Cutting across Paris from the north to the south, the RER B is a commuter rail that shuttles passengers to and from the city center, moving between the northern Mitry-Mory commune and the southern Saint-Rémy-de-Provence commune. It is also the axis that Alice Diop’s documentary Nous moves along, the director alighting from the train at different suburban intervals — metropolitan Paris is but a structuring absence — to conduct interviews with the denizens of these far-flung townships, while rooting through her own memories associated with the RER B: as a child, her mother would leave for her job as a cleaning woman aboard the train before Diop was even awake.
There’s an ostensible interview structure at work in Nous, but also a refreshing lack of formalities, and Diop’s journey along the RER B is like a slipstream of past, present, and future, with personal and political histories swirling together — in this regard, her form feels beholden to Chantal Akerman’s similarly empirical documentaries. The filmmaking is largely contemporaneous, although there are dispatches from the past, manifesting as home videos of Diop’s family, stories told by interview subjects, museum exhibitions, and the like. Diop posits that a tenacious grip on memory is something that can be strengthened by privilege, and conversely, weakened by discrimination. An African man struggles with WhatsApp to call his mother who’s still back home; a group of wealthy, white Parisians enact a humorously archaic hunting ceremony, replete with bugles, feathered caps, and scores of bloodhounds. The former struggles to maintain living contact, the latter are gifted comparatively unlimited resources to preserve tradition the way they see fit.
Diop’s visuals are as rich as they are rigorous, locating warm humanity within otherwise impersonal spaces. Armed with a purely observational tone, the incisiveness of the ways in which specific scenes relate to one another is on the viewer to deduce. Those two aforementioned passages come near the beginning and at the end of the film, respectively, rewarding those who’ve internalized what a less than willing participant may call “mundane.” The length (115 minutes) is felt, perhaps too much so, but Diop utilizes the time to display a consummate reconciliation of her proclivities as a documentarian, and as an artist.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
North by Current
Small-town Michigan, as introduced to us in filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Angelo Madsen Minax’s debut feature North by Current, is a barren tract beset by harsh winters and unflagging frost during the year’s earliest stages. Its location, a mere stone’s throw from the 45th parallel north, suggests a dual fidelity, one shared by its inhabitants in their daily tussle between banal homemaking duties and the caprices that increasingly buffet one’s carefully cultivated selfhood as senescence draws near. Time here, as we’re informed via voiceover, “has no meaning,” and it is precisely this zone that best receives Minax’s probe into communal memory. Shot over a five-year period and supplemented with interjections of home video, off-the-cuff, diaristic monologues, and, at a noteworthy juncture, clips from his previous shorts, Minax employs a strophic form to capture the grieving processes around him in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. Three years after his niece’s death, wrongfully ruled a homicide and leading to the conviction of his sister’s boyfriend (subsequently acquitted), the painful cogitations rekindled by adequate distance from loss have only just settled, their pangs burrowing into a central kernel long thought nullified. Filmed conversations and gatherings take on an impassive tension, as evinced by the quiet, knowing glances and pursed-lip intimations of discomfort that confound an attempt at recording, minimally mediated, the interactions between Minax’s family in a diner.
By truncating, as far as possible, close confidence and private vigils, the spotlight is taken off familial trauma and restorative dialogue, responsibly and sensitively figured as a confluence of souls twined. Instead, our vantage shifts along a more personal latitude: that of the filmmaker’s desire, as a trans-masculine man, for parental acceptance and affirmation in a traditional-minded Mormon household. The first year of footage, alone, registers their intentional deadnaming, arch disdain at his transition, and repeated assertions that it, too, was a form of bereavement for them. Though derisive expressions in that vein are contained to isolated interviews, and remain unincorporated into a fuller, more consistently visible project, their implications bear down on the otherwise repetitious vignettes that see Minax’s growing awareness of his dislocation from the toils endured by loved ones. But this is not an excavation of truths or untangling of fictions: originally aimed to inform and expose viewers to the internal faults of Grayling’s criminal justice system, the fracturing of Minax’s thesis signals at an intent, for us as much as himself, to spectate and pay heed. Despite the deceptively neat, celebratory thrust with which its final moments arrive, the film finds comfort in acknowledging the many wonders and curiosities that our lives, in their extropic successions of beginnings and ends, still have to offer.
Writer: Nicholas Yap
I’m Your Man
Questions of humanity and love are pondered in I’m Your Man, a German production from director/co-writer Maria Schrader that imagines a future where realistic robotic humanoids can meet the needs of those lonely individuals looking for companionship. Shades of everything from Blade Runner to Her to Ex Machina color the proceedings, albeit with a welcome female perspective both in front of and behind the camera that provides the material a much-needed charge. Maren Eggert stars as Alma, an anthropologist selected by a wealthy tech company to test-drive its latest creation: A.I.s who look, sound, and act remarkably human. Alma’s specific model has been rendered to resemble the man of her dreams, which rightfully explains why he is played by Dan Stevens. Hesitant at first, Alma soon discovers she is developing feelings for her robotic partner, but questions whether such an emotional connection is indeed real or simply a projection of and reaction to her own loneliness. If something can incite such happiness within an individual, what matter, then, are questions of authenticity? And is it the simple pursuit of said happiness that defines our humanity?
So yeah, you’ve heard it all before, and frankly, Schrader brings nothing new to the rhetoric in terms of ethical or philosophical inquiry. The ending is especially frustrating, a note of would-be wistfulness that comes across as a bit of a shrug, a filmmaker unwilling to commit to any one logical trajectory. Yet, there’s something to be said for a movie that meaningfully examines the sexuality of its middle-aged protagonist without either exoticizing or playing it for cheap laughs. Eggert, so great in last year’s I Was at Home, But… delivers a performance of honesty and melancholy, one that gets at the anger and regret and hurt and longing and passion that exists bone-deep within her character. Stevens, meanwhile, is given the opportunity to break out his flawless German-language skills, but more importantly, his affected — or stilted, if we’re being cynical — acting style is welcomingly suited to literally robotic character work. For her part, Schrader’s direction has a clear vibrancy, utilizing an emphasis on deep focus and both bright and monochromatic colors that practically pop off the screen. If only that clarity and specificity were found in the film’s thematic work, then I’m Your Man might have been something legitimately memorable rather than contenting itself to the well-intentioned but undercooked final form it takes.
Writer: Steven Warner
Solemn and severe, Dénes Nagy’s Natural Light is another World War II film about man’s inhumanity towards man and the futility of morality in the face of unthinkable atrocities. As such, it’s treading very familiar ground, even going so far as to restage a key event from Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war masterpiece Come and See. Natural Light follows a group of Hungarian soldiers who, aligned with the occupying German army, are patrolling rural areas of Russia and rooting out insurgent partisan forces. We are largely tethered to the perspective of Corporal Istvan Semetka (Ferenc Szabo), a mostly silent, seemingly passive man who trudges through mud and ice with a grimace permanently etched on his face. Eventually, his squad comes across a small village, where they subsequently set up shop and pillage food from the residents. Patrolling the surrounding forest for resistance fighters, Semetka and the men come under fire, and their commanding officer is killed. Convinced that the villagers have given away their position, the men return to the village, round up the residents, and force them into a barn. When a new officer arrives to assume command, he sends Semetka away on patrol and burns down the barn in his absence.
There’s not much more plot than that, and even less traditional characterization. Coming from a documentary background, Nagy seems just as interested in incidental detail as he is in telling a story, frequently focusing on textures or detailing the painstaking process of pushing carriages through muddy bogs and slaughtering elk. Visually, it’s a beautiful film; images are dark and overcast but never washed out, and Nagy’s willingness to force the viewer to witness long periods of grueling marching alongside Semetka gives the film an experiential quality. Still, one can’t escape the impression that this is distinctly well-trod material, no matter how effective the film’s aesthetic character is. Eventually given a chance to tell his higher-ups what has transpired in the village, Semetka decides to keep his mouth shut, detailing the sneak attack but eliding the massacre. It’s unclear why exactly he’s making this particular decision, and like much else here, there isn’t much to even formulate hypotheses on. The final images of Semetka traveling towards a sunrise are genuinely compelling — is he traveling towards grace or, perhaps, forgiveness? — but also so cryptic as to render any philosophical inquiry moot. In this sense, Natural Light is a Rorschach test of sorts, affording the viewer space to project onto Semetka’s placid visage, but none of the film’s committed opacity crescendos into any sort of clarity. In that absence, we’re left to wallow in a gorgeously rendered but ultimately superficial reminder — one without any clear need at this point — that war is indeed Hell.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Less a feature debut than a marked progression in a career of interdisciplinary video work, Prapat Jiwarangsan’s Ploy makes no attempts to distance itself from its creator’s tenure as an installation artist, even if it is in possession of an overarching narrative, and runs a comparatively hefty 51 minutes after a series of shorts that never surpassed 20. An impressive confluence of narrated testimony, painting, photo-roman, and patient master shots of urban and forested Singaporean landscapes, this mutable methodology is otherwise grounded by its source material, a chapter from Kon Glai Baan (Persons Far From Home) — a collection of 20 short stories written by Thai migrant workers outlining their experiences in Singapore — entitled “A sad record of a sex worker.” The story itself is the diary of Ploy (a nickname, we’re informed only a few minutes in), which is fractured across Jiwarangsan’s freeform essay film.
Ploy’s own history as a prostitute in Singapore is a harrowing one, which Jiwarangsan wisely chooses not to replicate; his approach, if occasionally muted, avoids any sort of portentous gesturing. Ploy, along with a few other Thai women, was forced into prostitution under the false pretenses of being offered work in upscale restaurants and hotels, instead held at a “jungle brothel” with nothing more than some paltry tarps and poles for shelter. Jiwarangsan seems to be particularly fascinated by the way in which such a cruel and manipulative operation can manifest within a city that has a reputation for manicured gardens and sparkling shopping centers. When matching shots of verdant forests with accounts of these sex workers’ horrifying circumstances, the effects are chilling, implicating the government as well, and their discrimintory attitudes toward women’s bodies.
Ploy casts a wide-reaching technical net, and as is to unfortunately be expected, the relationship between form and content is frustratingly obtuse at certain intervals. While working with a 1:1 ratio of spoken history and simple imagery, Jiwarangsan succeeds; when the film begins to court more metacommentative readings, it falters. Layered atop those aforementioned shots of Singaporean landscapes are scenes of a photographer in a darkroom, editing reels of film of those very same locations. If this is meant to reflect the artistic process of Jiwarangsan’s own approach, it’s an otherwise indecipherable inclusion within a well-established formula. When taken in concert with the intrusively poetic bookends, Ploy begins to feel like a product of aestheticization, saved only by its clear-eyed adapting of its source material.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
Female coming-of-age films are the most delicate thing that Chinese cinema has going for it. You could almost forget the country’s grave male favoritism watching something entirely led by a commanding female presence — child or otherwise — which is why Summer Blur makes sure not to let you. Han Shuai’s debut is effectively identical to Cao Baoping’s 2013 fim Einstein and Einstein in that regard: 13-year-old Yang Guo (Tian Huang) has a mother who’s always away, a new little brother on the way, and even, like her counterpart in Cao’s film, has braces (which, since they’re quite pricey in China, have no doubt been used to guilt trip her on some occasion).
The film’s score is bookended by the sounds of roaring airplanes and quiet piano, with single notes piercing through anytime Guo is startled — and we’re right there with her, never sure if our perception is playing tricks on us or not. The “blur” of the title is, first and foremost, felt in the film’s soundscape, but it ripples into the visuals as well — which are at their strongest in one sequence when the POV switches to Guo’s iPhone. The handheld clips — marked with the iPhone’s red record button on the right side and timestamp on top of the screen — capture a Shanghai beaming with color, and before that, sees Guo boarding a plane, disembarking a ship, and crossing a bridge. Clips of an earlier FaceTime call with her mom are also spliced into the sequence, and toward the end, a jarring cut from blown-out sunlight to the same shot, but now shrouded in shadow, leads to another shift: to DV. Guo is now in front of the camera, looking straight at us.
It’s a small moment in the film, but it can be interpreted in a number of different ways, either meta in the context of Chinese cinema; or perhaps cultural, tying back to the aforementioned gender issues; or both. Despite the entire concept of Summer Blur being predicated on a certain immaturity, Tian’s performance as Guo is defined by its mature demeanor. Likewise, the core of the plot — which the synopsis and the first five minutes of the film give away: Guo witnesses someone’s death and keeps it to herself — is something more likely to be found in adult-minded fare rather than this kind of usually light coming-of-age material. And it isn’t just Guo — her younger cousin also comes across as surprisingly mature for her age, especially during a dinner table spat with Guo. How much of this “grown-ness” is due to the specific, intimate circumstances of these girls, and how much of it is simply the new reality of childhood for a post-2000s generation? How much of it, also, stems from the uniquely Chinese experience shared by tens of millions of left-behind children? Guo qualifies under this final designation; she lives with her aunt, who acts as guardian in her mom’s absence. But her cousin isn’t one of these kids, and so the answer is probably an imprecise mix of all these things. The final impression of this film is also…well, blurry. There are surreal moments throughout, some explained and some not, and Guo’s relationship with her aunt is also never quite resolved: she’s angrily issuing orders to Guo in one scene while receiving advice from her niece in another.
There’s a key string of sequences in Summer Blur, leading into the climax, that represent some of the loudest filmmaking in recent mainland Chinese cinema, especially with regard to gender dynamics. Said sequences also work to further articulate the significance of the DV camera, as evidenced in the way that Tian reacts to its presence. This note-perfect concluding passage effectively brings together all of Han’s social and aesthetic ambitions, and issues a sharp argument that China’s women filmmakers will (or should) define the future of its national cinema.
Writer: Willy Marah