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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.
Thanks for posting a review of persepolis, I’m really looking forward to seeing this film…
Its nice to see an animated adatation of a smart comic that invovles the original creator in the production of the animated movie… It seems that if comics are different or smart (even in japan) they get adapted as live action movies instead of animation. Leave it to the french to do something new :-).
Its a shame that the Chicago Intl Film festival didn’t screen it :-(.
I had the chance to see Persepolis last month at the swiss animation festival Fantoche in Baden. After having watched Tekkon Kinkreet which somehow disappointed me, Persepolis was a big and fresh surprise. I agree with you that it is a very good animation film. I thought it had a good mix of comedy and drama, and the actual animation did surprise me with its smoothness and expressiveness of the characters emotions. I did like the b/w character designs too and wish I’d see more of both in anime as well.
Neil: The French certainly have made a slew of interesting and intelligent animated films in recent years. They seem to lead the pack in animated filmmaking right now. Hope you get to see it soon.
Yaniv: Persepolis was a very refreshing surprise to me too. I’m not keen on seeing black and white used as a simple gimmick in animation, but here I agree that it was effective and not merely self-indulgent.
It’s great to read such thoughtful and considered insights into films in general and especially animation, you’ve posted another fantastic read thanks Ben. I agree, Persepolis is a breath of fresh air for feature animation (certainly in the West) and I can only hope it leads to a more diverse future for animation feature productions, we’ll have to wait and see.
Having said that, I didn’t think it was a particularly great film. It’s been garnering a lot of praise in the press, around the internet and at festivals but I can’t help but think that some of this is over generous in light of the fact that it’s one of the first animated feature films to offer something, as you so effectively put it, ‘adult in a real sense of the term’.
For me it was a perfectly likeable, charming and entertaining film, but there was nothing that made my heart sing, or that engaged me much on an intellectual or philosophical level. There was nothing, I felt, remarkable about it, beyond the fact that it was refreshing to see an animated feature film tackle something new and grown up. The story and historical context were certainly potentially very interesting, and the simple style adopted from the comic book to illustrate this was appealing but for me the perceived subtleties came over rather more as a plain surface with no real pulse beating underneath, no real bite. It was a little too empty, perhaps because it didn’t fully explore its subject, something I’m told by friends who’ve read it, that the comic book does much more effectively. I love subtlety in cinema but it works best when you can feel passion burning underneath, when you can feel the restraint and for me I found Persepolis to be lacking in this respect to the point where I wasn’t really moved or challenged but left a passive and lonely spectator in the dark.
The animation itself served the film reasonably well, there was nothing particularly stand out about it (which is I think a compliment) but again I felt it hanging on a little too much to the clichés of animated acting in the West i.e. too many of the same tired and over animated gestures and emotions that are easy for an audience to read but which don’t so much make a believable and whole character. Instead they are rather more a facsimile of how to draw emotions in silhouette. Certainly though it does not suffer the same amount of inbreeding of gesture templates as the majority of anime.
Your comment that it was the ‘best film I’ve seen in animation in a while’ intrigued me because I also saw TokiKake and Tekkon Kinkreet at the same time as I saw Persepolis and I’d personally be more interested in watching both of those films again ahead of Persepolis. I actually think Persepolis as a whole is a better film than Tekkon, which was a rather broken and disappointing mess by the end of the experience, but, and for me this is the important thing, in the rubble that it left behind there are more pieces that I care for, more silly little things I’d desperately scour through the detritus to retrieve than I ever found in Persepolis.
For example, I found the relationship between the two boys who’ve grown up on the streets together, to be exceptional in an animated film, I felt it heartfelt and honest, not spoilt by a feeling of acting or familiar gestures. It was something I just believed. The use of Ohira to conjure up the feeling of childhood daydreams was inspired and it burned brightly in the memory in a way I cannot recall any specific element in Persepolis ever doing. These are just two of many little things that stirred me about Tekkon in comparison to Persepolis and as such despite being broken and despite some of its silly gangster story elements that detracted from what was good about the film (the core relationship of two boys surviving on the streets) it’s the one I’m rather more fond of.
My fondness also extends to TokiKake which I think is a better film than Persepolis, at least on its own terms, and certainly in terms of the quality of its directing and the strength of its subtleties. Hosoda really has an exceptional balance and taste when it comes to mixing comedy and drama and when knowing something is too much. For me the story and the subject matter are not as interesting as Persepolis but the way it is explored and the way we are encouraged to become attached to the characters as we follow their narrative endeared it to me more. It was a lovely little film, and though it’s a teenage fantasy drama I found it was handled in an equally adult way, in that real sense of the term as you mentioned, just as Persepolis was. I suspect it won’t garner as much praise or coverage though, simply because of its less serious subject matter and it’s perceived audience. It’s an absolute disgrace that Free Jimmy (a truly horrible film completely lacking in wit or intelligence, despite a script re-written by Simon Pegg) won the feature award at Annecy over TokiKake, but it shows the charming and admirable attitude of Hosoda that he was so honoured and pleased to pick up what amounts to second prize in the Jury’s special mention award.
I think it’s particularly interesting that France has decided to go with Persepolis as its choice for the best foreign film Oscar rather than entering it in the animated feature awards ( which has always seemed dismissive to me, a pat on the back for the effort and everything but don’t consider your troublesome bastard art as real film making please). I admire the bravery of such a decision, and it’s about time an animated feature is considered alongside live action films (god knows how the awful Beauty and the Beast managed it).
That for me is the real triumph of Persepolis in that it could, finally, have people believing in or at least considering animation as a medium to explore more adult subjects that would appeal to different audiences. Audiences that would be shocked to see an animated feature film confident enough that it could play at their local art house cinema say. However much as I admire what it has done in this respect, and much as I think it’s quite a good little film, I don’t think it’s a great film or a revolutionary film (yes the subject is new for an animated feature film but the approach, the film language, is not new or particularly exciting). Compare it to previous winners of the Best Foreign Oscar, as France is asking us to do, like say The Lives of Others and I think it’s found wanting in depth and intellect. As animation I don’t think it has the number of ideas or the range of expression to explore those ideas that Mind Game had for example. Nor did it have the sheer individuality and exuberance of that film, and sadly Mind Game garnered far less worldwide acclaim and press attention than Persepolis.
Anyway, on to other things, I’m sad to hear you walked out of The Man from London. I haven’t seen it yet, but I was looking forward to doing so being quite a fan of some of Bela Tarr’s previous work, in particular the Werkmeister Harmonies. My intrigue is now somewhat deflated. It’s true that his painfully long shots can amount to no more than a stubborn visual wankery that presents a rather cold impenetrable and alienating surface, but when it comes together for the service of the film it can create pure cinematic poetry of the rarest kind. The opening 10 minute shot of Werkmeister is for me an example of this. It is one of my favourite moments in cinema,leaving that shocked silence, that tingle of having experienced ‘something’ that can make anything else you see after words seem pedestrian, disappointing and empty. Like the best of Tarkovsky it’s a scene brimming with emotions, ideas and philosophy that resonate in your mind long after the last image has flickered out before your eyes. It’s a truly special kind of filmmaking that’s so difficult to achieve and rare to see, so perhaps it’s too much to hope he’d pull it off every film. Funnily enough I think Tarkovsky in passages of some his work suffered similar problems, falling into the same trap of making a brilliant but empty visual that is impenetrable to its audience.
Anyway I think I’ve rambled on for far too long. I look forward to trying to see some of your other recommendations they sound interesting.
Have to applaud Benjamin for a great piece of commentary. Not to mention another excellent post by Ben with an interestinglly unique focus on live-action films.
I also have to agree, in general, with Benjamins gripe regarding an over-emphasis in western animation about creating a literal “acting-performance” with animated charachters, rather than a purer graphic or cinematic distillation of emotions and ideas. Something I feel anime has achieved far more effortlessly in its best moments(and in the mainstream also). Though as Ben also mentions, the worst aspects of anime are certainly getting even worse these days…
Also agree that Tokikake is the greatest animated film with a silly premise("But it’s not about anything important!", some will say…). And Tekkonkinkreet being a broken sometimes-nearly masterpiece.
I’m the one who should thank you, Benjamin, for taking the time to write such a sincere and insightful reply to what in comparison seem like nothing more than a few slapdash and not very thoroughly considered thoughts. You’ve given me a number of new perspectives from which to look at the film in a more critical light and I am grateful to you for that, although I am also somewhat put off because I agree with a lot of them and will probably be influenced by them. I am particularly happy with your nuanced and subtle comparison with the other two films, which, I confess, I have not written about here yet because I am daunted by the task of doing so by the knowledge that I would not be able to muster half your eloquence and clarity in analyzing their merits on any kind of meaningful level, beyond trite and superficial observations of the kind I’ve made here.
I have no rebuttal to your judgment of Persepolis, because I find your perspectives valid, although I think I may have been somewhat more moved by the film than you. You took into consideration a factor that I, in my haste and carelessness and lack of thought, didn’t really give enough thought to - heart. Something we can latch on to, something that moves us, grabs us. It can be nothing more than a fragment of the whole such as the theme of the relationship between the two boys living on the street in Tekkon Kinkreet, but those are important elements that I think really get to whether a film is important or not - the ability to create a moment of truth that speaks to your heart. I could very much relate to your comments on how the use of the stylistic trump card of Ohira to express the key element of this feeling of childhood fantasies was a perfect choice that seared those moments into the memory in a way that was very different from what Persepolis did - was more personal and heartfelt, even if fleeting. Tekkon Kinkreet was tremendously enriched by heterogeneous elements like this in a way that Persepolis was perhaps not. I can agree that there are elements of both Tekkon Kinkreet and TokiKake that I find myself wanting to revisit because they speak to me on a personal level and on a visual level and more simply as animation in a way that few moments of Perespolis did.
I was not aware that France had chosen Persepolis to represent them at the Oscars for best film, but I agree that it is quite an interesting choice and a heartening thing for animation, but at the same time begs the question of whether with this film we are really up to the level of - I won’t say previous winners of this award, because I don’t want to limit the discussion to the narrow limits of taste that govern this award - but to the great films out there. Are any animated films. I don’t have the answer, but it’s a question that you got me thinking about. You got me thinking about much besides, but I would prefer to rein in my thoughts for now until I write about the two films, as futile as I know doing so will be.
I don’t know what your thoughts are on the films of Angelopoulos, but I would suggest to you Angelopoulos’s Travelling Players as featuring some extended tracking and static shots that are among the most spellbinding, powerful, mesmerizing, convincing and meaningful on some deep level - not mere artistic indulgence but searing and concentrated filmmaking by a person with a deep feeling and personal stake in the historical events being portrayed - that I’ve ever seen committed to film, having all of that feeling of achieving the height of what film can communicate with the least of means that you describe so eloquently via Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies - which I have not seen, but will make it a point to do very soon. I was harsh on The Man From London, perhaps excessively so. As an exploration of dark textures and gravitas I can clearly see in retrospect that it is a very accomplished film, and not one to be seen in a fast-food mindset. I’d very much like to hear your own take on it when you see it.
Very informative article.
Except Persepolis I’ve also seen Rennaisance and while I found the rotoscoping techniques and the futuristic Paris a technical achievement the plot was banal and cliche and the characters even more so.
I’ve watched it in French. But it is worth watching it at least once
Persepolis is surely among the best animated films in recent years and the graphic novels are of the best I’ve read.
Lets not forget that only the USA, France, Korea and Japan have an animation industry and not just animation companies.
As for the Travelling Players, I saw it on cinema and it is one of the best films I had the chance to see on the big screen. Though I do not like the directors later films that much.
“Lets not forget that only the USA, France, Korea and Japan have an animation industry and not just animation companies.”
What the heck is that supposed to mean, pete? Kindly explain; I truly do not understand. What is the difference between having an “animation industry” and “just animation companies", and why are the countries you listed unique in this regard?
Ben and Benjamin, thank you for your posts. I haven’t seen “Persepolis” yet since I decided not to go to Ottawa this year. I’m eagerly waiting until it’s released in Toronto, hopefully within a month or so.
Your comment about the true meaning of “adult animated film", which you expressed very eloquently here, has been echoed by many people. Even Chris Robinson (organizer of the Ottawa festival), with whom I usually find much to disagree on, wrote recently about this very subject.
I think that there ARE animated films which can hold their own against the most mature live-action films, but they are typically shorts. I think Yuriy Norshteyn’s “Tale of Tales” is analogous to Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror", for example. If Norshteyn ever finishes “The Overcoat", it too will probably be such a film. I’ve read enough of his ideas about it to know that it will be something special, and also that most of it will probably go over the heads of animation commentators (because it will quite simply be on a different level). He said back in April that he was actively working on it and would release part of it by the end of the year, but perhaps his plans have changed (and the leadership of Sberbank, which had provided him with the funding which allowed him to work on it, is about to change, so his funds for the film might disappear soon).
I think that Paul Fierlinger is a wonderful “adult animation” (in the real sense of the term) artist who’s often overlooked. He’s making a feature film now which I think will be released next year. Here are some great clips:
And here are some other clips from his films:
I’ve read that his films have attracted more praise from documentary filmmakers than other animators. If this is true, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Most Western animators themselves are guilty of believing the cultural stereotypes. You only need to look at most of the English-language animation blogs out there to realize that despite the frequent rhetoric against the suits, most of the writers subscribe to many of the same views, whether they realize it or not. When people see a big lie, they are likely to accept at least part of it as being true. In other words, many of the English-language animation writers that I read still don’t see just how big the lie is. I guess it helps to know two languages. :)
I’ve seen only one film by Angelopoulos, “Ulysses’ Gaze", and found it extremely uneven. Parts were absolutely brilliant, other parts were very amateurish, and some of it was just very tedious. Perhaps the best film I’ve seen in the past year (in fact, it so moved me that I don’t even want to say anything about it) is Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Aleksandra". I have yet to see an animated film which I find to be beyond criticism - in other words, a film which I feel speaks so well that there is nothing left to be said or discuss.
In part I was playing devil’s advocate with that statement, because it’s something that’s bothered me more and more recently. I can’t help but wonder if we’re deceiving ourselves sometimes about how adult or what not certain animation is, as if in a plea for acceptance.
Norstein’s Tale of Tales was the first example that came to mind for consideration of this question. I couldn’t think of many others I would even consider, to be perfectly honest, though there have been many films I’ve told myself were so adult in the past. I feel more critical now. I lay great hope in Norstein’s Overcoat. Norstein is one of the few people who I think could make such a film in animation.
I was greatly impressed by Toll the Great, for example - even after watching it for the sixth time - and wondered about this question while watching it. Would it fit the criteria? I thought it did in certain ways, but then I looked at it from other people’s perspective and wasn’t too sure. I just don’t know in the end. All I know is it is a very impressive film to me, even though I don’t really know what is going on (in part because I don’t know exactly what is going on). Thank you for bringing us another hidden masterpiece.
I grew up in a strange family that had a book about Vlad the Impaler laying about, containing graphic images of people skewered on poles that were no less shocking for dating back several centuries… so I can assume that this film might have left something of the same impression on hapless young viewers growing up in Estonia in the 1980s.
I would agree that the Fierlingers’ films are adult in the real sense. One of the few cases where I would not hesitate. Thanks for reminding me about their films. I’ve only seen one, A Room Nearby, and that was almost three years ago. I wrote about it here.
I think for the moment I’ll elect to remain critical on this question. To me it all seems to boil down to perspective. What to one person is the epitome of the adult animated film, with no room for discussion, will be full of holes and merely silly to another.
Ben, if you liked Secret Sunshine, you’ll be glad to know that Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis is available on Region 1 DVD.
Secret Sunshine is a heartfelt film with insightful and well observed moments. Oasis works to build a whole that is startling, transcendent, optimistic and unsparingly critical all at once. A rare socially conscious film that manages to back up its good intentions with first-rate artistic craft.
Thanks for the recommendation, Peter. Lee Chang Dong is a remarkable filmmaker from the one film of his I’ve seen, so I’ll definitely be checking out Oasis.