The 47th edition of New Directors/New Films runs from Wednesday, March 28th, to Sunday, April 8th. For our first of two dispatches from the festival, we look at the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize winner at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (Ava); the late Chinese director Hu Bo’s sole film, a 4-hour “exacting depiction of depression”; the “precisely controlled” second feature from Valérie Massadian (Milla); a Taiwanese independent filmmaker’s “meditation” on a “bleak sociopolitical system” (The Great Buddha+); and others. Look for our second dispatch from the festival next week.
An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo’s bleak epic of lives spent swimming upstream in modern economic conditions, is an exacting depiction of depression. Even without knowing the circumstances behind the film (its director took his own life last October), the unrelenting nihilism of both narrative and tone couch Elephant in a pocket of double-downed hopelessness for nearly its entire runtime. But while the film toes the line of miserabilism, Hu’s commitment to intimacy makes it feel far more like an emotional and psychological audit than a cudgel used against its audience, an attempt at exorcising the demons that dictate this reading of the world. The director’s chief aesthetic commitment is to remain close to his characters, both literally and figuratively. His patient approach allows the characters to hold lengthy, unabridged conversations, punctuated by uncomfortable silences and deflections, reveling in the micro temporal setting of a single day as evidence of a macro existence. Visually, Hu prefers soulful, floating Steadicam shots, ghostly navigations of cramped quarters and decaying city streets, and swirling shots that almost seem to be searching for a better view. And yet Hu’s camera still turns away from much gratuitous violence (a brutal dog attack and a beating that one of the characters suffers both occur offscreen), a self-aware nod to an internal violence already borne by his subjects. And while certain narrative contrivances (two suicides and an accidental murder occur in this 24-hour span) and constant self-reflection of circumstance and misanthropic philosophizing by the characters sporadically undermine the film’s power, Hu shatters this established POV with a poignant and devastating final moment that serves as a pointed rejection of the previous four hours’ hopelessness. Luke Gorham
The most noticeable element of Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava is its use of red. Although the film’s color palette is generally dominated by blacks, grays, and varying shades of green, there’s often a deliberate splash of contrast in each frame: the backpack, shoes and headscarf of its eponymous teenage heroine (Mahour Jabbari); the lipstick that Ava puts on before meeting her secret, not-quite boyfriend; a spatter of blood on a classroom wall that arises from a startling moment of self-harm. For Ava, a young woman in the full bloom of adolescence, red is a symbol of rebellion — against the self-perpetuating, patriarchal, and hypocritical strictures of Iranian society which she finds herself imprisoned by, and which Foroughi takes as her film’s focus. In itself, that’s a perfectly valid strategy, and a potentially effective one. But coupled with the film’s overdetermined stacked-deck of a narrative, the parade of symbolism (a ladybug being perhaps the most galling) eventually reveals a narrow interest in stoking righteous indignation. And what use is a film whose primary aim is to get an audience to, well, see red? Lawrence Garcia
Valérie Massadian’s follow-up to her acclaimed (and still undistributed) 2011 debut Nana is precisely controlled, but without ever resorting to a clinical distance from its subject. Massadian’s form remains as expressive as it is austere, conjuring small wonders out of fluctuations in natural light and makeshift curtains billowing in gusts of wind; she’s found a rich middle ground between placing herself at a remove, so as to comment on the circumstances of her subjects, and attempting to render their experience wholly immersive. As in Nana, there is a strong emphasis on how the subjective nature of human experience fosters learning and growth in Milla. The space that Massadian creates onscreen is one that allows for life to take place within it, and so a naturalistic portrait of a poor young couple making a seaside home for themselves out of what little they can salvage gradually and mysteriously transforms into a study of a single mother providing for a young child through work and play, enduring grief and exhaustion in service of a bond that has rarely been presented so plainly and yet generously onscreen. Milla and her young son Ethan are played by real-life mother and child Severine and Ethan Jonckeere, nudging the final third of the film into the realm of documentary, while subtly complicating a viewer’s understanding of all that preceded it. In those striking moments, when Milla meets the gaze of Massadian’s camera head-on, it seems less challenge or accusation than acknowledgment, as if to say, “You see me. And I see you.” Alex Engquist
The closest thing to a religious presence in The Great Buddha+ is a towering statue of the divine being that sits in a factory run by Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) and watched at night by aging guardsman Pickle (Cres Chuang). However, this figure is tainted — inside the giant Buddha is evidence that could easily convict Kevin and his shady cohorts (who work for the local government) of illegal activities. It’s through this contradiction that Taiwanese director Huang Hsin-yao’s anger is able to register, as corrupt bureaucracy hides under the guise of good deeds while the everyman is left helpless in a system that favors higher social classes. Huang provides nuances for each character, usually relating to a sense of irony about their casual abuse of power (a statesman who gets new wood paneling for his desk to hide his mistress, say). Huang also interjects his own literal voice throughout the film, as narrator, which helps elevate The Great Buddha+ from a mere exercise in cynicism to more of the director’s personal meditation on the helplessness he feels as a person and an artist working within a bleak sociopolitical system. Paul Attard
Carlo de los Santos Arias‘s Cocote moves from a wealthy estate in Santo Domingo to the town of Oviedo, using a personal tale of revenge to examine political, religious, and cultural tensions in the Dominican Republic. The film follows Alberto (Vicente Santos), an evangelical Christian who returns to his hometown after receiving news of his father’s murder. Although Alberto intends only to be present for his father’s burial, he ends up participating in Rezos, a nine-day mourning ritual (which goes against his beliefs), and slowly getting drawn in by his family’s desire to punish the corrupt officials responsible for the murder. Throughout, de los Santos Arias toggles between multiple aesthetic textures, shifting between color and black-and-white; alternating from distanced to symmetric to claustrophobic compositions. TV coverage of local happenings (a rooster that purportedly says “Christ is coming”) punctuate the main story. And although the film can often feel clumsy and scattershot, its visuals are undeniably dynamic and the filmmaking occasionally thrilling. Cocote is vital in a way that goes beyond “good” and “bad”—in the landscape of contemporary world cinema, de los Santos Arias’s talent is worth recognizing. L Garcia
Ilian Metev’s 3/4 opens with a plastic bottle skidding across the sunlit pavement of a schoolyard. A group of young boys bob in and out of the frame, shouting “Shakira,” followed by an action (e.g. “lie down”) as they kick the bottle back and forth. That brief sequence alone illustrates what’s so impressive about the Bulgarian director’s debut: minimal information (why Shakira?), sharp editing cadences, meticulous soundscapes, and (most importantly) a precise use of offscreen space. Like Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat, this is an intimate (almost cloistered) family drama that continually gestures to what lies beyond the frame. Although Metev focuses on a family of three—Mila (Mila Mikhova), a teenaged girl preparing for an important piano audition; Niki (Nikolay Mashalov), her rambunctious younger brother; and Todor (Todor Velchev), her aloof father—3/4 doesn’t feel “small.” (The mother’s briefly mentioned absence, for example, is felt throughout.) Befitting the incompleteness suggested by its title, Metev’s film is a beguiling experiment in isolation and negative space, an attempt to find the “infinite” in absence. “We have to catch the same rhythm,” Mila tells Niki at the close—and by then, we’re fully attuned to Metev’s own. L Garcia
Our House is a haunted house movie in which no one — neither characters nor audience — can differentiate between those who are alive and those who are spirits. In fact, that abstraction is so ever-present that this could just as easily be two stories about two pairs of women living in the same house but in parallel dimensions; or perhaps, even more experimentally, simply two unrelated stories about two pairs of women that just happen to have been filmed on the same set and become tenuously united by writerly slips into surreality. In the darkness, barriers between the worlds become almost permeable here. In one story, a 14 year old girl lives with her mother, their everyday routine haunted by the absence of her missing father. In the other, a woman wakes up on a ferry boat with no memory and is taken in by a woman who may be some kind of a spy. Unanswered questions abound and potential plot threads dangle tantalizingly, recalling Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After, while the potential interrelations among possible realities point to a Hong Sangsoo comparison. Musical in structure and tone, the two stories weaving through each other and around a central lonely theme, director Yui Kiyohara cites Bach as an influence (there’s a bit of The Well-Tempered Clavier on the soundtrack). Her very fine Our House is a melancholy fugue as unresolved and mysterious as life itself. Sean Gilman