Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

05:36:46 pm , 2936 words, 1097 views     Categories: Animation, Live-action

More VIFF 2009 thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 comments

Huw M
Huw M [Visitor]  

I really hope My Dog Tulip comes out over here. It looks fantastic. I really dig the visual style in the trailer - I think the naivety and seeming immediacy of the drawings is great - I’m usually much more interested in looking at nice lively sketches than finished works. Plus I am a sucker for stories about pets.

Too bad that you’re not enjoying a lot of what you are seeing at VIFF but I’m enjoying the updates, most especially the live action stuff which I don’t get to hear about normally.

10/15/09 @ 04:21
pete
pete [Member]

I agree about the McDull movies Ben. The first was one of the most memorable Asian animated movies I’ve seen. Second one was a negative surprise. So I did not bother afterwards. One can judge it by its titleafterall : “Mc…..Dull”

Regarding the audiences laughter, the reverse might occur too. A while ago I saw with my friend yet another overhyped US thriller on cinema. Usually we would have regretted that we even paid for this crap and did not wait for it to appear on DVD or torrent, as it is now the case.

But a group of youths sat in front of us and whenever a supposedly frightening scene occured, they acted as if they were scared to death. Or making comments when the slender lead actress was wearing her underwear.

Everyone at the audience laughed so much because of them, so that this remained one of the most memorable movies we saw.

10/15/09 @ 09:21
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, Huw - it kind of goes with the territory that you see a few bad films when you see as many films as I have, so it doesn’t bother me too much. It’s good to see the bad too, so you know why you like the good. It’s a shame that the good films probably won’t get much distribution after this. Some of them really deserve to get seen.

As for My Dog Tulip, all else fails it’ll come out on DVD eventually. From a hand-drawn perspective it’s really a delicious film, and very inspiring too - it’s amazing to be able to make animation so crude yet so real and vivid. That’s the kind of animation I’d want to do if I were to animate people.

Pete - Heh, I’ve had some good experiences in the theater with audiences. One of the most amazing cinemagoing experiences of my life was seeing Bowling for Columbine on opening night in Seattle in a packed theater with hundreds of people cheering along throughout the film.

10/15/09 @ 20:17
gingersoll
gingersoll [Visitor]  

Somehow, this all reminds me… I recall seeing Spriggan in 1999 at Anime Expo. Big packed screening room, 35mm. The film was then new. My friends and I were young and brimming with blind enthusiasm for anything with the name Otomo attached to it.

I would say the film is not particularly good.

Yet with so much energy in the room, the film played wonderfully. Riotous laughter, often unintentional, shook the room. Cheers, Ooohs, and joyous profane exclamations… Not in the fashion of heckling, but for the love of the ridiculousness of the film. It is one of my favorites times spent in a cinema.

Or when viewing the subtitled print of Perfect blue (was it the same year?), how the audience gasped outright when the film reel BROKE smack in the middle of the ice pick murder scene! A wave of intensity smashed against the shore of that glowing blank screen!

Of course an audience can ruin a film too. I’ve simply walked out on many films because of rowdy crowds (The Shining is not a get-stoned-and-mst3k-it movie). One problem person is easy enough to deal with, but a room full?

And yet maybe, back at the showing of Spriggan, someone else walked out, annoyed and frustrated with the over enthusiasm that I found so delightful…

10/16/09 @ 23:24
Huw M
Huw M [Visitor]  

I went to see My Dog Tulip at MIFF earlier this year and really liked it. One of the best films I saw actually. Also, surprisingly focused on canine reproductive habits - Very amusing in a dry british way. I loved the animation as well, especially the adorable way the dog throws herself around the screen. Looking forward to your report on The Illusionist, Ben. (which I saw at MIFF as well….)

10/10/10 @ 04:34
Ben [Member]  

Huw -

Glad to hear you got to see it on the big screen. The reproductive aspect was one of the most peculiar and uncomfortably funny aspects of the movie - a very strange gentleman, the one who wrote this autobiographical material! It’s such a richly many-layered film - aside from the unusual but very satisfying animation style and the story of a man and his bitch, it’s an interesting examination of the peculiar neuroses of the British, who, this film seems to suggest ironically(?), form such relationships with their animals because they’re incapable of connecting with one another.

Did you see any notable foreign films at the MIFF? I’m smack in the midst of VIFF 2010 right now, having seen almost 20 so far. Again, unfortunately, nothing has blown me away, although there have been some decent films.

10/10/10 @ 17:09
Huw M
Huw M [Visitor]  

Wow, a year has passed?! Where does the time go…

Unfortunately I didn’t see anything notable at MIFF (besides MDT and The Illusionist) - I actually had to dig up my festival pass to see what I went to. Of the films I saw, Rubber by Mr. Oizo and The Illusionist are the only ones playing at VIFF. Rubber is done by the ‘Flat Eric’ guy. He has a pretty unique sense of humour, buuuutt…I find it hard to outright recommend it. It kinda falls flat in a lot of places, but it’s so unique and clever in others…

Actually I also saw Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar and it was very good. It was blunt, but not declamatory. Enter the Void actually made me angry with how bad it was. I’ve never seen a Gaspar Noe film before. He says he’s inspired by Stanley Kubrick. I assume he meant the tripping-balls scene at the start, it’s a pretty laughable claim otherwise…Don’t judge a movie by it’s (fantastic) opening credits.

10/10/10 @ 21:02
Ben [Member]  

The years seem to pass by faster every year…

I’ll be seeing The Illusionist tonight. I did actually watch Rubber and found it tremendous fun, though of course very limited as a film. Worth seeing for film buffs interested in an always odd and often funny and witty meta commentary about the act of film watching and making.

Watching Irreversible was enough for me to never want to watch another film by Gaspar Noe. Judging by your reaction he apparently hasn’t changed as a director. His goal seems to be to piss people off. About the only director I can think to describe as loathsome.

I’ll try to write my thoughts about the films I saw since there’s at least one person who seems to have enjoyed reading them last time, but to give you a sneak peek, Psychohydrography is the only one that I really loved. Too bad there’s about zero chance of getting your hands on it unless you see it at a festival.

10/15/10 @ 17:44