by Lawrence Garcia Features Festival Coverage

Vancouver Film Festival 2016 – Dispatch 2

October 14, 2016
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The 35th Vancouver International Film Festival is past its halfway point and continues to deliver a refreshingly varied cinematic slate. This second dispatch covers three less-heralded films from the fest’s Dragons & Tigers program, and two higher-profile world cinema titles, the Olivier Assayas ghost story Personal Shopper and Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion. Also covered in this dispatch arethe feature debuts from both Theo Anthony (Rat Film) and Ted Fendt (Short Stay), as well as selections ported over from TIFF’s Wavelengths sidebar, Indefinite Pitch and Kékszakállú.


Although VIFF has always suffered, to a degree, from its “festival of festivals” problem—that is, its lack of a distinct identity, owing to its enormous slate—the consistently stellar “Dragons & Tigers” program, dedicated to showcasing East Asian cinema, has long been a distinguishing feature. If this year’s crop seems comparatively wan, that’s largely because last year’s was so impressive—some of its heavyweights, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sylvia Chang and Mabel Cheung, are naturally missing here. Not so with Jia Zhangke, however, who made waves last year with his epic melodrama Mountains May Depart, but who returns this time with not one, but two new films: his short The Hedonists, playing in the Beautiful 2016 anthology (commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival), and Zhang Hanyi’s debut film, Life After Life, for which Jia served as producer. 

The Hedonists shares some thematic similarity with Mountains May Depart, particularly in its focus on the effects of China’s rapid modernization, but naturally its scope is smaller; it’s also wildly different in tone, opting for satirical heft over bracing emotional force. Following three friends who’ve been laid off from their respective jobs in a local coal mining town, and their subsequent attempts to find work, The Hedonists (from a script co-written with Mountains lead Zhao Tao) is filled with sharp, comic moments that may seem somewhat unusual for Jia. A particularly striking scene, set to the strains of “The Blue Danube,” observes two friends wrestling in a field at the order of a local magnate, the camera (mounted on a drone) rising higher and higher into the sky. Like its title, the film is as wryly ironic and politically pointed as any Jia’s made, and certain to delight fans of his work. It’s also an unusual, but not ill-advised, entry point for newcomers.

If Life After Life may seem comparatively staid, that’s largely by design, with Zhang Hanyi’s approach being closer to, say, Weerasethakul’s hushed spiritualism than Jia’s bold dramatic strokes. The wisp of a narrative concerns a father, Mingchung (Zhang Mingjun), and his son (Zhang Li, whose body has been taken over by the spirit of Xiuying, his dead mother) as they look for someone to help them move a tree in front of their home. “People grow trees; trees know people,” says Xiuying early on. It’s a line that resonates from the first frame to the last, images of branches and lonely woods recurring along the pair’s journey through a barren provincial landscape. Throughout, the camera favors long, deliberate takes, which lends Life After Life a touch of humor (a long shot observes Mingchung forced back down a winding hill by a large dump truck) as well as a quiet gravity (an encounter with Mingchung’s father, reincarnated as a dog, is accepted without question). The approach gives class, culture and identity—and lives left behind by a nation’s forward movement—an intriguing dimension, even if the overall effect does feel rather one-note. The title points toward a future beyond the present life; but for some, like Mingchung and his family, the present is all they have.

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Playing alongside both films in the Dragons & Tigers program is the mysterious, intriguing Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, directed by Buddhist lama Khyentse Norbu. Opening with an unnamed woman in a club (played by Xun Zhou), accompanied by a pulsating beat and gorgeous blue-violet light (immediately reminiscent Millennium Mambo) the film then shifts to an unnamed man (played by Tshering Dorji) in a forest “somewhere in Bhutan.” After donning a mask and skirt, he is taken by armed masked figures, blindfolded, and brought to an area where he’s to stay for one lunar cycle alongside other individuals like himself. “Anonymity is power,” intones the guru of the camp, the ubiquitous masks and skirts obscuring both identity and gender. Apart from that clear rule, the film’s lengthy middle section is difficult to make heads or tails of, not least because neither identity nor intent are ever concretely established. There are violent chases through the woods and nightly, fireside rituals; a man is caught breaking the rules and punished with an unmasking and imprisonment; the nominal protagonist repeatedly watches a masked pair make love in the woods. But given that only the unnamed man at the beginning is really “known” to the audience, the schema of the narrative takes precedence over the particulars, which turns the film into a kind of morality play filtered through Buddhist notions of karmic justice. Apart from the concept, though, there’s not much to hold on to—that is, until a destabilizing climactic act and subsequent ellipses bring the film back to its beguiling opening. Hema Hema is the kind of film that spins its wheels until the very end, but provides such a beautiful resolution that any intervening tedium may be worth the wait. In its last few minutes, all artifice is stripped away and deep currents of heretofore only suggested emotion rise to the surface; the beat of the club takes over one final time.

Theo Anthony‘s Rat Film, on the other hand, which first premiered at Locarno in August, wastes no time in grabbing your attention, opening with voiceover about the beginning of the world, then smashing from a Norway rat, trying to jump out of a trash can, straight to the title card. Given that Rat Film has been slotted in the “Impact” stream of this festival (alongside films like Fire at Sea), one might initially think it’s info-doc on Baltimore’s rat problem. But within seconds, it becomes clear that this is only one strand of Anthony’s wide-ranging and consistently inventive vision, which is at once a documentation of rat-related eccentrics, a look at the influence of behavioral scientists at Johns Hopkins University, and an examination of the various forces that shaped Baltimore as a city (particularly the racist housing policies that “redlined” predominantly black neighborhoods). It’s to Anthony’s credit that his film is so relentlessly digressive, both playing with and interrogating documentary conventions at every turn. Repeated forays into a virtual Google Maps version of Baltimore (explored as an infinitesimal “floating point”) question the idea of the camera as a null object; tangential sections on the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” (which are touchstones of forensic science) explore the disjunction between an object’s presentation and its reality. Although these various tangents may not all coalesce by the end, Rat Film still manages to be compelling and surprising all the way through. Allow it to burrow into your mind and it won’t disappoint.

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That advice may well be applied to Olivier Assayas’s slippery, sensual Personal Shopper, which does for horror what Irma Vep (still the high watermark of this genre-hopping auteur’s filmography) did for the self-reflexive film-within-a-film. Filtering its central ghost story through a filmic hall of mirrors, the movie follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper-cum-medium working in Paris and waiting for a “sign” from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis. As with Assayas’s other more genre-inclined films, this one’s always risky, sometimes silly, but never boring. A much-discussed scene finds Maureen engaged in a lengthy SMS-conversation with either a stalker or a ghost. It’s potentially laughable stuff, but Stewart and Assayas play the material with such openness and sincerity that it preempts (or at least tempers) those impulses. The film’s genre trappings refract familiar themes of festering grief and emotional transference, which gain a canny resonance within the Paris fashion world that Maureen inhabits. Formally, Assayas is in full control: a particularly striking sequence simply takes the disembodied camera’s perspective as it moves through a hotel’s corridors, opening elevators and automatic doors along the way. Personal Shopper’s emotional core, though, is far more difficult to locate. Revealing nothing but the contours of Maureen’s relationship with her twin brother, Assayas’s film relies on Stewart to convey that crucial sense of grief. But without someone like Juliette Binoche to play off of (as in Clouds of Sils Maria), that task is far more difficult and is ultimately just beyond even Stewart’s considerable talents; the emotion slips away. Those who do manage to locate that strand, though, will likely be walloped by the enigmatic ending. The rest will find it a kind of cinematic game—engaging for a time, but lacking that crucial gestalt.

Though Terence Davies was absent from the festival in 2015, his Emily Dickinson film A Quiet Passion makes its appearance this year and finds the English director in fine form. Like Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, this is a poet-biopic that, coincidentally, also makes impressive use of Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” That’s where similarities end though: Larrain’s ironic formal bravado is a world away from Davies’s deeply felt emotion. The latter’s film begins with the most enormous of questions: “Do you wish to come to God and be saved?” It then traces significant moments in Dickinson’s life, with Davies’ characteristic formal grace (twice, a patient, circling camera observes a candlelit room to stunning effect) and somewhat uncharacteristic humor, largely in the form of the poet’s quick wit (skilfully deployed by Cynthia Nixon in the lead). Despite the ostensible levity (which may bring to mind Whit Stillman’s recent Love & Friendship) and overt biographical nature, the film is as personal an elegy as any Davies has made, the central notion of beauty and art as “something pressed from truth”—a phrase that could aptly describe any of his films, from the melodic melancholy of Distant Voices, Still Lives to transcendent memory play The Long Day Closes—permeating throughout. Though not as structurally daring as those early works and not without its concessions to staid biopic conventions, it remains rapturous—a sequence that imagines a suitor mounting “her stairs at midnight” ranks among the director’s finest moments. It’s also to Davies’s and Nixon’s credit that the sorrow of Dickinson’s life is never doused by cheap, present-tense vindication. Dickinson’s “ruthless” integrity, her struggle with matters of the soul, and her “embittered” nature—all are contemplated with a moving, tragic clarity. As the script observes, clarity is not at all the same as obviousness. Davies certainly knows the difference.

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“Obvious” is likely the last word that would be used to describe Argentine writer-director Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállúby a large margin, the most baffling film discussed in this dispatch. Inspired by a Hungarian opera, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, it follows a group of young women as they chart their independence and enter adulthood. If that description seems excessively vague, it’s because the film is virtually plotless, its connection to Bartók’s opera palpable, but extremely difficult to pin down. That tenuous link aside, what immediately beguiles is Solnicki’s astonishing formal prowess. This is the kind of film that can leave a viewer enraptured within minutes, based solely on its images. Even before the opening title card, Solnicki delivers composition after stunning composition, making impressive use of duration, off-screen sound, negative space, color, and music (from the original opera), among other cinematic techniques. It’s not this film’s narrative, but the particulars of its construction, that are crucial; not for nothing do some of the characters discuss industrial design and architecture (physical space and its use is central to the film’s multivalent concerns). By the time Kékszakállú‘s closing shot arrives, the film’s particulars may not be any clearer than they were at the very beginning. But it’s ultimately that intrigue that matters, and Kékszakállú is compelling from the first frame to the last.

As consistently compelling, though in a more overtly comic mode, James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s 23-minute short Indefinite Pitch makes full use of its title’s multiple meanings (from sound frequency to slope to tree resin and so on). Framed as a movie pitch about Berlin, New Hampshire, Wilkins’s film consists entirely of still images of water in various flowing forms, accompanied by digressive stand-up-type voiceover (which shifts in pitch as the film goes on) rambling on about—among other things—the lost 1927 film The Masked Menace, the Androscoggin River, and Jack Torrance from The Shining. It’s the kind of conceit that would be deadly at two minutes, but somehow works because it goes on for so long, its endless monologue helpfully including a discussion about frame rates, DCP, and how digital has changed the notion of what we term and perceive as “film.” “Indefinite” need not mean unsure, and Wilkins’s confidence makes all the difference.

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Playing with Indefinite Pitch is Ted Fendt’s first feature, the refreshingly droll Short Stay. It centers on Mike (Mike MacCherone), a passive, socially awkward twenty-something living in New Jersey. When Mark (Mark Simmons), one of Mike’s friends, decides to go to Poland for a few months, Mike sublets his apartment and takes over his job, providing free walking tours of the city. But Mark returns earlier than planned and kicks Mike out, refusing to pay back the extra rent. That summary is already far more dramatic than the film actually plays, since Fendt isn’t as concerned with incident as he is with putting the viewer into a very particular headspace, here observing Mike’s strange (anti-)charisma and social ineptitude. (An observation that the apartment has a loft is followed immediately by: “Do you make out up there?”) Relying less on scripted witticisms, the film finds its comedy in wry comic cuts, very particular speech rhythms and sharp, physical humor. Fendt and the cast commit to this understated, observational mode, which is engaging enough, if not necessarily revelatory or insightful. Short Stay is amusing enough while it lasts, even if it never really locates a satisfying endpoint. As its title may suggest, transitory pleasures are better than none.

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