthful. The narrative is appealingly subservient to documentation of life. In other words, the film isn't story-driven as much as a story tells itself by following the day-to-day life of this family. Although fiction, it's clear that the fragments of which the fiction is built are true. The woman may be a character, but you can easily imagine the faceless many she represents. It just takes a viewing of Hiroshi Shinomiya's film to show you that there are many, many more, living in far more desperate conditions than you could have imaged. The woman in this film has it easy in comparison, and her life is tragic and heartbreaking enough as it is.
The Drunkard (Hong Kong, 2010, 106 min, Freddie Wong)
Imagine the sleek, neon visuals and dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of 2046, but set in real-life Hong Kong in the 1960s, and you will get a sense of Freddie Wong's debut feature. We follow the life of a dissolute writer in his 50s, whose drunkenness is an outwards manifestation of a deep dread and disillusionment with the Hong Kong of his day. Once a writer of high-minded literature, he abandons his aspirations and his colleagues to write porn and kung-fu serials, but this isn't enough to staunch the emotional hemorrhaging.
Freddie Wong is no greenhorn film student. He's one of Hong Kong's leading movie figures, in his 40s or 50s (haven't been able to find his age), curator of the HK International Film Festival, and I believe also a writer or scriptwriter, I don't remember clearly. He was there to answer questions after the screening, and came across as endearingly enthusiastic and eager about the whole enterprise. The film was clearly a labor of love for him, and it shows. The film is based on one of Hong Kong's most well-known and loved works of literature from mid-century. After the screening, Freddie Wong explained that the book's fame came party from its erudition and its modernity, as well as its sharp and on-the-mark intellectual discussions of literature foreign and domestic that, even read today, come across as prescient and informed. He was forced to excise much of this for obvious reasons, altering the impression of the book. In the book, much more space was devoted to showing the protagonist's erudition and knowledge of literature. Most of this was cut, which alters our impression considerably. I personally found that the film worked at what it was trying to do. As literary adaptations go, it seems pretty passable to me. I'm curious to know what readers of the original book think of the film. (obviously "the book was better", right?)
The film does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of the book without drowning the audience in excessive narration. That is one of the pitfalls of literary adaptation. Too often films fall into the trap of narrating the book instead of translating the words into visuals. Freddie Wong did a great job of achieving a middle ground. I didn't know the movie was a literary adaptation while I was watching it, and it didn't feel like it was.
The movie's protagonist is actually a pretty unsavory and unappealing character, selfish, narcissistic, his relationships with women always seeming to find a way of ending badly, and you wonder what it is that drives him to drink and to act like such a prick, but you never hate him, which I guess is an accomplishment. You even feel like you understand, somehow, which I think is more testament to the power of cinema than anything. Somehow the magic of cinema transforms the most heinous monsters into rock stars by the magic of celluloid.
The visuals are sleek and extremely accomplished, the pacing excellent and never boring. In the Mood for Love fanboys (like me) will enjoy the film's amazing array of China-doll 'cheongsam' body-fitting dresses on display on the sultry beauties. Every scene features a new one, and the scenes are shot with unflagging style and verve. Low-budget indie feature this was not, as apparently it was the most expensive indie feature ever shot in Hong Kong. I'm guessing it's all those dresses that blew the budget, but man was it worth it! Almost all of the film was shot indoors for budget reasons, so it's pretty remarkable how much of a good job they do of bringing alive the atmosphere of 60s Hong Kong entirely through the acting, dresses, interiors, and the little details of the paraphernalia of everyday life. This film is like a velvet bathrobe, a Habano and a bottle of Courvoisier XO.
Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, 106 min, Abbas Kiarostami)
One of my favorite films from the festival, unsurprisingly, was this conceptually satisfying, ingenious, mischievous puzzle of a film. Kiarostami is a bit unpredictable a director. After directing ABC Africa, a digital documentary about the AIDS crisis in Uganda, he directs Five, a film consisting of five long shots of natural scenery, then later on he directs Shirin, a film consisting entirely of close-ups of people's faces as they're watching a film. And now he throws us the ultimate curve-ball of this highly enjoyable and approachable arthouse-flick-cum-rom-com starring French darling Juliette Binoche.
Certified Copy is just as conceptually rigorous and intellectually playful a film as everything he's done before, such as Taste of Cherry, shot almost entirely from the passenger and driver seat of a car. But in this case the healthy stuff is hidden in a huge mound of whipped cream consisting of Juliette Binoche and the beautiful Italian countryside. Extras come and go, but the bulk of the film consists of dialogue between the two characters. The dialogue is almost non-stop, making this very much of a script-driven film. Kiarostami, as usual, makes up for this by having them constantly moving from one location to another, so it's not like My Dinner With Andre, which occurs entirely in one location, but rather is quite colorful and with a lot of interesting props and locations for the characters to interact with and to enrich the narrative with meaning. Not to mention making it quite easy to watch.
It's unfortunate that it would ruin the impact of the film to give away its driving conceit, and I liked the film too much to ruin it by describing it in detail, as much as I would like to. This is one of those films where the locus of interest is in the ingenious mechanism operated by the director, who performs an amazing feat of dramaturgical wizardry by playing with the concept of character, gradually transforming what at first appears to be a linear narrative but which, much to your bafflement and amazement as you become aware of the trick being foisted upon you by and by, has gradually shifted into something very different. This ingenious process of meta-shifting of character timelines makes for one of the most creative examinations of the evolution of relationships that I've ever seen put to film - from first meeting through the comfortable middle years through in the end to the years of disillusionment and ultimately parting.
The film did admittedly have its languors, and I'm sure many will not be able to enjoy such a slow and constantly talky film. It is, in a way, more of an intellectual exercise than pure entertainment. I personally think it achieves a pretty nice balance between the two. (In a side-note, the male actor is the spitting image of Homayoun Ershadi. I wonder if Kiarostami chose him because of the resemblance?? But this is too insulting to the actor, who though not up to Binoche's standards does IMO a pretty decent job.)
Poetry (South Korea, 2010, 139 min, Lee Changdong)
This film was a sensitive character study of great depth, like Lee Changdong's previous film Secret Sunshine, but Lee Changdong has upped the ante in a satisfying way in his latest film - not by ratcheting up the drama, but by going deeper and more subtle and ambiguous. The result is a film with a very potent aftertaste, made all the stronger by the ambiguity of the 'point' of the film. Some of his past films might be accused of being message films, although deep down I think that is missing the point. This film, it seems to me, makes it clear that the real running thread throughout his films is the examination of the inner world of different kinds of outsiders, how they are marginalized and exploited by society, and how they fight back to make a place for themselves in a harsh world that doesn't accept them.
This is the story of a somewhat out-of-touch, dreamy grandmother whose loopy, childlike wonder at the world around her may or may not be early signs of onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure what to do with her life, she seems to drift aimlessly through life without purpose. On a whim, one day, she joins a poetry class, and gives herself a goal, as if to attempt to accomplish one little thing in her life: write a poem. She lives with her grandson, whose mother fled to another city on some pretext to shirk her responsibilities. The grandmother is underequipped mentally and emotionally to sense the turbulence in her teenage grandson's life and guide him with stern love when he most needs it, instead spoiling him with blind love, which only incurs the son's contempt. As a result, her grandson is a spoiled brat who without adult guidance is obviously growing into an adult who will also follow his own selfish instincts to slink away from responsibility. The inner conflict of this film plays these various forms of cowardice against one another - the grandmother who slinks from confrontation and wants to float through a poetic fantasy version of the real world, the unseen mother who slinks from her motherly duties, and the son whom society has failed and consequently has failed to develop an adequate sense of right and wrong.
Coming from a guy who at one point in the past was the Minister of Culture of his country, I'm somewhat surprised and impressed by the acerbic, righteous anger you sense in his films to be directed at his culture's inherent greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion for others. He shines an inner light in his films not only at the rich inner world of his spat-upon and derided protagonists but at he inner rot of modern life.
Where this and Lee's previous films could be faulted is in the somewhat forced aspect of their narrative, in the obvious thematic conceit, and the moral intent. Some might find his films to be excessively script-driven, lengthy, and verging on monotonous. I could see that criticism being leveled against this film. It will depend on the viewer on which side it falls - whether the merits of the character study outweigh the cinematic limitations. I'm in the camp that feels the film succeeds more than it fails. Lee Changdong is to my mind one of the most authoritative and important voices working in cinema today.
Seven Days in Heaven (Taiwan, 2010, 92 min, Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu)
The funnest movie about at Taiwanese funeral rites you'll see this year (or ever), this wryly comical film gives an in-depth glimpse into this world that we over in the west will almost certainly never see, doing for Taiwanese rites what Juzo Itami's The Funeral did for Japanese rites. At the same time, it's an examination of how we grieve, and how the sometimes ludicrously excessive religious rituals that are an inextricable part of the fabric of Eastern cultures such as Taiwan - recreated in this film in great detail and with considerable irony - help us grieve and overcome. They provide something solid and tangible in our most difficult moment: the bulwark of a long tradition and ornate mythology.
Ostensibly a drama, the film comes across as a quasi-documentary. It takes place entirely during the week-long grieving period before the loved one can actually be buried, and depicts the astounding variety of rituals that take place during that time, many quite ludicrous and arbitrary. In one of the funniest scenes, the daughter was obliged to be on call all day at the foot of her father's coffin. At certain appointed times determined by the priest in charge, she was instructed to rush to the side of her father's coffin and burst out crying and calling for her father. This happened well over a dozen times. By the end of the day, exhausted from the strain of pretending to cry, she's peacefully dozing off at the foot of the coffin when a shout from the priest spurs her into one last groggy bawl.
During the rituals, the deceased's daughter seems forced to live in a strange headspace somewhere between earnest grief and mock grief-acting. You can sense that as much good as it's doing it also must also play havoc with your emotions. You begin to wonder what is real grieving and what is forced out of you. Only at the end of the film, after the rituals have come to a close, do we see a scene in which the daughter seems to be crying real tears, as if, having finished her duties, all the genuine grief that didn't have a chance to come out during the ritual finally bubbled to the surface.
The film is also full of fascinating characters. The young cousin, a hip and connected kid from the big city, seems in it mainly for the fun of it rather than because he actually is emotionally affected by the death of an uncle he hardly knew. He sees the whole thing as a fascinating subject for a school project, and during his stay forges a close bond with the priest, a distant uncle. The latter is himself a fascinating and fun character - part-time priest, full-time chain-smoker and playboy.
The priest's wife is also employed in the same business. One of her duties is professional cryer. She's the star of the first day of the ritual. She knows how to put on a show. She hams it up to give the family their money's worth, crawling on her hands and knees, wailing in agony behind the funerary car carrying the father's body. When it's over she gets up and asks, "Who do I cry for next?" Because, you see, to be more efficient they have a whole bunch of them all booked on the same day one after another.
One of the obvious societal purposes of these rituals, and probably the only reason they still exist today, is that they serve the very real role of bringing family together and reinforcing social ties among those left behind. The death of the head of the household shakes the bonds that tie the family together, and their experience over the seven days of 'grieving' for him brings everyone closer together. We see this clearly happening in this entertaining and insightful film.
I liked Sylvain Chomet's second film better than his first. I was surprised to find how similar they were in terms of the stylization of the characters and the basic approach to pacing and humor and so on. It felt very much an extension of the world of Les Triplettes de Belleville. Jacques Tati's mostly wordless screenplay seems a match made in heaven with Sylvain Chomet's sensibility. I'd even say that in a way this Tati film left more of an impression on me than any of the maestro's films directed by himself. I appreciated his ingenious style of physical comedy based on interaction with physical locations, but his films never connected with my heart. They were amusing and odd and quirky, but didn't really have dramatic weight. The Illusionist works great as a Tati film and has considerable emotional heft, while animation serves as the perfect tool in a wordless film to develop unique characters through different styles of character movement. He did the old master justice and then some by the rather ingenious idea of adapting a Tati script not as live-action but as animation.
The animation was very impressive. The character animation and layout style reminded of Disney films from the 50s and 60s. I imagine this is what could have been if Disney had had any taste whatsoever and wasn't just a factory of kitsch. I've always felt the animation to be wasted in their films on tasteless lowbrow humor and lame-brained stories. Here we see stately and refined but rich character animation serving an understated narrative full of heart, subtle wit and charm, without relying on famous voice-actors, eye-catching action scenes, musical sequences, dialogue crammed into every second so that audiences won't fall asleep, or pop culture references.
The animation used a character-based system just like Disney, so the resemblance makes sense. The animation of the rabbit was led by one person, the Tati character by two people, etc. Tati's animation was pretty impressive. They did a good job of conveying his prim character entirely through body language, by studying the actual Tati's unique brand of silent film-style body movement and transforming it into an even more emphatic animated equivalent. They nailed his character, with his long legs, comically rigid posture and somewhat distant and aloof but gentle expression. The rabbit was also great, and an audience favorite.
The illusionist character in this film is appealing and richly layered, a gentle soul floating through life simply trying to do his job in a modern, scientific world in which good old-fashioned magic just doesn't pack in the music halls the way it used to. In the cynical era of consumer culture, the only use for magic is as a cheap trick to sell stockings and bras to housewives. Yet he never seems bitter or hardened by his lot, always being good to the people he meets in his old-fashioned gentlemanly kind of way. When it comes time he can be firm about what's acceptable in his life and what's not, without being rude or mean, just to the point and matter-of-fact. He seems a bit out of touch, like a gentleman from a century or so ago frozen in time and thawed out in the modern world.
When the the Swedish girl tagging along with him sets her eyes on a pair of red shoes, despite being short on cash, he can't resist buying them for her to make her happy. Then she eyes a fancy white coat, and he beats a hasty retreat. But sure enough, like a good father, the thought of making her happy overcomes all common sense, and he soon surprises her with the coat. It's pleasing to watch the interaction between this odd couple. You're never quite sure what one thinks of the other or why they're together, but they seem happy with each other, at least for the moment. They're both travelers who've found a companion until they inevitably have to part ways. The ending is bittersweet and genuinely affecting because there's no big parting scene or crying or anything like that. You sense them drifting apart and it's sad because you know it has to be that way. The characters in the film accrue layers of nuance throughout the course of the film through their actions and interactions, and even seem to develop and grow up and older.
I like the loose dramatic structure of the film, which seems to just follow the illusionist around as he goes from one job to another. It focuses your attention on the personalities of the characters rather than on the particulars of the narrative.
I didn't recognize many names in the credits, but I did spot Antoine Antin, who did my favorite scene in the Wakfu: Nox short, the scene at the beginning on the beach. Some of his linetests.
This is my favorite kind of narrative in many ways: A story with no dramatic ploys. No sudden revelation, dramatic confrontation or fabricated crisis for the purpose of filling in the blanks on a template of filmmaking that really doesn't make sense but that nobody bothers to re-consider. While I might not completely understand what it was that Tati was trying to do with his films, which seem aimless to me at times, I appreciate the way they flow without going through the standard dramatic paces. Of course, you can trace a certain development between the characters, and the story comes to a climax of sorts where the girl meets the boy exactly where you'd expect it to, but that's fine. It felt like a slice of life and natural development, rather than a forced dramatic ploy. For example I appreciated that there was no big climax in this film. The climactic car chase in Les Triplettes de Belleville was so bad and so unnecessary it almost ruined the film for me.
The film does have dialogue, but only a small amount, and none of it is functional. I don't know whether this was in Tati's original screenplay, but the situation is such that language cannot be used to convey meaning, providing the perfect pretext for Tati's preferred style of storytelling in which dialogue does not play a role. Tati himself speaks French, but he's travelling in the UK and Scotland, where they only speak English, and he encounters a girl who appears to only speak Swedish. So nobody speaks each other's language. There's no need for dialogue, so everything that needs to be communicated is communicated through gestures and a few words.
Sylvain Chomet seems to like travel films, and I can understand why. They provide him with room to flex his caricatural muscles and cast an ironic light on the foibles of various cultures. He's good at distilling the essence of a people's features and personalities and comically exaggerating them. It's very impressive how each of the many characters that appear on the screen are stylized in a completely unique way and have their own unique mode of movement. The same could be said of his previous film. I was particularly fond of the floppy maitre d' in Bellevile. Anime could really use to learn from this - one film can come up with so many designs, when year after year in anime, series after series are designed with such an astoundingly paltry amount of creativity put into the design work.
VIFF just ended. Either I'm getting more picky as I get older or I picked the wrong films or indie Asian films are starting to resemble one another, but I wasn't as excited by my viewing this year. As usual, I focused on small-scale Asian independent narrative filmmaking, but disappointments outnumbered revelations.
Psychohydrography (USA, 2010, 62 min, Peter Bo Rappmund)
This film is my #1 pick from the festival. It was the only film I found to be perfect - new and daring in form and execution, yet every moment just right and visually pleasing and meaningful.
The concept is something of an audiovisual analogue of "A Sound Map of the Hudson River" by Annea Lockwood from 1993, which I found to be a revelation when it was released. Lockwood's piece is a sort of audio documentary/natural symphony - a series of 15 field recordings at key points along the length of the Hudson River documenting its development and transformation, starting from the mists in the peaks of the Adirondacks down the 200+ mile southern course through to Albany and New York and finally out to the roaring waves of the Atlantic.
Peter Bo Rappmund's film explores the Los Angeles River in a similar way, by way of visuals that at every step of the way are consistently and rapturously beautiful and capture the different locales not in a naturalistic way but in a somewhat altered, ethereal way. It's the special filming technique he adopted that is responsible for the film's very unusual texture.
This was the world premiere of Peter Bo Rappmund's Cal Arts thesis project, so he was present at the screening to explain how the film was shot. The latter was clearly the first question on the mind of many of the viewers at the screening, as it was the first question asked. The film is, essentially, animated, because it was shot with a consumer digital camera, not a video camera, and the frame rate of every shot was manipulated differently, rather than using a set rate. Thus you have some shots that are loops, some that are straight through, most being essentially time-lapse photography. The images have a very different texture from conventional film - they seem otherworldly, heightened, focusing your gaze on the essence of the image.
The first thing I should do is to rule out the influence of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Ron Fricke's Baraka, as these two films will probably be the first films that spring to mind as probably having been influences. The filmmaker avers that he consciously attempted to not emulate these films, to avoid creating easy "iconic" imagery of the kind you find in the former films, such as the sped-up footage of humans zooming about that makes them look like ants. Indeed, the overall impact and tone and purpose of Rappmund's film seems to share fairly little with the previous two films.
Psychohydrography doesn't try to impose any kind of meaning on the images by creating a sense of drama or crisis. It lets the images narrate their own inherent meaning by following the course of the river and observing the natural and the human with the same neutral gaze. Just as there is no title screen and there are no credits, there is no narration and the only sound comes from field recordings recorded at the site of each shot. It's a pure example of documentary, a poetic and more experimental type of documentary. It's not documentary as infotainment but, literally, documentation of the natural world without commentary. That's not to say it's all zen and aloof and dry and boring. It's quite assiduously edited to create a flow of images that never comes across as boring for even a second, and the images themselves are stunningly beautiful - not postcard or Travel Channel beautiful but eerie and ethereal.
He shoots the images in the concrete- and graffiti-lined riverbeds in the middle of the city of Los Angeles with the same poetic eye as the images of 'untouched' nature that came before. The film is simultaneously a documentation and a personal exploration and attempt to understand his environment. The famous Shepard tone, whose overlapping octaves make the notes seem to climb infinitely upwards due to the ear's tendency to hear only the highest octave, makes an appearance at two key points in the film. The Shepard tone has obvious but not literal significance - the descending course of the river traces a sort of ascending human intervention, etc. First it rings out like an ominous siren during a sequence with a bridge over the concrete riverbed in the city, creating a variety of associations the viewer is free to interpret accordingly.
The second time it appears is during the stunning 15-minute final shot of the ocean waves. The screen in this shot is split at the horizon so that you have two distinct time frames progressing simultaneously - the sun both setting and rising at the top, and the waves at the bottom of the screen stuttering back and forth spasmodically, as if entering and leaving at once. The stuttering waves effect was achieved by using a hand trigger connected to the intervalometer to shoot images at an uneven frame rate. The last shot is jarring after what came before, but it's a fitting climax to the journey, a shot as intense and awesome as the ocean itself, both the beginning and the end, the cradle of humanity and our wastebasket. The Shepard tone reinforces the various layers of meaning that this last shot evokes about the chimerical journey of water through the ecosystem and its relationship with mankind. It's an awesome and powerful finale to one of the most conceptually satisfying and visually stunning films I've seen in the last few years.
Or maybe it's just that I've become so cynical about humanity these days that the absence of humans mucking up the visuals appealed to me.
Red Dragonflies (Singapore, 96 min, Liao Jiekai)
I was dissatisfied with this film, which seems representative of the trend in indie Asian films to have a slow pace and intangible narrative. Most of the film consisted of footage of a bunch of schoolkids trudging around the countryside and in the jungle, following a set of railroad tracks. No story or explanation, no nothing. These shots are interspersed with, alternately, a narrative about a set of teenagers walking back from school exchanging banter, and one about an older girl in her early 20s who comes back to Singapore to host her first art exhibit after an extended stay overseas. How they are interrelated is left up to the viewer. It's appealing on paper to create a narrative in which these three narrative vectors are presented in such a way that you can't tell whether they are different people in the same time frame or the same people at different times. But the film was stunningly tedious to watch, which trumps conceptual novelty.
Gallants (Hong Kong, 2010, 98 min, Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng)
A supposed updating of the Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies of the 1960s and 1970s, this film felt both off the mark and short of the mark. It didn't emulate the style of the Shaw Brothers films in a satisfying way, although I know a literal parody would have been tedious, and the kung fu just wasn't that exciting. It was both too silly and too melodramatic. I've been big into kung fu for the last few years, having watched a lot of the classics from the 70s and 80s by now, so I think this movie was made for me, but it didn't connect with me the way I hoped it would. It didn't exploit the concept of aged kung-fu masters beyond superficial yuks. It did not to justice to the potential of this concept. I found it to be far closer to modern Hong Kong slapstick comedy than necessarily to classic Shaw Brothers, with all the silly sound effects and quick cutting and infantile humor that nobody outside of Hong Kong would find funny.
The climax was painfully ineptly directed and drawn out, filled with poorly executed climax cliches: The aged erstwhile kung-fu hero struggles to defeat the last boss, but his powers are not up to the task, and as he crumples to the ground, tattered and bloody from the fierce battle, he laughs ruefully, quietly at first and then louder and louder, until the enemy, mortified, retreats in mixed disgust and terror. The old master's laughter slowly transforms into sobbing as he laments his bygone powers. Cue audience tears. Hold the shot for a minute to wring out every last bit of emotion before something clicks in him, and as if his injuries had suddenly disappeared, he pushes himself up on one arm. Cue gasps from onlookers and audience. Cut between him slowly pushing himself and the tearful onlookers a few dozen times to draw out the emotion of the scene. Cue more tears. Show an uncomfortably long close-up of his face as he stands, triumphant in the face of defeat. All the while, make sure the music is as manipulative and maudlin as possible to cue more tears. Etc etc etc. This kind of thing goes on for a good ten minutes. It was embarrassing to watch.
Don't Be Afraid, Bi! (Vietnam, 2010, 92 min, Phan Dang Di)
This film is something of a follow-up to the film Adrift, which I reviewed last year. I have some of the same criticisms, as the style of the films is somewhat similar, but I'd say I liked this one better. It was just as stylish, but more subtle and satisfyingly layered. An absentee father, now dying, returns home, where his son's wife lovingly and even sensually cares for him on his death bed. The son visits a masseuse and seeks other women as his wife languishes. A schoolteacher becomes infatuated with a student. The film frankly and explicitly explores the sexuality that lurks beneath the surface of otherwise conservative Vietnamese culture and cinema. The images are impeccably shot, the interiors lit only by subtle gradients of light, as if in eternal twilight, creating a heady atmosphere of charged sexual electricity that contrasts with the innocence of the young protagonist. The director stated after the screening that the idea behind the odd name of the film is that it's a word of encouragement aimed at the young protagonist, telling him not to be afraid of the tumult of sex and death and emotion the innocent Bi witnesses all around him, as it's what awaits him when he becomes an adult.
Togetherness Supreme (Kenya/USA, 2010, 94 min, Nathan Collett)
Perhaps the most admirable films I saw this year for the style of its production, this film was a product of collaboration with youths living in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, the largest slum in East Africa, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 170,000. The filmmakers had previously shot a short there entitled Kibera Kid. After the film, they established the Kibera Film School in the slum to help train youths in the fundamentals of professional filmmaking, and Togetherness Supreme is their follow-up, produced in collaboration with the youths studying at the Kibera Film School. Professionals from the west occupied key posts, but all of the other posts were handled by trainees from Kibera.
The script was written in a workshop in collaboration with some 50 Kibera youths. The story tells of an aspiring young artist who becomes involved in the campaigning leading up to the 2007 election that erupted in violence that killed more than 1000 and displaced tends of thousands throughout the country. It's a panoramic examination of the corruption, ignorance and barely suppressed violence endemic on all sides and at the same time a story of two men battling for the love of one woman. It's a great document of life in the slum and the dynamics of identity politics in a country in which how people treat each other is largely dictated by your tribal identity, and you cannot escape your identity, because your name betrays your tribe, as does whatever variety of Swahili-English "Sheng" slang you speak.
The style of the film is gritty, earthy, on-the-ground shaky-cam melodrama. It sometimes strains at the borders of amateurism due to its low budget and the nature of the production, but the characters come across as real and believable and the story deftly handled by the directing, which doesn't sacrifice nuance for an obvious message. The images are colorful, vivid, lively. There is serenity and everyday life in the slum, and there are moments in which frenetic action breaks out, and the camera zips energetically through the nooks and crannies of the alleyways between the ramshackle dwellings. Despite the heavy subject matter, it's a film that chooses to have hope rather than dwelling on how obviously bad things are, even though the situation in the country probably doesn't merit optimism. It's a remarkable picture of the experience of the people in Kibera, by the people - living proof of art as empowerment.
A film well worthy of support. Visit the official website to find out more.
The 4th Revolution: Energy Autonomy (Germany/USA, 2010, 87 min, Carl-A. Fechner)
This film is a good antidote to the deluge of depressing statistics and prognostications of doom that we seem to hear every day. Instead of describing in detail how we're destroying the planet, and how corporations have a viselike grip on the governments of the world and will do everything they can to stand in the way of a shift away from a fossil fuel-driven economy, even if it means destroying the planet in the process, driving most of us to despair and apathy, it describes several people around the world who are showing that such a shift is not only possible but not as difficult as envisioned.
We're introduced to a handful of successful businessmen from around the world who are running thriving businesses based on next-generation energy sources, proving the feasibility of a totally self-sufficient energy paradigm. One sells solar panels in China and Africa. One has designed a 100% self-sufficient community in Denmark. Another sells next-generation vehicles in the USA.
But the thing is that the argument against isn't based on logic. It's based on self-interest. So there is no reasoning with the people who put forward the argument. The fossil fuel industry has every incentive in the world to promote the notion that what can demonstrably be proven feasible is impossible. The most tragically funny moment in the film is the one where we watch an EU energy policy bureaucrat, freshly minted from OPEC, pontificate about how unrealistic it is to envision alternative sources of energy replacing fossil fuels within the next thirty years, and that alternative sources of energy will never catch on unless they make market sense, right after having seen instance after instance of exactly what he's suggesting to be impossible. The facts don't matter if you're in power and can influence governments.
This is a briskly paced, informative, level-headed documentary. I only wish that it had provided more statistics and facts disproving the argument so often calmly stated as fact that it would not be feasible from a market perspective to completely abandon a fossil fuel-based energy paradigm, providing at least some rough ideas for frameworks we could build to work together as nations to bring about the change.
One nice thing about this film is that it was largely funded by a system in which people purchased symbolic "frames" of the film for a set amount of money, I believe $1000. Thus the film also shows a way forward for creating media and getting information out about subjects without having to use old, outdated modes of funding and distribution that might preclude addressing certain topics.
Ito: Diary of an Urban Priest (Finland, 2009, 111 min, Pirjo Honkasalo)
One of the most entrancing films I saw at the VIFF this year is this oddball Finnish film about a renegade Buddhist priest in Tokyo. Part documentary, part video poem, the film can't be easily categorized. It's like no other documentary I've seen. It's shot and edited with a superb sense of style, and the character at the center of the film is a fascinating and very sympathetic contradiction. Not a religious figure in the traditional sense, he comes across rather as someone seeking answers to the big questions. His religion is not about dogma or spiritual fantasies, but a reaction to his traumas and an attempt to forge bonds with others and to help them as they travel down the same path of existential confusion.
He trained as a boxer, but a life-threatening injury forced him to leave boxing behind. Years later, he became a Buddhist priest. What's the causal relationship there?? The film only answers this question indirectly, through his story - abandoned by his mother at age 2, almost killed by his vocation, forced to find new meaning in his life. Buddhism in Japan is a ritualized cultural tool. His Buddhism is different, more of a way of connecting with others who have experienced a similar dislocation. Between scenes in which he dons the garb and speaks intimately with people about their losses, the film is speckled with his voice speaking to the heavens lines of poetry in which he ponders his place in the world, and scenes in which we see him at his day-job running his bar or playing lead guitar for his band. He's one of the most earthly and profane priests there ever was, a worthy descendant of my favorite priest, the womanizing, hard-drinking Ikkyu. Quirky, stylish, intense, and emotionally probing, this is one of the most resonant and appealing films I've seen on the subject of spirituality.
The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan/Germany/France/Netherlands, 2010, 80 min, Aktan Aryum Kubat)
An episodic look at life in a village in Kyrgyzstan and the larger national political forces at play in the corrupt post-Soviet central Asian regime. Mr. Light, as he's known, is an eccentric but kind-hearted electrician who dreams of building windmills to power his village. When a bigwig politician from the city visits the town to try to buy off its mayor, Mr. Light becomes caught up in attempts by corrupt officials to sell off Kyrgyz land to the Chinese. His sense of justice prompts him to reverse the electric meter covertly to help out old villagers who can't afford the bill, but his sense of morality gets him into serious trouble when it pits him against the foreign investors he's now unwittingly sided with. Fragmented storytelling and a dissatisfyingly abrupt ending are minor gripes in an otherwise insightful, picturesque, delightful comic tragedy about the politics of a region that we hear all too little about. As Parag Khanna suggests in his book The Second World, the Stans and their vacuum of power may prove to be the powderkeg of the 21st century, so it's a region we'd do well to get to know quickly, beyond Borat jokes.
I'd be lying if I didn't say that what I most enjoyed about this film was simply the fact that it is beautifully shot, picturesque, candid portrait of daily life in a rural village in Kyrgyzstan. It's not a documentary, but it provides a rare chance to glimpse what life is like in this country so little known in the west. That is undeniably one of the roles of foreign films - to educate us about cultures alien to us. I tell myself that it shouldn't be about exoticism, yet I know that I wouldn't have found this story interesting if it had been set in Saskatchewan. No excuses need be made. It's a beautifully shot film showing what life is like in a village in Kyrgyzstan, which is more than amply sufficient to make it worth viewing. On top of that, it's a sophisticated commentary on the corruption and nepotism that plagues ex-Soviet regimes like Kyrgyzstan and threatens to destabilize the whole region. This film offers the winning combination of picturesque scenery, a glimpse into daily life in Kyrgyzstan, unforced naturalistic acting and photography, and geopolitical significance.
I Wish I Knew (China, 2010, 138 min, Jia Zhangke)
Jia Zhangke is a remarkable filmmaker who pushed independent narrative filmmaking in China to new heights in the last decade. His latest film is a documentary about the history of Shanghai. But it's a documentary with a twist: The entire film is told through headshots of interviews with old Shanghai natives about their experience growing up in Shanghai. Interspersed with these stories, we see an unnamed woman wandering the streets of Shanghai, looking pensive and concerned at the world around her. She is meant to represent the lost Shanghai of old. Her expression is meant to evoke the suffering and wrenching change the city has experienced over the course of the last century. Whether it does so is debatable, but it is certainly a novel format.
The attempt with this film was obviously to evoke Shanghai's history not through the third-person voice of a documentarist, but through the actual voice and experiences of the people who experienced Shanghai's history. The film is extremely dense in terms of life experience, even a bit overwhelming. I'll admit it felt a bit tedious after a while. There is almost too much information, presented without context, for it to provide a complete picture of the history of the city of Shanghai. To be fair, that was clearly not the intent. But I came away feeling an opportunity had been missed. Would it have been better to take the conventional route and create a conventional documentary shot in the cookie-cutter format we've all seen hundreds of times on the History Channel, replete with stock footage, talking heads of experts, and historical facts narrated in historical order with clinical detachment? I'd like to see a film like that sometime, but it's rare to see a different approach to the documentary like this, and worth considering its more poetic and personal perspective on history. Jia Zhangke clearly invested himself fully in this film, and it has a rare intensity for a documentary about a city. It's a portrait of Shanghai based on the collective memory of its citizens.
This was presumably a touchy topic due to the fact that many of the people interviewed were driven from Shanghai to Taiwan, so their viewpoint is by definition opposed to the official story in China. Jia Zhangke avoids having to make any critical commentary that could get him in trouble by positioning the film as a record of actual experiences of the people. The film's journey mirrors that of many of its onetime citizens, and the latter half of the film takes place in Taiwan, where he even interviews the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who had previously made a film about life in old Shanghai entitled Flowers of Shanghai, one of the most remarkable period pieces ever filmed. I suspect that a western-made film about the history of Shanghai would have not been so circumspect about the hard facts of what happened in Shanghai. Not having any background knowledge about what happened during those years, I came away feeling more confused than enlightened, so I'm a bit of two minds about the film. In some aspects it's quite impressive and fascinating, while in others it falls short.
Crossing the Mountain (China, 2010, 98 min, Yang Rui)
Boasting one of the most florid and evocative descriptions in the entire catalog, this film was hands down the worst I saw at the festival. The deceptive description was clearly successful at luring in audiences for the same reason I went: In the hope of seeing a beautiful, poetic, somewhat experimental film set in the picturesque province of Yunnan, China. What we got, instead, was a stridently ugly exercise in audience alienation. The film began with a packed theater and ended with about 1/4 of the audience left. No other film I've ever seen at the festival had a comparable attrition rate. I hung around until the end out of sheer obstinacy, but I was bored out of my mind and shaking my head with increasing frequency at the ludicrousness of the imagery. It was, simply put, sheer, unmitigated crap.
The film has no obvious narrative. We are presented with a series of shots that have no obvious literal connection with one another. A group of people dance around a fountain for two minutes. A man sits on his bed for a while gazing out of the window before getting up and attempting to saw his television in half. A couple attempts to adjust the image on a TV set, to a soundtrack of loud crackling and hissing. A three-minute still shot of the valley. An old lady talks about how her old man was beheaded and his head thrown into the paddy as fertilizer. Etc.
It actually sounds pretty interesting described this way, but it was very tedious to watch. They couldn't have made it more tedious if they'd tried. I like the idea of this film; I'd like to see one in this vein done in a more satisfying way. This film seems like an extreme example of a recent tendency in independent Asian cinema towards narrative diffusion and adding surreal elements into documentary-style realism. I'm fascinated by the panorama of indie cinema coming out of countries like Indonesia, China, Philippines and Thailand these days. The availability of cheap filmmaking tools is empowering more would-be filmmakers in these countries, and there's been an explosion in the variety and ambitiousness of indie films. A vernacular of slow-burn, low-key realism characterized by long shots and non-professional actors has emerged, and it's produced in some spectacular and beautiful films. Despite this particular film being a failure, I find it falls on one extreme of the spectrum of this trend, so in that sense I'm still glad to have seen it. It's interesting to see the new and daring directions this vernacular is being pushed.
Triple post threat!!!
I just wanted to direct your eyes to this page full of Korean text and two delicious drawings.
It was brought to my attention in the forum by Peter Chung. I just had to pass it along. Apparently it's for a film now under production (don't know the English title) featuring Kang Won Young as the animation supervisor. He's one of the best mover animators anywhere IMO, and that's just going by the two pieces by him I've seen, and the designs here (by him) look eminently suited to creating exciting movement, so it's something I'll be looking out for. Some serious home-grown talent coming out of the local industry in S. Korea now.
Bones' Heroman just started. Have to check that out. Finally some anime...
Holy smokes. Yasuhiro Aoki has a new short and it's a tourism piece for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. You can see it here. Quite a high-profile commission. Aoki is moving up in the world. I think this is the first thing he's done since the Gotham Knight short. For the uninitiated, prior to this, Yasuhiro Aoki directed Kung Fu Love, several one-minute pieces in the Fluximation and Kimagure Robot series, and numerous episodes of Tweeny Witches. (an old filmography)
Seems like everyone in the anime industry is using Twitter nowadays. It feels so weird to see the likes of Koji Morimoto, Mamoru Hosoda and Yutaka Nakamura twittering (tweeting?) away.
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.
I got to see the wonderful Irish-Belgian-French co-production The Secret of Kells this evening. I'd been impressed by the trailer when I saw it a few months ago, and the film didn't disappoint. Kells stands right up there with the films of Michel Ocelot and The Triplets of Belleville in leading today's animated foreign feature renaissance. So many great animated features have come out of Europe & nearby countries in the last few years. (though I'm thrilled to finally be able to see My Dog Tulip at the VIFF in a few weeks)
It's pretty amazing that they could make a film whose every shot is so unflaggingly inventive and beautiful and stylistically unified. The whole film is pure stylization. The characters are each drawn in their own bold shapes, and are identifiable by silhouette, which was presumably intentional, that being one of the mantras of western animation. I admired how the lines with which each character is drawn cleverly fold into one another in different configurations depending on which way the character is standing or looking. Different characters have different modes of movement, such as the little girl who zips across the screen, popping up in unexpected places, and especially the wolves, whose movement is very interesting and one of the best examples of the uniquely stylized movement matched to the inventively stylized designs in this film.
Kells has that whole hyperstylized retro UPA look that seems so popular today in the west, but it manages to carve out its own place that seems distinct. The film is an animated interpretation of the tribulations surrounding the creation of the Book of Kells, an unfinished 8th century manuscript legendary for its lushly intricate ornamental art. The strong visuals seem to be inspired by the look of the art in the Book of Kells, skilfully adapting the spirit of this ancient stylization into a newer kind of stylization that appeals to today's sensibilities. In spirit, the film kind reminds me of The Golden Bird, with its flat layouts, geometrically stylized characters and colorful byzantine backgrounds.
The compositions are very striking and beautiful at a basic level, with trees in the forest all aligned symmetrically and their branches wound up into Celtic knots and so on. The screen is usually laid out in a flat style reflecting the spirit of the original manuscripts, similar to the look of Kirikou or Azur et Asmar. The choreography of the movement of the characters through these compositions is quite ingenious. It's like they're constantly shifting perspectives on you, coming up with creative new ways for the characters to move through the environs. In that sense it kind of reminded me of The Thief and the Cobbler.
Representative of this is a shot in which a character is climbing a tree. The leaves form a sort of line that divides the screen into two. The character climbs up across the left half, then passes under the line, and in the right half the perspective is suddenly different, as if they were two distinct shots. It's unexpected and subtly done and has a marvelous effect, like a constantly shifting and shimmering optical illusion. So much thought was put into coming up with a variety of ideas to make each shot interesting like this. It's not just the animation and art that are stylized - the directing is too. The 10 years the film was in planning and actual production show up in the film's laboriously conceived and painstakingly executed visual schemes.
I appreciate that the story has multiple levels of meaning in spite of its simplicity. The story of artists in ancient times faced with the spiritual conflict of whether to choose art or survival in the face of an apocalypse-like wave of merciless invaders raining death and destruction on the land and people brings to mind Andrei Roublev. The climax of the film is quite interesting in that there is no victory. There's disaster, and a slow recovery from that disaster, without any sort of catharsis or triumph. The emotional climax doesn't arrive upon a shield bearing a victorious protagonist. The most powerful moment in the film is the very antithesis of bombastic triumph - it's the painfully ironic moment of spiritual capitulation when the abbot realizes that the art he had derided as futile to human well-being would in the long term be more permanent and nourishing than any sustenance of the flesh. I think Kells is admirable for being a family film that presents a complex message about the importance of art to humanity.
The film has strength because it was made by a group of talented artists with something to express, not just churned out by a corporation according to a profit formula. It's not patterned after the 'family feature' template; it carves out its own visual ethos, directing style and narrative vector. The one song there is isn't a Broadway number; it's low key, tastefully handled, even somber. Kells is an example of all-ages animated filmmaking done right.
Kells kicked off the Spark Animation '09 festival here in Vancouver, so it was preceded by an industry mixer. There's nothing more annoying than being in a room where everybody knows everybody else except you. I spent the whole time getting out of people's way. Lesson learned: Misanthropy and mixers don't mix.