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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.
thanks for all the informative and enlighting sum-ups Ben. The documentary caught my attention (i assume it was banned in china) and the feature in the himalayas.
As for the france/georgia film, most of the directors films are in that pace. I tried watching a film once but could not.
My pleasure. Glad a few people are getting something from this. It’s a challenge to myself to get all my thoughts down about these films. I don’t know if Fortune Teller was banned in China, but anything remotely questionable seems to get banned, so it wouldn’t be surprising.
As for Chantrapas, I suspected it was probably the director’s style, so that makes sense.
I am enjoying the flurry of recent posts, especially the VIFF updates. I’ll be sure to revisit these writeups when next years MIFF rolls around.