Our fourth (and tentatively final) dispatch from the 2020 Berlinale catches up with a pair of the festival’s biggest premieres (Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog and Tsai Ming-ling’s Days) as well as a couple docs (The House of Love and Little Girl); it offers thoughts on decade-later sophomore effort from Yoon Sung-hyun (Time to Hunt); and it has our take on the festival’s Best Debut Feature-winning Los Conductos. Because we at InRO are notoriously fickle, there is a slim chance we may improvise yet another dispatch next week, depending on our energy levels. But if not, watch for some words on films not covered in these dispatches throughout the spring — and look for more March festival coverage as well.
“For a talking cinema”: that’s the title that a young Maurice Scherer, not yet christened Eric Rohmer, selected for his signature polemic, and the apparent aim of the current Cristi Puiu project. The Romanian New Wave stalwart certainly wouldn’t object to the implied comparison. Puiu dedicated his 2013 documentary/experimental theatre hybrid Three Interpretation Exercises to the long-winded elder brother of the original Nouvelle Vague, and the subsequent trajectory of Puiu’s career suggests a deepening commitment to the Rohmerian concept of the “spoken film.” Indeed, his newest film, Malmkrog, much like his last one, Sieranevada, largely confines itself to a single interior location and tracks — via re-framings and re-positionings both visual and verbal — the salvos and volleys that accompany tense conversation in tight quarters.
But unlike Sieranevada, which breathes with rich, contemporary social detail despite its claustrophobic two-room setting, Malmkrog is mostly restricted to abstractions and theories. To be fair, that’s part of Puiu’s design: the film was born from the work of Russian thinker and spiritualist Vladimir Solovyov, whose writings also inspired Three Interpretation Exercises, and whose philosophical preoccupations set the agenda for a group of six aristocrats trapped together in a snow-bound manor house around the dawn of the 20th century. Naturally, they have nothing better to do than argue the finer points of Christ’s resurrection and the nature of evil. Because Puiu stages their stuffy, interminable debates within an opulent period frame (and tosses in a few surrealist gestures for good measure), he asserts — in the widely recognized language of the festival economy — that Malmkrog is not simply another talky exercise, but rather a fully fledged, fully cinematic work.
It’s a problem, then, that Malmkrog’s dialogue elucidates precious little about time, place or character, and doubly so that it plays, finally, like another tired feat of performance art masochism. In fact, the film operates best whenever you give up on the subtitles and simply look around instead: Puiu’s compositional skills are—as ever—razor sharp, and he offhandedly details the background action of the servants with thrilling fastidiousness, proving that he ought to consider following in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen Corneliu Porumboiu and shift to making perfectly mediocre police procedurals. But if Puiu’s going to insist that his people keep on carrying on, he would do well to revisit M. Scherer’s old essay and heed the master’s words: “The director’s art is not to make us forget what characters say but, rather, to help us not miss a word.” If he doesn’t, he will continue to mistake mere prattle for talking cinema praxis. Evan Morgan
Those familiar with Tawainese auteur Tsai Ming-liang will know what to expect from his latest feature, Days, which won the Teddy Award at the 2020 Berlinale. With his trademark slow-burn style, Tsai assembles 46 shots over 2 hours, eschewing script, storyboards, and other conventional filmmaking processes for a poignant quasi-romance with virtually no dialogue. The result is a film that at times borders on documentary, created from reels of footage that de-emphasize conventional acting for long, naturalistic scenes that favor observation and spontaneity. From these reels, shot over several years and initially unrelated, Tsai edited together the narrative that would form the backbone of Days. Tsai’s approach, to “replace screenplays with images,” is a masterclass in the lit-class cliché “show, don’t tell.” The film’s lack of dialogue creates a singularly open-ended interpretive exercise while adding to its already stifling atmosphere. Characters rarely speak, and when they do, it is pointedly untranslated. In Days, spoken language is both a gateway and a trap: by saying one thing and laying claim to the meaning behind those words — and only those words — we implicitly deny everything else. Tsai understands the power of this negative space and so do his actors, who propel the narrative with a quiet restraint that nonetheless pulses with tension. His camera’s unrelenting stare can turn stultifying, especially when trained on utterly banal situations. As viewers, we’re tasked with enduring these long takes, just as his subjects must endure the act of living them.
Tsai’s two leads, mainstay Lee Kang-Sheng and newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy, in his debut, drift through different worlds before converging in a hotel room for two extended scenes of unflinching, almost unbearable tenderness. Their solitude suffuses nearly every shot, from Anong squatting in a dingy apartment washing vegetables to Lee standing at the foot of a tree massaging his neck. Tsai frequently shows his characters in positions of vulnerability, either praying, showering, or sleeping, and their passivity highlights the tactile sensuality of the world around them. This world is, for the most part, closed off to them — by choice or otherwise — yet their moments together breach the circle each has drawn around himself. For a while, they allow themselves to share the same space, breathe the same air, reach out and touch something soft and unfamiliar. While Taiwanese new wave cinema has many torchbearers, few are as inaccessible as Tsai. In the wake of his glacial pacing, it’s understandable that viewers feel compelled to imbue the simplest gestures with outsize significance. But life isn’t like that; life is a steady build of routine, a series of rhythms so familiar they verge on oppressive. As Tsai notes, “in life, there are not that many things to talk about.” We pass the same buildings each day and sleep in the same bed each night. Sometimes we’re with others, sometimes we’re alone. Tsai’s characters, and his viewers, seek solace in the unexpected, occasionally sublime textures of these routines rather than their unremarkable action: a perfect square of light in a dark hallway, the outline of a cat behind a bank of dirty windows, or the twinkle of a music box against passing traffic. Selina Lee
The least that can be said of Korean director Yoon Sung-hyun is that he takes his time, with ten years separating the filmmaker’s debut coming-of-age drama Bleak Night and his multi-genre embracing sophomore effort Time to Hunt. The latest film bears superficial similarity to the director’s prior work: an evocative character study of three schoolboys and their relationship to the issues of bullying and teen suicide — focusing yet again on a group of young male friends — Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong), and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) — only this time set in a quasi-dystopian, post-economic crash South Korea where gangs rule and the masses do whatever they can in order to survive. But where Bleak Night opted for a more serious-minded social commentary in relation to its subjects, Time to Hunt fills out its textured, near-post-apocalyptic milieu with gestures toward heist films, “consequences” dramas, slasher movies, and the woozy familial sentimentality of the Fast and Furious franchise. The central trio hatch a plan to trade in Korea for an idyllic Taiwanese island as soon as they rob a gambling den — which quickly goes awry when the mob that owns the makeshift casino enlists a dirty cop and psychotic assassin, Han (Park Hae-soo), to hunt the group and recover the money.
The basic grammar of the film’s genre influences are recognizable throughout and are well-served by the first act’s world-building, which effectively makes plain the country’s dire economic situation. However, as the film gets deeper into its 135-minute long runtime, it soon becomes obvious that it has not been developed to meaningfully engage the more granular details of the economic scarcity and precarity it references, nor to even utilize the genres it references to expand on these matters indirectly, but rather more to have each become contexts through which it can return to its saccharine dramaturgy and reiterate the importance of dreams and brotherhood. It all adds up to a film that is as hopelessly out of its depth as its characters, lacking the creativity to mimic the ambitions its artistic coordinates should inspire — a problem as evident in the film’s numerous lethargic setpieces as it is in the half-baked nature of the project as such. Owing to all this, Time to Hunt is more mediocre pastiche of all things current in blockbuster cinema than a genre picture in its own right, which at worst may signal that corporate Hollywood’s banalization of the industry has gone global; but more likely indicates that if a work this bloated, confused, and unimaginative — that even hints at a sequel, retroactively casting itself as a kind of superhero origin story — is the best Yoon Sung-hyun can do after ten years away from the industry, it might be best he take even more time out. Matt McCracken
Winner of the GWFF Best First Feature award at the 2020 Berlinale, Camilo Restrepo’s Los Conductos is one of the more auspicious feature directing debuts in recent memory. Following the character of Pinky, Los Conductos is less interested in narrative than it is atmosphere and mood. Pinky (played brilliantly by Luis Felipe Lozano) traverses a surrealist, nightmarish vision of Colombia as he breaks free from a religious cult run by a leader simply named “Father.” Shot in stunning 16mm, the film operates on an experiential plane, primarily drawing its narrative from abstruse narration and otherworldly imagery. Shirtless men manually print flames onto textiles in what appears to be a literalization of Hell, and, come the film’s final sequence, Los Conductos delves head first into pure fever dream — potholes have gotten to be so enormous that they actually lead to an entirely new city. So while this may feel like a proto-Jodorowsky mindbender, Restrepo’s eye is much more focused and grounded; his film is one about identity, oppression, and corruption, utilizing a hallucinatory visual landscape that plays as a brazenly esoteric vessel for its universal message. Cinematographer Guillaume Mazloum may very well be the film’s biggest star, his blocky 1:85 framed photography popping off the screen. The soundscape painted here by Arthur Gillette is likewise engrossing, featuring a score that plays perfectly opposite a sound design in tonal lockstep with Restrepo’s directorial choices. Rightly abstracted and defiantly challenging, this may not be universally palatable, but running a mere 70 minutes, it’s worth the plunge as there might not be another cinematic experience quite like this in 2020. Josh Brunsting
Director Luca Ferri introduces us to Bianca Dolce Miele, the subject of his new film The House of Love, in conspicuous fashion. She’s seated, directly facing the camera, gently petting the head of the full grown, dog-masked man down on all fours beside her. It’s a seemingly bold provocation, but as The House of Love unspools what transpires is less a transgressive document than a quiet meditation on identity, the sacred and the profane, and, ultimately, the seeking of solace and comfort. Bianca is a trans woman and sex worker in Milan, and the film sits with her and her clients in the confines of her apartment over the course of a week or so. The camera never leaves this space, giving the endeavor both a delicate scale and a warm sense of envelopment. Bianca keeps the lights low while she’s with clients, and Ferri frequently shoots rooms illuminated only by candle light. But there’s also the everyday, quotidian details that dominate the space and time between clients. There’s grooming, doing laundry, chatting and appointment-making on the phone.
As curious as Bianca’s clients may be, Ferri has no interest in turning the film into a freak show or simply luxuriating in the grotesque. Bianca is certainly non-traditional, using ‘she’ as her preferred pronoun, but also sporting a fully shaved head and comfortable with either male or female clients. Ultimately, the power of the film comes in the presentation of its content as perfectly natural. Ferri shoots each encounter with a client in a different fashion — one scene is a static master shot, another featuring a slowly panning camera that passes back and forth between Bianca and the client, and yet another is all expressionistic close-ups, turning a sexual act into an abstracted collision of writhing bodies. Ferri seems to be suggesting that each session is its own narrative, that every interaction is both unique and part of Bianca’s larger story. The film is not overtly political in any didactic sense, although in our present making a documentary about a trans sex worker is of course deeply political. It’s a kind of radical empathy, a powerful reminder that sex work is work and trans rights are human rights. Daniel Gorman
In the opening scene of Sébastien Lifshitz’s latest documentary feature, Little Girl, there is a shot which the French director visually encapsulates and expresses the film’s core interest. A little boy, named Sasha, is looking into a mirror while dressing himself up like a girl, an accentuation of his life’s duality — the truth of his interiority at tension with his external delusive reflection. From this earliest stage in the film, the documentary makes clear its interest in the issue of gender dysphoria, and while many films have attempted a sincere inspection of this topic, what gives Little Girl some bit of novelty is that far fewer have dealt with someone of such a young age questioning gender identity. It is clear from the beginning that Sasha is literally a little girl imprisoned by the corporeal constraints of a boy’s body, but unfortunately the film does not build on its early promise, content to present to a repetitious litany of “explanations.”
For most of its runtime, the film pushes Sasha aside and out of focus, and instead inundates itself with parental interviews — specifically, with the mother — or merely spends time accompanying the family into clinical psychiatry sessions. Lifshitz remains too straightforward, his bland, emotion-forward approach leaves little ambiguity to interrogate — the overuse of close-ups provides even visual evidence of this failure. It is understandable that Lifshitz intends his camera to remain close to his human subjects, but it deprives the audience from the context of observation, bearing little witness to Sasha’s life in broader focus. Not all such moments are absent in the film — the ballet classroom scene, some interludes of domesticity, and one at the beach are a few affecting inclusions. But the final (more or less cliché) scene of the film shows lovely little Sasha dancing alone and silently, dressed as a girl with two fake pink butterfly wings tied to her back. This image also proves a fitting metaphor for Lifshitz’s effort: a film that tries to fly but which remains firmly planted to the ground. Ayeen Forootan