Wednesday, November 14, 2012

VIFF 2012: Memories Look at Me

After several days of festival movies filled with storytelling gimmicks and dazzling displays of artistic virtuosity, I was utterly unprepared late on my fifth day at VIFF for the hyper-mellowness of Song Fang's debut film about visiting her family as an unmarried adult.  It's a fuzzy blanket of a movie, a fuzzy blanket of death.  You'll recognize Song as the Chinese student in Paris in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, and she plays herself here beside her real-life parents as they discuss mundane family events and history in dialogue that is largely scripted but feels improvised.  The movie is thus a lot like a Liu Jiayin film, but where Liu foregrounds her formal playfulness Song seems to be trying to erase any sense of artificiality from her filmmaking.  Her takes are long but not ostentatiously so and in some scenes she even uses traditional analytical editing where the demands of minimalism would require a long take.  She cuts axially out of and into a frame and sometimes the camera moves, but never for its own sake.  Much of the film is confined to a single set, her parents' apartment, and Song uses different set-ups in the same locations to give a sense of variety to what could otherwise be a very static, boring space.

The plot is structured around a series of conversations between Song, her parents, her brother and an aunt and uncle.  The conversations invariably turn out to be roundabout ways of nagging Song to answer one simple question, finally posed halfway through the film: "How long will you go on living alone?"  There's a cautionary tale about a great uncle who remained single and ending up staying up all night and sleeping all day, a long talk about taking care of a family friend sick with cancer, long shots of family members cutting each other's finger nails and so on.  It's a question Song is clearly asking herself: the more she stays, the more nostalgic she gets for her youth, when she lived at home and had people to take care of and who would take care of her.  Family as a bulwark against the solitude of death.

The high point in the film is when Song's brother comes to visit and promptly falls asleep.  Soon, everyone else is napping too.  I love when people take naps in movies (see for example, Chungking Express) and this has got to be the purest depiction of the joys of the warm afternoon nap ever committed to film.  But as Song watches her parents sleeping, first her father, alone in closeup, then her mother bedside him, the film's melancholy heart breaks.

VIFF 2012: Moksha: the World or I, How Does That Work?

The longest, most unwieldy title of the festival belongs to this film by Korean director Koo Sungzoo.  It opens with a closeup of a man screaming, shouting for help as he finds himself chained to the ground in the middle of an empty, frozen playground.  How and why he got there is never really explained: he's a man trapped in a metaphor, and the only way for the film to end is for him to figure out what it all means.  Throughout the film various people walk by and talk to him.  A woman slaps him repeatedly, he chats with a passing drunk, a priest dances for him to achieve "supreme perfect wisdom" ("Don't dance, call the police!" the man desperately pleads).  He gets yelled at by a crazy bride on her way to a wedding, he shouts angrily at a phantom "crazy filmmaker", he has a conversation with Edgar Allen Poe (apparently, I missed this but Koo and Tony Rayns discussed it in the post-film Q & A), at some point comes the realization that "the afterlife is awful but you can't kill yourself because you're already dead."

This is all suitably weird, but the film is necessarily limited to its central metaphor.  There's not a lot of mystery about what it all means, and in a Dragons & Tigers series dominated by films about death (I saw five of the eight films in the competition, this one along with A Mere Life, Memories Look at Me, A Fish and the eventual winner, Emperor Visits the Hell and they are all more or less explicitly about death and/or the afterlife) this is probably the least subtle and the least resonant.  It plays as more of a thought experiment than a dramatization.  Still, it's pleasantly off-beat and the central performance by Jang Hyeokjin is impressive considering how central he is to nearly every frame of the film.  The fact that this was probably my least favorite of the films I saw at VIFF this year says less about its quality than it does the quality of the festival as a whole.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Week in Rankings

Blind Husbands - 3, 1919
Ali: Fears Eats the Soul - 5, 1974

The Shining - 4, 1980
Skyfall - 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

VIFF 2012: Something in the Air

The latest film from Olivier Assayas has apparently been retitled After May (a direct translation of its French title, Après mai) for its US release, but I do like this festival title better (though the classic Thunderclap Newman song does not appear in the film).  The original title's reference is most likely lost on the American audience, which isn't likely to be familiar with the protests and riots, both political and cinephilic, that rocked Paris in the spring of 1968, but the details aren't particularly relevant to the story, which fits neatly into the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age-in-the-70s category with films like Almost Famous or Dazed and Confused.  It also, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a neat companion piece to Assayas's last film, the epic Carlos.

Where that film chronicled the eclipse of ideology by the sheer enjoyment its hero found in acts of destruction, in this one we see the idealism of the leftist political movements of the 1960s dissipate as its teenage protagonists grow up.  The story focuses on Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), an apparent Assayas stand-in, a bookish type who partakes in some (ineffectual) protests, argues the finer points of ideology but is increasingly more interested in girls and art (he's a painter).  After a bit of vandalism backfires, Gilles and his friends go into hiding, cleverly disguised as a rich kids' summer vacation in picturesque Italy.  He begins a romance with Lola Créton's character Christine, a more committed, and very cute, activist while Gilles's best friend Alain hooks up with a redheaded American (she "studies sacred dance. In the Orient, they still dance for the Gods").  Meeting up with a radical film crew provides some of the film's best lines: interested in filmmaking, Gilles asks if he can borrow their equipment sometime and is told "We only do agitprop, we don't lend for fiction."  Later, after the filmmaking collective shows one of their documentaries they lead an Q & A, which leads to a priceless encapsulation of the cul-de-sac that is radical politics as different factions of audience and filmmaker argue over whether a "revolutionary cinema requires a revolutionary syntax", or if revolutionary syntax is simply the "individualistic style of the petit bourgeoisie" and that what they need to do is "enlighten, not shock the proletariat".  Gilles sums them up later as "boring films with primitive politics".

The second half of the film, as the kids return home and go their separate ways, is a delicate balance of disillusion and hope for the future, as Gilles becomes less interested in politics and more in love with art and filmmaking in particular.  While Gilles gets a job working for his dad at a TV studio and watches and reads about movies in his free time, along with putting together trippy light show for rock bands, Christine remains a committed lefty while Alain and the redhead drift.  The requisite "decadent 70s" sequence is set at a house similar to the one in Assayas's Summer Hours.  But where the party that ends that film is all golden sunlight, cheery kids, innocence and beauty, this one is a druggy, fiery haze ending in chaos, death and Captain Beefheart.

In Carlos, Assayas chronicled the descent of 60s radicalism into the kind of nihilistic violence we call terrorism today.  With this film, he tackles the flip side of that same subject, as leftist idealism fragments both in the face of bourgeois temptation (drugs, money, art) and under the weight of its own radicalism.  All radical movements crumble for the same reason: purity becomes more important than reality and the radicals cannibalize themselves (see what's going on in the GOP right now).  That's why we're a little sad to see Christine still helping the collective schlep their boring films around to increasingly small audiences of like-minded radicals, though she alone has remained true to their youthful ideals.  She seems happy, and certainly admirable as a person, but somehow diminished.  Gilles on the other hand is open and expansive, absorbing politics as he absorbs everything else he encounters before eventually moving on to the next discovery, the next world.  We leave him working on a B movie set at Pinewood Studios surrounded by Nazis and dinosaurs, an artist on the ground floor, looking up.