“VIFF remains the unspoiled oasis for cinephiles looking to get away from it all.”
Like nearly every other film festival on the planet, Vancouver hasn’t been immune to the global financial meltdown, but judging from my weeklong stay it seemed like business as usual: lines snaked around the block for fest tent-poles (the dastardly Precious, the s-Cannes-dalous Antichrist), an army of well-mannered retirees ready for the wide array of documentaries with their salad wraps and apples, and plenty of Asian twentysomethings showing love for the Dragons and Tigers (D&T) films. The number of films programmed in the D&T section was slightly down on last year, and there were a few curious omissions (Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay and Lola for starters). But it was, for the most part, another terrific panorama of all that’s exciting, challenging, and fresh in Asian filmdom. My few flirtations with non-Asian cinema paid off in spades too, and the festival trailers playing before each screening were still funny after their tenth and eleventh viewing, which is a small miracle in itself. So yes, the global economy may be falling apart and the environment completely fucked for my children’s children, but you can count on the Vancouver Film Festival to lift your spirits, deliver the goods, and fight the good fight for the art of cinema in an uncertain world.
Shorn down after its Cannes unveiling, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s charming Air Doll had its fair share of detractors at the festival, although I wasn’t one of them. The premise is brilliant, and Kore-eda juggles the innocence of his protagonist (an inflatable fuck-toy who comes to life) blossoming in a world of constant discovery with the darker sexual reality of her purpose. This juxtaposition is not only fascinating, I couldn’t help but think of the prevailing culture of ‘tween sexualisation rampant in commercial cinema, television, and the music industry. (In Japan the resonances run even deeper with manga culture and the fetishization of schoolgirls.) Air Doll is mainly concerned with sexual commodification and the state of sexually stunted masculinity, but it operates perfectly fine as a modern-day fairytale if you strip away all the underlying meanings and symbolism. Bae Doo-na can usually breathe life into her films, and here she gives a remarkable performance, in both her physical mannerisms of an air doll coping with newfound movement and her ability to get to the heart of her character. The film is not without its problems – chiefly the second half’s focus on the sense of community surrounding the air doll isn’t given enough room to develop. But it certainly ain’t the disaster a few critics suggested. Even if the film had consisted of nothing more than Lee Ping-bing’s mesmerizing camerawork prowling around the quiet city streets following Bae in that skimpy French maid’s costume, I still would have given it a pass, I’m sorry to say, based on pure visual beauty alone. The fact that we get that and another slice of Kore-eda’s trademark humanistic warmth wrapped up in a pretty daring artistic move (coming on the heels of a quiet domestic drama) was enough for me to come out and defend the film against the quick dismissals.
Chinese filmmakers won the D&T Award for the past two years, and so it was refreshing to see a South Korean, Jang Kun-jae, take the stage to get the top prize this year. His film Eighteen doesn’t stray too far from the doomed high school romance template, but its marvelous qualities lie in the credible performances from nonprofessional leads Seo Jun-yeong and Lee Min-ji, who nail their roles with sincerity and intensity. There are no happy endings, and Jang does a faithful job of detailing the frustration, yearning, and naiveté bubbling over in his lead male, Tae-hoon, who delivers Chinese food in the hope of a little financial independence and securing his future with his forbidden lover Mi-jeong. Looking back on my own high school days, several elements resonated emotionally, and most audiences who had a high school love will recognize some part of themselves in the characters Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong. I think it’s reasonable to say Eighteen is probably the most conventional of recent D&T winners (Mid Afternoon Barks, Todo Todo Teros, Perfect Life, and Oxhide), but it’s visually assured, wonderfully acted, and has an honest, youthful energy powering it (that energy is exactly the sort of thing lacking in Hollywood’s attempts at similar stories).
A little confession: I never managed to catch Like a Virgin, but I might hunt it down after seeing Lee Hey-jun’s slick and quite funny follow-up, Castaway on the Moon. Starring Jung Jae-young in one of his best performances, the film is good recession cinema. An average salary man, Mr. Kim, drowning in debt and recently dumped, jumps into Seoul’s Han River only to wash up on a deserted island squished between either side of the river. Unable to swim and forced to live off washed-up garbage, he quickly switches from suicidal thoughts to finding little pleasures in self-determination. The subject’s relevance to the current global situation is clear. As the film begins to lose a little steam despite being a much better riff on Robert Zemeckis’ awful Castaway, Lee introduces a pretty, young shut-in who lives nearby into the mix, and a love story almost impossibly blooms. After dozens of minimalist festival titles, a film like Castaway on the Moon is something of a small blessing: unapologetically commercially minded but clever. It’s the sort of film that some Hollywood exec could commission a hack to rewrite for a Manhattan-set redo.
Bong Joon-ho’s superb Mother returns him to the small-town setting of Memories of Murder, but this is a completely different beast of a thriller than Bong’s second film. Less of a murder mystery than an intense character study of maternal devotion, the film features Kim Hye-ja, who shines as a middle-aged acupuncturist out to clear the name of her dumb son accused of murdering a slutty schoolgirl. Bong’s command of mise-en-scene bursts through in every scene, but one of my favourites has to be when Kim has to tip-toe out of a closet and avoid waking a sleeping murder suspect. Never has water spreading across tiles been so suspenseful, thanks to tense editing and evocative compositions. The violence is shocking when it occasionally erupts, but Bong again throws plenty of humour into the mix, announced from the beginning by the image of Kim dancing wistfully in an open field.
Another Korean master, Hong Sang-soo, provided a festival highlight. Anyone who spends abnormal amounts of time at film festivals (professionally or for leisure) will find plenty to laugh at in Hong’s latest comedy, Like You Know It All. Having personally witnessed jury members sleeping, indie filmmakers bullshitting their fans, and programmers refusing to be hospitable to their guests, I had an absolute blast watching Hong tear apart the egos and sexual tensions that swirl around film fests. Many of Hong’s films split in half, and his latest follows the familiar narrative blueprint: both sections follow the (mis)adventures of an egotistical, petty male intellectual (a director in this case) as he negotiates the dangerous worlds of sex, old friendships, arthouse cinema, and tertiary education. Like Larry David and his brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm, Hong has a sixth sense for milking cringe-worthy embarrassment out of everyday situations, and Like You Know It All contains many such moments.
Two Chinese documentaries made no bones about just how bad the ruling communist party is. Du Haibin set off for Sichuan province soon after the earthquakes to document the lives of those struggling to get back on their feet. The result is the utterly heartbreaking 1428, which scooped the Horizons prize at Venice a few weeks earlier. While it doesn’t directly indict the communists in Beijing, it does show that on a local level not enough is being done to assist residents who are still living in squalor months after the disaster. The point is driven home loud and clear when Du films a family watching a memorial variety show paying tribute to the disaster. The state-sponsored studio sheen and dolled-up presenters are so out of touch with the messy realities of Sichuan, as is visiting Premier Wen Jiabo, who passes through a ravaged town with an entourage to make Puff Daddy blush. I fought back tears watching scenes like a family visiting a college dorm where the son lives or a mother talking about how cruel fate robbed her of her son because he chose to eat lunch early. Still, the film contains frequent laughs as survivors lambaste the authorities or ham it up for Du’s camera.
Pema Tsedan’s (aka Wanma Caidan) The Search is apparently only the second film to be shot in Tibet by a Tibetan director (his debut The Silent Holy Stones was the first) and rather brilliantly evokes Abbas Kiarostami (in particular Through the Olive Trees) while remaining its own uniquely indigenous fusion of road movie and film about filmmaking. A small film crew travels through Tibet in search of performers for a cinematic adaptation of the Tibetan opera Drime Kunden. Shot with a sublimely quiet grace, Pema captures the awe-inspiring landscapes of the nation but also, more importantly, the beauty of a rapidly deteriorating culture, which makes The Search yet another heartrending statement from China’s film culture about the future of the nation. For the curious, Pierre Rissient’s name flashes on the opening credits, and rumours were that the international man of mystery (maybe less mysterious after Todd McCarthy’s documentary Man of Cinema) was responsible for insisting that the film be re-edited from its original, much longer version.
Guan Hu’s Cow is essentially a commercial black comedy, but it’s much smarter than the vast majority of Chinese mainstream war/history movies and, for that matter, most of what comes out of Hollywood. Considering the other mainland films screened were either experimental, documentary, or Hou Hsiao-hsien-ish minimalist journeys, Cow was a welcome addition to prove there’s a bit of vitality in what ordinary Chinese people are consuming at the multiplexes or on DVD. Set during WWII, the film focuses on the Japanese army slaughter of an entire village – or so they think. One of the few survivors is simple farmer Niu Er, played to madcap perfection by Huang Bo (Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer). Together with his Dutch cow (a gift from Holland to China), Niu Er manages to stay alive outsmarting the Japanese invaders and is soon rescued by the communists. While the film operates perfectly well as a piece of entertainment, Cow’s brilliance lies in the emotional dynamic between Niu Er and his cow, which accumulates depth and emotional resonance as man and animal struggle to survive in a grey, harsh environment drenched with death. On my flight to Vancouver I was seated next to a pair of rural dairy farmers who vainly tried to convince me of the deep bond they shared with their animals. After seeing Cow and the touching relationship man can have with cattle, I now understand a little more just how deep the connections can go with animals who keep you alive, either spiritually or economically.
Sun Spots, Yang Heng’s follow-up to Betelnut, was an even more minimalist and daring attempt at depicting the ennui of rural Chinese living than his debut. Think James Benning rather than Hou Hsiao-hsien for this one. On paper the synopsis reads like a gangster movie, but on the screen the “action” drifts by in razor-sharp HD alongside moments of less consequence, and Yang expertly judges shot-length so that audiences can truly immerse themselves in the environment. Each shot brims with smaller details while the mountains and rivers stunningly occupy the rest of the frame – almost a character in themselves. Unlike Oxhide II, this austere formal experiment works precisely because we don’t have anything invested in characters or their predicament; they are so removed from any idea of a plot that we can focus on the image and sound and how physical human movement interacts with the landscape.
Tsuta Tetsuichiro’s homage to Nikkatsu thrillers of the sixties, Island of Dreams, was a small gem. The premise, pitting a veteran cop against an eco-terrorist, has obvious relevance to current headlines, but what makes the film such a delight is how Tsuta rewires our way of seeing the current world through retro eyes. The film print’s various scratches and imperfections only enhance the feeling you’ve stumbled into a retro Suzuki screening, and Tsuta composes his frames carefully to recreate the look of those genre flicks. On a student budget Tsuta has done wonders in blurring past and present more effectively than both of the Kill Bills, and dare I say it, Island of Dreams has a bit more bubbling away inside, too.
Perhaps the most interesting director of the Milkyway team (and frequent Johnnie To collaborator), Wai Ka-fai went solo for Written By, an idiosyncratic, sometimes infuriating, sometimes moving tale of tragedy and the afterlife. Giving Charlie Kaufman a run for his money in terms of narrative complexity, the film presents multiple realities all stemming from the mind of a young blind woman whose father (the always great Lau Ching-wan) died in a car accident. To cope with the grief, she creates a world in which he survives (minus his sight), and the rest of the family haunt his daily routine, either as themselves or reincarnated as animals. Within the narrative world where the father lives on, he begins writing a novel to cope with the grief of his loneliness. If this brief rundown sounds convoluted, wait until you see the film’s different levels of “reality” bleed into each other as characters move between their world and the afterlife. For the most part, Written By remains comprehensible thanks to some neat visual trickiness, only derailing in the final third as more and more interactions take place between the dead and the living, with numerous family members wandering around trying to communicate with each other in vain. Wai seems concerned with the idea of creation-as-therapy, how we cope with grief through denial and wishful thinking, which makes Written By immediately more stimulating than say another cops-n-gangsters film (with or without a spooky flavour). This experimentation within commercial cinema should be applauded, especially in a shaky film industry like Hong Kong’s. But ultimately the film doesn’t plumb great depths in exploring the psychology of suffering and withdrawal, instead throwing all the characters into a giant maze of fictional knots, which is neither satisfying nor intellectually stimulating for the viewer.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Uruphong Raksasad’s magnificent Agrarian Utopia is a documentary – the film sparkles with a striking verisimilitude. But it is a piece of “fiction” in a similar vein to his previous feature Stories from the North, which drew on Uruphong’s actual lifestyle in the region with scripted moments. No one really produces rice the way it’s depicted in the film anymore, so Uruphong took out a lease on a field, assembled some actors, and staged the locals going about their daily grind. Uruphong’s filmography shows a strong engagement with arguably the most pressing issue of our era: how we can wean ourselves off the worst aspects of urbanization and return to a more pleasurable agrarian, sustainable lifestyle. His decision to film and “fictionalize” the more traditional, non-industrialized form of rice production is directly keyed into this engagement: can we return to a simpler, more nurturing way of living off and with the land? There’s no sloganeering or heavy-handedness in Utopia (despite the title) as Uruphong allows the breathtaking (and I don’t use the term lightly) landscapes to speak for themselves. This film immerses the viewer in its environment as few ever have. An absolute heresy to see on DVD or computer screen, Agrarian Utopia shows exactly why we still need the big screen and a big darkened room to experience the moving image.
There are so many terrible U.S. indie films that get heralded as the next coming that my brain automatically switches off when I hear the words “American” and “indie.” Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl is that rare specimen from the genre that is (a) superbly crafted on a tiny budget; (b) gets inside the emotional worlds of its young protagonists with subtlety and poignancy; and (c) has a soundtrack that doesn’t make you want to punch somebody in the head with pseudo-hipster tracks. A little like Hou’s Café Lumiere but set in New York, the film features an epileptic student, Ivy (a wonderful Zoe Kazan), returning to her Brooklyn home for the summer and her childhood friend Al moving in with her after his parents rent out his room. The pair both have their own individual love issues to work through with partners or would be lovers, but by the end there’s a tentative sign that their own friendship could blossom into something further. Gray avoids all the clichés and lame emoting that characterizes so much of the current cinema that involves New York. Ivy and Al interact with a naturalistic flow, and their language that is how real young people talk, not just how screenwriters want young people to talk in their fantasy New York. The film is a pleasure for the eye to boot: the stunning image of Al and Ivy atop a building as warm sunlight bathes them and pigeons fly past has made the rounds of online and print film magazines, and it’s a good indicator of how remarkable the imagery in the film is.
Johan Grimonprez dazzling mash-up of found footage, recreated scenes, and archival film clips in Double Take explores Cold War tensions, the paranoia and fear instilled in the public through consumerism, and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock and his doppelgangers. I’m still actively digesting this heady stew of facts and political theory as I write this, so in the spirit of the film’s finale, I’ll sadly confess I’ve come to terms with the “known knowns” but less so with the “known unknowns” and will have to get back to you on the “unknown unknowns.”
A massive “what if” for film culture is proposed and partly resolved in Inferno, namely, if Henri-Georges Clouzot had finished L’enfer, might it have gone on to be considered one of the landmark titles of sixties cinema, if not cinema history? We’ll never fully know the answer, but Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea have done a superb job of convincing me Clouzot was on his way to making a masterpiece. Plenty has been done to contextualize the making of the film via interviews with key crew members like Costa-Gavras (an assistant director on the production). But what really shines are the experimental screen tests Clouzot made with a ravishingly sexy Romy Schneider. Subjecting her to a range of varying light and colour patterns, Clouzot devised truly stunning and druggy visual effects that seem even more miraculous in this age of quick-fix CGI. The glimpses we get of how these would have been integrated into the central drama – an ultra-jealous husband (Serge Reggiani) is convinced his wife (Schneider) is sleeping around – suggest Clouzot was at the top of his game to shock and seduce when preparing the film. Bromberg and Medrea do a terrific balancing act in patching together archival footage of L’enfer with newly filmed dialogue scenes while contextualizing each moment with interviews, allowing both engagement with the actual story of L’enfer and the surrounding “inferno” of its production.
A few quick drive-by reviews: Francis Ford Coppola’s just-okay Tetro was a delight to watch for the first forty minutes and then buckled under the weight of its own crazed sense of grandeur. A fitting development that may have been, but it still was a tedious watch in the final third. It was good that someone made a movie in which film critics mattered, but Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies wasn’t exactly constructed with flair or polish. As an educational film it’s fine, but as a piece of cinema it isn’t going to go down as one of the more memorable titles showcasing a critic transitioning to directing. Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace’s Wah Do Dem begins like a bad indie comedy but progresses into something much better as a young, hip New Yorker gets stranded in Jamaica without his passport, clothes, or cash. Evolving into an anarchic ride through Jamaica’s villages and jungles as he tries to reach the US embassy in Kingston, the film features an excellent performance by Sean Bones in the lead. Festivals will surely want to jump on this one as a sparky crowd-pleaser.
Plenty has been written about Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist already: the talking fox, the dedication to Tarkovsky, and the brutal genital mutilation, blah, blah, blah. Is the film any good? Not really. If your idea of a sophisticated exploration of sexual relations and grief management is having a woman cut her clitoris off and beat a man’s penis in with a piece of wood, then Antichrist may be for you. Taken as an arty entry in to the torture-porn subgenre, the film has its absolutely repellent moments suitable for an Eli Roth flick but hardly qualifies as adding anything innovative or interesting to its “don’t go in to the woods” template. But it is definitely worth catching on the big screen if only for the abundance of knockout visual/aural moments including the opening sequence slow-mo fuck-fest between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe and the numerous contorting visuals where the forest seems to be bending and/or melting as characters pass through it. Gainsbourg scooped the Best Actress Prize at Cannes, and her performance is a whirlwind of screaming, self-harm, fucking, and torturing. I didn’t see most of the other Cannes contenders, so I can’t comment on the win, but I will say she has definitely stolen the crown from Naomi Watts (see Mulholland Drive) for most earnest crying-while-masturbating performance in an arthouse film. Cannes should make that an official award, the Golden Something . . .
Hyperbole swirls around festivals, from critics heralding masterpieces without too much reflection (which I know I’m guilty of here as well) to programmers heralding masterpieces in their catalogue notes. Vancouver advertises itself as “an unspoiled celebration of world cinema” and a festival “very much designed for the benefit of people who love films and people who make them.” But in this case, the proclamations are much accurate. Everyone I spoke to, from festival programmers to filmmakers to film critics to random members of the public waiting in line, all had endless praise for the festival: its line-up, its hospitality, and its efficiency. The sheer richness and diversity of this year’s programme easily fulfils the mandate for an unspoiled celebration of world cinema, and its terrific to see small treasures like Cats or Sun Spots get their time in the spotlight alongside heavy-hitter auteur pieces by Haneke, Von Trier, Costa, Kore-eda, and Egoyan. As for the issue of benefiting filmmakers: Vancouver does champion new talent, and it’s always a pleasure to see young directors of both shorts and features make the trip to present their films and interact with other filmmakers oceans apart (see above photo of The Anchorage‘s C. W. Winter and Eighteen‘s Jang Kun-jae).
The lingering impact of the economic downturn is probably going to hurt festivals for some time to come, but Vancouver continues to shine as an event to admire and champion and a model to emulate for those smaller fests forced to reflect on their own future in the wake of drying sponsorship dollars and dwindling numbers. No intense business interests, no arms race with other fests to add on more and more associated events and programs: just great programming and a warm, lively atmosphere (it doesn’t hurt that all the main cinemas are within easy walking distance as well). Like the harmonious and simple island-life presented in The Anchorage, VIFF remains the unspoiled oasis for cinephiles looking to get away from it all.