With theaters closed and film releases temporarily cancelled, there isn’t a whole lot of film content to produce over here at InRO. But one thing we can do is put a bow on our coverage of the 2020 Portland International Film Festival. Below is our final dispatch from Portland (and from anywhere, for a while), with a medium-long take (because it deserved it) on Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, along with thoughts on Alexander Nanau’s Collective and Justine Triet’s Sibyl, among others.
(Editor’s note: We will still be working as our time and health allows during this chaotic period of unsurety, and most [if not all] of our energy will be devoted to producing new Kicking the Canon content (Film pieces; Album pieces), so keep checking back. )
There’s a particularly pleasing synesthetic joy to watching a movie that values style as much as substance; Drive’s shimmering neon palate immediately comes to mind, as does the languid magical realism of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In addition to aesthetics, these two films share certain narrative sensibilities with Chinese director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. In keeping with neo-noir tradition, Yinan’s plot is outwardly simple but convoluted with double-crossings and interchangeable henchmen. It opens at a rain-soaked train station with the elfin Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) informing the protagonist, battle-scarred crime boss Zhou Zenong (Chinese TV star Ge Hu), that she will be the stand-in for his wife. This enigmatic start cuts to a flashback of underworld crime bosses and their goons divvying up districts for grand larceny, their basement meeting place roiling with sweat and testosterone. It’s not long before Zenong finds himself on the run for accidentally shooting a cop; meanwhile, twin thugs with names like Cat’s Eye and Cat’s Ear prowl the periphery. The Wild Goose Lake is essentially a manhunt thriller (perhaps the transliterated title is meant to be a pun?), and its characters’ bleak circumstances are a stand-in for the social ills that got them there in the first place. American noir tradition is imbued with post-war fatalism, a cynical hangover from the Great Depression. Here, Yinan’s pessimism skews in the other direction: his focus is the degradation, seediness, and hard-won grit of a country whose fabulous economic success is built on the backs of third-bit criminals, beachfront prostitutes, and laughably corrupt policemen who have no problem posing for photos with a corpse.
That it all takes place in Wuhan, China, a city situated where the Yangtze and Han rivers merge, is telling: Wuhan has a population greater than New York City and land area five times the size of London, yet is considered “second-tier” by China’s unofficial ranking system. It lacks the cosmopolitan chic of Shanghai or the political might of Beijing, but has the resources to muster up a mass manhunt overnight. Its proximity to water has made it a historic transportation hub, but its perimeters are undeveloped and lack basic infrastructure. These contradictions, inherent in any rapidly industrialized nation but rendered especially surreal by Yinan’s eye for sly humor, inject The Wild Goose Lake with moments of thrilling, occasionally absurd action. In one vivid, playfully gruesome scene, a villain wielding a knife is defeated by the antihero’s translucent plastic parasol. Yinan’s wholly unexpected use of this object, which is utterly ubiquitous throughout China and Chinatowns the world over, is a succinct encapsulation of the movie at large: he confidently deploys familiar noir tropes alongside everyday hallmarks of contemporary Chinese culture. In another scene, a group of nighttime plaza dancers – another thoroughly unremarkable sight – is infiltrated by gangsters, and in the ensuing showdown, their light-up LED soles suddenly turn The Wild Goose Lake into an extended Tron outtake. It’s not all style, of course. Liu Aiai, a “bathing beauty” of the eponymous lake, aids Zenong for reasons that remain ambiguously altruistic up until the final shot. Working the waterfront, she endures a multitude of casual and heart-wrenching violations with the resignation of a veteran. During one long take, she walks in front of a construction tarp printed with a rendering of gleaming glass towers and lush plazas. For a moment, a second-tier city morphs into a first, and her prospects rise accordingly. Then, the tarp ripples in the wind and Wild Goose lake reappears behind her. As it turns out, nothing has changed. Selina Lee
On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in the Colectiv concert club in Bucharest, killing 27 on site. In the following months, another 37 would die in Romanian hospitals, and it is this fact that drives the first half of Collective, Alexander Nanau’s searing exposé of institutional corruption. Its early sections play like documentary versions of journalist procedurals like Spotlight (2015) and All the President’s Men (1976), following a pugnacious reporter, Catalin Tolontan, and his crew at the Sports Gazette (a Romanian sports daily), as they quickly discover that these subsequent deaths were linked to diluted biocides used at several hospitals across the country. The ineffectual disinfectants were manufactured by Hexi Pharma, a company that turns out to be just one nodal point in a larger web of bribery and political corruption. “Our healthcare system is rotten,” says a relative of one of those who perished in the fire, which is a sentiment that many can certainly understand, especially given the urgency of the ongoing COVID—19 pandemic. But Nanau’s documentary turns out to be more than just a means of exposing this fact or inciting change. Indeed, though the film’s treatment of the fire’s victims arguably teeters on the edge of exploitation, it’s on far more solid ground when it follows Vlad Voiculescu, a former patients’ rights activist who takes on the unenviable role of Minister of Health after the former minister resigns. The filmmaker’s indignance at bureaucratic malfeasance and insidious profiteering at the expense of public health is both clear and entirely justifiable — as it should be to any moral human being. But Nanau’s impressive levels of access to Voiculescu, along with the young man’s genuine attempts at reform, transform Collective into a compelling portrait of bureaucratic inertia and stasis, of change stymied by political corruption, media misrepresentation, and even, in some cases, well-meaning, factual reportage. Put simply, it’s a rich portrait of the difficulties (if not impossibilities) of actual progress. In this regard, Collective plays something like a non-fiction corollary to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Cristi Puiu’s black-comic portrayal of one man’s journey into Romania’s healthcare hellscape. But Nanau’s title, at least, speaks to a slim hope for a world where that journey need not be made alone. Lawrence Garcia
First Cow is a film of beginnings and endings (and thusly also of returns). Kelly Reichardt‘s second period film marks the return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, once again opening a dialogue with silent cinema to invoke a style of photography long since departed from mainstream cinematic productions. It’s a film of densely textured images, of moss-covered trees and thickets that steep this 19th century portrait of Oregon in vegetation, in untamed land apathetic to the plight of every man and woman that suffuse the frontier. Loosely based on the novel The Half-Life by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, the story follows the friendship of Cookie, an innocuous man hired as a cook for a group of trappers, and King Lu, a Chinese immigrant found hiding in the undergrowth from a band of hostile Russians. After Cookie secures his new friend’s escape, the two men meet again in a nearby town and establish a business selling fried biscuits, ‘oil cakes’, the primary ingredient of which they procure from the property of a wealthy English landowner – a cow, the first to arrive in the area. Thematically, this could be considered familiar ground for Reichardt, yet here we can see the opening up of her minimalist style to allow it to bespeak wider historical processes that push forward in spite of individuals desperate for a piece of the pie. The film’s beginning is instrumental in this, serving as both a prologue and epilogue, in addition to acting as a conjunction of capitalism’s vector within Oregon Territory and the fate of her two protagonists. But where this really excels can be seen in the endearing instances of domesticity where Cookie and King Lu take lodgings together and form a bond that contrasts strikingly with the mercurial attitude of the boorish fur trappers; indeed, it comes as no surprise that the masculinity of the latter men is something represented as ultimately self-destructive and segregated from the ability to communicate – so vital to success. Considering the quite blunt inference of the prologue, success is not something the audience will necessarily expect of their protagonists; thus, as the narrative enfolds, it becomes clear that the conflicts which comprise the film are only of importance inasmuch as they’re the driving forces which remind Cookie and King Lu of the exigencies of life so that finally they may return to the earth, together. Sam Redfern
Victoria, Justine Triet’s last film, opens with Virginie Efira curled up on a couch asking her therapist where, exactly, her life became unstuck. Efira occupies the psychiatrist’s chair in Sibyl — the French director’s latest, in which she again plays the eponymous lead — but she still can’t hold things together. In fact, she might not want to. Professional success, a twelve-step program to help keep the proverbial plug in the jug, and domestic stability with hot dad Paul Hamy are sober pleasures when measured against the intoxicating vicissitudes of the writer’s life. After years of artistic abstinence, a troubled patient and an equally troubled film shoot prove too much temptation for Sibyl, who spies some worthwhile material, picks up her pen, and promptly dives headlong into a breakdown. Triet, for her part, lacks a juicy authorial angle of her own: Sibyl’s backlot drama never achieves the whirligig energy that made Victoria such a superlative screwball, and while most movies in this genre tell us that filmmaking is a job like any other, the particulars of Triet’s own profession seem to blunt her otherwise sharp sense for credible, if slightly exaggerated, work-life detail. The result is a movie that feels richer at the margins than at the center. Hamy, for instance, needs only a handful of scenes to steal the show: one or two puppy-eyed glances are sufficient to communicate that he long ago resigned himself to playing second fiddle in Sibyl’s life — and that he loves her deeply nevertheless. The film set backdrop, with actors milling about everywhere, does, however, deepen the impression that Sibyl’s personal and artistic crises are more performative than acutely psychological: her return to writing is itself a kind of fiction, one which allows her space to enact forms of discontent and self-loathing that might, in the context of her day job and her domestic situation, lead to ruin. Making a movie or authoring a book, no matter how mediocre the material — and the glimpses we get suggest that these works-in-progress are very mediocre indeed — grants us permission to vogue around in emotional attire that we wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, flaunt at work or at home. If Sibyl wears her neuroses like a strange fit, well, I’d venture that that’s precisely the point. Triet makes movies to assure us that our lives aren’t always the shambles that we pretend them to be. Unless, of course, we prefer them that way. Evan Morgan
Sarah and Zachary Ray Sherman‘s young love story Thunderbolt in Mine Eye plays like intro-level mumblecore for tweens — so it should come as no surprise that Mark and Jay Duplass are listed as executive producers. The film depicts an awkward sexual awakening of, and the first love between, high school-aged Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and Tilly (Quinn Liebling), and opts for naturalism over artificial drama. It’s an admirable choice that conjures more than a few suppressed memories: the stumbling conversations in which both parties desperately cling to commonalities; the lame excuses created to “accidentally” run into one another; the thrill of a first kiss, and the resulting urge to flee; the feeling of remembering that first kiss just moments later, a stolen moment that fills the mind and body with unadulterated joy. Thunderbolt in Mine Eye successfully captures that moment in life when the world seems both infinite and so very small, when your worldview changes through the prism of meeting that special someone, but also through the way your friends, family, and your peers respond to seeing you in the throes of your first love. For 80 minutes, the Shermans make you feel 13 years old again — for better and for worse. As is the case with most mumblecore, ‘naturalism’ sometimes translates to boredom, and while the two protagonists of here are relatable, they aren’t exactly the most interesting people. It doesn’t help that both lead performances are rather inconsistent from scene to scene. And then there’s the issue of the Shermans’ need to introduce some sort of social commentary into the proceedings. In some instances, this feels pertinent, addressing the double-standard when it comes to male and female sexuality, for instance. One scene in particular, though, finds Harper giving an impassioned speech in class about the oppression of women of color, and when a teacher asks her if she wants to discuss it further, she excitedly answers, “Yes!” before the filmmakers abruptly cut away. That scene is symptomatic of the problems with this film as a whole: well-intentioned, sweet, but slight. Steve Warner
If there is only one trait which distinguishes Bird Island from other contemporary documentaries, it is of the singular way in which the directorial duo of Maya Kosa and Sérgio da Costa bestow a fictiveness upon their work. It is obvious, even from the earliest moments, the influence of Robert Bresson: the way the directors connect separate shots via a character’s hand feeding the birds and the use of off-screen sound; later, abstracted shot-framings, static figures specifically situated within the mise-en-scene; and the voiceover narration, here from the film’s real-life focus, Antoine. Kosa and da Costa explore, through Antoine’s eyes, notions of tranquility, belonging, and the potential for spiritual healing, and they use these visual reference points to immediately establish a certain unromanticized attention paid to life’s natural course and duality. Antoine and his instructor, Paul, handle the duties of breeding rats and mice for the feeding of birds; meanwhile, the film’s two primary female subjects – Sandrine and Emilie – are responsible for the care and rehabilitation of the birds. This binary relation not only reveals the comingled notions of life and death (as do the Baroque and Late Romantic compositions of Telemann, Buxtehude and Rachmaninoff which contribute to the film’s sonic foundation) but also suggest a sort of mild, deadpan comedy of manners. But the life/death dichotomy is not merely reserved for the film’s more zoological concerns: Antoine gradually navigates existential bewilderment and melancholy, becoming more present and invigorated, and finally finds sought comfort with help of the birds. In the early stages of the film, we see Antoine walking the narrow gateway of the rehabilitation center, a shot which approximately repeats as Paul later leaves the facility for good. The circle of life repeats, the young and old traversing a shared path, and humans and animals find ways to not just coexist but to potentially heal each other’s wounds. Life goes on. Ayeen Forootan
The Cordillera of Dreams is the third and final film in the unofficial trilogy directed by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, preceded by the critically acclaimed Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. All centered on events during Pinochet’s dictatorship from various points of view, these films use metaphorical elements to speak to the importance of those events and why it’s essential that they not be forgotten. The cordillera metaphor that Guzmán employs here — linking the lingering effects of the nation’s violent coup with traces of past cataclysms in the bedrock of a mountain — doesn’t entirely work. But the film compensates with a large amount of footage of historical protests during the dictatorship, shot by a Guzmán’s friend, who marvels at the technological advances that allow him to fit 1,200 hours of footage in a hard drive, something that would’ve been unthinkable back in the 1980s. Throughout the film, offhand moments confront the horrific past and the marks it leaves on the present, while some particularly sharp talking heads offer insight into the present sorry state of Chilean neoliberal society. Given the existence of two (superior) previous films, it’s in such moments that The Cordillera of Dreams finds its strongest reason for being. Jaime Grijalba Gomez