by InRO Staff Features Festival Coverage

New Directors/New Films 2017 – Dispatch 1

March 20, 2017
autumn autumn

The 46th edition of New Directors/New Films kicked off last Wednesday (March 15th) and ends this Sunday (March 24th). For our first of two dispatches from the festival, we look at a “cheeky” documentary about falconry; a “formally assured, but familiar” new film from It Felt Like Love director Eliza Hittman; a movie about Chinese immigrants in Argentina that is, appropriately, built around an understanding of language; Korean filmmaker Jang Woo-jin’s second feature, a reflection on “distance and longing”; and others. Check it out below and look for Dispatch 2 later this week.


Almost entirely without verbal exposition, Yuri Ancarani‘s hypnotic, purely observational The Challenge spends 70 minutes hovering around a falconer’s auction/competition in Qatar. Offering the barest of narratives, the documentary is primarily shot after gorgeous shot of the birds, their masters, the sport itself, and its attendant rituals, set against miles and miles of the otherwise empty, golden Sahara. Some of it might seem a bit cheeky or even a bit on-the-nose incredulous, like scenes of a bunch of falcons cruising in a private jet or a guy taking his pet cougar for a ride in a Lamborghini, but there’s a quiet investigation of community and tradition here, and the ways in which they bump up against modernity. Auctions are conducted via close-circuit TV and phone, but communal meals are still prioritized. Then there’s just the awesome sight of a bunch of millionaires tear-assing around sand dunes and ripping donuts in the desert with their tricked-out luxury SUVs. Matt Lynch

autumn autumn2

In this modest second feature, Jang Woo-jin demonstrates a canny eye for separations between people and within space and time. Autumn, Autumn tells two stories neatly partitioned by a title card 35 minutes in, both originating from strangers sitting together on a train from Seoul to Chuncheon. Jang’s deliberate framing places a stanchion between a quiet, anxious young man and a middle-aged couple having a conversation about losing touch with old friends. The film’s first half follows the younger man, Ji-hyeon, who we learn is unemployed and returning to Chuncheon after an unsuccessful job interview. An old friend spots Ji-hyeon coming down one side of an escalator as he ascends the other, and Ji-hyeon’s guilt over not remembering the man’s name lingers long after the two have been pulled in their opposite directions. Jang follows Ji-hyeon around a strangely desolate, grey Chuncheon as he visits a restaurant owned by another old friend’s mother; gets drunk with a buddy; and finally calls the friend he ran into earlier, Jong-seong, to tearfully apologize for falling out of touch and not remembering his name. “People forget, man. It happens,” Jong-seong responds, and though slightly bemused he honors Ji-hyeon’s request for him to sing a song over the phone for old time’s sake. The second half then follows the middle-aged couple from the same train, Se-rang and Heung-ju, over the course of a tentative, increasingly painful first in-person meeting following an online connection. Jang’s sense of changing landscapes and how they contrast with and evoke memories recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s short The Skywalk Is Gone, and knowing Chuncheon is this filmmaker’s hometown adds poignancy to Autumn, Autumns reflections on distance and longing—and images like the one of Ji-hyeon lost amidst a newly bulldozed vacant lot. Jang’s form is restrained (perhaps by limitations of budget, since the live sound recording seems oddly submerged or distant at times), but also closely attuned to how people interact with public spaces and how small shifts in ambient light add shades of emotional complexity to a simple conversation over lunch, as Se-rang and Heung-ju attempt to reestablish their connection over a childhood memory of playing with insects. At once distant and intimate, like a love song from an old friend heard through an iPhone speaker, Autumn, Autumn astutely captures separations that are not so easily overcome, despite forces that pull the disconnected back from across the divide. Alex Engquist

Beach Rats

Eliza Hittman’s first feature, It Felt Like Love, was a promising, if familiar Brooklyn-set tale of a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality. With, Beach Rats, Hittman revisits the same setting, but with the focus now on a teenage boy’s nascent queer exploration. When the film opens we see Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hesitantly browsing a gay chat-room. “I don’t know what I like,” he says to the older men he talks to, his expression a mix of curiosity, fear and confusion. That certainly can’t be said of Hittman, whose direction here is formally assured, but familiar, trafficking in the kind of frank verisimilitude and “gritty” sensuality typical to so many indie films. If It Felt Like Love played a bit like watered down Catherine Breillat, Beach Rats feels like second-rate Claire Denis, right down to the way the film lingers on the chiseled male bodies of Frankie and his similarly aimless friends with whom he whiles the summer away. Despite some promising elements, particularly Dickinson’s admirably terse performance, it’s a little dispiriting how closely Hittman sticks to the expected story beats—a girlfriend that Frankie uses to gain social acceptance but eventually rebuffs; his younger sister’s sexual maturation; his terminally ill father and worn down but well-meaning mother—right down to a contrived, last-ditch attempt at some complicating drama. There’s a good, possibly great movie to be made here—and Hittman demonstrates that she has the chops to make it happen. But the lingering impression that Beach Rats leaves with its predictably noncommittal ending is that of unfulfilled potential. Lawrence Garcia

White Sun

Sometimes all it takes to set a film apart is a distinctive milieu. In Deepak Rauniyar’s White Sun, the setting is a remote village in Nepal during the aftermath of the civil war between the Maoists and the Nepalese monarchy. The inciting event is simple: the death of the village chieftain, which sets into motion the arduous task of performing proper funeral rites on the body. “Customs exist for a reason… We can’t just forget everything,” says one of the town elders, despite the evident impracticality of the situation. It’s this tension between “tradition” and “progress” that drives White Sun, which Rauniyar explores through various conflicts: generational, political, personal, and otherwise. The chieftain’s Maoist son, Chandra, returns to the village for the funeral rites; his former lover, Durga, plans to marry Chandra’s Royalist-leaning brother, in an attempt to legitimize her daughter, who in turn thinks that Chandra is her father (although he is not); Maoists and royalists maintain an uneasy coexistence. All this is captured with an admirable physicality, which is never more evident than during the funeral procession, delivered in a series of precisely timed, tension-maximizing shots. Given the film’s overall accumulation of incident, however, White Sun at times feels both schematic and contrived, most notably in the climax, during which various story threads ludicrously converge in a violent standoff. But there’s something to be said for simply being immersed in the fascinating dynamics of this completely foreign narrative, all the way up to its satisfying conclusion—a pointed generational shift that’s at once open and resolute. It bodes well for the future in more ways than one. LG

If there’s one thing The Future Perfect has going for it—perhaps more so than any other film playing ND/NF this year—it’s how its premise builds out of its central character’s development. Living in Argentina, Xiaobin (Zhang Xiaobing), a Chinese immigrant, can barely speak a word of Spanish. Her family encourages her to stick to her roots, but Xiaobin decides to enroll in a language school, where the world around her begins to slowly open up. She later meets Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik), an immigrant from India who also has trouble with his Spanish speaking skills. The two form a bond over their general misunderstanding of language, allowing for director Nele Wohlatz to explore the awkwardness the two face on a daily basis. Entering a restaurant to order some food becomes an ordeal quickly, when the only word Xiaobin knows (“barbeque”) doesn’t appear on the menu. Her classmates serve as a Greek choir, parroting questions the audience may ask in the form of language exercises, fitting somewhat clunkily within the narrative (the only time the film’s ponderings become intrusive rather than organic). Once Xiaobin begins to learn more Spanish, The Future Perfect becomes less focussed on its premise, resorting instead to an escapism that doesn’t work and an unnecessarily cruel reveal towards the end. Still, until its denouement, Wohlatz’s film shows promise in understanding how fragile language—and the language of cinema—really is, by addressing it on its most human level possible. Paul Attard

araby

Arábia opens with a teenage boy biking home to take care of his sick younger brother, his parents nowhere in sight. He spends the next day sitting around smoking, sketching at his desk and helping his aunt around the neighborhood. Not long after, there’s a roadside accident and he’s made to get some belongings from the injured man’s house. That sounds like the start to a rote story of youthful ennui, but directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa scuttle that expectation by immediately shifting focus to a factory worker named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the man injured by the roadside, whose diary the boy stumbles onto by accident. Given the glut of films being produced nowadays, it’s all but necessary that fledgling filmmakers—especially in programs like ND/NF—attempt to buck expectation and grab a viewer’s attention. In the case of Arábia, Dumans and Uchoa do so by turning their lens to the margins of society and focusing on a character that would, in a different film, be a supporting figure at best. “Everyone had a story,” muses Cristiano in his diary, written during his travels around Brazil. Although the directors make that statement their (admirable) motivating principle, they don’t really make much attempt to enliven the material, resorting largely to dry voiceover and arthouse road-movie cliché to deliver the shambling, digressive story. By exploiting the gap between these vacuous formal choices and their chosen subject (Cristiano’s place in society as a factory worker), Dumans and Uchoa make a necessary point about both on-screen representation and the types of stories that get told on the film festival circuit. But apart from a few standout sequences (such as a nighttime drive that occurs in near-complete darkness) and some heartfelt bursts of musical energy, not much lingers beyond the implicit statement; and the film isn’t nearly accomplished enough to sustain a purely formal interest. Possessing neither narrative momentum nor documentary fascination, Arábia is caught in a nebulous, painfully inert middle-ground, its larger intentions notwithstanding. Sometimes dull “by design” is just plain dull. LG

Last Family

The Last Family details the life of painter Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), and wastes no time trying to catch you off guard with “shocking”humor.” An aged Zdzislaw speaks about the possibility of buying a model of an 18-year old girl to sit on his face and slowly kill him within the first few minutes, giving a good sense of the largely try-hard humor here, mostly coming from our protagonist’s son: Tomek (Dawid Ogrodnik), taken to emotional outbursts that threaten to tear his whole family apart, but are still mined for laughs frequently. There’s nothing director Jan P. Matuszyński is actually trying to say within all of this—about mental illness or work within such a melodramatic space—rather he just takes the surface level quality of Tomek’s “otherness,” and exploits it in a rather toothless way. A more puzzling admission in the film is how generally innocent Zdzislaw comes off most of the time; his wild sexual fantasies are never explored for deeper character psychology, and there’s a sense of genius the film wishes to bestow on him, allowing for his moral superiority over everyone else. The Last Family is an incredibly unpleasant experience from beginning to end, one that’s heavily misguided: signposting seriousness and introspection, as well as humor, at all the wrong times. PA

Summer Is Gone

If there’s one noticeable (and troubling) trend in this year’s ND/NF , it’s a pointless rigor exerted in an effort to appear more “serious.” Case in point, Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone, a coming-of-age story about Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a young boy in West China, during his summer before middle school. Shooting in black and white rather pointlessly (or to appeal to the #OnePerfectShot crowd), Zhang utilizes mostly longtakes, trying to capture the mundane qualities of simple everyday life, with the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien as his clear point of influence. The problem is that Zhang has only picked up superficial elements from Hou’s cinema: the narrative here lacks the contemplative beauty it’s striving for, leaving Zhang’s film feeling less natural in its pacing. What Zhang does do is allow for random digressions that guarantee tugs on the heartstrings, and adding orchestral music to hammer down the emotional one. In fact, rarely does a moment go by that doesn’t feel overworked, from the aforementioned cinematographic technique to the deliberately slack progression. An argument could definitely be made that this is Zhang’s point, that life as he sees it is boring, but that sounds more like an excuse than a defense, pardoning and allowing for his generally uninspired filmmaking. PA

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