VIFF Roundup I: Days 1-4 10/05/2010
When one is attending university while a film festival runs in their city, one has a choice. Priorities are called into question. One may elect to see over 40 films in 2 weeks. One may neglect valuable study time (ahhh that damn psych exam is on Friday! What is a corpus callusum and an amygdalala and a…) in order to do so. One may wish to write on each film he sees like he did at VIFF last year. One, hypothetically, may get home around 1:00am on the first night at VIFF, have 2 hours of homework to do, and then may have to depart early in the morning for the next round of films, leaving absolutely no time to write until now. OK, so I’m the “one” and as a compromise, I’m going to be doing breezy roundups so I can at least get something out there, as brief and trite as it may be (BTW just cause its trite doesn’t mean I’m not right). Alright, catch-up time…
After a surprise encounter at a downtown crosswalk, I spontaneously agreed to attend a film I had not heard of, as I had time to kill until my first planned screening. The film was Vespa, a Hungarian film directed by Diana Groó, which features a Kiarostami-esque plot in which a young boy runs away from home on a journey to redeem his vespa-winning voucher in Budapest. However, Where is the Friend’s Home this is not, and full of problems this is. Contrivances abound in this mild, uneven feature that misses more than it hits. The young protagonist is an endearing figure and his plight is intriguing, but several of his encounters come off as unconvincing and even his main relationship with a street performer is unsatisfying. That being said, the aesthetic occasionally shines through and so does the film’s heart.
Hong Sangsoo’s Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes, Hahaha, is a delight. That’s not to say the film is all smiles, to the contrary, but the warmth and humour supersede the sadness in this beautifully human drama. Sangsoo’s seemingly out-of-place zooms disarm the form, and pave the way to a brilliant look at the laughs that cover up our suffering and the gaps between people we desperately try to close. This is definitely one of my early favourites at VIFF.
The next film I saw currently stands as the best: a 6-hour Chinese documentary titled Karamay about a tragic occurrence 13 years ago. A celebratory performance put on by Karamay’s brightest students was put on for educational officials and a fire took the lives of 323 people, most of them children. All of the visiting officials survived, leaving the children behind. In the aftermath of the event, promises were made but never kept by the government, and a media cover-up removed the tragedy from mainstream consciousness. Filmmaker Xu Xin interviews many of the victims’ parents, and interweaves news footage, including challenging images from the event itself. In a breathtaking sequence that opens Karamay, Xu Xin, visits the victims’ graves at the Xiaoxihu cemetery. This sequence plays over a long period of time, as Xu Xin provides us with the experience of walking from grave to grave and lingering on the faces of the children, whose portraits are on the gravestones. Some of these photographs are in good condition, others are warped and/or faded giving some a ghostlike quality. Each time, the filmmaker’s camera reflects in the photos’ frames as cinema merges with their lives and resurrects their story. The same ideology is applied to the many interviews, which unfurl slowly and with little editing. Karamay maintains an emotional charge for most of its 6 hours and stands as one of the most important films of the year.
L'enfant terrible Sion Sono’s film Love Exposure impressed me when I was able to see it last year with its combination of abrasive cartoony stylization and complex religious themes. That strength is less present in this year’s Cold Fish. Sono employs his token cartoonlike quality and throws in some extra shock tactics with minor success in deconstructing Japanese repression. Sono’s analysis of family dynamics is a bit simple, but other complexities are present in the protagonist’s journey from repressed to manic. To look at repression, Sono takes his main character to the extreme opposite side of the spectrum, which among other things, involves rape and body dismemberment.
Raúl Ruiz’s 272-minute Mysteries of Lisbon is a subversive period piece about a cornucopia of bourgeois secrets, affairs and mysteries. The greatest mystery of all lies in Ruiz’s camera, which is almost always panning, to a nearly gratuitous extent, leading to the film’s greatest strengths but also an occasional disconnect between content and form, leaving the viewer alienated in certain instances. However, the film gets better and better until its final hour of delicious revelations and bold cinematic techniques which quell any prior missteps.
Curling, the latest film from Québécois auteur Denis Coté is a quiet but effective drama about an odd couple in the form of a daughter and her single father. Jean-Francois is a mechanic at the local bowling alley, and has an eccentric way of raising his daughter, Julyvonne. He keeps her isolated and home-schools her, which becomes the predominant dilemma of the film. Jean-Francois’ alienation seeps into the life of his daughter and he has to decide whether he can live his life, and allow his daughter the same luxury. Curling resonates most strongly in the early going, and the conclusion, which rightly gives no definitive answers, lacks potency, if not poetry.
Pinoy Sunday is a film I wont dwell on. Taiwanese filmmaker Ho Wi Ding brings attention to the important subject of emigrant Filipino workers. However, he fails to realize that having a sincere message is not enough, but instead sincerity must be behind every aspect of the film and Pinoy Sunday uses a paint-by-numbers plot arc imported from Hollywood. Their exploits are played for empty laughs, and occasionally unintentional amoral undertones shine through. Ultimately, Ho Wi Ding demeans his characters and the people they represent.
Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car is an ingenious cinematic collage of Los Angeles billboards, signs and buildings put to a compilation of L.A. tunes and fragmented spoken word clips. Running an approximate 30 minutes, but flying by in what seems like 10, the film is an energetic survey of the consequences of capitalism, the remains of a system that leaves substance behind. At times witty, always fun, and at times even poignant.
Catherine Breillat’s feminist fairy tale The Sleeping Beauty, is an entrancing journey through the female experience. We follow the protagonist from birth to adolescence to sexual blossoming and discovery. The film’s aesthetic can be underwhelming, but beauty emerges through Breillat’s moving portrayal of her character and her development. By activating mythology, she has complete freedom to irrationally move from one sequence to the next with disregard for the plot elements that would hold back another film. Those who I’ve spoken to about The Sleeping Beauty felt alienated, but I can attest to having a very consistent and emotional experience with the film.
Xu Tong’s documentary, Fortune Teller, is most definitely a worthwhile film, even if it has its drawbacks. We get to spend time with Li Baicheng, a crippled fortune teller who lives with his crippled, deaf & dumb wife Pearl, whom he sought out upon hearing of her condition, in order to have a companion whom he could take care of. Xu Tong affords us an intimate experience with these people, who I’m richer for having met. That being said, the film’s cinéma vérité approach gives little room for truly penetrating insight and by its conclusion, Fortune Teller gives us little to take away. Still, some moments, such as Pearl smiling and playing with the camera, are some of the most memorable of the festival so far.