The 2018 New York Film Festival just wrapped over the weekend — which means it’s curtains for 2018’s fall festival season (I’m so sorry). Our first dispatch tackles Main Slate selections from the fest that we haven’t already covered (see our five Toronto Film Festival dispatches and Private Life), and that we don’t have plans to cover soon (next month, look for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Joel & Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in Streaming Scene and Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk in Blockbuster Beat). Here, we look at new works from several mainstays of the international festival circuit (Jia Zhang-ke’s Ash Is Purest White, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, and Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction) as well as less auteur-flavored fare (first-time director Paul Dano’s Wildlife and under-the-radar independent Chinese filmmaker Ying Liang’s A Family Tour). Look for one more NYFF 2018 dispatch on Monday, devoted to the festival’s avant garde-themed Projections slate.
Skipping elliptically across 15 or so years in an economical 84 minutes, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War tells of the tumultuous, postwar love affair between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a former musical director of a youth program in Poland, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a fiery, talented young singer. Applying the epic scope of the title to an intimate romance, Pawlikowski’s sure hand traces the lovers’ halting relationship across multiple countries (Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia, France); their romance proceeds in fits and starts, flaring with passion each time they unite, then cooling once more as they separate. As shot by Łukasz Żal, the film’s black-and-white Academy ratio compositions have a gorgeous precision and luminous intensity, though as in Ida, Pawlikowski still tends to let the weight of history bear down on his characters’ shoulders, so specificity of character often gives way to allegorical heft. But Kulig, who had a small role as a bar singer in Ida, is a remarkable leading presence, and provides an unpredictable edge to Pawlikowski’s compositional rigor. (Her drunken bartop dance to Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” is a swooning highlight.) There’s a determinism that creeps into Cold War by the end, as the romance dissipates into an arthouse circuit-ready closing flourish. But maybe that’s all right, and it’s enough to remember what came before. Such is the nature of history, after all. Lawrence Garcia
Jia Zhang-ke has long been a master of conflating the personal and the political, charting large societal upheavals with a surprising intimacy. Ash Is Purest White is no exception. Following gang moll Qiao (Zhao Tao) from 2001 to 2017, Ash opens with Zhao’s character and her boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) making big plans for the future, banking on his prediction that he will rise up the ranks of the Jianghu gangster hierarchy, until a street brawl goes horribly awry and Qiao is sent to prison for five years. Upon her release, Qiao realizes that she has been abandoned, and Bin has moved on without her. Determined to confront him directly, Qiao cajoles her way into Bin’s company, only to find his once vaunted sense of honor is missing, his stoicism little more than macho posturing. Eventually, an older, wiser Qiao finds herself the caretaker for a now wheelchair-bound Bin. Throughout, Jia’s inspiration here seems to be John Woo’s The Killer, which is briefly glimpsed on a TV screen early in the film (he also repeatedly uses a pop song from The Killer performed by Sally Yeh). In Woo’s deeply romantic, melodramatic masterpiece, Chow Yun Fat’s killer-with-a-heart-of-gold gives up everything for the woman he accidentally blinded during a shootout. In Jia’s version, Bin’s low-level thug has no honor, using Qiao only for as long as he needs something from her — a brutal, cynical inversion of Woo’s ideals of honor and masculinity. The last image we see in Ash Is Purest White is of Qiao, filmed through a bank of security cameras. As Jia slowly zooms into the digital image, Zhao becomes blurred — but she remains a survivor amidst this strange new modernity. Dan Gorman
Directing debuts from established actors are often cause for skepticism or outright disappointment. (Not everyone can be Charles Laughton.) And so it is with Paul Dano’s Wildlife, an early Sundance favorite, the Critics’ Week opener at Cannes, and now a selection of the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. Adapted from the novel by American author Richard Ford, Dano’s film follows 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) as he grows up in the badlands of Montana in the year 1960. Effectively abandoned by his fractious, increasingly distant parents, Joe is forced to chart his own course in “a lonely place,” with a raging forest fire encroaching from the west and the threat of the atomic war looming overhead. The material crackles with possibility — literally, at one point, when the boy is faced with the forest fire that his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) left home to fight after getting canned from the local country club. What Dano has created, however, is a fine, forgettable movie — the kind that’s difficult to describe as anything more than “well-made.” His choices as a director are, individually, unimpeachable: painstaking period detail; meaningful, slow push-ins and steady pans; and sharply composed sunsets and rolling landscape shots. But apart from a lively turn from Carey Mulligan, there’s not much to distract from the film’s staid, baseline competence. There’s almost zero sense of directorial vision, no spark of illumination that might suggest why someone would be drawn to Ford’s source material. “You could be anyone with that name” Joe’s mother tells him at one point, a statement indicative of as-yet-unfulfilled promise. But you-can-be-anything potential can quickly shade into anonymity — and in the final summation, Wildlife fulfills that very progression. Lawrence Garcia
It feels pointed that the segment in Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s checkered timeline that forms its romantic core is set in the year 2000, which is when In the Mood for Love premiered. Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece forms the most obvious touchstone for the more swooning sections of Bi Gan’s likewise color-coded and dreamlike sophomore film, which also draws from the films of Tsai Ming-liang with its imagery of dingy, waterlogged rooms and oversized clocks (literalizing the fluidity of time). Andrei Tarkovsky and Roberto Bolaño are two other noticeable influences, though this ambitious, big-thinking arthouse anomaly is far too odd — and specifically Bi Gan’s — to register as mere homage. As a textural experience, it is almost overwhelming, which mostly excuses its disinterest in providing a coherent storyline, ostensibly concerning a world-weary man named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) who returns to his hometown of Kaili on the trail of a lost paramour (Tang Wei), while also reflecting on his attempted revenge for the mob murder of an associate/friend named Wildcat. The noirish overlay here feels a touch shopworn (Luo’s raspy voiceover offers pulp like, “After we met, it seemed everything happened at night”), and the love affair, shown in half-remembered fragments, proves as abstract and evanescent as the dreams Bi attempts to simulate. But plot soon proves secondary as the impact of the film’s visual symbolism becomes harder to shake (besides the water and clocks, apples and pomelos tumble about meaningfully). This is particularly true of the much-discussed, nearly hourlong unbroken take (in 3D!) that shows Luo exiting an already-abstract present and entering (via lantern-lit tunnel) an even less logical dreamworld, filled with zip lines, pool, ping pong, and gravity-defying flights over twinkling festivities. Bi pulled a similar stunt (minus the 3D) in 2015’s Kaili Blues, which, in its shape and abstraction, now seems like a more shoestring warmup for the bigger-budgeted ambitions here. And though Bi may want to avoid repeating the trick again in his next film (lest he be pigeonholed as “the sequence shot guy”), it is thrilling to see the 29-year-old auteur employ the full contents of a now-shinier toolbox to put his big vision onscreen. Justin Stewart
Although The Favourite represents a number of firsts for Yorgos Lanthimos — first period piece, first screenplay for which he has no writing credit— the film fits snugly into the Greek director’s career-long absurdist exploration of social structures and dynamics of power. Here, the setting is 18th century England under the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and those vying for power are Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the entrenched court favorite, and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a former lady whose house has fallen into disgrace. Let the games begin. Voluminous costumes, candlelit ballrooms, and ornate period details clash jarringly, amusingly against the script’s willful anachronisms. The era’s comportments and verbal patterns are, at best, superficially evoked; more often, social codes are brazenly, purposefully contradicted, a choice that’s at once clever and exhausting, since genuine engagement with the milieu is forfeited in favor of scabrous barbs and biting one-liners. That is not to say that the film lacks any insight. (A perverse, violent mating ritual between Stone’s Abigail and a desirous courtier proves pointed and entertaining.) But as the long, looming shadow of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (cued by the Queen’s numerous pet rabbits) makes clear, there is a limit to Lanthimos’s cloistered skewering. You can only get so far by flouting convention. Lawrence Garcia
More generationally distinctive than his recent output, Olivier Assayas’s latest, Non-Fiction, engages with a specific vein of cultural discourse regarding technology: e-books as a corruption of literature. Of course, this is a synecdochical take on a far broader conversation, the particulars of which are often fleshed-out in café-set debates and workplace dialogues, the film populated by characters at the cross-section of middle class and middle age. Gradations of ethical behavior clearly inspired by the Karl Ove Knausgård controversy serve as gyroscopic explorations of these characters, while a gentle class critique emerges in the perceived yuppie resistance to technological change and its levelling effects. The tenor of inquiry and general languidness of approach here feels more akin to early-aughts Assayas (think Late August, Early September), but with his preferred explorations of ennui transplanted from arrested early adulthood to that peculiar limbo of middle age, where evolutions of society and personhood are in conflict and where individuals either choose change or suffer it. Non-Fiction largely manages to balance this contemplativeness with a certain playful buoyancy, but loses cogency when it skews broad in its final stretch (a winking, meta-referential Juliette Binoche joke feels particularly miscalculated despite engendering a chuckle), resulting in a film that feels familiar but less assured than Assayas’s other recent work. Luke Gorham
There’s no shortage of justified anger in Ying Liang’s semi-autobiographical A Family Tour. In following up 2012’s When Night Falls, the film that instigated the director’s exile from Mainland China to Hong Kong, Ying also reckons with its fallout via a fractured family unit. At the center of this is Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), the director’s gender-flipped stand-in, who we pick up on as she travels with her husband and three-year-old son to present a film at Taiwan’s Formosa Film Festival. But this is no mere excursion; Yang’s main purpose is to reunite with her mother, Chen Xialin (Nai An), whom she hasn’t seen for five years. Frail and ill of health, Chen remained in China following her daughter’s exile, and has had to bear the consequences of Yang’s dissident activity, the details of which Ying parcels out via an audio recording of a state police visit. There’s evident danger in this mother-daughter reunion, and so the pair are often forced to become strangers to each other over the length of the film. Halting, banal conversations proceed against a backdrop of indifferent, tourist-trap spaces. With the passing of the years, it’s clear the gulf of understanding between mother and daughter has only widened. The inherent potency of this scenario is unmissable, and Ying’s rather unflattering (self-)examination of the director character deserves some commendation. But there’s a flatness to Ying’s direction that renders each scene almost unbearably inert. Conversations proceed as if at half-speed, going far beyond convincingly stilted into gratingly soporific; and Gong’s one-note lead performance plays dully against Ying’s master-shot staging. “I am a stranger,” Yang says to a reporter when asked about her identity, a response that speaks to the irresolvable contradictions of her Chinese identity. While the obvious question yields genuine truth, it’s also the mark of a larger problem — the limits of Ying’s closed (filmic) system. And if there’s one thing that A Family Tour articulates well, it’s that even the most fervent, justifiable passion can be stifled by such environments. Lawrence Garcia