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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.