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Anime-inspired live-action retro sci-fi space-opera, C (299,792 km/s) is many things. This gorgeous new short film from first-time director Derek Van Gorder seems tailor made for those, like me, who grew up loving a seemingly antithetical blend of elements from hard science to sci-fi adventure to arthouse cinema to Japanese cartoons.
Primarily influenced by the aesthetic of 1980s OVAs and the space operas of Yoshiyuki Tomino, C successfully blends wide-ranging influences from The Man With the Movie Camera to Yo Soy Cuba to Stanley Kubrick into a convincing package that is visually beautiful and thematically satisfying.
Essentially two films in one, C adopts a novel retro-futuristic dual scheme: A Cosmos-inspired science reel that could have come straight from the vaults of your 1970s high school science class provides the underlying thematic motivation for a visually sleek tale about mutiny onboard a military spaceship.
Played with cool aplomb by Caroline Winterson, mysterious mutineer Maleck makes a compelling anti-hero: at first glance a cold, calculating, ruthless ideologue, she in fact is out to save humanity. Her motivation is hinted at briefly at the opening in snippets of overheard news about dire interstellar strife. Rather than an aggressive Hans Gruber out for ideological glory, we instead have a grandmother who seems driven by love and motherly instinct. An Anno-esque historical montage explains how science has been perverted for military means since time immemorial; Maleck seeks to reverse that dynamic by co-opting a tool of destruction to achieve a peaceful end.
The mutiny unfolds in tense and fast-paced intercutting between the various parties that has all the virtues of the hair-raising boarding climax of The Ideon: Be Invoked, Yoshiyuki Tomino's masterpiece, but rendered in glorious glowing neons through a detached, formalistic composition style reminding of Kubrick. Meanwhile, the first shot of the science film by the narrator Newman (Newtype?) seems to evoke the live-action ending of that cataclysmic movie, in which the stardust to which the protagonists were reduced now plant the seed of life in an alien planet's ocean.
The film has a reverential love for the great virtue of science taught by the likes of Carl Sagan: the thirst for ultimate knowledge. This is embodied perhaps by the Kepler probe, referenced in the film, which has so far discovered roughly 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy. Using the fruits of Kepler, Maleck seeks to restore science to its place in the service of ensuring humanity's long-term survival.
What is remarkable is that, somewhat ironically, C's accomplished visuals are entirely analog - no digital effects were used. The spaceship is a model shot in stop motion, and every element from the lighting to the touch panels was produced in-camera, and with very little budget at that. Even the laser flash was produced by a simple trick effectively used in anime since time immemorial: inserting a few frames of a flashlight against a black background.
C has a succinctness that works well by excising all personal elements from the narrative and focusing exclusively on the visuals and tense atmosphere, but it also comes across as a trailer for a larger concept. I hope Derek will have the chance to expand this seed into something bigger.
I had the opportunity to ask Derek by email to tell me more about his influences, and he kindly sent me the following response:
I've got a lot of varied and possibly eccentric influences, from Stanley Kubrick, to Ed Wood, to early Soviet cinema and post-revolutionary Cuban films. But my favorite sci-fi filmmakers are Japanese anime directors Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. 1980s anime in general I find completely fascinating for its imagination and attention to detail.
Tomino's a really interesting director. At first glance it's easy to dismiss his films as routine TV genre pieces, and certainly his storytelling is occasionally muddled and a little strange. But he's a master of ensemble casts and wide-stroke world building, and has a completely unique style that stands out from his contemporaries. There is a matter-of-factness to his work, he rarely lingers on anything unnecessarily, holding your attention with rapid-fire plotting, quick cuts, and (when the budget allows) highly clean & effective shot composition. The Ideon: Be Invoked completely blew me away in this regard. The final Buff Clan boarding attack on the Solo Ship is a beautiful example of cutting between simultaneous action in a multitude of locations, while maintaining a very clear sense of physical space and the sequence of events. I'm sure he achieves this by storyboarding the film himself, and he has the depth of imagination to make even props and costumes relevant to the story and contribute to emotional impact and action scenes. I've never seen so much action packed with so much tragedy and pathos in a film. With a quick cutaway he can make you feel for the fate of a side character that had previously been little more than a background extra.
Mobile Suit Gundam created an entire genre, and with Ideon he foresaw the future of what that genre would become. It's really astounding how influential he was. Unfortunately I think these films might always remain inaccessible to Western audiences, because they happen to be tie-ins with large, complex franchises; that demands a lot of commitment from a foreign viewer. Oshii's Patlabor 2: The Movie is another example of this. I personally think it is one of the most beautifully "shot" films of all time, and possibly the most philosophical political thriller ever. But unfortunately, it's also a sequel... to a movie... based on a miniseries... that's a parody of a subgenre of science-fiction (yikes!). So it will always have a very limited audience. Since C is space opera it has more in common with Tomino's work, but Oshii is really my favorite director of all time. He's totally fearless, he makes philosophical experimental films disguised as narrative movies, and imbues all of his shots with meaning.
In general the Japanese use of cinematic techniques in their animation inspired what I want to try with live-action. Unlike many Western animations, there's often an extreme attention to movement and composition that simply translates into good filmmaking instead of just good cartoon-drawing. In this way it helped me understand films as 2D art. Many audiences and filmmakers confuse a movie screen as being a little window into real life, into 3-dimensional space, and this encourages visual sloppiness. In reality movies are highly constructed, artificial, 2D moving photographs arranged in a sequence. So I want to try and arrange movement that draws the audience's attention to the visual art instead of deflecting it all to the story and characters.
The movie I ended up making has a lot in common with 1980s one-off OVAs; it's a brief snapshot of a story and a world, hastily wrapped up. Part of this is because almost half the movie was cut out, since I wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, but this had the benefit of streamlining the plot in a very Tomino-esque way. For better or for worse it's like a compilation movie of a series that was never filmed. I learned a lot of hard lessons making it; in terms of budget and production it was really still a student film. But I hope people saw what I was trying to do and can appreciate it for what it is.
If you haven't already, go see the short right away and let Derek know if you like what you see. The official web site can be found at http://www.c-themovie.com/ and I highly recommend reading Derek's Director's Statement to hear the director himself eloquently describe his goals, as well as this interview that goes into detail about the technical aspects of the film.
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.
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.
Nothing blew me away at the VIFF this year like Tropical Manila did in 2008 and Secret Sunshine did in 2007, but I did see some good films this time around, as always. And as always, there were a ton of films that I wanted to see but just couldn't get around to seeing, either because I was pooped from watching so many films, or from scheduling overlaps. It's fun for two weeks to cram films, but after a while you get burnout. It's gotta be a special thing watching a good film, and not homework, otherwise the magic's gone.
Films I really wanted to see and hope to get a chance to see sometime include Eighteen, a film from South Korea that won the Dragons and Tigers award this year (Bakal Boys got honorable mention), Dirty Paradise (French Guiana film about natives fighting for their land rights), Extraordinary Stories (Argentinan 4-hour drama inspired by Borges), Petropolis (Canadian film about the unfolding tar sands disaster next door in Alberta), The Sound of Insects (weird/cool-sounding Swiss film featuring narration inspired by one of my favorite Japanese authors, Masahiko Shimada), Autumn (Turkish film likened to Chekhov via Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Crude, American Casino, Petition, H2Oil, North, and The Age of Stupid.
Films I'm disappointed weren't shown include the new film by the director of Tropical Manila (maybe it's not done?), the chiptune documentary Reformat the Planet and Priit Parn's new film Life without Gabriella Ferri. (For any of my readers in Rio de Janeiro, Parn's new film will be playing on November 11 at the No Taboo 4th annual Festival of Animation and Sex Education)
Adrift was a gorgeously shot and technically very well directed Vietnamese film that somehow didn't sit well with me despite its technical proficiency. The scenario deals with a gorgeous woman who, just wed to a nice young man she discovers quickly to be quite immature sexually, becomes predictably sexually frustrated and succumbs to the wiles of a sexy male model (I'm guessing he's a male model; he's not in the film). The whole seemed to strive for a kind of literary atmosphere, with its velvety tone of languorous yet understated sensuality and the exploration of the psychology of sexual awakening, but it just rubbed me the wrong way and came across as disturbingly artificial and shallow with its Barbie and Ken protagonists and the wife's eye-rolling 'dilemma'. The elder sister who thrusts her innocent younger sister into the situation with a mixture of detachment, love and nihilistic cruelty, was not surprisingly a writer, and the way the directing strove to paint with this world-weary and sophisticated demeanor felt forced and cliche. I'm kind of biased because as a general thing I find films in which a supposedly 'ordinary person' is played by a gorgeous actress or actor to be hopelessly flawed and unbelievable from the outset (Wong Kar-Wai's films being a notable exception), so my bullshit radar was on whenever the wife or her suitor were on the screen, which was basically the whole film. It felt like porn without nudity - sexually frustrating. Actually, maybe now I understand what the director was trying to do with the film.
At the End of Daybreak was a Malaysian film I hated within the first minute, in which the protagonist boils a rat in a cage to death. I can't respect a director whose poverty of imagination requires him to kill a defenseless animal on-screen to shock the audience. After this delightful opener, the film proceeds to be boring for an hour as the protagonist whines to his mother that he doesn't want to go to jail for the statutory rape of his 15-year-old girlfriend before serving up a completely absurd and laughable climactic twist in which the boy and his friends kill the girl and her friends.
Indepencia from the Philippines was conceptually daring but in the final count just not particularly memorable or interesting. The concept is interesting: It's shot in the style of a 30s film from the Philippines, which is to say in black and white, with the set consisting of painted backdrops and a few potted plants to simulate the jungle setting, and interrupted mid-way by a propaganda newsreel by the occupying Americans. The story tells of a mother and her son who flee into the jungle to escape the fighting that erupted with the United States around 1899 (read the Wiki entry in the Philippine-American War). It depicts their daily life in a makeshift hut, evokes their constant fear of discovery, and hints at the atrocities committed by the Americans, which included deliberately killing children. All of this sounds very interesting on paper, but it's unfortunately tedious watching. The history leading to Philippine independence in 1946 is complex and multi-faceted and it would have been nice to see something that helped understand this little-known chapter in the history of American imperialism.
Home is a great documentary that everyone should see - a comprehensive examination of the problems facing our planet today that is powerful and almost overwhelming but with a poetic rather than dry style. It feels like a personal summation of all those environmental issues that have been hovering in the collective consciousness for the last decade. It consists entirely of shots of various locales on the earth shot from above, presumably mostly in a helicopter, accompanied by free-ranging poetic narration that ticks off the countdown to our collective demise and has to struggle fiercely to end optimistically. For its images alone this is a film of staggering beauty, but combined with the poetic narration it makes for a new type of ecological disaster documentary like none we've seen before. It's deeply informed about the various issues at play but personal in tone, like a video essay. This is one of the films that will probably receive widespread distribution, or at least more widespread than many of the obscure films I've seen at the VIFF. I strive to see the obscure ones and miss out the ones likely to get a later screening like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But this one I'm glad I saw. I'm glad I didn't miss this sucker-punch of a documentary.
Agrarian Utopia is a really interesting film and one of my favorites from the festival. It's interesting because I thought it was a documentary for the whole running length, and only just discovered that it's actually scripted and uses actors (albeit nonprofessional ones)! One of the things I like about many of the films being made today in Asia is how they see a filmmaker go into a local situation, assess the issues that its people face, and create a drama that in style and in content feels like a documentary exploring those issues, but doing it within the framework of a fictional narrative. Bakal Boys was an excellent example of this approach. So is Agrarian Utopia. The film depicts the daily struggle of two farming families who work the soil of borrowed land in northern Thailand. At the beginning we see them enter the land, and the film ends with the landowner kicking them out because he has been forced to sell the land ("because I'm late on my car payments" he states). In-between we are essentially seeing a documentary on the life of the poor rural Thai farmer, from the planting of the crop to its harvest. We see them capture rats and shoot stray dogs to get protein in their diet, which is painful to see but feels natural and normal in their situation. A contrast with these families who are forced by circumstance to live as farmers is provided by a hippy-like retired teacher who lives alone on a small farm and lives off of his organically farmed vegetables. His choice is intellectual; he lives in the fictional ideal of the agrarian utopia, rejecting the wasteful consumption of consumerism that is in fact at the root of many aspects of the global ecological crisis. The farmers live in the real world, in which the masses of poor are forced to wear their bodies out in indentured servitude in the brutish circumstances of farm life. It's a subtly presented but potent contrast, and visually is a very honest examination of the life of the Thai farmer, which in many ways telescopes to the life of farmers elsewhere. An excellent film that resides at the borderline between fiction and documentary.
Sweetgrass is a film on a similar note - an actual documentary about rural life, this time a raw and unmediated documentation of the livelihood of Montana sheep farmers. The bulk of the film is occupied by the dramatic driving of the sheep to pasture in the Rockies and their eventual return. This is an example of rawest form of documentary. Editing is very spare, there is no narration, characters are not interviewed. The whole film consists of long shots of the farmers and their sheep that by the nature of the material are weighty and dramatic and hold the viewer's attention. It's in a way the truest form of documentary: the shot communicates rather than the cut; the subject rather than the director. The film shows us a rough and ready type of cowboy who seems to come right out of another era before the west was won. In a way, you feel for them in the same way you would for Thai farmers. The journey is no Sunday picnic, and you've got to respect their fortitude for doing such unforgiving work in this day and age. The hardest part of the journey comes at the destination in the mountains, which in their brute majesty wear out sheep dog, horse and owner alike. In one memorable sequence, after the sheep have strayed one too many times, one of the cowboys breaks down in a torrent of shockingly colorful language that seems both typical of the stereotype and yet pathetically human and frail. The mountains and the sheep have him on the verge of physical and mental breakdown. The cinematography is also quite daring in its spareness and the length of the shots. The unforgettable moments of the film are the moments of quiet observation when camera and documentary are forgotten, as when the camera follows an old-timer seated on his horse in the twilight of dusk as it slowly walks up the mountain, the man mumbling and singing to himself quite naturally. You feel as if you've glimpsed the ghost of the eternal cowboy of imagination, happy in the heroic loneliness of the untamed wilds.
Today is Better than Two Tomorrows was a story from Laos about two young boys who are sent by their family to a monastery to become monks for a few years. The film was shot entirely by the director, Anna Rodgers from Ireland, and provides a good look into life in Laos, a place I wasn't very familiar with. The length of time the director spent with the kids before shooting to accustom them to her presence makes for some uncannily candid and unforced shots of everyday life, as they have clearly forgotten they have a filmmaker in their midst. I recall hearing a similar story from the director of a superb Chinese docu-drama from a previous VIFF, Ma Wu Jia, which had flawlessly natural acting from its child cast. Today is in fact a documentary, but it has the pacing of a good drama. The excellent editing keeps things developing at all times while taking plenty of time to display the beauties of the locale and its people and how the days flow by. As we follow the young protagonists on their journey, we're privy to all of their emotions and the complex societal fabric that envelops them, and it makes for emotionally rewarding viewing, unlike some of the other documentaries I've seen, which can be rather dry and distant. One thing that was not explained in the film is exactly why the boys have to go to the monastery, so I asked the director after the screening. It turns out that it's not a case of poor families sending their children to become monks to have one less mouth to feed, which is what I had assumed. Laos, together with Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism, which says that Buddha was just a man, as opposed to the Mahayana sect in most other countries where Buddhism is practiced, which has deified Buddha. The upshot is that, in Laos, as we see in this film, the onus of reducing your burden of karma lies with yourself (whereas in Mahayana Buddhism you just have to pray occasionally to a diety), and hence a large part of the population apparently spends time in their youth at the monastery, later re-integrating with society at large and living a normal life. I happen to just be reading Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles, which talks a bit about this. Today is Better than Two Tomorrows is a great film that provides a colorful look into a culture most of us probably know little about. It's too bad this film and most of the other good films I've seen probably won't be shown in many places after this. So many good films are made each year, and so few people get to see them.
My big catch from this year's VIFF was perhaps less a single film that the collective work being done by unsung but superb filmmakers with small teams in poor countries documenting real life through various hybrids of drama and documentary - films like Today is Better than Two Tomorrows, Bakal Boys and The Wind and the Water.
Some more thoughts on films I've seen at the VIFF. I'll start with the ones of more relevance to this blog.
I saw the fourth installment in the McDull series, Kung-Fu Kindergarten. I never saw the third one, but I'd seen the first two at the VIFF in prior years. The second had disappointed me, being a rehash of the first in style and tone, and seeming to show the seams of the material, which seems like nothing more than a series of gags in retrospect. I was astounded that the fourth film felt pretty much exactly like the previous entries. It's something of an amazing feat to be able to make so little progress after four films. I assume it's intentional, because the formula seems to work with audiences. The audience at the screening I saw was roaring with laughter at the tiniest little movement of a character. It seems like the film couldn't go wrong. The mere appearance of a cute anthropomorphic animal on the screen was enough to elicit a wave of "awws". I think I laughed honestly at the joke where the guy breaks a toothpick and throws it in his tea to perform an augury, and McDull goes, "Um, I used that to pick my teeth." But the rest as pretty slim pickins. Like the previous films, the style of the film is hand-drawn characters and CGI or paintings for the backgrounds and everything else. The backgrounds were actually quite nice in and of themselves in many spots, but the animation of the characters was just as lifeless and uninteresting as any of the previous films. I think part of what ruined it for me is people roaring with laughter at jokes that to me seemed like they might support at best a knowing smirk. Humanity depressed me in that theater. If I were watching it at home, I think it might have come across as a harmless little witty 70-minute entertainment, and an example of an internationally successful mainland Asian animation franchise, and I would probably have liked it better. I think it's fair to be demanding, though, and to ask: If it's possible for a franchise like this to be successful, where are the other mainland Asian projects trying to do something more ambitious? That's what I'd like to see. I thought the first McDull was ambitious and a laudable film. Making a series of it ruined it for me.
My Dog Tulip by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger is one of the best animated films of the last few years, no hesitation. It certainly renewed my faith in the possibilities of small-scale animated filmmaking after my viewing of the former film. This is indie feature filmmaking done right - a true work of love, handmade throughout without unnecessary polish, extremely creative with limited means, deeply felt, and with intelligent humor that elicits genuine laughter. I've been waiting for this one for years, and it exceeded my expectations, probably because I was not familiar with the source material. The source material, about the experiences of an English writer from the first half of the last century, is a masterpiece of dry English wit that serves up one of the most candid portraits of our relationships with our animal companions that has ever been put to paper (at least, judging by the film). The film largely consists of narrated reminiscences by the author about his experiences with his dog that are brought alive into visuals by the animation, much as was the case with the last film by the Fierlingers that I saw a few years back - A Room Nearby. The animation is very crude, with even buildings being drawn in a couple of askew scribbles, and took some getting used to. But this is animation at its most honest and real. Every movement of a character, every idea for what to portray on the screen and when in relation to the narrative, comes across as believable and funny, as the work of a master artist who isn't worrying about surface prettiness, but rather about creating animation that is truthful at every moment, whether it's in the realistic portrayal of the dog's behavior or the many flights of fancy in which the dog dons a dress and prances about. The humor of this film comes from wry and unflinchingly frank observations about the icky facts of life, whether it be describing the sanitary habits of one's canine, or going into an extremely uncomfortable level of detail about matters of reproduction (I now know more about dog vulvas than I wish I did).
Legendary Russian animator Andrey Krzhanovsky, who will be turning 70 next month, was represented at the festival with his debut live-action film, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Homeland, released after 6 years of work. The film depicts the life of exiled poet Joseph Brodsky, and feels excessively languid and uninteresting in the sequences depicting his youth, but it works tremendously well in the various animated sequences that litter the film and bring alive the world of Brodsky's imagination and poetry. Together they make for a good balance in depicting a poet's life, and the film serves as a good example of how to use animation to heighten live-action filmmaking. I just wish the film were shorter and more tightly edited.
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is a documentary about the outsider musician/inventor who goes by the name of Trimpin and currently resides in Seattle. I wish I had known about him when I lived there briefly, as the man has no cell phone, no web site, and there is basically no way to know where his work is being displayed short of contacting him directly. Which is a tremendous shame, because this wonderfully directed and edited documentary brings to us a picture of a true genius who is creating art that comes directly from within his soul. As the documentarist himself noted in the Q&A after the screening (at which a genial Trimpin was also present to kindly explain his take on things), his work comes across as a big up yours to the art establishment. Whether or not his art commands high prices, he will go on creating his extravagant sound sculptures, like a boy so endlessly fascinated by the magic of machinery that he must constantly take things apart to see how they're made, and put them back together in ingenious new configurations that bring dead and decaying technology humorously to life. Although Trimpin's sister was inclined to discount the suggestion that his genius is entirely the product of his upbringing in Germany, with its tradition of musical mechanical contraptions, I can see how Trimpin's playful art seems influenced by the whimsical sensibility of those mechanical novelty toys. This is the kind of art whose delightful ingenuity makes everyone, young or old, happy and puts a smile on people's faces, and I have nothing but respect for him for continuing to do what comes naturally to him, irrespective of whether fame follows or not.
The Hong Kong film Written By was the only film I walked out of this year. I haven't seen a film so excruciatingly artless, manipulative and ham-handed in a good long time. The acting was horrible, the directing was tasteless, and most of all the story was pretentious and ludicrous. It attempts to be sophisticated with its hilariously bad imitation of every Charlie Kaufman cliche ever mimicked by a talentless film school student of a scenario, but it falls flat on its face, as does every attempt at humor and emotion. It's been a long time since I've seen a film that so rubbed me the wrong way.
Toad's Oil by actor-turned-director Koji Yakusho left me with a good feeling inside. Although the film is very wobbly if judged critically, and there are a lot of things you could criticize about it, and I'm not even sure it's a good film, I liked it and I appreciate what Yakusho tried to do with it. I liked his acting to begin with. Despite having the world at his feet, I got the feeling that Yakusho was an honest actor and person. I can't think of a more honest and emotionally raw performance than his performance in Eureka. This film benefits of that same kind of unfeigned, instinctive emotional honesty. It deals with a dark subject, but none of the characters betray any emotion throughout what's going on, which comes across as laudably unmanipulative of the audience as well as an interesting examination of how people deal with tragedy, keeping things bottled inside and putting a happy face on grief.
The Wind and the Water was one of the most deeply satisfying films I saw at the festival this year. The film's production style is innovative, being a collective effort at the opposite end of the idea of auteurism that dominates art movies, and its exploration of its characters is richly nuanced and thought-provoking. Ostensibly the first film to be produced entirely in Panama, it tells the story of a native boy from one of the islands inhabited by the aboriginals who comes to Panama for the first time, and an aboriginal girl raised entirely in Panama who visits the islands for the first time, and how their lives intersect. Structurally very elegant, the film is full of little details about the two characters' lives that makes their experience very believable as well as shedding light on the dynamics of life on both sides of the divide. From the girl's perspective we see the ambition to become something in the new society, to leave behind the old culture tied to outdated norms of social behavior and illogical rules, as well as the racist pressure that looks down on who she is deep down, and would never accept her no matter how hard she tries to become something she's not. In our position we see things naturally from her perspective and feel sorry for the ignorance, darkness and poverty in which the natives enclose themselves, and understand her wariness at the world of the elders. The boy's perspective rooted in the island culture is equally believable. He's shocked at the hollowness and institutionalized interpersonal dishonesty of life in town when he goes there. The film is admirable because it isn't necessarily a naive praising of all that is cultural tradition and rejection of everything that is new and modern; it's an even-handed examination of the complex interplay of both sides. The film was made by a collective, with native youth from all walks of life contributing their own life experiences during pre-production to make the experiences of the two characters true to life in that area. (I found this very reminiscent of how Masaaki Yuasa filled out the back stories of the characters in Mind Game with experiences of his staff) In short, this is a magnificent achievement of a film.
Jermal is an austere film from Indonesia that makes for difficult but rewarding viewing. The story is about a boy whose mother just died who goes off in search of his father, whom he finds on a fishing pier in the middle of the ocean. The father had fled society years ago on a murder charge, and now lives a beastly and mute life as a brutal overseer of his fishing operation's child labor. The entire film takes place on the jermal, and it's testament to the quality of the directing that the film holds up during its full length and doesn't become boring or tiresome. It is, however, difficult to endure the banal violence of the torments to which the boy is subjected throughout the first half by the dozen other boys on the jermal, not to mention his own father. As he bonds with the boys and eventually begins to get close to his father in the second half, the film takes on a more straightforward drama trajectory that is a little easier to stomach and even has a moving emotional impact. In retrospect, though, I'm very skeptical about the concept of the film at a basic level. The father's rejection and meanness towards his son seems believable thematically as a psychological corollary to the very obvious physical metaphor of the jermal as a cocoon in which the father shuts himself off from the world - accepting his son breaks down the mental wall he'd built up, and leads to his rehabilitation with society, even if it means heading back to land to face jail time. The transition from brute beast to loving father is just a little much to accept.
I'm very drawn to the ferment occurring in Chinese cinema these days. Some of the best films and the worst films I've seen from Asia lately have been from China, but even in the case of the bad films there's always at least some kind of visceral thrill at what they tried to do and failed. There's real experimentation going on with young filmmakers over there. Kun 1: Action is unfortunately one of the prime examples of the bad side. I find it hard to criticize it, because it's essentially film student wankery, and it's kind of redundant to criticize film students for making pretentious films in homage to Jean-Luc Godard as if they were the first to discover him. That's just what they do. I just can't fathom why it was included in this festival.
Cow is the diametric opposite of the latter - a big artificial wonderful studio extravaganza with superb acting from a huge cast of talented actors, magnificent cinematography, spot-on directing and a satisfying and rich story and characters. This is a shining example of the sort of intelligent films they're making in China aimed at wide audiences. It's not an art film - it's too riotously entertaining and exciting for that - but it's very artistic in both theme and execution. Set in the 1930s in Shandong province in the midst of an attack by the Japanese army on a small Chinese village, the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of the army, but admirably makes a point to depict the naive young soldiers of the Japanese army as being coerced, like the Japanese people, into fighting a war at the behest of a brutal imperialist government. Probably the most striking thing about the film is its cinematography. It's like they shot the film, and then put it all through Photoshop with the contrast set to 100. Every single solitary object on the screen looks so sharp it'll slice off your finger if you touch it. It's quite beautiful in its elegiac sepia mood, especially in evoking the bomb-blasted colorless deadness of the countryside, but I thought maybe it was a little overdone. Most of all, though, the interaction between the main actor and the cow is quite extraordinary. They manage to create a real feeling of there being a relationship between the two, and to make it seem as if the cow had human feelings and reacted like a human to what was going on around it. It's very artificial, but also very entertaining, and it's admirable in that it makes audiences invest so much emotionally in a cow, something I doubt has ever been done before, or at least to this extent.
Nomad's Land is a simple video travelogue by a Swiss guy retracing the footsteps of a Swiss writer who had taken a trip across the middle east and central Asia by motorcar several decades ago and written an evocative account of his journeys. At first I found the narrator an insufferable prig who could do nothing but talk about his own angsty emotions like an inward-turned adolescent while he's traveling through eastern Europe and the near east, without making a single comment that was enlightening or informative about the culture of the lands through which he travelled. While this criticism remained to an extent thereafter, the sheer beauty of the people and landscapes he photographed once he entered the borderland of Afghanistan and Pakistan inhabited by nomads of old who lived a life apart from the dominant mulsim culture won me over and made the rest of the journey mesmerising and unforgettable. The hale beauty of the people, with their colorful clothing and ornaments and uncovered heads and open and inviting smiles, serves as a shocking contrast with the cultural and religious closedmindedness and fanaticism that encroaches upon them. It comes across as a miracle that they should be able to continue to exist in such an environment without having been annihilated by the monolith of monoculturalism and religious extremism. It was with a feeling of awe and deep reverence and that I observed the unfolding of their traditional winter solstice ritual, in which they must go sacrifice a goat up on the mountain lest the gods be angered and spring be forever withheld. After continuing eastward, the narrator finds himself in dire straits on a number of occasions, and it was more embarrassing than anything and you felt like the narrator was getting what he deserved for dealing the people of these regions the insult of looking at them through the rose-colored glasses of western pastoral idealization. For the imagery and the tone of the latter half of the film alone, though, with its continuously changing patchwork of central Asian cultural richness, it's worth the price of admission. It's an exciting travelogue that will make you feel like dropping everything and striking out on the journey of a lifetime, possibly never to return.
I'm set to break my own record this year for films viewed at the VIFF - day seven and I've seen 15 so far. Such are the fruits of anomie.
Apart from finding myself more annoyed than usual at the various irritating theatregoer archetypes - the guy sitting next to you who does a little 'heh' for some cosmically unfathomable reason every thirty seconds, the dozens of people laughing hysterically at shit that ain't even meant to be funny, and ain't - I find a demographics issue really bothers me. You go to an Iranian film, it's largely Iranians in the audience. French film, French people. Korean film, Koreans. It's common sense. Obviously people want to go see new films from their homeland when they're alone across the ocean and homesick. But it's an international film festival. It's about celebrating and experiencing other cultures and directing styles by seeing films from lots of countries that you didn't even know were making films. So far I've seen films from Chile, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Tibet and South Africa. I'm excited about seeing the first ever film from Panama. It bothers me that in spite of the bounty of cultural richness being offered to our great city at this festival, and in spite of the illusion of cultural diversity in attendance, it feels like the same type of person who'd never go see a film with subtitles. Of course It's a sloppy generalization with I'm sure plenty of exceptions, since I didn't interview every audience member or anything, but it's something I noticed and wondered about anyway.
As for the films, maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man, but I'm mostly disappointed so far. Mostly just so-so films and a few out-and-out bad films. Nothing mind-blowing. Keeping my fingers crossed something will excite this year.
One of the recurring problems I found with the films was that they were too long. I've never liked it before when people say a film should have cut off thirty minutes or whatever, but that's exactly what I found myself feeling at the festival for several films. I find that I'm more critical about wanting a film to know what it's trying to do, do it, and get out. It almost seems like filmmakers feel constrained to fill up the two-hour time slot even if they don't have enough material to do so and make it work. Time after time I would be sitting there saying to myself, "Great film! Hope it ends soon." And then thirty minutes later it's still going on, and I'm starting to dislike the film as a result. It's admirable when a film can pull off a 2+ hour length, but I think it's even more admirable when a film can have the restraint to pull in at under 90 minutes. I'm beginning to realize that most films can't justify their playtime.
Sea Point Days, a documentary about the process of re-integration in a seaside neighborhood in South Africa, was probably my favorite film so far - a perfectly edited and paced documentary that interweaves various threads to suggest connections and contrasts and unexpected interpretations, and does it all almost purely through the visuals, rather than relying on narration to establish meaning. This is filmmaking at its purest and most moving. The characters are all interesting and offer valid insights, and the film's central metaphor of the public pool on the promenade as a place of healing - national, cultural, physical - is convincing and moving. It's remarkable the degree to which the filmmaker makes us think about the various issues at play in the area at this moment in time exclusively by judicious presentation of simple, unostentatious shots of life on the street. The music was also in excellent taste, subtle and not manipulative. So it's disappointing that even this great film seems to suffer from excessive length. The film is broken up into 5 parts, and the film felt like it said most of what it needed to say in the first three acts.
I'm very interested in seeing documentaries on the subject of globalization and neo-liberalism, so Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy seemed poised to be the perfect film for me. But it's a good contrast with Sea Point Days in many ways. Just because it's a documentary doesn't mean all films are made alike. This film was the diametric opposite of Sea Point Days - a series of interviews stringed together with no cuts. Period. No editing, no fanfare. The figures interviewed were luminaries who provided great insights into the subject at hand, but the film was way too long (I started falling asleep two and a half hours into the film), and there was no unity or organization to the material, so the barrage of talking heads just left you with a jumble of unorganized strands. Rather than illuminating the subject, I found myself more confused than ever. The approach has its merit, but the audiovisual element contributes absolutely nothing to this film, and hence makes the film somewhat superfluous. The interviews might as well simply have been transcribed and published online.
Around the World With Joseph Stiglitz: Perlis and Promises of Globalization similarly promised to be informative, but disappointed. The famed economist is filmed wandering through the abandoned buildings of his hometown whilst discussing the negative impact of globalization on various parts of the world. This is again a case of a film about a fascinating subject that has at its center a great figure who knows his stuff, but it's a slipshod film. The images of Joseph wandering around entire neighborhoods left abandoned are quite powerful - shocking images enough when they're from some third-world country, even moreso coming from the world's economic powerhouse - but no mention whatsoever is made of what happened in his hometown. It feels underexplained. More importantly, the film is weakly argued and fails to achieve a strong, cohesive thread. Instead, we drift vaguely between subjects and shots of Joseph Stiglitz standing in ruins. Informative, but feels like it could have been better.
Moon at the Bottom of the Well was my second favorite film so far. A delicate, natural and convincing drama about a couple in Vietnam that presents a sensitive and nuanced metaphor for the evolution of social mores regarding love and relationships in that country over the last few decades (as I interpret it), it might have been my favorite but again was plagued by that same nagging specter - not ending when it should have. I've seen any number of films that take that slow, quiet approach to the directing that seems to dominate filmmaking in many parts of Eurasia these days - long shots, minimal dialogue and little or no camera movement - but this is one of the better executed that I've seen. Often that styles comes across as a tired stylistic ploy, but here the directing didn't feel meandering or pointless. It didn't feel like stylistic affect. The film meanders lovingly over the details of the couple's every day life. It feels directionless, but very subtly the directing is building up a portrait of the wife's decadent doting of her husband that leads her to tragedy. What felt like a spot-on drama in the first three quarters, unfortunately, abruptly shifted to melodrama following the husband's departure. Everything subsequent to that, I felt, cheapened a wonderful film. It would have been far better off leaving things up in the air at that point and cutting the last thirty minutes. Sometimes mystery is better.
Be Calm and Count to Ten, though from a very different country - Iran - also partakes of something of the same visual/directing ethos of minimal dialogue and minimal narrative of Moon at the Bottom of the Well. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is kind of the figure at the origin of this style, or at least is its unsurpassed master (Taste of Cherry and Close-up among his crowning achievements). He clearly influenced many filmmakers the world over, and the methods his films suggested to filmmakers for how to enter a real situation and film it and create fiction out of something real, mixing documentary and drama, have resulted in some gems from far-flung corners of the globe, and freed filmmakers from the chains of conventional narrative forms. At the same time, it's resulted in some just plain tedious filmmaking. Be Calm and Count to Ten is a fairly good film that injects a welcome vein of lightheartedness and absurd humor into a style that feels detached and documentary in spirit. The boy actor at the center of the film is convincing and vivacious in his role, and a good rhythm drives the film between speedy and exciting scenes of smuggling activities and quiet scenes of the protagonists wandering around the barren environs - no feeling of excessive length here. In contrast with Moon at the Bottom of the Well, the satisfyingly inconclusive conclusion leaves it up in the air what has happened to the protagonist.
Bakal Boys from the Philippines also features a cast of amateur boys at its center. The film was shot entirely in one of the country's big slums, and the director auditioned 100 local boys for the actors of the film, finally choosing a dozen or so. In the film, the boys are metal divers who imitate their fathers in diving to the bottom of the bay to bring up scraps of metal to sell to buy food to eat. The film is a half-documentary, half-drama fictional depiction of these boys' lives. This is exactly how they live, so you are in essence seeing real life, but invested with the meaning of a narrative about the search for one of the boys who goes missing on one of the gang's diving trips. The boy at the center of the film, young Meljun Ginto, is nothing less than a dynamo of energy and charisma, a true born star, and he steals every scene he's in. The scenes of interaction are all natural and candid and splendidly achieved, considering all the difficulties the director must have encountered wrangling a whole herd distractable boys to act out their lines on camera. Shooting apparently only took three days, if I recall correctly, which was shocking to hear. Even more shocking is to hear that this is Ralston G. Jover's directing debut. The VIFF hosts a 'Dragons and Tigers' competition each year for directors who have yet to receive widespread recognition. I've seen three or four of the others in competition, and Bakal Boys annihilates the competition. It also felt like it might have used a bit of tightening near the conclusion, but it's a minor quibble. This is a splendid achievement - at times devastatingly sad, but ultimately uplifting and deeply honest.
The Search, apparently only the second film ever to be shot entirely in Tibet that actually went through the proper authorization and censorship channels and will consequently be receiving legitimate distribution inside of the PRC, was the most obviously Kiarostami-influenced film of the lot, with its setup about filmmakers wandering around the countryside in a car (Through the Olive Trees), and long shots of conversation in a car and of the car driving across the countryside (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us). Filmmakers are driving across the countryside to find a renowned singer of traditional Tibetan opera/theater to perform in a play that they wish to film. The bulk of the film consists of the sponsor, in the car, over the length of the drive, telling a story about his first love, interspersed with auditions of villagers in various places. After the thirtieth minute of his story, it became a bit tedious. But the scenery was gorgeous, the situations were marvelously staged, the persons photographed (not 'actors') were all wonderfully ingenuous and real. It's an excellent example of filmmaking at the crossroads of narrative and documentary. The way various vectors of motivation intertwined in the film was satisfying - the filmmakers trying to make a film, and the girl singer they are forced to drive to meet her ex boyfriend (the singer), who we at first believe to be trying to get back together with him, but we find out at the end is made of tougher stuff than that. The scenes of various people they encounter along the way singing the traditional Tibetan opera were beautiful. There's no narrative other than this, yet there's a rich sense of purpose throughout. It's a quietly beautiful film that deliberately avoids emotionalism and drama yet manages to resonate. One particularly memorable scene in the film shows some young acolytes at a temple shyly fidgeting and zooming through a recitation of the sutras they've memorized. Boys will be boys, no matter the cultural context. The simple act of going around and connecting with people through art shows our common ground and breaks down barriers in a way that more direct political confrontation can't.
I'll stop here and continue with the rest later.
Persepolis is the best film I've seen in animation in a while. I missed the chance to have a look at District and Renaissance last year and the year before at the VIFF, so I don't know how they compare, but this year I caught the festival's only full-length animated feature, after some dithering. I'm thankful I did. It's a splendid film, one that doesn't just speak to children/animation fans, but to audiences of all stripes with a deeply heartfelt and human story of life in the real world. Like McDull, it's an eminently local film, without being self-servingly so. It's a film that feels of today's age like few other animated films I've seen, for one because it is steeped in actual history as experienced by a discrete individual, but moreso because it is magnificently eloquent on the emotional and physical turbulence of the experience of growing up in such an environment. If an animated film is made for adults, there seems to be a conception that it has to pander to the lower instincts of adult viewers. It's refreshing to see a film that is adult in a real sense of the term, in that it speaks in a language that is nuanced and subtle, informed and literate without being pretentious or snobbish.
From an animation standpoint I found the spare visuals very refreshing and appealing. Watching the film, I was appalled by how anime in contrast seems utterly devoid of sincere expression of the sort I felt in every simple composition in each shot of this film. They weren't simply running frantically in a hamster wheel to catch up with a card-deck of pre-chewed expressive symbols and predictable dramatic cliches. They had a very interesting story to tell that created its own arc, and a very unusual but appealing and original design ethos to do so with that was throughout visually compelling and helped the story speak what it needed to say, without being bogged down in pointless photorealism or allowing things to get distracted by stylistic handstands. On a technical note, perhaps it was just my imagination, but I wondered why the characters seemed to suddenly move with much more richness and nuance during the scenes in which they where in silhouette.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I'll have seen 18 films by the time this year's festival winds down tomorrow. Impressively, most of them were good. I was surprised to find myself disliking the ones I was expecting to like, and vice-versa. The human creature craves change. I walked out of The Man From London, partly because I was feeling irritated and impatient that morning for reasons that had nothing to do with the film, and partly because the film's excruciatingly slow pace and long shots were not enough to make the film interesting, even purely on a visual plane, in the way that films by Tarkovsky or Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-Hsien are. They felt merely pedantic and trying. I was surprised to find myself wanting to walk out on the big romantic historical set-piece Lust, Caution after merely the first five minutes, considering how much I enjoy watching Tony Leung, but the film's artifice and predictability were unbearable, and nothing in the subsequent two and a half hours changed that initial impression.
Taiwan's Island Etude easily left the best aftertaste and was the most inspiring and invigorating, a feel-good movie in the good sense, with a deft, warm undercurrent of hope and humor throughout and lots of fun and believable characters. The Chinese Ma Wu Jia was stunning for a first feature. It's a simple story of life in the countryside for a widowed mother and her two boys, but the director explained after the screening that the extraordinary realism and naturalness of the on-screen interaction was the result of having had everyone live together first for a few months prior to beginning shooting, with many of the scenes having been improvised. It was one of the most immediate of the films I saw, and gets my vote for the best debut. Another debut from China was Mid-Afternoon Barks, which was more novel in structure and refreshingly elliptical and deliberate in its refusal to make sense, consisting as it does of a mere assemblage of character comings and goings tied by the ephemeral thread of mysterious metaphorical white poles going up everywhere for some unknown reason, with any notion of story left entirely up to the viewer to piece together. Two people were snoring throughout the film. Loudly. As a bravado piece of daring by a new face it was admirable, but I wasn't convinced that it was a compelling piece of cinema. Yet I would rather see a film like this made by someone who really wants to create something new than lifeless pulp like Lust, Caution.
China was the most prolific country apart from Canada at the festival. Useless was one of the most structurally and conceptually stimulating and daring, with its tripartite meditation on the role of garments in society and the workers who create the garments in a globalized age. It inventively appropriated documentary strategies to approach a pre-meditated concept and a not-quite-there narrative, in the best tradition of Kiarostami. Going Home was a warm and humorous story with a very sad heart, and was thoroughly delightful and uplifting viewing. A road movie like Island Etude, but telling of a character on a very different kind of journey, the one that comes at the end of life. God Man Dog from Taiwan was a very different sort of story, one where various distinct characters' lives eventually intersect in the end. Even without any grandiose goings on or grand epiphanies it was a joy to watch and surprisingly did not feel artificial or old hat despite the familiar scenario.
Iran's Those Three told the story of deserters in the midst of the Iranian winter, and was, not surprisingly, by far the most aesthetically severe and uncompromising of any of the films I saw. The conclusion has a stoic inevitability to it, and the cinematography was unadorned in typical Iranian fashion yet somehow almost painfully gripping. A film in color yet in black and white. Dead Time was one of the most fascinating films I saw at the festival for its meaningful blending and updating of conventional film genres like mystery, film noir, horror and political thriller, telling a noirish convoluted story of supernatural murder that eventually climaxes in a scene that is as surprising for its political overtones as for its comic-book tone and imagery. Hong Kong's The Mad Detective was another entertaining genre-bender with an interesting though somewhat forced concept and execution, but seemed to paddle in more conventional and shallower waters without quite seeming to use the interesting concept to its full potential, while conversely sometimes striving too hard for effect.
The Mongolian Khadak was a story in microcosm of the wholesale destruction of the traditional lifestyle of sheep-herders on the steppes that had as an asset real emotional conviction, but whose message became fogged in a haze of poetic images at the end that diluted that message. The French/Belgian- produced, African-set Sounds of Sand was a depressing story of a family of goatherds forced into a doomed exile in a search for the ever scarcer resource of water. It seemed diminished for being a message film whose goals were clear from the outset, but those goals are irrefutable, and the film was a potent wake-up call as a painful reminder of the sort of unbearable truths unfolding all around us as we obliviously fly above people like this in our silver cannisters. That image from the film was the simplest and most powerful - a lone jet passing in the sky as a girl and her father die of hunger in the desert.
Faro: Goddess of the Waters was a slightly more benign and human exploration of the impact of water on the lives of people in Africa, pitting a western-educated engineer against uneducated villagers as he tries to get a dam constructed. The film artfully interweaves the story of the man's struggle to unearth the identity of his father, all the while fighting the villagers' irrational beliefs and discrimination, against a backdrop of the story of progress vs. traditional beliefs in Africa. Finally, in a sharp left turn, Echoes of Home, the only pure documentary I saw this time around, was a fascinating and delightful exploration of the phenomenon of yodeling in the Swiss Alps, which, this documentary reveals, runs the gamut from traditional Heidi-yelping to experimental sounds by younger proponents of the form that are of tremendous beauty and musical quality. There were too many fiction features from Asia this year that I had to see, so I was unable to see more documentaries - which is a shame, because there were other very interesting documentaries at the festival that I would have liked to see, like Dust, an epic about the ubiquitous invisible substance and its role in our lives, Losers and Winners, about the workers in the globalized world, Kabul Transit, Manda Bala, Nanking, Forbidden Lies...
Actually, I was forgetting what is probably my favorite film from the festival, the Korean film Secret Sunshine. It features a bravado performance of searing emotional intensity by the lead female actor, and is one of the most incisive psychological portraits I've ever seen committed to film. The film conscientiously and patiently examines the process by which emotional damage can lead people to seek refuge in organized religion, without intellectualizing the issue or taking a taunting stance on the subject, and the film benefits immensely for the way in which it allows the emotional journey of the heroine to unfold naturally and honestly and thereby lucidly illustrate the process, in all its twists and turns, without anyone on the other side of the fourth wall weighing in on the issue. The film is admirably poker-faced, totally intent on honestly showing things from the protagonist's perspective, so much so that it can have you fooled for a while. This is a film I think Luis Bunuel would have liked. Surprising and intriguing, then, to find that the director just came from a stint as Korea's Minister of Culture. He was apparently a filmmaker before taking on the post, so his incredible directing skills on display in this film are less of a surprise, but knowing this makes me curious to look at the film through the lens of what influence his experience in that post might have exerted on the film, how the film might represent his diagnosis of Korean society. Not one minute of the film's more than two-and-a-half-hour length grew tiresome for an instant, and, ending the experience on a perfect note, the film ended just on the shot I was hoping it would. It was a rich viewing experience that reminds me that what I most want to see is insight into the human mind - in filmmaking, but animation can also do that. The vitality and variety of many of the films I saw here is inspiring.
Wandering around Chinatown yesterday I wandered into a DVD shop where I picked up a DVD of a film I'd never heard of but that looked up my alley, Postmen in the Mountains. Watching it it felt like it was from the early 80s, but in fact it's a film from 1999. Its washed out color palette is a delight, and the film is a delight, one of the most moving I've seen in a while. The sort of film where nothing much happens but each moment is filled with meaning and tremendously moving. My eyes were burning the whole time. It brought back memories of crossing the Pyrenees with my dad a few years ago, which certainly helped make it more resonant to me.
One-track-minded person that I am, I couldn't help but think that this is the sort of thing I've been wanting to see done properly in animation. The film does what films rarely manage to do, convey the sensation of another human being beside you. Normally film is a medium where the medium is foregrounded and human warmth is a distant dream, but this film did what few films I've seen do - evoke that strange tingling sensation of uncertainty and tentativeness when there's someone there beside you. What it is to be alive, basically. Animation is a tool that can evoke reality by careful selection and emphasis, and for some reason I felt that would have been a good way to achieve what they did here. Hara strikes me as the closest to this I've seen in animation. Been feeling particularly sick of anime these days and wanting to see a film that goes back to something more fundamental like this.
I'm excited that I'll be able to see Tokyo Story on the big screen for the first time in over a decade in the next few days.
I saw Ratatouille and thought it was perhaps the best CGI film I've seen. I'll admit no previous CGI films did much for me, but this was a very solid and most of all tremendously entertaining and engaging film, even aside from the technical aspects, which are obviously without par in the genre. For the first time ever for me there were even moments of movement that I enjoyed as movement. I particularly liked the bit where Remy is about to run out of the restaurant at the beginning but gets lured back to fix the soup. For some reason a lot of the drama flow and humor felt slightly Miyazaki-influenced. Was shocked to realize that one of my favorite actors, Ian Holm, voiced Skinner, but I didn't even realize it.
I was visiting China for the last two weeks, and had the chance to drop into some video stores over there. I picked up a DVD of La Prophetie Des Grenouilles for the equivalent of $1. I'd seen the tail end of the movie on TV late one night in Quebec a while back and wanted to see the whole thing. Seems to be a very good film. More interestingly, I also found a few bits of local animated fare that I'd never heard of and would probably never have been able to find outside of the country - things like Xiao Heshang (Little Priest?), a TV series from 2006 that seems rather lackluster; Grandma and her Ghosts, a 2000 movie from Taiwan that seems to have a passable script but rudimentary animation; and a movie version of Tsai Chih Chung's comic of Laozi's teachings. I remember reading a translation of his comic version of Zhuangzi a long time ago. There were also a number of other films adapted from his other classics-based comics.
I also picked up a DVD of Kon Ichikawa's Taketori Monogatari (1987), which is a retelling of the folktale about a baby girl who is found in a bamboo grove by an old farmer couple only to turn out to be a girl from the moon. The main innovation of the film is that the old folktale is re-read as an ET story, the girl really being from space. Other than that the film seems an ordinary set piece from Heian Japan. Kon Ichikawa has been a director about whom I've been interested in seeing more films for years. His films seem to straddle every conceivable genre, often at the same time. I saw the handful of his films that were available in the west many years ago, but unfortunately that's merely the tip of the iceberg, as he actually made more than 80 films, the latest being last year's remake of Inugami no Ichizoku. Not all of the films are reportedly that great, so perhaps that's reason we haven't seen more. He started working in films at age 18 in 1933 - quite a career.
What really interested me about Ichikawa, though, was the fact that he started out as an animator. I'd forgotten about this fact until watching Taketori Monogatari, which brought it back. Watching the film I couldn't help but think it felt very animation-like. The framing, the lighting, the pacing all seemed to be like something that would come from the mind of an animator. Or in other words, it felt like you could very well have taken each frame of the film and animated it and it would have worked equally well, if not better. Only after I finished watching the film and thought about this did I remember about his past as an animator. It took some digging to re-discover the name of the only one of his animated films I remember having read about - Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama, which is often translated as The Hare Gets Revenge Over the Raccoon. It dates from 1936, so it's one of the earliest things in his filmography.
I haven't run across this anywhere on the web, but apparently Kon Ichikawa's real name is Yoshikazu Ichikawa. He started using the pen name only after he began working in live-action. So the animated films were made by Yoshikazu Ichikawa. It seems Ichikawa saw some Disney animation on the big screen and was so enamored with what he saw - because it combined all of the arts that interested him - that he immediately decided to become an animator. In 1933, at age 18, he joined the recently formed animation branch of movie studio JO Talkie. There were only 6 or 7 other employees at the studio, and after about two or three years the studio gradually lost interest in animation, so that by the end, Ichikawa, the only one still interested in animation, was the only one there to do all of the tasks.
The 8-minute Shinsetu Kachikachi Yama is presumably one of the last of their films, and Ichikawa is credited with having done almost everything on the film, including script, animation, photography and editing. Ichikawa's love of Disney apparently comes through in the film, which is closely modeled after the Silly Symphonies in terms of structure, motion and designs. The film even features a Mickey lookalike. In 1978 Ichikawa directed a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Firebird, which features some animation by Tezuka himself, and he apparently often stated that animated thinking tinged all of his storyboards for his films. That definitely comes through in Taketori Monogatari. I'd like to have the chance to see more of his less well-known films like this to see more of his fascinating animation-tinged directing. I've long been particularly curious to see Topo Gigio and the Missile War from 1967, which as far as I've been able to figure out is some kind of combination of puppetry and live action. One of Ichikawa's earliest films, Musume Dojoji (1946) - incidentally the one he considers his best - was also a puppet film. Not stop-motion puppetry, but actual puppets.
I guess one of the things that strikes me as seeming very animation-like about his thinking as a director is that he conceives of scenes that you just can't do in live-action, so often there are miniatures like the boat in a storm scene in this film, and lots of SFX. The framing and positioning of the characters on the screen also seems very artificial and theatrical rather than naturalistic. The lighting is another thing. The colors on the screen are emphasized and exaggerated, in a way that reminds me of the way colors were used in Mind Game. He controls all of the parameters of the screen in a way it seems only an animator would feel the need to. I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Ichikawa had continued working in animation instead of moving to live-action.