VIFF Roundup II: Days 5-8 10/08/2010
Playing with a program of short films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Isamu Hirabayashi was a mid-length Korean film called A Silk Letter. Directed by Kang Sangwoo, it showcases a talent with a lot of potential. The film has some striking moments and sequences but does not quite hold together by the end. Still, the sincerity and gentle emotion of A Silk Letter made it worth seeing.
James Benning’s Ruhr, Composed of seven shots spread over a two hour running time,begs you to explore every inch of the frame. In one shot, in a tunnel, a few cars pass by over the course of several minutes but my interest lay in two moments, one when someone on a bicycle passes, and the other when we see a leaf blowing across the road. These two moments seem to be the only glimpses of nature in this tunnel, and indeed several of the shots in Ruhr evoke this kind of thinking. In another shot, a plane rushing by with a mechanic shriek disrupts the proud independence of a group of trees. In my favourite shot, in a factory, the only glimpse of anything other than machine is when two co-workers pass by far in the background. Ruhr focuses on nature being dwarfed by smoke, metal and concrete.
One of the worst films I’ve seen at VIFF is Thomas Mao, directed by Zhu Wen. Alternately goofy and heavy-handed, the film is a victim of its own whimsy. Thankfully, Liu Jiayin’s charming short film 607, which takes place in a hotel bathtub, played beforehand.
Everyone who has seen Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins remarks that it is the most conventional and classical film from the versatile auteur. This may be true, but it’s an oversimplification; 13 Assassins has ideas behind its tight plot, and while not complex, can be philosophical and interesting. The final battle of the film occupies a large chunk of its running time, and it’s made almost entirely of tight shots in one impressive set piece. Miike’s violence may not provide the payoff that blockbuster-trained viewers crave, as his violence doesn’t always bring the pleasure of Ridley Scott or Zack Snyder who ask their audience to be moved by the swinging of a sword or the firing of an arrow.
Mumblecore meets Stroszek in Mike Ott’s Littlerock, a moving portrait of a Japanese woman, Atsuko, visiting California with her brother, Rintaro. Atsuko can’t speak English but that doesn’t stop her from falling love with one man, and attracting the love of another. At first, the small town of Littlerock and its people capture Atsuko’s desire, but the longer she stays, the more she realizes its just more of the same. Littlerock isn’t great, but it hits moments of genuine insight and emotion.
Morgen, directed by Marian Crisan, is an effective, minimalist look at a Romanian security guard, Nelu, who takes in a Turkish emigrant. Unable to verbally communicate with each other, the two men become friends in one of the most comically understated and poignant depictions of a relationship this year. Nelu tries several times to help the emigrant get across the border to meet his family, as Crisan illustrates the redundancy of the petty rules that govern us and restrict our humanity. Oddly enough, three films at VIFF, Thomas Mao, Littlerock and Morgen, have used language barrier as one of the central themes; This one is the best of the trio.
Master auteur Jia Zhangke’s latest work is I Wish I Knew, a poetic documentary made in a similar mode as 24 City. The film plays as part love letter and part lamentation for the city of Shanghai. Jia interviews several people affected by Shanghai, penetrating the collective and common hopes, fears and joys of a city. Interwoven with these interviews is a dialogue-free journey of a woman wandering through the city, played by Zhao Tao, who can evoke as much emotion in a mid-shot as nearly any other actress’ close-up.
One of the great films of the year, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is a staggering use of documentary form. Filmmaker Andrei Ujica refrains from using any narration or anything self-shot, and composes the three-hour film completely from stock footage. Thus, the documentary is wholly cinematic as Ujica communicates his ideas entirely through montage. At times humorous and eventually powerful, the film doesn’t penetrate its figure so much as it penetrates what he represents. It’s less about one single man as it is about any man in a position of political power or as it is about the façade of any governing body.
Hong Sang-soo’s second film of the festival, Oki’s Movie, made less of an impression on me. HaHaHa’s cumulative power comes from an involving drama full of warmth and humour. Oki’s Movie is a lot tougher on itself. The dramatic notes are smaller, as is its canvas, and the characters, while interesting, aren’t as great a source of insight or amusement. Still, I’m not sure this makes it the weaker film of the two, or if it perhaps makes it more accomplished. I’ll likely have to revisit both of them, and I’m more than happy to do so.
I liked Lee Changdong’s Poetry for its subdued themes and tone. The film follows an aging woman as she tries to write a single poem. On the surface the plot is disarmingly simple, but complexities lurk beneath and the subplot of a girl who committed suicide overpowers all else. The journey of this character is quiet and gains power until a strong denouement of pure pathos. Some things get in the way but this is a fairly consistent work, if a marginal success.